Sunday, March 20, 2011

Short Story

To the Wrestler Upstairs

By Sean Kenealy

Sam was a wrestler, the best one there was on his high school varsity team, which any current onlooker might assume by his steady breath, muscular thighs, and long leaps bouncing from step to step down to the lobby of his apartment building.

Today was the big meet-not the day to be late. Sam jumped past the last three steps and landed in his lobby; feet heavier than they’d ever been before. He had fifteen minutes to reach the gymnasium, covering a distance that would take most people at least twenty-five. Sam knew he could make it in ten.

And that’s when he heard the scream.

“Help!” a voice called. Sam was halfway out the door. He stopped, turned from side to side, and allowed ten seconds to pass, holding his breath. When nothing came, however, he fully exited, reassuring himself that if someone actually needed help, it was their duty to proclaim it at the minimum of every ten seconds.

“Help, help, help!” the voice called again, and with a heavy sigh, Sam reentered the building.

“Hello?” Sam called.

“Help!” the voice said.

It was a woman, clear as day. Raspy, with an accent Sam could only compare to something he’d heard in black and white movies. He walked to the center of the lobby, eyeing three different doors he had walked past his entire life, but, until this moment, had given little thought to.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, “but I’m running very late.”

“But I’ve fallen,” the voice said.

“Fallen?” Sam said.

“From the shower!” the voice said.

Sam was still. Instead of worrying he would be late for his wrestling meet, or the possibility that a person only a few feet away could be seriously injured, Sam’s seventeen year old mind did what it knew best: he thought of a woman taking a shower.

“Do you need help?” Sam asked.

“Jesus!” the voice said. “Help, help, help!”

After discovering the door the woman was behind, and that it was locked, Sam left in search of a window belonging to the apartment, an easy task, for the majority of his childhood was spent playing games behind this building, and, as a teen, it’s where he’d spent hours running laps.

Sam opened the back window with ease, using muscles toned for headlocks and pinning. He stepped inside, too timid to touch a thing, waiting for the woman’s voice to invite him further into a house he had just broken into. It was quiet and still here. The furniture antiques, the lamps handmade, all of it aged and worn as if belonging to a pirate ship, equally coated with a thick layer of dust, as if the apartment had been untouched since the birth of the building, while the surrounding apartments and neighborhoods continued to evolve with the passing of each decade. Sam felt like he was in a time capsule.

“Hello,” Sam called. There was nothing. He took small steps, unsure of what direction to take, and accidently bumped into an end table with his Reebok running shoes, knocking over a wooden fish. Sam frantically picked it up, as any person might after knocking over a figurine in the stuffiest of museums. The name Jason was written on the side of it with a black permanent marker. He could smell the ink.

“Hm,” Sam said. He called out again. Nothing. He placed the wooden fish back on the end table with small, precise movements, cautious of traps.

“Hello, hello,” Sam called. Still, no response; and it was here the reality of the situation dawned on the young man. He might never make the big meet. Someone had called for help, and now they weren’t calling at all. Sam was a wrestler, the best athlete in his school, but that didn’t mean he was stupid. He was young, however, inexperienced, lucky to have death never touch him before. In fact, as he stood motionless in the time capsule of an apartment, Sam had never been so aware of death in his entire life, and, more importantly, that he too would one day die, just like the woman with the raspy voice and unfamiliar accent may have just died.

“Help!’ the voice called.

“Jesus,” Sam said. Once again he bumped into an end table, this time knocking over a wooden frame and bouncing if off his fingers with the balance and hand-eye coordination only an athlete ever knows.

“Why didn’t you answer me before?” Sam asked.

“I wasn’t ready for you,” the voice said. “I’m in the bathroom.”

“Well, where’s the bathroom?”

“It’s a one-bedroom apartment. Find it!”

Sam placed the frame back on the end table and adjusted it until dust covered his fingers. He was ready to scurry off, to the one path he imagined would lead to the bathroom, but, oddly, despite the franticness of the situation, something stopped Sam dead in his tracks. It was the frame. A frame that was no ordinary frame, not because of its making or size, but because of the image it held: a painting. It was of an open field with dozens of blue and red dots, that on any other day Sam would have just assumed were simply dots, nothing more. Today, however, he knew they were people. Boys and girls, men and women, souls and lives, small bits of color educating Sam on life and love more than he’d ever been before, for if Sam was unfamiliar with death, he was even less exposed to art, raised by parents who were satisfied enough with his strong attentiveness in school and sports, as any parents rightly should have been. Today, however, Sam was the one satisfied. He was seeing art. A little wooden frame holding an entire world; and even if he wanted to he could have never described it.

“Geez,” the voice said, after getting no response. “It’s by the front door!”

