Spring across from West Point
There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only
survival, the only meaning.
—Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
1. there is a land
The Hudson Line, express or local, runs out of the belly of Grand Central into the light of a graffitied canyon. Weeds vein the concrete gorge, and a valley floor of train tracks pushes forward. Saplings crack whole chunks of concrete loose. Rise further to Harlem, buildings flat to the tracks. Curtains, gray from soot, are sucked out the windows. In apartments completely abandoned, newspaper pasted to the windows has become translucent over time. Vertical rows of windows are blacked out, and diagonal boards warn of elevator shafts in case someone was thinking of walking in from midair ten stories up. And there is graffiti there, so maybe it is possible. Early enough on a Saturday morning, anything is possible. The train hasn’t been out of service from the evening before, and empty beer cans roll left to right with the sway over the tracks, come hurtling forward as the train stops at 125th, rush back again as the Harlem River comes into view. The Bronx. The train need cross water only once, here on an angle so low to the water it is barely a bridge. Feels like the train is skimming, skating across the river. Cliffs rise on both sides, and the train skirts the river valley now, down by the Hudson. Westchester. Eventually the line will come to Garrison, New York, only a local stop. The distance from the riverbank to the tracks has grown, and between sits a single house with a Schaefer beer sign in the mudroom window and a phone booth outside the front door. There is a crossing here. The tracks are set low in the pavement, so cars can get to a parking lot shared by the house, Fennelly’s deli and bar, and the public dock jutting into the river. Across the Hudson, up high on a cliff, is West Point. The gray stone is dark, the sun still below the trees on the east bank.
2. of the living
The boy woke to the sound of the Boar’s Head delivery man. He knew the chirping beep his truck made in reverse. He liked the Budweiser man more. He came on weekday afternoons and would buy Gregory a jawbreaker to pick Keno numbers for him. Gregory was a Keno expert. Something about growing up above the bar, the wires threading into the ceiling below his bed—he dreamed Keno, and he always guessed right. The old men kept the boy beside their stools as a good-luck charm.
This morning was different because Gregory could hear his mother’s radio in the kitchen from outside his window. Usually it was muffled up through the house, but she must have had the window open above the sink. It was finally warm. Gregory loved this time of year, when he could run outside and inside at will. The Yankees were playing an afternoon game, so the bar would be full when he was awake. Matty would shoo him out to make room for paying customers, but it was nice outside, so he could go down to the dock. Maybe Betsy’s father would bring her over to play, and Harold usually came in for afternoon games. If Gregory could sneak by Matty and get Harold good Keno numbers, he’d get 10 percent. He would have enough for jawbreakers until the Budweiser man came again on Monday. Gregory’s friend Betsy thought it was strange he had to pay for candy in his family’s own deli, but that’s just the way it was.
Gregory could hear his father haggling with the Boar’s Head man up front in the deli. His mother called, “Pancakes!” but Gregory had already smelled them and was headed down the backstairs to the kitchen.
3. and there is a land
Inez woke to Charlie’s bike revving out of the driveway. Some NYU kids were actually going to give him a hundred bucks a day to use the bike in a student film. They’d gone trawling for a Harley at Hogs and Heifers last month. Inez thought Charlie should have held out for more money. They’d had a fight last night, not about that. Grandma Clara had died on Thursday, and Charlie tried to argue it was an honor thing that he couldn’t leave these NYU brats in the lurch on such short notice. He didn’t like funerals is what his supposed honor amounted to. September had ruined all of that pomp and pride stuff for him. She had tried to tell him no one liked funerals, but that’s just what a person did. Why’d he think he was anything special? Grandma Clara had requested he be a pallbearer. Even though Charlie and Inez never got married and never had kids, her grandma must have actually loved him. It was a big deal that she’d asked for him. Flora’s husband would do it now.
Inez rolled the width of the empty bed and bent the blinds open. Mrs. Masarelli was hanging laundry outside, so Inez awkwardly slid the window open without pulling up the blinds. She lay back down. Charlie worked second shift for the Port Authority, and was usually there sleeping when she got up. It was nice to have the place to herself for a change. The blinds bellowed out in the warm breeze and then banged back against the sill. A shaft of sunlight spiked across the bed with each breath the blinds took. She’d just stay in bed a little longer before she headed to Sunset Park—her mother was a wreck. There were birds chirping. Mrs. Masarelli started humming. She hadn’t been outside with her sheets since the fall.
