By Robin Messing
Featured Art: (Untitled–Group of Flowers) by Mary Vaux Walcott
They couldn’t part with things, so in the end, they lived with everything. Two toaster ovens, two coffee makers, two waffle irons, two sets of dishes, two couches, two coffee tables, two beds. Their former spouses would not have tolerated it. But together, something different happened.
Ben toasted an English muffin in his toaster oven, and Sophie toasted a piece of leftover challah in hers. Ben poured coffee from the percolator pot that his former wife, Edna, had bought decades before at a hardware store on Avenue J. Sophie brewed coffee in a Mr. Coffee pot that her former husband, Sam, had purchased after their glass percolator pot, slippery with soap, splintered in the sink when Sophie dropped it.
Sam died first, four years earlier. Six months later, Edna passed, both from cancer. Two years ago, Sophie and Ben married—a small ceremony in a shul on Coney Island Avenue.
“I’m worried about her,” Sophie said. She pushed stray white hairs off her forehead with a transparent hand tattooed by a trellis of raised veins.
“Who?” said Ben, holding the toaster oven over the sink as he pulled the trap door and brushed out the crumbs.
“Talia. Upstairs,” she said.
“You get too involved with people,” Ben said, shaking the metal contraption, its cord dangling and hitting the lower cabinet.
Ever since Sophie dropped the charges against the boy who stole her purse, Ben often accused her of too much sympathy.
Sophie didn’t respond at first, instead continued to sip coffee from the cup that was part of her set of dishes.
“I can see it in her eyes. That marriage is never going to last. She doesn’t know it yet.”
“What are you, a fortune teller?”
Ben placed his toaster oven on the counter next to Sophie’s toaster oven. There were so many appliances on the long counter that Ben had bought a power strip to accommodate the electrical cords. He plugged his oven in the one empty socket.
“It’s a woman’s intuition,” Sophie said.
“You shouldn’t say anything.”
“Of course I won’t say anything. But if she ever asks—”
“If she ever asks what?” Ben said, pouring coffee from his coffee maker.
“If she ever asks for advice,” Sophie wet two fingers with spit and pulled back the stubborn hairs that sprang from her temple, “I’ll give it.”
It was Sunday, and Sophie and Ben spent an hour reading the newspaper. Ben gathered the Business section, the City section, and the Magazine. Sophie read the front-page headlines, and then moved on to Arts and Leisure. She liked to keep up with the theater, and she often attended Wednesday matinees with friends. Ben didn’t care for plays, as he had difficulty hearing, and because of it, he often fell asleep. One time, he awakened from a dream, shouting. Sophie had pinched Ben’s arm to quiet him, and he’d glared at her and slumped in his seat for the remainder of the show. It was an embarrassment Sophie hoped never to suffer again.
“I think I’ll walk with you today,” Sophie said.
Ben had been taking a daily walk on his doctor’s advice ever since he’d gotten a pacemaker implant. Ben didn’t like doctors much, but the pacemaker frightened him enough to think a little extra walking couldn’t hurt. Sometimes Sophie accompanied him, and sometimes she used the time to call her sister. She didn’t feel comfortable isolating herself in the bedroom with the door closed when Ben was in the house. She wasn’t accustomed to that. She hadn’t had the need for much privacy from Sam, who was often lost in his books. But Ben liked to put- ter and fix and eavesdrop. After the phone call, he might put in his two cents, which Sophie didn’t like. But she had a difficult time telling him.
It was a bit of a production to leave the house because Ben liked to close the windows and attach the wires of the security system. The living room windows faced the front porch, and an intruder could easily enter the apartment when they were out. Although Sophie countered that it was the middle of the day and they wouldn’t be gone for long, Ben insisted and Sophie deferred. She waited on the porch in her white cardigan and walking shoes. She could see Ben’s trembling fingers connecting the plastic ends of the alarm wires through the sheer curtains.
It was the end of summer and an unusually cool day. They lived on a two-way street in the heart of Brooklyn, shaded by plane trees and oaks so large that their massive branches met across the street’s divide. Sophie held onto the iron rail- ing as she descended the porch steps, and Ben was right behind her, surveying the barren flowerbeds. Neither of them had the physical ability to keep up the garden, and on their fixed incomes, there wasn’t a budget for a gardener. But the grass came back each year, and Ben could still mow the small plot.
