Phoebe Kate Foster: Metropolitan Life
Ms. Foster was the fiction editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature for over 15 years. Her tireless dedication to good fiction made her a cherished resource. We miss her daily. This story comes to us via her daughter. Phoebe Kate presents us with a compelling story — the best we can offer you on this fine Labor Day weekend.
In June, just after her sixth birthday, Amy Garner moved from Moriah to Manhattan, where she lived with her aunt and saw God.
“That Shameless Floozy”—as the townsfolk of the Deep South little town referred to a certain notorious young woman with platinum blonde hair, peek-a-boo tops and a bad reputation since she was twelve—hustled her daughter to the train station one morning and handed her over like baggage to an old black porter.
“My baby’s going to New York City! New York! Isn’t that amazing? Everybody wants to go there! It’s the most wonderful place there is!” she shrieked with such a manic awe that people on the platform eyed her nervously and moved away from her, much as they would an animal acting rabid.
It made Amy uneasy, too. She began to wonder if heaven with its gold-paved streets and many mansions was her actual destination, not a big city up North. Like Manhattan on the railroad schedule, it was the last stop on a person’s journey. It was also a place that apparently nobody who went there ever came back from—her Aunt Lorraine had gone to New York long before she was born and never once returned to Moriah, not even for her own mama’s and daddy’s funerals.
“You’re going to have such a terrific time up there that you won’t ever want to come back to this dull ol’ Podunk town,” Amy’s mother enthusiastically prophesied, then turned to the porter and insisted, “My baby girl’s going to have the time of her life, you know.”
“Yez-um, I ’spect you’re right about that,” the old black man blandly agreed. His work schedule put him in New York regularly and except for Ruby Mae’s apartment on One Hundred Thirty-Seventh Street and The Cotton Club on One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Street, he personally had no use for the city. He also didn’t think much of this flashy young mother who fluttered like a deranged butterfly around her dazed-looking child, crying, “Don’t you go giving your Auntie Lorraine any trouble now, hear?” and “I’ll be counting the minutes until you come back, baby!”
The porter deposited Amy in a seat beside a woman who clutched a Bible like a shield against her fiercely starched white cotton bosom. Hard fissures of holiness etched her face, and she smelled aromatic and acrid, like bayberry and brimstone.
“Dear Jesus, New York City of all places! The modern day Sodom and Gomorrah!” she muttered, shaking her head. She had been on the platform and heard everything Amy’s mama said. “What sort of mother, I ask you, would banish an innocent, helpless child to that God-forsaken citadel of evil…” She scowled and pointed a bony finger at Amy. “You better watch out, little missy. Satan lurks on every street in the wicked city that never sleeps.” Then the woman closed her eyes to shut herself in with God, opened her Bible and placed her palms on its pages, as if to absorb sanctity through her pores.
The woman’s warnings distressed Amy, who now began to think her destination was not the pearly gates or a glamorous city, but something akin to the pit of perdition instead. Obviously, her poor mama had no idea what an awful place New York City was—had she known, she would never had arranged a visit there, of course! And what sort of person was her Auntie Lorraine? She had lived for years and years—apparently quite happily—in that citadel of evil, as her seatmate had called it.
Tears of fear burned Amy’s eyes and to distract herself, she quickly looked out the thick, grimy windowpane. As the train huffed out of the station, rain poured down from a dark sky that forebode more bad weather. The platform bloomed with umbrellas like giant black flowers. She desperately scanned the faces under them for her mama, but she was gone.
Then the tracks took a sharp turn, and Moriah and her mother slipped away as if they had never existed at all.
When the train arrived in New York, the old porter collected Amy and her little suitcase and escorted her to the terminal. Penn Station was vast and cavernous with warm stale-smelling air, swarms of people and ear-splitting announcements of arrivals and departures that echoed eerily in the waiting room. High above, there was a vaulted glass ceiling so huge that Amy felt like a bit of dandelion fluff destined to disappear.
“You got family comin’ to get you, right?” the porter asked.
“My Auntie Lorraine,” Amy told him.
He squinted at the river of travelers rushing by them. “What does your auntie look like?”
She hung her head. “I don’t know.” Her voice was so tiny he had bend down to hear her. “I never met her.”
“Ohhhh…” His brow arranged itself in worried furrows as he pondered this problem for a moment, then asked, “But you’ve seen photographs of her, haven’t you?”
Amy shook her head.
“But Auntie Lorraine knows what you look like, right? Your mama sent her a picture of you, right, honey?”
Amy’s eyes widened with panic. “I—I—don’t know what M-M-Mama did—” she stammered. All she knew was that the plan to visit her aunt had mysteriously materialized overnight while she slept. When she got up that morning, she found her little travel bag packed and ready to go by the front door.