4. of the dead
Danielle passed the corner of Tenth and University, where on her first afternoon in the city for college, an old woman mistook her for a tennis player who had just lost at the US Open. Even though the woman kept telling her how sorry she was for her loss, Danielle took it to be a great sign. Here, she could have lost at the US Open. She walked around for the rest of the day trying to appear as athletic as possible. She swore people were staring at her. Two weeks later, on the same corner where that old woman had thought she was famous, she was mistaken for a prostitute, propositioned while waiting to meet a friend for coffee. Then 9/11 happened, and Danielle couldn’t bring herself to go down to the site like all of her new friends who had become perversely giddy with their proximity to disaster and their ability to help. Danielle knew she had O negative blood, but she couldn’t even do her duty as a universal donor. Except for classes, she stayed in her room until October, and when she came out, it was cold, and all those first-week friends were gone. Out of boredom, she signed up on a bulletin board to help upperclassmen with their films, and so now at 7:00 am on a Saturday in the Village, she was awake when the streets were still quiet, almost empty. And she felt for the first time in a long time—maybe it was the fact that she didn’t have a jacket on, that there were the most miniature of green leaves on the trees she hadn’t noticed the night before, or that the steam off her coffee felt not that different in temperature from the air, but she felt alive in herself—separate from all the concrete, the cabs.
By the time she got to the train, though, her coffee had worn off. She was tired. She decided this was the last time she’d volunteer to help out on any narrative projects. It had gotten her away from the do-gooders in her dorm, but nothing ever went the way it was supposed to on a film shoot. She’d gotten stuck in Queens, twice, falling asleep in garages to find out they were still shooting, switched to mock-night gels at around 5:00 am. She’d frozen her ass off guarding a stolen power connection under a streetlamp in Tribeca. Walked twenty blocks for the right kind of Tic Tacs. The scripts were all so lame. Everything was so inefficient. Only one DP she’d met so far knew shit about light, and he wouldn’t let her near the camera.
She always ended up as Script Girl, which meant continuity. They gave her a Polaroid. She was responsible for cigarettes being the same length in matching shots and bangs and collars, rolled sleeves, clocks in the background. She had decided to go on with a physics track next year, where continuity was an equation. Fluid dynamics: her textbook explained how blood moved through the body. No matter how big or small, the aorta or a tiny vessel, the blood slowed down or picked up speed accordingly, so there was continuity inside everyone. None of the DPs were even cute, which was her secret wish for every call she answered. The train was a local. She couldn’t fall asleep with the constant starting and stopping. The Hudson went by the window so close that no ground was visible, just water. The volume rate of flow. The equation of continuity again. Where the river was wide, it flowed slower, and where it was narrow, it sped up.
5. but soon
Billy Townes spread the pictures of Eli across his kitchen table. They’d been college roommates and for years later were as tight as brothers. They went climbing together—Yosemite, Red Rock Canyon, Alberta—but that was before Billy got this life he had now. They were young in the pictures, strong.
Betsy ran through the kitchen. “We’ve only got five minutes, Dad.” It must not feel like it to his daughters, but this big house where he could commute to the city and the girls could play ball in the backyard felt unnecessary to him now. Billy had lost his wife, Heather, to cancer on September 10. The next day seemed a sick joke. The events had crept in and laced themselves around his mourning. Exploded it. The quietness they had fostered. The priest and the hospice worker. The children’s part and then their departure to their grandmother’s was all fouled up. The bed stayed in the house for a month. All of the people who volunteered for hospice had volunteered themselves to the larger tragedy. He had to fight to hold onto Heather’s wake and interment dates. He thought of killing himself several times that fall. He’d lie in the hospice bed and stare at the UV blacklight he hadn’t had the strength to refuse from a door-to-door salesman. The purple tube was installed over the mail slot in the front door to eradicate any potential Anthrax. Maybe he didn’t want to die—he’d just stare at the light till he gave himself a mighty set of cataracts. There were the girls to think about, and as the winter progressed, one of them broke the blacklight when an ice skate slammed into the door.
As spring came on without Heather, Billy started thinking about his life before her and the kids. The pictures on the table were from Yosemite, all black and white eight-by-tens; Eli had been a photographer. The trips had slowed and then stopped altogether as Billy took on more responsibilities. Eli never had any responsibilities. Maybe that was why two years ago he had supposedly thrown himself off a cliff when he was on quite a lucrative shoot for a Nature Conservancy calendar.
