I can't imagine how the second part can be any more gripping than the first part. Wow! This is excellent drama. Fortunately for any future partner of mine, I may be outdoors-crazy, but no way am I in this kind of shape!
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Topic: The Falls
The Falls, Part II
Ron Fischman |
It‘s the coarseness of the world I don’t appreciate. How it passes judgment on me without no never mind for what I seen or where I been or what damn things have been done to me that no one deserved. You follow what I’m saying?
The bus lurched then, sliding you back into the hard plastic-molded seat on which you sat, facing the man across from you. You had thought he was talking to himself and had paid no attention to him or his words until his question presented itself to you by way of introduction.
You looked up and saw a man with a white bearded face and long gray-black hair that he had tied behind him with a purple ribbon so that it formed an unruly mane spreading a wide unruly swath of hair down his back. This ponytail exposed his ears, small and white with thin purple and red threads, small veins that ran across their surface skin until they vanished, as streams sometimes do when they choose an underground path to escape the open air.
He leaned forward, an earnest, inquisitive expression on a face that jutted toward you with his broad flat nose and receding hairline, sparsely populated with wild hairs that made their own decisions about what form they would take. Some lay flat, though twisted, upon his reddened scalp; and others stood straight up as if to rebuke the waywardness of their neighbors.
His eyes were open wide and searching for a response, spoken or unspoken, as they gazed upon you, never once glancing away from your own eyes to your body below. Your book fell from your hands into your lap and then slid onto the hard, cold, wet rubber tracks of the bus’s walkway that lay between the two of you. You flinched, startled by the fall, anxious and annoyed at the interruption.
You reached to pick up the book off the grimy mat; but he beat you to it. The fat of his belly pushed itself over his belt and ballooned beneath his waist, such that his pants bulged and stretched beyond what you believed possible, though it did not hamper the quickness of his movements. He handed it back to you, his two pudgy fingers holding the upper left corner with a delicacy that belied his size.
I don’t mean nothing by it, he said. It was a philosophical, you understand. You don’t need to give no answer to me, if you don’t want.
He paused; and so did you, unable to think of a reply. His expression was one of indecision or confusion as the bus swayed along, swinging you both back and forth in an awkward but reciprocal pattern. Outside, the night snow fell straight down, its flakes thick and mossy and abundant. This was the last bus of the evening, and only the two of you remained aboard as passengers.
I’m Paul, he announced after you turned away to wipe the cover of your book clean on your coat. He did not ask for your name in return, nor did you offer it, nor did you say anything to him whatsoever. He appeared uneasy as he considered the silence that ensued.
I ain’t drunk. He said this sheepishly, a hint of the little boy he once was traversing the distance between him and you. You could not help yourself. The effect of his words and the sadness reflected in his face, with all its innocence and naivety, had charmed you.
I never thought you were.
He smiled when your reticence finally crumbled; and his teeth, yellow and brown, his lips pulled tautly upward accentuating his plump, blushing cheeks, enveloped you with their joy. You smiled in return, a bemused smile but one in which your lips did not deign to open.
* * *
That morning, over coffee, you and Steffi had not spoken to each other. You knew that the argument from the night before still bothered her. You could see it in the way she sat. Hands crossed over her chest, her legs tightly crossed, as if she intended to squeeze out any happy thought that might flitter through her head, she was a rigid and unyielding presence, a cold frost adhering to a colder windowpane.
She refused to look at you, staring out the window that opened onto the small balcony from which you could see, in winter, through the bare branches of oaks and birches, the slowly flowing river, its waters reflecting colors of the grey and unsparing clouds above. Snow fell steadily down, a moist, small drizzle of tiny particles that melted upon landing on the street or the river but that collected on the grass and the trees, as dust collects on dressers and tables in old houses that have been abandoned.
You, the more timid one, did not speak, waiting for her, waiting because you did not know what words to say, fearing you would use the wrong words or your voice would not match the sorrow you felt. You feared Steff would hear only a repeat of your distant, aloof and cruel anger from the night before. That same anger you had expressed so badly last evening when you had refused her. True, you had been exhausted, and her flirtatious attempts at seduction had not matched well your mood; but you had said no as kindly as you could, and she had persisted, had she not?
