by Mrs Fringe
The leather of your wingtip gleamed in the lamplight, while thick damp air clung to the pollen stuck in the perforations.
A cool mist kissed against your cheeks. The kisses of after-school cookies with knights and damsels and castle chips.
“Hello, Charles.” Your neighbor’s voice cut through the fog and startled you.
A good thing because you slipped, so the sharp missile hurled from inside the carriage missed your eye. A narrow but lethal spike thwoked just so against your forehead. You blinked tears and then blood, but caught the red-soled shoe before it landed on the wet sidewalk, next to a slimy string hanging from the step.
“Goddamned prick!” The strident tones of your date seemed to gather substance when they met the fog.
“Hi.” You gave a little half wave to your neighbor Levi, to let him know you’d join him in a minute.
So sweet when she opened the gift earlier in the evening, said she was glad she had gotten a pedicure yesterday. When you helped her into the carriage, her ankles were delicate under a voluptuous figure. Some real va- va-voom. As the evening wore on, she grew thicker, looser and lower, until you worried the stilettos would snap beneath her heft.
She had droned from the bar through dessert. Independence, law school, ten-year plan, children. You should have brought her the sensible shoes your mother refused to wear.
Levi asked if you needed a Kleenex, but didn’t move from his stoop. No, you had a handkerchief in your pocket. A gentleman always does.
You turned to the carriage driver, palmed an extra fifty into his hand for his patience. Sure you had already paid and tipped him earlier, but it never hurt to promote good will amongst the hacks.
“Where am I dropping her off, Mr. C? I’m not deaf, I heard her say Queens. You know I’m not taking the carriage over the bridge. If I wanted to—which I don’t, the ASPCA would turn me into dog food.”
You were annoyed earlier, when he switched his stained satin top hat for a Yankees cap, but by now you’re glad. One less thing for her to ruin, and you just wanted both of them gone before the horse shit in front of your house. Too late.
“Drop her off by Columbus Circle, Joe.”
You turned the satin pump over and looked at the sole. If it wasn’t scratched, maybe you could bring them back for a refund. The other shoe landed in a puddle next to you, crystals caught the light and laughed at your thought and your expense.
The driver hesitated, maybe he was afraid to get up on the driver’s seat with only the banshee behind him. Maybe he expected a bigger tip.
“You sure you don’t want me to take you across the park?” He twisted the brim of his cap, tried to keep it low on his head but maintain the pretense of meeting your eyes.
Joe had driven for you before. A few times. A lot of times. He knew the routine. If you got lucky, you and your date were dropped off here, at your place. If not, you took the carriage across to your mother’s apartment on the east side, gave her a thrill and a ride. The rehab center wasn’t going to let her out for a carriage ride at this hour, you asked earlier.
Midnight? Almost midnight when you’d arrive? Mr. Carrera, we don’t have enough staff working at this hour to try to get your mother ready for a visit now. Her voice got rougher when you explained from the men’s room in the lounge. You heard the hint of summers in Puerto Rico bounce off the urinals into the cell phone, so you turned to the more forgiving wooden stall. Your mother’s pelvis is broken, she can’t go gallivanting over potholes behind a horse.
By the time you left the restaurant with your date there was a rat sitting on top of the wheel having a smoke, little paw cool around the filter while his nose twitched. So he went into the carriage instead of on his way, big deal. A ride with Joe was nicer than scurrying along flooded subway tracks.
A delivery guy pedaled past on his bike, and the unmistakable scent of bacon swirled around, the horse caught it too. Lifted its head against the weight of a ragged feather plume. You wondered if horses eat meat, and knew you should know. For all the money you’ve spent on it, this horse should have been dining on filet mignon.
“And take these flowers, too. It stinks in here. Fucking funeral lilies with chewed up stems. What kind of man gives a woman lilies on a date? Some prince, you got no class.” Her voice pealed on like out of sync church bells at noon.
You turned away as they drove off, laid down the blanket that had recently covered your date’s lap and sat on your stoop, shoes and flower petals stacked at your side.
Levi had a small cooler next to him. “Want a beer?” Every sentence, every question punctuated at the end by the hiss-splat of sunflower seed shells hitting the ground.
You wished he would go back to smoking, and you wanted another vodka martini. In bed, with three olives magnified by smooth glass. The windows behind you were shut tight against the forecast of rain, and you knew your apartment still reeked of sweaty onions, from your pre-dinner dinner.
