Character 1 has a meeting at Character 2’s office at 3pm. Character 1’s train is supposed to arrive at the station at 2pm. A driver from a car service will be waiting on the train platform to drive him/her to the meeting site. But for some reason, at 3pm, Character 1 doesn’t show up at Character 2’s office. When Character 2 tries to call him/her, his/her cell phone just rings and then goes to voicemail. When Character 2 calls the car service, they say they have no record of the car to pick up Character 1, being reserved. At last, Character 1 arrives at Character 2’s office, at 4pm – two hours after he/she arrived at the train station. What happened to Character 1 during these lost hours?
Graham’s brow was covered in sweat as he waited for the train at the Church Avenue station. It was his first interview in six months. His first interview after weeks of panicking that the severance pay was running out; phone interviews where he sounded too desperate; buying only rice and beans at the corner market. Betty, his young wife, had gone back to substitute teaching at Our Lady of Fatima for pittance and they had little Michael to think about.
Three months earlier little Michael had come and after three months of supportive talk even Betty started looking desperate. The nuns at the school had offered him a caretaker’s position and the caretaker’s apartment on the school property where he and his family would be allowed to live rent-free. They went to look at the place, but it reeked of clay and medicine and halfway through looking around Graham had a flash: “What am I doing? I am a UNIX/LINEX programmer, what the hell am I considering this for?”
The truth was, desperate times called for desperate measures and any work was better than none.
The Seventh Avenue express arrived, screeching to a stop and Graham got on after the exhale that opened its doors. Now he had to get to Penn Station from Brooklyn but the whole thing didn’t make sense. Why didn’t they just give him the address if it was on 27th Street? The walk from the station could not have been far and would save him from meeting the guy with the car service. Maybe the car service was also meeting someone else- Some hungry young rube from Baltimore or D.C.. Graham could not stop sweating.
With a screech the train came to a halt at Penn Station. “I have to get there by two,” Graham thought. “Two and no later.” He looked at his watch. 1:49. He was running late again.
Like a gazelle, Graham jumped off the train, bounded past the masses and found his way into the lobby, where the car service was supposed to pick him up. Fathers and sons greeted each other; old friends and new ones screeched with delight. No one with his name on a sign... no one that resembled a chauffeur. After scanning the lobby, Graham bolted out the doors to check the metered areas. His brisk walk searching for the car made his armpits sweat and now it felt cold. Too cold.
“Sorry, son,” he heard from under his armpit. Graham spun around, expecting the driver to be holding a sign right in front of him. Instead, he found a small white haired woman pulling a trolley and holding a piece of paper. Her face was a dried apple, and her coat was long out of style, maybe the 1970’s somewhere. Her shoes were polished leather, high quality. Graham excused himself, thinking he had accidentally run into the old woman and threw her off balance. Somehow he managed a smile.
“Sorry, son,” she said again. “I am lost. Can you help me?” Horns were honking at a car trying to back out of metered parking. Graham, startled and confused, jumped and then returned his gaze to the old woman. She looked like his Nana.
Her mouth was moving, but the noise of the street drowned out what she was saying.
“I’m sorry I can’t help you!” Graham shouted, slightly above her ear. “I’m meeting someone.”
She looked up at him again, and her eyes were covered slightly by cataracts and Graham felt a strange sense of guilt for saying what he did. In repentance and frustration he took the slip of paper from her hand and read: 122 w Chelsea.
“Ma’am,” Graham yelled again. “You are very close to Chelsea right now...”
“You don’t have to yell, son,” the woman said, chuckling. The noise had died down and they could hear each other.
Graham looked at his cell phone. 2:00. Shit.
“Let me flag a taxi,” he said, lifting his arm.
“I, I, there’s no need,” the woman was saying as Graham was taking her by the elbow to the curb. A black car drove by with a driver obviously looking for a pick up.
“Hey!” Graham shouted.
“No need to shout...” the old woman’s trolley caught a crack in the sidewalk and toppled over, spilling out a book and a box of Kleenex. Graham was trying to flag down the car, whose driver never saw him.
“Shit!” Graham said, in complete frustration. The woman turned toward her trolley and moaned a little.
As if reconnected with a new responsibility, Graham looked back at his charge and picked up the fallen contents and put the trolley back on its wheels.
“It’s not that steady,” the woman was saying. A truck passed, honking loudly at a messenger on a bicycle.
Graham could hear neither the woman nor the horn. He was calling the number of the interviewer that had told him to meet the car service, trying to keep calm. There was no answer.
Graham checked his instant messages, hoping to find some information that might help him. As if a miracle occurred, he found: “See you at 3 – look out for Ace Transport Services, at 2:15 at Penn Station.” Ha! He wasn’t late after all.
