Finkelstein put his hand on Jerry’s shoulder.
“That’s all I can tell you.”
Jerry could barely button the buttons on his shirt. His fingers felt like hot dogs and the buttons felt as small as tic tacs. He had come to trust the doctor and had begun to believe he could maybe fix it. Finkelstein snapped the metal clipboard closed and looked at him with big, sad eyes. He hated this part. He always hated this part.
“I’m sorry, Jerry.”
Jerry bumped into the wall on his way out of the examination room and two nurses saw it. He looked at them sheepishly, then realized that embarrassment, along with a whole host of other things, was something he wouldn’t be bothered with much longer.
What was it, anyway? Embarrassment seemed suddenly so abstract, so arbitrary. Why feel one thing when you can just as easily feel another? Great, he thought, wish I’d had that revelation sometime during my twenty years of therapy. Well, it’s never too late, he chuckled, as he turned up his collar and stepped out onto Prince Street.
Then, he stopped. Well, actually it is, bubbie. It is too late.
He jiggled the ice around in his glass, tried to tune out the band, and attempted to recall exactly what Finkelstein said.
“You’ll feel fine, just fine for the next, say, eight hours, and then you’ll just pass out and that’ll be it.”
Of course, there followed the typical battle royal between Jerry and Finkelstein and the three doctors behind him. They wanted to keep him there, sedated and “resting comfortably.” Jerry actually raised his voice to them, which surprised everybody.
“Do you expect me to spend the last eight hours of my life doped up in a hospital bed watching the History Channel!?”
He walked out. They let him.
Alone in the men’s room of his favorite bar on Prince, he looked at the pink papers in the manila folder. He skipped the test results and the big Latin words. He couldn’t get his mind around it. He threw it into the garbage can.
Maybe he should call someone. Well, perhaps if you hadn’t been such a schmuck and driven everyone away, there would be somebody to call.
It wasn’t his fault. He went into a tailspin after she left. It was understandable. He jiggled the ice and looked at the bottom of the glass, like something smart would be written there.
Tell the truth. At some point, you could have snapped out of it and let the world back in. That’s what people do, but no. So now, you’re alone.
Then, something shifted.
Maybe, it was the drink. Whatever. There was a flood of endorphins. Things started to glow. The dusty Christmas lights strung along the back mirror seemed suddenly exquisite, perfect. The wooden bar, gauged and beat up, felt wonderful under his fingertips. He stroked it and realized he was trying to memorize the way the grain in the oak flowed and undulated, like a frozen wooden river running the length of the room. And he looked at the people, at the way they were huddled over it. It connected them. It was important. A simple, important human thing. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? He tried to come up with a word and all he could think of was: precious. It’s precious.
Then, he looked around the room and decided to do something so uncharacteristic, so un-Jerry, that he was amazed to find himself following through with it. In fact, it felt so odd that it was like his mind was peering down on his body from about three feet above it, like he was spying on himself, like he was somebody else. But he was gonna do it, anyway. He was going to ask a girl to dance.
He picked out the prettiest girl in the place, a blonde, with three girlfriends, just laughing and talking and listening to a band they liked on Christmas Eve.
Yeah, only something as pressing as immanent oblivion could have fueled Jerry Samuels with the chutzpah to tap her on the shoulder and ask her to dance.
One: he couldn’t dance. Two: he was terminally (nice choice of words, pal) shy. Three: he was an overweight, bald nebbish, let’s face it.
But, apparently, none of that mattered in his newfound state of grace, in the freedom afforded him in extremis.
She blinked up at him and stared back, like he had dropped in through the roof. She looked at her girls. One of them shrugged. What the hell?
She nodded and he pulled out her chair.
Mercifully, it was a slow dance. Mercifully, the band was too loud to permit conversation, so he closed his eyes and luxuriated in the way she felt in his arms. His fingertips memorized the way her shoulders moved as she swayed to the beat. Heat radiated from beneath her fuzzy pink sweater. He felt the outline of the straps of her bra, just inside her shoulder blades. He let his fingers trail down and he could feel the place in back where it fastened closed.
