Two Very Short Stories / Matthew Sharpe
“Lickety split, hurry up, don’t slow down now, boy,” the man said. They trudged up the side of the mountain and down the other side, not on a trail, just out there moving in between the pines and scrub brush in the accumulating snow, rifles jostling on their backs. In the valley they saw a cabin with a light on inside and smoke coming from the chimney. It belonged to the man’s enemy. The sky grew dim. They stood at a distance and through binoculars watched him move slowly from one room to the other in a flannel shirt and blue jeans with suspenders. He was gray-haired and looked harmless if you didn’t know what he’d done. They approached the cabin, rifles up. The cabin’s occupant came to the door. “You can park those over there.” The three of them went into the dining room and had Sunday supper and the man and boy went home. “Next time say thank you to Grandpa.”
A Sense of Humor
Jim was tall and thin and had been called wispy. He liked to hunt deer and wild turkey and ducks. There was that bear-hunting joke that he disliked where the bear offers a penetrating psychological insight to the hunter at the end of the joke. He disliked too much thinking, but there you are not moving a muscle for hours in a duck blind. He liked shooting a duck, field dressing it, bringing it home and giving it to his wife, Ronald, to cook, and eating it with their son, Dorothy. Don’t fuck with Dorothy.
Adieu / Keisha Bush
"Tell 'em love," her Alabaman accent slipping through heavy. Her smile stiff and forced.
"Son, we're going back-"
Her husband answers his mobile phone mid-sentence, seamlessly diverting from his lightly accented English into perfect French.
"J'ai envoyé les documents déjà…" he walks out of the living room, the family discussion forgotten.
Her son turns to her with impatience.
"Darling, we're moving to New York," she says.
Her stomach sinks with dread. This cannot be happening.
He scruntches his face up in displeasure.
"Your father's being transferred to a new project."
"But dad travels all the time," he whines.
"This project is open-ended, he could be stationed there for years."
"But mom we live here. What about my friends? And school? Do something."
He searches her face for hope.
"Moustapha, honey I know this is all very sudden, but this is important to your father. Don't you remember how quickly we had to leave Shanghai six years ago to come back to Dakar? You were six then but you had friends that you had to leave and school."
"Yeah, I guess."
Moustapha stares at the floor and kicks at an imaginary object.
"There's a French bilingual school in New York. You'll make new friends…" her voice trails off as she strokes his cheek.
He looks at her with distrust in his eyes.
"That's right! You'll go to one of the best private schools in New York and you'll continue in the French education system. New York will be great," his father says walking back into the room. The space constricts with his presence.
"No buts Moustapha. This is a great time to leave Africa. Things are volatile here and will only get worse. The students are rioting. The vendors are rioting. There's little wiggle room for rising food and oil prices in the developing world. Inflation will always defeat the working man."
Her husband calls the maid to fetch him a drink.
"When do we go?"
"We leave this week."
She doesn't respond. Moustapha spins on his heels.
"Son, you'll be fine. Go upstairs and begin packing your things. Ask Aria to help you. Aria! Go to her now."
Moustapha walks out of the living room with hunched shoulders, dragging his feet across the marble floors. In the doorway he bumps into his nanny.
"Mon père dit de m'aider à emballer."
He drags his body up the stairs, each step more painful than the last. In his room he throws his stuff onto the floor until Aria yells at him to sit on his bed and stay out of her way. He lies down on his bed, cursing beneath his breath.
"You know honey, Moustapha may have a hard time adjusting to New York and a new school."
Her husband grunts in acknowledgement.
"The weather here is great. Our friends are here. New York is so fast and chaotic. The apartment's there are so small and cramped. How will we all fit?"
"New York will be good for the boy. Round him out, sophisticate him. He was born in the States; this is a fine time for him to return. Spend his teenage years there before he begins college. The apartment will be large enough."
He opens his laptop and begins typing. She releases a heavy sigh.
"It's all just so sudden, this transfer. We've been here six years. I'm president of my Women's group and the American Club. I'm on several charity boards. All of my friends are here."
Her throat closes up and she's unable to finish. He looks up from his computer a moment and peers over the top of his glasses at her., waiting. She clears her throat.
"Plus, Moustapha doesn't even remember the states. He's half Senegalese, he should be close to his roots and his country. What will he do without Aria? She does everything for him. Does this apartment complex in New York even have a pool?"
She sighs heavy and meets his gaze.
"Moustapha doesn't need Aria. He has you. He will make new friends and so will you. We don't use all this space as it is, so what's the difference? If Moustapha has to share a swimming pool with other kids, it'll do him good," he stares at her a moment without expression then returns back to his work.
"I'm not ready to leave," she says in a quiet voice that threatens to rise, "most of our friends are traveling. We don't even have time to throw a party. This move is rushed. It's all wrong!"
Her husband closes his laptop and looks at her.
"When we got married you said you loved to travel, discover new places. This is what we're doing. You signed up for this twelve years ago. I've held up my end of the bargain."
Her stomach flips several times and a boiling feeling rises up into her throat. She tries to push it back but the more she tries to subdue it the faster it rises.
"I'm not some refugee fleeing famine! America is not new or exotic to me. There's no comparison to our lifestyle here. I did not sign up to be some regular Jane Doe wife in America with the highlight of my day being some ridiculous PTA meetings or mundane trip to Walmart!"
"I'm not paying for all this," he waves his arm across the room, "when my company is paying for a perfectly fine apartment in New York. You want to stay? Get a job and maintain the upkeep of your lifestyle here, but Moustapha goes to New York with me, regardless. My son goes where I go. If you don't like that option you'll pack our things and ship what will fit in the new place. You have the floor plans."
He opens his laptop and goes back to typing.
She wrings her hands in her lap while looking around at the furniture in the room, pieces she painstakingly chose and special-ordered directly from Italy, France and Portugal. She wants to scream but instead stands up, smoothes her skirt down with both hands and walks out of the room. She's sure he doesn't even look up from his computer screen. She makes a slow procession through the house. Seven bedrooms, four bathrooms, two kitchens, central air, a gazebo - which not many houses in the city can boast - an in-ground swimming pool, two maids, a nanny, two cars, a driver. Angela. Shit. How could she forget. She needs to call her. Pain pierces across her brow. She cannot bear that conversation right now. Maybe tomorrow.
She goes into the master bedroom flings herself atop the California King platform sleigh bed and cries herself to sleep.
"All of these boxes are going," she says in English, pointing.
The movers trudge in and out of the house, the usual pristine floors covered in dirt.
"Be careful!" She screams as one of the men drags the carefully wrapped Italian coffee table across the floor.
"Vien ici! Wregarder ces hommes, assurez-vous qu'ils ne cassent rien! J'ai besoin d'un moment seul."
The men grumble in Mandinka that the American bitch is annoying.
"Just don't break anything," Aria says to them with a roll of her eyes as she saunters out of the room.
Angela. Right. She said she would call her a week ago. To tell her that they're leaving. She goes into her empty bedroom and lights a cigarette. She quit several years ago. Her mobile phone sits on the ledge of the curtain-less window, waiting for her to pick up and dial.
She releases the smoke out of her lungs while dabbing the cigarette out in the corner of windowsill.
"In here Moustapha!"
Moustapha runs into the room. He pauses a moment at the foreign smell but then remembers why he is looking for her.
"What?" She looks out the window, disbelieving that in a few hours all that she knows will be changed for good.
My Wii is gone!"
What will she say to Angela? She should have called her a week ago. Waiting will only add hurt to injury at this point.
"My Wii! I can't find it. The boxes from my room are gone."
"Our stuff will get to New York in eight weeks. You'll get it then. Go gather your things, we're leaving soon."
"No! You need to tell Aria to find it. I want it now!"
"Moustapha, do what I say."
"You're not listening to me! You let stupid Aria pack my game! I didn't get to say good-bye to any of my friends! I want my Wii, now!"
"Stop it! Just stop it! You're being a brat and I can't take it. Now just go!" She screams, her hands shaking as she points towards the door.
"Why are you doing this to me? I hate New York and I hate you!"
"Well join the club, because I hate me too! Won't we be a bundle fun in the Big Apple!"
Moustapha kicks the door and stomps off cursing at her. She relights her cigarette. Aria walks into the room but before the woman can say anything she waves her away. When the cigarette is done she lights a new one and takes a prescription bottle out of her purse, two pills lie at its bottom. She swallows them dry.
There's nothing she could say that would make it any less painful. She picks up her phone and begins to type a text message, "Angela, I'm sorry." Would that suffice? Probably not. What's worse? A shitty text message or no message at all?
She doesn't know how long she's been staring at her phone and the unsent text message when he clears his throat. She looks up to find her husband staring at her, his head cocked to the side.
"I didn't think you would succeed in clearing out all remnants of our existence on such short notice."
She deletes the message and turns her phone off.
"Are you ready?"
He steps to the side making way for her to exit the room before him. She obliges.
With their luggage packed into the SUV they head to the airport for the red-eye flight to New York.
