Greg’s new neighbor Art moved in right about the time that Greg noticed Eveline, who cracked gum and scolded him, half-kidding, that he’d been timing their morning elevator rides. He lived on the seventh floor, and at 6:00 a.m. she was often waiting when the doors opened on the sixth floor.
“You following me, or what?” she said after almost each coincidence, and he laughed and looked at her dark hair when she eased past him and the door slid closed.
One morning he finally answered her. “Well, you get on after I do, so how am I following you?”
“It don’t matter,” she said. “The guy always follows the girl, not the other way around, don’t you know nothing?”
“No, I don’t,” he said, and she cackled. Greg liked her cackle and kind of beamed at her.
“Wait till I tell my brudda on you,” she said, and he was quiet. The elevator jerked onto the first floor, and the door rolled open from right to left.
“See you later, you follower,” she said. She hurried through the lobby, and Greg kept his hand on the open elevator door before stepping out when she reached the courtyard.
In his six years of living in the building, Greg had spoken to others only when it was time to take the elevator or throw garbage down the chute, but then Art moved in and knocked on Greg’s door to say hello, and then stopped Greg in the courtyard to talk, and then invited him to dinner, where he made a pretty fair plate of spaghetti with Ragu. Art talked to Greg across the table about his job as a proofreader and as an up-and-coming poet, and he talked about the basketball and soccer trophies that lined the hallway wall, and he talked about life in the city compared to his former dreary life in rural upstate, and the tendency of country people to be arrogant and self-centered. Greg tried to answer, to disagree, but Art interrupted.
“I went to a poetry reading just the other night. Way over on the West Side, in this little restaurant on Bleecker. You should go. Maybe you wouldn’t really understand the poems because they’re very literate and experimental, but the food is good, and they have coffee, not the best, but it’s passable, and the waitress over there is beautiful, just beautiful. I have a date with her this Friday. She’s amazing. What do you do? Do you go out at all?”
“I can’t stand being cooped up. I have to go out and network. You need to network. I can tell you don’t really network.”
“Well, I just—”
“You should network. You work in the newspaper building, right? It’s the perfect place to network, man. Really, your apartment should never be empty.”
“Well, at work—”
“But then there are a bunch of hacks at your newspaper, so how can you meet any halfway intelligent people there? How can you stand it? You should network, get around the city. It’s not like the country. I only conversed with cows. Really. You’re laughing, but really.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“I conversed with cows, I swear. There were no babes anywhere. None. There were like twelve people in my town and they were all over forty. All I ever heard was ‘Yep.’ Somebody would say, ‘Looks like it’s going to rain, Bub’, and someone else would say, ‘Yep’. That was it. How can anyone live like that? They were so arrogant, always thinking they knew when it was going to rain and looking down on city people. But here it’s different, man. You really need to get out, network and everything. Just try. I can see you’re just kind of existing here, but it’s ridiculous just to exist. Because at least in this building there are all kinds of babes. Did you see the one on the tenth floor?”
“How could you miss her? Then there’s the one on the sixth floor—”
“The sixth floor, but she’s mobbed up, I can tell. Have you seen her? Cracking gum all the time. Typical mobbed up spoiled mobbed up babe. Do you know about her brother?”
“A guy took his parking space one day, and in broad daylight he smashed the guy’s windshield with a crowbar. That’s what I heard, from networking around the courtyard. I’ll be right back.”
Art went into his bedroom, and after a while Greg drifted toward the doorway. He looked at the row Art’s soccer plaques that lined the hallway wall, and he imagined Eveline’s brother finding out that Greg liked his sister and beating him with a pipe.
You talked to my sister on the elevator, huh? You looked at her hair, huh? Answer me. But Greg would be unable to answer because her brother was beating him with a pipe. Then he was standing against the brick wall of the courtyard and Eveline’s brother drove into him with a battering ram. You talk to my sister again and you’re dead, you hear me, dead, Eveline’s brother would warn his dead body.
Art returned with a brochure of a racetrack. “This is a great place, just great. You wouldn’t believe how many different kinds of people go to race tracks. It’s fascinating. And the fillies are great.”
“No, the girls. Wow. They make ‘em different at race tracks, especially this one. They’re like, wow. You want to go? Saturday, we’ll go. I’ve got my car. You should get a car, stop walking around or taking buses. Get a car. Mine’s parked right in the lot. I don’t bother with street parking.”
