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Manhattan that white winter. The pavement froze over, the citizenry died of the cold upstate, the moon was a skull. Or so Robbie saw it, saw it, rather than scanning for randoms on the scrunch to East River Park. Too late he noticed the woman on his adopted bench. She’d swept clear the slats and was settled on a quilt. Robbie sat anyway.
‘Thought you’d have it for your own self,’ the woman said.
The seat was his eye of the snowstorm. Even if Robbie found a cross-street empty of New Yorkers, it’d be littered with their footprints. ‘My mistake,’ he said, looking to Williamsburg over the water.
‘He ought to have been at his pop’s funeral.’
‘Who?’ Robbie heard himself saying.
‘My pop. This bench is dedicated to my gramps, Cas. It’s tough when family lose touch.’
‘You reckon?’ Now she said so, Robbie saw the plaque but didn’t turn to it, to her.
‘You’re wondering, it’s Casimir Herbert, 1927-2014. The lost are borne on seas of shipwreck home at last. You can damn near see his house from here!’
‘Auden’s! Way over on Montague Street,’ she said. ‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’
Now he turned. Lean, clean-featured, almond skin. It wasn’t a face you should forget. ‘I’m not long off the lander,’ he apologised, ‘bouncing round like Neil Armstrong, knowing I’ve never before stood on this spot, or this-’
‘Or at the 11th Street Bar?’
‘Waitress to the one customer with the accent. It’s Jen, fyi.’
Only an ocean between the Mersey and the East River. ‘Do you want to get married, Jen?’
‘Haven’t been there either?’
‘Yes and no,’ he said.
‘You’re wondering anything else, just ask.’
‘Does it ever stop snowing?’
The joys of sitting weren’t lost on someone who stood for a living. Robbie worked at the Vanderlay on the Upper East Side. His green card – if he’d had one – would state his ‘extraordinary ability’ to stand and to speak. That accent of his, opening doors, closing them again. But the snow helped, its brilliant reversal, making all bright things quiet and all quiet things bright – making the reek of frankfurters and fried onions seem Michelin-starred, say. Central Park! Robbie was sure he could smell its Sabrett hot-dogs, could hear its wildlife centre. And there he stood all the day long in Manhattan’s hungering roar.
Jen needed no such help.
‘I’ll see you at the ballgame Wednesday,’ she’d said, by way of goodbye. Meaning the footy, Liverpool v Real. All Robbie did was see her, bossing the bar, taking orders without taking notes, and feeding her heedless tips into the jukebox after the defeat. Early Dylan, later Thompson, only Drake.
He had to ask.
Robbie said he’d see her at the bench.
Her breath visible, Jen said, ‘You got to sit, right?’
‘I’m just trying to turn my back on Manhattan,’ he said. ‘When I can, when the rock fist isn’t offering a glass bouquet, when the Chrysler’s beak isn’t drinking the sky – then I can leave again.’
‘It’s a bird or it’s a flower, the Chrysler?’
‘So, when there’s no new spots for you in this city?’
‘Could might be some while. Homeblind, my folks would call it. Or my Grammy Dreda would’ve.’
‘Is that Casimir’s wife? You didn’t say why your dad missed the funeral.’
‘Lookit,’ Jen said, baring a shell-shaped locket.
She smelt of salt water when he leant in to crack the case. One pearly half was empty, the other framed not a face but the rear of a couple who were arm-in-arm on a street of shops. ‘Is that their best side?’
‘Yes and no!’
Her voice in his ear, her body counterweight to the locket. The photo was striking, actually, all verticals and horizontals, the lowered awnings under a lowering sky countered by the upright couple, Dreda hour-glassed and accessorised, Casimir shot-cuffed and Brylcreemed.
‘Like it’s from the fifties,’ Jen said, ‘here on the Lower East Side. Summer if you can imagine. The original was in Look and we’ve about decided Kubrick took it. Before he staged the moon landings! I picture Dreda and Cas walking out the photo to his family’s place, a tenement not five blocks distant.’
