by Angelo Bosco
Hillary saw Frank sitting in half-shade, curled over himself, his pants the same faded green as the bench.
“Keep sitting like that,” she said, standing over him and wondering why she hadn’t walked past him, “and you’ll end up like a walking question mark someday.”
They walked along the river at an old-couple pace, Hillary holding the strap of her purse with two hands, letting go a stream of her latest predicaments and dilemmas. Should she go back to France in the fall — autumn, — to settle the business of her ex-boyfriend’s property? Was it too late to address a May problem in July? Should she go back to the salon and demand an adjustment and a refund? When she arrived home yesterday and looked at herself in the mirror, her hair didn’t look the same as it had earlier in the salon.
“It makes me think they have some kind of funhouse mirror, like slimming mirrors in fitting rooms. Everything looks grand until you get home. Then you’re too irritated and tired to bring it back.”
“It’s nice,” Frank said, wishing it were December. He looked up into the window of a townhouse, seeing someone switch on a tiny lamp. The small scene was a winter one, something inside a snow globe or an automaton village. The room looks chilly, he thought.
“Should I?” Hillary asked, a second time.
“I wouldn’t,” he said, not sure what it was he wouldn’t do, but uncomfortably certain that, he probably wouldn’t do anything.
Hillary stopped abruptly, having heard a whistle far behind, maybe from the other side of the river. She looked around, then directly up at Frank.
“And why shouldn’t I go back there and put out my palm and ask for — or tell — Gino to give me my money back? Because,” she said, her voice descending to a whisper, “you know what I really think? He did this to me purposefully. And he’s laughing at me as I walk around looking like a three-year-old who’s gotten her hands on a pair of scissors.”
Frank looked over Hillary’s fresh haircut and could find nothing wrong with it. Her hair, fine and chestnut-colored, cut so that it hung simply and lightly, looked no different than it had the last time he had seen her.
“He’s always telling me how beautiful my hair is while I’m sitting there in the chair, in his hands, literally,” Hillary said. “And how his wife, Nina, how her hair is so brittle because she dyes it so much. She’s a bleach-blonde-bronze—
“A triple-B,” Frank said, losing his smile.
“She tans, twice a day I think, if not more, and dyes her hair again just as it’s about to restore itself to the most beautiful honey color. Almost like mine. Sometimes she comes into the shop and sits in the vacant chair next to Gino’s. She just sits there and stares at him, chewing the inside of her cheek. You’d think she was watching him sculpt a slab of marble. Even when she’s not talking, her mouth is always going. She does coke, I think.”
Hillary stopped again, this time holding him by the wrist, squeezing with her thumb and forefinger. “And you know what he does? Casually, making sure right from the start that the chair is set low enough — even though it’s so low that he has to bend like a contortionist to make a snip — he rubs his package against my shoulder. He does.
Frank noticed how boney Hillary’s shoulders were.
“And like a bird on a perch,” she continued, “he leaves his cock and balls resting there, as he stands, posed, holding the comb in one hand and the scissors in the other, looking into the mirror at himself, squawking about Nina this and Nina that — and sometimes she’s standing right there in the back. And all I can do is sit there feeling half-violated, wondering to myself if Nina also bleaches her pubic hair, or if Gino does that for her too. Probably in the shop.”
“But you go back there,” Frank said, pulling his wrist away.
“Yes,” Hillary said. She laughed at herself. “He usually does a decent job.” She looked up at the sun and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “A lot of people compliment me and ask me where I have my hair done. I’ve brought him a lot of business over the last couple years.”
“I moved,” Frank said, quickly.
“Finally.” Hillary said, grabbing his elbow. “I’m proud of you.”
When Hillary and Frank had dated, a recurring argument had been Frank’s apartment, a few small rooms near the ballpark he was sharing with two students in their fifth and sixth years studying physical therapy and a fifty-five-year-old divorcee who slept on a cot in the galley kitchen. “I can’t keep seeing you in that place. It smells like dirty frying pans. And your housemates undress me with their eyes,” Hillary had said. “And I don’t like going to the bathroom when I need a glass of water. A person should be able to go to the kitchen for a glass of water.” So Frank and Hillary had stopped seeing each other, after one night she had gone into the kitchen for a drink and never returned to bed.
“Where are you now?” she asked.
“It’s the top floor of a three-family close to the airport.” Without looking at her he knew she was disappointed with what she could only imagine to be a step down.
“All by yourself?” she asked.
“Yes and no,” Frank said and forced a laugh.
“Gino owns property over there,” she said. “Four houses, all triple-deckers, and a building in Salem that he rents to a tarot reader. Imagine what he brings in. And then he Raggedy Ann’s my hair and accepts my tip, kissing me on both my right and left cheeks.”
They wandered into the restaurant on the corner. Hillary ordered a bowl of seafood couscous and a glass of merlot. Making an apologetic, sour face and explaining to the waitress he had no appetite, Frank sipped at a glass of water. He savored it, stopping the ice with his teeth, letting only the water flow slowly under his tongue, while Hillary tore up tiny pieces of bread, rolling them into dough balls, and leaving the results in the center of the table.
