Antonio had been many things, but at the time of the plague he was working as the super in an old building downtown on the Hudson. When the shadow fell upon our city, each of us felt the darkness in our own way, and each saw in that darkness a face that was always there. Antonio had the face of an actor. When he was younger, he was sometimes cast as a cop, sometimes as a hitman. Now he swept the floors in the hallway, dressed so finely that visitors assumed he was the owner.
It was only when the baseball season got cancelled that it occurred to him that something was deeply wrong. Then the residents started leaving, heading to the Hamptons, or Upstate, renting farmhouses in the Hudson Valley. Some of them contacted him to tell him they had gone. Others left in the night. He knew they were gone because it was his job to pick up the trash, and no more trash meant no more people.
Antonio never considered leaving. Despite what some of the residents thought, he was not their butler. The way he saw it the super worked for the building. And a captain could never abandon his ship.
All of the longtime residents had Antonio stories, some of which were true. He whistled Rigoletto while he swept he halls. He sang arias in the boiler room. The young paralegal in 204 said that once Antonio had rushed over to help him put out a roast chicken on fire in his oven then stayed to make him a new dinner.
On the day the schools closed, Antonio got a call from Emilia in 503. She was crying on the phone, saying she was in the middle of a serious plumbing crisis.
She answered the door in her bathrobe. The whole place was decorated with mementos of Jackson Hole. There were paintings of bison and wolves on the walls. A chandelier made of antlers hung from the ceiling behind her.
Antonio asked, “Is it the toilet or the tub?”
“It’s ok. I’ll take care of it. Honestly, I prefer the tub. You wouldn’t believe what people think they can flush.”
She watched him take off his suit jacket and hang it on a folding hanger on the shower rod. She was drinking red wine from a coffee mug. They had known each other for at least a decade, but only in passing. She asked him how he was holding up.
He said he liked knowing how everything worked, how to fix things and help people. “A lot of our suffering? It’s up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Not out there. Of course, sometimes it is out there too.” He lifted a long metal plumbing snake from his bag and laid it out on a small towel he’d brought with him.
She brought him a coffee mug and filled it with wine. “It’s a good bottle,” she said. “There’s no sense in keeping it any longer.”
She said she sometimes heard a dripping sound behind the wall in the bathroom.
He followed her in. It looked like expensive work – all Italian marble and brass, but he didn’t trust the plumbing. “There’s a lot you can hide in the walls,” he said.
They both pressed their ears to the marble tiles and listened. It was the closest they had ever been.
Neither of them heard it.
He sat back on the edge of the tub. She leaned against the doorframe. She had once told him that she recorded herself reading books on tape for money. Before that she had been an artist’s model. That was years ago though. She seemed so skinny now, almost skeletal. He couldn’t tell if it was from illness or exercise.
The tie of her robe came undone. “If the world is truly ending,” she said, “who knows? This could be our last chance.”
“It would be foolish,” he said, “to waste our last chance.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Antonio half-listened for the drip.
“I think I’m losing it,” she said. “Do you think it will take long to fix the tub?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”
She asked him if he wanted espresso with grappa. While she was gone, he removed a massive tangle of hair almost two feet long from the drain in her bathtub.
She said, “I don’t know what it would be like, you and me. You know my husband left me here? He’s in Wyoming with our daughter and his girlfriend. With all that’s going on. Do you believe it?”
“People can be selfish. They can’t see beyond that. That makes them do cruel things.” He found himself telling her then how he’d had a spiritual epiphany in the fall of 1986. “It was during the World Series. The Mets. You know, Game 6, Mookie Wilson, Bill Buckner, the spin on that ground ball. The whole thing. I had just lost a role in a film. Could’ve been a big one. So I was a Mets fan, of course, but a part of me was feeling what Buckner felt. I don’t know.” Afterwards, I lived on an ashram, during which the Mets fell apart forever. I learned about selfishness there. About letting go of it. My guru used to say, ‘think of an open bottle at the bottom of the ocean. When you close the bottle, the water inside is still the same as the water outside. The bottle is the self, you know, but, it’s all one ocean.’”
