What I’ve noticed: how fast they put up these buildings. Cart away the rubble, square off the excavation, lay in the steel, and up she goes. Concrete floor slabs and, at night, work lamps hanging like stars. After a flag tops things off as if they were all sailing somewhere, they load in the elevator, do the wiring, the plumbing, they tack on the granite facing and set in the windows through which you see they’ve walled in the apartments, and before you know it there’s a canopy to the curb, a doorman, and upstairs just across the street from my window, a fully furnished bedroom and a naked girl dancing.
Another thing: how people in the street are pulled along by little dogs on the leash. Usually a little short-legged dog keeping the leash taut so you know who’s in charge. He sniffs out the place to do what he does, does it, and then he’s ready to go on, leaving his two-legged body servant to pick it up. They are royalty, these dogs, they stop to nose one another, they wag their coiffed tails, they’re on their outing, with their shiny coats and curled ears and glittering eyes and the leash a band of leather, taut as a spinal cord, as if this is one creature, oddly shaped, with four short legs and a brain in front, and two tall legs and no brain in back.
And when it rains in this city? It might be just a few drops, but out floop the umbrellas. People holding these things that are like hats on pikes. It is funny, the simple cartoon logic of it. But when it really rains, wind and rain together, the umbrellas blow out, and that’s even funnier, people lifted off their feet.
You can bet they don’t use umbrellas on the meadows of Mongolia.
To avoid the bent old ladies and their carts of groceries and their walkers and canes and black women helpers taking up three quarters of the sidewalk, I run in the street. I mean cars are less of a problem. In typical traffic they are standing still as I run past the horns blowing their dissonant mass protest, and so I wear my earmuffs and I’m fine.
But I run, really, because I don’t know what else to do. I have not believed in where I am for a long time. I mean why, outside of every movie theater I run past, are people standing on line waiting to get in? What or who has persuaded them? And the movie theaters themselves with their filmed stories that I am supposed to worry over? Sitting in the dark and worrying over actors acting out stories? And the need to buy popcorn before you do this? To buy popcorn in movie theaters like you light votive candles in cathedrals? The obligation to eat popcorn that you don’t eat at any other time while watching moving pictures that you have to worry over is a peculiar, anthropological custom for which I have no reasonable explanation.
I don’t belong here. I am outside this realm. If I were inside this realm, I wouldn’t feel this way. I wouldn’t remark on these things. Why do girls see an apartment in a new building as the occasion to dance naked? And the people on leashes holding umbrellas over their heads. And the cars that can’t move, bleating their mass dissonance as if they were Mongolian sheep?
And how can I help thinking everybody I see on the sidewalk is as friendless and alone as I am, that we are total anonymities, talking importantly on our cell phones as we walk along like actors in movies that everyone has to worry over.
Of course on a closer look we can be told apart. I am a trim, sinewy fellow, I am that way from running. I run. I don’t know what else to do by way of filling my lungs with carcinogenic particulate. I could climb up the stairs of the apartment building across the street and knock on the door of the naked girl dancing, but I don’t. I run over to the park and then run with the other runners around the reservoir.
This fellow with the T-shirt that says, “The Program is Running!” sometimes comes up and lopes along beside me. I never know when he’ll appear. Sometimes there are two or three of them with that logo on their T-shirts like they can’t just run, it has to be a cool team thing so that everyone else can feel left out. You run pretty good, the fellow says with an ungrammatical smirk, and with no effort at all he glides past me and bounds away. At such times I feel that my feet are not hitting the ground, but pedaling air.
And then the female runners who run in pairs with their shoulders back and their chins up: they don’t have names printed on them, they are like long-legged birds stepping along in their tights and with their sweaters tied by the sleeves at their waists and rippling like little flags over their backsides.
You may ask to whom I think I’m talking. Suppose, for instance, you are one of those thin, undocumented Chinese men on balloon tire bicycles delivering take-out. You would find me just as I find everything else, which is to say not quite right. I mean I am not yet characteristically impassively sad. I do not ride along on balloon tires delivering Chinese food to apartments where naked girls dance and little dogs with curly coats and glittering eyes will eat the leftovers. So even I, in my incomprehensible talking, can be seen as one more aspect of this weird realm.
