by Louis Gallo
Old Professor Reno, many years retired, hobbled down Magazine Street with his meager bag of groceries. He wondered if he would make it home in the scorching New Orleans heat of August. If so, well then, life was good. Good had come to mean merely persisting another day, given his failing, precarious heart.
Professor Reno had returned to the city of his birth some twelve years earlier with a station wagon full of the only possessions he still prized—as well as a modest pension, which he had opted for in lump sum. Two divorces and interminable child support payments had just about cleaned him out. With the little money he had left he purchased a modest cottage on one of the side streets off Magazine. Not a good neighborhood but not entirely frightful either.
Every window on the block had bars and iron grill-work security gates bolted across both front and back doors. The place had cost Reno every cent, so he survived entirely on social security now. He had outlived most of his relatives, and his children had scattered across the country and rarely communicated with him. The old man felt that he barely existed, that he amounted to what the locals here called lagniappe, a little extra. And he knew, of course, that each of his days had its number.
He waited for the light at Jefferson, crossed the street cautiously and turned left at the next corner. Only half a block more to the small, dilapidated bungalow that hadn’t been painted in thirty years. He fingered the keys in his pockets, took deliberate deep breaths, wiped sweat from his forehead with his fingers. I will make it, he urged himself. He planned to plunge into the easy chair in front of the television, rest, then heat up a can of Progresso chicken and barley soup. It must have been a little after one o’clock. The empty streets, stifling, painful with glare. He signed with relief as he trudged the steps onto his front porch, which, infested with termites, still supported his frail hundred and forty pounds.
He aimed the point of his key toward the lock as usual only to find that the door was already open. His first thought—I’ve been robbed. Only a matter of time in this area. He entered the living room, saw no signs of vandalism and wondered if he had again merely forgotten to lock the door.
He sank into the easy chair in a state of joyous exhaustion. He had clung to another day; he had procured food; his legs had supported him all the way to the grocery and back. He might have nodded off easily except for an unusual sound—almost a heavy breathing—coming from the dark hallway that ran the length of the house. Were the robbers still inside? Not that it mattered. The little strength he retained made it impossible for him to investigate, or care. No, he would go to sleep for a while, nap, then heat up the soup.
But the sound intensified. He swiveled the chair toward the hallway and felt no surprise whatever to see a human figure emerge from its shadows. He wondered why he felt no fear and merely grunted, ‘Who is it?’
The figure stepped into the light so Professor Reno could get a good look at him. An old man, perhaps his age or a little younger. Gaunt yet tall and weighty, the intruder stepped closer. He carried some sort of machine and clear plastic tubes ran into his nose. Oxygen, the professor understood: the man was dying. It occurred to him that the visitor was an angel of death, or of mercy, it didn’t matter.
‘Who are you?’ he asked meekly.
The visitor seemed agitated and angry. ‘My name is William Rennick,’ he growled. ‘I don’t suppose that means a thing to you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Professor Reno shook his head. ‘Perhaps a few clues? Do I know you?’
‘Celeste Rennick,’ the tall man said. ‘That should ring a bell.’
The professor searched his mind as if it were a long empty highway. ‘I’ve forgotten quite a bit,’ he attempted to chuckle, ‘at my age, you know. I don’t know any Celeste—.’ And then the highway abruptly cleared and he saw her, beckoning him as she had then, so long ago, in the Midwest, where he had pursued his graduate studies. She looked radiant, still the same young woman who wore fuzzy, tight sweaters, even in summers. She had not aged a year, a minute. Her smile, bounteous, serene, sensuous. But ah, only a memory, a spot of time returned to work its magic.
‘Dear sir,’ Professor Reno said, ‘yes, yes, yes . . . how could I forget Celeste? I knew her, yes, so long ago, so long ago. And do you come with news about my old friend? I do hope she remains well.’
‘William Rennick,’ the man sneered. ‘My name is William Rennick. Celeste’s husband, husband now and husband then, when you knew her. She passed away last year, my wife, and I vowed to track you down should that occur. I’m not an articulate man as you were with your literary flourishes, attracting thousands of students. I studied engineering. But you . . . ah, the conquests, the fans, the women. They thought you were God.’
‘I was only a graduate student teaching a few classes when I knew Celeste. We had a few classes together.’ The professor began to feel positively chilled. He looked at the tall man’s grizzled, dour and decimated face.
‘You made love to my wife, professor, over and over, night after night. She told me she had to go over to the library to do research. You met in empty, dark classrooms and made love with her. My wife.’
It all came back to Reno, in a flood, a maelstrom of memory. William Rennick breathed heavily.
‘Sit down, my friend, in the chair across from me. You can set your machine down on the end table.’
Rennick sank into the chair, flung his head back and sighed. He propped the machine as Professor Reno had suggested. ‘You’re not my friend,’ he gasped, staring at the ceiling.
‘It was so long ago. Does it even matter now? I was under the impression that you were unable to, unable—’
‘I became impotent three years after I married Celeste. Rheumatic fever, something like that. But we loved each other madly, sir.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said the professor.
Rennick cleared his throat, took three deep breaths. ‘I’ve waited for this moment, you know. I promised myself decades ago to seek you out, but only if something happened to Celeste. And here I am.’
‘How ironic, we’re both dying anyway. Too bad, too bad.’
With no flourish, as if it consumed all his strength, he shot Professor Reno in the chest. Reno felt his chair lurch backwards; he tried to claw away the intense pain but it seemed to spread throughout his being like a drop of ink in water. He wiped at the blood and stared at his wet, red fingers.
‘Why?’ he managed to gasp. ‘So long ago.’
It has eaten me alive,’ said Rennick. ‘Now I can die in peace.’
‘Shhh, save your strength. I knew what was happening all along. I had a friend follow Celeste. And, damn it all, for a while I even loved you for providing what I couldn’t. She had no thought of leaving me. Celeste and I were soulmates. You just helped.’
Professor Reno felt the coldness first in his feet; it started to rise, seized his groin.
‘I’m really dying,’ he whispered.
‘Watch this,’ Rennick said. He pointed the pistol at his temple and fired. A blast of the man’s insides burst from the other side of his head.
He crawled to Rennick’s feet and seized the plastic machine. He pulled the tubes out of Rennick’s nostrils and inserted them into his own. He struggled back to his own chair and inhaled the oxygen. A terrible, rusty maelstrom roared in his lungs.
He gazed at William Rennick, whose head had drooped slightly forward. Rennick seemed to be smiling. He thought of Celeste, imagined making love with her, for he had never done so, however much he adored her, longed for it. Why had the friend lied? Unless the friend . . . And slowly, she materialized, and he clutched her flesh, breathed the fragrant bouquet of her delicious hair. He stared into the pale, lifeless eyes of her husband and once more managed to crawl over to him. He pulled himself up across the dead man’s lap and passionately kissed his lips. ‘My angel,’ he sobbed, ‘my angel.’
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.