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Wayne K. Spitzer

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Just Passing By
By Wayne K. Spitzer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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A harried New Yorker finds an unlikely companion in the liminal space between subway cars.

He is late for work. He grips the pole as the train roars down the track—thin man in his forties, pale, clean-shaven. He is wedged between other commuters. A subway beggar pleads to no one in particular, "Please, anything would help."

            He looks past him at a young woman seated at the front of the car, wearing a black coat, holding a pot of flowers. An envelope has been wedged amongst the stems. Another train veers close, just outside the glass—a blur of windows and faces. The conductor calls the next stop.

Out on the platform the thin man sees the envelope, down upon the wet bricks—it is being kicked and bandied along, toward the gutter. He lifts his hand and calls out to the woman. She does not seem to hear him, only continues along her way. He pursues the envelope, snatching it up before it reaches the gutter. As the train leaves yet another one blasts past in the opposite direction.

The beggar says, "Ladies and gentlemen, please."


He angles his shoulders, as if to part the crowd, as he moves up the sidewalk. He glimpses the woman in black, about to cross the street. He is so determined to catch up with her, to give her back the envelope, that he steps right in front of a NYC bus—is drawn back by a stranger.

            "Jesus, man! Pay attention!"

He glimpses her once more after the bus passes. Then the crowd swallows her.


He emerges from a rotating glass door into the lobby of Macmillan’s New York Register, hustling for the elevator, but misses it. He glances at his watch—notices a large man standing in front of the fireplace, face turned. The man is wearing a black coat and has a briefcase at his feet. The briefcase can hardly contain what it holds; papers stick out of it in every direction. The man also looks at his watch.

The elevator chimes as its doors roll open and the thin man steps in, bumbling into a woman who spills steaming hot coffee on him. He sees the figure by the fire turn, as he nurses the burn. The elevator doors close. One woman says to another, "Yeah, we got lost. Isn’t that awful? All that effort in precisely the wrong direction!"

He all but leaps from the elevator as its doors roll open, and quickly shuffles to the men’s room. He rolls up his sleeves, pours cold water on the burn. He lingers a moment over the sink: The face in the mirror is gaunt, white, sickly. He hurries to his office.

A fat man rolls back in his chair as he passes. "That you, O’Malley?"

O’Malley enters a small room crowded with potted plants and stacks of paper. The plants don’t seem to be doing very well. He has scarcely had a chance to sit down when a co-worker brings another stack of papers. "I’ll just—put these on the floor," she says.

"Mmm," says O’Malley. He sets the envelope on his desk.

His chair squeaks as he settles in. His fingers hover over the keyboard. He gets up and fetches the watering pitcher, intending to feed the plants, but only a few drops fall out. He leans close to the glass. Through his refection he sees the city extending toward the horizon, hazily a little, boxes within boxes.

He looks at the envelope. He picks it up and turns it over, reads, ‘Wilshire Clinic’.


He holds the letter and its contents in both hands as the petticab jiggles along, inching through the traffic. The plastic windows are dappled with water as he stares out: at the pedestrians and smoke-belching busses, at the Manhattanites with their umbrellas and dogs; at the policemen and panhandlers.


He sprints up the steps of the Wilshire and locates room 234, as the writer of the letter has indicated, then pauses in the doorway. There is a bed surrounded by a white plastic curtain. Beyond is a smallish window, the shutter of which is open. Flowers and cards crowd the sill. A cool breeze blows in, ruffling the petals, rattling the paper. The plastic curtain flaps.

He locates its opening and peeks inside.

A man is there, sickly pale, jaundiced, cheeks sunk in, hair fallen out. His hazy eyes watch the ceiling from deep hallows. He has multiple IVs, the insertion points of which are purple, swollen, and is hooked up to an array of computers, plastic-covered appliances; saline bags. A book by Feschner lies turned over on his stomach, like a tent.

“Who’s there?” says the man, not turning his head. His breath comes and goes in ragged gasps.

“Nobody. I—I was just passing by. I’m a friend…of Christine’s.”

 “You’re a friend…of Christine?”

“Yes. I—She wanted to give you something.”


“Yes. I have it right here.”

Ragged gasps, coming and going.

“How is she?”

“She’s well. She plans to come. When she can.”

“That’s good. That’s good. What—what is it?”

“A letter.”

A train whistles somewhere outside the window; the plastic curtain rattles. “I can’t read it.”

 “I can read it for you.”


“Do you mind if I come in?”


He steps back from the curtain, looking for a chair, and locates a stool. He squeezes between the curtains, pulling the stool which grates over the floor, and sits by the man. The man rolls his eyes to look at him, lifting his hand which is burdened with the IVs, placing it on the cold, greasy, chromed handrail.

“Dearest Laurence,” O’Malley begins, holding the letter.

“You’re really a friend of Christine’s?”

O’Malley lays his hand over the man’s.

“Dearest Laurence,” he begins again.


He hands the check for $7,680 to the receptionist and exits the clinic, but instead of hailing a cab walks along the side of the building, toward the subway terminal. It’s getting cold. He walks with his head down, hands stuffed into his pockets. Rainwater runs along the drainpipes and courses down the gutters. Some sewer rats scurry past.

The breeze scoops up loose newspapers and swirls them in the air. He peers up to where the man's window would be, sees the curtains snapping. The wind picks up as he looks all around; at the looming, gray towers and the plumes of steam; at the rooftop reservoirs and chaotically angled chimney pots.

He descends into the terminal. The train doors open, and he boards as another roars past in the opposite direction.








(c) Copyright 2008 by Wayne K. Spitzer



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