Solomon Wizen sits blowing smoke at the ceiling fixture that looks like one of those swinging oil lamps in the captain’s quarters of an old whaler. Really, it’s not an old oil lamp, just an old wrought iron and glass fixture dimmed by so many years of accumulated kitchen grease that it sends out only a faint yellow light. No matter. It’s enough light for him to roll his next cigarette. His yellowed fingers tremble as he works the mechanical gizmo. It takes some time. But that’s all right. Solomon has plenty of that.
His wife Helga has left him. She said he smokes too much. That and the way he eats his noodles, picking them out of his soup bowl one at a time, holding them up, twisting his tongue around the end, and slurping them into his mouth with a resounding thwwwip. And, he farts in bed. There’s that, too. A mere olfactory inconvenience as far as Solomon is concerned but you know how women are. Anyway, it was a relief when she stopped nagging and left. It’s quiet now. Sometimes it’s too quiet.
He cooks a little and knows how to use the washing machine, not that that counts for anything. After his wife had been out of the apartment a day or so, he started going to bed fully dressed, rising each morning with pants and shirt in place. He finds it easier that way. No laundry and, in the morning, he’s immediately ready for breakfast.
Now here’s Solomon’s big problem. It’s the middle of the month and the refrigerator’s empty because Helga isn’t there to shop for him anymore. To make matters worse, she still manages his unemployment check, sealing his share in a used gas and electric bill envelope and dropping it into his mailbox on the first. By the fifteenth he’s broke and reduced to smooching off neighbors. He shoves the cigarette roller aside, goes to his bedroom, and opens the window.
“Helga, darling,” he calls across the courtyard. He watches Schneiderman’s undershorts swell with a passing breeze and dance on the wash line while he waits for his wife to raise the shade. “It’s me, Solomon. Your lonely husband.”
The shade flaps up and she stands gripping the window frame with both hands. Her lips are pursed like she’s been sucking on a lemon. Her hair is darker than he remembers, but he recognizes the generous rolls of loose flesh hanging on her upper arms. To tell the truth, he misses that softness he felt when she had embraced him in bed and kissed the back of his neck. That was when he slept in his underwear and made himself available for that and the roundness of her breasts and—no use thinking about that now. He must get down to business. The scowl on her face warns him that this better be good.
“You are well?” he asks. She nods and reaches for the shade pull. “Wait,” he screams. “The refrigerator is empty.”
“And you’re telling me this because?”
Helga is a hard woman. She’s a peasant, if you really want to know. A peasant with a personality that cascades over everything like a rockslide leaving everyone in the vicinity of her raucous voice flattened and speechless. She is like her mother, the one who always looked at Solomon like he was one of those salesmen that came to her door wanting to sell mops and brooms and to fuck her daughter when she wasn’t looking.
Well, Solomon wasn’t one of those guys who tried to sell useless stuff to housewives. He didn’t have that kind of a job. To tell the truth, at the time he didn’t have a job at all. Though he did want to fuck her daughter. That’s neither here nor there. The fact is that both women have been a thorn in his side.
His wife never understood that finding a job wasn’t what stood between him and bringing home a paycheck. It was the matter of choosing the right one. His father, a tailor by trade, had moaned his entire life that he had been apprenticed to the wrong profession. Six days a week he made silk ties for the wholesale market and, on the seventh, he mended the tears in the clothing worn by his seven children.
“I can’t sleep at night,” his father would groan. “The sound of the machine goes on and on in my head.”
“So what’s with all the snoring at night?” Solomon’s mother would ask.
“And my feet. So many miles on the treadle, it’s a wonder I don’t have blisters.” He’d take off his shoes and rub the soles of his feet.
“What are you complaining about? You sit all day at the machine while I stand and cook and wash and iron and run after kids. I should be the one complaining.”
You can see how it went. Anyway, Solomon had learned his lesson. He was careful. So much so that now that, over fifty, he sometimes worked at odd jobs but has never found one to which he can devote his full intellect.
Helga’s shade goes down and she disappears along with any hope that she will buy groceries. He returns to the living room and searches under the couch cushions for some loose change but comes up empty. He should have known better. All the nooks where change might have wandered had been cleaned out. But still, it never hurts. A penny here, a dime there. It all adds up. He lights another cigarette and heads downstairs to Rosinski’s apartment for a cup of coffee.