The Scumbag's Guide To Getting By In A Cruel World / Nicolle Elizabeth
My friend Faith is a mini con artist. She's not actually my friend. If we were friends I wouldn't be telling you this. She's trying to one-up the universe. She's a deviant. It's unpleasant to think about. I'd heard varying stories. I'd heard she'd pawned her own family's jewelry. I'd heard she owed almost everybody some kind of money. One time a guy I know got her a place to stay with his friends, and those friends went away for a weekend, and when they got back, everything you can think of was cleaned out of that apartment. She took potholders. A month later and they saw her walking out of a bar wearing one of their missing coats. They pulled over and made her take it off and give it back right there. Like they were in the Scarlet Letter. I have no idea what my friend did after that, coatless in the middle of town.
She is beautiful, there is no denying this. She's as thin as a rail, tall, has ambiguous blonde pixie hair that always looks like she's been wearing a ski-cap. Purposefully tousled, you might say. She has one of those voices that sounds like whispering. I'd heard she'd been working as a bartender and dating the owner of the establishment, who was the ex-husband of Sandra Bullock or somebody. I'd heard that that the guy had fired her. It was probably for the best because he was a bad guy anyways and eventually bad guys always act bad. She emailed me, she said she was coming to town and wanted to meet up.
When she came for brunch the following Sunday at a restaurant she had suggested, which she had prefaced by saying, "I will pay next time," I was amused at all the drama of it, and maybe this slightly makes me a terrible person.
She rolls her suitcase behind her at 10 am down Bedford Ave, "Me and John got back together," she says. "It's our one year abortion anniversary."
This was upsetting to me for many reasons. First of all, she'd originally told me that John, her man, was dead. She did this because I was a widow. My husband Clay had died in Afghanistan when we were 24. He went into the army because that is what you do when you are from where we are from. Faith had bonded us with commiseration. We were both that girl with the gone man. Now this slip, this John re-introduction, was careless, forgetful, heartbreaking.
"You flew in?" I look at her luggage tags.
We're sitting in this café ordering mimosas, on me, and Faith is talking to me about getting back together with John. I think it was she came up to me at a party and literally just started talking about it out of nowhere. I wonder now who had leaked my Clay information to her in the first place. How she'd known. She sipped mimosa.
"Is that weird that his name is John too?" I flat out asked her.
Back from the dead, I thought.
This is when I realized she'd probably stolen something from John, if there was a John.
She told me about seeing John, she told me about Santa Cruz, where he lives, alive and well. "What do you need, Faith?" I asked her, shifting in my chair, knowing the answer. "You need a place to stay?"
"Yeah," she said to me.
My apartment is full of ghosts. I sometimes wish they would talk louder. A cabinet closing on its own, the hot water running out, all things I wish were signs from my ghosts.
I pulled out a set of sheets and put a blanket, folded, on the couch, wondering if Faith would wake up tomorrow a better person.
My roommate Georgia is kind of a legend and I think I may basically be in love with her even though I'm still in love with my husband Clay, and maybe that makes me a terrible person for cheating on him in my heart. She's a bluegrass singer who went to prison for protesting at The School of the Americas at that marine base down in North Carolina. Every year, a hundred protestors march shouting all kinds of disagreements with varying States related foreign policies. At trial, Georgia had 88 co-defendants, all of which were charged with trespassing on federally protected land. All of which were given three month sentences. She came out of prison with a neck tattoo that says her name, Georgia. She was an undergraduate student studying sociology at an Ivy at the time, and now we live in Brooklyn. Our other roommate, Boomerang, Georgia's best friend was also sent to the men's prison as one of her co-defendants. He didn't come out as unscathed as she did. He says he works as a "specialist" now but I've never seen him go to work.
Georgia and Boomerang come charging into our apartment, carrying their tandem bicycle into its parking spot in the kitchen. Faith and I are sharing my newspaper and sitting on the couch, it's all I can do while I try to mentally go over where our valuables are and how I will keep them safe from her.
"Hello dudes," Georgia booms into the living room.
It has been six hours of eating house things, sitting on house things, doing house things and I have noticed that Faith hasn't received one text message, not one phone call. Actually, I have yet to see any sort of phone device within her proximity at all.
"Do you need to call anyone and tell them your plane landed from Santa Cruz to New York safely?"
"It's fine," she says in that voice that sounds like whispering.
When Clay first died, I had all these dreams he hadn't actually. A phone would ring and I would answer it and there would be static on the other end. Through the static he would say to me, "I'm okay," and I would be able to see him, talking on the other end of the line. He would explain to me that we might not see each other again. He told me that it was okay. The line went static. I had this corny phone call for years. For five years. And when the phone call stopped, I tried to think it back.
I put his watch in a shoebox at the bottom of my closet, I cup his wedding band I wear on a necklace around my neck.
In the living room, Georgia and Faith and Boomerang are playing hearts and drinking mint tea.
"In Buenos Aires," says Faith, "They dance for 24 hours at a time. The rumor about New York being the city that never sleeps? New York sleeps. It's Buenos Aires that doesn't sleep. The entire city is a dream."
Boomerang's eyes are hazy in that overtired something hurts, everything hurts kind of way. I fidget. This is bad, this Faith and Georgia and Boomerang situation. She's already sizing them up, winning them over, starting to go in for the kill through sweet talk. I think about our useful things. I think about Boomerang's card collection, I think about Georgia's violin.
"Let's get take-in for dinner," I say to them.
When your favorite person to eat with dies, cooking dinner gets really weird. It's like when you're working in an office and somebody quits and then you have all this awkward extra work to do. Except also that you're sad and miserable and alone and not hungry and it's too quiet.
We're sitting on the couch watching "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and I'm thinking about those siren women, bathing in the water singing. George Clooney's face dumbfounded, all these men, these people, going toward women singing about the devil. Walking right up ankle deep in a lake.
"Faith," I swallow. "You gonna look for a job?"
The woman doesn't flinch, doesn't lower her chopsticks, chews, "Tomorrow." Women like this, I think, they are the siren and the lake. She can stay the week, I promise my blood pressure.
In the morning, I leave for class at the expensive graduate school I am paying for in loans. I skateboard to the subway. I look up at the ceiling astrology in Grand Central and listen for the hallway echoes. I sit with a paper cup of coffee on the upper level steps, waiting to get on the train where women will carry expensive handbags and men will sneak booze into their morning coffee.
It's a Monday. Georgia will be heading to the garden. One of the first things she did after getting out of prison was to start a community garden. There was an empty lot behind a chain-link fence, overrun with weeds, crabgrass, dandelion root. The elevated subway platform runs right over it, basically. So she got a lot of people to volunteer by stapling up fliers everywhere and a community was formed. She got dozens of people to start freezing their vegetable waste in plastic bags and then to bring it over to the garden for composting in giant bins. The Times interviewed her about it for the Metro section but she left out the prison part. I picture Faith wearing a red bandana working in the garden with Boomerang, sweet talking him, telling him about soy farmers de-foresting the rainforest. I pictured her putting round peppers in her purse pocket without anybody knowing. I carry my skateboard off the train, go to class and tell everybody that I think Madame Bovary's intro speech was a piece of shit even though I loved that chapter.
When I get back to my apartment, Georgia is frying seitan in an iron skillet we didn't used to own.
"I got you guys this kitchen stuff," Faith says, smiling.
On the counter are jam jars filled with things, with sugar, with sea salt crystals.
"I got a job," she says to me. "Bartending in Alphabet City."
At night, the view from high up in Brooklyn is really something else. An entire city lit up, two million watts. I walk past Faith sleeping in my sheets on the couch in our living room, pretty sure she has one eye open. I knock on Georgia's bedroom door and she answers it, wearing nothing but a t-shirt. She takes me into her hands. She lets me in.
We hold one another, staring up to the window, at the electricity painting the dark, the energy painting the night. I push my bare foot slightly against the glass on the windowpane, drawing over those illuminated dots.
"Can't you see that she's evil?" I kiss Georgia's head.
She answers, "You're the one who brought her in here."
I look out the window at the lights, "She didn't have anywhere to go."
She looks up at me, and squints her face in the watt dot speckles, asks, "And why is that?"
In the morning, there is a note on my door: 2nd & Ave C bring Boomerang.
I dig through the closet, I sit on my knees, and I find Clay's watch. Boomerang isn't in his room, his bed is made, he hasn't been home all night.
I spend the day reading in the garden. I think in the strawberries. Where is the ghost phone call? Cold stiffening, I ride my bike back to our apartment. Brooklyn at sunset in slow motion is a marketplace of scents. Bakery doors open and car exhaust, incense from street vendors on the sidewalk, thick. Raegetton even has a scent, the scent is serious. Everything in Brooklyn, even the partying, is serious. I lift everything up the stairs to our clean well-lit place. Someone is in the shower. I sit on our couch, and I wait for Faith to emerge smelling like my lavender bodywash. Boomerang comes out of the bathroom wearing a towel, his cheeks are flushed.
"You'd have an easier time if you gave yourself an easier time," I say to him.
He tightens his towel around his waist.
"All you ever do is tell people what to do," he walks past me, to his room, and closes the door.
The bar Faith is working in, which she wants to show me, I think, as proof, maybe proof that she knows I'm onto her, has lights like a chain restaurant and is a complete dive. They have brunch on Sundays, a sign says.
