Haven’t written as much as I’d like to lately. Trying to pull out legitimate threads from all the craziness. Still unsure of this piece, might as well post it.
The day he dies he wakes in a shaft of light, clear air from the open window. Somewhere distant, past the redbrick lofts and scraggly treetops sirens are wailing. Off into the upper Doppler range, fading. He lounges, shifting in the yellow light. Legs fuzzy against a cheap woolen blanket, some knockoff Native American motif, nested diamonds of red, brown, gold. His feet hang off the side of the tiny twin mattress. If he were to extend his lanky limbs he could touch all four walls.
“J.” Voice through the wall. A touch of annoyance. Miriam.
He rolls off the bed, letting momentum pluck him upright. Shakes out blonde dreadlocks, picks a band from the boxy IKEA dresser, dangling from the rusted lamp.
“J?” she calls again, urgently. “I need you.”
He frowns and moves into the other room, over a pile of dirty laundry, crusty red-stained pizza boxes, newspapers to recycle.
She’s on her tiptoes, reaching for a dish in the shelf above the refrigerator, her tight top riding up. Hints of flower tattoo lower down, just the edges of red flowers, outlined in black. Pink belly, gleam of beads in the navel.
“Here,” he murmurs, lifting a single hand to bring down the dented metal tray. She looks at his long fingers, the bones in the knuckles standing out like the knots in an old gnarled tree. He sets it on the counter top, nodding to her. She smiles. She doesn’t thank him verbally.
“Going to Central Park today,” he volunteers.
“Oh, you are? The healer gig?”
“The healer gig,” he repeats. He’s very soft spoken, given his frame.
“Should be nice up there. Good weather. Plenty of sucker yuppies with bills to spare.”
He nods with his eyes, but there’s a frown in the corner of his lips.
“Are you feeling ok?” He asks her. “You feel stressed.”
“Oh, don’t start with that energy crap. You can’t feel anything. You might be able to see, hear, smell something. But intuitively…”
He grins. “See. You’re stressed.”
She snaps out and grabs the tray. “That’s because the damn center wants twenty cupcakes in an hour. You should use your energy to coalesce me some cupcakes, J.” Giggling. “Pronto!”
He cocks his head, the dreads clumping together, swinging like a heavy pendulum. “I’ll be back tonight,” he smiles, moving around the counter to slip a large rectangle of painted plywood from the slit between refrigerator and wall.
“We need to paint you a new sign,” Miriam says. “Hugs. $1”
“That’s about right.” He lays the placard flat on the floor and covers it with a clean white garbage bag. Then he scoops up the shivering heap of laundry and recyclables, settles it on the rectangle and cradles it as he exits the apartment. “I’ll drop the clothes off,” he calls as the door groans closed.
“You’re my savior, J!” The muffled reply.
The trees arch over all like graceful god, still green this late in the year, the compressed rectangle of manicured nature. And yet, along the paths of concrete laid in interwoven hexagons, branches bent in bucolic parabolas, he feels a sense of peace. He can breathe deep, and for a moment doesn’t wonder about numerous cancerous particulates invading his alveoli.
Yet despite the sunshine, which spikes through the shimmering clouds in a barrage of sharp angles and shadows, there’s a touch of chill. It opens his eyes against the clean breeze, each breath spiked with a sprig of mint. Fresh. Autumn.
The people here are happy. Smiling freely, not something forced by imbibitions or ambition or social pressures. Natural smiles, invisible to the wearer.
He hugs the placard onto his chest, deep strides so the back edge doesn’t bump his calves. He looks into the eyes of those he passes.
New Yorkers are funny about that. The eye contact. Perhaps the heightened core of civilization reverts them to animal behaviorism, something inborn, evolutionary instilled from the first violent apes to the youngest straphanger. Avoid eye contact. It’s a direct threat. A challenge, the best weapon to pierce the bubble of internal monologue.
And yet he makes sure to dwell on each contact for as long as it is returned. Some stare him down, after reading his sign, searching for a better explanation of the man. There are runners training, sheening wet, beaming in the second wind, possibly transfixed by their white earbud playlist. Others: the stroller mom, spandex pants. The slacker youths, shuffling in unfitting jeans and untied shoelaces, sharing a joint. The Hispanic delivery guys between shifts, two-touch soccer game in the dust.
All of them alive, in this city, each with dreams and ideas and a beating heart. Souls. Disciples.
There’s a flood of joy when his gaze breaks through.
