Shooting The Breeze: Literary Mystery Short Fiction By Clifford Beal
Clifford Beal, author of Shooting The Breeze, is a Rhode Island native and the author of six novels, four published in the United Kingdom by Solaris Books. His books and short stories span historical fiction, horror, fantasy, and suspense and he was for a number of years a journalist on both sides of the Atlantic.
An aluminum lawn chair makes a particularly awful sound when you drag it across concrete. Just the right pitch to go through your head like a nail. Positioning it at the end of his front pavement and close to the sidewalk, Harry winced when the thing squealed. His tenement didn’t have much of a yard, just a cracked walk and a scraggly lawn the size of a welcome mat.
Harry reckoned that Bob Cousy could have stood in the middle and touched the chain-link fences either side. Hell, any Boston Celtics player probably could have. Grounding the chair where he usually did—spitting distance from the sidewalk—he plopped down and pushed up the brim of his bleached straw porkpie.
Harry reckoned that Bob Cousy could have stood in the middle and touched the chain-link fences either side.
He took in the street in front of him: a row of uniform, close-ordered, timber-frame tenements four stories high. Harry figured they were built around the time he was born, every one flat-roofed and all just different shades of brown, beige, or white. Tenants were mill workers back in the day. But the mills had pretty much gone bust ten years ago.
God only knew who was living here now. He watched a woman in a housecoat up on a fourth floor balcony hang out her sheets on the line she had strung from post to post. She paused; caught sight of him. Harry waved. She didn’t.
“Gonna be another hot one today, right?”
Harry swivelled his tanned, turkey-skin neck and peered through the chain links on his right. It was his neighbor, Vincent, already positioned in his own folding chair, beat-up and sprouting stray strands of green plastic webbing like an old man’s ear hair. Vincent always opened any conversation with the weather. Harry thought he was an idiot.
“If you say so. But it’s Providence. And it’s August. Wouldn’t expect much else would you?”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
God, the guy couldn’t find an argument if it bit him in the ass. Harry flexed his hands on the plastic armrests of the chair and leaned back, pointing his legs at the sidewalk. “Guess I’d better head over to Agnelli’s this morning for some food. Before we all melt this afternoon.”
“I’d second that. They said on the TV it’s gonna be blistering later…yessiree.” Vincent paused again. “Hey Harry… meant to ask you. When’s Roberta coming back? You said she was visiting her sister down in Newport or somewhere. You must be getting lonely by now, huh?”
Harry reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of Old Gold, the matchbook tucked neatly down into the cellophane wrapper. He tapped out the matches and teased out a cigarette. “She’s gonna be there a while longer I think. Her sister ain’t too well and anyway, I think she’s having fun being near the ocean. A lot cooler down there than up here.”
“I hear you.”
“Smoke?” Harry proffered the pack.
Vincent smiled. “Hell, why not?”
Harry pulled another cigarette and pushed it through the chain links. It reminded him of feeding the monkeys down at Roger Williams Zoo. He stuck his own between his lips, lit it, and then offered the matchbook through the fence.
Vincent took it, tore off a paper match, and lit his smoke. “These matchbook ads really crack me up,” he said through the side of his mouth. “This one says ‘learn to be an artist’. One buck and a self-addressed envelope to a PO box in Chicago.” He pushed the matchbook back to Harry through the fence.
Harry took it and gently tucked it back down into the cellophane of his cigarette pack. “I thought you were looking for a change of job. Here’s your chance. Maybe they’ll let you paint the lines on the road.”
Vincent didn’t rise to the gibe. “Nah, I got better things to do with a buck. So… you keeping busy while she’s away? At least I ain’t hearing no more hollerin’.”
Harry exhaled a cloud of white smoke. He was a little bit irked that his shouting matches with Roberta hadn’t gone unnoticed next door but he decided to let that slide. “Let’s just say I’m really settling into this whole retirement game. And I can watch whatever the hell I want to on the TV.”
Vincent chuckled, and rubbed the square-cut, quarter-inch fuzz on the top of his head. “Connie’s driving me nuts on Thursdays with that Twilight Zone show. She can’t get enough of it. It’s crap.”
“So how come you’re not down the garage? Did they fire you for goldbricking?”
“Nah. I just thought it was time to retire. Like you did. Arthritis something bad in my hands and I can’t hold a wrench no more for shit.” He pulled at his white tank tee and shook off the ash that had fallen on his belly.