"Hey," she flags down my bike helmet from behind the bar. "Drinks are on me. Just pass over one dollar so it'll look like you paid," she says.
"I'll take a water," I answer her. "How's the first day going?"
She points to a man on a stool at the end of the bar. He looks like the creepy old guy from the Metallica Unforgiven music video. It's Alphabet City, he probably is that guy. He looks up at me, winks. Someone once told me that if people wink at you, it means they're lying.
"I'll take a Guinness," I say to her. Why the hell not.
There is a television, and me and Faith and her one regular old guy sit together and watch it.
She holds the pint glasses angled too far to the right, I know about this because I was a bartender in high school, but I've never told her that. What I did was, as soon as I turned 18 I walked into all the bars in Worcester, Massachusetts and demanded a job. I did this because I was bored and brave and I wanted the money. I was an amazing bartender. Before Clay, I started seeing one of the bar bouncers. I think he wanted to marry me because this one time when we were moving around in the boiler room naked together after closing, he had this look in his eyes, it was fear.
Faith holds the pint glass up to the tap like she's pulling alchemy from it. But give it a rest already, I think.
A big woman in a baseball hat comes barreling on in. Like a steam engine, this one. She storms into the swinging kitchen door at the back of the room, her coat half off. We watch more television, Faith swirls around more foam.
Twenty minutes later the steam engine appears in a filthy button up coat like she's a chef. The thing's stained in yellows and ketchups, lime green. She shakes my hand like the damn fall of Rome. She walks toward the jukebox, which I've only just now realized exists, and isn't on, and she takes quarters out of her own pocket, turns on some kind of pop song about being an independent woman, snaps her fingers at her sides, says to us, "Real music."
"It's my song," says Faith in that whisper voice, wiping down the counter. "I'm the independent woman."
I watch under the bar to look for where she's already got the five dollar bills stashed in the dishrags.
Opening Day / Susan Buttenwieser
Maggie in the shower shaves her armpits, the razor scraping against the fold of her skin, near her lymph nodes, the thing that killed her mother. She doesn't do the breast exams, like the doctor tells her she should. She has to, he's explained, patiently at first, but a slight edge entered his voice as he went on. It's not really a choice, she's so high risk and he wants her to get annual mammograms, even though she's only 28. But she won't do that either.
She moves onto her legs, lathering them up, and doesn't forget her two big toes. The radio suctioned to the shower wall blasts Space Cowboy. Shaving cream swirling down the drain, she dances slightly as she washes between her legs, the place where Kevin just was, a few minutes ago. "Love me, love me, love me," she sings along with the song, mocking the sound of the synthesizer. A warm breeze blows in the window, cracked open slightly, curtains blowing in catch a bit of spray from the showerhead.
She'd been looking forward to this day ever since Stu suggested it at Martin's Bar and Grille, their regular Saturday night hang out, on a cold January night, when spring and baseball seemed far away.
But finally it's here and Maggie felt like a little kid on Christmas when she first woke up, rolled over and stroked Kevin awake, straddled him. "Today's the day," she said afterwards.
They leave the house late than and bicker in the car.
"16 is gonna be a parking lot now," she is saying. "We should take Rayburn."
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm driving," he says ignoring her, heading for Route 16.
"What are you doing?"
"Going the usual way."
"Are you out of your fucking mind! It's rush hour and we're taking 16! We'll never make it on time!"
He doesn't say anything.
"This is just fuckin' great! You know I really like all that ceremony shit and now we're gonna fuckin' miss it!"
"Fine!" he says.
They take Rayburn, get stuck in traffic and now they are both mad.
"How was I supposed to know? It's never like this," she stares out the window, like a sulking teenager. He can feel the temperature rise in the car, a pre-explosive moment descending upon them. He exhales.
"What?" she snaps.
"I didn't say anything."
"But you're sighing, like it's my fault there's traffic. Like I'm the one that called all these people and asked them to all get in their cars at exactly the same time and drive."
"It was your idea not to take 16."
"I knew it. You blame me for everything!"
"I don't. But you gotta admit that you were pretty insistent."
"So everything's my fault!" She's seething and once again, Kevin wonders how exactly they got here. Are there more of these moments now then there used to be. It's like he's always doing a complicated mathematical equation in his head, to try to figure out this relationship, the joy versus the shit.
There was waking up and having amazing sex and now less than 90 minutes later, they hate each other. It's this kind of thing that broke them up last year. A fight about fighting, with her accusing him of turning everything into conflict. It was after a family dinner. His family, of course, and she was drunk, of course. When they got home, he turned around and drove back to his brother's, and the whole way over there, it was like everything was crystal clear for a moment, like a floodlight shining down on his life and he knew he had to get away from her.
"She's a douche," his brother had said to him years ago, after one of their early fights. They'd broken up then too, but only for a week. "She's no Pauline, put it that way. And you're fuckin' whipped, little bro."
No one in his family liked Maggie and he knew it, but it was almost like this distant anxiety that he tried to stifle, put on the sidelines. They don't really know her, he'd tell himself. Or reason that it was a class thing, because she was a lawyer, had gone not only to college, but to graduate school. It certainly impressed him that she worked in one of the biggest corporate firms in Boston. And all her business suits, the meetings, the travel, the paperwork about things he couldn't even begin to understand.
But his family thought she was a snot, no matter how many times he tried to correct them. She was a goddam orphan, he'd said on more than one occasion, had put herself through college and law school, was the only one supporting her sister, who lived in a group home for the mentally ill.
"She hasn't had an easy life," he'd tried to explain to his mother.
"You trying to convince me? Or yourself?" his mother snapped back, his aunts cackling in the background.
This was during last summer's break-up, at his aunt's beach house, the whole family as witnesses. He wasn't even supposed to go because Maggie didn't want to. But then they broke up and he asked if it was too late for him to come.
"Don't be a bonehead," Tommy had said. "We get you and no Maggie. It's win-win for everyone."
But they were back together again by the annual Labor Day barbecue at his uncle's, and his family could barely hide their disgust. In fact they didn't.
"What are you doing?" Tommy had said as he grilled chicken and hot dogs, peppers and onions bubbling on the side, Maggie playing tag with his little cousins on the other side of the yard.
She's got that full-on angry look, Kevin notes when they park at the commuter rail station.
"Knowing your family, they'll probably be late anyway," Maggie spits out.
But Kevin knows better than to reply, to not throw fuel on the fire that is Maggie's bad mood. The feeling of dread has come over him as she has fully descended into darkness. And she'd only had toast for breakfast and didn't even finish it. He's figuring a quick equation on half a piece of Oatnut mixed with numerous pints of Narragansett. It didn't have positive outcome, it just didn't.
They take the Red Line inbound, switch at Park Street for Kenmore Square, the car filling up at each stop with more and more fans and their requisite accessories: Red Sox baseball caps, T-shirts, jackets, flags, foam fingers, kids with streaks of red in their hair. By the time they reach their station, it's so packed, they can barely move and are swept along with the crowd as everyone heads up the stairs, out on Comm. Ave, left on Brookline, crossing over the Mass Pike, down Lansdowne, past the sausage guys, people singing in the already filled bars.
Once inside the stadium, Maggie wants to stop at the first concessions stand to get beer.
"Might as well get two pints," she says and he decides not to fight it.
They make their way towards Section 41 in the bleachers. There they are: his mother, aunts, uncle, his brother, kid sister who drove all the way up from Providence. And Stu, his best friend since grade school who practically lived with them his whole childhood.
After all the hugging and back-slapping and comparing notes on getting there, how bad the traffic was, how crowded the T was, they all stand for the National Anthem, the F-16 fighter jet flyover, the first pitch thrown out by Varitec, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans making an appearance. Maggie gulping the whole time, then the pinging sound plastic cups make when they are dropped empty onto concrete.
They sit down for the start of the game. Except for Maggie who is still vertical. "Anyone need anything?" she's shuffling sideways past his aunts out of the aisle. She doesn't even need to say where she's going.
"Oh this is gonna be good," his uncle snorts. "Game hasn't even started yet and look at her."
"Don't think she's going for a chicken parm," his mother folds her lips inside her mouth.
Kevin tries to stay focused on what is right in front of him, the lush grass, fresh painted lines, the players walking out onto the field with last fall behind them. Despite the numbers, the statistics, the math equations, it was the start of a new season and anything was possible.
Pandora's Children / Andrea Scrima
I only realized in hindsight how close she'd come to killing me. One day, how many years later was that, I suddenly had to think—and how long had it been since either of them had crossed my mind—of course, of course, she was pondering it all the while, imagining sending me sailing straight off the cliff with one good, hard push, wasn't she, and no one would have ever been able to prove that it hadn't been an accident, she and I walking along a narrow path cut into the side of the steep bluff, and I losing my footing and stumbling before she'd had a chance to grab hold of my arm and prevent me from plummeting to my death. She'd be in tears, or in shock, a slender woman in a light summer dress and sandals, and who would have expected it of her, given the sheer difference in size and strength, expected her to save the life of this gangly young man, and the policemen would have been more concerned with consoling the traumatized witness to a tragic accident than worrying about me, because I would have been dead as a doornail by then, wouldn't I.
