Go back to Neumann's Journey: Part I


Neumann's Journey Part II: Neumann's Envelope

The envelope balanced on the handle of the door to 311 was a rather absurd construction of silver foil and paper lace, and emblazoned in an ornate script with the words ‘To Occupant’.

The official occupant of 311, a peculiar old man by the name of Henry Van der Kalk, was not around to receive it, so Neumann made the decision to accept it on his behalf. It was out of character, of course, and Neumann didn't know why he didn’t just fling the envelope down the hall as he tended to do whenever he discovered an unsolicited package on his own doorstep—he certainly didn’t make a practice of filching his neighbour’s correspondence—but something about the envelope drew his eye and Van der Kalk, he reasoned, was unlikely to raise a fuss: the old man hadn’t been in the country, let alone his apartment, since the turn of the century.

Neumann couldn’t say with any more precision when it was that Van der Kalk had disappeared, only that the Dutchman had been obliged to return home sometime in the spring of 2000 and simply never returned. These meagre facts, as unsatisfactory as they evidently were to the busy-bodies he met in the hall, fully satisfied Neumann’s own curiosity, for contrary to the slanderous rumours circulating the neighbourhood, he took absolutely no interest in the goings-on around him, endeavouring to know only as much about his neighbours as he felt necessary to protect himself from their unwanted presence. As Van de Kalk no longer made his presence felt, he had, at least in Neumann’s estimation, become the ideal neighbour and Neumann consequently suffered not the slightest concern about his whereabouts or undertakings.

Neumann recalled Van der Kalk's suggestion that certain members of his clan were scheming to dispossess him of some long-deferred inheritance—a massive fortune, or so he claimed, to which he was the sole legitimate heir. Whether such a fortune existed anywhere but in the old man’s brittle mind was immaterial to Neumann, who knew from experience how unlikely it was for another man’s wealth to strain the seams of his own pockets, and he was surely not alone in finding the Dutchman’s self-important monomania more than a little wearisome.

Neumann had long considered himself singularly unlucky to be living across the hall from 311, and this sentiment was never as pronounced as when he last encountered Van der Kalk in person. Neumann had just settled under his covers, cat on the pillow beside him, when the knocking began. Neumann rarely answered the door, especially at night, and never after he’d already tucked himself into bed, so regardless of the emergency—and Neumann could only assume that it was an emergency driving that disagreeable clamour—there was little chance of him giving it his attention until morning. But Van der Kalk made a determined effort. The pounding continued without abatement for many minutes, accompanied by increasingly virulent streams of Dutch profanity. Neumann began to worry that his resolve would collapse. Eventually, however, to his inexpressible relief, the knocking ceased and he was able to doze off before he heard something being pushed under his door.

Now, it is one thing to ignore unwanted guests, but quite another to disregard a package that has been slipped into one’s apartment in the middle of the night. Who could say with confidence that it posed no threat? Neumann could hardly be expected to sleep under such conditions and, since he felt the urge to empty his bladder anyway, thought it prudent to take a look. He could see the item in question on the floor near his shoes. Even in the dark, illuminated only by the light that trickled in from the hall, Neumann could make out the thick block letters inscribed on the package: NEUMANN, APT. 312. URGENT.

Relieved to discover that it was only an envelope and not something that demanded immediate attention, Neumann left it where it was and returned to bed. He ignored it the following morning as well, in protest against the disagreeable manner in which it was delivered. In fact, Neumann ignored it for nearly a week, during which time he grew so frustrated at having to step over it that he finally kicked it into a corner where it remained happily out of sight for a number of months. By the time he rediscovered it, quite by accident one evening while rummaging for a shoe, he no longer recalled who had delivered it or when, and was rather surprised to find it there at all. His first reaction was to throw it back in the corner unopened. It didn’t remain there long, however, as he was struck by the oppressive urgency of the communication. Despite a gallant effort, he found it no simple task to push the matter out of his mind. He thus resolved, with great apprehension and no small pride over his willingness to confront his fears, to see what the envelope contained.

He first set his sight on the twenty-dollar bill, a pleasant surprise indeed, and since he wasn’t a greedy man he decided not to press his luck by looking any further. But as he put the money in his pocket and let the envelope fall from his hand, a key slid out and hit the linoleum with a clatter. It might have been the key to a vault filled with treasure, but to Neumann, a natural sceptic, the clang announced not opportunity but the conclusion of a pact for which he had foolishly accepted payment without first enquiring about his obligations, and whatever small pleasure he might have felt at discovering the money vanished into a pit that opened in his stomach. With terrible foreboding he grabbed the envelope and examined the single sheet of paper it still contained. It took a few minutes to comprehend what he was looking at, and he couldn’t bring himself to glance at more than a few sentences, but Neumann’s fears quickly subsided as he realized that it was a note from the Dutchman across the hall, scribbled with evident haste, in which he offered his regrets at having pounded on Neumann’s door that evening.

A note from the Dutchman was necessarily of little consequence, but Neumann was rather perplexed. He had been home since breakfast and could recall no such disturbance as the letter described, certainly nothing to compare with the racket he was made to endure the last time the Dutchman decided to come calling. As a matter of fact, while he still harboured something of a grudge over that unforgotten incident, Neumann had to admit that in recent months the old man had given him not a single cause for complaint. Indeed, whether out of shame over that unpardonable intrusion or from some newly developed sense of modesty, the Dutchman had lately elected to spare Neumann the very sight of his lopsided face. To come by after so many months of silence only to confuse Neumann with an apology for an imperceptible noise was something he could only barely comprehend; to leave the message hidden under a pile of shoes, where it may have been lost—where indeed many things had been lost for years at a time—was so doubtful a proposition that Neumann would have refused to give it any credence at all had he not been holding the evidence in his own hands.

