B. H. Fairchild is the author of Usher (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
On the Waterfront
—know thyself Flashlight in hand, I stand just inside the door in my starched white shirt, red jacket nailed shut by six gold buttons, and a plastic black bowtie, a sort of smaller movie screen reflecting back the larger one. Is that really you? says Mrs. Pierce, my Latin teacher, as I lead her to her seat between the Neiderlands, our neighbors, and Mickey Breen, who owns the liquor store. Walking back, I see their faces bright and childlike in the mirrored glare of a tragic winter New York sky. I know them all, these small-town worried faces, these natives of the known, the real, a highway and brown fields, and New York is a foreign land—the waterfront, unions, priests, the tugboat's moan—exotic as Siam or Casablanca. I have seen this movie seven times, memorized the lines: Edie, raised by nuns, pleading—praying, really— Isn't everyone a part of everybody else? and Terry, angry, stunned with guilt, Quit worrying about the truth. Worry about yourself, while I, in this one-movie Kansas town where everyone is a part of everybody else, am waiting darkly for a self to worry over, a name, a place, New York, on 52nd Street between the Five Spot and Jimmy Ryan's where bebop and blue neon lights would fill my room and I would wear a porkpie hat and play tenor saxophone like Lester Young, but now, however, I am lost, and Edie, too, and Charlie, Father Barry, Pop, even Terry because he worried more about the truth than he did about himself, and I scan the little mounds of bodies now lost even to themselves as the movie rushes to its end, car lights winging down an alley, quick shadows fluttering across this East River of familiar faces like storm clouds cluttering a wheat field or geese in autumn plowing through the sun, that honking, that moan of a boat in fog. I walk outside to cop a smoke, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody instead of who I am, and look across the street at the Army-Navy store where we would try on gas masks, and Elmer Fox would let us hold the Purple Hearts, but it's over now, and they are leaving, Goodnight, Mr. Neiderland, Goodnight, Mrs. Neiderland, Goodnight, Mick, Goodnight, Mrs. Pierce, as she, a woman who has lived alone for forty years and for two of those has suffered through my botched translations from the Latin tongue, smiles, Nosce te ipsum, and I have no idea what she means.
"On the Waterfront", from Usher by B. H. Fairchild. Copyright © 2009 by B. H. Fairchild. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.