Robbie released the case – and Jen. ‘One of the world’s great cities but everyone’s living in a bloody village.’
‘Got un-great ambitions too. Cas’s was seeing Dreda in her stockinged feet and slip, better than bare somehow because you could really look,’ she smiled. ‘They made it way before this quilt was finished! In lust and in a rush. Though when their boy Bryan – my pop – was likewise, up with some shopgirl from Poughkeepsie, he wasn’t getting no wedding quilt.’
‘So Bryan dumped her?’
‘Dumped them, more like,’ Jen said. ‘He had some half-assed seventies wedding. Them and Elvis without Elvis. Didn’t take. Couple years later came my mom, then me, then another divorce, then nothing. When Dreda fell ill Bryan confirmed the worst for Cas by refusing his mom’s bedside.’
‘Bryan must regret that.’
‘Cas for damn sure regretted lying to Dreda. Their boy was coming, hold on now, hold on. Her service, like his, was blocks away, worlds away. Latin mass, sermon in Polish. So why’d their story matter to me? I wandered off and found this here spot in answer.’
‘You paid for the plaque?’
‘Sure! Like there’s byelaws on benches. One in Central Park’ll set you back seven thousand and change. It’s not even about that there – it’s the opposite of broken windows, you know? Unbroken benches.’
‘Because I noticed, in work, you don’t need to write anything down to remember it.’
‘Natural-born waitress!’ she said. ‘You noticed.’
‘No. I mean. At home, when someone dies tragically, early or off a bridge or on a verge, mourners leave photos and flowers. Whereas a bench will outlive us both. Or will me, anyway.’
‘I want to remember, and I don’t want to be the only one to.’
Lost to Newcastle. Lost to Chelsea. The sunlight was almost celebratory on the river, and on the snow beside it, yet they were scrunching away from the bench, past her bar, to a playground farther up 11th Street. Through a chain-link fence pixelated ballers sported in the half-cleared court. Robbie was showing Jen why Manhattan. Graffitied on the adjacent school was a rhino as seen by a fly, huge fizzing jewelled reds and blues.
‘We came here on a city-break, Carly and I,’ he said. ‘Fifth Avenue, a Broadway show, the new masters at MOMA. All shopping really. Money in and experience out. Next! Carly was eyeing Dubai, her start-up, a family. But nothing was next.’
‘Did you know anyone, have contacts or folks here?’
‘I knew where the airports were.’
She looked at him levelly. ‘Safe in your spacesuit?’
‘I’m reminded of Durer’s rhino.’
‘It’s got six horns, lookit!’
‘Not accurate but right,’ Robbie said. ‘Who’s responsible, one of that lot? If I’d done this I’d own it. Except I couldn’t have done it. That’s this city. Can be owned, can’t be bought on a city-break. The yes and then the no. Do something!’
‘You know those prehistoric French caves?’ Jen said. ‘Full of finger paintings, like little kids make. Idn’t hard to leave a mark.’
‘I had a bench where the Mersey meets the Irish Sea. But the sands were on the move. Beneath were ancient clay beds bearing footprints. 5,000 years old and undone by the next tide.’
‘You must miss home this time of year.’
‘I’m not a family man,’ Robbie said. ‘We should do something. Like find your dad.’
‘Or your green card?’
He only smiled.
‘No one’s lost, Robbie. Pop wasn’t never. Aunt Hannie eventually gave up where his cold-water place was, in Greenpoint. Damnedest thing was pop’s tv room. No tv. No nothing. Four walls, a shuttered window, all painted this thick lacquered black, into which was scratched the same phrase over and over.’
‘We don’t know,’ Jen said. ‘Like it’s a spell in Arabic or Syriac, from where we were at way back, the desert or something.’
‘What was Bryan trying to keep out, the city?’
