Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told
This man is dressed in black -- shirt, jacket and pants; the shirt buttoned right up to the neck but with no necktie -- and he slouches back in his chair, a glass and a pitcher of beer on the table amidst the piles of playing cards. His eyes are hooded, bushy-browed, his face is thin -- some might say 'gaunt' or 'drawn' -- and he sports a small, neatly-clipped goatee beard which covers the tip of his chin and not a lot else.
This man is Artie Williams, sometimes known as 'Bills' and others as 'Dealer'. He is something of a communicator, his head filled with numbers and probability percentages and ratios. There are those who say he has a direct line to the world beyond the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan and far away from the leafy thoroughfares of Central Park: the world where the spirits roam. But where this reputation has sprung from nobody knows. Artie Williams keeps himself very much to himself. Like tonight, Happy Hour, turning cards over on the table, drifting with the music, making piles and occasionally smiling to himself. And occasionally frowning.
The table midway between the stairs and the bar has three men sitting at it. One is Edgar Nornhoevan; another is Jim Leafman and the last of the three is McCoy Brewer.
They're talking about the condition of the subways right now. A little while ago, they were discussing the flow of traffic down Fifth. In a while, they may be talking about what kind of winter they're going to have this year. It's the middle of September now and the weather is a big consideration in New York, particularly after the excesses of the previous winter.
These men are what you might call real friends.
They can talk deep-down personal stuff -- like Jim's wife Clarice cheating on him or Edgar's prostate problems or McCoy being laid off from his job with the Savings and Loan company -- or they can talk controversial stuff like religion or life after death or abortion rights, but that isn't always necessary. Like tonight. And the truth is that only real friends can discuss trivialities with the level of intent and interest that Jim, Edgar and McCoy are displaying right now.
But that conversation about the subways will be interrupted in just a minute. And it won't drift into the weather. At least not tonight.
For tonight, the City will be sending to The Land at the End of the Working Day one of its casualties for healing.
It does that sometimes.
The sound of shoes echoes through the bar, shoes coming down the stairs. One guy at the bar stops tapping his hand for just a couple of seconds, the wink of an eye, and takes in this sudden intrusion. Then he goes back to tapping. An elderly man further down the bar mutters something to himself and then smiles into the mirror, gives a kind of half-chuckle and then reaches for his drink, running a finger down the iced-up side. The man he sees looks right back at him and returns the smile, runs a finger down his own glass.
Over in one of the booths, a woman in a red dress that's so red it looks like she just spilt berry juice all over it -- looks like it should be dripping that redness onto Jack Fedogan's polished floor -- she looks up for a second, drinking in the sight of the descending feet, then looks back at the glass she's twirling around the coaster on the table in front of her, the glass next to the pack of Marlboro Lights and matchbook, next to the ashtray with a collection of butts sitting in it that she is determined not to count. The feet don't mean anything to her. There's nobody knows she's here tonight. Nobody who even cares where she is, tonight or any night.
The truth is the feet don't mean anything to any of the irregular regulars.
But they mean something to Jim and McCoy and Edgar, and they stare at the line where the ceiling meets the diagonal stairs and watch as the owner of the feet comes fully into view.
As the feet get closer to the floor, walking strangely stiltedly on the stairs like one or both of them is favoring a broken shin-bone or a twisted ankle, these feet grow into legs and the legs grow into a waist and the waist turns into a full body and that, at last, leads into a head. The feet reach the floor and stop. The body sways slightly, like it has already had enough Happy Houring without looking for more, but the face on the head does not appear to be Happy Houred. Not at all.
The eyes are wide, wide but somehow not taking in what they're seeing, and the hair is mussed up and in bad need of a comb not to mention a razor and clippers. The sports coat hangs off of one shoulder, its sleeve obscuring the hand at the end of the arm it contains. The necktie is undone and hangs askew, the thin end flopped out over his sports coat lapel. The pants hang baggy around his crotch, no creases in them at all, the ends sitting crumpled up on mud-caked shoes whose laces are trailing untied on the floor.
"Hey," says Edgar Nornhoevan in a voice little louder than a whisper, "isn't that..."
"Front-Page McGuffin," says Jim Leafman, keeping his own voice low, nodding slowly.
McCoy Brewer keeps the nod going. "Sonofabitch, so it is," he says.
It won't surprise anyone to learn that Front-Page McGuffin's first name isn't really Front-Page, so it hardly seems like worth mentioning. But it kind of leads into other things that are important, so I will.
Front-Page McGuffin's first name is Archibald and the only other Archibald he ever heard of -- he has never actually known any at all -- is Cary Grant. And, as Front-Page is wont to remark at regular intervals -- such as when someone introduces him to someone he doesn't already know (though there has never seemed to be many that ever fit that particular bill) as Archibald McGuffin, just for a joke kind of -- he renamed himself. The fact that there are so few Archibalds says it all as far as Front-Page is concerned. And so he changed his name.
But, like it happens so often, the truth is slightly different. Front-Page didn't actually rename himself. It was done for him.
When A. D. McGuffin joined the New York Times back in the 1940s, he was 16 -- "too young to fight but old enough to cuss and make coffee," is how he usually tells it. The guys in the Times newsroom called him Adie, making something almost tuneful out of the acronym of his initials, sometimes putting their hands on their hips in an effeminate manner and shouting across the hubbub clatter of ringing telephones and pounding typewriter keys, 'Hey, Adie, howsabouta coffee over here?' And they'd laugh. They'd laugh every time, like it was a new joke that nobody had ever heard before.
Hank Vendermeer, the guy who employed Front-Page, didn't make a big thing out of Front-Page's reluctance to divulge his first name. At that time, Hank had got a boy out in the Pacific, a problem making the payments on his house, a meeting with the Editor in about 10 minutes (for which he was decidedly unprepared) and a peptic ulcer that made him wince every time he burped up wind. The fact was, Hank Vendermeer couldn't care diddly about names.
