Riley didn’t like dogs, or not particularly. They were like children (of which he had none, thankfully), bringing dirt, confusion and unlooked-for expense into your life. But here was a dog, a darting, elaborately whiskered thing in the 70- to 80-pound range with a walleye and one collapsed ear, barking inquisitively at him from the terminus of its chain. Behind him, in the drive, Caroline stuck her head out the car window, her face leached of color. “Don’t tell me *this* is the place?”
“Wait’ll you see inside,” he called over his shoulder, the dog’s explosive barks underscoring the dreariness of the day, which was gray and coldish for mid-May.
He’d rented the house for a week because the few local hotels had been booked for graduation across the river at West Point and he most emphatically did not want to go down into the city, which was what Caroline most emphatically did want but wasn’t going to get. He hated cities. Hated the seethe of people, the noise, the crush of everybody wanting everything at the same time. What he liked was this, simplicity, nature, the river spread out at his feet and his gaze carrying all the way across to the wooded mountains on the other side, which, apart from the rail line—and what was that, an oil tank?—couldn’t have looked all that much different when Henry Hudson first laid eyes on them. He felt his heart lift. All was right with the world. Except for the dog. And Caroline.
But Caroline liked dogs, and she was out of the car now, striding across the wet lawn in her heels, calling to the dog in a clucking, high childish voice. “Oh, that’s a good boy; he’s a good boy, isn’t he? What a good boy,” she called until she was right there and the dog was fawning at her feet, rolling over on its back so she could apply her $200 manicure to its underbelly. After a minute of this—and Riley was just standing there watching, not with the proprietary pride he’d felt after their marriage four years ago but with a vague kind of quotidian interest, the same interest, dulled and flattened, that just barely got him out of bed in the mornings—she turned round to him and said, girlishly, sweetly, “This must be Meg and Brian’s new dog. I wonder why they didn’t say anything? I mean, I remember the old one, when they came to visit that time? The one that died—I’m picturing German shepherd, right? Wasn’t it a German shepherd?”
He just shrugged. One dog was the same as another as far as he was concerned. Meg had said she’d be home from work by four to give him the keys to the rental, which belonged to her next-door neighbors, an older couple who were away in Tuscany for the month on some sort of culinary tour. But it was already half-past four, there were no cars in Meg’s driveway, and her house—a modest one-story place shingled in gray that had had its basement flooded twice in the past year after storms upriver—looked abandoned. Except for the dog, that is, which was clearly Meg’s, since its chain was affixed to a stake on her side of the rolling expanse of lawn the two properties shared. If Meg was home—or Brian—the dog would have been in the house.
“Give her a call, why don’t you?” he said, and watched Caroline straighten up and dig in her purse for her phone. He didn’t carry a cell phone himself—one, because he despised technology and the grip it had on the jugular of America, and two, because he didn’t want the federal stooges mapping his every move. Might as well have them attach one of those tracking devices. Like with wolves—or parolees. Or better yet, just tattoo your social security number across your forehead.
Caroline, slim still, with gym-toned legs tapering down to those glistening black patent-leather heels, had turned her back to him, as if for privacy, the phone pressed to her ear. It was a picture, her standing there framed against the river like that, and he would have snapped a photo too—if he had a cell phone. But then what was the use of pictures anyway? Nobody would ever see them. It wasn’t like the old days, when he was a kid and Polaroid was king. Then you could snap a picture, hold it in your hand, put it in a photo album. Today? All the photos were in the Cloud, ready for the NSA to download at their leisure. And pleasure.
Leisure and pleasure. He liked the sound of that and made a little chant of it while he waited for Caroline to turn round and tell him Meg wasn’t answering, or Brian either.
It began to drizzle. This had the effect of intensifying the otherworldly greenness of the place, and he liked that, liked the weather, liked the scene, but the shoulders of his new sports coat seemed strangely spongelike, and his coiffure—the modified pompadour he still affected—was threatening to collapse across his forehead. He let out a curse. “What now?” he said. “Jesus. She did say four, didn’t she?”
