Tabloid City A Novel
By Hamill, Pete
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2011 Hamill, Pete
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316020756
12:02 a.m. Sam Briscoe. City room of New York World, 100 West Street.
HERE COMES BRISCOE, seventy-one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty-six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and MSNBC. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn’t look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty.
–We got the wood yet? Briscoe says.
Logan smiles and runs a hand through his thick white hair and gazes past Briscoe at the desks. Briscoe thinks: We live in the capital of emptiness. Logan is fifty-one and in some way the thick white hair makes him seem younger. Crowning the shaven face, the ungullied skin.
–The kid’s still writing, Logan says, gesturing to his left. Maybe you could remind him this is a daily.
Briscoe grunts at one of the oldest lines in the newspaper business. Thinking: It’s still true. He sees the Fonseca kid squinting at his computer screen, seeing nothing else, only the people he has interviewed hours earlier, far from the city room. Briscoe leans over Logan’s shoulder, glances up at the big green four-sided copper clock hanging from the ceiling, a clock salvaged from Pulitzer’s World. Thinking: Still plenty of time.
–What else do we have? he says, dropping coat and jacket over a blank computer monitor. The early editions of the morning papers are scattered on the desk, the Times, the Post, the News. Logan clicks on a page that shows four possible versions of the wood. The page 1 headline. Briscoe thinks: I’m so old. He remembers seeing page 1 letters actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf-mutes, signaling to each other by hand. Paul Sann trimming stories on the stone counters beyond the Linotype machines, his editor’s hands using calipers to pluck lines of lead from the bottom of stories. Everybody smoking, crushing butts on the floor. Hot type. Shouts. Sandwiches from the Greek’s. All gone forever.
One possible front page says JOBS RISING? With a subhead: Mayor Says Future Bright. New unemployment numbers are due in the morning. The AP story will lead what they now call the Doom Page, always page 5, the hard stuff about the financial mess, with a sidebar trying to make the recession human. Names. Faces. Losers. Pain. If they have jobs, it’s a recession. If they don’t have jobs, it’s a depression. Foreign news is on page 8, usually from AP and Reuters, no overseas bureaus anymore, plus features bought from a new Web service that has correspondents all over the planet. OBAMA MOURNS AFGHAN DEATHS. Plus a thumbsucker out of the one-man Washington bureau. The problem is that most readers don’t give a rat’s ass. Not about Iraq, not about Afghanistan, only about whether they can still feed their kids next week, or the week after. Two more suicide bombings in Baghdad. Another bombing in Pakistan. A girls’ school. More stats counting the dead, without names or faces. It has been months since foreign news was used as wood.
–What else ya got? Briscoe says.
Logan picks up a ringing phone, whispers to the caller, but keeps clicking on the various page 1 displays. BLOOMIE’S LAMENT. All about more city job cuts, the need for a fair share of the stimulus package, the crackdown on parking permits for well-connected pols, the assholes in Albany grabbing what is not nailed down. And closing libraries while heading for the limousines. News should be new. This is all old. With this stuff, Briscoe thinks, we might even achieve negative sales. Logan gets off the phone.
–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he’s shot dead in the street.
Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing at a framed letter.
–That’s the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.
She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.
–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.
–Yeah. We don’t have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that’s the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.
Logan points to a young man’s body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.
–Then he’s dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.
–The usual shit, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there’s a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They’re gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.
–Put that in the lede. If it’s true.
–I already told Fonseca.
Briscoe glances out the window, where he can see Stuyvesant High School in the distance, across the footbridge over the West Side Highway toward the river’s edge. The school where all the bright kids go, a lot of them now Asian. The lights are dim, the kids slumbering at home before Friday’s classes, the school corridors inhabited by lonesome watchmen. Briscoe sees the running lights on a solitary black tanker too, moving slowly north to Albany on the dark river. Delivering pork to the pols, maybe. Which way to the river Styx, Mac? Most of the river is dead now. That pilot who landed his plane in the river? Ten years ago, he’d have smashed into a freighter. Now it’s nothing but sailboats and ferries. Briscoe exhales slightly. Another dead kid. How many had there been since he started in 1960? Five thousand dead New York kids? Twenty thousand? More than have died in Iraq, for sure. Maybe even more than Nam.
–Anyway, it could be wood, Logan says. Depends on the story.
–It always does, Briscoe says, in a hopeless tone.
He turns and sees Helen Loomis three empty desks to the right of Fonseca. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was shy then too, and what some fools called homely, long-jawed, gray-eyed, bony. Down at the old Post. She sat each night with her back to the river, smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew that she was the best goddamned rewrite man any of them would ever know. Later, the language cops tried to change the title to “rewrite person.” It didn’t work. The rhythm was wrong. Too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man. In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper. Finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips from the morning papers, files from the Associated Press, and yellowing clips from the library. She was the master of the second-day lede, so essential to an afternoon paper, and she often found it buried in the thirteenth graf of the Times story, or in the jump of the tale in the Herald-Tribune. Or, more often, in her own sense of the story itself. When her questions were not answered, and the reporter had gone home, she made some calls herself. To a cop. A relative. Someone in a corner bar she found in the phone company’s immense old street index. Her shyness never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at ten after three in the morning. She was always courteous, she always apologized for the hour, but she worked for an afternoon paper. That is, she worked according to a clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at eight. Now, fuck, everything has changed, even the hours.
Briscoe waves at Helen Loomis. She doesn’t see him. Doesn’t respond. She is wearing small reading glasses, her body tense behind the computer, peering at the screen, nibbling at the inside of her right cheek. Her helmet of white hair doesn’t move in the old bobbing style. Briscoe long ago realized that she hadn’t looked loose, or in rhythm, since cigarettes were banned from all the newsrooms in the city. But she comes in every night, always on time, always carrying a black coffee and a cheese Danish, always ready to work. And once an hour, she moves to get her coat and goes down to smoke in the howling river winds.
In addition to a few breaking stories, she writes the “Police Blotter” now, made up of two-or three-graf stories of crimes and misdemeanors that don’t deserve to be blown out. Cheap murders, usually at bad addresses. Assaults. Rapes. In the city room, they used to call the column “Vics and Dicks.” A young female reporter out of Columbia objected, and it was renamed “Bad Guys” for the reporters and “Police Blotter” for the readers. There was, alas, no music in these tales, no way for Helen Loomis to turn them into haiku or a blues riff. Most of the dickheads now were robbing techno-junk: cell phones, iPods, digital recorders. A digital camera was a big score.
Briscoe knows in his heart that it wasn’t the end of cigarettes that took the music out of her. Not really. With Helen, it was the final triumph of loneliness. Young Helen Loomis was only one of many great reporters he’d known who were drawn to the rowdy newspaper trade because of the aching solitude in their own lives. Their own pain was dwarfed by the more drastic pain of strangers. As bad as your own life might be, there were all kinds of people out there in the city who were in much worse shape. Their stories filled the newspapers. And for a few hours, the lives of reporters and rewrite men. Until the clock ticked past all deadlines. And the profane, laughing city room emptied. Helen Loomis was now a straggler at a late-night party that was already over. When the deadline was gone, she had nothing left but cigarettes and loneliness. The music of her prose was gone forever.
