John Rivers carried on a monkeyishly simple life laboring in maintenance at NYU. He had been in this work for five years by the time he was twenty-three. It was not the circumstances he would have chosen, but if your father ceased to be before you were, and your mother sunk too infirmed to work, you do what you can for the two of you with no complaints or redreamed futures. No one wore the mantle of Son, behold your Mother with more fortitude than John.
And when her illness consumed her, John continued to work. No college degree, not even a high school diploma. John wanted to get an education for his mother’s sake. She had so little to enjoy in her short and provincial life, and John wanted not only to charm her sprits if but for a bit, he wanted a business degree so that he may take her from Hell’s Kitchen and into somewhere brighter and cleaner.
He knew when he dropped out of high school that he would never hang a framed, stamped, and signed writ of merit, so he worked at NYU just so that he could be near education and educated people. John’s only desire for education sprang from his love for his mother, and yet this same love is what ultimately denied him any advanced schooling. And it was his devotion to her that served as both the midwife and destroyer of authentic college life. But working at a university served as nothing close to college life, but only as a cruel taunt, particularly since his mother died, but he saw no other recourse.
John certainly could not socialize with students, and he would not dare spend his own time with other maintenance workers. Such would only stretch the skin of his never-healing wound. He did not miss the company of others because the association with his mother was the only thing he wanted. He divided his time between work and the university library only returning to their apartment to sleep and eat, and as things went on he seemed to do less of either.
That is until a peculiar fall day, in which the air remained warm despite a chilly breeze. Nearing noon John raked the autumned leaves, and as he toiled under the high-wattage sun he witnessed something so wonderful it seemed grotesque. While there were plenty of fine looking young women about him daily, seeing Her made John feel the fever. She looked to John like the pop star Nina Hagen, but as she passed certain features of her face reminded John of his mother – her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose.
John could have followed her. He could have walked immediately behind her all the way to her car or her dorm or her next class, and he would not have been noticed. John worked in maintenance, which meant he was one of the invisible ones. But John didn’t follow her. He stood amongst the dead leaves and leaned on his rake until she settled into the far points of indiscernible students milling about.
John went to the maintenance lounge, which was merely a supply room with chairs, and rummaged through a pictorial freshman directory someone had left on a shelf. He found her, and he name was Bryony. She grew up by the park in Manhattan, and declared herself an English major. He went to the library and looked up her profile, and having figured out a few things computerwise that may be frowned upon by the university, he learned such things as her class schedule and even her dorm room, complete with phone landline.
There was nothing creepy about John’s investigations. He remained thoroughly innocent. He had to know what he could about Bryony, as all men have in their lives pained with the need to find out what could be learned about their own sudden interest. Most never act upon it, or if the do, it’s over time and through more indirect means. He lived by that mania permitted by passion, found on the faultline separating exuberance and obsession.
Knowing her schedule, he watched her every day, but she never noticed him, and why should she? Bryony had been around the unseen help all her life. When John was not watching her, he was thinking about her. He would go to the maintenance lounge, his own personal chamber of insolvency, and think of what it would be like just to meet her. In time he imagined a life together. He dreamed of the pair of them having a simple picnic, nothing more, lying in a wheat field at a grassed branch in the path, both of whose roads vanished before the horizon, and the sky warped by flying crows, and it was indiscernible if they advance or withdraw.
Bryony grew up in the republic of money. And although as popular as cash, she remained a bit reserved. This lead to the double life of being both gregarious and an introvert. Her slightly impatient intelligence was marred by her somewhat unfocused melancholy, a mood of poignant vulnerability. She had turned down the volume of life for an inner quiet radiance. And although she belonged to the peacock generation, Bryony remained as sober as an arms dealer.
Of course the men adored her, now and in high school. She would go on dates but didn’t have relationships, although one young boy in her freshmen year made her think she was in love with him, but it was false. Her love had the flavor of skim milk, and for Bryony the notion of love was nothing more than the idea scribbled inside a pocket manifesto.
During the summer John had to work with no proximity to Bryony. Like the voluntary and seasonal bloom of the amaryllis, John’s slight brush up against sublimity disappeared, and all he was left with for the remainder of the summer was the sound of spaghetti not sticking to the wall. Still, John found a way for this time to free up his thoughts for things more than fancy.
