The river and the mountains

He sits on a rock overlooking a river. He flicks the ashes off the end of his cigarette; the breeze kicks up and blows them back toward him, and he starts. He was here as a boy, with his family, before everything changed, and this morning, the sun just coming high, the rapids silver, he remembered swimming below them, where the banks spread apart and the water goes flat. The river is a border—was a border then too—so he couldn’t have done that. He laughs. He has blond hair, curly if it weren’t so short, and he’s tall, and tan from the sun in a place too hot for him ever to get used to. He’s been here four hours, mostly standing but sometimes, as now, sitting, smoking while he sits. His thoughts repeat, and he notices this, the effect of boredom or fear or both. To his left, ten miles off, are mountains, also marking the border, tall, fog toward their bottoms, where the border runs, and high up, despite the sun and summer heat, patches of snow and among these a glacier that runs down to melt that flows into the river, the last bit in a waterfall. He doesn’t see the mountains. He didn’t see them this morning when he came. He waits for his radio to buzz, and then the voice saying he’s done his watch and can come back. By the time on his phone, he knows when he’ll be done, but the call is the thing. His replacement won’t come all the way up here—they can’t both be exposed. He takes off his canvas hat and wipes the sweat up off his brow, through his curly, dark hair. He’s too old to be here, doing this. If things had gone differently – if he hadn’t fucked around so much, as a kid and after – he’d be somewhere else, living a real life. As he comes down to meet his replacement, out of sight of the other side of the border, for a few minutes no one will be on watch. He’s sure they know this, will use the chance to move closer to the border, or across it. The water was cold, and moved too fast – he was scared he’d be washed away. His father laughed. He’s sure of this. He tried to come up onto the bank, but the current running along it was too strong. He saw something he took for a tree limb, a willow, though willows, he knows now, don’t grow so far south. He reached for it, and it was a clump of poppies that came off in his hand. This could have been on the other side, where there are no flats, just cliffs with rock screes at their bases, and those too steep to climb onto. The river bed was small stones, mostly smooth, though some with sharp edges, and when he fell back in, they dug into his thighs and the backs of his upper arms. He had marks for days after, and several cuts that his father swabbed with alcohol. Late that afternoon it rained, and they sat under a tree and drank lemonade. He checks that the battery in his radio is still good. If only he weren’t so young – if only he’d lived a little first. The air is dry and it hasn’t rained for weeks, and won’t for months. Someone on the other side helped him climb out onto the scree. He’s sure of this. His hand leaves a print of sweat on the side of the radio handset, the spot where all the hands that have held it, in just this way, have worn off some of the paint, in the form of a palm. He has eight more watches, then he’ll go home for good. He’ll be called up again, and sent to the same place, to do twenty more. The sun is high now, and he squints to look across the border, where something, he’s been told, is happening, something he should watch though he hasn’t seen anything to note, a couple of shepherds with their flock, nothing else. At his feet is a bag and, not looking down, he feels in it for his sunglasses and canteen, and his last two cigarettes. There’s a noise – rustling, coming uphill, and closer. His relief. He can’t be sure. He knows not to be sure. When he gets back home, a year, year and a half from now – home for good, not on leave – his daughter will be in school, and he’s not sure, will his wife tolerate him, changing her routines and loud and into everything. He can’t find his cigarettes. His neck is flush now and his forehead too. The rustling stops. Someone hiding, having come in sight of him. His father steered the boat toward him, slowly – under the surface were rocks that neither of them had seen at first. The cigarettes could have fallen out. He walked out to the promontory an hour ago and reached into his bag – he can’t remember, for what, something that seemed important but god damn it now. The next sound could be a bird, pecking at a hard rock. The sun is high and if he looked for a shadow he wouldn’t see one. If only he had a girl at home, or some scheme to do something meaningful, even just to go somewhere else, or enjoy his life in a way we’d want to enjoy our own lives. He wants his fucking goddamn cigarettes. That day, he sat on the scree and the shade disappeared, and in an hour he was sunburned. The rustling should start again now. He digs still, flush everywhere, irritated at being scared, at being here at all, and close now, the boards in the prow of his father’s boat, cracking as they snap on the rocks