“Mama! We going on a trip?” she’d asked excitedly.
It seemed like her mother was always going off somewhere—for weekends and occasionally longer trips, like the recent one to Florida—but she never took Amy along on any of them. “You’ll be so bored, baby,” she’d proclaim as she drove Amy to stay with the pastor’s family or a neighbor or sometimes people Amy had never seen or met. “No children to play with, no swings or slides or monkey bars, just a bunch of dull ol’ grownups doin’ dull ol’ grownup stuff.”
The prospect of finally being included on one of her mama’s jaunts seemed almost too good to be true. And, as it turned out, it was. Her mother, who had become a human jack-in-the-box that morning, wildly grinning and bouncing around with uncharacteristic energy, cackled, “Not we, baby—you, you lucky ducky! And guess how you’re getting to New York City! A train! Your very first train ride! Isn’t that thrilling, baby? It’s gonna be so much fun!” Then she’d stuffed a cornbread muffin in Amy’s hand for breakfast and shoved her into the car to go to the station. “You’re going to love your Auntie Lorraine! She lives in a big, beautiful house and has lots and lots of money. And guess what? She’s gonna take you shopping in all the fancy stores for pretty new clothes and toys! Oh, baby, just wait ’til you see those stores! They got everything a little girl ever dreams of having! New York is the most glamorous city in the whole wide world!”
“Hmmm… Well, I’m sure your aunt’s here somewhere…” The porter took Amy’s hand and led her across the station to a newsstand selling magazines and gum and candy. “Hey, Vito,” he said to the old man behind a cash register. “You got a big piece of cardboard I could use? Need to make a sign for this little lady so her ride home can find her.”
The newsstand man shot a quizzical look at the porter, who shrugged helplessly and rolled his eyes. A few minutes later, she found herself clutching a placard almost as big as she was, advertising her as AMY GARNER for all to see. People either ignored her, bumping into her as if they didn’t see her, or stared first at her sign and then at her with an expression on their faces of combined curiosity and contempt, which made her feel like one of the freaks in the traveling sideshow she and her mama had gone to in Moriah last year.
For over an hour, she and the porter stood conspicuously in front of the information desk until he finally sighed and said, “Well, come along now, Miss Amy. I need to have a word with somebody who can help us, I hope.”
They trekked to the other side of the terminal and went into a large office, where he had a hushed conversation with a man behind a desk. “Of course,” the man said, “it’ll be on the PA in just a moment.”
Suddenly, Amy heard, “Will Amy Garner’s aunt please report immediately to the station manager’s office,” booming like the voice of God and reverberating all over the building. The summons was repeated every few minutes for what seemed like an eternity until a scowling woman in a battleship-gray business suit burst into the office.
“Well! There she is! Jesus H. Christ, she’s harder to find than a goddamn taxicab at rush hour in the rain,” she huffed, seizing Amy by the arm and steering her out of the room. “Come on, kid.”
Amy tried to thank the porter for helping her, but her aunt snapped, “For Chrissakes, quit dragging your heels—I ain’t got all day. I gotta get back to work,” and hauled her off. But just as they left the terminal, she caught sight of him. He had followed them through the building to the exit doors and now stood, his face a roadmap of sad wrinkles, slowly shaking his head as he watched them leave. He waved and called, “Miss Amy! Miss Amy! God bless you and keep you safe, Miss Amy!”
Before she could wave or say “God bless you” to him, her aunt dragged her outside, where they were immediately caught up in a chaotic crowd of people flying down the street so fast it seemed as if they were being driven by an ill wind of great force. It gloomily reminded Amy of what had happened to her best friend that spring. A tornado touched down in Moriah and swept away little five-year-old Luann Dowty, who was home alone and playing outside when the funnel cloud suddenly dropped down from the sky and carried her off. Her body was never found.
In explaining her playmate’s permanent absence, Amy’s mama had never mentioned the word “dead.” Instead, she gleefully gushed, “The most exciting thing happened to little Luannie! She’s gone to live in the Land of Oz, like Dorothy in the book Grandmama read to you—remember? She’s playing with the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man now! Isn’t she a lucky ducky?”
She desperately wanted to believe what her mother said was true, but she didn’t. Moreover, it troubled her that Mama hadn’t said anything about Luannie going to be with Jesus, like Pastor Krump at church said good people do when they leave this earth. At night, when she was in bed and lying alone and afraid in the comfortless darkness, she feared that her little friend was neither in Oz nor heaven, but was nowhere. She couldn’t imagine what being “nowhere” would be like, but she knew it must be horrible and cried herself to sleep thinking of poor Luannie’s awful fate.
