The old man’s face carried no hint of his thoughts. He stood impassively in his cramped living room, his small living room that was full of the signs of his age. He seemed to ignore it all, the framed photographs, the knick-knacks piled, the cracked leather on furniture. The worn state of things. When he blinked and rubbed his eye, using the outside of his right forefinger’s knuckle, his living room shifted then slowly came back into focus, but he himself stayed, still stayed the same. Lace curtains hung in the windows and they didn’t sway or billow, because the windows were closed against noise. The apartment was on the first floor, level with the street and with cars and passers-by. He hated the motorcycles most of all. They turned his almost sleepy Brooklyn side street into a drag in Manhattan. He had shaken his fist at many growling beastly machines, but now, his hearing dimming, he would only grimace when an inconsiderate leather-clad biker “let it rip’’ in front of his building. The white lace curtains were old.
You could see through the curtains if you really tried, from either side. No one tried except him. He would stand, squinting, thick-framed glasses folded in his fist. He was watching in this way when his new across-the-street neighbors arrived, unloading their furniture from a U-Haul adorned with illustrated sting rays and orange swirls like a creamsicle. He was watching when a young stranger fell off his bicycle one night. It was later than the old man was usually awake. No one was near him, and he wore no helmet and was wobbly. The old man suspected the stranger had been drinking and had lost his balance, because then he gingerly and embarrassedly began to walk his bike after the fall. The old man imagined the young stranger’s injuries: scraped up knees or elbows depending on the landing; the cheese grater look of his skin after a few days of healing; a hip bruise, concentrated then amorphous, dankly purple but slowly turning the color mildew. The old man imagined a companion would trace the wounds lightly with her fingertip. She would kiss them while the young stranger laughed and winced and told her the story.
His bookshelves held books in English, Russian, and Polish. The shelves held framed photographs leaning backwards on extended arms. People smiled from them, his daughter, his granddaughter, he did, his wife. His armchair commanded its corner and a small futon’s back was against the wall. Both faced a television set and were arm’s length from a low rectangular table, from bowls of fresh groszek the old man and his wife shelled and ate while watching the evening news. A long-necked lamp stood wedged in the corner behind his chair. Its milky shade reminded him of a weighted lily.
He turned always towards the windows facing the street because he knew what was behind him: an archway leading to a windowless room containing a dining table, the inner leaf folded, four chairs upright like sentinels, one on each side. Framed prints of famous paintings, a Monet, a Van Gogh, a Klimt. The frames were thin and gilt. There was a low buffet-style shelf on one side of the room that held their good china, their wedding gift silver, the wine glasses visible behind glass in little doors. Cloth napkins and a lace tablecloth folded and waiting for the next service. A door, the bathroom tiled in white, a pebbled glass shower door, a handlebar installed recently. A mirror behind which lived “his and her” medicines. Little and big white towels, matching, scalloped blue edging embroidered on each by his wife. Their two toothbrushes dangled from a holder attached to the wall, their handles like the legs of a swimmer sitting at the edge of a pool.
He knew his life- their small kitchen was next to the dining room, a curved opening endearing one to the other. The kitchen’s large window faced the sidewalk. He washed dishes and gazed out of it often. Shiny pots hung above the stove, spices were piled up in folded-over paper envelopes on a Lazy Susan, tens of tea containers hid in cupboards, all different kinds. The old man prefers Salada tea in bags. He read the paper every morning, sipping, blowing, slurping, and then drinking when his tea was cool enough. His wife bustled behind him, bringing to the table a large plate with seedless rye bread slices, sliced smoked ham laid out in a fan, and half a tomato in thin red circles. Sometimes he’d have a soft-boiled egg in a cup, which he’d tap lightly with a teaspoon. He’d flick the tiny pieces of shell, scraped and peeled off in increments, onto his saucer with the mushy Salada tea bag, the paper a murky clear, the red and white tag soaked or dry. There was always a pat of butter left in the butter dish, soft and smushed and room temperature. The old man methodically makes his sandwiches. His wife eats with less purpose, more gracefully.
