Howard’s Alley by Richard Risemberg

The shop had a front door, but Lemke kept it locked. The roll-down hadn’t been lifted in six years or so; the local punks had of course sprayed graffiti on it, but the graffiti itself was barely visible under a coating of downtown grime. Lemke wanted the place to look abandoned. It gave him a feeling of peace. He had gone out years ago and smeared the padlocks with vaseline so that they would hold more dust and also be unpleasant to manipulate. He still had the keys, and once a year he tried them to make sure they still worked, in case he decided to open the front again. But he was pretty sure that would never happen while he lived. The little brick building was only two stories tall, and stood, cheek-by-jowl, with other old buildings on the block. Long ago, after a few particularly good years, he had managed to buy it from his landlord, who was married to Lemke’s great-aunt and gave him a good deal. It had been a clockmaker’s back when people cared about clocks, which were then mechanical devices with great elegance for those who could afford them. It made Lemke chuckle sometimes: he had made time stop in the clockmaker’s. Of course it hadn’t been a clockmaker’s since Lemke’s childhood, long before he had rented it. Lemke had been a tinker; he could fix anything mechanical or electrical, including clocks, so the tools and jigs the prior tenant had left became useful again in his hands. But not long after his wife died he lost interest in working. He had been a good tinker, and he considered it worthwhile work: keeping old machines alive. But now he was the old machine, and he would take care of himself.

He still kept a few clients, though—geezers all. Old farts who would still use words like “geezer.” He’d fix their toasters and vacuum cleaners and desk lamps and the clocks that counted off the hours they had left on earth, and not charge them. But mostly they came by to sit in the dim rooms and talk. What else did they have to do? The world didn’t need them any more, and they barely needed the world. He enjoyed their company. It was about the only thing he enjoyed any more, besides food. But they had to come in the back way, through the door in the alley.

The alley filtered out the insincere, as it was not a pleasant place: an abode of dumpsters, litter, and, all too often, sleeping drunks. Or at least one sleeping drunk, a tidy older white guy named Howard, who lived in a single room in one of those sad old hotels where sad old men go to die after lives of useless labor. Lemke considered Howard a friend, though he didn’t let him into his shop, because he generally smelled bad. He would buy him lunch, though, if Howard was around and awake when Lemke himself went out for a sandwich. If, of course, he didn’t just make some soup at home. Lemke lived in a little apartment above the shop, and he knew how to cook. He never understood why Howard didn’t just drink at home, but came to the alley with his bottle in its brown paper bag, and that was where he drank. It was an odd part of town, near Pershing Square; the Biltmore with its gilded ceilings and pricey restaurants was two blocks away, but so was Skid Row, in the other direction. The shuttered tinker’s shop was on the border, but the alley was decidedly on the rougher side of the line.

Lemke’s friends didn’t like Howard, who tried to be friendly when he was awake. Howard would hang onto people with his hand and launch into long meandering disquisitions on the perfidy of women, specifically his wife, who had left him thirty years before. Even Lemke didn’t have patience for those stories. Lemke had loved his wife very much, and missed her every day. That was not something to be talked about, he felt. Howard’s bitter volubility was not elegant.

One Sunday night Howard knocked on the door at nine o’clock. Lemke kept a light bulb burning over the blank back entrance night and day, but he rarely answered the door after dark. The alley was not as dangerous as it looked, simply because too many people wandered through there for the nefarious to do their work in comfort and calm, but there had been one murder there, a man strangled between the dumpsters, and all too often the habitués of the local bars wandered through for a piss after last call. But Lemke had given his friends a special knock to use, and he counted Howard as a friend, a pathetic friend, but still a friend. It was unusual for Howard to find himself in the alley after dark, but when Lemke opened the door, which he did with a crowbar in hand just in case, there was Howard, wavering a bit on his feet and emanating his usual odor of old sweat and cheap wine. Lemke was uncomfortable leaving the door open so he broke his rule and let Howard in. The shop did not have good ventilation, and he knew he would regret it, but there were other possibilities he would regret a great deal more if they came to pass, so he directed Howard to an uncomfortable stool under a vent that let a feeble drift of air leak in; Lemke noted with some dismay that it blew Howard’s odor deeper into the shop. “Okay, Howard, you’re in here. What is it? You haven’t lost your apartment, have you?”

Howard made some limpid swallowing noises and said, “No. But I think I’ve lost my keys.”

“You think you’ve lost your keys? Have you looked in your pockets?”

Howard’s eyes widened briefly. “‘Course I have. You think I’m an idiot?”

“If you weren’t an idiot, you wouldn’t be a drunk.”

“Ha. Shows what you don’t know about drinking. Lots of smart drunks out there….”

“And you’re one of them?”

“No. I’m an idiot. But you’re still wrong.”

“Your pockets, Howard. All of them. Check them now.”

