Short Fiction: how it will happen

To celebrate NDQ 87.1/2 going to the printer, despite all the confusion, uncertainty, and tragedy in the world, here’s Terry Toma’s story “how it will happen” which will appear in the next issue of the Quarterly. There’s something about this story that captures the contemporary mood.

It goes without saying that this issue of the Quarterly would not have been possible without the remarkable energy, commitment, and professionalism of my editors, editorial board, and our partners at the University of Nebraska Press.

These days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. 

As always, NDQ relies on our outstanding contributors, editors, and subscribers to thrive. Please consider submitting to NDQ. For some content from from our most recent issue, NDQ 86.3/4, click here. For a preview from our next issue, 87.1/2, go here.   

 

how it will happen

I

The young woman comes across the garment hanging in the window of a thrift shop. The coat is almost floor-length and ash gray, cut from worsted serge. Gold epaulets ride the shoulders. Four crimson chevrons embroider the lower right sleeve. The escutcheon on the breast pocket displays a quill crossed with a torch. The inscription is in a language she does not recognize. Roger G says the coat looks like what you might see on a Portuguese air-raid warden. She does not think it is Portuguese because there are none of those funny hooks below the C’s. And when was the last time they bombed Lisbon. No, she thinks the coat might have belonged to a Norwegian or Finnish militiaman, one of those countries up there.

Try it on, Roger G says.

She slips her hands through the sleeves. She stands before a mirror cloudy with age. Robert G stares. He says, You look fantastic. That coat is magic.

It’s true. Its lines are vertical and sleek. The hem just brushes the insteps of her shoes. She often worries her top is too small and her rear is too heavy. But in this coat she looks long and angular. She imagines wearing the coat to work. She imagines the way the men in the office will look at her as she stands at her desk and takes it off. She imagines striding down broad thoroughfares wearing this coat. She sees herself standing in the foyer of a nice hotel. This coat makes her look like a person charging out into the day.

The tag says twenty dollars. I’ll buy it for you, Roger G tells her.

Roger G is her current boyfriend. She thinks of him as Roger G though of course she only ever calls him Roger. She thinks of him as Roger G because she had an earlier boyfriend also named Roger. Her time with this first Roger only lasted about six months, whereas her relationship with Roger G is closing in on a full year. Sometime soon she expects that in her mind Roger G will become simply Roger while the other Roger, the first Roger, will turn into Roger Y. For now, however, she always thinks of the current Roger as Roger G.

*

Let me buy it for you, Roger G says.

You don’t have to do that, she says.

Roger G does not have much money. He works as a carpenter when he works, but ever since the bottom fell out of the housing market his funds have been short. Here Roger G turns to the clerk, an elderly nun, and tries to talk her down to fifteen dollars. The nun objects at first, reminding them that proceeds go to the parish outreach project. The homeless, the hungry, the addicted, the illiterate. But Roger G is insistent.

Don’t badger her, the young woman whispers.

Roger G frowns. They expect it, he says.

In the end the nun agrees. She looks so old and weary. When it comes time to pay, however, Roger G realizes he does not have the money on him.

I’ll pay you back, he says.

I don’t think I have it either, she says, though this is not true. She cashed her paycheck the day before. Yet looking at the coat now, she finds it more and more unsettling. It belongs on someone else. It belongs on someone braver and more intelligent and more able.

We take bank cards, the nun says.

Roger G turns to the young woman and says, They take bank cards.

*

Walking back to her place she carries the coat in a bag under her arm. At her door Roger G asks if he can come upstairs. But she is tired. She would like to take a hot bath and go to bed. Tomorrow is Monday. She dreads Mondays.

Just for a minute, he promises.

Upstairs he takes the bag from her and tosses it onto the bed. He kisses her.

Roger, she says.

He kisses her again. He unbuttons her blouse. He slowly undresses her, pausing to kiss her there and there. When she is naked he reaches for the bag. Put it on, he says.

She looks at Roger G. She puts on the coat.

What is that smell? she asks.

Turn around, Roger G says.

