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John Palcewski

Location: Isola dí Ischia (island in the Bay of Naples)
Email: palcewski@hotmail.com
Published in: Electric Acorn, Eclectica, etc.
Other: Dublin South Community Radio (104.9 FM) is currently producing for broadcast a dramatization of his story ďHis Journey Westward.Ē


THE TRAIN WILL NEVER COME

 

You fall in love, get married. Then you get dumped. What do they all keep telling you? "Get over it!" they say. "Move on!" James moved on, or at least tried to.

Her name was Peggy, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. A lecturer on spiritual growth and a writer of poetry. A classical pianist, who used to improvise in the Mozartian style for ballet classes in New York many years ago. She claimed in her ad she was in her mid-40s and was "slim and attractive." She said on the phone that they should meet at Xandoís, an upscale chrome and glass coffee bar near Independence Hall.

James arrived early, sat sipping an espresso with his half-frame glasses on the end of his nose, thumbing through a paperback copy of "An Unknown Woman," by the philosopher Alice Koller.

"You must be James!" a throaty voice said.

"Yes," James said, rising and extending his hand. "And you must be Peggy."

Peggy smile was too big. Her lipstick was too bright, too red. She settled into the booth and rummaged in her bag, then put it aside.

"Sorry Iím late, Iíve been running behind all day long," she said. "But anyway, here we are!"

Peggy was not in her mid-40s, as sheíd claimed in her ad, but at least ten years older and about fifteen pounds overweight. The skin of her face and hands were freckled and wrinkled. There was a fold of loose skin beneath her chin.

Halfway through their coffee she asked James if he would be willing to take a test.

"Test?" he asked.

"Yes, it's fun," she said. "Like, tell me the animal that most resembles you?"

"All right," he said. "A squirrel."

"In what way are you like a squirrel?" On Peggyís face was a most intense look.

"I'm energetic, industrious," James said. "And I have a big, handsome tail."

Peggy laughed. "Something tells me part of your answer is truthful, another part an elaborate disguise. Can you be more specific about how you're like a squirrel?"

James paused. "I store nuts for the winter."

"What kind of nuts?"

"As a photographer, I have an extensive negative, print and slide file. All the pictures I've ever taken. Also, I still have the cameras and darkroom equipment I started out with. They're getting worn out after all these years, but I can't throw away what brought me such rewards, financially and otherwise."

"What else do you save?"

"My, youíre curious."

"Yes, I am!" Peggy said. "But this will be fun, I promise. Tell me what else you have saved over the years."

"All right. I still have every letter my soon-to-be-ex-wife ever sent me. Even the little notes she wrote me and stuck to the refrigerator. Grocery lists. Scrawled maps on how to find the veterinarian or the Oriental rug merchant."

Peggy smiled.

"So what animal are you?" James asked, not actually giving a damn.

"Guess."

"A swan?"

"No, a dove."

"Interesting," James said, raising his cup.

"Now itís time for a word association thing," Peggy said. "Iíll say a word and then you tell me the very first thing that comes into your mind. Okay?"

"Sure. Go ahead."

"A cup of coffee," she said.

"Exhilarating. Warm. Signals the unfolding of an exciting day."

"A forest."

"Lovely," I said, "with dappled sunlight. Cool, dark."

"The ocean"

"Peaceful, soothing, yet extremely powerful."

 

"Okay," she said, "Are you ready for the interpretation?"

James nodded.

"Now, the coffee is how you see women. The forest is death. And the ocean is how you regard life."

"Interesting," James said.

There was still more to the exercise, Peggy informed James. "Do you mind? This is all in the spirit of fun."

James nodded.

"Now, put out your hand."

Peggy placed her palm on his and pushed. James pushed back. She pushed harder, and James resisted, did not yield.

Peggy looked grim.

She grasped Jamesí hand and pulled. Her fingers were pudgy, short, mottled. Eveís fingers were long, slim, and elegant. As she pulled James held firm. He did not allow her to pull his hand forward.