They walked toward Ocean Avenue as Sophie linked her arm inside Ben’s. Tall and hunched, Ben was a step ahead of Sophie, so that her arm was almost outstretched. There was a bumpy, halting rhythm to their walk. Even so, Sophie found it soothing. She was trying to make a habit of noting what she was grateful for rather than complain, even if it was only to herself. She could complain about Sam’s death or her deteriorating knees. She could complain about car alarms going off in the middle of the night or the rude girl at the supermarket checkout that snapped at Sophie when she asked to go over the sales receipt. She couldn’t afford to be overcharged, and the right price was her due. There was no end to what a person could complain about. Instead, she made note of the trees, still green, standing through time. But her next thought was the memory of the young couple that had been killed when one of the magnificent trees fell and crushed them as they walked their dog after Hurricane Sandy, horrifying the neighborhood. Sophie and Ben had walked the three blocks to the site of the tragedy two days later. Much of the tree had been sawed into firewood and carted away. Photographs of the couple appeared in the local and national papers, and the images of their young, bright faces came to her sometimes right before sleep.
Ben steered them onto East 16th Street toward the post office; his stamp reserve was low. He paid their bills by postal delivery, and kept track of the due dates in a pocket calendar. At the small writing desk in the living room, he filled out the checks, stamped and sealed the envelopes. The second writing desk in the spare bedroom had been Sam’s, and Sophie used it to write an occasional letter to her grandchildren in California. When she sat at the desk, Sophie smelled the pipe tobacco Sam had kept in a pouch in one of the desk drawers. The pouch was gone, but the comforting scent remained. At Sophie’s request, he’d only smoked on the porch, never in the house, yet his clothes reeked—pungent and earthy sweet.
Sam’s shirts, slacks and suits still hung on one side of the louvered bedroom closet. Her children had tried to convince her to give them away to one of the thrift stores on the Upper East Side that raised money for diseases: heart, cancer, AIDS. But Sophie had refused. Ben didn’t seem to mind, and he hung his shirts and slacks in the second bedroom. Ben had held onto Edna’s clothes, too, in their two-bedroom apartment three blocks away. Soon before he moved into Sophie’s place, Ben’s nephew called Goodwill. Two men took all of Edna’s clothes, shoes, hats, and handbags. Ben insisted on keeping the costume jewelry encased in three silk-covered boxes atop the dresser in the second bedroom. Sophie was tempted to look inside the boxes when Ben was out on a walk. But she prided herself on the fact that she never did.
The two postal clerks ensconced behind bullet-proof Plexiglas were visible through the storefront’s plate glass window. The office was empty of customers, the two workers seated on stools, chatting. Sophie couldn’t pin down when the change began. Some of it crept up on her like age spots. The big shift came when the Towers fell—subway and bridge surveillance, metal detectors, armed military at Grand Central and Penn Stations. When she was a young woman, postal clerks didn’t work behind shields. They greeted you in the open, behind a wooden façade.
Sophie released Ben’s arm, and leaned against the postal box just outside the entrance door. Isn’t the light beautiful? It reflected off a little black girl’s patent leather shoes as she held her mother’s hand. It brought to mind the many black mothers in the neighborhood that dressed their children with care, in beautiful clothes, like this little girl in a starched pink dress with white anklets and shiny shoes. Sophie hadn’t taken the time to iron her children’s clothes at that age. She was lucky to get them dressed and bathed, to clean the house and cook three meals a day. She remembered that the boy who took her handbag came to court with his mother. He wore a starched white shirt and very white sneakers. How did the shirt stay so white? And the sneakers? Her white blouses developed yellow stains from hanging in the closet.
The boy had coughed throughout the morning as they waited for their case to be called. By lunch, she’d approached the mother to ask if they needed cough medicine. She paid for their meal, and they stopped at a pharmacy where she bought a bottle of Robitussin. By the time they reached the tenth floor, his coughing had stopped, and she’d decided to drop the charges. That was a year and a half ago. Where was that boy now?
