You’re standing around a puddle in the basement of a building in Chelsea. You’re with a big dodo-bird plumber, waiting for water to trickle down from the ceiling over your head.
“That’s what they eat, John McMahon,” the plumber says. “It’s all eyeball food and goldfish ass.” You can see that the plumber takes pride in his affected habit of always calling you by your full name. He tells you about his ex-wife, who is Korean, and whom he met in a gym. He tells you why he had to leave her: because of her cooking.
“That sounds tough,” you say, running a montage of that woman’s life through your head, thinking of what it would mean to have been married to and then left by this plumber, Roy—a man with the gait of a tugboat captain, who finds a way to issue a couple of little koans of racism every time you see him.
Roy scratches his head with his knuckles; some dandruff settles on his shoulder. The two of you stand in silence for a moment. You hear the hushed hum of the electrical meters, the hot water tank percolating: the acoustics of basements. Roy is not content to stand in silence.
“Hurry up, Florence,” he says. He’s talking about the resident of 1B, who is not named Florence, but Bill, and who is gay. You’re waiting for Bill to run his dishwasher, to see if it’s the source of the rain that has made the puddle in front of you.
Roy begins to impersonate Bill. “Oh, just give me one minute,” he pantomimes with a lisp. “I’m just waiting for my boyfriend to get back with the gardenias.” He makes a gesture like throwing a scarf over his shoulder. Though you loathe his bigotry, you can’t help but admire the particularity of Roy’s details—finding the gardenias and goldfish ass in the dripping rhythms of his days.
Water begins to trickle down.
“There we go,” you say. You dial Bill on your phone. “That’s it,” you tell him. “That’s the culprit.”
You get off the train at Wall Street and walk toward your office. Snow has started to fall. It’s pretty snow, slow-moving and pure, but snow means that you’ll have to call the supers of all your buildings, weaving your way through the thickets of their accents: Spanish, West Indian, Lebanese. You’ll remind them that they have to shovel and salt the sidewalks. They’ll hate you for it—just as everyone hates you in this line of work. Not just because you’re demanding their labor, but because these phone calls are condescending: they all have eyes, they can see the snow, they know how to do their jobs. But you are just following orders—doing the bidding of your boss, a pompous man named Aaron Simpson, who resembles a honey-baked ham mounted to a trench coat, and fancies himself a small business guru. He’s always leaving the office to attend networking events. He loves to talk about mistakes you make as “teachable moments.”
You get off at the Wall Street station and walk down the slope past Alexander Hamilton’s grave. You love that grave. Love that Alexander Hamilton is a place on the earth—that he has coordinates, and that the coordinates are right here in this city of yours. You love that dueling was his cause of death, and that duels followed a preposterous set of rules: code duello. Code duello. It has become your mantra. When your boss angers you, you recall code duello, and you can somehow levitate above it. Yesterday a cockroach scuttled across your desk. You remembered code duello then, too. It doesn’t make any sense, especially because Hamilton lost the duel. But it’s the mantra you’ve found; you hold it tight, feel the gravity of two men at dawn with their muskets. You stop in front of the grave and clutch the fence. Try to feel, down in your feet, Alexander Hamilton’s old bones releasing some whale sonar of history.
You get back to the office. Aaron Simpson tells you what you’ll be doing next, and it’s not calling the supers. No: you will be doing something quasi-illegal at this building on the Bowery.
The building in question is four stories tall, a former factory built in the late 1800s, owned by a billionaire whose family is in the fast food industry. He didn’t buy up the building as a real estate speculator; he just happened to inherit it. He wants to smoke out the current tenants and convert the building to his private residence, but because the apartments are rent-stabilized, there are rules that make it almost impossible, so the whole situation has been tied up in court for years. He has therefore instructed Aaron not to fix any of the tenants’ problems—which are many—short of anything that would compromise the physical integrity of the building. Aaron—and you, as his henchman—are to perform this act deftly, so that the tenants won’t be able to sue him for negligence, but will eventually become so worn down by the choir of small miseries in their home that they’ll choose to leave.