Billy shuffled the eight-by-tens into a neat pile. The kids had their softball game. He’d finish looking at them there. Helen came into the kitchen, frilly party socks on with her cleats. She took after her mother. Betsy was the tomboy, the real player.
“Who’s that?” Helen asked of the picture on top. Eli was reaching for an outcropping. His daughters should have known Eli. He should have come for visits, but they’d lost touch.
“We’re going to be late,” Betsy said with the backdoor open, running on the linoleum in her cleats, leaving little divots her mother would never have allowed.
6. all those impulses of love
Jackson was sitting on the platform rehearsing his lines when a young woman stepped off the second local to arrive since his train had let him off at Garrison. She had on a bright green sweater, which glowed in the light as though she were trying to one-up spring. The train clattered out of the station, leaving her alone on the platform. Jackson put away his script and took out the small paperback he’d bought at Twelfth Street between pick-ups the day before. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. He found the actor and band thing starting to backfire. The player stereotype was as bad as when he’d been a bartender. He told girls now he was a bike messenger, which was true. He just left out the other stuff till later, which usually wasn’t hard considering what limited success he was having, and he found they dug the practical worker with a secret heart for literature.
The girl had taken a seat on a bench at least two passenger-car lengths away. He read, not just pretended to. He liked the little book. It had been a good choice. It was on the dollar rack outside, an impulse buy. He’d read the last page first, as he often did even when he told himself not to, and the heavy statement of the prose hit him as wonderfully direct and unveiled. The yellowed pages spoke of love like it was simple:
But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves
shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of
love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the
living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
The previous owner must have read the book for school in the sixties. The last sentence was underlined, and reading through from the beginning now, all the big vocab words were meticulously circled. The reader’s underlines were perfectly straight, made with a ruler, and the parentheses—Jackson wasn’t sure how they were so uniform. The person hadn’t been overbearing either. The great stuff was picked out.The choices were careful. Jackson could tell the reader had understood the book. He wished he had such certainty of understanding. The parentheses seemed to hug the sentences: (This woman has suffered, and her suffering has left its mark upon the structure of her heart.) The circles cushioned the words to look up, words such as indolence, languorous, and intimations. Subversive, heretical, and insatiably. Omniscient.
Charlie had made record time to Garrison. The bike was running well. He and Inez used to take it out every weekend, but in truth it ran better with only one rider. He was early by an hour at least, but he thought he remembered a bar in the back of the little house and deli beside the tracks. He’d been there once before, a long time back. It had been dark, but he was pretty sure this was the same place. He came with a buddy who was at West Point. Charlie could barely see the bridge further north where they would have walked across the Hudson. An early morning fog was still burning off of the river up there. He remembered it had been a long walk, but it had been warm, early fall, and they had all evening to kill and no car. The guy hadn’t wanted to go anywhere the other cadets would see them—Charlie still had the same ponytail, except it was gray now. His friend had gotten an early graduation to go to Hanoi, and Charlie never saw him after that night. Actually, he lost track of him—didn’t find out he died until his twenty-fifth high school reunion, which Inez made him go to. Charlie looked back along the river. The bridge really seemed too far. Maybe they’d had a car that night, or maybe they’d hitched. He turned his bike up there to take a look.
8. even memory is not necessary
Helen Townes hated softball. If her mother were still alive, she wouldn’t have to play softball. Her dad would have taken Betsy to her games, and she could have stayed home with her mother or taken ballet or riding or skated at the indoor rink. She was only on the team because Betsy was, and it made it easy for her dad and for Nadia during the week if they took the same activities. So Helen blamed her mother for her current position in the outfield waiting for a pop fly that never came. Every Saturday it was the same thing. At least it was warmer today.
9. for love
Doug Fennelly’s father had owned the deli and bar, so Doug had grown up in the house. He and his three brothers had fit into the room that now seemed almost too small for Gregory. After his father’s death, Doug had been prepared to fight his brothers to stay on as the proprietor of Fennelly’s, but they showed no interest in the family business. It wasn’t as popular as it had been when he was a boy. The food items in the deli seemed mainly for show. There was a thick layer of dust over the Ritz crackers and the canned soup. A couple of local commuters still came in for milk on their way home from the train. He still sold cold cuts, mainly by the individual sandwich when someone got dropped off early for a train. People like Billy Townes brought their kids in for the nickel candies and a soda on the weekends as a treat after their sports. Billy’s youngest always wore ridiculous ruffled socks with her cleats. If Doug’s girl had lived, she’d be the age of that girl of Billy’s.