“What kind of healer are you?” She asks. Cropped blonde hair, arms folded, jaws clenched. Organic brand-name sweater. Cross trainers. Some activist granola Upper West Sider.
“I follow my own path,” he replies. “I’m not about creeds or dogmas.” He reaches out a hand, tentatively. “Do you need healing?”
She cocks her head, still frowning, incredulous, mask of superiority. “We’ll be fine, thank you.”
The girl at her side, same blonde grown out, ponytail and pink hair band. Little metal scooter. “But mommy, my knee!” she pleads. The woman yanks her daughter’s hand down proper.
He kneels, eye-level with the little girl, smiling wide. He extends his hand, palm upward, his long thin fingers curved slightly. “Did you hurt your knee?” he asks, quietly.
“Yea,” she mutters, shy. He can see the streaked dust on her cheeks, wiped tears. The top layer of skin on her kneecap cleanly torn away, seeping red.
“Ashley, we need a bandaid, lets go.”
For a moment, he breaks eye contact with the little daughter, giving her mother a silent warning. Wait.
Then he reaches inside, behind the placard, pulling out an old folded ziplock back. He unzips the plastic, removing a large bandaid and Neosporin. The woman flares her nostrils. He removes his sign, leaning it against the mesh fencing running alongside the path.
“Let me see your knee,” he requests. Softly.
Ashley steps forward gingerly, extending her thin leg. He peels open the bandaid, dollops the white surface with a large bead of antiseptic. He cradles the back of her knee with his left palm, applying the bandage softly.
Then he begins to hum. It’s not a tweedling tune or melody, but a deep Om. Arising from the base of his chest, emanating not only from his nose and closed mouth, but his core. He moves closer to her, bringing his head over her bent knee, his eyes slit dim, dreads swinging rhythmically.
He expels all the air in his lungs until the moaning Om ceases, lets every thought reside on this little girl’s wounded knee, the young flesh torn hatefully away, the pain that comes with the world. Subjected on the innocent, so sad. So human. He reflects on that as the air in his lungs turns acid, the world behind his eyes becomes dim, thought slows.
Then he breathes anew. Alive. He kisses her bandaged knee and stands.
The woman’s eyes are wide, coupled disbelief and annoyance. She always considered the spiritual an academic pursuit, not something so visceral, outside her blackberry calendar. She fumbles with her wallet, hesitates, withdraws a crisp twenty.
“For the medical supplies,” she mutters. “Thank you.”
He watches as they move away, down the paved path under and surrounded by the nature. The mother is a bit stiff, still digesting the event, but the daughter is free, healed, pushing the scooter along with her wounded leg.
For a long time he thinks about them. Internally prays on it. How this event was but a dimple in the ferocious fractal that is their lives. Yet something registering. Something beyond the transaction of the money or the bandage on the wound. A healing of the soul.
Then he reaches down, picks up the large slate of plywood. Lifts it over his head and settles it on his shoulders. His cross.
It’s one of his favorite streets on the city, a narrow side alley of off kilter shops, edgy boutiques, tattoo parlors, pubs and delis. The dwellings are worn fine, settled, without the plastic glare of corporate involvement, instead a particular flavor of gritty east village grunge. There’s graffiti on the stoops, but its not superfluous. The planters aren’t manicured, save a few hearty plants nestled in the mutt shit. The tree bark is stark, bleached white, the leaves already fading. They’ll never be brilliant like the towering elms and oaks of central park, but they eke out existence nonetheless.
And that’s why he loves this street. It’s not pretentious or gaudy or even blatantly anti-establishment. It simply lives. Breathes. Goes through the seasons, changes, grows. Dies.
It’s night. The wind blows down the side street, whipped around from the alley, cold. A hint of wet. It’ll rain tonight.
A lone cab coasts down the lane, squeals at the red light. Lets out a band of rowdy midtown wage slaves. The females done up like whores, ankle-breaking heels, leather skirts riding high. Bronzed thighs, smooth and youthful like plastic, same tone all the way up cleavage and neck, sharp contrast with the sultry eyeliner. And the guys, nonchalantly metro sexual, pink popped-collar polo shirts, loose faux-worn jeans. Trendy green crocs.
They spot him.
“Whoa, dude. The Village healer! You like Jesus or some shit?”
One of the impossibly tiny blondes pulls out her camera phone. “Jimmy, get with him. Get next to him.” She snaps a button. “Shit, the lights bad. Could you get over there, under the street lamp?”
He complies, letting them lead him. He doesn’t speak.
