“Himmelstein,” he said and knocked again. “You home, Himmelstein?”
Nussbaum knew the answer. He could hear the muted drone of Himmelstein’s television behind the door and smell the layer of fresh cigar smoke over the stale base of odor that always lingered there in the hallway. Himmelstein was home. Lately he was always home.
“Everybody’s worried, Himmelstein,” Nussbaum said. “We haven’t seen you in almost two weeks, since…well, anyway, Mrs. Origi wants to call the landlord to come open your door to see if you’re okay.”
Nussbaum put his ear to the door and listened. The bass murmur of TV voices was the only sound to be heard. He could picture Himmelstein, sitting quietly in the ratty old recliner his wife had been forever trying to make him get rid of, staring blankly at the quarrelsome cable news talk shows he loved to watch, one of those big, well-chewed cigars clamped between his teeth.
“C’mon, Himmelstein. I know you’re in there. Just open the door and let me see you’re all right, will you? Everybody’s worried.”
At the end of the hallway, the elevator doors wheezed open and the creaking of a walker came scraping along the carpet towards Nussbaum.
“Is he in there?” Mrs. McIntyre said. Being half deaf herself, the old woman always spoke too loud.
“He’s in there,” Nussbaum said.
“Then why doesn’t the old fool answer?” Still halfway down the hall, Mrs. McIntyre was practically bellowing so that she could hear herself.
Nussbaum stepped away from the door and turned to her, a shushing finger to his lips.
“Keep your voice down, Mrs. McIntyre.”
He sighed and hurried down the hall to intercept her.
“I said, please keep your voice down. Just let me handle this, okay, Mrs. McIntyre?”
“What did I say? I’m just asking what’s going on. I’ve been living next door to them for six years. Nettie was my best friend. I don’t got a right to know?”
Nussbaum leaned down and spoke into her right ear. “He’s depressed, yes? The man just buried his wife of fifty-two years. Look, you go to your apartment and let me handle this. I’ll knock on your door when I’ve talked to him and let you know, okay?”
“Of course he’s depressed,” she said. A sour look came over her face. “Is that any reason he should make the rest of us worry?”
Mrs. McIntyre waved Nussbaum aside and shoved her walker ahead of her.
“He acts like he’s the only one ever lost anyone,” she said. Shouted, angry at Himmelstein’s misery. “I been widowed…twice, the last time nine years ago. I’ve had two strokes and a heart attack. I’ve buried one child and my youngest daughter’s got health problems and can’t work, so I help her out and she helps me out, so does my granddaughter, bless her sweet, simple soul. So what? The world’s that kind of place. You don’t stop living because you don’t like the life it hands you.”
“Who said he’s stopped living?” Nussbaum said.
“He’s given up. That’s the same thing.”
Mrs. McIntyre continued past her door and stopped at 3-E. She jabbed her twig of a finger at the doorbell button on the door frame. Once. Twice. Three times.
“We can smell your stinking cigar out here, Barry. Stop making everybody worry and open this door.” She rang the bell again. “Now!” Another stab at the bell.
“Don’t ‘Mrs. McIntyre’ me, Mr. Nussbaum,” he said. “I been alive longer than anybody in this building. You want to talk to me about being depressed? Look at me. I got anything to be happy about, the things I been through?”
Nussbaum shrugged, wishing she would quiet down and go away. “Do we got to have this discussion right in front of his door?”
“Why not? He’s stopped listening, hasn’t he? Won’t answer his door, just sits in that stinking old chair smoking his stinking cigars and watching those morons on television. You think that’s what Nettie would’ve wanted him to do?”
Nussbaum felt himself growing angry at the old woman’s judgment.
“He’s entitled to his grief,” he said.
“I say he isn’t? You lost your wife…what, three years ago?”
“Four. It’ll be four years, this May.”
“You grieved. Plenty! I remember, but you didn’t shrivel up and go into hiding. You kept on living. Started going to the Y, didn’t you, to swim so you wouldn’t be all alone, made new friends. I see you, all the time at the McDonald’s, drinking coffee and playing Bingo or cards with all those people.”
“Everybody’s different, Mrs. McIntyre.”
“Everybody’s the same. If you lock yourself up after every tragedy in your life, all you’ll ever have is misery.”
The door to 3-D flew open and Rodriquez, wearing a bathrobe over his trousers and t-shirt, his hair flying wild, said, “Wha’s all the noise, eh? I’m tryin to nap.”
“Sorry, Mr. Rodriquez,” Nussbaum said. “We’re just trying to talk to Himmelstein.”
“Yeah? Tell im to lower his television while he at it, okay? It’s comin right through my wall.”
“I’ll tell him,” Nussbaum said.
Rodriquez tugged on the belt knotted around his protruding stomach and pointed his unshaved chin at the door to 3-E.
“Himmelstein, he still not answerin, huh?”
“No,” Mrs. McIntyre said. “He’s all alone, too stubborn to accept a shoulder to cry on.”
Rodriquez said, “At’s no good, bein lonely an miserable. You his frens, yes, Mr. Nussbaum? Talk to im, huh?”
From behind Himmelstein’s door Nussbaum heard a sound. He looked down and saw the shadow of movement in the narrow gap above the threshold.
“I’m trying to,” Nussbaum said. He glared at Mrs. McIntyre.
“What you do, you tell him, death doesn’t have to be the end,” she said. “Not for the living. My first husband died, I didn’t lay down in the coffin and get buried with him, did I? I met Mr. McIntyre and we had our girls and I wouldn’t trade a second of that life, right up to the end for him. I got problems, my daughter and her girl they got problems, so what? Me being sick brung us all closer together and now we got each other.”
“Sure, sure,” Mr. Rodriquez said. “I don guess we was ever gonna move from that rat hole slum, my Rosa she don wanna leave the old neighborhood and all’a places and frens, eh? Fire that burn us out, burn up all our stuff, it turn out a blessing, wasn’t it? We got this place an all’a new frens, a whole new life, huh? You tell Mr. Himmelstein that, Mr. Nussbaum.”
“Look, it takes time to find any good coming out of a tragedy,” Nussbaum said. “Don’t be so quick to judge. Himmelstein’s grief is his own business. It’s going to take him time the same way it took you to fill this hole in his life.”
Mrs. McIntyre made a face and said, “The holes don’t never get filled. Who said anything about that?”
Nussbaum looked down at the gap at the bottom of the door, at what he was sure was the shadow of Himmelstein’s slippered feet as he stood there, listening to them.
“What kind of talk is that, Mrs. McIntyre?” Nussbaum said.
“It’s truth talk, Mr. Nussbaum,” the old lady said. “Don’t you know it’s the holes in our lives that lets the light in?”
Nussbaum blinked and said, “Huh.”
And on the other side of Himmelstein’s door, they all heard the click of the lock being opened.
Tags: short story