If you’d happened to spot Riley on the train that afternoon, your eyes drifting up momentarily from your BlackBerry, iPod or other handheld device, you probably wouldn’t have made much of him. He was in his 50s then, taller than average, thinner than average, with a tendency to hunch inside the black leather coat he affected (knee-length, of a style 30 years out of date, replete with once-shining buckles, zippers and studs in the shape of miniature starbursts) and hair that would have been gray or even white but for the providence of the Clairol corporation. He’d applied a mixture called Châtain Moyen in the shower just that morning, expecting, as the label promised, medium brown but getting instead something between the color of a new penny and a jar of marinara sauce. In any case, he was oblivious. He had his head down, studying the stained typescript of his generic acceptance speech, abbreviating in the left-hand margin the title of the award he was now on his way to receive, though he already had it by heart: the Marlbane Manchester Musser Award in Regional Depiction from the Greater Stuyvesant Area Chamber of Commerce and Associated Libraries. He just didn’t want any slipups, that was all. Especially if alcohol was involved. And alcohol was always involved.
He’d left Buffalo at 7:40 a.m. and expected to be in Albany by two—at least that was what the Amtrak timetable proposed, and whether or not Amtrak would deliver was beyond his control. In Albany he was to be met by Donna Trumpeter, of the Greater Stuyvesant Women’s Service Club, who would drive him in her own personal blue-black SUV the remaining 48.5 miles to the town itself. There would be a dinner, served either in the town hall or in a school cafeteria gussied up with crepe paper and a banner, he would give his speech and read a passage from his latest novel, Maggie of the Farm, accept a plaque and a check for $250 and drink as much scotch as was humanly possible before he was presented at the local Holiday Inn for a lukewarm shower, a stab at sleep and, in the morning, acidic coffee and rubberized waffles, after which Donna Trumpeter or one of her compatriots would return him to the train station so he could reverse the journey he was now undertaking.
“Why do you even bother?” his third wife, Caroline, had thrown at him as he was shrugging into his coat that morning for the drive to the station. “It’s not as if you don’t have a trunk full of awards already—awards you never even glance at, as far as I can see.”
He had his hand on the doorknob, the slab of the door thrown back on the awakening light of a bitter morning desecrated with sleet, an inch of it already on the ground and more coming. “For the publicity.”
“Publicity? What kind of publicity you think the Greater Stuyvesant area is going to give you? Nobody in New York’s ever heard of it. I’ll bet they’ve never even heard of it in Albany. Or Troy either. Or what, Utica.”
“It all adds up.”
He sighed. Let his shoulders slump into the cavernous hollows of the coat. “For the money then.”
“The money? Two hundred fifty bucks? Are you kidding? That’d barely cover dinner at Eladio.”
“Yes,” he said, the draft raw on the left side of his face.
“Yes, I’m kidding.”
She might have had something more to say about it, but really, what did it bother her what he did—she had a car and a credit card, and a night alone never killed anybody—but she just bunched her chin and squinted her eyes as if to get a better read on him. The sleet whispered over the pavement. The air tasted of metal. “My God,” she said. “What did you do to your hair?”
He was in the club car, scarring his palate with superheated coffee out of a cardboard container and masticating an ancient sandwich advertised as chicken salad on wheat but which managed to taste of absolutely nothing, when a powerfully built middle-aged man came swaying down the aisle, pushing a boy before him. Riley glanced up, though he wasn’t naturally curious, despite his profession. What he knew of people he knew from his early wild years—and from the newspaper and movies, or films as he liked to call them—and that had been enough to get him through 14 novels and counting. He believed in giving people their space, and if he didn’t really have much use for the rest of humanity, that was all right—he led a pretty hermetic existence these days, what with his books, the cats (six of them) and Caroline, Caroline, of course. He liked to say, only half joking, that he resented strangers because they always seemed to be in his way but that he was willing to tolerate them—and here he’d shrug and grin—because, who knew, they might just buy his books.
