Albert Panetta needed the job. His wife had left him some years ago, his skill as an engraver compromised by failing eyesight and, with a penchant for cheap whisky, the only thing he had to boast about were debts. The work was nothing to be proud of, but since it only took him an hour a day, was next door to his meager quarters, and required nothing more than adeptness at sweeping, the money seemed generous by any standards. He didn’t even mind working for Louis Bukhar, the censorious owner of the prosperous millinery shop on the first floor.
The old man lived in the back of his busy store, and let out the second, third, and fourth floors to transients. The fifth floor remained empty. At first, it sounded strange, but in the end, Panetta really didn’t care why an eccentric old man wanted four empty apartments swept every day. Bukhar demanded that no resident go up to the fifth floor or they would be asked to leave immediately. Since it was well known that his daily rates were the lowest in this part of the lower east side of New York and that rents were escalating everywhere as immigrants poured into the city, his instructions were first met with disbelief, then accepting disinterest.
Panetta arrived at 6 a.m. sharp exactly as instructed. It not only got him out of bed in the morning but, since his wages were paid daily, he always had a fresh supply of pocket change to last him through the day. The stairs from the fourth to fifth floor took more out of him than the first three flights. The banister was loose and more than once gave way under his considerable weight. He knew Bukhar had no intention of repairing it, so it was never a source of discussion. Anyway, he didn’t want to get into an argument with a skinny old man about weight.
“If you weren’t so fat there’d be no problem. And if there’s no problem, I don’t have any expenses,” he could just hear Louis Bukhar’s rasp.
Albert Panetta had heard it all before. “How come you’re so heavy?”, “You have to be eating like a pig to get that big” and “You waste all your money on food instead of keeping your feet dry with a new pair of shoes.”
Except that it wasn’t true. Albert Panetta had a problem. He’d had it as long as he could recall in his parents’ home near Bari, Italy. At first, it was a concern to his family. He was carried, and then dragged, to village doctors at every opportunity. After a quick examination that amounted to little more than cheek pinching and being forced to drop his trousers, they invariably shook their heads and pronounced him fit. One tends to associate being heavy from such an early age with lethargy and ignorance. He insulated himself in daydreams and fantasy and ignored whatever studies there were. He would never be much at school so why waste all this energy, his parents were counseled. They accepted the boy’s limitations and a week after his twelfth birthday he was taken from school and set to apprentice at the side of a local engraver. That was thirty-nine years and several lifetimes ago by Albert’s somber count.
By the time he made it up to the landing on the fifth floor he was sweating profusely. His heart was pounding like a drum beneath his rib cage. He paused, as was his ritual, and stared grimly at the broom—his broom—and apparently, the only friend he had in the world.
“You’ve been waiting for poor old Albert, have you? Well, we have work to do this morning,” he would say every day as if it were his first.
He opened the door to one of the two apartments fronting onto the street. It was bright and sunny. His room could fit twice over into this living room. He walked to the window, broom in hand, and sat himself on the sill and stared curiously down onto the ebb and flow of the street below. Orchard Street was crowded on both sides with merchants, and pushcart vendors plying their trade. Store merchandise spilled out onto the narrow sidewalks making safe passage precarious. Horse drawn wagons hauled produce and products from store to buyer, from one end of Manhattan to another, from the first stitch of dawn to the last remnant of light. Pickpockets and petty thieves worked the streets along with priests and ministers looking for the lonely and forlorn.
Albert had seen a man stabbed by two other men in an alley over on Mercer Street a week before he met Louis Bukhar. There were witnesses, but no on cried out for the police. Albert simply walked away. He didn’t want to get involved. He believed no one would have intervened in his behalf had he been that unfortunate soul.
The noise, stench, and the confusion were stifling. Up here, on the fifth floor, there was peace and life had renewed possibilities. It had become Albert’s sanctuary, if only for an hour a day. And if he weren’t done with his chores by seven when Bukhar opened his shop, there would be no handful of coins. At first, he thought an hour would be sufficient time to complete his task. That was a month ago.
He leaned out the window, collected a glob of spit and whatever else he could draw down from the back of his throat or up from his barrel chest, and blew the mass out of his mouth. In a cloud of spittle, it arched out, then down from the fifth floor past the fourth, third, second, then striking one of the pushcart rag vendors squarely on his bent back. Panetta roared with laughter.
The vendor turned to see who had tapped him on the back. When he was sure he was mistaken in his reaction he crossed his brow with his dirty shirtsleeve, then went on hawking his wares. On a good morning, Albert might strike a man in the top of his head, or his foul expectorant might land on the center of a pile of fresh fruit or vegetables. On a very good day, he might make some poor soul’s life a little more miserable than it was the day before.
“Let’s get on with it,” he said to himself and began with the bedroom. He finished the apartment in less than ten minutes and went on to the other front facing apartment. His favorite. The windows were unobstructed giving you a full day of sunlight. The rooms were slightly larger with more character. And there were two closets instead of one. He couldn’t imagine what it would take to rent this apartment on a daily, much less yearly, basis. Cliff Albright, the pimply housewares salesman who rented on the second floor had this apartment to himself and it cost in one day twice what Albert made in an entire week. Albert figured he would have to find a rich uncle somewhere in order to afford it, or give up his drinking habit—both highly unlikely possibilities.
He began to slow down with the first rear apartment and all but finished up with the fourth by seven o’clock. He collected the meager remnants of ambient dust, paint peelings, and mice droppings in his hand and tossed them out of the back window overlooking the jungle of yesterday’s laundry drying on lines strung between the buildings. He leaned the broom against the head of the banister and loped downstairs past a few tenants.
