Bindings Part 1: To Feel Cold and Poor
Ignoring winter’s passive beauty, I shrug off evening’s cold and look around. I am alone in Kendall Square.
“Just me,” I whisper.
“Just me,” echoes darkness.
I walk a few steps and yell to the buildings forming an unscalable canyon, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
Falling snow catches my words and gobbles them up. Hoping for an echo, I am disappointed.
Still listening for echo’s response, I march forward. My mind drifts among wisps of snow crawling along the sidewalk. Soon, childlike thoughts are joined by concerns regarding my looming visit to Jersey. A crease is drawn across my brow.
The moon is blocked by passing clouds. As if seeking me, snow begins to accumulate upon my shoulders. Within a moment, the accumulating snow is joined by a familiar pressure; a weight pressing upon the base of my neck.
Invisible white strips of papier-mâché drape across the shape of my body. Resigned to the swelling sense of dread, I sigh.
After six years I’m used to it.
One by one, a series of unseen wraps is layered across my back. In no time, I am swaddled in a suffocating cloak. The snow mixes with the wraps as they harden into a coating of interwoven binds. As they harden, they constrict, squeezing the warmth from my chest.
My breathing grows short.
These binds, woven from the pressing need to pay rent, meet car payments, cover overdue heating bills, pay for electricity, catch up on AT&T’s phone charges, and – new to the list this year – deal with tuition associated with grad school, join together in conspiracy.
Out of breath, I lumber forward, up Main Street, toward the ATM machine.
“Just keep moving,” I whisper.
I look up to the sky as the moon reappears. Distant lights flicker on and off.
Closing eyes, I search for Christmas grace upon my cheek. My cloak of limited means retards my ability to enjoy the moment. Working as a coordinated team, the stiffening binds give no ground. Without care they squeeze against my chest, expelling the last of warm breath.
Sensing the absence of warmth, additional snowflakes are drawn toward me. They reach for me, hoping to extend their life by adhering to a cold surface. Gently they grasp for a foothold, accumulating across my face, my shoulders and the backs of my hands. They seek to seal me in an icy tomb. Like leaching insects, the bravest of the snowflakes crawl forward to enter my mouth, my nose and my ears. As they breach the surface I grow colder.
Alarmed at the swiftness of their assault I shuck off parasitic snowflakes with bare hands. Loosened snowflakes fall to their death on the sidewalk below.
Wisps of snow drift and collect the fallen soldiers, reaching for me like longing fingers. To anyone else the scene of drifts might appear beautiful.
I know otherwise.
By now I’m used it.
Free of the leaching snowflakes, I step from night’s hush and stand under an overhead light marking the entrance to the Kendall Square BayBank. I hope the atrium housing the ATM is warm. In preparation for Christmas travel and shopping I will enter the atrium and withdraw my remaining balance from BayBank.
Once at the glass doorway I sing to my reflection, “I got my BayBank card, I’m a real go-getter!” My reflection rolls his eyes. He knows better.
Arching my head upwards I open my mouth wide in an effort to capture a snowflake. Snow covers my face.
I pull in a deep breath. The cold air wreaks havoc on my teeth. When I have money, I'll go to the dentist.
I shake myself in an effort to further loosen my bindings.
I should feel warm inside.
Standing before the BayBank atrium I watch my reflection grope for a wallet.
“Sixty dollars,” I sigh.
Amused, my reflection mouths the words back to me. He places both hands on his hips and watches as I dig my wallet from a front pocket.
Advancing snowflakes form a mocking halo around my reflection.
Sixty dollars to fill the tank of my ’85 Nissan Pulsar, pay the tolls along the Pike and purchase Christmas gifts for mom, KJ, and each of my two sisters.
No need to purchase a gift for dad; it’s under my arm resting in a red and white Coop bag.
Dad will receive the maroon MIT sweatshirt tucked within the bag. For my part I have no desire to wear such a sweatshirt as I am resentful of the bindings associated with the $15,000 cost of graduate school, the cash advance I took on my Citibank card to pay the first MIT invoice and my need to borrow $5,000 from mom and dad to cover the second tuition payment. I feel no need to advertise on behalf of one of my financial constraints; on behalf of one of the wraps currently conspiring to squeeze the warmth from me.
