“Manhattanhenge comes about because the Sun’s arc has not yet reached [the Solstice’s] limits, and is on route to them, as we catch a brief glimpse of the setting Sun along the canyons of our narrow streets.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Haydon Planetarium Website
Samantha climbs up the subway stairs huddled against the cold, even in May. Crumpled papers and hard plastic crunch under her feet, and she can smell the street before she reaches it, salt and stale smoke. She buys a coffee from the guy on the corner and doesn’t say anything when he looks at her legs. The coffee is hot. She thinks she’ll save it for when she gets there.
The street rings with cars and people. Samantha lifts her head to see the sky, but even this seems hidden by the excessive clamor of the city. She wishes it all would stop, just for a moment. Don’t they know what’s coming? A cold wind blows up her skirt and makes her shiver. She keeps walking.
She remembers years ago, taking the train with her father, she asked where they were going, and he said, “I want to show you something.” She held his hand when they changed in Jamaica and when they walked through Penn Station, up the escalator, and onto the street. They inched to the corner of 7th Avenue, then turned east and didn’t stop until her feet were stiff and the sun had just about set. “Wait,” he said, then gripped her shoulders, “it’s almost time.” She remembers standing still and feeling his fingers squeeze her hand. She remembers the sweat pouring into her eyes when it happened. And afterwards, afterwards they lingered side by side while the sounds of the city faded into night.
Samantha leans against the wall of some building on 2nd Avenue and sips her coffee. So much for saving it. She watches a woman push a stroller as if the sidewalk were an obstacle course, swerving around slower pedestrians and a trash can. She wonders if her mother ever pushed her in a stroller, maybe down Main Street on her way to the beauty parlor. She’s seen pictures of the three of them before the accident and her mother’s hair always looked so perfect, so unlike her own frizzy mess, undoubtedly inherited from her father. She checks her watch, still thirty minutes before it starts, so she sips her coffee again, then drinks it all, then throws the cup in the same trash can the woman with the stroller so deftly outmaneuvered earlier.
Years ago, she wanted to know why. Why did the train to Penn Station sometimes take one hour and sometimes almost two? Why did so many people take the train into the city? Why did some people not take the train? Why did that car stall on the tracks? Why did the conductor slam on the brakes? Why was her mother the only person on the train who got thrown from her seat? Why did her mother’s neck move the way it moved? Why did her father take her to the city the following month? Why did they walk east, all the way to 2nd Avenue? Why did her heart break when he showed her what happened to the sun, but not when the police came to their door one month earlier to tell them her mother’s neck had snapped and that the entire world would change?
The streets fill, more cars, more pedestrians. Samantha checks her watch again, she’s almost there. A boy plays his cello near the corner of 38th Street, so she stops and listens. His face is shadowed by an awning and she thinks he’s beautiful, half-revealed in the afternoon’s fading light. He can’t be older than eight, she realizes, around her age when her father showed her what happened to the sun. She remembers wanting to know more about the sun, as if some giant mystery suggested itself that day in the city, one month after the accident. That day, she imagined a little man building a city out of different-sized steel boxes. “Where to start?” she imagined him saying. “North to south? To capture the sun?” And she imagined him looking for the sun, shielding his eyes. “Yes, the sun!” he said, then wiped his brow and continued to work.
She drops some coins in the hat the boy left by his cello case and walks away. Only four more blocks. She thinks about how much fun it was when she was a child to imagine that little man working with his steel boxes, figuring out how to build a city that could capture the sun, even if only for two days a year. Even now, she can see him dancing in front of her, talking about sidewalks and the geographic north. “Two days a year, the sun!”
But none of this helps, or at least it never answered any of Samantha’s questions. She can imagine the little man figuring out how to make the sun stop on the grid of his city, she can imagine him arranging different-sized steel boxes to capture the sun in some precise way, but none of this ever helped her understand what any of it means, the raison d’être. She waits on the corner for the walk signal and remembers the boy playing his cello. The signal changes, but Samantha doesn’t move. The boy. Had the boy stood on a steel box?
She feels her eyes water and her arms start to shake. She knows what time it is, how much time she has left, but she doesn’t care. She turns and heads back south to the corner of 38th Street. Sure enough, the boy stands on a steel box. How did she not notice this before? In fact, different-sized steel boxes are scattered along the street, as if someone busted inside her imagination and left the pieces, like clues, for her to discover. She pretends the little man spins where the boxes inexplicably lie, his eyes closed and a tape measure spilling from his left pocket. “How to choose the days?” he says. “How to measure our own bones?” She imagines him spinning until he falls to the ground, right in front of the boy playing his cello, then takes out his tape measure and determines the angle between his body and the nearest steel box.
“Are you okay?” she hears. The boy has stopped playing and is looking at her. She must have fallen and is spreading her arms as wide as she can, as if trying to touch something that lies just out of reach.