There was something in his tone that got the dog barking again, which drove a fresh stake through his mood. He was about to swing round, get back in the car and go look for a bar somewhere when Meg’s generic little silver car swished into the drive next door and he moved toward her, foolishly, because that put him in range of the dog, which reared up on its hind legs to rapturously smear mud all over his white linen pants and attempt to trip him in the process. “Shit,” he cursed, shoving the dog down and trying vainly to wipe away the mud, a good portion of which transferred itself to his hands. But was it mud—or the very element he’d just named?
No matter. So what if his jacket was soaked, his pants ruined and dirt of whatever denomination worked up under his fingernails? He wasn’t here to show off his fashion sense or dine out with celebrities or sit for press interviews. No, Lester was dead. And he was here for the funeral.
One thing, among many, that Caroline didn’t know was that he’d been involved with Meg all those years ago, long before he met her—or either of his first two wives, for that matter—but if she did, he suspected she wouldn’t have cared much one way or the other, except to drop the knowledge like a fragmentation device into the middle of one of their increasingly bitter squabbles, squabbles over nothing. Like whose turn it was to empty the litter box and why they needed a litter box in the first place when the cats could just shit outside, but no, she insisted, that was the kind of thinking that was driving birds to extinction and how could he be so shortsighted, and he, in his shortsightedness, countering with What birds? There’s nothing but crows out there. Crows and more crows. And she: My point exactly. Or who’d conveniently forgotten to fill up the car or buy cheese at the market, and not blue cheese, which tasted like hand soap, but a nice Gruyère or Emmentaler? Or how you pronounced her brother Cary’s name, which he rendered as “Carry” and she as “Kierie” in her Buffalese.
And what was that all about? Boredom, he supposed, the two of them locked away in their restored 18th century farmhouse in the midst of a peace so unshakable it was like living in a tomb. Which was all right with him—he was a novelist, “high mid-list,” as he liked to say, bitterly, and he’d chosen to isolate himself for the sake of his writing—but after the remodel was done and she’d selected the antiques and the rugs and the fire irons and dug her flower beds and landscaped the front portion of their six-point-five acres, what was left for her? You choose rural, you choose isolation. And Caroline didn’t especially like isolation.
But none of that mattered now because Lester was dead and Meg was crossing the lawn to him, her eyes already full. Before he could think, he was wrapping her in a full-body embrace that rocked them in each other’s orbit far too long while Caroline stood there watching and the mud staining his trousers imperceptibly worked itself into Meg’s jeans. He was feeling sorrow, a sorrow so fluent it swept him in over his head, Lester gone and Meg pressed tight to him, and it really hadn’t come home to him till now because now he was here, now it was real. He’d always suppressed his emotions in the service of cool, of being cool and detached and untouchable, but suddenly there were tears in his eyes. He might have stood there forever, clutching Meg to him, so far gone he couldn’t think beyond the three questions he and Lester used to put to each other when they were stoned (Who are we? Where are we? Why are we?), but for the fact that Brian’s car had somehow appeared in the drive, right behind Meg’s. If Caroline didn’t know how he’d once felt about Meg, Brian certainly did, and the knowledge of that—and of some of the extracurricular things Brian had said to him at a party a few years ago—made him come back to himself.
He became aware of the rain, which was more persistent now. Lester’s face rose up suddenly in his consciousness, then melted away, as if he’d taken a match to a photograph. He let go of Meg, dropped his arms to his sides, took a step back. “Hi, Brian,” he called, lifting one hand in a crippled, fluttering wave though Brian couldn’t have heard him since the window was rolled up and the motor running. Still, he couldn’t help adding, “Great to see you!”
The house was one of 12 set on a slim strip of land between the river and the train tracks, a smallish 1940s bungalow that had been recast as a two-story contemporary, with fireplace, boat mooring and panoptic views of the river. It was nothing like the farmhouse, of course, but once you stepped inside it gave a good first impression: rustic furniture, framed photos of Hudson scenes on the walls, a brass telescope for stargazing or catching the eye-gleam of the tugboat captains who pushed barges up and down the river all day long. The second impression was maybe a hair less favorable (cramped kitchen, a smell of what, bilge?), but he was gratified—and relieved—to see that Caroline was going to be all right with it. “I love the view,” she said, striding across the parquet floor to pull the curtains open wide. “It’s”—she searched for the word, turning to him and holding out her hands. If he thought she was going to say “inspiring” or “sublime” or even “awesome,” he was disappointed. “It’s nice,” she said, and then clarified—“I mean it works, right?”
