Saturday, January 27, 2018

THIS WEEK: A Moment of Danger and Grace *New Story*

A new story for a chilly winter, this week . . .

One More Night
by Judith Cullen
© 2018

It was freezing cold, and the windows rattled as the wind ricocheted down the street, bouncing off every house and shaking every tree.  Freezing was not an exaggeration.  This was the American Mid-west at winter's height, and Dee only had to get within a few feet of any window to feel the deep chill.  In her little apartment, a few feet from any window didn't leave much of a warm zone.  Still, it was warmer in here than outside.  She rummaged through the small cupboard and the old fridge for soup makings, listening to the rock and roll of the wind.

When she'd come here for graduate school, she had chosen not to live on campus.  Dee was ready to be independent.  She'd come over 2000 miles to make an everyday adult life of her own, while she studied.  It hadn't worked out like she'd hoped.  Her "convenience" apartment was only slightly larger than her dorm room had been in undergraduate school. The convenience, Dee mused, was that you weren't more than a few steps from anything.  You had to go outside to change your mind, she liked to joke.

Her two small rooms were perched atop a rambling two story Victorian. She was 39 steps from the street: 22 concrete steps to the capacious porch; and another 17 up the steep, dark wood stairway whose treads creaked if you just looked at them. It had originally been a duplex that would have generously accommodated a two growing families. Dee had suspected that her two rooms had once been one room, probably used for a nursery. The house had been carved up into a rabbit warren of apartments, all generally small with cobbled in appliances.  She shared the landing with another apartment, now vacant, that was really two small bedrooms and a sitting room that had once been at the top of a rear staircase.  Both apartments shared a bathroom, along with a small platoon of cockroaches.  Dee had taken to turning the bathroom light on and greeting the roaches with a forced warmth, "Hi guys!" It gave them time to scuttle away before she stepped inside.

Still, it had not been a total loss, the time she had spent here since arriving in August.  She'd met some great people, both on and off campus.  She managed to craft a small, reasonably civilized life out of this strange land she'd found herself in.  Dee would eventually leave without her degree, realizing at about the same time as the faculty did, that this was not the place or the school for her. 

But this night these insights were months away.  Glad that the new neighbors below her did not seem to worry about their utility bills, cranking their heat up enough to help keep her own space warm, she'd indulged and slept-in this morning. Cleaning the kitchen and the small room that contained her bed, a worktable, a dresser, and a recliner had taken no time at all.  She'd finished her class work, and read for a while, listened to music, and found herself listless at 1am.  She wasn't sleepy.  So she thought about making soup.

She heard the porch door bang, and assumed it was caught in the wind.  Carefully lighting the gas on the stove, an operation that had terrified her when she'd first done it, her kettle was set to boil for tea. Contemplating the next to the last packet of Ramen Noodles in the cupboard, she was considering using it as a base to build a pot of soup on when she heard the sound of someone on the steps coming up to the landing. Her landing.  The landing 39 steps from the street. Dee froze where she was, glad that her radio/tape player was turned off.  She closed her eyes and tried not to breathe or make a sound, like a chased cat pretending it is invisible.  Who would be coming all the way up here at this time of night, and what could they possibly want?

There was a knock at the door. Dee stayed where she was, silent and wary. Maybe whomever it was would go away.

There was another knock, and in her mind Dee heard it reverberate all the way down those 17 dark stairs to the first floor.  Didn't the people on the first floor hear it?  Why didn't they come out and see who it was?  The TV blared with a late night program, as usual.  It was doubtful they could hear anyone on the stairs, much less anything going on at the upper landing.  Dee held her breath.

The door banged again, and she realized whomever it was knew there was someone here. Pretending she was not here wasn't working.  "Don't be stupid" her brain roared at her as she turned down the heat on the kettle and stepped around the corner to open the door and see who it was.

He seemed very tall and very dark.  His deep ebony skin and black leather clothes blended in with the shadows on the landing.  Muttering, "do you have a phone I can use?" he looked from the door jamb, to her, and back to the jamb.  Dee wasn't sure what to do, but the politeness she was raised with took over and said, "yes" before she could stop it.  She stepped back and invited him in, gesturing nervously to the small rotary dial phone on the end of her dresser.  He nodded gratefully, stepped inside, and picked up the receiver and began dialing.

