“HEY!” Rufus exclaimed, giving the hood of the obnoxious orange Corolla a slap on its hood. He glared in the direction of the driver, but only because the sun was shining in his startled green eyes.
“Watch where you’re going!” the city driver shouted after him, voice gruff and aggressive.
Rufus didn’t dignify this with a response. The street light was clearly red and the white crosswalk man was blinking halfheartedly across the lanes, signaling any and all pedestrians forward.
But that was New York City for you and you just didn’t expect apologies from city drivers.
There was a coffee shop across the street, part of Rufus’s daily routine. As usual, he joined the line outside the door and glanced at the silver watch wrapped around his wrist slowly ticking away the first part of his day.
7:53–he was running three minutes late today. Rufus sighed.
A woman behind him bumped against his elbow and Rufus drew quickly away, frowning. She didn’t seem to notice, engrossed in the screen of her phone, a smile quirking at the corners of her soft lips.
Sometimes Rufus thought the crowds were unbearable. People were always bumping into you in New York and they weren’t apologizing for that either.
By the time he escaped the line in the coffee shop, clinging protectively to the steaming lifeline in his hands, it was nearly 8:00.
He was going to have to hurry if he wanted to get in to work early in order to finish his last report. His strides quickened, each foot falling lightly on the worn ground. The sidewalk was it’s own kind of city art, a masterpiece canvas decorated by brightly colored gum turned gray from being stepped on by the unfortunate, dead cigarette butts, and various pieces of litter.
Rufus turned the corner sharply and
His lifeline was gone. Not so much dead as it was bleeding into his button up white collared shirt, a scalding, staining mess.
The runner continued to jog in place as if unsure what to do but reluctant to cease his workout.
Rufus must have passed the runner a thousand times and never once spoken to him.
It was only fitting that his first words were, “Hey! Watch it!” After all, it was New York.
He took two steps sideways and tossed the empty dripping coffee cup into a rusty green trash can, staring disbelievingly down at his blotched clothing.
The runner stepped sideways as well, mimicking Rufus’s moves. “I’m sorry man,” he said, his words clear and strong despite the fact that he was still jogging in place.
Rufus wanted to say something nasty, but he saw, to his surprise, that the man was sincere.
Rufus sighed heavily and then waved his hand carelessly. “Eh, don’t worry about it. Accidents happen.”
He began to walk again, his mind fast forwarding through the day: Janice the secretary asking him what had happened, her thick round glasses unable to conceal the judgement in her sharp blue eyes; his coworker Terry laughing at his misfortune, making jokes and winking–how Rufus hated that stupid wink; his boss reprimanding him for appearing unprofessional, his own tie hanging lopsidedly from around his trunk of a neck. Rufus had a meeting at 11:00. He couldn’t go looking like this.
It took Rufus a moment to realize that the runner was still following him, and that he had stopped running.
Seeing that he now had Rufus’s attention, he smiled apologetically once more and said, “Look, I feel awful about your shirt–it looks like you have something important today. My apartment is two blocks from here, I’ll get you a clean shirt.”
Rufus frowned, taken aback. “That’s not necessary,” he spluttered impatiently.
The young man shook his head. “Come on, otherwise I’ll feel bad all day,” he insisted.
Rufus nodded hesitantly and began to walk alongside the runner, a curious thought creeping around in his mind. How odd that this man beside him, whom he had strolled past day by day, had suddenly transformed from a runner into a man with an apartment.
Rufus supposed he hadn’t given much thought to the fact that this man probably had a life just like he did.
“Name’s Tom,” the man added as an after thought, holding out his hand to Rufus.
Rufus shook it, grunting his own name, “Rufus.”
Rufus studied Tom sideways. “Been living here long?”
Tom smiled thoughtfully. “Been a New Yorker all my life.”
Rufus raised his brows. “Somehow you don’t seem,” he paused, reaching for the right word, “assertive enough.”
Tom smiled mildly, almost questioningly, but all he said was, “Clearly you haven’t seen me on line for a pretzel at Sigmund’s.”
After a moment of walking side by side in silence, Rufus cleared his throat.
“What I meant to say is that there aren’t very many people who’d stop after something like that,” he explained.
“Doesn’t look like you’ve given most people the chance,” Tom muttered with a laugh, though Rufus suspected that there was an underlying hint of seriousness to the statement. “Come on, I’m Floor 4,” Tom added as they turned into a grungy apartment complex.
They took the elevator–what looked like a death trap, sliding its metal arms around its helpless victim, threatening to plunge them to their death.
Tom didn’t seem to notice.
Rufus gulped, eyeing a gruesome black stain on the side of the elevator wall.
“What about you?” Tom asked as the doors slid open jerkily and the two entered a dimly lit hallway. “Been in New York City long?”
“I commute,” Rufus answered. “I live in Essex County.”
Tom nodded understandingly. “North Country.”
“We moved there when I was a kid and I’ve been living there ever since,” Rufus continued.
Tom pulled out a key and wiggled it in the keyhole until the door gave way.
“There was a time I thought about moving out of the city,” Tom admitted. “But then I realized something important.”
“What’s that?” Rufus asked.
