He knows it will not be long now. His apartment is almost empty, the shelves bare, the cabinets yawning. In the living room, the Jewfish swings constantly in a shallow circular movement, casting its shadow across the other museum artifacts: the carelessly stowed minerals, the scattered harps, the withered mallow. He stands and looks at the fish. The fish does not return his gaze. He had not known that he could feel such a variety of simultaneous emotion: both joy and sadness, both love and hatred, both agony and delight.
He is surprised to discover that he is hungry. There is no food in the apartment. He will have to go downstairs. As he leaves the apartment building, a murmur, like a single word whispered over and over, rises up and is gone. The crowd look at him. He looks at them. There must be four or five hundred people standing on the sidewalk, in the road. Not crowding or jostling, simply standing. They part and allow him passage, silent and constantly watching.
He walks down to Bleen’s Grocers, but the store is closed. He notices that quite a few stores are closed: maybe one in four or one in five. The people on the streets are different too. They seem to be walking a little more quickly and no one, he sees, is talking to anyone else. The only sound is of the cars whizzing past, on their way to somewhere else. He walks down Broadway and finds that the street seems busier the further away from his apartment he is. About 20 blocks down, he finds a deli making sandwiches. As he walks in, one or two of the customers look at him intently, as though they recognize him. Most simply continue to eat. He asks for a bottle of soda and a pastrami on rye. This is what he remembers his father bringing home if ever his mother was sick. Pastrami on rye all round.
Clutching the sandwich in its greasy paper bag, he walks over to Central Park. It’s been a long time since he was last in the park. The day is uncomfortably warm; four or five people are lying under the trees but otherwise the park is lifeless. The air is still. The grass is dry and crisp. Away in the north, a bird is singing – a loud, insistent, repetitive trill, like the ringing of a bicycle bell. He sits on a bench and eats his sandwich. When the sandwich is finished, he drinks the soda, then folds the paper bag up very small and feeds it in through the neck of the bottle. He rubs his fingers on his trousers to rid them of the pastrami grease.
He considers. He might simply leave. His checkbook is in his pocket. He could go to the bank, withdraw his money and go elsewhere. This is, of course, what his parents would wish him to do. This is what they prepared him for. He pulls his mother’s list from his breast pocket and looks at it again, appreciating the urgency of its tone. Leave, his mother says, leave now, take what you can and run. It is the only way. Run.
He comes to his decision. In late afternoon, the day no cooler nor any less still, he walks back to his apartment. The crowd seems larger now, even, than in the morning. On the corner of his block, someone has turned on the fire hydrant. Water is spraying across the block, descending in large round droplets onto the silent people below. They are wet and they wait. He passes through them and returns to the apartment, signified by the sign of the fish.
To be continued…