Dad, though, will appreciate this gift. It’s not meant to warm him from the cold air. It’s meant to warm him from within. In this bag rests the launching point for what I imagine will be a hundred little conversations; at the gym, as he jogs around the Glen Rock Duck Pond. or while he shops at Kilroy’s Wonder Market; each one resulting in a flicker of warmth.
I close my eyes and picture such a conversation as it forms somewhere in the future.
Stranger: “Oh, say there, did you go to MIT?”
Dad: “Me? Oh no. Not me. Actually, my son goes there. My son’s a first year graduate student at Sloan. That’s the business school…,” he nods before concluding, “at MIT.”
As he finishes, a smile will inch across his face.
That smile is my gift.
Each such conversation will warm an ember deep within the cold heart forged during his childhood; a childhood squeezed dry of warmth and love. Unlike my bindings, his binds began to harden when he was just a boy. He grew to become a man but, once hardened, bindings never stretch.
From the inside out, the ember will warm his bones and skin and force his body to react. The result will be a smile.
The sweatshirt will launch a hundred such smiles.
It’s what he needs.
To be warm.
Looking down I watch snow accumulate across the backs of my hands.
And, over the next 10 years, dad will report back to me on each of his little sweatshirt conversations. When we’re chatting on the phone I can tell he’s grinning and when we’re face to face, I watch as he relays the story with a creeping smile.
“Hey, Glenn, guess what? Today, I was at the gym and after my workout – did my shoulders and back today and one of the linemen from the Giants ended up spotting me – I was getting a Gatorade and this guy from MIT, said he graduated in ’81, came up to me and asked...”
And, in just over 10 years from now, after dad responds to an incident on a Tuesday morning in New York and does not return home, a new set of more brutal bindings will be draped upon my shoulders. Replacing the outdated wraps of poverty, the new bindings will weigh upon me with a pressure previously unknown; crushing me in a heavier, suffocating, cloak. And as I try to become accustomed to life with my new cloak, I will find myself going through dad’s clothing as I seek out embers to keep me warm; to fight against the cold accompanying these new bindings. The old MIT sweatshirt is one of three embers I collect.
When I see the sweatshirt folded neatly in his closet I freeze. I pull it from its shelf and hold the sweatshirt to my face. I pull in a deep breath. Cold air hurries past my teeth. I drape the old gift across my shoulders in an effort to counter my newest draping and, as I do, I am surprised to see a hundred or so smiles tumble from the front pocket.
Like snowflakes they fall to the floor and die.
I’m cold. I should wear the sweatshirt tonight as my jacket is too light.
But I don’t wear it. The sweatshirt remains in the bag.
It’s for him.
When I have the money, I’ll get a new jacket.
I pull my BayBank card from my wallet, “Sixty fucking dollars,” I repeat.
I run the numbers. I’ll need about 12 gallons of gas to get to Jersey. That’s $12. I have a pocket full of coins removed from the coin jar in my room so tolls and a couple of D&D coffees are covered. That leaves $48 for Christmas gifts. I’ll shoot to spend $15 on mom and $11 each for my brother and sisters.
For mom I’ll get a sweater. And in the box under the sweater I’ll tuck a hand written letter sharing my thoughts and private hopes. I’ll write it all down and, in the letter, I’ll thank her and say I love her and tell her I’m so very proud of her and I’ll let her know she is the one that has kept me warm these last years; the years I was cold.
This letter will help sustain her inner warmth.
Of course, I don’t know it today, but 15 winters from now, after cancer places mom in his cold mortar and grinds the life from her, I will find the handwritten letter tucked under clothes in mom’s top dresser draw.
On that day I reread the letter, thinking of mom as these words might have reached her.
And, thinking I hear a noise, I look outside and watch as wisps of snow skip across her bedroom window. I frown and a crease is drawn across my forehead.
As the cold snow watches through the window, yet another set of bindings falls across my shoulders. Recognizing, the familiar feeling, I nod in resignation.
But before I finish the letter, I’m interrupted by the drumbeat of snow’s fingers as they tap upon the window. Standing alone in her room I shiver. These words; they’re not for me.
Disgusted with my newest binds I sigh, crumple the letter, and drop it in the garbage.
For the siblings, I’ll play it safe and go with CDs. Or maybe books. Depending on the selection I can make either pretty personal.
