This was a switch: me waiting for Mary.
In two years knowing her, she mostly waited on me, bitching at me for my inability to deal with time.
Grinding my heals on downtown Newark pavement, I got an inkling of why was upset.
I was also out of cigarettes – one of my many habits Mary hated, but I used as therapy.
I am a man of addiction; other people’s poisons serving me as medicine.
But did I dare wander off to buy some smokes and risk Mary arriving while I was gone?
Newark was bad luck for me. Each visit left me with some painful experience, fighting off muggers or over zealous police the way I might flies in the nearby swamps.
I had parked blocks away from Mary’s office to avoid a ticket, but on a street well-lighted enough to discourage muggers.
Newark like many other nearby cities faced urban renewal, yet still clung to many of the slanted streets that defined its character. Most office workers fled at five to avoid being caught here after night fall, leaving it a place of echoing canyons.
Yet it different little from the box of an apartment I lived in up river in Passaic, where the scent of coal bins climbed through the cracks of floor along with the mice.
Yet ill luck or not, I loved such slanted streets, and searched them out with each visit, despite the risk.
Newark also struggled harder to keep its old identity, although each time I came I discovered pieces missing, the great old city vanishing to a cancer of sterile glass, with this generation’s construction cutting deep into the body of a once great place.
Before I realized, I began walking – drawn by something other than the need for a fix of nicotine.
Perhaps I needed to find the core of things hidden under the layers of signs, like an archeological dig finding signs of previous civilizations such as Two Guys or Mario’s Pizza where dollar stores and Prudential now stood.
I wasn’t afraid of betting mugged. Yet as I walked the world around me sagged into an elder space I could not have seen by driving.
Mary, of course, loved the modernization, believing that the emerging Newark with its quaint cafes was an improvement over the hock shops and cheesy hotels. I wasn’t so sure, always feeling each new thing took us farther from our roots.
I liked roots.
That’s when I saw the shop, titled more than most of the buildings, and stashed between two glass towers as if a scene out of Batteries Not Included. The suit and tie crowd passed by its windows as if a vacant lot, missing the eloquence of the carved woodwork.
The place spoke of a time when people had another vision of beauty no longer possible in our time.
I tried to read the faded lettering over the door. But the arch distorted the letters into an alien script. Only the large, cursive `S' remained, worn gold against bleached red. Through the dirty glass, I could only make out the vague impression of shelves heavy with bundles.
I pushed on the door and, at first, it resisted. The years of swelling made it seem locked, but it creaked open with a short burp just as I was about to give up.
"Hello?" I said, on the brink, a tiny bell ringing as I pushed, its sweet melody filling the quiet space beyond with a sense of peace, an air of religiousness that would have irritated Mary.
My voice seemed distant, unable to dent the thick quiet that rested on this place like years.
Inside, the air smelled dry and musty, not one bit New Jersey. At least not the New Jersey I knew or perhaps even one known by my father and his father before him. It had the smell of bicycle oil and memories of youth, of dried up swamp punks, and painted tiger lilies and – something like perfume.
Very little light came through the window, though sunset had settled heavily upon the distant Orange Mountains. That light gave the room the faded look of spoiled colored movies. The items on the shelves became clearer, wheel-less bicycles, old lead soldiers, rocking chairs, Victorian lamps, and clothing from ages past. Each item begged for my attention, each a talent lost over the generations. I touched the engraved wood, stitched garments, polished metal and brass.
A second source of light dangled from a wire deeper in the shop, pale with little ability at illumination. I felt blind, and some dull pain began deep inside of me, circling, pushing out.
I saw the wrinkled face first, and then the bald head, shimmering like an urn, his long feet shuffling out from behind a tattered curtain, snorting animal sounds, one hand dangling before him holding a pencil and a pad, the other, dwarfed, clutching something under his chin.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"No," I said. "Well, actually, I was looking for a pack of cigarettes."
"We don't sell cigarettes here," he said, then moved back the way he'd come.
But I had already retreated, stumbling over the strange merchandise as I made my way to the door. I did not understand why everything looked so familiar, a bicycle similar to one I had had as a child, along with a sled, a pare of skates, a bee bee gun.
Outside the world did its best to stomp these things out of memory, as if erasing the mistakes of the past, thinking in terms of newer and better and stronger-- as its jackhammers pounded the past to dust.
The first drops of rain came, hissing off the pavement like acid. I slowly wandered up the block and across the near vacant street to Prudential, to the impatient, foot-tapping Mary.
I waved, hurried to her and took her arm. "Let's go home."
I did not look back.