Or, hell, he thinks: Maybe it was just the cigarettes.
Now he glances around the room again.
–Let me know when the Fonseca kid finishes, he says to Logan.
And carrying coat and jacket he walks to his dark office at the far end of the city room. Thinking: The kid, that Bobby Fonseca, has loneliness in his eyes too. Except when he’s writing. Briscoe unlocks the door. Flicks on the lights. Hangs his garments on a gnarled coat tree he carried away when P. J. Clarke’s was remodeled. On his desk, there is a wire rack holding folders. One is marked “Newspapers.” Full of dismal news clippings or printouts about shrinking circulation and shrinking ad revenues and shrinking page sizes and rumors of extinction. Layoffs, buyouts, furloughs. The papers themselves were a subset of the main story of Doom, everything that had followed the obliteration of Lehman Brothers that day in September 2008. In the newspapers, everybody was hurting. The Times. The Tribune Company. McClatchy. The Boston Globe. Gannett. The San Francisco Chronicle. Briscoe didn’t know if anybody really cared, except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind’s eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news. Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe. But one man certainly did. The man they all called the F.P., the Fucking Publisher.
Another folder is marked “Love.” Filled with absurdity and betrayals and homicides. Wives killing husbands. Husbands killing wives. Mistresses killing men and men killing lovers. The endless ancient tale. Almost always at night. After two in the morning. When Cain whacked Abel, it was almost surely two-thirty in the morning. Just as surely, it had to involve a dame. If I live long enough, Briscoe thinks, I’ll write a book about it. At home, he has two entire file cabinets heavy with folders that are also marked “Love.” Enough for twenty books. If I live, he thinks, I might even write one of them.
Romantic love isn’t part of the deal much anymore. Now the clips are full of assholes coming home loaded, going for the gun, killing the wife, the three kids, themselves. Iraq War vets. Or gas station attendants. Or men who can’t pay the subprime mortgage. Guys whose wives weighed 108 when they got married and are now 308. Or God guys, listening to the Lord’s whispered commands in the men’s rooms of saloons or the front rooms of churches. They don’t often strike in New York. Usually it’s in what is laughingly called the heartland. Where there is always a handy gun. When these great Americans are finished with their bloody farewells, some cop stands before the house of the freshly dead and says: “They had issues.” Like what? Global warming? Nuclear proliferation? The stimulus package?
Fuck. Stop. His mind is always wandering now, he thinks, like water in a stream that pauses in tiny coves and eddies.
12:08 a.m. Josh Thompson. Madison Avenue and 92nd Street.
He needs thicker gloves. Goddamned New York City is cold, and now it’s raining. Spattering the poncho that covers him. The rims of the wheels are very cold, steel ice, his gloves already soaked, so that he can’t feel the tips of his fingers. He must feel or he can’t control the goddamned chair. Need a blanket too, Josh Thompson thinks. Need a lot of things.
He pauses at a corner, flexes and unflexes both hands. Warm me, blood. Make me feel. He remembers a fireplace in his father’s house in Norman, when the Oklahoma winds blew for days, his mother long gone, his father dressed in an old army coat, all of the old man thawing, except the heart. Dead now. The frozen heart gave out and he died cursing God and the Democrats.
Okay. He can feel now. Move on. Toward downtown, where the truck driver said he could find a cheap place to stay. Decent fella. Name of Vic. All gray hair and scraggy-ass beard, but big and strong. At the mall parking lot in Virginia, Vic pushed back the passenger seat and lifted me and the wheelchair at the same time, turned us a little to the side so I could see the country go by. I held on tight to the thing under the poncho. The MAC-10. Loaded. The short barrel wedged under my ass now.
Later, it gets dark and the truck driver stops talking about his daughter in college and starts talking about Nam. Some place called Bon Song. Or Bong Son. Where he got shot in the left arm and three of his buddies got killed. A pass home for Vic. Nothing for his buddies except graves. Wanted to know about Iraq. Josh Thompson didn’t say much. Fuck it, the truck driver said. You can still have a life. And Josh said, Yeah. And closed his eyes and faked sleep. Opened his eyes later, saw houses with lights still burning, more malls and truck stops and trucks, all going somewhere, closed them again, then woke up at the entrance to an amazing bridge. Into New York, and Vic dropped him off, said he couldn’t go into the city, had to take another bridge onto Long Island, already late.
–I’m really sorry, soldier, Vic said.
–No, man, you been more than kind.
Vic lifted him and the chair down from the cab, then pointed and said, Down there, soldier. They got cheap hotels. All the way down.
Josh Thompson moves now, past dark bags of trash, pushing the wheels harder, careful not to dislodge the gun shoved under his crotch. Nobody on the wet streets. Traffic grinding along to his left, heading in the opposite direction. Stores closed. No place to buy gloves. Or a blanket.
He thinks: How much bread I got left?
And answers himself: Enough.
Enough to get what I need.
12:12 a.m. Helen Loomis. City room of New York World.
She is finished now with another episode of the daily serial she still calls “Vics and Dicks.” The clock tells her that she must wait another eleven minutes for a cigarette. Then another two hours before heading home. Her eyes glance at the Post as she turns the pages but she reads almost nothing. She removes the reading glasses, folds them, gazes around the deserted city room. The year she turned sixty-five her normal vision actually got better. She needed glasses to read, but the glasses for seeing signs and streets and taxis were folded in the drawer at home. Now in the city room she sees only ghosts. Kempton, pulling on a pipe, referring to some sleazy Brooklyn pol while quoting Plotinus. Gene Grove and Al Aronowitz and Normand Poirier and Don Forst, all of them cracking wise, and Ben Greene pulling plugs on the switchboard. I have so little interest in heaven, she thinks. I’ve lived in it.
She often wonders if Sam sees the same ghosts. He was there too, twenty pounds lighter with brown hair and a Camel bobbing in his lips. He no longer smokes but seems more drained than ever. Sometimes he must look around the city room the way I do, she thinks, and remember other rooms in other buildings, the reporters cursing and laughing, making sexist remarks, and racist jokes, and wisecracks about everybody on the planet, including each other, and, of course, the opposition. Jokes about the Times. And the Daily News. And the Journal-American. I hear them still, she thinks. I see them before they needed glasses. There are the photographers, Louis Liotta, Arty Pomerantz, Barney Stein, Tony Calvacca. Each of them rowdy and sardonic and very goddamned good at what they did. They are rushing to show us copies of photographs that will never make the paper. Still wet from the developer. Look at this one! Bodies in Bath Beach with heads torn open by gangster bullets. A woman with wide dead eyes and a severed breast. A shot of blonde busty Jayne Mansfield’s black hairy crotch, pantyless and winking, as she sits smiling on a steamer trunk on the deck of an ocean liner.
