By Ryan Tim Morris
His first novel (“MOLT”) was self-published in 2009 and Ryan is currently submitting his third novel to literary agencies in an effort to seek representation. He wrote several screenplays, stage plays and few short stories. Ryan Tim Morris lives in Vancouver, BC and works as a library technician at an independent school.
The excerpt bellow is from his second novel THE FALLING. This is a work of literary fiction about a group of four friends living in Manhattan, following them as they experience the ups and downs of love, marriage, friendship and career choices.
An hour later, Patrick and Sheldon were waiting under the blue awning of the Beacon Hotel. The morning’s snow had already been swept off the awning by the hotel maintenance crew. Sheldon was wearing an I(love)NY t-shirt under his winter coat; the white cotton shirt was still so new that it hurt his eyes too much to stare directly at it. From the opposite side of Broadway, Tommy poked through the Fairway Market fruit stand, watching the two of them out of the corner of his eye. He was sickened by the market’s sub-par selection of apples. Worms were practically squiggling around under the dusty, brown skins.
“Tom!” Patrick spotted him and called out, yelling over the busy traffic. Tommy tried his best to ignore him for just another few seconds, but he finally gave up on the fruit and hopped across Broadway, jumping through the median and over its knee-high chain fence.
“Ah, finally! Thanks Tom. We really appreciate this.”
“Both of you?” Tommy asked in jest, but still hoping for the boy’s agreement on the matter. He wouldn’t receive any eye contact, much less a verbal response.
Patrick was already hailing a cab, eager to get a start on the morning’s business. Tommy noted how much he looked like a tourist, for only tourists hailed cabs in New York as though they were mimicking what they’d seen on a movie screen. “So you’ll show him around the city Tom? I can’t think of anyone better for the job than you.”
“Sure Patrick,” Tommy began unenthusiastically. “By the end of the day, this kid will be an honest to god New Yorker.” He ruffled Sheldon’s much-too-neatly-parted hair with his fingers. Sheldon tried in vain to move out of arm’s reach, and still without a word he shoveled his hair back into place with his big blue mittens. “He’ll be swearing like a pro by the time I’m done with him!”
“I hope not,” Patrick challenged him. “Just make sure he takes his medicine.”
“Medicine?” Tommy shuffled away from Sheldon as though he was carrying the plague.
“For his asthma. He’s got his bronchodilator inhaler in his bag.”
“His whoozzit whatzzit?”
Sheldon unzipped his coat, lifted his t-shirt and pulled the inhaler out of his fanny pack. Tommy recalled when the boy pulled his inhaler out in the coffee shop a week ago. He didn’t, however, spot the fanny pack before. Tommy rolled his eyes and pulled the boy’s shirt back down. “Kid, you’re going to make me look like a tourist by association with that shirt and that pouch.”
The taxicab screeched to a stop. Some slush from the curb sprayed out onto Patrick’s shoes. “Be good,” he instructed his son, not believing for a moment that the boy could possibly find trouble on his own. Tommy knew the words had been meant for him.
Patrick shot into the back seat of the cab, sticking to it like a fly. The cab drove north along Broadway and within seconds it was indistinguishable from the rest of the city’s yellow cars.
Tommy and Sheldon looked at one another, each waiting for the other to make a move. Tommy broke first. “So Shelly, where are we off to?”
Sheldon ignored his newly acquired nickname. “I’ve never been to New York before,” he said quite simply. “I don’t know what there is to do here.”
“You can do anything you want in this city. Anything at all. That’s what makes it so great!”
Sheldon looked at him, waiting for a list of possible options from which to select. Tommy gripped the pole of the hotel awning to test its strength. “We could start by climbing this pole. Kids like to climb, don’t they?”
“I don’t know.”
“You are a kid, aren’t you?”
“Do you like climbing?”
Tommy looked north to West 75th Street and south to Verdi Square. He imagined that he could easily kill an entire day within the three-block span, but he was pretty certain Sheldon would be bored within minutes.
“We ate breakfast already.”
“What did you eat?”
“Fruit? From where?”
Sheldon pointed across Broadway back to the fruit stand.
“Come on! Kids aren’t actually eating froufrou fruit salads for breakfast these days, are they? How about a hot dog?”
“Sure! Hot dogs are a crossover food. You can eat ‘em any time of the day.” Tommy directed Sheldon’s attention down the street. “Gray’s Papaya is only two blocks that way.”
