It is Tuesday, 9:58 A.M., and Joe Marvin is beginning to feel for the first time what some call “gratitude.” He is mistaking it for a premature case of incontinence, of course, but for the time being we’ll let him adjust to the shock of what has just happened by mistaking the creeping warmth of appreciation for an ill-timed bowel movement. Patricia Nancy has just saved his life, after all, in spite of all her obsessive compulsions, and something about the way surprise has scared her eyebrows to her hairline suggests that she hadn’t expected to be a hero this morning either.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Wasn’t it just a few moments ago that that same Patricia Nancy had been meticulously calculating her step-per-block ratio on her way to Coucher de Soleil, the coffee shop she frequented between every 8 A.M. and 12:15? She reserved a special place in her heart for that daily retreat and its low-lit jungle of tables and chairs, but she couldn’t tell if that was because of its posh name or the simple enjoyment that she took from the notion that when she was there, she was one with the many roasted beans, with blend and region and aroma. In fact, she often spent her pilgrimage to the coffee shop in quiet contemplation of what exact bean she would be, running through a list that extended from the spicy Chilean Dark to the airy Hawaiian Light before resting, as always, in indecision. She never could figure out where she fit. Sometimes this bothered her, and when it did, she took to saying “Coucher de Soleil” under her breath until she arrived. She had no idea what it meant, but the cadence of its repetition put her in mind of chanting, caffeinated monks, and the image calmed her.
This Tuesday, however, none of those thoughts crossed her mind.
Instead, the only sound that echoed in her ears was the “Good Luck” wish of a Judge. It had been twenty-one long years before Patricia Nancy could begin the search for her biological parents; all she had needed was the okay from the smiling Michelin Woman in Probate Court to pass her petition. The thought of all that was to come had sent her mind whirling, and soon she was so immersed in the daydream of their reunion that she was not even aware of the small smile suddenly present upon her lips.
This was why, 2.75 blocks due east later, we witnessed Patricia Nancy do something we’ve never seen her do before: go straight. At the intersection of 51st and 9th, in all her dual-first-name splendor, Patricia Nancy neglected to bear left. And (from what we can surmise based upon the focus written in the wrinkles of her forehead) this is most likely what, 0.5 blocks later, in front of the Related Companies construction site, sent Patricia Nancy careening into an unsuspecting pedestrian.
But this, again, is going too far too quickly. We haven’t told you of Richard Carr yet. Before Patricia Nancy had been released from her appointment with the Court, Richard was staring into his morning cereal, hallucinating tiny plus signs amongst the milk and bran and oat clusters. “Richard?” his wife had asked the night before, her arm pausing at the midpoint of its trip from her lap to the bedside lamp. It had hung there, its hesitance an extension of what was escaping her eyes.
“Yes?” His voice had felt so small, and he couldn’t understand why.
She inhaled. “I know I’ve been talking about this for some time now, so it’s silly for me to feel so nervous,” (we saw the first sign of goosebumps on his arms here).
“Well…I noticed just yesterday that I was late. About two weeks late, actually. And, well, that isn’t normal, you know”—second wave of goosebumps noted—“so I went to CVS. I’m pregnant.”
Our records indicate that all of Richard Carr’s arm hairs at that point in the conversation were standing at attention, an infantry of follicles.
And now he saw plus signs everywhere—in the clock, in his food, in his wife’s bright pupils. He was excited, but it was a nervous excitement—the kind that fills your heart and stomach with a type of cayenne pepper-infused electricity. However, as he walked out to get the paper on that misty Tuesday morning, he decided that fatherhood had a nice ring to it. Of course he’d be happy with a girl, but in his heart of hearts he knew he wanted a boy to look up to him, calling him “Pop” or “Pops” or “Dad” with a tone of endearment that Richard had never been able to use himself.
This was when he saw emerge from the surrounding murk his neighbor, whose name he could hardly recall. This could have been because the aging man’s round and wilted appearance put Richard in mind of a Brussels sprout, and Richard had taken to referring to the man as that exact vegetable whenever he came up in conversation around the house.
