Then What?

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The old man grabbed the inside handle of the taxi door. It was a typical Coral Gables street. The fences were padlocked. The windows had iron bars. Cubans, Jews, immigrants all, the sort of people who raised families in these neighborhoods, didn’t like intruders in their homes or in their lives. Looking at the houses you’d see a striped sleeve. A striped blouse. It was as if a line of prisoners were shackled inside, slogging their feet, making their way from room to room.

Harry clutched the piece of paper with the address in his hand. He leaned forward and squinted through the window. A hearse was pulling out of the driveway. Sitting under a kapok tree in the middle of the lawn was a stuffed gorilla wearing sunglasses and a straw hat. Harry blinked twice. When the taxi stopped, he couldn’t move.

“You sure this is the right place?”

The taxi driver — coal black, Haitian — spoke with singsong lilt. “You seem like a nice guy,” he said. “You sure you want to move here?”

The house was probably built in the fifties. Jalousie windows. Decades old air-conditioning units jammed into walls. A woman’s face peeked through the curtains then quickly disappeared. Harry looked up and swore he saw two shoes sticking out of the chimney.

The taxi driver lugged a huge case and a duffel out of the trunk while Harry shuffled up the stoop. A moment later, a woman opened the door.

“You must be Mr. Weinstein. I’m Luz.”

She was probably in her early forties. Tall. Lean. Equine. The bottom half of her face was longer than the top, her teeth huge. Harry’s luggage carried at least fifty pounds of dead weight. To his amazement, she grabbed his bags and toted them inside.

“I’m putting you with Charlie,” said Luz. She faced the living room and lurched forward, a bag under each arm. “Do you mind sharing a room?”

“Actually,” said Harry. She was already five steps in front on him, her haunches straining. “My contract says I have a single.”

There was nothing Harry hated more than confrontation and here it was, laid in his lap, on the first day.

“You see I play the tuba,” said Harry. In case she didn’t hear the first time, he repeated the words, shouting to her back. “I like to read and I like to play the tuba!”

His eyes scanned the living room. There were two small greenish couches. A dinette table with plastic folding chairs sat off to the side. In the brochure the house looked like the Ritz. In real life, it was smaller than his last apartment.

Luz trotted down the hall, talking to the air, to the walls, to no one in particular.

“Well for Pete’s sake of course you can play your tuba. But in the garage! We’ll open the door! People will line up on the sidewalk to listen. It’ll be like Carnegie Hall. Only in the garage!”

If the house was less than he expected, so was his roommate. Charlie’s spine was as curved as a cane. Safety pinned to the back of his shirt (My grandkids went to Florida and all I got was this!) was a terrycloth bath towel. A black cat seemed to shadow his every move.

“He thinks he’s a superhero,” whispered Luz. She rolled her eyes. “The guy before him thought he was Santa.”

That night at dinner, he met the other resident. Gladys had dyed black hair curled at the shoulders like a hand wave. She looked as if she stepped out of an old movie. It was eighty degrees in the shade. Still she wore a going-to-church suit, pearls.

Harry tried to strike up a conversation. But Gladys seemed to think that Roosevelt was still president and Charlie thought they lived in Gotham City. And wherever Luz went, a parrot seemed to follow. It perched on her shoulder and squawked a variety of religious admonitions.

“You’re going straight to hell, young fella! You’re going straight to hell!”

Harry stared at the peas and carrots and a slab of gray pot roast on his plate. All he wanted was some decent food and the freedom to play his instrument. He had moved into The Home on his own volition — packed his bags, and forwarded his mail. He had supposed he could also move out.

“Behold the beast,” screamed the parrot. “Behold the beast!”

Late that night he couldn’t sleep. Luz, he assumed, was upstairs on the second floor. There was a slit of light under her door, the sound of a man talking. The old man stumbled through half-lit rooms to find the kitchen. Inching towards the refrigerator, he was careful not to make a sound. His needs were simple. All he wanted was a nice cold glass of milk.

But when he opened the door, time froze. Next to the eggs and alongside a head of lettuce was a squirrel. Someone had stuffed him in a plastic bag. His eyes were open, his tail curled like a fetus. Perhaps, the animal’s just cold, thought Harry. Like those lizards that get paralyzed on the sidewalk whenever the temperature drops. He held out a shaky index finger and nudged a paw. It was as hard as an ice cube. His chin quivering, Harry slammed the door.

For fifty years, Harry had worked as an accountant. By habit, he kept a ledger in his head. He knew whenever someone was trying to cook the numbers, and nothing made sense in this house. Up was down and down was up. Things were left in oddest places. Working his way back to the bedroom, he tripped over a square of kitty litter and crashed into an umbrella stand.

The Lord giveth and The Lord taketh away! Squawk!

And that parrot gave him heartburn like a bad meal.

“Mr. Weinstein.” Luz appeared out of nowhere. Her nose loomed over his face. Her breath was boozy. “Whatever are you doing roaming through the house?”

