For years Hal sat alone, but over the last months he had grown accustomed to the boy’s scarf-muffled coughing and the sniffling of his nose, which turned pink in the wind.
“What’s your name?” the boy had asked.
“Mr. Hal to you.”
“I’m Sam. Short for Samuel.”
Hal nodded at him. Sam stood on his toes with his arms crossed on the rail, and his adjustable-waist jeans covered the bones that pressed from under his skin at his knees and ankles. He looked over a pale cement guardrail onto the roofs of some buildings and into the windows of others. From their roof, Hal and Sam made out individuals but guessed at their names and ages, and their eyes followed the brave pedestrians who wore color as they moved and slowed with the pulse of the crowds. After that, Sam came every morning. Eventually Hal found a faded yellow lawn chair for Sam to sit in, and he learned that Sam’s doting parents allowed his excursions to the roof simply because that’s all they could give: after devoting their savings to his medical bills, their apartment was plain and their eyes were marked with red.
“Today it’s cloudy,” Sam said on days when the tops of the skyscrapers hid in fog. “Today it’s chilly,” he said when the wind nipped at the space between the hem of his pants and his socks. Hal agreed.
On some days they discussed the cold, each huddled beneath sundry layers of clothing made appropriate by one’s age and the other’s lack thereof. On other days, they discussed the coming and going of street vendors. The gentle sun lulled Hal to sleep on a day in October, and he jolted awake when Sam leapt toward the railing. “Hal, look,” he said, beaming. Carnival-colored balloons hurried past their rooftop and spread out in the sky.
“I see.” Hal smoothed the front of his button-down shirt before closing his eyes again.
When the balloons disappeared, Sam returned to sit next to Hal. Sunken in the worn fabric of his chair, his square shoulders looked softer. He had never adopted the characteristic belly of the aged American man. When his sons called him on the phone, he assured them he ate full meals each day, but expected they didn’t believe him. If his weight didn’t, his colorless hair and trembling hands revealed his age. His once brown corduroy suit had almost assumed the slate color of its backdrop and his lips were irreversibly chapped. Sam smiled at him. He had fallen asleep again.
From under his nylon hood, Sam asked, “Do you like soccer?”
“I do,” Hal said.
“Me too. Me and Dad are going to a game.”
Hal cleared his throat. “I used to play, you know. In college.”
Sam turned to rest his elbows on the arm of his chair. “Were you a goalie? Midfielder?”
Sam rushed to punt a fictitious soccer ball, leaving his chair to wobble and make a snapping sound as it folded and fell.
More than his lackluster sports career, Hal remembered spending ample time nursing a broken ankle. Most of all, he remembered the hospital’s intern asking for his insurance provider, learning his name, and eventually leaning against the chain-link fence that bordered the soccer field eating caramel creams. Before he knew it, she was leaving caramel cream wrappers in his cup holders and bobby pins on his bedside table, and telling him to chew gum before meeting her parents. He remembered her looking at him the way she did when he could tell she loved him, just in her eyes.
“Forwards chew gum,” Hal said, extending his spindly arm to give Sam a stick of Red Hot. Sam chewed it and breathed through his mouth, delighting in the sharp cinnamon flavor.
On a day in late fall, after the Salvation Army Santas had started ringing their bells but before the ground beneath the city froze all the way through, Sam and Hal watched people chase their scarves and hats down the street as the wind unwrapped and carried them off. Sam clasped both hands in front of his mouth to conceal his laughter at a stern businessman who bent over to regain his scarf from an inky splotch of water only to lose his hat to the same puddle. Hal’s customarily stoic lips twitched, and Sam took it as permission to move his hands to his stomach as he rolled in his chair with his eyes squeezed shut for his chortling. When Sam recovered his composure, he twisted his red watch around his wrist and squinted to better understand the arrangement of its hands.
“About time for me to go,” he said.
“Early dinner tonight?” Hal asked.
“We have company. Mama’s making spaghetti.”
Hal stood as Sam did, and helped him fold his chair before leaning it against the guardrail. He turned and Sam stood watching him, stepping on the toes of his right foot with his left shoe so that his knees crossed each other.
“Thanks,” Sam said at Hal’s hairline. He hung his thumbs on his pockets as Hal lowered himself into his chair. Sometimes Sam thought of hugging his crow-like friend goodbye. He never did.
They grew fond of the morning sun as it lengthened their shadows over the long cement tiles. Sam’s red coat was the sole smear of color between them, so when they could feel the air inside their lungs and snow started to gather on the awnings below, Sam came later and left sooner and the roof was gray again. The well-versed vendors switched from selling ice cream to selling hot chocolate. Each day, Hal brought an olive green thermos full of black coffee and rolled his hands along it from the heel to his fingerprints, so that every part of his hands was warmed.
Early in February, on an uncharacteristically warm day, Sam came to the roof late and unfolded his chair, fumbling with the legs. Hal could see that the most hopeful tenants in the buildings around them had already purchased their champion springtime flowers and had begun to plant them in the windowsills.
“Today it’s clear,” Sam said, his shoulders facing toward the city. The wind was quieter, the sun more friendly. It warmed their backs.
“It is,” said Hal. Before his eyes, the sunlight turned the windows of the buildings into a canvas that reflected his own building. He studied its windows and, for the first time, wondered if someone didn’t watch his windows as he watched theirs. Nodding toward the boy’s empty hands, he said, “You still haven’t brought that deck of cards.”