“The second fucking floor tenants at 94 Bowery are complaining about a leak—again,” Aaron says.
“What are we telling them this time?” you say.
“I haven’t told them anything, I just keep letting it go to voicemail. I don’t know. I guess we should take a look, make sure there’s no rot stuff. But no doubt they’re just being little bitches, so fuck ’em.”
“So you just want me to go see?”
“Yep. You gotta act real casual though, because they’re going to try to get you to fix a million other things as soon as you walk through the door.”
You debate saying what you’re going to say next, knowing in advance it will dissipate like Alka-Seltzer as soon as it makes contact with the morally empty fluid of Aaron’s person. You say it anyway:
“I don’t know man, I’m starting to feel bad for these people. I talked to that lady on the phone, Cristina—the one with the Spanish accent. She’s really nice, you know?”
Aaron raises his eyebrows, takes a theatrical sip of coffee and says, “Nice? They’re fucking nice? First of all, let me clear something up—you probably think that lady is from Mexico or Honduras or someplace where she’s a—whatever—a refugee. She’s not. She’s Spain Spanish and you should Google her sometime—I did, because she also happens to be hot as fuck. She’s on all these society blogs—at fucking fashion shows and shit. The husband is some architect Dutch guy. And who knows if that family is even here legally.”
He searches you for a reaction.
“Second of all,” he continues, “let me ask you something, John. How much do you pay in rent?”
You hesitate for a moment.
“I pay two thousand dollars,” you say.
“For what, a one-bedroom?”
“Incredible. Two thousand for a studio. In fucking Brooklyn, right?”
“Two thousand dollars for a studio in Williamsburg. How big is that studio?”
“Not so big.”
“Not so big.” Aaron chuckles. “Oh, I bet. How not-so-big? Give me the square feet.”
“I think around three hundred square feet.”
“Got it. Great. You wanna know what these people pay? They pay seven hundred a month.”
A small tectonic shift of jealousy roils in your stomach.
“Damn right I’m serious. Have Anthony show you the books sometime. And those units—they’re goddam huge. They’re like fifteen hundred square feet. And the ceilings are crazy high, too.”
You don’t have a good response. You suppose this is enough evidence to stop pitying the tenants. But what then? You’re supposed to side with the billionaire landlord?
You look out the window. The sooty grandeur of the financial district standing stern under a veil of snow. You think of all the money happening up in those towers—swindles and short shrifts racing around the globe in ones and zeroes. Manhattan, all of it a hopeless maze. Everything is echelons of echelons, and space—spaces—are what their troops parade around in, and the loot they bandy about, and the towers they lock you out from. And you’re some kind of Quasimodo of the basement, tinkering around with their pipes and machines.
You were lying to Aaron, though. You don’t live in Williamsburg. You don’t live on your own. You live with your mom and teenage sister, in Park Slope. You dropped out of graduate school after a year to live with them when your dad died, because it felt selfish to study Irish literature when your mom was having trouble paying the mortgage. But this is not the type of information you want Aaron Simpson to have. You want him to have as little of you as possible. You want him to think that you aren’t trapped here, in this small-beans pawnshop of the spirit. That you could leave at any time.
You don’t want him to know how your dad died, either. You don’t want anyone to know about that, but Aaron Simpson most of all. About the supernatural banality of the fact that he was electrocuted at one of his contracting jobs. You hate when people hear about it, for many reasons. One is that, immediately, it becomes the most important thing about you. You’re “that guy whose dad electrocuted himself.” The pity it elicits is something other than death by cancer or heart attack: it’s a freak show type of pity—a yoke you’d rather not wear. The other is that, when people hear about it, they try to dig around for the morbid details. You’re terrible at performing the tragic accident monologue. It was tragic, sure, but you’re not sure he’s due the pathos paid to a true accident when, if the coroner is to be believed, he would have soundly failed a breathalyzer at his time of death— around ten o’clock in the morning.
