The alarm system
kicks in at 3:16 in the morning, as always. I
fumble out of bed, walk through the pulsing red lights
apartment, and punch in the code. One-one-five-oh-six. I can't tell you
how long it took me to figure that one out, the first time. The alarm
shuts off. The fat man that lives next door bangs on the wall for the
third time this week. Guessing whether he'll do it each night is how I've put
myself to sleep for the last two weeks.
I can't stop the alarm from going off, which it does every day.
The landlord has no idea how it got there -- I believe his exact words
were "What the hell kind of apartment has a goddamn alarm system?" -- and
it has resisted all attempts to remove it with a shocking and unexpected
vigor. Three-sixteen, every day. Without fail.
I'd move away, but the landlord won't let me end the lease -- "Who
the hell would rent an apartment with an unstoppable goddamn alarm
system?" he asked, before slamming the door in my face -- and I can't
afford to pay for two places. Blame rent control.
I work for a moving company in Queens.
The irony is not lost on me. If I wasn't making a full dollar fifty over
minimum wage, I'd no doubt come to despise the smiling faces of our
clients. Today it will be a wealthy couple, just out of graduate school,
carting their well-polished belongings from Central Park East all the
way to Scarsdale. Stuck in traffic on the parkway, I will no doubt take
the time to spit on their furniture.
As it turns out, today's orders involve driving to Philadelphia
to relocate an art gallery. I am on the Turnpike
with Charles, a quiet behemoth
that they hired last
week. The truck rumbles in the slow traffic.
I glance at Charles with the vain hope of starting a conversation,
but it is not destined to be. He is resolutely staring through the front
of the cab as if a miraculous vision might emerge on the surface of the
dirty glass. St. Francis of the
Windshield. I try to distract him by turning on the spray, but his stare
We get to the ramp in this same silence. I maneuver the truck
within inches of the gallery's back door -- I've become exceptionally good
at this, these last couple boring years -- and Charles sets up the ramp
without a word of prompting. Off goes the engine.
The gallery is about half-stocked and it falls upon me to pack the
paintings and sketches into boxes as Charles removes them
from the walls with a claw hammer. A landscape. A child. A clown.
The fourth painting that Charles hands me is drawn in rapid
strokes of red and black with flashes of a deep blue, of a girl with her
head in her hands, one eye visible between her index and middle fingers,
on a dark field. I slow down and do my best impression of a certain
"Hey, Chuck. Whaddaya think of this one?" I hold it up for him to
He doesn't even turn around. "Not my job." He's handing me the
next one, a golden retriever. Fine. I pack the girl in
with the rest -- first box, fourth from the bottom.
The truck hates to turn
. I sympathize with
it. It doesn't help that I'm sleepless and sluggish myself, like I've been
for the last two months. The two of us -- and Charles, still my passenger
-- nearly doze off in the languid haze of North Jersey
. Still picturing
the portrait, and envisioning the tranquil waters flooding and rising over
the West Side
, I lurch and stall over the Hudson; I have to force her
back into gear, back on course over the George
, leaving a trail of black exhaust to sink quietly into the
river as we enter the city.
The gallery is in Midtown; its owner and Charles are going to
unload the boxes personally so that my boss' small operation can cleverly
avoid giving me much-needed overtime pay. I professionally park the car
amid five lanes of continuous traffic, men rushing, spilling coffee as
they move from one point to the next. I wordlessly toss Charles the keys
and start walking toward the subway. Six blocks.
A girl passes me in a Yankees shirt, blushes and smiles. I look
at her hair; for a moment, I expect to see the girl from the portrait.
It's not her. I don't even bother to turn around to catch a passing glance
as she backpedals.
I get home and take an Alka-Seltzer. For whatever reason, I'm
still picturing the painting, so I follow the fizz up with five beers.
"It's a start," I think. I say it out loud to convince myself. I go to
At three-sixteen the alarm goes off. Tonight the fat man
quiet. Maybe he found some family to stay with for the ten months I'm
stuck here. I feel like hell keying in the code; it takes three tries. By
the time that the red lights and the sirens
subside, I've already gotten
back into bed.
Work rolls around three hours later. My boss is waiting at the
office, which is a change of pace worthy of rubbing my eyes. "That couple
from the Pelhams say you broke the leg on their chair. Remember? The ones
with the baby and the loads of cash?" Yeah, I remember. My boss tends to
see the markings of the class system in everyone he meets. They might as
well have been wearing badges. It's starting to affect me, too -- I can
remember that the husband's a trial lawyer, probably making ten times
what I do. "Doesn't look like a big deal," he says, rubbing his chin to
indicate thought. "Head up there and fix it, be back by nine." Out the
Rush hour in the Bronx. Teenagers have actually climbed up onto
the gridlocked highway bridge and are screwing
around, sitting on cars and running all over the place, dangling over the
rails above the ninety feet of water that are keeping me waiting. The
commuters are pissed, but they all keep their windows rolled up, making
angry gestures under glass.
There's nearly an hour spent in this bizarre traffic before I make
it to the suburban approximation of a mansion. The couple -- thank God --
has departed for work and left the chair for me on the front porch. The
porch is bigger than my bedroom. One leg of the chair has come unscrewed
and is lying next to it. A big goddamn deal. I have a drill in the back of
the truck. My hangover ought to make this even more fun.
