Monday, March 02, 2009

Without a ghost (II)

At the corner of 57th street she waited until a downtown bus pulled along the curb, stepped inside, fished a token out of her purse and dropped it in the till. The driver was a slightly built young man — Puerto Rican, she thought — who acknowledged her with a nod as one of his evening regulars. The bus was mostly deserted. She chose a seat under a cigarette ad, across from a man in a rumpled gray suit who seemed to be asleep. There was a tabloid in his lap, open to the racing pages. Three rows in front of him were two young black women with neatly beribboned felt hats; they were whispering together and giggling, and once or twice they glanced back and caught her eye.

Somewhere in the thirties the bus took on more passengers. First to appear was an elderly woman, who settled herself behind the driver in the first available seat. Behind her came a youngish man in a white shirt and tie, his suit jacket folded over one arm, and finally a middle-aged couple and two adolescent girls, all of them toting bags from department stores in the vicinity. There was a momentary fuss: the girls wanted to sit in the back, the father objected, the mother said something that was lost in the noise of the bus engine accelerating, then the whole group trudged to the back, the father sourly trailing behind. The girls tumbled together into the last row, chattering happily, peering out the window as if it were their first time in town.

By the time they reached the Village the man with the newspaper had awakened, though he still seemed half-dazed. He craned his neck and looked blearily out through the scratched windowpane until he caught sight of a street sign, then folded his paper, tucked it under his arm, and shifted himself closer to the aisle. She pretended not to notice that he was staring at her, frankly but without evidently finding anything of interest. After a block or two he rose, heavily, and stepped ahead to the next row, his back to her, swaying with the motion of the bus. The driver braked gently and the man wobbled forward, then stepped off without looking back as the bus came to a halt and opened its doors.

She stayed on until Bleecker Street. The two young women ahead of her rose at the same time, clutching their purses, huddled so closely together they might have been joined at the hip. They were hushed now and serious-looking, until one of them whispered something and the other began to giggle again, just for a moment as they descended. She watched them disappear into the evening crowd, and headed for Sheridan Square.

Most of the storefronts were dark by now, except for the clubs where music could be heard playing through the doors and the few restaurants and shops that had evening hours. On one corner there was a butcher shop with a grim tableau of small game — a rabbit, some birds she didn't know the names of — swinging in the window, lit from above by a single thin fluorescent bulb. As she headed west the crowd thinned out. There was one last cluster around the steps leading up to a bookstore where some kind of public reading was in progress; she heard a muffled voice from the interior, the silence of attentiveness, then a burst of laughter. Two slender young men and a pretty, petite woman in a yellow scarf stood at the base of the stairs. The men were smoking and doing their best to look smooth while the girl shivered against the increasing chill. As she left them behind she passed a row of darkened windows that spanned a grim, anonymous concrete building, a warehouse or a sweatshop she couldn't tell. She passed a narrow alley on the right, where a faint smell of urine wafted up from worn-down cobblestones, then continued on in shadow until after another moment or two she emerged into the faint illumination of an isolated little diner that was open all hours.

She was only a block from her apartment but she wanted a meal. She seized the handle of the heavy glass door and went in, up three steps to the cashier, who stood behind a display of Life Savers and chewing gum and invited her to sit anywhere she liked. Most of the booths were filled with bohemians in threes and fours, some of whom stared at her as she passed, though without breaking off their conversations. She found an empty booth in the far corner and sat down facing the door, setting her valise on the vinyl seat and resting her hands on the faded formica tabletop. There was a little Seeburg jukebox at each table, set underneath the window; someone had put the Everly Brothers on already but she flipped through the selections once anyway out of curiosity.

When the waitress came over she declined a menu and ordered a small salad and a bowl of tomato soup, a cup of tea with lemon, and then a rice pudding to finish off with. She pulled a magazine from her valise but after a half-hearted look stowed it away again. As she ate, alone and unnoticed, she kept tabs on the other diners, listening in on what scraps of their mingled conversations she could make out. Some were in high spirits, laughing and gesticulating, while others maintained an affected aloofness, leaning back, smoking slowly, uttering some indistinct pronouncement from time to time. Just outside her window a neon sign, tangled into a beer-brand script, oozed blue light.

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