Kingsley felt the door to the drug store close as he stepped out onto the quiet residential street. He was wearing aviators sunglasses with golden frames. The lenses were so dark it felt like he was looking through a welder’s helmet. In his entire life he had never worn a pair of sunglasses and so, very soon, he found himself marvelling at how very different the world appeared through them. Also, he discovered, he could look at virtually anyone while pretending he wasn’t and, amazingly, they wouldn’t know. Consequently, he wouldn’t need to have at the ready his carefully-compiled list of Seven Natural Social Responses when he was in proximity of other humans. Why, sunglasses weren’t for keeping the sun out, he realized, they were for keeping out all of humanity! This was a very soothing discovery. Without realizing it, his social anxiety disappeared completely. Even birds began to chirp.
Up the street his gate loosened and a vaguely familiar-looking person appeared to wave. He pointed his index finger at the individual in a way that suggested that it was now official: that person existed, and Kingsley just kept on moving on.
Inside his building he took the stairs, two at a time for most of the way. On his floor, he could make out the familiar and comforting muffled voices in conversation, laughter and miscellaneous kitchen sounds emanating from his neighbors’ apartments. Also mixed amongst these sounds was a game show and a scratchy recording from a popular Hollywood musical. Despite the morning he’d just had, or perhaps because of it, after just a few steps he found himself humming the melody line of the latter in a carefree manner. Kingsley stopped and listened. Rising above the recording, ever so slightly at first, was what could only have been the sound of a horse falling backwards, perhaps with a large metallic bookshelf, down a narrow stairwell, as if to a conga rhythm. In a flash he understood that behind one of the doors before him along the hallway, a person was dancing. Maybe, he said, it was the new guy that’d moved in next door? It seemed impossible. Could someone actually be dancing in the Buena Vista Apartment building?
Just like that, as if it had been a dream, the song ended and the dancing stopped and Kingsley became aware of the smell of breakfasts drifting up from beneath closed doors and its mingling in the air before him. Of all the smells, toast dominated, he decided. He, too, had had toast that morning and because of this he felt a connection to the families and individuals behind the closed doors. And, just like that, he understood he and the people who lived on his floor with him were really all part of a small village, that although they were separated by apartment walls and norms of social behavior, they were really one large family and that they should talk more. It was obvious: all the craziness of life and the world around them was due, quite simply, to a lack of communication, a veritable conspiracy of silence.
Just then, up the hall, the chain on one of the apartment doors could be heard sliding off and swinging back and forth against the worn wood. With this, Kingsley’s heart began to race and his mouth went dry. The doorknob to his apartment – a significant distance away - came into focus and he picked up the pace as he reached for the keys in his left pocket. To his dismay, there seemed to be folds within folds separating his fingers from the keys - as if this pocket was as large as a gym sock, and it had rolled up his leg. Exacerbating this feeling was the awareness that the hallway was unusually dark, ominously so. “Are the lights even on?” he asked himself. Who would switch them off?! If he were a different kind of tenant, he speculated, he might lodge a formal complaint with the Superintendent. …Or was Kingsley losing his sight? Had there been lead in the water they’d used to make the coffee at the dinette? He rammed his arm deeper into his pocket. Were his keys purposely avoiding him?! …How deep could his pockets get?!!
As he approached the door to the garbage chute, with these thoughts racing through his head, somehow, inexplicably, the keys flew out of his pocket and he heard them land with a clang, somewhere on the floor in front of him. He dropped to his knees and ran his hands over the rug in a fanning motion, moving forward like a dung beetle. The keys had to be there, he told himself. Since the aviator sunglasses he’d purchased at Sussman’s Drugs Store were still resting on the bridge of his nose, locating the keys on the well-trodden carpet took some time. While he searched he could hear polished shoes shuffling behind doors, could picture an army of manicured hands reaching for doorknobs, knew positively that within seconds he would be surrounded. He simply didn’t feel prepared to confront the world head-on - not just yet. To his relief, he caught the keys between his two middle fingers and straightened up. Just then Martha Star, thirty-three and recently relocated, an attractive, energetic woman, burst out of her apartment wearing a housecoat over Capri pants. The opening bars of Johnny Mathis’s Wild is the Wind filled the hallway, and escorted her down the dark end of the hall (where the light had burned out) towards Kingsley.
