Last year sucked for everybody, except maybe Jackie, who found true happiness with Carlene. He moved out just after Labor Day, leaving a bunch of stuff behind and promising to help me out with rent until I could figure things out. I’ll hold my breath for your help, I told him. And if you don’t come and get your crap out of here it’s all going in the dumpster, I swear. Then I slammed down the phone and went outside to smoke. My neighbor Ray was out on the stoop. He didn’t look quite like himself, either.
Everything all right, Ray? I called over, and when he looked back at me his eyes were filling up.
Mag and I lost a son today, he said. I went down my steps and crossed over to his side of the railing. Mag—short for Magdalena—was Ray’s wife. I met her the day we moved in. We couldn’t get the king-size bed Jackie insisted on through our front door, and so he and his pals from the precinct grunted their way up her front steps and through her living room and out into their yard, where they hauled it over the little fence that divided us and took it in our back door.
Ooh, that’s some big bed, Mag had said, elbowing Ray and laughing, Plenty of room for everything, right? She winked at me and I blushed like a bride, which I wasn’t, at that time. She and Ray were retired, and every day she set up her webbed green lawn chair on the cement at the bottom of their front steps, just inside the gate, and sat there in the morning sunshine. In the afternoon, Ray would join her, standing at the top of the steps, smoking cigarettes, or sitting on the last step by her side.
We raised six kids in this house, she told me when I stopped to bitch one morning about the jackhammers tearing up the street for some mysterious reason. We heard everything. Right, baby? She tipped her head up to gaze at Ray like it was 1950 and they were still sweethearts. I knew they had a big family, because all of them with their assorted kids and partners still jammed in there on Sundays, all talking at one time. When I used to sneak out to smoke in the backyard I breathed in a cloud of marinated mushrooms, lasagna, and stuffed chops from Magdalena’s kitchen. Our kitchen never smelled like that. Jackie called it the Outback, it was that empty. At least you’ll never die of thirst, I used to say back, and pop him a fresh Bud.
Now that he’s gone, I smoke on the stoop like everybody else.
Ray’s pretty big, not tall but broad. For a 60-something year old guy he’s strong too, like Jack Lalanne. Powerful. But he was crying. I put my arms around him.
I’m so sorry Ray, I said. I could feel the cords of muscle in his back, above the shoulder blades. I was glad he wasn’t looking at me.
They gave Michael an award, presented it to him on the stage and everything. His name engraved on it. You know.
I knew. Jackie was a big doer of community service. In fact, I had a whole box of his awards way in the back of the closet under the stairs where I shoved it out of sight. Ray straightened out of my arms and sank down on the top step. I sat down too, relieved.
It was a beautiful ceremony, he said. I thought maybe he meant the funeral but then he went on. In a gymnasium, in a junior high school. But very nice, they build the schools nice out there, I tell you. Not like that I.S. 442. You go there?
I shook my head. Jackie and I both grew up sort of nearby, but then I went off to college upstate and Jackie stayed. Until he left me, he’d spent his whole life within a square mile of this very spot. But he’s the one that moved out. He didn’t get a choice. When you’re the cheater, you don’t get much say in the domestic outcome. You just go.
They were all gathered around at tables, they had a banquet dinner, like a wedding.
Fancy, that’s nice, I offered.
Oh, yeah. The food was all right. But the people. Let me tell you. Good people. The best. They all came out to honor Michael, for the work he did. He helped people get off the drugs, he knew what they was going through. He went through it too, a long time ago, before he got it straightened out. He knew. That’s why he could help. His eyes filled up again. I found myself smiling, not that it was funny, but that he was so proud he was shining with it, even through his grief.
You’re real proud of him, I said.
Always, he said, straightening his back. He gave me a nod like he was the emperor and he was impressed that I’d guessed his thoughts. I pressed his hand and didn’t ask what had stolen Michael’s life away.
Tell Mag I’m so sorry, I said.
He nodded once, looked me in the eye. Thank you, he said, and lit a Winston.
It got cold. I picked up some extra shifts doing customer service for Valiant Vacuum and stayed put. The idea of moving was too much for me to deal with. It was enough just getting out of bed in the morning. Coming out of my house real early one day, I saw Mag and Ray’s daughter standing on the stoop wearing her black sunglasses. How was her mother doing, I asked, thinking of how hard she must still be grieving for her son.