Greg briefly imagined Eveline’s brother breaking into the parking lot and smashing Art’s windshield.
“So you want to go? You should go. Saturday, man. Bet on a few horses, look around, relax, and network, you know? You should network.”
Early on Saturday morning, Eveline stood in front of a lifeless black squirrel near a tree at the far end of the courtyard. She turned to Greg, who was about to pass her on his way out for coffee.
“He’s dead. Oh my God, take a look.”
Greg stood beside her and looked down at the motionless squirrel. “What happened?”
“Some bastard killed him. Oh my God, Blackie…I fed him every day. Look at how he’s laying there.” She looked past Greg to the courtyard steps. “Jimmy, come here,” she sobbed.
It was Eveline’s brother. He stood close to Greg and glanced from him to Eveline.
“It’s Blackie,” she said. “They killed him.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jimmy looked at the dead squirrel.
“Someone killed him, Jimmy.”
“Nobody killed him. It’s natural causes. What the hell, Eveline, you and your animals.”
“Someone killed him, I know it. He’s on his back.”
“So what, he’s on his back.”
Eveline frowned, gesturing to Greg. “This is Greg, this is my brudda Jimmy.”
“Jim,” Jimmy said, shaking hands with Greg. “Jim, not Jimmy, how many times I gotta tell you, Eveline, I hate that name Jimmy. Pisses me off when someone calls me that.”
“But it don’t piss you off when someone murders a squirrel,” she said.
“It’s a wild animal, who gives a shit.”
“Look at your face, Jimmy. Do you see your face? What did Ma tell you about your temper? Look at his face, Greg. He’s got such a bad temper, it’s the worst.”
“I don’t have no goddamn temper, Eveline. Shut the hell up.”
Greg wore a planted smile, and Jimmy turned to him.
“What’s your name again?”
“Greg, like Brady Bunch Greg?”
“What’s your middle name, then?”
“Frederick.” And when Jimmy looked incredulous, Greg added, “Fred.”
“Fred, like Fred Flintstone? Holy shit, I’m afraid to ask your last name now.”
“Stop it, Jimmy,” Eveline said.
“Italian name? You’re Italian?”
Greg exhaled and nodded.
“Well, at least you’re Italian. Eveline’s last boyfriend wasn’t no Italian. He was a son of a bitch.”
“Oh, stop, Jimmy. Go upstairs.” She knelt beside the dead squirrel.
“Do you know what that bastard did to my mother and my sister here?”
Greg looked concerned.
“He mailed us a Christmas card. The bastard mailed us a Christmas card. Only family should be mailing Christmas cards to each other, but this guy mails a Christmas card. So he mails us this card, and it says, ‘Dear Eveline and Jim’, and my mom and dad, you know?”
“He didn’t dare write Jimmy,” Eveline said.
“Don’t interrupt me! Anyway, he mails this card that says dear all of us, but then right after that he writes, ‘and Comet’, who was our dog, which died like two weeks before he wrote the card.”
“He didn’t know,” said Eveline, standing up from the where the squirrel lay.
“Shut up, that don’t matter if he didn’t know. So he puts the dog’s name in there, and my mom starts wailing about Comet, and then Eveline here, she cries about every damn animal from Kingdom Come anyway, and that gets her going. The both of them are crying their eyes out through the whole damn Christmas. Damn bastard.”
“Jimmy, go upstairs.”
Jimmy gritted his teeth at his sister. “I’m going to the park.” He turned to Greg. “All right then?” And he held out his hand and Greg shook it.
“Nice to meet you, Jim,” Greg said.
“All right then. Get her away from that stupid squirrel, will you? It’s unhygienic.” And Jimmy strolled off.
Eveline had moved away from the squirrel. She blinked back tears, and Greg stepped a little closer to her.
“I’m so stupid,” she said. “Crying over a dumb squirrel.”
“He’s not dumb,” Greg offered.
“I cry over stupid things all the time. Oh my God, sometimes I’m just laying in bed at night, and I cry over the slightest things. I can’t help it. I hate it when anything suffers, I swear to God.”
