by Rin Kelly
The finance men in workweek black didn't notice the woman in workweek gray until she was halfway across Broadway and the deed was as good as done. Though they weren't friends or even office acquaintances—and were most likely rivals without knowing it yet—they spotted the woman all at once, as New Yorkers often do.
She balanced the box on one hip, a plain and frayed old corrugated file box trussed with cellophane tape and staples and
glinting in the white headache of the city. It was December, and everywhere the city shivered overexposed, all tinsel and frantic joy and eager, shining, snow-smacked tourist faces. Their high, hopeful voices sharpened on the winds that whipped down the avenues and stabbed into the finance men, the men who pulled their fists together in their coat pockets and wanted all at once to see her hit by a car.
She stumbled, and together-
-they raised their eyebrows and exchanged hopeful looks of bafflement.
"What the hell, what's she-"
"Get out of the fucking street!"
Standing in front of them waiting for the crossing signal, Paul Longmire laughed. It was a false laugh and as soon as he'd
laughed he felt scorn breathing up the back of his neck, telling him his eavesdrop wasn't welcome. He was deep in the watercolor bog of a hangover today, dream-sodden and near-sick and swaying, watching the woman sway and then swaying even harder as he watched. He was just so tired of all of this. Tired of the cheer. Tired of tourists standing in fat bunches pointing in all directions with arrogant leisure.
One of the men let out a shiver. "Goddamn it's cold.”
"What the hell is she doing?”
There were horns, and a shove of wind, and it wobbled the woman-
"Get out of the fucking street!"
-before it moved toward them, toward Paul, twisting into him until its low groan matched his insides and doubled him
over the curb. He was thinking oh god don't throw up here when the woman stooped down to place the box on the pavement, shrieking God no when she kicked it into traffic. He thought, for a moment, that the gasps were meant for him and his heaving when she met the hood of a cab as it came speeding around the corner. It tossed her against a truck, up onto its back, up into the height of air where rival buildings were too busy glowering from eight-hundred livid eyes to see her take off, screaming and alive, with arms as skinny and wide as Jesus, and come down dead between Broadway and Liberty on the day before Christmas.
"Hey, you off early today?" said Dave Ziehl as Paul walked up to the bar.
"Took the afternoon off." He placed the tape-crusted box on the floor beside him. He would wait exactly ten minutes.
“Right? Here-“ Dave dug in his jeans, tripling his chins “-I’ll help out with that usual." He slapped a twenty-dollar bill onto
the bar. "Get the man his usual. Get us all. And ring the bell this time.”
Paul sat down, tipping the world upright again. He would wait exactly ten minutes. He checked his watch, waiting for
Dave to ask about the box, but Dave just grabbed his drinks and skated back to the pool table in the corner where Paul never felt quite welcome, being still awkward, still a man who had never really learned to become a New Yorker of any recognizable sort.
Bern poured Paul’s double with both eyes on the TV. Her vigorless thin mouth hung slack, unnoticed, as though she
were at rest and holding in reserve the night’s quota of beaming, comforting warmth. She was fifty-eight and cheerful and loveless, and she wore funny shirts marketing her cheer to anyone who might have love to spare.
"Supermodel, huh?" Paul said, pointing to today's shirt. It said "MY OTHER BODY IS A SUPERMODEL'S" in letters bent
violently by her breasts.
"Yup," smiled Bern. Her eyes followed the arrow of the dropping Dow.
She shrugged blankly. "You were pretty bad last night."
"Yeah, I remember, strangely enough,” he laughed, recalling little past 11 save when Tony came with pizzas and Bern
rang the bell, but maybe, also, though he fought acknowledging it, beneath his hangover there drifted a sense of his having talked, stupidly, of Kate. He swallowed back his double. He would wait twenty minutes. By then there might be something about it on TV. It might be better to know what had happened before he told anybody what it was that had gone on.