"What's the 'A' for?" Hank Vendermeer asked at the time, suddenly thumping his chest with a hand shaped like a fleshy meathook into which a tiny pencil had been incongruously placed.
"Just 'A'," Front-Page responded.
"Okay." Hank wrote it down. "And the 'D'?"
"Just 'D'," said Front-Page.
Hank Vendermeer shrugged and wrote the 'D' alongside the 'A' on the sheet on the desk in front of him, then made a few ticks here and there. And that was that. "Okay," he said. "You start tomorrow."
Front-Page had a job.
The 'D' in Front-Page's initials actually stood for Donald. But this seemed even worse to Front-Page than Archibald. Hell, the only Donald he'd ever heard of was a grumpy cartoon duck. No Thank You, Ma'am.
A. D. McGuffin worked hard and he learned fast and, pretty soon, he was making less coffee... though he was cussing more. At first, his daily routine pretty much consisted of schlepping copy around the various offices, doing a little typing, answering a few telephones, generally pinch-hitting around the floor. Then he got the chance to write up a piece on LaGuardia's speech in Atlantic City, when the Mayor of New York agreed to head up the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, imploring Americans the country over not to overeat and not to waste. A. D. wrote a nice piece and made it onto page 4. His first solo flight in print. "One day," he told Sonny Vocello, "I'm gonna be on the front page."
"Sure," said Sonny, nodding his head. Hell, it was just a filler piece.
"Well, I am," said A. D.
"Sure," said Sonny Vocello. "We gonna have to call you Front-Page McGuffin." And he laughed, calling it out to anyone near enough to respond.
A. D. smiled and went along with the gag. But it made him even more determined to succeed.
A. D. didn't officially earn this sobriquet until December 1954 when he reported on the censure of the senator from Wisconsin for what the Senate called 'four years of abuse of his colleagues'. A week later, albeit in smaller print and in a keylined box in the bottom right corner, A. D. got his second front page story when Papa Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his sparingly written story of an old fisherman who just refused to give up.
From then on, Front-Page McGuffin got a lot of lead stories and he just stuck with the name.
He retired from the Times in 1991 at the not-so-tender age of 65. He was happy to be leaving it all behind, even though he still yearned for those years when newspaper reporting meant something more. But, he still had his wife, Betty, and he intended to write a book, a kind of memoir of the post-war years when everyone had a mental eye on the nuclear clock, watching its hands tick around to Armageddon.
He had his friends, too.
And his favorite watering hole, a two-flight walk-down that had just opened up a couple of years earlier on the corner of 23rd and Fifth, where he had met people who seemed real and where folks off the street just didn't seem to come. He made some new friends there, too, at a time of life when a guy couldn't really expect to make new friends but just to sit around and lose the ones he already had.
That last part was true enough for Front-Page McGuffin.
Cancers took a half-dozen of them in only half as many years, cut them down in their prime, wasting them to skin and bones and puckering up their mouths into thin-lipped sad little smiles. Bobby DuBarr, who could make a pool cue ball near on sit up and bark like a dog; Jimmy Frommer, who taught Front-Page all there was to know about subjunctive clauses; even Lester 'Dawdle' O'Rourke, Front-Page's friend of friends, who was always late for everything, even the punchline of a joke... all of them went that way, eaten up from the inside like wormy apples, their skins yellow-white like old parchment and their ankles blown up over the sides of their house shoes because of all the steroids they were taking.
Heart attacks took another couple -- Jack Blonstein, who had a singing voice that the angels would love, and Nick Diamanetti, who knew every joke that had ever existed (or so it seemed) -- Front-Page watching them slip away in quiet hospital rooms with a barrage of blipping machines and suspended drips fixed onto scrawny arms.
A traffic accident took one of his best friends, a car crash up in Vermont where Bill Berison and his wife, Jenny had gone to see the fall colors on the trees. It had been something Bill had always planned to do.
Then, on New Year's Eve of 1994, in a lonely hospital ward in the South Bronx, Betty McGuffin gave in to the cancer that roiled inside her, slipping regretfully away from Front-Page into the waiting bedsheets, holding Front-Page's hand so tight he thought it would shatter and biting her lip to try to hold on another few minutes. To stay with him.
Thus, as millions of people celebrated the sudden movement of a clock-hand onto 12, the world ended for Front-Page McGuffin.
It didn't end with the cataclysmic explosion that Front-Page and his friends at the Times had been predicting in the 1950s and '60s, but with a sudden rush of silence that accentuated all of the minutiae of sound and color that surrounded him.
He didn't remember getting home that night. Didn't remember getting into the suddenly wide and empty and lonely bed: it had been wide and empty for all of the nights that Betty had been in hospital but then Front-Page had been praying and hoping she'd come back. Now that he knew she would never be coming back, the bed was the loneliest place in the world.
The next night, he had been gone down to The Land at the End of the Working Day the way he'd gone down there to Jack Fedogan's bar most nights round about 6.30, for just a couple of drinks before going home to Betty and supper. Edgar Nornhoevan had been in that night, just like he was most nights, and Jim Leafman, too. Even McCoy Brewer came in, at around 10, armed with a passle of jokes that would have made even Nick Diamanetti smile.
Nobody mentioned Betty even once, but everyone bought Front-Page a drink and everyone gave his shoulder a squeeze. Once or twice, Edgar and Jim and McCoy saw Jack wiping his face with a towel, making out like the heat was getting to him, even though it was the first day of January and cold enough to freeze the spit as you swallowed it. Edgar, Jim and McCoy figured Jack Fedogan was thinking back about his own Phyllis and recognizing Front-Page's grief and his loss.
