Loyd Elmore Jr
Emily found a bouncy ball on the sidewalk. It was just stuck there in a large crack in the concrete. It was hard to miss. It was a green one and she bet it glowed in the dark. She walked over to it and popped it out of the crack. She held it up to look at it above her head. Emily tilted her head and pretended the bouncy ball was flying in the sky. She closed one eye and brought the ball closer to it real slow. She held it up again to cover a point in the sky.
She thought she must have looked funny, just standing there on a sidewalk along 5th Avenue, the street she had been following for blocks and blocks, in good old New York City, just standing there holding a glow-in-the-dark green bouncy ball high over her head. Then she thought, she didn’t care how she looked. And she didn’t think other people would have cared either. And since she hadn’t seen anyone at all on this journey except for three dogs tearing into a trash bag, she knew she was right. Nobody would care at all.
After she had experimented with that ball and its travel back and forth to her eye, she cupped it in both hands and peered in. Inside it glowed with an unnatural light. Then she put the bouncy ball in the front pocket of her grey hoodie and started to walk down the sidewalk again. Though it was late October, today the city was having a warm spell. She had thought about taking off the hoodie but decided against. It’s easier to wear it than to carry it.
Emily was passing the cross street of East 85th under the changing trees. She didn’t even bother to stop at the light. She decided to run for it to the other side. She laughed. No worries. There were no cars, taxis, buses or anything on the streets to run her down. The smell of the reservoir was getting stronger. Most New Yorkers couldn’t smell it anymore. They simply got used to it, even the garbage bags piled up on the edges of sidewalks. Emily was a college refugee from Tennessee, or at least that’s what her college friends called her. They said she was escaping a life of hayseeds and cow manure and came to the ‘big city’ (they would say ‘big city’ with a real outrageous southern accent) to find knowledge and maybe a man. She always thought this was funny. She would tell them she already had ‘knowledge‘ and as for men, she would never find one that was worth her time.
Since she was next to the park, she didn’t need to walk across East 86th street. She just kept walking down the sidewalk. She turned her head and looked down East 86th with its tall apartment buildings and shops. They weren’t tall compared to New York City standards but she still hadn’t got used to walking among the large concrete and stone marvels. That’s why being near Central Park helped her cut down on the anxiety. She reached into her big hoodie pocket and rolled the green bouncy ball in her hand. She liked the rubber feel. She thought about bouncing it as she walked but was afraid she would lose it. Emily couldn’t have that. It was her buddy, her pal, her compadre. It made her think of when she was a little girl in Elementary school when the anxiety had just begun to grow inside her. Not having many friends, she made friends with her crayons and her favorite pencil that helped her write and draw. After she had used it up, (the only thing left was a point and the metal band of the eraser) she secretly buried it in the garden, crying the whole time. But the one item that helped her the most was a Star Wars action figure that belonged to her brother, a Han Solo figure with a blue coat from The Empire Strikes Back. It looked like her father. He had a blue coat similar to it and wore it all winter. Her brother had complained so much to her parents, they bought her one of her own. But she felt so close to his, she gave him the new one. This was one time he didn’t complain, taking the new one and giving her the old one, the one she had already thought of as hers, the one that she had already given a soul.
She chuckled to herself. It didn’t take much to turn her frown upside down. This green ball may not look like her father or Han Solo or was a nub of a pencil but it was now her best friend, her only friend.
Emily could see the Guggenheim sticking out, just enough to know what it is, a couple of blocks ahead on the left. She had gone in once a year ago and it thrilled her. Not just the inside but the outside. She loved the rounded layers. To her, it looked like a wedding cake that had been dropped on its head. It was just a big concrete upside down wedding cake.
Emily was across the street from it now. She thought about going in one last time. She thought about taking in all she could. As she was thinking, she looked left a block down from the museum and saw a coffee shop. Funny that she hadn’t noticed it there before. And the thought of a hot, sweet coffee took over her mind. Before she moved to the ‘The Big Apple’ (that’s what people outside of New York call it. People who live here just call it ‘The City’), she was never a coffee drinker. But her friends had changed her mind and those late night study sessions called for the brown nectar of the gods. She liked hers hot and sweet, like her men. She giggled at the thought. She hated those cold frozen coffees and even the iced ones. Even in the summer, she always had to have her coffee steaming. Maybe she’ll learn to like them. At that thought, she really laughed. She had to bend over and place her hands on her knees. She even got a little bit lightheaded.