When the woman went up, a bright connective bustle and thrill and shock came clapping into the brittle air like a
firework, falling upon the scene with hushed festivity. Suddenly, everyone was one, was alert, was alive, and, re-intoxicated, Paul found himself striding without realizing it into the street, pushed by crowds, pulled by some part of himself that was already telling itself the story he would tell about it later. This was the sort of thing that would go down well at the bar. Don’t think that! Jesus Christ don’t think that! But though he scolded it, his mind already knew. Tonight, if he made it home by then, this would give him something to tell his wife. She would laugh her laugh that wasn't really a laugh and say "How biz-zarre,” something unreadable at work on the other side of her expression.
The finance men were standing above the woman, pretending that “respectable distance” had anything to do with respect
for the person who was there growing distant on the pavement below. They were all so respectable, the finance men. But even now, in the camaraderie that likes to follow tragedy, they left no room to allow Paul in.
A new crowd of onlookers was just wandering onto the scene.” What happened?" asked an expensively dressed young
woman with brows so severe she seemed to have a Concorde taking flight above each eye. She stood alongside Paul, oblivious to his back-swallowed burps. He felt a sudden proprietary annoyance. He had been here before these people.
It was a petty thought, a monstrous thought, and he tried to quarantine it inside a nobler one. Nothing would come. He
stood empty for a moment before spotting one of the woman's black heeled shoes flung on its side between gaping car doors and gathering feet. It was small, empty. Empty, he thought. And he had to get to her, apologize to her. Before something could happen to her, before she died not knowing. He was stumbling and he was sorry, and the city felt unreal, all winter-edged and violet, a mere function of his mind.
"You know what the bastard does for Christmas?" Dave Ziehl was saying back by the pool table. Paul, watching the news,
was waiting thirty minutes. Just in case.
“You know what he does? His tradition, his in-laws raise turkeys, they live in Iowa, on a farm. They raise domestic
turkeys, and every Christmas he takes one of their goddamn turkey-"
"Yeah, he takes one of these goddamn turkeys out into the field and hunts it. I mean he pretends to hunt it and just
shoots it—I mean, blam!— and he makes the whole fuckin' family come watch because his goddamn-wonnerful dad used to take him on hunts when he was little and-"
"-and you know, he's a drunk just like his old man too, because he's just that goddamn nuts about tradition."
On the news was a man from Wyoming who had rolled his pickup truck off a road and down a hill of evergreens. He had
been trying to drive and eat at the same time, with a big bag of fries between his knees and a cardboard tray balanced on his lap. The truck rolled all the way around and came back upright, but milkshake filled his eyes and he crashed into a tree. His girlfriend died, four months pregnant, from a Blue Spruce trunk to the face. He survived four days, paralyzed, fading away and re-entering the world, sucking milkshake and Coke from his sweatshirt to stay alive.
"I just have to thank God," the man sobbed.
"That's an amazing story," said Bern.
"They all like that in Iowa? Paul?”
“Ohio.” Paul said, watching the screen.
The man said God Himself had commanded him to come back into life, to suck milkshake from his sweatshirt. God told
him to try, but he couldn’t reach the fries.
"Ohio,” Paul repeated pointlessly, knowing Dave would surely bring up Iowa again tonight. “Not Iowa, Ohio.”
"What an amazing man," said Bern.
Forty minutes on, there was nothing about it on the television, so Paul headed back outside with the box. He had
snatched it up without thinking, spotted it just beyond that small, narrow shoe. Without really thinking it he had thought somehow of his wife and had felt a wet warm sorrow for all the world that filled him up to the edges of his soul and made its dimensions known to him. Kate, his soul reached out, and then the ache of tears, and for a moment he felt aligned with a great eternal pity that had always been wiser than god.
Ohio, not Iowa. But both places people sometimes laughed at, even though every other person you met here was from a
place like that, too. Kate had no need for Ohio anymore, but Paul was surprised to find himself missing its skies, how they were so satisfyingly complete. He and Kate playing hooky, fields smashed flat by the wide weight of sky, her eyes as blue as the distance above and just as indifferent. The occasional fat slop of cloud in the day, at night a mysterious turning dark-bright universe, a black proscenium with a turning roof where smoke pedaled the stars.
