I. Walter Austin
The edges of the Schuylkill are frozen, the ice faintly reflecting the lights spaced along the bridge above. Out in the middle of the river, the water runs thick and black and slow. Michael sees a few people walking on the bridge, only their heads visible, sliding there; he's down on the bank, searching, skirting frozen puddles. Sixteen years old, he wears a nylon jacket with round cigarette burns in the shell, dirty cotton batting seeping out. He carries an empty canvas mailbag over his shoulder. His pants are a special kind that can be turned into shorts; the legs zip off. Now the zippers, circling his thighs, are icy cold against his skin. Wind slips between the metal teeth.
He has been searching for hours without much luck. It's late, after midnight, and cold, and he wishes he could sleep.
Someone throws a can from above, but it misses him, clattering twenty feet away. At the sound, the birds rise from their night places; they clap their wide, black wings and settle again. Michael heads under the bridge, kicking at the piles of trash, checking the coils of old wire, the abandoned clothing. He knows what Walter Austin wants. It can't be too fresh for that, Michael could just kill any dog, and he wouldn't ever do that-but it can't be just bones, either. He steps under a streetlight, takes the assignment from his pocket; the ten-dollar bill and the strip of paper inside the envelope, both folded twice.
ASSIGNMENT: ROADKILL OR DEAD DOG.
LARGE SIZE BEST. AND FRESH. DROP OFF
TOMORROW. 8 AM. 24TH AND LUDLOW.
YOU ARE THE MEANS + THE CAUSE.
He has worked for Walter Austin since April, and now it's almost Christmas. He has never met him, directly; he can't even be certain he's ever seen him. The assignments keep coming, and asking questions might change that. Michael does whatever is asked of him. Once, he met a woman in a red hat and told her "Wednesday." Another time, he watched a street corner for three days, taking notes about anyone who lingered, worrying about his spelling.
The envelopes are delivered by all kinds of people, always different. And the slips of paper the assignments come on always say that he is the means, the cause, but they never hint at the end or the effect. Michael never stays behind, nor tries to follow. His restraint is not from fear of Walter Austin, of losing the money or receiving some kind of punishment; it is closer to a sort of honor, an agreement that he respects, that provides a place where he can understand himself.
Plastic bags, broken glass, and scraps of clothing litter the on-ramp. Here, he's even more exposed to the wind, which slices right through, barely slowed by his thin body. There's something farther along, down on the shoulder, but it's only a dirty blue blanket, empty when he unfolds it.
Then he's worn out his bad luck, and everything begins to turn. The dog is thirty feet from the highway, where the shoulder slopes away and a chain-link fence, at the bottom, sifts all the trash.
It's a long, rangy kind of animal. Black, with a curved tail and floppy ears, a dried tongue that twists out, only three teeth at the front of its snout. Perhaps it was hit so hard it was knocked all this way, or it dragged itself this far before collapsing, or perhaps someone left it here. None of that matters; all that matters is that he's found it. Few things have looked so beautiful to him. He leans closer, his nose almost touching the fur, and still he smells nothing but the frost, the cold air. It's too cold for the dog to stink, too cold for bugs.
A rag in his hand, Michael takes hold. The dog's legs move a little, but its knees don't bend. It wears a half-rotted leather collar, no tags. One eyeball is gone and the other is like an old grape, loose in the socket. The skin is unbroken, but Michael can tell just by the feel that things aren't right inside. Broken bones, organs swollen and torn up. Unclasping the buckle from the cord, he pulls the mailbag's mouth open wide and, with his feet, slides the dog inside.
Walking, he carries the bag, then sets it down and rests, then drags it half a block, then picks it up again. Sirens cry out, not far distant. He stays in the shadows. Just because he's not doing anything illegal doesn't mean he'd be able to explain it, or wishes to try. Now he turns on 23rd Street, out of the wind, and follows the river at a distance. Closer, along the bank, he knows Denny and the other boys are working the bushes, waiting for the men who will pay them. Michael won't go back to hustling; he has his new place, his assignments.
He crosses the train tracks, goes under the bridge at Market Street, then Chestnut. Beneath the bridge at Walnut, he pauses. Dragging the canvas bag into the tall grass, he opens it a little and pulls it back around the dog's head, in case anyone gets curious.
A rope hangs close along one of the thick round bridge supports; above it, far out of reach, is a metal ladder, screwed there when they were putting all the wires and everything inside, when they built the bridge. Michael checks that no one's watching, that no police cars are rolling past with their headlights dimmed.
His breath whistles through his teeth as he climbs. The ladder is so cold it hurts his fingers, though they're already numb. At the top of the ladder, he slides the piece of plywood away and sticks his head through, into the hollow space between the bottom of the bridge and the street above.
At least twenty people are sleeping around him, all wedged into their places, their breathing collecting with the hum of the pipes. Michael slides the plywood back. He can stand up straight, barely, between the girders. Farther along, two boys sit around a camping lantern that smells like it's burning gasoline; it casts light over a purse and two wallets, round coins, a car radio with wires snaking from it. The boys' wrists are bleeding a little, the kind of cuts Michael has had himself, from reaching through broken windows. That explains the sirens, before.
"What are you looking at?" one of the boys says.
In his corner, Michael has a double thickness of dirty foam rubber, two sleeping bags with broken zippers. He listens to the water slapping gently below, the cars and buses and trucks-he can tell the difference-close overhead. He tries to sleep, his back against a warm steam pipe, and his feet pressed to it, farther down. His teeth hurt.
In the morning, the dog is exactly where Michael left it. Looking up, he checks the time, the lighted numbers circling the top of the PECO building. 7:36. He spits up a gob of black phlegm, then shakes his head against the muzziness of breathing exhaust all night. Closing the bag, he lifts it in his arms and begins to walk.
The morning is cold and gray, with no chance of sun. A bus rolls past, blurred faces staring out the windows. He sets the bag down, catches his breath, then starts again. The corner is not far, only a couple of blocks; he is thankful for that.
No one is around. He eases the bag down off his shoulder, onto the pavement, right at the edge of the street. Stepping back, he leans against the brick wall. He wonders if anyone would guess that it's a dog inside the bag; the stiff legs stick straight out in four points, making it look like the side of a box.
A white van passes. The second time, it stops. A man climbs out, leaving the engine to idle as he opens the two back doors. The man wears a blue knit ski mask, with round holes for his eyes and mouth, and an orange down vest that looks like it's for hunting. He is barely taller than Michael, but much heavier.
"Walter Austin sent me," he says, taking hold of the dog. His gloves are also orange; the fingers are thick, rubbery.
Michael moves closer. He watches as the man gently sets the bag inside the van, which is completely empty, and clean, with a white metal gate separating the seats from the back. The man does not open the bag, doesn't ask about its contents.
"Didn't think you were supposed to be here," he says.
"I probably wasn't," Michael says.
"Not that it matters." The man slams the double doors. "Not that I know a damn thing about it."
Michael watches the tailpipe cough, once, as the van drives away.
Hours later, he's found half a piece of pizza, three chicken wings with plenty of skin left on them. Michael doesn't like to spend money on food. Wrapping it all in a piece of foil from a hot-dog wrapper, he sets it on a steam grate to warm; an old man's sleeping there, too, shoes under his head, icicles on his sleeve and pantleg where they've settled off the edge. Clouds of steam slip under his arms, between his legs. Sleeping that way keeps you warm, Michael knows, but it can make your skin go all soggy and strange, it can leave pockets of water beneath the surface.
Another man stands behind Michael, at the pay phone, checking the coin return for change, from the sound of it?and then walks away, repeating a number aloud, his voice fading. Michael sits in the sun, gnawing on the chicken bones, his expression serious. He's bored, but wants people to believe he's doing something, or waiting, or thinking a problem through. Men and women in suits hurry past, not even looking his way. The Chinese delivery guy clatters down the sidewalk, his bicycle's rear tire flat. Time passes; the line of shadow shifts. Pigeons pick cigarette butts out of the cracks in the pavement.
The pay phone rings. Four times, then it stops. A minute later, it rings again. Five times. It seems the man on the steam grate is stirring, as if he might answer the phone, but he is only turning over, cooking his other side.
The next time the phone starts, Michael stands and steps closer. He shivers, but he feels good, the food settling inside him. He picks up the receiver before the fifth ring.
"Hello?" he says.
"Yes." It's a woman's voice. "We have to get together."
"You're interested in love, right? People coming together?"
"I think you don't know who this is," Michael says.
"The boy wearing those pants with the zippers all over them? Is that you? That's who I want."
Her voice sounds black. Michael holds the phone to his ear, thinking. The man on the steam grate sits up, laces his shoes, and slaps the icicles from his clothes; they shatter around him, and he walks away, eating the crust of pizza Michael didn't finish.
"Are you there?" the woman says.
"We have to meet."
"You said that," Michael says. "You know where I am, I guess."
She pauses, waiting to answer, as if she's covering the receiver while she asks someone else what to say.
"But I'm busy," she says. "I'm thinking in a few hours. I'm thinking like five-fifteen."
"Is this a special assignment?" he says.
"You can call it whatever you want."
"I found the dog," he says. "I dropped it off this morning."
"A young man like yourself," she says.
"You're lucky," she says. "Ninth and Diamond. In front of Kentucky Fried Chicken."
"That's a ways from here," he says, then waits out the pause. He stares down a businessman who's waiting for the phone.
"You've been chosen," the woman says. "It can be no other place."
Then she whistles, and it hurts his ear, and when he listens again there's no one there.
Michael wastes the hours. It's too cold to sit on the benches in Rittenhouse Square, or to rest anywhere, outside. He zips up his jacket, tight, until the zipper bites his throat. He walks, thinking of the woman's voice on the phone, everything she said. He wonders if the phone call was a new way to get assignments; he is uncertain, but can't risk the chance that it was a message from Walter Austin. The details are always changing, and he is proud to be able to follow.
As he walks, he sucks on a packet of fake sugar until the paper gives way; when the sweetness is gone he spits the pink pulp against a parked car. It sticks. Days like this, mostly, he just tries to stay warm; sometimes he talks to someone, a little bit, a person waiting for a bus or working somewhere where they can't turn away. Today, though, he doesn't really feel like talking, even if anyone wanted to talk with him. He just keeps moving-through City Hall, onto Market Street, walking deeper into the afternoon. Patches of ice catch the light, salt resting on bare stretches of pavement. There is no one he's looking for, no one he wants to find. He does not have a mother or a father. No sisters, no brothers. Since he never had them, he does not miss them. All he knows is his feet are cold, that he's dependable, that his broken shoelaces are fixed with knots that won't go through the eyelets. His shoes are loose, but these are not bad times, when the sun is shining and he's not hungry, when he has an assignment for Walter Austin and he does it well.
