Harry needed rent money something ferocious. Harry needed rent money like—like a tiger—like a silverback gorilla, like—Harry came to decide that this game he was playing couldn’t possibly help him. But he filed the list of animals away for later use.

Harry kept walking.

Suppose he asked that girl—a girl by the name of Julia, was her name—that he had been going out with for some months…13 months, really, but the thought of having spent an entire year with her gave Harry an acute gastritis that his current stomachic status—namely, that organ’s subscription to the Zen Buddhist tenet of radical emptiness—couldn’t dare bear.

Reminded of his hunger, he decided to commit petty theft. Harry liked to go to the big grocery store way across town because the bodega right next to his place was too small. Although this could be interpreted as a valiant token of respect for small-businesses and their hard-working owners, the bodega was literally too small for Harry to steal without getting caught by the Turkish guy who owned the place (who always kept a keen eye on Harry in particular, it seemed to him).

Harry was wearing the same clothes he fell asleep in, which is to say the same clothes he put on after his last shower; either yesterday, or but one. His ratty jacket was not so old as to be charmingly rustic, but just enough so to be unfashionable; his white shirt stained brown from coffee, jaundice yellow under the arms from stale sweat; his corduroy rubbed so thin that they were normal pants. The most expensive thing on him, by far, were his shoes. They were a hundred dollars on sale when he bought them. Harry imagined they had only appreciated in value in the year and a half since then.

With every artifice of stoicism, Harry took his strides in the direction of the national-chain grocery store. His mind was resting solely upon the material comfort of food; the negative presence of hunger. Each time a beautiful woman happened to pass by our hero, his gait either widened or shrunk to a near comical degree, which Harry was quick to rationalize—silently and to no one in particular, not even himself—as a wry Chaplin impression. His pulse jumped arrhythmically in a way that couldn’t be explained by his amphetamine usage. Falling back once again onto plausible deniability, like a geometric figure falling back into its dimensional plane, Harry allowed himself a particular flight of fancy: that the beautiful woman had found him attractive as well. Every man he passed was a potential (and in fact, potentiated) threat. If Harry had had his druthers (though up to this point in Harry’s life, he has, in fact, never had them), each and every promenade he took would be a rampage of incessant sex and insatiable violence.

The painterly clouds were a pleasant shade of pencil lead. Were it to drizzle, Harry thought to himself, it would likely come down in buckets of household pets. He looked back down again just in time to meet the glance of a woman just Harry’s type: blonde, five foot six, and dimples. She caught his eyes and then veered left at an angle that could only be described as obtuse. What was he, an inflection point?

Harry’s countenance was fallen. Some might say he glowered. He took careful steps around stray garbage: rotting fruit, Starbucks cups, and leaves of grass. A particularly assertive homeless man made insolent acquaintance with the dome of the sky; it seemed that the latter had betrayed the former to an awesome degree of holy terror. Just to be sure, Harry checked for a Bluetooth earpiece in the homeless man’s ear; he was shocked to discover there was one. So the man wasn’t crazy after all; he was just taking a call.

Harry suddenly realized he had forgotten his own cell phone, such as it was. He decided on the fly to steal the cheese and try to catch Julia at her place later. Harry was jealous of her sleeping with other men. Not jealous of her, jealous of the men.

If Harry had any hobby—besides writing album reviews (that not even a Pitchfork fan could love) and trite insipidities (on brighter days, he variously called them “prose” and “screenplays”)—it was the delicate art of the romantic fantasy. Laying on that mattress on the floor of his, Harry could brilliantly imagine (which is to say affectively, but not effectively; lacking in almost every concrete detail yet all-consuming) every woman he’d ever slept with, especially the nectarine texture of the fold between their stomach and hip. Julia was a wonderful woman, to Harry’s mind; she was just his type, a beautiful face with a shapeless body. For its part, the fold between her stomach and her hip was delectable (which is to say delicious, which is to say edible, though not precisely Oedipal; in weaker moments, however, Harry would confess to a certain guilty longing for the more motherly qualities in his women, especially breasts and a fecund paunch).

