"The Stranger in the Hall" by Patty Somlo
Early Monday morning when Anna De Niro stepped out her door, she was surprised to see a stranger in the hall.
“Good morning,” Anna said, before bending over to pick up her paper.
“Morning,” the woman answered, lingering just shy of the building’s entrance.
Instead of returning to her flat, Anna paused a moment, to take in the stranger and consider what she might be doing there. The woman had large, pale blue eyes and high chiseled cheekbones, in a narrow, oval face. Her silver hair was crisscrossed into a braid that trailed nearly down to her waist. Slender, she had on a snug, stylish dark gray jacket and fitted black knit pants. The color of her hair and telltale lines in her face told Anna the woman might be about her age, in her seventies, even though the clothes made her appear younger by several decades.
“I wonder if you could help me,” the woman said, as Anna turned to go back inside.
“I can try,” Anna responded. “What do you need?”
"Coffee,” the woman blurted out. “Could you direct me somewhere I might find good coffee?”
“Tony gave me directions last night, but he reeled them off so fast, I forgot,” the woman went on.
“Tony?” Anna asked, thinking the woman must have wandered into the wrong building. No one living in any of the building’s six flats was named Tony.
“Oops, I forgot. I mean Anthony. He goes by Anthony now, but I still call him Tony.”
The stranger shook her head and smiled.
“I’m Anthony’s mother, Helen Jackson, by the way. I’m visiting from Chicago.”
Anthony’s mother? Could Anna have heard right?
“Anthony?” Anna asked. “You mean, our Anthony on the second floor?”
“Yes,” the woman agreed.
Anna recalled now that Anthony had said his mother was coming for a visit. But this woman wasn’t the person Anna had expected. Anthony Jackson, as everyone in the building knew, was Black. Unless Anna’s eyes were failing her, this woman claiming to be Anthony’s mother was decidedly White.
Though her habit was to leisurely sip a perfectly brewed cup of Peet’s dark French Roast coffee in her kitchen while reading the Chronicle, Anna didn’t want an opportunity to be the first in the building to learn something about Anthony Jackson’s White mother pass her by. So, rather than giving Helen Jackson directions to a café up the block, Anna decided to invite herself to tag along.
“I’m Anna De Niro. If you don’t mind, I’ll get dressed and join you.”
Fog from the previous night had retreated off the coast, and the morning was bright. Days like this made Anna grateful to call San Francisco home.
Anna pulled on a pair of stretchy black yoga pants and a thin black sweater. She didn’t have time to wash and blow-dry her champagne-colored hair, so she wrapped an attractive multicolored scarf around her head, and knotted it in back. After checking her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she walked over to the hall closet, pulled out a dark purple leather jacket she’d splurged on years ago, and slipped it on.
“Love your jacket,” Helen said, as soon as Anna joined her in the hall.
“Thanks,” Anna said. “There’s a nice café around the corner.”
After a short half-block walk, Anna led Helen through the door of Le Boulangerie.
“Let’s sit by the window,” Anna said, pointing to a small table next to the floor-to-ceiling window that looked out on the sidewalk.
Anna sometimes came to this café with her upstairs neighbor, Michael Collins. As she surveyed the luscious-looking brioche and croissants filling the glass case, after she and Helen walked over to the counter, an image of her young gay friend, Michael, appeared in her mind. She could hear him now, arguing that he shouldn’t, before stuffing a mountain of carbs into his mouth, between sips from a latte, sprinkled with shaved dark chocolate. The thought let Anna bathe in the joy she anticipated, when she saw Michael next and spilled the beans about Anthony Jackson having a White mother.
Anthony had made the announcement about his mother’s impending visit the previous Friday night, when the tenants were gathered atop the building’s roof for a potluck. Mo on the third floor had spent months dragging plants and soil upstairs, along with mismatched outdoor furniture he’d bought at several garage sales, to create a garden there. Since then, gatherings on the black tarpaper roof had become common.
“She’s coming Monday morning,” Anthony explained, as the fog started drifting back in, hiding the stars.
“She’s never been to San Francisco before. I’ve lived here over thirty years and this will be her first visit,” he added.
