The first Saturday of every month, Madison has to go with her mother to Coney Island. They go no matter the weather. On sunny summer days they go to the beach and stay for a few hours, but even when it snows they ride the N from their home in Astoria, nearly from one end of the line to the other. It takes almost an hour and a half. “In Rhode Island,” Madison’s mother has told her, “you can cross an entire state in an hour and half.” Madison’s mother always brings a book on the train. Today the book is a small, thin paperback, with a solid red cover and no pictures. Madison can’t read yet, and on some Saturdays her mother brings a picture book to read to her, but on others– like today– she doesn’t. “Sorry, Madison,” she says, “I need to read this for work. I guess you just have to use your imagination.”
Madison is good at imagining, but she prefers just to look out the window of the train. Even underground, she is amazed at how fast the lights fly by her. The bridge is her favorite part, of course, especially if there is traffic and she can watch the stopped cars, the pictures on the sides of trucks, the things that change every time. She is only four years old, but she is already bored with the Manhattan skyline. She has seen it the first Saturday of every month, with one exception, as long as she can remember; and even if it changes sometimes with a new building, the novelty wears off. Once the train enters the open cut south of 59th Street in Sunset Park, she likes looking at the tracks pass her by in the light, she likes looking at the freight trains in the trench below them. She likes to pretend she is sitting still and the city is the one moving, all the buildings getting up and running so that Coney Island can get to them.
Madison unenthusiastically but ungrudgingly accepts that she has to go on these monthly errands. She is more than a little confused about the purpose of the errand, but has learned not to question it. One time she asked her mother why they had to go every month. “Sweetie, you know why,” her mother had said, “we have to visit Matt.” Madison asked if she really had to come to visit Matt. Her mother had insisted: she couldn’t leave Madison at home alone all day, and it was, as they both knew, a long trip.
Madison had asked why they didn’t go every couple of months, instead of every single one. But her mother wouldn’t dream of it, wouldn’t entertain the possibility. At first Madison had thought this was unfair. But then, one Monday night at the end of October, there was a big storm, and the subway was closed all week. Madison’s mother didn’t go to work, and the two of them stayed home; her mother read to her, they played games together, and to top it all off Wednesday was Halloween, Madison’s favorite holiday. It was the best week of Madison’s life. On Friday night, Madison’s mother said to her at dinner, “The subway is still closed. I guess we won’t be visiting Matt tomorrow.” Madison said it was OK, she didn’t mind, she was having fun. Couldn’t they stay home and watch a movie or something instead?
Her mother didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then she said, “Finish your dinner, sweetie, I have to go to the bathroom.” She got up and walked upstairs. Madison kept eating; she finished her macaroni and her mother still wasn’t back. All of a sudden she could hear a terrible sound: her mother was crying, alone. Madison panicked. What could she do? This had never happened before, not at home. She was used to seeing her mother cry in Coney Island, not every month, only from time to time, but it didn’t seem real there. It was just part of the routine, like when people cry in movies. Madison never understood why her mother cried in Coney Island, but in all her four years had never thought to ask. But this was at home. How could her mother be so sad? Wasn’t she having fun too? Finally the sound stopped, her mother came back to the table, her face wet with water from the sink. “Sorry, baby,” she said, “I guess I really had to go to the bathroom.” Madison offered to clear the table and her mother said she could do that. After dinner they watched The Wizard of Oz.
The next week they were able to get to Coney Island, and after that they resumed their usual schedule. Since then, Madison hasn’t complained about going to visit Matt. If her mother has to cry once a month, she would rather it stay there, in Brooklyn, where she can pretend it is all part of some meaningless ritual, where she can pretend it doesn’t matter.
That was more than three months ago. It’s snowing, now, as the train pulls into Stillwell Avenue. Madison’s mother puts the little red book in her purse and stands up, taking Madison’s hand as they step across the gap. They are bundled up, Madison in her red scarf, blue knitted hat and black gloves. She has refused her mother’s request that she wear snowpants. Madison asks to lead the way. Her boots are slightly too big for her, but she is still able to run down Mermaid Avenue, which she has always thought is a very pretty name for a street. Four, five, six blocks, until she reaches their destination: an old bicycle, stripped of seat, pedals and chain, locked to a pole, in the same place it has always been. It is covered two inches deep with fresh white snow. Madison brushes some of it off with her gloves. The paint underneath is the same color as the snow. She picks some of the snow up to taste it. It is cold and delicious.
