by Stephen-Paul Martin


At some point in your life, you reach a stopping point. You come to a place where the only thing you can do is stop and wait. You won't know why you've stopped. You won't have an explanation later. It's not something you can anticipate or prepare for. It just happens.

For Honey Stone, the stopping point was near the Brooklyn Bridge. She got up at half past two in the morning and went outside for a walk. The fog of lower Manhattan was thick. There might have been dangerous people walking the streets. But she knew she had to get out. Her apartment felt like the wrong place to be. It wasn't that the two women she lived with were being difficult. In fact they were pleasant people, and the place was large and well-designed, so they didn't get in each other's way. And it wasn't that Honey Stone was in a tough situation. She had good friends, a steady job, and no boyfriend problems.

But she knew she was in the wrong place. She knew she had to be somewhere else. She walked down Broadway watching herself appear and disappear and reappear in the darkened shop fronts. The streetlights floated in the mist. Her footsteps told her where she was going. She walked into City Hall Park and saw the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge. She told herself to stop. She took a step, took another step, and stopped.

Silence moved at the speed of light in every direction. She had no words to give the moment shape. If a gust of wind suddenly ripped through the fog, blowing discarded pages of a New York Times across the pavement, it made no impression. She had no words to tell herself what she was looking at, no words to tell herself that she had no words to tell herself what she looking at, no words to explain why time was no longer trapped in the sound of her footsteps, no words for the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge, even though more than a hundred blocks uptown, fifteen floors above the street, Harry Knight was looking out a window toward the Brooklyn Bridge, relaxing into the jazz and dim blue light of a late-night party, ignoring all the talk that filled the room. He wasn't there to socialize. He was there to please the host, a man who owned the music store where Harry Knight had a part-time job. Now that Harry Knight had made himself look happy and social, talking and laughing his way around the room, nodding at all the appropriate times, telling his boss what a great time he was having, he felt free to sit back and lose himself in the jazz and the Brooklyn Bridge. But a white-haired man in a black shirt pulled up a chair, meeting Harry Knight's eyes, putting a deck of cards on the table between them.

Harry Knight was annoyed. He didn't want to be bothered keeping up a conversation, especially not with someone he'd never seen before. But Harry Knight was polite. His mother had taught him not to hurt people's feelings, even if it meant that he had to set aside his own feelings. So he smiled at the white-haired man and the white-haired man smiled back. The white-haired man shuffled the deck and placed five cards face-down on the table.

He said: Choose a card and place it face-up on the table.

The card that Harry Knight picked was unfamiliar. Instead of an ace of spades or two of clubs, instead of one of the emblems in a tarot pack, the face of the card was an eye that opened and closed four times, then disappeared. Harry Knight briefly felt like four different people, each of whom briefly felt like four different people, each of whom briefly like four different people, each of whom briefly felt like four different people.

He lifted his eyes from the card and smiled at the man and the man smiled back and said: Care to pick another card?

The next card was a green ear nesting in blood-red notes of music. It made him think that music was in his blood, that his ear was always green, always new, when he heard great music. But the music on the card made him feel like dancing, and dancing made him feel self-conscious and awkward, while the music in the room was calm and expansive, like an easy chair with a view of an urban skyline. The ear on the card heard nothing, and the blood-red music made no sound, which made him feel that he must have lost his hearing, that the jazz and the talk of the party was all in his head.

The next card was a pile of teeth beside a glass of water. Harry Knight suddenly felt like eating and drinking. He was just about to get up and find food and beer, but the white-haired man smiled and asked him to pick another card. There were two cards left on the table. Harry Knight wondered if the choice made any difference, if the stakes of the game were higher than he thought. Perhaps he was choosing between right and wrong or life and death. But the white-haired man seemed harmless, so Harry Knight picked up another card, a king-size bed with a nose instead of a pillow. Harry Knight put his hand on his nose, stroked it with his thumb, making sure it still felt like his own nose and not someone else's. Then he licked his teeth and put his hand on his mouth, as if to prevent words from getting out. But the gesture was unsuccessful, and Harry Knight heard himself telling the white-haired man to pick the last card himself. The man was blunt in his refusal, suddenly more serious than he seemed before. Harry Knight thought of getting up and leaving, but he knew it would be impolite not to take the last card.