You head to the subway to get to the Bowery, but then you decide you’re going to walk. Just to have some time to yourself, to think.
It’s lunchtime in the financial district. You pass two men—older, white-haired, but with a gin-brisk zest of health. They have racquets slung over their shoulders. Racquets are for rich people. You can picture different parts of their lives. They’ve been on yachts more than once. Their wives are stowed on the Upper East Side, minted in different shades of blonde. They serve on boards and host benefits. You think of their money, their chauffeurs, the vocabulary of their places: Montauk, Aspen, Côte d’Azur. You toy with envy. Then you content yourself with the knowledge that they live their lives on a chessboard, waltzing around in small, linear motions only among their own class.
You pass regular people—secretaries, number-crunchers, delivery guys going up and down the buildings, bringing lunches and letters. Sometimes you read into everyone’s eyes a mean look. Other times, when your mood is good, when the sun is out, the people seem sunny, too. There’s some sort of camaraderie in sharing the narrow streets. Sometimes you can see all the streets, and the people on them, like how they were in the 1600s, when these were cow paths, when Canal Street was a pond, when Orchard Street was a real orchard—apple blossoms, green pears, waving in the breeze. But almost immediately you switch to thinking of all the violence that happened here, too: Algonquin children hacked up, runaway slaves drawn and quartered, heads displayed on poles, prostitutes burned alive. The denizens of New Amsterdam congregating to watch stuff like this—entertained? unfazed? what did they feel? You love to romanticize the past, but without fail you end up at these thoughts, and marvel at the appetite for torture your forebears seem to have had. That’s one dimension where we’ve improved, you think, but it’s not that long—a few centuries. Maybe this is just a cloud break, and our appetite for torture will return, but thickened, and we’ll have a bunch of new technologies to implement it. There’s a pressure in your chest, a dread. Then you pass a beautiful girl near the Woolworth Building, and you’re back here. The past and future’s torture is not your fault. You remember how you haven’t had sex in two years.
You pass through Chinatown, stop into your favorite Chinese bakery, and get a pork bun. At this bakery they sell big green boxes full of fortune cookies. You remember the time you bought a box and brought it home. You dropped a couple of handfuls of cookies into your sister’s open palms; you were happy to see her teenage scowl fade for a second as she flashed glee like a kid after trick-or-treating.
You ate the whole rest of the box of cookies while watching Eraserhead. At first you were reading the fortunes while you ate them, but soon you lost interest, and by the end of the movie you had a pile of unread fortunes sitting in the box like the shells of pistachios. You wondered which was your real fortune, your main fortune. You remembered a friend of yours in grade school who told you that if you get a blank fortune it means you’re going to die. So you read them. None of them were blank, so you went to bed satisfied, or maybe disappointed. You couldn’t decide.
You arrive at the Bowery, next to the building. You admire the Bowery for only needing one name: it’s not Bowery Street, or Bowery Avenue—it’s just the Bowery. One word to stand for the rankest cesspool in New York’s history—a headline over morbid picaresques of the poor and the criminal, starring gangs like the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Tub of Blood Bunch. They conducted their own brand of code duello, with knives and chains and boots and bricks; bodies dumped in the river. Opium dens, crack dens, five-cent flophouse beds, and fires burning in oil barrels. You think of this spot a block away—now a glassy condo, but at one time a place called McGurk’s Suicide Hall, so named because of the scores of prostitutes who killed themselves on the premises year after year, either jumping off the roof, or guzzling carbolic acid to consummate the only logical ending to their agony.
You pick up the building’s keys from the restaurant on the corner. It takes you two full minutes of wrestling with them, testing them all out, to figure out which one is for the front door. You always have trouble with keys—losing them, getting locked out of places, one time even getting locked in. But it finally clicks into place.
