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I was walking along St. Mark's, past the quaint brownstones and sunken restaurants, the rundown theaters, the newsstands, the boutiques. I was walking with my hands shoved deep in my pockets and my shoulders hunched against the cold. I spared myself nothing. I'd pause beside the shops and gaze at the decorations. Or I'd stand at the corners and stare at the tumbling snow. I did everything but plant myself beneath apartment windows singing "A Poor Orphan Lad Am I." And I'd have done that, too, if I'd thought of it.
It was mid-December, two weeks before Christmas. The world seemed full of lighted windows and closed doors. Visions of TV dinners, of too much scotch, of another holiday alone, danced in my head.
It was Monday, I remember. I was on my way to work, pushing along the wet sidewalk. As I walked I seemed to see the neighborhood's bohemians—the poets and artists; the young, the skewed, the intense, the bizarre—turning into Hallmark cards before my eyes. Here was a radical composer of my acquaintance, hurrying past, humming the standard carols of the season. There was a postmodernist painter I knew, bundled in Norman Rockwell scarves and hats. The editor of the local socialist weekly staggered across the street under an armload of gayly wrapped parcels. And standing at a pay phone was a woman who called herself Randy Trash: the orange dye had been washed from her hair and I could hear her making plane reservations to Minneapolis. I was saddened, I tell you, by the evidence of hypocrisy all around me.
I decided to stop into Ingmar's café for a cappuccino. I went down the stairs and pushed in through the glass door. The place was as it always is: dark, smoky, comforting. Crowded even in the early A.M. Metal tables crushed together. Cups and saucers stained with the residue of coffee. Wire chairs at wild angles. Conversation. Faces leaning toward each other. Mirrored glasses, berets, spiked hair. I weaved to an empty seat and squeezed myself in between elbows.
I scanned the room, hoping for an inspiration. Janice was there, nursing her Monday-morning bloody, a cigarette in one hand, the other pushing auburn hair up under her leather beret. But she'd already told me she was spending Christmas with Kevin. And he was the jealous type. Like, say, the Great Gatsby. My glance moved on to Arnold and Elaine. The two of them were drinking espresso and talking God. They did that a lot: espresso, God. The gold plate of their wire-rimmed glasses glinted in the light as their heads bobbed up and down at each other. Christmas with Arnold and Elaine seemed just the thing if your thing happened to be unbearable Christmases. As I watched them, a hand caught my eye. Toby, my favorite New Wave filmmaker, or No Wave filmmaker, or something. I'd forgotten about her. Toby. Mousey and cute, croissant crumbs on her chin, waving at me. Toby—or not Toby, that was the question. Tempting, definitely, but perchance unwise. I waved. I smiled. I bravely turned away. I saw Carter at the table in the far corner, smoking cigarettes and talking poetry at Belle and glancing black death at the universe. I was just about to turn back to Toby when Peter brought me my cappuccino and I remembered: I'd gone to see Peter play the Cenci in the tragedy of the same name. The only thing I'd understood for two whole hours was that the bastard owed me a big, big favor. I pounced. Peter, I said, how about taking me in for Christmas? But he begged off. He'd told his father he wouldn't bring any friends if the old man wouldn't show any home movies. I sighed and let him go.
A few minutes later I left my cappuccino half finished and headed out. I walked through the snow toward Washington Square.
By the time I got to the office, I was in a black mood. I grunted hello to Marianne and sank down at my desk across the room from her. There I sat, staring at the books stacked up in front of me, trying to work up the energy to get started. I was still working it up at about ten-thirty when McGill came in.
He was about forty-five, McGill, lean and wiry. Always wore a trench coat, always had his jacket open and his tie half undone. His face was sharp everywhere: sharp eyes that shifted, a sharp nose that flared, a sharp chin that he always led with as if he expected you to take a pop at it. All that was left of his hair, the last gray strands, were tangled and uncombed on his sharp pate.
As he came through the door he was grumbling to himself—he did that sometimes—as if he were in the middle of an argument. His overcoat was wet with snow, his cheeks red with cold, his mouth screwed up into an angry slash.
He stopped at Marianne's desk to pick up his mail, then headed toward his office. He waved at me as he came on, his greeting, as always, half a mutter, half a bark.
"Mike. How's it going? Good weekend? Yeah, good."
Then, as he put his hand on his office doorknob, he paused. Now, a whole side of his face screwed up. But the debate lasted only a second. He turned to me.
"Oh, yeah, listen. You wanna come up to my place for Christmas? My daughter Susannah's coming down for the week with a couple of friends. You bring a couple too: She won't get bored with the old man. What about it?"
I managed to get out the word "Sure," and he went on:
"Great. I want you to meet her before I leave for Peru."
Then he went through the door and brought it shut behind him.CHAPTER 2
The rest was easy: I had only to go home to Charlie Rose.