At any rate, there was something about these two that caught his attention, and it might have had to do with the fact that they were the only other people in the car but for the attendant, a recessive little man of indeterminate age and origin who looked as if he’d rolled over more miles than all the truckers in western New York state combined. Still, they made an odd pair. The man was white, fleshy in the face, with eyes that seized on Riley and then flung him away just as quickly, and the boy—he looked to be eight or nine—was dark-skinned, Hispanic maybe. Or maybe Indian—from India. All this went through Riley’s head in an instant and then he dismissed it and returned to his sandwich and the newspaper he’d spread out on the plastic tabletop, even as the big man and the boy settled into the booth directly behind him.
After a while he felt the booth heave as the man got up and went to the counter to order a coffee for himself and hot chocolate and a sticky bun for the boy. It took no more than a minute or two for the attendant to irradiate the drinks in the microwave and hand over the cellophane packet with the bun smeared inside, but the whole while the big man kept his gaze fixed on Riley, a gaze so steady and unrelenting Riley began to wonder if he somehow knew him. A single jolt of paranoia sizzled through him—could this be the deranged yahoo who’d called up early one morning to say how disgusted he was by Maggie of the Farm because Maggie was such a slut, and go on to wonder, in a pullulating spill of profanity, why that had to be, why every woman in every book and movie and TV show had to be such a fucking slut?—when he realized that the man wasn’t looking at him at all. He was looking beyond him to where the boy sat, as if the boy was a piece of luggage he was afraid somebody was going to dash by and snatch.
Then the man was swaying down the aisle again, this time more gingerly—and dangerously—because he had his hands full, a cardboard cup in each hand and the sticky bun dangling from two fingers in its shrink-wrapped package. Again the booth heaved. There was the faintest rasp as the cardboard containers made contact with the table. The rails clacked. Scenery rushed past the windows. The man said something (Spanish, was he talking in Spanish?) and it was followed by the noise of crinkling cellophane as the treat was unwrapped—whether by the boy or the man, Riley couldn’t say.
All of a sudden he was irritated with himself—what did he care? Since these two had come into the car he’d been stuck on the same paragraph, reading it over and over as if the words had no meaning. Exasperated, he glanced out the window as a lone clapboard house flashed by, then a series of brown rippled fields, then another house and another expanse of field, equally brown and equally rippled. He’d just brought his eyes back to the paper when the man’s voice started up behind him.
“Hello, Lon?” A pause. “I am on the train, yes. Just passing Syracuse. Were you able to place that bet for me? Two hundred, the over-under on the Bills, yes?” The voice was needling, breathy, the vowels elongated and the diction too precise, as if it were being translated, and here it was stuck in Riley’s head. In disgust, he folded up the paper and slid out of the booth, leaving the empty cup and sandwich wrapper for the attendant to deal with. He didn’t glance behind him, though he wanted to give the guy a look—cell phones, God, he hated cell phones. Instead he just brushed imaginary crumbs from the front of his coat and started up the aisle.
“But I just wanted to tell you,” the man’s voice flew up and batted round the ceiling like an asthmatic bird, “don’t wait for me at the Albany station—change of plan. I’m going to be taking a different route.” He pronounced it rowt, but then what would you expect? “Yes, that’s right: I have something I need to dispose of. A package, yes. That’s right, a package.”
Anent Riley: He was a committed technophobe, forever pushed to the brink by the machines that controlled his life, from the ATM to the ticket dispenser at the parking garage and the clock radio that kept him awake half the night with its eternally blinking light. Card keys baffled and frustrated him—he could never seem to get the elevator to work or open the door to his own room in a hotel, and once he did manage to get inside, the TV remote, with its gang-piling options, invariably defeated him. He distrusted computers, preferring to write by hand, the way he’d always done. And the keyless car Caroline had talked him into buying put him in a rage every time he got behind the wheel—it seemed to change its agenda randomly, confronting him with all sorts of warning beeps and whistles, not to mention a sinuous female voice with an Oxbridge accent that popped up out of nowhere and never seemed to have anything good to say, when all he wanted was to turn a key, shift into gear and go. To drive. To get somewhere—his destination—without having to take a mechanical aptitude test. Was that too much to ask? Wasn’t that what cars were for?