There was no exchange of amenities. People’s lives were their own business. As residents of a transient boarding house at turn-of-the-century New York, their citizenship and circumstances were always suspect. No one wanted to be so informed lest they be asked by the police about the whereabouts of one of their fellow residents. And such knowledge might hint at a stake in communal complicity or duplicity.
“You finished up there?” Bukhar asked, as was the extent of his daily interrogation.
“It’s spotless,” Albert, said barely able to contain his apathy. What the hell was this old man doing, having me sweep up lifeless debris? Was he that rich that he could afford to amuse himself, or was he so desperate he could indulge his madness?
Bukhar removed a leather pouch from his pocket and counted out the coins in Albert’s fat palm. The coins clicked together dully. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
Albert was surprised at the question. When Bukhar hired him it was with the condition that he would not ask questions, or that if he missed a day or was late or if he did not clean the apartments to Bukhar’s satisfaction, he would be fired. Albert knew the old man checked out his handiwork during the week. Every so often, the broom was not in the position he left it the morning before.
“It’s your building,” he said folding the coins over and over in his hand. There seemed to be noticeably fewer today. He made a quick count. Everything was in order. “You can do what you want with it.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Albert nodded, jammed the coins into his pants pocket, and left Bukhar’s store. He spent the day working the neighborhood for odd jobs, every so often looking up as if something offensive was about to fall from the sky. By four o’clock, he had cleaned out the storeroom of a hardware shop on Spring Street, brushed down three mares at Killian’s Stable on the corner of Ludlow and Grand, and helped fill a moving truck with furniture on East Broadway. He was not as tired as he was thirsty. He counted his day’s reward. Enough for food and lodging for another day of life and little else. That didn’t dissuade him from stopping off at Gleason’s Saloon for one long drink.
“You’re early,” said Jimmy Riley, a stained apron cinched around his ample midsection.
“Not early enough, I can tell you,” Albert said dropping onto a stool as if he had tramped through a desert of discontent. “Make it a very long one Jimmy. I’ve got a long night ahead of me.”
“Money, women, or cards?”
Albert had found a home at Gleason’s. And Jimmy, his favorite bartender, treated him with respect. That was important to a man who deserved it. A man should have a favorite bartender, like a favorite shoeshine man or newspaper peddler or barber. A man should know who his friends were even if he had none. “Why would a man want the top floor of his building swept out every day when no one lived there?”
Jimmy smiled knowingly. “Bukhar?”
Albert was surprised, and uneasy as he had unknowingly admitted he had participated in such toil. “You know him?”
“Everyone knows that old fool.” Jimmy said. He liked to be called JR by most of his customers. Yet he felt compelled to maintain some distance between himself and Albert, at least until the man could be of some benefit to him. Two women he recognized came in and took a table in the corner and looked over in his direction. He loosened another button on the front of his shirt in anticipation of serving them.
“Is he crazy, or am I?”
He poured the man a long shot. “It’s him. Believe me, you’re as sane as I am.”
Albert thought about the comparison for a moment, then took a thin, conserving sip. “But why keep them vacant?”
“I only know what others tell me, Albert.”
“Then you do know,” he questioned, sitting up for the first time. “What’s he up to?”
“Take it down and I’ll fill it up for you.”
Albert stared at his drink. The whisky was cut. He expected that. The beer was usually warm. But a free drink was reserved for special people. It made him feel important. “You mean that?”
Jimmy Riley glanced around for the whereabouts of the owner, a large repugnant man who inherited the saloon from his father and did little to improve it except to hire more accommodating waitresses he could take advantage of. “Drink up and don’t worry about it.”
Albert couldn’t recall when he had been offered such kindness and downed the shallow glass reservoir of whisky in one gulp. A fire burned through his insides and brought a glow to his cheeks. He quivered with relief. What a lousy life, he thought. First his wife, then his job, and now he was forced to comb the streets begging for scraps of work. People looked at him without compassion or sympathy. And he knew what the problem was. It was his overbearing belly. He looked down. The bulge pressed out his shirt and obscured his belt. His parents, even his friends, agreed that he could go a month without eating and not lose a pound.
“Now what about Bukhar?”
Jimmy looked about again. It was a habit. He had a police record for boosting jewelry and spent a year in a rat hole of a jail in upstate New York. It would forever remain in his memory because he was released early on the first day of the new century. He prided himself on his skill at mixing a drink, as a reliable source of inexpensive drugs, and as a purveyor of neighborhood tattle supplied by stooges and stoolies; for the police and his own private interests. Helping this down on his luck, fat soul made him feel more worthy and more accepting of his own foibles. His boss was making plans in the back of the saloon to fix poker game over on Delancy Street. Two other customers stared down into their drinks searching for answers. There were none, JR knew. Most people never learned that much.
“The old man hired you to clean up the fifth floor?”
“I already told you that.”
“You know that Bukhar’s not his real name?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It’s short for a long, unpronounceable name.”
“Then the man’s a lie to begin with.” Albert was proud of his name and heritage and instinctively suspicious of those who changed theirs for any convenience.
“Well, the story goes that he was going to get married years ago. A child bride coming from the old country I think. Well, the guy decided that they should live like royalty and cleared out two tenants on the top floor of his building for this girl and him to live in.”
“There are four empty apartments.”
“The closer it came to the date of her arrival the more he wanted to do for her, so he decided to vacate the two rear apartments also. What he was going to do with that much space—half of Orchard street could live up there—I have no idea.”
