Excerpt from The Imperfectionists
Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. But the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.
Faintly, a woman's voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak-she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris. She taps on his front door.
"Come in," he says. "No need to knock." And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before. He does not turn from the window to face Eileen, only presses his bald knees harder into the iron guardrail. She smoothes down the back of his gray hair. He flinches, surprised to be touched.
"Only me," she says.
He smiles, eyes crinkling, lips parting, inhaling as if to speak. But he has no reply. She lets go.
He turns finally to find her seated before the drawer where they keep old photographs. A kitchen towel hangs from her shoulder and she wipes off her fingers, damp from peeled potatoes, dishwashing liquid, diced onions, scented from mothballed blankets, soil from the window boxes-Eileen is a woman who touches everything, tastes all, digs in. She slips on her reading glasses.
"What are you hunting for in there?" he asks.
"Just a picture of me in Vermont when I was little. To show Didier." She rises, taking a photo album with her, and stands by the front door. "You have plans for dinner, right?"
"Mm." He nods at the album. "Bit by bit," he says.
"What's that mean?"
"You're shifting across the hall."
"You're allowed to."
He hasn't resisted her friendship with Didier, the man across the hall. She is not finished with that part of her life, with sex, as Lloyd is. She is eighteen years younger, a gap that incited him once but that, now he is seventy, separates them like a lake. He blows her a kiss and returns to the window.
The floorboards in the hallway creak. Didier's front door opens and shuts-Eileen doesn't knock over there, just goes in. Lloyd glances at the phone. It has been weeks since he sold an article and he needs money. He dials the paper in Rome.
An intern transfers him to the news editor, Craig Menzies, a balding worrier who decides much of what appears in each edition. No matter the time of day, Menzies is at his desk. The man has nothing in his life but news.
"Good time for a pitch?" Lloyd asks.
"I'm a tad busy, actually. Could you zing me an e-mail?"
"Can't. Problem with my computer." The problem is that he doesn't own one; Lloyd still uses a word processor, vintage 1993. "I can print something and fax it over."
"Tell me by phone. But please, if possible, could you get your computer working?"
"Yes: get computer fixed. Duly noted." He scratches his finger across the notepad, as if to tease out a better idea than the one scrawled there. "You folks interested in a feature on the ortolan? It's this French delicacy, a bird-a sort of finch, I think-that's illegal to sell here. They stick it in a cage, poke out its eyes so it can't tell day from night, then feed it round the clock. When it's full up, they drown it in Cognac and cook it. Mitterrand ate one for his last meal." "Uh-huh," Menzies responds circumspectly. "But sorry, where's the news?"