summer 2011

Sonnet 17 

Graham Macdonald

– Jeff Lawenda

The demon that regularly assaults
Steven Mayer returns in full force at 2:32 a.m.
Shame, as Steven names it,
rouses him before he can mobilize his defense.

Knowing the Army advocates an escape
attempt as soon as possible after capture, he’s directed himself to immediately
fight off invading thoughts and not be taken prisoner. Think only good things.  

He makes his second nightly trip to
the toilet, stumbles back to bed and tries to return to his pre-demon dream. There,
he was a powerful young man full of hope and confidence and living the ultimate
boy/man fantasy: two men on base, down two runs, bottom of the ninth, and he’s
just driven a three-two pitch so far out of Yankee Stadium that it’s instantly
historic, like one of Mantle’s rifle shots that defined glory.

He pushes his mind to return to the dream,
focusing on visual slivers: the pitcher’s wind-up, the release, the fastball
coming straight to his sweet spot, the assured movement of his legs, mid-torso,
forearms, and wrists, and then getting right behind that spinning red-stitched ball
with the meat of his bat. He grabs at images for traction like a mountain
climber frantically feeling for a life-saving foothold. But nothing sticks.
Steven can’t return to that golden ballpark with its white-lined symmetry, its
green grass and brown clay. Can’t get back to round the bases and savor the
cheers. Shame hits him harder than he
could ever hit that fastball.

Familiar with the terrain, the
invader now works its way through his psyche with the usual weapons. Kicked out. Fired. Let go. Terminated. The more accurate, less hurtful version of what
had happened is never deployed.
Your position, Steven, has been
eliminated for economic reasons having nothing to do with performance.
Though,
at twenty months into the torment, it no longer matters to Steven that he was
laid off and not fired.

Worthless.
Failure. Useless
. Loser. The
words rip into him, guaranteeing sleeplessness.
If being laid off were his only battle, he’d be awake for only an hour,
two at the most. But a complete career analysis takes over. Mistakes made,
things said, not said, roads taken, not taken. Conclusion: sixty years old and
done.  

He feels Sheila stir next to him.
Her foot touches and caresses his, a move that used to initiate sex but is now
intended to comfort him. Try to sleep,
Steve.

Guilt rushes in. Two lives turned upside down. Sheila’s comfortable existence
gone, along with much of their savings. The part-time retail work she used to
enjoy for stimulation, now a full-time necessity. Yet, she doesn’t complain. She
even manages to tolerate his moodiness. The kids are at least grown and on
their own. Richie and Susan not only worry about him, he senses they also pity
him. Steven – the family rock, mentor and advisor, string-puller and tab-payer,
the one who insisted on providing the best for them all – lies in bed and
wonders if he still has his children’s respect.

He finally enters something
resembling sleep at 6:30, which lasts two hours. He awakes tangled in sheets amid
strewn pillows. The achy fog that consumes him is made worse by the instant
awareness of his idle state while most others are at work or on the way.

At 9:00, he groggily moves around
the kitchen in what had been their first home, a rent-controlled two-bedroom,
later a Manhattan pied-à-terre and, one year ago, their home again. The rooms
are small but nicely decorated and filled with pricey items from the two houses
they were forced to sell. There are a few new pieces, including the vastly
reduced white leather Barcelona chair, triumphantly purchased from a
going-out-of-business shop in Chelsea.

Barefoot in boxers and t-shirt, face
unshaven and hair having gone through nighttime warfare, he thinks of groomed
men in suits striding into offices. He had once been one of them in fitted
Canali suits, custom shirts, polished Ferragamo shoes.

Sheila’s scent of rose over wood and leather works its way into his awareness. He
hears her hurried high heels, evocative of commitment and industry, tap across
the living room’s wooden floor before entering the kitchen. She’s in a black
business suit that follows the outline of her alluring full body. Deep blond
hair with brown lowlights frames a face that betrays no serious signs of aging. God, she looks great. An assessment, he
knows, shared by men of various ages on the streets of Manhattan.

Steven had also been a model of
gracious aging but recently gave up trying. Four months have passed since he
last dyed his hair, having done so on the advise of an executive search coach. It’s
now predominantly gray. His once angular face is starting to show the effects
of the third and sometimes fourth vodka. Facial puffiness has been erasing bone
structure at a steady rate. His former fit body, tuned by regular workouts, is
softer, more ample.

“Another bad night?” Sheila asks, as
if the argument last night hadn’t happened.

“Yeah.”

“Doing anything special today?” She
is careful not to ask whether he has any interviews, but wants to make sure
he’s got something to keep him busy.