Michael Collins from the second floor raised his right hand, as if he were a middle school pupil in class.
“Will you take her to Fisherman’s Wharf and to Alcatraz?” he asked, naming two tourist destinations the locals never visited. “And for a ride on the cable car?”
“No,” Anthony said, shaking his head. “She won’t want to do any of that.”
“My mother’s a retired schoolteacher,” he explained. “I’ll probably take her to City Lights Books.”
Sarah Miles lived in one of the third-floor flats. She and Anthony had been lovers for a couple of months a few years back. She gazed at him now, wondering if he resembled his mother. He had a nice face, with a sparkling smile that often set women’s hearts fluttering. His skin was light brown, and he had pale olive-green eyes that appeared golden in certain light. Like many men his age, Anthony’s hair had receded. The hair he had left was flecked with gray.
Helen Jackson took a sip of her Americano and sighed.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said and smiled. “Tony doesn’t drink coffee. I should have asked him to buy some before I came.”
She shook her head, and added, “He can be touchy.”
Anna didn’t know Anthony well but would never have used the word touchy to describe him.
“Oh, I didn’t know,” Anna said. “He’s always nice to me.”
“You’re not his mother,” she said, breaking off a piece of flaky dough and raising it to her lips.
Anna was tempted to ask Helen about the relationship with her son, but she wasn’t fond of listening to people go on and on about their children. She’d never had kids, and neither had most of her close friends. To be honest, Anna was baffled by the delight mothers took in sharing boring details of their children’s and grandchildren’s days.
Instead, Anna asked, “So, what do you do in Chicago?”
“Well, I’m trying to figure that out. I just retired from decades of teaching. I loved teaching and kept thinking, Oh, this year I’ll retire, and then I’d put it off. Now, here I am.”
Anna understood how Helen felt, realizing she ought to quit working but finding the thought depressed her.
“What made you finally decide to do it? Retire, I mean.”
Helen shook her head.
“The big C.”
Seeing the questioning look on Anna’s face, Helen explained.
“I was diagnosed with cancer. Oh, they caught it early enough, but I didn’t have the energy to teach when I was getting those horrible chemo treatments. I thought I was just taking a temporary medical leave, but I found out that you don’t exactly bounce back, at least at this age. Even now, I get so much more tired.
“That’s what did it. Then I thought I should travel. I don’t know if Tony has told you, but in all the years he’s lived here, I’ve never visited. Isn’t that crazy?”
Anna wasn’t sure if Helen expected an answer and whether she ought to be honest. Anna adored going places she’d never been. It was one of the thousand things she’d loved about being a modern dancer and performing all over the country and in Europe. Being in a city where no one knew you felt freeing, especially when Anna was still beautiful and young, walking on the arm of some equally stunning young male dancer, laughing when they saw heads turn to take them in, as if they were visiting royalty.
Finally, Anna said, “Well, you’re here now. It’s a beautiful city and I think you’ll have fun.”
“White?” was Michael’s response, when Anna revealed Helen Jackson’s most surprising trait.
“Yes,” Anna said, pouring wine into Michael’s glass, an inexpensive cabernet she’d picked up at Trader Joe’s.
“Tell me what you think of that,” she instructed, nodding her head toward Michael’s glass.
Michael lifted the glass and held it a few inches below his nostrils. Using his left hand, he waved the air above the glass and inhaled loudly, then took a tiny sip and smiled.
“Very nice,” he said. “But don’t hold out on me. Tell me more.”
Anna poured herself a glass of chardonnay, took a sip, and considered how to start.
“She calls him Tony,” she said, and waited expectantly to hear how Michael would react.
His eyes popped open, extra-wide, and he screamed, “Tony? Tony? Like I-left-my-heart-in-San-Francisco Tony?”
“Yes. Just like that.”
Moments after Michael left Anna’s flat, not knowing much about Anthony Jackson’s mother, as Anna had learned little herself, Anna decided to give Anthony a call.
“Tell your mother I’d love to show her around,” Anna said, after Anthony picked up.
“Oh, would you?” he asked. “That would be great. I’ll let her know.”
“How long is she planning to stay, Anthony?”
“She’s saying a month. I have a feeling she’ll want to leave before that.”
