IN THE TIME REMAINING BEFORE I QUIT AND JOIN UP
Winner of 3rd prize (shared 2 ways) in the New York Press “Autobiography Contest” Fall, 1988
(Published as “Countdown” by J. Letchworth Allderdice)
This is part of a larger work I once planned (and wrote one other piece of) about the work of an architecture firm in New York City in the late 1980s.
This is all happening about the time that I quit folding out the sofa-bed to sleep at night. For a while I’d been leaving it folded down, but then someone was over, or I wanted to sit up and read, or maybe it was to retrieve something that had fallen behind. In any case up it came, and ever since I’ve not been folding it down to sleep at night. I lie there in its lap and by morning my face has taken the mesh imprint of the cover. I sleep with my nose snug in the crotch of the V, breathing through inches of cotton batting, making imperceptible traces in the gathering dust behind the couch.
I’m still taking care of my plants, remembering to water them, but since Wednesday I haven’t brushed my teeth. When I brushed my teeth on Wednesday the acid in the toothpaste and the bristles rubbed against a sore on my lip, stinging it and making me salivate.
At the moment I’m lying down on the sofa on my back, a ragged blanket that the streetlight’s made more yellow than ever tickling my neck. My toes pad against the naugahyde cover of a suitcase at the other end. I have two timepieces that run fast or slow, and their ticking spirals into the air above me like two ribbons of smoke, like a molecule of DNA, the strands in tension. “Ticky-ticky-ticky,” and “Tick-ah, tick-ah, tick-ah,” round and round, up to the ceiling, an opening and closing of shimmering light that passes from my room into the apartment upstairs. It’s still on its way up, but I’m in sleeping position, collecting cotton dust in my lungs; now I’m asleep.
The alarm clock’s tiny cry licks my ear in a kittenish way, like a swab of disinfectant applied before an injection. There’s a scum on my teeth about an eighth of an inch thick and I can’t open my right eye. I reach over to cut off the pitiful noise but my hand swings wild, numb from its inhuman position all night, and smashes into the steel edge of the bookshelf.
I’m scraping my teeth with a greenish towel that was here when I moved in. the terry-cloth picks up a slime of brown blood and yellow blanket fibers. One fiber remains lodged between two teeth and I tweeze it out with my fingers. It reminds me of when I used to floss. Halfway out it breaks so I’ll be walking around with this plastic thread in my mouth all day.
In the mirror, which is spattered with stuff but clear near the middle, I fumblingly tie a knot around my neck to wear to work. High on my cheek I spot a blackhead with its single hair. Out it comes, sticky as lemon pie filling, the colour of window putty, and I smear it from the back of my fingernail on to the frame of the mirror.
My food crunches wholesomely as I chew it: dry shredded wheat. There’s milk in the fridge but I forgot to fetch it out when I sat down and now my watch, which gains around seven minutes an hour so is about forty minutes off, definitely says go: “Go, ticky ticky go!”
I calibrate my life morning and night on Blimpie time, at the corner. From the sidewalk I peer through the plate glass window into the dark interior, and find the clock on the wall amidst reflections of gingko leaves, shrilly autumnal, yellow, vivid, horrible. I make out the minute hand, I’m squinting and somebody at the table just in front of me dumbly looks back. He opens his mouth in what could be a small burp; his mouth closes and then he’s sinking his teeth into what—it looks like it has a lot of mayo, anyway. He turns his back on me. He’s got on a camouflage jacket and a wool cap with a fairly large splash of white paint on it.
The “tock” of a woman’s heels comes closer from my left and I stand still adjusting my watch for a moment longer than it really takes. “Tock-tock, tock-tock,” and my watch, probably, “Ticky, ticky, ticky,” as a faint shred of perfume reaches me on a breeze. I frown, sunshine glinting off the bezel, the tocking growing louder, louder, shouting, then passing behind me. The second hand drips towards its nadir and I turn to look and to follow, if she’s going the right way.
Down the street past a couple stores until she, in a red knit suit, enters a fruit stand. I’m not going to wait for that. I realize I saw her two weeks ago and she did the same thing. This relationship is not going to work out. I guess I want a woman who eats breakfast at home in the morning.
I come to the corner where the school-kids hang out, waiting for the last possible call to class, showing off their clothes and their cigarettes, concretizing the cliques. The same clump of five girls always sits on the four-step entryway to an apartment there; the space has an ineffective iron railing and a gate that swings open if you lean on it. And just ahead of me a girl with long dirty-blond hair hanging in dreadlocks, wearing fishnet stockings under a jean skirt, the stockings with big gaps where one got away, stumbles backwards from where a guy’s trying to pour coffee onto her by the pay phone, just clowning around I guess but I stop short and she realizes she’s almost banged into me, gives a sheepish look and hollers at him; I shake my head and roll my eyes to nobody in particular. Like, whatever happened to dress codes? The light’s green and I continue walking.
The sun shines spottily through the start-up smoke of a hundred dirty chimneys along the street. A mote tickles the back of my nose, making me sneeze. A guy in a camouflage jacket blesses me from where he stands in a coffeeshop doorway. I mutter a bleary “thanks” and walk on.
There’s a line of people waiting for the bank doors to open at 9:00 and I think about that as I pass them. The poor fools, if they only knew what I know they’d break that line, they’d sell their stocks and open a pig farm in the South Bronx, they’d—whup!—I dodge around some old lady with a six-pointed cane who’s trying to negotiate the curb just as the light turns and a mail truck honks at her. A guy in a camouflage jacket solicitously reaches to help her out, and I’m at the next corner, just two blocks from work.
It’s a wide street with two-way traffic and subway entrances, newsstands, trucks from over the river and dented and rusting Japanese cars from the seventies competing for places at the starting line, all of them outclassed by the manoeuvers of the yellow cabs. At this moment a city bus, greenish light reflecting off its tinted windows, its horn in a Doppler effect now high now low, coasts to the stop in front of me, its wheels passing less than a foot from the bonnet of a baby carriage at the edge of the curb. The side door ejects a skinny guy in a loose-fitting camouflage jackets and two school kids who are gonna be late if they don’t watch out. The bus groans and ticks; a fart of brown diesel air erupts from its innards and anaesthetizes some litter in the gutter. The bus wrenches back into traffic and I walk.
The people in line at the corner are rustling their overcoats around them and looking expectantly in through the glass doors, to where some clerk bends to fiddle with a lock at ankle-height. These steps are the nightly home of a rag-tag band of beer drinkers and stoop piddlers. The whole thing is swabbed each morning with disinfectant; milky-white traces of it glimmer on the flagstones now.
In front of the lumber shop two guys in camouflage jackets off-load gypsum board from a flatbed truck, arguing about which end should go up. The one in front sets his end down to tie his shoe, leaving two feet of sidewalk to the pedestrians and causing his partner, who didn’t see it coming, to hit his chin on his end and drop the whole thing. The back one is rubbing his chin and looking at the little puddle of plaster dust on the sidewalk, while the one in front, who sees the boss storming out from inside the store, grabs his end and drags the whole board forward. I squeeze past just as the boss arrives to scream at the two loafers.
The clock at the reception desk shows four minutes past as I tick the in-box by my name; I’m a little bit late but the workstations near mine are all empty still. I sit down and pick up a leadholder and begin another day.