He picked it up, expecting to find another facial feature. But the card was blank. Looking into its white rectangular space made Harry Knight dizzy. He closed his eyes. His mind was spinning in two directions at different speeds, slowly becoming one speed. He opened his eyes. The table was empty. He looked around the room, which seemed to be looking back, then closing its eyes. The talk and the jazz were the same but the white- haired man with the black shirt wasn't there. Harry Knight looked again. He assumed that the man had gone to the bathroom. But when the bathroom door opened a few minutes later, a woman came out, bobbing her head to the music. Harry Knight scanned the room again. The white-haired man wasn't there, but this time his absence felt absolute, and a minute later even his absence wasn't there anymore, and the absence of the absence felt absolute. Harry Knight got up and left.

He walked out into the late March fog with an unfamiliar feeling, as if he'd been stripped of his face, as if it hadn't been his to begin with. To someone else this might have been unpleasant. But Harry Knight accepted the feeling quickly, partly because he felt that his party face belonged at the party, that it had no business being anywhere else, and partly because the absence of his face was reassuring, briefly releasing him from a life-long source of pain, the struggle to look at himself in the mirror, or to look at people looking at him passing on the street. It didn't occur to him that they might be more disturbed by the absence of his face than by its presence. But it did occur to him that in the dense fog no one was likely to get a good look at him. And it also occurred to him that most New Yorkers were so caught up in themselves that they rarely saw anyone else with clarity or interest.

Few things pleased Harry Knight more than foggy New York streets at three in the morning. He loved the silhouettes of pointed housetops, the dim reflections in dirty warehouse windows, the blurred imprint of streetlights on wet sidewalks, the sudden distorted shadows of people approaching or moving away. There were hundreds of ways of getting home, sequences of streets he could choose to follow, depending on what he wanted to see through the fog. He knew the streets by heart, by the sound of his footsteps on the pavement. He walked and came to corners under streetlights, turned and walked and came to other corners under streetlights, turned and walked and watched the streetlights floating in the mist, until he came to City Hall Park, where he saw the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge. He told himself to stop. He took a step, took another step, and stopped.

Silence moved at the speed of light in every direction. He had no words to give the moment shape, no words to explain that part of him was arriving just as another part was departing, as if he could only be where he was by cooling down or heating up, as if the words down and up had created each other, negated each other, leaving him with no words to explain that he had no words to explain where he was, no words to explain why time was no longer trapped in the sound of his footsteps, no words for the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge, no words for the woman standing beside him, except that he knew she too had stopped.

Earlier that day, at precisely the same time, Honey Stone and Harry Knight had decided for the millionth time that President Bush was a pig. He was worse than a pig; he was a menace. He was worse than a menace; he was a mass killer. He was worse than a mass killer; he was a mass killer disguised as a Christian hero. Both Honey Stone and Harry Knight had decided that George Bush had to get what he deserved. He had to be arrested and tried as a war criminal and sent to the electric chair, a televised execution. And since they knew that this would never happen, they decided that someone had to assassinate him, and they hated themselves for lacking the guts to do it, which reminded them of all the other things they'd never had the guts to do, all the possibilities they'd missed out on because they'd been afraid.

The fact that they were the only people in the world who'd had the exactly the same thought at the exactly the same time and had later come to exactly the same place at exactly the same time broke the spell. They started again, in the midst of what sounded like an extended conversation, as if they'd been standing there talking for fifteen minutes.

He said: You're absolutely right. All jobs are stupid. I refuse to work full time. I'd rather live on almost nothing than waste my time doing stupid things just because someone tells me to.

She said: It's not that I hate my job. As jobs go, it's not bad, and I like some of the people I work with. But it's like you said: I don't want to waste time doing what someone tells me to do -

He said: Especially when the things they tell you to do are things you wouldn't choose to do on your own.

She said: Or if I did choose to do them on my own, I'd do them the way I wanted to do them, at my own pace, in my own way, without having to deal with someone telling me when and how—

He said: For example, if you got up to sharpen a pencil, you'd look out the window and watch pigeons eating breadcrumbs on the sidewalk. And on your way back to your desk you'd play with yourself in the company bathroom. Before you started writing again, you'd--

She said: Or if I was typing an important memo, I'd make every other sentence openly or secretly ridiculous, and the person reading it would consciously or unconsciously know that nothing can be serious unless it's also funny. If I was -

He said: It's getting late.

