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From where he sat, he could see halfway down 49th Street to Park. It wasn’t a comfortable perch, the big concrete planter, but it was the only place to sit on the block. On the East Side, in the ’40s, there were no benches: the street encouraged you to move along.
He wasn’t deterred. A small man, sixty-eight years old, he was healthy except for some joint pain he hardly noticed. Forty-ninth Street had not been the only place he had sat and observed, but it suited him the best. There had been benches on the West Side, and down in the Village, although there, mothers with children glared at him for taking up the space. After a while, he would move on, wondering if an old man could become a beloved, or at least tolerated, fixture anymore—like those when he was a child.
Of course, when he was a child, the old men had been older somehow, enfeebled with years of manual labor or by the sudden end of that labor. Until he had gone to high school, the old men were always there, on the steps, in the stores, waiting. After high school, they vanished. Maybe they had still been there, and he no longer noticed.
A little “slow” all his life, he had liked school. Not in the fastest crowd, not the dopiest, his life held few surprises. There had been girls—again not the prettiest or the fastest, but some—although none had stayed around long. He had felt their soft flesh, tasted their mouths, but they had kept the rest of their mysteries to themselves. The older boys talked of the Army, the younger knew of nothing before the war, and he—in the middle—had faint recollections of those years before ration cards and war bonds, without nostalgia. The war ended. Bang. Suddenly, there were choices to be made. With the war over, he was on the brink of something new, something which never materialized and for which eventually he stopped longing.
His mother was feeble, his father long gone. Without being told, he knew that he would have to fend for himself very soon. While still in high school, he got a job through a neighbor, having no idea how else to do it. Once he had the job, he stayed there.
By a rare stroke of luck, he worked in the office for most of his life, getting by with a night course now and then. His company, a small import/export firm in Brooklyn, had plodded through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, never big enough to feel permanent, never so small it failed.
He had worked at first in the warehouse, loading boxes onto trucks. Diligent and steady, he felt the job become his world, replacing the neighborhood, the old men on the steps. Nothing existed beyond the Gowanus Canal.
After a few years, Mr. Schreiber, the owner, had taken him into the office, praising his quickness with numbers. He felt a sense of fulfillment, as if something he could only think of as “the new” had arrived and was about to explode. He learned to wear a shirt and tie to work, just like Mr. Schreiber, never switching from long sleeves to short until the boss did. He kept a list of things to do on his desk, and carefully checked them off each day as he accomplished them, then erased the check marks for the next day.
In time, he became “the bookkeeper,” carefully logging inventory, sales, so many tiny transistor radios in, so many crates of greige out. Sometimes, he fantasized about the entries in the journal as he painstakingly printed them: “Greige” was marvelous elixir for the soul; “Units, PB” were rare jewels.
Eventually, Mr. Schreiber bought a computer. This, the bookkeeper did not like so well. The green letters on the screen were unfeeling, shoved into too few spaces: miles of Philippine lace tablecloths became “lacetabl,” losing whatever beauty they possessed as they disappeared into the machine, until descriptions vanished and only numbers remained.
For years, he maintained a paper ledger, working late nights and weekends several times a year just to keep it up. He never put in for overtime. He only dreamed of the day when the computer would refuse to work, would stall like a cranky horse. Then, amid the general consternation, he would pull out his paper ledger, all the figures clear and complete. Mr. Schreiber would smile at him, gently, gratefully.
The thought of that moment, which never arrived, still made him smile, even though he stopped keeping the ledger. Now Mr. Schreiber was gone, leaving three children who never cared much for the business, but rather floated in and out. Tall, handsome children, strapping boys, they had all gone on their own, a doctor, an accountant, a stockbroker. The doctor had married a neighborhood girl, Margie, a sassy smart brunette, who waggled a cigarette knowingly as she stood on the corner near the candy store. She and the doctor had been high school sweethearts—the same high school the bookkeeper had attended—and married in college.
None of the boys would take over Mr. Schreiber’s business. They had other lives, more exciting, less difficult, out with people who spoke good English, who didn’t sweat while packing crates of cheap glass figurines. Margie, however, loved the business, devoting long days to it, learning the ropes from her gentle father-in-law.
