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  • Signs and Wonders
  • Rebecca McClanahan (bio)

Artillery sounds wake me: car alarms screeching, honking, beeping—you know the drill—and a jackhammer breaking open the sidewalk outside our window. No, not our window, I remind myself. The window of the apartment we’ve been subletting these past four years—and the lease is almost up again. Another two years? My husband’s leaving it up to me. He could live anywhere, he’s that kind of guy. Easy, adaptable, like the ducks in the park. Things just roll right off his back.

When we first moved to the city, we couldn’t believe how cheap the flowers were. “What a city,” we said. “We can buy flowers every week, fill the apartment with them, the bathtub. What a city!” Then we went to the grocery store, and when I saw the prices I started to cry. “How can we possibly afford . . . we’ll have to give up . . . oh my God,” I shrieked, “what will we eat?”

“We’ll just have to eat flowers,” he said.

Last week I would have signed a hundred-year lease. After all this is the best city in the world, and I was just coming off one of my New York highs, the kind that hits when you least expect it and suddenly it’s like first love again, first lust, and you wonder how you could possibly live anywhere else. Then a steam pipe bursts, the couple in the apartment above you straps their steel-toed boots back on, you step in a puddle of urine on the subway platform, and some guy with three rings in his nose calls you Bitch and spits on you because—who knows?—you look like his second grade teacher, or some president’s wife, or his mother, and you think, Live another two years in this jackhammering, siren-screaming, piss-puddling city? In someone else’s apartment—because who can afford their own? Someone else’s bed, plates, forks, spoons?

Maybe it’s the wrong day to decide. Maybe I need some air. Maybe I [End Page 126] need a sign. So I go where I always go when I need a sign—the park, and oh look, a day so beautiful you’d gladly pay the universe if it were charging. The leaves on the gingkos are falling as I speak, gold coins upon gold coins. And there in the pond are my geese, my ducks; how I admire them. Look, one is passing up bread crumbs to catch a blossom. He’s eating flowers.

Along the promenade are the skaters in their T-shirts: KickimusMaximus Assimus. Are you talking to me? Fun loving criminal. One guy’s skating backward, a small compact black man so graceful he doesn’t need skates, his hip joints are on ball bearings, rolling in one smooth movement. But I know it’s harder than it looks; isn’t everything? Even for the ducks. If you peek just beneath the surface of the water, you can see their little paddle-wheel feet working, churning. It breaks your heart: little New York ducks have to keep moving all the time.

I stop at a bench beside a ragged guy in a black hat. His shopping cart is plastered with handmade signs. New York is a city of signs: Curb your dog. Curb your dogma. Love your neighbor, your neighbor’s dog. His signs are bright red painted on cardboard: Society of Jesus Christ. Society of Disabled Artists. Call me Ray.

“So, Ray,” I say, “you’re an artist?”

He rummages in his cart and pulls out a painting of a bonfire, flames breaking into bloom.

I ask if he’s ever seen a flame like that, or is it imagination.

“I like to think about Moses,” he says. “I was seeing the burning bush.”

My Bible knowledge is rusty, but I’m hungry for a sign. “God spoke to him in the fire, right?”

“That’s right.”

“In words?” I ask.

Through him. Spirit.”

I tell him I used to be in a black gospel choir, but I was only a lowly backup singer.

“Never call yourself lowly,” he says.