Small Town

Page 18

“He never even started,” Eddie said. “Not one drop.”

“Maybe he quit a while ago, and came in here to test himself.

Ordered a drink and walked out without touching it.”

“He must have stared at it for half an hour.”

“There you go, man. Testing himself, proving he’s stronger than a bottle of Tuborg.”

“Anybody’s stronger than that Danish piss,” his friend said.

“Let’s see him try it with Guinness.”

Earlier, when the papers were full of the Marilyn Fairchild murder, they’d had their share of curiosity seekers, drawn by the media attention. Corpse-sniffers, Lou called them. Lou had been on that night, and had served drinks to the woman and to Creighton, the man who’d walked out with her and later strangled her. (Or allegedly strangled her, as the papers were careful to put it, allegedly being accepted journalese for We know you did it but we don’t want your lawyer up our ass.) The corpse-sniffers came mostly at night, hoping Lou could tell them something they hadn’t read in the tabloids. Funny thing was that Lou, working nights, never saw much of Creighton, who was more likely to come in and nurse a brew in the afternoon, a Beck’s or a St. Pauli Girl, enjoying the peace and quiet the same way Eddie did. He’d stop in occasionally at night—otherwise he and Fairchild would have missed each other, to the benefit of both of them, unless you believed in karma and kismet and destiny. Anyway, Lou served them that night, but it was Eddie who’d shot the shit with him many times, and you wouldn’t have figured him as a guy to do something like that, but then you never knew, did you?

One thing he did know, the mystery man in the cap wasn’t coming back for his Tuborg. Eddie carried the bottle and glass to the sink, and poured them out.

Now if there was anything the least bit important about the mystery man, he thought, then he, Eddie Ragan, had his hands full of evidence. Because the guy had almost certainly touched the bottle or the glass, hadn’t he? Eddie had set them both in front of the man, the glass topped with its creamy head, the half-full bottle beside it, and didn’t the man then take hold of them and move them an inch or two closer? Everybody did, it was a reflexive response, even if you weren’t going to take a drink right away.

Or, in this case, ever.

If he’d touched the glass or bottle, he’d probably left his fingerprints. Because he certainly hadn’t been wearing gloves. The cap was an odd touch on a mild day, but there were guys who never went anywhere without a cap, they felt naked without it. Gloves would have been ridiculous, though, gloves would have stuck out like a sore thumb (he had to grin at that one), so the guy had clearly been gloveless, and would have left prints.

An ambitious bartender, he thought, might slip the bottle and the glass into separate plastic bags and set them aside for when the police came calling. Or he might even ring them up over at the Sixth Precinct—he knew a couple of cops there, as far as that went. Hey, got a clue, he could tell them. Give it to the forensics team, lift the prints, check the FBI computer, find out who this dude is.

He laughed, tossed the bottle with the other empties, plunged the glass into the sink. Rinsed it, took it out, polished it with the towel.

Not a bad life, he thought. You had time to let your mind wander, time to imagine all sorts of crazy shit.

F R O M H I S B E N C H I N the triangular patch of fenced-in greenery called Christopher Park, the man with the tweed cap had a good view of the entrance of the Kettle of Fish. In the course of half an hour he didn’t notice anyone entering or leaving the bar, but he might not have noticed. His mind wandered, and what he saw, for much of that time, was a series of images that had burned itself into his vision, and, he had to suppose, the vision of everyone in the city, and beyond.

An airplane, gliding effortlessly, inexorably, into a building. A brilliant explosion of yellow at the left, like a flower bursting into bloom.

Two towers standing, their tops spewing smoke and flame.

Then one tower standing.

Then none.

T H E H O R R O R .

The horror and the beauty.

The beauty . . .

H E H A D L I V E D W I T H his wife in a sprawling three-bedroom apartment in a prewar brick apartment building at Eighty-fourth and Amsterdam. They’d lived there for almost all of their thirty-five-year marriage. When the building went co-op in the early seventies, they’d bought their apartment at the insider’s price, paying a low five-figure price for what was now worth well over a million dollars.

After he’d collected his Christmas bonus for the year 2000, he’d opted for early retirement. He had headed the research department at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, and they were just as happy to replace him with someone younger and less expen

sive. His health was good, and he looked forward to years of leisure, to the foreign travel they’d never had time for, to long walks in the city, to long evenings with his books. They might take to wintering someplace warm, but they’d never move to Florida or Arizona or the Caribbean. Their children were here, and soon they would be grandparents. Anyway, he loved the city too much to leave it.

He’d just finished breakfast that morning, and he was sitting in the living room with the morning paper. The television set was on—his wife had turned it on, then returned to the kitchen to do the breakfast dishes. He wasn’t paying attention to the television, but then it got his attention, and he put down the paper and never picked it up again, because it might as well have been from the last century, or the one before that, for all the relevance it had.

