David Lehman

Five O’clock Rush

The nurse left work at five o’clock. My heart stopped beating at 5:01. There
was no one in the room when I died and no one to notice the miracle of my return
to consciousness. Perhaps you have heard of such cases. Someone has died, for all
intents and purposes, then comes back to life. It happened to the composer
Jerome Kern, for example, back in 1937.

But there was something unusual in my case. When I died it was one
minute past five. When I woke the clock said 10:25, darkness had fallen outside,
the radio was playing an old Sinatra song, “But Beautiful.”

And here’s the strange part. When the song ended, the voice on the radio
was the voice of the nurse, Alice, who differed from every other nurse in this
purgatorial hospital by speaking to you not as if you were a child, not in the first-
person-plural (“how are we feeling today?”), but in the hippest jive imaginable in
1946, September 1946, in the streets and alleys of downtown New York..

For that was the month and year in which I came to life, and this was the
place. And here’s the strange part. When I looked out the window I saw Alice,
only now her name was Angel, in her customary raincoat in the customary drizzle
walking into the street. Her back was turned to me. The studio was undecided
between Joan Fontaine and Joan Leslie for the part. But when I looked in the
mirror I knew she was there with me in the room – I saw her standing there
behind me grinning, naked and reveling in the effect of her wild brown curls on
my overheated imagination. I had turned nineteen that summer.

Angel was English, and I was American and I ordered us drinks and the waiter
came and we made desultory conversation but everything I said she repeated
with a question mark and there was one simile like an oasis in the desert, a white
elephant in the room.

So I turned around a second time and saw the bed was made with her inside,
naked except for her wild brown curls, and there was a night light and a selection
of books on the night table. Proust as rendered by Scott Moncrief, War and Peace
as translated by Constance Garnett, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, all
four volumes in an out of date and therefore somehow appropriate translation.
Not a bad way to die. And she was singing to me, my mushroom queen, my olive-
backed kingbird, my gin-and- vermouth with a splash of bitters and an olive in a
Y-shaped glass, and this was no hospital at all but a hotel, a grand hotel, and
there was nothing stopping me from getting my old tuxedo pressed and heading
out for a night on the town. That’s what I was doing. The clock said 5:20. I
couldn’t account for the intervening minutes. But I knew she’d be there when I
got back.

 

The Knight’s Move

Naomi wears a lacy light-pink blouse, shoulder-length brown hair with
eyeglasses to match, jeans, no belt, expensive sandals with toes painted a goth
purple, pearl earrings not too showy. Eye shadow and brow-enhancing make-up
have been subtly applied. The blouse does not quite reach the back of her jeans,
exposing a crescent of white midriff. She sits on a park bench with her legs crossed
and a Kindle on her lap and she is playing with her I-phone, swiping screens. On the
bench she is flanked, on her right, by the thin brown leather jacket she has taken off
and, on her left, by her black leather handbag invitingly open. The professor notices.

In chapter two Floyd, a practised pickpocket, strikes on the subway. He
removes Naomi’s wallet with all her cash and credit cards, plus something else, a
small blue box from Tiffany’s, and exits the train at the next stop. The young woman
absorbed in her i-phone will not realize that she has been robbed until the train
pulls into Union Square and she steps out into the farmers’ market and eyes the
tomatoes, green peppers, Italian plums, the last of the season’s peaches, the first of
autumn’s apples.

In chapter three we realize that Floyd is the true protagonist in the story,
elegiac in tone, about the master of a dying art, who has exercised his skill for
decades in the New York subways, specializing in the West Side IRT and IND lines
but sometimes crossing over to the Queens-bound F or 7 trains. He dresses like a
European tourist in a sport coat, can affect a foreign accent, and has the rare ability
to lose himself in a crowd of people and travel incognito, changing the lives of those
he rubs against while remaining himself unchanged in the encounter, like the
ageless proprietor of an esoteric book shop that will soon go out of business.

~~

David Lehman is a professional writer and editor who holds a faculty
appointment at the New School in New York City. He is the editor of The
Oxford Book of American Poetry; and the general editor of The Best
American Poetry. His most recent books are Sinatra’s Century: One
Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (HarperCollins, 2015) and
New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).