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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 11


  That night, the sky poured out such torrents that the city was a drum set, every surface a source of rhythms, pavements and windows and canvas awnings, street signs and parked cars, Dumpsters throbbing like tom-toms, garbage-can lids swishing as the wind swirled bursts of rain in imitation of a drummer brush-stroking the batter head of a snare.

  Father and I wore rubber boots, gloves, fleece-lined black raincoats that had hoods secured under the chin with Velcro closures. We hid behind ski masks, too, though pedestrians were rare and, when seen, were bent and hurrying, sheltering under umbrellas that had to be held close over their heads to prevent the wind from turning them inside out.

  The storm, which would prove to be the worst of the decade, also sluiced most of the traffic from the streets. In this post-midnight tempest, no taxis were cruising for fares on the deserted avenues. The drivers of the few cabs answering calls were challenged by flooded intersections and blinding sheets of water that overwhelmed their windshield wipers, and they had no time to be curious about us. Even police patrols were at a minimum, perhaps because, as statistics confirm, crime drops sharply during nasty weather because criminals prefer warm and cozy rooms as much as do law-abiding folks.

  The outlaws weren’t all tucked in their beds or playing video games, however, because we came upon four of them during our explorations.

  We had no pressing errand to run, nothing that we needed. We were out and about sightseeing.

  In good weather, even at night, we had to avoid well-lighted places and scurry through shadows like two cockroaches anticipating the stamp of a crushing shoe. Most nights, of necessity, our time aboveground was efficiently managed and spent on essential tasks.

  When the raw wind shrieked through the canyons of high-rises, when the deluge blurred those monoliths as if intent on erasing in one night a civilization that would otherwise be reduced to dust only by a thousand years of history, then Father and I were as free in the city as we would ever be. We could travel where we wished and linger without fear at the lighted display windows of the best stores and galleries on the most elegant streets. As window-shoppers, we could enjoy fine art and the sparkle of luxuries that we would never be able to afford and that, even if a fortune fell on us, we could not purchase without coming face-to-face with a salesclerk who would judge us, by our eyes alone, to be abominations.

  On such nights, the freedom to go places we usually had to avoid was no more satisfying than the weather itself, which we relished. Underground, there was no weather, save for the runoff from a storm. We yearned as much for open air and the feel of the sun on our skin and the buffeting wind as we did for daylight. We were delighted by weather so wild that others fled from it, because it was the only weather we could ever experience leisurely and without fear.

  We were blocks from the finest stores, in a different kind of neighborhood, when the gunfire started.

  The soaring wind and the rush of rain felt and sounded like a flock of a million birds continuously startling into flight around us, wings beating against us, as we walked a street, enchanted by the Beaux Arts architecture of the low-rise commercial buildings dating to the early years of the twentieth century. Some of those structures had been rehabilitated but others were in decline, and lights shone in one of the latter.

  As we approached that place, gunshots tunneled through the white noise of the rain, and a pane in one of the ground-floor windows shattered. A door flew open, and a man came through the door into the storm, but his hair didn’t even have a chance to get wet before he was shot in the back and folded down onto the sidewalk as if he had no more substance than the suit that he wore.

  Inside the building, rapid gunfire from at least two weapons continued for much the lesser part of a minute, and after the last shot, the silence in there sounded as final as the hush in a casket under six feet of freshly spaded earth. The door stood open, but no one stepped outside either to help or to finish off the back-shot man, who was lying on his side and weeping.

  The street remained empty of traffic. No light suddenly bloomed in the windows of the surrounding buildings. Nothing moved except the silver skeins of rain and the wind tearing through them.

  We were hooded and masked, but we could be known by our eyes alone. Although our genuine concern would surely be met with fear and disgust, we could do nothing but attend the weeping victim.

  Father first went to the open door, dared to look inside, stepped out of sight, but returned quickly. When he knelt with me beside the wounded man, he said, “Five men in there, all dead.”

  We were in the pooled darkness between streetlamps, but if we had been in light, the man still would not have known us by our eyes or perhaps not even if we revealed our faces. In his delirium, he saw not what lay before him but what he wished to see. He allowed my father to lift his left hand from the pavement to check his pulse, but he didn’t realize that he was in the company of strangers.

  To my father, he said, “Papa Gino, where’d you come from? Ain’t seen you a long time.” Weariness and bewilderment marked his voice. Death would settle on him soon. Father asked the man for his name, so that he might say a prayer for him. “Don’t you recognize me, Papa Gino? It’s me, your own Jimmy. All grown up and done real good for myself.” Jimmy coughed, and a little blood, black in the poor light, spilled between his lips. Perhaps because my father was holding Jimmy’s left wrist, the dying man said, “See my watch, Papa? Bitchin’ Rolex, solid gold. You take it. I ain’t never given you a damn thing. I wished I could of, now I can. Take it, Papa.” When my father did not at once accept the watch, Jimmy began to sob wretchedly and asked to be forgiven, for what we could not know, and his anguish seemed greater than his pain. Twice he spat blood between his words as he said, “Please take it, Papa Gino, it’s something I can do, it’s a little something.” My father took the watch from the wrist and passed it to me, because just the previous week my secondhand thrift-shop Timex had failed. Father thanked Jimmy for the watch and called him son and said it meant a lot to him to have it. He held Jimmy’s hand in both his hands and said a prayer for him, and I said one, too, but silently.