She turns around, making the hem of the coat flare. His eyes go up and down.

Roger G flies at her. He flies at her from across the room. They collapse on the bed.

He makes her keep the coat on.

*

She wakes early the next morning. Roger G is already gone. Her coat lies in a heap on the floor. She gets up to smooth it out and drape it over the back of a chair. She returns to bed to watch the morning news. There has been an explosion at a train depot on the other side of the country. The announcers try to outdo each other in speaking of the vicious, heartless, pointless character of the attack. Meanwhile she thinks about what she can wear that goes with her new coat. In her mind she tries on various clothes. She imagines walking into her place of work wearing that coat. She thinks about how people will look at her. They will see her entering through the door, the coattail trailing behind her like a woman moving through a strong headwind. She will arrive like a storm.

The morning is cold and wet with a gentle drizzle falling but she feels warm in her coat. It is not until she is standing in the crowded subway car, amid the heat of all those bodies, that she again detects an odor. The damp has concentrated the aroma. At Bleecker Street a seat comes free and she manages to get there first. An older man sitting next to her gets up at the following stop and edges deeper into the car, where he hangs from a strap and glares back at her. A teenaged girl takes his place but after two stops she moves as well. The seat sits empty for the rest of the journey. On the elevator at her place of work everyone who gets on looks at her and then looks away. She hangs the coat on the hook of her cubicle wall.

Later that morning the head of IT pauses at her desk and asks if she is wearing new perfume.

*

At the firm Christmas party the young woman kissed the head of IT in the copy room. Roger G hadn’t come with her; he was going drinking with some friends. She kissed the IT man and let him pull down her top. He had never spoken to her before or even looked at her as far as she could tell. Though she had looked at him. He was very good-looking. He pulled down her top in the copy room while the party raged down the hall. She was willing to do more if he wanted but the director of IT said he was going to get another drink first. She waited in the copy room for half an hour and when she finally came out the director of IT was talking to Jeannette, the hospitality coordinator with the big front. The head of IT ignored her the rest of the party. He ignored her when the office opened again after the holidays. He has ignored her ever since until today, when he asks if she has changed perfumes.

Yes, the young woman decides.

I like the old one better, he says. And he hands her a stack of expired reservation panels and tells her to enter them into the system.

*

The young woman is not a data entry operator. She is a travel agent. That is her job title. More and more, however, it seems she is assigned menial office tasks, the chores no one else wants. She is often asked to make the coffee first thing in the morning. She is asked to take down the lunch orders. Whenever the copy machine jams or the toner needs changing, her coworkers call for her.

But she is rarely allowed to take the walk-ins. She likes the walk-ins. Two people walk through the door and they want to go on a journey. They want to go to Mexico or Rome or the Holy Land. Sometimes they are not entirely sure. You help them plan their trip.

She never gets to go anywhere herself. She does not have the money. She and Roger G went to the Jersey shore one weekend last summer but it rained. The Jersey shore does not count. At least when someone comes in to plan such a journey you get to experience their excitement. For a while it is almost as if you are going on the trip yourself.

But she hardly ever gets to take any walk-ins. Instead she is asked to update the wall chart. Major cruise charters are notated using color-coded markers: green for departure dates, blue for returns, red for cancellations. Or she is asked to go around emptying wastebaskets. She is told to go to the print shop to pick up a stack of the new brochures. And now the director of IT has asked her to input the entire stack of reservation panels.

*

When the director of IT pulled down her top in the copy room at the firm Christmas party his eyes took on a faraway look. She liked thinking she could have such an effect on a man. He looked faraway as if he were planning a journey himself. Take me with you, she had wanted to say. Take me wherever it is you are going. She had been surprised and moved to see that she could make a man’s gaze go distant and musing.

He weighed her appraisingly in the palms of his hands and finally said, Have you thought about having them done?