“I love the city,” Tom replied with a shrug and led the way into the small apartment.
Rufus knew that New York City apartments were notorious for there small size, but his first impression was that he had walked into one of the rooms in his daughter’s doll house.
Mismatched furniture was squeezed like toys in a box into the living room that turned into a miniature kitchen on one wall. Two doors broke off from the main room and Rufus suspected that one was a bathroom and the other a bedroom.
It took him a second to realize why the room seemed to be overflowing in things. Scattered all about the room, hanging off of walls, strewn over chairs, laying on the hardwood floor, was artwork.
Blank canvases stretched out near a window overlooking an alleyway as if preparing to absorb the grimy scene below and somehow turn it into something beautiful.
Bottles of paint sat on the window sill or teetered precariously on the edge of the blue and yellow striped sofa. Brushes slept on the hard floor, some still frosted with dried paint, next to a half-eaten granola bar that appeared to have been tossed aside in the desperation of the moment.
The New York City skyline was painted onto the walls themselves in thunderous shades of purples, grays, and blacks that gradually lightened into golden honey and the ruby red of a sunset.
In fact, most of the artwork consisted of scenes around the city. With a swell of wonder, Rufus recognized his quaint coffee shop on the corner and his subway stop in the distance painted in a careless, yet charming manner hanging on the wall.
Tom cleared his throat and tossed Rufus a clean white button-up. Rufus hadn’t notice him leave the room.
He caught the shirt absentmindedly and beheld Tom with a look of inspired awe.
“You’re an artist,” was all he said.
Tom folded his arms across his chest. “Guilty,” he commented.
Rufus’s gaze sailed across the sea of paintings and he grinned. He pointed to a colored sketch of various scenes dissolving into one another–a sidewalk dissolving into a park dissolving into a woman smiling.
He stepped closer and grinned at the upper corner of the drawing, the one familiar scene he could recognize. Except, for once he was seeing it happening through somebody else’s eyes. Tom’s.
“Is that me?” Rufus asked in a hushed voice.
A tall man carrying a cup of coffee, frowning slightly, was rushing forward. Behind him an old, orange 70-chassis Corolla stood out among the stream of moving cars forever frozen in the piece of art.
Tom nodded, but he didn’t smile this time. He looked like an artist. An artist dissatisfied with what he had created. “I was trying to portray moments from my daily life. Focus on details.”
He reached forward and pointed to another person drawn into the same scene. “Do you recognize this woman? She walks behind you, talking on her phone.”
Rufus shook his head uncomfortably.
Tom shrugged. “I know I didn’t get the faces right. You’d think after all this time I’d know the faces I see every day. But when I close my eyes, they’re just blank. It’s like trying to draw facial features on a silhouette.”
“I think its great,” Rufus insisted, attempting to change the subject. He gestured to the orange car. “He almost hit me today.”
Slowly, Tom’s eyes flickered off of the woman’s face and to the orange blur. “You wouldn’t be the first. He’s always almost hitting pedestrians.”
Rufus excused himself and entered the minute bathroom. He felt like there was barely enough room to move his elbows to his sides as he unbuttoned his soiled white shirt.
He slipped into the fresh one and headed back out to Tom.
Tom smiled at him.
Rufus looked down at himself and stated the obvious. “It’s a bit snug.”
Tom laughed. Rufus noted that his laugh was childlike, always something surprising, bubbling up unexpectedly.
“You should wear snug shirts more often then,” Tom commented, still grinning. “Besides, you can’t wear a giant stain in to work.”
Rufus smiled in spite of himself. “Well, thanks for the shirt.”
Tom led the way to the door and bowed Rufus out. “I apologize for spilling your coffee.”
Rufus waved it off. “It’s funny to think if I hadn’t been running late, we never would have turned the corner at the same time and bumped into each other.”
Tom’s brown eyes twinkled. “Here I was thinking that it was all my fault–I left early this morning.”
Rufus laughed and Tom continued sincerely.
“I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you Rufus, but I’m not sorry I spilled your coffee. It would’ve been a shame to have seen you each day and never met you.” There was something uniquely genuine as he held out his hand.
Rufus shook it firmly, wondering if all artists spoke like Tom. “I’ll get you your shirt back one of these days.”
“Let’s both be on time tomorrow though,” Tom added jokingly. “There’s no need to lose any more shirts to a daily routine.”
The elevator doors shut and Rufus only had time to wave goodbye before heading down alone.
He felt oddly invigorated. He even smiled cheerfully at a few strangers, before realizing that the reason they were all staring at him was his new tight white shirt.
The buttons did appear to be straining a bit, he noticed, and not in a good way either. If the buttons did pop off, no superman would be bursting out of a Clark Kent disguise. It was more likely the escaped buttons would knock an unsuspecting pedestrian out with the mere built up tension from holding the shirt closed.
Somehow, he couldn’t be bothered to feel embarrassed though. At least, not too embarrassed.
He smiled at Janice when she eyed his shirt questioningly and even let Terry make a joke or two about it. Of course, Rufus did satisfy himself by winking at Terry at the end of each of these jokes, depriving Terry of his usual privilege.