The door opens a crack. Solomon says, “Good morning, Mr. Manager,” figuring that will soften Rosinski up because that man takes his duties very seriously. “How about some coffee for an old friend?”
Rosinski gives him the eye, the one that slides side to side whenever he gets excited. That’s the problem with him. He gets excited about everything Solomon does since Helga left: about the coffee he bums, about being late with the rent, about the bathtub that overflowed and leaked through the ceiling onto Rosinski’s bed, about the low types that sometimes flop in Solomon’s apartment—the artist who never finishes a picture but leaves splotches of paint on the walls where he blends colors, the bald man who claims to know the future, and the woman with her three cats that shit in the upstairs hall.
“I’ll pay, I’ll pay,” Solomon shouts. “Helga brings my money next week and she never misses.”
“No more coffee until I get the rent. And you keep that mess out of the upstairs hall. My wife is sick of cleaning up the cat shit.” Rosinski slams the door.
“Ohhhh,” Solomon wheedles, “I am an abandoned man.” He raises his voice, hoping Rosinski will hear him. “Only that my wife was like your devoted Deborah who works her fingers to the bone for you. Mine lives only for herself—dyes her hair black and has a new dress every week.” He knocks on the door again. “Rosinski,” he calls out, “I’m a man in need. I’m begging you. One cup of coffee.”
Damn him. As far as Solomon is concerned, Rosinski’s too involved with collecting rent and keeping the hallways uncluttered. He has no soul and no empathy for unappreciated genius. Solomon saunters out the front door and sits on the steps smoking and waits for a good idea. He’s certain he’ll come up with something. Like the idea he had a while back where a man could spray artificial hair onto his bald spot. It had come to him as he watched the neighborhood kids play with Silly String, spraying long noodle-like plastic on the sidewalk, the steps, and even on the cars parked along the street. That’s what put an end to the Silly String business. The noodles baked onto the windshields and the car owners got pissed.
Anyway, that’s not the point. Why not thin out the strings, color them, and spray them onto the bald spots of middle-aged men? It could be very lucrative. Every man with thinning hair would be indebted to him. And Helga, what would she have to complain about after he made his first million? He had been so besotted with the idea that he had immediately run down to Lorenzo’s barber shop to get his opinion.
The Bible says that a prophet is not known in his own country. And that’s the truth. Lorenzo and the customers, even the fat guy whose face was plastered with shaving cream, had started laughing even before Solomon got to the part about coloring the plastic to match the customer’s existing hair.
“How you gonna get it to stick onto the guy’s skin?” Lorenzo had asked. He placed a hot towel over the customer’s face; the steam rose and clouded the mirror on the wall behind the chair.
“That’s for the manufacturer to figure out. I’m the idea man.” Solomon had been bewildered by the fact that they couldn’t understand the chasm between those with mega ideas who used their brains to get to the top and the working class perpetually bound to producing someone else’s innovations.
“Some idea,” the fat man had said through the hot towel. “Yes, sir, some idea.” Solomon had pointed to the shelves filled with lotions, creams, towels, and mugs holding shaving brushes. “You’re a bunch of Luddites with no appreciation for technological advancements.” As a parting gesture, he had shaken his finger at them as if they were naughty children and left in a huff. Their laughter had bounced off the walls and followed him out the door. If a fire engine and an ambulance hadn’t passed just then, the laughter would have followed him all the way home.
Solomon pushes the humiliating memory from his mind. It had been one of his better ideas he tells himself as he sits on the stoop outside the apartment house that day. The world hadn’t been ready for it. The front door opens and he moves closer to the railing so Buddy Indilgenti can pass with his bicycle. Whistling tunelessly, the teenager squeezes by and gives Solomon a brief nod, but he is too deeply in thought about his hair restoration idea to respond. The product needs something catchy. Perhaps he should show a little humility, take his name off the label and replace Wizen’s Magic Hair with something more sophisticated—like Hair in a Can.
Mrs. Shamsey comes down the street. She’s leaning to the right toward the iron picket fence that separates pedestrians from the windows of the basement apartments. The heavy bag of groceries in her left hand doesn’t provide enough ballast to pull her upright.
“And a good day to you, Mrs. Shamsey,” Solomon says when she reaches the steps. “Here, let me carry that up for you.” He smiles, takes the bag, and hopes that she will reward him with a cup of coffee.
“Grateful,” she puffs.
