There was a message in my voicemail again this morning, for the fourteenth day in a row. “What’s wrong? You don’t call me anymore. Pick up. I know you’re there. It’s Lorraine. Call me back.”

I didn’t return her call. I don’t have any idea what to tell her. I could tell her the truth but I’m embarrassed to do so. We’ve been best friends for five years. We talked about everything. Why can’t I tell her?

Maybe something’s the matter with me? I want to tell her what I’m feeling but I simply can’t. Not this time. Last time we talked, I said a bit but nothing really personal. From a rational point of view, I can’t even explain it to myself.

Let me write it out. Then maybe I’ll understand. My name’s Maria. I’m 43, married, with one child, Carol, a thriving eleven years old who plays the piano for hours. She talks about being a famous pianist. My husband George is the superintendent of our apartment building. It’s an old building with fifty apartments and lots of cranky tenants. I work in an insurance agency in Manhattan in the east 50s.

Five years ago, I went into the Quest Bookstore, which is on the same block as my agency. It’s a small bookstore that sells new age books. I walked by for years and had absolutely no interest in going in. The week before, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mom died of the horror and I was worried. (Knock wood. She’s in remission.) I tried to convince myself that all would be well but it’s so hard to have faith when you really need it. It’s much easier when everything is going well.  

The idea of knowing the future suddenly appealed to me. Some people say the Tarot can give you a hint. I asked myself, am I that close-minded that I won’t at least look into it?

The bookstore is down a few steps and the cashier was sitting behind the counter. I looked around and there was no one else in the store.

There was enough jasmine incense burning that I almost walked out but then I am sensitive to odors and maybe it wasn’t so much. The lighting was subdued. I’m sure they thought it made a more spiritual atmosphere but I felt slightly ill at ease. I saw bookcase after bookcase with topics like Buddhism, Tarot, Divination, Health concerns, Proper Eating. I couldn’t believe there were so many books on these topics.

The shelves with Tarot books were so densely packed that I wondered if magic prevented them from collapsing. The books ranged from huge to small with covers from muddy brown to flaming yellow. I saw one that said it was the complete guide. I flipped through the pages and thought my mom might be dead before I got through the first half of the book. I continued looking and noticed what appeared to be a real simple book, with a title something like Tarot In Two Shakes of a Stick. What a pretentious but humorous title. I reached for it.    

“Sorry,” I said, as the back of my hand hit another hand. A thought flashed through my brain that I should move to another section. I was afraid the person might wonder what I was looking for. Who wants to admit to a stranger that you want to know the future?

Before I could move, I heard, “Sorry. It’s my fault. What book were you trying to get?”

 I looked up and saw a woman, who seemed about my age. She had very short black hair, a rather boyish face and a friendly smile. She was dressed in blue jeans and a blue work shirt and she wore sandals. I told her which book I was reaching for.

“What a fantastic coincidence. We must have a lot in common that we’d try to grab the same book at the same time.”

I laughed an embarrassed laugh. She suggested we get a cup of coffee.

I looked at my watch. “I don’t think I have time. I’m supposed to get back to work now.”

“We’ll make it quick. I like making new friends.”

“But I’ll be late.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. A little break before you go back will do you good.”

“How do you know I’m embarrassed?”

“You’re breathing through your mouth. If you felt at ease, you’d be breathing normally.”

It kind of made me laugh so we went to Starbucks and, to my astonishment, there was no line. I was beginning to believe in signs and that seemed like a good omen. She ordered regular coffee. “So much simpler and more practical,” she said. I ordered regular too. It takes less time.

It turned out that we lived not very far apart, near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. She said, “I love biking down the big hill to see how fast I can go.”  

“I like that hill too but I’m always afraid to go too fast in case I fall off.”

“You probably have a family. I’m divorced, a two-time loser. If I fall no one will miss me much.”

“Why are you interested in the Tarot?”

“I’m still on the lookout. Thought maybe the Tarot would help me pick better next time.”

I told her about my mom’s cancer.

“Why don’t we work on this together?” she asked. “We can take a ride and then go to my place and do practice readings on each other.”