Around four o'clock, he opens a door and steps into the warmth of the mall. The escalator carries him down, among the fake plants and wooden benches, mannequins watching through windows. Michael eats another packet of fake sugar. He doesn't like the feeling of other people's eyes on him, especially the other people his age, traveling in groups. They hold him off with their eyes, keep him at a distance-really, he'd like to be closer to the girls, to say something and have them listen. It's not figuring what to say, for him, it's the approach that has to be gotten past. No one will let him get close enough. And if he hangs around too long, watching, some of the boys will come ask him if he has a problem. He remembers the woman's voice on the phone, what she said about love, about people coming together. He wonders how it would be if one of the girls came and sat next to him, and talked to him, telling all about her room and her house, inviting him there. He imagines her thigh brushing against his own on the narrow bench. He wonders if she would listen to him, if he would lie to her.
It's after five-thirty, and the sun is gone. Michael stands below the fan that vents from the kitchen of the Kentucky Fried Chicken; warm, greasy air blows around him, making him hungry. Inside the restaurant, it's bright, the plastic chairs and tables shining. Most of the tables are empty, but a few people are working their way through buckets of chicken, eating little cups of coleslaw and mashed potatoes. Looking in, Michael gently kicks the wall, trying to keep his toes from going numb. He doesn't like it this far north, or east; he feels more comfortable when he's closer to the Schuylkill than the Delaware.
Across the street, there's a boarded-up drugstore, next to a tall building that's covered, down low, with that Mexican graffiti he can't read; the sign next to the door says HOTEL LANCASTER. He waits, watching for the woman he talked to on the phone. He imagines what she'll look like-probably wearing some kind of boots, and a matching coat, slippery, with her hair in tight braids and her eyes on him. All her words will be saucy, teasing. He tries to imagine what those boots will sound like, their sharp heels leaving no echo at all.
Finally, a man approaches, coming along the sidewalk. Huge, looming, in a black overcoat that almost reaches the ground; his shoulders are rounded, as if by the weight of the two leather suitcases he carries, one in each hand. When he sets them down, there's the sound of metal, settling. He looks at Michael, then across the street, then at Michael again. His skin is pale, yellow in the light from the restaurant. His black hair is long, lank, hanging almost to his shoulders, swept back from his forehead. A mustache rests on his thin upper lip.
"I was very much afraid you would not make it." His eyes are set close together, his nose thickens at its tip, and his small mouth stretches as he speaks. He is somewhere between middle-aged and old. "I hope you weren't waiting long," he says. "The bus was very slow, this evening. They are not always dependable."
The man's voice is low, almost a whisper, the ends of words slightly lisped off. He holds out his hand, short fingers thick as broomsticks. Michael takes a step back rather than shake the hand. He doesn't want the man to have hold of him.
"Is something the matter?" The man withdraws his hand. "I realize things are not entirely clear. For the moment, that must be the case."
"I think you're mixed up," Michael says.
"The phone call," the man says. "That is what has brought the two of us together. There has been no mix-up."
"I might have to go pretty soon," Michael says. "I'll probably have to get going."
"You will not," the man says. "This will be worth your time, I can assure you of that. You will have to trust me. I'm afraid I can't say it any other way."
Now there is a ten-dollar bill in his hand, extended.
"I'm not doing anything for ten," Michael says.
"You are not going to do anything," the man says. "No one will even touch you, and you will not touch anyone."
"What about the woman on the phone?" Michael says.
"She told you the truth." The man's hands are empty again, the money put away somewhere. "Only it's more complicated than that. You'll have to come along with me, if you wish to find out. Are you hungry, before we start?"
"Start what?" Michael says. "No, I'm not hungry."
"There is no reason to have anxiety. No cause. Did I tell you my name? I'm sorry. My name is Bender."
"Bender?" Michael says.
"Yes. Now, you see that hotel across the street? I'd like it very much if the two of us could go in there together. I'd like that very much. There's something inside that I'd like for you to see."
The man, Bender, takes a step forward, and Michael turns away, steps into the street. He feels trapped, yet curious. Bender walks slightly behind him, hulking, ready to reach out if he turns aside or tries to run. There's the whispering scrape of galoshes, sliding on the pavement, and the metallic sound inside the suitcases, as if they are filled with silverware, filled with knives.
The floor of the small lobby is dirty tile, pale lights flickering overhead. Behind a high desk, an old woman nods at them. She wears a Phillies cap, a hearing aid. Michael keeps walking, Bender silently herding him. A radio, mumbling through static, rests on a shelf, above the old woman's head. On a pad of paper, she marks one X, then another.
Bender reaches a huge hand past him, taking hold of a door with a round, wire-reinforced window; he swings it open and pushes aside a metal gate, which folds in on itself. The floor of the elevator is a slight step up. Michael enters first. There are mirrors in the corners, where the walls meet the ceiling, and Bender's head almost touches them; the reflection shows the round bald spot on the back of his head. Michael sees himself-small, his white face shining and scared, his body tailing away to nothing, down by the floor. He presses himself against the far wall of the elevator, but he's still within reach. He watches as Bender hits the 4 button with a thick finger.
They begin to rise, very slowly. Michael realizes his face only reaches the middle of Bender's chest. He is breaking one of his main rules-no enclosed spaces-but he has his reasons. His suspicions are gathering. Perhaps this man can impersonate voices, can sound like a woman or anything else. Then there was the ten-dollar bill-very familiar.
In the window, floors pass; he catches glimpses of empty hallways, each like the last. The elevator loses momentum, then lurches upward again, as if remembering itself. Michael keeps his gaze turned down, so he won't meet Bender's eyes. On the suitcases, next to the shiny steel hasps, tiny numbers are set on metal wheels. Combinations. He resists the temptation to reach out and spin them.
"What's in there?" he says, pointing.
"Instruments," Bender says. "You need not concern yourself with them."
"Do you know Walter Austin?" Michael says.
"No. I am not familiar with that name."
The answer comes a little quickly, perhaps; Michael is not sure what to believe. It's even possible that this man is Walter Austin, but recognizing that aloud would not be wise.
Bender's body seizes into a kind of shiver, then relaxes again. He turns his head one way, then the other, cracking the vertebrae in his neck; his hair hardly swings at the movement, all its strands together in a solid mass.
Michael cannot tell if Bender is nervous or excited, or if this is how he always acts. The front of his overcoat, Michael notices now, is covered in short, black hairs. The cologne in the air is like medicine, like mouthwash, and it mixes with the smell of sweet, stale smoke. Michael almost asks if he knows anything about the dead dog, but decides to wait, for now. Even if this is related, if it is part of the whole plan, it is probably best to be quiet. It is never his place to understand.
"What is your name?" Bender suddenly asks.
"Michael," he says, not sure if the man already knows, or if he is only checking, to be certain.
"You won't see me again, after this evening," Bender says. Then, as they reach the fourth floor, he hesitates. He takes off his galoshes and holds them in one hand. His hair hangs in front of his eyes, a black curtain; he sticks out his lower lip and tries to blow it out of the way.
"Quiet," he says.
"I haven't said anything."
"What I mean is no talking from this point forward. No sound at all. If we are discovered, it would be a terrible misfortune."
He pulls the gate aside, then holds the door open. Michael steps into the hall. The carpet is matted, with hard dark shapes where things once spilled. One door is open, revealing only a toilet; the air smells like a subway tunnel. Above, paint has peeled, hanging from the ceiling in stiff white tongues.
Bender takes a single key from his pocket and scrapes its tip along the plaster of the wall, the sound a dry kind of whistle. There are straight lines above and below the key, identical to the groove it's making; there are also lines on the other side of the hall.
The key opens the door to room 419. The hinges give way unevenly, like the knuckles of fingers, interlocked. Bender stands aside, so Michael can enter.
Beneath his feet, the floor is gritty. He takes another step, expecting to stumble or to kick something. Bender closes the door behind them, then stands still, as if allowing the room to settle. Michael keeps waiting for the lights to be switched on, but they are not. Gradually, his eyes adjust.
The room is square, twenty feet across. A sawhorse stands in one corner, and a metal chair with bent legs rests on its side. One of the two windows is covered with cardboard; a streetlight shines dimly through the dirty glass of the other.
Michael steps to the window. Mouse droppings line the narrow sill. Down below, he can see the cold yellow lights, the sidewalk where he'd stood. If he was back there, half an hour ago, he would not wait; he would not be here now.
It is not cold in the room, though not exactly warm. Somewhere, unseen, a radiator is clanking away. Turning, he watches as Bender takes off his overcoat, opens a door, and hangs it carefully in a closet. Now he wears a long white coat, like a doctor's, which makes him easier to see, in the dim light. His body seems to hang suspended; it almost glows.
Michael would like to ask if Bender is a doctor, and why they're here and what they're waiting for, how long will it be before the suitcases are opened. He wants to remind Bender how the old woman at the desk downstairs made the two X's, how she has counted the number of people who entered the hotel and how she must expect the same number to eventually come back out.
Next, Bender crosses the room, steps around behind, and takes hold of Michael's collar; the jacket's zipper gives way as he gently pulls, and then the sleeves slide off Michael's arms, and then Bender is hanging the jacket in the closet, next to his overcoat. Michael watches this. He does not ask any questions. He was told not to speak at all, and he believes that questions would be met with action, not answers.
Bender now holds up his hands, the pale palms as wide as Michael's face, as if something is about to begin. He stands next to a square on the wall that is slightly darker, a piece of cardboard hanging by one nail. He spins the cardboard on the nail, so it slides upward, and then, there, in the space that had been covered, something shines.
It is a hole in the wall. An inch across, or less, the size of an eye. A wedge of light is cast from it, almost like the pale beam of a movie projector. The beam grows wider, then dissipates before it can reach across the room.
Bender motions for Michael to come closer, and he does so. A heavy hand on his shoulder, he bends slightly, facing the hole in the wall; he closes his left eye and squints with his right.
Two people are standing still, facing each other, in the next room, through the wall. They are only fifteen feet away from him. A man and a woman, wearing loose white clothing, and they stand so still that at first it's hard for him to tell if they're real. The room is the same shape as the one Michael is in, only cleaner, with no furniture except a brass bed, set out in the middle. There are lights shining from a hidden place, in different directions; the man and woman each have two shadows, in V's behind them, joined at the feet. The man's sideburns are thin and sharp, pointing at the corners of his mouth. He is a little shorter than the woman, and he is black. She is white, and her dark hair is up, piled atop her head, away from her pale face. Her dark eyes blink once, then again. That's the only movement.
And then, slowly, the man raises his arm. He reaches out and takes the pins from her hair, so it loosens in sections, unfolding around her. He bends down and sets the pins in a straight line on the wooden floor, then stands and gently touches the woman's cheek.
She smiles at his touch, but there's something sad in her smile, a tremble in her lips. She steps past him, and he turns to watch as she stands at the window, looking out. Again, all movement ceases. A streetlight shines, the same light at the window in the room where Michael stands, watching.
He can tell, by the expressions on their faces, that the man and woman have known each other for a long time, that they care for each other. His forehead is pressed against the rough, gritty plaster of the wall, sharp against his nose. He fights off a sneeze; he can hear Bender's ragged breathing, he can feel the warm breath on the skin of his face. Pulling back, opening both eyes, Michael sees that Bender is only six inches away, staring at him. For some reason, he feels less afraid, less wary; he is not sure why. He gestures for Bender to look through the hole, into the other room, but Bender just shakes his enormous head and points back, nodding as if no time should be lost.
