Short Story by Warren Faye
It was difficult to determine if it was firing from the ground upwards or bombing from the sky. Like straight arrows and sheets of glass. It was too fast to know if it was scattered or in sequence. Its slamming ground attack made a thousand sounds bringing my mood adrift. I had never seen rain quite like it. I was holding the receiver, frozen still, motionless, resembling the mannequins in the store fronts behind me. The phone had gone dead 30 seconds ago or maybe it was a minute now. Anxiety made my stomach swirl.
I felt so insignificant amongst the steel concrete glass giants that engulfed me. The speedy yellow blurs whizzed by taking me into a trance. The rain poured down my face and into my mouth creating a small waterfall, spilling from my nose and chin. What next? Came a thought through the numbness, but the question was ignored by a dumbfounded silence. I began to walk, hoping no eyes from the shadowy alleys were watching. I felt scared and alone and knew anyone with ill-intent would sense it from me.
I straightened my stride and pounded my step to give an essence of confidence. The dark sky flashed bright as a bolt of lightning cracked the clouds. Funny how this place thrilled and intrigued me on TV or in a picture but the real thing was a whole different entity.
Entering the park now, I didn’t drop my bag to admire the view. I did so because its weight had beaten me. I could not have carried it another foot. I sat there and thought back to the phone call moments earlier. What had happened? Could this be? I had been given this number from a neighbour back home. She had said her uncle was going to put me up for a week and give me a part-time job in his bar. This was written in stone, according to her. When I called he said he knew nothing of this and with new born twins at home could not accommodate me, nor could he hire me for bar work as the bar was already over-staffed. He showed his fury towards his niece for putting him in this position.
It was embarrassing. I don’t even know if I said goodbye. “Ok”! I thought – tomorrow I will get a flight out of here and tonight I will stay in a motel. Then I remembered my going away party. Faces flashed of family, friends, acquaintances, old work colleagues, neighbours, the laughter, the sneers, the firm wise words, the tears, the admiration, hugs, kisses, face pinching, back slaps and firm handshakes. My enemy pride arose and stood its ground. “What was I trying to prove? Who cares what people think? Who cares what people say?” Apparently, I did.
Reaching down into the depths, I lassoed the little strength I had left. “Yes” I reasoned to myself “I must try” If all else fails I can revert to the motel and flight out anytime plan. This provided a small comfort.
When I arrived at the Holiday Inn on 63rd on 9th, I think the guy at reception thought I was a vagrant, well I suppose I was homeless. When I placed the shiny wet 70 dollars on the counter his suspicious expression dropped instantaneously. I could have been Jeffrey Dalhmer for all he cared. I made my way up the narrow stairs and it was hard to distinguish the carpets colour between green and grey. Let’s just say it was dim and shabby. At the top of the stairs was a narrow corridor, lit by a couple of low voltage bulbs. My room was on the left, Room 101.
I entered to the sour smell of perhaps an old milk spillage or maybe a dead rat under the floor boards, at this point it didn’t matter, I needed to lie down. I fell onto the single bed with its stained quilt. A bible lay on the locker to my left, I cursed it. Facing me was a wall, papered with large purple flowers, that looked like it had been there from the 70’s. There was no wardrobe or chest of drawers, only a few clothes hangers upon it. I sat up, as tired as I was, I needed to look out the small window. The view was less impressive than the room. A graffiti covered wall with a narrow alley below used for storing garbage.
This wasn’t the plan, but I had neither the energy or will to ponder on it. My eyes shut in sequence with my body, as I slumped onto the bed. I slipped away from the nightmare for a while. The rain was still coming down when I awoke or maybe it was starting all over again. The ceilings large crack looked like a sinister smile mocking me. I stood in the room, a little disoriented. I asked myself a few more whys before making my way down the corridor to shower. That day I strolled through the city asking for work, but to no avail. Returning to the Holiday Inn I knew I could only afford another couple of nights. I had about 200 dollars left to my name.
For the first couple of days I mostly walked, slept and asked for work. On the third day, I went to Queens and walked along Queen’s Boulevard. I remember the El which ran carrying trains along the Boulevard. It was dark and eerie to me. Strange faces watched as this infant found its feet and stumbled on clumsily. I felt like I was thrown into a football match without the proper attire or energy.
My body screamed for an alcoholic beverage of a strong component for some reason, this surprised me, not being a drinker. I found myself propped on a bar stool starring into a Jameson in a Tom Collins glass.