Harry gave a nod in mutual sympathy. “Welcome to the club.” He had himself struggled down at the machine shop, in constant pain and working for chump change even after twenty years in the place. It was a relief to give it up and he didn’t need a whole lot to live on. Just enough pension to pay his rent and buy food and cigarettes. And TV didn’t cost nothing but electricity. The occasional crate of Narragansett lager.
As a matter of fact, he was enjoying his first summer of retirement like a kid out of school. He worked hard his whole life to get there. For the first time in a long while he felt not just happy, but in charge of his life. In control of things.
He heard slow scuffling on the cement behind him and craned around to see Mrs. Wojeski shuffling towards him, a straw shopping bag draped over her arm. A widow, she lived alone up on the top floor and he still marvelled at how she made it down the rickety old winding wooden stairs every other day without breaking her neck.
Folks probably considered him over-the-hill now that he was officially retired, but she was absolutely ancient. A refugee who still spoke hardly two words of English. Harry got up when she reached him and lifted his chair out of the way. He touched the brim of his hat and nodded.
…he was enjoying his first summer of retirement like a kid out of school.
“Morning, Mrs. Wojeski!”
She managed to wave her hand but didn’t deviate from the path. Slow and steady. Harry swung open the squeaking gate and she went out onto the pavement, headed right, towards Atwells Avenue. Made him glad he lived on the ground floor.
Harry took a drag and watched her toddle along like some wind-up toy before again taking his seat. A red ‘60 Chevy Impala—all tail fins and a trunk so long you could fit a bedroom set into it—cruised by them, real slow. A couple of greasers, beer bottles in hand, waved and then one chucked Harry the bird.
“Assholes,” he muttered. “Why the hell aren’t they at work on a weekday morning?”
Vincent laughed. “Don’t worry. I heard that engine. Big-end bearings are shot to hell. Blown. That’s gonna cost them a shitload when the block seizes!”
Harry smiled at that. Justice, in the end.
They kept silent for a few minutes, both of them eyeing the passing cars with a mixture of suspicion and envy. Traffic was sparse but, then again, it was past the morning rush hour. Vincent’s chair creaked when he leaned in closer to the fence. A gesture of intimacy.
“So you’re really not lonely? She’s been away now what…two months?”
Harry eyed Vincent through his dark glasses. “Two months? Yeah, I guess it has been about that.”
“And you don’t miss her?”
Harry looked towards the street. “Well…” It was long and drawn out while his brain caught up with how he was feeling. Not that he ever spent much time thinking about his feelings or anybody else’s. “I think I miss the idea of her more than I actually miss her. If you get my drift.”
Vincent stuck out his lips and digested the reply. “Not sure I follow you on that. You either miss her or you don’t. I mean, you must be doing all the cooking and cleaning these days for one thing.”
Vincent chuckled. “Well, okay, but surely you gotta be lonely for a night-time hug. A roll in the sack. I mean, two months is a long time.”
Harry tilted his head back and eyed the cat’s cradle of wires on the telephone pole across the street. The transformer was buzzing like a nest of hornets. “I got all the women I need. Mary Palm and her five daughters.”
Vincent leaned back too and shook his head, grinning. “You’re a real joker, I gotta hand it to you. A real joker.”
Harry smiled to himself. He was contented. There was a certain freedom in having absolutely nothing to look forward to. And no one to answer to. The latter being even more important. He flicked the butt of his cigarette out over the gate and bounced it onto the pavement. He then pulled out the pack from his shirt, tapped it, and drew out another cigarette with his lips.
Vincent spoke again, his voice level, almost bored. “Well, I can’t say as I blame you. I mean, Roberta’s a great woman and all, and Connie gets on well with her. But when you two get to hollerin’ it drowns out the TV. And I gotta say, Roberta has one set of lungs on her for such a tiny woman.”
“Jeez, I’m real sorry you had to put up with that,” said Harry. “But it sounds like you two have had a break from the noise as much as me.”
“Don’t take it the wrong way. It was never really all that bad. But we kept missing the punchline on Carson’s monologues at night.”
“No offence taken, Vincent.” His neighbor was a sap, but an amiable one. Plenty of worse people to have living next door when your house is spitting distance away. He lit his cigarette and took a long draw. He was already thinking about tonight’s television schedule. Combat With Vic Morrow. A man’s man. And later Perry Mason. Potato chips and a couple of beers after the TV dinner on the folding tray.
