The Lady With the Pet Dog
It is the hour when the light over the sink, a fluorescent meant for washing dishes, suddenly usurps the fire of the dying sun and the kitchen window becomes a mirror, the moment every evening when Ruth's aware her resolves are made of straw and Alex senses his age as a transitory chill.
Their "sun-flooded, eat-in kitchen" is prominently featured in the Open House listing their realtor, Lily, is running in the New York Times tomorrow. When Lily first appraised their coop, a five-flight walk-up in the East Village, and suggested the asking price of nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Ruth felt the number bite her, like a needle, and enter her, like a drug, though she wouldn't exactly call the sensation coursing through her veins a high. It felt hot and acidic. It ate away all her ability to lie to herself. What were they doing selling their home of forty-five years? She didn't want to leave New York. She and Alex, never mind Dorothy, would be lost anywhere but New York. They never cared about money before. Where would they go? Then the number burned away those truths and she envisioned Alex, seventy-eight-years-old, his white hair thick as a wig, his white brows and beard stiff as wire, the ample cavities of his eyes alive with determination, mounting the five-flights of stairs, taking two steps at a time, his weekly test to prove to himself that he can still do it. Eventually, he won't be able. Eventually, it will be one step at a time; then a step and a pause to catch his breath. At some point, sooner than later, he (or perhaps she?) won't be able to make the stairs. The apartment will become their cage. How can such a vital soul be locked in a cage? With nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, surely they can afford an elevator.
When Alex first heard the asking price, he, too, felt weakened by the pull of the number's magnetism. As a child of the depression, the word millionaire still held a magical spell, Fred Astaire dancing in top hat and tails. Ruth had initially called Lily just to see what their options were if and when the stairs became too much for them. But how could they turn down that kind of money? How could he? He had nothing to leave Ruth but his paintings, a legacy that often struck him as more of a burden than an asset. What will she do with all his artwork, fifty years of productivity, the fallout from his compulsion to keep painting no matter what? If she can't sell the paintings? If she can't sell the apartment when the times comes? She'll end up entombed in his work.