Doug wasn’t sure how he’d break it to his regulars, some of them his father’s old friends who still came by the bar to chat it up with Matty and watch the games. Wasn’t sure how he’d break it to his bartender, Matty, that this might be the last season for Fennelly’s.
10. the bridge
Danielle instantly fell in love with people whose parents were dead. It was a sick habit she attributed to reading too many books about orphans as a child and to the fact that she wished her father had simply died instead of making a mess out of everything. She’d always longed for a simpler, more total grief.
Jackson was not only in the movie that she was there to work on, but the crew was nowhere to be found, and so they were sitting on the steps to the train platform talking about this book he was reading where five strangers all fall to their death when a bridge collapses and about how she’d recently decided she’d rather be a physicist, when his parents were mentioned in the past tense.
A biker dude on a Harley pulled up in front of the house down the tracks and then left again revving out of the parking lot. She had to speak louder, “I’m so sorry for your loss!”
“What?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Danielle was completely embarrassed. “I must be confused. Sorry.”
“I see. No. I was talking about them like that because they used to be different. When I was a kid they were like different people, who are completely gone now. They moved to Isle of Palms five years ago and it’s just different.”
“Past tense can be confusing,” Danielle said. “I get it. How embarrassing. Yeah, yesterday I was different too. Better, maybe. A mini-death to her, whoever she was.”
“The French call it la petite mort.”
Danielle rolled her eyes at him, but figured she should take this as bona fide flirting. She could play at that. “This was fun,” she said and went back to her book, pretending to ignore him.
Jackson thought this wouldn’t have happened if he was just a bike messenger. A bike messenger making sexual innuendo in French was fine, but he’d had to give up that he was an actor. She’d asked him if he’d seen any film equipment. He’d spoken before he’d thought.
It was silent then as the same pages were read over and over again in their respective books, both of them unable to concentrate. They had to move closer together so an early passenger could get up the steps to the platform, and Danielle seemed to press herself against Jackson’s side—maybe he hadn’t completely blown it. But then they’d moved back apart, leaving a narrow but obvious space between them.
The loud engine of a Harley Dopplered in from a distance. The same biker as before parked outside the little house down the tracks and got on the pay phone.
“You know I think that guy might be here for this film, too,” Jackson said. “I’m supposed to ride a bike. I’m going to go see.”
Danielle got up and followed him along the platform. He must’ve wanted her to because his stomach turned a stitch.
A little boy ran out the side door of the house and planted himself in the middle of the railroad tracks below them. They could hear him panting.
“Gregory,” a man yelled from the house. “You’ve got to choose, son.”
Danielle brushed Jackson’s side and whispered in a gruff voice, “Life or death? What will it be, son?” Then she laughed, bright, like she really thought it was funny. “Oh come on.” She punched Jackson in the arm. “It’s like that book of yours is all around us. Something. We’ve got to lighten up.” She raised her hands to the sky and looked straight up. “It’s spring!” She lost her balance, and Jackson caught her when she stumbled.
The kid bolted, disappearing behind the house toward the river. “That kid isn’t choosing,” Jackson said, having to let go of the one shoulder and one wrist of Danielle’s that he’d caught. It would be awkward to hold her any longer.
“It is not a day to choose, I guess,” she said.
Here the platform ended. The only stairs seemed to be back where they had been sitting, so they ducked under the railing and hopped down. They crossed the tracks where they sat low in the asphalt at the entrance to the dock’s parking lot and the front of the little house.
11. there is a land
“You’re getting a haircut!” Doug Fennelly yelled to his boy. “I’m not giving you a choice anymore. Your mother is ready for you.” Carol Fennelly stepped out of the kitchen with a pair of clippers trailing a cord back into the plug by the toaster.
Doug noticed that three customers had come in the front door to the deli. “I’ll be right with you folks.” He caught Gregory around the middle and wrestled him into the kitchen.
Jackson, Danielle, and Charlie adjusted to the dim lighting of the deli. There were bins of candy on the counter by the register: individually wrapped peppermint patties, raspberry jelly rings spread out between layers of wax paper, a box of Cow Tales, a glass jar of Swedish Fish, a bin of white jawbreakers splattered with color. Beside this was a case with deli items on a bed of green plastic Astroturf. It was sparse: only three Boar’s Head meats, a package of opened hotdogs, a dish of egg salad dried out and yellowed on the edges, and some whitefish salad that looked gray.
