by Francine Witte
Arthur Slimovitz lugs himself down West 190th Street where two weeks ago, the August sun laid itself flat like an iron and hasn’t let up. He stops in front of his apartment building and looks behind him to make sure no one has followed. It is silly, he knows, since no one ever has. Thieves aren’t dopes, he thinks. They don’t want an old man who got nothing. But he looks anyway. Then he gives a last look at the sun. Hey, you old deadbeat, go find a job somewheres else. Ach, he tells himself, soon it will be fall, and soon after, snow. This, Slimovitz knows, but it soothes him little as the heat startles his hand off the doorknob.
The tiny hallway’s no better. Mrs. Goldsmith is sprawled out on the chair next to the stairway fanning herself with The Jewish News.
‘Hey, Mr. Slimovitz, you want to hear about Katz?’
Slimovitz knows she has been waiting to deliver her tidbit to the first poor sap through the door.
‘His wife took off—poof—just like yours.’
Slimovitz pulls the mail from its tiny box. Gas bill, a post card from Klein in Florida – come down, you old goat!
‘To do what?’ Slimovitz says to the post card. ‘Maybe dry in the sun like a potato chip?’
‘You don’t hear me, Mr. Slimovitz?’ Mrs. Goldsmith says, ‘Katz’s wife— ’
‘Yeah, I know, just like mine,’ he says and heads for the stairs.
Slimovitz is a short, stocky man with puffy features that make him look always tired. Still no word. Nothing. You’d think Emma could pick up a pen. Slimovitz pulls himself up the five flights, his legs dragging under him like ten pounds of potatoes. The noise of the clothing racks, the jabber of the different dialects he hears all day long are still a buzz in his ears.
He has worked for Baum and Sons since who can say. A year for each wrinkle, he once told Emma. He is a man of no particular skill, but Baum keeps him anyway. Slimovitz is a good man, what women call a steady man. To Baum, New York is a den of killers and thieves, and a man like Slimovitz is gold. And gold you hang onto. Baum gives Slimovitz small jobs like watching the cleaning lady doesn’t pilfer, or rechecking Schwartz’s math. The work is monotonous and insulting, but Slimovitz believes mostly in what he can put his hands on.
So how come I keep waiting for Emma to come home? he thinks as he opens the apartment door. Emma’s absence greets him like always. ‘This is no life,’ he says out loud. The tiny kitchen is quiet where there should be a stew bubbling. Emma should be chattering away on the telephone like she used to do. He shrugs. ‘This is no life,’ he says again, but lives it anyway.
He takes a thin slab of haddock from the refrigerator and holds it up to his nose. Better make it now. By tomorrow, it will go bad. Slimovitz hates to waste. He remembers how he raised his voice one time to Emma for letting some egg salad go bad.
‘I forgot,’ she said, ‘what’s the big deal?’
‘My father drank himself to death he couldn’t feed his family. I don’t ever want to see you waste nothing in front of me again.’
But of course, she did and Slimovitz said less and less. Why waste words? he would think. To me, she don’t listen. He learned to simply watch her, shutting his teeth quickly when he felt words about to come out. It was only when she announced five months ago that she was leaving that she allowed him to speak.
‘To go where? To do what?’ Slimovitz wanted to know though Emma couldn’t say. ‘How can you throw away thirty years?’ He could feel the words falling on the floor and disappearing as Emma put on her coat and left the late March afternoon to close around him like a fist.
But that was then, and now Slimovitz just shrugs and starts to prepare the haddock. Paprika, garlic, nothing fancy. He aims the small fan toward the window, which is shut and swollen in its track. Before he can broil the fish he must fix the window, so he heads for the bedroom to get a pair of pliers.
How long Emma has been waiting for him underneath the quilt, Slimovitz has no idea. Her presence shakes him, but he stands there calm, studying her. How is it possible she got past Mrs. Goldsmith guarding the door?
Finally, he says ‘Get out from under there, you’ll roast to death.’
‘What roast?’ she says, ‘I’m not a chicken.’
Slimovitz cannot take his eyes off of her. Bare shoulders, white and smooth as glass. Shoulders of a woman half her age. Her hair is dyed blonde, and loose. He is about to comment on the change when Emma lowers the quilt to reveal her large breasts. Logic is telling him to leave, run like a bandit. But what chance does logic have against the thumping of a heart and so he crawls in next to her.
