- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Of course Molly would live; anything else was unthinkable. But Anna was thinking it.
Concerned for her mental health—or their own—the nurses at Columbia-Presbyterian had banded together and banished Anna from the hospital for twelve hours. Once pried free of the rain-streaked monolith housing umpteen floors of misery, Anna fled the far reaches of the Upper West Side, spiraling down into the subway with the rainwater. Huddled on the Number 1 train, she rattled through the entrails of Manhattan to the end of the line: South Ferry. The subways weren't those she'd known as a young woman—a wife—living in New York City with Zach. These were clean, silver. They smelled of metal and electricity, like bumper cars at the carnival. Graffiti artists, frustrated by the glossy unpaintable surfaces, made futile attempts to etch gang symbols and lewd declarations of adolescent angst in the plastic of the windows. Vandals lacked patience and dedication.
At South Ferry, Anna sprinted up the stairs and burst from the station like a deadline-crazed commuter and across the three lanes of traffic that separated the subway from the pier. The National Park Service staff boat, the Liberty IV, was waiting at the Coast Guard dock, floating on the tip of Manhattan Island. Anna got aboard before they cast off. Kevin, the boat captain, winked. "I wouldn't have left you." She knew that, but she'd needed to run, to see the planks of the pier passing beneath her feet, to feel she'd outpaced the demons, beaten them to the boat. Ghosts can't cross open water.
On shipboard, she kept running. Avoiding kindly questions from Kevin, she left the warmth of the cabin and went to the stern. Under the dispirited flapping of the American flag, she watched the skyline, dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, recede, carried away on the wake of the Liberty IV. Patsy Silva, the woman on Liberty Island with whom Anna was staying, referred to this pose, this view, as her "Barbra Streisand moment." It was the East Coast equivalent of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air in downtown Minneapolis.
Crossing the harbor, Anna tried to fix her mind on the movie that had burned that image into the collective unconscious of a generation of theatergoers, but could not remember even the title.
The NPS boat stopped first at Ellis Island. From there it would continue its endless triangle, ferrying staff to Liberty Island, then the third leg of the run, back to MIO, the dock shared with the Marine Inspection Office of the U.S. Coast Guard where Anna had boarded. Farther out in the harbor, the Circle Line ferried its tourist cargo in roughly the same path but docking at different points on the islands. Anna was bunking in Patsy Silva's spare room in a cozy little cottage on Liberty Island in the shadow of the great lady herself. The view from Anna's bedroom—could it be duplicated—would jack the price of a condo into the high six figures. As it was park housing, Patsy and her roommate paid the staggering sum of one hundred and forty dollars a month; recompense for living in an area a GS-7 on NPS wages couldn't possibly afford.
Loath to go "home" immediately, to strand herself amid the all too human accoutrements of coffee cups and telephones, Anna thanked Kevin, disembarked at Ellis, the Liberty IV's first stop, and slunk away, keeping to deserted brick alleys.
For ease of reference, Ellis was divided into three "islands," though all three of its building complexes shared the same bit of earth and were joined together by a long windowed walkway. Island I was the facility the tourists saw. Spectacularly refurbished in 1986, it housed the museum, the Registry Hall, the baggage room and the service areas through which twelve million of the immigrants who poured into America from 1892 to 1954 had passed. Vaulted ceilings, as airy as those of a cathedral built to worship industry, intricate windows, modern baths, electricity, running water—all the state-of-the-art nineteenth-century architecture—had been lovingly restored to its original grandeur. And returned, Anna had little doubt, to its original cacophony. At Ellis's peak, ten thousand souls a day were shepherded through the "golden door" to America. Now Ellis, in season, saw eight to ten thousand visitors from all over the world each day. The raucous babble of languages must have seemed familiar to the old building.
Echoing off acres of tile in cavernous rooms, the din gave Anna a headache. She'd arrived in New York two days before. After a day of staring blindly at exhibits, she'd been driven to Islands II and III. In these crumbling urban ruins she'd found solace.
Isolated from the public by an inlet where Circle Line ferries disgorged two-legged freight, Islands II and III had been the hospital wards and staff living quarters when Ellis was an immigration station. One of the first American hospitals built on the European spa principle that light and air are actually good for people, its many rooms were graced with windows reaching nearly from floor to ceiling. The infectious disease units on Island III were interconnected by long, freestanding passages, walled in paned glass. Ellis had boasted a psychiatric hospital, two operating theaters, a morgue and an autopsy room. At the turn of the century, the hospitals on Ellis were showcases for modern medical practices. That, and the fact that at one time or another nearly every disease known to man was manifest in at least one hapless immigrant, lured students and doctors from all over. They came to Ellis to teach, learn and observe.