  In life, Jimmy’s face was flat planes and hard edges, but when he didn’t live in it anymore, the face changed and became soft and almost kind. His fixed eyes were dark and empty, and the rain washed the tears out of them.

  It was a terrible thing when death first entered the world, and even now when it’s the way of nature, it’s terrible beyond words. Whether it comes for your mother by her own hand or for a stranger who can say nothing in defense of himself except that his watch is solid gold, standing witness to a death leaves you desolate.

  We left the dead for others to find and bury, and we went away into the storm, the wind throwing shatters of rain at everything and the sky like a sea above and the whole world drowned in it. We went home from there, to our three windowless rooms, and we didn’t speak of dead Jimmy again, as if the gold watch had materialized around my wrist by the working of a magic lamp that I had rubbed.

  I didn’t sleep at all that night, though Father did or pretended that he did. I worried that he might die, and I wondered how I could go on alone without him. I hoped that I might die before him, selfish though that hope might be, but as you know, it didn’t work out that way.

  30

  THE POND IN RIVERSIDE COMMONS WAS ONLY MINUTES from Gwyneth’s apartment, but apparently she needed an hour to get there, which left me with time to do something useful. After turning on the lights and closing the bedroom window that I had left open, I began work in the living room, picking up the books that Ryan Telford had thrown on the floor. I smoothed rumpled dust jackets and returned the volumes to the shelves in alphabetical order by the authors’ names.

  When that task was completed, I intended to gather up the broken plates and glasses in the kitchen. Instead I went to the window at which Gwyneth must have been standing when she saw Telford get out of his car.

  The snow had not yet begun to fall. On the fart
her side of the street, Riverside Commons looked darker from here than it had seemed when I’d been within its boundaries, the low path lights now mostly screened by trees. It wasn’t the biggest park in the city or even the second biggest, but at that moment the Commons looked like a place in which you could easily become lost, wandering into territory that had never before presented itself to park visitors, where the trees were mutant and the grass as gray as an old man’s hair.

  One summer morning two and a half years earlier, they had found a woman floating dead and naked in the pond, pale and facedown among the koi, her clothes scattered carelessly on the shore as though, in the grip of some pagan impulse, she had undressed there for a swim. She proved to have been a nurse, a wife, a mother of two, and she lived close enough to the hospital to walk home from work in the early evening. Before long they found the three young men—Orcott, Clerkman, and Sabbateau—who used her like a toy, broke her, and threw her away in a quickly and ineptly staged fake drowning. Orcott had a doting uncle, Benton Orcott, who owned three flower shops and from whom they had borrowed a delivery van. They put an old mattress in the back and called the van their pussy wagon. The crimes were committed on the move, while they took turns driving and riding shotgun, one of them always with the woman. The wife of Benton Orcott, Verbina, despised her nephew, whom she regarded as a useless, depraved doper. Certain that he would damage the van, she inspected it the next morning. Although Verbina was unable to find a dent or scratch, she discovered a nurse’s cap under the front passenger seat and in the cap a pair of panties, which one of the rapists had kept for a souvenir but had forgotten to retrieve. She called the police. Two days later, they found the mattress stored for future use in an abandoned building across the street from the nephew’s apartment house. The three were high-school graduates who had been unable to find employment in the perpetually bad economy. Their defense attorney lamented that society had failed them. The nurse’s name was Claire. The name comes from the Latin clarus, which means “clear, bright, shining.” In his confession, Sabbateau said that they had chosen her because she “was so pretty that she seemed to shine.”

  I had not come to the window to wait for the snow or to dwell upon the more depressing moments of the park’s history. I disengaged the latch, raised the lower sash, and discovered upon the sill the same Greek-like letters, printed with a felt-tip marker, that were on the sill of the bedroom window. No doubt they were at every window in the apartment. As a cur of cold wind snuffled and licked at my hands, I closed the sash and engaged the latch.

  In the small vestibule, I peered through the fish-eye lens to be sure that no one lurked on the fourth-floor landing. When I opened the door, the felt-tip inscription graced the threshold. I closed the door, locked it, and stood there for a moment, wondering.

  Those symbols—or most likely words—seemed to be meant to ward off some enemy. They had not stopped Ryan Telford; and they would not have kept out men like the three who had murdered the nurse. Whatever Gwyneth feared most, it had not been born of man and woman.

  31

  MY FATHER HAD SAID THAT WE SHOULD FEAR equally the Fogs and the Clears, that the latter were, in their own way, as terrible as the former, and that we should regard them with wary indifference. Although I never disobeyed my father, although I never met the eyes of a Clear or sought to attract its attention, I did not fear them. In fact, the sight of them continued to make me happy.