At a little after midnight, Front-Page made his farewells and stumbled up the stairs and out into the night. They never saw him again.
Not until tonight.
Three years later.
The three men at the table sit and stare.
Jack Fedogan stands and stares, the seemingly ever-present glass that he polishes held limply in one hand and the towel in the other.
Over behind them, Edgar, Jim and McCoy hear the sound of chair legs being pushed roughly across the floor. When they turn around they see Bills Williams standing up at his table and staring across at the new customer.
It's a night for staring, though none of the other patrons -- the irregular regulars -- are paying any attention to Front-Page McGuffin.
"Hello," says Front-Page, like he's been here every night for months, but stammering the word and making it come out in a kind of croak.
Jack Fedogan leans on the bar and shakes his head. "Front-Page," he says, "Where you been hiding yourself?"
Front-Page McGuffin looks around like he's seeing the place for the first time, frowning and blinking his eyes. As they watch, Edgar, McCoy and Jim notice one of the eyelids seems to hang down longer, like it's got stuck on the way back. Front-Page lifts his left arm and starts swinging it towards his face, the fingers moving slow and robotic like the pick-up-a-prize machines out on Coney Island. Eventually, the hand gently connects with Front-Page's neck and then crawls -- there's no other word for it -- crawls its way up onto his chin and then around the cheek up to the eye socket where one of the fingers extends and pushes the lid up. Front-Page rubs at it, blinks a couple more times, and then drops the arm by his side.
"Not... well," says Front-Page, leaving a big space between the words. "How you guys?"
Edgar gets to his feet and moves to take Front-Page's hand, having to lift it up from the man's side first, and pumps it furiously but carefully. "Good to see you," he says, "been a long time."
"Long time," Front-Page echoes.
He looks to the other two men at the table and then walks across stiltedly, listing to the left at first until he whacks himself on the hip. This seems to cure the trouble and he makes it all the way to the table without further mishap. His co-ordination seems to have improved a little but it's still shaky, like he's not in control of his movements. Front-Page takes hold of Jim Leafman's hand, shakes it and says, "Jim." Jim nods, returns the shake.
"How about that?" Edgar is saying to Jack Fedogan.
"Something's wrong," says Jack, keeping his voice low.
Over at the table, McCoy Brewer is reaching his hand across to Front-Page but Front-Page backs away, looking at it in a kind of blank-faced horror... a quiet desperation.
McCoy looks across at Jim and then over at Edgar and Jack. "What did I say?" he asks, but Front-Page is already making his way around the table. When he reaches McCoy, he leans forward and takes hold of McCoy's hand in both of his own and shakes it emphatically. "Bad luck," says Front-Page, shaking his head slowly and uncertainly, looking like maybe he's already had a few Happy Hours of his own before hitting the Working Day.
McCoy pulls his hand back from Front-Page, who seems momentarily unable to detach himself, and flexes the fingers and then rubs it in his other hand. "Jeez," says McCoy, "must be cold out there."
Jim moves across and puts an arm around Front-Page's shoulder. "You okay?" He pulls a chair across from a nearby table. "You want to sit down?"
Front-Page moves his head slowly and jerkily to face Jim Leafman. His eyes are all white for a second and then the pupils slide slowly down. "Not well," he says.
Jim helps him to the chair and Front-Page drops onto the seat.
Bills Williams moves over to stand by the table. Jim and McCoy look at him and shrug.
"How you doing, wordsmith?" says Bills.
Front-Page shakes his head. "Not well," he says, the words sticking partway out.
McCoy and Jim take their seats and pull their chairs into the table. Edgar says to Jack Fedogan to bring over a pitcher of beer and four glasses. When he sees Bills Williams pulling another chair across, he tells Jack to make that five glasses.
Over at the table, McCoy asks what was bad luck.
"Bad luck," Front-Page agrees enthusiastically.
"No," McCoy says, raising his voice like he's talking to someone who speaks a different language to the one he uses, separating out the words. "What. Did. You. Mean. About. Bad. Luck. When. You. Shook. My. Hand?"
Front-Page nods. "Bad luck." And then he leans forward, raps the table with his knuckles, puts his head on his arm and commences to let out the most fearful noise.
"He's really lost the plot," McCoy Brewer observes.
Edgar Nornhoevan looks down at his hands and notes, with some surprise, that they're shaking. "I'm not even sure he recognized me... or any of us," he says, more to himself than to anyone else.
Jim Leafman taps Edgar on the shoulder and nods in the direction of Front-Page McGuffin. "He having some kind of attack?"
"He's crying," Bills Williams says quietly.
"Crying?" says McCoy. "That's crying?"
The sound that the one-time star reporter of the New York Times is making is a noise that's a little bit like nails being dragged across a blackboard, a little bit like the busted air conditioning in Edgar's apartment, and a little bit like the whine of the loose fanbelt on Jim Leafman's aged Plymouth. And with every new expulsion, Front-Page's back arches like a mad cat.
Bills reaches across and takes hold of Front-Page's hand, raises his eyebrows. Then he shifts his hold to the wrist.
"He's cold isn't he?" says McCoy. "He's one sick man."
"He's worse than that," says Bills.
Edgar frowns. "What's worse than being sick?" he asks.
Front-Page lifts his head and that eyelid has stuck down again. He lifts his hand and adjusts it, this time a little easier. "I do... I do remember you guys," he says, the words sticking here and there, coming out croaked, and then raps the table with his knuckles.
"You eating, Front-Page? You gotta eat you know," says Edgar, sounding like he's talking to a child. "Keeps your strength up."
"Not hungry," says Front-Page, rapping his knuckles on the table again.
"Ask him when he last ate something?" Jim whispers to Edgar.
"Two weeks, maybe three," says Front-Page without waiting for Edgar to pass on the question. He raps his knuckles again. "Don't remember. Just remember the pain..."