She said: I think you're right.

They turned and started walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. The lights of lower Manhattan towered in fog behind them. A dark network of old industrial buildings waited in fog in front of them.

She looked at him as if to say: We're on the Brooklyn Bridge.

He looked at her as if to say: We're on the Brooklyn Bridge.

They didn't say anything. Silence was better. Words would only have blocked out what they already knew, kept them from arriving at Harry Knight's tiny apartment, one room with a kitchenette and bathroom in Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood most New Yorkers had never been to, or even heard of, until the more popular neighborhoods became unaffordable.

She sat on his bed. He sat on the chair he pulled out from his desk.

She said: Nice little place you've got here. I wouldn't mind living here myself. The view of the harbor is great. And I love the hardwood floors. In my apartment everything is carpeted. It's really stupid.

He looked outside and saw lights moving in the harbor fog. He suddenly realized that the fog wasn't masking his face any longer. For a second he felt exposed. But when he studied Honey Stone's face he saw no alarm, and he assumed that either his eyes and nose and mouth were back in place, or that Honey Stone didn't think she knew him well enough to tell him to his face that he had no face.

He said: There's nothing better than a window filled with lights in harbor fog.

She said: How long have you had this place?

He looked at the old portrait framed above his desk, a man with white hair and a black shirt. It occurred to him for the first time in his life that he didn't know who the man was. He heard a car approaching three floors down. He heard it stop, doors opening and slamming shut, indistinct voices, footsteps on pavement, then silence, then a foghorn in the distance.

She said: How long have you had this place?

He got up and went to the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Honey Stone waited a long time without moving, watching the lights in the fog. Finally she propped up the pillows against the wall, leaned back and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke rings and watching them fade. Then she looked at the bathroom door, as if by staring hard enough she might make him reappear. But the door was flat and white as an empty page, and Honey Stone knew that the page would remain empty, simply because so many things that could have been written there hadn't been. She tucked herself under the covers, turned off the light and closed her eyes. The foghorns made her sleep feel safe and relaxing.

When she woke the clock on the wall said half past nine. The fog was still thick. It took her a while to figure out that she wasn't in her own room, even though a portrait of her father was framed on the wall. She looked at the bathroom door and slowly remembered Harry Knight, how he'd gone to the bathroom and never come out. She figured he must have been drunk and passed out on the floor, even though he seemed sober the night before. But when she opened the door he wasn't there. She assumed he must have gotten up earlier and gone out, so she got back under the covers and waited.

The street was quiet. The fog was thick enough to swallow all the noise of the city, making her feel that the room was the only place in the world, that everything was over, that only this room had survived, and that it was her job - as the only remaining human - to make the world all over again. At first this was exciting. Her imagination started moving like an airplane on a runway preparing for take-off. But airplanes made her nervous, and it was so foggy that all the flights had been cancelled, and besides, she knew that if she were in charge of re-inventing the world, she would probably make the same world she'd always known. Honey Stone hated fantasy worlds, and hated even more the way the human race had shaped the world in the image of its fantasies. She had always believed that the planet would be much safer now - much saner - if ancient humans had never learned to use tools and words and fire.

These thoughts came slowly. Each word stretched out for fifteen minutes, losing its verbal form and becoming a fish. She spent the whole day underwater, confirming and reconfirming that no new world was possible, even if nothing existed anymore outside the apartment, nothing but fog and a few muffled sounds that she couldn't interpret. The fog was getting dark. Soon she lay back down and went to sleep.

When she opened her eyes the day was cool and bright and the street was full of sounds. She saw the lower Manhattan skyline through the window, the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the towering space that had once been the World Trade Center. The clock said half past eight, and she was due at work by nine. She picked up Harry Knight's phone and called in sick. There was still no sign of him, but she was hungry, so she put on a pot of coffee, took bacon and eggs from his refrigerator and made herself a delicious breakfast. Then she went downstairs and wandered around the neighborhood. Honey Stone had never been to Vinegar Hill before, and she liked what she saw. Much of it was industrial, battered brick warehouses with broken windows, but the old residential buildings, the cobbled streets and sleepy cafes made it seem like 1900. She knew she would have liked it even more fifteen years ago, before the artists came and the place became chic, before the yuppies came and the place became unaffordable. But something about the neighborhood still felt immune to gentrification.

