by Paul-John Ramos
About every 20 to 30 minutes, I put my hand on the radiators and pipes. It was usually bedroom radiator on the far right, pipe running down through the bathroom, then kitchen pipe, then living room radiator on the left. They were all cold and I could keep my hand on them forever.
It was something with the boiler, the building people admitted. They were working on it. I got acquainted with a variety of draughts that I didn’t know were coming through the window trim. I also found out what it’s like to be distracted every so often and confuse a passing bus outside for the sound of air beginning to pulse out of the valves.
Sunday afternoon was cloudy and around 15 Fahrenheit. The entire winter seemed to be like this. I was fully dressed and felt an urge to shudder.
Bedroom radiator, bathroom pipe, kitchen pipe, living room. The bedroom radiator felt vaguely warm. Was it warm or was I imagining that it was, since it’s always the first to come on?
I looked outside at the gray sky, salt-stained highway, and flags of a Goodyear dealer that were tattered in the wind. The phone then went to my ear. Super’s number: no answer, no voicemail. Building company’s number: answering machine. I didn’t really feel like speaking to them. The chicken breast and rice that I made hadn’t tasted very good and I couldn’t read in peace.
After hanging up, I put on my coat, walked down the alley, and rang the super’s bell. Then I went to the front and rear of the building. No one and nothing but the trashcans waiting to be emptied.
My alarm went off at six on Monday. I slept, but not well. I dragged myself from underneath the blanket and stretched in the cool air. The Sun hadn’t come up yet and the highway lights still shone over tractor-trailers in the dark. Snow from three days before lay alongside the roads and streaks of frost zigzagged across the bedroom window.
I got ready for work, slipped on my coat, and locked the front door. The hallway tiles were coated with salt, dirty snow, and dust. I walked one flight down before footsteps came racing up. I stopped when the super was in front of me.
– I need to look at your toilet. Are you here today?
– No, I’m going to work.
– I need you to leave me your keys. We need to do some work on the pipes in your bathroom.
– How would I get them back?
– You know where my apartment is? 1C?
– I’ll leave them under the stairs in an envelope. You can just look under the stairs when you come back.
I reached into my pants pocket and handed him the keys. He thanked me.
– If I haven’t come back, you can call me.
– The boiler hasn’t been working right.
– Yeah, they know about it. They’re working on it.
– Thanks for your help.
He turned to hustle back downstairs.
I stood on the landing for a moment, my bag dangling over my shoulder.
Helping others is an art. Most people can’t be relied on and the few who can aren’t very good at being relied on. Usually, all they can do is try.
My mother and father kept giving me advice from 300 miles away. They told me over the phone to use my space heater, turn on my oven, and dress in layers. Nothing worked, but I didn’t complain very much. I was supposed to be a man. A man with somewhere to go. I needed to be on my own.
Gretta popped into the office around ten. Her look at the time of entrance was usual: upright, shoulders squared, a noticeable smile, and alert, brown eyes behind oval, white-framed glasses. She had to walk past my cubicle each morning and almost always said hello.
I had to get up and speak with one of our directors on the opposite side of the room. Then I ended up at the copy machine, next to her desk. Her dark brown hair was tied back and her eyes were clinging to a proofsheet on the monitor. She glanced over and noticed me. I didn’t care to be noticed that day.
– Good morning.
– How are things?
I shrugged my shoulders.
– My apartment is cold.
– Oh. You don’t have any heat?
Not much, I told her. Some in the morning, some from 5 to 10 in the evening, and nothing overnight. I hadn’t slept well for four days, my throat was raspy, and I wanted to punch someone.
– It’s terrible to be cold at home. I know, I’ve been through it.
I said Yeah.
– How long has this been going on?
– Since the beginning of December.
She asked me what they were doing about it, how large my apartment is, where it is. I told her.
– There are always people staying at our place. Would you want to come out to Brooklyn? We have a big living room where you can stretch out.
– Oh, thanks, but you don’t have to offer something like that.
– You sure?
– Positive. You and your roommate don’t need me taking up the place, anyway.
She insisted it wouldn’t be a big deal for one or two nights. I said I would see what happens.
Things stopped working altogether on Thursday night. It dropped to 8 degrees outside, with no heat or hot water on the inside. My space heater in the bedroom kept me from freezing to death. I stood at my bathroom sink the next morning, shaving with ice-cold water next to my new toilet they installed the other day.
I met up with Gretta in the elevator at lunchtime. I could go over that night.
It was an older building like mine, on a street near the main drag in Bensonhurst. They lived on the third floor. I rang the bell and Gretta answered.