There might have been thunder; either that or a second 9/11.

The green walk man was not on to cross, but Harry darted between chunks of traffic anyway, almost ballerina-like; a man of no discernible prospects nor athletic ability, Harry was a fine jay-walker. (And again, he could also be counted, to his merit, as one of the few day-dreamers to make his hobby, if not his actual dreams, into a full-time, lived reality.)

The building the grocery store was in was hulking. Instead of trembling in its wake, Harry made to enter.

Gliding through the automatic doors, and not without a somewhat restrained admiration for this futuristic wonder of threshold-tech, Harry beelined for the fancy cheese. He didn’t mind stormy days because in the pockets of his rain jacket he could (rightly, nigh justly) hide two wedges of the finest French dairy America has to offer, plus a mini-baguette and maybe even a bottle of soda. Oh, to be alive!

All he needed was a cigarette.

Walking through the air-conditioned aisles of the grocery store, Harry, like all modern folk, felt—finally—at home. Atavistic man knew nothing of the simple pleasure of dry cereal, name-brand laundry detergents. How could they? They were much less intelligent. The only thing that made Harry uncomfortable was browsing; he tended to put on an affect like he was stoned while at grocery stores, as if to signal to the ever-vigilant strangers in his midst that he had a definite reason for being 1) alone in public, 2) at a grocery store, and 3) mildly depressive- and emotionally-disturbed-looking. (Harry needed [perhaps he didn’t need] discrete reasons for everything he did, in case of an impromptu questioning by detectives or a cable news crew.)

Out of the very corner of his eye, Harry noticed an Asian man in an apron stocking a pallet of fruit; an employee. Carefully, Harry palmed the choice wedges of brie and made a natural—as natural as anyone can be in this day and age—juke towards the next aisle, where he could duck out of sight and deposit the foodstuffs into his hand-me-down jacket. Yes, Harry was stealing cheese in a jacket he stole from his father some years previous. What’s more, he stole a glance; the Asian grocery store employee was eyeing him twelve ways to Sunday, or so it seemed to Harry. An announcement went over the loudspeaker; something about a three-one-twelve. Harry looked up and checked the aisle number, just in case the announcement was a warning to security that a suspicious-looking male had just ducked into aisle twelve with some choice French dairy or something. But he was in aisle seven, and thus felt safe.

At the other end of the aisle, an elderly woman was picking out a bag of chips from the display. Another employee pushing a huge cart of products walked past, perpendicular to the aisle. Harry, striving for casualness with every mechanism of his ego, looked the other way to make sure the Asian employee wasn’t following him. He then pretended to browse the shelves for a few seconds to cast him off his scent. Another furtive glance towards the elderly woman, who was preoccupied with some bagel crisps, and Harry swiftly shoved the merchandise into his pocket. He was so worked up, his nerves on edge from his faltering blood sugar, he decided against the salad and drink. You’re home-free, Harry-boy, he thought to himself; don’t get greedy now, with everything at stake here…

As he rounded the same corner once more towards the entrance, he checked briefly behind him and noticed the same Asian employee as before, standing stock-still with his arms slack. Harry kept walking but looked again behind him. The employee was decidedly starting at him, bearing down on Harry’s very soul; his whole head was slack, his jaw half-open like some undead beast. But his eyes were alive, aimed straight ahead like a cocked bow, something ruthless about them, like a predator in the wild.

Fear came to callous our hero like an ectoplasm; and not in a good way. Harry had his hand in his jacket pocket and gripped firmly around the cheese. It was beginning to melt from the sweat, the force of will emanating from his palm. When he got to the automatic doors, he jolted still; they weren’t opening. Harry stepped back, then stepped forward again; again nothing. Oh, technology! It can connect the whole world, sure, ensure the complete democratisation of information, but can’t even sense an honest, God-fearing citizen when he approaches, as is his right, an automatic door? And what’s information anyway, or what’s the information such as it is that you get online? Just news and narratives they’re feeding into your head, no direct impact on one’s actual life, so many fictions, so much propaganda! And what’s connection? Should connecting with others be a good in and of itself? With so many connecting online, but just to sit by themselves on their computer at home anyway! Technology, such a masturbatory thing! Production for production’s sake, but nothing tangible in the whole lot, just towers of Babylon, cursed things, some myth of infinite progress…the doors finally stuttered open, and Harry was all too quick to slither between them.

He breathed in the late autumn air; it smelt like cigarettes. Harry would walk to Julia’s; she’d have a cigarette for sure. Like all good (great) problems, the rent Harry had due drifted to the back of his mind; he’d let it marinate in his subconscious for a while, eventually something (genius) would come to him. Besides, he heard (or allowed himself to hear) that with new tenant laws, they can’t even kick you out anyway, for just not paying your rent. The thought relieved Harry more than it should have—it was an incomplete thought, dashed off like signing a fake check—and then his mind made room for the cheese in his hand in his pocket; he’d walk a few blocks to put some distance between him and the mark, then bust it out when he was sure no one would be looking.

“Hey!” Harry kept walking. “Hey!” Someone was yelling; Harry was sure it was for him. But it’s a crazy, bustling town, this New York; that’s why he loved it. Harry chuckled to himself as he walked; just another crazy, bustling, New York minute! he thought. The Big Apple. Heh. His spirits were leaven by the thought of food, a smoke, a talk with Julia; the thought of what, specifically, they would discuss (usually, aggravatingly: nothing), Harry chose not to entertain.

Harry walked. “Hey! Sir!” A tap on Harry’s shoulder, and he was a giraffe if it wasn’t the same Asian man who worked at the grocery store. Terror struck Harry and he kept walking, faster, as if he hadn’t noticed the tap on his shoulder after all. “Sir, hey, you gotta pay for that, sir, come back here.” The employee was keeping pace determinably. He tapped Harry’s shoulder again, something like a shove. “Hey man, you didn’t pay for that, you gotta come back here, sir.” Harry gave him a look like he didn’t know what to which the man could be referring. He maintained his gait, only a little faster, and stared straight ahead like a soldier on the front lines. Harry had always thought these grocery stores had something like a “no chase” policy for shoplifters; this must be a new guy. No matter, no matter, he can’t chase you forever…Harry was nervous, but he felt suddenly confident in his actions. He actually came to feel perturbed by the employee: who was he to chase down a man who happened to steal a wedge of brie; who did he think he was? He can’t chase me forever, Harry thought. This guy is a little too ingrained in the system, you know, he really thinks he’s something…

The employee was really shoving him now. “Hey! Hey!” Harry made an abrupt halt and turned around; he would lose him by taking the next right, maybe duck into a department store or a pharmacy; he felt a jab, just then, hitting him hard underneath his left ear. Harry stumbled forward a bit, inadvertently feeling up an old woman’s petticoat in front of him. She looked behind at Harry, then hurried off—people were starting to stare; the store employee was quite aggressive now. He went for another punch, which, naturally, landed, and harder than the first. He was still yelling: “You gotta come back here, man, you didn’t pay for that! Thief! Thief!”

Harry was on the ground; the store-man was trying to box him out, shoving him back down every time he made to get up. Another guy in a rain slick held the employee back, which was when Harry managed to roll away and get up; foot traffic was going around them, the ruckus, now, and Harry sensed the perturbance of a hundred eyes bearing into him, a fracking of shame. He started to run, pushing away another man who tried to restrain him. Now, he was really off; he made the first right, the next left, and then, finally stopping to check behind him—the coast was clear—and catch his breath, he slowed to a brisk stroll and made the next left after that.

For the next ten blocks or so, he maintained the poise of a highly-trained monk, one who rests on pins and needles. Harry finally began to breathe normally, but kept checking behind him while waiting for the right-of-way at every intersection. He knew he should have played it safe when he noticed the store employee burning a hole in his pocket, but why should the man chase Harry like the cheese was being stolen from his personal brie allotment? The adrenaline had made his hunger go away. Harry walked.

