Spiegel, out for his old man’s constitutional, he calls it, through the city center, envies the couples he passes, yes, because they’re couples, but more because he sees how they touch one another, this guy’s young hand on her shoulder, hers in his back pocket, middle aged marrieds linking fingers, the lesbian women hip to hip, arms around each other, foreign pairs arm in arm, friends hugging hello, goodbye, parting couples kissing, black men doing that high hand half hug.
How long since he’s been touched in a way that matters? The funeral he’d say. Since then, handshakes —formal; pecks on the cheek — meaningless. How do you know you’re alive if no one touches you?
Brooding he nearly bumps into Vincent Zinck, brown fedora, heavy camel’s hair coat against the feel of winter already in the air. Zinck’s one of those people he’s know forever without knowing him, an old neighborhood, local tavern, barbershop acquaintance, married still, Spiegel thinks, newspaper and magazine distribution once, small timer.
A quick handshake. “Spiegel. How are you? You’re just the man I was hoping to see.”
“I’m OK. OK. Good to see you. What have you been up to?”
“You know. This and that. Look, Spiegel, I have to ask you. Do you think you could let me have twenty till my Social Security check comes in?”
For years Spiegel had a successful business, plumbing supplies to the trade, practically ran itself once he became known for fair prices and fair dealing. He’d sold up without a qualm, lives off the interest, spends next to nothing on himself these days, food, underwear, cable TV. He can’t think of a reason to say no to Zinck, pulls out his wallet, hands him a twenty.
“Thanks, Spiegel. You’re a champ.”
No, Spiegel feels a chump, knowing he’s nothing to Zink but someone he can hit for a double sawbuck.
“Believe me,” says Zink, “I’ll pay you back as soon the check come.”
“Sure, sure. It’s fine. I’ll see you.”
Spiegel likes his constitutionals, doctor’s orders or not, but nearly always something happens to disturb him, drivers cutting the lights at an intersection, a runner forcing him into the street, someone with a cell phone bumping into him. Now, soon after leaving Zinck, it’s a figure on a bicycle, male or female he can’t tell — the helmet, the puffy jacket, the jeans — speeding on the sidewalk, the handlebar skims his sleeve. “Schmuck!” he yells after the ears already too far away to hear. Doesn’t that person know you knock an old person down, they break a hip, go into the hospital, catch pneumonia, die?
But he’s happy to see his old friend Lippman in the oncoming crowd. Lippman will understand. Except it’s not him, it’s some other guy not nearly his age, and anyway, what am I thinking? Spiegel asks himself, I must be a little nuts, or it’s a bit of sun, Lippman’s been dead for years.
Spiegel needs a break, Kiley’s is up ahead, one of the two or three real railroad car diners left in the region. At the counter, he says, “Coffee.” “Cream?” asks the young waitress with the amusing purple hair. “Just a bit,” thumb and forefinger apart about that much.
“Want a blueberry muffin?” she asks. “We make them ourselves.”
“No, darling. Just coffee.”
Dribbles half a plastic creamer into the cup, watches the black turn cordovan, sips, sips again. Spiegel sighs, he’s always amazed at what coffee can do, how quickly it puts a finger on the spot that livens him up. “Maybe I will have that muffin.”
“You won’t be sorry.”
He’s not, leaves a large tip, resumes his walk, less than march step, more than shuffle, that takes him around an oblivious texter, until he’s opposite Carl the Cobbler’s, the only shop left in Carbury to bring your shoes for re-soling. Spiegel peers in to wave hello, Carl motions Spiegel into the shop. Wide, bald, and brawny in his cobbler’s apron, Carl says, “Mr. Spiegel, what can I do with this guy? He won’t leave.”
On one of the chairs of cracked leather seats and metal arms is a guy Spiegel sees around town; tall, alcoholic thin, pitted face, he often has a brown bag with a six pack shape, frequently wears those little ear things listening to music, generally has a sway to his gait, plugged in or not.
He’s got the ear things now, sprawled lengthily on the chair, eyes closed.
“Call the cops,” Spiegel suggests.
“Aw, Mr. Spiegel. That wouldn’t be nice. He’s harmless. I just want him out of the shop.”
Spiegel’s moved by Carl’s kind heart. He taps the guy’s shoulder. Moist eyes open. “What?”
“It’s time,” says Spiegel. Shows his watch face.
The guy unplugs one ear, thin music seeps. “What?”
“It’s time for you to buy your six pack and go home.”
“Oh.” Plugs the ear, stands in loose limbed sections, sways out the door.
“Wow,” says Carl. “That was brilliant. Thank you.”
“Ahh,” Spiegel hides his pride, pleasure his mind’s still active. “That’s OK.”
On toward his own home, around the corner sees Mrs. Vilma in her white wicker chair on her tiny front porch. Ninety years old, withered, nearly invisible in her very late husband’s giant black overcoat. “Hello, Mrs. Vilma, lovely day, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Vilma who never speaks, raises a hand that seems to say hello and I’m still here, which, as always, gives Spiegel a wisp of hope. Who knows? he thinks, Maybe he’ll even live long enough for Zinck to pay him back.