categories: Cocktail Hour
[Episode 5 of on ongoing story, 500 words at a time. Eventually we’ll have a category where the whole thing can be read in order, but for now, scroll down to start with Episode One and read through to this point!]
The Weight of Light
Mr. Rickets office turned out to be the entire 61st floor of the Branch building on 57th street, quiet and softly lit, elegant work stations, elegantly dressed people at work, mahogany everywhere, including every scrap of trim and all the many bookshelves in the conference room, which was outfitted with a large hidden screen upon which a Cisco systems interface showed a pair of plushly similar conference rooms waiting empty, one with stainless steel trim, Ted noticed, the other black stone.
Ted took the seat offered by Mr. Rickets’s secretary, a very tall young man with freckles and an absent manner. In normal circumstances Ted thought, he’d say something about having worked for Cisco Systems a few years at the beginning of his career. The shoes felt good on his feet, soft as slippers. Mr. Allway’s shoes. This same secretary had given him a hat to wear over the false bandages a make-up artist had applied over false scabs and a realistic black eye and already, not a lie told, Ted felt far too enmeshed in Mrs. Allway’s plan. He had yet to meet Mr. Rickets and only meeting Mr. Rickets, he thought, would give him a compass to work with.
But the doors opened with an airlock sucking sound, and another secretary, a tough little older woman, showed Mrs. Allway to his side. “Oh darling,” she said and sat beside him, fixed his collar, pecked his cheek, patted concerned at his bandages, touched his chin to turn him a little and look at his wound, warmest concern, took his hand in hers, gloved like Jackie Kennedy’s hand would be eternally gloved. Ted felt a wish rise up that he really might be Mr. Allway, squeezed the gloved hand, got nothing in return. Her warmth was a rehearsal, and that was all, or not all, as they’d been advised to imagine themselves closely watched from the second they entered the room.
Freckles stood in a corner with his hands crossed over the front of his pants like someone hiding an erection or expecting to be kicked, his face perfectly blank. Soon, the doors sucked opened again, and the little tough lady showed a portly, florid fellow to the opposite side of the table. “Ach,” said the man, quickest glance at Ted, longer look at Mrs. Allway: “Ve heard of your fall, terrible.”
“I’m recovering nicely,” Ted said just as he’d been coached. The accent had been mimicked perfectly for him: this was counsel for Fortune Industries Dubai, a man Mr. Allway had talked to often on the phone, apparently, but had never met.
Onscreen a secretary much like the secretaries at work here entered the stainless steel room, straightened chairs, and then her bosses filed in, seven tidy men in black and white, the Shanghai contingent. And then the black stone room filled, three men in headscarves and kaftans.
“Mr. Allway,” one of them said. “My blessings!”
“Mr. Medwallah,” Ted said. He’d got his three squeezes from Mrs. Allway.
“Terrible,” said Mr. Medwallah.
“It was no Sunday ride in a Ferrari,” Ted said as he’d been instructed.
This elicited the expected laugh, and then more, the Dubai team leaning in to hear the story. A 140 mph ride in Medwallah’s car after a meeting in Cairo. Mr. Allway had fainted.
The Shanghai contingent listened politely.
Finally Mr. Ricketts entered, a perfectly unremarkable man in rumpled chinos and a blue blazer. “All here?” he said.
The Weight of Light so far:
“A Heavy Weight”
Ted rushed up the stairs from the A-train at Columbus Circle with the crowd, a shuffling mass of humanity heading for work, as he was. Ahead of him a man in a suit slipped and stumbled, caught himself, stood again, then fell. The crowds just coursed around him, but Ted stopped. The poor guy’s face was right on the cold cement and hardened gum and spittle.
“I’m all right,” the man said.
“You’re not,” Ted said.
“I’m not,” the man said.
“Call Ellen, please,” the man said. And his eye rolled back.
“Yes,” said Ted. He cradled the man’s cheek off the cement in one hand as everyone else in the world hurried up the stairs past them, fished his phone out of his front jacket pocket with the other, placed it on the step, unlocked it with an awkward finger, then punched the right buttons: 9-1-1. He touched speaker and the ringing seemed very loud. A Hispanic voice, female, said, “What is the nature of your emergency?”