Aunt Lorraine lived in a shabby old five-story brick apartment house surrounded by nicer-looking buildings. The paint in the halls peeled like sunburn, the elevator seldom worked and the stairs protested loudly when anyone used them. The front stoop was a popular destination for derelicts and drunks who drifted up from the Bowery flophouses to panhandle in an area with working people who had cash in their pockets. Her aunt’s apartment was on the top floor and had only one bedroom, so Amy slept in a closet.
“It’s a dressing room, kid,” Aunt Lorraine insisted, although it wasn’t connected to the bedroom, like dressing rooms were supposed to be, but lurked at the end of a long, dark, brown-carpeted hall that traversed the flat like a dried-up creek bed. It was windowless, large enough for a cot and reeked of mothballs and old fur.
Amy shared her accommodations with Aunt Lorraine’s prized possession: a stole of six silver foxes, strung together into a draping cape of corpses, their sharp-fanged mouths clenched over their brushy tails. They dangled from a wooden hanger on a clothing rod and glared down at Amy with their fierce little glass eyes, making her feel she should apologize profusely to them for intruding and go sleep on the living room sofa.
That first summer in New York, Amy never left the apartment. Lorraine worked six days a week and had no time for outings to the zoo or to the pretty little park down the block. Amy had no idea what Lorraine did for a living, only that it was done in “a goddamn dog-eat-dog world,” which sounded so dreadful that she didn’t want to find out anything more about it.
On Sundays, instead of taking her to church, Lorraine slept late and drank Four Roses all afternoon while expounding upon how rough life was. “You got to be tough to survive in this city, kid. This ain’t no place for shrinking violets, nervous Nellies, weak sisters and cry babies with sob stories, believe you me,” she’d rail, casting Amy a look clearly conveying the firm belief her niece was one of that contemptible ilk. So vehement were her aunt’s diatribes about whining, spineless people with no gumption or grit or get-up-and-go that Amy didn’t dare ask why her mama hadn’t once called to talk to her and find out how she was doing.
Before leaving for work, Lorraine always lowered the Venetian blinds on all the windows, plunging the apartment into a gloomy preternatural dusk. “Don’t you know sunlight fades fabrics, dummy?” she barked when she caught Amy trying to open them. “It costs a fortune to get furniture reupholstered! You think I’m made of money? Am I green and crinkly and got Ben Franklin’s face on me? Huh? Huh?”
To amuse herself during the long hours alone, Amy sang hymns she’d learned at the Moriah Baptist Tabernacle where her mama had dropped her off for Sunday school and Children’s Church every week. She imitated Pastor Krump, who preached with such fervor that she really believed the One True God had appeared as a burning bush to Moses that very morning. She played hopscotch on the black-and-white checkerboard linoleum in the kitchen and jumped rope with an extension cord she found in Lorraine’s kitchen drawer. Sometimes, she pretended to talk on the telephone to her mama or made up exciting stories about her daddy. Amy had never met him, but her mother described him as very handsome and dashing, just like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. The film had come out before Amy was born, but her mama showed her photos of the actor as Rhett Butler in her old fan magazines.
“Do you have pictures of my daddy?” Amy once asked.
Her mother had quickly shifted her gaze from her daughter’s face to Mr. Gable’s on the glossy page in front of them. “No, baby,” she finally said, “he was—umm—kinda camera-shy, I guess,” and uttered an unpleasant little laugh as sharp as the kitchen knives Amy was forbidden to touch.
When she ran out of things to do, Amy raised the blinds on one window in the living room just enough to press her nose against the warm, sooty pane. As she studied people hurrying down the street, oblivious to the pale little face in the fifth floor window, she recalled the firefly she’d caught and put in a Mason jar one night in Moriah. She forgot to let it go the next day, and the poor little thing gave up and perished, helpless in its glass tomb.
That autumn, Amy didn’t return home to Moriah as she thought she would, but started first grade. Instead of taking her to buy new clothes for school at the fancy stores her mama had raved about, Auntie Lorraine gave her an odd gift: a house key on a loop of ratty old string. Lorraine tied it around Amy’s neck, saying, “Keep this tucked under your clothes, kid. Mornings I’ll walk you to school on my way to the subway, but the hell I can just up and sashay my fanny out of the office at three to get you. Some other poor schmuck will have to take care of that chore, I guess. Let yourself into the apartment with that key. Don’t you dare lose it!”
Starting that first day of school and every afternoon thereafter, a person would materialize outside of P.S. 40 to escort Amy home. Sometimes, they were her aunt’s acquaintances, an anonymous assortment of disaffected women who chain-smoked and acted put-upon as they marched her back to the apartment. Other times, it would be clerks from the neighborhood liquor store or grocery who showed up instead, toting a brown paper sack and grumbling, “Miss Garner called in an order to be delivered and you were the last item on her list.”
