Fireworks and Soup

About a month after they'd made me leave work, in October, I was sitting in a coffee shop near Grammercy Park. I was reading an Italian men's fashion magazine, looking at the winter coats. In a big winter coat I can still look all right.

It was a rainy fall day, and the streets were full of wet leaves and children in strollers, four-year old children still sucking on baby pacifiers. I watched them through the window.

There was a bum weaving through traffic, stepping in front of cars. After a moment, one hit him. It was an Oldsmobile, wearing a fresh bumper-sticker for the Dukakis campaign.

I read half the magazine before an ambulance came for him. The rescue workers put on plastic gloves, before one lifted his bloody arm to take his pulse. Another breathed into his mouth through a plastic cup. They were trying to save his life without ever touching his skin.

I could feel my coffee burning my esophagas. The rescue workers were afraid he was like me. They were afraid he was infected like me. They were afraid one drop of his spit or blood could mix with theirs, and condemn them to a long, ugly, young deterioration and death, like me.

I got up and changed tables. "I've just come from over there," I told my new waitress.


I went back to reading, but I could feel a shadow over me and looked up. It was the waitress.

"I'm Esther," she said. "Don't you remember me? I'm Esther."

For a moment I was stunned by her voice, though I had no idea who she was. It was a remarkable voice for such a small person, a deep, radio voice.

"Esther," she said. "From the catering service."

I did remember the catering service, from about five years ago. When I was studying for my architecture degree I'd worked as a waiter, carrying trays in an awful white dinner jacket. My friends and I probably drank more champagne than we ever served to the guests, which might be why I didn't remember this pale girl.

Another customer called her and I went back to my magazine. But after collecting the little coins he had left her as a tip, she was back.

"I'm sure you've been wondering what happened to me," she said, and it amazed me again, the white-velvet voice from that breastless chest. "I had to go back home to take care of my father. He was sick, and then he died, and then my brother got sick, too." She poured me more coffee, coffee I hadn't asked for. "But I'm back in New York now," she said.

"Good," I said. I still had no idea who she was.

"And so are you," she said.

"I've always been here," I told her.

She left to take an order, and as my eye followed her I caught a glimpse of one of the talking college students, a soft-eyed girl putting on a fur coat. I flashed her a smile, and she smiled back, and put on her fur coat a little more slowly. A year ago I could have had her without even buying her a drink. Now I just sat in my chair and watched her leave. She looked back, disappointed.

I let the coffee get cold while I finished almost every article in the magazine, and then I got up to leave. In the reflection on the cash register I looked like I was dying. I don't know what that girl in the fur coat was smiling at.

The waitress caught up with me as I was buttoning my jacket.

"I'm in the book," she said. "You can call me whenever you like."

I grinned at her, too. I didn't know her last name, but it wasn't like I was going to call her, anyway. When I turned away, my grin faded and I went out into the street.


When I woke up the next morning it was gray and raining, a steady, deadening rain. I knew I was stranded inside for the day. For most of the morning I stayed in bed, promising myself I would get up but having no real reason to. I was lying in bed dreaming of the girl, dreaming of us both wrapped warmly inside her fur coat, when the phone rang. It was Ritchie, who had taken over my projects when I'd had to leave the firm.

"Michael," he said. "How are you feeling?"

"All right," I said, sitting up in bed.

"Look, can I come by today?" he said. "I gotta ask you about the Miller project. What's this stupid spire for? I don't understand half of what you wrote."

"Come over," I said. "I'll explain everything to you."

"Besides," he said. "I've got to borrow your directory of firms. I gotta look for a new job. I hate this job."

"It's yours," I said. "Just don't change the building."

"I won't, except I'm going to take off that stupid spire."

"Don't take off the spire!" I said. "Don't take it off!"

'You'll be home today?" he said.

"All day," I said. "Come over."

Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again. I was hoping it was Ritchie calling back, so I could have him pick up some food and a newspaper on the way over. "Hello?" I said.

"It's Esther," she said.

Her voice was lovely on the phone. It sounded like the voice of a much better-looking girl.

"I found you in the book. I hope you don't mind me calling you," she said. "I was afraid I wouldn't see you again. Are you coming to the restaurant today?"

"I can't," I said, too surprised to fib. "I'm ill."



She let out a little gasp. "Do you have that cold, that cold that's going around?" she said. "Do you have an achey feeling in your head?"

"Yes," I said, trying to cut the conversation short.

"That's what everyone has," she said. "Let me come over and bring soup. Don't cook, you'll only re-infect yourself. Where do you live?"

I let her come over solely because I wasn't able to go for groceries myself on a day like this, and I didn't want to give the delivery boys exorbitant tips. The minute she came through the door in a tattered old parka, I remembered who she was. She'd been one of the bus girls at the catering service, one of the girls charged with bringing the waiters fresh hors d'oeuvres and clean glasses for the drinks. When we'd figured out she liked me we'd taken to playing horrible pranks on her. We used to cut off chunks of her hair and slip them in her uniform pocket, put broken light bulbs in her ice bucket, hide her coat - this coat - so she couldn't go home. For a moment, I wondered if she might be coming for some B-movie kind of revenge. But from the pure smile on her face, I could tell that wasn't so.

