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SECOND THOUGHTS, NEW YORK, 1999 by Michael Howerton

Richard Beller, an accountant from Madison, nearing fifty, father of three and recently estranged from his life, awoke unexpectedly, finding himself wrapped in sweat-soaked sheets in a dingy New York hotel, the radiator blasting heat into the tiny blank room despite the mild November weather, with no premonition that this day would be the last of his trip. The sunlight crept along his face from the window and reached his eyes, making him rise with a start. He pulled off the damp sheets and stumbled to the shower. He felt awful. He didn’t think he had drunk that much last night, just enough to put him out. He undressed, stepped under the cold water, and tried not to think of the night before, or the nights before that. He had a headache, maybe a fever but chances were his boiling delirium was probably the result of the heater-induced inferno. He dried off, the sudden drop in body temperature gave him the chills, and he went to the coffee maker by the sink to find, searching in the basket of provisions besides the maker, that the room was out of coffee.

He needed to get out. He needed coffee. He jammed a Yankees cap on his head, not his team, not his city — he had bought it yesterday from a guy on the street because the white glare of the fall sun was unrelenting, blanched and angry, and he needed to shield his eyes from the sky — and he stepped into the glare and mild breeze of Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe she’ll call, he thought as he set foot to the sidewalk, but then decided that even if she did, it’s better if he’s not there. The Yankees had won the World Series the week before, and he noticed his cap was a popular fashion choice, made him invisible, anonymous on the street, just another asshole with somewhere to go, an illusion that suited him fine. He wished he had his battered maroon Wisconsin cap that fit his better, but it was just as well not to have anything he was attached to. The warm weather on this date had the city spinning. So many people, Richard wasn’t used to so many people, passing him, bumping him, weaving in front of him. He felt drunk, stumbling down the avenue, off-balance, trying to avoid running into people. The world moved around him, a blurry riot of bare flesh and loose cloth, shapes, sounds, smells, not registering as beings. He couldn’t keep walking; he felt he was beginning to hallucinate, rushing toward a blackout. He fell into an open sidewalk seat at a cafe at a white plastic table that had been mercifully just vacated as he approached.

Coffee, some toast, he said to the man who came with a notepad and a suspicious glare before Richard could even get his bearings. The man nodded and left, his notebook unused, obviously disapproving.

Richard took his hand out, take his cap off his head. Here was his coffee; the warm liquid made him feel there. He watched the people around him at the sidewalk tables. He drank and stared into the traffic. The sunlight fell through the fall leaves, the burgundies, oranges, yellows, and maroons. At this date, the leaves hung to the branches at the curb with diminishing strength. The coffee washed over his mind like a shade slowly running up a window. He listened to a man behind him talking about his recent marriage. A young woman at the table next to him with long blonde hair and skates on her feet got up and bumped his desk as she slid inside for a refill, his coffee splashing out of his mug. She didn’t apologize. A woman, short with strands of gray hair, came along, and seeing all the tables full, she asked the man next to him who was reading a science textbook if she could share his table. He moved his bag without a word. The sidewalk was full of bodies, carts, and bicycles. He was fine as long, he felt, he could continue to sit. Merengue came faintly from the corner bodega next to the cafe. Tour buses paraded by, tourists on the open upper deck aimed video cameras at the cathedral across the street. Was this the last day for all this? Will tomorrow be the day to bring these tables inside and pull out the sweaters and start drinking coffee in stuffy, fogged-up cafes? But the day was still for the joggers, showing all of their legs, and women in tank tops and men in rolled-up sleeves.

He ordered another cup and reached into his pocket. Pushing aside the ring he took out a pebble of broken glass and put it on the table. The shard, thick and solid, was about as big as his thumb, smooth on the edges. He had taken the piece from the ground in Midtown the day before yesterday. A window had fallen from the 34th floor of an office building, killing no one, but shattering into thousands of these clear pebbles, sending two people to the hospital. The street was closed off by the time he happened a half-hour later, but the sidewalk was filled with glittering marble-sized pieces. He picked one up at the edge of the police tape and slipped it in his pocket. A mystery falling from the sky. The tint of the coated glass turned the table under it gray. The smell of baking pastries held the outside air hostage. The coffee, which had at first taken away his headache was now, after an hour and two refills, trying to give it back.

A woman with a baby at her breast was explaining motherhood to a friend at the table where the girl on skates had before sat. An older woman with a cane stopped to rest against the scaffolding on the sidewalk. The afternoon wore on and on; the taxis became more frequent along the avenue, the traffic thicker, and the buses louder. He regretted getting angry last night. She was worried.

“Christ, Dad, everybody’s worried,” that’s what she had said the first time she called five days ago. Everybody’s worried. Maybe it was a mistake to let her know where he was, Richard thought, but after getting to New York last week he felt overcome with the need to hear her voice, and he called her that first night. She wasn’t a kid anymore, but she still lived in the house; her older sisters at least got clear of it before the implosion.

“Dad, Where have you been?” were the first words to him, the sound of her voice made him break and mend at once.

“Vermont,” Richard had said.

“What? Jesus. It’s been two weeks.”

“I know. I told you, I need some time. I need to float for a while.”

She was crying then.

“I know that’s what you said.”

For the past five days, all the days he’s been in New York, she’s called him every night; sometimes he was in, sometimes he would get her message from the clerk. Last night she called late after he got in and demanded he come home.

“No. Not now, not yet.”

“Why?”

“Can’t say, just let me be.”

“The gravestone arrived yesterday, the dedication is on Tuesday. I think you should be there.”

“Let me be just a while longer, I’ve almost got it.”

“What? What do you almost have?”

“Nothing, I don’t know, let me be.”

She cried, and he got angry and hung up. I should be better, he thought after the receiver was on the hook. It was almost midnight. She was her mother, she was my wife, still. He couldn’t carry the thought any further and went to sleep, aided by most of the minibar.

At the cafe table, he picked up the thick glass chip, a rough, squarish marble in his hand, and put it back in his pocket, clinking against the ring, which he then fished out and slipped on his pinkie, the only finger the narrow gold band fit. He left five dollars on the table and headed down Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe going home would be right, he thought, perhaps I need to.  The older men on the corner were clapping to a song played in the apartment building above them, and he had to weave through them to continue on his way. This is not my life; this is not me here. How many people walk these streets and think, this is not me, I am only passing through, even when they’ve lived here twenty years. Nothing holds here; it’s never been any different.

She died in a car wreck on the way to sign the divorce papers. How about that. For twenty-six years we were together, raised three kids and then I want out. Why? Who knows why, I just do.

I feel dead, I said.

You act dead, she said.

But now the joke is that I’m not dead and she is. I hear about the accident from the police after returning home from our lawyer’s office, annoyed to be stood up. The call erases all that, erases everything. I call the kids, each one, one after another; I go by birth order. They don’t blame me, they say. I know they are lying. They’re good kids. Two days before the funeral, I leave.  I don’t remember driving much, but three days later I was in Woodford, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I used to go with my family when I was young on vacations. I didn’t recognize the place until I drove up to Pop’s Shack, the soda fountain where my mom would buy me ice cream. It was still there, and for a few days, I felt I was still there. After the fourth day, dreams of the crash kept me up most of the night. Those who squander God’s providence will know the weight of their loss.

After leaving the cafe, Richard walked for hours through Manhattan and felt the warmth of the afternoon give way to the calm cool of the night. He returned to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, when the clerk handed him another message from Clara, his youngest. He went into his room, tossed his hat on the bed, and sat at the chipped wood desk with cigarette burns. “Please call,” was all it said on the note.

He put the note aside and meant to pick up the phone, but instead reached into his bag and pulled out a book crammed with loose papers. He pulled out the top sheet and read his handwriting: “Overcome with mystery, full of everything, all of life—cruelty, beauty, expanse, and limitations. I am free, but what is it good for when all I want to do is be still. Understanding always slips away. I will do better once I understand that. Even if the world stopped, time would still go too fast to hold the moment.”

He had written those words the week before, in Boston, the day after he came down from the Green Mountains. The following day he sold his beat up two-decade-old Dodge for $1,500 and bought a train ticket to New York. That one night in Boston seemed already a world away. The autumn air was cold that night, and he watched the lights reflect off the waves in the harbor. He sat at a North End bar through three hours and five beers and for the first time since in months, maybe years, he missed her. The absence of her seemed the biggest thing in the world, whereas before it had been nothing. He wrote in his notebook at the table towards the back of the bar. After the bar grew crowded, he walked the chipped cobblestone streets in a drizzle. The town began to glow in the steely wet light of dawn, and he returned to his car and drove to the nearest used car lot, then headed towards the station and boarded a train to New York.

On the train, as the small New England towns slipped backward past his window as the day brightened, he had visions. He remembered them buying the car he had just sold at this road-side used car lot just outside of Madison. That was 15 years ago. He had wanted a Toyota, but she had insisted on buying American. She wore a low cut red dress, said it would help in the bargaining, and it probably did. On the way home that day, she drove up to campus and stopped in front of the dorm where he had lived his junior year. It was there that they had first kissed, on their second date, and first had sex, the following semester. He recalled how she kissed him that day there in the Dodge, the new-used-car smell overwhelmed the cabin. Sitting in the train now, he felt his lips moisten at the memory. As the train rumbled through Westchester County gaining on New York, he sees her clearly as she pulled back from him, her smell, her fullness right there, right in front of him, in the car and she whispers to him, “We can still make it, we haven’t lost it all yet.” She was speaking to him now as a memory and apparition blurred together in the early evening light.

At the cruddy desk now in the small hotel room, his feet numb and bloody from the full day of walking to the tip of the Battery and back to Harlem, he closed the book and picked up the receiver.

“It’s 3:30, Dad. “

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s the middle of the night. What are you doing, Dad?”

