Timepiece by Darrell Petska

Anna Smolek is on Dakota Street now, working toward Ninth. Leaves swirl at her ankles, children streak by, shouting—a cloud is coming. The sauerkraut air is being sent east, into Tenth.

The old woman progresses in slippers, pause following step. The wind teases the hem of her housedress. She pats it down. A barking dog feints with a boy on a lawn. She smiles a little, watching.

People are rolling up car windows. A newscaster drones from afar—a musical jingle intervenes. Dodged by children, Anna Smolek keeps on. Her hair has entangled a leaf.

**

A screen door claps to its jamb. A hawking throat relieves itself, calls out:

“Why, Mrs. Smolek! Are you lost?”

Joe Meyer stands on his stoop, cinching his overalls. The house behind him is small, frame, gray. A few flowers still hold their bloom beside the step he descends. A cigar butt smokes in his pipe.

”No no,” her voice scolds, but she is smiling. “I got to walk the block sometime.”

Taller by a head, Joe eyes the leaf in her hair. He ruminates briefly on his pipe. “Hadn’t seen you out walking some while there. Where you been?”

“Yah yah, I been not so good. First the legs go sour. Then the heart—and pftt! goes the breath. Oh, it’s bad all right,” wagging her head side to side, “but I got to expect it.”

“Ain’t it a pickle! I’m not getting around like I used to, either. My pins are all rusty.” He works his knee for her. “The doctor claims no, but I say it creaks!”

“Yah, you get to my age,” Anna complains, “this happens. I’m old.”

A vague slurping, as of a straw, raises Joe’s hand to his pipe. He pulls it apart. Blows through the stem while turning aside from Anna. Wipes the stem on a paper scrap drawn from his pocket.

“Women don’t grow old, Mrs. Smolek. That’s one thing I learned from my Lucy. They just grow more valuable. Anyway, you could have it worse. For me it could happen any day.”

“You?” Anna stiffly sizes him up. “More than 85?”

He refires the cigar butt, cupping the lighter’s flame with his hand. The smoke billows toward Tenth. “Yup. Eighty-eight come March. I’m 87 years old!”

“Well, I’ll be 86 in November: 86!” Sighing greatly, “Yah, these old bones seen a lot of trouble.”

Joe’s gaze wanders above her head. “Who’d have thought it? Eighty-eight.”

**

Leaves skitter about their feet. Anna’s housedress ruffles. She lets it. Children streak by—parents are calling out.

“We could go any day now, huh?”

“Maybe so, but it doesn’t concern me much. If I die tonight, I won’t be around to know it.” He shrugs, inspects the cigar butt, lights it again.

“Ah,” Anna holds up a finger, “I’m ready, too. I read the good book. Wonderful stories! Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Joe leans to a gust of wind, comes straight drawing on his pipe. His eyes have returned to the leaf in her hair. “Sodom and Gomorrah?”

“Yah yah. Sodom and Gomorrah. You know it?”

“Just a smidgen. Back then, Pop read us the Bible some, but I had other things on my mind. Now where’s the time with all the TV shows, news and what not?” 

“I know how it is. TV, TV, TV day and night!” She throws up her arms, winces. “But I tell you this: it’s not so good here. Not like the old country.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Better than this country?”

“Better! Things happen here never happen in the old country. More than forty years I been gone. Forty years! You know what I was? A seamstress, yah! A woman comes to my shop and she says ‘Sew my dress,’ so I sew it. ‘Stitch it up fine,’ so I stitched them all up fine. But when I get older, and my fingers—you see them?—they don’t work well, what can I do? I close my shop.”

She grimaces, shaking her head: “My son! My only child, he says ‘We go to America.’ He has big plans, you see? ‘Opportunity, Mama, opportunity!’ he says. But my shop is closed, so what can I do? He was all I had left. I go to America, and now look at me!”

His eyes drop from the leaf. “What I see looks fine. You’re looking fine, Anna!”

“Yah,” she places a hand on her cheek, “but such things never happened in my country.”

**

Parents are calling children and gathering toys from their lawns.

“Where is this son of yours?”

“Such a son! Home to him is nothing. ‘I’m an American,’ he says. He’s ashamed of me, so now here I be, all alone.”

“It’s the way of things,” nods Joe. “A whole lifetime of troubles and a body still won’t grow accustomed. It’s a pickle all right.” He knocks his pipe empty and stuffs it away. “A blessed pickle. Now take me: I used to be a farmer.”

Anna has just sized up the cloud. “It shows what you were. That was a long time ago, too, yah? Everything was a long time ago for us. And I better be walking this block.”

“Will you be OK? We don’t want to have to come and carry you back.” 

“I rather be carried back than just sit sit sit all the time. So I go.”

Anna does not, however. She advances, carefully, around Joe to the flowers by the step. “These, you maybe sell an old woman a handful?”

“Not mine to sell. Haven’t got a clod left to my name—go ahead! Take some. They’re the landlord’s. Nice though, aren’t they?”

“Why, my flowers grew twice so big!”

They bend, by degrees, over the flowers. He snaps them off near the ground. She breaks them higher up the stem. The bouquet she arranges is small, uneven.

Anna sniffs the blooms, sighs: “Well, what can a flower do? Thank…the landlord.” She winks, looks down the street, frowns. “Ugh. I must walk this block!”

Joe accompanies her back to the sidewalk. He digs into his breast pocket. Draws out a cigar. Points the cigar to the sky: “Rain mighty soon.” 

“So what’s a little rain?” she says.

He bites off the end of his cigar and spits it over his shoulder.

“Well, you doctor those rusty pins or you walk like old Anna. Haw! But Great-grandmama died at 91. We got a chance at 91, yet.”

“I’ll do that, Mrs. Smolek. What else have I got to do?” He produces his lighter and cups his hand to the flame.

“Ahhh! So much we had to do then. Marriage, family—‘You go with men,’ says my mother, ‘you ask for trouble.’ But do I listen? Who would listen? Still, no problem. I was a good seamstress in the old country. That I was. And I must walk this block.”

Anna takes a step toward Ninth, looks around at Joe, and grins: “If you see nothing of me, you figure I be dead.”

“How will I know for sure?”

She throws the words over her shoulder: “Pay attention to your corns!” And mutters: “Everything is wrong with me.”

**

Anna Smolek is at Ninth and Dakota, heading south. Joe Meyer stands outside, hand on the screen door—she is passing from sight now. Her flowers go. Now the leaf in her hair. He hawks, moving inside, and draws a bright coal at the screen.

Children are laughing, dogs barking—the cloud is speckling the sidewalk. Lights in houses come on. The wind is picking up. Parents still call names from the porches. 

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