He knew, would always, that the dining room used to have a futon for Kasia to sleep on before she grew up and went away to college. Their dining table had crowded the kitchen then, the leaf had never needed to be extended. Kasia had bemoaned her lack of privacy, and indeed, as his daughter grew he had mourned his inability to provide her with walls and a door. Instead, he had built her squat bookshelves and taken her to bookstores to fill them. His wife had sewn her new duvet covers often, exchanging one bright floral pattern for another. The two had lingered in fabric stores together, fingering lace, materials, and ribbons, sorting through button trays. So Kasia always had new dresses, first because his wife would bend over the sewing machine, then because Kasia would. He had glowed with pride and happiness when he returned home from a day at the college, finding them laughing, shearing, pinning, with the tissue of pattern paper floating and curling on their table. They would eat dinner among scraps of fabric and bits of thread that would have escaped the clean-up effort.
Their bedroom had a bed that had drawers under it. A down comforter was folded in one, squares of sheets, blankets, duvets, and pillowcases piled neatly in another. An armoire in a corner held his wife’s dresses, hung in slinky dry-cleaner bags and his stiff suits hung. His felt hat hung from a peg on the wall. A dark mahogany dresser with a large mirror dominated the wall opposite the windows and the door that led to their backyard. One of its long drawers was his, with socks, shorts, and undershirts in varying shades of gray nestled together. Next to her side of the bed, a small dark cross was nailed to the wall.
The old man could see those dinners from twenty years ago, could see Kasia doing homework, he saw all of his home while standing at the front windows. Below him, there were bins for trash and recycling for everyone in the building to use. There were two white plastic chairs behind the wrought-iron fencing, next to the large, elevated stairs their tenants had to climb to get to their homes. Their own door was under the stairs. There was a bike on the inside of the fence, close to their chairs.
A young man, an upstairs tenant, had rung his bell and politely asked if he could keep it there. He’d acquiesced with dignity. He’d appreciated the young man’s decorum.
He and his wife sat on the chairs on Sunday afternoons when she returned from church. He with his hands folded on his stomach. His trousers reaching for his shoes but not quite making it, his socks showing. She with her white hair combed back and pinned. Their neighbors, their lifelong friends, walking along the streets, the men with hands behind their backs, with canes, with arms supporting wives. The wives dressed well. The wives speaking so quickly in Polish the men could only nod at each other, sometimes inviting each other over for tea and cake, bridge games, the following Sunday. The wives gossiping even while being led away by their husbands. Finally a wave, a hoarse multiplying do widzenia, to see you soon, called between the distance. Their friends leaning against their fence while addressing them with the pleasantries to which they were accustomed. The bike didn’t get in the way of any of this. He proudly shook hands with other husbands, his wife the best looking wife, their chairs scraping the cement when they sat and stood in front of the building they’d owned for thirty-five years. A pot sat with dirt and a plant and a pinwheel stuck in it. The pinwheel turned pink and blue. His pants reached his shoes when he stood, hiding his socks.
On rainy Sundays, they walked, arm in arm under an umbrella, to the nearby bakery, their acquaintances gathered at small marble-topped tables sipping coffee in tall skinny glass goblets with tiny handles. Apple cake slices sat on plates at every table. They shook their umbrella and commented on the weather. The rain-speckled front window looked on to the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, citizens younger than they rushing by. The walk back home was slower, they were tired, but his wife glowed with news about Kasia’s childhood friends and their children, glowed with telling their friends about Kasia and her daughter. His granddaughter Aga’s grades were better, Kasia’s job fancier. Their friends, maybe, hadn’t been able to stay on the brighter paths of their lives in Poland when they immigrated to America. He was a professor. He’d been able to give his girls more.
His wife never mentioned that their granddaughter didn’t have a father, so he had not mentioned it either. The old man felt his absence in the tug of his mouth when Kasia’s job in fashion was mentioned. The old man felt his absence at dinners. The old man felt his absence in the family fabric. The old man felt his daughter didn’t examine her choices closely enough, before and after she made them.