Helen sees them. All gone now, their names mere whispers in the emptiness. Unknown to the young. Foot soldiers in the tabloid wars. Too many are dead now. But even the living are MIA. Living in gated communities in Florida or Arizona. Now the photographers use digital cameras and send their images from computers out of the trunks of cars or from press rooms at political rallies or the press pens above the fields at the ballparks. They never make it to the city room. There are credit lines in the paper now that she can’t match to a face. Now they cover baseball games in new stadiums, but I’m not going. She thinks of the game they cover as scumball. It’s not the game her father loved. Not the game she loved too. The game of Furillo and Robinson, Snider and Reese and Mantle. And Willie Mays. Jesus Christ. Willie Mays… Now it’s scumball, full of steroids and treachery, played by millionaires for millionaires. Played without joy. And we sit here in an emptied world of reporters who almost never come in, using gadgets for stories, sometimes sitting at home, watching events on television, and Googling to cover their asses.
When I was young, there was a comic strip about a guy named Barney Google. He had a horse named… what the hell was the name? Firehouse? Fast Track? Sam would know. He might be the only guy in Manhattan who would know. I’d better Google Barney Google. Now.
She needs to pull on her coat and go down to the street for a Marlboro Light. But first she reads again the newest edition of “Vics and Dicks.” The daily catalog of felonious New Yorkers. Two grafs each. Not a name or a sentence likely to attain immortality.
In Queens, some fat balding unemployed thirty-eight-year-old lout knocked down a seventy-nine-year-old woman at 17-39 Seagirt Boulevard. Grabbed her purse. Shoved her to the sidewalk. Ran. His face immortalized on an overhead video camera. A real tough guy. Meanwhile, out in Bushwick, two employed hookers got in a knife fight on Jefferson Street. One of them was working the wrong turf and a pimp told her to leave and she wouldn’t and the pimp’s hooker started shouting and the knives came out and they both ended up in the emergency ward at Queens General. Slash wounds on arms, hands, and faces. And, of course, under arrest. The pimp home sleeping, or smoking dope.
Up on Fifth Avenue, near 30th Street, a forty-seven-year-old master criminal named Rodriguez, recently laid off at Pathmark, tried to pry open a bodega door with a broom handle. A pedestrian said, “Hey, man,” and the guy walked away. Ten minutes later, he was back, with the broom. He didn’t notice the cop now stationed across the street. He started prying again, and, of course, was locked up. Another unemployed dumbbell tiptoed into a dark room, full of exhausted people, in Lenox Hill Hospital. He started lifting a pocketbook from a sedated patient. Another woman shouted. He knocked her down, breaking her elbow, and ran into the waiting embrace of a cop.
On and on. “Vics and Dicks.” Now it should be “Tales of the Recession.”
Christ, I need a cigarette.
Helen Loomis pulls on the down coat, fastens the hood, gives Matt Logan a wave, taps her wristwatch, and heads for the elevator.
12:15 a.m. Malik Shahid, aka Malik Watson. Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Outside Barnes & Noble.
Lean, his full black beard buried in the collar of a black cloth jacket, he is gazing at the books in the store window without seeing them. Trying to stay dry. He is looking for someone, anyone he can score off. Too early. Too much traffic on the streets. Too many whores and whoremasters. High heels in the rain. He even tried begging on Christopher Street. Holding an empty coffee cup from a diner named Manatus. Saying the word “change.” Humiliated. They went by, the whores and whoremasters. All my age. One old lady dropped a quarter in the cup.
A fucking quarter.
I need a hundred dollars, at least.
Gotta get it tonight. Gotta get it for Glorious Burress. My woman. Gotta get it for the child. To pay a doctor tomorrow. Me, with no I.D. Me, with no credit cards. Me, who doesn’t fucking exist in this world. Gotta get money, even if I gotta take it.
The rain comes. On some narrow street of shops and stoops in areaways, he sees a guy coming toward him. Skinny motherfucker. Sees him trip on a curb, then right himself.
Malik’s heart quickens. The guy comes closer. His jacket soaked. Malik thinks: Head lock, shove him into that doorway. Punch hard. Head. Or neck. Then balls. Reach into the pockets. Grab the bills. One more in the head. Then walk away easy. Into the subway. To Brooklyn. To the Lots. To Glorious.
But then: a police car appears. Slow. Cop sure to be looking. Malik walks as if without care or interest, hands in his pockets. The drunk goes the other way, humming some tune, fumbling for keys in his coat. The police car eases by.
Malik thinks: I know you are testing me, O holy one.
But I need you. Not for me. For my woman. For the baby. For a clean warm room in a hospital. Oh please. Now.
And wanders on.
12:20 a.m. Sam Briscoe. New York World, his office.
Briscoe is shadowy in the muted light of the cowled green desk lamp. On the blotter, his secretary, Janet Barnett, has left her usual two pale blue folders. One is marked “Bitching.” Bulging with printouts of e-mail messages, handwritten letters from pissed-off readers. Why is A-Rod still a Yankee? Fire his ass. Why does my grandson, now nine, have to save AIG when he grows up? Why no editorial about Obama wasting our money on the faith-based initiative? Take the BMWs away from the preachers! The other is marked “Important.” He stares at that one, blowing out air like a relief pitcher with men on base.
He glances at the television set, on a shelf beside the bookcase. The remote lies before him on the desk, but he does not use it to turn on the set. He rises out of the expensive chair he bought with his own money to support his back. He stretches, sees the typewriter on the shelf to the right of the television set. The old Hermes 3000. The one he carried to Vietnam and Belfast and Beirut. The one he still keeps oiled. The one for which he buys new ribbons every four months from a hidden typewriter store on West 27th Street. A holy relic.
He lifts the “Important” folder.
On top, a single typed page tells him: Mr. Elwood says you should come to his office at 8:30 ayem Friday. He says it’s urgent.
He pictures young Richard Elwood. The F.P. He sees the narrow face that came from his father, the sharp chin, sees him in expensively sloppy clothes, the four-hundred-dollar black jeans, and carefully cut casual black hair. And sees his mother’s wide-set peering eyes. Briscoe starts talking to himself without speaking a word. I know what the kid is going to tell me. But why at eight-thirty in the morning? Do I work until seven-thirty and then take a cab to 50th Street? Or do I go home now? Christ, I’ve lived too long. I’m being summoned to the palace by a twenty-eight-year-old. The dauphin. A kid who spent two summers here as an intern, couldn’t get a fact straight. And earned his place at the top of the masthead because his mother died.
In the silence of his office, Briscoe glances at the framed photograph of Elizabeth Elwood, high on the top shelf, beside the framed account from the 1955 Times of the end of the Third Avenue El. There’s a photograph there of Briscoe with his daughter, Nicole, standing by the Eiffel Tower when the girl was sixteen. Nicole is now forty and lives three blocks from that tower with her hedge-fund-managing French husband. Briscoe sighs. He looks again at Elizabeth Elwood. How old was she in that photo? Sixty? Thin, with high cheekbones, elegantly defiant white hair, those wide-spaced intelligent eyes, an ironical flick in the smile. Taken around the time her husband died. Harry Elwood. A genius at investment banking, when no bankers aspired to run gambling joints.
