At the invisible gates where my block meets the avenue sits a sentry.
African-American woman, not quite elderly, pear-shaped. When I approach she's always in profile, at her post, wreathed in smoke. A vigil through burning tobacco.
This neighborhood is a shriek. Alarms no one hears. Sirens for someone else’s bad luck. Hot shouts in a fight that’ll melt away soon enough, in a fist or indifference. But the sentry’s as placid as a Japanese garden. I wonder what she sees that I don't. Or what she shuts out that I can’t.
She favors the shade. Her perch from a wheeled walker travels to three spots with the arc of the sun. One of them, a grimy brick doorway, in case of rain. She only ever occupies the north side of street. She's seen the south side opposite, just a few feet of cratered asphalt away, and must have found it lacking. That, or her suspension is out. Still her endless chain of cigarillos has to come from somewhere. So she's got to travel, even if only a hundred yards or so in any of four directions to a bodega.
And the cigarillos sustain. Her forearms live rooted along the crossbar, her hands wilt down in the center like crumpled fruit. But then her hand stirs, and it alone, raising the moistened end to lips, dead on schedule. I've never known her without that slim papyrus tube slanted through her fingers. I've never known her to need to light one and only ever see the dirty blue tendrils twirl up into nothing. Wisps, her stare through them. Exhale, fresh stinging clouds, unblinking stare.
I've never known her every single day for three years.
I don't know her name. A private game, don’t know why, but after walking past I'll try to think of a few that would suit her. I’ll ignore her, then wonder if any name that leaped to mind might be to hers. Pretty antisocial game, I guess.
East Harlem is a transitory place. Even by New York standards. I’ve lived in this town on and off for nearly twenty years. It used to feel more like you were in the middle of simmering, of brewing, like ethnic savors that were unapologetic. Yeah, well. The melting pot is being scoured clean.
It’s uneasy up here. What’s this place going to be? Its face is being reassembled, and not gently. There’s a fraught hum on the street. ‘Do I get to be a part of it?’, it asks. A pointed suspicion echoes back, ‘Probably not’.
Even so you can still grab whiffs of identity. Recognition too. We all course around each other, isolated like ice floes, somehow rarely colliding. But we’re secure that the living’s real enough up here, for now. It’s not an unheard thing for a recurring face to yield a next-to-secret nod, a beat, a signal. I like to nod at faces when I find their lights are on and there’s some shuffle of activity visible across the eyes. In the street, I mean. Where we fortify. I nod because I’m naïve enough to suppose the effort lands, maybe on a small scale. And that’s a long maybe.
Once I’m honest about it, I realize I’m looking for my sentry. If she hadn't been there I'd be disappointed. Where the hell does that come from? It suddenly feels stupider to keep my mouth shut. There is my fixed object in an eroding neighborhood. My sentry. She sits far enough away to seem like a chess piece.
So I stop one day and mean it when I ask how she is. People can sniff out the question mark.
“Fine, thank yew,” she tells me. “Nothing new other than rent and troubles. I’m fine.”
She says it like any day short of disaster is alright. Not as if she might burst into song. Any Disney birds twirling around her head would asphyxiate on the fumes. No. She said it as if here we were, and there we are.
And we become sort of somebodies who once were fully nobodies. Foolish not to, really. Especially in transitory places.
And I shove off along my way. And she doesn’t.
She stands guard.
Often it’s a thick scene on the sidewalk when I see her. Mid-morning, early afternoon, depending if I’m striding or shuffling. She does neither. But she’s a touchstone for the pedestrians. They flit past and offer a light wave. They’ll abandon the bustle for some easy talk with her, and that she’s got miles of. But I feel as if I’ve discovered how the locals get the weather report each day. Not if it might rain, but the temp. The sentry is the constant, the fixed object. Talk with her and you feel the climate of the place.
I thread through some of her passing-by pals. I take stock while she holds court and beams for a bit. She’s an eager laugher. Her walker is purple and a little scraped, baring the metal beneath. It’s sturdy, with black wheels and grips. I rarely see her standing.
On my walk back to my apartment, I catch her during the inching chase of the shade. Her walk is plodding but regular. Stooped over the bars of the walker, her meaty arms jostle with the uneven pavement. Once she sits, she settles into a posture that seems inevitable and solid, like a outcropping of rock.