In the early fifties the hospitals had been abandoned. Unlike the registry building on Island I, they'd never been restored. There had never been funds to so much as stabilize the structures. Thus Anna loved them, found in them the peace the sprawl of New York City had destroyed even in the remote corners of her famed city parks.
On these abandoned islands, as in the Anasazi cliff dwellings in Colorado, the sugar mills on St. John, the copper mines on Isle Royale, Nature was taking back what had once been hers. Brick, glass and iron were wrapped with delicate green tendrils, vines content to destroy the manmade world one minute fragment at a time. Walls disappeared behind leafy curtains. Glass, shattered by the vicissitudes of time and vandals, was slowly returning its component parts to the sand that had been dredged from the Jersey shore to build the island. Four stories above this landfill, hardwood floors, sloped with moisture, grew lush carpets of fine green moss on the mounds of litter half a century of neglect had shaken down from the ceilings.
The rain that had been an unrelenting mirror of Anna's spirits since she arrived in New York blew down through chimneys, in windows, through ragged sockets of ruined skylights. Rain worked its silent progress down walls and pipes and electrical conduits of the old structures till, days after the skies cleared, it would rain in the maze of tunnels and corridors beneath the ancient buildings.
Protected by the covered walkway connecting the islands, Anna threaded her way through the detritus of a functioning park and odd stores remaining from a long history as a public trust. When Ellis was abandoned, it was left almost as if the bureaucrats and medical personnel would return. Files, desks, furniture, dishes, beds and mattresses clogged the old rooms.
The corridor she followed curved gently, joining the three building complexes together. At best guess it was three or four hundred yards long, but the curvature warped the distance, giving a sense of an endless hallway to nowhere. Electrical cable dripped from the ceiling in knotted gray swaths, but no lights burned on the second and third of Ellis's "islands." What light there was leaked in through arched windows spaced down the walkway, each curtained in June's voracious greenery. Gouts of ivy and feathered fingers of locust broke through the glass, reached into the dim hall, greening the light and bringing in the rain. Spiderwebs caught the drops and converted them to emerald and diamond. Last year's leaves littered the floor.
Past the inlet between Islands I and II the corridor forked, the left branch leading underneath the buildings of Island II. The way was blocked by piled boxes of deteriorating manuals. Beyond, Anna could hear water—more than the hypnotic drip drip of creeping rain—and guessed the passage would be flooded.
Farther along the connecting passage, two wooden doors opened into a large room. The ceiling was partially destroyed, exposing bones of iron that divided the darkness above. The floor was soft with a mix of dirt, plaster and decomposing plant material. Slipping through the jam of rusted hinges, Anna skirted a frightening chunk of machinery. Once a mangle for cleaning and sterilizing hospital linens, it was now rusted immobile. Squatting over a quarter of the room, it suggested a malevolent past it had never possessed, hinted not at pink-checked laundresses but at inquisitors and iron maidens.
Skirting the mangle, Anna trod soundlessly, wanting to keep her whereabouts unknown, at least for a while. The back of the laundry room let into the first in the line of four-story interconnected buildings that made up Island II. The buildings were in a row: the psychiatric ward, hospital wards, living quarters and one of the islands' two operating theaters. The buildings were tied together by long hallways, one on each of the four floors. Two days' wandering had yet to bring Anna into all the rooms. From cellar to attic they enclosed hundreds of thousands of square feet of shadow and memory.
At the staircase in the psychiatric ward, she began her climb. The steps were rotting, the ceiling hanging in tatters. Walls were damp to the touch. Plaster had fallen away and choked the steps till she walked on a ramp only partly divided by treads. Eroded plaster revealed walls of red stone blocks mortared together. Time, like a cancer, had eaten away at each layer of building material till the walls had the look of leprous and decaying flesh.
Anna found it beautiful, and wondered at herself. Was it merely the twisted set of her mind, or was this mosaic of ashes to ashes and dust to dust a thing of beauty? The latter, she decided. Her heart was lifted by the tiny clutches of fragile moss, by the down of a pigeon feather on the dappled gray of old wood. The stark and perfect walls of Columbia-Presbyterian, where Molly was interred, burned her with their sterility, their stink—if not of death, then of the weapons with which humanity waged war against it. Here in the mold, in the leaves and rain and growing mountains of bird shit, life was rich, fecund, strong enough to tear down the best man had to offer.
