Henschel held the last note and gazed at Mattie. It was easy in the joy of the moment to forget everything else. Her long brown hair wisped in a gust of street wind, and she looked away to God-knows-where, but Henschel loved that last harmony, the blend of spirit that kept the crowd on their tiptoes three or four deep on the park sidewalk.
When the song ended, Henschel did his riff on the guitar. Mattie turned her back to the crowd and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
But the crowd clapped and shouted, and Henschel tipped his blue seaman’s cap, letting his unkempt red curls spill out. “Just one more,” he said to Mattie. “They love you.” He kept smiling and nodding at the crowd.
Mattie had already put her harmonica into her purse.
Henschel shrugged and finally held out his hands, palms up. “Sorry, folks, but we know you’ve got to keep the economy rolling. And we have to see a man about a dog. We accept spare change and bills in denominations of ten or more.”
He lifted his guitar over his head, freeing his body from the strap, and thanked the people who came forward and dropped money into the case on the sidewalk. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” he said. “If it’s not snowing, we’ll be back.”
When the crowd dispersed, Henschel packed up his guitar. Mattie split the money on the spot. Then they walked together along West 4th toward The Avenue of the Americas. It was a sunny day, but cool, with September settling in.
“Where to now?” Henschel asked.
“I’m going to my brother’s,” said Mattie. She looked up at the tall buildings as she always did when she lied. She had the look in her eyes, wide and innocent, as if she were looking at catkeedrals.
“Shit you are,” Henschel said.
“Look, do I ask you where you go? To those damned arcades or wherever. Do I ask you?”
“We could go to Blumenthal’s and practice.”
Mattie shook her head. “I’m going to my brother’s.”
At the corner a man in a long, shabby, black overcoat was directing traffic, yelling and gesticulating at the taxis and Caddies. “Hey, Ragout!” Henschel shouted. “Long time, no see. You just get back?”
The man waved and grinned with rotten teeth. He whistled for cars to move.
Mattie had hurried up, and Henschel ran to catch her. “So you’re not taking your medicine,” he said. “I don’t see why you lie.”
“I lie because you ask questions.”
“If you ran out, get some more. Isn’t the stuff free?”
“I have to go all the way to the Bronx.”
“So big deal. It’s a subway ride.” He hated to think of her being without. She’d told him once, late one night when she was high, how it was like darkness closing around her, little by little. Like dusk, she said, only not pretty. “If you want I’ll go with you,” he said.
“No you won’t.”
“Then I’ll pay the taxi.” He pulled some dollar bills from his pocket and held them out to her.
Mattie took the money and kept walking. Down the street Ragout had held up traffic for no apparent reason, and Mattie took the opportunity to cut across. Henschel let her go, watching her sadly until she disappeared behind the plywood barricade of a construction site. She had no brother, he knew, at least not in New York.
Blumenthal did not go out, ever. He lived above a tuxedo rental store on West 36th, where he sat in his wheelchair all day long. Because of his illness, he looked older and wearier than 30. His hair was nearly gone, and his eyes were sunken. Nothing shocked him anymore. One time the Chinese restaurant next door caught fire and the firemen had called for the tenants of his building to evacuate, but Blumenthal stayed in his room pretending he wasn’t home. And when the woman upstairs shot herself in the head and her blood seeped through his pasteboard ceiling, Blumenthal said, “It’s just a reminder. That’s how I’ll go out, under a sheet.”
Blumenthal was sitting beside the closed window, newspaper in his lap, beer in hand when Henschel came in. Blumenthal always read the obituaries for entertainment, The kitchen fan from the Chinese restaurant blew smoke directly against Blumenthal’s building, and even with the window closed, the aroma of soy and rice and meat permeated the air. “It ain’t roses and limes,” Blumenthal said. “You ever smell roses and limes, Hen?”
“No,” Henschel said.
“You have something to look forward to.”
“So how are you?” Henschel asked, “Anyone die?”
Blumenthal folded back the paper. “Are you kidding? This is New York.”
“I mean anyone famous.”
Blumenthal pretended to read from the long list. “Martin Henschel, age 19, address unknown, died today. He had too many dreams.”
Henschel smiled, took his guitar from the case, and did a riff.
“How’d it go in the park?” Blumenthal asked. “Did she show?”
Henschel nodded. “It went okay. You eaten yet?”
“Sandwich,” Blumenthal said.
“What kind of sandwich?”
Blumenthal put the paper back in his lap. “Anchovies, pheasant under glass, and hearts of artichokes.”
“Don’t be bitter,” Henschel said. “I bought squash and lettuce and chicken.”
