THE YEAR THEY INVENTED
© 2007 Rob Hunter
Bowed to the earth with bitter woe,
— Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno
"I am midtown. Manhattan?" Linda Winkelman speaks her question out loud in the middle of the rush hour push; no one takes notice. Linda is standing in the middle of a street. She cannot recall who she is or why she is here.
"I remember lemonade," says Linda. Buildings disappeared, people disappeared. Now it is her turn. Linda Winkelman was born the year they invented frozen lemonade.
Linda adjusts her neck, squints. The vertebrae crack satisfyingly as she pivots to face east, down 45th Street.
"Yep, midtown," says Linda of the unfamiliar terrain. "I knew it; my mid-life crisis." Linda says this but does not know why. Mid-life crises are trendy enough to be sidebars on the evening news, but she has only a sweaty pitcher of lemonade all frothy and fresh from the faucet to explain the big buildings, the thronging crowds.
Linda the child is an acolyte at the shrine of her late mother's menopause, a prisoner of lemonade. Linda has heard of mid-life crises since her fifth birthday. Linda Winkelman was born the year they added the Bullwinkle balloon to the Macy's parade. Underdog and the Pink Panther were to come later and do not figure in this story. Her mother is dead.
She has forgotten things before: after climbing a flight of stairs, leaving the super-cooled gym after pumping furiously on the Exercycle. A Gore-Tex shoulder bag carries her gym kit for aerobics after work and a change of shoes for the office. She pats the bag. The bag returns her touch with a kinesthetic reassurance. All she has to do is stand still and everything she has forgotten will catch up with her. The frozen lemonade is in its chartreuse can, sweat-beaded with tantalizing condensation, hovering just out of reach.
Growing into her mother with her mother's constant sniping and hectoring had been a major anxiety. Her mother had brandished her own glandular withdrawal like a cudgel. "Don't dump jam in your cereal, Linda. That's not natural," said Linda's mother. Linda does not remember this.
The nine-year-old Linda dreams of running, running after an elusive train as fast as her skirt would allow. In sleep she misses her train; its doors slide closed in her face, rubber safety lips denying her entry. She runs alongside. Catatonic passengers whiz past through the station, noses flattened out against the glass, coats and scarves and bags caught between doors the conductor doesn't bother opening.
At age eleven, Linda Winkelman senses a nascent bitchiness ripening along with her breasts, whose progress she checks daily. Her body is not cooperating. She also fears for her future mental health. Developing within her are those same traits she rails against in her mother: an evil lurks beneath her burgeoning bosom like the alien pods she had seen take over friendly familiar townsfolk in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Linda Winkelman suspects that her mother is an imposter, but she has all the right answers when Linda tries to trip her up.
Mrs. Winkelman, Linda's mother, accepted as an operating premise that anything west of the Hudson was camping out, hence the lemonade made it over from New Jersey to her neighborhood Gristede's Market by a kind of reverse osmosis. It was important that people who didn't live in Manhattan have something constructive to do with their lives. Packing concentrated citrus fluids seemed a worthwhile endeavor.
"I remember Midtown. Midtown is a whereabouts. Whereabouts are where you are when you don't have the least inkling where you are. Alice in Wonderland, except I don't feel like an Alice." She has read Lewis Carroll other than Alice's Adventures Sylvie and Bruno. Of course, that's why we used the quote at the beginning of this story.
"And it looks like 45th Street," says Linda, recalling a name: 45th Street. "I should be panicked, but I'm not," she notes with mild surprise and files this reaction for future reference.
At 35, Linda acquires Tom, a husband, Tom the househusband. Tom Winkelman has a fast metabolism and a lethargic worldview. The world comes to him, is examined, and approved or dismissed. Linda does not remember Tom. Her disappeared history bothers her not one whit: that leaves the future, a future of limitless wonderment.
There was once a futile passion for a local disc jockey.
* * *
In the afternoons of Linda Winkelman's "young womanhood," as her mother described her child's budding pubescence, the years from nine to thirteen, Linda sought solace from the radio, particularly 1010 WINS' afternoon personality for whom she hoped to become an acceptable offering. Pete Garland was the announcer who came on just before Jack Lacy and her mother's favorite, Murray the K.