II

She devotes most of the morning to entering the expired reservation panels onto a spreadsheet. Then she sends out bulk emails advertising upcoming vacation specials to everyone and anyone who has ever had any contact with the agency. She spends another hour updating the cruise wall chart. The work is dreary. The ink from the markers mixes with the odor of her coat to give her a headache. Her hands come away green. She eats lunch at her desk. She eats the cottage-cheese-and-fruit serving from those plastic tubs that come in the four-pack. It tastes like cold paste but she figures if she eats a couple of hundred of these her rear might shrink. A sadness sets in around one-thirty, a sadness that often arrives at this time of the day, when she feels exhausted and there are still hours left.

As a little girl she never thought, I want to grow up to be a travel agent. She marveled at how other children seemed at ease in their bodies. She imagined looking at herself from across the playground or from the other side of the classroom and thinking how graceless and strange she must appear. She told herself that in time this suspicion would go away, that it was what you went through when you were young. She kept waiting for it to go away. At college she studied psychology while waiting. She studied psychology because they said she had to decide by the end of her second year. It was either psychology or sociology but for sociology you needed statistics.

She still does not know what she wants to grow up to be. The one thing she knows is that she does not want to be a travel agent. When she first started she imagined it would be fun to send people to faraway places, to places where the sun showers down on shattering sapphire waters lapping at beaches the color of sugar. But because she devotes all her time to changing the toner or updating the wall chart, it is not fun.

Moreover, it is not a good time to be a travel agent. The business has suffered. Most of their clients tend to be older people, those frightened by the internet. The recent economic crisis has not helped. In hard times people go no farther than a visit to their relatives in Buffalo. You do not need a travel agent to go to Buffalo. The recent attacks have also hurt business. People are afraid to venture too far. The message is clear. It is wild out there. It is dangerous. Stay home and order a pizza. Watch TV. We will bring the world to you.

In the middle of the afternoon the director of IT again appears at her cubicle door with another stack of reservation panels. If you could finish these before you leave for the day, he says.

She works on them the rest of the afternoon. She works on them past quitting time. She sits alone in the office, rushing to finish up, while outside night comes on.

The young woman thinks how she will not be young much longer.

*

Riding home she senses the odor of the coat is even stronger. She stands in the far corner of the subway car but despite the crowd a small space forms around her as people struggle to stay clear. When she climbs the steps at the station she detours to the neighborhood dry cleaners where the clerk, a Korean woman of indeterminate age with a large knitting needle driven through her hair like a stake, tells her it will cost fifteen dollars to have the coat cleaned.

But I only paid fifteen for it.

The Korean woman shows her the buttons on the coat. The buttons are heavy and pewterlike, crudely stamped with an ancient seal. The seal looks like a falcon or an eagle streaking past snow-covered mountains. The Korean woman explains that because of the age of the coat she will have to take great care not to damage the buttons.

You pick up in two day, the Korean woman tells her.

*

Roger G is waiting in front of her building. He has brought along a bottle of wine and some spring rolls. This is unlike Roger G. He rarely brings her gifts. She suspects when she is out of his sight he rarely thinks of her at all. But on this evening he has thought to bring the wine and the spring rolls as well as a pint of frozen yogurt.

He does not mention the fifteen dollars he owes her. She does not mention it either. Instead he has brought her a pint of double-chocolate mint, her absolute all-time favorite.

They watch a movie as they eat. The movie is about a couple who keep seeing each other from afar — a mutual friend’s birthday party, a sporting event, in the produce section of the market — and on each occasion both experience an undeniable magnetism. But because they are both quiet and withdrawn, neither can summon the courage to act. It is she knows a silly romantic comedy yet she feels strangely touched by it. It makes her fond of all men, everywhere. It makes her fond of Roger G. They eat the spring rolls, they drink the wine, they dip into the double-chocolate mint frozen yogurt while onscreen the couple come closer and closer to being together, though some mishap — a parking ticket, a broken mobile phone — always defers the moment.

With not twenty minutes to go in the film Roger G finishes the last of the wine and then takes her into his arms and begins to kiss her. She is suffused with such good feelings she kisses back.

Roger G says, Let’s turn off the TV.

She would like to see the end of the movie — she would like to know that all turns out as it should — but she does not want to disappoint Roger G. She reaches for the remote. The screen goes dark. He takes her in his arms once more.

