|by Wendy Zhao|
by MAC BARRETT
The leg that fell out of the sky was dressed in a sheer black stocking, a seam down the middle. Not far from where it landed, under a Buick, was the shiny black pump that went with it. Seeing the leg he stopped and looked around, but this was late at night in the financial district, empty streets, and the bars were barely a noise in the distance. He had often remarked to himself, after having stayed late at the office, that these streets at this hour, with their lost winds and desolation, were a kind of Midwest.
This much was evident — that the leg had come from above, that the shoe beneath the Buick belonged to it, and that no one was here to deal with this situation other than himself. So he pulled up on his pant legs and knelt down and reached for the black pump under the car — and then, like a child finding a piece to a puzzle, took it to where the leg lay, and knelt again. The leg was on its side, so he righted it, holding the heel in the palm of his hand.
He could almost have forgotten — in that moment — that there was no woman here. No, he did forget: there was a woman. And he held that woman’s foot in his hand. The toes, he could see, through the sheer stocking, painted black, looked ready for life or for sex. He could see in his mind her hair’s dark length, the flip of her bangs. He could see the corners of her mouth, its ease with a slight smile so long as it didn’t spill over into the sloppy happiness of fools. She was sparing with her joy. She was protective of her sadness. She had been through being through things, had tried drugs, men who did them. She was difficult to please, honest, real.
He slipped the pump over the edge of her toes and felt it move perfectly into place, then lifted his hands away as if he had just performed magic. Beautiful. He stood the leg up.
Coming with me? he asked, looking back over his shoulder.
But she had no voice. A voice would have been wasted on her. Her intentions were clear. She spoke in a dirty, daring silence.
OK, he said, as though to accept a challenge.
He had his duffle bag full of gym clothes, a bag he had brought with him only to create the possibility of working out, the possibility of health, change, improvement of body and soul, etcetera. This was his reasoning each morning as he grabbed the bag from the floor beside the apartment door.
He unzipped the bag and removed one of his size 12 sneakers. He placed it neatly on the sidewalk, parallel to the street — so as to indicate that this was not a diseased sneaker, but a sneaker fit for use. With the new room in the bag he was able to place the leg snuggly inside. He zipped the bag. He found now, as he continued on his way, that there was something like lightness in his step.
In the apartment he set the duffle bag on the table — where it looked large and out of place. He poured himself a glass of water and looked at the bag there, where it should not have been. One small thing out of the ordinary — a leg from the sky — could cause ripples of irregularity that reached invasively into the farthest, most tender, most carefully protected corners of his life. Already: the duffle bag on the table instead of by the door where it belonged, resting partly on one red Ikea place mat and partly on another.
Leaning on the kitchen island he took out his cell phone and dialed the police.
Yes, I have an emergency, he said to the tired yet urgent lady’s voice. She wanted to know what his emergency was, and called him sir. I have retrieved, I have recovered, I have… He couldn’t get the verb right. I have taken on…She called him sir again and asked him to explain the nature — the nature, that’s what she said — of his emergency. Well, the thing is, I was walking home from work and I came across a woman’s leg.
She seemed to have trouble with this concept. She asked if the leg was severed and he said that yes it was, how else could the leg have become independently discoverable? He repeated that he had not discovered a woman — an occurrence that, though surprising, could not have been called an emergency.
Once everything was explained as best he could manage, and the tired yet urgent lady’s voice seemed to understand as best she could, she said she would send someone over to his apartment to see, or assess, or take, or retrieve, the leg.
He thought about the arrival of the police, imagined two men in pointy caps and dark blue uniforms walking into his apartment, staring at the duffle bag on the table. They would ask to see the leg and he would then withdraw it from the bag. Why not already have the leg out? he wondered. Wouldn’t that expedite things?
