The hand flickered then vanished – the void suffused by a momentary blue afterimage. Foot commuters massed into the intersection and motorized ones lurched against them. There was no mistaking the simultaneous cue – neither the darkened red orb nor the burn-in of the remonstrating hand. Fenders were thumped, oaths sworn, and heeled and wheeled travelers scuffled for possession of the asphalt.
Thursday evening, September 13, 2012
Wallace edged the bucket out from under the faucet and lowered it into the shower stall. He bent over for the next bucket then proceeded to fill three more. He stubbed his toe against the toilet and nearly crippled himself against the door as he exited. Power outage, no telling how long it would last. Wallace groped his way down the corridor past the guest bedroom into the kitchen.
Wallace knew from the Big One in 1977 the tap would cease flowing within the hour as the last drops from the rooftop tank were drained. The beer would continue flowing, however, at the sidewalk cafes until sunrise or until the marooned hoofed home to the outer boroughs, fought their way through the bus lines, or climbed dark staircases to their hermetically-sealed, steaming-hot apartments, thinking they could take a cold shower, hop in bed and call in sick if the lights returned after their night of bacchanalia.
They would not get to the shower part. Their awakening would come sooner, the moment they made their way from the foyer to the bathroom to relieve themselves. A sharp croak and dry silence would follow the flush. And then where would they go? In a dry toilet, a modern-day chamber pot they could neither lift nor empty from the window? Wallace shuddered. The memory of 1977 was nauseating. This time Wallace had it covered for four days if he flushed sparingly, perhaps five.
How long would this one last? There was no way to tell, no one to call. Wallace terminated land line service the day she moved out. It was such a waste – $70 a month in fees and taxes just to maintain a 212 dial tone. How many years had they paid for that? At least seven after becoming hooked on mobile. The cordless units were ugly, expensive relics – museum pieces from a pre-cellular age. The same phone company that sold them the data plan assured them they would be grateful during a power failure for maintaining land-line service, never mind they did not own a traditional handset. They switched to cordless units which, as they learned from incessant beeping, drained power swiftly.
For whatever reason, she bought the phone company’s pitch. He did not. Now she was gone, and so was his phone. His Blackberry was useless. Well, not useless, just incommunicado. He could play Brick Breaker, consult his PDA, and whip out a lightning-fast photo editor. But he could not make calls, Shazam the elevator music, or post angry diatribes on Facebook. More pressing, he could not access the Internet. The cell towers slept with the city.
Wallace felt his way about the kitchen, groped above the refrigerator and in the pantry for pitchers and vases then filled each at the kitchen sink. Next, he filled the bar glasses and lined them in a row along the counter. He grabbed cling wrap and a saucer and edged his way to the guest bathroom. “You can never have enough water,” he intoned. Crouching down, he latched the bathtub drain, placed a sheet of cling rap over it, then secured the seal with the saucer. He turned on the faucet. He’d be the only clean person in New York. “Clean-smelling,” he emended.
Wallace peered into the guest bedroom. He visualized the lavender walls and coral drapes but saw only a slate expanse. The air was torpid, asphyxiating. Wallace pulled the door shut, absorbing its vibration as a soft, mournful tremor. Perspiration dampened the flashback: a college course in thermal dynamics. AC dissipation, ten degrees per hour – he somehow wrung out the equation. So many thoughts were shapeless, but not this one. Curious how the quantitative stuff returned so easily. But power outages? Too many variables. Wallace could scarcely deflect them. Resolving them was unimaginable. A mere hour had elapsed, yet the heat and humidity pervaded his home as freely as a spent marriage or disease.
Wallace returned to the kitchen. He inspected the collection of pastas, cereal and canned goods with a flashlight, then verified the range still worked and pilot lights were lit. “Natural gas. Score one for fracking.”
He opened the refrigerator and tried without success to wedge the milk, butter, boneless thighs and yogurt into the freezer. “She never defrosted it … ever!” She never used it. Wallace estimated the accumulated permafrost at 70-80 liters – enough to fill a small bathtub or solemnize the iceberg between them – the one that wouldn’t thaw, not with a thousand blackouts. Wallace emptied the produce bins onto an upper shelf and spread towels and newspapers around the base. He would be considerate to his neighbor downstairs, even if the ones upstairs were not. Click, click, click. He still flinched at the tap of heels against uncarpeted marble. Drip. And smelt dampness weeping through his ceiling.
Wallace leaned against the counter. The urgency abated. He would not go hungry or die from thirst. He would not suffer the stench and humiliation of a toilet that would not flush. The other discomforts he could endure.
He placed a flashlight next to the oven, checked the bag of double-A batteries in the refrigerator and powered down his cell phone. He decided to venture outside.
