by Jonathan Rose
I was not following him. A person in my condition wouldn’t be able to do that anyway, couldn’t stay with him, unless this guy up ahead—presumably a healthy grown man or at least a man in reasonable physical shape, making normal adult-sized strides—was held up, slowed down by something. Maybe he’d stop, say, for a coffee, or give pause to consider the aroma of a street vendor and buy a late-afternoon snack, or decide to linger in front of a shop window, or kneel to tie his shoe, or maybe he’d just be halted by an exceptionally long street light. It was possibly him up there ahead, a figure resembling someone from my past—that is, a person who, based on what he looked like from forty-fifty yards away and in front of me, bore a resemblance to someone I once sat next to for an hour a night, years ago and in a distant city.
To be honest, saying this person bore a resemblance to someone I knew is idealistic, at best. How can one think of someone he hadn’t seen in over five years—and those five years ago he knew him in paltry lighting and under various chemical influences—from such a distance unless the person had an entirely unique way of walking or wild hairstyle or an outfit that only he wore? Prewitt had had neither a unique way of walking, nor outlandishly dyed or styled hair, nor had he worn distinguishing outfits beside painters’ white pants and flannel shirts, though maybe that was enough. Where we are now, of course, bumping into someone from way-back-when-and-whence is not totally inconceivable. It’s happened twice, in fact. Both times I was the one who gave the other my contact information and both times, afterward, I prayed for the person not to call and both times felt insulted when they didn’t. I guess what was inconceivable was running into a person I’d be eager to see again and catch up with. But maybe I wouldn’t be so eager. That last time with Prewitt had ended on a bit of a sour note. Nevertheless, I’d been out limping around thinking about Clora when I saw this guy, some forty-fifty yards in front of me, with Prewitt’s hunched shoulders and painters’ whites (really could have been anybody). And I wasn’t following him. I crossed the street when he crossed because sometimes I do walk on that side of the street. I was technically walking away from home, yet my hyperboloid route would always bring me to this one street which was the farthest distance I could get before the trek back would be too taxing—a series of right turns would ultimately return me, via different streets, to the front of Clora’s and my building. We live in a tiny room where we have tacked onto a cork board our grocery list and utility bills and a calendar, whose next month is perpetually bearing down on us. We love each other but a small room can turn words into the business-ends of thumb tacks and a lot of times I have to go out and limp around for as long as possible, for as long as my foot can withstand it. I’d been limping along thinking about Clora and then trying to focus on something else. How discomfiting it is that we can distract ourselves with things that have nothing to do with our own urgent or dire states of affairs and by contrast so quickly and easily shed ourselves of others’ tragedies? I hadn’t thought about Prewitt’s in years, although it had once consumed my attention, had held me sitting there all steamy-eyed and saggy-jawed. Of course, the hyperboloid shape I’m referring to is how it would appear as if viewed from an overhead or birds’ eye perspective. If I was someone who could turn sharply (I’m not; with the foot, my turns are gentle curves), the overhead view of my route would look more like the letter I or a dumbbell, but instead it’s the shape of a two-dimensional rendering of an hourglass or an old-fashioned trash can. Those stories Prewitt had told me—especially the sad one about the wife who couldn’t see him, and the daughter lost—he’d done so precisely because I was nobody in particular. What I mean is, there were dozens of me-s sitting around in those days. I was one of ten, one of a dozen, on whom he’d so candidly unleash those epics. And that’s no exaggeration; they were real stories. The rest of us—all the me-s—talked about the weather or construction equipment, or This-asshole-made-me-work-late, or, That-turd-cut-my-hours. Prewitt’s stories were capital-S-stories. They had antecedents, rising actions, arcs, ironic twists. A lot of them had ironic twists. Even the fun ones with the zingers at the end—which were like jokes but real-life, and usually involved Prewitt as the humiliated or contemptible character—seemed fully formed, perfect unto themselves. We, the me-s, didn’t have much in the way of response. Not that we hadn’t experienced humiliation or an ironic situation before, it’s just that we