You make your way up the wide staircase to the third floor. You knock on the door: it’s heavy, made of weathered steel. A small person struggles to open it. All you see at first are eyes—so big they light up everything. Then, as the door opens, a wide smile, two pretty lips, the smell of perfume—something peppery. A trill of its spice zips up your spine.
“Hello, John!” she says—Cristina—in her Spanish accent. You remember being taught to roll your Rs in Spanish class, putting the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. You do that for a second.
“So wonderful to finally meet you,” she says, putting her hand on your shoulder.
You greet her, and have an urge to take a hat off your head, hold it to your waist, like a gentleman of the 1940s, but there’s no hat at hand.
“Come, come inside,” she says, opening the door wide to welcome you. She takes a few steps back and places her hand on her stomach, which you realize is vastly pregnant. As you turn the corner of the door, the helm of her belly grazes your waist. That’s the first time you’ve ever felt one, you realize, since your mom, with your sister—a pregnant belly. You think of the fetus in there, between you and her, floating like an astronaut.
You look across the huge loft. See the quickening snow through the wide windows. Along with the snow, everything indoors, in your field of vision, is also white. The wooden floors, painted white. A massive sectional sofa—expensive, Italian—lamps, coffee tables, all white, sitting on top of a fluffy white rug. Everything’s white, except for the candy colors of a child’s building blocks, scattered among the rug’s pile, and the artwork on the walls: jumbo canvases of chrome-smooth abstractions.
“Come sit down, please,” Cristina says. “You would like some coffee, some cappuccino?” She gestures to a table and kitchen at the other end of the loft: a distance so huge for Manhattan, it seems a trick of the eye. Seeing it all spread out before you, you’re sure right away that of all the spaces under your company’s management—spaces that include Tribeca penthouses, West Village duplexes, junior sixes on the Upper East Side—you most envy this one. You come up with a whole tableau of a party you might have attended here at a different time, when this would have been an artist’s loft and the city would have been a softer place, less calcified by money. You, too, would have been softer—had bohemian friends who waited tables, ran movie projectors, mopped museum floors, while they plugged away earnestly at their experimental theater and painting. Just the wood and bones of this loft make you think of this, feel like this, and so you wish to possess it, like Cristina does, for seven hundred dollars a month.
You tell her yes, and she begins to operate the levers of the large, red espresso machine.
“We’ve been so impressed with you, John,” she says. “You’re the first person who has that job who talks to us like we are human beings. Your emails—you write in real sentences. That man before you, that Nick. Ay dios mio.”
“I’m sorry about that,” you say. “A lot of people complain to me about that guy.”
She stops speaking as the coffee beans grind. Then she stands in the quiet for a moment. You think about the revolving door of your job —the tales you’ve heard from the accountant of the insect-length life cycles of the men who preceded you as foot soldiers in Aaron’s crooked brigade. They lasted a few months, tops, sometimes only a few weeks. A few days, in one record-setting case. At five months, you possess the dubious distinction of longest-lasting employee in the role.
“Listen, John, we are not idiots,” Cristina says suddenly.
“What do you mean?” you say. But you know what she means, as she turns back to the machine. She lets the words sit there. The machine makes one loud whoosh of steam and then another, and she stirs the top and brings it to you.
“Look, we know it’s not your fault, that you just do what they say—but we know you don’t help us, on purpose.” You look away from her while you begin to take a sip. You feel a pang of guilt and try to ignore the legal tar trap she’s setting in front of you. You wonder if you’re being recorded.
“That’s not true,” you say. “It isn’t. If you knew how overloaded we are in that office . . . We feel bad for people. I feel terrible like half the time. But it’s just how it is.”
She sits down across from you and gives you a wry smile. You want to hate it, for its condescension, but you can’t, because it looks the way your first-grade teacher looked when she was reading aloud, when she would finish a clever passage in a storybook.
“Okay, John. I won’t push it. I know you can’t say it, even if it is true, and that’s why I don’t believe you. But like I say before—I know it’s not your fault.”
You take an awkward sip of the coffee.
