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Falling on Forty-Second Street
It’s a usual night, in usual city, in a bad part of town, and I’m just thinkin’ to myself that the glimmer of lights hitting a wet street can make anywhere seem sort of magical. Well, I take that back. Maybe it’s not all that magical when the raindrops are pelting your face, like little icy pinpricks searching for bare skin. Or when it comes down so hard that you couldn’t possibly be more wet if you were stripped to the bone. No, that’s not exactly magical. But I mean afterwards. You know what I mean. When the rain stops and that scent fills your nostrils, the smell of damp gravel and wet grass and everything you know shouldn’t smell good but just does. When you walk the streets, just after a downpour, and they’re just plain empty, like you’re the only one in the entire world, like you’re the only one that gets to enjoy the special secret that is a wet city night. When the city lights are coming down on you, it’s almost like the whole world is a production and you’re center stage. I have to tell you, if you’ve never felt that feeling before, you’re really missing something. Really. It’s lonely and exhilarating all at the same time. And anyway, when the lights show down on the street, it’s just simply magical. And everyone needs a little magic in his life.
Anyway, I’m walking down 42nd Street, which, if you don’t know, is a pretty awful place to be walking late at night, especially for a guy my size. I’m about 5’8, maybe 160 pounds soaking wet, and I can’t throw a punch to save my life. Honestly. If I’m aiming for your nose, I’ll close my eyes really tightly and maybe my blow will land somewhere around your chin, if I’m lucky. But I’ll get one in my stomach back, probably twice as hard as my own, and I’ll go down pretty quickly. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.
So anyway, I’m walking down 42nd Street with my hands stuffed in my coat pockets, trying to escape the brisk fall air. I found the jacket that I’m wearing on a city bus last spring, stuffed under a seat in the back. It’s not exactly a decent looking jacket; it’s a gaudy type of green with a pair of orange strips running down the side that kind of make you wonder exactly how the manufacturer can stay in business. The hood has a slight tear on the outer edge from when I snagged it on a bush a few months back, and the lining is wearing a bit thin, but it keeps the cold out, and that’s all I can ask for. I’ve always wondered who its previous owner might be. I don’t flatter myself thinking that maybe it was a doctor or a lawyer or anyone of importance like that, but I do like to think that it belonged to someone respectable. Maybe it belonged to a family man, a guy that works a 60 hour week in a laborious job that doesn’t pay nearly enough. Maybe he bought this jacket, instead of that striking three hundred dollar number at Macy’s, because he’s just about to send his kid to community college so that he doesn’t have to work 60 hour weeks and wear ridiculous looking jackets. Yes, I like that idea. It would be nice to own the jacket of a family man.
I’ve got a kid myself, but I don’t pay for his school lunch and I certainly can’t afford college. I was just at his mom’s house, not more than two hours ago, which is partially why I’m pacing around the streets now, trying not to do what I know I eventually will.
My kid and his mom live on Silder Street in a two-bedroom apartment about fifteen minutes from my own. When I walked into the apartment building tonight, it reeked of oriental chicken and B.O., which, if you didn’t know, is how most of the apartment buildings on the West side smell. I slid past a few rough looking characters in the hallway and rapped rather loudly on their door, 4A, the only door in the whole place that wears a festive wreath on Christmas. It only took Claire a few seconds to yank the door open. At the sight of me, her eyes dropped to the floor and her body seemed to tighten. She was positioned directly in front of the small crack that led into the apartment. She did not invite me in. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, the words seemed to flitter off of her tongue and dissipate, mingling with the oriental chicken in the air. Both smelled foul.
A few seconds teetered by, and finally I was the first to speak.
“Claire, I want to see my son.”
It was not in a demanding way by any stretch; I recognize that she has been his sole caregiver for quite some time now and I am certainly not above asking permission to see him.
She paused for a moment and when she finally spoke, her tone matched the gentle quality of my own.
“It’s been three months.”
She left it at that, but the unspoken words lingered. And you haven’t called./ And you haven’t paid child support./ And he doesn’t need you. One thing that you should know about Claire is that she’s never been a bitter woman. I’ve done a lot of things to her and my boy, but she would never be malicious or spiteful if she didn’t need to be.
“I know, I know,” I tell her and I plaster a hopeful smile to my face. “But I’ve been clean all that time, I swear it. Looking for a job is just keeping me busy is all. There’re some really good openings on the docks down at Shine Brite. Good money, too. Eight dollars an hour, plus overtime.”
“That’s really good, Paul,” she told me, slowly nodding her head. “Real good.”
I took her response as my window of opportunity. “So, where is he?” I asked. “I wanted to tell him about this Monster Truck show that’s coming to town in a few weeks. I was thinking, after I got that job and all, that I would have the money to buy us a pair of tickets. Or maybe even all three of us, if you’re interested. I know that you hate that stuff, but it can be a lot of fun.”
I spoke quickly, and I was disappointed to find that my words did not register with her.
“Your mom has been looking for you, Paul. She’s worried. She’s called a few times.”
“Yeah? I’ll call her back, I’ve just been busy is all,” I answered her, “With getting that job.”