"What do you suppose all that resistance means?" Peggy asked.

James thought for a moment. "It means that I intend to stay on this side of the line," he said.

Peggy clasped her pudgy fingers and leaned forward. Her smile was not friendly. "Youíre still carrying the torch for that soon-to-be-ex-wife of yours."

"I donít know if thatís any of your business," James said.

"So, tell me. Why in hell are you here?"

"Listen, IÖ"

"You know, men like you nauseate me," Peggy said. "Always going after what you canít have. If youíre married, you want to play around. If you get dumped, you want her back."

"You have no idea what kind of man I am," James said.

"Oh, no?"

Peggy reached over slowly and with the back of her fingers struck his glass. In an instant water and small ice cubes with rounded edges coursed over the edge of the table. James pushed his camera bag aside, and tried to move out of the way, but he was too late. A cold wetness penetrated the fabric of his trousers.

"Oh, my," she said brightly with a red-lipsticked and white-toothed smile. "Arenít I awful?"

James stared at her.

"Goodness, look at the time," she said. "Gotta run!"

* * *

On the train to New York, James moved to an empty part of the car, settled into a seat, and resumed his reading of "An Unknown Woman." The book had certain significance. When he first met Eve, she was struggling to get over being betrayed by a man she loved. A good friend gave her two books to read: "The Stations of Solitude" and "An Unknown Woman," both by Alice Koller. Eve had told James that if he really was interested in understanding the anguish she felt he ought to read those books. They would tell him what it is like to be lied to, betrayed, left behind.

Of course he read them most carefully. Koller had graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in philosophy. She thought her credentials would easily get her a teaching job at a nice quiet little campus somewhere. But the Harvard philosophy department wrote a lukewarm recommendation. She tried for years to get a job, but never taught philosophy. She ended up on Nantucket, in the winter, writing a book about solitude and betrayal and the comfort a dog can bring as a companion. There seemed to be no happy ending in either book.

James was moved by this lonely womanís narrative and decided to write her an appreciative note, which he sent care of her publisher.

Two weeks later he got a phone call.

"James Stephens?"

"Yes."

"This is Alice Koller."

He paused. "I'm sorry, who?"

"Alice Koller. You wrote me a kind note about my books."

"Oh, yes! Of course."

James and Alice talked for two hours. She quizzed James about his photography career. She wanted to hear about the famous people he had photographed. How long had he been doing this sort of work? Did he find famous people exciting? Or disappointing? Was he able to take pictures of things from long distances? Had he ever done aerial photography? She had a project in mind they might discuss soon.

James answered all her questions. Soon the conversation turned to Eve. He told Alice about falling in love with that brooding, moody woman. Eve was his soul mate, a kindred spirit. He felt he understood her more than anyone ever had, because they both had come from childhoods where betrayal and emotional abandonment were the predominant influences.

James told Alice that Eve suggested he read her books. They would give him an insight to how Eve felt. Through those books Eve's core personality would become clear. Because Alice and Eve were remarkably similar. They had the same intensity, penetrating intelligence, artistic temperament, curiosity.

"One passage of yours troubled me, however" James said.

"Which one?" Alice asked.

"In ĎAn Unknown Woman,í you say you suddenly understood that being drawn to a man was the best reason of all for never seeing him again, because the thing in him that draws you is something you no longer need."

"Yes, I remember that."

"And you also say you never fully accepted the end of a relationship. You always go back to them, no matter how bad they were."

"How is that troubling?" she asked.

"Because I'm afraid Eve feels this way."

"So?"

"If she feels that way, sheíll leave me. Sheíll go back to her husband, or her ex-lover."

Alice laughed. "Relax, James," she said. "I wrote that book ten years ago, and I don't think that way anymore, and I donít think Eve will leave you."