In 1981, Elizabeth persuaded Harry to buy the title to the long-vanished New York World. It was Joseph Pulitzer’s great New York paper, a smart, hard-charging broadsheet that lived beyond his death in 1911 until the Great Depression killed it. Elizabeth Elwood wanted to revive the World as an upscale tabloid. To be published in the afternoon, out of competition with the Post and the News, who owned the morning. To be published right here, in the building where the World-Telegram once lived. She would run her World the way Dorothy Schiff ran the New York Post, and Katharine Graham the Washington Post. Her husband agreed, probably with a sigh heavier than the ones that Briscoe has been sighing tonight. Then she tracked Briscoe to Paris, where he was happily writing a column at the Paris Herald, and called him from New York.
–I’m starting a paper, she said.
–I want you to be the editor, and teach me the business.
He barely knew her. Glancing encounters, at parties, or public events.
–You’re out of your mind, you know, he said.
Two days later she was in Paris, on a day of spring rain, sitting across from him at a table inside the Deux Magots. Three hours later, at the end of lunch, he agreed to edit the new version of the old World.
Long ago. In a different century. A different world.
A world of paper itself, and ink, and trucks, and bundles dropped at newsstands.
A world that is now shrinking. Under assault from digitalized artillery. The future? Yeah. The goddamned future. Probably starting at breakfast with the F.P. Somewhere, his mother weeps.
Briscoe looks at the second message. A printed e-mail. From Cynthia Harding. Sam: I know you can’t be at table tonight, but call me tomorrow and I’ll give you a fill. Much love, C.
Cynthia. He hadn’t seen her in the past six days, but how long now had he been with her? Images jumble in his mind. Going with her to Brooke Astor’s place the first time and to Jamaica another time and how he fell in love with her, and she with him, or so she said. When he wanted to marry her, she said no, not now. When she wanted to marry Sam, he said no, not now. She joked once that they lived apart together. Sometimes other women for me. Other men for her. And then together. As she said, forever. After tonight’s party, she’ll sleep late. Tonight’s a small dinner to raise funds for the public library. Once again, she was saluting the memory of Brooke Astor, whose name, Cynthia always said, must survive her long, blurred good-bye and the ugly legal mess that followed. She never mentions hard times when asking for money from rich friends and acquaintances. Nor how it will be difficult to keep the library going at full strength. She doesn’t have to. For a second, Briscoe is in her bed in Paris, in the suite at the Plaza Athénée, hears her low voice. Remembers that she took the photograph of Nicole that stands now on the shelf in this room. He folds the printed e-mail and slides it into his back pocket. As a reminder. I’ll call her tomorrow, he thinks. After meeting with the F.P. He gazes out at the city room. Young Fonseca is standing beside Matt Logan. With any luck, the kid has the wood.
12:21 a.m. Cynthia Harding. Patchin Place, Greenwich Village.
She is wearing a long black simple Chanel gown, leaning back in a Billy Baldwin slipper chair in the small room beside the dining room. Thinking: Why don’t you all just leave? Please. I’ve been awake since six in the morning. Please, just go… The light is muted, seeping from the electrified flanges of old gas lamps. The sliding doors are closed. She can hear the clatter of dishes beyond the doors, as the remains of dinner are carted away, down the hidden back stairway that leads to the basement kitchen. Two large French windows open to the dark garden. The glass panes now streaky with rain. A gaunt bony man in his fifties is talking. Two older, heavier men are together on a small couch. They remind Cynthia of those two theater producers from Dublin, the ones they called Sodom and Begorrah. The room itself reminds her of Dublin. What did Sam once call it? A tabloid version of Merrion Square.
Sodom is smoking a cigar, flicking ashes into a ceramic dish. They are a couple, from an immense white-shoe law firm.
–Of course, I always liked Cummings’s poetry, after I learned to read it out loud, says the gaunt man. Cynthia thinks of him as a bone-colored Giacometti or an exclamation point under mild sedation. At once laconic and blasé. His name is Carson, retired after many years at an old-line publishing company, a big supporter of the library. He goes on about Cummings in a dry voice.
–But I much preferred his paintings, he says. If he’d painted more, he’d be known today as one of America’s greatest painters ever.
Sodom: I didn’t know he painted.
Begorrah: Nor did I.
–Oh, yes, says Carson. After the Great War, he went to Paris, painted up a storm.
–I’ll be damned, says Sodom.
–That’s a Cummings, Cynthia says, gesturing casually at a portrait between the windows.
The painting shows a brooding young man, in a mildly cubist style, the colors glowing. Sodom stands up, wheezing and squinting, laying the cigar in the ashtray. All eyes turn to the painting, and Cynthia remembers buying it through a dealer in the year she took her first apartment in this building. Nineteen eighty-one. Before she bought the entire building and made it her last home. What was his name, that dealer? She remembers his ferrety face, his oily manner, but no name. My mind rusts. How in the name of God did I get to be sixty?
–Just marvelous, Sodom says. In her head, Cynthia hears a song. “Too Marvelous for Words.” Sinatra singing it on a late-night jukebox. Or Sam, in the shower upstairs.
–Yes, Carson says. He has been in this room at several earlier dinners for the library. Before the collapse of everything. Has seen the painting before. Has looked it up.
–It was painted in nineteen twenty-eight, he says.
The word bounces musically in Cynthia’s mind.
–Did he paint it here in Patchin Place? Sodom says.
–Paris, I think, Carson says. Cynthia nods in a vacant affirmative way. Yes. Paris.
–What would he have become if he’d stayed there? Sodom says.
–A corpse, Begorrah says. Hitler would have had him gassed, for using Semitic punctuation!
The partners chuckle in a dark way.
Goddamn you, Sam. Why couldn’t you be here tonight? For an hour, anyway. On the way to the paper. And answers herself: Maybe he heard that the boss was coming, formerly known as Little Dickie Elwood. They couldn’t call him Little Richard. His mother was a wonderful person. So was his father, Harry. And young Dickie, Dickie at nine or ten, was a nice boy. Not now. Bosshood is a curse. And Sam’s boss was the youngest person at table tonight. Called to dinner at the invitation of someone at the library. A check sent this afternoon by messenger, so he could avoid touching it in front of strangers. A lesson from his parents. No show, please. Polite and modest in his matching paisley cummerbund and tie. Until asked about newspapers. Then he fell into bosschat, all about the digital age and why newspapers were doomed, not now but eventually, and a century of their content could be carried in a single laptop. Or better, on various electronic readers. Content provided by Google or somebody. He owns the New York World, for God’s sake. Which is made of words on paper. Better that Sam wasn’t here. He might have thrown him out the window.
Dickie departed early, pleading a morning meeting. So did that hedge-fund swindler, Myles Compton, or was it Compton Myles? How did he get on the list? Sitting in laconic reserve, with performed smiles, poking at the food. He delivered an early check too.
–Well, Carson says, rising from his seat like a long unfolding Swiss army knife. He must be six-four. I’d better go, he says. If my heart bursts here, the ambulance could never get through the gate.
–Thank you, Mr. Carson, Cynthia says, rising to shake his bony hand. Hoping the others would follow. The top of her head is level with his shoulder.
–Can I give you fellows a ride? Carson says.