And Ted, always efficient, answered every question as the crowd from his train dwindled. The stairs were almost empty now, and two more people had stopped, a black woman in a dashiki and a subway worker with a first-aid kit. The woman murmured kindly to the victim, took over the cradling of his head. The worker, admirably prepared, admirably trained, opened the kit, prepared a syringe, gave the guy a shot right in the neck, then helped Ted turn him on his back, began a clumsy administration of CPR. The woman murmured in prayer; the worker pumped the victim’s chest; Ted held the victim’s legs up high per instructions. Very nice shoes.
Surprisingly quickly, the EMTs were there, a tall bespectacled fellow in a St. Vincent’s jacket and a short woman dressed the same, but with a bright, leafy tattoo climbing her neck. The woman took over the chest compressions from the worker as the tall EMT administered oxygen and thanked them all. Ted kept holding the guy’s feet even as the woman in the dashiki removed the beautiful shoes. A third EMT brought a stretcher down, and he and the tall fellow loaded the victim on it and carried him up the stairs while their colleague kept up her dogged work. The subway worker followed them. The black woman hugged Ted and he hugged her back, silently. She smelled of cooking. “Lord Jesus, help him,” she said. She patted Ted’s shoulders, then handed him the guy’s shoes. Probably they’d cost two thousand dollars: Ferrangamo.
The woman bustled down the steps to the squealing of a train arriving. Ted climbed out into the sunshine, carrying the shoes. The ambulance had already pulled out. No sign of the subway worker. He held the shoes and watched a long time. And then he simply walked to his new office, all the new faces, all the pleasant smiles, found his desk over the gallery floor, put the shoes in one of the empty drawers in his desk, opened yesterday’s file on his huge new I-Mac, stared at the meaningless words and images and icons a long time, found himself weeping copiously, no one to tell.
He’d have to find Ellen.
The Weight of Light
Of course the incident stayed with him. The next day he left the office after the morning meeting. Found he couldn’t concentrate. From the street he called St. Vincent’s Hospital and asked about a man who’d fallen in the subway. “No such report,” the woman at the admit extension said. He asked for the EMT office and she connected him without a goodbye.
“Mr. Swallow,” the next desk said.
“Yes,” Ted replied. “How’d you know my name?”
“Oh, it comes up on the screen here with your address and, like, your college girlfriend’s astrological sign.”
“You don’t sound like you’re kidding”
“You’re calling about Mr. Allway. I was one of the guys on the steps at Columbus Circle egress 12. I’m Rick. I happen to be on desk this morning. But.”
“How is he?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead. Likely, he was dead when we arrived. Aneurysm, likely. Pronounced in the wagon. We took him straight down to the morgue at Bellevue. His wife was there before we finished the paper. Poor kid, crumbled.”
“He asked me to call her.”
“I’m not allowed to tell you her phone or her name. But you know the first name. Same last name as the deceased. A two-one-two number, which means Manhattan. His name was Richard, like mine. The prefix is two-five-five. That’s the Village. They’re on Bank Street. There are two more numbers I’m thinking of. Five-four-five-four, and twenty-nine.”
“Rick, thank you.”
“One might be a street address, one might be a phone number.”
“Okay. Got it. You’re a good man.”
“Not everyone stops,” Rick said.
“It was the decent thing to do.”
“You were his last human touch.”
“I thought of that. Often it’s you, I suspect.”
“It’s a heavy weight, Mr. Swallow.”
“It’s a very heavy weight, Ted.”
It was a very heavy weight, all right. Ted hadn’t had so much trouble picking up the phone since he’d been in high school and wanted to quit chorus. His father had said fine but made him dial Mrs. Conklin himself, and her disappointment in him was so palpable that he’d changed his mind mid-conversation, finished out the chorus season in misery, one of only three boys in the risers, and worse, the one who’d tried to quit.
It would be easier from the office. Morning would be best. For the fourth consecutive day he scanned the newspapers and Googled galore, but there was no mention of Mr. Allway, nothing he could find, anyway.
