Harold Moore was an ordinary man too proud and too shy to be anything else. He was a banker, or a bank teller, or he worked at a bank, depending on what, in his wildest dreams, might be found in the person asking. He was short and limbless and walked as if on ice. He had a crowded, upturned face and brown eyes and brown hair and wore brown tweed jackets and brown slacks and brown socks and brown Oxfords and a brown derby. A green bow-tie adorned his collar daily with a shy relentlessness and pale, bibulous skin crowded his face and cuffs. He was forty.
August 21st was a dark, steamy Friday. A loud, warm rain fell through most of the morning. By noon the rain had thinned to a mist that seemed to just hang there, more the crude sweating of an exhausted earth or the runoff of foul moods than a reeling, leaking cosmos or a flood of self-important interpretations, suffusing subway platforms and dampening clothes and blotting wrists and foreheads. Clouds clipped the Empire State Building at sixty-four stories. Harold counted during his lunch hour. It being a Friday, he enjoyed two hotdogs with mustard and relish and a root beer at Nathan’s on 32nd. With every bite he wiped his mouth almost apologetically, though it never needed wiping. He carried no umbrella- only when one stops completely does rain cease to cool and inspirit and instead crawls upon one’s skin and clogs crevices and enfeebles him to the point where he feels and appears something barely substantial, something whose spirit, like his clothing, can at best be rung out and dried. He preferred a trench coat with the collar turned up and his derby, in the style of a hard-boiled detective strolling tough gray streets. A man who only uses an umbrella in a downpour is a man self-possessed and unfussy, a man smoothly simian, a man at peace with himself and with the world and his place in it, as long as he is dressed so decently as to prevent the wondering of beholders about whether he could not afford one. Harold, in his own eyes, was dressed more than decently enough, though in the charmed, less vulgar times he often imagined he might have had to sharpen his wardrobe lest he appear as miserable and defeated as the scattered newspapers that were equally soaked, as limp and irrelevant as yesterday’s news.
Harold had an appointment at four and would leave work at just after three. The weekend was beginning early, and this put a spring in his step, even though his appointment was with a urologist. He’d been having pain at the toilet, a pain located somewhere between his guts and his member, but he’d be okay, he’d always been okay, and okay was nothing to shake a stick at. In fact, anything else, he often told himself, might only overwhelm him.
The doctor’s office was downtown and to the east, 11th street and Avenue B. At 3:12 his boss excused him indifferently. He was a huge man, Bob Ward, with a ruddy, pockmarked face and thinning hair that clung to his scalp as if fixed to it with glue, constantly chewing on something, the stink of struggle coming off him the day long. But he was a nice man in that he wasn’t specifically an unkind one.
“Mr. Ward… I thought it might be ok if I… took off soon. That doctor’s appointment I mentioned…” He nodded and said something veiled in roast beef and shooed Harold away as if trying half-heartedly to swat a fly.
Harold decided to walk to Union Square rather than take the subway. It was only about twenty blocks, and the mist had settled and the air had slightly cooled. He slipped off his galoshes and placed them carefully in the closet next to the bright white water cooler, which Harold had found vaguely off-putting since its arrival a month or two previous, and slung on his off-rust trench coat. The weekend was here; he wished nobody and nobody wished him well, but nobody wished him harm, either, and simple pleasures, which life gave copiously to those who stayed attuned, were pleasures of the purest form. In them there was no chance of overextending himself, no proverbial ‘other shoe.’ He didn’t have much money and his apartment was small and his bedroom window stood an arm’s length from a dirty brick wall; he wasn’t in love, but his favorite television show was on tonight, Charlie O’Riley. It involved a charmingly bumptious private dick, hard-drinking and hard-living but always as cool as the circumstances allowed. Old Charlie wasn’t afraid to scrap, even if he didn’t win all or even most of them, and he wasn’t one to tremble at a dame— in fact he was secure enough with himself to know which ones to leave alone. You always pulled for Charlie, you pulled for him and admired him; the world kicked him around, but he always ended up back on his feet—not only back on his feet, but grinning.
