by Francine Witte
At four a.m. Schmertz comes banging at my door. He’s my neighbor with the missing leg from two doors down, who tells me the same story each time I see him. About the subway accident that fried his brain.
‘They’re gonna evict me,’ he says, sagging into his crutches.
‘No, no,’ I say, same as always. ‘It’s a dream, remember?’ though I know he doesn’t. I throw on my robe and pull him by his elbow back to his door.
His name isn’t really Schmertz. That just happened. My husband, Tom, and I were having breakfast, me, an everything bagel with cream cheese and Tom, with his heart-healthy bran.
‘He looks like Fred Mertz,’ Tom said, a dribble of milk on his lower lip. And he did. Same chest squashed into his trousers. Same egg of a head.
‘Mertz, Schmertz,’ I said. ‘He’s a lonely old guy.’
‘Schmertz,’ Tom nodded, smiling. And it stuck.
When I return to bed, Tom is sitting up, a skyline of pillows behind him. ‘This has to stop, Lynn,’ he says. ‘I need my sleep.’
‘He thinks he’s getting evicted,’ I say.
‘I wish he would.’ Tom turns and snaps off the lamp.
After twenty years of marriage Tom is still handsome. Piercing blue eyes, a deep forest of hair. He manages his body with the same precision he uses on his employees at the bank. In other words, God help them if a staple is out of place.
Tom and I both started as tellers. Me, right out of my two-year marketing program at Manhattan Community College, and Tom having finished his business degree at NYU. I liked the bank, thought it would be good luck to start off my working life surrounded by money. I noticed Tom right away, his attention to detail, his love of order. Everything I didn’t have. We dated for six months and got married. He got promoted to loan applications and soon after, branch manager, at 25, the youngest the bank had ever seen.
I lagged behind till one day, I quit, thinking I would try my hand at a home-based business. Balloon bouquets that cost too much and nobody wanted. I fell into a pit of game shows and pizza. And while I was putting on what I thought was a lovable 20, Tom was busy chiseling his arms and shoulders into rock formations.
Because of this, I am always suspecting infidelity. I weigh everything, new shaving lotion, his refusal to turn gray.
Later that morning, I see Schmertz in the lobby at the mailboxes. He is leaned up against the metal grid, his crutches behind him, a letter drooping from his hand.
‘You feeling better now?’ I ask him as I open my mailbox. Nothing but catalogues and a red, red envelope addressed to Tom. I know Schmertz’s real name—Joseph Spinner—but I don’t use it because I am afraid I will call him Schmertz to his face. Instead, I call him Sir.
‘Sir?’ I say, but he is engrossed by the letter in his hand.
After a moment, he offers it to me. ‘You see?’ he says, ‘it wasn’t a dream.’
And there it is. The eviction notice. Non-payment of rent, it says.
‘But I wrote the check out for you,’ I say. ‘Remember?’
I help Schmertz pay his bills one afternoon a month. His disability check is direct-deposited, but his handwriting is barely a scrawl, and his vision is weak. I fill in the information on the checks and address the envelopes.
‘You just put these in the mail,’ I always tell him. He likes to do that the same way children like to push elevator buttons and toss quarters in a toll booth.
I help him though I know Tom wouldn’t like it. It would seem weak and enabling to him. ‘What about his nurse?’ he’d say. I know that after his accident, there was a full-time nurse taking care of Schmertz, but in the last month or two, I haven’t see anyone except a cleaning woman coming out of his apartment.
I help him to make up for my mother, who I didn’t help, those last Alzheimer years before she died. I have put all my faith in cosmic accounting. When I told Schmertz this will have to be our secret, his index finger flew to his lips. ‘Shhh,’ he nodded.
Standing by the mailbox, I ask him if he mailed the rent check. ‘Are you sure?’ I look into his eyes, vague with cataracts.
‘Evict me,’ he says, ‘evict me.’
