Smith Hill

Gabrielle had never noticed how loud Friday mornings were. Now that she slept on the couch, she felt the trash truck barreling through the walls, destroying her home. Bolting upright, she’d hear men laugh, cans tossed, the truck move on. After a few weeks of fearing she might wake to the front bumper of the trash truck hanging over her head, she wrote a note, then taped it to the half-filled can.

Dear Sirs, 

                                    Please be more considerate when you pick up the garbage.                                                The noise is enough to wake the dead.

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                    Mrs. Stephanos Pappas


The next morning, Gabrielle held still when the truck clanged to a stop, waiting for it to start up again, to move on. But there was a quick rap at the side entrance. She pulled her robe closed and opened the door.

“Yes?”

The man who stood before her was flushed and greasy. He had combed what remained of his hair over his shining head and held it in place with something equally shiny. He was short, not much taller than herself, and beefy: strong, with a solid stomach. His fingers were thick and pink. He looked like he could yell if he wanted to. Give me a break, lady. Don’t give me no grief. That was how people behaved in the neighborhood these days. You honked, and they stuck up their middle finger. You said, “I believe I was here first,” and they said, “Well, I’m here now,” then put their pack of cigarettes on the counter as if you didn’t exist.

“Morning,” the man said. “Mrs. Pappas?”

Gabrielle nodded, tensing.

“I’m Leon Federman, head of this crew. Got your note, and I’m real sorry we caused you any trouble. Me and the boys forget the rest of the world’s not up when we are. This is like ten a.m. to us. We’ll do better by you. Promise.” He dipped his head as if doffing a hat and trotted off.

The following Friday the truck eased up so quietly that Gabrielle, sipping coffee at 6:00 a.m., wondered if they had cut the engine. She lifted one of the slats on the front blinds to see a thin man raise her trash can, then tip it into the back of the truck like a dancer in slow motion. Leon Federman lowered his gloved hands in the air, directing the other man to set down the can without a sound. Then he turned to her house and waved. Gabrielle dropped the slat and sank back on the couch. Once the truck moved on, she chuckled about her small victory, how she had gotten what she wanted for once and found in the trash man the grace of a gentleman. She only wished she could repay his kindness.

Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers.

Gabrielle stepped onto her stoop the Friday after that and signaled to Leon. He wiped his brow, then hurried towards her.

“Mrs. Pappas, I hope we didn’t wake you.”

“The weatherman says it’ll be a hundred by noon, Mr. Federman,” she said. “Maybe you’d like some ice tea?”

“Please?”

It dawned on her that Mr. Federman couldn’t just step inside for a half hour while his men drummed their fingers, and she resisted inviting all of them into her home. She’d only thought of him. “Some ice tea is what I’m saying. Now or . . . later?”

Leon adjusted a piece of gum in his mouth. Then he said, “You’ll be able to fry eggs on the sidewalk by eleven. That’s when we knock off. A glass of tea would hit the spot about then.”

“Eleven,” Gabrielle nodded.

She put away her knitting, made a lemon cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, and slid a cloth over the wooden trim of her sofa and loveseat. Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers. She felt safely wrapped within her husband’s name. Mrs. Stephanos Pappas. As far as Mr. Federman knew, Stephanos still hammered away in the basement at his workbench. He was alive to the trash man.

Instead of tapping at the side entrance, Leon knocked at the front door, his gloves off and shirt buttoned to the collar. Once inside, he again had the air of someone taking off his hat.

“Awful out there, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said.

“Sure is,” he agreed.

“I’ll get you that tea.”

Leon followed her into the kitchen.

“Can I help with anything?”

“For heaven’s sake, it’s just ice tea!” she said, her voice unusually high. “Please take a seat.”

As if he did so every day, Leon pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.

Gabrielle had expected her awkwardness to evaporate, but it persisted, fumbling her fingers. She sloshed a glass before him and struggled through twenty minutes on the weather before he thanked her and saw himself out. As she ran water over the thin coating on the plate Leon had tried to scrape clean, Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed and she hummed. She had returned the trash man’s courtesy and gotten him out of her house, which he somehow managed to fill with himself in the short time he was her guest.

