|That Time of
by Arthur Edelstein
| "I take the towel,
I dry the hand, I hang the towel, I open the door, I leave the room,
I close the door, I go the kitchen, I take the breakfast
Not the breakfast, Ralph
interrupted. Say what, Mr. Gomez.
Tapping nervously at his mustache, Mr.
Gomez stiffened abruptly, the small classroom chair creaking with
the movement. He glanced furtively at Mrs. Arundel squeezed into the
seat beside him, his eyes pleading for rescue. Mrs. Arundel remained
come? Ralph asked. What do you eat?
Ahhh! Gomez relaxed. I
go the kitchen, I take the salad, I
No no. No take the salad.
No take the salad? Gomez
went wide-eyed with astonishment.
Egg, Mr. Gomez. Egg. This is breakfast.
Ralph carefully lettered the word on the blackboardE-G-G. he
could smell the chalk dust and he was scrawling on a childhood blackboard
ninety-seven, was it? Sixty-seven? He couldnt
remember. Startled again by the new vividness that had crept into
his reveries, he dragged his attention back up the years, to Mr. Gomez.
Huevo, he said, pointing
at the blackboard. Egg.
Ahhh! I go the kitchen, I take
the egg, I cook the egg, I eat the egg
The voice stumbled on and Ralph gazed
out the window, not quite listening any longer. The automobiles below
were sleek toys, wet and shinyand he moved them with his eyes
to the traffic light on the corner. Those summer nights thick with
the sensations of childhood. Where had they fled? Suppressing the
familiar slide into time, he watched the thin rain slant down the
valley of 42nd Street, punching dents into the bright pools that sagged
the store-front awnings. Washed pale by the morning light, a dangling
neon sign across the streetInvestigations,
Strictly Confidentialsent erratic reflections sparking
off the wet pavement. Ralph tried to shake the throb from his skull,
but it wouldnt go. He played little games with his vision, moving
his head imperceptibly from side to side until some flaw in the window
glass caused the office buildings outside to ripple and billow like
a theater backdrop. It made him feel strangely potent. Give a man
a big enough window, he thought, and hell shake every secretary
in the city off the bosss lap.
Gomez had reached his lunch
pour the soup
. The phrases had the rising inflection
of questions, and it occurred to Ralph that he had probably let them
go on too long.
Good work, Mr. Gomez; bueno
trabajo, he said, wondering whether that was the way
to say it. Mr. Santos, you take it from lunch. And careful with
that soup. Dont spill it.
Santos, his bald head reflecting the
fluorescent ceiling light, stammered into lunch, drinking the soup,
clearing the table, washing the pot. In the street, a girl in jeans
held a newspaper over her head while she looked at the prints in the
bookstore window. A Degas dancer, some Van Gogh cloudsRalph
passed them each morning on his hurried walk from the subway. And
his own painting? His own damned painting? His mind stroked revisions
on the latest canvascautious, deft
flat. Like a memorized
Outside, a truck ground to a stop and
sounded its horn insistently. Then a clash of gears and it moved on.
Santos was stacking boxes on his job in Macys stockroom, piling
them hurriedly, racing toward supper. Letting the voice toil on, Ralph
threw his eyes slightly out of focus and the big letters painted in
reverse on the window seemed to jump out and cling to the buildings
on the other side of the street. He read them from right to left,
FIORES PAN-AMERICAN Academy. Then from left to right, Y-M-E-D-A
A raindrop glistened at the peak of the A. Across the
street the neon letter flared once and went out completely.
As soon as the flickering distraction
was gone, his headache came swelling back. Just
a jackknife has Mac Heath dear, and he keeps it out of sight
Absurdly the words of the song came with it, synchronizing with the
throb in his head
just a jackknife, just
a jackknife, just a jackknife. It had rained last night too,
he remembered. Thats why all that bunch had stayed so late at
Loiss. Hoping it would let up so they wouldnt have to
run the two blocks to the subway, ducking in and out of store-fronts
and doorways along 14th Street. That last pair: the glowering bearded
what was her name
Melody! Whod shed her
wrap-around dress and done an interpretive
dance in red tights. Interpretive! He should have been overjoyed when
the two of them left finally. There was a time when he would have
sweated them all out, waiting to be alone with Lois. But now he just
poured himself another glass of the cheap Burgundy and thought that
maybe he ought to leave too.
