By Michael B. Tager
She wakes with the dawn howling of alley dogs and the rattle of garbage trucks. New York is never quiet, but when light creeps through the buildings and sinks into concrete, illuminates tree trunks, it’s at least picturesque. It’s Claire’s last day at Pete’s, though she doesn’t know it yet. There’s no reason she could, because none of us can see the future.
Claire rises and progresses through stretches she learned at Juilliard. Besides background dancing in a Prince B-side video, she’d never been able to make it in the dance scene, but it ain’t so bad. Instead of hustling, she dances when it pleases, i.e.. often. In another life, she sometimes imagines, she became a full-time dancer for Prince, or a ballerina in Leipzig. Even one of those modern dancers who flailed and contorted their faces like they constantly ate bowls of diamond porridge.
(As a matter of fact, in multiple other lives, Claire did become an in-demand backup dancer and sometimes choreographer, especially of modern dance. In most instances, she zigged where she might have otherwise zagged and an opportunity lay in front of her that her talent seized. Most Claires are happy, and that’s enough.)
Waitressing isn’t so bad. She waitressed to put herself through Julliard at high-classed joints, ones with sad, lonely men or silver haired retirees with sharp tongues and fat wallets. But she’s older now and she likes the pace of local places. There’s a missing intensity that she appreciates.
Waitressing keeps her on her feet, keeps her nimble. When she works with food and people, she knows she’s alive.
Her own kitchen is tucked into one corner of a small, bright 3rd story efficiency. A row of gardenias and basil sits on the windowsill. On the fire escape outside is a large orange tom. They aren’t friends, but there’s mutual respect. “Hey boy,” she says, her voice soft and low, as it always is before the world enters her. “here you go.” She passes a small bowl of milk through the window and the tom briefly allows petting while he laps.
His collar says “My name is Mailman. Please return me to: 129 West 81st Street, Apt 5E. It’s far away from her and she’s wondered for sometime if the Tom still lives there or if he’s gone stray. It doesn’t matter to her, per se. Just curious.
Claire eats eggs and toast and drinks a cup of black tea. Outside, she breathes. It’s good air, clean, breeze taking hold of the morning and shoving away smog and any dark emotions in the air. The pedestrians she passes all seem friendly, the joggers in bright and cheery shorts, dog walkers especially affectionate. Even the homeless are on the sunny side and one asks her if she’s doing well.
The 4 subway line is nearly empty, a welcome surprise, and she does the crossword to pass the time until she transfers to the Q. This one is busy and she has to stand, her body pressed between a large man with dark skin and big belly, who must have once been a football player and a slim girl with bad acne, a Mohawk and a menthol-smelling leather jacket. For once, she doesn’t mind bodies pressed against her. They’re soft in different, pleasant ways. She wonders what it’d be like to go home with them, what that sandwich would look like. It wouldn’t be the first time, even if it has been a spell.
(There is no timeline where she pulls that ménage-a-trois off, even if there are dozens where she goes home with one or the other. In timeline 7-D, she and the man—Martin—marry. It’s a good life for her. Desiree is a bad match, though in many timelines, they date for a spell.)
Eventually, she reaches Manhattan and exits near Central Park. She wants to walk on leaves. The in the morning is serene. She stops at the Alice in Wonderland statue as she often does and admires the Rabbit’s bronze eyes, the mushrooms bronze curves. She doesn’t feel like a tourist anymore. She’s been in New York for a long time.
She passes the pagoda and the Zoo and soon enough she’s out of the Park and down 6th Avenue and after a left and rights and sooner rather than later she’s at Pete’s and in her dowdy uniform and Pete’s son Arnold says good morning, your regulars are here and your hair looks sad, and she rolls her eyes because of course they’re here. She plasters a smile on and does the breathing exercises Dr. Shultz gave her. “Take two shallow breaths, then a long exhale. Tell yourself your virtues. Repeat your strength. Harness inner Claire.”
Claire misses Dr. Schultz but the old woman died three years ago and psychoanalysis doesn’t seem so en vogue anymore. One of the regulars, Kramer, the tall dumb one who thinks he’s smart, once said that everything comes back to Oedipus. Claire doesn’t think he has any idea what he’s talking about, that he ever knows what he’s talking about.
He also always has money, but he’s never talked about work. What in the world does he do?
“What’ll you have boys?” she asks. They always sit at the same booth by the door, though they shift positions sometimes. What’s so special about a booth? It’s laminate and plastic. She thinks it matters to the medium-tall one, the curly haired “comedian” who can’t joke with a straight face. There’s always this little lilt in his voice, a curve at the corner of his mouth and she can never tell if he’s serious or joking or just a goddamned cock. His name is Jerry but she writes SUP on his tickets.
