by Karen Kinley
The woman behind the counter gave me a weak smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Here you go,” she said, handing me my bag. As I turned to leave the deli, I nearly bumped into the customer behind me in line. The man’s hands were tucked into the front pockets of his jeans. His cap, turned backward, sported a small tiger paw.
I mumbled “I’m sorry” and kept going. Outside, the brisk air felt good on my skin. I crossed Madison Avenue, the traffic thick as usual. A nice long walk was what I needed, so I kept walking and headed for the park.
Joggers and street vendors clogged the sidewalks. I headed onto the grass. Two squirrels scurried past and I watched them dart under a hedge. I wondered where they slept at night. I made a mental note to Google that later. Up ahead, near the fountain, a park bench was unoccupied, and I moved toward it.
Sitting down, I pulled my sandwich out of the bag. Two teenage girls strolled past, both looking at their phones and giggling. I took a bite and frowned. Damn. They gave me chicken salad. Not what I ordered. A minute later a figure walked toward the fountain and hoisted itself up on the ledge. It was the same man from the deli. I regarded him more closely. His face and hands were covered with dense freckles. He was wearing a pale blue t-shirt and a thin windbreaker. Not much protection against the October chill. He, too, pulled a sandwich out of his bag, took a bite, and made a face. I guessed he was eating my turkey and cheese.
New York City was my favorite place to visit. When I was still an intern, I came here a lot with my manager. But now that they’ve hired me, I traveled solo, usually adding on a day to either end of my “official” business to just enjoy the city. I liked to wander around and try to find a small corner I hadn’t yet explored during prior visits. I doubted I would ever run out of places to discover.
Anyway, after my sandwich, I walked back to Fifth Avenue and hailed a taxi. I’ve gotten pretty good at this even though I’m a small-town girl. A cab pulled right up to the curb, and I got in. “49th and Broadway, please,” I said to the back of the driver’s head and pulled out my phone. The cab moved into traffic while I tapped out a quick text to my boss about this morning’s meeting.
I settled back in the lumpy seat and scrunched up my nose at the smell. Why do cabs always smell like this? It was a combination of sweat, old vinyl, and sausage. I glanced at my driver and noticed that he was wearing a cap, on backward. It was bright orange and embroidered with the word “Clemson” in large white letters. I looked at his license, hanging off the passenger-side visor. Andrew something. His last name was long, and I couldn’t pronounce it if I tried.
“Hey,” I ventured. “Did you happen to get a sandwich an hour ago at Zeb’s Deli?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied politely. He didn’t sound like he was from New York. Not from the South either. Midwest, maybe. “I’ve been right here in this seat since breakfast.”
I pondered this for a minute. Well, he must have a twin. It was hard to see his face well from the back seat. “No lunch break?”
“I usually grab a dog at a vendor between fares.” That explains the meat smell. “After my shift, I’m going to my babcia’s house for dinner. That’s Polish for grandmother.” That explains the last name. And the accent.
“How nice,” I said because that’s what people say. My phone pinged, and I spent the rest of the ride texting back and forth with my boss. When we reached my hotel, I paid the fare and tipped the driver ten dollars. I’m not sure why.
In my room, I changed out of my business attire into more casual clothes. My afternoon plans included a trip to MOMA, a walk along the side streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and a bite to eat somewhere. The museum was only a few blocks away, so I set out on foot, dodging people on the crowded sidewalk: women teetering on too-high pumps, metrosexual men in their fitted suits and trendy pointed shoes, groups of teens standing together staring at their iPhones.
When I reached the intersection just before the museum, I waited for the “Walk” signal and moved into the street. A family, walking three abreast with a stroller, filled the crosswalk. I veered around them, nearly stepping into the flow of traffic and was rewarded with an angry horn. As the car rushed past me, I caught a flash of orange from the front seat. But maybe it was my imagination.
Safe inside the Museum of Modern Art, I spent the better part of two hours admiring the Monets and Chagalls and Picassos. It made my soul happy.
