Donna, my boss, leaned against my desk and said, "God, am I the only sane one around here?"
I swiveled in my chair and looked up at her. She didn't look great. The fluorescent lights did not flatter her features. Fluorescent lights don't flatter anyone's features.
"What do you mean, sane?" I said. It wasn't an insightful comment. I didn't mean it to be. I only wanted her to go away so I could make some progress on the pile of work she had given me. My in basket was literally broken under a leaning tower of papers.
"I just had a cigarette out on the front step with that guy Bosco in Development."
"Bosco?" I said.
"Yeah. I'm sure you've seen him. He's bald and always wears a bow tie?"
"Anyway, it turns out he's a raving Republican racist pig. All he talked about for ten minutes was how those people want a hand- out and those people are lazy and those people don't take the time to raise their kids."
"Just don't talk to him anymore," I said, eyeing the paper on my desk.
She went on, ignoring me. "I mean, he actually buys breakfast cereal for his kids with candy in it."
"Huh?" I said. None of this was getting any clearer.
"Yeah. He told me this. How his kids eat this stuff that's like Cheerios except that it has candy in the middle. Can you believe that?"
"What do you expect from a guy named Bosco?" I said.
"I mean, here we are trying to change the world and there are people out there using vast creative talents to make a cereal with candy in it."
"They're just hustling a buck same as the next guy," I said.
Donna looked at me coldly and pushed her glasses up on her nose. "Speak for yourself," she said. "It's not a perfect world. When I see something wrong, I have to fix it right now." She put her hands to either side of her head and hunched her shoulders. "Oh, it just makes me crazy," she said.
I picked up a sheet of paper from the top of the stack in my in-basket and tried to look busy.
"Oh, I guess you're actually trying to get something done," said Donna.
"Oh, well..." I said. She sighed wearily and drifted out of my office back into hers. I looked at the mountain of paperwork ahead of me and decided to go to lunch. When I passed through Donna's office, she was playing a game on her computer.
I passed the guard's desk in the lobby. It was equipped with an impressive panel of video monitors each showing a half-tone still- life of some remote corner of the building: stairwell, fire door, hallway. Occasionally, a human being, distorted by the fish-eye lens of the camera, would pass elliptically across one of the monitors. The guard, busy trying to work the Times daily crossword in ink, wasn't paying any attention whatsoever to the monitors. He grunted as I passed.
The glass and chrome doors of our building delivered me into the lunchtime crowds on Broadway. The sidewalks were crowded with the motley assortment of humanity typical downtown: men and women in business suits, NYU students in their uniforms of black spandex and leathers, tattered homeless, hitch-stepping hustlers, junkies, deadbeats and drunks.
I headed downtown. I had vague thoughts of going into Tower Records, maybe a bookstore, then catch a sandwich on the way back. At Astor Place, I passed a woman sitting on a heating grate in the sidewalk. She leaned against the building and across her knees lay a sign lettered on a scrap of corrugated cardboard. It said, "my BaBy diEd, Im TRyinG To gEt EnouGH To BuRy Him And Go Back HomE To NoRTH caRoLiNa. PLEASE HELP ME!"
I'd walked by her on that corner for weeks, always with the same sign, watching the crowds walk by ignoring her. I put fifty cents in her blue and white Acropolis cup.
"God bless you, sir," she says to me. I nodded and went on. I wondered where she'd keep it if she really did have a dead baby. I thought of weird possibilities: a locker at the Port Authority, the coat check at the Met. I started laughing to myself.
In the next block a black man with a gray stubble of beard stepped into my path, his hand out. He wore a hound's tooth sports jacket that might actually have once been a fine piece of clothing, taken off a rack in a men's store on the upper East side, now stiff with grime, lining ripped and dangling.
"Spare quatta, spare quatta, spare some cha-a-a-a-i-i-i-nge!" growled the wino in my face.
I had just donated my last pocket change to the dead baby cause. "Sorry," I mumbled.
"Aii, go to hell, college boy," he said with a wave of his hand, and stumbled away after another victim.
As I approached Fourth Street, the red and orange sign over Tower loomed in front of me. People buzzed in and out of the revolving doors like worker bees around a hive. At the last minute, I decided to pass up the temptation of idle consumerism and turned instead toward the park.