The man who fell to earth: A play in one act

CHARACTERS

DAVE
A recent graduate of a high school in a middle-class Cleveland suburb, who, not long after getting his diploma, learned that, due most likely to middling grades and indifferent recommendations, and despite impressive SAT scores, he had not been accepted to NYU, and that moreover, his parents had decided not to fund his Plan B—to move to New York City with the other members of his funk-rock band, so they could make it big—to which twin disappointments he responded, following a few days of apparent calm, by cracking up, and smashing some things, which led to a brief hospital stay, and, on his release, to a court-appointed therapist recommending that he reexamine himself in earnest, especially certain parts of himself whose existence he had too long denied, and that he also come to terms with the whole living-in-Ohio thing, since that’s what he’d be doing, at his parents’ place, in his old room, under close supervision, for at least the next couple years, desperate though he was to get away and never look back.

Wearing cutoffs and a tight black Parliament t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.

Longish light-brown hair, permed.

Sweating.

TIM
Child of Manhattanites who’d moved to the Rust Belt for some reason they could no longer remember, aspiring writer, or maybe poet, or maybe composer, self-described outsider, and DAVE’s longtime best friend, owing to his willingness, over the years, to tolerate DAVE’s occasionally peculiar manner, and go along with most of DAVE’s odd schemes for having fun, the lone significant exception coming one night a couple months back, when they were at a friend’s graduation party, by the keg, next to the above-ground pool, and DAVE suggested that starting in the fall, when TIM would be a freshman at Columbia, he could, on a regular basis—say, once a month or so—put up DAVE, and on occasion the other members of DAVE’s band, in his dorm room, which would be a total blast, to which suggestion, thinking as he had been about the need to put some limits on their friendship, he responded, “Uhh…,” causing DAVE, who was already on edge, having so recently been rejected by NYU, a school whose main selling point was its nigh-perfect location, not only in New York City, but a short subway trip from Columbia, to freak out on him, and smash aforementioned things, including his right cheekbone, and then disappear basically, until today, when, having apparently taken to heart the court-appointed therapist’s words about the importance to a healthy recovery of reestablishing critical friendships on a new basis, and having heard on the radio about the death, that afternoon, in a plane crash at a nearby airport, of New York Yankees catcher and fellow Ohioan THURMAN MUNSON, DAVE called him up and said, “Tim—Dude—we gotta go check this out,” a suggestion he found odd, but agreed to, in light not only of this being a lazy day with nothing doing, but also of DAVE’s condition, and of a strong, if, he realized, illogical feeling that he was somehow responsible for it.

Wearing jeans and a loose white t-shirt.

Longish blond hair, straight.

Cheekbone healed, if still a bit sore.

Sweating.

COP
A cop.

Sweating.

SETTING

DAVE and TIM, in DAVE’s Camaro, with the windows down and the tape deck playing “Move on Up,” have just pulled up to a police roadblock near the Akron-Canton Airport.

The smoking wreckage of a Cessna is visible in the distance.

It is sunny, hot, and humid.

TIME

Late afternoon, August 2, 1979.

__

ACT I

- SCENE 1

(As COP approaches the Camaro, DAVE and TIM are just breaking a long silence, one brought on by DAVE saying that, fuck his dickhead doctor, he was gonna visit TIM in New York in September, to which TIM responded by struggling to think of a graceful way to change the subject, and then, a good five minutes later, by mumbling that from what was on the radio, it seems like MUNSON was landing when the Cessna went down, to which DAVE replied, his voice rising to a shout as his face went red, that fucking MUNSON was taking off, which shows to go you that trying to escape this hellhole, it’s a motherfu—)

COP
Get out of here.

(DAVE looks at COP.)

(Pause.)

DAVE
Officer, we need to—

COP
Turn around.

DAVE
We—

COP
You have some connection, family or something?

TIM
Dave, c’mon, we don’t really need—

(DAVE sets his right hand on TIM’s left knee.)

