The curtains were drawn in the small, two-story house: dark, patternless scabs on the pale, acned skin of a building too long deprived of a healthy diet. Like shuttered eyes, they avoided interrogation. The old man sighed as he shuffled slowly up the sidewalk to the shadows that hid the front door. Weeds sprouted like bristles of brown-green hair on the unshaven face of a tiny dirt yard. Water stains marred the rough, disintegrating cement of the three steps leading to a peeling laminate that managed to separate the interior of the house from the unkempt clothes it wore.
Maybe there was no one home, although everybody pretended absence. Suspicion was the only thing they couldn’t disguise. Suspicion and mistrust. He was after all, a stranger and a threat, despite his age and obvious infirmity. Anywhere else, and the door would have been thrown open, a curious smile would have greeted him, and probably an offer of entrance. At least a smattering of small talk -words to hide the embarrassment of first contact. Thoughtful gestures to acknowledge his limp and the wrinkled leather of his face. An acknowledgement of age and the respect it elicited, however involuntarily.
Sympathy, often disguised as empathy, greeted him at those doors. Curiosity as well, but they wouldn’t open if he were not so old. Age was his introduction, his calling card. Frayed and crumpled like his clothes, it gained him audience, communion.
Purpose was an excuse afforded to few in the Home -even though his was an escape predicated on lies –no, stories– that he was visiting friends around the city. Friends that had requested him, friends that needed him. Friends that were worried about him and his health. Friends, though, that understood his abhorrence of the innumerable sing-alongs and feeble exercise sessions, of the long, urine-scented corridors filled with slowly moving pyjamas, and especially of the interminable card games that seemed to accomplish nothing but occupying the time until they turned out the lights.
No, he needed a purpose, however defined. And this neighbourhood -this house in particular- would accomplish that. He could feel it. He paused for a moment along the sidewalk to analyze the thoughts that poked through his fatigue. It was a tiring walk from the bus stop to this street, and as usual he’d taken a long time choosing the house. It hadn’t been easy; it never was. So many factors went into the choice. So many unknowns. Maps were not people; they couldn’t answer his questions, they couldn’t help him decide – nothing and no one could. Even he didn’t know what answers he wanted. But that was because he didn’t know the questions. He hadn’t the faintest idea what to ask. He never did…
He could feel eyes studying him from behind the dirty walls and he smiled at them. This will be perfect; the thought crept up on him and grew like his exhaustion as he neared the door. It seemed different from the other places that only saw an old man on their porch, and extended a courtesy he didn’t want. Didn’t need… Not anymore.
He’d been fooling himself before, running away from the goal he’d so carefully chosen. And hidden. Any questions he’d asked at the doors were irrelevant, and so the answers he’d heard were meaningless. He no longer needed answers; the questions were merely keys to open strange doors. The means to an end.
He hobbled slowly up the concrete steps and tapped –or rather rattled- the door. There was no answer of course; he didn’t expect a response immediately. One had to be patient here -this district was intolerant of unknowns. He didn’t blame them. He had lived like that for years, ignorant, even, of his ignorance. That was usually the way, he realized: ignorance is a blanket, and maybe ignorance is also an ill-treated house in an ill-treated neighbourhood. A house so devoid of pride it peeled at the slightest glance and closed its eyes. A house not used to examination.
There was a muffled thump and a whimper he felt more than heard. A curse, not loud, but deep behind some wall; then, a non-sound, signifying –what- a presence? An acknowledgement? Finally, nothing –not even the souffle of stockinged feet on a threadbare carpet. Silence stretched to the point of revelation and then the door rattled back.
“What do you want?” It was half whisper, half breath –both hostile and suspicious, distorted by passage through the thin, damaged wood.
This was a time he could never rehearse. “I’m lost,” suddenly escaped from his mouth. A truck rumbled past on the pot-holed asphalt road close behind him and a shiver ran through the concrete steps almost making him lose his balance.
“Where do you want to go?” The gruffness seemed less severe, less angry.
It was an existential question that caught him off guard, and an involuntary shrug grasped his shoulders and locked his eyes on the opening door. A woman’s face materialized through the crack of space. Her greying hair was sleep-wound and one of her eyes, though open, was squeezed behind a bruise that coloured half her cheek. It smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, of stale pizza and instant coffee. And yet there was warmth in that eye: an affirmation of a weary fellow traveller at the intersection of a different road.
The face was neutral, but the other eye smiled to spite it. “You look tired,” the lips managed to say and convinced their owner to open the door wide. She was dressed in a once-orange bathrobe fastened at the waist with a piece of brown string and her feet were bare and calloused. “Would you like to come in for a moment?”
It was his turn to smile and he nodded his assent. He leaned against the door frame for a moment, then slowly felt his way into a dim corridor. The hallway led to some wooden stairs whose steps looked chipped and badly cracked as they ascended into a thicker darkness. How far, he couldn’t tell –but farther than his legs could carry him. In the dim light filtering through the heavily clouded sky outside he could only make out a few details: shadowed and bare walls stained in spots and uncluttered by even a single picture, a brown, fraying patternless carpet that was desperately trying to cover parts of a buckling yellow linoleum floor… There was not much else except an unpainted narrow bench almost hidden in shadows near the bottom step.
The woman seemed embarrassed as she glanced first at him and then the stairs. A moment of indecision flitted across her face before she took his hand, gently as she would a child’s, and led him to the bench. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked. The question was offered tentatively- uncertain if he would accept. Uncertain if he would want to accept. And when he nodded, her face awoke, and her good eye twinkled with delight.
She pounded up the unsteady stairs with the assurance of someone finally granted a mission. A reprieve from the boredom of a grey, featureless Sunday morning -an otherwise pointless day, long ago stripped of any meaning.
He sat patiently in the semi-gloom, listening to the sounds coming from the top of the stairs. They were busy. Purposeful. Maybe even joyful, he decided, as he leaned his aching back against the rough, crumbling plasterboard wall. Time lost its cadence as he waited; it slowed, then stopped like the pause between movements in a symphony. It was a moment pregnant with expectation. Rich with hope.
A new, smiling woman slowly descended the creaking stairs carrying a plastic tray. She was wearing a flower-print dress now, and shoes. She had managed to pile her hair on the top of her head, but like a haystack that threatened to topple with each careful step. She handed him a cup half filled with steaming coffee and took the other –the one with a broken handle- for herself. There was a plate of cookies on the tray and as she sat on the second step she put it on the bench between them. “Hope you take milk and sugar in yours,” she said, afraid she’d made a mistake. And when he nodded, her cheeks exploded in a smile that almost cut her bruise in half.
She stared at her coffee for a moment. “I don’t get many guests nowadays,” she said, and then chose a cookie from the tray, careful to take one that was broken. “I’m sorry we have to sit in the hall…”
He looked at her –the changed her- and sighed contentedly. “It’s perfect,” he said and sipped the overly sweet coffee with obvious pleasure. “I’m happy I’m here.”