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I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O. J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I'll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.
The mayor reads me at breakfast, and the bond traders on the train in from New Jersey have a look, as do the retired Italian longshoremen sitting on their stoops in Brooklyn, chewing unlit cigars, and the nurses on the bus down from Harlem to Lenox Hill Hospital. The TV guys read me, and steal the story sometimes. And the Pakistani sitting in his cab outside Madison Square Garden, who, intent on figuring out America, reads everything. And the young lawyers on their lunch breaks, after they've checked the ads touting the strip clubs. And the doormen in the apartment buildings on the EastSide, looking up from the pages as the professional women storm past each morning, rushing brightly into their futures. And the cops--the cops all read me to see if I got it right.
Three times a week my column appears, often teased on page one: SHE DIED FOR LOVE--PORTER WREN, PAGE 5; PORTER WREN TALKS TO KILLER'S MOTHER--PAGE 5; BABY WAS FROZEN SOLID--PORTER WREN, PAGE 5. It's a wonderful job. Very pleasant. Many happy people in my line of work. I talk to detectives and relatives of the victim, to reluctant witnesses and whoever happened to be standing around when the bad news arrived. I ask them to tell me what they saw or what they heard or what they imagined. In the middle of my column is a box with my name and an outdated headshot of me--clean-shaven, full of cheap confidence in a suit and tie, a certain wry lift to one eyebrow. I appear to be a genuine idiot. The managing editor chose the photo, saying I looked like "a regular guy." Which I do. Regular haircut, face, tie, shoes. And regular appetites, although it has always been my appetites that have gotten me in trouble. My life, however, is not regular; I get calls in the night and then dress in the dark and leave my sleeping wife and kids to go wherever it happened: the car, the bar, the street, the club, the store, the apartment, the hallway, the park, the tunnel, the bridge, the deli, the corner, the loading dock, the peepshow, the rooftop, the alley, the office, the basement, the hair parlor, the offtrack betting parlor, the massage parlor, the crackhouse, the school, the church. There I gaze at the slackened faces of men and women and children who might or might not have known better. And upon my return, as I stoop down to kiss my two children good morning, as they wriggle in my arms, I am not protected from the thought that one soul's exit from life that night will be converted by me into another soul's entertainment. And that, precisely, is what the idiotic photograph of me promises: I got another crazy story for you, pal. See if you believe this one.
There are, however, certain stories I can't tell in my column. The crucial information is doubtful or incomplete, or one of the other papers or TV stations got there first. Or it'sdull. Or old. Or Get the fuck outa here, Mr. Reporter. I see ya here again Ima fuckin' shoot off your nuts. Or the story is about a friend of mine. Or somebody has an acquaintance high up in the mayor's office or the police department: Hey, look, ah, Wren, listen, this thing, I hear this guy was telling you something, some kind of story that's fucking full of shit. Or the complexity of the story is irreducible, can't be pressed into thirty column inches. The paper's readers want a quick hit of news and celebrity gossip, and then on to the sports section, the car ads, the stock page. They don't have time for me to parse the human heart, shave one motivation cleanly off from another. They expect a commodity of cheap ink and cheap sensation, and they get it.
There is, of course, one other kind of story I can't put into the paper: a story that involves me. I mean really involves me. My readers would find it strange; for them I am no more than a voice, an attitude, a guy asking questions. The fixed expression in my little black-and-white headshot is uncomplicated, a smooth mask of certainty and cleverness--not a face that by turns is surprised, clenched in lust, slack with pleasure, frantic, violent, and then last--always last--furrowed by remorse.
How does any tale of misfortune begin? When you're not expecting it, when you're looking elsewhere, thinking of other problems, the regular problems. At the time, last January, the city lay under drifts of dirty snow, garbage trucks groaning through the slushy streets, people buying tickets to Puerto Rico, Bermuda, anywhere to escape the coldness in their bones, the hunger in Manhattan life. It was a Monday, and I had a column due in the next morning's paper. I needed to get up, to pop the story like one of the Knicks' guards from thirty feet out. I generally chew a lot of bubble gum, drink liter bottles of Coca-Cola, and try to ignore the pain in my hands, which are burned out from years of typing. You've got to keep proving yourself in this game, keep getting access to the main players, keep beating the TV guys, keep showingyou have something the regular reporters don't, especially -since many of them want a column and think they can do it better. (I certainly did, when I was a young reporter.) A guy like Jimmy Breslin, he's an institution, he doesn't have to worry anymore. Me, I'm nervous, generally, and don't take anything for granted. At thirty-eight, I'm old enough to be on top, young enough to screw it all up. My rule, for life as well as work, is this: avoid the obvious fuckups. It's good advice and I wish I followed it more often.
All that I have to tell here began later that evening, and I could well start there--a setting of wealth and social standing, of tuxedos and ten-thousand-dollar wristwatches. A place of attractive people who are pleased to discourse on the most recent mumblings of the chairman of the Federal Reserve or the inner politics of the ABC news division. But this gathering was a far step from my regular haunts. I toil, for the most part, in New York City's saddest and most violent neighborhoods. Places where working men open their electricity bills and stare at them disconsolately for long minutes, where a parochial school uniform is purchased with great hope. Where young children accrue disturbing scars on their bodies. Where the kids carry toy guns that look real and real guns painted like toys. Where the people have vitality but no prospect, ambition but no advantage. They are poor and they suffer mightily for it. It is these people with whom I'll begin, to show where I began that day, to explain why I approached that evening's social frivolities with a certain alienated exhaustion, with a willingness to drink too heavily--with, in truth, a propensity to allow myself to be tantalized, cheap and stupid as that sounds, by a strange and beautiful woman.
I was working the phone at my desk in the paper's building on the East Side. It was just after one P.M., and many of the reporters were not in yet. When I was younger the newsroom rivalries and intrigues interested me, but by now they seemed petty and banal; all organizations--newspaper staffs, pro football teams, whatever--throb in deep patterns of formation and decay, formation and decay; the faces change, the executives march in and out, the pattern persists. In thirteen years oftabloid reporting, an eternity, I'd seen buyouts and lockouts and union strikes and three owners. My goal had become simply to do my job, and if that aim was a meager one, then at least it was based on two hard-won observations: The first was that my work had no useful function other than providing for my family. How could I believe that what I did had any importance? No one really learned anything, no one was wiser, no one was saved. Do newspapers even matter anymore? My second observation was that the degraded setting we identify as American urban civilization was in fact merely another form of nature itself: amoral, unpredictable, buzzing, florid, frenzied, terrifying. A place where men die the same useless deaths as did the tortoises and finches noted by Charles Darwin. A gridded battle-ground where I stood to the side with my paper and pen, watching the cannon fire and the flash and roar, recording who fell, how they writhed, and when they died. There was a time when I sought to use my limited skills to tell the stories of those who suffered unfairly or who were not worthy of the powers entrusted to them by the public, but these aims had been leached out of me (as they generally have been from the American news media, which, as the twentieth century draws to a close, seems to sense its own clamoring irrelevance, its humble subservience to a pagan culture of celebrity). Or maybe my attitude was the tattered cynicism of a man whose senses had become blunt and corroded, no longer thankful for all that he had. Yes. I was, I see now, an asshole who wanted to roll the dice.
I was also a guy who needed a column idea, and after lunch I finally got a call from one of my contacts--a Jamaican dispatcher at the Emergency Medical Service who believed I should be writing solely about the imperiled children of the city. In a breathy wheeze, she gave me the details: "You see? God, he still perform miracles! The lady who call nine-one-one say she never seen a man do that before ..." I listened, then asked a few questions, including had she called any TV stations. She hadn't. You get a feeling that this is going to be the one, and it was, a routine shooting and fire but with a sad twist, enough to squeeze out a column for the next day. Mystandards aren't high--I'm not making art, after all--but the story has to have something about it, a wrinkle, a little kick to the heart.
So I headed over to Brooklyn in my work car, a black Chrysler Imperial. Years ago, when I first got started, I drove an old, repainted police car, which had a heavier suspension and a bigger engine. Then I had a little Ford, to get in and out of parking spots easily, but one night in Queens a thirty-ton mob garbage truck ran a red light and drove up and over my front end. The driver jumped down from the truck, arms lifted to fight, and when he realized I wasn't getting out of the wreck, he pulled a shovel off of the truck and started whacking my door in anger. I got a column out of it, but I swore off the smaller cars. Lisa and the kids don't use the Chrysler, are never seen in it, in fact. She drives a Volvo--leased, so I can change cars quickly, which I had written into the contract with the dealership. We decided a while back that we needed to take certain quiet precautions--an electronic security system at home, an unpublished phone number. The school our daughter attends doesn't list our address in the parents' directory, and we've given the teacher a picture of Josephine, our baby-sitter, in case there is any question on the afternoons when she is picking up our daughter. I have two extra phone lines into the house, with a device that triggers each time a call comes in or goes out, records every number. The paper has a daily circulation of 792,000, more than a million on Sunday, so there are readers out there with stories. Angry readers. Readers claiming to know the real deal, which they sometimes do: cops buying drugs, where the body is, what the school principal is doing with the eighth-grade girls. Rat calls. Or sometimes a complaint: "I see that you neglected to mention the race of the defendant! What--you love niggers?" People figure I can do something for them. Maybe I can, but it's on my terms. The Wren family doesn't have a home address. All of our mail is delivered to the paper, where it goes through the mailroom. Anything strange--a big box, a dripping envelope, whatever--is dealt with by the guys in security. I've been sent items both ominous and pathetic:guns, bullets, a chocolate cake, a condom full of dog teeth (the significance of which I didn't understand), a damp purse with old baby pictures inside, the usual dead fish, a stack of Chinese money, a gold wedding ring with a dead man's name engraved inside, the severed head of a chicken, various pornographic photos and devices (most notably a huge, double-ended dildo), my column (torn to shreds or blacked out or covered with curses), a bag of blood (from a pig, according to the police), and, on three occasions, the Bible. I suppose I should muster a certain nonchalance about this kind of stuff, but I can't. Deep down, I'm just a kid from the country. I've always scared easily. So I take as many precautions as I can think of. Maybe they're unnecessary, but then again maybe they're not. New York City is a landscape of bad possibilities.
