Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Approach to the City (7)

It was nearing dusk as he descended the steps into the city, and in the distance he could see the first scattered lights coming on across the river. A storm moved through and thundered briefly, leaving the paving-stones damp and the air thick as rising steam before moving off to the north. Except for a few stragglers everyone seemed to be having dinner, either at home or behind the windows of the restaurants along the plaza. He wasn't hungry, though, and he wanted to make it back to the street of red bricked houses before nightfall.

There was a light on in the front window this time, and when he rang the bell he heard the shuffling of shoe leather in addition to the alarms of the dog. A tall, withered man just over the cusp of old age answered the door, holding a newspaper in one hand, and ushered him in. He brushed the cocker spaniel aside and nodded at the advertisement. As he led his visitor up the winding stairway he explained that he was a widower with no children, and that the room was more than he needed now. The rent was low and he implied without quite saying so that he wanted someone to be there to watch out for him. He was gentle and soft-spoken and seemed unlikely to meddle; for its part the spaniel soon lost interest in the newcomer and retired.

The room was large and open and the walls bare. There were windows on two sides, one pair looking up the hill and the other over the rooftops to the water. They were open a few inches at the bottom and the breeze was lifting the bottom of the thin white curtains. The wooden floor had recently been swept clean, there was a bed and a dresser and a rocking chair, and a small bathroom with a freestanding tub lay off to one side; the man said there was another chair and a nightstand that he could bring up from the basement. A large porcelain lamp on the dresser, topped with a faded but clean and intact shade with a fringe along the edges, gave evidence of a woman's taste, he thought, and he wondered how long the wife had been gone.

They shook on it. He offered a month in advance but the man said not to worry. As he went to go back downstairs he turned and ask if he'd eaten, then invited him for a sandwich when he learned he hadn't. He left him to settle in, which didn't take long. He hung up his coat, unpacked a few things, washed his hands, and lay on the bed for a moment to test it out, which he hadn't thought of doing before. It seemed adequate so he got up and descended to join his landlord.

The dog was sleeping behind the front door and barely lifted its head as he stepped past. He could see now by its muzzle that it was old, as advanced in its term of years as the man. There was a platter of cold meat on the table and a jar of horseradish. He took two slices of bread from a paper package, fixed the sandwich, and finally, at his host's urging, helped himself to a bottle of beer from the refrigerator.

The old man was sitting in an arm chair turned away from the window, a pile of newspapers in a basket by his side. He had been doing a crossword puzzle but set it aside and turned his attention to the sandwich in his lap. His tenant sat across from him on the couch, setting his plate on the low wooden table in front of him, and the two men ate, mostly in silence but entirely at ease, as the darkness filled up the streets around them.

(The above is the last section, for now, of what may become an ongoing project.)

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