James believed that Eve would be excited about his contact with Alice Koller. He expected Eve to admire him for taking the initiative to contact a writer Eve identified with so much.

Instead a big crease appeared between Eveís eyebrows. She became cold, distant. She sat with her arms crossed.

"Whatís wrong?" he asked.

"Whatís wrong is," Eve said, "Iím the one who should have written that letter. Iím the one who should have been talking to Alice Koller for two hours on the goddamned telephone."

She told James sheíd always wanted to write to authors she admired, like Mark Halprin, for instance. But she felt that it would be a waste of time. Such famous authors donít have the time to answer gushing fan letters.

James didnít know what to say. He couldnít imagine saying anything that would make Eve feel better. Did she want him to apologize? How could he have known his act would offend her?

* * *

The train rumbled and clattered. James went down to the bar car and ordered a club soda. He carried the plastic glass back to his seat. He tried to pick up where he left off in the Koller book, but the words blurred. He put the book down.

Eve said in one of her letters that when she weighed the happiness she experienced while in love against the subsequent, inevitable pain, she was stunned by the imbalance. "And yet," she wrote, "we persist in seeking mates. OK, OK, so pain & disappointment are all part of the human experience. But why is it so disproportionate?"

James replied that maybe love is like childbirth--with time the pain is forgotten. Which explains why women get pregnant a second time. James told her deep down he was a romantic, an idealist. That he believed two people can make it happen the way it happens in storybooks. "It's always worth a shot, anyway," he said. "Don't you think?"

Eve said she never thought her marriage would evaporate so quickly. James thought that comment was poignant. Evaporate is an excellent metaphor, itís just right. Dissolution of love is a slow process, not an event. You just don't see it happening.

On their second or third date Eve drove down City Line Avenue trying to find a Chinese Restaurant she'd heard was very good. It was raining heavily. She put on her glasses and leaned forward, peered over the steering wheel through the wetness, past the rapidly moving windshield wipers. Bright headlights, red taillights, the glowing neon of signs in stores, were a mottled abstraction. She hummed a melody, which James recognized as the major theme in the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

The next night was clear. James got into the truck with his camera, a dozen rolls of high-speed color print film, and a spray bottle full of water. He drove around and finally parked near the Manoa Mall.

He repeatedly squeezed the lever of the spray bottle until the windshield was covered with glistening beads. Then he got inside. He wanted to visually document what had moved him so deeply the night before, when Eve was driving in the rain. Her humming that haunting, aching melody. The wiper moving back and forth, making the neon reds and whites and greens alternatingly clear and abstracted.

The photos were to be part of a multi-media assembly he was creating. His gift to her, a commemoration of the beginning of their relationship. He bought a three-ring-binder with a simulated leather cover and plastic sleeves to hold 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 color prints. He put in a dozen of the photos and added the sheet music of that section of the Beethoven Violin Concerto she had hummed in the car. Also, he wrote a stream-of-conscious narrative, putting down everything he could remember about that rainy evening. A Joycean kind of thing.

Surely, he thought, she would grasp his intent, which was to give unrestrained expression to all the powerful emotions she had generated in him. These were not run-of-the-mill dates as far as he was concerned. No. It was more an apocalyptic transcendence. Apotheosis.

James knew how absurd these notions would appear to Liam. Or to Chuck. Or to anyone else he might tell. But could anyone explain to him the difference between obsession and love? Was it a difference of kind, or merely of degree? Had Liam or Chuck ever experienced such a thing? How easy it was for them to tell James to "snap out of it." Right. Good idea.

But if you havenít ever experienced this kind of love, you donít know. Youíll never know.

* * *

Eve was touchy, jumpy. She said she found it very difficult to say what needed to be said. She put down a mug of Chamomile tea on the coffee table. The bag did not have a string attached, so James took it out with the spoon, placed it on the saucer.

"Go ahead, please," James said.

"I'm at a loss for words. Which isn't like me."