“Jesus Christ would gag. You expect me to cook all that?”
“Not the lettuce,” Henschel said. He played a few chords.
“You must have done all right today.”
“Some rich woman gave me a loan,” Henschel said. He put down the guitar and went across the room to the tiny kitchenette. “I saw Ragout. They should send him to the police academy instead of to The Farm.”
Blumenthal shrugged. “I still think you should go solo.”
“We had a crowd,” Henschel said. “I’d rather have 35 people each with a buck than one guy with a fifty. Mattie brings the people.” He put some lettuce on a plate and some dressing on the side and took the plate to Blumenthal.
“She’ll kill you,” Blumenthal said.
“No, she won’t.”
“She’s dynamite.” Henschel said. He looked out at the restaurant fan which was a gray blur in dirty brick. “She’s just fragile.”
Blumenthal stuck a fork into his salad. “She’s tough,” he said, “And she’s good at picking out a sucker.”
Henschel played pool in an arcade for a couple of hours in the afternoon. When he’d lost six dollars, he quit and walked up Greenwich Ave, humming a song that Mattie had taught him.
Riding, riding . . . .
How we got here with no past
Disappearing as we came
What’s the matter with the story
When there isn’t any name?
Riding, riding . . . .
The light slipped away. People moved from place to place, always by sidewalk or street. Henschel somehow knew places he had never seen, places he wanted to go. He’d take Mattie. He still saw her as she was that first day eight months ago, playing her blues harp with her back against the brick wall of Blumenthal’s building. She’d had a thin jacket around her shoulders, a cup on the sidewalk, and when she’d sung to him in that honey voice, he’d sat down beside her just to listen. Afterwards he’d asked her to Brigham’s, out of the cold.
“I’ve got to return the cup,” she said. “Will you come with me? It’s Blumenthal’s.”
So he had met Blumenthal, and over the course of days, he heard Blumenthal’s story. A couple of times he sang with Mattie in Blumenthal’s apartment where it was warm, and the music sounded easy and clean, without frills or foot-stomping. They fit by feeling; even Blumenthal said so.
“What about you and Blumenthal?” Henschel had asked her once.
“Nothing,” Mattie said. “He used to be a friend of mine.”
So where was he going to take her, Henschel wondered. South. Where did roses grow, or limes? He turned off Greenwich Ave and stopped a little way down at a cart vendor’s. “A bag of almonds,” Henschel said to Erzio.
“No almond,” the man said. “I got pretzel.”
Henschel bought a pretzel and warmed his hands. The lights of the stores were on, and above him he could see silhouettes in the windows of offices. Erzio raked the coals in his cart. Henschel bought a sausage.
Along the fringe of the garment district, people thinned out. In the middle of an empty block was a row of huge windows which reflected the blue dusk and the pale orange clouds which looked as cheerful as wash on the line. When the clouds faded to gray, Henschel crossed the street, unlocked the padlock on the door, locked it again from the inside, and climbed the stairs.
The deserted loft was a half-block deep, with eight-foot windows facing the street, and smaller, broken, never-washed windows higher up in the nave. He had bought the key for ten dollars from a man who was heading to Virginia. Henschel shared the space with bats. The bats were his partners, and together they guarded that blank room from which nobody wanted to steal anything. The bats departed in the evening when Henschel arrived, and came back the next morning when he left. They rose through the cracked walls and broken windows, and when the room was deserted, Henschel played. He spun out his songs into the cavernous air, and with music all around him, echoing through that immense room, he felt as much at home as he could ever feel.
He had learned to sleep cautiously in places that were not his. He napped in libraries, sometimes empty classrooms, even in garbage dumpsters. His sleep was always tenuous, ephemeral, transient, and that night, in his culled moments of rest, he dreamed of Mattie. She lay beside him, but she was so thin! He could feel her ribs showing through her smooth skin, could feel the bones of her arms. Her face—those wide eyes and sweet bow mouth—was turned away from him, but he knew she was awake. He could feel her restlessness even when she didn’t move, could feel her staring into the darkness. All he wanted was that she would sleep. He loved her, yes. He wanted to soothe her. But how could he love so much what she was and still hope for her to be different?
He was wakened by the crack of a tin can hitting the sidewalk outside his window. Disturbances frightened him— sirens, dull talking, breaking glass. People stole everything in the city, searched for food in the most unlikely places. Another can clattered on the street, and he pulled his thin sleeping bag tightly over his shoulders and covered his ears with his hands.