Roger G says, Why don’t you put on the coat?

What?

The coat, Roger G says. He looks around the room. Put it on.

I don’t have it.

What do you mean you don’t have it.

I took it to the dry cleaners.

He sits up and looks at her. It wasn’t dirty, he said. You just bought it.

It smelled. Anybody who came within five feet of me could smell it.

Well, I couldn’t smell it.

What does it matter? she says. I’ll get it back in two days.

I didn’t smell anything.

Forget it, then, she tells him. Just forget it.

No, you forget it.

*

But when she returns to the dry cleaners to pick up her coat the Korean woman charges her twenty dollars because three of the buttons came off and had to be sewn back on.

I did not ask you to do that, the young woman says. If I had known, she begins, and here she shakes her head. She feels upset, more upset than she has any right to be. I did not want that, she says.

The Korean woman shows her the work. Beautiful coat, she says. Special coat. Deserve good job. This best job ever, she says. These buttons never come off. Last you a lifetime. Last you two lifetimes.

Outside a freezing rain has started to fall. The skies churn with gray clouds. The rain rings in the gutters.

The young woman looks at the coat in the cellophane wrap. It is neatly pressed. The lapels are stiff as boards. The insignia exude a regal dignity.

But when she hands over her bank card the other woman returns it with a frown. There are insufficient funds in her account.

That can’t be, the young woman comes back. Run it again.

We not supposed to do that.

Run it again. Please.

The clerk swipes the card a second time but the result is the same. The young woman manages to scrape together the money, counting out the last two dollars from her change purse.

*

At home she phones the twenty-four-hour helpline supplied by her savings & loan

but she has forgotten her PIN. She knows it is either the day, month, and year of her late mother’s birthdate, or the last four digits of the phone number of a boy she knew briefly but passionately two and a half years ago, or 1234. She tries all three but none work, at which point she has locked herself out of her account. While waiting for a human to come on the phone she turns on the news. There has been an explosion at an airport one state over. The reporter writes of the unconscionable, depraved, senseless nature of the act. During a commercial the young woman removes the coat from the plastic wrap. It is a beautiful coat. The buttons stand out like coins from some long-forgotten imperial realm, impossibly old and all-powerful.

A woman with a harsh, north country accent finally comes on the line, asks a series of question to confirm the young woman’s identity, and then informs her that she has an account balance of exactly $16.43.

But I had over three hundred dollars.

Not any more, the savings-&-loan lady explains. Three separate withdrawals have been made in each of the last three days from an automated teller machine in Neptune, New Jersey.

I have never in my life been to Neptune, New Jersey, the young women says.

Your card has.

Neither my card nor I have ever, ever been to Neptune.

She will need to come into the savings & loan to speak personally with someone from the accounts securities sector.

In the meantime, the lady tells her, I will put a block on your card.

It’s a little late for that.

Yes, the savings-&-loan lady admits. It certainly is.

*

She goes to the savings & loan first thing in the morning. She has to wait for almost an hour before she is ushered into an office where a young man — certainly younger than she — explains that she will need to go to the police and file a report.

What about my money? she asks. I don’t have any money.

Once we receive the police report we can proceed.

But in the meantime I don’t have any cash.

First we have to establish that a crime has been committed.

If you could give me a little of my money for now —

Without proof, the savings & loan will release no funds, the accounts officer says. He speaks as if the savings & loan were a person, this stubborn older person like a parent, who is having a bad day. She wonders if she were to come back at some other, better time for the savings & loan, would the savings & loan possibly change its mind. But the accounts officer assures her that without a police report no time would be a good time.

His shoes cost more than her rent.

*

She has trouble concentrating at work that day. She tells herself it is a simple misunderstanding, that soon the matter will be cleared up and her life can return to normal.

