This is a story I started writing almost 19 years ago, now. I graduated from college, moved to New York City's Chelsea, got a job, and suddenly didn't know who the hell I was or what I was doing. I started typing one day because not writing down what was in my head was getting to be more painful and annoying than just giving in. This story is what came out of that experience. It's me as a much younger writer, living in a now-vanished New York.
It's not a complete story. It's a couple hundred pages, I think, but I warn you - there's no grand resolution (something that would, it should be obvious to anyone who reads my stuff here, continue to haunt me). I used to have it hosted on a website, back in the early 1990s - hosted with hyperlinks to other stories I'd written, and some artwork I'd done. I was right chuffed when the Washington Post read it and gave me an awesome shoutout (read the last paragraph) - even if it was by the 'technology' columnist. Unfortunately the last copy of that website was on a server in a colo facility which ate itself some months ago. Upon investigating, I discovered to my horror that the backups I had been maintaining of that website were, in fact, corrupt. The website was indexed far and wide, as it was up in the early days of the World Wide Web, so you might run across indexed ghosts of its presence out there if you look, not that there's any reason to do so.
Later, I discovered that although I hadn't a working backup of the website, I had one of the central novel itself, thank goodness. While I was meandering through it, re-reading, I realized I should probably put it up here to join the rest of my stuff, since there's zero chance it'll ever get published. Finished? I don't know. I'm not sanguine - it's been a long, long time since I was the person who wrote this, and I write by feel more than by art or by craft. Perhaps, once it's all here, I can re-read it and recapture enough of the characters that they'll oblige me by continuing their shadowplay in my head. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to get it down, and their story will continue.
One of my other stories, posted here, is fairly tightly linked to this story. If you run across it, you'll know which it is.
Thanks to everyone on this website who has ever /msged or written me telling me that they enjoyed or appreciated or even read and hated work I've posted here. That's the only reason I keep writing. I'm stuck in what has been a fairly epic writer's block, lasting months; and this post doesn't mean it's broken (of course). But hopefully I can trick myself into reading this stuff, and editing it for posting, and maybe (just maybe) that'll help.
Table of Contents
It's not a big park, really; it's in Madison Square, on Madison Avenue between 23rd and 26th streets. It's got a fountain in the middle, too- I've never seen it on since I've been here, since it's winter. I suppose they turn it off to save the plumbing. Birds shit in it. Probably people do too; I've never looked.
In any case, the edges of this park are wide walkways, paved with the hexagonal stones that must be made by a company owned by the brother of someone in the New York City Parks Department. There are benches down them, squatting somewhat wearily in the occasional snow and rain, and I sleep on them many nights.
Usually there are too many of us for the cops to bother. We don't bother anyone anyhow; just come there for a bed for the night, and no-one bothers us, generally. Some of the cops are even friendly, if you catch them in a good mood. We don't do drugs, some of us are crazy but not bad crazy, not violent crazy. I've been here in the City for four months. I've slept in the Park three of them. I need a shower.
I came to the City for a job, a job that I had gotten after leaving...college, I suppose, although I'm not sure which one or where. I made it as far as the tall building downtown before being told that the recession which had apparently hit while I was on the bus had rendered my position, as they put it, null and void. And, of course, my offer with it. With good cheer, I had set out to find another outlet for my collegiate education, but two weeks later had been mugged. In Central Park, and for all my money and ID. As neither category had been very voluminous, I found myself unable to support myself, especially for the two weeks I was fuzzy from the coshing on the head.
So, I migrated to the Park. I suppose it has a name, but that's for the others to know, those with houses and jobs and wives who care.
I first saw her in the Park. It was one night in early November. A lot of the others had left the Park for the warmer if more squalid climes of Penn Station and the tunnels, but I had a good sleeping bag in the camping knapsack that held all my possessions, and so I stayed. I rather enjoyed the cold air at night from within my bag. It was from within this bag that I was watching the sky through the branches of the trees over my bench that night. Officer Kelly had been by recently, and had brought me a cup of coffee, for which I was everlastingly grateful. He was an okay sort, Kelly; he claimed he'd been a wanderer after college for a few months himself. After quitting, that is. He said he hadn't seen any reason to finish, which put me ahead of his game. We disagreed over that point good-naturedly. Best of all, he occasionally let me in to a house on his beat, which belonged to a friend of his, to take a shower and clean my few clothes.
The girl was walking steadily down the sidewalk my bench was on, the Madison side between 25th and 26th street. She was blonde, very blonde, with perfect shoulder length hair which curved down in a shimmering ellipse. It came within a hair of being sixties, but somehow made it. She was wearing a black coat and a beret, and had her hands in her pockets. She moved very smoothly down the street, her shoulders hardly moving. I regarded her from my bench, my hands behind my head. A quizzical yet cold glance came my way, at which point I tried to smile as disarmingly as possible, spreading my hands to show they were empty. She smiled! Briefly, but shedid smile. I saw it. Then her eyes flicked back to the pavement in front of her, and she resumed her walk. I lay back and looked at my leafy ceiling. Wow, she'd been gorgeous. At school I would've gone up and asked her out in some fashion or other, but here...here I was, homeless in the City. Puts a damper on your social activities.
