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Sparrow’s Hand


Harry Buschman

While Sparrow wrote, the front door bell rang, but he did not stop writing. In the back of his mind heimagined someone out there trying to stop him from writing.

Probably two elderly ladies, one white, one black --- standing outside shifting their weight from one foot to the other. They wanted him to stop writing -- to lay God’s “Adoramus” on him -- demand him to drop everything and listen to the words of the Master. “Drop whatever you’re doing and follow us.”

He wasn’t about to fall for that! He was writing and so long as the ink held out the words flowed effortlessly from his hand. If he stopped now he’d lose the string of his story, it would snap and tangle and he’d never straighten it out again. While this lovely moment lasted, his whole being rested in his right hand, and from his heart, brain, body and bowels it dripped from his pen, word by precious word. If the house were burning he would still write on.

But then ... suppose it was mail, or maybe Fed Ex with a contract to sign. Money from Random House or Scribner -- an advance perhaps.

Ridiculous! How would they know he was here? He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be on the fourteenth floor, (really the thirteenth floor) of Ashbury Arms across the street, but the manager kicked him out. Yes, and held his furniture for back payment of rent too. A sad day indeed for Larry Sparrow, (really J.H. Lawrence) how can a writer get anywhere with a name like Larry Sparrow?

Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the Jewish delicatessen across the street couldn’t believe Ashbury Arms kicked him out of his apartment. “An artist like you! What’s it with landlords these days? Have they no respect?” He made a sandwich for Sparrow and sat him down in the back of the store.

“Enjoy,” he said. “Sit down and enjoy ... I have a proposition.”

“You’re very kind, Mr. Mushnik, but I don’t have a nickel - not ‘til the residuals come in at the end of the month.”

“There are two rooms upstairs, Mr. Swallow. It will pay my peace of mind to have someone up there when the store is closed for the night.”

“Who would rob a delicatessen, somebody with a salami fetish?”

“The clothes off your back they would steal ... but if they know somebody is living upstairs ...”

... and now, in the two room flat over Mushnik’s Jewish delicatessen, Swallow wrote on. His sense of values told him no matter who was ringing at the front door downstairs it could not be more important than getting his chapter down right. He was good enough at it now he didn't have to think as he wrote -- just had to watch the pen in his right hand as it paused an instant and then started to write again. He watched in awe as his hand wrote on. He was here only because his hand was here -- that’s all.

And in this way the chapter slowly drew to a close, even with his mind on other things. Who was at the door? Did he leave a light burning as a sentry in the window? Did he have a clean shirt for tomorrow? The hand wrote on oblivious to the man. The hand finished the last sentence with a flourish and dotted a period with finality, then it told him it was through - at least for the morning.

But there would be bad times tomorrow, he knew. He must see his crazy mother in Bensonhurst. It would be Thursday and he had to see her on Thursdays. Then his knocked-up daughter in Crown Heights would be suicidal if he didn’t show up every Thursday, at least until her husband got out on parole. His right hand didn’t like these interruptions at all, and while he tended to them as a son and a father must, his hand would clench and unclench in frustration.

When he came home he knew the hand would get even for the interruption. After bringing his mother a bag of cookies from the baker and trying to get her to remember him or to stop his daughter’s tears --

“... what will Lester say when he sees me pregnant like this? He’ll put two and two together and break my ass!”

“In sickness and in health, Milly.”

Those visits drained him. His mother and his daughter were very much alike. They had crawled into themselves and pulled themselves around them. There was nothing he could do to help them, but that didn’t stop him from going to see them.

He would promise to come back next week and then hurry home to write, hoping his hand was still willing -- maybe yes, maybe no. You can’t turn a hand like this on and off like a faucet. Like now, it’s touch and go and these Jesus freaks at his front door could be the last straw. He stood up and edged his way over to the window. If he stood to the side he could see anyone down below standing by the front door.

A woman was crossing the street with her back to him. She turned once and looked at the delicatessen and then up at his window. When she reached the other side of the street she stopped and turned. He thought he recognized her.

She was a black woman with a colorful scarf tied around her head. She had long lovely legs and she kept one foot tapping as she stood there. She smoked a cigarette nervously, with quick jerky movements of her right hand, then she glanced down at the watch on her left wrist. He thought he knew her, and given a moment or two he would recall her name. She had a sister in Forest Hills -- a dancer, he recalled -- in a Broadway musical comedy. He knew she was waiting for a man too, a white man who liked to be seen in her company, but was reluctant to make a commitment. How strange, he thought, to see a person you knew on a busy street in Manhattan.

Sparrow looked down at his hand and wondered if there was anything left in it. “What about it,” he muttered, “maybe we should take the afternoon off? You’ve been working all morning. How about a walk in the park?”