I actually felt it at the time, the heat of her intent beaming onto the back of my neck, yet the gap can be immense between sensing something and allowing it to enter the mind as a thought; as something to be acted upon. We were walking along a narrow stretch of trail leading to the top of the bluffs; the underbrush was thick about us, and each time I thrust aside a tangle of branches I had to glance back to make sure they didn't snap into her face, easing the tension of the taut branches into her outstretched arm and waiting for her hand to find a secure grip before gently letting go. I wasn't avoiding her gaze, really; we were both immersed in our own private thoughts, progressing at a steady pace in a consonant rhythm of arms and branches and breathing. Our silence mirrored the silence around us and seemed natural. It was hot and humid, June had arrived in a sudden, flagrant flare, and I felt the sweat beading above my upper lip itch; I'm going to get a rash, I thought, and it's going to be a bitch shaving there, it's going to bleed and Ignacio will be poking fun at me again. "You're just like a woman," he'd giggle. "Always fretting over some little thing."
Much later, on an impulse, I called his office in Madrid. His assistant answered, and then laid the receiver down with a hollow clack. I closed my eyes and waited. Drifting in through an open window was the sound of a barking dog, a faraway car horn; listening to the silence, I began to see the sunlight fall across Ignacio's desk and the dark mahogany bookshelves behind it, existing there, this very moment, connected by one thin thread, a tiny microphone in a telephone receiver transmitting to a distant city, a distant time zone. A door slammed somewhere down a hallway, followed by the remote sound of steps, and before I could tell if they were approaching or departing, they abruptly ceased, around a corner perhaps. Six hours' difference, I thought; he'll be leaving work by now. I waited, but heard nothing more. Some time later, carried in on a light breeze, the cry of a child followed by the mute static of the overseas connection. A quarter of an hour must have passed before it occurred to me that the assistant had probably forgotten all about the call and gone home. I laid the receiver gently back on the hook and wondered if he would only remember the next morning, reminded by the sight of the disconnected telephone lying on the cluttered desk. That was my last contact with Ignacio.
"You will come and be my guest," he'd said. It had sounded less like an invitation than a command. And wasn't it already there the moment we were being introduced, the moment I felt myself flinch under this small man's exacting gaze: the impulse was there from the very beginning, a spontaneous urge to flee, to go back to my room and be alone, to mull over my thoughts in silence. He had an aura of absolute authority; I avoided his eyes and sank into a polite stoop to compensate for our difference in height, an unconscious expression of respect, I suppose, or perhaps it was an atavistic urge to genuflect. In any case, I suddenly felt I was cowering and straightened my posture; embarrassed, I shook his hand and saw one of his eyebrows arch in response. "It's an honor to have you here," I stammered by way of correction. He drew back to observe me, and then he smiled knowingly, as though I were communicating something to him in code.
Ignacio settled into work over the days that followed; the Institute had invited him for a semester-long academic fellowship. We crossed each other's paths on campus several times until I suddenly found myself turning around and watching his figure diminish into the distance. Before I knew what I was doing, I ran the length of the broad green lawn to catch up. "I just wanted to let you know that I'd be more than happy to assist you," I blurted out somewhat breathlessly. "If you need anything, that is." And then he stared at me, his dark, inquisitive eyes shrunken to the size of dots by a thick pair of eyeglasses, and smiled that benign smile of his. "Thank you for your kind offer," he stated simply and continued on his way, and there I stood, and I didn't really know what to do but watch him vanish once more. A day passed, and then another, and before I knew it I was falling behind in my work, because it had become harder and harder to concentrate, with my eyes tracing the same sentence again and again until I threw my book down in a fit of frustration and left the room, slamming the door behind me.
I waited several days, hoping Ignacio would seek me out for a favor of some kind, and then, one afternoon on my way back from the library, I discovered myself knocking impatiently at his door. When he appeared, his expression revealed nothing of the surprise I'd anticipated. "I'm sorry to disturb you," I said, following his outstretched arm into the small room. I took a seat on the edge of a chair and glanced around. Books were piled high on his desk; lining the wall, carefully arranged in pairs, stood a row of meticulously polished shoes. Ignacio was observing me questioningly, and I didn't know where to begin; sitting face-to-face with him like that made me forget everything I'd intended to say. Here was a leader in my field, and his esteemed presence was like a beacon exposing my darkest fears—that I didn't have what it takes to play anything more than a minor role, for instance, and that I should think about changing course before it became too late. He listened attentively as I recounted an entire landscape of self-doubt, and then he glanced at his watch and said that he had an appointment in half an hour.
I left, feeling foolish. Yet the next time I met Ignacio, he invited me to visit him again in his room. Soon after I arrived, a bottle of whiskey materialized on a small table. I can still see him sitting opposite me in the dim light, scrutinizing an ice cube in his glass. "There's something I'd like to tell you," he finally said, "something I've never told anyone before." He had a kind of recurrent notion, he began, and then he corrected himself: it was more of a feeling, an almost physical feeling of possessing a phantom body part. He'd gotten into the habit of imagining it to be a little box attached to the side of his head, one that no one else could see, he said. He didn't know when the idea first occurred to him, but it soon seemed to contain things he hadn't thought about in a long time: hopes he'd lost and dreams he'd mislaid and illusions he only dimly remembered, all of them mixed up together in a messy tangle. Sometimes he forgot all about the box; sometimes it moved of its own accord, migrating around his head and inching down the back of his neck, where he could no longer see it. And sometimes he felt the urge to open the box and peek inside, and all at once he would be confronted with an unintelligible cacophony of voices—all of them his, all of them immersed in some defunct hope he'd once had—and he soon developed a distaste for opening it altogether, but once in a while, he said, once in a while he needed to know where things were, for the sake of order. It had become easier to live as though the box didn't exist, but sometimes the latch itched to be unfastened, "to let in a little air," he said. And then he'd have to contend with the total sum of the box's contents, and it had become less a matter of enjoying an old dream he'd succeeded in extracting from the tangle and increasingly a matter of contending with the full force of his lost illusions, and it was tiring indeed to be confronted by them in such number and concentration, at the very moment he had the least use for them. "The problem is," Ignacio said quietly, the tip of his little finger stroking his fastidiously trimmed moustache, "how to dream without opening the box at all."
One day a woman came to visit; I watched them walking arm in arm on campus, and after some deliberation I presumed she was his wife. Ignacio was obliged again and again to stop and converse with various students and faculty, and his companion often had to wait, nodding cordially and extending her hand in a gesture that began to grow limp. I couldn't help but wonder if she hadn't imagined the trip somewhat differently: a change of pace from their routine in a life and an intimacy I couldn't begin to imagine. Perhaps Ignacio found it difficult to function without her; I pictured him pacing the room and debating a complicated problem as she listened patiently, deftly interjecting a comment here and there. Once I noticed her turn around and stare at a young student with a mane of wavy black hair; Ignacio raised his chin in what looked like disapproval, or indignation, and the woman's gaze fluttered back and forth between them like a startled bird. I wondered if our guest had been subjected to an impertinence of some kind and grew angry. I'll have to make a note of it; somebody should inform the dean that the freshmen don't know how to behave toward our guests from abroad.
Soon afterwards, I learned that the woman's name was Terezia. When I encountered them outside the Institute building one morning, I introduced myself and suggested the three of us go on a weekend picnic together. Ignacio was reserved, but accepted the invitation; Terezia seemed pleased and smiled. I prepared a few sandwiches and a thermos of iced tea; they brought along a deck of cards and a basket of fruit. It was unseasonably hot, and although a bead of sweat was trickling down the side of Terezia's face and I had resorted to a pair of cut-offs, Ignacio seemed imperturbable in his long-sleeved shirt and jacket. We settled ourselves on the grass and made conversation; Terezia's laugh came easily, and I could feel myself striving to please her, quietly reveling in her occasional teasing nudge. At some point she puckered her lips and blew disdainfully at Ignacio; then her eyes widened, blinking innocently above a sweetish smile. I gazed down at my strong, well-formed legs, the dark hairs curling over the hem of my sleeveless shirt; when I caught Ignacio's eye, he countered my gaze calmly and looked away. Terezia was humming softly; then she tossed her hair to one side and lazily began shuffling the deck of cards. Shall we play rummy, she asked. It sounded like a challenge, and Ignacio responded with a snicker; I shrugged and hazarded a wry smile. Terezia began dealing, and each card snapped with a resolute click as she laid it face down on the blanket: one for me, one for Ignacio, one for her, around and around in threes, accruing in fan-shaped piles before us.
There is a way the body begins to respond autonomously in relation to another body, registering even the slightest movement; an invisible organ amasses an array of data recording smell, sound, and temperature; monitors how each body occupies space, measuring their precise proximity in the tiniest, most infinitesimal of increments. I propped myself on an elbow; Terezia drew a card, cast me an oblique glance, and then she stretched out her legs, delicately arranging her dress around her. Ignacio ignored her, sternly scrutinizing his own hand and waiting silently for his turn. I regarded the absurd contrast between Ignacio's slight figure and his insuperable masculinity, wondering what it was that commanded such respect. Then he raised his eyebrows as a caustic smile gathered about his lips. "We used to believe in something like romantic love, do you remember, Terezia?" Terezia flashed Ignacio an angry look, yet he continued, amused. "Do you remember? But then we discovered that it was all about seduction, didn't we? Conquering the object; the allure of what we are not."
