Then I heard my name and there's Sammy standing by the information kiosk with his right hand moving over his head in a stiff circle. Jess! he called. A beautiful Arab couple, a boy and girl wearing a backpack, looked at Sammy and then me, then grinned and shared a whispered something. Reminded me of how me and Sammy used to make out in his parents' basement.
Nearby, on another bench, a boy looked odd and dissatisfied, hands under his thighs and a shoulder bag at his feet. I caught him glancing, and he dropped his eyes. A woman with luminous black hair, slick and brilliant and falling with a kind of confident logic to her shoulders, strode toward a man in a dark suit, who leaned over, feet planted like a diver, and opened his arms. Two children were running through the station, giggling, followed by a young woman toweling her wet hair and telling them to slow down, calling Josh, Jenny after them.
A woman, squeezed into the end of a nearby bench, wore a dress so filthy it looked like pressed dirt or sculpted mud. She was talking to herself and working the air with her hands. Imagine, I thought, her in a nice dress, free of the destruction that followed her. Across the station a legless man in a wheelchair was picking at his coarse black beard and examining something he had just discovered in his underarm. He was no older than thirty--all that thick wondrous hair, those genteel features, those flautist's fingers!--imagine him with legs. Imagine them all, improved, restored, returned to that other life. Somehow, all of us should be saved. I looked again for the dissatisfied boy, but he had left the bench and seemed to have forgotten his shoulder bag. Somehow, we all need a messiah.
We embraced. I was his height, or nearly. He was exotic, handsome, sweet smelling. There was nothing cute about him anymore, but I didn't expect he would be so thin and weary seeming.
"Don't pull away so fast! Lemme hug you, cuz!"
"You scare me," he said. He was holding me at arms' length and grinning. "You're too good-looking, Jess."
"Forget me, look at you. My Sammy."
"You're beautiful, cuz."
I did a slow, staggered turn in a coffee shop window and flipped my hair.
"The Messiah has to be beautiful to attract attention nowadays. Look at them, Sammy. Let's redeem them. Look." I pointed to the paraplegic. "Let's give him some legs."
He pulled back.
"You're too much, cuz," he laughed. "Anyway, you're a woman."
"Where's it say a woman can't be Messiah?"
"You're too much woman."
"Do messiahs have sex?"
"What's a Second Coming if there was never a first?"
"That's lame. Notice I am not laughing."
"You should look around. Others are actually dying for the actual world all the time, the real redeemers. I'm not sure these losers deserve one." He waved at the terminal. "So where is it?"
"What's the rush? Look," I said, delaying. "Over there, the man in the wheelchair. The vagrant. Owns nothing, has nothing. Has to beg for his next meal."
"Next fix. Next drink."
"That's harsh and arrogant."
The vagrant lifted his chin and looked us up and down. His thoughts seemed to touch me.
"This is a triage unit. How's a messiah to know which to save?"
"So it's a bookkeeping problem?"
"Everything is a bookkeeping problem."
"All," I said lightly. "You save all."
"No, you save your own."
"I need to know."
"Messiahs come already knowing. There's no job description."
"Messiahs can learn."
"Not the real dudes."
"I want to know. I will."
"You're an egotist," he said. "Even a baby messiah would know, beginning in the manger. But there's nothing to know."
"That's not what I believe."
"I don't believe in beliefs."
I laughed. "You made an epigram!"
"You have intuitions, oceanic feelings. What you call 'beliefs.' I have ideas. So where is it?" His expression had changed.
I pulled a locker key out of my jeans and turned it in the light and it shimmered with blobs of sunlight.
"Let's go get it. Then I thought we maybe could grab a glass of wine, for old times."
"I was thinking of your basement. I was looking at those two kids over there, how they remind me."
"When your mom turned on the light," he said.
"I thought it was your mom."
"No, yours. Good thing. My mother? Forget it. I'd still be grounded."
"I think Aunt Liz knew." I reached for his hand. "Your mom is psychic."
"I got a feeling Aunt Mary did, too. Your mother had that annoying mom radar."
"But she never would have told."
"Come. We'll walk and talk. Then get that drink."
"Your mom knew I loved you," I said. I stopped and took his hand. "I know my mom did."
"Ancient history," he shrugged. "Let's walk."
We headed toward the lockers on the south end of the station and passed a woman composed in the lotus position on the tile floor. Between her crossed ankles was a cardboard sign.I am homeless and have stage 3 cervical cancer. God bless you. There were coins and paper money in a Mets cap and cup filled with a foaming liquid. Sammy dropped a handful of change in the cap and the woman pawed the change and unzipped a tote bag and brought out an origami crucifix, which she handed to him.
"God bless you," she said, without looking up.
"There is no God," Sammy said. He waved her off.
With the gym bag at Sammy's feet and the key back in my pocket, we sat at a table outside the bar of 7-Bistro. Sammy smoked, ignoring the No Smoking sign.
