An Excerpt from Rebecca McClanahan’s “Ginkgo Song”

Rebecca McClanahan

A one-legged man could make a killing on this street, a left-footed man, anyway, who wears a standard size. He could pluck that suede loafer, the two-tone saddle or dress cordovan, right off the sidewalk display here on Tenth Avenue. Something for everyone in New York City. This young man, for instance, stumbling toward me, something dark and feathered bundled in his arms. He looks up — red eyes, distillery breath: “You know anything about pigeons?”

“No,” I say.

“I love animals, the ones on the farm when I was young.” He holds the pigeon out to me. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Looks like he’s dying,” I say.

“Why?”

“Things die. I’m sorry.”

“I love animals,” he says.

“I’m sorry.”

“I love you too,” he says.

In the city, I usually walk with my husband, but sometimes I walk alone. If it’s dark and I must travel a winding side street, and if I sense someone following too closely, I will wave my hand at a stranger approaching, calling out the name of a friend, or I will gesture wildly to a silhouette in a lighted window, to trick the follower into believing I am not alone. Others are watching for me, will hear if I call, are waiting for me to arrive at their place any minute now.

On the park bench opposite mine, two women tilt their heads in conversation. Their ages are hard to guess, especially the small woman dressed like a Catholic school child. Pleated skirt, Mary Jane flats, a black bow anchoring a pageboy too thick and shiny not to be a wig. Her legs are so short she can’t touch the ground, and the Mary Janes swing back and forth. The other woman is large, awkward, her body an assembly of unmatched parts, something a committee might put together. Would I want to grow old in New York? I remove my earphones to learn. The Small Woman (SW) talks first, and their voices match their bodies.

SW: So, how much do you pay? (Pause) Is that gas and electric? Well, then, that’s good, good. (Long pause) How do they clean cows anyway? I mean, is milk safe? How can they keep it clean? Humans are the same way, it can’t be good for the babies. (Large Woman nods) They can’t fix the TV.
LW: How many do you have?
SW: A big one, medium-sized one, a little one. It’s the little one.
LW: It’s the tubes. It’s always the tubes.
SW: I tell you, it can’t be fixed. They said so.
LW: There’s nothing wrong with that TV. Pull out the old tubes. It’ll be good as new.
(Pause)
SW: I’m lonely. Where are all my friends?
LW: What about the dancer?
SW: Who?
LW: The dancer. The dancer, the dancer!
SW: Oh, her. (Pause) I’m lonely.

A look of pain crosses Large Woman’s face — briefly, then it’s gone — and I’m thinking Small Woman should look at Large Woman, pat her hand, something. After all, Small Woman isn’t alone, she’s got Large Woman, and doesn’t she count? She’s there right beside her. She should count.

. . .

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