Micky O. pulled his car to the side of the road and looked out along the lawns of the cemetery. He recognized the usual signs of a pauper’s burial. The basic pine box. The lack of attendants except two and not even a priest, but a young deacon stumbling over his scripture. There was a hunched old woman in black and a straight backed young woman with a crocheted black shawl over her shoulders attending. Her loose cotton dress was tugged by the wind.
Micky pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a silver lighter. He knew he shouldn’t be here. It was intrusive. The girl had lost her mother and probably wanted to be left alone, but he couldn’t risk it. He was in town so very seldom. He had to at least see her. Talk to her. He would have to time it just right. The deacon closed his book. The women crossed themselves. They grabbed a lump of dirt from the pile and tossed it into the ground. They walked away as a man in overalls with a shovel approached.
Micky bided his time as the two women separated from the deacon and walked along the sidewalk. They rounded the corner before Micky finally started the engine. He pulled into the road and slowly followed them. He knew where they were headed. He had gotten the information from a waitress at Libellule the night before. When they were only a few blocks away from the apartment building, he surpassed them and went to park. He got out and waited on the stoop.
Delphia was quiet as she walked with Ms. Palermo from the cemetery. It seemed strange now that it was all over. She sniffed her shoulder. It smelled fine, but she kept getting a whiff of her dead mother. She would have to wash all of her clothes again. Ms. Palermo didn’t seem to notice. Delphia dragged her eyes away from the sidewalk and looked up. There standing on the stairs was a man she didn’t expect to see.
“Mr. O’Kinney?” she said quietly.
“I’m sorry to intrude. I heard what happened down at Libellule,” Micky paused and stared down at his shoes for a moment. “I asked, you see, when I noticed you weren’t workin’. I was worried you had quit.”
“Quit? How did you know I wasn’t fired? Sometimes strange men get girls fired, you know.” Delphia said it with a straight face. Micky stared at her with a furrowed brow. She finally continued. “Mr. O’Kinney, this is Ms. Palermo, my neighbor. She helped me with my mother while I worked.”
“How do you do?” Micky tipped his hat. Ms. Palermo nodded back as she studied him suspiciously. Then she gave Delphia a motherly hug, squeezed around Micky and disappeared into the darkness of the tenement.
“Well, I, uh. I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Fitzgerald.” Micky got cold feet and descended the steps past Delphia.
“Mr. O’Kinney?” Micky stopped in his tracks as Delphia spoke. “Would you like to step inside? I could make tea.” He turned around. She was already at the door looking back at him. He hastily climbed the steps and followed her inside. The staircase was narrow. Each landing was cluttered with the detritus of its residents. Garbage, baby carriages and work boots gathered lifelessly around the doorways. There was no sign of Ms. Palermo when they reached Delphia’s floor. She unlocked her door and entered with Micky on her heels, but he stopped just inside the door. His eyes settled on the stripped mattress, stained and lumpy. The apartment was just the one room with the small galley kitchen off the side. Putting on the teakettle seemed to have slipped Delphia’s mind as she sunk into the worn-out davenport. It groaned under her weight, which couldn’t be much. Micky stayed standing. The shabby curtains fluttered on the breeze from the open windows, but Micky could still smell it under the heavy odor of bleach. The illness, the urine soaked fibers of the mattress, the death.
“I haven’t been able to sleep,” Delphia said. “Since she’s gone. It feels strange. Every waking moment seemed to revolve around her since I was a little girl. Now I can’t even sleep on my bed. Not anymore. Even though I’ve cleaned everything I could.” She hugged the flat throw pillow to her chest, then pointed loathingly at the mattress. “Everything, except that. I can’t afford a new one. I couldn’t even afford to…bury her…the way she deserved.” Delphia tried to keep herself from crying. Micky had seen this hundreds of times from the bereaved at the funeral home. He finally stepped forward and took a seat on the couch. He put an arm around her.
“Come on now. You took care of her didn’t you?” he said. She sniffed.
“I could have done better… I wasn’t always as kind as I should have been…” Delphia pulled a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes. “It was so much work. I-I still owe the doctor even…the medicines…We could barely eat some weeks.”
Micky found himself rubbing her back. She continued to sniff and dab her eyes. She seemed determined not to break down completely.
“My god, it’s suffocating in here,” Delphia said as she fanned herself.
“How about we get some fresh air,” Micky suggested. He stood up and held out his hand. Delphia stared at it. She didn’t know what exactly that entailed. Was he posing as a friend or was this some sort of scheme? She realized she didn’t care as long as she had some place to go outside of the apartment. She took his hand. He lifted her off the old davenport and they left the little room. When they reached the pavement the sun was beginning to sink and rays of orange tinted the sky. He offered her his arm and she took it, leaning on it slightly. A short drive found them at the boardwalk.
Delphia instantly clung to the railing and gazed at the sea. The waves rippled and caught the glints of sunlight. She inhaled the salty air. It was clean, fresh. Micky stood to the side and watched her. It was the best medicine to be outdoors. The setting sun kissed her skin and she basked in its glow. It didn’t matter that her dress was plain. Her make up nonexistent compared to the supper club. She had a captivating look. She opened her eyes and gave him a glance out of the corner.
“Thank you,” she said. “It is easier to breathe out here.”
“I like it too. I don’t get to see it much.” He nodded at the ocean.
“Why not?” she leaned on the railing.
“I work on the Farm for Mr. Sicero,” Micky replied. Delphia scoffed.
“You don’t look or act like a farmer.”
“Oh yeah? And what do you know?” Micky gave her a poke.
“I was born on a farm in Iowa, that is, until the crop failed and my father deserted us,” Delphia crossed her arms, “So yes, I’d know if you were a real farmer or not.” Micky raised his arms.
“You got me! I was pretty sure you already guessed that I was a bootlegger for Mr. Sicero though.”
“No,” Delphia shook her head. “Yes, I see liquor all night long, but I figured you just bought the bit you gave me. I didn’t guess that you made it.” Delphia was playing dumb, she had heard plenty of gossip at Libellule.
“Well, I do. I might have some here if you like,” Micky chuckled as he reached in his interior coat pocket for a flask.
“Sshh! There’s a lot of people here,” Delphia put her hand out to stop his hand from reappearing. He paused and glanced down at her hand on his chest. She tore it away blushingly.
“No one’s paying attention. They’re all on their way to dinner.” Micky tried to look her in the eye, but she was avoiding his gaze. “Like we should be. Come on, let’s go to dinner. What do you like? Tino’s? The Anchor? Manny’s? We could even go to Libellule if you want.”
“Oh no. No, no, no,” Delphia still didn’t look at him as she shook her head. “I’m not dressed well enough for any of those places.” She looked down at her faded gray cotton dress, the black crocheted shawl she borrowed from Ms. Palermo. She was ashamed.
“Well, we’re here on the boardwalk. Let’s take a stroll and if you see something that strikes your fancy, you can have it. You’re dressed for that at least.”
Delphia finally met his eyes. He pulled out a cigarette case as he waited for her answer. It clicked open and he pulled one out. He offered her one, but she shook her head. The cigarette case disappeared and a quick lighter flick lit his cigarette.
“So what do you say?” Micky asked again in a billow of smoke. He held out his arm. Delphia finally nodded and put her hand in the crook of his elbow. They started strolling along the boardwalk and she smiled for the first time in days.