Worst of all was the cell phone. He refused to carry one—If you want to know the truth, there’s nobody I want to talk to—and it irritated him to see the things stuck to the sides of people’s heads as if generating a nonstop stream of vapid chatter was essential to life, like breathing or eating or shitting. What he valued was simplicity, pen to paper, the phone on its stand in the front hallway where it belonged, starry nights overhead, wood split and stacked beside the fireplace in the 100-year-old farmhouse he and Caroline had bought six years ago (though admittedly the farm itself was long gone, replaced by tract houses, another irritant). Simplicity. Unmediated experience. Maggie, on her farm, tossing feed to the chickens or tugging at a cow’s udders in the absence of electronic babble. Still, for all that, as he settled back into his seat after his annoying encounter in the club car, he couldn’t help patting his pocket to feel the burden of the alien weight there—Caroline’s iPhone, which she’d insisted he take in the event anything went wrong on the other end of the line. What if Donna Trumpeter failed to show? What if the train derailed? What if terrorists bombed the Albany station? Then I’ll just go ahead and die, he’d said. Gladly. Because I won’t have to carry this, this—but she’d thrust it on him and that was the end of the argument.
He’d set the newspaper aside and had just opened the new novel by one of his former classmates at Iowa—Tom McNeil, whose skyrocketing fame made his stomach clench with envy—when the pneumatic doors at the end of the car hissed back and the big man entered, pushing the boy before him with one oversize hand and clutching a valise in the other. Riley noticed the man’s clothes for the first time now—an ill-fitting sports coat in a checkered pattern, pressed pants, shoes so black and glistening he must have shined them three times a day—and what was he? Some sort of foreigner, that was evident, even to someone as indifferent as Riley. The term Pole jumped into his head, which was immediately succeeded by Croat, though he couldn’t say why, since he’d never been to Poland or Croatia and had never known anyone from either country. Russian, he thought next, and settled on that. But Jesus, the guy wasn’t going to sit across from him, was he? If he was, he’d just get up and——
But no—the man chose a seat facing him, two rows up. There were other people in the car, a trio of nuns bent over their cell phones, a young mother with two comatose babies, a few salesman types, what looked to be a college girl with a book spread open on her lap though she too was busy with her phone, texting wisdom out into the world, and nobody so much as glanced up. The man made a show of heaving the valise up onto the overhead rack, then deposited the ticket strips in the metal slot on the seatback, pushed the boy into the inner seat and sat heavily in the other, his eyes raking over Riley so that he felt that tympanic thump of discomfort all over again. Enough, he told himself, dropping his eyes—he wasn’t going to let it bother him. Nothing was going to bother him. He was on his way to pick up an award and he was going to have a good time because that was what this was all about, a break in the routine, a little celebration for work well done, an a-ward, a re-ward, something Caroline could never even begin to understand because she was about as artistic as a tree stump. And it all added up, it did, no matter what she thought. He was in the game still and any one of his books could go big the way McNeil’s had. Who knew? Maybe there’d be a movie, maybe Spielberg would get involved, maybe word of mouth was operating even now.…
He bent to the book—a sequel to the New York Times best-selling Blood Ties, which immediately made him wonder if he shouldn’t attempt a sequel to Maggie—and followed the march of the paragraphs up and down the page for as long as he could, which was no more than five minutes, before he fell off to sleep, his chin pinioned to his breastbone.
Riley wasn’t one to dream—sleep came at him like a hurtling truck—and when he felt the hand on his shoulder, the gentle but persistent pressure there, he was slow to come back to the world. He found himself blinking up into the face of the erstwhile Russian, the big man with the careful accent, who was saying this to him: “Sir. Sir, are you awake?”
He blinked again, the phrase I am now coming into his head, but he merely murmured, “Huh?”