“Isn’t papaya a fruit?”
“That’s just the name. They‘ve got the best hot dogs in the city.”
“But I don’t want a hot dog. I already ate.”
“So we’ll think of something else to do then. What did you do for fun in Seattle?”
“I liked it when my dad took me to see the trains.”
“Trains?” Tommy asked, confused by the boy’s answer.
“And I have a train set in our garage at home.”
“You mean you had a train set. Watch your tense.” Tommy never had a problem correcting anybody, even if it was a motherless child who’d just had his entire life ripped out from under him. “So what are you, some kind of enthusiast?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you like trains?”
“Let’s start there then. I think I know just the place we can go. Follow me!”
Tommy immediately took off, oblivious to the amount of attention that was required when escorting a boy through New York City. Sheldon had to run along behind Tommy just to keep up. Through no fault of his own, Sheldon assumed that these promised trains would be waiting for him mere footsteps ahead or, at most, just around the corner. But two-and-a-half blocks later it was obvious that would not be the case. It wasn’t until 77th Street when Sheldon finally spoke up. “How much further is it?”
“What do you mean how much further?” Tommy couldn’t understand how New York might have seemed no bigger than the tiniest of Seattle suburbs in Sheldon’s unassuming eyes. “We’re going up to 97th Street and then we just have to cut through the park. The trains are only another couple of blocks after that.”
“Where’s 97th Street?”
“Well jeez, Shelly. We’re at 77th now. Do the math.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The whole city’s numbered! You can count from Houston to two-hundred-and-twenty, can’t you?”
Sheldon looked at Tommy, as though he was speaking in some crazy outer-space moon language. Like he was asking the kid to walk to the sun and back, or to Mars at the very least. Truthfully, the solar system was a much easier concept to most eight-year-olds than metropolitan grid systems.
“Is it okay if we sit down?” Sheldon asked. “My feet are tired.”
Tommy huffed in much the same way he’d expected to hear from the boy. They crossed the east side of Broadway and sat on a bench beneath the morning shadow of one of the median’s tall London plane trees. “Do you want to take a cab from here?”
“My feet are tired.”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard you.”
They sat there for a few minutes longer. There were no further words exchanged between them. Of course Sheldon was not used to being thrown into the care of a complete stranger and Tommy had never had to act as tour guide for the under-eighteen crowd, so they were simply doing their best to feel out the situation they had both been forced into that morning.
“What was your name again?” Sheldon asked.
“That’s a good idea,” Tommy said ambiguously.
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean maybe we should start from the beginning,” he said. Tommy held out his hand. “The name’s Thomas Mueller. I’m a washed up novelist.”
Sheldon reached out and they shook hands. It seemed silly to him, meeting a man he’d already met, but he hoped the handshake would only bring him to the trains that much faster. “Sheldon Kohn. I’m in the third grade. Pleased to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Sheldon.”
A man came up to them and immediately asked Tommy for a cigarette. “Do I look like I’m smoking?” Tommy asked him, insulted.
“What’s the harm in asking?” the man wondered.
“If I was a smoker I’d have a cigarette. And if I had a cigarette I’d be smoking it. But I’m not and I don’t. And I don’t and I’m not, so fuck off already.”
“Fuck you too!” The man walked about ten feet away before asking another non-smoker the exact same question.
Sheldon looked up at Tommy, his eyes wide with caution. “My dad warned me you’d be using a lot of swears today.”
“The way I see it Shelly, is that kids have to pick ‘em up sooner or later. And the sooner the better. Less questions, right?”
“I guess so.”
A silence grew between them once again, sneaking up from unknown recesses. “Do you want to give me a swear word?” Tommy suggested. “It doesn’t have to be one of the big three.”
Sheldon didn’t have any idea what the three worst swear words might have been. They all seemed equally bad to him. “I don’t curse,” was all the boy could say. “And neither should you.”
A blonde twenty-something woman jogged up onto the median, and came to a stop right in front of them. She pulled out her phone, although where it might have been pocketed was a mystery to Tommy since her clothing left virtually nothing to the imagination. She was wearing brown yoga pants and a tight shirt that exposed her belly button. The steam from her sweaty body was thick in the crisp morning air. Sheldon noticed the amount of attention that Tommy was paying to her and he asked him, “Do you know her?”