Solomon only reaches the second floor before Mrs. Shamsey has to take the groceries and carry them up the remaining two flights. “Pump’s bad,” he explains as he follows into her apartment and, without an invitation, sits at the kitchen table. “Wouldn’t have a cup of coffee?” he asks as she puts away the groceries. “Don’t go to any trouble, just thought…”
“No trouble,” she says. “It gets lonely now that Mr. Shamsey has passed.” She opens the coffee canister and measures out two scoops, levels them off with her finger, and adds them to the pot. Then she carefully sweeps the grounds that have spilled among the pink peonies printed on the table cloth into her hand and returns them to the canister.
Solomon brightens. A widow, a little older than he, but Mrs. Shamsey can still walk to the grocery store. Not as buxom as Helga but still an attractive woman for her age. The coffee begins to percolate. Solomon inhales. He could be happy in this cozy little place. This room is too small for his desk but the walls in the hallway could be lined with his bookshelves holding his collection purchased at Myron’s Used Book Shop. It would give the place a little class. He’ll look around her apartment later to see if there’s a more appropriate place for the desk. But then, if he has to, he can do without it and do his heavy thinking elsewhere. Right here at the kitchen table as far as that goes—near the coffee pot—only an arm’s reach from the refrigerator.
“Is there a bad smell in here?” Mrs. Shamsey asks. She opens the kitchen window.
Solomon can see the brick wall of the apartment house next door not three feet away. What a miraculous revelation. Sitting here at the table, he wouldn’t have to look at Helga’s window and wonder what she’s doing. Undistracted by her flagrant excesses and free from money worries, he could come up with some really big ideas.
“I wonder where that smell comes from,” Mrs. Shamsey persists. “Does it bother you, Mr. Wizen?”
He shrugs. But what about Mrs. Shamsey’s income? He doesn’t want to get involved with anyone who’d piss through his half of the unemployment check. He’s more of a literary man than a mathematician. But his check cut in thirds? Well, you get what he’s thinking. He scratches his head; a flurry of dandruff settles on his vest.
“It does smell like dirty socks, doesn’t it?”
“I hope Mr. Shamsey was a considerate man and left you well enough off.”
“Well enough.” Mrs. Shamsey draws close and places a cup of coffee in front of Solomon. She hastily steps back. “Dear me,” she says, waving her hand in front of her face. “Why don’t you take the coffee with you?” She opens the door, inviting Solomon to leave.
Solomon sips his coffee as he descends the stairs sidestepping the cat shit. He did wish she’d offered a cookie. Coffee is good, but a little sweet would have made it better. Next time, when she isn’t expecting company or doesn’t have something urgent to attend to, she’d take time to gossip, make sure his plate was filled with coffee cake, and become accustomed to having him around.
The thought is so warming that, once in his apartment, he immediately looks for a tape so he can measure the desk. But soon his growling stomach distracts him. He hasn’t eaten since the night before when he finished off the last of the limburger Helga had purchased several weeks ago, just popped the small lump into his mouth without the comfort of a slice of rye or even a pickle.
To assuage his hunger he pulls up more pleasant thoughts like, how any day now, Mrs. Shamsey might invite him to come up to her place. He’d better decide what to take. Just his books, some clothes, and the desk. He’d get Buddy Indilgenti to carry the desk up and give him fifty cents for his efforts. On second thought, a quarter might be more appropriate. He’s too young to be exposed to the flagrant ways of capitalism.
Solomon congratulates himself on having reflected on the intrinsic problems of management and labor. He’ll run over to Schneiderman’s to discuss the overindulgences of those living under such a profligate economic system and maybe get an invitation to dinner. But he’ll have to wait until the Mrs. visits her sister up in Yonkers. She’s Helga’s best friend and doesn’t think too kindly of him.
There’s no need to dwell on that now. He’d better concentrate on what he’ll take up to Mrs. Shamsey’s apartment. Nothing that belonged to Helga, of course. But when he looks around the kitchen for ideas the ricer, hanging on the hook over the stove, reminds him of those delicious potatoes with pools of steaming brown gravy. It implores him to take it with him in honor of Helga’s meals that for years had filled his belly, fattened his waist, and turned his digestive system into a blast furnace.