In Mongolia the air is clean and cold and you see the stars at night, you actually see them. The shepherds look almost Chinese, with their herds of sheep and goats and with camels and yaks for their regal transportation. No cell phones here. You do not see shepherds walking along with cell phones at their ears past doormen giving them the once over. They are strong men with sturdy builds and they know the kingdom of earth with its yaks and camels and goats and wild horses is their dominion. They accept the responsibility. They would not run just for the sake of running. If they had a reservoir they would not run around it, they would drop on their knees to see the night sky of stars in the water unless it froze opaque at night like everything does on the steppe. In which case they would see the moonlight inside the ice.
You may ask how I pass the time when I’m not running. Alone, is my answer—as alone as when I am running. My only company is the grammarian who lives with me in my brain. If you ask me with whom am I talking, I am talking always to him or her. So I say to whom. So I don’t say lay down, I say lie down. I say would have and will not have. I don’t say you and me aren’t getting anywhere, I say you and I aren’t getting anywhere. I say you and I aren’t getting anywhere is an idiom. I say you and I aren’t getting anywhere may also be something of a metaphor, but is not a synecdoche or a metonym. When I run, too, I am not getting anywhere since I have no destination other than returning to my window across the street from the naked girl dancing. She and I are not getting anywhere either.
Other than to the grammarian I am never sure to whom I will be talking. I speed-dial my cell phone. I get you. You may ask to whom do I think I’m talking. I say I’m talking to you. And who may that be, you say. And then I recognize who it is, it is my mother.
You have all the time in the world, she says.
Until something happens, Mother says.
What can happen?
If we knew, she says, and breaks the connection. I speed-dial her again and get the same assurance that I have all the time in the world on her answering machine. Now can you appreciate why I run? (To whomever I think I’m talking?)
I am always glad to have weather, though it is difficult to run past the construction sites with the cranes in the street, and past the cars with their horns of mass dissonance and their windshield wipers clacking and their headlights lighting up the rain. I am competing for the lanes between the cars with the Chinese take-out men on their balloon tire bikes. I try the sidewalk, but the old ladies with walkers and shopping carts and their angry black women helpers are everywhere with their umbrellas threatening to poke out my eyes. And the little dogs wearing booties now, jumping around and trying to bite off the booties that keep their paws dry and so twisting up their leashes as to make the old ladies trip and fall and runners like me leap over them as if we are in an obstacle race.
I am wet and cold with rainwater dripping down my neck, but only when I reach the park can I see the rainfall in its entirety. I circle the reservoir with the sky black above me and the rain, in large walloping drops, popping like popcorn in the dark water. The Programmers splash past, not speaking today, and up ahead those long-legged women leave momentary footprints in the water as they lope along with their limp black sweaters contoured now to their newly indicated behinds.
When I leave the park the streets are streaming, and in the black morning lit by the headlights of the cars not moving, plastic bags of garbage roll over in the water and people are hurrying to work with their umbrellas blown out in the wind like suddenly sprouted trees.
Only the children are unconcerned as they slog to school in their yellow slickers with their violin cases strapped to their backs.
A shaft of sunlight lights up the street from a crack in the black sky. The clouds blow off, the air is all at once warm and humid, and in a matter of minutes I’m trotting along in a brilliant blue morning. Water drips from the apartment house canopies, gurgling rivulets run along the curbstone. I feel as if I’ve risen from one element into another.
On my block, across from my building, some paper trash has spilled out of a torn plastic bag—business letters, bills, fliers. I pick up a handwritten letter on blue vellum, feeling that it was meant for me. My doorman tends to a wet dog on the leash and the dog shakes himself as I pass through my lobby. The ink of my letter runs like tears as I read, while rising to my floor, the grief of an abandoned lover. She can’t understand why he has left her, she needs to see him, come back, she says, come to me, for she still loves him, she always will, and it is all so sad so sad, so sad, and I don’t know who threw the letter away, he after reading it or she after writing it, but I want to speed-dial whomever it is I talk to and express my gratitude, because when I get upstairs, across the street the shade is drawn on the window of the naked dancing girl and all I have ever wanted is specificity.