It was on this stool I met Cormac Connolly. He was a tall wiry man with jet black curly hair. His piercing dark eyes looked past your matter and into your existence and relevance in the universe. His smile was charming and his wit quick. “Another pint of the black stuff gorgeous” was the first sentence I heard him speak. He winked at the bar maid as she jumped to attention. His charisma was admirable and his smile contagious. He noticed me smile and stripped my soul and checked my finger nails for dirt, all in a glance.
“Ah fresh off the boat, as green as grass I see” he commented without hesitation. “Who me”? I croaked. “No, the little leprechaun behind you” he laughed – he laughed after most of his smart little comments. He was his biggest audience and number one fan. I stuttered and spluttered “Uh, yeah…just arrived a couple of days ago, uh trying to get some lurk… work.” “Can you tile?” he said squinting curiously. “Not really” was my honest reply. “Well, what can you do?” My confidence was low but I knew I needed to sell myself. My heart quickened, reminding me it had a beat. “I’m a good painter”.
Cormac frowned. “OK, I think we might have something for you do around Pearl Street.” He handed me his card. “Can you play football?” he said before giving the card over. Again, honesty prevailed and my answer was “No”. “Never mind – meet me tomorrow at 7 sharp on Pearl Street – the Bar’s called
O’Briens. Now when Cormac talked business he was very direct and fast. You needed to give him full attention and this was his intention. I thought well of the man that night, until I seen the rat invested boiler I was sent to the next day. “Clear this out! Skip’s up front” was the only thing the foreman said to me that day. I wasn’t complaining as he wasn’t the sort you could engage in a decent conversation with, unless you were talking about women’s breasts or school uniforms on the waitresses across the street.
The work was horrible, the heat stifling and the smell putrid. There was no painting done that day or the next day, in fact I don’t think Cormac had any painting in mind for me at all.
Time passed quickly. I became somebody I thought I should be to dwell in other people’s personality domains – a phony. I drank hard, thinking I was better fun and more interesting. Most of the people I met in the bar scene were false and I was quickly becoming so also. I went on a journey to find myself, instead I was lost. I came to explore yet never adventured. My apartment was dark, shabby and dull reflecting my personality, when sober. Cormac’s exploitation of my good nature was turning me nasty and cynical.
I awoke one night to the angry shouting of Mick the Barman. As I peeled my face from the bar a coin fell, it been stuck to my forehead – it hit the floor with a clank. I squinted as I tried to focus on the pathetic reflection facing me. Lipstick smudged my face around the lip area, not from liaisons with beautiful women – no, somebody had put it on when I fell into unconsciousness from intoxication. One of my eyebrows had been shaved. The bartender laughed and I understood anybody who would. I felt an overwhelming shame. Guilt welled up inside me “Mum would be so proud” my inner voice mocked.
Tears streamed uncontrollably – I couldn’t contain them. The stool fell as I stood. I staggered to the door like a wounded deer. The rush of the street outside was deafening, the roar of traffic made me grind my teeth. “Five years – Five years and nothing, not a cent, five years of a blur” my inner voice hammered. “You are nothing, a nobody”. The busy traffic entered the tunnel in my head and rang out as it exited on the other side. The stale drink in my stomach set to automatic and spun. As my hand got to my mouth, my inners sprayed on the sidewalk.
People stepped around the invisible bubble that surrounded me and looked at this alien with disgust, and so did I. You need to fall to the bottom of a dark well before you can climb again. I had been living in this dark well for a long time. What was I trying to prove? Away from my friends, family and people who loved me. Isolated! Was I loved too much? Was my opinion so low of myself I thought everyone else saw me in this way… Did I want to try to be better than people back home who stayed comfortable in their environment? What was wrong with that? I had gone away, not because of abuse from friends or family and not because people looked down on me – they would have been valid reasons. For what?
That question niggled at me, grinded me and begged for an answer. I felt like the city was shrinking me to nothing, like an insect under a magnifying glass as the sun makes it turn and shrivel as it roasts.
The next night I found myself sitting on an Aer Lingus flight, homebound. The last five years could very well have been a two week stay over from what I could recall of it. What would I tell people when they asked, how was the Statue of Liberty? Or how long it took to walk the Brooklyn Bridge? Would
I lie? Trying to escape my negative thoughts, I looked out the window to see mountains engulfed in a hazy mist. A feather caressed my heart as I looked on this mythical land I was returning to. Its radiant greens looked magnificent, if painted by an artist you would be inclined to say they exaggerated.
I felt proud and excited to what might lie ahead. Tears filled my eyes as I remembered Ireland and its mystique. A bird flew alongside the wing as it escorted me on my final journey home. I smiled as my why was answered. My dark days were over.