Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Planetarium
By Rebecca L. Morrison

His feet were planted like stumps, toes like roots. He tilted his head at 45 degrees and cast his eyes skywards, widening them with amazement.

“Huh,” he quietly muttered to himself, the sound nearly contained in his throat. “Would you look at that!” His eyes lit up with what danced above him.

As the foot traffic surrounding the Times Square metro stop hustled and bustled about him, he thought of his saltwater aquarium at home and the starfish that nestled itself atop turquoise and banana-hued gravel while the angelfish, the clownfish, the eels and assorted tangs busied themselves around it, ignorant of the free world existing a only touch above the tank’s fluid surface. The exotic fish, narrow-minded, only kissed the sky to gorge on crumbling flakes.

He stared on, incredulous. The scent of juicy bratwursts wafting from a vendor’s kiosk did little to distract our friend’s senses, though his morning Columbian roast had been the last thing to pass his lips. Rotting refuse and sticky asphalt delicately curled through the city air, meeting the appetizing aroma to create a fragrance that, if bottled and branded, Calvin Klein might market.

He’d picked an ill-advised time – an exceptionally imprudent location – to notice the celestial phenomenon. As Manhattanites, those commuting from other boroughs and tourists alike expected a seamless transition from the above to the underground, his stagnancy startled them – incensed them! – as their eyes lifted from the screens of their mobile phones a split-second too late each time.

Five minutes passed, but he didn’t feel it.

Ten minutes, and he would’ve guessed that he was the victim of a clock wound backwards.

Fifteen minutes, and his concentration was threatened – but not compromised – by a dark-haired man in a darker suit with his dark eyes glued to the screen of his BlackBerry. Their shoulders collided, a ship and an iceberg, and the man’s phone fell to the pavement in pieces.

“’Ey, watch it!” he cried out, arms flung akimbo above his head in distress. “Who the hell stands right outside of the busiest metro stop in the entire city and doesn’t expect to be knocked flat on his ass? I mean, really…walk much?!”

Our friend’s gaze stayed steady. “Not today, sir. Not right now.”

“If this piece of shit broke again, this time it’s your fault, buddy, and you’ll be out $500.” The man deftly laid his briefcase – Italian leather, a keepsake from his ex-wife’s trip to Florence – by his feet and knelt, running his thumb across the phone’s wide screen. After sliding the phone’s battery back in its rightful place, he noticed that our friend hadn’t budged.

“Hey, buddy...” he began unsteadily. “Whatcha lookin’ at up there?” He smoothed back his greased hair with thick, ringed fingers, attempting to engage the stranger in some form of eye contact, although as a native New Yorker he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. “You see a Goodyear blimp or something?”

Our friend’s hands found his pockets as he chuckled, although his stare never broke. “Now, why would you ask me a question like that when clearly you could look up and see for yourself?” His eyes followed the celestial life that dotted the sky above him.

The man sharply picked up his briefcase and, shaking his head, cleared his throat. “Listen, wiseass,” he extended a quaking pointer finger. “Why don’t you cut the bullshit and tell me why you’ve decided to redirect lunchtime traffic over here, all by yourself? You not from around here or something?”

“Been here a few times before.” Normally, the man would have unsettled him, and our friend might have flown off the handle, but today the action in the sky relaxed his nerves and enticed his mind.

The man took a step closer. “People are tryin’ to walk here; you’re gonna get yourself plowed the hell over. It’s noon in Times Square, and you’re parked right outside the damn metro entrance for crying out loud…!” The man noticed our friend’s casual dress – his faded denim, remnant from his collegiate days, his simple white tee, unadorned but creaseless – and, contrasted with his own business attire, dismissed him.

The man’s phone buzzed against his thigh, and he quickly brought it to his ear; his brow immediately furrowed. “No, I don’t have a hold on the account,” he shouted into the mouthpiece. “You’re gonna have to get off your bony ass and call over there yourself; I’m taking lunch right now, Gabrielle! And while you’re at it, find me a new secretary! Oh excuse me, assistant...I didn't know you grad students were so damned particular these days!”

“Enjoy your sandwich,” our friend mumbled, although the man had already disappeared below, leaving the foil and paper wrapper from which his roast beef on rye had emerged dripping with grease on the ground.

Five minutes passed, but he didn’t feel it.

Ten minutes, and he would’ve guessed that he was the victim of a clock wound backwards.

Fifteen minutes, and he felt a brusque tap on his right shoulder.

“Hey, sorry to bother you,” she began half-heartedly, fiddling with the cellophane that coated her pack of cigarettes. “Just wondering if you’ve got a light…?” She took a step closer, and her expensive pumps met their fate.

“Fuck!” she exclaimed, fishing a bottle of hand sanitizer and a napkin from her designer tote-bag. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! What kind of jerk-off leaves his nasty food wrapper on the ground like this? How am I supposed to notice that?” She dabbed at the toe of her shoe. “Do you know how fucking much I paid for these, huh?”

“Probably too much.”