The man’s face hung over him, pores cratered like the surface of the moon, tangled black eyebrows, eyes reduced to slits—Cossack’s eyes—and then the man was saying, “Because I must use the facilities and I am wondering if you would watch over the boy for me.” And there was the boy, his head no higher than the seatback, standing right there. Riley saw he was younger than he’d first thought, no more than five or six. “I will thank you,” the man went on, making as if to usher the boy into the seat beside Riley but hesitating, waiting for assent, for permission. Caught by surprise, Riley heard himself say, “Sure. I guess.” And then, before he could think, the boy was sitting limply beside him and the big man leaning in confidentially. “I am grateful. There are bad people everywhere, unfortunately, and one doesn’t like to take chances.” He said something to the boy in a different voice, the tone caustic and admonitory—Spanish, it was definitely Spanish, but then why would a Russian be speaking Spanish, if he was a Russian, that is?—then gave Riley’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “Very bad people.”
Riley craned his neck to watch the man’s heavy shoulders recede down the length of the car behind him before the door to the restroom swung open to block his view and the man disappeared inside. He turned to the boy, more baffled and irritated than anything else, and simulated a smile. He’d never done well with children—to him they were alien beings, noisy, hyper, always scrabbling and shouting and making incomprehensible demands, and he thanked God he’d never had any of his own, though his second wife, Crystal, formerly one of the students in the itinerant workshops he’d given over the years, had twice been pregnant and had actually thought of giving birth before he’d managed to make her see the light. But here was this boy, lost in a nylon ski jacket two sizes too big for him, his eyes fixed on the floor and a cheap tarnished cross suspended from a chain around his neck. Riley turned back to his book, but he couldn’t focus. A minute passed. Then another. Scenery flashed by. And then, over the rattling of the wheels and the shrieking metallic whine of the brakes—were they already coming into the Schenectady station, the stop before his?—he heard the boy’s voice, whispering, a voice no louder or more forceful than the breath expelled from his lungs, and turned to him.
The boy’s eyes jumped to his. “Socorro,” he whispered, then glanced over his shoulder before dropping his gaze again. Very softly—the screeching brakes, the shudder of the car, the rafters of the station fixed in the window—the boy repeated himself: “Socorro.”
It took him a moment—French had been his language, both in high school and college, though he recalled little of it now and had no access to Spanish whatever, if this was Spanish the boy was speaking—before he said, “Is that your name? Socorro?”
The boy seemed to shrink away from him, down, down into the depths of his jacket and the scuffed vinyl of the seat that loomed over him as if it would swallow him up. He didn’t say yes, didn’t say no, didn’t even nod—all he did was repeat the word or phrase or whatever it was in a voice so small it was barely audible. There was a whistle, a shout, the train lurched and the wheels began to revolve again. Riley wasn’t slow on the uptake, or not particularly—it was just that he wasn’t used to people, to complication—but an unraveling skein of thoughts began to suggest themselves to him now. He glanced up at the rack above the seat the big man had vacated and saw that the valise was no longer there and then he thrust his face to the window, jerking his eyes back to the platform and the receding crowd there—men, women, strollers, backpacks, luggage, the nuns, a Seeing Eye dog and a woman in dark glasses, all that color and movement, too much, way too much, so that he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing even as the checkered sports coat flickered suddenly into view and vanished just as quickly.
What went through his head in those first few ruptured moments as he turned away from the window? That his eyes had deceived him, that the big man was in the restroom still and would be back any second now to claim the boy, who must have been his nephew or an adopted son or even his own natural child by a Hispanic woman, a Latina, an immigrant maybe with a green card or even citizenship. Wasn’t that how the Russians did it? Marry a citizen and get a free pass? He glanced up and down the car, but no one had gotten on and the conductor was nowhere to be seen. The boy was hunched inside his jacket, absolutely motionless, his eyes on the floor. Riley saw now that he wasn’t wearing a shirt under the ski jacket, as if he’d dressed—or been dressed—hurriedly. And his shoes—he was wearing only one shoe, a scuffed and dirt-smeared sneaker. His socks were wet, filthy. He looked—and here the awful truth slammed at Riley like a ballistic missile—abused.
He came up out of the seat so suddenly he cracked his skull on the luggage rack and for just an instant saw lights dancing before his eyes. “Stay here, I’ll be right back,” he breathed, and then he was out in the aisle and heading for the restroom, the skirts of his coat flapping behind him like great enveloping wings. He seized hold of the handle, flung open the door. There was no one inside.
A quick glance into the car beyond—nothing, nobody—and then he was easing himself down beside the boy and the boy was shrinking, getting smaller by the moment. The boy’s limbs were sticks, his eyes two puddles gouged out of a muddy road. Riley bent his face toward him, fighting to control his voice. “Where’s your father?” he said. “Where’d he go? Votre père? Papa? Where’s your papa? Or uncle? Is he your uncle?”
The boy said nothing. Just stared down at the floor as if Riley were speaking a foreign language. Which, in fact, he was.
“Where are you going? What town? Where do you live—do you know where you live?”
More nothing. Advanced nothing. Nothing feeding off of nothing.
What he had to do, right this minute, was find the conductor, the engineer, anybody—the nuns, where were the nuns when you needed them?—to take this, this situation off his hands. He’d actually started to get to his feet again before he realized how sketchy this all was—he couldn’t very well leave the kid there. What if the big man came back? What if somebody else——? What if they thought he was somehow responsible? He shot his eyes around the car. Something came up in his throat. It was then that he thought of the phone, Caroline’s phone, this miracle of instant communication secreted in his pocket for just such a moment as this.
He eased to one side to slip it from his pocket, a hard mute monolithic thing, cold in his hand, its screen decorated with the imprint of his wife’s fingertips. He’d call Amtrak, that was what he was thinking—the emergency number. There had to be an emergency number, didn’t there? Or 911. He’d call 911 and have the police meet him at the Albany station. All right. But how to turn it on? He’d seen Caroline do it a hundred times, her fingers flicking lightly over the screen as a steady stream of colorful icons rolled dutifully into position. He pressed the screen, expecting the thing to jump to life, but nothing happened. Again he pressed it. The kid was watching him now out of the reddened pools of his eyes—had he been crying, was that it? “It’s okay,” he heard himself say. “Everything’s fine. Just give me—give me a minute here.”
The car rocked. Bleak dead trees flailed at the windows. The sky was made of stone. Finally—and he felt a surge of satisfaction so powerful he nearly sang out in triumph—he found the on/off switch hidden in the frame and indistinguishable from it, as if the manufacturer, clearly a sadist, had put all the company’s resources into making its function as obscure as possible. No matter. The screen flashed at him, a parade of icons there, and they shimmied at the merest touch of his finger. But where were the numbers? How did you make a call? Why were——?
And now the train was slowing and the loudspeakers suddenly crackled with a mechanical voice announcing Station stop Albany/Rensselaer even as he shoved the phone back in his pocket and sprang up to jerk his bag down from the overhead rack, the decision already forming in his brain because it was the only decision he could have made—anyone in his position would have done the same thing and you didn’t have to be Albert Schweitzer to weigh the moral balance of it. He took the kid by the hand, pulled him up out of the seat and down the aisle to the door, which at that moment clattered open on the platform in a burst of noise and confusion, people swarming everywhere, and where was a cop? He needed a cop.
A dirty white pigeon fluttered into the air. Somebody said, “Laura Jean, you look terrific, I hardly recognize you,” and a pair of policemen surfaced amid the crowd, moving toward him now, and here was a too-thin vaguely blondish woman rushing for him with her hands outstretched and the light of redemption in her cracked blue eyes, and she was going to say, “Mr. Riley?” and he was going to say, “Ms. Trumpeter?” but that never happened, because the policemen wrestled him to the pavement even as he felt the cold metallic bite of the handcuffs gnaw into his flesh.
