He knocked briskly on the door, hoping it conveyed his irritation. That damn leak was making a mess in his condo and he wanted it fixed.
He knew he shouldn’t get so upset over a leaking pipe which could be quickly repaired; but the events of the last few years had changed him and he just wasn’t himself. The sudden deaths of Ralph Weber and Eddie Montini, good friends and members of the Thursday afternoon poker club, had him feeling disconcerted and powerless even before Nancy, his wife of fifty-four years, succumbed to a weak heart, leaving him alone and isolated.
He also felt cut off by the changes in his condo building which had been a warm, lively community of the recently retired when he’d moved in with Nancy. He’d spent hours in the clubhouse playing pool with new-found friends and the building was filled with the joyful noise of visiting grandchildren on weekends.
But things were different now. As the first generation of owners, white octogenarians like himself, died off, they were replaced by blacks moving up from the city. They weren’t his kind of people. They made him uncomfortable and he didn’t find it easy to talk to them.
He was about to knock again when a gray-haired black woman opened the door. He was surprised to find her very attractive. She wore green linen slacks and a flowered, cotton blouse. A small string of pearls was around her neck and there were matching pearl studs in her ears. She eyed him suspiciously. “How can I help you?” she asked.
“You’re dripping,” he said.
“What?” She said, looking him up and down.
He was wearing a flannel shirt and work pants. They were clean but nothing fancy and her slightly curled lip told him she wasn’t impressed. When her eyes stopped at his slippers, he wished he’d put on his shoes. He straightened his shoulders and ran his hand through his hair which, though thin, was still black. He was proud of that, feeling it was the manifestation of his youthful attitude. “Your air conditioner is dripping and it’s coming through the ceiling in my closet.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
He flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Mike Gleason. I’m in 214 downstairs, right under you. There’s water dripping through the ceiling in my service closet. That’s where the air conditioning hooks into the vents. Yours must be leaking.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my air conditioner.” She looked insulted by his suggestion.
That was the last thing he wanted. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said in what he hoped was an understanding tone, “but there’s something that’s leaking, Mrs…,” he raised an eyebrow.
She glared at him. “It’s Ms. Watson. I’ll call someone in the morning and have things checked but I’m sure there’s nothing wrong. You’ve been drinking. I can smell it. That’s probably the problem.”
He was about to answer when she shut the door. He heard the locks click into place. He stared at the door, miffed. He’d had a cocktail before dinner like he always did with Nancy. No big deal and it certainly had nothing to do with the leak in her unit.
He took a deep breath, shook his head and went down the stairs to his condo.
Two days later water was still leaking into the bucket he’d put in his closet and there was now a crack in the plaster of the ceiling. He emptied the bucket, put it back in the closet and went upstairs.
This time he rang the doorbell. Ms. Watson opened the door about a foot, sneered at him and said, “You again?”
“Yes, it’s me again,” he said, ignoring the annoyance in her voice. He not only wanted the leak fixed but also wanted to be pleasant, hoping this might be the start of a warm, friendly relationship. He was willing to be a good neighbor. “The water’s still dripping into my closet.”
“I called a man yesterday. He’ll be here tomorrow to check things out. If he finds anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Good. We need to get that fixed before the water does major damage and creates an expensive repair job.”
She nodded and began to shut the door. He shifted his weight from his leg with the arthritic knee which was beginning to ache and tried to smile pleasantly. It felt awkward and forced.
“You know, I’m a plumber. At least I was before I retired. Maybe you’d like me to come in and take a look, see if I can fix it. Might save you some money.”
“No, that’s all right. Man’s coming tomorrow. Good night, now.”
He was disappointed to see her pushing the door shut and after two days of fantasizing how they would spend a little time together getting to know each other, he blurted out, “Say, I was thinking, maybe you’d like to come down to my place and have a cocktail. My wife and I always had a Manhattan before dinner when she was alive.” He gave her what he thought was an encouraging smile.
“I don’t do that. I’m a Christian woman.”
Mike’s face fell but he wasn’t deterred. “You know, I am too. I go to Mass every morning so we have a lot in common. Come on down and I’ll make some coffee instead. We can have a few laughs, a little, innocent fun. No harm in that.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Gleason. Good night.” She shut the door and the locks clicked in place.
“Wow,” he said to himself and limped back to his condo.
He called his sister, Maggie. “I met a woman but I must be losing my touch. She wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“You’re an old man. You’re eighty-five. Why would she want to talk to you?” Maggie asked with a small, kind laugh.
“She’s no spring chicken herself. Nice looking old girl, round my age. Figured I could fix the leak in her air conditioner and get to know her, maybe sit and chat like I used to do with Nancy. I miss that.”
“I know you do but you can come over here and talk any time. I’m always ready to listen.”
“But you’re my sister, not really the same thing.”
“I know, I know…you’re looking for more than talk.”
“Of course I am. Nothing wrong with that. I’m eighty-five. Not dead. I like a woman’s touch. I hate sleeping alone. I want a woman with a big fat behind I can slide up next to and wrap my arm around. That’s what I want.”
“Your impossible, Mike.”
“No, I’m not,” he laughed. “Same Mike I’ve always been. A charmer. Women love me, always flirting with me. It used to drive Nancy nuts but this one’s different—cold and suspicious. You think my being white might have something to do with it?”
“What?” Maggie sputtered. “Is she black? You wanna make time with a nigger.”
“Aw, now don’t talk like that, Maggie. Times have changed and we got to change too. We got a black president now and that stuff’s gone out of style. Besides, this woman seems real educated and refined.”