“I’m up for the ride. But let me think about doing readings.”

I looked at my watch. A pleasant half hour had passed and, she was right, I was breathing normally again. I had to run off. We agreed to bike around ten on Saturday morning.

We met at the top of the hill. Lorraine had a red bike with what looked to have about thirty gears. I had an old three-gear bike that my mom bought me when I was about twelve. Lorraine took off like she was practicing for the Olympics and was soon far ahead of me. To me, this proved we weren’t compatible and I thought this might be our only ride together. I was surprised when I got to the flat part. There was Lorraine waiting patiently for me. “That was fun. I watched you at the end. You never got close to falling off. It would be safe if you went faster.”

“Maybe next time,” I said. We rode slowly, side-by-side and talked.  

We both loved to cook. I told her some of the tricks I’d learned to make the best pastries and cakes.

“I’m single. It’s dangerous to your figure to bake for yourself.”

She was more interested in the joys of slow cooking.

We talked about religion. I went to Catholic mass every week and she never set foot in a church. I liked fashion and she wore what I rather snobbishly thought of as shabby. We didn’t shop at the same stores. We didn’t belong to any of the same organizations.

A pleasant twenty minutes had passed and we were back at our starting point. I was quite happy when she asked if I had time to go around again. This time she didn’t ride down as fast and I rode down faster. When we got to the slow part, we talked again. Both of us have black hair and a Mediterranean nose so I thought we might have some relatives in common. It turned out that her family was from southern France and mine were from Sicily. We talked about our friends but neither of us recognized any of the names the other mentioned.

 Lorraine was the first to say, “I don’t think we know a single person in common.”

“Is that important?”

“It means we can gossip freely and we can be sure it will never get back to us.”

I remembered how I’d gossiped to one friend about how poorly my cousin Rachel was raising her daughter. She promised never to say anything to Rachel. Two weeks later, Rachel stopped talking to me. My friend denied it but she must have said something.

With Lorraine it would be completely safe to exchange private information. We began to gossip in earnest. “My cousin, Angela, is cheating on her husband,” I said. “I like him even more than her. Do you think I should tell him? What would you do?”

“That’s so common,” Lorraine laughed. “How do you know he isn’t cheating on her too? Why don’t you ask her?”

“I could never do that. I’d be so embarrassed. Besides, it’s very unlikely.”

“You could ask her. Most people like to talk.”

“But then I’d know and have to do something.”

Lorraine continued, “There’s much worse than cheating. My neighbor Timo hits his wife, Jayne. Last week, I heard them yelling through the wall and then there was a loud thud. I knocked on their door and asked what happened. Timo said a box had fallen off the table. Jayne didn’t leave the apartment all week but I saw her on the balcony two days later with a shiner.”

“How horrible.”

“Nothing like some of the things I learned when I was a social worker.”

She began to tell me stories of abuse, physical, emotional, sexual and economic. She’d grown tired of fighting with some of her clients, who had no desire or incentive to cooperate with her. She now works at a flower shop. Over many rides, she told me a lot of ugly but convincing tales. “Two of the hardest things are understanding and forgiveness,” she said. “We’re all capable of horrors. I always tried to make friends with my clients, no matter what they did.”

I began to wonder if all the stories Lorraine told me were true or if she was exaggerating to entertain, titillate, and impress me.

We never did go to her apartment to do Tarot readings. We were more interested in gossiping. On about the twentieth Saturday, she told me she was having a birthday party on Thursday and invited me to attend.

As we were approaching the steep hill, I asked her to tell me the worst thing any of the people, who would be at the party had done. “You’re Catholic,” she said. “I suppose to you, Yolda, who had five abortions, would be the worst.”

“Five abortions? How is that possible?”

“Maybe she’s had more. That’s all she’s told me about.”

We raced down the hill, not together but much closer than previously. For me, it was both terrifying and exhilarating to go this fast. I was thinking and thinking about Yolda. When we got to the bottom, I said, “I don’t approve, but I understand. Maybe she thinks she’s not emotionally capable of raising a child.”

“I don’t think she’d give a shit about your approval.”

