William T. O’Reilley was two years away from retirement. He had a plum job, at least that’s what the bus dispatcher, Stewie, told him every morning when he started his shift on the M2 at 6:30 a.m..
“You’ve got the plum one, that’s for sure, Billy. Right through Manhattan, yeah, right through the upper crust of it.”
“I don’t know about plums, Stewie.” Billy mopped his brow and stuffed his handkerchief in his back pocket. It was a tight fit; he had put on a few pounds since the funeral. “Never liked the heat. This week has been the worst, can’t wait to blast the air-conditioner on this baby.” He tapped the steering wheel of the bus.
“Yur good to go, pal, see you tomorrow. Stay out of trouble.” Stewie fiddled with the electronic pad, punched William T. O’Reilly’s number into the system, and the M2 rolled north.
Billy liked routines. He was a creature of habit and having his bus paced and monitored at each stop gave him a satisfaction that could be measured.
But it was on days like this, the hot ones, that some of the people getting into the bus annoyed him. He was doing his best, he thought. No one likes the heat. “Just doing the best I can,” he mumbled to the elderly lady who wanted the steps lowered faster than was possible at 4th Street. It made him think of his second wife, Heather, and the fight they had at Christmas.
“Just doing the best I can, honey.” That’s what he told her when she asked him to get a raise. “You don’t understand.”
“How’d you expect me to keep myself dressed nice,” she gave him a look and went into the kitchen. “I need a new pair of boots for the winter, Billy. Do you really think the ones I’ve had for three years—three yearsbefore we were married—are good enough,” she raised her voice so he could hear her.
“Nothing will ever be good enough for you,” he said.
“What’s that, I can’t hear you,” she said.
Billy sat on the couch and picked up the remote. He turned on the game and sighed.
“Football?” Heather shouted from the kitchen.
He heard his wife bang two pots on the stove. It almost gave him hope that they were going to have a real meal instead of take-out.
“What kind of soup do you want?” she said. “Chicken noodle or Beef and Barley?”
Irene, his first wife, was a good cook. She made real dinners that the family sat at the table and ate together.
“Chicken noodle.” Are you making anything else to go with that?” He called into the kitchen.
“Why don’t you get off the sofa and find out.”
Once there was a time he was content with everything and everyone. But, then, at sixty-three he wasn’t. William T. O’Reilley made three mistakes in his life: the first was to cheat on Irene with Heather.
He met Heather at his niece’s wedding; she was bubbly. Mistake number two was marring Heather who seemed to lose her fizz as soon as she had a ring on her finger. Mistake number three was ordering Chinese food the Sunday before Christmas.
The young woman who got on the bus at 10th street looked as though she hadn’t slept; her face had on yesterday’s makeup. Billy looked at her chipped nail polish as she dipped her metro pass into the kiosk. The bus was starting to fill up. No one wanted to sit in the back; the riders clustered around the front door waiting their turn: like rabbits ready to jump out the door when it opened.
Billy looked at the time on dashboard monitor, he was running three minutes ahead and he knew that there would be a message to hold the bus at 23rd street. He also knew that the passengers would get annoyed and start talking to him: asking him why he wasn’t moving.
“Gotta keep to the schedule and we’re ahead of it right now,” he said.
“Well that’s not my schedule, I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes.” A young man, holding his jacket and a New York Times, was leaning over the bar that separated the driver from the passengers.
“Back up.” Billy pointed to the sign that told passengers to stand behind the yellow line and not talk to the driver.
“Just getting your number off the dash,” the man said.
Two people got off the bus at the back door, and as they did a kid jumped in.
“Hey—you!” Billy yelled. The young man leaning into Billy’s face jumped back.
“You—in the back! I saw you jump the ride.” Billy was watching him in his rear-view mirror. “Get off. We’re not going anywhere until you get off.”
The other passengers started to mumble and the ones in the rear of the bus told the boy to leave. By the time he did, Billy was on schedule and the bus moved forward, heading toward 34th street.
On good days, Billy would take the time to call out the important landmarks of each stop. It was PR they told him at his last training seminar, helpful for the tourists, too. He was tempted to say something at his next stop, but the memory of the Christmas argument took over.
“Soup isn’t dinner, Heather. I work hard all day. I need a real meal when I come home.” Billy looked up as his wife approached with a tray holding two bowls of soup and a box of Ritz Crackers.
“There’s still some moo-shoo-pork left over,” she said.
She had lost the edge in her voice, maybe she was trying to make-up, Billy thought. But he knew better, it was more than likely she was about to ask for something he couldn’t give her.
“I’ll heat it up for you, honey.”
Billy changed the channel from the commercial to the news. Heather walked back into the kitchen and he could hear her putting the Chinese food in the microwave.
“I met someone interesting today.” She kept her eyes on the television when she returned and handed him the plate.
Billy sniffed the Chinese leftovers that were sitting in a pool of grease.
“You sure this stuff is OK to eat, it smells a little funny? Isn’t it from last Sunday?”
Heather ignored him and started eating. “Tastes OK to me. You’re so particular. Maybe you should be the one who cooks?”
“Well, I wouldn’t eat that if I …”
Heather interrupted him. “I went to the library to return my book. The woman behind the desk told me about a book club that meets on Wednesday afternoons. I thought I should try it out.”
Billy took a deep breath. “You know, if you were working, you could use all of your salary on new clothes. It wouldn’t bother me. I want you to be happy.”
“We’ve been through this a thousand times.” Heather raised her fork and began to jab the air with it. “I can’t possible work, not after what happened to me at my last job. I told you that before we got married. It was all right with you then that I didn’t work. Look how much you’ve changed in six months. You use to be so sweet and understanding.” She shoved more leftovers into her mouth.
