The Cell by John Pietaro (Lucent Dreaming Issue 8)

“It’s so close in here, so close,” said the woman to no one in particular.

“Two weeks before winter officially starts and the radiator burns like it’s mid-January…” She trailed off somberly, listening to the polyrhythmic tap dancing of rising steam.

Rubbing her forehead, the woman dropped her fork suddenly, ignoring the clank-clunk that came as it bounced off the dish and onto the table. It left reddish-brown markings of foodstuff on the slightly yellowed Formica, which she also ignored. She rose to her bare feet and walked slowly toward the furthest corner of her confining studio apartment. The thermometer over the sink read 69 degrees, though she believed that the inexpensive thing was way off. It was all she could do to keep from throwing it out.

“Like a cell, just like a prison cell,” she said, exhaling through her teeth. She walked cat-like, with silent steps, her shoulders hunkered down defensively as if trying to avoid sudden attack. The roundness of her back over the years had become common place. The curvature was, by this time, comfortable.

With no territory left to conquer, she rested her face against the cool glass window; it alone stopped her from continuing on, stepping out just beyond the tight walls. The gray-blue early winter sky hovered over downtown like an imaginary landscape, a painted backdrop in an old movie.

The woman angled her eyes first up at the cityscape and then downward toward the harried five o’clock throngs moving in a confused unison toward the subway.

“Where you going? Where are you all going?” she asked the streaked, dusty glass. Her belly tightened as she contemplated the quivering street scene below. She never liked to be crowded-in like that.

“Like drones moving around a beehive — that’s how they look. That’s exactly what they look like.” She spoke while looking back at her faint, blurred reflection in the fogged glass. And then, echoing this, she spoke directly to the crowds below: “That’s exactly what YOU look like.”

But no one heard, no one responded.

So taken was she with this display that the woman had ignored the boiling coffee pot sitting atop a lighted burner on her stove.

“Damn!” She rushed across the room to the dining area, separated from the living area by a couch and a throw rug. She got to the stove just as the bubbling brew streamed over the spout, hissing at her as the flames became extinguished in the stream of brown fluid.

“Not my day,” she told the stove. “Not my day at all.”

She left the half-done pot of coffee on the simmering black metal and simply turned the stove-top switch to OFF. Better to leave this for later.
As daylight turned to black, the woman clicked on the floor lamp that stood vigil by the couch. She drew the blinds tightly, shutting out the glare from the neon sign on the building’s edge. It seemed to offer an almost warming sensation to the room, oddly enough. She turned on the television – she insisted it remain off during the day, afraid to become comfortable in its bluish, flickering haze – and after watching the news and part of a black and white movie on cable (something about truck drivers with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), she turned the television off. It was 8:45pm. She rose, grabbed her coat from the small closet and buttoned it up to the top. She then wrapped her neck with a paisley scarf, pulled on a cap and grabbed her big shoulder bag, now ready to emerge.

The woman stepped out into the hallway, sounds from the other apartments bouncing off the hard, tiled floor and tall ceiling. Bits of muffled conversation confounded by barriers, the throb of distant music, a baby’s far off wail, arguments and laughter unseen. And her neighbor Bill Lampert’s always-too-loud television cranked up for the sake of the hearing aid he keeps set too low, but maybe more for the sake of anyone who’s straining to listen to all that goes on behind closed doors.

The smell of far-off cooking permeated the hall as she waited for the elevator, as Lampert’s blare hangs in the foreground, fighting for attention.
God, why does it have to be Fox News of all things? she thought, waiting impatiently for the slow-motion old elevator, fending off the irritated rants.

Enjoying the strange smorgasbord of far-away foods still wafting in the air, she breathed deeply as the elevator suddenly appeared, ready to carry her down to the outside world.

The woman emerged from the building and out on to the street, still busy even at this time as she absorbed the blast of frost like a thirsty sponge. The damp breeze enlivened her, and she looked about while making a rapid left turn at the corner. Though it was late, the downtown streets were still busy. Christmas songs, the scratchy recordings of heavenly choirs, were everywhere, beckoning. Silver Bells. Screw you.

Passersby were finishing their shopping and standing on corners talking as the stores began to close, the front windows going dark one by one. Everyone had something to say, somewhere to go.

Five blocks later, quickly advancing into a quieter, more residential street, the woman was able to see a horizon where the rush, the voices, the noise, the crush came finally to an end. She headed that way, gulping deep breaths of chilly air as she moved toward the welcoming shadows.

She turned the next corner and melted into the cool blackness.

John Pietaro is a writer, poet, spoken word artist and musician. Pietaro completed both a poetry collection, The Mercer Stands Burning, and a second book of fiction, Enduring Neon Moments. In 2019, he launched poetry chapbook Smoke Rings. Pietaro is director/host of the annual Dissident Arts Festival and has performed with Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, Amina Baraka, Karl Berger, Steve Dalachinsky, Erika Dagnino, many more, and fronts post-punk neo-Beat duo Shadows and free jazz quartet the Red Microphone.
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