And that’ll tap me out. Until I finish working over the winter break for two weeks at a circuit board assembly plant in Paterson, I will have no money for drinking, or dates, or the unforeseen; no money if something goes awry.
If my car dies on the trip to Jersey I’m fucked. I can’t afford a tow. If she dies, I’ll leave her along the road with a note and hitch the rest of the way. It’s the day before Christmas Eve so I’m not worried about getting a ride. I check my jacket pocket to make sure I have a working pen. I do. If hitching becomes necessary I’ll use the back of some class notes to make a sign; “Bergen County, NJ”. Signs are a prerequisite for long hitches.
I’m not too worried, though. The car should make it. It’s a bottom of the line Nissan, purchased used in 1986 following my graduation from ULowell. My first car. The $117 monthly car payment complements my previous loan officer trainee salary of $17,500.
Now, an annual salary of $17,500 was not enough to shear all of poverty’s bindings but it was a demonstrable step up from my weekly take-home of $120 earned as a part time employee at Lowell’s Colonial Gas Company during college. Full time work at the Gas Co. during summers doubled my pay to $247 a week.
Three years at $120 per week, two years at $250 a week (bumped up to over $300 per week after being promoted from trainee to loan officer at the bank in ‘88) and now one semester at zero per week as an MIT grad student.
I insert my card in the ATM’s outside security slot. The buzzer sounds.
I reach to open the door to the atrium but I’m too slow.
The buzzing stops and the door remains locked. Frustrated, I yank the door, startling an elderly woman appearing on the other side of the glass.
Covered in a thin veneer of snow she stands directly in front of the atrium’s lone ATM machine. ‘That’s odd,’ I think. ‘I hadn’t noticed you there.’
Alarmed to me presence, the old bird wheels to glare at me. Her eyes are those of a knowing predator.
From my side of the glass barrier, I waive my hands across my chest in a visual translation of ‘all set; don’t worry.’ She eyes me, wondering if she should be worried. I smile and bow an exaggerated bow before trying my card again. I’m faster this time and swing the door open before the drone of the buzzer comes to a sharp conclusion. Without moving from the machine she watches me.
I enter the small atrium hoping for warmth. It’s cold.
“Sorry for all the racket! I’m just too slow with those dog-gone doors.”
Deciding a response to my apology is unnecessary the old bird turns to look at the machine. She’s flustered. She presses a button or two before turning back to face me, “You made me lose my place, young man. You and your, your racket.”
Her voice is otherworldly. It cracks, like ice. Words reverberate as if trumpeted from old wooden speakers crafted to bellow the songs of Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. Echoes accompany frustration as her words leap from the white walls of the stark atrium.
I am captivated.
As she speaks I can’t help but stare. Snow sticks to her coat. Cold air seems to pour from her mouth. Her lips are just one or two lipstick laps away from the mouth of a circus clown.
I smell her. She cloaks herself with too much perfume.
Her skin, though, is remarkable. She appears as a long lost doll made of ancient porcelain found after years of slumber in a black trunk tucked in the attic. Her white skin is delicate, like a fossil. It’s drawn tightly over a pointed nose and high cheekbones. Her cheeks are made rosy by the cold in the atrium.
I look closer and, on further inspection, her skin appears translucent. Pulled together at the outer edge of each eye, crows’ feet mark their turf. They radiate towards her ears. Black librarian glasses with swooped tips increase the size of green predator eyes. The eyes catch me watching her.
She looks me up and down. My sneakers are worn and my jeans faded. She watches as I pull my jacket tight across my chest.
For her part the old bird seeks to keep warm with a long coat, black with a thick band of bristly fur circling the lower edge. Snow-speckled fur cuffs ring her wrists. A red scarf coils around her neck and, like a stream seeking safe passage to an underground well, it disappears beneath the front of her coat. Like a crown, she wears a black hat, rimmed with what appears to be a never ending fox tail. White hair drifts from beneath her black hat. Wayward strands probe the shoulders of her black coat to mingle with snow. Softly, the shortest of the strands drift back and forth in response to an invisible breeze.