I just have to think that and my cell phone rings. To whom am I talking, I say. To whom do you think you’re talking, you say. I say my father. And so it is.
I have warned you about specificity, my father says. Nothing is possible but that which has happened.
And what is that which has happened?
In this case something of great sadness, my father says. There are limits to what even we can do, he says, and breaks the connection.
Despite my father’s warning, I shower and shave and dress nicely and wait for the evening hour to call on her. Downstairs I nod at my doorman, jog directly across the street, and ask her doorman to announce me. I feel my heart beating. I rise in the elevator. I reach her floor. Her door is open.
Come in, a voice says, and I enter a dimly lighted room. A large Seeing Eye German shepherd stands there. From its leather harness a leash angles up into the gloom. Patient, forbearing, the dog moves toward me one careful step at a time. I know it’s you, the voice says, and the speaker emerges from the darkness, a large old woman holding a walker to which the leash is tied. She looks familiar. Hair bunched like steel wool. A big bony jaw, a thin nose. Blind eyes bulging to see. It is the kind of ancient ugliness that connotes a past beauty. She wears a loose black knit dress with the sleeves pulled up to the elbows. Loops of pearls hang from her neck and clack against her walker. You dare to come back? she says. You dare?
I look past her to a dimly lighted dining room. In the glimmering light of a candle whose flame flares and fizzles like a star in the sky, I can see lying on the table a specifically dead girl, the contours of her body indicated in the tight wrappings of a white shroud. I can’t remember her name, but I know I once loved her. Her closed eyes suggest a mind in intense thought. You’re too late, the old woman says, you’re too late, she says with enormous satisfaction. Her triumph is affirmed by the smell of Chinese food coming from her kitchen. I go there and several mourners sitting around the kitchen table look up from the open white cardboard containers into which they are dipping their chopsticks. For a moment I think I know exactly that which has happened. But then over the heads of the mourners at their Chinese food and through the kitchen window that looks out across a dark side street I see in a lighted window a naked girl dancing.
And now I am back home and unaccountably sad. At the same time I feel I have been unfairly judged. This was not the kind of specificity for which I long.
You to whom I think I am talking may ask what I do when I’m not running or longing for specificity: I question my station in life. I believe I am retired, but I feel I am too young to have retired. On the other hand, or alternatively, I don’t know of any work that I’m doing that would suggest I’m not retired. As you can imagine, it would make anyone uneasy knowing there are things about himself he does not know.
I am not constantly unhappy, I’m not saying that. But my uneasiness builds until I have to talk to someone. At such times I speed-dial my therapist.
Yes? To whom do you think you’re talking?
You got him.
I’m having that feeling again.
That is to be expected.
It’s like I’m living in exile. I am lonely. I have no one.
That is to be expected.
Why? Why is it to be expected? That’s all you ever say.
No, I say other things. I say you’re in a rut. I say change your lifestyle, expand your horizons. A whole city is at your disposal: museums, concerts, the passing parade. I say go out and enjoy yourself. You’ve got all the time in the world.
You said I have all the time in the world. Until what?
Until something happens.
What can happen?
If we knew. But we don’t, he says, and breaks the connection.
I have to admit the thought of expanding my horizons is attractive, so I am on my way to the Museum of Natural History. And to change my lifestyle, I’ll take the bus. It dawns on me metaphorically that I have never appreciated the bus stop for the ancient invention it is. Carriages pulled up at inns, ox carts creaked from one village square to another, pirogues made their landings along the rivers of Mongolia. The cartoon logic of the bus stop makes me smile with a love for all mankind. I wait faithfully at this stop and lightly inhale the city’s carcinogenic particulate.
