MANHATTAN, 1981 – I love New York. People talk about how violent and filthy and ugly it is, and yeah, maybe it is. But it’s also everything else. Anything you want, from the best to the worst, it’s here. It’s a cosmological clearinghouse, Everyman’s Mecca. Add to that the rhythm, the grandeur, the sheer vitality of the place, and still people say how violent and filthy and ugly it is – but chances are they’re from New Jersey and don’t know any better. Sure, you have to set priorities here. It’s tough, and it makes you tough, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’m not saying I don’t have my doubts from time to time. You get mugged or robbed or your car gets stripped. Someone yells at you on the street or a cab tries to run you down or your landlord starts playing tricks. It could be anything, but if you’re smart you learn from it. Next time you yell back at the guy on the street, you kick the cab, you carry your money in your shoe, you sue your landlord.
I guess the last time I had doubts was in early fall. I was on my way to have dinner with a girl I’d met the week before at the print shop where I work. Her name was Janine and she was a book designer, or at least she wanted to be. She came in with her portfolio to see if she could pick up any business from our end. The boss wasn’t interested, but it was my lunch break, so I talked her into letting me buy her a falafel. We ate on a bench in the little park nearby and talked. She seemed serious, ambitious, pretty – if you like the dark, sharp-featured type whose tendons stand out on their necks when they laugh – and she seemed to like me, too. At least she agreed to meet me for dinner the following Wednesday.
I wanted to get home and take a shower before going to the restaurant – Bagel City, her choice – but I had to stay late to fit the last few pages of a rush job. As it was, I had just enough time to catch a subway to the restaurant. I’m crazy for the subway. People who don’t like the city hate the subway. Not only is it violent and filthy and ugly, it smells bad, too, and if you get lost you’re out of luck because nobody down there speaks English. I think it’s the only way to go. First of all it’s underground, which makes it kind of mysterious, like the catacombs in Rome or the Paris sewers. Then there’s the roar of the trains, the people, the bustle, the lights that make everything look fake, the graffiti, those weird snack and magazine stands, and the ads – especially the ads: the way they get layered on top of each other and then peeled back to different layers, or people write on them or poke out the eyes – and all this is underground, under the streets and buildings where people are walking and driving and working and fucking and dying.
As I made my way down to the platform, I wasn’t really thinking about all that. I had the usual jitters before a first date, if you could call it that. I poked my head out over the track to see if a train was coming, but nothing doing. Then I looked around. From what I could see through the graffiti, the clock said almost 6:30. The crush was over and the platform was nearly empty.
To one side of me were two other guys in their 20s, leaning against the tiled stairwell. One of them was whistling without any tune, like he only did it because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of guy who whistled. He was tall and muscular looking, and he was dressed like the ads down there: in layers full of rips and holes so you could see through one layer to the next, but all the layers were clean and neat. His shoulder-length hair looked clean and neat too, his face tan and shaved. A pair of shades with bright red rims perched crooked on his nose. He looked like some guy from Westchester wearing a ghetto costume for Halloween.
The other guy looked Hispanic. He was much smaller and dressed in cheap, nondescript clothes and tinted wire-rim glasses. He kept saying things real excitedly to his friend who just kept whistling, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, looking up at the ceiling.
Down the other way, the platform was empty except for a black guy in a grubby blue parka shuffling toward me.
I walked up to one of the ads where a little sticker advertising a book called Don’t Get Mad, Get Even was stuck onto a flier that started out in big letters: ‘Smashing bourgeois ideology takes practice,’ which was plastered over a full-size ad for cheap rates to Florida.
I was trying to focus on what it all meant to block out the whistling and keep my mind off being nervous, when the black guy shuffles up, slugs me in the face, and then shuffles away.
For a minute I stand there, stunned. Then all of a sudden I’m mad. I want to kill the guy. By now he’s shuffling in front of the two guys leaning on the stairwell, who don’t seem to have noticed anything. I catch up to him in about three steps and start right in, shaking him, turning him, saying, “Hey, motherfucker, you hit me in the face?” or something like that. It’s hard to remember exactly what you say when you’re mad. But I hardly get started when I feel someone grab me from behind and at the same time see the whistler grab hold of the black guy.
