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She should call someone, that seemed obvious. There were probably still some quarters rolling around at the bottom of her olive handbag, though it occurred to her as she slipped a pudgy hand between the rusted teeth of the purse that payphones were a thing of the past. Not unlike herself. It should be easy enough to find a body – no pun intended – to help her navigate this bizarre situation that she was pretty sure no one had been taught how to navigate. But looking up and down the long sidewalk, because it was an east–west street and not a north–south avenue, the windows and stoops and doorways all seemed obstinately sunny and vacant of people. No noises of children playing or people arguing at all, which really seemed absurd when you stopped to realize that John Jay Park was just two streets over and one avenue down.
Maybe it would be sensible to check if the man lying there, round belly unmoving in that dark blue jumpsuit, really was dead. He could just have fainted, or was perhaps one of those grunge, local-line artists making endless statements about society or class, which always left her feeling confused and somehow on the hook, though she doubted her cash-under-the-table work was really the type they sought to crucify. He, the man lying there, wasn’t especially attractive, with orange-white hair sprouting up all over his body and a nose as pockmarked as the asphalt on which he partially laid. His middle-age body so still, or maybe just the jumpsuit over that body, lifted up a pitiful song of solidarity to her wearing-down-but-not-quite-spent self. It did seem he was dead, and it was more relevant for her than someone with Armani shoes.
She mostly hated that this happened to her on the Upper East Side, when she’d successfully lived her first twenty-five years in Dallas. It felt like a betrayal. Movies and books were always about New York City, as if the rest of the country didn’t exist, as if entire worlds didn’t operate independent of the coasts. She’d spent her prettiest and thinnest years in Texas, and was now regretting again the impulsive move to this city for the promise of a marriage proposal from the insurance salesman. Back then, he gave her Hershey’s kisses for long car rides, and talked about getting married until he stopped talking about it. Finding dead men seemed something worthy of that before-girl: the Texas one, before big-city clichés and before Allstate men. It was really silly and unfair that at fifty-six years old, with lumps on her thighs and sagging elastic in her waistband, she should be on her way to clean an apartment of which she could otherwise never conceive and stumble on the body of a man dropped down on 79th.
She knew she could put her ear down close and tell if he was breathing, but though it seemed right, it also just seemed silly and so she stood holding her olive bag and waiting for a different idea to come to her. Maybe someone was watching her from the windows, waiting to see if the chubby lady would take the bait. She would end up a joke on one of those cellphone videos that always wind up on YouTube. And some chauvinistic asshole with a handle like LokiKing204 would make fat jokes and laugh at her stupidity, believing the clearly alive man on the street clearly playing a practical joke was actually dead. Her cheeks blushed pink and she tightened her grip on the handle. Wouldn’t that be awful, she didn’t think she could stand it.
Adjusting the handle of her bag over her sleeve, she stepped around the man and started walking on. Not being able to help herself, she glanced at the nearest window and set her mouth, showing whomever might be watching her that she didn’t fall for their trick: she wasn’t one of the saps that don’t understand this city is strange, don’t understand how real New Yorkers ignore obvious, outlandish stunts. When there continued to be no commotion, even as she made it halfway down the sidewalk and past a silver sedan, she began to doubt what she had doubted in the first place. A glance over her shoulder revealed no hidden cameramen, no teens giggling behind a dumpster or from a balcony above. In fact, the only non-hidden thing continued to be that man lying just as he had before, head and right shoulder dipped uncomfortably over the curb and onto the asphalt: like an athletic bag unzipped and thrown down the first step of a dugout.
What is the pedestrian version of a hit-and-run? Well, except she wasn’t the one that did the hitting, just the observing. She began to feel pity again, thinking he perhaps wasn’t fooling her with pretend death, and she repented each step as she retraced them one by one until she arrived back at the orange-white fuzzy man. Standing over him, she wanted to say something. Sir, do you need help? seemed logical, though she was shy of her own voice on the street. Stretching out her hand, she quickly snapped it back again. Should she feel for a heartbeat? What if he woke up and she was pressing her fingers against his neck? He would think she was a desperate old thing with nothing better to do than harass strangers. She couldn’t bear that.
And what if he really was dead? She didn’t want to touch a dead body. She felt a familiar sting at the back of her throat, the sudden taste of sinus drainage, when she didn’t know what to do. What if he woke up and this stranger was crying over his body? The whole thing was just impossible.
Just when she knew she was never going to be able to leave this spot, a taxi turned down at the west end of the street. Breathing quickly, she stood holding her bag and waited for the driver to get close. She couldn’t bring herself to say something, and especially not wave him over, the feeling of being watched still heavy on the scene. But she thought he would stop when he saw her, and the man, and she was right.
“Everything okay?” Oh good, an older man in a wool sweater-vest, not one of those young guys with edgy haircuts who smelled like the duty-free shops at La Guardia. Older taxi drivers were usually more patient with her. She recalled the frown her mother used to make, and felt anxious about what her mother might say at others’ annoyances. This nice-seeming taxi man was leaning towards the passenger side, coasting but not fully stopping.
