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2015 Great American Fiction Contest Winner: “Omeer’s Mangoes”

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Bryant Park

The park became a testament to progress, to how things got steadily better over time, like the opposite of entropy, where he had read that things naturally fall apart. (Shutterstock)

IIn the decades that Omeer had lived and worked across from Bryant Park, everything had changed for them both, for the park and for him. Omeer had married and had a son, and the marriage had devolved from love to disappointment to peace, finally settling into something that could be described most charitably as a kind of permanent calm. And the park. Well.

It had always officially been called Bryant Park, but when Omeer first arrived in New York City, the park was dangerous, avoided. His first New York friend, Angelo, who had been hired to polish the brass in the lobby of Omeer’s building, told him that some people called it Needle Park. Angelo was wise, and waved his filter-less cigarette knowingly at homeless people sleeping in the park. “He lives there.” He pointed with the burning end of his cigarette. “He washes in the fountain and uses the bushes as a toilet. You can smell it from here. And some of them push needles in their arms and when they nod off, the needles fall on the ground. It’s a park that grows needles, see?” He laughed, two plumes of smoke pouring from his nostrils like a dragon.

Read all the winning stories from the Great American Fiction Contest 2015:
 
Winner

  • “Omeer’s Mangoes”
    by N. West Moss

 
Runners-Up

Omeer, a doorman in a building that looked out on the park, watched from across the street as the prostitutes in stretchy, sparkling dresses came at night and walked on high heels up behind the hedges. It was a dark place in those years, a wasteland.

But none of it upset Omeer, who, as a young man was full of hope, all forward momentum and open arms. New York City, even the park with the dirty condoms and sad women, thrilled him. He had a job and a uniform too, brown with brass buttons, and his tenants did not sleep in the park. His tenants back then were celebrities and artists, nice people who brought him coffee in the morning and seemed embarrassed to have the door held open for them day after day. The building, his building, was beautiful, so elegant with its wide marble staircase and brass elevator doors, polished every month by Angelo and his father. It did not matter that Needle Park was across the street. Omeer’s building was an oasis of kindness and beauty that shamed the park, not the other way around.

The people in the building in those early decades were like Omeer’s family. He knew which one was expecting a grandchild, which one was contemplating divorce. One tenant was a radio personality, another was an artist who always had paint in his hair, and one wrote music for the movies. Imagine that! They thanked him constantly and gave him tips at Christmas.

Omeer used to stand on the top step of the stoop at dawn and watch the park for rats beneath the boxwoods. He knew they were boxwoods because he had asked Mrs. Dennis from the 12th floor. She had been so beautiful then, too, a model for Clairol; her blond hair and face had been so sweet and pretty that Omeer turned away when she said hello. The Dennises were older than Omeer, and he thought of them with respect, as the stars who would play his parents in the movie version of his life, which would be set in New York City, not Iran, where he had been born.

Omeer’s real father had once been a businessman, before they all left Iran and scattered. At first Omeer told him the truth about his work, about the building, the uniform, the clusters of grapes carved above the doorways in the lobby. His father seemed proud, thought it was a good beginning for his son. Omeer imagined his father telling his friends in England, where he had settled, that his son lived in New York City, that his son was a doorman who wore a uniform with polished brass buttons. His father offered Omeer advice on the phone the first Thursday of every month, about saving money and meeting Iranian girls in New York.

After Omeer’s mother died, and it became clear that his father would never come to America, not even to visit, Omeer began to lie to him. His father wanted more for him than a doorman job, which had been fine for a few years, but was no longer enough. When Omeer told him he was looking for a new job, his father said, “Good man! You must always strive to better yourself,” and Omeer remembered then how nice it was to be far away from his father’s knack for success.

Omeer made up stories that his father could share with friends over cards, but Omeer’s honest heart made him an unimaginative and nervous liar. He fabricated interviews he was going on, and outfits the interviewers wore, and because he wanted his father to think kindly of America, Omeer said that some of the interviewers expressed interest in Iran, and one even asked about Omeer’s father, supposedly, which of course no one would ever have done.

This false interview period stretched to months, and in an attempt to keep the stories interesting, Omeer moved the interviews to restaurants, although Omeer had never eaten in a restaurant, other than the pizza place on the corner. He described one interview for his father, saying, “I ordered a steak and it came with three different kinds of potatoes and a bowl of apricots for dessert.” He hesitated. “And pots of tea. Pots of hot, sweet tea.” This was how Omeer thought someone in England by way of Iran might picture an American meal, different in the potatoes, but similar in the apricots and pots of tea.

