Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts
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Union Square

by Danny Goodman

Elizabeth watched the old man in Union Square. He was tall, she could tell, although he sat on a makeshift stool only a foot or so off the ground. His silver hair, connected to a beard, rounded the circumference of his mostly bald head and reminded Elizabeth of Jean-Luc Picard. So did his accent, which seemed British and cracked slightly at the ends of his sentences. He called to passersby and demanded that they stop and give him a moment of attention. A crowd formed around his workstation, which consisted of several clear tubs and a long, white plastic cutting board. The board was propped up on old copies of The Village Voice.

The old man gripped a vegetable peeler in his right hand and slid it quickly over a carrot. Remnants of other vegetables colored his clear gloves. He rested his elbows on his knees as he worked. The shiny brown leather of his shoes appeared brand new, though Elizabeth noticed the bottoms were abraded and worn thin. She smiled at the old man, and he grinned back. His teeth were in good shape, and he was well dressed; Elizabeth thought his suit European and expensive. Pieces of peeled carrot stuck to his sweater.

“When you peel a potato,” the old man said, “it doesn’t matter if you’re right-handed or left-handed. Like a politician.” He chuckled and members of the crowd followed.

With his arm outstretched, the old man called to Elizabeth. She was hesitant and smiled nervously. She draped her arm over her belly and stepped forward.

“Take the peeler,” he said, “and see how easy it is.”

With ease, Elizabeth slid the peeler down the potato, watching as the skin separated from flesh and curled slightly. The old man asked the audience for a round of applause.

“If this lady, in her condition, can do this, so can you!”

Elizabeth took a step back and let the crowd tighten in front of her. She didn’t like being near a lot of people these days; when people bumped into her, banged shoulders or hips, it made her uncomfortable. The old man began his sales pitch, explaining that the Swiss-made utensil supplanted an array of kitchen items: mandolin, peeler, slicer, even a wife’s nagging demands. He sucked in through the gap in his front teeth when he said “s.” Looking between two teenaged boys, the old man made eye contact with Elizabeth. She disliked the attention.

“Three years ago,” he yelled, “I was in Vanity Fair. Julia Roberts was on the cover.” His face lit up, and he laughed and laughed and sold peelers. Elizabeth couldn’t imagine him in a magazine. He encouraged everyone to buy several peelers and give them out as gifts. Elizabeth thought the cost reasonable at five dollars and handed the old man a bill.

“You only want one?” he asked. “You’ve got no friends, like me.”

Elizabeth simply smirked and left with her peeler. She used the sleeve of her cardigan to clean the smudged lenses of her dark-purple-rimmed glasses. The old man, along with his audience, laughed louder and louder, and the clang of stainless steel changing hands rang through the square.

It was almost Labor Day. Elizabeth rubbed her hand across her belly and remembered the last night she and Jack made love. She carried the reminder with her. Remembered the last day they spent together, arguing over where to eat. There was snow everywhere. Now, though, it was autumn. She took a deep breath and reminded herself, over and over: it was almost Labor Day.

When Elizabeth entered the bookstore, she could still hear the conversations and see the commotion pouring in from Union Square. A group of teenagers, standing close to the old man, hollered things to each other that Elizabeth could discern neither as friendly nor hostile. The words sounded harsh, though, and primitive. The loudest, a lanky black boy, sang a song into the face of a young girl with a nose ring. She seemed tickled.

The bookstore was packed with people. As a college student, Elizabeth had spent long days in the bookstore, sitting in the cafe with her laptop and stacks of books, as if the place were a library. She didn’t care much for the taste of coffee, so instead she ordered cup after cup of hot chocolate. She hadn’t craved the drink for some time, but being in the bookstore again, she could taste the bittersweet chocolate on her tongue.

The escalator moved quickly. Elizabeth loved watching the steps in front of her disappear beneath the floor, only to reappear at the bottom. There was a synergy to the whole process, one that went largely ignored by everyone, which she found fascinating. Jack had appreciated this, the synergy and the fascination; she thought he hadn’t held on to much in their relationship, but escalator obsession was something.

Elizabeth stepped off on the third floor, and the sensation of going from involuntary movement to state of rest made her lightheaded. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath, something Jack had taught her as a way of calming down. It seemed she was always on tenterhooks and never knew why. Jack had made her happy. He did. That much she knew. Then, suddenly, he didn’t, and it was over. She felt as if it had all happened outside of her, like a projection. If the choice was theirs, to stay together and be a family or live lives as strangers, why did they choose to let go? She couldn’t answer the question, even now. Jack didn’t want to be a father. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be a mother. Then the surprise. Jack walked one way, because he felt he had to; Elizabeth, hurt and angry, decided then to walk the other.

Now, she was in a bookstore. Her mother had demanded she find a book called Mother Shock. The title alone made Elizabeth uneasy. She imagined the shock would be substantial without having read any books. It’ll help calm those bratty, little nerves of yours, her mother had said. Elizabeth thought that, if she were a brat, her mother was certainly to blame. And Jack. They spoiled her, first her mother, then Jack. She didn’t realize how much so until Jack was gone. Then, almost instinctually, her mother took over. She begged Elizabeth to move back home to Long Island. A woman in her condition, her mother said, shouldn’t live alone.

