There is a girl in Brooklyn with two toes conjoined. Well, four, to be precise – two on each foot. Her respective pointer toes are attached to her respective middle toes by a ribbon of flesh that runs two-thirds of the way up. Tom learned about this physical quirk of hers one spring afternoon in a city park when she had asked him to please not look at her feet. He looked at them anyway and she shuddered in the fresh air, but he smiled when he saw her Siamese toes, touched them and said they were special. Tom loves this girl in Brooklyn with special toes, but as he reminds himself often, that doesn’t matter very much.
The trouble with Tom was never that he wasn’t special. The trouble was that he knew he was, and in Tom’s mind, specialness as a state of being was enough to deserve happiness, love, and a future of greatness. His Brooklyn girl ignored his present, and let herself fall in love with the future he’d imagined for himself. But masks fade, charades lose their charm, and the truth of Tom— that he was alive, but more content to live in the world he’d built in his mind than in the one he shared with her—refused to stay hidden.
She left him on a park bench. She cried when she broke the news, and his face twisted, at a loss for words or reasoning, and he walked home alone.
So the love that consumed Tom ended with as much fanfare as a cool breeze, and Tom did what he did best. He sat alone with his special self in the small, windowless room he kept in a dusty Brooklyn loft. The separation caused tremendous activity in Tom’s brain, but there was no physical reaction. In fact, he ceased to do anything at all. Emails from his editors at the websites for which he wrote went unanswered until they eventually stopped, and letters from a grandmother he had once been close with went unopened.
Issues of the New Yorker lay scattered around the room—dozens of them—like used condom wrappers, the evidence of so many intellectual lays, waiting to intimidate all the company he never had over. He ticked off his favorite articles in the table of contents, reportage from people with names like Remnick, Davidson, Nussbaum, and Cassidy, but he never read the fiction. First time I’ll read a short story in the New Yorker, he liked to tell himself, is when it’s got my name on it.
He kept this up—reading for himself, writing for no one— as long as he could, but money went quick for Tom in a town where cigarettes cost $10, and soon he had neither food nor shelter, so he boarded a bus for home.
His fastidious but loving mother had assured him he could have his old bedroom back, so long as he paid ‘rent in equivalent to 10% of monthly wages.’ His head rumbled along with the bus window as rain fell. He watched the droplets glide down the pane. They all began their journey slowly, but would soon join with other streaking drops, merging their little flows together before racing off into oblivion. Tom thought how cliché, a lonely boy broken by the big city, leaving in the rain. The thought then occurred to him that it was all rather cinematic, and that it did fit nicely that someone like him would be subject to such an important experience as to have been immortalized in narrative so many times. He closed his eyes and remembered all the teachers who wrote home to his mother about his tremendous potential, and every acquaintance that had the vision to remind him he would do great things. There, on the bus, he resolved to never let himself forget that he had the whole world coming to him, so long as he kept himself alive.
When he arrived at his destination, a rust-belt city struggling to rebrand itself in the name of youth, his mother wasn’t waiting for him, but he did find a stranger in a rust-colored cap, a man with a sign that read, Free Ride. When Tom asked if his rides were really free, the man replied, “Mine’s not. But yours sure is!” Tom gave the man the address of his childhood home, one of the few things he had still committed to memory in an age where the rest of his identity, all the signatures of his existence, were tucked away in a digital cloud, and put his bags in the trunk.
“’92 Toyota,” said the man in rust-colored cap as the engine turned over. “Don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
“Don’t they?” Tom asked.
“Nothing lasts anymore, Tom, you should know that.” It struck Tom that he didn’t recall giving the man his name. “It’s all about the one burst these days, one great big spark that makes everyone go ‘Wooo!’ for a moment, but they’re hungry for the next one before the sky’s got a chance to go dark. You hear me?”
“Sure,” Tom said. “I think you’re right.”
“See, see, you get it. I could tell that about you, Tom. You’ve got a certain, uh, gravitas about you—you know that word?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Gravitas,” the man continued, “It means weight, you know, like there’s something profound about you.”
“But we’re not wet behind the ears, are we, Tom? We both know that don’t count for much.”
Tom turned his attention to the windshield, where the droplets lasted only a split second, obliterated into mist by the wipers, tired of the man’s rambling.
The man twitched towards the radio that wasn’t playing, and cranked up a knob to no effect. He began to sing:
That city boy’s no city man!