“No.
Maybe I’ll take a walk to the park or just around. What’s it like out?”

“It looks gorgeous. Get out and enjoy it.”

“Yeah.”

“Any more thoughts of teaching?” she
asks lightly.

“We’ve done this, Sheila. How many
times do I have to tell you what everybody knows, schools are cutting back.”

“Well, how about taking a course,
then?” Her voice hints at a blend of frustration, anger and fear as she
continues to watch Steven gradually shut down.

Steven’s temper now pops through
thinning skin. “Like a fucking dilettante? I need to work, not sit in a
classroom.”

Determined to avoid an explosion,
Sheila keeps her response amiable. “But you always wanted to get into
photography. Something creative. Maybe it could lead to a new … a new career.”  She falters, and then keeps going. “Why don’t
you take your camera today?”

“I’ll see.” I’m begging you, Sheila. Leave me the fuck alone.

“I have to run, Steve.  I’m late.” More worry. “Let’s talk
tonight.  Okay?

Bounce ideas around? I love you.”

“Love
you,” he mumbles.

Sheila leaves for work. He’s left to
his juice, coffee, toast and The New York Times. The daily crossword has become a vital part of his day’s work,
yielding success or failure. He washes their breakfast dishes and by 10:00 is
ready to face another day as a consultant, freelancer, advisor or semi-retiree.

It is one of those spectacular early
June days in Manhattan, arriving with HOPE
as its headline. Steven heads out into it in old jeans, a faded polo shirt and
no camera. What he does carry is a glimmer of that hope. Maybe this brilliant
day will share some of its promise, if only for a few hours. He stops first to
observe the progress at the construction site across the street. He’s been
following the work every day and today notices that the men have added a new
floor to the building. He watches as the carpenters, ironworkers and crane
operators move through their tasks and thinks of his father, a skilled roofer. These
men, who build homes and keep people dry and safe, have recently become his
heroes.  

Leaving his neighborhood, he makes
his way over to Seventh Avenue, which he crosses to walk north. He alters his
routine today to walk, if only for a couple of blocks, on the busy avenue
instead of his usual route through picturesque side streets. Feeling the warm
sunshine, he decides to walk by Morandi at the corner of Seventh and Waverly
Place, knowing the outdoor tables will be in use.

The late breakfast patrons,
occupying a couple of the sidewalk tables, produce the pang he anticipated. He
and Sheila used to frequent Morandi. They were well known by the staff and
treated as family. During pleasant months, they’d dine outside by candlelight,
taking in the scene on Waverly Place. When it was too warm or cold or rainy,
they’d nestle inside at a favorite table, surrounded by dark wood and old
brick.  

Morandi makes Steven think of
Sheila. He knew their dinners at the rustic trattoria used to bring her quiet joy.
The welcome bestowed upon her by Roberto, the maitre d’, was warmer and more
sincere than any celebrity would receive. Steven also got the royal treatment,
partly out of respect for his stature in the media world, partly because he was
a nice guy, but mainly he knew, because he accompanied Sheila. And he loved
seeing his down-to-earth wife treated like a queen.

Recalling
her happiness as she basked in Roberto’s adoration, Steven once again is gnawed
by remorse, their downsized life with its deprivations, sacrifices. But also
about their fight last night and his outright nastiness. Sheila had suggested
he contact Marty Simon, his closest friend. “Why don’t you get together with
him? You need that kind of companionship. You know, an old friend you’re
totally comfortable with, don’t feel a need to impress.”  

“Friendship is overrated at our
age,” he said, not attempting philosophy, just honesty.          

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with
having someone other than your wife and children to care about you?”

“Because it’s bullshit,” he said,
finishing his second vodka.

“Why, Steven?”

“How many close friends do you still
have?” he asks.

“I have a lot of friends.”

“I mean really close, people you can
call in the middle of the night and say ‘I need you.’ ”

“Alright, I guess one. Michelle.”

“Yeah. And you only see her once
every four or five months.”

“But we speak to each other every
week, and I know she’s there for me if I need her.”

“Is she? Really? I doubt it. People
are caught up in their own lives.”

“Steve, call Marty. He’s there for
you. You could use some guy support now.”

“Marty’s strictly out for himself. So
fucking self-absorbed in his own bullshit law career.  I’m tired of hearing how great a litigator he
is.”

“I never heard him brag,” she said. “Well,
maybe a little, when he won that big case against that drug company. But that
was a coup.”

