It’s another day: not a sale, not a bite, not a solid, single look-e-loo. So I stand alone at the window and watch the old men walk in a stiff and stony parade up and down the avenue past my post at the East End Book Exchange. I count the ways to be an old man: to rein trembling fingers in coat pockets, to search for solid ground with each forthcoming step, to let cigarettes hang from thin lips, to pretend to wait for buses, to steal the company of strangers, to zombie into traffic, to crink over and collect butts of cigarettes, and to scrounge enough grit to roll your own.
The sun descends behind the tenement brick across the street, obscuring its rays from our window plants. The languid philodendra, the once-proud succulents, lush months before, droop in the shadows, when, finally, a silhouette at the door appears. A wrinkled woman, at once elegant and gritty, snubs out a cigarette behind the doorframe and enters the store in a long fur coat.
“You seen an old man named Lee in here?” she asks. A second-hand tick echoes. “You know…Lee?…The old man who smokes cigarettes?”
She says, “You know—Lee? I think he comes by the bookstore.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “A lot of old men come by.”
She steps outside, lights a cigarette and begins to yell: “Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!”
For five minutes she yells.
I step out and join her. Light a cigarette, too. She says the missing man is brother to her aunt who’s married to her mother’s brother—who are all dead. The whole family, she says, is just about dead. We both look up and eye the windows of the apartments above the bookstore. She says she hasn’t heard from Lee since the day he helped her haul garbage to the curb a fortnight ago.
“I’m breaking in,” she says, “Can’t wait.”
She ascends the stairs, lights another. In the bookstore, through the floorboards, I hear a tromping, a slamming, and more tromping before the woman reappears, an unlit cigarette gripped in her fingers.
“Lee is dead,” she says. She is stoic. Her eyes are stones. “Lee is dead,” she says again. She is solid, sturdy, immovable. She moves nearer to me. Her lower lip trembles ever so slight. A teeny, tiny dab of water wells in the corner of one eye. I light her up and we step outside. We stand. We smoke… We watch. For a long time we say nothing. Then she says, “Lee is dead. Lee is dead,” she says. “Lee is dead.” We watch a crooked old man on the other side of the street take one long, slow, eternal step forward.
Timothy Maddocks lives in Pittsburgh and writes essays, stories, and reportage. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, where this piece first took shape. He is currently at work on a book about kindnesses gone awry.