All rights reserved.
The soft chalk in the fingers of the young man drawing portraits near the Plaza sifts onto the knees of his jeans; he’s leaning toward another young man, they’re soldier age, but instead of killing or dying at the moment they’re sitting across from each other at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue on a late Saturday morning in December, and one is drawing the other’s face: one piece of soft chalk for the dark closecropped hair, one slightly different for the angled brows, one for his eyes, one for his lips, one for the color of his skin.
The subject keeps his eyes and lips like a soldier’s, and a young woman standing behind The Faces Man is making faces but in a different way, grimacing and laughing and sticking out her tongue, trying to get her soldier who is not a soldier to lose his composure, one of her favorite things — one of his favorites too, but he pretends it’s not, the life she makes in him complexifying his stare so The Faces Man has a hard time knowing what to do with it, and the mouth, corners reined but up, with that tamped joy, or straight across?, the mouth with which the drawn man is saying as if made to by a ventriloquist, or is he the ventriloquist, to the woman he loves, “I’m going to kill you.”
They’re visitors, you can tell by the fact that they’re paying The Faces Man, by the way they walk on the crowded sidewalk as if they’re the only ones on it; they’re from Beauville, from Belle Reve, from Sacramento, and they can’t get across 59th Street to do their Christmas shopping — he with his hands in his pockets, she with his portrait under her arm — because a lot of people with signs behind blue police barricades are standing in the middle of the street not saying anything. The visitors stand in their place at the edge and the people with signs in their place in the center, and then it’s noon and the sign people start walking, down the middle of Fifth Avenue, and they start to count, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
The sign people in front of the visitors are teachers, their signs say this; they’re from here, they walk together with the irritation and attunement of a flock in flight, 6, 7, 8, “Why are they counting?” the young woman asks the young man; from the street they can hear the angry numbers and from the sidewalk behind them, as they pass the portraits of Leonardo DiCaprio and of Lakshmi with lotuses, one arm around the neck of a cow with enough milk to feed the whole world, someone cutting carrots on his knees, singing the praises of a vegetable peeler from Switzerland, “Stainless steel! It will never rust!”, and the price, and The Faces Man calling out his prices, 9, 10, and on some of the signs a face, like and unlike the one under her arm, a young man’s face.
The teachers are from neighborhoods called Manqué and Por Qué and Sabiduría; they look tired, women old enough to be the mothers of the visitors and of the young man whose face they’re holding, 11, 12, 13, 14, passing the ages of the children they teach, and under one of the portraits are more numbers, two dates, one that corresponds roughly to the year the visitors were born, and one exactly to the year just coming to an end, so the visitors know the young man they’re marching for is dead. He’s dressed in a suit, the crisp white shirt and the knot of his tie, he could be going to a club or to church; 15, 16, 17, 18, he’s old enough to be somebody’s father now, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and the numbers keep on so the visitors know they’re not counting out his age. They’re up to 34 and they’re not finished yet. The blue barricades are edged by police officers of various genders dressed in various costumes, keeping their eyes and their lips fixed like the visitor tried to; and as the visitors drift around the edge of the corner parallel to the teachers, one woman dressed for church turns her face to one of the flanking officers on the other side of the barricade and unfixes her lips, 40, 41, 42, to spit on the ground in front of him.
He looks startled and stricken, darting his eyes sideways to see which of his colleagues has seen; while his face registers the woman, who could be his mother, his hand trained to register enemies moves to his gun. Yes, yes, the teachers nod, watching the gesture. That’s how they do, and yes for the woman who spit not on the policeman, who’s protecting them at the moment from the traffic and the visitors’ hostility, but on the divided strip of the city between them.
43 and they swing out of the shadow of 59th Street into the sun, 44 and onto the avenue of decorated plate glass and parcels and visitors and not-visitors walking as if they were, 45 and they pass the bronze man kneeling with the world on his shoulders, and as she’s scanning for a crosswalk the young woman visiting sees one sign with holes instead of a face, a target, like at a firing range, did they use chalk to make the black around the edges, black dust, concentric circles of holes, each with a number, 46, 47, there are fifty, and a sign with the young man’s portrait beside.
She doesn’t see any sign with the holes and the young man’s face superimposed, or pressed to the pavement at four in the morning by the shoes and spent shells of the police officers paid to protect him; and she doesn’t see the woman her age the young man will not marry now, walking far at the front, nor the young man’s mother nor her fixed face’s fury, dressed for the sacrament; but she sees the set of the policeman’s jaw in her lover’s jaw and brushes her fingers there to protect him, the jaw for which The Faces Man would have to use one chalk like chestnut for the policeman and one like the inside of an acorn for the young man from Belle Reve — and one like cinnamon for the teacher, and one called Sabiduría for the young man not walking at the front with the women, the dust of it all over the winter streets, a speck of it at the edge of the eye of the visitor with the portrait under her arm, and she brushes it away.
Suzanne Gardinier is most recently the author of Today: 101 Ghazals and Dialogue with the Archipelago both via Sheep Meadow Press. Her fiction has appeared in The American Voice, The Kenyon Review, and The Paris Review. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan.
This story is included in issue #42: The Artist in Wartime. Copyright © 2009 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
Purchase The Artist in Wartime from Amazon.com