“Look, she isn’t in trouble. I have a check for her. I’m looking for her to give her money. I said Yellow. Mrs. Glenora Yellow, does she live around here?” The young man’s voice trembled as if he might cry as he waved the check, tan and wrinkled, under the peddler’s nose. But nothing. The older man shut his brown face, crowded with cracks, and nodded his head again. He kept nodding as if he was saying yes, but his mouth said no. So Fishman thanked the little old fellow for his time and stepped again out into the cold.
Once outside, Fishman let his eyes adjust to the day. He had been through this drill. Inside was some bent, brown figure --- over a loom, mending some filthy clothes, scouring a pot, sorting rags, fitting together pieces of a broken machine --- and he would ask for a name and insist that he was from the Relief Bureau, showing his ID and his roll of checks. But in these neighborhoods, even the fact that he was a man handing out money carried little weight. People suspected that anyone who came here had another motive. So Fishman was in a bind. No one would trust his word, and his world was all he had. Everywhere he went, people called him Mister and Sir and were polite, but they lied from force of habit, from fear, and from the naked compulsion that lying would save themselves. And Fishman was pounded between the bare rock of his conscience and the wall of their fear: a man assigned to help people who mistrusted everything, especially the urge of the government to help.
Harold Fishman wiped the snow from the lapels of his coat. He took a seat near the rear of the store and ordered a coffee and roll. A young girl, no more then fourteen, with dark yellow hair and a brown dress, served him without a smile. Fishman insisted on being polite. He thanked her for the coffee. Then he told her the roll was fresh and delicious, trying to coax a smile from her pretty little face. She reminded him, in a way, of Carol. Something in the light step and the way the neck supported the head --- a gestural similarity that defied neat categories. But the girl would have none of it. She curled up tight behind the veil of her eyes; she only offered Fishman bland service. There was nothing human or very much alive here. And for Fishman, Carol has been the epitome of human and alive, the very template of nature’s urge to reach out and give form and substance to warmth.
THREE MONTHS AGO
Fishman first saw Carol Green under the grand, fading dome of the capitol building. She was supervising a crew moving heavy, long-broken equipment out the side door. Fishman, smoking a cigarette, was in the way. She was neatly dressed for the occasion with a tan skirt and yellow blouse, pearls at the base of her stately neck, and her hair carefully piled on her round head. When Fishman was almost run over by a cart, she asked him to kindly step aside. Fishman did, and watched the progress of her movement down the steps. He studied the way her body slid through space. He watched the outline of her form as it maneuvered the towering moraine of trash and waste to the vacant lot next door.
From that moment, during the first day he contemplated those steps, he sought out Carol. He stood around the old capitol, waiting for his job request to go through, smoking cigarettes and trying to anticipate where she would turn up next. One day, when he was taking a break and having a coffee, she was suddenly in front of him, her arms on her hips, her head cocked to the side. The line of her neck was long and smooth.
“What’s the idea?” she said, her tone more cool than hot, but Fishman could tell she was perturbed. “Why are you following me around? Are you some kind of pervert?”
Fishman tried to explain. The words came out heavy and plodding. He tried to express ideas that he imagined belonged to the world of philosophy or religion. He talked about form and beauty; he made a rough outline of a theory of love, of the yearning of opposites, of the loneliness of the man and the woman seeking their other, severed halves. To these shopworn ideas he attempted to add a bit of clumsy elegance. He was very desperate for her touch. She realized this, frowned, thought closely about the matter, about Fishman before her, and finally wrote her address on a piece of paper --- a place out beyond the old city that was not particularly safe --- and told him to come by that night at eight.
He climbed the dark stairs to her flat. The hallway was festooned with peeling paint --- the result of last summer’s flood. He knocked on 1C and she opened the door. She wore the same clothes she had worn to work, but she had since unbuttoned the top of her blouse. She held a drink lazily in her hand and beckoned Fishman. The apartment was dark and the furniture colorless. From a small light in the bedroom he could see a faded color photograph of Carol Green as a girl, as slim as a sappling, held by what he imagined was her father near the old war memorial.
“Did you mean what you said?” she asked him as he gazed up from the photograph.
“What I said?” he asked, fingering his hat in his hands.
“Yes, today, in the commissary. About love. Don’t screw with me. I’ve been hurt by a guy recently. I need to know that you’re on the up and up.”