“I’m sorry and everything,” you say. “That it takes so long. That we can’t fix all the stuff.”
Then a small child toddles out from a room in the back. He is wearing pajamas printed with trains. His father follows behind him—a slim, blond Viking in six-hundred-dollar glasses.
“Come, sweetie,” Cristina says to her son, and pulls him to her lap. He is unfairly adorable, with big, shiny, anime eyes, and the best-of-both-worlds, Mediterranean/Nordic features of a child model.
“This is my son, Alejandro,” she says. He looks at you and smiles. He hands you something small and soft—a finger puppet of a lion.
“Thank you,” you say to him, and place the puppet on your finger.
“And this is my husband, Lars,” she says. You get up to shake his hand, tucking the finger with the puppet against your palm, so that you are left with a weak, cockeyed handshake: you’ve already fumbled in this duel. It’s strange to think of this guy as a father. You compare him—with his princely bearing and crisp, unspotted attire—to your own father, crouched and plodding, wearing the same, paint-splotched red tee shirt from his contracting firm day after day.
“Ah, the famous John,” says Lars. “Cristina doesn’t believe that you’re going to help us. But I have faith in you. I’ve said that to you, Cristina, haven’t I? How I have faith in John?”
“He does say that,” she says. “Maybe he’s the fool, or maybe I am.”
“Come, let me show you the current disasters,” says Lars.
He leads you into the bathroom first. He points upward, to a cloud of black mold on the ceiling. Then he points downward, to the floor, where an array of child’s sandbox buckets are catching drips coming from different places above.
“Here’s one problem, you see,” says Lars. “And I don’t want you to think we haven’t tried to fix this ourselves. But we’d need to get into the top-floor unit, and your company won’t let us.”
You remember now about the top-floor unit. Aaron told you the building’s super used to live there, an old guy named Silvio. The billionaire landlord was fond of him. Or maybe it was that he was some sort of relation, and the landlord didn’t want to kick him out. He died three years ago, in his eighties, and that’s when the war with the tenants began.
“When Silvio was here, things would never get so bad,” says Lars. “He was old, he couldn’t fix everything, but it wasn’t like this.”
Lars leads you back out to the living room. He takes you to a curtained-off area, and opens it to reveal a fortress of space heaters.
“Here’s another thing. We have to use these when—you must know this—every few weeks in the winter someone has ‘forgotten’ to pay the oil bill, and so there’s no heat for a day or two.” You avoid his impeaching glare. As he says this, the child runs up to you, beaming, and hands you a crayon drawing. You exchange it with him for the finger puppet. You wonder if he has been trained to do this: to ornament the guilt you’re feeling with this mawkish display.
Then Lars brings you to the bedroom, near the window. A hardened trail of white and green pigeon shit leads down the wall, to a sheet of plastic acting as a hammock for more of it.
“Revolting, yes?” asks Lars. “We try to keep up with it, to keep it out, but there are so many birds up there—all these cracks in the floor, and then it’s hard to access it to do anything about it because of the pipes.” The industrial pipes that snake overhead are also covered in pigeon shit. A little nausea grips your stomach. You can’t think of anything to say.
“So these—these are what happens right now,” says Cristina. “But every season brings a different problem. I hate so much when it’s cold, but then sometimes in the summer I think I would trade if I could, because then a lot more roaches come.” She places her hands on her belly, as if to ward them off from her womb.
They look to you to say something. You hate when these moments confront you. Anything that expects the reasonableness of an adult. Anything that asks you to debark the sputtering biplane of your prattling mind and behave as if there is solid ground below your feet. Code duello, you whisper in your head.
“I’m really sorry,” you say. “This is all really horrible.”
You do feel terrible, especially when you look at her and not Lars. In spite of their impenetrable shellac of enviability, you feel pity. Maybe it’s the whole Madonna and Child routine, or maybe it’s just her: some quiver of chivalry makes you want to defy Aaron Simpson, defy the billionaire, and help her out.
