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We Lost Him
September 11, 1976
I was lying perfectly still in a lavender-scented bath thinking about the man who would slip into bed with me in another hour, run his hand down my back until I turned around, show me that sheepish grin, and kiss me with those lips that tasted like Lucky Strikes and smelled like the night air. I traced the constellation of freckles along my chest that he would outline with his fingers after we made love. We were trying for a girl. We had been hoping for a girl since our second son was born two years before.
"This is a special report from CBS News. TWA flight 355 to Chicago carrying eighty-six passengers and seven crew members has been hijacked." I opened my eyes to hear the eleven o'clock news coming from our bedroom. "Shortly after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport at 8:00 p.m., the aircraft was commandeered by Zvonko and Julie Busic, a Croatian and his American wife. They claim to have a bomb on board the plane and a second device located in New York City." I stood up, grabbed a towel, and ran into the bedroom.
The camera left Walter Cronkite and panned Grand Central Station, and the most familiar face in the world to me came into focus: my husband Brian in a Kevlar vest, "Bomb Squad" written on the back. Bath water dripped onto the rug as I stared at the tiny black-and-white TV. The scene panned across a row of twenty-five cent luggage lockers, the doors torn off their hinges, to Brian lifting a shopping bag from inside one of the lockers. The white Macy's bag looked harmless. NYPD uniforms crowded around as Brian placed the bag on top of the bomb blanket and clipped the ends together. I watched as he and Hank Dworkin threaded a long pole into the blanket's loops and balanced it across their shoulders. The camera followed them to the disposal truck parked outside Grand Central where they disappeared from my view.
Backing away from the TV, I sat on the bed holding the towel in a tight ball. Croatia? Where was it — Yugoslavia? Stay calm, I told myself. Brian worked hundreds of bomb cases. All of them were dangerous. He always assured me he never took risks. Don't panic. I had dipped chicken in breadcrumbs that afternoon and made potato salad for our picnic at the beach tomorrow. Wait for him to call. But, without knowing why, this time felt different.
Down the hall, in the glow of the tiny nightlight, our four-year-old son Keith slept, his sheets tangled around his legs, his forehead damp from the heat that our ceiling fan did little to ease. It was so hot the blacktop stuck to his sneakers, Brian told me that afternoon before he left for work. Chris, the baby, was snuggled at the top of his crib, his hands under his chin as though in prayer. I stood in the doorway watching them sleep, and listening to them breathe.
Back in the bedroom I dropped the towel and pulled a nightgown from the dresser drawer. The hijacking was still unfolding on the TV. It was almost midnight. The news should have been over. Brian should have been on his way home. I crawled into bed, shivering despite the day's heat, and reminded myself the bomb squad had lost two men in its entire history, and that was back in '39 at the World's Fair.
Still, there was LaGuardia last December, when a bomb detonated in a luggage locker. Twenty-five sticks of dynamite shattered the TWA terminal, killing eleven people, injuring hundreds. A makeshift morgue was set up in the airport, and Brian waited all night as the medical examiner extracted pieces of the bomb from the dead. The case remained unsolved. TWA. LaGuardia. Coincidence?
I looked over at the dress shirts in Brian's closet, lined up like mock military soldiers, his wing tips polished, waiting for their rotation. "Come home," I whispered into the dark. When I closed my eyes, I saw that Macy's shopping bag with its cheerful red star.
I woke to red lights flashing off our bedroom walls. I could almost feel them crawling across my face. I thought I heard the swishing of clothes, the soft drop of rubber-soled shoes. The clock said 4:00 a.m.
When I pulled back the curtains, I saw police cars scattered along the street below, doors left ajar. Red lights moved in unrelenting slow circles. The doorbell echoed up the stairs — a hesitant sound, like the person standing at the door really didn't mean to ring it. I felt I might be sick. This isn't happening. I looked back at the unmade bed. If I just crawl back in bed and bring the boys with me ... But the doorbell rang again — this time it was persistent — and I was propelled to the stairs which loomed menacingly below me.
I'd left a lamp on for Brian in the foyer. Under it, a frame held a photo of us the day he graduated from the police academy. His crooked smile matched the tilt of his police hat.
On the way home from work that afternoon I picked up more pictures of Brian from our camping trip the week before. At twenty-seven he still looked like a happy kid in his cut-offs and sneakers.
I heard the doorknob rattle and looked down at my nightgown, one reserved for Brian. I leaned against the wall, knowing I could not walk up the stairs for a robe, and let the wall support me as I inched toward the door.
"Kathy, it's Charlie. Open the door, please." He sounded like he had been asking for a long time.
The doorknob didn't seem to work, and I wasn't sure which way to turn the lock. When I finally opened it, I found Charlie standing in front of two men in police uniform. His blue eyes reminded me of Brian's. "You two look like brothers," I had told him when they were assigned to the bomb squad together. Shadows shifted under the porch light, and Charlie looked down to study the flagstones. When he looked up, his eyes were haunted, terrified.