The man and woman resume their movement. She turns, smiles, and steps away from the window. Neither of them has said a word, as if this whole floor of the hotel is silent. Next, she undoes laces, and buckles, and her white skirt slips away-but there's another skirt beneath that one, and then another. They rustle, loosened, collapsing down. The man does not help her; he only watches as the skirts settle around her ankles, as she slips away from them. There's only one thin layer left, the shadows of her legs visible through it.
Next, she unlaces the bow at her neck as she keeps walking, the V of her shadow tilting and sliding across the floor, dragged behind her. She sits on the edge of the bed, her nightgown hanging slightly open. Dark shadows collect along the curved line of her clavicle, and in the hollow of her smooth throat. Slowly, she stretches backward, then rolls over, on her side, facing away.
Michael hears a low whistling, and wonders if it is her, or the wind, somehow. He cannot tell. As he watches, he tries to keep it from happening, but still his dick gets hard, pushing against the zipper of his pants. He keeps expecting Bender's hands on him, but they do not come; there is only the ragged breathing, to the left, the crack and whinge of the floorboards when Bender shifts his weight.
Through the wall, in the other room, the man now moves. His hands come alive, rising in front of him; he undoes the drawstring of his pants, and they drop around his feet. He steps out of them, his legs so black they look burned into the white sheets behind them. The shirt he wears reaches halfway to his knees, and he sits on the edge of the bed, rubbing his hand up and down the woman's bare arm, as if smoothing or polishing it. His other hand rests on her hip, then her thigh.
The man is saying something, his lips moving, but his voice is only a murmur, the words impossible to make out. She doesn't turn over; she still faces away from him. He rests his hand along the nape of her neck, now, then takes hold of her robe, there. She bends her elbows, slips her hands through the armholes of her gown so it can slip farther down, revealing the pale skin of her back, arching slightly, and the dark shadow of her spine, the sharp curves of her shoulder blades. The man's fingers trace shapes across her skin, as if he is spelling words for her, as if she might guess. She reaches behind, where she cannot see, and strokes his leg, just once, very gently.
Slowly, slowly, he pulls up the hem of her gown, until all the fabric is bunched there, around her middle. The edges of her legs are hard to see, against the white sheets. Her hips are wide, but her thighs are thin, so there is a space between them though her knees touch, resting one on the other. His hand slips from her hip, out of sight, and then the tips of his dark fingers show, in that space between her thighs.
The woman laughs, then coughs. Soft, then harder, folding in on herself. Once she falls silent, both she and the man are motionless again. There is the sound of the wind, the glare of the lights, time passing around them, and then the man stands and slowly walks around the head of the bed. He kneels there for a long time, his face wide and full of care, all open as if nothing can be hidden or held back. His mouth moves again, his whispers lost.
Michael had not noticed the man's hand straying toward the foot of the bed, but then the sheet is being pulled up, without stopping, all the way over the woman's head and settling, hiding her entirely. Now that the man and woman have fallen motionless again, Michael is not certain what has happened, only that everything is finished, that it can go no further. He feels it-sharp, like a surprise, as if nothing in the other room will ever move again; and if it does, if they manage to rise, they will no longer be the same people. It is an ending, and he feels it spreading to him, as well. As if he, too, must change.
A pulse ticks in his eye, and at his wrists, and at the back of his knees. He feels hot inside, heat rising off his skin. He stares at the man, kneeling next to the bed, and the shape of the woman beneath the sheet; he does not want to forget them.
When Michael finally steps away, Bender is standing calmly beside him, holding out his jacket, open, so he can slip his arms back inside.
II. Auguste Dupin
Outside the Lancaster Hotel, Dr. Ralston Bender pauses to pull on his galoshes. He kneels on the cold pavement, and the boy stands nearby, watching, as if waiting for something more. The two have not spoken since before they went into the hotel room; inside the room, it was silent; they finished their business, then descended, without words, in the elevator. The silence between them is unbreakable.
Now, finally, the boy turns and walks away. Dr. Bender does not call out after him, he just watches him go. That all went quite well, he believes. Just as he'd planned. Now, for the rest of it, he can only hope; he can only believe. He hasn't felt this hopeful since he was a boy, over fifty years ago.
Dr. Bender senses that he is needed, somewhere; his eyes search for a pay phone. He'll never carry a pager or a cell phone, since he wants to always concentrate on the time and place where he is, to frustrate all distractions. He does not even have a telephone in his apartment.
Picking up his murder bags, one in each hand, he begins to walk. The darkness closes around him. People are hurting tonight, that is certain. The neighborhood slips past. He can walk anywhere without fear, and this is not only due to his size; the way he spends his days renders him impervious. No outcome is unforeseen-neither dreadful nor surprising. Three boys with hoods over their heads stand around the pay phone. Brightly colored pagers show on the waists of their low-slung jeans.
"Yo," they say. "White giant. Use another phone."
"No," Dr. Bender says. "This one is convenient. I will not be long."
"Fuck you," they say, but do not come any closer.
The receiver is cold against his ear. His frozen mustache bristles. He dials the number of the answering service.
"Dr. Ralston Bender," he says.
The woman on the other end says the call came in just minutes before. She wants to know how he does that.
"Is it urgent?" he says.
There is a case that needs his attention. At 16th and Locust. If he can alert them as to his whereabouts, they will send a car to pick him up. They await him before proceeding.
"I will not need a car," he says. "I will arrive there in between half an hour and forty-five minutes. Please relay this message, as I am not currently in a position to do so. And, please, make it extremely clear that the scene is not to be breached until I am present."
He hangs up the phone, then looks back and forth, searching for a bus stop. Most of the streetlamps are dark. Shoes festoon electrical lines, hanging from laces like sinews.
Glancing once at the boys, who still wait, he picks up his bags and begins to walk. The bags seem to have become heavier, as he's grown older; at night, his shoulders ache, their joints gone rough and arthritic, but he has no choice. He needs every single thing he carries. The scissors and forceps, tweezers, scalpel handles and blades. The syringes, needles, cotton swabs. The gloves, sponges, sketchpads and notepads. The thermometer, the chalk and tape, the body bags and I.D. tags, the evidence scale and the cameras, both regular and Polaroid-he's learned not to rely on the police photographers. And no matter how many tools he carries, how essential they are, Dr. Bender never forgets that the most important thing he takes to a crime scene is his common sense.
As a medical examiner, he is somewhere between a detective and a doctor. There's an M.D. after his name, and he is admired in the cold rooms of the morgue, but he's earned his respect on the street. He has to remain attuned to feel the clues; he's learned their ways, how they arise from people and the spaces between people. This is why he is always ready, why he carries everything with him. He rarely goes to his office, for he needs to be out among it all, surrounded, to feel the gentle push and pull, the tendencies and possibilities all around him.
Eighteen to twenty thousand people die each year in Philadelphia, and he sees a fair fraction. The cause of death is natural, accidental, homicide, or suicide. Only he has the power to say what happened, to lock it down. He's seen the skin of a hand come off like a glove, the scar from a braided whip, and the dark nostrils where a double-barreled shotgun's been placed. He can figure the shooting distance from the spray of the pellets, spread through a body, or the presence of gunpowder, if the weapon shot a solid bullet. In a skull, he knows the difference between entry and exit wounds. Bullets go haywire, ricocheting inside people; knife wounds are so much cleaner, simpler. He's seen mummification, and how rigor mortis comes and goes, and the pinkness of carbon monoxide poisoning. He's tested the food left behind, uneaten; he's sniffed for the bitter almond smell of cyanide.
It is not long before the bus eases toward him, the square lights of its windows coming into focus. Dr. Bender climbs on board, drops his token in the slot. He likes buses, the way they sway and moan, how they hold strangers together for a time, how all the scenery wheels through the windows. He likes them best at rush hour-all the people standing and leaning in the aisles, their bodies pressed against one another. Now, the bus begins to move. He prevents himself from speculating about tonight's case; he prefers to arrive at the scene with his mind clear and unsullied, with every explanation still possible.
He's in a good mood still, from helping that boy. Michael, back at the hotel. Dr. Bender had tricked him a little, paying a woman to talk on the phone this morning, but now he sees that wasn't even necessary-the plan was so pure that the boy sensed it, that he wanted to come, that it was clear in his eyes. A sense of duty, even, more than curiosity. And there is no doubt that Dr. Bender chose correctly; he had never seen the boy before, yet he sensed the need, a coiled aimlessness, an energy waiting for purpose. The sight of him lit on Dr. Bender like a surprise, the answer to a question he had been struggling to formulate. How might I spread hope?
The brakes catch when the bus slows; the driver's hand waves the wheel around as they swoop through corners. Outside, people lean into the cold wind, clutching the lapels of their coats. All the trees' branches are bare, fragile. Dr. Bender prefers the night; any point requiring reflection can be examined to better purpose in the darkness.
Now the bus is passing through his neighborhood, his apartment only short blocks away. He imagines it now, the place he's lived for over thirty years, with the pale red light seeping through the windows and his cat, Pluto-who does not fear the smell of him, who likes everything about him?asleep or patiently waiting, holding the room still.
One single lamp hangs from a slender gold chain, its bulb hidden behind a ground-glass shade. An octagonal table rests in the middle of the room. On the walls hang two large paintings-a landscape holding barren hills, one lone tree; a portrait of a dark-haired woman he does not know. He bought them both at an estate sale.
There are no mirrors, no shining surfaces; the heavy curtains are capable of blocking all light. The red velvet sofa is covered in black cat hair. Often, Dr. Bender falls asleep here, and he awakens in the early afternoon, with Pluto on his chest.
The large window behind the red velvet sofa frames the yard next door, which holds a black, wrought-iron raven, its outspread wings over six feet across. As wide as Dr. Bender's own arms, held out to his sides. It perches there, atop a post, because the house there was once rented by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived in those rooms over a hundred years before, with his young wife and his mother-in-law; he wrote his best tales here, marked down the words. Now the house is a National Historic Site, and Rangers lead tours, most days. What would Poe make of them, in their stiff polyester uniforms and wide-brimmed hats, the ties that close with metal snaps around their necks?
Tours do not interest Dr. Bender. Some nights he looks through this window, though, and imagines that a dark figure stands in the windows of the house, looking back at him, sharing his thoughts. This does not frighten Dr. Bender-far from it. Some nights he even descends from his fire escape, the rusted ladder scrolling loose from inside itself, and walks across Poe's lawn. He looks through the low window, into the basement, the low ceiling and the crumbling mortar of the false fireplace, a perfect place to hide a body. He feels close to Poe, these nights, a chill burning inside, where effects find their causes and do not fork away.
Before he moved here, he'd never read Poe. And once he began, he could not stop; now he's read it all. The tales, the poetry, the criticism, the letters. He reads the collected works, all thirteen volumes, circling through them as if they have no beginning or end, which they do not. His fingers still tense and shock, holding the pages.
It's true that Dr. Bender has grown the mustache, and let his hair stretch toward his shoulders; it's true, perhaps, that he and Poe share a sensibility, their nerves wound tight, that there is a similarity in their eyes. But it's preposterous to imagine he's trying to perfect a further similarity-at six-four and over two-fifty, Dr. Bender is twice Poe's size.