"Remember that poem you wrote?"
He looked at me archly. "My poems sucked."
I leaned into him and planted my chin on his shoulder and whispered:
The sons and daughters of the rich can always count on more of the good things than can the sons and the daughters of the poor.
"Drivel," he said.
"No way! It's poignant."
"It was a homework assignment, Jess."
"You wrote a lot. Your hero was always a writer. 'The world is made of language,' in the yearbook, you remember?"
"The world is made of language."
"You still believe it."
"Everything is language. Even lousy language. A hundred-fifty years ago you could change the world with a book. 'So you're the little lady who started this big war,' Lincoln said to what's her face, Stowe. A shitty book, even. Hackwork. Do you even know what I'm saying?"
"Good things can come out of bad things. So that qualifies as what, news? People read shit books?"
"They read their phones. The CNN news crawl." He pointed to a flat screen hanging over the bar. "They read images, the images land in the subconscious. Everything is a come-on. Everything is an ad. Everything is porn. Try to think of something that is not an ad, a pictogram."
"It's a visual culture," I said. "The visual is a different form of literacy."
"A deadlier form. Visual literacy is illiteracy. Literacy is novels, poems."
"Let's rain death on the world because "The world's taste,' as your father liked to say, 'is in its mouth.' Is that it? This equates to a matter of taste?"
"It equates to there's a problem that nobody's paying attention to. It equates to there's a time and a place and now's the time."
"There are other ways to make them pay attention."
"Like, say, make a movie?"
"Look, I want you to rethink this," I said. I was sounding imploring, but I couldn't help it. "I came here to help you rethink this, Sammy. Come on."
A cop with a crew cut walked through the station with the sort of exaggerated slowness meant to signal menace: hands up or I beat the shit out of you. He was about six-four, his weight in the mid-to-upper two-hundreds. He had a walkie-talkie in one hand, a second com device on his left shoulder, a pistol holstered on his right waist, a flashlight and can of MACE on a belt along with a nightstick, cartridges and a mobile phone. His free hand hovered above the holster. He looked like a parody of a recruitment ad, and Sammy laughed.
"Get a load. That's positively comical. Think he could actually stop anybody?"
"Sammy, don't just ignore me. You were thinking of people, once. Not abstract ideas, not bullshit. Not-isms."
"An-ism is not an abstraction, babe. It's an environment for thought. A mental fitness center."
"But it's not real, it's not practical. It's made up."
"So are we. You and me. We are pronouns, and pronouns are fictions."
"We are not fiction," I said. I was now whining. "Human beings are not fantasies."
"Oh, please." He swiped at air. "You're a point on a plane. Me too. A point on a plane is a nothing. Useful way of finding the shortest distance. Where's the point once you cover the distance? Show me."
"You're talking nonsense," I said.
"I'm talking meaning. I'm talking soon you will have mass, volume."
"Come on, think with me, please."
"No. You think with me. After the towers, there was all these novels and poems about 9/11. Some was OK, most of it was crap, and none of it effective. The result was Iraq II. Then the economy collapsed, and more fiction, same percentages of OK fiction to crap, and the same result. Nobody's jailed, nothing's done, bankers get bigger bonuses, the market's through the roof and finally this election, and that thing, whatever it is, in charge. What do you people have to show?"
"What would you do?"
"Hang a banker a week. In public. Then hang their families."
"Do no evil. Your father always said that."
"Right. Do no evil till nobody's looking, then do what it takes. Don't be stupid."
"This is no answer." I gestured at the floor where the bag was. I felt powerless because I was beginning to feel he was right.
"What is the answer, then? A novel? Another unread memoir? When they have both houses of congress and the White House and your liberal friends have-? Oh, right, I remember. Online petitions and podcasts and protests with Tiki torches, lots of earnest street theater, Comedy Central and political cartoons. Speech codes and safe zones. You have irony, they have power. You have your values, they have semi-automatics. You have demonstrations, they have Wall Street. You pile up purity points and they pile up votes. You people make me sick, Jess. You act like we're still in day care, which is probably behind why we're all so politically stupid. We're Generation Day Care. Where somebody always picks you up and drops you off. Or you all are. The Holocaust made the whole idea of literary art obscene, somebody said. Wake up. Art is obscenity unless it does something. So I've moved on. From the liberal arts to liberated art. To the supreme fiction."
"You're out of control." I squeezed his hand. "Tell me about your novel. What happened to it? You said you would tell me."
"It went nowhere."
"How far in did you get?" I had read enough of it, a love story, to remember there was a woman stuck at an airport in a hundred-year storm who decides to cheat on her husband while she waits for the weather to lift. Something about a lost child and grief counseling and a high romantic reconciliation at the end.
"Not novel. Novella. I stole the idea from a piece of chick-lit. I changed the ending. From happy reconciliation with cuckolded dude on the tarmac at La Guardia to happy reconciliation at Windows on the World at eight-thirty a.m. on 9/11."