Amy hated school. Every day, two mean boys stuffed her into a locker or pushed her down in the playground. The other children made fun of her Southern accent and Teacher fretted about her pupils’ toilet training. “I smell urine!” she’d loudly declare, delicately wrinkling her nose, and summon students one-by-one into the supply closet to finger their underpants and find the culprit who couldn’t “hold it.” Once, Amy got so nervous waiting her turn that she wet herself. “I bet you wet your bed, too,” Teacher tartly remarked, and made her stand in a corner. When she started to cry, the woman snapped, “Stop that boo-hooing this instant! The last thing I need is waterworks going at both ends.”
The class snickered. Several children chanted, “Baby needs a diaper!” Teacher acted as if she didn’t hear them. At dismissal time, instead of interring her in her locker, the two bullies pinned Amy down, yanked up her dress, pulled off her damp white cotton underpants and ran away with their plunder, waving it like a banner.
That evening, when she recounted what had happened to her in school, Lorraine snapped, “Pissing your pants? At your age? Jesus H. Christ! Didn’t my worthless sister teach you anything?” She lit a Lucky Strike and blew smoke from her nose like a boiler letting off steam. “We just came through the war to end all wars. Our boys gave their all to make the world safe for democracy. The least you can do is shape up and fly right, kid.”
Amy didn’t fare any better when she tried to warn Lorraine about the Shadow Man. In the mornings, he lurked in the dark doorway of a boarded-up store and called out cryptic warnings as they passed by. “The lightning has eyes and the thunder calls your name…” he’d proclaim, or “An abyss lies beneath your feet…” or “The night cometh when no man can work…” The day he cried, “Fly! Fly! Lest your name be on the list of those who will die,” Amy bolted across the street, nearly getting hit by a bus and causing a dissonant chorus of squealing brakes, screechy skids and insulting shouts from incensed drivers.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” her aunt screamed when she caught up with her.
“I don’t want to die!” Amy shrieked.
“Then don’t run out in traffic, you dumbbell!” Lorraine shrieked back.
“The Shadow Man—didn’t you hear what he said?” Amy gasped. “There’s a list of people—and they’re all going to die—and we’ve got to get away before—”
“Stop that crazy talk this instant!” Lorraine shook her niece like a dust rag. “No more ‘Mysterious Traveler’ for you on Sunday nights, kid. Goddamn radio show’s putting crazy notions in that pea brain of yours.” She dragged Amy down the street, muttering, “Jesus H. Christ! Too stupid to stay out of traffic and got bats in her belfry, too…”
With every passing day, Amy’s loathing for New York grew.
Winter came early that year and covered the city like a cold metal lid. The streets huddled in the desolate pall cast by tall buildings. Wind-driven trash chased Amy down sodden gray avenues, snapping at her legs like a bad dog. Fog made ominous orange halos around streetlamps. The air smelled dank, like a fish bowl that needed cleaning. At night, the grinding of garbage trucks and rumbling of subways kept her awake. It sounded like a deep growl of discontent emanating from the very soul of the city.
People were flossy and finely dressed, but scuttled around like cockroaches and acted surly and churlish. They either ignored Amy or did nasty things, like the pimply-faced grocery store delivery boy whom Lorraine often recruited to pick her up at school. He always insisted on coming into the apartment. “Miss Garner told me to make sure no bad men broke in and are hiding, waiting to hurt little girls,” he’d always say, but he never searched the rooms for burglars. Instead, he took out his big ugly worm and made Amy play with it. Then he’d zip up his pants and say, “Until next time,” and toss her a nickel. “Buy yourself a Coca-Cola, kiddo.”
When she told her aunt about him, she got her mouth washed out with soap. “What’s the matter with you? Making up a dirty story about that nice young man!” Lorraine fumed. “Your mind’s in the gutter—but hell, that shouldn’t surprise me, considering who raised you.”
Amy prayed that her mother would send for her soon. Her mama was the only person who would understand about the delivery boy and the two bullies and the Shadow Man. “I should never have sent you up to that bad, bad city,” Amy imagined her mama murmuring as she stroked Amy’s hair. “You have yourself a good cry now, baby, and everything will be better.” Then she’d spritz them both with the flower-garden cologne she kept cool in the icebox, pop a Sinatra record on the phonograph and dance with her to “I’ll Be Seeing You” until everything really and truly did seem better.
Every time Lorraine’s phone rang, Amy rushed over and hovered around her aunt, in anticipation that it was her mama on the line saying she wanted her baby back home. “Jesus H. Christ! Can’t I get any privacy in my own house?” Lorraine would shout and banish Amy to her closet, where she lay on her cot under the hostile gaze of the little foxes, dreaming of the big homecoming party her mama would throw for her on that happy day she returned to Moriah.