I thought of what she might look like without the coat, in a dress, perhaps, and twisted my head around to catch a glimpse from the rear. From where I was, I could see up Madison several blocks, west across to Fifth, and several hundred feet into the block east towards Park. She was gone.
Truly gone. No-one there. I burst from my bag in confusion, and ran to the corner, where I stood panting in my boxers. There was no-one there, and no-one to be seen for several blocks in any direction, as far as I was able to see. The traffic light clicked softly to itself, and began to shine a forlorn red light on the pavement in front of me. Confused and cold, I went back to bed. Nothing abnormal for a homeless person happened to me for another week. I survived. I ate, sometimes, I slept a lot, I got rousted by cops a lot, I only got beaten once. All in all, it wasn't a bad week. At the end of it, I was back in the Park, in my sleeping bag, which had somehow gotten a small cut in the outer layer which had a tendency to expand whenever I moved. I was, therefore, trying to remain as motionless as possible.
She walked by slightly faster, this time, and didn't stop to look at me. I was on the edge of sleep, and it didn't register for a few seconds, after which I leapt from my bench only to fall in an undignified pile of clothing, tripped by the forgotten sleeping bag. Kicking myself free, I stared wildly up the avenue, only to catch a glimpse of her hair through a pillar of New York manhole steam as she continued uptown. I hastily thrust my belongings under the bench and ran off after her.
On reflection, it was probably a stupid move. A homeless person launching themselves off a bench to pursue a pretty girl at night in New York would probably be grounds for at least a shot of Mace, were she carrying any. I didn't think of any of that, though, because she didn't look the type, and I was insanely curious to know...well, to know why I was insanely curious.
I burst across 26th street and through the steam, and craned my neck staring uptown. She was almost to 27th, and she was looking back at me as she hurried- damn, damn, don't be threatened- but she was smiling, which caused any hope of rational behavior to swan dive straight out the window. I took off uptown as fast as my young legs and ancient shoes could carry me, and was at 27th in a flash- but she wasn't. I skidded to a halt and looked around frantically, but she was gone, no trace. In fact, there was no-one in view at all, just the click of the streetlights and the far off sounds around the corners and out of sight of the few cars grumbling and honking to each other in tongues of their own. As I was standing there, I heard from the edges of the scene a small tinkling laugh. Just the kind she'd have, of course.
Insanity seemed a logical conclusion. I decided that the blow on my head (a few weeks ago, now) had scrambled something important, and I was indulging in a bit of concussive wish-fulfillment. Panting on my feet in the middle of an empty 27th street, I mourned her spectral character, and turned to make for my bench. Disappointedly, I kicked the beret on the ground near my feet, and shuffled off towards the park.
I was so cold and tired and confused it took an entire block before it penetrated.
Frustratedly, muttering pleas for the world to stop doing things like this to me, I dashed back to 27th, and pounced on the black piece of headgear, and clutched it to me. It felt real enough. "It's not fair!" I shouted at the stolid darktime faces of the buildings around me; but they merely stared at each other in placid immobility, leaving me to wander back to the park with the hat, muttering "it's not fair..." all the way.
My sleeping bag was gone. At some point during my midnight stroll, some enterprising New Yorker had decided that a nice warm sleeping bag was just the thing he or she needed, and as the previous owner had been stupid enough to leave it under a bench...well. I sat dejectedly, and pawed through my clothing to find the warmest piece. Funny how the superlative in a situation can be so far down the absolute scale. The coat was threadbare, but fit me snugly and had gotten me through several exam periods. It greeted me comfortingly as I slipped it over my shoulders, and I fell asleep hugging the beret. It smelled of Chanel.
In the morning, I rose sleepily to find the beret still clutched in one stiff paw and a light dusting of snow twinkling cheerfully over myself, the park, and generally everything else in sight. The fact that it was Saturday somehow found its way into my consciousness, and before I could allow myself to believe I was allowed to sleep late, I jumped up and began pulling on every piece of clothing I owned. Freezing was not, to me, an attractive concept.
At last, reasonably warm, I glanced down to find the beret lying in the frost where it had fallen in my sartorial frenzy. I picked it up, and inside the brim, wonder of wonders, there were letters. Better, they spelled something, and best of all it appeared to be a name. Ellyn Santano, the beret announced proudly, before being squashed in my pocket as I gathered up my rucksack (still there, miraculously) and dashed for Fourteenth street. At Fourteenth, panting like a fool as I slowed to a stop at the end of Park Avenue South, I turned left and shambled the few blocks to my goal. Opening the door, I was met by an overweight overaged security guard, who attempted to chivvy me back on to the street.
"Come on son, no sleeping in here. I know 's cold, but you'll have to-" I didn't let him finish.