And Sam left the painting without saying a word.

Standing outside the bathroom door Sam hesitated to knock. Knowing it was foolish, he regardless tapped the door with the softest of little taps.

“Can I come in?” Sam asked.

“How old are you?” the voice said.

He stared down, hoping the answer would be posted like a track number on a jersey.

“Seventeen,” Sam said.

“Seventeen? Jesus Christ,” the voice said.

“Well, should I call someone else?” Sam asked.


“Well, then should I get someone else? I’m running very late.”

“You’re seventeen. What do you have to be late for?”

“I have a wrestling meet.”

Sam turned to the exit, noting how easy it would be to leave, and, more annoyingly, that if the woman was indeed injured, it was hardly enough to distract her from snarky banter. And that’s when he spotted yet another wooden animal. A cow this time, with the name Joe written on the side; ink as fresh as the last.

“So you’re a wrestler,” the voice said, turning Sam back to the bathroom. Her voice softened; more inviting. “Well, why don’t you come on in then?” And with that, Sam swallowed and put the cow down, utters up.

She was old; in her eighties, lying naked on the bathroom floor with only small towels covering her breasts and vagina. A larger towel rested on a railing, just out of her reach, so she settled for washcloths, revealing pricker bushes of wrinkles growing up her spotty legs, and patches of white pubic hair sticking out like saturated rain clouds. It was the most Sam had ever seen of a woman in real life.

“You come in to stare at me, or to help me up?”

Sam was still, unsure of how to touch the woman, or if he even should.

“Why don’t you start by handing me that towel?” she said. Sam pulled it off the railing, unfolded it, and let it fall three feet above her body, as if putting out a spreading fire. She then raised her hands, for at the moment, it was clear Sam was incapable of doing anything without strict instructions. He lifted her frail body with ease.

“You can go now,” she said.

Their bodies pressed together, only a towel and mesh shorts separating their flesh.

“You sprained your ankle,” Sam said.

“How do you know?”

“I wrestle. I know injuries.”

Her towel began slipping, and despite Sam having no attraction to the old woman, he began forming an erection, not hidden in the slightest by his tiny shorts.

“You run around the building every day, don’t you?” she said.

“I have to stay in shape.”

“I can see that.”

Sam’s erection was no longer forming-it was there. She had watched him, Sam knew, maybe for years. How he weight lifted, ran, and transformed his body from a boy into what it was today: a boy with muscles that belonged to a man.

“I can look at your ankle if you want,” Sam said.

“Kind of forward of you.”

“You need it wrapped.”

“With all the pills I took. I can’t feel a thing.”

Sam smiled, as if he had just heard a joke he was supposed to understand, but couldn’t. It was how he felt with most adults.

“What pills?” Sam said.

“You’re cute,” she said. “Sleeping pills. Quite a few for someone my size.”

Sam looked at the mirror, at two bodies that couldn’t be more opposite. He wanted to reach behind it, not the reflection, but the mirror itself and prove there were no empty pill bottles. She was playing games, Sam knew. She thought he was young and stupid. Because he was young, after all, with a jock’s body that stereotyped his intellect before he even spoke. But no. Sam wouldn’t play games. Not the day of the big meet.

“If you took pills, then why did you call for help?” Sam asked.

“Because I regretted taking them,” she quickly responded, as if expecting the question before Sam even thought it. “But now I see you, and I don’t regret a thing.”

“That’s an awful thing to say.”

“Well, it’s not you, it’s just people,” the woman said. “I haven’t been out my apartment for two months now. Can’t you tell?” She smiled, as if finishing a joke she wasn’t sure would play; testing if she hurt the boy or not. Sam was still. He did nothing, in fact, except lose his erection.

“You know, you could have sex with me if you wanted,” the woman said.

And then he got it back.

“Excuse me?” Sam said.

“If I’m going to die, by sleeping pills, old age, or sprained ankle, then you could have fun with me for a bit. If you wanted, that is.”

She touched her towel, leaving Sam hard, confused, running out of time, and wondering if she was going to let the towel drop to the bathroom floor. All she did was laugh, however, and tuck the towel tighter around her chest; outlining her flat, pan caked breasts.

Sam wanted them. It was as simple as that. The joys and sorrows of a teenage male boiled down to perspiration and lust. He wanted to see all of her body, not just what the towel revealed; but every inch, like she had a secret his life depended on that could only be whispered into the beginnings of his cauliflower ear. He stared at her wrinkled toes, her dripping calves, up to her neck covered with multicolored veins. I could take her down in one move, Sam thought. That’s what wrestlers were good at. And then he saw her face. She wasn’t looking at him, however, but instead the mirror, deadpan, at a version of herself that wasn’t actually her. As if she was seeing a reflection she only recognized from a sad, recurring dream.