I take him back upstairs to his apartment. I have my mail in one hand and his in the other. I am all too aware of the slick weight of the catalogues. Somebody, somewhere thinks I need to order fat clothes and Christmas doo-dads through the mail. And on top of the catalogues, the square red envelope, Hallmark imprint, and no return address. I put the envelope into my purse.
I open Schmertz’s door. The smell of mothballs and urine has taken over. We walk inside. Bowls caked with dried cornflakes and every glass he owns in the sink.
‘What happened to your cleaning lady?’ I ask him.
‘She doesn’t like me,’ he says.
‘Well,’ I say, looking at my watch. Tom won’t be home till 6:00. ‘I can give you a hand.’ I sit him in front of the television with a paper cup of red Hi-C and a napkin full of wheat-thins. I flip the channels. Nothing but blurry news and static. ‘What happened to your cable?’ I ask.
‘Price is right,’ he says.
I look around, sizing up what it will take to get this apartment company clean, as my mother would call it. Company clean is emptying ash trays, making beds and swishing a brush around in the toilet. Everything surface. Just enough so no one talks about you.
I start with the dishes. Lemon bubbles and the steady sound of water. I scrub egg yolk and burnt pudding. I start to think of the last, sad meal my mother might have cooked for herself before I got Aunt Min’s phone call from Florida. The one where “nursing home” and “it’s for the best” being what I remember most.
The dishes done, I wipe the counter and next the refrigerator. I scrape dried tomato sauce off the stove with my nails. I’m in so much deeper now than I thought. I want to yank this dirt out by the roots.
Next, the bathroom. Comet, Windex, Lysol. All the supplies I imagine the cleaning lady left behind. This is working so well, I wonder why I resist it so often. Tom is always saying things like, ‘you need to bleach the grout in the shower.’
At four p.m. Tom calls me on my cell. He says something about missing dinner. My battery dies. And cuts him off mid-sentence.
Inside, Schmertz is yelling at the television. I go into the living room. I have lost Tom now, and it’s just as well. It turns out Schmertz has switched to PBS, which comes in surprisingly well. They are playing an old James Cagney film. ‘Bang,’ Schmertz aims his finger gun at the screen.
The late, yellow sun is mixed with stirred-up dust. It shines across Schmertz’s head. His empty pantleg is draped across the couch. I ask if he needs anything. He doesn’t answer. I suddenly realize I’m going to have to call his children, his brother, anyone I can find. I’m going to be the one to make that awful phone call, the one they will remember in fuzzy bits and pieces. A scream from underwater, urgent, but blurred.
Schmerz has never mentioned children or family, but then we never did talk much. Those afternoons I came over were me always rushing to get done without Tom somehow discovering us. Sexless cheating, in a way.
I return to the bedroom, but this time not to clean. I switch to hunter mode. A name, a phone number, anything. I must find somebody who will care what is happening to poor Schmertz.
Again, I think of my mother, how once my aunt took her to the Newland Nursing facility, it must have clicked in, on some level, that the end of her life had begun. Her precious Florida, palm fronds nodding outside her window, was useless to her now. No more clubhouse condo. No more card games or couples dances or New York clubs.
And what if I do find somebody and I call them and they are so fragile with their husband or wife that just a breath could blow them to smithereens? What if just today, I call and they’ve come home to a mysterious red envelope of their own?
Looking through the night table drawer, I realize I’m in no danger. There is no one to find. And then it hits me that if there is no one else, then there is only me.
I look again, pulling out crumpled tissues, cough drops in blister packs and then I find them. Not an address or a name, but the envelopes addressed to the landlord and the cable company. From the last month and the last three before that. I clutch the handful of envelopes and return to the living room. As soon as I enter, I can smell that Schmertz has had a bowel movement. He is smiling, rocking back and forth. On the television, James Cagney is sprawled out, starfish dead and then the words on the screen—The End.
‘I killed him.’ Schmertz blows smoke off his finger. ‘Don’t tell.’