“Hey, come on, man,” he says to me. “Be cool. Look at me. You see me or my buddy here trying to beat up on anyone? No, man. I mean, hey, we’re all brothers here.” He’s actually saying that and holding onto the black guy, who I can see better now. He has matted, dirt-caked hair, and his head keeps bobbing real loose on his neck while his eyes go wide with some kind of blind, internal panic. It’s obvious he’s strung out, but at that point I don’t care. I remember yelling “Fuck!” several times at the top of my lungs and struggling like crazy to get loose so I can kill first the guy who hit me, second the guy holding me, and then that asshole telling me to be cool.
Next thing I know, I’m sitting on my butt in the middle of the tracks, down with the litter and the oily puddles and the rats. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, much less move, I hear the roar of metal wheels and the blast of a horn, and I feel a light in my eyes. The only things I have time for are to know a train is coming and to close my eyes.
When I opened them again, I saw the express train flying by on the outside track. I turned my head fast to look for the local. There was a glimmer of light in the tunnel, but it was still a long way off. I shut my eyes again and tried to get used to being alive. Nothing seemed real. I just sat on the tracks, trying to bring my heartbeat into line, and listened to the voices on the platform above me:
“You think this guy’s a mental?”
“A mental? What do you mean a mental, Napoleon? You can’t be a mental. Man, how can you expect me to find you a job unless you learn some English?”
“Hey man, I got English.”
“Napoleon, did it ever occur to you that while you’re up here talking about yourself there’s someone down there on the tracks who needs our help? Why’d you throw him down there anyway?”
“I didn’t! I didn’t man! What do you think I am? Like he jump or … or I don’t know. That’s why I say he’s a mental … or whatever, you know? Like all fucked up.”
“That’s not the point, Napoleon. The point is that somebody’s got to go down there and save him or he’s a goner.” Napoleon must not have seemed interested, because the whistler went on: “Oh man, you’re really a sad case. Remind me to teach you about ethics some time.”
I was calm enough now to consider getting up. I opened my eyes and looked down the track. The train was still a just a glow beyond where the tracks curved out of sight.
“Hey Napoleon, look! He’s conscious! Take off your jacket and tie yourself to the post here. I’m going to save him.” The whistler nodded to me real cool from behind his shades.
“I’m all right,” I mumbled, getting to my feet.
“Watch out!” he shouted. I jumped about two feet in the air and looked all around, but nothing much had changed.
“Man, you gotta be careful after a fall like that,” he continued after I landed. “You can’t just get up like nothing happened. You could hurt yourself. Take it slow, my man. Take it slow. You just stay there. I’ll save you.” I must have been in shock because that’s just what I did, even though it wouldn’t have been that hard to climb out.
Napoleon, who had tied himself to a post with his windbreaker, pulled the whistler close and whispered something in his ear. “Oh man,” the whistler replied aloud, shaking his head in disgust. “You are so materialistic! Here we are, doing a service for mankind, something that ought to make you feel really good about yourself, and you want to ask the guy for money? Just hold onto my wrist and shut up.” With Napoleon’s holding his wrist, he stood on the edge of the platform and leaned toward me with his other arm outstretched. “Grab on and I’ll try to pull you up!” he shouted, like I was down at the bottom of a mineshaft.
I took his hand, put one foot on the side of the platform and leveraged myself up. In the process, the whistler pulled his lips back from his teeth and scrunched up his face like the effort was killing him.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded distractedly, leaning over with his hands on his knees, panting. Napoleon had untied his jacket and was brushing it off with a look of distaste.
“Thanks,” I mumbled again, shrugged, and turned away. The black guy was shuffling along at the far end of the platform.
“Hey!” said the whistler. He was standing upright now, smiling at me with a mouthful of big, perfect teeth, his hand extended. I shook it. “It was nothing. Don’t even mention it,” he said, still breathing heavily. “I saved your life.” Then he turned to Napoleon who was still whacking at his jacket. “Napoleon, man, sometimes it seems like all you care about is yourself. Can’t you see the man needs assistance? Get over here and help me brush him off.