Then Lorraine told me about Paula who had drowned her two-year-old daughter in the tub. I thought she was making this up but later she showed me her scrapbook with newspaper clippings from fifteen years ago. There were articles and pictures. Paula was a short woman, with long blonde hair and her face looks like all the joy in the world had disappeared. She’d pleaded guilty and served fourteen years. “She’ll be at the party. I’ll introduce you.”

I was the first to arrive and I helped Lorraine make a vodka punch. Lorraine’s one bedroom apartment is on the ground floor at the end of the corridor. There was no apartment opposite to her and only one tiny studio that stuck out of the building to her right. There weren’t apartments above the studio and Lorraine’s was the only apartment that shared a wall with the studio. I could hear a TV on in the studio and the sound came right through the wall, almost as if it were in the room. “The old bat’s going deaf,” Lorraine said, “But I like her.” Lorraine called and the woman turned it down. She came to the party later. She used a walker.

It was a typical party. The music was low, there was a bit of subdued dancing, lots of drinking, Lorraine had made great food, and there was lots of talking. I’m not sure how but she got more than forty people in at one time with people constantly leaving and arriving. Probably over a hundred people were at the party at one time or another.

The first people I talked to were Timo and Jayne. Was Lorraine’s talk of Jayne’s shiner true? They looked like they were getting along fine. I looked closer and Jayne’s nose was partially collapsed, like a boxer. That could have many causes but he might have hit her. Was it any of my business? Should I disapprove? I didn’t.

I got a second glass of punch. Lorraine said, “Now’s your chance,” Lorraine pointed across the room with her eyes. “I’ll introduce you to Paula Verbose. She uses her maiden name Thompson now.”

I remembered that both last names were in the article. Paula looked twenty-five years older but she was the one in the photos. She still looked depressed.

Lorraine introduced us and left us alone. We chatted about Lorraine for several minutes. Then Paula said, “You’re staring at me. Why?”

“I’m not staring.”

“Your eyes keep raking over me. Are you judging me?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I often stare. I don’t know anything about you. What did you do today?”

“I’m trying to find a job. It’s been very hard.”

“Yes, it can be. The recession’s pretty bad.”

“I’ve been out of work for a long time. It gets worse the longer you’re out and the unemployment agencies are useless.”

“I’ve heard that before. Did you ever think of starting you’re own business?”

“How could I? I’m broke. I’m staying with my brother and his wife wants me to leave. Enough about me. What did you do today?”

I was embarrassed to talk about taking my daughter to her piano lesson. I hadn’t thought about how easy my life was and how hard life must be when you get out. I felt sorry for her. I told Paula that I’d be glad to speak to her again. She rolled her eyes as if doubting I was telling the truth.

When someone leaves their apartment, my husband has to re-paint it. It happens about twice a year. A few weeks later, one tenant left so I asked if he’d let Paula help paint. He did. A month later, she got a full-time job working as a cashier in Key Food. We talk occasionally.

Years passed. We biked almost every week and gossiped frequently. Then two months ago, Lorraine lost her cheerfulness. I asked her why and she invited me to her apartment. As we entered the building, she said, “I mourn the dear old bat. I have two new neighbors in the studio.” She opened her apartment door and I backed up. High pitched yelps came from the next apartment. “It’s perfectly safe. That dog’s my second new neighbor in the studio.”

She phoned the studio but there was no answer. A few minutes later, I checked my watch. A high piercing bark came about every fifteen seconds. I almost thought it would end when I heard another yelp. Over the next half hour the pitch of the barks got a little deeper but the volume and frequency continued the same. Forty minutes later, I said, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

Lorraine told me that her new neighbor’s job required her to switch from days and nights every other week. She spent the weekends at her boyfriends, leaving the dog behind and coming by to feed her once a day. When she wasn’t there, the barking could go on for six or seven hours straight.

“God, that must be tough,” I said.

The next time we biked, the dog was the center of conversation.

“Did you talk to your neighbor about it?” I asked.