Honey Stone got a ham sandwich from a place with a sign that promised Mi but otherwise had no name. Then she went back to Harry Knight's apartment. He still wasn't there. She noticed that he'd left his wallet on the nightstand, and she decided to go through it and find out who he was. But aside from four one dollar bills, one of which featured a George Washington with no face, the wallet was empty--no credit cards, no ID cards, no pictures of smiling relatives. She opened the drawer of an old wooden desk and examined his personal papers, which told her only one crucial fact, that Harry Knight wasn't paying rent on his apartment. Apparently, it had been in the family for decades. When his mother died in 1980, Harry Knight got a free apartment, except for the $50 a month he paid in property taxes.

She couldn't resist a strange but seductive thought: What if Harry Knight was gone? What if she could stay in his apartment, reducing her housing expenses to $50 a month? She lay down on Harry Knight's bed and did some delicious math. With the $25,000 she'd managed to save in the ten years she'd been working in the city, she could pay his taxes for ten years and still have almost $20,000 left over. If she lived carefully, she could get by without working!

She soon fell into a sleep that felt like falling asleep a thousand times, or walking down a thousand corridors filled with tossing white silk drapes, and when she woke up to another cool clear morning and Harry Knight wasn't there, she called her boss and quit her job, took one of the books on Harry Knight's desk and went to a small café on the corner, happier than she'd ever been in her life. Honey Stone took a table near the open doorway, looking down the street toward the docks and the river, paging through through the book and reading passages here and there. The book was called Eat Pork!, a memoir about the death of the author's mother, but nothing that she read explained the title.

The waiter put a menu on the table. The prices were low by Manhattan standards, and though she knew on her limited budget she couldn't take many meals outside her apartment, for now she wanted to celebrate her new situation without fussing about money. She was just about to order Eggs Benedict, when she remembered an article in The New York Times the day before about U.S. plans to bomb Iran with nuclear weapons, and how annoyed she'd been when the article never addressed the absurdity of the world's foremost nuclear superpower declaring that other nations had no right to develop nuclear weapons, but this memory was intercepted by the memory of a day at the park with her father when she was five years old in Chicago, and the sky was filled with big white clouds and colorful kites in gusting wind, but this memory dissolved into the memory of an ex- boyfriend she'd run into on the street a few days before, someone she'd left because he'd been cheating on her because she avoided him in bed because he talked too much while making love because they never seemed to find time to talk except in bed because her job kept her out of the house all day because he hadn't worked in six months and she couldn't pay all the bills without lots of overtime, but this memory started sounding like the music at a party she'd been to three weeks ago, where everyone seemed to be laughing at the same joke and stealing glimpses of themselves in floor- length mirrors, but this memory was quickly replaced by the memory of having been one of five people in a large theater watching a famous avant- garde movie, and having been the only one left by the end of the film, but this memory collapsed into the memory of a New Year's Day ten years before, an occasion she celebrated by rising at six in the morning, when everyone else was finally going to bed or vomiting in the bathroom, and strolling down to Battery Park, then up to the Cloisters, then down to Battery Park, then up to the Cloisters, then down to Battery Park, more than two hundred blocks each way without stopping, mesmerized by the emptiness of the sidewalks, by the sound her footsteps made on the silent pavement, looking at buildings and taking immense pleasure in the many ways they shaped and framed the cold blue sky, laughing at the smiles of people on billboards, deciding that smiling had become a suspicious phenomenon, little more than a way to conceal emotions or sell products, deciding also that she was nonetheless entitled to feel the feelings the ads were faking, and just as the memory dissolved and she was just about to tell herself how useful that walk had been, how she had decided from that day onward that she would never be a consumer again, that she would buy things only if she absolutely needed them, a decision that prepared her perfectly for what she was planning now--just as she was about to think that thought and at least ten more, she heard a car splashing through a puddle on the cobbled street, and she saw that the waiter had come back, that he must have been nearly seven feet tall, and that he was standing in the light coming in through the windows, eyebrows raised and pencil poised above the pad in his giant spider-like hand. She managed to say that she wanted Eggs Benedict and coffee, then quickly looked back into the pages of Eat Pork!, acting like she was so eager to keep reading that she didn't have time to talk.