“I’m really sorry about Napoleon,” he said to me. “He has a lot to learn.” Then he started right in brushing my clothes with his hands. Reluctantly, Napoleon came over and helped. It was so weird that I just stood there. They were still at it when my train arrived.
As I got on, the downtown train pulled up across the platform. The two of them walked toward it, but part way there the whistler turned and gave me a heavy look. “You’re lucky I was here,” he said. Then he nodded and waved. I waved back.
I sat down across from a bunch of teenagers wearing hightops with no laces and sweats with the hoods pulled up. They each had a travel bag with a logo like ‘Adidas’ or ‘Eastern’ between their feet. There was plenty of room for the bags because they all had their legs spread so wide that only four of them could fit on the bench. They slouched down in their seats, trying on a variety of menacing scowls.
I was still shook up from getting slugged and thrown on the tracks and then saved, so they made me more nervous than they usually would. I tried to find somewhere else to look and settled on an ad directly across from me, above their heads: ‘It’s chain snatching season again,’ it read. ‘Please don’t flash a lot of jewelry. Tuck in your chains. Don’t flaunt your bracelets and watches. Turn your rings around so the stones don’t show….’
I read it while using my tongue to probe the cut on the inside of my cheek where the guy hit me. It wasn’t too bad; a few squiggly welts that were already beginning to bubble over. I brought my hand to my face. My cheek felt a little puffy and warm, and it was numb to the touch, but I could tell it would be OK. After I finished the ad, I started at the top again, only this time I changed it around: ‘It’s face smashing season again,’ I read. ‘Please don’t flash a lot of features. Tuck in your chin. Don’t flaunt your mouth and nose. Turn your head around so your face doesn’t show….’
I was really getting into it when a woman in a business suit got on the train and grabbed the handle directly above me. She was young and pretty, and I didn’t blame her for not trying to sit with the team, but I was surprised she didn’t sit down on the long empty stretch of bench to my left. It was only when I looked down that way that I noticed a bag lady sitting at the end, leaning against the metal armrest by the door. There was a lot of her. She was wearing a thin flower-print dress and a ratty raincoat and stockings rolled down around her ankles, which ended in tiny black shoes. She was sitting at a strange angle on the bench with her eyes closed and four shopping bags arranged around her. I had just realized, seeing her there, that she smelled pretty strong when she cleared her throat and started in with this clear booming voice, moving her head slightly from side to side like the mechanical Abe Lincoln at Disneyland.
“This morning I looked in the mirror,” she announced. Everyone in the car turned their heads and watched her silently, “an’ I didn’t see nothin’ lookin’ back at me. Later I could feel the lice startin’ to crawl all over me. All over my body! They was hard lice, little an’ hard, an’ I could feel ‘em crawlin’ all over my body. An’ you know who it was?” she asked. She paused for an answer, then went on. “It was Ingram. Every one of them lice, Lord God Almighty, was Ingram.” Then she rested her chin on her chest and shut her eyes again. The kids across the way nudged each other and smiled, which messed up their menacing scowls and made them look young and goofy. The woman in front of me shook her head slowly, looking down at her feet.
I stumbled to my feet. In the process the woman in the business suit stepped hard on my toe. “Excuse you,” she snarled in a voice that didn’t fit at all with how she looked. I made my way to the door at the far end of the car, and when it opened I got out. It wasn’t until I reached the street that I realized I’d gotten out one stop too soon. It was twilight, and there was that beautiful yellow haze in the air that makes the stoplights look like they’re on fire. How can anyone say this city is ugly?
I walked quickly up the street toward Bagel City, at the same time wondering if I should go at all. I stopped to check myself out in a store window. My clothes were rumpled and dirty, but my cheek didn’t look too bad. When I pushed my face up close to check it out, I noticed the neon sign in the window: Exotic Chocolates. It wouldn’t hurt to get something for Janine.
I walked in and looked around at the displays. One whole case contained chocolates shaped like penises, breasts, and buttocks, wrapped in cellophane and stuck on cardboard sticks.