"Officer, I understand, I'm not in here to sleep, I just want to get to a book. You can watch me. Really. Honest, please?" Sometimes the ingenuous dumb bright-eyed look works. He looked at me, then shrugged.
"Okay, rocket scientist, five minutes."
Nodding my thanks, I brushed past him to the racks of Yellow and White Pages stacked neatly under a sign which read Welcome to New York Telephone! Ignoring the herd of folk in line to pay bills for a service t hey were never sure they really needed as they approached the bored counter clerks at the front of the line, I dove for a White Pages. Santano, Santano, lessee...Salomon, Saltri, Samsen, Samson, Santana, Santr- wait a minute. Backtracking didn't help; there simply were no Santanos in the phone book.
I stuck the book back on the shelf, and thanked the guard on my way out. He smiled back, relieved that I hadn't chosen to press his edict. Walking distractedly back west towards Union Square, I thought about the possibility that she was from out of town, and firmly repressed it. Rationalization stepped in at the last moment to save me-why would she be on the streets of New York alone at God knows what hour of the morning? Why twice? Okay, she must be from town, that's final. Maybe the phone isn't in her name? Does she live with someone? Nah. Why not? Because if she does, this whole thing might be pointless, and we can't have that, now, can we?
Union Square vanished behind a wall of reddish brick as I descended into the Union Square Station for the downtown six train. Waiting until no one was looking, I thought, I vaulted the turnstiles and ran for the softly panting train before the bored transit cop (there's a first) could detach himself from his comfy wall to stop me. The doors closed, and I saw him quickly lose interest, not even bothering, as far as I could tell, to call me in to his compadres at the next station. Whew.
Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall! To the building, finding myself standing in a line for a birth certificate. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Nada. Undiscouraged, but a bit confused, I found myself standing on a sidewalk looking longingly at a McDonalds and counting the money I had- the grand total of four dollars and sixty-one cents. If spent carefully, it might sustain me a couple days-then I'd have to beg again. I hate it. I have to do it, to live, but I hate it. One of these days I'll starve rather than do it, but not today. Hungry and hopeless, I decide to spend it all and eat something hot.
Marching into the McDonalds I find that I can barely afford three hamburgers, a fries and a small coke-the counter lady, as I pull out my meager bankroll, seems to take pity on me. She takes my four dollars and slips three Big Macs into the bag with the rest of my food. I stare at her, and she ignores me, perhaps unwilling to come face to face with the gratitude of a starving man. I allow her her space, and run from the restaurant to wolf down a Big Mac, the fries, and the Coke, forcing myself to stop and not stretch my stomach, and wish I'd bought hot coffee instead of an iced soda.
A problem- what to do with the food I am not eating? That's a simple one, actually- most folks with refrigerators would be mightily surprised at how long a hamburger will keep, especially when it's (I estimate with my nose) around forty-five degrees Fahrenheit outside. That's what it is in a middlin' fridge anyhow. Fries don't keep, all the grease turning to solidified guck around and in them, and that's why one eats them first. Also, they're usually the hottest thing on the menu when one has just left the restaurant- they hold the heat from deepfrying. Temperature is important, out here in the technological center of the East Coast of America in the Civilized Age; it is important to those for whom it is a daily concern and not a setting on a thermostat.
And now - sated - it is only proper to ponder what to do next. It isn't as though I don't have plenty of time. But I want to know, damn it. Getting dark now, as it does around five o'clock here in the big apple in winter. Time to find a bench. My favorite is too far uptown from here to be worth the trek, and perhaps it's finally too cold to remain proud, especially as I no longer have my sleeping bag. I shoulder the rucksack and its remaining contents, and wish fleetingly that I could still pass for a poor student in New York, a point I passed when my clothes reached a certain indefinable level of tatter and my sclera became permanently red and bruised looking. Oh for a hot shower now, it's been too damn long...but more important, to find a place to sleep.
I tread somewhat wearily over to the west, and intersect the north-south weal of the Number 1 train at Chambers. The wait-and-dash trick isn't required here; a bored token booth clerk sits busily reading the latest edition of Reader's Digest, and barely looks up as I open the exit door and walk through.
The train took twelve minutes to arrive. I counted the seconds.
After exiting the train at 34th St., I descended a level and walked west into the hot, close confines of Penn Station. Intending to stake out a spot, I found myself suddenly unable to force myself to sit and live and sleep in the view of most of New York's Homo Commutus and disgustedly turn and re- enter the subway, making for Times Square.
Eventually reality caught up with me as I leaned against a post in the Times Square shuttle station, staring at a large discolored patch of floor. That patch of floor has a history, you know; it was once the Nedick's lunch counter that features so prominently in the George Selding books beginning with A Cricket In Times Square. My interest piqued by the realization, I look up, and sure enough there is a drainpipe at the base of the wall across the expanse. With a sudden wistful nostalgia for childhood stories, I find myself tempted to peek inside and ask if Tucker Mouse has room for a slightly oversized housemate.
