I met her just outside the brass-handled doors of Suburban Station, a good walk from 16th and Locust where I came up from below ground to the grey sidewalk on a bright, sunlit early autumn day. I did not wish to try to meet her below ground at her station, with so many confusing platforms and the abundance of people, all in their proper grey wool coats as the fall weekend had commenced. College football season had begun, but I had hardly considered it on this warm for the season autumn day. But today was the Harvard – Penn game I had heard, and I saw people walking out toward Franklin Field, wearing their crimson and white scarves near many others wearing their blue and red scarves and hats.
In a sense, this anticipated event seemed a first date, but we had met a number of times before, but always, except just once, we had gone out together with her older brother too. And there she stood; I could see her in the bright sunshine from across the street, standing alone in a light, wool jacket, pale tawney grey. She now frosh of nineteen. I stood dumbfounded but quietly enthused, and just a handful of years older. I crossed the grey macadam at the corner with the traffic held back by the light. I smiled as I stood before her and she did too, as I called her name aloud from a few feet away: “Penny!”
She smiled too and looked up toward me; I immediately wished to hug her or kiss her, on the cheek at least, but I reached for her shoulder instead. She smiled up to me, but I sensed we both felt content to be together, and free of her brother. Back during the summer, we had enjoyed several movies out on the Main Line the long weekend I had stayed at her house when he was home from Harvard and not overseas teaching English or learning Japanese and tutoring children in Japan. I recalled his letter about “Chibitaro” from Osaka and a postcard from Hokkaido of the previous year. I did not recall until much later, I was so overjoyed within to see her now, that I forgot when her brother drove us back to the city for an early morning service at Christ Church Cathedral and standing so close to her singing hymns I hardly knew from my Quaker upbringing. I had also forgotten about that road trip back to New England after winter break when we toured Yale one cold early afternoon with snow piled by the edges of the sidewalks and the sky a solid grey and the light wind invigorating. But now seeing her smile it all flooded back to me as she walked beside me and we made small talk.
That winter trip still so memorable, on our way back to Harvard, with the stopover at Yale for the tour. The campus, snow covered and cold seemed illuminated in a grey afternoon light as we walked around the colleges, Penny in her tight jeans and short coat and plaid scarf, her hair lifting in the cold air. The translucent blue stones of the Beinecke glowed from within and without. Her brother lead us into some old stone chapel and felt the letters carved in the stone wall, touching the name of some ancestor, who had studied there, and he remained in name in those letters carved there in the chapel wall. After we drove out of New Haven the sky and countryside seemed to lighten a bit as the winter sun slipped further down over the distant hills, which it lit, those hills frosted with white snow and grey ice glowed in the last embers of winter sun, as the tape deck played James Taylor’s singing “. . . seemed dream-like on account of that frosting . . .” We did not return to Cambridge until well past dark, and they dropped me off just outside the gate near The Old Yard. My last term at Harvard lay ahead. The Yard stood still, and snow covered too, and the ancient trees wound spindly and black up into the dark winter sky.
But now we were back in Philadelphia, both closer to our old homes.
“It’s ‘Super Saturday!” I said, “Do you wanna check it out? It’s just a few blocks walk from here?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling broadly.
We walked down the sun-filled sidewalk toward the Parkway with the international flags flying brightly above in a brisk, cool wind. She seemed happy to see them, smiling up at them and over to me as we anticipated the spectacle awaiting us; we both had a lightness in our steps. My feet must have touched the earth, but as they did, I felt buoyant and slightly airborne.
I recalled that I had worked with my stepfather several years before on “Super Saturday” selling art supplies and books, and the first year he was quite happy to be selling so much and stuffing bills into his pocket, more than enough to cover the fee for the space where we set up tables and displays of our goods of old art supplies and oversize art books. The second year was not as profitable, and that was the last of “Super Saturday” for us, which I had not recently given much thought to, until today as we walked toward the crowds awaiting us ahead.
“How’s school?” I had asked her on the phone days before, and she shared some details of “playing field hockey” for her college.
“I’ve watched it just very briefly,” I admitted, “once, about half a game at Middlebury in Vermont one fall.”
On this autumn day, here we were, walking in bright sun, past the booths, through the crowds, with the deep umber Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul looming at our shoulders. We wound around through the throngs, weaving past classical temples gleaming white in the sun, then under the spindly plane trees, sycamores, toward The Franklin Institute, catercorner from the modern, rectangular Moore College of Art. I asked, “Have you seen the heart? In there?”