They were just mixing their inaugural cocktail—vodka gimlet, Lester’s touchstone—when the first train entered the scene. On a theoretical level, Riley had understood that the proximity of the tracks might give rise to a certain degree of noise now and again, but this was something else altogether. There was a sudden shattering blast, as of a jet fighter obliterating the sound barrier, then the roar of the wheels, the insult of the horn and the chattered-teeth rattle of every glass, cup, dish and saucer in the cupboard. The whole thing, beginning to end, couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds, but it managed to spike his blood pressure and induce him to slosh Rose’s lime juice all over the granite countertop the older couple had installed to fortify their barely adequate kitchen. “Jesus,” he said, “what was that?”
Caroline, deadpan: “The train.”
“How’re we supposed to sleep? I mean, what’s the schedule? Are there night trains—or no, there wouldn’t be, right?”
“Ask Meg and Brian.”
“You get used to it, is that what you’re saying?”
She shrugged. Implicit in that shrug and the tight smile that accompanied it was the reminder that they wouldn’t have been having this discussion if they were on the 12th floor of the Algonquin or even the Royalton or Sofitel and that any train they might have run across would have been a conveyance, only that, a means of getting them from the city to this benighted place and back again.
“Jesus,” he repeated, looking round for the paper towels, and he was just sopping up the mess—sticky, redolent, probably 90 percent sugar—when there was a tap at the sliding door and Meg was there, framed in the glass panel as in a Renaissance painting, Our Lady of the River. She’d changed out of her jeans and into a skirt and she’d done something with her hair. He waved, enjoying the moment, till Brian’s head and shoulders entered the frame and then, at hip level, the dog. She tapped again, grinning, and held up a handle of vodka.
They had a round of gimlets in memory of Lester, then another, after which they switched to wine, a Bordeaux from the case Riley had brought down from Buffalo to help ease Lester’s passage, or at least his own immersion in it. He’d written about death to the point of obsession, but he’d been spared the experience of it, if you except the death of his parents, which had happened so long ago he couldn’t even remember what they looked like, and he was finding the process of mourning in someone else’s living room increasingly disorienting. He tried to make small talk, but small talk wasn’t going to work, not with Lester hanging over them like some great-winged bird. The shadows deepened. The river went the color of steel. Everything he said seemed to begin with “You remember when?” And here were Meg’s eyes, inviting him right in, the most patient, salvatory eyes he’d ever seen. He was drunk, of course, that was it, and if Caroline and Brian were forced to hover on the fringes of the conversation, that was something they’d just have to get used to because they hadn’t been there with Lester right from the beginning and he had. And Meg had too.
“You’re slurring your words,” Caroline said at one point, and he looked up, wondering how it had gotten dark so quickly—and without his noticing.
“Maybe we should eat something?” he heard himself say, even as the lights of a barge drifted by on the dark shoulders of the river and the dog, agitated by something beyond the range of human senses, began to whine.
Brian pushed himself up from the easy chair in the corner, an empty wineglass in one hand. He was big-headed, white-haired and, Riley noted with a certain degree of satisfaction, he’d begun to develop a potbelly. He looked old, tired, bored. “I’m ready for bed.”
“Pizza?” Meg made a question of it. “They’ll deliver.”
“Count me out,” Brian said, and gave a little laugh that was meant to be self-deprecating but to Riley’s ears sounded just this side of rude. He was a killjoy, Brian. A nonentity. And Meg was wasted on him. “But if you three want”—Brian waved at the air—“I mean, go ahead.”
“I don’t eat pizza,” Caroline put in, her voice light and incisive, no slurring for her though she’d had as much to drink as anybody. She let out a laugh. “It’s not Paleo.”
“You’re telling me they didn’t have pizza delivery in the Stone Age?” Riley had used the joke before, somewhere, sometime, and nobody responded to it now. He was sunk deep in the easy chair beside Brian’s, feeling as if he’d never summon the volition to move again. Somehow he found the dog’s head in his lap, and he began idly stroking its collapsed ear.
“We could go out,” Meg offered, but Caroline just shook her head and he sank deeper into the chair, wondering how he was even going to get up the stairs to bed, let alone negotiate the car and deal with lights, people, waiters, menus.