No, that is a poor excuse for your behavior. You had lashed out, and the hard blade of your rejection cut the weakest seam of her stitched-together soul, her omnipresent fear that underlay the rough façade she presented to the world. Your words had implied that she was not worthy of your love. Your words, regretted the moment you let them escape your lips. Your stupid, bitter, unguarded little words that in one instant had toppled the obelisk of an identity she had so carefully constructed.
And so it was you drank your coffee in silence, her anger and your shame the dipole that kept you apart even as you both circled round the central core that bound each of you one to the other. Minutes passed. After an indefinable period measured by the rising anxiety that moved upward from your belly to your heart and lungs until you could feel the pounding of your pulse in your ears, you spoke, surrendering to your desire to speak, if only to escape that silence.
I hear it’s supposed to snow all day. Six inches—maybe more.
Her face turned slowly away from the window toward you. She took her cup of coffee (black, unlike yours with its overdose of cream) and sipped from it. She scanned you up and down as a snake might carefully assess a mouse frozen before it, the only evidence of any emotion in her the red veins that appeared as scars on the whites of her eyes.
Yes, I know. It will get colder, too, much colder. You’d better run your many errands now before it gets any worse. She pushed her chair away from the table.Your hair is damp. You took your shower when?
Half hour ago. Maybe 45 minutes.
Then the water will be hot again. I’ll take mine now, if that’s all right with you. She had emphasized the last phrase, her sarcasm mocking you; but you took it, the full blow.
Yes, of course.
She left then for the bathroom each step of her bare feet thumping the wood floor hard. The sound of a bass drum came to mind.
You finished your coffee in one gulp, though it was lukewarm and left a sour aftertaste in your mouth. The hair dryer was in the bedroom by the small vanity where you kept all your makeup. Your makeup, not hers, for she never wore any. The hot air soon scattered the long delicate strands of your hair, and you brushed it vigorously until your scalp hurt from the combination of heat and the hairs that your brush pulled off.
* * *
Paul carried the conversation as the bus rumbled along, slower than usual because of the snow piling ever higher on the roadway.
I was a somebody once, you know.
Really? You replied not to question his veracity but to provide him a polite indication that you were still listening.
Oh yes, yes! Very much so. It must seem hard to believe, the way I look now, but I once was important. I had a house in Exeter. You know Exeter?
Certainly. Exeter was a gated community along the river west of where you lived, where the new money lived. The homes, though different in scale and layout, all looked alike, sitting on their five-, ten- and twenty-acre plots carefully landscaped with new trees, hedges that acted as privacy barriers, long driveways on which luxury cars could be seen. The homes were larger than any you had seen before, some rivaling the size of the City’s museums or its main library, which took up an entire block.
You had once visited a friend from school there who had married the managing partner of a major law firm located in the City’s financial district. Steff had refused to come with you. One look at me and they’ll call the cops on us both, she had remarked, only half in jest.
People came every weekend to meet with me, Paul continued. Politicians. The mayor, you know, and members of the city council and … and I held a fund raiser for the governor once, Governor Evans, you know, a very bright man he was, full of charm, very friendly, had only good words for my two daughters, my wife.
Evans had been Governor more than a decade earlier. He’d resigned his office over some financial scandal involving gifts from various companies that did business with the state and a reputed affair with young female lobbyist. He avoided prison, but his wife left him about a year after he resigned. Irreconcilable differences the papers had said.
What did you do?
Me? Paul seemed confused for a moment. Oh. I was a banker, you know. Big Bank. A fixer, really. They called me in whenever a deal got into trouble with the state or local governments. I knew stuff. How to work out any – oh damn, what’s the word – issues, I guess. I knew how to deal with issues. Knew the right people. Got things done. Fixed. Big Pauly they called me.
What happened to you? I mean why are you here on this bus looking like – You stopped yourself then, not wishing to offend.
Looking like a bum? He said. Oh, you know—the usual. Feds. SEC. Damn State Attorney General looking to make a name for himself, you know. Scapegoat I was. Someone had to be. So I got picked. Short straw, you know. My bosses got a slap on the wrist. Fines for the Bank to pay. I got ten years in Allentown. You know Allentown?
Federal prison, yes.
Yes. Not a bad one but still prison. Out after three years but all gone by then. Divorced, bankruptcy court took the rest. All old friends refused to see me. Turd in the punch bowl and all that. He hesitated a second, then said, No offense I hope.