"Have I offended you?"

She shook her head impatiently. "I feel youíre imposing a deadline: In six months, in three months, in a year I must do X, Y, or Z."

"That was not my intent."

"But thatís what I feel, damnit! And it makes me angry! I feel like youíre pressuring me to tell you things I'm just not ready to share with you right now."

James raised his hand. "Wait, please. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"That thing you gave me triggered some complex and symbolic issues. I can't begin to explain it. I am not sure I ever could tell you the degree of...of horror that came over me."

James looked at Eve. "Horror?"

"You make me feel I'm now about to become one of all those women in your life who have failed or abandoned you. Your mother, for instance. Somehow I'm supposed to right all the wrongs inflicted upon you, to stop your pain."

"No, I didn't mean that."

She got up, left the room. James heard her rustling. She came back with a lighted cigarette.

Finally she said, "Right now I can't return your obviously powerful feelings, and Iím not sure I ever can. And I won't mislead you just for the sake of filling an empty holiday season or some temporary void in my life. Okay?"

James couldn't look at her anymore. He studied the fabric of his trousers, tight against his knee.

"Do you want some advice?" she said.

He couldn't reply.

"I'll give it to you anyway. Which isólighten up. Sit tight, don't push, don't rush. I correspond with and plan to meet other people. If this isn't acceptable I'm afraid you'll have to deal with it and make the choice whether or not to pursue this...uh, friendship."

"What about Christmas?"

"You have to know that for me it's a particularly vulnerable time. It's my wedding anniversary, and there are lots of other painful memories tied to this time of the year. I just don't think it would be wise to be together then."

"All right," James said softly.

"But," she said, "I am open to persuasion. Since my solitary Christmas will be difficult, I may relent and tempt fate at New Yearís. Okay?"

James had dinner with her on New Yearís Eve. She cooked a pork roast and potatoes, which he told her was delightful. Chocolate cake and coffee was for desert. Then she wanted James to read to her the story, "The Dead," from Joyceís Dubliners. It took quite a while, because James wanted to do a good job of it.

At its conclusion, he closed the book. She nodded. "That was nice," she said, and she took him into her bedroom.

The next morning his elation was quickly extinguished, like a sudden flood of ice water in his lap. As he was dressing, Eve told him, with maddening indifference, that she was not at all interested in anything like exclusivity and would therefore continue to see other men and correspond with "the group," by which she meant members of Single Booklovers. She told James ever so casually that if he had trouble with it, well, there wasn't much she could or was willing to do about it. That's just the way it was.

It was as if that extended sexual encounter the night before had not taken place. A nightlong sensuality, swimming in the depths. Astonishing in its intensity. But there she stood at the mirror, brushing her hair impatiently, rummaging in her purse for a cigarette, and blowing smoke to the ceiling. It was as if nothing at all had happened between them, as if there had never been an exchange of lengthy letters, extended phone conversations with Chopin playing in the background, or long walks hand in hand in Arlington cemetery talking about the inevitable.

It made him crazy.

 

Those images lingered as he walked down East 72nd Street, searched the doors for the number 541. A young woman who said her name was Gia told James to wait a few minutes. Finally she escorted James up a narrow, carpeted steps to the second floor. George Plimpton was barefoot, in a loose fitting T-shirt and pale blue jeans, dictating to a young man who clacked on a laptop.

Gia, standing behind James, told Plimpton, "You should put on a shirt." It was more a command than a suggestion.

Plimpton absently nodded, ran his hand through his shock of silver hair. "I suppose you're right," he said, and headed for the bedroom.

James unpacked his gear, set up the flash heads on stands, did a quick light meter check. When Plimpton returned, buttoning up a crisp white shirt, James suggested that he sit at his computer and get into some typing. James tested the umbrella flash, then raised the Nikon and brought Plimpton into sharp focus.

"Would you mind sitting at your desk?" James asked.