Dee kept the door open, conscious that there was only one way to escape if her current fears were realized.  She was overwhelmed by the sense that this was a dangerous moment, and she was hyper conscious of every movement he made as he dialed number after number on the phone, apparently getting no answer.  She felt her muscles poised for something. She wasn't sure what. If he attacked her, could she fight back and defend herself?  How?  If she ran, would she be fast enough to get away from him?  Would the people in the apartment below come to her aid if she screamed?

This moment was rapidly ascending her mental list of the most foolish things she had ever done. It was one more frightening experience in a six months that had been full of scary firsts: the woman who had been living in the apartment across the landing, when she'd moved in, being thrown physically down the staircase by her abusive husband Labor Day weekend; facing down the boyfriend of the next tenant of that apartment and insisting that no, his Playboy centerfolds plastered all over the landing and bathroom were not appropriate common space "art"; the two weeks sleeping in the recliner with walking pneumonia in a cold, near empty house, afraid to lay down and begin a choking cough again.  This moment topped all of those.

As she scolded herself, Dee started noticing things about her late night visitor.  He wasn't as big as she first thought he'd been.  He was dressed like Michael Jackson, but not quite.  His black shoes were not real leather, and they were worn almost to the point of being worn out.  His white socks had holes that even she could see, and were not of a pair.  His leather pants and jacket were decorated all over with zippers, most of which were broken.  On top of all of that, he was shaking. He really wasn't dressed to be out in wind-chill freezing weather.

She released her death grip on the door knob, and tried to make her throat relax enough to speak coherently.  "Would you like a cup of tea?  Maybe your friends will be home in a little while. You could try again."

He turned and looked at her, startled as if he had forgotten she was standing there. "Tea?" he asked, like the word was foreign.

"Yes, tea.  Would you like some? I just had the kettle on."

"Uh, sure," he muttered, and she closed the door, showing him to one of two chairs at the small table in her tiny kitchen.  He fumbled with his sleeves and the failed zippers on his pant legs as she put the tea things together. 

"Sugar?" she asked. He looked up at her in amazement, but said nothing.  "I would offer you milk for the tea, but I don't have any," she apologized, smiling weakly.

"No, that's okay," he replied, his voice soft and tentative, not as deep and threatening as she imagined it would be, "I like sugar though, lots of sugar."

Dee poured the tea and thought as she stirred in three generous spoons full.  There was something odd about the way he had responded about the sugar.  What was it?  She watched the spoon go around and around as the sugar dissolved into the rich, brown depths of the tea.  As she tapped the spoon absently on the rim of the mug she realized, he answered like someone who was hungry.

Handing him the mug, she smiled, her fear taking a back seat for the moment.  He clutched the mug in his hands, putting it up to his face and letting the steam warm his cheeks and nose.

Dee got a saucepan out, the largest of the three she owned, filled it at the sink to a satisfying level and put it on the stove to boil.  She opened the refrigerator and rummaged for vegetables: two potatoes, a carrot, half a turnip, an onion, and glory be there was garlic.  There was some take-out chicken she'd brought home from a gathering of other grad students.  She added that to the small, growing pile on the counter.  Something green.  She needed something green.  Oh yes!  There was half a packet of frozen cut green beans in the freezer from last week's soup.  That would do nicely. 

"I was about to make some soup," she said, "would you like some?"

He took another careful sip of tea, and nodded, "Yes, ma'am, please."

She laughed, not as nervously as she would have ten minutes ago.  "'Ma'am' is my mother.  You can just call me 'Dee'."

His smile in response was genuine.

She began peel, cut, and chop, adding things to the water as it roiled in the pan at a pleasant simmer.  She took her only fry pan and sautéed the onion, garlic and chicken together, before adding it to the saucepan of emerging soup.

He seemed to relax when she poured him another mug of tea, heavily fortified with sugar. 

"I just came in on the bus, and I seem to have missed my friends at the depot.  They must have gotten the time wrong," he said.  "or the day, maybe."

He lapsed back into his tea.  The TV downstairs had gone quiet. Dee wondered why she hadn't noticed before.  She nodded to her radio, sitting on the small cabinet beyond the table.  "Why don't you turn on some music?  Not too loud though, there are kids sleeping downstairs."  He fiddled with the dials until he found a top 40 pop station with Michael singing "Don't Let It Get You Down," setting the volume loud enough for them to enjoy it, but not so loud that it would bother the neighbors.