“Sure,” you said. “Thanks,” as he passed the brown glass bottle. He told you what it was, but you didn’t pay attention. Your neighbor brewed his own, a retirement hobby that sometimes left the whole block smelling of hops. Not bad, really. You slept well on those nights.
“What are you going to do when they ban those horse and buggy setups in the city? Switch to a limo?”
You shuddered, at the acrid brew and the image of a post-prom limo rental.
“Ever think about trying pizza and a movie?” he said.
He was mocking you, but you couldn’t resist answering seriously. Too many nights spent out here talking to Levi after failed dates.
“So pedestrian.” You said it, and you knew it made you sound like an even bigger jerk-off than a guy who shells out two grand on a first date and doesn’t get the girl.
“Not a bad idea. Be a pedestrian, take a walk through the park. Those were some of me and Susan’s best dates, before we got married,” he said.
You didn’t take the bait this time. He was an old man, long out of the game. His grandchildren were teenagers already. Levi didn’t know about designer shoes and expectations. Romance in the twenty-first century.
“I don’t think they’ll really ban the buggies. They’re part of the New York experience. Don’t let Joe fool you. He looks like a pauper, but he’s making bank off those tourists, cleaning up in that park every day,” you said.
“Wish he’d clean up here before he left.” Levi looked at you, and then to the shadow of the rusted shovel next to the garbage bin in the alcove.
“I’ll clean it up, don’t worry,” you said. “No, they won’t ban them.” You’re too tired for a new routine.
“They might. I was reading about it in the paper, another accident, poor horse lying on the street with the carriage on top of him. Pitiful,” he said. “A lot of people in an uproar. You’re lucky Rhoda didn’t come out and see the delivery guy come so close to hitting that beast with his bicycle,” Levi said.
Bitter or not, you drank the beer. “She’s a busybody, her and her eight crippled pugs she drags around to patrol the block. I’d like to see Rhoda worry about the poor Mexican instead, riding that bike with bald tires in the rain, probably been working for 12 hours already.”
He didn’t answer, so you kept talking.
“You know I’m right. She’ll march her busybody heart out for the horses, but probably didn’t even tip that guy an extra buck for coming out in the rain.”
“You’re a real humanitarian, Charles.”
You shook your hair back, the heavy strands collecting rain and depositing drops in your eye. A thatch is caught in the blood drying above your brow.
“So what happened to your date?”
You shrugged, felt the weight of an empty bed and empty pockets. “I don’t know. I gave her a night to remember. She’s never going to find another guy who’ll treat her the way I would.”
“I have no doubt of that,” he said.
He could afford to be flip, with his still cute at 72-years-old wife snoring upstairs. Susan reminded you of your mom. Or the way she was ten years ago. Except, you know, happy. Mostly. Levi and Susan led everyone to believe theirs was a true love story. But you’ve heard them fighting through the wall. Heard her nagging him to clean up the spare rooms, because the kids were coming to visit. Some forever romance.
“She wasn’t right,” you said.
You felt the dampness of the steps of the brownstone seep through to your pants.
Women talked about it all the time, no one blinked. Sappy songs, movies, and books all dedicated to the one. The hero doesn’t even have to be human. But a man who said he wanted the same was a pussy. Well, then. You’re a pussy. One who knows the importance of being a gentleman.
“You’re a lucky man,” you said to him, not sure anymore what you did or didn’t believe.
“That I am. Suzie’s a good woman. No nonsense. Did a good job with our kids, too. I told you a million times, you needed someone like her.”
It was true, he had told you a million times. Not once did he notice you hadn’t asked for his advice on your love life.
“What do you mean, needed? I’m not done yet. Think how happy it’d make my mother, for me to find someone,” you said.
Levi didn’t answer, spat out five more shells in quick succession, same way he used to exhale the smoke from his cigarettes. Just the right amount of force to land clear of his belly and his running shoes.
“How’s your mom doing now, anyway? If I know her she’s tearing up the joint, ready to go home.”