Linda took comfort in the molassesey voice and sophisticated humor of the afternoon disc jockey. The Pete Garland Cat Exchange added a unifying dimension to Linda Winkelman's young life. Linda tried to work up the courage to call in. She even invented a cat, Conan, whom she could say would be looking for a good home because of her mother's allergies.
She sent away for a signed picture. New York radio stations nurtured the images of their stars and it had been retuned with a short handwritten note from the announcer's wife.
Thank you so much for your interest in Pete's program. We are pleased to have such a loyal listener to the Pete Garland Cat Exchange. There was a short bio: he had attended the London School of Dramatic Arts and used to work at a Cleveland radio station before coming to New York.
Best, Pete and Annie Garland.
Linda Winkelman called up once the following year.
"Is this the Cat Exchange?"
"Oh. Hi there. I'm Linda, Pete's wife. We don't do the Cat Exchange any more. Pete's moving over to WNEW. But I'm sure he'll be starting it up again. You have a cat problem?"
Well, then. Now there was a Linda, it seemed. Linda Winkelman, now aged twelve, was secretly pleased. The Annie of the note had exited. If she hadn't been an acceptable virgin sacrifice, at least someone who shared her name had.
"No, I just called to say that Conan had died. I thought Pete would like to know." Linda replaced the telephone in its cradle on the kitchen wall.
"Look at this." Her mother pushed the Daily News across the breakfast table past a lazy susan full of vitamins and bananas. It was folded open to an inside page. There was the same publicity photo she had gotten in the mail. "Your cat man." The announcer's first wife had left him. Something about his liaison with the woman who would become the second Mrs. Garland.
That the good-looking disc jockey's new wife Linda thought ungraciously of the other Linda as The Temptress had the same name as she tickled a small nubbin of spite. Linda Winkelman realized at age twelve that the first, departed, Mrs. Garland had become a surrogate for her own mother. Annie Garland, Mrs. Garland I, was a pod person. Linda, Mrs. Garland II, had saved Pete Garland and with him the Pete Garland Cat Exchange. The Temptress had trumped the Body Snatcher.
Now Conan the cat has been sucked into an amnesiac well of forgetfulness, Pete Garland and all, and Linda is standing in the middle of the street 45th Street and Sixth Avenue, to be precise.
The sign painted on the parapet of the Wurlitzer Building, the first thing you see coming out of the IND at Bryant Park, says:
John Lindsay is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Standing at street level she has to look up to see it. John Lindsay was the mayor once. He has disappeared; not yet his sign. He was a handsome man and she cannot remember his name. She is glad the sign painter had written it out for her. Linda might have voted for Lindsay in 1969 but she had been only six years old on election day.
She cranes back her neck and regards the John Lindsay sign at an acute angle. "Cool," says Linda. She feels the comfortable, reassuring crack of a vertebra adjusting itself somewhere along her spine. "L-I-N-D-S-A-Y," spells Linda Winkelman. John Lindsay was a Republican but ran as a fusion candidate. He had the Liberal Party endorsement.
Linda scans the upper floors of an Edwardian row house. The old signs lived on, unnoticed under layers of peeling paint and fallen façades. Brown and Getty Investagations glimmers old gold through generations of street smudge from the third floor window where some hard-going gumshoe had misspelled his specialty decades before. Linda addresses the long-gone shamus.
"Would you, Mister Investagator, have the kindness to mention whereabouts we are just now? And who we are, beginning with me?" Linda wonders where the Hotel Seymour went to. Wasn't it here? The ground floor had the best workingman's cafeteria in Midtown lasagna, spaghetti and meatloaf smothered in red stuff. The hotel's evaporation probably took several months, but Linda forgot to pay attention. One day the hotel is missing too, gone to join John Lindsay lock, stock and lasagna.
No more Hotel Seymour. An all-male porn house is in its place. The film on the marquee is the Shopper's Special.
As she watches, a grumpy codger dragging a ladder shuffles out of the theater. He props the ladder against the marquee and proceeds to hang a banner:
Documentary Weekend Adam and Yves PLUS Histoires D'Hommes, GOOD HOT STUFF.
"You read a cookbook like it's pornography," said Tom.
"You read pornography like it's a cookbook," Linda replied.
This was their joke. The joke they shared in their marriage. When did this start? Tom and his boil-in-a-bag dinners?
Linda's mother was secretly tickled at the patronymic of Linda's intended. "Winkelman? His name is Winkelman? That's the same name as ours. It sounds like incest. The neighbors will think your father was screwing some babe in Yonkers."
