Sam and Kat, Kat and Sam, as unassuming as their three-letter names but, to their minds, violent with potential. In the spring of 1998, they met in St. Louis, when they both had to board a bigger bus. Two kids in zipped pullovers smoking and picking at their fingers as they watched the driver fling their bags into the belly of the coach as if they weren’t their only belongings in the world. Sam stretched his legs across two seats; when Kat came down the aisle, he dropped his feet and said, “Been saving a seat.” Both were eastbound, heading away from somewhere they didn’t talk about. Tulsa and Topeka—what was there to say? They weren’t New York City. As the now dank and belchy bus crawled out of the Lincoln Tunnel and wound the ramp into Port Authority, after twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes of ragged conversation, Kat finally got up the nerve to say, “You know, I’m a good kid from a bad home. I’ve got no place to crash.” Sam handed her his last piece of gum and said, “Me neither.” He cocked his head at a sign that read, “To all points,” with an arrow pointing up. “Welcome to Xanadu,” he said.
Both had a few years of college and a little cash in their bags. They knew no one (no friends, no relatives, no couches to surf ), but they found a hostel in Hell’s Kitchen, then a place in Bed-Stuy, where—despite two broken windows and a split lip for Sam the first week—they’d somehow stuck it out for three years. They soon discovered other people, but theirs was first love, and Kat had always been told, “Dance with the guy who brought you.”
She could scrub up and immediately found work waitressing at a hip hotel where her tattoos were appreciated. The city would always have room for another pretty face. She was most at home singing bar karaoke with her friends. Sam never went with her; he knew old songs were dangerous, yanking heartstrings that no longer served any purpose. For as long as he could remember, he had been moody, reserved, but deep down he just wanted things solved, boxed in, put away, dealt with—he had little patience for problems or issues that lingered.
At first Kat’s outbursts startled him, like sudden summer lightning. Things would be fine, and then one day she’d be beating his chest: “You can’t stay out all night without calling!” She would twist her head back at an impossible angle, as if she meant to break it. “Three years—what are we doing?” Sam’s heart would race, and he’d glance around the kitchen like he’d been caught by a pop quiz. His only thought would be to get her to stop crying. He’d say, “We’re happy, baby. You and me. That’s all we need.” One night she grew quiet and said, “I feel like an empty trashcan,” and he’d tried to gather her in his arms, but she slipped away. “You’re broken,” she said through the closed bedroom door. “You were born a gene short, and that makes your heart two fucking degrees colder than most.” Outside the kitchen window, something small and airy threw its body against the glass.
Still, he carefully cataloged the little barbs that pricked him from waking until night, the missed trains, jammed umbrellas, and hidden potholes in the street, the minor setbacks that gathered like nettles to give his unhappiness weight. He read voraciously and complained about everything. Did she know Helen Keller wore brilliant blue prosthetic eyes after becoming a celebrity—actually had her true ones plucked out, because one was disfigured? Or had Kat seen the recent report on the Gowanus Canal, which now contained trace amounts of gonorrhea? He knew his fits were stupid and small, but still it bothered him that Kat left dishes in the sink and lost change in the bed. He was constantly surprised by how she could wound him in places he thought were shut off, inaccessible to the public, like those graffiti tags deep in the subway tunnels that always brought him up short—what ghosts left them?
In a bit of dumb luck, Sam had found the perfect job their first month in town. He’d gone down to the vintage clothing store that stuck out on their block like a fruit stand on Mars with the idea he might be able to get a few bucks for his grandfather’s old buckle. The guy behind the counter had raised one pierced brow and said, “Hot dog—cowboy chic!” before paying him eighty dollars. That was Duke, and he became their first friend. Duke had a boyfriend named Mehdi whom Sam came to like, though Duke was constantly annoyed that Mehdi wouldn’t sleep over more often, and—when he did—Duke said he behaved like a tourist whose luggage had gone missing, borrowing Duke’s toothbrush and oversized shirts as if to prove he was game and didn’t sweat the small stuff.