She nodded again, but stayed in place in front of the door, still reluctant to let me in.
“Look,” I tell her, “All I want is five minutes. And then I’ll go, really. I’ll call before I come next time, so you won’t be as shocked to see me. But I’m not leaving without seeming him.” My voice became stronger: not angry, but more confident. I was not leaving without getting a glimpse of my son.
She paused again, another of her infamous pauses, and then sighed. “Five minutes. But you have to swear something to me. Don’t make promises about monster trucks that you can’t keep.”
“Okay,” I agreed, my voice now deflated, “But I will take him to that show. I will.”
She stepped aside wordlessly and allowed me into the apartment, tailing off to the couch to watch some comedy and leaving me to walk to Brady’s room on my own. She’s exhausted, I can tell. She works sixty-hour weeks for our son; I would be proud to own her jacket.
The trip down the hallway was like walking the green mile. I’m being dramatic, I know, but good lord how my heart was pumping. I hesitated at his door for a brief moment, wondering what the etiquette was for walking into a kid’s room. Did I knock, or just go in? I gave a slight rap and when I got no response, I cagily opened the door and peaked my head inside. The sight was almost enough to bring me to tears.
My son, my beautiful baby boy, his pudgy cheeks still doused with baby fat, lay on his bed, sound asleep. Army men and colorful plastic dinosaurs were scattered throughout his bed, one particularly lucky figure resting directly in his palm, and I couldn’t help but think of how terribly perfect he was. The words that I had for him, half of which I can now admit would have been lies, fell silent. I peered around his room, where posters of cartoon figures and model airplanes occupied every crevice, and one thought pierced my mind: I was unworthy. I moved to cover him up, but stopped myself, and laid a gentle kiss on his forehead. He shifted in his sleep and the figure lying in his palm fell to the mattress with a gentle thud. I picked it up, rolling it between my fingers, and then carefully placed it into my jacket pocket. And then I turned around to head home.
So I’m pacing the streets two hours later, and I’ve finally given up. I’m going. My body screams for it and my mind dreams of it and, as of this moment, my heart aches for it. My feet have not been pacing; they have been moving in its direction for a while now. I pass lawns that have grown far too long and trampolines in small, weed-ridden yards and I know that I am close. Finally, I reach the house. It is dilapidated and decrepit and everything that my nightmares are made of, yet I return again and again, a zombie to a haunted house.
When I reach the door, I ring the bell twice quickly, pause, and then once more, the precautionary signal used for the dealings. I slide my money into the slot made for mail: forty dollars that I receive monthly with my food stamps, forty dollars that should have gone to my kid. The flap wobbles back and forth and I grab the bag and slide it into my pocket. An unknown name and an unknown face: exactly how I like my transactions to be.
When I was younger, our family used to have a cabin in Cuba, New York. It was one of my favorite places to go, mainly because I was infatuated with the outdoors. My sisters never liked the place, but I would get lost for hours in the woods, playing games that only boys truly know how to play. My favorite time to go there was fall; there was something just plain magical about the way the air nipped at your face and the trees turned brilliant shades of red and orange. And everyone needs a little magic in his life.
When I was nine years old, our family took a trip to the cabin just before Thanksgiving. On our second night there, before dinner, I went off exploring on my own with instructions to be back before six o’clock. I traveled to the very depths of the woods, stopping only to inspect a few leaves that I found particularly tasteful and pocketing them to show my mother later. After about half an hour of traveling, I finally reached my destination: the placed that I had deemed “The Cliff”. Of course, at nine years old, it only seemed like a cliff; the connotation of the word rings somewhat untrue, as the rocky mass was only about one story high. I warily stepped out onto its ledge, the leaves crunching beneath my feet as I made my way to the edge. I was cautious, yet the thrill of danger was exhilarating all the same. I pointed my toe and slowly stuck it over the edge, allowing it to dangle for a mere moment. I was a daredevil, an acrobat, the eighth wonder of the world. I would imagine myself being interviewed by the press, by the lady with the perm that never moves on Channel 10 and the guy with red mustache on the morning news.
‘ How you accomplish such bold feats?’ they would ask.
‘ Simple,’ I would say. ‘ I’m special.’
I do not recall what caused me to slip. What I do recall is what it felt like to fall. It’s another one of those feelings that you have to experience yourself because I simply don’t have enough elegant words to describe it. But I’ll try. It is weightlessness. It is exquisite fear. It is divine trepidation. Your brain is in your knees and your heart is in your throat and your breath is anywhere but in your lungs. Yet somehow, you are not inside of your body to exactly experience these feelings; your view is from the heavens. It all happens so quickly, and when it is done, your body is left tattered and broken, and when your mind decides to return from its spot perched upon the clouds, it is left in agony. I don’t know if I explained that right. But I tried the best way I know how.
I tell you this story because this is how I feel as I am taking a hit. I am falling. And when I am done, I have reached the ground.
I pull Brady’s toy from my pocket. A small green army man. I use its plastic gun to scrape the bottom of my pipe.
It’s a usual night, in a usual city, in a bad part of town and I’m just thinkin’ to myself, nothing in particular.