Their windows faced north and east, and they were on the fourth floor, so you couldn’t see anything. At one point he took the elevator to the top floor and climbed up onto the roof, but the building was only sixteen stories tall and there were any number of high-rises that blocked the view of Lower Manhattan. He went back downstairs and sat in front of the television set and they showed him the same shot over and over, the second plane sailing into the South Tower, the bloom of fire and smoke, over and over and over.

He couldn’t look at it, he couldn’t not look at it.

His daughter, twenty-seven years old, three months pregnant, was an administrative assistant at Cantor Fitzgerald. They’d joked about the name, how it sounded like an extremely ecumenical cleric, but that was before the plane hit the floor where the firm had its office and made the name a synonym for annihilation.

She could have been late for work. She had severe morning sickness, her husband had joked that she was preparing for the world’s first oral delivery, but it rarely stopped her from beating the rush hour and getting to her desk by eight-thirty.

She’d have been sitting there with a cup of coffee when the plane hit. She wasn’t supposed to have caffeine during pregnancy, but one cup in the morning, really, what harm could it do?

None now.

Her husband worked for the same firm, and in the same office.

That wasn’t a coincidence, it was how they’d met, and of course he was always early for work, often arriving at seven or seven-thirty. That was when you could get a lot accomplished, he used to say, but sometimes he’d wait so that he and his wife could share the walk to the subway and the ride downtown. So maybe he’d gone in ahead of her that morning, or maybe they’d been together. There was no way to tell, and what earthly difference did it make?

His daughter, his son-in-law.

His son, his baby boy, was with an FDNY hook-and-ladder company stationed on East Tenth Street between Avenues B and C, and lived with a young woman in a tenement apartment two blocks from the firehouse.

And was involved in rescue operations in the North Tower when the building came down on him.

For days—he was never sure how many—all he seemed to do was sit in front of the television set. He must have eaten, he must have gone to the bathroom, he must have bathed and slept and done the things one does, but nothing registered, nothing imprinted on his memory.

One day he went into the bedroom they shared and his wife was sleeping. He called her name twice, a third time, but she didn’t stir. He went back and sat down again in front of the television set.

Some hours later he went to the bedroom again, and she hadn’t changed position, and he touched her forehead and realized that she was dead. There was, he noticed for the first time, a vial of sleeping pills on the bedside table, and it was empty.

Her action seemed entirely reasonable to him, and he only wondered that she had thought of it first, and only wished she’d told him, so that he could have lain down and died beside her. Without disturbing her body, he took the empty pill bottle downstairs and refilled it at the CVS on Broadway. He took all the pills and got undressed and got into bed.

Twelve hours later he awoke with a splitting headache and a dry mouth and a bottomless thirst. The throw rug beside the bed was stained with vomit.

He got out of bed, showered, put on clothes, and went up to the roof, intending to throw himself off it. He stood at the edge for what must have been half an hour. Then he went downstairs and called a doctor he knew, and a funeral parlor.

His daughter and son-in-law had been vaporized, atomized.

Their bodies would never be recovered. His son lay at the bottom of a hundred stories of rubble. He told the funeral director there would be no service, and that he wanted his wife cremated. When they gave him the ashes he walked all the way downtown, five miles more or less, and got as close to Ground Zero as you could get. There were barriers up, you couldn’t get too close, but he did the best he could and found a spot where he could stand in relative privacy, tossing his wife’s remains a handful at a time into the air. He stood there for a few minutes after he’d finished, then turned around and walked back the way he came.

Crossing Twenty-third Street, he realized he was still carrying the container for the ashes. He dropped it in the next trash basket he came to and walked the rest of the way home.

H E G O T U P F R O M his park bench now and walked to Christopher and Waverly, where he walked counterclockwise around the little triangular block on which stood the little triangular building that housed the Northern Dispensary. He liked the lines of the building, the way it filled its space. He liked, too, that it stood at the corner of Waverly Place and Waverly Place. The street didn’t just make a ninety-degree turn here, it actually intersected itself, and that had always appealed to him.

What’s the most religious street in the world? he used to ask his daughter, when he’d take her walking in the Village on a Sunday afternoon. Waverly Place was the answer, because it crosses itself.

The Northern Dispensary had been there forever. There’d been a little café on the corner called Waverly & Waverly, but it hadn’t been there for long. Something else had replaced it, and had been replaced in its turn.

Some things lasted, some things didn’t.

He stood listening to the sounds of the city, breathing in the taste and smell of the city. Sometimes, drawing a deep breath, he would fancy that he was inhaling some of the substance of his daughter and son-in-law. They had gone off into the air, and he was breathing the air, and who was to say he was not taking in some particulate matter that had once been theirs?