But as Emily was trying to get her air back in her lungs, the green bouncy ball rolled out of her hoodie pocket and started to bounce toward the street. She almost decided to let it go but it was heading toward a sewer grate and that changed her mind. She chased after it, missing the first couple of times she tried to grab it. Finally, three feet away and heading straight for the sewer and the unknowns below the street, Emily caught it. And with her non-dominate hand, at that. She held it aloft toward the sky.
“There, you fucker. You can take me but you can’t take my green, glow-in-the-dark bouncy ball!” And here came the giggling fits again. It didn’t overwhelm her as much this time. Her laughing was starting to feel hollow. She got her breath back and started to put the ball back in the hoodie pocket but decided against it. Instead, she was just going to carry it in her hand. As if she was holding the hand of somebody special.
“There, you fucker,” she whispered to herself. Before she could run across the street, she saw a white woman, the only other person she had seen in five days, riding a bike. She was going in the opposite direction she had come. She looked to be in her mid-fifties and pretty. And she wasn’t wearing any clothes what so ever. This lady turned and saw Emily standing on the sidewalk and gave her the largest smile. Emily couldn’t do anything but wave. The lady didn’t stop and just kept pedaling, leaving Emily with a knowing smile broadening on her face. After she watched the lady disappeared into the distance, Emily ran across the street to the coffee shop.
She slowed and walked around the tables and chairs sitting out front. She saw the door was standing open, inviting her in. So in she went.
The air conditioner was running. How silly, she thought. She walked up to the counter and didn’t see anybody. Just her luck, she thought, smiling. Then she opened her hand and bounced the ball on the floor next to her. It was pretty accurate. Some of the cheap bouncy balls weren’t weighted well and if you bounced them hard, they could bounce out of reach and be gone with you chasing behind. But this one was a ‘good’un’ as they said back home.
Just as she caught it on the third bounce, someone spoke.
“Can I help you?”
It caught her off guard and not only did her knees shake but she peed a little but not much.
“Oh, my God. You scared me to death. Where did you come from?”
The person who spoke was standing there on the other side of the counter as if out thin air. He stood looking at her. His face was nearly expressionless. Emily saw he had really thick, black eyebrows. She figured Italian descent. What a shock, she thought. In New York…somebody descended from Italy… He wore a white t-shirt with a few spots of purple on the front and black jean shorts. He had a hat on but it was turned around. But the emblem on the adjustable Velcro strap gave it away.
“Met’s fan, huh? Not the Yankees?”
The guy gave her a face of disgust. “Yankees? Girl, fuck the Yankees.” But then he smiled. She saw it was a nice one. Straight teeth, white, and no gums. That smile probably broke hearts.
“My name is Emily.” She put the ball in her left hand and stuck her right hand out.
He gave her a weird little smile but then shrugged and put his in hers. “I’m Anthony.” They shook. She thought his hand was comforting but a little sweaty. She figured it was because of the abnormally warm fall day. Her other hand held the green bouncy ball tight.
“So…,” she said, looking around. “Can I get a coffee?”
Anthony just stared at her, as if he couldn’t believe what she said. Then he smiled very big and showed his very white, straight teeth. “You know, I think I can make that happen. What do you want?”
She thought about it. “Something very sweet and unhealthy would be good. And make it hot and put it in the biggest cup you have.”
He grinned. “How about a mocha, caramel, latte with whole milk and a whole lot of whipped crème?”
She nodded, already thinking about how good that would be. “I think that sounds perfect.”
She watched Anthony begin the make the best coffee she would ever have. As he worked, she unconscionably put the ball back into the front pocket of her hoodie. He turned knobs, stirred coffee, poured whipped crème, and sat it down in front of her.
“It’s on the house.”
That made them both laugh. She took a cautioned first sip due to the heat and when the sweetness hit her taste buds, her eyes closed. It was absolutely delicious.
“This is perfect. And it may be the best ever.”