Which I was driving through twenty minutes later--pass--ing the hunched brick buildings, the girls pushing strollers, the bodegas and newsstands and flower shops, discarded Christmas trees frozen into the snow, the old women carrying groceries, worrying each step. I headed toward the Brownsville Houses, a well-meant act of architectural savagery carried out in the 1940s by some wealthy white New Yorkers who decided that poor blacks from the South might enjoy living in squat, faceless apartment buildings with cinder-block walls and sheet-metal doors. The Houses sat a couple of blocks off East New York Avenue, and I eased the car along, watching for potholes. The sun was out, the temperature close to thirty. A few teenaged boys on a stoop (who should have been in school but were probably safer as truants) checked out my car. When it was new the kids didn't mess with it because they figured that a black Imperial could only belong to a detective or a politician. By now, however, the car had been rammed and scraped and sideswiped and impounded; it had been sprayed with graffiti and broken into and pissed on and had the bumper ripped off. But only stolen twice. I tried to discourage interest by letting a lot of junk wash around in the front and back seats--empty Coke bottles, food wrappers, crumpled pages from reporter's pads, block maps of the city. I once kept a Club on the steering wheel but the kids sprayedaerosol Freon on it, freezing the steel, then broke it with a hammer. I suppose I could have driven something prettier, a Sentra perhaps, but it would have been on a container ship to Hong Kong in three days.
I found the Houses. They were identical six-story brick buildings, and above the loopy scrawls and stylized threats and nicknames appended with RIP rose window upon window with bars on them--to prevent the young from falling out and the criminal from climbing in. Rap music pounded outward from all directions, cut through by the sound of dogs barking across the snowy mud at other dogs in other buildings. Elsewhere mattresses hung out like tongues, or the windows were decorated with old Christmas lights, some on, some off, or more graffiti, or rotting shelves of flowerpots, or riggings of clothesline from which flapped socks or panties or babies' pajamas. The scene was bizarre and ominous and in no way unusual.
Then I spotted the police and the firemen and the kids on bicycles. It's the kids that tell you whether the scene is still hot--they lose interest quickly, especially when the gore is not as good as what they see on TV, and if they're milling around, starting to argue and roughhouse, then the situation is getting cold, the bodies gone, the witnesses hard to find. This scene looked like it had only about ten minutes left in it. I stepped through to get the story and was glad to see no TV vans around. The regular cops don't usually recognize me, but when somebody's been killed, a homicide detective is there soon, and often we've talked before. (I should admit right here, early on, that I've been sewn in with the cops for a while now--one of the deputy police commissioners under Mayor Giuliani, Hal Fitzgerald, is my daughter's godfather, which is good and not good: you start trading favors, you forget what the sides are, you forget you're playing on opposite teams. This was another obvious fuckup that I didn't avoid.) The captain in charge, a tall guy with red hair, told me what had happened: a young father living on the fourth floor of one of the buildings had not paid his cocaine tab; some nice people had forced their way into his apartment toscare him or to whack him--it wasn't clear--and ended up setting the place on fire. The captain recounted the incident duly, his eyes holding the brick horizon, thinking, it would seem, of anything else--his children, his wife, his boat--anything other than another case of what cops sometimes call "misdemeanor homicide." You got anything more? I asked. Maybe there was a fight, he shrugged, or one of the bullets hit the gas stove. Or maybe the two shooters lit the fire on purpose--the details were as yet unknown, since the girlfriend was in shock and had been taken to the hospital, and of the three other adults who had seen what happened, two were nowhere to be found (probably nervously drinking in a bar in another borough by now) and the third was dead. What was certain was that after the shooters left the apartment they had jammed an old bed frame between the blue metal apartment door and the hallway wall. The door opened outward, in violation of all relevant New York City public-housing codes, and thus the woman had been trapped in her burning apartment with her baby and a shot-up boyfriend.
I walked into the project's common area and scrounged around long enough to find one of the neighbors, a woman in her late twenties in a black winter coat. She lived across from the apartment in question. The interview wouldn't take long, just a few questions. So people will know what happened, I usually say, accompanied by some scribbling in a notebook (only rarely do I use a tape recorder--it scares people into silence, and besides, I always remember the good quotes--they stick in your ear). The woman held a baby in a snowsuit on her shoulder, a baby most interested in this man who was a funny color. The black eyes in the tiny brown face searched mine, and for a moment the world was redeemed. Then I asked the woman what she had witnessed. Well, I wasn't expecting nothing to happen, she said, 'cause it was still morning and usually things like that don't happen in the morning, everybody be sleeping. She possessed a handsome face with strong features, but when she lifted her gaze up to the apartment, the windows of which had been shattered from the inside by the firemen's axes, I saw that her eyes were rheumyand tired. The fire had smudged the brick wall of the building, and the firemen had hurled charred household items out of the window: a kitchen table, clothing, a few chairs, clothes, a baby's crib, a television, a box spring. Flung into the snow, the blackened wreckage looked like some of the assemblages you see in the galleries in Soho, an artist's pessimistic statement about whatever age we now live in.
Did you know the family involved? I asked the woman. Yes, I be in that apartment a hundred times. How did you find out what happened? I didn't need nobody to tell me, 'cause I saw the whole thing myself. I be washing the dishes and I seen the smoke and everything out the window, and I told myself that don't look good, that look like Benita. So I call the emergency, and then I went downstairs. The woman glanced at me. She had more to tell me, and I waited. I don't usually press. People will say what they have to say. But when they get stuck, you can go back to the chronology. What time was this? I asked. Almost twelve o'clock noon. Okay, you were washing the dishes; what did you do when you saw the smoke, were you surprised? I was so surprise I drop a dish, matter of fact. What happened when you got outside? I was looking up at the window hoping that the fire department gonna make it pretty soon and then I'm looking up there when Demetrius, he come jumping through that window. He on fire, burning like, all over his shirt and hair and pants, and he holding Benita's kid, uh, Vernon, he only four months, and then Demetrius fall, he just fall and fall and fall, and I can tell that he gonna land on top of the baby, and I was worrying about that, and then just before Demetrius land, then he like, he do this little kind of flip, and he land on his back holding the baby up, like, I could see he did that on purpose so the baby be okay. Like, that was the last thing Demetrius ever did in his life, do that little flip and hold that baby up, 'cause then Demetrius, he land on his back, just like that--and here the woman slapped one black hand smack flat on top of the other--and he lay real still like, and I go running over and pick up Vernon 'cause I see Demetrius, he not gonna make it, and I check that baby over good, and then I thank the Lord,'cause Vernon, he not hurt. Little shook up's all. He cry only a little bit and I put him up in my arms. But Demetrius look bad. He got blood coming out of his ears and then I saw how he was all shot up by them boys. Then I just hope that Benita, don't she come jumping ...
The woman stopped and looked away, back toward the window. She shifted her baby, gave the bundle a pat on the rear. Anything else? I asked. Nuh-uh. I waited a moment more, looking her in the eyes. Thank you for your time, I said. The woman just nodded. She was not shocked or distraught, at least not apparently. The events in question did not violate her view of the universe, they were just further proof thereof.
I see a lot of this, to be honest, and there was no time to stand around and be mystified by the brutalities of urban life; the story was due in the paper's computer system by 5:30 P.M.--about three hours. I had what I needed and was heading back toward the car, already composing the lead paragraph in my head--when my beeper trilled against my leg. GIVE THE CHICK A CALL, it said. Lisa, phoning from St. Vincent's Hospital, where she operates. A lot of reporters carry cellular phones, but I hate them; they tether you to other people's agendas and can interrupt you at the worst moment, ruin interviews. I walked around the corner to a little Dominican luncheonette, and when the bell on the door tinkled, a couple of the regulars turned around, and one boy of about eighteen slunk coolly out the back, just in case I was somebody he needed to worry about. They see a big white man who isn't afraid to be someplace, and so maybe I'm a cop.
There was a pay phone on the wall.
"You're due at that cocktail party tonight," Lisa reminded me. "I put your tuxedo in the trunk."
The annual party, thrown by Hobbs, the billionaire Australian who owned the newspaper. As one of its columnists, my presence was obligatory. If he was the circus, I was one of the trained monkeys wearing a tight little red collar.
"I can't go," I said.
"You said yesterday you have to."
"You're sure it's tonight?" I checked my watch, anxious about the time.
"You said six-thirty."
"All the management people will be there, sucking up to Hobbs."
"What can I tell you?" she said patiently. "You told me you had to go."
"Kids are fine?"
"Sally has a play-date. You're up in the Bronx?"
"Brooklyn. Fire. Guy jumped out the window with a baby." I noticed the restaurant regulars watching me. Yo, white motherfuck, what you doin' here spittin' fuckin' white-boy saliva on my pay phone? "Anyway, I'll see you tonight."
"Late or early?" Lisa asked.
"If you get home early enough, there's a chance," she said.
"Oh? A chance of what?"
"A chance you'll get to make out."
"Oh, it's good all right."
"How do you know?"
"I know," Lisa said.
"Certain testimonials have been entered into the records."
"Whose was the last one?" I asked.
"Oh, some strange man."
"Was he good? Did he float your boat?"
"You lose your chance after eleven," she said. "Drive safely, okay?"
"Right." I was about to hang up.
"No! Wait! Porter?"
"What is it?"
"Did the baby live?" Lisa asked worriedly. "The baby who went out the window?"
"You really want to know?"
"You're horrible! Did the baby live?"
I told her the answer, and then I was gone.
There is, in the West Village, on one of the old narrow streets (I won't specify which one) lined with three-story, Federal brick row houses, a wall. A certain wall, located in the middle of the block, about thirty feet long, connecting two houses. It's made of glazed brick and is a good fifteen feet high. The brickwork itself is topped with an ancient, black wrought-iron fence about five feet high that gracefully billows outward and is impossible to climb. Above this fence, and in many places grown through it, are the thick branches of an ailanthus tree, a weedy, fast-growing nuisance of a plant, much given to the city's empty lots, that will contort itself into any shape in order to survive. It must either die by disease or be rooted out completely. This particular ailanthus is so tenacious in its reach toward sunlight that it seems to conspire with wall and fence to keep people out.