He had wanted, somehow, to help the woman—oh god to help her—but the moment he began to walk with the box
toward…where?…he heard an embarrassing, terrible thumping inside. With each increasingly sickening step he took, it was thumping full of something—a fetus? A severed head?—he knew he should have left alone. He had to get rid of it, dispose of it away from all these people, but maybe after a drink or two to clear his head.
But, forty minutes on, there was nothing on the television, and so he walked stiffly out the door with the box held away
from his body, his mind now thumping too. It thumped him for missteps now and missteps then, for an awkward introduction from 20 years ago that surfaced unbidden, but apparently never forgotten, to join with the time in college he leaned against a wall during a conference and accidentally dimmed the lights and everyone laughed, and how Theo Spellman, who never had liked him, exchanged a look with Chris Todd, who he thought did, and then all of what he had done wrong today too, all of what he had just done—it was the same long error, the same rhythmic racing indictment speeding his feet to the beat of his brain. He should have left it alone. Shouldn’t have been so stupid. He clutched the box in what he hoped was an air casual inconsequence. What if the police were looking for him now? And god, he could still feel that thing inside—a fetus? Oh god, a fetus—he should have let be. Stop drinking, he told himself, because the next day it made him do baffling things.
He swallowed back his heart and sat down at a bus stop, checked his phone, sighed, pretended to lean out looking for
that goddamn bus and then to remember something lost or something forgotten somewhere and he hustled off back to the bar, leaving the box on the bench for someone else to deal with. It wasn’t worth alerting the cops. It probably wasn’t evidence anyway. Back at McAvey’s, Bern was refilling the peanut bowls.
"Excuse me," said a voice in the doorway. It was a woman, carrying the box. “You left this behind. Spirit of the season, I
had to bring it back. Merry Christmas!”
He’d misidentified the main character of 1984 once, at a party, as “Wilson Phillips,” and for a time her friends thought him
“wickedly witty.” They were the sort who really would use the phrase “wickedly witty,” but he wasn’t sure if anyone had actually used it. Then or ever. But that was exactly how they were. And he’d not been able to keep up wickedly witty for long. She practiced her personality so vigilantly now—she was a great genius at living. And it was not the drink that made him so dumb in return, not really. Though there was nothing he resented so much as liquor, and also himself. It wasn’t because of what he or what liquor had done to him. It was how they conspired together to take his money. Whoever he was, that man who was witty and welcome, had chosen to take money’s side, and together that man and liquor conspired to sell Paul back to himself, drink by drink.
“Here’s your double,” said Bern, having switched the channel over to something called TK TK TK. He would wait exactly
ten minutes. There wasn’t any point in waiting for the TV—TK TK TK, TK TK TK. Two men he’d never seen came in and sat down on the far end of the bar, men with too-thick necks and pink-faced from the wind, and as they waited for their Budweisers, one said to the other, eyes on the TV, “Them two blond bitches was laughing at me, they was laughing, and I was like fuck you, I said it, fuck you, fuck your fake lips and your plastic surgery, nobody fucks with the wolfpack, yo. nobody fucks with the wolfpack."
Twenty minutes later, there was no point in waiting any longer. Paul headed back outside with his box and down to
Battery Park, the slender delenda of Manhattan where men selling watches circled with their suitcases as though nothing were happening but money. Paul laid the box on a bench and sat down. He would wait exactly ten minutes and then wander casually away. Sometimes he came here during his lunch hours, or in that changeable part of evening, to just gaze over the expanse of things.
