It begins around the time of Sukkoth. Brisk, clear autumn has already pushed aside summer's languid, pale afternoons. Leaves blow across the courtyard and phantom smells of wood burning hover in between the buildings and stick in the tiny patches of grass around sidewalk trees. In the studio apartment on the seventh floor of Building M, windows are cracked to let a rush of chilly air chase away the smell of fresh paint. Until late morning, sun reflects off the river and bombards the room's eastern window, bouncing off its bare walls and floor.
The old man with the bulbous belly who lives in Building J spends most of his time overflowing a folding chair in Moishe's Bake Shop. He kibbutzes among the challahs, onion rolls and fat slices of babka, fascinated by the thick, grainy way his tongue and larnyx cooperate to form soft, round vowels and consonants. At night, he often awakes to the gentle shoulder shakes of local policemen who find him dozing in the courtyard of building C or K, or on the corner by the Catholic Church, snoring under its scaffolding. But it is his talking to anyone who walks into the bake shop, to the cops on patrol, to the shady-looking kids who hung out at Dino's Deli; indeed, it is his cascading, boundless chatter that makes him the neighborhood mishugene. In the fall, he begins to stop the young, artsy women who have are now moving into the neighborhood. The ones who show knees, elbows and shoulders. Who wear their hair loose and wavy. "How long have you lived here?" is his first question. Then, "Let me ask you something. Are you Jewish? Ah, really. I wouldn't have thought so. Where are you from? I know a shul there, Adas Israel, do your people go there?"
It begins that way with her. Her long legs in dark blue jeans and boots that snap up sidewalk squares and lift her high above the cement, leaving a wake of cold wind like the breezes blowing in from the river. Coal-colored hair hangs below her shoulders and is woven with hints of dying-ember red. She looks at him with dark eyes and tilts her head in silent answer to his questions. After she leaves, he answers himself. Of course, she is a distant relative of Sam Fein. After he finally passed this summer, he left it to her. So, she is a Jew, but another modern one. Marriage is not for her.
Not long after, he sees her on an eerily warm full moon night. Not the thick pallid night-warmth of summer, but out-of-time-warmth, as if the full moon is somehow heating up the city, struggling against the sun's slip into other hemispheres. Just to check, he broaches the same set of questions for the fourth time in four weeks. "Would you like some tea?" she replies this time, shifting her grocery bag to the crook of the other arm. Street lamps catching black hair and streaking it like the headlights rushing down the black riverside highway. "Tea? I'd love some." Hoisting belly off of bench. Shuffling thick black shoes forward. Definitely a Jew, he thinks, and begins telling her about Rabbi Edelman on the 5th floor, famous rebbe from Poland.
Ten minutes later and they are drinking sweet red wine out of small juice glasses. He sits on a faded armchair and she on a bed raised high on four oak posters. It is the only thing in the room that is thing remotely ornate. Otherwise, a throw rug, a plain oak dresser, mini-blinds. A view of the river and its bridge to Brooklyn, animated every ten or fifteen minutes by a J train that runs on orange rails. He barely looks around. He focuses his thick lens-distorted eyes on how the Shabbas candle flames light her dark eyes, making them look violet, then black as the flame flickers, making her either dybuk or angel. He perspires under his hat, and chatters as if his jaw were a plastic toy, wound and let go. It startles him when she sets her half-empty juice glass on the nightstand and pushes herself off the bed and onto her knees. She reaches out and undoes his wide gold belt buckle. Even with her gleaming, angel-or-devil hair between his fat knees, he cannot stop filling the empty spaces in the room with a jumble of consonants, vowels and spittle until, finally, they give way.
The ginger-haired man from the dairy shop two blocks up wraps himself tight in a yarmulke, button-down shirt and baggy trousers. A few talis fringes dangle from his waistband. He likes to give her a little extra fish, let his fingers glide over her wrist as he hands her thickly wrapped packages. They run into each other in the corner deli one Saturday night, just after dark. He is picking up milk for Sunday brunch. They smile a little. He chats a bit. "How was your Shabbas? Was it a nice havdalah?" Somehow, they leave the deli together and he finds himself following her to her room. He watches her hips glide forward beneath her peasant skirt. In the silence that falls between them, he wonders what her accent was. Italian, or Portuguese. Perhaps she is an illegal immigrant, or the daughter of a mob boss in hiding. Her room is quiet save the rush of cars on the highway. Her bare walls startle, almost offend him -- his are covered with photos of the children, scenes of Israel, old shtettel men dancing with Torahs held high above their heads. He fills the studio with his silence, the unfamiliar sound of his own breathing. At home, it's his wife's ceaseless, "Malky, don't touch, Mordy don't tease." Or at work, his father-in-law, "Did the cereal get delivered yet? I told that nogoodnik Monday morning, by the time the school bus pulls away." In her enormous room, it's the traffic's rush, his own soft wheezing, the sound, he imagines, of her hands combing the orange down that softens the jutting bones of his pelvis.