She grabbed his elbow and ushered him into his bedroom. The next thing he heard was a deadbolt slide across his door.

Harry sat on his bed. He listened for the parrot but all he could hear was Charlie’s snores. I’ll call a taxi in the morning, he decided. He lay on his mattress, looked at the ceiling, and convinced himself that he was fine.

The next day he woke up with a bowl of oatmeal at his bedside and the sun upon his face. Then he found his tuba in the garage, gleaming like a throne.

They set up a fan and a chair and opened the door so the air could circulate. Within days Harry attracted an audience. Kids on tricycles pedaled up and down the sidewalk. A few abuelas set up folding chairs. And he met the face that matched the voice behind the door. Sam, he learned, was a regular fixture in the house.

He was good-looking from a distance. Graying at the temples. A full head of hair. But if you worked your way closer, his features didn’t quite match. His ears were a little too low. His eyes were a little too far apart. And he talked nonstop, as if his tongue was too tight and needed loosening.

Over the next few weeks, Harry gleaned bits and pieces of information. While Luz devoted herself to the occupants of The Home, Sam devoted himself to her. He worked as a vet tech to pay the bills, but taking care of Luz was his real full-time job. He mowed her lawn, bathed the male residents, even plunged the toilets. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Luz. She only had to ask.

“I work at a clinic, see. It’s tough working with animals. At least once a month, see, an animal gets left our doorstep. We’re forced to do what the owners couldn’t or wouldn’t. You see what I mean?

They were in the garage. Sam sprayed oil on a rusted hedge clipper. Water dripped down his face. “A dog can walk on three legs, but what if that third leg gets cancer? A cat can handle losing its hearing, but what if it goes blind, too?”  He squeezed the handle of the clipper until its jaws finally opened. “If there is a God, he’s sure not watching the expiration dates.”

Harry wished he had hearing aids. Hearing aids made life so simple. Just switch them on and switch them off.

“Everyone wants a pet that’s young and healthy,” said Sam. “A furry little slipper of a dog that fetches a ball, jogs at your heels, jumps on your bed. But ten or so years down the road the picture changes,” said Sam. “Then what?”

The day that changed Harry’s life started like every other one. The group decided to go grocery shopping. It took Luz and Sam almost a half hour to load the three of them into the van. After driving a few blocks, they pulled into a handicapped spot. Then Sam and Luz went to work. Their movements were perfectly orchestrated — lifting bony limbs, tying untied shoes, wiping drool off the corners of mouths. Then they paraded across the pavement, heads up, single file, with Luz and Sam bringing up the rear.

In front of them, a blond woman had entered the store. She threw her purse into the cart and wedged her child into the basket. The little girl, a towhead, promptly kicked her mother in the stomach. “Jesus H. Christ!” screamed the mother. The more the blond woman screamed, the more the kid smiled.

Meanwhile the five of them started walking up and down the rows, dumping favorite foods into the cart. Bosco for Harry. Malomars for Gladys. The little girl was directly ahead. She grabbed a can while her mother wasn’t looking then threw it on the floor. She lunged for the bottom peanut butter and upended a pyramid of tuna. Wherever  she went, she left a wake of disaster. The loudspeaker trailed her from row to row.

Spill in aisle two! Spill in aisle two!

“Killed!  Is someone killed?” asked Charlie. He stood up straight and tugged at his shirt, popping the buttons.

Spill in aisle two! Spill in aisle two!

Then he threw his hands over his head and shouted, “Up! Up! And Away!”

Luz quickly pulled Charlie aside. She stroked his arm as she spoke. “Do you see a telephone booth? I don’t see a telephone booth. Superman can’t change without a telephone booth, can he?”

“Ry-Krisps!” blurted Gladys. “We can’t forget the Ry-Krisps!”

By now Harry was leading the others. Gazing up and down the shelves, he turned the corner into the condiments section. Mayonnaise. Pickles. Mustard. The child was in front of him, her mother talking on her cell phone. In a flash, the little girl seized a bottle of ketchup and aimed it straight at his head.  He forgot he was seventy-five years old. He forgot about his tricky knee and the gout in his big left toe. Instead he tried to leap out of harm’s way.

A minute later the loudspeakers blared again.

Is the party responsible for a Harry Weinstein available? Is there a party responsible for Harry Weinstein?

It took almost two months for Harry to recuperate from his broken hip. Two weeks in the hospital were followed by six weeks in the rehab center. When he returned to The Home, things had changed. His tuba still sat in the garage, its brass lovingly shined by Luz. But Charlie, he was told, had died peacefully in his sleep. The black cat had found a new best friend. It would wrap itself around Gladys’ ankle like a mink cuff, purr.

Gladys was thinner, her voice lower. The part in her hair as wide as a skunk’s stripe. While Harry had gotten softer, his breasts rounder, his hands more womanly, Gladys was sprouting whiskers on her chin. It was as if they both sprinted from different starting blocks only to end up at the same place.