She said hello at their door and welcomed me in. I stood in the foyer with my bag. Then she offered to take my coat. I took my coat off and leaned my bag against the foyer’s wall like I do at home.
– Did you find it easy to get here?
– Yeah. A bit of a walk from the train, that’s all.
She pointed with her arm as she hung my coat in a closet. There was a big couch in the living room. She told me to make myself comfortable. It was a brown imitation leather couch that I didn’t like the idea of sitting on.
Someone’s brown hair and red sweater were visible along the door frame after I sat.
– He’s here?
– Yes, this is my friend from work.
She must’ve felt safe to face into the room. Antoinette was her roommate’s name. She was tall, maybe 25, with short hair and narrow, pouty lips. Antoinette looked very bemused about me.
– No heat in his apartment.
– That sucks.
I shrugged my shoulders. Antoinette gave no expression. Gretta looked back over to me.
– Do you like chopped steak?
– Yeah. Why?
– We’re making it.
– Oh. For what?
– For us.
– Oh, you don’t have to do that. I can eat out.
– No, no. It’s alright.
Marie Antoinette kept looking to Gretta and to me as we took turns speaking. She still had that neutral look on her pale face. The lips didn’t move, just stayed straight and together.
So I agreed to dinner. I sat on the couch with my hands folded, wanting to touch as little imitation leather as possible.
They went on with their lives. I got up to look out the window as an excuse for raising my ass off the thing.
Apparently, Antoinette liked to absorb a guest into her routine. Either that or they had too many guests over through Gretta’s kindness and she was tired of adjusting her lifestyle. Or she didn’t like me. Or she didn’t like Gretta but liked the apartment and put up with her. Or something else completely.
I was still sitting in the middle of the couch. I dreaded the idea of my arm atop the cool ruffles of an armrest. Antoinette strutted in and picked up the TV remote from their coffee table. She turned on the set and lumped against the armrest to my right. Channel 360-something was put on. A show was starting.
– Do you watch this?
– No, can’t say I do.
– It’s a good show.
She sat with the remote in her hand as if ready to switch the channel again.
After five minutes of the program, I wished she’d had.
Gretta was making dinner while we sat in the living room. The apartment was getting stuffy, but I didn’t care. The television was too loud. That I did care about. A smell of steak, mashed potatoes, and something else was easing in from the kitchen. An alien feeling came over me when it entered my nose.
Antoinette smiled at the program a couple of times and I couldn’t quite figure out what induced that. The first time was when two of the main characters were in the front seat of a car, arguing while going somewhere. The second time was when one of them poured a glass of something from their liquor cabinet.
We sat there for about 20 minutes without speaking to each other. Then Gretta said quietly from the kitchen, “We’re ready.”
Antoinette got up from the couch, stopped before the threshold, and switched off the television. I looked at a blank screen for a moment before going into the kitchen. Antoinette was sitting down when I arrived.
There were platters of steak, mashed potatoes, and boiled string beans. Gretta sat on one side of the table, Antoinette took up the other side, and I was at the head. I guess Gretta tried to make me feel important. The food wasn’t what I was used to.
– You always do this?
– Often, yeah.
I looked at Antoinette. She glanced at me and kept to her string beans.
– I hear the rents aren’t too bad out here.
– Yeah, well…We pay 1,200 for this.
– Yeah…It’s alright…It’s in a good area.
Antoinette spoke up.
– Where do you live?
I told her. Antoinette said Oh and crawled back under her rock for a while longer.
There was no dessert. Not that I had a right to expect it, but there wasn’t any. I offered to help clean up but Gretta held her position. I pulled out a newspaper bought on the way and sat back on the imitation leather. They stayed behind in the kitchen to wash. One of them turned on a radio atop the refrigerator and music started belching out. I tried to read the first paragraph of an article six or seven times.
I pretended to read the paper. Antoinette came into the living room and I prayed that she wouldn’t turn on the TV again. Instead, she walked past me and opened a window. It was apparently getting too warm for them after dinner. The cold air flowed under the pane and I tried to ignore it as each blast jetstreamed over my body.
The music kept playing as they cleaned the kitchen and other places in the apartment. Gretta asked if I needed anything. Antoinette, it appeared, couldn’t give a shit less if I were breathing or not. It came about nine when the music stopped and they announced getting ready for bed. They both had places to go in the morning.
They turned in across the hallway and I stayed in the living room to read my paper. In case you’re wondering, they slept in separate beds. It got very quiet inside and outside the building, I began to think I was happy.
I started to doze off an hour later. I pulled a quilt out of my bag and lay down on the wheat-colored rug. The floor was a bit hard, but nothing I hadn’t dealt with before.