The following morning when Anna was about to step out and grab her paper, she heard the doorbell ring. Before opening the door, she paused to check her reflection in the mirror, hanging to the left of the door. That was always a bad idea at this early hour, she knew, since wrinkles surrounding her mouth seemed to deepen overnight.
She closed her left eye and squinted with the right, to see through the tiny peephole. Over the past year, the building had become a magnet for the homeless, since there was no locked gate out front. Anna felt relieved when she saw a head full of shiny silver hair and eagerly unbolted the door.
“Morning,” Helen Jackson said. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, no. I’m awake.”
“I was looking for some company. If you’re free,” Helen said.
“Anthony told me you offered to show me around,” she added, the end of the sentence rising, as if she were asking a question.
Not waiting for Anna’s response, Helen went on. “Oh, I guess I should have called.”
“No, that’s fine. C’mon in. Let me get dressed.”
Before Anna had a chance to pepper Helen with more questions, while they sat at the same table as the previous day, by the front window at Boulangerie, Helen said, “Tony tells me you’re a dancer.”
She’d caught Anna mid-bite. Anna held up her right hand, while she chewed quickly and swallowed.
“I was a dancer,” Anna began, happy to talk about the life she’d lived and loved. “I still teach. I still run my modern dance company with lots of help. But I no longer perform.”
She went on to explain.
“I’m able to dance, of course. But a few years back I was warned that a woman of my age could be an embarrassment on stage, and I should leave the audience with fond memories.”
She took a sip of her latte, destroying the lovely heart shape the barista had created with the milk.
“An embarrassment,” she said, as if that awful word needed repeating.
“Not pity, I should add,” and let out a somewhat bitter laugh.
“I bet you’ve had an interesting life,” Helen said, hinting at envy and wanting to know more.
“Oh, I have,” Anna said, wondering if she ought to launch into one of the many stories she loved to tell or simply leave it at that. “But then, here I am. Like you, I’m guessing. You have a life with work and adventures. Then you’re old. Nobody pays attention to you. It just happens.”
“Yes,” Helen said, shaking her head. “Isn’t that so?”
Anna had given up her car when the odometer hit 175,000 miles and the Check Engine light refused to switch off. Manuel, the sweet guy down the block who had fixed her Corolla for years, gave Anna the dire diagnosis.
“You need a new catalytic converter,” he announced.
“What will that cost me?”
“Coupla’ thousand,” he answered.
She didn’t have a couple thousand she wanted to throw at that old car and it didn’t seem worth it, what with Uber and Lyft and streetcars and buses.
“I hope you don’t mind walking,” Anna said to Helen, when they stepped out the door of Boulangerie. “The best way to see San Francisco is on foot. Plus, I gave up my car last year, so it’s the streetcar and foot-power for us. Or Uber, if we get tired.”
“That’s fine,” Helen said. “I like to walk.”
Anna couldn’t remember when she’d last spent time with a woman her own age. Everyone she knew now was young, or at least they seemed young, even if, like Helen’s son Anthony, they were middle-aged. Friends Anna had made over the years had quietly dribbled out of San Francisco, some to the suburbs, a handful to the southern part of the state, and still others away from California entirely. Their reasons for leaving varied. A few married and were ready to raise families, which even years before was prohibitively expensive in San Francisco. Others wanted more space or a garden to grow vegetables or better weather – less fog, and warmer, sunnier days. There were also friends who moved back East to take care of elderly parents. Lately, there had been a handful who felt that San Francisco had become a place only for the young. One older gay pal, a painter, confessed he felt like a dinosaur around all those beautiful young bodies sprawled across the lawn on sunny afternoons at nearby Dolores Park.
Anna wanted to ask Helen what she thought about this whole aging business, especially since like Anna, she appeared to be single and on her own. From the way Helen dressed, Anna assumed she didn’t consider herself old.
Late in the afternoon, after they’d tramped up steep California Street to the top of Nob Hill, then up to Chinatown, and stopped, breathless, to take in the splendid view of downtown buildings and the sparkling blue bay beyond, Anna looked over at Helen. She had a wide grin on her face and kept turning her head from side to side, drinking in the sights, from the colorful red lanterns strung across narrow Grant Avenue in Chinatown to the white Pyramid Building, named for its iconic shape.
