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It was his habit to cross Fordham Road for the paper, even though it put him opposite where he needed to be. Lowering his shoulders against the wet March wind, Francesco Albi—Frank to all but his wife—stepped into the wide street, breached its high crown, and, as if dropping along the face of a wave, let himself be carried to the cracked slate shore across from the elevated station.
In this, the third month of 1950, Frank felt acutely the tipping of the century, if not so much his own life, which had commenced with neither ceremony nor celebration two years before the turn of the previous. He made his way along the black iron posts lining the sidewalk: this was the tall fence ringing the university’s campus, the inside of which he’d never seen. There were old trees rooted behind the bars, and they hung their heavy branches out over Frank’s head. He knew he was on time if, after he’d made it halfway along the fence’s length, the chapel bells sounded eight a.m.
A woman walked toward him, clutching her hat against the wind. Frank touched the spotless brim of his fedora. There came a weak smile in return. He looked past her, but not before seeing the gloved right hand make its sneaking journey across her torso: forehead, breastbone, left shoulder, right shoulder. She was one of those, then. Superstitiously crossing herself as she passed the campus, which sprouted not just trees, he’d heard, but crucifixes, marble saints, and sky-blue virgins as well.
He waited until the woman was well behind him and spat. He stopped to watch it, yellowish-white as it clung to the fence, and when it started to slide down the black iron bar he went on to the newsstand, where he turned over the nickel he’d been palming in his pocket, slid a paper from beneath the battered brick atop the pile, and turned to cross back over Fordham Road to the elevated station. The headline shouted a murder. A gust of wind hit him in the face. A train rattled down from the huge cemetery up at Woodlawn, where he supposed they’d both be planted eventually, side by side. The chapel bells sounded. He still had time.
Because He Was Early
She was known as Il Cucina, and she inhabited a low-ceilinged, two-room apartment on the third floor of a Broome Street walkup slipped like a memory between a thread maker and a coffin factory. Frank mounted the tilting stairs, still familiar, as was the sound of water leaking down through the walls and the noise of fighting children. His visits had not been frequent, but over time they’d numbered enough to make him, he understood, a regular customer. When he’d moved his family from Manhattan to the Bronx, he thought the stray hours spent on Broome Street were the last thing he’d miss. But once settled in the large, airy apartment that housed the five of them comfortably, he lay awake sometimes at night, thinking about the narrow streets, these tilting stairs, and the low ceiling of Il Cucina’s bedroom.
She smiled from behind the chained door, a single dark eye shining like a brightly distant planet in the narrow gap. “Frank,” she said. She undid the chain and pulled the door open. “Business in the neighborhood?”
He didn’t answer her, but advanced into the small dwelling as if it were his own. The two-burner stove sat where it always had, against the wall on the other side of the black-and-white tiled floor. Scorched pans dangled from black nails. Set on a wobbling, scratched table barely large enough for two was a head of garlic the size of an orange, a long loaf of bread, a square-sided bottle of homemade wine blacker than blood. Il Cucina. Frank cleared some space for the flowers he’d brought from the stand outside. He slipped off his gloves and removed his hat. Undoing the buttons on his coat, he felt her hands come around him.
“Let me,” she said. Her fingers started at the lowest button, and slowly they worked their way up. “Always so well-dressed,” she whispered into his ear. He felt her breath and the weight of her lip. “Always flowers. Always such a gentleman, even after all this time.”
He awoke in her low-ceilinged bedroom alone. How much later he didn’t know; the gray day made it impossible to tell what time it was. His tie was draped over the back of a chair. He smelled food, and when he came out, Il Cucina was at the small stove. She looked around to face him, smiling.
“I think so.”
“Then sit.” She covered the pan and came to the table, wiping her hands on the apron folded over her short, flowered robe. “Frank,” she said. She looked down at him. “It’s good to see you, you know. So good, I can’t tell you.”
“You never have to make an appointment.”
“Everyone all right, then?” she asked. Inquisitiveness creased her face. “Your sons, your daughter?”
He nodded again.
“Your wife?” When he didn’t answer, she smiled. “Ah, well, I wouldn’t expect an answer for that. But you understand—she and I were friends, once. So, I ask.”