“She never got on the boat. She never arrived. Months later, her family in Russia found out that she missed a connection in England or Spain or somewhere. There was no trace of her after that.”
“He never found her?”
“Not a trace.”
Albert thought of his own mishap of a marriage. “What a terrible story.”
“It happens all the time. They take the money and run off with their boyfriend, or lose it in their travels and have no way to make it up. They wind up walking the street. I see it outside Gleason’s every night.”
“How long ago?”
Jimmy swabbed down the top of the bar with a damp cloth. “A half dozen years ago, I hear. Long before I got stuck here.”
“But he didn’t even know her.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But people say he loved her.”
“How can you love someone you don’t know?”
“Who knows? When you want to be in love, you’re in love.”
Albert thought about it for a long time. With one drink under his belt and a fresh one set in his hand, he was in no rush. He kind of pitied the old man. Albert had no lost love for his wife. He couldn’t blame her. He knew that drinking did strange things to a man that most women couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. He cursed himself and his circumstances and wondered what it must have been like to survive such disappointment.
Bukhar was not an unappealing sort. He bore no facial scars or disfigurement. He was successful. Women filled his shop and rarely left empty-handed. The one thing Albert regretted was that since he had no business in the shop except to collect his wages, and that was before it opened, he had no excuse to be there when women walked the aisles.
“So, what’s up there?” Jimmy asked.
“On the fifth floor?”
“Space. Just empty space. Every day I sweep it clean. Except that there’s nothing to clean. But I do what I’m paid to do. I’m that kind of man.”
Jimmy uncrated a case of cheap red wine and complained that his back pain was just as unpredictable as his father’s was. He told patrons he had fought at Gettysburg and Shiloh. Not once was he asked how a man who looked to be in his thirties would have to be twice that age to have participated in those tragic battles. “Some say there’s money up there. A dowry to surprise his new bride with.”
“There’s no furniture. It’s empty space. You could walk up there right now and see for yourself. There’s nothing up there except me and the mice and the ghost of his girlfriend.”
“You’re probably right. And gold in secret compartments, cash hidden under floor boards, or stashed behind wall boards; these stories get started and suddenly you have rumors that make no sense.”
Albert gauged the dwindling balance of his drink. “This one makes less sense than most I’ve heard.”
“And when you leave there’ll be another to replace you.”
“When I leave?”
“They all do. It’s not a job fit for a man.”
Jimmy disappeared in the back, leaving Albert to consider the legend and those who had come before him. The old man had some bad luck. Big deal, he admitted grudgingly. Bukhar’s problem was that he was a bad manager. If Albert owned that building, every apartment would have two or three and not one tenant living in it. The building, including the fifth floor, would be teeming with renters. Even the mice would be hard pressed for space.
He sat for much of the afternoon and returned to his room well into the evening. Across the street, the old milliner had locked his door, turned out the lights, and retired to the back of his cluttered little shop. Albert knew his clothing needed attention. His trousers were torn. Buttons were missing everywhere. When winter returned to the city, his one heavy coat was going to fall off his shoulders if he didn’t attend to its weakened seams. Maybe there was something more he could do for the old man so he could improve his wardrobe. That might make him more presentable to prospective employers. He fell asleep with that in mind and was only urged out of his sleep by his alarm. It was five-forty. He splashed some cold water on his stubble-covered face, got dressed, and went out into a chill September downpour.
Half a block later, he was soaked. It took him twice the time to make it up to the fifth floor. He paused just long enough for a puddle to collect around his rain soaked shoes. His broom remained as he had left it. Footsteps and voices bled up from the stairs below.
Cliff Albright and Stan Willoughby were arguing about the price of apples. Willoughby, a tired hulk of a traveling salesman with an unruly crop of brown hair, thought the street vendors were taking advantage of him. Cliff decided that Willoughby thought everybody was taking advantage of him and told him he needed a doctor, not a cheaper fruit vendor.
Albert walked over to the broom standing in the corner. He reached for the long shaft of wood but couldn’t bring himself to make it his. Instead, he went into one of the front apartments. It continued to pour outside. The wind and rain rattled the windows violently. There would be few chores to do for local merchants. He would have only his sweeping coins in his hand this day. He would go to bed hungry tonight. Fortunately, nature had equipped him with the ability to withstand such hardships.
Exhausted with hopelessness, he slumped down to the floor with his back to the wall. A young Russian bride disappears and her groom grieves. An aging man whose last chance for happiness was a crushing disappointment from which he never recovered. Albert could not put himself in the old man’s place. How can you grieve for a woman you never met? She could have been fat and hideous. She could have been mean and miserable. She could have had fleas or lice or be branded with pimples like Cliff Albright. She could have destroyed Bukhar’s life as Albert’s wife had ruined his.
A noise at the far end of the living room broke his reverie. A gray mouse ran out from a corner of the room, stopped under the window, and looked up, then over at Albert. “You’re lucky I don’t care,” Albert said.
The mouse stared a while longer, then sniffed around the baseboards and returned to the crack in the wall. Albert went over to the crack and knelt down. He hadn’t noticed it before, but the fissure was large enough to jam his fist through. Large enough to hide much more behind. Albert got to his feet and walked over to the window and stared out at the rain. The pushcarts and vendors had taken to huddling under the few canopies and congested alleys.
He grabbed the broom and quickly swept all the apartments then ran down to the milliners’ shop. “It’s after seven,” Bukhar said before Albert could explain away his tardiness with a practiced lie.
“I hurt my leg yesterday. I couldn’t move as fast, sir.”
