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A Blessing on East 85th
It was a concrete jungle of all things urban, endless asphalt and angular structures that tickled the clouds, gleaming glass and metal. Engineering had attempted to compensate for the lack of greenery, yet had only made it all the more apparent. Plumes of steam rose with a great stench from manholes, and the technicolor stains of graffiti drew eyes to the walls of filthy alleyways. It was as though the world had been petrified into solid forms, and stretched to the horizon in a gigantic grid.
East 85th Street was one of many on this grid, barely indistinguishable and known solely by a direction and a number. There was the customary jumble of buildings and the flooding of people and hastened taxis within the road. A sorrowful brick apartment building occupied the block, appearing quite small in contrast to the skyscrapers.
In the topmost window on the left, had anyone bothered to look, was the disheartened face of a man. The face remained there for a moment more, then retreated. His apartment was a simple affair, bare except for the most absolute necessities. There was a worn armchair, an iron-frame bed, a makeshift kitchen area, and an ungracious closet half-filled with clothes that he had scrounged up at Salvation Army. The place was filled with an emptiness that had nothing to do with the lack of furniture.
He had lined up old beer bottles on the windowsill, and the kitchen table was sheathed in a fading gingham tablecloth, the picnic kind, that was obviously intended for somewhere greener and more enjoyable. There were two chairs drawn up about it, yet one always sat vacant ever since she had left.
He tried to meet her eyes, but their gaze was fleeting, her winged lashes beating like a frightened little bird. She was shifting, half there and half not, as though she had already left him in her mind.
He swallowed hard, taking a step toward her.
Don't go, Rach. Don't. Please.
She bit her lip until the color drained. Her breathing echoed and he felt the untraversable miles between them, even though if he had reached out he could have brushed the tear from her cheek. He couldn't comprehend what was happening, couldn't accept the painful truth. And so he skirted around it, deceived himself and at the same time condemned himself to an impossible sorrow.
She's just saying that, she doesn't mean it. She loves me. It's always been this way.
She turned her face to him, eyes ringed with red. He didn't recognize the way she was looking at him- guiltily, aching, resolute. She brushed past him and forever abandoned herself to the city.
He stirred, aching from a restless sleep- the radiator had been rattling all night. There was a hint of stubble on his jaw and a weary look in his eye. The world outside was lightening by degrees, but all was mostly cloaked in darkness.
From down the hallway came muffled voices and the squeaking of wheels on the threadbare carpet. Unseen below, an ambulance had quietly pulled itself up to the curb. Its lights were off.
The man blinked tiredly and ambled to the door. In the dimness, he could make out the silhouettes of several people at a distance down the corridor. Their voices were low, and even as they approached him he couldn't decipher their speech. A woman, flanked by a handful of EMT's, soon passed him. In the meager light escaping his apartment, he noticed that tears were running in heavy rivulets down her cheeks.
"Excuse me sir, what's going on?" he questioned a passing EMT.
The EMT waited for the others to progress out of earshot, then cleared his throat and half-whispered, "It's Mrs. Thompson. She passed away last night."
The bedraggled man remained in the hallway until the EMT had disappeared around the corner. He had not known Mrs. Thompson well, but had known her well enough to feel a bit of sorrow. She was a pleasant old woman- she had worn cardigans and little slippers, and smelled like musk and years. She kept mostly to herself, but the past few Christmases, she had arrived at his door with a paper plate of cookies and a smile. He stood there a moment more, and then drew the door closed with a soft click.
He was struggling to fix the radiator when a flash of white swept under the door. It was probably just another overdue bill, but he got to his feet anyways and inspected the paper.
I hate to bother you, but I was wondering if you could help me carry a few heavy boxes... I couldn't help but notice you in the hall this morning. I'd really appreciate it. I'm Mrs. Thompson's granddaughter, by the way. Don't feel obligated, but I'll be over in her apartment if you feel like stopping by.
Thanks so much,
He left his wrench on the floor and tugged on a fresh t-shirt before heading off in the direction of her apartment. He stepped cautiously onto the threshold and scanned the room before his eyes alighted upon her. A young woman, 25 at the most, was arched over an assortment of boxes in the far corner. Her hair was in a messy brown knot at the nape of her neck, and she wore an oversized sweater and a pair of rain boots. She didn't appear to notice him, and continued to sort books from a massive pile.
