Water Towers

He wasn’t a ghost. He just felt like one. He couldn’t join Samantha on the other side, so Garland backed away from the restaurant’s commotion toward a window where he heard her again remind him he wasn’t Poe and please no odes to his lost ravishing Samantha Lee. She’d been the literary one, not him, better he remain true to his musical talents.

Don’t worry, getting by, haven’t forgotten you. Can’t. Wouldn’t know how.

Why was it taking the woman at Table Four so long to order? It was a one-page menu, not the Old Testament in Hebrew.

A draft sliced in through a gap between window curtain, and Garland felt a chill but stayed close to it, liking this window. There were four of them along one wall in the restaurant’s main dining room and they reminded him of stained glass windows in a church, back when he went to mass with his mother and prayed for the father he’d lost as a boy. A man he remembered vaguely for his rough cheek and the blending smells of tobacco and after-shave.

As if that life had never happened, fragments of it returning as he saw himself as that other me. Before Samantha’s death that night in a car accident. Back when he’d linger at the piano through slow afternoons, Samantha in a flowing flower-print skirt drinking sweet tea on a bench under a camellia that shaded the courtyard in back of his mother’s house. She liked to hum close to his ear in bed, pausing now and then in her soft voice to assure him he was okay, that this latest thunderstorm of emotions and insecurities like all the others would pass, so he should sleep now. Her Gar she called him.

Why was this woman at Table Four unable to make up her mind? Not today of all days; he had no patience. On her phone? Pushing little buttons? Everyone was, all their answers residing elsewhere.

What he wanted was to make a scene, lie there on the restaurant’s blue carpet and wait for the day to pass. Of course, he couldn’t. If he wasn’t careful, another waiter would nab Table Four. It had happened in the past and he’d been warned if it happened too often he’d be fired. No shortage of waiters in the city and he needed this job, saw it as one mark of stability in his life and a small price to pay to be in such a city and calling himself a musician. It had consolations, as well. He seldom bought food, finding it easy to live on one free meal a day.

The woman at Table Four was calling him. Not by name, of course. She used the word Waiter but she could have easily called him Robot. No Southern courtesy in this rarified air, but he was used to it. She wasn’t the kind who liked to wait. None of them were. She needed more time. All of them did. He nodded. He was an adult, acting as such, his grief a private matter.

No other tables for now, so he turned and moved back toward one window. A fall breeze stirred a few trimmed maples and one oak that grew along both sides of the street below. He looked down in both directions and remembered how during past visits to Greenwich Village, Samantha had adored this neighborhood. This was to be her city, a new zip code that would prove status and self-actualization.

She stood there with him in his mother’s living room on Monument Ave, telling him one day they’d live there together and Garland would play in a band, gig with jazz musicians, vamp it up with singers on Broadway. He could do it; he had his bachelor’s from Reed and his talent was nothing to sneeze at. She’d work for a fashion designer. Maybe she’d model. Or do both.

Had those moments happened or were they sugar-coated renditions from a past he wanted so much that he believed in it, though it was a reality he’d never had? He felt his delusions lanced by the shadow of one tree branch that ran like a spear through the window to bisect the room’s carpet. Here was separation between the physical and ephemeral, yet all gently fused into a force that told him he was still his mother’s good boy, must keep quiet and do his job, try not to get lost in foggy ruminations.

At Table Four, the woman was standing now, raising open arms to another middle-aged Botox queen and then a third, all of them with hair dyed blond, shiny cheeks, plump lips, like three guppies freed from various aquariums. Garland watched the trio hugging in that careful urbane way, sizing each other up as they exchanged guarded pleasantries. Women, indeed, could be mean swimmers.

It was all about stealth and invisibility. Once they were seated and comfortable, he’d bring two more menus and the wine list. These three were no doubt drinkers and had watched more than a few episodes of Sex In The City.

Better he return to autumn moments, he thought, so splendid in this room: the smell of coffee on a hot plate in the corner, one far brick wall, varnished grains in the coffered panels that covered the lower half of the other walls and spoke of parlour drawing rooms from an era when all was built by hand to last. Nothing here was new, proving time distinguished any surface. He still believed this.

The women were calling. He leaned over them and smelled their unguents and told them the soup of the day, the three specials and two desserts he was paid to memorize.

