In a rare moment of silence, Gayle heard a bed squeak rhythmically.
The Greeks had finished their argument. It was twilight. Across the alley, lights were going on one by one. Through an open window, she could see the old woman, still mopping. Occasionally, she heard the water sloshing and the clank of the pail.
Sounds carried strangely in the narrow heat-charged alley − like disembodied spirits, they roamed and reverberated. One moment what happened close at hand was almost inaudible. The next moment a slap behind a remote window resounded clearly.
Her phone rang. Gayle picked it up. No one was there. She could swear the call was for her; but no, it was someone else's phone ringing in some empty apartment.
She returned to the barrage of noises at the open window: the Greeks, the trucks, the record players, radios, and televisions. She was listening for the drop-like beat of Yanni's drum.
Gayle thought of herself as independent and self-reliant. She was proud that she had a good-paying secretarial job and that she lived alone in the city. The decision to come to Boston had been a major one. Her parents had resisted, insisting that an attractive young girl like her should marry some nice boy from Lakeview and settle down, have children of her own. She was nearly twenty-eight, and her parents didn't understand that she was comfortable living by herself. She didn't need a man. Why rock the ship? Why gamble on romance and heartbreak when she was content?
Whenever she left her one-bedroom apartment in Newton Upper Falls, she locked the door with three heavy dead-bolt locks, pulling down the shades, and leaving the lights and television on. She took the stairs instead of the elevator, even though it was five flights down to the street.
It was on the stairs that she had met Denny. It was hard to miss him, a boy of about twelve, with uncombed blond hair, sitting in the middle of the stairs, huddled over a book. He smiled and nodded as she went by. Sometimes she smiled back.
One rainy day, her grocery bag was wet and she had to grip it tightly to keep it from ripping open. When she smiled at Denny, her hand loosened at a weak spot, and a can of tomato juice tumbled out. She reached to try to catch it, and the grapefruit, spaghetti and milk
went tumbling after.
Denny helped her gather her groceries and carry them to her apartment.
She invited him in.
He explained, 'I read on the stairs because of all the noise at home − TV and phone and stuff.'
She turned off her television and offered him cookies and milk.
Denny came often after that. Gayle would bake brownies and cup cakes in anticipation of his visits.
He read books about Indians and King Arthur and the Trojan War. Mostly, he liked Greek myths.
Gayle sat in the armchair and watched him read, or picked up a paperback of the world's greatest poetry.
One night, a week before Denny's family was going to move away, he leaned back on a kitchen chair, balancing a half-eaten brownie on his right knee. It was a rare moment of street silence, between twilight and night. They smiled at each other.
Then she heard for the first time the distinctive sound that had haunted her ever since. It was a faint metallic beat from the alley below. At first she thought it was rain dripping on trash cans. But Denny said, "There goes Yanni again."
"Yanni?" she asked.
"Yeah, the kid with the steel drums."
"Don't you hear it?"
She listened again more carefully.
"It's Yanni practicing. He learned the basics from a performer when he was on a cruise with his parents. He improvises with trash can lids and a pair of chopsticks. Sometimes he keeps it up long into the night. He's determined to be a great drummer. And maybe he will be. He's not too bright, but he's got determination. He's out there night after night practicing."
Gayle opened the window wider. It wasn't raining. As she listened closely, the beat was pleasant and playful, though a bit rough. A baseball game on radio soon drowned it out. She felt ashamed for having thought it was the rain.
Her father had played the saxophone and clarinet. When she was little, he used to play with dance bands on weekends to help make ends meet. She used to curl up on his lap and turn the pages of the sheet music for him when he practiced. Her mother thought it wasn't respectable to play in dance bands.
Every day that week, at twilight, she and Denny sat by the open window, listening for the beat of Yanni's drums.
Now Denny and his family were gone. This was the first time in nearly a month that she had been alone at twilight. She wished that Yanni would start playing, or that the other noises would stop so she could hear him.
Just then she heard the sloshing and the clanking as the woman across the alley emptied a bucket of dirty water onto the roof. She cursed the old woman for making so much noise.
She watched the dirty water rush down the roof to the gutter and watched as it slowly dripped through rust holes.
It was then that she heard Yanni. It seemed like he must be watching the dripping water and imitating its rhythm. It was a melancholy beat.
Opening a collection of poetry, she read Chaplinesque by Hart Crane:
... but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
A bed across the alley squeaked rhythmically, as Yanni played his drum. Then he stopped playing, and the squeaking of the bed continued.
Gayle shut her window. She would read three poems, set her hair, and go to bed.
