On a clear day I can see the old man across the way. He stands there on his balcony, like a captain on the bowsprit of an old sailing ship, scanning the surface of the massive housing tower in front of him—mine.
Usually, the air is thickly gray up here on the 97th floor, and I’m sure he can’t see my hive any more than I can see his. That and the boredom probably explain why, when I do see him, his examination is so thorough. But, no doubt, I’m projecting.
Anyway, it was one of those rare days that we met. We waved, nodded our heads once or twice, and even tried to speak though our voices didn’t carry on account of the overhead traffic noise. It’s worst—the noise, that is—from 5:00 to 10:00 in the morning and 4:00 to 9:00 in the evening, but it’s growing more constant even in the wee hours of the morning, especially due to increasing commercial traffic.
Sundays, on one of the two state holidays left, offer one of the best chances for a clear day, and today’s one. I haven’t opened my blinds yet, nor have I peeked to see if he has. First, I’ll order up a coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, read the paper, and watch an episode or two of I Love Lucy on the digital screen in the kitchen.
By 10:03 a.m., the blinds have already opened, programmed to exterior light levels and my late sleeping schedule. The curse of old age—one of many, actually—is that as life gets shorter, the sleepless nights get unbearably long. His are now open as well.
I pick up my cigarette case and head for the balcony. Ordinarily, I smoke the smokeless cigarettes, because they’re the only ones that are legal, but today, I thought I’d have a real cigarette. The tobacco in these is as black as the market they came from.
In the background, I can hear Rickie chiding Lucy. As I open the door to the balcony, the warm air that rushes in nearly suffocates me with its heavy stickiness. Through the glass, it looked like a beautiful day. I always forget that the smell and the feel of the air never clear up when the gray lifts.
Immediately upon turning around after closing the balcony door, I see the old man, and we exchange waves and nods. We light up at the same time and start our ritual survey of the other’s hive.
Something seems different about the old man. He’s unsteady on his feet and he’s grabbing the balcony rail hard. The cigarette drops from his lips, and he releases his hold on the rail to scratch his arms and neck feverishly, losing his balance and free falling 97 stories down to the pavement below.
Stunned, I stare at his empty balcony and can’t believe it! All this time, I’d thought the old man was just a reflection in the window across the way.
AUTHOR BIO: The author is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers. In 2012, he published his first book, Flash! Fiction.