“The dust from the bombed building made people sick, though no one knew which particles were the causative agents. The X-rays of the stricken looked like someone had left deposits of metal in their chests. Until the lungs looked like they were filled with flowers, shiny and electron dense. I knew about this—I worked as an X-ray technician for a time. Putting the lead aprons on frightened people. Moving bodies this way and that. To have such control over a living form. It made me sad to have to give those pictures to the doctors. To know that the ‘tssk’ was coming and that the wide-eyed stare of the afflicted would get wider still to accommodate bad news. There was always more bad news coming.”
She says this matter-of-factly to the student who sits on the bench with her. He goes to the law school across the street. He darts covert glances at her and then back at his constitutional law book. A weighty tome with words that lie leaden on his lap. He scratches at the back of his neck, as if the woman makes him itchy.
“I left that job,” she continues. “The hours were bad and the pay was also not good. Not what you’d expect for the skills required. Plus, I started not liking people then.”
The boy grunts. He can understand this. Encouraged, the woman continues. “In August, the bees began to die. Do you remember that? Those fuzzy, bloated bodies blanketed the sidewalks and filled the cracks in the cement. The yellow-black fuzz that seemed charming in flight now seeming pestilential. Neighborhood dogs would nose that yellow carpet and their owners would pull them back in panic. They had to have died from something, those bees. And maybe it was contagious.”
The boy is distracted. He had dismissed the woman as a crackpot at first, but he remembers the bees. How it seemed to him a portent, the deaths of those multitudes coinciding with his acceptance by the law school. He glances across the street at the white-columned building. A group of students huddle in front smoking cigarettes. They linger by the portico before their classes, during their breaks. A layer of ash falls softly on the cement and the custodians have to hose it down every morning.
The boy, whose name is Jack, looks back at his book where the law of interstate commerce is set out, words spoken by judges trying to divine the traffic between human beings that is of consequence. None of it is of consequence. The woman on the bench sighs and twists a lock of her hair. It’s a habit his sister has, a gesture she makes when she’s distressed or thinking about important things. The lock of hair between thumb and forefinger rubbed for comfort, to divine what matters. To divine why people act the way they do.
The woman continues. Her voice is rough, but it soothes him.“The ground itself began to tremble,” she tells him. “But you won’t remember that. Hardly anyone felt it. At that time I worked in the bookstore.” She tilts her head across the street at the large brick and glass building.
“In the bookstore, I stacked the shelves and took inventory. I documented the pathetic selection of poetry. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. People expected that they should like those poems, that it was important to have those books in their homes. They barely leafed through the pages or glanced at the words when they plucked those books from the shelves and put them into their baskets. Then, when they got home and cracked open Emily, they’d be disappointed. Expecting her to be cheerful. A light read. They’d be surprised to find that she was not such a sunny person. The plays were the same thing. Rows and rows of Shakespeare. Because people knew he wrote plays and expected those books to be there, even though the words would perplex them, escaping from their television-addled minds as soon as they were read. As for the modern stuff, you‘d have musicals. You are the one that I want. The one that I need. Yes, indeed. And all the time the ground was shaking.”
He wants to ask her how long after the bees that was, but is afraid to speak to her. If he starts, she’ll think he wants the connection between them to continue. For now he can listen and walk away safely. She isn’t even looking at him. He sees her shining, protruding eyes fixing on the scene across the street. Some classes have let out. The students are gathering and breaking apart in front of the school. They are slumping under stuffed backpacks, wearing them like turtle carapaces, or dragging luggage, the kind you jam in the overhead compartments on airplanes. The expressions on their faces are hopeful or engaged, as if life awaits and this future life will be better than the present one. But Jack suspects that it doesn’t get better. That this book he’s reading is only elevating pathos. It’s dissecting raw emotions from the unbalanced and bereft until the skeleton that‘s left, the law, is removed from any vitality that once instilled the initial question.
The woman on the bench shifts and the bench creaks.
“People really only pretend to read in that bookstore,” she tells Jack, as if it’s a great secret. “They sit in the stuffed chairs by the windows, plugged into their iPods. Smacking their lips over pastries they’ve smuggled upstairs from the downstairs coffee shop, they face the windows with books they pretend to read, the sound leaking out from their stoppered ears. They look out the windows, but there is nothing to see. Just the resolute, facing brick of the office buildings across the street. The ones who sit at the windows pretending to read could be asleep. They likely are asleep. And it’s not for me to wake them up. It’s not for me to walk up behind them with a hardcover novel by Thomas Pynchon and slam it on their heads. To wake them up and rouse them from their complacency.”
A few blocks away, the clock in the church tower chimes the half hour. The church has been in existence for over one hundred years. Part of a village once, then a small town, it’s now nestled amongst department stores and smaller shops where wares are bright and cheaply made. The chiming means Jack will have to go to class soon. By the next set of bells, he’ll have to get up, move from the bench and cross the street. All the words he’s ever read in this book will have escaped him by then. He glances without turning his head at the woman. With her bird’s nest of hair, her clothes too large, and her unwashed body’s acrid tang wafting across to him, she seems absolutely crazy. But he thinks that her descent into this state is recent. She still looks anchored to a past where she had a job, some ability to groom herself, to make normal conversation with people. To ask about the weather without implying that she is asking about the onset of the apocalypse.
The woman goes on to tell Jack about when it started. About when even the ground beneath her feet began to speak to her of things gone fundamentally wrong.