(TIM looks down at DAVE’s hand.)

(Pause.)

The tyranny of the middle-aged short-story writers

We craved answers, and hope. They offered neither.

Instead they gave us gut-felt reflections on the choices we should’ve made, but hadn’t, the loves we could’ve had, if we’d only known how.

Then they painted a poignant word picture: a tear trickling down the cheek of a child who’s just lost his parents, but at least has learned something of life.

Right there, they had us, and what could we do.

At first, they ruled with the firm but loving hand of a revered high-school English teacher. We hung on every word of their speeches. We cheered as they dressed down their critics. We relished recounting their unscripted calls to a prominent reactionary radio talk-show host, marveled at how easily they demolished her arguments, remaining gentlemen all the while.

We were stunned by the news: they’d taken the prominent reactionary radio talk-show host as a lover.

They insisted they hadn’t lost their edge, or their sense of humor, especially about themselves.

To prove their point, they replaced the Department of Defense with a Department of Tired Homilies Presented as Sophisticated Insights into Our Failings, and Those of Our Parents. When that move fell flat, they put Rumsfeld on trial, on charges of convoluted syntax and the serial use of inappropriate metaphors.

In a blushing, possibly scripted aside, at the launching of a new battleship—the USS George Saunders—the no-longer-reactionary radio talk-show host implied that the sex was amazing.

They swept the National Book Awards. In their acceptance speech, they told us O’Hara was better than Cheever. We laughed—we’d grown soft, living under democracy, making a fetish of mocking our elders.

An edict came down: we had to read his stuff by the end of the week.

We liked Cheever, and felt skeptical. Not to mention uneasy, getting homework from the state. But when we got down to reading, we saw they were right.

They gave us more reading lists. Their own work—not just the New Yorker pieces, but everything, down to adolescent doggerel in notebooks they’d never shown to anyone. Stories by friends, from obscure university quarterlies. Their late mothers’ collected epigrams—the source, we realized, of much that we found powerful in their own work. A bunch of stuff by Robbe-Grillet epigones, from an anthology they’d bought while strolling along the Seine with Laetitia, the girl they’d loved their whole junior year abroad, but never had the courage to kiss.

They made us do writing exercises, every morning before work. We wrote what we knew. They threw it back at us, said we were shit. We rewrote what we knew—taking out adjectives and passive constructions, adding a bit at the end, about a realization we’d achieved, during one of the trials that make up this thing we call life.

They allowed that we might have a shot.

We wrote more, mostly on work time. Productivity declined, but our bosses said nothing—a decree had made it illegal to keep us from taking the shot we might have.

There were shortages. The middle-aged short-story writers mocked our grumbling about the lack of toilet paper, sugar, and non-educational television. They reminded us that we had our friends, our health, and bookstores filled with high-quality short fiction, in beautifully bound editions, at subsidized prices. And we had love, dammit—the love between writers and readers. The only true love there is.

We exchanged baffled looks. They slammed their fists on the table and stormed out of the kitchen. We wished Mom had had the courage to stick it out through the drinking.

We resented the prominent shading-back-toward-reactionary radio talk-show host, despite our amazement at the shapeliness of her fiftyish legs, and unreconstructed bust.

We stopped writing. They didn’t care.

In hushed tones, we blamed ourselves.

The first challenge came from the precocious twenty-something novelists. They were young and wry and wore stylish non-prescription glasses. They talked a big game, about big issues. They’d written long books; they could handle a long struggle. We remembered being moved by their twenty thousand-word memoir of meeting Saul Bellow, in line outside the Clam Shack in Essex, Massachusetts.

The middle-aged short-story writers insisted we re-read that memoir, taking note of the solipsistic tone and overuse of adverbs. They reminded us we’d scorned Bellow’s longer works as flabby and plotless.

The battle was pitched. But the outcome was never in doubt. The precocious twenty-something novelists couldn’t make a point in under a hundred pages. We snickered when the prominent openly-reactionary-again radio talk-show host mocked their mealy mouths and needle dicks. We rolled our eyes when they declared Zadie Smith the mistress of the new revolution.