Sometime later—he didn’t know how much later because they’d taken his watch—he found himself in a desperate place, a place even the wildest of his wild years couldn’t have begun to prepare him for. There were strange smells, unsettling noises, the rhythmic tapping of heels on linoleum. Cold steel. Corridors within corridors. Here he was in the midst of it, his hands shaking as if he’d had a hundred cups of coffee, and he couldn’t stop pacing back and forth across the stained concrete floor of the solitary cell they’d put him in, the guard or deputy or whatever he was giving him a rude shove and announcing in an overheated voice that it was for his own protection. “The people we got in here, they don’t like creeps like you. And you want to know something? Neither do I.” And then he added, as a kind of oral postscript, “Scumbag.”
Donna Trumpeter, aflutter with righteousness, had tried to explain that they’d made a mistake, that he—Riley, the man in handcuffs with the heart rate surging like Krakatoa—was a famous writer, a celebrity, an award winner, but the cops wouldn’t listen. They produced a blanket for the boy, as if he were cold, as if that were the extent of his problem, and another cop—a female with a face like a blazing gun—wrapped the boy up and led him away. Riley talked himself hoarse. He protested in a high buzzing whine while they led him in cuffs through the cavernous station, and everybody, even the crackheads and bums, stared at him; fulminated while they strong-armed him into the backseat of the cruiser out on the bleak cold street; alternately raged, threatened and pleaded as they read him his rights, took his fingerprints and photo—his mug shot!—and booked him. Was he allowed a phone call? Yes. On a real phone greased with the slime of 10,000 penitential hands, a phone attached to a wall with an actual cord that disappeared inside it before connecting with a vast seething network of wires that ran all the way to Buffalo and beyond. It took four rings for Caroline to answer, each one an eternity, and what was the name of that attorney they’d used when the neighbor’s pinhead of a kid set fire to the fence?
“Hello?” Her voice was guarded, caller ID alerting her to the suspect number. Absurdly he wanted to throw his voice and pretend to be a telemarketer, make her laugh, goad her, but things were too desperate for that.
“It’s me,” he said. “I’m in trouble.” He felt as if he were in a submarine deep under the sea and all the air had gone out of it. The walls were squeezing in. He couldn’t breathe. “I’m in jail. I’ve been arrested.”
“Listen, I’m just sitting down to a salad and a glass of wine and I really don’t have time for whatever this is—humor, is that it? You think you’re funny? Because I don’t.”
He dredged something out of his voice, something real, that stopped her. “Caroline,” he said, and now he was sobbing—or almost, right on the verge of it—“I’m in jail. Really. It’s crazy, I know, but I need you to…I need your help. That lawyer, remember that lawyer, what was his name?”
“Lawyer? What are you talking about?”
He repeated himself for the third time, angry now, the humiliation burning in him, and what if the papers got hold of this? “I’m in jail.”
Her voice tightened. “For what?”
“I don’t know, it’s all a mistake.”
Tighter yet: “For what?”
There was a deputy right there, pointing emphatically at his watch. The corridor smelled of cleaning solution, vomit, bad shoes, bad feet, bad breath.
It took everything in him to get the words out. “They’re calling it”—and here he emitted a strained whinnying laugh—“child abuse.”
“Jesus,” she snapped. “Why don’t you get a life? I told you I’m trying to have a bite of dinner here—in peace for once? Go try your routine on one of your groupies, one of the literary ladies of where is it? Greater Stuyvesant. I’m sure they’ll all love it.” And then, because Riley must have committed some sin he wasn’t aware of in another life and another time, something truly heinous and compoundedly unforgivable, the phone went dead.