Edgar says, "Pain?"
Front-Page slaps a hand heavily against his chest. "Pain," he says, "right here. Fell over in the street... down near Battery Park. Late night. Nobody around." He pauses and makes a wheezing sound. When he speaks again, the lips barely come apart, cracked and discolored. "Just lay there for a time. Thinking of Betty."
"Oh God," Edgar says, hanging his head.
"Then what happened?" asks Bills.
"Pain went away. Got up... went somewhere..."
"Where'd you go, Front-Page? Did you go home?"
Front-Page looks at Jim and tries to shrug. "Doanmumber."
"He doesn't remember," Bills translates for the frowning Edgar. He hands his glass of beer to Front-Page and watches him take a long slug.
Jack Fedogan strolls across and places the pitcher of frothy beer on the table, puts a glass in front of each person. "How's he doing?"
"Not good," says Edgar.
"He's dead," says Bills.
Front-Page looks from one wide-eyed face to another while in the background, from Jack Fedogan's bar speakers, Ellis and Branford Marsalis play a haunting version of 'Maria'.
"I think," says Front-Page, "he's right." The words come out straighter and coherent and he looks as surprised at that as everyone else looks as a result of Bills Williams's revelation. "It happens sometimes," Front-page says. He gives the table a single knock with his knuckles.
"It happens sometimes that people die and walk into a bar to see their old friends?" Edgar says, his voice getting higher with each word.
Front-Page shakes his head. "My voice," he says. "Sometimes it sounds almost normal. The beer helps."
"But, yes, Edgar, it does happen sometimes that people walk around after they've... passed on," Bills says. "I seen it once before, down in New Orleans." He reaches across to Front-Page's open shirt-neck, pulls a silver chain there until he exposes a circular medallion depicting an old man carrying someone on his shoulders. "Saint Christopher," Bills says.
"Who's he?" asks Jim Leafman.
"Patron Saint of travelers," Front-Page says. "Protects anyone on the road... looks after them."
"Why did you not shake McCoy's hand?" Bills asks. "When you came over to the table."
"Bad luck to shake hands across a table," Front-Page answers. "Everyone knows that." He looks around at the blank faces. "Don't they?"
"Why'd you keep rapping the table, Front-Page asks, making it sound like he already knows the answer.
"Knocking wood," Front-Page says. "Keeps from tempting fate."
McCoy Brewer says, "Keeps from tempting fate to do what?"
Front-Page shrugs. "From exercising irony. You say something is this way -- the way you want it to be -- then you knock wood to make sure it keeps on being that way."
"You very superstitious?" Bills asks.
Front-Page seems to be settling into his chair more now, though he keeps flexing his mouth, opening it wide like he's in pain. "No more than the next guy," he says.
"Tell us about Betty," Bills says to him.
Front-Page McGuffin visibly winces. He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly. "She's not here anymore, Bills... and I miss her. I surely do miss her."
"I know you do," Bills says. "Tell us about the time she was in the hospital. Is that when the superstitions started?"
"I guess so."
"What did you do?" Jack Fedogan asks, crouching down by the table. He's checked the counter to make sure nobody's waiting for drinks. In the background, the Marsalis father-and-son team is playing 'Sweet Lorraine'.
"She had a tumor."
"I know that," Bills says. "Tell us how the superstitions started."
"Number 13," Front-Page says. "They wanted to put her in Room 13. I remember now. That's when it started."
"You weren't superstitious before then?" Jim asks.
"They -- the doctors -- they told me wasn't anything going to help Betty now. Then this other one, nice guy, he puts his hand on my shoulder and he says to me, 'You can try praying'." Front-Page leans onto the table, knocks it a couple of times, and continues.
"So I tell him I'm not a religious man. Wouldn't know how to even begin talking to God... even if I thought he did exist. And this guy, he looks at me with this sad smile, and he says to me, 'That's all you have now, Mr. McGuffin. That's all your wife has.' He says to me, 'Whyn't you give it a try?'
"So, that night -- the first night she was in hospital -- I got down on my knees in the bedroom, right alongside her side of the bed, and I prayed. I cried like a baby -- and that's something else I don't do -- and I prayed." He raps the table and shifts his weight in the chair, looking like he's uncomfortable.
"Next day, I go into the hospital and they tell me Betty's had a good night. But they tell me they're moving her into another room." He looks across at Bills and gives a single nod. "Room 13.
"'I take it you're not superstitious, Mr. McGuffin?' this nurse says to me, all sweetness and light. Anyway, I think to myself for a minute; and I think about how Betty has had a better night and how -- maybe coincidentally, but hell, who knows? -- how I did all that praying. And I wonder if maybe it did have an effect. And if it did, how maybe I should try to avoid anything that could work against her. So I say to the nurse that I don't want Betty in Room 13."
"What did they say?"
Front-Page looks aside at Edgar and says, "They did it. They found her another room. They weren't happy about it, but they found her another room."
Edgar snorts a Way to go! snort, chuckles and pats Front-Page on the hand, which feels very cold just lying there on the table.
"Then," Front-Page says, sounding kind of tired, "everything started to get really intense.
"I went home and started to think about all the little superstitions and sayings folks use to get them through one day into the next. Totems and talismans they employed to keep them well and happy."
Suddenly remembering the pitcher, Jack gets to his feet and pours beer into the glasses.
Watching the beer froth up, Front-Page says, "I knew a few but I wondered how many there really were... wondered if I really went to town on these things that maybe Betty would be..." He lets his voice trail off and takes a long slug of beer.
"So," he says, setting the glass back on the table, "I went down to the library and I read up on them. You wouldn't believe how many books there are on superstition." He takes hold of the medallion about his neck and rubs it gently between his thumb and forefinger. "Got this from a book titled Dictionary of Saints by D. Attwater, 1965. Got another one from M. Trevelyan's Folk-Lore of Wales, 1909."