"All right, all right."
"He comes from New Jersey, Mom." Where the lemonade came from. Neither of Linda's parents had crossed the bridge to New Jersey in all their married years. "I met him at school." Linda had majored in Comp. Lit. at NYU. She'd met Tom in a bar ten years later.
"Is he cute?"
Mom figured Jersey was too far for incest. Her late husband had been beyond reproach. Besides, the lemonade traffic would have clogged the tunnels and made quickie trysts unlikely.
Tom Winkelman is light-skinned, light-haired and slim. He was good-looking once and still was but, even if his wife had noticed, it wouldn't have mattered. Everything is too late. Tom discovers the Pete Garland Cat Exchange photograph when they move in together.
"Who's the guy?"
"My cat, Conan," she lies. "Mom's allergies. He ran a cat exchange on the radio when I was a kid."
The grumpy codger grudgingly descends his ladder and opens up the box office. Linda buys her ticket and edges back to read the marquee offerings of the Shopper's Special.
"Adam and Yves. Mmm... Oh!" There is a shadowless Hiroshima sunrise behind her eyes. She drops her gym tote and rummages through its pockets. Didn't she have a bottle of Midol somewhere? "This is going to be one hell of a migraine." She grabs at the codger's ladder to steady herself; he has left it propped against the marquee. She loses her footing and falls between two parked cars to be trapped, wedged upright by bumpers, rubber and chrome. She feels the grinding of ragged pavement against her knees.
Linda wakes up smelling popcorn.
She is in a high-ceilinged tile bathroom. Toilet. She is in the ladies' room. Somewhere. "Yes." Popcorn. "I am at the movies. And I have taken my clothes off. I am sitting on the toilet."
A silk camisole dangles past her tailored navy suit top. She feels the gentle draft of too-cold air conditioning against naked thighs. Standing half-naked in her underpants, she casts about for missing items of apparel one skirt, the bottom half of a matching ensemble, her sensible, low-heeled shoes. Ah, there is one. But no amount of searching discovers its mate; it might be anywhere. Linda doesn't feel like hanging around for an exhaustive search. Her skirt is lying on the floor by row of porcelain basins. The zipper is jammed. Linda dusts it off and wriggles it up over her bruised knees. It refuses to go any farther. Linda stands, knock-kneed and defiant.
"Damn, now where's that shoe?"
She looks up. There it is, the missing shoe, perched eighteen feet above on a fluorescent fixture. Sitting once more upon the toilet, she extracts a pair of Nike running shoes from her bag and laces them up. She ties her sneakers and checks herself in the mirror. She keeps on talking as if the reflection could fill in the blanks, tell her who she was and what she was doing here. I'll be damned if I'm going to stand around with my ass out while I figure out who the hell I am.
Check her bag for ID. Brilliant. Thank you, reflection.
An attractive woman in early middle age stares up at her from the driver's license. "Linda Winkelman. Huh." She rechecks the mirror above the sink. "Hiya, Linda." The stranger does not reply.
She gives the skirt one last determined yank. There is a tearing sound as the zipper parts going over her hips.
"It's easier if you undo the fastenings first, my dear." It was Mom. Linda accepted her mother's intrusions irritably, with a practiced acquiescence.
"The zipper was jammed."
"You should ask your detective friend for a hand the Investagator?" This was the mother-blessing, free advice with a tinge of remembered malice. "A private eye is for divorces," said Mom. "You and Tom in trouble?"
Mom was baking lemon pudding-cake with the sauce on the bottom, Linda's favorite. The lemony smell was real and good, not like the mock-lemon lemonade piped in from Jersey that lubricated her mother's good purposes.
"Mister Getty is dead, Mom. The detective? He's only an old sign I saw today." Linda was unsure whether she actually saw the sign or merely remembered it.
"If he's dead he should take his sign down," said Mom.
"Mom, I have a stroke and the first things I get back are you and a defunct private eye."
"Lemon cake. With zest." Mom slipped her a quick look and grated in the lemon peel zest. Mom lived life with zest plus lemonade and wished the same for her daughter. "And vitamin C."
Linda Winkelman, the child, has rubella, chicken pox and her tonsils out. Linda does not get scurvy.
"You should go see the movie. Tickets cost money."
