The Bowery, being watchful, was loud and rough except at the hour when the halfway houses were serving dinner. A red brick building of six stories overviewed the southeast corner of first street, obligingly settled next to its northern neighbors. The other buildings on the street were varicolored, conscious of the usual discord and momentary peace within them, and gazed at one another with imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our building, a priest, had died on the top floor. Air, heavy with cotton ball stink from being long enclosed and even longer untended to, seeped downwards and hung in the hallways, and the garbage chutes were littered with scraps cleaned too seldom. Among these, I found a few paperbacks, whose pages were yellow-curled and damp: Nexus, by Henry Miller, Journey into the Center of the Night, and Waiting for Godot. I liked the last book because it smelled mildewy. The wild alley behind the building was freshly paved and a barbed wire fence seperated the next building over. He had been a magnanimous priest; his monies were bequeathed to the halfway houses up and down the Bowery, and his furniture he had given to his tenants, since he had no living family.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had eaten our dinners. When we met in the alley the streets had grown somber. The space of sky above us was a pale orange that darkened quickly into indigo and towards it the gray streetlights hung their heads indifferently. The cold air stung us and we skated until our cheeks glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent alley. The carreer of our play brought us through the fence by a small furl of untethered mesh, and we ran through the corridors in between buildings, listening to the blaring of televisions or Puerto Rican bailandos, where odors of plaintains and frijoles steamed and our bellies somersaulted with hunger. When we returned to the street, light from the eyes of the tenement illumined our way. If my father was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely ensconced. Or if Buckley’s sister emerged to call her brother to dinner we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the quiet street. We waited to see whether she would remain or return, and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to the building resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figured limned by the light of the foyer. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood removed, looking at her. Her limbs swayed like rope as she turned and she walked matronly within, though she was hardly two years our senior.
Every morning before school, I waited at the kitchen table listening for the lock of her door. When I heard the click and pause, I leapt up with my knapsack, and out the door just in time to see her lock her door. She acknowledged me with a smile and a nicety, and we walked down the stairs together and out the front door, in silence. This happened regularly. Besides this, I had never spoken to her, and yet her name caused the callow blood in my veins to roil and shake.
Her image accopanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday afternoons when my mother did her errands I had to help her carry the bags. We walked through the jostling streets, weaving between drunken men and eager women, amid the shouts of Mandarin, the bustle of map-wielding tourists, the enchanted anti-war posters of protestors, their speakers blaring threats about government power and justice. These walks converged into a single sensation of life and experience: I imagined that I bore my gift safely through a mass of thieves and fingersmiths to bring it to a shrine of devotion. Her name sprang to my lips in these moments of bravery in litanies which I often did not understand. My eyes were full of tears (whether from the cold or from thoughts of illusory dedication, I don’t know) and at times a flood from my heart poured throughout my body. I thought little of the future. I did not know if a conversation would ever consist of more than a greeting, or if it did, how it would proceed to my outpouring of love and unwavering loyalty. But my body was like a guitar and her image was like the fingers that bluesily bend and pluck at those strings that sound my being.
One evening I went into the priest’s old apartment where he had died. It was a dark stormy evening and there was not a sound in the building. Through the windows and the thin roof I heard the rain patter, the sheets bouncing into the tenement, immovable, then gurgling into the gutters. A distant light from an open window shone below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses became indistinct and, feeling that I was about to slip into darkness, I bowed and genuflected to Venus, murmuring “O love! O love!” many times.
At last she asked me a question of substance. When it happened I was confused as to how to respond; my self-doubt was firm and unshakeable. She asked me was I going to the Christmas tree lighting this year. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. The tree is a douglas fir, over one hundred feet tall, she said; she was planning to go.
While she spoke, she purled a brown thread of hair around her forefigner. Her brother and two other boys were pushing each other against the brick wall and we stood alone in the lamplight of our tenement’s facade. The light shone on her white neck, the ends of her parallel clavicles were illumined, her hair was suffused in a golden patina, and falling, lit up her hand on the cold iron doorhandle. It caught the folds of her dress, and was lost in the ruffles and blackness of her overcoat, loose around the neck as she stood contrapposto, at ease.
You should go, she said.
If I go, I said, I will find you by the time the tree is lit.
What countless fantasies and illusions lay waste before my waking and dreaming visions after that encounter! I focused only on the moment when we would stand together underneath the lights of the behemoth tree; I wanted to destroy the intervening days, and would have sacrificed greatly to do so. Such are the follies of youth. School was not just tedium, but agony. At night in bed and by day at desk in the classroom, her image came to me like a succubus, taking my full attention from all reality. The syllables of Rockefeller came to me with the mystique of American royalty, as though simply saying the word, I attained a higher plateau of sophistication and culture. When I asked for leave on a Wednesday night, my mother was surprised at my gall. I answered no questions in class. I watched my teacher’s face pass from amiability to distrust; she hoped I was not growing idle. I could not shepherd my roaming thoughts. I had hardly any patience with the work of life which, now that it intervened between me and my desire, seemed sore ugly work, like the monotony of an office job cubicled in by three sides with only the future as escape.