He unzipped the long, journeying zipper — he did it slowly, with a feeling of sensitivity and tenderness that fell somewhere between sexiness and respect — and he took the leg right above the ankle and lifted it from the bag, where it had been resting on the gym clothes. The stocking was silky in his hand. He brought the leg close to his eyes to look, to see if he could see the smoothness of the leg through the stocking, but he could not. The stocking was like a tangible shadow cast perfectly over the form of the leg, revealing and hiding it at once. He slipped his fingers in at the top of the stocking and began to roll it down. It seemed to want to roll. Once it was gathered just above the ankle he slipped his fingers in where the crevices of her ankle began to form and pulled the stocking down over the heel and off the foot. He set the stocking down on the table beside the leg.
That’s better, isn’t it? he said.
He held the bare leg now, above the ankle. It was freshly shaven and tan, the color of raw honey maybe, or of soft beach sand.
He breathed in. Vanilla was the scent of the leg. He imagined a cream, rubbed on, from a seated position, on a clean white toilet, her hands moving upwards toward herself in smooth, smoothing motions. He took a large inhalation — eyes closed, but not out of any sense of romance or something as strange and human as sentiment, but because that’s how good smelling happens.
The leg did not touch his nose, or any other part of his face. He was careful of that. But he did move his nose along the leg in the style of the corn-on-the-cob eater, which — if he could recall well enough — was a snack he had once very much enjoyed. Though of course the quality of a snack like this is inflated by the circumstances in which it is typically consumed: outside, near grass, with sun and laughter in the air, with alcohol even, with a woman, a love, wearing, perhaps, a humorous apron.
He rested the leg on a pillow on the table. It was a pillow from Ikea, which is a store some people make fun of, but this was a good pillow and it had helped him to achieve many nights of good rest. He chose it from the closet for its quality, not because it was a pillow he did not want to use himself but because it was a pillow that he loved to use. This was the pillow he saved for those nights when sleep wouldn’t come, when sleep would hang in the wings, snickering, and his thoughts would tumble on. This was the pillow that answered his insomnia. The leg rested on it, slightly puffing it up at the sides. It was a pillow with a memory.
He felt a little hungry and decided eating was not only an appealing idea in itself, but the perfect way to pass the time until the cops arrived. This was the kind of no brainer he truly appreciated: when there was more than one good reason to do a certain thing. That was as close to joy as he could get. Because when there was only one good reason to do a certain thing he might do it, but there was always this ache, this uncertainty, that maybe he should have been doing something else.
The Stoffers Mac and Cheese rotated on the glowing carousel as if spinning on the finger of god. When it was ready he set it out on one of the red Ikea place mats and had a seat. As he ate he looked at the leg on the pillow across from him, now neatly covering one whole place mat without touching any of the others.
You look nice and tidy over there, he said.
The leg was on its side now because that’s how it seemed to be most comfortable, nestled into the pillow’s fresh tender memory of it.
He rose from the table to lower the dimmer on the wall just a bit, making mood of the place.
He had never had reason to call the police before, had never endured an emergency that he could recall. How were you supposed to know when they were going to arrive? he said to himself, aloud, so the leg could hear. They tell you they’ll be right over, but really, what does that mean? Right over? He shook his head. He wanted to impress the leg with his reasonable confusion, his lack of comprehension for a world that had come out the other side of understandable.
This is the worst dinner I’ve ever had, he said, maybe just so that the leg would not think he was one of those people who could be pleased by microwaves, but also because he was feeling tense with anticipation. He lifted the cheese-soaked noodles on his fork into the light of his purest attention. What the fuck is this stuff? he said, shaking his head at the state of cheese today. He was vying, maybe, not just for the admiration of the leg, but for its sympathy as well. He, after all, was the one burdened with an appetite, a need for food in a world — or at least an apartment — without anything quite deserving of that name. He wanted the leg to see the god-awful absurdity of things, to enter into a union of dissatisfaction with him.