In any case, it never was Poe who Dr. Bender emulated. Not exactly. It was Auguste Dupin. It still is. Dupin, Poe's detective, who went out only at night, when the mysteries were illuminated for him. Dupin, who solved the Rue Morgue murders, who out-thought both criminals and policemen. Dupin, the occasional poet who developed every side of his brain, who was fond of enigmas, of revealing the complex as far from profound.
Poe never really described Dupin, physically, though Dr. Bender suspects the detective looked very much like himself. A larger, stronger Poe, with equal acumen yet more ability to survive in the world. Like Dupin, Dr. Bender smokes a meerschaum pipe, filled with cheap tobacco. Even with the smoke thick in his clothes, and his cologne-musk, it says on the bottle-people still sense there is something about him, a reason to step back. He cannot help this. He has changed in tiny increments, so gradually, to become what he is, until his loneliness is like a scent, a kind of electrical membrane cast around that holds everyone away.
At Walnut Street, Dr. Bender transfers from the 57 to the 21. This bus is almost empty. Copies of the Inquirer and the Weekly cover the seats. Only a week ago, they'd both run articles about him, about his upcoming retirement. They recalled some of his most famous cases-the blowfly eggs taken from the nose of a corpse, the pupae tested to provide toxicology information on the victim; the dismembered body whose parts were matched by the marks of the same vise on the ankles, wrists, and skull; how he matched the jagged round circles around the nipples of a victim by taking casts of the suspects' teeth, then tested them on Jane Does in the morgue, corpses still fresh enough to bruise.
He refused interviews; he does not desire publicity. The papers had talked to some of the technicians, though, and to Detective Farnsworth, and had even gotten a quote from the police chief, a man Dr. Bender has never met.
Once, though it sickens him to think of it now, he had considered collecting the cases himself, detailing them in a book. Adipocere formation vs. mummification, his theories on fingertip-type bruising, a chapter on rationality and the criminal mind. He had bought a bound notebook of expensive paper, a fountain pen with a gold nib. On the first page, he wrote the title he'd been saving-Disentangling-and, below it, his epigraph, a description of Auguste Dupin by Poe:
As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such
exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in
that moral activity which disentangles.
The remaining pages in Dr. Bender's expensive notebook are blank; they will remain blank. The idea was self-serving and beyond that. Distasteful. People's curiosity is not about the disentangling at all-it is for the details that shock and thrill them, a thirst for all the sexual deviance cases that some consider his specialty. And, Dr. Bender admits to himself, he has not always been innocent of pandering to such people. On more than one occasion-at dinner parties or receptions he could not avoid-he'd let someone start questioning him. He'd warm up by explaining that hair and fingernails did not, in fact, grow after death, and before long he would hear himself regaling a growing crowd with tales of mutilation and postmortem ejaculation, of every prurient detail. The sound of his voice, in these times, came to disgust him. It made him question whether his work was, in fact, a "moral activity"; it made him wonder what he might do to make it so.
Dr. Bender has realized that he's never known a happiness he could not pick apart. He has practiced too long at looking backward-all his work has been in the past, about things that have, always, already happened. This is why he is retiring early, while there is still time to change.
No one knows how effects are managed like he does, few have traced them so far back. Poe found purity, but he'd never been able to move forward-Dr. Bender believes he can go beyond this. All the polarities inside him have been reversed; instead of explaining past tragedy and sadness, he will project future happiness. He will plant the causes deeper than anyone could know or recognize. Tonight in the hotel was only a beginning, one beginning. There will be others.
The bus departs, and Dr. Bender walks the block and a half to Locust Street. All his senses bloom in anticipation. The traffic is easing; there are few pedestrians on the dark sidewalks. As he approaches his destination, he sees that there are no reporters yet, no press waiting. That is fortunate.
One police car is double-parked out front, and the door of the row house is propped open. He steps inside the narrow, haphazardly lit hallway. Cracks run through the brown paint, stretching along a stairway where the three men sit waiting. Detective Farnsworth sits at the bottom, the two policemen spaced equally above him. All three stand and begin talking at once; Farnsworth looks back and the officers go silent. He takes a step forward, with his slouching body, the loose skin around his sad eyes, his pale gray halo of hair.
"Good evening, Detective," Dr. Bender says. He holds out his official ID for inspection.
"I know who you are, Bender," he says. "Christ. It's been how many years? How many cases? And you're a short-timer now, too. Relax a little."
"I understand there's a situation here," Dr. Bender says. "How do the facts stand?"
"Well, the smell is what alerted the landlord."
Dr. Bender has already taken note of the odor of decomposition; he has unconsciously switched to breathing through his mouth.
"And it's clearly coming from behind that door."
It is the only door in the hallway. Below the brass #1, someone has drawn a black shape-rather hastily, it seems-with a piece of charcoal.
"A crow," Farnsworth says, "or some kind of blackbird."
"I beg to differ," Dr. Bender says. "That bird is decidedly a raven."
The two policeman are still on the stairs, prepared to begin.
"And what," Dr. Bender says, "has your initial investigation revealed?"
"The landlord is upstairs, awaiting questioning," Farnsworth says.
"And behind this door?"
"We haven't opened it, yet. We were waiting for you."
Dr. Bender takes off his overcoat and hangs it on the newel post of the banister. He pockets his cuff links, then briskly, with a snapping sound, rolls his shirtsleeves to his elbows. He takes off his galoshes, then dials the combination of one of his murder bags, so its hinges open like jaws. Inside, it is extremely organized. He takes out his sketchbook and a dark graphite pencil, and stands. Looking once at the expectant men, he opens to a blank page.
As he begins to sketch, he is assembling what he has to work with, here. Farnsworth is dependable, in his way, yet extremely squeamish-he avoids a corpse every single time. And the policemen are so young; the white one has acne on his cheeks, razor burn at his throat. The black officer, Wilson, has worked with Dr. Bender before, on a recent case. Wilson had cut himself, somehow, and had refused help, had said he'd wait for a doctor who handled living people. That's how it is-they keep their distance, fear his touch. They never shake his hand, always lean away when he tries to clap them on the back. Still, they are not bad men, not stupid men. It's after eight now, and they're already thinking of going home to their wives, their families.
Just as Dr. Bender finishes his sketch, Detective Farnsworth clears his throat.
"Can we begin?" he says.
The policemen, who had returned to their seats on the stairs, rise again.
"Are you ready?" Dr. Bender asks.
"We've been ready for the last hour."
"I realize that. I appreciate that fact. Have you heard any movements behind this door?" From his bag, he takes out four paper face masks, four pairs of latex gloves.
"Nothing at all," Farnsworth says. "And it might be best-I mean, in light of preserving fragile evidence, you know-you might not want a lot of people in there, milling around."
"Of course," Dr. Bender says. "I'll go in alone, with these two gentlemen prepared to respond, should I require their assistance. Until that time, I will require, as usual, absolute silence."
He cannot have the air busied with talk, words loose in his head. Taking the key from Farnsworth, Dr. Bender unlocks the door, holds his breath, and pushes it open. A wall of hot, foul air collapses over him; the other men gasp. He hits the light switch and steps inside.
One bare bulb swings from the high ceiling, two hundred watts or more. The ceiling is perhaps fourteen feet, the room perhaps twenty-five across, and square. It is empty, not one stick of furniture. One window faces the street; there are two doors, closed, on his right. On the wall straight across from him, written in the same charcoal, is the word TELL-TALE. The letters are over a foot tall, perhaps midway between the ceiling and the shining hardwood floor. The odor of decomposition is stronger here, thick and strangling.
Yes, they were right to wait for him. Turning, Dr. Bender sees the policemen waiting in the doorway, pale blue masks over their silent mouths. They find nothing dramatic about this; they want to have it behind them, to be on to the next thing, or at least out driving the streets.
Now he notices the galley kitchen, which had been behind him, half-hidden behind a sliding door. His footsteps are heavy, too loud; he pauses after each one, his ears straining. The chrome of the faucet shines. The cupboards are clean and hold nothing-no plates, no glasses, no utensils. There is no sign of habitation whatsoever.
Turning again, he crosses to the closed doors. The first is an empty closet, holding only three wire hangers. The second door opens into the bathroom. He pulls the hanging string and a fluorescent light flickers over the medicine cabinet. The mirror reflects his tie, his shoulders. The tile is covered with a layer of dust; there are no footprints, no messages written in it. There is no curtain on the shower, and there's no body here. When he turns on the spigot, rusty water coughs out. He closes it down, pulls the string, steps back onto the hardwood floor. On his right, the round thermostat juts from the wall. The red arrow points just past 98°. He dials it down, into the fifties.
Standing motionless in the center of the room, he feels his muscles tightening around his bones. He must restrain himself from hastening toward conclusions.
"What do you make of it?" he says suddenly, whispering.
"Nothing through those doors?" Wilson says.
"The apartment appears to be empty," Dr. Bender says. "Perhaps the mystery here is too plain, do you think" A little too self-evident?" He gestures to the word on the wall, but they do not seem to notice his movement, nor the implication.
"We could bring in the dogs," says the white officer.
Dr. Bender cuts that idea short by narrowing his eyes. The canine corps always wants to bring in the dogs; the mounted police always believe horses are the answer; the officers in the wet suits, the frogmen, suspect all answers are underwater. Such complication is more than unnecessary-it invites distraction. Dr. Bender steps into the hall, reaches into his open bag, and hands a roll of yellow CRIME SCENE tape to Wilson. The other officer, it says on the badge, is named Jim O'Connor. He looks ready to suggest the dogs again.
"Perhaps," Dr. Bender says, standing, stepping back into the room, "you, Detective Farnsworth, could prepare the landlord for questioning. I will be with you shortly." He unlocks, then opens the window. "We must pause before proceeding, to ascertain our direction."
"To let the air clear," Wilson says.
Dr. Bender is beginning to feel acclimated. Sitting on the window's sill, he writes in his sketchbook: Entry at 8:36 p.m. Strong odor of decomposition evident. Room temp extremely high. Initial inspection reveals no body. Fragile evidence not apparent. Physical layout as below.
As he begins to draw his diagram, he hears Farnsworth's footsteps, wearily climbing the stairs. There is traffic outside-horns, car radios-yet Dr. Bender is not distracted, not even by Wilson's low voice, telling O'Connor a story.
"Dude had a wire going into a copper pipe," he's saying, "and that plugged straight into his asshole. Yes way. Would I make that up" Plus, another wire attached to an alligator clip, you know, and that clamped onto his lower lip, and he's got an electrode taped to each nipple, spliced into some speaker wire-"
Dr. Bender hardly hears it. He looks up, then back into his sketchbook. He must not let himself begin guessing, bringing his subjectivity into play. He must move in increments, attentive to every sensation, every clue. Does he feel threatened, is he in danger? He does not believe so.