We’re taking her back to the hospital for another round of the chemo. She’s very weak. But she’s a fighter. She dropped her butt on the cement sidewalk and ground it out with her white sneaker.
I stood there for a minute and we just looked at each other.
Listen, I finally said, let me know if you ever need anything. She smiled at me. She had a very nice smile. I never talked to her before. She lives above her parents and has two teenaged kids that come and go, day and night, in and out. They move so quick I can barely tell the boy from the girl. I guess she’s divorced too, because all her fingers are bare. Did we ever move that fast? I wanted to ask her. But I didn’t.
Thanks, she said. And then I started looking for Ray. Every day when I left for work I half-hoped he’d be outside just so I could say hello, and how are you. But part of me was relieved too, when he wasn’t there, so that I didn’t have to deal with it and I could just scuttle down to the subway and get invisible again.
I occupied a lot of hours planning how I was going to get rid of everything Jackie left behind. It would be the stoop sale of all time, I decided. I would advertise everywhere, in bright orange flyers and neon sidewalk chalk. I would buy a folding table and a price gun, and shoot every last thing right in the center. I would wear an apron over a sexy little top and make the right change for everybody.
It wasn’t like he was coming back for it, or for anything else. He could barely stay on the telephone with me for two minutes and in his new apartment in Manhattan, supposedly, there weren’t any closets. Not one. It’s bullshit. But there was a lot of stuff. There was the box of awards and other stuff from the Academy, manuals and pamphlets with titles like “Proper Procedure in Securing a Crime Scene (Urban).” And there were a few paper shopping bags with his music, old Scorpions tapes, Judas Priest, Motorhead, all that loud stupid shit we listened to in high school, blaring out of car radios parked in the lot by the picnic house at Prospect Park where we drank half-frozen minis of Bud and fucked. He probably doesn’t even listen to that kind of music anymore. Carlene wasn’t even born when we were in high school.
And there are clothes. There are two pairs of blue jeans, one light, one dark, and a bathing suit, some flannel button-down shirts from the old Gap, a dinner jacket from 1987. There’s a tee shirt from May Hardware on Flatbush Avenue that says May we get you Hard… and then on the back says …ware? He loved that shirt. He wore it the day we moved in. The second we got the mattress in and sent the guys back to the van he had me flat on my back, his hands all over me under my clothes, lips in my hair, my neck, my ribs, stealing all the breath I was using to laugh and try to say stop, and they’ll come back and yes all at the same time. The shirt is bright yellow, or it was bright yellow, now it’s faded to a creamy butter color is soft as skin when I press it to my cheek and imagine that I can still smell him inside it.
I worked like a robot all winter, and barely noticed when things started to melt and bloom. I was out the door at 8 a.m. and came home 12 hours later. It didn’t matter. In fact, it was easier like that, spending all day dealing with other people’s problems, even if they were only about like, why their vacuum bags kept getting stuck in the compartment, or how to get a ping-pong ball out of the hose. By the time I saw Ray again it was late in the day, at the end of April, and the sky was about as deep a blue as it ever goes. He looked pretty down.
Hey, I said.
Hiya, he answered without looking up.
How’s Mag doing? I came around to stand on his bottom step.
He shook his head. Not so good, he said, keeping his head down.
We stood there, me looking up, him looking down.
You never think, he said, talking low like his voice was dragging his heart along behind. I never thought about this kind of thing. All these years, she took care of everybody. Worst part is, I can’t do nothing for her.
He looked at me. It should be me, he said.
Ray. I took a few steps up, and reached so I could lay my hand on his arm, to comfort him. But I hadn’t touched anybody in a long time and I forgot about that warmth, that current that opens up between you. I had to force myself to keep my hand there, even though I could feel my face getting warm. Don’t say that. Mag wouldn’t want you to say that. She loves you like crazy. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to say at that moment, but I knew it was true. He looked down at the ground and nodded. I couldn’t look at him. You do for her just by being here. He sighed and nodded a little.
I wasn’t going to say anything else, but then I did.
I know you have all your family around, but if you ever, I don’t know, want something from the store, or need company, whatever. You let me know.
Thank you, he said, solemnly. I appreciate that. He reached over, still not looking up at me, and put his other hand over mine, just for a second, like we were a team. He kept it there just enough for us both to take a breath. Then he shifted so he could reach down to the step, and I stepped back, and we were back to normal. He held out his pack of cigarettes and I reached over and took one. He lit it for me and I leaned back on the brick and exhaled.