“Morning!” Richard said, looking up from the headlines.
The man nodded in his direction. Richard had to fight back a grin; he looked forward to their infrequent interactions with almost a schoolboy’s eagerness.
“So how about this fog?” he asked, searching.
“It’s fitting with my morning,” the man said, shaking his head and hoisting himself up from his bend to get the paper.
“Tell me about it,” Richard said, “my wife left me in a fog last night.”
“Oh really, how so.” The man was too disinterested to even bother to raise his voice at the end of his question. He seemed hurried.
“She told me she’s pregnant. I’m going to be a father.”
The Brussels Sprout was suddenly staring into Richard’s eyes, revealing a clear blue Richard had never before noticed.
An eternity passed before the man slowly looked away, shaking his head as he slipped back into the house.
Now it was the man’s look that wouldn’t leave Richard’s mind. This was why his cereal stagnated into a soggy waste; this was why he hardly found his way to the Related Companies construction site, despite the fact that there was practically a groove on the road between his house and 51st and 9th; and this was why, in a moment of broken focus, he accidentally drove the arm of his excavator directly upward with a crack into an outstanding branch of the site’s only foliage.
And what about Joe Marvin, you ask?
Joe’s consternation began far before Richard’s and Patricia Nancy’s, before the sidewalk of 51st and 9th was graced with a new pair of feet and before a mechanical arm picked a fight with its natural foil.
His began at 8:13 A.M., approximately one hundred and eighteen minutes after it should have. In an unprecedented lapse in behavior, Joe neglected to turn on his alarm before he hit the sack, a mistake that set his REM cycle’s imagination into overdrive. Upon awakening, he was not only dealt a blow of shock at first sight of the clock, but he was forced to navigate the aftermath with the specter of his dream-state looming over his shoulder. He rinsed his face with hot water, hoping the leftover chill would join the droplets in their descent from his nose to the sink drain. It didn’t.
Instead, the dream proceeded to play on a loop in his mind. He had been in the woods, staring into the darkened windows of a house (cliché, perhaps, but his dreams did often seem straight out of a Mary Shelley novel). For whatever reason, he knew that he was the one who had built the house, but when he tried to open the door he found that it was locked. Realizing there was no one to be found who could help him, he stumbled through the brush toward what seemed to be a clearing. After what had felt like a lifetime (we wonder if this is where his rest crossed the 6:15 A.M. threshold), he arrived at the edge of the woods, putting his hands in his pockets. His right hand had then made contact with a foreign object: metal, the nerve endings of his fingertips said, and smooth. Before it was out of his pocket, he knew what it was—a key. He had then torn through the woods to relocate his domestic creation, the return trip characteristically more direct and rapid than the departure. But when he arrived, the house was gone. All that was left to speak for it was the faint rectangular outline of the tiny welcome mat that had been placed before the front door.
That was when Joe had woken up.
And as Joe Marvin struggled to navigate the compound terror of tardiness and a bad dream, he realized that he knew exactly what his mind’s Gothic creation had meant. His sudden comprehension turned him back into the too-young adult that he had been, all fumbling hands and inexplicable emotion; and when Joe rushed outside to get the paper, he saw his ghost again, reflected in the gleam of his neighbor, Richard’s, eye.
What to say to this young man?
“Congratulations” would have been appropriate but meaningless, and “When’s she due?” would have betrayed more interest than Joe Marvin would have cared to show. In truth, the only phrase that crossed his mind (and crossed back, and re-crossed again, forming a spider web of sorts) was “Don’t run.”
But he held his tongue because he already knew Richard wouldn’t run. Richard looked nervous, yes, but hardly the deer-in-headlights that Joe had been. Joe was convinced that adoption had never crossed his neighbor’s mind, and why would it have? He could smell the confidence that seeped from the picture of Americana that was his neighbor’s house, making his coffee seem more and more bland each morning.