Despite the weather outside the bird wears low cut black shoes. Black stockings are packed tight with what looks like snow. The stockings hide age spots beyond my sight. Cinched tight around the bird’s waist is a thick black belt. I look but can’t locate the belt’s end; it just wraps and wraps and wraps around her torso. Her waist is squeezed tight; so tight it’s no more than a foot across.
Between her left arm and bird-like body she holds a thin black pocketbook. Bright silver edges shine under the glare of the atrium’s overhead lights. Protecting her frozen claws are black gloves crafted from leather. White initials are monogrammed just below the gloves’ trim though I’m too far away to read the initials. Her right coat sleeve is bunched up (I suspect as a result of jabbing at the stoic BayBank machine so violently) exposing the skin of her slender arm. I spy a beautiful silver watch adorned with reflecting light. It loiters midway between the cuff of her coat and the edge of her glove.
The watch rests across snow-white skin too bright to be natural.
Her skin can only be cold; like a sheet of ice.
And I so want to touch it; to warm it with my fingertips. To place my hand on her wrist and watch as the warmth from my grip cracks her icy veneer, forming black cracks and filling the vacuum within.
I can’t help myself. Like a snowflake I’m drawn to her.
I step forward.
Stopping after one step, the voice inside my head asks, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
She hears my silent words and stands at attention.
Her eyes narrow.
Slowly, I kick the floor before me with my right foot.
I return her steely green-eyed gaze. Awkwardly, I break the silence, “I like your glasses. They’re cool, like those Cadillac cars with the fins on the back, ya know? I love those ‘ol cars. And, ah, your glasses remind me of those cars.”
Keeping the pocketbook clutched under her wing, she raises her left hand to touch the tip of her glasses, nudging them ever so slightly.
She seems to read everything inside my head.
Sensing my game, she smirks, “Cute.”
A clock ticks and I turn around to look for the time but can’t find the clock. I shrug a private shrug and return my attention to the world around me.
She turns and returns her attention to the machine.
She fidgets with the ATM keyboard, “Ugh!” She jabs at it, “Stupid money machine!”
She turns, looks at me and then looks back to the simple keyboard. As if trying to pluck a too-quick-to-be-caught worm from the earth she jabs at it again and again.
I interrupt the bird vs. machine fight, “Ma’am, if I may. I think if you just press ‘cancel’ – there, that one, the red button there – then your card will come out and you can start all over again.”
Not turning to face me she presses cancel and the machine beeps before returning her card. She grabs the card and turns to face me, holding the green BayBank card for me to see.
I smile and nod.
She clears her throat and a plume of cold air slips from her mouth, “There. Finally. Is that what you wanted? Go on now if you’re in such a rush. You go first.” She steps aside, “Go on.”
I hold up both hands, palms facing her, “No, no. I’m in no rush. Please. I mean, it doesn’t matter whether I get to Jersey in four hours or in four hours and 10 minutes so, no, you go ahead.”
Her eyes loiter across my face before coming to rest on my Coop bag. “You’re one of those MIT students?” She jerks her chin first towards my red and white bag and then, in the wrong direction, toward the Charles River.
“Um, yes. Just finished my first semester here. Just finished finals. Not so easy, I tell ya.”
She says nothing but leans forward, I assume, in an attempt to hear me.
Speaking a bit louder I fill the silence, “Passed ‘em all. My finals, I mean. I’m not one of those brainiac undergraduates though. I’m a first year graduate student at Sloan. That’s the business school at…”
She cuts me off with a wave of the hand, “Dear God, I know what Sloan is. I’m familiar with MIT, young man.” She shakes her head before continuing, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you think you and your highfalutin MIT friends know everything. And you just haveta explain it to the rest of us simpletons, huh?”
Thoroughly caught off guard, I squeeze my lips tight. I don’t know whether to suggest she go fuck herself or to burst out laughing.
She helps me with my decision.
She scoffs, “Oh and I can hear you just fine so there’s no need to raise your voice in here.”
She slows her words to mock me, “OK? I CAN HEAR YOU. JUST. FINE!”
In conclusion she shakes her head, “Jesus Christ.”
Failing to contain myself I bend over laughing.
“And what’s so funny young man?”
With my left hand on my knee, I hold up my right hand in surrender, “Well, ma’am you come across so reserved, you know? All in black and with your nice winter coat and fur hat and stuff so I didn’t expect that from you. You’re, well, I dunno… what’s the word?”