I've spent no small amount of time standing on the other side of the street with my arms folded, looking first at the tree and its tangle of branches, then at the fence, and then at the brick wall. Until last winter, examining the wall gave me some measure of reassurance. The wall is virtually impenetrable, and this is important, because set within it is a narrow doorway secured by a gate--not the usual rectangle of vertical iron bars but a solid steel-plate door that extends down to within a quarter inch of the brick walkway. You could slip a weekday paper under that gate with a bit of effort, but you couldn't push a Sunday edition through. The gate is an exact replica of one that hung there for more than a century--iron, brittle with age, rusted here and there, repainted black fifteen times. I hired a sixty-year-old Russian welder from Brooklyn to duplicate it in steel. Then the two of us tore out the old gate, hinges and all, and set the new one in its place, repointing the brickwork. I remember how pleased I was, thinking that it would be damn tough to get through--you'd have to have a sledgehammer and a hacksaw, you'd have to back a large truck against it, attach a couple of chains, and pull forward in low gear.
But it's where the gate leads that is important. Beyond it, surprisingly, a narrow, arched tunnel doglegs seventy feet back from the sidewalk. Rising and falling, the tunnel passes along the rear foundation walls of three houses dating from the 1830s, all of which have their formal entrances on the next street. This arrangement was written into the original deed of each of these properties, and, according to my real-estate lawyer, represents quite an anomaly in New York City real-estate law. Most residential property, of course, is defined or surveyed from a bird's-eye view, the footprint of the property or building a matter of lengths and widths. Not so with the tunnel. Legally it is three dimensional, "an arched passageway, of a height of five feet and nine inches," says the original deed, "with slight variation thereof as it extends westerly." It is a quiet and mysterious conduit, and on evenings when there is little traffic, you can hear water gurgling down the soil pipes of the adjacent buildings, or a piano being played in one of the rooms upstairs. Or the indistinct sounds of conversation. Thus does the tunnel feel like a dark umbilicus, passing closely and secretly past separate lives before opening at the other end into an irregular lot, twenty-one by seventy-four feet, opening upon what my wife and I fell in love with--here, with the lighted twin towers of the World Trade Center looming not so far away, is what we were amazed to see: a small wooden farmhouse.
There it stood, despite rotted sills, termite-eaten joists, and a sagging cedar-shingle roof--a fragment from Manhattan's lost age, built in 1770 when the island was to the south a port for English merchants and to the north a landscape of streams, dirt roads, and farms owned by Dutchmen and even a few Quakers. The house's ceilings were low and the windows off-plumb, and the original bubbled glass rattled in the old frames during a storm, but for some reason the structure had never been torn down, perhaps because the walnut cabinetry was too beautiful, perhaps because of a stubborn owner, family discord, chance--the reasons had been lost to time. We didn't care. We wanted it, and the little patch of green in front, which even included a small gnarled apple tree. Anywhereelse, such a house would have been mundane; in Manhattan, it was a miracle.
Lisa and I were in our early thirties then and had been married only a few years. The house was terrifyingly expensive, but Lisa, who is a hand surgeon, had come home one day with disbelief on her face and told me that the city's premier thumb man, a conceited maestro in his late fifties, had asked her to join his practice. There was a certain urgency to his offer; after marrying a third time, the good doctor had impregnated his childless, forty-year-old wife, knowing that she had reached the age of desperation but not that she had been taking fertility drugs on the sly. Result: three tiny yet strong heartbeats on the ultrasound. The prospect of so much new life had nearly scared the man to death; like a lot of the grizzled heavy hitters in the city, he had suddenly reached the point where he needed a young person to carry the load. And for this he was willing to pay--big. He knew Lisa would soon want children of her own; that didn't matter; he trusted her skill and youthful stamina. "What will I do with all that money?" Lisa had blurted. And here the older surgeon gave her a fatherly but potentially wrong lecture about the gigantism of the federal debt and the government's inevitable need to print money: "Buy as much real estate as you can," he advised.
Like a farmhouse in New York City. After stepping up on the porch and inside the front door, we examined the bedroom, trying to imagine ourselves sleeping and waking in what was then only a small vacant room, the floors dusty, the air stale. The seller had seen to it that the old plaster walls had been patched and repainted. We stood on the wide pine planks, thinking of the unknowable lives lived in that room, the voices of laughter and sexual pleasure and anger, the babies and children, the suffering and death.
It was this diminutive house, with its three cramped bedrooms, that somehow had kept me honest, or so I believed, reminding me that the city had been here a long time and would remain a long time after I was gone. My children could be growing up in an Upper West Side apartment with a uniformeddoorman and the groceries and the dry cleaning and the videos delivered, and there was nothing wrong with that, but something about our little apple-tree house was memorable, and I knew that Sally and Tommy already loved the crooked brick passageway, the sloping roof, the low beams of the ceilings. (Other children had lived here, of course; my wife found hundred-year-old buttons fallen between the floorboards, tiny lead soldiers buried in the garden, and, when we redid the kitchen, the plastic head of a Barbie doll, identifiable from its hairstyle as circa 1965.) When my children became adults, I hoped, they would understand that their home was something remarkable. I wanted, more than anything, for them to know that they were loved, and for this knowledge to find its way, molecularly, into who they were. You can always tell, I think, with adults, who felt loved as a child and who did not; it's in their eyes and walk and speech. There's a certain brutal clarity. You can almost smell it.
Back at the paper, I slipped along the wall of the long rectangular newsroom, carrying my tuxedo box past the managing editor's office, past various plotters talking in low, disaffected tones, past the sports guys eating their afternoon breakfast, past the bright cave of the gossip columnist. She was flicking through an electronic Rolodex, talking on the phone. Big hair, big attitude, today's shipment of hype--E-mail printouts, press releases, promo-videos, movie posters--piled atop her in-box. She has two assistants, both young men of postmodern sexuality who are happy to crawl through half a dozen downtown clubs every night, cellular phone in pocket, tipping doormen, scrounging for perishable scraps of celeb-gossip. And then my own office, which resembles not so much a place where a man works each day as an experiment in chaos, old papers and coffee cups ringing the desk and phone and computer.
Demetrius Smith, the dead young man in the Brownsville Houses, had been a gymnast in high school, according to his sister, whom I reached in North Carolina. All kinds of trophies,and a college scholarship that he never cashed in. This tidy little fact could be used to melodramatic advantage, and after a few more calls I reached the man's high-school gymnastics coach. No, Demetrius never had any talent, barked the coach, certainly no college scholarship--who told you that? I'm sorry he died, but he really wasn't much of a gymnast. Too afraid of heights, as I remember.
This was a twist on the twist, but hack newspaper columnists can work irony like phone wire. I slipped the coach into the piece, as well as the fact that the average income per household in the Brownsville Houses was $10,845, according to the Census Bureau; but by then the time was 5:27. The city editor was rushing around worried about his cover story, but sooner or later he'd give me a look. I shipped the copy to the city desk, glanced through my mail, separated the bills, then closed my door and pulled on the rented tuxedo. Apparently a lot of cheap-tuxedo renters lied about their size: the waist, like the column I'd just finished, had a bit of elastic in it.
Then out and away. Good-bye and good luck--even if the president is assassinated by a movie star, don't touch my column. Other reporters were finishing up and the night editors had arrived to grind the hamburger for tomorrow's meal, and I passed them all without saying much. We get along in the usual way. Some of the older reporters sort of hate me, I know, because my stories don't get killed at the last minute, and I make a lot more money than they do. I actually negotiated a contract with the paper's executives, whereas the regular staffers are shackled by whatever meager scraps. the newspaper union won in its last collective bargaining agreement.
Out on the sidewalk, buttoning my coat against the cold, I thought for a moment about skipping the party, simply going home to dinner with the kids, watch them throw macaroni on the floor. I should have done it. Yes, you fucker, I tell myself now, you should have gone straight home. Instead I found the car and crawled uptown through the rush-hour traffic. It was past dusk and I had to keep my eye on the streets; I don't know the city so well that I don't need to be attentive as Idrive. As I said, I didn't grow up in the city, and for a reporter, this is a disadvantage. All of New York's great columnists came from its streets, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill among them. I've had to overcome the fact that I was raised three hundred miles north of the city, almost in Canada, in a farmhouse on ten acres, under a wide sky. In the winters the icy expanse of Lake Champlain stretched before me, and I'd spend hours in the small fishing shack my father dragged out onto the ice behind our pickup truck. Other days my pals and I would tramp through the birch and pine to the tracks that ran by the water and wait for the afternoon train headed south from Montreal to New York; when it would come, huge and terrifying and whirling snow alongside, we'd suddenly stand, ten-year-olds in winter coats and boots, and fire off a good dozen snowballs each, aiming for the flashing faces in the windows, whom we imagined to be rich and important personages. It was 1969, 1970. My boyhood was indisputably small-town, suffused with a certain happy innocence that later drew me toward all that is soaring and marvelous, all that is scuttling and decadent about New York City, where, in the density of possibility, what is strange is not measured against what is normal but against what is stranger still. I've seen beggars with AIDS holding signs specifying their T-cell counts, I've seen a naked man on a bicycle thread the center lanes of Broadway against traffic, I've seen Con Ed men working in the sewers while listening to Pavarotti. I've watched detectives with French fries drooping from their mouths wiggle the toes of the dead to estimate the time of death. I've seen a fat woman kissing trees in Central Park, I've seen a billionaire adjust his toupee.