Plimpton grunted.

James wanted a wide shot. The office was all books and framed photos and artifacts. An eclectic collection of African masks, certificates, awards. On the wall above the desk were two portraits of Ernest Hemingway. One was a stylized drawing, the other a photo taken late in the writer's life, one that James had seen before somewhere. Hemingway was white-haired, had his head down, and a most gloomy look on his face. His leg was extended, having just kicked a can, which hung, frozen, in the air.

"How many rolls of film do you intend to take?" Plimpton asked.

"Three or four," James said.

Plimpton grunted.

 

"May I use your bathroom?" James said.

"Of course," Plimpton said.

The bathroom was much like the office--the walls were covered with memorabilia. Black-framed photos of football and baseball players, boxers, runners, writers, politicians, big game hunters, and certificates, front pages of college newspapers. There was a framed-yellowed letter, with a "Dear George" salutation, from Carl Sandburg. Also a large pen and ink drawing of a restaurant interior, full of people . . . Hemingway, John Kennedy, Plimpton himself. On the toilet tank sat a bronzed shoe, presumably that of a famous punter. Near the bathtub was a scale with a round dial, and on the floor next to the toilet the latest issue of Paris Review. On the sink were medication bottles--a dozen of them--most of them uncapped. James bent down, squinted. Lasix, Lotensin, Xanax, Theophyline, Percodan.

Eve's bathroom that New Year's Day morning was smaller, more spare. James noticed an accumulation of dust on the tiles in the corner. No photos of famous people, but lots of pictures of cats. Two framed on the wall, and on the shower curtain were dozens cavorting around. On the rack was a towel with a grinning cat face. Eveís signature, her trademark. A Cheshire Cat grin. In the medicine cabinet, a box of spermacide suppositories. A single medication bottle, of Prozac.

"Maybe you'd like to move to the other room," James said.

"Whatever you'd like to do," Plimpton said.

They passed a pool table, and a credenza, on which was a modest collection of liquor bottles. Plimpton sat on a couch near a window and James took several frames. Then James asked Plimpton to move to the other side of the room.

They heard the chirping of a cell phone. Plimpton and James looked at each other. "Excuse me," James said.

It was Liam. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Iím in the middle of a shoot."

 

"Oh, yeah? Male or female?"

"Iíll tell you about it later."

"Iím heading out tomorrow. Maybe we can hit the town tonight. Get shit-faced or something."

"Sure. Iíve got to drop off film at the office soon. Why donít we meet there, say, in two hours."

"Great."

"Shall I play the piano?" Plimpton asked.

"Yes, that would be good."

Plimpton struck a forte diminished seventh.

"Can you play the Diabelli Variations?" James asked.

"Yes," Plimpton said, looking down at the keyboard of the ebony baby grand piano, grinning. "I can play all of them."

Plimpton began a piece that James did not recognize. It was modern, perhaps his own improvisation, in a melancholic minor key. Behind him on the wall was a massive lithograph of a cat. This particular cat was not grinning.

James asked Plimpton to sit in an armchair, between two large windows. He took another light meter reading. He could see the print--the sophisticated, polite but distant aristocrat, regally sitting with his legs crossed, bright light flooding in on both sides. Above his head another large lithograph with block letters. PARIS REVIEW.

Plimpton peered at the Vonnegut photo heíd ordered from the UNS file, one James had shot a couple years earlier.

 

"It's too dark," Plimpton said.

James was annoyed. Of course the photo was dark, that was its point. Vonnegut sits staring, cigarette smoke surrounds the aging author's head, his wrinkled, sad eyes peer out of the darkness. The smoke is from the firestorm of Dresden. This is a visual metaphor. Vonnegut in the middle of the conflagration, a heartsick, weary observer. James was about to point this out.

But instead James said, "I can get you a more conventional, well-lighted portrait."

"Iíd appreciate it."

"I'll put it in the mail when I get back to the office."