He bowed like he was addressing royalty. “I’m glad you like it.”
She took another sip and set it down on the counter. She looked at him and he looked back.
“I have a crazy question for you. Are you ready?”
Anthony waited to hear what it was.
“How would you like to take a walk to the great lawn and sit in the grass with me?’
Anthony slowly looked around the coffee shop as if something huge had dawned on him. His future plans disappeared like smoke in the breeze. His visual tour of the store ended on Emily’s face and he showed that smile.
“I think that would be nice.” He walked around the counter and joined her. Together they walked out of the doors, leaving it behind forever.
As they walked down the sidewalk, back the way she had just come, she remembered the naked lady on the bike and was going to ask if he had seen her but after thinking about it, she pulled the green bouncy ball out of her pocket and showed it to him.
“I found it in a crack in the sidewalk as I was coming up 5th.” He reached out and she put it in his hand. He rolled it around in his palm as she sipped on her coffee. He went to bounce it on the sidewalk but she stopped him. “Please don’t. It might bounce off somewhere. I don’t want to lose it.”
In another time, Anthony would have laughed at her and threw it as far as he could, and probably called her a ‘baby’ and then a bitch. About a year ago, he was a mean person with hang-ups and problems he couldn’t get rid of. But since, he has accepted the way things were and found a peace he had never known in his twenty-five years of life.
He passed the ball back to her with a slight reverence, as if it was something holy and worshipped. She smiled as she put it back into her front pocket.
“Thank you, Anthony. I plan to keep it forever.” She giggled. He laughed, too, getting the joke.
They walked together down 5th, at one point she had switched her coffee to her left hand and with her right, she found his hand. They held hands as they reached East 85th and turned right into the park. They went around the ancient playground where they saw a man in torn clothing and long stringy hair sitting on some steps. Sitting next to him was a sign that said The End Is Near. It was sitting next to him, forgotten when he saw them. He gave his own smile and waved to them, which they returned. They continued on, past the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their left.
Emily and Anthony reached the Great Lawn sometime in the mid-afternoon. She had no idea what time it was because she had left her wristwatch on her nightstand along with her phone. Anthony didn’t have a watch either and didn’t seem to have his phone if he owned one. She had always worn a watch, something she had picked up from her father. He even slept with a watch on. It had been a Timex Indiglo. He was never without it. He had once told her that ‘to know where one’s place is in time is to know where one’s place is’. She never knew exactly what that meant but it always sounded pretty heavy to her. And, besides, she loved her father. He had been her light; up to the moment cancer took him a year ago, in some hospice in Nashville. Her mother, brother, and she had sat with him in those last hours of his life. The last thing he would say with any clarity was for her to take his watch off and put it in her pocket. He had wanted her to have it. She had and within two hours, he was gone. His watch sat on her nightstand as she walked with Anthony to the center of the Great Lawn and had a moment of regret after thinking about it sitting there, its second hand ticking away the seconds.
When the moment was right, they stopped and sat down with their legs stretched out in front of them, looking almost due east. They looked into the sky, the clouds were jumbled here and there, but they could see the fake sun, the one that had been there every day for the past eight months, getting closer and closer.
She took one more sip of the coffee and sat it next to her, never to be finished. She had enough. She reached into her hoodie pocket, her hand searching for the green bouncy ball. For a moment, she thought she had lost it but then her fingers felt the rubbery item. She pulled it out and looked at it.
“Why didn’t you leave?” Anthony asked.
She turned the ball around in her fingers as she put it in front of the fake sun in the sky. At a half arm’s length, she could completely cover it with the ball.
“At first, I wanted to. All my friends took off at the first word. I was left alone. I called my mom and she said that she would wait for me if I wanted her to. I told her I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. She told me if I hadn’t decided by the end of last month, she was going to go without me. A couple of days before Halloween and after months to think about it, I called her and said I wasn’t coming. I needed to face this on my own. She said she understood and said she loved me. She said my brother had already left and she was going that night and then said I love you and then hung up.” Emily felt tears roll down her cheeks. Not as many as after she had got off the phone with her mother but she felt the pain that was still there. “This morning, I wanted to see Central Park once more. I walked all the way from Greenwich Village where I had been staying with a girlfriend. She left a month ago.”