All at once, I was dismayed at the way my body attracted attention; a moment before it had felt comfortable in its easy grace, its smug beauty, but now my limbs seemed unnaturally elongated to me, like errors in proportion indicating some deeper-lying defect. We played game after game that afternoon; I found myself struggling to concentrate as Terezia's temper grew worse with each hand she lost. At some point I noticed that my leg was asleep; I attempted to shake it, but was immediately seized with a cramp that precluded any further movement. Frantically, I began to massage it, trying all the while to suppress a feeling stirring inside me, scuttling through a chain of reactions like a mouse inside a maze, a feeling that seemed old and oppressive and so agonizingly near that it was impossible to apprehend it in its entirety. I stole a look at Ignacio; he drew a card, issued a quick snort, and shot a sideways glance at Terezia. He was teasing her, yet her anger was real; it had become important for her to win, and she no longer seemed to take any notice of me. My leg was all pins and needles now, I would have liked to stand up and move around or to leave altogether, but escape was out of the question—the very thought of fabricating an excuse, of drawing Ignacio's and Terezia's attention to myself filled me with trepidation. Suddenly, making no effort to conceal his pleasure, Ignacio presented his hand in a triumphant flourish, and there they were, as plain as day: the nine, ten, Jack, Queen, and King of Spades. Terezia threw down her cards in a fury.
"You can't keep up with a simple game—how do you expect to contend with the reality surrounding you?" Ignacio glared at Terezia, daring her to answer; I wrapped my arms around me, hiding my hands as though I'd been caught at some childish crime. What was that, and why did it feel so familiar: that stab of jealousy; the shame? I hastened to quell the surge of panic rising up within me, seizing the opportunity to stomp my foot and get the blood circulating again. "But it's only a silly deck of cards," I ventured in a voice that sounded small and muffled, as though it were being transmitted from inside a tiny room. I gathered up the cards to shuffle them; on a whim, I picked out the Jack and King and laid them next to one another—face to face, united at last, and alone. And then I felt my cheeks flush as I saw Terezia staring down at them in disbelief. Ignacio clucked his tongue. "You could have guessed that the Queen wouldn't approve of that."
Terezia stood up and smoothed her skirt; I could barely look in her direction as she gathered her things and walked away with an almost casual dignity. I felt one part of me running after her, imploring her to stay, while the other part remained fixed to the spot, watching the catastrophe unfold. All at once I imagined a sorcerer sprinkling me with a magic potion and my feet taking wing, and I saw myself flying to her, crying out words endowed with a secret charm meant for her and her alone, and then she would turn around and a smile would gather about her lips as I rushed toward her, longing for the bright light of her love to envelope me forever. And then, all at once, I stumbled and fell to the ground. Jimmy Giraffe! Always tripping over his own two feet! The way the words stung, followed by the laughter, raining down on me like so many blows. Sticks and stones and Mother's soothing voice, yet her eyes were turned to him, weren't they, she always deferred to him, didn't she; how I hated her for that.
Later that night, Ignacio came to my room and knocked, and while we avoided each other during the day, we were together again the next night, and the night after that. Ignacio always waited for me to fall asleep before he left, and I often imagined him turning off the light and pausing for a moment before he gently closed the door. I settled into work in the weeks that followed, leaving my room only when it was absolutely necessary; although it lingered in the air with the viscosity of an unarticulated question, we did not speak of Terezia again. When Ignacio announced one day that I should come and live with him, he stated it as though it were a cold, impersonal fact. I nodded, and then, all at once, I had to shiver; I pictured myself leaving my life behind me like an abandoned shoe. Somehow, I sensed that I meant nothing to this man, yet I felt certain I would obey; I would read his eyes to learn what he wanted from me, and perhaps one day I would earn his approval. "Do not trouble yourself about Terezia," Ignacio said, picking a hair off his sleeve with a mild frown as he broke our silence for the first time. "She is hurt, but in her heart, she understands." She was a friend, he said, an old and very dear friend; she would help me attend to things, and I was to rely on her kindness, he said. There was an oddly practiced sound to his words, and I wondered if I was merely part of a routine that Terezia had long since grown accustomed to, just another wobbling planet whose center of gravity had succumbed to his superior magnetic pull. Ignacio was gazing remotely into space; one hand was scratching the side of his head, and then it crept around to the back of his neck as though in pursuit of some persistent itch. Once there had been something between them, he continued; soon, however, they came to accept that desire was something in constant commotion, like a hurricane—requiring a continuous stream of heat to keep it alive and consuming everything in its path. "Friendship is for life," Ignacio pronounced with a smile, "but desire makes me think of death, of the vacuum at the core of each moment."
Mulling over Ignacio's words the next morning, I happened upon Terezia sitting on one of the benches flanking the wide lawn. I was startled; I thought she'd flown back to Madrid weeks ago. She seemed lost in thought, with one hand resting tentatively on the page of an open book. She flinched a little when I greeted her; on an impulse, I offered to show her some of the countryside. Not far from campus was a view from the heights, I explained, over the river and all the way to the hills in the distance—wouldn't she like to come and see? Terezia stood up and silently complied; her summer dress swung loosely over her body as we followed the path leading to the bluffs. Increasingly, it seemed, I was turning into a person who never quite knew what he might do next; I often found myself recalling events with considerable delay, as though my mind needed time to absorb a thing before setting about distilling any sense from it. I wondered what I wasn't comprehending; whether I'd come to symbolize something for them, perhaps, some ineluctable fact that had eclipsed a more innocent time. Or quite possibly they regarded me with a degree of derision, incredulous at my ingenuousness, at my torpidity. Suddenly, I noticed that the label of Terezia's dress was showing; I pulled her gently by the arm and tucked the little rectangle of fabric back into place beneath the zipper. "Idiot," she hissed, and then she hastened to conceal her anger behind an imperious smile. I looked at the fragile line of her spine disappearing beneath the dress, at her firm, round buttocks beneath the light fabric, her nut-brown hair falling loosely over her shoulders, and then I wondered about Ignacio, about myself—why this wasn't enough, why this beauty, these feminine attributes weren't enough to make a man happy and content.
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? The first time it occurs to you, you wonder about yourself, that you're able to think such a thought, and you rationalize it away as best as you can. You tell yourself it was an anomaly brought on by excess strain; you quickly brush it aside. The next time it crosses your mind, you become agitated; you think of how deep the rift must be, how distant the social structure must seem to those who have transgressed it so thoroughly. A quiet chill mingles with a sense of gratitude that life hasn't led you on this path, yet you catch yourself pondering it more and more frequently. First fearfully, then less so, you imagine ways to kill without getting caught; you wonder what it would feel like to live with such a secret. Would you be consumed with regret? Would you go mad? Or would you eventually forget?
Later that afternoon, I was alarmed by the sound of someone beating at my door; I proceeded quietly toward the source of the disturbance and hesitated, my hand lingering on the knob. Finally I turned it and Ignacio stormed inside. "Terezia is gone. I have looked everywhere, but she's disappeared—without the slightest trace." He was in a state of great agitation; we combed the campus until there was no place left to search, and then I led him into the cafeteria and urged him to sit down. "Typical woman," Ignacio cried out in a burst of rage. "You'd think she'd have grown accustomed to it by now." His hands were trembling; he set down his cup of coffee with difficulty and held them out before his eyes. Suddenly, he laughed. "Do you know what I think," he whispered, motioning for me to come closer, then holding a finger aloft in admonition. "She is hiding inside my box, that's where she is; she thinks I can't find her there, but she'll see that she's wrong! I'll find her, and I'll fish her out, stupid woman—she has no business in there, and I'll see to it if I have to empty the whole thing out!" And then I could see Terezia, diminishing in size inside the box, growing smaller and smaller until all that was left was a tiny dot, and Ignacio chasing after her, and the more I considered it, the more it seemed to me that you'd eventually grow accustomed to the thought; you'd find yourself able to think it even with the person sitting and speaking before you; you'd pretend to be interested, smiling and nodding and all the while thinking: had I poisoned that coffee, I would be waiting calmly for the hand to transport it to a waiting mouth, silently counting the last seconds of a life in which it would still be possible to intervene, to cry out Stop!—but instead you watch as the cup tilts and the liquid swells to meet the parted lips; you smile, and you will continue to smile as the person before you begins to sputter and choke, and your unflinching gaze will meet a pair of desperate eyes widening with the sudden, awful certainty that it was you who brought this about, by means of a sly and unwavering intention.
In the Rock Garden / Marge Lurie
Today, in the subway, I noticed a young couple scrunched together in one of the turnstiles making out. It was a slow Sunday, one of the first real days of summer, and there were enough other turnstiles that no one was making a fuss about the one that was out of commission owing to the couple using it. They appeared to be joined at the hips like Siamese twins born facing one another, locked in a permanent embrace. If you looked closely, you could see them bobbing together lightly, like two little buoys on the sea.
