Joseph thought the creaking beneath his feet was like the stairway telling him what it had been through, like wrinkles on an old man’s face. He found it comforting being near things that survived the weathering of time and being around people who still talked when they had something to say. There were too many kids, barely out of college, implying he was out of touch. Life was becoming a big text message and he refused to be a part of it. His one concession to technology was a flip-phone, which he didn’t use for anything but making and receiving calls. If he wanted to live life through a screen, there was always the movies.
The dimness of the stairway led to rooms no more bright, but they were removed from the harshness of the street; the panhandlers, the portable food wagons, the hustlers talking up erotic pleasures, mostly with girls off a bus from the Midwest. The view from his bedroom was the back wall of a theatre that had several escape stairways. Joseph remained where the theatres were, though he no longer had an agent, or any hopes of an audition. Most seventy-year-old stage actors had what former movie starlets at fifty had — irrelevant portfolios.
Joseph picked up the note Mr. Malatesta had slipped under his door about the exterminator coming at 4 p.m. He closed his eyes after reading it. The three rooms he lived in hadn’t had a roach in months. For two weeks after the last spraying, he saw one everywhere he looked. He thought about going to see him in his first floor apartment. But Malatesta wasn’t someone he had ever successfully dealt with. His written complaint about not getting enough heat in the winter was met with a note taped to his door: Maybe you should move. When the hot water was turned off in the middle of Joseph’s shower, he confronted the landlord in the hallway. Malatesta told him, “Things getting expensive now. Have to do our part.”
Malatesta doubled as the super for the four-apartment building. But he was often out during the day, and Joseph wondered where he spent his time. He knew he was a retired contractor, so he thought maybe he was involved with other buildings. Joseph decided he had nothing to lose if the guy wasn’t home and carefully made his way down the stairs. The door opened after he knocked, Malatesta standing there holding a wooden spatula. “It’s lunchtime, Mr. Ross,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to some private time.”
Joseph glanced at his watch and saw it was 2:50pm. “Sorry, didn’t know you were eating so late.”
Malatesta’s stare showed annoyance. ”We’re all on our own schedule.”
The aroma of frying meat filled the hallway and blue smoke soon followed. Malatesta left his tenant at the doorway, hurrying back to the kitchen. Joseph saw the opportunity to look around the apartment, but stopped short of entering more than a couple of feet. Old newspapers were tied in bundles and stacked by a wall, a red and brown area rug, frayed at the edges, was littered with discount store coupons, and the accordion door by the kitchen had a hole in it. The smoke was making his eyes tear and when Malatesta returned he ushered Joseph back into the hall. “What’s the problem this time, besides all the smoke? And I don’t like nobody comin’ in my place. You hear what I’m sayin’?”
“I didn’t realize I was. I’m sorry.”
“So, what is it?”
Joseph diverted his gaze from the landlord. “There’s really no problem. I got the note about the exterminator.”
“Yeah, okay, you got the note.”
“I don’t think you need to bring him in. Everything’s good upstairs. No bugs. Nothing. I’m assuming it’s that way in the rest of the building.”
“You telling me my business, Mr. Ross?”
“No, it’s just a suggestion,” Joseph said, wiping his eyes.
“Hold on,” Malatesta said, as he turned to walk to a closet. He pulled out a portable fan and wheeled it toward the kitchen. Joseph could hear windows opening and then the fan humming. “Goddam it,” he grumbled when he got back. “Sausages cook too damn fast.”
The smell and the haze hung thick, so Joseph tried to remain away from the entrance. Malatesta coughed a couple of times, wiping his eyes as well.
Joseph said, “Maybe you wanna take the food and come upstairs to eat? You know, until the place clears out a little?”
Malatesta made eye contact at the offer. “Nah, things’ll be okay soon.”
“I feel like I interrupted your lunch,” Joseph said. “It’s really no bother.”
Malatesta hesitated a moment and then disappeared to the kitchen again. He returned with a platter of sausage and peppers, closed the door, and followed Joseph up the stairs.
When they entered the apartment, Malatesta scanned the living room. “Keepin’ things nice and neat, I see.”
“Nobody to pick up after,” Joseph said with a thin smile. He pointed to a small dining room table. “Have a seat.”
Setting the platter down, Malatesta noticed a faded picture on the mantle of a young woman smiling in a beach chair. “Your wife?”
“For thirty-one years.”
Joseph lowered his head. “No, she died ten years ago.”
“Sorry about that. She looks like a nice woman.”
“That she was.”
Malatesta took a seat at the table. “You got wine?”
“Of course,” Joseph said. “What kind of a host am I?” He went over and pulled a bottle of merlot from a cabinet and unscrewed the cork. Taking a seat himself, he poured a glass for both of them.
“Sausage?” Malatesta said. “I know it’s a little burnt.”
“I had lunch, thanks.”
Malatesta glanced at the mantle again. “How ‘bout kids? Don’t see no pictures.”
Joseph shook his head. “You have to earn a spot up there. If I never see him in the flesh, why would I look at his picture?”
“Got a point there. Kids are trouble, anyway.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s always true.”
“Don’t worry about him,” Malatesta said, taking a big drink of his wine. “Let him go. Just let him go his own way. You’re better off.”
“I used to have a relationship with him, but when my wife died it all changed. He went to the other coast to write for television. He thought I was a loser in the theatre, who never made a real buck. I let him know I didn’t appreciate that. Told him maybe he’s the loser, selling out his writing talent to produce a lot of crap. Now, it’s like I don’t exist.”
“Listen, I don’t see mine, either. Ain’t into Attica visits. The kid can rot there, for all I care.”
“Your son is in jail?”
“Killed somebody in a robbery. I’ll be long dead before he gets out.”
Malatesta flung his fork onto the plate. “I’ll tell you what’s more terrible. A week after he went in, with all that stress his mother caught a stroke. So, both of us got a dead wife.”
Joseph didn’t know what to say as Malatesta closed his eyes, a tear coming down his cheek. He reached over and put a hand on his shoulder.
After several moments, the landlord stood up, embarrassed to look Joseph in the eye. “Guess we all got our shit, huh?”
Malatesta looked toward the door. “That exterminator’s comin’ soon. Y’know what, I don’t see no bugs either.” He wiped away the tear and forced a smile. “Think I’ll cancel the bastard. Save a hundred bucks.”
Joseph went over to the door to let him out. Malatesta finished off his wine, grabbed the platter of food and headed for the stairway. Before going down, he stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “You ain’t gettin’ enough heat, you know where my door’s at.”
Tom Melore is a retired court officer who worked in Manhattan Supreme Court for 35 years. He lives in Branchburg and attends the Princeton Writers group meetings at Princeton Public Library.