He saved his money, ironing his own shirts, making cheese sandwiches in his tiny kitchen and eating them standing up with the TV on. He wanted a family, he told his father, and himself. Yes, he would love to have enough money one day to have a wife.

Finally, Omeer felt he had to tell his father that he had gotten a new job from all of these interviews he had gone on. He couldn’t pretend to go on interviews forever, so he said that he had been hired at a bank, even though Omeer knew nothing about finance or banks or what kind of job he’d even get in one. Angelo said, “Tell him it’s in public relations. Everyone works in public relations. Call it PR,” which Omeer’s father seemed to understand, even if Omeer did not. That was early still, in his first decade in New York, when Omeer made it a habit to sweep the sidewalk in front of the building very early, before his tenants even woke up, without even being asked.

It was after Omeer became a make-believe public relations agent at a bank that the park across the street began to change in earnest. It got roped off with police tape, and in rumbled cranes and dump trucks, dumpsters and jackhammers. Omeer and Angelo kept track of the tearing down and the carting away and then watched as the park was rebuilt. For four entire years the park was a noisy mess. Omeer and the other doormen swept and mopped every day to keep the dust from polluting their marble lobby.

Omeer read about the renovations in the paper. They were planning on lowering the park to ground level. Astonishing. Impossible. The papers said it was dangerous to have a park up higher than the street, because good people were too scared to go in. “If it’s not at eye level,” Angelo explained to him, “the police can’t look in. It’s like a secret world where all sorts of things can happen. You don’t want to know.” Angelo shook his head, took off his work hat and rubbed his hands through his hair to show how upsetting it was in there.

When Angelo’s father retired, Angelo was put in charge of the family business, polishing the elevator doors, the brass bannisters that looped up the grand marble staircase, the handles on the front doors. He and Omeer stood outside so that Angelo could smoke, and later, after Angelo left, Omeer would sweep up the filter-less cigarette butts and matches he’d left on the ground.

Omeer read to Angelo from the newspaper about the park, while Angelo commented. “People hide in the park,” said Angelo.

“Right,” said Omeer, “the addicts and the hookers.” He tried to sound disdainful, but it didn’t work and he was embarrassed that he had said the word hooker out loud. Angelo had disdain for specific things: for sloppy carpentry, and for people who ate pizza while they walked down the street, but Omeer couldn’t muster genuine disdain. It simply was not in his nature, although he tried.

When the construction was finally done and the dust was hosed off of the block, when the park had been successfully lowered, Omeer called it a work of art. “It’s magnificent,” he would murmur to his tenants as he held the front door for them and swept his hand across the vista, the marble handrails, the full flowerbeds. He realized he was bragging as though the park were his, and he blushed over and over again, but he couldn’t stop paying compliments to it.

Men in green jumpsuits came next and put in more plants, thousands of them along with full-grown London plane trees. Stonemasons came too and fixed the paths and stone walls. Old statues were polished and new statues went in. Now, years later, gardeners were in the park every day in the spring and summer, and even into the fall, planting begonias and digging up daffodils that had just finished blooming, slipping hoses into each pot of flowers until the water ran over the top and soaked the slate beneath. There was a man in a green uniform whom Omeer knew by sight. He walked all day long pushing a garbage can on wheels. If someone let a napkin fall to the ground, the man was there, seconds later, to put it in his pail. If a leaf fell from a tree, he caught it.

The park became a testament to progress, to how things got steadily better over time, like the opposite of entropy, where he had read that things naturally fall apart. It made Omeer tremendously hopeful, about the park, about his life, about humanity. What they had done to the park was a triumph over entropy. He said that to Angelo, who shrugged.

Omeer got married the year the restaurant went into the park. What a shock it had been to his tenants to learn that there would be a place to have lunch and dinner right there, steps from their front door, butting up against the back of the New York Public Library. Mrs. Dennis from the 12th floor said, “It’s like living at Versailles,” which Omeer had heard of. It made everyone in the building stand up a little straighter to have a park so lovely.

On Thursday nights the restaurant hosted a singles’ night where skinny men and women in their tight business clothes came in waves. Omeer could see them through the glass of the front door, laughing with their mouths wide open, leaning in to one another, talking into their phones when their dates went to the rest room. Always busy, always important.