Duke lived in a studio off McCarren Park that his father had bought him after he graduated from NYU, one of those hastily converted warehouses filling up with slumming trustafarians like him. Duke chose to open his store in Bed-Stuy because he thought Williamsburg soon would be on the way out. Still, he had connections he could call on when he wanted, like the friend who headed the “Young Lions,” the junior philanthropic group that supported the public library. They were, he told Sam, “just a bunch of obnoxious twenty-something socialite dick-farts-in-training,” for whom the library threw elaborate costume balls (Hemingway’s Cuba! Dante’s Disco Inferno!), letting them fool around drunkenly behind the stacks in the hopes of one day getting big money. This friend—whom Sam thankfully never met—landed him the job at Telref.
The phone rang, and Sam picked it up. A voice said, “Memorandum, May Day 2001: for nearly seven months, I have been the victim of covert surveillance.”
Sam said, “That’s not a question,” and hung up.
From the next desk, Martin, a large gray-haired man, said, “Another nut job?”
“That’s all I get,” said Sam. “These days, my line’s nothing but a shit storm of crazy.”
Martin gave him a funny look. He said, “Hey, doc, it’s Friday. You coming to happy hour? Been a while since we’ve seen your face.” Martin was a West African immigrant who had moved to Manhattan and gotten a library science degree before spending two decades working his way up to become head of Telref. He had memorized most of Paradise Lost and skated in the roller dance party that roved through Central Park on the weekends. Wandering the Mall one Saturday, Sam had spotted Martin in a spandex singlet grooving in ecstatic slow motion with a glass of water perched on his head. Sam didn’t say hi.
Across the room, a girl lowered her phone and covered the receiver. “Hey, guys—what’s the rat population in Manhattan?”
Martin and Sam answered in unison: “A shitload.”
The girl said into the phone, “A shitload. No, ma’am, that’s not a technical term. It’s an estimate. What I’m telling you is that no one really knows.”
Sam hated that question, one he got all the time. Vermin were political—like crime or bed bugs—and reports tended to ebb and flow with election cycles. Megan would learn that. She was new to Telref, having recently moved from Boston, that city with training wheels, where she’d left behind a longtime boyfriend she said used to make hateful offhand comments and then leave her to stew. She was still getting over the guy. Later that year, she would wake up one night and drive to Boston—and him—leaving Sam and Martin to joke about “disaster sex,” “catastrophe couples,” and “apocalyptic bootie calls.” Still, she never came back.
Megan hung up the phone. “Thanks, boys,” she said and blew them an air kiss. That morning, like most mornings, Megan had asked Sam, “Honey, do you need to talk?” Meanwhile Martin had taken one look and said, “Get off the cross, doc. We need the wood.” Martin was a true believer.
At first they had teased Megan, the newcomer, telling her they had in their possession a secret set of encyclopedias compiled long ago just for them, an alternate history of the world that the upstairs librarians knew nothing about. She would have to prove herself worthy to see it. Sam had read Borges. Of course. He worked in a library; they all had read Borges. Megan caught on when she realized all Sam and Martin did away from their desks was play honeymoon bridge or flick around tiny paper footballs.
The Telephone Reference Service was established by the New York Public Library in 1968, back when a dedicated call center seemed cutting edge and most of the inquiries came from secretaries trying to sound out a word their boss had used in dictation. Through the years, the number remained the last-ditch resource for fact-checkers, journalists, recluses, writers, perverts, and lunatics, their own personal oracle available five days a week, nine hours a day, just dial ASKNYPL. Lately, of course, the department had been shrinking; you no longer had to be a trained librarian, just a warm body with time on your hands and modest powers of research. The real librarians looked down on them as glorified receptionists. Still, even with the Internet, Sam fielded about a hundred calls a day. Most were lame: Who killed Kennedy? Where is Jimmy Hoffa? What’s my wife’s birthday? And so there had to be rules: no medical advice, crossword clues, interpretation of dreams, or helping with homework. Recently, management had instituted a “no philosophical speculation” rule, but that one was largely ignored. His first day, Sam had heard Martin laugh and say, “God’s grace? Sure it exists. It’s what allows me to handle people like you.”