"What was that one?" McCoy asks.
"That told how a posthumous child could charm away a tumor by putting his or her hands over the appropriate spot."
"What the hell's a-"
"It's a child born after its mother has died," Bills Williams says to Jack Fedogan.
"You found one of these... posthumous children?" Edgar says.
Front-Page nods. "Guy in the newsroom knew somebody." He waves his hand. "You don't want to know the details. It's a depressing story. Anyway, he arranges for this guy's daughter to visit Betty with me." There's a strange sound from Front-Page's throat that could be a chuckle, although there's no sign of amusement on his face. "Betty didn't know what the hell was going on -- she was in a lot of pain, mind you. So I kept her talking while this girl -- she was a woman actually... the tragic events surrounding her birth having taken place some time ago -- she rubs Betty's stomach.
"And, you know... I think it helped her. Course, it could just've been the rubbing that helped but I didn't think so. Anyway, I wasn't taking any chances. So the girl came with me to the hospital another couple of times and then she didn't want to come any more. I can't say as how I blamed her. Hospitals can be downbeat places at the best of times and I was bad company to go with."
McCoy takes a slug of beer and rests his glass on the table. "So what did you do then?"
"By this time I had gotten so many of these folk-stories, sayings, homilies, and who knows what else that I was taking a whole bunch of stuff in there every day... and I was visiting with Betty morning, afternoon and evening, each time with something else to slip under her pillow or in her bedside cabinet."
"Things like what?" Jim asks.
"Oh, good luck coins -- pennies with her year of birth printed on them -- taped-up saltpot, a model of a black cat, piece of wood from an alter, rabbit's foot... there were so many I kind of lost track what I was doing there for a while." Front-Page shakes his head and raps the table. "And I had started doing things by myself, too."
Jack is back down on the floor and he shifts his weight from one knee to the other. "Like what?" he asks.
"Knocking wood all the time," he says, rapping the table to demonstrate, even though no demonstration was necessary, "spitting when I saw the back of a mailvan, spinning around when I inadvertently walked across cracks in paving stones, moving one hand in an arc to join the other hand when I saw a nun or a priest -- you'd be surprised how many nuns and priests you see when you're doing this kind of stuff."
"It's a wonder they didn't lock you up," Jim observes and then winces when Edgar kicks him in the shin.
"That's okay," Front-Page says, and he raps the table just to make sure.
"But Betty... Betty didn't make it," he says quietly.
There's a world of regret in that simple statement and, even though Front-Page's voice is low, the two guys at the bar look around, just for a second, not knowing why they're looking around but simply responding to the sudden sense of loss that permeates the bar and mingles with the sound of Art Pepper's alto on 'Why Are We Afraid?'.
Edgar and McCoy and Bills and Jack and Jim just sit there, taking it in turns to nod, Edgar and Bills squeezing Front-Page's shoulders.
Front-Page shakes his head. "By then, I was too heavily into this stuff to back off. Even tried to change her burial day."
"Why?" asks Jack
"I read that, in County Cork in Ireland, it's bad luck to be buried on a Monday and that's when... when Betty was scheduled. They wouldn't change it. Said that it wasn't as simple as just changing days. I was devastated. There was a whole lot of spitting and knocking and turning the night after I found out, I can tell you that for nothing! But then I read someplace else that it was okay to be buried on a Monday so long as at least one sod was turned on the grave-site a day or two beforehand. So I went down to Lawnswood and dug over a small section. Then I was... heh, I was going to say happy: I was placated.
"How come you never told us any of this?" Edgar asks. "We saw you the night after Betty died and you seemed... well, you seemed normal. I mean, you were upset -- hell, that was obvious -- but I didn't know about any of this other stuff." He turns to the others. "Anyone know about this?"
There were several shakes of heads and a few grunted 'No's.
"Well, I'm pleased to hear that," Front-Page says. "I tried to keep it to myself... though I'm pleased that nobody happened to see me when I could see a nun!"
Sometimes it happens that a conversation just naturally takes a pause and this one does right here. A time to take a drink and to watch the guy at the bar throw a couple of bills on the counter before making his way to the stairs and up to the waiting streets of New York; a time to nod to the music, like you were listening to it all along; a time to take a drink.
"So," Jack Fedogan says, his voice kind of lilting, phrasing the question like he's asking what Front-Page thinks to the new album by Jimmy Smith, "what took you down to Battery Park?"
"Just walking," comes the reply. "I spent the past three years just walking... walking and thinking... and rapping, and spitting, and turning, and who knows what else. And I just fell right over, felt like a truck ran over my chest. Then I got up. Went somewhere... like I say, I don't remember. Wasn't until a couple of days later, after I'd stopped eating and sleeping and drinking, I felt for my pulse and there wasn't one. Put my hand on my chest-" He puts his hand on his chest to demonstrate. "-No heartbeat."
Front-Page opens his mouth wide. The inside is gray and dry and, just for a second, before he turns his head away, Jim Leafman thinks he sees something wriggle across the back of Front-Page's mouth, down near the top of the throat. "No saliva," Front-Page explains. "Gets so I can hardly open my mouth sometimes. The drink helps though... I think," he says as he takes a slug of beer and swishes it around his mouth, then swallows.
"So why'd you come here?" Jack asks. "I mean, why'd you wait until tonight?"
"Well, for a time there, I didn't want to see anybody who would remind me of what I had and don't have any more. Kept myself to myself. Lived out on the streets... down in the subway tunnels sometime. Met some strange people. Met some nice people, too. It's like I say, there's good and bad everywhere.