–Well, yes, as a matter of fact, yes, says Sodom, eagerly tamping out his cigar. He and his mate stand up now, glancing around for the door. All the others rise too. Cynthia Harding is relieved. The smoke rising from the murdered cigar makes Cynthia think of other good-nights, other cigars. Her second husband smoked cigars at breakfast. That’s why he became the last husband. Sam was a cigarette guy then.
She leads the way down the stairs to the basement. From behind the door to the kitchen, Latin music plays softly from a radio. Dishes clatter. The coats of the guests are on a rack near the door that leads up a few steps to the street. Overcoats are donned, hats clamped on heads. Each wears gloves. Cynthia thinks they look like musicians from some aging society band of the early 1960s. A nostalgia act even then. The door opens and they all leave. The cold damp night air enters, rain seeping from the dark sky, promising worse, maybe even snow. They exchange hugs and good-nights. The door closes behind them.
Cynthia Harding places the flat of her back against the papered wall at the foot of the stairs. She exhales deeply. Breathes in. Exhales again. Thinking: I want to squat down here on the floor. I’m so tired I want to bawl. There were so many things to go over, from the napkins to the coffee. Mary Lou helped as always. As always, I chose the flowers myself. Like Mrs. Dalloway.
Then she gathers energy and goes into the kitchen. The chatter stops. The radio is switched off. The two younger waiters are doubling as dishwashers, a skill not taught at acting school. The air is liquid. Odors of the meal. One Mexican dishwasher is eating. At the far end, standing before the gleaming double-doored stainless steel Bosch refrigerator, is their boss. Thirty-one, maybe, handsome in a George Hamilton way, as if practicing for a career on the Food Channel. He devised five menus, and Cynthia chose one. The billi-bi soup, thick with mussels, with zwieback-like toast made from artichoke flour. Roast of veal, in fines herbes sauce. Braised Bibb lettuce. No salad, because of time. Spanish melon with lime and ginger.
Brooke Astor would have been proud of the meal. Even though the veal was a shade overcooked. Cynthia moves into the room, begins shaking hands.
–Thank you, everybody, Cynthia says, and smiles. You were all just wonderful.
–It was marvelous to be here, the boss says. She hears a fragment of the song. He smiles a practiced half-crooked smile, showing perfect white teeth. She imagines his body, gym cut, hairless. If he’s gay, he gives no obvious signals.
–Yes, thank you, Mrs. Harding, a slim young aproned woman says. Your guests were fabulous. It was like having ten different Charlie Rose shows at the same time. So cool.
Out of sight, the chef already has the envelopes with the fee and the tips. Mary Lou took care of that too.
–Thank you, he whispers. Thank you.
Then Mary Lou Watson appears at the door. A lean black woman in her fifties. Cynthia’s secretary. Her intelligent eyes look tired and unhappy. She knows that she must lock up when everything is finished and the catering crowd heads into the rainy darkness.
–Mary Lou will let you out when you’re done, Cynthia says to the chef, then smiles and takes Mary Lou by the elbow, through the door into the hallway.
–Can’t you stay over? Cynthia says. It’s so damned late and so damned cold and it’s starting to rain and you’ve got to go all the way to Brooklyn. The guest room—
–No, she says, smiling wanly. My husband’s expecting me. The car service’ll be fine. They come five minutes after I call.
–Well, good night, dear. And many, many thanks. Again. And for everything.
Cynthia trudges up the stairs. She doesn’t look into the sitting room or the dining room. She remembers her nervousness addressing the guests, evoking the spirit of Brooke Astor. How Brooke had done so much for the New York Public Library, in good times and bad. How she believed with all of her immense heart in books, available to all, and believed in preserving documents and manuscripts and supporting research. Cynthia Harding didn’t mention the awful final days, when Alzheimer’s had erased her mind, while ghouls were looting her grave before she was in it. Everybody knew. They all read the papers. She didn’t mention meeting Brooke at the home of Louis Auchincloss all those years ago, dear Louis, decent, brave, witty Louis. And how she and Brooke became friends. Lunching once a month, sometimes once a week, at the Four Seasons and the Knickerbocker Club and Mortimer’s. Brooke was always impeccably dressed in a tailored suit from Oscar de la Renta or Bill Blass, a lovely, rakish hat, and, of course, white gloves.
Cynthia did tell the guests that Brooke’s great lesson was a simple one: you could be rich, and a decent citizen too. Using a modest tone to avoid sounding as if she were claiming decency for herself. Brooke was gone, she told them, but lives on at the library and many other places too. Thousands and thousands of people who never knew her name were now enjoying the bounty of Brooke Astor. In this dreadful time, libraries were more important than ever. Then the man from the library talked quickly, with precision and wit, about how to make donations, and it was over. They had raised at least one hundred thousand dollars. About half the amount of a year ago. But even young Dickie came up with a decent check.
Now she turns on the staircase, passing the portrait of a young woman by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and another by Robert Henri, of a Spanish dancer. At the landing is that landscape from Mexico, as solid as Cézanne, as moody as Corot. Painted by Lew Forrest. She wonders: Is Lew Forrest still alive? Over there at the Chelsea? She had read a brief obit a few years ago about the death of his wife, Gabrielle. Sent a card. Gabrielle was a smart, sharp woman. French. Even when Gabrielle was old and sick, alone each night in a hospice, Cynthia saw her as the lovely woman that Forrest painted when they both were young. The woman he loved for the rest of his life. Gabrielle looked down upon him from the wall of his studio at the Chelsea when Cynthia visited. She was not for sale. Must call tomorrow. If Lew Forrest is dead, I missed the news. The deskman at the Chelsea would know. There’s a portrait of Gabrielle in the lobby too. Right to the side of a Larry Rivers. Or there was. And a lovely portrait of a young Mexican woman too. I must call Lew Forrest.
On the top floor she enters the bedroom, with the dark studio beyond, her desk covered with papers, closes the door behind her, and slumps in exhaustion. A lamp glows beside the bed. The covers have been turned. She begins to undress. Laying each item on a winged chair. Books are stacked on the night table, beside the bed, a small blue jar beside them. She glances at her lean nude body in the full-length mirror. Her graying pubic hair brings a smile, but she thinks: Not bad for sixty. The same weight I carried when I was thirty. It all depends upon the lighting. But Nora Ephron is right. I have to do something about my neck…
She pulls a terrycloth robe around her, knots the belt, moves into the bathroom, and starts running a bath. She adjusts the faucets until the water is hot, but not scalding. The mirror over the sink clouds with steam. She thinks: Sam has been in this tub with me. So have a few other guys. But Sam most of all. The tub is long and narrow, long enough to stretch out, feet planted beside the taps, a hand shower there too, a Jacuzzi. All instruments of pleasure. How many times have I come in this tub? Alone, or with another? Stop. This is not a catalogue raisonné. She squeezes her breasts. Places the robe on a hook. Then slides into the water.
The heat of the water forces her into the present. She feels years peel away. Decades. She closes her eyes and soaps herself, using a thick white ridged bar that she found in Paris. Soaping armpits. Soaping toes. Feeling her bones melting away.