“I’m the one who’s changed?” Billy turned and watched her put the last bit of Chinese food on a Ritz Cracker.
“Don’t raise your voice at me.” Heather started coughing. She pushed the tray away and started to twist her charm bracelets back and forth on her wrist.
“That act is not going to work anymore, you can’t have it both ways,” Billy said.
“What do you mean?” she sniffed.
“You can’t be helpless and try and push me around at the same time. That’s what I mean.”
“I should have never married you, you’re too old and set in your ways.” She left the sofa and went into the bedroom slamming the door behind her.
“34th Street, Empire State Building to the east and Morgan Library just one block north,” Billy sung out. He looked at his monitor, he was running right on schedule. Billy looked out the bus window and nodded to the stream of people crossing in front of him. Letting Heather eat the leftovers wasn’t a mistake.
Florence liked routines. On the fortieth floor she had staked out her territory: two conference rooms, four executive suites, and six offices. The other women she worked with didn’t seem to care or notice the spaces they were cleaning.
“Start with the thirty-fourth floor tonight, Flo.” Her supervisor, Anna, marked her name off the assignment list. “The office manager of True North just called. He told Jovack, he wants it done first.” Anna looked up to make sure that the rest of the women were listening. “When you’re finished with thirty-four, you and Sophia can join the others on forty. Work your way down as usual.”
Florence started to take her supplies. Placing them in the caddy attached to the large garbage bin on wheels, she checked her vacuum and made sure that the waste bag was new. Anna handed her the keys to the offices on thirty-four.
“What’s the change for?”
“Big party last night—big mess. They requested special attention.” Anna looked at Sophia and Carmen; they had already put on headphones and were shaking out black plastic garbage bags.
“I’ll page you when I’m finished thirty-four.” Florence told Anna as she pushed her bin to the service elevator where five women were waiting for the doors to open.
“Big mess, big party—damn, these people are spoiled. They can’t even hit the garbage can, let alone recycle.” Sophia said.
“Yeah, it’s a joke to them.” Carmen added.
“They have their minds on other things, important stuff we wouldn’t understand,” Florence said.
“And we, we have our minds on their garbage.” Sophia laughed and pushed her cart into the elevator.
The five women followed her into the massive elevator car that was used for moving furniture and large deliveries. She looked over at Sophia who was assigned to join her.
“How do you want to split the floor up?” Florence said.
Sophia took off her headphones. “What?”
Florence repeated herself.
“I don’t care, Flo. You decide.”
The elevator started to climb and at twenty Florence felt her ears pop.
“Let’s see how bad it is first,” she smiled.
The doors opened on thirty-four and the women going to forty acknowledge the others departure.
“Where do you think they had the party? Anna didn’t say.” Sophia turned to Florence as she held the swinging door of the service entrance open for her.
“Let’s check out the large conference room first and then maybe the reception area.”
“I bet the bathrooms are going to be fill with vómito. Que va a hacer que me enferme.”
Sophia gave Florence a look. “You should know what vómito means, Flo. We are going to be up to our elbows in it tonight.”
“You’re right, mierda too.”
Florence didn’t really mind when some of the women spoke Spanish. To her the language was music; it reminded her of her late husband Nat. A few hours of cleaning and she stopped hearing them.
“I wonder how you say mierda in Serbian?” Sophia said.
Both women started to laugh. Russians owned their company, JVB Cleaning. Anna and Jovack were Serbs; when Anna had her boss on the phone, she never spoke English.
As they pushed their carts along one of the halls the automated lights, programed to sensors slowly lit the corridor ahead of them.
“I think I can smell cigarette smoke.”
“That’s not going to be easy to get out of the air by Monday.” Florence said.
“I think I have some air freshener in here.” Sophia looked inside her bin and pulled out an aerosol can.
Florence picked up some plastic cups and napkins as she walked down the hall. The main conference room was in the center of the thirty-fourth floor. It had a sliding wall. When the wall was pulled open, it enlarged the space by half. The windows faced the Chrysler Building. The mahogany table still held plates of uneaten food. The sideboard had empty bottles of wine, a few were tipped over and there were several stains on the rug.
As Carmen had predicted the empty plastic glasses were on the floor next to the garbage. The empty cans and bottles were mixed in with the paper.
The two women separated and worked at opposite ends of the large room.
“You know they weren’t going to hire you, Flo.” Sophia had finished vacuuming and was watching Florence finish polishing the conference table. “Yeah, now they only hired Latinas with thick accents.”
Florence ran her cloth one last time across the table checking for streaks.
“They assume that we don’t speak English well enough to understand them.”
“And…” Florence stopped and looked up at Sophia.
“Well, they never hire Blacks, too much trouble and they’re always late or never show up.”
“And why are you telling me this, Sophia?” Florence started to pull the sliding wall closed.
“My grandmother always told me that if I had something good to say, I should speak and not hold it in. I like you Flo, and I think you do a good job.”
“You mean for a Black person?”
“No, for any kind of a person. Do you have any kids, Flo?”
Florence took a deep breath. She didn’t want to cut Sophia off. It was hard for people to speak from their heart and when they did it should be appreciated.
“Thanks, Sophia. Yes, I have a daughter. She ran off with a Dominican,” Florence said.
“You don’t see her anymore?”
“She left me her daughter to take care of. I see my daughter everyday in my granddaughter’s face.”
“Oh dios mío, estoy tan triste por ti.” Sophia said.
“Let’s keep up our pace. We just started. We can take a break after we finish this floor. The bathrooms are next. Okay?”
“Ugh…you’re right. Let’s get this over with.”