We pawned off Everything Is Illuminated on an unsuspecting officemate.

The precocious twenty-something novelists were allowed to live, and most remained free. But they were forbidden to publish anything longer than ten pages. And Charlie Rose, their most prominent sympathizer, wound up in a cell with Rumsfeld.

There was a thaw. We focused on work. The store shelves filled up; sports reappeared on television. The middle-aged short-story writers parted ways with the prominent Genghis Khan-sympathizer radio talk-show host. But the breakup was amicable. She didn’t make cracks when callers asked about the rumor she’d been supplanted by Parsha, a twenty-something supermodel-cum-documentary filmmaker.

We wondered: Had the revolution gone soft? Had it lost its way?

No, the middle-aged short-story writers insisted, in a flurry of new stories, about the joys of rediscovering purpose, via a torrid affair with a girl who was just like the girls they’d known way back when, and was about the age those girls had then been.

Those stories burned with a fire we’d forgotten stories could burn with. And they made us horny. We thought a renaissance was nigh.

But then Parsha disappeared. Rumors said she’d gone over to the resistance. At their increasingly rare public appearances, the middle-aged short-story writers ranted about the disappointments of age, novels they’d wanted to write, screenplays they’d written, and sold for a pittance, to a studio whose lowest flunky wouldn’t return their calls.

The rumors were true. The turncoat Parsha and her motley crew of renegade documentary filmmakers couldn’t light or mike for shit. Their premises were skewed, their interview questions leading. But through skillful editing, they convinced us the regime would soon fall, and the National Book Awards had been rigged.

The middle-aged short-story writers turned defensive. In three thousand beautifully crafted words, in the September Atlantic, they said they’d once held the paw of a puppy as it was put to sleep, and asked how we could leave them, damaged as they were.

We scoffed when the open-mike hip-hop poetry slam contest winners declared they’d seize power / in an hour / less time than it takes / to take a f*ing hot shower. They were a tiny band of underweight, overtattooed wiggers, fighting in the mountains. We figured they’d rush to lay down their mikes, if offered a publishing deal and a case of forties.

Then they made quick—and bloody—work of Parsha and company, after an interview taping at an undisclosed redoubt.

The quality of their clandestine broadcasts improved as they approached the capital. Our windows shook to the rhythm of a beat we couldn’t dance to.

Their PR team placed photos in newspapers, of their leaders playing golf, drinking white wine.

We hoped that if we didn’t resist, they’d turn the music down.

We cringed at the thought of more puppy stories.

The end came quicker than we expected. One snowy twilight, the middle-aged short-story writers told their comely if bookish undergraduate assistant to warm up the Volvo. By the time they’d packed, the open-mike hip-hop poetry slam contest winners, old-school boomboxes blaring, had reached the ridge overlooking the city.

The middle-aged short-story writers tossed their stuff in the back, asked their bookish but comely undergraduate assistant to slide over, got in, and drove off, headed toward Yaddo.

In the middle of Dead Man’s Curve, the Volvo hit an oil slick. We screamed as it plowed through the unreinforced guardrail, plummeted into the canyon below, and burst into flames.

But as a single tear trickled down our cheek, we realized it had to be. Pointless sacrifice, sad acceptance, searing regret—the essential elements of a perfect ending. So much talent, burning away, in skyward-shooting flames—the ideal metaphor for the brief, shining moment that was the tyranny of the middle-aged short-story writers.