"Then, when I'd... you know; when I'd died... I met this guy in an alley and I told him pretty much everything I just told you guys. And he says -- after we'd established the fact that I was dead... and he was mighty surprised at that, I can tell you -- he says maybe I need to do it again."
"Huh?" says Jim, a thin trickle of beer dribbling down his chin. "Do it again? Do what again?"
The five men stare at Front-Page McGuffin wondering if they heard him right.
"He says to me -- this guy I met -- he says that maybe, every once in a while, it doesn't take the first time and I need to do it again. So-"
Edgar Nornhoevan shakes his head and pushes his chair back. "Hey, do I want to hear this?"
"No," says Front-Page. "It's okay. Really.
"So, we think of ways I can do it. He says, why don't I throw myself under a car or onto the subway under a train. Now I don't want to do that because it'll maybe mess up the driver of that car or train. But I say, yes, I'll try the subway track because it's electrified, but only when the train has been through.
"So we go down onto 42nd Street, buy the token, the whole business, and we wait until a train comes through. Then when it leaves, I climb down onto the track and lie against the third rail. Nothing happens. I mean, I took hold of that thing and there was nothing. By the time I'm climbing out, commuters are coming onto the platform for the next train. They look at me and the other guy like we're scum of the earth and we high-tail it out of there as quickly as we can, with folks shouting after us, calling us names.
"So then he suggests I go up somewhere high and jump down. This sounds like a good idea to him -- I mean, what could be more final, right? -- but I always had this fear of heights and, well, I just couldn't do it. And another thing was that if it didn't work, and I was still conscious but with every bone in my body mushed to pulp, I wouldn't even be able to get around.
"So I say how's about I drown myself. He thinks this is a good idea.
"We went up to Central Park -- out to the lake? -- and I wade on out into the water, which I have no sensation of, incidentally, and I keep walking until it covers my head. And I keep on walking. Then I just stand there, looking up through the water at the stars twinkling up there in the sky. I can hear this other guy shouting to me -- a kind of half-shout, half-whisper... because it's late at night, you know, and the muggers are out -- he's shouting asking me if I'm okay. And I'm trying to answer him. There I am, in ten feet of water, trying to talk. I stayed there for about 15 minutes and then came out."
Front-Page shakes his head and takes a slug of beer.
Edgar suddenly notices that beer is dripping onto the floor from Front-Page's chair but he doesn't say anything.
Shrugging, Front-Page says, "And I tried other things. Hanging myself. No good. I think it broke my neck, which is maybe why I have trouble swallowing, but it didn't do anything else. I only thank God that I did it with this other guy near at hand. I mean, I just kicked away a waste basket -- we were in the Park again, under cover of darkness -- and swung there from the branch of this tree. I felt fine... well, I felt no different. If he hadn't have been there, I'd have been found in the morning, still swinging there, still trying to talk and ask someone to please get me down.
"Then I tried poison. You see, I was trying things that, if they didn't work, wouldn't make me look any different than the way I always look. I mean, if I'd tried fire, then I may have burned all my body into a blackened mass which I would still maybe have to walk around with."
Front-Page shakes his head again and knocks wood.
"Then this guy, he says maybe he's not the one to give me any advice. He means by this, maybe nobody alive can give me advice on this one. So I ask him what he means by this. And he says I should think about trying to speak to somebody who's already dead."
At this point, Front-Page McGuffin turns to Bills Williams and says, "I want you to help me talk to Dawdle O'Rourke."
Without saying a word, Jack Fedogan gets to his feet and walks over to the counter. A couple of minutes later he comes back to the lilting piano of Herbie Hancock playing 'My Funny Valentine', carrying another pitcher of beer. Nobody has said anything while he's been away, like it was some kind of performance which couldn't continue while one of the actors was taking a leek.
Jack pulls over a chair and sits down at the table, setting the pitcher next to the empty one. "This should be bourbon," he says. To which Edgar gives a short snigger and then does the honors of freshening everyone's glass.
"Can you do it, Bills?" McCoy asks.
Bills nods and looks down at the playing cards in his hands. "I can try," he says. "But are you sure Dawdle is the one? You don't want me to call on Betty instead?"
"Uh uh," says Front-Page. "She'd worry. I mean, I should be up there -- or 'out' there... or wherever the hell 'there' is -- and the fact that I'm not with her will mean I must still be alive. If she knew all this was happening, she'd worry. It has to be Dawdle. Dawdle and me go way back. If he can't help me, then nobody can. I know I can trust him not to say anything to anyone else... mainly to Betty. He's the only one. I love the others but they'd think they were doing me a favor by speaking to Betty. I can't take that chance."
Only Herbie Hancock has anything to say after that, and he's doing his talking with his piano.
After a while, Front-Page says to Bills, "Will you do it?"
Bills nods. "I'll do it."
As they're preparing one of the tables over near the wall, Jack Fedogan is going around telling the other folks that he's closing up for the night, closing up early. It's a credit to him and the Working Day itself that the other patrons accept this as just the way things are. They leave with smiles and nods, pulling on scarves and overcoats as they prepare to venture up the wooden stairs and out into the January streets of Manhattan.
Pretty soon there's just the six of them.
Eleven if you count Coleman Hawkins, Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Gus Johnson, whose mellow 'There Is No Greater Love' is wafting around the bar, filling the corners and all the nooks and crannies of The Land at the End of the Working Day, preserving the mystery of those hidden places while removing their threat.
Front-Page himself is not taking part in the preparations. He's sitting at the old table, the one near the bar, sitting by himself and occasionally looking up, looking around, and then looking back at his drink, sometimes taking a slug, the pool of beer around his chair widening all the while.
"All his insides are shot," Edgar explains to Jim Leafman as they throw a green cloth over the designated table. "Liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, bowel, colon... all rotted to mush."
"Yeah?" says Jim, sneaking a glance across.
