Back in March of 2020, I took notice of a unit in the senior's building across the street. What drew my attention to it, more than any other unit, was the presence of a couple who liked to step out to their balcony for a smoke, no matter the weather. This in itself wasn't enough to hold my attention, but two things intensified my interest. On the one hand, I never saw the couple exchange a word, or even a glance, neither on the balcony nor inside the observable part of their unit. Indeed, they would smoke their cigarettes on opposite sides of the balcony, the woman with quick little puffs and tosses of her frizzy silver hair, the man with his arms folded and brow furrowed as though in deep concentration or reflection. The second thing that held my interest was the man's resemblance to an older Ben Gazzara, the actor, and the fact that he wore a red silk smoking robe with black lapels when he came out to smoke. He often wore the robe inside the unit, though I'd seen him in other clothes as well. But on the balcony he always wore that handsome robe, which seemed perfectly fitting for him. The woman, thin and jittery, often wore a nightgown or a bathrobe during smoking breaks, with a preference for pastels, but on occasion she'd have on a purple or yellow yoga outfit. Some time in August of that year the man stopped appearing on the balcony. I saw no signs of him inside the unit either. I wondered if he had passed away — though he smoked with great frequency he did not seem ill — or if the old couple had split up. It happens more and more these days, even with seniors. In any event, the woman continued coming out for a smoke, standing on her side of the balcony, and showing no alteration whatsoever in her comportment. One change: I noticed she began to swing her arms in the unit. What I mean is, she would swing them to and fro in an almost violent way for minutes on end, sometimes for upwards of half an hour. She always stood on the same spot in the unit, visible through the balcony window, swinging her arms, with her back to me. I assumed it was a form of exercise, though not one I would ever fancy for myself. But as summer moved to autumn, the woman began to perform this swinging motion or exercise with greater and greater frequency and for longer and longer durations. It looked quite manic to me and I wondered if she was dealing with the man's death or their break up in this frenetic manner, or succumbing to dementia or other personal issues. Who knows? One November morning men in dark blue jumpers swarmed the unit and moved furniture and boxes out, then moved other furniture and boxes in. There was no sign of the woman and it didn't look like a renovation. I wondered if she had passed away or if she'd moved to a smaller unit. Perhaps she'd been moved to a long term care facility. In any event, workmen installed vertical blinds on all the unit's windows. The blinds have remained closed ever since. It's March 2021 now. I still don't know who lives there.
Arrival and Departure of a Black Continental
Pushed open the front doors and nodded to the silver-haired security guard standing sentry under the tin awning in an ill-fitting navy uniform with an eagle patch on his right shoulder and a brass badge over his heart that matched the smaller brass badge on his cap. Management had installed him after a string of burglaries. It was raining. I ranged through the streets like a wet dog. I passed a man in soiled beige pajamas miming masturbation and whispering excitedly. Mother of God, I said to myself, closing my fist across my forehead. I hurled a hunk of broken pavement at him and he fled laughing. This side of the city is a sewer. A car door slammed — a black Continental. A short dark man scrabbled out from the driver's side and a woman wearing a red raincoat threw her legs out from the passenger's side and pulled herself up by the door frame. She heaved the big door shut, popped open a red umbrella and said something to the man. The man raised his jacket over his head and grumbled back. I knew an after-hours place existed in the neighbourhood and sizing up the woman I figured she enjoyed a cocktail or two in the evening and probably liked to dance. He came along to pay the tab, watch her back, and flatter her whenever possible, although he despised himself for being so servile. The street lights dimmed to nothing. Power brown-out, likely. The rains played havoc with city transformers. Ineptitude was the real contagion. Maintaining the jacket over his head, the little man started toward me. Uneasy about his intentions, I bent my knees, prepared to fight or flee. Listen, he said in an earnest voice, is there a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet around here? I turned my head left and right, sat my chin on my shoulder and spat. Thought you'd be looking for the speakeasy, I said. The woman had wandered over with her umbrella. The polished surface of her face gleamed like a mask in the half-light. What did you say? she said. I pointed to a tiny red door under the fire escape of an abandoned building. We can go for cocktails there? the woman asked. I nodded. The rain picked up. Rivulets of water streamed from my scalp and semi-blinded me. I don't feel like cocktails, the man said, glaring at me. And I don't like these lines you've given me, he said. Kentucky Fried Chicken? Are you freaking kidding me? I haven't eaten that shit since I was in high school. Where do you get the balls, man? And where'd you find this dame? My name is Brandy, the woman said. Whatever, the little man said, I'm outta here. He hurried off to the Continental, his small heels kicking up the inky puddles. He looked back once with sodden scorn. Brandy, I said, what's next? She smiled, shifted from one stiletto to the other, and gave her umbrella a half-twirl. I don't know, she said, I'm up for anything. Do you like to dance? I asked. Of course, she said. I heard the Continental pull away but did not look. You're all wet, she said. This will be no fairy tale, I said.
That was you, poking your head up from a bank of pinkly inflorescent bougainvillea. You looked like your mother at that moment, peeved but together. Sand squeaked between my toes. Several oldsters, buried to their necks, eyes blinking, requested water. I went about with a galvanized steel bucket and a ladle and splashed them up. Golden flies buzzed around their gaping mouths and eyes. I pitied them, but they had dug their own pits with colourful plastic shovels and had willingly climbed down into them for reasons only known to them. The only urging or assistance came from a man in white linen who filled in the pits and patted down the sand. Sometimes I felt that I was that man, patting down the sand, and reassuring the people they were doing the right thing. You are doing the right thing, people. This is how it is in the South, you said, from a distance, and the sea breeze may have distorted your words but not the expression on your face which suggested sluice-gates had been opened somewhere within earshot. A tiny red scorpion played with the pinkie of my left foot. I felt no pain. I would. Just a matter of time. But you heard the rooster at dawn, as I did — the palings around our hut so high we could not see him. Nevertheless, time passed and we digressed to the edge of the bed. You have a job to do, you said. I know, I said, I know. My head felt like an anvil. My hands burned. This is what happens when you eat the worm.
Salvatore Difalco's work has appeared in print and online. He is the author of four books, including Minotaur and Other Stories (Truth Serum Press). His story "Hip Hip Hooray" appeared in Issue 65 of The Cafe Irreal; Four Stories appeared in Issue 68; and "The Little Dollhouse Company" and "Gitane" appeared in Issue 70.