Then someone knocked.
As George raised his fist to the door, he remembered again what Denny had told him, "There's this old maid. She lives alone, and she's a bit wacky. But she let me read at her place, and it was quiet. She made me brownies and stuff. One night I lied to her. I didn't mean it as a lie. I just spun a wild tale that nobody would believe, only she believed it − she's that gullible. And that silly lie of mine made her so happy I didn't want to wreck it for her by telling her the truth. Now I'm going to be gone, I owe it to her to make it so she can still believe. So do me this one favor − please. Tell her that your name is Yanni, that you've joined the Army, and you're leaving any day now. Say that I told you about her, and how she likes listening to your drumming in the alley, and you want to say hello and good-bye before you leave. She'll probably give you brownies and milk. For just five minutes of your time, you can help an old lady believe that the world's a beautiful place.'
Denny was George's kid brother's friend. George didn't know him well, and this was a weird request. But did owe the kid a favor; and, fool that he was, he had promised. So George raised his hand and knocked again.
When Gayle looked through the peep hole in the door, she was surprised to see a young man. She was even more surprised when he announced through the door that his name was 'Yanni' and that Denny had sent him.
He looked harmless, maybe eighteen, maybe twenty. Normally, she would never open her door to a stranger. But this was Yanni, and Denny had sent him. She let him in.
He was not at all the way she'd imagined him. Blond hair, fair skin, not at all Greek, and she had presumed that Yanni would be Greek.
She hadn't believed there was a Yanni. That was a beautiful idea that Denny had come up with, and she had played along. It was bitter-sweet melancholy to toy with the idea that maybe there was a Yanni − to sit by the window and listen and imagine what he was like. But if there were such a person, she imagined him much younger, Denny's age, with tuft of hair that always stuck up. She was disconcerted finding this college-age stranger at her door.
She didn't know what to say.
George blurted out, as Denny had asked him to, "The Army. I joined the Army. I'll be leaving in a couple days."
"'Oh," she replied. "Denny must have told you about me."
She paused awkwardly. "Please take a seat," she added.
He sat. He looked at his watch. It was only two minutes since she had opened the door. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. He rubbed the sole of one shoe against the side of the other to scrape off annoying bits of mud. Then he stared at her. That was easier than trying to think of something to say.
He could tell that she was disconcerted by his staring. She kept wringing her hands and glancing now toward the kitchen, now toward the window.
"Brownies?" she asked.
He was so absorbed in his staring that he didn't understand her.
She repeated, haltingly, "Would you like some brownies?"
"Oh... yes... please."
She was much younger than Denny had led him to believe − not at all as he had imagined her.
She was in her late twenties, with long brown hair. She was short and a little over-weight, but good-looking, despite the shapeless cotton house dress she was wearing.
Gayle felt his eyes on her as she walked toward the kitchen end of the room. She felt intimidated, but she didn't know what to do or say. He'd been staring at her for so long, she didn't know how to tell him to stop doing it, without making a fool of herself.
As she reached for the plate of brownies, she realized how absurd this was − offering him brownies as if he were the twelve-year-old Yanni she had imagined. Here he was a full-grown man. He had said he had joined the army.
"She's no old maid," George thought, settling back in the armchair. "A good-looking woman like her, living alone in a place like this. I bet she knows her way around," he laughed to himself.
Suddenly, he got up and stomped around the room with a satisfied look on his face. He picked up and roughly put down pictures, knickknacks, and books.
When he stomped into her bedroom, finally she blurted out, "Don't go in there, please... It's a mess... I wasn't expecting company." But he was already sitting on her bed before the words came out, and then she felt ashamed for having said it, for being so awkward and timid. She couldn't imagine what could have prompted him to go in there.
When he didn't respond and he didn't come out, she followed him in.
He caught her off guard with his boldness. Maybe, without intending to, she had let her eyes show that she thought he was attractive; and he misinterpreted her, approaching her like a tough guy in a movie, who expects to hold and kiss a woman.
When she took a step back, he stood and took two steps forward. She stepped back again and fell onto a chair. He jumped on her. She pushed him away, but not hard, not insistently. He seemed to take that as encouragement and started kissing and hugging her.
She struggled, slipped out of his arms, and murmured, "No."
His eyes brightened, as if that were a cue in a movie.
She backed up and accidentally fell onto the bed. In seconds, he was on her. This time she didn't fight. She was too embarrassed to say anything, but she managed to blurt out, "It's the first time. Please... please be gentle."
