by Lou Gaglia
After his regular Friday night T’ai Chi lesson at Carnegie Hall, Frank walked down Seventh Avenue for only one block before turning, as usual, down the quieter, less crowded 56th Street on the way to the Sixth Avenue F train. Fifty-Sixth Street was well-lit, quiet but not isolated, and 6th Avenue was more open than the tightly-packed Seventh. On these streets he liked to think about Josephine’s lessons, committing her notes to memory and letting what he learned sink in.
Josephine was almost five feet tall and ninety years old, and she moved like a thirty year old. She was sharp and gentle and demanding and exacting and positive all at the same time. She taught creatively and always delved for meaning and subtlety. Tonight she’d talked about activity and stillness, how important it was for the mind to be aware, during a form, of the parts of the body that were still as well as the parts that were moving.
He thought there was something beautiful about being aware of what was moving and what was still, but he didn’t know why it was beautiful.
When he reached 6th Avenue he almost turned immediately right, but the light turned green so he crossed the street. He liked to walk through the city, liked to walk fast, and didn’t like to stop. Often when he reached a corner he turned right or left rather than wait for a green light, then crossed later when and where he could. If ever his walking route could be mapped out, it may have consisted of almost all green zigs and zags.
A few blocks from the Rockefeller Center train, as he neared the corner of 55th Street, he heard pops—two and then another—from across the street. Figures moved hurriedly behind the glass lobby windows of the Hilton. And then another pop, and a flash. Frank stepped down into a small courtyard in front of an office building and ducked behind a bush growing out of a large cement pot. He saw them move toward the door, and so he ducked his way from cement-potted bush to cement-potted bush and then crossed 55th Street from behind a truck without looking toward the Hilton. He stayed close to the buildings, walking quickly, and his heart raced.
People passed him going in the opposite direction. A man in a long coat, unaware…two women soon after….
He wanted to tell them, but they passed so fast—or maybe he did. His green zig-zag on the map would now be green streak interrupted with large red dots. When he reached the subway stairs he heard the train and ran down, jumping the last few steps as the downtown F came to a stop. He stepped inside just before the door closed and sat down near it, gripping the cold silver pole.
He watched the impassive faces of people all around him, some standing but most sitting, and blew out a huge sigh, feeling safe there underground speeding along a tunnel among strangers.
Although East Broadway and Market and Monroe Streets were darker and more solitary, Frank felt safer as he walked home from the subway. In his courtyard, three ladies who always seemed to be sitting on the third bench gave him warm hellos. He stepped into the elevator in his building just before the door closed. Lena from upstairs, his former student in her late teens, was inside leaning into the far corner.
He pressed number six and looked at the closed brown door.
“My mutha says hello,” she said.
“Oh! Say hi back. I haven’t seen her.”
“She’s sick.” He turned to look at her. “She thinks she’s sick. She keeps fainting or something.”
“Didn’t she get checked?”
“They don’t know what it is.” She sighed and looked upwards with a frown. “I think she’s faking it.”
The elevator slowed to a halt, and the door swung open. “Well, tell her I miss her laundry room banter.”
“She don’t banter.,” Lena said, moving up to press the close button. “She just yells.”
He smiled. “Tell her I said hi anyway.”
A month earlier a friend of Lena’s had jumped from the roof to her death. She’d jumped on the side of the building opposite the courtyard into the alley used only by maintenance workers. This was the first time he’d seen Lena since, but he’d seen the four Boccia brothers, also former students, sobbing in the courtyard before they went on a several days rampage against any innocent who got in their way—upsetting the shopping carts of older Chinese women, threatening strangers who came into the courtyard, drinking openly, laughing and cursing and daring security to call the cops on them.
At his apartment door, Frank glanced over at Rita’s door across from his before he unlocked. Rita was in her eighties, and the last time he’d seen her, her leg was wrapped up and she walked with difficulty, using a cane. “I’m an old lady,” she’d laughed when he wondered what could be done for it. “There’s no reason to get anything fixed at my age.”
Inside, he locked up, threw his jacket on the couch, and gazed out the window. Lena’s friend would have landed somewhere near the front steps, he thought, where people came and went constantly, even now at 9 P.M. But she’d wanted to be considerate, maybe, or private, or just invisible.
He shuddered, remembering the Hilton shooting, Josephine’s interesting words about paying attention to stillness during activity far away now. Josephine had broken her hip in a fall only a year before, pushed down after a theater production while exiting among a large crowd. Now she was back, at ninety, teaching again, walking easily, speaking and thinking like a thirty year old. She didn’t believe there was no reason to get anything fixed at her age.
He wanted to feel palpably Josephine’s determination and will again. But Rita’s resignation and the girl’s suicide and the Hilton shooting raced through his mind. And then there was that other shooting, six years before. He sat on his windowsill and looked directly below at a young family with two small children sitting on the benches…
On East Broadway as he walked home from work, the thin man in the dungaree jacket appeared next to him, slightly in front, and fired three-four shots quickly a little silver gun and the girl four years old or younger holding her mother’s hand dropped forward and down he wasn’t playing he shot her not playing and she was on the concrete and her mother folded herself down to the falling girl and the man curled back behind Frank into the alley and Frank still hearing shots ducked behind the bakery wall and then jumped inside.