“It’s so lovely,” Helen finally managed to say. “Lovely.”
She turned to Anna, resting a hand on her companion’s arm.
“Thank you so much for bringing me here. I’m not very adventurous, you know. It was a big deal for me to even get on that plane in Chicago. Without you, I might have holed up in Tony’s apartment all day, and gone back home without ever seeing anything.
Anna patted Helen’s hand and smiled.
“Oh, you don’t need to thank me. I love walking around this city. I do it all the time. It cheers me up if I’m down about something. I feel like I’ve gotten on a plane and travelled some place new, just getting out of my neighborhood. I’ve always loved that about living in San Francisco.
“The other thing is that walking up and down these hills means less time on one of those awful machines at the gym. It’s a battle, isn’t it, keeping the weight down now?”
At that, she swept her right arm from left to right, as she used to do at the end of a dance performance, the crowd on its feet and the company taking bow after bow after bow.
“I’m sure you want to know the story,” Helen said, moments after they’d clinked wine glasses and taken sips, Helen of red and Anna white. The restaurant was dark as a cave, with exposed brick on one wall. Helen pulled the sputtering candle close, to better decipher the menu.
“What story is that?” Anna asked. From those first tentative sips, the wine already made her feel more cheerful.
“About Tony,” Helen said, ripping a hunk of bread off a small warm loaf the server had left on the table. “Everyone always wants to know.”
Anna considered admitting to being curious about Anthony’s father, but decided not.
Helen buttered the sourdough bread she’d ripped from the loaf, then set it down on the small white porcelain plate without taking a bite.
“I didn’t tell Tony for years,” Helen began. “He’s resented me for it.”
“Didn’t tell him what?”
“About his father,” Helen said, lifting the buttered bread up, and holding it in front of her mouth. “I’ve been very good about not eating bread for a while. But I can’t resist today.”
“You’re on vacation. You’re allowed to treat yourself. I always tell my young dancers who love to starve themselves that they should eat healthy and then treat themselves from time to time. They don’t listen, of course. I was just like them when I was young.”
Anna took a sip of wine, aware that they’d gotten off the topic she was most interested in.
“But you were saying. About Anthony.”
“Yes,” Helen said, chewing and washing the bread down with a swallow of wine. “His father was my first love.”
She paused and looked away, then turned her gaze back toward Anna.
“To be honest, I really haven’t loved any man since. He was it.”
Between the server arriving with soup and salad, and then the pasta dishes, later checking with the two women to make sure everything was all right, the story came out in fits and starts. As Helen spun the tale, the dark, narrow dining room, empty when they arrived, filled up, raising the volume of talk and laughter from neighboring tables, forcing Helen to speak louder.
His name was Robert, and they met in college, at the University of Chicago. He was tall and slender, one of a handful of African Americans Helen would spot at the antiwar rallies and meetings she’d started to attend. Helen had grown up in a suburb where she couldn’t recall a single person who wasn’t White. Robert was from New York. He had never even visited a suburb.
The first thing that attracted Helen to Robert was that he played guitar.
“He would perform at the rallies, and he had the sweetest voice. He sang folk songs that were popular then. I could have listened to him all day.”
At that moment, the server came by and asked if the ladies would like another glass of wine. Anna was about to say no, when Helen nodded and said, “Yes, please.” Anna normally stopped at one glass, but surprised herself by chiming in, “Oh, why not? Yes, I’ll have another.”
After the waiter walked away, Anna looked at Helen and said, “We’re on vacation, aren’t we?”
The following morning, Anna woke up with a raging headache that started in the center of her forehead and stretched to the back of her skull. After brushing her teeth and glancing in the bathroom mirror, confirming that she looked awful, from drinking all that wine, eating three pieces of bread slathered with butter, and even, heaven forbid, having dessert, she shuffled down the long hall to the kitchen, hoping a strong cup of coffee would help.
As the water boiled, she thought about the story Helen had revealed. She had a terrible urge to spill everything to Michael, but had sworn not to tell. At least, not yet.
