Robbie is lanky and pallid. He keeps rocking onto his toes like there is something to see over the heads of the volunteers crowding the sidewalk. He asks me what I think we should do.
Let’s talk to that guy in the red vest, I say, but before we can reach him, the guy dashes out from his pop tent with a pile of binders and trots off toward the glass-walled entrance of the convention center.
Seven or ten volunteers spill past the curb onto 34th street. They are dressed in summer clothes. A woman in a red vest asks them to get off the road even though it is closed to traffic. The woman in the red vest tells them in a louder voice to move. She then asks a man, or maybe another woman, I can’t remember, but she picks someone at random and assigns them the task of getting everybody onto the sidewalk. The someone walks to the double yellow line and with a shepherding motion yells, Everyone move back!
Other members of the sidewalk crowd see what is happening and rush to join that someone. Move back! they all say. Their voices are commanding. The voices of leaders. There are now a dozen extra people in the street.
There is a line, a man in a red vest tells Robbie and me, and so we wait. We wait to learn our skills are useless. We wait to tell them we’ll use our hands. We don’t care.
I just want them to know my blood type, I tell Robbie. I’m a universal donor.
An SUV appears. A small mob directs it to curb. The driver hustles out and pops the trunk, and the back of the vehicle is surrounded. Individuals emerge with cases of water and energy bars. A bystander applauds as they run the goods to the nearest pop tent.
A news camera pans the line. Robbie turns his head. I ask him why.
This urge to be of use, he says. It’s embarrassing.
We decide to walk. We don’t know where we’re going, we tell each other, but we are walking south towards the scent of burning. The river is to our right, and I don’t remember if our feet strike the pavement or not. Of course they do, but we’re floating too, and even though we can’t see the plume of ash on the other side of the skyscrapers, we know it is there, maintaining its form.
The avenue is closed to traffic. We are the only pedestrians. We say it feels apocalyptic. This is the first time we’ve ever said such a thing. I mean really said it. A blue pickup filled with men and tools speeds south. They look at us. We look at them.
My cousin got out, I tell Robbie. I’ve told him the story, but he wants to hear it again. She was talking to her friend. She took the stairs. Didn’t look for her purse. There was an announcement telling people to go back.
Would you have kept going? I ask Robbie.
He doesn’t know, and that scares him. I tell him I would have gone back, I’m pretty certain of it. My cousin doesn’t know where her friend is.
There are more people now. A group is stationed on the median. They raise their banners as the trucks go by and chant the name of our country. Robbie takes my hand.
It is good that we are here, I say. It is good that we exist.
Yes, Robbie says. It’s hard to wrap his head around, but we need to be here. The lucky can join us.
It’s more than that, I say. We are good. There has never been anyone as good as we are right now.
I point to the twilight across the river. I say it is pretty, how the individual rays gleam up from below the horizon, how they illuminate the clouds. I tell him it is a comfort.
The police block the road at 14th street. We head east. Maybe we can end up at Union Square, we say, but no one is checking IDs at 14th and 8th. Should we go south now, we ask each other. We don’t see the harm in it.
I don’t remember if there is electricity below 14th. There must be, but it’s vacant. Like the city has been turned off, and there are no storefronts, and the buildings are only shadows, and we’re wading through a soundless void like the opposite of a haunted house but just as dreadful.
We are not supposed to be here, whispers Robbie.
There is a man. He is black or brown or he might be white, I can’t remember. He is on the street with us, and he says, Do you know what that smell is?
There is a gas station across 2nd Avenue with fluorescents shining bright and harsh and calling us over with the concentrated tone of a tuning fork. We buy cigarettes even though we’ve both quit smoking.
A refrigerated truck pulls up to the pump on our way out. A policeman parked on the street gets out of his cruiser. He asks the driver if the truck is for the bodies.
The driver says yes.
The back of the truck is open. It is empty except for a box of latex gloves.
We should not be here, but we are hungry, and there is a nice restaurant with three other patrons inside. It is filled with the absence of scent and still candlelight. We order Paella and red wine, neither of which have any taste.
The waitress tells us we can smoke in the dining room. Her hair is a cloud. She leans against the bar and asks for one of our cigarettes.
A woman and a man sit at a booth with their heads almost touching across the table. They murmur the same words we have been saying all day.
The other customer is by himself. He asks the waitress where the toilet is in a contrapuntal cadence. He pronounces it, terlet. When he comes back, he asks us for a cigarette. I flick my lighter and tilt the tiny flame his way. I ask where he is from.
He says where he is from it was neighbor against neighbor.
He tells us that when we imagine a bomb, we probably imagine running away from the blast. He tells us that where he grew up, they would run towards it. They would run to their people.
He tells us his cousin was shot outside a supermarket with her baby in her arms. Can you imagine it, he says. They saw the baby, and they killed her just the same.
The guy tells us he went to Australia first. He spoke to no one for entire month. Not even the cashiers. He wanted to see what it would do to him.
I ask him how it went.
And then he gets this look of fear on him. For a second I think he’s afraid of me, but I can’t imagine why because I’m friendly and nice.
How long have you been here? I ask him.
Six months, he says. He lives just down the block. He asks us where we live.
Before I can stop him, Robbie tells the guy we’re from uptown.
The guy gets the fearful look again. He asks what we are doing down here.
Robbie says we’re sad and wandering.
I tell him we come to the East Village all the time. It’s our old stomping ground.
He tells us they won’t let us go any further. No one is allowed below Houston.
He asks the waitress for the check, and we light more cigarettes. We offer him another. He says, You guys are dangerous.
Robbie and I say nothing as he pays. When he is gone we say, What was that about?
I say, The guy meant the cigarettes were dangerous, not us.
Robbie says, No, he was acting nervous before then.
I say, The guy has been through a lot. But I’m glad we met him, I say, because even with everything that is happening, it is important to remember how good we have it. We have it so good.
Robbie says he doesn’t feel well. I can see he’s sweating, but not in an obvious way because his face is dry. It’s more like there are little streams of fluid tunneling under the surface of his skin.
I look hard into his eyes, like I think if I go deep enough, past the little squares of light in his irises, I imagine I can see what he is thinking.
We imagine, he says.
What do we imagine? I say.
He says nothing.
And I say, Why are you being so circumspect? You are free to say what you want. All of us here, we can say whatever we want.
Robbie says, Some things are unsayable.
I tell him to hug his children.
And Robbie says hugging our children is like eating our liver because of children starving in a far off land, and anyway children never understand what one thing has to do with another.
We leave, and then the power goes out, just like that. I look back, and I can’t see the restaurant we were in anymore. I can’t even remember how nice it was, but I remember thinking it was nice.
Robbie is starting to worry. Robbie thinks he might be sick.
Let’s wait right here, I tell him. Let’s wait for the daylight. We’ll figure this out once it’s light. I take his hand and we sit, the two of us, right there on the sidewalk.
And the ash is falling all over now. It falls softly like snow but makes even less of a sound. We are thick in the cloud and can no longer imagine its outline.
I point to the ground. To the black dots scattered all over the pavement. I tell Robbie it is gum. These dots were in people’s mouths, I say. They spit them out, and other people have been stepping on them for years and years. Can you imagine it? I ask. Right where we’re sitting.
I tell him it is a comfort.