"So," Wilson is saying, "this dude had taken pictures from skin mags, you know, and glued the faces of his family and friends onto the bodies. Then, and I shit you not, the doctor here decides to hook the whole thing up to the amplifier again, just to see how strong a shock it was putting out! I mean, the dude's dead, but I thought the body was going to get up and dance!"
"Dr. Bender closes his sketchbook with a slap. Both officers look up, startled, masks still on their faces. The yellow CRIME SCENE tape bisects their chests. Stepping closer, he bends to get under the tape, then stands next to them.
"This room can be contained," he says. "Perhaps one of you might circle the block and see if anything arouses your suspicions."
The landlord's apartment smells like an ashtray. Newspapers stand in unsteady columns as tall as most men. There are enough tables and chairs, stacked precariously atop one another, to furnish the room downstairs, as well. Dr. Bender steps carefully, afraid of setting off an avalanche.
The man himself, Joseph Kimmel, sits in a kind of clearing, deep in a threadbare armchair. He is a retired white male of sixty-seven years, who has resided in this house thirty-nine of them. His white hair tangles around his head; his eyes blink rapidly. He looks at Dr. Bender and Detective Farnsworth as if he is happy to have company, proud to play the host.
"He lives here alone," Farnsworth says.
"I do," he says, with a note of triumph. "I own it. What I don't understand is why you just don't take the body out-hell, you've been here for hours, and the smell's getting worse."
"This is not an everyday situation, sir." Dr. Bender shakes Kimmel's hand; he has not taken off his latex gloves, for he expects to need them. "We will," he says, "return this situation to its previous condition. This will be accelerated with your cooperation."
"Here's the lease," Farnsworth says.
Dr. Bender takes the folded document, but he does not open it.
"It's legal," Kimmel says. "He paid for a year, cash, so there's three months left on it."
"The room downstairs shows few signs of habitation," Dr. Bender says. "Were you under the impression that your tenant lived alone?"
"He was a black guy, nice clothes, I don't know. I didn't ask too many questions. I guess I saw different people go in there-men, women, different kinds of clothes, whatever."
Kimmel holds up his hands; talking seems to tire him. Through a doorway, colored light flickers along a wall, where a television has been left on. There are voices, laughter, increasing in volume for the commercials.
"Did you ever see," Dr. Bender says, "more than one person enter that downstairs apartment at one time?"
"No. I did not," Kimmel says, after some hesitation.
"In your opinion, could the people you describe possibly have been the same person, wearing a variety of disguises?"
"Bender," Farnsworth says. "Really."
"They came in, they went out," Kimmel says. "Sometimes I heard the phone ringing, through the floor, and then it stopped."
"Is there next of kin on that lease?" Farnsworth says. "Contact information?"
Dr. Bender unfolds the paper and begins to read it. He stands still for a long time before speaking.
"Do you recall your tenant's name, Mr. Kimmel?"
"I only met him that one time, when I showed him the place, gave him the key."
"The name on the lease is 'Auguste Dupin.'" Dr. Bender pauses. "Does nothing about that name strike you as strange? 'Auguste Dupin.'"
"I never saw his driver's license, if that's what you mean." Kimmel blinks, clearly confused. "What answer do you want? I just can't tell what you're getting at."
Both policemen stand at the bottom of the stairs, waiting. Dr. Bender can feel their impatience; he sees their watches' faces flash. No one likes to slow down, to hold back so things can clarify, so it's possible to recognize the correct moment to begin.
"Listen," Officer O'Connor says, "are we doing anything here? Because already I feel like I'm going to have to burn this uniform I'm wearing, the stink's in so deep, and so far it seems like we're not seeing any action at all."
"Next," Dr. Bender says, "we are going to exhume the body. I assume that will be sufficient action?" Kneeling, he opens his second murder bag; he hands a hammer to Wilson, a short pry bar to O'Connor.
"I have a feeling," Farnsworth says, "that I may no longer be needed here. I don't want to get in the way-I'll head down to the station, start the paperwork, so when you come in you can just fill in the blanks."
"Very well," Dr. Bender says, turning away, dismissing him. "Now, gentlemen, if you will be so kind."
He leads them into the middle of the room.
"The body," he says, "is directly beneath our feet."
"In the cellar?" O'Connor says.
"No." Dr. Bender points to the wall, the word TELL-TALE. "Beneath the floorboards, of course-you know the story."
"Now what?" O'Connor says. "No, I don't."
"The boards look perfectly fit together," Wilson says.
"Exactly. Someone has spent a lot of effort to do this right." Dr. Bender takes the tools from the officers. He widens one groove between the floorboards; wood splinters along the seam. Chipping out enough so he can get a bite with the pry bar, he uses the hammer's head as a fulcrum, then leans in with his weight. Nails whinge, giving way. The smell rises, thick through the narrow gap; he's guessed correctly.
The officers reach out their hands without taking hold of anything, like boys watching their father work; they won't face the task straight on, either, as if something might erupt from the floor, a hand scratching for their eyes.
Dr. Bender works methodically, but he is far from calm. Every detail of this case points to him, every clue is in his language. He levers up the floorboard and sees the foot, then the leg. He slides the pry bar farther, lifts, and the board cracks. As it gives way, something shines, reflecting. A photograph, then another, then a third.
"Stay back!" he says, but the officers are already in the hall, their gloved hands over their noses and mouths, their eyes squinting back at him.
He palms the photographs, shielding them, then slides them into the pages of his sketchbook, which rests on the floor. He lifts the next floorboard.
"What is it?" Wilson says, his voice low. "One body or more?"
"This is an unusual situation," Dr. Bender says. "What we have here does not seem to be human. It appears to be the remains of a dog, in a moderate state of putrefaction."
"Yes," Dr. Bender says. As the officers slowly approach, he holds out his magnifying glass. His hand, usually steady, is shaking; he must not let his agitation show. At least there are no more photographs, none he can see.
Standing, he bends floorboards until they give-a strongman trick, almost, the officers watching-and the dog's whole length is uncovered. Next, he returns his sketchbook to his bag, and comes back with the cameras. Even if he is only going through the motions, he must do so correctly. He checks his watch; it is now 9:44. The dog is gaunt, rangy, its coat black. He photographs it with the Polaroid, from each side, then with the 35 millimeter; between the flashes of light, there is only the sound of breathing.
"That's some kind of pit bull mix," Wilson finally says. "That's one big dog."
"Satanism," O'Connor says. "Some kind of ritual or something."
"That's a very romantic notion," Dr. Bender says. He carefully puts the cameras away, then opens a plastic body bag and lays it on the floor, next to and above the dog.
He feels the officers watching as he touches the body with his latex-gloved hand. A greenish mold is growing along the dog's jaw. An insect slithers out its ear, disappears under its fur. The dog is still, yet the weight shifts inside. The body sags as he lifts the head, then the tail end. He slides it into the body bag, then zips it shut.
In the space where the dog had been hidden, there is nothing but dirty boards, a puddle of thick fluid in the shape of the body, the rough edges where the pink insulation was torn out. Dr. Bender looks into this hole, then up at the officers.
"I'd like you to deliver this body to the morgue," he says.
"But it's a dog," Wilson says.
"I'd like you to treat it as if it were a human body."
"This is not our job," O'Connor says. "Crime technicians, maybe. Animal welfare, probably. It's just a damn dog."
"At the very least, it's evidence," Dr. Bender says.
"Evidence of what? It's not like you're going to pull a fingerprint off that thing."
"There are many facts," Dr. Bender says, "that we do not know about this animal. The circumstances under which we found it might lead us to proceed with some caution." He holds up his hand to stave off interruptions. He wants to be alone, to have a closer look at the photographs; he is as eager for the officers to leave as they are, yet he does not want them to sense this. He wants them thinking in other directions.
"If not fingerprints," he says, "we may find strands of human hair, tangled in the animal's fur. I have even read of cases where human remains are hidden, found within a body such as this one. The morgue would be the correct place to investigate such a possibility."
"Don't argue with him," Wilson says, taking hold of the body bag, the handle on one end. "Let's end this."
They lift the body, duck under the CRIME SCENE tape, and turn around in the hall.
"Happy holidays to you, too, doctor," O'Connor says, disappearing.
Dr. Bender can hear their voices outside, blurred-ridiculous is the only word he understands-and then the trunk slamming, and the doors, and then the rattle of the squad car's engine as they pull away.
He is relieved to be alone again; now there are no distractions. Stepping into the hall, he retrieves his murder bags and his overcoat, brings them inside the room, and closes the door. He sits on the floor with his back against the wall, fresh air blowing through the window, onto his face. This night is only beginning.
He takes out his sketchbook, opens it to the page where he'd slipped the photographs.
The first image is of a city street, in the summer-people wear shorts and sandals, dark glasses; they make way for the large figure in the middle of the sidewalk. It is Dr. Bender himself, in his dark suit, a heavy bag swinging from each hand. His head is higher than anyone's, alone at that height, and the expression on his wide, white face suggests that he is not there at all, not among these people, that he is working out a distant confusion.
Dr. Bender is not surprised, not exactly. He chuckles to himself, rummages through his coat's pockets for his pipe. He packs in the tobacco, then lights it. The photographs still smell of the dog, the air caught in the space between them. He shuffles the top one under, and realizes the next image is actually a postcard. It is the one they sell in Poe's house, in the gift shop there-the engraving from a daguerreotype, Edgar with his tight high collar, tie knotted like a noose, his wide brow, his uneven mustache, his eyes dark, gleaming with sensibility and soul. Dr. Bender turns the card over; only one word is written there, stretching from edge to edge. Nevermore.
He does not feel threatened; challenged, perhaps, yet whoever set up these clues is mistaken, has arrived too late. Who could it be? Dr. Bender is scarcely curious-yes, it is all very clever, he won't dispute that, yet the time has passed when he might have risen to this, when he might have let it concern him. It's a taunt that can't touch him now, for his concerns are beyond himself.
The final photograph is grainy, out of focus, yet he immediately recognizes the dark silhouettes. His own hulking figure leans to look into a window-the window at Poe's house. Above him, against the pale night sky, is the jagged wrought-iron shape of the raven. Farther above, the moon, waxing full.
Smoke weaves around the bare bulb, settles in the high corners of the room. Dr. Bender stacks, then places the photographs in the sketchbook, and the book into its place in the bag. He unrolls his sleeves, his pipe clamped in his teeth, and replaces his cuff links. He prepares to leave, to let this settle inside him; he sits one last moment, on the verge of embarking.
And then the phone begins to ring. Distantly, as if in another room. He taps the pipe's bowl against his palm, and throws the tobacco out the window before it burns him. The phone rings five times, six, and then it stops. There is a voice; a muffled, woman's voice. Dr. Bender stands, maintaining all silence except the voice, locating its source.
He steps over the hole in the floorboards, across the room. When he opens the door to the closet, the voice is louder-its tone insistent, as if trapped-and yet the words are still indistinct, and the closet is empty.
The voice stops. Dr. Bender holds the small pry bar in his hand; he does not remember picking it up, and he doesn't need it. With his fingertips, he gently pushes upward on the edge of the ceiling. It gives. He slides the loose sheetrock over and, reaching above his head, grasps the telephone.