Ask him just where he stand,
And he says, Yes I can.
“Do you like this song?” Tom asked with a smile, feeling superior over this evidently insane man.
“Don’t you?” the man yelled over the silent stereo. “It really speaks to you, right?”
“Right!” Tom called out, stifling a laugh.
The man kept on singing:
He thinks they’ll make of him a statue,
If he acts like one long enough –
But action merits an oxidized hue,
Not stalling when the going’s rough.
“So,” the man in the cap cranked down the knob on the radio, to no effect. “You write?”
“Constantly,” Tom said.
“Oh, man!” He removed his cap, revealing a conspicuously smooth, bald scalp. He ran a hand across it nonetheless, as if he had been hiding some lustrous, phantom mane. “I love to read.”
“That’s great,” said Tom. “Not enough people read these days.” Tom worried that his last statement may have come off as patronizing, but reminded himself that this man was an idiot.
“So come on, buddy—tell me what you’ve written! Maybe I’ve read some of your stuff.”
“No, no,” Tom said. “I haven’t published anything big yet.” There was a good chance that the man had read some of Tom’s stuff, but, Top 10 Places in NYC to Take a Selfie and Why Every Man Secretly (or not so secretly) Wishes He Were Dating Beyoncé, were not, in Tom’s estimation, fair barometers of his immense talent. So he left them unmentioned.
“Well, why not?” asked the man before twitching towards the radio again, cranking up the knob again, to no effect. “It’s the chorus!”
Ask him where He’s going—
He’ll tell ya, I can!
Ask him if He’s sleep or wake—
He’ll tell ya, I can!
Ask him if He’s bold or shy,
Weak or wise,
Gold or trash,
Or if he ever gets off his ass—
And he’ll tell ya, I can!
“Woo!” the man called out before cranking the useless knob back down. “So why haven’t I read your stuff?”
“Ah, well, it’s all very political,” Tom uttered his favorite lie.
“Your writing is political?”
“No, no,” Tom smiled the way one smiles at a child playing house. “The publishing world—it’s all about who you know—it’s not about the writing.”
“My goodness,” the man drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he made a turn onto Tom’s street. “Ain’t that a tragedy?”
“I suppose it is.”
“So you’re telling me that you would be some famous writer, but you just don’t know the right people?”
“People aren’t generous, I guess,” Tom said, “with the keys to the kingdom. New York is a tough city.” He iced the cake of his willful self-delusion.
“That’s what they tell me,” said the man in the rust-colored cap as he parked outside Tom’s modest childhood home. “Well, I’m sorry, kid.”
The man patted himself down, and even lifted his cap in a mock search. “Ain’t got no keys!” He laughed and held his palms out, to prove he wasn’t a liar.
“Well, thanks.” Tom said from the sidewalk.
“Are you kidding me?” The man laughed and cranked up the radio. “I could drive all day when my favorite tunes are playing!”
“For your trouble,” said Tom, and handed the man a five-dollar bill. It was the very last of his money, but he was home now, and his mom smoked menthols, too.
“’Twasn’t a troubley a’tall, sire.” The man boomed with laughter at his own joke, took off his rust-colored cap and bowed his bald head, as if there were a map tattooed on it that Tom would need to follow.
Through the door and into the kitchen, Tom hugged his mother and inhaled the meal she had microwaved him. He licked the plastic tray and was placing it in the garbage when she reminded him that it was reusable.
Later, in his bedroom, he smoked a cigarette at his old desk and took in his old bookshelf, filled with all his favorite books—the names of all his favorite writers calling to him from the spines, asking him in earnest when he would be joining them. Soon enough, he thought to himself. He kicked his feet up and relished the waiting, waiting for the New York publishing world to come find him, waiting for the interviewers to call him, for the department heads, the commencement speaker search committees, and young writers the world over to seek him out, asking for his services. He smoked and waited for his love in Brooklyn to come find him, leaving eight-toed footprints in the sands of time, looking for the one that got away.
Ask him if he’s bold or shy, he heard from some place far away. Weak or wise, it was a familiar tune, but he couldn’t place it, and it wasn’t his mother’s voice singing. Gold or trash, recognizing the song, he shot up from his chair, the ember of his cigarette suffocated pathetically on an ancient floorboard. Or if he ever gets off his— Tom twitched towards his boyhood stereo and wrenched down the knob to no effect.