Just then there was a tap at the glass, which sent the dog into a frenzy, its head rocketing up out of Riley’s lap, paws scrabbling on the floor, the barking rising in pitch till it was nearly a scream, and Riley looked up to see a ghostly face illuminated there at the door, a woman’s face, nobody he knew, but it made his heart seize all the same.
As it turned out, she was Meg’s neighbor from the next house up and she had some bad news to impart, some very bad news, in fact. Meg slid the door back and the funk of the river rushed in to overwhelm him. “Turn on the TV!” the woman shouted, thumping into the room and going directly to the television—a wall-mounted thing Riley hadn’t to this point even noticed—and clicked it on. “I can’t believe it,” she sang out as images of wreckage, flames, emergency flares and stunned onlookers played across the screen in a way that had become the nightly reality and every bit as believable as anything else out there in the world. The feed at the foot of the screen read Florence, Italy, and gave the time there, 5:30 a.m. “They got Ted,” she said.
Meg gave her a look of disbelief. “What are you talking about? Who?”
“The terrorists. I just had a call from Nadine.” And here her voice broke. “It was, I don’t know, wrong place, wrong time.” She was 50-ish, this woman, bottom-heavy, her hair cut short but for a spray of pink-dyed strands sprouting like feathers at the back of her neck. “She’s going to be okay, but Ted—he didn’t make it.”
Loudly, in a rising wail, Meg denied it.
“Who’s Ted?” he asked, puzzled, even as the tension began to sink its claws in his stomach, deep down, where he was most vulnerable.
“Ted Marchant,” Meg said without turning her head. “I can’t believe it,” she echoed, her eyes jumping from the screen to the woman who’d come to destroy their evening. Or night. It was night now. Definitely. “When?” she demanded. “Are you sure?”
“Who’s Ted Marchant?”
Brian loomed over him with his big white head, the empty glass arrested in midair. “The guy,” he said flatly, “whose chair you’re sitting in.”
So there were two deaths. First Lester, and now this. Ted Marchant. Whose name Riley must have written across the face of a check, though he had no recollection of it, who’d sat in this very chair and trained his telescope on the stars or maybe a girl going topless in a speedboat on the far side of the river, who, as it would turn out, had been unlucky enough to be sitting at a corner table in a Florentine café, sipping his espresso, at the very moment the black-clad gunmen had rumbled up on their stolen Ducatis and begun shooting. He’d never met Ted Marchant or his wife of 45 years either—Nadine—but here he was in possession of the dead man’s home and all the dead man’s things, drinking out of the dead man’s wineglasses. It made him queasy to know it.
The television talked to them and they leaned forward in their chairs and watched the images play across the dead man’s screen, listened to the voices of the reporters, the same old thing, the tiredest thing, except that one of the 17 dead had plodded across these floors and breathed this same dank river air that smelled of a whole array of deaths, from fish to worms to clams and the algae that bloomed on a bounty of phosphates and died back to nothing again. It was staggering. He almost wanted to protest—this wasn’t about Ted Marchant, whom he didn’t even know; it was about Lester—but instead, into the void, he said, “Maybe we should leave?”
Meg turned away from the screen, her features saturated with the garish light, and looked him full in the face. “No,” she said, fierce suddenly, as if the killers were in the room with them. “No way. You’re going to stay.”
He glanced at Caroline for support, but Caroline’s eyes never left the screen. “But won’t the wife—? She’ll be coming back now, she’ll have to, the widow, I mean——”
“Are you serious? Something like this—it could be weeks, months, who knows.” Meg’s voice caught in her throat. “Poor Nadine—can you imagine?”
“The weirdest thing”—and here the woman who’d brought the news gave him a long look—“is that you’re here…for a funeral, right?” A glance for Meg. “Or that’s what Meg said. And that makes this whole thing so, I don’t know, spooky, I guess you’d have to say——”
He was spooked right down to the soles of his feet. Did death come in pairs, like twins?
