The Old Neighborhood




This was what I came up with for the prompt "happiness is depressing." I'm not entirely happy with it as it is, but I like the general idea and when I figure out how, I will rework it. Any comments will be appreciated.

"Gzzzzzzzck! You're dead, Mister!"

Robert clasped his chest with both hands and staggered to the wall, where he dropped his hands limply to his sides and rolled his eyes up. He held that position a moment, then looked at the boys who had "shot" him with their lasers, gave them a nod and continued on his way.

As he walked, he looked for Tinelli's store. He wondered if he'd know it when he saw it, particularly in the half light of dusk.

There it was! Just as he remembered it! Almost. The big sign over the door was still there, though it was battered and broken at one end, losing the "s." Long ago it had been bright white against the blackened brick of the building. Now it was soot covered like almost everything else on the street. The building had been cleaned and some bricks repaired not too long ago and it stood out, lighter, more red, among the other buildings.

Before reaching the door he stopped and looked around. He wondered how much it had changed since he last stood here, and how much he had changed. The sidewalk was still the only space between the street and the buildings. Although he saw a few places where the concrete had been removed to plant a tree, there were no trees. This was as he remembered.

He walked slowly to the store. Litter had blown into the corners where buildings met. Looking more closely at the alley next to the store, he saw paper, emptied bottles of cheap liquor, soda cans and other miscellaneous trash. There were also used condoms and needles among what he saw. These were new additions to the litter, part of the changes. He refrained from going into the alley. At the front of the store, the gate, a door of steel bars that covered the door and window when closed, was new. It was open now, but it made him think of a prison door as he gazed at it.

Robert took a deep breath, then grasped the door handle and walked in.

The bell on the door continued to jingle until the door was closed. The inside was brightly lit. It was about twenty feet wide and thirty or thirty-five feet deep. Filled shelves, between which were narrow aisles, lined up front to back. More shelves and some refrigerators lined the walls.

"Be right there. Just getting this box down."

The voice came from above. To his right, over the checkout counter, a man backed down a ladder precariously, holding a box in both hands.

Robert watched him. He remembered Mr. Tinelli bringing boxes from the top shelves when he was a kid. He had never stopped talking as he had gone up and down the ladder, however. This man was quiet after his first statements, until he turned and hefted the box up onto the counter.

"Now, what can I... Bob!"

He wiped his hands on his trousers as he rushed around the counter to greet his old friend.

"I can hardly believe it's you! What are you doing here?"

He grabbed Robert's hand and started to pump it with both of his as the emotions filled Robert's throat and kept him from finding his voice.

"Oh, what the... What good is this?"

The storekeeper looked at what his hands were doing and pulled Robert to him and gave him a bear hug.

"Jeez, it's good to see you!"

Rober finally found his voice.

"It's good to see you, too, Russ.

The whistle at the factory blew. Robert wondered that he didn't jump at the sound, but then again, he'd grown up with it.

Russ looked at his clock. It said 6:05. He shook his head as he went over to the door, opened it and reached for the gate. Then he paused and looked at Robert.

"What brings you back? You can stay a while, can't you?"

"Of course, I can stay. I came to visit you."

Russ grinned and pulled the gate in and locked it. Then he closed and locked the door.

"C'mon up. Marie's going to be shocked."

He led the way, through the narrow aisles laden with canned goods and snacks, to a small room at the back. There he opened a door that revealed a narrow staircase.

Left hand still on the doorknob, he bowed and indicated with his right hand.

"After you."

Robert laughed as he started up the stairs, with Russ behind him calling out to Marie.

"Marie! You're never gonna believe this! Guess who's here!"

"I guess it must be you, you're so loud."

Robert looked up to the railing at the top of the stairs and would have sworn the handsome, plump woman he saw was Mrs. Dubanski.

"Hey, Marie! Me and who else?"

She saw Robert and brought her hands up to her throat.

"I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" she squeaked out.

Robert swallowed the laugh that was building as her remembered how many times he had scoffed when Mr. Dubanski had said how much Marie looked like her mother.

"Hello, Marie. Believe it. It's me. Russ' old shadow."

"Oh..."

Tears prevented her from saying more at the moment. Robert gave her a hug and they all went into the apartment.

Robert and Russ went into the living room while Marie dashed into the kitchen to adjust the meal for another person. As the men laughed and reminisced, she would come to the doorway every now and then to listen or comment.

In a short time she had dinner ready and they were seated comfortably around the old table.

"So, Bob, how've you been? No one's heard from you in ages."

"I can't say I've been bad. I ended up across the country. Just lost touch with everyone here since mom died. You know me. Never was any good at letters."

"Yeah. You get married? Have kids?"

"I was. No kids. How about you two? You been doing okay?"

"Hey, we manage. We're one of the few couples we know from the old days who are still married even though we fight like cats and dogs."

"Russ! We do not! We have our disagreements, Bob, but things aren't that bad.

"Too bad you didn't have kids. You always seemed to enjoy being around them. You weren't married very long?"

"Oh, we were married long enough, 'til this summer, but we both were too focused on our careers and getting ahead. And then, well, it just kind of fell apart."

"Marie, don't press."

"We have two kids. A boy and a girl. Just the ideal size. I don't know where we'd have put any more."

Robert looked around the living and dining rooms. Both were filled with old furniture. Every surface, other than the dining table, was covered with pictures and knickknacks. Pictures, from both old and new photographs to framed prints to kids drawings, covered the walls. He was amazed at how much of the stuff he recognized as what had been here forty years ago when he and Russ were just kids. Russ had two sisters and two brothers. How had they all fit in?

"How's the store doing?"

"We make ends meet. Never have been, never will be rich. Can't complain, though. Both Julie and Jim got to go to college, though they had to work to help out all the way through. They're out in the suburbs, now, with their families. Doing okay, I guess.

Grandkids come to visit every now and then, but mostly we go to them. This old neighborhood isn't as safe as it used to be. There's no place for kids to play any more, except the street."

Robert remembered the litter in the alley.

"Are you two safe?"

"Yeah, we've been lucky. No shootings here, knock on wood."

Marie grabbed Russ' hand and held it.

"We've been robbed a couple of times, but I keep cash to a minimum. I don't need the large amounts of cash the supermarkets have to keep.

"You never thought of moving, maybe getting one of those supermarkets in the suburbs?"

Russ laughed.

"I never had the Midas touch enough to get any kind of backing for that. After a while I just gave up on that one. We've been okay. We're going to retire soon and move closer to the kids and grandkids. Someplace they can visit us."

The conversation slipped back to reminiscing and the rest of the evening passed quickly.

At about midnight Robert strolled back to the parking lot to his car. The little boys playing on the corner had been replaced by young women, dressed and painted rather gaudily, Robert thought.

"Hey, mister, looking for a date?"

Robert smiled.

"No, thanks."

He'd found the date he'd been looking for, the connection to the past he needed. He was ready to move on now.

Copyright 2003 Airycat