“I’m sorry,” as if it was all he could say.

“It’s okay, Dad.”

“I mean, I’m sorry.”

“Okay.”

“I’m coming home.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Pick me up at the airport?”

“Where’s the car?”

“Sold it.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes and no. How are you?”

“About the same.”

He sat at the desk long after he put the receiver back on the hook. He had moved too much in the last few weeks. He took the ring and the pebble of window glass from his pocket, put the ring on his smallest finger. He turned the glass in his palm, felt the edges, chipped by the 34-story fall and laid it on the desk, left it there. By the time he was on the street, the sky was a dark gray, still night, and cold rain pricked his face. He reached into his bag for his cap. New York was silent and empty in the early dawn except for the trucks along Amsterdam Avenue already heading towards their morning deliveries. An all-night diner was the only sign of life on the street. Two cops and a delivery guy were drinking coffee in their vehicles out front, and he could see two people at the counter inside, leaning over plates of food. The warmth of the diner engulfed him as he entered. He threw his bag on the booth cushion, shed his jacket, and took a seat. He wasn’t hungry or much in need of coffee, but he ordered a cup anyway.

A woman at the counter felt for her waist and pulled off her pager. “It’s the baby,” she said to the waitress, jumping off the stool and pulling on her coat. “Good luck, come back to tell us,” the waitress said as the woman fumbled with her purse. “Don’t worry about the bill, go.”

A draft of the outside chill rushed in as the woman fled out the door. A ruddy-faced older man with thick glasses and thinning gray hair cradled his coffee mug and yelled good wishes after her. He drank and coughed and turned to the man in the Yankees hat who had newly arrived.

“Hey, how about that series, that Leyritz home run, right? His only at-bat of the series and wham. My God, beautiful.”

“I didn’t see the game, just got to town,” Richard said, realizing too late that the old man was addressing him, nodding at the cap on his head.

“Where you from?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Vacation?”

“Sort of, just ended up here trying to get away from myself, but here I am anyway,” he said, then turned and motioned towards the door. “Where was she going?”

“That’s Ann. She works down the street at the hospital, she and her wife are having their first baby,” the waitress said.

“I see, great,” Richard said but didn’t know what to say next, so he drank his coffee which had just appeared in front of him. He saw her name was Rose.

“My daughter is planning to have a baby,” Richard said then, not sure why he was saying this.

“Oh, how far along is she?” Rose asked.

“No, she’s not pregnant yet, she and her husband want to, but so far no luck.”

Richard took a sip, and the waitress lingered at his table, so he went on; it felt good to talk, to make words. He hadn’t spoken much in the past week. “It’s amazing to think that baby is being born right now — my wife died a few weeks ago.”

The words slipped out, needed to be said, even to strangers.

Rose sat down on the other side of his booth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s awful. Can I get you some food?”

“That’s okay, I’m not hungry, just the coffee, thank you. I had to get away from it. I missed the funeral. Can you believe that? I’m sorry to tell you about this. It doesn’t concern you.”

She touched his hand resting on the table, and neither said anything for a moment. It wasn’t awkward. Finally, he said, “I need to get home today for the grave dedication, could you call me a taxi?”

She went to the counter and picked up the phone. The older man at the counter turned again toward him and said, “I lost my wife a few years ago, it’s the worst thing, but it gets easier. I fled too. I went to my kid’s place in California for a few months, but you need to get back to your life, there’s nothing here that can give you that you need.”

“I needed space to think, I guess.”

“You think you need to think, but you don’t, you need to be where your life is.”

Rose came back with a bag, a sandwich for later. Morning arrived outside the diner window. Umbrellas and hooded pedestrians hurried past.

“A baby was born this morning, a new mother, two new mothers this morning,” Richard said, taking the bag. “Hard to believe.”

She smiled. “I’d like to know how the birth went, whether it’s a boy or girl, could I ask you to call me to tell me.”

“Sure.”

Richard wrote his name and number on a napkin, and she put it in her pocket. He finished his coffee. A couple came in and sat by the window, and Rose went over to them. She gave the order to the kitchen and came back to him. The taxi pulled up outside and honked.

“Well, thank you for the encouragement and the sandwich,” he said as he pulled on his jacket and grabbed his bag.

“Good luck,” the man at the counter said.

He was near the door when Rose pulled his arm, and he turned around into her arms. The hug was tight and warm, and she smelled of coffee and soap. The contact made him cry. He leaned deep into her arms.

“I’ll let you know about the baby.”

He wiped his eyes. “Thank you, well, good-bye until then.”

The man walked across the sidewalk to the idling taxi, his face moist with rain. He looked down the avenue at the school kids, the workers, and the street vendors, he saw the midtown skyline ferocious and gentle in the mist, and it all seemed glorious, the way New York always does in a last glance before leaving.

Michael Howerton is the editor in chief of Granite Media. He has taught writing at UC Berkeley, the College of New Jersey, and Berkeley City College. His fiction has been published in Salamander Magazine.

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