“I’m in love with you,” Fishman proclaimed.
She was warm, open, fragrant. She was just what Fishman desired. After his string of bad luck, after the earthquake in California and losing his job in Chicago, to be in the arms of this dark little woman was more than adequate recompense. She was studious in her lovemaking: serious and pointed in her actions and manners. If she did something to Fishman, she expected it to be done to her. She accomplished this without words, but with the simple choreography of her body next to his. Fishman obeyed. He realized this was an anchoring moment in life. He had been blowing around the nation like a piece of tumble weed from one bad piece of luck to another, and every loss had come at a terrible price. And here was a brilliant gift, freely given. He grasped onto this woman like a piece of timber from a capsized boat, and when he reached his climax, he felt as if he had arrived at some deep place of quiet and reserve, far in her body, away from the cold, hunger, loneliness and shame of his existence.
Fishman rolled his hands down Carol’s warm, sleeping body. Where did this come from, the consolation a man found in the body of a woman? How could he capture this tactile sensation, abstract it, make it real in a permanent sense, not all bound up in the flesh and blood incarnation of one woman? But what else was there? Take away the curve of this hip, the length of this skin, its scalding warmth, and what did you have? Nothing. Just another stretch of cold dirty sheet. Just another man alone and injured. Carol opened her eyes and smiled at him and the heaviness of his hand upon her hip.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked serenely.
The next morning she had to leave for work. Fishman, still waiting for an assignment from the Bureau, had nothing to do but wait. But he went to the old capitol building anyway to see Carol. He wished to make real what had happened here in her bed by watching her walk down the hallway with her cool, authoritarian stride.
When he reached the rotunda with its faded murals and chipped marble tiles, he was surprised that his assignment had come up: he was to distribute relief checks to the housebound on the east side. The head of the department gave Fishman what he imagined was the standard disclaimer: some of the people on these rolls are dead, some are alive. We have no way of knowing. People die and next of kin don’t register the death. Sometimes there is an accident and people get declared dead when they are alive. Often, there is a mistake in records and people are just declared dead without any reason. So don’t expect much success. Fishman nodded and imagined a gray world where the dead live and the alive are dead.
Then there was a commotion at the front desk. Many people were crowded around the entrance. A woman was weeping. Fishman broke through the crowd. The supervisor, Fineberg, was wiping his glasses with a rag. He too was crying.
“What happened?” Fishman asked a man beside him.
“Carol Green was murdered.”
“What?” Fishman took a step back. His knees weak. “When? How?”
“On her way here, to work. Some scumbag kids, who else? A wonderful lady like that, and they butcher her like a hog. But not before…”
Fishman did not hear the rest. He felt himself falling backward through the dark tunnel of the crowd. He found himself outside vomiting near a pile of old plastic furniture.
“Mrs. Yellow?” he asked the old lady. “Do you know someone named Mrs. Yellow? She is probably sick and can’t get out.”
“A lot of people are sick, young man,” the old lady told Fishman. “And what kinda name is Yellow anyway? Sounds made up. She could be dead, you know. People die and it doesn’t get recorded. Others are said dead and they are alive as you and me. Did you try the grocer?”
“Yes, he doesn’t know her.” Fishman answered, “I told you, ma’am, I’m here to give her a relief check. She has it coming. The government is giving these out to people who can’t work and can’t apply in person. Things are getting organized.”
The old lady waved her hand, as if Fishman had brought along a swarm of dense flies.
“Organized,” she repeated. “Things look organized around here, young man? Sorry, don’t know a Glenora Yellow. Never heard of her.”
So Fishman pocketed the check and pulled out another, deciding to try a different person by the name of Gray, Arthur Gray. According to the soggy sheet of paper in his hand, he lived just around the corner, in a row of tenements toward the river. So Fishman buttoned up his coat and steered into the wind and snow.
Then he stopped in his tracks, thinking he saw Carol. Down by the frozen river, women were drawing water from a hole in the ice. One to the far left looked like Carol: the same erect carriage and burnt black hair. He walked toward them, despite the frosty wind skipping over the river, biting his nose and eyes. He stepped up to the short dark woman who was not Carol at all, but another type entirely. He thought he might as well try her out.
“I’m with the Relief Bureau. I have a check for Glenora Yellow. She’s probably disabled. Can’t get around, you know? Only she can sign for the check. She probably needs the money. Do you know where she lives?”
“Glenora Yellow?” the false Carol asked, and Fishman nodded. The woman was going through the paces, pretending to roll the name over in her mind, looking for the appropriate moment when she could give Fishman a believable no. “Never heard of her. Have you asked the grocer?”
“Yes,” Fishman answered, suddenly dizzy. The image of Carol flashed before him and then faded, like an explosion from an old fashioned camera. He vowed not to think too hard of things that had passed from the world. “Thanks anyway.”
Fishman found Arthur Gray. He was in a flat with three old people. Gray was lame. He had a bad leg, and as he hobbled around the apartment, searching for his ID card, or some form of identification, Fishman felt sorry that he had to send the man on this hunt. Fishman ticked off appropriate forms of ID.
“Military Discharge. Work Registration. Old National ID registration card. Flood Relief Certificate…”
“Hold on, young man, “ Mr. Gray hobbled toward a chest of drawers. “I got it here. I know where everything is.” And Mr. Gray, true to his word, laid a bouquet of identification on a card table. There was more than enough to prove he was Arthur Gray, but the man, after so much effort, insisted that Fishman go through each piece of paper and acknowledge its primacy.
“Of course, of course Mr. Gray, can you sign here?” Fishman held out a receipt. The old man did not sign.
“But don’t you want to check my signature against the old National ID? How do you know I am the right Arthur Gray? People take all sorts of crazy names these days. I met an Arthur Gray on line for bread the other day, and he looked just like me!”
“You are the right Arthur Gray, can you sign here, sir?” Fishman held out the paper, and the old man nodded his shaggy head sadly as he signed. Fishman was about to leave when he thought he might as well try the old man.
“Do you know a Mrs. Yellow, Mr. Gray? Glenora Yellow?” Fishman took out the check and held it limply in front of the man’s fading eyes. “I have money for her too, but I can’t seem to find her.”
“Glenora Yellow?” the man answered, surprised. “Is that the real name? Yellow, Gray, you people downtown are getting taken by a lot of crooks.”
So Fishman emerged from the building. The sun had set behind the row of buildings and in the distance he heard the howl of the last train downtown. He realized that he would have to walk home.
THREE MONTHS AGO
“I was thinking how I’d like to make this moment last. How I’d like to find all the things I’ve lost. How I’d like to take you and make you a bit of forever. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things. Too many things. I didn’t sleep at all.”
“You think too much, Harry.” Carol got up and stretched. Fishman’s hand fell away from her and she turned and kissed him warmly on the mouth. He touched her breast with the tip of his fingertip.
“Why all the morbid talk? I know times are tough, but what makes you think I am going somewhere?” she asked when they parted. “I’ll see you at work. I’ll be the woman throwing out dead computers. You’ll be the guy following me around.”
Fishman tried to walk home, but the snow started to fall in heavy curtains, and his cracked leather shoes, already wet, froze. He gazed about the empty street. A few windows were dimly lit. There was a tavern at the corner, so he strode down the street and peered inside. The stools were up on the counter. A layer of dust covered the tables. He pounded on the door, hoping that someone was there. Far above him, in the tottering building, a window was opened and slammed.
Fishman realized that someone above had looked at him quickly, only to retreat.
He stepped into the hall of the building. There was the strong odor of urine and stacks of old newspaper recently used as bedding. He squinted at the faded post office boxes. Apartment 5G read “G. Yellow.”
The hallway was dark. Fishman groped around to read the numbers on the doors, but most were gone. He trailed back to the head of the stairs to count off to 5G. It was the apartment nearest the street. He looked out the window. He saw the view of the tavern just below, a piece of cracked sidewalk and some old strewn wood where he had just stood, looking up. Fishman knocked on the door. There was movement inside but then it stopped. Fishman knocked again.
“Hello, Mrs. Yellow? This is Harold Fishman from the Relief Bureau. I have a check for you. From the dole. We’re bringing them around to people who can’t get about. I can hear you in there, Mrs. Yellow. Don’t be afraid. I have relief checks. I can show you them. I have a stack of them. You just have to sign and you can have your check.”
The door suddenly opened. A boy no more than fifteen was standing there, smiling dully, his arms held out as if to hug Fishman.
“Why are you holding your arms out?” Fishman asked him.
“To catch you, you stupid bastard,” the boy answered, and Fishman was hit from behind and fell toward the boy, who let him fall to the ground anyway.
THREE MONTHS AGO
“I went with a guy who thought too much,” Carol said as she dressed. Fishman, unable to rise, stayed in the bed. “You know how much good it did him?”
“How much good?” Fishman asked obligingly.
“None,” she said, buttoning her blouse. “Absolutely none. Thinking the thoughts you think don’t do a world of good. In fact, they harm you.”
“Why?” he asked, gazing at her now, realizing that she was fully dressed and he was nude. She sat beside him on the bed and kissed him and rubbed his chest through the gray sheet.
“Because it takes your eye of the ball, Harry. And in this world, that can get you killed.”
“It’s not true, Carol,” Fishman answered, taking her hand, squeezing it. “When your number is up, it’s up. I’ve seen it happen. People get a sort of crazed look in their eyes. It’s scary. Like they know. When I was in California, working at loading trains, I saw a crew look that way, and they all died in a wreck later that day.”
“Like my look now?” Carol said with a crooked smile. “Is that what you’re saying?” Fishman was serious. He did not like her expression. But he lied.
“No, you just look beautiful,” he answered.
“In this world, Harry, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself. You just need to keep your head. Do you believe me?”
Fishman nodded, lying once more.
They forced Fishman to sign every check, and the receipts, with different types of handwriting, and if they didn’t like the results, they beat him some more. This would do no good, Fishman knew. They would not be able to cash the checks. But it was no use telling them. By the time he was done with the seventh check, Fishman was blind. His eyes were sealed shut. He imagined, as they moved about the flat, that this is how he would die, blind to the world, his ears ringing, his left arm numb and his right leg bloody.
Then in one moment there was a loud shouting and screaming, and then silence. Fishman thought he was alone. He tried to open a swollen eye. He could not move his hands or make proper movements. He limped until he hit a wall. Then he followed its contour, feeling for the door. He moved along until his hip bumped something painfully. A handle. He opened the door and from the stench, he realized he was in the hallway. He took a few steps and knew he had made a mistake. He fell to the ground.
He heard a door open and close. They were back. Now it would end. He remembered Carol’s words: he had taken his eye off the ball, and now he would die. But the hands that touched him were gentle. He heard an old voice hovering above him.
“Can you move? I can’t move you myself. I have bad legs.”
“I think so.”
“Then get up,” she said, grasping his arm. “My apartment is here.”
Fishman staggered forward. Once the door closed, he fell down again. A towel with warm water was applied to his eyes. Through the crack of his eyelids he could see an old lady in a housecoat and curlers. Fishman asked who she was.
“I’m Glenora Yellow.”
Fishman heads downtown on the old trolley. Out beyond him, a dim moon rises above the line of collapsed buildings. A government work crew in brown overalls appears at the side of the tracks, removing debris. Fishman’s arm rests in an improvised sling. His head is bandaged. He can still feel the warm, trembling fingers of Mrs.Yellow on his body. He can hear her words of reassurance. I was once a nurse, you know, Mr. Fishman… I liked helping people, Mr. Fishman… It was work with a purpose, Mr. Fishman… We often brought dead people back to life … You’re not hurt bad … You’ll mend … This too will pass … You are alive today … As long as people are alive and keep trying and do their level best to improve things, there is hope... People like you and me who want to help may get it right someday.... We have to keep trying, Mr. Fishman…. You have to move on with life while you have life, and do your level best to make things better…
Fishman heads to the duty desk to get a new roll of checks. He flips through the stack. A name catches his eye: Carol Green. The address is not her flat, but very near. The name, like a lit match, burns bright in his eye and is then extinguished. Could it be her? People take all sorts of names, Fishman works it out --- and sometimes they take the names of dead people to collect the dole. But maybe it is her. Maybe she was assigned death while she actually lives. Everyone talks about these mistakes of categorization. Everyone says that fundamental errors are made relegating life to the dead and death to the living. Why not for Carol? Why not?
Fishman bursts through the door, checks in hand, blank receipts in pocket, the gauze on his head bloodied and trailing like a battle flag, his shoes tapping on the worn marble like the rapid beating of a great, expanding heart, and with a flutter of breath, he searches for Carol Green, and now seeing her form rise up from every stone and every wall, on every face and in every shadow, he runs to make it real.