no exit no time Gwyn Henry
Witness to an Exit
Graphic: "No Exit No Time," The Artworks

So one has to live with one's eyes open all the time.
Garcin: No Exit, John Paul Sartre

It is Thursday. She stands beside the kiosk on the corner of Sixth and Broadway, feeling the grit of the sidewalk through the soles of her work pumps. She missed the 4:22 , it has come and gone, so now all she can do is wait for the 4:42 while breathing the exhaust-filled air, and watch the buses, one after another, chugging to the curb, swallowing more people, then groaning off again.

The man's hair is what catches her attention. It's the same color as her grandmother's, the same as her daughter's. Maybe a Celtic chieftain left it to him, that coarse copper exploding in curls twisted in upon themselves like fists. Whenever she sees that color, she imagines a common ancestor. But, having learned not to make eye contact at the bus stop, she focuses her gaze to the west of him.

In the periphery of her vision, she sees him moving toward her on huge, shower-thonged feet. He has stout forearms and a barrel chest, and wears sweat pants several sizes too big, even for his large frame. They are stained with earth and grass, and droop in the crotch, ballooning around his thighs like harem pants. A sweater dotted with moth holes wraps his upper torso, every button fastened, from waist to chin. Swaddled, she thinks, like those Russian infants whose mothers bind them in mummy-lengths of flannel so they will feel safe. She never believed binding made one feel safe.

He shuffles the curb's edge, arms stretched out to the side like a tight rope walker's, then stops, looks directly at her, and speaks in an actor's rich baritone with well-educated edges. "It's quite a museum piece," he says, "scarred with history and I used to wear it."

She locks her eyes on the sign across the street that says pancakes & eggs, $2.99. Conventional wisdom advises her to ignore him, and yet a more deeply ingrained doctrine insists it isn't polite to ignore a direct comment, so she smiles and nods ... to which he responds more fervently, "A man's drowning, choking, sinking by inches...!"

She turns her head. He advances two more steps and she stops breathing, but he moves past her toward the kiosk and the other two passengers waiting inside — an African-American man eating ice cream from a paper cup, and a tired-faced Caucasian woman staring into space.

The man glances back over his shoulder toward her: "Second empire furniture ... are all the rooms like this?" Then, to the couple in the kiosk: "We're chasing each other round and round in a vicious circle ... that's part of their plan, of course." He extends his arm toward them, as if he were a priest and the kiosk a tiny sanctuary containing his congregation. "YOU'RE LUCKY, YOU TWO," he booms, "NO ONE ON EARTH IS GIVING YOU ANOTHER THOUGHT." The black man continues to eat his ice cream and the tired-faced woman stares more deeply into space.

Now he wheels toward the south, and plants his legs like two columns. "HERE COMES MY BUS!" he announces, his voice rivaling the traffic. Then, in two strides he is back at the curb, arms stretched once more in his tightrope pose. The wind peels his coarse curls back from his face as he screams to heaven, "IT'S THE 15!"

She can barely make out the top of a bus at least four blocks distant. He can't possibly see that far, she thinks, it could just as well be my bus, the 35. She squints, trying to read the number over the windshield, her stomach beginning to knot. What if he becomes violent? Please let it be the 35....

One block away, the bus reveals itself as Number 15. It arrives spewing and hissing, and grazes its tires against the curb as he teeters there. Bus windows glide inches in front of his nose, like the frames of a slowed-down movie. He inhales them as they pass, and when the last one stops just in front of his face, he blinks into his own reflection, and smiles the smile of a prophet whose prophecy has just come true.

Turning to his congregation, he sweeps an arm toward the number 15. "THIS ... IS MY BUS!" He looks around one last time. FOR EVER AND EVER, his voice booms, AND EVER. Then he faces the bus. WELL, WELL, LET'S GET ON WITH IT, and, pants snapping and popping in the wind, he climbs the steps. Translucent doors close upon red-gold hair, billowing sweats and swaddling sweater, and he is gone.

She watches until the rear windows vanish in the distance, not yet aware that even after the number 35 arrives and delivers her safely home, a part of her will remain standing beside that kiosk, a member of the mute congregation of that moment, and she will be forever, the only one who knows he's gone.

Note: Dialogue that appears in colored font is excerpted from Sartre's play No Exit.

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