“Constantly. She says I’m exaggerating. ‘Mandy doesn’t bark much. Besides, Mandy’s my baby. If your baby cries a little, that’s not a problem.’”

“Her baby? She leaves her alone for days. Mandy doesn’t bark much? I’ve heard her. Don’t the other neighbors complain?”

“It’s only in my apartment that you hear it.”

“Yes. I remember the layout.”

 “I’ve thought of moving but my apartment’s rent controlled. I can’t afford to move,” Lorraine said.

“What are you going to do?”

“Sometimes I think of capturing it, driving it to the country and doing a clean execution. She never changed the lock. I still have the key. I can’t believe I’m thinking about this.”

“We all have fantasies. Sometimes I get tired of hearing my daughter play the piano and of my job and husband and I dream about going off to Hollywood to be discovered.”

“You’d never do that,” Lorrain said. “Yours is more of a fanciful mind vacation. Mine isn’t. I almost wish I had a second job so I could be away from the barking most of the day and maybe I could deal with it at night. But I love having the extra time to do what I want.”

“Mandy barks all night?” I asked.

“When she works night. Would you hate me if I did it? I bet you’d never talk to me again.”

I think it was the first time I lied to Lorraine but at the time, it seemed like the truth. “I’d never get angry with you, no matter what.”

It went on for another month. I talked to Lorraine almost every day. I visited her apartment twice and the barking was intense.

A week later, we were riding. Lorraine looked rested and happy. I was afraid to ask, but she volunteered. “On the first Monday of July, most everyone is out on vacation. She told me that she’d be out the whole day. I made Swedish meatballs and put two sleeping pills in them. That damned dog was soon asleep and I took her out in a suitcase and drove to the country. I won’t tell you the details but that dog will never keep anyone awake again.”

I smiled and was not the least bit clear about what I should say. I had helped Paula, who had murdered her daughter. Yolda had five abortions and I chose not to judge her. Those cases were human life. This is only a dog. Why did it feel different?

I eat meat. How many chickens, pigs and cows have I eaten and I don’t feel guilty? I told myself that my feelings towards Lorraine are irrational. There’s no reason to let go of this friendship.

Suddenly, I snapped out of my thoughts and realized I was riding next to Lorraine. “What happened when your neighbor came home?” I asked.

“She started to wail, ‘where’s my baby?’ She thinks the dog got out somehow. She’s asked all the neighbors and no one can tell her anything.”

“At least it’s over,” was all I could think of saying.

The next Friday, Lorraine called to confirm we were biking the next day. I heard myself say, “I’m busy. I really can’t.” I did the same the next week.

Our family went away for a week in southwest New Hampshire. I turned off my cell phone. When we got back, I turned it on and there were messages from Lorraine asking why I wasn’t calling her back. I erased them. I let her next fourteen calls go through to voicemail and then erased them.   

I don’t want to see her but I’m bound to do so, unless I give up biking in the park. Even if I give up biking, she might come over.

I knew she went swimming on Tuesday mornings at 10. I called at 10:15 and left her a message. “I can’t explain it but I am angry at you and even more angry with myself. I think we shouldn’t see each other for a while. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

Cowardly, yes. It’s been another month and I still haven’t gotten over it but every time I think of it or her, I can’t help but see her carrying the suitcase with Mandy in it. I’ve had dozens of different horrible visions of what happened next.  I can’t rid of them. It’s like getting a tiny pebble in your sneaker that you try over and over again to get out but you never can. Every step reminds you that it’s still there.

I know I should forgive her. These feelings aren’t good for me. Every morning, for the past week, I’ve vowed to call her that afternoon. Every afternoon, I can hear Mandy’s cry and something inside me says “not today.” I wonder if I’m losing it. Or if I will ever come to a reason Mandy’s death bothers me so much.

Photo by Sam McNamara on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Raymond Fortunato

Raymond Fortunato earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and history and a Master’s degree in history from Hunter College. He has published one short story collection, Joyful, Sorrowful and Ordinary Mysteries. His play, Nothing’s Plenty For Me, a dramady about climate change was presented by the Xoregos Performing Company at Theatre Row, Manhattan in January and February 2022.