Don’t mean the crudity. Just the way it was.
May I ask what they convicted you of?
Does it matter? he said.
No. No, I guess not.
You know how sharks is? How you deal with them when they start circling? You throw chum in the water to distract them. Well I was the chum, see?
I see, you said.
See, I was stupid. Had nothing on nobody. Kept no records of meetings, conversation, et cetera, et cetera. He said that last twice for emphasis. Had nothing to give the Feds or the AG. Just my word, and that was nothing without the paper. I was too simple. I got along, you know. Big Pauly. Good old Big Pauly. Kept everything up here. He tapped his forehead. That’s the way they wanted it, you know. No paper trail. So when the shit came down—you don’t mind I said shit, do you?
You shook your head and he continued.
When the shit came down, I was the guy everyone blamed. My faul,t really.
So what do you do now?
Me? I ain’t got nothing. Great unwashed. Statistic I am.
You have no home.
Oh yeah. See this bus here runs all night. I beg downtown from eight to five. Regular hours, like anyone. Heck, less than I used to work. Then go to the Salvation Army or one of the shelters to get some food. Buy a bottle when I can. No bottle tonight though. Bad day at the office. He laughed at his own joke.
But what about your wife, your two daughters?
With their mother, you know. Don’t see them. Don’t want them to see me either. Not like things is right now. You know?
I see. His face looked away from you then, down at his feet. His hair on top of his head looked greasy, what little there was of it. Looking at his beard, you saw little bits of food and dirt trapped within its maze of bushy curls. Soup stains, too. You wondered when he had last bathed.
So, girls with mother. California, last I heard—or maybe it was Arizona? She remarried, you know. Good looker still when we split. Knew she’d find someone else. Land on her feet. Not blaming her, you know. I knew when we married what the deal was. Beautiful women don’t marry slobs like Big Pauly less they got a good reason. Miss her sometimes though, you know. She weren’t mean to me, just practical. Miss the girls more. You know?
You nodded. What else could you do?
* * *
The shower had stopped running, but the door remained closed. You finished dressing, your face already done. You were about to walk out the door, about to shout a hopeless goodbye, when you saw your bonsai, the one Steff gave you for your last birthday, sitting alone on a table in the living room under a grow lamp, the only place in your apartment where it could be kept warm in the winter.
You stopped. Took a step toward the plant you had grown to love, then another and another. You passed through the Kitchen and the dining area and into the living room. Before long, you were standing over it looking at its beauty, so unexpected, so—necessary.
The bonsai bloomed! you shouted excitedly; but Steff wasn't listening, didn't hear you go on about the bonsai’s single big flower, its perfect white petals and perfect fragrance, very subtle—not overpowering but distinctly memorable. Not once in the sixteen months since Steff gave you the little Gardenia jasminoides tree had it budded, much less flowered.
What? She shouted back. I can’t hear you!
You went to her. She was standing by the bathroom countertop, stark naked, hands on her hips and looking at her figure as it turned itself within the mirror. The tattoos that covered her back and circled around to her belly glistened from the drops of water that still clung to her skin.
The bonsai bloomed, you said again, this time softly but the excitement still in your voice. Please, you must come see it. You must.
Surprised by the urgency in your voice, she assented and walked with you out of the bathroom, her hair still damp, drops dripping from her hips and legs where she hadn’t scrubbed herself dry with her towel, which now hung from her shoulders. When you arrived, she stood with you, not saying anything for a full minute.
It is beautiful, isn’t it? Her voice was quiet, almost a murmur. Look how bright it is against the dark green of the leaves. I can’t believe it. After so long I’d given up on it. When did this happen?
I don’t know. Last night, I guess. I saw it as I was about to leave.
You gently touched her arms with your hands and let your fingers grab hold of them. You pulled her around to face you. She is taller than you by a good six inches and outweighs you by 30 pounds, her arm muscles strong and taut and lean; but she didn’t resist.
Dear one, you said. Dear one, please forgive me. I was wrong, so very wrong what I said last night. Please, it was a mistake, a very bad mistake. I’m so horrible. I would do anything to have those words back. Anything. Whatever you ask, I will do it. I love you so much, so much, I—
She stopped you by placing a finger to your lips. Gently she took her hand to your cheek and then wrapped it around your neck. She pulled you to her bare shoulder; and you rested your head there, your face nuzzling her collarbone still damp and cool on your skin. The rouge on your cheek smeared itself onto her body above her right breast. Then she took a finger and placed it under your chin. She lifted your head away from her until you and she were looking into each other’s eyes. She was smiling.
