The Line

by James Robison

On the Boston ferry, I'm most like that guy by the rail—I mean we share a vocabulary of forms, being froglike both of us, and fifty some. His grimy motorist's cap is pushed down to his popped eyes; his yellow shirt is buttoned to the wattles at his throat; and tenderly, palm up, he holds a chewed cigar. Its leaf is only a shade darker than his mackintosh.

And I would talk to her, the ponytailed weight lifter on the rail. In a sweater shirt, the depth and breadth of her shoulders are sexy. Her waist is tiny.

I feel like a dynamo, too, on the shuddering varnished bench over the ferry's grinding engines. I'll try to slow down. I'm under orders to try. The September sun has burned a hole in the dawn haze and laid a hot white path behind the ferry, a burning wake.

Painted on an orange channel marker, which swirls in our charge in the drab water, is the block numeral “2.”

I've been alone for over a month now, deserted. Or, not exactly deserted, for what has happened to me is more an act of justice; “marooned” is right.

Matte-black birds race the ferry, coursing so low their wing tips nearly beat water.

The jetliners prowling Logan have finned tails that look like gliding sail craft from where I sit.

I think how Boston, massed terribly off the bow, looks judgmental after the holiday space of the bay.

 I'm trying to organize. My faraway wife once told me, “Don't talk all at once, Sam. Start at the top and go to the bottom. Remember to indent .”

Later, on the subway to Cambridge, I'm between a brooding man in a leather trench- coat and a woman with a poodle haircut and a lot of face paint. I would like to talk to her. Her lips and eyes are all art and drama—greenish—but she's down to business already, reading printout sheets in the crush of riders.

At work, Edna Rudd's newest secretary has this memo delivered to me: “Could you move a touch more quickly on your contribution to the Procedures Manual?”

“I could, Marta, but I probably won't” is my answering note, which I sign “Slacker,” and give to Interoffice.

Lunch I take behind a newspaper, in a coffeehouse on Mt. Auburn Street. The cramped rows of tables are like game boards on poles—they're that small.

A middle-aged man in a turban gets seated diagonally across from me. He wears a blue wool sports jacket and a floppy shirt the color of cantaloupe flesh. He has a wispy beard, many moles, and steel-framed spectacles. Crowding me on the left, his companion is too close to be glanced.

“Today, no more tea,” says the man in the turban.

“So you're fully entertained,” says the companion.

My food comes. I try to read. The two have a kind of lovers' quarrel.

“Last week Washington, next week Washington, and no, I didn't try to call you,” says the unseen man. His accent has the South in it, and sophistication of a type.

“I don't care what I eat,” says the turban.

“Listen, don't you move.”

The waitress takes their orders— literally over my head. I twist to see the man at my shoulder. He turns out to be a black man in a hacking jacket and a toffee sweater.

“Anything good in the paper?” the waitress asks me.

“I wasn't chasing you out,” she says, when I have told her no, and looked away.

After she delivers their meal, I hear the black man say, “I've never seen anyone do
that. Salt in your orange juice?”

“Delicious,” says the other.

“Are you serious? And pepper now?”

“It's very good. You should be open to new things, Henry.”

“You want some ketchup?” says the black man.

What I have been studying, since turning over my paper, is a line of copy on a full-page ad for beer. “You've done what you set out to do,” it says. The irony is not very biting— toothless, really. I know I've done nothing.

So I don't go back to work but to the reading room at the Widener Library. I mean to finish making my letter.

Working at the library, I'm stared at. I look up from my long table. The starers, caught, look away and readjust their features. They're merely thinking, I know—distracted by thought. They don't, of course, see me when they stare. Or they do.

The very difficult letter I'm composing has me swamped, just as whatever trials of composition or tabulation or memory they are enduring have the starers swamped. But when I'm hunting a phrase, sorting possibilities, some part of me takes in a college girl. She's like the young Jean Arthur, if that actress had ever worn her hair in such a full-blown, leonine manner. While I'm deciding whether or not to use the word “adore” in my letter, I see the shaped curve of her blouse collar, her stingy green sweater, the silver fountain pen she uses. Sometime in the future, if this letter is successful, I will have a chance to reread it, and when I discover the phrase that does or does not contain the word “adore,” I know I will see this girl or feel something of her in the words, and maybe the weight lifter, too, and maybe the green-lipped woman, and the man in the turban.

Across from me at the table, a young man with a bad skin stabs out his Parliament cigarette. A Cartier watch is strapped to his wrist. ‘Without hesitation, he pencils “D-minus” onto the front page of an exam booklet he has been reading and slaps shut its cover.

