City Streets

City Streets
Enid Harlow

His father had suggested the walk, and now he’s crying. Never in his life had he seen his father cry. Yet he’s doing it now. Right there in the street.

“Dad…?”

Something catches in his father’s throat. Something stuck and scratching. A carcinogenic substance inhaled off the street?

“Dad…?”

Tears well up, brim over, run down his cheeks. His father makes no attempt to hide them. It is a stunning event, in the sense that he is stunned by it, his senses knocked askew. His larynx freezes. He doesn’t know where to put his eyes. Certainly, not on his father’s. How could he let his dry, thirty-five-year-old eyes settle on the red and freely running eyes of a man—his father—twice his age, who has abruptly come to a halt and is standing next to him immobile in the street? Broadway, no less. The most famous street in the world. Standing there stock still and clearly incapable of containing…what?…some unbearable grief? indescribable pain?

“Dad…?”

An instant before, he’d heard something…that catch in his throat…cutting off the response he’d thought his father was about to make to what he’d just said. And what had he said…? Something about making partner? How it was what he’d been dreaming of for years, how now that his dream finally had come true it would not only wipe out his egregious and, in his father’s opinion, downright irresponsible credit card debt, but also permit him finally to take Jeanne on that long-promised and perpetually delayed vacation, which if anyone on earth deserved she did?

A named partner, Dad, like you. Was that what he’d said just prior to whatever it was caught in his father’s throat and the man stopped dead in his tracks, tears welling up in his eyes? Named. Like you. The words, ghostly now, hang in the silence, stillborn birds on a wire. He’d thought because his father would be proud to hear what he’d said that he might say it again, pull down one of those ghostly words, and after it, another and then another, forcibly breathing life into each so as to go on with the conversation and make his father hear what he wanted to say. But he hadn’t been able to do it. His jaw locked. His larynx froze.

He looks away, stares up at the thirty-foot, Cobra Head street light, looks back at his father. For surely he must bear witness. Surely, he must remain by his father’s side, though everything in him cries out to run, flee the scene, swear with conviction later to the police or anyone else who might inquire that he had not been there, had not seen or heard anything. What, tears in his father’s eyes? Something catching in his throat? No way. The man ground to a halt, forming a boulder in the middle of Broadway. Not possible. Things have been established between them. Boundaries set, styles of being laid down.

“Dad…?”

Something altogether new has entered the universe. A species as yet uncategorized, unnamed, born right before his eyes. His father, Howard Neiman, attorney, retired, man of means, in apparent good health, standing immobile beside him, crying on the street.

They have stopped on the north-west corner of 49th and Broadway in front of the old Colony Music Store. Gone now. Boarded up. The legendary glass-fronted emporium that stood on that corner for sixty years. His father would have known it as a boy. History now removed. Everything in what he formerly took to be the world, altered. His father crying on a public street. The air around him grows thin. The pavement shifts beneath his feet.

“Dad…?”

He’s disoriented, can’t say for certain where he is. Might be 7th Avenue, not Broadway at all. They might be standing in front of the Carnegie Deli, not what once was the Colony, or even over on 6th in front of Staples. Tears in his father’s eyes. They might be anywhere. That’s where he’d like to be. Anywhere but here. He longs for disguises. Capes, eye masks. Jet propulsion to lift them off the street and over the heads of the crowd.

Transplanted families, four abreast, commandeer the streets. Gawking, camera-toting tourists. A constant at any time of year, only the clothing varies. Now, mid-summer, temperature in the 90s, T-shirts and shorts the order of the day. Sunglasses. Flip-flops. Risky those. Only the skinniest of pads preventing toes from making contact with the pavement. Shoulder to shoulder, they march up and down the street. The movement is relentless, yet somehow orderly, except for a gaggle of fast-walking New Yorkers, loathe to have their strides broken, cutting through at every opportunity. These native sons and daughters zigzag through the foreign hordes at a pre-determined clip, for they have business in this town, they’re in a hurry, they live here, for God’s sake!

He nudges his father along. It’s like pushing a mannequin. They come to the corner, stop, wait for the light. Bodies pile up behind them. Two refuse to wait. A man and woman. Indisputable New Yorkers, they break free, make a dash for it. Instantly, the blare of horns, the screech of brakes. The man makes it across. The woman is caught in the middle. Bicycles and yellow cabs swerve around her, passenger cars surge ahead. The woman turns, looks, terrified, back at the curb. He catches her gaze, looks into her eyes. Hers, not his father’s. Deep green seas of panic. This is normal. A normal New York City scene. A terrified woman on display, momentarily frozen in time for the amusement of the crowd. No one runs into traffic to save her. No one risks his life for hers. He doesn’t run, doesn’t risk. He stands where he is, grateful for a place to put his eyes.

Now the cars line up as at an imaginary marker and let her pass. The vehicles halt and all but tip their hats as the woman runs on across, safe, to the other side.