He walked over and studied the menu that hung in the window, and saw a bottle of wine for sale for $47. He felt rich just seeing that, proud that they thought so highly of themselves. The neighborhood had become as special as Omeer’s beautiful marble-and-brass building, as if the building had finally succeeded in making the park behave.

He cut out newspaper articles about the park and sent them to his father, telling him that he went to the restaurant there for business lunches, that the bank let him put it on his expense account. He wished he hadn’t lied to his father about being a banker, because he wanted to tell him how he had just been promoted to superintendent of the building, a big step up. His father would probably have been proud, would have congratulated him. When he got the promotion, Omeer had his doorman uniform cleaned professionally. He hung it in its dry-cleaning bag in the back of his closet in case he ever needed it again.

Omeer’s wife was American, with enough Persian blood in her family history for him to consider her essentially Iranian. She was younger than he was, and shy when they first met. She moved into his apartment with him, the little one bedroom he had bought on the top floor when prices had been dirt-cheap. She bought paint the color of bricks and pomegranates and painted the walls. She put out a vase of fake flowers that looked real. To Omeer, she had the eye of an artist. He encouraged her in all of her early tentativeness. He took her to the park on his day off and showed her the menu hanging in the restaurant window, pointed at the $47 bottle of wine listed there, and they turned to each other and made shocked faces.

One day, a carousel appeared in the park, and reporters wrote stories about it, which Omeer cut out. But by then, his father had died and Omeer put the clippings from the newspapers in the bottom of his sock drawer with a heavy heart. It was the same year that his wife, grown less shy by this time, gave birth to their son. Progress, as it always had for Omeer, outweighed the setbacks. He had a son now. He had a family of his own.

And then, soon after that, at no particular moment, without being definite or clear, at a time seen only in retrospect as a moment, a year later or maybe two or three after the birth of his son, the pendulum of Omeer’s life which had been swinging steadily forward along with the good fortune of Bryant Park, halted, stuttered, and began, ever so slowly, to swing backwards, as every life does eventually. As his up-hill resolved itself eventually into a downslope, the pendulum of the park continued its seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory.

As he grew older, Omeer had begun to worry about his graying hair. He became afraid of closed spaces, and in his late 40s began to sleep with the blinds open to let in the street light, fearful of the coffin-feeling of waking up swallowed by darkness. It annoyed his wife, who liked to sleep without interruptions from light or noise or, by then, from a hand reaching out for her in the night.

Omeer, unlike his wife, found sweetness in interruptions. Everything else was just a list of chores that repeated with the days of the week. Interruptions were the music. Omeer wanted to please his wife, and this made him worry about eating too much salt and drinking too much caffeine. He worried about his blood pressure because she told him to. “We’re getting old,” she said, filing down the nail on her index finger, although she did not look old. He had seen her gray hairs one morning over breakfast, but by that night, her hair was black again. “It’s time you began to take care of yourself, Omeer.” He liked it when she said his name.

Omeer was aware of his age. His tooth ached. His knee ached, but still he was surprised, over and over again, by his reflection in the glass front door of the building. He expected to see his shiny black hair, his eyes smiling back at him, but was forced instead to ask, “Who is that old man?” followed by, “Ah, this is who I’ve become.”

All of New York City had changed too as Omeer grew older. Midtown had been “cleaned up,” but the park, its transformation had been unimaginable, breathtaking, and Omeer had quietly borne witness as they began to offer free yoga classes in the park and French lessons. They held poetry readings and chess tournaments there. In summer they showed movies and offered free juggling classes. Juggling classes!

One winter it was announced that the park would house a skating rink. His wife didn’t believe him at first. “They can’t fit a skating rink in that little park,” she said. So he brought her there, with their boy who was still in her arms then. They were both stunned, but there it was. “Visionaries,” Omeer said. He and his wife clutched their son, making a fragile little family unit. They watched the people wheeling around the rink, bundled in their new clothes from the GAP, spotlights shining down on them as if they were gods. Omeer and his wife looked at each other and laughed then. It was not just a dream, Omeer knew, because the next year the rink came back and brought with it a Christmas tree as tall as a skyscraper. It took a truck with a ladder on it to hang the star on the tree’s top.