So how’s it going with you? he asked.
Nowhere fast, I said. A little dribble of sweat crept down my neck. I‘ve gotta clean house, Ray.
I nodded. My ex left a lot of junk behind.
He still come around?Ray asked.
I shrugged. Not really. I’d be happy if I never had to talk to him again. That was true, sort of.
Good for you, he pronounced, pointing his cigarette at me. A man leaves like that, he don’t deserve the love of a wife. Let him figure it out.
I didn’t even ask him how he knew. Of course he knew. Probably one of the grandmas down the block has a son at the precinct or something. I sighed. Right, I said. I blew a smoke ring and watched its edges slowly dissolve. I don’t think he has the same ideas you do about marriage, Ray, I said. He thought it was ’till lust do us part.
He smiled a little bit. You’re better off, he said, and leaned a little bit in my direction, like he was offering me a special, a sale, private, just between us. He aimed his thick pointer finger at me. You’re gonna be fine.
When I got into my place the silence made me want to scream. I made my usual run for the fridge and found that I was dry. No beer even. And it was practically summer, when you’re supposed to have a man in your backyard bar-b-q’ing up the steaks and dogs you carry out to him on a tin platter, friends hanging around, laughing, drinking with you, the girls coming inside every now and then to land a compliment in your ear and say Can we help with anything?
Staring into the empty fridge, a wave of that awful lonely terror so deep it almost made me sick came over me and I had to hang onto the door to stay on my feet. It was like last year all over again. My mother likes to tell everybody that I never cry. She says, Ellie’s the strong one. Ellie keeps it together.
But she had no idea how it was, for all those months: Come home from work. Drop the key on the table, drop the mail. Go to the kitchen, grab a beer, pop it, feel the first cold, gold swig make its way down. Another. Another. Carry it into the bedroom, lose the shoes, fall flat on my back on the bed, press the bottle to my forehead. Sit up and drink. Lie down. Sit up and drink. Lie down. Put the empty on the nightstand, lay back and close my eyes. Wake up in the dark. Stumble back to the kitchen, open another. Find something to put in the microwave. Sit in the dark kitchen. Eat with the tv on, the little grainy black and white one that only gets channel 9 and PBS.
Maybe water some plants. Maybe wash a dish.
On the worst nights, walk down the hall. Turn right to the hall closet. Open it. Pull the light cord and stare at the open box on the floor. Close the door. Open it again. Reach down. Feel the softness of the cotton, that cloudy worn down washed-a-million- times soft, close my eyes and grasp it. Lift it up to my face and dive in. Inhale, once, twice. That smell, close and warm and private, dangerous. That sucking feeling, low in my belly. Inhale again. Feel something tear a little. Breathe in again. It shreds its way through my belly and up, past nipples that ache and on into my throat, where it sticks. Rising, it hits my eyes. One more breath, one more whiff of whatever is left of Jackie in there and I spill, biting down so as not to howl. There was no other way.
I closed my eyes, filled my lungs as far as I could. The fridge shuddered and began to buzz. I need a meal, I thought. I’m fucking starving. I wiped my cheeks on my shoulders and then before I could make any excuses I found my running sneakers, scheming how far I could run if I actually started running again, and how it would feel to burn it, and what the likelihood of my running actually was, and this got me out the door. There was an ambulance parked in Ray’s driveway now, no lights or anything, just parked, and I figured Mag was going in again or coming out. Before I had to see which I rushed across the street and turned the corner.
In the morning I passed by the army of grandmas that are always out early, spying on each other as they move their ancient Cadillacs and crumbling Fords from one side of the street to the other. They were all talking about how hot it was going to be that day. Sleep still heavy on me, I squinted at the flowers outside the corner deli, knowing I was going to be late even as I stood there, trying to choose. I scrapped my first few tries at a card (Get well soon?), until finally, clutching some pale tulips in their paper shell, I rushed back around the corner to leave the bouquet on Ray’s stoop. It was kind of deranged, I don’t know why I didn’t ring the bell, but I didn’t. Backtracking to the subway, I thought about the card I finally let the guy pin on the flowers. Feel better. Warmly, Ellie (from next door).
It was shit but what can you say?
At 5 p.m. everyone pouring out of their buildings downtown had the same disgusted look on their faces, like, why? The early heat wave was all anyone could talk about. People from the suburbs were bitching about not having refilled their pools yet and their new lawns going brown. My wife this, and my husband that, is all they had to say and I wanted to tell them all to go to hell, and stop complaining.