“Hasn’t everybody?” she replied, “As a school kid or with their family? Of course.”
“I’ve heard they are planning on sprucing it up a bit; it’s getting dusty and old.”
“Well, I hope they do soon,” she replied.
My mother joined an art show at Moore just a few years back,” I offered.
“I have a friend studying there,” she replied.
“Let’s check out the fountain; I love the sprays of water up into the sky.”
“That’s a good idea, let’s.”
We walked around the fountain, and we could feel the wind-blown spray refresh our cheeks and smiles. A sprinkling baptism brought smiles and a little laughter. I loved seeing her smile beside me. Her bright light-brown hair, matched well with the distant yellow and orange autumn leaves of the trees that the wind blew beside The Franklin Institute and in the distance further down the Parkway. In the other direction back up the Parkway, the bright flags of many nations flapped as in a Childe Hassam painting.
“Do you want a soda or something?” I asked.
“The lines are awfully long; let’s wait. Let’s walk down to South Street,” she suggested.
“That’s a hike from here, but it is a beautiful afternoon, perfect for walking.”
I thought her idea excellent because it meant more time together. We stood still a moment, side-by-side and smiled then looked ahead before we started walking back toward the center of the city.
We walked up from the festive commotion then toward the flapping flags of The Parkway in the distance. It felt warm in the sun and cool in the shadows. We walked past the old bricks of The Museum of Natural History, and I spoke up, “Did you visit this place too on a school trip or with your parents?”
“For elementary school years back; 5th grade I think,” she said. “I love the Wooly Mammoth!”
“He’s just taller than your brother, ‘Pee-wee,’ isn’t he?”
“Well, ‘Pee-wee’ isn’t that tall, thank God,” she said, smiling sarcastically.
“My parents took me and a bunch of school friends there to see the dinosaurs for a birthday when I was in about 2nd grade I think; we went for ice cream later, on Head House Square. The city seemed so new to me when I was that young.”
“Isn’t it to everyone at that age?”
“You’re right,” I agreed.
“I love that part of the city; let’s definitely head down that direction,” she said.
As we left the sunny, open esplanade of the Parkway she reached her arm around my waist, and I reached over her shoulder and hugged her close sheltering her from the wind kicking up.
We kept walking as I recalled a summer evening of just a few months back when Penny had a summer job with the Lippincott Publishing Company on Washington Square, and she called me at home that evening; the sky still bright in June then, and I was winding down the school year; I remembered scrounging through my house at home for money for a train ticket because my bank had closed already and I had misplaced my ATM card. With considerable effort I found about four dollars in change, just enough for a round trip ticket on the train. I met her near The Gallery near 8th and Market.
“Do you remember when we went down to South Street in the summer?” I asked.
“Yea, that was fun; dessert in that dark café a few blocks from South Street as dusk turned to night.”
“I remember we shared dessert,” I said. “You said, ‘I’ll use plastic,’ that was brilliant.”
“That brownie was like a newly-paved road!” she said as we both laughed.
“That was so great,” I said, as I looked at her beside me and our eyes met as we both recalled that night.
We walked further up the street this bright autumn as our reminiscing faded into this afternoon and we walked past City Hall crossing over onto 15th Street and walking past “The Clothespin.”
“Let’s cut through John Wanamaker’s, past the eagle, and get out of the wind for a bit,” I suggested.
“OK, you lead the way.”
Inside we dodged the boisterous shoppers before we ended up on Chestnut Street after we departed the giant, elegant department store.
“We can walk straight down toward Independence Hall,” I suggested.
“OK,” she said.
Soon we stood before the broad expanse of lawn across the street from Independence Hall standing stately in the distance. Stone benches and some wooden benches stood off at the far edges of the rectangular lawn, but I felt like plunking down right on the lawn.
“Are you weary of all this walking yet?”
“Almost,” Penny said as she smiled up toward me.
“Well, let’s plunk down here!”
“But the grass is damp,” she said.
But I had already committed and was leaning back with left hand extended reaching down and my butt descending, but as I plunked down, my right leg and foot lifted into the air, and waggled, as if searching for an errant soccer ball to kick.
She smiled and laughed as I dropped down. I noticed some boys far off on the edge of the park near the gravel path smiling broadly; they must have watched me plunk down and now thought my descent quite amusing and began imitating me and falling down and wagging their feet in the air in an exaggerated fashion as they plunked down also; both of them on the dank grass fell twice laughing over toward us. Penny found them equally amusing. But I had not intended to become the source of such levity; it did seem ok, as Penny smiled broadly in the afternoon sun.