Alas, there were no keys. Lemke said, “How about the night clerk? Won’t he let you in?”

“Haven’t had night clerks for ages. Just a guard. Can I stay here till the manager comes in at seven?”

Lemke sucked in his lips to think about it. It was an imposition, but so what? What did he do with his life but eat and read, and walk a few blocks to the Central Library? He would be a good guy, for what it was worth. Fellows like Howard didn’t change their lives because you did them a favor, but he couldn’t leave the old fool out in the downtown night with nowhere to go. He was too helpless. “Okay” he said. “But you gotta take a bath. You know you don’t smell so good.”

Howard sighed. “I know. But I live alone.”

“You’re not alone here.”

“Good point. Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“Shower, tub, whatever….”

Lemke rolled his eyes and led Howard up the hidden stairs to the apartment.

The shop was always gloomy, with its silent machines and its ranks of drawers filled with cold metal parts, all the congealed years of his work crowded together and throwing shadows on each other; but the apartment was brighter. Lemke could fix things, and he wasn’t afraid of electricity; he had put in new lighting when his wife got sick, and he’d even gone so far as to spend two Sundays putting up cheery wallpaper. Though there were only four windows to the rooms, and none of them large, it felt sunny. All an illusion wrought by his hands for his dying wife’s comfort. The bedroom windows looked out on the alley and were covered with iron bars; the front ones showed a busy street shadowed by tall buildings. The bathroom didn’t even have a window, but was painted a sunny yellow that made it seem larger than it was. He led Howard to the bathroom and told him, “Put on that robe when you’re clean. I’ve got a little washer and dryer, a miniature set from Japan; I’ll wash your damned rags.” Howard nodded obediently and sat down on the toilet to remove his shoes. “Pile it all outside the door. I don’t have to watch you strip.” He left Howard to the intricate task of undoing zippers, buttons, and knots and went to his kitchen. He needed a drink himself, but he wouldn’t let Howard see the bottle.

He poured himself a finger of scotch. After all these years, he wasn’t even sure he liked scotch, but his wife had liked it, and the finger of scotch had become a tradition that he did not want to let go. It was the good stuff too, or at least the stuff that was popular the year they had begun sampling whiskeys. He never understood why his wife liked it, when it tasted like a mixture of cough medicine and dirt to him; their families were both from Central Europe, and while both sides liked a drink, it was never scotch. It didn’t matter now. The drink reminded him of their years together, and that calmed him more than the alcohol did. He raised the glass to the framed photo of them standing together at an overlook in Yosemite, taken by a stranger to whom they’d handed their camera. Two very average-looking people huddled together above the dramatic plunge of the valley with its peaks and its waterfall. The picture was in the kitchen because that was the brightest room of the house: Lemke had long ago installed special light fixtures that were used in art galleries to show off paintings and prints. The kitchen itself was in the middle of the apartment and, like the bathroom, had no windows. Lemke sipped the whiskey while the sound of running water hissed in the pipes. Howard was taking his time, but let him: he wanted to finish the whiskey at leisure. This was his time with his wife, once a day in the kitchen before sleep. He finished the whiskey and rinsed the glass, hoping Howard wouldn’t be able to smell it and ask for his share. Then he put Howard’s clothes in the washer.

The sound of running water stopped and was replaced by a strange buzz which he realized was Howard humming. After a few minutes the door opened, and Howard drifted out, wearing the robe and looking well-combed. Lemke felt uncharitable in thinking that he had better wash his comb in the morning, after shooing Howard off. The sad little drunk had shaved, too, using Lemke’s razor. Still, you have a certain duty towards your friends, even pathetic ones. Lemke pointed at the kitchen table, a tiny square table with a linoleum top banded by a metal rim, salvaged from a diner that went out of business down the street uncounted decades ago. “You hungry, Howard? You got to be hungry. I bet you haven’t eaten all day.”

“I’ve eaten,” he said, with a calm, almost proud air. “I bought one of those little cherry pies at the liquor store this morning. Me and the Pigeon split it.” The Pigeon was not a bird, but a skinny-legged homeless man who somehow managed to keep a big belly. Lemke didn’t care for the Pigeon, who was a relentless beggar. Howard at least almost never asked for anything.

“That was it?” Lemke said.

Howard nodded, smiling. He leaned back in his chair, looking regal if a bit damp in the bathrobe. “You don’t need to feed me tonight. I’ll be fine.”

Lemke sighed. “Don’t play games with me, Howard. I know you got to eat, and you know I’ll feed you. I’ll fry you some potatoes. I got plenty of those; they were on sale, so I bought too much. Got to use them up before they go bad.” It was part of the game, making Howard feel he was doing Lemke the favor. Lemke hadn’t spent all those years dealing with customers, most of them poor, without learning that everyone’s proud in some way, and really doesn’t want you to do them any favors. Except the Pigeon, of course, who just wanted what he wanted. And had gotten it from Howard that morning, it looked like. He started a fire under a pan, put oil in it, and began peeling the spuds. “I cook ’em over a low fire,” he told Howard. “Gives ’em a nice crunch.” He enjoyed standing at the stove and cooking for someone else, even if it was just Howard.