She turns around; her mother is half a block behind her, in no particular hurry. Finally she gets there. She takes off her right glove, and as she does every month, kisses the palm of her hand and grips the handlebar of the bicycle. “Hi, Matt,” she says. “I’m here with Madison. It’s snowing.” Madison doesn’t get why her mother wants to tell the bike this; she may only be four, but she knows bikes can’t hear, and if it could hear it could probably also figure out that it was snowing. But she is used to her mother’s oddities. It really was a lot like a movie. “Allison and Jiayi just got married,” her mother tells the bicycle, speaking very slowly, “you remember them. You would have loved the wedding. It was at this beautiful church out in Flushing.”
While her mother is relating the last month’s events to Matt, Madison sits on the snowy sidewalk and lets her mind wander. Two blocks away she can see the beach, and in the quiet February air she thinks she can even hear the waves crashing. Yes, she definitely can. She wonders why the ocean doesn’t freeze in winter. She is lulled into a sort of meditation, listening to the water, and doesn’t realize how cold and wet her pants are until her mother tugs at her arm. “Ready to go, baby?” she says. Madison asks if they can go down to the beach. “Not today,” her mother tells her. “It’s too cold. Oh! Your pants are soaked! I told you to wear snowpants.”
The two of them slowly make their way back to the train. By the time they get home, they will have spent three hours on the train and waiting for the train, all for only fifteen minutes of talking to a bicycle named Matt. Madison’s legs are shivering as they stand waiting to cross the street, her knees knocking against each other exaggeratedly. “I’m sorry, Madison,” says her mother, “once we’re on the train you’ll warm right up.” A train is waiting for them at the terminal, and they get on, the only ones in their car. They sit across from each other. Although she is determined not to make her mother cry again, Madison feels unusually resentful that she has been dragged here yet again. She knows her friends’ mothers don’t do anything like this; why is hers so weird? Her mother takes out the little red book and begins reading. Madison watches her with newfound interest. She has, for so long, accepted their errand in Coney Island without the need to understand it; but something has changed. Her legs are still cold.
At Avenue U the train is delayed. The announcer says that they are being held by the train’s dispatcher, and thanks the passengers for their patience. There is still no one else in their car.
“Yes, sweetheart?” her mother says, looking up from the book.
“Why do you tell Matt all those things? I mean, why do we come all the way here, just so you can tell him what happened last month?”
Her mother looks at her curiously, head cocked to one side like a puppy. “Well,” she says, “he was very important to me. I suppose you could say I was in love with him.”
This was not what Madison was expecting to hear. “But Mommy,” she says, confused, “Matt is a bicycle.”
Her mother’s eyes widen and she raises her hand to her mouth. “Madison… sweetie…” The doors close, and the train begins moving. Her mother has an expression like she has just found out that everything she knows is wrong; her mouth moves but no words come out. All of a sudden Madison is terribly embarrassed and ashamed of herself. She is sure she has said something awful, something that will make her mother cry again, and although she isn’t sure, she thinks that this must be what being a grown-up is like. She realizes in an instant how fragile her mother must be, to think a bicycle is a person, and she is very scared. But above all, she feels sorry for her mother, and she feels she must protect her.
“I didn’t mean it, Mommy,” she says. Her mother still has the look of shock on her face. “Matt’s not a bicycle. Matt’s a person. I’m sorry I said he was a bicycle.” She gets up and crosses the car to sit next to her mother. “He’s not a bicycle.”
“Madison,” her mother says, “I didn’t… I didn’t know you didn’t know.” Madison doesn’t know what this means. She leans her head against her mother’s side. “I know the thing we visit in Coney Island is a bicycle.” Madison is relieved that her mother is not crazy after all. “I shouldn’t have— I mean, of course you don’t… listen, sweetie, can we— can we talk about this at home?”
“You have to read your book for work,” Madison says.
Her mother smiles. “Yes, I do.” She blinks and there is a single tear in her eye. “Yes, I do.” They sit the rest of the ride in silence. Her mother combs her fingers through Madison’s hair. Madison knows there is something her mother isn’t saying, but that sense of dangerous fragility is still so fresh in her mind that she is content to wait, to learn about it later. At some point she closes her eyes and the next thing she knows her mother is waking her up, telling her that theirs is the next stop. Madison is sad she missed going over the bridge. But, she supposes, she will see it next month.