Do you know why I give you beautiful things? It’s because you are so beautiful.
You started to shake your head no, but she interrupted the movement of your head with her strong hand.
Don’t argue with me, she said but her voice had no anger in it, only the low raspy tone that first attracted you to her. Her cigarette voice she called it once. You are precious to me, okay?
Okay. She took your hand and led you to the bedroom you share. Every so often, she shyly glanced back at you. She tossed you on the bed and then slowly removed all of your clothes, piece by piece.
My errands, you said.
What errands? You don’t have no stinking errands, she responded; and both of you laughed at once, laughed and giggled and other things until the morning was worn away and the afternoon as well. Meanwhile, snowflakes fell outside your window, as oblivious to you and to her as you were oblivious to them.
* * *
It is the coarseness of the world, you see. You know what I mean now. That all this could happen and yet nothing is changed except my life. All the others they go on. They care less, you know. They got no concern for Big Pauly. Why should they? I’m just a grain of sand to them, a speck. So tiny I don’t matter, so tiny I became invisible to the world, you know. But I don’t appreciate it. No.
I’m sorry Paul, you said. You spoke sincerely. His story seemed true, could be true, but does it matter? Something happened to him, a great fall, and he suffered; and you cannot change that truth. You looked at him, this large imposing man, a mass of flesh three times your size, and you realized he is right. The world is coarse, and you and he and everyone else are just tiny pieces of the whole. The wind blows on everyone, and some suffer harms they do not deserve, and some receive rewards they have not earned; and there is rarely any justice when all is said and done.
Paul looked over at your shopping bag at your feet.
You buy something for you? he asks? Something nice? Clothes? Perfume?
That? Oh no, I bought that for my partner. A present.
Your partner? You not married then, huh? So is this guy, he good to you. He treat you right? I always treated my wife righ,t you know. Never hit her, nothing like that. Anything she ask, I get her, you know? So, a good guy, your “partner” is?
Well, it’s not a man. That was the first time since he started talking to you that you felt uncomfortable.
Not a man? You mean—whadda you mean?
My partner is a woman. We’ve been together for five years now. He did not respond to this so you kept talking. We had a silly fight last night, and well, we made up and all; but I thought—well I thought I would buy her a present. Because I love her, you add.
So you a Lesbo, is that it?
I don’t like that word Paul. But yes, I am a Lesbian, I guess.
She guesses she’s a Lesbo. He was getting louder now, more strident. How the fuck do you not know what you is, huh? You sleep with a woman and you guess you is a Lesbo? What the fuck?
Paul, please don’t talk like that. It bothers me. And to answer you, I tried lots of relationships with men. I was even engaged once, and –
Oh, so you were fucking engaged.
Yes, and well, then I met my partner; and it was very different from all the men I had dated. Look, I’m sorry if it bothers you to talk about it, okay? Why don’t we just drop the subject?
Bother me? Bother me? He repeated himself. No it don’t fucking bother me, you fucking Lesbo. It don’t bother me I been talking to you this whole time never knowing you was a fucking pervert, a deviant. No it don’t FUCKING BOTHER ME? WHY? DO I BOTHER YOU? HUH, LESBO?
Paul was shouting now and you were scared, more scared than you can remember. All at once, the bus started sliding sideways, the back end fishtailing. Both you and Paul fell off your seats. When you looked up, the bus driver was walking down the aisle toward the two of you. He’d stopped the bus.
Pauly, I warned you. I warned you, man. The bus driver is a large black man, maybe 50 or 60 years old; but there is no fat on his body, just muscles. He’s smaller than Paul, but he must work out with weights, because he looks like a body builder.
But she’s a fucking Lesbo, John! I wouldn’t have talked to her if I knew that.
I don’t care what she is, you got me? You know the rules, Pauly. I let you ride this bus all night, let you sleep on the benches, hell I even buy you a sandwich now and then. And I don’t have to do none of that, do I?
No, but… Paul was upset, but you could see he was as afraid of John as you were of him just a moment ago.