The number for Ace Transport showed up on a google search and Graham called it, listening to its rings like a mad man waiting for his first child to be born. Little Michael.
“I’m at Penn Station and your driver is circling around to pick me up!” Graham screamed into his phone. The woman, still next to him jumped.
“What is your name, sir?” the dispatcher asked on the other end.
“Shell, Graham Shell.” He waited, sweat pouring from his brow.
“We have no pickups at Penn Station today...”
“It’s a pick-up for Norton Extreme!” Graham had no patience in him left. “Do you have a record of Norton Extreme?”
“They use us from time to time, but not today.”
Not today. Not TODAY. NOT TODAY!!!
Graham disconnected with another expletive and finally hailed a taxi. It pulled to the curb where Graham put the woman in and said “122 West Chesea, please.”
“No.” The woman was looking up at Graham, and finally grabbed his arm as if begging him to listen. She looked like his own Nana used to when she was about to have a cry. “I have no money for a taxi. And I’m going to 122 West Twenty- seventh. In Chelsea.”
“Why not walk your grandma there, pal?” the driver was looking at a hail across the street.
“She’s not my...” Graham gave up and pulled the woman out, her trolley spilling again. He picked it up.
The woman walked slowly and Graham pulled her trolley, looking around as they made their way to West 27th, not a far walk but the ancient woman was so slow. Graham’s phone was out of juice and the second time he called Norton Extreme it completely died. He was crushed with grief.
“You know this place used to be called the fashion district,” the woman was saying as she found a cement bench to sit down on at a street cafe. Graham brushed his hair back, slick with old hairspray and sweat.
“Ma’am?” A waiter tried to hand her a menu but she waved him off, stood up and continued walking forward. Graham watched the addresses, his heart in his socks. Why hadn't they answered their phone? What would he tell Betty? How could he redeem after a no-show to an interview? He slowly walked, listening to the stories of the garment trade from the old woman in her 70’s coat.
At last, he saw the address and pointed up the stairs. “Here you are,” he said to the old woman. She smiled and motioned for him to come closer. Graham bent down and felt a wrinkled kiss meet his cheek. The tenderness of her made him smile, and he remembered his own Nana, so old and useless to everyone else around that she died slowly, slipping away from all who loved her.
“Let me walk you up,” he said, changing his mind.
She took one step at a time in the same speed as they had walked here. As Graham reached the doors, he read on its glass “Norton Extreme, Inc.” His heart did an incredible upswing, hoping to redeem himself and show up (he had no clock) better late than never.
The elevator took them up to Norton and the old woman said she didn’t mind coming with him to explain, but as he got to the door, two men (younger than he was) were walking out, their jackets hung over their arms.
“Bubbie!” One of them shouted. “What are you doing here?”
The old woman held up her wrinkled hands to the young man’s face, who had before Graham’s eyes transformed into a ten year old child.
“Happy Birthday, Smendle!” she was saying.
Graham checked the sign on the door again. Norton Extreme Inc. He was in the right place, and with any luck...
“Look at this nice boy!” the woman turned back to Graham, covered in sweat, his hair sticking to him. “What boy would walk an old lost woman to her grandson’s work from Penn Station?”
The boy (Smendle?) looked up at Graham, beaming. “Thank you, sir! I can’t tell you...”
“I’m late for an interview with you,” Graham blurted out.
Both young men looked at each other, the non-Smendle held out his hand. “Are you Graham Shell?” he said. Graham nodded and Smendle took his hand next.
“Bob Rubenstein,” Smendle said. “We got a call from Ace Transport that said there was a mix-up in the details.” Graham felt himself breathing new air, revivied by the redemption of the woman who was the CEO’s Bubbie and the hope of reconnection. Bob continued, “They had you being picked up tomorrow, I don’t know why. Listen, we’ve been trying to call you, but your phone goes straight to voicemail.”
“Yeah, it’s dead.”
“We’ve been interviewing since seven this morning and we’re completely exhausted, but we have your resume and we'll call you later to follow up.”
“And today’s your birthday,” Graham finished. The men stood nodding for awhile, still taking in the depth of the beauty of this coincidence.
“How well do you know linex?” Bob asked, impulsively.
“Well,” Graham answered.
“Smendle, just hire him,” the old woman said. Both employers laughed, then shook Graham’s hand again.
“We’ll be in touch,” Bob said, smiling. As Graham walked toward the elevator, he heard a soft rustling of paper in the aluminium cart that the old woman said was not so steady.
“Here, Smendle,” Graham could not help but look back at what she was giving him. The men were still watching him, dumbfounded.
It was a handknitted sweater, blue and gold with a v-neck.
“Happy Birthday, darling,” she said.
Graham turned back to the elevator, feeling the hug and the joy as he rode it down.