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Ragged Company

Ragged Company

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Excerpt

Is it you?
Yes.
Where have you been?
Travelling.
Yes. Of course. Where did you get to?
Everywhere. Everywhere I always wanted to go, everywhere I ever heard about.
Did you like it?
I loved it. I never knew the world was so big or that it held so much.
Yes. It’s an incredible thing.
Absolutely.
What did you think about all that time?
Everything. I guess I thought about everything. But I thought about one thing the most.
What was that?
A movie. Actually, a line from a movie.
Really?
Yes. Funny, isn’t it? Out of all the things I could have thought about over and over, I thought about a line from a movie.
Which one?
Casablanca. When Bogie says to Bergman, “The world don’t amount to a hill of beans to two small people like us?” Remember that?
Yes. I remember. Why?
Because that’s what I think it’s all about in the end.
What?
Well, you live, you experience, you become, and sometimes, at the end of things, maybe you feel deprived, like maybe you missed out somehow, like maybe there was more you could have–­should have–­had. You know?
Yes. Yes, I do.
But the thing is, at least you get to finger the beans.
Yes. I like that–­you get to finger the beans.
Do you ever do that?
All the time.
Me too.
Let’s do that now. Let’s hear all of it all over again.
Okay. Do you remember it?
All of it. Everything. Every moment.
Then that’s all we need.
The beans.
Yes. The beans.

Book One
Shelter

One For The ­Dead

It was Irwin that started all the dying. He was my eldest brother, and when I was a little girl he was my hero, the one whose shoulders I was always carried on and whose funny faces made me smile even when I didn’t want to. There were five of us. We lived on an Ojibway reserve called Big River and our family, the One Sky family, went back as far in tribal history as anyone could recall. I was named Amelia, after my grandmother. We were a known ­family–­respected, ­honoured–­and Irwin was our shining hope. I was the only girl, and Irwin made me feel special, like I was his hero. Love is such a simple word, so limited, that I never use it when I think of him, never consider it when I remember what I ­lost.

He was a swimmer. A great one. That’s not surprising when you consider that our tribal clan was the Fish Clan. But Irwin swam like an otter. Like he loved it. Like the water was a second skin. No one ever beat my brother in a race, though there were many who tried. Even grown ­men–­bigger, stronger ­kickers–­would never see anything but the flashing bottoms of my brother’s feet. He was a ­legend.

The cost of a tribal life is high and our family paid in frequent times of hunger. Often the gill net came up empty, the moose wouldn’t move to the marshes, and the snares stayed set. The oldest boys left school for work, to make enough to get us through those times. They hired themselves out to a local farmer to clear bush and break new ground. It was man’s work, really, and Irwin and John were only boys, so the work took its ­toll.

It was hot that day. Hot as it ever got in those summers of my girlhood, and even the farmer couldn’t bear up under the heat. He let my brothers go midway through the afternoon and they walked the three miles back to our place. Tired as they were, all Irwin could think about was a swim in the river. So a big group of us kids headed toward the broad, flat stretch below the rapids where we’d all learned to swim. I was allowed to go because there were so many of ­us.

There was a boy named Ferlin Axe who had challenged my brother to race hundreds of times and had even come close a few of those times. That day, he figured Irwin would be so tired from the heat and the work that he could win in one of two ways. First, he could beat Irwin because he was so tired, or second, Irwin could decline the challenge. Either way was a victory, because no Indian boy ever turned down a ­race.

“One Sky,” Ferlin said when we got to the river, “today’s the day you lose.”

“Axe,” Irwin said, “you’ll never chop me down.”

Now, the thing about ­races–­Indian races, ­anyway–­is that anyone’s allowed to join. So when they stepped to the edge of the river there were six of them. At the count of three they took off, knees pumping high, water splashing up in front of them, and when they dove, they dove as one. No one was surprised when Irwin’s head popped up first and his arms started pulling against the river’s muscle. He swam effortlessly. Watching him go, it seemed like he was riding the water, skimming across the surface while the others clawed their way through it. He reached the other side a good thirty seconds ahead of Ferlin ­Axe.

The rules were that everyone could rest on the other side. There was a long log to sit on, and when each of those boys plopped down beside Irwin he slapped them on the arm. I’ll never forget that sight: six of them, young, vibrant, glistening in the sun and laughing, teasing each other, the sun framing all of them with the metallic glint off the river. But for me, right then, it seemed like the sun shone only on my brother, like he was a holy object, a saint perhaps, blessed by the power of the open water. We all have our sacred moments, those we carry in our spirit always, and my brother, strong and brown and laughing, shining beside that river, is ­mine.

After about five minutes they rose together and moved to the water’s edge, still pushing, shoving, teasing. My brother raised an arm, waved to me, and I could see him counting down. When his arm dropped they all took off. Ferlin Axe surfaced first and we all gasped. But once Irwin’s head broke the surface of the water you could see him gain with every stroke. He was so fast it was startling. When he seemed to glide past the flailing Ferlin Axe, we all knew it was over. Then, about halfway across, at the river’s deepest point where the pull of the current was strongest, his head bobbed under. We all laughed. Everyone thought that Irwin was going to try to beat Ferlin by swimming underwater the rest of the way. But when Ferlin suddenly stopped and stared wildly around before diving under himself, we all stood up. Soon all five boys were diving under and I remember that it seemed like an hour before I realized that Irwin hadn’t come back up. Time after time they dove and we could hear them yelling back and forth to each other, voices high and breathless and ­scared.

The river claimed my brother that day. His body was never found and if you believe as I do, then you know that the river needed his spirit back. But that’s the woman talking. The little girl didn’t know what to make of it. I went to the river every day that summer and fall to sit and wait for my brother. I was sure that it was just a joke, a tease, and he’d emerge laughing from the water, lift me to his shoulders, and carry me home in celebration of another really good one. But there was just the river, broad and flat and deep with secrets. The sun no longer shone on that log across the water, and if I’d known on the day he sat there, when it seemed to shine only on him, that it was really calling him away, I’d have yelled something. I love you, maybe. But more like, I need you. It was only later, when the first chill of winter lent the water a slippery sort of blackness, like a hole into another world, that I allowed the river its triumph and let it be. But it’s become a part of my blood now, my living, the river of my veins, and Irwin courses through me even ­now.

My parents died that winter. Those cheap government houses were dry as tinder, heated by one central stove that threw an ember through the grate one night and burned our house to the ground. Those who saw it say it looked like a flare popping off. I hope so. I hope my parents slept right through it, that there was no terror or desperation for either of them. We kids were with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Elizabeth at a winter powwow that night. Standing beside my uncle’s truck the next day looking at the burnt and bubbled timbers piled atop each other, I felt a coldness start to build inside me. A numbing cold like you feel in the dentist’s chair, the kind you’re powerless to stop. I couldn’t cry. I could feel the tears dammed inside my chest but there was no channel to my ­eyes.

We lived with Uncle Jack for a while but he was a drinker and it wasn’t long before the social workers came and moved us all to the missionary school fifty miles away. I was six and the last sight I ever had of Big River was through the back window of the yellow bus they loaded us into. We moved from a world of bush and rock and river to one of brick and fences and fields. There we were made to speak English, to forget the sacred ways of our people, and to learn to kneel before a cross we were told would save us. It didn’t.

The boys and girls were kept apart except for meals and worship. I never got to speak to my brothers at all except in mouthed whispers, waves, and the occasional letters all the kids learned to sneak across to each other. It was hard. Our world had become strange and foreign and we all suffered. But it was hardest on my brother Harley. He was eight and, out of all of us, had been the one closest to our parents. He’d stayed close to the house while the rest of us tore around the reserve. He’d cooked with our mother and set snares with our father. Quiet, gentle, and thinner even than me, we always treated Harley like a little bird out of its nest, sheltering him, protecting him, warming him. In the tribal way, change is a constant and our ways teach you how to deal with it. But we were torn away from that and nothing we were given in the missionary school offered us any comfort for the ripping away of the fabric of our lives. Harley wept. Constantly. And when he disappeared over the fence one February night, I wasn’t surprised. From across the chapel the next morning, John and Frank nodded solemnly at me. We all knew where he’d gone. I still remember watching from the dormitory window as the men on horses came back that evening, shaking their heads, muttering, cold. If they couldn’t figure out how an ­eight-­year-­old could vanish and elude them, then they forgot that they were chasing an Indian boy whose first steps were taken in the bush and who’d learned to run and hide as his first childhood game. They looked for three days. Uncle Jack found him huddled against the blackened metal of that ­burnt-­out stove in the remains of our house, frozen solid. Dead. All he’d had on was a thin wool coat and ­slippery-­soled white man shoes but he’d made it fifty miles in three days. Uncle Jack told me years later in a downtown bar that Harley’s eyes were frozen shut with tears and large beads of them were strung along the crossed arms he clutched himself with. When I heard that I got ­drunk–­real ­drunk–­for a long ­time.