Sitting in their cramped office off the main floor, the operators had five minutes to dedicate to each question, which was meant to rein in the researchers more than the callers. Sam would have been happy to lose an afternoon tracking down a rare Bolivian mushroom, or the number of manholes in Cleveland, or where Lady Di had bought her bras. The callers wanted answers, pure and simple; Sam’s job was to cut through the dross. If he couldn’t settle the request, he had to pass on the name of someone who could. Five minutes and on to the next. Question, answer, question, answer—the hours passed quickly.
Every morning Sam walked up Fifth Avenue to mount the sweeping steps of the main branch, flanked by the twin marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, which he first recognized from Ghostbusters. He worked in a mausoleum, the collected bones of Astor, of Lenox, of Carnegie. It fit his sense of living late in his time in a city where everything eventually was plowed under to make room for everything else. In a degenerate culture, nothing could be done to fuck things up further. They were all pretty much off the hook.
Still, Sam appreciated, even felt somewhat entitled to, the library’s grandeur: the illuminated ceiling in the gilded reading room (fifty-two feet up and the size of a football field—a question they got all the time), the burnished pneumatic tubes swishing call slips through the eight floors of dark, dusty stacks stretching below Bryant Park, and the men’s room urinals so grand—massive marble blocks big as beds—that it was like pissing on a Cadillac.
And—against all odds—he truly loved his job. At the end of the day, he would bring facts to Kat like a rat collecting shiny spoons for the nest. Did she know that—in proportion to its body—the hummingbird had the largest brain in the animal kingdom? That the city’s power lines could circle the globe four times? She would shoot back ones he thought she made up: “Or that fifty-seven percent of men change their sheets before the first date?”
Their weekends were quiet and lazy—they found thrills on the cheap—but after reading an article on human photosynthesis, Kat began insisting they leave the apartment more often. She cited stale air, poor vitamin D, and a case of the “winter blues.” And so it was on a first Saturday in June that Sam found himself at the counter of a neighborhood diner. The place was packed. They squeezed into their seats and ordered the breakfast special. They sat in silence until the food came. Sam closed his eyes and kneaded his temples; his head was splitting. Then he looked up. “You loved him,” he hissed out of the blue. It was a longstanding game: whispering lines from old film noirs just loud enough for other patrons to hear.
“No, I hated him,” Kat said. The words sent a crackling of urgency across plastic plates of cold eggs.
“You loved him, you hated him—and now we’re stuck good.” Sam took a sip of coffee. “What’s done is done, baby, and it’s got to be straight down the line.”
“You don’t trust me?” Kat waved the waiter away.
Sam buttered his last triangle of toast. “You’ve never had your face on straight— not one day in your life.”
Kat put down her fork. “You’re one to talk, mister. You waltzed home pretty late last night.”
Sam looked up. She was off script. He said, “What’s it to you?”
“I’ll kill her,” Kat said. “Clean and simple—a morgue job. If they even find the body.”
“Don’t talk crazy,” he said and reached for the check.
“I love you, too, dummy. We’re on this trolley together, remember. Next stop: the grave.”
Sam plunked down a tip, and they made a wordless exit.
When they first moved into their building, the downstairs door was broken, but the inner one seemed like it would hold firm for a while. There was a rumor that two winters ago some junkie had OD’d in the vestibule. Sam and Kat weren’t sure what to believe, though it was clear that someone was peeing in the recycling. Up four flights of chipped tile steps that sloped dangerously down—“drunk-proof stairs,” they called them—was a brown door with a shattered peephole that led to their tiny apartment, with its noisy radiator they had no control over and a bathroom so narrow they had to brush their teeth standing in the tub. Upstairs, a fearless six-four giant—who surprisingly worked underground as a sandhog— bent the floor nightly as he carried his dishes from his TV tray to the sink. They didn’t have a TV, but on summer weekends they listened to the boy across the alley announce pro-wrestling matches in his room. Down the block was a playground with a few old pieces of equipment with a vague nautical theme and a faded mural dedicating the park “to fish and children and all things that need water.”