Ben was on the street again, and they walked in silence, crossing Newkirk Avenue, a Q train on an outdoor track rumbling and screeching below. Instead of heading toward Foster Avenue, Ben turned right, back the way they’d come.
“Are we going back already?” Sophie said.
“I’m tired,” Ben said.
“Maybe you should get someone else to mow the lawn.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
As they walked, she looked at his profile, trying to gauge his state of health. Pale? More stooped? He was nearly bony now, no spring chicken, hearing fail- ing; but he was hardy.
“We can go out later, if you’re up to it,” she said. “You worry too much.”
She laced her arm through his, but she was careful not to lean. He took her hand with his opposite, so that they looked as if they were square dancing, his hand worn from years of woodworking. Stoic, a take-care-of-business man, he doled out affection modestly. It made her think that despite his critical nature, she was lucky to have him, and that it was foolish to wish, as she did now and then, that he could be more like Sam.
They reached Marlborough Road, and they crossed back over Newkirk, looking down the one-way street for cars that often speeded past the corner. The block association had petitioned for a stop sign. Sophie didn’t like to take any chances, so she waited until there were no cars for blocks before she crossed. Ben was more adventurous, scuttling across streets as cars came hurtling near. She thought he was too trusting of his own agility and the drivers’ attention.
On the far corner, in the glare of the sun, in front of the Duane Reade, girls were jumping Double Dutch, and a couple of boys were trying to jump in. Soon the summer would end, and she would miss the kids, the streets deserted during the day when schools opened. She didn’t see any neighbors as they walked down Marlborough, a wealthier, whiter block than the apartment house and shopping strip of Newkirk. Many of them were taking their last vacations through Labor Day. The porches were empty, and the cars gone from driveways.
“It’s quiet,” Sophie said.
“Let’s see if there’s a movie on television,” she said.
“It’s mostly crap,” Ben said.
“Remember, we saw that Indian movie last week? That was good.”
Ben nodded, though he’d had trouble reading the subtitles.
They turned onto their block, held in its lush shade. Sophie knew where the sidewalk buckled in front of the Brooks’ house, and she looked for it in advance. The neighbors had asked the family to have the street repaired. But it was an expensive job, and there were three children to take care of. She reminded Ben to lift his feet, and he said, “I know, I know.”
When they reached their house, Sophie said, “Maybe we should get one of the neighborhood kids to plant bulbs so we’ll have flowers next year.”
“Not sure how well they’ll do in the shade,” Ben said.
“Years ago, we had flowers,” she said. She and Sam had had a dog, and she was buried in front of the flowerbed. At the time, Sophie was shocked that Sam dug a hole in front of the house rather than in a more discreet spot in the back yard. But he’d pointed out that the dog had liked to sit at the window watching the activity of the street, and so it seemed fitting.
They climbed the four brick steps, Ben holding the rail, Sophie leaning on his arm. Years ago, the dog would have been barking, looking anxiously through the parted curtains at the front window, her tail an erratic rudder. By the time Sam and Sophie had reached their apartment door, they’d hear the dog scratch- ing.
Shouting struck Sophie and Ben as soon as Ben pushed open the second wooden entrance door. It ricocheted around the hallway, off the stenciled walls and the linoleum-covered staircase leading to the apartment above, immediately recognizable as Greg, Talia’s husband, his words moving in and out of intelligibility.
Sophie looked at Ben, eyebrows raised. Ben unlocked their door, and walked into the living room. Sophie lingered in the dark hallway, brightened only by a small stained-glass window.
In less than a minute, Ben walked back to the doorway. Sophie stood still, her right ear pitched toward the voices.
“It’s their business,” he said.
“He’s cursing,” Sophie said. “He called her an idiot.” She lowered her head.
“It’s their business,” Ben said. He walked back into their apartment, leaving the door ajar.
Sophie repeated the phrase to herself. It’s their business. But it didn’t take hold.
The young couple and their two-year-old son had moved in six months earlier. They’d been quiet and congenial, and Sophie had been grateful. Tenants were not always what they appeared at first. Sometimes Ben and Sophie heard the baby cry. But the couple seemed to have a way of soothing him, so it hadn’t ever lasted long.