”You know, Sheila, I’ve known Marty for what? Over
forty years? My college roommate.  And
he’s never really asked me about my career. Marty’s like this: ‘Hi, Steve.
Everything good at work.’ A statement, not a question. And anyway, you know me.
I’m not good at opening up. I’m not going to expose myself to Marty … ”

After a long pause, which Sheila allowed
to take its course, “I tried a couple of times. Once, when I was still working
and fed up with the politics, the bullshit … and then another time after I
was laid off – God I still have trouble saying that – Marty didn’t even listen
to the hints I threw out. He never picked up on them. You know, ask questions
when I was still working like, ‘Steve, are you happy? Let’s have a drink, talk
about it.’ Or, after it happened like, ‘Steve, how can I help? If you need
someone to talk to, I’m here. How about lunch tomorrow?’ Marty’s just a goddamn
disappointment.”

Steven pours himself another drink.

“Stevie, slow down with the vodka. You’re
just gonna work yourself up some more.”

“Goddammit, leave me alone.”

“Okay. I will. But it’s just … I know
where this is going. You’ll have another drink and hate the world. I just want
you to be happy, not angry.”      

Not getting a response, she added,
“You know, maybe you should have
brought up your career with him, your accomplishments, what you did every day. Or
even that you were becoming unhappy.”

“Haven’t you been listening? I told
you that’s not my style. And, for God’s sake, you should know without my saying
it. My fucking point is he could’ve asked … Like I always asked him. Marty’s
like most people, caught up in his own shit. He listens but doesn’t hear. Now
it’s an effort to call him, or anyone else for that matter. Why bother? ”

“Steve,
you’re becoming so negative. You were never like this. It’s not attractive, you
know. Not appealing.” Instantly, she regretted saying this, regretted revealing
her exhaustion and loss of interest. She was simply beginning to care less.

Steven
recognized the meaning behind her words and Shame
moved quickly to amplify it. “Look, I am what I am. If you don’t like it, just leave.
Or I will. Really. You can find someone else. Actually … maybe you already
have, for all I know. So go to him.” He took a long hit on his drink and shook
the cubes, ready for a refill.

“There
is no one else, Steve, you know that. But I can’t take this anymore, watching
you destroy yourself and us. You keep pushing me away. You are. Not our situation. You.
To be honest, all the hours I work … it’s not just about making more money.
I can’t wait to get out of here every day, to go anywhere.”

Sheila took a deep breath. “We can get through
this,” she went on, more calmly. “But I just can’t take your cynicism, your
pessimism. It’s like a monster shows up every time you have two drinks. You’re
a winner, Steve, but you’re acting like a loser.” Another misguided comment,
she knew but thought, To hell with it. I
can be reckless too.

It
all went downhill after loser. Steven
told her to go fuck herself, made himself another large drink, and went into
the second bedroom they use as a den to watch MSNBC so he could really get mad. Sheila cut a slice of the meatloaf
she’d baked to last three meals, added some asparagus she’d steamed and sat at
the kitchen table to eat alone, knowing that after she went to bed he’d cut his
own slice and make a sandwich, sit at the same table and ultimately work his
way to their bed, guilt-ridden.

Before the frayed nerves and thinned
skin and after thirty-three years of marriage, they luxuriated in the knowledge
they could blurt out feelings to one another. They could yell go fuck yourself without fear, without
the need to apologize. But what once
had been a harmless barb has now become a poison-tipped arrow.

Reaching University Place, Steven is
shaken from his memories of the previous night by the beauty of the June day.
He’s struck by euphoria in the faces of passing NYU students. The high spirits are
not confined to the young. People of all ages exude joy on this perfect New
York spring day, a sepia photograph from long ago magically alive in glorious
color. He squints at the sun; his shoulders relax a bit as warmth begins to
seep into his skin.

He continues north on University to
Union Square, where the Greenmarket stalls are filled with artisanal cheeses,
breads, fish, meats and produce. A year and a half ago, he and Sheila on a Friday
would drop a couple of hundred dollars here without hesitation to bring back a
weekend of feasts to the house in Armonk. Depending on the season, they’d buy
tuna steaks brought in daily from Montauk, cherrystone clams, porterhouse
steaks, white cheddar, heirloom tomatoes, huge savory onions, freshly made
mozzarella, all kinds of berries, rustic breads, and a tin of Martin’s hard
pretzels.  

On his way to Madison Square Park, he buys a seven dollar ham and Swiss
sandwich on rye and a bottled water for a dollar, which he carries into the
park to a bench where he intends to spend a couple of hours. He has regularly visited
this bench or one nearby since the day he was told his job was being
eliminated.  

He still spends too much time
replaying the conversation with Gordon Schmidt, his newish boss. The end had
come over a cup of coffee at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with its mirrored doors, marble
columns and domed yellow-and-green skylight. Thinking the invitation was an
attempt to get closer to him, Steven’s usually acute insights had failed him.
Based upon his stellar track record, he was totally surprised.

The low regard Steven had for
Schmidt had turned into loathing as the younger man announced he was personally
taking over Steven’s responsibilities as part of a broad cost-cutting measure.
It was, he explained, an unfortunate but necessary response to the dire state
of the media business. While Steven knew the cuts had to have been sanctioned by
the CEO, with whom he’d had an excellent relationship, he was confident Schmidt
had engineered his removal to save his own hide and demolish any rivals.

Up until that cup of coffee, it had
been a magnificent
mid-October morning, full of autumn’s richness, but the vivid colors of the
trees in Central Park had blanched when Steven left the Plaza. He had to return
to the office to pack his belongings and say his goodbyes. The only positive note
to the afternoon was that the intense shock of losing his job numbed the pain, allowing
him to function. When the shock abated the next day, the unmasked hurt raged.

He’d spent a few weeks trying to absorb the
trauma, after which he began to look for work. At first, there was no shortage
of meetings, his calendar filled. But the economy seemed to be collapsing all
around him and the meetings began to dwindle along with return phone calls and
emails. Even those who owed Steven favors had nothing more to say to him. Not
only were there no jobs to be offered, but the people who might offer them were
losing theirs. After a year, he read that his old company was sold at a bargain
price and that the buyer decided not to retain Schmidt. By
then, Steven was too beaten to care.  

His days, once filled with urgency
and importance, now consist of completing crossword puzzles, washing dishes,
making lunch, pacing, and spending hours on the Internet, where he keeps up
with the most far-flung news, checks out job ideas, reads movie and book
reviews, and looks into photography classes. But the highlight of his days,
weather permitting, has been walking to this park, where he sits and thinks
about fulfillment. Not from the past – marred by disappointment and self-doubt
– but in the future. Yet he has no idea what that might look like. Maybe
photography. Might be nice, something new, yet an old passion, creative, his
own thing. But the idea of reinventing himself at sixty is too daunting, and so
he remains immobilized on his bench.  

As he eats his sandwich, Steven tries to
appreciate the glorious day. The trees throughout the park’s six acres are
cloaked in vibrant green. There are London Planes, historic English elms and a red oak brought here as a sapling from the
estate of President Madison for whom the park is named. The
playground is alive with laughing children, and light glitters on the
reflecting pool and the fountain.  

Office workers, tourists and mothers
pushing strollers fill the interconnecting oval paths that crisscross the park.
People idle at benches, stand on line at the Shake Shack kiosk or sit around
its small tables consuming what some consider the best burgers in the city, but
no longer in Steven’s budget. He takes in the spring fashions in yellow, green,
pink and blue and the rainbow of freshly planted flowers. He wishes he had his
camera.

As he
savors the sun’s glow, the gentle warmth and light breeze, he tells himself it’s
okay to enjoy this moment. The regret he feels for not having brought his
camera is put aside. Just another mistake.

He notices a squirrel foraging at
his feet. Early June is the hardest time for squirrels, he knows. The nuts
buried in the fall have sprouted and are no longer edible, but it is too early
to gather a new bounty. So, this little guy with his thickly furred tail is staying close
to Steven’s bench in hopes of scrounging a crumb or two.

He
is struck by the unexpected brilliance of the squirrel’s fur. Gray, the most underrated
color in the spectrum – offset by touches of white and brown – is vivid in the
penetrating sunshine. The squirrel has his undivided attention.  

Steven
sees shrewd vigilance in its eyes. Wary of what? Surely not foxes, coyotes and
hawks in Manhattan. More likely cars and bicycles and the heavy feet of
pedestrians oblivious to a squirrel’s needs, blind to the life they may be
about to step on. The squirrel has a limp. From a bad fall? Or a reckless
human?

With
his tail twitching like a banner in the breeze, the squirrel stares back at
him. Steven removes the crust from his sandwich, tears off a few small pieces
and drops them on the ground. Louie, he decides to name his new friend. Louie,
from “Casablanca.” Captain Louis Renault, the ultimate survivor.  

Louie
grabs a piece of bread and devours it hungrily, and then another. He starts to
dart away with a third bit of crust but changes his mind, figuring this guy has
more bread or, maybe Steven thinks, he’s enjoying the company. Whatever the reason,
Louie stays to eat the bread at this safe, friendly bench. Steven continues to
drop pieces of rye to his new buddy. Louie emits a few chirps. And nice meeting you, Louie.