The two women finished the bathrooms and then went in opposite directions. Sophia took the North side of the floor. It was a maze of grey cubicles. Florence could see her head bobbing up and down as she finished one cubicle and moved on to the next.
Florence had just finished two offices. She could see a light through the opaque glass in the door of the next office. She knocked on the door and twisted the knob; it was locked from the inside. Florence was hunting through her ring of service keys when the door opened and a young woman stood facing her. She was dressed in a navy blue business suit and her face was streaked with mascara.
“Sorry.” She looked away and continued to speak. “I came in to do some work and I guess I fell asleep at my desk. Go ahead and take the garbage, I’ll just get my things and be out of your way in a second.” The woman tucked in her blouse and buttoned her jacket.
Anna had told Florence on her first day that she might run into people working late. This was an advertising agency and they had deadlines. Anna told her not to make eye contact, take the garbage and work around them. If she couldn’t clean the office, she should make a mental note of the number and come back to it before she left for another floor. Florence took the small basket filled with shredded paper and dumped it into the green recycle bags. As she left, she noted the room number under the nameplate: Susan Miller VP, 3410.
Florence moved down the hall to the next office. She looked across the floor and saw Sophia stand up and arch her back. She waved at Florence, took off her headphones and yelled: “twenty minutes and I’m finished.”
Florence had just given the thumbs-up when 3410 walked by her. The woman tried to throw a crumbled piece of paper, but missed the bag.
Florence went back to the office; it was empty, she hadn’t notice before that there was no computer or phone. There were no pictures on the wall, no books.
“Are you finished?” Sophia stuck her head into the room. “What’s this,” she looked around, “it’s empty?”
Anna had instructed Florence on her first night to just put the garbage in the black or green bags. “You want to get home? Right? So do I. You’re on a timer and so am I. Remember that.”
Florence must have looked confused.
“Don’t waste your time being nosey. Remember Flo: we need to keep to the schedule. If you don’t, Jovack will find someone else for the job.”
Florence looked at her watch and then looked at the green recycle bag.
“Yes, the office is empty,” she said to Sophia. “I did it in two minutes. I’m right behind you, let’s go up to forty now.”
Sophia pushed her cart ahead to the service elevators. Florence reached in the green plastic bag, pulling out the paper on top; she smoothed it open, folded it and put it into her pocket.
Once they reached the fortieth floor Sofia turned to Florence. “See you when we clock out.” She smiled and put on her headphones.
Florence went straight to the large office suite. It was usually spotless. All it needed was a little dusting and vacuuming. The first time she saw the bathroom that belonged to this office she thought it was just like one in a fancy magazine. It was usually clean unless he had taken a shower; then there were towels all over the floor and shaving cream on the sink.
When she opened the door she thought she heard someone. The door to the bathroom was slightly open and the light went off.
“Buenas noches señor,” Florence said quietly.
“Buenas noches,” said the man.
His face was pale, almost ashen. The hair near his neck was wet and his shirt had a red stain on the left shoulder. When he saw her staring at him, he took the towel that was in his right hand and covered the mark.
“Afeitar, señora. Afeitar,” he said as he walked over to the leather sofa and picked up his jacket.
Shaving, thought Florence? How do you cut your arm shaving? She turned from him and said: “me clean” in a thick accent.
He walked past her without saying anything. Then he pointed to the blood stained towel on the sofa. “Por favor ponga las toallas en el basura, gracias.”
Florence nodded her head and he smiled.
Florence had learned to speak Spanish from her late husband, Nat, who was Dominican. All his friends and relatives called him Nasterio. Her granddaughter, Claudia, called him Nest. Florence smiled and picked up the towel off the sofa, pushing it into the black plastic bag as the man asked her to.
When she turned on the light in the bathroom, her eyes adjusted to the brightness. First she saw the red footprints on the floor and then the towels that had been thrown all over. The sink was filled with smears of blood. All the cabinet doors were open, bottles had their tops off and there was a box of medical adhesive tape that had unrolled across the toilet tank.
“Anna, you need to get up to forty, corner office right now. That’s right, 4000… that’s the number, something has happened here.” Florence spoke into the crackling pager. “I don’t know there is blood all over the bathroom.” She had backed out of the bathroom without touching anything. She stood in the office, waiting for Anna, staring at her reflection in the wall of glass overlooking the city. She looked transparent, almost invisible, against the lights.
When Anna opened the door to the bathroom she gasped. “Did you see anything?”
“He was still here when I walked in, said he cut himself shaving and told me to throw all the towels in the black bags when I had finished cleaning the bathroom.”
“Was he bleeding?”
“Yes, from his arm, I think we need to call the police, Anna.”
“First Jovack, then the cops, Flo.” She took out her cell phone and called her boss.
Anna started speaking in Serbian while she paced back and forth.
“Jovack said he will call the cops and that you shouldn’t say anything. Just finish the rest of the offices on this floor and then go to thirty-nine.”
“There was an awful lot of blood, Anna. Do you think that someone else was in here with him?”
“I don’t know. It is not up to us to think about anything but cleaning. You saw him and he looked like he was okay? Right?”
“Yes, but all this blood. He was very pale.”
“You spoke to him in Spanish like I told you to?
“Yes, Anna, he spoke to me in Spanish too.”
“Good.” Anna’s phone rang and she started talking to Jovack again. She turned her back to Florence and then looked over her shoulder. “What are you staring at? Do what I just told you to. I’ll call you if we need anything else.”
Florence left the room and wiped down one of the two desks that were in an alcove outside of office 4000. As she was reaching for the trash basket under the desk, she saw a framed photograph of the man with two women. The picture was of a celebration; the three people were raising their glasses in a toast. The frame had an inscription: 2013-Most Valuable Employee.