In the plush seats Linda feels sleepy but safe with the sticky, secret, kids-at-play smells evocative of other times alone, hidden away at the movies, a haven of refuge from the world outside the enveloping dark.
A perfume of wildflowers and urine with a whiff of disinfectant wafts in from the men's room to be savored, then dissipated by the air conditioning. The air is palm-scented and sweet from the lavatory soap I carried in on my hands. Linda holds two fingers to her nose and envisions a marble and tile washroom, not the theater's. "At work, of course."
Memories of work return in a sporadic cascade. There was to be a late afternoon brainstorming with Creative at Glasgow/Finn and Westcott. Linda knows she dreads the Creative types. A chips and nachos conglomerate was introducing a low cholesterol mock fried pork rind product, the latest scientific breakthrough. Linda is to be named project manager for the new product's test marketing. If it flew she would be in line to direct the national campaign. Her employers had accepted much money to place Pork-A-Dillos in the forefront of consumer consciousness.
"Pork-A-Dillos. I am an account executive. How delightfully disgusting. Add Pork-A-Dillos to the list along with the private eye and Mom."
Linda goes to the lobby for popcorn.
The concessionaire is not where she should be. Probably making out with the projectionist. Linda throws three dollars on the glass-topped case and grabs a waxed tub of popcorn, hot and fresh, and heads back to the movie.
Linda finds her seat in the dark that washed away all care, where a light shone dimly every five rows to guide one's steps on the carpeted aisles. Hidden and safe I'll be happy here. Ease off the shoes and relax with a waxy tub of hot salty popcorn slathered with a bubbly yellow mudslide smelling more buttery than butter.
Linda's first pair of heels were hard to balance on; she was always going downhill. She practiced walking for weeks. Eddie promised a gardenia.
"I know what goes on after the prom. You don't go. This once, listen to your mother."
Linda aged sixteen unlocked her diary with a gold-washed stamped metal key. She'd bought the diary at The Ben Franklin Store over on Eighth Avenue when she was ten; it was bound between puffy pink plastic boards. She extracted a glossy photograph, neatly folded. Best, Pete Garland said the too-neat inscription written in black magic marker.
If Pete was the best, that made Eddie second best. The Pete Garland Cat Exchange episode was by now past retrieval. Anyway, that had been four years ago and he must have aged terribly. Linda accepted Eddie as a fallback option, romancewise. The photograph was replaced, the diary locked.
"You used to like the movies; go to the movies. See what real life is like. Not pretend like the prom. And be home by nine-thirty."
Linda cajoled but did not attend her junior prom. She did not go to the movies. She went parking with Eddie and a six-pack.
There is an animal groan from the speakers behind the screen.
Eddie was never like this. And forget Tom. She remembers Conan, the phantom cat, and regrets not offering up her eleven-year-old self to the announcer who had attended the London School of Dramatic Arts.
Halfway through the popcorn, lips tingling with salty residue, trapped hulls itching joyously in dental interstices, Linda retraces her steps up the aisle to the candy counter. The concessionaire is the same man who had hung the Documentary Weekend banner out front. He wears a gold brocaded uniform jacket worn through at the elbows.
"Could you sell me a Pepsi? The salt ... the popcorn?"
"This used to be a real place, you know." The codger is chatty, "A regular Hollywood movie palace. Good movie, though." He picks at the inside of an ear.
Her stomach rebels at the thought of junk food plus ear wax. The codger withdraws his finger and thoughtfully studies it. I don't do ear wax, thinks Linda.
Linda pats the shoulder bag with her workout gear, apologizes to her waistline for all the fat and ear wax in the popcorn, opts for two packs of sugar-free peppermint clove chewing gum and heads back to her seat.
Linda stays on through the film. She leaves the theater and heads to the remembered brainstorming with her pockets crammed full of peppermint clove gum wrappers and not the slightest idea of what the movie had been about.
At Sixth Avenue she opens her last stick of peppermint clove chewing gum and tosses the wrapper into a corner trash barrel. A wind catches the wrapper and flies it away toward Times Square where a dust devil lurks by a kiosk. A moment later the wrapper makes an abrupt U-turn. The peppermint clove wrapper has appointments to keep that day other than with the Sanitation Department. As Linda steps off the curbing, the wrapper slips up behind her. She turns to confront her stalker.