Anthony nodded. He looked into the sky. “My family left two months ago. They went back to Italy. My grandparents, my dad’s parents, have a home there and were going back there to see what happens. They told me I had to go but I didn’t want to. I mean, I tried to explain to them it didn’t matter where you went. The only choice was quick or not so quick. I choose quick and was determined for that to happen. I ran away from home right before they left and stayed on the street. I went by the apartment a week after and saw they had gone. I was relieved but sad.” He crossed his feet at the ankles. “I went to the coffee shop this morning and ate as many of the blueberry muffins as I could. In case you’re wondering, it was almost five.” He snorted a laugh. “I use to work there up until they closed. I would come and open in the morning. I’m not sure why the store manager locked it. I still had a key and let myself in a couple of days ago. I figured nobody would care.”
It was Emily’s turn to nod. He reached for the ball and she gave it to him. He put it up in front of him the same way she had done. He smiled.
“Too bad that wasn’t a green bouncy ball,” he said, looking up.
That struck her so funny that she got the laughing fits and had lain back, holding her sides. Her laughing caused him to laugh. They laughed so hard, tears ran down into their ears. They laughed out of relief. They laughed to expel some of the fear that was building up in both of them.
They got control of themselves and he handed the ball back to her. She held it tightly in her hand as the fake sun seemed to appear closer. They had been told on the news several times over the past few months that it would look as if it would speed up in the last moments as it approached the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Abrams Asteroid, named after an amateur astronomer, Jacob Abrams, was spotted by him almost a year ago in his homemade telescope outpost behind his home in the desert of Nevada, not far from Reno. It was so close to the storyline of the movie Deep Impact, it was funny, but nobody made fun of it, not even on any late night talk shows. But there would be no spaceship with nuclear warheads to head it off and destroy it. There weren’t enough nuclear weapons in the history of the world that would put a dent in it. It was the size of Australia and was shaped like a deformed potato. That’s how one astronomer described it.
Honestly, it didn’t matter, Emily thought as she lay in the grass of the Great Lawn. It didn’t matter what it looked like or how soon they evacuated New York, not just the city but the state. It didn’t matter that they tried to evacuate as many people from the east coast as possible. It didn’t matter that she decided to stay and watch it happen, to get it all over as quick as possible and to not suffer, like her father, not even for a few seconds. Just like all the disaster movies that used this in their screenplays, it was going to hit NYC dead center. And nobody on earth was going to survive. This was it. No last minute Hail Mary. No deus ex machina to come out of nowhere and save the world. No last minute space flights to an inhabitable planet or moon where there had been a civilization set up ahead of time like in some movie or science fiction novel. Technology didn’t get there in time. And odds are there will be no miracles from God.
Nope, she thought, as The Abrams, as the world had called it, the eradicator of all human existence, now and forever, this was it and there was no time. This was her place in time, her place at the end of it, laying here in the grass with a boy she just met, her belly full of coffee, in the warm October weather, and with a forgotten green glow-in-the-dark bouncy ball.
Maybe there was a heaven and her father was waiting, waiting for her mother and brother who decided to go on ahead.
“Heaven and Hell are about to get really crowded,” she said in a voice that was clear and without fear.
Anthony didn’t say anything.
She sat up to look down on him, maybe she would kiss him, one last notch on her lipstick case when she saw they were not alone. Other people that had stayed to be done with it had crept into the great lawn to find their own spots. Some were crying and holding each other; some were lying down and flipping off the Abrams. There were even more than a few couples making love while others watched, one last time. Public indecency, be damned. Emily took in the sight as the Abrams got closer, so close she could hear it. With that, she did lean over and kissed Anthony very lightly on the lips. He did not kiss back. She didn’t take offense. He was too scared. Plus, this kiss was for her, not him.
She lay back down next to him and reached for his hand again and though he didn’t kiss back, he did grip her hand tight. With the other, she held the green bouncy ball up to block The Abrams. She had to hold it just a few inches away from her face to do so. By that time, the world was engulfed in a deafening roar; the screams from others were drowned out from it. She smiled and closed her eyes and thrust the ball upward in her hand.
Then there was nothing.