Life settled into a flatness after we lost Harley. But all three of us rebelled in our own ways. Me, I retreated into silence. The nuns all thought me slow and backward because of my silence but they had no idea how well I was learning their ways and their language. I did everything they asked of me in a slow, methodical way, uncomplaining and silent. I gave them nothing back because all I knew was the vast amount they had taken from me, robbed me of, cheated me out of, all in the name of a God whose son bore the long hair none of us were allowed to wear anymore. The coldness inside me was complete after Harley died, and what I had left of my life, of me, I was unwilling to offer up to anyone.
I drifted through the next four years as silent as a bank of snow. A February ­snow.

John and Frank made up for my absence. They were twelve and ten that first year, and when they refused to sit through classes they were sent to the barns and fields. John rejected everything about that school and his rebellion led to strappings that he took with ­hard-­eyed silence. The coldness in me was a furnace in him and he burned with rage and resentment. Every strapping, every punishment only stoked it higher. He fought everyone. By the time he was sixteen and old enough to leave on his own, the farm work had made him strong and tough. It was common knowledge that John One Sky could outwork any of the men. He threw bales of hay effortlessly onto the highest part of the wagons and he forked manure from the stalls so quickly he’d come out robed in sweat, eyes ablaze and ready for whatever else they wanted to throw at him. It was his eyes that everyone came to fear. They threw the heat in his soul outward at everyone. Except for me. In the chapel, he’d look across at me and his eyes would glow just like Irwin’s used to. He’d raise a hand to make the smallest wave and I would wonder how anyone could fear hands that could move so softly through the air. But they did. When he told them he was leaving there was no argument. And when he told them that he would see me before he left there was no argument ­either.

We met in the front hallway. He was big. Tall and broad and so obviously strong. But the hand he laid against my cheek was tame, loving. “Be strong,” he told me. “I’m going to get you out of here, Amelia. You and Frankie. Just as soon as I can. I promise.” Then he hugged me for a long time, weaving back and forth, and when he looked at me I felt like I was looking into Irwin’s eyes. Then he was ­gone.

Frank tried to be another John. But he wasn’t built of the same stuff, physically or mentally, and he only succeeded in getting himself into trouble. No one ever feared my brother Frank. In those schools you learned to tell the difference between courage and bravado, toughness and a pose, and no one believed in Frank’s imitation of his brother. That knowledge just made him angrier. Made him act out more. Made him separate from all of us. He sulked and his surliness made him even more of a caricature and made him try even harder to live up to what he thought a One Sky man should be. He got mean instead of tough and, watching him through those years, I knew that the river, the fire, and the cold ran through him, drove him, sent him searching for a peg to hang his life on. It was a cold, hard peg he ­chose–­vindictive as a nail through the ­palms.

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McCown's Law

100 Greatest Hockey Arguments
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : hockey
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Excerpt

1. Looking for an argument? Then let’s talk hockey. Bob explains why hockey is the ultimate sport to disagree over.

try this experiment the next time you watch a National Hockey League game.

Afterwards, listen to what they say about it on sports talk radio, to the opinions of your co-workers in the office the next day and to the views of the pundits on television or in the newspapers.

Chances are you’re going to encounter more opinions than you can count. And you’re going to think a good number of them are nonsense.

I mean, is there another sport where two fans can sit side by side, watching the exact same game, and then completely disagree about who played well, who didn’t and why one team won and the other didn’t?

No, there’s not. Only in hockey is so much of what occurs in the eye of the beholder.

It’s the same thing when fans talk about a particular team or a problem in the game and how they think it should be addressed. Everyone has a different solution, because everyone sees something different.

Heck, even the stakeholders in the National Hockey League can’t agree about what goes on in the game. One week late in the 2006—07 season, you had the league’s general managers voting to recommend an increase in the number of instigator penalties required for a suspension from three to five because the fighters need more room to do their jobs. Then, a few weeks later, the league’s director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, says it’s time to look at taking fighting out of the game entirely.

And then the commissioner, Gary Bettman, comes out and disagrees with him!

Is it any wonder there is so little consensus in this sport?

Fans can’t even agree on how hockey should be played. Just think for a moment how much time and energy is spent discussing ways to improve hockey. Sometimes it’s the rules that must change, sometimes the officiating and at other times it’s the equipment or something else. It makes you wonder how in the world a sport can have any fans when it’s so imperfect that people are always trying to turn it into something else.

Football fans don’t sit around debating whether a field goal should be worth three points or four. You won’t hear baseball fans discussing whether a walk should be awarded after five balls or whether tie games should be settled with a home run contest. And the height of the rim in basketball is just fine where it is, thank you.

But in hockey, about the only thing everyone can agree on is that the game should be played on ice.

Part of hockey’s charm is that so little of it can be captured in a boxscore.

In baseball, basketball or football you can look at a box­score and get a pretty good idea of what happened. Get a more detailed summary of a game in any one of those sports and it becomes hard to argue over what took place.

But in hockey, there’s no such thing. You hear coaches talk about chances, but what’s a “chance”? Shots on goal are only one small measure of a team’s effectiveness. And as for hits and some of the other garbage statistics the NHL has come up with, they’re completely useless.

Sure, power-play and penalty-killing stats are helpful. And so are blocked shots. But beyond that, how do you statistically measure a hockey game?

Which is why you can pretty much argue anything you want in hockey. Who’s to say you’re wrong? The only thing you can be sure of is that someone is going to agree with you and someone is going to disagree.

And yet, hockey is enveloped by a culture that demands that everything be rationalized or explained.

Just consider what gets said to the media after a game. After a loss, players usually mumble something about “not skating” or “forgetting to keep their feet moving” or not “playing as a team” or “working hard”–which, frankly, could mean anything. And when they win, it’s because they “got pucks on net” or “moved the puck real well” or “got some big saves” from the goaltender.

All of those things could pretty much describe any hockey game at any time, anywhere, at any level from peewee to the pros.

And it’s hilarious the way fans react when their team loses a close game. You’d swear the players couldn’t do anything right. And yet, when the same team wins a game by a one-goal margin, it’s showered in platitudes.
So here’s an experiment I’d love to perform sometime.

Let’s take the tape of a five-year-old NHL game–any game–in which the score ended 3—1. Now, let’s edit out the goals and leave all the rest, so that about 59 of the 60 minutes are there to watch.
Now show it to an audience of hockey fans and see if they can guess who won.

I bet they couldn’t, because aside from the moments in which the goals are scored, an awful lot of hockey games are nothing but back-and-forth flow, the trading of chances and puck luck.

To have some fun, let’s try the same experiment with a bunch of reporters. Then let’s show them the stories they wrote about that exact game.

Most nights in hockey, both teams skate hard, check hard and go to the net. They both create traffic in front, are tough on the penalty kill and forecheck like mad. And one of them has a puck hit the post and bounce into the net. And the other hits a post and watches it bounce wide. On more nights than you’d believe, the difference is as simple as that.

You’d be hard pressed to find that analysis in the newspapers the next day or expressed by the many pundits who cover the sport. But it is the truth in far more hockey games than is ever acknowledged.

In fact, I would say that puck luck, as it is often called, decides roughly half of the close games in the National Hockey League. That’s right: a bounce here, a deflection there, a puck that skids off a post and away from the net at one end of the rink, then catches the corner of the top shelf a few moments later.

