I KNOW WHERE
I WANT TO GO
She wasn’t carrying a suitcase, and she wasn’t wearing a coat. Those were the things that struck him when he saw her for the first time. It was just a bit after sunrise on a Sunday in early December. Joe was heading across the Main Concourse for Track 13, but there she was—no bag, no coat—standing by the west side of the great gold clock, peering into a window of the information booth. If she was traveling, then she was traveling light. If she was working at the terminal, then she was drunk, or she should have known better. No woman who worked at Grand Central would ever go near the guys in the booth at this hour, not at the end of a long night, when their shifts were finally over, and they were probably handing a bottle around.
Then one of them must have made a pass, because she stepped back quickly, and he could hear them barking and laughing as she turned to walk away. Joe saw how young she was, and how completely out of place she looked. Why was she here at dawn, and what was she doing without an escort? Still, she didn’t seem scared by the guys as much as frustrated, even angry. Her eyes were enormous and bright green, and her lips were the same kind of hard-candy red as the stoplight on a signal lamp.
She stepped away from the stir she’d caused but stopped walking after just a few yards. A tramp standing on the marble staircase cupped a cigarette in his hand, flicked off the ash, and gave her the eye.
“Hey, princess,” he said. “Can you spare a grand?”
Joe hadn’t had his coffee yet, but he moved to her side in just a few steps. Her earrings might have been real pearls, and they dangled from glittering, flame-shaped tops. But “princess”? Joe didn’t think so. Her pale-blue dress was smudged and worn, and her shoes seemed old and scuffed.
“You look kind of lost,” he said to her.
Behind her, the tramp gave Joe the finger. Another guy whistled from inside the booth.
“I’m not lost,” the girl said. “It’s just that—”
“Did you need directions?” Joe asked.
“No,” she said. “No, I’ve been here before.”
“Well, what did you need those guys for, then?”
“I was only asking them what happened to the bank on the lower level. One of them said there’d been a little fire, and they all started laughing and saying things like ‘Fire down below.’ ”
She looked at the ground, then back at Joe. “Do you think they could be drunk?”
“Oh, they could definitely be drunk,” Joe said.
“Want me to go chew them out?”
She smiled. “You’d do that?” she asked.
She tucked her hair behind her ears and lifted her chin just slightly. Joe realized she wasn’t just beautiful. There was something else about her, something vivid and exciting. She made him think of the cats in the tunnels far beneath the concourse: coiled up and waiting, all energy, no telling what they were going to do.
By now, the tramp had moved away, and the guys in the booth were leaving too—disappearing one by one down the booth’s hidden corkscrew staircase.
“So, you know where you’re going?” Joe asked the girl.
“I know where I want to go,” she said.
“And where’s that?”
“Turtle Bay Gardens.”
That was the neighborhood near the East River, just blocks from the YMCA where Joe lived but miles beyond him in all other ways. Turtle Bay was a high-class place with pale, private houses and rich, private people. That meant the pearls were real, Joe thought. But still this young woman seemed happy, even eager, to be talking to him.
Standing this close, he could smell her perfume: a blend of talcum and flowers and something sharper, like wood or whiskey. She was two or three inches shorter than he was. Her hair was a jumble of soft copper wires, and it fell at her neck in a cloud of curls. Her cheeks were smooth and pink, the same shade as the terminal’s Tennessee marble floors.
“So why do you need a bank at this hour?” Joe asked. “I thought they’d caught Ma Barker.”
She didn’t laugh at his joke. She reached into her dress pocket and pulled out a cushion of paper money. The bills weren’t green; they looked foreign. “This is all I’ve got,” she said. “I need to get it changed for American dollars.”
“There’s a branch a few blocks away,” Joe said. “But I don’t think it opens till nine. Where are you coming from, that you don’t have cash?”
“I do have cash. It’s just French cash.”
“Last I heard, they hadn’t laid any tracks under the Atlantic,” Joe said. “What train were you on, anyway? And why aren’t you wearing a coat?”
This time she laughed—a wonderful, confident laugh, deeper than he would have thought possible for someone who looked so young. But she ignored all his questions.
“Anything else you’d like to know, mister?”
“Didn’t mean to be rude,” he said.
“You’re not!” she exclaimed. “You’re being so kind.”
He told her his name, and he asked for hers.
“Nora Lansing,” she said, extending her hand, as if he’d asked her to dance.
Joe shook it, but hastily let it go. “Your hand’s really hot. Do you feel all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
Carefully, he took her hand back, cupping it now in both of his, as if it were a butterfly. Its warmth seemed to spread from her hand into his, then traveled the length of his spine, like a current along the railroad tracks.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Lansing.”
Nora. It was an old-fashioned name, and she did seem a little old-fashioned. Her pale-blue dress had a black collar, black cuffs, and swirly flat black buttons that looked like rolled-up licorice wheels. What Joe knew about women’s clothing could fit inside an olive, but he knew the dress looked wrong somehow.
She leaned in closer to him.
“So, Joe, let me ask you this,” she said. “Is there any chance you could walk me home?”
“To Turtle Bay Gardens? What about the bank?”
“Well, I wouldn’t need to go there, see, if you could walk me home.”
Joe looked up at the gold clock and then back at Nora. “I wish I could,” he said. “Honestly. But I work here, and I’m late for a meeting, and right after that, I start my shift.”
The brightness in her eyes dimmed a bit. Joe realized, with some amazement, that he suddenly felt it was his obligation to bring the brightness back.
“What if I find a cop to walk you?” he asked.
“Oh, you’re so nice,” Nora said. “But I can do that myself. I should have done it in the first place.”
By now the Main Concourse was starting to bubble and steam with the morning rush: workers and travelers in seemingly random motion, except for the subtle dance steps that kept them from bumping into each other. No one stopped, unless it was at the clock, the ticket windows, or the blackboard where Bill Keogh stood on a ladder and wrote out the times and track numbers in lemon-yellow chalk.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Joe asked Nora.
She circled her left wrist with her right hand. For just a moment, she looked confused, and he hesitated, reluctant to leave her. Then she said, resolutely: “Go ahead, Joe. You don’t want to be late.”
They walked off in opposite directions, and Joe checked the time as he hurried across the concourse. When he stopped to look back, he was half embarrassed, half thrilled, to see that Nora had done the same thing. Their eyes met the way their hands had: filled with heat and surprise. Finally, Joe turned to leave and, noting the time once more, he started to run.