And how odd, then, that after I dropped the car in a garage and traveled the last few blocks toward the party on foot, I witnessed another thing I'd never seen before--not exactly an omen for all that followed but memorable perhaps as an emblem of the starkness of human desire. Yes, let us decide that this image is significant: It was a dark block, Seventy-ninth or Eightieth Street, I think, with some renovation going on inside one of the town houses, judging by a looming Dumpsternext to the curb. In the cold I suddenly realized that there were two figures in the Dumpster, atop the debris, moving, struggling. A fight? I cautiously walked closer and, simultaneous with my recognition of the ragged coats and wild matted hair of the homeless, was my apprehension of the rhythm--the cadenced stroke--of the figure on top. They were fucking. Grandly. Two homeless people in the cold. Someone had thrown an old mattress into the Dumpster, and on a mountain of torn-out lathing and pipes and ceiling plaster, eight feet above the street, there they did it. The woman, who had hoisted her heavy layers of coats and dresses, struck the man on his bare ass with her fist, and for a moment I worried that she was being raped. But she cried aloud hoarsely in pleasure and struck him again and again, such that I understood that her heavy blows fell on the back-stroke to urge the man's rapid reentry of her, to encourage him to use a measure of force. Happy pervert that I am, I lingered a few feet away. They didn't notice. I watched for a moment, then for another, then moved on through the shadows of the street
A minute later, I stood inside an opulent apartment building, handing my coat to an elderly hatcheck man, who was being careful with the ladies' furs. An elevator man with a green vest took me upstairs.
"Big party?" I asked.
But he didn't need to answer; I could hear the music and the murmurous roar even before the elevator doors opened. Then there I was, amid a warm mass of people, among the lipsticked lips and crinkling eyes, the teeth and the cigarettes and the expensive eyeglasses and newly cut hair and jabbering pink tongues, bright with conversation, all talking loudly, animated with great conspiratorial appetite for life's possibilities. When you enter a big Manhattan party, you know instantly whether you are of the crowd or not, whether you are one of the smiling gents holding a drink and skipping his gaze loosely about the room. I was not. But then I've never felt much at ease with any crowd--always I am outside, watching, still the kid from upstate New York who spent hours in a cold shack out in the middle of the frozen lake,staring at a hole in the ice. (The sudden brutal tug, the handover-hand hauling of the writhing form out of the dark, cold depth.)
It was one of the spectacular apartments owned by Hobbs. Or maybe his holding company owned it--such distinctions didn't matter; the place was a cavern of silk walls with a gilded forty-foot ceiling and about five dozen pieces of stuffed period furniture and many English paintings on the walls (selected by a consultant, bought by the truckload), with four open bars staffed by three bartenders each--and not merely unemployed actors eager to make contacts but disdainful professionals who nonetheless remembered your drink from an hour ago. A balcony overlooked the main room, and there a sextet with a piano kept the background music moving along briskly. Nearly a dozen photographers were at work, several of whom considered themselves celebrities in their own right. More rooms opened, one with tables of meats and cheeses and fruits and vegetables and mountains of little chocolates, and others where the sofas were deeper and the lights lower, places of intimate potential.
Hobbs was in town. This was the purpose of the party, to remind everyone that he was alive, that he was not just one man but a concept, an empire, a world unto himself. Every winter he swooped through Manhattan to inspect his various properties, including his tabloid newspaper, and he arrived with the predictable entourage. But this was not what people remembered after he'd gone--they remembered precisely what he wanted them to remember, which was that he threw an absolute goddamn riot of a party. He churned things up. Stuff happened. People made deals, they met celebrities, they sailed off into the night with someone unexpected. They got drunk and said the wrong thing to the right person. Happy insult and happier slander. Or they loudly uttered many shocking or brilliant things and hoped someone might hear them. All of this was very exciting, and if it was apparent in the next day's gossip columns that the bash had been vulgar, then so much the better.
Hobbs was in his sixties, but that did not mean that hedecorated the setting only with well-dressed wormwood (the old but minor millionaires with their optimistic winter tans, the women with bony wrists and lifelike teeth who had ceased believing in much of anything other than the necessity of servants and daily estrogen pills); no, his Manhattan office invited a genuinely volatile selection of people--there, looking smaller through the shoulders than might be expected, was Joe Montana, and there, too, was Gregory Hines, a bit gray now, and some of the local TV news personalities, and there was the financier Felix Rohatyn of all people, in his fatly beaverish mien, talking with one of the new sorcerers of cy-, berspace, and Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, and the man who had just been indicted for a $400 million securities scam, and the plastic surgeon who reinflated Dolly Parton's breasts with such flawless expertise, and not far away was the famous figure skater, whose name I couldn't remember, standing with the young black male model whose face was on all the bus stops now. Many of the women were lovely and seemed vaguely familiar, actresses on television perhaps. Then, just coming in from the elevator, was a sizable contingent from Time Warner, the newest regime of killers, looking grim and ambitious with their important neckties, and there was George Plimpton, unrecognized by a trio of very long legged women who could only be dancers in a Broadway show, and they were being eyed appreciatively by Senator Moynihan, I noticed. It went on and on. The fat little guy from the Times, who carried his wit like a talking parrot. The famous Italian photojournalist, who got all those horrific pictures out of Sarajevo. He had a scar on his forehead that the women found terribly attractive. They were discussing one of the great oil sheiks, who was said to keep a carefully selected young man with him at all times to donate whatever organ--heart, lung, kidney--the sheik might suddenly require. And there, in a suit but no tie, indifferent to the long ash of his cigarette, stood the famous and formerly promising novelist, a one-book wonder who had made his name ten years earlier with his clever mastery of the Zeitgeist and who now mostly played softball in the Hamptons with other faded literary lights. Heseemed to be coloring his hair, and the women ignored him. I did spot James Earl Jones, looking better than anyone in a beautiful blue suit, and he was listening to Mario Cuomo, who is shorter than you expect, who was listening to himself, and there were many other people there as well, maybe four hundred in all, not counting the publicists darting about, directing the photographers, arranging group shots, smiling, smiling, smi-hi!-ling till there was water in the corners of their eyes, working the buzz, surfing it, smiling and nodding and saying, Yes, yes! Everyone is talking about it! with the it itself brightly indefinable.
And there, dropped into the middle of a huge sofa, was the great man himself, Hobbs, conveying a herring with his swollen fingers through the air into his ever-spittled, never-sated lips. As the oily dead fish approached, the thick eyebrows lifted first, as if part of a complex mechanism that subsequently opened his gaping maw to reveal yellow, crowded teeth that seemed too long, like a horse's, yet stumpy and worn down from decades of chewing, and then, a further horror: his thick gray tongue--illicitly large, swollen with toxins, lying heavily upon the lower lip.
He was known as a man of immoral shrewdness, but this meant only that he bought low and sold high. Any city newspaper is dependent on its retail advertising, and it was said that Hobbs had not been planning to buy the newspaper but had been in New York on other business and noticed that its biggest tabloid was in deep trouble. Not coincidentally, he'd seen the empty hotels and dropping prices of skyscrapers. He was a man of many cities (London, Melbourne, Frankfurt) and having witnessed recurrent boom and bust in metropolises around the globe, he had developed a shorthand method for deciding when to buy a newspaper--he listened for the sound of rich people screaming. The owner of the paper at the time, a real-estate man, was getting killed as the tide of Japanese dollars receded from New York. He wanted out and had started to turn off the money; it got so bad that every night a clerk went around collecting spare pencils off reporters' desks to reuse the next day. With no warning, Hobbs had presentedhimself like a phantasm; the offer was very, very low, but it was in cash--not a convolution of debt instruments and stock transfers. The real-estate man huffed that he was concerned about the public good; never would he sell out a great New York institution to such a scoundrel--everyone knew what kind of shocking trash Hobbs printed in his London papers. By contrast, the real-estate man was a statue in the park, and for a time he enjoyed this new version of himself and was seen on television and at symposia at the Columbia University School of Journalism describing the size and beauty of his ethical convictions. Three weeks later he took Hobbs's deal and was gone. Hobbs came in, clashed brutally with the unions, and threatened to close the paper. This seemed impossible, considering he had just bought the paper, but then observers pointed out that the newspaper building was prime East Side real estate; in an up market, the building might be worth nearly the entire price of the paper. This scared the unions. The mayor made entreaties, but Hobbs seemed disinterested. He stayed in London while his deputies negotiated, and in the end, the unions caved. Hobbs cut costs, bought the drivers a new fleet of trucks, and then hit the next upturn in the economy.
Now the paper was fattening Hobbs's holding company, providing cash for him to add other properties; or maybe it wasn't, and he was just carrying it in order to bludgeon the politicians as necessary. Either way his genius had again been confirmed. I watched him with a kind of zoological curiosity as he muttered something wetly at a slender young thing who could not have been wearing underpants under her dress as she passed fetchingly in front of him; then the great soft wattle beneath the immense chin--a cow udder of flesh, really--shook in merriment at his own witticism, and above his bright green eyes the thick eyebrows went up and down a second time, as if connected to a string, while pieces of masticated herring frothed momentarily on the ledge of his lip before being wiped away by the same swollen tongue. The mouth then reflexively opened again, just in time to receive another shiny herring being pressed home.
A fiftyish woman with a perfect helmet of hair smiled at me. "Porter Wren, is it?" she said in a fake British accent as the piano sounded dreamily from the balcony above us.
She took my arm. "You must come have a word with--he's quite eager to meet--"
She conveyed me toward the clot of executives surrounding the Australian's sofa. He was so heavy that he couldn't stand for long periods. One could only imagine tailored undershirts, the twenty-eight-inch neck. Expanses of soft flesh rubbing against themselves. Ankles wide as coffee cans. I was handed off to a young man with a lemon-sucking expression, and he said, "Yes, yes, of course, yes ..." and he stitched me through the people around the man and pressed me forward so that I found myself looking down at the monstrosity of silk, the immense fingers.
"Sir, Mr. Porter Wren, sir, who writes the column ..."
His eyes rolled upward in my direction obligatorily, and he opened the large wetted mouth in something close to an aah-hmm, nodded twice vaguely, as if exhausted by his own disinterest, then flicked his view back toward some other entertainment. Here was a man rich and powerful enough that he no longer needed to speak. I beat my brains out working for him. But no matter--my labor was lint in his pocket. If I didn't want to do it, there were a thousand men and women standing in line behind me. Instantly I felt a polite pressure at my elbow, and the lemon-sucker pivoted me away from the couch, There. I was done.