‘We’ve about decided he was trying to keep something in. That’s the trick, idn’t it? The sands are always on the move. Families are. Though Bryan’s not choosing that. He was in Bellevue before Hannie set him up in her basement.’
‘So he’s recovering?’
‘Pop’s on meds. A music-therapy program also. Breaking your hands, they call it. Finding new patterns. He’d grown his right thumbnail real long, for scratching out the spell. I mean I never saw it, the admitting nurse cut it, but the nail’s not gone for me. So hard it was like horn,’ she said, tapping the rhino’s head again and again.
Jen received him at her third-floor Williamsburg walk-up, small, shared, though she was alone this evening. Her mocha-brown hair was down, and under an apron she wore khakis and a cream blouse. The prickle of grilled meat and fried onions reminded Robbie of Central Park. ‘Smells good.’
‘Come on through. Shit!’ She bent to peer; the grill’s electrics had died.
‘I like it bloody.’
‘You truly don’t, fyi. It’s myoglobin and water. I’ll let the steaks rest. Sit, sit. Or put on some music. Stereo’s in back.’
Instead of selecting a cd, Robbie just switched on the machine. Piano sounded. The view from her window was of other windows, lit butter-yellow against the breath-held blue of the sky. Both seemed cheerier than the whited ground.
‘Crack it open, why don’t you,’ Jen said as she served up the garnished sirloin and crisp roast veg.
He freed the window. ‘I can’t remember when someone last cooked for me. Someone I know, you know.’
‘Have at it.’
He finished first and watched her eat. Jen let him. She was trembling, though Robbie thought it was warmer. There hadn’t been heavy snow for weeks. ‘Shall I close the window?’
‘I’m not cold, I’m pregnant.’
‘It’s not mine,’ he heard himself say.
‘What?’ Jen pushed back her chair; she wasn’t showing. ‘No, forget I said.’
The sonatas, at least, were careful.
‘He recorded these over on 30th Street,’ Jen said.
‘Glen Gould. It was all guitar when I was a girl but the piano, his anyways, it feels evolved. You know another thing that separates us from the apes?’ She cupped the air above her groin. ‘A bowl-shaped pelvis.’
‘There’s that photo from the moon of Earth where it resembles an upended blue bowl.’
‘This here one helps our gait but hinders our birth,’ she said. ‘And me a natural-born waitress, knocked up by a barfly, shit. In lust and in a rush.’
‘Breaking your hands is hard.’
‘Idn’t it? Forget I said, I’ll be easy again come next week. You got kids, Robbie?’
‘I’m sorrier about the partner I used to have than the kids I never will.’
‘But you did something, adopted?’
‘Did my nut. All the nexting – the bedroom rotas, the ICSI, the social workers. Then the accident. Before Carly went before the panel.’
Funny, Robbie thought. You lived to hear that once. Twice and you were sick of it, though all you made was mistakes, and all you could do was apologise. ‘I should’ve been in the car and the whole village knows I wasn’t. I should’ve been with her anywhere. I shouldn’t be here.’
‘New York City?’
‘Your apartment,’ he said. ‘See you Sunday.’
Liverpool lost again, to Man U, but unjustly. He didn’t see Jen. Perhaps there’d been a problem with the abortion. Which was the upshot of what she’d asked, of how he’d answered.
Robbie tried the bench. She wasn’t there either. Nor was it. He scrunched around until his brain adjusted. Where their seat had been was a crater of snowmelt and blackened prom. Robbie thought irrationally of Bryan, undoing his pop. Yes and no.
Another of the Vanderlay’s doorman had a carpenter nephew with a narrow shop off Bleecker. When idle, Gio would sit outside all weathers in a chair he’d made from white oak, ‘like they built the ships with’. Robbie went the Monday after the Sunday.
‘You sure, Robbie?’
‘I can afford it, if your uncle takes that holiday in the islands he’s promising your auntie.’