They knew the city broke people like them every day. Almost immediately Sam had his Discman jacked, and one evening, while closing up the shop, Duke was attacked by kids he had watched only years before swing on the playground, kids who called him a faggot while beating him with a board with nails driven through it. They didn’t even bother to rob him. When Sam came by the hospital a few days later, the bruises ran thick and ropey beneath Duke’s skin, making his face look like a watermelon. The neighborhood was appalled, the kids went to juvie, and Duke started walking the long way to work.
The first fall they arrived, they told and retold the story of the young cousin of Kat’s coworker, Maureen, until it finally came back to them slightly disfigured but essentially still true months later at a bar. The girl, whose name they never remembered, was new in town and nervous to be making her first trip alone on the subway. But job interviews were hard to come by, and Maureen told her not to be silly—nothing ever happened at rush hour. And so the girl printed her resume, put on brave lipstick and heels, and boarded the train into Manhattan. All was fine until the doors opened on her stop, and she found the platform blocked by a bum’s upended bare ass, which was gloriously growing an enormous shit tail. The next day the girl went back to wherever she came from.
Another weekend and Sam and Kat were sitting in a bar that had archery. The room was below street level and black with smoke; the booths smelled sweet, either from whiskey or piss. Sam and Kat’s conversation was punctuated by the rhythmic thwack of arrows burrowing into something.
“A little dark for target practice,” Kat said. “How can you hit what you can’t see?”
Sam said, “It’s the other way around—what you hit is what you get.”
Kat put down her drink. “I’m nervous to get up and go to the bathroom. I can see the headline: ‘Talented, Unwed Girl Taken Out in the Crossfire.’ ”
Sam laughed. “Oldest story there is.”
Kat said, “You know I won’t always be sitting here.”
Sam said, “I know—you’re going to the bathroom.” He turned to the door. A low, ugly man walked in carrying a crossbow. Sam said, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Kat said, “You just don’t get it, do you? I’m not asking for much, just a little encouragement. It’s like I’m the first woman to land on the moon—only to find a sign saying, ‘Go back where you came from.’ ”
Sam transferred at Jay Street from the A train to the F. He was late to work, but by now the others were used to covering for him. Last week, Martin had looked up and said, “Love is like a shark. It must move forward or it dies.”
Sam asked, “West Africa?”
“No. Woody Allen.”
This morning, Sam had forgotten his book, so he stared at the MTA signs with their black-and-white typeface. (Helvetica, he thought, formerly Standard Medium—same as on the space shuttle.) The train’s AC wasn’t working; sweat ran down his neck. Next to him sat a wan couple whose kids were climbing over the seats and pressing their tongues to the glass. Unprovoked, one of them let out a bloodcurdling scream. The passengers jumped in unison; Sam smiled, lest anyone think he was judging.
Two pixieish girls got on at York.
“Oh my God, Suzy! What’s new?”
“Well, I’m engaged.”
“You’re shitting me! That was quick. Gimme the story!”
“He’s a young thirty-eight and runs a hedge fund in Connecticut. On our first date he took me to Bouley. I drank so much I ended up puking. He must have liked that because he called the next day.”
“Yeah. We’re getting married at the Botanical Garden in August.”
At West Fourth, the car filled with more commuters and transfers. Sam gave up his seat to a woman who was either pregnant or fat. A man got on wearing a string of keys around his neck and a bright button on his jacket that read, “Happy Anniversary! Thirteen Years of Attitude Adjustment.” The man didn’t move to the middle but stood blocking the door. At the last minute, a woman jumped on and gave him a pretty good bump. They got into it. Thirteen years down the drain.
The conductor opened his cabin door to see what was up, but before he could read the situation, the train came screeching to a halt. Anyone not holding onto a pole ended up in someone’s lap. The air smelled like metallic brake dust. A voice erupted from the squawk box, “Twelve nine! Twelve nine!” and the conductor, a pale, rangy guy with a slight lisp, said, “Aww, fuck-fuck-shit.”
Sam asked, “What’s going on?”
The conductor said, “Twelve nine. Body under train.”
The pixies gasped. Mr. Attitude Adjustment looked confused, as if he’d been upstaged.