He was up before dawn. He rinsed his face with water from his canteen, then huddled in his blanket and waited for the bats. The nights lasted longer now, and cold seeped through the walls and windows. Where had Mattie spent the night? Had she gone to a bar and gone home with someone? Or to a cafeteria? He thought of the bats. Usually he could hear them as they sifted in through the windows and skirmished for places along the rafters. But that morning the nave was silent. Light oozed through the huge windows, a gray pall without sun, and he felt uneasy.
When it was full light, and the bats had not appeared, he dressed quickly and took his guitar down the stairs. He unlocked the padlock and pushed open the door. An empty beer can fell from the latch. A scrap of paper had been tucked into the top.
I feel bad. I have done everything wrong.
Can’t get warm. Where are you?
He bought a newspaper for Blumenthal and walked up to 32nd Street. Blumenthal would be awake at that hour because the pain in his legs allowed him only fitful sleep. He got up early to have more time to blame everyone for everything.
Once in his beer haze and a fit of self-pity, Blumenthal had told the truth. He had been a reporter once for the Voice, a man who’d known which strings to pull and whom to harass. He had written up characters like Ragout and Erzio and the psychotic ranters in front of the library. He liked the races at Yonkers, the late night cafes in Soho, and his own position of power.
“Then one night, Granger, this friend of mine, and I came out of the Market Diner at two in the morning, I mean shit-faced, Hen, and we decided to go interview Thomas McGuane, the Western writer. McGuane had left his wife back in Montana and was on a rampage with Elizabeth Ashley up at the Plaza. If McGuane wanted to ruin himself with movie stars that was his business. Ours was reportage, and we were going to knock on his fucking door and make him the most notorious kick-ass cowboy in New York.” Blumenthal had stopped for a moment then and had pulled the blanket from his mangled legs. “We never made it to the Plaza, Hen. We never saw old Tom McGuane. Instead we got side-tracked by two whores. We were walking up Broadway kissy-facing, and some maniac drove his car through us. He killed Granger and one of the women and crushed my legs. Mattie, she was the other whore. She was unscathed.”
Henschel took the stairs to Blumenthal’s by twos and opened the door with his key. He threw the newspaper across the room and sat down on the couch.
“She’s not here,” Blumenthal said.
“How did you know I wanted to find her?”
“I guessed.” Blumenthal wheeled around to face him. His expression was ashen, as if he’d been awake all night. “She was here.”
“I don’t know. I don’t keep track of time. A few hours ago. It was dark.” Blumenthal planed his hand through the air. “She was flying and wanted some more uppers.”
Henschel closed his eyes. “She needs the medicine,” he said. “She was doing okay.”
“The whole world is sick,” Blumenthal said. “Nobody’s okay.”
“Did she say anything? She say where she was going?”
“To her brother’s,” Blumenthal said. “Shit, she wouldn’t give me the time of day. How the fuck should I know where she goes?”
“You used to know,” Henschel said quietly. He got up and looked out the window. It was too early for the restaurant to be open, and the fan blades were still. They looked like a gray star in a reddish-black sky. “You tried something,” Henschel whispered. “She wanted some money, and you tried something on her.”
“She needed comfort.”
“I need comfort, too,” Blumenthal said, suddenly angry.
Henschel stared at him. “You? You sit in this God-awful room and feel sorry for yourself.”
“Nobody could have helped her,” Blumenthal said. “She’s crazy, I tell you.”
“That’s right, fuck me,” Henschel said. “Somebody cares, but so what? Fuck everybody else in the world, because on the bottom you feel pretty safe.”
Henschel picked up the dirty plate with two half-eaten pieces of chicken and some leftover squash on it and threw the mess against the wall. Bones and ceramic fragments exploded across the room.
It was still cold when Henschel left Blumenthal’s. Papers were blowing along the street, and steam rose from manholes and grates and dissipated on the wind. He ducked a shoulder to the cold blast, turned the corner, and went into Brigham’s. Usually he had coffee at the stand-up kiosk because Anita Sosnowski needed the money more than Brigham’s, but that morning he wanted warmth. Uppers: was that what Mattie had wanted from him in the middle of the night?
He didn’t know much about her, really. He didn’t even know how old she was. She’d come from the West, from some small town in a huge land with blue mountains in the distance. That’s the way she said it. But he hadn’t asked why she’d run away. He knew why: she was lonely, she could not get along with her family or her friends, she wanted more than a landscape. All that sorrow—that was where the music came from.