With a slight limp, he made a tentative look to the left to gather his bearings. He turned towards the Hudson. He’d walk along the river for a while, Harry figured, then in two miles or so, he’d slant right towards Julia’s.

So he wouldn’t get kicked out for not paying rent; a man of honor (at the very least, a man of little confidence in his legislative knowledge), Harry would, at the very least, pay by the time rent was due next month. The landlady would understand; he probably didn’t even have to explain the arrangement to her, she would just assume that that’s what he was doing. He made a decision to duck into the next McDonald’s he walked by and ask for a job. He made a decision, barring the McDonald’s thing, to look up some other odd-jobs on his phone when he made it back to his loft-style single-room, at a Starbucks or another dishwashing gig or something, since it had been a few months since he last worked and all he had managed to write were four-line poems. Granted, he wrote hundreds of the things, but a man can’t make a living on poetry. Those would be for posterity. Until then, however, he’d have to work weekends.

Was it his imagination or did Harry stumble upon an empty lot in the middle of Brooklyn, some sort of demolishment job, a plot of gravel and rubble depicted in beautiful sepia-tones on this long, gray day in autumn? His mind drifting, Harry by no fault of his own decided to cut through the hollowed-out, decrepit structure that was left there torn-down—just a concrete base and part of a single wall—in the middle of the square. He kicked stones and chunks of old construction as he meandered, something of a traipse or a trundle, and thought of Julia the same way trees thought of spring.

The flick of a lighter startled Harry as he stepped onto the base of where the old building, presumably, used to stand. An old black man with a nappy beard and a baseball hat lit his cigarette and regarded Harry with neither malice nor scorn. Harry tried to return the favor, but he knew from experience, from the much-corroborated accounts of those closest to him, that scorn accompanied malice like Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper in lurking under even his most bipartisan facial contortions. The old black man smiled and inhaled then extended the stogie towards Harry, almost like he was pointing at something on the horizon.

Harry walked over and accepted the cigarette. He was parched; he hadn’t drank any water since the night before, the thought occurred to him. Smoking when you’re thirsty casts a queer pall over the proceedings. Harry squinted at the clouds almost as if he was looking at the sun itself.

“The yogis will tell you just like any smoker on the corner. How you have to learn a new way to breathe.” The old man started talking when he took the cigarette back. “How when you inhale, you raise the roof of your mouth, and how you have to inhale again. That’s when the filter turns brown, soft and warm. And how your exhale’s made manifest, something like a billow of smog, off-white like a ceiling fan. And there’s a moment in between where you’re neither inhaling nor exhaling.” He passed the cigarette back over to Harry; Harry, for his part, sucked at it like a teat. He remained silent and let the old man fill the void. He thought about Julia, of course.

“I’ve been smoking for about 45 years. Heard tell about an old Indian tribe that used to measure time by the time it took to smoke a cigarette, and smoking for them’s like clocks. See you in 22 cigarettes, they may say. And every man, woman, and child knows what you mean by it.”

The stoge returned to Harry. The tar on the filter splayed out in an almond-shape, which looked back at Harry like an eye as he looked at it in turn. He rolled the filter between his fingers and felt it mush like gum, felt the paper split from the cotton. Even spitting on the ground, the old man looked handsome and dignified; it was something about the lining of his cheeks. Maybe he kissed Harry on the lips and said bye before Harry split off, or maybe it might have just looked that way, bouncing off the intonations of the stained-glass window of the hardware store across the street as light waves do.

Harry took the plastic wrapping off his brie and a quarter of the wedge came off with it, having plied together like a polymer in the muggy atmosphere of his jacket pocket. A woman—blonde, five foot six, and dimples—strolled past and Harry struggled to keep his dignity as he scraped the wrapper with his front teeth. When, if ever, will he stop being distracted by handsome women?


For all installments of “Out for a Walk,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1