It was late on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of January, and April was still in her nightgown and slipper-socks, her hair snarled from sleeplessness. She’d spent the day hunched over her computer, scouring the Internet for books, holistic remedies, or anything aimed at curing anger, irritability, and/or insomnia. She stumbled across a book called Are You Mad? written by a Dr. Syng Kwaak. She found the title intriguing, but was quickly annoyed. The opening chapter had the caption Forty, Fired and Frightened, and when she read that Dr. Kwaak’s first case study ––Alfred P. –– got a new job, a wife, and complete happiness after three months of therapy, she clicked off the site in disgust. Nothing was true.
It had been a tough year. As a result of the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, she’d lost her job at the registrar’s office, and that was hard, but at least in that regard she felt connected to the great pile of fired people. April imagined that a day might come when the unemployed would be required to report to a designated spot –– somewhere central, like the middle of Minnesota –– under the guise of collecting benefits, but instead they’d be burned in a great national bonfire. She imagined how it would be reported on CNN. The story would probably run a hundred times. She could see the smoke twirling up into the sky, and Wolf Blitzer asking an eager young reporter from a small affiliate station what burning flesh smelled like, and if people were saddened.
April had a fair amount of confounding personal issues. Her brother, Storge, wasn’t speaking to her but never quite said why, which April found so despicably clever because whenever her mind rested for even a moment, her thoughts would compulsively dart around to wondering why her brother was mad, and so it was, she supposed, a way for them to maintain a sort of closeness.
Thoughts of her brother eventually led to the nagging worries about her elderly father who lived alone in a retirement condo in Sandy Sunriver, Utah. April had gotten it into her head that her dad really should have one of those I’ve fallen and I can’t get up devices, but her father vehemently objected, which was enraging to April. Often when she hung up the phone after one of their conversations, she had the vague feeling that she’d been yelling at her seventy-five year old father –– and what kind of a louse does that?
The topper, though, was the breakup with Simon Dester, her boyfriend of six years, who before the final door slam, referred to their relationship as dead meat, leaving April reeling. The phrase dead meat stuck to her like tape, and continued to initiate short, but violent, crying jags.
April had a dog –– a small speckled mutt with one green and one blue eye –– and he was curled up on the couch when the doorbell rang. Doodle exploded with barking, flew off the couch, and ran to the front hall. April could barely hear the voice on the other side of the door say, “It’s me. Bob.”
“Oh, jeez, hold on, I have to pull the dog back, Bob.” She dragged Doodle away from the door by her collar. The dog’s two front legs were bobbing up and down as if it were playing the piano. April pointed toward the living room, and Doodle tore over to the rug and sat upright, shivering with excitement.
When April finally opened the door, good old Bob was leaning up against the wall in his button-less, tattered winter coat. Its lining was ripped and hanging below the hem. His eyebrows were thick and fuzzy, as if a gray and black caterpillar slept above each eye, and his white hair was matted down with what looked like Elmer’s glue. In order to hold up his khakis, his belt was pulled high around his waist. He looked thinner than usual. A brown paper bag from Food Town rattled like a drum skin from the incessant shaking of his left hand. He tried to take his coat off, and nearly fell over.
“Sorry to bother you,” he wheezed.
“No, it’s okay,” she said, and as she helped him with his coat, she was appalled by the thought that crossed her mind –– what would it be like to let him fall down onto the floor?
“My oven won’t light, can you come up and try to light it for me?” said Bob.
“Well…I’m in my nightgown,” April said, trying in vain to straighten out her hair. “Look, come in and have a seat, while I throw on a robe.”
Bob shuffled in, unsteady on his feet. The smell of urine filled the room.
“You’re so kind,” he said. Bob’s voice was like a whisper.
“Nah, not really,” she muttered, and led him by the elbow to a chair at the dining room table. Bob sat with a thud. Doodle came over, and after nosing Bob between the legs, lost interest, and sauntered back to the rug for a nap.
“Where’s your husband?” asked Bob, rubbing his leaky nose.
“I don’t have a husband, remember?” Bob probably had her confused with Elsa in 5F. She and Elsa had the same green coat. For all April knew, Bob went around ringing doorbells on every floor until someone opened up.
“What’s in your bag?” she asked, buttoning her nightgown, when she realized one of her breasts was exposed. Something about the combination of Bob and her breast made her feel awful, worse than she should.
“Dinner. It’s a Swanson’s Frozen. Meatloaf and peas. Won’t be able to cook it without an oven.”
April bit her lip, and sighed, “Do you want me to heat it up for you? “
“That would be nice.”
She grabbed her robe –– roughly –– from where it was hanging on a nail in the closet, as if whatever was happening was the robe’s fault. She went into the kitchen, popped the frozen meal into the microwave, and poured some apple juice, setting it on the table before him.