He’d been here last night, he realized suddenly. He’d been here with a head all messy and momentous, and he’d been
thinking, as usual, of Kate. Back at their apartment she was surely asleep. He never loved her more than when she was asleep, where he could find her eyes flickering, lost in some lightless luminous place of shadow colors and muscles catching where she could not be reached. He loved her most in sleep or in the middle of a grocery aisle where she’d be examining some sad, sure box declaring “Your family will love the rich taste!” or “Amazing prize inside!” Microwave dinners made his heart feel strange. The small cheapness of things filled him with the wildest sort of love, and he didn’t know why. But even more than that it was sleep, lying beside her watching her sleep or sitting in the bar knowing she was out there sleeping amongst them all, somewhere in that unbearable nearness of prisoners in overlapping dark cells unaware of the presence of one another and babbling out their souls.
He had the feeling he’d slept here for a while last night, too. It wouldn’t be the first time. He was really pushing it, he
knew. He knew that.
A bomb! Oh fuck it’s probably a bomb.
Paul couldn’t stop himself from glancing around wildly now, from giving himself up at last. The sounds of the city came
back to him now. On the bench adjacent, a man sat next to another man, saying, “I just keep seeing myself in that suit. I just keep seeing myself in that suit. All the colors, purple and black and both blue ones, the hats too. I just keep seeing myself in that suit.”
Go away, Paul thought, full of a convenient, protective hatred he’d learned to summon in their years in the city. Please get
up and leave. He had to escape, and now—and he didn’t trust his body not to vomit all over itself the minute he tried to move. He was nauseous and dizzy again, and something had shocked all the atoms alive and everything was colliding, the whole world huddled and smashed and moving, rocking together. But they didn’t move. The other man was now talking about that suit. They want to look like pimps, Paul thought without intending to, and then he quarantined that thought in another, because they were black men, and thinking that was probably pretty problematic, probably.
Then he thought, I’m white, no one will suspect me of a bomb. That was even more horrible, but it was a way out, too.
The Staten Island Ferry was coming in. Maybe that was the answer. Seasickness had never been a problem, but today even the ground was a sea, so the sea would be what, an earthquake? Still, he could leave the box there and stride off to the ferry. He was lucky he was a very ordinary looking man, especially down in this part of Manhattan, where white men in suits with tight clean haircuts and black shoes multiplied into what felt like half of humanity. He wasn’t a finance man, but when he first started temping he thought he’d act like one, and today it would pay out dividends. Staten Island was barely New York at all, he knew—not in his own mind (it was a horrible thought) but in the opinions of Kate’s new friends, who acted like they’d invented the city even though they, too, were all from some unspoken elsewhere. They talked about neighborhoods and rents all night and had moved here to be writers and party promoters but had in time become new people to appease the errors of their dreams. Kate was like that now, too.
So: the ferry. He would leave on the ferry. He would escape for a few hours into Staten Island—which he ought to visit
some time anyway—and would stay by the railing with his eyes closed, the world all around damped and dark. He could do this, because he’d done it before. Didn’t he go to work nauseous every day of his life? Not all of his life, just this life, his now life. And it wasn’t the move that had done it—it wasn’t that at all. And it wasn’t as sad as it might sound out loud.
He had taken his place when one of the suit men appeared. “You left this behind,” the man said with a generosity and cheer that made Paul feel grateful despite the resumed predicament. “Merry Christmas, brother! And a happy new year.”
Paul needed a bath. He felt sour all over.
Rin Kelly was a creative writer, journalist, and photojournalist. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Fabulist, Penumbric, Hobart Pulp, and others and is also forthcoming in Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Steam Ticket. In 2021, she was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize. She took classes at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco where the Rin Kelly Scholarship for Fiction has been established. She was a fellow of the Stabile Center at Columbia School of Journalism and was a film/culture editor for LA RECORD. Her investigative reporting and features have been published in newspapers in New York, Washington DC, Denver and the San Francisco Bay area. Her completed novel, The Bright and Holo Sky, a work dedicated to her life partner Tony Bar, is currently being edited and prepared for publication. A collection of her short stories, a happy kind of sorrow, is scheduled for publication.