“It’s all right to ask,” he told her.
“Three times,” she said, shaking her head as if amazed. “You think I’m not going to ask, when you do three times? On a Tuesday morning? I don’t get that from the nineteen-year-olds who climb my stairs. So, I think that pretty wife of yours, my old friend, maybe has lost her interest. Or maybe you have lost yours in her?”
He shrugged. “Give me a cigarette, okay?”
She nodded toward a drawer with a slanted front. “You know where they are.”
He pulled open the drawer and found a half-empty box of Chesterfields. He wondered where they’d come from, thinking it probably wasn’t from the nineteen-year-olds she claimed to see. Il Cucina was not young anymore; she hadn’t been for many years. He looked at her through the thin swirl of smoke before his face, watching as she went back to the tiny stove. There was a sheaf of gray strands where she’d tied her hair at the base of her neck, and the backs of her thick legs, visible below the fallen hem of her short flowered robe, were laced in spidery blue veins. He felt something stir; he almost told her he could try for four, for the sake of it.
She came back to the table with a plate of steaming food. “Tomatoes with bacon and garlic.” She pointed. “Mix it up. I’m heating up the bread. Wine?”
He nodded, and she tilted the square-sided bottle over his glass. “Won’t you have some?” he asked, around a mouthful of the food.
She shrugged. “All right. Why not? It’s almost noon.” She poured a glass for herself, then slipped one of the Chesterfields from the pack. She sat down across from him and lit it. After a moment, she crossed her legs. Somewhere in the building, a child shouted, a sound both familiar and strange to him.
The Same as Always
With food in his stomach and another cigarette between his lips, he set out into the narrow, crowded blocks below Broome. There were fruit wagons and ice trucks, peddlers and shoppers, old drunks crouched in doorways, truant children pushing each other in carts made from wood scraps and bent pipe. He hadn’t missed this. Or the noise—the noise he felt in his bones, the noise that made the bricks and steel and iron doors of the buildings surrounding him shudder as if the earth itself was shaking.
Half-an-hour later, on Broadway, he fell in with the workers still out of their offices for lunch. He listened to the familiar talk around him, felt the warmth of the crowd and the soft press of heavy coats and smelled the mingled smells of perfume and cigarette smoke. So this is what it’s like on my day off, he thought—the same as always. It made him feel better; he welcomed it. It felt like the spring air he’d secretly been wishing for, and he basked in this constancy, the flow of life that he felt in the shuffling bodies around him.
He spread his palm over his heart. Beneath the layers of coat and suit jacket, the written request was folded neatly in the breast pocket of his shirt. He had stayed up late to write it, while his daughter cleaned up from dinner and his sons listened to the fights on the radio. Hunched over the kitchen table he had stared at the sheet of paper, touching the pen to its surface only when all of the words had formed themselves in his head. He had it with him in case he needed to read it, but he didn’t think it would be necessary. He had memorized it; he’d look like a fool if he actually had to take it out and read from it. But it was there, just in case.
Behind the Folded Paper
“Frank? What the hell brings you all the way down here on your day off?”
Mr. Pescatore welcomed him into the small, overheated office beneath the main floor of the cavernous marble bank. Frank had been here only twice before—once when he applied for the teller’s job, and then a couple of Christmases later, when Mr. Pescatore had invited him and three other men to share a secret bottle of Sambuca. “From the Bronx,” he shouted. “That’s a long trip to make on a day you don’t have to!”
Frank removed his hat, shed his coat, and took a seat. Mr. Pescatore offered a small, gold-colored case. “Cigarette?”
Behind the desk hung a picture of Mr. Pescatore shaking hands with the bank’s president at an employees’ banquet. Frank pulled a cigarette from the case and contemplated the photograph; the men stood in front of a potted palm, and Mr. Pescatore wore a look of what seemed like fright at being so close to the great executive, whose gleaming bald head and strong smile made him the living statue of an ancient hero.
“Mr. Pescatore,” Frank began, leaning forward. He lowered the cigarette to his side so the smoke wouldn’t come between them. “I come to you with a request.”