Plimpton grunted.

* * *

"So whatís new?" Liam asked, gingerly folding his hot pizza slice lengthwise, then bending his head sideways so he could take a bite. Oily red sauce dribbled into his napkin.

"Iím bummed," James replied. "Annoyed, actually." James described what had happened on his date with Peggy. About her "tests." About the glass of ice water she knocked into his lap.

"Ha!" Liam said. "You sure know how to pick them." He sprinkled some oregano on his pizza.

"And then on the shoot today," James continued, "Plimpton tells me that my photo of Vonnegut is too dark."

"What do you mean, too dark?"

"He didnít get my visual metaphor."

Liam smiled. "So why didnít you explain it to him?"

"I wasnít in the mood. I told him Iíd send him something more conventional. And he said fine. He didnít get my irony."

"Fuck him."

"Right."

They headed east on 62nd street, toward Central Park. "Let me ask you a couple of questions," Liam said.

"Go ahead."

"That date with whatís-her-name? Why in hell didnít you just get up and walk away when you saw she was not what she claimed she was?"

"Not my style, I guess."

"Hell, I would have told her, right up front, sorry, but I donít date women who misrepresent themselves. And I would have departed. Why didnít you do that, Jim?"

"Because Iím a gentleman. Walking away would have been rude."

"Donít you think that in lying she forfeited the right to be treated decently?"

"Maybe."

"First she lies to you, then she puts you through all that touchy-feely-psychobabble bullshit, and you sit there like a lump, going along. And then the crazy bitch dumps ice water in your lap. Which didnít

have to happen."

"Like I said, I was trying to be a gentleman."

"Bullshit. You just let people run over you. Why is that Jim?"

"I donít think I do that."

"No? What about Plimpton. Why didnít you tell him, hey, the picture is dark because itís fucking supposed to be dark?"

"I wasnít in the mood to argue."

They entered Central Park at the entrance leading to the Zoo. The place had been remodeled. Gone was the cage of the red fox that James had often seen, pacing back and forth at the bars. That fox never stopped pacing. On the curving road beyond the zoo, rollerbladers zipped by, their wheels making a rushing sound. A girl in black shorts and white Nikes jogged ahead, her ponytail waving from side to side.

"I just canít be the way you and Chuck keep saying I ought to be," James said. "Maybe you guys can take it or leave it. I canít. Youíre cynical. Iím not. You think love is a crock of shit. I donít. I happen to think love is what we ought to pursue, not run away from."

"Oh yeah?" Liam said. "What I think is you need to toss all that adolescent bullshit out the window. Itís annoying. You ought to take a good look at yourself."

"What, exactly, am I doing that is so wrong in your eyes? I like to think itís in the great tradition of the romantics. The thing Beethoven was talking about in the violin concerto. An aching, a reaching for something always beyond his grasp. Thatís real, and legitimate. Itís an ideal, worth pursuing."

"Thatís a dream world, Jim. Besides, remember what the Buddhists say."

"Which is?"

"The source of all suffering is clinging, grasping."

"Whatís the alternative, Liam? Giving up?"

"You gotta know when to hold, and when to fold. You keep mooning about Eve. Well, the fact remains that sheís a totally fucked up human being."

"No, you donít understand."

"Bullshit," Liam said. "I understand perfectly. Youíre the one who doesnít understand. Look at you for Christís sake. When is it going to penetrate that thick skull of yours that women like Eve are a dime a dozen? Lost soul, my ass. Thereís nothing extraordinary about heróshe was what you wanted to see."

"Youíre wrong, Liam. She and I were cut from the same bolt of cloth. Early on we both were betrayed, big time. I understand her better than anyone else, because she and I share that experience."

"Romantic love is horseshit. A self-delusion."

"What was your mother like, Liam? Did she ever hold you in her arms and tell you she loved you?"

Liam laughed. "Are you kidding? My mother was a drunken whore."

