Monday, September 292008

Eric walks slowly down State Street, his back bent under the weight of his shoul­der bag and the suit coat he had shoved between his bag and his body. Though the sun set on Chicago hours ago, there was no need to don a jacket this evening, which feels more like sum­mer than fall even this late in September. Street lamps stare down hard at the side­walks, fill­ing the air with their harsh, flu­o­res­cent light. Apart from them, Eric is almost entirely alone. Only a few cars and buses keep him com­pany. (The bums sleep­ing in the side entrances of the busi­ness tow­ers are all but invis­i­ble to him.)

Plodding—one foot, then the other, and again—Eric pauses when he rec­og­nizes the shiny exte­rior of one of the local news sta­tions. Raising his head, he catches the tail end of the update on the ticker that runs out­side the build­ing. In blaz­ing orange let­ters, he reads, “LARGEST DROP IN NYSE HISTORY.” Eric blinks once, twice, and sighs. This is not news to him. Then he glances at the next item: “BOMBS EXPLO—.” That’s not his story. He puts his head down, and starts trudg­ing anew.

* * *

Empty. That’s what his head is: utterly empty. To think about any­thing now would be too much. It’s all he can do to keep focus long enough to under­stand what words say on the news­pa­pers and lit­ter that cross his path. More than any­thing, he must keep walk­ing. If he comes to an inter­sec­tion with a don’t-walk sig­nal, he ignores it or turns. He knows he must stop sometime.

To stop, though, would feel like death. It would give his mind a chance to move beyond the day’s events. In Washington, hun­dreds of rep­re­sen­ta­tives had thumbed their noses at their bet­ters, refus­ing to fix the tur­moil in the finan­cial sec­tor and among traders. In New York, traders—frightened by Washington—pulled their clients’ money out of the stock mar­ket with the firm con­vic­tion that it would not be there to pull out tomor­row. In Chicago, Merc traders did their best to save their dreams.

All of them except Eric, that is, for he had no more dreams to save. With the day’s col­lapse, he lost noth­ing; every­thing con­crete he’d lost weeks ear­lier. But today, strug­gling to break back into the black but only falling fur­ther into the read, he real­ized he couldn’t make it.  With that real­iza­tion, he had noticed his pulse quick­en­ing, sweat bead­ing on his brow, and his stom­ach twist­ing and shrink and then to leap­ing into his throat. He gained a com­pletely novel under­stand­ing: he can fear. Before, he hadn’t had the time to be afraid. Earlier today, though, his tomor­rows gaped open wide before him as rav­en­ous, gnash­ing beasts that would con­sume him, each in turn. These hereto­fore unknown creatures—tomorrows that threat­ened rather than beckoned—shocked Eric.

* * *

Suddenly, Eric sees that he has stepped onto a bridge. He stops and turns to look at the river below. A breeze blows gen­tly, whis­per­ing in his ears. He closes his eyes and lifts his head to catch the gen­tle caresses more fully against his cheek. He opens his eyes, look­ing up toward the sky­line. ‘Pretty,’ he thinks, ‘and pretty damn impres­sive.’ As a boy, this had always been his favorite spot, look­ing up at all the mono­liths around him. For the first time in a decade, he notices the build­ings and remem­bers his love for them as mar­vels of man’s genius. Hell, even Donald Trump’s mon­strous tower—one-third of its 90-​​plus floors built—looks kind of pretty tonight.

He feels a buzzing in his pocket. He reaches into it and lifts out his phone, but not before the buzzing ends. “13 Missed Calls,” the screen tells him. He opens the phone, and scrolls through the list: 6 from his mother, 3 from work, and the rest from friends and that chick he met in Toronto last month. He goes back up to the most recently missed call, squeezes his eyes and holds his breath for a moment, and then presses “Send.”

Hiya,” he says, when he hears a voice on the other end. A ques­tion comes through. “I know, I know, I’m sorry. It’s been—a day.” Another ques­tion. “I dunno, Mom. I don’t even want to think about tomor­row.” Yet more ques­tions, insis­tent. “Well I gotta—.” Eric pauses, fum­bling for words.

Sucking the air in deeply, he regains his com­po­sure. “Yeah, you know what? Yeah, I’ll be there.” Questions again, but less insis­tent. “Whatever you had for din­ner is fine, Mom. I’ll just stick it in the microwave.”

Oh, and Mom. I’m sorry I missed Sunday din­ner last night. I just—.” Now, he’s inter­rupted by a com­mand, and then the voice on the other end goes away. Eric brings his hand down from his ear, looks at the phone, and smiles. “Okay, Mom. I love you too.”