"It's nice to see you again," she said, taking a paper bag out of her backpack.

"Is that soup?" I said, stupidly.

"I brought the ingredients of soup. I'll make it here, so it'll be really fresh. Where's your kitchen?"

I took her into the kitchen, showed her the pots and pans, and watched her unpack. At the bottom of the bag were a pair of video cassettes. "Look what I've brought," she said. "Some Marx Brothers movies." She smiled up at me. "I heard you telling someone once you liked Marx Brothers movies. "

Five years ago, in college, I may have liked Marx Brothers movies. But she was busy in the kitchen, so I sat on the couch and put the first cassette in the machine.

In a few minutes, the smell of roasting meat and onions was drifting out of the kitchen, and it made me feel wonderfully hungry. Once the soup was simmering she came out and sat beside me on the couch, and in a minute we were both laughing at the movie. I guess I did still like the Marx Brothers.

After the movie ended we sat, strangely awkward, watching all the credits.


"I've thought about you a lot," she said suddenly.

"So now you're trying to exorcise me?" I asked, joking.


"Get me out of your mind," I said.

"Oh, no, I like having you there," she said. "You'll always be there. "

I didn't know what to say, although at one time I'd been used to hearing things like that from women. She was getting up to put on the second movie when the phone rang again.

"Hey," said Ritchie. "I'm just down the street. I'm on my way."

I looked at Esther on the couch, with her bad haircut and her shabby old sweater, laughing as Harpo honked his horn. I couldn't have her in the house when Ritchie arrived.

"Fine," I said. "I'm just here by myself."

I went back to the couch.

"I'm feeling much more ill, all of a sudden," I told Esther. "I think I need to be alone."

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. I looked for a ghost of suspicion on her face, but there was none. "I know how it is when you're sick. "

"Yes," I said.

"Can you serve the soup yourself?" she asked. "Use a long-handled ladle so you won't infect yourself. "

"That's a good idea," I said.

I listened to her zipping her backpack in the kitchen while I watched the second movie, not laughing. At the door she tried to hug me, but I pulled away.

Ritchie, for some reason, never came by at all. I spent the rest of the day by myself, mostly looking out the window, thinking about spires, and about the Marx Brothers, and about the rain.


When spring came, everything came to life again, and I got uglier and closer to death. I have a cold I can't shake, and coughs like gunshots. I keep the TV going twenty-four hours a day, and I've stopped seeing people. I imagine most people think I'm already dead.

It was morning when the doorbell rang - I don't know what time, or even what day. I didn't get up to answer it. So often I've heard ringing and got myself up off the couch towards the door or telephone, hoping it was one of my friends, only to find the bell was part of a TV show and no one was there.

It was only when I heard knocking, too, that I got up and made my way to the door. It was Esther. She was still wearing that same old parka. I was almost happy to see her, although I was sorry that I'd come to the door in my bathrobe. She was used to seeing me look much better.

"I've been waiting for you to come by the restaurant," she said, and her voice was deeper now, a blue-violet color I could almost see. "I know the food's not very good, and I'm sorry. I wanted to get a job at a better place but I didn't think you'd be able to find me if I did."

I tried to give her a smile, but I coughed, instead.

"I think about you all the time," she said. "I didn't want to come by your house again, but I couldn't stop thinking about you. Out of all the people I used to wish loved me, you were my favorite."

It occurred to me then that she was crazy, probably from being alone so much, and then I realized I was too. All of a sudden I started coughing. I couldn't stop.


"Are you still sick?" she said. "I've been so worried about you because I remembered you were sick."

I shook my head. "I'm fine," I said. I leaned against the doorjamb; I was having trouble standing up.

"Let me take care of you," she said.

I had to stumble back towards the couch. "That's a bigger project than you think," I said.

"I like to take care of people," she said, following me into the room. "I took care of my father and my brother. There's no one waiting for me at home now. I can take care of you."


I was trying to feel my own fever, but my hands were like ice. I was sinking into the couch cushions, and the TV was going on about a beautifying shampoo, and I looked at her and noticed she had blue eyes. "Why do you like me?" I said.

She seemed surprised, as surprised as I was at myself for asking the question. "You're so charming," she said. "So handsome, and smart." She covered her smile with her hands. "I used to tell people you were my boyfriend," she said. "I have so many confessions to make to you."

I didn't want to hear them, but I was hungry in so many ways, and I knew she could make me soup. Out of the pockets of my bathrobe, I gave her money for vegetables. After she went out, I opened up the window and let in a gust of cold spring air. As long as no one finds out, I think, I could just lie with my eyes closed, listening to that voice. I could listen to that voice for a long time. Or a short time, too.

Library of Congress copyright TKU-539235 1994