Over a few days I’ve slowed my walk past the sentry. Her face is ovular and without creases, usually gleaming from long hours outside. Her eyes are lightly lashed. Guesses at her age would be mostly wrong. She wears no make-up and the occasional piece of pharmacy jewelry. She must like purple. There’s the walker, but also her loose, modest clothes, or sometimes just a few dots in the mix. Her hair is swept back into a jagged, shiny ponytail. Jet-black, but rimming her temples are arrows of ash white. The mouth is wide and shaped like a fat lemon wedge lying on the rind. The yellowed teeth have gaps and make for a grin so unreserved, it deserves a reward. I've seen ruler-straight smiles, pearly and expensive, that were far less appealing. At least, less lived-in.
Her expression is most often neutral. I can’t say pensive because I can’t read it. Is the Sphinx in Egypt solving a crossword or just staring? Who the hell knows? I do know the sentry’s eyes can be hazel granite, just hard. Neither hot or cold. Unconcerned, flat. But that's before she sees you. It makes me happy that after a month or so, she slides the granite slabs aside when I appear.
"Hey darlin', how're YEW doing? Where've yew been a few days now? What's new with yew, everything good?"
“Rent and troubles,” I grin at her.
“Yeah,” she bobs her chin. “Usually the way.”
Her voice is broad and flat. The vowels are pressed hard through the upper palate and nose, what actors call 'the mask'. The tone is burnished into dark warmth from a lifetime of tobacco. And if I lived on Sesame Street, today's episode would be brought to you by the letter 'W'. But her way has become familiar, and quickly, so it’s pretty.
I put my hands in my pockets and flatten my back against a tree. Easy topics, slippery, nothing that ever gums up talk. The sirens at noon, then again at two, and if they mattered. The heat, or lack of it. The neighborhood, or lack of it. All as loose and light as her bulky dresses. The talk couldn't matter less. A nod, a beat, a signal. I guess that’s the point.
And I still don't know her name.
Months go by and summer clogs the passage of days for those who didn’t escape the island. It now fascinates me that I still don't know her name. Mainly when I get other glimpses.
Midway between us on our block is an apartment building. It’s taller and bulkier and ruder than where I live. The façade is dingy from pollution. It’s as pleasing as an engorged toe. Another cinderblock pile designed in order to be torn down in a few decades.
But some days on the front steps, I see the maintenance man on the premises. A dwarf in overalls. Not short, I mean a literal handyman dwarf in dusty overalls. He services the whole place. Impressive, even at three times his size. I see him out front, reading the street. Arms folded in hard defiance, feet set wide apart, the curl of half-sneer crowding one side of his bulbous head. He might be nice enough, but nothing makes me wonder there.
I never think about that guy.
Then one day the sentry and I are being somebodies like we’ve learned how, and we talk about people on the block. She mentions him without prompt, and brightly.
“Ohh he seems nice, I like him, seems nice. Do yew know him? Nice man, works in that building just over there. Got a big job. Know him?”
“Seen him, never exchanged a word. Why, does he come visit?”
The sentry bobs her chin into the soft accordion folds in her neck.
“Got his eye on me. Yeah, he does. Comes to talk with me, takes a couple minutes off from where he works, over there,” the prod of cigarillo fingers flick to show me.
“Extra company, what’s wrong with that? Sure he’s nice?” It strikes me that I’m being protective and I still don’t know her name. I roll with it.
“And it doesn’t bother you that he’s…” I don’t gesture because the maintenance dwarf is only a few dozen yards away.
“Doesn’t bother me that he’s a dwarf, no, it doesn’t. No. Why should it? Seems like he could be a fine man. Dwarf or not. Good job too, they pay him real well to work over in that big building. Real stable.” She inhales, the cigarillo tip flares livid orange.
“Got his eye on me, so he comes to talk with me, and that’s fine. I don’t mind.”
That last part she says with just a little bob and half-a-sway to her shoulders that settles her into the walker like she knows the ribbon’s hers before they announce the winner.
I can’t resist an unsubtle peek over my shoulder to see if the maintenance dwarf is there. He was, not now. Maybe the elevator cable snapped.
I turn back. “Sounds cozy. Let me know where you two are registered. That way I can buy your wedding cigarettes by the carton.”
She spirals her face into an icky-taste pinwheel. The sentry flaps her hands like she’s eating sour candy and can’t shake the tang.
“NAH! What’re yew talking about?? C’mon, that’s silly!” She knows we’re both silly so she’s only painting upset in bright colors.
