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Sparrow’s Hand

by Harry Buschman

As Sparrow wrote, his front door bell rang. He looked up but continued writing. In the back of his mind he thought he could see someone standing out in the hall trying to stop him from writing simply by ringing his door bell. The hell with them.

He pictured them as two elderly ladies––one white, one black, standing outside, shifting their weight from one tired foot to the other. They wanted him to stop writing. They wanted to give God’s scriptures to him. They wanted to tell him to drop everything and read the words of the Master. “Drop whatever you’re doing and follow the word of the Lord.”

He wasn’t about to fall for that crap! He was writing, and so long as the ink held out the words would flow effortlessly from his head to his hand, to the pen, to the paper. If he stopped now he’d lose the string of his story, it would snap and tangle like a trout line and he’d never straighten it out again.

While this lovely moment lasted his whole being rested in the grip of his right hand, and from his heart, brain, body and bowels it dripped from his pen, word by precious word. If the house were burning he would still write on.

But then ... suppose it was mail, or maybe Fed Ex with a contract to sign. Money long overdue from Random House or Scribner––an advance perhaps––an encouraging word.

Ridiculous! How would they know he was here? He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be across the street on the fourteenth floor, (really the thirteenth floor, but they called it the fourteenth floor) of Ashbury Arms.

The building manager kicked him out a month ago. Yes, and held his furniture for back payment of rent too. A sad day indeed for Larry Sparrow, (really J.H. Lawrence) how can a writer get anywhere with a name like Larry Sparrow?

Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the Jewish delicatessen across the street from Ashbury Arms couldn’t believe they kicked him out of his apartment. “An artist like you! What the Hell is it with landlords these days? They respect no one.” He made a sandwich for Sparrow and sat him down in the back of the store.

“Enjoy,” he said. “Sit down and enjoy ... I have a proposition.”

“You’re very kind, Mr. Mushnik, but I don’t have a nickel––not ‘til the residuals come in at the end of the month ... even then.”

“Here there are upstairs two rooms, My peace of mind it will pay, Mr. Sparrow, to have someone up there when the store is shut up for the night.”

“Who would rob a delicatessen?”

“The clothes off your back they would steal––but if they know somebody is living and watching upstairs ...”

... so now, in the two room flat over Mushnik’s Jewish delicatessen, Sparrow wrote on. His sense of values told him no matter who was ringing at his apartment door it could not be more important than getting this chapter down right. He was good enough at it now he didn't have to think as he wrote––he just had to watch the pen in his right hand as it paused an instant and then started to write again. He watched in awe as his hand wrote on. He was here only because his hand was here––that’s all.

And in this way the chapter slowly drew to a close, even with his mind on other things. Who was at the door? Did he leave a light burning as a sentry in the window? He must remember to go to the laundromat. Did he have a clean shirt for tomorrow? The hand wrote on, ignorant of Larry Sparrow and his problems. The hand finished the last sentence with a flourish and dotted a period with bullet-hole finality, then it dropped the pen and closed itself into a fist to tell him it was through––at least for the rest of the morning.

Sparrow thought ahead to tomorrow. There would be bad times tomorrow. He must see his crazy mother in Bensonhurst. Tomorrow would be Thursday and he always saw her on Thursdays. Then he must see his knocked-up daughter in Crown Heights. She would be suicidal if he didn’t show up every Thursday, at least until her husband got out on parole. His right hand didn’t like these interruptions, and while he spent them as a son and a father must, his hand would clench and unclench with impatience and frustration.

When he came home he knew the hand would get even for the interruptions. After bringing his mother a bag of cookies from the baker and trying to get her to remember him or to stop his daughter’s tears ...

“... what will Lester say when he sees me pregnant like this? He’ll put two and two together and break my ass!”

“In sickness and in health, Milly.”

These visits drained him. His mother and his daughter were very much alike. They had crawled into themselves and pulled themselves in after them. There was nothing he could do to help them, but that didn’t stop him from going to see them.

He would promise to come back next week and then hurry home to write, hoping the hand was still of a mind to––maybe yes, maybe no. You can’t turn a hand like this on and off like a faucet. Like now, it’s touch and go and these Jesus freaks at his front door could be the last straw.

He stood up and edged his way over to the window. If he stood to the side he could see anyone standing in the street below.

A woman was crossing the street with her back to him. She turned once and looked at the delicatessen and then up at his window. When she reached the other side of the street she stopped and turned again. He thought he recognized her.

She was a black woman with a colorful scarf tied around her head. She had long lovely legs and she kept one foot tapping as she stood there. She smoked a cigarette nervously, with quick impatient movements of her right hand, then she glanced down at the watch on her left wrist. He thought he knew her, and given a moment or two he would recall her name. She had a sister, or at any rate someone who looked like her in Forest Hills––a dancer, he recalled––in a Broadway musical comedy. He knew she was living with a man too, a white man who liked to be seen in her company, but was reluctant to make a commitment. How strange, he thought, to see a person you knew intimately many years ago on a busy street in Manhattan ... and then forget her name.