They proceed
to have lunch together, and Steven is surprised to find that he wants the meal
to go on. He watches the squirrel and tries to imagine his life. Able to jump
from branch to branch, tree to tree, Louie must have more freedom than Steven
will ever know. He’s never felt the need to be anything more than a squirrel. Not
an executive vice president squirrel, just a squirrel. He doesn’t need to wear
a watch and worry about being late. He never has to look for work – staying
alive is his only job. He is immune to the pain of loss. Lose an acorn, find
another.  

Steven
surmises that Louie has chosen to live in this park, perhaps because of its
tranquility. Encircled by a wrought-iron fence, Madison Square Park must offer
refuge to a squirrel, as it does to him. During his twenty months of being a
regular, he has come to love the sense of sanctuary he feels there.

The surrounding buildings evoke an older
New York. To the south stands the city’s first skyscraper, the 285-foot, twenty-two-floor
Flatiron Building, with its unique triangular floor plan and ornate limestone and terra-cotta façade. One block east of the
Flatiron and half a block north is the Met Life Tower, with its four moon-like
clocks – no need to check watches in this neighborhood – and its gleaming
golden tower. For three years after it was built in 1909, it was the tallest
building in the world. And
eight blocks north, the Empire State Building, still tall, still an icon,
punctuates the park’s horizon. The greatness of these buildings belies the
warmth of their appeal to Steven.

No matter
where he is in the park, he senses its just-the-right-size perimeter and is happily
contained, protected. And now here’s Louie, another refugee, a survivor, to
share it with. In Bogie deadpan, he whispers, “Louie, I think this is the
beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Wondering whether he is finally
breaking down, Steven gets up from the bench, dares a hushed “so long” to Louie
and tosses out his empty lunch bag. He begins walking south to Twenty-third Street
and Broadway when he spots the back of someone walking rapidly in the same
direction. A familiar head and shoulders and walk. It takes him a moment to
recognize Billy Marshall, a business friend he’s known for thirty years.

Just a little older than Steven, in his
early sixties, Billy is another casualty of the Great Recession, losing his job
a few months before he had. Steven quickens his pace to catch up, but Billy is
practically in a run. Thinking maybe’s he’s late for an appointment, Steven
slows down. But Billy is wearing worn-out jeans and a tired t-shirt, his hair
is long and disheveled and, catching a glimpse of his profile, Steven sees days
of stubble on his face. Not an interview look.

“Billy!” Steven shouts. Not getting an
answer, he jogs toward him and yells again. Billy now stops and turns around. Both
men are out of breath and take each other in. On something of a high after his
lunch with Louie, Steven smiles. After a moment, Billy offers what Steven sees
as a forced grin, not unfriendly, just unhappy. Shaking hands, Billy’s grip
feels loose, damp and rubbery.  

“Hi, Steve. How you doing?”

 “Oh, I’m good. You know, considering.”

“Yeah. Considering. How’s Sheila?”

“Good. She’s working and trying to help
us keep things together … I’m not going to bullshit you, Billy.  It’s tough. But I don’t have to tell you
that.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s manager of the dress department
at Saks. How’s Renee?”  

“Renee’s okay, Steve. What can I say? She’s
taken it bad. Things between us have been … well, strained. You know it’s
two years now,” Billy says.  

After an uncomfortable pause with Billy
deep in thought, he adds, “Look at us, Steve, two old fucks in the park on a
Tuesday afternoon. You and I used to run the station business, for Christ sake,
and now we’re … whatever we are.” Changing subjects, he adds, “At least
Sheila’s working, though. Sounds like a good job.”

“Yeah, it is. Doesn’t pay a ton. You
know, retail. The truth is, Billy, aside from needing the money – and believe
me, I’m thrilled it’s there – I’ve become a colossal asshole to be around. So
she likes to get out of the apartment.”

“That’s hard for me to see. I mean the
part about you being an asshole,” Billy says.

“Thanks, pal, but you don’t live with
me. It’s just … you know. If anyone knows,
it’s you.  Thirty-five, forty years of
busting our humps, making names for ourselves. Players.”

“Yeah. Now it’s all over. It’s time to
just face it and either move on or not,” Billy says philosophically, and looks
down at his worn running shoes. He suddenly adds, “Got to go, Steve.  Got an appointment. My best to Sheila. She’s
a special lady. Don’t be an asshole.”  

“How can I get in touch, Billy? We
should talk more. You know, it’s hard to do that with other people who don’t
know … ” Steven says, remembering Sheila’s suggestion of the night before.

“What’s your email?” Billy asks.

“stevenmayer@gmail.com.”

