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Unterberg Poetry Center

Two men carried him from the building. They wore cheap suit jackets, loose fitting slacks, wired earbuds that coiled into their collars. They lifted him by his arms in the foyer, took him across the courtyard and a macadamized walkway, and over a row of artificial hedges. They reached the curb and threw him into the street.
The heat that day had been punishing, a heat with weight. Earlier he’d stood in the condominium atrium and watched steam curl against the vaulted glass. Outside the sun baked the earth, and now the pavement released its stores in radiating waves, as an asphalt wind fanned over the neighborhood that stirred in his lungs like a fume. Cars crawled along a roadway hemmed with the pylons of unfinished condos. The sky was the color of a butane flame, the air smelled like solder and cement heat and everything thrummed with the noise of disorder: a bray of horns, the clamor of construction crews, the rattle of jackhammers.

A man on a cellphone passed, nearly stepping on him. His skin was the color of old bathwater, his face speckled with tears of sweat. 

“I didn’t sleep on the flight,” the man said. “I’ve had meetings since I got in.”

Construction shanties sealed off the sidewalk. A flatbed truck was lodged in the intersection; workers pulled scaffolding planks off the truck as traffic inched around it to a bawl of horns. He looked back to the condominium, the jade spire, the cubicle domiciles, the atrium that hummed with pearling light. It couldn’t have been more different from the home that had stood there before. The doormen watched him behind the glass, and one of them shook his head, as if he’d been asked to solve a riddle. 

He entered a makeshift walkway and ducked into a vacant excavation. Dust drifted over a cavern floor. A bale of reinforcing beams lay in a corner, and a discarded safety vest hung from its spokes, fluorescent orange, mesh nylon, with twin reflective lime stripes that crossed the chest. He beat it free of dust and slipped it over his shirt. There was something distinctly official about it, an implied authority, it brought to mind traffic guards, wastewater experts, emergency crews called in to handle some zero-hour crisis. He marveled at the brazen color of it, the way its reflector stripes glinted with sun.

He returned to the street, milled around an assembly of construction workers. Swollen men in hardhats and safety vests pushed wheelbarrows, dug trenches, or troweled cement walls separating the luxury towers from the road. The vest was like a talisman; no one questioned his place, his role in the job at hand.

“Little help?” A red-faced worker yelled to him as he jerked a plank from the bed. The pavement at his feet was tattooed with a fern pattern of tire tracks. “Hey kid, little help?” he said, and nodded to the jam.

He walked into the street, moved in front of the truck, and held his palm to traffic. A man in a business suit occupied the first car. He spoke into a wireless headset that emitted a blue light, instantly obeyed the order.

“Kenny needs to be monitored,” the driver said. “The guy needs a financial chastity belt.”

With his other arm, outstretched now like a railroad semaphore, he motioned the vehicles around the truck and into the left lane. The businessman and the car behind him, a suburban utility vehicle driven by a young mother, blindly complied, and veered into the opposing lane to a choir of horns. The woman in the SUV looked back, seeking counsel. He walked into the crush of traffic and relieved it, ordered the oncoming cars to make way before guiding the incoming vehicles through.

He crossed the street and passed a basketball court. A group of teenage boys sat shirtless on the blacktop. A school bus arrived at the curb, and a beeline of children skipped through the intersection, accompanied by a crossing guard. Traffic gathered; he deliberated for a moment, then stepped into the street and held up his hand authoritatively, even though none of the cars had moved. He remained like this until each of the children had boarded, then he stepped in front of the bus and walked it into the lane.

“There’s no way they’ll sign on,” a man said into his cellphone as he passed. “They’re way above our pay grade.”

He started up the incline of the next block, the sidewalks strewn with mosaics of broken glass. The hill crested on a busy intersection, and dust reeled across the street as crowds gathered on the corner. The signal turned red and he stepped forward, the vest reflecting bars of light from a midday sun. When an oncoming car failed to stop he brought up his hand and the driver slammed on his brakes, leaning into the intersection before obediently inching in reverse. Then the crosswalk signal changed and the crowd moved forward.

“She can’t have cookies for dinner,” a woman said. She wore a pair of white headphones, held several sacks of groceries, and walked with a palsied drag. At first he thought she was speaking to herself. “I went to the store. I’ll be home soon.”

He walked down the hill and took in the narrow joints of street below. An elderly man sold drinks from a plastic cooler. A woman displayed picayune trinkets from a frayed blanket. A family exited a bodega carrying box fans. A young boy sprayed the sidewalk outside the bodega with a garden hose. Sitting beneath him, in the gutter, an infant splashed in a small pool, among a flotsam of wrappers and receipts.

“I told him, I just moved to the city and I’m not ready for a relationship,” a young woman told her friend as they passed. 