After another six offices and the conference room on forty. Florence checked her watch. It was almost two. She started toward the service elevator and looked at her pager to make sure it was working.
At the second ten minute break nothing was said about the party mess on thirty-four. The women talked about Sophia’s boyfriend; no one said anything about what Florence saw. By five the next three floors had been cleaned and emptied of trash. Anna never called her.
Florence swiped her electronic key card and turned toward the service doors that led to the street.
“Flo!” Anna called after her.
“I’m glad I caught you before you left. Jovack took care of everything.”
“What did the police say?”
Anna looked down at the floor. “They laughed at him, told him that there wasn’t enough blood for a dead bird in the bathroom. Jovack is really pissed Flo; he told me to keep my eye on you and that there better not be a next time.” Anna looked up. “I had to clean that mess up. Next time, do as you’re told…understand?”
Anna was visible shaken. Maybe she could have been fired for what Florence had gotten her into.
“I’m so sorry, it’s just that I never saw anything like that and….”
“Forget what you saw and who you saw.”
At five thirty the city looked haunted: the light took another hour to fully expose the street and the buildings in Manhattan.
Florence walked past a few early commuters with their ties loosened. The small brown bag and paper cup of hot coffee identified those who would soon fill the offices she had cleaned.
The subway entrance was across the street. As she descended the steps the heat surrounded her and only when the doors to the subway car opened did she feel revived. Maybe she had imagined everything; maybe she had been watching too many stories on television. Yes, his face was pale, she thought…but they all have pale faces.
The subway car held a few people in uniform: nurses and hospital workers. There were the other cleaners, like her; those were the people that looked like they had been up all night; most of them had their eyes closed. The old man in the corner seat near the door was asleep with his mouth open, snoring as loud as a jackhammer. Florence smiled and thought of Nat snoring, her Nasterio. She told Nat when they first met that she had never heard of his name; it sounded like the flower, Nasturtium. He laughed.
Florence looked at the window across from her and saw her fifty-eight year old reflection. It was then that she felt the papers she had stuffed into her pocket the night before. Not going to ruin my day. Rather read today’s message, she thought.
Poetry in Motion was the title on the small turquoise placard above the subway door. Florence got up, held on to the metal pole and read the poem: Grand Central by Billy Collins. It made sense, she thought; she was a part a “moving hive”.
The return trip from Manhattan to Hart Street took almost an hour. After the subway Florence waited for an express bus and then walked the remaining four blocks home. She believed the last blocks were the best part of her routine. By 6:30 in the summer, the sun was rising across the neighborhood. The sealed storefronts and brownstones were quite; most people were still asleep. The peacefulness gave Florence a hint of what this place must have been like in the old days. That’s what Poppy Daniels called them; he had lived in his house longer than anyone else on Hart Street. His mother owned the house before him. One Saturday night they were sitting on the front stoop trying to catch a cool breeze and he told her how cornfields grew on DeKalb Avenue.
“Imagine that…imagine that,” Florence said, as she climbed her steps and opened her front door. Florence put her purse on the front table and walked back to the kitchen. She could hear her granddaughter, Claudia, in the bathroom. She surveyed the kitchen, looking for traces of what Claudia might have made herself for dinner the night before. Florence opened the refrigerator door and took out the last piece of cod, milk, and one egg. The rest of what she needed: flour and spices, for her personal fish fry, as she called her dinner-breakfast, was in the cupboard.
She leaned into the back staircase and shouted up to her granddaughter. “What time is your appointment, hon?”.
Claudia was singing along with a pop tune that her grandmother couldn’t understand.
“I said: What time is your appointment, Claudia.”
The music was lowered and she heard the sounds of small heels click to the top of the stairs.
“Ten-thirty, Grandma Wren. I think it will take me ninety minutes.” Claudia paused, and Florence heard papers being rustled. “Don’t make me a big breakfast—please. Only cereal. I’ll do it myself.”
“That’s not the way to start such an important day, hon. You need to be fortified for that kind of journey.”
Florence poured a half-inch of cooking oil into a black iron skillet and turned the gas up to high. There was no further response from Claudia so she set the table. During the bus ride she had decided not to tell her what happened the night before on the fortieth floor. Florence felt the side of her dress with the papers in her pocket. She turned the flame off on the stove.
“What are you reading?”
“Nothing, child, just some papers I found in an empty office.”
“Why did you take them home? Isn’t that just trash?”
“I guess so, but you know sometimes I get curious. Right? Just like you. You know I’ve always told you that you take after me.”
“And not my mom?”
“No, Lord. You do not take after her. Look at you child, all dressed and polished to get to the city.” Florence looked away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to mention her. Let’s not ruin the day; it’s going to be a good one for me. I can just feel it.” Claudia looked at her watch. “Oh—it’s already late. I need to do a little reading for my Tuesday night class.” Claudia went back up the stairs. Florence heard her bedroom door close.
“So Susan Miller, 3410, had been fired,” Florence said. She reread the memo addressed to Ms. Miller that stated she had become redundant. Florence went into the living room to find her dictionary. When she returned to the kitchen with the dictionary and her newspaper, she was ready to make her breakfast.
The man’s photo was on page six. He was grinning at the camera and had a young woman on his arm. The caption under the photo read: Donny Palmer, CEO True North, with guest, leaving the Met Gala, in happier times. Florence held the photo closer…the woman was Susan Miller. Florence opened the dictionary and read the definition of redundant: “no longer needed or useful; superfluous. Synonyms: unnecessary, not required, inessential, unessential, needless, unneeded.”
“You be careful out there today, Claudia. The world is complicated and not always what it seems.”
“It’s a job interview, Grandma Wren. Don’t fuss over every little thing, you’ll make yourself sick.” Claudia finished her cereal and rinsed out the bowl.
