Late Autumn, Early Winter
A short story by Carolyn Steele Agosta -
Oh! Loretta painfully raised her head and twisted her neck to right and left. She’d done it again, fallen asleep at the piano. It was a wonder she hadn’t fallen off the bench. She looked down at her hands in position on the keys. She used to joke that she could play the piano in her sleep, and now at age eighty, it appeared she was still trying.
She took a deep breath and began flexing her freezing cold feet, preparatory to rising, when she heard a noise. Was that what had woken her? The sound of splintering glass? Not a big smashing noise, but someone knocking out the half-window in the back door, letting in a stream of cold air. Breaking in.
Breaking in, to her house. She couldn’t believe it – this had always been a peaceful neighborhood. She knew she should find something to defend herself – what? A golf club? The big lamp? – but she couldn’t move. She just sat there at the piano in the half-dark, silent room and waited and watched. She heard someone moving through the kitchen. Whoever it was, they didn’t turn on any lights, so they were in the darkness too. The person moved into the hall and then, there he was, a youngish man silhouetted against the white paint of the doorway, his face turning in a semi-circle as he surveyed the room. Then he saw her.
“Shit!” he said and grabbed the door frame with both hands.
“What do you want!” she demanded, her voice sounding old and quivery even to her.
“Jesus H Christ! I thought you were a ghost!” He stared down at her. “Are you?”
“No! Get out of my house! Who do you think you are!” Now she was mad. How dare he! This was her home, her sanctum. How dare he invade it!
“Man, I thought this place was deserted. Looks deserted.” He glanced around. “Like a junk yard. One of those hoarder homes.” He raised his chin and looked at her again, appraisingly. “You live alone now?”
That made something snap inside her and she pushed back on the piano bench to rise to her full, if insignificant, height. Unfortunately, the bench didn’t move easily on the carpet and she nearly fell over. The man quickly grabbed her arm and set her upright. “Let go!” she snapped. Then, “Joey? Little Joey Carpenter?”
“What? No! Never heard of him.”
“Yes, you are. You’re Joey Carpenter, aren’t you! I gave you piano lessons when you were eight. I’d never forget your beautiful eyes. Shame on you, breaking in here.” Now she felt more at ease. Once she could put things into context, she always felt more in control of any situation. She smoothed back her hair. No wonder he thought she was a ghost, she hadn’t gotten dressed in days, just drifted around in her nightgown and robe. “You used to be such a polite little boy.”
He stared at her a minute and glanced around the room once more. She began to realize how twitchy he was, nervous. Well, no wonder. Probably just meant to check on her and hadn’t expected to see…well, all this. She sought to smooth out the moment. “How’s your mother? She was such a lovely woman.”
Loretta stepped away from the piano and tried to head to the kitchen, saying, “Would you like some hot tea? It’s such a cold day.” But he remained where he stood, and she couldn’t get past him on that narrow trail that led from one room to the next. Somehow things had just piled up so in the past few years. She needed to clear them out one of these days.
“Look,” he said. “You got any cash?”
A cold ping! went down her spine. “Oh, no, dearie. My son doesn’t like me to keep cash in the house.” She made a careless sort of laugh. “He thinks I can’t manage money. It’s a fine how-do-you-do when your child decides to take over. He handles everything online for me. Really, can’t I make you some tea? You used to love my tea with honey.”
Joey – or perhaps Joe, now that he was grown – finally moved aside so she could pass. Maybe he wouldn’t notice her bare feet, her thickened toenails. She filled the kettle and set it on the stove. Behind her, in the living room, she sensed him looking through her things – the curio cabinet stuffed full of valuable crystal and cloisonné and Wedgwood, stacks of old magazines, bookcases piled three layers deep with beautifully hardbound antique books, bags and bags of clothes stacked on the sofa. What did he want? This was no polite enquiry into her security. If he thought the house was deserted, he had come to pillage. Not check on her.
She washed out a pair of teacups from the pile in the sink, her mother’s Haviland bone china, only a few sets left. She managed to find some teabags. Now she heard him moving down the hall, checking out the bedrooms. Lord, what he must think of her. She felt the hot sting of shame as she thought about what he would see. Boxes of thrift-store finds, bags and bags and bags of clothes, a couple dozen porcelain-headed dolls with their staring blue eyes. Yes, maybe she’d gotten a bit carried away over the last few years since Don died, hitting the antiques malls and charity stores and yard sales. Bringing treasures home, only to stash them somewhere and lose track of what she had. She sniffed her underarm, wondering if she stank. He probably could remember that she used to be quite elegant, dressing in the latest styles. Now, she couldn’t even find her house slippers.
