I walked into a copy shop in the East Village and saw a man I knew. He was wearing a face covering and was thinner than I remembered. He was sitting in a chair while I was waiting in line for service—actually, I was the only one in line. The copy clerk was busy behind the counter, working on a prior job. I wasn’t sure if the man in the chair was the man I knew. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and he looked too thin to be the same person. I didn’t want to greet the wrong person and embarrass myself, so I asked, “Are you ahead of me?”
He acknowledged me then—though I also was wearing a mask—and had probably recognized me when I walked in. Perhaps he’d chosen to remain silent. Maybe he was waiting to see if I would speak to him, or maybe he was hoping I wouldn’t, so he wouldn’t have to talk to me. “You didn’t know me,” he said.
As soon as I heard his voice, I knew him. “We know each other,” I said. “You didn’t have to tell me who you are.”
“That’s true,” he said, “but you didn’t say anything right away.”
He was someone I’d known for a long time, someone I considered a friend. But we saw each other only on occasion. He’d invited me to his parties—they were always well attended, so I couldn’t talk to him at length there. I’d invited him to one of my rare parties, but he hadn’t come. At one point shortly after we’d met, he’d said that he was a gymnast, and I could see that he’d once had the body for stunts on the bars and rings. But he didn’t seem capable of such activity anymore. I’d heard he had an imbalance of a dangerous metal in his body. Out of politeness, I didn’t inquire about his health. I didn’t ask, “Do you have too much copper in your blood? What does that do to you? Have you tried to control it?”
I couldn’t tell how he felt in general, or how he felt about me in particular, because of the mask over his face. He seemed to have little interest in me.
“Are you teaching now?” I asked.
“I’m teaching one semester a year,” he said.
“I teach during the fall and spring,” I said. “I don’t teach in the summer.” I could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn’t know I taught at all, but he didn’t ask for more information and I didn’t volunteer any.
I told him a story about the time we met. “Do you remember?” I asked. “We were at a retreat in the woods, and we had to walk on a path through a wild patch to get to the dining room.”
“I remember I was there,” he said.
“After dinner it was dark, and you were the only one with a flashlight. You stopped to shine the beam on an animal. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. It had short legs and moved close to the ground, and it had fluffy white fur. It turned out to be a skunk.”
“I don’t remember that,” he said.
I also recalled coming into a woman’s studio at the retreat and seeing him lying next to her on her bed (both were clothed), but I didn’t mention that. I didn’t know what it meant. Maybe it meant that they were hooking up, or maybe that they were just tired and needed some rest.
We exchanged news about our families. “How is your daughter?” I asked. “She must be a freshman, same as our daughter, because they are the same age.”
“I didn’t know they were the same age,” he said.
I told him I’d contacted a woman he knew—a professor at a Midwestern college. “I asked for her advice,” I said, “because our daughter was thinking of attending that school. But all the professor said was ‘It’s very expensive.’”
“It is very expensive,” he said.
“I know,” I said, “but that college offered us the most financial aid. They asked, ‘How much do you need?’ I gave them a figure, and they offered that exact amount.”
“That professor just retired,” he said.
“Is she emeritus?” I asked.
“She is emerita.”
He didn’t ask where our daughter ended up going to school and didn’t offer news about his daughter. I’d heard his daughter attended the university where he taught—her tuition there would have been free. I said my wife was teaching English as a second language in a community college.
“I thought she was working for a union,” he said. “I saw her on a picket line.”
“She got her master’s degree,” I said, “and got a steady job.”
I knew his wife, who was also a college teacher. She’d once invited me to her class and reprimanded me for swearing in front of her students. “How is your wife?” I asked.
“She’s in Hawaii. Her mother was living there and just died.”
The copy clerk finished his work behind the counter and acknowledged me. I stepped forward and gave him a book. I pointed to the page I wanted copied. I thought he might ask if I was duplicating copyrighted material—if what I was doing was illegal—but he said nothing.
Presently, my friend rose from his chair, and I saw he was copying a perfect-bound literary magazine that was about twenty years old. I recognized the cover logo. He must have had writing in it. I’d submitted work there several times, and I’d even read poetry at an event with the publisher. My writing, however, was never accepted.
“How is the publisher of that magazine?” I asked. “He must be elderly.”
“He’s had to scale back. He shut down some of his printing operations.”
The clerk completed my few sheets, and my friend’s turn was next. As he approached the counter, I saw he had good rapport with the attendant. “Hey, how are you doing?” they said to each other. They smiled and laughed; they even bumped fists. Obviously, my friend had been to the shop many times, whereas I’d hardly ever been there. The clerk had forgotten me.
Before I left the shop, I thought about making a plan with my friend. We could arrange to meet in the future—have coffee or a drink. But I realized it wasn’t my place to suggest such a plan. So I waved and stepped out.
When I arrived home, I mailed a paper sheet of what I’d copied at the shop. I’d written a poem about a man who drops a drinking glass on Christmas day. The man cries when the glass gives up its life—not only for the glass, but for everything else that is broken. He sweeps up the pieces but expects to step on a hidden fragment with a bare foot sooner or later. “I meant to give you a copy,” I said in a handwritten note to my friend.
He didn’t respond to my poem, which made me think it wasn’t very good.
I sent an email to his wife: “I was sorry to hear about your mother’s passing.”
I didn’t hear back from her, either, which made me wonder if she didn’t receive my email, or if it just didn’t mean much to her.
Presently, I saw on social media that the publisher of the old literary magazine had died. I thought about sending a note of condolence to my friend but decided against it. I was sure my friend and his wife would commemorate the publisher at some kind of service, but I wouldn’t be invited to the gathering.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Columbia University and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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