 “Don’t carry a pen anymore, but I’ll remember
it and send you my contact info. Bye, Steve.”

As
Steven watches Billy reach Twenty-third Street, he thinks, what appointment? He probably just doesn’t
want to talk anymore. He sees Billy
standing at the curb, moving his head back and forth, following the east-west
flow of traffic. Billy’s focus seems to be on the westbound cars that cross Broadway
right in front of him. The light turns red for those vehicles and Billy starts
to jog in place, ignoring the chance to cross the street, seeming preoccupied. Puzzled,
Steven doesn’t move. He sees Billy lower his head, taking deep breaths like an
athlete waiting to make a bold move. When the light changes to allow the
cross-town cars to whip across Broadway, Billy coils his body, apparently intent
on making a timed move. He waits for what seems like an opportune moment. Making
his decision, he suddenly dashes into Twenty-third Street.

Steven is shocked to see that the
timing of Billy’s lurch into the street is off, way off. A fast-moving black
Escalade comes to a miraculous screeching, skidding stop, inches from Billy’s
moving body. A chorus of “Oh, my God” in at least three languages rises from
the tourists and office workers seated at tables in the shadow of the Flatiron
Building. Several jump out of their metal chairs and run forward, hands to
mouth. The driver of the Escalade also jumps out, furious, red-faced,
terrified. He roars, “What, are you fucking crazy? I coulda killed you” as
Billy, head down, quickly disappears into the crowd of stunned onlookers.

Slowly walking away, Steven is shaken, filled
with gory visions of what almost happened. What was that all about? He thinks
of Billy’s wife, Renee, a wife of the business, at all the events, knew
everyone and worked the room along with her husband, probably missed the
life.  Steven recalls that Billy has
grown children and a few grandchildren. And he had been one of the best TV
execs.  

His
mind races. What had Billy been thinking? Why so reckless at such a busy
intersection? A crazy game? Some excitement in what had become a dull
existence? But Billy was the opposite of reckless; he had been a careful,
calculating planner.  

Then it hits him. Billy’s timing wasn’t
off. Find an aggressive driver and enlist him unknowingly in ending the misery.
A quick dash into traffic. An accident, the cops would probably call it. Renee
would get the insurance money, and if he had accidental death on his policy,
she’d get the double benefit. Billy, the consummate planner … “It’s time to
just face it and either move on or not.”

Yes,
why not
. Steven thinks of calling Sheila. To say what? “Sheila, this is
where I might be headed.” But if so, why signal it and be talked out of it and
have to continue to feel the pain? Just do it. It’s all about picking the right
spot and having impeccable timing. And the car has to be going fast enough. No
spending months in a hospital with huge medical bills. It has to be done right
so it all ends in an instant. And Sheila gets back her old lifestyle.

He starts walking downtown on the east
side of Broadway deep in thought, no longer aware of the vibrant hues that had
energized him earlier. The day has shifted to gray. Not Louie’s textured,
shimmering gray, but one void of life, dead, blank.  

Sensing Steven’s weakness, Shame emerges. Fear and dread start to
seep through his body. By the time he nears Eighteenth Street, despair deeper
than any he has known overcomes him. His body turns to gel, without a skeleton
or muscle, with no physical support. He begins to crumble, three blocks short
of the Fourteenth Street intersection, which could be crossed at a most
opportune moment to end the pain.  

As his legs buckle, more self-loathing
hits. I can’t even do this right. On
the brink of collapse, he hears a woman’s scream. “Get him! He stole my bag.” Her
voice preempts all thought, every sound around him. The scream is loaded with
fear and outrage. She’s lying on the sidewalk in front of him, an old woman,
holding her bloody mouth. He runs to her and kneels to help, but she’s already
struggling to her feet. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” the woman is crying. “But I need
my bag. Can’t you stop him?”

Steven feels something snap into place and
takes off, running south, chasing not his final moment but a young man who has
just bashed an old woman and taken her bag. He runs with purpose, dodging
bystanders, avoiding cars, zigzagging his way as easily as Louie jumps from
branch to branch, his eyes fixed on the blue t-shirt of the mugger.

Just north of Union Square at Seventeenth
Street, the young man, blocked by a heavy stream of rushing traffic, hears
Steven panting and turns to face him with a leer, as if to say Okay, you old fuck. Now what?

Steven
slows to a resolute walk. Startled by his own lack of fear, he approaches the
mugger with mounting rage. The woman’s bag is under his loose shirt and locked
in place by his left arm.    

“Give me the bag,” Steven says, staring
directly at him.

“Go fuck yourself, grandpa. You ain’t
gonna do jack shit.        