“Can I help you?” asked the man behind the counter.
I scanned the rest of the displays quickly; not a box of candy in sight. “Don’t you have….” I began, then I shook my head
“Come on,” said the man. “Just say it. Believe me, I’ve heard it all. Some nipple nuggets, maybe? A hollow milk-chocolate dildo?”
“Do you have any dark chocolate nut-bark?” I asked hopelessly.
Turns out he did, in a back room, like the porn section of a video store. I ordered half a pound and waited while he went back and scooped the pieces into a white paper bag. I looked at the clock above the cash register: five after seven. I was already late.
“Two seventy,” he said, dropping the bag on the glass case.
I reached for my wallet, but it wasn’t there. “Oh God,” I groaned. I remembered standing there like an idiot while the whistler and Napoleon brushed me off.
“What’s the matter?” asked the man. “You suddenly remember what you come in for?”
I turned and left, suddenly exhausted by all the stuff I’d have to replace, all the calls I’d have to make. Why would anyone live in a place like this? I checked my other pockets. At least I still had my keys.
Janine was waiting in front of Bagel City holding a white leather purse and her portfolio. She looked impatient and cold, but as soon as she saw me she was all smiles. “Isn’t it just a fantastic evening?” she gushed. She looked nice. She was wearing tight turquoise pants, slit at the calves, a loose silk blouse, and heels.
“Fantastic,” I said. “Listen Janine. Somebody stole my wallet. I’m broke. I can’t even pay for dinner. Maybe we should try again some….”
Janine just switched her portfolio from one hand to the other, took my arm with her free hand and led me into Bagel City. “I just went to the bank and took out scads of money,” she said. “So I’m feeling rich. And it’s such a gorgeous evening. You can pay me back later.”
Inside, a dozen or so square wooden tables on metal bases were squeezed in front of a long counter. It was packed. Janine led me to a table pushed up against another table where a man was reading the paper with an empty coffee cup in front of him. His table was pushed up against a square pillar with a discolored sign on it that read: ‘Due to limited seating, the management requires that you leave your table as soon as possible.’
“Don’t you just love it here?” asked Janine as we sat in a couple of beat-up bentwood chairs. The man lowered his paper enough to give us a territorial look.
“It’s nice,” I said. I couldn’t very well suggest we go to The Four Seasons when she was paying. Anyway, it felt good to be taken care of.
The waitress came right over and slapped down our menus. “Coffee?” the man said to her, pointing to his cup. The waitress nodded and turned away without looking at him. The man watched her go skeptically. He was bald and haggard-looking. He gave us another territorial look and went back to his paper.
Janine started talking about restaurants. She could have been talking about anything and I wouldn’t have cared. Just seeing her up close and hearing her voice was enough. I got lost watching her dark hair and eyes, her sharp features and full lips.
A few minutes later, the waitress came back. We hadn’t looked at our menus yet, but the man next to us had something to say. “I’m still waiting for my coffee,” he said.
The waitress dipped her pen at him and walked away. “Third time I’ve asked her,” he said to no one in particular.
“Maybe you should go up and get it yourself,” I said. It came out less friendly than I meant it.
He looked startled and then thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said, nodding slowly. “Yeah, why don’t I?” He stood up from his chair. “If she won’t get it for me, I’ll get it myself!” he announced loudly. A few people looked up from their food. He side-stepped between the pillar and some chairs on his way to the counter. “I’ll get my own God damned coffee if that’s what it takes!” he shouted. Everyone was watching him now. He strode to the coffee-maker and removed a pot. “Who wants coffee?” he shouted.
“I do,” said a husky voice from the other side of the pillar.
“I want some too,” croaked an old woman behind Janine with a net over her hair and bright orange lips. “I’ve been waiting fifteen minutes for a second cup!”
The man was starting to enjoy himself. He was prancing from table to table, giving everyone more coffee whether they wanted it or not. Some people cheered him on, others shrank down into themselves.
“Over here!” yelled a kid in the corner, holding up his cup.
A middle-aged man near the door grumbled, “Get him outta here before I do.”