John devised a plan in anticipation of the fall. He found out her classes and dormroom again. He also learned the schedule of her roommate. When fall classes began, John resumed his observations of Bryony keeping always an epistemic distance. He stayed close enough to see and not too close to be seen so that Bryony remained both imminent and transcendent. If things went as John wished he could and in fact would be noticed by Bryony.
In addition to watching Bryony, John started observing her roommate, a strawberry-blonde from Oklahoma named Cherry, who insisted her hair was cherry-blonde.
Early in the fall semester, John ran alongside Cherry, and she stopped walking.
“Hi, my name is John.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you. How are you classified?”
“What do you mean?”
Cherry sighed with exasperation.
“Freshman, sophomore, what?”
“Oh, I don’t go to school here. I work for the university.”
“Do you teach something?”
Cherry took half of a step as if to walk away and leave John the maintenance worker behind. He put his hand up which brushed her shoulder, and she stopped again.
“I’ve worked here six years and I never met any of the students, and I thought I might like to make some friends.”
“I overheard you telling someone that you are from Oklahoma.”
That was a lie.
“And I have family in Oklahoma.”
That, too, was a lie.
“Oh, I don’t know the name of it.”
“Probably some Indian name.”
“Yeah, I think it is. So what do you say? Can we be friends?”
Cherry learned the political upside of friendliness form her father, a County Road Inspector back home. She carried a why not? attitude most of the time anyway, so chumming up with John didn’t seem too odd. She put on a smile as wide as I-40.
“Wanna have a coke with me, or something?”
Now her smile looked as crooked as Route 66.
“I promise. I don’t have any romantic intentions here. None at all.”
“You don’t have to be insulting.”
“No, I don’t mean it like that. You’re a lovely girl it’s just – I’m looking for a friend. Nothing more.”
After a few seconds her highway smile returned.
John was a perfect gentleman. He pulled out Cherry’s chair, let her talk about herself, and paid at the end. So when he asked for her phone number, she wrote it down without thinking.
That year John and Cherry became fast friends. She would never make familiars with a laborer, but she thought of it almost as charity work. Consequently, John and Cherry met for many cokes and coffees. Cherry simply adored John, and as John designed, Cherry talked often about him fondly to her roommate, Bryony. In fact, there were many occasions when Bryony answered the phone, and soon she small-talked John before handing the phone off to Cherry.
It didn’t seem like much, but it was as John’s mother used to say like the camel getting his nose under the bottom of the tent. You see, once a camel get’s his nose under the bottom of the tent, there is nothing stopping him from coming in all the way if he wants to.
By the spring, John and Cherry shared lunch. Soon after that routine began, other friends of Cherry’s joined them. And one day Bryony sat down. John remained polite, but mostly ignored her. The upshot of all of this is that Bryony had slowly become aware of John in only favorable ways.
John repeated this scheme during Bryony’s junior year, this time with a roommate named Becca, a Sioux from one of the Dakotas whose folks were rich from casino money. This year John added auditing classes to his plans, classes in Bryony’s upperclassman core studies. All the while, John greatly socialized with Bryony’s friends and sometimes with her. He never engaged her much but was never dismissive or rude.
Bryony took an apartment her senior year with Cherry, Becca, and Charlotte. Bryony grew up with Charlotte and they were shocked that they had never roomed together despite having been good friends for so long. John constantly called these three girls for cokes, coffees, and lunches. But John knew he would have to pull the trigger on this operation, which he avoided for a semester and a half.
Bryony and her three roommates made plans to share Spring Break in a rented beach house on Martha’s Vineyard. Within a hour from the time the four of them were to leave, John called. Bryony answered since she was alone in the apartment.
“Who are you calling for, John. All of my roommates are out right now.”
“I’m calling for you.”
John explained everything regarding the past three and a half years. When he had finished all he could hear was nasal breathing over the receiver.
“Where can you meet me?” said Bryony.
“Student Center. How soon can you be there?”
“I’ll be there before you.”
