|On A Cold And Frosty...|
Lemme sleep, he mumbled.
Says shell buy breakfast.
He groaned, turning out of the curlicue hed gotten himself twisted into and managed a half roll to his side. Probably another one of those goddamn writers looking for a story, he groaned. His shoulders and fingers were nearly frozen and he couldnt feel his feet. He checked to see if his shoes were still on, or if some sonofabitch had run off with them again. Shes big time TV, the head droned. Youd recognize her.
I dont have a TV. What time is it? he asked.
Tell her to come back on Thursday and well--
It is Thursday.
What happened to Tuesday?
Long gone, Alley. Dont you remember we had to--
The sharp whoop of a siren shook the frozen sidewalk. It shrieked again and a cacophony of street sounds mingled with it. People running, shouting, and traffic noise rushing through the murky light at the top of the box. The talking head disappeared and Alley clawed his way along the boxs smooth edges to try and stand up. Another rush of the siren seemed to throw him against the flaps and the carton tumbled backwards.
He crawled out into the cold wind and the grizzled intruder stood waiting for him to untangle himself before finally coming over to help him up. Alley staggered a few feet, fell against a long sleek limo parked at the curb, regained his balance like a middleweight on the ropes, and headed for the flashing red and blue lights spinning on top of the ambulance at the corner.
Pulling his shabby collar up around his neck he pushed his way through the gathering crowd of derelicts, and when they heard his voice they stepped aside to let him pass. Paramedics were working on someone wearing womens shoes and a heavy black pair of stockings that he recognized as the ones hed given her only a few days before. One of the medics saw him coming and shook his head. The goddamn cold got her, Alley, he said, grabbing a body bag. You were all supposed to go over to Grand Central and--
You sure she needs that thing? Alley asked, moving to the cramped doorway that smelled of piss and whiskey. The womans body lay curled against a steel door with a confusion of graffiti across the top of it. Alley knelt and touched her throat searching for a pulse but his fingers only felt the cold of her skin. She wont fit into your bag, he muttered. Shes all twisted up.
Ill take care of her, the medic mumbled.
Alley got up and walked back through the crowd. That breakfast ladys in the limo, the little guy said from behind him. Alley glanced at the limos dark windows, strode toward it, and opened its wide door. He stepped in and the little man followed behind him. The chauffeur shook his head and got out to close the big door behind them.
An attractive woman sat on the wide leather seat and stared across at them. Late thirties, long legs, fur coat pulled up around her neck, and a knitted black cloche hat covered her ears. Coffee? she asked, in a husky voice. Alley nodded, and she poured him a cup from a shining chrome pot. The steaming dark liquid began to shake in the cup and he had to grab one hand with the other to stop his shivering. Her large brown eyes turned toward him, and she said, Everyone weve spoken to has recommended we talk to you. Youre quite popular down here. She said down here in a way that made him want to puke. We want to shoot a television segment in this area and could use your help.
He didnt like her. We want to expose the problems down here, she went on. Interview those involved, including the politicians--
Tell your driver to go up Ninth, he said. Theres a diner on the eastside of the avenue. Well eat there.
I know it, the driver said, making the turn.
Alley felt a nudge in his ribs and the little guy next to him gestured at an array of liquor bottles along the door. Alley lifted a Wild Turkey out of the line and passed it to him. He looked over for a reaction from the beautiful fur-wrapped woman. She stared back, and he knew he had her. Cold.
Im Rhonda Foster, she said, extending her hand. NBC television journalist.
Im Alley. This is Shorty, he said, holding out his cup so the little guy could lace it with the now opened bourbon.
Nice meeting you, Foster said.
Is it? he slurred. Foster let the remark slide and watched them drink their laced coffee. I dont much like TV, Alley said. Whats your show about?
A lot of things. Network. Prime time. We like to shine bright lights on conditions that need improving. It seems to work. People watch it and things change.
You mean like what just happened back there?
What did happen back there? Alley asked.
Someone froze to death...didnt they?
He nodded, and said, Actually she died years ago from neglect. Death just happened to find her last night in the cold. Took her with him.
Im sorry, Foster said, and Alley looked up because it sounded like she meant it. Well follow up on it. I promise. She shouldnt have died. Not like that.