I was bracing myself for a small riot when this tiny Puerto Rican guy in a white hash-suit walks out from behind the counter. He can’t be more than five feet tall and thin as a bone. He’s old too, no teeth, and his cheeks are sucked in like on a shrunken head. He walks right up to the guy, takes the pot out of his hand, puts it on the counter, and leads him by the arm to the door.
“What a cute little man,” whispered Janine. “I hope he doesn’t get hurt. He’s so … so puny.”
But the other guy went right along with him, shouting, “Free coffee! Free coffee, everybody! Come and get it!” all the way out the door. A few people still cheered him on, but once he was outside, things quieted down.
Usually something like that would make my day. So what if the guy was an asshole? At least he stood up for himself, and then other people stood up for him, too. Most places people just sit there and take what they’re given, but not New York. Everybody takes sides. But I guess enough shit had already hit the fan that day to make it seem like just another sordid sideshow.
When I looked over at Janine, she was staring at me, half curious and half put off. “What happened to your cheek?” she asked. It was like she hadn’t even seen me until then.
I’d forgotten about my cheek, but now that she mentioned it, I noticed it was numb and throbbed slightly. Feeling it with my tongue, the whole scene in the subway came back to me. My throat tightened up.
“Somebody … slu-ugged me.” My voice cracked on the word “slugged”, and my eyes started to tear up.
“Oh, you poor dear,” said Janine, and she brought her hand up to my cheek. I really wanted to cry.
The waitress came back again for our order, just in time. Janine took her hand away, and I made a show of studying the menu. The last thing I wanted was to eat. I would much rather have just sat there, wallowing in self-pity and Janine’s sympathy. On the other hand I didn’t want to seem like a drag, so I ordered a lox and cream cheese omelet with an onion bagel on the side and a cup of coffee. Janine ordered a toasted poppy-seed bagel with chive spread and a seltzer.
The waitress put her order pad in her apron pocket and leaned right between us to get the empty coffee cup the balding man had left. She took the paper too, and slammed it into a trashcan on her way to the counter.
As soon as she’d left, Janine gave me a long, soulful, heart-to-heart kind of look. I looked at her the same way, nodding slightly. I could feel my heart beating in my cheek. The hand she’d put on it was in the middle of the table now. I was just about to put my hand over it and tell her about what happened when she pulled it back and reached into her purse.
“Have you seen this?” she asked, taking out a paperback and holding it up to me. The cover was nearly taken up by a blob of fiery red on a lavender background. The red part contained a jumble of pictures piled on top of each other: two lovers embracing, the girl with her eyes closed and her head thrown back; a generic skyline; part of a movie screen that seemed to be showing a skin flick; the same two lovers, this time in sequined costumes, singing and dancing in a floor show; a hypodermic needle…. The title, in green script, read: City of Sin, and under that in smaller letters: ‘A match made in Heaven … A honeymoon in Hell!’
It looked like a typical romance. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I shook my head and furrowed my brow. “No,” I said.
“You should read it,” she said, handing it to me.
I took it and turned it over a few times. Then it occurred to me, “Did you design it?”
She shifted uncomfortably and nodded once. “Do you like it?”
“Sure,” I said. “Colorful.”
“You should read it,” she said again. “I mean it’s a fabulous book. It really is.”
“I’ll look for it.” I handed it back.
“Keep that copy. I’ve got plenty more.” She patted her purse and looked embarrassed. Her cheeks were flushed. “I’ve got a whole box full at home.”
“Wow! Great!” I was still a little off balance, so that was the best I could do.
The pink in her cheeks kept spreading until her whole face was red. “I’ll be right back,” she said, standing up. I gave her a big smile and watched her walk to the bathroom. She had a classy walk, even in heels.
I turned the book over and read the back cover: ‘The gripping story of two talented young newlyweds who leave their small-town paradise to find fame … and fate … in the big city. In a world of dope fiends, drug dealers, perverts, and porn, their passionate love for each other is all they have to hang onto. Then comes the chance of a lifetime. It could be their Big Break, but only if they can come up with $1,000 in cash. What happens next could only happen in … The City of Sin.’
