Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Twenty-eight—On the Downtown Local

It seemed too easy. Linda’s captor had hustled her into a service elevator and hence to the main floor where he propelled her across the lobby.

“You are letting me go? For a while there I thought I’d be stuck here with you till the end of time.”

“Hush! Speak no ill of what you cannot understand.”

“I understand that you and your confederates are a bunch of certifiable nuts.”

“Yesterday’s dingy dungeon, today’s five star hotel. With doorman service.” The Rider on the Storm swept His hand across a burgeoning belly to give a flip to the braided gold cords that hung from His epaulets. “I have decided you are of no further use to Me. Don’t take it personally. It’s a godhead thingy. Have a nice day.” He shoved her out into the street. A moment later, the revolving doors swung open again as he pushed her Bean totes through with his foot.

Linda stood outside the Hotel Taft. It must be almost freezing out, she thought. The thought of reclining in a hot tub with a Kahlúa and brandy close to hand gave her the strength to carry on. Linda bent double from a searing pain behind her eyes. “Whoa, hey! This is going to be one hell of a migraine.”

As the heavy brass and glass door snicked shut behind her she turned to give her captor one last look. A nondescript Everyman smiled and waved reassuringly from the security station. He was now wearing the familiar tattered blue of the building’s rent-a-cops. All would be well. She just had to get home.

The cold blast of wet air in the street came as a relief. Her sweater was starting to itch through her cotton sleeves. Her rolled umbrella, trendy with a shoulder strap, was slipping. Linda opened it and held it against the sleet, rain, and now snow mixture. A barbered, manicured red-faced man in a camel’s hair coat beat her out for a cab. As the door slammed he looked sleekly regretful. Linda felt the sweat trickling down from her armpits.

She decided on the downtown local. As she charged on underground the saturated humidity hit her. She assumed a crouch for the run to the turnstiles. Catatonic passengers whizzed past through the station—noses flattened out against the glass, coats and scarves and bags caught between doors the conductor didn’t bother opening. The subway never inspired fear before—loathing, disgust, but never fear. Now it did. That close, breathing one another’s castoff air, riding the train was communion beyond intimacy. “Crammed butt to butt and always someone copping a feel and you can never tell who it is.”

She positioned her token over the slot and slapped it through a residue of chewing gum with the flat of her palm and advanced, sliding her stuffed totes over the turret with its three metal bars. There was a comforting clunk as she hit the pipe with her hip. Better get a move on.

The next bar popped into place, pushing her through. The machine had found her offering acceptable. She reached the concourse. Her mouth was dry, dry. This was like exercise in a rubber suit. Oh, shit! Her bra strap had just given up the ghost, its elastic sodden and limp. For this day’s work, Tom had better take her out for one last dinner, not the usual boil-in-a-bag frozen gourmet treats.

An uptown shoo-wop group shuffled and bopped from the far end of the platform. Downtown locals run all night, doo-dah, doo-dah. Linda fumbled in her coat and came up with a five-dollar bill to drop in their basket. Whatever else the crazy guy was, he hadn’t picked her pocket.

Next, the ramps. Down three stories to the trains and right on time. I can make it.

“Hold the doors! Hold the doors!” Linda ran as fast as her skirt would allow. Legs pumping, teeth clenched, she impacted the wall of cramped commuters all ready on board—Oof! She looked around defiantly, claiming her space. The doors slid shut with a pneumatic whoosh that caught her bag outside as the train started to move. One quick, hard jerk and the bag was free and inside. The doors’ floppy safety edges met—the caress of rubber lips on her thigh. Huh. Make something of that. The headache was now a pressure of remembered pain, sore to the touch if she could touch that place deep behind her eyes. Linda waited for the agony to resume.

*  *  *

Everything in the Village was stippled aquatint in shades of gray. A patch of wintery sky widened above as Linda dragged her gym tote, umbrella and weary, failing body up the steps of the Christopher Street stop at Sheridan Square. As she neared the top steps she peered out at sidewalk level through the railings.

A tow-headed pre-schooler hip-hopped alongside his baby brother’s stroller as a family walked past through the long shadows of early evening. The sleet had become a freezing rain; they ignored it. He knocked her up and left school at sixteen to pump gas, for this was the code, thought Linda. This stringy young mom would always be yesteryear’s prom date. Last year the toddler was in the stroller. They were on their way to the bodega for Coke and Twinkies.

Linda felt the world tilt and teeter. Apocalypse, yes, but not now. Her vision blurred as she tried to catch up with the galloping subtitles of her own special movie. Buildings peeled away and Seventh Avenue writhed. This is the Big One and happening to me. She dropped her gym tote and rummaged through its pockets. Didn’t she have a bottle of Midol somewhere? The yellow letters were at a peculiar angle she had not seen in any other movie. Acetate shredded and tore; a crevasse zigzagged across the screen to a welling of pink noise from theater speakers. Spooling motors sought equilibrium and ran wild, their logic circuitry sending home a homing signal there was nobody left at home to answer. The film parted and flew off the screen, leaving only a blinding white glare. An uncapped projection lamp brought a Hiroshima sunrise to Greenwich Village. Tornado winds howled and midtown, on West 46th Street, the sun stood still above Times Square.

The family grouping was returning. Each held a plastic wrapped glass pint of Classic Coke. The young mom steered the stroller, a big brown paper bag full of chips and sugary treats wrapped around the bar under her hands. The young mom’s stooped shoulders leaned wearily into a long gray march of duty.

I could have been her, thought Linda.

It was the year of her own junior prom. She should have gone with the boy—Eddie? But Mom had said no. Unprotected, rapturous sex in Eddie’s car instead. Eddie was now pumping gas.

Linda felt a deep melancholy; to be sucked into oblivion by a cerebral thrombosis—equipment failure—was so tacky. I wish I had gotten knocked up in high school. Pregnants didn’t have to go to the prom. All those yellow subtitles wasted, and just when I had everything all worked out.

Tonight is the night Tom thaws Szechwan dumplings, too. The memory gave Linda a case of the giggles. When he isn’t fucking me, Tom is rinsing the rice cooker. He calls this house husbanding. He waters the plants and stares out the window. These were the little things that made up a life. Tom cleaned house.

The idea of missing out on Tom’s dumplings made her disproportionately cheery at her impending death. Linda was suffused with something akin to a runner’s aerobic high. She had found a new religion, and it would not be denied—a faith of joy and, well... faith. She grasped at the nearest railing to steady herself. There was the shadowless Hiroshima sunrise, now behind her eyes. A stroke, something cerebral. There had been sidebars on the TV news.

The sleet now carried ice crystals that bit the skin as the driving sideways winds from Jersey picked up. The young parents and their children ran for cover. A freezer bag of Stouffer’s Broccoli Au Gratin, a Tom specialty, slid into a pot of boiling water that filled the sky, then faded. Eight years of friendly, non-combative, often passionate marriage and Tom survived only as a name with no face. Then that, too, was gone. A cobwebby gauze covered her eyes as the world blurred. Her knees and elbows warmed and dream filaments twined about her feet as she swooned backwards onto a welcoming pile of eiderdown where she gently bounced in slow motion, again, and again, and again.

“Linda?”

Her bouncing took a pause.

“Yes. That is you.”

“Yes, me. You have been invited to join me for Thesmophoria. Won’t that be nice?” The voice was Norma Jean leFay from work. “Everything is clove scented. You noticed?”

“I noticed.”

“So glad you found the time to visit. I got your favorite cookies from Gristede’s—the oatmeal stuffed date?”

“With lemonade?”

“With lemonade,” said the goddess.

Linda Winkelman was born the year they invented frozen lemonade. It was the year they added the Bullwinkle balloon to the Macy’s parade.

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