An old woman with a walker is here with her black woman helper, whose expressionless face conceals a great anger. Also, three slim middle-aged men with closely cropped hair and matching sweatsuits. More trusting people arrive at the bus stop, a man in a doorman’s uniform, a priest, a pretty girl at whose mini-skirted backside I steal a glance. Also a pair of small, self-sufficient children, a boy and a girl, each of them holding a violin case. In their jeans and jackets, to say nothing of their mutual commitment to the violin, they might be twins.
I see our bus in the distance. It has been at that same distance for sometime now. I see it over the car roofs. Nothing seems to be moving. The way things are going hundreds of us will be waiting at this stop before the bus ever arrives. Waves of dissonant horn blowing break over my ears. All at once I lose my love of mankind. I resume my old lifestyle and take off at a run between the cars because that is the only way I will get to the Natural History Museum.
The moment I come through the doors, I hear that characteristic museum murmur. Maybe it is the murmur of visitors long gone because I look around, but I am the only person here. I find I am in the Mongolian Hall. I am tracking through the taiga, which is the name for this wild, snow-filled boreal forest of needle-leaf evergreens, spruce, and pine. I say I’m “tracking through” because I am there—this exhibit is a terrarium that you walk into, and as I move through this lush biome, the earth revolves, and from the frigid boreal forest with its cold stars visible even in dark winter daylight and its skulking hunting lynx hush-hushing through the snow, and its leaping snowshoe rabbit, and its stumbling terrorized blind vole, I find myself rotated to the green steppe where the snow has turned to rain and the rainy wind flattens the nap on the shepherds’ coats and the sturdy shepherds and their sons, quietly indifferent to the weather, walk their yaks and goats and sheep over the low rises of natural pasture. But things are changing still, and gradually the earth flattens, grows warm, and I am in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where the sun is blinding and the snakes coil themselves in the shade of rocks, and tiny tornadoes of sand sting one’s legs. Here is a Buddhist monk in a saffron robe dancing away from the sand stings. So I am not alone. I follow him as he dances in circles barefoot over the hot sand and spins right out of the Mongolian Hall of the Museum of Natural History and into a waiting bus. It is occupied solely by Buddhist monks in saffron robes. The bus door closes with a hiss as if it could drive off, but of course it can’t, not because it is a Buddhist bus but because it is locked in the unmoving traffic.
I resume my run now, I head downtown. I’m running well, still intent on expanding my horizons. But it suddenly comes over me that I have trudged through the taiga and hiked over the steppe and into the desert, going from cold to hot, from snow to sun, many times before. The fact is I know the Natural History Museum as well as my own hand. And so what new horizon? Not only have I been to the museum more times than I can count, I have never seen anything but the Mongolian Hall and never has it been without that Buddhist monk spinning in the sand.
There seems to be a flow of people going my way, runners running between the cars, walkers moving at a good pace on the sidewalks. Closing in on Times Square, I step into a doorway that has glass cases with black and white photos of dancing girls, and I flip open my cell phone.
Hello? To whom am I speaking?
To whom do you wish to speak?
You’ve got him.
I feel weak, my legs are shaking. I’ve just run forty blocks, but I’m in good shape and I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m here in Times Square, there are thousands of people standing around and waiting for what I don’t know and I have never felt more alone. I think my heartbeat is irregular.
You’re not alone.
Irregular heartbeats are quite common.
What’s the use of talking to you!
You’re just frightened. It’s understandable. But it will pass. This is not an urgent situation, you know, you have all the time in the world.
Until something happens.
What can happen?
If we knew. But we don’t. On the other hand, what choice did we have?
You mean I will continue to feel miserably alone in the middle of crowds with my knees shaking?
That is probably the case, he says. And at other times too.
Why didn’t you tell me before this?
We’ve been telling you forever.
We inform you periodically. So when and if it happens you’ll be prepared.
Prepared for what? You are giving me the willies!
The willies is a slang term. Slang terms are time sensitive, they are really not useful in the long run.
