France, c. 1980s
The young guard swipes his timecard and heads for the garage. In his backpack, loosely wrapped in newspaper, are four pears snuck from the Trustees’ Dining Room. He swings his legs over his bike, a rusted white ten-speed with creaky brakes. It's a girl’s bike with thin vermilion stripes and it’s too small for him. He pedals fast, trying to keep warm, his knees pistoning up between his elbows. The steam of his breath shoots behind him every time he exhales. Along the park the road's almost empty. In the lit-up lobbies of the big apartment buildings the doormen have all taken off their ties. It's quiet enough for him to hear the squeak of his chain in the gears, drowned out every now and then by the wavelike sound of a passing taxi.
His mind wanders as he rides, and he thinks about the woman he’s just found. He's used to scavenging after the parties for leftover food and drinks but this is the first time he's found a leftover person. He wishes he hadn’t helped her now. It’s the sort of risk someone in his situation shouldn’t be taking. His name isn't really Duane. Duane Hernandez is the name attached to the Social Security number he bought at a pool hall in Queens under the Seven train. He’s from Sydney, and he should have left the country a year ago.
He crosses Fifty-Ninth street and the buildings loom on both sides of him now. Luxury shop fronts, shuttered closed. A few still-awake people. Smokers shivering under a neon bar sign. A bundled woman pushing a shopping trolley full of soda cans. It's midnight, mid-week and midwinter but the city still thrums with electricity. A bus's brakes exhale. Far off a few sirens swirl. Love songs in another language waft towards him, mingled with the warm smells of street cart grills, and again he finds himself thinking of the woman he left behind the tapestry screen. A bit unstable maybe, but not bad looking. There’s something enticing about her. He thinks about her job, organizing sponsorships, advising collectors. No matter how crazy she seemed tonight, she’s someone it’s good for him to know. He sees himself going to her in the future. They meet at a sleek desk in a large white room and she praises his work—I’ve never seen anything like it, she says, the physicality, it’s both figurative and gestural and ecstatic, with hints of violence. He thanks her nonchalantly. She tells him it’ll be easy to sell to her clients, that she’s already made recommendations, that there’s a grant coming up he’d be perfect for.
He passes over the bridge and the wind scrapes his eyes. Above him the sky is dark orange, purple in the distance, nowhere black.
He lives in a basement room in a far part of Brooklyn, downstairs from a Russian day-shift guard and his mother. Once home he stops upstairs and leaves three of the stolen pears on the kitchen table. He does this out of guilt: he's late with the rent. Then he goes down to his room. In the corner across from his bed is a pile of debris: wood, bolts and concrete salvaged from the construction site down the street when it was still a demolition site. Beside this is an offcut block of marble and a set of new chisels—part of the reason he's late with the rent. He takes out his sketchbooks and flips through them. A few pictures torn from newspapers and the religious pamphlets a woman on the street had handed him and he’d taken for old time’s sake. Illegible words, sketches and diagrams scrawled in black pen. He sees in these the start of something new and essential, mysterious shapes that have yet to be born, still unknown and impossible to understand. He’s awake now and focused and reworking sketches onto a larger page of sketchbook, scribbling and scratching out words as he goes. So much depends on him alone in his basement, in the day’s empty early hours, doing his secret, invisible work. When the first hints of grey light wash into his room he stops and gulps down a beer, and as the morning's shadows creep and spread he stretches out on the mattress, turns against the wall, and falls asleep.