An uneasy feeling had lingered, and Sophie hadn’t been able to put her finger on it. She thought about it in the fleeting moments she stood in the hall, listen- ing. The husband, Greg, had his charms. He was cordial and even jovial. But she’d watched how he’d behaved with his wife. He’d never looked at her as someone separate from his needs. She was sure he didn’t realize what a good mother Talia was, or how beautiful.
It’s their business.
Although there was a short period of silence, the husband’s shouting returned. Sophie heard Talia’s voice, faintly. She tried to determine which room they were in, and she decided it was the kitchen, to the left of the top landing.
Sophie didn’t consider herself brave or assertive. She didn’t like to speak in public. One on one, she was better. It was often difficult to say the things she knew she should. Mostly, she’d rather have peace than shake things up. She’d never had a daughter, and she hadn’t spent much time longing for one. She loved her two sons, who had Sam’s intelligence and gentle manners.
It was their business. She could see that.
Even so, she was compelled to mount the stairs, and Ben came back into the hall. She heard his steps, and she felt his gaze on her back.
“I know,” she said, over her shoulder. “I know what you think. But I’m going up.”
She had never countered his wishes so forcefully. She knew how different they were, and she had accommodated. She hadn’t wanted to ruin the little happiness they had.
The house was more than one hundred years old. The wooden steps creaked loudly. She reached the first landing, and turned. Ben stood below.
“Don’t do it,” he said.
Of this she was sure: he couldn’t tell her what to do. If she’d wanted to drop the charges on that boy, she’d drop the charges. If she wanted to go upstairs and tell that young man not to scream at his wife, she’d tell him. She’d taken care of her children, and now they were far away and in their own lives. Was there anything, at this point, that she could really do wrong?
“Come,” Ben said. “She didn’t ask for your advice.”
“I can see where she’s heading,” Sophie said.
Couldn’t he see it? It could be a long time before the young woman realized it.
“I want to save her from grief,” she said.
Her words had the power of a strong wind. Sophie reared back, teetered, grabbed the handrail. She laid the other palm on the neckline of her white twin set. The bright day didn’t permeate the shadowed hall, yet the muted reds and blues of the stained glass mottled her arms and face.
Then the shouting stopped.
Not a sound when Sam’s casket had sunk into the ground. She’d thought that silence would last forever, and that she’d be held captive in its empty world. But life was larger, and other things had happened.
Ben looked up at her, still.
“I don’t understand you sometimes,” she said. She glared down at Ben, the skin on his face taut and sunken toward the pulse of him. “I want to know you,” she said, thinking there’d never be time for that.
“Come down,” he said. “Here I am. What is there to know?”
Ben took the bannister, climbed two steps, stretched out his free hand. Sophie grasped it, and he helped her down as she took each stair one at a time like a toddler. Ben’s face was placid, accepting, beneath the rolls of his lids, open slits of blue iris. He does look tired.
“Let’s go in,” he said, and they shuffled together, releasing their hands to walk through the door.
“I’m going to sit with the paper,” Ben said, which meant he would begin to read in the recliner, but he would take his daily nap, the paper dropped on his chest like a large bib.
Sophie walked slowly to the kitchen to make tea, still unsteady, and instead of using her tarnished copper kettle, she filled Ben’s white Corning Ware pot, smaller but brighter with its blue corn flowers. She retrieved a cream-colored porcelain cup from Ben’s set of dishes, and set a Tetley bag inside it. She admired the gold rim around the top of the cup. Edna, she thought, had had good taste. She sat at the table, and waited for the steam to rise.
Robin Messing is a fiction writer, a poet, and a vocalist in the band Cornelius Eady and Rough Magic. In 2011, Drunken Boat magazine nominated her story “Drive-By” for a Pushcart Prize. The Permanent Press published her novel Serpent in the Garden of Dreams in 2008. Her poetry chapbook Holding Not Having was published in April 2015 by Kattywompus Press. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals including The Brooklyn Review, The Baltimore Jewish Times, The Sycamore Review, and Washington Square.
Originally published in Issue 19.