Now I was ready to sit, to let the party flow past me, put in the required number of minutes. There was also the question that needed to be pondered: to drink or not to drink, and gin or vodka or rum, and to what degree, and for what purpose exactly, and why the hell not? Behind me, sitting on a huge Empire sofa that faced the other way, were two women bent close in conversation, smoking cigarettes and enjoying a bottle of wine pilfered from the bar. I was able to twist my head around and get a good look at them; they were the kind of pretty, unmarried women who, around age thirty-eight, hardenedby the scarcity of prospective husbands, decide to spend the foreseeable future in offices, health clubs, department stores, cocktail parties, and the beds of married men. Such women patrol the perimeter of their careers with ceaseless energy. I suspect that they are lonely and will admit it under the right circumstances. On Sunday mornings, they generally are not seen in church (and neither am I) but out walking a big dog on a thick leash--some large and beautiful purebred that cost several thousand dollars as a puppy and who always, invariably, is a male, panting and nosing his way along the street, pissing, smiling a dog's smile. I was about to go talk with the Italian photojournalist when I heard one of the women say, "There's no one here, really."
"You saw Peter Jennings, though. I heard they paint his temples brown every night."
"Yes, he's a lot balder in person."
"I saw JFK Jr. last week, did I tell you?"
"No!" the woman shrieked.
"Right there in front of me."
"How'd he look?"
"Gets too much sun. Sort of like that guy I told you about, the guy I met--"
"The guy with the big wart?"
"No, the other guy, who couldn't--"
"Yeah. Only thirty-three years old." She sighed. "I guess it was the Prozac."
At that moment I noticed a blonde woman in a white evening gown. I stared liberally. (My wife is an attractive woman, a lovely woman. But I look at other women, I look at them hard and carefully and with little guilt; my lust is a cheap and ready thing, passing closely over women like a hand, pressing toward each moist possibility, and the more I squander that lust upon whomever happens to be walking by, the more, mysteriously, there is of it.) The woman in white was sipping wine and holding the fingers of a tall man in a suit who was no more than thirty; I made him out to be an executive on the way up; he had that look about him--he was handsomeand trim and big-shouldered and he enjoyed the company of several other corporate men, some of them older. There were, I knew, a lot of finance people at the party whose jobs were to move the big sums around. The woman had the look of a corporate wife, and she greeted the other men with charm and deference, laughing in just the right way, the light catching the rope of pearls about her neck, the glint of something at her wrist. Her man, I noticed, seemed not to appreciate the skill with which she did this. Instead, he joked and smiled and nodded with the others. She may well have been the most beautiful woman in the room--no small feat, that--and yet I saw that she was but an addendum to his presence. Instantly I knew him, knew his soul: There is an age in men when they understand that they have crossed, irrevocably, into manhood. This is not a matter of masculinity; it has more to do with an awareness of time--that it is passing, brutally. (An interest in gardens and children often follows.) A corollary to this awareness is that one sees men who are somehow still boys, men who have not been disappointed or deeply scared yet, although their moment will come. Such was the case with the man next to the woman in the white gown.
Again, through the music and noise of a hundred conversations, came the voices behind me, and I tilted my head backward, eyes toward the ceiling, to hear more clearly: " ... and she said she was just sitting there at the light, at the corner of Broadway and Houston, and this black squeegee man was just all over her windshield and it was last August, you know, he didn't have on a shirt--"
"Yes!" the voice squealed. "And his chest and nipples were pressed against the wet windshield."
"I can't believe it," the other breathed excitedly. "I just can't!"
"And she was watching--I mean, thinking about--"
"No! Don't tell me that!"
"She just opened the door and told him to get in!"
"That is shocking!"
"I said, 'Alice, how could you do that? He could--'"
"She just took him in?"
"She's desperate. I mean, okay, she's not exactly beautiful, but ..."
I tipped my head forward again, rolling my eyes back to the horizon of the room, and there, I saw, was the woman in the white gown, looking in my direction. She smiled at her date or husband and uttered a word excusing herself, and then, strangely enough, walked directly toward me, carrying her wineglass. Her face was no less beautiful as it approached, but I could see a certain determination in her features. Dark brows, blonde hair lifted off her neck. The rope of pearls. Her breasts moved heavily against the silky material of her gown, which, I now saw, was not white but, more alluringly, the color of the flesh of a peach. It seemed impossible that she was coming to talk to me, but she gave a little smile of recognition as she approached, then sat down closely, crossed her legs, and turned toward me.
"Your picture, Mr. Wren," she said in a full, throaty voice, "is lousy, you know that?"
I looked into her face. "The one that goes with my column?"
She nodded. Her eyes were blue. "It makes your neck look too skinny."
"Well, it was taken a few years ago, in the waning moments of my youth."
"They should take it again." She smiled.
I nodded a silent thanks.
"I read your column from time to time," she said.
"I see." She was sitting close enough that I thought I might know where she'd dabbed her perfume.
"But I have to tell you"--she frowned--"I don't much like it. I mean it's always very well written and everything"--she gave a dismissive little flourish with her fingers--"but I'd think you'd rather be anywhere than in one of these places where something terrible happens. You must see many terrible things, no?"
I've been asked this question before, and usually there is an air of frivolity to it, as if I am to enumerate urban horrorsfor the listener in the same way the polar bears at the Central Park Zoo have been taught to frolic with huge plastic toys. But then we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment. Eat dinner and watch the bombs fall, the fugitive hunted down on live television, the genuine murderer cackling genuinely.
"Sure, I've seen a few things," I said for her indulgence, knocking back the rest of my drink. "But if you read my column, you have a pretty good idea."
"Yes, of course." Her voice was subtly impatient. "I wanted to ask you, though, how you find out some of the things you find out."
I gave her a shrug.
"I mean, you do get people to tell you things."
"I do, yes."
I looked at her. "Usually they want to tell me. Or maybe they don't want to tell me, but they want to tell somebody."
She thought about this.
"You mind if I ask your name?" I said.
"I'm sorry. Caroline Crowley."
Her eyes seemed to search mine for something, not recognition exactly, but for an awareness that her decision to tell me her name was significant.
"What--" I stopped.
"Yes?" She was clearly amused.
"What brings you to the party?"
Another flourish of her fingers. "My fiancé's bank does some kind of business with the big company that I guess owns your paper. Something like that."
I glanced at her fiancé. Again, there was something of the youth about him; perhaps it was in the slenderness of his neck, or the way he nodded vigorously, confidently, with his executive pals. I wondered if this Caroline Crowley might be a bit older than him; on the other hand, women in their late twenties are, I think, generally wiser than men of the same age, and so it might simply have been that her manner was more mature. But there was something else. If she was notactually older, then she seemed to have been made older.
" ... oh, I don't mean to disparage your paper," she was saying, kicking one of her crossed legs back and forth. "It's a marvelous paper really. I kind of like the ... the feel of a tabloid. I mean I read the Times, of course, for the national and international news, but I read your paper for something else--to sort of get the real city, you know? The grit. You don't get that in the Times." She glanced back at her fiancé, who appeared to be telling a story that had to do with tennis, for he was pantomiming a forehand.
"Your fiancé plays tennis."
"Charlie?" she asked. "Yes. May I ask you another question?"
"Don't you think what you do is sort of predictable by now?"
I looked at her carefully. We were having a dialogue, but it didn't have much to do with what was being said.
"I mean, it's the same old thing, isn't it?" she asked, lifting her dark eyebrows. "Some poor sad person has some poor sad thing happen to them and it's for all the usual reasons, simple reasons, and there you go getting the quotes right or whatever reporters worry about, and then the next day it's pretty much the same again, right?"
"I find the stories interesting." I sipped my drink.
"But I heard you used to be this big investigative reporter and do these stories where you actually dug into some lurid, sordid, horrid past of somebody, a politician or somebody, and found out something important, something investigatively important--"
"Is this supposed to be a serious conversation?"
"Well," she began, her voice coy, "if I'm being rude, it's because I think rude questions are often the most pertinent ones."
"You like rude questions?"
I felt the liquor trumpeting inside my brain. "I could well ask you why in the world you are going to marry such anobviously upstanding, intelligent, handsome, healthy, and soon-to-be-prosperous fellow like your fiancé, when you could pick any useless, misbegotten psychopath with mossy teeth, yellow T-shirts, no money in the bank, and a brain stuffed with pornographic impossibilities, who, nonetheless, might be more interesting to talk to and better in bed."
She drew back in surprise, her pretty mouth open.
"Yes"--I nodded--"that is a rude question. Maybe I'll ask another. Maybe I'll ask you how long I'm supposed to pretend that flirtatious conversation such as ours has no outcome, no purpose. Women who look like you don't just walk up to strange men at parties and first insult their appearance and then their livelihood under the protection of their own charming loveliness and the presence of a fiancé. Without some good reason, right?"
Now she gazed into her lap.
"Look," I went on, my voice softening, "I'm just saying that if you want to play, if you want to get into something here, some kind of real conversation, not the usual cocktail-party crap, fine. I'll do that. I deal with bullshitters all day long, with great interest, I might add, but I'm on my own time here, so do me a favor--get to it, okay? Get to whatever it is you want with me."
She looked up then, straight into my face. I hadn't scared her at all. Perhaps a hint of amusement passed through her eyes. "I was hoping I might talk to you about something important, actually," she said in quite a different voice--a calm, clear voice.
"What is it?"
"It's complicated ... I mean, it takes a while."
"I see." But of course I didn't.
"Could we talk about it?" she asked.
"Are you serious?"
She nodded. "We could leave right now."
"And where would we be going?"
"My apartment, about fifteen blocks from here." She stared at me. "Charlie wouldn't be coming along."
Her eyes, I realized, were the blue of a mailbox. "I don't know, Caroline Crowley, maybe I shouldn't be left alone with you."