"We lost him."
I shivered uncontrollably. NO. I shook my head. NO. My legs wouldn't work. NO. I looked past Charlie into the street ringed with flashing lights and uniforms.
Charlie tried to lead me to the living room, but I found myself climbing the stairs in a body that felt borrowed from someone else.
Upstairs, the boys' room was still dark. The weight of Chris's sleeping body was almost too heavy to lift, and I sank to the floor with him in my lap. He smelled of baby shampoo and boy sweat. He slept, completely unaware his tiny world would never be the same. Across the room, the nightlight illuminated Keith's deep red hair. I watched his face until he woke up. Sliding off his bed, he sat on the floor beside us. With my free arm I pulled him to my side.
"What's the matter, Mommy?" He had Brian's eyes — those dark, feathery lashes.
"Daddy went to heaven." I didn't recognize my voice.
"How did he get there?"
"God came to get him."
"Can we go see him?"
"Not for a long time, honey." I didn't trust myself to say more.
* * *
The sun was beginning to rise, its red glow sliding over blue sailboat wallpaper. It was going to be another hot day. The milk bottles had to go out. Library books were due. My husband just died, I would tell the librarian, and thought she might forgive the fine.
Chris woke and blinked sleepily at me. His hair was almost white from the summer sun, his deep green eyes — like mine — were set in a face that called for blue, the difference striking. He put his arms around my neck and buried his face in my shoulder, as though he knew something was wrong.
Keith leaned against me. "Can we have our breakfast now, Mommy?"
The smell of coffee drifted up the stairs as though Brian were in the kitchen, as though it were a normal morning.
A policewoman I had not noticed before was standing in the doorway, and when I rose, she placed a robe over my short nightgown. Chris, big for a two-year-old, slipped from my arms, and she took him from me. Together we made our way down those dizzying stairs to a house full of NYPD.
Cigarette smoke hung in the air. Charlie was sitting in the kitchen, and he stood when he saw me, a cup of black coffee on the table in front of him. Brian's cup. "Hey, Buddy," Charlie called to Keith, who ran into his arms, thinking this an ordinary day, the room full of Daddy's friends.
I felt surrounded by the bombshell I had been handed, disoriented, unable to process the full extent of what happened. The kitchen felt like foreign territory. I fumbled around, looking for Fruit Loops, and poured them into Keith and Chris's My Pop's a Cop cereal bowls I made in ceramics class. I told Keith he wouldn't be going to school, that I would call his teacher, and thought of the little nursery classroom we had visited, Brian silly on the tot-sized chair.
"Can I still wear my policeman shirt?" he'd asked.
I looked at Charlie. "Croatians?"
"Yeah. The wife is American, but the cause is for Croatia."
Outside a car door slammed. When I looked out, I saw my mother walking up the driveway, a police officer holding her arm. Her mismatched outfit was out of character for her, as though she had pulled clothes from the closet without looking, her hair slept on. As soon as she was in the door, she called my name, more a sob than a word. She told me once she loved Brian more than me, and I thought of that as she made her way through the living room into the kitchen, where I stood frozen. And then she pulled me into her arms. These are my mother's arms around me, I told myself. Her tears are for me.
She put her hand on the back of my head. "It will be okay. I'm here." Except that my mother hadn't ever really been there. Growing up, I felt I was just another mouth to feed. Still, as I smelled her Oil of Olay and heard her whisper my name, I let myself collapse into her, and for the first time since Charlie told me Brian had been killed, I cried.CHAPTER 2
Kathy From The Bronx
McGuinness's on Flatbush was packed, even for a Friday night, the air heavy with cigarette smoke and body heat. Fiona and I squeezed our way through our Brooklyn hangout. It was a dirty old man's bar by day that livened up after work when the Flatbush crowd stopped by for a beer. I had been there when it was near empty and noticed the dirty wood and old Rheingold Beer signs, split leather stools, and mop streaks on worn tiles. It was one of those places that smelled from a lifetime of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, but somehow, when glasses clinked and the jukebox began to pulse, no one seemed to notice.
"Two Dewar's and soda." Fiona flipped her pretty blonde hair and winked at the bartender.
I set my wet wool coat over the back of the stool she was sitting on and leaned against the brass rail. "Hey Jude" blasted through the jukebox, and I thought of Gracie. "Better, Better, Better." I felt the wet snow melting down my back and closed my eyes to send up a silent prayer that my sister, two months free from jail, stayed off drugs, away from Hunts Point and the South Bronx neighborhood that would drag her back down.
"Hey Brian," Fiona shouted over the music. I opened my eyes to see a guy with crazy beautiful eyes staring at me. "Where've you been?"
Brian slowly shifted his eyes from mine to look at her. "How's it going, Fiona?" His navy pea coat was blackened on the shoulders with wet snow.
"I haven't seen you for a long time." Fiona's cheeks, still bright from the cold, flushed even deeper.
"Just home from 'Nam." He glanced at me and then studied his cigarette.
