Avenue Zed, by Michael Fowler
I had just moved into an apartment for senior singles, located off a quiet hallway on the third floor of an old brick building. I was the last room in a row of twelve, to the right, as I approached it, of the pale yellow wall that marked the end of the hall. The builders might have put a window there, I thought, to give the tenants a look at the street below, but there was only a discolored wall.
The room came furnished, but the fridge, stove, and the furniture including the bed were of a reduced size and looked almost like toys. But then larger articles would never have fit in such a small room, really a conjoined bedroom, living room, and kitchen with a tiny bathroom off to one side. The freezing compartment of the fridge held one ice tray and one or two frozen meals, and the oven and stove were equally downsized. The little bed pulled out from the wall, and I would scrape my sides in the shower stall. I found these accommodations suitable, and on moving day only worried about bringing up my few articles of clothing, all of them tightly packed in one suitcase, on the small, rickety elevator.
I had just opened the door to my room and was about to carry in my suitcase after the slow and claustrophobic elevator ride, when the door across the narrow hall from mine opened. A buxom blonde lady of about my age faced me through her doorway, bunching about her in one hand a thick robe that barely concealed her flowing front. In her other hand she held out a clear plastic sack containing a pair of gray men’s shoes.
“I imagine you could use a decent pair of house slippers,” she said, giving me a once-over. “These belonged to my husband and look about your size. Don’t worry, they’ve been thoroughly sanitized.”
She leaned forward into the narrow hall, almost touching me with the dangling sack of old shoes. To get rid of her, I reached over with my free hand and grasped the sack, explaining at the same time that I was trying to finish moving in. I then carried the sack and suitcase inside and closed my door in her face.
Alone inside my new digs I made a cup of weak tea, then sat with it in my little easy chair in my little yellow room, the same yellow as the hall outside, wondering what I should do with a pair of dead man’s shoes. For that, as I understood the woman, was my dilemma: her husband had died, perhaps recently of a foul disease, and she was distributing his clothing to her neighbors, supposedly after cleaning his things first.
I decided after some thought that she was doing the right and neighborly thing, and that I should have thanked her for the departed’s shoes. But something about shoes worn by a recently deceased man made me uneasy, and I tossed the plastic bag over by the door to my closet, a diminutive aperture I hadn’t opened yet. Later, after finishing my tea, I went over to the bag and prodded it with my foot, but left it lying on the floor by the closet. It would be in the way there when I got around to hanging up my clothes, but I hadn’t yet thought of what to do with it.
After this draining experience I remained closed up in my room for the rest of the day, with no appetite for food, and that night I had trouble falling asleep in the undersized pull-out bed. I lay in complete darkness except for a low-wattage light I had installed in the bathroom, leaving open the small sliding bathroom door. I lay also in complete silence except for a rustling sound that I barely heard, that was perhaps a neighbor’s TV or the wind rushing by my little curtained window overlooking the street three stories below.
On awaking the next morning, I found that one of the dead man’s shoes was on my foot, and that the plastic sack holding the other was beside me in bed. Disgusted, I yanked off the slipper, stuck it back in the bag with its mate, and again tossed the sack over by the closet where I thought I’d left it. My mind reeling, I made plans to get rid of the bag later that day.
I went for a walk that afternoon, hoping some fresh air and a change of scenery would lighten my mood. My building stood on a small square, of which I could see only one side and a bit of the park that bordered it from my window. I thought I’d do a bit of exploring, and found during my brief walk that aside from a few cheap restaurants and a second-hand clothing shop, the square was composed entirely of taverns. There must have been ten of them. The four sides of the square, where I stood and looked out as far as I could see, gave way to the park I mentioned, a car lot, a churchyard, and a disused railroad trestle. There was also a two-lane throughway, called Avenue Zed, that bisected the square and ran east-west in either direction farther than I could see. Avenue Zed was a fairly busy street with little to recommend it.
I headed home after my walk, regretting that I hadn’t brought along the sack of old slippers to throw out in one of the public trash receptacles on the square. I had been afraid that my neighbor lady would see me and feel insulted, so I left them back in my room. Now I remained exposed to any illness or contagion they carried, thanks to that witch. When I got to my door, moreover, she opened hers across from mine as if she had known I’d be out there. Once again she flourished a hand-me-down enclosed in a plastic wrapper.
“I’m certain you’d enjoy a sport jacket like this,” she said, her front almost bursting through a plain blouse. Her words astonished me, as she held out one of those checked Madras affairs popular with hippies decades ago. Though never a “flower child,” I myself had owned such a jacket, but I had grown to hate the style even in my youth, and was glad when the thing finally disintegrated. “It looks like it would fit you to a T,” she concluded. The hook of a wire hanger protruded from the plastic protector, and she placed the hook in my hand. Having no choice I accepted the gift, nodding my thanks. Then I vanished into my room before she wheeled out her deceased husband’s entire threadbare wardrobe, each article enclosed in plastic.