“Come back to me.” Florence said before the front door closed behind her granddaughter.
Florence’s favorite program The View had started. Starr Jones introduced today’s topic: Sexual Harassment. “When Will It End?” Starr turned to the audience. Behind the five women seated around a table a screen filled with photos of seven young female faces.
“It seems that something happened to Donny Palmer last night.” Meredith almost laughed when a woman in the audience yelled out skewered. “It appears that Donny Palmer…” The screen behind the women changed to a large photo of Palmer, hands in front of his face, trying to hide from the cameras that were blinding him, as he exited the Lenox Hill Hospital. “…may have been stabbed last night. There were no clues and he had no comments on how it might have happened.”
“Shaving.” Florence said as she took a bite of her fish.
This story appeared in – WORK Literary Magazine – in October 217
Johnny Harris was no truth teller. He wasn’t a compulsive liar, it was just that he stretched the facts and embellished the details. He was a storyteller. Maybe a few generations earlier he’d be right at home, sitting on the front porch of a dry-goods store, shooting the breeze with his friends. In those days there was no harm in exaggeration. But now, inflating his importance to the whole world had consequences.
“How would you describe me, Kelley?” He stepped back and let his best friend since sixth grade take a better look at him.
“You’re a guy, whatta you mean, J? You look just like everybody else we know.”
“Yeah, but what makes me different, different than everyone else?”
“Don’t go all metro on me, J. What do you want me to say? What’s this for?”
“I need an edge for my profile. Just to say that I’m five feet ten and weigh one hundred seventy-five, or that I have black hair—that’s boring. I don’t want average.”
“You can’t change the facts, J.”
Johnny’s phone played his ringtone All Day. “It’s my mom.”
“What? She can’t yell down the stairs?”
“Gotta go to work, Kelley. Walk me to the subway.”
“Didn’t you tell me you quit your job two weeks ago?”
“Yeah, I quit, but I didn’t tell her: she’ll go nuts.”
“I’ll say. Mrs. Harris wants her baby boy out of the basement,” Kelley laughed.
“It’s a family room, I don’t live in a cellar.”
“Well, thanks for letting me crash last night in whatever this is.” Kelley glanced across the remnants of cold pizza that Johnny’s golden lab was finishing off. “I have a class at ten, so I’ll walk you to the station. Is your mom still making your breakfast, or is she on strike this week?”
Johnny looked at his phone. “She’s pissed. Let’s stop at Starbucks.”
“Yeah, metro for sure. Sign number two: when Dunkin is no longer good enough. So let me get this straight: you have been pretending to go to work for two weeks?”
“Outside.” Johnny whispered.
“How’s my favorite guy doing at Brooklyn Law School?” Johnny’s Mom looked past her son and walked over to Kelley to give him a hug hello.
“Not bad, Mrs. Harris, and you?”
Mrs. Harris took a deep breath and launched into a list of ‘if onlys’: If only Johnny had studied more in high school. If only Johnny didn’t get caught shoplifting. There were at least twenty ‘if onlys’. Without them Johnny would be at Harvard Law, where his father had graduated.
“Going to be late, Mom,” he pushed Kelley toward the front door.
“At least you have a job,” Mrs. Harris called after him as the two young men left the room.
When they got onto Remsen Street, they joined a dog walker, three nannies with carriages, and a stream of people who looked intent on getting someplace.
“She also has a list of at leasts,” Johnny laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a well-worn paperback. “You see this, Kelley,” he tapped the cover with his left hand, “what do you think it is?”
Kelley kept walking. He was trying to check out the girl who had just passed them. She was wearing a blue sleeveless mini dress.
“Aphrodisiac,” Johnny said as he continued to tap the book.
The girl turned right and they were going left on Hicks.
“What?” Kelley said.
“What do you mean?” Kelley looked at the title. “What’s it about?”
“I didn’t read it, but the cover says…” Johnny read the cover review and then flipped inside and read the rest of the quotes while they waited for the light to turn green. “You know, you don’t really need to read anymore.”
Johnny pulled the door to Starbucks open and got in line to place his order. “Yeah, do you think anyone wants to listen to a regurgitation of every twist and turn in a plot?”
“Well, don’t you want to get something out of the book for yourself, J?”
“Grande ice.” Johnny laughed. “I get something out of it all right. How’d you think I met that girl from the DR on the subway last month?”
“Small black.” Kelley turned toward his friend. “You’ve got to be kidding, man.”
“No, they think I’m a real intellectual. And in this case,” he pointed to the cover, “sensitive and understanding.”
“Well there you are: your profile.” Kelley started to laugh and the coffee almost came out of his nose.
“I’m thinking of trading this one in at the library today, that’s where I’m headed.”
“Got any bigger plans, like a job interview?”
“Thanks for reminding me, Mom. Hey, I’m not worried. I’ve got some great references from that job. Really. “ He could see that Kelley wasn’t buying it. “It was a political shoot out. I lost. I quit. No hard feelings, that’s what they told me at my exit interview. Reilly told me he would definitely write something good,” Johnny smirked. “He doesn’t want to mess with my Dad.”
“Yeah, but your Dad, when he finds out…?” Kelley took a sip of coffee.
“I’ll have something else down by then for sure. I have connections. Going to the Harvard Club later.”
Johnny kept walking, but Kelley stopped. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”
“How else you think I’m going to find a job.” Johnny raised his hand for a high-five. “Later.” He turned toward the Borough Hall subway entrance, tossed his empty cup in the trash and picked up speed to match the rest of the pedestrians.