"It's what happens," Edgar says matter-of-factly. "Happens to us all." He pulls a face. "You catch the smell?"
Jim frowns and shakes his head.
"You should've been sitting next to him. Poor guy. Smells like an open sewer."
Bills Williams comes out of the bathroom with McCoy Brewer. "What he's done," he's saying to McCoy, "is mess up his natural forces with protective talismans and totems. Maybe it's the sheer number and frequency, maybe it's just the interaction of one or two... I don't know."
They stop at the table and look across at Front-Page.
"And in doing so, he's made it so that he... his soul, his id, his karma... whatever you want to call it -- he's made it so that his very essence has been imprisoned. Maybe he was protecting himself -- for a while anyways -- from external influences, but he died from what sounds like a heart attack. It was an internal force that killed him. I don't think you can protect yourself from what's happening in your own body. Don't think you should even try." Bills gave a small smile, without humor. "We are born, we live and we die. That's the way it is... and that's the way it has to be. When Front-Page's time came and his body could no longer continue, his essence should have been free to go. We're going to do this thing -- contact Dawdle O'Rourke -- but I don't know as how it'll do any good."
"Okay, everybody ready?" says Jack Fedogan.
"As we'll ever be," says Bills. "Front-Page?"
The time of inaction seems to have taken its toll and Front-Page is once again moving with extreme difficulty. So much so that Jack and McCoy have to go over and help him to the new table.
When they are all seated evenly around the table, Bills starts to speak.
"Okay, here's the way it's going to work. We all link hands palm-down on the table. Nobody breaks the link, whatever happens. If this thing is going to work, it'll work right away. If it doesn't, then it isn't going to work. Okay?"
Everyone nods and grunts assent.
"No talking or sounds of any kind, okay?"
Without waiting for a response, Bills Williams takes a hold of McCoy's and Jack's hands and allows his head to fall forward onto his chest.
"Dawdle O'Rourke?" Bills says, his voice sounding deep and strange, sitting on the sound of Tommy Flanagan's piano like a cork on an ocean. "Dawdle O'Rourke, I need to speak with you. A friend of yours needs your help. His name is Front-Page McGuffin. Please respond."
They wait in silence.
After a couple of minutes, Bills repeats the message word for word.
Still no response.
"Dawdle O'Rourke, you are urgently needed. This is Bills Williams in The Land at the End of the Working Day. Please respond."
Front-Page tries to smile and pulls his hands away from Edgar and Jack. "It's no good," he says as he tries to pull his eyelid up. "It's just not going to work."
They all break their hand-holds.
Jack Fedogan leans forward on the table. "Hey," says Jack, "you ever hear about those cases where folks lift automobiles off of kids who are trapped beneath... just regular scrawny people who suddenly have this amazing strength?"
"Well," says Jack, "why is that?"
"You think this is the time for-"
"No, Edgar, this could be important," says Jack. "It's the power of the mind, isn't it? That's what does it."
"Yeah, that's what they say on Cable TV, Jack," says Edgar, "so what's your point?"
"My point is..." He turns to look at Front-Page and sees his old friend's wrecked face, sees the black rings around the eyes, pieces of lip that seem to be coming away -- he never noticed those before -- and tufts of hair that stand proud of the scalp which itself is going kind of blue and mottled, like hands that have been in water too long. And, taking hold of Front-Page's hand again, he asks, "Do you trust me?"
The voice that comes back is deep and resonant, the voice on an old vinyl record that's playing when the power cuts out on the player. "I trust you, Jack," Front-Page says, and he blinks his eyes closed.
"Front-Page?" Edgar says.
"He's gone," says Bills.
"Where's he gone?" says Jim. "He's right there. Where could he-"
"Give me a hand with him," Jack Fedogan says. He stands up and pulls Front-Page up to his feet by his arm. "Jeez, his arm!"
"What's wrong with his arm?" asks McCoy.
Bills rushes around the table and takes hold of Front-Page McGuffin's other arm, hoisting it around his own shoulder. "The muscles have atrophied," he says. "Gone to mulch."
Jim Leafman scowls. "Yeuch."
Edgar kicks nudges him and says, "Shh!"
With Front-Page on his feet, but his eyes still closed, and his arms around Jack's and Bills's shoulders, Bills says, "What now?"
"Help me get him to the stairs."
"Where you going?" asks Bills.
"Where out? It's below zero out there," says McCoy getting to his feet.
"I'm going to teach him the power of the mind," says Jack.
"Wear your coat at least," Jim shouts as Jack starts up the stairs, his arm around Front-Page's waist.
"You want me to come with you?" says Bills.
"Uh uh." Jack grunts. "He's still carrying a weight."
Bills Williams thinks Front-Page is carrying lots of things around with him, but he doesn't say anything.
"I'll be back," Jack shouts, in his best Arnie impression. "Serve yourselves."
Out on the street it's cold.
It's dark and there's a wind blowing and snow's in the air, though right now it's trying to rain... but most of all it's cold.
But somehow... it's okay.
Sometimes the City carries its magic on the surface for all to see.
Right now, at a little before 9 o'clock, on a Tuesday evening after the longest Happy Hour in the brief history of Jack Fedogan's Land at the End of the Working Day, the streets are empty of people. Jack looks along 23rd and then down Fifth and there's not a single person to be seen. Not even any traffic.
Then, its tires swishing along the rain-washed streets, a single Yellow cab turns the corner into Fifth just a block down and heads their way, its light glowing like a beacon in the darkness.
Jack hefts Front-Page up against him and waves his free arm. "Hey!" he yells into the gloom.
The cab pulls up alongside them, the cabby calls, "Get in."
"Thanks." Jack pulls open the door and maneuvers Front-Page into the back seat. It smells of cheap perfume and cigarette smoke, for which Jack is grateful. His companion would not win any prizes in a sweet-smells competition.
