Benson was awakened by the sounds of the woman next door leaving for work. It was cold and the rain had turned to wet snow, at least it had at 3 a.m., when he’d gotten up to pee.
Their apartments were close. They shared a thin gypsum-board wall between them. He knew she could hear him during the night as he fumbled for the light in the dark and then flushed the toilet. The intimacy of this embarrassed him though there was nothing else he could do.
He and the woman talked and sometimes shared a meal together, usually in his apartment as his had a working stove, but they mostly kept to themselves.
The woman left before seven each morning. She walked up the street from the apartment, passing the railroad station, and the Rite Aid, and the shuttered IGA, where Benson and she had met when they both worked there, until the owners closed down the place, letting all the people go.
When they’d shown up for work that morning the lights were off and a sign was taped to the glass front doors, among faded flyers for cat sitters and guitar lessons, and cleaning services. The sign said, ‘Store Closed.’ It was printed in hasty pencil and they had to lean up close to read it.
Now, each day, the woman walked up the hill to the horse farm. She mucked out the stalls for minimum wage twice a day: once in the morning and then again in the early evening, coming back home after each shift. The horses had well-dressed owners who visited them, mostly on weekends. One there was called Ojai, just like the town she grew up in.
She recited poetry while she worked. Poems by Stevens, and Bishop, and Pound. Poems she had studied at Amherst… before she had the breakdown in her sophomore year and had to leave… and then was unable to return… and had her loans to pay off and no insurance, and meds pay for, and had to find a job, when Amherst in the seventies was no place to do that.
Benson watched her leave, in her red Wellies, hooded wool coat, and a knit watch cap. The snow then was blowing in tight, biting, drifts.
After her evening shift, the woman would stop at the library to use the bathroom and check her email and Facebook feed.
A couple had lived in the apartment next door before, where the woman lived now.
The husband was a sculptor. Short, sparsely bearded, thick fingered. They’d invite Benson over for instant coffee and he’d fix their faucet leaks or replace burned out light bulbs in the ceiling fixtures.
One day the wife died in the apartment. She had asthma or emphysema or something like that, coughing all of the time. That afternoon she coughed and wheezed until she stopped and he heard her fall to the floor. The man, Carl, was his name, tried but couldn’t pick her up.
Benson heard Carl call 911. But he’d given the operator the wrong address, one they had when they lived in another city. Benson listened as he argued with the operator, screaming into the phone.
After the wife died, Benson thought he should have gone over, should have just walked in and helped, maybe should have called the police himself, but he didn’t.
The snow tapered off in the evening. The temperature dropped quickly. The sky was coal black and the woman had not yet returned. There had been a time once, she’d told him, that she had slipped on the slick black ice on the hill down from the Main Street. She’d broken two ribs then.
Benson pulled on a thick sweater and his hat and knocked on the woman’s door.
When she didn’t answer, he set off up the hill, the cold tearing his eyes and catching his breath. His nose ran, freezing in the hairs against his chin.
Lights were lit in the houses he passed, set back from the road, their driveways not yet plowed. He knew so few people in town. Fewer still were those who you could count on. People, he knew, had their own lives and their own troubles.
The woman next door was a good person. She liked animals, knew poetry, complained little, and had had another life like he once did, before this one. One with a family, and laughter, a back yard, and a car.
The library was closed. She wasn’t at the Cumbie’s or sitting by the steamed window in the pizza shop on the corner.
He was sure he’d find her and they’d walk back to the apartment together. He’d offer to heat up some dinner for them. And then they might talk about the weather and horses. And when she’d go back to her place, he’d make a cup of tea and sit in his chair and try to read Bukowski, listening to the woman washing up, and before his eyes would close and he’d fall asleep with a blanket pulled tightly up under his chin.