“You know who I had a nice conversation with?” she said to Connie that afternoon. Connie had come to fetch the tiny knitted outfits Gabrielle had made for the hospital. Her friend pronounced each one darling as she lowered it into a box.

“No, who?”

“Mr. Federman. Leon Federman?”

Connie looked up. “Leon who?”

“The . . . our . . .” Gabrielle couldn’t think of the right word. She knew there must be another name, something better than “trash man.” That couldn’t be what he put down on his taxes. “Garbage personnel” was all she came up with.

“You mean, one of those fellows who picks up the trash?”

“The head of his crew,” Gabrielle told her.

“You had a nice conversation when he got the trash?”

“Later,” she said. “He came back later.”

Connie put down the baby clothes and looked at her. “That’s nice, honey,” she said, then patted her hand. “Listen, you’re coming over tonight for spaghet. Nothing special. Family style. I’ll send Frank to get you.” Connie kissed her cheek and picked up the box.

“He’s very nice,” Gabrielle said. “Mr. Federman.”

“I’m sure he is,” Connie said. “Six o’clock, okay. You be ready.”

Gabrielle let Connie’s husband pick her up and let Connie joke over dinner about her “gentleman friend.” Apparently, Connie thought it was hysterical. Widows in Smith Hill did not have gentleman friends. They didn’t cloak themselves in black for the rest of their days anymore, but they didn’t go on dates either. They knitted booties for poor infants and worked the white elephant booth for St. Augustine. They were mothers, grandmothers. That was it.

But the next time Leon and his men drove up to her house, Gabrielle crooked a finger at him. He hurried up her walk. When he stood before her, she asked if he would like to come for dinner on Sunday. He said he’d like that fine, which she found reassuring: his easy acceptance made it seem less strange to invite a man to dinner.

“Can’t I show a person some common courtesy?” Gabrielle snapped at Dominique, who called her after talking to Grace, who’d run into Connie. “So what if he collects trash? It’s an honorable job.”

“I’m not talking honorable or dishonorable,” Dominique told her. “I’m not saying anything. I just wondered if you wanted me and Vick to help keep you company. We could barbecue. Let the men talk while we catch up.”

“I think we’re caught up,” Gabrielle said, which was the meanest thing she had said to Dominique since they were seniors in high school and she’d suggested that a silver anklet made her look cheap.

Gabrielle stuck two tapers in their star-shaped holders, then put them back in the drawer of the creaking breakfront. She turned on the radio, then turned it off. She put on lipstick and looked at herself. Her hair was too black for her age, she knew. Stephano had called her “a raven-haired beauty,” so she’d kept using “Midnight Blue” although a border of silver along her hairline strengthened after every tint. And now her lips looked too red for her face. But she thought her eyes, still the color of almonds, were pretty.

When she opened the door, Leon nodded at someone, who quickly drove off. Then he bustled inside, bearing gifts: a box of See’s chocolates, roses in plastic wrap, and a small bottle of gin. Gabrielle looked past him at the receding sedan. She had worried that Mr. Federman might show up in the trash truck and the whole neighborhood would know her business. Of course, Connie, Grace, and Dominique already knew she was making dinner for the trash man, so everyone would know soon enough anyway.

“I had my cousin drop me,” Leon said. “Damn car’s in the shop again.” Then he laughed as if it were New Year’s Eve and thrust his gifts into her hands.

“Oh, Mr. Federman, you shouldn’t have,” she said, meaning it. The chocolates and roses were too much, embarrassing. And the gin was just wrong. You didn’t bring a grandmother gin.

“Leon, Leon,” he said. “Mrs. Pappas.”

“Gabrielle,” she said softly, wishing they didn’t have to be on a first-name basis. Everyone was these days. Even the dental assistant, ten years younger than her Pamela, told her, “Gabrielle, a little wider, please. Gabrielle, turn your head to the left.” “Gabrielle” didn’t have the same significance as “Mrs. Stephanos Pappas.” She couldn’t hear her husband in it at all.

