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.