As the park and the neighborhood blossomed, however, the kindness of the people seemed pushed to the side, as though kindness was the price that had to be paid for progress. Omeer, then, looked back on those early years, before the park had been renovated, with some nostalgia. Some of his good tenants moved out and new, driven ones moved in. The new ones wore ties and never looked up, and became annoyed quickly. Some of the old tenants remained, and as they aged, he cared for them like he would have cared for his own father, helping them into cabs, carrying their mail upstairs for them, bowing a tiny bit when they came in.

Mr. Dennis, for example, used to ride his bicycle all over Manhattan. He had been famous then on the radio, and Omeer told people, “He is an excellent man, a perfect man.” But Mr. Dennis had grown old and slow like everyone else, and had finally collapsed in the lobby, nearly killing Omeer with shame and worry. He knelt next to him, murmuring, “Oh, Mr. Dennis, Mr. Dennis, I’m so sorry,” too shy to take the man’s hand. The people he admired disintegrated like everyone else, and it broke Omeer’s heart. No one was immune.

Filling the park with flowers and trees and folding chairs, making it so beautiful, brought smart, angry tenants to Omeer’s building — lawyers and traders from Wall Street. The new board president wore blue ties that were tied too tightly around his fat neck. His face was always red, strangled by his own ties, like a balloon about to pop. He looked at Omeer with suspicion, as though Omeer wasn’t working hard enough, which caused Omeer to feel confused and apologetic. He took such pride in his work. Angelo told him only to sweep up when tenants were watching so they could see how hard he worked. It wasn’t terrible advice.

A hotel went in next door to Omeer’s building, and a magazine shop on the other side, next to a French coffee shop that sold pepper grinders and extra-virgin olive oil. The tenants got fancier too, wanted more things, had more packages delivered and cleaning women and guests arriving. People moved in and out more frequently.

Angelo still came, but they refused to raise his fee when they required him to polish the marble floor in addition to his other jobs, and so he was always in a rush too, like everyone else. The board president with the red face and tight neckties told Omeer that they were letting go of one of the other doormen, “to cut costs.” Omeer would have to do his superintendent work during the day now, get his uniform out of the closet again to work occasional overnights, and “share the burden” as the board president told him, not making eye contact with Omeer. They didn’t care that Omeer had a little boy. Times were hard. If he wanted to stay, to keep his apartment, this is what he’d have to do. Omeer considered it a demotion.

By the time Omeer’s boy could make his own bowl of cereal in the morning without spilling the milk, Omeer’s wife had lost her reticence entirely. Omeer became aware that his wife and son pitied him, and sometimes were angry at him for making them pity him, back and forth, pity, anger.

Omeer’s hair had begun to come in gray by his temples, and his wife was bored at home, now that their boy didn’t need much from her. She had friends too, American friends, and she told Omeer that she wanted to go back to school. So Omeer smiled, nodded, and mortgaged the apartment, the one that he had paid off completely, and he sent his wife to design school at Parsons. She took his hands in hers. “Thank you, Omeer.” He loved it when she said his name. He had made her happy.

She studied hard and came home exhilarated. He was glad for her as if she were his growing daughter. When she graduated, he and their son went to the ceremony. At the coffee shop afterward, with her much younger school friends, one of them said, “The economy is not good for designers just starting out.” His wife had shrugged.

She got a new hairstyle, even made her clothes for a bit on a sewing machine Omeer bought for her, but soon after she graduated and found the reality of getting a job to be quite different from the dream, she became disenchanted by the fashion shows that were still held in the park then.

“Oh!” she said, “The beep beep beep of those trucks backing up! How do they expect people to live here?”

After being demoted, Omeer went three years without a raise. Their bills went up, though, and they had a mortgage now. His wife was forced to take a part-time job at a dry cleaner’s downtown, to her great dismay. He knew that her failure was his failure.

The board president with the blue ties and red face explained that they couldn’t give raises, and not to expect one any time soon, either. “There are plenty of people who’d be happy to do your job for half of what you make,” he told Omeer, which struck Omeer as probably true. He worked hard, though, and loyalty should count for something. Shouldn’t it?

As his financial strains intensified, Omeer made sure to remain kind. It was not his wife’s fault that she had married a man who would remain a doorman forever. When she came home with new lipstick, he told her how pretty she was. He did not want anything to make him like the board president with the tight ties. Being kind made him feel better. He loved how smart his wife was, how much she seemed to know. He liked her new long nails, and the way she tapped them gently against her coffee cup in the morning as she read the paper.