Her slender, manicured fist balled the napkin in frustration, visions of wasted dollar signs still dancing in her head. “Okay dude, you know what? Why don’t you just light me? You got a Bic?”

Despite her icy blue doe-eyes and the pale sheet of shining hair poured down her back, our friend remained focused above. “Not on me, no. Sorry, ma’m,” he answered calmly, the words scarcely traveling past his teeth.

She shifted her weight from right stiletto to left, her sinewy, coltish limbs and Nordic features garnering the gawk of the bum panhandling several feet away. “Sorry, what? You’re gonna have to speak up.”

He cleared his throat. “No lighter. Sorry,” but his lips moved silently as a harried police siren wailed past.

She cast her heavily made-up eyes downwards and ruefully shook her head, her dangling diamond earrings catching the midday sun. “Look, dude,” she stated wryly. “I’ve got ten minutes to catch the line and get all the fucking way over to West Village in these shoes to turn in my portfolio. I am in desperate need of nicotine. Either light me, or don’t, but I haven’t had a drag since eight o’clock this morning; so really, you don’t wanna fuck with me right now.”

Our friend sighed, “No lighter,” still fixated up above.

The girl sneered, her lacquered lip turning up as her sloped nose crinkled in disgust. “Okay dude, what the fuck ever. Thanks for wasting my time.” She dismissed him with a flip of her hair to search for the nearest smoker before curiosity slaughtered her inner feline. She twisted her torso in our friend’s direction, fleetingly forgetting about her fashion marketing project due in eight minutes. And, in the moment, she stopped to study him – an artist and her muse.

“Mind telling me what’s got you so fascinated?”

“Nothing you couldn’t see on your own, I'd imagine.”

“Seriously dude, I told you not to fuck with me. What’s your deal?”

With his lack of response, she lobbed the balled-up napkin that had de-oiled her Prada shoes in his direction. “Typical New York ass-wipe.” It bounced off his chest like a basketball off a headboard and landed delicately at his feet.

“I’m from Rhode Island,” he clarified, but the New York purgatory had already swallowed her.

Five minutes passed, but he didn’t feel it.

Ten minutes, and he would’ve guessed that he was the victim of a clock wound backwards.

Fifteen minutes, and a fanny-packed family scurried by him.

The mother, belly slumped over her black spandex shorts, waved a procession of five children like ducklings through the crowd.

“Jesus Christ, y’all, get your eyes off your GameBoys and watch where you’re going!” she snatched the devices away from each child and stored them in her pack. “If we’re late for The Lion King and one of those guys with the flashlights has to show us to our seats in the middle of everything, I am going to scream, and so help me god, I will make sure we are on the first plane back to Little Rock tomorrow, I swear to y’all.”

The boy in blue burst into fresh tears at the loss of his distraction. His bedraggled father scooped him up as the family briskly navigated their way to the 42nd street station.

In their urgency and disorder, the family failed to notice they were minus-one, and the smallest sibling – a waif of a girl with a silky yellow ribbon tied atop her head – stopped next to our friend, tugging at the bottom his of white t-shirt.

“Hey, mister,” she lisped. “Didya know you’re the only person standing still in this whole Times Square?”

Our friend smiled, his stare unaffected. “Oh, am I?”

“Yes, sir, yes, you really are. My mom’s moving too fast; I can’t keep up.” She whipped her head left to right, and center again – nervous. “Can I stay here with you and watch the sky?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. You belong with your family.”

But the girl remained at his side, fist still grasping the hem of his shirt.

And, mimicking her newfound friend, she looked up. “Yeah, I tried to get my brother to see, but he was too busy with his racing game.”

“Most people are.”

“Are the stars always out during the day in New York City?”

He looked down at the girl, meeting her inquisitive green eyes with his. “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just today, and I think it’s just Times Square.” Our friend shoved his hands in his pockets and returned his eyes to the hundreds of angels dancing amongst the daytime constellations. “What do you know about stars?”

She shrugged. “Oh, a lot, I know a lot! I got a telescope for my birthday, and I can see Orion’s Belt, and the Dippers, and sometimes Virgo, because that one is my birthday…”

“You mean to say you’re a Virgo?”

She grinned toothless and nodded. “That’s what I read in my book about stars.”

“Fancy that; I’m a Virgo, too. Do you see it?”

“I think so.”

“Me too. And you’d think someone else would notice all of this, right?”

She assiduously nodded, her yellow ribbon bouncing. “Oh yes, sir, yes!” She swiveled her head about to take in the scene around her:

A boy with a skewed Yankees cap littering a candy-bar wrapper.

A Japanese group touring the landmark on Segways.

A young couple squabbling as they raced to hail their cab, Starbucks in hand.

And the girl’s gaze returned to the heavens. “Hey, mister?”


“I changed my mind.”


“I’m not surprised that we’re the only ones.”

“Me too.”

“Hey, mister?”


She sighed, her slight shoulders slumping with the weight of what surrounded her. “They’d all forget their problems if they’d just stand beside me and look up.”

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