So help me, I was actually on my way across the open area to the drainpipe when I realized how very tired I must be. Deliberately, I turned and walked a line to the waiting shuttle, boarded, and sat. Exhausted for some reason, I felt myself nod into sleep, and heard at the edge of space a small high interrogative squeak from a mouse irate at being disturbed in the evening as the train pulled away from the station. SHOCK and I'm awake, looking up the hardwood cylinder that is pressing against the right side of my chest and letting my gaze reach the cop's face. He is staring at me, waiting for me to answer a question I apparently have missed. I shake my head to clear it, and ask in the clearest voice I can muster, "I'm sorry, officer, what?"
He eyes me. "No sleeping onna train. You going somewhere? This is the shuttle."
I look around me, realizing I have slept for several back and forth iterations of the train's passage. "I was going to Grand Central, officer, I must have dozed off." Seeing that we are, in fact, stopped in Grand Central's station, I get up slowly. The policeman, satisfied that I am coherent and not belligerent, holsters his baton and waves me off the train. I scuttle for the tunnel to the Lexington Lines, feeling very much like Tucker Mouse.
Upon reaching the tunnel, I realize I should have gone up the first stairs, but I want very much to be away from that cop. I go up the stairs at the end of the long walkway, proceed into the station, and turn left, finding myself in the Main Lobby. I love Grand Central. It was built back when New Yorkers thought their city was worth something, and not something to be tolerated.
There's usually someone standing next to the Chemical Bank playing music, for change or for pleasure, but there's no sound now. I crane my neck, searching, but cannot find anyone with an instrument of any sort in view. Sighing, I walk towards the commuter train entrances, and track 28. No one stops me. Passing the brightly lit doors of one of the machines which beckons to those with places to go which are more inviting than the train itself (not difficult, unless you're in my condition) I approach the end of the platform. Miracle of miracles, there are no official looking folk in sight at the moment, so I jump lightly down from the lit to the shrouded and begin the slow walk uptown underground, searching for a flat space away from rolling stock.
Along the way, I see a couple of other people, but they mostly ignore me and I ignore them. After about what feels like ten blocks, I see a half-lit door on the west side of the tunnel complex, lit by a single incandescent. The socket is loose and hanging, its cord running up the wall and held on by staples. I step carefully over the tracks, unsure of which rail is electrified if any, and come up to face the door which reads "CA T ON A HORIZED SON EL O Y". Encouraging. Trying the handle, I find it unlocked, and I cautiously open it. Blackness. I can't see in past the glare of the bulb, and I blink a couple times in reflection of what horrors might lie just beyond the light.
With a sudden surge o f cleverness, especially considering the state I had reached, I examined the bulb again. Its cord, stapled to the wall, ran along the left edge of the doorframe to the floor. Grabbing the socket carefully (no sign of frayed wiring) I pulled sharply, hoping I wouldn't short the whole damn thing. There was a multiple pingping-ing as the staples, taxed beyond the endurance of friction, succumbed to physics and leapt out of the wall to pepper me and fly off into the darkness. I found myself holding the bulb, its socket and about ten feet of slack. So armed, I poked my head into the room with the bulb held ahead of me and my hand between the bulb and my face. From its light, I could see a smallish room, about ten feet square, with a ladder against the far wall which lead up to the ceiling ten feet above and went through a grill to spaces unknown. The room was completely bare of any objects, and its walls and floor were an identical shade of rust-brown, which on further investigation appears to be nothing more than a thick coating of the ferrous dust which permeates the tunnels. I stepped inside and closed the door after ensuring that all of the slack in the cord was inside the room.
As far as I can see, it's completely dry, and quite warm- right up around the high seventies. It's relatively quiet (a commuter thunders past outside with the particular screech of wheels on steel that only a train is capable of producing)...well, undisturbed, and no-one appears to have taken up an earlier residence.
I drop my rucksack. Home at last. Pulling out my coat and a shirt, I sink to the floor gratefully and unscrew the light bulb far enough to plunge the room into blackness before putting my head on the shirt and closing my eyes. I figure any rat that ventures in will be completely uninterested in me, as I had given in to hunger and higher temperatures and eaten my remaining McDonalds' on the way up the tunnel. Sleep, waiting just beyond the light, wasted no time, and swooped in as soon as the offending luminescence vanished.
I wake, naturally, to the smashing roar of a Metro North train, which sounds like it's on the track right outside the door. Must remember to watch out when exiting.
Yawning, I perform what parts of my toilet I'm able. Shelter is taken care of; next step is to find water and food. I shake my head, thinking how much less strange that would sound in a real, not concrete, desert. I stow my rucksack in a corner, and listen at the door before stepping out into the tunnels. No traffic. Closing the door carefully, I pick my way down towards the light of the platforms, and climb back into the shallow bounded world of civilization in the city.
I'm wearing my last reasonably presentable outfit; an (almost) unholed pair of jeans, and a black T-shirt under the coat. Only a shower, only a shower...ah well. I wander into the main lobby, wondering what day it is. Sunday, ah, yes. No wonder the lobby is so empty, only a dusting of inhabitants to lighten the marble weight of the room. There is music, this...morning? A man with a guitar stand in the Approved Spot and sings softly of a woman he knows whom we do not. I head for the subway.
Ascending, I walk the three blocks from Twenty-third to find myself back at the bench in Madison Square. It looks different in the daytime. Not as magical, which is logical if disappointing. Nothing to suggest an apparition of any sort, much less a fashionable one, has ghosted past it on more than one occasion. Sighing, I swivel to stare uptown past the few pedestrians and automobiles to lose focus in the receding depths of Madison Avenue.
I truly have no idea where to go next. There seems little to do but return to my hole and search out a steady water supply, and perhaps acquire food in some fashion. I sit for a moment, trying to work up the energy to trek back to Grand Central. As I am sitting on the bench with hands in pockets and eyes on the sidewalk, I am interrupted by a pair of black leather shoes which stop and turn to face me. Blue pants...I raise my eyes to the face, and find a smiling Irish one. I grin momentarily myself. "Officer Kelly."
"Sure and it's me ragamuffin friend. What're ye doing out here without your bag? Chilly, you know." He sits beside me, obviously on break. (The Beat Cop Is Back, announces the side of a phone booth across the avenue.)
"Bag's gone. Stolen. I'm just sitting here thinking about...thinking." I turn a smile his way, before staring at my shoes again. Kelly is looking thoughtfully at the cornerstone of a building across the street, which I know from past experience has a ground plan of Dachau carved into it, and a quote about justice. The building has something to do with the court system.
"Well, me boy." He pauses. I have always suspected that Kelly's accent is entirely affected (he himself claims to have come from the Lower East Side) but I've never caught him out of it. "Well. Stolen you say." Thoughtful he rubs his chin. "Perhaps we might do each other favors." Turning to me, he glances inquiringly.
"Sure, Kelly. What's on your mind?" I try to be noncommittal, wondering what the hell I know or have done.
"I'd like you to consider something for me."
Thoroughly confused now, I turn my body to face him. "Consider what?"
"You're too damn smart to be sleeping on a bench, you know. You got yourself a college degree, even if you can't find it. Even if you don't have family, you are far too resourceful to be stuck here unless you want to be. Why?"
I thought about that for a minute. "I don't think I want to be stuck here. I don't have enough clothing, cleanliness or interest to get a job and thence a place to live. I just, well, somehow I just don't seem to have all the parts at the same time." Kelly considered that for a few moments. "You look better. More animate. You doing something? Got something on your mind?"
I smile at the buildings across. "Yah. Maybe I'll tell you about it someday, when I figure it out."
He stares across as well. "Perhaps you will." There is a silence. "Need a shower?"
"Do you seriously need to ask that?" I grin at him in grateful anticipation. He grins back, and gets up, heading for Twenty-Seventh and his friend's apartment. I follow, and we stroll over in companionable silence. I wonder, not for the first time, if he's gay, and then dismiss it as always as at the very least irrelevant, since he's never done anything that could be remotely considered as making a pass at me. We reach the building, and ascend to me third floor, where he opens the door with a key from his belt, and I dive for the bathroom. He stops me before I get there, with a hand on my arm, and I prepare, frightened, to revise my conclusions about him as I turn about.
"I've got to be back on the beat, me boy. When you're done, make sure the door's locked. There's sandwich makings in the kitchen." Shocked with relief that his interruption had not boded what I'd thought in a rush of irrational fear, I stand for a moment, stunned.
"Why what?" He's obviously happy with my confusion, smiling in mirth.
"Why for me?"
"I didn't make it through school, bucko. You did, and honestly too, if you can be believed. It tends to irritate me that such a one as that can be so rocked about by the world." He's not smiling by the end, apparently quite serious.
"Someday I'll pay you back, Kelly." I tell him this quietly, embarrassed both by the cliché and my obvious inability to for the foreseeable future. His grin returns. "Sure and I know that. Well, you might want to be out before four. Me wife gets home then." With a last Irish laugh, he's gone out the door, and I am overcome with relief and laughter at not figuring out the true ownership of the apartment. I stare about me for a few seconds, amazed at the trust I've been shown, and carefully explore without touching. There are pictures of Kelly and a stunning woman I assume is his wife, Kelly at his graduation from the academy, all stern-faced uniformed efficiency, and there are many of her laughing. Shaking my head, I put my clothes in the washer and take a shower. A hot shower. A long hot shower.
Toweling myself dry, I throw my clothes into the dryer in the kitchen, and sitting at their kitchen table, read the newspaper left on the hall table. Amazed as always at how easy it has become for me to become completely out of touch with the world, I get up, and explore the refrigerator. There's lots.