Tomorrow he’d have dinner with his mother, who lived in good health down by Coney Island. He liked to visit her. It made him feel depended on, and it was nice strolling the boardwalk and the fairgrounds, or even taking a ride on the Ferris Wheel as part of a rare indulgent mood. When he visited the fair, he found it made him nostalgic for a time and a place he’d never known— he longed for sailors walking arm in arm with women in white gloves and pillbox hats, for hot-eyed waltzers or square dancers sweating out moonshine. Instead, it was loud-mouthed Latinos in belly shirts and name necklaces, bovine up-staters in flip-flops and sunburns, everything loud and fast and… anticlimactic. But from the top of the Ferris Wheel it turned a placid blur, the colors at once dazed and heightened, the sounds distant and dulcet, as natural and as peaceful as the secret rhythm of falling snow. The ocean twinkled. The wind blew and was music. From here Harold put up his feet and spread both arms as if friends sat on each side of him. He took a deep breath and smiled at a world which seemed, from this distance, to smile back.
He turned onto 15th Street, deciding to stroll the farmers market before cutting across Union Square Park. It was getting on, though—he’d have to take the L train towards Brooklyn and get off at First Avenue—and as a result the stroll was less verdant than he had hoped. Still, between the fruits and vegetables and the rain-quenched strips of grass and soil, a precious loamy scent filled the air he drew now into his mouth and nostrils, deeply and intently and with an air of being not an observer of nature and of hope and goodness, but a part or extension of it himself.
On to the subway. Nothing natural about that. The humans down there were natural, at best, in the way that Picasso might paint a garden. They were loud and crude and exaggerated to the point of being caricatural, and there was too little air for all of them, and Harold was glad when the train huffed and puffed and shuddered its way into the station, its doors opening directly in front of him so that he took the only seat open, not nearest the door but one over.
Just as the doors were closing, a lily-white arm was thrust into the last space between them. It did not struggle or even move, but waited patiently for the doors to reopen. Its owner, upon a closer look, seemed neither to believe nor care whether the train would drag her into the tunnel and tear her limb to limb. The doors opened and then stalled behind her. She wore a denim jacket and a short black skirt over black tights, her black combat boots tied with silver shoelaces. A silver hoop circled her right nostril. Her very black hair swerved sharply from one side of her forehead to end at her shoulders, and a single yellow ribbon clung to a strand at the back. Her lips were rose petals: full and red and evocative. She looked tired. Not merely tired, but world-weary, or at least it appeared so in the moment Harold dared a glance at her. She had settled directly in front of him, he sitting and she standing, the impartial voice chirping, the impartial doors closing to 14th Street.
Her eyes rolled into her head—out of sickness or disenchantment, one couldn’t be sure. She stood still and unsteady, as if loath to move for fear of falling over. But almost as soon as the train had started, the man next to Harold stood and made for the exit, and the girl took his place, smelling of hairspray and cigarettes, something at once ethereal and hugely present. By the next station her head rested on Harold’s shoulder. She was asleep.
And he was frozen. The next stop was his. Two destinies, each romantic in different ways, and too much so for his sensible nature, wavered as far-off destinations in his mind’s eye: he would soar with this angel, or fall, or he would go to the urologist and find out he had prostrate cancer and die in time, in horror, a catheter to piss out of, a pillow to hold. He had always been able to keep a safe distance from Youth and Beauty, the one he had no longer, the other he never did, but now they appeared at his doorstep, staring up at him with impossibly wounded eyes and challenging him to shut the door. He could hear her breath faintly and feel it on his cheek as she slept: the flesh-and-coffee smell, the sweet, approachable susurrus not unlike the violent tranquility, so visceral yet so narcotic, of the morning’s rain; he was drowning in flowers.