When the train finally came and I was packed into an icy car, I thought about cold, clean food and when it spit me out I ducked into the Korean deli on the corner and bought a bag full of tomatoes and cucumbers and celery and hauled it home for gazpacho. It was almost cool inside my place and it felt good to move around, chopping stuff up. There was a lot more than I thought, at the end, and it was pretty good too. For a minute I felt shitty, like, what’s the point of making something so nice for nobody? But then I just ate some more and put on my shoes and filled up a jar to bring next door.
Stripes of orange and pink were still painting the sky to the west, past the river and Manhattan and on over New Jersey. I rang the bell. Ray’s house seemed dark inside, but I waited. When I was about to go back home to write a note for the soup – eat cold – the door creaked open. It was Ray. He was wearing a bathrobe over a tee-shirt and shorts. He stood behind the screen, holding the frame of the inside door with one hand.
Yeah. He wasn’t asking. He looked at me and nodded. She’s gone, he said. His eyes were shimmering. My wife’s gone. Fumbling with the lock, he threw the screen open and stood there in front of me. He was flushed, and I could feel the heat coming off him without even touching him. But he drew his robe in close around him like he was cold. I tried to take his arm but he held fast to the door, looking out at the street, or maybe he was looking at Mag’s chair, which was out in front, empty, in the almost dark. His arm was like a rock. Ray, come on. He was shivering, but he wouldn’t let himself be led.
A kid came by, pedaling one of those little stunt bikes a thousand times too small for him. Ray watched him come, holding onto the door in his robe like that, me with one arm full of cold soup and the other on his shoulder. I turned too, when he spoke.
What up, grandpa? What’s the ticket? He skidded his stupid little bike into one of the garbage pails out front and knocked it over. Trash spilled out into the street. Oh, snap.
He giggled. Little shit. I moved like to go down but Ray put his arm up to bar me.
You’re gonna pick that garbage up, he said, in surprisingly full voice. Letting go of the door, he nearly sprinted down the stairs until he reached the gate. I put the soup down. The kid was laughing. I ain’t no sanitation service, sorry- But he wasn’t far enough away. Ray’s arm snaked out and caught him by the arm. His skinny frame in the red shiny jacket slithered under Ray’s grip, trying to get his bike up and under him.
You think I’m fucking joking with you? Ray snarled. You know I lost my wife today? Hah? You know anything, you lousy piece of shit? Now the kid was really struggling, terrified. Forty-eight years, Ray howled, letting the kid go with a shove. He stumbled and hopped, just managing to stay upright, got his bike back under him and pedaled frantically away. You know what that is? You think you can come and throw garbage in my street? Ray called after him. Next time I’ll fucking kill you!
He gripped the railing hard. The street was empty. I was about to go down when he turned and made his way back up the stairs, breathing hard. Finding my feet I opened the screen door and we stumbled inside. I put a hand on his head. His forehead was burning hot.
Ray, you’ve gotta lie down now. You have a fever. Come on.I put my arm around his shoulders and walked him forward.
In all four years I’d lived next door I’d only been inside their house that one time, when we moved in. Our feet made no sound on the thick pile carpet. A gigantic horseshoe-shaped sofa was draped with knitted blankets like someone had been snatching naps there. On the wide glass coffee table, yellow flowers wilted in a crystal vase. Weeks worth of the Post were scattered under the table.
I steered Ray around the breakfront, a giant, dark wood thing with its own little light shining down on all the wineglasses and fancy china and an army of tiny crystal animals in there, all of them staring out in different directions. A huge widescreen tv took up the wall across from the sofa, and behind it the stairs ran up to the next floor. I noticed that they had one of those chair lifts, the automatic kind we used to play on at the church when we were supposed to be down on our knees, not thinking at all how a flight of stairs could someday be a question our bodies could not answer.
Skylines of yellow-orange pill bottles rose from every surface. Ray sat down heavily on the couch and leaned back.
I’m just going to run up for some aspirin, I said. Okay, Ray? He seemed not to see me.
I took the stairs two at a time, my feet bouncing off each carpeted step.