The men are beginning to line up at the corner. Must be getting on five o’clock, Andre thinks, watching them from his stoop– my stoop, he says to himself, “my stoop,” he says out loud, relishing the sound of the words. They sound not a bit less musical than the first time he said them, almost two whole months ago now. The first time he had said them, he had cried. It’s not unlike looking at a beautiful sculpture, Andre thinks. The first time you see it, you stop in your tracks, but eventually it just becomes part of your walk and you don’t see it any more— unless you look at it.
Andre’s stoop is only three houses down from the corner; he didn’t move far. Far enough, he thinks. From his new stoop he can’t see around the corner to the giant mounted statue of General Whoever-it-was. He’s heard somewhere that you could tell how a general died by how his statue was seated, but he forgets the rules. When he used to stand in line at the shelter with all the rest of them, he’d sometimes look at that statue and dream about getting out of Brooklyn, riding off on a horse all the way out to Long Island, re-enacting revolutionary battles. One time he turned to the man standing behind him. “Who do you think that is on the horse?” he asked. “Fucked if I know,” said the man, “you can go look, but I ain’t saving your fuckin’ spot.” Andre stayed in line.
Watching the line grow, Andre recognizes a face here or there, but no names until old John shows up. Old John’s face is grizzled, his clothes tattered, his skin black as his hair. He walks right past the line, sits down on the ground, his legs crossed like an ayurvedic yogi. He pulls a beat-up piece of cardboard out of his bag, unfolds it, and sits down, his claim staked. Andre smiles. It’s funny how with some guys, with most of the guys Andre knew back then, you hope and pray they don’t come back some day, because it means they made it out, just like in Ben Affleck’s speech in Good Will Hunting. Old John isn’t like that; Andre knows as well as anyone that old John’s never getting out, old John’s never getting his own place, old John’s never sleeping inside until it’s in the Kingdom come. Andre knows just as well that this is how old John wants it. Never did like sleeping indoors; when Andre used to go to the shelter old John would come in around nine, after the beds were all gone, get his ration of soup and bread and go back to eat it outside. No matter rain or shine, hot or cold. When it got cold DHS would ask him to go inside, and he would say no, and they would say come on, old John (Andre was initially surprised when they knew his name, but got less surprised the more that he thought about it), come on, you’ll freeze to death, and he would say, if the Lord wills. If it was only sort of cold they’d let him stay. If it was really cold they’d sometimes arrest him out of pity, and on the one occasion Andre observed this happen, smoking a cigarette on the stairs, he was amazed at the interaction:
“All right, old John, you’re leaving me no choice. I gotta arrest you.”
“I ain’t goin’.”
“Put your hands behind your back.”
“I said,” old John said, “I ain’t goin’.”
“Old John,” the officer said, taking a deep breath, “would you please put your hands behind your back.”
“Well,” old John smiled, “you done asked so nicely.”
The officer handcuffed him and led him to the car, and before they drove off Andre could hear old John saying, “Since we in the car already, think we can lose the cuffs?” And to Andre’s amazement, the officer replied, “Of course, my friend,” and loosened his shackles.
Andre figures every day he sees old John at the shelter is a day old John isn’t dead yet. It’ll happen one day, but not yet. He stands up from his stoop and walks over to the cardboard mat, from which he can see the statue of the general. Surprisingly, a man leaves the line and walks right past Andre down the block, but Andre pays him little mind. He reaches the mat.
“Old John,” he says.
Old John looks up. “Who that?”
“It’s Andre, old John,” he says, and suddenly he is overcome with a wave of apprehension. I shouldn’t have done this, he thinks, I shouldn’t have. He’ll think I’m rubbing it in his face, that I got out and he didn’t–
The old man smiles. “You there, Andre,” he says, “God is great, you still there.”
“How you been, my friend?”
“I live,” old John grins a wide, toothless grin of joy, “days passin’, leaves changin’, I’m a hundred and thirty years old and I ain’t seen none of it yet.”
“Whatchu gonna do this winter?”
“Old me been through a hundred and thirty winters,” says old John, happy as a junkie on his fix.
“Ain’t no reason you can’t make it through this one,” says Andre.
“Ain’t no reason I made it through any of them,” says old John. “Ain’t no reason. Gonna happen how it always happens– I see you in the kingdom.”
