Copyright is held by the author.
THE BACKSIDE of the woman in the crosswalk bounced under her tight dress like a shrink-wrapped supermarket chicken. Neither of us heard the bike messenger’s bell until he clipped her. Later, I remembered a friend once saying “even paranoids can have enemies.” I didn’t believe that as I yanked her back and both our asses hit the pavement.
“What was that?” She looked dazed.
“It was one of those Marvel comics heroes off to save the world. Are you hurt?”
“I’ll live, but my dress is dead. A waste of good money trying to stay alive in Manhattan.”
I sympathized. I would have done that anyway, but this woman was stunningly beautiful. And her dress comment showed she knew what they call repartée. It was my good luck being in midtown New York doing overtime. Well, my boss suggested I needed to do the work of two people or look for a more “rewarding” opportunity. “Coffee?” I asked.
“I should buy,” she said. “You saved my life.”
I guided her to a little coffee shop, the kind of family-owned place without WiFi that’s disappearing. “I’m Jack Maloney, watchman over the quick and the dead.”
“I’m Russet. I just moved here for a new job. One week and I’ve been pick-pocketed, verbally accosted and now nearly run over.”
“Russet. Nice. One of the post gender names I hear about.” She spoke with a Middle American accent and conveyed trust.
“Not post gender. My folks have a farm outside Pocatello. Russet potatoes are what put me through school.”
“I’m a trade magazine editor working overtime to keep from being laid off. What do you do?”
“I was an English major, which guarantees unemployment. A friend hired me to work in her greeting card shop in SoHo.”
“Well, uptown and downtown are worlds apart, but that’s why they invented subways.” Funny, that except for her first thousand-watt smile, she stared dead-on serious. Like she was searching to see if I was another attacker or something. Well, I haven’t been a church-goer for awhile — since high school, actually — but people say I’m a nice guy.
Our conversation continued to volley back and forth like a friendly tennis match. We became a pair, strolling aimlessly. Midtown Manhattan is the colossus of anonymity, but it seemed I had found my spiritual double. We cemented the connection when I reached over and gripped her hand. She didn’t resist.
“Do me a favour, Jack. Tell me if you notice someone following us.”
“A boyfriend? The landlord?” I gave a ha-ha.
“Never mind.” A squint crawled like a caterpillar over her eyes.
We finished the coffee, walked, then had pizza, then on to another joint for a couple of beers. “So,” I said, “you thought someone might be following you?”
A minute turned into two and I was beginning to think she’d gone into sleep mode like my cell phone.
“Don’t joke with me, Jack. I’m worried.” Long pause. Sleep mode or narcolepsy? “I was waiting for the light on 23rd Street and a man said to me, ‘Be very careful. We know what you’re doing.’ He tapped my shoulder, then walked off. Next day, same man standing on the sidewalk across from my apartment.”
“New York attracts geeks and madmen. It’s a city of lost souls.” At that moment her phone rang. I looked at it lying next to her arm.
“Don’t answer it,” she ordered. “The phone is tapped. And don’t look at me like that, dammit. I know how listening devices work. You hear a click and then . . . .”
“National Security Agency has better things to do, Russet.”
“I’m sorry. It’s the damned elections, the screaming TV making me mistrustful. Can’t sleep. Always nervous that the world is coming apart.”
I nodded. “There should be a word for it. It’s all those forces that have driven everyone into mass uncertainty, confusion, spectacle. Events keep happening that seem crazy and out of control. The political candidates, Brexit, Middle East wars, mass migrations, the gulf between the poor and the rich, terrorism. No one’s in charge, so that leaves everyone now to go it alone, or . . . .” I left the sentence uncompleted.
“Or we can get out of here,” she said quietly.
We left our beers unfinished and went to her apartment to communicate without words. And I heard the sound of two hearts beating together.
When she returned from the bathroom in her terrycloth bathrobe, I was on the edge of the bed. A cloud of self-doubt had returned and filled me with despair. My hand picked at an eyebrow.
“What’s wrong?” She put her hand on my neck. Could we agree it was also her neck now?
“Thank you, Russet. I don’t know how to say . . . you’re the first woman . . . .”
“Well, you’re the first guy I’ve met who didn’t need to tell me how much money he made and.” She waved a hand. “All of his conquests or whatever.”
“No, I’m saying you’re the first person I’ve connected with for a long time, on a personal level. You said it this afternoon, ‘The world is coming apart.’”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“My wife passed away. Six months ago, and suddenly I was alone.” I found my eyes couldn’t focus. “I felt she betrayed me when she died.”
Russet said, “My world was coming apart too, until tonight. And if this is our only night, so be it. But thank you too.”
“Friends told me grief would end. That I’d find someone new. But people can’t be replaced like car parts.”
“No,” she said. “But we’re all alone, each of us, except for a few moments when a spark is lit.”
“Would you have breakfast with me? I could come back.”
She inhaled deeply. It had been Sunday morning for a few minutes. She asked, “Would I be out of line if I suggested making love again?”
“I could. I’d like that.”
“Then we could take a nap. I’d hold you until you’re asleep, keeping an ear out for bicycle warning bells till you wake up.”
I laughed. “Then breakfast. Together.”