She touched a finger to her pearls, smiled to herself. The girlie act was gone, and she looked up at me, eyes unblinking. "Am I to understand," she said huskily, "that we're protecting your virtue, not mine?"
But this, I told myself, was not about sex. She had something else in mind. And maybe it could be a story. I've learned that you have to put yourself in the way of opportunity if you want to get the good stories. I told her I needed a few minutes, and then found a phone and called Lisa, knowing it was just late enough that she might have turned off the ringer so that the kids would not wake in our small house. The answering machine came on. I muttered something into the receiver about running into some people, that we were going out for a drink. Was this a lie? Yes, sort of. I had not done anything to feel guilty about, nor did I expect to, but my lie seemed easier than explaining that I was leaving the party with some woman in a peach gown whom I'd just met. So I said I was out for a drink. My wife is used to this--it's definitely part of the job--and only expects, ultimately, that I keep my underwear on and be home by the time the kids climb into our bed in the morning--about five-thirty or six. Sally and Tommy stumble sleepily into our room and crawl into the blankets and get between us and then sometimes fall asleep again, with the sweet stink of their breathing, and more often they flop around and everybody is forced to wake up. Or I fall asleep again--a troubled, shallow sleep, always--and Sally lies there awake, thinking of something, and then rolls over and asks me directly, right in my ear, something like this: "Daddy, does LaTisha have hair on her bottom?" LaTisha is Josephine's daughter, a sullen black girl of fifteen, almost six feet tall. I quite imagine that she has hair "on herbottom," as Sally refers to it, and I have little doubt that the whole area has been thoroughly pawed over by some boyfriend or another. And then I push my eyes open and there, at 6:02 A.M., or whatever the time, is my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, with her eyes clear and awake, watching her unshaven dad rise from the grave of sleep (maybe she sees the heaviness of my eyes, the flecks of gray in my stubble, maybe she can already intuit that I am closer to death than she), and to see her face like that, so close to mine, is the sweetest thing in the world. And then here comes her brother in his fuzzy yellow one-piece sleeper, eighteen months old, in love with his penis already, a rapist of teddy bears, chuckling fatly as he throws himself on top of me, and then I have both of them in my arms and am making growling monster noises that scare them a little and make them happy, while my wife steals the chance to go to the bathroom, and such moments I would protect with anything, even my life.
And yet. And yet when I hung up the phone and turned back toward the roar and music of the party, with Caroline Crowley standing to her advantage under a light, holding her coat check and ready to go, I was interested in something much different. It was not as if I was not myself--oh no, I was myself, I was my other self, the self that wishes to carry on a secret dialogue with all that is evil in human nature. Some men do not struggle with this in themselves. They seem to have a certain grace. They are happy--or rather, they are content. They swing tennis rackets in the sunlight and get the oil checked regularly and laugh when the audience laughs. They accept limits. They are not interested in what might come up from the dark, cold hole of human possibility.
The backseat of the taxi was an intimate space, warm against the night, both of us huddled in our coats. Caroline looked ahead, almost as if I were not there, and directed the driver brusquely. Then, from her purse, she removed a pouch and a small packet of rolling papers, took one paper out and pincheda dab of tobacco onto it. This she distributed along the length of the paper, which she then rolled into an even tube. She licked the last eighth of an inch of the paper and sealed it off with a quick, sliding fingertip.
"I bet you use wooden matches," I said.
"What a smart man you are."
She pulled a box of wooden matches from her purse, took one out, and with the wooden end, poked the tobacco at one end of the cigarette. This would be the smoking end. She looked at me, the lights outside the cab passing crazily across her blue eyes. "Girls don't like tobacco in their teeth."
She cracked the window on her side, then lit up. I realized that her voice was clear and measured, untainted by the whining vowels and hurried nasalness I heard all day; this and her habit of rolling cigarettes suggested she was not originally from the city or even the East. But before I could think further, we had pulled in front of an apartment house on East Sixty-sixth Street, just off Fifth Avenue, and she leaned over the seat and paid. The doorman, who with his brass buttons and epaulets looked like Napoleon Bonaparte, smiled at her familiarly and gave me a scowl. I followed Caroline across the marble hallway. She took long strides, I noticed. We entered the small space of the brass and mahogany elevator.
"I hate parties, actually," Caroline said, unbuttoning her fur, the cigarette in her mouth.
The elevator opened to a small foyer with a glossy black door. On the tiled floor stood a pair of Western boots; several umbrellas hung neatly from a brass hook.
"Here we go," Caroline said, turning the lock.
Inside, Persian rugs on the floor, white walls, a few pieces of art that did not interest me, a huge window that showed off the Manhattan skyline to the west. The place appeared to be professionally cleaned, but I was not looking at big money--not forty or fifty or a hundred million.
"Do we have polite chitchat," I asked, "or get right to it?"
"We get right to it. I want you here." She pointed to anoverstuffed reading chair, and as I sat down she turned on a floor lamp, the brightness of which made her gown even more translucent.
"Before we begin whatever it is we're ..."
"Yes?" she said.
"You came to the party and saw me and spontaneously decided to engage me in conversation, figuring that, curious idiot that I am, I'd be willing to listen to whatever it is I'm about to hear?"
"Yes." She watched me.
"I believe in spontaneity." There she stood, the light falling on her head and shoulders and breasts.
"You better tell me what you have to tell me."
"Fine. But before the tell comes the show."
"I'm going to get a show?"
She drifted toward the fireplace, her back turned. "Don't you want one?"
"I want one very badly."
"Good. That means that despite your recent drinking you'll be attentive." She took two large manila envelopes off the mantel and held them before her. Then she looked toward the window. Before her stretched the snowy dark box of the park and, beyond, the lights of the West Side. "You know nothing about me, right?" she announced, to the night before her as much as to me.
"Nothing," I agreed. "You're about twenty-eight, you have a few million dollars, you wear nice peach gowns to parties, you don't like my picture in the newspaper, your fiancé plays tennis and knows almost nothing about suffering and grief, and Napoleon Bonaparte, your doorman, is gladdened by your existence but not by mine. Other than that, nothing."
"It must be paralyzingly fun to be as clever as you are."
"Hey," I told her, "I'm here."
She was silent, and for a moment I wondered if the whole strange interaction was now about to collapse; if that was true, I'd catch a cab downstairs, try to forget about it, and put the taxi receipt on my monthly business expenses. But then shemoved away from the window and handed the envelopes to me. I chose the thinner one first and set the other aside. I unwound the red string that held the flap and shook out two dozen eight-by-ten color photographs. The first showed what seemed to be a male body in dirty clothes facedown in rubble. I flipped through a few more, variously taken from ten feet and five feet and two feet and, most unhappily, from twelve inches.
"Okay." I coughed. "So this is what we're talking about."
"Yes, this is where we start."
"This is where we start?"
"Yes." She stood over me and I could smell her. "Another drink?"
"Why not?" I muttered.
"Was it scotch or vodka?"
Back to the color photos: The damage to the body was complete; it looked as if nearly every major bone in the body had been crushed, including the skull, which resembled a pumpkin left on a front porch through the winter. One shot showed what remained of the face: a half-open eye staring into infinity, oblivious to its own seeping decay. The streaked putrefaction of the body was also evident where the shirt was pulled up. One of the photos showed an expanse of mutilated flesh impossible to identify. The picture was labeled TORSO, ANTERIOR. The next was a close-up of a gnawed wrist. I flipped through the photos quickly; I'd seen a number of after-the-fact examples of human butchery, but most of them were the result of guns and knives. This was worse, and had involved great physical forces. I slipped the pictures back into the envelope.- Someone had died an ignoble death: a lot filled with rubble, a body, the attention of flies.
"To help you through the gates of hell." Caroline presented a drink on a silver tray. I took the glass, sipped it. She stood over me smoking another rolled cigarette. "Look at the next envelope."
I did. Inside was a complete copy of a police file of an unsolved death in a lot at 537 East Eleventh Street in thedepartment's Ninth Precinct, which covers the Lower East Side. I'd seen such files a few times before, though the detectives who'd shown them to me would never have admitted to helping a reporter. I flipped through a page or two; it was the police paperwork that went with the photos: the decomposed body of a young white male had been found the morning of August 15 in the rubble of a tenement being razed, on the fifth day of demolition. It was an old case--about seventeen months had passed.
I gave my drink another sip. "A bit stingy with the tonic and ice, I see."
"I want you drunk," Caroline answered from behind me, "so that I can tell whether you are a lout or not."
"You could get in a lot of trouble for having these files."
"Detectives don't even let other cops see stuff like this."
"Yes," she said. "I know that, too."
I read further. A bulldozer had hit the body once or possibly twice before the operator noticed; some of the flesh of the chest and stomach had been removed by the steel treads. From the dorsal lividity it was clear that the man had died faceup, not facedown, as the body had been discovered. But the detectives could not determine if the body had been inside the building prior to demolition and then tumbled to the ground during demolition, or if the man had been killed elsewhere and his body hidden in the rubble. If the body had been in the empty building, I inferred, then the man could have died accidentally--say, from a drug overdose. The other possibility--that the body had been placed in the rubble after the demolition had started--would mean that the death was probably a murder: it was impossible, after all, for a man to dig a hole, kill himself, and then bury himself with chunks of brick and concrete. Then again, I corrected myself, theoretically a man could commit suicide or be killed accidentally, and then someone else could bury him under the rubble, for whatever reason that crazy people in New York City do crazy things.
The corpse, continued the report, was dressed in a blue T-shirt,blue jeans stained with old paint, underwear, and red socks. The contents of the pants pockets comprised less than a dollar in change, a subway token, and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. The breast pocket of the T-shirt contained a fragment of green stone, which an antiquities dealer consulted by the police had easily identified as jade; it appeared to have been broken off from a carved figurine. It did not match any known to have been sold or stolen in the city recently. There were no papers, wallet, or other personal effects either on or near the body.