Look, hockey isn’t football. It’s not the coaches who win individual hockey games–it’s the players. Hockey is a game of flow, of action and reaction, far more than it is of programmed plays and tactics like post patterns and wheel routes. In hockey, nearly every play is a broken play. In fact, the game is kind of like one long broken play during which players must constantly adapt.

But we rarely acknowledge that, among all the skill and decision making, a good portion of what occurs isn’t anyone’s fault or the result of anyone’s genius. It’s just the spontaneous bounces of a frozen rubber disc on ice.
But that kind of analysis doesn’t make for good copy. And if writers wrote the truth every time a game came down to dumb luck, we’d all tune out.

I know that the next time the Stanley Cup final is on, someone will be able to explain that the team emerging with a 2—1 win in Game 7 did so because of a speech the coach made back in September. Or because an assistant coach whispered an inspirational message to the goaltender after the second period, or because of a hit a defenceman made that sent a message to his teammates back in the first period.

Those types of things make for wonderful storylines. And, from my point of view, they’re mostly a bunch of crap. No doubt someone reading this will disagree with me.

2. For years, hockey persistently avoided assessing penalties with a game on the line. The league didn’t want the officials to decide the outcome. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Bob weighs in on who’s right and who’s wrong.

hockey is the only sport in which, for years, officials had to keep more in mind than just what they saw happen in front of them when deciding whether to call a penalty.

They had to be aware of which team was winning and by what margin, and how much time was left to play. They also had to consider at what time of year the game was being played and how important it was to each team. And if it happened to be a playoff game . . . well, then there was a whole different set of standards.

Only by weighing all of those factors was it possible for a National Hockey League referee to make the right call.
All of which made the NHL pretty unique in the world of professional sports. It may be inherently more difficult for an official in any sport to make a tough call in the dying seconds of a close game. But only in hockey were officials encouraged to alter the standards used to call a game, depending on the circumstances.

In football, the definition of holding or clipping has always been the same in the first quarter as the fourth. In basketball, a foul or goaltending is the same from tip-off to countdown. And no, the strike zone in baseball doesn’t change when you get to extra innings. And a player is either called out or safe without the umpire glancing at the scoreboard.

But for some reason, in hockey, the expectation had always been that the referees should back off when a game was on the line and “let the players decide it.”

Television commentators, led by Don Cherry, were the worst offenders when it came to encouraging this. When a penalty occurs late in a football game, you’ll never hear the broadcasters criticize the official. You’ll hear them come down on the player who committed the foul. It’s “How could that guy block from behind on the runback?” Not, “How could the official call him for blocking from behind on the runback?” Same thing in basketball. Yet in hockey, when a player made a flagrant hook or slash with only a minute to play, somehow it was the official’s fault if that guy gets sent to the box.

Thankfully, the National Hockey League has lately gotten off this archaic horse and, for once, is actually backing its officials for showing some balls. But it’s pretty incredible to watch the league brag about its new, more consistent officiating standards when for years it was complicit in allowing officials to make themselves nearly invisible with a game on the line.

Of course, there are still those who don’t like to see penalties called late in close games. There are those who insist that the game is only pure when you “let them play.”

I’ve never understood exactly what “let them play” means. I mean, it’s an incomplete thought. What comes next? Let them play . . . and kill each other? Let them play . . . and do whatever they want? Let them play . . . until no one is standing? How far are you willing to go with this argument?

If letting the players decide a game is such a good idea, then why have any officials at all?

But the thing is, in addition to being stupid, the argument that when the refs put away their whistles late in the game the players decide the outcome is simply wrong anyway.

That way of thinking assumes that when a referee calls a hooking penalty early in scoreless game it doesn’t affect the final result. But think about it. Let’s say an official makes a call that leads to a power-play goal early on in a game that ends 1—0. How is that different than making the same call in a 4—4 game with three minutes remaining? Among the many flaws in the NHL’s old way of thinking is the notion that only those penalties called during the late stages of the third period or overtime affect the outcome of a game.

In fact, all penalties, no matter when they are called, have the same potential to affect the final result.

I’m not sure what it was that finally made the NHL decide that enough was enough and to get in line with the way the rest of the sports world is officiated. But thank God it did. And here’s hoping the whiners are never able to turn the clock back.

3. It’s the oldest hockey argument there is: does fighting belong in the National Hockey League? Bob says to find out, just look at what happens when the games matter most.

the long-standing debate about fighting in the National Hockey League is really two arguments. The first pertains to whether the NHL needs fighting to attract audiences in places where hockey isn’t part of the culture. The second involves deciding whether fighting actually has a role in the game–that is, does it help teams win, and is having enforcers on the ice necessary to protect the so-called stars?

First, in terms of marketing, I think you have to recognize that fighting in hockey has shrunk to the point where, on many nights, there aren’t any fights at all. In fact, you can sometimes go through an entire week of games for some teams without seeing a fight.

It’s not like the old days of the Broad Street Bullies, when Philadelphia Flyer fans could go to the Spectrum knowing they were almost assured of seeing blood.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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United We Stand

United We Stand

edition:Paperback
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CHAPTER ONE
My eyes opened ever so slightly. The bed felt warm and soft, and all I wanted to do was sleep some more. But there was light coming through the window and I thought I really should get up . . . probably. I sat up and stretched and looked down at my hands. They were both cut, and there was a line of stitches extending from the palm of my left hand almost up to the wrist. My hand was throbbing. Then it all came back to me.

It was like some sort of bizarre dream–no, a nightmare–but I knew it was all real. There was the evidence, right there on my hands–the cuts, the gash that I got crawling through the debris and the dust storm and then scrambling away, unable to see or breathe, on all fours. I remembered thinking that I’d survived the plane crashing into the building, the explosion, the fire, the mad rush down the stairs, and the collapse of the building, only to die, suffocating, in the dust and debris.

I started to cough like I was still somewhere in that cloud of dust. There was something stuck in my throat. I continued to cough until I spat it out into my hand–thick, black phlegm. God knows what it was, but I figured almost anything could have been lining my throat and lungs. I wiped it on the side of the bedspread.

“Will!”

It was my mother. She was standing in my bedroom doorway. She looked so upset–she must have seen me wiping the gunk on the bedspread.

She burst into tears, rushed over, and threw her arms around me.

“I’m just . . . just so glad . . . you’re okay,” she sobbed.

“I’m fine . . . I’m good.”

“Let me look at you.”

She released her grip and leaned back so she could look me square in the eyes. She started crying again.

“I’m fine, honestly. You don’t have to cry.”

“Honey, these are tears of joy. I’m just so glad you’re all right. And your hand. How is your hand?”

She held up my left hand and looked at the stitches. Even I had to admit that it did look nasty, like I’d been in a knife fight–and lost.

“It must hurt terribly,” she said.

“Not really. It feels almost numb. It looks a lot worse than it is,” I said. “Speaking of which . . . you look awful.”

She laughed. I hadn’t expected that.

“I haven’t slept,” she said. “The two of you were coughing so badly all night.”

“We were? I didn’t notice . . . I thought I slept right through.”

You did. But it kept me awake. I had to be awake anyway, though, to check on your father because of his concussion.”

“Dad . . . is he okay?”

“He’s saying that he’s fine. Not that I know if I should believe him.”

“I want to see him,” I said as I yanked off the blankets and swung my feet to the floor. “Where is he?”

“He’s in the den.”

I climbed out of bed and stumbled slightly, my legs giving way under me. My mother reached out and took me by the arm to steady me. My legs were sore all over, particularly painful in a couple of spots, and I remembered then that my knees and legs were just as cut up and bruised as my hands.

“Let me help you,” my mother offered.

I didn’t argue. I felt like I needed her help. “I want to see Dad.”

She led me out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, and toward the den. The door was slightly ajar and I could hear him–he was talking to somebody. Gently I knocked on the door and pushed it open wider. He was standing by the window. He was alone, talking on the phone.

His face was all cut and bruised, and I was shocked at how swollen one side was. It hadn’t been that swollen last night. His left arm was in a sling, and I knew underneath his shirt were three fractured ribs. If he was coughing all night he would have been in a lot of pain.