Andre catches the eye, in the line, of a man whose name he does not remember, but who (he does remember) had physically engaged him in an altercation stemming from an argument over where loose cigarettes could be found the cheapest. The other man’s eyes narrow and Andre excuses himself. Old John barely notices. As Andre turns around he bumps into the man he passed before, who gives him an unapologetic, indecipherable, but unthreatening grunt.
When Andre arrives back at his stoop, there is a puddle of yellow urine on the second step. At first he hopes it is water, but the smell is unmistakable. God damn, he thinks, “god damn it,” he says out loud, “this is my– fucking– stoop,” but nobody can hear him. From the corner, he hears old John’s unmistakable trickster laugh, the laugh that needed no provocation. He sighs and goes inside to get a bucket of water.
Anabelle places the cut-in-half crate on the counter, gently so as not to crack the eggs. She reaches into her purse and fishes for her wallet, finds the dollar and two quarters and extracts them, makes eye contact with the Lebanese man towering in front of her, whose store she has been into so many times, but whose name it has never occurred to her to ask. Surely he does not know hers either. But they recognize each other; she acknowledges him with a nod. He smiles momentarily, but it evaporates.
“It is two dollars now,” says the Lebanese man.
“What?” asks Anabelle.
“Two,” he says, holding up fingers to illustrate.
Anabelle thinks for a moment. “Two dollars for six eggs?”
“Yes,” he says. The white man standing behind her shuffles his feet impatiently, opens his still-unpaid Manhattan Special, reaches into his pocket for his phone. The fizzing sound burns Anabelle’s ears, implores her in that quiet but certain New York way not to hold the line up, but she needs a second, can’t he see this is important?
“Why’d the price go up?”
“This is what prices do,” says the Lebanese man.
“I might need to find another store,” she quietly threatens, barely above a whisper. Behind her she hears the drip of overflowing coffee soda on the floor. “It always used to be a dollar fifty,” she explains, a little louder, slowly, stressing the words as if to make him understand how important these eggs are.
“Prices go up everywhere,” he says. The door of the bodega swings open, morning sunlight suddenly streaming into Anabelle’s eyes, and two white girls walk in, simultaneously laughing and looking at their cell phones. One walks to the back of the store where the beer is, and as the door slams the other one greets the Manhattan Special drinker, ignoring Anabelle and the owner entirely. “My price goes up, they go up at the supermarket, they go up at the other delis. Listen, you find these eggs for less, I give them to you for free.”
“Go, then, I have more customers.”
“We’re in no rush,” the white man says. The girl pushes him in a way that is clearly supposed to be meaningful, but says nothing. She looks at her feet, then, exasperatedly, at her phone.
Anabelle sighs. “I only got a dollar fifty.”
“You only have a dollar fifty?”
“I can have maybe four eggs?”
“And what you want me to do with the other two?”
For an uncomfortably long time they look at each other, ignoring the line behind them. The girl who had been in the back returns with a six-pack of Flying Dog. She looks around as if she is expecting another person to be there, besides her two friends. Then she takes out her phone as well, and the three of them are all staring at their screens. It appears to be a ritual.
“Listen,” the Lebanese man finally says, “this time, this time only, I give you eggs for one-fifty. You give me fifty cents tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Anabelle mouths silently. She puts her money on the counter and takes the eggs. As she leaves, she calls back to the register, “God bless!”
“Yes, yes,” he says, “and what can I do for you, my friend?” As the door slams behind her, Anabelle can hear the white man answering. “Just this,” he says, “and a blue pack of Spirits.” The sun is still in her eyes as she walks home.
“If you didn’t cut it,” says Mikey, “it would grow and grow until it was as tall as the Empire State Building.” He is sitting on the lawn chair, licking some kind of cartoon-shaped popsicle that is turning his tongue blue, and getting (of course) all over the front of his white shirt. The popsicle, despite being marketed as ice cream at the deli around the corner, does not contain any animal products. “Wouldn’t it, Dad?”