“I called the crew. They’re half a day behind,” Charlie said. “They’re going to try to be here to catch the sunset shot over the river and then they’ll fake the interiors for daylight. I think I get to go then. My bike was supposed to be seen through the window but that’s scrapped now. Poor kid, huh?” Charlie said. “I hated getting my hair cut.”
“You guys going to get lunch then?” Danielle asked.
“I was thinking of racking up a bar bill instead,” Charlie said.
“There’s a bar?” Jackson asked.
“If memory serves me correctly.”
Through a narrow doorway between counters at the back of the deli was the barroom, fashioned from the old dining room of the house and extending into what used to be a mudroom. Still small, the bar had room for only four stools, and much of the wall space was taken up by doors to other rooms of the house. Through the open kitchen door, Carol Fennelly had the clippers poised over Gregory, a towel draped around his shoulders.
“How can I help you?” Doug came out, shutting the door to the kitchen. The obligatory What To Do When Someone Is Choking emergency poster in bright orange was on the back of the door behind him. “Deli?” he asked. “Matty, our bartender, doesn’t come in till noon, but I could get you something here, too.” Doug crossed in front of the patrons and stepped behind the bar, shutting the door to his family room.
The clippers buzzed on in the kitchen.
“Oh, I can’t bear that sound,” Charlie said. “Better give me a double, Jack, and a Schaefer.”
“How about the couple?” Doug asked.
Danielle hoped she hadn’t looked too shocked or too underage.
“Two Schaefers would be good?” Jackson said as a question while looking at Danielle. She nodded.
12. and all memory
“...my brother in law, well not really ’cause I never got married—no one does that anymore, I mean as a statement—well this guy that’s married to my Inez’s sister Flora. He’s Catholic and all, but he got into this Bikers for Christ stuff anyway, and he’s been trying to get me to go to this rally in Daytona Beach for years, but I’m just not down with that. I can’t join any kind of gang. It’s against my nature.”
“Any club that would have you as a member,” Matty said from behind the bar, straightening up. The regulars would be filtering in for the game soon. “Being asked to be a pallbearer, though, that is important,” he said to Charlie.
“Believe me, I’m well acquainted.”
Matty nodded, backed off. He’d bartended his whole adult life and knew when advice tipped toward pushing someone’s buttons. He uncapped another Schaefer for the young guy named Jackson and took away his empty.
Jackson took a swig and turned to Charlie. “So how do you get away with your hair at work? I’ve never seen a Port Authority cop that looks like you.”
“It goes up in the hat.” Charlie twisted his ponytail and ringed it around his head.
“I can’t believe you work Port Authority.” Jackson shook his head. “I live like right there. My band and I got a loft there cheap.”
“Yeah, so no one minds we’re loud. You always work at the bus station or do you work at other Port Authority places?”
“I know what you’re getting at, man.” Charlie looked Jackson square in the face. “And no,” he said, “I wasn’t a hero. I was asleep. I work nights. I’ve got no story to tell you.”
13. will have left
“I like that sweater,” Jackson said to Danielle, who was finishing the sandwich she finally admitted she needed on a stomach that had only had coffee, beer, and a pretzel at Grand Central some six, eight hours earlier. “It’s bright. In fact I thought you were glowing when you got off the train.”
The Yankee’s game had started, and Jackson and Danielle had given their stools up to the regulars and were sitting on a row of chairs with their backs to the river view out the mudroom windows. Charlie hadn’t moved.
Danielle put a finger up, swallowing a bite. “You were watching me get off the train?”
“No. I was watching your sweater,” Jackson said.
“Well I’ll have to thank my granddad when I see him. He died this year and I got a lot of his stranger stuff nobody else would wear. Old ruffly tux shirt. Bowler hat. His Eisenhower jacket from World War II. Driving gloves.” She started tucking the loose shaved lettuce back into her sandwich as she talked. “I’ve got a bag of bow ties I made this hanging curtain out of. I’m named after him. Daniel. Danielle. This sweater is my favorite though. Chartreuse, that’s the color. I’ve been wearing it all winter. See—” Danielle put the sandwich in her lap and pulled the darned cuffs down over her hands. “I’ve already had to patch them.”