“The job is too hard for you?”
The old man handed him a fistful of coins. “Once more and I will get somebody else to clean for me. I require a dependable man and for this job I will accept no other.”
Albert couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Part of his brain cautioned him, the other, more resonant fraction urged him on no matter what the consequences. “Do you mind me asking you a question?”
“Yes. You have nothing to ask me, and I have no answers for you.”
“Then, can I offer you my condolences?”
The old man looked up from the vest he was trying to match against a piece of green satin with a puzzled expression. “Condolences?”
“For the loss of your bride. I just heard. I know it happened many years ago, but I think some sorrows can last forever.”
Louis Bukhar stopped his work. “Who told you this?”
“A friend of mine from the neighborhood. I didn’t mean to upset you, but what happened to you happened to my brother too. And I know how it changed his life.” Albert began to back away. He had no idea why he spoke as he did or lied, though he felt no remorse or regrets for what he did. He even thought it might distress the old man and that did not deter him.
“Are the rooms swept clean?”
“I tend to your rooms as though they were mine, sir.”
“They’re spacious rooms.”
“Charming too. If you don’t mind me saying so.”
The old man didn’t respond. He returned to his work and Albert backed out into the rain. That night Albert couldn’t sleep. His mind was choked with suspicions and possibilities. He wanted to believe in rags to riches. He had heard the stories that the streets of the new America were paved with gold. The country at the turn of the century was experiencing a time of great prosperity. Opportunity abounded, yet he wandered the streets in rags with no real prospect of riches and made his night in a filthy roach infested burrow no better than the mouse he had encountered this morning. The mouse with four apartments at his disposal was in a far better position to luxuriate in his surroundings. That was unfair. While not every soul was destined for greatness, some—those with a clever and quick mind—might prosper above the waves that drown the less nimble.
The next few days brought some work, but nothing that would generate anything more than the most pitiable wages. Then on a cool, brooding morning laden with thickening, overcast clouds, Albert mounted the steps, swept the four apartments clean of the most minuscule particles, descended the stairs and went down to the millinery shop for his wages. Louis Bukhar looked up from his counter. “What do you want?”
At first, Albert was taken aback. Was the old man suddenly going to renege on their agreement? Albert was visibly upset. He glanced around the store trying to come up with something to say when his eyes lighted on a woman’s fitting model draped in swatches of lush deep purple material he couldn’t identify.
“You haven’t come for money have you?”
“Money?” Albert knew it was over. Now he wouldn’t even be able to buy a drink. Even Jimmy would desert him. He would be cut off.
“I may work on Saturday, Mr. Panetta but I don’t pay others to work on the Lord’s day of rest.”
Saturday, Albert realized, still unable to take his eyes from the mannequin. What a fool he was. Too drunk to know he had the day off. “I came to tell you something.”
Bukhar put down his scissors. “And so?”
“Yesterday. You know, I swept up.”
“This is not news.”
“I was up there, in one of the front apartments. I was giving the corners an extra brooming as I always do at the end of the week,” Albert began, and then hesitated. It was Saturday. He had already worked for nothing. Now he was on the verge of losing what little remained.
“You have something to say?”
“When I noticed something in the front room.”
“You noticed something? What? A window? A wall?”
“The figure of a woman. I think a very young woman by her slight shape,” he said describing the tailored mannequin standing in the shadows of the millinery shop.
Louis Bukhar stopped what he was doing. His face went ashen. “A woman?”
“A young woman. A girl,” Albert said, recalling his conversation with Jimmy about the mice and the ghost of Bukhar’s girlfriend. “I saw her and she turned from the window overlooking the street toward me. She wasn’t real sir. I mean, I didn’t let her up there. She just appeared from nowhere. The room was so dark from the downpour, it was difficult to make her out.”
Bukhar was unable to respond. He felt a tingling in his fingers. His head felt light and unsteady on his neck. He pulled open his coat and began to breathe heavily.
“Mr. Bukhar, are you sick?” Albert asked, finally showing an interest in the old man’s deteriorating condition. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. It was my fault. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” His idea had turned sour, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say that might explain his presence on Saturday and he refused to be made out to seem foolish. “A drunken fool is the worst kind of nitwit,” his wife had said, leading off every exasperated tirade about his alcoholic delinquency. Albert drew in his stomach under his jacket. He didn’t want to seem foolish and fat under Bukhar’s disapproving glare.
The old man grasped at his collar and ripped it open. He inhaled deeply. Albert came around and helped him off with his coat. He ran to the back and got him a glass of water. Bukhar was slow to regain his composure. When he did, his words were simple. “I knew it. I knew it.”
“You knew about her?”
Bukhar was so agitated with excitement, he got to his feet and walked to Albert’s side. It was the first time Albert had ever seen much more than the top of the old man’s head. He was tall and wiry, with gray-green eyes that tightened to a piercing focus. “No. But I believed. All I had was my belief that she would come no matter what.”
“She?” Albert asked, maintaining his surprise.
“My Ninotczka. My bride.”
“Was that her?”
“Of course it was her. Who else would you think could be up there?” The man’s voice was strong and unswerving.
“I have no idea, sir.”
He took Albert by the arm and marched him to the rear of the store and into his apartment. He sat him down in the cramped kitchen and brought him some water, which Albert drank mostly out of courtesy. Albert knew that he was good at creating lies, his wife warned their neighbors of that, but cursed with an inability to fully take advantage of an opportunity.
“You must tell me everything you saw.”