Somewhere beyond layers of cotton a
voice traveled uncertainly home
went the house, climbed the
stair, knocked the door
Lois came out of the kitchen, freeing
her brown hair from the ponytail, letting it splash down around her
shoulders. Ralph silently appraised her. Breasts a trifle lower, a
trifle flatter. But otherwise everything about the same. Kept herself
well, this girl. She was wearing her serious look and he feared shed
broach the same old subject.
Quick game of jump-rope?
Ralph asked, hoping to create a diversion. He settled into the sling
chair, feeling the black canvas go taut on its metal frame. And
while were on jumping
He undressed her with his
Me too, she said, pointing
to the bottle. And dont get so smart, baby. Ponytails
jumping! I dont like the way you use that
word. Says something about your attitude.
Ralph shrugged and poured her a glass
of wine, satisfied with his tactic.
Had a gorgeous beard, didnt
he? she said.
Ralph tried to muster a touch of jealousy;
he knew this trick of hers and mourned its loss of power. Pointing
to his mouth, he shaped a silent word.
Dont be vulgar, she
said. She plopped onto the couch and rested her bare feet carefully
among the glasses on the long low table. Anyway, I like beards.
Then grow one. And get your feet
off the door. Its not polite.
Coffee table, she said.
O Altitudo! You dissenters are
all alike. Always knocking dead our Sears Roebuck realities, always
discovering that a door on blocks is a coffee table.
Lois put down her glass. By the
way, Ralph, up yours.
Lets get the crockery,
he said. And dont be vulgar. Says something about your
He pushed through the beaded brass curtain
into the narrow kitchen with several glasses and set them down in
the sink, the brass strands still clicking behind him. A wine-soaked
cigarette was coming to pieces in one of the glasses and the edge
had a smeared red mouth on it. Kissing sweet, he thought. Lois brushed
past him carrying a huge ashtray and he touched a conciliatory hand
to her cheek.
If they ever put a ban on Alan
Watts, used building blocks, and prints from the Marboro book shop
Oh, for heavens sake, shut
up, she said, sliding by him out of the kitchen. Go write
an exposé for Newsweek. About
how us non-conformists are the biggest conformists really.
Ralph leaned back against the sink.
In the next apartment a phonograph was playing the Threepenny
just a jackknife has Mac Heath
He reached up and tapped a spidery mobile hanging
from the ceiling and watched it turn, stop, unwind. The painting.
God, hed have to get those dead spots out. But how? Maybe hed
abandon it and start something simpler. This eased his tension a bit.
Somewhere in the building a toilet was flushed and he could hear the
hiss of the pipes in the wall behind him. From the other room Lois
called something, but he couldnt quite hear her. The wine was
beginning to press in at the edges of his mind and he stood perfectly
still, hoping to keep the faint headache from clamping any tighter,
trying to capture the winey elation of the past. They were going to
have it all then The very center of existence. The life of sinful
art and artful sin. The life of pure substance. With all the little
almost-respectable part-time jobs somewhere out at the edges, a thin
but necessary periphery. The genteel poverty; that too had been important.
And he himself had been Loiss prize possession, her very own
not-quite-employed, not-quite-married artist
how perfect! But
as the life of pure substance shed its substance, the periphery had
moved perhaps a little to close to the center.
The headache was pushing in, beginning
to thump, and he pressed the heels of his hand against his temples,
rubbing them in slow circles
just a jackknife,
just a jackknife, justajackknife, justa
Lois shouted from the other room. Ralph,
are you listening to me? The pipes stopped hissing and she lowered
her voice. When are you going to give me another painting? To
replace my pretentious prints from the Marboro book shop.
Yeah, Ralph said.
What do you mean, yeah?
She came rattling through the curtain.
Yeah, he said. I mean
yeah, thats all. He continued rubbing his temples.
A yes man. A yes man with a temper.
It doesnt make sense. She nudged him aside and turned
on the faucet, directing a spray of hot water over the dishes. Incidentally,
Im thinking of taking the legs off tables and using them for
Ralph was silent.
The tables, that is. You
can have the legs. For pool cues. She dried several forks and
clinked them down into a drawer.
Thanks for trying, he said
softly. A respectable try. Im sorry about the temper.
Lois hung up the dish towel and turned
to him, her expression serious. Respectability. Lets talk
about that, Ralph.
Here it comes, he said.
I knew youd get around to it.
Im not getting any younger.
Ralph looked away.
Not now, Lois, Dont start
that now. Grimly. He said it through curtains of wine.
