From Issue 21.1
The morning he was scheduled to appear in bankruptcy court, Frank O’Neil ate three eggs for breakfast, read the Times and Globe, drank two cups of coffee, helped his wife Alicia with a crossword clue (eight letters, a Spanish queen, ending in ‘A’: Isabella), excused himself to the small pantry off the kitchen, opened the liquor cabinets, lined the bottles (12) on the counter, and poured them, one after the other—English gin, Finnish vodka, rums from Puerto Rico and Trinidad, Cointreau, wines for cooking, a good bottle of port and a bad one, absurdly flavored liqueurs they had received as Christmas gifts and unwrapped before they could pass them along, and a bottle of thirty-year-old Scotch he had meant to drink the day he retired—down the drain of the pantry sink.
“What are you doing?” his wife called from the kitchen.
He watched the scotch go, its color the richness of old wood. Thirty years old! He returned to the sunlit kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishrag.
“I’m liquefying my assets.”
Her grey eyes rose from the folded newspaper. “The word is liquidate.”
“See?” he joked. “I didn’t even know that.”
His debts were towering, obscene. They had taken years to accumulate. There had been a few bad investments—a pharmaceutical company suddenly mired in lawsuits, a real estate deal gone sour over zoning variances, an early frost in South America that had caked an entire crop of coffee beans in killing ice—sharp turns of fortune that could not be predicted. Mostly he owed the Internal Revenue Service: he had gone into business for himself, consulting, and each year failed to put enough money aside. The fact of it was, he had tired of the struggle, the negative numbers that made no sense to him, and had simply stopped trying. They had been obliterated, gradually, and then suddenly.
They dressed together in the bedroom, as if for the funeral of a distant relation, someone whom they had liked but not known well, someone who had treated their children kindly. They talked about what would happen to them.
“The house?” Alicia said, as if hope remained that it could be saved. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, fitting pantyhose over her feet. Frank, fussing with this tie, watched her in the mirror. He had actually considered not wearing a tie at all.
“Gone,” he said. They had been through this all before. “I don’t see any way around that.”
“Frank, I think I’m going to cry again.” She put her head in her hands and appeared to concentrate on a spot on the floor just beyond her feet. In the mirror, she looked suddenly older—her hair greyer, her hands dried and thin—a woman reduced to tears by the problem of putting on nylons. Then the moment passed, she looked up, and gave him a wan, nostalgic smile. “There now. I’m better.”
Their children, far away, knew nothing. Dane, the youngest, was a lawyer for the Marine Corps in 29 Palms, California; Louise, recently moved to Charlottesville, was married to a psychiatrist. Boone taught at a small college in upstate New York, three miles from the Canadian border. He and his wife, Janice had just had a second child, a girl.
She lay face up on the bed and struggled into her hose. “I just want to get this over with,” she said.
* * *
After the hearing, they ate lunch at a small place near the water, a restaurant renowned for the rudeness of its waiters. The room was below street-level and shaped like a crypt; the meticulous waiter, whose age was impossible to guess, swept the tablecloth between courses with a small whisk broom. Despite vows not to drown their troubles, they each drank one martini; Alicia had the special, something with eggs on it, Frank, a creature of habit, had scrod. None of it, he noted, tasted any different than before. The food was excellent, the martini like the air on the coldest day. What had he expected? The bankruptcy judge had worn a tee-shirt under his robe; while Frank rattled off his assets and debts, the judge looked at his watch and adjusted a picture on his desk three times. He had expected the world to be turned on its ear, as if seen through the eyes of a soldier returning home from war. They threw caution to the wind and split a bottle of wine for dessert.
“How will we live?” Alicia swirled the last of the wine in the bottom of her glass. Her cheeks were flushed; she seemed a little drunk. She gazed warmly into her glass. “This is yummy.”
“A lot differently, I’m afraid. They have a list of things you can keep. Not much.”
“The funny thing is, I don’t even mind. The mortgages, the loans. It’s like we never really owned anything. Isn’t that strange.”