Albert took another sip. It gave him time to think. When he finished swallowing, he asked if he could take off his coat. Bukhar nearly jumped up to help him off with it. “Thank you. I didn’t know what to tell you, I was so upset by what I had seen. You know, some people would think me crazy if I told them. But I thought you should know about what was going on upstairs.”
There was a slight tremble in Louis Bukhar’s voice. A mix of urgency and apprehension that undermined any outward composure. “You were right to come directly to me, son. I was very rude to you. I thought you wanted something from me.”
“I know. Money.”
“I have very little, as you must have judged by my meager appearance. But I do keep my honor.”
“Of course. Believe me I am not judging you because of your difficulties,” Bukhar said, now more cautious about his eagerness. He was uncertain as to how to proceed. He had taken the man’s decency for granted. Certainly, there were ways to make up for his indiscretion. But he must know what the man saw, whatever the cost. “Now please, tell me what you saw.”
Albert Panetta collected what little imagination was willed to him and began. “She was thin. And not at all tall like you are. I thought she must be young.”
“How young? Could you tell?” Bukhar asked consuming whatever restraint he had left.
Albert cursed himself for not being attentive to Jimmy’s description of the spurned lover. Was she Russian? “Maybe twenty. A little older.”
Bukhar grinned with childlike delight. “And what did she look like?”
“Oh, she was very pretty. She had long dark hair,” he said knowing he should be more vague instead of giving into flights of risk by offering unsupported detail.
A shroud masked Bukhar’s face. His eyes filled, his cheeks reddened. “That was her. She’s here. She’s finally come.”
“You mustn’t take my word. I couldn’t see very well. But there was a girl.”
“No, you said she was pretty. Most of the time the first thing you say is closest to the truth. That’s the way it is.”
“She was pretty. I must tell you.”
Bukhar tried to collect himself. He had thought to put this tragedy behind him long ago, yet the very absence of life on the fifth floor was an indication that he could not. Now with this man, who he thought quite inconsequential, there was a chance to fulfill the anticipation of his lost happiness. But was it an apparition of his lost love or merely the fantasy of a drunken opportunist? “What was she wearing?”
“White. Linen, I think. She was dressed very fine with a thin strand of jewels around her neck.”
“Mr. Bukhar, it all happened so quickly. I was so caught up in my work. I’m sorry. I just saw this, I don’t know how describe it. I was frightened at first. I knew she wasn’t real. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about this last night and didn’t know if I should mention it to you.”
Bukhar’s body stiffened. “It was real. It was her.”
Albert Panetta watched a reassuring tear slip from the old man’s eye. That his words could have such a profound affect gave him a sense of pride and power. He knew that Bukhar might give him something special for appeasing the desperation of his lost love. Maybe enough to enjoy an evening at Jimmy’s. That would be worth any lie he could have gathered. Fortunately, in his travels he had occasion to go into many shops and offer his services. And in those stores there were many women purchasing clothing and finery. He noticed them even if he was treated with obvious disdain as he drew close. He marked what they were wearing, as he would have noticed the slightest detail of his beloved engravings. And here, right under his nose was an emporium laced, if you will, with fine cotton, woolens, satin—the trappings women desire most.
“Will you join me for some tea?”
Tea? Was that going to be his reward? “I think I should tell you something else. I don’t know if it matters. But that’s for you to decide.”
Bukhar sat in bewildered silence. Finally, he asked, “what is it?”
“What I saw. Whoever it was, well, I think, no, I’m pretty sure, she smiled.”
That evening Albert Panetta walked into Gleason’s with enough coins to last him well into the evening, and expectations of more to come. He ordered drinks for those few patrons closest to his favorite stool. “You strike it rich?” Jimmy asked.
Albert thought to tell him about his little scam, but decided to keep it close for now. No need in spreading secrets that could come back and kill off what might be the best thing to come along in his misfortunate life. “Hard work, JR my boy. Hard work and savings like I tell everybody. They don’t listen while I prosper.”
Jimmy filled up a shot glass that Albert drank in one quick, boastful gulp. It was refilled. That night Albert slept deeply, though not so wastefully so as to compromise his plan. He would arrive early and make sure his work was better than ever and play his sightings up to the old man at the most opportune occasions. He worked with renewed energy the next morning and every day that week, but Louis Bukhar said nothing about the incident. There was no mention of additional money or increasing his pay. By Friday, Albert began to question his scheme and future.
“May I talk to you?”
Albert turned. Louis Bukhar was standing at the doorway where Albert had described the ghostly apparition of his lost bride. “Yes sir.”
Bukhar began cautiously. “I’ve watched you these last few days and owe you an apology.”
“You’re a very hard worker, and I believe a good man of character and honesty. That you have proved to me. Now I wish to make you an offer.”
Albert’s mind tried to outpace the possibilities but he simply stood there, broom in hand and waited. Hopefully he would answer correctly. He believed the breadth of his very life was at stake.
“It’s my wish that you move into the larger apartment across the hall from here. In return for your services, I will not charge you any rent.”
The thought of living in such luxury coming from unrelenting squalor made Albert nearly squeal with joy. “What do you want me to do?”
Bukhar walked up to him. The old man seemed stronger, more able than Albert first thought. His eyes were sharp and clear. His face not as old, his cheeks softened with the infusion of youth, if however temporary. Albert had felt the man’s strength when he ushered him back into his room behind his shop.
“I want you to watch.”
“Not what, but who. I want you to watch out for my Ninotczka. You saw her once. I know you will see her return. She is trying to make contact with me. She has chosen you as the means to that end.”