12:35 a.m. Lew Forrest. Room 802, Chelsea Hotel, West 23rd Street, Manhattan.
He awakes but his eyes remain closed. There is a trace of brightness in his vision so he knows he has been dreaming of Paris. Again. A walk along the river. In May. With Gabrielle, for sure, or hell, maybe alone. Birds in the budding trees. Boats. A small canvas on the easel. Yes, a clichéd dream of Paris. But he doesn’t open his eyes. A line from Gauguin comes forward: I shut my eyes in order to see.
Opening his eyes doesn’t matter anyway. Not anymore. The doctors have told him that he has 15 percent vision in his left eye, 5 percent in the other. Probably from the goddamned diabetes. All that wine. Too much whiskey. Sixty years’ worth. Häagen-Dazs too, after I stopped drinking. Packing on the pounds. He sees Gabrielle laughing, in her ironical French way. He thinks: Oh, Christ, I miss you, baby. I miss Paris too.
He listens now, hears a lone bus groaning across 23rd Street, some drunks arguing. And Camus breathing. The greatest of all dogs, for sure. Named by Gabrielle right here in this studio. She confessed two years later that she had slept with Albert Camus himself, before she knew who he was. Before she met me. And here is Camus in the studio, black, handsome, with a Lab’s deep intelligence and grace. Forrest thinks: I can see him, with my eyes shut tight. He is old now, like me. Thirteen. Ninety-one for a human. Forrest can smell Camus, because it’s true what they say: You lose your eyes and then you see with your nose and your ears. The dog smells old. When he needs to go down to the street he gives off a sweeter smell, like fermented farts. His good heart never changes.
Forrest opens his eyes, and Camus is ten feet away, just past the easel and the bright splashy painting it holds. Forrest can’t see him clearly but knows his hazel eyes are open, his tongue pink and loose between his teeth. Memory fills in blanks, in paintings, in life. The dog is waiting to take him on a walk. Forrest used to walk Camus. Now the dog walks him.
Forrest is stretched out on the ancient recliner. His hands feel the flaking imitation-leather arms of the chair. The same texture as my lower legs. A new painting is a few feet beyond his toes, all slashing reds and blacks and mauves, secure on the easel he bought after returning to New York from Paris in 1968, when he was a very different kind of painter. He doesn’t know what time it is now, since there are no clocks in the studio, and Forrest hasn’t worn a watch since 1961, when he read a remark by Picasso saying that civilization began to end with the invention of the wristwatch. He thinks: I couldn’t read a wristwatch now, anyway. Can’t see my prick, I can’t see a watch. There’s a telephone controlled by the switchboard in the lobby, but Forrest usually tells Jerry at the desk to block his calls. There is no television set here either. Forrest gave it to the young girl from ARTnews, down on the third floor. Lucy something. Jenkins? Hawkins? He could barely see the screen anymore, and listening to it was driving him mad. The verbal drivel. The slovenly language.
Sometimes that packaged noise made him want to rant on a street corner, like the old socialists on Pitkin Avenue, back in Brownsville. Rant in English. Rant in Yiddish. About the capitalist swine. The injured poor. The need for revolution. It was easier to give away the television set.
He ranted to that girl from ARTnews, who wrote an article last year about his twilight years. She laughed at the rant, his ravings about greed and gutless bloat, like Lew Forrest was the first guy ever to say such things. Then he politely asked her to keep that stuff out of the article, and she said, Sure, Mr. Forrest. Then she swerved and asked him what was the best decision he ever made. He said, Joining the army in 1943, on my eighteenth birthday. Taking the subway downtown from Music and Art and walking into the recruiting office on Whitehall Street.
–Why? Lucy said, in a surprised way.
–’Cause I lived through the war, and got the G.I. Bill, and the bill got me Paris. And my life.
He didn’t tell her about the Bulge and she didn’t ask. He figured kids her age didn’t know much about the old wars. And certainly never heard of the battles. Forrest didn’t mention that there wasn’t another person on the planet who knew about the German round that went through his right thigh and saved his life. When the medics took him away from the battle, he was happy. The Germans had given him a ticket out of the fucking war. Only Lew Forrest knew any of that.
The G.I. Bill was waiting, and the bill was everything. Not just for Lew Forrest. For millions of them. He wanted to tell her, that Lucy kid, that the bill let him say to himself that he was never going back to fucking Brownsville. The Brownsville in Brooklyn, not the one in Texas. Never going back to Saratoga and Livonia, where the wiseguys from Murder, Inc. stood outside Midnight Rose’s in their fedoras and pinkie rings, smirking at the working schmucks hurrying home from the few Depression jobs. Forrest made his vows in that hospital. He was never going back to the sour odors seeping from the cellar of their tenement. Or to his father’s silence, as he headed out each morning to cut fur, or at least try to. Or to his mother cursing Hitler, his kid brother Stanley studying and studying for the test for Brooklyn Tech. Forrest hated all that. Lew Forrest, the American son, was learning how to say to the world: Kiss my yiddishe ass. And fuck living like this. I’m going to fucking Paris.
He dreams of it still, that Paris. He still smells the oil and turpentine in the halls of the school. He still hears Ben Webster on the radio in the bistro on his corner. And Ellington. And Lady Day. He heard her sing “As Time Goes By” before he ever got to see Casablanca. He remembers the bony bodies of the women he slept with, because nobody that year was fat, and they were all desperate for a free meal in starving Paris. Or just the feel of a warm young man’s body. He made drawings of all of them. All pared down by hunger, like creatures out of Egon Schiele. But he never said any of this to the girl from ARTnews. He did tell her about his friend Buchwald.
–You mean Art Buchwald?
–Yeah, I met him at the V.A. where we were both picking up checks. He’d been a marine in the Pacific, then a student on the bill at USC. In Paris, he was broker than I was. I paid our checks in a few bistros.
–He just died, Lucy said. I mean, like a couple of years ago?
–Yes, Lew Forrest said. He was one funny son of a bitch, Mr. Buchwald. And he was from Queens, you know, from Hollis, I think, and so we got along right from the get-go. We spoke the same language. He loved asking me about the boys from Murder, Inc. and was astonished that I had seen Lepke and Gurrah, two of the worst of them. In the flesh! For Art, Brownsville was like a fabulous Jewish kingdom, the hoodlums all members of the Round Table. He had a sad side too, a mother in a nuthouse, a father who turned him and his sisters over to an orphanage. Good for your character, he said, and laughed. But there was hurt in his eyes that never really went away. No wonder.
–Then at some point he got a job at the Paris Herald, reviewing restaurants. He started taking me along. The only time I ever ate at the Tour d’Argent was with Art. And at Maxim’s too! He said, Welcome to journalism.
Lucy laughed with the shock of recognition, probably inspired by her own, fresher memories of free food at gallery openings and benefits for museums. And Forrest thought: Yes, Buchwald is dead, along with the whole lost patrol of laughing, drinking playboys of the western world who made Paris their own.