He sighs and goes into the pantry, pulls a box of crackers from the top shelf, and carries it into the kitchen. He shakes the remaining crumbs onto the table and sucks them off his spit-covered finger thinking about how sad it is that millionaires with poorly furnished minds drive Bentleys and summer in the south of France while he, Solomon Wizen, a self-educated classical scholar full of brilliant ideas, is dining on cracker crumbs.
After four Solomon walks down to the Stag-Nite Bar where Rooney, employed as a barboy, washes glasses and clears tables. They grew up together in the Bronx, an unlikely pair—Solomon, a well-rounded boy sustained by his mother’s knishes and chicken soup, and Rooney, a skinny kid with red wavy hair, son of an Irish cop who had it in for all the kids on the block. Anyway, forget all that. It’s enough to know that their friendship lasted and that Rooney, after the boss leaves the bar at three and the bartender goes out back for ice, will always pour his friend a glass of free beer from the ceramic tap labeled “Spitzenbergen” in some sort of crazy script that is supposed to look German.
Rooney wipes the table at which Solomon sits and slides onto the bench across from him. “You’re looking a bit on the gloomy side this sunny day. Tis a bit more of that,” he says pointing to Solomon’s glass, “that might be giving you some cheering up.”
Solomon grunts, sips his beer, and empties the dish of peanuts into his pocket. The barman shakes a bag of ice into the stainless steel sink. Solomon shivers as though the ice has been poured down his back.
“Sunny outside it may be, my friend, but I’m weather worn inside,” Solomon complains. “I fear my best ideas have been scorned, and my new ones poisoned by my ungrateful wife who now dyes her hair black, has a new dress every week, and wears a fancy bejeweled pendant around her neck. All purchased with my unemployment money.”
“A greedy wife is it you have now? My dear deceased father said a man should be king and rule in his own home.”
“But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.”
“Holy B’Jesus. Your wife said that?”
“Not my wife, you ass. Hamlet.” Solomon draws a deep sigh and raises his eyes to the ceiling.
“Sure now it was,” Rooney says, giving Solomon the look of a dog being scolded for chewing his owner’s slippers. He takes the peanut dish and refills it.
The despair of having to associate with persons so far removed from his intellectual level makes Solomon sag, as though the bones that support him are deteriorating, leaving nothing to hold him up but the fatty residue from too many blintzes. “And she won’t bring money until next week,” Solomon continues when Rooney returns.
“So, it might be a job you’re thinking about?” Rooney asks.
The thought of his last job sends an electric shock from Solomon’s brain to his spine; he bolts upright. He’d been hired as a security guard for the Shop and Buy over on Fifty-Seventh. Although he’d considered the job beneath him, he had been particularly fond of the official badge on the right breast pocket of his shirt that said “Blue Star Security Service” and fascinated by the alarm device that hung on his shoulder guaranteeing help in any emergency.
Unfortunately, Solomon had been late every night his first week on the job because he had trouble finding two black or two blue socks. Not that having socks that matched mattered to him. But it did to Sergeant Estero, a military type with a shaved head, stiff neck, and no inclination to discuss whether or not matching socks would give some drug-crazed thief second thoughts about robbing the Shop and Buy. He’d given Solomon a warning.
As you can guess, when Solomon found that he could stretch out and get some sleep on the fifty-pound bags of rice brought in for the growing Southeast Asian population, things spiraled out of control. Once more Estero had demonstrated that he was an unreasonable man.
“It is logical for a man to want some sleep after midnight,” Solomon had argued. “That’s the time humans are programmed to take their much-needed rest.” He’d been sure his boss wouldn’t find fault with such a scientifically-based explanation.
Estero did and Solomon had been laid off. It wasn’t a crushing blow, especially when he considered how uncomfortable it had been sleeping on the sacks of rice. And when Helga learned he was eligible for unemployment, she wasn’t too put out either. On the appropriate day, she had rousted him out and hustled him down to the Department of Employment Opportunities.
“Are we in the right place?” Solomon had asked as they entered the building. “I’m not especially looking for employment opportunities. I just want a check for not working.”
“Get in line,” Helga had said. “And register.”
Rooney wipes the ring left on the table by Solomon’s glass. “I hear they’ve been looking for a stock boy over at the Radio Review Shop on Thirty-seventh for some time now.”
“If my next idea works out,” Solomon said, “I won’t need a job.”
“So, it’s a new idea you’ve got?”
“Not at the moment. A brain is a delicate mechanism,” Solomon explains as if Rooney hasn’t passed the third grade. “If you push too hard, you create an imbalance.”