By the time I re-emerged into the hustle and bustle of New York City, the late afternoon sun was low in the sky, and the temperature had dipped. A cool wind whipped down the street, so I zipped my jacket all the way up, wishing I had remembered to pack a scarf. No worries. I was in a city where umbrella vendors materialized out of nowhere before the first drops of rain hit the ground. There was sure to be a place to buy exactly what I needed.
Sure enough, on the next block, I came across a shop that had a whole display of scarves, hats, and gloves. Several of them sported logos of the Knicks, Mets, Yankees, and Giants. There were a few touting local colleges as well: NYU, Columbia, Fordham. But there was a single stray one with a Clemson logo. Odd. I chose a plain blue one and walked to the register.
I wrapped my new scarf around my neck and walked around the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, stopping once or twice to admire an interesting wrought-iron railing on a walkup or take a photo of a building mural. My stomach growled before long, so I ducked into a small tavern on Tenth Avenue.
It was dark inside so it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The room was narrow but deep. A long mahogany bar lined the right side. Several small wooden booths were up against the wall on the left. A half dozen round tables dotted the space in between. A much-too-thin hostess appeared and ushered me to one of the booths. I’d gotten used to dining alone on my business trips, but I still felt self-conscious. I imagined that the people around me wondered why I had no one to eat with. As if on cue, the couple seated at a nearby table rose to leave and made a point of looking over at me, sympathy in their eyes.
After giving the waitress my order, a busboy came over and started to clear the couple’s table. Something about him was familiar. His hair covered his face as he leaned over, his hands deftly stacking plates and glasses in the plastic bin. When he wiped down the table, I caught a glimpse of his nametag: Andy. And his arms were covered with freckles.
The waitress appeared with my drink and a salad, so I asked, “Does that busboy also drive a cab?” I motioned to the guy just as he finished resetting the table and moved back toward the kitchen.
“Who? Andy?” she said. “Nah. He helps us out when he’s in town visiting his parents. He’s in grad school.”
“Let me guess, Clemson?”
She tilted her head at me. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
“Lucky guess,” I said and picked up my drink to signal the end of our conversation.
I didn’t see him clean any more tables after that. Once I left the restaurant, I grabbed a cab back to my hotel. It had been a long day. I was looking forward to a long soak in the tub. On my way across the elegant marble floor of the lobby, I heard beautiful music coming from somewhere. I followed the sound and found myself in a spacious room with high ceilings accented in gold and cream. A white baby grand piano sat in the middle of the space, a sonorous tune emanating from its strings. The piano’s open lid obscured my view of the person behind the keys.
I took a seat at the bar at the far end of the room and ordered a glass of chardonnay. The song was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Mozart, I thought. After that, the pianist launched into a piano bar favorite, “For Once in My Life.” I hummed along and sipped my wine. People were scattered around the room, a mixture of couples and businessmen loosened up by both the late hour and the alcohol. I heard a woman’s high-pitched laugh. The clink of ice hitting a glass. Chords in a major key. An electronic pulsing noise. Oh! That was my phone ringing! I slipped off my stool and walked out into the lobby so I could hear better. It was an automated message from the airline that my gate assignment for tomorrow morning’s flight had been changed.
When I returned to my stool, an upside-down shot glass next to my wine glass indicated that someone had bought me a drink. “Who’s this from?” I asked the bartender, middle-aged and easily forgettable.
“Oh, that’s from our piano player, Drew. He picked up your tab, too.”
I swiveled in my seat to face the piano. No one was there. The piano was silent. “Where is he?”
“Done for the night,” the bartender offered.
Early the next morning, I sat in seat 12A typing a few notes into my laptop while awaiting takeoff. Another successful trip to New York, plus I had an empty seat next to me to stretch out. I closed my laptop and stowed it under the seat, then looked out the window at the luggage handlers loading the plane.
A few late arrivals made their way up the aisle, but I kept my focus on the painstakingly slow work of the men outside. I heard someone stop near my row and add something to the overhead compartment then felt a weight being lowered in the seat beside me. Damn. My extra space was gone.
When I finally leaned back in my seat while the flight attendants made their final checks, I glanced at the arm of the person next to me who was now hogging the arm rest.
All I saw were freckles.