Making a sandwich, I browse through cupboards and assemble foodstuffs on the table. Chicken cutlets. Lemons. Flour. Butter. Garlic. Salt. When a large enough pile is there, I fly into the food, unpracticed cooking skills returning slowly to hungry and rusty fingers. A skillet cooking, the chicken butterfly sliced and browned- some lemon, and flour, and the garlic diced finely- I throw the spaghetti into the pot. The browned chicken and lemon goes into a skillet into the broiler, with chicken broth and lemon to keep it company. The spaghetti cooks, is drained and oiled with the garlic, just in time to remove the chicken from the broiler. I assemble a salad quickly from the crisper, and place a plate, a napkin, a full silverware set, and the food on the table. I stare at it for a moment before eating my portion slowly and carefully, with a glass of water and a glass of juice from the fridge.
There is much remaining. Deliberately. I place it in containers carefully, and arrange the containers in the fridge in a highly visible position, and leave two places set at the table after washing the dishes. My clothes have done, and I put them on.
Surveying the apartment, I tidy it up as best I am able, and leave a note for Kelly with a list of what I've used telling him to add it to my tab, in all seriousness. It is two o'clock, and I find an alarm clock, set it for three-thirty, and go to sleep on the couch.
The alarm blares in my ear, and I start, rolling off the couch before realizing where I am. I place the alarm back on the bedside table and restore it to its former position, relieved that Mrs. Kelly has not yet made an appearance, and leave quietly, ensuring that the door has latched behind me. I exit onto the street feeling entirely human, and smiling, run to Madison for the fun of it, arriving at the bench and stretching. I seat myself, and go back to sleep, waiting.
I am prodded awake to a dark sky by Kelly, who is smiling. He has come to thank me for dinner, which he and Lori enjoyed very much, and to make sure I'm all right. I assure him I'm fine, even warm due to the calories, and realize that he is grateful that his trust has so far appeared not to be misplaced. Strange how the world works.
"Are ye waiting for someone here? You looked a bit disappointed 'twas only me." Kelly is curious, apparently.
"I'm not sure. At least, I haven't made plans to meet anyone, there's just someone I've seen here, and I wonder if they'll be back, is all." I smiled at Kelly ingenuously, attempting to communicate peaceful motives, if not innocence. He grins back and departs along Madison avenue, swinging his nightstick behind his back in a fashion he must have learned from Depression era movies. Yawning, I sink back to sleep; it's not yet nine o'clock.
Somehow I awaken at around eight-thirty, and am sitting upright and reasonably coherent on the bench by a quarter to nine. I'm still warm, and if not full, at least not starving. There is light traffic on the avenue both pedestrian and vehicular, and I smile at those passing by in a compromise with myself. It's not begging if I don't ask for money; a smile, and occasionally, one of them might ask me if I need any. Not likely, but possible, and that's all that's required to make it a more attractive option, size of the take be damned. I'm not hungry enough for that to matter yet. This passes several hours, and the stream of people dwindles, and by one in the morning, I've taken in nothing but smiles in return, which almost but aren't quite enough to keep me going in a cold New York City. At around twelve-thirty, I'm almost dozing off, and the streets have taken on the quiet characteristics of a desert, when one of the streetlights begins to blink. I'm awake instantly, keyed as only a New Yorker or other prey can be to any change in the immediate environment. There is steam rising once again from the manholes in Madison Avenue, and I notice that New York Telephone has during the day (on a Sunday?) installed a large tank on a corner, from which a hose runs along the street and down into one of the City's many mysterious electronic oubliettes. Frost has formed on the valves of the tank; some sort of pressurized coolant, I guess to myself.
She passes me at a faster pace, this time, almost running; Before I am sure it is her, she has passed me and broken into a hesitant sort of run, looking back over her shoulder. I can't figure out what she's staring at, the angle is too bad, and she's truly running now, her hands out of her pockets and arms pumping as she dashes off. With myself in hot pursuit by this time. I reach 27th street only about fifty feet behind her, and have time to hope that no Good Samaritan citygoers think I'm chasing her with evil intent, before she rushes into a tower of steam and vanishes from sight momentarily. I crash through after her, the shock of the warm moisture almost a physical barrier that exacts a gasp from my lips out of sync with my running, and as my vision clears-
The street is empty.
I come to a rapid halt, staring about myself with a hunted feeling, and there is a long, drawn out scream from the night. I can't determine the direction, but it sounds as if it's coming from the empty pavement no more than fifty feet in front of me. I recoil instinctively, and shout "ELLYN!" at the top of my lungs, unsure as I do so why I have. There is silence, as New York reasserts itself around me, and the steam performs a chaos theory ballet through the patterns of the air and vanishes into the greater volume with a soundless breath of anguish.
Again, there is no one in sight. I turn back to the bench, for the third time now, and mutter in confusion at the world. Reaching the bench, I change my mind, and begin the walk north towards Grand Central and my rucksack.