The story had gotten Anna reminiscing about her own life, as the kettle whistled and she turned the burner off, and poured the steaming, spitting water over the grounds. Had she ever really loved anyone?
A few minutes after Anna returned to her flat that evening, following a disappointing day with the company, rehearsing the new piece when it seemed nothing was going right, Anna heard the doorbell chime. She wondered if it might be Michael, and for once hoped it wasn’t, since she was tired and not in the mood to socialize. She moved close to the door and lined her right eye up with peephole, expecting to see Michael’s perfectly coiffed blond-streaked hair. Instead, her gaze fell on a shiny bald head, and realized it was Anthony.
“Can I come in?” Anthony asked, as soon as Anna opened the door.
“Yes, of course,” Anna said, pulling the door open wider and stepping further inside.
“Do you want to sit down?” Anna asked, and Anthony nodded. She stepped back a bit more, then gestured with her right arm for Anthony to go into the narrow living room.
“Have a seat,” Anna said, her throat suddenly having gone dry. She had never seen Anthony angry or even depressed before. The dark mood emanating from him made her tense.
“What is it, Anthony?” she asked, dropping down into the wooden rocker, across from the sofa where Anthony sat.
“I guess you know,” he said, and Anna slowly nodded, feeling guilty, though she wasn’t even involved.
“It’s crazy,” he went on, using the fingers of his right hand to brush sweat from his brow. “He’s been here all along. Or at least for a long time. And she never told me.”
He stopped speaking. In the ensuing silence, Anna tried to put herself in his place. Unlike this man, Anna had had a father who adored her. Maybe too much. He wanted her to stay in their small, dull New Jersey town, marry a nice local boy, Italian and Catholic, of course. Then she and her husband could work in the family business, slaving away like her mother and father, long hours, seven days a week, in the Italian deli and adjoining café. Even when Anna disappointed him by leaving, he didn’t stop loving her. What must it be like for Anthony, especially when so much time had gone by?
“What did she tell you, Anthony?” Anna asked, deciding it was better to get this over with.
“Everything. At least, I think it was everything. See, there was one story years ago, when I was in college. Now there’s a different story. That’s what’s hard.”
“Would you like something to drink?” Anna asked. “I have some wine. Or mineral water.”
“A shot of whiskey?” Anthony said, followed by a bitter laugh.
Anna considered whether to offer an opinion and decided it might be worth a try.
“I’m not a mother, Anthony, so I don’t have a clue what I would have done, if I had been your mother. But I’m old, older than you, probably about the same age as Helen. When you get to this age, you can look back and see decisions you’ve made more clearly, decisions you wouldn’t make now.
“Here’s the thing. She didn’t have to tell you. She could have kept you in the dark forever. But she felt it was right.
“People do things when they’re young and don’t think about the consequences. It doesn’t make those things right or hurt less, I know.”
When Anna finished, Anthony said he’d take a glass of wine. Relieved to get a few minutes alone, Anna got up and hurried to the kitchen.
As she searched for the corkscrew in the overstuffed drawer, Anna thought about the story Helen had shared with her. The pregnancy had been unplanned, and neither of the young parents was prepared. Abortion wasn’t legal then, Helen reminded Anna. She and Robert talked about getting married, but then Robert’s draft number came up. Since he’d had to drop out of school that semester and work, there was nothing to keep him from being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. Years later, Helen still could remember his draft number. Twenty-seven.
Before the week was up, Robert had fled across the border to Canada. Helen could have joined him, but the morning sickness and terrible fatigue made it impossible to think clearly about anything, even what she might pack to take. After the baby was born, she felt too overwhelmed to consider moving to a place she’d never even visited, living with her fugitive boyfriend, fearing she would never be able to return home. As she’d said to Anna that night in the restaurant, “See, I was always afraid to leave home. I couldn’t blame Robert for that. I could only blame myself.”
Anna was happy to spend a few extra minutes in the kitchen, still searching for the corkscrew in the drawer filled with can openers and measuring cups, spoons and tongs, and after finding it, opening the wine. She recalled Helen telling her how Anthony started asking if he had a father, and soon after, if his father was Black. Kids at his nearly all-White school taunted him with racial slurs. Helen wanted Anthony to love himself and also not to believe that his father abandoned him. At the same time, she felt she couldn’t tell Anthony the truth, since he might reveal Robert’s whereabouts and get him arrested and brought back to the U.S. and put on trial.