He saw us, gave a little smile that was distorted by the swelling, and motioned for us to come in. He continued his conversation.

“I know there will be some complications involved in transferring that amount of money,” he said.

Unbelievable. Yesterday we’d both almost died and here he was doing business, like nothing had happened. I’d had some fleeting fantasy that somehow this would change his compulsion for working so hard, but I guess I was wrong. Business was business, and that would never–

“Hold on a second,” he said into the phone.

He put the phone down on the desk and walked over and wrapped his arms around me, giving me a gigantic hug. Maybe something had changed. I hugged him back and he groaned–I’d forgotten about his ribs.

“Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” he said. “Just good to have your arms around me.”

I felt the same way.

He loosened his grip so he could look at me. “How you doing, kid?”

“I’m good.”

“You don’t seem so good.”

“Look who’s talking,” I said.

He chuckled. “I guess you’re right, but really, are you okay?”

“As okay as I can be. You?”

“I am now.” He let go of me. “Sit down, this will just take a minute . . . It’s important.”

He picked up the phone again. “Listen, Suzie, I just want–”

“Suzie is okay!” I exclaimed.

My father smiled and nodded.

I hadn’t even thought about her, or any of the other people in the office. Most of them would have gotten out, I thought, but not all of them . . . Some of those people would have died . . . So many people had died.

“You call Cam Peters back and you tell him I want one hundred thousand dollars deposited directly into an account I can use at my discretion. Tell him that is a direct order from me, and if he doesn’t do it immediately I’ll be paying him a visit myself, and I’m not half as pretty or polite as you.”

She said something I couldn’t hear and he laughed.

“Good. Good. So, I’ll see you here right after lunch.” Hearing this phone call about money and knowing my father the way I did, I had a good idea what was happening. He was going to start working, today, from here. He didn’t have an office–he didn’t even have a building–but it was going to take more than the collapse of the World Trade Center to stop him from doing business.

“And, Suzie, thanks for everything. I’m just so glad you’re . . . you’re . . . you got out. You know I love you.”

What was he saying? She was his assistant, his very young assistant, and he was saying all this right in front of–

“Suzie, you’re like family to me, like a daughter,” he said. “Now, are you sure you’re okay to come here today? If you don’t feel up to it I’ll understand . . . Okay, at least promise me that you’ll drive carefully.”

He put the phone down and turned to us. “Suzie is going to help me. I have to try to contact everybody, all the people in the office. I have to know if everybody . . . if everybody is okay.”

“They should be fine,” I said. “They all left before we did, and we got out.”

I’d been with my father–it was sort of like “take your kid to work” day at my school– in his office on the eighty-fifth floor, South Tower, of the World Trade Center. I’d been there when the first plane hit the North Tower. And my father wasn’t just the boss in his own office; he was the fire warden for the floor. Right away he’d ordered everybody in his office–all one hundred people–to stop whatever they were doing and evacuate the building. He’d given that order before the second plane hit our tower.

“I know they all left before us,” he said. “But what if some of them heard the P.A. announcement and decided to go back?”

Just after my father had chased everybody out of the office, and before that second plane hit our building, there had been an announcement over the P.A. saying that there was no danger, that people shouldn’t evacuate the South Tower, and that they should go back to their offices.

“They wouldn’t have done that . . . They wouldn’t have gone back . . . would they?”

He shook his head. “I have no way of knowing for sure,” he said, “but some of our traders get so focused on the deal that they’ll look for any excuse to get back to the office and start working again.”

I started to snicker.

“I know, I know, but I’m hoping to slow down myself.”

“Like today?” I asked.

“No choice today, but from now on there’ll be shorter hours, fewer evenings. You’ll see.”

“We’d like that, dear,” my mother said. “But seeing is believing.”

“Sometimes it’s the other way around. Believing is seeing.”

I sort of got what he was saying. We never would have got out of that building if we hadn’t believed. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I think they were all out,” I said. “We were for sure the last ones in your office after the plane hit the building. Nobody else was there then, and I can’t imagine anybody coming back up after the plane hit.”

“I’m just afraid for anyone who might have been trying to come back,” he said. “Maybe someone was heading up the stairs and ended up on the one of the floors where the plane hit.”

I hadn’t thought about that. The floors a few below ours– seventy- nine and eighty and eighty- one–had been devastated. Anybody on those floors would have been killed instantly.

“And,” my father continued, “the announcement said people could take the elevators. What if people listened to that?”

I’d seen what had happened to some of the elevators. The metal doors had been blown right off and the walls directly across scorched by flames. I’d also heard about elevators that had just plunged down the shafts, killing everybody.

“Suzie’s coming over to help me find a new office and locate all our people. Together we’re going to try to talk to everybody,” my father said. “The only problem is that when we lost the office we also lost all the home addresses and phone numbers for everybody in the company, worldwide.”

“You don’t have a backup?” my mother questioned.

“All financial dealings were backed up in our other offices, but the personnel information for all our branches around the world was kept in our office.” He shook his head slowly, his expression sad. “They thought that ours was the most secure site.”

“So, how are you going to do it?” my mother asked. “How are you going to get in touch with everybody?”

“Suzie socializes with a couple of the women from the office, so she has their numbers. Bill Saunders is a member of my fitness club. We know where some people live and we’ll go through phone books. We’re hoping that every person we reach will have contacts that will help us reach somebody else.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “But why do you need the money . . . — You know, the money you asked to be transferred to you?”

“The money is to secure a lease, rent some office equipment, put in phones and computers. We have to get the business up and running.”

“But right away? Today?”

“I have an obligation to the people in my office to get them back to work as soon as possible. Most people are only one paycheck away from defaulting on their mortgages, from going into bankruptcy. With no money coming in this week, there are people who might be desperate. This way, I’ll have enough to give advances, or maybe even loans. With what they’ve all gone through, the last thing our employees should have to worry about now is money.” He paused. “They might also need the money for other things.”

I gave him a questioning look. “Like what?”

He didn’t answer right away. “I was thinking about medical costs, maybe even funeral expenses. We can only hope that’s not the case.”

We could hope. I just didn’t know if that hope was realistic. Tens of thousands of people had been injured, and thousands killed. Some of them could have been from my father’s office.

“They might also need to see counselors,” my mother added.

“Counselors for what?” I asked.

“People who have gone through tragedy, through difficult or dangerous situations, can suffer from the after-effects,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” I told her. “If you survived, you survived.”

“It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder,” she explained. “I learned about it when I was training as a social worker, and they were talking about it on CNN this morning. They said this is going to affect not just the people who were in the towers and their families, but people everywhere across the country, even around the world.”

“Now I’m really confused. People who weren’t even there are going to suffer from this post-traumatic whatever stress thing?”

“Stress disorder. People will have anxiety attacks, will become depressed, have sleep problems . . . I certainly couldn’t sleep last night,” my mother said.

“Yeah, but you had a reason. You were watching Dad because of the concussion. Besides, you’d spent the day thinking that we were dead–we were there.”

“Your mother is right,” my father said. “This is going to have an effect on people everywhere. And more than that, it’s going to change everything.”

Maybe my thinking was still a bit fuzzy, but I wasn’t getting it.

“This is something that’s going to be a turning point in history,” my father went on. “Everybody will remember where they were and what they were doing at the moment they heard about the attack.”

“I know where I was,” I said. “I was right there.”

“Yes, but everybody who watched it on television will feel like they were there too. And what happened will have an impact that we can’t even imagine yet,” my father said.

“This country has been changed,” my mother said. “We don’t know what those changes are going to be yet, but nothing will be the same.”

“Wait . . . I know that man,” my father said. He was pointing to a television in the corner of the room. With the sound turned down I hadn’t even noticed it was on, but I recognized the man on the screen.

A CNN reporter was interviewing a man from the engineering firm just down the hall, on the same floor as my father’s office. I didn’t even know his name, but I was amazed at how happy I was to see that he was alive. I looked around desperately for the remote, but it was nowhere to be seen, so I rushed over to the set and turned the sound up manually.

“Can you describe the trip down the stairs?” the female reporter asked him.