"What the hell...?" The gum wrapper snuggles expectantly at her feet.
Linda Winkelman stoops to pick it up, moved by municipal contrition to protect her city from this litter, her litter. The business of bending to retrieve the cast-off foil displays gelatinous areas, front and rear. From several directions Linda's cleavage (and/or pelvic girdle, depending whether one faced uptown or downtown) attracts the attention of six healthy, normal men — husbands and fathers, good family men, regular guys. But for them, at this instant, time stands still; they are bonded by the flash of flesh, connoisseurs of beauty revealed.
Linda stands and straightens her skirt. She smiles. "Got it," she says, turning and holding the gum wrapper aloft. Faces redden and the bystanders hurry on. One of the onlookers is a policeman, one of New York's Finest, on traffic duty but nonetheless appreciative.
"If you haven't done anything wrong there's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'll remember that."
"Linda, darling. Shouldn't you be home with Tom? Tonight is frozen boil-in-a-bag, your favorite."
"Mom! You are dead. Go away, please."
"So? Don't listen. It's only a runaway piece of foil. You never listen. Don't say I didn't tell you."
"Hey," says the policeman.
Their eyes meet. They size each other up and like what they see.
"Oops." The gum wrapper wriggles from Linda's grasp and lingers at a catch basin, waiting. Awakened by the suggestion of an impending revelation, the dust devil shoulders past the wind and nudges the peppermint clove gum wrapper along, just out of reach. Fresh from the Shopper's Special and pursued by her own trash Linda is detained for jaywalking as she crosses West 46th Street. The officer hefts a thick, black pad from his hip pocket and hails Linda back to the curb. He is out of tickets but there might be an exchange of numbers leading to...? Who could tell? There is a potential for chemistry here.
Jaywalking even in New York is not as yet an arrestable offense, but there is a fine. The officer reads Linda the riot act on the threat to public order posed by promiscuous, inconsiderate walking habits. Linda is a remarkably attractive woman, the officer presentable and a credit to the force, and one thing leading to another with propinquitous acceleration, they are soon both laughing.
"Sonofabitch! Stop him! Stop thief!"
A very tall, very black and very fast young man exits a discount electronics store in the middle of the block. The young man is in a hurry. "Motherfucking sonofabitch." An overweight man explodes onto the street in hot pursuit. The young man is headed toward Sixth Avenue in an easy lope.
Linda and the policeman are not ready to be interrupted. They ignore the brouhaha forming up across the street.
Onlookers catch the scent of the shopkeeper's rage and join the chase. The young man is not sweating; he has done this all before. As he nears Mezza Luna, a take-out pizza boutique, a maintenance man with a bucket and mop emerges from the dark interior. Sizing up the situation, he thrusts the handle of his mop between the young man's legs, spilling him to the street in a slow motion forward somersault. The bucket tips over, swamping the sidewalk.
The shopkeeper and his posse are on their quarry.
The policeman is aware of the men and feels the psychic wind of their passage, the heavy breathing, bloodlust. But his eyes are fixed on the pin Linda wears on her left lapel; her grandmother's brooch. He does not dare to look at Linda's face, at the curve of her breasts, the welling at a raglan-covered hip. His focus toggles between the brooch and his thick, black, leather-bound pad.
"It's an heirloom, my grandmother's," says Linda.
Their eyes meet and hold.
He is afraid of me, thinks Linda Winkelman, secretly pleased.
I am afraid of her, thinks the policeman, secretly pleased. He smiles a smile of large, strong, white teeth.
Tormentors circle the fallen youth, their bloody footprints tracking the pavement. A trickle of blood meanders to the gutter. The young man covers his head with his arms, avoiding the blows. The young man's knees twitch close to his chest; purpled eyelids swell between unconscious fingers.
The officer, preoccupied with Linda, lets vigilante justice play itself out.
The young man will heal and eventually attend NYU.
"If you'd stayed in school, you'd be an MBA by now, not a receptionist," says Linda's mother.
"Mom, I'm an account executive. And I studied Comp. Lit."
"Have you had a mammogram yet this year?"
"I was only trying to be helpful. No tits and just see if you get a nice boy with prospects...."
"Mom, I am married."
"Not for long, the way you're going."
The officer clears his throat and makes motions to close his black leather pad. The business across the street is getting loud.
