Arch Street Hotel

The bar was loud and crowded now… Not as it had been, when he remembered it. Then it was dark, and there had only been the two men at the pool table. But now, even as he sat in the same place, it seemed altogether different. The pool table was thronged, and there was the smell of alcohol and sweat. It was so loud you couldn’t hear the music. But, he sat across from her, and even now, he could remember how she had looked then…

When he had first seen her, almost a year before, she was sitting behind the pool table… He had looked at her over the book he was reading. They locked eyes for only a moment, but he had known he had been caught. He did not approach her, as he had only brought enough money for one beer… And when he left he was caught again, looking in the window as he walked away… She had remembered this, and, a long time after they had met, she asked him if he had remembered it.

“Of course. You were sitting right there.” He indicated the place with his eyes, and she looked and smiled.

“I thought you were so dreamy,” She said.

“Thought?”

“Of course I still do,” Her face lit up, and for a while they just looked at each other. It seemed like a very long time. It was finally broken when the waiter arrived to take drinks. They both laughed.

“What will you have,” He asked, looking confused and perhaps a bit peeved.

They looked at each other briefly, and the woman with the deep, shining, blue eyes said, “We need a minute.” She laughed nervously, and when the waiter left, they both sighed and fell back into looking at each other.

“Did you feel that?” She asked.

“Yes,” He said.

“When time stopped?”

“Yes,” He smiled and meant it, and she knew he meant it. Nobody had ever made the time stop before, and he figured it was significant.

When the waiter returned, they ordered drinks. When he left, the young man and the woman with blue eyes got to talking again.

“People must hate us,” He said.

“Why?”

“Nothing… Just that we are happy, and people are always annoyed by happiness in others.”

She said nothing, and he was not sure if she had understood him.

“I used to hate seeing people kiss or hold hands in public,” He continued. “but I kind of like that we can’t help ourselves.”

She reached across the table and squeezed his hand.

“I know,” She said. “I can’t believe you are leaving in a week.”

“Let’s not think about that now.”

They both looked away. In a week he was to leave for Alaska. He would not be back for three months. He did not know what would happen.

***

It had been a long time now. Alaska came and went… When he came home, things were different. He would look at her a long time, and did not see what had stopped the time then. She did not look at him that way anymore. He studied her glances… Each of them… But, he could no longer find it. “It is like fishing the Poultney River. You can see right to the bottom, and you will not catch fish that are not there to be caught,” he thought to himself.

“Do you remember?” He asked her now.

“Remember what?” She asked, but her reply was not tender, it was short and curt.

“The time… Before Alaska…?”

“I remember a lot of times before Alaska.”

“But do you remember when the time stopped?”

She looked at him blankly.

“We were sitting right here, in love, and it seemed like the time had stopped,” He tried to remind her, though he already resented her for not remembering on her own.

“Yes,” She said, with a quizzical expression.

“Do you ever miss that?” He asked.

“Why should I miss it? You are here now.”

“That’s not what I mean. Never mind.” He said, becoming agitated. She put on a smile he had only recently come to know. He knew it was a placating smile.

“You don’t look at me like you used to anymore…” He said.

They didn’t speak for a time, both of them looking in different directions.

“It is not the same as it was,” She said.

“I know that.”

“Well, what did you expect?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just, I still love you… As much as I did then.”

“As do I.” Again she put on the placating smile. It was so vacant that he could not even look at it.

“I really can’t stand it,” he said firmly.

“Can’t stand what?” Her eyebrows twitched upward, and her face became interested, but still far from tender.

“The farce of it all. Doesn’t it feel like a farce now?”

“A farce?”

“I mean, I’m leaving again in a week, and there is no trace in you that you feel anything one way or another about that.”

She didn’t say anything.

“And its all I can do to get you to pencil me into your schedule.”

“I have a lot of obligations.”

“I’m not interested in being considered amongst your obligations. There was a time when it was all we could do to keep away from each other for a day or two… Now you are exasperated that I come around at all. I mean, I can’t even tell if you want to be here now… I know that over the course of time things change, and other interests take precedent, but I mean, I’m leaving for three months, and its like you could care less.”

“Just because you are leaving, does not mean I suddenly have more time.”