“Let me take a look upstairs,” you say. “I have the keys. I’m sorry—I’d bring you, but I can’t—it’s for liability reasons.” Lars nods his head that he understands, and shows you to the door.
You’re about to take the stairs, but then you remember about the elevator. Aaron told you that there’s a freight elevator in the back of the building. The tenants aren’t allowed to use it because it’s been a couple of years since its last inspection, but it’s still perfectly usable, he said. He said you should try it out—that it’s pretty fun, kind of satisfying. Once in a rare while a little humanity will trickle out through a rip in Aaron’s rubbery huckster costume.
You fiddle around with the keys again to find the one for the elevator, but this time it’s easy. A thick, brass key etched with scrolls; it looks like it could unlock a little kingdom. You stick it in the elevator’s lock and turn it to the left. A jolt shifts the whole building and you hear it, the slow-moving beast, rising up to your floor.
The doors open. Inside, there are no buttons, only a gearshift—a wooden knob on an iron handle. You clutch it in your grasp. It’s smooth and supple, softened over decades by the hand oil of factory workers. There is no way to tell what floor you’re on, except to count the doorways above you. There is no ceiling to the elevator car, so if you look up, you can see them, and all the way to the top of the shaft, where a glass cupola reveals the sky.
You pull the knob toward you. The ride is calm and smooth, accompanied by a baritone thrum. The elevator lines up with the doorway one floor up, and there’s even a bell—a clang—to mark your arrival, as it opens to Silvio’s old dwelling.
As soon as you step into the apartment, a flight of pigeons tears out through a broken window, clawing your nerves with the raspy flapping of their wings. You catch your breath and see that Silvio’s apartment is all one room, one big room, but the ceilings are much lower: a garret with dormer windows. In the middle of the room, attached to nothing, is a huge, old cast iron stove, and against one wall, a deep porcelain utility sink. From the sink, a yellowed rubber hose leads to a clawfoot bathtub also sitting, untethered, in the middle of the room.
The space has a peaceful holiness, punctured at intervals by siren blares and rattling trucks you hear through the broken window. You wonder if Silvio ever had a wife and kids while he lived here, in this crazy relic of tenement times. It’s hard to imagine that he did, but it’s also hard to say which is sadder: the idea of some whole family shoved in this place, taking turns in the communal hose bath, or the idea of poor old Silvio alone here into his eighties, doing a job not unrelated to yours.
You go over to the sink. The tap is running a little, for some reason. Who knows how it got that way—maybe Silvio’s ghost. The sink is right above the Europeans’ bathroom, and you bet that has something to do with the leaks and mold. You turn it off, and give a proud nod to yourself for this paltry accomplishment.
Then you see a piece of plywood on the floor next to the broken window, just the right size to cover the broken pane. Nails are sticking out from the side of it. You pick up an old pot sitting on the stove, line up the plywood with the holes in the wood where its nails used to be, and use the pot to hammer it back into place. That’ll keep the pigeons out, for a little while at least.
Then, for no good reason, you step into the clawfoot tub and lie back. Look out at the city through the small square of window that still lets in light. The view feels somehow luxurious, even though you’re surrounded by sawed-off pieces of rusty pipe, curled-up stacks of old yellow pages, tin cans, broken glass, and pigeon-shit confetti.
You remember again how the Europeans’ apartment is two or three times the size of your mom’s, yet their rent is a quarter of hers. Think of Aaron Simpson rubbing that in. Think of how petty and stupid these thoughts are, but inevitable. How much you hate that you have them. Hate that New York chose you. You remember the idea of that 1980s party downstairs, that you’ll never get to go to. From now on, when you pass this building, that party will always be happening in your mind. It will be another place, like drawn-and-quartered lower Manhattan, that will be hashmarked with sadness of your own making, on your beaten-up mental map of the city.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see some movement—a tiny, steady movement, like the first bubbles in a pot of boiling water: stillness and movement at the same time. You get up out of the tub and move toward it. You’re not even sure where you’re supposed to look, so you follow an inner compass, a homing device, perceiving smaller and smaller to be there on the plane of whatever is calling to you. You feel yourself getting closer as you move down toward the floor. You see it then—something gray and pink. You kneel down to be next to it and see that it is a baby something, squirming. You leap up from the floor, thinking of rats, as if this tiny, undulating thing might burst open into a cascade of them if given the chance.