The neighborhood deli was now a cheese shop. The furniture store had been converted into a vintage clothing outlet. A sign over the neighborhood bar now read “Prohibition.” He cupped a hand over his eyes, peered into the window, and scanned the interior of a restaurant. It looked like a wood shop or a garage, lit by bare filament bulbs and furnished with rough-hewn tables. Young couples sat together but few appeared to be speaking. Most played on their phones.

An ambulance was parked at the curb before the next intersection. Two paramedics wheeled an emaciated man on a gurney and hoisted him into the rear compartment. The vest glimmered with ribbons of red light. He stepped into the street and directed the surrounding vehicles to decelerate. Several drivers grew indignant at this, and there was an ensemble of horns followed by cursing.

“I think we’ve got it,” a paramedic said to him and slammed the door.

He continued up the street. He passed scurrying strays, mothers pushing strollers, packs of running children. When a police cruiser parked at the curb he left the sidewalk and cut through the courtyard of an apartment complex. A pregnant woman sat in the shade of a tree and fanned herself with a grocery circular. He crossed a yellowed patch of lawn, kicked clumps of sunbaked shit, swatted at flies. A party was underway in an apartment upstairs. A glass door slid open, and a young couple stepped onto the balcony with cigarettes.

“Elevators made this city,” the man said, and took their photo with a cellphone. “There was an article in The Atlantic about it.”

He walked to the next street. It was busier than the ones before it, singing with activity. Men exited a liquor store. Families gathered in a synagogue parking lot. A burst of shouts rang from the off-track betting parlor. People were coming onto their porches and making panicked inquiries, intermittently interrupted by horns. In the distance he saw the rabble of a standstill highway, the tide of exhaust that swelled along a cornice of overpass. He looked back at the cluttered maze of streets, subterranean stalls taking pockets of shade. The neighborhood seemed strangely dark, squares of golden window light replaced with blue shadows that crawled in the ruts. The heat had tested the grid, pushed it beyond capacity. The power had gone out.

The traffic light at the next intersection was dark. An elderly woman stared at it from the corner, as rushing winds tousled her hair. She appeared sick from the sun, sweat pooling in her eyes. He stepped into the street and brought the cars to a stop, then returned to the sidewalk, took the woman’s arm and guided her, slightly faster than she was able, to the other side. 

“Exactly how many square feet is that?” a man said from a bus stop bench.

He returned to the street and attempted to restore order. A bus arrived and he directed it into the right lane, then signaled oncoming traffic to stop. Some complied with his orders, others ignored him or made U-turns in the middle of the street. Passengers attempted to board the bus, still islanded in the middle of the road. The intersection erupted in a battalion of horns. He heard cursing, threats in several languages. He continued to wave orders, steering his arms as though he held invisible dowsing rods. Vehicles drove around him. When a man exited his car with a tire iron he left the street and ran up the sidewalk until the sounds disappeared. 

The first breeze of evening draped over him. Shops emptied and crowds formed on the sidewalk. The owner of a bodega yelled at a group of men who gathered in his doorway. The street echoed with shouts and cheers and laughter, all in a language he understood but whose currency sounded foreign and strange.

“Do you think I’ll have to work tomorrow?”

“My name isn’t Polish. It’s French Huguenot.”

“Maybe we’ll see a riot!”

“We should get brunch sometime.”

“The neighborhood wasn’t like this when I moved here.”

He picked through the crowd and made his way up the street, as the jumble of the skyway rose before him with a honeyed glimmer. Sounds from the mob swelled; the bodega owner continued to scream at the men; someone broke a bottle on the pavement. The police cruiser returned to the curb, activated its lights, and two officers stepped out. At the next corner he removed the vest and threw it into a trashcan. He brought up his hands and ran into traffic, but the cars ignored him and he dashed back to the curb, behind a cavalcade of horns and tires.

“That’s the one,” a man said. “That’s him.”

He stepped into the street again, but one of the officers grabbed his wrist; the other tackled him at the waist and took him down to the sidewalk with brutal force. A concert of jeers and whistles exploded behind him, young voices aroused by the possibility of chaos. He felt a knee in his spine, and a numbness came over his limbs. For a long time he just listened to the rolling waves of traffic, watched a tired red sky, a cindering sheaf of cloud. Beneath it, the darkened condominium spire jutted over the ridge of rust-flecked buildings. He thought about his old home, the pea-colored quad of railroad apartments, their narrow chests of bay windows. Or was it yellow? Already it was difficult discerning memory from fiction. He closed an eye, editing it out from the skyline, and for a moment thought he felt a pulse in the pavement, a lull in the sound, and he imagined the earth could swallow him and he could drown below, like a stone in the mineral record, a forgotten speck under an endless stretch of city. Then the voices grew louder, and he realized he couldn’t stand this place any longer: the heat, these people, the noise of the street and the bodega owner’s screams.

Jon Gingerich is a fiction instructor at the Gotham Writer's Workshop. His fiction has been published in Pleiades, Stand Magazine, The Helix and The Oyez Review, among others.