couldn’t really express it without rambling on for too long, or cutting it short, blowing our wad, as it were, without properly setting it up. Perhaps another reason why it was tough to respond was because we knew (presumably the other me-s knew what I knew) that there was the story-equivalent of an ace up his sleeve, always. There would be a one-upping of humiliation, of bitter epiphany, of tragic circumstances. I knew about the cremated infant, the small-ish, empty wooden casket, and the wife who couldn’t see him. The casket just for show (and it being significantly larger, length and width-wise, than what the child would have or should have been buried in, but what were they going to do, fashion something so tiny that its size would shock people, or put an adult-sized casket up there in front for people to lay flowers next to? And who just has a little casket just at the ready like that? Had it been constructed for a child who defied expectations, who pulled through in the eleventh hour?), and the grown adult, who’d once been the capital-L love of his life who, ever since, has not even looked at him, much less spoken to him; not like she was so heartbroken and beside herself with grief, with cosmic rage, that she refused to look at him, but almost like when the daughter perished in that mysterious and sudden way, Prewitt himself just vanished along with her; so not refusing to look as much as being unable to see him. He’d become merely the name printed on house payments and the mounting bills and credit card receipts blown around on the ground amid their curbed trash bins, the printed text behind a clear plastic window of a collections notice envelope, succumbing, lazily, to gravity, falling from a lopsided stack of similar envelopes. Unable to see him. Prewitt, a person who became just a name, or who chameleon-like began to take on the colors and dimensions of their house, fading into the peeling linoleum, the sagging wooden cabinetry in what had been their kitchen. Where we are now, of course, pedestrians have a precarious relationship with the rest of traffic. At a stoplight, a “don’t walk” situation, it’s common practice for the pedestrian to judge whether he is able to beat any oncoming car or bike messenger or mo-ped rider, make it to the next block without being hit or causing some sort of melee. No one heeds the walk/don’t walk signals, rather, when there is an opening, a window of non-traffic, it’s customary to seize the opportunity and walk, to cross. Similarly, the crosswalks are in so many instances disregarded altogether with people executing what’s known as a jaywalk, and curiously it goes without punishment or citation—maybe because where we are now, there are more fires to put out, larger considerations to be had than to worry about people who flit across an avenue bereft of cars. A guy I knew (back in the when-and-whence) was ticketed not for jaywalking, but for crossing against the signal, for walking when the sign read “don’t.” Such ticket, however, may have been dealt because of the caustic interaction between my guy and the cop who cited him. It was never quite clear, through his telling (he’d been one of the me-s after all, therefore not a strong raconteur), if the cop was some gung-ho municipal zealot, or if my guy had provoked a reasonable man into issuing a fine and/or court date. I’ll certainly never try to beat traffic with this limp. It’s unfair and seems like a cruel joke, what happened to Prewitt and his ex. The cruelest joke it seems is the one played by medical authorities in calling something Sudden Infant Death Syndrome without having any further explanation, because isn’t that like calling what’s going to happen to all of us “death syndrome,” thereby calling humanity itself a syndrome? Regardless, it’s goddamn sad what happened to Prewitt, him and his wife, who didn’t refuse to look at him as much as stopped being able to see him, even though it was no one’s fault, certainly not his; he’d just ceased to be a recognizable human form, just blended in with the dozens of tin-foiled casserole dishes the neighbors were positioning on their kitchen counter, under the sagging cabinets. We were then crossing under the highway, much out of the way of my hyperboloid routes to-and-from Clora’s and my place, so yeah, I guess I was following him now. I was going to be late anyway. Clora would be angry with me and we’d either fight or we wouldn’t; we wouldn’t use those sharp words, we’d speak to each other calmly, which was somehow always worse. I was gaining on him a bit. He was still moving purposefully though not in an apparent hurry, per se, something like a faster cousin of sauntering. Here was this guy with Prewitt’s gait, a slight shamble—so maybe he had a unique way of walking. I suspected that was the way