“Have you lost your mind? Listen, Mike, a nigger’s a nigger.”
“No, no, she seems like a nice lady, really, Maggie.”
“Well you know what they say. There’s no fool like an old fool.”
“Aw, come on, Maggie,” he said ready to explain himself but she hung up in his ear.
Not my night, Mike thought. He turned on the tv but he didn’t pay much attention. He was thinking about his upstairs neighbor, his dead wife and the empty spaces in his bed and his heart. When the news came on, he turned off the tv and went to sleep.
When he got up the next morning, he emptied the bucket but forgot to do it again before he nodded off in his chair in the den after lunch. When he woke from his nap, he found it overflowing and there was a puddle on the floor of his closet. “Goddammit,” mumbled to himself as he cleaned up. “Hope she gets it fixed this afternoon.”
He emptied the bucket twice more during the afternoon, his irritation with the leak growing as he eyed the ceiling and shook his head. When he emptied a third bucketful after dinner, his patience reached the breaking point.
He struggled up the stairs, one at a time, in a foolish attempt to prove to himself he was a vigorous eighty-five. The arthritic ache in his knee told him he should have taken the elevator instead.
He stood at the end of the long, empty corridor on the third floor, catching his breath. There were twenty units on this floor but not a person in sight. The walls were covered with a light puce wallpaper and the sconce lights between the doors cast a muted, crimson glow over the gray carpet.
He moved slowly to the door of 314. He knocked and when he heard Ms. Watson unlocking the door, he sucked in his stomach, stood up straighter and put a stiff, uncertain smile on his face.
“You again?” Ms. Watson said dismissively. Her eyes were large behind the lenses of her glasses. She ran her hand through her hair.
He felt himself unjustifiably insulted. “Yes, me again. You’re still dripping and it’s causing damage to the ceiling in my closet. Haven’t you had someone fix it yet?”
“I had someone check it out. There nothing wrong with my air conditioner.”
“Well, it may not be your air conditioner but something’s leaking in your place. I got water coming through my ceiling like it’s raining. Come down and see for yourself.”
“I’m not gonna do that, Mr. Gleason. Now go away and leave me alone.” She began to push the door closed.
He put his hand on it to keep it open. “Listen, don’t make this harder than necessary, Ms. Watson,” he said in what he hoped was an ingratiating tone. “You don’t want me to go to the condo association and make a stink about this, do you?”
“Get your hand off my door,” she bristled, her eyes narrowing.
“He giving you trouble, Louise?” he heard a woman say behind Ms. Watson.
“Yes, he is,” Ms. Watson said.
“Who’s that?” Mike asked.
“I’m calling 911,” he heard the sister say.
“Now, just a minute,” Mike said, “no need to call anyone. All I want to do is help you get this leak fixed.”
“Don’t give me that. I know what you want and besides, that leak is none of my doing. Go home and have another drink. That’ll make you feel better.” She pushed on the door and he pushed back.
“Listen, that water is coming from your place. It’s not your fault. Things break. Let me take a look in your closet. I bet I’ll find the problem right away and save both of us a lot of aggravation before things get worse.”
“Look, old man, get your hand off my door. You are not coming in here.”
“You’re being unreasonable. I got water leaking in my place and I don’t want the ceiling falling down on my head.” He looked at her gently, hoping that by softening his manner he could convince her his only concern was the leak.
Her eyes stayed hard, however. “You white people always think a black person is unreasonable when you can’t get what you want but you are not coming in my place. I didn’t move out here just to let some old white man make a fool out of me. Now take your hand off my door.”
The door at the end of the hall opened and two young cops ran in. “You know where the rape is going on?” the first one asked as he neared Mike.
“Right here, Officer,’ came the sister’s voice over Ms. Watson’s shoulder. “This here man is forcing himself on my baby sister.”
The cops stopped. They looked at each other, then took a careful look at Mike, who had stepped back from the door. The older one hitched up his gun belt, took a breath and asked the woman, “Are you telling me you’re accusing this old man of rape?”
“Maybe not rape,” said Ms. Watson, opening her door fully. Her sister stood behind, thin and tense, her hawk-like eyes burning into Mike’s. “But forcible entry. This man was trying to push his way into my condo.”
Doors opened all along the hall and people came out of their apartments to watch the excitement. The police radios on the cop’s gun belts crackled with dispatches. The cops looked at Mike again. He flushed with embarrassment and backed up against the far wall for support.
“Did you try to force your way into this woman’s home?”
“No, I did not,” Mike said and told them about how the leak had been going on for three days non-stop and how he had simply offered his help in solving the problem.
The woman offered a slightly different version but did not contradict Mike’s story. The cops looked relieved, glad that wouldn’t have to charge a wrinkled senior citizen with rape. They gave him a warning instead to be less pushy and sent him downstairs while they continued to mollify the women.
Mike shrugged at some of the neighbors who had quizzical looks on their faces as he made his way to the stairs. They were eager to hear more about this strange drama but he didn’t stop to talk. He was both chastised and chagrined and didn’t want to share those feelings with anyone.
He hobbled down the stairs to his condo and made himself a Manhattan. He took a large swallow. It burned his throat but overwhelmed the bitter taste of shame that had filled his mouth when the cops began to question him. He thought about Nancy. She’d never do that to me, he thought.
He took the drink and went into his den. He turned on the tv and the canned laughter of a sit-com mocked his feeble romantic overtures to Ms. Watson. He took another swallow of the drink, dumped the water from the bucket in the closet, slumped into his chair and closed his eyes. It had been a long day.