* * *
Wallace lived alone. His wife left him four months earlier. She said he was a jerk, so demanding living with him was impossible. Everything had to be just this way or that. If things were not exactly the way he wanted them, he threw a tantrum like a baby. Well, if Wallace was inflexible, his wife was a slob – tossing her shoes everywhere, piling clothes on chairs, cluttering every bureau and surface with junk or objects of no importance to Wallace. One by one, she encroached on his closets. His clothing was confined to a small bureau and plastic bin under the bed, next to the one for his cranium. She and Wallace were utterly incompatible. He could scarcely remember how they met. How did they ever fall in love?
Wallace shuddered. He remembered how they met. He remembered how they fell in love, and how everything fell apart. Hanni left before Wallace lost his job, his second one, the one as CTO of NYL Health Systems.
“It’s a wonder they hired you at all. Always brooding, always on the defensive. I can’t believe they put up with you so long.” The voice was Hanni’s, but it was pointless to argue with voicemail. Return calls were routed to her lawyer.
What did it matter? She was a cheat. The segregated possessions under the bed consoled him. They at least were boxed and unspoiled.
Miraculously, Wallace kept possession of the apartment until it sold, which could happen any moment, or perhaps not happen for a year. The market was fickle, more so because of the “improvements” she insisted upon over the years. The Pierre Deux furnishings and chintz drapes were dated, the all-granite baths neo-Soviet, the Tiffany lighting Victorian, and the electronic telecommunication and security system brazenly futuristic. A buyer would have to remodel everything or share the peculiar eclectic tastes of his ex. Or be like him, amazingly tolerant despite being an inflexible sputtering volcano. “The slightest perceived insult can set me off, but an epic $37,000 tile failure?” His hands swept over the glistening pate and corona – the one he refused to shave clean. “She’s right. I’m impossible.”
Wallace grabbed the flashlight from the stove and headed to the bedroom. He passed the foyer on the way, removing a key card from the device next to the door and shook his head, “I live in a damned hotel. What buyer would want this?”
He ran his fingers along the neatly-made bed. Under the duvet lay identically-sized hospital corners, as primly turned as the flag on his father's coffin. Or his brothers'. Just another veil of order; all so thin.
Wallace pocketed a wallet and, pausing a second, reached into the bedside bureau for an envelope. He counted nine twenties, some tens and several ones and felt relieved. Credit card readers and ATMs stood dormant, so his two hundred thirty-six dollars were precious. Wallace stuffed forty into his pocket and returned the rest to his bureau.
He fetched shoes from the closet, turned off the spigot in the tub, and pulled the apartment door shut behind him. Using the flashlight, he found his way to the stairwell and descended six flights to the lobby. Thank heaven they were outbid on 19A; 7H was just fine.
An aside to the doorman camouflaged his anxiety. “It looks crazy out there.” He flushed at his own remark. “Crazy” was unartful, even for Wallace. He hastened, “Have you heard anything?”
“It is crazy. Everyone’s gone nuts, as if it’s Mardi Gras. My sister’s watching live from Chicago on CNN. She says it’s dark from Philly to Boston. Something about grid failure. Ten-to-one some lunatic goes on a rampage.”
Wallace interjected. “Any word when they’ll restore power?”
“They aren’t saying. Repair crews can’t go anywhere. The street lights are out and every car in the state seems to be at this intersection. Only they’re not. They’re at the next intersection and the next, all the way to the Lincoln Tunnel and up to the Bronx. These guys won’t get home before four. They’re psycho! They’d be better off having dinner and a beer.”
Wallace nodded assent. How else could he respond? Confession? It hadn't helped him before. He stepped outside. A curtain of buildings dissolved into blackness above him. The Seventh Avenue proscenium stretched to his right – a pastiche of honking horns, giddy tourists, stranded commuters and snarled automobiles gleaming in each other’s headlights. Candlelit tables fronted bars that never previously served in the open. All the seats were taken. Glasses clinked, people giggled, and the pavement trembled with the beat of a subwoofer. Wallace ploughed on to the grocer.
Wallace did not patronize the grocer often. It was overpriced and the produce frequently bruised. He preferred the supermarket at mid-block and Whole Foods at the Time-Warner Center, but knew from experience they would be shut, conserving cold air as best they could, squeezing perishables into their freezers. He wasn’t even sure what he would buy. Actually, he just wanted to browse, to persuade himself he had covered his bases, not forgotten anything important.