It was a nice day, and the old man was not content to just stand in front of his window, so he walked with determination the other way, the length of his home, to the backyard. Winter was over, now it was spring and now the backyard would be their own private park again. He stood, hands on his hips, his belly like a flour sack. The concrete that covered the first quarter of the yard needed hosing down. He walked to the tiny shed that stood in the near left corner. The front wall was a door, inside was his hose, neatly coiled, shelves of garden tools, squared away lawn furniture, and a canvas covered mass of bicycles and his grill. He took the end of the hose and drew it out. He sprayed the concrete, watching a winter’s worth of dirt and grime wash into the brown but greening grass. The water hit the concrete and rebounded up. He dragged out the patio table and chairs, sprayed them too. Cobwebs flowed into the grass. He stuck the long umbrella into its hole and opened it, a cheerful floral canopy. He wheeled his grill into position, on the right of the door to the house. He opened and closed the lid. Kasia would bring Aga for a barbecue soon.
He would walk to the butcher and buy fresh sausage. He would buy rolls from the bakery to crisp next to the sausages. He’d slice peppers and onions evenly, grilling them with butter, salt, and pepper. His wife would make the salatka; the potatoes, pickles, apples, carrots, eggs, onions, and peas all chopped tiny, evenly, and mixed with mustard and mayonnaise. Kasia would ask for ketchup, she and her daughter would use it. Everyone would say smacznego and eat together.
He shut the door to his shed and looked up at the windows that faced the backyard. One was open, a cat resting on the sill. Next, he strung the clothesline at the end of the yard, parallel to the back fence. Two rectangular plots of dirt, walled in with wood and a path between them took the space between the concrete and the back fence. On the left he would plant tomatoes, green beans, and dill. On the right, his wife would plant her flowers, wearing a straw hat and dirt-stained clothes. One tree stood serenely near the back fence, shading. Kasia had strung white twinkle lights on it years ago, an extension cord running alongside the fence. He kept them on there for her visits. At night, Aga would flip them on, delighted, charred bits of her dinner in the corners of her mouth. The lights would be hit by sunlight on summer days and flash among the green leaves.
He sat for a moment on one of the chairs, it was damp and the dampness spread to the fabric of his pants. He breathed in deeply, exhaled with a woosh. His wife would be pleased to see the work he had done, she would begin using the clothesline to dry their laundry. Their clothes would smell of baked sun. He pictured the wooden clothespins holding her blouses to the line. The line and the blouses and the pins would be swaying with the wind. His wife would be pleased that the patio furniture was out, she liked to drink tea and read under the umbrella, peeling fruit. His wife would be even happier when the ground was ready for her flowers.
The old man was hungry and thirsty so he went inside, the door banging behind him. He stood at a counter in the kitchen and spread mustard onto a plate. He put a hot dog into boiling water and the heat split its casing. He cut a roll and buttered it. He cut the hot dog into little rounds, spreading mustard on each one before spearing it and putting it in his mouth with a bite of roll. He chewed and swallowed and did it again until it was gone. In the summer, the kitchen smelled like a produce section, fruit ripening in bowls, being washed and drained in the kitchen sink, pits piling in the garbage can. Jam simmering. He peeled a plum and bit in, the juice mostly running into his mouth, some down his lips. He ate the plum, then washed his hands in the kitchen sink. Then he walked to his bed, lay, used his toes to take off his shoes, and took a nap.
When he woke, he looked out the window and saw that his wife was already reading on one of the chairs under the umbrella in the backyard. She wore a cream colored large weave cardigan that she had knit herself. A cup of tea sat next to her paperback, vapor trailing into the atmosphere. Her noises had woken him. She had taken a teapot out with her, her loose black tea settling to the bottom, but being strained at the spout with each pour. The phone rang. He saw his wife look up, but their eyes met through the windowglass so she didn’t stir. He lumbered up. He answered the phone, the young man whose bike was chained inside his fence spoke on the other end. My sink clogged, can you please come up and fix it? The old man said indeed I can, I will come up soon. Apartment three, the young man said, and I’ll be here until the evening so whenever is convenient for you. The old man nodded. The young man was three floors above him. He said OK. The old man rubbed his eyes, turning the bedroom into a slide of the things inside. He’d walked to the telephone in his sock feet.