The other man squinted. “Why so formal, Frank? You’re not about to suggest we rob the vault, I hope.”
Frank’s hand went to his breast pocket. He saw the words on the page—each black-inked, painstakingly crafted letter appearing before him. “There comes a time in the life of a husband where he’s forced to confront difficulties,” he began. “When the most important duties and responsibilities as a family man are suddenly thrust upon him.”
Mr. Pescatore sat back in his chair.
“Such a moment I find myself in now,” Frank continued. He could feel his heart beating behind the folded paper; it was so strong he was sure it could be seen. “Though I always knew it might come, there are some who might say, looking upon my circumstances, that I could have prepared better. I say to them that I did all I could, and that for some events, no amount of planning is enough.”
Mr. Pescatore moved even farther back in his chair and waved his hand. “All right, all right. You’re killing me, here, Frank. I appreciate it, the respectful act. Why don’t you get to it and just tell me what you need?”
“It is difficult,” he said after a moment. He looked at the photo on the wall again. “I need more money. I’m willing to work for it.”
“Can’t do it.”
The answer was not as hard to bear as its suddenness. He thought he might not have heard right, except that the way Mr. Pescatore sat, with his arms barred across his chest, told him he had.
“Tuesdays,” Frank said. “Just Tuesdays. I don’t need the day off—and I could work after-hours, too, as much as you need me.”
“Mr. Pescatore,” Frank said. He licked his lips and felt the heat of the shrinking cigarette touch his fingers. “I have a need.”
“Frank.” He spread his hands. “All my employees have needs. You think you’re the only one who has to put food on the table? Who has a wife who likes to wear nice things?”
“Half-a-day,” Frank blurted. “Four hours.” He swallowed. “Three.”
He saw Mr. Pescatore studying him. “You that desperate, that half a day will make a difference?”
Frank returned the look, holding his eyes on those of this boss, this man who aside from his position in the bank was no different from him. If the circumstances were reversed, if the tables were turned—
“All right, Frank.” Mr. Pescatore nodded. “All right. I can see you won’t take no for an answer. And you’re a good worker, God knows. Not like some of the other paisani, eh? You can start next Tuesday. That all right?”
“I wish to express my thanks for your help.”
“Jesus, Frank.” Mr. Pescatore laughed. He pressed a palm to the gun-metal-color hair at his temples, first one side, then the other. “Cheer up. Would it kill you to smile now and then?”
What Drew the Crowd
A half-day—just a half-day’s worth of wages! In the bank’s enormous lobby he felt the thick folded paper in his shirt pocket rub against his chest, a chafing reminder of the wasted effort. For a moment he thought of returning to the underground office to explain the whole story. But the thought of it was like swallowing something he knew could kill him. He only wanted to work; why wasn’t that enough by itself?
Stepping outside and into a thick knot of people on the sidewalk, he tried to push his way through, using his elbows. Someone cursed at him. He took several more steps but then came up hard against the broad shoulders of a man who wouldn’t move.
“Please,” Frank said. “Excuse me.”
“Please. Let me through.”
The man turned around, revealing a chest even wider than the shoulders that had blocked him. He made a point of taking a breath and filling his lungs. “Don’t you know what’s going on here?”
With the space now cleared before him, Frank could see what had drawn the crowd. They had formed a circle around three or four squares of the cement sidewalk, and at the center of this clearing was a black bag of broken branches or ruined piping, something twisted and useless, anyway, only now as the heap silently defined itself he knew exactly what it was. Blood showed like a brightly painted starburst on the sidewalk, and at its most distant points it seemed to form a boundary no one would cross, as if to do so would be disrespectful. A red necktie was visible, too, its end lifted now and then by the breezes sneaking their way around corners and between people.
“Jumper,” the man said. “Guess he decided it was time. Still in a hurry?”
What can one do for somebody once the end has arrived, but to stand watch? As if in respect, they quieted. They waited until the police came, and then there was no reason to remain any longer. When the white sheet was spread, he departed, just like the rest of them, who all had their own destinations in mind.