He slowly headed back toward the kitchen and she could hear him talking in a low voice. As he came through the door, she saw he was on his cell phone. He ended the call and stared down at her. He certainly was an unkempt young fellow. Shaggy hair, scruffy beard, ragged clothes. His skin looked terrible, as if he’d been sick. Actually, he was the one who stank. His gaze traveled to the framed photos above the dining table, photos of her with her parents, her husband and son, former students, famous conductors. Even one with Barry Manilow, although he probably wouldn’t know who that was. The expression on his face as he looked back at her was thoughtful, calculating. “What happened to you?” he asked, jerking his chin at the photos. “You used to be so…fancy.”
She drew herself up. “I could ask the same question. You used to be so…clean.”
A corner of his mouth turned down. “If you ain’t got cash, what about jewelry? Rings? Bracelets?” He glanced at the photos again. “Furs?”
“You can’t wear fur coats out in public these days. Someone will throw paint on you.”
“So, what did you do with ‘em?”
“Threw them out in the trash.”
He rolled his eyes. “Ah, you’re killin’ me. What about the jewelry?”
“You want it, you go look for it. Maybe I still have it, maybe it’s long gone. I’m not going to help you.”
Joe suddenly moved closer and loomed over her. “You just sit down and stay here. Don’t do anything stupid.” He wrapped a hand around her upper arm and jerked her down into a chair. The kettle whistled and he turned it off, pouring the steaming hot water into the sink and giving her a significant look as he did so. Well, there went that idea. She’d gotten a glimpse of his teeth when he spoke. Horrible. So that was it – he was a junkie, a meth head, whatever. What a shame.
“Take what you want and leave me alone,” she said, and she hated the way her voice shook. “I don’t need any of it. You’d be doing me a favor.”
He didn’t respond to that. Just went back down the hall and she could hear him shoving stuff around. Her arm hurt where he’d grabbed it. She eased over to the cabinet and found a large knife, hiding it in the folds of her robe. She wasn’t going down without a fight. What a crying shame it was little Joey Carpenter. He’d been such a nice kid.
There was the sound of a car door slamming out in the driveway and then someone else came through the back door. A big guy, built like a bull with a massive head and shoulders, tapering down to a narrower body. He glared at her and called “Joe!”
Joey reappeared, a row of handbags dangling from his arm. He was rooting around inside one of them, a Birkin, one of the early ones. Loretta felt like smiling. He wasn’t going to find anything in there. She’d always checked each handbag before she packed it away. Of course, the bag itself was worth thousands, but would he know that?
“Where’s your cash?” the big guy asked her.
“Don’t have any.”
He backhanded her before she even got the words out of her mouth, and she sailed right over sideways, off the chair, hitting the floor.
“Hey, you don’t need to do that,” Joe said, stooping to help her up. “She’s cooperating.”
“Like hell,” the big guy said, picking up the knife that had clattered from her robe and holding it up in front of Joe’s face. “Forget the damn purses, look for jewelry.”
“What do you think I’m doing? People hide jewelry all kinds of places. Cash too. Could be there’s cash inside the books in the living room. Or here in the freezer.”
Loretta was shaking now, from pain and shock. Her shoulder had hit the floor hard and radiated agony. Joey might have been manageable – this big guy would not be. The two men began seriously going through her stuff in the other rooms, swearing as the teetering stacks of junk got in their way. She heard small crashes and lots of terrible language and sensed a growing rage. Most of her ‘collections’ had some value, but not the kind that could be realized quickly. Now and then, one would shout to the other of their finds. She now wished she had hidden cash in her books, it might have placated them. Instead, she could hear Joey rooting through the books and tossing them on the floor with frustration. She could only imagine the destruction. Big Guy had discovered the jewelry boxes in her closet, but heck, they only held fashion jewelry. Some value, but not the really good stuff. Hopefully, he wouldn’t find the Ziploc bag with her diamond rings and gold bracelets and the emerald necklace, thumbtacked to the back of her headboard.