I open the back of the truck. Under my toolkit is a taped-up
packing box with a Fifth Avenue address. Looks like Charles came through
for me after all. I shut the back and start the truck. To hell with the
rich kids. I start for Manhattan.
Opening day at the gallery. When I pull the van up to the curb,
there's already a thin guy rushing out to meet me. I walk around the
opposite side, putting the truck between us, and get the box out.
"I guess that these didn't --," I start when he rolls right over
"Where have you been? We've been open for two hours! People are
extremely irritated." He's already flushed.
"Sorry," I say, hefting the remarkably heavy box. "I had to bring
it down from Westchester."
"Fine. Just go hang them. The brackets are already mounted." He
doesn't even hold the door, so I have to wedge it with my foot. Jerk.
I carry the box inside. All eyes are on me, coming in the door in
the ripped clothes that I bought when I was nineteen. The art-covered
walls are dotted with empty spaces, so I set right to work, matching
paintings to placards. "White Mountains at Bennington." "Niece." "Bozo's Sadness."
"Self-Portrait in Red." They forgot the first box. I'm
self-conscious hanging up the chaotic picture. After it's securely hung,
I move on to the safer "Fruit on Windowsill," but not without swiping one
of the artist's business cards. Christine Whitman, in Union City.
When I'm done, I scan the room. There's a hundred nearly identical
women eating cheese off of toothpicks, but after a moment I'm able to spot
the one I'm looking for, in a small crowd of audaciously-colored clothing.
I sidle toward her corner of the room.
"Miss Whitman?" She turns to look at me and for an instant I can
visualize her in repose.
"Yes?" She smiles, thin-lipped. "Oh. You guys certainly did a
I laugh, but it sounds toneless and forced. It's still so early in
the day. "Yeah. I just wanted to say that I really loved that painting of
She smiles again, all warmth. "Thanks very much." Then she's
rapidly drawn away by a new addition to her circle, and I'm
suddenly without an anchor, so I walk out. There's going to be an angry
couple in the Pelhams.
Three-fifteen I'm awake like a shot and poised at the console.
One-one-five-oh-six, fingers deft and willing. The noise is off within
three seconds' time.
I'm startlingly awake for this horrible time of night, so I get
dressed and walk down to the subway station, head for Manhattan. The train
is dank and empty and has a sickeningly sweet odor -- I get up and move
toward the front, but the overripe smell persists in every car.
Ten stops later I emerge, coughing. Three flights of stairs and
six blocks to the gallery. They pass by like single steps. It's a few
minutes to five when I reach the front door, and the suffusing lights of
the city are starting to come in orange through the early haze. I can see
her self-portrait dimly on the back wall and I just stare at it, maybe
for twenty minutes, before I'm purposefully walking again.
A lonely girl is on a bench between me and the train station,
and I picture her fading into this same background of exhaustion and
self-destruction and desperation, painted with these same red and black
slashes. For the first time today I feel tired.
The train to New Jersey
is just as empty as the subway, no
presence but me and the noise of the tracks. On the opposite side is the
eastbound six-thirty, full to the doors and moving faster and faster until
all I can see is a blur of sport coats and crew cuts
into the tunnel.
It's not a long ride. I cross Union City on foot, moving through
the empty, dewy quarter-inch grass plazas of high-rises, one
tower to the next, until I find hers, white sun glaring off the windows.
There's a buzzer, but I slip in behind someone else.
Stairs to the sixth floor. A vein in my neck is pulsing,
there's a cramp in my chest. It's seven-thirty now. I find her door, knock
once. I wait while I listen for the shuffling of footsteps.
The door slides open less than two inches, the chain in place. I
see one eye through the gap. "Hello?" she says, that same glorious
tremor in her voice --
"Hi! It's --"
"The moving guy, right? What are you doing here?"
"Well, I --" I falter. None of the pleasantness is in her voice
She exhales. "It's early. What is it?"
"I just wanted to talk to you. I couldn't get your painting out of
my head. I spent a year in art school awhile ago, and... I don't know.
It made me want to talk to you."
Her eye is fully open, sharp, perceptive, arched. She takes a
moment, as if considering all of this. The quiet hangs in the air.
Finally: "I'm sorry. I'm -- not interested."
"Look, I'm sure you've come a long way, been through all manner of
hell to get here, whatever --," she moves some hair out of her
face, "-- but it'd be crazy of me to let you try to do this. I really
don't want to get involved. This is too strange."
Nothing is coming now.
"I'm sorry." She closes the door. The lock slides into face with
an unsatisfying click. I have to stand for a moment, shivering, before
walking toward the elevator.
Back at work, there's a note.
TRY SHOWING UP TO
THE NEXT JOB YOU FIND.
I'LL BE CLEANING UP
YOUR MESS IN THE PELHAMS.
DON'T BOTHER CALLING.
Charles isn't even in the shop. After all of this happens, I --
You know what? The rest of the day isn't important. I get drunk.
Twenty-eight years old and jack shit
to show for it.
Sometimes you miss the flood, long for it and hope that you've
worked hard enough that something cataclysmic and redeeming will happen to
you. You hope that when things dry up, you'll have a shiny new life
waiting for you in the ground where the puddles are evaporating.
Sometimes all that goddamn water flows downhill to the place
you're standing and your only choice is to lie back and float where it takes you.
A lot of floods don't end neatly. The ocean. At three-sixteen, when the alarm
goes off, I'm driving a U-Haul down the congested coast. Maybe my
neighbor can punch his fat fist through the goddamn wall.