“No. But I wish I did.” Tommy turned to Sheldon and cracked a smile he hoped the kid would understand. He failed miserably. “Have you ever had a girlfriend, Shelly?”
“No. I’m just a kid.”
“Kids can have girlfriends. I had a girlfriend when I was a kid.”
“Do you have a girlfriend now?”
“I did until a few days ago.” Tommy had thought about calling Rachel, but he was afraid he would have to leave a message. The pressure of leaving the perfect phone message was too much. Tommy didn’t know where he and Rachel stood, but the wrong message could decide it for him, and he wasn’t ready for chance to play any part in it. “But I’m not sure what you’d call it now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, Shelly. Neither do I.” Tommy considered his statement for another moment. “And I’ll tell you, I don’t think I ever will.”
Sheldon could only stare at him blankly.
“What I mean is that women are complicated and mine is no exception. She’s got the shifty eyes of a card shark and a face as unyielding as one of those British royal guards. You know those guys with the big fuzzy hats? Rachel’s just like that. She can infuriate me like the mosquito you can’t seem to swat but she’s also my best-kept secret. I hate her and I also feel like I should love her. But I’m not entirely sure if she loves me. So maybe I did love her, maybe I used to. Maybe I still do, or maybe I’m just waiting to.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Kid, if you had your own catch phrase that would definitely be it.”
“What’s a catch phrase?”
“You know when your dad always says, “I’m the world’s biggest jerk for abandoning my friends?” Well, that’s his catch phrase.”
“I’ve never heard him say that before.”
Tommy had to stop himself from opening his mouth again. He knew that if they sat there any longer he’d only continue to spout negative and partially untrue feelings about the boy’s father. Probably with a few more carefully selected swear words tossed in for effect.
He thought the answer would be obvious, but Sheldon carefully asked anyway: “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”
“Well, duh! Of course I have!”
“What’s it feel like?”
Tommy had to think about it. “Where do I start?” Of all the words he’d ever written, he never once had to describe what kissing a girl really felt like. “The first time I ever kissed a girl I went in too quick and we both broke our noses.”
“How did you do that?”
“I honestly have no idea. But it turned out she already had a boyfriend. He threw a punch at me when I wasn’t ready, breaking my nose again.”
Sheldon squirmed. Who knew kissing would be so much trouble? Tommy angled his head just right to show the boy his crooked nose. “My only advice is: when you’re finally ready, just make sure you’re not kissing the wrong girl.”
The woman in front of them had tucked her phone away, and was stretching her body tight. The cropped shirt clung to her breasts like the tight skin on a ripe nectarine. Beads of sweat streaked from her chest to her belly. She turned around to lean over the railing again. Lifting her right foot up high to stretch her leg as far as possible. As she bent forward, she looked back to see Tommy and Sheldon sitting across from her; she smiled at the two of them before standing up straight and picking up her run where she’d left off.
“Are you sure you don’t know her?” Sheldon asked again, but he would get no further response. Tommy continued to watch the girl as she hopped across Broadway with a deer-like prance.
He shook his head back to reality. “Come on Shelly. Let’s get moving.” He didn’t hail cabs often but Tommy was good at it, maybe the best in the city. The two of them climbed into the back of the first taxi that appeared. “Ninety-seventh and Madison,” he barked at the driver.
The thick, gruff cabbie was born and raised in Brooklyn, but Tommy Mueller made him feel as though this was his first day in the city. “You got it pal,” he said gregariously, stepping hard on the gas and swerving out into the traffic.
They had only moved a couple more blocks north before the taxi found its way wedged into the morning’s muddle of cars. Sheldon stared at the First Baptist Church, its pointed red towers reminding him of a toy castle. The draft of air coming towards them from the old Zabar’s building pleasantly filled the cab with the aroma of smoked fish and cheese.
Tommy sneered at Sheldon’s I(love)NY t-shirt as they idled. He hated those shirts. He thought the city should establish some sort of screening process for people who bought them. Or a questionnaire at the very least. He disliked it when tourists bought them, but he disliked it even more when he had to see tourists wearing the shirts on the sidewalks of his city. Drinking his coffee. Walking through his Central Park. Sitting on his subways. They didn’t love New York as much as he did. They never would. When he was a little kid, he wore his I(love)NY shirt every day, because all he ever knew was that it was completely true. “Is this right?” he asked, tugging at the boy’s shirt. But Sheldon was just as confused as he’d been all morning and had no response for him. Tommy pinched the collar of the shirt between his fingers. “How much do you really love New York?”