He didn’t deny it. In fact, he was spooked right down to the superstitious God-denying soles of his feet. It was like that time in Alaska when the surviving pilot of a two-man air service told him his partner had crashed while delivering a family of Inuit to the next village for the funeral of a family of Inuit killed in an air crash the previous day. Was that how the fates were aligned? Did death come in pairs, like twins? Lester had died of melanoma, a cruel, preposterous thing that had begun as a blister on the little toe of his right foot and spread to his brain and killed him so fast Riley hadn’t even known he was sick, let alone dying. It wasn’t cool to die, wasn’t hip, that was how Lester felt—he had an image to maintain—and so he’d done it alone. That was what hurt. He hadn’t called, e-mailed, written, hadn’t breathed a word. He’d just crawled off to some hospice in California and spared them the pain.
Later, after Caroline had gone up to bed and Brian took the dog back across the lawn to his own house and shut out the lights one by one till the fading image of it vanished into the night, there were just the three of them left there in the dead man’s living room. Everything was quiet, the lights muted, the TV screen gone blank now. He was the one who’d finally gotten up and shut it off, Meg whispering “Thank you” and the other woman (her name was Anna or Anne or maybe Joanne, he never quite caught it, not that it mattered—she was the Messenger of Death and that was all he needed to know) seconded her. “These media hyenas,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal. “Really, it’s just disgusting.” For a long while no one said anything, the only sounds the tap of bottle on glass and the consolatory splash of the wine, but then the house began to quail and rattle and here came the blast again, that violent rending of the air, and a train hurtled past with a last fading shriek.
“Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was so late,” the woman said, rising from her chair and setting her glass down on the nearest horizontal surface—an inlaid end table, already blemished with a dozen fading circular scars, not that Ted Marchant was going to care. In the next moment she was embracing Meg, the two of them tearful, exuberant in their grief, and then the woman was gone and he was alone with Meg. She looked at him and shook her head. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”
He didn’t know what to say. It was. Of course it was. Everything was terrible—and getting worse.
He watched her as she bent for her glass, stood up and drained it, one hand on her hip. She looked dazed, uncertain on her feet, and she set the glass down carefully beside the one her neighbor had left, then sank heavily into the couch. “Here,” she said, giving him a tired smile, “sit here beside me. Take a load off. It’s been a day.”
So he sat beside her and felt the warmth of her there in the house that had taken on a chill with the lateness of the hour, and then he put his arm around her and pulled her to him and they kissed and though he felt the tug of her like some elemental force of reconciliation and surcease, he didn’t give in to it. What he did do, with the smallest adjustment, was stretch out his legs and lay his head in her lap so that the warmth became a heat and his eyes fell shut, and the death, the two deaths, faded into oblivion.
The next morning, Caroline, declaring the situation “too weird for words,” took a train into the city to lunch with her roommate from college and engage in a little resuscitative shopping, and by the time he extracted himself from the bed he’d somehow managed to find his way to at some unfathomable hour of the night, he was just in time to see Meg pulling out of the driveway on her way to work. Brian’s car was gone too, as was his own—Caroline had taken it up to the Garrison station and left it there because he was too enfeebled by the night’s reversals to get up and drop her off. So he was alone there in the dead man’s house (the murdered man’s house) poking through the cupboards with the idea of coffee in mind—and maybe something to ease his stomach, like dry toast. Or…the zwieback he somehow found in his hand, the pastel rendering of a baby grinning up at him from the front of the cardboard box. But why would the old couple stock baby crackers? Grandchildren? Dental issues? He put a zwieback in his mouth, experimentally, then spat it back out in the palm of his hand. Milk. Maybe milk would settle his stomach. He poured out a clean white glass of it, set it on the counter and stared at it a long moment before trying, with mixed success, to pour it back into the carton. In his distraction, it must have taken him five entire minutes before he remembered that Lester was dead. And that the funeral, at which he’d be expected to get himself together long enough to deliver a eulogy, was tomorrow.
He looked up at a sudden noise—a thump—and there was the dog, pressing its nose to the glass of the sliding door, a ruptured length of chain trailing away from its throat like essential jewelry. The day was bright, he noticed now, yesterday’s clouds and drizzle driven back over the hills and the sun dividing the lawn like a chessboard into patches of shadow and light, and the irritation he would normally have felt at the intrusion gave way to something lighter, more tenable, something almost like acceptance. He was glad Caroline had gone into the city and Meg to work, glad to be alone here so he could slow things down, take a walk, sit by the river, commune with Lester on his own terms, and never mind Ted Marchant—Ted Marchant was another issue altogether and he wasn’t going to go there.