When he’d first arrived in his new country, he’d often thought of his old country. He’d say to his friends, he never wanted to go back. He’d say, In America, you could travel for a year and still not see everything, why should I go back? No, America was better. He never looked forward to returning. He knew his family wished he would visit more often. The night before his wedding had become the only memory from his Poland that mattered. His father had clamped his shoulder in his cupped hand, and had said, Come. They walked to the kitchen where there were horseradish roots set along a grater, a cutting board, and a paring knife. His father pointed, nodded, and said, Zbierać się. He’d laughed a little, and gathered himself as his father had told him. Before leaving him there, his father clapped him twice on the shoulder with this hand flat, and said with a smile, Tomorrow, you get married.
The old man had a plunger in his fist. The old man looked up. The plunger made a soft thump when he hit the rubber against the handrail. The stairway was clean, the stairs made of worn wood, the walls painted white. There was a potted fern on a tall skinny table. His wife watered the plant and swept the stairs on Mondays. The old man would repaint the hall if an old tenant moved out and after the new tenant moved in. The young man with the bike lived at the very top. The old man held the plunger like a staff. The old man moved up the stairs. He passed the first landing. The tenants had a welcome mat in front of their door, a mid-thirties couple. The wife had put pots with herbs in their kitchen window, you could see them if you looked up the side of the building. The old man passed the second landing where a little girl and her mother lived. There were shoes piled against the wall. A plastic big wheel leaned against the handrail. The old man wondered if the big wheel, pink and white, ever got in the young man’s way as he went downstairs.
The old man reached the third landing where there was nothing but the door and the iron ladder leading to the roof. The old man knocked. The doorbells were outside near the front door, stacked on top of each other, with small golden numbers next to the white, red-lit bell. The old man waited and he heard movement. The young man-- stubbly, dark brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, slightly shorter than he, barefoot-- opened the door. The young man said thank you for coming so soon. Even though the old man knew where the bathroom was, he let the young man lead him. The young man led him to the bathroom. The apartment was mapped exactly like the old man and his wife’s home. The tiling, floorboards, fixtures, appliances, all the same. The old man took pleasure in the human differences of each of his apartments. The young man’s was attractively sparse.
The sink had gray, scummy water in it, almost to the edge. The old man could see that the young man had been brushing his teeth when he realized the sink to be clogged. The old man raised his plunger. He felt the rubber bottom grip the ceramic of the sink, the drain in its epicenter. The wooden handle was getting damp. The old man plunged. The old man wanted the plunger to solve the problem, he did not want to call a plumber, did not want to snake the pipes. He paused plunging. Re-positioning himself, the old man renewed his grip on the handle, felt down through the water to make sure the rubber encircled the drain. He plunged once, twice, then felt a satisfying suction as the stuff stuck in the drain slid through the pipe, allowing water to trickle down. The old man plunged one more time and heard the clog break up, he felt water flow down unimpeded. He relaxed the hold of the plunger on the drain. The water fell with the force of gravity downwards. The old man wiped convexes of sweat off his brow. The young man offered him a blue hand towel. The old man took it, nodded, wiped his hands and brow. The old man walked back towards the young man’s front door, handing the blue terry towel back. Perhaps when you shave, the hairs are getting stuck, the old man said. The young man nodded, one hand on the door knob facing his home, the old man in the doorway. Yes, the young man said, I’ll be more careful. The old man, pleased with the young man’s respectful tones and the exchange, nodded and turned away. The young man closed the door. As the old man descended he heard the noise of a child behind the door with the big wheel parked outside. He heard clatter. He thought the hallway would not need repainting this year.