“So what’s wrong with your sister-in-law then? Sounds bad if Roberta’s been there with her for so long.”
Harry frowned under the brim of his straw hat. “Emphysema. So that won’t be getting any better, will it? Roberta has to do pretty much everything for her. Her husband died about two years ago.”
“Shit. Tough break.”
“Still, at least she has the sea breeze down that way.” The sun warmed his body, easing his joints. He stretched out his legs again, revelling in the temperature. He would have to get to Agnelli’s though before the sun got too high, baking the asphalt and sending oscillating heatwaves along the streets.
Enough to melt the soles of your shoes by three o’clock. But he wasn’t going just yet. He blew out a tumbling whorl of smoke through a rounded O in his lips. An affected gesture but a relaxing one nonetheless. He was relishing the moment: a summer’s morning, a dim but easy-going neighbor to shoot the breeze with, and nothing to worry about for the foreseeable future.
“So, she phone you every day? You’re not lonely but what about her? I mean, she’s not even in her own place now. Having to play nurse all day and night I suppose. What’s she telling you?”
“Well, she don’t phone every day. Maybe every other day. She’s doing all right really.”
“Funny that. I haven’t heard your phone ring in over a week at least. Maybe longer come to think of it. And that’s with all the windows open too.”
Harry looked at him over the top of his sunglasses and showed all his teeth in a big grin. “Maybe you’re going deaf. And do you want to check my mailbox for postcards?”
Vincent shrugged. “Just sayin’. That’s all. I don’t give a shit either way.” He resumed watching the occasional car cruise by.
Harry wagged a finger at him. “Hey, you wanna hear something? You know what rich folks do when they go on vacation? To France or Italy or wherever. Husbands and wives. They go separately. Yeah. That’s because spending a week away from the other is good for a marriage. You get my drift?”
Vincent smiled, but kept his eyes on the street. “I did not know that. But we’re talking here about two months’ worth of separate vacations. So that must make for a really good marriage, huh?”
Harry folded his arms across his chest. “Aw, you’re a killjoy. Roberta and me have been glued at the hip since we were married thirty-five years ago. I needed a break. And so did she. Now we got one. I can breathe again.” Vincent was getting above himself and Harry, annoyed, scuffed his feet on the cement a few times.
“Jeez, I could never manage that long without Connie. No siree. I can boil an egg as good as the next guy but shit, after a week, I’d be starving. Besides, we never get tired of knocking around together. Like they say, two peas in a pod.”
“So, let me get this straight. You’re the one who’s retired now and Connie is still out there earning the bucks while you sit here watching the pigeons.”
Vincent leaned over in his chair, frowning. “That ain’t fair. She’s a lot younger than me. And she likes working down at the beauty parlor. I don’t need no grief from you on that score.”
Harry showed teeth again. “Just sayin’.” He was getting bored now and Vincent was going into a sulk after being poked with a stick through his cage. It was time to get ready to walk over to Federal Hill before it really got muggy. He stood up slowly, pushed his hat up on his brow, and rested his arms on the back of his chair. “I’m heading in. Gotta get ready to do some food shopping. You take it easy. Okay?”
Vincent gave him a half-hearted wave of a hairy arm. “Yeah, see you around.”
Leaving his lawn chair parked where it was, Harry ambled up the walk to the back door of the tenement, its brown clapboards peeling like sunburned skin. He climbed up the stoop and went inside, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom of the common back hall. He opened his back door—unlocked as usual—and entered the pantry.
Chock full of crap for years, stuff he and Roberta had never gotten around to sorting, it had become a dumping ground for old winter coats, umbrellas, giant cans of olive oil, crates of empty beer bottles and stacks of newspapers. They would have had lots more room if it weren’t for the GE freezer chest that took up one whole wall.
Roberta had convinced him to buy it ten years before. For making all those casseroles that could be frozen for later and for buying meat in bulk when the price dropped. Made sense really. Harry took off his hat and ran his hand through the thin, slush-grey hair of his balding scalp. He looked down at the freezer chest. It was gently humming. He placed his hand flat on the lid and patted it, almost lovingly. He stood there, staring at its stark whiteness and listening to its monotonous, insistent drone.
Harry moved both hands to the fluted chrome handle and paused. Shoulders sagging, he let out a sigh. He wanted to open it. He really did. But, in the end, he realized he couldn’t. Not yet.
He was still on vacation.
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