A year ago he saw the SUP and asked and she told him it was because he always mentions Super Man, but it’s really cause of the giant Stick UP his ass but she’ll never tell him. She sometimes whispers her secrets into the wind and wraps her hopes and dreams into one of the beautiful handkerchiefs her grandmother left her in an antique cedar box, scores of them originally, only half left, but she writes those dreams on slips of paper and wraps them in the handkerchiefs and sets them on fire so the wind spreads across the world and into the mouths of man and beast. But why tell her secret to a person she hates?
“I’ll have the regular.”
“What do you recommend?” the little miserable bald nothing says. He has no redeeming qualities.
“I’d get the tuna,” Claire answers with tight mouth, her flushed face matching her teased red hair.
“Oh the tuna,” he says and raises his eyebrows because there’s a conversation she’s not privy to. Always conversations these men, these arrested-development boys. They talk and talk but do they say anything? “That sounds lovely.”
He laughs, “I’ll have the regular.”
“Of course you will.” Claire heads to the back and puts the ticket in the window and later rather than sooner (Paco takes his time with them two in solidarity) the meal’s up in and it’s dropped off and they don’t notice because they’re are off on one of their exhausting tangents again. It’s interminable and they barely interact with her except to get the check and after what feels like forever, they’re gone and thank God for small favors.
(Claire will never see them again. In another universe, she does see them again and then every day for almost a decade. She’ll date two of them over the years and there will be a contest and she’ll win it, and there will be other dates---a woman named Susan that she’ll fall in love with—and there will be a man in a cape who will become her lawyer, a maker of soup that she’ll go into business with, a series of cigar store Indians and street toughs and marble ryes and it will all end the same way this ends, with them walking out of her life. And good riddance.)
After they leave, Claire continues working and it’s a good day, good tips. Ruth comes in at 3 to work the register and grabs her and Paco for a smoke. Claire doesn’t smoke, but she likes to keep company. The alley is bright and remarkably detritus-free. Claire stretches and dips and plies while Paco stubs out his smoke and leaves, and then she pirouettes to distant music she vaguely identifies as “rap.”
None of her fellows talk about rap. None talk about anything specific. She feels unmoored in New York. Everyone talks in witty repartee about the commonplace. She feels like everything’s about nothing and leads to nothing. The three regulars, they only speak of nameless women (except Elaine. Jerry speaks of her, sometimes reverently, sometimes dismissively) and nonsense. Some movie being produced in the distant future: Rochelle, Rochelle. Vague ideas of a television pilot about their own miserable lives. Nothing tied to reality.
Ruth notices her dancing. “You like this stuff?”
“Oh, I guess,” Claire says. “It’s got a nice beat.”
“This rap stuff. I don’t get it.”
“I don’t know what’s to get.”
“My niece says it’s 1989 already and I need to get with it. But it just sounds like noise.”
Claire laughs. “You remind me of my mother.”
Ruth joins her. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s true though. Don’t you remind you of yours?”
“I suppose. It’s different though.”
Claire shrugs and the conversation drifts. Her neighbors are a young couple and they listen to that rap stuff and she sometimes dances to music that drifts into her apartment when the windows are open. Music is music and dance is dance and all God’s children have joy in their soul and what’s the difference?
Ruth lights another cigarette. “What are you doing?” Claire asks. “We got to get back to work.”
“Didn’t you hear the news?” Ruth asks.
“Wow, you didn’t hear. Someone bought Pete’s. They’re going to call it Monk’s and almost all of us are going to be fired tomorrow morning before work begins. They think it’s a secret.”
Claire puts her hand on her chest. “What? How didn’t I hear?”
“They didn’t really tell nobody. I heard through the grapevine the other day.” She puffs angrily and the smoke curls into the sky. “Sorry. I thought you knew.”
Claire goes back to work in a daze and she finishes her last couple tables and counts her tips and soon enough she’s back outside, back in Central Park at the statue of Alice. She’s never looked at Alice, not really. She’s been coming here for fifteen years? Twenty? She’s not sure.
Alice doesn’t look lost. Alice looks like she’s right where she’s supposed to be. And until right now, this day, this second, Claire thought she knew her place in the world.
(It’s here, at this juncture, that the Claires of the universe generally diverge. Some go one way, some go another. And don’t worry, most wind up happy. Claire’s a good person. She’s a dancer. She’s kind to cats. We all come to crossroads and we all make that one decision that sets it all apart. Don’t worry. She’s here. You’ll get there, too.)
The day is still bright, though getting darker. Claire still feels a snap in her step, a gleam in her eye. But now there’s a sinking in her gut, dripping into her shoes, a feeling that she hadn’t thought would come so soon. It’s not what she wanted. Of course it’s not what she wanted.
A pair of pigeons swoop in chase of crumbs on the ground by the statue of Alice. Some vaguely attended tow-headed toddler runs around in the grass beyond. The sun peeks through just-turning leaves, right into her eyes. A handsome jogger runs past her. Somewhere in the distance is an accordion.
Her toe taps in time with the music and Claire sways. She sways. She sways.
Michael B Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. Likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince.