Jan/Feb 2013  •   Fiction


by Lou Gaglia

If she'd said Parcheesi to me one more time, I was going to have a fit, but on second thought, no. I couldn't have a fit around Laura. I'm like jelly around her, like some cream puff nothing, unlike around this neighborhood or at the pool hall or at work at the gas station, where my shoulders are always up and everyone pisses me off.

All day at work I think, they can all go to hell, every one of them greedy bastards who drive in for gas in their fancy cars and look down on me; and they can go to hell at the pool hall, too, different kinds of bastards who think they can win money from me, even though some of them really do—but that's not the point—they're greedy bastards, too.

And even old friends in my own neighborhood—they're all holed up in their apartments or houses now, or taking care of their five-foot-wide lawns and sidewalk strips of grass and not even looking up pals they used to swear by. They've got theirs, so what do they care? Most of them either married or on the town with new Manhattan friends. They still live around the block or across the street but are like a thousand miles away now, to themselves now—all to themselves, especially once their kids showed up. Them and their barbecues and their Fourth of July crap, them and their Halloween decorations and their million Christmas lights and figures, them and their fancy jobs. Well, I wish them luck. I really do. God bless them all. But anyone who says this Brooklyn neighborhood is so tight knit and wonderful is full of crap.

Sure I want to get married, too, and I don't care what anyone thinks, that I'm wasting my time—Laura is the only one for me. She's it. She's the one, and I know it, and she knows it, too, I think, but I've asked her to marry me five times in two years, as of now, and it's never exactly yes. This time, for instance, the fifth time, she smiled—all excited—and said, "Let's play Parcheesi."

"What?" I said.

"Parcheesi. It's a great game. You should learn."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I said.

She smiled again. "Come on, let's play, and don't say hell."

"What are we, kids? I just asked you—"

"Come on, we used to play cards. Just one game of Par-cheese-ee." She said it like that, all excited, like she was enticing me with this game. I just looked away, out the bedroom window at the back brick wall of another building.

We're both 30, not kids, but we went to the same schools and have lived across the street from each other all our lives, so maybe she thinks she's still my pal from elementary, or maybe it is what I really think it is—that she wants me to do better first, or be better or something. Better meaning a better job, for one thing. My gas station job is crap. I pump gas, and the boss won't let me work on the cars, even though he knows I'm good with them. Better would be to stop the pool playing, too. She doesn't like that, or my swearing. She tells me to say crap instead of shit, like it makes a damn difference which word is which. She doesn't like my gambling on football, either. And lucky she doesn't know about the bridge climbing, or I couldn't even get into a Parcheesi game with her if I wanted to, much less marry her.

But it's something, not nothing, this Parcheesi thing, I guess, because she was with me upstairs after all, all alone with me in my bedroom. She did smile, and she did stroke my shoulders before she left while I looked out the window and slowly shook my head at the bricks. "Unbelievable," I kept saying, keeping my voice down because Steve, the kid visiting next door, was in the other room watching the ball game.

"No Parcheesi?" she said. "We can talk and play."

I shook my head. "Talk about what?"

She stroked my head once, which made me have to close my eyes. "Maybe later, then," she said.

She headed out, leaving me sitting there struck dumb. But I didn't hear her say good-bye to the kid, so I got up.

"That's five now, God. What am I supposed to do?" I muttered to the ceiling and opened the door to the living room, but the kid was gone, so there was no one to watch the ball game and sulk with, either. I snapped off the TV.

I sat on the stoop for a while. Next door Pete and Jimmy were on the balcony, but I didn't go up. It had been no fun having lunch up there. They were still mourning for their Dad, Uncle Frank, one the best men I ever knew. Jimmy, Steve's father, was like a big brother to me growing up, and his son Steve—I liked him, too—fought with everyone earlier because he wanted to play baseball. I liked the kid because he had that fight in him. But Pete, head of the family now that Frank was gone, insisted they all keep up with their mourning, even a month later. Even when I was up there and howled—kidding around—at Kelly when she went by on her usual noon walk, it was no fun. Pete kept it up for only a second, then sat and sulked again, like he remembered he had to mourn. Jimmy was quiet, too, but a different kind of quiet, the thinking kind, not the sulking kind. And the kids inside weren't allowed to do a damn thing except sit on the couch. So when Steve ran out anyway and down the block with his glove, I yelled out to go get 'em, to hit a homer. Good for him, I thought, sitting back down and sipping at my coffee, but Pete gave me a look and Jimmy stood quiet near the railing. So later I let the poor kid watch a little baseball when he passed my building on the way back. I didn't care who got mad about it. Laura was late anyway, so I wasn't exactly in the mood to care.