There was a full count on the TV that quieted the bar, and the silence made Danielle uncomfortable. She always went on too long when she first met people. Never had the cuffs of her sweater been so interesting. She pretended to inspect them further. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Jackson.
Gregory slipped in unseen and planted himself beside one of the old men’s stools. His hair was completely buzzed. He waited with everyone else for the pitcher to unload the ball.
A strike out. Matty turned back to the bar and almost jumped. “Christ’s! I thought we had a midget ghost in here. What happened to your hair, boy? They shipping you across the river?”
Gregory just shrugged. “Keno, Harold?” he asked the old man on the stool.
“Ghosts are one thing, but no real boys. Not this time of day. You’ll get us shut down.” Matty whipped his bar towel across the counter. “And Harold needs to save his money to tip me.”
“Fine,” Gregory said. “Seven, seventy-seven,forty-three...” He was watching Harold as he backed toward a door that would have been the mudroom’s and was actually blocked by chairs. Danielle and Jackson scooted down so Gregory could get out.
“Go on you little soldier,” Matty said. “Don’t bother the customers.”
“Sixteen and five!”
The door closed beside Danielle, and Gregory’s feet could be heard plodding down the stairs outside. Harold grabbed for a Keno form.
“So Matty, you ever get those guys in here? From West Point?” Charlie asked at the bar.
“It’s a lot further than it looks,” Matty said. “We had a ghost stop in once, though. It’s been the site of a fort since the Revolutionary War. They put a chain across the river to catch the British.”
“Stop it with the history lesson.” Harold was trying to get Matty’s attention, but it was too late. The first ball had already started jumping around on the Keno screen suspended in the corner. Circle forty-three lit up. “I’m shut out!” Harold crumpled his ticket and threw it at Matty. “Seven! Seventy-seven! He’s always right. Five! See.”
14. and we ourselves
Carol had gone upstairs to lie down before it was time to start dinner. Doug was balancing the books in the deli, and it was best to stay away during that. Gregory was mad at her for his hair, but there were lice going around at school, and he’d refused to take a shower for two weeks. He was suddenly scared of water. The buzz cut was the easiest solution.
The men were incredibly loud downstairs today. There were those three extra ones hanging around for that film shoot that looked more and more like it wouldn’t happen. The girl had asked for a train schedule earlier. Just in case they never show, she’d said, but that was hours ago, and now she and the young man seemed to be hitting it off. God bless them. It was always the same old regulars. There probably hadn’t been any sparks in the place for years, but even without them, the men seemed to be intoxicated by the weather. They were different today, louder, more alive.
This time of year always made her happy, too, until she remembered this was when the baby was to be born. A girl. She would’ve needed her own bedroom by now, and maybe that could have been an excuse for getting out of this old place. Doug would have been saved from any failure of his own. They would simply have needed to move on to accommodate Vicky. Carol rolled over on top of the made bed and tucked her head into the extra pillows that got thrown on the floor at night.
15. shall be loved for a while
Billy went out to the car and came back in with the pictures of him and Eli climbing in Yosemite. He’d been talking to Matty about his climbs, and when he said he had pictures in the car, Matty said why not go get them. It was now the seventh-inning stretch, and Matty turned down the volume on the Irish Tenor doing “God Bless America” for the umpteenth time.
“You look like you’re having fun,” Matty said to Billy and passed the eight-by-ten to Harold, the closest guy to him at the bar. “Oh, do you mind?” Matty asked. Since the volume was down on the TV, the whole bar was suddenly paying attention to the pictures even if they couldn’t see them.
“No, that’s fine,” said Billy.
The next photo got passed to Harold, and Harold passed the first to Charlie. “Look’s dangerous,” Charlie said.
“Oh that was,” Billy said. “That’s part of why I had to quit. You know, with the kids.” He looked outside to check on them. Gregory was down on the dock with the two girls still in their softball uniforms. They’d lost to Croton Hardware. They always lost, and Betsy had started telling Helen it was all her fault, and even though it couldn’t be—Helen never saw any action in far right field—she’d started sobbing on the way to Fennelly’s. She’d been uncontrollable.
The photos of Eli and Billy snaked their way around the room, formed a chain through even Danielle’s and Jackson’s hands, through Doug who stood in the doorway to the deli, and past Carol who’d come downstairs into the kitchen. Eli made a circle around the bar. Eli, who’d kept himself unattached for what?