Finally, a week after then incident, he did it. Punched the numbers. The message machine at the other end picked up, one of those mechanical voices, a generic greeting. He hung up. You couldn’t leave such a message on an answering machine. After lunch he tried again, got the machine again. His first client meeting took up the afternoon and it was successful, two hundred fourteen prints for the new W hotel in Philly and a great conversation after with the artist, one he’d brought with him from Markson-Markson, ha.
That kept him busy through the afternoon, contracts and billing. At five he called Ellen Allway again. The phone rang a dozen times. A weary, wary voice: “Hello?”
The Weight of Light
“Mrs. Allway, this is Ted Swallow, Theodore. I was on the subway steps when your husband fell. I tried to help. I’m sorry for you loss. I only call because he said to call you.” And they’d been the poor guy’s last words.
“ … Okay.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. Terrible.”
“No. No. I mean. I’m sorry. Thank you for calling. It’s good to know.” She began to cry. “Pardon me. Perfect stranger. Your kindness. It’s overwhelming.”
“There were some others there as well.”
“All so kind.”
“Have you someone there with you?”
“He should be home soon.”
“I have his shoes. If you want them. We had to remove them and they were left there when the ambulance went.”
“My sister, I mean. My sister is here.”
“Is there a service?”
“You keep the shoes. I guess that would be best. You just kept the shoes.” She was crying again. “I don’t know. A service, yes.”
He stayed on till she subsided. “If there’s anything I can do,” he said.
“The shoes aren’t important.”
“I know. I’m sorry I brought them up.”
He had his own problems, of course. The new job was new because he and his wife had broken up their gallery business when they split, all fairly amicably. He’d got their modest apartment in the West Village and moved into the city, she’d kept the house in Jersey and much of their social circle with it. The apartment was barely furnished, though he had items coming from storage—nice pieces that had been left by his parents, a few other picks. He’d bought a bed to replace the old one, bought a new fridge. The fridge remained empty. The nights remained solitary. The job got to be more fun. He’d never had four meetings a day, not ever. He bought a few new shirts.
Friday a week after his talk with Ellen Allway, she called back, a different woman, fresh and bright, still a little sadness. And in her brightness the slight trace of a British accent, something that had been hidden before, or suppressed. “You know,” she said, “I think I’d like to meet you. I wouldn’t mind to see where it happened. They say it will help to know where it happened. You can tell the story to me. I mean, if you’re inclined. And I’ll buy coffee. We can talk and you can tell me. If you’re inclined, I mean.” Definitely British.
They made a plan for Sunday, meet at Fedora, an overly nice restaurant in his neighborhood. But a landmark. And then they held a silence. He listened, but she didn’t seem to be crying.
Finally, she said, “Sunday then.”
“Sunday. Oh, and I could bring the shoes.”
“Your husband’s shoes. The ones he was wearing. The EMT removed them, the guy from the ambulance crew, and they were left behind. I can understand you wouldn’t recall my saying so. They’re nice shoes.”
“Oh, very nice, I’m sure. Yes, I suppose. Bring the shoes.”
“And Mr. Swallow?”
“Please tell no one of our plan.”
“No one,” he said, a little amused, but intrigued: the odd needs of a woman in mourning.
He buzzed down to reception and asked Bonnie if she or anyone on the floor had a shopping bag. Shortly she trotted out of the glass elevator with something pink in hand—a shopping bag from La Petite Coquette, garish pink, neatly folded. Well, that would do, and he’d dispense with duty.
The Weight of Light
The Fedora is in a basement space, down five or six cement steps from the street, and old, one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in the city. Ted walked down and looked—no customers as yet, so early in the day. Outside he held the pink underwear or maybe dildo bag and tried not to pace. This was a mission of mercy. A woman approached—she looked like she’d sounded, rather plump and a little short as her husband had been, his age, mid-fifties. He started to greet her but she walked straight by with a cross look—wrong woman. Late for the appointment, a very tall, very distracted woman in a very straight black dress stopped. He’d paid no attention to her approach. “Mr. Swallow?” she said.
“You’d expected someone older?” She might have been a model, that kind of overly angular beauty. The shoes felt heavy in his hand.