Bryony raced straightway to the StudentCenter, and once inside she saw John sitting on one of the benches beside the student mailroom. He had a gift bag beside him. Bryony sat beside him and asked about the bag. John gave the bag to Bryony. She reaching inside and pulled a copy of Catherine Anne Porter’s A Ship Of Fools.
“I know that’s your favorite book, so I thought we could discuss it. I just finished reading it again. I’ve read it five times. Go on, there’s more.”
Bryony reached back inside and pulled out a lavender hyacinth.
“I know that’s your favorite flower. I wanted to get a bunch of them, but I couldn’t afford it.”
By then Bryony sat in shock.
“It’s okay. It’s lovely. Sometimes one flower is better than a bouquet.”
“Yes, bouquet. That’s what they’re called. Forgot the name for them. Sorry, Still kind of nervous. You got one more in there.”
Bryony reached inside and pulled out a pair of tickets for a basketball game.
“Nicks and Nets. It’s not for until the Tuesday night after the break. If you wouldn’t mind too much, maybe the other one could be for me.”
Bryony had been given gifts before by men, but they were either intended to buy her affection or identify the wealth of the giver. None of these gifts meant anything to her because they were all about the giver. These were centered on Bryony, and for that they offered more about the giver than any pricy bauble she might have been offered in the past.
Bryony with the care of fragileness replaced everything back into the bag. A contemplative smile stole across her face. She looked up at John and grabbed him by the hand.
“Come with me.”
She stood and dragged him out of the Student Center, only waiting for him once she stood outside.
“Where’s your car?”
“I was already here.”
“But when you got here you parked your car somewhere, right? You do have a car?”
“It has no gas.”
“Well, put some gas in it.”
John took the giftbag from Bryony and held it up.
“This is all my budgeted gas money for the month. More even.”
Bryony realized that she took the plastic life as a given. There would always be a card for gas, another one for restaurants, maybe a different one for shoes or purses. She was aware of the concept of the poor, but it was never more than an Aristotelian thought experiment. In an instant she could see every poor person she had even been near and ignored, and they were all visible on the face of John, rich in expression, urbanity, and average everydayness, and he was beautiful.
Bryony shot him a wink, took back her giftbag, grabbed his hand again, and headed for her car. The pair piled into Bryony’s car and she sped off. She looked at John more than the road, possibly is some sort of disbelief, and she smiled broadly every time she looked his way, sometimes giggling a joyous eruption.
“Where we heading?”
“Oh, no! I can’t. I …”
“You’ve already done the hard part.”
“What was that?”
“You calling me. This will be a stone cold breeze, Johnny boy.”
“My momma called me Johnny boy.”
John explained his situation, and afterward Bryony wiped her cheek, forced a smile, and laughed in recompense.
“Do you not want me to call you that?”
“Please do. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Bryon pulled up to her parents’s home, a cocoa brick townhouse along Park Avenue a short jog from the Whitney. They strode up to the front door and Bryony rang the doorbell. When Bryony took John by the hand earlier it might be like grabbing a child’s wrist, but here she held his hand, palm to palm, fingers grapevined. In the brief second before the door opened John caressed her forefinger with the side of his forefinger and it brightened her cheeks and sent a shiver over her body.
Bryony’s father answered the door, and he seemed to John as a color version of Father knows Best. She leapt at him with a “Daddy!” squeal, and hugged his neck. He looked past his daughter straight at John with shock, curiosity, and investigation. Soon Bryony’s mom walked up, and her pleasure turned to chagrin as soon as she saw John. Bryony stood again beside John on the porch, took his hand again, more as in a presentation.
“Mom, Dad, this is John Rivers.”
They shook John’s hand in turn. When John learned he was about to meet Bryony’s parents he worried about what her father would think. He quickly saw that it was the mother who needed the hard sell. Both parents gestured for the couple to come in. Both of them in one voice invited John to sit down. John sat in a large chair with thin canvas cushions that matched the proximate sofa, and on this sofa Bryony’s parents sat. Bryony sat on the edge of the armrest of John’s chair and put her arm across the top of his back.
“I thought you were going to Martha’s Vineyard with the girls, sweetie,” said her mother.