“Can I ask you something?” said Sam.
“Anything you like.”
“It’s just—sir, I’ve sat with you here a lot, but you’ve never told me. What is it you’re here for?” He avoided meeting the man’s eyes.
“I come to think.”
Sam looked at him and looked back at his own hands, which he kept open on his lap. “What about?”
“About them,” Hal said, gesturing toward the pedestrians. His well-worn suit sleeve relaxed into its permanent folds in his elbow as he lowered his arm.
“What do they think about?”
“I don’t reckon I know.”
They were silent.
The boy, with his small body against the worn back of the chair, swung his legs in midair so that his shoes clicked together. He spoke to Hal’s whiskery chin. “My mama says you’re here because you’re angry. Or because you’re lonely.”
The breeze blew a tuft of what remained of the man’s hair up and away from his crinkled forehead. “I’m not angry,” he said. “I had a family once.”
“My wife died. My children went their own way. Nothing special or romantic. Now I’m an old man.” A pause, as the boy’s eyes followed a gnat that wound around the man’s feet. Hal had spent many blissful years loving that woman he met at the hospital. She was much too bright for him, with frenetic, short locks of dark hair. Their home incubated young love, a cat, many houseplants, and eventually two sons.
“Do you see your kids?” Sam asked.
“They send me Hallmark cards.” Since his sons left, one to the West Coast seeking those seams of new money and the other to the Gulf to build his own church, Hal had lived in his building. He kept his apartment clean. He grunted appropriately at his neighbors when he encountered them. And so time had passed, and routine had assumed the place of companionship.
“What would you do? I mean, if you were down there with them?” Sam asked.
The man peered at the streets he had watched now for years. Little patches of defiant green manifested themselves in the tops of few trees. Over the years, the streets had become crowded. Businesses came and went as people passed their windows once in the morning and once in the evening and again the next day. The whole of the gray city writhed between the immovable buildings that held it together. As the streets had changed, so the incessant sun on his face had caused his eyebrows to descend over his almond eyes and almost to obscure them entirely.
“I suppose I’d rush around like they do,” Hal said. “Carry a black bag, hail taxis, shake hands, forget an umbrella, hold up sidewalk traffic.”
“You don’t want to?”
“No.” He weaved and unweaved his fingers. “Let me ask you. What would you do?” He faced the boy, whose eyelids drooped.
“I’d buy you and me a hot dog from that vendor who pushes the blue cart.”
“Haven’t had a hot dog in years,” Hal said. As newlyweds, Hal and his wife bought a toaster oven. The night they brought it home, he ate four hot dogs and she ate five. When his house sold, the toaster oven didn’t fit in any of the cardboard boxes, so it rode on the backseat in his son’s car, secured by a seatbelt, to the thrift store.
“Me neither,” said Sam.
“Why don’t you get one?”
“I can’t. I can’t go down.” Sam lifted his watery blue eyes to Hal’s.
“Mama says no. I only get in a car and go to a building you can’t see. The people there are nice enough, but they talk to me like I’m a baby.”
“What do they say?” Hal asked.
“They say I can’t do this and I can’t do that. They say I’ve got to take these medicines. They say I’ve got to come see them again in two or three or four weeks. Things like that.”
The man shifted. The sun became strident, and his corduroy coat scratched. “Do they?” he asked.
“They say I can’t come anymore.”
“Tests. I have to go sleep there and eat there. Mama will come see me every day.”
Hal looked to his left at a humming air conditioning unit. He rubbed the inside corner of his eye under his glasses.
“Can you do something for me, sir?” Sam asked.
As the city awoke, more of its yelling and shuffling became audible. The windows winked with the movement of the people inside and around them, but Hal could still make out the reflection of his own building. It became grayer, older, wiser; with the passage of time, birds nested in its gutters and garden plants appeared on its balconies. When he first arrived there, Hal had dropped his boxes on the linoleum floor. He locked the door and didn’t unlock it again for three weeks.
The boy scratched the hair behind his ear without noticing. “Can you get me one of those hot dogs?”
Hal opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. “Yes. Yes, I can.”
The next morning, Hal brewed coffee and pulled on his corduroy suit jacket. He stepped out into the hall and walked to the elevator. It sang its official note and he stepped inside, lifted his hand to the lit buttons, and pressed Lobby. As he pushed the glass door and stepped outside, the street looked farther away than it ever had from his rooftop.
The train took him to the edge of the city, where the sidewalks became wider and the trees had space to stretch their branches in directions other than up. From the station he turned down a newly paved road—the kind of road whose smoothness begged for wheels moving forward. Finally a gothic church: rectangular stones wrapped around a tower with a bell and watched over the cemetery. Hal carefully kept to the path until he stopped at a grave decorated with a birdbath. For years he brought flowers, different ones for the different seasons, but he hadn’t in a long time.
He brought flowers while she was in the hospital, too. She slept there and ate there for three years, and he never missed a day. She told him what she thought about and read about, and filled up journals from her electric bed. She made him promise he wouldn’t leave their house, their city, their sons. Hal ran a hand over his mostly bald head. He folded his knees and sat on the backs of his heels, weight pitched forward and hands in the black soil.