“Look, punk,” Steven says, spitting the
words out, “You have no fuckin’ idea how crazy I am. I don’t care about getting
hurt. I don’t care about dying. Understand, you miserable piece of shit? Either
make your move or put the bag on the ground and walk the fuck away. Or else I’m
gonna take you apart like a piece of chicken for hitting that old woman.”  

With eyes open to their limits, he
projects crazed ferocity. His body leans forward, taut, coiled. His lips are
tightly squeezed. His fists clench and unclench at his sides. These are weapons
he has no right to count on. But he can count on the fury that’s pounding in
his brain. Armed to the teeth with wrath, he walks forward and at the top of
his lungs, yells, “Now. Do it now!”

The mugger blinks and drops the bag at
his feet, muttering “You’re fuckin’ nuts, man,” then quickly turns away,
weaving his way back into the Greenmarket crowds.

Steven picks up the bag, handling it
like a prize, its lustrous blue patent leather gleaming in the sunshine. As he
walks back to the woman, his strides are light and easy, as if there is air
under his feet. He begins to feel like the man he vaguely remembers.  

The old woman, who Steven now sees is
not so old, is back on her feet. She walks to him with outstretched arms. Hugging
Steven, she says, “You are a special man.”

When Sheila returns from work, he pours
them each a glass of wine and asks her about her day. She is taken aback by his
relaxed presence, his switch to wine, his interest in her day.  But she goes with it and fills him in on the
new line of clothes that she reviewed today. Gray and brown are going to be the
big fall colors. Steven thinks of Louie. She asks him how he spent his day.

He blurts out, “I think I saw Billy
Marshall try to kill himself.”

“What?” Sheila cries. As Steven starts
to tell her about his brief conversation with Billy in the park, the Escalade
and the screeching brakes, he begins to sob. Long gusts of grief shake him,
sorrow for Billy, for himself, for Sheila, for them all. Sheila gets up from
her chair and sits next to him on the couch, cradling his head and hugging him
tightly. She can’t recall the last time he had cried.

Wiping his eyes and getting himself
under control, he says, “I should have seen it, Sheila.  Made him sit and talk to me.”

“How could you have possibly guessed
that was on his mind, Steve? You couldn’t know. But thank God, it’s not too
late. You can give him a call and try to have lunch or coffee.”

He ponders this and moves off the
subject. “There’s more, Sheila. I was able to get a woman’s bag back from a
mugger.”

“What? What are you talking about?
You’re crazy. Should I be more worried than I already am?”

“I’m fine. Really. He was just a punk. Oh,
and I bought a five-dollar bag of Martin’s pretzels in Union Square. Broken. The
way you like them. They’re on the counter in the kitchen.”

“Thanks.  A treat.”

“Oh, one more thing … “

Sheila is ecstatic. This is the most
talkative Steven’s been in months. “Yes?”

“I had lunch with Louie, an amazing
survivor. Very courageous.”

“Louie? You’ve never mentioned him
before.”

“Well I just met him today. At the
park. Madison Square. Louie’s a squirrel, Sheila, a beautiful gray squirrel. He’s
an inspiration.”

“Steven, you’re insane,” Sheila says,
with a nervous grin. “Anything else, other than lunch with Louie?”

In the same matter-of-fact tone, “Yeah.
One more thing. On the way home I enrolled at NYU for a summer photography
class.” Steven allows himself to smile. 

Jeff Lawenda

A Devil in tall black boots brushes past me at the grocery
self check-out. I key the code for apples as he lingers 
in the baking aisle, staring as if he knows I’ve been waiting 
for him all my life.  His ginger goatee curls towards the graveyard  

across the street.  His eyes say, follow me—I’ll take you
into the Pennsylvania woods just beyond the headstones, 
lay you on a pine needle bed, and slit you down the middle
with a ten-inch blade. The long arm of memory reaching

across the Mason-Dixon puts me back in our green 
clapboard house with my stepfather.  A knife.  Bowl of strawberries.  
My mother wipes the oilcloth as if last night a weapon had not 
been drawn.  At the grocery, I grab my brown paper sacks and head 
to the car, looking back over my shoulder.

Jayne Thompson

                    Here lieth the body of Elizabeth
                            who departed this life July 1, 1818 in
                            the 42nd year of her age and at her request
                    was inter’d in the same grave with her husband.

Shoeless, the grass and slugs cold beneath
our soles, we pause by the grave
of a woman who wished to lie again
and mingle with her lover. 
                    Seeing this breadth

of white stone, the starlit sky, I see them, dust
and bone in their bed, while your blood calls
to mine, your whispers wind through my flesh. 
Beneath your hands I open to you 
                    like clouds below the moon.