But the waiter had no interest in conversation, not with Honey Stone or with anyone else. Conversations made him feel awkward, as if he were in the ballroom of an ocean liner tossing in a violent storm, trying not to spill a full glass of red wine on a fancy carpet. So he smiled and turned quickly toward the kitchen, took one step, took another step, and stopped.

Silence moved at the speed of light in every direction, making him feel like someone solving a more than advanced calculus problem without writing anything down, doing it all in his head, not even using numbers, picturing the elements of the problem as a pattern of visual images: a bathtub in a junkyard, a white stone balcony with a partial view of the Eiffel Tower, a book on the tropics left in an empty bar in Fairbanks, Alaska, a bowling ball speeding straight for the pocket but stopping right before hitting the pins, polite applause in response to someone falling off a cliff, images arranged and re-arranged, mixing with and replacing each other, passing through each other, falling into place and falling out of place, as if the two motions were the same thing, as if all numbers were secretly other numbers, or became other numbers at high altitudes and low temperatures.

Honey Stone got up and left. But the waiter, Lance Boyle, stood there smiling, caught between seconds, eyes half-way between the words on his waiter's pad and the double doors of the kitchen. There was no way to know how long he stopped. Everything around him stayed exactly as it was. There was no one else waiting for breakfast, and the cook in the kitchen had gone to sleep. The moment was free to cast aside its temporal disguise. It was no longer simply a dot on a line, so now it began to expand above and beside and below that line, relaxing into unlimited space in every direction, except that now it could no longer be called a moment - it was taking too long for a moment - which meant that it was left without a name, without a way to hold itself in place, and it fell and smashed on the floor like a broken egg, forcing Lance Boyle to bend and clean it up, since he knew his boss would be there soon. His boss would go berserk if the floor was a mess.

He'd always hated bending to clean things up, not because he thought he was too good to clean up his own mess, but because bending always reminded him of how tall he was, how his height had always been a problem. Lance Boyle wasn't good at basketball and thought he looked like a jerk when he walked. This feeling had been with him since he was five, when he started getting taller than everyone else, and all the kids on the block began making fun of the way he walked. Things got even worse later, when the one girl he'd ever taken out on a date giggled and said that he looked like the mast of a ship in a storm when he walked. Though she'd apologized when he complained about how bad the analogy made him feel - she told him she didn't really mean it and was just trying to be clever, seeing if the simile worked well enough to include in a poem she was working on - he still never got over it. He never wanted anyone to see him walking again. He'd always felt better sitting down so no one could tell how tall he was. But he couldn't wait on tables sitting down, and it was the only job he could find, since studies had shown that extremely tall people made smaller people nervous. Few employers wanted people over seven feet tall working for them.

But something about the way Honey Stone had sized him up made Lance Boyle think that she might want to be his friend. So he went outside to see if he could find out where she'd gone. There were footprints pressed a half-inch into the sidewalk. When he went down on all-fours to get a better look, he could tell they were fresh. The scent of the person who'd left them was still quite vivid, and he quickly convinced himself that Honey Stone had left the footprints, forgetting that she wasn't heavy enough to leave tracks in dry cement. The scent was strong, and Lance Boyle had a great nose. Walking quickly on all-fours, he followed the footprints down the street, around a corner and down another street, sniffing carefully, wagging his tail, around a corner and down another street, sniffing his way through patches of light and shade on the filthy sidewalk, around the corner and down another street, sniffing and wagging his tail, until a woman jogging in a black sweatsuit caught up with him, scratched behind his ears, kissed the top of his head, circled his neck with a collar, hooked a leash to the collar, and took him down the block, unlocked a steel door, took him up three flights of stairs to a small apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. He circled three times on the sky blue oval carpet, settled down and looked up at his master, who scratched behind his ears again. Then she got up and went to the bathroom, threw off her sweats and took a shower.

