Ecru Skin by Chris Milam

A man learns about his upstairs neighbour only by the sounds she makes; by Chris Milam.

Her sound is my daily routine, my first cup of coffee that never empties. It alternates between a scrape, a roll, and a sob; the hardwood floor above a symphony of something greater than infatuation. She has no name, no face, no aroma. She exists only in patterns of noise.

Her mailbox is next to mine. It fills daily with envelopes and flyers; secrets and utility bills. It's tempting to take a peek, to see what consonants and vowels are typed on the front. Maybe they spell Jennifer, Kathryn, or Agnes. The not knowing has its own heartbeat: thump, bang, dammit. She comes down the steps at precisely 5:15 everyday to check the mail. I never look through peephole, instead, I put my ear to the door and absorb her movement. She is elegant on the stairs, agile and confident. Her steps are measured and tender. I imagine her to be in her early thirties.

In the evening, I mute the television when her orchestra begins. A concrete ball bouncing across the floor. A metal trowel digging into the wood. Roller skates skidding or a dead body being dragged. Things are happening up there, things I can't decipher.

I know she once loved someone. When I stand on a chair and get closer to the ceiling, I hear her talking to herself, or to someone on the phone. Her voice is light and smooth, like low-fat yogurt. She misses David. Like the song, she can't seem to live with or without him. She speaks of him often, says she'll change and try so much harder. Says she is no longer depressed, it was just a dark phase. Says fuck you, fuck all of your chromosomes. And then silence for hours. Maybe she stares at his picture on the wall, lost in that animal smile of his. Those baboon canines. Maybe she falls asleep to suffocate his face.

On the other side of these shrinking, beige walls, our neighborhood is vibrant. When I open a window, I can hear random birds connecting with one another and the wind abusing leaves and telephone wires. The escaped laughter from a kid down the street shooting hoops with his dad. Lawn mowers, sprinklers, garages opening, the scream of a table saw. The melody of life, of physical engagement. Humans interacting with the world. People being people. I shut it after a few minutes because there is happiness out there. There is nostalgia out there.

The jangle of keys every weekday morning. The wooden boom when the front door slams with an aggressive goodbye. The hesitation in the engine when she starts her vehicle. When she goes to work it leaves me in a quiet bubble. I am forced to relive past noise: the harmony of a stray cough, the hum of a radio tune playing on distant lips. The slurp of coffee and the tap of nervous, pretty nails on a granite counter. The explosive inner-cry of unwanted estrangement. You can't mute regret; you can't muffle the heartwarming click of what once was and will never be again. You can't conjure vanished smiles. She still lives here though, her song is in the carpet fibers, the rotting air, in the fungus of forgotten skin.

I can hear her television sometimes. The canned applause, a wayward shriek, the spray of gunfire. The pipes swell with a watery rush when she takes a shower, flushes the toilet. I can almost hear the shampoo bubbling with affection on the top of her head. The hair dryer blowing is a sonnet of heated, swirling beauty. There are no drumbeats of children, no crashing of young bodies on the floor. Maybe she doesn't have any kids. Maybe they live with David. I wonder if she can hear my life, the decay, the absence of color. Can she hear me shoving her noise down my throat? I tell myself that she is my mirror, that she is always listening.

It's been four days since she knocked on my door. I stood there, ear to painted wood, inhaling her silky exhalations. She didn't speak, her talking was done with knuckles rapping out a fragile tune. All I had to do was turn the knob and say hello. Ask about her story. Ask her to help me remedy all of this. I said nothing and she glided back upstairs. She was gone like everyone before her but I chose the outcome, the path of resolution. You can't hurt what you can't see. Opening the door would have been the start of the fall, when awkward kindness edges toward familiar indifference. No, it's safer not knowing. It's safer to get lost in the fantasy of what could have been.

She is up there making sounds, living in squeaks, bumps, thuds, and sighs. And I get to fall in love again every evening without revealing myself. Ferocious pain doesn't lurk in perpetual cowardice. There is comfort in not trying at all.


  1. A taut sadness permeates this story; two-way distress and the characters who cannot face the risk of moving forwards. This short story covers acres of emotional terrain and is well anchored to scaffolding drawn from the mundane minutiae of daily life,
    Many thanks,

  2. loneliness,regret, resignation, longing, this is a beautifully written essay, thought provoking and sadly all too real for many.
    Mike McC

  3. Magnificent! So many rich phrases, so many levels of emotions. I loved it!

  4. Beautifully written and evocative.

  5. "I hear you knocking, but you can't come in..." Dave Edmonds.
    A lonely tale that pulls you in with the slow "auditory" buildup, letting you into the narrator's apartment and head. Nicely done

  6. I enjoyed this rather sad story very much. And not one line of dialogue.

  7. Just excellent. I can see this person, feel his small world.

  8. Very creative story about self-imposed isolation. Well-written.