‘No, you ready? Because in this town they ain’t sitting on no bench. They gonna trick on it, tag it and cut it. They gonna ain’t give a fuck who it’s for. Pigeons gonna shit on it, dogs gonna piss on it. You ready for all a that? Because I ain’t no LL Bean.’
‘I think so, Gio.’
‘Take at least a week, you change your mind.’
‘Ain’t no Ikea neither.’
The Nets were on, and Robbie had brought craft Brooklyn beer round to Gio’s shop.
‘Them Raptors gonna clean our clock. We Liverpool!’ Gio couldn’t watch, and was planing slats instead. The sheltering smell of cut worked wood was everywhere.
‘I didn’t tell you the best part, Gio. You’re helping me put the bench where it belongs.’
‘We’ll go after closing, when it’s good and dark.’
‘The fuck we will!’ Gio said. ‘You trying to get us arrested? We do it in daylight like Christians.’
Lunchtime the following Monday, they secured the bench onto a borrowed flatbed, and donned high-vis tabards and hard hats. Gio double-parked on the loop off Avenue D.
‘Watch your step, Robbie.’
Forget his feet, Robbie’s hands weren’t right for this. He’d been a glorified clerk in Liverpool. The bench was sly as a giant slinky between them, light and heavy, easy and awkward. The distance stretched. Nobody noticed them, not the dog-walkers, not the Santa-hatted jogger who crunched past. As with Robbie’s green card, everyone assumed you were legit or didn’t care that you weren’t.
‘Where at?’ Gio said.
‘That clear area there.’
The bench was a lazy J of oak, the slats quarter-sawn and honey-coloured in the weak December sun. Gio got a grease-papered deli sandwich from his pocket and sat. He cocked his head up at his colleague.
Robbie returned to the bench whenever possible, ready to apologise or tell her what J stood for, was a spell for, but Jen never came. Why would she? That skull was back in the sky and he thought of the footprints on it forever.
He tried the bar, then her apartment. No answer. When Jen returned home, bundled up, he couldn’t tell if she was any bigger.
‘What,’ Jen didn’t ask.
‘I made a mistake.’
‘You think? You were right.’
‘I’m never right,’ Robbie said. ‘Our bench, you did that?’
‘It’s all about you!’ she laughed. The laugh became grief.
‘Jen?’ He wiped her tears but more came.
‘Pop was progressing some, growing out his nails to pick guitar with, getting off of his meds. He took that horn thumbnail to his own throat. Happy Holidays!’
‘Didn’t want to be no gramps. There’s nothing new here, Robbie. Go home.’
But sit yourself in someone’s life and let them come to you. Ask them to.
‘Gio, can you get the truck again?’
‘I doan wanna know.’
‘I’m a do it, Robbie. I doan wanna know why.’
They retrieved the unbroken bench, dropped it outside Jen’s. Where it didn’t belong and then did.
‘You leaving, Gio?’
He’d already started the truck, having got a ticket last time. ‘You ain’t?’
Robbie was drinking from the bowl when they came for him.
‘See some ID, sir?’
He hadn’t heard them roll up. Unmarked van, uniformed men. ICE. Appropriate, though the officer had bare-arms, blue-ink veins, skin that seemed to steam.
‘Sir, driver’s licence, green card?’
‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,’ Robbie smiled.
‘You aware what we’re about here, sir?’
‘You’re checking I’m a citizen. I’m not.’
‘We know it.’
Ah, Jen, Jen. Snow spilled from the sky like ticker tape.
Greg Forshaw lives in York and works for the NHS. His stories have appeared in Eclectica (The Handyman, Fall 2012, http://www.eclectica.org/v16n4/forshaw.html), The Reader (Swan, Spring 2013; One, Two, Three, Four, Summer 2015), Brittle Star (Newborn, Winter 2017), Stand (Baksheesh, Autumn 2018), and Dream Catcher (Two Thou Per, Summer 2020). A short film he co-wrote about the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, Saturday, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.