She'd never loved anything more than taking showers. In fact, she jogged every day in winter and early spring not because keeping in shape was crucial, but because she liked getting sweaty on cold mornings and having to take long showers, warming the grime and exhaustion out of her body. Flora Thunder worked in the towel section of a department store in downtown Brooklyn. She liked the work because towels reminded her of taking showers, and she thought constantly of all the showers her customers would be taking. No two showers were alike. The sounds and caressing motions of the water, the interplay of light and steam, the scented soaps and shampoos and conditioners, the patterns of relaxation unfolding in every part of her body - all of them happened in different ways each time she took a shower. Flora Thunder was convinced that if people could learn to appreciate all the differences in the showers they took day after day, boredom would become a thing of the past. In fact, she'd even thought of offering classes in the art of taking showers, but had cancelled the idea when she realized that formalizing the process into a sequence of lessons would destroy the pleasure that played such a strong part in her life each day.

Besides, she knew that guys would sign up for the class for the sole purpose of taking showers with women, and Flora Thunder couldn't imagine showering with anyone else. She'd never understood why people thought it was sexy to shower with lovers. A friend once told her that if you weren't happy showering with a guy, you better find someone else. But lovers had become a thing of the past for Flora Thunder. Men had always been too selfish and mean, and she no longer thought about going to bed with a woman. She much prefered the company of Lance, her five-year-old Great Dane. He was never anything but affectionate, and she loved the way that he slept at the foot of her bed. She'd even gotten a larger bed to make room for him when he grew from being an sweet little puppy into a sweet enormous adult. Though sometimes he got lost and wandered around the neighborhood, his large size made him easy to find, especially when everyone in Vinegar Hill knew whose dog he was and would quickly return him if they found him alone on the street.

Flora Thunder often wondered if there wasn't something weird about her preference for a dog. But five years back, right before she adopted Lance from the dog pound, she had an experience which clarified everything. She'd been taking a vacation in southern Oregon, walking the cliffs and enjoying the cold gray skies, taking three showers each day in the charming inexpensive room she'd found five miles outside a town that no one had ever heard of. Everything was desolate and deserted, until one day she saw someone sitting on a rock at the foot of the cliffs, carefully watching the sea and making sketches in a large black book. At first she had no reaction. But as the days passed and she kept seeing the man sitting one hundred feet below making sketches in his book, she became curious. Finally she descended. She found a rugged pathway winding down the side of the cliff. It wasn't entirely safe, but she took the risk anyway, telling herself to be careful. Measuring every step, she finally got to the bottom, only to find that the man was no longer there.

Day after day, the same thing happened. She saw the man sketching and carefully made her way down the cliff, finding herself alone when she got to the bottom. She saw no other way up the cliff, saw no caves that the man might have been hiding in, and from above had seen no boat that he might have used as a means of escape. She tried to keep her eyes on the man while climbing down the path, but this was impossible, since the way was slippery and difficult. If she'd lifted her eyes at any point, she might have fallen to her death. Whenever she stopped and steadied herself to look down he was still there sketching. But whenever she got to the foot of the cliff he was gone, as if he existed only when seen from above.

She would have given up if something hadn't been wrong with the sea. She couldn't say what it was at first, except that the light on the water looked fake. Then she became convinced that the man was responsible, that he'd been taking the waves and sketching them into his notebook, appropriating the ocean with pencil and page. She knew the thought was insane, and the more she let it circulate the more insane it became. She had to make it stop. But each day the ocean was smaller, two percent smaller, five percent smaller, shrinking and sinking, wrinkling up like shriveled skin or a yellowing page, fading away from the sound it normally made when it crashed on the shore.

She knew there was only one thing to do. Stuffing a knapsack with food and blankets, she found a hiding place behind rocks at the foot of the cliff, waiting for the man to show up with his sketchbook. Day after day, the result was the same: He never came, and the ocean stopped getting smaller. Even the missing waves came back to crash on the rocks and return to the sea. She never saw the man again. She went back to her daily walks on the cliff and felt proud of herself. Her showers were even more beautiful than before. She flew back to Vinegar Hill convinced that she'd saved the Pacific Ocean.