“Thanks bro,” Jimmy mutters, nudging the sign. “Wish I could pull that off, going off all prophet on people all day. Walk around, smiling, giving out hugs. That’s gotta be the life.”
“I bet you got some killer bud, huh guy?” Jimmy’s friend remarks.
“Rob!” scolds the petite blonde.
He shakes his head. “Do you need healing?”
“Not yet,” says Jimmy. “Tomorrow though – killer hangover.”
“And an STD,” says Rob. Jimmy punches him.
“Where is this place?” asks another girl, tall, brunette.
“Another block,” says Jimmy, sauntering off.
“God, I hate the village,” says the tiny girl.
And with that, their attention has moved on, the moment captured digitally, the transaction completed. He thinks about the four as he walks, prays over their lives, meditates on their hurts and pains and fears. Then he breathes deep and he thinks of them no more.
Before midnight it begins to rain. It’s a cold downpour, thick drops that fall hard in the gray, the uncountable lights of the city bleeding into the liquid pavement. The roads are a canvas black, watercolors of red and green and neon pink logos.
In Union Square the crowds are huddled under slick monocolor rubber, ponchos and rain slick hoods, uniform sea of glinting umbrellas. The trees slow dance in the billowing wind, spitting out a maelstrom of raindrops in their revelry.
He’s soaked and cold, yet immediately feels a warmth as he enters the subway station. The tunnels are grimy in the moisture, every dingy tile sweating brown blood, chunky puddles in the stairwells of day-old rotting newspapers, colored flyers for the new Chinese takeout. The herd presses close, the myriad bodies, misshapen lumps of warmth. The contrast is sharp in the deep tunnels where the heat of the bodies overcomes the outside night, and the straphangers begin to strip off the dripping outercoats, still pressing intimate on the platform.
He reaches the lowest level, deep down L, the narrow strip with two populations, those to 8th avenue, the others to Brooklyn, melded in a perfect amalgamation of metropolitan humanity. He’s nearly overwhelmed.
There’s conversation, the distant echoing of cars on the track, the hum of the subterranean machinery, and the tribal booming of a bucket band. He follows the call, rapid-fire pounding, around a supporting column, the semi-circle of admirers, the drunks tapping along, hipsters with nineteenth century facial hair, uptown corporate raiders, arms-folded in petulance.
A duo of Harlem brothers, gray hoodies, bargain bin jeans, second hand Air Jordans. But they have world-class rhythm, nesting meticulous tiers of boom and snap, the scrape of the plastic rubbing into the concrete platform, white flecks on rain-stained brown. The donation bin overflows with crumpled bills.
This is it, before the trains come, between worlds. Everything suspended. The drunks and sober tourists, the mesh of class and race and lives. All here in this narrow strip of time and space, transfixed on bangs and pings, pops and rolls. No melody or vocals. No lyrics. Only percussion, lining all together in a string of souls.
And they come. For hugs and healing, eyes wide and watering. Arms open he accepts them. He can give nothing but his love and his touch.
Outside himself, he looks down and watches the living bodies encircle, a lone tower of blonde dreadlocks, the large bent nose, blue-grey eyes, toothy smile. Outside himself, he sees the crowd a pulsating sphere, radiating out from him, as though he’s the sun and they’re in orbit, as though he’s the nucleolus and they the electron cloud, the buzzing probabilities of souls. The colors in the platform dull, he stops breathing, just exhaling, the solemn Om for all of them, this uncountable flock. So many. So many.
And as his love drains with his thoughts in his de-oxygenated mind, he focuses on the warmth and the press of these very physical bodies in the physical realm, realizing it’s transience. It will not last, this window of illumination. So very fleeting. Nothingness beside the void that is the outside, the sky above and the earth beneath. Only this narrow platform of communication, connection with brethren, sisters and brothers. And then to the dark.
He gives his lungs a joyful gulp of fetid air. His eyes are closed but he feels the crowd moving, pulsing, pushing back up the stairs, back towards the band. He’s batted around, a tuft of dandelion in spring breeze, a beach ball in the summer surf. A red maple leaf spinning as it floats down glimmering stream. A snowflake before gray and back storm.
Somewhere beyond, outside the joy, a sound metallic. The ground beneath him opens up and he stumbles. He feels a surge of life, energy, adrenaline. His eyes see only white. He clambers for the rough yellow-dimple edge, thin fingers grasping, the stampede of shoes on the edge.
When it hits he feels nothing. The roar of it all becomes a new Om.