February 2, 2020

“The Answer,” a Short Story by A. Richard Sogliuzzo

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“The Answer,” a Short Story by A. Richard Sogliuzzo

A heavy snowfall blanketed Manhattan; a fierce wind blew over the Hudson River across the West Side. Gusts of snow twirled, twisted and sped toward Central Park. Downtown, offices closed early, rivers of people poured into the streets and down the subways, determined to get home. Eyes peered out between hats and scarves, struggling to see through the snow and wind. On Central Park West, a cab made its way slowly through the snow then stopped.  

The cabbie turned to the elderly passenger, “That’s it, lady. I can’t go on in this storm, otherwise, I’ll be stuck here.” 

“I think it’s close enough. How much do I owe you?”   

“Twelve dollars.”  

“Here’s fifteen.”   

“Thanks, lady.”  

She got out of the cab and pushed her way through a mound of snow.  The stout woman, looked younger than her eighty years: a few wrinkles, dark brown eyes, and ruddy cheeks. She was lame after several knee operations in both legs. She swayed from side to side, because of a twisted right leg, but moved with a slow, bulldozer-like determination. She reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper to check an address, then approached the doorman of a nearby building, who was just about to go back inside to warm up. 

“Hey, Mister, do you know where I can find this address?”  

The doorman shielded the paper from the snow, straining to see the number.  

“It’s around the corner, about the middle of the block.  Just be careful, lady, could be slippery.”   

“Thanks.”  

She continued on her way, then stopped momentarily to get her breath and looked about. The trees in Central Park were weighted down with snow. They look like old ladies, she thought, grey and cold, and bent over with worries. It had been years since she was back in New York, having left the city and moved to San Diego with her husband and sons, never to return until this day. He was a good provider; she a dutiful wife, both devoted to their children, yet had become increasingly distant from each other. They hoped a new life in California would reawaken love, but discovered it was really need that held them together, like strangers sitting side by side, waiting for a bus that never arrives. In her loneliness, she filled the days with thoughts of a former lover, who had left without a word of explanation just before they were to be married and disappeared. She silently bore the pain of his loss, convinced he was everything she wanted in a man: kind, gentle, sensitive. Recently widowed, she took the small inheritance from her husband’s insurance policy, hired a detective to find the man she loved. In her purse were two laminated photos, one of her twin sons at First Holy Communion, and the other, recently added, of her and the lover, taken during a weekend spent together in the Pocono Mountains, sitting under a tree, smiling and holding hands. She was determined to see him again; her sons’ pleadings and protestations to dissuade her were useless. Now she was within minutes of fulfilling her desire, and stopped in front of an old six-story building located amidst a row of brownstones, walked to the front door, checked the address.  

“Well, this is it,” she said out loud, then looked over the directory, straining to find the name she was looking for. “There it is, I found it, ‘Tiresiano.’”  

There was a second name on the directory in the same apartment, “Walters.” She was taken aback for a moment, thinking she had the wrong person, or that the occupant was now living with someone. But then she recalled what the detective had told her: there was only one person living in the apartment. The neighbors described him as an old man, who lived alone, and spoke to no one. She was about to ring the buzzer and then hesitated; over fifty years had passed since they last saw each other. 

She was afraid he would not remember her, then chided herself. What the hell is there to be afraid of, truth? I never been afraid of the truth. If he forgot me, he forgot me, I’ll remind him. 

All right, she told herself, this is it. She rang the buzzer. No answer. She buzzed again.  

“Who’s there?” wheezed an elderly male voice over the intercom. 

“It’s me Carlo, it’s me, Lilliana.”   

“Who?“ 

“Lilliana! Lilliana Durezza!”  

“You got the wrong apartment,” he shouted, and, quickly, turned off the intercom. 

She buzzed again, a long, determined buzz, no response. She shouted into the intercom. “I’m not going away, Carlo, never.”  

She hugged herself to keep warm, then rang the buzzer again. 

The old man in the apartment, angrily, replied, “Go away.”   

She snapped back at him, “Carlo, you got to talk to me.” 

“Carlo’s not here.”  

“Yes, you are; I know your voice; I hear it every day in my head. You’re there.”  

“Lady, I’m going to call the police if you don’t stop.”  

She laughed, “Go ahead, call them. I’ll tell them you’re a crook. You stole my heart, and I want it back.”   

One of the tenants in the building walked by and shook her head at this old woman shouting into the intercom. Lilliana continued to buzz, only more furiously and with greater frequency. He was losing his patience. He yelled at her through the intercom. “Go away!” 

“Carlo, if you don’t let me in; I’m going to write your name and apartment on a slip of paper and hold it in my hand. When I freeze to death; they’re going to find it in my hand and then they’ll carry my dead frozen body up to you. How about that? Then you’ll see me.” 

There was no response . . . “Carlo!” 

“I’m going to buzz you in and see you for a few minutes, understand, a few minutes.  No more!” 