He eyed the bill from behind his glasses. Though the waiter’s handwriting was scrawled like an old man’s, the numbers were clear enough; the tab for lunch came to eighty-three dollars and an odd number of cents.
“Plenty strange. I’m not sure I have enough cash. And we can’t put this on the card.”
“The cards…” she sighed, slumping back in her chair, thinking about the lost cards. The court appointed trustee had cut them in half with scissors and dropped the pieces in a manilla folder. But her voice when she spoke was ironic. “That’s a new development.”
“I’ll say.” He caught the waiter’s eye over by the service bar and beckoned him over.
“What is your name?”
The waiter smiled, as if he’d been waiting to be asked. “Jerome.”
“We’d each like a brandy please, Jerome.”
“But nothing ordinary.” He reached across the table and took his wife’s hand in his, tenderly locking fingers. He winked at her so the waiter could see. “We’re celebrating, you understand.”
“Yes, indeed I do.”
“Do you have something special somewhere, Jerome?”
“I believe I can oblige you,” Jerome said, and off he sauntered into the kitchen.
When Jerome was gone, Alicia pulled her fingers for Frank’s. “What in the hell are you doing, Frank? We can’t even pay for what we had.”
He put a finger over his lips. “I’m sending Jerome to the basement.”
“This is the basement.”
“Still. You don’t think they keep the good stuff where the help can snitch it?”
“Well,” Alicia said, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Listen.” Frank hunkered down over the table. “He’ll have to go to the chef, who will go to the manager, who will let him into his office, or a locked cabinet in the wine cellar. Assuming there’s some confusion about the key, altogether it should take about three minutes.”
His wife frowned. “You sound like you’ve done this before.”
“Never. Now, I want you to go to the ladies’ room, it’s just to the left of the door. In there, I want you to count to a hundred, and then walk straight from the ladies room and out the front door. Then when he brings the bottle to show me, I’ll tell him it’s wrong, ask for something else, and I’ll meet you outside.” He silently clapped his palms together. “Simple.”
“Why don’t you just come with me now?”
He shook his head, keeping an eye peeled for Jerome. “That would arouse suspicion. We wouldn’t get halfway down the block. I don’t think.”
“Yes, they’d probably send the restaurant police after us. Make us eat those little…” She made a tiny gesture with her fingers, as if she were holding something about an inch long. It was her favorite food joke. “They have hot dogs in them.”
“Pigs in a blanket.”
“Horrors,” she laughed. “Actually, I sort of like hot dogs.”
“I’m glad, because your future is full of them.” Frank smiled and tapped his watch crystal. “Two minutes.”
“This is what it has come to.” Alicia shook her head. “Sneaking out of restaurants.”
“Aren’t you having fun?”
“Lots,” she said, rolling her eyes; then, in a voice loud enough so others would hear (she acted for a time in college, Frank remembered, some play about a crazy aunt, he had sat in the audience with a grey fedora on his lap), “Darling, is my nose shining?”
Leaning across the table, he peered thoughtfully at her nose, and touched the bridge of his own. “Perhaps a little. Right about here, there’s something going on with the light.”
“Well, I think I must go powder my nose.” She rose, laid her napkin on the white linen tablecloth, smoothed the pleats of her skirt with her palms and as she passed him she whispered, “See you outside, Clyde,” from the corner of her mouth.
When he heard the door to the ladies room open, Frank started to count. There was no sign of Jerome. He reached a hundred, and then he heard the sound of traffic wash briefly through the restaurant’s open front door: the honk of a horn, the rush of tires on cement, the mournful barking of a city dog. Another minute passed, during which time three parties arrived for lunch and were seated near Frank’s table: two men in suits who sat without speaking, a mother and her daughter (A college student, Frank imagined. Her mother visiting her from New York? Philadelphia? From a big white house overlooking a sweeping lawn? The green woods beyond? There was trouble with a certain boy.), two elderly women in hats, their lips absurdly painted, their husbands long dead; they were people with money, in disgrace, people who could pay their bills, sin privately, discharge their obligation without thinking. Then Jerome appeared by the kitchen door, carrying in the crook of his elbow a green bottle with a cork in it. In fact, Frank didn’t like brandy at all; it gave him a headache.
