That Time of Year
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 impassive.
     “Que? Que 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 blackboard–E-G-G. he could smell the chalk dust and he was scrawling on a childhood blackboard at P.S.… ninety-seven, was it? Sixty-seven? He couldn’t 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 shiny–and 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 street–Investigations, Strictly Confidential–sent erratic reflections sparking off the wet pavement. Ralph tried to shake the throb from his skull, but it wouldn’t 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 he’ll shake every secretary in the city off the boss’s lap.
     Gomez had reached his lunch … take the pot … 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. Don’t 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 clouds–Ralph 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 canvas—cautious, deft…flat. Like a memorized speech.
     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 Macy’s 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, FIORE’S 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. That’s why all that bunch had stayed so late at Lois’s. Hoping it would let up so they wouldn’t 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 kid and … what was her name…Melody! Who’d 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 she’d 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 we’re on jumping…” He undressed her with his eyes.
     “Me too,” she said, pointing to the bottle. “And don’t get so smart, baby. Ponytails are practical…jumping! I don’t 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, didn’t 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.
     “Don’t 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. It’s 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.”
     “Let’s get the crockery,” he said. “And don’t be vulgar. Says something about your attitude.”
     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 heaven’s 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 Opera: …just a jackknife has Mac Heath dear… He reached up and tapped a spidery mobile hanging from the ceiling and watched it turn, stop, unwind. The painting. God, he’d have to get those dead spots out. But how? Maybe he’d 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 couldn’t 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 Lois’s 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, that’s all.” He continued rubbing his temples.
     “A yes man. A yes man with a temper. It doesn’t make sense.” She nudged him aside and turned on the faucet, directing a spray of hot water over the dishes. “Incidentally, I’m thinking of taking the legs off tables and using them for doors.”
     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. I’m sorry about the temper.”
     Lois hung up the dish towel and turned to him, her expression serious. “Respectability. Let’s talk about that, Ralph.”
     “Here it comes,” he said. “I knew you’d get around to it.”
     “I’m not getting any younger.”
     Ralph looked away.
     “Ralph!”
     “Not now, Lois, Don’t 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…justajackknife, justajackknife… He gripped hard at his mind, pulling it back into place, gathering the pieces into the present moment…I 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 blackboard.
     “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, Mr. Amaya?”
     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. Amaya’s forehead sprouted ridges of surprise.
     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 God’s 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 he’d 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 wasn’t 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. Amaya’s eyes were wide now. Trapped and frightened.
     “Mrs. Arundel,” Ralph said.
     Mr. Amaya let his eyes go narrow with relief.
     Ralph pointed at the blackboard and said, “This is October, Mrs. Arundel. October 10, to be exact. Now speak for November.”
     Mrs. Arundel pouted.
     “I…will…go,” Ralph suggested, emphasizing each word.
     “Will…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 contact.
     “Well done, Mrs. Arundel,” he said, “but you didn’t flinch your kabe very spoothly.”
     Mrs. Arundel nodded.
     “Thus I refute you, Mrs. Arundel,” he said.
     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 o’clock I sit down in your place and let my mouth drop open? Did you know that, Madame Arundel?”
     Mrs. Arundel didn’t nod. She wrinkled her brow, trying to seem thoughtful. The rest of the class looked at him blankly. Uncomprehendingly attentive. Even Miss Lopez seemed puzzled.
     “Ah, but I’m 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. Arundel’s 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. Amaya’s raised hand.
     “What means know?” asked Mr. Amaya.
     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 didn’t 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. He’d stand there, letting his presence sink in. Then, step two: the full entrance and tirade—the comic frenzy that Peters liked to parody, in his shrieking falsetto, over lunchtime coffee in the automat.
     Ralph said, “All right, let’s 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. Amaya’s notebook and held it above him to be sure they understood what he wanted.
     “Who talk?” Fiore stepped into the room. “Who talk the Spanish here, eh?” He glanced for a rebuking instant at Ralph’s 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. Amaya’s lap. But Amaya didn’t move; his gnarled workman’s 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…this 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, “…is necessary to…” 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 grandfather’s 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 Ralph’s toes, the whir of the chain on the sprocket beneath him. And once a month his father’s 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 …I wind the clock…I go the bed…I make the bed…I put the light…
     Ralph came reluctantly alert, the voice from Peters’ room biting into his reverie. He tried to relax into it again, but that wouldn’t 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 sharply—one, 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. Fiore’s balding head—a 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 hadn’t heard it so many times before: Hello, Mr. Fiore. Is all right. Good night, Mr. Fiore. Is all right. Nice weather we’re 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 God’s 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 isn’t a graceful time, but can I speak to you a few minutes?”
     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, “That’s 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. “I’ve been here two years and I think I’ve 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 couldn’t 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 haven’t bothered you much about it before, but it’s reached a point where it’s 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 he’d 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.
     “Why not?”
     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 hadn’t been fooled. But she returned to her work and he knew that he wasn’t 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 didn’t turn. “Do I get it or don’t I?”
     He was communicating now. Fiore’s 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 office?”
     “Want the place to grow, like Berlitz. So they’re giving out bonuses to teachers. Didn’t they call for you?”
     Peters sighed. “Oh, come off it, Gould. You’re 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,” he said.
     Peters stopped peeling his egg. “Oh?”
     “No good. Said I’d 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 Ralph’s 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. “You’ve 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 they’d 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 weren’t 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 he’d call and tell her he couldn’t make it; he hoped she wouldn’t feel hurt. The sense of elation was growing and he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He allowed himself a brief twinge of regret for all the unpleasant things he’d 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 themselves—a distant automobile, the slap of the surf, somewhere the cry of a gull—Ralph 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.






Click here to read other Featured Writers

 

 

 

 
Top