“I like that,” she said. “I wish I had married someone else. I’ve never really been a big fan of baseball. I like horses. I don’t know why I live in New York.”
“Baseball has meant a lot to me,” he said as he was putting away the plumbing snake and wiping it down with the towel. “Especially then. This was the World Series I’d been waiting for since I was a kid. The Mets looked like they were going to lose. Boston was finally going to break the curse Babe Ruth put on them and win in 6. Then the Mets tie it up. We’re in extra innings. Ray Knight’s on first. Kevin Mitchell’s on third. Mookie Wilson’s up. It’s a huge at-bat. He fouls off everything, waits for something he can hit. Then the pitcher gets exactly what he wants which is to make Mookie hit it on the ground in the infield. Standard play. The first baseman, Buckner, he’s seen it a thousand times. He trots over, puts his glove down. It’s basically over. Mookie’s going to be out, but something happens, and the ball goes through Buckner’s legs. Ruins his life. Makes Mookie a hero. The Red Sox curse holds. The Mets win Game 7. I’m walking through Queens. Everyone’s happy for once. I don’t know. It did something to me. Made me lose my way. All cause of that one play.”
She kissed him goodbye on the cheek. “It’s crazy that it took all this for us to really talk, you know. I feel like we have a spiritual connection. Maybe you could stop by, even if there’s nothing to fix.”
The next day she left for Wyoming.
Soon the building was almost totally unoccupied. It was just him and the old woman in apartment 404. She had been a public school teacher, geography, he thought, maybe history. She was in her late 80s and had somehow gotten hold of a new kitten. When her husband had died of heart attack in the elevator, it had been Antonio’s job to clean everything up with bleach and get the elevator back in service. One night, he rewrote her husband’s obituary on a piece of paper, folded it neatly, and then hid it behind one of the wooden panels in the elevator. He never told anyone. Now he would check on the teacher in the morning and help her with the litter box. She would leave him a cup of coffee on the little table near the door.
Then one day he opened the door and saw her surrounded by people in hazmat suits. He had his arms full of branches he had brought to her from the magnolia tree in the courtyard. They fell onto the kitchen floor.
After a minute of anxious gesturing, he realized that her daughter and her family had come to take their mother away. Their bodies were protected by shiny suits that seemed made for cleaning up radioactive ooze or walking on the moon. He stood by the door and watched them stuff some of her things into trash bags while the old woman yelled and wept a little, and then the daughter shooed him away by holding up a sign on which she’d written KEEP SAFE DISTANCE in black marker. They put the kitten in a cardboard box, taped it shut, and dragged the box down to the car.
The solitude worried him.
In the basement, the boiler was on its last legs. Upstairs the roof was leaking. A drip went down four floors along the plumbing near the east side. A slow trickle that would eventually rot the floor joists. Antonio would’ve called someone to fix it, but who would come?
He kept busy. He tried to sing as he swept the empty halls. He started with “O Sole Mio,” then “Don’t Stop Believing.” He decided he was probably losing his mind. He had stopped cutting his hair. It was wavy now and his beard was indecent. One afternoon he found himself with the master key chain in his hand, unlocking apartment 934.
The man who lived in the apartment was a partner in a restaurant group that owned a chain of Buddha-themed bars and restaurants. The last time Antonio saw him he said he was flying to Aspen to ride things out. He handed Antonio a bottle of sake. “This is good stuff, brother,” he said. “I can’t take it on the plane, so it’s yours. Be well.” Then he asked Antonio to help him carry his luggage down to his SUV.
Antonio saw that the man had left behind dozens of bottles of sake and wine. He poured himself a glass of wine and made instant miso from the cabinet over the sink. Outside the window, he saw the sun setting over the Hudson. In the sky over New Jersey where he would normally see planes descending towards Newark, he saw only red clouds.
