I smiled as I swept a lone cigarette into the dustbin. It had been around the sidewalk beneath Elaine’s ledge, and was the best kind of cigarette–one that hadn’t been smoked before it was trash.
What were the chances a temp was the one who threw it away?
It was just about lunchtime, and I was finishing sweeping up when Curtis passed by again. This time he was with some of my distant co-workers from public relations. Curtis and I were both from the same side of town, and though he had lived elsewhere for a long time, it was through his old, poorer neighborhood that he was running for councilman. His chances at winning weren’t great, but he seemed to be a popular source of community outreach photos. Back in high school, I let him convince me to stop saving for a guitar and get a ukulele.
“Hey, Curtis!” I called out. “You still playing the guitar?”
He didn’t look back.
My thoughts returned to the possibility of seeing Elaine. I emptied the dustbin then headed upstairs, sweeping stray bits along the way. On the third floor, there was a utility closet with a door inside that had been spackled to blend into a wall. A chair propped that door open. Sighing at the hint of smoke wafting in, I reached around the spackle and knocked on the building exterior. “Any temps out there?”
“No,” Elaine said. “Oh, wait . . .”
There were a few mini-roofs scattered around the five-story building. When I stepped over the chair, it was onto one of these islands of a sort. Her hands shooting down to her sides, there Elaine stood.
“The first one was me hoping,” she said. “I’m sorry if you had to clean it up. The second–well, I still don’t want you breathing in any of this stuff.”
“Still quitting, huh?”
Elaine showed me a nicotine patch on her arm. “For lots of reasons. Hypothetically–if I wanted to kiss someone, it shouldn’t be second-hand. But that’s a process, Roger, like you getting a mobile phone.”
I smirked. I really did hope to need one some day.
It had been a few weeks since we last saw each other. After a little while, Elaine came over and sat down on the chair. I leaned against the building and slid down until I was crouching. This put us in close proximity to each other, and though that felt natural, distance between us and other people had a lot more mileage. We’d both had our hearts broken once before, and that had been enough. Elaine was brown-skinned and of Chinese descent. Her family owned a restaurant that had been failing since one opened up a few stores down. Their block was in the midst of rediscovery, and she said the new place offered some more traditional idea of Chinese decor. This was why she was temping.
Elaine bumped her leg into mine. “Hey, you should see your friend more often.”
“I see him. I just don’t know why he’s still trying to play the blues.”
“Did he give you my last message?”
From my pocket I pulled out the nicotine patch that Arnold said was from her, then I held it up. It was in this way that we saw a silver-haired man looking at us from a window of the building across the street–somewhere in the middle of its ten stories.
“What’s he looking at?” Elaine said.
“Maybe we should tell him it’s just a nicotine patch.”
“That’s none of his business! But if he wants a show, let’s give him one.”
Elaine got up and shook my hand in a glorious textbook fashion. We were still shaking hands, past the show of it, I thought, when a woman belted through the door. She beamed as she announced her discovery of a new spot for smokers.
When I went to see Arnold in the subway, he was sitting on a milk carton and trying to play guitar. An empty, upturned cap lay next to him. With hands trembling, Arnold barely managed to fingerpick his way through an old blues standard. The resulting tune wasn’t constant enough to sing to, but he was in his own little world. I tapped the back of my ukulele to get his attention.
“I’ll play, you sing,” I told him.
“Okay,” Arnold said, putting his guitar down. “I guess that’d work just this once . . . I’m glad to see you’re all right. Elaine told me her family is re-opening their restaurant over on the west coast. Just ’cause she’s going out there don’t mean you’ll never see her again.”
All of this was news to me, but I nodded and picked up playing where Arnold left off. He sung the standard words: down and out again today, but maybe there’d be love tomorrow. The ukulele made it all sound lighter than it was.
A small crowd soon gathered, and I recognized the sides of a face or two from my job. When the crowd was thick with a mix of people coming and going, a pair of brown arms swung back and forth at the rear. One arm had a patch on it. Elaine waved through most of the song, and I smiled a little. Then she pointed at her wrist where there might have been a watch. After she left and the song was over, I put on her nicotine patch and played through another tune.