The crowd heading for downtown Brooklyn exited and Johnny stepped into the subway car. At 4th Street he pulled out his paperback and followed a young woman off the train and into the Number One going uptown. He couldn’t catch her eye; she was staring at a pregnant woman sitting in front of her. The girl maneuvered around him and got off the train ahead of him at Forty-second Street.
The main branch of the public library was an enormous limestone building filling an entire square block of Fifth Avenue. Two stone lions stood guarding the steps leading to the main door. Johnny pulled one of the doors open and headed for the information desk.
“Got any recommendations this week, Emily? Anything new on the bestseller list? I’m looking for something for my sister.” Johnny grinned at the young woman behind the desk. Emily the librarian, Johnny thought, could she be anymore of a cliché? Her brown shirt matched her hair and helped to make her disappear into the woodwork: invisible until spoken to.
“How did she like the one I suggested to you last week?”
Johnny did have an older sister, but not one he gave books to. His sister had pretty much ignored him for most of his life. She was still useful to him though.
“Very moving,” Johnny quoted the inside flap to Emily. “The writer really understands the female psyche.”
“So true,” Emily sighed. “You read it too?”
“I’m meeting my sister at the Harvard Club for lunch, promised her I would bring her something new to read,” Johnny ignored Emily’s question.
She adjusted her glasses and sat up straight. “You went to Harvard?”
“Loved Cambridge and Boston. Fantastic experience.”
“Well,” Emily cleared her throat, “I know of something she might like.” Emily wrote on the small pad in front of her and gave the top sheet to Johnny. “Take this to the circulation desk. I’ll be curious to see what your sister thinks of this one.”
“Here’s the book.” The man behind the desk pushed a thick hard cover volume across the desk. “This number here, the one you put on your request,” he pointed to the slip Johnny had filled in for the book Emily suggested, “ this is a telephone number.”
Johnny started to laugh as he picked up the book. “Sorry, I think I made a mistake. Is this available in paperback?”
“I guess it’s not the one I want.” He pushed the book away, turned around and went back to the table he had staked out for the morning.
Johnny had bounced around a few private schools before he graduated from high school; he managed to get through Hunter College. His father had gotten him the job as a para-legal with the hopes he would some day “snap out of it”.
Johnny had his laptop open and was staring at his resume. They don’t make it easy for anyone these days. There are too many ways of checking this information, he thought. Searching Google for “what do employers look for in background checks?” he found a list of items on “good-hire.com”.
He went into the lobby and used his cell phone to call the records office of his alma mater.
“We will send you a copy of your candidates dates of attendance and degrees once you send us the required form.”
“I’m interested in the clubs and extra curricular activity during his time at school,” said Johnny.
“Oh, we don’t provide that information, sir. You would have to contact those organizations individually. Is there anything else?”
“No, I’ll fill out the request. Thanks for your help.” Johnny hung up the phone. “Bingo!” he said and went back to the table.
Johnny typed into the search engine: Core skills for being research assistant in publishing.
When he finished adding those skills to his resume, along with various clubs and activities that would indicate his personality and interest in publishing, he closed the laptop.
The Harvard Club had changed their rules a few years ago. There were too many non-Crimson types wandering in off the street. They now required people to have an ID and to sign in at the front desk. Johnny had taken his father’s card, made a copy and erased Class of ’65. He inserted ‘12 and added his own photo. It was a good enough facsimile of the ID to flash to the attendant at the front desk.
“Nice day.” Johnny ran up the steps with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He had been coming to the Harvard Club for over a year; everyone recognized him.
“Too hot for me, the summer uniform is still not cool enough. Have a good work-out,” the doorman said.
The locker-room was empty. Johnny changed into his shorts and a tee shirt and went into the gym. Bending over to change the weights on the press, he straddled the pole, squatted and took a deep breath before pushing eighty pounds to his shoulder and then over his head. He did twelve reps and took a break to work on his legs.
“I’ve been watching you lift.” An older man approached him.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“You have a great routine. Yeah, I use to be able to do a drill myself. Then I tore my shoulder and, well, you know how that goes: first one thing and then the other.” He made a deep laugh and stared at Johnny.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“I’ve seen you here before, a few times. Great facilities, no?”
Now he was waiting for an answer.
“Crimson’s the best,” Johnny said.
The man looked as old as his father, thick grey hair that was matted with sweat. For someone who wasn’t lifting he was trim and chiseled, Johnny thought. He looked away hoping the man would leave him alone.
“How long is your work-out?” the man continued.
“Got another hour at least, just started.”
“I noticed,” he smiled. “What house were you in?”
Johnny didn’t register that he was asking where he lived at Harvard. “…South House,” he said after a pause.
“You mean Cabot, don’t you? It hasn’t been South House since ’85.”
Johnny started to laugh nervously. “Gee, I am turning into my dad. He called Cabot, South House the entire time I was an undergraduate.”
“Got ya.” the man laughed. I won’t interrupt your routine. I’m off to the treadmill. My name is Wallace Merritt, Class of ’65, South House,” he smiled and put out his hand.
Johnny shook his hand. He starting coughing and raised his hand to his mouth as he said John Harris. Then clearly: “Class of ‘2012”.
“Hmmm. My son would have been 2012, but he never made it.” The man turned and walked away.
Johnny went over to the leg press machine and set it for 200 pounds. As he pressed, he knew he would have to avoid Wallace Merritt.
“I thought you might end up in here,” a voice said from the bench on the other side of the steam room.
Johnny couldn’t see who it was, but he got a cold chill as he entered the one hundred degree room. He started to turn around.
“Don’t leave, I want to talk to you,” Wallace Merritt said.
“I…” Johnny started.