“Oh, well. I’ve decided to stay the week here at home with you guys.”
“Well, it’ll be good to have you around.”
“And are you with the school?”
“What’s your major?”
“John works with campus maintenance.”
“Oh, like a work studies?”
“No, ma’am. I work in maintenance. Have been or seven years now. I haven’t even finished high school.”
“How – thoroughly absorbing. Sweetie, can you help me in the kitchen?”
Bryony and her mother headed for the kitchen, and although nowhere near the living room, loud voices reached the two seated men. Nothing could be understood except for the occasional Janitor that punctuated the jabbering.
“Please don’t worry about this, John. And I am sorry for all this.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I almost expected it. I’m a little shocked that you aren’t chiming in on this.”
Bryony’s dad chuckled and smacked John on the knee.
“Believe it or not, I understand. I studied art at Tufts. I worked in the school library when I first saw her. I moved heaven and earth to work as an intern at her dad’s company that summer. I went back that fall as a business major. Interned again for him next summer and got a job there the summer after that. I never told her about the library. She still thinks I was always interested in business.”
“Do you still work for him?”
“No, I couldn’t stay away from my first love. I’m Curator at the Whitney just down the street.”
“Yes, sir. I saw it, sir.”
John told Bryony’s father all that he did regarding Bryony since her freshman year. He listened without offering an expression.
“Quite a story. I didn’t have computers in my day. I had to – do favors for friends who worked in the Administration Building to find Bryony’s mother’s schedule.”
“You’re not worried about how well I can provide for her?”
“No, she’ll make her own strike. And even if she couldn’t, we can provide. We have enough to take care of the both of you.”
“I don’t feel your wife agrees.”
“You made my little girl smile. I noticed that in an instant. And her mother will come around.”
John heard one last janitor, and then silence, followed by Bryony and her mother coming back from the kitchen, and both of them smiled, but only one convincingly. John and Bryony stayed through dinner which endured without incident, although there was only tolerance and not acceptance on her mother’s part, and this only for Bryony’s sake. They left after dinner and saw a movie, after which they got back into Bryony’s car.
“This has been one of the best days I’ve ever had, Johnny Boy. I really want to thank you for everything.”
“Uh, you’re welcome, but I find it a bit hard to believe that this can be a highlight day in a life like yours.”
“My life hasn’t been as great as you think.”
“I know it’s been better than mine.”
“Well, no more bad days for either for us.”
Bryony picked up her giftsack and jiggled it.
“And thanks again for the wonderful presents.”
“There’s one more. But I didn’t bring it. Little embarrassing.”
“You stalked me all my college life and tell me about it today, and this one other thing is what’s embarrassing?”
“I guess you can have it if you want.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s at my place.”
“Where do you live?”
“No, just drop me off at school.”
“Nonsense. I have to take you home anyway.”
“It’s late and I’m not going to just drop you off somewhere. Now why don’t you give me your address?”
“Because I don’t want you to see where I live, okay?”
Bryony almost bawled in heartbreak for John. She took John’s hand and kissed the back of it. All the time her eyes were down.
“I’ll take you wherever you want me to. But do you think I’m going to find out that you’re poor?”
John breathed heavily, and said, “How a woman sees a man has a lot to do with his own self image. Right now I think you have good thoughts about me. I can’t risk that.”
“If you’ve got it in your head that I’ll think less of you if I see where you live because it’s in a poor neighborhood, then why haven’t I been impressed yet with any guy because he’s rich?”
John, still holding Bryony’s hand, took their conjoined grasp in his other hand and held these fists against his heart. One could almost see the hourglass icon turning every few seconds as he processed everything.
Bryony drove John to his apartment building.
“Man, you are poor.”
“Keep this up and I won’t care what you think about me.”
“You couldn’t. Not on your best day and with a head start.
“Okay, keep it up. I still haven’t given you your other gift, and I have half a mind not to now.”
“Half a mind? You give yourself too much credit.”
“Whatever. Come on in, weirdo.”
They giggled as they go out of the car and up to John’s door. Once inside Bryony was slightly surprised to see it so clean, although modest. Before this she had an unaltered and unconscious opinion of how the poor must live, and it was not this well.