First Avenue Station came and went without so much as a shift of the eye or a twitch of the shoulder. What he felt was not the simple vellicating of his neck by a wisp of hair dancing in breath. He felt much more than that: she was not on him, not merely resting her head, but in him, befuddling his senses the way a robot discovers love in bad science fiction movies, introducing the quick of his bones, his brain, his soul, to unfamiliar butterflies, even if she did not know it— but surely she knew it. Attaining sleep took an hour or more of intense concentration, or a concentrating on not concentrating; it took a trusting of one’s environment and one’s companion, and she had sought him out and achieved this precious and vulnerable state, one of equal parts animal and machine, in less than thirty seconds.
She didn’t stir. Bedford came in lifetimes; Lorimer in dreams. So deep was his paralysis that she seemed a part of him; they were reconnected extensions once severed of each other. She was wounded, jaded, and she had sought him out as a pillar to rest on. Probably it was a case like that of Icarus, a reference Harold proudly plucked from his modest vault of knowledge without more than a moment’s searching. She had lived too closely to life and now needed to back away.
Wonder what the weather’ll be tomorrow. Looks like the rain’s drying up, but the clearing of rain is more depressing than the falling of it. Seems… unreal, somehow. Draining and in the same sort of poor taste as a stereo played too loudly at night. Effort and focus and progress is called again to the front-lines, everything of a false and tepid brightness: I will never sleep again. Never been in Coney Island in a rainstorm. Usually it calls to mind sunshine, hot dogs and cotton candy and neon over surf, but then sometimes traditional comforts were better flipped over. He’d always enjoyed the beach in winter, or enjoyed the idea of it, as well as dessert before supper. A bit of a pain getting wet, though. A light drizzle, then, one that would keep away the crowds, and not that slanting, slashing rain that turns up umbrellas as if they are opened parachutes.
His mother would like her, if only in that she was a woman. More of a girl, really. He was at an age where, as an act of self-preservation, the distinction was needed as something closer to a charmed observation than a desperate appeal. Maybe she’d come to dinner tomorrow night. She had the air of being starved not only in body but in her very soul; his mother could make her twice-baked potatoes and charm her with her old-style naiveté.
She hadn’t shifted. Mutually paralyzed to each their bullied bones. Her jet black tights had rips in them; her thighs, as a result, were like stars: brightness among blackness and evoking vague, pleased notions of greater things and higher places. What had he done today? He’d done this!
Morgan, Jefferson, DeKalb. Exit messy hair and skinny jeans, enter or remain families, strollers, grunts. People only spotted the subway car this far into Brooklyn, the rush hour having not yet begun. The train seemed crudely automatic, so punctual and uncaring and perfunctory, and yet a portal to somewhere so liminal and expansive, so perfectly improbable with her head on his shoulder. She was the sun, the rain, the soil that sent him blossoming. The fairground would sparkle tomorrow, rain or shine; he wouldn’t need to hide in the Ferris Wheel.
He shed all concept of time and distance. The guttural black and neon intermissions, the cream and burgundy of the station stops, passed in a pleasant dazed blur. He tried to look happily on his boyhood, his mother, any post on which he could hang a noble if less than glamorous existence, but only saw it as a story of somebody else’s. This resting body folded his consciousness into a box inside of which only she remained. Life was only the future, the future was always happening and the past was always no longer happening, and the future was all sunsets and stardust.
A lifetime in a millisecond put him in Canarsie. End of the line. He woke up—he had been dreaming, though not sleeping— and his stomach seized, his palms pulsed; this was his moment, and as waking from a dream, it came to him that it was not a moment at all. He was just an ordinary banker, or a bank teller, or he worked at a bank. He lacked the edge, the controversial views, the loathing and self-loathing, the scars of struggle, which appealed to her indulgently ponderous generation. He suddenly didn’t care if he woke her, and he stood up while placing a palm beneath her cheek and peeling her off like a piece of clothing. She didn’t wake or make a sound or even move except for falling upon a row of seats and onto the floor. She didn’t break to pieces, either.