She was like a package, a Christmas gift. She hummed the tune softly and smiled, distantly. Was she thinking of someone? What mattered to her? Was she happy? Did she yearn for something she might never have? These questions were the province of the living. He kissed the questions and said goodbye to them, and pushed them away, like petals into a pond. He was, he realized, beginning to say goodbye to everything, bit by bit. It seemed to be a natural process, something he didn’t have to force. Something was, subtly, beginning to take over, some primordial little engine had kicked in. Departure.
They swayed together under the cheap red lights. Once, their bellies touched. Her stomach was tight, and firm, and hot. His right hand tapped the curve of her left hip like a blind guy reading a bible in Braille. He drank it in. It was good, so good. Before he could stop it, a tear dripped down his cheek.
She looked up at him.
“Oh… Did I do something?”
He smiled and shook his head. He took her back to her seat. She immediately jumped back into the conversation at the table. Jerry moved off.
Then, he found himself continuing west on Prince. He turned uptown on MacDougal. He didn’t know why. People passed him going the other way. Christmas shoppers. People on their way to parties. Snippets of their conversation blew past him like bits of songs. Their voices were like the bells on the Good Humor truck as it came around the corner on Orchard Road when he was seven.
“So, I asked her: Jeez, Mary, how many of those things did you take?”
“…I told him: forget about it. If he wasn’t going to treat me with respect, then why should I…”
“…You actually don’t remember? (laughs) We gave him that last Christmas. I can’t believe you don’t remember (more laughs).”
Glimpses into lives that passed him going the other way, going back into life as he was going away from it, against the current that flowed south on MacDougal that night. He imagined himself as a bird, flying past peoples’ homes, seeing scenes, en tableau, of them in their living rooms, their kitchens, brief, pungent excerpts from the pageant of their lives, vivid, phosphorescent. They were fixed warmly in his mind as he found himself arriving at MacDougal and West Fourth, at Washington Square Park.
He sat on the edge of the fountain and thought about the first time he and Brian and Timmy had come here, up, out of the ground from the Path train from Jersey. Wow. Here they were, in the Village, right around the corner from the Bitter End (nice name for a club, pal). Maybe the Lovin’ Spoonful would come out the door. Maybe Dylan would just show up in the Square and start playing. Anything could happen. It’s Greenwich Village, Timmy. Anything could happen.
The wide expanse of promise that had opened up for him then seemed to revisit him now. The cynicism that had encrusted his life melted like the snow on his shoulders. He looked down at his hands, his nails, his veins, his pores. He listened to the cabs, rounding the corner from Fifth Avenue onto 12th street a little too fast, like always. He looked at the lights in the apartments of the townhouses on 12th street. There was a dinner party in one. There was a couple exchanging gifts in another. He looked at the arch. He read what it said there, read it again. It was heroic.
And it was all right. It was all right.
A bum came up to him, asking for some change. When Jerry didn’t respond, he started to move away.
“Yo, wait a minute.”
The guy stopped, turned back to him. Jerry reached into his London Fog overcoat, extracted his wallet, and tossed it to the guy. Poor guy was stunned. Didn’t even try to catch it, just let it fall to the ground and looked at it as the snow came down on it, sure he was being played. Then, he looked back at Jerry and something in his face told him it was okay to pick it up.
He stashed it in his sweatshirt and shambled away.
Ten minutes later, two more bums showed up. Guess word was out. Jerry gave one his black wool beret, which he bought in Paris on his honeymoon, and gave the other one the coat. Jerry didn’t need it. He wasn’t cold. Couldn’t really even feel his legs.
After they’d gone, he tried to get up. No way.
So, this is it. He had a moment of flat out panic. Then, he didn’t know why, but it went away and his heart rate returned to normal and he was O.K. He slumped down from the fountain and let his head fall back and rest against the lip of it and looked up.
There were three birds shivering side by side on a branch in a bare poplar tree, trimmed back by the Park Service guys for the winter.
“Shoulda bugged out before now, guys. Florida’s thata way, baby.”
And he jerked his thumb south, to Battery Park, and laughed. The birds, stoically, didn’t get it. Tough audience.
Jerry’s last stand. Good place for it.
Yeah, it was all right. He closed his eyes, breathed that good New York City air, and leaned his head back again and opened his mouth. He let the snowflakes melt on his tongue. He laughed, remembering what Mr. Ritzer, his science teacher, told him in fourth grade:
“Imagine, Jerry, no two are alike. Imagine that.”