ghost town: before and after
greenwich village, december 1994. condensation fogs my glasses like momma’s kettle as i run to the corner store, snow crunching hard candy under my boots. patchwork clothes rise and fall with my heaving chest, a jigsaw puzzle sewn too tight to unravel. bennie’s overalls, erma’s scarf, papa’s tweed. ruddy-faced, i smile at the gray sky, an empress and her new clothes.
mr. lee opens the door before i knock, rubbing tomatoes faster than a shoeshiner on wage day. i am too mesmerized by the lollies to notice how he hides the stained sleeve behind his arm when another customer rings. penny pops glint like jewels; mr. lee catches me drooling and smiles when i sneak a coin from erma’s allowance. the doorbell chirps its two-note song, sending me off to the playground.
jackie is sitting on the seesaw, fiddling with the blue beanie i knitted for her. she counts to ten while i search the pockets of my overalls. (mrs. blume called jackie her star student, after all.) sheepishly, i hold out the gift. she smiles brighter than christmas lights, hugging me and licking the strawberry penny pop like lipstick. we make snow angels, staring at chimney smoke and imagining a world past the chainlink fence. before i leave, jackie presses a box in my hand: a bracelet threaded from rainbows. for you, she says. so you won’t forget this christmas!
i come home, flushed, frostbitten, and flying on top of the world.
greenwich village, december 2014. passerby stop outside storefronts, clutching lattes in one hand and designer bags in the other. the graffiti has been painted over; blank walls subdue the colors writhing like snakes. polished windows and picket fences gleam pretty in the snow. (even the sky is the color of a dewdrop as snowflakes fall. i can hear it weeping.) i hide under the scarf, searching for the musk of home. papa’s spiced leather, momma’s pumpkin pie. storebought cotton stings my nostrils, and i am left gasping for air.
no weeds sprout along the sidewalk anymore. trees grow centered in little squares and i feel dizzy as mr. lee is nowhere to be seen. monogrammed displays sear the backs of my eyelids. where is the awning i spent so many years under? where are the handpainted signs i stacked against the crates? his smile is fading from my memory. (why does it look like a grimace?) “hey!” heart leaping, i turn around. an empty window stares back at me. rubbed away, the letters Lee’s Corner Store.
it is christmas eve and i am stumbling across the city, feet searching for a childhood lost under the asphalt. flyers nailed to brick walls and no chainlink fence to be seen. a woman in sunglasses brushes my shoulder. “oops, sorry.” jackie pauses as i search her eyes. does she remember? she squints. “do i know you?” you used to. snow melts bitter on my tongue and my throat swells too thick to swallow. gingerly, i unbutton the bracelet from my wrist and tie it around hers. “no.” her confusion is palpable in the frosted air.
i whisper to the snowflakes dotting the ground like flowers. they are already melting, already wilting on the pavement. but i used to know you.