“Call 911!” he shouted.
“You call,” said a voice, so he raced to a back room but heard the sirens before he could dial. The police were already there when he went back outside. The ambulance was on the way. There was absolute silence in the crowd of almost all Chinese people surrounding the woman. She screamed and sobbed over the child.
Frank looked at the sky. “God,” he said.
Uniformed police asked with disgust through the silence who saw it. “I did,” Frank called out and felt the crowd’s eyes on him as the ambulance arrived and police hustled him behind a van. They questioned him and then took him to a car.
“I’m not getting in there,” he said, seeing a young Chinese man in the back seat.
“He’s another witness,” the officer scoffed.
They drove him through the neighborhood, past basketball courts and handball courts and side streets, but all he remembered was the jacket and the small silver gun…
He went into the kitchen and grabbed a few crackers from the pantry, then picked up his jacket from the couch and walked out of the apartment.
He intended to walk to the Brooklyn Bridge the long way, past Columbus Park and then the court buildings. On the way he bought The Daily News and tucked it under his arm, thinking briefly of stopping at Rokka’s for a coffee, but he didn’t want to see anyone he knew.
Glancing down East Broadway before crossing Chatham Square, Frank saw the spot in the distance where the little girl had been shot. She had died afterwards, and the shooters were never caught, or he would have been called to be a witness. There were three shooters because the police had told him it was a triangular hit attempt on another gang member who was beyond the little girl on his side, a guy all three shooters missed. Frank could have sworn the man shooting the silver gun had been aiming downward, right at the little girl, not beyond her at some gang member.
So he went the opposite way, to the bridge, and maybe he’d walk all the way to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, stopping on the way at the diner on Clinton Street where he’d get his coffee, pie and sports section: his cure for the blues.
Frank liked to watch faces, so he glanced in turn at those who came toward him down the wood-slatted incline of the bridge. None of them exchanged looks with him, so he watched freely a large group going out together, dressed up. Men were dressed in suits or in jeans and t-shirts like him, alone. Women were alone walking fast, or in pairs, walking slowly. Some teens walked in large groups, and there were young couples, a few pushing strollers that Frank didn’t look into. An older couple walked slowly while others passed them on both sides. He stopped watching when he reached the center at the top of the incline, and walked fast all the way down into Brooklyn.
The sports section and coffee at the diner helped him think baseball and basketball for a while, but after he finished reading and sat sipping his coffee, the shooting of the little girl and the older girl’s suicide and the Hilton shots flashed into his mind. He tried to shake it all away, wanted to be somewhere else again. Impatiently he left the entire bill, plus tip, on the counter and hurried back to the bridge.
Halfway across again, at the height of the walkway, he decided to sit on one of the benches under the huge arched towers. He faced downtown Manhattan and watched the lights, the projects quiet from where he sat, while below the walkway traffic hummed loudly. Idly he opened the paper again and read from the front this time, having exhausted the sports section.
A few pages in, he scanned an article about an Arkansas man who was forced by some ex-friends to eat his own beard in a dispute over a borrowed lawnmower. At the top of the article was a photo of the man, showing a wild brown scruffy beard still attached (or newly grown). He wore a baseball cap and had a vacant look in his eyes and parted lips.
Frank laughed out loud and shook his head, then read the first two paragraphs. The man’s ex-friends had guns and knives, and they shaved the victim’s beard and forced him to eat it. Frank didn’t read far enough yet to find out how deeply involved the lawnmower was. He rubbed his eyes to keep from laughing again and looked at the Friday night crowd rushing by him on the bridge, not one of them noticing him sitting there.
He read the rest of the article. It was written as though it were a deadly serious crime, and the ex-friends were being sought. No tongue-in-cheek comments from the reporter…nothing about the lawnmower’s involvement in the crime, either as accomplice, victim, or object of jealousy.
Frank chuckled, folding the newspaper tightly and tossing it into the bent steel garbage can beside him. He watched each face as it went by, wondering what was going on in each mind. Was it a swirl of complicated thinking and feeling in this person, or little eddies of thought in that one, or nothing much at all in those?
Did any of them wonder at how perfectly still one T’ai Chi hand could be, while the other turned so slowly and precisely, at the same time as the entire body—legs, arms, waist, and head—moved in tempo, all parts finishing a form at once? Were any of them wondering at their own beating hearts or at their racing minds that felt the present and flashed back to many moments and looked forward, all at once? Did they wonder at the stillness of death and where they went after that? Did any of them think that even a thing like that was at once beautiful and horrible? If he shared this, grabbed one of them by the shoulders and wondered aloud, would any of them think so too and wonder about it with him?
Would any passing person crash into despair too, remembering a little girl dying, or an older one?
He watched their faces, looking intently into as many of them as he could. They were all strangely beautiful in their preoccupation or oblivion, but why did they so intently walk some place if life could end so quickly, if it couldn’t tell them that they would always be someone, or become no one?
He thought of going to the bookstore on Crosby Street, or maybe to Fay Da Bakery on Mott, or maybe just home to sleep, but he didn’t make a move. In the morning he knew the sun would be up and he’d feel like going to a bookstore or a bakery, but now it didn’t matter if he went to any of those places or if he just sat there all night perfectly still.