Jack had always called her a Manhattan girl, but she was never sure exactly what that entailed. She knew, though, he meant it derisively. She thought of that as she walked up and down the aisle of mothering books and had the urge to call him. He wouldn’t answer, she knew. There was little to say between them. Their marriage had ended with very few words. You’re so young, her mother would say. You’ll bounce back. Elizabeth pressed her hand on the right side of her belly. There was movement. She knew she could bounce back, that she probably would. No part of her wanted to be a single mother.

She found the book, opened it. Already, she felt alienated: the introduction was littered with words like “spouse” and “partner” and “traveling companion.” All of those things were gone, and it was her fault. She knew that now. Jack had been afraid, and he tried, he did, to tell her. She just couldn’t hear him then. The pages of the book felt coarse and new, and she bent the spine, creased it, to make it look worn. She turned the book over and read the back cover: “where life is no longer neatly divided,” it said; that was motherhood, nothing she could control. Elizabeth felt flushed and closed her eyes. In all the uncertainty, she knew one thing: she didn’t want to be a mother without Jack. A sense of hysteria filled her, and her head again grew light. After eight months, Elizabeth could still feel Jack, bittersweet, on her tongue.

She decided to buy the book. The gesture, she thought, would appease her mother. As she rode down the escalator, Elizabeth took in the smells, the way aromas shifted and converged between each level. Level two smelled like board games and chai tea. The first floor, in addition to being loud and obnoxious, was like a perfume of sweat and coffee and rain. The bookstore had filled with people, mostly teenagers, in the short time Elizabeth was upstairs. She clutched the book to her chest and zigzagged through the crowds. Various figures knocked into her, some softly and others not so much, each time causing her to cringe. Her feet felt heavy and bloated and full of water. An employee smiled at her and asked if she needed any help.

“No, no,” Elizabeth said, holding up the book. “I have Mother Shock.”

The employee nodded and moved on to another person. Elizabeth expected more, maybe a friendly hand to guide her through the maze of bodies. Instead, she was left wedged between people making their way to the register. A book signing in the back of the store had just ended, and those people funneled to the cashiers as well; Elizabeth turned around and walked to the front corner of the store. She had avoided that section for several weeks, but nothing kept her away now: New Fiction. Even from afar, with two tables between her and the wall shelves, she could see the book. His book. It was old fiction to her. She wondered who Jack celebrated with when the book was released, who he reviewed the galley with, who he criticized the publisher’s poor cover choice with. A sunset graced the jacket, and Jack hated sunsets. He found them melodramatic. The title had been Elizabeth’s idea—she and Jack had finished a bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese and argued over the writing of Chris Carter and Joss Whedon before making love. They hadn’t been married long, and the sex was still young. Elizabeth awoke the next morning placid and hungover; she turned to Jack and kissed him hard on the lips. You taste like honey, he said. I know the name of your book, Elizabeth said: Things Sound Different Sometimes. She remembered Jack’s reaction like it was yesterday. He smiled. He smiled so that his teeth were showing. It was the happiest he’d ever looked. Elizabeth opened the book to the back inside cover. There was Jack. He wore the same smile. She hoped, above all else, that he meant it.

Elizabeth held onto the book. Outside, an argument between a few of the teenagers grew loud and carried across 17th Street. Most of the words were indistinguishable, and the noise built to a growl. The old man stood up and pointed away from himself and yelled; his face looked distorted. Elizabeth took a step back and gripped her books. The nose ring girl ran from the group towards the store. She cried and yelled for someone to help her. Nobody seemed to notice, save for Elizabeth.

As the girl entered the store, she stopped. She looked around, eyes darting from person to person, and found Elizabeth staring at her. The nose ring girl bit her lip and mouthed: Help me. There was no sound. Elizabeth felt as she had those months before, watching something unified break apart, that it was all a projection. A figure came barreling across the street; it was the lanky boy. He called out something, words Elizabeth didn’t understand. He plowed through the doors and tackled the nose ring girl. Now they both screamed, at each other. The lanky boy sat on top of the girl and pushed on her head with his left hand. With his right, he pulled something steel and shiny from his pocket. He raised it up and called the girl a cunt. He spit on her face and then, like it was nothing, pressed down the steel and slid it over her cheek. Then again. Again. Then her nose. Elizabeth thought she would vomit. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything? She dropped her books and knelt. She pleaded for the lanky boy to stop. When he turned and looked at her, she felt like he was looking through her. His eyes, she thought, were lifeless. Like a doll’s eyes. She held her arms over her belly and took a deep, deep breath.

Police officers poured in from Union Square through the double doors and filled the bookstore. The first few went for the lanky boy, tackling him and sending the peeler sliding across the floor. It stopped in front of Elizabeth. A trail of red stretched over the tile. The lanky boy shouted obscenities and kicked wildly. Several officers tried to control him. Elizabeth’s hands were pallid and cold. The nose ring girl cried and screamed and covered her face with her hands. There was blood running between her fingers and down onto the floor.

Elizabeth could no longer control her breathing, her heart rate, anything. A wave of pain hit her, then another, a tightness. Her lungs burned. A man beside her asked if she was okay, but she didn’t respond. She tried to hear Jack’s voice; it was always in her head. He calmed her. He would say: This isn’t it, Elizabeth, not yet. She would believe him, she had to, in every manner possible, in every way he’d mean the words. It was almost Labor Day, she thought. She tried to steady her hands. She held them to her belly. There was movement.