Some nights, as the bookkeeper hunched over his paper ledgers, he would watch Margie staring at boxes, poking the toys, counting dry goods, her fingers in the endless flow of things in and things out, and he wondered if she dreamed of secrets in the boxes and the numbers.
Outside the office, he barely noticed Brooklyn. When his mother died, he took a nice room, a short walk from work in a boardinghouse—which at some point became a “single room occupancy hotel,” although he didn’t know when. Mrs. P., who ran the place, was a cheerful woman, bighearted, big-bosomed, laughing as she scrubbed the walls and made the stew. Her cooking was terrible, but he always ate it. When he was late, she left him a bowl in the pantry, with a spoon and sometimes a cookie or a hard candy.
Once, when he had stayed very late with his ledger, Mrs. P. surprised him in the pantry. Even in the dim light, he could see her face was puffy with crying. She sat on the counter, as he ate silently, talking about someone named “Jack,” who was “no good,” a “rat bastard.” He supposed “Jack” was Mr. P., although he never saw anyone but the boarders.
As she spoke, he had felt something radiating from her, a longing, a need. Maybe she wanted him to hold her, maybe to do more, he never knew. Maybe I’m supposed to talk, he had wondered, waiting for a question he could answer. Mrs. P. did ask questions—but she answered them herself: “You’re out late tonight. Third time this week. You got a girl? ’Course you got a girl, nice guy like you.”
He wanted to set her straight, tell her that he had no girl, but she didn’t let him. By the time she was silent, the sentences he might have spoken had flown from his head. After a while, the food was gone, his dish washed: there was no reason to remain in the pantry. Awkwardly, he stammered good night, but she had forgotten about him, even as he stood there.
Later, with Margie’s and Mr. Schreiber’s help, he had found a small apartment, a few blocks away in subsidized housing, but a small building, not like the projects. By then, Mrs. P. had let in a rougher crowd, not nice working gentlemen, and she rarely laughed. It was time to leave.
For twenty years, he had lived in two rooms, with his own bathroom and a kitchen tucked into a corner of the living room. The day he had moved in, Mr. Schreiber had given him a television—almost new then. The bookkeeper watched it still, although now the picture was clouded with fuzz and the sound was scratchy. A neighbor had given him a nice couch; the bed came from the Spanish man on the corner. From his mother’s apartment, he had a box of dishes, pots, and utensils. The prior tenant left a table and two chairs.
He wiped the sink every time he used it, closed the toilet lid, as he had at Mrs. P.’s. He kept the rooms neat, his few possessions orderly: everything ready should a guest drop by.
For almost fifty years, he worked at Mr. Schreiber’s. The old man had died and Margie took over the business, but it was still Mr. Schreiber’s in his mind, and Margie never changed the name, even in conversation. Vaguely, he felt that “times” were good or bad or somewhere in between, but his own life had no such flows and eddies. Margie gave him a raise and a holiday bonus every year, without him asking.
When the business closed for a week each summer, he went to Coney Island, to a particular place, a long walk from the bus stop, where there were fewer people. Alighting from the bus, his money crumpled in his hand, he would walk faster and faster toward the entrance, growing lighter with each step.
One summer he arrived to find the place closed down. For a long time, he had stared at the boarded-up entrance, his cash growing wet in his fist. Finally, he returned to the bus stop. After that, he could never think of anyplace to go.
After he had turned sixty-five, Margie called him into her tiny office and told him that he could collect his pension and Social Security. She smiled gently, with Mr. Schreiber’s face for a moment, like she had been the blood daughter. The bookkeeper was confused, unsure of what she was saying, until he realized that he was supposed to leave now and not return.
Margie had been very kind, telling him that she was selling the business; that she had held off for as long as possible, until most of the employees could find other jobs or retire. She was tired; she couldn’t do it any longer. The bookkeeper couldn’t remember if she had actually said that, or if he had thought it as he looked at her and noticed for the first time that she was no longer young.
Margie had said that she had saved his vacation time for him. With the pension, his vacation, and Social Security, he would hardly miss working, she laughed lightly. As she laughed, he knew that he was supposed to be happy, but the air thickened in the office, choking him. Unable to speak, he searched desperately for the words that would erase the moment, turn it into yesterday or the year before. Finally, Margie ran out of words too. Gently, she steered him out of the office, back toward his desk.