He did not feel satisfied bringing them the momentary happiness they craved.

There was a somnolent subtle radiance, as if candle-lit, in the quiet. It was, he supposed, an earned solemnity, part of his loss, his aging and learning and the reducing of the wilder confident person he once saw himself as. It occurred to him that when he spoke now to people it was from a gentler, firmer and ironically more Southern perch. A place in his mind, an object he’d found as a boy during a walk with his father. A polished stone, a dirty old nickel he’d kept to help him observe time pensively, to feel it passing. Anybody could comment on it, but who really understood it?

He heard Samantha tell him keep enduring the silences. There was no escape from them.

Finally. The day was over. He’d been little more than an accessory to their decorous reunion. He had his secret mourning, his memories, but could he step outside of them at will?

Knowing he could remained a comfort.

Okay my lover, says Samantha. Let’s move on.

They don’t get far, pausing to admire hand-chiseled granite steps, black wrought-iron railings that lead to a door painted glossy cranberry red, a polished brass monkey for a knocker. On the building’s face, the bricks are painted marine blue, chipped and scarred in places and Garland knows such bricks can be tuck-pointed and sandblasted to look uniform and new. His uncle Desmond had done such work in Charleston, Savannah and Norfolk, knew much about construction from this period.

Here the bricks are painted tangerine, dusty rose, buttery yellow. Windows are trimmed in a satiny yet durable white. Samantha takes his arm, holds him close at her side and they study a turquoise door that gleams when sunlight peeps in from behind clouds. It has a black cast-iron knocker that resembles a small cannonball. The doorway is framed by windows with crooked louvered shutters and box planters. Shutters hung with an easy elegance.

Samantha says: This feels so French. They respect time’s inevitable cruelty.

Knowing Samantha would not expect a reply, he remains silent. She likes having the last word. She points out below one window a box planter emptied for winter. How much she likes knowing old gas lanterns are still part of the architecture here. A block away one street is still cobbled in round stones. This neighborhood, so cozy, so close to her heart, the streets narrow and rife with personal touches yet not all that remote from the thundering metropolis of chromatic steel and mirrored glass just blocks away.

She confesses she’s in love; this is where they’ll live. She’s seen Paris and Rome and there’s no other place she’d rather be.

Later, after lunch, he proposes.

Garland stopped on the street and stood still and waited as if he were letting the air speak to him. Samantha wasn’t there. He’d expected her. Not this time. Perhaps he should dive into a distraction – TV, Internet, People magazine.

How they’d stand together and when she spoke she’d show her breeding, manners, such tender inflections. Warmth flooded his body as he smiled with a memory of Gaslight, one of her favorites and how she’d say they were born in the wrong time.

What did it really mean to know death?

Did he want to cry? He couldn’t, not on the street.

He heard as she pointed toward a sliver of light that filled a gap between ochre drapes. She said, One more nuance, my Gar. As if those windows weren’t enough, look at the color of the light there. So small, like a flower in bloom. Stop and smell. You know daylight has a scent.

Doesn’t everything?

In its way.

What do ghosts smell like?

Depends on whose ghost it is.

He can smell the rising scent of the Hudson. Not death. He looks up at trees that line the sidewalk, pruned, cared for. The smell of cleanliness, uniformity. Pedestrians pass him, unhurried, strolling the way they once strolled together in that relaxed almost regal way. The insistent clamor of traffic becomes a distant intrusion, easy to ignore. If he begins to smell daylight, will it be real or because she’d want him to?

He looks to the sky. Isn’t much of it. He wants to see himself there.

She says, My Gar being reborn. That’s what my dying is for.

Right, he says.

He walks for another hour until dusk begins to settle in. He stops at a café where the manager, Becca, recommends which sweet glazed pastry he should try with coffee. Becca also hails from Richmond, but has lived in the city a long time, and was the first one to promise Samantha she’d help after the wedding when the two of them made their big move.

After leaving Becca, walking uptown, he thinks the city must become his, re-invented for his needs, not Samantha’s dreamscape of Victorian-era lassitude. What he likes as a counter to her horse and carriage romanticism are the surreal blocks of mirrored glass towers that stand like giant silver needles of ice. Symmetrical, frigid, in rows, flashing at pedestrians below.