“You used to find it when you wanted to. Its not like you had less obligations then.”

She did not answer and he could feel himself becoming agitated.

“Do you feel okay living in a farce? Because, I sure as hell don’t. You give me this look like I must be an idiot or something… But I’m cognizant enough to recognize something has changed, and unless you want to talk about it, I have to know it has changed, but have no idea why. As far as I can tell, there is nothing left… It is all spent up.”

“Don’t yell at me. People are looking at us,” She said, and her eyes became suddenly panicked.

“I’m not yelling. I’m telling you I won’t live this way. It’s not fair to let somebody hang onto something that isn’t there anymore.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

She said nothing else, but got up and stormed out. He thought of following her, trying to make it up to her. But, immediately he thought better of it. He’d be chasing the past, and however he felt about that, he knew it was all spent up.

When he was away, in Alaska, all he could think of then was her, as she was then, when the time stopped… The way she looked him in the eyes, and there was no mistaking that look. She would put her hand in his and squeeze it, and the way it felt was final. Thinking of it was a torture… And he could do nothing to pass the time. He never thought you could spend something like that up…

He saw her car pull away. He could see her face, and he knew she’d been crying. The tail lights drifted away, and he became intensely aware of the conversations around him, and the clanking glasses of beer, and the shuffle of the waiters.

“Will you be having anything else?” He looked up at the familiar voice, and there was the waiter. He wiped his brow and finally answered.

“No. Nothing else… I’ll settle up.” He pulled out the billfold… That was it then. You just settled up. It was all paid out.

After paying the bill he stood out on the sidewalk watching the cars pass, and the neon lights, blinking in and out. He hailed a cab.

“Where are you heading?”

“I don’t know yet, just drive.”

After a while he told the cabby to drive him home. He could not think of anywhere else to go. It all felt futile…

He got out on Broad Street and paid up. When he got up the stairs he could see the cars passing in the street below. It was dark and the cat was mewing for food. It felt like something was missing… Like the room was empty… Devoid of anything that gives a space character. It had felt that way a long time.

He sat a long time, looking out the window. He could see the bars as they cleared out. The young man thought he would read, but he could not keep his mind on it. After a long time watching, he grew tired, and his eyes closed. He could feel everything coming and going, like waves, washing over him… and when he finally slept it was devoid of dreams.

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West Lake

It was nearing seven in the evening, and the sun was going down over the lake. A man in a dark flannel shirt rolled down his sleeves, pulling the cuffs together and buttoning them. He looked out over the lake to where the hills rose up, rising and falling like the backs of resting cattle, reflecting in the stillness of the water. He could see the rain clouds coming together, far off over the hills, near the place where the sun was fading away. He picked up the last of the heavy logs and put it on the fire, and climbed up onto the wooden floor of the lean-to shelter.

 

“Its going to be cold tonight,” he thought to himself, pulling over his ripped green sweater, that he kept solely for wearing in the woods. “Yes, it will be cold.” He thought of his wife, along with the words. He thought of her alone in their bed, with the cat tucked away by her feet.

 

“Its much easier to have a woman that understands you,” he thought, though he did not know exactly what he meant by that. He had been with many women before, and he had known he was never understood as he had wanted to be… But, even now, he was not sure he was understood.

 

“I suppose if she knew, she would be here. Surely other men had brought their wives here… It is not an easy walk. I know that.”

 

To get to the lake, the man had had to walk a long way through a swamp. When he got to the lake, his feet hurt, and his shoulders felt as though they were collapsing from the weight of the pack. Somehow, he could not imagine that his wife would endure the pain in her feet, though he knew others had. None that he knew… But he was sure others had.

 

“And who is married to such a woman?” He wondered, though he was unsure if it would be a curse or a blessing. Sometimes it was good to be alone, and to listen to the loons echoing their tremolo call across the water. He thought of the loons… Such solitary creatures of the wilderness. They were found only on the loneliest lakes. They would not mate elsewhere. he remembered being told that they mated for life, but wintered separately. “So much the wiser for the loon.”

 

He thought of his wife again, and wondered if she were truly alone in their bed, or if she had gone out. He had known many women and he remembered that they were not so good as he was at being alone. He thought about her going out, but decided he’d better put it out of his mind.