Then she swivels those cigarillo fingers over at me like a double-barreled shotgun. “But I’ll tell yew. Just so long as he doesn’t have lots of sexual demands. I don’t need that. No. Don’t want a man who bothers me with his urges.”
I ‘m standing immobile as a statue and still feel like brakes were slammed at ninety-four miles per hour.
“Don’t need that. No,” her fingers swing away from me and relax.
“But he’s nice,” she allows.
Late November pumps a cold sear in my lungs. It’s late day, too somber too early. Day off and nowhere to be. I could hit the gleaming new Target and hunt for practical things for my impractical place. I could distract myself that way and hate it. I could seek out friends. I could dial up a very pretty now-and-then friend.
Instead I haul my shoulders up around my ears and permit myself the new indulgence of sitting near her on the handicap ramp. Never sat to talk with the sentry before.
Holidays loom ahead on the horizon like battleships. I don’t mind so much, I even enjoy it. Does she? I try to ask without asking.
I speak of my family. I’m brave today. She’s got questions, unhurried. Who’s at the table and how is it and what we eat. Half asked, half volunteered. She doesn’t offer, but she basks a little, nearly coy, like she enjoys the nowhere murmurs of lovely things.
“That’s so peaceful. So nice,” the sentry says a little silkily. I don’t read envy in the shiny face leaned into her left palm. She’s never met my family. Could be my feeling for them. I tell her what they’re like, how we gather, how we fight, and the work it demands. Her hazel eyes go attentive, even turns of thought. “Yeah, yew’re real lucky.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” I say. A naked thing to say on the street. I’m surprised it was me. This, and the sitting down.
“Get together like that. Good people, family. It’s work but it sounds so nice,” she says with her lemon rind smile.
Her words aren’t what I hear, it’s the turns of melody behind it. Her words are slivers, nothings. But to her I think I’m the gentle boy who dropped off the moon, too soft to have sprung from this neighborhood, maybe too soft to survive it. She scans my face as if our languages are not the same. I don’t aim to please her, or for the head-pat of a pleasant kid. But I like to tell and she likes to hear. We sit a while.
I turn and look at her building. A shelter, I think. Assisted living, a housing project maybe, but not like the monstrous ones over on Second and First Aves. It always reads grim when I walk by. Squat lobby, painted a queasy blue, like a clinic. A surly face peeking from the security desk. My face scalds a little because I see now that I hadn’t wanted to know more. I scarcely know more than that now.
I envision what her holidays will be. I spin images, stride down her corridors that I’ve never seen. It conjures lean, indifferent. How much glances across a vein of truth or is pure melodrama, well I don’t know. But my imaginary walk makes me clammy. It’s a hollow scene, a place that echoes, stale air and steel doors, fluorescents and detergents. It might be like any other night. Loud TV from the next room. Some smoke, some sleep.
I stop weaving those what-ifs. I’m a coward. Mentally I flinch from it. I hate that I do that.
I can’t figure why I’m doing any of this, or if it matters. What I’ve picked up on, or what I’ve just invented.
There’s a lurking notion that I won’t know her name becomes I don’t want to know it. Coward.
We speak of something else.
It happens that I see her at night. That started with the slaying of spring and fat nights that sprawl as hot as day.
I’m walking back from the subway after gigs, or after the after-gigs. About two or three in the morning. Uptown, but somewhere south of sober. The streetlamps drench everything with a clotted orange light. I hate it. It doesn't illuminate. It looks like the street’s bathed in congealed fat.
There's a bass line pulsing from a parked car or a second story apartment. It’s what I guess an elephant’s cardiac arrest sounds like. I hope like hell it isn't near my bedroom window. When I round the corner, I see some iron billows. The sentry’s on duty.
Shade isn't a factor then. She’s set up her vigil at the top the handicap ramp in front of her building. From there she has an elevated view. A patrol car slowly sweeping by like the second hand on a clock. A guy as broad as I am tall owning the sidewalk with his unsnipped pit bull on a chain. Or some vain idiot drifting by with a tan briefcase and his tie yanked away from his neck. Here's a hint. I'm not a cop and I don't own a dog.
"Hey, darlin', yew just getting back from work? Late. What do yew do, coming back this late?"
“I play the piano and sing, in bars. Places like that.”
“Oh yeah? THAT’S what yew do? That’s a surprise. No wonder, yew work nights.”