“I like it.”
“You’re an oddball.”
“What? I like it.”
“Better than your folk’s place?”
Bryony looked around.
“I like it.”
“Whatever. Sit down.”
Bryony sat on the couch and John went back to his bedroom. He returned with a well-worn piece of paper. He sat beside Bryony and unfolded it. She looked at him as if a diamond might roll out of the folds.
“I wrote this last year. In that poetry class you took that I audited.”
He looked down as if he were reading it for the first time. He simply wished to avoid eye contact.
I used to wonder why they locked in towers
All the King’s young lovely daughters, whose heart
Made aesthetical passions, lovely art
For her dear liege to free her from such powers.
Perhaps the King recalls too keenly how
The Queen was made, or shall I say, subdued?
He did not honor royal thoughts, but lewd
And carnal harbingerings did endue.
And so, the Prince who would be King, must dare
To enter thoughts into majestic minds
That he is pure and not like he who finds
His spouse’s maiden cloistered in the air.
My Princess and my Queen, if you but knew
The only thing locked in my heart is you.
She took the paper from John and cried happy tears, something she had not enjoyed since she was much younger.
“Let me ask you, Bryony, before today were you happy?”
“I thought I was, but now I know I am. What about you, were you happy?”
“I’ve been nothing but happy for the past four years. Happy and miserable at the same time, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
“But I’m just happy now. That doesn’t matter. All I will ever worry about from now on is making you happy.”
“You’re off to a great start.”
“Where do you want to go for our honeymoon?”
“Is it nice?”
“I went there with my mom after high school graduation and I knew I’d go back some day.”
“Tell me about it. Close your eyes and tell me about it. What do you see us doing there.”
“We can see the Duomo from the Belvedere, and the Giotto Tower. We walk through San Giovanni Square and down toward the Arno. And if we catch it at the right time of the day, we can see the sun reflect off of the Grazie Bridge. It looks absolutely golden.”
John kissed Bryony. Her eyes popped open and she was back in Mid-West Manhattan.
“First of many.”
“You betcha, Johnny Boy.”
While it was John who beheld the dawn, it was Bryony was truly saw the light. Every man she had ever known had seen her as rich and beautiful, and how it would be good for them to be seen with her. John was different. He was drawn to her beauty, but also to that invisible reach of her innate personality. The only other person who had ever acknowledged that in her was her father. Bryony saw a lot of her father in John, and it was probably this facet that drew her inexorably to him.
Bryony spent the next summer in school and graduated before the fall. She and John were married between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Bryony’s mother completely gave herself over to the wedding. She never truly accepted John as a mate for her only daughter, but she did give up on trying to change Bryony’s mind.
Her parents gave the newlyweds a month in Florence for a honeymoon. When they returned, Bryony worked for a mid-sized house as an editor. She got John a job there as a reader. John lived for Bryony as she deserved, and she found happiness finally in her life and not from the things everyone around always said were the bringers of joy, but from the true and genuine attention from another person.
For their third year anniversary they planned on using a house on the Hamptons that belonged to friends of their parents. Even though it was stealing into winter, the time would be abundant in pleasure. They both took Friday off from work and spent the day together. They had lunch at Daniel and enjoyed a private tour of the Whitney lead by Bryony’s father.
John and Bryony joined her parents for dinner at Jean-George before taking in a show. Bryony had scored four choice seats to opening night for a revival of Guys & Dolls. After the show Bryony hugged her parents, John shook their hands, and the pair took off for a borrowed home near East Quogue in the Hamptons. The weekend out-of-town traffic was heavy, but moved quickly. John and Bryony relived the greatness of the day, and just as they met the Brooklyn Bridge they started singing one of their favorite songs of he evening.
“Let’s keep this party polite. Never get out of my sight. Stick with me baby, I’m the guy that you came in with. Luck be a lady tonight.”