*The doorman is just off his shift one late night as she gets out of a cab. She is dressed in a small, silver top that slips off her bare shoulders and stops above an olive sliver of abdomen. He is young, only 19. He still lives with his mother and younger brothers and sisters in a crowded Queens apartment that smells of fish on Fridays and slow-cooked beef the rest of the week. He shares a room with his two younger brothers, sleeping in a twin bed by the door, while they snore in unison from a bunk bed by the window. Now that he is on a late shift three nights a week, he sleeps in until well after they've gone to school and his mother has left for work. Still, he must sleep through street drilling, shouting neighbors, delivery trucks. It is only during his shift and after, on the long subway ride home, that he knows what it is like to steal the city's precious quiet hours, to hear only the hums and clicks of its machinery without the staccato punctuation of its people.
He has noticed her before, of course. All the guards watch her -- she occasionally comes in late, rocking ever so slightly on high heels. Even going out after dark is rare in the building. Half the residents are too old, too afraid to risk nighttime, and the other half leap out only after six p.m. to buy more pampers, emergency cough syrup. He and the other guards speculate about her -- she inherited her place, she killed someone to get in here, she's a prostitute. He imagines she's each and more, depending on the film he watched the day before, the book he's reading, where his mind roves any bored afternoon. Moments later, in her bare apartment, she is as quiet as the refrigerator's hum that fills her kitchen and spills into her hallway. She holds him away until they reach her bed. Then she lets his lips and tongue wander over her limbs, lapping the leftover taste of body lotion, cigarettes and drops of red wine. His thick smell mixes with the air in her room finding the corners behind dresser, lamp and nightstand, sticking to the armchair.
*The three men become six and then eight. By Hanukkah, it is difficult to count them. The men want rules, and so they make them. Some insist on at least a half-hour of talk before, and some insist on it after. Some fetch her water, or tea, or twine their fingers into her hair. Others leave quickly, blinking relief and guilt into the afternoon sun. For some time, it works. The fat, chattering Jew comes once a week or once every other. On Friday nights after shul, he sits in the courtyard and waits for her. He takes her grocery bag and together they climb the stairs to her apartment. The guard comes often -- at least twice a week, late at night, a rapping softly on her door, and soon after, his soft thick hair brushing her abdomen, hips, thighs. The redheaded grocer comes every so often, late on Saturday nights. The others fill the time in between, somehow never overlapping, believing that they alone give life to her empty rooms.
They begin to bring gifts. Flowers, wine, trinkets. It is the custodian who first notices her garbage strewn with porcelain ring holders, tiny music boxes, scented candles, pastries, and dried fruits from Wolks. He finds none of his own gifts in the trash, but neither does he see them displayed on her windowsills or dresser.
On the evening of the winter's first snow, blue-tinged flakes layer and cohere into a slushy blanket tipped with highway soot. Icicles dotted with specks of dirt hang from the courtyard's benches, and two come to her door at once.
Two come at once and she sends the younger one away, suggesting he return in a few hours. The first man's wind-whipped cheeks grow red and his eyes redder still. He hangs his head, fur hat level with her breasts. She presses two cool fingers on his cheek as he stands stricken, snow dripping off his wool cap and onto the toes of his boots. Only a few weeks ago, he muses, she offered herself to him like a shy virgin. And he had taught her to love as he had taught his wife so many years before. He sighs and turns, the soles of his shoes grinding sandy salt into her smooth wooden floor.
The next morning, in the brief silence of fresh snowfall, no one comes to her door for the first time in many weeks. By afternoon, the streets are once again filled with the whine of snowplows, boot-clomping pedestrians, and the gleeful cries of snowball-tossing children. By afternoon, the studio is as empty as it ever was, or had always been. As empty as the city's chaotic, furtive longings for the seduction of silence. The winter wind stirs tiny balls of dust in the corners of the room, and its bare walls stand exposed, like scab-ripped wounds.