Reaching the Main Lobby at around one a.m. I pass determinedly through to the tunnels, stopping only long enough to ensure that no official observers are about to take exception to my commute. I stumble the final underground ten blocks tiredly, and gratefully recognize my doorway up ahead. Reaching it, I open it slowly, and am relieved to see the bulb burning brightly in the center of the floor, my rucksack in the corner and no changes visible. I stagger in, shut the door, and sit heavily on the floor to ponder the events of the day.
Unable to come up with a reason or method for her disappearances, I resign myself to not knowing more until I finally manage to speak to her. Discontent, but accepting, I sleep.
The Stamford local brought me back to me world some hours later. After a few moments of sitting about regaining consciousness, I was mulling over what to do with t he day when the ladder in the corner attracted my vision. I pulled myself to my feet, and climbed the few feet to the ceiling and the grate through which the ladder passed. Experimentally, I pushed on the grating. Counterweighted, apparently, it swung obediently upward, and I clambered through to find myself at the bottom of a metal grate stairway. After ensuring that the grate could be raised from above with no trouble, I began the climb. Three levels later, past two unexplored corridors, the stairway ended in a door with a bar release handle. I pushed it, and exited from my tunnels to face the windy climes. The Swissotel immediately across the street was familiar enough that I was able to identify my location as what looked to be Fifty-Sixth street between Park and Madison.
Handy to know. Still holding the door open, I ignored the curious looks of passersby and examined it. It had a lock on this side, reasonably enough, to prevent anyone from entering the tunnels uninvited. That suited me fine; I was as unwilling to have anyone discover my comfy lodgings. I let the door swing shut and listened carefully as it seated with a reassuring slam of its metal shape against the lock.
Now what to do? I wondered momentarily what I wanted to do, and then for lack of a better plan, sat against the wall of the building that loomed comfortingly behind me and sank to the pavement, checking only to ensure that nothing offending lurked below me. The concrete was cold against my back, even through the coat and T-shirt. The day, such as it was, waited silently behind a gunmetal colored shroud and perhaps counted its fingers as life went on below the clouds.
The only thing I really felt was that I needed to know. I can't stand not knowing; it's what drove me to college, for some my age a fate worse than death. Now, of course, there are lots of things I don't know. My name is a biggie. It makes the loss of the driver's license a lot larger than it would have been normally. The holes aren't large, but they're there, and I never know where until I stumble over them. The first, my name, I found by looking up from a cold ground similar to this one with an enormous pain in my head to see a policeman fuzzily outlined against a sky gray much like this one and asked me, in as kind a voice as most New York cops are able, who I was. When I was unable to answer him, he'd called for his partner and a car and taken me to Bellevue, relieving the police department of any responsibility for me. As soon as I was able, I made up a name to convince the harried and not terribly responsive medical staff of my sanity, and went my way from the hospital as quickly as possible.
Fifty-sixth street didn't seem to care much about my reverie, I noted as I looked up wearily. I should do something, if only to get myself up off the sidewalk. I looked at the manhole in the street in front of me, and was suddenly struck by the thought that twice, when Ellyn Santano (if that was her beret and thus her name) had vanished from my sight, she had passed through a steam cloud from a manhole. The next thought in the chain was to wonder if it had been the same manhole, and if so, could it have something to do with it.
Part of me protested silently that even if this was all a trick involving trapdoors and manholes that it didn't want to know, for it would ruin what was probably the most interesting thing or series of things to happen to me since I'd been someone else, someone who knew his name.
I struggled to my feet, and for no really good reason staggered off towards Fifth. There was a fountain on the corner, and even though I knew I probably shouldn't, I splashed my face in it a few times. The icy temperature of the water brought my consciousness a few more levels upwards towards the surface, and I walked slowly off down Fifth towards the bench and hopefully some answers.
St. Patrick's cathedral edged gently into my train of though as I drew abreast with it. I wondered how many had died building it, and if that made them martyrs for their god. Jesus, I thought to myself, how fucking depressing.
Madison Square Park greeted me some half an hour later. I swung across Twenty-sixth street and found myself at my bench. I sat heavily, wondering what time it was. Asking a passer-by elicited the information that it was eleven thirty in the morning, and it was a Monday. I thanked them and let them continue on their busy way. Staring around, I noticed that there were, indeed, more people then there had been for the last few days. A weekday will do that, even in cold weather. And it was cold, perhaps in the mid forties; enough to make one's breath fog and clutch at the lips like frost.
Poetic. Don't poets starve too, typically?
Ah yes, the manhole. I walked the block and a quarter to Twenty- seventh street, and found that there were no less that five manholes in that particular intersection, and I was not at all sure which was (or were) the one (or two) in particular. I tried to lift all of them, ignoring the curious glances of the pedestrians who streamed around me, but was unable to budge any of them. They sure didn't look like they could swing down or any other such trick. Back to square one. In my case, the bench, of course. I suppose I just think better sitting down.
Back once more, staring at the Dachau plan across the street, which from this distance is no more than a discolored patch on the limestone (I think it's limestone) of the building, I suddenly had a thought. In retrospect, it was a pretty obvious thought. I don't really know why I hadn't had it earlier, other than perhaps because my brain was malnourished. Gray matter doesn't act normal when you subject it to odd chemical imbalances.