The thump came again. The dog was pawing the glass as if it wanted something, as if it had a message to convey, some extrasensory glimpse into the process that had claimed Lester and Ted Marchant and would repurpose itself, in good time, to claim the survivors too. Or maybe it was just hungry, maybe that was it. Or, more likely, it wanted in so it could go take a crap on the carpet—wasn’t that what dogs were famous for? But then it occurred to him that the dog shouldn’t be there at all, that it had, in fact, broken free of its chain, which meant that it was in danger, or potential danger—hadn’t Meg complained about how vigilant you had to be or it would bolt out the door and make straight for the train tracks? He got up from where he was sitting at the kitchen table, thinking to let the dog in—to trap it in the house—and then see if he could do something about reinforcing the chain.
But what was the thing’s name? Something with a T—Tuffy? Terry? Or no, Taffy, that was it, because of its coloration, as Meg had explained shortly after it had annihilated his pants. Anyway, he got up from the kitchen table, went to the door and slid it open, which, far from having the desired effect, caused the dog to back away from him so precipitately it fell from the porch in an awkward scramble of limbs. For the briefest moment it lay there on its back, its legs kicking in the air, and then it sprang up and bolted headlong away from him, straight in the direction of the tracks. “Taffy!” he called, feeling ridiculous but nonetheless coming down off the porch and hustling across the lawn after him (or her; he wasn’t even sure what sex the thing was). “Taffy! No!”
His heart slamming at his ribs, Riley reached the tracks just as the last car raged by.
It was at that moment the train appeared, the 9:50 or 10:10 or whatever it was, the air shrieking, the wheels thundering, a great onrushing force that eclipsed the animal as if it had never been there at all. Running now, his heart slamming at his ribs, Riley reached the tracks just as the last car—the caboose, a term that came to him out of a buried past, childhood, Lionel, mittens pressed to ears, Take Daddy’s hand now—raged on by and the tracks stood vacant, shining malevolently in the hard gleam of the sun. What he expected was death, another death, the dog’s remains dribbled like ragout up and down the line—and what was he going to tell Meg?—but that wasn’t what he found. The dog was there, intact, remnant chain and all, sitting on its rump on the far side of the tracks and staring at him stupidly across the void.
“Taffy,” he called, trying to control his voice, the edge of hysteria there, of fury. “Come!”
But Taffy didn’t come. Taffy never budged, except to contort himself (he was a male, Riley saw now, the sheath of the organ, the tight dark balls like damson plums) so he could reach up and scratch his chin with one back paw. Riley looked up and down the tracks, a long tapering V to the vanishing point in either direction, then called again, again without response. Maybe if I turn my back on him, he thought. Or maybe—and here he felt embarrassed with himself, because what was he now, a dog whisperer?—maybe he should just say fuck the whole business. Let the dog take his chances. Right. Fine. He swung abruptly round and made his way through the damp grass to mount the porch of the dead man’s house and see if he could find the means to make himself a cup of coffee.
He wasn’t really tracking the time, but it must have been around noon or so, the sun high overhead and the dog frisking back and forth across the lawn, chain in tow, when he looked up from his coffee and toast and his eyes came to rest on the canoe where it lay overturned on the dock. He’d been reading a very dull book, trying not to think beyond the next dull paragraph, wondering how he was going to get through the rest of the day, and there it was, this vision: the canoe. It was just the thing he needed—to get out on the river, clear his head, let nature be his guide. What could be better? The sun-spanked waves, the breeze fresh out of the north, a little exercise—he could always use the exercise, and really, how often did he have the opportunity to get out here on the Hudson, the river of his boyhood, of his connections, of his past, of Lester? All right. A plan. A definite plan.
It took him a while to find the paddles, secreted as they were in the back of the garage behind a six-foot-tall rusting metal cabinet that contained the other boating things: blue flotation cushion, orange life vest, various fishing rods, crab traps, gigs and landing nets. He took the cushion, a spinning rod and a tackle box stocked with Ted Marchant’s lures—why not?—balanced a paddle over one shoulder and crossed the lawn to the dock. If he didn’t bother with the life vest it was because he never bothered with life vests—he knew what he was doing, and even at his age (he would be 56 in December, though officially he admitted only to 50) he was a strong swimmer, had always been, and for a moment he saw himself in his 20s, racing Lester out to the raft on Kitchawank Lake over and over again, one sprint after the other, the loser having to swig a shot of the tequila their girlfriends, leaning over the edge of the raft, held out for them even as they laughed and cheered and kicked up a froth with their pretty, tanned feet.