That afternoon, there had been a party, with the few coworkers who still remained and a few who came back. A cake, some flowers and balloons, gifts. Margie had given him a new watch with an old face. The others had bought him brightly colored shirts and shorts. Margie called a car service to bring him home with his gifts and the contents of his desk—a single boxful.
The gifts had been placed neatly on the closet shelf, awaiting a trip or a cruise. He rose each morning, put on his old watch, and waited for activity to occur to him. After a week of sitting at the table until dark, he left the apartment and headed for the bus stop. He waited for the bus that went to Manhattan. Once on the bus, he hadn’t known what stop he wanted. He simply chose a corner and slipped guiltily into the first park, where he sat until four o’clock. Then he went home.
The next day, he found a map of Manhattan in the telephone book and decided on Central Park. The bus driver explained about transfers and reminded him of his stop. Once at Central Park, he looked for the zoo, which he never found. Gradually, his horizons expanded: he began carrying pages torn from the phone book, marking the places he wanted to see, checking them off methodically. He bought a bus map and learned the free transfer points. Armed with this knowledge, he visited the Museum of Natural History, Columbus Circle, smaller parks, tiny fountains.
One day, he dozed on the bus and found it had turned south. He bought another map, a street map, in a bookstore and sat with a cup of expensive coffee, poring over the streets, learning the names of the sections of Manhattan: Greenwich Village. SoHo. Chinatown. Chelsea. All his life, he had navigated Brooklyn by sections—Red Hook, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Heights—but Manhattan had always been “The City,” monolithic, unsectioned, indivisible. Slowly, he parsed it like the sentences he remembered from school.
Walking slowly, he passed places whose names he recognized: Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Central Park, Tiffany’s. The Waldorf Astoria was particularly wonderful, with its huge lobby, the flowers and fantastic carvings. He almost sat in the dark, cool haven, but it had felt odd, so he had gone out a side door.
There, on 49th Street, he had found the planter. There was a bus stop nearby and a constant stream of tourists, workers, and vagrants. There was no doorman on the side, no one to notice that he only waited and never got on a bus. Red sightseeing buses stopped here, and once, he rode around Manhattan, pretending he spoke no English.
Soon, he found himself returning to this spot. He would never stay too long, a few hours, no more, carefully tracked on the new watch that Margie had given him, which he had finally taken from its box.
He discovered much on his perch—women, mostly. The women at Mr. Schreiber’s had all been older, married, settled in body and spirit. Jewish at first, then Italian, black, and Puerto Rican, they were all weighted with responsibility, children and husbands.
The women on 49th Street, however, formed a collage of colors, sizes, textures. For the first time, the bookkeeper noticed things like hemlines (short), shoes (high and clunky), and colors (vivid greens, pinks, and oranges, punctuated with navy and gray). Soon he raised his eyes to find the faces as well: young women, with bare noses and powdered noses and colored eyelids and clean faces. Their skins were chocolate, milky white, sallow, rusty, smooth as glass, pitted. In their eyes and their manner, he imagined ambition, hope, pain, and despair. Lugging sleek briefcases or bulging backpacks, plugged into cellphones or headphones, they swirled around him, teasing him with imagined intimacy, leaving him in a moment.
One day, in early October, he stayed longer on his perch than usual—past six. The weather was particularly fine: crystal air, with a soft breeze sweeping out the bus fumes.
Something was happening at the Waldorf that night. Hired cars swooped in, discharging lovely women and trim men. He marveled that so many men owned tuxedos and could tie little bow ties. The women passed in beautiful gowns, filing the air with the click of their heels and the scent of their perfumes. The bookkeeper tried hard not to stare, but these people invited it. So rapt was his attention that he almost didn’t hear the voice calling his name.
“Pete? Pete, is that you?”
A woman, elegantly coifed and gowned, looked at him expectantly. It took several seconds to recognize Margie.
“Mrs. Schreiber!” He slid from his perch, brushing the back of his pants, guiltily. Margie was quite near, having stepped from a yellow cab. She was wearing a long black dress, and her brilliant red toenails peeked from beneath it. In all the years they had worked together, the bookkeeper had never seen her toes or noticed the golden glint in her hair.