Each floor gained brought Anna closer to the sky, to the elements. The stairwell told its story of exposure in increasing amounts of damage. The five flights of stairs, from cellar to fourth floor, ascended in an angulated corkscrew fenced on one side by the wall and on the side of the stairwell by the high iron grating that graced all public areas in the psych ward, a net of metal gridding the world into two-inch squares. On the third floor the stair treads were gone. Anna eased up on metal risers, the wood of the steps frayed away in splinters. From the third to the fourth floor even the risers had succumbed. Rust ate through bolts and metal tore away. From above rain dripped through a skylight framed in leaves—not from the massive and venerable trees outside but from the struggling, anemic upstart of an oak no more than four feet high and rooted in pigeon droppings and plaster dust on the top-floor landing.
Fingers hooked through the rusting mesh, feet reaching for stumps of metal the color of dried blood where risers had once been, Anna pulled herself toward the tree, the watery gray light of day.
When she'd gained the new-made earth on the fourth floor, she let herself stop. Walls built when labor was cheap and money plentiful shut away the high-pitched squeal of bunched humanity. Savoring a silence only made deeper by the monotonous symphony of water, she breathed deep of the moldering air. It stank with life. She had no doubt spores and microbes were thick, each breath a colloidal suspension of mist and microscopic worlds.
Turning from the silver-bright garden under the skylight, she picked her way through the remnants of what had apparently been a mess hall when the Coast Guard used the island in the 1940s. This high up, Anna had little faith in the floor and trod with great care between fallen chunks of ceiling and the inviting but treacherous stretches of greening. The far wall, facing south, away from the peopled part of Ellis, was alight with windows. Ducking through one of these glassless apertures, she breathed a sigh of relief. Resting against the stone of the window ledge, she took in an aching lungful of air. This was the place she'd found her second day in New York, the place she'd claimed for her own. A tiny private wilderness in the megalopolis that consumed the Eastern seaboard.
Her window overlooked a deep balcony the width of the room, thirty or more feet. The balustrade was of brick, laid in a lattice pattern, welcoming light and air. To the left was the red-tiled roof and green copper rain gutters of the next building in the complex. A locust tree, easily a hundred feet high, pushed branches over the balcony rail, lending this fourth-story aerie the snug mystery of a tree house. Beyond this kindly embrace, Anna could see the rain-pocked water of New York Harbor and, if she squinted through the leafy canopy, the head and upthrust arm of the lady on nearby Liberty Island.
Here Anna felt safe. From what, she would have been hard-pressed to say. Perhaps from prying eyes or well-meant inquiries, from the gabble of tourists and the strange uninterrupted hum of Manhattan across the water. Here she could let herself think, free from the fear that thoughts would overwhelm her and she would run screaming into the ocean or, worse, huddle in a closet somewhere under the pitying eyes of those not yet insane.
Human frailty was cumulative. Anna did not find safety in numbers, only the pooling of neurosis. Seldom did she feel comfort in another's arms, only the adding of their burdens to hers. To think of Molly, she needed to be alone in the pure clean air above the huddled masses yearning for God knew what ridiculous bullshit.
In April Molly had come down with pneumonia. True to form, she'd not gone to the hospital. One of her clients at the ParkView Psychiatric Clinic was a thoracic surgeon with deep insecurities about his sexuality. Halfway through a session he'd gotten off the couch—Molly did use an actual couch, a very fine one of wine-colored Moroccan leather with ebony lion's-paw feet—and diagnosed his psychiatrist. Two days later the doctors were saying the pneumonia was a blessing in disguise. Because of it, they'd found an undiagnosed heart problem: clogged arteries. Bypass surgery was recommended. When the pneumonia was cured, Molly went in for the procedure. All had gone well except that Molly's lungs would not pick up where they'd left off. Thirty years of Camel non-filters, Dewar's Black Label and considering riding the escalator at Bloomingdale's a form of aerobic exercise were taking their pound of flesh. Dye was injected to discover why her lungs were failing. The dye damaged her kidneys. At fifty-two, Anna's sister was on a respirator, a feeding tube and dialysis. The doctors, or more accurately, Dr. Madison, said there was no reason why Molly should not recover, but it would be very, very slow. Unsaid was the obvious: There was equally little reason why she should not die.
Except that Anna would not have it.
Except that Anna could not bear it.
And there was nothing she could do. Helplessness bound her in tight coils, making her muscles twitch and her lungs pinch. Guns, knives, courage, strength, cunning, wit, anger, chutzpah, stamina, skill, experience were as confetti, feathers on the wind in the face of this creeping death.
If anyone was to go mano a mano with the killer, it had to be Molly. Anna could only stand on the sidelines and cheer her on.
Too restless to retain her perch on the sill, she stalked across the rubble-strewn balcony, snatched leaves from the tree, stalked back. Face half a foot from the brick, she stood without moving for nearly a minute.
I'll wear out the fucking pom-poms, she thought. Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Low comedy. Life and death. The life and death of the dearest person in the world.