A free apartment for watching an empty room? Albert could hardly contain himself. “I don’t know. What if she doesn’t return? You’ll tire of me and ask me to leave and then where would I be?”
“I believe she will reach out to you again. I am asking for your help, sir. This means a great deal to me. Can’t you see your way clear to help an old man relive some past happiness?”
“Thank you for trusting me with something so important, Mr. Bukhar. I’ll do my best.”
“Please, call me Louis,” he said extending his hand.
The next day Albert Panetta moved into the front apartment on the fifth floor with his tattered belongings. Upon seeing the man’s possessions, Louis Bukhar filled the apartment with furniture he had collected in his basement over the years and pledged that he would mend the man’s clothing in his spare time. Within a week, Albert was enjoying the fruits of his greatest fabrication and concocting plans for even greater exploitation of his benefactor’s grief.
In order to safeguard their agreement and increase the possibility of the apparition’s reappearance, Louis confided in Albert that he had decided not to let tenants rent out apartments on the fourth floor any more. “I don’t want them interfering with your watching. The noise, the constant arguing, may frighten her away. We must not let that happen.”
How much money could the old man have to ignore the income from two full floors? How mad could this old fool be to believe in such nonsense? Albert settled back into a new rhythm of life. He was still up early. But now he simply walked across the hall and began his work. By the end of the second week, he was slacking off and sweeping up without taking notice of unattended mice droppings and windblown debris that came in through the open windows.
But he had seen the ghost again. He considered that more important than his carelessness. “Tell me,” Louis asked, as would a man of someone who could direct him to the whereabouts of water after having spent a decade in the desert.
“It was her. You were right. I may have been too cautious.”
“I knew it,” he said barely able to contain his excitement. In the last week, Bukhar’s spirit and appearance changed. He stood taller; he walked with a youthful confidence. He was more cordial to customers who responded in kind. He ate heartily and even joked a bit with suppliers. He was a new man and had Albert Panetta to thank for his reincarnation.
And Albert was learning how to make the most of each slight measure. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
“Tell me. Tell me.”
“Yesterday when I was cleaning she was at the window. Like before. She was wearing the same dress—I’m not certain what you would call it.”
“It’s not important. Go on. Tell me what else.”
“Ninotczka. Her name is Ninotczka.”
“Well, Ninotczka, seemed more comfortable. She moved to her left a foot or so, then back where she was when I saw her. She smiled again. I smiled back. I hope that was not the wrong thing to do?”
“No, no. Not at all. It was good thinking on your part, Albert.”
“This time she was there for about two minutes. But that was all. I just watched her.”
“Wonderful. Simply wonderful,” Bukhar blurted out, grabbed Albert by the shoulders, and shook him with the power of the possessed.
Albert couldn’t believe the man’s strength and was relieved to have him return to the front of his shop. Albert blossomed with the arrangement. He had a beautiful place to live. His clothes were better than ever and new, if not refitted, pieces appeared weekly. As his sightings became more detailed and elaborate, the pocket money he was given for food and daily expenses increased. He could foresee a time when his relationship with this peasant girl might bring the old man to a state of addled hysteria.
Albert took great care to go out the back of the building so as not to alert Bukhar of his absence that became more frequent and lengthier. He knew the old man couldn’t just up and leave his store, but he did not intend to be captive to this apparition. A week later, Albert passed on another fragment designed to inflame Bukhar’s repressed passion and noticed a small picture on the milliner’s desk. He couldn’t recall if he had seen it before, but knew instantly who it was.
“Is that Ninotczka?”
The old man nodded without looking up. “I’ve kept it in my breast pocket all these years.”
“She’s exactly as I saw her.” The girl in the picture was an exact replica of Albert Panetta’s apparition down to the age and long dark hair. All that was missing were the jewels that he already admitted he was unsure of. No wonder the old man was in love. What man wouldn’t be if he were about to possess this warm young thing?
“That’s why I put it out where I can see her while I’m working. You’ve made that possible, too.”
Albert now spent more time and money at Gleason’s. Jimmy told him little else about the young girl. That left him the master of his own fate and Louis Bukhar’s future. For the first time in his life, Albert Panetta was in control of his fortunes. He even gained weight, but now he was proud of his girth. Men of wealth should always have an abundance of the finer things in life, he advised Jimmy.
His sightings of Ninotczka were paced for maximum impact. Sometimes a week would pass and there would be no appearance. Then she would return twice over on consecutive days. With each appearance came tantalizing new bits of the mosaic of the lost girl. When Albert suspected Louis was on the verge of losing interest, he told him that she had spoken to him.
Louis was startled at first. “What did she say?”
“She spread out her arms and said your name. She really didn’t speak, but I think her lips were calling out your name. Maybe I’m wrong. She never moved her lips before so I guess I just thought she was pronouncing your name.”
Louis didn’t know how to react. A customer came into the shop and Albert left to go up to his room. At the end of the day, Bukhar came upstairs. Fortunately for Albert, he had returned early from Gleason’s with a terrible, pulsating headache. Jimmy warned that his mother had told him long ago that headaches were the offspring of lies. Albert thought if that were true, his brain would surely explode.
“Are you certain her lips spoke my name?”
“She kept moving her lips as would I in pronouncing your name. There’s no doubt, sir.” Albert had no problem with such incremental brazenness.
Bukhar turned and walked back downstairs. Albert returned to Gleason’s again that night. He drank heavily and late into the evening but would not talk when Jimmy and the regulars tried to strike up conversation with the man who always had pocket change and would easily buy a drink for those less fortunate.