The bar was quiet as one by one the photos made their way back to Billy. He straightened the stack of pictures against the bar, the stiff edges loud and percussive. The kids ran up from the river, and their screams grazed against the windows. There was already one out in the bottom of the seventh when Matty turned the volume back up.
16. and forgotten
Dan Rather was on the mini black and white above the toaster. Carol closed the door to the bar so she could hear him above the Yankees, bottom of the eighth. This was her favorite time of day, though, owning a bar. Happy hour. The evening would stretch ahead of them to when the drunks would get mean, but now it was still the nice ones who would settle up after another couple and head home. The sun was setting later and later. Cooking dinner at the same time every night, she could track the seasons in relation to the sun setting somewhere slightly different every night over West Point. That film crew was going to miss their sunset shot.
“Pork chops and cabbage,” she said to Dan. He was in Afghanistan, and so he was reporting even though it was Saturday. Her parents had always been CBS people, so she’d stuck with that channel. “A little side salad and we’ll probably have to grab some ice cream from the front if anyone wants dessert.” She sometimes gave Dan her menu for the night. In his flack jacket and helmet, he seemed if not elated, then content that it would do.
Gregory came running downstairs with his baseball glove. “Billy’s going to pitch for us,” he said.
“Harold didn’t give you any money did he?” Carol asked.
“Let me see ’em. Inside out,” Carol said, and Gregory pulled his pockets out of his pants. A quarter fell onto the linoleum.
“Give me that,” she said.
“Yeah, sure,” she said and put it on the windowsill.
“Matty kicked me out. Harold didn’t get to play the numbers.” He’d promised Betsy Townes a jawbreaker, and it was his only quarter. “I have to have it, Mom!”
“Go up front and get me some butter, will you?” She turned to the stove. It was often best not to indulge Gregory when he might start a tantrum. “I forgot butter at the store. I need it to get going here. Go on.”
Gregory went into the deli. His father had moved into the door of the bar to see the ninth inning. His back was to the deli, and the volume was up loud on the game. Gregory went to the refrigerator case and got the butter, and then he snuck two of the quarter-size jawbreakers from the candy bins beside the register.
“Here,” Gregory said, plopping the pound of butter on the table.
“Well, mark it on the fridge,” Carol said. There was a list of items that the deli would need to be reimbursed for.
“I’m going to play with Betsy. Billy’s pitching. I’ll miss it.”
“Move the game to the parking lot so I can see you,” she said, watching a minivan spin gravel as it braked quickly down by the dock. It was the only car. The dock wasn’t that popular and certainly not at dinnertime. A woman with a tripod jumped out of the minivan—the film crew had finally arrived. The pork chops sizzled, the cabbage started getting clear, the butter browned. Popped.
17. the only survival
Gregory worked the jawbreaker around in his mouth as Billy stepped up to the pitcher’s mound in the middle of the tracks. They’d marked off a skewed diamond to stay out of the film crew’s way. The first-base line ran along the train platform to its end. Second base was out from there where the tracks started to meet the field, and third came all the way back to where the road started sloping down into the parking lot about even with the deli. It was a short uphill climb from there to home. Gregory was at second, and some older kids who were allowed to bike to the river alone played the other bases. Except for Helen, they didn’t have anyone for the outfield, and, holding a box of Cracker Jack in her glove, she was playing as close to the first baseman as she could. The jawbreaker clicked against Gregory’s teeth. Betsy was at bat. He had to make this play.
“Come on Helen, look alive,” Billy said to his daughter. “Put down the Cracker Jack.” Billy was hoping to make the play nice and easy, give Helen a chance to catch something.
Instead, Betsy hit a high fly to center. She ran the first base line along the platform. Gregory worked the jawbreaker around in his mouth frantic to make the catch, backing up to play outfield. He looked too far back. He tripped.
Billy was screaming for Betsy to run and at the same time for Helen to go get the ball.
“Where?” Helen screamed. Betsy ran to second.
One of the older kids was back with Helen looking through the weeds. “I don’t see it!”
Betsy ran to third, to home. Home run!
“Out of the park!” Billy yelled and went to hug Betsy.
“Dad!” Helen yelled. “Something’s wrong with him!”
Gregory had not gotten up.