It's a phone and answering machine in one, with a tiny speaker next to the headset. Phone and electrical cords snake from it, down inside the wall. Dr. Bender opens the phone's plastic case, and takes out the tiny microcassette. He puts it in his pocket, then places the phone back in its hiding place. Carefully, he replaces the false panel, so the ceiling once again appears whole, unsuspicious.
He closes the closet door, then locks the window, draws the plastic blinds. Carefully, he repacks his murder bags, then snaps the hasps, spins the numbers of the combination locks. He puts on his coat, smooths his mustache, opens the door, and ducks under the yellow CRIME SCENE tape.
In the hallway, Dr. Ralston Bender kneels and pulls on his galoshes. He peels off his latex gloves. Closing the apartment's door, he affixes a paper seal that stretches from the door to its jamb, that cannot be broken. Along the bottom of the seal, he signs his name.
It is cold in the hotel room, the bed out in the middle and exposed to every draft. Lily rests on her side, facing away from Sylvester. His hand is warm, his palm soft. He strokes her bare hip, down along her leg, and then his hand rests, for a moment, between her thighs. Lily's breath whistles faintly through her nostrils, blurs into the sound of the wind. She feels so much desire, energy inside her-romance built up only to be buckled down.
She laughs, gently, then coughs, forcing the breath from her lungs, her body curling so her cold breasts press against her ribs. The springs of the mattress complain and adjust when Sylvester stands. He walks around the bed and kneels, facing her. His warm hands are clasped, touching only each other. His skin smells sweet, faintly of vanilla. His fingernails, Lily knows, are perfectly manicured, smooth and shiny, their edges filed.
The scene is softened through her lashes, her eyes half closed. She opens them more widely, and he is looking at her, into her, his eyes unwavering and true, not slipping away.
"And true love caresses, leave them apart. They're light on the tresses, but hard on the heart."
He says these words softly, under his breath, as she knew he would. Over his shoulder, she can see out the window, where a deflated balloon hangs sadly from a tree branch, its string tangled. Once, while she and Sylvester were here, a phone lineman in a yellow hardhat appeared in the window, standing on a one-man crane. He waved once, as if apologizing, then swung from view. He had no idea what he'd seen.
Now Sylvester pulls the sheet over Lily's head. Everything is white. She feels him there, through the sheet, though she can no longer see him. She is not allowed to move, but she wants to. She wants to reach out and take hold of him, to hold him close.
And then the silence is cut by the sound of something scratching along the plaster of the hallway, outside the room. Sylvester stands and gently rubs his hands together, as if clearing them of dust, a whisper between them as her dried skin is shaken loose. He steps away.
Lily could throw the sheet aside, but she likes the light way it rests on her, tenting from her shoulder and hip. She likes the anticipation, the chance that Sylvester will pull it from her body. She listens to him as he puts things in the closet, as he closes the closet door. She waits for him to return, to say something; instead, she hears the whine of the hinges, of the door leading into the hall, and then the sound of that door closing.
She imagines Sylvester walking to the elevator, descending three floors in twice the time stairs would take; she imagines him walking a little sideways, like he always does, as if he's constantly coming through a doorway. He's on the street, sauntering now, perhaps looking back, once, up to the window.
With one hand, Lily tosses the sheet aside. The room is dim, the lamps turned off; the only illumination comes from the streetlight outside. She sets her bare feet on the floor; all the plaster and dirt have been swept against one wall. Standing, she goes to the window. Dirty raindrops, dried on the pane, are only visible up close, and through them she sees the yellow circles under the streetlights, and the light spilling from the window of the Kentucky Fried. She can see her car, parked below, a green Pinto wagon with wooden siding made of plastic. Even thieves disdain it.
There is no sign of Sylvester. Perhaps he began running, once he left the hotel; perhaps he felt no desire to linger. Lily is not crying. She has no reason. Nothing has happened, really, yet she feels a collapsing inside.
She scratches her head, then lifts the long straight wig free and holds it out in front of her. Her own hair is short and dark, cut close to the nape of her neck. Usually, Sylvester stays behind, helps her pin up the wig's long strands. There are no mirrors in the room. There is no furniture except the bed. Turning, she pulls the sheets tight, makes the bed, though she knows the bedding will be washed before they next return. Every time, the sheets seem whiter, bleached so hard it burns her lungs.
Lily hangs the wig from its hook in the closet, then retrieves the petticoats from the floor, carefully folds them, and puts them away. She unhooks her garter belt, which pinches her for no purpose-she has no stockings for it to hold. She pulls the thin nightgown over her head, and stands in nothing but her panties; quickly, she fastens her bra, buttons her blouse. She shivers as she pulls on her stonewashed jeans, her suede boots that zip up the side. Her ski jacket is bright red, her cap striped with colors like a stack of LifeSavers.
Lily looks the room over, one last time. Standing in the hallway, she locks the door to room 418 and heads for home.
The way things are with Sylvester is worse than nothing at all. It's been a frustrating kind of tease, the thinnest sliver of possibility. Today, it all felt different. Lily wants to straighten it, to try something, to talk until everything's been said. She must find him.
When this all began, five months ago, it was light outside-they meet after she gets out of work. Now the days are shorter, and the streets are darker; this makes everything seem less hopeful.
She works nine to five, transcribing legal documents, typing with headphones in her ears-tapes of recorded meetings, of lawyers talking to themselves in empty offices. There are seven other women like her, at the law firm, in a cluster of eight cubicles. When she turns off her machine and removes her headphones, she hears the buzzing murmur of all the others' headphones, all the tiny words. Below this static is the women's low breathing, as slow as if they were asleep. Their fingers tap, spidering across keyboards, and their eyes stare into the monitors where the processed words surface.
After four years at this job, Lily began to make adjustments to her transcriptions. Not grammatical changes, but slight shifts of facts; insignificant details, mostly, never names or dates. She inserts adjectives, adverbs. So far, no one has noticed.
Often, she'll work with a magazine or newspaper open in her lap. She'll read, in pauses, or when the tapes are rewinding. She reads the Philadelphia Weekly from the front to the back, where she finds her favorite section: the Personals.
Her interest began with the 'I Saw You' ads, in which strangers try to translate a coincidence or chance encounter into something more, and then she graduated to the 'Men Seeking Women' and the 'Women Seeking Men'-and then all the possibilities and variations. She considered whether any of them could concern her.
Lily is thirty-two years old. Her figure is nothing special, but it's not bad, and it's holding up; her face is plain, yet not unpleasant. And now there is Sylvester. She wants it to end, and she wants it to continue. She wants it to come to something beyond where it is, beyond anticipation. How is the romance of fulfillment different? She does not know. Perhaps it's shallower, knowing how things stand-perhaps it's no romance at all?
Finally, it was the 'Anything Goes!' ads that had drawn her in, that brought her to room 418. She'd always read them furtively, not wanting to be caught. It was there-among the Naughty Committed Couple; the Hung, Hirsute Lady Lover; and the Talented Tongue-that all this began.
Generous WM seeks pregnant or nursing mother. Any size, shape, race. No other involvement sought. Who will let me suckle?
Call Box 5693
Discretion necessary. Age, race, looks negotiable. Dramatic encounters. Longing and Love. Regular. Details upon verification of suitability.
Call Box 5701
WANTED: SEXY, WET PUSSY
19 YO WM, blond hair/blue eyed track star ISO female 18-28 to hear scream as I eat her for hours and reach ecstasy only dreamed of.
Call Box 5754
The ads abashed Lily, and they excited her. She imagined answering them, following through; sometimes she even called to hear more information. She never left her name. It was number 5701 that spoke to her-she was a woman, and one was needed. She knew longing, and she could use drama. Would she be found suitable?
She had not planned to leave her actual name, her real number. The words escaped, a slip of her unguarded desire. The man called her back in less than an hour. His voice was calm, dignified. He did not give her more information, he only told her to come alone, to meet him in a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Why did she agree? She wonders if there is a difference between curiosity and desperation.
Lily had waited at a shining, plastic table, the fluorescent light reflecting all around her. She knew he was the one as soon as he came in-he so obviously didn't belong there. Where did he belong? She stood as he approached, and it surprised her, how tall he was, the bulk of him, his shadow falling across her and changing everything. For a moment, in that silence, she imagined him lying on top of her-she would be entirely covered, he would break her in two.
"You may call me Dr. Bender," he said.
He was dressed as if for a costume party set in a different era?in a dark suit, despite the heat, buckled shoes, his lank hair swept from his shining forehead. His speech seemed old, also, his words formal and carefully chosen, sifted through his mustache.
"I'm delighted that you made it," he said, reaching to take her hand from her side. He smelled like alcohol, she thought, then decided it was some kind of medicine.
She tried to tell him that there had been a mistake, that she didn't know him, that she'd had second thoughts.
"Nonsense," he told her. He told her she had come in a spirit of goodwill, and that he appreciated it. "I assure you," he said, laughing under his breath, "that it is not I who is to be the object of your affection." He promised she would not be disappointed.
The words Dr. Bender said were ridiculous, yet something-sincerity?-about the way he spoke made Lily follow when he guided her across the street and through the hotel's lobby, into the elevator and down the hallway, to room 418. When he opened the door, she stepped into the dilapidated room, the white bed glowing; against one wall rested two bright lamps, a cassette player on the floor between them.
"I must leave you here," Dr. Bender told her. "I will return in under fifteen minutes."
He closed the door behind him, and Lily was left alone. After a moment, she stepped to the single window. Below, she saw Dr. Bender slowly crossing the street, entering the Kentucky Fried. She re-crossed the room, reached for the doorknob. It was unlocked. Stepping into the hallway, she looked both ways; she could run, but then she would never know. He'd left the door open, perhaps, to show her that it was her decision. That she was not going to run was the scariest and most exciting fact of all.
She stepped back into the room and closed the door, then walked around the perimeter. She pushed the PLAY button on the tape recorder; in a moment, there was a low, rough whistling, its pitch shifting. Hitting EJECT, she read the tape's label-Wind. She continued circling, spiraling inward until she reached the bed; she checked underneath it, then sat down to wait.
When the doorknob turned, she stood. Dr. Bender entered the room first, but he was not alone. The other man was smaller, more Lily's size. His skin was black, his body slim. She liked the way he looked, and how he looked at her. If he was nervous, it was only slightly. He wore a brown leather jacket, the same color as his pointed shoes. His beard was shaved precisely, as if the edges were painted on; his mustache was just a sliver, four whiskers thick, balanced on his upper lip.
Lily felt something as she stood ten feet away. A faint twinge in her rib cage, an edge of pain. Not exactly recognition, though Sylvester always felt familiar to her at the same time as he made her uneasy. Later, he told her that he, too, had answered an ad; Dr. Bender wanted to be sure they didn't already know each other.
That first day, standing by the bed, she was ready for anything; she forced herself not to turn away. Earlier, she'd chosen a black dress that had grown tighter than she liked; she hoped it would be right for this, whatever this was. She'd pulled back her hair, and taken off all her jewelry. She wore black eyeliner, dark red lipstick. Shoes with low, sharp heels. She felt Sylvester's eyes on her, and sensed that he liked what he saw. He smiled, and his teeth looked sharp and white.