Kingsley watched. He had never in his life seen anything like this before. Not in his building anyway. Her dark locks were rolled over colored curlers and she too wore sunglasses. She seemed to float in a state of grace. So filled with life, effervescent, the hallway glowed. She opened the chipping, heavily repainted door to the garbage chute and entered, almost stepping in a bucket of grey water. Inside, she lowered her sunglasses to locate the handle and pulled opened the chute with her pinky raised. Her painted nails sparkled. Standing there, Kingsley listened as she forced a paper bag through the opening. Heard her grunt. Presently, he could hear soup cans and a jar rattling as they dropped several stories to the basement. And, for a moment there was utter silence.
His face tensed into knots over his cheekbones. Behind his aviator sunglasses the top lid of his right eye performed a rapid succession of twitches.
Martha stepped backwards through the open door with her hands raised before her, and turned. This is when she noticed Kingsley for the first time. Startled, she stepped back and bumped into the door, her head just below a sign stating when and when not to deposit garbage into the chute. Kingsley thought of Anita Ekberg.
“OH, GOLLY!” she said, her voice booming. “YOU FRIGHTENED ME!”
He shrank at the volume, and wasn’t sure what to do next. What do you do? She looked like a movie star, he told himself. Maybe she was a movie star. He suspected he might be tongue-tied.
The woman stole a long glance at Kingsley and her manner softened. “I REALLY DIDN’T SEE YOU…” she said, her voice still really VERY loud – for this is the way she always spoke - and, stretching, arched her back and inadvertently enhanced her formidable bosom.
Kingsley swallowed hard and opened his mouth. His larynx was covered in phlegm, his voice began uncharacteristically gruff, “And I didn’t, uh, see you, though I…” He said this and swallowed, aware that he wasn’t sure how to end the sentence, “you didn’t frighten…me.” He glanced to the wall and his lips moved as he tried to phrase again what he’d wanted to communicate… But he was lost. He didn’t know the script for this conversation with this beautiful woman in the hallway of the Buena Vista Apartments. He didn’t know what to do, and he could feel his blood pressure rising.
Martha pegged Kingsley immediately. She knew his type. His number. Probably boxed up all his feelings, and had contempt for any real emotions. He was probably all set to dismiss anyone for having ‘artistic tendencies.’ Ex military? Who was he? Who did he think he was with his yellow golf jacket and ‘square’ tie? She tried to sound like she didn’t give a heck what Kingsley, or the whole world for that matter, thought, that she was the kind of person who was growing, being, and expressing herself irrelevant of anyone else’s personal take on things, thank-you-very-much! No. She wasn’t uncertain; she was indifferent, worldly. She looked up at Kingsley. “YOU LIVE HERE?” she said, tentatively.
Kingsley looked around the hallway and Martha swallowed. “Yep,” he said, but that didn’t really sound like enough. “Yes,” he added, “I do.” To his discomfort as he said this he found himself raising his right eyebrow. He was losing control of his face.
He patted his breast pocket and his left eyebrow joined the right one in the middle of his forehead. He could feel himself getting dizzy, though it looked nonchalant, “Say, miss… You gotta light?”
She pulled out the box of matches, opened it up expertly and in a flash struck the match against that rectangle.
She raised the burning match.
She watched him dig his hand into his breast pocket - and his fingers moving back and forth as if walking in place - then come out empty. He didn’t have a cigarette. Why would he?: He didn’t smoke.
He shrugged, “You got a cigarette?”
It was futile. He wanted to stop bathing and hide under his bed.
In Martha’s apartment the scratchy recording of Wild is the Wind skipped and tore across several grooves, then played the same bar and a half nonchalantly over and over, and over and over. She took the cigarette out of her housecoat with shaky hands, exhaling noisily, and handed it to Kingsley. He put it into his mouth and she watched the burning match ignite the cigarette. He puffed on it and his face glowed orange, the fire reflecting in his dark aviators. It was too quiet.
They looked, she understood, like that ‘perfect couple’ you see in magazines. The center of the world. He was a man smoking and she was the woman who lit his cigarette. If you had opened your door somewhere down the hall and looked out, you would have shut it immediately, she knew, because you would not have known what to say. You would have believed their solipsism so completely that you would have just ceased to exist. She hadn’t felt that certain in a while. Didn’t know she would so quickly, right there in New York City! Gosh! She recognized she wanted to hold onto the moment. “MY NAME’S MARTHA... MARTHA STAR,” she said with that powerful diaphragm, like she said that all the time. And added, deeply, as if she were making a political statement, “I’M A DANCER.” She glanced back towards the recording as if the existence of the record player somehow corroborated this claim.
“Kingsley,” he mumbled, and the cigarette flopped around in his lips, uncertain.
She turned back, and looked him straight in the eyes with her head tilted. “NO. …IT’S MARTHA,” she said, and her voice echoed about the hall.
She was willing to stand her ground on this one.*