You collect yourself, bracing against the rim of the bathtub. You stoop down again to examine it, and realize that it’s not a rodent—not a mammal of any kind—but a bird—a nascent thing, studded with tiny spikes that will someday be feathers. You look closer. The whole thing is squirming—long curved legs twitching, its mouth opening and closing beneath the strange bruises of its eyes. When its mouth opens, the well of it seems impossibly deep—a tunnel deeper than its body, going down and down, below this floor, below the building, below the subway.
The only thing not moving is one wing—one arm that will become a wing. The other wing is moving, but this one is motionless. It must be broken. Reason sets in, and though the bird’s helplessness tugs at your heart, you know that there is nothing to be done, no action you can take that will improve this situation. It’s a pigeon, of course—no mystical bird. It’s not an eagle, it’s not a parrot. It’s not even a crow. It’s a common pigeon. A street pigeon. It will wriggle through existence for a few weeks to end up one of those big dumb boats, dip-dyed the colors of oily puddles, fat and nodding yes to everything and nothing all the time. There is nothing lovable about a pigeon. You remember your father, once, when you were a kid, taking the end of a broom and knocking a nest off one of the window ledges in your apartment, swinging it like a baseball bat. “Rats of the goddam sky,” he said, connecting with it grand-slam hard, and looking at you like a gangbusting cop.
You try to channel his aggression while you decide what to do. You could let it stay here and hope that its mother comes back and feeds it, but that doesn’t make any sense—you just boarded up the window so that the flock of them wouldn’t return. You could bring it outside and hope that its mother finds it there. But the mother won’t. And it’s snowing. Who knows where baby pigeons go in the winter so they don’t die. Not to mention, even if it were to survive all that, this bird has a broken wing. And though much of a pigeon’s life is lived on the ground, not all of it is.
And anyway, you hate pigeons. You’ve been shat on by them a couple of times. You remember being a kid and watching a pair of them copulating in the playground. How it was sort of a primal-scene trauma. No. The only solution is to put it out of its misery. Otherwise it stays here and it starves, flailing around with a broken wing, no one to witness. If you hadn’t arrived, the animal kingdom—god or creation or whatever you want to call it—would have allowed it to suffer. It wouldn’t have been your fault. But now you’re here, god’s understudy. You have to speak your lines.
It’s hard for you to conceive, though, of whatever action it would take to kill it kindly. All the methods seem like they’d be too much for your fragile sensibilities—the trauma yin to the yang of the two birds that were fucking. You’re sort of angry. You don’t owe it to pigeons to torment your subconscious any further.
You think of how your dad would have done it without hesitating for even a second. Just snapped its skinny neck between his fingers. You think of him looking at you right now—at what a pussy you’re being. You think of Aaron’s face, too, his thick lips sneering. It makes you at least want to take the next step—of picking it up, bringing it someplace, wherever that may be, so it can be executed humanely.
You see a rusty coffee can on the stove. You bring it over to the bird, tilt the rim underneath it, and push the warm nugget of its body into the can. You let it nestle in there, tilting it up slowly. Its peeps of alarm quicken.
You decide that maybe what you’ll do is drop the bird in the garbage bin outside and throw something very heavy on top of it.
You go down in the elevator; hear the Europeans and the child laughing about something—something heartwarming, no doubt. Keep going. You’ll grab the fifty-pound bag of ice melt in the hallway and use that for the execution. You’ll go outside, put the bird in the trash first, come back, get the bag, and get it done.
