He had fallen asleep on the train and missed his stop at Secaucus. It was almost midnight and the tidal wetlands, whose reeds in the summer glowed gold and brown, were pitch black under the florescent spires of the distant city. Only the odd streak of moonlight in the marsh’s channels reminded him that they were traveling above ground. He got off at Newark Penn Station and waited in the terminal for the next train going east. The tiled ceiling of the vast hall was a Mediterranean blue, and art-deco flourishes capped the ticket booths and the marquees above the exits.
He sat on one of the wooden pews in the waiting area and watched the stragglers and the vagabonds that seem to populate train stations afterhours and turn them into hospital wards or asylums for the dispossessed. He was the only passenger; on the other benches the homeless slept or muttered to themselves or gesticulated wildly as if orchestrating a symphony. Although there were signs restricting the use of the waiting area to ticketed customers, the policemen loitering at the exits appeared to be indifferent to the injunction, and restless vagrants smelling of urine and the sour reek of unwashed skin moved in and out of the cordon, misreading the imaginary time-tables on the walls.
He had spent the evening alone at Bemelmans—drinking cocktails and observing the Carlyle’s moneyed out-of-towners gossip in glitz and get serenaded by an imitation crooner in a scarlet blazer playing “Moonlight in Vermont” on the piano. The murals of Madeline in Central Park, executed with the artist’s swift strokes and beguiling sense of proportion, the attenuated figures stretching out like dyed smoke, flickered weirdly in the candlelight and in the glare coming off the wine glasses, and he had had the sensation that he was in a cave and that the animals and the children in their pastel clothes (the giraffes in their speckled garments greeted one another with the gentility of Victorians) were sketches of the old gods and that he had come, unwittingly, to pay obeisance to their carousing.
On the ride home from the bar he had imagined that the walls of the train were painted with rabbits in shirttails and elephants holding parasols; he had tried to speak to them, but they held up their noses and ignored him. He expected the homeless to treat him better, and when his eyes met those of a black woman seated on the bench across from him—she had her hair tucked beneath a green woolen cap, vibrant but much too warm for the weather, and peeled an orange whose zest stained her fingers—he waved and commented on how beautiful the terminal was. She looked right past him, chewing her orange wedges and wiping the juices off on her cap. The streaks shone like watered silk, ornamenting her headdress, and he noticed that she wore canary-yellow pants and a blue sweater and that she had tied a lilac-colored scarf around her neck and that it swelled beneath her chin like an ascot.