One evening, Amy overhead Lorraine remark to someone on the phone, “So, like I was telling you, my worthless slut of a sister picked up some gigolo in a bar on her vacation in Miami this spring… No, the kid wasn’t around. She dumped her with someone, as usual… No, I have no idea who—anybody she could hoodwink into taking her… Yeah, I know—a real candidate for Mother of the Year, huh?… Anyway, so in June she up and takes off with nameless lover boy to parts unknown—apparently the creep’s been waiting in the wings for another fling. She promised she’d be back and send for the kid in a couple of weeks—Christ, I should have known better than to believe her and told her I wasn’t a goddamn babysitter… No, not a peep out of her since—not a postcard, not a telephone call, not a telegram, nothing. So I went ahead and sold the dump and all the crap in it. No point paying property taxes on a place where nobody’s ever going to live again. I mean, the house was left to me and I let that little good-for-nothing whore and her bastard brat trash the place. Well, that’s what comes from being too damn nice for your own good…. Considering the condition of the property, I was goddamn lucky to find some sucker willing to buy it at my price. Just wish I was lucky enough to find some sucker I could unload the kid off on, too.”
Amy’s stomach lurched. The morning she left Moriah, her mama had told her that she’d be busy redecorating their house, which had been in the Garner family for four generations. “Paint fumes are very dangerous for little girls,” her mother had explained as they drove to the train station. “That’s why you need to visit your auntie for a while. Guess what color I’m doing your room, baby. Pink! Your favorite!”
Lying in the closet that night, Amy realized she had no pretty newly painted room waiting for her. Her Raggedy Ann and stuffed animals and coloring books were gone, and so was the little music box her mama had given her for her sixth birthday that played “You Are My Sunshine.” Strangers now lived in the only home she’d ever known and her mother had left without telling anyone where she was going. Amy knew that some very bad thing must have happened to her mama to keep from coming back or even telephoning to see how her Sunshine was doing. Maybe she was sick or had been in an accident or was in some kind of trouble. She might even be dead. Amy envisioned her mother lying in casket, just like Grandmama Garner at the Moriah Funeral Parlor last year, and threw up on the floor of the closet.
All she had left in the world now, she realized, was her aunt whom she hated as much as she did the city. The mystery of what changed a normal person into someone like Lorraine terrified her. She knew that the woman had once been a little bitty baby with hands and feet like tiny blossoms and a halo of angel hair and a smile as sweet as a gumdrop. Amy wondered if you could catch meanness, like you did a cold—and if so, was there anything that would make you better again? Perhaps it was like polio, crippling you forever. Or maybe it was a disease that slowly rotted your insides without you even knowing it until one day it up and killed you, like the cancer in her grandmother’s tummy.
Every night, before going to sleep, Amy prayed for a miracle. She didn’t know exactly what to ask for, but Pastor Krump always preached about the mysterious ways in which God worked. Whatever He decided to do, Amy was sure that it would be the thing she needed most.
She just hoped it came soon. Very soon.
One evening, Lorraine didn’t come home from work at her usual time. As night seeped through the apartment like a grape juice stain, Amy huddled on the sofa, waiting for her aunt to return and throw together whatever passed for supper. She didn’t dare turn on a light or listen to the radio. “Don’t waste electricity and run up my bill,” Lorraine had warned her. “I pay too much to the goddamn power company already.”
When the Seth Thomas clock on the mantel chimed ten times, Amy knew something horrible had happened and her aunt, like her mama and little Luann Dowty, would never come back. At the prospect of being alone in the awful city, she began to sob uncontrollably and stumbled to the bathroom for a tissue. When she raised the Venetian blinds to let in the street lamps’ sallow glow, she gasped at what she saw.
In the night sky, like a beautiful jewel on a backdrop of black velvet, was God.
Amy couldn’t see His face, of course—Pastor Krump said that God was a spirit and had no body—but she saw His shimmering silvery robe and His golden crown that glowed as brightly as a beacon. Awestruck, she gazed at the vision until she heard the front door being unlocked.
For the first time since in her arrival in New York, Amy hugged her aunt. “Thank you so much for letting me come here and live with you!” she cried into the bony hip encased in a business suit as crisp and comfortless as cardboard. “I’m so happy!” She beamed as she ate the sandwich Lorraine slapped together for her, although it was the fourth night of Spam on stale bread. She didn’t speak of the divine visitation because she knew her aunt wouldn’t believe her.
After Lorraine went to bed, Amy tiptoed into the bathroom and peeked through the blinds. God was still there, serenely presiding over nighttime Manhattan. “Thank you so much for coming to visit me,” she whispered before returning to her closet. “See you tomorrow, Sir.”
The next morning, however, the dirty gray gauze patch of sky outside the bathroom window was bereft of His luminous presence. She couldn’t eat her breakfast and Lorraine fumed about ungrateful, worthless brats wasting bread and milk. All day at school, Amy kept murmuring, “Dear God, please come back, please be there,” until Teacher lost patience and smacked her bottom with a ruler for talking in class.