Her name was Annie Bigelow. Dont know if she had any family. Make sure she gets a marker, will you? Anything. Long as its got her name on it.
I promise to personally take care of it, Foster said, writing down the name.
The limo pulled up in front of the Westside Diner. Alley downed the rest of his coffee and before the chauffeur could open the back door he did it himself and stepped out into the biting wind. The chauffeur waited for Foster and helped her out with Shorty close behind, carrying the opened bottle of Wild Turkey and another bottle hed swiped with it. Alley stopped at the diners front door to whisper something into the little guys ear. Shorty nodded, stuffed both bottles into his oversized coat, and hurried down the street.
The Westside Diner looked a lot better than Alley had remembered, and then it hit him. You painted the joint, Willy, he yelled at the tall thin man behind the counter.
Alley...where the hell you been? he asked, and came out from behind the counter to hug him. Refurbished the place about three months ago with new booths and flooring. Like it?
Little fancy for the Westside trade, isnt it?
Willy recognized Foster, wiped his hands on the long apron, and offered his hand. Im honored to meet you, Miss Foster, he said. Welcome. Foster gave him a big smile, and shook hands.
Give us the usual, Alley ordered.
And you, maam?
Ill just have coffee and an English muffin...dry, she said, dropping her fur coat on one of the stools and heading for the rest room. Alley watched her hips sway past the end of the counter as she pulled a cell phone out of her bag.
Women, restrooms, and cell phones. Ought to be a law, he muttered, checking the label on her fur coat to see if it was real. Sachs Fifth.
Get her autograph for me, will ya, Alley?
Make it three eggs, Willy, and dont spare the hash. And in the same breath he said, Freeze got Annie last night. She passed.
Jesus, he muttered, quickly blessing himself. She knocked on the back door only a few nights ago. Yknow...leftovers. I gave her what I had. Im sorry...really sorry, Alley. Put me down for twenty, maybe we can get up enough for a marker.
Think I got that one covered, he said, waving his hand when he saw Foster coming back in a rush. She picked up her fur and sat down next to him. Two mugs of coffee slid across the counter. Willy wants your autograph, he mumbled. Hes working class and doesnt know any better.
Ill send over a signed picture for you, Willy.
You can hang it right there over the counter for your elite customers, Alley said. Itll do wonders for the business down here.
Foster gave him a reproachful look, and said, I just called my producer and he agreed to change the format for you. Well do the story from your point of view. You can show us what goes on down here and all the things that need changing and--
Dont overcook those eggs, Willy.
You got it, Alley, he answered, and slid the hash and eggs onto a long dish.
Youre the best, Alley said, as his breakfast was set down with Fosters dry English muffin next to it.
What do you think of my proposal? she asked.
Youre overreaching, lady. I get the feeling youre looking for a story and I dont have one.
Everyones got a story. Besides, our researchers say youre highly respected down here. Someone to depend on.
Sounds like an obituary, Alley said through a mouthful of hot corn beef. You can do better than that.
Shortys been our initial liaison on this and he told us you recommended some lawyers to someone hit by a car and they actually won the case.
Dippy-Dewey vs. the upstate Cadillac. We had five nights of eating, drinking and laughing. What a party.
Are you a lawyer? she asked.
Thats a helluva thing to say to a man eating his breakfast. Dont do it again.
She smiled and said, You sound educated, able to communicate. Wed like to know why you ended up down here in a cardboard box?
If you say down here one more time, lady, Im going to kick you to death. She smiled, and he gestured toward her food. You havent tried the coffee. Best on the Westside.
She took a sip from the thick mug and seemed surprised. Its excellent. Really is.
Lot better than the shit they serve up at La Cirque, he said, just as her cell phone began playing, Girl With The Flaxen Hair. Debussy, he muttered. Charming.
Excuse me, Ive got to take this, she said, and once again drifted toward the back of the diner just as several cabbies came in for their morning break. Alley watched her go, taking the coffee with her, trying to get away from the cabbies loud voices. The guys took a booth and Willy quickly grabbed some coffee mugs and an order pad.
Alley finished the eggs and hash, and was halfway through his fried potatoes when she sat down next to him again. Well, do I get a story, or what? she asked.