“At first it was sort of like a fire drill at school. Everybody was just joking around . . . It was light, you know, playful,” he said. “You have to remember, at that point, we didn’t know much about what had happened in the other building–all we knew was that it had been hit by a plane. And our building hadn’t been hit yet.”

“And after the second plane did hit your building?”

“To tell you the truth, at first we still didn’t know exactly what had happened,” he said. “Not really. But we hadn’t made it very far down the stairs, and we knew we were probably only three or four floors below the point of impact by then. We felt it. A couple of people were knocked over, and then we felt the whole building shake, and the lights went out and the sprinklers came on and some of the panels fell off the wall. It wasn’t a school fire drill any more.”

“And you are an engineer,” the reporter said.

“Yes, a structural engineer. My firm designs buildings, bridges, parking structures. We know about how to put a building up,” he said.

“Or what it might take to bring one down,” the reporter said.

“That too. When the building reacted to the impact and started to really sway, I had a pretty good idea that something major had happened. And then when I smelled the fuel it was pretty clear that it was another plane.”

“That must have been terrifying.”

“That’s the strangest part. It wasn’t terrifying because it was just so . . . so . . . unreal.”

“I can only imagine. And what was it like going down after that?”

“It suddenly got much more crowded, but it was really, really orderly. People were friendly, offering encouragement, helping other people.”

“We’ve heard the same from other witnesses. It was as though this terrible event somehow brought out the very best in people.”

“I guess the fact that nobody knew what was about to happen helped. If people had known how close we were to the collapse of the building, then panic would have set in, I think.”

“As a structural engineer, you must have considered that possibility.”

He shook his head. “As a structural engineer I didn’t think there was a chance of it happening. Those buildings were made to sustain an airplane crash. I just assumed that the worst had passed. The plane had hit the tower and the building had absorbed the force. I thought it was simply a case of containing the fire. That was all.”

“I guess perhaps ignorance was bliss.”

“That’s the strangest thing,” he said. “My girlfriend was watching TV in her office uptown, and she knew more than we knew. People halfway around the world who were watching on TV knew more about what was happening than those of us in the building. I didn’t know anything about the plane that hit the Pentagon, or about the fourth plane that was brought down in Pennsylvania.”

My father and I hadn’t heard about the other planes either, of course–not until we were being treated, stitched up, in the mobile hospital.

“Were there any people in your office who didn’t . . . didn’t make it?” the reporter asked.

“No. Everybody got out. We stayed as a group all the way out and onto the street. We were two blocks away by the time the South Tower collapsed. We were so incredibly fortunate that we left when we did.”

The reporter turned toward the camera. “There were very few people above the floors where the impact occurred who survived. Mr. Johnston’s–”

“Please, call me Dennis,” the man said, and smiled.

“Certainly. Dennis’s office was located on the eighty-fifth floor, and his survival was based on the fact that he made the decision to evacuate immediately after the first plane hit the North Tower.”

“It really wasn’t our decision,” he said. “We left only because of the fire warden on our floor.”

I turned to my dad. “That’s you!”

He smiled and nodded.

“I don’t even know his name,” Mr. Johnston said. “I think it was John . . . John something.”

“Fuller,” I said to the TV.

“My hero,” my mother said, and she reached out and grabbed my father’s hand.

“Nothing heroic. I was just doing what a fire warden is supposed to do.”

I thought back to how I’d wanted to leave right away, get out of the building, but my father had insisted on both making sure that all the employees from his office left and trying to get everybody from the entire floor to evacuate. The first place we’d gone to was the office where Mr. Johnston–Dennis–worked. He and the other staff had listened, closed up the offices, and left right away. Thank goodness they’d made it down before the second plane hit.

One of the other offices had not been so cooperative or friendly. My father had tried to convince the employees, tried ordering them to leave, but they had just refused. And then, when that stupid announcement came over the P.A. telling people not to evacuate, to go back to their offices, there was no chance of their listening to him any more. The boss there–some snotty little guy in a rumpled suit–ordered them back to work and pretty well tossed us out of their office. They went back to their phones and computers, trying to close another deal, make some more money. They were probably all dead now. That thought sent a shiver down my spine. They were all gone because they wouldn’t listen to my father, and that guy on the TV and all his co- workers were alive because they did. What an unbelievable thought.

“That fire warden is the reason I’m alive,” Mr. Johnston continued, “the reason all of us in our office are alive. I’d like to meet him, shake his hand, and thank him for what he did.” He suddenly looked sad. “But I don’t know if he . . . if he . . . He was still there on the floor when we left.”

“And you don’t know if he made it.”

Mr. Johnston shook his head slowly. He looked as though he was on the verge of tears.

The reporter turned once again to face the camera. “So John something, the fire warden on the eighty-fifth floor, is one of the hundreds of unknown heroes who saved lives. This is one of the themes we have heard continually–people risking their lives to save others, putting the lives of total strangers above their own safety. So, John, if you’re out there and you hear this report, would you please call in? We all want to hear from you. We all want to know that you made it out. Now back to our main desk.”

The scene shifted to two anchormen sitting behind a big desk. My father had found the remote, and he muted the sound.

“Are you going to call?” my mother asked.

He gave her a questioning look.

“You should at least let them know your name.”

“Nobody needs to know my name.”

“Don’t you think Dennis Johnston would like to know your name, would like to know you’re alive? Wouldn’t that be reassuring, comforting for him?” my mother said.

“I guess you’re right. I’ll call when I have time, later today.”

“Do you want me to call for you?” my mother asked.

“I’d appreciate that.”

The scene on the TV shifted to the site of the World Trade Center, or what was left of it.

“Wow,” I gasped. “It’s just so hard to believe.”

“It is,” my father agreed. “It’s like a war zone.”

The scene was of twisted metal, a few columns still standing, and the latticework facing of one of the buildings standing ten stories high. But most of what the Twin Towers had been was flattened to the ground in a gigantic pile that seemed to go on forever. Smoke was rising from a dozen spots across the rubble, and the whole area seemed to be in a fog or mist. Obviously there were still fires burning beneath the surface.

I tried to picture where we’d been when the first tower had fallen, but I didn’t think we had the right angle, or maybe it had all been covered with debris when the second tower fell.

Surrounding the debris from the fallen towers were those buildings that were still standing, barely. They had gaping holes, entire sides ripped open, crumpled floors, and they had the strange appearance of having almost melted . . . dripping down, distorted, angles all wrong, like they were made of plastic that had been left too close to a fire.

Moving throughout the pile, like little ants, were people. Some were obviously police or firefighters, all in uniform, but others wore construction helmets and were removing the rubble. They were all probably searching for survivors. But looking at the scene, like that, I wondered how anybody could have survived.

“And we walked right through it,” I said out loud.

“We were so close that we couldn’t really see it. At least not like this,” my father said.

“And on the TV was the only way I could see it,” my mother said. “Just staring at the set, not knowing if you were alive or . . .”

She started to cry again, and both my father and I put our arms around her.

“I . . . I was so helpless . . . And I called and called, but I couldn’t get through to you on your cellphone . . .”

“All the cell towers were overwhelmed with people trying to make calls,” my father explained. “And the stairwells were dead reception zones, I think.”

“I was just calling and calling,” she sobbed. “And then when the building collapsed and I still couldn’t get you . . .” She started to shake and sob even louder.

My mother was what my father called “a worrier.” She always worried when my father was late and hadn’t called us, so he always tried to call. With me, it was even worse. She always wanted to know exactly where I was and who I was with. And, of course, being a teenager, I was always trying to be sure she didn’t know where I was or who I was with. Generally, though, I did let her know at least a version of the truth. That just made life easier for everybody.

“The important thing is that we’re all right,” my father said. “We’re right here.”

“But you could have been killed,” she sobbed.

“But we weren’t.”

“I know . . . I know . . . Thank God. I just stared at the TV and prayed.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t have to go through it alone,” my father said.

My aunt–my mother’s sister–and some of the neighbors had been with her. They’d still been here when we’d finally got home, just before eleven. We were greeted with cheers and tears, practically mobbed. Some of these people had been our neighbors for years, but I’d never even talked to them except to maybe say hello, or we’d wave at each other when we drove past. Strange how, suddenly, they were acting like family.

