The long reclusion started the night of the big scare, almost a year ago. Smoke detectors went off at two in the morning that Sunday. Mr. Hart was the first to head for the stairs and the last to get to the street, out of breath. Neighbors in nightclothes ran past him holding their kids, their pets, each other. As sirens approached Willow Street, tenants complained and swore under their breath, alarmed and annoyed, not a bit surprised, as though they expected all along that the kid in 3A would have done something stupid.
At first, the situation seemed critical; smoke filled the entire third floor. But when the firefighters broke down the door of the apartment, it became apparent there was nothing to fear. The kid was passed out on the couch with pizza and chicken wings in the oven, still in their take-out boxes. He slept through the commotion and the invasion—one of those lightweights. In the end, the turmoil lasted less than thirty minutes. Folks shook their heads and, back in the townhouse, locked their doors behind them.
The girl in 3C helped Mr. Hart up the stairs. The osteoarthritis had eaten away the cartilage in his joints years ago. His knees were so bad he had to concentrate to remember a time they didn’t hurt. Some days were better than others; stairs always spelled trouble.
“Good night, Mr. Hart,” said the girl in front of his door, curls in her lips.
Mr. Hart. No one called him by his first name anymore. He missed that sound. The last person who did was Herbie in 1C. A stroke offed him in the steam room at the gym, of all places. People didn’t know if old Herbie was dying or ejaculating. What a way to go.
In his apartment, Mr. Hart stood in the foyer considering the confused senior in the mirror. His aged nerves were no fit for middle-of-the-night scares. He checked his pulse—out of control. The evacuation proved there was no defense left in his bones. He decided to go back to bed but, in the process, missed the mattress entirely and tumbled to the ground. The home health aide found him there the next morning, not in tears but despondent. He had spent the night trying to get up, achieving nothing, worsening the injuries.
At the hospital, the doctor gave him bad news. He had three broken ribs and a vertebral compression fracture. His mobility would be compromised—more compromised—for months, maybe years.
“Bed rest for as long as needed,” ordered the doctor.
“As long as needed” turned out to be the whole summer and a good chunk of the fall, the good months. Mr. Hart depended on his walks around the neighborhood. Lost tourists and their foreign languages gave him a taste of worlds he could no longer visit. The storefront windows and the ads atop taxi cabs kept him in the loop. In his bed, mornings were interminable.
He eventually recovered at the beginning of winter—short days, gusty winds, more solitude.
So, now, as a ray of light finds its way all the way down to Mr. Hart’s window on the first mild day of an otherwise cruel March, he takes it as a harbinger of better days ahead.
He aims high. He hasn’t seen the bridge or Lady Liberty in over a year, a betrayal in his book. With everyone gone, the city is the one familiar presence he trusts. Forty years and the common beasts—mostly cancers and heart attacks. Except for his friends, decimated by other beasts, special beasts. AIDS first, then drugs, then old age, which is not a stroll in the park for anyone, but it’s an outright massacre for the underdogs. Truth is, it’s either death or loss—Mr. Hart has already come to terms with end-of-life realizations. At least, he has Brooklyn.
He makes it downstairs and outside, then takes gentle steps down the block, weight on his cane, arms robust and able. Aside from the pain in his knees—a minuscule, cutting pinch—there’s no discomfort. He frequently pauses and takes in the reassuring sight of all things granted.
The breeze is a blessing on his paper skin until the idyll comes to an abrupt end on Columbia Heights. His knee gives in halfway down the hill. He shifts his weight on the other arm; his shoulder throbs. As the other knee trembles, Mr. Hart realizes he will not make it. A walker would have helped, maybe, but how was he supposed to get the thing up and down the stairs of the townhouse? He can’t always rely on neighbors and asking for help isn’t his strong suit.
Some lump forms in his throat, but he swallows it. No reason to get emotional; the plan has to change. That’s all. He waits and waits until, five or twenty-five minutes later (hard to tell these days), a green cab appears on top of the hill—such a relief.
“I’m going to Brooklyn Bridge Park,” he tells the cab driver.
“The park is just around the corner, Sir.”
“Oh, I know.”
The driver scrutinizes him in the rearview mirror, perhaps discerning insecurity in his quivering chin. He drops him off on Furman Street, offers to help, but Mr. Hart gently declines, gripping his cane.
There are still 500 feet to his destination, maybe more. Eyes on the ground, he proceeds one hesitant step at a time. In rough times, his mother used to tell him to ignore the pain and sing a tune. Funny how memories barge into the present without order or discretion.
The knee hurts, but “Satellite of Love” on his lip hoodwinks the ache. When he finally makes it to the southwest corner of the park, he grabs the railing with both hands and lets go of the cane. Only then, he looks up. The view sends a shiver down his spine like the first sip of an ice-cold drink on a sun-drenched afternoon. Everything shines—bright sky, blinding skyline. Even the East River is luminous. His eyes are wet; it’s just the sun glitter.
He leans over the railing until his feet no longer touch the ground. In the light reflected off the waves, he sees his mother’s hair down and long at night and his father’s hands, their calluses. In the brightness, he recognizes the faces of his siblings playing in a cornfield and the muscles of friends lying shirtless on Christopher Street Pier. He slides forward into that luminosity, under the river’s surface. The pain vanishes, the city fades, and the memories dissipate. Everything becomes a sparkle.