“You don’t say.”
It is nearly six and the after-work crowd is filing into the Stag Nite. The bartender approaches the table where Solomon and Rooney are sitting. “Break’s over. Start clearing tables.”
Rooney scurries away.
“And you,” the bartender says to Solomon, “freeloading time is over. We need the table.” He jerks his thumb toward the door.
Solomon grabs a handful of peanuts and rises slowly, like a man who has all the time in the world. In fact, he does. He is in no hurry to return to his empty apartment, tiptoe past Rosinski’s door, look through the pantry for a few more crumbs, hope that Helga might come through with some money earlier than expected, and wait for Mrs. Shamsey to invite him to live with her.
Apprehensive, he steps outside. The edges of the clouds are clinging to the last rays of sunlight, pedestrians are hurrying somewhere, and drivers are blasting their horns hoping to arrive home a minute or two earlier. The noise and commotion confuses Solomon. So much intensity without just cause gives him heartburn.
He passes the Hot Dogger. The neon sign in the window advertises Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. In the window, a grill is endlessly turning sausages and a fan pushes delicious aromas out the vent and onto the street. Saliva rampages and his gut reminds him that he hasn’t eaten all day and begs for one small tidbit. He tosses the entire handful of peanuts into his mouth, worries the salt off with his tongue, and chews slowly.
Perhaps Rooney is right. He should look for a job. The thought is repugnant, but Solomon has to admit that it does present several positive angles. He’ll earn money. If he has a few bucks, he can purchase food, give Rosinski a little something to keep him quiet, maybe even lure Helga back. The beer reaches his bladder causing great pressure and a little pain. He enters the alley next to the Hot Dogger and relieves himself against the graffiti-covered back wall.
“Hoodlums,” Solomon mutters, surveying the street art on the building as he empties his bladder. “Kids today have no respect for private property.” He zips his pants and leaves, walking slowly toward his apartment.
Helga might take him back if he tells her he’s a sick man. Bad bladder, he’ll say. Prostate. Or even better, failing kidneys. Call across the courtyard, tell her it pains him to urinate, that when he gets out of bed in the morning he can hardly stand. He knows exactly how he’ll say it. Like there is nothing he can do, it’s all over for him. Maybe say he found blood in his urine. Forget that. Helga’s a bitch. She’ll ask for proof. Better stick to the prostate story.
If that doesn’t work, there’s still Mrs. Shamsey. When Helga drops off his money next week, he’ll buy some flowers at Henderson’s. As sort of an investment. Nothing too ostentatious. After all, he is a man of good taste. He’ll get something simple, like one rose—a red one. Red is good. It speaks from the heart. Come to think of it though, roses are expensive. A daisy might be better.
He envisions how it will go. Climb the two flights of stairs, wait a minute or two until he catches his breath and, when she opens the door, stand silently and hold out the flower. If he looks closely, he might even detect a tear in the corner of her eye.
Wait! Better yet, maybe knock right away and stand before her breathless. Yes, breathless would be more like an impatient man waiting and yearning for her to say yes. Well, in this case, offering him a meal would be preferable. He has a week to work out the details.
He reaches his apartment house and starts up the stairs when a horrible thought intrudes on his visions of a rosy future. What if Helga and Mrs. Shamsey both turn him down? What would become of him? His breath is raspy and comes in short spurts. His hand shakes as he unlocks the door to his apartment. The depressing thought of abandonment by both women is foremost in his mind. As he hurries across the room toward the window facing Helga’s apartment, he tips over the lamp table. Panicky, he promises himself he’ll get a job, stop hanging around the Stag Nite, and maybe help his wife around the house. Well, he won’t go that far, but he can see where he made his big mistakes. He’ll change. He opens the window.
“Helga, darling. It’s your lonely husband, Solomon,” he calls across the courtyard, hoping that she is home, in a generous mood, and ready to listen to reason.
Dorothy M. Place
Dorothy M. Place lives and works in Davis, California. Since submitting her first short story for publication in 2008, she has had fourteen stories accepted for publication in literary journals and magazines, four of which won recognition in short story contests, and another a fellowship to a literary conference. Her debut, literary fiction novel, “The Heart to Kill,” inspired by Euripides play, Medea, was released November 2016 by SFA Press. Her second novel, “The Search for Yetta” is in process. When not writing, she works on her bonsai collection, travels, and hikes.