"Oh. Jesus. Cheerful."
"I told you. The Towers changed everything. They had to reshoot shit, even. There are no happy endings."
He toed the bag. He checked the time, then sipped his drink.
"They will come after us."
"Not after us. After you, Jess. Me, they'll just"--he made a sweeping gesture with his cigarette and a dongle of ash splashed on the counter--"who knows?"
"Then Aunt Liz and Uncle Sid. Then my parents."
"So what? Two old farts? My father, who does nothing but eat, sleep, and shit. Hakuna matata. The circle of life for him is his toilet seat. Don't sweat it, so you're on the news for a couple weeks and all over Twitter. You'll get a book contract, start a GoFundMe page. You'll be a celeb. You'll get laid like crazy. Great country, isn't it? Just tell them we met, had a drink, you tried to stop me, tried to talk reason, whatever. Make something up. But be happy they do come after you. Then you can be a real messiah and make a pile of money and give it all to the homeless."
"What do I do with this?" I held out the key.
"I have no idea. I'd get rid of it," he said.
"'The cost of idealism is often a jail cell.' Uncle Sid used to say that."
"My father is a fool. In a couple hours he'll be on CNN and all his loving neighbors and steady customers will be watching him defend me. It'll go viral and he'll go bankrupt. 'My son, a good boy!'" Sammy said this in a thick, mock Slavic accent.
"I didn't think you were for real."
"This here, cuz, is a map to what's for real." He patted the bag. "A map to the tomb in Palestine. I'm Dan Brown 2.0. What's for real is everybody wants to blow up the world."
"Sammy, this is totally fucked. It's crazy."
"Crazy or not, you're involved."
"I really didn't think you were for real!" I half-shouted. "I went along because I want to see you! I love you."
"That's your cover story? Because you love me you rent the locker and lug this thing all the way here?" He was no longer whispering. "Which I hope you did without anybody noticing."
"I got it here, didn't I?"
"You took a chance. That just about says it."
"You asked me. I love you. You know I do. You expected me not to?"
He grinned bleakly. "You are some messiah, Jess."
"I didn't even know what was in there."
"That a girl. Work that alibi."
'"The joy of the wicked and the pain of the innocent--the greatest mysteries.' I'm just quoting your father again."
"It's more effective with the accent," he said.
'"But not their triumphs.'"
"The circle of life. A turd circling the bowl."
"What about your portion?"
"What about yours? You say what you have to, what they give you. Leviticus? Seriously? Anyway, it's their religion. Yours and theirs. A religion without transcendence." He lifted the bag onto his lap and patted it. "I'd rather have this, Jess."
"Death and destruction."
"Hardly. This is transcendence without religion."
He blew a smoke ring into the sunbeam. Then he leaned over and kissed me the way he had when he was sixteen and I was fifteen and we were back in a dim basement and dreamt of making love day and night and never being apart. The new Sammy's breath tasted foul, of cheap jug wine and tobacco. He no longer tasted like my Sammy.
"I thought our love would change the world."
"It's too bad. People don't pay attention until it's too late and once they do they don't know what to pay attention to."
"So I tell your parents what?"
"I wouldn't tell them anything."
"I can't do that. I'm not used to doing nothing."
"Tell them when the messiah comes he won't be coming with falafel and yogurt."
He slipped off the stool, squinting.
"Ever notice how everybody carries a purse, a briefcase, a gym bag or a backpack? Like the homeless? And we all seem to be talking to ourselves! Why is that?"
He blew me a kiss and waded into the foot traffic. The couple glanced as he passed, and he gave them a swift, meaningless three-fingered wave. They waved back, the woman swinging her large, expensive purse and the man his briefcase. The boy and girl on the bench were gone and in their place was a duffel bag. The woman made out of dirt had moved, was fingering the zipper of the bag and mumbling something to a phone or to herself. Two benches down, the cop was talking into his shoulder and bending over the bag left by the dissatisfied white boy. The legless man was watching the cop. He opened his satchel and emptied the coins from his VA cap into one of its pockets and pushed the satchel under his wheelchair. In the distance, the woman with stage three cervical cancer was zippering her tote bag and holding a dollar bill to the light, then to her nose, and sniffing it, her lips moving silently. Sammy is right, I thought. Everybody carries a bag or a sack and seems to be talking to themselves. Maybe it is true. Everybody wants to blow up the world.
The smoke from his cigarette rose and climbed a sunbeam, shaping and reshaping itself in the light. It coiled past the No Smoking sign toward the roof, splitting into majestic vortices of smoke, dust and light. I wondered if I should cry, but crying struck me as inappropriate, ineffective, or the word Sammy used to describe novels and works of fiction, obscene. I was paralyzed by the possibility of its coming at last. Redemption. The great change. I looked up, counting the coils of smoke as they rose and spun, from earth to heaven and back.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|