“Well, um,” was all she said, as she gestured to the body lying there. If this was still a joke and they were just waiting to deliver the punch line, she wouldn’t be giving herself away with that. If she didn’t get hysterical and launch into what she thought happened, they couldn’t blame her for being a sucker.
“Christ, is he okay? What happened?” The driver, upon assessing the situation, had braked hard, just like the movies, and thrown open his door. Seeing his reaction gave her a little more faith in the pity she initially felt for the as-of-yet-undetermined dead man. It also put the heat on the driver if this was a joke, and so she felt more willing to get involved.
“I don’t know. I just found him like this. I was walking to work,” she pointed in the same direction from which he just came and motioned down to the other end of the walk, “and he was lying here, just like this.” The driver by this time was kneeling down and listening for a heartbeat.
“Can you hear me, man? Are you okay?” He was putting his hands all over, looking for a heartbeat she thought. He was touching the dead body. “Sir? Well did you call anyone?”
It took her a minute to realize that last question was meant for her. “Well I just got here.”
The man was already pulling his phone out of his pocket. Now that she had broken her own silence, she decided to keep going. “I don’t have a cellphone.” He didn’t seem to care, and was busy looking for a pulse again. She pictured an episode of CSI: NY and what happened at the crime scenes. “I don’t think you’re supposed to touch things. The authorities are supposed to do that.” He was ignoring her, talking into his phone.
“Yeah, I’m 79th and York, there’s a man lying on the ground here. I can’t feel a pulse, I think he’s gone. Don’t see any blood, maybe a heart attack? No, no I just drove up. Ramon Gutierrez. Yes, that’s right.” He continued to talk and she began to resent Ramon a little, coming in and just taking over the situation like that. She was the one who found the poor man, after all.
He, Ramon, that is, kept moving frantically, hovering over the man and checking nothing in particular, just a general checking-over. By this time, several more people had materialized and though she was first angry that none of them had shown up a few minutes earlier, the feeling was quickly replaced with that terrible sense of on display. The slender, European-looking couple in camel-colored jackets caused her to suck in her gut of which she was suddenly conscious, pushing against the zippered inner lining of her Kmart coat. They looked so handsome with such worried expressions. More and more people began to buzz about the situation and Ramon, damn him, was clearly enjoying playing the hero, telling people to back up and give space.
How was this fair, exactly? No one was here to sympathize when she, on foot along the deserted sidewalk, experienced the shock of a sudden middle-aged person stretched out horizontally on the street. She realized jealously that the crowd was assuming all sorts of things about Ramon, sending all their woeful glances and hand-to-heart gestures in his direction, while none of the distinction she was owed was being given.
The woman next to her interrupted these quiet observations with a What do you suppose happened?,as if she was part of the crowd of onlookers. She wanted to scream at the woman, to yank that stupid kerchief off her neck. Really put her in her place. Of all the inequitable things to say! But she pictured herself stumbling over her would-be retort, saying novice instead of notice or make a weird noise instead because she was too upset to articulate the words. Like that time she was arguing with Edgar, the boyfriend of ’88–’91, who laughed when she couldn’t find the curse word she wanted and could only manage ffffrrrrugh! It was so shameful, her face still red because the message on the answering machine was definitely not his niece, but instead of righteous anger, think more toddler-throwing-fit. He laughed so ungraciously at her, standing in her socks in the living room, unable to tell him off even though they both knew he was in the wrong.
What if as she was trying to defend herself to this stranger, the woman took out her phone and starting videoing her? She’d be another viral news story with the crappy video coverage playing on Fox31 at ten: Angry, fat woman yells at innocent bystander, growls because she can’t speak. And Edgar would undoubtedly see it from wherever he was, some basement sublet in Queens, most likely. Best to keep quiet.
The noise level continued to gain as the crowd grew in size and comment, even more as an emergency response vehicle rounded the corner with lights and a quick blast of siren. You could really feel the energy pick up then, like the news stories venerating NY’s finest that she left playing in the background as she cleaned. Uniforms were on the scene now, the stakes officially heightened. Ramon stepped back to allow the paramedics access, firefighters stepped forward to … well actually she wasn’t sure what for. The assumption was that there is an on-the-scene protocol but they didn’t usually show the setting-up part on Criminal Minds or CSI, so she didn’t know what to expect. Itching to be a part of it, the sibilant mass pushed forward, anxious to say what they were doing and what they saw and how they felt about the situation, and say this to an official-looking person as quickly as possible.