“Please, Pete, call me Margie. We’re not at the business now.” For a moment, they simply looked at each other, trying to pull their next sentences from the other’s face.
Abruptly, she leaned into him, kissing his cheek. “I’ve missed you.”
“I, uh, miss…uh, it too. Work.”
She looked disappointed. “Oh, yes. It’s hard to adjust. How many years was it? Fifty?”
She looked over his head, distractedly. “How are you? You look fine.”
“I am, Mrs. Sch— Margie. I’m in good health.”
“You can get Medicare, you know, if you need it.”
He smiled. “I know. Knock on wood”—he touched his skull—“no need yet.” He glanced down, drawn to her toenails. “How is Doctor Schreiber?”
Laughing, she shook her head. “I divorced that bastard fifteen years ago. He was cheating on me with nurses, saleswomen, patients. Groping the girls’ French teacher was the last straw.”
Girls? Had there been children?
Margie continued merrily, “Tonight my younger daughter is being honored. She left Wall Street three years ago to work with battered women.”
Chirping now, Margie spoke of her dress, how old it was, how little she ever wore it, how her daughter had offered to buy her a new one. She laughed at her “silly” shoes, raising her skirt a little, so he could get a better look. Her chatter was bright, enlivening the twilight. He lost the need for words after a few sentences, secure in the melody of her voice.
He began to feel the stirrings of something he could not name. For the first time since the end of the war, he felt the expectant blush of something unknown. The new was upon him, at last.
So absorbed was the bookkeeper in his expectations, he did not realize that Margie had stopped speaking. When she touched his arm, it did not break the moment, but washed warmly over him.
“Pete. Are you all right?” Her face was close, her dark eyes concerned.
“I was just listening.”
Margie laughed again, not so brightly. “My older daughter used to say that, when we caught her daydreaming.”
He forced himself to laugh, although he feared that it would tear the delicate fabric that surrounded them. “Is she here too?”
Abruptly, the moment shredded, leaving only the growing darkness. Margie seemed caught between anger and tears. “My older daughter is dead. Her husband killed her.”
The bookkeeper choked back a gasp. Yes! I remember now, he wanted to shout. Margie crying in the warehouse. Not so long ago: late, very late, only the two of them, the bookkeeper tending his paper ledger, Margie counting boxes, tears streaming down her cheeks, slapping the walls of cardboard so violently that the towers shook. “Ten! Twenty!” she shouted, her rage assaulting the tablecloths and bed linens, rising up against the stuffed animals as if they had created her pain.
The bookkeeper had ventured from his desk, absently holding the paper ledger, approaching Margie.
As he came closer, he tentatively asked. “Mrs. Schreiber?”
She had turned on him in fury, howls of rage interspersed with more articulate bitterness. As if in supplication, he held out his hand, the one with the ledger. She smacked it out of his hand, sending it spinning on the concrete floor, disappearing under a palette of off-brand light bulbs. Later, a forklift operator would uncover the ledger, and he would hear someone ask about the “old book—says ‘Journal’ on it,” but he would not claim it, not then or ever.
How had I forgotten that? he wondered. It was more momentous than anything in the haze of day and night that was his life, yet until Margie reminded him, there by the side door of the Waldorf Astoria, it had passed beyond him.
Margie calmed down, as if she, too, remembered the night and regretted her anger. Impulsive once more, she reached for his hand.
“It’s all right, Pete. I know you forget sometimes.” With that, she picked up the handbag she had left on the planter—his planter—and said goodbye. He watched as she passed through the brass and glass doors, up the carpeted stairs.
It was dark now. A chill had set in, but he watched until she was out of sight. She did not turn around.
As he stood, he tried to pull back the feeling that had passed—the floating, happy moment that his careless question had ruined. He wanted it back: a pinpoint of happiness, spreading like an ink stain on a white shirt. He wanted its promise. If the new were not here, could it be on its way? The new, carried by Margie, would be full of the light he had missed for so many years.
He would return tomorrow, he decided, to wait for Margie. He would ask her how the party had gone and compliment her on her dress. He wouldn’t forget.
Yes. That’s right.
He would remember to compliment her on her dress.