Then when? She snapped it
out, staring into his face.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and
walked to the window. The inside ledge was wet with rain.
When Ralph, when? she said.
The muffled pulse in his head was thudding,
thudding, trying to beat its way out
He gripped hard at his mind, pulling it
back into place, gathering the pieces into the present moment
go the bed, I put the sheet, I take the blanket
Good enough, Mr. Santos,
Ralph said. Good enough, hoping he was right. Then he
turned and wrote vigorously on the blackboard, the chalk squeaking
along his nerves. He wrote as though it had been his purpose all along.
A little trick he had, to cover his lapses of attention. Over his
shoulder he said, All right, Mr. Amaya, will you read this?
Somewhere in the rain a police whistle trilled faintly. Mr. Amaya
slid his short legs back under the seat and fixed his eyes on the
I go, he said.
Good. Now past tense. Past time.
The eyes tightened into wrinkles of
concentration. Silence. Miss Lopez sat up tall in her chair, looking
straight at Ralph, and he knew she wanted to supply the answer. But
he kept his eyes from engaging hers, abstracting them slightly and
watching the class. Six forlorn Latins, he thought. How did they ever
manage those revolutions? He pointed to the words and said, yesterday,
Amaya squirmed. I gone?
Miss Lopez giggled and nudged Mrs. Arundel.
But the older woman sat heavy and vacant, gazing at nothing. Miss
Lopez threw up her hand and flapped it insanely, like some wild thing
at the end of a stick.
Ralph ignored her little commotion.
Gone, Mr. Amaya?
WENT! The word shrilled
out, Miss Lopez standing now. I went, she shrieked again.
Mr. Amayas forehead sprouted ridges
Ralph looked hard at the girl for a
long minute, punishing her with his eyes. A pedagogical gimmick he
had seen the great man himself use. Ferocious Fiore, he thought. Fantastic
Fiore. He played with the name. Fiore, the fickle finger of 42nd Street.
Feeble Fiore. Fuck Fiore.
Miss Lopez retreated down into her seat,
nervously crossing her legs, and Ralph caught the glint of nylon.
He gazed for a moment at the soft thrust of her breasts, annoyed at
himself for this small capitulation. What in Gods name was she
doing here anyway; she spoke better English than Fiore. Shifting his
eyes upward, he engaged hers this time. Dark and inviting in the olive
skin. A false promise. A truce. And Lois, he realized, was proportioned
just about like Lopez. But somehow the silly girl fidgeting before
him seemed more compelling now. And a hundred others hed see
on the streets. Tokens of failed affection. Remembering that Lois
had invited him to dinner at seven, he glanced at his watch and felt
immediately foolish when he saw that it wasnt even noon yet.
He turned back to Mr. Amaya with an uncomfortable sense that he had
both won and lost that little contest with Lopez.
I went? Amaya asked meekly.
I went, confirmed Ralph.
God, for some black coffee. He flipped
out a cigarette and lit it, the match flame jumping back and forth
as he puffed. The tobacco tasted stale.
And tomorrow? he asked.
A sharp glance at Lopez to keep her in her place. Mr. Amayas
eyes were wide now. Trapped and frightened.
Mrs. Arundel, Ralph said.
Mr. Amaya let his eyes go narrow with
Ralph pointed at the blackboard and
said, This is October, Mrs. Arundel. October 10, to be exact.
Now speak for November.
Mrs. Arundel pouted.
suggested, emphasizing each word.
go, she said.
The words seemed to come automatically, as if he had spoken them into
some machine and was now replaying them. The mouth moved back into
its pout off the last vowel, the eyes vacant. Through the partition,
Ralph could hear the faint clacking of Peters typing class next
door, and it was the bumping of brass beads, the tap of a brush handle,
the innumerable noises of small machinery and brittle insects, and
all the small sounds of his life. He experienced a faint sense of
slippage somewhere within him. As though some tiny wire had lost its
Well done, Mrs. Arundel,
he said, but you didnt flinch your kabe very spoothly.
Mrs. Arundel nodded.
Thus I refute you, Mrs. Arundel,
She nodded again.
Miss Lopez popped up straight in her
chair. She tipped her head to one side and stared quizzically at him.
Did you know, Lady Arundel, that
I am not who I am? he said. That I am you? That when you
leave at two oclock I sit down in your place and let my
mouth drop open? Did you know that, Madame Arundel?