When she got home that afternoon, she ran from window to window, scanning the sky again and again until she finally collapsed, exhausted, on the sofa and fell asleep. When she awoke, the apartment was dark. She raced to the bathroom window and burst into tears when she saw that her prayers had been answered.
Every morning, she asked God to visit her again, and every evening, He did. Every night, after Lorraine fell asleep, Amy would slip into the bathroom, open the blinds, kneel on the cold tiles and silently worship.
Late one night, Lorraine almost fell over Amy in the bathroom. “What the hell—” she sputtered, flipping on the light. “What are you doing on the floor, for Christ’s sake?”
Amy scrambled to her feet. “I’m—I’m—praying.”
Lorraine rolled her eyes and groaned loudly. “Oh, yippee-skippy. That’s all I need—a religious nut. Well, go do that mumbo-jumbo in your room.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“God’s not there.”
“Well, He ain’t here either,” Lorraine snapped. “I gotta pee. Get the hell out of here and go back to bed.”
“Yes, He is too here. Out there. In the sky.”
Lorraine backhanded Amy’s face. “Didn’t my worthless sister teach you not to talk back to your elders?”
Amy clutched her cheek that bore the painful imprint of the big rhinestone ring her aunt always wore. “He’s really there!” she cried, waving wildly at the window. “Please! Look! Look!”
The pure clear reverence in Amy’s voice compelled Lorraine to cast a begrudging glance into the night outside. “I don’t see a damn thing. Stop making up silly stories and go to bed before I get the hairbrush and tan your fanny. You’re just like my worthless sister. Lying comes as natural to her as breathing—”
“I’m not fibbing! God comes to visit every night!” Amy cried. “Don’t you see His shiny robes? And he’s got a beautiful gold crown!”
Lorraine looked out again and suddenly laughed, a harsh braying sound devoid of mirth. “That’s God?”
“Well, if that don’t beat all.” Lorraine shoved her niece out of the bathroom. “I got something real interesting to show you tomorrow afternoon.” She shook her head and laughed again. “I can’t wait to see the look on your face. Christ, I ought to get me a camera.”
Amy lay awake a long time, apprehensive. She couldn’t imagine what Lorraine’s surprise was, but knew it wouldn’t be a pleasant one.
The next day, Lorraine arrived home from work early. She steered Amy into the bathroom and said, “Open the blinds. Let’s see if God’s there.”
“He won’t be,” Amy warned. “He only comes when it gets dark.”
“Ain’t that funny! He’s God—He can do anything, right? Ever wonder why you never see Him during the day?”
Amy’s mouth dropped open. Questioning the personal habits of the Almighty was unthinkable.
“Ha! I didn’t think you had. Tell me, does God always show up in the same spot?”
“What do you see out there now?”
“The top of a big building.”
“Okey-dokey.” Lorraine grabbed Amy’s arm and dragged her out of the apartment. “Come on.”
They walked up a flight of stairs and out a door onto a flat tar roof carpeted with pigeon droppings and soot. All around them, buildings rose up like tall, stern men. The evanescent sunset clouds shimmered like the scales of giant exotic fish in the vast glazed bowl of sky. Amy gasped and shrank back. “I don’t like it up here!” she cried, tugging at Lorraine’s coat. “I want to go back inside!”
Her aunt smacked her hand away. “Can you find that the place where God is every night?”
Amy glanced around and pointed to a building with a tower and a turret.
“Don’t take your eyes off it, kiddo.”
While they stood there, the city slipped into that ephemeral moment that cannot be called day or night: the delicate threshold between light and dark, a lovely and lingering grace note in the relentless rhythm of time that invites one to believe in impossible things beyond the clock’s lockstep and the laws of physics. As Amy focused on the mysterious portal between heaven and earth, the last indigo colors of dying day deepened to black. Suddenly, Lorraine bent down and shouted in her ear, “Now!”
A moment later, the top of the building exploded in a blaze of blinding white light. The turret shimmered as if it had been dipped in molten gold.
“There’s your god!” Lorraine crowed.
Bewildered, Amy turned to her aunt.
“It’s the Metropolitan Life Insurance building, kid,” Lorraine said, lighting a Lucky Strike. “Every night, soon as the sun goes down, they turn on the lights in the tower. Pretty, ain’t it?”
Amy began to sob.
“Look! There’s more!” Her aunt spun her around to see a spire leap from the darkness like a flaming sword. “And there!” The slender tip of a skyscraper turned into a finger studded with a thousand diamonds, pointed defiantly at heaven. “And over here—”
Amy could bear no more. She sank to her knees and covered her face with her hands, wailing like a wounded animal. There were so many gods, and all of them were strange and terrible.