There was something else about the letter that troubled him as well, but he couldn’t say what it was until he remembered that it came with a key, which still lay on the floor next to the empty envelope. The key at least explained how the Dutchman was able to deliver his message but left more questions than it answered, not the least of which was why he’d bother pounding on Neumann’s door if he could open the lock. There was also the question of how he had acquired the key and how he had managed to use it without Neumann’s knowledge. Of all the affronts, this business with the key was the most intolerable. Regardless of the intention, even if it were simply to deliver a sum of money, and Neumann had his suspicions about that, he could hardly be expected to stand idly by while an intruder made free with his personal space.

Suddenly inflamed by the injustice of it all, he snatched the key from the floor and stormed across the hall to vent his indignation at the Dutchman. But in spite of screaming till he was hoarse and nearly splintering the door with a fantastic barrage of kicks and shoulder lunges, Neumann failed to persuade the Dutchman to let him in. Winded and furious, he added to his inventory of grievances an aching shoulder and a potentially broken foot. He ignored the frightened faces peering at him from partially open doors and limped back to his apartment to get his various complaints in writing while they were still clear in his mind. It was only while fumbling around for a suitable scrap of paper that he bothered to look at the second half of the Dutchman’s note, written on the back of the page he’d discarded only moments before.

Considering what the old man had put him through, Neumann remained little inspired to read this part of the letter, but while he scribbled impatiently in the margins in an attempt to get the ink flowing through his pen, his eye was caught by a mention of the key. He thus read the Dutchman’s words with rather more care than he would have otherwise, then turned the page over and read the letter in its entirety.

Neumann had a moment of unexpected clarity. The Dutchman was gone, flew the coop for some sort of showdown with his relations. As he hadn’t the time to make other arrangements, he was leaving Neumann the key to his apartment in the expectation that Neumann would feed the parakeet and clean its cage while he was away or get one of the more reliable neighbours to do so, perhaps the old German woman in 318. He didn’t intend to be away for long, but promised to be in a position to fully compensate Neumann for his efforts without delay upon his return. He was enclosing twenty dollars to cover Neumann’s costs in the interval.

By the time he finished reading the letter for the second time, Neumann’s moment of clarity had passed, crowded out by a whole new batch of uncertainties. When he finally got the ink flowing to his satisfaction, the margins were so filled with scribbles that he had no room to write his list and could no longer be certain what belonged on it. It was apparent, however, if Neumann understood the letter correctly—and he was far from confident that some new and unexpected fact wouldn’t refute this understanding—that he was in possession of a key to the now-absent Dutchman’s apartment and moreover had an invitation, if not an obligation in light of the twenty dollars he had pocketed, to satisfy his curiosity about what lay on the other side of that sturdy door.

Neumann wasted little time in dragging his aching body across the hall but found his entry to 311 hindered by the failure of the key to open the lock. He knew better than to compensate with sheer force. He had learned the hard way that keys were easily broken and that locksmiths were a smarmy and impolite bunch. He cursed the Dutchman for his deceit and imagined the evil pleasure he must have taken at Neumann’s expense. He began considering ways to satisfy his sudden lust for revenge when he realized that the mistake was his. How strange that he had failed to recognize the key chain: in his hurry to open the door he had mistakenly inserted his own key into the lock. This was easily corrected, however, and Neumann soon found himself in his neighbour’s apartment for the first time. Even from the doorway Neumann could see that the old man was impeccably tidy, but the place was nevertheless rank and stuffy, and as Neumann limped into the living room the unpleasantness of the air could be read on his face.

His first task was to locate the birdcage, which he did, near the balcony, surrounded by a large number of drooping plants and fallen leaves. Neumann was unfamiliar with the niceties of bird feeding, but as he approached the cage his uneasiness disappeared: even in his ignorance he knew what a dead bird looked like. Later he would notice the dust and later still the alarming contents of the refrigerator. But he didn’t have to see any of it to know with an unshakable conviction that, for whatever reason, the old man had abandoned the place. Neumann waited a few hours before gathering his cat and sundry possessions and making himself as comfortable he could under the circumstances. As expected, not only did the Dutchman fail to reappear, but neither did anyone else ever come to claim the apartment.

When Neumann moved himself in, the first thing he did was dump a wormy bundle of feathers and its half-bag of seed over the balcony. Then he cleaned out the empty cage, and returned it, sans bird, precisely where the old man kept it. Neumann polished the cage every evening without fail for the next six years—in meticulous fulfilment of his contractual obligations as outlined in the Dutchman’s letter. Whenever his right to be in the apartment was challenged, as it was remarkably few times over the subsequent years, Neumann would dig out the note with Van der Kalk’s signature, point to the gleaming birdcage and explain that he was obliged to await the old man’s return. As a courtesy, Neumann went downstairs each week to retrieve the Dutchman’s mail, which he faithfully deposited either behind the sofa or under the bed as the mood struck him.

One piece, however, Neumann chose to claim as his own: that foil and lace encumbered envelope balanced on the door to 311. Without even knowing what it was, Neumann nonetheless chose neither to fling it down the hall nor squeeze it under the old man’s springy bed. While he would never admit that he was in fact the occupant, indeed the sole occupant, of 311, and had been for more than half a decade, he nevertheless claimed that piece of mail for himself, slipping it into the pocket of his trousers with hardly a second thought. Thus it was that Neumann came into possession of a rare and unusual gift, and just as soon forgot he had ever seen it.


Go on to Neumann's Journey: Part III

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