“Can get pretty late. Strange though,” I say and don’t finish.
“Some nights when I start, barely nighttime, it can feel later than now, as late as it is.”
She stares at me and seems to compute. Or maybe just stare. She looks a little bewildered, for a few seconds.
“That’s a lotta songs,” she rallies.
“Lotta songs.” I leave out my recreation.
"What kind of music do yew play?"
“Jazz mostly, some blues. Old stuff,” I leave a mean jab in my voice and don’t know why, like I’m swiping at something I love. I tilt a head toward the pulsing bass line. “Not like that. But if I could learn how to do that, I would. Seems like less work, somehow.”
The ramp guardrails are at my eye level when she sits in this spot. It looks as though red metal tubes protect her. I think what really protects her is the knit of smoke chainmail. I feel damp at my lower back underneath the shirt and vest. It’s humid, as if the night can’t decide whether it rained already or to pour again just to make sure.
She gives me sharp chuckles. For the first time I spot that her hair is loose of the usual ponytail. She’s in a tent of a bed robe. Purple, that makes sense. I look at the ground beneath the walker. Only about four stubs. She hasn’t been here long. Insomnia maybe, or no A/C, or just an itch. But she hasn’t been here long.
"And that's how yew make your living?", she asks through a furrow over her eyes. There’s a new daze in her eyes comes and goes. Maybe she’s tired.
I smile. I lean against the guardrail. “It keeps me off the curb.”
Her laugh drops her chin. Her mouth hangs open as a series of 'ha's' is shot through her nose like a machine gun with a casual rate of fire.
I smile bigger now because I'm punchy and being a moody prick and she's unguarded and kind and life is improbable.
“Yew must be good at it,” and she adds a limp hand wave. She sucks on a tooth thoughtfully.
“Good enough to be asked back, I guess.”
“Yew got somewhere to go,” she drawls and drags on the cigarillo.
“More often than not. Lucky.” I smile without teeth. “Good thing to remember. You’re right.”
“Nice to have somewhere to go.” There’s an edge then, not a threat, but an edge. Like scissors poking up through fabric from beneath.
"So let me ask yew something,” she goes on. “How come yew got no girl?"
I snap to.
"I see yew everyday and I always think, 'this boy is so nice, shame he's got no girl'. I only ever see yew walking by yourself."
Very nearly offer her a tailored answer that says nothing. But I catch it in time. “I don’t know. I’m not around long for them, and they’re not long for me. Evens out. I’m around strangers a lot, so some days I actually like being by myself. Working on the rest. I’ve been on a few dates lately though. So that’s something.”
"Aww that's nice. Yew should. She’s got a good heart?"
Christ, what a question. “Too soon to tell. Everything surrounding her heart sure is nice. But the heart, that’d be a change of pace.” My shrug looks like I planned it, comes off cocky. The cynicism tastes surprisingly lousy. “Well you never know,” I add, for some reason. I don’t want her to think I’m a declining person. I don’t want to think it either.
"Alright. That's real important, yew know. Can’t get around it. Look for that. 'Cause I think yew gotta good heart too."
I smile enough for us both. “Takes one to know one.”
More ‘ha’ bullets. “Maybe so.”
“Glad you were out here this late,” I say, shoving away from the guardrail.
“Needed some air, yew know,” and her head droops a little. She’s slack with something murkier than fatigue. The cigarillo’s finished. She doesn’t want to go back inside. I don’t know how I know that.
“Ohh yes. Yew will see me.”
I raise a hand and set away at an easy pace. I say goodnight and have no way to personalize it.
"Get some sleep,” she says plainly.
We only live a few feet from each other, but we live damn differently. I walk away and wonder how much either of us will sleep. Never know until you get there. It seems like we were both delaying it.
Then an unpromising Thursday in September. I step out and peer up at an oily sky. The clouds look like a rag hanging out of a mechanic’s back pocket. Strange when days like that make you squint more than sun. So instead I face concrete and launch, like everybody else at a hurried slant.
She sees me early on and waves with her cigarillo hand. It draws vanishing smears in the air. Seated on the stoop nearby is a young Latina unknown to me. Fairly pretty, if awkward. She smiles tight and neat, taking shelter behind the bunched fist that holds up her chin. Either that or her wisdom teeth hurt.
"This is Angela, my aide. Angela, this is who I was talking about. My friend that passes by."
