The buzzer rang and I jumped like I always do. It was a loud, harsh cross between a buzz and a ring that seemed to annoy even the cat, judging by the way she raised her head, giving me that look, before settling back to sleep. I tossed the book I was reading to the side, even though I was really into it, slipped on my clogs and ran down the four flights to answer the door before he left. I had been waiting for him - the Verizon worker - who had been dispatched to repair Steve’s phone line that went out the day after the storm. We didn’t have a "buzz up" system so I had to go down to let him in. If I didn’t hurry, he would think no one was home and move on to the next person on the list.
When I got downstairs, I was surprised to see two guys, one larger-boned and blond with a haircut that was uncompromising, in an army/navy sort of way. The other guy was trimmer and shorter with more relaxed brown hair. They both looked like they were in their thirties, clean-shaven, and easy on the eyes. I noticed they were between the two doors. “How’d you get inside the front door?” I asked.
“It was open,” the blond guy said.
I nodded. It didn’t surprise me. The women in the parlor floor apartment of the brownstone where we lived were always negligent about securing the doors; which I thought was odd since their apartment would probably be the first one to be robbed. The neighborhood was pretty safe but you never knew.
“Well, we’re going all the way up to the top,” I told them, “So you might want to pace yourself.” This was a line I used for most visitors unacquainted with the flights of stairs that led to our apartment on the top floor. I was used to them. Climbing them was part of what kept me in shape; schlepping groceries, my bicycle, food deliveries, everything really, up the four flights. I knew it was best for new-comers not to talk during the climb but the Verizon guys and I did anyway. Besides, they looked pretty fit.
“Did you lose power?” the blond guy wanted to know.
“No, we were really lucky. We just lost our satellite dish. We heard a thump on the roof during the storm. It got ripped off from where it was bolted,” I said.
“No kidding” he said.
I led them to Steve’s room where we had the phone jacks and we chatted while the dark-haired guy checked Steve’s line. Steve and I have always had separate phone lines. There were times in the past when I thought this was weird. Now I didn’t. Neither of us wanted to be bothered with changing to a new number when I moved in with him sixteen years ago. I didn’t answer his phone and he didn’t answer mine. It worked out okay for the most part even though I sometimes got irked by the various women who would call him. Their names and numbers showed up on his caller ID and I recognized them from the classes he taught at Crunch, the neighborhood gym. But after a while, I got over it. It went with the territory.
“Where do you guys live?” I asked. “How’d you make out with the storm?”
The blond guy answered first. “I live in Westchester. Our power just came back on. I was taking my kids to school today and figured I’d have to splurge for a generator. It was time. Too many days. The electricity kicked in just in time.” He looked over my head and around the room while he spoke and I wondered what he was piecing together about Steve and me; what story he was creating. Sometimes I referred to this room as Steve’s lair. It was painted a bright yellow-green (Steve’s choice which I had to admit, looked pretty good especially when the sun filled the room during the day), and housed, among other things, his large screen TV (a gift from me from when I was still working), some of Steve’s photo-collages, and a frame holding some of his cycling medals.
The dark-haired guy looked up from where he was clipping something to the colored wires inside the jack to test the line. He was doing the work while the blond guy stood by. “I live in Rockland County,” he said. “We just got our power back on yesterday. The two of us usually work in the Bronx. We’re just on loan to this area because of the storm.”
He seemed more shy and soft-spoken than the blond guy. I liked that about him. I noticed that his right eye was blue but his left eye was off somehow. It stared off in a slightly different direction. I noticed there was something dark covering most of the iris almost looking like one large, dilated pupil. I wasn’t sure where to look when he spoke so I focused my attention at the blue eye.»
They explained that they needed to get to a box on Prospect Place around the corner to try and fix the problem. I was hoping that would do the trick. If they needed to get up to the pole in the backyard, they were going to need to go through a neighbor’s yard. Our landlords, with the only access to the yard, were rarely around. “Well, just let yourselves out and buzz me when you need to come back. I’ll come down and let you in,” I told them.
I went back to my book but was thinking about these two young guys with young families, living in suburbs outside the city. Even though only the blond guy talked about kids, I thought they were probably both married. I figured it was probably their wives’ ideas to move to a “safe” environment for the kids where life would be easier. I guess that was sexist of me. I just couldn’t imagine anyone actually wanting to live in the northern suburbs for any other reason. But that’s just me.
A few minutes later, the buzzer sounded again. I didn’t jump as much this time since I was expecting it. I trotted down the stairs to find only the dark-haired guy there. He climbed the stairs ahead of me. He was wearing Levis and I checked out his butt which is a natural thing to do when someone climbs stairs ahead of you. That’s why I seldom led the way up. Not that I was ashamed of my 53-year-old behind, but I didn’t necessarily want people looking at it, judging it. I was shy that way. If he was shy like that, I couldn’t tell.
“I think it should be fixed now,” he said, looking back at me over his shoulder as he went up the stairs. There was a familiarity, a certain ease that I felt with him that I couldn’t explain.
“Oh, cool. That makes it easier than climbing the pole,” I said, just to talk.
“Yeh, it sure does,” he agreed. “So what do you do, work from home?”
“Well, I’m unemployed right now,” I told him. It was still kind of embarrassing for me to admit this. “I used to work in the apparel business.”
“That’s a tough business,” he said.
“Yeh, it’s pretty nasty. That’s why I left it,” I told him. “I’m still trying to find myself.” I wasn’t about to go into the last three years filled with details of my health battle and chemotherapy treatments. I figured I would just take it on the chin and come off as a flakey, lazy person rather than someone whose “job” right now was trying to get healthy and remain alive. Speaking with this young, healthy guy, I thought that if I had to be classified, “confused and unambitious” seemed preferable to “ill.”
He laughed and said, “Hey, if you can take it easy while you do that, that’s great.” I felt a twinge of the old guilt associated with unemployment resurface.
He called Steve’s number from his phone. I picked up and pushed TALK. “Hello?” I said.
“Hello,” he said into his cell. His mismatched eyes looked into mine. It was strange to talk on the phones this way since we were standing right next to each other.
“It’s working! Thank you,” I said when I heard his voice through the phone.
As we walked to the door, he said, “I’m Chris” and held out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Chris. I’m Fran,” I said. I took his hand and shook it thinking that introducing himself like he did was a nice thing to do. I should have thought to do this earlier, to make that human connection. I didn’t want him to leave right then, but the job was done. He had to move on.
“Take care,” I told him as he walked down the stairs. I wished I had something better to say but I didn’t.
# # #
Fran Giuffre is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on Mr. Beller's Neighborhood as well as in The New York Times, NY Press, Newsday, and More.com.