“Here we are,” Jerome said, displaying the bottle. The glass was caked with an inviting layer of dust. For an instant, Frank experienced a powerful urge to write his name in it, as he had done as a child on steamed windows; as his own children had done to his car, when he went too long without getting it washed. WASH ME, they wrote on the fenders; he could tell which child had done it by the thickness of the letters.
“I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a disadvantage,” Frank said.
Frank unclasped his watch. His children had given it to him on his fortieth birthday, and a dark flood of regret washed over him as he held it in his hand; the cool steel, the intricate links of the band that flowed together like water, the precise action of the second hand ticking off the time he had left with it. For a moment, he entertained the queer thought that perhaps Jerome would accept his shoes instead. But what did a watch cost? What, for that matter, did anything cost? The hypnosis of money, that useless abstraction, had invaded his life and shouldered out this simple truth: things are what they are. He squeezed the watch once, as if to say goodbye, and placed it on the table, sliding it half way under the bill.
“This is all I have, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t understand.” Jerome looked at the watch, and then at the bottle in his hand. His eyes seemed to float, like the eyes of an uncomprehending student caught daydreaming. Frank figured that Jerome was much younger than he’d supposed. “This isn’t what you wanted?”
“We don’t want the brandy. We can’t afford the brandy. I’m trying to tell you I don’t have enough money for the check. I don’t have any money at all, as a matter of fact. We just came from bankruptcy court.”
Jerome noticed the vacant chair. “Your wife?” His voice was insinuating.
“In the ladies’. The watch is worth at least a couple of hundred dollars.”
Jerome eyed the watch. “I see.”
“You may count it as a security deposit if you like, until I can return with some cash. Or, you may consider it as my gift to you.”
The moment that followed was the longest of Frank’s life, for he realized he didn’t have the slightest goddamned idea of what would happen if Jerome didn’t take the watch. Then Jerome lifted the bill off the table (such beautiful nails! Frank thought), and as he inserted it into his belt, Frank’s watch was poured —vanished—into the deep pocket of the waiter’s apron.
“I’m sorry the brandy isn’t to your liking,” Jerome said, looking around. “I will see about a different bottle.”
* * *
His wife was waiting for him at a newsstand across the street, one block up from the restaurant, pretending to read a magazine. When he touched her elbow, she jumped. “Oh,” she cried, spinning.
“Clean getaway,” he said.
“I can’t believe I did that, we did that.”
“I’m a little stunned myself,” Frank said. He tugged the sleeve of his jacket down over his wrist.
“You,” his wife said, “were fantastic. A born criminal.”
“I was, wasn’t I?”
“Yes.” She kissed his cheek. “You were. I believe I’m not going to hate all of this so much anymore.”
They walked up Franklin Street, through the echoing acoustics of the financial district, its towers of glass, the tabernacles of wealth. Gulls spun in the finicky air; in the alleyways, smelling of garbage, pigeons cooed, a sound like a nursery. Goodbye to all of you, Frank thought, I won’t miss you a bit, what are you to me? They had been married in a church ten blocks away, one ancient June day. The heat was searing, all the women waved themselves with fans, his brother was so drunk he thought he’d left the ring in the car. What of that? They had reared children here, voted here, sat on juries, eaten in the restaurants, made love in the hotels, buried their parents. India to Franklin, Franklin to Federal, the spring sun fell over them as they turned the corner onto Washington, where good Boston ended and bad Boston began. Two blocks away he’d jumped a light and smashed his car, how long ago? He hadn’t had a drop to drink, it was just the ice—that woman had believed him, that loony woman in fur—how long? College, 1953, Eisenhower all over the papers; an eternity, the distance traveled by the light of the remotest stars. The universe, he had read somewhere, was in a state of repulsion, everything streaming away: all true. His wife’s arm wrapped his waist; his wrist, watch-less, seemed light as a paintbrush, a conductor’s baton, his sense felt as acute as an astronaut’s.