“No,” he said.
“It’s in the basement?” she said, pointing down the stairs.
“It’s nice,” Ted said.
“Does it have a back door? A rear exit?”
“No, it’s built right into the ground.”
“Let’s find another.”
Around the corner there was an espresso joint and she ducked in there among the dozen people clicking at laptops. “Better,” she said.
She didn’t look like someone who had ever cried, too brisk and efficient for that. And briskly, efficiently, she ordered a latte. He got juice. No need for nerves now. Her hair swept over her eye and she was made up plainly, her skin very pale. “You’re nice,” she said.
“How are you holding up.”
“It’s bad,” she said. And then she did begin to cry, dry little sobs into the black linen napkin the waitress had brought.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“I didn’t treat him well,” she said.
“Probably very well,” Ted told her.
“No, not well at all.”
He patted her arm.
At length, she said, “Do you know where he was going?”
“When you met?”
“I don’t. Of course I don’t.”
“He was going to a meeting. A project he’d been working on for years. He’d sunk all our money into it. Our apartment, too, in effect. Completely sunk, I’m learning. Double and triple mortgages. There was to be a handsome payout and he’d finally achieved it, the life project, his opus magnum.”
“Magnum opus,” Ted said, and wished he hadn’t.
“Hocus-pocus,” Ellen said without inflection. “He was going to meet his investors and they were going to sign and he was to come home with a check, these people he’d been courting for years, finally on board, all of them. At his lawyers. A contract. Finally the money, Mr. Swallow. By Skype from Dubai and Finland and Singapore, a consortium, with a couple of factotums in person. He’d been talking about it for weeks, months. And now, you see, it’s not going to happen. And so I’m left with less than nothing—an apartment going under the waves, Mr. Swallow, and mountains of debt. If he’d only been able to sign!”
And now she wept again.
Ted was nothing if not practical: “But surely his product or service is still of value?”
“He was the product, Mr. Swallow. He was the service. He designs systems. Designed. I don’t even have any idea what this one was all about or only sort of. Movement of capital between corporations, between banking systems, political systems. It was fascinating. He talks about it all the time. Talked. It is fascinating. He did talk. Oh!”
Ted patted her arm.
She only talked faster: “I just spent an hour at the lawyer’s this morning. And he hasn’t told them yet. About the death. Only the fall. And, well, this is awful, but. This is awful but I don’t know you. And yet I have a favor to ask. I’ll reward you. We’ll reward you.”
“None needed,” Ted said. “I just wanted to help.”
“You’re kind. I knew you were kind. If you’d just come this afternoon to the lawyer’s, sit at the meeting.”
“It will be nothing. Honestly. Sit at the meeting as my husband. Sign his name on the papers. That’s all. And all the money would come through. Mr. Rickets has already post-dated a death certificate. Mr. Rickets our lawyer. He knows the city systems manager. He can get it through. My husband will die next week.” Her eyes were deep and brown and she gazed at him steadily now, seeming to find something inside him he’d never known about.
Slowly, he said, “I don’t see how you think I’d get away with this.”
“They’ve never all met.” Honestly, her face, her hands, her hair falling across her eye. Her felt himself falling into her as if falling into a great abyss. You’d fly a while.
He said, “With respect, Mrs. Allway: impossible. These people all know your husband. Knew him. This is not a ruse for real life.”
The typists around them in the coffee shop were taking notice, subtle stares.
Ellen lowered her voice: “Only the man from Singapore has actually met my husband, and he’ll be joining us on Skype. This afternoon. You can wear a hat, a bandage, some makeup, you have had a fall, an injury. They won’t look closely. You won’t have to say anything at all.”
“You’re in shock,” Ted said. “You are desperate. I understand. You are in mourning. Perhaps I can help you some other way. Your lawyer is taking advantage of you.”
“Mr. Rickets is a dear friend. And he’s just trying to save my life.”
“This will never work. You’ll just find yourself in more trouble.”
“Oh, Mr. Swallow, please. You’d be a simple stand-in, nothing more, then on your way. You could even wear his shoes.”
[scroll back up for this week’s episode.]