As I stood up, I smiled too.
“Let’s head down toward South Street,” she suggested. “We can cut under the colonnade to the courtyard and park behind.”
“That’s a good idea; you’re a Philadelphian too, aren’t you?”
“Well, we both are, this is our home city, even for us Main Liners and you New Jersey-ites.”
“Well, I guess I’m a bit of a Philadelphian too.”
We walked over the old bricks and cobbles, then crossed Chestnut Street, then ducked under the brick colonnade of old Independence Hall with its elegant tower above, then came out into bright sun, with the leafy autumn trees before us. The sidewalks and grass under the trees appeared dappled by light.
“This is near where I worked last summer for the publishing company.”
“I remember that” I said. “Let’s head down Walnut; that’s the best street.”
“I like the park best, the grass and trees and the old cobblestones,” she said.
On reaching the back end of the park we turned and walked toward the distant river and walked past the temple front of The Second Bank of the United States and past ancient Carpenter’s Hall. The old brick walls with espaliered trees and brick sidewalks led us out toward the grey sidewalk of the city streets. We saw a golden-leaved tree up ahead in the park behind Carpenter’s Hall; Penny reached around my waist again as I said, “That tree is beautiful.”
We found ourselves soon past Walnut and Locust and just a few blocks from South Street.
I was glad she walked beside me, and I noted her preppy leather dock shoes with the green tags on the sides. We had walked past her old building, the grey, ornate stonework of the Lippincott Publishers building as we walked toward Spruce, then Pine. The 18th century order of Society Hill.
Once on South Street, we marveled at the shop windows with crazy displays. One shop we ventured into, had bottled shrunken heads on the shelves. We both looked quizzically but said nothing, as I thought to myself, ‘It doesn’t look quite like a mouse; I don’t know what it is?’
Later, we strolled under the marquee of The TLA, Theatre of the Living Arts, where a few street urchins in dirty ragged jeans sat on the cool dank pavement with small cardboard signs reading “Homeless.”
Getting past them, Penny said, “Let’s go in here,” as we stood near the corner restaurant.
I knew she was still a year or so too young to drink and it was only late afternoon. I did not know what she might order. It seemed too cool for ice cream.
“I could go for just a soda,” I said.
After perusing the big menus, when the waitress returned, Penny said, “Hot tea please, with cream.”
Just a bit later, as her tea steeped in a clear glass cup I marveled at the copper hue, so similar to a clean, new penny, which reminded me of her tan arms, shoulders, and calves from the summer. She poured the cream over the steeped tea in the clear glass; I watched it turn a rich pale tan, lighter than her soft leather shoes, and almost just the color of her tan calves and arms I remembered from months back now as fall lingered in the sunlight outside the window and in the golden leaves of Old City. Her cheeks had a rosier hue from all our exertions of walking through the fall air across the city.
It seemed the appropriate beverage for her, as I sipped my cold Coke. I felt perhaps my beverage too cold on this brisk day and the wrong choice, but it quenched my thirst. than hers. I watched her play like Calypso with the thin gold necklace that dangled below her chin.
“Do you like this place?” she asked.
“I’ve walked by a million times, but this was the first time I’ve sat at a table here. It seems nice.”
“Have you been to the steak place across the way?” she asked.
“Sure, before the line became so outrageous; now it seems a tourist mecca.”
“The whole neighborhood is,” she said.
“I guess you’re right, for day trippers anyway.”
“A friend used to buy me a hamburger across the street, in between afternoon matinees, after his grandfather passed away. He had some extra money then, before he went Europe.”
“Have you ever been to The TLA? They show some interesting films.”
“No, never; I like mainstream stuff, the movies I saw with you and my brother in the summer. Those were pretty good. I think one might become a romantic classic,” she said.
“I think I know which one you mean.”
“So, is school going ok this year?” I asked.
“Oh, I guess,” she said, then paused. “I don’t know; I think I’d like to go away somewhere different,” she asked.
“Well, I know what you mean; this area can wear on anyone, and school can be difficult sometimes. I’ve been in this graduate program in English, and I’ve almost completed my master’s degree, but I – I am not dead certain about it, or whether I want to keep teaching, high school anyway.”
“But it’s a good school you are in,” she said.
“I know; I like being up in New England, but it’s not a big university like Harvard.”
“Well, I can’t compete with Harvard, nor my siblings, both of whom are there.” She paused and smiled, then asked, “Should I say ‘who’ or ‘whom’ there?”
“I think ‘whom’ was OK, but pronoun case forms drive me nuts, especially when I’m around my father; he’s always correcting me.”