After eating he took the plate to the sink and watched the water concede to the drain, having turned a humiliating and unnatural orange color, then returned to the table with a fresh glass of water to await the arrival of the authorities. He wondered again about when the police would arrive, and the image of their arrival again came to him: the caps, the dark blue, the height of these men, the procedural tones of their voices. He imagined the two of them sitting with him at the table drinking coffee while waiting for the coroner to arrive, or a detective — because, surely, this situation was outside the expertise of the average cop. They probably got calls about legs all the time, and arms, and hands, only to discover that the caller was a prankster, or insane. We got another body part, they might say, and have a laugh through the static of their radios with the tired yet urgent dispatcher.
But what he had in his possession was a real leg. He looked at it. There was something mesmerizing about the way in which it did not move. The eye was accustomed to treating the leg as a thing about to move. Time snuck past in looking at the leg. Despite what he knew he could not help but expect, with some simple stubborn part of his brain, motion.
Out of this mesmerization came a troubling thought. The authorities, having discovered a man with a leg in his apartment, would be naturally inclined to suspect the man of having other body parts. What’s to keep them from thinking he was some sort of morbid hobbyist? They would search the closets while he was questioned in a room at the station. They would take out and examine his personal belongings. This became so immediately apparent to him that he stood from his seat, not sure of what to do next, but feeling an acute need to act. He looked around — at the glass of water, at his own irrelevant legs. He picked up the phone and thought to dial the urgent lady voice and tell her that it was all a misunderstanding, but that, it seemed, would only generate further suspicion.
When the buzzer buzzed — just at that unsuspecting moment — it felt as though it were buzzing inside his heart. He held his chest and looked at the tiny screen on the wall where two men could be seen, shorter than imagined, in street clothes, without caps, one balding and the other not, looking expectant at the front door of the apartment building below. The buzzer buzzed again. His heart turned over. He could see the two men talking to one another across their shoulders, their lips moving without emotion. After a third unanswered buzz they said nothing to one another and continued to wait. When one began to drift away from the door, as if pulled away by a weak need, the other tentatively followed.
Anxiety like this, for him, was like a cardio workout. It got his whole system going. By the time they walked away he felt exhausted. He zombied through his bathroom rituals and slipped into bed. His mind eased over what had happened: the leg on the pavement, the Buick, the shoe, the men at the door. These things seemed to constitute the order of the day, and it felt good, like cleanliness, to put the day in its order.
When he woke in the middle of the night he found that he had forgotten to place a glass of water on the bedside table. For years this had been his ritual, something he did entirely without thought, and now it wasn’t there.
Out in the kitchen/dining room area the leg was resting peacefully on the pillow on the table under the dimmed lighting — more like atmosphere than light. The faucet squealed faintly as the glass filled. He stood there, before the leg, sipping on fresh water.
|by Wendy Zhao|
At work the next day he did not think of the leg at all. He did his business with the papers and the computer and said what needed to be said to the people who were waiting on him to say those things. It was work as work had always been for as long as he could remember. He moved around the office fluidly—his hand reaching for the printer tray, the stapler, his leg pushing off of the carpet to roll his chair back towards the computer, his fingers, experts at being fingers, encompassing a mug of coffee, and pushing glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, a motion that always seemed like pointing at the exact middle of his mind.
He walked home, passing the place where the leg had fallen. There was no sign of what had transpired there. His sneaker was gone.
Back at the apartment he microwaved a pizza and sat across from the leg and ate, then went to bed early. He did not address the leg this night, and it felt as if this were the result of some vague decision-making process that had gone on in a part of his brain quite far off from the middle—a strange corner, a desolate place. It was one thing, he thought, not to talk to a leg but another entirely to plan on not talking to a leg.
The leg and the man lived in harmony in the apartment on the 28th floor of the stand-alone building on Water Street in the financial district of New York City. They cohabitated, coexisted, were co-eds. They stayed out of one another’s way just by dint of what they were: a man and a leg. It was easy. The leg remained on the table, left there to overhear his dinnertime complaints and concerns. Sometimes the man told a joke — as if to himself — but he did not laugh. He had learned a long time ago — read it in some magazine, maybe, during a time in life beyond the reach of his memory, a time that cast its shadow onto his consciousness like the building he lived in onto the East River — that one of the most important rules of comedy was not to laugh at one’s own jokes. When he said something he thought was funny he held his face grim, fighting its happy muscles almost to the point of pain.