The racetrack was all the way in Tioga four hours away, not at nearby Belmont Park or Aqueduct or even Monticello. From the George Washington Bridge well into their trip through Route 17, Art talked about his own poetry, and other poets, and the poetry readings he’d gone to and wanted to go to, and the women he saw there, and the places he took the women to after the readings; and he talked about women who were fantastic, and women who were dogs, and women who were too ordinary, and women who were stupid, and others who were brilliant. He told Greg about one crazy woman he lived with briefly, how she threw dishes at him because of some remark he’d made—though he’d forgotten what he’d said that riled her up. And he told Greg about the woman with five kids who was too weighed down by the little monsters to pay attention to Art, and he told of the woman in his old building on Second Avenue with whom he’d had a fling, but that she was married, and that it didn’t matter anyway since the husband lived in Georgia or something and had no idea about the fling and never paid attention to her, and that Art had decided to break it off anyway because she was boring. And when they passed through Monticello and Greg wondered aloud if they could just go to that racetrack instead, Art talked about the women at Tioga Racetrack and how much better looking they were at Tioga than at Monticello. The women at Monticello were dogs, Art explained, and anyway, there was a buffet not far from Tioga, and the food was great, and the women were incredible.
Greg watched the blur of trees, and he thought of all the good restaurants only blocks from where he lived, and he thought about Eveline crying over the squirrel, and he imagined having hugged her instead of standing at a distance with his arms tight at his sides. But then in his mind Jimmy cracked the back of his head with a crowbar―not having gone to the park after all―and Greg lay dead next to Blackie while Jimmy told Eveline to shut up with her crying or she’d get the crowbar treatment too.
In the grandstand at Tioga Racetrack, Art advised Greg to keep his eyes peeled for horses and women.
“I’ve got this system,” Art said.
“No, no.” Art pointed at his program. “If a horse, in his previous race, ran well from an outside post position, and if now he has an inside post, then that’s the horse to bet.”
“I just look at the horses run during warm-ups and pick one I like,” Greg said. They looked out at the horses running around the track, pulling little men seated on carts. One of the horses, number nine, seemed to be trying to bite himself in the neck as he ran.
“I like number nine, over there. He’s crazy but I like him,” Greg said.
“Don’t even look at him, look at his history,” Art said in a bored voice.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind being tiny like those jockeys, so I can ride around in circles pulled by a horse.”
“Good luck because it’s not that easy. You have to have some courage,” Art said, and Greg felt a twist in his gut and his jaw tightened. He looked at the mountains far beyond the track, and at the blue sky, and he wondered if he’d get home too late to accidentally ride the elevator with Eveline or see her in the courtyard. A woman who had just seated herself as part of a group in the next row looked a little like her, with her short brown hair.
“Number seven looks good too,” Greg said at last, as the horses finished one final warm-up lap.
Art laughed through his nose. “He finished fifth from the first post position last race, and now he’s positioned seventh. Forget him too. Sheesh.”
Art nudged Greg and pointed to the woman with the brown hair. “See what I mean about Tioga?” he said, and Greg looked away.
He bet two dollars on the number three horse, as Art had advised him, because it had come in fifth place from the number seven position last race and now was positioned third, but the horse came in seventh or eighth. The number seven horse, the one that he thought looked good, won the race, and the horse that had tried to bite his own neck during warm-ups came in second.
"Just stick with the system,” Art insisted to Greg, who smirked and looked off into the mountains and didn’t bet on any more races. Instead, he watched the horses during warm-ups, and he watched the brown-haired girl in front of him. He wished he could have the job of the truck driver who raked and watered down the track between races and led the horses into each race, setting their pace behind wide gates before speeding up and retracting the gates to signal the start of each race. He would work hard each day, and each night he would go home to Eveline…and her brother.
By the seventh race, Art had wrung his racing form into a twisted mess.
“Bad day, huh?” Greg said.
“Not really. I know what I’m doing. Things will even out eventually. But you have no system and you take no chances. At least I take chances. You take no chances.”
“I don’t really gamble.”
“You lost one race and then you gave up. What the hell is that?”
“The writing was on the wall for me, that’s all.” Greg laughed.
“I’ve never lost at the track, ever—not every race like this one.” His words hung accusingly in the air, and Greg felt that twist in his gut again, and his upper lip curled in spite of his effort to stifle it.