In the mist of the morning, in the daze that is drunkenness and fervor of guilt, Albert Panetta woke late in a cold sweat. It was well after seven. He jumped out of bed, but his hangover prevented him from gaining any speed. His body ached. His head felt as if an anvil had been dropped on it. He put on his trousers and opened the door to his apartment. He picked up his broom and crossed the hall and opened the door to Ninotczka’s apartment, as they had come to call it.
It was dark. Something had been thrown over the two windows. He walked over to them. Both were boarded up and secured with heavy nails sunk deep into the window frame. Only the light from the hall guided him into the bedroom. The door to the tiny bathroom was nailed shut. The windows were secured too. He tried to reason through the agony of his stupor but it wasn’t possible. Had the old man planned some repair work on the apartment? Why was everything boarded up? Finally he turned to go back to his rooms but Louis Bukhar was standing at the doorway.
“Do you think Ninotczka will be frightened away by the darkness?”
“She might,” Albert answered, fingering the hardened clay surrounding the window boards. It felt like clay, but it was hard and fast to the touch and sealed out all vestiges of light. It made Albert uncomfortable to be in such closed, darkened quarters. Being afraid of closed-in spaces might have been the only thing his wife and he shared. The old man’s presence and calming tone eased his disquiet.
“Well, I think the change will do her and you some good.”
Misreading the old man. “You want her to move out of here and down to your apartment?”
Bukhar studied the man from a distance. Shadows compromised clarity, but less so for a man who spent his life trading, and measuring his patrons for the truth and measure of their desires. “That would be one way to interpret my handiwork.”
Albert was startled. “You did this?” Obviously work had been done, but he felt the old man had simply hired someone to carry out the task. That bothered him too. Bukhar could have at least given him an opportunity to make a few more coins.
“You never told me what you were doing.”
“I thought it best to surprise you.”
“Well, your surprise worked. I would have never thought to make Ninotczka seek you out directly.” If that was the man’s plan then Albert’s days in comfort and luxury were nearing an end. In a strange way, Albert Panetta was relieved. He was having a difficult time coming up with new ways to keep Bukhar’s ardor aglow.
“This has less to do with my lost love, than with your interest in my past.”
“I understand that you would want to make contact with her. I knew that from the beginning. I accepted your kindness knowing that such a time would come.”
“You still don’t understand, do you, Mr. Panetta?”
“I guess I don’t.”
“I just thought you might prefer it this way,” he said pointing to the darkened windows.
Albert looked around at the room that had been the source of his good fortune. Not that such simple surroundings were responsible alone. Capitalizing on the misfortune of others required a certain skill and imagination. The streets of America may not be paved with gold as the myth advised, but those who travel along its paths were equally vulnerable to being mined and picked clean. Now all he had to do was figure out what the old man was up to and manipulate even that change in his favor.
“Why would I want the windows boarded shut?”
“To keep you from from crying out for help.”
Help. Why would he require help? Then it became clear. A sudden rush of reality, the skip of a heartbeat and Albert dropped the broom and made for the door but Bukhar had already backed out of the room and slammed the door in his face. A heavy bolt was drawn across the face of the door and dug into the doorframe outside before Albert could throw his weight against it.
“What are you doing?” Albert screamed, pounding his fist against its thickness.
“I’m repaying you for your trust.”
“I don’t understand,” he asked, unable to bear the sudden striking pain in his head. If only he had been thin, he might have been able to reach the door in time. A bubble swelled in his belly and with it a taste of raw sewage erupted up into the back of his throat.
“You never saw my Ninotczka, did you?”
God no. “Of course I did.”
“You saw her in white linen? You watched her move about and wave her arms appealingly?”
“Yes, and more,” Albert answered. He fell to the floor and began retching and heaved up the contents of his previous night’s exploits. He banged his head against the door several times but couldn’t distract the pain. He sat in his own puke trying to recall what had happened that night, to his plans and future. “Louis?”
“You saw her speak to you?”
The old man was still there. “Yes,” he said coughing.
“You saw her from across the room, so you could be sure of this?”
“Ninotczka was a beautiful girl. You told me she had the face of an angel. The eyes of a dove. The complexion of a swan.”
“She was very pretty.”
“Then doesn’t it seem strange that she would agree to marry a man nearly three times her age?”
Who cares, Albert had concluded long ago, if the girl wanted to marry for money. At this point in his life, Albert would not hesitate for such an opportunity, no matter how hideous the hag. So what if he wasn’t exactly perfect in his description of the little tart. “Louis, open the door,” he asked, then turned toward the darkened far end of the room. Little scratching sounds echoed out into the darkness.
“You saw her speak to you?” Louis asked again.
“That would be quite difficult for her Albert. You see, a carriage struck down the child when she was only eight. It fractured her jaw. She could barely eat. There was terrible nerve damage to her face. The poor child’s face remained expressionless from that moment on. But I didn’t care. She was all I had. She was all I wanted. And now you even managed to take that memory from me.”
“But the girl in the picture behind your desk. It was the same girl, I saw. How could I have known if I hadn’t seen her?”
Bukhar didn’t respond.
“Louis, how could I have known?”
“The photo is of a friend’s child I put there to confirm a growing suspicion that your tale was a lie. You were just preying on an old man’s deepest desires.”
Defeated, Albert begged, “What do you want from me, Louis?”
Bukhar knelt down so he was directly opposite Albert Panetta on the other side of the door. “You destroyed the last vestige of hope of happiness in an old man.”
“Louis, please, you’re wrong.”