In the morning he slipped the black pump back onto the leg, and when he got home from work he took it off and placed it alongside his own shoes beside the door, where the duffle bag was kept. This seemed to give the leg a daytime life that was separate from its evening hours, the leg’s down time.
At night he discovered, again and again, that he had forgotten to prepare his bedside glass of water. What was wrong with him? he wondered. What was happening to his brain? Why, now, after all these years, was it skipping over this critical step? It could only have been the influence of the leg, he thought, ultimately, the only new element in his life. These were the kind of thoughts that made him resentful of his new roommate. He had not asked for any company, or for anything at all, and the leg had simply presented itself in a needful state, asking for shelter, and he had provided this without expecting anything in return. And now the leg had begun to disrupt his life, to, effectively, make requests of him. Whereas he could live there with the leg forever if that was what it wanted, he would not endure any attempt on the leg’s part to change who he was.
Whenever he went to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get his glass of water, there the leg was, on the table, alone in that thin gauzy light. One night he brought the leg on its pillow into the bedroom and placed it on the bed. Perhaps by giving this little bit of himself, by being open with the leg, he and the leg could gain something. He had heard about this at work from people he sometimes stood near at the water cooler, or passed in the hall: the give and take of relationships.
The next time he woke in the middle of the night with a terrible thirst crawling out into the back of his throat, the glass of water was there where it was supposed to be. He drank and sighed pleasantly, with relief, and sank back into his pillow. As he fell through the bed and floor into sleep the smell of his new bed partner was with him, making it a Vanilla-scented sleep, full of vanilla dreams and vanilla awakenings.
Peace lasted this way for a while, but then something else began to disrupt their harmony: another smell, not of vanilla, but of rot. It seeped through those parts of the atmosphere where the vanilla began to weaken, lazily aggressive. He did not hold the smell against the leg, at first: it was only natural for the leg to smell this way. He took a different route home and stepped a little nervously into a store called Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
The walls were lined with bottles. A girl at the door shined a smile at him — her skin like the pages of a glossy magazine. He said, no thanks, to whatever it was she had offered, and began to search the shelves, touching the bottles tentatively with the tips of his fingers. He took one bottle off the shelf, flipped its top and smelled it, then another, and another, feeling like a thief of smells, until he found the cream that smelled correct. When he bought it the girl behind the counter — another display of skin and teeth—thanked him with such gusto that it felt like an insult.
At home in his bathroom he sat on the toilet with the leg propped up between his legs and reached forward and down, his hands covered in the new cream. He made contact just below the bulge of the anklebone and pulled his hands toward himself slowly, his fingertips riding the subtle topography.
This is the same stuff, isn’t it? he said, squeezing more lotion onto his hands.
The leg was stealthy in its affirmation.
I’m talking to a leg, he said, letting loose some laughter.
In the middle of the night he tasted his water and rolled over, his arm falling across the leg’s shin. Self-consciously, he left it there.
In the morning the vanilla was pure and it carried him through the day, through the hallways of the office. It stayed with him as he spun in his chair: the window with the city in it, the brown box of a desk, a stack of unopened paper, the window with the city in it, the brown box of a desk. He touched his face and found there the hard shape of a smile.
The next morning the leg began to smell again. He took it to the bathroom and held his breath as he rubbed in the cream, saying nothing, not wanting to embarrass anyone. Soon it was necessary to rub the cream in every night, a task he performed dutifully. But soon the daily routine began to wear on him. The pressure of it, of having no choice but to come straight home at five o’clock. He couldn’t work late or go to the gym to work out, which was something he was starting to really feel the need to do. His stomach, in the mirror, had taken on a sad expression—not fat so much as lacking in spirit. He imagined hardness there, imagined a body a woman would want. He had stopped bringing his duffle bag to work, though, and had begun telling himself that he might go back out after taking care of his responsibilities to the leg, but that just never seemed to happen.