 

The sun was nearly down and the clouds had passed. There was just enough light to see the insects on the still water. In the reflection he saw the first stars. His eyes grew heavy and he felt sleep coming in and out, as his sore feet throbbed. He rolled out along the hard, wooden floor, and pulled the sleeping bag over him, and was asleep.

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Cedar River

Cedar River

By

Glenn Nelson

The road was dusty and wound high against the Blue ridge, dropping down so that the river was occasionally in view, and then winding around and rising again. It hadn’t rained and the motorcar left a cloud lingering on the road where we passed. The trees closed in, until there were only tall White Pines, and we wound around the trees and came down into a clearing. There was a dam where the water backed up, and we put the canoe in, Nathan sitting behind steering and myself in the front. We rode out onto the flow early and there was no current, and the mountains rose up around us, reflecting still against the water as though in a mirror. We made quick time to the inlet, where the river poured across the marshy flats, before winding between the tall spruce and balsam trees. We followed the river, winding and winding through sharp oxbow turns. The water was cold and colored as ruddy brown as tea. We portaged at the Carry where there was a shelter, and we set our camp there for the night.

“This is a good spot,” I told Nathan. I had slept there before, and in the night you could hear the trout smashing against the surface of the cool, slow moving water.

“The leanto is very clean,” he said. “It is nice to see it so clean.”

“There are nicer, but this one is also nice,” I said, looking around at the clearing, grown in with golden rod and prairie grasses. It was not scenic, but it was right on the river, and it would do.

Nathan and I split up to look for firewood. The immediate area was picked pretty well clean, but there were plenty of dead trees in back of the clearing. Nathan searched the river bank for dried out drift wood, and I went up along the trail and into the woodline. Before long I had a good sized hemlock, which I dragged back to camp. We took turns sawing at it, and then I split the logs with my hatchet. We had plenty of wood to last the night by the time we were through, and we set about making dinner.

It was quiet and clear, the last cool evening of July, and the stars came out bright over the camp. We had pasta and wine for dinner, and after we sat about the fire watching the stars.

“It was a good thing, ending it,” Nathan said.

“Ending what?”

“Ending things with Marie. It was no good for you.”

I said nothing. I still did not really know how to feel. It seemed stupid and impulsive, but it also seemed like the right thing to do. Even if it was right, I still felt that I’d regret it. In any case, it was no time to think about it, being out along the river.

“I just mean you seemed miserable. You looked like hell last time you came home.” He was being careful.

“I don’t know. It was stupid. It was stupid and it was probably my fault.”

“Well, you seemed pretty bad. I never heard you say anything good about it.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean anything… Hell, its all pretty raw still, could we not talk about it.”

“Yea, I just thought it’d help.”

“I don’t know. Just makes me think I’m being pretty stupid.”

“Well, I think it was right, even if it was hard.” Nathan was a pretty smart guy. He knew all about insects and, well, a whole lot of shit I knew nothing about. I’ve wished a long time I could be smart the way Nathan is smart. But, he knows absolutely nothing at all about women. He is a damned good person, and I admired him for all that. It was easy to reduce something like leaving a woman to being the right thing to do, but it was never that simple. When I came out to the North Woods I wanted to be able to live as simply as possible. Cut all the damn fat. Women will fatten a man right up.

I lay down across my hammock. I sat and thought about that for a while, but it just kept coming in and out slowly, and then there was the coyotes, howling gently and far off in the night. Here and there I heard the trout jumping. It was only a short feed. It was done in twenty minutes. “Trout are damned picky,” I thought.

The fire dimmed and there were only coals, glowing red against the empty dark. Nathan was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep. There was nothing but the crack of the fire, as it slowly worked at the damp wood, and the river winding and winding. I could feel my eyelids falling, but I could not keep them closed.

 

***

 

In the morning I woke to the sound of trout jumping. I rolled out of the hammock, jointed up my fly rod, and paddled out across the water to the sand bank on the far side. I flicked the rod back and forth and shot the line down the flow. Before long I saw my fly disappear and I set the hook with a sharp, upward jerk of the rod. The trout jumped. It was big and brown with pink spots all along the side. I pulled the line in and he dove against the tension. I let him run the line out, darting low across the pool. He went below the bank, under the rocks, and it was hell trying to make him move. I tugged on the rod, lifting it slightly, enough to add tension to the line, and finally he started to swim. He shot out across the pool and then cut back towards me and I had to take the line in quick. I lifted him and soon I had him in the boat. He was 14 inches, and I felt badly having to take him like that, but it was over quickly.