He pushed the buzzer. She quickly grabbed the door and let herself in, then hesitated in the hallway, a lifetime in less than a second. What she always wanted was about to happen and, suddenly, she could not move. Then with the determination that always impelled her life, she limped quickly toward the elevator and pressed the button. The elevator arrived; the door opened and rattled. She entered, the door closed with a surprising rapidity, rattling the whole time; it then gave a jolt; she braced herself for dear life. The elevator made its ascent to the sixth floor then stopped. She got out, and in the poorly lit hallway searched for apartment 6D. She found it, hesitated at the door, No, no I’m not going to start thinking; I can’t start thinking about what if, what if not, and all that bull. This is it Lilliana; you have been waiting for over fifty years, so stop the bull. She buzzed the doorbell. She waited; it seemed forever. 

Then a voice asked, “Who is it?’ 

“It’s me, Carlo, it’s me, Lilliana. I’m here.”  

No response, silence, then the sound of the door lock being turned three times and, finally, a bolt sliding open. The door opened slowly but no one appeared in the doorway. 

“Come on in,” said Carlo.  

She entered; he was nowhere to be found. The only light in the apartment was the daylight that filtered through the window. She heard the lock being turned and the door bolted.  

”Carlo, Carlo, where are you?”  

Then, like a crustacean emerging from a hidden sea cave, Carlo moved tentatively from behind the door, out of the darkened foyer into the living room; his bony frame gradually visible as he moved into the light. She could now see his face: bald, sunken cheeks, steel framed eyeglasses with thick lenses, dark circles under his almost imperceptible eyes, a mouth permanently etched into a frown, wrinkled lips. A heavy wool robe covered his slightly bent body.  Five years her junior, he seemed ten years her senior.  

“Well,” he asked curtly, “what is it? Now you found me, what is it?”  

She could not speak at first, painfully overcome by his appearance.  Then she opened her arms and limped forward to embrace him. He raised his arms in self-defense; his long, gnarled fingers barely visible in the light. 

“Stop, stop,” he pleaded, “don’t, just sit down, I’ll get some coffee.” 

He disappeared into the small, adjoining kitchen. She looked about the room: a few pieces of furniture, faded sofa and armchair, coffee table, wooden chair, but all neat and orderly. There was also an easy chair near the window, facing out. There was about everything a stillness, an undisturbed, silence, not the remotest echoes of other voices from other times. Carlo’s solitude was absolute. Her visit was shattering the security of his underwater cave that looked out over the snow filled city. She sat down slowly on the armchair. It had not yet quite dawned upon her that this moment was real and that over half a lifetime of yearning had finally been fulfilled.  

Carlo shuffled back into the room, holding a cup of coffee, “I put a little brandy in it.”   

He handed it to her and then made his way to the window, standing, looking out.  

“Thank you,” she said quietly. 

She sipped the hot coffee. He remained silent. 

“How are you Carlo?”  

He continued to look out the window.  

“You see how I am,” he replied, sharply, “an old man in a robe that has become too big for him, an old skinny man that wants to be left alone.” 

“Why are you angry, Carlo?”  

“I’m not angry; I’m nothing.”  

“Don’t say that. You’re something, of course, you’re something.”  

He cringed at her compassion. “You here on a mission of salvation? Saint Lilliana here to save her old boyfriend from hell. No thanks.”   

“I’m not here to save anybody, Carlo.” 

“What do you want Lilliana?” 

“What do I want, I’ll tell you what I want.”  

She pushed herself out of the chair with all her strength, a pain surged through her knees, but she would not be deterred and moved toward him. 

“The answer, I want the answer!” 

He looked at her as though she were no longer in focus and strained to see her clearly; she was visible but incomprehensible.  

“What answer?” 

“You loved me; I loved you. You gave me a ring. We made plans. Then gone. I looked everywhere. You left, nobody knew where you were. Your mother wouldn’t tell me anything.  Why? Not even a letter, a call, some reason? You owe me, you owe me that.” 

“Lilliana, it’s been fifty years, what do you want from me?” 

“The answer, I want the answer.”  

He sat down on the sofa; his face buried in his hands. Before him was a woman he hardly thought of until this moment. But now that insignificant past was demanding significance. He looked up at her.  

“For fifty years, Lilliana, I have avoided trouble. Do you understand? No, you wouldn’t. You were always in there mixing it up. Not me. Not anymore. That’s the way I like it. No fights, no arguments, no trouble. I stay away.” 

She looked at him confused. “Who, who do you stay away from? What are you talking about?” 

He looked at her pointedly, “I’m a ghost, a ghost, and that’s the way I like it.” 

She threw up her hands in frustration. “What’s this ghost, stuff? What the hell are you talking about? Don’t play games with me, Carlo, I’m not stupid. I came here for the answer and I’m going to get it.” 