Charlie is my roommate. We share two small rooms and kitchenette on the fourth floor of a brown-stone. Charlie is a radio technician and he works the night shift at a huge news network. It's the secret of our durable relationship: the night shift. I live while he sleeps.
When I walked in, breathless from the climb, he was in the front room, stretched out on his hideaway bed. The window was open, the temperature near freezing, and Charlie, naked, was covered by a single sheet.
"Charlie—" I said.
"Ssh," said Charlie. He stared up at the ceiling. "I'm trying to fry eggs with my mind."
Cursing, I went to the window and brought it closed. "Charlie," I said.
I stood still and listened. From behind the partition of the kitchenette came the sound of eggs sizzling.
"That's amazing," I said.
"A mind is a terrible thing to waste," said Charlie.
I called out: "Yo, Angela."
"Don't come in," she shouted from behind the partition. "I'm naked."
"What are you doing for Christmas?" I called to her.
"Hey," said Charlie, "I'm working, man. The news doesn't stop for Christmas. America needs to know."
"Want to spend Christmas in Connecticut?"
"Like Barbara Stanwyck?" Angela shouted.
"Sure," I said. "Or not. Can you get a vacation, Charlie?"
"Are you joking? Those buzzards owe me months, brother, months." He sat up, rubbing his face with both hands. "Where am I, by the way?"
He looked around him, trying to figure it out. A peaceful-looking doke, Charlie, almost beatific, with a widow's peak of blond hair over a soft, lineless face; sleepy, distant eyes. Charlie is almost ten years older than I am, around thirty-four or-five. I want to be just like him when I grow up, but most of the ingredients have been banned.
"Hey," he said. "Connecticut. That's where your boss lives, right?"
"Right," I said. "He invited us."
Angela walked in carrying a plate. She was right: she was naked. I lost my breath. My hands still remembered the feel of her.
"I fried your eggs," she said.
"You're telling me," said Charlie. "Now could you get me something to eat?"
I spent the rest of that week on Automatic Jolly. Many was the glass of grog that I downed, and many the mulled wine I shared with friends. I went to the church for caroling. I shopped for presents. I gave large handfuls of money away to those beggars I knew by name, and smaller handfuls to those I did not. I became, in short, as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city ever knew.
On Friday I arrived at the office, suitcase in hand. McGill shut the place up a little after twelve. We met up with Charlie and Angela at Grand Central terminal, and, after introductions all around, we all four boarded a train for Connecticut.
The train went through the long tunnel and reemerged to pull away from Manhattan under a slate-gray sky. Charlie, still attuned to his working schedule, was soon asleep. And McGill was soon deep in conversation with Angela. He had his eyes on her all right: They were bright with her, and I couldn't blame him. Angela was long and slender, all leg, and had waist-length straight black hair that framed a small, wry, wicked little face. She was sweet and she knew how to listen—and she was very funny, too, especially when she got on to her singing career. She was on it now: All the stuff about the bars and the bands and the record companies who seemed to her to have made a covenant with trash. McGill peered at her over his cigarette, chuckling the way he did through his tight teeth, squinting and nodding sometimes as if he understood because he had seen everything, which he had. And when she ran out of steam, he had tales of his own to tell, and they were good ones. All about the stories he'd covered and the newspapers he'd worked for in towns and cities all across the country. Angela had big brown eyes in that small face, and they widened at his adventures. And McGill, he loved every minute of it.
All of which left me alone to stare out the window. Which was okay too. It had started to snow, now we were past Stamford, and it was a fine old sight to one who had been long in city pent. The naked branches of the trees were quickly turning to white lace. The house lights, which could be seen beyond the thicket crowding the tracks, glowed warm and friendly. The big snowflakes drifted and somersaulted through the air. It was worth contemplating in silence.
It was a while before I noticed that the conversation beside me had stopped. I turned from the window. Angela had fallen asleep now too, her head on Charlie's shoulder. McGill was reading the newspaper.
I took a good look at him. The old news junky. His whole body seemed concentrated on the page, his stare locked onto the lines like a lover on a lover's lips. I noticed his hands particularly: red, ugly, sinewy hands, which looked like the bare muscle itself. Most of us more or less drape a newspaper over our fingers; but McGill's hands gripped it firmly, as if they were daring you to try to take it away. An old news junky's hands grasping the medicine. I glanced down to see what he was reading. Some story about a death penalty case somewhere, an appeal that had been turned down, and so on.
"How many of those have you covered?" I said.
McGill looked up and quickly folded the paper; set it aside with a laugh.
"Executions?" he said. "Not that many. Too many. Christ, I'm glad I don't have to do that anymore."
And we started talking about the new book, the one on the drug trade, and about his upcoming trip to Peru.
By the time we got off the train in Trent, the snow was falling hard. We drove from the station to McGill's house in his Pontiac. The announcer on the car radio was talking about the storm. Traffic advisories were in effect throughout the tri-state area, he said. He dropped his voice down half an octave when he said it. It didn't sound good.