She told her girlfriends that men were a thing of the past. When they asked why, she shrugged and said that men were too destructive. The result was a burst of agreement. Her friends agreed that men were too destructive, but they also agreed that this was nothing new, and they also agreed that men were convinced that women were too destructive, which meant that nothing would change, that they couldn't imagine themselves without men, and so they agreed with each other that Flora Thunder would soon be dating again, that she wasn't meant to spend her life by herself. She agreed that she wasn't meant to spend the rest of her life by herself. But she saw no reason to settle for human companionship.

At first, the absence of men was strange. When she'd sworn them off in the past, she'd always imagined herself with women. But now she wasn't imagining much of anything. Instead, she was stepping out of one of the ten most relaxing showers she'd ever taken, drying herself off with one of her many towels, laughing at the very thought of forcing herself again to accept the confusions and frustrations of an intimate human relationship. In fact, she'd even tried to write an essay for Newsweek denouncing the process of couple-formation. But writing always made her insecure, and besides, she'd already saved the Pacific Ocean from the human race. She didn't also need to save the human race from itself.

She was just about to scratch Lance behind his ears and run a brush through her long black hair when the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge out the window made her pause. It often made her pause. But this was different. Something about the light on the river made food seem tempting. Something about the light on the river made food seem disgusting. The two feelings couldn't exist at the same time, so both disappeared. She took a step, another step, and stopped.

Silence moved at the speed of light in every direction. She felt like every sky she'd ever seen. She felt like the Brooklyn Bridge at five in the morning. She felt like she'd spent the last five years of her life with Friends of Silence, an underground society of mental ecologists who spent their free time eliminating media noise, cleverly and politely convincing the owners of bars, restaurants, pharmacies, laundramats, and supermarkets to remove all radios and TVs from their places of business, liberating huge expanses of mental space from commercial interference, an event of even greater importance than the removal of cigarette smoke from public places. Her entire life seemed to be an ongoing series of interventions in the name of silence, and the thought that she could continue this work for the rest of her life was beautiful enough to make her take a step, and another step, leashing her dog and going downstairs to the street, eagerly searching out her next intervention.

She found one quickly. A few blocks away, through the window of a small café, she could see a TV above the bar, the face of President Bush, then a beer commercial. Flora Thunder tied her dog by the leash to a parking meter, went inside and asked to speak to the owner. As it turned out, he was tending bar.

Flora Thunder said: Can you turn the TV off?
The owner smiled: I could, but I don't think I will.
Flora Thunder said: Why not?
The owner's smile disappeared: Why should I turn it off?
Flora Thunder said: It's making noise. It's bullshit.
The owner said: My customers don't think so.
Flora Thunder said: Why don't we ask them?

He said: Strudies have shown that people like eating in places where stupid music plays in the background. I assume that my customers are the same as the people in the studies.

Flora Thunder: Fuck the studies! Why don't we ask them?

Flora Thunder turned and looked at the people drinking coffee at the tables. She said: How many of you would be upset if we turned the TV off?

No one said anything.

Flora Thunder turned back to the owner and said: So turn the TV off.

He shrugged and turned the TV off.

Flora Thunder said: Thanks. Can I use your bathroom?

He pointed to a door by the kitchen. Flora Thunder went to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Leaning over the sink, she moved her face close to the glass and inspected her teeth. They were perfectly straight and white. She'd always been convinced that her teeth were the part of her face that men liked best, but ever since she'd given up on men, she thought of her teeth not as instruments of glamor and seduction, but as things to bite with. When she wasn't focused on showers and towels, she thought about what she could bite, and though she'd never actually bitten anyone, whenever she saw politicians on TV or in the papers, her teeth felt sharper, and her mouth was filled with predatory cravings.

The impulse made her feel foolish and guilty. After all, it wasn't ladylike, and her parents had brought her up to behave in a dignified manner, even around people who didn't deserve it. The nation's current leaders didn't deserve it. But now that she'd replaced the President's televised face with silence, she felt less violent, calm enough to pull her teeth away from the mirror and go back out and have cake and coffee, luxuriating in the media-free atmosphere she'd created. She took a table near the doorway, glancing out the window down the cobbled street to the river. A young man over seven feet tall approached and took her order.

Flora Thunder said: Isn't it much nicer now that we don't have listen to the President's lies and a bunch of advertising jingles?