For a half hour he sat with his coffee. Maybe he’d take her to Homestead, Florida, a place near Miami he’d read about once. They’d hitch, practicing while they waited for rides. They’d play in small towns on the way, a stop in Virginia, the Carolinas. He’d never been anywhere himself except over to Jersey and once to Providence. Why not Homestead? They could get along just as well where it was warm. That was where the bats went. And what was so wrong with dreams?
He finished his coffee and looked around Brigham’s. He counted 17 people. An old woman with a bandana around her neck was staring idly out the window at the street. A man of no ascertainable age was pushing together the crumbs on his plate. Another man, younger, unshaved for days, was asleep with his head on the formica tabletop. Some of them Henschel had seen before; he would see them again.
He got up and edged toward the woman by the window. He stared at her until she felt his presence. “Can you sing?” Henschel asked her.
The woman did not look at him.
“Can you sing?” Henschel repeated, raising his voice.
He knew some of the other people were watching him, but no one moved. The woman did not answer.
He turned to another table where a middle-aged man in a filthy suit jacket smiled up at him. He opened his lapel and offered Henschel a drink. Henschel bent down so close to the man’s face he could see the gray at the tips of his black whiskers. There was bourbon on the man’s breath. “If you hurt her,” Henschel whispered, “I’ll kill you.”
Henschel went to another woman who stared blankly at him as he approached. “Can you sing?” he asked.
The woman got up and hurried away.
“Hey!” he called after her. “Just one note?”
Finally the manager came out from the office behind the cafeteria counter. “All right, pal,” he said. “Move along.”
Henschel dodged among the tables.
“What’s the idea of hassling these people?”
“Can anybody sing?” Henschel yelled out, still backing away, keeping the manager at bay. He circled toward the door. “Anybody? Just one goddamn note?”
Henschel sat in the park on a wire bench and tuned his guitar. Pigeons hobbled across the asphalt sidewalk, picking up stale popcorn. A few old men drank from their brown bags. Henschel cocked his head toward the O-hole, tapped a string with his right hand, and with his left twisted the plastic eye at the end of the neck. When he finished each string, he lifted his head and scanned for Mattie.
Usually she came through the park, her long stride noticeably faster than other people’s. She was often late. But if she needed money, she’d be there. Once he thought he saw her rounding the corner—her hair was pulled back and tied behind her head, and she was wearing jeans and an old leather coat—but it wasn’t Mattie.
He played a couple of songs, softly mouthing the words to himself, singing so quietly no one else could hear. He leaned his head close to the guitar to hear the chords and the tune to his own new song. He made up the words as he went along.
Nothing but the morning
Makes me feel all right
A little bit of evening
Turns into night.
We don’t always have roses and limes
To take us away, away, away.
He thought of the migrating bats gone from the loft, sweeping through the starry sky with unerring accuracy. They navigated by night, miles above the earth and spoke to one another in high-pitched squeaks, knowing without knowing they depended upon one another for survival. Did they know, Henschel wondered, that he was left behind?
Maybe Mattie had gone up to the Bronx. The bad night had scared her into getting what she needed, and convinced her of her lack. It took time to get there and back; it took time at the clinic. He fine-tuned, scoured the park. Still no Mattie.
He played through the lunch hour alone, singing, nodding, trying to smile, but the mood was not there. Inertia was missing. Impulse. He got a small group, but not the crowd they’d had the day before when Mattie was with him. At one o’clock he was done. He played on for a few stragglers until he saw Ragout in the middle of his street with his hand raised.
Cars were honking and drivers shouted at him, but Ragout blocked the traffic. Henschel stood on the bench to look over the cars parked at the curb. And there was Blumenthal, trying to maneuver his wheelchair out of a pothole in the middle of the street. Blumenthal turned and lifted and cursed, then finally he jerked the wheel out, nearly tipping himself over. He continued across the street, and Ragout waved his arms and whistled for the cars to get moving again.
Blumenthal mounted the curb and came down the sidewalk, his face sweaty from exertion. His wisps of long thin hair were damp, his skin pale for having been so long without the light of the sun.
So where would Mattie want to go, Henschel wondered, Tampa, maybe, instead of Homestead. Puerto Rico. Somewhere there were banana trees and grapefruits and tropical flowers. Mattie would sometimes sing right through the lunch hour, not caring how much money they made. She would forget everything else but the words. She would move with the beat and close her eyes, and her clear voice would rise as though she were in a country of clean and vivid air.
Blumenthal’s lips moved as he came closer, but it was a nervous gesture without sound. His eyes did not meet Henschel’s. His hands moved slowly and tentatively on the wheels, as though he did not want to cover the last distance. But Henschel knew why Blumenthal had come. A newspaper was open on the blanket in his lap.