“It’s bigger than the old place, with a back porch and a view of the skyline. There’s a church with a confused steeple bell next door and an old abandoned factory on the other side, so it’s quiet, at least. There’s not enough light, though.”
“Nice,” said Hillary, “you deserve it,” a shrimp suspended in the delicate and proper pinch of her left hand. “What about rats?” she asked.
“Gino told me about rat problems over there in a couple of his properties. Not regular little mice. Water rats, I think. Monsters. He said one of the Colombian families left in the middle of the night. They found one in the playpen with their infant. It had taken the pacifier right from the poor kid’s mouth. They had bedbugs, too. But that must’ve been the least of their problems. Nina says it’s not up to the landlord to do anything about rats. It’s the city’s fault. Does the landlord live in the building? Good neighbors?” Hillary rolled her eyes and examined something stuck to the side of her bowl.
“A friend of the owner lives on the first floor. She thinks she runs everything. You should see her. Maria. She has a fat pug, named Linda.”
“You should invite me over. You know how much I love puppies. I’ll bring Le Bon Boucher and we’ll sit on the porch with the view
“I don’t know if I can,” said Frank.
“You sound like a child.” Hillary said. She put down her spoon and slid her glass of wine aside, her napkin up on the table, on top of her bowl.
“When I went to look at the place, Maria had to show me the first floor apartment. She claimed it wasn’t much different from the third, aside from lacking a bedroom. And the pug followed us around, barking at me and biting at my shoelaces. She shit on the floor, and Maria didn’t even stop to pick it up.”
“Whoa!” said Hillary. She laughed, and spread her hands out wide on the table. Her face shaded red. She clinked the glass stem with her fingernails, making a high-pitched child’s rhythm.
This was how Frank liked Hillary, when she forgot her hair.
As he looked into Hillary’s face, he noticed the crooked line in her haircut. Not a fashionable jaggedness in the bangs or a left side longer than the right, but a lack of balance that made her seem a little out of focus. Frank held back a laugh. He sipped at the empty glass of water.
“The thing is,” he said, “I never ended up seeing the apartment before I signed the lease.” He felt adventurous in saying it.
Hillary gasped and drank down the last sip of wine. Frank ordered her another and a beer for himself, stuttering to the waitress and feeling half-real, forgetting that he hadn’t any money on him.
“When we leave here, I’m serious, we should walk over to the salon. I want to get this over and done with, so I can sleep tonight.”
“The day I moved in, Maria was sitting on the front steps drinking an iced coffee. She yelled at me from across the street that my bed was delivered the day before and that she had the men leave it in the hallway at the foot of the stairs, leaning up against the wall, and I need to move it up first thing because it’s in the way.
“Frankie. Please tell me the place isn’t a dump. I mean, there wasn’t dog shit all over the place when you finally got up there?”
“No. I got the keys from Maria. She gives me two keys, one for the third floor, one for the back then she says, she’s has the key to the cellar, but there’s no reason she can think of for me to go down there.”
“It reminds me of when I got home from Vassar and rented my great aunt Hilda’s place. You want to talk about under lock and key? She told me I had to be in before ten, because that was when she locked the foyer door.”
Frank continued, “So I moved the box-spring and mattress and everything upstairs alone, pushing and pulling it through the dark hallway.
“The delivery guys should’ve done it,” Hillary said. She looked up from the table and into Frank’s eyes.
Hillary couldn’t imagine Frank moving the bed alone. It wasn’t that he wasn’t strong enough but Frank was lazy. He could lie in a bed all day and night, and often did, It must have been a disaster, Hillary thought, knowing that he had stopped to rest on each individual step along the way. She looked at him accusingly, having forgotten what she was blaming him for. And she noticed that Frank had a face that was easy to blame. It wasn’t that he looked guilty, but if he had been more handsome, he might be more easily forgiven.
“Anyway, the apartment door’s unlocked, and I tell myself thank God, because that’s one less thing to do. Then I figure out there’s no lights, the electricity’s off. So I push and drag the bed through the doorway, through the grey living room and into the bedroom. On the way, I knock over this little cabinet filled with knick-knacks. I let the mattress fall crossways over the box-spring in the bedroom, and then collapse face-down on the bare bed.”
“They left a curio behind?”
“I’m there on the bed, not sure which side is the foot, which end is the head. And I’m looking, upside down, into the living room, and it’s full of stuff, and decorated. The only thing I could make out clearly was the end of a couch all gouged up by a cat, lumpy rugs, a foot-stool and a console TV with two smaller TVs sitting on top. And there’s a foggy portrait of an old couple in one of those gold oval frames.”
“What did you do?”
Frank wiped beer off his lip with his wrist. “I fell asleep. I put myself to sleep wondering what it smelled like in there. Raw eggs and bar-soap.” He laughed again, letting his forehead fall onto the tabletop–a gesture not his own that made the room spin–and when he sat back up he saw the look on Hillary’s face–flat, two- dimensional, like she was holding something down.