That night, my second in my new apartment, I found nothing of interest on the tiny TV I had installed in the living area, the screen about the same size as the single-slice toaster a previous tenant had left behind in the kitchen. With nothing else to preoccupy me, I dwelt morbidly on the plastic-encased clothing of a dead man stacked next to my closet. At last I got up and emptied my suitcase and hung up my clothes in the miniature closet, where there was barely room for the three shirts and two pairs of slacks on hangers that comprised my wardrobe, along with the suitcase itself. The cupboard-sized space smelled of mothballs or insecticide and I was glad to shut its flimsy door again.
Done with unpacking, I considered carrying my neighbor’s husband’s old clothes outside in the cover of darkness and putting them in the dumpster out back. But again I was afraid of being detected, and this fear sapped my energy. I decided to leave things where they were for now, and after a glance at my curtained window darkened by night, I turned in early.
As on the previous night, my falling asleep was interrupted by a rustling noise I heard or thought I heard, like branches brushing against my window in the wind, though no trees rose that to that height outside and the night seemed to be still. The sound might have been a neighbor’s TV, except this seemed to be an exceptionally quiet building as far as the tenants went, as if they had all taken a vow of silence when signing the lease.
Vow or no vow, however, tonight a second sound joined in with the rustling one, a high-pitched keening like a distant train whistle or dog howling in the distance. This too might have been a TV close by, or someone singing, or perhaps water gurgling in the old pipes. Fortunately I was exhausted and had no trouble falling asleep despite the rustling and the keening, but I woke up abruptly an hour or two later with the light in my room somehow turned on. Moreover, I lay in bed with both my feet in the dead man’s shoes and one arm in his Madras sport jacket, almost dressed for a love-in. After undressing again, my heart racing, I reinserted the dead man’s clothes into their wrappers and tossed them back on the floor by the closet. I then had some trouble falling back to sleep even after I turned the light off and the apartment once more became dark and quiet. I didn’t awaken until late the next morning.
After dressing I went out walking on the square, looking for a cafe or any interesting venue I might have missed on my earlier walk. I then happened to see at a distance my neighbor lady of the hand-me-downs enter the second-hand clothing store. “Aha,” I thought as I closed in on the shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman’s doings inside, “she has finally realized that I don’t want her dead man’s clothes and has sensibly decided to sell or donate them to the store.” But then another possibility occurred to me. Suppose she was buying men’s old clothes there and passing them on to me as having once been worn by her husband? In that case she would be insane, and liable to accumulate an entire store of old clothes to fob off on me over the continuance of our lives. With that in mind I rushed past the clothing store and entered a quiet little lunch nook on the opposite end of the square.
When I finally got back to my building, and ascended in the tight elevator to the narrow hallway on the third floor, the blonde lady opened the door to her apartment across from me just as I was fumbling for my key. To tell the truth I was expecting a hat this time around, something in straw or felt, and was surprised to find her holding out a harmonica in a sandwich-size plastic bag.
“This was my husband’s,” she said. “He often played ‘Red River Valley’ or ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ in the evening before bed. I don’t believe you play an instrument, at least I haven’t heard any music coming through your door, so I offer you his harmonica. Don’t worry, I’ve thoroughly cleaned it though my husband treated it like the precious instrument it is.”
That last statement I doubted, as I could plainly see that the item in the bag was dirty and scummed over with use. I took it anyway, nodding and grinning before this eccentric old woman standing there with her shirt coming unbuttoned. While still fumbling for my room key, I said, “You must miss your husband a lot.”
“Miss him?” she said. “Why, he lives with me right here. He’s renounced the world and all earthly belongings, and stays behind a little room divider I installed for him, only sometimes he escapes. Don’t tell the management he’s here, as these apartments are for singles only.”
At last I got my key in the door and let myself in, whereupon I closed the door on the crazy woman and at once tossed the bagged harmonica in my little waste can. I decided that the jacket and the shoes, still in bags on the floor, would soon go in the trash too, when I had the energy. All this made me very tired, and though it was only mid-afternoon I rushed to turn in.
Sleep arrived swiftly, even at such an early hour, but as soon as I closed my eyes I dreamt or imagined that I heard a high-pitched whistle off in the distance, as if a tea kettle were boiling in a room down the hall or someone outside and directly below me were whistling for his dog. Then my room turned completely dark and the image of a shadowy man appeared sitting at the foot of my tiny bed. The dark man held his two hands up to his mouth as if he were sucking or blowing on something, and his two eyes, red as in poorly taken photos, peered at me intently. The keening sound seemed to come from him, and I stared at the two red pinpoints of his eyes until I became unconscious.
Late the following morning I was standing outside my building on Avenue Zed, waiting for the next bus to arrive. I had emptied out the little closet and all my own clothes were in the suitcase I held at my side. Everything else, including the little TV I had acquired, and the one-slice toaster someone had left behind, I left as they were inside the apartment. The plastic bags of shoes, sport jacket, and harmonica remained on the floor or in the little trash can. I had my money ready, and was prepared to board the first bus that stopped at the square, headed either east or west, even if I had to dash across the street and into traffic to catch it.