He thought to himself, "Sure, lady, sure. You don't have to play that game with me." But even in the shadowy light that came from the window in the living room, he could see the pain on her face. "Okay," he thought, "if that's what you want me to believe, I'll play along with it. Right on, kid."
For the last six months he had been carrying a condom in its foil wrapper in his wallet, just in case he might get lucky. He knew what he was doing. He'd seen Internet porn and had even watched how-to videos on YouTube. He had gotten close with a couple of girls. But they hadn't wanted to go all the way. They made a big deal about it. He didn't pressure them because he didn't wanted to get involved with them, didn't want the commitment, relationship thing ...
With Gayle, he figured it was different. She was a mature woman, living the single life. With her experience, sex probably wasn't a big deal to her.
Then the thought passed through his mind that maybe she really was a virgin. Maybe it really did hurt her. Her eyes were tightly closed, and her teeth were clenched tightly.
While it was happening, Gayle kept hoping that something would click and her whole body would convulse. Afterward, she was relieved that it was over and relieved that she felt no guilt.
"Is this Yanni?" she wondered. She couldn't imagine him in an alley beating on trash can lids with chop sticks. Denny must have made that up.
"Do you play drums?" she asked softly.
"Drums?" he stopped short.
"Drums?" he wondered. "Women think of the wackiest things."
He felt himself come. He couldn't help it. It all dribbled out. He felt limp and tired. He rolled over to relieve his arms of his own heavy weight.
Had he done all right? He wondered what she was thinking. How did he compare to other guys?
She probably expected him to do it again. He rubbed up against her.
"No, please," she said softly. "Let's just lie here quietly."
Her voice was warm and comfortable. The muscles of his back relaxed. He was glad that she seemed pleased and that his job was done.
She looked helpless and vulnerable. Why had she let him do it?
He reached out and stroked her back gently. That was the first sign of tenderness he had shown toward her.
She cuddled closer, hiding her head in his side, so he couldn't see her face. Maybe she was ashamed or scared. She probably didn't know what to expect of him.
He reached over and hugged her.
He heard a soft murmur, almost a purr. He wasn't sure which of them had made the noise. His own tenderness frightened him.
Trying to shrug it off, he patted her on the back and withdrew his arm as casually as he could. Putting his arms behind his head, he imagined he was smoking a cigarette. He'd seen in movies and had read that a guy doesn't feel tender right after. He wanted to be cool. After all, she'd done it loads of times. It was nothing to her. How could he let it mean anything to him?
She stretched her arms, hugged him, kissed his chest, and cuddled up again.
He took that as a mark of approval. Proud of himself, he ruffled her hair.
She was so small and fragile. He felt her pulse beneath her scalp. She had such soft skin.
He'd been too rough with this soft little woman. He hoped he hadn't hurt her much. He hoped he had made her happy. She seemed happy.
He leaned over and kissed her on the nape of the neck.
She didn't say anything. It had been peaceful lying beside him quietly, after it was over. He had been gentle then, and warm. But she couldn't expect it to last. He had probably done this many times with many women. And he'd said he would be leaving for the Army soon.
She got up, pulling on her underwear and threw on her dress. She would be going back to bed again in a few minutes after he left. But it felt like the proper thing to do. It was a way to signal, "It's over. Life goes on. Thank you. Good-bye."
She made a mental note to remember to set her hair.
They kissed perfunctorily at the door, and she locked the three locks, from top to bottom.
After he left, everything was the same as it had been before, except that she couldn't fall asleep. There was an emptiness about her bed that she had never noticed before.
After an hour or two of tossing and turning, she got up and looked at herself in the mirror.
Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes sparkled. She looked and felt years younger.
"Yanni, Yanni, Yanni..." Strange thoughts ran through her head as she let herself sink into the armchair by the window. She remembered being shocked when Holly at the office had told her about her recent trip to Greece. Holly had hooked up with an eighteen-year-old Greek boy on one of the islands, and they'd slept together on the beach.
"I felt so close to nature," Holly had said, "so close to Greece, to the sand, the sea, and the stars. The little pagan was so bold. He shocked me and pulled me out of my shell. It was the first time I'd really felt anything in years. It was unbelievable − stretched out on the beach at night. I'd never seen so many stars. And Dmitry was so simple and direct, with no pretense at all. He knew I was leaving in a couple days."
Gayle listened to the street
sounds, hoping that she'd hear the squeaking of a bed, the
sloshing of a pail,
the drum-like beat of water dripping on trash cans. But it was
twilight, and the air had cooled. The alley was dark and empty.