{ The Metronome }
Steve May
illustration by Beth Sullivan

the metronome - beth sullivanWhen I dragged myself off the couch at the bloodshot, dark grey hour of four-thirty Sunday morning, I was not looking for anything like adventure. I was just looking to get to the bus station and make it back to New York as quickly and easily and cheaply as possible. Thanksgiving weekend was a gas, but it was over for me, with the airy specter of the coming week increasingly above and all over everything, and it was time to leave.
   Right off the bat, things went wrong. Despite a concerted effort on my part to remember everything, I forgot or lost or otherwise became hopelessly separated from the sheet with my all important Greyhound Confirmation Number, which I'd printed out at my parents' house the night before. Given: I wasn't totally awake, but when a reasonably exhaustive search of my bag turned up nothing, I pulled out my credit card and resolved to claim my will call tickets that way.
   "Confirmation number," the guy behind the counter said. He was overwhelmed, certainly: it was him alone against an entire Greyhound station full of tired and in some cases haggard souls, impatient, hungry, and eager to get home. He swiped my card, asked my name, and couldn't find anything.
   "Sorry," he said, returning my card to me, case closed. "Your name's not in there." We exchanged formal-but-clear unpleasantries and I handed him my card back.
   "Then I'll buy another ticket," I said. Going home wasn't an option: I'd find a way get my money back later on.
   From there it was into the sea of red-eyed travelers, waiting in lines so impossibly long and twisted that they all became an single, spineless blob. Unable to find any clear last spot in the New York line, I settled on a place in the blob that didn't encroach on anyone, dropped my bags, sunk my hands in my pockets, and waited.

One hour, forty-five minutes later, I finally boarded a bus. I'd made an acquaintance in line with a young woman named Tonya, an industrial design student at Pratt in Brooklyn. The two of us settled into seats two-thirds of the way to the back, I along the window, she the aisle. The bus roared east onto Interstate 376, the snow-covered, tightly packed row houses of the South Side flats assembling below and to the right of us, and finally behind us, seeing us off.
   Tonya and I talked until Somerset about our respective situations in life, the orange morning sun painting our sallow, morning faces, causing our eyes to squint. Home had been good, full of loving people and familiar places and an abundance of food, but we were both restless and itching to get back into the beat of the rhythm of our lives in New York, ever moving forward, ever swollen with adventure and possibility. At Somerset, she turned slightly to the left and tried to sleep. By eleven a.m., we made Carlisle. The bus pulled off into a rest stop. "We will be stopping here for thirty minutes," the driver said. "Again: a thirty minute stop."
   We got out. I'd eaten a Nutella sandwich back in Pittsburgh, but I was hungry again, and Tonya was, too. We cycled around the truck stop, a large mini-mart with an adjoining Wendy's. We checked out the mini-mart. It had Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Each of us picked one of those and a bottle of juice, and we returned to the Wendy's to eat. We talked about Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and their divergent careers. We talked about New York. When we finished, we packed our stuff up and headed for the bathroom. Tonya took longer than I did, and I passed the extra time reading a book written by Todd Beamer's widow. Let's Roll, it was called. It was sad but smacked of cash-in.
   Someone got on the PA-system and announced that a Greyhound bus was leaving. We'd only been at the truck stop fifteen minutes—no more than twenty—so it wasn't ours, I decided. I found the part of the book where Flight 137 crashes into the Pennsylvania strip-mine tundra, thought a moment, and closed it. Where was Tonya?
   I found her wandering around the mini-mart, looking for me, and we were off, back out into the cold. I'd left my jacket on the bus. We'd be in Philadelphia by mid-afternoon. We turned the corner and went to where the bus was. It was gone.
   "It must have moved," I said, and we hurried around the back of the building, and when we again found nothing, ran back around to the front. A truck driver saw us.
   "Are y'all lookin' for that bus?" he said.
   We told him we were.
   "I think it left a minute ago," the truck driver said. "I saw it pulling out just as I was pulling in."
   We didn't say anything. The wind blew. It was cold through my sweater. It made me wish I had my coat on. Then a sinking feeling set in. We were fucked.
   "It left without you?" the mini-mart manager said when we found him.
   "Yeah," I said. "They said we'd be stopped thirty minutes, and they left after fifteen."
   He made some derisive comment about Greyhound and then swung into action. The woman behind the counter had the number for the Harrisburg bus station. She asked us to describe our things as precisely as possible. She asked the people in Harrisburg to take our stuff off the bus.
   "The next bus won't be here until three-thirty," she said. "You can take that to Harrisburg and then go from there. You guys can go sit in the Wendy's and wait if you want."
   That was totally unacceptable. I looked at Tonya. She had big brown eyes. Maybe we could find a ride to Harrisburg. It wasn't far. I was right in the middle of On the Road and hitchhiking seemed like as good an option as any. Who knew? Maybe we could get a ride all the way to New York.
   "I have a friend in Harrisburg," Tonya said. "I'm going to call her and ask her if she can pick us up and take us there." I didn't know Tonya that well, let alone her friend. But she was a no-nonsense young woman. I hoped she knew what she was talking about.
   Back in the Wendy's, I called my friend Beth in Philadelphia. She was just waking up, but I told her the story anyway. We laughed. There wasn't anything I could do, so it made sense to try to joke about it. That worked for a while. But as Tonya exchanged calls with her friend, who was just waking up, then was in the shower, then needed directions, it became clear that we would be stuck a while. Tonya and I got coffee, mixing the regular stuff with the fake cappuccino all the mini-marts have now. It didn't taste great, but it didn't taste bad. It was something.
   Fatigue set in. I'd been awake since four-thirty. I was feeling conflicted. Like I said, home had been strange but nice. It was my old life, where everything was warm and familiar and cheap. Still, four hours away, New York buzzed. In Union Square—the heart of my New York life—there was a media installation on the side of one of the buildings that was basically just orange, digital numbers counting randomly up and down, up and down, through the morning, noon, and night, unable or unwilling to stop. The Metronome, it was called. I could hear it. I could feel it. I wanted to be part of it again.
   Tonya was making progress with our rescue plan. Her friend was on her way. She would pick us up and take us to the Harrisburg bus station. We'd be reunited with our stuff there and get on the first bus out. Who knew? Maybe we'd make New York by six-thirty.
   "Granted, that's being extremely optimistic," I told Tonya, and she agreed. Better to focus on the best case scenario. We were already the worst-case scenario.
   Around one-thirty, Tonya's friend arrived. We climbed into her green Volkswagen. She had brown, shoulder length hair and wore faded blue jeans. She looked like a college girl. Her friend had short hair and wore faded blue jeans. He looked like a college guy. They were nice.
   "I've never met anyone who was stranded at a bus station," the guy said as we shook hands.
   "Yeah," I said. That was all I had to say.
   We sped off toward Harrisburg. The guy and the girl talked about the party they'd been to the night before. The guy paid his cell phone bill by entering his numbers into the phone. He called Greyhound and asked when the next east-bound bus would depart. Two-thirty, they said.
   "That's perfect," the guy said. And it was.