In the beginning they met twice, even three times a week, in room 418. Now, when she needs it most, the frequency has dropped to once every two weeks, or even less. Lily waits for the calls, checks her answering machine ten times a day, drives out of her way to pass the hotel.
That first night ended after the introductions; it was only for Dr. Bender to be certain that Lily and Sylvester would do, that they could be trusted.
"There will be compensation," he told them, "but I could not tell you that, before now-this is not prostitution, but people's thoughts tend toward the literal. Most of your compensation, however, will not be in money. Listen carefully to me: these times in this hotel are the only connection the three of us will have. Outside of this room, we do not exist for each other. Any breach of this, any attempt at contact, will mean the end. Are we in agreement?"
The second time they met, he brought a duffel bag filled with their costumes. Both she and Sylvester had to change out of their clothes before they began. No nylon, no bright colors, no sneakers were allowed to be seen. They were all hidden away in the closet.
The first few times were only rehearsals, really. Dr. Bender had to show them how it was all supposed to go. He was very serious about it; he never joked. He held their costumes against his body, playing both their parts. He even wore her wig, and they didn't laugh. They watched as he shifted the way he moved-not becoming them, but revealing a way they might be. He taught them exactly how to touch each other, the stiffness of their gestures, their expressions like something was being lost, slipping away.
Every movement had to be repeated the same way. Every word, the lines built from some kind of old poetry. Dr. Bender worked and worked with Sylvester, repeating the words, helping him memorize them. Before long, Sylvester changed his beard to pointed sideburns; he was complimented for his authenticity.
"You must do it with honesty," he told them, and his belief made it seem possible, as he stood aside and listened, as he watched with his pipe clenched in his teeth and a perfect whirlwind of smoke obscuring his face. "And don't ever ask me why. Your innocence is essential."
Eventually, he spent less time in room 418 with them; he interrupted less frequently. There was nothing except the taped sound of the wind, the bright lights, Sylvester reciting the poetry, touching her only so far. Each time Lily became more aroused, as if she returned to find her excitement where she'd left it.
"Unity of effect," Dr. Bender said, and soon he did not come into the room at all. There was only the phone call alerting them to be there, and then the scratch of his key in the hallway-the signal that he'd arrived and, then, the signal that he'd departed. Envelopes of money were there ahead of time, in the closet. They were not to talk outside of the words he gave them; Sylvester was to leave at the end of the scene, and once he was gone she could rise from the bed.
Both she and Sylvester realized that Dr. Bender was in the next room, his eye watching through the hole in the wall. They knew better than to look at it, directly, yet it was always there, in their peripheral vision, switching back and forth. Sometimes she almost forgot they were being watched, but still she felt the weight of that eye, still she felt her movements subtly guided. Even when hours were lost in seconds and she felt a weightlessness, even when she saw Sylvester's erection, pushing out his nightshirt, the tip pulsing with his heartbeat. She never reached out and grasped it.
"Be honest," Dr. Bender told them, yet until now the words and actions have felt stilted, slightly false.
Today was the first time that they seemed to make sense, to feel as if they applied to her, to Sylvester: And true love caresses, leave them apart. They're light on the tresses, but hard on the heart.
As she accelerates down her street, Lily realizes she can't remember any of her drive from the hotel. She parks at the curb, locks the Club across the steering wheel, then opens the passenger door and slides across. The walk is icy, unshoveled; hurrying, finding the front door key, she almost falls.
There's no answer. She shares the row house with two college girls, both ten years younger than she is. They study at Temple-Julie's in the education school, Kristin can't decide-and Lily has nothing in common with them. In the living room, there are posters of bands she's never heard, and a musty, broken-down couch, and a television with a tinfoil halo. She kicks her way toward the kitchen, where she picks up the phone.
This is the only number she has for Sylvester. As it rings, as she figures out what to say, she glances at the bills stuck to the refrigerator by magnets. The cupboards are filled with mismatched plates and cups, everything chipped, left behind by prior tenants who are now far away, living better lives. Lily rinses out a glass and fills it with water, sets it next to a two-foot-tall bong she's never seen before-it's made of clear purple plastic, blackened around the bowl. She can't believe she lives in this world, and in the hotel, and at work, typing the lawyers' words. In each place, she feels like a different person; they are not subtle adjustments.
Sylvester's not there. He never is. Lily pauses. She almost hangs up without leaving a message, then can't stop herself.
"You took off on me! I need to talk to you, we need to get together. Outside of the hotel. Call me. We can't wait for that jackass elephant man to set it up. The times are too far apart. Call me."
She hangs up the phone, and is not certain what to do next, only that it has to be something. Her car keys are still in her hand.
Lily had been ready for Sylvester since the first rehearsal-that is the truth. She'd wanted to throw the sheet aside, to open her legs and catch him there. They didn't have to talk, to plan it. They spoke with their eyes, the tremors in their outstretched hands. It took almost three months before they acted, before they touched in ways they hadn't been taught.
That first time, they waited for the signal of Dr. Bender's departure, and then Lily slid out from under the sheet, and made the bed, and they started the scene from the beginning-carefully, like a spell, for no one except themselves. And after Sylvester covered her with the sheet, he uncovered her; he was no longer wearing his nightshirt. At the sight, she wrestled free from her gown, and then, at last, she felt his skin on her. She cried out, and he covered her mouth. He was quiet, but his hands were strong, his pale palms gently slapping her, his long dark fingers, finally, and his fingernails at the back of her neck, her thighs, the round cheeks of her ass. His eyes were wide, rolling and still on her. What she wanted was to feel his tip just forcing its way into her and then loose again and coming back inside; he wanted to be deep as he could be. They worked their compromise, again and again.
It is always like that-only in room 418, and only after the scene has been played through, as a continuation. The possibility of Dr. Bender's return only heightens the thrill. Is it that he would punish them? Take the game away? Or is the possibility of disappointing him what tinges the act with delicious fear?
They rested, that first night, after their shadows had buckled and rolled along the far wall; they laughed into each other's skin as the tape ran out and the wind clicked off. Lily almost told him he didn't look like a Sylvester, that it was a cat's name, but in that same moment she realized that Sylvester was not his name at all, but only one he gave her, to use as a marker. She felt silly, exposed, to have given him her actual name; in a way, she hoped he believed she'd given him a false one, too-in another way, she hoped he knew the truth.
They climbed from the bed, together, and went to the hole in the wall. Bending down, they took turns peering through. The room on the other side was the same as the one they stood in, only more broken down and empty, littered with sticks of broken furniture.
It's late, the streetlights blending into each other, the pedestrians harder to see. Lily circles through traffic, around the blocks of the city, in spirals, in figure eights. Where could he be? Is he looking for her? She drives slowly, aimlessly, choosing the narrowest alleyways, waiting patiently as people attempt to parallel park.
Once they'd broken that rule, they couldn't stop. The scratch of Sylvester's beard left its mark, a kind of rash beneath her clothes; at work, she'd look down the neck of her blouse and shiver at the sight-a sign from another world-as she anticipated the next time. Only once did he call her, and then only to say he was thinking of her, that he liked the smell of her. He will never meet her, not outside of the hotel, not without Dr. Bender calling first, and he'll never talk of how they met, their connection to each other. He won't discuss Dr. Bender at all, what they do for him, or why-as if the language on the outside cannot describe it, as if they can only come together inside that staged scene.
She will find him. She'll see him waving from the dark sidewalk, and she'll pull over; he'll open the door, and ask if he can drive. The driver's door is broken, so she'll slide across and climb out. They'll kiss, their bodies brushing against each other as they switch places, and then they'll begin to move through the city, out Kelly Drive, along boathouse row, the Schuylkill dark and frozen on the left.
It's just so nice to finally see him outside of room 418, she'll say. She'll tell him that she feels like she can breathe. The dashboard light will flicker, as it does; Sylvester's expression will stay the same. Calm. When he turns his head to check his blindspot, he'll look at Lily for a dangerously long time before returning his attention to the road.
She'll ask if he's taking her somewhere, if he's going to do things to her, and he'll only smile. They'll swoop across the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, toward the gates of the zoo, the dark shapes of fences and cages. In the parking lot, they'll fold down the Pinto's backseat and do it all-they'll say whatever they like, and take things in any order, and leave their clothes on or take them all off. Afterward, Sylvester will hold her; he will talk to her like he always does. Sometimes he tells her that he is not married, that he runs a small business; he never says exactly what kind. He talks about things she can't quite follow, and his voice rises with a kind of pride. He says there's a different kind of economy in the city-one that is about scores being settled, one that is not only about money. For him, though, it is about money, because of the things he can do, the things he can make happen. Sometimes it has to seem like a random accident, a strange coincidence, and other times it has to seem like a prank. The more powerful people are, he says, the more petty they are. Motivations are subtle, difficult to figure.
Sylvester can do all this, and more. And it means that whenever someone crosses him, whenever he feels someone taking advantage, he knows how to handle the situation-he takes pleasure in doing so. "I won't stand being disrespected," he said, once, lying back with his hand on his forehead, staring at the hotel room's cracked ceiling. "I can get behind anyone, no matter what they're doing and who they are, how quick-I'll be behind them and they won't even know it." He tells Lily to let him know if anyone makes her feel afraid. He says he can straighten anything.
She needs him here, on the outside; to have him only in room 418 is worse than not at all. It tears at her now, remembering how he'll turn over, how he'll hold her so gently with his soft voice spilling all around her.
Now she drives past the zoo parking lot, down the other bank of the Schuylkill. She heads back into the city, into the narrow streets. Her eyes want to close; her legs are cramped. She parks, opens the passenger door, then slides across and stretches in the cold air. Reaching across the lighted cab, she kills the ignition, pockets the keys. She locks the passenger door and starts off. She feels the need to walk.
There's only the sound of her arms against her sides, the slick whisper of nylon. She mistakes squirrels for rats before she sees their tails-one tries to bite the other's ass, they spiral up a tree. The streets are empty. Still, she feels as if she's being followed; she looks behind her but she can't see far. What time is it? She doesn't have her watch.
She lingers in dark, narrow alleys, pauses to stamp snow from her boots. She cannot feel her fingers or toes. Paper and plastic bags circle in the cold wind, caught in an empty intersection. She wants to be at its center, spun there, her arms wide. Three men in hard hats, one half-submerged in a manhole, watch her pass; next to them, a metal heater shaped like a torpedo blows steam into the night. The men disappear and surface in the cloud.
When Lily sees the diner, she's thinking of coffee, of chicken noodle soup. The neon is faint through the steam-covered windows. She leans into the door and, overhead, bells ring.
There are only a few tables, booths along the windows, and a horseshoe-shaped counter ringed with stools. The Formica is dull, worn in round spots where many elbows have rested. The air smells of burned coffee, of hamburgers. Lily is not certain if she senses him before she sees him. Dr. Bender. He absolutely fills one side of a booth; no one could fit next to him. His back faces her, and he has not seen her, but she cannot walk away. Instead, she is drawn closer, until she could reach out and touch his shoulder. Loose papers cover the table and he is writing in a notebook. He hums, murmurs to himself. His pen does not stop or slow; it trails a line of black, crooked letters, words impossible for her to read.