The canoe—aluminum, indestructible—was surprisingly heavy, but he managed to flip it over, stow his gear and slide it into the water before lowering himself into it and equalizing his weight. In the next moment he was stroking hard against the tug of the current, the first strokes the best, always the best, all the power gone to your shoulders and upper arms in a flush of resurgent joy. It was sensational. Transformative. Dip, rise, dip again. He must have been a hundred feet from shore when he realized he’d forgotten a hat, which would have been nice to have to keep the sun out of his face, and his water bottle too, but that wasn’t a problem because he wasn’t going to stay out that long. Cruise up the river and back again, 45 minutes, an hour. Max. Though, admittedly, he did feel a bit dehydrated and maybe hungover into the bargain, and the thought flickered in and out of his mind that he might paddle up the river to Garrison, to the bar there, and then drift back down when the tide reversed, but that was too ambitious…no, better to keep it simple.
Ahead of him on the right, just past the promontory where the last of the 12 houses sat, was a low trestle that gave onto the marsh on the far side, and he paddled for the entrance, thinking he’d do a little exploring. Meg had taken him back there the last time he’d visited and he remembered it as a magical place, alive with birds of every description, turtles stacked up like dinner plates on the butts of half-submerged trees—and, better yet, the sense of enclosure and privacy it held, as if you were miles away from anyone. The point, he realized, as he dug the paddle in and flew across the gray froth of the river, was that Lester was dead and he wasn’t. He was alive, never more alive. The burden of grief was a burden we all carried—Lester! Lester!—but there was this too, this living in the moment, the sunstruck chop, the breeze, the scent of the wildflowers clustered round the mouth of the trestle till it could have been a bower in a Rossetti poem. He flew for it. But then, drawing closer, he saw that the tide was up higher than he’d realized—the space seemed barely adequate for the canoe itself to pass under, no more than three feet of vertical clearance, if that.
Riley, for better or worse—worse, actually—never backed down from a challenge.
Riley, for better or worse—worse, actually—never backed down from a challenge, and once he’d made up his mind to shoot the entrance, he just kept going. At the last moment, he slid down supine on the floor of the canoe and let the inrushing current carry him, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d arrived 15 minutes earlier, when he would have had another two or three inches between him and the concrete belly of the trestle. As it was, he could have glided right through if he’d been in a kayak or riding a surfboard, but unfortunately the twin high points of the canoe, at bow and stern, struck the ceiling with a sound like grinding molars, the current dragging the canoe forward till finally, a dozen feet from the far side, it stuck fast.
He saw his predicament and experienced a moment of regret, but regret wasn’t going to get him out of this, was it? The water was streaming in and soon it would engulf the entire space, right to the ceiling, or at least that had to be a possibility, didn’t it? All right. No need to panic. He raised his arms and pushed hard against the concrete above him and the boat edged forward, scraping in protest. What he hadn’t counted on—but he hadn’t counted on anything, just acted, and acted stupidly, suicidally, really—was the unevenness of the structure, which, as it turned out, had subsided ever so imperceptibly on the far side, not that it was any of his business, but what, exactly, was wrong with the maintenance people on the New York Central line? Didn’t they inspect these things?
Whether they did or not, the fact remained that he was stuck. On his back. In a space that was like a coffin, with the tide rushing in and no more than a few spare inches of clearance between him and the cold gray lid above him that might or might not have been home to various spiders and biting insects and water snakes too, an example of which had just whipped past him in a display of muscular urgency. What else? The cold. The smell of mud, muck, the decay the river fostered and throve on, and all at once he was remembering the story his father had told him of the drowned woman in Annsville Creek whose corpse had floated to the surface in a twitching scrum of blue-claw crabs. This was serious. He was in trouble. He was going to drown, that was what was going to happen, and he could already see the headlines—author drowns in boating –accident—and the prepackaged rudiments of his obituary: his books, his wives, the early promise, the bloated middle years, the prizes, the checks, survived by his loving wife. Minutes, that was all he had till the water started pouring in over the gunwales, but in that moment he could picture the newspaper account as clearly as if he were sitting at the big oak table in the kitchen at the farmhouse, the overhead lamp bright and his reading glasses clamped over the bridge of his nose.