The store was packed. Wallace wedged his way inside and observed midst the flickering cell phones and strategically placed candles that the salad bar and bread shelf were empty. As were the snack shelves and beer pantry. Surprisingly, there were still a few bottles of Poland Spring. Wallace paused, taking mental stock of his inventory, then pushed onward. The thought of bottled water disturbed him even during a blackout. It was the principle of the thing, he told Hanni. “Paying for a resource that flows free from the tap, shipping it from Fiji, creating all that garbage; surely you can find an attractive water bottle.”
“Oh, I just reuse the ones I buy,” she replied.
“Until you buy the next one,” he thought, “which is usually at the next corner.”
He returned to the front of the grocer and his gaze climbed to the shelf above the cashier. It was still there, the Carnation powdered milk he purchased during the 18-hour teaser in 2003 and returned the following morning.
He was proud of the purchase at the time. With it, his family could dine properly for days. He mixed a batch the moment he got home, serving it with grilled hot dogs and sauerkraut. But the milk was sour, undrinkable. The next morning, he discovered why. Microscopic mealworms, thousands of them, nested in the box but were invisible by candlelight. When was the last time the grocer sold a box of powdered milk? Wallace grew up with it, but that was in the sixties. The “sell by” date on the box was January 1983. And it was still there today, back on the shelf.
A woman followed his gaze upward, pushed in front of him and shouted, “The powdered milk, please!” Wallace smiled and squeezed his way outside.
He decided to treat himself to a beer. He strode east on 58th Street, a quieter street than Seventh Avenue, 57th Street or Central Park South and found a seat near the window. Even here, off the beaten track, there was a buzz of excitement, of the exotic, but Wallace found it comforting – a break from the stress of his dwindling bank account, waning unemployment benefits and nonexistent social life. Hanni would never let him stay in the apartment if she thought he would bring someone home, her own indiscretions notwithstanding. She reckoned accurately. Wallace didn’t know any women, not well that is. Besides, he needed time to regain his footing. Even Hanni understood support obligations were worthless if he was so disoriented he babbled gibberish. Solicitous, calculating Hanni, she knew her ex-husband was a loser.
But not tonight, he exulted. Tonight, he was master and commander, the man whose much ridiculed compulsion to micro-analyze and plan, plan, plan actually paid off. He chuckled. How was Hanni handling this? He half expected a call. “Then again, she’s probably out with his ex-boss. Such grand fun!”
Wallace ordered a draft. It was warm, sticky, but somehow perfect for the occasion. A couple from Rome tried to involve him in their conversation – idle chatter about this once-in-a-lifetime Bohemian experience. Wallace smiled amiably and agreed. “Wait until they return to their hotel,” he reflected. “Definitely Bohemian and definitely a trip to remember.” Wallace thought about his soft bed, stocked kitchen and water reserves and ordered another beer.
The Italian couple paid their bill and left. They were gone almost an hour when Wallace noticed the small plastic bag under the table. It was nearly invisible in the candlelight. He emptied the contents on the table. Souvenirs: several postcards, an “I love New York” refrigerator magnet, and a Statue of Liberty pen. He could not recall the couple’s name or their hotel. He was certain, in fact, they had not volunteered their names. Neither had he. After all, this was New York, even during the bonhomie of a blackout. The couple paid in cash; that much he remembered. Tonight, everyone paid in cash.
Wallace leafed through the postcards but saw no use for them. He spread them on the table, a sightseer’s tableau, and watched in embarrassment as spilt beer seeped up and deformed the images. He did not expect them to be so absorbent. Wallace glanced about furtively, gathered the cards into a limp stack, and set them on the edge of the table near the wall. He pretended nothing had happened.
Wallace inspected the pen. It was kitschy but reminded him of Hanni. He would use it the next time she made him sign something. She made him sign so many things. She would have a riposte, of course. She always did, but Lady Liberty’s blank stare would be his reply. “This is what I think of your overweening wit. It’s base metal, a worthless imitation of real intellect and taste. Where do I sign?”
The magnet spoke truth too. Wallace did love New York, even if he hated his life. He heard someone at the far end of the bar shout, “She’s driving me crazy,” so he raised his glass and concurred, “Here, here!” then wiped foam from his lips with his sleeve. Wallace shoved the pen and magnet into his pocket and rummaged among the trinkets for his money. He ordered another beer.
Wallace returned home two hours later, a couple dollars in his pocket and wobbly. The night concierge stood his post, dutiful even in darkness. “Good evening, Mr. Wallace.”
“Hello, Manny. Do you know whether the mail was sorted?”
“It should be. The lights didn’t go out until late. Let me check.” The concierge stepped back from the candlelight and disappeared into an office behind the desk. He reappeared with a small bundle. “Here you go, Mr. Wallace. Have a pleasant evening.”