The boy took off his mittens and unzipped his coat all the way. He looked closely at the big letters on his chest. He didn’t care much for the shirt; in fact, he didn’t even really know what it had meant. “My dad bought it for me.”
“Listen, I don’t think for a moment that you’re buying all your own clothes but you must have an opinion on the matter, don’t you? How do you really feel about New York?”
Sheldon wanted to look inside Tommy, to try and figure the man out. Just last week Sheldon had built a model train and he finished writing a school report on sugar cane. He had good grades in school so he knew he wasn’t stupid, but Sheldon really had no idea what Tommy was talking about most of the time. He turned back to the window. He didn’t know Tommy very well yet, but he already knew he didn’t want to disappoint the man. He didn’t want to tell Tommy that he was already feeling sick from the cabbie’s erratic driving; he was too embarrassed to show weakness around him. It wasn’t all that different than being on the playground; he only wanted to be liked. Tommy just happened to be a good twenty years older than all of those other kids. Sheldon considered the question again. How did he really feel about the city?
Out the window, Sheldon noticed two old men with sunken eyes sitting at a bus stop, completely unmoving. They could have been sitting there for the last forty years for all he knew. He spotted a bookstore with its shelves of dirty paperbacks out on the sidewalk. What was stopping people from simply taking them all for nothing? Was that the idea? Were the sidewalks a free-for-all in this city? There was a diner with a handwritten sign on the window that read, “NO MILKSHAKES!” It seemed like a mean thing to be bragging about. He saw a woman wearing a long black vampire cape carrying the biggest paper bag he’d ever seen. The vampire walked past a peculiar man who was looking for something on the ground, as though he’d dropped a coin. He was on his hands and knees with a look on his face like he just might die if he didn’t find whatever it was he was searching for. And there was an older man and a younger woman arguing. She was flailing her arms around a lot, mad at the man for something. He was smoking a cigarette as though he didn’t care a whit about his upset companion. He flicked the cigarette at her feet before yelling something Sheldon couldn’t make out; although he was certain he didn’t want to know what the words were.
Sheldon turned back to Tommy. “I don’t like it here,” he said. “Everything and everybody seems so strange and mean.”
“Including you kid.” Tommy thought it was impossible that anyone could not love his city just a little bit, and it was an insult if they should ever criticize it.
The taxi began moving again, lurching ahead slowly before suddenly taking off at a torrid pace. The weathered tires humped the sidewalk’s edge. Slices of Manhattan zipped by the window, before they once again came to an impulsive stop at 87th Street. Tommy pointed out the doorman in front of the Montana Apartments. He explained to Sheldon how the two of them once got into a fistfight, right under that very awning.
“Why would you do that?” Sheldon asked bewilderedly.
“Well, I was stumbling up this sidewalk one fine evening when I overheard that ass-clown complaining about his job. He said some crap about how the Upper West Side could suck his — how this neighborhood wasn’t exactly to his liking. I stopped and asked him to please apologize to me and all other New Yorkers for his obscene thoughts.”
“No, he didn’t. He took one look at my sweater, and he said the Rangers sucked. Right to my face he said that! He said he was an Islanders fan through and through. Well, as you might have assumed, I was a little drunk that night.”
“I wasn’t assuming anything.”
“Well anyway, let’s just say I couldn’t let it go. And let’s just say he took a swing at me. And it goes without saying that I hit him right back. I cold-cocked him. I knocked his stupid little hat off. He fell into a puddle and got his stupid striped coat all dirty.”
“Really?” Sheldon looked at the doorman as the taxi idled in traffic. He shrunk in his seat a little, hoping the man in the hat and striped coat wouldn’t see them.
“That’s what Jesse told me anyway. I don’t really remember much of what happened that night, but I still sneer at this guy when I walk by here.” Tommy rolled down the window, stuck his head out and shouted, “Hey! Islanders suck!” The man recognized Tommy instantly, and yelled something back their way.
Sheldon was worried that Tommy would be yelling at people all day. He wasn’t sure if he could take much more yelling.
