An Understanding

The old man sat on his terrace listening to his ancient radio, wearing the clothes he chose by habit from his over-large dressing room. His rocking chair facing the ocean he could no longer see, obscured by newer construction.

Isabella brought him his drink at the usual time, a soda in a bottle, unopened. He struggled to twist off the cap, slippery from the condensation, hands gnarled by the years. 

“Let me,” she said, reaching down, “don’t you want a glass, with some ice?”

“No,” he barked, and she stepped away, as she always did, then fell back into his orbit.

“Why do you treat me so? I have been here since before…”

“I’m near blind, woman, don’t make it personal. Do you think I want this? Do you think I want to need you this way? Anyone can do this, you aren’t special, know your place woman.” 

“You know my name,” she said, and left him on the terrace to sort out his bottle of sugar and water. Until that day, she still saw the old man as he had been in better days, younger years, when the world beat a path to his door and begged for his genius, his art. When the years caught him and time took its toll, he was left alone and bitter to wonder where they’d all gone, where he’d gone wrong. 

Only Isabella remained to nurture his rage, all the others faded away, found new heroes to follow. She remained trapped in her memories of the last good days, accepting his treatment of her as a burning badge of misplaced honor, adoration for a man who no longer lived.

The following day, Isabella did not come to care for him. Someone different arrived, unannounced. She appeared long after the younger man who stayed with the old man through the night had left. 

The old man was perplexed and agitated. He heard faint footsteps tapping through his entry hall. “Woman,” he shouted, “I’m thirsty, the sun is beating me like a drum.”

“I’m here,” she whispered in his ear, startling him. 

He drew the back of his hand across his forehead, scraping away the sweat. “Where’s my drink?” he huffed.

“Beside you,” she said, drawing the pointed nail of her index finger, a light touch of a sharp edge, along the dry parchment skin and coarse hair of his boney arm, “here on the table.” Her hand reached his, she wrapped her delicate fingers around his wrist, lifted it, moving him toward the cool dripping bottle.

He snatched the bottle up toward his face,“Who are you?” he growled.

“I’m here, what does my name matter,” she replied, her voice a cool breeze against the heat of the day. 

He paused, began to speak, then took a sharp breath and twisted away the cap. “You are not Isabella,” he said. 

“No,” she replied, “I am someone new.”

“New?” he laughed, “there’s no such thing as new. There’s only the same old thing, bound in different cloth. There is nothing new.” 

His bitterness amused her. She smiled at the old man, ran her hand across his balding scalp, tickled the flesh of his flapping earlobe, then caressed a line along his scruffy chin. “You need a shave,” she said, as if finding something hidden, “why hasn’t the man looked after your face?”

“Hah,” he choked out between swigs, “he’s afraid to cut me. The woman is better, she looks after my beard.”

“Old man,” she said, her voice slipping into his ear, a gust of wind to fill a sail, “you have no beard, only a shadow on your chin. Shall I take care of it for you?”

“Fine, woman, if you must, but mind the scars, I don’t need more.”

She laughed in a way he knew was meant to tease him. He allowed it as the shore allows the wave. 

She left him for a while, then returned with the implements required for the task. She wrapped a towel around his neck, lathered his face, “Lean back” she said, and he did. She opened the blade, wiped it against the linen at her thigh, then dragged it across his cheek, beginning near his ear and swiping across his jawline. 

A tiny bit of blood dribbled from an edge. She licked a bit of tissue and staunched the flow. 

“You have a light touch,” he said, “lighter than Isabella, but she never nicked me. Is this your first time?”

“Of course not,” she answered, “now be still.”

The old man did as he was told. He sat like a stone while she carved away, leaving the flesh of his face fresh and new. She wiped away the soapy residue of her work, then stood to admire the results. 

He ran a shaking hand across his cheeks and chin, cracking his rotten-tooth grin. “Smooth as a baby’s bottom,” he remarked, “you do have the touch. What is your name?”

“Call me woman, if you like,” she said, “or Marguerite.” 

He laughed at her then, he’d finally got the joke. “You’re here to kill me I think,” he said.

“No,” she replied, “I’m here to set Isabella free.”

“Then get it over with, I’m too old to waste time begging, you’ll get none of it from me. And if you’re not here to kill me, fetch me a damp towel for my face, you’ve taken half the flesh away.” He snapped his fingers twice, “Be quick about it.”

“Old man,” she said, her laughter little birds flitting around a feeder, “your vanity…, it’s too much.”

She went inside, banging about his kitchen, leaving him there to feel the sun’s heat burning the pink flesh of his newly shaven face, too hot for the faint ocean breeze to cool. When she came back an hour later, his face had turned the bright red of a boiled crustacean. His silent tears assured her the point had been made.

She draped a damp towel across his face, cold from the icebox. “Now old man,” she whispered through his fear, “do we have an understanding?”

His voice was muffled through the cooling towel. Flicking his tears away with a bony finger, he dared not turn his eyes toward her. “Yes Marguerite,” he said, “we do.”

She returned to the chattering screen door, then stopped when he said her name.

“Marguerite,” he asked, his voice betraying his hope, “will Isabella be back tomorrow?”

“That is up to you old man,” she said, then returned to the shaded interior of the grand decaying house. The door banged shut, her footsteps echoed against the high ceiling and plaster walls, and she began to sing a tune in time with his radio.

He sat in silence, his face no longer burning, the pounding of his heart slowed to a lesser beat. He listened to the woman sing, her voice dancing through the corridors and rooms of the house as she made her way back to the door, across the creaking boards, and down the stone steps, leaving him to wonder what tomorrow might bring.