Mrs. Arundel didnt nod. She wrinkled
her brow, trying to seem thoughtful. The rest of the class looked
at him blankly. Uncomprehendingly attentive. Even Miss Lopez seemed
Ah, but Im too clever to
let you see me, Ralph continued. He looked around as if to be
sure no one was listening. Then he cupped his hand to his mouth in
a mock whisper, and said, I go fourteen
no, fifteen blocks
away. Clever? he paused.
Mrs. Arundels expression was an
agony of misunderstanding. Surely she had said something terribly
incorrect. The pressure of her humiliation swept across him, and the
wire slid into place. What in hell am I doing, he thought. Kicking
sand on ninety-pound weaklings. With a nod, he acknowledged Mr. Amayas
What means know? asked Mr.
Ralph considered for a moment. Then,
Miss Lopez, what means know?
Conocer, said Miss Lopez
briskly. Her look of indignation turned to amusement and she began
to titter, now that he had favored her.
Cheaply bought. He turned and wrote
on the board: To know = conocer. They
all copied it into their notebook, except Miss Lopez, who was whispering
loudly in Spanish to Mrs. Arundel. Ralph tossed the chalk up and down
in his hand, waiting for her to finish.
The sliding canvas door behind him whacked
open and he could hear the typewriters go louder, but he didnt
turn to see who was in the doorway. He knew without looking. The brown
striped suit, double-breasted and a bit too tight. The plump neck,
squeezed into a collar a half size small. He knew that nothing would
happen for a minute or two, that Fiore would just wait there making
the most of his jolting entrance. He could imagine the little man
standing up to his full height, trying to look tall. All very dramatic.
Hed stand there, letting his presence sink in. Then, step two:
the full entrance and tiradethe comic frenzy that Peters liked
to parody, in his shrieking falsetto, over lunchtime coffee in the
Ralph said, All right, lets
do a composition in the notebooks. His voice was gentle now,
compensating for the unfair vulgarity of his recent joke. He regretted
its dismal pompousness. And he wanted particularly to disassociate
himself from the little man in the doorway. He picked up Mr. Amayas
notebook and held it above him to be sure they understood what he
Who talk? Fiore stepped
into the room. Who talk the Spanish here, eh? He glanced
for a rebuking instant at Ralphs cigarette, then away. Aha!
School is place for talk the Spanish, eh? You think is so?
The shuffling of notebooks subsided
and the class sat sculpture-still. Ralph put the notebook back in
Mr. Amayas lap. But Amaya didnt move; his gnarled workmans
hands were clasped, as if in supplication. Miss Lopez looked straight
at Fiore, wide-eyed, innocent.
What for you come here? Is for
talk? Eh? Is social club, everybody talk talk talk? No is school for
the English? Eh? Since when is no school for the English? I ask you?
Since when? When is change from school, become social club? Now is
the place for talk the Spanish? No necessary learn the English? What
is for then? What this place for? Eh?
Ralph leaned against the partition,
looking beyond Fiore into the window. He could see the wetly reflected
shoulders lift at each ejaculation, the arms fly up at each rhetorical
question, going wavery across the window. Ralph moved his head, caving
in the edges of the brown suit, making the stripes ripple like snapped
ropes. Then he turned and stepped through the doorway out into the
loft and the murmur of reciting voices filtering through the flimsy
fiberboard partitions that divided the place into tiny classrooms.
A lone voice detached itself from the
undertone and came floating out to him
is a desk
a desk is
and then it sank back in, leaving
him without the answer. For writing? he wondered. For reading? For
working? Brown? Wooden? Expensive? He stepped into the library and
dropped into a worn leather armchair. Which had it been? But it never
seemed to matter. Any answer would do. A desk is a
desk, he decided.
He could hear Fiore through the open door of the classroom, his voice
a screech now, supplying the answers to his own string of questions.
Nooooo is place for fun, the o dragged out
like a wail. Is school, you hear? Is school. Is place for work.
No es por hablar. In you home hablando.
In teatro hablando. Hear? Escuchame!
When Ralph heard him sliding into Spanish,
he knew it would soon be over. He twisted out his cigarette in the
ashtray, lit another and slumped down into the seat, his legs stretched
before him. Then he blew out a stream of smoke and watched it mushroom
up into the ceiling. Someone inside the next partition pushed the
door ajar and he could hear Peters working his bunch. It is
just impossible to make you understand. Will you ever learn that English
is an uninflected language!