He felt guilty about his own graying hair, imagined that it embarrassed her and their boy. He asked her if she wanted him to dye it black and she laughed. “Why bother?” she said. He felt her recoil from her own comment, and she added, “You look distinguished like this.” Omeer knew that she gave him the compliment because she didn’t love him anymore. It wasn’t her fault. Love just grew or failed, and her love for him had stalled out.

One day, his son came to him with a flyer from middle school that read “Summer Music Camp.” He had been studying the saxophone, which caused Omeer distress. He didn’t want the boy to practice when it would disturb tenants. But now this. He didn’t have the $500 for music camp but wanted to say yes to the boy. He said, “Money’s tight this year,” and he saw the boy’s eyes get small and suspicious.

“Mom gets to go out all the time,” the boy said.

“Yes?” said Omeer.

“You are just a cheap-skate,” the boy said, and Omeer recognized the term as something his wife used.

Omeer was so ashamed that he went to the bank the next morning and took the $500 out of his almost-empty savings account. He told his son that he could go, that he had found the money. The boy shrugged, not believing him. “No,” said Omeer, “I mean it. I am not a cheap steak.” He knew immediately that he’d said it wrong. He made mistakes when he was nervous. He had pictured the conversation going so much better, had imagined that his boy would smile and thank him for his generosity, but now Omeer felt frantic and hopeless and embarrassed. The boy rolled his eyes and sighed derisively, and something came up out of Omeer’s stomach and into his throat that he couldn’t control. He didn’t realize what he was doing until after he had slapped the boy BAM! across his cheek.

They stared at each other while the slap reverberated. Omeer knew it had happened because his hand stung, and because the boy’s cheek bloomed pink. He wanted to apologize, wanted to beg the boy not to tell his mother, but instead Omeer took the elevator to the basement and stood in the dark near the incinerator, catching his breath, keeping the tears that gathered inside his eyes.

It was the summer of the slap that someone hired pianists to play music during lunch hour at Omeer’s end of the park. The piano was on wheels so it could be moved around. Pianists came every weekday, a new one each week, and sat down at the piano with a flourish, playing show tunes and jazz and sometimes classical to entertain the crowds. Omeer took his lunch there almost every day. He listened right until the end, even if there was an encore, and then he’d rush across the street, up to his apartment, change into his doorman’s uniform, and be at the front desk for the 3 o’clock shift.

Omeer recognized the park employees who cleaned the fountain who would sometimes stop and listen to the music too, leaning on their brooms. Their uniforms were green, like the color of the leaves, as though they grew there in the park, the workers.

He became aware of a woman who visited the park every Tuesday. She dragged a suitcase, wrapped entirely in Saran Wrap, and several purses, all wrapped in cellophane too. She wore a rain hat tied under her chin, and her lipstick went outside of the lines on her lips up to her nose almost. She would settle in by the piano and arrange her purses on separate chairs. Then she would unwrap a sandwich from a piece of tin foil and eat it.

She never made a sound, never caused a disturbance, always cleaned up after herself. She and Omeer were companions of sorts on Tuesdays that summer. As Omeer would be getting up to leave at the end of each Tuesday concert, she would be stacking her purses back on her suitcase and wheeling off toward home, her plastic kerchief tied tightly under her chin. She even pushed the chairs back in.

Omeer looked forward to that hour, rain or shine. It became his club, his piece of the park where he was better off than some, and not as well off as others. Even though he never spoke to people there, outside of a polite nod, he felt they were his friends, a kind of family that might have existed given better circumstances. How much they would like him if they knew him, he thought. How kind he’d be to them, laughing at their jokes. They wouldn’t know that he was a disappointment, because he wouldn’t tell them. He would not divulge how much money he owed, how he owed more on the apartment than it was worth, that his wife worked part time at a dry cleaner’s. They would not know about him slapping his son, or hiding in the basement afterward. They would know the Omeer that he wished to be — kind, generous, loyal, appreciated.

He had a favorite table in the shade — close enough to hear the music but far enough away to watch the people, who came in colored scarves and high-heeled shoes and danced with their children under the pale green branches of the plane trees. They all spoke different languages, and like chips of glass in a kaleidoscope, whatever way they happened to fall, Omeer found beautiful — like his wife and son when they didn’t know he was watching them.