I wandered down Fourth and meandered in a zig-zag north and west through quieter streets past NYU campus buildings and dorms. Halfway down one block, a delivery van was parked with two wheels on the sidewalk, the roll-top back end up and two guys hauling out boxes. As I stepped into the street to walk around it, a deafening shriek filled my ears, echoing down the tight, gray street. A courier on a bike whizzed past me. The whistle in his mouth dropped to the end of its string as the guy yelled at me, "Watch out where you're going, jerk!"
I crossed the street and entered the east side of Washington Square park. The usual crowd was there: roller skaters weaving in and out of the mob, knots of guys around boom boxes, kids in Ocean Pacific sportswear from head-to-toe balancing on the tips of neon green and pink skateboards, fat cops walking around tapping their legs with their nightsticks, old folks on benches throwing popcorn to the leprous pigeons, small children swarming the fenced-in playground.
A skinny guy with polyester pants and sandals, his dreadlocks tucked up under a massive, rainbow-colored macrame cap, stepped in front of me and said quietly, "Weed? Dime bag? Nickel bag?"
I slowed down. I usually had enough sense to tell these guys to beat it.
I hadn't smoked much pot since college, mainly because all my friends had dried up. But I felt loose and a little detached. Without saying a word to the guy, I pulled a five dollar bill from my pocket. Like a rasta leprechaun, the guy made the bill disappear, replaced by a tiny zip-lock plastic bag like the Hasidim use to carry rings back and forth across 47th Street or Canal. Inside the bag was enough pot to roll a very skinny joint. When I looked up, the rastaman had vanished.
I stuck the bag in my pocket and went and sat on a park bench. Close by, a crowd had gathered around a guy who was furiously assaulting a guitar and shouting a manic version of "Friend of the Devil."
A dark, attractive woman with short hair and high cheek bones sat down on the bench next to me. She was nicely built and wore black jeans, black T-shirt, black boots and black leather jacket with plenty of zippers and studs. She wore lace gloves with the fingers cut out. Her fingernails were painted black. She took out a cigarette and said to me, "Got a light?"
I fished out my Bic handed it to her. She lit her cigarette, releasing a big cloud of blue and gray smoke. I lit one too and said, "You like it?"
"Like what?" she said.
"The music," I said.
"No," she said. "It sucks."
I nodded. She was right. They guy continued to bang away on his guitar like he wanted to rip out the strings.
"You want to smoke a joint?" I said.
She looked sharply at me and said, "Are you a cop?"
I laughed. "No," I said.
"Well, then. Okay."
"Hold on," I said and went over to where my Jamaican friend was standing with a group of his compatriots grooving to some dub masterpiece rattling out of a boom box the size of a Fotomat. I asked him for a rolling paper. He gave it to me without so much as a glance. I went back to the bench, took out the tiny bag and rolled a joint on my thigh. I lit it from my cigarette and passed it to the woman who took it between the tips of her black fingernails.
"You work around here?" she said.
"What do you do?" she said.
"As little as possible," I said.
She didn't grin. I didn't grin either. She passed the joint back to me and said, "Well, what is it you're supposed to do?"
"I'm not quite sure," I said. I still didn't smile. This was a serious conversation.
"Quite a talker aren't you?"
"Actually, I am," I said. We passed the joint back and forth a few more times until it was gone. I was suddenly high. The guitar player kept pounding away. The park and all its surreal cast of characters seemed to grow small and recede.
"Do you want to walk?" she said.
I nodded and we stood and started off toward Fifth. I couldn't tell which of us was following the other. I wondered how much of my lunch hour was left and whether I could go back at all.
"What's your name?" I said.
"Heidi," she said.
I laughed out loud. I was sure she was putting me on, this dungeon angel in nightcrawler black. But she still hadn't cracked a smile.
"Really?" I said.
"Really," said Heidi.
"I'm sorry I laughed."
"That's okay," she said. "Everyone does."
We walked past the arch and up Waverly toward the West Village. We wandered down side streets past serene brownstones, unchanged for a hundred years, window boxes full of geraniums. I felt very odd and only part of it was because of the pot. I glanced at Heidi walking beside me and wondered if any of this meant anything.
The corner at Sixth Avenue was swarming with activity. Passengers were rushing in and out of the subway and the lunch crowd came and went from the diner up the block.
We turned the corner toward the basketball court.
"These guys are serious," I said. Heidi peered soberly through the chain link fence where ten huge men were playing a noisy, full-court game. Spectators leaned and hung on the fence and kids that should have been in school watched from their bike seats.
"Oh, Jesus, one of those deals," said Heidi. I looked around to see that a crowd had started to gather around a three-card monte game on a flimsy folding table.
The card man laid three bent and worn playing cards face up, flipped them over, mixed them up and put a twenty-dollar bill on the table. "Four of diamonds," he said. "Four of diamonds."
Some guy in the crowd laid a twenty beside the first and turned over the four of diamonds. "All right!" he said, taking both of the twenties. The hustler rearranged the cards and staked a ten. "Four of diamonds," he said to the winner.
"I'll bite," he said and dropped a ten next to the first and pointed to a card: four of diamonds. "Well, goddammit," said the operator. "You doing good." The winner picked up the tens and the house shuffled the cards. This time a fifty appeared: Grant's whiskered, alcoholic face looked up fiercely at this spectacle. Two twenties and a ten met the wager and the crowd was quiet for the brief moment it took to turn over the ace of spades.
"Aw, Christ," said the winner, as he backed away, looking at the ten dollar bill he had in his hand. The hustler swept the bills into his hand and rearranged the cards.
I watched carefully. I was sure it was the card in the middle. Without thinking twice, I pulled a twenty from my jacket pocket, tossed it on the table and picked a card: king of spades. I was dazed. I could ill-afford to lose twenty dollars. Along with the ten left in my pocket, that was all the money I had until payday.
I glanced at Heidi, who looked at me with a bored expression. I didn't care what she thought; I had to get my twenty back. The guy rearranged the cards and put out a ten. I matched it and picked up a card: four of diamonds.
"Yes!" I said. I felt my heart pound as I scooped up the bills. I thought I heard Heidi say "stop now" as I concentrated on the movement of the cards.
Without so much as a pause, I matched the house twenty with my two tens. I was so sure of the cards that I had started to reach for the bills before I realized I was staring at the ace of spades. The hustler's hand snaked out and reeled in my last dime. As I backed out of the crowd, another loser stepped into my place.
I looked at Heidi, who stood with her arms crossed. I could see her trying to decide where to place me on a range of possibilities between kind of interesting and dangerously unbalanced.
I figured she was calculating the risk of involvement by estimating the ratio of interest to misery: a woman's standard measure of a man.
"I have to go back," I said.
We had walked half a block when she said, "Is this, like, a normal lunch break for you?"
"Well, no," I said. "I guess not. In fact, it's pretty weird."
"Hmmm," she said. "I'm not sure if I'm glad to hear that or not."
When we got back to the park, she said, "I have to go this way." She waved her hand northward up Fifth.
"Okay," I said. "Can I call you?"
"No. Give me your number. If I decide to, I'll call you."
I took out a scrap of paper and a ball-point pen, scribbled my home and work numbers and handed her the paper. We stood looking at each other. Her hands were folded in front of her. I leaned toward her.
"No," she said. "Don't do that. There might be a time for that later on, but not now."
Then, with an odd, backward glance, she turned, bounded across Fifth, and disappeared into the crowd. At that moment, high above the honking, screaming, grinding sounds of the city, came the peal of a tower clock; a clear, resounding bong that rang out over the chaos of the city and spoke to me through my confusion.
I began walking briskly toward Broadway. The fogginess of the pot was wearing off. I thought about the oddness of the last hour and tried to puzzle meaning from it. I wondered if I would see Heidi again or if that even mattered. Whatever she decided, in a lonely city full of self-made prisoners of paranoia, an attractive, apparently sensible woman had spoken to me out of the blue without fear or condition or motive. So why, then, had I responded by playing the role of an immature, self-destructive lout, or was that the real me after all?
I dashed though the doors of my building, past the guard who barely glanced at me. As I passed my boss, she was still playing Tetris, the blocks falling like geometric snowflakes on her computer screen. Without looking up, she said, "Where have you been?"
"Oh, just doing lunch," I said.
"Slow service?" she said.
I suddenly remembered that for all that had happened, I hadn't eaten at all. Nor would I for days if I couldn't find some money somewhere. I chuckled cryptically.
Back in my office, I picked up my phone to check my voice mail. The computer voice told me I had a message, so I punched in my password.
"Hi, this is Heidi. I just want to know if you're as weird as you seem? I mean, it's okay one way or the other. I just have to know. I guess, if you want to meet in the park for lunch tomorrow, that'd be all right. We'll see how it goes, okay? Bye."
I hung up the phone and sat in my office under the unforgiving fluorescent glare.
"Hey, Donna," I yelled into the next office without bothering to get up from where I sat, grinning like a madman. "Can you lend me thirty bucks till payday?"
Mark Smith (email@example.com) lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)
InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Mark Smith.