Jenny’s father is no longer in prison

We went from bar to bar, listening to one song per band, at most two, if the band was good – I thought more of them were good than she did – and the whole while, she looked and sounded tired, but moved faster than I could, in the door as soon as the bouncer or ID check guy had waved her in, out sometimes before the band’s one song, or second song, was over. That day, her father had gone to prison. She didn’t mention this. We’d met at a party a couple of weeks before. I called the next day, and she picked up on the first ring. Our second date, she told me about her father, said that first time I called, she was waiting to hear from her mother, who didn’t speak to her father – it had been some years – but did talk to his lawyer, and had promised to let her know about the sentencing. He’s not my black parent, she said. I hadn’t asked. I’d enjoyed going to hear all the bands – I was in a band, not so serious, still I liked comparing mine to the ones we heard, liked the sort of people who were in the clubs. I’d suggested doing it again, on our second date, knowing this was her job, assistant A+R person at a record company with a name that impressed me. She said she needed a day off from music, so we went to a play and afterward downtown for dinner. Thai, not a great place, but one she’d been going since she was a girl, with her father first, then with her mother and sister for years afterward. We walked to the train and went down into the station, a hot night, a storm coming, though still hours away, maybe a day even, or longer, the air danker and heavier as we descended. At the turnstile, I fumbled in my pocket for a token, we were talking about my family, not hers, then as she stood on the other side, waiting for me to come through, she changed the subject and told me about her father. I came through and she held out her hand for mine, the first time, and I wanted to stop there, talk to her about this, she must have needed that, but she took my fingers in hers and turned away, not speaking, not wanting to speak, I could tell, and led me down a flight of stairs, onto a landing, one more flight down to the platform, the uptown side to my place or the downtown side to hers, the air here heavier still, but more alive, music coming up from the platform, a violinist and singer, and on the landing we kissed, and she slipped a hand around my waist and under my shirt, her long fingers on the small of my back, the train coming in on the downtown side, brakes squealing, headed toward Brooklyn, and her place.