“A jumper,” the conductor said. “Folks, we won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
A man in a tan suit said to no one, “I’ve lived in this city forty-one years and of all the goddamn days.”
The conductor wiped his nose on his sleeve and said, “I see this four to five times a week. You just don’t hear about it because we got a PR department. Don’t want to give people ideas. Jumping’s messy—but efficient.”
Ten minutes later, the passengers filed through the front car, which was halfway into the station. People on the platform were quietly retelling what happened, either to each other or to the cops and paramedics standing idly by. Flashlights crisscrossed beneath the wheels of the train. Sam heard a little girl say, “She flung out her arms like she was doing jumping jacks.”
“Explain it to me again,” Kat said. It was past noon, and they were still goofing around in bed.
He looked at her and the lock of dark hair that fell over her face. He had always loved her brown eyes. He said, “There are facts, and then there are facts, and then there are FACTS.”
“Like what?” She brushed her hair back.
“Okay. First level: unimportant facts. You might say ‘trivia.’ ”
Kat said, “Oh, I would never.”
Sam smiled. “Well, they’re lightweights. Cool, but so what? So butterflies can see yellow, red, and green; so the ballpoint pen first sold for $12 in 1945; so cows can go up stairs but not down; so the most popular name for a boat is Obsession; so you can’t kill a mouse in Cleveland without a hunting license; so the first toilet shown on TV appeared in Leave It to Beaver.”
Kat said, “Got it, got it. Continue, professor.”
Sam said, “Second level. A little weightier. The stuff of science teachers, lifeguards, and all solid citizens. Might even save your life one day. When taken intravenously, nutmeg is a poison. To kill germs, you should wash your hands as long as it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ You can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey. The termites of the world outweigh humans ten to one.”
Kat said, “Hmm, most useful. Termites of the world, unite!” She made a halfhearted poke at his crotch. “Beware the uprising!”
Sam stifled a laugh. “Third level. Those that might create what they call a sense of moral obligation. In other words, the ones that go bump in the night. The exact names and numbers of the dead. The location of sailors lost at sea. The percentage of children killed by indifference or foul play in any given year. The knowledge that parents don’t treasure their children in equal measure, and that even when true, ‘I love you’ is rarely enough.”
Kat groaned. “Oh, brother. That last one came from a commercial.”
Sam shook his head. “Billboard. In SoHo.”
Kat propped herself up on an elbow. “What I want to know is if you laid all those facts end to end, would they be enough to reach all the way from me to you?”
In the summer, Kat caught the eye of some big shot at the bar, and he offered her a job at Windows on the World. It wasn’t like that, she told Sam. More money. Better hours. Breakfast and lunch service with a chance at dinner if everything worked out. “Come on, baby,” she said. “I’m headed right to the top!”
On a clear day she could make more than in a month at her old gig. When she first saw the view, she thought she could trace the curve of the globe. She had never before wanted to come to work on the Fourth of July. Cloudy days meant cancellations, but she didn’t mind it when things slowed down, and she got to hang around in the back with the rest of the waitstaff, who came from thirty different countries and were already taking bets on next year’s World Cup. It was a running joke after the tips were distributed to slap each other high five and say, “God bless America.” One day Kat had her picture taken with Hillary Clinton. Her ears popped as she soared 107 floors to the tip of the tower. She told Sam the ride lasted a full sixty seconds. How many restaurants had a gift shop and a million dollars in wine?
The captain, Jesús, was supporting a wife and baby girl back in Ecuador. Because Kat reminded him of his little sister, he let her bring home leftover racks of lamb from lunch, which she would stick in the fridge until Sam walked in for dinner. One day, one of the Wall Street execs left one of the girls his number and two tickets to The Producers, which she scalped for more than $500 apiece and took anyone who wanted out for all-night drinks in Tribeca. Sam hadn’t answered his phone, so Kat hit the town right from work in her smart tailored jacket and shiny brass pin.
At Telref, Megan told Sam, “You know, maybe the greatest compliment we can pay something or someone is to be devastated by them.”