Linda explains to her policeman how she had been attracted by a reflection from the shiny foil gum wrapper and was ticked, "I mean really exercised, you know, pissed-off at those people who think the world is their garbage pail and someone sometime has got to start setting an example or the whole city and then the whole world are going to go to hell and there we'll be with garbage up to our ass. We're going to drown in our own filth." She flashes the cop what she hopes is a winning smile. A mid-life crisis should be an opportunity for growth. But then so was athlete's foot; likewise cancer and a well-positioned mutual fund. What the hell. Since she has no past, perhaps it is time to concentrate on the future.
The policeman is pleased. Linda is pleased. The policeman has no name in this story. He is tall, dark and handsome and has been on Traffic Detail for the last four of his eight years on the force. He has never drawn his gun in the line of duty. Persuasion is his forte. Linda rummages in her bag for a pencil and paper. Telephone numbers are exchanged.
"You never bring your boyfriends home. You just go and hang out somewhere. You make me feel like I'm an embarrassment to you."
"Mom, get lost. This is grownup stuff."
Pushing along the peppermint clove gum wrapper, the dust devil follows Linda, a half block behind. With raised expectations Linda continues on to the session with Creative. She feels her headache returning.
On the sidewalk in front of the building where Glasgow/Finn and Westcott occupies the top two floors plus a penthouse, the metalized Mylar gum wrapper waits like a pet collie dog who, having gotten home first, expects a treat.
Linda checks the gym tote for her office shoes. There is one.
Sitting on the sidewalk, she peels off her pantyhose and walks barefoot into Glasgow/Finn and Westcott. No one notices her. Beyond the revolving doors the polished terrazzo floors are cold and wet. Has she walked barefoot from the movies to the office? "Well, duh!" She reinstalls the Nike cross trainers and marches past the security station. She puts some effort into acting casual with the guard. His name tag says George Velasquez.
"Hiya George. Forgot my shoes again."
They share a chuckle. He recognizes her. This must be the place. The elevator doors, brushed nickel and rosewood laminate, open to accept her, sneakers or no.
At the eleventh floor she sails past a rain forest of weeping fig and Japanese bamboo and on into the conference room.
Creative are waiting with the Pork-A-Dillos product launch.
"Here's a little something the guys in R&D thought you could get a handle on, Linda." The little Pork-A-Dillos are uniform tiny curls like the tops of Dairy Queen soft ice cream cones. "Little piggy tails ... cute, eh?"
"Curvature of the swine. Very evocative, Sid," says Linda. "This is bullshit. I quit." She stands, walks down the hall and cleans out her desk. She has blown it all away. Pork-A-Dillos was the step up she needed. If she'd handled the account right and the product was a shoo-in, it couldn't lose the next stop would have been a vice-presidency, then a full partnership.
Cleaning out her desk, Linda picks up a cup of pencils, paper clips and rubber bands. NPR Morning Edition a Public Radio premium. The cup has nothing new to tell her.
But Tom! How to tell Tom?
She waits for the latest word from her mother.
"Mom?" No answer.
You never tell me anything, her mother would have said.
"Why tell him anything?" Tell Tom good-bye. "Tom is a good lay, a pleasant dinner companion, but a parasite."
Linda dumps the cup's contents into the trash and puts it in her gym bag with her sweats and the remaining sensible, low-heeled shoe.
Dinner and sex are Tom's survival skills, not mine. Get on with my life. Make the break.
That nice cop has my number.
Pete Garland took it back from a news break. "People! People! Please remember that every time you shoot or stab one another the news gets looonger..." He had not paid attention. Pete tried his best to be up, bright and funny, listening only to the newsman's cadences for a return to music, "...and that's one less record we can play." Pete only got to talk four times per hour and liked to make the most of it. In the years since his third divorce, Pete had shuttled from being a major market personality to being a per diem utility announcer, a peon.
The newsman waved frantically from his glassed-in container. Most likely another pileup on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Mark Watkins wanted it back. Again. Shit. Across the double glass in the news booth, Mark waited, glowering.
"And here's Mark Watkins with another Classic Hits update." More news, less music. Pete, now sixty-three years old, felt the remains of his career eroding under the arbitrary crush of casual violence and driver inattention.
"This is bullshit. I quit," said Pete and walked out.
Linda Winkelman, who still nursed her crush on Pete Garland all these years after the death of her figmentary cat, had just said the same thing only three blocks away.
