Alphabet City

by Jeff Bakkensen

 

“Still coming down out there,” said Jacob, turning away from the window.

“Randy?”

“Since when do we name blizzards?”

He stepped towards the center of the room and let himself fall onto the sofa. Rachel was sitting on the corduroy loveseat they’d inherited from her uncle, nose in a New Yorker.

“I’m serious,” he said. “Hurricanes: Bob, Ike, Irene. Sandy, obviously. Blizzards should be years. The Blizzard of ’78. The Blizzard of Whenever.”

“Maybe they realized we might have more than one.”

He grunted.

“Smart guys, those weathermen.”

He got up, went to the window, watched it come down in relentless, silent rolls. Better in the daytime, when you could actually see how obscured everything around you had got. Trying to look up and track an individual flake as it separated from the rest and made its way towards you.

“Sure you don’t want to go out in it?” he asked.

Rachel flattened her lips.

“If you want to go you should go.”

Of course he should. They lived on the first floor. The snow was right there outside the window and behind the door, and they needed to go out in it now before it stopped falling and became just another nuisance on the way to something else.

“You used to be more fun,” he wanted to say. But you shouldn’t say things you wouldn’t repeat in the morning.

“But you won’t go with me?” he asked instead.

She smiled hopefully.

“The movie offer still stands,” she said.

She wasn’t getting it, it being, what, something bright inside – he pawed at his temples – a chance, or – how to explain the excitement of snow – like everything was possible, or everything that had been possible was now again. Was that nostalgia? And why snow?

“Do we need anything?”

“If you want something,” she said. “You should go out and get it.”

A regular Ayn Rand here, ankle deep in Talk of the Town. The world you desire can be won.

Tomorrow for sure, schools would be shuttered. Commuters stymied. They’d watched the mayor announce a State of Emergency on TV, meaning bridges closed, driving forbidden, meaning tonight, people would be out. They should be out.

“One last time, would you please just come outside with me?”

“Since when do you get so stir crazy?”

But no one was out. Nine months of the year their neighborhood buzzed 24/7; tonight the only action was a line of parked cars slowly sinking beneath the snow, yellow lamplight refracted into a shadowless glaze. He walked to the curb, placing and lifting one foot at a time, dry toes tensed inside his boots, and stepped out onto the street. A snowplow must have come by at some point but another inch or two had fallen in its wake. He walked to the center of the intersection. Couldn’t see more than a block north and south along Avenue A, where it was blowing in great swirling ropes, unwinding into the street on either side. The only living boy in New York. He stuck out his tongue, felt snowflakes melting, melting as well on the exposed parts of his beard and pooling down under his chin. He stretched out his arms and looked up, a rush of cold air striking his armpits. Above him, glimpsed between blinks as snow struck his eyes, was flat gray sky. He scanned down, shielding his eyes with a glove. He couldn’t even see the top of the condo going up across the street.

Bastards. He hoped they lost their tools.

Tomorrow the snow would be mounded to the sides of the sidewalks, funneling the city’s walkers into the space cleared by the intrepid few who’d gone before them. Tonight it was still perfect for blazing through.

He was halfway towards Avenue B when he found the first sign of human life, a trail of bootprints running across the street, and, following them, saw the broken place where someone had stumbled through the snow bank marking the street’s edge. Beyond the bank lay a well-lit bodega and a neon sign reading Open. Of course; the bodega never closed.

He foundered happily into the snow bank, hands out, mentally checking off items he could bring home. They had milk, sandwich bread, peanut butter, canned soup. Eggs? There had to be something.

A Christmas bell jingled and a fistful of flakes gasped in as he opened the door and pulled it shut behind him. The man he’d always assumed was the owner lifted his elbows off the counter. The cook slouching behind the griddle straightened up. They both wore short sleeve shirts and aprons.

The owner nodded. It was possible he just managed.

“Hey there,” said Jacob.

The man nodded again, and Jacob nodded back. They recognized each other, right? You could never be sure with people in the city. Even if you saw them every day, they saw a thousand other faces just like yours. And of course if you made a friendly gesture they would return it because they were businessmen, and because everyone wants to be loved.

Jacob raised a hand to greet the cook.

“I need,” he said, scanning the shelves behind the counter. Something to warrant the trip. He nodded towards a pink box of Midol Extended Relief.

The owner, great lined and pockmarked Amerindian face, reached up and grabbed the box with two fingers. He seemed to decipher it for a moment before holding it up for the cook, lips breaking to reveal his teeth. They both laughed. Jacob, looking back and forth between the two, began to laugh as well.

“Is bad timing,” said the cook.

“Yes,” said Jacob. “It’s very bad timing. Naturally.”

The owner punched some keys on the register while Jacob watched, exhaling. Now he would be remembered: the guy who bought Midol during the blizzard.

But a real man looked after his own needs as well. Holding up a finger for time, Jacob walked towards the back of the store between stacked crates of ketchup and potato chips, stopping where the stacks gave way to a pair of scarred refrigerators stocked with beer. He dropped into a squat, face in the glass ghosting over Budweisers, Coorses, a few bright sixes with names like Hoppy Bunny and GrassHOPer.

Fucking brat bohemians.

Set into the back wall was a door that opened audibly, a boy appearing in the doorway, and beyond him, Jacob turning at the sound, a cramped storeroom, television glow lighting a heavy-set woman with two girls sitting on a mattress wrapped in plastic. All three swung their heads outwards.

Jacob glanced towards the front of the store. The owner and the cook were staring out the window.

“Excuse me,” said Jacob, and the boy pulled the door shut.

He picked a pack of Modelos and took his time heading back to the front. The owner’s stony creases disclosed nothing.

Oh! But of course they were the man’s wife and kids come in from the far side of Brooklyn or Queens so they could weather the storm together. Jacob let his eyes wander over shelves of candy and soda. And then of course the bodega was more than just a store; it was a home, a shared dream, each stocked can an article of faith in a rising tide. He was watching history being lived! Someday the little boy in the back would bring his own family here and maybe think of this night and tell them, “This is where we got our start.”

He threw the beer, a bag of chips, and a value pack of gum onto the counter next to the Midol, paid and went back out into the snow.

Halfway across the street he realized the kids might appreciate a couch to sit on, radiated heat, perishable food. He stopped, bags in both hands. It was too late. Maybe in the moment he could have swung it. Brought them all out in a spasm of goodwill, led them through the snow and into his home. An invasion of los inmigrantes! What a story that would have been!

Maybe tomorrow, if the snow was still falling.

He chuffed slowly back across the street, freed a hand and pushed his key into the lock, feeling the give as grooves found grooves. He stopped in the lobby, empty, his apartment door in the shadow of the stairs. Turned, watching the snow blow in waves outside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Bakkensen once placed second in a George Washington look-alike contest. Recent fiction can be found in Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine.

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