I looked across the street at the Lorettis' brownstone. In the next building, on the third floor, was Laura's bedroom window, but I wouldn't look up. Down Union Street the other way was the line of brownstones leading to Mazzola's Bakery on the corner, and I imagined for a second me and Laura walking with our own son someday. When I got a better job. When I stopped playing pool and betting on football. When I asked her to marry me for the tenth time to show I was serious. When I stopped climbing the Manhattan Bridge, even though she didn't know about that.

I remembered Jimmy's hand lightly touching his son's head when they got out of the car in the morning.

"Marry me, and I'll stop playing damn pool," I muttered to her brownstone and got up and crossed the street diagonally without looking back. I knew a car was coming, but I didn't give a damn. "Hit me, you bastard, hit me," I muttered, waiting for a horn, but nothing happened, except the car stopped short, then rolled on after I reached the other sidewalk.

I picked up a loaf of Italian bread and tore off pieces on the way down Henry Street, waving to big John inside Nina's. He had a smirk on his face, giving a customer a hard time about his pizza order, I figured. I passed the old man's barber shop—closed—and then was pissed off about Laura all over again, because of my back-of-the-head bald spot where she'd stroked. The old man always insisted on showing me the back of my head in the mirror after a cut even though I waved him off every time. He insisted, and I glanced and nodded it was fine, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't help but look anywhere except at that spot. There was only so much head to look at anyway, and there was only so much head for Laura to stroke, too—one bald-spot stroke it was, the stroke telling me in so many words, in one stroke, the reason for the five no's, maybe, or the reason for the four no's and that weird "Let's play some Parcheesi!" smile she wore.

But it wasn't even four no's. I stood on the corner, near the elementary school and waited for three taxis in a row to roll by. They weren't exactly no's. They were "not yet's." They were, "Let's see, okay?" Let's see how wide your bald spot spreads first, maybe.

The Brooklyn Bridge wasn't more than 20 minutes away, as fast as I walked, and I always cut across Cadman Park to the back pissy entrance instead of taking the main ramp where there were too many cars. I flew up the stairs two at a time, up to the concrete section, and soon was able to see across to the lower east side, which I liked to avoid since helping that Spanish kid against the Italian crowd there. He got his ass kicked over some comment they said he made. My old friend Paul from high school who lives there now in the Spanish projects with his girlfriend told me about it—that they bloodied him up behind the elementary school at the basketball courts, just kicked the crap out of him even after he was down. Paul said the kid, Rudy, never said anything about anyone's girl, but they kicked the crap out of him anyway. So I went over to Paul's and met the kid downstairs. He and his parents were really nice. They liked Paul, and they liked me right away, too, I could tell. So we went out and played some basketball, but the kid Rudy wouldn't go to their courts to play like we wanted. We played across the street at P.S. 1 Park instead, and still, a couple of them came by anyway and told me and Paul through the fence to go back to Brooklyn before they kicked our asses.

"How do they know we're from Brooklyn?" I asked Paul, like those guys weren't even there, but he shrugged, also like they weren't there, and banked a shot in. They walked on, but not before they told us exactly what they'd do to us if they saw us again—saw us with Rudy, the Spanish kid, they meant, of course. But they'd come for me, I knew, if they saw me with or without Rudy, because I kept my eyes locked on them while Paul and Rudy shot baskets. I gave them a look, as if to say, "Why later?" I turned my head from right all the way left while they walked by and up Catherine Street. "Why not now," my look said. "You're all full of crap with that later crap," I said with my look.

That Italian crap, I thought, reaching the wood slats of the bridge and walking in the middle, feeling the familiar loose boards as well as the tighter ones under my feet. The Italians there and the ones in my neighborhood talk about being Italian, like it means something to be Italian and not anything else. But we say "Italian," and they say "'Talian," and that's the only difference. Or they beat up Spanish kids who do nothing, and we have big barbecues and don't invite old friends who aren't married yet. Both groups are full of crap.

"Don't say 'shit' anymore," Laura urged me about a year ago, so I hardly ever say it now, out of habit. For a while, when we hung out or went to a movie, I would say "crap" to anything at all until she got pissed, but now I say it naturally, not on purpose and not as often, and she doesn't get mad. She seems to know the difference. Knows I'm trying, maybe.

