His other possessions included a second shirt, some extra socks, a sack of apples and a guidebook to New York with a picture postcard tucked between its pages, one side showing an elegant bath hall at Baden-Baden, the other a stamp, a postmark from a decade before, a name and address, a message. His mother had sent her love, said the weather was fine, she was feeling much better and she would be home soon: the usual. Only the name above the address was notablefor its difference from the one by which the stableman was now known, on his documents and to his employers. He didnt worry about anyone putting that together, though. Sometimes even he was incredulous at the great distance that lay between his present self and that boy who had been missed by his mother at Baden. How far was it from Germany to New York? He wasnt exactly sure. It wasnt a journey hed ever meant to take. Things had happened to him, and hed responded. Now he was here.
Was he happy? Not by a long shot. But not sad either. It was more that he was waiting for the next phase of his life to begin. In the meantime, his face and features were locked and shuttered like a shop at sundown, cinched tight like a burlap sack of onions with the drawstring knotted and wound around. When he was awake, he was cautiously optimistiched landed on his feet more than once before. While he slept, he snored. And all around him in the stable, buzzing flies joined the noise, awakened from their quasi-hibernation by a warmth premature for the season and puzzlingly at odds with the weather outdoors.
That was the first alarm that something was amissa quiet one. The stableman was sleeping too deeply, dreaming too hard, to hear it. The clear screen of his cornea refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind. The veins were like road maps leading to the time when hed had a family, friends, a proper home. But that night the subject of the magic-lantern show flashing through his brain was nearer to hand: a sightseeing jaunt hed taken on his last day off.
Hed been walking back from the Battery when he first saw the girl. She was an average young woman hawking corn from a basket. Hed just eaten. But suddenly he found he was hungry, even for one of those mushy lukewarm ears of corn. The stuff was sold on every street corner by hot-corn girls of every variety: black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery, German further north and east. Wherever he went in New York, there was always one of them singing the same song, but hed never heard it sung so nonchalantly, so appealingly.
"Hot corn! Get your hot corn! Heres your lily-white corn."
And so a woman was conjured into being while he slept, conceived from his memory of seeing Beatrice on the street and a certain strain in the position of his limbs. But then the pleasure of the dream was stymied by the same frustration hed felt that day at the crowded corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. There she was, hawking her corn, but just when hed nearly caught her, she slipped away from him into the crowd. In his sleep, in the tack room, which was filling now with smoke, he thrashed. Shouldnt he get to taste her corn, if not to hold her, he wondered, at least in his dream? Something had ignited within him, just as the building he slept in so soundly was going up in fire. Oh well, there will be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing, asleep or awake, that the skirts of his fate swished around that very hot-corn girls ankles.
Shed disappeared on him, but the heat she brought on remained. At least he was no longer cold, he thought, mid-dream. He was standing before a roaring fire, a marble mantelpiece, a gleaming brass fender. He was back home in Germany, a boy in his fathers parlor. His mother was serving tea. But no, hed gotten rid of his whole complicated pastor tried to. The dream flickered again.
Excerpted from Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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