Four hours later—half past eight by the watch they’d returned to him, along with his wallet, his belt and the flat inanimate slab of Caroline’s iPhone—he was sitting across from Donna Trumpeter in a booth at the bar-restaurant of the Stuyvesant Marriott, trying to nurse his pulse rate back to normal with judicious doses of Johnnie Walker Black. He’d ordered a steak, blood raw, but it wasn’t there yet. Donna Trumpeter flipped the hair away from her face. She leaned into the table on both her elbows and cupped her chin in her hands. She’d just finished telling him, for the 10th time, how very sorry she was about all of this and that of course the ladies of the service club and her book group and the mayor and all the citizens of the Greater Stuyvesant area who’d driven who knew how many miles to hear him speak all understood that the circumstances were unavoidable. They’d held the ceremony anyway, apparently, the mayor’s wife reading aloud from Maggie of the Farm in the booming tones she’d employed as a high school thespian a quarter century earlier, and everyone—at least at last report—had been satisfied with the evening, the high point of which was the turkey schnitzel, garlic mashed potatoes, brown gravy and peas provided by the high school cafeteria staff doing overtime duty. “But,” and here she drew in a vast quavering breath, “of course, they all wanted you.” Her eyes, giving back the nacreous sheen of the overhead lights, fluttered shut and then snapped open again. “There’s no substitute for genius.”
This last comment, coupled with the tranquilizing effect of the scotch, made him feel marginally better. “I guess that’ll teach me,” he said, sounding as doleful and put-upon as he knew how.
“Oh no,” she said, “no. You did the right thing. The only thing.”
“If I had to do it again,” he began and then trailed off. He’d been trying to catch the waitress’s eye for a refill, and here she was—a huge woman, titanic, as slow on her feet as mold creeping across a petri dish—backing her way out of the double doors to the kitchen, his steak balanced on one arm, Donna Trumpeter’s Cobb salad on the other. The cops had realized their mistake after an interpreter was brought in to question the boy in Spanish and then they’d hurried to release him, their apologies rattling round the station like a dry cough. They didn’t care. He meant nothing to them. They’d branded him a pervert and a pervert he remained, just another perp, another scumbag, innocent or not. He could go ahead and sue. They were just doing their job and no jury was going to give him a nickel. If anything, he was at fault—for interfering, for letting the real abductor get away when all along they’d been waiting to take him at the station.
The waitress, breathing heavily—puffing, actually, as if she were trying to keep an imaginary feather afloat—set the plates down on the table and as the smell of the steak rose to him he realized how hungry he was. “Another scotch,” he said, and because he was calming down now, the earth solid beneath his feet the way it always had been and always would be, he added, “please,” and then, “if it’s not too much trouble.” He cut meat, lifted it to his lips, sipped scotch. Donna Trumpeter kept up a soft soothing patter that revolved around what an honor it was to be in his presence—she couldn’t believe it; it was like a dream—and how deeply each of his books had moved her, Maggie of the Farm most of all. “Really,” she said, “the way you portray day-to-day life—and the insight you have into women, my God!—it’s almost Tolstoyan. Or no: better. Because it’s real. In the here and now.”
He gently reminded her that the book was set in the 1930s.
“Of course. What I mean is it’s not 19th century, it’s not Russia.”
“No,” he agreed, “it’s not.” It was about then that he noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. And that her eyes, for all the coiled springboard of theories and embroidery, vegetarian cookery, cats and poetry he saw lurking there, were really quite beautiful. Stunning, actually. And her mouth. She had a sensual mouth, full-lipped, just like the one he’d imagined for Maggie. And though she was thin, too thin for his taste, she had a pair of breasts on her. There they were, clamped in the grip of the tight pink angora sweater she was wearing, and what was he thinking? That skinny women, skinny literary women with full lips and syntactical adulation shining in their eyes, could be lavishly receptive in another arena altogether. And further: that he’d had a scare, a bad scare, and could do with a little soothing.
