I stop for coffee on the way to work. There’s an old woman at one of the tables, dressed in red and gold, her hair as delicate as spun sugar. Her hands are gnarled with arthritis, curled like claws. She’s eating a raspberry jam cookie, resting from time to time. Some part of consuming the treat is costing her effort. A young blond man in a blue blazer comes in, and she’s momentarily captivated. Maybe he’s a ghost to her, someone from her youth, or maybe she’s never stopped looking wistfully at young men. When she packs up to leave, she stops a slick Asian guy with bleached hair and asks if he knows the buses in the neighborhood. He doesn’t.
On the subway, everyone’s in the quiet space between what came before and what comes next. There’s a tall fat man with a cheap cane and worried eyes. Nearby a young man is leaning against the pole, trying to suppress the inward, private smile that keeps overtaking his face. An older woman with veined hands notices a small stain on her pink pants, touches it as though that might give her new information, then moves her purse to conceal it. She reads over my shoulder for a while, and then her head drops down into sleep. The smiler gets off near the university, the fat man at the railway station. The dozing woman, I imagine, keeps dozing all the way up the line.
In Midtown near my office, there is a man who is paid to vacuum the wide slate sidewalks surrounding the modernist skyscraper every morning. He never smiles.
My day in the dead zone is long. It’s late by the time I can leave work, a deadline, other people have failed and it all falls to me. I have forgotten to eat. I feel the vertigo of nausea without the threat of retching. I can’t face the subway, it will unravel me. I hail a cab. When we pull up in front of my house, the driver says, “Is this a safe neighborhood?” I tell him yes. He says, “Are you sure? It looks a little... heavy.”
As if to illustrate the driver’s point, as I’m slamming the door, a man walks toward me, fast like he wanted some distance between him and what’s behind him. His face has an addict’s ashen cast, the skin loose over the insistent bones, and for a slippery moment what I see is my brother, bearing down the street toward me. The vision clears before I can react. The man shakes his head, I can see the greasy tendrils of his hair bouncing. He passes me, looks back over his shoulder, and then mutters decisively, “Man, I quit. I fucking quit.”