"Where to?" the driver asks as Jack pulls the door closed.
"Where in Central Park, friend? It's a big park."
"Anywhere, but quickly." He pushes a rolled-up twenty through the grill.
"You got it," comes the reply.
As they drive, Jack starts patting Front-Page's face. "Front-Page," he says, "can you hear me?"
"Hear you," says Front-Page.
"Hang on in there, buddy," says Jack. "Hang on in there."
Front-Page lets rip with a fart. It sounds like material tearing.
"He okay?" the driver calls over his shoulder. "He gonna throw up, you tell me, okay?"
"It's just wind," Jack shouts. Then, to Front-Page, "Hang on, buddy."
The driver lets them out on the corner of Central Park South and Fifth, seemingly relieved to have made the trip without his passengers redecorating the back seat.
Jack holds onto Front-Page, his shoulders hunched over at the biting cold wind, and watches the cab drive on up Fifth Avenue.
"Okay," says Jack, "I want you to walk with me."
"Where... going?" says Front-Page.
"We're gonna sit ourselves down on a bench along here a ways and we're gonna look up at the city."
As they start to walk, Front-Page McGuffin says, "Nice."
Maybe it's something in the air, maybe it's the promise of rain coming down as a fine spray, but Front-Page starts to improve as they move along and it doesn't take as long as Jack thought it would to reach his destination.
Then they're there.
A bench on one of the pathways that cross and re-cross Central park. Over across from them as Jack lowers Front-Page onto the seat, they can see the buildings up Central Park West, their lights twinkling like fairy lights in the gloom.
"This is where Phyllis and me used to come," says Jack Fedogan. He leans forward on his knees and looks up through the branches at the glittering lights. "We used to come here and make plans," he says, either telling Front-Page McGuffin or simply reminding himself. If you were to ask him which one it was, he wouldn't be able to tell you. Not for sure.
"You. Miss. Her?" Front-Page's voice is stilted and echoing, hollow, more like the memory of voice than the voice itself.
"I miss her very much, my friend," says Jack. "And I look forward to seeing her again. But only when the time is right."
By his side, Front-Page nods. "Time. Is. Right," he says.
For a few seconds they sit in silence and then Jack says, "What I was saying back in the Working Day? About the power of the mind?"
Front-Page's head lolls on his neck.
Jack shakes his friend's arm and says it again.
"You have that power."
Jack takes the single grunt to be an ironic laugh. "I have no power."
"Yes you do," Jack says. "Okay, you can't lift an auto right now... and maybe you couldn't even if Betty were here and lying right underneath. But you'd have a college try, am I right?"
"Wha- what? No. Auto. Here."
"Try to get to her, for Chrissakes. Just... just leave it all. Let it go!"
"Your body is finished. It's you who've trapped yourself here... nobody else. You and all those dumb superstitions... all that spitting and rapping and twirling. You've got- Listen." Jack turns around and takes hold of Front-Page's jacket lapels. "If I could change places with you right now, I'd do it. You hear what I'm saying to you, Front-Page? If I could be as close to seeing Phyllis again as you are to seeing Betty, I'd change places right now. All you have to do is try."
"Try," says Front-Page. "Yes." Then, "How?"
"Just... just close your eyes and let it go. Don't fight it. Use that power of the mind that folks use to lift automobiles."
Front-Page McGuffin blinks at Jack Fedogan and then looks down at his friend's hands. "You. Can..."
Jack takes his hands away. "Sorry. Getting carried away there."
"S'okay," says Front-Page and he moves his head to face the twinkling lights on the buildings through the trees. "Quite. A. City," he says, his voice now sounding like a door rubbing on a piece of coal trapped beneath it. "New. York," he says.
Even the words themselves have a magical sound, Jack thinks. He rubs his shoulders and shivers. "You trying?"
"Trying," says Front-Page.
They sit like that for a few minutes, silent.
"Something... You. Good. Man. Jack."
"So they tell me."
Jack Fedogan turns around and looks at his friend's face. Is it his imagination or is it the light filtering through the trees... or does Front-Page look more peaceful now?
"Hold. Hand," says Front-Page McGuffin. "Going."
Jack takes hold of Front-Page's hand and grips it tight, trying hard to let him feel the warmth. "Front-Page?" he whispers.
"Yessss...?" Sleepy-sounding now.
"Tell Phyllis I said, 'Hi'."
Front-Page's head lolls forward. And now there is just one person sitting on the bench in Central Park, breathing in the fine mist and watching the lights twinkling through the trees. Jack sits there for a while like that, his arm around Front-Page McGuffin's shoulder and Front-Page's head leaning against his own like a sleeping lover, just watching the city and listening to its sounds.
It takes Jack Fedogan almost two hours to walk back to The Land at the End of the Working Day. Two hours in which he has re-lived weeks and months and years of memories. When he arrives at the familiar entrance at the corner of 23rd and Fifth, it's raining hard and Jack is already sniffling.
"Where you been?" Edgar says as Jack clumps down the stairs. "It's almost midnight!"
"Where's Front-Page?" asks McCoy Brewer.
"Right now?" says Jack. "Right now I'd say he's catching up with someone he's been missing for a long time."
"Where'd you leave him?" asks Bills Williams.
Jack walks across to the counter and lifts the hatch. "In the park."
Bills smiles. "And I bet I know where," he says.
"Coffee anyone?" asks Jack. "It's been a long-"
Suddenly the lights flicker.
A wind blows down the stairs and swirls around them, a wind so strong that the five of them shield their eyes.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, the wind drops.
The lights return to their full intensity.
And a solitary shimmering figure stands at the foot of the stairs.
"Someone call me?" asks Dawdle O'Rourke.
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: