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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Four December 2022.
Strangers in the Night, flash fiction by Thaddeus Rutkowski.
Strangers in the Night
I met a stranger—or a stranger met me—at a blind professor’s house. A party was happening there; I’d heard about it while I was at a café across the street. Someone told me about the party, so I went. The professor was sitting on his couch and smoking, dropping ashes near a tray on a cushion. He was shaking hands with anyone who approached. “Introduce yourself,” he was saying. “I’m blind.”
I told him my name, and he said, “I haven’t seen you for a hundred years.”
I made my way to the back “porch,” which was actually a fire-escape landing. Looking over the rusted railing, I could see people schmoozing below. From the apartments around the courtyard, neighbors occasionally yelled at the partiers to shut up.
At one point, a young woman on the fire escape called my name, and I went toward her. She told me we worked together, in the same building but on different floors. “I saw you at the laser printer,” she said. “You were wearing a button-down shirt and a tie.”
I didn’t remember seeing her there, but we must have shared the elevator or passed each other in the building’s “lobby,” which was more like a hallway. We might have walked next to one another in the column of drones heading to and from work.
“That was my dork suit,” I said.
Her neck-length hair went out to one side in a wave, and her face drew my attention. We seemed to have chemistry, though I didn’t know what that meant; I was no chemist. We seemed to be simpatico, but I knew even less about that. It was enough that she knew my name and had called out to me. That sort of acknowledgment had not happened often. In fact, it had not happened before. True, some people called to me without knowing my name—they called me Hombre or Mister or You—while others knew my name but chose not to address me at all.
I left the party but soon had second thoughts. Where was I going? Home? What was there? A movie on TV, a magazine on the floor?
I went back to the party—that was the key move, that I went back—and the person who’d called to me was still there, on the metal porch over the dark garden. She was almost hidden by people’s heads and shoulders.
“I came back,” I said.
“To see you.”
Later, the blind professor liked to tell anyone who would listen that we’d met at his party. “They met on the back landing,” he would say. “Right there, on the fire escape. He wasn’t even invited.”
Sleeping on the Subway
It was late at night when I got on the subway. I had to travel from eastern Queens back to my place in lower Manhattan. I’d been told the subway would be convenient, but I wasn’t looking forward to the ride. The seats (the benches) were hard, and the lighting was bright. According to the map posted on the wall, I had a long way to go.
I was tired, and, worse, I was paranoid. I was the only passenger in the car. I looked around for vigilantes. I’d heard about the one who’d shot four unarmed “panhandlers.” Would I be a target? And if so, of whom—the vigilante or the panhandlers? A vigilante or a group of panhandlers could enter at any station.
I could deal with a vigilante. All I had to do was behave calmly, not give him a reason to draw his unregistered weapon. Vigilantes usually pleaded “self-defense” after shooting someone, so I didn’t want to engage one in conversation. I wasn’t feeling very polite.
I wasn’t looking forward to meeting anyone asking for money, either. If someone said to me, “Give me ten dollars,” what would I do? And what if that person were part of a group, all interested in the same ten dollars? That amount was something to me, and I wouldn’t have been happy parting with it. However, in my shaky state of mind, I might have been willing to donate whatever I had.
Presently, another passenger came into the car. He looked jumpy, and he took a seat at the other end. He might just have been a nervous guy. But he might have been someone with an illegal handgun, ready to take the law into his own hands. If a group of youths approached him and asked for money, all heck might break loose.
I slid down in the molded-plastic seat and fell asleep.
When I woke, I was alone. I looked at the route map and realized I had missed my stop. But not by much. Still, I had traveled into a neighborhood new to me. I could get out and cross over to the other track—if there was a free-transfer path—or I could leave the station and walk. If I stayed in the station, the next train going my way could take a long time to arrive. While waiting, I might fall asleep again. However, if I left the station, I might not find the best route. I might walk in a large circle, and I might not know it until I’d made a complete, mile-long roundabout.
I climbed the stairs from the platform and saw a street I recognized. I followed it past new side streets and small clearings. In the open areas I saw some night pigeons and one or two night squirrels, foraging in the light of streetlamps. In a relatively short time, I was home.
© Thaddeus Rutkowski
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the members’ choice award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives with his wife in Manhattan.