As the elevator doors opened, Pete checked on Mark reading the news in silent animation past a sound lock and the double glazed studio windows. He tried not to slink. At street level a crosstown bus, the Number 5, pulled over to the curb. In his glory days those days when Conan the cat was almost alive Pete Garland could afford the cab fare up to Riverside Drive. He thumbed a token out of a scramble of loose change in his pants pocket and boarded the bus.
"You OK?" George Velasquez is staring at her; their noses almost touch. Linda snaps to and finds she is standing in the open elevator. She is at the lobby and can not recall the ride down.
"Power nap." They share a laugh but George moves to take her elbow. She brushes him away.
"I'm fine." Where was I? Linda wonders.
George stays close as she walks to the front doors. Linda feels under surveillance. George remarks how rotten the weather is.
As the heavy brass-and-glass door snicks shut behind her she turns to give George one last farewell. He smiles and waves reassuringly. All will be well. George watches her walk as far as the corner. Satisfied, he returns to his security station.
The cold blast of wet air in the street comes as a relief. Her sweater is starting to itch through her cotton sleeves. Her rolled umbrella, trendy with a shoulder strap, is slipping. Linda opens it and holds it against the sleet, rain, and now snow mixture. There is bright light, silvery brain showers, and Linda feels the world tilt and teeter. Propelled by an uptown crosswind, the peppermint clove gum wrapper approaches her. Linda's hand reaches out to clutch at and hold the rough surface of exterior brickwork. She kneels on the pavement.
An elegant man in checkered golfing knickers addressed a group gathered around a white wicker picnic set. An unfurled picnic umbrella passed through the middle of the table, tilted against any probable sun, a jaunty effect. "So glad you all could make it. What with your busy schedules," said the man in the golfing knickers.
Wasn't I cleaning out my desk? A large feral cat leapt to straighten a toppled platter of crustless cucumber sandwiches. The sandwiches evaded the cat. The man was Pete Garland in Linda's picture from the radio station.
"Conan! An escaper, go for it."
The cat gave a swipe of his paw and slapped the plate of sandwiches back into play. It caromed off the umbrella to nestle between Linda's breasts.
"Slap shot, precisely executed, Sir Cat," said Pete. "Cute tits, kid," he tossed in Linda's direction, an afterthought.
Linda noticed a janitor with mop and bucket chatting up the geezer from the porn theater. Well, we're having a party.
"Do the honors, Conan," said Pete. He poked the cat. "Pour, please?" The cat dispensed tea. In the middle distance a pudgy, red-faced man with a comb-over formed up for croquet with a very tall young black man wearing basketball sneakers.
"I didn't mean to be any trouble..." Damn! Here she was sounding like her mother.
"Lemon?" asked the cat.
"Please. And two sugars."
The concessionaire from the Shopper's Special wiped his nose on a gold-brocaded sleeve, as if seconding the extra sugar. Mister Getty, the deceased private eye from 45th Street, looked on as an elderly woman nicked the platter of sandwiches.
"Politeness is to do and say the nicest thing in the nicest way," said her late mother, snarfing down the cucumber sandwiches.
A handsome policeman hurried up, her policeman. He was late.
"I believe you forgot this." Her grandmother's brooch.
"Thank you," said Linda.
"Homewrecker," said Mom.
"Miarow," said Conan.
The headache was definitely worse.
A cold, greasy rain begins at 3 o'clock, wet enough to make a mess and cold enough to be a wet, heavy snow around the rush hour. The thought of reclining in a hot tub with a Kahlua and brandy close to hand gives Linda the strength to carry on. She decides on the downtown local.
Linda positions her token over the slot and slaps it through a residue of chewing gum with the flat of her palm and hits the pipe with her hip, sliding her gym bag over the turret with its three metal bars. There is a comforting clunk. The next bar pops into place, pushing her through: the machine has found her offering acceptable. The peppermint-clove gum wrapper dances around Linda's ankles, rejoicing with her. "Oh. Hello there." Better get a move on. She reaches the concourse.
The saturated humidity hits her and her mouth is dry, dry. This is like exercise in a rubber suit. Screw the Kahlua; I would sell my soul for a Perrier and lemon. Oh, Jesus! Her bra strap has just given up the ghost, its elastic sodden and limp. For this day's work, Tom had better take her out for one last dinner, not the usual boil-in-a-bag frozen gourmet treats.