“I’m fine,” she says. “I must have tripped.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No, I just tripped, you see there’s a crack,” and Samantha points to the sidewalk before struggling to stand, pulling at her skirt so no one else can see too much of her legs. “Where did you get that box?”
The boy looks down. “Oh,” he says, “I found it.”
“I don’t know, maybe around 42nd Street.”
“By 2nd Avenue?”
“Yeah,” the boy says.
Again, Samantha feels her eyes water. She reaches into her pocket and, sure enough, there’s a tape measure. “Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north,” she whispers.
“I don’t know.” She fingers the tape measure. “I just know we have to decide where to start.”
“Where to start what?” But Samantha doesn’t answer. She turns north and keeps walking. It’s almost time.
She has no real memories of her mother, just the pictures and stories her father told her. When she was little, she thought she could stitch together those pictures and stories and find the truth, the raison d’être of her mother’s existence, and from this her own. Kind of like the little man building clues into his city, clues for scientists from some future world who would notice that his city captured the sun in the bones of its grid two days a year, scientists who then would measure that grid and figure it out, twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north. She stops dead in her tracks. What did she just say? Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north?
Samantha turns around again and walks back to 38th Street, but the boy is gone. Instead, a young man with a fancy hat stands on the steel box. “What could it mean?” he says and scratches his head.
“What could what mean?” Samantha responds.
“Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north, we’ve figured out the math, but we don’t know what it means.”
Samantha feels dizzy. She sits on the sidewalk, her legs hidden from view. “Where did you get that number?” she asks the young man.
He looks at her. “The boy,” he says.
“The one with the cello, he told me a woman had measured the angle, she had a tape measure in her pocket. He wanted to interview her, but she ran away.” The young man with the fancy hat sits on the steel box and is quiet for a moment. Samantha thinks she can hear cars moving, but she’s not sure. Suddenly, the whole city seems as if it were made with popsicle sticks. She moves her fingers as if she were crafting the popsicle sticks into a coherent whole. The young man watches. “Who are you?” he asks.
He nods, satisfied with her answer, then stands on the steel box and points to the sky. “It’s almost time!” he says.
Samantha looks down at her fingers and the popsicle sticks disappear. She wears her mother’s wedding ring on her right hand. The ring seems dull in the fading light, the sun just about to fall. She imagines the little man singing, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” she imagines him singing, “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd,” but she doesn’t know who he is. She doesn’t know who she is, either. She stands and dusts off the back of her skirt. The young man takes off his fancy hat and bows as she walks backwards, away from him, down the street, then turns on her heels and runs.
She arrives just before the sun starts to sink, hovering one moment more above the tallest building, not quite captured in the grid. Though all moves around her, Samantha stands still. She knows if she closes her eyes she’ll feel her father’s fingers squeezing her own, as if he were there. She turns to the west, and she waits. She remembers her father’s funeral, just last week, how skinny his legs looked in the casket, how sick he had been. She remembers placing white flowers in his hands and how cold his skin felt. She leaned close to his body and whispered, “I’ll go, Dad, I’ll go next week, I’ll go for you,” then kissed him gently on his forehead. She felt cold, and that her legs were too skinny too.
She can’t remember much, but she knows her mother’s legs were beautiful. She thinks about her mother’s legs as the sun sinks into the grid, as it spreads its fire into the canyons of the city, reaching like fingers wreathed in rings, all the buildings like strange stone statues erected just for this. This wasn’t her city as a child, just like the woman in the pictures wasn’t her mother when she was a child. But her father showed her what happened to the sun, and even though she never knew what any of it meant, it was all hers then, and she let its magic wash clean her wounds, and now when a soft breeze lifts her skirt over her head, she lifts her arms and offers a small prayer to whoever might be listening.
Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Rock & Sling, Arts & Letters, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, VIDA, upstreet, and Mom Egg. Most recently, her collection New York Plays was produced by Out of Pocket Productions and published by Heartland Plays, and her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize and was published by Evening Street Press. Maria teaches Creative Writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. She lives just outside Highland Park with her son William.
"Manhattanhenge" was originally conceived as a short, experimental play about a Citizen trying to understand his/her history. (Production Credits: Out of Pocket Productions, Rochester, NY. Production Rights: Heartland Plays.) In the story, Samantha imagines this Citizen while putting together the pieces of her life.
What is your #1 pet peeve?
My #1 pet peeve is people monologuing with such insularity that they don't realize the other person's eyes are glazing over.
What is your favorite article of clothing?
My favorite article of clothing is an old ratty house sweater with plastic buttons that I bought as a costume piece for a play I directed in Boston in 2001.
What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?
I'll never be able to pinpoint my favorite book, but the book I've read from beginning to end more than any other is Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I can't get enough of Chopin's prose, or of the anxiety that infuses her failed attempt to give Edna a clear path to liberation within her world.