The park was the quietest place he knew. No one came to the park on weekdays, and in a city of 8 million people Sparrow knew he would have it all to himself. He slipped his notebook in his side pocket, and his right hand picked up his pen and put it in his shirt pocket.

He started down the stairs and found Mr. Mushnik sitting on the bottom step. Mr. Mushnik was a cigarette addict, and whenever the store was empty of customers, he would dart out in the hall and light up. He would sit there on the bottom step of the stair until he heard the bell tinkle in the store, then he would nip off the end of the cigarette and go back to wait on his customer.

That’s where he sat when Sparrow passed him on his way out.

“So, how’s the book, Mr. Sparrow?”

“Coming, Mr. Mushnik. There are dead spaces in between though -- I thought I’d take a walk in the park.”

“There was a young girl, Mr. Sparrow. A Schwartzer, she asked for you in the store.” He flicked his wrist suggestively. “A looker, Mr. Sparrow.”

“I saw her from the window -- I don’t know her.” His right hand reached instinctively for the pen in his pocket and he stopped it only by a strong effort of his will. He was saved by the sound of the tinkle of the bell in the delicatessen. Mr. Mushnik stubbed out his cigarette and got to his feet; it was evident he wanted to talk about the mysterious woman ... “Later, Mr. Swallow. We can talk later.”

Swallow sat writing in the park. He found a small bench near the lake -- he was content to stare at the birds, but his notebook had somehow found its way to his lap and his right hand held the pen. He was tired of writing and really wanted to chill out; let his mind go blank, and romanticize about the few and well remembered peaks of his life, like flattering photographs in an album, they made the ugly ones bearable.

“For God’s sake, how long are you going to write?” It didn’t have to answer. Sparrow watched the words form one by one. They were not the words of his book -- they were words written to himself -- by himself. It brought to mind the name of the girl. She was Patrisha. That’s what her mother named her -- remembering she was only half black, and Patrisha was a fitting name for her.

So that was settled. But, was it? That was a long time ago and there was no way she could have been the same person he saw across the street this afternoon. Patrisha would be, let’s see -- late 50’s? At least! The girl he remembered was in her 20’s. Yet, there was something so familiar. The impatience. The long and lovely legs ... but that was only half of it.

Sparrow took the pen with his left hand and put it in his pocket, then he closed the notebook. He stood up and walked down the narrow path along the lake. It ended abruptly and without fanfare in a little cul-de-sac.

The lake was cloudy, covered with a thin film of residue -- a combination of smog from the city atmosphere and the muck of the lake bottom. Staring into it, he could see half formed images. Were they products of his own imagination or did his ghosts blend with those of other men who left their thoughts to fester in the dark water.

He remembered the night Patrisha looked quickly at her watch and checked the time with the clock on the wall. “I have to be going, Larry ... “ she folded her arms and shivered. “It isn’t right. I wasn’t brought up for this kind of thing.”

“It happens, Pat. It happens all the time.”

“Not to me.”

“You want to stop?”

“Yes. I think I do -- I’ve got to get on with my life, Larry. Love isn’t everything -- I’m not even sure what love is.”

The pen was in his right hand again! He didn’t remember putting it there. Swallow stared at it in wonder. “How could you remember the exact words? After all these years you haven’t forgotten.”

“Neither have you, old man.”

He thought he’d forgotten. He put it in a dark corner hoping it would never see the light -- but then something flushed it out. Like seeing a dark girl in the street looking impatiently at her watch.

He had never seen the past so clearly. He felt as though he had slipped back into it, and today, the present, was only a platform from which he could see yesterday. He saw it with the wisdom of all his passing years-- every misstep along the way, and even though he was painfully aware of his youthful inexperience, he was unable to change its course or make excuses for himself. Like a mighty river his sins rolled on -- unchangeable -- what was done, was done.

“Did I have a choice, hand,” he asked. “I can’t remember if I made a choice. It seemed as though it was a foregone conclusion back then.”

The hand wrote, “You made the choice, you called the shots, hotshot!”

He turned the hand over and looked idly at the palm. He traced its life and love lines and saw the history of himself. There were lines branching off and going nowhere, and he thought he could see where Patrisha left and Sheila walked in. He was surprised that the line didn’t stop there but it didn’t. It trudged a dreary, deep and inexorable path, as though tilled by a plow and pulled by an ox.That’s what life was with Sheila.

She knew the price of everything, that was for damn sure. She could tell you exactly how much anything cost, even things she didn’t want, and when they broke up that year she was ready with up-to-date costs of separation.

He put the note book back in his pocket, stood up and walked slowly to the park gate. His right hand dangled wearily at his side, it swung like the pendulum of a grandfather clock that no longer told time.

©Harry Buschman 2004

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