The Water Tower

Rachel Aydt

Winnie heard the panhandler’s voice before she saw him; it echoed across Sixth Avenue and pinged off the walls of the Jefferson Market Library. “Oh my god, you look like the fifth Beatle!” he called out. Daddy longlegs-tall and thin, the man wore a plaid blazer that looked like something one might don for a Christmas party. A long, brick-colored scarf hung down to both his knees. He shook his can and sang, “It’s been a haaaarrrddd day’s night!” and laughed and pointed at her as she crossed the street. Winnie felt a jolt; the hair on her arms stood up.

          “Has it been a long, hard night?” Winnie asked him when she arrived at his corner. 

          “Read the sign,” he said. On the sidewalk next to him was a faded blue milk crate with a hand-printed cardboard sign taped to it that read, I get high with a little help from my friends. His black sneakers were as nondescript as his old Levi’s; his hair was cropped and grey. Winnie dropped a dollar into his Progresso soup can. In the storefront window, she didn’t recognize her own reflection, though her chestnut-colored hair moved up and down like an elevator in its perpetual bob. Chin length, ear length. 

          “I feel like I’ve been here before, know you from somewhere,” said Winnie. The feeling in her chest was a balled-up treasure map. Where she might have seen him? 

          “I’ve been here and there, that’s for sure. But it’s sure lonely in New York sometimes,” he said. The current of his voice, a comfortable room with amber light, a place to take a nap. 

          “I bet you talk to anyone,” said Winnie.

          “This is my corner,” he said, smiling. Winnie felt the relaxing amber light of his attention in her body. “I have a place to stay uptown, but this corner is my office,” he said. “Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me right here in my office?”

          “I could go across the street and buy you a coffee,” she said, pointing to a cart across the street.

          “But do you like coffee? Let me guess… you like it light and sweet.” 

          “I like it light and not sweet. Do you like yours light and sweet?”

          “Yes, ma’am,” said the panhandler, shaking his can.

          Winnie said she’d be right back. She returned with two Grecian blue and white paper cups in her hand, printed with the universal coffee slogan, We’re Happy to Serve You. 

          “Here go you—it’s stupid coffee cart coffee, but it’s coffee.”

          “I like stupid coffee cart coffee,” he said, peeling the white plastic tab from his lid. She mirrored him, and steam rose from each cup. 

          “What’s your name?” asked Winnie.

          “I’m Jimmy. You, young lady?”

          “Winnie, short for Winifred. A name you would only hear your Aunt Ethel say.”

          “Well, I don’t have an Aunt Ethel, Miss Winnie, but I like it!”

          Down the block, book peddlers set up tables stacked with paperback books and LPs. A fluorescently lit dollar pizza store, whose doors were open 24 hours a day, awaited hungry calorie hunters. Winnie stole a glance at Jimmy’s face—was he hungry? His brown irises sparkled with flecks of gold. His lips were chapped from the cold. His long scarf, at closer range, was handmade from chunky yarn, like something Aunt Ethel would make after all. When he smiled, the left side of his mouth curled up, pushing his left eyebrow up into a question. 

          “This right here, this used to be a women’s prison,” said Jimmy, pointing up toward the rising tower of the Jefferson Market Library. 

          “I know,” Winnie replied.

          “I bet you know a lot. You look smart, Miss Winifred.”

          Before she fell asleep that night, she pictured him standing on the corner, the Jefferson Market Library rising behind him. In her dreams, she scrambled over a wall at the East River’s bulkhead and onto algae-covered rocks at low tide. In the distance, she saw a school of fish undulating beneath, air bubbles breaking the surface. It was too cold outside to slip into the water and try to reach them, so she searched for a raft but found only a broken oar.
          The next time she encountered Jimmy, six months had passed. In Winnie terms, that was one casual, but disappointing boyfriend come and gone, and the same old job spinning blood samples and making appointments at a doctor’s office. Her usual trajectory in New York was Northwest from her apartment; her routine was dictated by a magnetic force. She was pulled to 8th Avenue to the sleek, overpriced grocery store, and to the Hudson River for her routine evening walks. Rarely did she go below 14th Street, but today she felt like picking up a book from the Strand.

          Jimmy, in a bold Hawaiian print with green palm and fern fronds, shook a Chock-Full O’ Nuts coffee can at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street. Behind him, a green municipal trashcan overflowed with disposable coffee cups. His milk crate had been upgraded to a three-legged stool.

          “Hey, Jimmy, where’s your Christmas plaid?” she asked.

          “Oh my God, it’s the fifth Beatle! How are you girl?!” His beard was greyer than before, giving him a more upright and distinguished look. The gold flecks in his irises still made his brown eyes shimmer. They used to be softer, though. It was exhaustion that weighed them down at their corners, not age. 