“Obviously,” John tells him, “which is why we have to cut it.” He is in his underwear and a T-shirt, kneeling in a yard that is big for this area of Brooklyn, whatever his ex-wife thinks. His shins are coated with a thick layer of what John calls dirt when talking to his son, but calls repurposed industrial waste to his friends. Two years ago John tried to grow tomatoes in the yard. Tomatoes weren’t his first choice; Mikey loves tomato sauce, but John never has time to make it from scratch, and neither of them like raw tomatoes very much. John loves, more than (almost) anything else in the world, the smell of tomato leaves, but he didn’t think that a smell alone was really worth the trouble of gardening every day. But Mikey convinced him. “We’re gonna have a thousand tomatoes, Dad,” he had said, “we’re going to have so many tomatoes that you’ll have to make tomato sauce or they’ll all go bad, and we can give the extras away to Mamacita,” which is what the basement tenant (who does not have direct access to the yard herself, and who does seem to cook a lot) has told Mikey to call her, even though John knows her name is Diana. Despite his better instincts, John was sure his son was right, because of how sure Mikey had sounded when he said it. And so he bought five packets of tomato seeds and spent an afternoon with Mikey in the yard, with John digging five parallel rows and Mikey coming behind and sprinkling seeds in each row, one packet to a row. “There are going to be so many of them,” Mikey had said, “there’s going to be a forest of tomatoes in our yard,” and he had laughed excitedly, thinking about what it would be like to be the only one at his whole school with a forest of a thousand tomatoes in the backyard. “We could tell people we live in Tomato Forest Hills,” he had said, and dissolved in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. John had had to explain (to Mikey’s dismay) that only some of the seeds would sprout, and of the ones that did sprout some of them would grow bigger and stronger than others, and they would have to weed out the weaker ones and in the end there would only be a dozen or so plants per row. Mikey had cried thinking about all the poor plants they would have to kill; he had asked if we could take them to the park, where maybe they would have some more room, and John had said no, plants don’t like to be moved when they’re that little, and Mikey had said well maybe they don’t like to die either, couldn’t we at least try it, and John had said no we’re not allowed to go plant tomatoes in the park, and Mikey had cried some more and finally John had relented, OK, OK, we can transplant some of them to the park, but we have to do it at night. In the end it had been a moot point. Despite Mikey’s meticulous watering, only nine plants sprouted, and only two survived long enough to produce any tomatoes: one per plant. The one that grew closer to the fence was scraggly, orange instead of red, deeply wrinkled, and delicious; the two of them made a Caprese salad out of it, with mozzarella from D’Agostino’s that John was pretty sure was made upstate. They had eaten the whole thing as a snack. The other, the one that made it in the center of the yard, was big, bright, round, and full from the core to just inside the skin with foul-smelling green mold. The leaves on both plants had no smell at all. Mikey didn’t ask about tomatoes last year, and John has been telling his friends that their yard is built on the ruins of a chemical plant, which he hasn’t confirmed with historical records but which seems to him like the only likely explanation for the tomatoes’ failure. After all, Mikey had been very good about watering.
“I don’t get why we have to cut it,” Mikey says.
“Because,” John says, snipping the grass and remembering his days as a child watching his father cut hair, “the city won’t let us have grass as tall as the Empire State Building.”
“That’s stupid,” Mikey sighs, resignedly. He is used to the city being the reason for so many things they can’t do, like have a car like Mom’s (actually, John can’t afford the insurance, even now that they have a tenant), or have a pig, which the city actually won’t let them do, which is a good thing because John really does not want a pig. John is almost done cutting the grass, tossing the clippings over to the area of the yard where no grass grows, trying to cover it up so it is not so obviously barren. “How tall are we allowed to grow the grass?” Mikey asks curiously. He finishes his popsicle and holds the stick between index and middle finger, like Mamacita’s cigarettes.
“It has to be shorter than Trinity Church,” John says, “they passed a law in 1733.”
“And we still have to obey it?” Mikey is shocked. “That’s like three hundred years ago.”
“Laws don’t go away,” John asserts.
“There are so many taller buildings now,” Mikey muses. “They should change it. How tall is Trinity Church?”
“A hundred feet.”
“Well, the grass isn’t a hundred feet tall yet.”
“The taller you let it get,” John says, standing up, “the faster it grows.” He surveys the yard. He has done a good job. He walks over to the lawn chair and sets the scissors down on the armrest. “Take these inside. And throw out your popsicle stick.”
“Couldn’t we let it get a little taller next time?”
“We can talk about it. You might have to write a letter to the city.”
“I’ll write it right now,” Mikey exclaims. He grabs the scissors and runs inside. John sits down in the unoccupied lawn chair and looks at his work some more. He sure has done a good job. The clippings are covering the bare dirt like a turf mat. A few more days of this heat and it will all be dry and brown, but for now, he can imagine the yard verdant, sprouting, full of life. While he’s at it, he imagines the grass growing tomatoes, a ball-pit’s worth. Seems like anything is possible here.