She wonders how in the meantime she will pay her electric bill. She wonders how she will pay her college loans. Mid-morning a pair of walk-ins appear and because the rest of the staff is busy — the cold weather makes people want to get away — she takes the couple back to her cubicle. They are good-looking. They smile. They want to go to the Caribbean. They hope for scalding heat. They dream of searing light. The trip is not cheap. But they keep agreeing to the add-ons. Yes, they want the cabin on the upper deck. They want the wine-sampling menu at dinner each evening. They want to go snorkeling and parasailing. They want to hire a car and driver for an excursion to view the crumbling castle to the west of the island, a legacy of colonial times. They want the guided tour of the old slave market.

The couple go away pleased. Yet the young woman feels strangely dispirited. She does not feel as if she is embarking on the trip along with them, as she had hoped she would. Instead such a journey seems more remote than ever. Outside the rain has turned to sleet. From the window she watches as it ices the roadway and glazes the windshields of parked cars. The rain and cold appear inescapable, a permanent fact of her life. It comes to her that she will never go parasailing. She will never sleep in a cabin on the upper deck. The closed space of her cubicle seems to engulf her completely. She worries she is destined to endless days in which her biggest concern is her weight or her hair or her clothes. She will never meet anyone outside the likes of Roger G or the director of IT, men who don’t look into her eyes, men who look everywhere but her eyes. Say she wakes one morning and is unable to recall not only her PIN but her address and her phone number and her name. She is unable to recall her dreams. She will not remember the odd little girl across the playground, the unkempt little girl on the other side of the classroom. What if she lives the whole of her life having never looked squarely into someone else’s face and finally recognized herself for the first time.

That afternoon she is again asked to update the wall chart. Her fingers come away blue.

*

At the precinct house no one wants to talk to her. She confers with three different people before someone agrees to take her statement. An ancient man with a wet cough, phlegm popping miles deep, promises to send her the written report within a week. In the meantime he assigns her a case number. He says what probably happened is someone at a store where she shopped cloned her bank card.

He is having a free ride on your dime, the detective says.

The phrase makes her think of someone riding around in a large convertible with the wind blowing in his hair, chucking coins into the air as he drives along.

She tries to borrow money from Roger G but he insists he has none. She has a credit card though she hit her limit some months back and has barely managed to make the interest payments. She phones her friend Yolanda to ask if she has a little that could tide her over but Yolanda says I was just about to call you to ask the same thing. Over the next few days the young woman waits for some word from either the police or the bank but when she hears nothing she finally calls both, only to learn that each has been waiting to hear from the other. She eats whatever is left in the refrigerator and the cupboard, throwing together meals that if not inspired nonetheless fill her stomach. She breaks down finally and phones her brother in Cleveland to see if he might help but his wife answers and immediately hangs up. His wife does not like the young woman because of an episode that happened three Thanksgivings ago that the young woman feels was not entirely her fault. She eats ramen and a tin of anchovies, couscous with frozen succotash and a dried packet of French onion dip, a butter-and-blackened-slices-of-overripe-avocado sandwich. She turns on the television though there is nothing of interest on any of the seventy-eight channels. She has either already seen it or if she hasn’t she doesn’t want to watch it for the same reason she didn’t want to watch before. She looks at several videos on her phone but that is fun for about eight minutes. She finds enough change in her junk drawer and hidden in the sofa cushions to purchase bags of chips from the machine at work for lunch. She tries telling herself this is only a temporary situation until the bank can straighten out the error but there is a small piece of her that fears this might be the beginning of a long and endless decline. She suspects that even if the savings and loan restores her funds tomorrow, in another two weeks or six months or year she will find herself in similar straights. She does not know how she arrived at such a situation and she has no idea how to go about extricating herself from it. Many of course are as bad or even much worse off than she is though this supplies little consolation. She wishes there were someone out there who could take her by the hand and lead her away from the cold and the darkness but she knows deep down there is no such person and never has been.