The bridge near the first arch wasn't crowded since it was Sunday, so I didn't have to dodge too many tourists.

Well, God, I said to the sky as I swung past the first arch, this is just another test I'm not passing, isn't it?

My whole life was like a school test I didn't want to study for, but Laura helped me anyway without my asking, starting with math homework in seventh grade. She came over the afternoon Mrs. Bennati yelled at me when I wouldn't answer a question, not because I didn't know the answer but because she called on me out of the blue when I looked out the window, like looking out the window was some crime. So I wouldn't answer. I shrugged, still looking out the window, and she yelled at me and kicked me out into the hall, and when I said the answer over my shoulder on the way out, she sent me to the principal instead. So Laura came over in the late afternoon, and from the living room I heard her say hi to my mom before coming in to help me even though I scowled at her. She sat next to me on the couch and opened her math book and told me Mrs. Bennatti was just trying to help me.

"She threw me out of class," I said. "I don't need help."

"Everyone needs help," she said.

"I don't."

She opened her book. "Then maybe help me, then. Number six, over here. I don't get it." And I just looked at her while she screwed up her eyebrows at problem number six, and I knew she was pretending because she was the smartest girl in the class, almost. I kind of went through the motions of explaining the problem to her, and watched her look down at it, nodding with her eyebrows knit. I thought to myself, I'm always going to know her. That's all I thought while I went through the motions. I will always know her. I knew it back then, in seventh grade. But back then I thought I would know her like you'd always know that you're flat-footed or something. But some other part of me was already saying no, you'll know her forever, stupid, and better than having flat feet.

I passed the second arch and headed down toward Manhattan, looking at City Hall and deciding to walk straight up to Julian's pool hall through Broadway rather than chance a trip past my Italian friends in Paul's neighborhood.

She joined every club in junior high school and high school, and they were all helping-people kinds of clubs. She went around for Uni-Cef every year, showing up at the door like clockwork every fall. But in 8th or 9th grade my mom gave her whatever change she had and then ordered me to empty my pockets. I just looked at them both and didn't budge, so Mom yelled, "Selfish, selfish!" right in front of Laura, and wouldn't let up until I slammed my whole wad of fives and ones and coins on the kitchen table so the coins scattered over the floor. Laura hurried out without my money, and boy did I get a beating from my dad when he got home. That was a bad one. He lifted me right off the ground by my hair when he came up from behind me in the kitchen that night, and later, alone, he belted me with his big open hand across the side of the head.

Once over the bridge I changed my mind, cutting past the court buildings and through Columbus Park, where I stopped first to watch some old men play Chinese chess, a big crowd around them. But I got bored after a while because I couldn't figure out the game, and I needed a tea, which I always loved to sip at—for luck—on my way to the pool hall. The only bakeries open on Sunday were the Chinese ones, so I walked down Catherine, near Henry Street, only a block away from my 'Talian friends. The sidewalk was packed, as usual, mostly with Chinese people. It was impossible to walk except slowly—which I didn't enjoy. I was up the backs of first one old man, then a woman with her young kids who walked on both sides of the stroller she pushed, so I went out into the street, skipping back up onto the curb once I passed them and before a vegetable truck rattled past me from behind. I ducked into the first Chinese bakery I saw and stood at the counter.

If Eddie or Anthony or Dominic or any of my neighborhood buddies, or if those two Rudy haters were there, maybe they would have yelled at the ladies and girls behind the counter when they didn't come right over and take their order. Maybe they would have called them every name in the book just because they were Chinese, or because the Chinese were moving further and further down Catherine Street, into their precious territory; but I caught myself just gazing at them, not making a move, even though no one came by for me, even though when any one of the five or six of them got anywhere near me, her eyes went down or she drifted away. Finally, one woman with enormous teeth looked at me expectantly. When I said, "Tea," she hesitated.


"No sugar," I said.

"No sugar. Milk?"


"No milk?"

"Yes milk."

She hesitated again, and another younger woman came by. She'd served me once before. She had black hair and dark eyes, and she almost shouted, in a friendly way, "May I help you, sir?"

Sir, I laughed to myself when she turned to make my tea. Sir. I watched the back of her head and then her half-smiling full lips while she bagged my tea. I half-smiled back to her and then to the teeth lady, who wasn't looking, and waited at the door until five, six, or seven people entered and three others pushed ahead of me on their way out.