Ralph let his fingers go limp on the
arms of the chair. He could feel the IRT rumbling by under the building,
the vibration coming up through the floor into his feet. The trembling
climbed to his loins. Then it subsided and filtered back out of him,
down into the floor. Fiore was saying to the class,
He hesitated, straining for the right word.
Outside, the police whistle tickled the air, hanging like a long dash
in his sentence.
concentrate, Fiore finished with
exultation. The whistle grew more excited, shrilling out crisp bits
of sound. Noontime traffic swelling the streets. Another whistle farther
off picked up the excitement, their voices inter-weaving like shrill
crickets, calling and answering, calling and answering.
Hot summer nights. And his grandfathers
urgent voice fusing with the far clatter and rasp of a McDonald Avenue
trolley car, the distant chirp of a police whistle. Somewhere nearby
the hiss of a water truck spraying the dark streets. And the click
click of secret crickets in the overgrown lots. The old man stopped
rocking whenever he spoke and his words would come riding up onto
the thick night air. So who listens, Ralphie?
When an old man speaks, who listens? The evening refrain of
age on the front porch. Then the dark drone of summer, and the rocker
creaking into it, back and forth, back and forth, on the wooden floor
of the porch.
And always, off on the horizon, the
amber glow of Coney Island brightening the sky like a promise. The
barely audible rumble of a roller coaster swooping and twisting and
infecting the hot world with excitement and wild hope. Down the street
a slamming screen door, an idling car. A growl of skates along the
pavement. And the soft pressure of bicycle pedals at Ralphs
toes, the whir of the chain on the sprocket beneath him. And once
a month his fathers hands on the wheel of the old DeSoto, Ocean
Parkway sliding in under the naked chrome woman on the hood, Ralph
urging the car on with his whole body into that jangle and flare of
wild whirling joy beneath the amber glow. Then a swirl of rides and
melting custard and the trip home, the stomach still pitching through
turns and dips and darkness on the stairs of the front porch; somewhere
a door opening and a voice growing louder
I set the clock
wind the clock
I go the bed
I make the bed
I put the
Ralph came reluctantly alert, the voice
from Peters room biting into his reverie. He tried to relax
into it again, but that wouldnt work and he lit another cigarette.
Mrs. Fiore came scurrying out of the
office and stationed herself near Ralph, holding a heavy brass bell
in one pudgy hand, staring at an oversized pocket watch in the other.
Suddenly she jammed the watch into a bulging pocket of her smock,
pulled out a little brass hammer and struck the bell sharplyone,
two, three, four, five. The clang of the bell filled the loft.
Always five, Ralph thought, wondering
if that had any meaning. He looked at the back of Mrs. Fiores
balding heada thing that always surprised him. Hall of
wonders, he muttered. The door to Peters room opened and
the students came milling out, two girls chattering rapidly in Spanish
as they passed Ralph. But when they saw Mrs. Fiore waving a finger
at them they went awkwardly silent. No speak the Spanish,
she warned. Then she turned and shuffled back into her office. When
the door closed behind her, one of the girls whispered to her friend,
and Ralph said, No speak the Spanish. They walked off
giggling. Easy to be a comedian around here, he thought. Just be serious.
Fiore stepped out of the classroom and
stood near the doorway, his face contorted by some deep preoccupation.
When he noticed Ralph, he nodded, said Is all right, and
strode into his office. Ralph would have thought this a reassuring
comment on the situation in his classroom if he hadnt heard
it so many times before: Hello, Mr. Fiore. Is
all right. Good night, Mr. Fiore. Is all right. Nice weather were
having. Is all right. Good morning. Is all right Is all right Is all
right. It seemed to be a verbal twitch, nothing more. Or perhaps
a profound therapeutic comment. A stabilizing word ritual. What in
Gods name is all right around here,
anyway, he wondered. The wire slipped.
When he saw Peters emerge from his room,
Ralph got up and walked briskly into the office, closing the door
softly behind him. Fiore was settled behind his desk, copying grades
from a chaotic heap of compositions into a formidably thick record
book. His wife sat with her back to the door, filing papers at a metal
table in the opposite corner of the room. No one looked up.
The desk was magnificent. Large, graceful,
and expensive-looking. To one side of it was a Danish chair and a
walnut end table with a huge mosaic ashtray sitting shiny and unused
on the velvety surface. Ah, Ralph though, what a fine impression these
must make on prospective customers. He looked at the big, framed diploma
on the far wall, formal and impressive, like a university degree.