She swept a stray piece of hair from her eyes and moved methodically.
From the corner came a stifled sob, and he turned awkwardly away before she saw him.
"I... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, excuse me," she managed.
A look of weariness melted across her features. She found her composure and gestured for him to join her.
"Hi, um, I'm Sadie. I'm guessing you got my note, then?"
"Yes ma'am, I sure did. I was afraid you were the landlord for a moment." he studied her face and extended his hand. "I'm Hank. Pleased to meet you, Miss Sadie."
"So, basically I'm just sorting everything," she explained.
There were old records and china to categorize, antique furniture to move, paintings to take off the wall, and all sorts of things to pack away. They worked for the better part of the morning and into the afternoon.
Together they strained to move the sofa towards the doorway. It was impossibly heavy and bulky, and so they resorted to pushing it inches at a time. Sadie's legs began sliding in vain against the carpet, the sofa refusing to budge as she gritted her teeth and ran faster and ever faster. She kept going until the lack of momentum sent her collapsing onto the floor. Her cheeks were flushed and she began to laugh. He grinned, and it was a sensation that he had nearly forgotten.
"Alright, I think we both deserve a drink." she resolved, wiping her hands on her jeans and rising to her feet.
He could hear her humming in the kitchen, and the linoleum squeaked beneath him as he meandered in and leaned backwards against the counter.
She fixed two glasses of lemonade from a tin in the cupboard, and handed him one. "Wait a sec," she murmured, "I forgot something."
She rummaged in the pantry for a good while, then finally produced two bendy straws. "Always makes it better."
"Of course," he agreed. "Cheers."
By now, it was late afternoon and the sunlight was streaming through the windows in milky shafts, illuminating the soft lines of Sadie's face and filling the kitchen with an almost palpable flood of light.
"What's this?" he pointed nonchalantly to a little key hanging by the pantry.
"Oh, that." her face lit up even more. "I'll show you." She led him out the door and pointed to an inconspicuous iron door at the end of the hallway.
"I'm gonna finish sorting. You need a break, go ahead."
He watched her slip back into the apartment. The crackly radio inside roared to life, and he was sure that all of East 85th was being bombarded with Johnny Cash.
He tried the key in the door and it yielded to a dim flight of concrete steps that led upwards to the rooftop. The brightness struck him and his eyes had not been adjusted for a moment when he was once more thrown into a daze.
Before him was a spectacular garden that occupied every inch of the building's skyline. It was simply stunning. In all directions, greenery and blooms flourished defiantly in the unyielding clutches of the city. It was so unexpected that all he could do was take it in a little at a time.
A couple of pigeons flitted from his path. He followed the rows up and down, taking in the rosy glow of the peonies and the sweet smells that lingered in the air. There were a million flowers he had never seen before, vines and shrubs and great blossoming beds of the most vibrant shades imaginable.
He spread out the gingham table cloth in the midst of the garden, and then laid down softly and folded his arms behind his head. It was an island in the sea of lights, sirens, and the city itself. Maybe he could escape into a world that was not his, one that did not encompass death or abandonment or anything of the sort. The stars were almost visible through the smog, and many times he thought he caught the promising hint of a glimmer. There was comfort in knowing they were always there even if unseen, twinkling in the vaulted sanctuary of the sky and part of something incomprehensibly beautiful.
He had lost himself in memories when he became aware of a movement next to him. Sadie silently folded herself down onto the gingham and met his eyes with a slight smile before turning away. She hugged her knees to her chest and didn't offer words for a while. When she finally spoke, she spoke softly with a meditated intent.
"She used to come up here all the time. Well, of course she had to water the plants and all that, but it was for other reasons, too."
"She liked to get lost in it, she told me. Don't think I'm crazy... but maybe losing yourself is finding yourself in a way."
There was a moment of silence as they both pondered it over.
"No," he assured her. "That makes perfect sense."
"Good," she laughed. "So, enough about me. We've established that I'm crazy and for the life of me, I can't push a couch. Tell me about you."
"You sure? It's an awfully long story," he warned.
"Go for it," she encouraged.
For the first time in two years he felt pure, sweet contentment. Somewhere in her company, the reaches of the garden and the infinite ink sky above them was the promise of rescue. He drew in a long breath to start.