I was in no rush. My favorite part of any off day was to grab a tea, any tea, and slowly walk up to 14th Street and Julian's pool hall, slowly sipping and thinking of angles. Four ball into the gutter on the corner. Nine ball—a tricky shot—up the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. Twelve ball uptown along the Bowery. Three ball—bing—onto the big toe of the impatient looking woman waiting to cross at the corner of Bowery and Hester. I thought of who might want a game with me at Julian's on a Sunday afternoon.

It was my favorite part of the day, and it was my favorite bakery, too, now that I thought of it, even though most of the women there except the full-lipped one avoided taking my order, even though the neighborhood idiots who'd beat up Rudy were on the prowl. I'd noticed them near P.S. 1 Park when I came out of the bakery—probably looking for outsiders and foreigners and guys who shot baskets with them or bought teas from them. So I ducked ahead of the crowd walking up Catherine Street, and I was gone, crossing East Broadway and then up the Bowery, and before I knew it, I was passing the lighting stores and the warehouses—all the usual guys pushing hand trucks, even on Sunday. At Forsythe the same wheel-chaired homeless man was ready to glare or yell at whoever made eye contact with him, but I sipped my tea and gave him room as I passed, looking far up the block.

It was my favorite part of the day, not just the walking and the sipping and the noticing things part, but also the not-knowing part: not knowing who I was going to pass a block away, not knowing who the guys with the hand trucks were or what their family histories or bad habits were, not knowing who every guy or girl in the area ever dated or what they probably thought of me, not knowing who would serve me tea at the bakery that day—though lately it was the cheerful full-lipped woman. May I help you, sir? I remembered, and smiled.

The people on the Bowery, and then along Third Avenue, didn't know me or my family, or that I only got through high school and never went to college because I didn't want to take out a loan after Dad refused to help me ("You got a C average—why should I waste my money on you?"). They didn't know how mad I was in high school while Laura went out with Lenny Santoni; or that I lost the last fight I ever had in high school against him in a touch football game; or that I refused to talk to Laura for five years after that—just because—or that when I got my own place on Union Street, away from my parents a few blocks away on First Place, everyone figured I moved just to live across the street from Laura, even though I wasn't even talking to her anymore; or that I hated burned crust on pizza and had a fit if I got a burnt slice, which was hardly ever in my neighborhood anymore. These people passing me didn't know what the neighborhood knew, so to them I was what they hoped I was or feared I was—or didn't even care if I was. I was what I looked like only to them, what they imagined, not what they'd heard a million times. I hated my neighborhood friends there and loved the strangers here, and I looked eagerly into their passing faces all the way up and across 14th Street. The tea was finished and thrown away by the time I got to Julian's.

Each step of the long set of stairs at Julian's creaked under my feet. I chose the table in the far corner, away from the scattered few who were playing, and shot a few racks, counting how many it took to pocket each rack of 15 if I started with the one ball. No one looked at me, and that's the way I liked it. With every shot, I counted off the friends who weren't friends anymore, starting with Pete and Jimmy, and then Santoni, who lived underneath Laura, until I got up to the 14 and 15 balls, which I reserved for Debbie the big mouth, Laura's best friend, and Laura herself, whom I sank with a long hard shot into the corner pocket.

I racked them up again but stood at the head of the table holding the cue ball, thinking of Debbie tying up the phone line with Laura when I called at night, or Debbie already at Laura's apartment when I dropped over. Debbie giving meaningful sideways looks to Laura when I dropped by, and Laura pretending not to notice. Debbie, who in high school went from best friend to best friend, who knew everyone's dirt, who now had Laura asking me to play Parcheesi instead of agreeing to marriage, who filled her head with talk about correlations between pool playing, bridge climbing, gas station workers, and divorce rates, or some crazy mortality rate for hot heads no one ever heard of.

I clenched the cue ball and set it up for a monster break. From the one ball, I tried counting off new people I wanted to know more. New people and new places, I thought, wondering about getting a Manhattan apartment, maybe one near the pool hall, or even near that bakery, although I'd either have to fight or make friends with the two bozos first.