“I could get you thrown out of here.” The man snapped his fingers. “But I won’t, I know your dad.” Wallace patted the bench and motioned through the steam for Johnny to sit next to him. “I should say, I knew your dad. How is he? Still alive? Still senior partner at White and Case?” He didn’t let Johnny answer. “Sure he is, and I bet he is still a liar too?”
“What do you mean, liar?”
“Your father got away with a lot when he was in school. That’s what I’m saying. I bet you get away with a lot too. Chip off the old block, right?”
Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes had adjusted to the room. They were alone and he could see Wallace looking at him.
“I won’t bite you, not yet anyway,” he patted the bench next to him.
“Why didn’t your son graduate Harvard?”
“Save it, kid. He died in a car accident on his nineteenth birthday. We could go for a drink and I could tell you all about it, if you really are interested in anything but yourself.”
Johnny turned and faced the door.
“What, I hurt your feelings? Well that’s different. You could never hurt Jack Harris’ feelings, if your Dad had any that is. Don’t go.”
“Why should I stay, your just going to get me kicked out. What’s the point?”
Johnny thought the worst that could happen would be being thrown out of the club. Wallace would never call his father, not with the way he talked about him.
“Maybe we could be useful to each other.”
Johnny sat on the facing bench. “I am looking for a job,” he blurted out nervously.
Wallace got up and stood in front of Johnny. His towel slipped off and fell to the floor; he picked it up and put it around his waste.
“It’s me that is going to get the favor first, kid.” The drink offer still stands. I’ll see you at Twenty-One Club in thirty minutes if you’re curious.”
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“Think about it kid, take a shower and cool off before you go out in the heat…think about it.”
Of course Johnny was curious. Maybe the towel dropping to the floor was just an accident. Maybe he could get me a job. Just going to listen. What’s the harm? I can always leave, he thought.
The Twenty-One Club was eight blocks away, just far enough for Johnny to change his mind a few times. He stopped and checked his phone messages and saw that Kelley had left a text about their plans for later. So he told Kelley what he was doing.
“What do you mean your going for drinks?” Kelley texted.
“He wants to see my resume and talk about my future.”
“Sounds weird, man, gotta go into class.” Kelley ended.
Johnny stopped walking and turned toward Broadway. Maybe I can catch a movie. He looked at the time on his phone. What could I possibly do for this guy? He thought. But he could do something for me, yeah, maybe he’s lonely, maybe I remind him of his son.
He turned around and continued up Sixth Avenue. When he reached the corner of 53th street he saw statues of little white jockeys holding rings, one on each step going up to and across the wrought iron railing that surrounded the second floor terrace of the Twenty-One Club.
He went down three steps to the entrance and opened the door to the restaurant. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then he saw the maître-d in front of him.
“Wallace Merritt,” Johnny informed the small man.
Wallace was sitting at the bar with a drink. “Didn’t think you would show, kid.” He turned as Johnny said down next to him.
“Here,” he went into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “My card, just so you know who I am.”
The card read: Wallace Merritt, CEO, Star Communications, 1200 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Johnny was impressed, but just nodded, and slipped the card into his back pocket.
The bartender approached them and smiled. “Sorry, got to check your ID,” he said to Johnny.
“Yeah, you can’t be too careful these days.” Johnny shot a look at Wallace as he took his driver’s license out and ordered a gin and tonic.
Wallace didn’t say anything for a while. He stirred the ice in his drink with a small plastic straw. Finally he looked at Johnny and said: “I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here nursing this drink. If only my son were alive, well, I wouldn’t have bothered you today.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and took another sip of his gin and tonic.
“Life is funny, you expect certain things to happen…” he paused, “you don’t expect your kid to die before you do. That’s not the way it supposed to happen.”
“How did it happen?” Johnny asked.
“You really want to know?” he continued, “late at night, fog, too much liquor, winding road, and a tree. In that order.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Merritt. You must miss him. What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Call me Wallace, son.”
Johnny flinched and waited for him to continue.
“My mother is dying.” He raised his hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Oh, it’s okay, she had a great life, she’s ninety-five. Patrician princess that’s what she is. Now she can’t remember anything,” Wallace took another sip and signaled the bartender for another round.
“Not for me Mr., I mean, Wallace, still working on this one.” Johnny looked at the drink in front of him.
“I want you to come for a ride with me.” He shook his head and made sure the bartender gave Johnny a second drink.
“I don’t know. I have plans tonight.”
“Well, we all have plans, don’t we,” he laughed. “Then life happens,” he kept laughing. “Break them, son. I need you to be by my side today. I want to visit my mother and I don’t want to go alone.”
“I guess I could change my plans. I need to tell my friend what I’m doing.”
“Make it up.”
“Why would you say that?” Johnny asked.
“Why does it matter where you are going, you’ll be with me…and my mother,” Wallace added. “She is in a nursing home near Tarrytown in Westchester, really nice place, about an hour north of here in the country. It has a view of the Hudson.” Wallace continued to talk about his mother and describe the bucolic location of where she lived.
“I don’t know, seems like a long way from here. I live in Brooklyn Heights.”
“The sun sets at eight, you’ll be home before it gets dark if we leave soon.”
“What’s the name of the place, Wallace?”
“Sleepy-Hollow Meadows. Sounds nice and cool on such a hot day, doesn’t it?”
“Well, I guess.” Not such a big favor after all, Johnny thought. I can talk about what kind of job I want on the drive. “Are we leaving now?”
“Sure thing, let me call my driver. Meet me in a few minuets the lobby.”
Johnny went to the men’s room and texted Kelley that he was close to getting a job. “Yeah, the guy I met at the Harvard Club. Right. And guess where I am now? THE—Twenty–One Club. We are talking about my career.”
“Get real, Johnny. Where the hell are you? We’re meeting up with the guys tonight,” Kelley texted back.