Down the Gravel Path
Back in the village of Grano di Nuova, there had been a gravel path leading down the side of a hill to a sloping, weedy field overrun with rabbits. There were so many rabbits it seemed as if he could raise the rifle and fell two or three without even pulling the trigger. He and his friends would descend the slope once or twice a week, then return with the carcasses strung on heavy twine looped around their wrists. He still had a wavy, dim photograph from those days—the three of them awash in the black blood of a dozen skinned rabbits, grinning wide white grins that were a testament to their youth.
Frank knew now they had been lucky. All of their families lived on what they shot in that field at the end of the gravel path. In Manhattan, and even later on, in the Bronx, he’d heard different kinds of stories: rotted lemon rinds; olive leaves softened in boiled water; bread crusts and soup bones retrieved from dented cans outside locked rectories. He never showed the photograph to anyone, aware of the envy it might inspire, considerate of the situation. But he liked to look at it when he could, pulling it out from beneath the clothes and tobacco and keys he kept in the top drawer of his dresser, regarding it in the yellow glow that seeped in from the street lights.
There was a time when felt he exerted control over life, not just of events but of the forces that gave rise to them. Of the blood in his veins, and the air in his lungs; of the passage of the clouds and warmth of the sun; of the stones that rolled away from beneath his feet as he descended the gravel path. Of time: He’d bragged to his friends that his life would span three centuries, from his birth year of 1898 to his death sometime after 2000. How did he know? He just did.
But now that he was more to halfway to being right, he felt no feelings in particular. It was an embarrassment, if anything, to think of it now, especially with so many of them already gone, or about to go.
The Chair Reserved for Him
He came down the stairs from the elevated train, the numbers rolling in his head like dice in a cup. Nothing brought the right combination. The unchanging amounts arranged themselves in the same quantity over and over again, no matter how many times he’d tried to figure it, no matter how hard he tried to make it add up to more. He hunched his shoulders and thrust his hands into his pockets. The low buildings kept pace alongside him, marching like weary soldiers down the long hill of Fordham Road. The bells of the university chapel sounded the hour of five. He was late.
He hurried to the hospital, where the desk nurse greeted him with a thin smile that couldn’t mask her distaste for the lingering vigil taking place on the other side of the door. He entered the small, hot room, where the hiss of the radiator cut through the bellows-like heave of the heavy machinery meant to help her—more punishment than miracle at this point. He took off his hat and coat and laid them on the chair reserved for him. None of them, though, paid attention. His oldest son, just drafted, sure to meet his end on some distant continent, tapped a patternless rhythm on the sill as he stared at his reflection just now taking shape in the window. His daughter, dozing, clutched the arm of her skinny fiancé, who was circling ads in the help wanted pages he pored over daily. His youngest son, with deep black eyes like a girl’s, was, as always, closest to the bed, a terrifying angel hovering over the shape beneath the sheet, his hands clasped in prayer.
And his wife. Her face was nearly blue against the white pillow. If it were a face he passed on the street, it would have drawn his attention, even now, even this late. Her eyes were still there, behind the sealed lids; her laugh was still within her, behind the cracked lips. He saw the crucifix on the delicate chain that wandered through her wasting hands. There was nothing to do but wait, the doctor had said; nothing else to do at this point. He thought of the note, still folded, in his pocket, as useless as an unloaded gun. He wiped his palms on his thighs. Still deeply inside his own life, there was nothing he could do but wait.
Dominic Preziosi’s work most recently appears or is forthcoming in Avery, SmokeLong Quarterly, Storyglossia, and Thieves Jargon; his story “Red Line to Puritas” was included in JMWW’s Best of 2007 print anthology. He has been on the faculty of the City University of New York and Gotham Writers’ Workshop and lives in Brooklyn, NY.
“No front porches in my childhood. But the kitchen table of my grandfather (by whom “Appointment” was partially inspired) was a good substitute. It was about the size of a porch, and anyone was welcome to pull up a chair and contribute (or merely listen to) the aimless, endless conversation taking place over the remnants of a large Italian meal. Wine, cigarettes, and off-brand black-cherry soda were available in abundance. My current favorite front porch extends from the secluded stone-and-timber cabin in the Adirondacks I visit with my wife and children every summer.”