Jayne Thompson

I never missed the bus as long as Daryl,
our own Jimi Hendrix,
drove.  He’d beep for me, the diesel
idling outside my house while I
painted on my jeans and zipped my
boots—always, always late.

By the time I got on the bus, Daryl had
picked up David, who looked like John Lennon,
and who later blasted his father
away with a shotgun; Amy, my best friend, who took no
shit from anyone, but disappeared by age 19;
Paul, with one brown eye
and one green eye, who went to prison for four years
after nearly killing a man in a bar over a woman;
Cynthia, large-bellied with the first
of two children she had before age 17;
and Scott, part Cherokee,
with high cheekbones and black eyes,
who flew a two-seater plane into the ocean
while high on cocaine. He escaped,
a girl did not.

“Thank you, Daryl,” I’d say each morning
to this high school senior turned bus driver.
“No problem, Baby.”  And off we’d go—
through the neighborhood, by the cotton mill
smelling of vinegar, and up Summit
Avenue, to the junior high where friends
dispersed and walked,
invisible, through light green corridors
and rows of lockers,
past the black kids, some poorer
even than us, past the rich
kids, the Irvies, who ran the school
and whose parents owned us all.
In the back of the classrooms, I sat,
quiet and bookish behind black eyeliner,
longing for the bus ride home,
Daryl’s daily physics lesson:

at the top
of the hill on Summit, going 45 miles
per hour—
our hood heading
for the concrete base of an overpass,
Daryl timed it just right—
he’d turn the wheel to the left, leave his seat,
run to the back of the bus, slap
the emergency door, sprint
to the driver’s seat and grab the wheel—
all before the bus slammed head
first into concrete.  We’d cheer Daryl,
our daredevil Hendrix.  He’d smile
at me in the rearview
mirror, run his hand through his afro, say,
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”
We would have felt cheated if he didn’t
perform his feat.  How else would we
know we wanted our lives?

One afternoon the Irvies’ bus broke down. 
They piled into our bus and Daryl
did not disappoint.  He set the wheel—perfect. 
He rose from his seat, ran the center aisle,
pounded the emergency
door and sprinted back to the wheel,
which he turned gracefully,
another seamless performance.
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”

By 5 p.m. lawyers called the school board,
bankers screamed at the principal, doctors called
the superintendent. 

Next morning, 7:15, no beep, no Daryl.  I, busy
painting on jeans and zipping boots,
missed the bus.  A middle-aged woman
drove us home.  It was over.

I saw a raven in a wire cage once
at a bird sanctuary in Vermont.  Snow
lay beneath my feet and clung to branches
where the raven perched.  The black bird
pushed its wings against the wire
cage, wanting a touch, a stroke. 
“An unnatural desire for a bird
of prey,” the guide said.  Raised
by humans illegally and on an insufficient
diet, it couldn’t fly, would never lift its
hollow bird bones high
over mountain tops.
Humans, I thought in disgust.  The guide
pointed out, “The raven may want you to
touch it, but don’t.  He could, and just might,
rip your hand apart.”  I wanted to stroke
him, take the chance, especially after I read
that ravens have been
known to roll down snow-covered
hills, just for fun.

Bodies in motion stay in motion.
They are here with me still, at the top
of the hill.  David, whose regret is miles
longer than his 20-year sentence; Amy,
who kept me, but not herself, away
from boys and a stepfather;
Paul, who Cynthia told me
was “Mean as a snake now”; Scott,
whose sadness knows great ocean depths.

“Wait,” I say to them.  “Stay a little longer,”
when they visit my memory.  But they travel
fast, 45 miles an hour, and are gone, down
the hill, around the bend,
out of reach.

The next time it snows in Vermont,
I will go back
in the darkness, reach for that raven
in his cage, stroke his great dark wing,
drive him to the summit of a snow-
covered mountain and watch him
roll down the hill, finally flying
in the only way he can.

Jayne Thompson


Simple things like
Summer trees are green
Sunshine is yellow and bright
Blue sky is bold and primary
Children are free

 Like the flowers need water
The deck needs sweeping
The yard needs raking
The puppy needs to play
Like refreshment
Like endless time in a bottle of fizzy water
Bubbling with coolness
Like being there
To observe the swarming bees
To hear the symphony of birds

To notice every little creature’s hidden home
Or to guess where one might be
In the ground, on the grass, in the trees, in the air

 Like the darkness
Is only dark for as long as you need it to be
And when you don’t need it
The dawn receives it from you  
With gentle fingers
Still fresh with their scent of rosewater  
 
Stacy Esch