by Thaddeus Rutkowski
I WAS VERY THIRSTY. But I wasn’t far from water, or so I thought. I was on my bicycle, riding next to what had been the East River Park. The area once had a few water fountains but was now a wasteland. Piles of sand lay in place of flower gardens. A couple of drinking fountains still stood, but the valves were turned off. In fact, the fixtures were sealed off by wire-mesh fencing.
I rode along the edge of the construction zone and saw that a tennis court was now a parking lot for official vehicles. According to a signboard, the land in the former park would be raised by eight feet to prevent flooding. A diversity of trees and plants would be brought in. Pedestrian bridges and restrooms would be replaced. But the result was hard to imagine when the landscape was dirt.
To one side, I saw a park I hadn’t seen before. I rode into it because a fence blocked my path forward. I arrived at a small baseball diamond and walked my bike between the bleachers and the ball field. I became the main attraction for the spectators as I interrupted their view of the kids playing. Could they see me, and what did they see? Just a guy on a bike, or someone not quite the same as they were, with their kids playing?
I was in a mirror of the park that had once existed, with people who used to frequent the original park. I almost ran into strollers holding toddlers. The passageways resembled a maze. On either side were rosebushes with brightly colored blossoms. I had no idea where the forking paths led. Shortly, I came to the innermost circle, occupied not by a Minotaur, but by a couple of young white guys. I could have guessed at what they were doing, what their relation to each other was. But I was anxious. I was looking for a street, any street, that would lead me out of the lush-green place.
Among the alternate trees, I spotted an outbuilding, a sort of urban outhouse, that seemed to have plumbing. On an outside wall was a familiar arrangement of drinking fixtures, one higher for big people, the other lower for small people. I pushed a valve button, and water came out slowly, but surely. I didn’t know if one tap was safer to drink from than the other. There was no sign saying the water had been tested. I let the water run and, straddling my bicycle seat, drank from the lower one. I counted the gulps. How much could I drink, or should I drink? Six gulps, at least. I took ten. I wasn’t dying; I wasn’t about to keel over. I was ready to go on.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books of prose and poetry, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. A new book of his short fictions is forthcoming.