She reached for the Ramen Noodles on the counter, the soup almost being done.  Without a second thought, she opened the cupboard and took out the other package and added both to the soup: noodles, flavor packets, and some extra water.  Now the saucepan was full of bubbling soup.  She turned the heat down and put a lid loosely on the pan, pouring herself a mug of tea.

The radio continued to play, as they both quietly sipped. He broke the silence with an elaborate explanation of just how he'd ended up at her door well after midnight.  Dee listened, not judging him and accepting that he felt the need to explain.  She remained keenly aware of the room, where the door was, of him.  But it was less like fight or flight now. It was more like a heightened state of awareness, a new and detailed level of seeing things: sounds were more precise, colors slightly brighter, and every moment seemed to have a crisp edge to it, like a poster print. She was aware of every square inch of her tiny apartment: the furniture she had scavenged, the small collection of books and tapes, the bright gingham cafe curtains Mom had sewn and sent from home for the kitchen windows, the little two foot Christmas tree that she'd bought and decorated with an odd assortment of ornaments and decorations, making the short bookcase it sat on "Christmas Central."

She served up the soup, and sliced him a generous piece of bread from the last loaf she had baked.  He ate with a ravenous restraint, as if he wanted to savor every spoonful yet had to stop himself from gobbling the whole thing in seconds.  Between swallows he continued his story of missed connections and friends who had made promises. 

At 2:30 she offered him another bowl of soup, and redirected their talk to music, and the radio. They continued for hours: spurts of careful conversation punctuating long stretches of radio-accompanied quiet, and more tea.  They neither of them said too much specific about themselves.  It remained the conversation of strangers, like two people who share a bench in an airport between arrivals and departures: a measured, temporary discourse of irrelevancies and unimportant details.

She was about to serve him up the last of the soup as dawn was approaching. "No Miss, you need to save that for yourself.  I've had enough."  She nodded, scooping the soup into a plastic container and putting it in the fridge.  She reached for the last of the bread and ripped the piece in two, handing him half.

"It's time to bake a new loaf anyhow."

He accepted the bread with a nod, and ate it thoughtfully before finishing the last of his tea.

"Miss, I need to tell you the truth.  There are no friends and I didn't come in on the bus."

She said nothing, but let him continue.

"My family kicked me out, and I have been living on the street for two weeks."

She nodded.

"Last night I slept in the hallway of an apartment building.  Honest. I just came up here looking for someplace to get out of the cold.  I thought maybe there was an empty apartment or something and I could crawl in for the night."

His face was painted with apology, and she wondered why.

"When I saw your light on, I don't know why, I just knocked."

They watched each other for a long moment, as if there was something incomplete waiting for resolution in the air.

Finally she said with a quiet warmth, "It's okay. You don't owe me anything. Not even an explanation."

He smiled, understanding that she didn't care how or why he had ended up cold and shivering at her door on a freezing December night. That he was there, and that he needed what little she had to offer, was enough.

"I'm sorry.  You can't stay here. I don't have anything else to offer you."

"I know," he said quickly, "One more night.  I got through one more night."

After a moment, where he seemed to wrestle with more to say, he settled for, "Thank you."

She moved to the door, and he followed her, stepping through when she opened it. He opened his mouth to say "goodbye" when she raised her hand and stopped him.  "Hang on a moment."

She stepped over to "Christmas Central" and reached deep into the stocking her family had sent her from home, her hand fishing around.  She pulled her arm out and returned to the door, handing him a shiny red apple. 

"Here," she said, "this is better than the apples you get around here.  Take it." She grabbed his arm and folded the apple into his hand.

"The church I go to is just one block over and one block down, Trinity," she pointed in the direction, "The office is in the building behind the church. They should be there around 9am and they might be able to help you. I am sure they will."

He nodded, tucking the apple in his pocket, taking his leave.  He paused as he turned to go down the 17 stairs that lead to the 22 stairs to the street.  He looked at her for a long moment.  Then he left.

Dee did not know his name, and she never saw him again. Years later this brief encounter remained clear in her mind, with the same heightened clarity that she experienced it. For her, it would always be one of the most frightening events of her life, and one of the ones most full of grace.

No comments:

Post a Comment