“Really. It’s true, I’m not making this up,” Johnny wrote. The second drink kicked in harder than usual and all of a sudden he was dizzy. “LTR” was all he could type back.
When Johnny walked into the bar to get his gym bag, the bartender motioned to him closer.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Merritt, since your one of his boys, right?
Well, your license it’s no good, not real, but you know that. “
“Wha? Johnny asked holding on tight to the back a bar chair so he wouldn’t fall.
“Yeah, the guy who has been buying your drinks, sonny. Your friend.” He winked.
“The car is here, kid. Let’s get going if you want get home tonight.” Wallace had come back into the bar to look for him.”
“I’m not feeling well. I haven’t eaten today. I shouldn’t have had that second drink; it’s really hitting me hard. Don’t think I can make it.”
Wallace took Johnny’s elbow and led him out of the bar. “The fresh air will do you good. You can take a nap on our way there.”
“The bartender was telling me your….” Johnny couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. His legs felt so heavy he had a hard time lifting them.
When Johnny woke up in the back seat of a limo, Wallace was gone. The sun was setting across the river and they were speeding south on the Westside Highway.
“What time is it?” he yelled to the driver. “Where’s the man I was with?”
“It’s seven-thirty, beats me where he is now. Got out of the car a half an hour ago and told me to take you home. Don’t you remember?”
“What’s his name? “
“You don’t know and you expect me to? I pick up people all day and night, never ask questions, just take them where they want to go?”
“Aren’t you his driver?”
“Nah. This is a limo service kid, we pick people up and deliver them.”
“Didn’t you drive us to Westcester earlier today?” Johnny’s head felt as if it were going to explode.
“Nah, just got a call to pick someone up in Tarrytown and drive them to Brooklyn Heights.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“I don’t pass any judgment either.” The diver let the windows down in the rear of the car. “Don’t mess up the car.”
Johnny was looking at him in driver’s rear view mirror. All he could see were his eyes staring ahead at the traffic.
“Did the man say anything aside from to take me home?”
The driver looked up at him in the mirror. “Yeah, he said you were smart kid, you went to Harvard and…”
“And?” Johnny asked.
“And if only you could have seen your grandmother before she died.”
If Only is part of a linked short story collection: Getting There – The Claudia Stories five of the stories have been published in various journals.
Each generation has a heaviness and this one, as so many others before, is no different.
Those of privilege, the ones who have feasted on the world as it is, seem surprised for what has become of us. How could this be happening, they ask with greater and greater incredulity.
Some who know silence as well as their native tongue claim it is not their story, not their neighborhood, and not their people. The idioms of silence allow for excuses.
These sentiments remind me of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I read this book twenty-seven years ago, and while the reviews speak to a love story, I felt it was more. For me, it was about the weight of the world and those who feel too deeply. The conceit is that the heaviness, for some, who are lucky enough to feel, is a freedom. Feeling nothing is unbearable.
In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those women had a voice to raise, just as our voices were heard last month and all the days to follow. The difference is our ability to vote.
I hope that this month, where we celebrate Women’s History (in the U.S.), we will encounter voices both present and past, those we know and especially those that are waiting to be discovered.
Deeds Not Words was the rallying cry of the suffragettes. Women’s Rights is a recurring back-story in my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light.
In Chapter Three, Sydney, Australia, Maude Anderson reads to her mother, Caroline, from the London Times.
It is the story of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
In Chapter Four, Caroline Light speaks to her suitor, Bernard, about her teacher Ada Wells. Later she invites her mother, Martha, to attend a meeting of the Temperance League with Kate Shepard.
In Chapter Five, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary Müller speaks to Martha Light about whether she ever thought for herself without first consulting her husband.
Last February, just about now, I found this image.
Creative disruptors change the way we look at the world. Here, an icon is turned around, and our perception of what we thought we saw is something entirely different.
One of my favorite artist disruptors is Louise Bourgeoise.
“One must accept the fact that others don’t see what you do.” – Louise Bourgeoise
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeoise was an inspiration, an outlier, and a disruptor throughout her life. Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98. Her images and sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea-but that’s what art is about.
I discovered her at the Tate Modern in London, 2002, where art is always disruptive and resistant to the status quo. A massive thirty foot spider standing in the atrium of an old power station startled me and made me want to know more about this woman artist who was then only 92.
As she put it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And so it is for me, too.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. .”- Louise Bourgeoise
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.(1)
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity. – (1) The Art Story
I never tire of finding life in her face and in her work.
“#ItWasNeverADress is an invitation to shift perceptions and assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day. In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed… When we see women differently… we see the world differently!” – Axosoft
In 1869, almost twenty-five years before the first woman cast her vote in New Zealand, Mary Müller wrote an appeal to the men of New Zealand. Müller’s argument, as so many arguments that followed hers, was that “without political rights women could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation”. She signed the article in the Nelson Examiner –“Fémmina” because her husband, a local politician, objected to her views. Today we stand together and tomorrow we continue to write our letters, proudly signing our names for all to see. Keep Writing.
Here are the dates by country of universal suffrage:
1893 New Zealand
1902 Australia (1)
1917 Canada (2)
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1920 United States
1928 Britain, Ireland
1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
1963 Iran, Morocco
1990 Western Samoa
1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
1994 South Africa
2006 United Arab Emirates
2011 Saudi Arabia (3)
NOTE: One country does not allow their people, male or female, to vote: Brunei.
1. Australian women, with the exception of aboriginal women, won the vote in 1902. Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962.
2. Canadian women, with the exception of Canadian Indian women, won the vote in 1917. Canadian Indians, male and female, did not win the vote until 1960. Source: The New York Times, May 22, 2005.
3. King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until Dec. 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.