He was about to lay his hand on hers when she suddenly pulled back to pantomime a smack to her forehead. “Oh my God, I almost forgot,” she said, and then he was studying the crown of her skull, the parting there, as she bent to her purse, which she’d tucked away beneath the table when they’d sat down. In the next moment she was straightening up, slightly flushed from the effort, and smiling so forcefully her teeth shone. “Here,” she said, and she was handing what he at first took to be a breadboard across the table—the plaque, the plaque, of course—and along with it an envelope embossed with the logo of the Greater Stuyvesant Chamber of Commerce. “God, if I’d forgotten.…”
He must have looked surprised—he’d been through an emotional wringer, but not, he reminded himself, anything even close to the sort of horror that poor abused kid must have endured, and he didn’t give a damn what anybody thought, whether it was random chance that had put him there or not, he was a hero, he was, and he’d suffered for it—because she said, “I know it’s not much. Especially, well, considering.”
“It’s plenty,” he said, and was he tearing up? “And I want to thank you, all of you, but you especially, you, Donna, from the bottom of my.…” He lifted his head, cast a watery eye on the shadow of the waitress drifting by on the periphery. “But what I’d really like, what I need, that is, I mean after all we’ve been through together—oh, hell, let me just come out and say it. Do you want to come up to the room with me?”
He watched her smile retract, lips tightening like wire. “I’m seeing somebody,” she said.
He was desperate. He’d been in jail. He’d never even got to deliver his speech. “He doesn’t have to know.”
“I’m sorry,” she said firmly, and then she got up from the table. “I’ll take care of the check,” she added in a softer voice, and touched his hand in parting. The smile flickered back. “Sleep tight.”
He staggered up the stairs to his second-floor room like an octogenarian, as drained as he’d ever been in his life. For a long while he fumbled with the card key, trying it forward, backward, upside down, until finally the light went mercifully green and he was inside. The room was like any other. Stucco walls, beige lamp shades, plastic night tables with some sort of fake wood-grain pattern worked in beneath the surface. Industrial carpeting. Sheets and blankets stretched tight as drum skin over the bed by immigrant women who’d seen too much in their own place and time and now had to rake through the daily leavings of the class of people who had the wherewithal to couple here and gulp booze and do drugs and clip their nails over the sink. He didn’t want to think about the women’s children and the hopes they might have had for them, about the boy and the big man and a room just like this one in Chicago or Detroit or wherever the bad people, the very bad people, did what they were going to do.
He went to the window and looked out into a vast parking lot, a great dark sinkhole illuminated by the sad yellow light of the arc lamps rising hazily out of it. It took him a moment, his reflection caught there in the window, his jacket like a dead thing wrapped around him, to realize it was snowing. Or no, this was sleet, definitely sleet, the storm that had hit Buffalo finally caught up with him.
In the morning, he took the train back, and if he lifted his head from the newspaper when anyone came down the aisle, it was a reflex only. The rails thumped beneath him with a pulverizing regularity that seemed to work so deeply inside him it was as if he were being eviscerated with each thrust of the wheels. His breath fogged the window. He tried Tom McNeil’s novel again and again it put him to sleep. Back at home, Caroline seemed to find the whole business hilarious and he just couldn’t summon the strength to give her the hard truth of it. Still, she did warm to him when they went out to Eladio and blew the $250 honorarium on abalone flown in from California, Kobe beef and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec chilled to perfection. Two days later he learned from the newspaper that the boy’s name was Efraín Silva and that he’d wandered away from his mother at the Home Depot in Amherst and was now reunited with her, though there seemed to be some question regarding her legal status, which had come to light only because of her going to the police. As for the abductor, the big man in the pressed pants and checked jacket, he was still at large, and whether he was Russian or Croatian or Fijian for that matter, no one knew. No one knew his name either. All they knew was what he’d done to the boy and where he’d done it and they knew too that he’d do it again to some other boy in some other place.
If Riley felt a vague unease in the coming days, he chalked it up to the cold he seemed to have caught somewhere along the line. And when the next invitation came—from Kipper College of the Dunes in Kipper, Oregon, informing him that he was one of three finalists for the Evergreen Award in Creative Literature for his novel Magpie of the Farm—he didn’t show it to Caroline or anyone else. He just went in through the house to the fireplace, stacked up the kindling there and used the creamy soft vellum to guide the flame of the match into the very heart of the fire.