She stares as I answer my own question, “Feisty! That’s the word. You’re feisty.”
Her eyes grow wide. So wide I’m startled.
Seeing I’ve overstepped my bounds I soften my voice, “Sorry, ma’am. I guess, well, I guess you’re just one of those folks that doesn’t like to take any, um, any…”
I stop, realizing I’m only making things worse. I look down.
“Shit? I don’t take any shit? Is that what you were about to say, young man?”
Trying to keep from laughing further I snort like a pig. Her eyes narrow as she watches a familiar plume of cold air pour from my mouth. Finally, I stand at attention to face the bird.
“Yes ma’am. That’s it.”
I compose myself before continuing, “I’m sorry.”
Forgetting my bindings for just a moment, I try to lighten the mood, “Ya know, you’d do just fine where I come from in New Jersey.”
She says nothing as my misguided efforts to smooth things over continue, “Say, wanna come to New Jersey with me? For Christmas?”
She turns her back to me as her verdict floats from lipstick-wrapped lips, “The answer is no. And, I’m so very glad my trip to the money machine amused you, sonny. I’m glad my inability to withdraw money in a timely manner gave you something to laugh about tonight. Please consider that my gift to you.”
Facing the machine the last of her words float like a bubble towards me, “Rich brat. What’s that expression? The rich get richer…”
She jabs at the ATM as the bubble pops in front of me spraying unwelcome words across my tightly woven bindings. I bristle as my bindings sop them up, adding to their weight.
Now it’s my turn to take offence.
“Um, excuse me, ma’am, but if you’re talk’n about yourself gett’n richer, well then I guess I can’t argue with you there ‘cause I don’t know you. But, if your talk’n about me gett’n richer, well I can assure you that, I’m the opposite of rich. If anything, in my case it’s the poor going to school and gett’n poorer.”
My breathing quickens, “So, if you happen to know something I don’t know ‘bout me gett’n richer I can assure you, I’m all ears, sister!”
Without thinking I cross my arms to rub my shoulders, “I mean, like, right now I’m just trying to get warm.”
She tilts her head just enough to show me the left side of her face. Her porcelain ear seems to wiggle in an effort to capture my words. A lone green eye seeks me out. And, as her ear absorbs the word ‘sister,’ her eye moves farther afield than humanly possible. Taken aback by the unnatural movement of her eye I stand rigid. Her gaze rotates around the room before locking in on me.
She squints before prompting me, “Go on. Continue.”
Confused at the prompt, I gawk at her, “What?”
She prompts me, letting her words fall to the floor like deformed snowflakes.
“You said ‘poor’ so, tell me. What’s it like to be poor? What’s it like to try – apparently without success – ‘to get warm’?”
She blinks in slow motion and, as she does, I spy a lattice work of blue veins as they crisscross her eyelid, “Go on, young man.” Her voice rises, “Tell me.”
I pull my eyebrows together, thinking ‘What the fuck is she asking me? What it’s like? To be poor? To be fuck’n poor?’
I glower at her. Fuck it. I’ll never see the old bird again.
Unfiltered words belch from my chest, “All right, lady. Fine. I’ll tell ya what it’s like. It’s like being bound. Like you’re being goddamn suffocated. I mean, when I think of being poor and not being able to afford my heating bill or Christmas gifts I think of little feet, ya know; crippled by bindings. All bound up with the life – no, the warmth – squeezed outa them. I mean, I got sixty dollars in that machine. That’s how rich I am. Sixty frigg’n dollars for Christmas! And, after six years of bringing home somethin’ like $100 to $350 a week I don’t think I’ll be qualifying for your ‘rich brat’ club, ma’am.”
The bird continues to monitor me with her single eye. It leaves me to scan our surroundings, rotating through an entire clockwise circle before returning to me.
Resigned to entertain the bird I continue, “And, that place over there,” I nod with my chin toward MIT. “Well, that place does more than just help rich kids get richer. In my case anyway, it’s a second chance from being a screw-up; so maybe, just maybe, someone like me can move the needle forward. And, ya know what it means if the needle moves forward, lady?”
Her eyebrow cocks high as her lonely eye blinks.
“It means that someday the people ‘round me’ll get more than $11 gifts for Christmas. That’s what it means!”
