The Man Upstairs
by Shannon Yarbrough
I live in a mansion. And in that mansion there are many doors that lead to many rooms, where people I don’t know are always coming and going.
It’s not really a mansion, but a three-story boarding house outside the city. It reminds me of the mansions Momma reads about in the black leather-bound book on the bedside table. In that book, there is a city with pearly gates and streets paved with gold. Here, there are no gates, but there are bars on the windows. The streets are not paved at all.
“What does gold look like?” I ask Momma.
She digs in her jewelry box but can’t seem to find any. I know it’s because she sold most of her pretty things so we’d have money for food. But she pulls out a large pin shaped like a dove. I remember her wearing this to church on Easter Sunday once. It had a shiny jade green eye and a fig leaf curling out of its beak. Its wings, spread in flight, were as shiny as the teeth of the negro man who once lived next door. Now, the eye is missing and the leaf is broken, and its wings don’t shine anymore.
“Like this, but much cleaner and prettier,” she says, pinning the dove to my shirt.
“Can I have it?” I ask.
“Yes, you can have it. Just don’t lose it.”
Outside in the wide hallway, I pretend I’m Momma going to church. I pretend it’s my birthday, and that my Momma gave me gold because she forgot my birthday last time.I pretend it’s the prettiest gold I ever saw, like the streets mentioned in Momma’s black book.
That night, Momma fixes Mac and Cheese for me for dinner. It’s not the good kind, like from the blue box. Momma makes it with powdered milk and melted slices of cheese. It’s thick and clumpy and hard to swallow, but I eat it anyway because the apple and water I had for breakfast is all I’ve had to eat all day. Momma goes in the other room and calls Aunt Tilly collect. I don’t know what collect means, but I know someone named Operator helps.
Aunt Tilly is my God Mother. Not a Fairy God Mother, the kind I used to read about in picture books back when I had books of my own. I met her once a few Christmases ago when we had an apartment, back before Daddy left. Aunt Tilly looks just like Momma, only not as thin.
“I just hope the man upstairs is listening,” I hear Momma say.
I look up at the vent in the ceiling and imagine a man crouched down with his ear on the floor. I didn’t even know a man lived upstairs.
That night Momma reads to me about Jesus going up a mountain and sitting down with his disciples.
“What are disciples?” I ask Momma.
“Is Aunt Tilly a disciple?” I ask.
“Yes. Yes, she is.”
“Do you have any others, Momma? Jesus had twelve.”
“No. Aunt Tilly is the only one I have left,” Momma says sadly.
“Because sooner or later they betray you.”
The next afternoon I sneak down the hallway and slowly climb the stairs to the second story, pretending I’m Jesus and that all my good friends are following me. I stop at the top and look around. Things look no different than our floor below. The hallway is wide and there are three doors down each side, all closed. The sun is shining in through the window at the end, casting a golden glow across the middle of the floor and I can see millions of tiny pieces of dust floating through the air. I pretend the sun on the floor is a street paved with gold and the dust around me is my Fairy God Mother as I creep across the floor to look out the window. But I’m too short to look out, even when I jump up a few times. All I can see is the great big beautiful sky above me, but that’s okay. Sometimes all we need is to see the sky above through a different window.
I turn around to see my shadow and think about making hand puppets, but there’s another shadow there blocking the sun. I let out a peep because I didn’t hear the old man come up the stairs and he startled me.
“It’s okay. I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he says in a gentle voice.
“Are you the man upstairs?”
“I guess I am. And who are you?”
“I live downstairs with my Momma.”
“I know. I’ve seen you playing in the hallway.”
“Do you listen to Momma?”
“I can hear you up through the floor sometimes, but don’t worry, you and your Momma are never loud.”
I stand there for a moment, still somewhat frightened and not really sure what to say.
“Would you like a sucker?” the old man says, pulling a shiny yellow lollipop from his pocket. It’s clear plastic wrapper catches the sun.
“Momma says I’m not supposed to take candy from strangers,” I said shyly.
“Your Momma is a very smart lady. It’s pineapple though. I don’t like pineapple. I’ll just leave it here on the banister in case you change your mind.”