They pushed her aside, rudely, vying to get to the front, and she funneled backwards, towards the brick building and the back of group. The injustice of it swelled in her throat; just like New Yorkers. Never, ever would this fly in Texas. If she looked like the camel-coated woman, she doubted this would have happened. They would hold out arms and make a pathway for her well-groomed person to head straight to the front. Pitching and ducking her head, she could see Ramon in spurts, gesturing widely with his hands, pointing to his taxi, speaking loudly but incoherently underneath all this excess noise. He would come through. He’s a stand-up guy. He’d let them know about the poor, brave woman who fielded this horrible dead-person – he most certainly was dead by now – situation with such modesty.
She waited, watching the mad scrabble toward action, patient for her turn to speak. They would probably ask her what time she found him: she quickly glanced down at the two-tone Timex on her wrist and did some mental calculations. They would ask if she moved or touched the body. No sir, not her, she knew to leave it alone. Probably they would ask about where she was going and why, and she’d have to explain about how she got the cleaning job from a Craigslist ad because the Manhattan woman didn’t want to pay taxes. Mrs. Barnes. Mrs. Barnes who wasn’t home until evening, who subtly eyed her clothes with obvious classist judgment but would also give her an extra $20 every other Friday or so. Did she like her job? Was there any reason she would be angry or upset with Mrs. Barnes?
Oh hell. They were going to blame her. Suspicious isn’t it? An angry, middle-aged woman who just happened to find a body on a street where nobody magically was, even though it was only two blocks from John Jay? How come she was alone? Why didn’t she call the police, never mind about no cellphone? This was bad. She was a suspect. They were going to take her downtown, take away her purse, make her sit in a holding cell somewhere. Who would she even call? All the possible faces flashed by, each one as unhelpful as the next, and she realized she’d have to call Mrs. Barnes to let her know she wouldn’t be able to come into work today. Panicking, she began reverse shuffling, slowly and blindly, so she could watch the crowd and see if someone would come towards her. So far, so good. She felt more confident taking bigger backwards steps, and as more bodies were attracted to the scene, she saw the moment for escape, turned, and jog-walked the rest of the sidewalk, rounding the corner as quickly as she could.
She didn’t dare turn to look behind her, tried to slow and blend in with the sidewalk traffic. The last few steps to the bus stop, then she slipped under protective cover at the stop and sat on the bench, safe. Never mind it was glass and completely see-through, she still felt secure because she was just another New Yorker waiting for a bus in a perfectly normal way. Checking the board, she only had three minutes to wait until the M86 would arrive and carry her away from all of this. And if it didn’t make too many stops, she would still be on time for the Barnes’. The horrible thought that someone could this very minute be running toward her to force a return to the scene made her whip her head around to check. Her stomach jolted as, expecting someone to be there, she saw no one. Tapping her loafered foot on the pavement, she finally saw the glorious orange blinking of the bus she needed and stood to take her place on the sidewalk.
When the doors opened, she briefly thought how humiliating it would be to fall face forward on the steps and almost forgot to insert her recently reloaded MetroCard into the slot. Making her way towards the back of the bus, she saw two side-by-side empty seats and made for the one nearest the window, the blue carpet-like material faded from sun exposure. Checking the contents of her purse for no reason other than to keep busy, she looked up and saw a woman holding onto a pole, waiting in front of the doors. The pinstripe trousers fit slimly and cleanly on the woman and she was jealous. She never wore pants anymore, they were too uncomfortable and pushed up all of her middle so that she spilled over on all sides. Back in the day, her mom would make snorting noises when she would reach for the pecan pie, always had some comment about what southern girls ought to be. Conscious again of her stomach, picturing it lying in a lump over the nonexistent seatbelt, she sucked it in. Unbidden, the image of the jumpsuit belly came roaring back, bulbous and so ludicrously vulnerable. Resentment at being attached to him in such an embarrassing way, pity the machine of his life wound down to stopped in such an inglorious state – these sloshed around her insides, gave her that car-sick feeling. Practicing the visualization technique her therapist taught her, she pictured herself from above, watching her bus drive away from the bizarre circle moving around the unmoving jumpsuit. Nothing to do with her, not part of her experience. Just one of the many sad pieces that were bound to surface at one time or another in the rolling, boiling pot of New York.
Readjusting herself to the present, she reached up to pull the yellow cord and realized in horror when the voice said 61st street that she’d requested a stop three stops too soon. Quickly looking about the interior, she tried to count how many people were watching or if anyone else had pulled the cord. It was too late. They had seen. What would they think if she pulled the thing and then just sat there, letting the driver make a needless stop and inconveniencing the entire passenger pool? It wouldn’t be too bad, really, just getting off here and walking the rest of the way. It was only a five or so more blocks, she pep-talked herself as she hoisted the Kmart coat and olive handbag off the seat, shuffled to the back bus double-doors. Best get off here.
Lydia Renfro holds an MFA from Adelphi University and is the recipient of the Donald Everett Axinn Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Blue Nib, Witches, Miletus International Literature Magazine, The Merrimack Review, and Isacoustic. She currently lives in Colorado, and is completing her first novel manuscript.