“I was standing in the bookstore,” she says,” moving books about in the science fiction section, where anime warred with Bradbury and Asimov for shelf space. I had to move amongst gangly boys and ganglier middle-aged men to get the books in order. I had excused myself for the fifth time, stepping over a boy’s spread-apart legs—he was sitting on the floor looking at pictures in a graphic novel when I first felt it. A jitter in the earth. It could have been a small earthquake, a tremor. I looked up from the book I was holding at the boy on the ground who remained absorbed in his comic book. I wanted to ask him, ‘Can’t you feel that?’ But I’d learned lately that the things I felt were not felt by everyone and I cared enough then to try to maintain appearances.
The vibration in the ground continued and I continued doing what I was doing. I moved to literary fiction. I watched the ones by the windows. None of them seemed to feel the jittering earth. I realized then that I had become so attuned to imbalance that I was the only one there who could feel the pulsing aftershock of tectonic plates moving apart. For that was what it was. That sliding, slipping movement. And there I was, stacking books, while the earth beneath me was drawing apart. Thousands of miles away a village might be being swept away by an ocean unchained from its shore. Elsewhere, a raging fire might be making fossils of creatures stunned to lose their lives in a flash of light and searing heat. And where I stood, the ground beneath me trembled. It was as if I was standing on a sheet being pulled at both ends and then released and then pulled again. And I kept stacking books. I made twelve dollars an hour in that job.
"When it was time for my break, I stumbled out of the bookstore. It was cold. The air was crystalline, a snow waiting to fall. From the vents in the ground that led to the underground subway, steam rose. Dogs shied away skittishly from those vents, where every ten minutes a low moan would escape, as a train entered into the station. I thought for a moment, that I was being hypersensitive to the vibrations coming from the trains so I waited by one of those vents, listening with my body. But the thrumming, that pulse in the earth, was separate. And without looking, I knew that no one else was feeling this. The street vendors by the cemetery continued to sell their selling DVDs and their cheap jewelry. Tourists who came to rub the words off the patriots’ tombstones would stop and see if they could strike a deal. That filthy commerce drowned out all sound, all sense of anything important. I walked away from there, disgusted, to the park. This park.”
The woman looks at Jack, inviting him to say something. But he looks resolutely down at his book, rubbing at his temple, as if he has other things engaging his mind besides her words. The phrase, “that filthy commerce” reverberates inside him.
“So I came to this park,” she says, so loudly that Jack winces. “I came to this park and there was this man. This gray and disreputable man. He was standing and swaying by the entrance to the park that’s closest to the subway entrance.” The woman points and Jack flinches. His body betrays him.
“I saw this man. This obviously homeless, deranged man. Proselytizing. Thumbing a Bible while standing by a cardboard sign that said, simply – ‘It is coming.’ What was that? A television slogan? As if he had any knowledge of what was happening to the world.” The woman glares at Jack meaningfully from under rather bushy eyebrows. “That man was a false prophet,” she informs Jack. She slaps her hand on the bench, punctuating her statement. Adding a delayed exclamation point.
“So I walked up to him. I said to him, Can you feel it? I didn’t tell him what he should be feeling. If he was legitimate he should be able to tell me. With specificity. He leaned down to whisper into my ear with his foul breath smoking in the winter air and my heart was pounding, pounding, waiting to receive his words.”
Jack looks up. He waits to hear her words. He meets the woman’s gaze finally. He is startled to observe that her eyes are blue and that they are beautiful.
“And then this man spoke,” the woman continues. “He muttered to me of Revelations, pushing his bible in front of my face. His words struck me with their banality and I sputtered in my frustration then. “You don’t feel it! You don’t know! You are a liar. A fraud!’ I clenched my fists and stamped my feet. I howled. And then a stallion whinnied and reared up behind me.
I turned around and there loomed a white horse, with a policeman astride it. The policeman looked down at me with his eyes hidden behind dark glasses, his head helmeted. His lips were pressed in a prissy grimace. ‘You need to move along, Miss,’ he said to me. His black-gloved hand tightened around his nightstick as if I could fly up there to where he sat like a dolt on that magnificent horse to strike him down. I laughed and I could tell that it made him angry. The homeless man behind me laughed as well and the policeman moved the horse forward, pressing his legs against its flanks to nudge it, trying to intimidate me.
"Well, this horseman of the apocalypse was a pathetic specimen, but I was startled when I noticed. The horse was trembling. Its nostrils flared and it blew out huffs of smoke with uneven, ragged breaths. Its eyes rolled in its head. And I could tell. I knew with absolute certainty that it could feel what I felt. The trembling earth. I nodded at the horse and I moved away, sliding my hand along its blue-white flank. Tears were streaming down my face. Disaster was coming. What I felt was real and I was utterly alone. No other human being would share this with me.
My break was over, but I did not go back to the bookstore. How could I go back? I walked away to make the policeman think I was leaving, but I circled the block. I stayed here, in this park after that. I stay mostly here. The policeman doesn‘t bother me. He rarely sees me. Most people rarely see me.”
Jack stares at the woman and she, at him. The clock tolls again. He needs to get up. He needs to go to class. He’s not like this woman. He has a path. He can’t afford to slip up. He’s already behind. He already feels as if what he wants is slipping away.
“Do you feel it?” the woman whispers to him.
He closes his eyes. He feels the slats of the bench pressing against the backs of his legs. He presses the soles of his sneakers downwards on the cement. He feels a faint tingling, a faint vibration.
“No,” he says brusquely, and he stands up. His book falls to the ground and as he bends to pick it up, he feels dizzy.
He looks back to the bench, but the woman is gone. He thinks he sees her retreating form walking to the fountain, but he’s unsure. That woman seems shorter, stockier, wears different clothing than he remembers. But what does he remember? He looks to either side of him and doesn’t recognize anyone. He’s sweating, despite the chill air, and he forces himself to talk a step. The clock is still chiming. He is not late yet.
Beneath his feet, the earth jitters.