On Wednesday morning I reminded my father that I wished to go to the tree-lighting ceremony that night. He was shaving, and answered me curtly, knowing that I wanted to travel solo:
Be careful on the subway.
He stood there in delicately absorbed. I sat at the kitchen table and skulked with my head low. I didn’t wait for the click of the lock to leave because I was too excited and eager to see her that evening, fearing that seeing her twice in the day would be too much, that it might dissuade her from going to the ceremony. The wind was biting and I was debeatified by the time I arrived at school.
When I came home to dinner my father was not yet arrived. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time, and restless, wandered from room to room. I tried to read, unsuccessfully. The empty rooms of our apartment sang with the wind’s knocking at the glass window panes. From the back windows, I saw my buddies playing in the alley, skating and falling. Their shouts reached me softly from the street, blurry and muffled and, leaning my forehead against the window and watching condensation slowly build, I thought about her downstairs getting ready for the ceremony. I may have stood there for half an hour, obsessively meditating on her quotidian actions, seeing her in that golden patina of light as the darkness enclosed her and the pallor of her collarbones receded into shadow.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Lorenz sitting at the fireplace. She was the mother of two younger boys and was a notorious gossip, an electirician’s wife, who collected tidbits to give her life some sort of purpose. The meal was prolonged an hour and still my father did not arrive. I had to endure her bandying for the entirety. Mrs. Lorenz stood to leave: she was sorry she had to make dinner for her kids, but it was after seven o’clock and the festivities had begun. When she left, I began to walk through the rooms in irritation. My mother said:
You can wait until your father comes home before you go to the tree-lighting; it doesn’t start for another few hours.
At eight I heard the latch click and da entered; he hung his coat in the closet and his keys jangled. When he had finished his salad, I asked him for the money for the subway. He had forgotten.
You better get going, before they light the tree.
I stayed stoic. Mom said to him energetically:
“Give him the money, by the time he gets there, it’ll be lit.”
Da said he was sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: Work hard and play harder. He asked when it started and when I told him a second time, he asked me did I know the old Wordsworth Ode to Duty. When I left the kitchen with my coat, he was beginning to recite the opening lines to my mother.
I held my cash tight and eagerly bought a subway ticket, knowing how to get there from downtown on the Lexington line. The holiday fever had begun and infected me as I passed into the subway station, dripping with water despite the last rain days ago. The train came quickly and I sat, hands folded in a moderately filled car. Each stop dragged interminably on. When it arrived at Grand Central, I felt butterflies flutter and a crowd of people entered the train. The next stop was mine. I ran to exit the station and walk west, to fifth avenue. I passed a large bank with a roman numeralled clock that read a quarter to nine. I had ten minutes until the lighting. The square was two blocks away, and throngs of people collected, buzzing with anticipation.
It dawned on me that to find her would be difficult; she would be in the front. I found myself crawling through black peacoats and avoiding large circles of people who knew each other, making way for me, as if I were a disease. Suddenly, the tree was lit, and oohs and aahs, the flashing of cameras signalled that it was over. I didn’t even stop swimming through the crowd to admire the tree; I wanted only to find her and apologize for my tardiness. I paused for breath in an opening and tried to get my bearings. I overheard the conversation of some Southern folks.
I wonder where they got it from.
I heard it was from Washington state, that they found it and put it onto a plane to get it here.
I thought they drove it.
Where’d ya hear that?
Noticing me noticing them a motherly figure asked if I needed help. The tone of her voice was comforting; she seemed to speak to me out of a true desire to help. I looked around, hoping to glimpse her and save my honor, then at the looming tree like as if it were mocking me with its multi-colored lights and symbolism of Yuletide cheer, and murmured:
No, thanks ma’am.
She looked inquiringly at me for a moment and returned to her husband and the two others who could have been her children. They returned to the subject of the tree. Once or twice, the woman looked at me with distrust.
I lingered, though I knew it was pointless; I would never find her now – she had probably already left. Then I turned slowly and walked through the emptying square, disenchanted and disheartened. I clanged the change for the subway in my pocket. I heard a female voice call from behind me, and turned excitedly, but it was not her. It was now past ten o’ clock and there were fewer and fewer people.
Gazing skyward I saw myself from above as an animal driven by fruitless passion and pride; and my eyes blurred with tears of anger and shame.