“You come here out of nowhere and want the answer. I have no answers. My life has been here in this miserable apartment and the lousy little office where I worked, editing apartment ads. ‘Studio room, bathroom, kitchenette, Soho,’ all nice and abbreviated. One ad after another, thousands of ads over forty years. I spoke to no one, no one spoke to me. Well, maybe a little, but not much. I arrived on time, left on time. Year in year out, until I retired. The office party with me and three other people, desk set with my name on a little gold plaque, applause, then the handshake from my boss and goodbye. That was my life, all of it. Now I can be alone with myself, here in these lousy four walls. So I have no answers, Lilliana, not for you, not for anyone. You come here like some locomotive in the night, huffing and puffing, and pulling into my station and make demands. The station’s empty Lilliana, empty, only ghosts on the platform.” 

“The answer, Carlo, I want the answer!”   

“That’s the answer, Lilliana, I swear. That’s the answer for you for anyone who gives a damn. That’s it.”  

She looked at him directly,” I loved you, Carlo.”  

“I know. Lilliana, I know.” 

She looked at him directly, her voice just a whisper, “You didn’t love me, Carlo.” 

“Lilliana, please!”   

“You should have told me, Carlo. You should have.” 

“What would I say? How?” 

She reached into her purse for a handkerchief, dried her eyes. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his robe. He had forgotten what tears felt like. 

“I’m sorry, Lilliana. I’m sorry.”  

She started to rise from the chair. 

“I better be going.” 

“Where?” He asked. 

“I’ll get a taxi,” she said. 

He looked at her troubled, “There’s no taxi in this storm.” 

“I’ll find one.” 

“Lilliana, that’s impossible. Why don’t you go in the other room, lie down, rest?”  

He gestured toward the window.  

“When this stops you can get a cab.” 

“No, I’ll just sit here then.” 

The snow continued falling; whiteness everywhere. Carlo pulled up a chair and sat beside her. They remained silent, looking out at the falling snow. A pigeon landed on the windowsill outside, shaking off its snow-covered feathers, enjoying a reprise from the storm. After a while, the snow subsided a bit, clouds parted slightly, and the last rays of the afternoon sun peered through. The city glistened; the pigeon flew from its temporary sanctuary.   

“Are you all right, Lilliana?” She didn’t reply. “How’s your family?” 

She continued to look out the window. “My sons are fine.” 

“Oh, sons,” Carlo replied. “And your sisters. I remember your sisters. How are they?” 

Lilliana sat back, looked up momentarily at the ceiling, then replied, “They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who they are.” 

“Oh, . . . And your brother?” 

“He’s gone.” 

Carlo seemed genuinely perturbed, “Gone?” 

Lilliana wiped her mouth with her handkerchief. “He died some years ago.” 

“But he was the youngest.” 

“That’s right, he was.” 

Carlo looked down. Shook his head. A while passed.  

“He was a nice kid, Lilliana, a really nice kid.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I remember once. He was having trouble with a dance class in high school. Needed help. So I taught him the steps to the foxtrot. In the living room of your house, we danced.”  

Carlo held out his arms as though dancing with an imaginary partner. Lilliana sat up and looked at him with surprise. Carlo was unaware of her, lost in the memory, dancing to some tune in his head, and then moved his cheek against his imaginary partner’s. Lilliana eyes widened, her lips drawn tight, clutched her handkerchief. Carlo closed his eyes and swayed to the music of a foxtrot that continued playing in his head. This went on for a while. Carlo dancing. Lilliana looking at him. Gradually, her lips softened, she relaxed her grip around her handkerchief, wiped her eyes again, and sat back in the chair looking out the window. 

Carlo slowly lowered his arms, no longer heard the music, opened his eyes, and looked out the window as well.   

“So long ago, we danced . . . long ago, we danced.”  

The two of them sat there, not saying a word. The sun slipped behind the clouds; evening arrived, then night. The city was no longer visible, only the continually falling snow under the streetlights.   

***

A. Richard Sogliuzzo is a retired professor of Theatre History and Practice, Comparative Literature, University of Texas, Dallas (full time) as well as at universities in the Los Angeles area (i.e UCLA, California State University, Long Beach) teaching Playwriting, as well as Comparative Literature. Additionally, he taught in the Oscher Program for seniors at UCLA.  He is a widely published scholar of theatre history in America and Europe. Among his various honors is a Fulbright Hays Senior Fellowship to Italy, resulting in his book, Luigi Pirandello: the Playwright in the Theatre. He has also lectured at theatre schools throughout Italy. His plays, Charade and Discovery were produced at Los Angeles’ Theatre West and Wallenboyd Theatre.  He was a Theatre Critic for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Published in The Los Angeles Times. Before his writing career he served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Signal Corps. Recently published works in online literary journals Ariel Chart, Literary Yard and Fiction Southeast (January 2020).

Fictional Cafe

#answers#Long-lost love#New York City#short story
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