He must become this city, the one he lives in now. Midtown, he stops and studies himself in a massive bronze mirrored pane. Each face looking inside for its soul, each second of time elbows past him as it does all the others with the same unanswerable questions. He feels a disarming sexual charge, dirtied by the gritty fumes from a river of traffic.

Re-born constantly as long as I’m here.

No amount of counseling could cure him. He just had to accept it.

There was no reason.

He shouldn’t forget her statement that love brought miraculous resilience, but he did forget, and not a day passed without him doubting its veracity.

The morning windless, unseen edges growing sharper, preparing to cauterize from him all thought of his third eye, that place where he really witnessed from. Bodies flew upwards off the street and dissolved in a magenta sky. He didn’t have enough money, couldn’t afford this life and would need to move, but where? It was while shaving and listening to Takemitsu’s To The Edge Of A Dream that he began to feel calmer. He had his savings, his mother’s support, and if careful he’d be fine.

Gar, my Gar, we all get better.

He was surprised not to see his roommate and it wasn’t until Garland started eating his toast that he remembered Drew had left with his girlfriend to attend a conference in Toronto on computer gaming. He’d be gone for the week. Garland realized at that moment just how much he hungered to speak with someone, to share those edges of his own dreams, particularly how he’d seen Samantha swimming to him in a river while he was bathing naked. He’d felt such a strong sexual voltage in that dream, powerful enough to wake him up.

While sipping coffee, he sat in front of his apartment’s one big window and turned on his laptop and began searching for psychiatrists. He’d lied to his mother that he was seeing a therapist. Lied to console her, but now he wanted professional support. His dreams, evaluated, could help: anything to move steps closer to harmonious mergers with the city’s gargantuan pulse.

A phone call interrupted him. It was Becca. She sounded excited. Would he like to join her and her new friend uptown this afternoon? They were going to the Frick. Jade, Becca’s new friend, had never been.

He’d never been to the Frick either. Does Becca mean Jade the waitress at Le Gamin? He’d met her a couple weeks back.

Yes, same girl, just so happens we have tons in common.

He heard in Becca’s voice something bubbly, eager, an energy he wanted to be around. He’d love to go, but he had a time-slot reserved in a practice room up-town and then he had to be at the restaurant.

But some other time. Promise?

Becca said of course, adding: Garland, are you okay?

I’m searching the Internet for shrinks.

She could recommend someone. She’d e-mail her name and number.

Becca kept talking and he absorbed fragmented words about plans, Jade, a show next week, tickets and she wanted him to come.

He told her he was off on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays, forgetting she already knew this.

Then we’re on, she said. You need to get out more.

Tips had been good all night. His practice time had gone well, but he was glad to be home alone. He sat in his bed and sipped a glass of red wine and listened to Claudio Arrau play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He thought of all the people he could call and decided not to call any of them. He thought about ordering Chinese, changed his mind. Did he want to go out? Wasn’t sure. His room didn’t feel right. He got up and started changing into warmer clothes. He’d go somewhere. He needed to start feeling as if he’d been living in the city forever.

That’s it! The roof. Carlos and Donna in 6-O down the hall had shown him how to get there. The Super didn’t mind. But no alcohol. He’d bring his prayer for Samantha, be alone with her in just the right way.

He heard her tell him good idea, he was stronger than he thought, he’d manage to survive, but he didn’t want to survive. Survival struck him as capitulation. He wanted to engineer his fate and enjoy it in the process.

She was laughing, leaning against him. They were on a train rolling through darkness. He felt secure as she told him to remember there were many people paying their dues everywhere.

But I need something more.

Then find it.

The roof, of course.

Colder than he’d expected for an October night and windier, but a little discomfort was worth it as he sat near a steel ventilation duct and held on to one of the pipe stanchions that supported the building’s water tower. He couldn’t see much because his building stood lower than most of those around it. He knew if he was willing to move to one corner and lean out he could see a slice of the skyline aglow at night. He didn’t want slices; he wanted whole chilly windy areas where he could hold on and think of her and say his prayer.

He smelled a sudden sweet fume that he recognized as pot. Someone else was here. He listened and heard footsteps across the peat stones mixed with roofing tar. The steps grew louder, closer. The pot smell strengthened.