“A man and a fish are not too different,” I thought. “Only with a fish you are supposed to put them down.”

When I rowed back across the pool, Nathan was still asleep.

“Did you catch any?” He asked, waking up.

“Yes, a few.”

“Big?”

“One of them is very big,” I said.

“I could hear you with the oar.”

“It has to be done that way.”

Nathan yawned sleepily and I went about the work of cleaning the fish. When they were cleaned they had to be smoked and I made a small, smokey fire to put them over. The fish were still jumping, and I could hear them the whole time, but I did not try to catch any more. While I worked on the fish, Nathan made breakfast of bacon and pancakes. We sat there a while, and I asked him if he wanted to use my rod to fish a little. It was warming up quickly and I did not think he’d catch anything, so I laid out in the hammock lazily and took a nap in the sun.

When I woke, Nathan had not caught any fish. We packed the canoe and paddled back down river. It was a fine day and there were many birds and a marsh hawk circling in the sky. We did not talk anymore about women, or anything else. There was only the dipping of the paddles and the wind behind us, pushing us out onto the flow. The water was bright blue and rippled gently. In it the mountains swayed back and forth lightly. For a time I felt lonely, but that too went away.

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What We Do Not Speak Of

Gradually they traversed the steep incline. The young man walking ahead of the older man, who, though he was old, never fell very far behind. The trail was rough and obstructed at many points with large jagged boulders, and the two men could barely see much beyond the veritable wall of great oaks. Near the apex of the trail, where it cut across the peak, the tree line thinned and they could see where, below, the Lehigh River cleaved through the Kittatiny Ridge. In the clearing, where the forest broke and there was a long meadow, beyond which the whole of the valley was laid out in lush oak and birch forests, full in their summer green, the young man stood a long time looking out. During this pause, his whole expression changed and he breathed deep of the thin mountain air, while the older man walked ahead, still expressionless.

The old man had spent a great deal of time in these hills. He had bushwhacked his way off the trail searching for blueberries, and to find that peace of mind which comes only from knowing one cannot be found…

Though already 78, he still found the vigor to leave the orchards of his Palmerton estate to drag a shovel and pick up the mountainside to repair the trails he had helped once to build. He let the young man walk ahead, not because he could no longer keep pace, but because he did not like the spiders that were now spinning their morning webs. Still, he told the young man that it was time for the young greenhorns to charge ahead. The young man did not understand. So, much of the time they walked on in silence.

Every so often the young man would ask questions, or talk about himself, or complain. Though the old man would have preferred silence, he understood that it was necessary for the young man to speak, even if it was idle chatter… That it made him more comfortable. Most of his questions were, at least, earnest ones, about the history of the area, about what the old man had himself lived through…

“You see, I am a history major and I particularly like environmental history,” the young man had said. “That is why I am so interested in this area. You can see directly the effect on the landscape, all the scars from the extracting.”

Driving up to the mountain, the engine whining, struggling with the hills, the old man’s voice breaking over the sputtering roar, he had told the young man about the west plant that the New Jersey Zinc Company had installed in Palmerton in 1898… How it used to sit just across the river, and how it had long since been torn down. In the years before the doors and the windows had been shuttered up, when the smog still rose from the monumental stacks, it had fogged up the whole valley with a dark grey cloud, so that even on a clear day, driving into Palmerton, one needed to have the headlights on. Now, as they walked along the barren meadow, where there were the ash grey corpses of old trees, the young man asked whether the forest had always looked as it did now.

“No,” the old man replied. “It had burned down three times, and for a long time nothing would grow. Neither here nor over on the other side of the pass.”

“There are still parts where nothing grows.”

“That is from the smog. It would drift north east with the prevailing wind. It would get caught up against the Blue Mountains. On top there, there is still nothing that will grow there. Even the dead trees will not decompose. There had been no bacteria to break them down.”