Once seated among my fellow passengers, most of whom appeared to be bartenders on their way to work or drugged narcoleptics, I gazed out the window, my feet surrounding my small suitcase that rested on the floor. After thirty or forty minutes I decided I was far enough away from my last apartment building, which was so uninhabitable, to look for a new place to live. When the bus stopped at a square that housed a smallish one-story apartment complex called Brookside Meadows, though there was no brook or meadow in evidence, but only a small public square like the one I had left behind half an hour ago, I got off with my suitcase in hand.
I was encouraged to see a sign that read Senior Living out in front of the place, and inside I found a smaller sign on a door that read Manager. I knocked and the door was opened from within by an older blonde lady who bore a strong physical resemblance to my former neighbor from across the hall, even to her breasts that threatened to spill out from the thick robe she clutched around her neck. I could see that the room behind the manageress doubled as her living quarters, and I took in at a glance the small conjoined bedroom, living room, and kitchen. I asked if she could let me have an apartment, stating that I could pay her two months’ rent in advance if she gave me an hour or two to find a bank.
“What I’m really looking for is a resident caretaker,” she said. “Medium to light duties only. Mainly I need someone to shovel and salt our walks and parking lot over the winter, starting today since snow is predicted. I don’t know if your health and condition would permit you to do that.”
Here she gazed at my feet, and looking down I saw to my chagrin that I was wearing the dead or hidden man’s gray house slippers. Somehow I had removed them from their plastic bag and put them on without thinking about it, and gone outside and ridden the bus here in them. I hoped I had placed my own shoes, a collapsed pair of sneakers, in my suitcase, but at this point I wasn’t sure of anything. As for the rest of my attire, I saw that I had on my usual thin brown jacket that I wore in the early fall. I had paid no attention to the weather that morning, and if it was winter now and cold out with snow on the way, I hadn’t given it a thought. In any case, my frayed brown jacket was the only jacket I owned, except for the Madras number I had abandoned and was glad to see I wasn’t wearing. I told the lady I could handle the caretaker’s job, and to my delight she consented.
She took me around the side of the building and opened a storage area that housed a heap of maintenance supplies. “These belonged to my husband,” she said, holding out a pair of old but sturdy work boots. “He and I ran the place until he died last year. You’ll need some better shoes to tackle the shoveling, and I think his will fit you just fine. Over there is a shovel and some salt.”
“Are you positive your husband is dead?” I asked. “Some strange things have been happening lately with bodies, I can tell you.”
She assured me her husband was dead and buried, and left me so I could start work. I put on her husband’s old boots and a pair of his stiffened old gloves, but didn’t tackle my duties until I had searched every corner of the storage area, even looking under a folded tarp in one corner, for what I wasn’t sure, perhaps a bedroll still warm from its occupant, or a smoking cigarette butt. Finding nothing suspicious, I got to work. It hadn’t yet started to snow, but I salted the small lot and short walkways in preparation for a blizzard. After the lady came out to inspect my work, still barely wrapped up in her robe with snowflakes starting to fall, she took me to the room she had assigned to me as a live-in caretaker.
“This was my husband’s room,” she said, showing me a small combined kitchen-living-room-bedroom with a tiny bath. “He lived here and I lived in my room. I’m right around the corner.” She reached out and touched my face with her cold hand. “Some of his clothes and toilet articles are still here, including his straight razor. My husband was immaculately clean-shaven, and it was one of the things I liked best about him. Before we took on these apartments he owned a barbershop. I’d like you to shave as closely as he did.”
She remained in my room while I showered and shaved, though when I awoke the next morning she had returned to her own room. I strode past her closed door on my way outside, dressed in her ex-husband’s winter clothes and a nice pair of his shoes. The snow was just now starting, and I crossed Avenue Zed and entered a small restaurant. I hadn’t slept well, thinking I heard the peculiar sound of someone stropping an old-fashioned straight razor in the middle of the night, but I was hungry.
The woman at the register up front, a mature, ample-figured blonde in a white uniform, welcomed me warmly as I took a seat at the counter. “Would you feel more at home in the kitchen?” she said with a smile. “We have some wonderful cookware and knives.”
I turned and glanced out the front window at the infinite gray lengths of Avenue Zed, made hazy by swirling snow, and wondered why I kept running into this same sort of crazy woman. Why would I be interested in her kitchen utensils? It was maddening.
“I’ll just have coffee,” I said, my appetite gone. Still the lady insisted on taking me back in the kitchen and showing me the pots and pans. I put my hand on a spatula and it felt right at home. I could make it fly if I wanted to.
“I have your pills, Winthrop,” she said. “You’ve stopped taking them again. But they’re right here. I got them out for you when a friend told me she saw you in the neighborhood. You should take them. I need you here. I’ve had to hire a temporary cook. Here, your pills.” She held out a small medicine bottle.
“Your husband’s old medications,” I spat at her. Enraged, I came at her with a carving knife. She parried with a skillet, and I sat down, tired and my head aching. I heard the sound of a phone ringing in the distance.
“The medics are on their way,” she said.
I knew the medics personally. Each was a hefty aged blonde whose husband was dead or in hiding. Their names were Stella, Ella, Betty, and Esther. I never took a pill in my life.
Winthrop was not my name.
Michael Fowler is a senior citizen who writes speculative fiction in Ohio.
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