The new guy, Glen, who lived upstairs from me, fresh from Long Island, was the one ball. I sank him easily into the side pocket, smiling at his cluelessness, about his dreams of becoming a poet and all the other dreams he rattled off to me after introducing himself in front of my building the other day. Clueless but a nice guy, and not too full of himself. So he was the one ball. Then I lined up the two ball, thinking of who next, and the bakery woman came to mind. "That's stupid," I said to myself, slicing the two a hair right and sending her into the pile. "Stupid," I repeated, breaking up the pile without aiming. The balls flew everywhere, but she—the two—stayed in the middle of the table. I imagined walking with her through my neighborhood, both of us sucking on Italian ices with arms linked, and Laura across the street furious; and then Debbie at her elbow saying See? See? Now it's some Chinese woman.

"How about some nine-ball?" A pudgy older man stood at the side of the table. I'd seen him around 8th Street buying racing forms or playing pool at Julian's by himself. He had an exaggerated comb-over, his lower lip hung, and he seemed to breathe only through his mouth. "Just one game."

"All right."

"Five bucks?"

"Five bucks? No, no. I just want to shoot around."

"Five bucks, come on. One game, five bucks."

I looked at him. "All right, one game."

"You look like you're good."

"I'm not good."

We both put five dollar bills on the table.

I won the lag but didn't sink anything off the break. The man found the one ball and sank it easily, then had the two lined up for an easy shot into the side pocket. But, using a bridge for no good reason, he tipped the two into the edge of the cushion near the pocket and cursed himself. I watched his face as he cursed, watched his eyes change immediately from anger to indifference while his mouth still cursed. And I hesitated a long while before sinking the two, three, four and five balls. I missed the six, but he missed it, too, rattling it close to the corner pocket.

"I'm off today," he said. I frowned as I sank the six, seven, eight and nine.

"It's yours," said the man. I rested my stick carefully against the wall, in between the grooves of paneling.

"How about another?" he said.

"No." I stood near the money. "I have to go."

"One more game. Ten bucks."

I stared at him. "No."

"Five bucks then. Another five. Give me a chance to win the five back, at least."

I looked past him, and thought of just offering him his five dollars back, or letting him beat me and leaving, or spending the rest of the day back and forth with him until I fell 20 or 100 dollars behind. I picked up the two fives and pocketed them. "No, next time. I have to go."

As I walked over to pay for my time, I imagined a knife driven into my back or the violent rush at me from the rest of the hustlers, but when I finally turned at the register, I saw the man practicing, shuffling around the table and wearing a sour expression, his lower lip jutting.

I went down the long, dark stairway, and Laura was next to me in my mind, laughing with me at how rather unfortunate it was the hustler hadn't gotten the chance to hustle this time.

When we started seeing each other again, on and off, two years ago, we often played cards at her apartment with her mother off in the kitchen instead of at my new place, with no one else there. We played 500 rummy and talked quietly. If she was winning, though, I sometimes snatched her cards away to take a look at them, startling her and making her laugh and scold me and making her mother call, "What happened?"

Whenever I won a hand, I said with pretend smugness, "Oh, that's rather unfortunate." She laughed. I liked to see her laugh because otherwise she was so serious. Then one night we went out for dinner and pool, except Debbie and some guy showed up to eat with us on Houston Street, and went along with us to the pool hall nearby, and then to Julian's. He was some married guy from the east end of Long Island who I thought Debbie was seeing, but at Julian's he talked to Laura more than to Debbie. So later, after kicking all their asses in pool, I walked all the way home over the bridge rather than ride back with them in a taxi. I wouldn't look at Laura outside, even after that Long Island shithead headed back to Penn Station, even when Laura and Debbie insisted there was plenty of room in the back of the taxi. Later, I brooded my way over the Brooklyn Bridge, looking over at the Manhattan Bridge, which was under construction and closed.

For months I kept away from her. I went out a lot and kept my phone off the hook. I stayed off the stoop and didn't appear at the window at night, until at last I couldn't stand it anymore. I put the phone back on the hook, and sat on the stoop a lot, and stood at my window looking down or across at her building at all hours. And when she didn't call or come over, I called her.

"You want to go to the movies, or not?" I asked.

"All right." She said it like it was only the day before instead of months since we'd talked.

"How's your married boyfriend?"

She laughed. "He's Debbie's co-worker. He's Debbie's friend."

"Yeah, okay." And when she was quiet, I said, "You still want to go to the movies?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"All right, let's go then. I'll meet you downstairs."

"Can I get ready first?"

"Go ahead. I'll be downstairs." And we hung up without saying goodbye.