          She thought of what it meant to collect change. Coins and paper, rattling and shaking in a vessel. When she was small, commemorative coins were advertised on TV in between Saturday cartoons: silver coins from the Seoul Olympics featuring flame torches, or gold-plated Bicentennial coins embossed with elaborate quills and stowed in precious velvet-sleeved books with cardboard slots. She imagined them pouring out of a machine somewhere, too many to grab in handfuls. And then what? For a child, two silver coins could be dug out from couch cushions and turned into candy from the corner bodega.
          Winnie stood next to Jimmy as he spoke to other passersby—he treated each of them to the same warmth she’d observed last winter; it was his nature. But this time his generous spirit triggered something in her that felt tight, ugly. She wanted to be the thing that brightened his face. “It’s been a haaaard day’s night,” he sang again, shaking his can. 

          “But you look happy,” she said, before moving down the avenue. 

          Winnie found excuses to migrate from her usual path—on Monday afternoons, Bob’s Bagels were 50% off! Her new evening walk moved east, from the Hudson River to Washington Square Park, and down to MacDougal Street, a right turn onto Minetta Lane, a short street that ran downhill in the shape of a comma. A dogleg over to 12th Street to pass the Strand. On every 3rd walk, she saw Jimmy again and dropped change in his cup—lint-covered dimes, pennies, nickels. She felt entitled to bend his ear.

          Jimmy asked her questions that made her feel like she had homed into her evening’s companion at a small dinner party. He coaxed her Manhattan upbringing from her and brought her past into focus over the course of weeks: she grew up in the East Village with a single mother and no siblings. She was a good student, and independent. She kept a low profile in school, never visibly excelling in anything that would bring her unwanted attention. She hated team sports but loved walking for hours. Her pleasures were solitary. She loved to swim, her arms pulling her body across the water in a slow crawl, the din of the other swimmers silenced each time her head dipped below the water. At the city-run gym where she kept her membership, she stuck to the middle lane. Her social inclinations were as etched into her habits. She preferred to be with one person at a time; the sharper dynamics of a group were too quick and mercurial to feel worthwhile. One person by her side to join her long walks; one person at a time to meet for coffee; one favorite professor to take classes with over and over again, the same academic points of study realigning each term into new waves of understanding. And a therapist in between those things after her mother grew tired of the city and moved upstate to a little cottage outside of Woodstock. Winnie didn’t mind the Greyhound rides out of the city, across to the Palisades, past the juggernaut of New Jersey’s concrete strip malls, and then crossing back into New York state, the hushed mountains changing colors with every trip.

          When she stopped to talk to Jimmy, the topics that sprouted as minor quandaries grew into mighty oaks of trouble. “I’m not sure how I should be living my life,” she said to him. 

          “How are you living your life?” asked Jimmy, and when she had no answer for him, she was beset by the feeling of the deep kind of trouble one finds in one’s sleep and can’t shake off the next day. Wasn’t it obvious by now how she was living her life? Did he experience her a shallow, mere shape of a person? Regardless, he continued to offer her steady solutions that were proving fruitful. 

          “I’m lonely,” said Winnie. 

          “Go to the river,” he said. “Don’t matter which direction you go; rivers are good for the head. But don’t go and get mugged down there!” he laughed. 

          “Maybe you can join me some time,” she said.

          Early one Saturday morning after a night of nonsensical dreams, Winnie set out to the East River, snaking across West 4th Street to East 4th Street, and down the Bowery through Chinatown. The further east she went, the more residential the buildings became. Block after block, the NYU students and young professionals and glamorous Soho retailers were replaced with home health care aids pushing the wheelchairs of their elderly clients, impromptu fruit stands covered with tilted beach umbrellas, and multi-purpose bodega storefronts that sold everything from wooden Victor rat traps to plastic dishwashing gloves.
          When she arrived at the water, she sat on a bench under the Manhattan bridge near a group of elderly Chinese women doing a traditional fan dance. They stood in formation, twisting and turning, opening and closing their fans with precision. Beyond them, the river churned, in contrast to the smoothness of their motions. A fog of music drifted from a transistor radio tuned to a faraway place. And what was underneath the water? Winnie imagined the broken body of a porcelain doll, half-submerged in silt. She imagined an old subway car discarded for the purpose of preserving marine life; an algae-covered container that made a stable home for fish. She was used to the submarine size of her apartment; for the fish, the rusted-out windows and algae-covered plastic seats would seem like a vast safe haven from the anglers who lined the river with their rods and reels, etching the wooden rails with their bait knives. Winnie imagined the anglers’ family dinners depended on what was at the end of their tight monofilament lines. In colder weather, striped bass migrated upstream from the Atlantic. She never bought and cooked fish, but now considered the large striped bass, and then their sharp cartilage sword bones sticking out of a steamed dish in Chinatown, dotted with a pungent black bean sauce. That was the closest she’d come to striped bass, but this season they were busy tunneling through the shallow canyons of the waterways, arriving in a pattern pre-etched in time. She’d seen the fish in her dreams. She wondered if Jimmy liked to eat fish.