“You know, I think it was harder watching than it would have been to have actually been there,” my mother said.

My eyes opened wide in shock and met my father’s gaze. He shrugged, and his eyes pleaded with me not to say anything. After what we’d gone through, how could she even think that it had been worse for her?

“I know that sounds awful . . . insensitive,” my mother said. “But I would rather have been there with you two, knowing that you were alive, than been here without you.”

That opened my eyes again. I did understand. At least we knew.

“We called as soon as we could,” my father said. “We just couldn’t call right away.”

We’d left the building just before it collapsed. We were showered with debris, knocked off our feet, and practically suffocated in the cloud of dust that overwhelmed everything and blotted out the sun. That was maybe the scariest part of the whole day. Scary because I’d thought we were finally safe. Scary because my father wasn’t with me at the very moment the tower collapsed, and for a few short seconds–half a minute maybe–I’d thought he was dead. Maybe I could understand what my mother had gone through. And for her it wasn’t a few short seconds. It was hours.

“It’s the president,” my mother said, pointing at the TV set.

President Bush was sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, looking solemn but calm. Underneath was a caption indicating that this was a rebroadcast of a speech he’d given yesterday. My father hit the Mute button again so we could hear him speak.
“Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and -women, military and federal workers; moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.”
Down below, on the banner that ran across the screen, it said that the main suspect in the attacks was someone named Osama bin Laden, leader of a terrorist group in Afghanistan. That was hard to get my head around–what gripe did Afghanistan have with America? My dad had talked about religious extremists when we were trying to get out, trying to make some sense of what had happened. Was that who these guys were? And then came the updated numbers: “Death toll believed to exceed 3,000, with injuries to over 7,000.”

That seven thousand included me and my father.

“These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong.
“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
I felt a chill go up my spine. The president–my president–was speaking out for all of us, speaking about something that had happened to me.
“Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America–with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
I knew what my father had done, what we’d both done. And I thought about all the policemen and firefighters . . . Oh my God, I’d forgotten about James’s father. He’d been one of the firemen going up while we’d been going down. I didn’t know what had happened to him. I had to call James. What sort of a friend was I–what sort of best friend–to have forgotten about him? No, calling him on the phone wasn’t enough. I had to go over to his house. Immediately, right now. I started to speak but stopped myself. I couldn’t interrupt the president.
“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.
“Thank you. Good night and God bless America.”
The president’s image faded and it was back to the news anchors. My father muted the sound again.

“The president spoke for all of us,” my father said. “Strange, this is one of the darkest events in our history, but I know we’re going to rise above it. I have no doubts.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about the people who aren’t going to rise above it,” I said. “The three thousand people who died.”

“And their families,” my mother added.

“I need to go and see James and his family,” I said.

“I already called, and we might go to see them tonight,” my mother said.

“No, I need to see James before that . . . Wait, you were talking to them?” I asked.

“I called and spoke to James’s mother this morning.”

“And have they heard anything?” I asked, although I was almost afraid to get the answer.

She shook her head. “They’re still waiting. Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part.”

“I have to go over there right now.”

“You need to come into the kitchen, sit down, and eat breakfast. Both of you.”

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“And I’d better continue to try to make arrangements for–”

“No,” my mother said forcefully, cutting my father off. “Both of you have been through a lot, physically and mentally, and you need to eat. Right after breakfast you can get back on the phone, John, and I’ll take Will over to see the Bennetts.”

“I can walk over,” I said.

“I know you can, but I want to go as well.”

“I’m okay, you don’t have to be right there with me.”

“I’m not going for you. I’m going for James’s mother. I think I know what she’s going through as much as anybody else can. Now, breakfast first.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Missing Pieces

Missing Pieces

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : thrillers
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Excerpt

Another woman is missing.

Her name is Millie Potton and she was last seen two days ago.  According to today's paper, Millie is tall and thin and walks with a slight limp.  She is fifty-four years old, which isn't surprising.  Only women over fifty have names like Millie anymore.

The small article on page three of the local news section of the Palm Beach Post states that she was last seen wandering down the street in her bathrobe by a neighbor, a woman who obviously saw nothing particularly peculiar in the incident.  Millie Potton, the article continues, has a long history of mental problems, the implication being that it is these mental problems that are responsible for her disappearance and are not therefore anything the rest of us have to be concerned about.

Over two dozen women have disappeared from the Palm Beach area in the last five years.  I know because I've been keeping track, not consciously, at least not at first, but after a while their numbers just started adding up, and a vague figure affixed itself to my conscious mind.  The women range in age from sixteen to sixty.  The police have dismissed some as runaways, especially the younger ones, girls like Amy Lokash, age seventeen, who left a friend's house at ten o'clock one evening and was never seen or heard from again.  Others, and Millie Potton will undoubtedly be among them, have been dismissed for any number of indisputably logical reasons, even though the police were wrong about Amy Lokash.

Still, until a body turns up somewhere, stuffed into a garbage bin behind Burger King like Marilyn Greenwood, age twenty-four, or floating facedown in a Port Everglades swamp like Christine McDermott, age thirty-three, there really isn't anything the police can do.  Or so they say.  Women, it seems, go missing all the time.

It's quiet in the house this morning, what with everybody gone.  I have lots of time to tape my report.  I call it a report, but really it isn't anything so clearly defined.  It's more a series of reminiscences, although the police have asked me to be as specific and as orderly as I can, to be careful not to leave anything out, no matter how insignificant--or how personal--something may seem.  They will decide what is important, they tell me.

I'm not sure I understand the point.  What's done is done.  It's not as if I can go back and change any of the things that have happened, much as I'd like to, much as I tried to before they occurred.  But I was just hitting my head against a brick wall.  I knew it at the time.  I know it now.  There are certain things over which we have no control--the actions of others being the prime example.  Much as we may not like it, we have to stand back and let people go their own way, make their own mistakes, no matter how clearly we see disaster looming.  Isn't that what I'm always telling my clients?

Of course, it's much easier to give advice than it is to follow it.  Maybe that's one of the reasons I became a family therapist, although that certainly wasn't the reason I gave on my college entry application.  There, if memory serves me correctly, and it does so with alarmingly less frequency all the time, I listed my intense desire to help others, my reputation among friends as someone to whom they could always turn in times of trouble, my experience with my own dysfunctional family, although the term "dysfunctional" had yet to be coined at the time I entered university way back in 1966.  It's so common now, so much a part of the everyday vernacular, that it's hard to imagine how we managed for so long without it, despite the fact that it's essentially meaningless.  What constitutes dysfunction, after all?  What family doesn't have problems?  I'm certain my own daughters could give you an earful.

So, where to start?  This is what my first-time clients ask all the time.  They come into my office, which is on the third floor of a five-story Pepto-Bismol pink building on Royal Palm Way, their eyes wary, the fingers of one hand chipping at the wedding band on the other, as they perch on the ends of the upholstered gray-and-white chairs, their lips parting in anticipation, their mouths eager to give voice to their rage, their fears, their displeasure, and the first thing that tumbles out is always the same: Where do I start?

Do I start at the very beginning, announce myself like a label stuck to a lapel: Hello, my name is Kate Sinclair?  Do I say that I was born forty-seven years ago in Pittsburgh on an uncharacteristically warm day in April, that I'm five feet six and a half inches tall and one hundred and twenty-five pounds, that my hair is light brown and my eyes a shade darker, that I have small breasts and good legs and a slightly lopsided smile?  That Larry affectionately calls me funny face, that Robert said I was beautiful?

It would be much easier to start at the end, to recite facts already known, give name to the dead, wipe away the blood once and for all, instead of trying to search for motivations, for explanations, for answers that might never be found.

But the police don't want that.  They already know the basic facts.  They've seen the end results.  What they want are details, and I've agreed, as best I can, to provide them.  I could start with Amy Lokash's disappearance, or the first time her mother came to my office.  I could begin with my mother's fears she was being followed, or with the day Sara's teacher called to voice her growing concerns about my daughter's behavior.  I could talk about that first phone call from Robert, or Larry's sudden trip to South Carolina.  But I guess if I have to choose one moment over all the others, it would have to be that Saturday morning last October when Jo Lynn and I were sitting at the kitchen table, relaxing and enjoying our third cup of coffee, and my sister put down the morning paper and calmly announced that she was going to marry a man who was on trial for the murder of thirteen women.