“Got a straw?” Bob asked. April made a face to the wall, for all his feebleness, there was something very demanding about Bob. “You’re still in your pajamas,” he said. “Are you sick?”
“No, I’m not sick,” she said, but she was irritated, and she couldn’t bear it, as this was exactly the type of thing she’d been looking up a cure for. She put some silverware in front of him, and slipped a straw into his glass. “Can you help me with my sock?” asked Bob.
He shook his foot until his shoe fell off, and April could see that a thin gray sock was not pulled over his heel.
She got down on her knees, and again the smell of urine blasted her. She lifted Bob’s warm flaky foot into her hands and tried to pull his sock up to his ankle. “No wonder, this sock is too small for your foot.”
“Musta shrunk,” he said. “Hey, don’t you do nothing all day?” he asked.
“I got laid off, Bob,” she said.
“Oh, well…it happens.” He shrugged, looking around the apartment. After a moment he said, “Your husband’s a nice guy.”
“Right,” she said. April went into the kitchen and squirted soap onto her hands, scrubbing off the residue of Bob’s sock and foot. The microwave dinged and she took out the Swanson’s, peeled the foil top off, and set the sizzling tin of food and a paper napkin down in front of him.
Bob’s swollen fingers were impossible for him to straighten, and his hands shook comically, as the silverware clinked all over his plate. April felt bad. “Would you like me to cut the meat, Bob?”
“Yes, you’re very kind.” Bob sat patiently, as if he was seated at a fine French restaurant. He’d even put the napkin in his collar.
She cut the square of beef into tiny pieces, and pushed his dinner back in front of him, hoping that she herself would never have to eat a Swanson’s Frozen, which smelled to her like dog food.
“Got a spoon?” he asked.
April marveled at his nerve. She flashed on the many things she wanted and couldn’t ask for, like just the other day, when she was at a bank function –– some kind of check account opening promotion –– and they were serving fudge cake. She wasn’t exactly opening a checking account, but she had kept a small savings account at the bank for quite some time. Still, she had stood by the coffee cups, watching woman after woman take a white plate of cake from the nice waiter in the red vest. She wanted a piece but never stepped up, and she went home –– still wanting –– only to buy a box of sugar dusted donuts at the corner store. The Korean man at the cash register had smiled and wagged his finger at her saying, “You addicted.”
April noticed that even with a spoon Bob couldn’t scoop up the peas, so she stood up over him and fed him his dinner, as if he were a toddler, waiting for him to swallow before she raised another spoonful to his mouth. “You’re a good neighbor,” he said, which made her want to scream. She lifted the glass of apple juice and let his lips catch the straw. Heat began to spit up from the radiator across the room, and they fell silent as it clunked and clanked against the slow, steady ticking of the clock.
Outside her apartment window, the light in the sky was dying over Manhattan and a streak of orange cloud spread far beyond the skyline. April was caught by surprise. The sinking sun, the end of the winter day, and just Bob himself, came down on her in a splendor she did not anticipate. She felt her eyes fill, and had the thought that this was all there was, and all that there would ever be. April slid into her existence, like a chunk of a mountain that falls into the sea. She saw, felt, and actually was –– absolutely nothing –– and for the first time in months, she felt okay. But the moment passed, her tears dried, and she began to wish that Bob would hurry up. When the meal was done, they sat in silence, but the beast of irritation quickly stirred in her again.
“I don’t mean to rush you, but I should get myself dressed before it’s time for bed,” April said, attempting a joke. As Bob stood to leave, he fell back down onto the chair, “God!” said April, as she rushed to help him up.
“God?” said Bob, looking around as if he expected to see someone, and then he added, “My best to your husband, I’ve always liked him.”
“No, no husband,” she said sharply, but he paid her no mind. As she opened the door he paused for a moment and with just the hint of a smile, he said, “You know I’m dying, right?” Their eyes met, briefly. April said, “Oh, come on, Bob, you’ll outlast the whole building, I’m sure.” “No,” he said, and then, again, “I’m dying, and you’ll die too someday, so I guess that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” He laughed a little.
And with that she decided to walk him back to his apartment. “Come on, Doodle,” she said, and the dog was up in a flash.
“You’re very kind,” he said.
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” said April. She took him by the elbow, and they walked slowly to the stairwell. Each step was an enormous strain for Bob; his body shook with effort. They had many stairs to climb, and she held Bob’s elbow tightly as his foot found each step. April could feel the dog brushing up against the side of her leg, and the three of them rose as one entity. When they stopped to rest on the third stair, Bob was breathing hard, and he issued a loud trumpeting fart. “Huh,” he whispered, “Almost there.”
“We’re doing good,” said April. The stairwell filled up with his stink, and the three of them continued on, in silence, upward.