After pouring the wine, Anna lingered in the kitchen, taking several deep breaths and slowly exhaling. She didn’t like the position she found herself in now. Here she was, a childless old lady whose one passion, except for some memorable love affairs, was dance. She’d been pulled into a family drama, with a mother and son she barely knew.
Strangely enough, she felt a bit of loyalty toward Helen, in part because she’d heard her side of the story first. Since they were both about the same age, Anna found it easier to empathize, recalling that long-ago time of the draft and not many choices for women. But Anthony was here now, a man she’d always respected and liked, who had only been kind and helpful to her.
She sighed and picked up the wine glasses from the counter. There was nothing to do but walk back down the hall and hear what Anthony wanted to tell her.
Near the end of dinner after they’d shared a sweet crème brulee and sipped the last of their decaf coffee, the bill waiting atop a silver tray between them, Helen revealed the real reason she’d flown to San Francisco.
“Robert came back, you see,” Helen confessed, leaning into the table, her voice lowered, as if needing to conceal what she was preparing to say. “Jimmy Carter had pardoned the men who left the country to evade the draft and let them back in. Robert didn’t come back right away. It was quite a bit later.”
“He was living in Vancouver,” she went on. “Just across the Canadian border. He’d become a construction supervisor by then and was getting work in and around Seattle. At some point, he got tired of the rain.”
The waiter edged up to their table, checking, Anna guessed, to see if they were ready to pay the bill.
“Any more coffee, ladies?”
“Oh, yes, I’d love a little more,” Helen said, and reminded him, “It’s decaf.”
After the waiter walked away, she went on. “He was married by then, with a family. Three kids. His wife was Canadian. The separations were hard on her. She wanted a divorce.”
The waiter came by with a pot of coffee and filled each of their cups.
As soon as he left, Helen said, “I forgot to say that Robert did get in touch with me when Anthony was still small. He’d married and wanted me to know. From time to time, he sent a little money.”
Anna handed Anthony his glass, pulled two cork coasters from a drawer in the center of the coffee table, set them down and set her glass on top.
“I can imagine this must be hard after all these years, Anthony,” Anna said.
“It is.” He raised the glass to his lips, taking a sip and swallowing. “Now I have to decide if I want to meet him.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize that.”
He took several quick sips of wine, his gaze drifting off behind Anna’s head. As they sat there together in silence, Anna could hear the clock ticking in the adjoining bedroom.
“When I was young, I used to fantasize that one day my father would show up. My mother told me that he had an important job in another country, in England, that he’d had to leave us, even though he didn’t want to. I would ask her when he was coming back and she kept saying, ‘One day.’ So, I believed that he would walk in the door and everything would be perfect after that. He’d help me with my homework. We’d go live in a big house.
“She never told me he wasn’t coming back. I finally knew he wasn’t. I couldn’t help feeling it was my fault, that I’d done something to make him go away. Or worse, that I was something bad, and he didn’t want to be my father.”
Anna heard the break in Anthony’s voice as he said the last part. She studied his face, hoping he wasn’t going to cry. He appeared to be struggling, and lifted his glass and swallowed more wine.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Anthony. That’s just so hard.”
“Yes,” he said, and sighed.
“I came to San Francisco for college. But I really just wanted to get away from Chicago. And from my mother. She was always so unhappy. Sometimes when she got really low, she blamed me. ‘If I hadn’t had you, my life would have been different,’ she would say. I wanted to be somebody else, I’m not sure who or what. You can do that in San Francisco, I learned. So many people do. Leave some pain behind. Like all the gays who were bullied or stuck in the closet came to San Francisco and could be their true selves. I’m not gay but I did feel, with the music and the samba troupe, like I found this fun, creative person inside I hadn’t known about before. I became someone I liked.”
Anna was surprised at how wrong she had been about Anthony. He seemed so cheerful all the time. The happy person, she was now discovering, was the person he’d created, and underneath lived a sad soul.