The light changes. Still his father does not move.

“What is it, Dad?”

“Nothing.”

“Not nothing.”

They’ve become an obstacle. The crowd is forced to move around them. That goes against expectation, and theirs is a society based on expectation. People are expected to stop at corners, wait for the light, then move ahead. He and his father should do what is expected and move on with the crowd, but his father refuses to move.

“You okay, Dad?”

“I’m okay.”

“You sure?”

Desperate question. What would he do if the man answered no?

The crowds are relentless. Wave after wave, they come up from behind, bear down from the front. Encountering the obstacle he and his father have become, they adjust for it with varying degrees of annoyance, curiosity, and indifference. Tourists and locals alike, they adjust. Parting to the left and right, they move around the obstruction, merge again on its far side. It’s New York. People adjust. But this. This is different. His father, stopped dead in his tracks on a crowded street, tears running down his cheeks.

“Come on, Dad. Let’s go some place.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. Some place.”

He’d whisk him away. Magically transport him to an old folks’ home. He’s not that old, not impaired, but he’d be off the street. His needs would be attended to. Favorite foods. Newspapers. And he could visit. Weekends. Holidays. Bring him things. Books. Bagels. He’d be safe. Not standing here on a corner, the light in his favor, tears in his eyes, refusing to move.

He doesn’t know what to do. He looks around, looks back. He doesn’t blame him for anything.

“Hungry, Dad?”

His father shakes his head.

“Come on, let’s go.”

His father remains where he is.

When he was a boy his father took him to see his office. The echoes in the lobby, the ride up in the elevator. Twenty-seven floors. Through the sky, it had seemed. The corridor on his father’s floor, quiet as church. Two sets of doors. One to an outer office, the other to his father’s private domain. Smells of smoke and leather. Furniture with legs like trees. His father’s desk, big as a boat. Glass inkwells. Real ink. Actual pens. An immense green blotter. His father’s world. His privilege to be in it. He thinks he might return the favor now. Show his father something he has never seen. But what? His father, too, has lived in this city all his life. What could he show him he hasn’t seen before? His new office? Would he like that? Office for office, world for world. A corner office, Dad. Like yours, he would say. You can see up and down Madison and east on 54th nearly to the river. He would introduce him to the receptionist. Dad, this is Gloria. Gloria, my dad. He never calls, so you’ve never heard his voice. But on the off chance that he does one day, you’ll put him through. He would make certain his father hears the authority in his voice, notes the ease with which he instructs a subordinate.

People are staring at them. They’ve become another tourist attraction. He’s embarrassed. His father is oblivious. He takes his arm. Old-school gentleman, a jacket even in this heat. His father stiffens at his touch. He’s a tall man, not yet shrinking. He holds himself erect. Except for his head. His head is bowed. He’s staring at his feet. He feels a desperation in his love for him. A desperation that threatens to leap out of his chest, take on a life of its own, and wrap itself around his father.

“Okay,” his father says. “I can walk now.”

The light turns green, they cross the street. At the corner they pass an open plaza, sunken below street level. Short flights of concrete stairs at either end lead to the subway. At the back of the plaza, a notoriously expensive gym. He could take his father there, get him a steam bath, a massage.

They walk on, arm in arm. There is comfort in the walk. The sheer physical movement of it. His arm in his father’s. His feet, his father’s feet, lifting off, coming down again on the pavement. Regular footfalls, unremarkable now, moving forward with the crowd.

He remembers the times as a kid walking with his father down these streets. Away from his mother, away from time, it had seemed. Just the two of them. His head reaching to his father’s hip, his shoulder pressed against his thigh. The inclination he had felt to move himself closer to the man’s body, closer to his hip and thigh, closer still until his father’s flesh parted and let him in.

“Silly old man,” his father says, shaking free of him.

“Not silly.”

“To let it get away like that.”

“Let what?”

“We never denied each other. Never in thirty-eight years.”

“Mom, you mean?”

“And then I did. I let it get away. I denied her.”

They have arrived at 52nd Street. An African man sells knock-off designer handbags on the corner. Bags are piled on a cart and hang from hooks off either end. Just beyond, a metal coatrack stands outside a store. Jeans and short-sleeved cotton shirts spill from the rack. Maybe his father would like a shirt or a pair of jeans. Further down, there’s a store selling sofa beds. He could take his father in there, pull out a sofa, dim the lights. His father could lie down, have a nap.

“Why are we walking in this heat?”

“Your idea, Dad. You wanted to walk.”

“Crazy, walking in this heat.”

“How about you ditch the jacket?”

Tears again. Voluminous. As if in deference to the torrent, he and his father stop where they are. They turn toward one another, turn away, tracing little arcs on the pavement as they move. They are like large animals pawing the dirt, only there is no dirt and they can’t get any traction. Again, his father goes immobile by his side. Again, they’re an obstacle in the middle of the block. People come up on them from the rear and approach from the front. Parting to the left and right, they move around, and merge again on their far side.

