I turn my sunken cheek onto the warm concrete and see you down the sidewalk in your fluorescent shorts and tank top, squinting at my fallen body and calculating your odds of getting back to your run. Maybe you are convincing yourself I am none of your business or that I could even be dangerous. But then maybe you imagine yourself at whatever you consider your finish line, unable to forget the woman you left behind. So you come closer, trying to make sense of my long black coat in summer and my brittle body which can’t even lift itself back to its feet. But the house to her left! The groceries all around her!
You look like you’ve lived at least half, give or take, of your life by now, so likely someone’s told you things aren’t always what they seem.
You crouch beside me, but then clasp your hands, as if unsure what to do. It dawns on me you’ve never cared for a stranger’s body before, and I always thought it was possible there were women like that in the world, but now I see it’s true. Finally, like you’re scared to break me, you hold one arm, then the other, but I know you will never get me to my feet that way.
I try to wriggle my foot in its faded red moccasin from under the black cart that moments before held two twelve packs of pop, and then you haul me upwards by putting your hands under my armpits and pulling my body close, like maybe we really are just two creatures walking the same planet.
I lean on my cane as you busy yourself putting spilled groceries back in plastic bags, taking three in each hand to my open front door, where you stop short. I hobble next to you, and predictably, your eyes are troubled as they scan the stained carpets peeking out every now and then from under everything I ever owned and some things I didn’t. Things piled on old chairs and packed on shelves and covering the bed stuffed into the dark side room. This is not your definition of a home, but it will always be mine.
You didn’t ask, but I make sure you know my name’s Adele. It’s a pretty name, I always thought so. It’s the one my mother gave me, but I guess that’s where all names come from, even yours. Tracy. You share your name reluctantly, like I plan to do something with it later, when you are back in the sanctity of your ordered world.
The house was my mother’s and her mother’s and maybe they’re both dead under some blankets in there. What is that smell, anyway? Now I’m laughing. I really got you with that one. They’ve been gone a long time, but I can tell you about the days they died like it was yesterday. The husband and children are gone too, in the way people go without dying.
You peer to the back of the house where an old song plays, as if hoping for the redemption of someone waiting for me. But I just keep the radio on, so when I come home, I can pretend like somebody’s there. Nelson? That you? That kind of thing.
You say how you live alone too, but not like you — this last part murmured, an afterthought, or a reminder of sorts to yourself. You flush and apologize. You didn’t mean that the way it came out. Though I am not offended. I’m just wondering how many ways you think there are to be alone.
You ask if I’m alright, permission to leave, as it were, but a silent question hovers with you in the doorway. If not for you running by this side street, how long would I have lain like that, lamenting my collapsed bones?
I ask when the last time was someone helped you up, and you say that no one ever has. You do not sound proud of this or angry or sad. Your voice is dazed, as if you are wondering how it never occurred to you before.
I go to put my hand on your shoulder, as if to reassure you, but your ingrained instincts are too quick for your fledgling wisdom, and you jerk away. The fall is so fast that when I hit the sidewalk, I regret only I never had time to feel myself linger in space.
The world is black and I dream of Nelson — the real Nelson, not the one I talk to in my head, who makes me tea and dances with me to the songs that come on the radio.
Then I hear diligent, urgent male voices asking you questions. You sound so sorry and also worried for me, which I appreciate. But if I could get my throat and mouth to work, I would tell you this, I would tell all of you: I am not afraid after all of lying prone on my small patch of lawn beside my brown cane with its fine black tip and staring at a cloudless blue sky stretching above my little house and letting that be the last time I see anything in this world.
Really, you’re the scared one. Holding on to that body of yours for dear life, forgetting it’s just as fragile as mine, when it comes down to it.
Now they are counting to three and lifting me onto something hard and stiff, and I cannot speak or even shake my head, but I want to stop them. You grasp my hand, and I doubt you will know to put me back, but at least in this frenzy of saving you have remembered the reality of my flesh.
Carrie Esposito’s short stories have been published in The Georgia Review, Little Rose Magazine and Mused. One was a finalist for the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and will be forthcoming in Ruminate Magazine. She has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for one of her stories and has won spots in selective writing workshops at Lighthouse Writers in Denver. She’s currently working on a novel, which she began writing in a notebook on the subway ride to and from her most recent job as Assistant Principal of a middle school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.