The taxi continued towards its destination, but the conversation in the backseat had come to an end. North of 87th they passed the Wing King’s. As the cab turned east on 96th Street, they snickered at a guy selling sparkling, pink purses. Piles of black garbage bags were lined along the sidewalk like a solid plastic barricade. A little person was begging for change outside of a hotel, using a plastic blue sand bucket rather than a hat. They passed a few more churches and Sheldon wondered why there seemed to be so many in Manhattan. Upon crossing Columbus Avenue, the green and white swath of a snow-covered Central Park had come into view, always a welcome relief from the city’s tapestry of concrete, steel and glass.
As the cab crossed Central Park West and drove into the park, the city had all but disappeared. The stone walls along the side of the road barely kept the monstrous foliage at bay. Soon, the walls also gave way to sheer cliff faces, the greenery kept out by a mere chain link fence. The concrete peak of Mt. Sinai loomed beyond the treetops. Emerging from the tunnel below the East Drive, the gridlock of traffic was the most obvious sign that they would soon be re-entering the civilized world. A hint of a playground could be seen to the south; the glistening handles of a ladder at the top of a slide; the chains of swings hanging from the top bar; the ears of a colorful giraffe. The crowds parted like a curtain, as though the intermission was over and the next act was about to begin.
The driver stopped at 97th and Madison, exactly where Tommy had requested. Sheldon still wasn’t sure how far they’d traveled, but the preciseness of it all astounded him. Tommy dropped a handful of bills into the driver’s hand before reaching across Sheldon to open the door. “Let’s go,” he said, nudging the boy out onto the sidewalk. So far, there had not been any sign of any trains. Tommy led Sheldon into the Dunkin’ Donuts, as though completely forgetting why they had come all this way in the first place.
“What about the trains?” the boy asked.
“Just grabbing a coffee first,” Tommy responded. “Should I get one for you?”
“You gotta grow up fast in this city kid.”
It seemed that every customer in the dusty donut shop was wearing hospital scrubs. It was strange to Sheldon, as strange as anything else he’d already seen that morning. He wondered if there was some sort of dress code he and Tommy were not adhering to, but the two of them were served nonetheless.
Tommy brought the coffee cup to Sheldon’s mouth. “You want a sip?” The steaming, shimmering brown liquid smelled something like a strange sort of hot chocolate, but it was hard to tell what it was that made it any different. Still, he tasted a sip and tried his best to pretend he didn’t hate it. He was trying his hardest to grow up fast.
“Yea or nay?” Tommy asked, twisting his wrist from a thumb’s up to a thumb’s down. “Needs some sugar, doesn’t it?” Tommy grabbed some sugar packs and tore them open with his teeth, dumping the white crumbs into the cup. He didn’t stir them in, but Sheldon wouldn’t have known any different. “You know, my feeling is that you can tell the most about someone by the way they prepare their coffee.” He put the plastic lid on, covered the opening with his thumb and carefully shook it until the sugar dissolved. “Do they add cream? Milk? Sugar? Vanilla? Cinnamon? What order to they add their ingredients? Do they stir the coffee or do they shake it? I’ve never met anyone else who shakes their coffee, but that’s just my thing I suppose.”
Sheldon had learned a lot about Tommy so far, but none of it seemed to have anything to do with coffee.
Tommy offered another sip, but Sheldon decided to refuse from there on out. “All right then. Next stop, trains!” Tommy proclaimed boisterously, and the two of them ran back out to the sidewalk.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Even before they arrived at Park Avenue and East 97th Street, Tommy noticed how much Sheldon had perked up. The kid’s big blue eyes grew even bigger as soon as he heard the clacking of the trains up ahead. But when Sheldon stopped at the railing overlooking the tracks, the train had already disappeared, swallowed up into the cave below his feet. The exposed tracks stretched out north along the island, cradled crudely within Harlem’s dilapidated tenement buildings and over crumbling parking lots. There was not another train in sight.
“How long until the next one?” Sheldon asked.
“I don’t know,” Tommy replied. He bragged to most everyone about the wealth of information he knew regarding his city, but it didn’t take long for the kid to stump him. “I guess we’ll just wait for it.”
“I don’t like waiting.”
“Come on Shelly, you’re six years old! What do you know about having to wait for anything?”
“Is there a difference?”
“There’s a big difference!” he exclaimed. “When I was six all I ever did was watch cartoons and play army men. Now I like trains.”
“Seems like one rung down on the cool ladder to me, Shelly.”