All the doors up there were closed. Inside the first one was a bedroom, obviously one of the kids’, though it looked like nobody had touched it since 1972. Brown wallpaper done up to look like wood paneling, a child-size desk with a bunch of books piled to one side. On the walls, record covers were pinned up in a neat row under a framed poster of a young and sexy Linda Ronstadt in a peach colored dress, smiling down at the twin bed with its orange and brown bedspread. A boy’s room. I opened the closet door and got a puff of old, sad air in my face, and a feeling that I knew which son this room belonged to. I backed out and closed the door softly.
Next door, in what looked like a bedroom that had been remade into a den, a futon sagged under piles of record albums. Frank Sinatra on top. On a small table by the window, a pant leg was pinned by the slender needle of an old sewing machine. I could see the dust on top like soft fur. Sighing, I left and found the bathroom, then the aspirin, and bounded back down the stairs. Ray was right where I left him.
Hey, I said softly, crossing the room. You really need to rest. His eyes glittered in the dim room, fluttering open and closed, and I wondered where his daughter was, where any of the kids were.
I’ll get some water for these, I said, dropping the pills on the table. Swinging open the door to the kitchen, I stopped short. It smelled like garbage. Dirty plates were stacked up in the sink. Empty cans of soup were lined up on the counter, their lids flapping open like nasty beaks. The floor was filthy. For a second I remembered the beautiful food she made in here and it hurt to think of what she would have felt to see it like this. I found a clean glass, filled it from the tap, and brought it back into the living room. Ray’s eyes were closed. I set it down on the table and watched his face, deeply lined at the forehead, slightly hollowed under the eyes, grizzled charcoal-silver along the jaw. He hadn’t shaved today.
The refrigerator was half full of rotten food, and the dishes needed to be soaked and then scrubbed. The floor was sticky. The stove was greasy. Pulling on rubber gloves I found under the sink, I turned the hot tap on full force. The soapy steam was like perfume on my face. Every now and then I stuck my head back into the living room to see how Ray was doing. He had fallen asleep so I let him be but after a while I heard him moaning and went back out again. His eyes were open. I stripped off the bright yellow gloves and then went and sat down on the edge of the couch next to him and spoke softly.
How are you doing, Ray? Can I get you anything? I raised my hand and put it on his forehead. It was still hot. He stared at me, then raised his arm and placed it over my hand, holding it there. When he spoke, his voice was low and sweet.
Mag, what time is it? he said. I musta dozed off, I don’t know. Is Carol coming?
Ray, it’s Ellie, I said, as gentle as I could. Ellie from next door.
He kept his eyes locked on mine. They were dark as could be, almost black. A little bit of stubble from his cheek brushed the inside of my wrist.
Ray- it’s not Mag. It’s Ellie.
He reached up with his other hand and brushed my cheek with his fingers, once, twice. They were calloused, with wide palms, like Jackie’s were. Work hands. I put my other hand on his.
Sweet girl, he said. What are you making for me? You have something for me? Under my cool palm, his warm hand moved from my cheek down to my neck. My face grew warm. He moved his palm down, slow, ran it along my collarbone and then down over my breast, and still lower. I didn’t stop him. I kept my hand on his, lightly, following where he led. My eyes closed. His fingers plucked at the bottom of my shirt, found the edge, and crept under to rest on my belly, just at the navel. My breath was coming fast now. Who’s in there, Maggie? he whispered. You making another son for me? I looked at him. He was watching my face, eyes bright, blinking slow. He was glowing.
A warm flush spread through me, rising until I felt it inside my eyes, between my lips, everywhere. I couldn’t look away. Leaning down, slowly, I closed my eyes and kissed his lips, just for a second. They were soft. He sighed, and his fingers went quiet, and I lifted my face. For a long time I just sat there, not moving at all, holding his hand in my lap, memorizing everything in the room: the framed photographs and the knitted pillows and the needlepoint sayings about home, and all the little glass animals, imagining which ones Ray had brought home for her after work in tiny velvet pouches.
There was no stoop sale. I called the Salvation Army and early one Saturday in June they came to take away the pamphlets and plaques, the denim and nylon and cotton strings of my old life. Ray’s daughter was outside while the men were coming and going with the boxes, and she nodded and smiled. I thought about the night I spent on her parents’ couch, holding her father’s hand until his fever broke and he could breathe again.
We watched while the truck rumbled away and then we stood there together a little while longer, comfortably quiet, like neighbors.
Amy Brill is a writer and producer. Her articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in Salon, Time Out New York , Premiere, Ballyhoo Stories, and the anthology Before and After: Stories from New York, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.