“I stopped going to visit her,” Anthony said, after pausing in the telling of his story. “She didn’t like that. She didn’t want to be blamed for anything about my life. She would call me when she felt miserable and take that misery out on me. One time she blurted out, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I would have gone with your father.’ Then she said, ‘You’re the reason he never came back.’”
Anna gasped at these last revelations, as Anthony looked away, using the back of his hand to wipe at his eyes. She scooted her chair closer and dropped her hand on Anthony’s arm.
“Oh, that’s awful, Anthony. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded and closed his eyes. Opening them, he looked up toward the ceiling.
“So, you see why this whole thing is hard,” he finally said.
After Helen pulled out her credit card, set it onto the silver tray and announced, “I’m treating,” and the waiter walked over, picked up the card and the bill, and said he’d be right back, Helen said, “Robert lives here now.”
Anna heard the words, and the reason for Helen’s visit suddenly became clear.
“Not here in San Francisco,” Helen clarified. “He’s in Vallejo. Not far.”
The waiter came back with Helen’s credit card and receipt to sign, which she did right away, and slipped the card back in her wallet.
“You came to see him,” Anna responded, suddenly feeling even sorrier for Anthony. After all these years, his mother’s one and only trip to San Francisco hadn’t been to visit her son.
“Yes,” Helen said, shaking her head. “It’s crazy, I know. We’ve been communicating this past year, by letter and email, and then by phone.”
“Are you thinking you might get back together with him?” Anna asked.
Helen looked across the table at Anna, and then a wistful smile appeared on her face.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
Rehearsals for the piece Anna had spent nearly the entire year choreographing were finally going well. Dancers in the company also felt encouraged and were willing to stay a bit later each day. Anna felt happy about the progress of the work, and also to have gotten some distance from the drama between Anthony and his mother. She knew that Helen had planned to meet with Anthony’s father during that week and was curious how things had turned out. She’d also become gun-shy and didn’t check in with Anthony, hoping Helen’s time in San Francisco would soon run out.
Unfortunately, living in such a small building with its short narrow halls and people coming and going at the same time made it impossible to avoid other tenants for long. A week and a half into those longer rehearsal days, Anna entered the building a few minutes after six o’clock. She heard footsteps right behind her.
Anna turned around, her heartbeat quickening, as she’d been startled.
“Anthony,” she said, on seeing her upstairs neighbor standing behind her. Normally, she would have asked how he was doing, but caught herself.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Anthony said.
“My mother went home.”
Anna thought she hadn’t heard right.
“Back to Chicago,” Anthony made clear.
“Do you want to come in for a minute?” Anna asked now.
Anna stepped into the living room and turned on the floor lamp next to the couch.
“Have a seat,” she instructed Anthony, gesturing toward the sofa.
“Wasn’t she supposed to stay the whole month?”
“She was,” Anthony said, shaking his head. “Things didn’t go as she’d hoped.”
Anna wasn’t surprised, since the idea of reviving a youthful love affair decades later had seemed foolish to the cynical side of her mind.
“So, she saw your father, I guess,” Anna said.
“She did. Let’s just say my mother had pretty unrealistic expectations.”
“What were her expectations?”
“I guess she didn’t think Robert was going to get older. She had a picture in her mind of this guy she fell in love with, fifty-odd years ago.”
Anthony sighed. “Fifty-five years is a long time.”
“Well, yes,” Anna said. “People age. No one looks the same as they did when they were young.”
“It wasn’t just how he looked,” Anthony said, a wry grin on his face. “Turns out he hadn’t told her some stuff.”
“Yeah. Some important stuff.”
Anna kept her gaze on Anthony as he shook his head again.
“She thought they’d run off together and travel and do all the fun things they didn’t get to do because he’d had to flee across the border.”
Anthony went on to provide Anna with a detailed description of the man his mother met that day, in a dark, cramped, below-ground apartment, on a suburban block of small shabby houses, with late-model American cars parked out front. He walked with difficulty, leaning on a cane, dragging his left foot behind. That same side of his mouth drooped. He’d had a stroke and the whole left portion of his body never recovered.
Anthony stopped talking, letting silence fill the room, the only sound the creaking of the wooden chair as Anna rocked. Finally, Anna spoke.