Now I’m on the way to join them, Forrest thought. I take all these goddamned pills from different-sized containers so I don’t mix them up. Metformin. Amaryl. Zocor. Benicar. For blood sugar and cholesterol and blood pressure and some other fucking thing. To ward off conditions we never heard of in Paris. And absolutely never heard of in the Bulge. What was it Buchwald told him that time when he was sick and Forrest called him in Washington? Remember one thing about being old, Buchwald said: Before you go to bed, never take a laxative and a sleeping pill at the same time.
They both laughed so hard Forrest thought they were at a table on the terrace of the Deux Magots. With the French all looking at them, because the French never laughed as hard as New Yorkers. Nobody did.
Forrest now thinks: Better get up. Swallow the fucking pills. Get taken for my walk by Camus.
He moves to the side of the recliner, twists, stands. So does the dog. Waiting with infinite patience. The routine as coded in Camus’s brain as it is in his master’s. For a long moment, Forrest stares at the painting on the easel. Remembering that first magical visit to the Louvre, and seeing Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, and saying out loud: I want to do that. And how he made a life out of that ambition. Working on drawing and color and composition until his hand always did what he told it to do. A mountain or an eyelash. Loving Picasso and Matisse, but saluting older gods too, and pledging his fealty. The visiting New York dealers looked at his work and shrugged. They wanted something new. Bold, they said. Or angry. They wanted a cousin of Kline or Pollock, not Géricault. Lew Forrest wanted to make the imagined world visible. And went hungry too often, even after meeting Gabrielle.
Forrest glances down the length of the studio, past his bed, to the lighted area before the back windows. On the wall, there are two portraits he painted long ago. One was of Consuelo. The girl from Oaxaca. Again his mind fills in what he cannot see. Moody and dark, with golden skin in the morning light, voluptuous black eyes, high cheekbones, a perfectly curving nose. Consuelo, from that year in Mexico: what? Eleven years ago? Twelve? More? Ay, Consuelo.
The other portrait was of Gabrielle Marquand. Every time Forrest looks now at the blur of the portrait, he remembers the details of his first sight of her: sitting on a low stool outside Cabrini’s life class at the Académie, on a break, wrapped in a robe, with worn flannel slippers on her feet. She is smoking a Gauloise to ward off hunger. She sees nothing except what is behind her unfocused wide-set brown eyes. Her burnt-sienna hair is tied tightly in a bun. He is astonished at her beauty.
–Excuse me, he says, in Brownsville French.
She looks up, her eyes wary and instantly focused.
–I would like very much to draw you, mademoiselle. In private.
She shrugs, takes an amused, indifferent drag on the cigarette. He hopes the amusement is about his bad French.
–Five francs an hour.
That afternoon she came to his tiny room, still damp with the remainders of winter. And so it began. She would be his wife, until the day she died. The portrait of Consuelo did not go on the wall until Gabrielle was gone forever.
He shuffles now into the narrow bathroom, lifts a bottle of Evian from the small fridge, unscrews the cap, then shakes out his pills, places eight of them in his mouth, and washes them down. Camus comes up beside him, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor. The big Lab knows the meaning of all sounds in this closed world. The pills are a prelude. Forrest reaches for the blue leash on its hook behind the door.
–Let’s go, my man.
He pauses to pull on sneakers, laces them, sighs, thinking: All of this is to make death easier, isn’t it? The disappearance of all the people you love. The doctor visits. The pills. The scaly flesh. The faded eyesight. The vanished dick. For every man on earth, it must always start with the dick. Erasing one huge reason to live. He laughs, and says out loud: No wonder some people choose suicide.
And thinks: For me, it’s never been an option.
I want to see how the story turns out.
12:36 a.m. Glorious Burress. The Lots, Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
She shifts, turns in the twisted sheets of the queen-sized bed, always on her back, never finding a position that brings sleep. Her belly is bursting with the child. She wants to rise, to bang on the locked door that holds her as a prisoner. She wants to find Malik in the rainy night, Malik who put the baby in her. To find a hospital with dry sheets and nurses and doctors. Or even a police station. Anyplace where the walls don’t drip. Where water is hot. She wants to find her mother.
Glorious Burress can’t look at this room, its pale bare walls, its flaking paint, the holes ripped away near the splintery floorboards to make gates for rats. With eyes shut, she thinks: Malik got the key. Malik, that locked me in. Malik and his Muslim shit. No surprise, she thinks. He wanted me to change my name, the name that my mother gave me. Wanted me to take some fucking Arab name. He even wanted me to wear a burqa. Imagine: in fucking Brooklyn! Malik wanted me to be a masked marvel, for fuck’s sake! I shoulda run. Shoulda slipped away. Gone to my cousin’s house in Paterson. Instead, I’m here. Hurting bad. On the top floor. No fire escape. Hurting. Oooooooooh…
She feels as if a cannonball is trying to burst out of her belly, ripping everything in its way. She grabs the filthy pillow, bare, no pillowcase, pulls it tight into her face, and screams again in pain. Ooooooooooaaaahhhhhhh! The pain ebbs. She throws the pillow into the darkness. Then reaches down with one hand. The floor is cold. She hears a scratching sound. She shouts: Stop! The rats stop.
The floor is cold as Malik’s black-ass Muslim heart, she thinks. Him and his Allah. Him and his holy Quran. If you exist, Allah, get me the fuck out of here. Unlock the door, Allah. Send me a fucking car service, Allah. Right downstairs, here in the Lots. Get me in the car, Allah, and take me to a fucking hospital.
And tell Malik to come back. He tells me he’s got some stuff to do, and will bring back milk and bread and maybe pizza. Come on, Allah. Find the fucker. Try the mosque. Maybe he’s there praying to you. Telling you how great you are. Maybe he’s with some Muslim wife, putting a baby in her too. Find him, Allah. Maybe he’s in that Gitmo. Down in fucking Cuba. Nice and warm.
Oh, she says out loud. Ooh, that hurt!
Her voice sounds thin and frantic in the darkness.
She feels the cannonball is trying to kill her now. Trying to rip her, to stretch her pussy as wide as her shoulders, to slam out free into the bed. In a river of blood.
Momma, she says out loud, where you at? I’m fifteen, Momma. I’m fifteen and you’re not here. I need you, Momma.
She stares at the place in the dark where the door is. She stares at the glassy window. She hears the scratching of the rats. She listens to the rain on the window glass. She puts one naked foot on the icy floor.
12:40 a.m. Myles Compton. Madison Avenue and 59th Street, Manhattan.
He sits alone in the back of the limousine, gazing idly at the dark windows of the shops they pass. His face looks older than forty-one, his lean body wedged against the door. Under the dark Borsalino fedora, his face is rigid with tension. His overcoat collar is pulled high on his neck, a tweed scarf crossed upon his shoulders. The limo is warm. Compton is cold.
One final stop on the farewell tour, he thinks, and then I’m gone.
Everything is ready. He’s sure of that. Everything except the weather. This goddamned freezing rain. Weather report says no snow until tomorrow night. He has the EU passport and three untraceable credit cards in his new name. He has ten grand in euros and dollars. All the big money has been moved without a trace. The Learjet is waiting near Newburgh, the second in Toledo. Maybe the rain will delay them, but so far they’re flying. Myles Compton feels bad about his guys, his friends, his associates, but now at least they can blame everything on him. For sure, the Bulgarian will blame me. If any Bulgarian can ever admit to being a sucker. His lawyers might tell him to say nothing. No matter. By the time they all meet in the grand jury room at Foley Square at ten o’clock tomorrow—shit, ten o’clock today— I’ll be a citizen of the wind.