Please use only the durable words. They’re no less important than grammatical relations.
I’m ringing off, I say, I’m hanging up, that’s two time sensitive words right there, I say, and I flip the phone closed.
I step out of the doorway and am swept into the crowd that’s pressing forward with great excitement. Here I am in despair, grieving for what or whom I don’t know, and all of it means nothing to the people around me, who are surging forward with eyes alight and shouts of joy. I let myself be carried along and I gaze upward to the array of signs and ads and giant videos of runners racing and racing cars crashing and movie actors shooting one another and other movie actors kissing one another in scenes from movies that they want you to worry over. Times Square is unnaturally brilliant in a light brighter than daylight with gigantic signs of sulking models, and cantilevered broadcast studios with flashing call signs, and modern glass tower office buildings reflecting the rainbow colors of the flashing signs and videos—it is all enough to make me want to forget my troubles here with the enormous swaying crowd, of which I am a part, basking as if it were in the radiant sunshine of the Great White Way, outshining the sun and turning the blue sky white.
But now the crowd, having packed itself tight and motionless, grows still, as all the buzzing signs shut off one by one and the video screens go blank and in the natural light of day an enormous stage rises into view in the heart of Times Square. I fight my way forward and the crowd parts for me.
Seated on the stage is an ensemble of what must be a thousand children, the boys in white shirts and red ties, the girls in white middies with red neckerchiefs, and the violin sections waiting with violins tucked under their chins and bows raised, and the little cellists hunched over their cellos, and the dozens of bassists half-hidden behind their basses, and the rows of horn players with their arrayed horns catching the sun, and timpanists triple the usual number waiting with earnest intrepid faces, and banks of child harpists at either end framing it all in celestial gold. A thousand dutiful faces are raised to the conductress who has taken her place at the podium, in her long white gown. She lifts her arms, her chin rises, down comes the baton, and I have to choke back the tears because this is the famous Children’s Orchestra of the Universe and they are playing “Welcome Sweet Springtime” only slightly off key.
I am overwhelmed with emotion and find myself crying with remorse for a life almost too painful to endure.
Elbowing my way through the rapt crowd into one of the side streets, I run heedlessly, crossing avenues where, as if there were no concert back in Times Square, people are going about their ordinary business, dog walkers walking packs of dogs on leashes, joggers jogging, old women with walkers, cars unmoving, the drivers having got out to stand by their open doors
A block or two farther west, I run up the steps and through the oak doors of a steepled church of black stone. It is cold and damp here and smells of cement. Empty pews. Banks of votive candles in little red glasses. I spy a filigreed door off to the side, open it, and step into a boxlike container with a bench, and I know exactly what to say because I desperately mean it.
Father, forgive me for I have sinned.
I’m sorry, that is the one consolation we do not offer.
Well then, what consolations do you do offer?
The corporeal illusion. A gender identity.
What is the corporeal illusion?
A euphemism for the disgusting belief that you inhabit a body.
Wait just a minute. Is that a consolation, a priest telling me I am an illusion of
And cultural memory. That’s nothing to sneeze at. You should be thankful for that. Keeping you within what you knew. Enswathing you in what was.
Enswathing me? Enswathing me?
The ultimate consolation is forgetfulness, of course. There is progressive awareness, but to a point. So that you know but don’t know. So that you have to be told again and again. Until . . .
. . . an untreated sentience is required. But at this moment you have all the time in the world.
I have all the time in the world.
Until sentience is required.
And when will that be?
When something happens.
What can happen?
If we knew.
Back in Times Square and not a soul is in sight. In the cavernous emptiness the buzzing of the Broadway signs is like the roar of machinery. I dodge into a movie. Nobody there to sell me a ticket. Nobody selling popcorn. I’m the only one in the theater. The picture shows a dark red sky as if the world is burning. A hot wind blows litter along the streets of a city. Torn plastic garbage bags rolling about, paper trash spinning in the air. Violins in pieces, smashed underfoot. No cars, no traffic. Where buildings stood, craters, piles of rubble and pikes of twisted steel. Overhead, the sky has turned into a bronze vault with clouds the color of smoke drifting fast. I don’t understand this film. What has happened? Water flows through the streets. Human shadows bounding ahead, looming, racing backward. There appears a Chinese man bicycling furiously, his balloon tires leaving a track in the water. A moment later a pack of yelping dogs splashing after him. Now sirens, I hear sirens.