"Have a lemonade. It's full of vitamin C. And it's green they make it in Jersey. You know you love it, Linda," says Linda's mother. A shoo-wop group shuffles and bops from Mom's kitchen radio. Linda's mother's kitchen radio plays all Mom, all the time.
"Mom! Not now, please. And it's not green, it's chartreuse."
"A nice glass of lemonade and hot noodle pudding. I have nutmeg kugel cooling on the stove. With raisins, your favorite."
"Mom, I always hated your kugel. I ate it to shut you up."
"Linda, that's not nice."
Next, the ramps. Down three stories to the trains. I can make it.
"Hold the doors! Hold the doors!" Linda runs as fast as her skirt will allow. Legs pumping, teeth clenched, she impacts the wall of cramped commuters already on board oof! She looks around defiantly, claiming her space. The doors slide shut with a pneumatic whoosh that catches her bag outside as the train starts to move. One quick, hard jerk and the bag is free and inside. The doors' floppy safety edges meet the caress of rubber lips on her thigh. Huh. Make something of that. The headache is now a weight of pain, sore to the touch if she could touch that place deep behind her eyes. Linda waits for the agony to resume.
Left behind on the platform is the cast-off gum wrapper.
Everything in the Village is stippled aquatint in shades of gray. A patch of wintery sky widens above as Linda drags her gym tote, umbrella, and weary, failing body up the steps of the Christopher Street stop at Sheridan Square. As she nears the top steps she peers out at sidewalk level through the railings.
A tow-headed preschooler hip-hops alongside his baby brother's stroller as a family walks past through the long shadows of early evening. The sleet has become a freezing rain; they ignore it. He knocked her up and left school at sixteen to pump gas, for this is the code, thinks Linda. This stringy young mom would always be yesteryear's prom date. Last year the toddler was in the stroller. They are on their way to the bodega for Coke and Twinkies.
The foil gum wrapper spins past the family grouping, across Seventh Avenue, and skitters up to Linda.
"Oh, hello again, gum wrapper." Tentative spidery tracings bloom on the insides of her eyes.
The peppermint clove wrapper is towing a streamer of yellow letters. Like those little airplanes with advertising banners at Coney Island, Linda thinks. Like the subtitles at the Shopper's Special. She tries reading the subtitles. The yellow letters are at a peculiar angle she has not seen in any other movie. The film parts and flies off the screen, leaving only a blinding white glare. An uncapped projection lamp brings a Hiroshima sunrise to Greenwich Village. Tornado winds whistle and midtown the sun stands still above Times Square.
The family grouping is returning. Each holds a plastic-wrapped glass pint of Classic Coke. The young mom steers the stroller, a big brown paper bag full of chips and sugary treats wrapped around the bar under her hands. The young mom's stooped shoulders lean wearily into a long gray march of duty.
I could have been her.
Linda is suffused with a runner's aerobic high. It is the year of her own junior prom. She should have gone with the boy Eddie? But Mom had said no. Unprotected, rapturous sex in Eddie's car instead. Eddie is now pumping gas.
When he isn't fucking me, Tom is rinsing the rice cooker. He calls this house husbanding. He stares out the window. These are the little things that make up a life. I used to have a cat named Conan when I was a kid. I had to get rid of him because Mom had allergies.
The sleet now carries ice crystals that bite the skin as the driving sideways winds from Jersey pick up. The young parents and their children scuttle for cover. This is the Big One and happening to me. To be sucked into oblivion by a cerebral thrombosis equipment failure was so tacky. And just when I had everything almost worked out.
On Riverside Drive, in the fumes of the departing Number 5 bus, Pete Garland realizes he has left his keys on his desk at the radio station. He ponders his situation, jobless and obsolete, and toys with the idea of suicide. There is a shotgun in the hall closet. Maybe he'll get a cat. Pete calls a locksmith.
Linda bends double with the searing pain behind her eyes. She grasps at the nearest railing to steady herself.
Apocalypse, yes, but not now.
"Everything is clove scented. With peppermint. You noticed?"
"So glad you found the time to visit. I got your favorite cookies from Gristede's the oatmeal-stuffed date?"
Linda Winkelman was born the year they invented frozen lemonade. It was the year they added the Bullwinkle balloon to the Macy's parade.