OK, so it was trash. But Janine didn’t write the damned thing.
The waitress came with our food. I sat back to give her room to bang it down on the table. It looked good. I took a big sniff of my omelet and waited for Janine to come back.
She came back her usual color. Her hair was combed and she was smiling. I don’t know how long we sat over dinner, talking and laughing. It felt great, although I probably talked too much about my job. She kept asking me about it, especially about my boss, Rick.
“Isn’t he just delicious looking?” she asked.
I happen to think he looks like a dead pig, but then I think Jack Nicholson looks like a dead pig, too, so I just shrugged and said, “I guess. If you’re hungry enough.”
Eventually, the waitress came and cleared our plates, stacking one on top of the other about as hard as you could without breaking them. “Anything else?” I could’ve used some more coffee, but considering what happened to the last guy who asked, it didn’t seem worth it. When I looked over at Janine, she shook her head. “No thanks,” I said, looking up, but the waitress had already gone
Janine started shifting in her chair like she was ready to leave. I started talking a blue streak, blabbing about whatever came into my head. A friend of mine who’s good at that kind of thing calls it “riffing.”
At first she looked mildly into my eyes, so I thought that maybe I was doing OK. Then she looked at her watch, which took some of the wind out of my sails. By the time I’d asked her over to my place, she looked completely distracted. “I’d love to,” she said. “But I have to dash for my class.”
“Class?” I said.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? It’s the most wonderful class. We get to do all kinds of role-playing and special breathing and spontaneity exercises, and you meet the most interesting people!” She must have mistaken my raised eyebrows for encouragement and went on: “It’s called ‘How to Put Up with Just About Anyone,’ but it’s much more than that. It’s all about how to put yourself forward and get what you want. All we’ve done so far is the role-playing and the exercises … and the assignment….” She suddenly looked uncomfortable. I didn’t think I wanted to hear about the assignment. “Listen,” she said, lowering her voice and looking kind of shy. “It’s getting late and I have to run, but there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” She leaned across the table and gently touched my sleeve.
She sat back and unzipped her portfolio, drawing out a smaller portfolio made of cardboard and duct tape. “Give this to Rick,” she said, handing it to me. “It’s a reduction of all of my work. He seemed so busy when I came in before. Tell him to take his time and give me a call when he’s through.” She zipped up the portfolio and pushed back her chair. “And tell him I meant what I said,” she said, getting to her feet. “He’ll know what you mean. Oh, and show him the book too, will you?”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “I won’t forget this.” I wondered whether she was role-playing or exercising. “Oh, and here. I almost forgot.” She pulled a ten from her purse. “This ought to cover it.”
She looked away as I took the bill from her hand. “Thanks.”
Before long, the waitress came over and handed me the check. “It’s not usually like this,” she said, not looking up from her pad. It might have been an apology. “We’re busy tonight.”
It was dark out and cool but not cold – perfect walking weather, which was a good thing since I live about 30 blocks from Bagel City. I felt empty inside, but it was a big, clean empty, like the inside of some grand old ballroom after the cleaning crew leaves for the night. I felt attuned to the way the buildings changed block by block, to the traffic sounds and the breezes that came through the intersections with the taxis.
A couple of blocks from my building I got the feeling someone was following me. I looked over my shoulder and saw that there were all kinds of people following me, but none of them looked any more menacing than usual. I turned the corner and walked the final block to my building, remembering about the credit cards I had to cancel, the license and work ID I had to replace. Just thinking about it made me itchy. It started under my arms and spread until it felt like my whole body was covered with hungry lice. I remembered the bag lady and wondered if any of my lice had names.
As I approached the building entrance, I looked up. Down the block and across the street there’s a small open space with a playground and some benches. They call it a park, but it’s mostly asphalt. During the day it’s a drug emporium, and at night it’s used for the occasional murder or rape. I saw someone sitting on a bench there, facing my building. He was sitting where one of the park’s two acacia trees blocked the streetlight, so it was hard to make him out, but I could see that he stood up and started toward me.