Amelia doesn’t remember seeing God or that evening on the roof in December 1946.
She doesn’t remember her mother or having lived in Moriah or the train trip up North. When asked where she’s from, she always replies, “I’m a native New Yorker.” It isn’t really a lie. It’s the only home she recalls having, although she doesn’t really remember her first few years as a child in Manhattan.
Even if she had any real memories of her early past, she wouldn’t waste a single moment thinking about them—a stupid indulgence, she thinks, the occupation of idle minds, addled seniors and unsuccessful people. The only caregiver she’d ever known was Lorraine, a hard-working and tough-minded career woman who gave her something far better than sentimental reminiscences: business savvy and street smarts and the advantage of living in a city where you can get ahead if you have enough grit and determination.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” her aunt had always told her. “And don’t kid yourself into thinking you got the luxury of three strikes coming to you. One is more than enough to knock you clean out of the game for good.”
Lorraine died shortly after Amelia’s uncelebrated eighteenth birthday and unattended high school graduation. Two stony-faced policemen knocked on the apartment door one night and announced, “Sorry, Miss, but we have bad news. There’s been an accident…”
At the morgue, where they took her to confirm the identity of the victim, she didn’t weep or faint or throw up. She remembers everyone marveling at how strong she was. The next day, her aunt appeared as a tiny news item on the fifth page of the evening newspaper: “Louise Gardner, 50, was killed last night when she fell in front of an oncoming train at the 57th Street subway station.”
“Knocked back too many Four Roses at the goddamn bar,” Amelia recalls remarking out loud when she read the piece, and then she’d had a good belly laugh because the stupid reporter couldn’t even get her aunt’s name right.
She’s been on her own since then and Lorraine’s no-nonsense, school-of-hard-knocks education has served her well. She’s made all the right moves professionally. She’s never struck out and she’s stolen all the bases, leaving everybody else in the dust where they damn well belonged. After Lorraine died, she didn’t waste any time. She immediately talked her way into a job as a bookkeeper at an antique store on Fifty-Seventh Street and took night classes in accounting—she’d rather spend her business hours in the reliable fellowship of figures than endure fickle, fatuous people. With steely determination, she worked her way up the ladder of success, from good-paying jobs to better-paying jobs with more impressive titles and finally landed an enviable executive position in a large company headquartered near the Financial District.
She’s sixty-one years old now. She has an office with a view of the city skyline that everyone covets, but she finds inexplicably disturbing and keeps her back to. She has a hefty 401(k), an impressive stock portfolio, a flock of high-yield bank CDs and an important promotion forthcoming. She invested in a summer place on the Jersey shore, but doesn’t believe in vacations. Instead, she rents out the beach house for exorbitant sums to fools with no sense whatsoever and no appreciation of the value of a buck. Building up her retirement fund is infinitely more satisfying than getting sand blown in her eyes and watching monotonous waves and listening to scantily clad vacationers’ obnoxious brats behave badly with no parental reprimand or reprisal.
Though she could afford much better accommodations, she still lives in Lorraine’s old apartment. Why waste money, she reasons, on some stupid, la-de-da place where you only go to eat and sleep?
She sports her aunt’s big rhinestone ring on her left hand—“I’m married to me,” she tells anyone with the temerity to inquire if she’s engaged. She still has her aunt’s fur stole, which tenaciously refuses to succumb to the ravages of time and neglect, but she’s never worn it. Night-clubbing on the arm of some worthless man has just about as much appeal to her as joining her coworkers at a bar for Happy Hour on Fridays or cultivating a coterie of gal pals. The stole hangs like a memorial to something—she’s not sure what—covered with a dry cleaner’s plastic shroud in one of Amelia’s closets. For the life of her, she can’t figure out why she keeps the goddamn thing around—it’s beginning to look positively scrofulous—but she can’t quite bring herself to pack it off to a thrift shop or toss it in the trash.
When she opens the closet door and the light is just right, the foxes seem alive, trapped in some horrible moment of time, their glassy eyes staring at her helplessly, their tails stuffed in their mouths to stifle the screams. Amelia always chides herself for letting her imagination run away with her, like some dumb kid, about something as ridiculous as an ugly fashion accessory from a bygone era. Then she slams the door on their desperation with a loud and reassuring bang, as if to make certain the horrid little creatures don’t escape.
It’s an ordinary Tuesday morning in September.
As usual, Amelia arrives at work early and has half her work done before her co-workers straggle in and gather for coffee before getting down to business. She glances up and frowns as they troop down the hall past her office to the employees’ lounge, chattering loudly about Chandra and Condit, the World Series, what they’re doing tonight, their plans for next weekend, their boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses. She sighs, muttering, “What a pack of goddamn idiots…” and gets up to close her door.