III

She spends most of Friday afternoon updating the wall chart. The red marker leaks all over the front of her white silk blouse. She tries to rinse out the stain in the bathroom but succeeds only in spreading a fiery blot the shape of Africa directly over her heart. Leaving at five she makes her way beneath an overcast sky. The clouds above are dark and churning. Moving down the steps to the subway platform she is met with the odors of diesel and exhaust and a hundred human bodies pressed close. She is wearing her new wool coat and as she watches her reflection in the windows of passing coaches it is like looking at another woman entirely. It is like looking at a stranger. Yet if the coat is magic she feels far removed from the magic. When her train comes she squeezes through the doors. Inside a teenaged boy and an older man with two shopping bags argue over a seat and the man loses. The young woman stands in the middle of the car clinging to an overhead strap. She stands before those seated in front of her, their knees knocking against hers as the coach sways. They read books or newspapers or talk on phones or play games on handheld electronic devices or else they simply stare off into the empty distance, their eyes made opaque with fatigue.

Two stops into her journey, just past Thirty-Fourth Street, the train brakes. It coasts to a standstill. A voice over the intercom assures them the delay will be momentary, thank you for your patience. A minute later there comes a loud popping noise, followed by a second, like kids lighting firecrackers. She detects a sudden, sharp odor that she worries at first must be her coat again though the smell is too overwhelming, a harsh ozone tang to the air. The voice over the intercom returns to say the delay will be momentary, thank you for your patience. Here the car goes dark. A light at the far end of the tunnel supplies the only illumination. There comes now a series of distant booms, deep thumps that resound through the soles of her shoes. In the gray light the faces of the passengers dart back and forth.

*

They wait for several minutes more. The voice over the intercom says the delay will be momentary, please do not exit the car, thank you for your patience. There follows almost instantly another boom, much louder this time. A stunned silence ensues. The passengers wait, bewildered, for the intercom to explain, but the voice is mute. The older man clutching his two bags begins to whimper. A third boom sounds, immense, percussive. The whole coach shakes and begins to fill with smoke. An unseen woman screams. She screams again. It seems to unleash the humours. She is immediately met with a round chorus of yells, as if people have been waiting for just this cue.

A man on the young woman’s left turns and begins to kick at the window behind him. She says, But the voice said not to exit the coach. Another man on her right looks at her for a long moment and then starts to kick at his own window. The smoke has thickened. The air turns choking. When someone manages to open the door in the rear, passengers surge out as if they have been extruded through a mold the shape of hope. They flop onto the tracks, stumbling, gasping, several pitching to their hands and knees. And then they are up and running. The light in the subway is eerie, muted, like the glow of a sacred grotto. They trip and stagger half-blind through the smoking darkness. The young woman feels her way along the wall until the wall vanishes and she is falling through an unlit archway. From behind her she hears someone say, The one in the coat? Follow her. More people rush through the archway, bearing her along down one tunnel and up another, until she arrives at an opening barred by an iron gate. Someone flings himself against the gate and others join in, heaving their bodies into the iron. When the gate gives she is propelled through it and delivered out into a hall which itself ends in a well-lit room. Several patrolmen stand about. They have arrived at a police sub-station of some sort. One of them turns in surprise and says, You can’t come in here. The teenager who had fought over the seat earlier says, But there’s a fire. He has an IQ of 87 and has been twice arrested for shoplifting yet that does not matter here. What matters is the way he stands before the crowd and tells the police officer, There’s been a fire and you have to let us through. But the officer says, I don’t care, the public is not allowed, and then he raises his baton almost casually and with what seems no more than a gentle flick of the wrist he taps the teenager along the head and the boy collapses at his feet. The silence is shocking and momentary, leaving those in the crowd to look unsurely at one another, and then as if at some hidden sign only they can hear, like the high-pitched frequency of a dog whistle, they plunge forward, overcoming the officer and his cohorts and hurrying past them. The young woman is once more carried along by the crowd sweeping behind her, jolted helplessly even as she hears someone say, Stick with the one in the coat. They barrel through a pair of swinging metal doors and up a steep walkway. Shouts of outrage and cries of Get them! ring from behind but gradually fade as the crowd climbs higher. Still others merge from nearby entryways and side tunnels, flowing like tributaries into the great streaming river of people. At the top they encounter a broad wooden door of indeterminate age. The hinges groan as people press into it. The door swings slowly open like the movement of a second hand and they all pour out into the nave of a church. A thin light filters through the colored glass to shine onto the vault overhead. A bishop in flowing robes and the mitre on his head stands in the chancel before the credence table, a staff in his hand. He looks out at the entering mob and says, We’re in the middle of the elevation of the Host. You can’t come in here. The older man still clutching his two shopping bags says but there’s a fire. There’s been a terrible catastrophe. The man suffers from piles, subscribes to three different porn websites, and regularly steals toilet rolls from the supply closet at work, but that is not what matters. What matters is the way he says, Something horrible is happening and you have to let us through. The bishop takes a step down from the chancel and says, It can’t be helped. We are drinking the blood and eating the body. When the old man tries to slip past, the prelate lowers the staff and trips him, making the man sprawl before the presbytery. The man grabs the cleric by the ankle, bringing the other down on top of him. The choir clamber from their stalls into the nave and begin to grapple with a few of the intruders but many others from the congregation now rise and with shouts join the racing crowd. They swarm around and through the narthex and out the large doors to a narrow chamber with rising walls. The smoke has managed to follow them even here. They rush up a broken escalator, using their hands to shield their mouths and noses from the smoke. They arrive at a large glass-covered atrium of unexpected beauty. There are dwarf ginkgo trees and cherry blossoms and soaring potted cypress and a marble fountain layered with smooth stones over which water bubbles and rolls. A circular staircase of broad slate steps winds along the sides of the atrium on up to the very top where the sun has emerged from the clouds, burning overhead. It strikes through the glass in vertical shafts of light like burning pillars of gold.