  To one degree or another, I have been happy most of my life, in part because the world has infinite charms if you wish to see them. Also, the world’s many mysteries fascinate me and inspire in me a hope so profound that I suppose, if I were to express it sincerely and at length in a manuscript more bluntly philosophical than this one, any normal person, those who walk freely in daylight, would find it the work of a Pollyanna and worthy only of ridicule.

  Of course I also have periods of sadness, for there is sorrow baked into the clay and stone of which the world is made. Most of those doleful times occurred during the year after Father died, when I found it difficult to be alone after his long companionship.

  When I ventured out that night, a little more than five years before I met Gwyneth, I encountered a spectacle so enrapturing that my melancholy melted away. I thought of it as the Convocation. The word felt right to me, though at the time, I didn’t know why.

  Past one o’clock in the morning, in an August cooler than most, I came aboveground and discovered Clears everywhere I looked. They wore what they always wore: soft-soled white shoes, loose pants with elastic waists, and shirts with three-quarter sleeves, some all in white, others in soft blue, still others in pale green, as if they were dressed to staff the emergency rooms and surgeries at various hospitals. There were men and women of every race, but all of them seemed to be of roughly the same age, early to mid-thirties. They walked ledges, eight or ten or even more to a single building, and they glowed on rooftops, strolled the sidewalks, proceeded boldly down the center of the street, stood in intersections. In the glass towers that lacked ledges, the Clears were at some windows, radiant, gazing out. They traveled the parks, and I saw them descending the steps to a subway station.

  Never before had I seen more than three or four Clears in one night. I was delighted by these multitudes.

  They neither spoke to one another nor appeared to be engaged in coordinated activities. Each seemed to be going calmly about his own business, whatever that might be, and some were solemn while others smiled. I felt that they were all listening to something I couldn’t hear, which might mean that they were telepathic and were attuned to one another, though I had no way of knowing.

  The few drivers who were out at that hour were oblivious of the luminous crowd. They drove right through some of them, and it was as if both the Clears and the vehicles were mirages, each unaffected by the others, as though they were from different dimensions, combined in this one scene only by virtue of my gifted eyes.

  As I moved in wonder, block after block, a few of the Clears looked at me, and in each instance I turned away at once. But in the split second during which our eyes met, I felt every time as though a cube of dry ice had been swiped the length of my spine, the chill so intense that I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover my skin blistered from my topmost vertebra to my coccyx.

  They did frighten me then, but only briefly, and I continued to delight in the sight of them. I saw thousands of Clears that night, and never again enjoyed a spectacle like it.

  For days afterward, I felt that something new should happen, some event that the city had never played host to before and that no one could have imagined in advance of its occurrence. But time went by, and nothing came to pass that didn’t befall the city’s people every day. I was mildly disappointed until I thought that perhaps the unimaginable episode that I anticipated had been something that the Convocation had been there not to facilitate but to forestall.

  And with that realization, I felt the dry ice sliding down my spine again, though not a single Clear was present.

  32

  IN THE COMMONS, ON THE FOOTPATH BY THE POND, I waited in a cold that deepened by the minute, thinking I might see the first crystals of ice form on the shallow black water along the shore.

  Gwyneth wasn’t late. I was a few minutes early. I hadn’t quite finished picking up all the broken glass and china on her kitchen floor, but all of a sudden I had felt an urgent need to get out of there. I don’t know why. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that when I’d closed the bedroom window, I hadn’t latched it, and that someone or maybe something was at that minute climbing the fire escape and soon to enter the apartment with bad intentions.

  So affecting was that intuition, I abandoned caution and left by the front door, went down the communal stairs two at a time, at risk of encountering one of the neighbors, and burst into the night as if I had been blown out of the house by an explosion. There was traffic in the street, but I was hooded and masked and gloved, and I dodged across the lanes to a Gershwin-
jazz performance of car horns and shrilling brakes.

  Just inside the gate to the Commons, I paused under the great pine where Gwyneth and I had stood the previous night, and looked back toward the house, expecting something to be at her living-room window, but it was just a rectangle of unobstructed light. Hopeful that I had not been seen in flight, I continued to the pond, where now I stood in expectation of the first ice.

  Because I had earlier remembered the murdered nurse found in the water and now stood near the spot where she had been pulled to shore by the coroner, pity swelled in me, not just for the dead woman and her family but also for the city, though certainly the city did not want my pity. So tender did this feeling become that I knew I was losing the degree of self-control that I needed every minute that I was aboveground.

  When I tried to turn my thoughts away from the nurse, they went unaccountably to the marionette, of all things. As irrational as it may sound, I wondered if the puppet had sat on this shore for part of that grim night, watching her pale body float and the koi bump against it under the mistaken impression that it was a great mass of bread thrown to them by admirers. Seemingly irrational, yes, but the thought became an image in my mind’s eye, and I felt in my bones that it was true, and I wished that I had not come to the Commons sooner than necessary.