Leon smacked his lips. “Gabrielle,” he said, drawing out each sound. “Now that’s a name. I see Italian fountains and violins and moonlight in a name like that. Not like Esther. Or Ruth.”

“Those are nice names,” Gabrielle said. Leon Federman, she repeated in her head. A Jew? What was it they didn’t eat? Pigs’ feet?

He made a show of grimacing. “With them I picture chopped liver and whining. Ru-u-uth,” he said as if it were a sound a dog might make.

Gabrielle couldn’t help laughing at that. She walked into the kitchen, and Leon followed her, talking the whole time she unwrapped the roses, already dark at the tips, and stuck them one by one into the crystal vase Marcus had gotten his parents for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

“Some kids on Douglas Ave had kicked on the hydrant, and I felt like jumping in the water myself, I got to tell you,” Leon was saying. “Can’t wait for the heat to break, you know what I mean?”

“I made hors d’oeuvres,” Gabrielle said, gesturing towards a tray of small sausages wrapped in pastry. “But I don’t know if you . . .” She almost added “people,” but stopped herself.

“I eat appetizers, don’t you worry.” Leon patted his stomach. “Believe me, I’ll eat whatever’s put before me!”

He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“There’s wine.” Gabrielle grabbed the bottle’s neck, but she had no idea how to use the new opener that Marcus had said was the best.

“I’ll begin with some gin, if it’s all right with you,” Leon said and opened a cupboard, which made Gabrielle flinch. She felt as if he were looking in her medicine cabinet or under her bed. “Helps me to unwind,” he said. “Hope you’ll join me.” He got out two juice glasses and held one in front of her.

Gabrielle shook her head. She sipped water as Leon drank his gin “neat.” The alcohol didn’t change his mood. Already festive when he came through the door, Leon lavished praise on what he called her “piggies in blankies.” “Finger-licking good,” he laughed, then licked his finger and thumb as if to demonstrate his point.

They ate in the kitchen: kreatopica argostoli and tzatiki, both favorites with her husband, whose parents had come over from Greece. Gabrielle picked at the veal but drained a glass of wine—Leon tangled with the opener for her—and he had wine as well. He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“From our son,” Gabrielle said of the tiles. “From our daughter” about the mitts.

Leon asked their ages, if they were married, had any kids, saying “Ah” at each piece of information as if her children had grown up to be missionaries and brain surgeons. “And your husband . . .”

Gabrielle gripped the edge of the table. “He’s passed on,” she said, alone with Leon for the first time.

“I know,” Leon said, covering one of her hands with his own. “Terrible thing. Heart attack shoveling, right? These winters, I’ll tell you.”

She frowned. Like everyone else, the trash man knew what went on in the neighborhood. Probably more: who drank too much, who didn’t cook for her husband.

“What was he like, your husband?”

For several minutes, Gabrielle couldn’t speak. She cut her veal into pieces small enough to feed a baby, then slowly poured herself a second glass of wine. She was to tell Leon Federman about her husband at his own dinner table? What would Stephano want her to say? “Mr. Pappas had a gift,” she said, surprising herself. “This talent for handling birds. He made a splint out of a popsicle stick for a swallow that broke its wing and the bird healed in a week, good as new. Then he caught a sparrow that flew into Maria Bugatti’s kitchen. When he whistled for Connie’s parakeet, Figarello flew onto his finger like he was St. Francis himself.”

Leon looked both saddened and amused by this story as he finished his wine. “My wife isn’t part of the picture any longer either,” he told her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle murmured.

“She moved to Atlantic City fifteen years ago. Fell in love with a blackjack dealer and ran off with him.” Leon shook his head as if he admired her nerve. “I should have known better. A skinny shiksa. No offense.”

Gabrielle had heard the word shiksa but didn’t know if it was vulgar like putz. Her face puffed up, ready to register indignation. “I don’t really think—” she said.

“Not one of the ‘chosen people’ is all,” Leon smiled.

“I see,” Gabrielle said, though she had assumed Catholics were the chosen people, and she knew by then that Leon wasn’t Catholic.