She sang, beautifully, or so I heard. She never sang for me. She played piano, also beautifully, mostly Schubert and Mendelssohn – I knew this only from records my mother’d had, recognized a couple of pieces, and she was pleased by this. She’d studied to sing opera but had a weak lung, from a swimming accident, and so only around the house, when I wasn’t there, did she sing lieder, what she loved. Not long after we met, she got a part in a play where she was supposed to sing. She talked the director into letting her talk the song instead. She sings so beautifully, her roommate told me, some time later, after we’d split up – this was how I knew that she sang well, cared about it, though she’d never told me as much. It’s terrible you never heard her, her roommate said. Her room didn’t have a door, just a sheet hung from tacks – there’d been no door when they moved in, the landlord promised he’d replace the one he’d taken out, then never did, and after a while they stopped asking. They had good rent and a view of the harbor and lower Manhattan. We stood at the open window – it was horribly hot, the storm still not here – and I caressed her stomach and breasts, trying not to touch the rest of her, knowing she wanted to cool down, to let the sweat dry and what breeze there was blow over her. Her breathing was shallow. If she breathed louder or made some other noise, we’d feel self-conscious and I’d stop. The lights of the buildings downtown were murky in the haze, and the ferry horn sounded. Her roommate had a door and in the morning it was still shut, even at ten when we woke up. I wondered if her roommate had gone out without our noticing. She shrugged. The phone rang. I was pouring myself coffee. She asked if I’d step out. There was no outside but the hall, outside the apartment. I hesitated, and she opened the door and pointed. I drank my coffee in the hall, and listened to her, tried anyway, but she spoke softly and mostly was crying. After she’d finished – this took a few minutes after she hung up, and she let me back in – she wouldn’t tell me who’d been on the phone. Her roommate came out to the kitchen, smelling the coffee, and they started talking about something or other, who’d paid the gas bill or the phone bill or something else minor, and she’d finished crying and I didn’t know how to ask. Later, I understood that the problem was my not asking certain questions – how could she not have wanted this. Four, five days after this, we were out to dinner in Chinatown, she had to see more bands that night and seemed exasperated by that. She had to find someone worth signing, or at least having into the office to talk to her boss, after she’d heard them and gotten their demo tape, and it was good and she’d passed it on to him, and he’d liked it or at least was curious. There wasn’t a commission system, formally, though basically that’s how it worked, and so far she hadn’t had any luck. By ten I was tired and wanted to go home, a long week at work, and I fell asleep in the middle of some band’s second song. She took me home and put me back to sleep, and only in the morning did I notice she was on the couch. When she told me about her father, she was matter-of-fact, no crying or anything near to that. I was working in the fundraising office of the college I’d gone to, writing reports on other people who’d gone there and made money and might donate some of it. I didn’t care much about the work, but it was a job and I wanted to do well, and that summer I had problems with my boss. She listened when I complained about this – my boss was going through a divorce, her husband had taken up with a neighbor, or perhaps a babysitter, no one at the office was sure which. Why do you care? she asked, finally. We were in the park, in front of Borough Hall, on a bench, with takeout coffees. I think it’s more interesting if it’s the neighbor, I said – the babysitter, that would be trite. She laughed. It was Saturday and I was hung over, but she had energy and wanted to walk over the bridge and up through Chinatown, maybe then to the East Village, to Sounds, so she could look for a Marianne Faithful album she couldn’t find anywhere else. Her coffee was cream, no sugar. She took a sip and repeated the question. You’re too Midwestern, she’d said, when I complained about my job, you get some task that’s meaningless and don’t think about that, you just do it, and if you do it well, you’re fine with everything, proud even, and it takes you months, years even, to see the thing is bullshit. She was coughing that day, a cold, her office was air conditioned to death and she could never remember to take a sweater. My coffee was empty; I’d drunk it too fast. The night before, I hadn’t sleep, worried I’d be fired. I’d gotten up around three and had a couple of beers, listening to the radio at the kitchen table, the volume low so as not to wake her. The paper was there and a novel I’d brought from my place, but I couldn’t concentrate to read. I wanted to say, Your job, do you really care about it? It’s music but so what, you don’t like the bands and going to those clubs, seeing all those losers who’ll never make it, whatever that means, how hard it is to make even cab fare. You want to play something yourself, get better and see what comes of that, but you freeze up. I must have made a sour face. She offered me the last of her coffee and her bagel and I took both. She stroked the back of my hand. There were winos on the bench opposite. Her father hadn’t wanted to go into the family business, the grocery where he’d worked, after school, from fifth grade on. He didn’t have other plans, but the idea of going back there, after City College… he’d suffocate. When he called her from prison he talked about the theater. He’d been going to a lot of plays, before he went in. The store did well and rather than worry about the details of books and orders and all that, details he couldn’t remember and would never master, he’d hired someone, or rather, years ago, convinced his mother to hire someone, and he’d spent his energy finding and buying other stores, decrepit family groceries, in neighborhoods that had gone bad enough to make them cheap. He’d come in and talk a bit about Odessa, where they, he and the owners, desperate to get out of the business, must have had relatives who’d known each other, and this, and his knowing which apples were which, and what they should cost, and picking up if a cut of meat was priced wrong, and pointing this out gently, helpfully, tended to get him a good deal. He’d buy them out, his father’s money not doing anything else, and he’d promise to keep the business going – to keep the family name on the sign, even. Within a year, he’d sell the lease to someone who’d make more from the space, and would pay for that, and would have paid for it before, had he not gotten there first and bought cheap with his charm. He had an idea to produce plays. She thought maybe he was writing one, but was shy about saying this, figured it more plausible that he should produce. He cares about this, she said, in a way he never cared about the store, and the business – that was a game for him. When I did lose my job – it was my fault, I got angry at the wrong time, about nothing – I called her and she left work and met me, was there with a carnation, in front of my building, before I got home. She bought me dinner and I tried to eat a lot, to be appreciative. I was panicked, what would I do, to pay the next month’s rent.