“He never mentioned his health, I suppose.”
“Nope. Never said a word.”
Anthony cleared his throat and shook his head for about the fourth time.
“At first, I felt like she’d gotten what she deserved. Then something happened.”
Anna leaned forward a little, waiting for Anthony to explain.
“I felt sorry for her. I saw that she’d held onto this idea about Robert and their life together and never moved on. You know, she dated some, but never got close to anyone. It was like she’d waited all those years for Robert to come back. When she could finally have him, it was too late.”
“Funny thing,” he went on. “I’d been angry at her all these years. Angry that she hadn’t loved me. For the first time, I saw that I had managed to get away from her and her misery and have a life. Sure, maybe I never got married or had kids or some stuff that other people do. But I have a pretty nice life. She was never able to do that.”
The forecast was exactly what the tenants had hoped, since they’d planned the rooftop potluck to start promptly at six o’clock. They were celebrating Anthony’s birthday, though he’d refused to reveal how many candles should be stuck on the cake.
For several days before, the tenants had gossiped about what gorgeous young woman Anthony might bring to the party. No matter how old he got, the women he dated never seemed to catch up.
As it turned out, the birthday boy was late. Unbeknownst to the other tenants, Anthony had gotten stuck in rush-hour traffic on I-80. At one point when traffic was completely stopped, he texted Mo to alert him that he would be another half-hour. But Mo had left his phone downstairs in the flat and didn’t know.
Several hot dishes cooled, and Mo and his wife Katherine ferried them downstairs to their flat and shoved the pans into the oven. Mo went back up to the roof, while Katherine hurried down the hall to the bathroom. Just as she emerged into the hall, the doorbell buzzed.
“C’mon in,” she shouted, as she headed for the door.
The door opened before she reached the end of the hall. She was about to ask Anthony what had kept him so long, when she was surprised to see a strange old man shuffle in through the door. Her heart leapt into her throat, afraid she had let some guy off the street into her home, while Mo was up on the roof, too far away to hear her shout.
Just as she was about to demand that the guy leave, Anthony stepped through the door.
“Oh, it’s you,” Katherine said.
“Yeah. Sorry I’m late. The traffic was horrible. Like a parking lot.”
“Well, glad you’re here,” Katherine said, looking at Anthony and then at the strange man and back at Anthony again.
“Let me introduce you,” Anthony said, gesturing toward the man. “Katherine, this is my father, Robert.”
Anthony started up the narrow wooden stairs first, then held his right hand out to Robert, taking a step up, and waiting while his father made it up the same step, his other hand tightly gripping the rail. Katherine pulled up the rear, keeping her left hand poised a few inches from Robert’s back, in case he suddenly started to take a tumble. At the same time, she wondered what was happening in Anthony’s life, with a visit from his mother, and now, here was his father.
A few minutes after the start of the climb, Anthony helped the old man up the last stair to the roof and Katherine followed. As the other tenants spotted Anthony, Katherine heard Mo shout, “He’s here,” followed by applause.
Even after the sun set and the sky grew dark, the air stayed warm. No one wanted to go inside. They had sampled each of the dishes, deeming Michael’s moussaka divine and arguing that he must bring that to the next potluck. Everyone had sung “Happy Birthday” offkey and devoured a slice of Chocolate Decadence cake, though Michael, Tim, Sarah and Katherine all agreed that they shouldn’t have. And even after all that food and too many glasses of wine, Michael continued moving around the circle, refilling glasses with either red or white.
Returning to his seat, Michael looked over at Anthony and said, “Okay, Anthony. What’s the deal? All the time I’ve lived her, I have never seen your mom or dad. Now, they’ve both showed up. What’s the story?”
Anthony nodded his head and looked over at Robert, who was sitting across from him in the circle.
“Do you want to tell it?” Anthony asked his father.
Taller and thinner than Anthony with darker skin and more hair, which had gone completely white, his father looked at Anthony for a moment, then turned to take in the nice group of his son’s neighbors he had met for the first time tonight.
“Sure,” he said, and nodded. “I’ll start.”
But then he warned the group, “It’s a long story. It’s probably gonna take some time.”
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.