He’d often wondered how he’d respond in a crisis, at the same time praying he’d never be obligated to find out (and how was it for Ted Marchant, protecting Nadine with the shield of his own body in the millisecond before the AK rounds split him open?). To this point, the closest he’d come was some 30 years ago in the company of Lester, both of them drunk on cheap scotch and saturated with the triumph of their selves and their wise ways and the hipness that cloaked and absolved them, when the lip of the dune they’d been sitting on gave way beneath them so that they were rudely plunged into the ice bath of San Francisco Bay, but—and here was the charm—wound up none the worse for it. So all right. The water was rising but he wasn’t panicking—he was too humiliated for panic. He was just—concerned, that was all. And amused. Struck between the eyes with the force of his own stupidity—of all the millions of deaths that come raining down each and every day of our lives, how many involve aging novelists trapped under train trestles in canoes?
We fear death because all we know is life, and once you’re alive the safest bet is to stay that way. He knew that, subscribed to it as a principle, and it provided his motivation now. What if—experimentally—he were to tip the canoe ever so slightly, purposely letting the water in so he could gain another six inches to free himself and take his chances in the water before the air gave out? He could do that, but then his wallet would be soaked and his clothes ruined, yet what were wallets and clothes when he was so close to joining Lester and Ted Marchant in the Land of the Dead? Nothing, nothing at all. Still, he did take the time to wriggle out of his jacket, shirt, jeans and hiking boots and ball the whole business up in one hand as he pushed hard off the ceiling, found the surge of the water and squeezed into it…yes, and Jesus, it was freezing!
A lesser writer than Riley might have said something like “Time stood still,” but that wasn’t it at all, not even close: Time accelerated. One instant had him in the canoe, passively awaiting his death by drowning, and the next saw him flailing his way through cattails and muck, his shirt, shoes and jacket gone but his jeans—and wallet—still clutched sopping in one hand till he reached the high stony embankment some previous generation had erected here in the backwater to carry the locomotive freight. It wasn’t easy, his feet battered, the stones slippery, a dense growth of briars and poison ivy impeding his way, but finally, too cold and wet and residually shaken even to curse, he was able to pull himself up by stages and emerge on the tracks, and so what if he was in his Joe Boxers and his shoes were missing? He was alive, alive all over again.
He didn’t say a word to anyone, not the old man bobbing in his boat or the two women sitting in lawn chairs at the house across the way. He just limped up the tracks in his bare feet and wet underwear, and here was the dog to greet him, dashing by with its length of chain rapping at the rails, and of course it was inevitable that in the interval yet another train would come hurtling by to rake him with its tailwind, faces pressed to windows, a young girl waving—waving, for God’s sake—and he, nothing else for it, waving back.
After the funeral, once everyone had exhausted their praise for the emotional intensity of his eulogy and the tears had dried and the drinks circulated, he bowed out early, pleading a headache. He and Caroline drove back to the rented house on the river, where the dog, its chain reinforced, twisted round and round the steel post Brian had pounded angrily into the ground just that morning, and they spent all of 10 minutes throwing their things together and bringing the suitcases down to the car. Then Riley locked up, gave the dog a wide berth and hurried across the lawn to leave the key under the mat at Meg and Brian’s before they could get back from the reception or wake or whatever you wanted to call it. The tear-fest. The slog. The canoe had unwedged itself on the turn of the tide, but Riley hadn’t been there to recover it. He didn’t leave a note. If Nadine noticed it missing he’d send her a check, no problem, glad to do it, in fact, glad to help out, but no sense in worrying about that now.
Traffic was light and they made good time. Caroline was silent most of the way down, but her face was composed and she looked good—better than good—in the black velvet dress and single strand of pearls she’d worn for the funeral. They checked into the Algonquin, the only hotel where he really felt appreciated, a homey place, a writer’s place, and while Caroline went down to see about theater tickets he settled in a chair by the window, high above the crush and grab of West 44th Street. For a long while he gazed out into the grayness, then he picked up the dull book he’d been working his way through, found where he’d left off and started reading.