Farewell, Boston, he thought. I tried my best. I guess I was not suited. It always just ran through my fingers: farewell.
“Look.” A sudden excitement coursed through his wife, registering in the feel of her hand on his back. By the Common’s broad expanse of green, five teenagers in sweatsuits were spinning on their backs on opened cardboard packing crates. Their movements were synchronized—they reminded Frank of certain Swiss clocks—and one smaller boy, no more than seven or eight years old, was being tossed back and forth on the sneakered feet of the others.
“They’re marvelous,” his wife said. Then, not seriously, “Why didn’t our children ever learn to do that?”
“I thought Dane might.”
A crowd had formed to watch. The cap the boys had placed on the ground in front of them (strategically positioned—one couldn’t enter the subway from that side without stepping over it) filled up with coins, winking in the sunlight. When the youngest boy had been passed among the others twice all around, he dismounted and, in time to the music that boomed from an oversized tape-player, did a thing that made him look like he was walking forward, all the time going back. His body seemed to have no joints at all. It was very confusing to look at.
“How does he do that?” Frank said. He had already decided they would not take the subway; they would not go home, because it was no longer theirs. Where would they sleep? It didn’t matter. They had not exhausted the compassion of their friends.
“I don’t want to go home,” his wife announced suddenly, when the boys were taking their bows.
Frank put his arm around her and steered her toward the park. “Then we won’t,” he said. “We’ll stay somewhere else for a time.”
“Of course, we will have to go back eventually.”
“I don’t want them to get everything. There are things there I want to keep.” With her free hand, she pointed at invisible possessions: furniture, jewelry, appliances, clothes. “I want to say: this stays, this goes.”
They walked through the heart of the Common, erupting with life on a spring afternoon. Men swallowed swords, tossed flaming batons through the air at one another, even the drunks were alert and sitting up. Frank and Alicia found themselves at a small playground where, years before, they had taken their children after days at the science museum; Boone chafing in his grey suit with the short pants, his knees white as cream, Louise in her blue overcoat that made her look like a bell. It was a memory from a time before Dane had been born.
“I haven’t,” his wife declared, “been on a swing in years.”
“That’s not surprising. How old are you?”
“I pushed my children for hours, but no one ever pushed me.”
“What you’re saying is, you’d like me to push you now.”
She laughed and pulled him over to the swings. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” she said, kicking off her shoes. “Or the wine is saying that. Whatever.”
So he pushed her, receiving her weight, filling the curve of her back with his palms and launching her until the chains bowed. “Higher,” she cried.
“You can’t go higher,” he said. “Any higher and you’ll come back around the other side.”
At apogee, she pointed her toes; her white skirt billowed like a sail. She was laughing, “Higher, higher.”
Finally, she ceased pumping. He caught the chains and brought her to a halt. “You go,” she said, breathless.
“Oh, come on.”
“I’ll push you,” she said. She took him by the elbow and guided him into the flexible plastic seat. It was designed for someone a fraction of his size. As he sank, the chains pinched his waist. The swing set seemed to sag.
“My hero,” she sighed.
“Be careful,” he said over his shoulder. “Don’t let my weight surprise you.”
“What am I?” she said, pulling the chains back. “Never mind.”
The ease of it all took him by storm. She released the chains and off he sailed and as he did his feet shot out without instruction and pulled him further up. There was no struggle, only the pendular shifting of weight, the buoyant sensation of flight, his wife’s hands catching his shoulder on the back swing. Higher and higher he ascended, his eyes clamped shut, the frame of the swing shuddering when the chains caught, his senses directed to the moment when her hands would touch him again. A universe of matter may stream away, but we say to ourselves: we were here. He felt at last as if they had done everything together. Farewell Boston, he thought, wishing the end could be like this.
Justin Cronin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Passage Trilogy, the inspiration for a FOX TV series. Justin Cronin is also the author of Mary and O’Neil (which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize), and The Summer Guest. Other honors for his writing include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Whiting Writer’s Award. A Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Rice University, he divides his time between Houston, Texas, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Roger Camp, “Gals, Paris” Phoebe Issue 49.1