"Welcome home." Fiona leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "I'm glad you made it back." She sipped her drink.
"What are you having?" He nodded at my glass.
"Dewar's and soda," Fiona said. "This is Kathy, my friend from work. She's from the Bronx."
Brian raised his eyebrows, but he didn't wisecrack about the borough war Dodgers' fans held onto. Instead, his voice was polite, almost formal, "It's nice to meet you Kathy from the Bronx. Did you have a nice Christmas?" Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Fiona turn on her stool to talk to Mike O'Leary.
"It was all right." I fidgeted with the buttons of my blouse, glad I had chosen the soft blue satin, part of my working wardrobe that I paired with a short black skirt and three inch heels. I had been a tall, skinny kid, and now I was a tall, slim woman. My hair curled naturally when it was damp, the color a deep red that had once been the brunt of clown jokes but now turned heads.
"Were you home for Christmas?"
He rubbed his cigarette into the bar ashtray with his thumb, the unfiltered paper reduced to a nub. "For the first time in years." He gave me a half-smile. "And it was great." His body was quiet, exuding a stillness that felt calming.
"How do you know Fiona?" I couldn't look at those eyes, so I studied my red nail polish, shiny in the dim light.
"She went to school with my sister Eileen."
"Hey Kathy." Mike O'Leary had thrown back a few too many. "I was just telling Fiona here that I won a big trial today." I took a step back from his breath. "I'm celebrating."
"Congratulations," I said. When I turned back, I saw Brian was threading through the crowd to the end of the bar. He stopped briefly to talk to a guy I didn't recognize, shake hands with someone else, and take a quarter out for the jukebox. He signaled to the bartender to order our drinks.
Vietnam. "Fucked up, man," my cousin Frankie had said at his own homecoming a few months back. "Fucked up." "Oooh, Kathy's got it bad." Fiona's breath was hot in my ear.
"Who is he?" I watched Brian scan the bar while he waited for the drinks. He smiled when he saw me looking.
"He is a sweetheart," Fiona said. "And he cannot stop looking at you." She raised her glass. "Payback for all those Bronx boys you introduced me to." Fiona wasn't like a lot of the gum-smacking girls from Brooklyn. She had spunk, despite the gloominess of the apartment she shared with her mother, who still rolled her hair on a sponge roll, just the way she had as a young girl in Ireland.
Brian's hand brushed mine as he handed me a drink, and I felt him watching me as he sipped from a bottle of Budweiser. His blue pinstriped shirt was open at the collar, and I let my eyes linger on his bare skin. I had one serious boyfriend before, and that was when I was eighteen and thought a twenty-five-year-old attorney named Vincent would deliver to me everything my life was missing. Until I found out he was married with two children.
"Do you have plans for New Years?" he asked.
I nodded, cursing my brother Timmy for making me promise to double-date.
"Last minute." He gave me that half-grin again, and I thought about what it would be like to kiss those lips. "I understand."
The jukebox turned another song. "Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name. Hello, I love you, let me jump in your game." I could feel the heat crawl up my neck. Did you play this song? I wanted to ask him, but he took his last sip of beer and set the bottle on the bar. His eyes never left my face, and I felt like I was swaying on a porch swing dreaming this scene.
"Listen," he said. "My sister is having a family party tonight to welcome me home, so I have to leave, but I would like to see you again some time."
"Fiona and I usually come on Fridays," I said. I was twenty years old and had been coming to McGuinness's for a few years. I was one of the crowd, despite my Bronx address, but had never met anyone here I was drawn to. Until tonight. There were a few admirers, like Richard, who told me how much he loved redheads, or Steve, who thought every woman in McGuinness's was in love with him. But none of them gave me pause the way Brian did.
"Okay." Brian watched me with those eyes. "I'll see you around." He let a moment pass. "But someday I'm going to marry you."
The words didn't sink in for a minute, and before I could say anything Brian was gone. If I wanted to follow him, ask him if he meant what he said, I wouldn't have been able to. I was rooted to the floor, my mind buzzing with his off-hand proposal.
"Air Force." Fiona sidled up next to me. "Last name's Murray, dad has an old man's bar over on Rogers. I'll drive you by his house tomorrow, so you can see where he lives." Suddenly the room was alive with chatter, as though all sound, except for Brian's words, had all fallen away and had just now come back to life.
* * *
"What do you think about a guy who says he's going to marry me the first time we meet?"
My boss, Harry Banks, and I were having lunch in his office. His pastrami sandwich was too big for his mouth, but he shoveled it in anyway. I piled half my pastrami on the deli wrapper. "I'll take the rest of that." He reached over with his fork. "I would say he likes you." Harry was the president of Hamilton Adams, an Irish import company, where I worked as his administrative assistant. Most of the office was terrified of his short fuses and endless demands. But I witnessed worse in my own father and found it easy, almost familiar, to be with him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Life Detonated"
Copyright © 2017 Kathleen Murray Moran.
Excerpted by permission of Amberjack Publishing.
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