January 28, 2014

Literary LEO 2014

Short Fiction — 1st Place

The Old Man in 604
by Bryant A. Stamford

The day the old man moved into 604, the Mexican woman across the hall schooled him on life in the Benjamin Hancock housing project. Short and plump with big dark eyes, she spoke with a slight accent when she told him, don’t flush too often, they won’t come if it stops up. She recommended once a day at night. Then, she looked deeply into his blue eyes and told him there weren’t many like him living down there, and he would stand out like a scarecrow, a white scarecrow. She said it with a smile, but there was warning in her voice. He knew what she meant. He’d seen the looks and heard the comments, but what could he do? His choices were 604, bad as it was, or a cardboard box under the bridge.

Did he have a car? No. She told him the closest store was three blocks north. An old Jew owned it and it was open Sunday mornings. She paused and looked over her shoulder, then spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. Sunday mornings are best to avoid the red bandanas, the gang bangers. She shook her head firmly. They are very bad. Be sure you go early, no later than eight.

On this, his fifth day in 604, the old man sat by the window, gazing out, a faint reflection staring back at him as the sun dipped below Building H to the west. He studied the image, the gaunt face, sunken eyes, and recalled something his grandfather had said about life going by fast, so fast you go to bed one night a young man, then you wake up old. Silly, he thought when he heard it, he was just a boy, but now he understood. He propped up his bad leg on the ottoman and rubbed his knee. The other knee was bad, too, but this one was worse. Doctor said arthritis, take aspirin. He glanced at the empty aspirin bottle and rubbed some more.

He leaned forward, closer to his reflection. Before the day he woke up old, he was handsome, a proud man, uncompromising, a war hero with a Bronze Star from Korea, living life on his own terms. He had been a ladies’ man with more conquests than most, and a confirmed bachelor. That is, until he met her, his beloved Sarah. It was love at first sight, knocking him off his feet like a silly schoolboy, and he couldn’t wait to get her to the altar. They shared forty-two wonderful years, and through it all he’d change only one thing. There were no children. They never knew why, they just couldn’t. She died suddenly twelve years ago, and he still missed her, longed for her, especially in the evenings when they would share a glass of wine and talk, their special time together.

He eased back in his chair and looked around his new home, an efficiency they called it, the kitchen a hot plate, a bed that comes out of the wall. He frowned as night set in, knowing the boom boxes would soon begin pounding from the courtyard six floors below. He could never have imagined living in such a place, not until the bastards took his pension. They justified it with a lump-sum payoff. Lasted two years, and now all he had was a Social Security check. Not enough to live on, but somehow he was still alive.

Staring at the cracks in the ceiling, he sat there in silence as the room darkened, then lifted his bad leg down and pushed himself up. He took two stiff steps and chuckled to himself at the thought that he was entering his kitchen. He slipped the curtain aside, flicked on the light, and reached for the bottle in the cupboard above the sink. Evan Williams, the cheapest whiskey he could find. Taste didn’t matter. He poured a glass and set it and the bottle on the table beside his chair, then limped to the door and checked the deadbolt and chain again.

He settled back into his chair and sipped the whiskey slowly, knowing it was his last bottle, knowing he would have to wait until day after tomorrow, Sunday morning, to venture out for a new supply. It would be his first time out since he moved in. A three-block walk, a killer for his knees, but more, he dreaded what might be waiting for him out there, the red bandanas.

As he poured his second glass, he thought about his next check. It was nine days away. He pulled out his wallet and counted the cash. Barely enough, a stretch to buy whiskey and food. Might not be enough for food. Midway through his second glass, the effects began taking hold, a welcomed numbing of his senses. He leaned to his right and turned on the radio, one of the few things he brought with him from his former life. He tuned in the Pirates baseball game. Whiskey and ballgames, the only things that gave his life what little meaning it still had. By the bottom of the fifth inning, the boom boxes had started. He turned up the volume, finished the second glass and poured a third.

