A short short about mistakes by lakes.
Hockel knocked once, softly. Louis knew it was him, but Louis didn’t get up. He stared at the rain on the window. It had been raining for eight days. After six, Louis found that he could almost believe it was going to rain forever, a cold, greasy, stinking rain coming down on the city for all eternity. Cleveland would never get clean.
He folded his hands on the unfinished wooden table, felt Hockel waiting silently on the other side of the door. It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and, in the waning light, the rusted tube-chimney on the opposite building’s roof looked warped and blurry through the wet windowpane. Louis had been staring at it for—he wasn’t actually paying attention to how long.
Hockel knocked again. He’d keep knocking until Louis answered. Hockel was as predictable as the rain. Louis stood and quietly moved down the short hallway that connected the room that served as a living room, cotroom, and kitchen to the closet bathroom and the front door with five deadbolts and three sliding latches.
“What.” Louis spoke softly, his left hand hovering over the dented copper knob.
“Louis? That you?”
“Who else would it be?”
Hockel lived two doors down. And, in the year Louis had rented the tiny concrete-box studio on Euclid Avenue, Louis hadn’t said a cheerful sentence to anyone other than Gina.
Now Gina was gone. But, unlike everyone else in the building, Hockel couldn’t take a hint. He regularly appeared at the door with that soft, insinuating knock of his. Eventually something horrible was bound to happen to Hockel, given his lack of sensitivity. Then Louis would be free.
“Can I come in?”
Louis shut his eyes and took a breath. “What was it you wanted?”
“Open up.” The knob jiggled. “It’s dark out here.”
The light in the hall outside had been broken for weeks. One had to walk down from the elevator in complete darkness and know where the right door was. But it wasn’t difficult. Louis had gotten used to it. He opened the door a few inches.
“You mean to say you can’t find your door?”
Hockel pushed in, turning around the edge of the door like a gust of wind. “Of course not. I’m not an idiot.” He sat in the other chair at the little wooden table beneath the window. “I just don’t like waiting out there in total darkness for someone to answer their door. You know there’s roaches in this building, right?”
Louis sat back down and sighed. “I’ve never seen any.”
At 34, Louis was short, wiry, already balding with a narrow face and a delicate pointed chin. Hockel was five years older and at least 20 pounds heavier. Everything about Hockel seemed swollen, from hands to lips, his shock of jet more like a mane. He was just starting to go gray and his hair stood up in places though he always tried to slick it back.
“I’ll have a coffee. Black is fine.”
Louis looked at him. “You came over to order me to make you a coffee?”
“When you hear what I have to say, you’re gonna want to, I don’t know, pass out or scream or something. Before that, let’s have a cup, alright?” Hockel thought for a moment, then grinned, which involved his entire face, making his eyes open wide and his forehead wrinkle.
“It’s about Gina, isn’t it?”
Hockel shrugged and pursed his lips, resting his chin on his hands. “Only one way to find out, eh?”
Gina. What could be said about her that hadn’t already be said already, over and over, from Louis to Hockel, from Hockel to Louis, from Lewis to Gina’s voicemail, from Gina’s voicemail back to Louis as he replayed her outgoing message in the middle of the night? If Hockel had something more to tell, it might mean that she had come back from Lithuania. Should Louis let himself hope that somewhere in the frozen dark of Vilnius, in the decrepit condominium Gina inherited from a grandmother she’d never known, her affection for him had somehow returned?
He got up, went to the sink, and started to fill the kettle—as much to hide the anxiety at the corners of his mouth as to make coffee.
“Come on, man. Did you really think I’d hold out on you if I knew something?”
“I don’t know what to think,” Louis murmured. He lit one of the gas burners with a wooden match. The ring of blue flames wooshed into being and gripped the bottom edge of the kettle like little blue hands.
“What?” Hockel was still half-smiling when Louis sat down again.
A few moments passed in which neither of them said anything. The rain clattered against the window. The cheap aluminum kettle began to wobble and hiss. Maybe it was the way Louis stared at nothing or the lack of conversation, but after a few minutes, Hockel started to drum his fingers loudly on the table.