You open the front door. Outside, the whiteness feels brutal, like someone flicking the house lights on in the middle of a movie. The snow is falling faster than before. You go to the locked trash enclosure. Place the bird on the lid. Start fumbling for the keys in your pocket. You find the keychain of the building and realize that, of course, you don’t have the key for it.
“Fuck,” you say aloud, contemplating execution right there on the sidewalk. But then you think of other people walking by, wondering what the hell you’re doing. You visualize blood and guts in the snow. Tiny gizzards, whatever gizzards are.
Then, as you stand there in dumb silence, a man approaches you. He takes a knit cap off his head, and begins a speech.
“Sir, very kindly I ask you if you have some money to help a brother out. I’m a veteran, sir.” He points to his eye, pulling the bottom lid down slightly so you can see the full globe of it, and the cloudy, motionless iris suspended inside. “I got injured in Iraq, I can’t see out of this eye.” He stops speaking and lets you stare at it for a second. “I lost my home. My landlord kicked me out. I got no money. I’m tryna get some food and a bus ticket so I can go upstate to my ma’s house. She’s in Buffalo. It’s a sixty-dollar ticket. Right now I got forty dollars. Can you help a brother out? Anything you can offer just to help me get home?”
You have a practiced pitying look you usually give before you decline to give money to beggars. You begin to flash it, then you remember about the bird in the can. A smug phrase Aaron uses all the time comes to mind. He says it when a problem that seems insoluble presents itself—one that he, in his fatuous apathy, has no interest in solving. “Be resourceful,” he says to you, before winking, or patting you on the shoulder, or throwing his feet up on the desk. Code duello has to flash through your mind to bear it.
You stiffen up your shoulders. “All right, man, I can help you out if you can do something for me,” you say. The veteran looks at you with his one good eye.
“I’ve got this bird here. It’s a pigeon—a baby. It’s got a broken wing, and it needs to be put out of its misery.” You scratch your face with the back of your hand. “I can’t seem to get myself to do it.”
You reach into your pocket and pull out your wallet. “I’ve got twenty-five bucks here. That’ll get you the rest of your ticket, and a sandwich or something. I can give this to you if you do me a favor. Can you take this goddam bird somewhere—somewhere out of my sight—and kill it? I don’t care how you do it, but whatever you do, can you make sure it dies right away—that it doesn’t suffer?”
The beggar looks down into the can, absorbs the sight. He frowns, seems moved, and says, “Yes, I can. I can do that for you, sir.”
“Thanks, man,” you say, extracting the bills. “You mean it though, right? You won’t just leave it somewhere and let it die in the snow?”
The man looks at you with disappointment. “I’m a man of my word. I’m a veteran. I don’t want nobody to suffer neither.”
You nod your head yes and hand him the money.
“Thank you, sir,” he says, and shakes your hand. “Thank you very much. I’ll take care of this. I’ll be kind.” He takes the can from you and looks down at the bird again. “You have a blessed day now,” he says.
He trudges away with a faulty gait. Your dad used to say all beggars are on drugs, and that you should never give money to them because they’ll just buy more drugs. Your dad, the drunk—that’s what he would say. Sometimes you think that way—use it to excuse your lack of generosity. Other times you do give money, and don’t give a damn if they buy drugs with it or not. Whatever it takes to get by, you know? You’re doing it, they’re doing it—we’re all doing it: staring up at the sky like that bird, our eyes closed, our mouth opening and closing, waiting for some power above to put something in it. Put something in it, or bludgeon us with a bag of salt in a Bowery trash can.
You check the time. It’s three o’clock, and this is what your day in Manhattan has been so far. You turn to go back up to the Europeans’ apartment to wrap things up, now with this story you won’t tell them, or anyone. You’ll give them a sad little status report about your efforts, then you’ll point yourself downtown, back to Wall Street. You remember that at least Alexander Hamilton is down there. His good old bones, and the marble pyramid marking them. Code duello, you think, and keep going.