Billy ran out to him. “What happened? What’s wrong?” He realized as soon as he’d said it, that it was silly of him to ask his daughter. “Does anyone know about this sort of stuff,” Billy shouted, but only children looked back, all crouched around Gregory the same as him. “That Charlie guy?” Billy stood up. “Where did he go? The cop, the guy on the bike.”
“He just left,” a kid, who had been admiring Charlie’s Harley instead of playing the game, shouted from the train platform. “He had to get back to the city. Said he had to go to a funeral.”
Billy looked down at Gregory. The boy was convulsing. He kept slapping his throat. Billy tried to remember. Something about turning the head, checking for breathing.
The sun had slipped below the roofline of West Point. The director threw the tripod back in the minivan and waved off her DP, who hopped out the sliding door with a newly loaded camera magazine, white tape sealing its edges. Jackson and Danielle were walking down to see what was happening with the shoot when they heard Billy yelling.
Carol heard, too, and ran out the backdoor of the kitchen. Doug ran out the front door of the deli.
Billy lifted Gregory off the ground, his arms wrapped around the boy’s chest. He pulled up. Gregory’s arms flapped out to his side like a rag doll trying to fly.
Danielle and Jackson were headed for the scene when Danielle looked at the river, just for a moment. And she saw something there. She grabbed Jackson’s hand. “Did you just see that? Somebody jumped, off the bridge I think.”
“No,” he said, “it must be a bird.”
“Gregory,” Carol yelled up close to her boy now. “He’s not breathing. He can’t breathe!”
“I don’t know if I’m doing this right,” Billy said. “He passed out. Doug?”
“Get his arms down. What did he choke on?” Doug wrapped himself around his boy, Gregory’s arms stiff to his sides now.
“You’re right.” Jackson ran out on the dock. “It doesn’t look like he can swim.”
Danielle ran to the edge. “I’m a good swimmer. I can get him.”
“I think he’s a lot further than it looks.”
Matty leaned out the backdoor of the bar. “Turning off your pork chops, Mrs. Fennelly. They’re smoking up the place.” He saw the commotion. “What the hell’s gone wrong out here?”
“Someone jumped in the river,” the young couple shouted at him, but they were way down on the dock.
“It’s Gregory,” Doug screamed from the tracks with his son wrapped in front of him like a hostage he wasn’t about to let go of.
“You look at that damn poster all day long,” Matty said, running past the phone booth and across the tracks to them. “Put your hands lower. Christ’s! The boy’s blue, already. Come on.”
18. will have been enough
With Doug’s hands just a little lower under his boy’s sternum, the jawbreaker flew from Gregory’s mouth. It flew out of his mouth, a perfect projectile, and it would have been a base hit except for little Helen Townes. She was just in the right place at the right time, and she raised her hand, and the jawbreaker fell perfectly and saliva soaked into the sweet spot of her glove. The crowd applauded.
Jackson and Danielle, who had her shoes off and was ready to dive into the river, heard the clapping from the tracks. Helen was holding the jawbreaker up like a game-winning ball, rotating for everyone to see. Carol was rubbing Gregory’s back. He was coughing, down on all fours. When Danielle and Jackson turned their attention back to the river, the surface was perfectly smooth. They both looked to the bridge at West Point. Maybe they had seen nothing: the light playing tricks on them, an apparition, a bird after all. Danielle slipped her shoes on, and they walked up from the river to join the crowd.
Matty and Doug were moving everyone off of the tracks. An express bound for the city was chugging in about a half mile up the river. The train would only slow down—it wouldn’t stop—its headlight on, cutting into what was quickly becoming night. Gregory got to his feet. Carol rubbed her hand across his buzzed scalp. Billy and Betsy walked with Helen to where everyone congregated by the phone booth in front of Fennelly’s. No one seemed to want to go inside. It was warm still. They watched the train coming. The crossing gates were clanging down around the tracks. Helen wouldn’t put her hand down. She held the little white orb of the jawbreaker between two fingers way up above her head. The train slowed enough to see faces looking out of the lit windows at the crowd beside the tracks. Helen jumped and shook the catch in her hand for the whole train to see. The crowd outside Fennelly’s laughed, and for everyone, the round shape in the little girl’s hand glowed the way things do at dusk.
Emily Doak has had stories appear in Barrelhouse, Inkwell, Isotope, and Yemassee and her poetry in Rhino and the Spoon River Poetry Review. She went to film school at NYU and earned her MFA at Indiana University.
“Spring across from West Point” appears in our Winter 2008 issue.