Depends on what youre giving...besides breakfast.
What do you want?
That empty building across the street.
Youre kidding, she said, staring at five floors of yellow brick with a giant FOR LEASE sign on it. What the hell would you do with a--
I only need it for the next few months, he said, finishing the hash browns. Even two would cover it.
The rest of the winter. Everyone out of the cold. He smiled over at her. And for that building, youll give me youre complete story. Exclusive. How you ended up--
Take it or leave it.
The cell phone started ringing again and they both looked down at it. I have to get this, she said, flipping it open and walking away from him again.
Alley waved for more coffee and Willy poured. I got a waitress out, he said. Glad its slow.
I can fix that for you, Alley said, checking to see where Foster had gone. Give us a dozen coffees...to go.
A dozen? You sure?
Put it on the tab, he said. And add in a breakfast for Shorty while youre at it. Hell show up later. He saw Foster coming and started grabbing what was left of the cheese and cinnamon Danish out of their circular containers along the counter. Willy handed him a box and he threw them into it along with Fosters English muffin.
Where were we? she asked.
You get a story, I get a building, the brunches, coffees, and Danishes. Thatll cut it.
Alley headed for the door with the cartons and Willy started making out the bill. Do you take American Express? Foster asked.
No, but the Visa you have in there will do fine, he smiled, and she handed him the card and took out her checkbook with it.
Alley passed out the coffees and cakes to the homeless men that surrounded him when he stepped out onto the sidewalk. They reached for the hot coffees, burning their cold fingers, and Alley kept shuffling his way toward the limo at the curb. The chauffeur got out to protect the car from the growing number of derelicts grabbing coffees and Danishes out of Alleys boxes. Alley laughed and handed him a container of coffee too.
A cab pulled up in front of them and Shorty jumped out with a man wearing heavy black-framed glasses, a fedora, alpaca coat, and a large white scarf that extended up over his mouth to block the cold gusts whipping off the river. When the man saw the crowd of derelicts he started back for the cab and Shorty grabbed at his alpaca coat to stop him. Foster stepped out of the diner, like a Queen among her subjects, and the man pushed Shorty aside, and extended his hand. I didnt know you were involved in this, maam, he said through the scarf.
Who are you? she asked.
I represent the building across the street. I understand you want to rent it.
Foster glanced over at Alley, giving away the last coffee and Danish to a man in a wheelchair. Itd have to be on a month to month rental, she said.
I think we can accommodate that, the man said.
That buildings been empty for years, Alley yelled over at them. Make sure the heat and plumbing work before you sign anything. No frozen pipes.
Thermostats control that entire building, the man said, dropping the white scarf from around his mouth to reveal a tanned face.
In that case Ill give you a good faith check now and pay you the rest this afternoon, Foster said, pulling out her written check.
Ill take it but I think you better look around to see if the place fits your needs, he told her, glancing suspiciously at Alley as he handed Foster his card and the key to the building. Call me later and we can finalize. What will you be using the building for, may I ask? Television production?
Something like that...and thank you, she said, leading him back to his waiting cab. Ill call you this afternoon. The cab pulled away and Foster turned to confront Alley.
Must be great being famous, he said before she could even get started. Never any problems. They just hand you the keys.
But they still want their money.
Lets take a look at what we bought.
Not until I get some answers, she said, opening the limos back door against a strong gust of wind. Payoff time, baby. Your life story for heat, water, and the general occupancy of a building no one else seems to want. Alley hesitated and she said, You keep testing me and Im getting tired of it. The foreplay is over, mister. Either I get your story or you go back to your box. Alley started to say something and she took out the Debussy cell phone, and pressed a button. Citibank? This is Rhonda Foster. I want to stop payment on a check I just wrote. Cash, she said. Alley slipped the phone out of her hand, snapped it closed, and got into the limo. Foster grunted, got in next to him, and they headed uptown.