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When the long, hot month of August came, it brought a new woman to the piano concerts. She came barreling in one day, her shiny black hair pulled into a ponytail. Her clothes were runner’s clothes, skintight and lime green. Her enormous fat rolls spilled out from underneath her shirt, smooth and round as a wet otter. Omeer was charmed. Her cheeks were round and glossy, and she shone, as though she had rubbed her skin with oil. She seemed quite alive. When Omeer pointed her out to Angelo one day, Angelo said, “She looks like a Samoan. I’ve read about them. They paddle canoes in the Arctic.” Omeer looked up Samoan on his son’s computer and was astonished at how wrong Angelo had been, but from then on Omeer thought of her as “the Samoan” anyway.

She came after that every so often, and Omeer was glad when she showed up, like a mountain had rolled in to keep the wind and sun off of his back. One day early on, she had a tight lemon-yellow shirt on that did not cover her belly, a strip of which was revealed, the color of polished teak. She put her belongings on one of the round tables and stood next to it, doing stretching exercises. Every time she reached up, her belly, hanging over her pants was exposed, rich and coffee-colored. She looked like a warrior to Omeer, or a fertility goddess.

She sat then and pulled a see-through plastic container full of sliced mangoes out of a bag. She burst with vitality, eating fruit for lunch, doing stretching exercises, her new sneakers a glowing talisman for physical fitness. It all seemed very Samoan to Omeer. She ate the mango with her fingers, licking them after each slice. She took a Wet-Nap out of her purse when she was done and carefully wiped her hands. Fastidious. Natural.

Each time she arrived, she stretched until her belly button was exposed. And when she stopped reaching, the shirt stayed up while she sat and ate her mangoes. Omeer was giddy over how unselfconscious she was, how brave and relaxed and accepting of her own self. He was so much the opposite that he used mouthwash every morning, every night, after every meal, and still his wife pulled away. But his Samoan, she left her fat belly exposed in the middle of the park, and he was sure that everyone who saw her must love her for her abandon.

One day she looked up from a dripping mango slice and caught Omeer’s eye. She hesitated and then smiled wide to show all of her top teeth. He felt he had been caught staring at her, and he stood up, walking directly out of the park and up to his building, where he saw his reflection in the front door of his building. He was shocked, as though he had just seen himself for the first time in decades. How his eyelids drooped. How tight his pants were around his waist. He remembered a photograph of himself when he had been the Samoan’s age, with a full head of shiny black hair. He had been handsome then, he now realized. His daydreams had allowed him to be mistaken about who he had become. Omeer had thought himself the man who might have known this girl once, been friends with her, if things had been different, if he had not married and accidentally grown old.

The next morning, Omeer went to the deli and bought himself a little container of sliced mangoes, and the cashier gave him a plastic fork. He hadn’t eaten a mango since he was a little boy, and he ate them now for lunch by the piano, one at a time. The mango was strange, fibrous and sweet, and full of vague, echo-y memories from what felt like a life that once belonged to someone else, someone who had lived a hundred years ago. It was not enough food for him, and he knew he’d be hungry that night behind the front desk, and he was disappointed that the Samoan woman wasn’t there to see him.

The next day, at the same deli, Omeer bought himself a box of men’s hair dye, the kind that promised to subtly cover only some of the gray, to make him look just a bit younger. He hid the box in the drawer by his bed and dyed his hair when his wife and son had gone out. Some of the dye splattered on the wall by the light switch. He scrubbed it with his toothbrush and got the spot off, but the toothbrush was ruined.

When Omeer took the towel off of his head, he wasn’t certain, but he sensed he looked different, very subtly so. It made his eyes look more blue, he thought, turning his head from side to side in front of the mirror. It left some of the gray, maybe almost all of it, he couldn’t tell, which he found tasteful. He had been worried that the change would be alarming, too severe, but it wasn’t. How could anyone accuse him of dyeing his hair when there were patches of gray still in it?

He wrapped his toothbrush and the box from the hair dye in a plastic bag, and instead of throwing it down the garbage chute by the elevator, he carried it down and put it in a garbage can on the street. He went back to the deli to get mangoes for lunch again. Yes, he had been hungry the night before, but perhaps it was not the end of the world to be a bit hungry. He could stand to lose a few pounds, and mangoes were delicious, he had decided. They tasted the way perfume smelled.