Various technical terms described the condition of the corpse. According to the medical examiner's dictated report, the tissue was sufficiently decomposed and secondarily damaged by the bulldozer that it was impossible to determine the exact cause of death. But some causes could be ruled out: It wasn't due to an overdose. Or to gunfire; an X ray showed no bullets within the corpse, or what was left of it. The examiner further noted that it appeared as if the neck might have suffered a knife wound, but he was "quite tentative" about this, not only because of the bulldozer damage but also because there were signs of extensive rat activity, a common occurrence on corpses found in exposed locations. The absence of the hand, for example, may have been due to rats, added the examiner. "Recent rat activity was also indicated by generalized postmortem striations and triangular dental punctures," read the report. The degree of tissue damage tb the body by the bulldozer led the medical examiner to dwell extensively on the amount and stage of insect activity in the soft cavities of the corpse. The presence of diptera pupae and domestic beetles indicated that the decay had started between seven and ten days prior to the discovery of the body. Deep maggot infestation of the mouth, ear canals, and anus suggested a similar onset of decay. The report bore the examiner's stamp and signature.
I read on. I was smashed and could read anything now. The report digressed at length about the detectives' questions regarding the security of the demolition site. The wrecking company, Jack-E Demolition Co., of Queens, had erected afourteen-foot-high sidewalk shed of plywood and heavy timber at the front and back of the building, as required by city regulations, then strung a double coil of concertina wire over that. Access to the building's double front doors could only occur via a door in the front wall of the sidewalk shed. Access to the back of the lot came through a section of the shed wall that was unchained to let heavy equipment in. There appeared to be no damage to the front or back sheds and concertina wire nor to any of the chains or locks used to secure the openings. Anyone bringing the corpse onto the site would have had to hoist the body over the concertina wire at the rear, which seemed unlikely, given how difficult and obvious such a task was.
How, then, did the body get onto the site? It was not possible that it had been thrown from a nearby rooftop, for the body lay in the middle of the site, a good thirty-five feet from the perimeter. To reach that distance, the body would have to have been shot out of a cannon. And even if the body had somehow been hurled from the one adjacent rooftop, that would not explain how it had come to be buried in the rubble.
Thus the evidence suggested that the body had been in the building prior to demolition. But this explanation created its own problems. Could the doors--first to the sidewalk shed and then the double front doors to the building itself--have been unlocked by someone? The building's Korean owner had no idea how someone had gotten into the structure. Because he had recently bought the site anticipating the building's demolition, he had never bothered to become familiar with it. But yes, he did have keys to the building--he'd had new locks put on--and he'd given them to the demolition company's site manager, who claimed he'd spent each of the previous six nights at home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, keys in pocket, in the hale company of, alternately, his bowling buddies, his poker group, and his volleyball team, claims that checked out. Did he make a copy of the keys? No. Did he give the keys to anyone? No way, pal. We got half a million bucks' worth of wrecking equipment in there.
Moreover, the building itself had been secured against localsquatters a year prior, all lower windows filled in with cement blocks. There was no record that they had been broken. To get into the building had required clearance from the owner, and the only individuals let in had been from the various utility and service companies involved in turning off the water, gas, and electricity. The last person known to have been inside the building was the foreman for the demolition company, checking the structure one last time on the morning that demolition began. Had he conducted a thorough room-by-room investigation? the detectives asked. No, just glanced into the basement and first floors. But, he'd explained, it was impossible to go higher in the building, because the elevator was disabled and the fire doors to the stairwell were locked.
The roof, I thought.
The detectives had asked about the roof. Perhaps the decedent had gained access to the roof of 537 via 535, the only adjacent building, and then died there, or perhaps had been murdered there, the killer making his escape through 535. But the superintendent of 535 didn't remember anyone going in or out of his building he didn't know, and besides, the roof door was carefully locked so that kids wouldn't go up there. And only he had the key.
Even if the body had somehow found its way onto the roof of 537 prior to the building's demolition, there was the difficult problem of the rat activity, the detective had noted. The body appeared to have been ravaged by rats since the time of death, for at least a week, and rats do not live on the roofs of buildings in summer--too much sunlight and heat, not enough water. And pigeons don't eat carrion. It was true that crows were sometimes found in the city, but crows do not gnaw flesh, they peck at it viciously and then pull it away in strips, leaving a distinctly different pattern of mutilation. Moreover, the eyes had not been pecked out. Such information seemed to indicate that the body had not been on top of the demolished building, which might then mean that it had been buried in the lot, which, given what they had already learned, meant that the detectives were utterly stymied.
Another paragraph of the file indicated that the race of thecorpse and what still could be discerned of his height and weight matched a missing-person report filed by the decedent's wife seven days prior, on August 8, two days after he'd last been seen. The report had been filed in the Nineteenth Precinct, which is on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The wife identified the clothes and the wedding ring that had been removed, with some difficulty, from the corpse's left hand. She was shown a photo of the tattoo found on the groin of the deceased. This, too, she identified. She was shown the jade fragment. She could not identify it. Then she was shown the body. There was no doubt as to the identity; it was one Simon Crowley, twenty-eight years old, of 4 East Sixty-sixth Street.
I knew this name. "You're Simon Crowley's widow?"
"The young guy who made movies?"
"Jesus." I hadn't done a column on it because I was deep into a piece about drug dealers in Harlem at the time. "You were married to Simon Crowley?"
The famous young filmmaker. "I had no idea."
Caroline sat down in the chair opposite me.
"How did you get this?" I asked.
"I paid a lot of money to a man who said he was a private investigator. He said he used to be a detective and could get files, that he knew what to do."
"You're a resourceful woman."
"Yes." She blinked at the thought of this. "Did you ever see any of his movies?" she asked.
"No. I never get a chance to go much."
"But you heard of him?"
"Sure. I know he was sort of an outrageous filmmaker and that he died badly."
She nodded, with irritation.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't keep track of all the Hollywood stars. I mean, like that guy River Phoenix, and Kurt Cobain--"
"Simon was not a so-called Hollywood star."
"But you know who Simon was, you appreciate who he was?"
Seventeen months prior, when Simon Crowley died, I had been working my ass off at the paper and was severely sleep deprived, because Tommy had just been born and we had two babies keeping us up all night long. So, no, I didn't appreciate who Simon Crowley was, not in the way his beautiful widow wanted, and she saw this in my face.
"Wait a minute." She left the room and came back with a gigantic scrapbook, six inches thick. "These'll fill it in for you."
Someone had kept every magazine and newspaper article. Yes, here it all was. Simon Crowley, I was reminded, had been a young New York City filmmaker of note. He'd risen from obscurity on the strength of several innovative low-budget films that had become cult hits, then had been discovered by the Hollywood corporate edifice. I flipped through the articles noting certain specimens of language--gusts of breathless admiration, platforms of commentary, pearls of false insight. How stupid is the American magazine industry, really, how helplessly fawning. But I read on. Simon Crowley's first movie, Good Service, only forty-four minutes long, had been shot on unexposed pieces of film--called short ends--discarded or sold by other filmmakers. Using volunteer actors and technicians, Crowley had written and directed the story of a young busboy at a swank restaurant who becomes fascinated with an older woman who patronizes the restaurant. The woman, about forty, wealthy, still with a certain hard need to her face, finally notices the unnecessary attentiveness of the busboy and allows him to think he is seducing her, until the last scene when--I skipped on. Simon Crowley's work was marked, the articles generally agreed, by characters who lived their lives on the margins of the city, who inhabited the urban noir. Crowley himself had grown up in Queens, the only son of an older, working-class couple. Father repaired elevators, mother volunteered in a Catholic school, both lived small lives of habit and devotion. Mother died early. Fatherdutiful. Simon had been a strange and unruly boy, bright but bored with all his classes except art, hooking up with the underground party scene as a teenager, working as a busboy in various restaurants while he went to NYU film school, having his second film, Mr. Lu, discovered by an agent from the most powerful Hollywood talent mill at one of the film festivals, arcing his way upward through layer upon layer of fame. The black-and-white photos by Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair revealed him to be short, with a skinny, caved-in dissolution to his posture, as if he had been smoking cigarettes since the age of eight (which was the case, said the article), and beneath a mop of black hair and black eyebrows a face that appeared to dare one to describe its ugliness. It was not so much that he looked deformed; rather, his features seemed large and mismatched, as if they had been scissored out of three or four rubber Halloween masks from a costume shop. The effect was a face that was grotesque, carnal. "Several hours into the interview," an article in GQ read, "I came to the realization that Simon Crowley doesn't smile--or at least not like most people. His grin, when it rarely occurs, is usually in regard to the sad illusions held by some other person; his mouth--sort of a dark gash--flies open, revealing many unfortunate teeth. Next, a cynical rasp of laughter. Then the mouth snaps shut tightly and Crowley stares at you with unblinking concentration. The effect is purposeful and disconcerting. He is not a nice person, particularly, and he doesn't care if you know it. In his pursuit of great movies, woman upon woman, and cigarettes--in about that order--niceness is irrelevant and manners mask the desperate chase of existence; one may conclude that Crowley's conceitedness has not yet been adjusted by life's disappointments and suffering, but then, a humble, selfless person would not have made the brilliant movies that Crowley has."
I looked up. Caroline was watching me.
"Go on," she said.