Martin looked up from his call and rolled his eyes. Sam ignored them both. The night before the three of them had gone to a poetry reading given by one of Megan’s roommates in a bar where everything—ceiling to floor—was painted red after an Eggleston photograph. The reading was for a collection of breakup verse called Fuck Cupid. Kat had been working an extra shift and wouldn’t be home until late.
It was Sam’s first reading, and he’d been appalled by the audience, the way everyone made little grunts of assent from time to time to show that they were on the same special wavelength as the reader. The end brought applause and a vigorous nodding of heads. Sam gave a loud hoot.
Megan leaned over and said, “Behave yourself, mister.”
Sam said, “Why? Can anyone tell me what was she talking about up there?”
Megan reached for his hand. “I think her point was that two can be miserable better than one.”
Hours after the reading, drunk in a dive bar, Sam watched some fatty with a shaved head and tattooed eyelids wave his fist at the tap. “Gimme another lager,” the big guy demanded.
Sam crisply informed him, “That’s not a lager—that’s an ale.”
The skinhead barreled up to him. “Time to go home, mopey motherfucker.” Then everything went black. Sam woke up on Megan’s couch, rolled over, and threw up in the trashcan. He left Kat a voicemail: “Don’t worry. I passed out at Martin’s.”
On the last day of July, Sam got off work early. The city was laying new fiber-optic cables and had severed some crucial connection to the library. When the lines all went dead, Martin said, “That’s our cue,” and they snuck out the back, imagining the riot going on upstairs at the public computers.
Sam got off at Utica and was walking up Malcolm X Boulevard when a boy no more than twelve or thirteen peddled by on a bike. The boy cast his eyes back and forth across the street as if he were playing a game of hide-and-seek he was determined not to lose. Sam looked at the boy’s bright orange backpack and thought, Shouldn’t you be in summer school? But he said nothing, which afterward would seem fortunate to him. A block later he heard a loud popping sound and thought, Firecrackers, even here the kids light firecrackers. But they weren’t firecrackers, he realized, when he saw the boy in the bright orange backpack tucked behind the rim of a beat up DeVille taking potshots with a small snubbed handgun at a group of his peers across the street.
The kids sprinted up the avenue, ducking behind a van before returning fire. Afternoon crowds burst apart like startled birds. Sam hit the pavement, putting a parked cab between him and the action. He stretched flat on the ground, his mind strangely blank. The hot concrete close up. The cracks, he thought, who fills those in?
Meanwhile, tiny guerillas had appeared out of nowhere, and now two distinct gangs were scurrying behind cars, winding their way up the wide avenue. In the distance, a siren careened toward them. Sam raised his head and locked eyes with the kid in the backpack, who had not moved from his original position just two cars down from Sam. He had a slight bruise above one eye, and his little-boy lips were set in a thin grim line. Sam had only two thoughts: What I am seeing is not real. And, These kids have seen too many cop shows.
Miraculously, no one was hurt. When the police sped up, lights blaring, the boys scattered down alleys and side streets on their way, Sam imagined, to hide in the park. He got up, brushed off his chest, and calmly walked home. When he was halfway down his block, his legs started to shake.
The city was tearing itself to pieces.
When Kat got home, the apartment was already dark. She crawled into bed.
“Rough day?” she asked.
Sam held her, saying nothing, by the light of the streetlamp.
In mid-August, Kat turned twenty-four, and Sam surprised her with a party just for two. He told her to meet him after work at Martin’s apartment. It was the kind of neighborhood where parents sent birthday presents by bike messenger. Kat arrived after her afternoon shift, and Sam led her to the roof. He had made dinner, a simple cold couscous that Martin had coached him on, even going as far as to cover Sam’s calls while he went shopping. After inspecting the ingredients, Martin had given him the spare key and said, “Now get going, doc, and make that pretty lady proud. I won’t be back before midnight.”
Sam had set the teak table and lit some citronella. Money was tight, but at Kat’s place sat a pair of packages wrapped in green paper. After dinner, she opened them to find two matching black hoods.
“What are we, ninjas?” she asked.