"So love is entirely outside your personal experience. Therefore it just canít exist."

"Exactly."

"You and Chuck say the same things. Get over it. Move on. And this is what pisses me off. You keep trying to tell me, in effect, that I am doing something wrong here by thinking about the woman I still love. You call her a bitch because she dumped me. But sheís not a bitch; she just couldnít fall in love, thatís all. That doesnít make her a bitch."

"Okay, sheís not a bitch. But you made a mistake getting involved with her."

"Right. Everyone says that. But explain it to meówhy was it a mistake? Last year you came to dinner at our place. You sat there and said, 'Jesus, you two are fucking made for each other!' And now all of a sudden youíre saying that I shouldnít have ever fallen for her. That doesnít make any sense to me, Liam. Honest to god it doesnít."

"Youíve got all the words, Jim. But the truth is youíre full of shit."

"Iím getting sick of all this cynicism, this Monday morning quarterbacking. What the fuck do you know about love?"

"Like I said, I donít give a shit about love."

"Right. But then you and Christianne are joined at the hip, running like crazy from town to town in Yugoslavia."

"Gotta cover the war. Thatís our job."

"What are you after? What are you chasing? A Pulitzer?"

"Right. Fame, money. The shit that really matters."

"So you go up to one of those refugees. Tell me how it feels, maíam, when you watched your daughters raped before your eyes, watched your husband being marched off, made to kneel on the ground, a bullet put through the back of his skull? What the fuck is that all about, Liam? Taking pictures of all that suffering."

"Itís my job, itís what I do. And they pay me big bucks to do it."

"But for what purpose? To entertain these day traders reading their newspapers at Starbucks, stirring their latte?"

"Come on, letís get a drink, you miserable asshole."

Johnny Mulrooneyís, at West 74th and Columbus, was dark and cool. An old man with white tufts of hair at each side of his baldhead sat at the end of the bar, working a crossword puzzle. The place had the faint odor of cigarette smoke and dishwater. They took one of the empty wooden booths with scarred wooden tables.

"I donít understand you, Liam. Who do you have in the world? Nobody, right? You live in hotels, crash wherever you can. If you died right now, who would come to your funeral?"

"I just donít fucking care, Jim. Hey! Garcon, bring us a couple beers."

"You donít need anyone," James said. "You say, Who needs a partner? Well Iím not like that. I do. I liked being married to Eve. I liked fixing burgers for us, sitting watching the six oíclock news. I liked going to Borders and getting an armload of books, having a coffee and a wedge of chocolate cake. Her saying, OK, letís blow this joint and then driving home. Together. Waking up in the morning with her lying beside me. I liked hearing her saw boards for some woodworking project in the basement.

I even liked the way she laid terra cotta tiles on the kitchen floor, uneven, crooked. She didnít give a damn how crooked it was, and neither did I."

Liam made a motion like a man playing a violin. The bartender placed mugs dribbling foam on their table. Liam raised his mug. "For Christ's sake, cheer up."

"Listen," James said. "I came back home from a trip somewhere, and when I came into the terminal I saw her leaning against a post, in her black baggy pants and black sweat shirt, her hair pulled back, wisps flying here and there, and she grinned when she spotted me. Sheíd told me that she had the Times and the Inky saved from Sunday, and sheíd baked me an apple pie. She hugged me, and said she missed me, and was glad that I had finally come home. Thatís what I miss, Liam. Having somebody who gives a shit about me being on the road taking pictures of some fucking thing or another."

"Sentimental bullshit, sez I."

"What do you know, anyway? Youíve never been married."

"Fuck no, I havenít been married. If I ever start talking about it, Jim, shoot me. Please shoot me."

Late that night James and Liam descended the steps to the subway station at West 86th and Broadway. They found a bench and sat down. The platform was deserted, silent. Soot covered the gravel under the steel tracks.