–It’s the next corner, he says to the Asian driver.
–Sure thing, sir.
–I’ll be about twenty minutes.
–Yes, sir. I’ll be waiting right here.
–Don’t smoke in the car, okay? I’m allergic.
–Yes, sir, the driver says.
He’s from an outfit called Eagle Limo, which caters to Japanese and Korean businessmen, and it’s the first time Compton has used the service. He has no account with them. He will pay cash. And when he called, for the first time he used his new name. Martin Canfield, he thinks. Martin Canfield. Say it again. Say it a lot. Martin Canfield. The Eagle car was waiting when he came out of the Oriental Garden downtown, after changing his tuxedo for a business suit in the men’s-room stall. That was itself a relief. The jacket and trousers were bad enough, but he hated the bow tie, suspenders, cummerbund, and patent leather shoes. Now they were in the old Gap shopping bag on the floor of the limo, along with the bunched tuxedo. He sat in this costume through the dinner and speeches at Cynthia Harding’s, the tux already stripped of its labels. Trying to look normal. Poking at the food, forcing himself to eat and look interested. Hearing nothing that was said about the library or the noble life of Brooke Astor. Thanking Cynthia as he left. Brushing her warm cheek. Thinking, for one stupid beat: I don’t know how old she is, but I’d like to boff her. While she reads a book.
The driver pulls over at the corner. Compton steps out and hurries through the light rain to the first apartment awning. The night doorman nods in recognition and waves him toward the elevators. He glances back and the doorman has picked up a phone. Even a mistress must be warned. He steps out of the elevator on 17 and Sandra Gordon is standing at the open door. She is wearing the white nightgown he bought her in London, the one that heightens the rich blackness of her skin. She smiles in a tentative way.
–Come in, she says, in a husky voice. He moves past her in silence, and she locks the door behind him.
He slips off the scarf, removes coat and jacket without separating them. He lays them on a chair like an actor playing casual. Sandra stares at him in a pensive way, her arms loosely folded, a thumb tucked under her chin.
–You look terrible, she says, and touches his face.
–I don’t feel great.
–What’s this all about?
He loves the British abruptness of her Jamaican accent, the rhythm softened by the tropics. And the aroma of her ebony body as he steps forward and hugs her. Her muscles are tense. She knows. He figures she must have known from the tone of his voice when he called from the Chinese restaurant.
–I have to leave right away, he says. For Miami, then maybe another stop.
–The Times website says the grand jury reports in the morning.
–My lawyer will handle that.
She stares at him.
–You’re going on the lam, aren’t you? she says, chuckling in a dry way. It better be to Saturn, Myles. ’Cause they’ll find you.
–The lawyers can get a delay. We’re preparing new evidence. That’s what they say.
He inhales, then breathes out slowly, thinking: The lies are coming very easily now, aren’t they? I never even told the lawyers. And Sandra doesn’t believe a word.
Sandra turns her back and pads on bare feet to the narrow oaken table that serves as a bar. Compton knows every inch of this small apartment, which is hers and hers alone. Sandra isn’t rich, but she isn’t poor either. She takes down a big salary, plus bonuses, at that advertising agency in the Lipstick Building on Third Avenue. She was a vice president there for four years before he ever met her. She owns this apartment too, and pays the mortgage and the maintenance herself. A year ago, when he offered to come up with the maintenance for her, and maybe pay off the mortgage, her eyes went cold, with a hint of insulted anger, and she said, in an icy way: “No, thanks.”
Her anger that night made him feel like an asshole, but filled him with respect for her. Now Compton sits down and she brings him a scotch and soda. He holds it, then ventures a sip. That’s all, he thinks. A sip. No more.
–How was the party? she says.
–Fine, fine, he says. You were right. Cynthia Harding is a fine woman.
–You didn’t mention me, I hope.
–My lips were sealed.
He glances at the bedroom where, so many times, she has taken him out of himself. The door is open. The bedding is rumpled. His right leg begins drumming hard, until he wills it into stillness. She surely must have been asleep when he called from that pay phone in the restaurant. He wants to take her to the bed, to make love one final time. And thinks, no: It’s time to go.
–I won’t see you again, will I? she says, still standing, looking down on him.
He slides the glass under the chair, then stands. And embraces her again.
–Of course you will.
And kisses her neck. His hands grip her small breasts. He presses against her. Feels himself getting hard.
–You’d better go, she whispers.
When he returns to the wet street, the driver is standing in a doorway facing the car, smoking in the cold. On the sidewalk, some loose pages of the Daily News are soggy with rain. Compton sees a woman across the avenue, wearing a thick down coat and a fur hat, walking a small dog to a fire hydrant. The dog lifts its leg. There are many parked cars, but no passengers are visible in their shadowy interiors. The driver stomps his cigarette twice and opens the door. Compton slides in. The engine starts, and they move up Madison Avenue, the windshield wipers moving slowly. He leans back, feeling empty. The tale is almost over, he thinks, the final act in the long sad story of big money. Or my own life in the Big Casino. Hedging all bets. Bundling shit and proclaiming it platinum. Bringing in all sorts of private players and handing them the dice. I never should have handed them to the Bulgarian. He placed his bets. And lost. Big.
The lawyer said, Never ever do business with a Bulgarian.
–Google “Bulgaria,” the lawyer said. More crimes per capita than any nation on the planet, Myles. They got guys there make the old Mob look like Quakers!
But he went to see the Bulgarian anyway, in a plush two-room suite at the Stanhope, across Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum. Expected a thick-necked muscle guy, with shaved head, oozing menace. Instead found a sparrowy little man with rimless glasses, squinting at the paperwork like someone from the IRS. About sixty years old. Asking a few questions in accented English. And the return is what? The main bank is where? Myles heard a toilet flush beyond the door to the second room, but no goons appeared. The Bulgarian’s face was all lines. Finally, he looked up from the papers, removed the glasses. He smiled in a thin way, said “Deal.”
The Bulgarian’s eyes were a pale blue, like hotel mouthwash. The eyes were not smiling. Myles knows now that he should have fled. Instead, he shook the Bulgarian’s hand. “Deal.”
In the limousine now, Myles thinks: Fuck it.
I’m through with it all.
Except I’ve got enough dough to last me the rest of my life.
At 81st Street, across from the Frank E. Campbell funeral parlor, Compton sees a small shadowy man hurrying along in a space between parked cars, heading downtown, as if being pursued. He’s in a wheelchair. Covered with a poncho. In the streetlight, his face is chalk white. The light changes. The limousine moves north. The rain falls harder, mixed with grainy pebbles of ice. The driver shifts to the faster swish-swish, swish-swish of the windshield wipers. Continues...
Excerpted from Tabloid City by Hamill, Pete Copyright © 2011 by Hamill, Pete. Excerpted by permission.
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