So I did: Despite the fact that Crowley had come to dine in the company of stars and Hollywood executives, reported another piece, he still remained notorious for his late-night"investigations" into the city, and kept a small, trusted retinue of fellow debauchers with whom he traveled, one of them apparently a paroled murderer, another the dissolute son of a billionaire. After his nocturnal sojourns, Crowley was sometimes discovered passed out--in a locked limousine, naked on the Italian-marble floor of an apartment house lobby, etc. Actresses clamored to be in his movies, even those who publicly proclaimed themselves unimpressed by "asshole macho directors." Crowley's third big-budget movie went over its planned cost by thirty percent, and there were rumors of fighting on the set, of studio executives screaming at him in private lunchrooms. It was reported he'd spat back that he didn't fear any of them, and to prove his determination had picked up a steak knife and drawn a cut three inches long in his forearm, which later required twenty stitches and apparently shocked the executives into submission. His star, the very young, very ravishing Juliet Tormana, who had tantalized Hollywood's old stags (including the now-married Warren Beatty), declared that she was sleeping with Crowley and that "the sex is the best I've ever had." And so on. The usual hype, the usual drivel of celebrity culture. When The Time of No Return was released on nine hundred screens nationwide, it was a gigantic hit, grossing $24 million in the first week--an unheard-of sum for a "serious" film--and lauded by critics as a valuable, challenging portrait of fin de siècle America, "stark, huge, and immensely disturbing." The work was nominated for three Academy Awards, and won one for best screenplay, which Crowley had written. He was seen in every Hollywood and New York watering hole. He was arrested for picking a fight with Jack Nicholson in a Brentwood café, calling him, in front of others, "an old bag of shit with one or two cheap actor's tricks." He proclaimed that Spike Lee was "an inconsequential talent, a token black director whose work everyone knows is mediocre." Kathleen Turner, he noted, "has become fat and mean, with the fat and mean little chin of a lousy actress who can't even act the tart, so why should I want to film her?" Quentin Tarantino, he announced, made cartoons.
And so on. I set the file aside, looked up.
"They never solved it," Caroline said.
"I guess I remember that."
"They never arrested anyone, nothing."
"They probably tried pretty hard." Certainly Crowley's death had received any and all proper official attention, given the intense media speculation. The death of a celebrity in American culture is a commodity worth quite a bit of money, so long as it flickers in the nation's consciousness.
Caroline brought me another drink, and although I did not want it, I took it. We were, I assumed, now where she wanted us to be.
"So this is what you wanted me to look at?" I said.
She shook her head.
"I don't get it."
"This is what I needed you to look at first, before I show you what I want you to look at."
"Have I been tricked?"
She smiled. "No, not really. It will all make sense, eventually."
"Shall I look at the thing you actually want me to see?"
"I want you to see it, but not tonight. Tomorrow, or the next day?"
There was something selfish about her answer, as if I didn't have a job and a family already scheduled, or as if she was so beautiful that I would drop my duties to both to study the life of her dead husband, which, so long as she was around, might, on further reflection, be true. "What do you want?" I asked. "You want me to write a story about your dead husband? Everything's already been written about him."
Caroline sighed. "No."
"What, then? The police apparently can't solve this."
"Yes," she said quietly. "I know all this, Porter."
She seemed distracted by melancholy, and I realized that I had not asked her what it all meant to her, to have her husband killed, to have her life brutally jolted like that.
"How long did you know him?" My voice sounded thick, stupid now with drink.
"We were together only about six months."
"You got married fast?"
"Yes. Very. He was like that ..." She carefully closed the thick album. "I was like that, too."
The minutes passed with a strange luxury to them. We said nothing. Caroline rolled three cigarettes, laid two of them on the glass coffee table, and sat back to smoke the third. I took myself into her kitchen for a little ice and felt suddenly aware of the white starkness of the counters and cabinets and appliances. I did not necessarily expect to see a picture of her dead husband, but there was nothing there, no phone numbers of family or friends on the refrigerator, no pencils in a jar or mail in a pile or battered cookbooks or seashells from last summer. When I returned to the living room, only then did I realize that the entire apartment was sterile. Like a hotel suite, though in much better taste, it had no character, no essence of its inhabitant. When people have lived in the city a long time, their dwellings become encrusted with their personal history; this is true not only of the poor but also of the rich, maybe even particularly of the rich, who tend to be interested in documenting their own accomplishments. I have been in many wealthy homes as a reporter; if the living rooms betray nothing but good taste and a disdain for clutter, then by compensation there is a green-trimmed den with a trophy from a club golf championship or pictures of the children on the sand in Nantucket or framed professional degrees or a photo of the occupant shaking hands with Bobby Kennedy thirty years ago. But Caroline's apartment revealed no such personality, only expensive surfaces. It occurred to me that the absence of historical detail was not because she had no history but because she had no history that she wanted to display.
"You're not from the city," I said when I returned.
She looked up at me, lost in her own thoughts. "No."
There was, in her absentminded confirmation, a revelation for me. I suppose it could be called intuition, or a lucky guess, but then again I have been banging around New York City for twenty years now, long enough to come to understand a few things, and in the case of Caroline Crowley, what I suddenly knew was that she had worked very hard for what she possessed, or rather, that what she possessed had cost her a great deal--and not just a husband. I have often thought that the most determined people in New York City are not young lawyers trying to make partner or Wall Street traders or young black men who might have the stuff to be pro basketball players or executives' wives competing viciously on the charity circuit. Nor are they the immigrants who arrive from desperate places--the Bangladeshi taxi driver working one hundred hours a week, the Chinese woman working in a sweatshop--such people are heroic in their grim endurance, but I think of them as survivalists. No, I would say that the most determined people are the young women who arrive in the city from America and around the world to sell, in one way or another, their bodies: the models and strippers and actresses and dancers who know that time is running against them, that they are temporarily credentialed by youth. I have lingered at night in the dark back rooms of the city's two or three best strip clubs--the rooms where in order to be caressed by young women, men buy bottle upon bottle of $300 champagne as if they are putting quarters into a parking meter--and I have talked with the women there and been astounded at the sums of money they intend to earn--$50,000, $100,000, $250,000 by such and such a time. They know precisely how long they will need to work, what their operating expenses are, and so on. They know what kind of physical condition they must be in and how to maintain it. (Consider, for instance, the stamina necessary to dance for one man after another, sexily, in heels, in a smoky club for eight hours straight, five days a week.) Like fashion models, they live in little apartments where no one remembers the name on the lease, the rooms being passed along like links in a chain as each woman makes her money and then moves back to Seattle or Montreal or Moscow. Likewise,the sufferings of fashion models, which are well known. Jazz and ballet dancers don't have it any better. (Once, visiting an orthopedist for a knee injury, I saw a lovely woman of about twenty-five hobble into the room on crutches. She was in tremendous pain and was waved into the doctor's office. The nurse accidentally left the reception-area door open, and I was just able to hear the woman's desperate request: "Please give me the shot." An indistinct male voice responded. "Please," the woman wept, "I have to dance tonight.") Caroline Crowley was not a stripper or a model or an actress, not so far as I knew, but I could only guess that she had once brought the same sense of purpose with her when she came to New York, that she had arrived in the city to have a dialogue with fate, and that she knew, as any genuinely beautiful woman knows, that the terms of the conversation would include her face and teeth and breasts and legs.
With these thoughts I drained off my drink and then indulged another. That made five or perhaps six or maybe even seven. I have been drunk many times in my life and enjoyed most of those times, but never has drunkenness revealed in me some hidden streak of self-destruction; I do not drive while drunk, I do not leap from windows or pick fights in bars. While drunk, I am incapable of the fatal gesture. This does not mean that I don't make mistakes, only that my most disastrous errors in judgment occur when I am not drunk, when, presumably, I am lucid. So, in that moment, when Caroline Crowley, the lonely, beautiful widow, stood before me, clutching her record of the violent destruction of her husband and seeming for all the world ready to be embraced and kissed and plunged into voluptuous copulation--the image of the homeless couple fucking feverishly outside in the cold returned to me--in that moment, I chose to remember my own sleeping wife, with her arm thrown across my empty pillow, and this gave me the further will to stand, quite unsteadily, and say, "I'm sorry your husband was killed or died or whatever happened to him, Caroline. I imagine it was a terrible shock, and it seems to me that you're still haunted by it. I know we've been joking around all evening, but let me say... let me just say that if it's possible to suddenly have a certain affection for someone in only one evening, only a few hours, then I feel that way toward you, Caroline, and I am saddened to think what it must have been like to lose your husband. Every week, just about, I talk to people who've just lost someone they love, and it always saddens me, Caroline, it always--it always reminds me that we, all of us, are--that it all--can be lost. You are beautiful and about twenty-eight years old and should have all good things come to you. If I were not married, I would--no, I will avoid--maybe better to ... say that perhaps you sought me out tonight because you figured that, hack tabloid columnist that I am, that I've seen an unnatural amount of human destruction and might therefore offer you some useful words of solace or perspective. But I assure you"--and here I desired to touch her cheek with my fingers, just for a moment, by way of comfort, as I would comfort my own daughter--"that I'm unequal to the task. I'm as mystified and terrified by death as the next person, Caroline. I can't really say anything useful ...in such--such a disabled state ... except that I suggest that you embrace life, that you venture forth and marry your fiancé, if he's a good guy, and have faith that some losses are recoverable, that life has, finally--excuse me, please, I am very drunk--that life actually has ... has some kind of meaning."
She said nothing, and instead watched me with her lips pressed in amusement, and I wish now that I had understood it to be quite an unfunny sort of amusement. She saw me struggling against myself. I stood and moved toward the door, watching my shoes to make sure they went where I expected them to go. She followed me and silently helped me with my coat, then hung my scarf about my neck. She was spectacularly beautiful.
"Oh, Caroline Crowley ..." I lurched sideways accidentally.
"All men are dogs, and I am one."
She smiled this away. Then she reached up with one hand, held my cheek with her warm fingers, and kissed my othercheek, slowly, with a breath. "I'm going to call you," she whispered. Then she kissed me again. "Okay?"
"Okay," I murmured, feeling that she had outsmarted me.
"Are you all right?"
"I am ... I am mystified, Caroline. I'm just--" My lips had that buzzy drunken feeling about them, and I fell against the door frame. I was now suddenly so drunk that I'd have to get a cab home and retrieve my car later. I felt like a fool. "But then again," I slurred, "that may be your intention."
Twenty minutes later, my cab pulled up outside my brick wall downtown. I always get my keys out before opening the door, because once the cab pulls away, the street is dark and anybody could walk up to you. Even drunk, I had that New York paranoia. Only after I shut the gate behind me, pulling against the weight of it and turning the dead bolt, did I relax. The city, for now, remained on the other side of the wall. But gate or no, Caroline Crowley and the history of her doomed husband had now entered my life.
Copyright © 1996 by Colin Harrison. Excerpt from The Havana Room copyright © 2004 by Colin Harrison.