Later, when Slimovitz thinks of it, he goes back to the kitchen and slides the haddock from the broiling pan and thunks it into the garbage. What waste, he thinks and opens a can of tuna. He plinks ice cubes into two glasses of lemonade, places everything on a tray and carries it back to the bedroom. The sun has gone down, taking some of the heat with it, and the only light is coming from the small bathroom. They eat, saying nothing, like six months haven’t passed. She stops now and then to roll the cool glass along her forehead or against her long, white neck. The ice cubes tinkle, the only sound until she says, ‘I’m not here to stay.’
Slimovitz swallows some tuna and says nothing.
‘I hope you didn’t think so,’ she goes on. ‘By the way, you didn’t say nothing.’ She points to her hair, now blonde. Slimovitz tells her he likes it, but thinks different.
‘The other way made me look old.’
‘I liked you old,’ he says.
Three weeks pass and Emma is still there. She says she has thought things over and maybe they should try again. She also says she has given up drink. Slimovitz knows what’s next. So he knows. Big deal. Last time, he also knew.
It will be something small. A comment, maybe, or a look. And then it comes. ‘I’m bored,’ she says one night while the Evening News is on. ‘Can’t we ever go out?’
Slimovitz tells her he is tired. He’s been on his feet all day counting merchandise for Baum. ‘Besides,’ he says, ‘it’s a beautiful thing to have time to sit and think. A beautiful thing.’
‘But, I have nothing,’ she says. ‘You, you’re gone all day, then come home, eat dinner and flop down to sleep.’
‘That’s how life goes sometimes,’ Slimovitz says.
‘Not my life,’ she says.
That night, Slimovitz has a terrible dream. Everywhere, everywhere, snow, and he is alone is a field, naked. The snow is around his ankles, then his knees. It is very soft and not at all cold. Surprisingly, it feels good to him. Soothing. Like it couldn’t freeze him to death. He is relaxing in its easy lie when it reaches his neck. Now, he knows the snow will just keep coming and that, comforting or not, it will suffocate him. He waves his arms. Wasted movement. His legs, no good either. But what can he do? What can he do?
Slimovitz shudders awake and is slowly aware of two things. First, there is no snow. It is still summer, and the windows are wide open. And second, Emma is gone. He looks at the clock. 3 a.m., and it could be that Emma is in the bathroom. He waits for the toilet to flush. Or maybe, thirsty, she went to get some water from the kitchen. He strains for the sound of her feet padding on the linoleum.
Five minutes, then ten minutes pass. He sits up very slowly, careful not to move even the air around him. He gets out of bed without a sound and makes his way to the doorway. He walks down the hallway, one slow step at a time. Finally, he reaches the living room where Emma is balled into the corner of couch. Even in the dim lamplight, he can see she’s been crying.
‘It don’t want me,’ she says when she finally notices him. ‘That life don’t want me.’
Oh no, Slimovitz thinks. It’s on its way. He goes to the sink and brings Emma a glass of water. ‘Here, drink.’
She takes it, gulps hard and says, ‘I sat there all by myself at Nat’s Grill. I waited for someone to even look at me, but nothing.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ he asks.
‘I thought if I dyed my hair,’ she says. ‘What if I’m just too old?’
‘You’re beautiful,’ Slimovitz says.
‘To you, Arthur,’ she says. ‘But I need more.’
It’s coming. Slimovitz knows.
‘So I sat there,’ she continues, ‘for a very long time and I finally think, so what, I’m gonna die no one looks at me? But I couldn’t convince myself, and I – I had a drink.’
Yes, Slimovitz knows.
He brings her a blanket and covers her.
‘You don’t hate me, do you, Arthur?’
‘For what I’m gonna hate you?’ Slimovitz says, sitting next to her.
‘I do love you, Arthur.’
‘Shhh,’ Slimovitz says, folding his arms around her. ‘Don’t talk no more.’
‘What is it,’ she says, ‘makes me want a life that don’t want me?’
Slimovitz strokes her hair. ‘I said no talking.’
‘I promise, I promise I won’t do it no more.’
But he knows that she will and wants to tell her so, but why waste words and besides the air is perfect now – free of heat and still, very, very still. Good, he thinks – no noise, nothing wasted and for the moment, it seems, nothing moving towards them.
Francine Witte is the author of five chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection has just been published by Kelsay Books. She lives in NYC.