Neighbors still peopled the sidewalks daily. Someone had stuck a corn pipe in the gorilla’s mouth. Two men played dominoes on folding tables. At least once a day an abuela knocked on Luz’s door and asked about the oompah music. Sometimes they asked about the old man but mostly they missed the music.

It was hard now for Harry to enfold himself in the tuba. His legs were stiff, his hip nailed and cobbled together. The accident accelerated a process that had been creeping forward. No longer could his arthritic fingers pump the valves. Even the mouthpiece seemed too large, as if his mouth had shrunken. Luz bought him a CD player. Instead of playing, he listened.

Though his body was frail, his senses never betrayed him. He watched Luz and Sam as they dropped pills into little cups, as they doled out pureed dinners, as they paid their bills. Propped on the living room couch, his head pivoted right and left. On his head, tufts of hair stood straight out. His eyes seem huge behind his thick glasses. What he couldn’t see from side to side the large bay window reflected behind him. He missed nothing. Whispers. Finger points. The two of them plotting like conspirators in the hallways.

“I’m going to the party store,” said Luz. “We’re having a party for Gladys.”

It was April. Harry could have sworn Gladys’ birthday was in June.

Gladys’ eyes lit up. Her hands pawed the air. “I like vanilla cake. With roses. Pink roses.”

“Repent now!” squawked the parrot. “Or you’re going straight to hell!”

A hour later Luz was back, her arms lugging three large plastic bags. From one, she fished out heart-shaped paper plates. The other two held tanks of helium. She served macaroni and cheese for dinner that night, and for dessert, a vanilla cake. A balloon screaming Congratulations!!! was tied to the old woman’s chair. They sang “Happy Birthday” and “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and the next morning Gladys was dead.

Harry pressed his fingers to his wrist. He looked himself up and down, accessing the inventory. People who seemed fine one minute, well, maybe not exactly fine, were being scooped up by the ambulance the next. And that cat! As soon as Gladys was gone, the cat started lingering by Harry’s feet. It followed him to the bathroom. It tried to jump on his bed.

The day of the funeral Harry decided to wrest control of his fate. He begged to stay home.

“I’ll listen to my music,” he told Luz. He positioned himself on the couch and fed the CD into the machine’s mouth. “Sousa, today,” he told her. “Today I’ll listen to Sousa.”

Luz was picking up Sam at the clinic. As usual she was in a hurry. “We’ll just be gone an hour or two,” said Luz. “Tops.”

As soon as Harry heard the van leave, he grabbed the couch cushion, leaned forward and backward to gain momentum, and hoisted himself up. Then he walked to the steps and carefully appraised them. One by one, holding tight to the handrail, he managed his way up.

When he opened the door to Luz’s room, he had no idea what he would find. It was dark as night with just a sliver of yellow slicing the floor. He swiped at clouds of dust motes. On her dresser stood a three-legged dog with stiffened fur and bared teeth. And next to it was a gray cat, its tail straight out, its eyes glassy. Both were dead and both were stuffed.

Next he hobbled to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Bottles of Nembutal were lined up with the veterinary label still on them. A canister of helium sat unopened next to the sink.

Harry swallowed his panic. Then he stumbled toward the hallway, palming the walls, listening for the rumble of the van. Any minute it would pull into the driveway. His heart started pounding like a fist.

He had divorced his wife years ago. What was her name? They never had children. If only there had been children! He had left his business in questionable hands. Maybe he should have worked harder! Longer!  Where did the time go? Had there ever been enough?  

In seconds his life was compressed into a series of snapshots. The university marching band. A bridal canopy. A funeral with empty seats. Panting, sweating, counting the breaths as his chest moved in and out, he faced the stairs.

He just had to make it to the front door. The old ladies with their folding chairs and their sticky pastries and their little cups of coffee would surely help him. He grabbed the handrail, lifted his foot and watched it lower itself to the first step. Then another. Outside children were playing, dogs were barking, the boom boom boom of a car stereo drew nearer. Eight more steps. Seven more steps. He visualized his hand on the door knob, the grasp of the cold metal, a cone of light filling the room. If he closed his eyes, the sounds of a tuba marched along with his heartbeat. Six more steps. Five more steps.

He never saw the cat. A moving patch of darkness, one moment it was on the landing and the next it was under his foot.

A few weeks later, the oompah music resumed. A few elderly men played dominoes on the sidewalk. The abuelas leafed through their magazines and sipped their drinks. A handful of children ran up to the gorilla, took one look, and turned around. But no one questioned the figure in the garage. At least not yet.

As usual, the door was opened. A man sat with a tuba in his lap. Tufts of hair sprang out of his head.  His hands were frozen to the valves. His face expressionless. And somewhere in the shadows, behind the lawnmower and the shovels, was a CD player, its volume turned high, its voice shouting up to the clouds.

Marlene Olin’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Prime Number, Upstreet Magazine, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award.

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