“You will end your life in there with your cunning and deceit, in the blackened belly of the monster you created. Because you are a man of some substance, though regrettably not of moral character, it will take some time. In the end, you will provide the mice with a goodly feast. When there is nothing left of you I will open the door, throw your remains out with the rest of the droppings, rip down the boards from the windows and rent out my fifth floor apartments to the highest bidder as I should have done years before you came to feed on my suffering.”
If he weren’t so drunk, he would have seen this coming. He had overplayed his hand. Badly. Now it only remained for him to figure out how he was going to extricate himself and make amends.
“Louis, open the door. I am sorry. I was desperate. I needed help.”
But there was no answer. Albert couldn’t tell if the old man had walked away or just wanted him to suffer a little more before he let him out.
“Please, I meant you no harm,” Albert said, feeling his head was about to explode. “It was a terrible mistake on my part.”
“Yes, it was,” Bukhar said, but he was already clinging to the banister when he said it. The wooden rail swayed unsteadily his grip. He questioned why Albert had never told him it needed repair.
Albert cautioned himself. He needed to appeal to Bukhar; to a man he had wounded but whom he knew had a compassionate streak. If he had only curried the man’s favor instead of trying to manipulate coins from his soul. Albert settled himself in trying to measure the degree of his confinement and what he was prepared to give up in order to secure his release. An apology wasn’t going to be enough. His greed had surpassed any possibility of offering a simple confession. That’s why Bukhar wasn’t responding.
Albert guessed that the old man would either remain at the door saying nothing or return within an hour or two with his demands. He decided not to negotiate but give in and offer to work for free for him for an unspecified time. He would show Louis Bukhar a level of contrition that he had not anticipated.
Louis Bukhar was a quiet, unassuming man of great patience and determination who was often chastised by relatives and friends for taking too much time to make up his mind, and wasting too much of his life in letting go. Those same souls would never accuse him of enforcing retribution or administering the cudgel of punishment. But those who knew him best accepted the fact that he never forgot and he never forgave.
Bukhar came up to the fifth floor many times over the next few days. He was thoughtful enough to swath his shoes in canvass so as to minimize the sound of his presence. He kept a vigil at the door for hours before he opened his store and after dinner. On the first day, it seemed that Albert had not moved from the door. Albert must have heard even the muted footsteps because he began to plead and ask forgiveness. He prayed that he be given another chance and swore that he meant no harm and wished only to be released so he may prove himself. On the second day, Louis heard a great deal of physical activity—grunting and heaving as though Albert had dedicated this day to freeing himself.
By the fourth day, Albert no longer had anything left to say. He was exhausted. His stomach ached and the terrible thirst in his mouth had squeezed the logic from his brain. His head had long ago passed a level of pain that he thought impossible. He couldn’t believe Bukhar would hold him in this confinement a moment longer. But then he had been saying that in this miserable darkness for God knows how long.
He tried to picture the next tomorrow; his hand filled with a cold beer, with a kind word from Jimmy as they toasted whatever they felt worth rewarding themselves for. Albert couldn’t bring himself to believe Bukhar would ever go into Gleason’s, or that his value would generate the kind of friendship he had enjoyed with JR.
Louis had come to this end after much preparation and was positive that there was no way out of that apartment. It was hard to hear much of anything on the fourth or fifth day. Sometimes Louis imagined a whimper drifting up from the bottom of the door. Once he heard Albert breathing close to the floor at the base of the door so as to bring in fresh air to his lungs. By the eighth day, he noticed a faint stench growing from within.
On the ninth day Louis returned the faded picture of his friend’s youngest daughter; a charming young girl with fine long chestnut hair and captivating brown eyes who had grown up and married a decent chap who owned a pawnshop next to Killian’s Stable on the corner of Ludlow and Grand. It took Louis most of the tenth day to return Albert Panetta’s apartment to its original condition. The steady rain outside brought him an added measure of relief. There was a moment during that afternoon when Louis Bukhar stood in the empty apartment once occupied by Albert Panetta and watched the swarm of humanity below. He marveled at the courage and ingenuity of man in the face of practically hopeless odds. Men with hands gnarled and twisted from manual labor, swathed in tattered clothes and determination with backs so bent they might only stand erect for an hour a day, and then only to encourage their children to become better than they were.
Who would have thought he would have survived the trip from Russia so long ago, worked over thirty years to build a successful millinery shop or suffer the indignity of two failed proposals of marriage when he was younger? The humiliating rejections had stayed with him, eating and disfiguring him until the image he saw in the mirror was as malformed as Albert Panetta’s conscience.
It took the call of his aging bones to disregard whatever limitations a young bride might possess and reach out to relatives from his mother country for help. Louis Bukhar craved the most meager companionship and manifestation in his home that couldn’t be traced to his own meanderings. What he couldn’t condone was to be made to seem foolish and ingenuous. Not now. Not after he had worked so hard. That is what the corrupted mound of flesh lying across the hall had succeeded in doing.
In the end, Albert Panetta lasted nearly two weeks. His body dehydrated. His fingers, bloodied from tearing away at the window boards, had become tempting appetizers for the mice. His feet were broken from pounding on the floors trying to alert the ghosts of those who once lived below. His throat was shredded from the screams that went unheard except by his crawling partners in crime. His remains lay just under the window where he continued to conjure up miraculous apparitions that he hoped would free him from his earthly dilemma.
Arthur Davis’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rusty Nail, Bewildering Stories, eFiction/Fantasy, The Write Room, The Stone Hobo, Thoughtsmith, Danse Macabre Magazine and The Arts And Entertainment Magazine.