Monday, March 09, 2009

Without a ghost (conclusion)

She motioned to the waitress for the handwritten bill, then folded a ten and a couple of singles neatly under her empty coffee cup. As she passed the register the cashier looked up from counting the change in her till long enough to say thanks hon, good night and she smiled back and barely above a whisper said good night in return. She hunched up the collar of her coat a little and descended the stairs. The metal door handle was cold to the touch; as she stepped outside she saw that it had begun to rain, a chill, fine drizzle blown by an insistent breeze that was coming from the direction of the river. A Checker cab, yellow and black, rumbled towards her like a monstrous hornet. The driver slowed to cast a look at her, angling for a fare, but she ignored him. As her umbrella opened with a satisfying snap she began to walk.

Her apartment was one block east, two and a half blocks down. The few storefronts in the neighborhood — the liquor store, card shop, and beauty salon — were barred tight, and the empty sidewalks beneath the brownstones, glazed by the rain, gave back a pale reflection of the streetlamps. As she came to a corner the traffic lights flicked from red to green, but nothing moved. She turned onto her block, past cast-iron railings adorned with spheres and spikes, and located her keys in her coat pocket as she climbed the steps. The glass door shuddered as she swung it open, and shuddered again when she shut it behind her. There was a checkerboard pattern on the tiled floor, now smeared with wet footprints, and a bank of weathered bronze mailboxes. Seeing some letters tucked in her box, she popped open the lock with her key and withdrew one phone bill, one handbill from a local laundry, and two handwritten letters, one of them much thicker than the other. She noted the return addresses quickly and tucked them into her pocket, then began to climb the stairs.

At the third-floor landing she wiped her feet on the mat and unlocked the door, which was stiff and had needed planing since the last time it was painted. The light from the hall barely penetrated the darkness of her apartment, until she struck the switch at her right hand and the single overhead lamp came on. She stepped past the closet and her bedroom on her left and the entrance to her living room on her right, and went directly to her bathroom, where she stepped out of her shoes, rested the umbrella inside the tub, and hung her coat on a hook behind the door, retrieving her letters from the pocket before she left the room. She heard the cat, a languid orange tabby of indeterminate age, drop to the floor from his habitual sleeping-place on her bed. A moment later he emerged, groggily, and sat watching her, passing a moistened paw over one ear and shaking his head against an itch. When she spoke to him he stood and rubbed against her ankle, arching his back, but the effort seemed to exhaust him and he sat again and did not follow her as she moved towards the darkness of the kitchen.

She left the kitchen lights off for a moment and went to the window to pull up the heavy venetian blinds. Her apartment faced the rear and there was little to see in daytime, even less at that hour. Somewhere, along the harbor, a construction derrick towered, surmounted by a row of red lights that winked through the night and the haze to ward off planes. They were tearing down a cargo terminal, she knew; she had walked as far as the water one day to see the fragile skeleton that was all that remained. When it was gone, she imagined, nothing would take its place, and the harborside would slowly take on the appearance of an old man with failing teeth. The river would flow on, unconcerned, and carry away all memory.

She poured out what remained of the cat's water, which she had left for him in a china bowl decorated with a circle of blue flowers, rinsed it, filled it again, and set it down on the floor. When she poured out his food, into an identical container, he joined her, now suddenly come to life, and began to eat, crunching and purring at once, until he had consumed enough for the moment and left the rest for later. He found her in the living room, sitting on the couch, her feet propped on a stool, wine glass beneath the table lamp beside her, as she began to read her mail.

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