A huge, reverberating blow suddenly causes the building to rock violently as if dealt a knockout punch by an enormous unseen fist. The walls groan, chunks of ceiling and light fixtures fall. The shaking seems to go on forever and she wonders if it’s an earthquake. She looks out her window, but the other buildings in lower Manhattan aren’t swaying. Debris is raining down from above—glass, paper, pieces of furniture. Other things fall that she can’t immediately identify. A large, flailing object in flames plummets past her window. When she realizes it’s a person, her legs give out and she collapses into her chair.
She knows she’s in danger but just sits there, paralyzed by a nameless emotion that numbs her with an unnatural, calm indifference.
I’m going to die, she thinks, and feels nothing.
Time is meaningless and minutes disappear like ashes in the wind. She listens to the confused hubbub of her coworkers in the hall. They’re talking about a bomb exploding, like in 1993. They’re debating if they should leave the building. A voice rises above the babble. “No, no! Not a bomb! My buddy over in the South Tower saw it happen—a plane crashed into our building!”
Amelia’s heart begins to pound. She remembers a person saying that same thing to her a long time ago, when she was just a little kid. A forgotten conversation, like an old phonograph record, begins to play in her head and she can’t make it stop, no matter how hard she tries.
“A plane crashed into our building. I was in my office when it happened.”
She can hear her aunt uttering those words as clearly as if the woman were standing next to her. The sound of that gravelly voice, remembered for the first time in many years, makes her shake.
“The building shook so goddamn bad I thought it was going to fall down. I looked out the window and saw smoke and flames above me.”
She startles at the voice of her boss.
“We’re evacuating, Amelia.”
She glances toward the man standing in the doorway, his face a sweaty white mask of worry. She automatically replies, “Yes, Frank. Of course. I’ll be right there.”
She makes a motion as if to rise from her chair and he leaves. She sinks back down and continues to stare blindly out the window.
“Take a look at this, kid.”
She remembers her aunt shoving the front page of an old newspaper at her. A gigantic close-up photo showed an airplane’s charred tail section incongruously protruding from a gaping hole in a skyscraper.
“That’s the Empire State Building. Where my office was, kid. A B-25 got lost in the fog and crashed into the seventy-eighth floor. People got killed that day. Burnt to a crisp at their desks. It was July 28, 1945. Just a year before my worthless sister flew the coop and left you with me.”
Lorraine had grabbed her and pulled her close, so close Amy could smell the whiskey on the woman’s breath and see rage flashing in eyes as hard and sharp as flint.
“I was seeing someone—a real nice guy and believe you me, they ain’t a dime a dozen in this city. He was getting serious. We were looking at engagement rings, getting ready to set a wedding date. Then you showed up and guess what? He dropped me like a hot potato. Disappeared into the woodwork like a cockroach, the son of a bitch. But hell, who can blame him? No forty-year-old man in his right mind wants to marry a woman my age with a goddamn brat in tow.”
Amelia recalls the pain as her aunt dug her long, red-painted fingernails deep into her skinny arm.
“I wish to God I’d been one of the people who died that day. You ruined my life, you worthless little piece of shit.”
Lorraine had started to cry, making horrible noises like the ripping of fabric. She pitched her cocktail glass at the kitchen wall, shattering it into a hundred of ragged little shards, and drank Four Roses from the bottle until she passed out.
Amelia remembers walking barefoot through the broken glass until her feet wept blood. It hadn’t hurt. It had felt good.
Though she hadn’t felt anything then, she feels something now, an emotion so intense that it drives her from the chair, propels her out of her office and down the first of many flights of stairs. With each step she takes, the memories of her childhood return. With each memory, she feels lighter and younger and stronger and overflowing with a belief she cannot identify, but recalls she once possessed long ago in great abundance. Were she to give it a name, Amy would call it hope.
For the first time, she becomes aware of people around her, flowing like an endless river of humanity down the hot, smoky spiral of stairs. There are people with burns, bleeding people, injured people. A little woman with withered legs in a wheelchair is stranded on one landing. A robust young fellow hoists her out of the chair, throws her over his shoulder and carries her down the stairs.
The lights suddenly dim and Amy stumbles. Anonymous hands reach out to steady her.
She hears someone in the stairwell praying the rosary out loud. “Our Father who art in heaven…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… Hail Mary, full of grace… Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…”
A young woman behind her panics and screams, “Oh, God! We’re all going to die in here! We’re all going to die!”
Amy stops, turns around and gazes intently into the girl’s terrified eyes. Then she smiles, reaches out to grab her trembling hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze.
“Listen to me, sweetie. We’re not going to die. We’re going to be fine,” she says firmly as she leads the young woman down the final flights, toward life and light and new beginnings. “Just hang on to me. Together we’re going to make it out of here alive and well. Believe me, we are.”
In memory of Bab