I was introduced to the works of Shakespeare in a curious way. When I was thirteen, a woman moved into the apartment house across the street. The large Victorian Buffalo house had been misused for many years. It was not an Italian family home, where parents lived downstairs and newly married daughter and son-in-law took a flat upstairs. People came and went. The lawn was worn to flat mud by men who took car parts, cleaned them with kerosene, and then left town.
The old gray apartment house had a great veranda, as it was called, a porch with a roof, supported by ionic wooden columns carved and fluted, and, as with the rest of Buffalo, painted brown or gray. Stairs that were quite wide led up to the porch, and on it was a large rocking couch, called a glider.
The woman who moved in looked mad. She was old, perhaps in her late-seventies, and she had carrot-orange hair that came out in a wild and thick shock and leapt, even plunged down her back like a waterfall. It splashed in every direction, and she wore a bright pink housecoat, tied at the waist.
This woman had a tiny face, relative to her hair, her lips were painted red, and her cheeks were an equal intensity of extreme red rouge. When, from our picture window, I saw her on the porch, walking back and forth, talking to herself, I asked my mother about her. My mother said that she had been an actress. That was all she said.
Every day she would come early to the porch, with a cup of tea or coffee, and begin her endless soliloquy. As it was summer and I was not in school, I would stand in our living room and watch her through the front window. In my mind, I imagined that she spoke the lines of William Shakespeare. I had never read Shakespeare, nor seen him played. In my mind, I therefore imagined lines that were the greatest verse that I could imagine. I became addicted to watching her deliver her lines and imagining what each sentence was as it fell from her overly painted lips. I fell in love with her, and with all of the works of Shakespeare, as I imagined them to be.
In this way I became her avid audience. I imagined what she looked like when she was young. She smoked cigarettes, walked impatiently back and forth on the Plymouth Avenue stage, and played the words in my mind with sudden stops, wild gestures, and then calming finality. I was a deaf man at the world’s greatest play. I knew then, that theater made sense to me.
Held together like a tension structure, she was as thin as a person could be, yet vibrating like cords that were too tight. All that held her together was the tension of these thinnest lashings. Her body had been converted over into almost pure soul. It was snapped this way and that as her spirit flicked it across the porch. She was amazing to me.
It was at the height of summer that an elderly gentleman moved into the apartment house. My mother informed me that he was a retired fireman. Indeed, this square, earthy man, still wore the dark blue uniform of a fireman. Over his dark blue pants and shirt, he also wore a gray mailman’s sweater, so that he was an odd combination of many social services. He had thick black hair and was very cleanly shaven.
It took no time, in the stuffy, hot apartment house, for these two to bring their coffee or their tea to the front porch, and sit on the top of the steps, side by side, quietly talking.
She was all electric, aflame, and he was an old fire-place. They had a million things to say to one another. It was as though two lifetimes had been lived, solely for the sake of these conversations; lives lived solely as preparation for these summer afternoons on the porch.
I would watch them, both, now, and in my mind, I could hear his soft voice, telling her things he knew for sure, without a doubt, and how this must have hypnotized her, to be with a man who knew what he knew for certain, when all of her life had been made of what-if’s and could-it-be’s.
And so the summer was spent, the retired fireman and the actress, on the glider, now holding hands, sipping tea, talking the entire day, day after day.
It was in fall, when the maple tree that I loved had already been shocked once more by the sudden change, and her leaves were red like the woman across the street, that the bells in the firehouse down the street rang three times. I knew the firemen, all of them, and Mike especially, and I knew that when the bell rang three times it meant firehouse number three.
A man rolled the fire door upward with a crank and the small engine sang the song that made my dog Corky lay back his head and slowly howl.
“Corky stop!’’ my mother said.
The fire truck started its siren and instead of flying out the great doorway and down Jersey street, it made an awkward and slow turn and came, wrong way, down Plymouth Avenue’s one-way street.
The fire truck stopped at the house across the street and three men wheeled a gurney inside. I watched it being carried up the stairs in the dark apartment house. In a while, they appeared carrying the retired fireman, and an ambulance arrived from the other direction. They wheeled him into the ambulance and sirens began again as they moved slowly around and back down the narrow street.
The old fireman never came back to Plymouth Avenue. The woman with the bright carrot orange hair came out onto the porch the next morning. I could see that she had changed as she stood on the porch. She did not sit on the steps. She did not sit on the glider. She could only stand on the porch with the flat mud patch and look out, as if on a darkened stage. She had been like the E string on a violin. She had been wound too tight. Now, this final turning had increased the tension higher still, sounding a note that was beyond my ability to hear.
Across The Street
by Ross G. Drago
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