He often spent his walks home, passed their meeting place, talking to the leg in his mind, telling it, in a variety of ways — some aggressive — that he wanted his life back.
You want me to get fat, don’t you? he said, stepping through the door. I was thinking about it on the way home and I’ve decided that that must be it: you want me to get big and fat, don’t you? That way no one will ever take me from you, right? That’s it, isn’t it?
He felt his anger mounting — that old ugly motion that came up from deep inside and seized control of his language — and he decided to give himself, and the leg, some space. He went to the bedroom while the leg remained on the table, and closed the door, but still, he felt himself getting angrier. Lying on top of the covers he spoke to the leg, again, hoping that it would overhear him.
He let the bedroom door bang loudly against the wall, the knob cracking the plaster, and stood there at the threshold of the two rooms: you know, he said, I think maybe it’s time for you to leave. He hardly recognized his own voice. He said it again: yeah, I think maybe it’s time for you to go.
After a moment he continued: you know I hardly recognize my own life anymore. I’m in Bed, Bath, and Beyond every other day — I mean, bed, bath, and beyond what? What are these people really selling, huh? With their awful smiles?
I come home every night and give you your smooth down, your scent, I hold off the force of what’s happening to you — I just don’t think you appreciate the measures I’ve taken, the way I’ve changed my life for you. All day I worry that the stench is overtaking you again, that I need to race back from work and help you. I mean — what about the sacrifices I’ve made? Do you have any idea when the last time I went to the gym was? How about the last time I did anything for myself?
The leg lay there on the pillow in a crevasse of its own making.
After a long pause he said, again, I think maybe it’s time for you to go.
But he knew the leg would not leave, or react, or even think about what he had said. So he grabbed his duffle bag, walked out, and slammed the door behind him. Energized by the noise, he took the stairs, something he had not done in all the — what was it? ten years? Fifteen? — of living in this building. He leapt from four stairs up onto each landing, making the stairwell bang and shutter with his weight, the true racket of himself.
At the gym he stepped lightly onto a treadmill in one sneaker and one black shiny business shoe. His mesh shorts and jersey fit him loosely, lightly, like a full-body halo. He hit a couple buttons and began to run. He watched his darkly hairy knees rise and fall, foreign as the knees of another man.
On the treadmill beside him was a woman in a tight black top that was not tight enough to keep her breasts from accenting the force of her strides. She tapped the buttons on her console familiarly and placed clean white buds in her ears. She ran without holding the handlebars—she ran with her head raised, as if set on a destination across the gym, beyond where the men were lifting weights in front of mirrors. She sucked air through athletically puckered lips, exhaled in a strangely intentional way. At her sides her arms moved rhythmically, robotically.
They ran together, side by side. He wanted to reach across the machines and take her hand. He held his head high, as she did, looking straight ahead, passed the weight-lifting men and the mirrored wall full of biceps and the midriff of buildings in the giant window behind them. He ran through that too, straight down passed the financial district, toward the river, but his imagination ended there, he realized, because this was a place to which he had never actually been, the very bottom of the island. He was still running but in his mind he was leaning over that southernmost handrail, looking into the dark water, wondering that river through his mind.
He looked to his left and there she was, running beside him, faced straight ahead. Her mouth moved around the words of a song as she exhaled her carefully considered breathes. When she began to slow down he sensed it somewhere in his bones, the changing course of his fellow escapee. Her feet thumped to a stop as she punched the buttons that ended their journey together. She stepped backwards off the treadmill, threw a white towel around her shoulders, and walked away.
|by Wendy Zhao|
At home, freshly showered, he sat eating a yogurt at the table.
I feel much better, he said. Maybe I just needed to let off some steam.
He gazed into the swirl of raspberry in his yogurt, feeling poised.