The old man was tall and looked taller still standing next to his wife. The old man had thick wavy white hair and his skin had very faded freckles dented by wrinkles. His muscles were under a layer of fat and soft skin that sagged. His leg hair remained only in a few places. He wore a simple wedding band, always. His pants were usually chinos that had fit him for the past twenty years, their edges held by visible criss-crossing threads. He did not ever wear denim. His shirts were usually cotton, collared; at home halfway unbuttoned. In summer at home, outside, unbuttoned and hanging from him. His eyes were a watery blue, the eyes watery, the blue clear. He ran a comb through his hair, brushing back, after bathing. He walked upright, but now at the expense of speed, a dignified gait his wife could finally manage, could finally be comfortable with. She had half-run at his side their whole life, not sure when she had slowed, only now has the breathlessness of past walks completely gone from her muscle memory. He wore what he had always jokingly referred to as “old man shoes,” not knowing they would slowly but surely become the shoes he would wear as an old man. They did not tie but went on like slippers, a rough brown leather with a tassel. He wore sweaters and blazers with suede elbow patches. He had a raincoat and a dark wool winter coat. He wore a faded houndstooth cap with earflaps in the winter. He was old and had been able to prepare his wardrobe for all eventualities. He had stopped using handkerchiefs.
His wife had bought pocket packets of Kleenex. At first he was not swayed. At first he stubbornly kept his handkerchiefs, it seemed he owned thousands. One day he took a handkerchief from the drawer and none remained. He resisted the idea of the handkerchief in his hand being the last handkerchief of his life. He used it for three days then put it in the hamper. The next day there was a packet of pocket Kleenex where handkerchiefs had been. There were no more handkerchiefs. The old man unwillingly relinquished this relic of his old life. His wife would not betray her happiness when the old man blew his nose with a Kleenex. The old man realized, years later, that she had washed every one of his handkerchiefs for forty years. He imagined her mysterious glee when she found her first packet of pocket Kleenex in a store. He did not begrudge her victory.
His wife now had white hair. His wife was slight. She had light hair and dark eyes before so she still did. Her skin looked taut still. Her skin had escaped, though there were ditches around her eyes and mouth indicating smiling. She had thinning limbs. She wore skirts and billowy cotton shirts, sometimes with lace trims. She wore a scarf over her hair outside. She belonged to the group of women who always held black leather handbags in the crooks of their arms, inspecting produce at the vegetable stands on Manhattan Avenue. His wife always had worn sensible shoes. She wore her simple gold wedding band and large clip-on pearls. She wore ropes of amber. She had a string of pearls for special occasions. He had proudly and gruffly given her the necklace as a twentieth anniversary gift. The old man had relied on the taste of a tasteful shop girl, whose taste had been sound.
He walked to the park where men like him sat on benches in the afternoons. He entered the gates of the park, the tall black fence encompassing a green expanse of benches and baseball fields. On weekday afternoons the old men commanded the park, were its generals. On weekends they ceded ground. They retreated to a nearby park that had more benches and more shade and fewer young people basking in sun and mutual attention. He walked down a cement path pocked with puddles. He walked and birds flew up around him. He stepped through a puddle, his shoe bringing up drops of water and a bird flew up in a bustle. I didn’t mean to interrupt your bath, sparrow, he said.
You like my bow? a girl said to a boy. Hispanic men were playing soccer.
The bench he bent down to sit on was dark green and slated, the old men were in various stages of slumping in the afternoon sun. One man leaned his cane next to him on the bench. The man on the end, his dog sat obediently on its haunches on the ground, though by extension, on the bench. The dog faced forward and sat aligned with the old men above him. The dog’s old man’s fist was round his leash. Another man’s leather jacket lay across his knees. The old man’s distinction, on this bench of bumps of old men, was his straight posture. Dzien dobry, one said, good afternoon gentlemen, he said, good afternoon in an unsteady echo. A throaty sigh, a shuffle of leather, and the dog’s tags tinkling; these sounds all bench sounds. The creaks of the bench were bench sounds.
A grandmother rolled her infant grandson by, and the old men echoed pretty baby remarks. She smiled at them, paused the stroller on the path in front of their bench for the men to admire the baby a while. The old man said nothing while the other old men said he’d grow strong, said he was a handsome little boy. The grandmother said he was sliczny, took after her own son, adjusted the baby blanket she had probably knit for his arrival. The old man imagined her needles weaving in front of her face, the blanket growing while the baby grew. He looked away and when he glanced up again, she was further down the path, her cooing receding, the gritty wheel noises fading. He saw a girl reading two benches away.