Alley stared numbly at the excited children on the circling horses and the tinny music started its second run. From the other side of the carousel, Foster took quick, secret pictures of him in his dirty coat and stained fedora. His lean unshaven face seemed to relax as he watched the laughing children gallop their rented horses into nowhere. He had asked the chauffeur to drive them up to Central Park so he could think and talk about his past. Bring back the pain, he mumbled, and she sensed the deep corruption in his simple statement. He looked up during a reality lull and she slipped her digital camera back into her purse, and clicked on the micro-recorder she kept hidden in its side pocket. She adjusted her large French sunglasses, that kept her from being recognized by the crowd of mothers and nannies, and waved at him.
Youre a cheap date, she said, moving next to him.
The Westside Diner and the carousel are enough for a guy like me.
It wouldnt be enough for most people.
Does that include you?
Im spoiled, she said.
You dont like carousels.
I love them.
Probably had one of your own.
Something like that.
And someone always there to buy you a ticket.
My father, she said.
Cherchez le pere. What was his name?
She hesitated, and said, Saul.
Guys named Saul dont name their daughters Rhonda. She stared back into those dark eyes that seemed to rip away her secrets at every turn. Where you from? he asked.
Shaker Heights. She nodded. And old King Saul bought you everything you wanted and needed. Prep schools, Ivy colleges, marriage, jobs--
Im not married, she shot back. Anymore.
He laughed and pulled some crumpled bills out of his torn pocket, and they headed for the carousel. Lets hit the go-round, kid, he said. Then she laughed, and he asked, What name did old King Saul really pin on you?
Rhoda. Im Rhoda Kimsky and proud of it.
Its a beautiful name and youre even lovelier. Then he looked up at the sky and yelled, Thank you, Saul!
Whats your name? Your real name.
Take a guess, he said, putting his arm around her and leading her to the ticket booth.
Alleys short for Alexander, isnt it?
Yeah, but nothing like Rhoda. Thats deep. Come on. Lets ride into the biblical sunset together.
That could take all day.
Fake horses and time is all I got, lady.
He bought a string of tickets, and they ran to catch the next romp to nowhere. The floor moved and he helped her up on a glowing white stallion with a golden bridle and shining brass stirrups. She grabbed the moving pole to balance herself and Alley got up on the dark horse next to her. She leaned over, hung her purse on the hooked saddle in front of him and smiled. The carousel picked up speed. Foster whooped at the absurdity of it and Alley had to hold her up. The children on either side began to laugh at them and Alley waved back as they rocked up and down.
Having fun? he yelled over the tinny music.
Yes, she said, leaning over toward him. Where did you pick up that yard accent? He looked puzzled. Haaarvard Yaaard, she said, stretching the vowels.
He shrugged and said, Never heard of it.
Thats where King Saul went to school, she said.
I knew he had to be smart to have you.
And who had you? she asked.
Norwegian immigrants. Minnesota.
How did you end up here?
In your limo, he yelled over the tinny speakers that slid into a medley from Westside Story. Alley caught her quick downward glance at the purse hanging on his saddle. Its all right. Ill keep an eye on it, he said. She knew the recorder would last about three hours but at the pace they were going shed need all of that and more.
Why dont you start at the beginning? she asked, giving it another try. Just tell me about your mother and where it all started. Brothers and sisters...whatever. Alley stared back at her and nodded.
For the first time she began to notice that the women watching their children on the carousel were beginning to point at her as she went by. Alley saw it too. I think youve blown your cover, he said. What happens now?
Are you going to give me your story, or not?
Of course. I never go back on a deal.
I want to know where you were born. Where you lived. Worked. Why it all went wrong?
Is that all? he asked.
Thats all, she said, and reached for her purse. The carousel began to slow and she slid down off the stallion. Ive got to get out of here before they start mobbing me for autographs, and asking questions I cant answer. Wed be stuck for hours.
Id like that, he said, getting off his horse and handing the rest of his tickets to a little boy behind them. He helped Foster to the edge of the carousel and they hopped off and headed for the exit. They went up the path and he handed her the micro-recorder hed slipped out of her purse when she wasnt looking. It was turned off.
Thanks, she said.
The limo rolled out of the park at Seventh and headed east. Foster threw her fur coat in the corner, took off her hat, and positioned the recorder between them.
I can tell youve done this before, Alley said, pouring another scotch.
She smiled, set down her legal pads with several sharpened pencils, clicked the recorder on again, crossed her legs, and said, How bout your full name?