It had snowed during the day, but melted in the afternoon. After the sun had set, the streetwater froze, but melted quickly from the traffic. There were still icy place along the bridge, and the sky had turned to mist, which froze quickly on the bridge, as well. So it was not entirely unforeseen when a drunk driver hit a frozen patch and lost just enough control to hit John’s car along the backseat cardoor and the rearwheel. The impact pushed their car off of the lane proper, but still on the bridge. The problem came from following vehicles that tried to stop suddenly and failed because of their own ice encounter, and a chain reaction of sequential impacts occurred, culminating in John and Bryony’s car being pushed further and now into hazard as the front right corner of the car teetered over the edge of the bridge.
After the initial shock had withdrawn, John looked over his wife for injuries.
“Are you okay?”
“Mm hmm. John, I’m scared.”
“Listen to me. You can’t get out on your side. Climb over me and get out on my side.”
Bryony yanked in vain on her seatbelt.
“It’s stuck. I can’t get out.”
“Don’t worry. Johnny Boy will get you outta this.”
Eager eyewitnesses who wished to help soon came up to the car, calling out their intentions to get them both out of the car and asking if anyone was hurt. John’s side window had been shattered, so he could hear clearly and answered that they were both fine. When the witnesses learned that no one was injured, they took it upon themselves to help get John and Bryony out of the car, seeing the present peril before them. A man reached through John’s shattered window and unfastened his seatbelt.
“No! Save her first! Get her out first!”
But to the onlookers, saving John first was a matter of proximity. Once he was out, the change in weight distribution caused the car to lean more over the edge of the bridge. People now started holding on the car any place they could, bumpers and fenders, cardoor handles, any place they could lay a grip. John, with the help of two other men, forced his door open so that they could rescue Bryony. Her seatbelt remained jammed. John reached in for her.
“Take my hands, Bryony.”
She took his two out-reaching hands in her left hand, and with her right hand she continually cradled her stomach.
“You’re other hand. Give me your other hand.”
“Don’t let go of me, Johnny Boy.”
“I won’t. I got you. Just give me your other hand.”
The circumstances were dire, but strangely hopeful. Everyone thought Bryony would soon be rescued. The wail of emergency vehicles could be heard getting closer and closer. And when it seemed fortunes had leveled off if not improved altogether, a cruel and invisible hand, whether by an angel or a demon or some impersonal pre-woven force, seemed to shove the car over the side of the bridge, and Bryony along with it. A fading cry of Johnny Boy fell with the car into the East River.
John did not go over with the vehicle only because those civilian rescuers with him pulled him back. Before the car had mad a splash John poised himself as if he were about to dive in and follow her, but the same men who pulled him from the falling car also pulled him back from the side of the bridge.
Police, fire, and ambulances arrived presently. Flares were lit, statements were taken, investigations began, and an arrest was made. John sat on the back bumper of an EMC rig. He had a heavy pewter-colored blanket draped over his shoulders in such a flimsy fashion it could barely add warmth. A paramedic took his vitals, and all along John sat there mumbling. When the paramedic finished, he went to his partner, who stood amongst a few police and firemen. He reported that John suffered no injuries and that his stats were strangely fine. One of the policemen asked about John’s mumbling. The paramedic looked back at John a shook his head.
“He’s singing ‘Luck Be A Lady’.”
John quit his work at the publishing house and moved out of their apartment. Bryony’s father hired him as his assistant at the museum and offered to let him live with him and his wife. John was as surprised as any other when he accepted. Bryony’s mother finally warmed up to John and truly loved him as a son for Bryony’s sake.
John truly mourned as any widower would. But this was more than the loss of a spouse, the broken promise of desired company. For John it became a loss of existence. And as he mourned, he eventually found new purpose in missing his wife. Remembering her, the very thing that contributed to sorrow also added value and fondness in the shear act of recollection. His life in reflection now would become what it once was before that final Spring Break. And John found a way to go on without her except for her presence within him.
It became quite a spiritual thing for John. He found consolation for mortality through Bryony’s ability to relish the gift of life. Oddly enough, this was a gift she did not possess until she met John. They were merely three years married, and only after a few months of romantic acquaintance. John and Bryony were on the lip of the cup of what would have been the belle époque of their existence together. Loss through death is severe, and the rain of memories can extend its unendurability. Trouble like that can begin with a mist and a sprinkle that soon becomes large and cumulative drops. For John it stood as a fountain of hope fed from a spring of dreams.