Turning suddenly, Dr. Bender smiles, as if he is hardly surprised, as if he is happy to see her. She's embarrassed about her clothes-the red nylon jacket, the striped hat-but he doesn't seem to take offense or even notice.
"Lily," he says. "Are you unhappy?" He gently closes the notebook, then begins shuffling and stacking the papers. "Sit down." He grips the edges of the table in his huge hands and pulls it toward him, making space on the other side. "Where are my manners?"
"I don't know," she says. "It's late, I mean. I don't know if I can sit down."
"Sit down," he says again. "It can't get much later."
She sits, only half facing him. There's no room for her legs beneath the table. Over the doorway, she sees there's plastic mistletoe. Strings of popcorn and cranberries hang from the ceiling above the counter. She feels Dr. Bender watching her, even as he continues to straighten his papers. Is this meeting a coincidence? Does it matter? Suddenly, she's sweating, as if warmth radiates from the doctor's huge body. She unzips her jacket, shrugs it off behind her.
"It can always get later," she says.
"I suppose you're right," he says. "Until it becomes early, again."
She has not seen him up close for months; he seems older now, more tired. His hands, loose on the table, look wide and dangerous; his head is enormous, heavy, and his small eyes are fixed on her. The loose skin on his face and neck suggests that he was once even larger, that he is shrinking.
"I'm surprised you'd ask me to sit here," she says. "I thought it was against the rules-seeing each other outside, I mean."
"It's late," he says.
Lily cannot tell if he means more than just the hour. A silence settles between them. She wonders if they can now talk about what was forbidden before; she wonders what else they would have to discuss. Away from room 418, he seems less overwhelming-frail, somehow, despite his size. She feels suddenly unfettered, facing him.
"Are you really a doctor?" she says.
"Yes," he says. "A kind of doctor."
"I am an examiner." He gestures to the papers at his elbow. "I investigate murders. I find clues in the bodies of the deceased."
She kicks him under the table, by mistake. The cups of coffee-when did the waitress bring them?-quiver and spill into their saucers before settling. Dr. Bender waves off her apology.
"What brings you out this late at night?" he says.
"Driving." She shrugs, to show that speaking of herself does not interest her, that this is not where she wants to take the conversation. "So," she says, "all these papers have to do with a murder?"
"I've been involved in an investigation this evening, yes."
"Well," Lily says.
Dr. Bender takes his pipe from a pocket, but the waitress stops him before he can light it. He thanks her, and sets it carefully on the table. Time passes very slowly, as if the air has thickened around them.
"I think we know who's responsible," he says to Lily, his voice lower. "I think you do." He looks into her eyes. "The man we know as Sylvester," he says.
Lily is surrounded by the smell of old pipe smoke, of chemicals and cologne. The surface of her skin tightens, winding cold and then loosening, her muscles finally relaxing. She imagines Sylvester's face, his smile. A murderer. She finds it hard, if not impossible, to believe.
"By your reaction," Dr. Bender says, "I can see that you did not know about it. I'm thankful to find that's the case. Still, it would interest me to be put in touch with him. Sylvester."
"You could call him," Lily says. "Set up a meeting in room 418."
"We will get to that. We will discuss the hotel." Dr. Bender rakes his hair back from his forehead, mops his face with a handkerchief, smooths his mustache. "Now, though, I'd like to ask your help in contacting this man. Tonight's events may impair my ability to do so, and I believe you might have more direct means. I'd be willing to pay."
"This was never about money," she says, her mouth dry, her voice uneven.
"Of course not," he says. "I apologize for my presumption. You've already done so much for me."
Lily watches drops of water roll down the inside of the window, making long rips in the steam, collecting in puddles around the dead flies on the sill. She remembers Dr. Bender in her wig, his huge body moving in slow motion, teaching her all the pieces of the scene. She tests a fork's tines against her fingertips.
"You told us never to contact each other," she says. "I never even tried."
"On the contrary." Shifting the papers, he takes out a microcassette player; it looks like a domino against his huge hand. "This tape," he says, "was in the answering machine, at the scene of the crime I am investigating." Dr. Bender pushes the PLAY button. At first, through the static, there's his own voice:
"Thursday, November nineteenth, five-thirty p.m. The location remains the same as always."
Lily recognizes the message-it's identical to the ones he leaves for her. Then there's a click, and a beep, and then a woman's voice; it takes a moment for her to realize it's her own. The message is from today, earlier, while she stood in her kitchen. Her voice is strained, insistent. Dr. Bender lets the message play to its end, and then he stops the tape.
"'Jackass elephant man,'" he says, almost smiling. "That's pretty good." He puts the tape player away. "Now," he says, "there's no reason we can't be honest with each other."
"I don't know," Lily says. She feels caught, found out, and she cannot tell why Dr. Bender is not more upset with her. "I only have the phone number you do," she says. "Obviously."
"I believe," Dr. Bender says, "that our friend Sylvester misunderstood my intentions. My motivations. I know he's followed me, that he's collected information. None of that matters. I want to find him, to tell him that. This is no competition; I do not want to challenge or hurt him."
"What about me?" Lily says. "What if I was hurt?"
Dr. Bender closes his eyes, opens them, closes them again. The sharp hands of the clock above the counter are about to meet at 12.
"I was hurt," she says. "I think everything's changed and I don't know why, except now you have to tell me, now I'm going to ask. Don't interrupt." Lily struggles to keep her voice down. She stares across at him until he turns his eyes away. "I used to think it was simple," she says, "that you liked to watch, and while your eye was watching us your hands were on yourself, on the other side of that wall. Now I think it was something else, something more complicated. I don't know what."
Dr. Bender opens his eyes. He does not seem to see her. He licks his lips, then begins to speak. "At first," he says, "I just wanted to see it, to see something like that. Between people, you understand. It was never so crass as you suggest."
"At first?" she says.
He takes out his handkerchief and wipes his face. His lips tremble, but no words come out. Finally, he waves to the waitress, then orders a bowl of soup.
"Who did he kill?" Lily says.
Dr. Bender looks at her as if what she's said makes no sense at all. On the stools at the counter, two men turn to stare.
"I apologize," he says. "I understand how you could have reached that conclusion. However, while this evening's investigation appeared to be a murder, it turned out to be no such thing. I don't believe our friend is in fact capable of such a crime."
Lily's coffee is gone; she can still feel it on her teeth, sour in her stomach. With one hand, she squeezes the napkin dispenser. The spring inside squeaks. Her other hand tests the chewing gum, dried and hard, stuck along the bottom of the table.
"I wanted," Dr. Bender says, the words coming slowly. "I wanted it to be pure. Does that sound ridiculous?" Lily tries to shake the sympathy rising in her. She wants to comfort him, but she has to fight for herself, as well. Is it ridiculous, what he is saying?
"Only because it was fake," she says. "It was set up and artificial from the beginning."
"Yes," he says. "In the beginning. Let me ask you this-it took about three months, didn't it? Before you started breaking rules? I could tell. Just the way your movements changed, the slight adjustment in how you reacted to each other. A different tension between you. A new familiarity."
"You expected too much," she says. "We're just people."
"Exactly," he says. "It was never meant to be perfect. I saw the attraction, it was necessary, and I expected you would eventually consummate it. Once you had that secret, you moved differently; the lights shone on you in a new way."
"You watched us?"
"No," he says. "Not beyond what we'd rehearsed. I was happy to recognize it, though, that you two had dared. I wanted the feelings to become real. I wanted you to forget me and how everything began."
"That was the point?" Lily says. "How could we forget?"
"You couldn't," he says. "And I couldn't. That could not be overcome. I did not know that at first. I had to learn it. I had to learn that the person who had to see it was someone else entirely, someone who didn't know the beginning."
"What are you talking about?"
"This was the final night," he says. "Tonight. I won't be calling you again."
"Just like that," Lily says, her voice soft. It is a statement, not a question. Her hands are in fists, and she straightens her fingers; she has failed to hold on to anything. The news does not come as a surprise, she tells herself, since she has already sensed that it's over.
Dr. Bender straightens his stack of papers, his gaze turned down. He looks less tired now. His eyes shine, his thick fingers unfold. Shifting his weight, he slides his two leather suitcases out from under the table. He opens one, and feeds his papers into it. He holds up the microcassette player for a moment, as if it's a joke between them.
"If you'll excuse me," he says, standing. "It has been my pleasure."
"Your soup," she says.
It rests in the middle of the table, yellow and steaming.
"I ordered it for you," he says.
As he walks away, the heavy suitcases, one in each hand, seem necessary to hold his feet to the floor. He is already at the door, too far away to hear, when Lily calls out to thank him.
The waitress takes away the bowl once the soup is gone. Lily sits, summoning the energy to rise, trying to remember where her car is parked. She is thinking of all she gave up, all she hoped for-that world has collapsed in on itself and cannot be found again, can never be understood from here. This saddens her; at the same time, she feels a kind of relief.
Then a movement startles her. Someone is outside, on the other side of the window, a hand only inches from her face, trying to scrub away the steam. The steam is on the inside, so it cannot be cleared. Next, a white face, blurred and strange, leans close, trying to see her. Lily feels her heart accelerate, her fingers go cold.
Then the bells ring, and a man enters. He's slight-a boy, actually. A teenager. He doesn't hesitate; he walks straight for her. There's something eerie about him, not quite right. The white lining, like cotton, pushes through holes in his jacket. His long blond hair is parted straight down the middle, that line a bright arrow, pointing at her.
He stands next to the table. She tries not to meet his eyes. He reaches out, picks up the glass of water Dr. Bender left behind. When she looks at the boy, she realizes that the shining on the smooth skin of his face, and his hands, is not reflected from the light above. It's coming from within, radiating outward.
"I almost didn't recognize you," he whispers, his lips hardly moving. "I like your hair this way."
Lily does not answer, and he does not seem to mind. He begins to drink, and she watches. She has never seen him before. His fingers on the glass are almost translucent; they disappear, they multiply. She senses that something is about to happen, that this is no coincidence, no mistake. The boy does not set the glass down until the ice rattles against his teeth. He still does not sit, but remains standing close, watching her.
"No one told me to find you," he says.
"What?" she says, her voice even lower than his.
"Is it all right if I touch you?" he says.
Lily doesn't answer, doesn't really nod.
His fingers are cold, electric, working beneath the hair at the nape of her neck, then pressing her skin. A delicious warmth pours down her spine, along her nerves that branch like trees, like fingers-feathers of heat roll down her arms, her legs, to the tip of each finger and toe and circling darkly back. She gasps. Warm filaments snake around her bones, loose in her skull, and settle everywhere, rooted and tight.
Then the boy withdraws his hand. Turning, he walks slowly away, through the door.
Lily watches him go. She sees him outside, along the steamy window, the shape of him fading and then no longer there. The warmth remains; it resides in her. She knows that she will carry this change out into the night, that she will rise with it in the morning. Days and weeks, months and years. She will find love, here and in other places, with other people. Hope will overflow and spread out before her.