Between the long evenings and lazy vacation days, summer is a great time to catch up on reading. If you’re looking for an engrossing piece you can read in a single sitting, you’re in luck! For your summer reading pleasure, we’re making a Ploughshares Solos free on your Kindle (or Kindle app) for the first five days of each month this summer. Last month we offered you a free copy of Robert Cohen’s story “Klopstock, or The Distant Sound,” and now that it’s August we have a new summer reading offering to bring you: “A Warm Breath,” an essay by Scott Nadelson.
In this darkly humorous essay, Nadelson describes his grief after the premature death of a close friend. Every moment of wonder he experiences—from caring for his infant daughter to taking in a neighborhood stray cat—starts to feel like a betrayal. Nadelson looks over his life, thinking about his run-in with a Soho cab driver, a college Halloween party spent with his dead friend, and his favorite Chekhov story, “Grief.” Over the course of the essay, Nadelson tries to reconcile his conflicting emotions, to understand why he is falling apart and what he can do to bring himself back.
Here’s an excerpt:
And how enraged he was that I refused to pay the surcharge, which bumped what should have been a ten-dollar fare closer to fifteen. Part of my refusal had to do with how little cash I had for the evening and how many Belgian beers I wanted to sample, though there was also the principle of the matter, the fact that no one in his right mind would have called my overnight bag luggage; if I hadn’t been so excited when I got out of the train I would have just kept the bag on the seat beside me and not let the driver bother popping the trunk. As it was, he wouldn’t pop it again to let me get the bag out until I’d paid the full fare. But after a week back in New Jersey, I was feeling particularly obstinate, and unusually willing to be the object of someone else’s anger, and I just stood there on the corner of Greene and Prince with my hands in my pockets, shrugging whenever I understood what the driver was saying. “You can keep the fucking bag,” I said, playing up the New Jersey accent I’d long since excised from my ordinary speech. “I’m not paying any surcharge.”
After a while the driver’s anger wavered, taking a turn toward resignation, and swelling with pride, with the vicious power of victory, I gave him a nasty half-smile, held up a ten-dollar bill, and said, “You want this or not?” And then there was only sadness in his face. He was shorter than I by two or three inches, his shoulders rounded and hunched forward, his hair wispy under a short-billed cap. His eyes were small and deep-set, his nose a misshapen blotch, his lips loose like a dog’s. There was something tragic about his expression, something that suggested a long history of degradation and struggle, my refusal to pay the surcharge one in a long line of crushing setbacks. He reached into the cab, popped the trunk, and with his head lowered, put out his hand. He’d wasted twenty minutes arguing with me, when he should have been out looking for more fares. I could imagine the look on his wife’s face when he set out the day’s earnings on their meager apartment’s kitchen counter. “No surcharge?” she’d ask, a frail, bony woman with hollow cheeks and a wheeze in her breath, and he’d shake his head and turn away to hide his tears. I handed him the ten, and for his time and trouble, added a five dollar tip.
Only later, when I was sampling Belgian beers in an East Village bar that looked like all the other bars my friend brought me to, narrow and dank, with no place to sit and a crowd we had to push through to get our drinks, did I learn that New York cab drivers weren’t allowed to charge for luggage, that such a surcharge was illegal and should have been reported to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Download your copy of “A Warm Breath,” find a beach somewhere, and start reading. Enjoy it for the month of August, and stay tuned for an all new Ploughshares Solo coming soon!