The world was emptying. He poured himself another glass and left the bottle on the counter while he went into Apartment 936. This was where Mick and Mark lived, TV puppeteers who had left behind only an expired can of clam chowder. He took it just in case.
905 belonged to a young family who had fled to New Jersey.
903 was unoccupied.
901 was taped shut and marked with caution tape. The cleaning crew he’d scheduled had never arrived. It had belonged to a pair of dental hygienists who had gotten sick early.
He swept the halls. There was no more trash, but he still needed to keep the dust at bay. Dust was a fact of the world. While he swept, he thought about acting. He recited scenes from The Outsiders, playing all the parts. He did Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Serpico, then the monologues from Macbeth. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace or whatever. He let himself overact a little. He held the broom handle like a microphone. He picked up the expired can of clam chowder and said, “Djou fuck my wife?” He let his arms swing a bit, took pleasure in the sound of his voice in the empty hall. “Look at my fuckin hands. I got small hands.” He threw the can down the hallway, and shouted, “Stay Gold, Pony Boy!”
That night he showered and cut his hair and shaved. He put on a double-breasted suit and went up to Emilia’s apartment and lay down on the cow skin rug. He did not blame her for leaving. A long-horned bull’s head, mounted above the bed, stared out blankly towards the Hudson.
The air inside seemed stale. He opened a window and heard sirens. He shut it again. He was naked now. He threw the cow skin over his shoulders and slept beneath the bull.
In the middle of the night, he heard the drip behind her bathroom wall. He thought there could be another leak in the roof. He heard the sound in 603, 703, 803. Inside 903, he heard a waterfall. He was wearing the pants from his suit and a cowboy duster from Emilia’s apartment. He turned on the lights and saw people in hazmat suits. Their faces were shielded in plastic. He could not see who they were. Someone said something unintelligible. He sat down on the bed. He heard beeping. He told whoever could hear him that they should not be afraid. He repeated what his guru had said about the bottle at the bottom of the sea. He said, “It’s all one ocean, baby.” And then he left them.
He turned a corner and turned again. He was back on the East side but the color of the doors was wrong. He walked down three flights of stairs and found himself one floor up. It was impossible for him to get lost in his own building, but he was lost. The hallways seemed longer, the ceilings higher. The windows on the West side had always looked out over the Hudson. From the upper floors on the East side you were supposed to see Union Square. Now when he looked out of the windows he didn’t recognize the buildings in the dark. He saw only faint red lights in the sky.
He heard a sound behind him and when he turned he saw another figure in a hazmat suit. This time he ran. He went into the stairwell and came out on the fifth floor and went into Emilia’s apartment and locked the door. Inside, he sat on her bed and stared up at the bull’s head above him. He had helped Emilia and her husband hang that useless head from lag screws drilled into the concrete. This was maybe a decade ago when they first moved in. The daughter had sat on the floor and watched them. The head must’ve weighed 100 pounds. Now he looked up at the bull and asked it, “Buck, buck, how many horns do I have up?”
It was so late, but he could not sleep. He found himself watching the final play of Game 6 of the ‘86 World Series again. He was watching the game, and he was watching himself watch it. It was 1986 again. Mookie and Buckner. Stanley in his wind-up. The ball chipped off the end of the bat, spinning weirdly, taking an odd hop off a divot or a rock too small to be seen on TV, then rolling under Buckner’s glove, through this legs, Mookie running hard realizing the crazy thing that has just happened, the miracle, and Buckner the calamity that everyone will say is the curse. He will be the scapegoat of the game, the season, the fucking decade, and the crowd at Shea Stadium is just losing it.
Antonio went out into the hallway and listened. He said to himself, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner are one. The bat and the ball are parts of the whole. The dust in the hall and the one who sweeps it away. He said, “In my father’s house there are many rooms. I go ahead to prepare a place for you.”
Before he left us, he swept the empty hall.