          Visiting Jimmy gave her the same deep satisfaction as dropping into a psychic’s bucket shop. When he spoke to her, his eyes never wavered. Everyone else’s eyes wavered—always. And Jimmy shook her hand! His fingernails were long; crescent moons of dirt lodged underneath the tips, but their ridges were uniform, and his hands felt strong.  

          “Where do you live, Jimmy?” she asked him. He pointed high into the sky. “You can’t see it from here,” he said, his voice scratchy. He was always saying preposterous things like that. I’ve ridden on the Orient Express, he said, and: You know those artists who were from America who went to Paris? I was there when they were. Whether he was lying or telling the truth was of no concern to Winnie; she always chose to believe him. 

          “I live in a water tower,” he said, his voice dropping into a less detectable octave.

          “A water tower? What do you mean? Which water tower?”

          “If I told you, I might get KICKED OUT!” 

          “I wouldn’t tell anyone, though. Come on, who would I tell?” Her voice pleaded; seaweed pulled from the tight hinge of a mussel. 

          “It’s a de-li-cate situation. I don’t stay there all the time, but a friend showed me where he used to sack out, and when I didn’t see him for a few weeks, I stopped by. He wasn’t there. That was 17 months ago.”

  Winnie thought of what 17months meant. 68 weeks of finding a way to climb a building unseen, to break into a water tower, and to make a little home. It seemed unlikely.

          “Can I see it sometime?” she asked, straightening up her posture and tilting her chin in a question. Jimmy turned away from her, scratching his grey beard. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll think on it,” he said. 

          The next day, Winnie dropped by the Strand after work—Jimmy was engaged with a group of tourists gathered near the green municipal garbage can. He was singing “New York, New York, a hell of a town.” How he could rein them in with such an old chestnut! She wanted to speak to him about upping his huckster game; picking a more obscure song and slapping some local history on it, for good measure, like “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Hurry, get on board, it’s comin’. She lingered at the outdoor stacks of books and waited, pretending to comb through titles on the $3 – $5 rack. Across the group, he saw her and yelled, “Hey Winnie! I know that girl, she’s, my friend! Come on over here!” She waved and strolled over to greet them.

          “You’re making a scene, Jimmy,” she whispered to him, but she smiled. She felt like a complicit bystander in a game of 3-card Monty, secretly embedded in strategic machinations. In a way, she was. Still, she didn’t want this family to know her name, or to know about their friendship—clearly, she didn’t understand it herself. A nuclear family: the teenage daughter, mortified; her slightly younger brother on his phone.

          “Everyone loves Jimmy,” said Winnie. “He called me the fifth Beatle when he first saw me crossing the street and my Aunt Ethel knitted him a brick-colored scarf!” 

The parents laughed.

          “I normally don’t like to give people money,” Winnie added, her arms folded tightly across her chest. Jimmy’s smile didn’t drop, but in one instant his morale seemed to waiver. What a tacky thing to say, Winnie thought. I normally don’t like to give people money. The mother reached into her bag, pulled out an overstuffed pleather wallet, and dropped a ten-dollar bill in his can. Jimmy jumped up and down and said, “See? I told you it was a hell of a town! New York, New York, a hell of a town!” The family waved goodbye and wandered across the street to the latest generic café chain to pop up, the parents satisfied in their authentic New York City moment.

          “Come on, girl, I’m done here. Let’s go and check out that tower,” said Jimmy.

          They strolled south on Broadway and made a right on Bleecker Street. Without thinking, she grabbed his hand and held it. They walked blocks this way, hand in hand, and he didn’t pull away. She ran her thumb along the ridges of his long fingers while Jimmy nodded to people. Maybe they knew him; maybe they didn’t. They looked at him and they looked at her and they looked back at him and then back at her. She felt this exchange across each two-second time lapse. On Greenwich Street, the air was cooler. The sun dipped over the Hudson. Across the water, Jersey City’s buildings twinkled in the waning light.

          “Since I’ve been comin’ around, this building has always been empty,” said Jimmy. “But I still like to be discreet, like a Ninja.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “See how I move my feet now, heel to toe, heel to toe, so none of this gravel makes any sound?”

          “Like this?” asked Winnie, her smaller feet mimicking his stealthy motion. She felt the thrill of trespassing and the relief of his presence.  