Lance Boyle looked over his shoulder to make sure his boss wasn't listening, then softly said: Absolutely.

Flora Thunder liked the way Lance Boyle said absolutely. There was something about the look in his eyes that made her think of her dog. She thought she better quickly check to see how her dog was doing, but when she stepped outside she didn't see him. She leaned back in through the doorway and told Lance Boyle: Looks like my dog got away. I better go find him.

Lance Boyle: I wish I could come and help you look. But things are pretty busy here right now.

Flora Thunder smiled and said: Oh that's okay. I'll find him.

She turned and walked away quickly.

Lance Boyle was amazed. He couldn't believe that the TV had been turned off. His boss was the kind of guy who never compromised about anything, even when he was clearly wrong. Yet Flora Thunder had very calmly gotten what she wanted, like someone with a knack for making dogs obey commands, though apparently her own dog wasn't always obedient. He hoped that Flora Thunder's dog was large, a Saint Bernard or Great Dane, because a large dog would be much easier to find than a small dog, which could easily disappear behind garbage cans or between buildings.

A woman came in and sat in Flora Thunder's empty seat. She looked so much like Flora Thunder that at first Lance Boyle thought they were twins. But when he came to her table and gave her a menu, he saw that she didn't look anything like Flora Thunder. The difference between the two impressions created a double exposure. Lance Boyle took a step back, took another step back, and stopped.

Silence moved at the speed of light in every direction, pooling itself on people's plates, becoming the greatest meal they'd ever tasted. They stuffed themselves and would have called for more, but they didn't need to speak to place their orders. The silence pooled itself on their plates automatically, and each new dish was different in delicious ways. The silence also made the lighting softer, made everyone look their best, and Lance Boyle savored himself in the mirror, fell in love with his height, felt relaxed and confident when he the took the woman's order.

Honey Stone was puzzled when she met the waiter's eyes. When she'd seen him in the café before, she could tell he felt strange about his height. But something was different this time, and when she told him what she wanted she could see how pleased he was that she was looking at him. Over the years, Honey Stone had learned to read in people's faces what they thought of themselves, not what they told themselves about themselves, but what their cells felt about sharing a shape with each other, contributing to the same organic system. She'd gotten so perceptive that she'd considered marketing her methods, offering classes in the art of reading people's bodies.

But a few nights before, she'd met a man she couldn't read. She'd drawn such a blank from the message of his body that she'd lost it completely. She knew he was somewhere in his own bathroom, but she couldn't find him, and she'd gotten so confused that she'd actually concluded that she could start living in his apartment, paying almost nothing for a space with a lovely view of New York Harbor. Now that she saw the change in the waiter's body, she knew what to look for in the man she'd lost track of, and she got up and left without waiting for the waiter, dashing down the street, outrunning the sound of her footsteps back to the room she'd begun to call home.

Honey Stone looked out the window into the gathering fog. Her body began to relax as the night came on. The motion of the lights in the harbor pulled her slowly into a trance, releasing all the words in her head from their customary shapes and sounds. She turned and met the face of Harry Knight coming out of the bathroom.

He said: It's getting late.

She said: I think you're right.

They left and walked in silence through the maze of industrial streets, across the Brooklyn Bridge to the lights in the fog of City Hall Park. When they came to a bench, they told themselves to stop. They looked at each other. No footsteps approached or moved away. No garbage was blown by wind across the pavement. There were streetlamps near the benches in the park and lights in the harbor fog. But no one coughed or laughed or lit a cigarette in the distance. No sirens made the night seem filled with tragedy and menace. No cabs or trucks went by, and no one screamed or wept or tripped and fell. But Harry Knight and Honey Stone were surprised when they looked at each other, as if they weren't expecting what they saw. They took a step back from each other, took another step back from each other, and stopped.

They both had a lot to think about. But they weren't thinking. It's true that if you saw them standing there in the fog, looking like they were just about to say or do something else, you'd probably assume that they were thinking, that the silence was filled with unspoken words, possibly important words. But when you reach the stopping point, you don't think. Everything just happens. The noise that's been in your head all your life isn't there. It's like it never was.



Copyright 2007 by Stephen-Paul Martin