“No children?”

“No, no,” Leon said, waving the possibility of them away. “Just me and the missus. Until it was her and the blackjack dealer. She sends me a card every year. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she says. Not even ‘Happy Holidays.’ Hope you’re keeping your hands clean,’ she says. That’s her little joke because of what I do for a living.” He laughed, then pressed a napkin to his glistening lips.

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. How did Leon Federman live? Did he rent an apartment? Eat frozen dinners? He might be a few years younger than she was, but not many. Surely, a man his age should have a wife, a home, some dignity.

“But it’s not a bad job,” he said, arching his back in a stretch. “Decent pay. Keeps you in shape. And you’re through by noon, so you have the whole day ahead of you.”

Gabrielle wondered how many times he’d said the same words, and to how many ladies. His line of work must have been something he’d need to account for in the dark bars men of his sort frequented. Otherwise, he’d have to go home alone to his awful apartment and heat his frozen peas and wash his trash man’s jumpsuit down in the basement in the same machine everyone else in the building used.

She poured two small cups of coffee and laid out two diamonds of baklava, waiting for Leon to finish both and leave. The wine and the cooking had heated her uncomfortably. She thought of a cool bath, of lying alone in her bed for a change and remembering Stephano, an image of perfection in contrast with Leon, who sweated when he laughed and laughed too much, laughed at nothing.

When Gabrielle stood from the table, reaching for the plates and cups, Leon stood too. He took them out of her hands and ran them under the faucet, then looked at her proudly, as if he had cleaned the entire kitchen.

“Thank you,” she said, lifting her leaden feet.

“My pleasure,” he told her.

Gabrielle walked to the middle of the living room, waiting for Leon to follow. “Do you want to call someone? Or I could give you a lift,” she added although she rarely drove at night. But there was the new Le Sabre, Stephano’s last indulgence, the black beast, squeezed into the garage. “My husband—”

Leon stepped forward and gathered Gabrielle in his arms, tipped her back, then pressed his lips against hers. He drew back and descended again as if he were breathing life into a drowning victim. Kiss, breath, kiss, breath.

Panting, she let him lead her to the master bedroom, where he sat her on the bed, then fell to his knees. He pressed his red face into the V of her knit blouse and sighed. While his hands and mouth moved over her body, he groaned as if she were the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. He slobbered and smacked as he tore at her clothes, tore away his own.

Her own hands were like dead birds by her side. She felt mesmerized by the black hairs that blossomed on Leon’s chest, the wings of black hairs on his back. He had hair everywhere except the pink scalp that shone through the long black strands he’d combed over it. Finally, she placed her palms on his shoulders, and he stopped gobbling her body. But instead of pushing him off, she cradled him against her chest. Making love to the trash man, this sweating, red-faced man, she thought of Stephano. Somehow, in touching this living skin, she was loving her husband, that each pleasure was a prayer to him, Leon Federman a conduit to heaven, a place he probably didn’t even believe existed.

“I love you,” she whispered as he collapsed on top of her. “I miss you so much.”

“I missed this too, honey,” Leon told her, pulling himself up. “It’s been a while on my side also, I don’t mind telling you.” He padded out to the kitchen and brought another inch of gin to the bed.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, smelling the bite of alcohol, then slept like the dead. When she woke, it was dawn. She heard the sound of the garage door opening, the Le Sabre turning over. Maybe Leon was going to get bagels. That’s what Jews on Broad Street did on Sunday mornings: bought fresh bagels and thin slices of salmon. She’d brew some coffee, maybe make a coffeecake for after they ate his fish-covered bread.

She had poured the batter into a pan and sprinkled on a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and pecans when she realized he’d been gone forty-five minutes. She understood that no bagels would be coming, no thin fish, no Leon. Well, he could have the car if he wanted, she thought. It didn’t matter. The man was a saint, no matter what. He had breathed life back into her and let her make love to her husband once more.

She offered up a thousand blessings on his shining head before she heard an engine turn off, the glad jangle of keys.

Cathleen CalbertCathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). She has been awarded The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she professes.