The last night I saw her, she said, Sometimes I have a song in my head, and the feeling there’s one in your head, but they’re never the same. It was late, after midnight already but still hot, the end of a long Indian summer, after a summer of nights as hot or hotter. She left her window open, and the BQE traffic sound made it easier to sleep. We’d gone to movies, anything we hadn’t seen and occasionally one that one of us had seen, but the other hadn’t, and then afterward always to a bar, though for me it was odd to go with someone who only ordered coffee. She told me about the songs, and I knew I should go. She wore a camisole she’d bought earlier in the summer, and nothing else. I was irritated, her having broken up with me, and without saying so, before I could break up with her, but I wanted her awfully. She was half-lying on the couch, her head propped up on a pillow, and her legs stretched out toward me, her right next to my left, the camisole and nothing else. I waited for her to stand. She didn’t. For the longest time, neither of us moved. A few months after we split up, her roommate came to a bar where my band was playing. She stood in the front while we played. She was with friends but stood apart from them, closer to us. I played well that night. Several times I came up to the front of the riser – this was the only place we played, that had a riser, it was short, but still – and she smiled up at me. She knew a couple of other guys in the band – they’d gone to school together. This was how I’d met her, and then Jenny, at that party, which was for the drummer’s birthday. I think she’d gone out with him at some point, though once when I asked him about this, he shrugged and wouldn’t say anything. During the show I looked toward the back of the bar, for Jenny. I wanted her to stay for more than one song. After we stopped seeing one another, I began to think of things to say to her, or rather, of a way to be around her, and want to be there. I sang poorly but loved the songs, and my voice in a fashion fit with the music, and she would have had to stay for more than one song. Her roommate got bored or had someone to talk to or felt odd, standing in front, and so after a bit walked back to her friends. I’d called Jenny, several times, after we split up. The first time, I left a message, trying to sound cool, and said I’d call back. When I did – once after a failed date, with someone from work, the others, I can’t remember when – I didn’t leave messages. For a while after we’d finished playing, her roommate stuck around, with some friends, none of them getting more beer though nursing the ones they had. I talked to her roommate, and of course we spoke about Jenny. Her father was out of prison now. She sings, beautifully – it’s terrible you didn’t know this. Then one of the guys – her roommate’s boyfriend, I think, a guy in a button-down shirt and jeans, still from work – said let’s get some food, and they decided that’s what they needed to do. There were two Ukrainian places around the corner, open late. One of them, I went there first when I was 17, freshman year, they serve pierogis and though I’m not Polish my mother would make them, and so the few times I was homesick I’d go there and order them. Jenny liked the ones with mushrooms. One night we’d been at a movie uptown, then, for some reason – I think my roommate’s sister was visiting – we decided we’d go to her place, and on the train down, she was hungry, and we got off at 8th Street and walked over. We were drinking our waters, we’d just ordered, Jenny facing the front windows, one of them open to let in air – no AC, or perhaps it was broken – and she saw the guy, as he went through the closed window, then rolled a bit, ‘til he landed at the base of the counter. He’d been shot, so the cuts from the window were nothing. This wasn’t that late, midnight or a little after. The place was full. A waitress threw up. She was 19, 20. The older staff were calm, even the two or three who ran over to help. Jenny was distant. That night, in line for tickets, she’d been flustered by a woman, a few years younger, a college kid, I’d guess, who’d cut in front of us and given her a look when she started to say something. She couldn’t let it go, sitting, waiting for the movie to start, she thought the woman, a few rows down, was looking back at her. The guy who’d been thrown through the window was dying. We had to go somewhere else to eat. Afterward she wanted to go home alone. As the group got ready to go, her roommate invited me, but I was irritated by them leaving. I’d wanted to ask her more about Jenny. I hadn’t. I hadn’t thought I needed to hurry, to think how to bring her up again, after the conversation had moved on to other things. When they all stood, it was awkward for me to stand too – I had my guitar on my lap, still, and would have to put it somewhere, and not make a big deal of that, so as not to show I wanted, actively, to come with them, and later, asking about Jenny would seem like something I couldn’t let slide. She would start when the phone rang. Her father was supposed to call out only on Sundays, sometime in the early afternoon, I can’t remember the hours. This was a minimum-security place. He was in for embezzlement, of money that would’ve been his, had he not fought with his partner, in some scheme he had on the side, not