The wind lifted. The sky above Sandro's head was filled with a flurry of little yellow leaves. Frantically airborne, they resisted for one last instant the inevitability of the fall. Sandro sat on a wooden bench, his elbows resting on the picnic table behind him, and gazed up at the sudden pandemonium. He marveled at the precision of the moment, at the particular configuration of circumstances, the wind gusting just enough to dislodge hundreds of tiny stems from the bark and then to hold them briefly aloft. The girl lying on the picnic table behind Sandro remained absorbed in her newspaper. When its pages also began to flutter, to lift from the table, she too glanced up at the bright-yellow conflagration. [End Page 55]
Then the wind quieted and the leaves fell.
"Pretty," she said, and bent her head back down to the newspaper.
Some time later she spoke again.
"What I can't figure out," she said, not lifting her head, "is why they go out at all? Why they leave their houses? If I were in their shoes I'd just stay home. Buy a lot of food and hunker down."
"What I can't figure out," Sandro said as if in response, though he did not look at the girl but around him at the wooded park—first at the picnic area that lay under a carpet of fallen leaves and then beyond the perimeter of the picnic area at the nearby road, which, closed to traffic for the marathon, had been divided down the middle by a strip of red-and-white security tape that now snapped jauntily in the autumn air, and finally up though the golden branches of the towering oaks—"is why there are still so many leaves on the trees."
Sandro had met the girl almost a month ago in the main corridor of Philosophy Hall after the two had taken an exam in a survey course on prewar German thinkers. He was majoring in philosophy, she in French literature. From her overstuffed bag she had dropped onto the floor a small lined notebook and a package of Gitane cigarettes; he had retrieved first the notebook and then the cigarettes and handed them back to her, lightly touching her extended fingers. She lived with a boyfriend, a slightly older guy, someone who held down a normal job, earned money and owned an apartment in a decent residential neighborhood in town. Sandro, by contrast, lived in the ground-floor apartment of a grim housing complex in one of the more depressed neighborhoods. His studio apartment was furnished with one mattress, one computer, one naked light bulb and several teetering stacks of books. Lately the girl had been spending the better part of her free time on Sandro's mattress, looking suspiciously content beneath that single naked bulb, flipping lazily through the collected works of Walter Benjamin, a volume of Franz Kafka's short stories, the poetry of Paul Celan. Sandro could tell she liked talking to him. About all sorts of things: politics and sex, sacrifice and honor, the idea of god and the meaning of life.
And he could tell she liked doing other less ephemeral things with him as well.
He worried that she might be falling in love.
"Who?" Sandro asked, picking up the thread of conversation. "Who should just stay at home?"
"Oh," the girl sighed and looked up from the newspaper. "Hundreds of Iraqis were trampled in some religious procession yesterday. Nearly a thousand Shi'a Iraqis," she read monotonously, flattening the paper against the table with her [End Page 56] palms and elbows, "mostly women and children, fell to their death from a narrow pedestrian bridge during the most important annual religious procession. The stampede was said to have been triggered by—" she stopped reading abruptly, turned her head toward Sandro and sighed again, "—oh, it hardly matters what triggered it. It just seems to me that they have enough problems...