And as Joe hustled to compensate for lost time on his way to his favorite diner, he saw the image of his stallion of a neighbor everywhere: in the train car window, in the city smog, in every traffic light that kept him on the sidewalk longer. This is what kept him in a haunted trance for the entirety of his pedestrian commute, and would have caused that commute—and all future commutes—to very abruptly cease in front of the Related Companies construction site on 51st and 9th, had something else not stopped him first. That something was Patricia Nancy.
The funny thing about intense concentration is that it almost always inspires a study of the pavement: had Patricia Nancy not been lost in the consideration of possibilities, she most likely would have seen Joe Marvin, and had Joe Marvin not been wading in the wreckage of incomprehensible regret, he most likely would have seen Patricia Nancy (such are the nuances of looking in the direction in which one is traveling). Instead, all either of the two saw was pavement, all cracks and crevices leading up to the moment that the force of all their thoughts collided. The head-on crash startled them into a mindfulness that made Patricia Nancy reach out to him in apology as much as it made Joe Marvin shrink back from her hand in discomfort. And while the latter was forced to halt his forward progress in order to address the remorse that bled from the former’s nonverbal gesture, no one had bothered to look up.
Luckily, we had.
And what a sight was there to see: an American Elm, rising from the sewage steam, profanity, and pizza of the New York City streets in glorious protest of her skyscraping neighbors. The surrounding buildings may have been taller, but they hardly dwarfed her; in fact, as we examined the vase of wood that stretched out above us, we almost thought it was she who looked down upon them. She was a legend among the natives for having survived the onslaught of beetles that had practically massacred her relatives, the attack evidenced in just a few diseased branches that the city was due to remove anyway. Seeing as the city hadn’t, however, one of the branches in question still hung precariously over the pavement, just high enough to quicken the pace of any broker or beggar who happened to walk underneath it.
It was into that seasoned branch that modernity had collided—modernity in the form of the working arm of Richard Carr’s excavator. With a crack that must have been the sound of centuries of sinews snapping, machine and Elm met; and as Richard Carr pulled backward to absorb the effects of his preoccupation, the fall of the diseased branch began.
We watched all of this happen. Joe Marvin and Patricia Nancy, on the other hand, didn’t.
So when a branch crashed down in a blaze of autumnal yellow in the space just behind Patricia Nancy where Joe Marvin’s feet would have led him had she not stopped him in his tracks, the two hardly knew what to think.
It is 9:58 A.M. Joe Marvin is looking at Patricia Nancy, and Patricia Nancy is looking at Joe Marvin. It is Brussels Sprout and Coffee Bean and Elm, all mixed in a scene that would be more comical had it not brushed so closely by death. The two instinctively look down, surveying the damage: a tree branch, with its diseased bark and starving leaves. Still puzzled, Joe Marvin and Patricia Nancy simultaneously look up, and there she stands, the Prize Elm, even more majestic now that she has been ridden of an infected limb. The two bathe in her relief, eventually feeling strong enough to allow their sight to return to each other. An unexpected wave of recognition washes over them, but it isn’t as if they’ve ever seen each other before. Is it a jawline, a nose, or just the same searching look in the eye that makes the other person seem so familiar?
The two are alone in a sea of squawking pedestrians. They do not even notice Richard Carr as he rushes to the pavement to assess his damage, but the worried construction worker screeches to a halt as soon as he recognizes the wilted face that had plagued his morning. He rubs his eyes, but his neighbor’s face remains. Only now it does not register the inexpressible emotion that their previous exchange had revealed. Instead, it reads a kind of bewildered wonder that verges upon hope, and the transformation stuns Richard Carr into silence.
Joe Marvin searches the sky for words while Patricia Nancy scans the ground. In the end, all the former can muster is a watered-down smile, the latter a few more blinks than usual. Joe Marvin picks his way through the rustic debris and the two assume their respective paths, taking great care to avoid the exchange of eye contact. Before Richard can muster the words to speak, the two have disappeared into the smoggy mist of the metropolitan grid moors.
It is now 9:59 A.M. The wind blows, the leaves rustle, and the streets are left to whisper of what they have just seen.