Sparrow looked down at his hand and wondered if there was anything left in it. “What about it,” he asked, “maybe we should take the afternoon off? You’ve been working all morning. How about a walk in the park?”

The park was the quietest place he knew. No one came to the park on weekdays, and in a city of 8 million people Sparrow knew he would have the park all to himself. He slipped his notebook in his side pocket, and his right hand picked up his pen and put it in his shirt pocket.

He started down the stairs and found Mr. Mushnik sitting on the bottom step. Mr. Mushnik was a cigarette addict, and whenever the store was empty of customers, he would dart out in the hall and light up. He would sit there on the bottom step of the stair until he heard the bell tinkle in the store, then he would nip off the end of the cigarette and go back to wait on his customer.

That’s where he sat when Sparrow passed him on his way out.

“So, how’s the book, Mr. Sparrow?”

“Coming, Mr. Mushnik. There are dead spaces in between though––I thought I’d take a walk in the park.”

“There was a young girl, Mr. Sparrow. A schwartzer, she asked for you in the store.” He flicked his wrist suggestively. “A looker, Mr. Sparrow.”

“I saw her from the window––I don’t know her.” His right hand reached instinctively for the pen in his pocket and he stopped it only by a supreme effort of will. He was saved by the tinkle of the bell in the delicatessen. Mr. Mushnik stubbed out his cigarette and got to his feet; it was evident he wanted to talk about the mysterious woman ... “Later, Mr. Sparrow. We can talk later.”

Sparrow sat writing in the park. He found a small bench near the lake. He was content to stare at the birds, but his notebook had somehow found its way to his lap and his right hand held the pen. He was tired of reading what he wrote. He really wanted to relax; let his mind drift and romanticize about the few and well remembered moments of his life, like the flattering photographs he kept in the front of his album, that made the ugly ones in the back more bearable.

“For God’s sake, how long are you going to write?” It didn’t have to answer. Sparrow watched the words form one by one. But they were not the words of his book, they were words written to himself––by himself. It brought to mind the name of the girl. She was called Patrisha. That’s what her mother named her ... remembering she was only half black, and Patrisha was a fitting name for her.

So that was settled. It was a long time ago and there was no way in the world she could have been the same person he saw across the street this afternoon. Patrisha would be ... late 50’s? At least! The girl he saw was in her 20’s, no more. Yet, there was something so familiar. The impatience. The long and lovely legs ... but there were other parts to her ... even more beautiful.

Sparrow took the pen with his left hand and put it in his pocket, then he closed the notebook. He stood up and walked down the narrow path along the lake. It ended abruptly in a little cul-de-sac.

The lake was cloudy, covered with a thin film of residue––a combination of smog from the city atmosphere and the muck of the lake bottom. Staring into it, he could see oily, half formed images. Were they products of his own imagination or did his ghosts blend with those of other men who sat there and left their thoughts to fester in the dark water?

He remembered the night Patrisha looked quickly at her watch and checked the time with the clock on the wall. “I have to be going, Larry ... “ She folded her arms and shivered. “It isn’t right. I wasn’t brought up for this kind of thing.”

“It happens, Pat. It happens all the time.”

“Not to me.”

“You want to stop?”

“Yes. I think I do––I’ve got to get on with my life, Larry. Love isn’t everything––I’m not even sure I know what love is any more.”

The pen was in his right hand again! He didn’t remember putting it there. Swallow stared at it in wonder. “How could you remember the exact words? After all these years you haven’t forgotten.”

“Neither have you, old man.”

He thought he had forgotten. He was sure he had hidden it in a dark corner hoping it would never see the light––but then something flushed it out. Like seeing a dark girl in the street looking impatiently at her watch.

He had never seen the past so clearly. He felt as though he had slipped back into it, and today, the present, was only a platform he stood on from which he could see yesterday. He saw it with the wisdom of the intervening years––every misstep along the way, and even though he was painfully aware of his youthful inexperience, he was unable to change his course or make excuses for himself. Like a mighty river his sins rolled on, unchangeable. What was done, was done.

“Did I have a choice, hand,” he asked. “I can’t remember if I had a choice. It seemed as though it was a foregone conclusion back then.”

The hand wrote, “You made the choice, you called the tune, hotshot!”

He turned the right hand over and looked idly at the palm. All the stories were imprinted there, plain to see. He traced his life and love lines and saw the history of himself. There were lines branching off and going nowhere, and he thought he could see where Patrisha left and Sheila walked in. He was surprised that the line didn’t stop there but it didn’t. It trudged a dreary, deep and inexorable rut, as though tilled by a plow and pulled by an ox.

That’s what life was like with Sheila.

She knew the price of everything, that was for damn sure. She could tell you exactly how much anything cost, even things she didn’t want, and when they broke up she was ready with an up-to-date itemized list of the cost of separation.

He put the note book back in his pocket again, stood up and walked slowly to the park gate. His right hand dangled wearily at his side, it swung like the pendulum of a grandfather clock that no longer told time.

©Harry Buschman 2005

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
Walt Whitman

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