This is to certify that Augusto Fiore
he knew, if one took the
trouble to read it, that it said Fiore had worked for the Grace steamship
line as a bursar. Trying to imagine Mrs. Fiore as one of the Graces,
he cleared his throat very deliberately. There was no response.
Pardon me, he said. I
know this isnt a graceful time, but can I speak to you a few
Fiore looked up in surprise, the movement
pushing the flesh of his neck over the striped suit collar. He jumped
up. Is all right, he said, motioning to the Danish chair.
Make a seat, make a seat, Mr. Gould.
Ralph sat down.
Bad day, Fiore said. Is
rain, rain, rain.
Ralph wanted to say, Is all right.
He said, Thats New York for you.
Fiore pushed a tray of cigarettes toward
him and Ralph lit one with a table lighter encased in a miniature
suit of armor. Like to talk to you about my situation,
he said. Ive been here two years and I think Ive
been doing my job. The abruptness of his own voice surprised
him. I ought to be making ten dollars an hour like some of the
others, he continued, annoyed at himself for basing his request
on the salary of others. Another ethic broken. Fiore nodded all through
the speech, and when it was finished, the little man sat back and
pushed out his lower lip as though considering some factor that couldnt
possibly be apparent to Ralph.
Ah, true, true, Mr. Gould. Two
years. Much time. Much time. He stopped talking and pushed out
the lip again.
Ralph said, I havent bothered
you much about it before, but its reached a point where its
downright necessary. Two years ago was different from today. Times
change and things become necessary. He had no idea what he meant
by all this, but he wanted to avoid silences, with the two of them
just sitting there staring at each other. He was afraid that if this
happened hed break into uncontrollable laughter. And if he did,
he thought, no one in this place would even notice. Whenever he spoke
to Fiore, he had no sense of communication. It was as though he were
talking to the striped suit. But sometimes he suspected the suit understood
more than one realized.
Ah, Mr. Gould, Fiore said.
I like to give this. Is true; things change. But is no possible,
is no possible.
Ralph thought he might go on saying
that eternally and have to be carried off muttering is no possible
and be replaced by another little man with a long lower lip.
When he said this, Mrs. Fiore looked
over from her corner of the room, and Ralph suddenly had the notion
that he was really dealing with her and not Fiore at all. He looked
back at her to show that he hadnt been fooled. But she returned
to her work and he knew that he wasnt going to get the raise.
Events were atop him again, the inevitable fruit of his impulses.
But what the hell; impulse had brought him into the office, impulse
would carry him on now that he was there. When he turned back to Fiore,
the lip was forward again.
You are a part-time, Mr. Gould,
not all-time, he said. Is no the same thing. For all-time
professors, okay, ten dollars. But part-times, no.
Ralph laughed, amused by the title.
Look, you know that part time or full time has nothing to do
with it. He looked over to the corner of the room, but the bald
head didnt turn. Do I get it or dont I?
He was communicating now. Fiores
eyes went dark and firm. But he remained polite. I am sorry,
Mr. Gould. But no is possible. Is small place. When we are
Ralph stood up. Okay, he
said. Okay, never mind. At the door he turned. Please
send me my check. And no speak the Spanish. When he closed the
door, a great sense of release came on him. He could feel it all through
his body and he was sorry about the tone he had taken with Fiore.
And he liked the little madman.
Peters was sitting on the wooden bench
next to the coat rack, peeling a hard-boiled egg, his thin legs crossed
and a paper napkin spread over his knees. On the bench next to him
were a jar of yogurt and a salt shaker. When Ralph walked over and
took down his raincoat, Peters said, Something going on in the
Want the place to grow, like Berlitz.
So theyre giving out bonuses to teachers. Didnt they call
Peters sighed. Oh, come off it,
Gould. Youre growing tiresome. Utterly tiresome.
Ralph buttoned his coat and turned up
the collar. Just tired, Peters, utterly tired. He put
his foot up next to the yogurt, close enough to make Peters nervous,
and tightened his shoelace. Saw the Fiore about a raise,
Peters stopped peeling his egg. Oh?
No good. Said Id have to
be satisfied with ten bucks, like everyone else on part time.
He knew Peters was getting eight.
Peters set the egg down on his napkin
and looked into Ralphs face, trying to decide whether this was
banter. He bit his lip.