I stood up, brushed my pants off for some reason, and began shambling back up Park Avenue South for lack of anything better to do. It would have to be night for my plan to be of any use, and as that wasn't for several hours, I figured the time might be better spent in setting up housekeeping in my new abode.
Grand Central was indeed still Grand when I reached it half an hour later. There was moderately heavy traffic around the Main Lobby, and I spent a few minutes surreptitiously watching for police and waiting for the New Haven Metro North train to vacate track Twenty-Eight. As I stooged around the information booth, trying to look only a little bit scruffy, I gradually became aware of a warmth in the station, and it was so indirect it took me thirty seconds to identify it as music, music from a saxophone that was being played over by the Chemical Bank. I wandered over.
The musician was an older man, perhaps sixty, although if he lived on the street he might be as young as thirty or so. New York is the equivalent of many years of aging in the rest of the country.
He was wringing music such as I hadn't heard in many months from the mouth of his horn, and people all around were stopping to listen. The New York commuter is a hardened beast, and those on the move around noon on a Monday are even tougher, but they were drawn in all the same.
Echoes from the horn drifted about the faded constellations on the ceiling, and danced plainly but with magic in the air. I leaned back, suddenly less tired, and listened. He played for perhaps twenty minutes and took in, as far as I could tell, around twenty dollars. Not bad, dammit; undoubtedly more than what ninety percent of his listeners were taking home hourly in their steady income pockets.
There was applause as well, and I could tell that he was in it for that as well; he grinned at the scattering of clapping and few murmurs of approval, and bowed sketchily before lovingly placing his horn back in its bed of velvet and ambling back to sit against the wall for a few minutes. I waited until the crowd had dispersed off to the ends of their respective pathways through the continuum, and sat next to him. He turned a curious glance my way, and I smiled at him in a disarming manner, I hoped.
It must have worked; he didn't leave. In any case, he turned and stared at the windows across the l obby above the Vanderbilt Avenue taxi stand. "Well, son, you must be havin' some reason for sittin' there. You sure don't look much like you got anyplace to go."
Surprised, I turned back to face him, but he was still staring at the windows. I thunked the back of my head against the wall to match his position. "Yah. I don't know why I'm sitting here, though. Seemed the thing to do. Been having weird days; maybe a good solid wall is what I need for a few minutes."
"Weird days, heh? Booze, rocks, twist, maybe?" It wasn't an accusation, just a question.
"Nope. Couldn't afford to score any if I wanted some. Just...weird. Probably seeing things."
"What kinds of things?"
I sighed heavily, and couldn't find a reason not to tell him. He was the second person I'd spoken to in two days, and the need to talk to anyone was overpowering. There was a small core of nausea as I felt my life take a strange left-angled turn, but it felt perfectly natural to describe Ellyn to him. He listened seriously, nodded occasionally, and waited until I had finished (more like run down) to comment.
"Sounds like you seen the Angel, sonny."
I smiled. "Yep, she's something, to coin a moth-eaten phrase."
He looked at me oddly. "No, boy, I don't mean an angel, I mean the Angel. How long you been on the streets?"
"Couple months?" I shrugged nervously.
He sighed and settled back. "You been on the streets long enough, you see some wild things. Shit some people wouldn't even think up with a quart of hundred-dollar, or, hell, ten-cent hooch in 'em. But the Angel, now, she's special. You seen her on Madison?"
I nodded, staring at him now. He smiled at my expression.
"Yeah, that's where they first see her. Madison near the park. She's teased so many, so many..." he trailed off, looking across the lobby. I restrained myself from shaking him wildly until he looked at me and spoke again. "Well, you got patience, sonny. That's something you gonna need, so I'd hold on to it." He levered himself up and collected his saxophone and change box, which disappeared magically into his grimy jacket.
Startled, I didn't think to stop him as he smiled at me, tipped his hat, and vanished around the corner towards Lexington. Five seconds later, I jumped spasmodically to my feet, and dashed around the marble angle, but of course he was gone. I had a sudden feeling that if he'd been there I not only would have been disappointed, but would have had a feeling that the day was in no way going as it should. Turning wildly, I spun around searching, untouched by the New Yorkers who instinctively averted their eyes at my presence and swerved around me so smoothly there was no disruption in the traffic flow.
The ridiculousness of the situation struck me, and I began to wave to them as they passed, and laughed, standing there in the corridor with masses of people passing me by in both directions. I shouted above their heads, at the attendants behind the snack counter who could safely stare with a barrier between us.
"You didn't see her! You don't know her, she's not for you, you just walk, anyway! Do you get anywhere? Anywhere at all..." I was shouting the last when I ran down suddenly, and turned and slouched towards track Twenty-Eight.
It was empty.
So was I, suddenly.
Walking down it was natural, and that frightened me unaccountably.
Park Ethereal Downtime-->