“If you took pills, you should make yourself throw up,” Sam said.

“Stick my fingers down my throat?”

“I prefer salt water. Easier and less painful.”

“How do you know?”

“Sometimes I have to make weight.”

Sam stared at his own reflection now. Next to the woman, he could almost imagine his face as an old man, seeing the similar paths wrinkles would blossom, or better yet attack his current, pristine completion.

“I don’t want to have sex with you,” she said.

“I don’t want to have sex with you either,” Sam said.

“I guess that makes sense.” They kept staring at the mirror, looking at each other’s eyes without looking at each other’s eyes. “You would have when I was younger, though,” the woman said. “My hair used to be red, you know. Bright red. And I was tan. My eyes were blue. Everything about me was colorful. You would have liked it all. Even my knees.” The woman leaned closer, both still facing the mirror, and their reflections touched. “Little, tiny freckles on them,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many men complimented my knees when I was younger.”

She laughed, as if remembering each compliment, and every man who had said it.

“But that’s what getting old is,” the woman continued. “It’s not getting sick or frail. It’s just losing your color.”

“Are you a painter?” Sam asked

“No, I’m not a painter.”

“I saw a painting in the other room.”

She was silent; only smiling.

“Close your eyes,” she told him. And Sam closed his eyes. He would have done anything she asked, anything; as any young man would do, or had done, during the first time he was seduced by not a girl, but a woman. Sam licked his lips, swallowed, and his muscular thighs, capable of squatting over three hundred pounds shook and buckled, as if they had never endured such heat.

The woman then deeply exhaled, just an inch from his lips, and let her breath settle onto his tongue. One, single breath.

“I’m not a painter,” she whispered. And with that, Sam opened his eyes to find her pushed against the far wall, towel wrapped tighter than before.

“Go to your wrestling match,” she said. “Sorry I held you up so long.”

Sam was still, no longer wanting to follow directions, but knowing he had to. He moved to the exit, using the fallen washcloths like stepping stones.

“Did you really take those pills?” Sam asked.

“Of course not,” she said.

And they both smiled, reassured for reasons that couldn’t be more different. Sam thought she was beautiful, color or not. As for the woman, she was happy, that was all: happy. For it was the first time in years, more than she wanted to admit, that any person, not just a man, or in this case a young man, had made her feel like something that wasn’t just old.

Sam left the apartment just as he came, using only the back window. It was like he was never there.

There was a knock on the door, nothing soft about it. Sam answered in his pajamas, woken up at 9am on a Sunday morning. His parents were off at church, which they occasionally excused him from due to his time commitments with athletics.

It was a middle aged man at the front door, a redhead.

“Jesus, what happened to your face?” the man asked.

Sam rubbed his eyes, still waking up, cautious not to touch the right side of his face, black and blue, swollen.

“I wrestle,” Sam said.

“Must have been a tough match,” the man said.

“I won,” Sam said. “Set two new records for my school.”

The man nodded, as if understanding not to speak about matters in which he was inept.

“Well, can I help you with something?” Sam asked.

The man looked down. He adjusted his weight.

“You knew Molly?” the man said, in a tone that couldn’t decide whether it was asking a question or making a statement. “My mother.”

Sam was silent. A long moment passed between them.

“She died three days ago,” the man said. “Heart attack.”

“Heart attack?” Sam said.

“That’s right. Heart attack,” the man said. “Did you know her?”

Once again, Sam said nothing, and the man seemed grateful for it.

“We found this next to her body.” He lifted a package from his side, square and flat, wrapped in brown paper. “It’s strange giving you this, but I suppose she wanted you to have it.” He laughed, as if thinking of something he knew Sam would never understand. “And I got a wooden a fish.”

Could have been a cow, Sam thought. But he kept his mouth shut.

The man then nodded, handed Sam the package, and was gone. Sam was still, as he often was. He needed someone to tell him what to do next; to give him strict orders. To be coached. Should he open the package, workout, fall back asleep, or maybe just stand in his doorway forever.

Boys have to be told what to do, Sam thought. He smiled. In one week he would be eighteen years old.

Sam opened the package as fast as he could, tearing the paper with speed and force that even an athlete like himself had never used before. It was a painting; a naked woman. She was young, early twenties, lying on a bathroom floor, arms above her head, beautiful knees slightly bent, and staring straight out to whoever was lucking enough to see her. Tanned skin, short red hair, and the brightest blue eyes Sam had ever seen in all of his life. She was almost too colorful to have ever been real. But Sam knew she once was. The year 1953 was on the bottom corner, and on the top right, written with a black permanent marker, it said: “To Sam Bergman. To the wrestler upstairs.”

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