I was waiting for my friend Chris, who was at the ATM replenishing her subway card. It was taking her a minute or two, and as I stood there I kept thinking that the couple would pull apart. How long could they stay like that, barely moving, crammed into that tiny space? But just as I was thinking that, wondering if they were really having fun, or if it was just some prolonged goodbye ritual they'd cooked up, the woman began rotating her hips in a tight little up and down motion, almost as if she were trying to balance a rubber ball in her navel.
In another minute, Chris was through the turnstile, and as we took the escalator down to the lower level, I asked her if she'd seen that couple making out.
"You couldn't really miss them, could you?" she said in a curt way that surprised me, as if I'd asked her an intimate question that was well beyond the limits of propriety.
And that was that. She hadn't spent nearly as much time watching the couple as I had, and her thoughts were focused on what I imagined were loftier things. Like how could a couple making out in the subway be interesting enough to even bear mention?
It's funny how you can know someone for years, long enough to imagine that you do actually know them, without really having a clue.
It always felt that way with Chris. None of the dots connected to any of the other dots. And each new fact about her surprised me.
For example, she dressed in a way that reminded me of my mother. Shirts with scooped necklines. And decorative handbags with chains and doodads and patent leather shoes with buckles and tassels that spoke of complication -- and of another era. But at the same time, she owned a sleek black sports car, and drove it fast, and was already on her third iPhone.
I knew that once she'd worked at a suicide hotline, but now was a library scientist. She was a vegetarian who wore leather. And she was a largish woman, who made tiny, perfect objects.
That's how we met. She was the Tuesday night teacher at a ceramics studio in Chelsea halfway between her house and mine. And I had signed up for Tuesday night classes.
I'd started at the studio six months or so after Bill and I broke up. The whole time he and I were together, he kept saying I needed a hobby other than work. But it wasn't until after we'd split up that I developed one. And the same was true in reverse. The whole time we were dating, I kept suggesting that he might want to talk to someone about some of the things that were bothering him. His employers for one. And me for another. But he didn't start seeing a therapist until months after we were kaput, when another woman broke his heart.
Chris was a diligent and attentive teacher. She demonstrated techniques -- for centering, and making tall pieces and flat pieces, and covered bowls, and things with handles. And for trimming the excess weight off a piece while it was still on the wheel, so it would be easier to finish later. And when people wanted to try out different forms, she'd research them and come to class the next week prepared to work it through with them. Yet for all that, she was somehow indecisive. When we went out to a restaurant after class, everyone would figure out what they were getting right away, except Chris, who wanted to read the whole menu, and consider every option, before committing herself to just one.
I stayed in Chris's class for a year or so, until I worried that I was becoming part of a cult. A cult of single, straight woman of an indeterminate age, barreling toward spinsterhood at the speed of light. Then I switched out of Chris's class and into the Wednesday class, with Ray. At first Chris was angry with me for defecting, but then she decided that I had a crush on Ray, the one straight male in the studio, and I was forgiven. (If Ray hadn't been twenty years younger than we were, that might have been true. As it was, it wasn't.) But I could hardly tell her the real reason: that it depressed me going there each Tuesday night. As if I had resigned myself to my loveless fate.
Normally, when Chris and I got together, it was to try some new restaurant in the neighborhood. We'd never actually hung out in the daytime before. But today we were on our way to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. To get there, you first had to take the tram to Roosevelt Island and then cross a footbridge into Long Island City.
The whole thing seemed like a great adventure.
The night before, when we'd spoken to firm up our plans, Chris had sounded bad. Frank, her cat, was dying, and she was afraid that each day would be his last. "I keep feeling like it's all my fault," she'd said. "If only I'd caught it sooner. Taken him to the vet before this. Now there isn't anything we can do, except try to keep him comfortable …"
To hear her tell it, losing Frank would be like losing the perfect spouse: the lover who was so lovely that making love was like crossing over into a fourth dimension; the friend who laughed in all the right places; the mate you knew would stand by you if things ever got ugly.
I never imagined that Chris and I would get this far. I'd expected her to call and say she couldn't make it, that Frank was barely moving at all and that she just couldn't leave him in that condition. But here we were on the subway, on our way to the museum.
Chris told me that after she'd given Frank his shot, she'd done a little research about the neighborhood we were going to. It turned out that there were some restaurants near the museum, and she thought that maybe, if there was time at the end, we'd want to try one of them. She got a kind of faraway look in her eye, and I thought for a second that she was going to say she really couldn't go through with it. That she was going to get off the train at the next station. But she didn't say that.
Once I got a kitten for a friend who was into cats, but I'd never had one myself -- I'd never had a pet of any kind -- so it was a little hard making the leap to what Chris was going through. But I was trying. If I substituted "Bill" for "Frank" I could sort of get there. I tried to picture Bill on dialysis. Bill in a wheelchair. Bill in a hospital bed. But in each of those instances, it wasn't really Bill I was picturing. It was some older, blander, nearly unrecognizable Bill. At a certain point I had to concede that what Chris was going through was beyond me. It wasn't something she wanted to talk about in any case. To the extent that we had talked about it, I'd already made the mistake of suggesting that maybe, after a reasonable interval, when she felt ready, maybe she'd want to consider getting herself another cat.
Chris had shot me a look that made it very plain what a bad suggestion that was. From then on we'd kept to easier topics.
Though the tram was crowded, we were lucky enough to get window seats. It was a short trip, no more than 5 minutes, if you didn't count the time waiting to board. But from that height, looking out over New York City, it seemed like anything was possible. It was the way I always felt driving back into the city after a day trip to the country. The lights and the energy were irresistible.
But almost instantly we were plunged from the dramatic vistas of the New York skyline to the pedestrian walkways of Roosevelt Island.
As we walked down a promenade filled with more people in wheelchairs than I'd ever seen in one place before, Chris filled me in on the history of the island. She was a fount of all kinds of strange information. And what she didn't know, she looked up on her iPhone as we walked. Did I know that the island had once housed both a penitentiary and something called the New York City Lunatic Asylum?
The people we were seeing on the streets could easily have been the descendants of inmates and lunatics. (But then in a certain respect, maybe all of America could be. Wasn't it the paupers and convicts who'd been rounded up for those first unbelievable journeys across the Atlantic, and into the unknown?) Maybe I looked worried, because Chris was quick to add that it hadn't held a prison or an asylum for decades.
"That's good," I said.
Chris was talking and scrolling through web pages as we walked.
The mention of the word "lunatic" conjured another world altogether. When, I wondered, had the last person used that word not as slang, but as a bona fide medical diagnosis.
I asked Chris if she remembered the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, and she did. That strange building next to the Jefferson Market library, where the women used to hang out the windows and scream at the passersby.
"Now, this is interesting," she said. "Did you know that it is believed to have been the only art deco prison in the world? And that Angela Davis was incarcerated there? And Andrea Dworkin?" She read a bit from Wikipedia about the famous feminists who'd done time there and later went public about the abuses they'd suffered.
"When did they tear it down?" I asked.
"What's your best guess?"
"Oh god. Who knows? The early '80s?"
"That's so funny. That's what I would have said too. It was officially closed in 1971, by Mayor Lindsay, and torn down in 1973."
"That's so strange," I said. "I have such a distinct memory of walking by it and hearing the women. But I didn't even live there then."
As I tried to imagine the world before Wikipedia, I realized I really couldn't. In some respects, time had stood still for me for years. And in others, the past had been erased almost totally, leaving only the faintest of traces. Fleeting half-memories of happiness that I'd clung to tenaciously, as if they were something you could freeze-dry and hold onto forever.
We crossed a footbridge into Long Island City and walked a quarter of a mile or so, until suddenly the museum emerged, a pristine cylinder block building tucked away in the middle of a dingy city street.
Inside, the place was more like a Zen temple than a museum. Ambling through it, we compared notes on which pieces we liked best. The serenity of the place, with its stark white marbles, reminiscent of the maoi of Easter Island, was magical.
Chris put away her iPhone.
I hadn't been to a museum with anyone who made art since Bill, and I'd forgotten how much I missed it. Bill was a photographer, and even though he used to tear through an exhibit as if it were some kind of race, still I'd loved his eye.
Chris was just the opposite. She wanted to look at everything and read everything and know what I thought too.
When we were done looking, we settled into the rock garden for an afternoon concert by a jazz trio. Three music stands had been set up at one end of the garden, surrounded by a sea of little gray pebbles. Flanking the edges of the garden were shrubs and hedges that provided a backdrop for more of Noguchi's stone pieces, and walled the place in from the outside world. We picked a spot about twenty feet away from the music stands, beside a pine tree that had been trimmed to look like a giant bonsai, sparse swooping branches in some places, and dense foliage in others.
Scattered beside us were families with small children, which is something you almost never see in New York, and older people, which is another thing you hardly ever see.
Soon after the concert started, I rolled my jacket up into a kind of makeshift pillow, and lay my head down on it. I closed my eyes in order to really hear the music. And for a while I was really hearing everything. I wouldn't say I understand music -- chord structures and tonal shifts, the mechanics underlying it. I don't have the language to describe any of it. But I've always been a big fan all the same.