Next to the store selling sofa beds there’s one selling luggage. Black bags on wheels stand in the window, tall as children. Some of the bags have shiny metal handles that stick up into the air. Others, shaped like duffel bags, have wide shoulder straps. He could dart in, buy a couple of bags, rush his father off to JFK, fill the bags at airport shops with clothes and toothpaste and aftershave and anything else they might require, and fly off to …where? It doesn’t matter where. Los Angeles. London. Dubai. Rome.

“I went crazy,” his father says.

“It’s okay.”

“How is that okay? Going crazy?”

“People do.”

He tries to move his father forward. His father holds his ground.

“Seven weeks, crazy as a bedbug.”

“Come on, Dad.”

His father claims his spot.

“Two months, almost. Me, a crazy man.”

“That’s okay.”

“Okay again? What’s okay about it? She deserved better than that.”

“Mom, you mean?”

“Of course Mom. The woman’s a saint. At my age I oughta be ashamed. I am. I’m ashamed.”

Tears strangle his speech. His father stops talking. He hopes that’s the end of it. He’s got the gist now and doesn’t need to hear any more. But his father is resolute. He swallows hard, looks him full in the face.

“Not here, Dad.” He steers him to the corner of 53rd. There’s a coffee shop half-way down the block. He could take him in, get him off the street. His father shrugs him off.

“I ended it. Then she calls. Out of the blue.”

“Mom, you mean?” He knows it wasn’t mom.

“Not Mom.”

He doesn’t want to know.

The street overtakes them. The crowds from the previous block catch up, converge on them at the corner, wait for the light. The light changes. His father doesn’t move. The crowds part to the left and right, move around, and merge again on their far side.

“Out of nowhere she called.”

“Mom?”

“Not Mom! I said that, didn’t I? I said not Mom. Her.”

Tourists texting, staring up at buildings, shooting pictures with their cells, see them when they’re almost on top of them.

“She called. I took her out. Big mistake.”

They stop just short of bumping into them, recover, and adjust.

“It started up again.”

They part and move around, merging again on their far side.

“Like it never ended.”

The New Yorkers in the crowd can’t let it go without comment, if only with a look. A city look that says this is New York, people here keep moving. Didn’t you get the rules at the border? Then they, too, part, as the others have done, and move on around, merging again on their far side.

“She ripped my heart out. Ripped it right out and ran away with it.”

“Dad, stop.”

“What could I do? I had to follow.”

“Just stop.”

“You don’t have a choice. Get to my age, you’ll know.”

Another word, he’ll punch him in the face.

“One fucking call, seven weeks of craziness.”

He’ll wring his scrawny neck, hack off his feeble arms and legs.

“Seven weeks.”

“And Mom knew?”

“Of course she knew.”

He’ll cut out his liver, feed it to a passing dog.

“She always knew. But you, you were oblivious.”

He’ll rip out his guts, chop off his balls. Give the tourists something real to gawk at.

“You live a life. You work, have children. The days pile up. You feel them caving in. So what? You’ll be dead before they crush you. Then a call out of the blue and your heart is seized. You got no choice, you run after it. You don’t expect to get it back.”

Again, the street overtakes them. From the front and the rear.

“Then yesterday, in the seventh week…what do I care how many weeks? For me, it was the whole calendar. She calls to cancel. She’s back with her fiancé.”

“She’s got a fiancé?”

“Before me. They broke up. Now they’re back.”

They stand immobile on the corner of a street in a city where they’d both been born.

“And Mom knew?”

“I said that, damn it! I said she knew.”

They stand without moving. One great boulder of stone, of bronze, of iron. The crowds come at them, part, and walk around.

“So she’s leaving. That’s what you’re telling me?”

He wants to feel his fist against his father’s face. He wants to hear cracking teeth.

“Mom’s leaving, right? That’s what you brought me on this walk to tell me? She’s going? You fucking bastard. You son of a bitch.”

“That’s just it … the damndest thing.”

Tears again. They wash his face. He hopes they clog his throat and drown him. He hopes a car jumps the curb and mows him down. He hopes a bolt of lightning comes out of the sky and cleaves him in two. He would spit on his body as it burned to hear it sizzle. Then he looks into his father’s eyes. They are shining with a look of absolute disbelief as in the presence of some holy thing, and he knows it isn’t pain or grief his father is unable to contain, but—he sees it now—pure, inexplicable joy.

“You don’t get it. I don’t get it. Who could? Mom’s not leaving.”

“She’s not?”

“No. She forgives. A saint, didn’t I say? And me, a shit. Who but a saint could forgive such a shit?” His father’s voice starting out low rises now toward wonder. “Can you believe it, son? She’s not leaving, she’s staying.”

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