To his delight, the Samoan girl was already there when Omeer took his seat. The pianist was playing something that sounded like a show tune, and a little girl was twirling to the music. A faint chill was in the air, which reminded Omeer that yet another fall was coming. He waited for his Samoan to see him, wondering if she would notice his hair. When she did finally look, he held up his plastic container of mango like a prize to show her, and she smiled and held her container of mango up too, like a toast. He purposefully did not look in her direction again, so that she would know he was not trying to be intrusive, filled with reigned-in joy as he was.

Omeer was working the door when his son came in that evening. The boy was carrying his saxophone case in one hand, said, “Hi,” and lingered. The lobby was quiet and the sun was still up, but weakly.

“How was camp today?” Omeer asked.

“OK,” the boy said, not looking at him.

“Would you like to eat your dinner down here behind the desk with me?” He hadn’t asked him to do that since the slap, over a month ago. He hadn’t apologized either, although he was beside himself with complicated regret.

“OK,” said the boy, “but I have to practice first,” and it was agreed that he’d bring his plate down with him after practicing and they would sit together, hidden behind the marble front desk while the boy ate.

“Have you ever tasted mango?” his father asked him when he came down. It was dark outside now, and the boy said he hadn’t. “I have some left over from my lunch. It’s lovely.”

The boy took a bite and closed his eyes. “It tastes like a pine tree,” he said, and his father was proud of him for that. It sounded like poetry to Omeer, like something a smart boy would say.

There were people coming and going, and Omeer had to get up several times to let them in or out. He turned the little TV on for the boy to watch, with the sound turned way down, but the boy turned it off again and read his book that he had carried down under his dinner plate.

When Omeer sat down again, the boy said, “You look different,” and smiled a little at his father. Omeer remembered with shame slapping the boy’s soft, round cheek.

He said to the boy, “Don’t worry about me, OK? Soon you will be better than I am, and remember that I want that for you. I want you to be better than me.” He looked at his boy, at his shiny black hair, at his face turned up to Omeer. “You mustn’t feel bad when you surpass me.” The boy might not understand now, thought Omeer, but he’d remember and understand later, maybe. The boy shrugged and, folding down the page of his book, turned the TV on so that a picture sprang up. “I look different to you?” Omeer asked him.

“Your eyes or something,” the boy said, staring at the TV screen. He turned to look at his father for a moment. “Your eyes don’t look so tired.” He turned back to the television.

A woman in a large hat came to the door and asked to be announced to Mrs. Jacobs on the seventh floor, but Mrs. Jacobs didn’t answer Omeer’s call.

“Jesus Christ,” the woman in the hat said, sighing deeply and staring off above Omeer’s head. “So now what am I supposed to do?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Omeer, aware that he was apologizing to this woman who meant nothing to him and that he had not apologized to his son. He felt the boy watching and wondered how his boy would come, finally, to think about his father.

“I am truly sorry,” Omeer said to the woman. He bowed a little to show how sorry he was, but still she looked angry and wasn’t turning to leave.

She seemed like tangible evidence that his currency was continuing its devaluating slide. Omeer had failed his wife, had slapped his son, had gotten himself in debt for nothing, and now he stood apologizing to strangers. His wife only smiled at him in her sleep now, and he was not allowed to share her bed anymore.

Mrs. Jacobs from the seventh floor came in the front door finally and calmed the woman with the hat down, leading her out into the park. He could hear the woman in the hat say, “Jesus Christ,” and he heard Mrs. Jacobs say, “It’s not his fault, Mary! God!” She rolled her eyes conspiratorially over her shoulder at Omeer, and he smiled, relieved.

The boy pretended to be watching TV, but Omeer knew he had witnessed the small disturbance and his father’s ineffectiveness.

“What a lucky man I am,” Omeer said, tears standing up in his eyes. This was as close as he could come to saying that he was sorry, for the slap, the debt, his position in the world, for being unloved by the boy’s mother. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the boy allowed it to stay there a moment before shrugging it off.

The piano music continued into the fall. The woman with the purses wrapped in Saran Wrap continued to come every Tuesday, and Omeer wondered where she would go for the winter. Who would understand that, although once her shoes had been on the wrong foot, she deserved a place to sit on a Tuesday afternoon to feel like she was not alone?

His Samoan came only once in September and she was with a friend, a co-worker maybe. Omeer was so happy to see her that he jumped up without thinking and tipped his little folding chair over. He righted it and fled the park, his face warm, tremendously glad to have seen her.