It's only three. I cut my job altogether, take the subway to the Government Center, choose, near Quincy Market, a hash place, an unhappy space. It's narrow and just below street level. There's very little light, but it's right for me. I'm out of breath and mean to set myself aside for a bit.

My view from the back end of the serving counter is of abandoned food machines, their steel furry with grease and dust. The working grill, the tanks of hot water, the little aquariums of fruit drink are at the front of the place, near the street window.

The counterman comes to me, apparently not to take my order but to carve up a brisket of corned beef. He calls to his crony, a round man in an Eisenhower jacket, “Do you know how many days we gotta wait to see that ‘Hill Street Blue'?”

“What's that? Dirty?”

“No, that show won all those Emmys. Nine days we gotta wait. Ricky, you have a man here.”

Ricky, a waitress—maybe his daughter or his wife—says to me, “Sir?”

She's bucktoothed. The line from her underlip to the base of her throat is nearly straight.

“And Ricky, don't heat the plates with real gold in the microwave,” the owner says.

“Sure, I know,” she says and holds herself.

“It's too hot for gold.”

“It's not too hot,” she tells me. “It just makes everything black. It's broken.” She serves me my coffee in a pudgy cup and gives me a lustreless spoon.

“Serve him, with that, the real cream,” the owner says.

 section break

On the ferry home, between gray flattish islands that are here and there rusty with autumn trees, I see a landless lighthouse. It's like some sunken skyscraper with just the tower showing, looking both dainty and stubby in the sliding bay.

I take the car my wife has left me, an old Maverick, into the village. The village is standard: hardware, jeweler's, package store, travel agent, bakery; on the corner is a pharmacy. I find a meter in front of the bakery, but Lois Mencke, our former car-insurance person, is in the bakery, pointing into a lighted glass showcase. The tiny blonde who works there is collecting corn muffins for Lois. I slither into the pharmacy.

Inside, Billings, my neighbor, our mayor, is at the magazine rack. He holds a perfume bottle—the kind with an attached rubber squeeze bulb—and a gift box of Scotch. He's in survival wear tonight: a camouflage shirt, Army-looking trousers.

‘Lo, citizen. How's yourself? How's Olive?” he says.

“Olive's away,” I say.

“Pat McClery, where are my drugs?” he calls. Pat is the pharmacist.

“Kickbacks,” I hear Pat mutter.

“So where is Olive?” Billings asks me.

I tell him our story. I blurt it out, really. My romance, I tell him, that I had to have but didn't consummate, did not hurt my wife so much as terrify her. She ran. Nothing happens in my story, but it's too much for me. My knees are going watery.

Billings' head is very large. His big face is blond, florid. His skin is polished-looking. He's unmoved.

“You know Bob Kavanagh?” he says. “His father-in-law has a cranberry bog down the Cape. Bob raises these guard dogs. A bitch from this latest batch was a wolf, a real wolf, and they're an unstable bunch. Very volatile. Bob names them, you know— Nitro or Omen Three. We bought one for the heavy-equipment garage. Kids fool with the Cat and the backhoe, so we want to scare them off. Only the one Bob sells us has a one hundred-and-twenty-decibel bark and yellow eyes, but he's a sweetheart, see —so friendly he can't scare off the parkers who smooch there in the lot, see. Man, there are your tax dollars at work.”

“On this other,” I start.

“Maybe check that out with your clergyman?” Billings says.

On the sidewalk, I see Lois Mencke is out of the bakery and moving up Water Street. I go in for breakfast pastry, for tomorrow. The tiny bottle blonde is waiting counter. She does not look sixteen and her crinkled hair drizzles around her face like bleached tinsel. Her eyelashes are boldly fake.

“Hey, hi,” she says. “Monkey tails, I bet.”

My wife has left me the dog—a collie named June. When I arrive home, June and I are very happy to see each other. June weeps, ecstatic with greeting. She stands on two legs to fill my ear with enormous chuffling noises.

“Kisses me,” I say.

Dinner is a sandwich and a pale bourbon. Waiting for my coffee water to boil, at the kitchen table, I wonder about the finished letter in my attaché case. On the phone last night, our first talk for two weeks, Olive sounded a little softer than before.

“You may write me,” she said. “But just say what you're doing. Go slow, please. Contain yourself.”

And beyond working, what have I been doing? Too much. Not enough. When you are suddenly alone, I think, you take of other people's lives whatever you can. I mean, what's not given I guess you just steal.