I picked up my pace, reaching in my pocket for my keys. The street was nearly empty, and I was in no mood to get mugged, especially with no wallet and no money. From the corner of my eye I could see the guy crossing the street, but I felt pretty sure that I could beat him to the door without running. I took the steps two at a time and pushed through the outside door. As I worked the key into the lock of the inside door, I heard the outside door open. A hand gripped my shoulder, so I turn around.
It’s the whistler. He’s smiling at me with those big, perfect teeth. They look yellow to me now, and his face looks yellow, too, and waxy. He’s still wearing the red sunglasses, still crooked on his face, and he’s holding my wallet with his free hand. “Hey man, its me,” he says. “Remember me? I saved your life.”
“I didn’t know it was you.”
“Well it is,” he says. “And not only that, I brought your wallet back.”
I was tired. Suddenly I realized just how tired. I took the wallet and weighed it in my hand. “How’d you know where I live?” I asked.
He looked at me like I wasn’t playing with a full deck and tapped the wallet. “I just spent the past two hours sitting on that bench over there, waiting for you to come home.” He pointed down the street.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Hey man,” he said. “Don’t be sorry. You’d do the same for me, right?” I shrugged. “I’ll tell you something, though,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “When you were down there on those tracks, I was worried. You were lucky I was there.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said distractedly, looking through the wallet.
“Hey man,” he said. “Don’t thank me.”
My license was there, the credit cards were there, everything was there except my money. “It’s empty,” I said, not feeling as grateful as I should have.
“What are you talking about, man? I checked it myself. It looked like everything was there.”
“My money’s gone,” I said.
“Oh, man,” said the whistler, shaking his head again. “You carry money in your wallet?”
I shrugged again.
“You should never carry money in your wallet.”
“So where’s the money?” I asked.
“Man,” he grimaced and sucked his teeth. “That Napoleon has one hell of a nerve”
“So Napoleon has it?” I asked.
It was his turn to shrug. “Hey, you want me to get it back for you?”
I realized then that all I wanted was for him to leave so I could go up to my apartment, take a shower, and go to sleep. “No,” I said. Then I held up the wallet. “Thanks,” I said before remembering that I wasn’t supposed to thank him.
He let it pass, but he gave no indication of leaving. I sighed. “What do you want?” I asked. “You want more money? I don’t have any money. Somebody stole my wallet and took all my money.”
He looked disappointed, not only in me, but in humanity as a whole. “Hey, man,” he said softly. “I don’t want anything from you. Remember me? I saved your life. I brought your wallet back. You should be happy.”
“You’re right,” I said. “OK. Well, I appreciate it.” He still didn’t leave, so I unlocked the door.
His voice came plaintively behind me. “Don’t you even want to know my name?”
“Not really,” I said, walking into the foyer.
He held the door open and shouted after me as I headed for the elevator. “Ingram! The name’s Ingram, and I’ll see what I can do about that money.” Then he let the door close.
The next day I called in sick. I stayed home all day, downed a few beers and zoned out in front of the tube. The day after that, I went to work and gave Janine’s portfolio and book to Rick. It seemed like the right thing to do. I told him what Janine had said, and I guess he knew what she meant, because they did get together a couple of times after work. Both times Rick came in the next day with a bewildered look, like the victim of an exercise, or even an assignment.
By the weekend, I’d almost forgotten the whole thing. I chalked it up to experience. I mean people are dying for experience, right? Sure, I’d had a weird day, maybe even a bad day, but you can have a bad day anywhere. Living here, you just have more, that’s all, more everything, more life. How can you not love a place like that?
Dan Lawrence received his MFA from Columbia University, where he was a Graduate Fellow and Fiction Editor of Columbia Journal. After a career as a magazine editor with Time Inc. and Reed Elsevier, he recently returned to writing fiction. In the past couple of months, his stories have been published in The Quiet Reader, Stories Through the Ages, littledeathlit, Sequoia Speaks, Blood & Bourbon, andby the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers’ Guild. He was a finalist for the 2022 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2022 Watertower Press Novel Writing Contest, the Summer 2021 Novel Slices Contest, and the 2020 James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and three sons.
© 2022, Dan Lawrence