A depressing thought filled her mind. If they did go away and leave her alone when they were done – and she knew that was a big IF – she’d need some kind of help afterward. She was pretty sure she’d broken or torn something in her shoulder. And the inside of her mouth was bleeding and her eye was swelling up. But if she did call for help, her son would be notified and then he’d fly out here all the way from California and see the mess she was in. No doubt, he’d make her move to an assisted living facility. She’d become like her friend Susan, wrapped up like a mummy in a wheelchair and just about as lively.
She’d rather die.
Damn. She needed to pee. In fact, she already had, a little, when she got knocked down. Now she really needed to go. Joe came into the kitchen and began going through the freezer.
“Joe,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I have to urinate.”
“No, really. Please just let me go to the bathroom. I won’t try anything.”
He looked inside her cookie jar, and chuckled when he saw what was in there. Her secret stash of cigarettes. He pulled one out and lit it for himself. “Okay,” he said, over his shoulder. “Be quick about it.”
She hobbled to the bathroom, knees tight together, not quite making it without a leak. Fortunately, she kept her Depends in there and she was able to clean up and wash up. She stared at herself in the mirror. “This is what you get,” she told her image, “for letting everything go.” Her face stared back, white as a ghost, with long, straggly white hair, and big, dark circles under her eyes. “You keep saying you’ll get organized one of these days. Well, too late now. You blew it.”
As she came out of the bathroom, she saw Big Guy go around the corner and heard him head down the basement stairs. Halfway down, he tripped on one of those boxes lining both sides of the steps and fell with a tremendous thumping and howling and clatter as more items followed. Then there was silence.
A long moment of silence.
“Malcolm?” Joe called. No response. She got to the kitchen in time to see him look down the stairs. “Malcolm??!” He saw her and swerved away, going down the stairs himself. She could hear that old stair rail clatter in its bracket. “Jesus, Malcolm!”
He came back up the stairs in a flash, raking his fingers through his hair, wild-eyed. “You stupid old lady! You stupid bitch!” He grabbed the front of her robe and jerked her hard. “All this damn trash, you’ve killed him!”
Loretta stared back. “You know, I just kept meaning to clear those stairs.”
He pushed her away and she staggered back against the stove. He pulled at his hair again with both hands and began screaming way back in his throat. Tears came to her eyes, and she wailed, “Oh, Joey, don’t! It’ll be alright…everything will be alright!”
“No,” he choked out, “no, it’s all gone to shit now.” He rubbed his hands over his face, took deep breaths and blew them out. As he gradually got himself back under control, he noticed his smoldering cigarette on the floor and slowly, carefully, stubbed it out with his holey sneaker. His whole body shook.
“Joey. Maybe you should just go,” she said softly, wiping her eyes. “Let me deal with this. You’ve had enough for today.”
He turned his back, shoulders hunched. “God, I just wish you had some cash. I need….somethin’….bad. Anything. You got Percocet? Vicodin?”
“Wait a minute,” Loretta said, and pulled open the broom closet. An old cloth sack held wadded-up plastic grocery store bags. She felt around in the bottom and came up with a small roll of twenties. “Here,” she said. “It’s all I have in the house. A couple hundred, maybe. Take it.”
He grabbed the roll. In an angry voice, he said “You never saw me. I wasn’t here, it was all Malcolm.”
“Never heard of you,” she agreed. As he turned to go, she said, “Wait – there’s a warm leather jacket in the hall closet – belonged to my husband. You take it. Getting cold out.”
He slowly nodded. “Winter’s coming.”
“It sure the fuck is,” she replied, with her whole heart.
He burst out laughing at that, almost crying. “God, Miss Loretta. You take the cake. I’m so sorry about this. I really thought the place was deserted.”
Loretta nodded. What a misery Life could be. “I’m sorry, too. You seemed set for better things. You remember when you mastered Minuet in G? How proud you were?”
The grin faded from his face. “Another life, back then. You and me both.” He seemed about to say more, but then just found the jacket and pulled it on. He ran his fingers appreciatively over the leather sleeve, nodded to her and left. She waited until he was out of sight, and then turned with a sigh to the phone. She’d definitely have to call this in. Couldn’t leave a dead man at the foot of her stairs. She had a lot of stuff in her house, but not garbage. After a while, he’d begin to stink.
Loretta moved stiffly into the living room. Her arm hurt so damn much. Carefully, she sat on the piano bench and began to play. It might be her last chance for a long while. Her fingers barely worked, but she managed – slowly, haltingly – Minuet in G. A requiem for a lost kid. And for a lost woman who had disappeared a long time ago.
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