“Well, I don’t think anyone ever wins betting,” he said, and Art scoffed.
Soon Art won $3.25 on the ninth race favorite.
“I guess your system works after all,” Greg said, and he stretched as though to leave.
“There are still three races left, man,” Art said, still pouring over his racing form.
Greg sat back, realizing there was little chance of catching Eveline that afternoon.
The girl with the brown hair began to leave with her group. Greg watched her go and nudged Art. “She reminds me of that woman on the sixth floor.”
“She’s much better looking than that sixth-floor babe. Didn’t I tell you about this place? If we’d wussed out and gone to Monticello, like you wanted, we’d be gagging by now.”
“Do ugly women all decide to go to Monticello?” Greg wondered, but Art was circling a horse’s name and peppering it with exclamation points.
“She’s pretty nice, though…” Greg went on. “The girl on the sixth floor.”
“Oh yeah?” said Art, staring at his racing form, and Greg told him about the squirrel incident.
Art looked up at last. “I don’t know,” he said. “That would be a deal breaker for me, crying over a squirrel.”
At the Chinese buffet down the road from the racetrack, Greg ate one plateful of vegetables and rice. A waitress poured him tea. An enormous clock on the wall read seven o’clock, and he realized that he wouldn’t see Eveline or hear about how she was dealing with the loss of the squirrel until at least the next day in the courtyard, or more likely, Monday morning at 6:00 a.m. on the elevator. Art was on line for a second helping on the floor below, and Greg watched the crowd wind around the rectangular buffet table. He crossed his arms and leaned on the railing and thought of Eveline’s brother Jimmy shouting about not having a temper, and cursing over the Christmas card incident with Eveline’s old boyfriend, and he imagined Jimmy outside the buffet restaurant smashing Art’s car windshield for badmouthing his sister at the racetrack, and then smashing Greg in the back of the knees for hanging out with such an arrogant, self-centered, bad-mouthing, women-degrading pompous ass.
He looked around at the diners refilling their plates. Around him and on the floor below they gnawed on chicken wings and they sat with heaping plates of pork chops and noodles and dumplings and cake. One man, looking too full to move, finally made his way downstairs—probably to the men’s room, Greg thought—but soon returned with yet another stacked plate of food. Art sat across from Greg with his own heaping plate, but Greg leaned on the railing again, his chin on his folded arms.
When he was ten, his cousin’s neighbor had dangled Greg by his feet over his second-floor deck after Greg tackled the man’s son during a touch football game. He’d called Greg up the deck stairs to congratulate him on such a great play, then pulled Greg upside down by his feet and dangled him over the deck while Greg screamed wildly at the sky and the trees.
Art was talking to him, and Greg pushed himself away from the railing. “What?”
“Isn’t this place great? Aren’t you having more food?”
“I’m stuffed. How can people eat so much?”
“The food’s good, that’s why. Ten bucks, all you can eat. Get your money’s worth.”
“It’s all pretty disgusting,” Greg said, frowning at the crowd below. “Gluttony and greed,” he added, and from the corner of his eye he saw Art wave his hand dismissively.
Soon Art returned to the buffet line, and Greg wandered past him and stood outside. He watched a line of cars stopped at the red light in front of the restaurant.
There were no easy taxi rides to New York City, where only hours later he could hang around the courtyard and take the chance of running into Eveline. He could see how she was feeling about the squirrel, and maybe make friends with her brother to keep himself from being dangled off her sixth-floor balcony. But then one day, friends with Jimmy or not, respected by Jimmy or not, he’d be sure to tackle Eveline, at least once, just for fun, just playing around, just because they liked each other so much, and he’d be taken by her brother and his friends to the East River docks a short walk away. Unable to explain, stuttering at first and then screaming wildly, he’d be dangled by his feet over the water and then dropped.
“She’s good, though, she is,” he said to the dark avenue and to the cars that roared past when the light turned green. Then he returned inside where Art, having just finished some kind of chocolate layer cake, was wiping his mouth with a huge cloth napkin. Trudging up the steps to Art’s table, he felt how much stronger he could make his legs if only he would take the stairs at home instead of riding the elevator.
Lou Gaglia's short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His stories have appeared in Menda City Review, Serving House Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, Thrice Fiction, Eclectica, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time teacher and T'ai Chi Ch'uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com