Late in the game with the Braves far ahead, he turned off the radio and downed his third glass. His eyes were heavy now, the blessing of whiskey easing the pain in his knees and making sleep possible. As the noise from the courtyard below died away, his chin fell to his chest, the only escape available to him embracing him for the moment.

The next morning, he awoke with a start. After trying the bed his first night and finding the mattress unfit for a human body, he had resigned himself to sleeping in the chair. He’d get used to it in time. He stretched and rubbed his eyes, then turned to the window, raindrops pelting the glass. He reached for the bottle. Half full. Thank God. He held the bottle for a long moment, tempted, then put it back on the table. Better to wait till tonight since it was all he had left.

Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on the door. It took his breath. He pushed up from his chair and limped cautiously, silently, to the door, remembering the other thing the Mexican woman had warned him about. If someone knocks, don’t answer. Ever. And be quiet and don’t let them know you’re in there. He peeked out through the hole. No one there. He waited, his heart racing, then peeked again. Whoever was there was gone. Probably just some kids banging on doors for the fun of it.

He turned and headed toward the bathroom, raised his arm and sniffed. Bad. He needed to clean up and change the clothes he had been wearing since he moved in. He sniffed again, then thought a moment. Who cares? He’d change tomorrow. He wet a comb and pulled it through his hair, what was left of it, then checked himself in the mirror. A week’s growth of snow white whiskers. He ran his fingers over his chin. Pretty rough. He’d shave tomorrow.

Saturday dragged until it was time for the ballgame that night. This time the Pirates won, and the old man fell asleep with a rare smile on his face. The next morning, Sunday morning, he awoke from a deep sleep, the best sleep he had had in days. He must be getting used to sleeping in the chair. What time was it? He squinted at the clock. After ten. Shit. The woman had warned him to go early if he went to the store, no later than eight. As he struggled out of his chair, he caught a whiff from his armpit. Too ripe to ignore any longer, but he had to hurry. He’d wash and put on a clean shirt when he got back.

He grabbed a piece of stale bread, slapped peanut butter on it, then limped out the door and down the narrow hallway to the elevator. He chewed and punched the button. It was slow and took a long time to reach the sixth floor. While waiting, the old man stepped away from the door, not knowing what might be behind it when it opened. Finally, it did, and he braced himself. The elevator was empty. With a sigh of relief, he got in and rode down to the first floor. When the door opened, he shot his eyes around the lobby. No one there. He checked again, then hurried as best he could out of the building.

He started down the deserted street. By the third block, his bad knee was throbbing. A few more painful steps and he saw the store up ahead, plywood in the windows. He walked in, took a hand basket and went up the first aisle. The prices were high, and it would take most of what he had for three bottles of whiskey, a loaf of bread, a jar of grape jelly, two apples and a bottle of aspirin. The owner, an old Jew in a skull cap, his eyes weary, never said a word as he put the precious items in a double paper bag.

The walk back was worse, carrying a load, both knees screaming at him. Limping badly, he stopped in the second block, put down his bag, opened the bottle of aspirin, took four and chewed them, then four more. He started again, thankful when his building came into view. He entered, went straight to the elevator and pressed the button.

From behind he heard a deep voice, loud and menacing. It startled him and he almost dropped his bag.

“Yo, you there.”

The elevator door opened and the old man pretended not to hear, stepping in.

“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.”

The old man kept his back turned, his heart in his throat. The voice came closer.

“Where you think you was goin’?”

The old man turned, saw the red bandana, the gang banger towering over him. “Ah ... up.” He looked away, and tried to steady his voice. “To my apartment.”

The elevator door started to close. The banger grabbed it and said, “Ain’t seen you ’round here before.”

“Just moved in last week.”

“What unit?”

“604.” Damn, he shouldn’t have said that.

The banger’s eyes narrowed like a cat with a mouse. “604, huh?” He said it as if recording it, then he leaned closer, one hand on the door, the other extended, palm up. “Two dollars, elevator fee.”