At the edge of the roof stood a six-pack and a bucket of water balloons. They spent the rest of the hot night launching them at unsuspecting passersby. Drop, watch the bomb fall, then step back into the shadows. If they were lucky, and if they felt the person deserved it, they could get the same victim twice by sneaking over to the next roof and dropping another balloon. Only one person ever saw them, and he shouted bloody murder.
As they clutched each other—sweaty, sudsy, and doubled over with laughter— Sam said, “Forget him. Did you know the average person will make and lose 363 friends in a lifetime?”
Kat smiled and said, “Or that in Iowa it’s illegal to make love to a stranger?”
Sam stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Sam.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Kat said and pulled him down to the stillwarm tar of the roof.
The phone rang at Telref. Martin answered, waited for a reply, then put down the receiver. He shrugged. “Wrong number, I guess.”
Megan picked up her phone. After a moment, she hung up. She turned to Martin. “Is something going on with the lines? This has happened twice to me this morning.”
Martin smiled. “What—you got a heavy breather? Pass them to me. I love a heavy breather.”
Megan said, “Nope, it’s silence and then ‘click.’ ”
Martin tilted back in his chair. “I guess no one’s willing to speak up these days.”
Sam’s phone rang. All eyes turned to him. He picked up. “This is Telref.”
A familiar voice said, “I’m looking for answers.”
Sam stared down at the pencil on his desk. He tried not to look surprised, but the back of his neck was hot. He felt dumb for not seeing this coming. Their old game—as with all things, she was just taking it to the next, obvious level.
After a minute, he said, “That’s what I’m here for. I’m the answer guy.”
The voice said, “I’ve been trying to get through for some time.”
Sam said, “Well, our operators are busy. We’re in pretty high demand.” There was a pause. Then he said, “Please, Miss, what is your question? You only have five minutes—then I have to hang up.” He could almost picture her huddled in a whitewashed bathroom stall or ducking down in some dark-paneled phone booth while well-heeled patrons padded by. Did places like that still have phone booths? He didn’t know.
She said, “What I want is some information on the progress of love.”
“Oh,” he said. “You mean the paintings? By Jean-Honoré Fragonard? I think they’re hanging in the Frick. I believe the cycle goes: The Pursuit, The Meeting, Love Letters, Reverie, The Lover Crowned, Love Pursuing a Dove . . . ”
“Yeah, okay. Sure. So how does it end?”
“No one knows the exact order. Perhaps with Love Triumphant.”
“Or perhaps not. What about A Fool for Love—is that part of the story?”
“Sure—Love the Jester. That’s in there too. Right next to Love the Avenger.”
“How do you know what painting you’re looking at?”
“It’s quite clear by the context.”
There was a long pause. Sam heard her sob twice. Then she said, “Listen, why are we still together?”
Sam couldn’t think of what to say.
She was fighting to hold her voice steady. “What I’m asking is, are we just a habit? A product of circumstance? How do you know when it’s time to end a good
run?” After a moment, Sam said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
“Then who does?”
Sam looked at his watch. “I’m sorry. Your five minutes are up.”
That day in September that had started out so clear, Kat woke to find Sam was gone. They’d had a fight the night before: more than three years since Port Authority, and where were they going? What had changed? Everything and nothing.
Kat had stood in the kitchen and banged a pot on the stove.
“Stop it,” Sam said. “You’re being silly. Don’t take it out on the cookware.”
Kat was crying. She said, “You didn’t used to be mean.”
“Are you kidding? That’s what we liked about each other.”
Kat looked at him. She said, “It was always us against them.”
Sam threw back his head and regarded the ceiling. “Did you know the average person stays with their bank two years longer than with their romantic partner?”
Kat stopped crying and put down the pot. She stared at the dinner dishes, then looked at Sam sadly. “When did we become average?”
“I’m just saying—do you realize the odds of us having already lasted this long? That means something. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”
Kat said, “What makes you happy?”
“You, me, my job.”
“Really? The way things are?”
“Yes, the way things are makes me happy.”
“Is that a fact?”
Sam smiled. “Yes, that’s a fact.”
The pot hit the floor. “I am so fucking sick of FACTS!”
Sam said, “What do you want then? Lies?”