          “First thing you have to do is climb up the fire escape. Are you afraid of heights?” he asked. She shook her head no and climbed behind him, eight stories straight up a rusty fire escape. When they reached the top, he held her hand while she stepped over a brick ledge and onto the rooftop. The globe of the sun still hovered across the river.
          In front of them was a water tower made of ash-colored cedar, in obvious disrepair. Its large size took her by surprise. She’d never stopped to consider what the actual ratio of water tower to building was; she’d never had a reason to. Winnie followed Jimmy as he climbed up the safety ladder. When he reached the top, he pulled a latch and swung open a heavy wooden door. A ladder on the inside descended into womb-like darkness.

          Suddenly, she was scared. Her judgment had been off before. She was following a man into a tank on top of an abandoned building, and she didn’t even know his last name! 

          “No one would ever find me here,” she said, her voice trailing. 

          She climbed until her eyes cleared the rim of the hatch. Down below, whispers of amber light seeped through the musty wood planks. Maybe a whiff of mold, but also dried-out cedar. The inside of grandmother’s closet.

          “Hold up girl!” he said. “I’m gonna light a torch.” 

          Winnie pictured an angry mob storming down a street carrying giant wooden torches. Instead, he turned on a flashlight. It dawned on her that torch was an antiquated way to say flashlight, and that was indicative of his age. Once he’d called his jeans dungarees. His flashlight dangled from a piece of twine that had been rigged up from one side of the tower’s interior to the other—a clothesline. In the flashlight’s circular glow, Winnie saw a sleeping bag on top of a pile of yoga mats and a milk crate topped with a leaning tower of unidentified appliances. 

          “You have a toaster!” said Winnie. “Can you plug it in?”

          “You’d be amazed what you can find,” he said, without answering her question. “Hungry? I could make you something to eat.” Jimmy stood with his chin jutted up like he was trying to remember something. 

          “Ravenous,” she said.  

          “We have a choice: Tuna or tuna!” 

          “I’ll have tuna.” 

          “Alright, alright. I’m not accustomed to having a lady around at mealtime. Give me a moment. Have a seat,” he said, pointing to another three-legged stool. His words, staccato. Each syllable cracked the air in a sort of performance. He couldn’t believe his luck. A young lady! In his company at mealtime! His castle in the sky was so peaceful, so quiet.

          “When I was younger, I used to visit Cape May with my mother,” said Winnie. “We stayed at an old motel on Madison Street. Across the street was an old metal water tower with a thick chain-link fence around it. Me and my mom would pick up rocks from the parking lot, cross the street, throw them as high and as hard as we could. When a rock struck the tower, it was like this interplanetary sound reverberated, layers and layers of sound. It took a long time for the sound to fade out, like an echo,” she said. Jimmy presented her with a small plate. To one side was a little can of tuna popped open; to the other, a pile of saltines, and a fork. “I used to make this for myself as a snack when my mother worked late nights,” said Winnie.  

          “Keep your voice down,” said Jimmy. “I don’t want to get kicked out.”

          Winnie nodded, tucked into her plate. The torch swayed every so lightly, casting a glow in different corners. Shapes became clearer: a plank of wood perched on two bricks. On the shelf was a row of books. She wondered if he’d found them at the Strand; some had mylar covers and looked to be from the library. She picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Through the Shadowlands and looked at its spine. Jefferson Market Library NYPL. She opened it and saw a blue “discard” stamp. 

          “I’m cold,” said Winnie. “I’m feeling drowsy.” She set the plate onto the ground and moved over to his yoga mat. The sleeping bag was halfway unzipped and without asking she slipped into it and curled up in a ball. Sleep came quickly and brought dreams with it: Jimmy, walking down a darkened snowy street in silence, even though he carried a bag of empty aluminum cans; in his other hand, a gallon jug filled with river water sloshed a captured octopus around with each step he took.
          When she woke up, there were no more sunbeams threading through the cracks. Jimmy was sitting against the wall. His smile was velvet and gentle; the truest smile she’d ever seen. If nobody ever found her, she realized, that would be quite alright. 

          “Thank you for the tuna,” whispered Winnie. “I like your house.” 

          “Anytime, young lady,” he said, crossing his legs in a graceful gesture.

          She reached for his hand and squeezed it for a long moment. Those long nails, his skin dry and chapped from the cold. She brought his fingers to her lips, closed her eyes, and kissed them, her face pressing against his hand until he moved it to stroke her ear, neck, shoulder.
          By the time she pushed her head out of the tower’s hatch, the globe of the sun had been replaced by a nearly full and waxing moon that illuminated the choppy waves of the Hudson in a hopeful glow. A barge slowly cut its way through the harbor, leaving long shadows in its wake.

Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing at the New School University. She also teaches at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published in The White Review, HCE Review, Broad Street Journal, Post Road, Green Mountains Journal, and many other publications. She lives in New York City and is co-founder of Crystal Radio Sessions at the KGB Bar in Manhattan.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021