Prewitt had walked, unsure of any specific time when I’d seen him walking. And the shaggy hair and painters’ whites (and what the hell was he doing in those, I wondered, had he landed a job out here already?). I also noticed something else after a while: The guy up ahead was not looking around at all, wasn’t glancing into storefronts or ogling people, landmarks, and the reason I eventually noticed that was because I’d been waiting for him to turn his head. This guy did not because I would have known instantly, being closer to him now, whether or not it was Prewitt. So the fact that he wasn’t pausing to look at anything was a very strong indication that it wasn’t him, although I couldn’t be positive not having seen his face. Usually Prewitt would ask about me and usually I’d respond vaguely. It wasn’t like he was expecting me to say something equally funny or astonishing, or daring me to tell him something better—at least I hope not. I think Prewitt had a modest side that would emerge only after he’d had the floor for a good amount of time, like he’d “remember himself,” realize there were other people in the room, who had their own things going on. On one night, however, a late one, Prewitt turned to me after finishing one of his stories and asked about me. He said something like, “So what’s going on with you,” and it sent me into that aforementioned cosmic rage. Just because all the me-s around there listened to him didn’t mean that we wanted him to do the same, that we wanted reciprocation, the favor returned. Life isn’t symmetrical; it’s not equal speaking parts. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault that he had to talk about it with someone, and that the asking what’s going on with me was an attempt at kindness, he was trying to be nice because he legitimately liked me. Still, I couldn’t calm down. So your kid died, and you want all of us to feel bad for you? Your wife left you because she was in some sort of catatonic fit because of the trauma, and now we have to respond, to say something that confirms for you what you’d suspected: that you have it the worst and our experiences mean absolute dick, comparatively speaking. I decided to talk, for a change. What I talked about was construction equipment. I told him all about how somebody could be on a job site and be made to pulley up some materials—a bucket of mortar, say, or a bundle of slate shingles—and he could know what his boss doesn’t know: that the tensile strength of the pulley cable is strong enough to hoist that bundle or that bucket, that the cable is strong enough but not the pulley-rigging itself (the rigging bolted into something weak, flimsy or rotten material), and about how somebody could know all that and know that his boss doesn’t know any of that, and that he might still go through with it, strategically positioning his foot beneath, and about how it is a most painful yet not as lucrative an outcome as he’d expected. Walking that day, having gone well beyond what my normal hyperboloid route would have been, because I was following him, fine, I was following him, all I could think about was Prewitt’s face in that dark room after I’d said what I said, the face unsure if it should break into a smile or turn away in disgust, and the sound of my own voice, after we’d sat there speechless for a bit and I rose to leave: “I’ve had enough of all of you. Go to hell Prewitt! Peace on Earth! God bless us, every one!” And I must have sped up, even with the limp, because before long I was ahead of him, and I’d forgotten to turn and look at his face. At some point I’d lost focus on that shaggy hair and that slightly shambling gait and those painters’ white pants and was instead just hauling my clomping ass in a haze. Surely there’d been some seconds, maybe it was a full minute, during which we would have been laterally even, abreast of each other on the sidewalk, less than five feet apart, but I’d failed to take advantage of that time, had missed the window. It was possible that something had finally caught his attention, made him slow down—maybe his hunger or thirst finally prevailed, or a storefront struck his fancy. I looked back at the intersection I’d crossed some seconds ago, hearing its choir of honking horns and thought I might have spotted a pedestrian’s hand go up in a wave, but I was already turned back around. Deciding then, that it was him after all, I turned again. But this time there was no one. I mean, there was no Prewitt. I mean, Prewitt was ten other people, looking, waiting, trying to cross the street.
Jonathan Rose is a writer living in New York. His fiction has appeared in The Southampton Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Great Lakes Review. He is currently staying at home with his dog and working on his first novel.