“Not exactly,” you said. “She’s complaining, but still can’t move around much. Sharp, though. She told the doctor it’s just as well she broke her pelvis, since she doesn’t use it for anything else, anyway.” You laughed when the doctor asked if you’d seen other changes in her mood recently. That was no change, that was her humor. At least it wasn’t her hip. You’d seen plenty of statistics on older people dying after busting a hip. You decided right then to smuggle a Manhattan in to her the next day, a thermos filled with cherries, whiskey, bitters and sweet vermouth, just the way she liked it. A little sip, why deny her? In fact, you should bring her favorite dish, too. A fresh green sofrito was waiting in the refrigerator, might as well cook up some arroz con gandules.
She’s lost weight, between the hospital and the rehab center. Something she’s given you, the gift of standards. Better to starve than eat crappy food. Better to be alone than with someone who doesn’t make the angels sing.
You accept another beer. Experience has told you the second one is less bitter, but you still wished it were a martini. Martoonis, your mother used to call them. Ready for a little martooni while I take Manhattan? She’d wink and pat her hair, a shimmer of gray and white with just a hint of blue. And this was the kind of night where she’d call you and say let’s go have a cocktail, while she slipped on her little kitten heel shoes. I’ll be dead soon, I’m not going to let a little rain stop me from a good time—and maybe we’ll find you the one. One who sings, it’s open mic night at Unforgettables. You guess they aren’t giving her any Manhattans with her low sugar diet in the rehab center. The maraschino cherry alone would probably send the nurse running with an extra shot of insulin.
“I bet she’s complaining. She’s something else, your mother. Whooo! You should have heard her, waiting for the ambulance.”
You’ve heard this story at least six times in the past five weeks, but you’re grateful Levi happened to be passing when she fell, that he called you and stayed with her until they took her to the hospital. And he wasn’t so young himself.
“Never heard anything like it,” Levi said. “Lying in the middle of Broadway like she’s a queen giving orders from her throne. Sent the first ambulance on their way. No way, she didn’t want to go to the city hospital. You tell them I want an ambulance to take me to St. Luke’s. Downtown, not uptown. My son’s a doctor, I know where to go.”
Levi sucked on his bottle, a hollow pop echoed in the dark when his lips came off the rim. “The EMTs called it in, one says to the other one something about finding out where you work. I don’t hear so good anymore, you know. But your mother, she’s got ears like a fucking owl. Yo no soy Judìa! You know you don’t have to speak Spanish to understand what she’s saying. Shoulda seen the looks on the faces of the ladies she was with. Hah!” His laughter filled the spaces of the brownstones without respect for the darkness, under decorative carvings and between the iron gates.
You sighed. Again. This part of the story, that gave Levi so much glee with each telling, gave you the willies every damned time. You could well imagine the look on her friends’ faces. Former friends. From the Jewish senior center, because your mother believed they have the best lunches there. Not so different from those friends, though, who didn’t understand why it was important to her they remember she’s Puerto Rican, not Dominican or Mexican. She considered herself a modern woman, equal rights for all, and raised you as a single mother without a pause; but those old prejudices are in her veins. She never heard how things might sound to others. Or to you, as a child, warned to stay out of the sun and away from the beach so you wouldn’t get darker.
And the official call, that came from the right hospital’s emergency room, while you were already on your way downtown. Dr. Carrera? The explanation that you’re not a doctor, but a hospital administrator. Better hours, less stress, was how you explained it to your mother thirty years ago, trying to hide your relief when you didn’t get into a local medical school and went for your MBA instead.
All those mothers who wanted their daughters to marry doctors, to be doctors. No one appreciates the value of your work. Without your pencil pushing that hospital wouldn’t run, no supplies would be there for the surgeons to work. Humanitarians. Did they think the doctors and nurses would show up if you didn’t make sure they were paid? Figured out the insurance snares so patients could receive their tests and treatments?
Levi’s soggy shells seemed to migrate on their own to your steps, despite the low wall between the two houses. Your throat felt thick in the damp night air. It was the damn beer, mixing with spring pollen so your bronchial tubes were like slow draining pipes. You knew Levi wouldn’t hesitate to spit a loogie to the curb, honking his nose to herald the event. But you’re different.
The buzz of your cell phone robbed you of discretion, no way to speak clearly with this slimy lump in the way. A fat coqui frog jumped out of your mouth, glowed of citrine and pearls on the step below you. It gave one croak in your direction before it hopped off, out of your line of vision.
“Mr. Carrera? This is Darla Johnson, at the Rehab Center for Health and Healing. I’m sorry to have to tell you this.”