On one of our first real dates, Bill and I went uptown to hear a jazz concert. Somewhere in the middle of it, I took out a pen and sketched the sax player on a napkin. And he liked it enough to keep it. Long after he’d given up on us, he still had that napkin, framed in a little plexiglass box he'd picked up at the Rite Aid.
Later, after Bill was gone, it was music that saved me. I'd turn it up loud and dance around my apartment and tell myself that this is what it meant to be alive. It wasn't a perfect cure, but it was a pretty good bandaid.
I must have dozed during off the concert. Because when I sat up again, the music had stopped and the musicians were packing up their gear. The couples and the families with children had already left by then. There were just a few older folks packing up their folding chairs.
And then I noticed that Chris was gone. At first I thought she must have taken herself to the bathroom, but then I saw her, hovering by the bass player, talking to him as if they were old pals. She looked animated and happy in a way I'd never seen before.
Chris isn't really fat. But she's a big woman with a very full bosom and silky brown hair. She's good at maintaining herself with manicures and pedicures and regular haircuts. And she's got the luminous white skin of a woman twenty years younger than she is. But for as pretty as she is, I'd never known her to be with a man.
I wasn't sure if I should gather up my stuff and join her there with the musicians, or stay put where I was. If she was making a play for this guy, I didn't want to interrupt at just the wrong moment.
I lay back down under the guise of sleep to consider my options. But I must have dozed off again. The next time I sat up, the musicians were gone, and so was Chris. As I stood up, I heard my phone bleeping.
Hi. It's me. I didn't want to disturb you. You must have been tired. You slept through nearly the whole concert!
It was hard to believe that, and even as I was listening to her message, I wanted to protest. The whole concert? It seemed so unlikely.
Anyway, something amazing happened. Bob, this guy I went out with for a while in college, was part of the trio. I kept looking at him during the concert. Trying to decide. Then at the end, I went up to talk to them -- you know, to tell them how much I enjoyed their music -- and it turned out it really was Bob.
So we're going for a drink at a bar called Hemlock's. It's right next to Socrates Sculpture Park. Just down the street from the museum.
I'm hoping you'll join us there when you get this message. You just follow Vernon Boulevard in the opposite direction from the way we came until you're nearly to the entrance of the park itself. You can't miss it.
It always unnerves me when people say, "you can't miss it," because of course you can. And if anyone can, I might very well. Directions have never been my thing. Until I met Bill, I didn't even realize that you could turn a map in the direction you were traveling to get your bearings.
I looked at when Chris had sent the message, twenty minutes ago. It wasn't so long that they might already have gone to the bar and left again, so I headed in the direction she'd said, up Vernon Boulevard toward the park, and then I tried calling her. No answer. I walked another block and tried again. Still no Chris. And then I put the phone away.
Already the sky was darker than when we'd headed out to the museum, like some sort of storm was kicking up. A part of me wanted to just head back home while I still could. Suppose I was on the tram when the skies let loose?
On the other hand, it seemed wrong to just vanish without making contact. And Chris was the one who'd downloaded the directions for our little expedition. I imagined I could just double back the way we'd come, or ask for directions if I needed to. But the path of least resistance was to just keep walking in the direction I was already headed. So I did.
In another five minutes, I saw a big neon sign that said "Hemlock's -- Where You Pick Your Poison."
I took a deep breath, pushed through the door, and then waited while my eyes adjusted to the dark. It was the kind of old working man's bar you used to see all over Manhattan, but now had to go out to the boroughs to find.
After a moment I spotted Chris, tucked into a booth for four. The place itself was nearly empty, as it was still officially afternoon. But the booth was full. Chris and her bass player on one side, and what looked like the other two members of the trio on the other.
There was no one at the bar, save for two old men peering into half-empty beer glasses, and a frisky young bartender with auburn hair talking into his cell phone at the other end. I imagined that if I heard him speak, he would have a thick Irish accent.
I was on the verge of turning to leave, when I heard Chris shout my name. "Over here." I turned toward their booth and saw her waving. So I composed my face and waved back, as if I were happy to have been spotted.
As I approached the table, one of the musicians jumped up from his seat to make a space for me. He was tall and thin in the way I liked.
"Ah, the sleeping beauty has arisen," he said.
I tried to hide my embarrassment. How in the world had I fallen asleep at an afternoon concert? And a jazz concert at that?
"I'll just pull up a chair," I said, buying myself an extra minute. I went to the bar and ordered a beer, and the bartender, who curled the phone into the crook of his neck while he took my order and pulled my black and tan, turned out to have a real brogue.
I dragged one of the stools back to their table. It was a little too high (I'd end up perched over everyone like some kind of big, hulking bird) but still it seemed better than being squeezed into the bench with no way out.
"Be right back," I said. "Anyone need a refill?" It seemed like the words were coming out all staccato, like a telegraph.
"We're set for now," the tall thin one said.
It had been nearly three years since I'd been with anyone. Bill had long since moved on. He'd had one ill-fated relationship, and then he'd met someone else, and now he was engaged to be married at the end of the summer. In all that time, I had done nothing other than learn how to throw a few pitchers and bowls.
I headed back to the bar to pick up the beer that was waiting for me, and pulled out a ten. The bartender made change. And then there was nothing else to do. I took a sip, so I wouldn't spill while I carried it back to the table. And then I took another large sip before setting it down and settling myself on my little perch.
An image of the young couple in the turnstile floated up out of nowhere: the young woman leaning into the man and gently pushing her pelvis into his.
"I know you'll never believe this,” I said to the table at large, “but I really enjoyed your music."
Chris looked at me as if she were about to say something and then she swallowed whatever it was.
"Thanks," said the tall thin one. "I'm Rich. The drummer." He extended his hand toward me, and we shook. It was good having a name for him, so I could stop thinking of him as the tall thin one.
Up close I could see that all of the musicians were about our age, which was older than I'd thought when we'd been watching them play in the rock garden. Next to Rich was Andrew, the piano player, who reached across Rich to shake hands as well. He had a little blonde goatee and long bony fingers, as if the years of practicing had stretched them to their final form.
Sitting on the other side of the table, beside Chris, was her bass player, Bob. He was a little rounder than the others, and more intellectual looking. Big brown eyes that seemed to be taking in everything all at once. I pictured him as the prime mover of the group. The one who wrote the music, and set up the rehearsal times, and kept the others in line.
Bob and I got away with waving at one another.
"I was just telling them how we met, when you walked in," Chris said. "I was worried you wouldn't make it."
"Yeah, me too," I said. I did my best to smile. "I called, but maybe you don't have a signal in here."
I took another sip of beer and wondered if she thought it at all strange that she'd left me there in the rock garden, asleep. But I knew that it wasn't the moment to ask.
Rich tapped me on the shoulder as he tried to get up from his seat. I stood up to make space for him to pass by, and then he asked me if I had any music requests. "Hemlock's has got a great juke box."
"I guess you've been here before." I rearranged myself on my perch.
"For years it was kind of my home away from home.”
“I had one of those too once," I said. And I had. In the years before Bill, I'd virtually lived at a bar in Soho shooting pool against boys young enough to be my sons. I loved their swagger and bravado. And I loved beating them when they least expected it. Mostly, though, I loved how safe it was. The worst thing that could ever happen was that I would lose a game. For a time after that, I truly believed that I could tell everything important about a person from how they played pool. Did they want to win? Were they truth-tellers? Did they choke under pressure?
From the few times that Bill and I had played, I could see that he was erratic. He'd make two great shots, and then miss wildly for the next three. But nothing about how he'd played pool could have prepared me for how much I'd miss him once he was gone.
“What kind of music do you like?" Rich asked.
"What decade are we in?"
"You get to choose."
"Dylan?" It was the first thing that popped into my head. An easy, safe choice.
"Consider it done," he said. Rich was taller than me by a good ten inches, with a full head of hair and an easy smile. He had the kind of craggy good looks that work at any age.
"Blonde on Blonde? Highway 61 Revisited? Blood on the Tracks?"
"I'm easy," I said, though Bill would have scoffed at that. His word for me had been "prickly."
In another moment, Dylan's sweet whine filled Hemlock's. Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to … The songs went on and on. Sooner or Later. Just Like a Woman. Like a Rolling Stone. We sang along to the lyrics we knew. And gradually I started to feel a bit more like myself. And then there was just the music and the beer and Chris getting reacquainted with Bob.
He reported that he'd joined the Peace Corps after college; he’d been stationed in a remote corner of Botswana, fighting the fight against HIV/AIDS. It was the kind of thing people did back then, some people at least. They joined communes or the Peace Corps or taught junior high in the Bronx rather than heading off for their MBAs the minute college was over.
"Ooh," Chris said. "I didn't know that."
"Yeah, well," Bob said.
He explained that that was where he'd gotten really interested in music. Later, when he returned to America, he'd moved from city to city, trying to recapture that sense of vibrancy, until finally he’d settled in New York.
"So you’re here now,” Chris said. "That's nice."
There was that kind of lull that happens between strangers, where for a moment you can feel the tension while each person races to think of the next thing to say. Andrew, the piano player, wasn't talking at all. Rich was still messing around at the jukebox. And I was coming up empty.