Howard ate, apparently enjoying the potatoes, although Lemke couldn’t help but feel that he was sneaking glances at the kitchen cabinets and perhaps wondering whether there might be liquor in them. But he said nothing, just humming lightly as he ate. Lemke served them both ice cream when he was finished. “Well, it won’t win me a Michelin star, but you ate, that’s what counts. Now, it sounds like the dryer is finished. You don’t mind sleeping in underwear and t-shirt, do you? I don’t have any spare pajamas.”

Howard smiled. “You know I sleep in my clothes sometimes. For a drunk I’m pretty adaptable. You wouldn’t have a nightcap, would you?”

Lemke rolled his eyes, but avoided answering directly. “Think you can sleep without the hooch?”

Howard shrugged. “Guess I’ll have to.”

“There’s a radio in the living room if that’ll help. I’ll get you a blanket.” He led Howard to the sofa that sat against one of the blank side walls of the room, facing a small, old-fashioned television set on the other wall. The window in front was open, letting in traffic noise and the sound of someone mumbling to himself. Lemke started to close it but Howard said, “Don’t bother; I kind of like a little street noise when I sleep. I always leave the window open in my place if it’s not too cold.”

Howard lay down on the sofa and let Lemke tuck him in. “This is a good wool blanket,” he told Howard. “You don’t get too itchy with wool, do you?”

Howard shook his head and said, “Good night.” Lemke said good-night back to him and went to the bedroom, where the barred windows overlooked Howard’s alley.

Lemke got up twice in the night to pee, and both times Howard was still on the sofa, looking somewhat mummified, as he had wrapped the blanket tightly around himself. The third time Lemke woke up, there was a gray tint in the window, and he knew it was close to sunrise. As he lay in bed, waking slowly, he heard confusing clinking sounds. Then an unmistakable drift of hot cooking oil came to his attention. He quickly finished waking and got up. When he went to the kitchen, he found Howard, still in boxers and t-shirt, standing over the stove with a spatula in hand. Lemke said, “Howard, what the hell are you doing?”

“Cooking us breakfast. I figured the smell of eggs and coffee might wake you. You keep a nice refrigerator, my friend.”

“You can cook? What you making?”

“Spinach and mushroom omelets. A little arugula salad on the side. And toast, of course. And you bet I can cook! I was line cook in a nice restaurant in the finance district ages ago. Guess I worked for Mr. Miceli ten years or so.”

“Mr. Miceli? The City Bistro? I used to take my wife there, when we were young.”

“Then maybe I’ve fed you before! ‘Course I never saw the front of the house. Anyway, the place is gone now. And I was gone before it went down. You see…that was where I learned to drink. Mr. Miceli liked a bottle…we never left there before three a.m.” Howard worked while he talked, slipping the omelets onto plates easily despite a shake in his hands. He took the plates to the table and gestured Lemke to his seat. “Went into a string of office jobs after that, figured it would keep me out of the way of temptation. But the temptation was inside….” Howard lifted his coffee cup in a toast. “Here’s to morning,” he said. “Dig in.”

Lemke dug in. The omelets were good. “Howard,” he asked, “is this the first time I’ve seen you sober?”

Howard stared at the ceiling a moment, with a fragment of eggs trembling on the end of his fork. Then he shrugged. “Probably. It doesn’t happen too often. I’ll be antsy by nine if I don’t get me some.”

“Could we make it happen more often? Could we meet for breakfast now and then, once a week or so? Maybe it would help….”

Howard shook his head. “You don’t know what it’s like, do you? I hardly slept at all last night. Not your fault, of course. But it wouldn’t have been right to sneak into your booze supply. I figure you have a booze supply. When the light came in the window, I had to get up and do something. Something nice for you. This is what I could do. But I’ve got to get home soon. I’ve got a bottle there. And I won’t be so nice in an hour or two if I don’t get to it.” He paused, then went on: “The manager will be in soon, and I can get my key.” Howard took another piece of omelet, eating it almost delicately, and sipped deeply of the coffee. “I’ve tried, you know. AA, all that stuff. At least what I could afford. It’s what I am now, my friend. I’m sorry. But eat up. It’s a beautiful morning.” 

The traffic noise rumbled outside, and two rough voices began to argue on the street below. Lemke laughed. “Not so beautiful out there right now, I don’t think.”

Howard said, “But we’re not out there right now, are we?”

Lemke had to agree.

Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He’s spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences. He has published widely in the last few years, as you can see at