Yes, I think I'll start there.

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Hockey Night Fever

Hockey Night Fever

Mullets, Mayhem and the Game's Coming of Age in the 1970s
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Still Life
Excerpt

Chapter One
Less than an hour before the car slammed into her at a speed of almost fifty miles an hour, throwing her ten feet into the air, breaking nearly every bone in her body and cracking her head against the hard concrete, Casey Marshall was sitting in the elegant, narrow dining room of Southwark, one of South Philadelphia’s more popular white-tablecloth restaurants, finishing lunch with her two closest friends and stealing glances at the beautiful, secluded courtyard behind their heads. She was wondering how long the unnaturally warm March weather was going to last, whether she’d have time to go for a run before her next appointment, and whether she should tell Janine the truth about what she really thought of her latest haircut. She’d already lied and said she liked it. Casey smiled at the thought of an early spring and allowed her gaze to drift over her right shoulder, past the luminous still-life painting of a bouquet of enormous pink peonies by Tony Scherman, and toward the magnificent mahogany bar that was the centerpiece of the restaurant’s front room.

“You hate it, don’t you?” she heard Janine say.

“The painting?” Casey asked, although she doubted Janine had even noticed it. Janine regularly boasted she was oblivious to her surroundings. Having said that, she always seemed to select only the finest, most expensive places for them to have lunch. “I think it’s fabulous.”

“My hair. You think it’s awful.”

“I don’t think it’s awful.”

“You think it’s too severe.”

Casey looked directly into Janine’s intense blue eyes, several shades darker than her own. “A little, yes,” she agreed, thinking that the sharp, geometric angles of the blunt cut that hugged Janine’s long, thin face put too much emphasis on the already exaggerated point of her chin, especially when combined with the almost blue-black tint of her hair.

“I was just so tired of the same old thing all the time,” Janine explained, looking to their mutual friend, Gail, for confirmation.

Gail, sitting beside Janine and across from Casey at the small, square table, nodded obligingly. “A change is as good as a rest,” she said half a beat behind Janine, so their sentences overlapped, like a song being sung in rounds.

“I mean, we’re not in college anymore,” Janine continued.

“We’re over thirty. It’s important to keep current. . . .”

“Always good to keep current,” Gail echoed.

“It was just time to do away with the Alice in Wonderland hairdo.” Janine’s eyes settled pointedly on the naturally blond hair that fell softly across Casey’s shoulders.

“I liked your hair long,” Casey demurred.

“So did I,” Gail agreed, tucking a few frizzy brown curls behind her right ear. Gail never had a problem with her hair. It always looked as if she’d just stepped on an electrical current. “Although I like it this way, too,” she added.

“Yeah, well, it was time to move on. That’s what you always say, isn’t it?” The question was accompanied by such a sweet smile that it was difficult to know whether or not to take offense. What wasn’t difficult for Casey to figure out was that they were no longer talking about hair.

“Time for more coffee,” Gail announced, signaling the waiter.

Casey decided to ignore the deeper implications of Janine’s remark. What was the point in reopening old wounds? Instead, she offered up her gold-rimmed white china cup to the handsome, dark-haired waiter, watching as the hot brown liquid cascaded artfully from the spout of the silver coffeepot. While Casey knew Janine had never quite gotten over Casey’s decision to leave the legal placement service they’d co-founded fresh out of college to start her own business in the totally unrelated field of interior design, she’d talked herself into believing that after almost a year, Janine had at least made peace with it. What complicated things was the fact that Casey’s new business had taken off running, while Janine’s had ground to a halt. And who wouldn’t resent that? “It’s amazing how everything you touch turns to gold,” Janine regularly observed, always with the dazzling smile that accompanied the vaguely unpleasant undertone in her voice, making Casey question the validity of her instincts. It’s probably just my guilty conscience, Casey thought now, not sure what she should feel guilty for.

She took a long sip of her black coffee, feeling it burn the back of her throat. She and Janine had been friends since their sophomore year at Brown. Janine had just made the switch from prelaw to honors English; Casey was double-majoring in English and psychology. Despite the obvious differences in their personalities – Casey generally the softer, more flexible of the two, Janine the more brittle and outgoing; Casey the more conciliatory, Janine the more confrontational – they’d clicked immediately. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, of one woman sensing something in the other that was lacking in herself. Casey had never tried too hard to analyze the forces that had brought them together, or why their friendship had endured a decade past graduation, despite the myriad changes those ten years had brought, changes that included the dissolution of their business partnership and Casey’s recent marriage to a man Janine described – complete with dazzling smile – as “fucking perfect, of course.” Casey chose to be grateful instead.

Just as she was grateful for her other close friend, Gail, a young woman much less complicated than either Casey or Janine in virtually every respect. Casey had known Gail since grade school, and although more than twenty years had passed, Gail was essentially the same guileless, open-faced girl she’d always been. With Gail, what you saw was what you got. And what you got was a thirty-two-year-old woman who, despite much hardship, still ended almost every sentence with a giggle, like a shy teenage girl, eager to be liked. Sometimes she even giggled in the middle of a sentence, or even while she was speaking, a habit that was as disconcerting as it was endearing. Casey considered it the auditory equivalent of a puppy offering up its stomach to be stroked.

Unlike Janine, there were no pretenses where Gail was concerned, no hidden agendas, no particularly deep thoughts. She generally waited until she knew how you felt about something before offering up an opinion of her own. Occasionally Janine grumbled about Gail’s naïveté and “unrelenting optimism,” but even she’d been forced to agree that Gail was such a pleasant person, it made you feel good just to be around her. And Casey admired the skill involved in being able to listen to both sides of an argument and make each party believe you were on her side. It was probably what made her such a good saleswoman.

“Everything okay?” Casey asked, turning her attention back to Janine and praying for a simple yes in response.

“Everything’s fine. Why?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little . . . I don’t know.”

“Of course you do. You know everything.”

“You see – that’s exactly what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean?”

“Am I missing something here?” Gail asked, large brown eyes darting nervously between the two women.

“Are you angry at me?” Casey asked Janine directly.

“Why would I be angry at you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.” Janine touched the gold locket at her throat and adjusted the collar of her crisp white Valentino blouse. Casey knew it was Valentino because she’d seen it on a recent cover of Vogue. She also knew that Janine couldn’t afford to pay almost two thousand dollars for a blouse, but then, Janine had been dressing beyond her means for as long as Casey could remember. “It’s very important to wear nice clothes,” Janine had said when Casey questioned one of her more exorbitant purchases. Followed by: “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I know the importance of dressing well.”

“Okay,” Casey said now, picking up the silver spoon next to her coffee cup and turning it over in her hand before letting it drop. “That’s good.”

“So maybe I am a little irritated,” Janine conceded with a shake of her newly geometrically cut hair. Several straight black strands caught the side of her generous mouth, and she impatiently brushed them aside. “Not at you,” she added quickly.

“What’s the problem?” Casey pressed the instant-replay button in her mind, quickly reviewing the last sixty minutes. The women had enjoyed their various salads and glasses of white wine; they’d gossiped and caught up on everything that had happened in the two weeks since their last meeting. Everything had seemed fine. Unless Janine was still obsessing about her hair. . . .

“It’s just that little twerp, Richard Mooney – you remember him?” Janine asked Casey.

“The guy we set up at Haskins, Farber?”

“The one and only. Jerk finishes in the bottom third of his graduating class,” she explained to Gail. “Has zero social skills. Can’t get a job to save his life. Nobody, but nobody wants to hire him. He comes to us. I tell Casey he’s a loser, we shouldn’t take him on, but she feels sorry for him, says we should give him a shot. Sure. Why not? She’s leaving soon anyway, as it turns out.”

“Whoa,” Casey exclaimed, raising her palms in protest.

Janine dismissed Casey’s objection with a megawatt smile and a wave of her long, French-manicured fingernails. “I’m just teasing you. Besides, we did take him on, and a few months later you were gone. Isn’t that true?”

