About the Author
Jessie was an old black man who used to sit on the stoop next door most of the day and catch the sun. He would tell anyone who would stop and talk to him that he had little else to do. Almost blind, he balanced a cane in front of his legs and held it straight up for hours. He always wore a black suit, a starched white shirt, a tie, and a black hat.
If he was not on the stoop, perhaps it was Saturday and his family had come to visit him. His family was a daughter and her three children. They only came on Saturdays.
Sometimes our landlady, Mrs. Henderson, would gossip with him on the stoop. Plump, jovial and endlessly talkative, she had been his friend for years. If she were there, often he forgot to nod to passersby or call across the street to someone he recognized. They would sit for hours.
There were eight units in our building. Mrs. Henderson lived on the second floor, alone in one cluttered room, and she had just rented the apartment directly above her to us, who she described to Jessie as “a couple of nice married kids, just came to the city and looking for jobs.” That was in January.
On February 1st I looked for Mrs. Henderson. We were broke, and I had to tell her that the rent would be late. When she did not answer the doorbell, I went outside and found her with Jessie. I had seen the old man there before but had never met him. Mrs. Henderson did not seem worried about the rent being late, and introduced us.
“She’s a nice kid,” she said, patting me on the shoulder.
Thereafter, whenever I went out, Jessie would say hello and I would sit and talk to him, about how old he was and almost blind, how his family came only on Saturdays, how he knew everyone in the neighborhood, how long he had known Mrs. Henderson, and yes, I agreed, Mrs. Henderson was very kind.
That June was unusually hot. The pavement and colors of the buildings seemed bleached and the air was grayish brown. “Everything seems to bother me here,” I complained to Jessie. “I hate the way the cars move and the sounds of the buses, and the smells they make. I don’t feel like doing anything. Clothes even are too heavy to wear. And last night a man in the building next door fell asleep with a pot of rice on the stove, and we didn’t know whether the building was on fire or not or whether to call the firemen.” Jessie knew the man. “And a week ago there was blood all over the steps, little red tracks up and down, someone was stabbed, on the first floor, I don’t know who it was.” Jessie knew who it was.
But soon Jessie himself, sitting in his perfect suit in that weather, became a bother as well, just a blob of radiating heat. I lowered my head as I walked out, hoping that somehow he would not notice me. To have to stop and talk would prevent me from moving at all. But he always saw me and spoke to me. Then I would have to sit with him for awhile.
One day when he caught me trying to avoid him, he said that he had missed me. “Where have you been? How is everything?” he asked.
“I’m fine, but it is so hot, I hardly go out anymore,” I lied. “I stay inside, but that’s uncomfortable too, because the whole building has a strange odor, like an animal has been caught in the walls and died. Our neighbors in the next apartment, you know, the artist and his girlfriend, they have noticed it too.” Jessie knew them. “I wish I were not here. I don’t like the city,” I said.
Jessie moved one hand from his cane and put it comfortingly on my knee. He was so sorry that I was unhappy. “But,” he said, “knowing you has made me very happy.” His hand remained on my knee. He asked me to promise always to stop and talk to him, that he needed me. “You are very important to me,” he said, “and I have come to love you.”
Hearing the word “love" and feeling his touch made me suddenly afraid. To get away, I promised.
The strange odor in our building that I had complained to Jessie about increased, until it was overpowering. All the tenants were disturbed, but no one knew what it could be.
Then a few days later, we found out what it was. There was an official notice on Mrs. Henderson’s door from the Public Health Department, sealing the apartment up. Our landlady had been dead for more than two weeks and with no family or friends except Jessie, there had been no one to find her body.
We moved shortly thereafter. Jessie was sitting on the stoop the day we left. Calling me over, he asked me to promise that I would come back and visit him. We were not moving far away, he said, and it would be easy for me to stop on my way downtown to my new job. Would I please? And I promised that I would.
Jessie must be gone now. He was so old then and all this happened a long time ago. I often pass his building and each time I do I look over at the familiar stoop and expect to still see him there wearing his suit, starched shirt and hat, with his cane upright. I figure out approximately how old he would be now, and say to myself that he must be gone, and to the empty stoop, how sorry I am that I was young and didn’t understand anything about love, how sorry I am that I never bothered to come back and visit.
|© Laura Beausoleil, 2010|