They have entered the Bourse. In the middle of the rotunda stands a group of men in suits. When the crowd edges closer the men turn in surprise. They raise their umbrellas like swords. Their briefcases double as shields. The others draw up short, those in the rear bumping into those ahead, and there arrives now a moment on the brink. Though they outnumber the men in suits by twenty-to-one, by fifty-to-one, the crowd continues to mill about, paralyzed in the face of circumstance. It is a story older than the oldest poets, a story older than time, the very story that first gave us time. In that instant the whole of the future stands in suspension, like ripened fruit trembling at the end of a branch.

Yet in the ebb and pull someone jostles the young woman from behind and pitches her forward, causing her to collapse against one of the suited men. He backpedals a step. It is a small, an unthinking reaction, but a murmur ripples through the massed crowd. The young woman stands now and looks about, and the others look back at her, expectant, waiting. Here she begins to move. She watches herself move. From across the playground, from the other side of the office — from the other side of her life — she moves forward. She has a boyfriend named Roger G who does not love her and she does not love him but this no longer matters. She has a job she hates and she owes money and her credit rating is abysmal. She has only an opened carton of souring milk and a half-empty bag of cheese doodles in her refrigerator. She has slept with more men than she likes to remember and one woman if you have to know, though later lying next to them after they had fallen asleep she experienced a loneliness more lonely than if she had been alone, but none of this matters. What matters is the way the men in suits look at her as she eases past. Any one of them could stop her — she is small, this woman — though they do not. They look at the coat and they do not. She steps onto the slate staircase and begins her climb. There is some quality to the light and to the sound of her footsteps on the stairs that makes everyone stop and stare. She pauses to gaze down at the crowd below, their faces peering up at her. The sun drives at her back. In its heat and glare she takes off the coat and flings it over the railing. It hangs in the air as if it might fly, but then all eyes watch it drift to the floor of the atrium. Turning to her once more, only now do they see the red blotch over her heart. The wound looks deep. The wound looks mortal. A great roar goes up from the gathering. It is maddened, incensed, thunderous. It shakes the very walls. The roar sends her tearing up the staircase once more, aiming toward summits, the sun blasting down from overhead. The crowd chases after her, hurtling two, three steps at a time. All of eternity is suddenly theirs, if only for this moment.

~

T.L. Toma teaches in Texas. His stories have appeared in Black Warrior ReviewCimarron ReviewFiction International, and Massachusetts Review, among others. His novel, Border Dance, was published by Southern Methodist University Press. Toma is confident socialism will win.

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