He saw her for the last time in October when she showed up for the final piano performance of the year. She had on a long sweater that came below her knees over her tangerine-colored Spandex outfit. She was pushing a wheelchair with an old man in it. The man was unmoving and listing sharply to one side. The Samoan’s robustness and polish made the man in the wheelchair look chalky and frail like a dried white leaf.

She sat down in a chair just a few tables over from Omeer, and he could hear her talking softly to the man. She took care of him, Omeer realized. This was her job. The pianist came out, a jacket on against the chilly October afternoon. It was a Tuesday, Omeer knew, because the Saran Wrap lady was there, placing her purses on chairs like she was having a tea party and each purse was a guest. His Samoan pulled a sleeve of Oreos from her purse and put one in the old man’s hand, pushing his fingers together so he wouldn’t drop it. She whispered loudly in his ear, “It’s a cookie. You can eat it.”

She stood up behind him and patted down his hair with her colossal hand very gently, smiling down on him. The music started. It was classical, gorgeous, complicated music. It felt like a party. For a moment Omeer enjoyed his place in the park and forgot his debt, the way he embarrassed his son, his wife’s dismissiveness, the board president’s complaints. He felt these people in the park, the man pushing the garbage can and catching every fallen leaf, the woman with the wrapped purses, these were his friends too or, if not his friends exactly, well, they shared something.

His Samoan was tapping on the old man’s shoulder, swaying to the music. Omeer could see her enormous rounded calves like half-melons beneath her long sweater. He could see his building just beyond her, and a wedding party emerging from the hotel next door to it. They served coffee there for $9 a cup. He had asked the hotel’s doorman. Nine dollars a cup. Imagine that, and people paid it.

The two men who had cleaned out the coins from the fountain earlier were there, whispering to each other, their heads close together, laughing, leaning on their brooms. The wind was in the piano player’s hair and made his smile look like it hung under a white cloud. There was a mother with her child asleep in its stroller, completely limp, while the mother texted on her phone to someone who was far away.

Omeer thought of those people in the paper who had lowered the park decades before. They had been visionaries. They had. As everything fell away, his savings, his marriage, his hair, Omeer knew he was still tremendously lucky. Lowering the park had, despite reason and cost and common sense, made the park into a palace, Omeer’s palace. Here he sat amidst the swirling leaves, knowing that he would be back in spring, right here to listen to the music with his companions, the park like a cradle, rocking them all together. Incredible. SEP Logo Reverse

 

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  • Cathy Vanderpool

    So well written. I enjoyed it!

  • Ed Nichols

    I am a published short story writer, and always trying to write better. To write like this story. It’s absolutely great! It’s so much better than what we normally see from recent MFA graduates–which is usually garbage with no beginning, no middle and no end.
    Congradulations. You are a great wrier. Keep it up.
    Ed Nichols

  • Carolyn Biondo

    What a beautiful story! I could have read on and on!

  • This brings back an astonishing amount of associative memories, like a confetti of memory data in fractional facets. One allusion I had was to a prayer book I had written and never published, waiting for my other writings to reach a legitimistic beginning: published and being bought, read and being appreciated. My life is surrounded by predators that exploit, steal (euphemistically, labeled “taking”),lame and kill, holocaustically, leaving me to struggle with mere survival. When will I reach the more wonderful, “thrival point” unto self-actualization, and imagining and finding all sorts of new and dolphin-like wonders to share with a communion of the status quo and others beyond: knowers of sacred knowledge with the capacity of authentic dialogue and relating. I wonder if there is a certain place in the heavens for those not object-making the other?
    I see many men go somewhere! Human trafficking being trendy in certain areas and may be condoned by American excesses of evil freedoms that cause the proliferations needles in the parks, instead of walks, the indignity of homelessness, the poverty of many. Just throw money at the others, and they will do anything? I hope someday I can find my Wishington like Jesus has prepared for those who can live above normal civility and love one another. Thanks for showing how much love is there in your story. Congratulations!

  • Brought back memories of visiting my dentist as a child whose office was on 40th – right beside the park.

    Thanks

  • Carlos R. Diaz

    I really enjoyed reading this short story. It was the right amount of Americana lore with contemporary narrative. Congratulations on your literary achievements. :-)

  • Harry Bowers

    Just finished the story, excellent loved it

  • Anne Pincus

    what a beautiful story

  • Mia carney

    absolutely loved every word…