I’m sorry about before, he said, finally. I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that. He shook his head remorsefully. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I’m really happy that we met—I’ve never actually said that to you before, but I am. He looked up at the leg, feeling, quite distinctly, the possibility of a tear sliding away from his eye. You don’t deserve to be spoken to that way, he said. I’m sorry.
He reached across the table and took hold of the leg’s ankle, and stayed like that, feeling another in a series of unabashed tears move down his cheek, falling, maybe, into his yogurt, or onto the wooden table. The weeping seemed to indicate to him that this was good, quality sadness. When he took his hand away from the leg it was covered in a film that reminded him of cooking grease, though he couldn’t bring to mind a time in all his life when he had cooked.
He awoke in the middle of the night and rolled over and opened his eyes.
After a moment he said, I ran with another woman yesterday.
The leg, lying there facing him, received this information without any indication that it found what he had said upsetting — and to him there could not have been a surer sign of the leg’s emotional tumult.
We ran together to the river, ran for a whole 36 minutes, he said, and it pained him to go on in this way, giving these details, but he felt that they would weigh on him unbearably if he did not.
It felt good, he said, I admit, but it meant absolutely nothing. And running with another woman is not something that I need. I just did it this once, but it isn’t something I require. I can live without it, happily.
I just wanted to tell you that, he added. I didn’t want to feel as though I was keeping anything from you.
He tried to keep his eyes open then, watching her reaction, the way she bore her pain. He looked at the curve of her shin, the way it became the ankle, the ankle’s subtle bone, sweeping, as if in slow motion, into the outward reach of the foot — but his eyes fluttered and closed.
In the morning he rose from bed and found that he could not quite stand. This was confusing at first — until he remembered what he had done, the workout of 36 minutes, wearing one sneaker and one dress shoe. He started to go over sideways and caught himself with a hand on the wall, then pushed off and fell back onto the bed. He looked down. His foot looked like a boxer’s cheek, red and badly swollen.
Shit, he said. He would have to call in sick to work and take a day to recover, but the thought of being alone in the apartment all day with the leg made him nervous—it would be a test for them, one he wasn’t sure they were ready to pass.
Looks like it might just be the two of us today, he said, trying to strike a positive tone. He decided to begin the day with an act of goodwill. Hopping on one foot, he took the leg to the bathroom and set it up so that it leaned against his upper thigh as he sat on the toilet. Normally his routine was to apply the lotion later, but today he would lavish her with multiple extended massages, early and again later. He wanted to show that despite his angry words this was not something he minded doing for her. He wanted to show, even, that he could enjoy it. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel like her needs were a burden to him.
He pulled the cream toward himself over the sides of her legs — very slowly and gently. He did this many times — his hands blurring in front of him, his mind wandering onto nothing in particular. When he looked down at his hand, several minutes later, there was a layer of skin stuck to his palm and, around the leg’s mid-shin, an imperfect red oval.
What the hell is this? he said, rising. The leg fell on its side on the rectangular purple Ikea bathroom rug. He held the skin up to the leg in his thumb and forefinger, dangling it like another lover’s underwear. What the hell is this doing here, huh? He whipped it down into the little white trashcan, and asked again, his voice filling the small bathroom: what the hell is this?
He stormed out of the bathroom, the pain in his foot leaping up through his leg into his groin. He fell against the wall holding his head as if a blaring sound had suddenly filled it — alarms, bombs, ten thousand city sirens after a blizzard of falling limbs. He hobbled back into the bathroom and took a deep breath, his eyes closing, collecting himself, then he said, with everything I do for you…I don’t get it, I just don’t get.
He looked up, showing the leg the truth of his face now. I don’t see how you could treat a person like this, he said. It’s as though I’ve put no lotion on you whatsoever. You know that stuff isn’t cheap? I’ve spent a small fortune to try to make you happy. But it’s not enough for you, is it? Nothing’s enough for you. You’re just a black hole of need, aren’t you?