The Harrisburg bus station was small but nicer than the one in Pittsburgh, joined at the hip with a classic, old train station. We got in line. If they didn't have our bags, we were in trouble. If they had our bags but didn't have my coat, I was in trouble. My bus ticket was in my coat pocket, and I wasn't going to buy a third one. We were next, and then we were up. I made my way to the ticket window.
   "It's kind of a long story," I said, "but we got stranded in Carlisle, and I was wondering if they got our stuff off the bus when it stopped here."
   The next second or two seemed to last a thousand years. I inhaled deeply. It would be a long walk to New York.
   "Could you describe your bags?" the woman asked.
   I did.
   The woman seemed satisfied. "Please step around to the side of the ticket office," she said, pointing to a door on the right.
   Tonya and I hurried to door and waited. It opened. Waiting for us on the other side was our stuff. Our glorious, miraculous stuff, shimmering in the fluorescent light. We seized it. What was left to do but hug, go to the bathroom, and get in line?
   We shook hands with our saviors and they were off, and it was Tonya and me again. The midday sun had passed, and though it was only two p.m., it was already getting dark and we were already getting tired. The bus arrived and we found seats together. Into the premature dusk we drove, Tonya's big eyes droopy, mine increasingly red and swollen. In muted tones we talked about our futures. She would graduate in the spring and was worried about finding a job, and what consequences such a thing would have on the integrity of her art.
   "You'll be fine," I told her. I was serious. She was young and smart and pretty and driven. She would be fine. "Put one foot in front of the other, is all," I said.
   Tonya turned the conversation around to me. I was further down the stream, I told her. I had been out in the world for more than two years, and that seemed like a long time. I'd almost settled down, but then changed direction suddenly, quit my job and moved to New York City on my own. I was used to operating without a net. I was still scared shitless, of course, but who wasn't? We are all scared shitless. Still, somehow, I had learned not to fear fear, but to face it head-on. That was the only way to keep it in check. Of course, that was a lie. I was scared shitless and I was afraid.
   The last leg of the journey was the longest, it seemed like. We were exhausted and impatient. It was still early evening but it felt like the middle of the night. My eyes began to water. The cold, blue-black, southern part of New Jersey came and went, blotched out with the bright lights of the north. Large cities necessarily have immense, dead rings around them. The power and infrastructure has to come from somewhere, after all. Likewise, all the garbage must have someplace to go. We crawled through that part of the state, tired and weary, stuck in traffic.
   Toward the end I was too tired to talk, so I just listened. Tonya told me about her industrial design project. She was constructing a chair out of bent wood. Then, finally, I peppered Tonya with questions about her Greek upbringing, what that was like, and New York appeared over the horizon.

In the summer of 2001, the first time I had come to the city as an adult, the blue towers of the World Trade Center kept watch over the lower, closer part of the skyline. Now, like an a grand, old diplomat called upon to lead his people in a time of need, the Empire State Building stood proudly, sadly alone. Its upper reaches had been lit yellow and orange when I left—to indicate "fall", someone told me. Now they were green and red, for Christmas.
   We circled around the west side of the city—the Empire State Building watching us the whole way—descended into the Lincoln Tunnel, and rose into Manhattan. It did not notice our arrival. We approached the bus station, passing bars and corner shops and people below. Tonya stretched. Maybe we would talk again and maybe we wouldn't. It didn't matter much either way.
   Somewhere, down in Union Square, the digital numbers of the metronome were still counting, their values plunging and rising randomly, up and down, up and down. New York would not stop, so neither could I, neither could anyone. My heart pumped harder and faster. It felt unnatural, almost, but right.

back home.