He smiles, then turns and walks down the hall to the last door on the left. With one last glimpse back at me, he waves, then he opens the door and goes inside.
I rush over to the stairway, snatch up the sucker and hurry back down the stairs. Before going inside, I rip off the wrapper and stuff the sucker into my mouth. It’s the sweetest best candy I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t even remember the last time I had candy because the sucker tastes so good. I’m tempted to bite it and chew, but I want it to last as long as possible.
“Where did you get that?” Momma asks, seeing me with the sucker when I walk through the door.
“The man upstairs gave it to me,” I say, taking it out of my mouth to speak.
“The man upstairs.”
“What have I told you about talking to strangers!” Momma rushes over to me, jerks the sucker out of my hand and throws it into the trash can. I run to my room to cry. I’m angry at myself for disobeying Momma. I’m embarrassed that Momma had to scold me. I’m sad because the sucker really did taste like pineapple, better than the kind from a can in the thick syrup we have for dessert sometimes.
The next day Momma tells me I can play out in the hall, but not to go up the stairs. I tip toe to the end of the hall and look up the stairs, tempted, but I still obey Momma. I find another sucker just lying on the banister there next to the first step. I slowly reach out and grab it, stuffing it into my pocket. Then, I race to the front of the house and out onto the screen porch. Momma never comes out here. Most of the time she just sticks her head out the door of our room and yells for me. Out on the porch, I tear the wrapper off the sucker and shove it into my mouth. Instead of savoring it, I bite into it hard and chew as fast as I can. It’s raspberry. I’ve never even tasted a real raspberry before, but I know this flavor by heart. I peek out through the screen and up into the sky. I wonder if the man upstairs is looking out his window too right now at the same time. Nothing beats the taste of sweet raspberry. And blue skies. I wonder if he’s listening.
“Thank you man upstairs,” I whisper, just in case he is.
That night Momma asks me to come pray with her before bed. She says we have to ask the man upstairs to make the cancer go away. I want to tell Momma to just go upstairs and ask him, mostly because I want to go upstairs with her and maybe he’ll give me another sucker. Maybe Momma will see that he’s a nice old man and doesn’t mean anybody harm. Maybe she’ll let me take the sucker this time because she’ll see she can trust the man upstairs. After all, why are we praying to him if she can’t trust him?
The next day I’m sitting on the front porch when I see the man upstairs walking by. He comes up the walk and steps inside.
“Hello man upstairs,” I say.
“How are you today?”
“I’m good. Thank you for asking. How’s your Momma doing?”
“She’s okay, I guess. We prayed last night. Did you hear us?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Can you make the cancer go away?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“But I bet I can make you smile,” he says.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out another sucker.
He was right. It did make me smile.
A few days later the land lady stopped in to pick up the rent. Momma gave her half and told her she’d have the rest in two weeks. I’m lying on the bed thumbing through Momma’s black book and I overhear them talking.
“Ms. Thesa, did a man move in upstairs? I never hear him up there or see him, but he gave my kid a sucker a few days ago,” Momma said.
“Upstairs? Why heavens no. I haven’t rented those rooms in over a year. Did you say a sucker?”
“That’s odd.” Ms. Thesa sounded puzzled.
“Why? What’s odd about it?”
“There was a man who lived up on the second floor for many years. Mr. Drol was his name, I believe. He was a retired candy maker. He owned a store in town called Heavenly Sweets. After he closed his shop, he liked to visit the orphans at the home and pass out suckers.”
“Well I think he’s back,” Momma said.
“Oh, that’s impossible, dear,” Ms. Thesa said.
“He died, I’m afraid. I found him lying on the floor when I came to collect the rent one day. I remember there was a bowl of suckers on the middle of his dining room table.”
“Is the door unlocked? Maybe my kid just got into the suckers if they are still there.”
“No, he had a daughter that came and cleaned out everything right after he died. And I still check the rooms up there once a month. I guarantee you they are empty and locked.”
What Ms. Thesa said didn’t scare me. I closed Momma’s book and turned over to lie on my back. On the ceiling right above me was a vent. I smiled up at it and wondered if the man upstairs was listening.