There ain't no but about it, Pauly. Now get off my bus, right here, right now.
But John, it’s snowing outside. It’s cold. I don’t have no proper coat. I got no place to go. You want I should die?
There’s the Sisters of Mercy shelter six blocks down McCravey Street, due north. I think you can make it there before you freeze to death. Now get out before I have to kick your ass out. NOW!
Paul rose to his feet with as much dignity as he could and walked down to the front of the bus with John following him the whole time. John swung open the door and Paul shambled down the steps until he was standing on the street about a foot away from the sidewalk.
I can still ride tomorrow night, can’t I John? Please. I didn’t mean nothing. You know I didn’t, right? I promise it won’t happen again.
We’ll see. You got two strikes on you Pauly. You understand me. Two strikes, man. I ain’t losing my job over you, you got that?
Paul said something you could not hear. Perhaps it was an apology. In any event, the bus door closed and you watched as Paul stumbled in the thick snow, snow that was still falling down, swirling and dancing in the wind, as snowflakes are fond of doing.
John made his way back to you. You trembled as he approached, the adrenalin still pounding through your body with each rapid beat of your heart.
Are you all right, Ma’am?
Yes, you said. Yes, I’m all right. Thank you. I was a little scared for a moment back …
I know. I’m sorry. I woulda stopped sooner but you have to be careful with all this snow. Big old bus don’t stop as easy as you like when it’s like this out there. He gestures to the window.
Is he— is he dangerous?
Pauly? No—least not most of the time. He’s just a little off is all. Most of the time he just sits there or he sleeps. Sometimes he strikes up a conversation. Likes to talk about himself, he does. I let him ride if he has the fare price. Only time I ever had trouble with him before was when some young gay kid got on the bus. Started yelling and carrying on just like he did with you tonight. Never got beyond the yelling stage, though. I guess he don’t take kindly to your people for some reason. But that don’t justify what he did. I’m real sorry.
No, it’s okay. I should thank you for what you did. Thank you.
That’s all right. Listen, how close are you from your home? I’ll take you right there, even if it is off my route. Least I can do.
I live at 325 Park Avenue. The apartment building. Do you know it?
Oh sure. Have you there in five.
Can I—can I come sit up front with you?
John laughed. ey, you see anyone in the seats up there? Sure, you can sit wherever you like.
You followed him to the front of the bus and watched as he turned the bus slowly back onto the street. There was hardly any other traffic on the road due to the conditions, and only a few people trudging down the sidewalks.
Was his story true, what he said about himself?
John looked over at you, his eyes dark and piercing. I don’t know? What he tell you?
You explained the story as best you remembered it: the bank, the conviction, the wife and two children, the divorce. The more you told Paul’s tale, the more indeterminate it sounded to you. A mere skeleton of a story wrapped in vague references that permitted you to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies with your own imagination. You now wondered if he didn’t make it all up. When you finished, John shook his head and whistled to himself, one extended note of disbelief.
Well that’s a new one to me. I heard a lot of Pauly’s stories, but I never heard about him being any hotshot banker before.
But could it be true?
Who knows? A lot of these folks ain’t right in the head, you know. I’m just saying I never heard that one before is all.
So what do you think of him? Did he just tell me a bunch of lies?
Ma’am, all I know is he’s a man down on his luck, no job, no home, who drinks too much. Maybe a little crazy, too; but then if you had to lead his life, maybe you’d be the same way.
* * *
It’s after 10 P.M. when you turn the key in the door lock and step into your apartment. All the lights are off except the one over the sink in the kitchen. That light casts a yellowish hue that quickly dims into pale shadows in the other rooms to which it has access. You walk over to the bonsai and look again at the flower, now larger than before as the blossom opens up. The petals emit a faint greenish tint from the light reflecting off the gardenia’s leaves.
In the bedroom, Steff is already asleep. The blinds are open, casting ribbons of black and white across her body. You undress quickly and climb into bed with her, feeling the need to push your body up against hers, to become absorbed into her body and she into yours. She is wearing boxer shorts and no top, her usual sleeping attire.
You drape your arm around her shoulder and kiss the nape of her neck. You kiss her again and again for as long as you can. She sighs but does not awaken.
All rights reserved, including all copyright or other intellectual property protection by T. Birch
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