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PERRY GLASSER


LIGHTED WINDOWS

She toys with the quartz at her throat. Where is her malachite?

His palms up, he slumps lower on the bench. Pigeons flutter and settle. Tough pigeons. Arrogant pigeons. Pigeons that might be connected. Homeboy gangbanging pigeons. You have to be careful.

"A kid, nights I rode the elevated. You'd see into lighted windows. Carpenters in undershirts. Waitresses in slips. You'd try to make sense from it. You couldn't. The train never stopped. Understand?"

She shakes her head. Nothing is clear with him.

"Listen. New Year's, four a.m., an Hispanic woman wearing a red sleeveless sequined dress near knocks me over. She's maybe forty. The dress is slit, but tight. She runs from the knees down, barefoot, except for stockings, black seams thick. Can't lift her hem to run faster because her hands are laced over her face where a web of blood flows through her fingers. At the center of Church Avenue, she shivers on the yellow center line.

"Comes a guy in a blue tuxedo, black velvet lapels, hell-bent after her. Bandito mustache. Patent leather shoes, big silver buckles, no shoe to run across frozen slush. Pink shirt, ruffles down the front. Holds his knife out in front of him. Red handle, probably plastic. Down his tuxedo sleeve, all over his shirt cuff, are streamers of her blood.

"She screams Dios, por favor, por favor, then she shrieks, wordless, one bare foot stamping the ground as her bloody hands reach toward him.

"Comes four more guys in matching tuxedos. They haul a garbage can. Steam lifts off them same as horses in the morning. They heave the can overhead, tuxedo jackets flapping like bat wings, and the can caroms off the knife-guy's shoulder, booms on the ground like a church bell. He staggers, then lunges for the closest guy.

"You know on TV how a man gets stabbed? Claps his hand over the spot like he's trying to hold in his guts? Looks down at the wound, looks astonished at the person who stabbed him, maybe smiles at some cosmic joke, then looks down again, then crumples slowly to his knees, and only then finally falls forward?"

She nods.

"This guy smacked the cement like a sack of wet shit. Blink, you missed it.

"Then fire trucks show up. An ambulance. Blue lights. Red lights. Sirens and Klaxons."

She asks about the woman. How badly hurt was she? What was the man to her?

"I told you all I saw. There is nothing to understand. Like staring into windows from a passing train."

They walk. When she asks for his sign, he ignores her. If she truly wants to comprehend, she should listen.

"Twenty years ago, in Greenwich Village, south of Washington Square are chess parlors, pay for play. Like bowling in Buffalo. But chess. Old men with tweed caps, cigarettes between their thumbs and index fingers, smoke so thick you cannot see the wall.

"Open the door and sleigh bells ring. I drop a clove in coffee smooth as syrup. When a guy with three hairs pasted in spirals on his bald head and an accent thicker than his coffee offers to arrange a game for me, I tell him I don't want to embarrass myself. He says, 'Watch. Learn.'

"Heavy as stone, players hunch over their boards. Everyone kibitzes. For another guy's folly, everybody's an expert.

"A big man, very fat, rolls in. With him is a black boy, maybe eighteen years old. The kid is emaciated. Wrist bones strain his skin. Cords in his neck bulge like he's angry and screaming, which he isn't, but should be. It's snowing, but this kid wears loafers and no socks. The man collapses into a chair, and the boy stands behind him.

"A young guy, a student-he has a khaki backpack and wears wire-rimmed bifocals-asks if the man wishes to play. The kibitzers sigh. Good fortune brings them to this place at this moment.

"The players set chess clocks for a ten-minute game. So quick, you'd think plastic breathed, knights rescue queens, pawns die for their king. The players slap pieces to the board and whack the chess clock's button switch. Hands hover like hummingbirds and strike like hawks. The big man tugs at a weed-thick tuft of gray hair sprouting from his ear and suddenly says, 'Clock!'

"His time expired, the student gives the man a crumpled dollar.

"The fat man passes the black boy the money. Before he slips it into his pocket, the boy smooths and folds the bill, precisely matching the edges. Fastidious.

"From the inside of his quilted vest, the older guy produces a pint of wine. He unscrews the cap, takes a swallow could drain the reservoir if his lips ever touched water.

"So they reset the clocks, reverse colors, and the student and the wino begin again. This time, the student in Lennon glasses tips his king. He passes a dollar over the board, and the fat guy passes it backward over his head.

"Game follows game. The stakes are doubled, but the student can't find victory. Dollars are sucked into the black boy's pocket. The green bottle drains. With each loss, the student extends his hand, but the wino ignores it.

"Comes a game, several old guys lean forward, maneuvering to see more clearly. The fat man's king is isolated, mere seconds remain on his clock, and the student moves with ferocious finality. But when the wino snatches his own queen with a kind of backhand grip, and with the same hand in one move scoops up his opponent's pawn, he slaps his piece onto a dangerous square, and belches, 'Check.' The student removes his spectacles, pinches the bridge of his nose, and rubs his eyes, all while his time runs. He accepts the queen, and the wino's hand, quicker than you can say it, offers a rook, slapping it onto the board. The student's hand trembles over a knight, withdraws, hangs over a bishop, returns to hover above the original knight. But when he accepts the wino's rook, a pawn inches forward. The old guys gasp. All their lives they've been blind, and this instant for the first time they see.

"The student sits erect, rubs his chin, then sags a bit. His king topples.

"His lips are bloodless. Like a spoiled kid beaten at table tennis by a merciless adult, suddenly he sees the world has held him safe from harm. His sense of mastery is an illusion. He's not extraordinary. He's just a kid.

"When he leaves, no one stops him, not even for payment. The world outside the shop lies hushed beneath snow.

"Inside, the fat guy's eyes are puffed shut, his nose runs. He reaches over his shoulder, but he cannot locate the black boy. Same hands never missed a chess piece three inches high, can't find a kid six feet tall at his back.

"So the boy puts his ear near the fat man's swollen lips, he nods, and the kid vanishes, sockless into the snow.

"The Bulgarian mutters something, but his customers twirl scarves around their necks, clap one another's shoulders, rub their hands together, and one by one depart, jangling the sleigh bells at the door.

"The fat man, stupefied, his green work pants dark where he has soiled himself, waits and waits and waits.

"I realize why he never accepts the student's congratulations. Blind with drink, he sees nothing, least of all his opponent's hand inches in front of his face. For him, the game occurs in his mind. It's a movie in his head. A perfect movie. All he needs to verify over the board is the student's last move."

"Did the black kid return?"

"Beats me. I was already late for dinner. How could I stay? Just another window."

She cannot coax another word from him. Worse, she sees his point.

Alone, that same night, she remains unsettled as October. She paces from room to room until at her table she fans and shuffles her tarot. His coloring, he'd be the King of Pentacles.

But this night the cards are mute, cardboard inked with pretty pictures.

She can't create his astrological chart; she doesn't know his birthday. She is sick with suspecting it would not matter if she did. She brews tea, but the leaves stay a sodden, clotted, formless mess.

Desperate, she seizes a yellow pad and a Ticonderoga #2.

She thinks a bit, then invents the concerned woman, her crystals, the pigeons. It starts to work. She invents a bench, a man to put on it, elevated trains, some tale about lighted windows. She invents all of it. Ash cans and chess players. Tuxedos and snow. She smells clove. She produces the tarot deck. She invents the tea. She conjures every detail, and she commits each onto the yellow paper fast as her hand can move.

And when she is done, she has this story. She writes that we may wonder, and that she may understand.

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