“Elevator fee? That’s ridiculous, the elevator’s free. I’m not ...” The old man saw the expression change, the banger meant business. Fear raced down the old man’s spine to his bladder, the urge to piss too strong to hold for long. “I’m sorry, but I can’t afford the fee.”

“That a fact?”

“It’s true, all I have is a Social Security check and it’s not ...”

“Yeah, yeah, boo-hoo.” The banger pointed across the lobby.

“The stairs?”

The banger nodded.

The old man took a breath and swallowed hard. Climbing all those stairs with his knees would be a nightmare, but it was better than paying two dollars. He limped from the elevator toward the stairs and took the first step.

“Yo, old man.” The banger came up behind him, a vicious grin on his face. “Forgot to mention the stair fee.”

The old man dropped his head. “How much?”

“Two dollars.”

The old man stepped down, limped back across the lobby, took out his wallet, removed two dollar bills and handed them over. “I’ll take the elevator.”

“Price gone up now. Five dollars.”

The old man shook his head. “I can’t. You don’t understand, I only get ...”

“Shut up, old man.” The banger wagged a finger in the old man’s face. “You pay, or you ain’t goin’ up. Simple as that.”

The old man carefully shifted the bag in his arms and took three more bills from his wallet. The banger snatched the bills, then reached for the bag. “Whachu got in there?” The old man held on for a moment, then gave it up. “Hmm, nice. Tell ya what. I’ll take this here whiskey as payment in advance for next time. You know, case I ain’t around.”

“No, please. Please, I ...”

“Be glad I let you keep the resta the shit what’s in here.” The banger hit the button and the elevator door opened. “Come on, I’ll take you up.” He pushed the old man from behind and pressed six.

The elevator jerked and groaned as it started up. They got off at six and walked down the hall, the banger in front. At 604, the banger held out his hand. “The key, Pops.”

The old man hesitated.

The banger snapped his fingers. “The key, and don’t you be makin’ me ask again.”

The old man pulled out his key and handed it over. The banger slipped it in the lock, opened the door and walked in. “Damn, smells almost bad as you.” The banger tucked the key into his pocket and walked around the small room. Then he stopped, like he remembered something, and took the bread, the jelly jar, apples and aspirin from the bag and set them carefully on the table. “There, now you can thank me.”

The old man cleared his throat. “Thank you.”

The banger folded the bag over the whiskey bottles and tucked it under his arm. “I see you got you a nice little radio here.”

The old man shrugged. “It’s just a cheap one. Had it forever.”

The banger picked up the radio. “Could use me a radio.” He jerked the cord from the socket.

“But, I ...”

“But you what?”

The old man felt dizzy and reached out for the wall.

The banger swaggered to the door.

“Wait. I’m sorry, I mean please wait.” The old man hated the sound of his voice, weak, pitiful. “You have my key.”

The banger turned and glared at him. “I’m gonna hol’ onto it. Be back in a little bit with some people gonna help you understand how it is here.” He grinned. “We just gettin’ started.” He opened the door. “Oh, and from now on, don’t be puttin’ no chain on the door.” He walked out and closed the door behind him.

The old man stood there a long time, trembling in anger and fear, tears in his eyes, thankful his wife couldn’t see him like this, an old coward, a shell of the man he once was.

After a while, he calmed his breathing and wiped the tears from his eyes. He went to the closet for his suitcase, bent down, opened it, unzipped a pocket and pulled out the Bronze Star and the Browning 9mm he had brought back from Korea. He set the medal aside, then loaded the gun, cocked it, sat and prayed The Lord’s Prayer. When he finished, he slipped his finger over the trigger and raised the gun.

Just then, he heard laughter outside his door. “Yo, old man, you in there? Got some people here wanna meetchu.”

The old man lowered the gun and shifted in his chair to face the door. He heard a key going into the lock. He raised the gun, two hands, Army style, and pointed it, his aim surprisingly steady, an old excitement he never thought he’d feel again stirring in his gut. “Yeah, I’m here.”