“Well, yes, but . . .”

“So that’s all I’m saying.”

Casey was having a hard time figuring out exactly what Janine was saying. She would have made a great lawyer, Casey was thinking, wondering why they were talking about Richard Mooney at all.

“So back to Richard Mooney,” Janine said, as if Casey had voiced her confusion out loud. She returned her attention to Gail. “Sure enough, we were actually able to do something for that little twerp. Turned out one of the partners at Haskins had a soft spot for Casey. She batted her eyelashes at him a few extra times and he agreed to give Mooney a try.”

“That was hardly the reason,” Casey interjected.

“Anyway, Mooney goes to work at Haskins, lasts barely a year, then gets canned. Of course, by now, Casey’s in her new role as decorator to the stars. And who’s left to deal with the fallout?”

“What fallout?” Gail asked.

“What stars?” asked Casey.

“Well, I can’t imagine Haskins, Farber is too happy,” Janine said. “I can’t see them beating down my door in the near future, looking for a replacement. But guess who does show up at my door first thing this morning? The little twerp himself! He wants a job, says we screwed up the first time in sending him to Haskins, we should have known it would be a bad fit, and that it’s up to me to find him a more suitable position. When I suggested he go elsewhere, he got quite upset, demanded to know where the person in charge was. That person, I assume, being you.” Janine nodded toward Casey. An oblong chunk of blue-black hair fell across her left eye. “He raised quite a ruckus. I almost had to call security.”

“That’s awful,” Gail said.

“I’m so sorry,” Casey apologized. Janine was right – it had been her idea to take Richard Mooney on; she had felt sorry for him; maybe she had batted her eyelashes at Sid Haskins a few extra times. “I’m sorry,” she said again, although she knew this wasn’t the only time a lawyer they’d recommended to a particular firm hadn’t worked out. Janine herself had been responsible for at least two pairings that had proved less than ideal. It was like Internet dating: People who seemed well suited on paper often proved anything but. You could never predict chemistry. Casey understood – as did Janine – that these things happened. However, she didn’t think this was the appropriate time to point that out.

“It’s not your fault,” Janine conceded. “I don’t know why I let him get to me. I must be PMS-ing.”

“Speaking of which . . . well, no, not exactly,” Casey said, stopping to debate with herself whether or not to continue, then plunging ahead. “Warren and I have been talking about having a baby.”

“You’re kidding,” said Janine, thin lips opening, long chin dropping toward the table.

“I can’t believe you waited until the end of the meal to tell us such exciting news,” said Gail, punctuating her sentence with a laugh.

“Well, it’s just been talk up until now.”

“And now it isn’t?” Janine asked.

“I’m going to stop taking the pill at the end of the month.”

“That’s fantastic!” Gail said.

“Are you sure this is the best timing?” Janine questioned. “I mean, you haven’t been married all that long, and you’ve just started a new business.”

“The business is doing great, my marriage couldn’t be better, and as you pointed out earlier, we’re not in college anymore. I’m going to be thirty-three on my next birthday. Which should be just about when the baby would be born. If things go according to plan, that is.”

“And when haven’t they?” Janine asked with a smile.

“Good for you.” Gail reached across the table to pat the back of Casey’s hand. “I think it’s great. You’ll be a terrific mom.”

“You really think so? I didn’t have a very good example.”

“You practically raised your sister,” Gail pointed out.

“Yeah, and look how well that turned out.” Casey glanced back at the still-life painting over her shoulder and took a deep breath, as if trying to inhale the scent of the blush-pink peonies.

“How is Drew anyway?” Janine asked, although the tone of her voice indicated she already knew the answer.

“Haven’t heard from her in weeks. She doesn’t phone, doesn’t return my messages.”

“Typical.”

“She’ll call,” Gail said. This time no soft giggle accompanied her words.

Janine signaled the waiter for the bill by wiggling her fingers in the air, as if she was already signing the check. “Sure you want to give up that perfect body?” she asked Casey as the young man brought the bill to the table. “It’ll never be the same, you know.”

“That’s all right. It’s . . .”

“. . . time to move on?” Janine quipped.

“Your boobs will get bigger,” Gail said.

“That’ll be nice,” Casey said as Janine divided the amount.

“Fifty-five apiece, including tip,” Janine announced after several seconds. “Why don’t you give me the money and I’ll put it on my credit card to speed things up?”

Casey knew Janine’s request had nothing to do with saving time and everything to do with writing off today’s lunch as a business expense. “So, what are you up to this weekend?” she asked, handing Janine the appropriate amount of cash.

“I have a date with that banker I went out with last week.” Janine’s blue eyes were already growing opaque with boredom.

“That’s nice,” Gail said. “Isn’t it?”

“Not really. But he has tickets for Jersey Boys, and you know how hard it is to get tickets, so how could I refuse?”

“Oh, you’ll love it,” Casey said. “It’s fabulous. I saw the original on Broadway a few years ago.”

“Of course you did.” Janine smiled as she pushed herself off her chair and to her feet. “And this week you’ll be with your fabulous husband, making fabulous babies together. I’m sorry,” she said in the same breath. “I’m being a real bitch. For sure I’m PMS-ing.”

“Where are you off to now?” Gail asked Casey as they retrieved their coats from the maître d’.

“Think I’ll just stick around here. I was debating going for a run, but I don’t think I have enough time before my next appointment.” Casey checked her watch. It was a gold Cartier, a gift from her husband on their second anniversary last month.

“Save your energy for tonight,” Janine advised now, leaning forward to kiss Casey on the cheek. “Come on, Gail, I’ll give you a ride back to work.”

Casey watched her two friends walk down South Street arm in arm, thinking them an interesting study in contrasts: Janine tall and contained, Gail shorter and spilling out in all directions at once; Janine an expensive glass of champagne, Gail a mug of draft beer.

Which made her – what? Casey wondered. Maybe she should try a more current hairstyle. Although when had long blond hair ever really gone out of fashion? And it suited the soft oval of her face, her fair complexion and delicate features. “Don’t even try to tell me you weren’t prom queen,” Janine had said shortly after they met, and Casey had laughed and kept silent. What could she say, after all? She had been prom queen. She’d also been captain of the debating and swim teams, and scored near perfect on her SATs, but people were always less interested in that than in how she looked and how much she was worth. “Someone just told me your old man is worth gazillions,” Janine had remarked on another occasion. Again Casey had remained silent. Yes, it was true her family was almost obscenely wealthy. It was also true that her father had been a notorious ladies’ man, her mother a self-absorbed alcoholic, and her younger sister a drug-fueled party girl on her way to becoming a total screwup. Four years after Casey graduated college, her parents were killed when their private jet crashed into Chesapeake Bay during inclement weather, officially making her sister a total screwup.

It was these thoughts that were absorbing Casey’s attention as she walked along South Street, Philadelphia’s answer to Greenwich Village, with its collection of pungent smells, seedy tattoo parlors, funky leather shops, and avant-garde galleries. Truly a world unto itself, she was thinking as she crossed into South Philly and headed toward the large indoor parking garage on Washington Avenue. That was the problem with having lunch in this area – it was almost impossible to find a place to park, and once you got away from South Street, the dividing line between Center City and South Philadelphia, you were pretty much in Rocky territory.

Casey entered the parking garage and took the elevator up to the fifth floor, retrieving her car keys from her oversize black leather bag as she walked toward her white Lexus sports car at the far end of the platform. She heard the gunning of an engine in the distance and looked over her shoulder, but she saw nothing. Aside from the rows of multicolored automobiles, the place was deserted.

She didn’t hear the car until it was almost on top of her. She was approaching her Lexus, right arm extended, thumb on the button of the remote to unlock the driver’s door, when a silver-colored SUV came careening around the corner toward her. She didn’t have time to register the driver’s face, to ascertain whether a man or woman was behind the wheel. She had no time to get out of the way. One minute she was walking toward her car, the next she was being propelled through the air, her arms and legs shooting into four different directions at once. Seconds later, she came crashing down, a limp repository of broken bones, her head slamming against the hard pavement.

Shortly after that, the SUV disappeared into the streets of South Philadelphia, and Casey Marshall slipped into oblivion.

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