Photo by Steven Depolo
Outside the shop where we’d just bought ice cream, my wife and I were sitting on a bench against the window, my wife with a cone and myself with a small cup. It was sunny. We’d just come over from Riverside Park, where we’d been leisurely biking, and where people were already starting to gather for the evening’s fireworks. It was July 4th, and apparently this was the first year in many that the fireworks would light the sky above the Hudson. We are new to the city, so we didn’t know this until we’d overhead someone saying it grouchily two nights earlier, at a bar we’d never been to before in Brooklyn. This person, who we didn’t know well, was unhappy because he liked to watch the fireworks from the roof of his friend’s apartment building somewhere on the East Side, even though, he said, no one was supposed to go up on the roof. That was a funny story too, but not the one I am trying to tell.
My wife and I had been sitting outside the ice cream shop for only a minute or two when an old woman wearing dark sunglasses and moving her elbows quickly, as if she was exercising, walked by. She stopped when she saw us, perhaps because my wife was smiling, as my wife tends to do whenever she is happy, even if there is no one in particular to smile at, and said quite curiously, “Is that store open?” meaning, of course, the shop that had sold us the ice cream, and in front of which we were now sitting.
Both of us said yes. My wife likes to talk to strangers, and I like to talk to strangers if they are old, because I tend to assume old people are lonely, though this doesn’t always turn out to be true, and though I know it shouldn’t be a requisite for making conversation with anyone. This old woman simply seemed very engaged with the world, very interested. Her hair was brushed back from her forehead in the style of Jackie Onassis when Jackie Onassis was old, and despite her thinness she was lithe, and full of a curious energy. But it struck me as strange that she was wearing shorts and a singlet. I wondered irrelevantly if she had a husband who was still alive.
She cocked her head to the side, not unlike a bird, while we watched her watch the store with unusual patience. “They look as though they’re closed,” she said dryly. My wife and I glanced behind us. It might have been true. The shop’s lights were off, but it was the middle of the day, and enough natural light came through the windows from the street that it wasn’t the first question that came to mind. We hadn’t noticed a lack of light when we’d been in there. I remembered how I’d dropped my wallet because I’d been distracted by the T-shirt of the guy who’d served us our cup and our cone. I’d seen it clearly. It was a concert T-shirt for the nineteen-eighties metal band Metallica, embossed with the “Ride the Lightning” album cover. I’m not sure what “Ride the Lightning” means, but the T-shirt depicted an unoccupied electric chair hovering over a sea in a stormy landscape. In any case, the guy himself was ordinary enough – neither overly nice nor impolite. He’d made a sympathetic noise when I’d dropped my wallet.
My wife and I agreed with the old woman vaguely. “Yeah,” I said, “It could be they’re trying to conserve light,” which I didn’t mean sarcastically but which, if I’d thought about it a moment, I would have realized didn’t make much sense. I’m not the wittiest person in the world. My wife said something like, “I wonder if they know that they look closed,” to which the old woman responded with undue enthusiasm. “You know,” she said, without removing her sunglasses, “I think someone ought to tell them,” and with that she opened the door and stuck her head inside. We heard the gist of the ensuing conversation. The old woman said her piece, which was polite but a little drawn-out, and the guy who’d served us, the guy with the Metallica T-shirt (a young guy who couldn’t have been the owner or even the owner’s son) responded with a sort of rude non-sequitur, asking in a monotone if she knew what she wanted to order. All this happened in the space of a few seconds. We heard the woman tell him, “I’m not ordering anything, I never come here,” and when she closed the door to leave, she paused to tell us what she’d told him, as if we hadn’t already heard, and as if we wouldn’t think the episode was anything but funny.
Edward Mullany writes poetry and fiction. He is an editor at matchbook and Anderbo, and teaches writing at College of Staten Island.