Looking around as the barren landscape turned again toward the tree line, the young man asked, “Are we nearly there?”

“I think so.”

“About how far?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I no longer know the distance. I cannot think of distance in numbers. I have my anniversary and my social security, and that is all I can think of numbers.”

For a little ways the young man did not speak and the old man was contented with the silence. It was nice to walk such a long way, he thought to himself. They came to another clearing, where again there was the meadow and below it the hills stretching out like veins rising in the skin of the earth. Atop the furthest, which was bare, and where the rocks were purple, there was a tall Victorian house. It stuck up over the valley like a white citadel, with spires that loomed over the porch like minaurettes.

“What is that house?”

“That is the general’s house.”

“Which general?”

“There is nobody that lives there now.”

“It is abandoned? But it looks so clean from here…”

“Nobody lives there now, but it was built by a general of the Union army, in the Civil War. He moved here from New York when his wife had died. He was said to be crazy from the war… He never left the house, until the day he died.”

“Is it purple because of the zinc?”

“No, that is from iron.”

“Did many people here get ill from the zinc?”

“Well…” The old man thought for a minute. “My father, who lived out everyday of his life in Palmerton, lived to be 91 years old. He worked twenty years in that factory, down in the smelter, with all the fog… And he lived to be 91. For a long time Palmerton had the highest life expectancy… The highest in Pennsylvania… or it might have even been the whole nation.”

“That is something, even with all the contamination.”

“Yes.”

“And you? Have you been here the whole time?”

“No. Well… I had been in the navy. Some years I was in the Navy. Before that we used to come up here often. We used to come up here hunting and on fishing trips to the river, but when I got back from the navy, everyone was married, you know, and having kids… So that, for many people I knew, was that… For them, the interest was a fleeting one, but I got a job, and I worked a lot and I got a car… But I didn’t like being in debt. So I paid the damn thing off by taking another job, and these kids with worse jobs than me were my boss… We I just said ‘see ya later.’

“Then I learned to fly fish, and I came up after it had just rained, and I was using worms on a fly line. And I saw this trout, maybe about as far as you are now.” The old man stopped walking, so lost in what he was say was he. “Well, I saw him rising and I quickly tied on a fly and I flung it over there, just like Mark Trail, and as soon as it landed on the water he took it. I been fishing some 40 years since, and I never caught one like that again. Usually I’m splashing around, scaring the fish, and then I catch a tree branch.”

“Were you in the navy during the war?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see much of it?”

“Yes.”

“My grandpa was in the war. I never met him, but I am told he was at D-day.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”

There was a long time in silence. The old man seemed to have drifted somewhere else, and the young man stared sheepishly at his shoes.

“You don’t come up here as often anymore?” The young man asked, finally.

“Well… I joined the hiking club some years back and my buddy and I used to come up here when he was unemployed. We came up here, as you and I are now. To do what work needed to be done… But when he found a job again I was on my own.

“That is how it is with me. Even my girlfriend won’t come up here. She’s from Philly. She doesn’t really understand it. She’s afraid of bears and doesn’t like leaving the concrete. She always wants to go ‘down the shore.'”

“My wife would come, but she is paralyzed.”

The young man hung his head. He felt embarassed for having complained so much. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be. I shouldn’t have brought it up… Let’s not speak of it.”

“Okay.”

“A man should never speak of his troubles to another man.”

Their eyes did not again meet. The old man set down his pick, “This is the spot I had in mind,” he said. “We will work here to put this dirt… the shale below the ferns, below the duff, over the rocks.” He brought the pick down hard against the rocks above the trail, letting them fall down upon his feet. The young man, using the shovel, picked it up and placed it in buckets. The two of them carried the buckets over the rocks and laid the dirt out, forming a new piece of trail. The shale made it so that the rocks, which started off uneven and jagged, were now flat. They worked at this for nearly two hours without pause. The whole time they dug at the earth without speaking. Only the intermittent whang of the pick against the rocks, and the scraping of the shovel along the ground broke the heavy wooded silence. After two hours the old man stopped and said, “Let us do one more load, then we will call it a day… Then we will go.”

