One Man's Grind
Eric Payne
Break
New York is a nightmare. Not because of the murder, crime or any other usual suspect, but because of its endless skyline, subway system, bridges, tunnels and millions of people. No one sane stands calmly pressed against strangers like chattel on overcrowded trains. No one with any sense jockeys mindlessly for space on sidewalks clogged with people. And only the silly would spend six dollars just to drive across a bridge that barely spans a mile. But everyday millions of people who believe they're normal entertain this madness and call it their commute to and from work. These are the gremlins, goblins and monsters that keep the nightmare alive— those who have everything, those who have nothing, and everyone in between.
My alarm clock goes off at 6:15am. I was awake long before it started screaming, hiding in vain beneath my comforter, dreading its obnoxious outburst.
I get out of bed and kneel at the side of it to pray. "God forgive me for my sins…I am a sinner. Forgive me for not loving You as much as you love me. I try, but I fail constantly. I ask that you allow me to be a blessing in the life of at least one person today."
I stand, almost certain I won't.
My eyes are dry and full of sleep. In spite of this, I easily navigate the miniscule space of my home, even with the pre-dawn purple haze that remains settled on everything around me.
Soon the sun will be up and with it the day and the people.
The scalding hot water of my shower invigorates me. The air becomes warm and moist in my lungs. The water pricks my flesh then forms rivers and streams that run down the length of me to the drain. I stay here longer than usual before washing, trying to wake up. By the time I'm done I can't see for all the steam I've created. I shave at the sink, unable to see the mirror in front of me, not needing it. I'm used to the routine.
Dressed in clothes that cost too much, I ride the F Train to work. Most days feel like I'm on my way to the carnival with the carnival. I'm particularly skilled at picking the car with the singing panhandler who sounds like my drunk uncle at Christmas. Today this is especially true.
By the time I'm off the train and above ground, the scenery is no longer the residential green of my neighborhood in Queens. Skyscrapers stand like redwoods above me, forming canyons of concrete chaos. People are swarming everywhere, walking with herd-like urgency without any prodding or shepherding. I find an opening and merge onto the sidewalk, moving on autopilot until I am safely inside the lobby of my building.
I say good morning to the security guard on duty. He tells me to have a good day.
By the time I reach my desk, I'm ready to go home. I sit down and sigh, not exactly sure what I do or why I do it. I began as a writer for a start-up Internet company. Now I manage a bunch of writers and read their writing all day long. I report what they do to my boss, a man obsessed with not realizing he made a mistake leaving an investment gig on Wall Street. His paranoia is contagious. I do my best to avoid it.
At the end of the day I go underground again to join the carnival headed to Queens. The sun has set when I emerge from city's bowels and I see green again. The roar of the cars and trucks along the Van Wyck Expressway soothes me as I walk to my building, anxious for the excessive heat that sizzles off the old radiators in my apartment.
I pass the mirrored walls of my building's lobby, ignoring my reflection and check my mailbox. It's a clutter of junk mail and bills except for one pink envelope. I look at the return address and my heartbeat accelerates.
I take the stairs two-at-a-time to the fifth floor, skipping the elevator. I burst into my home and only turn on one light.
I take a deep breath, then two more, to compose myself.
I drop the other mail and rip open the pink envelope. Inside is a card with a photograph of a happy red Chow Chow on the cover.
There's too much bad blood between us for a card like this. I open it knowing I won't be happy.
Elijah,
There are so many things I want to say to you. But I don't know how to put it into words. It's been a while. There have been so many times I've wanted to pick up the phone and call. But I know that whatever conversation we have, we are only going to be able to do it face to face. I hope things are good in your life. Things are good in mine. I'm getting ready to move into my own place and Mommy is going back to school to get her degree. I'm looking for a new job these days. I hope you're happy. Maybe when you're ready we can try to be friends? They say time heals all wounds. I hope so.
Love, Me
I read the note two more times, studying the loops and swirls of her handwriting, remembering the way she held her pen. She's a lefty.
I let go of the card and it joins the mail on the floor. I go to the kitchen where a bottle of Myers's Rum stands in solitude atop my refrigerator. I grab it and take a swig. The vapors open my nose.
I drink until I'm numb.
My nightmare goes away until morning.
The author of a book of poetry and short stories entitled, I See Through Eyes, Eric Payne was born and raised in Chicago, but moved to Jamaica, Queens after grad school a little more than a decade ago to "make it" in NYC. No longer sure what "making it" means, he now lives just outside the city with his wife and kids— his nightly retreat from his marketing job in Manhattan. Having become a bit jaded from dashed youthful enthusiasm, he no longer remembers which literary magazines published his earlier writings. Recently his work has appeared in Spindle Magazine.  Eric Payne's Blog