Wednesday, June 10, 2009


In a burst of blue flame the burner catches. She sets the kettle on the stove, yawns, and takes a glass from the drainer, fills it and slowly slakes her thirst. Her lover still sleeps in the bedroom, the shades down, the clock's red digits shifting like the even, unhurried pulse of some silent, cold creature in the deepest part of the sea.

She takes a photograph down from her shelf. Within a gilt and weathered frame a woman she has never met, wearing a stiff grey dress, is standing on a boathouse porch. She is smiling compliantly but her gaze is just perceptibly askew of the camera's lens, and the fingers of her left hand are tense and splayed out from the railing she leans on.

Five stories down the last cars of a subway train rattle up to the platform. The doors open; a man peers out to see the name of the station, takes a step forward, then hesitates and retreats. New passengers fill the car, the stragglers shifting their bags and arching their backs to edge into the narrow spaces that are still unoccupied. At the far end of the car a cell phone chimes as the train lurches into motion.

The man squeezes forward to get off at the next station. In his hand, neatly folded, he holds a Chinese newspaper. His thumb partially obscures the photograph of a beaming figure in a business suit and hard hat. In the background, behind him, are the girders of a skyscraper under construction. As the rider steps from the train he drops the paper into the first bin he passes.

At street level an elderly couple are silently ambling uptown. The man, who strolls a step ahead of the woman, has a full beard and long grey hair, both streaked with day-glo dye. He is wearing a long dress, and a pigeon is resting comfortably atop his head. He smiles beatifically and nods to pedestrians as they go by.

Two teenaged girls from Germany stop in front of the man and ask, in barely accented English, if they can take his picture. The man agrees and poses happily, first with one girl and then the other, then acknowledges their thank yous and continues on. The woman behind him never once looks up.

One of the girls is wearing a thin oatmeal scarf. She stands still for a moment, wrapping its loose ends around her neck and tucking them into her jacket, until her companion touches her arm and says something in German. They pause for a moment, talking, then stride up to the nearest crosswalk. There is no traffic and they cross against the light. Once on the far sidewalk they turn to the left and move quickly away.

Two stories above, a woman in an office is eating a danish and holding the receiver of her telephone to her head as she types. The phone is ringing but no one picks up. On her wall there is a framed black-and-white photograph sent to her by a friend in Brazil. In the photo a little girl in a spotless white dress stands in the middle of an empty plaza. There is no expression on her face; her eyes, ever so slightly raised, are intently watching something off to the left of the picture, just out of sight.

Three miles north the phone rings in a narrow apartment with a view of the river over sycamores and playgrounds. Bookshelves cover every wall, and piles of foxed and jacketless books are stacked on the floor in every room except the loo. There is a broad desk, with a glass top, in front of the window, and on it, nestled between the phone and a stack of manila folders, an answering machine blinks, but the ringing dies away before it picks up.

A few blocks away, along one of the gray spines that twist from uptown to down, a man watches the traffic signals change from red to green and back again. As he sits by himself, nursing lukewarm coffee at a sidewalk table under an awning in the rain, he wonders if he inhabits the city that appears before him or one that he has imagined, though in the end he decides that it is both.

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