By Ursula Pflug
26 November 2007
Airports are about coming and going; they are never about being anywhere, except perhaps the bar. I paid out a lot more cash to bartenders and ticket agents than I ever did on rent that summer; mostly I stayed with people. When I wasn't waiting for a flight, my yellow shoes keeping time to the Muzak, I was drinking in other people's kitchens, or taking baths in their tubs. I chose my friends that summer for the size of their tubs and their taste in magazines.
It's possible friends isn't the right word.
I'd get home and slip my shoes off, but it didn't help. Like a music box, they played the same dance number again and again, a tune that's always on the playlist of the radio station you're listening to in a car at night; crossing a border far away from home.
Home. I've said it twice now. I must have had one. Except I didn't. I was sharing an apartment with you, but by then you scared me so bad I didn't want to be there much. There were times I walked in the door and you'd tell me about some flight you had to catch, someone you had to see, so maybe you felt the same way.
But our shoes still liked the music they made together. Sometimes they danced us to highways instead of airports.
At Niagara, an orange moon hung above the river, tenuously. I thought of men who crossed Niagara on tightrope wires, and that those men were perhaps a little like ourselves, who had so few homes then. We had, instead, when we weren't living in high heels and airports, a plethora of kitchens and bathrooms, none of which were our own. At least once there were stone lions on the terraces outside, who grew white coats of snow in the moments between seagulls' house calls.
My yellow shoes were happiest flying, but they didn't really care about the method, so long as they kept moving. For instance, I took the streetcar across town the first time I visited Gregory in his High Park room at the top of the stairs.
He made me tea in the kitchen he shared with his sister. We drank it together. It was good. His evenings hung between us, empty.
"There they are," he said.
I got up from where I'd been seated on the edge of the bed to take a look. His robots stood in ranks on top of the second dresser. There were perhaps thirty. The mirror behind them made it appear as though there were many more.
"Can we make them go?"
"I suppose so." He seemed dubious, but his big hands moved slowly to the dresser and took the robots down, one by one. Lovingly, he brushed the dust from the shiny metal bodies.
Gregory folded his big body into an uncomfortable crouch on the floor. It was a nice floor, clean and made of wood. There was a big mirror leaning up against the wall on the opposite side of the room. He pushed the On buttons of the battery operated ones. He wound the keys of the windup ones. Hesitantly, the robots began their march towards the mirror. They were startled by their reflections, which they had not seen in years, and had trouble remembering their moves. Seeing the forgotten light in Gregory's eyes, they tried harder.
Don't see you, don't even write to you anymore. Was it you who encouraged me to give you my Fifth Street apartment? Did you do it so that, when I needed more than an acquaintance's bathtub to sleep in, it was you I'd call?
As with God or the Devil, everyone faces their customs agent entirely alone.
Unless they have robots.
I still have my first.
He only works half days now. Robots have shorter life spans than human beings; a lack of flesh and blood causes them to tire easily at an earlier age than we do. Removing him from the shelf where he lives in happy retirement with his cohorts, I, like Gregory that day, wipe the dust off his forehead and from underneath his armpits. I wind up his arms to give him a spin. He wavers; he putters; stutters, stops. I'm not half as peripatetic anymore as I was that summer, either.
He looks like a mechanical Humpty Dumpty. Egg-shaped, he wears red plastic pants to hide his knobby wheels. He is three inches high, including the revolving radar screen which protrudes from his head. His expression is disgruntled on his good days. On his bad days he personifies Doctor Doom.
I bought the little guy in an airport gift shop for $2.49. He almost made me miss my plane, but nevertheless I noticed a marked improvement in my life following the purchase. At customs desks they suddenly ignored my suspicious luggage, instead yelling, "Hey Eddie, ya gotta take a look at this!" That would never fly under the new rules.
My little guy spun and waved his arms for them, just like the Tasmanian Devil, and I was waved through instead of taken aside for questioning. I wasn't smuggling anything, but both friends and officials often wondered. "Let them wonder," I'd tell you when I saw you next, and we'd laugh.
It is almost always useful to amuse the enemy.
That sounds like something you might've said, and not an original line of mine at all.
Even if I wrote and asked, you're no more likely to remember than me. Anyway, good lines were a collaborative project, something we swapped and augmented, like good lies, like our airport shoes. Remember the ones we spray-painted gold?
Of course I went out and bought more robots.
I wore my airport shoes to visit Gregory. They were four-inch espadrilles, the straw covering the platforms in coloured bands: red, orange, yellow. The leather sandal straps were yellow. When I wasn't calling them my airport shoes, I called them my sunrise shoes; I saw a lot of those that summer too. They were the most expensive thing I'd ever bought with my own money. Oddly enough, they're a style that's in fashion this summer too.
They were never all that comfortable. Maybe I drank so much to mask the pain.
I used to hide them under my pillows like an alarm clock. I didn't always want to hear that song. If I stuffed them into some alley trashcan, would I be able to stay in one place for more than a few days? Still, knowing that song is probably why I visited Gregory. It's not a thing I could do today, when both my mouth and my shoes are much smaller. But in certain parts of airports, only a big mouth and big shoes will do.
That summer we had telephones instead of addresses, and one of our homes was the long distance wires. To illustrate, when I leaf through my notebooks from then, I see they consist almost entirely of telephone numbers. Of the things I was good at, telephone numbers came second only to airports. I had almost everyone's number that summer, including yours.
And I had Gregory's. A girl who worked at Mr. Gameway's Ark on Yonge Street gave it to me when I went in looking for companions for my little friend. He'd left it, hoping to meet other robot aficionados. "He seems like a really nice guy," the girl implored.
Yonge Street. It was like a fever. I'd grown up not far away, and I was about to live there again, in sight of the clock tower. But I didn't know that yet.
Once every year or so I find myself standing outside my old apartment, searching my pocket for keys which are oddly still there. I unlock the street door and climb those stairs as though I had never left.
Gregory's room was very neat. He had a bed, a dresser, and a window with a tree. His bus driver's uniform hung from the wardrobe. On the dresser was a framed photograph of his two sons. He and his wife had been separated some years earlier. I wondered whether he had bought the first robots for his boys.
Some of Gregory's robots wouldn't go at all. Out came the oil can and the screwdriver, and Gregory worked his magic with them. I watched, suspended somewhere in the vicinity of robot heaven.
It's not a bad place to be.
Tape reels have been replaced by silicon chips, but they made better robots in the old days. They paint the gears and rivets now; in the forties they were real. Some of Gregory's robots were older than me. We got about twenty-three of them going on what little space was available between the wardrobe and his bed. Some actually shot torpedoes. Some had eyes that flashed. Some had little pretend tape reels that wound and buzzed ominously, recording, I felt, our very thoughts.
What were mine?
Where would I live?
Were you good or bad for me?
Were our shoes dancing a beautiful pas de deux or just a folie à deux?
A little of each.
And Gregory's? I don't know. I was used to men, even middle-aged men, asking me whether I was available, but Gregory did not. He asked nothing at all about me, only whether I wanted to go shopping for robots with him at Christmastime at Mr. Gameway's. I left, promising I'd return.
Flew back to my other city.
Dawn was often coming as the club closed; once a guy from the Third Street Crew offered me a ride home on his Harley. He was a young blond kid and seemed nice enough, but, I figured when you were talking Hell's Angels, discretion was the better part of valour. Hence I declined that story, even though it would've been a good one to share with you. I asked him for his number, though.
The checker cabs were my favourites, room enough to stretch out on the vinyl for a snooze during that long haul downtown. I'd get out at Second and Seventh as the streets turned from darkness to a monochrome of greys. I wasn't twenty yet. I still enjoyed staying up all night. Sometimes I'd skip breakfast, walk alone through Alphabet City to watch the sun rise on the East River. It was a bit frightening so I didn't often go alone.
In the East Side Deli I would spread out my newspapers, scanning the headlines, the horoscope, the funnies. Dick Tracy was up to more of the same, but Gaylord's grandfather had seen the light. I would watch the sky change colour, a transient blue, last night's edition of the Times fluttering in drainpipe eddies outside the window. I read the Post and the Voice, but mostly whatever was there. I would chat with the waitresses, the locals, the cabdrivers. One of them bought me breakfast one morning, cream cheese and lox arranged on the plate in a circle, slices of red tomato and see-through cucumbers arranged in patterns that splintered behind my eyes. It tasted even better. I remember wondering why he'd bought me breakfast, and thinking that I frightened him, a little.
One morning a strange young man came in, wearing an aviator's helmet. He was slight and olive-skinned, the tatty leather jacket engulfing him like a cocoon, or a straitjacket. I watched, my eyes following him over the rim of my coffee cup. He sat down at a table diagonal to my own, muttering to himself, a long refrain, a litany of up all night. Opening his battered suitcase, he ran off a monotone inventory of the contents. I think whoever was working thought he might go off any second, but I found him interesting. His act struck me as performance rather than craziness.
His sharp black eyes moved to meet mine. "It's been a long night."
"It's morning now."
"Not quite." He paid for my coffee, introducing himself as Donny. We began walking. Bits of broken glass and bottle caps gleamed on the asphalt carpet like jewels. We decided that, together, we were brave enough to go into one of the abandoned buildings on East Sixth. From his suitcase he procured a telescoping walking stick. He poked about in the dim lobby, where a single lightbulb still burned, high in the green-painted gloom.
"A flashlight would be good."
He had one, of course. It even worked. Curved staircases ran off to either side, a shadow of Busby Berkeley gone by. I could almost see the chorus lines of junkies come dancing down. This was before crack.
"Are you afraid?"
"I have my stick." He shook it violently. I laughed; the chorus line missed its cue.
We peered in the window of an inhabited dwelling, saw a kettle puffing on the stove. The porch was freshly painted in bright reds and blues, cosmos overflowing a sagging picket fence. The house was a tiny one-storeyed affair, yet obviously loved and looked after. And on either side the dark holes of windows, the garbage, the ashes, the grey. I wondered who could live amongst the burnt-out abandoned low-rise tenements, exactly as if normal life had never ended. The little house belonged to an alien, obviously.
He was a Gypsy, he said. His mother lived on Long Island. He stayed there sometimes. He lived two streets over in an abandoned tenement, with his friend. They had fixed it up quite nicely, furniture and everything.
Poking in a heap of rubble, he bent to pick something out. A white plastic rose. Removing one of the pins that held his jacket together, he pinned it to my collar. "There," he said, "an American Beauty for an American Beauty."
"I tell you, it's magic."
"I know, I know," I said. "You don't have to tell me."
Everything was magic.
I bent to pick up a card that lay face down in the gutter. "Look," I said, "it's the three of hearts. You know what card that is?"
If he was really a Gypsy, I thought he ought to know tarot and be able to transpose from one deck to another. Although, for all I knew, Roma didn't tell fortunes from tarot at all, as my aunt and I did, but from regular playing cards.
He nodded. "You keep it. I've got lots."
"Okay." I thought of me and you and your friend Joan, all together as we'd so rarely been. Three women dancing, wine cups held aloft. The three Graces, and, I would learn later, the triple Goddess. It's Joan and I, of the three of us, who remained friends. At the time I was jealous of her, wanted you all to myself.
At the river, the sun was already high in the sky. We leaned on the breakwater together.
"Well, I guess we missed the sunrise," Donny said.
"It doesn't matter," I said. "It's still magic."
Donny the Gypsy, the river wind blowing his hair. I'd put an emoticon here if this was email, so you'd know I'm being tongue-in-cheek, a little.
We watched the greased water swell and recede. Seagulls dove for dead minnows. Across the water, the smokestacks puked purple. It was a morning made in heaven. "Now what shall we do?" he asked. I noticed his eyes were green.
"I have to go home and sleep," I said. "I've been working all night."
"Where do you work?"
"I'm a dancer in a club off Forty-Second Street."
He opened his suitcase and laughed. "Let's throw it all overboard!"
"You don't want it?"
"I don't need any of it anymore," Donny said, setting his walking stick aside and surreptitiously tucking the flashlight into his jacket pocket. The first to go into the river was a moth-eaten feather boa. It struggled like a duck in an oil slick. In went several bottles of Evening in Paris. "You don't want them?" he asked me.
"God, no." In they went. Plchunk splutter gurgle sunk.
Next came the decks of cards, blowing like leaves on a fall day, black and red. The polyester shirts went gratefully, glad to be back in their own petroleum element. The combs hopped like skipping stones. The semi-clad ladies on the covers of paperback thrillers smirked crazily into the sun. Single torn pages blew up the river like kites.
"Upward mobility," Donny said.
"Yes," I agreed.
"Have you ever gone?"
"Into the back room?"
"Once. I went with a beautiful young Brazilian guy. When the waitress opened the curtains of the booth to bring our champagne, she grinned like I was the luckiest girl in the world, giving my Brazilian the once-over. It was kind of sweet."
"Everyone's had sex with people they don't really like. Take someone home from a party when you're lonely and bored. Why is it worse if you get paid?"
"We didn't do anything. We drank and talked."
The last to go was the suitcase itself. It made a firecracker crash and listed down towards the harbor, the wreck of a pirate's galleon. We laughed and laughed.
"When you take money you're crossing a line," Donny suggested. "You end up burying a lot of rage."
"How do you know?"
"I just do. You sure you have to go sleep?"
I looked at him. "Yeah."
"Okay," he said. "I'll go visit my mother."
"Don't you turn here?" I asked as we passed Tenth Street, on our way back to civilisation.
"I'm going to the train station."
"Oh. Do excuse me for having forgotten already." I took him for a bit of a bullshitter, and was ribbing him for it in a friendly sort of way. But maybe it was all true: living in a squat, being Roma, visiting his mom on Long Island. What I didn't say was that it was one of the best spontaneous dates I'd ever been on. It was a kind of game I played semi-regularly, but most didn't understand the rules. Donny implicitly got the whole point, which was to create a fairy-tale, to write a short story by living it. You follow the woods path to a clearing, you meet a stranger there, you wander together, battling dragons and finding mysterious objects of magical power. Who were the monsters, though?
I guess we were surrounded by them. The young always are.
"That's all right. When will I see you again?"
"But what if?"
"Listen, it's inevitable."
We parted ways, kissing one another on the cheek.
I went home and slept and didn't quite forget him. I ran into him once more, at a party in the West Village a couple of months later, so I ended up being right about that part. We didn't exchange contact info that time either, and after that I really never saw him again. I've wondered, at times, why I didn't look for him.
Why do I still wonder? As though I could still touch that time. Touch him, as I didn't, beyond our goodbye kiss. But perhaps it is best to let some of the magic ones slip off. As it was, I got to keep that odd, lovely morning forever, something held back in my pocket for rainy days.
Spring turned to summer. On my flight north I went through my book, looking for Gregory's number.
Some of Gregory's robots had screens as breastplates. As the big robots marched across the Martian terrains of their imaginations, alien spacecraft fled across their chests, somewhere south of Jupiter. These were Gregory's prized Video Robots, he explained, although of course it wasn't real video at all.
"How do the screens work?"
"I never thought about that."
I had to figure it out. Whipping out my notebook, I made little diagrams of drums on which were pasted Buck Rogers-type space war scenarios. The drums revolved behind lenses. They had to be lenses, I explained, because the spacecraft shrank and distorted as they neared the perimeters of the screens.
Gregory nodded politely. I got the feeling he couldn't have cared less. "How many robots do you have?"
I was ashamed to tell him I had only half a dozen, all new, made in Hong Kong. He didn't seem to mind. I told him his robots ought to be exhibited, photographed. I could make a short documentary film about Gregory and his robots. A cup of tea. Pictures of the wife and kids, or maybe just the kids. His TTC uniform hanging on the hook behind his door. Forget film and do it on a Portapak. Here was a man whose mind and collection stretched the span between Buck Rogers and Star Wars, between Robbie the Robot and R2-D2, with Apollo Eleven somewhere in-between.
Another polite nod, noncommittal.
We couldn't do the moon shots now, I read recently. The guys at NASA who knew how have all retired, and they didn't pass the information on. It's all stored on obsolete hard drives, in languages no one understands anymore.
"Why don't we form a club together?" Gregory asked.
I pictured me and Gregory sitting in his room, placing ads in collector's magazines, dialling their phone numbers. And once we had our club, then what? Would we take minutes?
"I'm out of town a lot," I said, looking at my yellow shoes, thinking of airports, you. Maybe the tea had been more weak than good after all.
"You're going away?"
"I live in New York, sort of."
Gregory looked worried for me.
"But you should do it, Gregory, you really should. The club idea."
"You have the most wonderful robot collection I've ever seen."
"Next time you come, I'll have the other ones working."
Gregory accompanied me down the stairs, and at the door we shook hands gravely, thanking one another yet again.
On the street, the summer sun fell through the leaves. A plane screamed towards Malton. That was before they changed the name to Pearson International. I wondered if it were mine.
I knew this time I'd stayed so long I'd missed my plane back to the Big Apple, to you.
New York, New York. So nice you've got to say it twice.
CBGB. The Grassroots on St. Marks Place. Patti Smith at the Village Gate in a neck brace from her fall. Reading, not playing, although incanting is a better word. I got too drunk too fast and had to leave before her show was over.
Those were some of the good parts.
After leaving Gregory's I took the streetcar back downtown, ran into my friend Al in The Black Bull. He told me he was leaving his cheap, excellently located Yonge Street apartment, I could have it. I told him about Gregory. It was a good story, Al said. I felt a little bad about that, as if I'd collected Gregory as a tale to earn me free beer, without any intention of giving him anything in return.
But I didn't know that yet.
I didn't know I wouldn't buy any more robots, ever. Didn't know I was daunted, had caught a glimpse of how many years and dollars it would take to build up a collection that would never equal his.
"I travel in my mind," Al said, in response to my telling him what I'd been up to.
How many years did Al have left? Five? Ten?
When I had the apartment, Gregory called me a few times, but I never called him back. We never went shopping for robots at Christmas, even though by then I lived across the street from Mr. Gameway's. Maybe that was all I'd really wanted. It must have been a great place, or I wouldn't keep going back there, my pockets jingling with keys I've kept for decades, keys that still turn in those locks.
We used to travel to the moon in our minds, like Al. Then, for a brief period of time, we were able to cart our bodies along. Now we're back to the old methods.
I see the clock tower first, then the railway bridge. I unlock the street door and climb those stairs as though I had never left. Sometimes there's people living there. They look at me oddly, but they don't say anything. Maybe they don't really see me, as I'm only visiting in dreams.
Is it only my dreams I'm visiting in, or theirs too? I have little worries on these dream trips. Do I owe years of back rent? Whose bedroom do I get? Where will they sleep instead?
Am I going back to get something I left behind, or to bring something to the me who lived there, finally moving permanently back from New York? Or are both of these questions actually the same question?
I used to find those fruitful lines of thought, but now I don't.
We don't know how to go to the moon anymore, but I know how to get to my old apartment. That's what counts. I think I left a filing cabinet there, with good stories still in it, like this one.
I want them back now.
The other day at a garage sale I saw a Battlestar Galactica torpedo launcher. I thought of Gregory for the first time in years and smiled, bought the toy for fifteen cents. Gregory. His robots kept me so entranced I stayed in town, ran into Al, didn't go back to the wicked city.
Gregory had wanted so badly to have a robot friend, and I hadn't kept up with him. Still, when I remember the look in his eyes as we played with his beautiful toys, I think we made each other happy that afternoon.
And thanks for the apartment, Gregory. I still have the keys, even though they only work in dreams anymore.
I keep them on a shelf in a locked room, beside a white plastic rose, the three of hearts, a little wind-up robot, and a pair of yellow platforms.
This is the year I took the shoes out, blew the dust off them. Wound the keys in their backs, tried them on.
They still fit and they still play a travelling song about luck and love and magic.
As to you? Maybe I'll solicit your email on the grapevine, send you the link to this story.
Vaya con dios, sister.