The old man had always thought he’d see himself within another person. He dreamed of seeing what a younger version of himself would have been able to accomplish in America. He dreamed of seeing this young him thrive, have better teeth. He never allowed Kasia to miss a dental appointment, but somehow it wasn’t the same. His daughter didn’t give him the satisfaction he’d imagined when he pictured himself gazing at his progeny. His daughter had perfect American teeth, but his daughter was a daughter and he could not see himself within her. Then his daughter had a daughter and he lost hope that he’d look into his own eyes in another’s head.
The bench’s dog barked at a squirrel, barked at another dog being walked past them by a woman wearing tight black clothes and a sleek ponytail. As her dog strained at the leash, the woman dragged her on her hind legs; she ignored the men on the bench and their dog. The bench dog barked from his seat, its head and chest heaving up once per yap. The dog’s old man patted his dog’s head. The old man, still squinting, followed the soccer game and heard the barks among the muffled shouts of the men and the quick thwaps of the ball. A bike wheeled in front of the soccer game, the bike’s owner, the young man from 3. The old man tried to look past the young man to the soccer game, following the thwaps. The old man recognized the bike easily from the time, hours by now, he had spent gazing down at it from his front windows and up at it from the white plastic chairs.
The young man steered his bike towards the grass, guiding it steadily with an open palm on the seat, towards a lone tree. He lay the bike on its side and sat against the tree’s trunk. The young man took off his shoes. The old man watched him. The old men on the bench were quiet. One was sleeping, his head hanging back. The afternoon was old, it was dying. The young man was the barefoot squire of the sun’s setting. The old man thought, I’m an observer. The old man would not sit alone at a tree trunk and take off his shoes at a park. The young man leaned his head against the bark, looking up into the tree’s branches. The branches needed leaves. The grass did not cover all the ground, dirt showed through. The young man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small paperback book and began to read.
The old man recognized the reading the young man was doing, the lonely kind. The young man was waiting, was reading to wait and to be not alone. The old man thought about his daughter. She had read that way too, into her teens, maybe she still did. The old man had a sad feeling his daughter might never stop feeling alone.
The young man looked up from his book, his book was held so that the left side folded in a backwards loop, the left side would curl up when the book was closed. The young man looked up and glanced at the young woman reading. The old man thought that the young man liked the young woman who was sitting on an outer edge of the neighboring bench. He imagined the young man’s brave approach, with one look back towards his prone bicycle, his paperback floppy and closed with a thumb marking his spot. The young woman would not notice he was aiming for her until he stood so close his shadow shaded her shoes, she’d look up confused. The young man, smiling, would stick out a hand to introduce himself and and she would warily shake and say her name too. The young man’d say Can I sit with you? And she would answer, Sure, and reluctantly slip her bookmark in her place. The old man imagined a quick smile, and a jog back to the young man’s bike, and the girl squinting to watch him come back to her. When he sat, the bike propped against their bench, the young woman would have a hand on her book, ready to be opened and read again or grabbed in an escape. Their conversation would be halting at first, but they would be smiling at each other despite their awkwardness.
The old man saw the young man get up and right his bike, looking intently at the girl on the bench. With her head bent forward and her hair parted and split by her shoulders, both men could see the part of her neck that met her head.
The old man was startled-- her head jerked. Her head took her hair and hid her neck. She had been sitting still, concentrating on her book for so long, that the movement looked animalistic. She had seen the young man, jumped up, and shook her head in small, quick shakes, her hair and eyes hateful and angry. No, she said, loudly and with strength. The young woman grabbed her bag and her book, looked behind her and walked quickly away. The young man, both hands on the handlebars, looked down and slowly went the opposite direction, the gears on his bike clicking.
I had a very good apple the other day, an old man said. But it is not apple season, an old man said. It is almost plum season, the old man said. Last summer, I had the most delicious plum. The apple I had was only seventy-five cents, not bad. The old man said I bit into the plum and it was like plums I had eaten before when I was young, juicy and good.
Excerpted from the manuscript "Nassau Avenue."