I watch him sitting there, unaware he is sitting in his own feces, the room getting smaller with its overwhelming smell. I wonder how it got so bad for him so fast. Seeing him in the hallway, helping him with his bills, he seemed confused, but who wouldn’t after what he had gone through?
Working as a fabric cutter in the garment district for 43 years, the way he told me last October when Tom and I moved in. I had knocked on Schmertz’s door to ask about the cable hookup. His living room was an early 60s museum, stacks of 45s. Album covers with Fats Domino and Brenda Lee. And the furniture, a pole lamp with three bulbs, the avocado sectional. Everything in perfect, preserved shape, a testament to the fact that these were the last years he was happy.
His wife died of cancer in 1983, he later told me. But that was all he said. He never mentioned kids or no kids, and my own futile attempts at fertility told me that this was a question you didn’t ask.
Then six months ago, mid-April, the phone call from St. Luke’s. ‘You’re his emergency contact,’ the nasal voice on the phone said. I was annoyed and flattered at the same time. To be honest, I didn’t even know he had my phone number, but then I remembered we had traded information in case we I had a question when the cable guy came.
It had happened during rush hour at the 34th Street station of the uptown F. Nothing short of a human Petri dish. A woman pushed poor Schmertz into an already full car, and the door closed on his leg. The train pulled away, dragging Schmertz along, and when it entered the tunnel, Schmertz was stopped by the wall, his leg ripped loose like a drumstick.
The Daily News called him a “Miracle Survivor” and quickly forgot him. The Straphangers Association tried to get him millions, but couldn’t prove that the city had been negligent. And the woman who pushed him, nowhere to be found.
After the accident, he stayed in his apartment. I went over once with a casserole and when I got home, Tom said if I want to take care of someone so much, I do have a husband. When I tried to tell him the details of Schmertz’s accident, he held up his hand and went into the living room where I could see him in the mirror doing violent squat thrusts. From then on, I acted like everything was fine. With Tom. With Schmertz. Company clean.
But now I had to make a call. But where? And to who? I thought of the social worker at St. Luke’s who called me when Schmertz came home from the hospital. Susan something. She kept leaving messages on our machine until Tom called back and said we are no relation to Mr. Spinner, and would she please stop calling.
Finally, it’s as simple as the Yellow Pages. N for Nursing Home. And then I stop. I picture Schmertz in a tiny cot with only a nightstand and a dresser to store the treasures of his life. I turn to the next page. P for private nurse. That feels better. I dial the agency—Schmertz still has a black rotary. The woman who answers says all in one breath that a private nurse is expensive and what about insurance and would a health care aide be all right for tonight?
An hour later, Margaret Fitch shows up. A roundish woman in her late 40s. She takes one look at Schmertz, wrinkles up her nose and says, ‘Oh my, we’ve got to change you, yes sir.’ Then she smiles at me and says, ‘your Papa’s gonna be okay.’
It’s midnight when I’m ready to leave. Margaret snoring in an armchair in front of the TV. Schmertz, asleep now in his bed. I open my purse to get my keys and there at the bottom is the red envelope staring up at me like a bloodshot eye. I leave a note and two crumpled twenties for Margaret and slip out the door. I go downstairs and put Schmertz’ unmailed envelopes in the slot.
When I get home, Tom is asleep, flat on his back, the tiny bedside lamp still lit. He needs his sleep, I think. He needs. He needs.
Quiet as I can, I turn on the shower. I slip under the hot water and let it unknot my back and shoulders. After, I get dressed and pack my suitcase. Tom sleeps through it all.
I look at his face and try to imagine who or what he is dreaming about. I look at his arms, their curve and muscle under the thin white tee-shirt.
I take another look around. Window, nightstand, husband, all going into my memory bank. I pull the red envelope out of my purse and place it on Tom’s chest. I watch it for a moment, going up and down, up and down as he breathes.
Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks, one full-length collection, and the recently published, Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton). Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind is published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and a full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This is published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City, USA.