The hot summer night clenched the sleeping city in its fist and held on tightly so that nothing was able to breathe. Sounds seemed muffled and muted; the air felt thick and heavy. The sun, lying still somewhere behind the peaks of the farthest buildings and curves of the distant domes, throbbed a dull beat through the silent, desolate streets.
Buildings rose from the cement like pillars of metal and stone, standing side by side in organized rows, casting one another in darkness. Their facades were emblazoned with names to commemorate their creation and the original potential the builders saw in the tall, solid walls. A royal purple sky snaked its way through the gaps between the buildings, winding across avenues and down side streets. Most of the windows were black and shuttered; on the towering city rooftops, the outlines of water tanks loomed like massive nesting birds. In the shadow of it all was the diner.
Above the door, electric green bulbs flashed their tired lights. Someone had painted vines of golden flowers along the edges of the old, glass windows, which cast identical black silhouettes onto the cracked, trodden sidewalk. The paint was chipping on the narrow doorframe and the bronze bell that hung on the handle was blackened with car exhaust and weather. The robust, aproned man behind the counter stood leaning his elbow on the marble, resting his chin on his hand, reading the morning newspaper. His wife and kids were asleep in the apartment upstairs.
The diner was empty except for a tall, somber man sitting with his back to the window in a booth farthest from the door. He wore a dark sweater and an old gray scarf. Although it was stifling outside, the man was all too familiar with the chill of the diner’s thunderous air-conditioning, which was mounted above the table he always sat at. He was young and a regular fixture of the diner, especially during the late hours when he found it hard to sleep. Other than his trips to the diner the man in the sweater rarely left his apartment; he talked little and saw nothing.
The bell rang and the man behind the counter looked up. He set his paper aside and nodded at the woman who entered. She too was a frequenter of his restaurant, but never at this time of night. The man in the sweater didn’t turn. The woman sat down on one of the blue suede stools by the counter facing the street outside, and ordered some iced tea and a powdered donut. Her feet, in bright tangerine colored sandals, dangled a few inches from the ground. She laid her red velvet bag on the stool next to her and stared out into the darkness. The diner sat in silence for a couple minutes, with only the occasional sound of the manager turning a page of the paper. The clock above the grill added its constant beat to the tempo of the city night and the air-conditioner roared on. A car drove by. The green bulbs outside flickered. The man in the sweater stood up and crossed over to the counter with his empty coffee mug. His eyes cast down at his ink stained hands folded in front of him. The manager finished the last few sentences of the article he was reading and neatly folded up his paper. He took the mug gently from the man and turned to refill it, so that his back faced him.
“You never picked up those tickets.”
The man in the sweater flinched and scratched the back of his head, but didn’t respond.
“You know those were worth something, there are people who would die for tickets like those.”
The man still said nothing.
“I don’t get you,” the manager turned around with the fresh coffee spilling over the sides, “I don’t see why you’d rather be in this junky place than out there.” He gestured in the direction of the window, paused for a second, and then let his hand drop. “Its sad for guys like me. Stuck here all the time, a family to feed, a job to do, stand’n and watching free guys like you sit and sulk.” He stopped.
The man in the sweater looked like he was about to say something, changed his mind, and instead bit his lip and shuffled his feet. The manager sighed deeply, handing the man his mug. He cleared his throat softly and said kindly, “I bought you those special pencils you asked me get, with those fine points and stuff.” The man in the sweater looked up slowly and timidly smiled. He reached around in his pocket and pulled out some bills, which he started to count. The manager chuckled and shook his head, “You don’t need to. You did me a favor, gave me an excuse to get out of the neighborhood, that’s payment enough.” The man in the sweater murmured a sincere thank you and glanced up at the woman nearby who sat staring at them with fascination. The manager ducked behind the counter and pulled out a small, wrapped box tied with white ribbon. He handed these over to the man as well, who took them carefully in his free hand. The woman continued to stare.
“You draw?” She punctuated her question with a purposeful bite of her donut and a curious tilt of her head. The man turned to face her and then shyly looked over his shoulder at the manager. Behind the counter, the manager chuckled, unfolded his paper, and picked up his reading again. The woman took another bite of her donut, grabbed a napkin from the dispenser near her, and wiped the remnants of powder from her face, missing a spot to the right of her chin. Her hair was pulled back in a loose bun, and waves of amber spilled out onto her lavender summer dress. She wore no make up. When the man did not respond she asked again in the same soft tone, “You draw?” His “yes” was so faint it was inaudible. He cleared his throat. “Yes. A little. I draw a little.” She smiled. “What kind of things?” The man shrugged his shoulders and crossed back over to his booth away from the window. She followed. “You spend most of your time here don’t you?”
“All of it, all of my time, here or my apartment”
“You never go out? Never feel like you need to leave this place?”
“You don’t feel the need to walk, or run down streets you’ve never been down?
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Well you’ve been around here haven’t you?”
“Just the two blocks between here and home.”
“ Who buys your groceries? Who fixes your plumbing? Who gets you supplies?”