And yet, Rufus couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling in the base of his stomach. His mind kept wandering back to the drawing in Tom’s apartment and the woman that he hadn’t recognized.
He saw the same people everyday, and yet, he couldn’t recognize them. And suddenly, Rufus was intensely curious. If Tom was not a runner, but an artist, then a world of possibilities seemed to exist.
People were so much more complex than they appeared.
What did others see when they passed Rufus on the street? He recalled the frown he had had in Tom’s art. Was that how others saw him? A grumpy, boring businessman?
Did it matter?
The next morning, Rufus observed something for the first time in his life about New York City. It was beautiful.
The sound of the city filled the morning air with car honks, yells, the bustle of people, sirens, and voices that somehow drifted magically above the rest of the chatter. The short walk to the coffee shop was full with the small details of life.
He could smell strong men’s cologne as he hurried past an elderly stock broker and feel the heat rising from the street grate of the nearby steam vent. Warm sunlight fell across his face and into his eyes, but for once, he didn’t mind.
Letting Tom’s clean white shirt hang at his side, Rufus joined the end of the line and glanced around at the towering buildings forming the labyrinthine city, then glanced at his silver watch. He was right on time today.
A woman behind him bumped against his elbow as she moved out of the way for a cluster of businessmen heading for the crosswalk.
Rufus looked down on her curiously.
Her eyes were glued to the phone in her hand, and she was worrying at her bottom lip, her forehead wrinkled with concern.
“Good morning,” Rufus greeted.
The woman looked up, slightly confused. “Good morning,” she echoed.
Rufus smiled, but the woman’s light brown eyes returned to her screen.
It was the woman from Tom’s drawing. She was real.
Rufus had vague memories of her standing in line behind him many times before. How had he not noticed until today?
She seemed too absorbed in her phone to wish to carry on a conversation, so Rufus waited in silence until he ordered his coffee and headed on his way, knowing that soon she would be following his trail.
Rufus turned the corner carefully, holding his coffee cup protectively. There was no sign of Tom.
When he got to the end of that particular stretch of sidewalk, he saw the lights of an ambulance ahead. Something in his head clicked and he quickly recalled noticing the sound of sirens earlier; his pace quickened.
It felt as if somebody had tied a knot with his intestines and was pouring ice cold dread into his stomach. He jogged a few steps, pushing his way through the crowd in time to see a body bag lifted up.
The noises on the street turned to a muffled buzzing in his ear like that of a pesky insect, only he couldn’t swat it away.
He didn’t know how he knew, but he undeniably knew.
A policeman held up a hand, telling him not to come any closer.
Rufus’s eyes widened.
A few feet away, another officer was taking a statement from a distressed looking middle-aged man. He was bald with a bristly gray mustache and thick brows knitting across his creased forehead. One of his front teeth was silver and he wore a chunky purple ring on one of his fingers. He had a face like a walrus, saggy and whiskery, and kept grabbing the back of his neck with a cupped hand.
Behind him was an offensively orange, boxy old Corolla with its front end dented in, patiently awaiting its fate.
“He didn’t even look up–he just came outta nowhere!” Rufus overheard the man insisting helplessly. “I tried to brake but there wasn’t enough time, I swear! He just ran out in front of me!”
Rufus gulped, remembering all the times he had passed Tom with his headphones in, listening to music.
The coffee shop woman came up behind him. For once she didn’t have her phone out.
“Did you know that man?” she asked Rufus, who had frozen in front of the scene.
Rufus turned to her and the next thing he knew was that he was yelling. “HIS NAME IS TOM. YOU PASSED HIM EVERYDAY.”
She seemed both offended and taken aback, but frowned and murmured, “The runner?”
Rufus’s knees felt weak.
“Are you okay sir?” she asked, touching his arm lightly.
Rufus tore away from her and half-marched half-jogged down the street toward Tom’s apartment, the white shirt trailing behind him like a cape of surrender.
A couple was leaving right as he entered, staring warily at him, but allowed him entrance into the building. Not bothering with the elevator, Rufus hurtled up the stairs to the fourth floor and retraced his steps to Tom’s apartment.
He found himself outside the locked door and didn’t know what to do. The white shirt hung limply at his side.
After a few minutes, Rufus knocked. “Tom?” he called out, his voice choked.
There was no answer.
Rufus reached for the doorknob and turned. As if sheerly by his will, the door was unlocked. He pushed his way into the cluttered prison of art.
Carefully, he laid down the borrowed white shirt on the kitchen counter and faced the room.
Despite all its artwork and all its furniture, the room felt empty.
Slowly Rufus approached the drawing of himself. The drawing that forever trapped him in the same scene with the orange killer.
Rufus noticed what Tom meant about details. The woman following behind him didn’t have colored eyes in the drawing and now Rufus couldn’t remember if they were brown or blue.
He closed his eyes and tried to picture Tom.
But like the woman, Tom was indistinct and oddly distorted in his memory.
Even with eyes closed, fingers touching the rough ridges on a painted canvas, all Rufus could see was Tom’s face. But it wasn’t Tom.
All he could see was the silhouette of a runner.
Tom was more than that.
Mischief Managed – Moony