part of the family business. He’d charmed someone, she thought, fixed things so he could call anytime he wanted, or at least at those times this whoever he’d charmed was on duty. The phone would ring and she wouldn’t move right away to answer it, but if we were sitting or lying somewhere, even in bed, she’d tense up, and how could you not know. He’d been cold to her when she was a girl – he and her mother had never lived together – but of late he’d become doting, not explicitly taking blame for anything that had gone wrong in her life, anyway she understood he wanted to make everything up to her, whatever that everything was. He’d seduced the woman who let him use the phone – she was sure of this. He sounded so relaxed and confident when he called, and Jesus, he was in prison, how else could that be. Her mother was working, still worked in fact, as a cashier in the grocery store his family had owned forever, and one evening, after her shift, when she stayed after, in the office, to count the take… She hated that she knew this. Her mother’s family had liked him, but never went further than liking him. When the phone rang, I wished she would just jump, and be done with it. One night, three a.m., we were sleeping, and it rang – it turned out to be someone for her roommate – and even at six, the sun coming up, she hadn’t gone back to sleep. I wanted it to ring, the last night I saw her, so she’d stand up first. Her roommate and her roommate’s friends were by the door, and I stood up too and put my guitar in my gig bag and Dave the bass player said he’d take it. I walked out after them. That night, standing with her, at her window. I never asked her to sing. A few days before we split up, I came to one of her late-afternoon rehearsals – not a dress, a round or whatever before the dress rehearsal – I never saw the show itself – and she was happy to see me, as she waited just offstage, to go on. I’d called a few places, leads from friends, about other work, and that day had an interview, and it went well, then at the end the guy said the position had been filled, he’d keep me in mind for something else. I went to a bar after and had a beer, and then was set to go home, but the theater wasn’t far, fifteen blocks, and the weather was o.k. so I walked over. On the way I tried not to think about the next month’s rent. I stood in back, and she waved me down into a seat. I’d thought, I’ll stop by, tell her I have something lined up. This was her first play, something she hadn’t thought of doing before. She’d mentioned the rehearsal, not with any thought I might come. I knew one of the people who ran the theater, anyway had talked to the guy at a party she’d taken me to, and happened to run into him a few days before, and he said why don’t you come by. There was a line she started to say, of course she remembered it, then stopped a few words in, and had to be prompted. She wasn’t looking out at the house but I felt her eyes on me. Could you please go out for a minute? she said, and when I didn’t quite get it, she handed me my coffee and nodded toward the door. If I’d left right then, it would have been worse. In the scene, her character tried to seduce someone she worked with, much older, though not her boss – she’d made an excuse to come to his place, sat on the couch, and when he was turned around, took off her shirt. He turned back around and saw, still standing, stunned, perhaps excited though not sure what to do – he was too stagey about this, the actor – and he hesitated, a bit too long, and said something that didn’t quite fit the moment. As she saw this unfolding, she was supposed to sing – the song she’d agreed to talk – out of nervousness or something, the play wasn’t clear on this and I sensed it wasn’t that good. After the first few words of the song, she stopped. In the light – the stage lights were on, they were testing them – her skin was pallid and she looked cold, and afterward she cried and wouldn’t say why. One Sunday afternoon, a few months later, I was coming up from the train, a C stop on St. Nicholas, going to a friend’s place, and as I hit the top step of the stairs, a quiet Sunday, not many people on the street, a cold sunny day, there was an apartment building right there, first floor place, window open and blind down, and, soft, something by Schubert, someone playing one of his lieder on piano, and singing along, even softer. I stopped to listen but after a moment the music stopped. I waited, two, three minutes for it to start again, people irritated by my blocking the stairs. Within a couple of blocks I’d fallen behind her roommate and her roommate’s friends, feeling crummy about following them, just to ask about Jenny. I had the number still, of course I had the number, and could’ve called. Cabs were passing and I could’ve hailed one. I was too slow – that third beer – and then there weren’t any more. They were a block ahead of me and didn’t notice I wasn’t with them. The F stop was right there. I walked past it. They turned toward 1st Avenue – I didn’t expect this. No matter, this was better, I could keep straight on without having to excuse myself, and in the distance, ahead, was all of 2nd Avenue, and no one I knew, and nowhere I’d been or would ever go, and the cold wasn’t so bad, the snow still light, the wind cutting so I’d pull down my hat, and could walk for hours.