It was like that. And it was like that at the movie theater, too, when I got into an argument with some guy who took my jacket off the back of my chair. He slid his way casually out of his row with my jacket after the movie was over, but I called out, "Oh! Oh!" and he turned around with a pathetic pretend-ignorant look on his face.

"That's my jacket."

"No, it's mine," he said, looking down at it, confused.

I practically jumped over my seat to his row, and even though I could have grabbed the jacket back out of his hands because he'd already given up, and even though I could have pummeled him then and there, I asked him to look in the pocket if it was his jacket.

"Go ahead and look." He hesitated. "Put your hand in there." He reached in. "Take it out," I said. "Take it out." And his hand came out with the piece of Lego I always kept in my pocket.

Then he got apologetic. He'd thought it was his jacket, he said, and I laughed. And then Laura was behind me, pulling at me to let it go now, but I wondered to him, looking around, where his own jacket was, and when he didn't know, I insisted he find it, and when he couldn't find it, I wondered why he'd pick up a jacket if he never brought one to the theater in the first place. And then he said he forgot he didn't bring one. Laura pulled at my arm harder, and finally I let the guy back away, with a warning not to let me ever see him around the neighborhood again. Then as I was putting on my jacket, he said something, sulky-like, from near the big swinging door, but I didn't listen to him or look over.

All the way home, walking along Court Street, I was quiet and so was Laura, until she linked her arm into mine and put her head on my shoulder, and then I started tearing up. "I'm not good," I said, and then repeated it and shook my head. She wiped at my cheek, but I brushed her hand away so I could wipe at my face with the sleeve of my jacket.

Five failed proposals later, spaced out over the two years, I walked back over the Brooklyn Bridge from Julian's and looked again at the Manhattan Bridge, still under construction. And I wondered if her Parcheesi answer idea was hatched in that cab ride home, with Debbie as mastermind, or if she'd given me the cheerful brush off on her own.

I thought of going home first to eat out and then returning to climb the bridge again. It would be my third climb up the ladder the crew kept leaving down. I'd climb up and cross the temporary planks, and then make my way up another ladder to the new roadway before carefully sliding my way to a third ladder leading down to the old roadway again.

Getting onto that last ladder had made my heart race the first two times, but I wanted another chance.

I thought of circling around right then, once I reached the Brooklyn side, and trying immediately, but I had to see Laura again first. I'd knock at her door and just look into her eyes without saying anything, and then I'd know for sure and walk away—or else, knowing me, I'd say weakly, "All right, let's play Parcheesi, then," no matter what her eyes said.

I hurried past the other walkers on the way up the bridge's wood-slatted incline, and in my mind I punched Comb-Over Hustler in the jaw, flattening him up onto the pool table, then picking him up by the shirt collar and throwing him against a wall, pummeling his stomach. "You wanted to hustle me? Huh? You wanted to hustle me! Trying to cheat me like I'm a nothing? Huh!" Then throwing him down the long stairway and chasing his rolling hustling self to the bottom. Forcing him up again and tossing him onto the sidewalk, in the middle of 14th Street, pedestrians stepping over or around him. Flipping his pool stick after him. And in my mind I spotted the married Long Island guy at the scene, so I threw him up against a parked car and broke ribs on both sides with rabbit punches. Then the guy with my jacket strolled by, trying to sneak past the hustler, who was groggy and on all fours by then, but I grabbed up the stray pool stick and whacked him across the back with it, then across the hustler's back to keep him down.

I caught myself glaring at the people who passed opposite me when I reached the half-way point of the bridge, but they didn't look back, so I glared freely.

Finally, I took a breath and looked away at the sky as I swung right, around the pillar, and began the descent to Brooklyn, walking fast along the looser middle slats instead of carefully over the stronger section where they joined. I frowned at the cars and the taxis below. Then, slowing down, almost stopping completely, I shut my eyes tight against the memory of Laura's hand wiping tears off my face or stroking the back of my head or laughing over cards.

I looked at the Manhattan Bridge again as I descended, before it disappeared behind the bridge's concrete wall on my left, and I wondered what it might feel like to be so scared on this third bridge climb that I fell off. With shaking knees and hammering heart, maybe I'd finally lose my grip on the last ladder and fall back.

I stood frozen for a minute against the concrete divider and stared at the sky across the water over the Manhattan Bridge, seeing myself falling, eyes shut tight, Laura's "Parcheesi" smile flashing in my mind, and then even worse—knowing it was the end and trying to scramble up—the bakery woman's soft smile playing about her full lips.