“The last few times I moved, I left things behind, on purpose,” she said. “Nothing big. You know, little gifts for the new tenants. Once, at the place on Haverhill Street, I left behind a whole set of chinaware that belonged to my mother’s half-sister. Only one teacup was missing.”
“I was so exhausted,” he said, “I didn’t even care. I thought about going back downstairs to ask Maria about the lights and all the furniture, but when I woke up, it was late and the streetlight was bright in my face. I could hear footsteps out on the stairway, a long pause on the landing, then a parade of high-heels up to the third floor.”
Hillary stood up and made her way crookedly through the empty tables to the bathroom, leaving Frank twirling a napkin. He remembered as he lay there on the mattress that he hadn’t locked the door behind him when he came in. He had counted the footsteps, distinguishing four feet, then eight, then legions tapping their way on the metal-edged steps toward him.
Hillary sat back down in her chair. “There is a bidet in the bathroom. They have a bidet,” she said. She looked at the couple settling at the table by the window.
“That’s how I want my hair,” Hillary said, indicating the woman with her eyes. “See how it falls down her back like a cascade? It almost makes you sad when you look at it, the light reflecting off the black. See it?”
Frank couldn’t swallow. Something like an overfilled water balloon dangled in his throat.
An older woman sitting at a far table yelled something to the busboy, and he went to a dimmer-switch to adjust the lighting. Frank wondered where he was from and watched as he moved around the restaurant in small circles.
“Pardon me.” Hillary reached out toward the boy as he passed the table. “You wouldn’t mind putting the lights back down a little bit?” She turned back to Frank, “Have you cleaned up your curio mess? I know. You’d be content to go on living with a naked bed in an apartment with no electricity.”
“I did clean up the curio. At one o’clock in the morning, to be precise, by kerosene lamplight,” said Frank. “Gracie, Louise and Dotty made me.”
“Who?” She fished in her purse with one arm up to the elbow.
“Really it was just Gracie and Louise. Because Dotty is sort of sweet — and I think she’s probably mildly retarded. But she did help clean up the mess.”
“You’re living in a rooming house?” Hillary popped open a tin of mints and shook a few onto her tongue.
“I heard the key in the lock, then an old lady screaming that Dotty had left the door unlocked again. But it was me. She was swearing, probably even raising a hand over Dotty. She’s the smallest of the three of them. Then, boom, the door swings open, the knob hits the wall, and the sandy voice is screaming like she walked in on a corpse. She’s yelling full-tilt over the curio cabinet. ‘I told you this would happen,” she yelled. ‘You left the door open and they robbed us. Look at what they did to my nauticals.’
“Dotty was on all fours in the broken glass, holding an oil lamp, combing over broken lighthouses and clipper-ship models, miniature sailors and fishermen with the faces worn away, mouths open wide, like they were challenging a tidal wave. And the other two, Gracie and Louise, are each holding their own lamps, standing over little Dotty, until they see me. Gracie grunts and says, ‘He’s here.’”
“While I helped Dottie pick up the glass, Gracie continued, spitting orders out in spearmint-coffee breath, “And knock before go into the bathroom and when you’re finished picking up this mess, take it out to the blue barrel in the alleyway. And Dottie look for Sadie.’”
Frank thought about when he finally stood in the dark alley, leaning low on the church wall with the smell of garbage thick in the air. He went back upstairs and decided he would never go back down, he’d rather triple-bag the trash and toss it out the window. He found Dotty scuffing around the apartment, hunched over and whistling toward the floor, under the couch, into the closets and cabinets, calling for Sadie.
There was nothing left to do but help look for Sadie, expecting to find a fourth woman, significantly shorter, tinier than a dwarf, miniature like one of the ceramic sailormen. In the kitchen, he found two stoves, two refrigerators, two sinks – his and theirs. Everything his and theirs.
“There are two ovens in the kitchen. And two sinks,” Frank said.
“Who is Sadie?”
She touched her lipstick tube to her mouth, peering into a tiny mirror, and looked twice more as if she’d discovered something new about a piece of her face.
As Hillary looked at herself, Gracie’s declaration echoed in Frank’s head. He’s here. He knew then he would stay in the new apartment, the place that wasn’t his. Dark and cluttered with valueless glass, dust balls and the smoke of seventy-plus years of card game cigarettes stuck in the wallpaper. He had arrived someplace where, though dreaded, he was expected. He fit there, lying on a bed in somebody else’s room.
Hillary yawned and let out a long breath. “The answer seems obvious,” she said. “Move. Report the landlord. Do something, Frank.”
She stood up, pulled loose bills from her purse like pillow stuffing and dropped her share of the check on the table. She combed her fingers through her bangs. “You should have your head examined, Frankie. Sometimes I don’t even know where you come from.”
Hillary left Frank at the restaurant and headed toward the salon, remembering on the way that by now Gino was already closed. She walked along the street, intent on her reflection in the storefront windows. She decided that tomorrow after having her hair touched up, she might take a look at Frank’s new place. She knew she would find him somewhere between a dysfunctional church and a defunct factory, if only to see it from the street. Stand across the way and see four silhouettes, moving around each other in dullness. The thought of it made Hillary tired.