Every Friday it was the same. George hated mopping. Yet, it was part of the contract for his shitty "one-room cave". Holes in the walls, screeching heaters, hot water only under lucky circumstances. And moppng the hallway every single damn Friday.
It was not the best neighborhood, but it was the best George could afford. Which, he decided while wiping the sweat from his forehead, showed how much he had accomplished in life. Or rather, how little. His scalp was itching, and he ran a hair through the short black bristles. This was the only way he could afford a hairdo - if he gave himself one. The same applied to handjobs and intelligent conversation. Years of education and job training, and now it wasn't even enough to keep it all together.
The old woman living down the hallway came up the stairs, heaving and puffing, carrying her weekly groceries. She never talked to anyone, no one on the complex knew her, and she never smiled. Her white hair tucked back in a tight bun, long black skirt and burgundy cardigan, she was the epitome of the grandmother George had always been glad he didn't have. That was the kind of old lady to make you sit still and sip tea with them. Well, if she should ever happen to notice, let alone speak to him.
A few months ago, in a drunk haze, George had crept down the hallway to find out the old woman's name. For some booze-induced reason it had appeared very important at that time, and he'd decided it was his mission for the night, before he could advance to that second bottle of cheap whiskey.
Cantellano. Mrs. Sofia Cantellano.
While downing the second bottle, George entertained himself wondering what had brought the old woman to New York, what she had been up to in her life. Maybe she had been a spy, or fallen in love with an American who had smuggled her over the border? Of course that must have taken place when she was young and beautiful, maybe in the 1920s.
Ever since, George had made a point of greeting the old woman when she came home while he was mopping the hallway. "Buenos dias", he would shout with exaggerated cheer, smiling his best to show off quite even white teeth. The only thing he had left from his childhood. Good dental care. And a few words left over from Spanish language, which he had never paid much attention to.
The woman kept ignoring him.
Then she stopped appearing on Fridays. Fall came and went, and George would mop his floor between jobs or before and after underpaid occupations in shabby etablissements where he posed as a bouncer, lifted heavy objects or played the "stupid muscle" part, never smiling to hide his teeth.
Finally, one day in the middle of December, Mrs. Cantellano made her reappearance. She looked pale, tinier even than she had looked before, and it took her forever to master the stairs. George, mopping, pretend not to notice her until she was on the final stairs. He felt relief. When he heard her pause to catch her breath, he turned around, smiled his most dazzling smile. "Buenos dias, Senora!"
The old woman smiled and replied something in Spanish.
George shrugged. He had never paid much attention during Spanish lessons. "Perdone, no hablo Espanol."
Mrs. Cantellano's smile widened. She picked up her groceries and passed him to get to the door of her flat. There she stopped, key in hand. "Goood after-noon, Senor." And went inside.
George wondered where she had been so long.