"How about you?" Bob asked Chris finally.
"Oh me," she said. "I've been in the same apartment since college."
“Well, I’ve traveled a bit, if that counts. But I've never really lived anywhere else."
“It all counts,” Bob said.
Maybe I was wrong, but I thought I knew what he meant. At a certain point, you're old enough that it does all count. You've put your time in, one way or another, and it has led you to where you are. The path you took might have led you somewhere else entirely; and different paths might have led to where you are. But, for better or worse, your path was your path.
I listened a bit more, until I felt like I was eavesdropping, and then I headed over to the bar for a refill.
Rich was chatting with the bartender, but he stopped when I wandered up. "There she is." He flashed me a little grin.
"Bob was just giving me and Chris the back story," I said.
Rich looked at me blankly.
"His years in Botswana."
"Oh that," he said. "I guess I didn't miss a thing."
"I guess that depends," I said.
There was a hint of something I couldn't even begin to guess at. So I excused myself to go to the ladies' room.
"You'll be back though, right?"
I nodded “yes,” but what I meant was “no.” I meant you're a drummer. Who goes out with a 50-year-old drummer? And how many girlfriends do you have right now anyway?
Chris was reapplying her lipstick and fluffing her hair in front of the mirror. I thought she'd welcome a bit of privacy. But she hadn't seemed to want it. "You having any fun?" I asked. I was talking to the Chris in the mirror, because the real one had her back to me.
She put the finishing touches on her lips and then she turned around and said, "I am.” Her nails were painted a strange iridescent blue – the way you’d imagine the moon, if you could see it up close.
"Me too," I said.
"Rich is kind of cute, isn't he?" she said.
"Almost too cute, you might say. He reminds me of Sam Shepard."
"Yes, I can see that," she said. "I don't know if this is of interest, but Bob told me that he’s single."
“Why am I not surprised?"
"They started their trio when they went to some reunion and discovered that they'd all just recently gotten separated."
"And they're all still separated?"
"Andrew, the piano player, just got back together with his wife, but Rich and Bob are both in the middle of getting divorced."
"Great," I said.
"I know." Chris was quiet for a minute. I wasn't sure if she was thinking about Bob or her sick cat Frank or what.
In that moment, I knew that I never would ask her about what had happened in the rock garden. Why she'd left me like that. Whatever it was, it was done now.
When we returned from the bathroom, the three of them were back at the table, dissecting moments from the concert, and Otis Redding was on the jukebox singing Try a Little Tenderness.
"We weren't sure you were coming back," Bob said.
"Oh, we're full of surprises," Chris said in that flirty way I'd never heard before today.
Bob jumped up from his seat before Chris could sit down again. "May I have this dance?"
Chris looked startled.
"For old time's sake." Bob bowed from the waist like a maitre d' or a butler or something, and she accepted. His jokiness had removed any danger.
The rest of us just watched, until Rich got antsy. "Hey, what about us?" he called out to Bob.
If he heard at all, Bob made like he didn't as he twirled Chris across the floor away from us.
After another few bars of the song, Rich lifted me off my perch and onto our makeshift dance floor. We swayed and bobbed until the song ended and then Bonnie Raitt came on singing Have a Heart. Rich tapped out the rhythm on my spinal cord, gently inching his way up and down the vertebrae, as if they were part of an instrument he was just learning to play.
For a time that's all there was. Rich and the music and the heat of his body next to mine, his fingers sliding up and down my spine.
“Not bad for a beginner,” I said.
“I’m a very quick study.”
"I never doubted it."
Eventually, Andrew, the piano player, joined us. And then bit by bit, the dance floor filled up with other people we didn't know. Regulars from the neighborhood, and tourists like us.
For an hour or more, we danced to songs you could dance to and songs you couldn't, until we saw a crack in the sky, a bolt of lightning so bright it flared through the window of Hemlock's, and the rain began.
the Kettle / Jason Lees
“Thought boxers go blind?” wrote Junior.
“?” I replied.
“Retina come off. Not ears?”
“Little bones,” I wrote.
He didn’t understand.
“Small bones in ear. Hammer-anvil-stirrup. Born funny to begin with. Boxing=jumble now bones don’t touch each other.”
“Ho, man,” said his lips. Junior searched my face for a way to tell me something, the pencil forgotten in his massive fist. Brown skin stretched over knuckles thickened with repeated damage. Sorry written all over him.
At the next table a baby screwed up it’s face and bawled. Its mother leaned in, soothing. I heard only the constant, high pitched whistle of my broken ears. A boiling kettle in a secret room that no-one could find to take off the flame.
“Still spar Saturday?” he wrote, looking like a dog left outside the pub. Big brown eyes, broad broken nose. Thick bottom lip still split from this morning’s workout. Shoulders like cannonballs.
His big fight eight weeks away, he needed big, experienced men to move with him. To feel the weight behind their hands. His big, soft eyes said please. One more loss and he would never go pro.
“Screw you junior,” I wrote, lower-case, turning him from person to adjective. “Screw your fight.” I placed the pad down gently. Stood up, stepped back, giving him room to get his feet under him.
The mother looked over, brow knitting. Shielded one of her baby’s ears with her hand.
Junior looked up, so sorry for me it seemed to hurt him. Pushed his chair back slowly, palms raised, and left the coffee shop.
The kettle whistled at me, no more nor less urgent than ever.
My belly is soft. A scoop of coffee ice-cream floating in a plate of weak tea. My arms are shrinking, my neck thinning. My elbows are sneaking closer to my belt.
Eight weeks of TV with subtitles and short drives to LiquorLand. More TV. Chop Suey and ufi. Taro and cornflakes. More TV. The screaming kettle.
The knuckles around my beer are the same though. Tulip bulbs of thickened bone.
Tonight is Junior’s fight. The main event. The ABA Stadium will be packed, the prep room crowded. Its 10pm. His hands will have been wrapped for hours.
Butterflies’ teeth are leaving thin, bloody trails along the insides of his veins now. Gossamer wings brush the inside of his forearms, his ribcage. His heart is skipping.
Soon he’ll walk to the ring. The world will disappear and he will disappear from it, becoming a transparent cage for the butterflies. He’ll see the other guy only as a collection of angles and motions. He’ll hear his corner the way a child hears its mother singing through her belly. The bell will go, and the sky will open for him.
I throw back my shot, chase it with beer that tastes of cherries. The Powerstation is packed with kids half my size and age, singing along with the band. Skinny jeans, shaved heads, X’s in black marker on the backs of their hands. A crowd of gasping fish mouths in my bowl of silence.
I walk to the towering speaker stack by the stage, the sound waves pushing at me like fingertips. Brushing me with tiny wings. The sound has blasted the crowd back, so when I rest my forehead on the centre speaker there’s no jostling, no crush.
I can hear it. Almost. Just enough to stop the kettle screaming. My clothes shimmer around me with the vibrating air. Lace wings flutter over my skin. I wait for the sky to open.
Another New York Thing to be Completely Jaded About / Katie Rogin
Log entry BEGIN
Saw a guy wearing a kilt. Near Macy’s. He was striding down the sidewalk with a woman I assume was his wife. They looked like they might be tourists. I think the kilt was a fashion choice not a signaling of national origin.
Saw a teenager on the 1 train reading Kant. Not just reading Kant, but talking about Kant with another teenager. I’m pretty sure they were still in high school. Even if they were in college, they sounded pretty sophisticated in their knowledge of Kantian philosophy. They sounded as sophisticated about Kant as if they’d been Kant’s kids and had to listen to him every evening at the dinner table.
Saw a woman walking a lizard on a leash very, very slowly. Or a gecko or whatever. A lizard-like entity of some kind. It was two in the morning on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Bought a shelf stable container of almond milk at an all-night bodega at two in the morning on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Saw a person of indeterminate gender wearing a multi-colored but mostly orange scarf coming out of the post office on West 31st Street near Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Took a ferry from DUMBO across the East River to East 35th Street with a couple of stops in Brooklyn and Long Island City on a beautiful May morning when the sun was shining and the sky was blue but slightly overcast so I wasn’t reminded of September 11th.
Saw two men scream at each other as if they were going to kill each other in a language I couldn’t understand and then embrace each other with more love than I could stand to watch.
Saw two incredibly good-looking police officers in a patrol car on Spring Street. They weren’t movie stars in costume although the two less incredibly good-looking police officers in a patrol car down the block were TV stars.
Sipped from a can of beer inside a brown paper bag sitting on the bleachers at Heckscher Ballfields in Central Park while watching two teams in the Broadway Show League play softball. Rock of Ages beat Evita.
Browsed CDs at rush hour at Record Mart inside the Times Square subway station.
Overheard a woman wearing a hajib headscarf negotiate a delivery date for wholesale clothing with a man in a yarmulke in an elevator in the building I sometimes work in.
Curled my eyelashes and applied mascara while sitting on the A train. Without a smudge or putting out my eye.
Ate a slice of pizza standing up on Bleecker Street.
Saw a guy sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park scribbling in a notebook and muttering to himself. A man and a woman wearing uniforms I’ve never seen before grabbed him by the elbows and walked him quickly to an idling SUV.
Log entry END