"Weíve been talking about this shit for hours," Liam said, "And I still canít understand why youíre so hung up just because that woman dumped you."

"Maybe it has something to do with my getting old, you know?" James said. "When I was young I could hook up with just about any woman I wanted. And nowÖ"

"You canít get it up anymore."

James grinned. "I can still get it up. Thatís the problem. You get to thinking that youíll end up in a small room somewhere, rotting. Alone."

"Did you ever go to an old folks home?"

"Not lately."

"Even 90-year-olds hook up, get it on. Thatís the way weíre built. As long as we breathe, we hook up. So you ought to relax."

James walked over to the edge of the platform, leaned over, looked up the tracks.

"Where are all the trains?" he said.

Liam leaned back on the bench, clasped his hands behind his head, and crossed his ankles. He closed his eyes.

"How long have we been waiting, anyway?" James asked. Ten minutes?

"The way your mind operates, Jim, is that ten minutes of waiting means just one thing--the train will never get here. But this is a subway station, right? And what happens at a subway station? Sooner or later the fucking train comes along. Think about it."

After a long silence, Liam said: "Youíve had a lot of previous relationships, right?"

"Yes, I have," James replied.

"Whatís the longest one, besides Eve?"

"I was with a girl for six years."

"What was her name?"

"Suzanne."

"What happened?"

"She couldnít get over her dead husband, and her kids didnít like me, and they put her in the middle. Plus she ripped me off."

"So let me ask you something. How often do you think of Suzanne?" James didnít reply.

"Not often, right? Hardly ever, right?"

"Right."

"So guess what, genius."

"Donít tell me."

"I will tell you. In a while Eve will join Suzanne in the women you donít think about anymore. Guaranteed. But of course you donít believe that right now. Youíre doing everything you can to keep her from going out of your mind. Youíre fucking prolonging your agony. Thatís what I donít understand, Jim. Why you insist on torturing yourself that way."

 

James again rose, walked to the edge of the platform and looked up the tracks. Darkness. No sound. He shook his head, then sat back down next to Liam.

They didnít notice the young man who came down the stairs quietly, looked up and then down the platform, then reached in his pocket. He appeared before them. A muscular young man, wearing a tight black T-shirt. His head was shaved, and there was a stainless steel ring piercing his upper lip. His eyes were bloodshot. A knife with a long blade glistened in his hand.

"You got something for me? Like your wallets and those bags?" he said.

James could not move. His eyes were wide open, staring at the knife poised a few inches from his face.

Liam did not hesitate. His hand shot forward, grasped the young manís wrist. In a blur of motion and the sound of grunting, Liam rose and turned and twisted, and the young man fell, his cheek slamming against the dirty concrete floor. Liam knelt into the manís back, twisted the manís muscular arm until the knife clattered and skittered.

"Yeah, Iíve got something for you, motherfucker," Liam said.

He grunted as he pushed the manís arm up, violently. There was a crack.

"Iieeeeeeee!" the man screamed.

James remained on the bench, transfixed. Liam pulled the man onto his feet. "Now get going, asshole!" he shouted.

The man loped down the platform, arm hanging at his side. He cast an ugly glance backward, then headed up the stairs.

Liam settled beside James on the bench. James shook his head. "You are absolutely fucking amazing, Liam."

"Yep," Liam said, grinning.

 

Ten minutes later they heard a distant rumble. Once again James walked over to the edge of the platform and looked up the track. Black steel I-beams and curving tracks shone with a yellow-gold light, and then the train appeared. Its bright headlamp shivered and the metallic rumbling got louder. James felt a rush of warm air.

"Christ, itís about time," he said.

Liam remained seated.

James stood watching. The train did not slow, as he expected, but instead accelerated. Oh, shit. It was an express. It sped by, rattling and rumbling and clattering. Then it disappeared.

"Son of a bitch," James said.

Liam laughed loudly. His laughter echoed in the darkness.