The man just nodded in the direction of the diner manager and shrugged, but the woman was growing agitated. “You’ve never walked past the bookstore on the corner, with stacks of ancient books propped up against the open doors? Down the block with the sleepy bakery, where professors grade papers, stopping occasionally to take a bite of crème brulee or toasted baguettes? Never seen the bicycles chained to traffic posts, stripped of both their wheels, leaving only an unpainted, metal skeleton? Haven’t been in the perfume store next door, which sends fumes like roses and honey out into the sidewalk, filling the noses of the people sitting on the bench across the street? You’ve never bargained with the man at the fruit stand over the price of grapes or bananas? Or glanced at the men hanging about the liquor store, leaning up against the wall, whistling as girls walk past? Passed the abandoned movie theater a few blocks over, where the robed man sits with his tin can; what once used to be a ticket window, now completely covered in paper flyers advertising guitar lessons, or missing cats? You’ve never been into the Ninety Nine Cent store with its sweet smell of orange detergent and cheap scented candles? Seen the baskets of mesh slippers wrapped in plastic that stand near the cashier? Heard the different sounds of people’s shoes walking down the street? The woman strolling in moccasins, the child skipping in rain boots, the man running in sneakers. You’ve never crushed peanuts into peanut butter in the big glass machine at the health food store, or seen the mops for sale at the hardware store across the street, or the man cutting wood for a customer behind a work bench? Surely you’ve seen the old woman and her three dogs perched on the church steps every evening? Heard her purring to them in Spanish about how beautiful they are, as the custodian straightens out the plastic letters in the glass case out front which read, “God loves you”? You’ve never come across the woman at the manicure place when she goes outside for a smoke around lunch time? Absent-mindedly gazing off into the window of the restaurant across the street where the frantic waiter tries to balance trays heaped with steaming food? At least you must have heard the truck with the workers unloading the crates of fruit into the family bodega? Or come across the girl sitting under the plastic covering outside of it, wrapping the flowers that the young man has just bought, in print covered paper? The school with the naked birch tree in front? The ice cream truck across from the bench the old woman sits on feeding the pigeons? The playground with the broken swings? The monkey bars, positioned between the group of nannies, and the ancient men playing chess? The synagogue which doubles as a preschool with a ramp up to the elevated doorway, with windows you can see into? Surely you’ve walked past that? And at those windows you must have at least stopped once to watch the ballet class inside, with the tall, grand ceilings and walls of glittering mirrors? Tell me you’ve seen the blazing yellow autumn trees lining the park entrance, at night catching the light of the orange street lamp and casting the vivid shadows of billions of moving leaves onto the hard pavement?”
There were tears in her eyes. She opened her mouth to say more, but now she was the one unable to talk. “Aren’t you lonely?” When he didn’t answer, she stood up, retrieved her velvet bag from the stool at the counter and walked out without looking back. The man sat for a moment motionless, and it was only after the bell on the door stopped ringing altogether that he leaned over, unwrapped the paper on his box of pencils, unfolded something from within his pocket, and leaned over the narrow table, furiously scribbling.
As the sun emerged from beneath the city’s surface, the man in the sweater rose for the last time from his booth in the diner. With his eyes turned down and his shoulders hunched he walked carefully to the counter. The dozing manager roused himself from where he had been asleep on the floor by the stove and stood to look at the man quiet man in front of him. His face was pale but there was relief in his expression, and the manager smiled at this. He put out his hand to shake the man’s but instead of offering his in return, the man in the sweater placed a folded sheet of paper into the manager’s palm. Then the bell was ringing and the man was gone.
The manager held the sheet in his hands and looked out, beyond the painted windows to the city outside, before turning to what the man had handed him. He saw for the first time in completion what he had only caught glimpses of on nights when he had come over to the man’s table to offer him something to eat or hand him a bag of groceries he had brought to him. With a fine tipped pen the manager had watched the man draw the city, each grid-like street, each winding avenue. In the beginning he had seen the man in the sweater with a little book, which he copied it all from, and then he stopped bringing the book and started doing it from his head. He added buildings and stadiums. He carefully marked names of boulevards and added subway stations, sometimes correctly, sometimes half a mile away from where they actually were. Each night he’d done a different section, each day he’d let the ink dry. After the sheet had run out of free room and the manager thought he had reached a finish to his map, the man started requesting pencils. The manager assumed they were for a new project and that the map was done with. But the sheet he held in his hand was no new piece of art. With careful, penciled shading, the man had colored over his entire map in graphite. Just the faintest hints of the buildings below were visible under the layer of metallic gray. The entirety of the sheet was darkened except for the short block between the man in the sweater’s silent home and manager’s empty diner.
As the city awoke and rubbed its eyes, the diner sat stiller than it had ever been.
Music played from within the battered cars rattling through the stirring streets on their way to all different kinds of places. The buildings reached skyward, their reflective sides glinting in the rays from the early, dappled, morning sun. The shutters were still drawn on the city but from down below hints of light could be seen through the slits in the wood, and peeking out from behind the drawn curtains, the people inside laughing and eating and preparing for the day. A soft wind swept over the dull edges of the city and cooled the heavy air, so that it was light and crisp. Things became more vivid and lost their layer of suppressing dust, colors once again appearing on the billboards, scaffolds and storefronts. This city took its breath.
Age 15, Grade 10