Angela gets a wider grin from me than she expected. I like my new title, could more than live with it. Hell, I’ll wear it with some pride. Here’s that worrying creep of fondness, we’ve both got it. But the rules. Don’t forget those. The sentry doesn’t want to know my name either. Never asks.
I feel like I’m learning rules.
"Handsome? Told yew. And that silver hair. That's nice, don't yew think? Used to have it longer, got so curly.”
Don’t move. Just stand there. Any move at all would look like preening.
“Silver hair’s good luck, yew know. Silver hair is, yeah," she says, nods to confirm her sagacity.
I wonder about the aide. She’s new. I don’t ask why or how.
“Good luck? Could be,” I say. “I know I already feel lucky the hair stays on my head.” Angela titters.
"Oh yeah. Yew'll be lucky. Besides, even if it isn’t lucky, it looks good. Yew'll have no problem."
All of which is fun, sure.
A beat. I see the sidewalk flush with bolder light and feel a bake on the back of my neck. It’s clearing up, a fine, strong day. An impulse darts out into the air before I can grab its tail.
“Where are you from?”, I blurt.
A wet, heavy beat.
I think I broke the rules I’m learning.
"Awlbany,” she mutters finally. A few blinks too many. There’s no tension in her face, but there’s unrest. I’m watching fumbling through a mental purse. “Originally, up there. Yeah. Awlbany."
Angela shifts on the stoop to listen.
“What led you to Harlem?”, I push, but not too much.
"Well, yew know,” the sentry grinds to a halt. Angela and I are almost at forty-five degree angles.
“Awlbany used to be nice, but went bad. People bringing knives and guns to clubs and that makes everything go bad. I never went to those places! But I heard about it. People told me, yew know. I lost the place where I was living. So I applied for assistance and they bounced me around a bunch of places. Two years ago, I ended up here."
Two years. The sentry and I had both moved to the block at the same time. That splits me. I'd pegged her as a fixture like a colonial lighthouse. But she’d gotten to know everybody, while the only one I know is her.
"Applying for my new place now though,’ she chirped with less daze. “So we'll see. Should be good. Hope I'm lucky!"
I fold my arms because I’ve got to do something. I laugh dry and light. “Well I’m not worried. After all, you’ve got silver hair.”
Angela giggles from behind the hand she imagines hides all of her. The sentry fires off a burst from her laugh-machine gun.
"Right, " she chuckles. Her smile winches her cheeks out and high. It narrows but doesn’t dim her eyes. Those stay shiny as buttons now. Up comes the cigarillo for a soft drag.
Then there’s a rippling drum roll across the sky. It builds into petulant slams on timpani. But I still see sunlight? The rumbles start to fade.
The sentry monitors my reaction. “Thunder on a sunny day. That means the Devil is beating his wife.”
I look at her and still feel open sun on my forearms. The booms loiter in the air.
“Never heard that before?”, she asks, a little sideways-sly. “Yeah. That’s what they say, been saying that a long time. The Devil’s beating his wife. Thunder on a sunny day.”
Creeping out of winter, a timid step into spring. Winter might set up residency this year, give the other three seasons the year off.
I’ve got something to tell my sentry. I go to the corner just for her. I’m not crossing or late for work. I set out for her like I would a coffee and copy of the Times.
But I find discordance. Today she’s not an outcropping of rock. She’s a purple pile. Her face is in private clash. She’s in her spot but not standing guard. I think habit guided her there, but there’s no vigil, no engagement. She’s shrunken. Doesn’t even have a cigarillo going. Her face is discordant. She’s rooted to her spot but she’s lost.
We talk, our shorthand hello’s. I’ve got something to tell her, but I wait for the local climate report. But the sentry lifts an gaze that’s watery, cagey, that hasn’t slept. There’s a soggy plea in her eyes as if she wants me to guide her somewhere safe but can’t remember where.
I ask if she’s alright and my voice is miniature.
“They’re trying to get to me,” the sentry mumbles. The set of her jaw doesn’t mask a quake.
“They? Who’s ‘they’?” I ask rapidly.
“They, in my building. Sons’a bitches in there! They’re trying, every night. Can’t stop them.”
“People are trying to break into your room?”
“AND going through my mail!”, her shout spears the air between us. “I can tell! I see how they leave my letters, thinking there’s money in there, checks I’ve got coming to me! I know they are!”
“In your mailbox? Or in your room,” and I fumble because reflexively I reach for a name to tag onto that. “Are you talking about your room? Does somebody have a key?”
Her fingers are sinewy around the grips of her walker. She shakes her head. I don’t know if she wants to cry on my shoulder or strike me dead.
There’s ferocity in her confusion.
Everything I can say is so inept to the task, so vanilla, so fucking earnest. I stand, she sits. Something’s unraveling and I think it’s her.
“They try to break in EVERY night, and I’m there! I hear it, I know. Trying to smash my deadbolt! Thinking I’ve got things, want to steal what I have. When I get back sometimes I see all my stuff’s messed up, I KNOW they’ve been through there!”
I watch her shake a little and I’m reminded how much rage overlaps with fear. My eyes rifle through her face. She’s so rigid, I see trembles. There’s some spittle on her lower lip.
I feel a little desperate. What am I listening to? Watching her thoughts is like an endless shuffle of cards, never the right one picked.
“What about the people who run the assistance for the building, have you told them? What do they say?” I really want her reply to be lucid.
“They’re the ones doing it! They don’t care! I don’t sleep, haven’t been able to in so many days… I know they’re coming to smash through my lock and get at me, for what I’ve got and for me.”
My heart bottoms out with a slosh somewhere in my lower ribcage. I thought I was hearing a friend’s cry for help. And I am. But now I hear the dark, closing trim of madness. Something in me shifts. I listen to her differently, as if she’s been downgraded to a local crank, like I take her less seriously. I feel like a shit for it.
I sit on the ramp. Another resident, obese, oblivious, sallies by us.
“Do you want to tell a cop?” I ask finally. “They’re not hard to find around here. I’ll get one, bring him back with me.”
There’s a drowsy gravity in her headshake. “No,” the sentry mutters. “Won’t believe me, a cop’ll believe them.”
I fold my arms on my knees. I stare across the cratered pavement like she does all day. Could she be telling the truth? Christ knows it seems like a seedy place from the outside. What if she really is lucid, and the hysteria I’m hearing is lack of sleep? Is that why she stays outside so late at night when the weather’s warm, to stay safe?
“Well if you change your mind about the cops, I’ll go, just tell me. I mean it! They could ask questions, maybe scare these people off, have them quit bothering you. This sounds serious, what do you want to do, just tell me,” I say. My chin pressed into my right shoulder. I’m looking at her but she’s deflated and watching the ground.
“Want me to talk to the people in your building?” It sounds too damn absurd even to my own ears, while I say it. But I can’t just nod in sympathy. Any stranger can do that.
“No, darlin’.” Still the drooping head. “I’ll just keep locking my door real tight.”
I stay with her a while.
My anonymous friend is going away. And so am I.
That’s what I wanted to tell her earlier. I’m moving. I’m going away.
But she’s really going away.
Weeks later, about three in the afternoon. Haven’t been outside at all. I don’t know if it’s balmy breezes or locusts and frogs.
For one more day I live in a cavernous two bedroom full of echoes and uncluttered acres of hardwood floors and cardboard boxes in corners. Nowhere to sit and no reason to stay. God I can’t wait to go. All that’s left unpacked is a pillow, mismatched sheets, a bath towel, a toothbrush and a coffee machine. The truck is booked for the morning. Everything on me is dusty from packing, my brain included. I’ve remembered everything, excluding anything vital.
But there’s one thing I don’t need a checklist for. I stalled until I had no choice.
I tell myself I’m going for a late sandwich and if the sentry’s out, I’ll tell her then. I’ll tell her I’m leaving. I’ll see how she’s holding up, how much of her is left. I’ll make it quick. I’ll tell her, either way. Just to tell her.
I hear my sneakers slap down the six steps of my front stoop, and turn right.
But she beat me to it. The sentry’s gone.
Her usual spot on the sidewalk just yawns wide, a strip of cracked grey and nothing.
I don’t stop, but I do slow down, to be sure. She might drop out of the sky, with a howling whistle like a bomb in an old war movie, and fill a vacancy. She might hobble around the corner, armed with enough tobacco to fumigate Connecticut. But I can’t slow down that much. Because she won’t. She’s not there, and there’s no one to ask. I’m looking at the level where she always sits and all I see is the brusque scissoring of legs, left and right.
When I pick up my sandwich, I’m staring at the cold glass of the dismal cold cuts display. I don’t even know what I’m thinking about. Pay, pocket my change. White paper bundle in my hand, unwrapped. Useless to me right now. I just escort my sandwich along the avenue, as if I’d taken a mustard-coated spaniel for a walk around the block.
I waited too long, on purpose goddamnit. Cowardly. But why the hell should I feel guilty? If this is the town everybody says has a mean streak, then for Christ’s sake what possible difference could it make? It won’t matter. No New Yorker will register this, why should I? Ever seen a city pigeon drop dead? They’ve got to, somewhere! Exactly. Neither have I.
Except that she was kind. I’m holding a sandwich I don’t want and I’m pissed off. It mattered to me, that’s all. I’m pissed that it mattered to me, and how do you explain that to anybody?
“What kind of sandwich did yew get?”
I only freeze long enough to spin.
When is a sentry not a sentry? When she leaves her post, naturally.
“…Turkey, Swiss, mustard…?”, I manage.
“That’s nice,” and she shrugs like it isn’t.
“What are you doing here?”, I look up and down the avenue as if it’s the Martian landscape.
“Oh my aide Angela, remember her, that shy girl yew met a while back? She came with me to check on my waiting list number for new housing. Cleaner place, people are real nice. Yeah, I’m looking. Yeah. About time.”
True it’s strange seeing her off-duty. And true she’s weathered. She looks like something that’s been left parched under a great heat. If it’s stress or an encroaching illness I don’t know. But it’s punishing, and it’s got her. But she’s here. And for now there’s the present little dance of glints in the hazel, for now.
“You’re moving?” I ask through an honest to God chuckle.
“Soon as my number comes up!” the sentry nods. The voice is reedy but brisk.
“Then to hell with this place. Won’t be the same now. If you’re quitting this neighborhood, so am I.”
The sentry tilts, puzzled. “Don’t tell me yew’re leaving New York?”
I shake my head. “Heading just far enough west to swap out the ‘E’ in front of my address for a ‘W’. I’m not even leaving Harlem.”
A blithe lemon rind smile. “Good for yew! But when’re yew leaving?”
And then I stick my hand out and tell her my name is Eric. She reaches over with some effort, almost an off-kilter lean, and drapes a slip of listless fingers across my palm.
"Eric. I can remember that, that's easy. Eric."
“I’m leaving tomorrow. What can I call you?”
There’s a pause shorter than it feels. The hazel glints douse, just a bit, as she fades from her own view. Leathery lips purse. She sighs long through her nose. I say nothing.
I think one of my eyes narrows.
She nods. Is she playing with me?
"Yup. Randolph. That's what yew can call me. That's what everybody calls me."
Alright, I think, Randolph, now three times I've said it out loud, an incantation, for Christ's sake. “Is that really your first name?”
My narrow eye widens.
“Yew asked what yew could call me. I said 'Randolph', yew can call me that. It's my last name."
I begin to get it. “Does anyone know your first name?”
"No. I don't tell people that. Nobody ever pronounces it right, and I hate that. I don't tell it. Nobody knows it but me."
I shake the hand I’m still holding.
“It’s a pleasure to see you today, Randolph.” I call her by her name that wasn't. But I like it. Sturdy, unlikely. What else could it be?
“I’ve got to get back and finish the last box before tomorrow morning. Going to be here when I get back?”
With a flick of her little violet Bic, Randolph fires a slim brown cigarillo. She puffs out the first tentative volley, then a curt cough that goes a little liquid. It sounds bronchial. Then she clears her throat and evens out. Steel blue spools of smoke coil obediently around her and she peers a little.
"Probably not,” Randolph says. “I've gotta go back to my room to freshen up and change before I come back down later. But yew'll see me."
“It’s a deal. I’ll see you,” I say. We walk together at her speed back around the corner. Randolph decides on some air before heading upstairs. She positions the walker just so and eases herself by degrees into it. I keep going to my stoop, lobbing the sandwich from one hand to the other along the way. It dawns on me that she thought my choice of sandwich boring.
Only a few hours left on this block, God I’m eager to go. And I will.
Now though I can turn and see the one constant I’ve known here. She’s waving at a mother and daughter returning from school, lends a throaty ‘How YEW doing’ to a heavy guy with a brash laugh climbing into a truck. I see her lean a heavy head that needs propping into her palm. I watch her watch.
God she’s eager to go. And she will.
© Eric Yves Garcia 2014
© Eric Yves Garcia 2014