It wasn’t The Super, but a virile Tommy, Danny type – from the cast of Friends – and he looked stoned as he hopped lightly up and down and offered his lit joint and said, Hey man, what’s up?

In his jeans jacket with his long hair, he made Garland feel a little older, but not too old, not at all. He said, I’m Mason. New in the building.

They didn’t shake hands. A fist bump instead. Garland said no to the marijuana and Mason, shrugging, carefully put out the joint and asked if he could sit. He looked suddenly troubled. Tender. Sensitive. Didn’t really fit in. Such disarming blue eyes, thought Garland. So thin and fine about the neck.

Pulsing, blinding, flashing energy, said Mason. But what is it about water towers? They promise something, don’t they?

Garland, pleasantly surprised, offered a shrug. He watched Mason pull from his jeans jacket a big wrinkled sheet of paper with writing on both sides. He offered it shyly to Garland.

Wanna see? I was writing a poem about them. Wanna read it?

You read it, said Garland. I’ll listen.

You won’t make fun of me?

Garland shook his head no.

Mason, brightening, began to read: And tasting like his blood and mucus and the wormy stink of failed ambitions and boots denting his skull until he blacks out. His wings clipped. His body slumped on the ground with a copy of Genet in his back pocket. Oh Momma send me back into my amniotic cocoon where I hears soft waves on a beach. All the dreams are not his fault. They simply come. They cannot all be understood. Nor can they all be the source of inspiration or blame. He still craves experience and it has come to him through the smell of a moment in which he has no fear. He knows this smell just as he knows that he will, one day, lengthen like a late afternoon shadow and give shade and disappear.

Mason paused. He sighed through his nose.

Go on, I can tell there’s more, said Garland.

There is, said Mason. He read on: Like a cloud, he’ll burst into rainbow showers. He will delight in play. He will be his mother’s child. He will observe. He’ll see the wretched drunk reaching to steal his wallet and he’ll give him a dollar and tell him not to spend it on whiskey, though he knows better. He’ll see old women struggling to get across the street. He’ll help them. He won’t be afraid of the subway roaring under the sidewalk grates. He won’t fear his nightmares of water towers. He’ll embrace them. He’ll observe, blend in, choose, create. There is a man inside of him. Death has not robbed him of identity. He’s found a mask worth assuming. He’ll use that mask. He’ll endure.

That’s it? asked Garland.

Most of it. There’s even more. But you like it so far?

I have dreams about water towers all the time.

That’s what I mean, said Mason. What is it about them?

I really don’t know.

Mason leaned toward Garland with less caution. He kept moving and he studied Garland’s face from different angles until he could see it clearly in the hard wash from a flood light. He said, You’re not from around here, are you?

I’m originally from Virginia.

I might’ve guessed that, eventually. Like it here?

This is home now.

Man, don’t take this wrong, but you look like you’ve been crying.

Yeah, just a little.

Because of a girl or my poem?

Maybe both.

Then I’ll keep reading, said Mason.

I’d like that, yes.

Mason stood straighter, seeking a more earnest and noble tone in his voice. He launched into his poem: No matter how rat-like I feel in this maze, I’m still in motion and intact. Messengers are saying what’s been said and done a million times before and none of it matters when I lie in this bed with you and we drift into sleep and all needs for definitions blur. I lose skepticism and fear. I discover flowing inside of myself a colossal city, not an eroding iron lung, but a sense of beauty about myself, my ability to define a life, a dream I must share. Tell me, is this love?

Mason, stopping, looked up at the sky. That’s it, he said.

What’s it called?

On Nights When The Stars Can’t Be Seen.

Garland sighed.

It’s trashy and rough, I know, said Mason. But it just came out of me. I couldn’t help myself. You ever feel that way? Like you just don’t know anything, so all you can do is, like, wail from the bottom of your soul?

Garland wasn’t yet ready to speak. He needed to wait, to think. Looking at Mason, he liked knowing he could.

John Michael Flynn’s newest collection of short stories, Off To The Next Wherever will be published in 2016 by Fomite (www.fomitepress.com). Previous story collections are Dreaming Rodin (www.publerati.com), and Something Grand. He also writes as Basil Rosa. Find him on the web at www.basilrosa.com.

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