“Well, I’d like to study somewhere different, that’s what I mean; I mean abroad, outside of America in Europe somewhere, maybe transfer; maybe to the Sorbonne or something. I’d like to be not so close to home. Maybe instead of a junior year abroad, I’ll take several years?” she said, half thinking aloud.
She had a look of consternation on her face and her brow showed a crease which seemed older than her years.
“I’d think you’d fit right in there in Paris; you just need a dark beret, deep navy blue or black; you’d look cool.”
She laughed and smiled. “Well, you always say the best thing.”
“Not always,” I said. “Just when I’m around you. Have I helped you?” I jokingly asked.
“You have, but don’t you have any study or travel dreams of your own?”
“Well, I’d like to go back to a major university somewhere, or study at Oxford in England. That’s what I’ve been thinking about.”
“Well, those are good ideas and dreams. I could see you at Oxford, maybe, poet-in-residence there, at Christchurch Oxford; that’s one of the big ones.”
“Well, you think more highly of me than I do, but I’ll check it out, thanks.”
Her cheeks still held a warm glow, and she seemed more relaxed now. She rested her hand by her cheek and her light brown hair, then reached over and put her left hand over mine across the small table.
“Let’s head back; it’s getting late in the day,” she said. “I have to get back soon.”
“So soon? We never get to spend as much time together with you so busy with school and me busy with teaching.”
“I know, but it is getting late in the day as I said; I have to get my train and it’s a bit of a walk to the station.”
“You’re right; and it was getting cool even before we walked in. The sky has turned darker grey.”
I paid the small expense and left a tip; as I dropped a handful of coins quietly on the table I marveled once again at the array of silver coins and copper pennies in my palm, one brighter like her tan arms in the summer, and another softer and creamier like her skin now. We stood up and pulled on our jackets and stepped down the one stone step to the sidewalk just outside the glass door.
“I’ll walk you back to Market East Station,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you can catch your train out to the Main Line there.”
“Oh, you’re right.”
“It was great to see you again. This fall has been strange; it’s my first year really teaching. But I think I might move somewhere else, maybe after next spring.”
“Don’t you like teaching?”
“Sometimes, most of the time. I like the schedule. The students are ok. Do you like college?”
“It’s ok. But as I said I think I want to do something different, maybe in Europe, or something further from home.”
“I’ve thought about Oxford too, just as you suggested.”
“I’ll bet Oxford is really cool,” she confirmed.
“You’re probably right.”
We walked past the ornate white façade of the old Lit Brothers building. “Did your mom take you to see Santa in the department stores when you were a kid?”
“I think one time,” Penny said.
Then we walked past the modern white rectangular block of the newer urban shopping mall, where we were jostled as we dodged around the other pedestrians.
“Let’s duck in down around the corner; it’s not as crowded; there’s a stairwell that leads down to your station,” I suggested.
We found the glass doors and descended the stairs. We had the corridor to ourselves, then came down into the vast, semi-modern, bright-lit station two flights above the glass-enclosed train tracks below. We looked at the schedule board lit up above us.
“The Paoli Local is boarding now Billy; I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll give you a hug,” I said as I walked toward her and reached my arms around her and kissed her cheek.
When we separated, she smiled up at me and said, “That was nice. It was a good day.”
“Good luck in school,” I said.
“You too,” she said.
Out of the corner of my eye, as she descended the silver escalator to the platform and train and tracks below, I could see off in the distance, a few boys from my old hometown who were my students, as they hurried toward the other station, where I would walk back toward after Penny’s train departed below. Down on the platform to my surprise she turned and looked up toward me and waved with a smile and it seemed a small tear glistened in the corner of her eye.
I hurried down the steps to the platform and caught up with her as the crowd in front of her pushed into the narrow doors.
I reached my arms around her again and hugged her.
Soon the platform was less crowded, and the train doors stood still open, and the conductor said, “All aboard!”
Penny smiled up to me and leaned up and closed her eyes and kissed me on the lips, then said, “Thanks, I’ll see you, take care, OK?”
“You too,” I said. “I’ll see you.”
“Write to me if you go to Oxford or something,” she said.
“You too, send me a letter from The Sorbonne.”
Nonfiction by Daniel Picker has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Sewanee Review, Harvard Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Irish Journal of American Studies, A New Ulster, The Oxonian Review of the University of Oxford, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and many others. Fiction by Daniel Picker has appeared in The Abington Review, The Kelsey Review, The 67th Street Scribe, The Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Scribe of CUNY.