It didn't look good either. The road ahead was barely visible. McGill, at the wheel, had his face pressed toward the windshield. The rest of us sat hugging our luggage on our knees, trying not to watch as his taut, ugly hands fought against the skids. The car pushed down the unshoveled streets at fifteen miles an hour.
We reached the house, fought our way up the drive, piled in the front door. Angela and Charlie and I—we were slapping each other's hands and shouting at each other like we'd just gotten back from the Donner Pass. Not McGill. While we stomped the snow off our shoes in the front hall and began to struggle out of our overclothes, he was hurrying ahead of us into the kitchen. He was still wearing his trench coat. His shoulders were hunched, his head hung down. His fists were clenched at his sides. As our voices faded and our laughter died down, the three of us could hear him picking up the kitchen phone and dialing.
We looked at each other.
Angela said: "His daughter—she wasn't supposed to come home today, was she?"
I nodded. "Maybe he'll catch her before she leaves."
We heard him hang up the phone. He hadn't spoken. In a moment, he came back into the hall. He peeled off his coat and hung it up. Snow spilled off of it, floated to the floor. He studied the puddles forming at his feet.
"You'd think she'd have the bloody sense ..." he muttered. He raised his face to us. "What d'ya think?"
"Oh hell, Carl, she'll be fine," I said.
And Charlie and Angela chimed in quickly: "Sure, sure, she'll be fine."
We settled in. The house was a standard Connecticut colonial. Postcard stuff, two stories, solid, lots of wood. McGill showed us to our rooms, and he surprised me. He put me and Charlie together in a downstairs dayroom, while Angela was to sleep upstairs with "the girls." It made me laugh, but Charlie kept his mouth shut about it. He may still have been trying to figure out where to make the connection with the IRT.
He and I unpacked together. Angela went upstairs to do the same. A half hour later we met in the living room. McGill was already there. The room was huge and homey. Lots of easy chairs facing each other, and a sofa too. Lots of coffee tables. All of it on top of an enormous, fading braided rug. Against one wall was a large stone fireplace. Against another was a picture window, looking out on the backyard: a sloping acre with a river through it under willows and elms; woods beyond that, going out of sight. All of it blurred in the swirl of snow. The lawn buried under it. The trees bent with it.
I stood at the window, staring out. There were other houses nearby, I knew, but I couldn't see them. I felt far away from everything.
McGill moved up beside me.
"S'goddamned early, isn't it?" he said.
"For a blizzard?"
"S'goddamned early in the year, if you ask me."
"Yeah," I said.
"I mean, it's goddamned December, isn't it? Whattaya call that?"
"Um ... early?"
"Sure it's early. It's goddamned early."
"Don't tell me...." he said.
"Can I get you a dr—"
I found the bar in the far corner of the room. I dealt out the booze. Then we stood with our hands wrapped around our glasses and stared out at the snow.
After a while we took another tack. We sat down and drank. We talked and were quiet by turns. The quiet turns got longer. In a few more days it got to be late afternoon. Then it was dark. The snow kept falling. The phone didn't ring. Sometimes McGill would get up and go into the kitchen and we'd hear him dialing again and hanging up again. Sometimes he'd ask us if we thought Susannah was all right. We always said yes.
"Where's she coming from?" said Angela at one point.
"Up at Marysvale College. She's a senior there," McGill said. "She's studying to be a teacher."
Angela said, "That's nice."
"Yeah. She's gonna study special education. Like teaching retarded kids."
Angela said, "That's nice."
"Yeah. Yeah. She's gonna bring a couple of her friends along. From school."
"That's nice," said Angela, looking to us for help. Charlie and I were unavailable, however; we were busy staring glumly into our drinks, trying to think of things to say.
Charlie thought of something. "Marysvale. That's way the hell in upstate New York, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Nice area," said McGill.
Charlie shook his head. "Sheesh." He went back to staring glumly.
It was getting on now, close to seven.
"You guys must be hungry," said McGill after a while. "I'm not really ... I'm not here that often, usually Susannah comes down for the holidays, does the cooking ... Maybe I can put together something."
He got up and Angela joined him. They both went into the kitchen. As they went I heard him say to her: "Damned thing is: you don't think ... She knows I look forward to having her here for Christmas, but ..." And then they went through the door.
Charlie let out an enormous sigh. His head sank onto the back of his chair. "Hey, really, I can't thank you enough for inviting me here."
"Shut up," I said.
"Marysvale, man. That's the fucking North Pole."
"Shut up, Charlie."
"I mean, jeez."
"Just keep your goddamned voice down."
Charlie shook his head loudly.
"Anyway, she probably stopped," I said.
"Sure. That's right."
"Why didn't she call?"
Excerpted from The Scarred Man by Andrew Klavan. Copyright © 1990 Andrew Klavan. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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