As if relishing the taste of my words she licks her lips with a long red tongue. The fat tongue is way too thick and way too long for her mouth. I shiver at the thought of what that thick red lipstick must taste like.
Cold dances across my skin.
I look down to see if I am naked.
“Jesus,” I whisper.
Apparently satisfied, she stops listening and turns to the machine. I hear the whishing noise of the ATM as it counts out cash and spits the crisp bills into the draw behind the machine’s little metal door (in 1988, cash was counted by the machine and dropped into a small hidden shelf-like area the size of a shoe box behind a metal door and, once the machine counted out the cash, the door slid up to present your money.) The ATM beeps to the bird and the metal door rises, allowing the bird to reach into the machine and retrieve her cash.
She takes her time, fiddling with her withdraw. The machine beeps a warning.
She removes her pocketbook from its perch between her wing and torso and stashes the money with a quick snap of the silver clasp. As she turns to leave I give her a wide birth.
“Merry Christmas, ma’am.” I shrug, “And, uh, sorry if I talked too much.”
She nods a knowing nod. Then she shuffles past me; not as a bird but as an exhausted old woman carrying the weight of a lifetime of bindings.
Around us time, slows to accommodate her pace.
“Here, let me get the door for you.” I turn and take the required step or two toward the door before pushing it open. Cold air pours forth, engulfing us. In response to the cold, the old bird’s skin appears to glow.
As the air assaults her exposed skin she turns to face me, “I knew you were going to do that; just knew it.”
I scrunch my eyebrows together in confusion. I have no idea what she’s talking about.
Her green eyes scan me.
Resigned to her place in the cold she sighs.
Slowly she shuffles past, whispering, “You remember.”
Now I’m thoroughly confused, “Uh, yes ma’am. I will. I’ll remember.”
She cuts me off with a clipped wave, “Merry Christmas, young man. And remember. Remember what it’s like to be poor. And what it’s like to have the warmth squeezed from all but your soul.” Her voice echoes.
“Will do, ma’am.”
She walks past me and steps into the snow.
With great care she crafts a path of tiny footprints. They appear too small for her feet. I watch for a moment as the tiny footprints pursue her down Main Street.
Within a moment she is completely covered in snowflakes.
A new breeze passes over the threshold and through my jeans. I pull the atrium door shut and turn to the machine. Overhead, a heating unit kicks in, humming in an effort to gain my attention. I’d been so focused on the bird I’d not even noticed the heating unit. I feel the lick of warmth on my exposed neck.
Inside, though, I remain cold.
Sliding my card into the ATM I enter my passcode.
Check available balance.
“What the fuck,” I whisper to the machine. “I thought I had $60?”
I press withdraw.
Just great. I recalculate. $12 for gas. $10 for mom. $6 each for each sibling.
I hear two quick swishes as my two Christmas twenties are dropped behind the little metal door. The door slides up. I bend over to grab my two twenties and, in the right hand corner of the draw I see two more twenties, folded over twice waiting for me.
I stare. The ATM beeps a warning. The door is about to slide shut.
I grab my two twenties along with the bird’s present.
Eighty dollars. Eighty fucking dollars!
I stuff the money into my pocket, grab my card, and run to the door, shoving it open to give chase.
The street is empty. I look for the bird’s footprints.
I look up and down Main Street without success.
Across the street a black crow rests on a wire, monitoring my movements. With a cool eye she stares at me. Her lonely eye blinks.
I stare back, calling to the bird, “If you see your friend in black, please tell her I said thank you. And tell her I will remember.”
The bird cocks her head to one side before bowing. She leaps skyward and into the falling snow. I lose sight of her as snow accumulates across her wings.
I look upward. Snowflakes latch onto eyelashes blurring my vision, “Thank you.”
As I walk to my car snowflakes fight to gain a foothold across my shoulders.
I drive to New Jersey.
And as I pass Worcester, my car’s heater shits the bed. Cold air begins to belch forward, clutching at my face and creeping under my bindings. I zip my jacket to cover an exposed neck and stuff a handful of Dunkin Donuts napkins up the sleeves to defend against the groping cold. For the remainder of the trip I scrape ice from the inside of my windshield.
It doesn’t matter, though.
Inside I feel warm.