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The Dust of Memory

A solemn reflection gentlemen: what man has hidden nothing from himself? Such memories, which have accumulated, but disappear in a years time, and yet in moments they flood forth. Images of a street sign, under a lamppost, glowing orange in the fog. The sound of footsteps and humming, and a cart being pulled along a side street or in an alley. The bells from the cathedral borne sadly over the city, like morning. The chatter, which fills the market, but then dulls by afternoon.  Sometimes faces come back, like apparitions in the shadows, with long grey beards, and tattered cloaks. Eyes bent downward, grown heavy from too many years of solitude or subordination; and in such eyes, an enigma… Such unfathomable depth.

It is strange that the mind seems to have no choice, no freewill, in what it chooses to recall. We are powerless to our nightmares. I am awakened from sleep often, by the strength of my terror. I can only sleep peaceably in rain storms. There is something soothing about that sound. The dissonance between drops. The dull grey light, which seems less threatening than darkness. But along the street, the sound is dulled by the slosh of tires driving past a puddle. It seems to accentuate the paradox of human existence: that one is always alone within one’s thoughts, but can never truly bear to be alone… The push and pull of solitude, which actually realised, is man’s greatest torture… The restlessness which pushes us forth into the uncertain night, invisible, in search of something uncertain, but most certainly human.

I returned to Philadelphia…

Last night in Allentown, I watched a storm collecting on the horizon… Rolling over the foothills of the Appalachians, as though it were tucking them in for the night… Slowly covering the stars with grey opaqueness… White lightning, dissipating into orange afterburn…

In the morning, my mother drove me to the train. I could hear the train coming before I saw it. The whistle, the gates closing on the street. I looked down at my ragged suitcase, and dragged it to the edge of the platform, watching the day trippers search for the source of the low whistle. Trains no longer amuse me as they once did, but at least you can see the scenery pass from the regional rails. Things are better above ground. The movements seem calmer. No bright lights swirling relentlessly past. No deafening screeching of the breaks. Even the human being who takes the tickets and calls the stops seems more soothing than the subway. I will be in the city four days, and then I will go home. Cities are better for visiting.

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The Suspiscious Conspiratorial Ramblings of an Invisible Man

Time does pass… Its the saddest thing I know. People change, until I cannot recognise them any longer, and they are strangers in the dust of memories. Places change, buildings collapse, and sheet metal grinds against the grey bricks in the wind… the el train rumbles past, cutting through the aching empty silence of night. I am le homme invisible. Just a shadow on the dusted pavement… Smoking a cigarette. Disappearing. A receiver… Up all night, in bland yellow hotel rooms, watching whitenoise on the television, waiting for dawn. I have a history… Just like we all have a history, but they are only events, which come to pass. Just so. And one night they come rushing back with all the power of an illusion, as though it were actually real… As though you could roll over and touch it in the darkness. But its just there like the fading light, before it goes out in the wind, and the room becomes dark again, lit only with the dim shimmer of the moon coming in from the window, and the lights of industry glowing eternally, as if only to remind you that you too are here on this earth.

And this is what we live for. To remember. And sometimes, in the night I wake, and I am unsure as to whether I am in Philadelphia, or Chicago, or New York, or San Rafael, or Altoona, where greyblack trains rumble through the night, howling and wretching to a stop amidst rusted railroad yards, atop colorless railroad earth… Or in an Ohio truck stop movie lounge, where I once rest my weary traveling head. Or the house on Hamilton Blvd, where I used to sleep after wandering mad through the night… Or Polk and Eddy, where the door kept back the hard faces like stones, sleeping in the alley… For a moment, I am in each of them, though such a time has left me, and long ago. And the elevated train rumbles past, withering, like a snake ingesting its own tail… And dark brownstones crop up out my window, along the distant avenues… and the past and its rememberance disappears, like dust which is bound to disperse.

Yes, time does pass, and we grow old and feeble. Our hands, they loose all the intentionality of youth, and begin to shake with the weight of memories. Our bones grow heavy, and our eyes look out with indifference, on the world that was once so new, so trembling with excitement, but is now waiting to die and be put into the ground. I am a reluctant narrator, drifting… daydreaming… up all night, scorning sleep, till dawn comes and relieves me of my reflections… Like the man on the bus, eyes heavy with tears, and burning to speak to somebody who will understand… Growing old in the shadows of the dow jones…

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