“This rain. It’s crazy, yeah? How do you sit in here all day with that racket going on?”
“I don’t sit here all day. I have a job.”
Hockel nodded slowly. “Oh, right.”
The kettle began to shriek. Louis got up slowly and turned off the burner but leaned against the stove, listening to the kettle’s long wail die off. He dumped a spoon of instant into a cracked yellow mug and poured the hot water. Then he set it down hard on the table before Hockel, the swirl of undissolved grounds twisting on the surface.
“Instant.” Hockel sighed. “My stomach will never get used to it.”
Louis sat back down and folded his hands again. “So talk.”
Hockel took a long sip then licked his lips, smiling down into the cup. “Still, you do buy the good stuff, Louis. I’ll give you that.”
“Gina. If you’ve got something to say about her, say it. Or am I going to have to wait for you to finish the whole damn cup?”
Hockel paused, the cup halfway to his mouth, and nodded solemnly. “You know, I get it, Louis. I know what it feels like to be put under the bus by a woman. By many women. All kinds of women.” He took another sip, shook his head. “Damn. It gets better with every sip. I have to get some of this shit. What’s the brand?”
He set the cup down and grinned again. “No way. You’re definitely messing with me now. This is the good shit. I know you wouldn’t make me a cheap cup of coffee on me. You’re too classy for that, my friend.”
Louis looked out at the rusted chimney. It stood all by itself at the edge of the opposite roof, condemned to be assaulted by all the rain and snow of Cleveland’s unforgiving winters until the day the wrecking ball took it down.
“Remember how Gina used to come over to my place and bum cigarettes off me?”
“Those were the days, eh?”
“What’s so amazing about that? She was your neighbor.”
“She was your neighbor, too. But you don’t smoke. That was something she had in common with me.”
“Guess it was.”
“Yeah. Guess so.” Hockel tipped back the cup, then set it down and pushed it towards Louis with one finger. “I appreciate the coffee. Generous of you.”
Louis looked at him, then back out at the rain. “I think you better get going, Hockel. You know the way.”
Hockel stood, grinning again. Louis looked at Hockel’s brown short-sleeved shirt with a lighter square where the front pocket used to be, his frayed gray pants, his bare feet in rubber sandals.
“Okay,” Hockel looked down at him. “If that’s how you wanna play it. That’s cool.”
When Hockel got to the door, he turned back and wagged his finger at Louis as if the latter was a misbehaving child. In that moment, in the Louis’ peripheral vision before he turned his head to look, Hockel gave the impression of a large grinning bear.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hockel said. “Something my mother told me on the day I got let go from the plant. You know, I got caught up in some stupid shit out there. And, when I came home, all pissed-off and full of bitterness, she said some broom factory bullshit is not why you failed, son. Cleveland’s why. Cleveland is why you fail.” He nodded to himself, then smiled again with his whole face. “She goes, you get out of here and you’ll do just fine.”
Hockel fished a bent cigarette out of his pants pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth. “She wanted me to join the Navy.” He laughed and shut the door behind him.
Louis looked down at his hands still folded on the table. He thought of the four dates he’d had with Gina and imagined her buying a plane ticket to Vilnius, dropping her good-bye letter to him in the airport mailbox. The letter didn’t say much—goodbye, was nice living next door to you, you’re a decent guy, sorry things can’t work out but a condo is a condo.
Louis went to the sink and washed out the mug he’d given to Hockel. The kettle was still hot. Its curl of steam still twisted up from the spout. He spooned some instant into the cup and went to pour the water but hesitated and poured it onto his left hand instead—white hot pain so intense he dropped the mug and kettle in the sink.
Louis collapsed where he stood, back against the sink cabinet, burned hand between his thighs. But he didn’t make a sound. Instead, he looked up at the window. Rain was still pelting the glass. The rusted chimney was a faint silhouette in the glare of the drugstore across the street.