Alley sipped the scotch, and said, Alex Mitchell, into the recorder. Foster printed it on a legal pad with one of her sharp pencils. Want a drink? he asked. You look like you could use one.
She just stared back at him. Where you from, Alex?
A Catholic enclave in Indiana. Heartland. Ford trucks and conservatives. Lots of thou shalt nots.
Back at the carousel you said you were from Minnesota.
Did I? Well I was wrong. The important thing is that my mother went to a church social one evening and said yes to the first guy that asked her to dance. He turned out to be my father. Mother married up in the mysterious American social order and they moved into a brand new split-level. My mother was a beautiful woman, but life got to her. When they werent working to pay off the mortgage, they were working to pay for Americas wars. Back then there were three straight hot ones and a cold one in between.
What about your dad?
A salesman. He wrote pharmaceutical orders out of a suitcase. After awhile he began to look like that damn case. Leathery, torn, and broken.
Where are they now? she asked.
Some trailer park in the great American mid-west. Watching TV, believing preachers, hugging the few things theyve got, wondering where their boys went.
You dont have any contact with them?
New Years...Moms birthday, he said. Now lets talk about cleaning up the neighborhood.
Well film you doing that. Might even let you interview a few people.
I have lots of questions.
Tell that to the producer. He loves attitude. What about your father?
My old man continues to get in his own way. One of those innocents that life runs over without leaving any tire marks.
You talk about him as if he were dead.
I dont like talking on subjects I cant do anything about. Id rather solve problems. Like what happened to Annie this morning.
Foster nodded and poured more coffee. Im just wondering why someone with your ability is out in the freezing cold, sleeping in a cardboard box. Whether you like it or not, Annie died last night but youre still very much alive.
Touche, he said, looking out at Fifth Avenue. I see youre taking the scenic route. Tiffanys, St. Patricks, Rockefeller Center, Bank Row, and the finest department stores money can buy. Foster grabbed her fur coat and stiffened. A rough scraping sound rolled across the top of the limo and they pulled to a jolting stop. People began to sprawl all over the car and the chauffeur had to fight his way out the door. What the hells going on? Alley shouted, looking uncertain and scared.
I took a wild guess back there at the diner and called my producer. By the time we got to the carousel I knew. Where the hell have you been for the last three years, Mr. Janus?
Two and a half.
You werent born in Indiana or Minnesota. Youre Harvard. Top of your class and the financial world, including all those little advantages that go with it.
You werent worth the breakfast, bitch. I knew you couldnt be trusted, he muttered, reaching for the door. It was locked, and faces were pressed against the tinted windows trying to look in at them. He pulled the lock but it didnt budge.
Theyre child proof, she yelled over the growing noise from outside, and the locks suddenly snapped open. The door swung out and the shouting and video cams pushed in at them from behind the chauffeurs bulky figure. Alley felt the heaving crowd surge and the chauffeur grabbed him and headed into the mass of swinging arms and camcorders. He heard his name and a blur of questions. Pulling his fedora down he held on to the chauffeurs jacket for support, and they wedged forward toward the ornate stone columns. He anticipated the four steps, the lurch through the revolving doors, and the line of gray guards stepping around them to push back the reporters. Police sirens got louder and the confusion spread. The chauffeur shifted away from him in a quick dance step. For a moment, Alley was free until he tripped and slid across the polished marble floor. His hat flew off and a woman got up from behind the front desk and rushed to retrieve it for him.
Thank you, Maggie, he said.
The woman looked down at him sprawled across the floor, recognized the voice but didnt quite realize who he was until she squeaked, Oh my God, Mr. Janus is back!
Alley took the battered hat from the astonished woman, turned to the blur of faces that surrounded him, and said, Its nice to see you all again.
Foster pushed her way through the astonished crowd to help him up but when she got there he seemed to be someone else. An uneasy resolve had replaced the flashing angry eyes of the man shed met that morning. He got up by himself and headed for the private elevator that hed taken so many times before. A security guard hit a button and the elevators polished brass doors opened. For a moment, he stared back at her. She ran toward him but the security guard stepped between them. Alley smiled at her from under his beat up fedora, and the heavy doors began to close.
Mr. Janus never gives interviews, maam, the guard said, and Alley was gone.