Wallace marveled at the building’s antiquated postal system. Tenants were still assigned cubbies in an office behind the front desk, rather than mail boxes with keys. Despite a $6 million makeover of the common areas, tenants still asked for their mail in person, sorted by hand each afternoon by the concierge. And when tenants left on vacation, the concierge bundled the mail neatly as it accumulated, and discreetly slipped the bundles into the apartments when they outgrew the cubbies. Some tenants left a key in their cubby expressly for that purpose, and for bringing up packages and dry cleaning. Not Wallace. He was on indefinite vacation, right here in Gotham Central. He toted his own packages and dry cleaning.
Hanni adored the co-op’s “personal touch” but Wallace considered it pretentious extravagance. “Why can’t the postman sort the mail? It’s his job. You’d think they’d put a bank of mailboxes in when they renovated. Instead, we’re paying for a full-time doorman just so the concierge can hide in the back and sort mail.”
“You’re hopeless,” she sighed. “That’s what makes this building special.”
“Thank you, Manny. You have a nice evening, too.” Wallace cradled the bundle under his arm and opened the door to the stairwell.
Where had they unearthed so many candles? Large incense candles were positioned at every landing and on many of the steps. No one stores this many candles, he thought, not here in New York where every inch of closet space is rationed. “They must have looted Bed Bath & Beyond.”
He recalled how terrible the looting was in 1977, his second summer in New York. He recalled the riots. He dreaded stepping outside back then. “Everyone is so amiable tonight, so chipper,” he thought, “as if this is just one big frolic. But what happens tomorrow or the day after if the lights are still out? It won’t be candles they’re after.”
Wallace’s chest heaved as he reached the seventh floor. He congratulated himself for buying 7H and not 19A, as if the decision were his and not the other buyer’s. He cursed himself, though, for letting himself go to seed. He should not have let her get to him that way. It was time to move on, just as she had.
He sat on the top step for a moment, catching his breath, then leafed through the bundle in his hand. Two catalogs, a bank statement, assorted junk mail and a postcard. Chicago skyline. Wallace flipped it over and held it near the candle. He did not need to inspect the handwriting. He knew it was Hanni’s.
“Spending a few days with my sister. Forgot to tell you – the broker found a buyer. We’re looking at a closing date of…”
Wallace shoved the postcard back into the bundle and rose to his feet. He could read it later; right now he needed to urinate. He fumbled at the front door for his wallet and the Statue of Liberty fell to the floor. Wallace’s flashlight dimmed considerably. “C’mon man,” he admonished himself. “I need to piss.”
Wallace pulled the key card out of his wallet then froze. The walls spun around him and he struggled to gulp back the whoosh of sour beer from his belly. Nausea swept over him. Wallace steadied himself against the door but his arm trembled. He lowered the card into the slot. A red light twinkled. Access denied. He tried again. Same result. He pulled the “I love New York” magnet from his pocket and thrust it down the hall.
What was Hanni doing now? Laughing. He remembered he consented to the high-tech security outlay because, as she reminded him, he could no longer complain about keys jangling against his side as he jogged… as he jogged… as he charged down the stairs, two at a time, lunged park-wards into the darkness, reached what he sensed was a bench, retched on his shoes, then relieved himself while still unzipping his fly. A hoarse whisper rose from the bench, “Eeww, gross! Let’s get outta here,” and a second voice murmured assent.
Wallace groped around in vain for the water fountain he swore he’d once seen and nearly crippled himself against a bench. He cursed his clumsiness then lowered himself to the bench’s edge. Reflux burned his mouth and throat, the sweet, sickly stench of regurgitated beer clawed at his nostrils and he felt the surface of his teeth dissolving. Wallace recalled those last few bottles of Poland Spring, the ones he left for another customer. “You can never have enough water,” he intoned.
There were so many electronic door locks to choose from – key pads, palm readers, touch-screen patterns, proximity cards. Hanni chose magnetic key cards because they were slim, cheap, and could be operated while intoxicated, something she considered crucial. They were prone on occasion to de-magnetize, but he kept copies at the gym and his office. He no longer had an office and his gym membership expired.
Wallace sat on the bench and brooded. He spent the night gazing at where his building should have been, taking mental stock of the water, bath and ample provisions awaiting him … once he found a locksmith. A flash threatened rain, but the rumble ebbed and Wallace heard only the muffled honk of frustrated drivers. A slim crescent moon rose before dawn above the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, a soft pink scythe on the still-black horizon. He managed a smile. Hanni’s moon. For the first time in months, his mind was serene … and alone. The wretched taste and odor cleared the remnant wisps of fog. “Yes, Robert,” he murmured, “It is crazy out there.”