He took a moment, looked at himself in the mirrored shower door, where he stood looking exactly like he always had — literally no change that he could discern since the advent of his self-awareness.
He leaned down toward the leg, pointing his finger, wanting to be heard. I don’t know why I bother! he shouted.
He left the leg there on the floor, not on the memory pillow that it had been spoiled with, that it had shone itself to be ungrateful for, but on the flat, bacterially overrun bathroom rug. He hopped down the hall on his good foot, imagining terrible things: pissing on the leg where it lay, putting it in the oven, setting fire to it in the bathtub.
He imagined throwing the leg out the window, which, it now occurred to him, was almost certainly how he had found the leg in the first place. Someone else had already been through this whole experience, had made the same futile efforts, and then, on a day just like this one, had reached a breaking point and threw the leg out the window for the next sucker to try to love. He imagined another before that, and another before that, and another, and another, and fell onto his bed, dizzy.
They stayed together in the tense atmosphere of the apartment for a full week — as his foot became a bit more functional. Ultimately he couldn’t help but blame her for his condition, and said as much, over and over, as he hobbled passed the bathroom where she lay. I’d be a whole new person, a better person in better shape, he said, if we had never met. I would be a regular healthy gym-going person by now because, you know what? I actually like exercising! Unlike you!
Her feelings were perfectly expressed by the silence of the apartment with the city working faintly behind it, always some distant construction or emergency. He knew exactly what she felt about his blaming her — that it was an accusation she would not dignify with a response. That he would blame her for his own choice to exercise in a dress shoe was laughable. She didn’t need to say anything. He was self-evidently ridiculous.
When he woke in the middle of the night it was to a terrible stench. It was not her fault, he said to himself, listening for the sound of truth, or at least perspective, in his voice. It occurred to him: rotting was part of who she was, and if he could not learn to love her the way she was then he would have to let her go. It was a part of her identity. She was rotting.
He stood, keeping his weight off his right foot. He hobbled to the bathroom and bent difficultly and took her up in his arms like a baby and looked down at her. There were three or four or five more imperfect ovals now that he could see, filled with a red that deepened in shade towards the middle — clearly, her own nature was enough adversity for her to have to face: she didn’t need him at her throat as well. He took her to the door and collected her shoe and slipped it on, then laid her gently into the duffle bag.
Outside the night air was full of hush and bluster. The streets were empty — as if empty was the natural state to which they were always waiting to return. It was what god had assigned to the district of finances, of strenuous ladder-climbing and cuff links, for the streets to be unpeopled. They were all in their beds, preparing for another day of big money. He walked south into the face of the wind, toward the water, holding the duffle bag at his side. It swung from his fist there as if weighted with the making of shady business. The bars were a distant scream, indication of what these people did to cope with being themselves. The neighborhood, if it can be called that, echoed with their sad pleasures. The storefront gates shuddered as if in the middle of their own bad dreams. The light from the streetlamps was dirty yellow and fell evenly everywhere.
The walk took an amount of time that felt to him like twenty minutes, but this was the kind of thing he never quite knew: time had so many ways of getting around him. At the place where the Hudson River met the East River he stood holding a cold metal railing. The water was down there, but hard to see in the darkness, more of a sound than a river. Light splashing, the sound of gentleness and sentiment. He had known a person once, a person who slipped in and out of the doorways of his mind like a crook, who had kept a zen rock-and-running-water arrangement by her bed for its calm and restorative powers. That was how the joining of these rivers sounded.
He set the bag down and unzipped it and removed the leg from inside. He held her over the water with both hands, words to be spoken aloud appearing hopefully in his mind then slipping away into inadequacy. Silence was the thing, he decided, and let her go. She splashed simply, tersely, into the darkness. He turned away, faced the length of the island. His foot hurt. He wondered if it would ever be the same.
Mac Barrett's fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Hanging Loose, Anderbo, The Rumpus, Salon, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, 32 Poems, and on the air for WBAI. He works as a producer of book-related programming for CUNY TV.
Illustrations by Wendy Zhao.