It is all too real for my taste. I leave. When I reach my block, I am almost surprised to find it up and standing. I have lost my sense of time. What time is it? What day is it? The doorman nods. The elevator works. I close my door behind me and listen to my own breathing. Having expanded my horizons, I know for a certainty I am a deportee. I am in the wrong place.
Is this, in fact, my apartment? There is food in the refrigerator that is not my food. There are pictures on the wall of people I don’t know. And then the changed pattern in the carpet.
I open the doors to the little terrace and step into the mild evening air. The lights of the city are on. Across the way a Buddhist monk is dancing with the naked girl. I must speak to somebody.
At this moment I understand that I don’t need a cell phone and never have.
To whom am I thinking? Is it the Program?
I have questions to which I expect answers.
Are you calm?
I am quite calm.
What do you want to know?
I have not believed in where I am for a long time. Why should I pretend otherwise?
Do you have a question that isn’t rhetorical?
Where is this? What city is this? Because it’s not my city.
We admit we achieved something less than perfection.
Is that an answer?
We didn’t, like you, have all the time in the world. Time was of the essence.
Why was time of the essence?
You already know the answer to that.
Of course. You saw what happened.
Everybody else is gone.
And now it’s just me. With only the phantom multitudes to keep me company.
Yes. We determined that procreation simply made no sense. It was cyclical and hadn’t gotten us anywhere.
Procreation hadn’t gotten us anywhere?
Correct. And because time was of the essence we chose the most logical course. Otherwise we would have been left no possibility of knowing.
What we don’t know.
I can’t accept this. There have to be others.
We can’t confirm or deny. But, in fact, the enormous work was archival. And we ran out of time.
Then this is it? Then I am truly the only one? I’m the chosen one?
You could put it that way. Although who it would be was the least of our concerns. Once we had the means, and knew of what we were capable, everything fell away that wasn’t relevant. It was a glorious finale for us.
A glorious finale for you.
Glorious meaning having the quality of glory. Finale meaning final act.
You said you were calm.
I am no longer calm—I wash my hands of this!
That may be a synecdoche.
That is not a synecdoche!
It may be a metonym.
It is not a metonym! I never consented to this. You have put me here without my consent! I have my rights! Are you listening?
Just a moment please. Just a moment please . . .
Yes? Talk to me!
Just a moment. Just—We don’t know if there is the possibility of an answer. But if there is, the revelation will be yours.
If something is to be revealed, it will be to you.
Oh no. No.
The revelation, if there is one, will be yours.
No, no, no, no, no! I still have options. Every living thing has options.
You are no longer corporeally equipped to have options.
Program, listen to me. Can you listen? You’ve made an error.
We’ll be the judge of that.
Please. I beg you—
You’ll feel better shortly.
Let me be nothing, I want to be nothing!
There is no nothing. If there were nothing, it would be something.
The sky has turned a deep blue. There is a stillness in the city. The air is warm. I feel the lightest, gentlest of breezes. I climb onto the terrace railing. I can see the stars emerging as clearly as if I were in Mongolia.
The night darkens, and the constellated stars seem to be greeting me. In a surge of joy that flows from my heart I lift my arms and greet the heavens. Welcome, sweet springtime!
My hand brushes against something.
This is the sky. I am touching the sky. I feel it with the tips of my fingers. It is hard, metallic, with the texture of the tiniest of nubs, little dots, like Braille, some of them aglimmer. But then they begin to soften and melt away. Or is it my hand that is melting away?
And I think, for a moment, that I have felt a reverberant hum, as of some distant engine.