Kat said slowly, “I don’t care about her; I don’t even care about the truth.” She slumped in a chair. “All I want is to see an emotion.”
They went to bed, where they sat still and stubborn in the shadows, neither wanting to be the one who gave in to sleep. In the morning, still angry, Sam hadn’t bothered to wake Kat. She had already overslept. Let her miss her shift, he thought, if she can’t bother to set an alarm. Days and then years later, he would struggle with the fact that this thoughtlessness was perhaps the greatest act of his life.
Kat woke to the sound of every TV on the block tuned to the same channel and knew something was wrong. She crept upstairs and knocked on a neighbor’s door. She stayed there curled up on the couch watching the news until Sam found her that afternoon, having left the library and walked across the bridge into Brooklyn. Eight or nine miles had never felt so far. No cell phones were working that day. He had never seen the streets so wide, so empty of parked cars.
Sweaty, out of breath, he rushed through the door. He said, “Sometimes ‘I love you’ just isn’t enough.”
She said, “Billboard. In SoHo.”
“So what?” he said. “You know that it’s true.”
In the days ahead, they would read the accounts, one after another, that appeared in the papers. There was an hour and a half between the impact of the plane and the north tower’s collapse. Kat pictured Jesús looking down and seeing flames licking up the side of the building. No one knew about the plane half-buried, half-vaporized seventeen floors below. His nose burned with the chemical smell seeping from the carpet that had started to bubble. Soon smoke turned the room from day into night. There was no word from the Tower Fire Command, which, as they had drilled again and again, was supposed to tell them which exit to use. At that point all four stairwells were already gone. Because of the expensive broadcasting equipment, the door to the roof was permanently sealed shut.
The staff realized first what kind of situation they were in. They rushed to the windows some of them had cleaned only hours before, carefully wiping off the smudges and prints—as they did every morning—but only after first pressing their noses against the glass. Not once had their stomachs gotten used to the sight. Now, in the distance, white boats bobbed like gulls on the Hudson. Someone soaked a thick linen napkin in a pitcher of water and put it over her mouth, inhaling for a brief instant the sharp smell of lemons. Between 8:46 and 10:28, the temperature in the restaurant reached two thousand degrees. Long before then, one of the prep cooks, Roshan, the ace reliever who wasn’t even supposed to be on duty that day, heaved a heavy padded chair through one of the plate-glass windows. Everyone was surprised at how easily it broke.
As if a spell was shattered, one of the Wall Street guys leapt out headfirst. No one could bear to look down. Thinking of his baby girl, Jesús took the hand of the accountant, a small-spirited man who had often accused the staff of stealing. Together they stepped out over the abyss, and the air, for a second, caught and cradled them, because how could it not?
That night, after dinner, after news, after seeing the last of their neighbors come home covered in dust, Sam and Kat crawled into bed. They left the window open above them, as if to keep the street company. Kat sobbed, and he hugged her body to his, and they listened to emergency vehicles wail in the distance.
Sam said, “It’s getting cold. Want me to close the window?”
Kat said, “I can’t sleep. Tell me something, anything.”
Sam said, “I can’t think of anything. There’s nothing to say.”
Kat said, “Please.”
They watched the curtain billow in the blue night. Beyond, they could make out a few stars.
Sam said, “You know the light that reaches us is already dead.”
“That’s not exactly comforting.”
“But here I am, here you are, here we are—still breathing.” Kat looked at him.
Sam said, “It’s going to be okay. You know we’re going to make it.”
Kat said, “Sure. Straight down the line.” She kissed his forehead. Eventually she slept.
Sam thought of the black smoke still raining upon Brooklyn, how it would settle on every roof, park, and pond, collecting in dim corners and on the sills of cracked windows, small specks of dark matter that wouldn’t brush off.
He pulled the covers to his chin. Kat shifted and surfaced halfway from sleep. She said into the pillow, “Do you know where we’re going?”
Only his heart dared to answer back its own quiet lie.
“Sure, I do,” he whispered.
And together they lay there in the dark.
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the American Scholar, Epoch, Esopus, the New York Observer, the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review Daily, Salon, and Talk, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Telref” appears in our Spring 2014 issue.