Ralph tried to put on his most serious
face. Be seeing you, he said, and walked to the door.
On the way out he whispered, I open the door, I close the door,
I go down the steps
It was still raining and he walked along
close to the store fronts, watching his reflection accompany him in
the shop windows. In the music store window he saw himself marching
among trombones and castanets, sliding immaterially through a piano.
Come on out of there, he
said. Youve been paroled.
The rain touched at his face with cold
fingers and he felt the guilty joy of truancy. Under the subway kiosk
he stopped and watched the cars edge along Sixth Avenue, their wipers
flapping back and forth across the windshields. He could see the gap
in the neon sign across the street. And the park behind the Fifth
Avenue library. The clock over the music store said 1:45.
Refreshed, he slid his hands from his
pockets and went down the stairs two at a time, feeling the firm push
of the steps against his soles. He wondered if theyd miss him
in the 2:30 session at the League. In front of the change booth a
woman struggled with a dripping umbrella and he closed it for her.
She said she was very much obliged young man, there werent many
gentlemen left these days.
When he inserted his token and went
through the turnstile, the shove of the wooden arm against his stomach
reminded him of the dinner engagement with Lois, and he had to thrust
down a momentary surge of depression. Later on hed call and
tell her he couldnt make it; he hoped she wouldnt feel
hurt. The sense of elation was growing and he didnt want to
hurt anyone. He allowed himself a brief twinge of regret for all the
unpleasant things hed said to people lately. Even Peters. He
wished he had been a little easier on Peters in the past.
From the almost empty train, Ralph stared
through the crosshatch of fine wires in the door glass. Beyond his
own reflection he watched a pantyhose sign glide by on the tile wall
of the station. Someone had penciled a mustache on the model and several
obscene words were scrawled across her groin. The station disappeared
suddenly and he could see himself looking back from the concrete wall
that hurtled along past the train. The arched openings in the wall
were flipping by and Ralph followed one with his eyes until it was
gone. He was enjoying himself tremendously, like a kid on his first
train ride. At 26th Street the train went through on the center express
track and he watched the steel columns rage across the windows, the
station platform flashing on and off between them. He tried to count
the columns, but they were rushing backwards like time furiously rewinding
itself. When he felt the air go cool, he walked to the front window
of the train and watched a spray of bright particles burst from the
electric coupler sliding along the third rail. The tracks reeled away,
up into the darkness, and ahead he could see the glowing spot where
the train would emerge and ride above the surface. The spot expanded,
coming on big and full, and rushed up and swallowed the car into daylight.
Rain pattered against the window and the droplets ran zigzag down
the glass, sending streaks of shadow into the car.
Gradually losing his sense of destination,
he passed his own stop and grew into that whole organism of motion,
while the jouncing car smashed backward into time, sucking up miles
of rushing ties and polished rails. The car became a stationary vibrating
room, all the paraphernalia of the word walloping around it, winding
back into some gigantic reel, like a film running in rapid reverse;
and he hardly knew when he had left the train, his feet walking on
wet sidewalks and somewhere out at the tips of the nerves his face
touching the cold air of the day, the rain no longer falling.
In the streets beyond Surf Avenue the
subway rhythm still echoed in the joints of his body, the electricity
of the third rail crackling and writhing across the faint shadows
of empty buildings and along the closed steel shutters of concessions
and booths, sparking life into unseen globes full of bouncing popcorn
and into galleries of snapping rifles and sliding files of ducks.
Into crocodile men and two-headed cows parading across rows of flaked
and fading posters. And into the cluttered filigree of girders and
beams with its diving chain of cars and silently screaming girls.
But as the small sounds of the world
reasserted themselvesa distant automobile, the slap of the surf,
somewhere the cry of a gullRalph became increasingly aware of
the deep silence that lay like an ocean beneath them, bearing upon
its surface a faint gurgle of rainwater slipping along girders and
dripping from a hundred crossbeams into the street and into the far
voices of memory stirring within him. The silent trestle of the roller
coaster stood nearby on countless legs. The big disc of the ferris
wheel. The unpeopled boardwalk, and a tall, ribbed tower, empty of
parachutes. Huge discarded toys. Surrounded by all this motionless
machinery of pleasure looming like monuments of summer, Ralph felt
the weight of their shadows everywhere around him patterning the October
stillness. By a sheer act of the will he tried to relieve the weight,
brush out the stillness.
But when he closed his eyes, the shadows
were still within them.