I fell off to sleep and woke up after what felt a short period of time. The side of my head was smarting from hardness of the floor. The room had turned cold; I got up and shut the window almost completely, then lay back down again. My spine ached from the sheer rigidity. It was oak boards underneath. I doubted I would fall asleep again. Then I looked up to judge the couch. Ruffles could be picked out in the streetlight that shone through the blinds and I thought No…just…no. So then came the old college try: I turned over on the rug, pulled the quilt over my head, and tried to think about something else.
I was wide awake for another hour or so when a baby or some young kid began crying next door. It could be heard right through the wall. I wanted to move into another room but it wasn’t my place. Gretta and Antoinette appeared to sleep right through it, I heard no stirring behind their door.
It went on for about an hour. Then it stopped and I tried to calm myself down. It got too hot in the room and I reopened the window a few inches. The neighboring houses looked sad and a dog was barking in the distance. A police siren sounded closer. My body felt inflamed but not particularly exhausted.
Just a place, I thought. Just a place somewhere, anywhere, that could give me inner peace without fail. Outside of your family’s home and mother’s womb, there seem very few places worth discovering and trying to remain in. Your friends are only your friends and owe you nothing. The hotels put on their fake smiles that readily turn to frowns when they don’t understand your problem or you can’t pay anymore. The churches nowadays are bolted shut at night and cops move everyone off the park benches at dusk.
I dozed off again and came to with the sound of floppy footsteps in the hallway. I looked up from the rug and saw Antoinette in a white robe and fluffy blue slippers with a bottle of pills in her hand. We looked into each other’s eyes as she walked towards the bathroom. We said nothing. She had that expression on her face, except this time while half-asleep, and I sensed nothing in it. I turned to my opposite side and tried to go back under. The bathroom light went on, water ran into the sink, and the light went out. Then she flopped back to their room and closed the door.
My shoulders and the small of my back ached when I woke up next morning. They had gotten up around 7:30 and the commotion stirred me. Both dressed for the day: Gretta in a teal blazer and Antoinette in a gray pullover.
They both looked nice. I could’ve tried to become Gretta’s boyfriend, I suppose, but I already had my fill of disappointment.
– How did it go?
– Not bad.
– We tried to keep quiet.
– You were. Don’t worry about it.
– We’re heading out, but we can leave you a key-
– No, no, it’s alright. I have to go, anyway.
Antoinette stepped to the hall closet and took out her coat and scarf.
– Are you sure? It’s not a problem.
– Nah, I need to go back to my area. I have some things to do. But thanks – for everything.
I beckoned to Antoinette.
– You’re welcome.
Upon returning, I ran into a tenant who said that a repairman and people from the oil company were there in the morning. We were delivered a bad load of oil and it jammed up the pipes running from the boiler.
They must’ve gotten some hot air in the morning. It felt kind of warm when I arrived, but not for long. It was the afternoon hours when nothing would come up, the timer or whatever part still needed an adjustment.
In watching cars, trucks, vans, and buses stream over a highway, you wonder where on Earth there’s room for all of them to be kept. It might explain why no one seems to have enough room or time or attention for anyone else. You wonder if anyone will ever truly have space in their lives for you and when that day might come.
An hour after arriving, I thought I’d heard the bathroom pipe ping. I put my hand on it and felt nothing, just its age-worn roughness. They said that spring was only five weeks away. And at least it was quiet. I felt calm, I felt aware of myself, and it was ever so quiet.
My phone rang later that day. I heard a familiar voice on the other end that didn’t readily come to mind.
– It’s Antoinette. Gretta’s roommate.
And for what?
– How’s everything?
– Are things okay over there?
– Yeah, they’re alright.
– I’m just calling because you’re more than welcome to stay with us if you need to. We didn’t want you to feel rushed out this morning.
– …It was nothing, really.
– Feel free to come. Anytime.
– Gretta’s okay with it?
– Yeah. And me, too. Both of us.
I sighed jokingly.
– …What a couple of pals.
She laughed. Never thought it would happen in my lifetime.
– You’re good company. We don’t get that often.
– Well…Thanks. Maybe I’ll come by again. Hopefully I won’t need to, though.
– How is it over there?
I glanced at the dead pipe in my kitchen and out at the gray sky.
– Alright, I guess.
– Let us know, okay?
– I will.
All they can do is try. I hung up and the Sun began to faintly gaze out from the clouds.
About the Author:
Paul-John Ramos is a short story writer, poet, and essayist whose work has recently appeared in Workers Write, Romance Magazine, Cahoots, and Trajectory. He lives in Yonkers, New York, and is employed as a dean’s assistant at City University of New York.