Francis X. Feeney III was on his hands and knees at the far end of a long, bone-white attic room with the morning sun behind him, pushing up out of the singing sea. He was naked, and his blond hair fell down on both sides of his face as he studied the slips of paper arranged around him on the floor: pages of notes, old newspaper clippings, some photos, an unused airline ticket. He took an item from under one rock and slid it under another. He adjusted the papers under a piece of wood. Other scraps were under a shoe. He was thirty years old, and in his short life he had evolved this simple scheme for making sense out of what had happened. Under the rocks were things he was sure were real. Under the pieces of wood were things he remembered, imagined or otherwise invented. And under the shoes were notes he had written along the way that were not connected to the actual story but seemed too important to throw out. After moving them around for weeks, he was done. Now he started gathering them carefully back into an old brown notebook.
The little girl who looked after him appeared in the doorway, wearing a worn white smock and old high-top sneakers. “We have about two hours. Some people have already started to show up.” No answer.
“Feeney?” She was nine years old with brown hair, an olive complexion and fathomless black eyes. Affectionately known as Nooj, she was all business, carrying a pile of towels, underwear and clean clothes from the anonymous closet. Chin up, not a wasted motion. “You have to have a bath.”
“I have figured it out.”
“Did you hear me?”
“She used to say you don’t know what a painting is really about until it’s almost done. And that was true in her case. The Boss said she knew the secret, but I don’t think she knew she knew until the very end.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The painter. Did she ever tell you how we met? It was at a funeral, of all places.”
Father Dugan stood in full cassock and stole at the edge of the open grave, already into third gear on the purple-tassels-and-starched-linen homily he did only for Very Important Departed, the version Feeney had always especially liked. In this one, man is seduced by the devil in the form of a woman, the portly little priest explained, rocking up slightly on his toes. He has eaten the apple of knowledge of good and evil and is there, writhing with her in a lascivious tangle of sin and depravity—the old man’s bushy white eyebrows always leaped uncontrollably at this point—when God appears, discovers their wickedness, and casts them out of the Garden. “He placed a flaming sword at the gate, saying ‘Go, lest you eat also of the tree of everlasting life and become like one of us. Henceforth and forever shall you wander among the thorns and thistles of the earth. You shall eat the bitter grasses of the field and live in sorrow all your days.’”
Young Feeney had been coming to funerals with the Boss since he was a boy, and he knew old Dugan’s routine by heart. But this time it was his grandfather in the casket in the bottom of the hole, and the little priest could barely disguise his glee. No one in Newburyport was a better example of man’s corruption than old Frank Feeney, sinful and conniving, debauched and profane. And Dugan didn’t even know the half of it.
“Sooner or later we must all kneel before the judgment of a higher power, even the dear departed, may God have mercy upon his soul. He was born to a poor Irish immigrant woman, grew up a ruffian down along the river, was elected three times mayor and carried to glory on the shoulders of a dark and devious world. To him came fame and riches, love and power. To him came the glory of office and the adoration of scoundrels. But dust thou art,” pronounced the priest with a great deal of personal satisfaction. “And unto dust shalt thou return.”
Behind the priest stood a clutch of local officials and state dignitaries who had driven up from Boston for the funeral, and behind them stretched the murmuring people of the town in their best black coats, down across the late fall afternoon, through the shivering trees and around the stones and even out into the road: the red-rouged women in their done hair and whisky breath, grown men in once-a-year suits mumbling their Hail Mary’s and wiping noses on crusty sleeves. Politicians from all over the state were warming up their good hands and getting ready to work the crowd.
Feeney looked up and saw his grandfather standing beside him in his long Sunday coat, his best black hat and his gray and white striped funeral tie, slightly loosened. “What are you doing here?” Feeney whispered. “You’re dead.”
“Did I startle you?” The old man looked around at the crowd with a slow and satisfied smile. His face was red and lumpy as a sore fist, and that Irish rowdiness was back in his eyes. He took the young man’s arm. “Don’t worry. No one else can see me. What’s the count?”
“Twelve hundred and ten.”
“You’re certain of that?”
“Plus or minus three percent.” Feeney had been counting the crowd for his grandfather since he was a boy, and he was so good at it that all the papers used his numbers instead of their own. Even now, after nearly four years away at college, he still knew the population of every ward and parish by age, nationality, and denomination. He could count the people in the first three rows at a rally and tell you within six percent how the ward was going to go.
“Is that the record?”
“Chief Shannon got twelve hundred and fifty last year.”
“That was a sunny summer day. Not the same.”
“Well, those are the numbers.”
“You didn’t count the people on the ridge.”
“Of course I did, grandpa.”
“Mmmph,” his grandfather said. The smell of sweat and cigar smoke rose from the old politician’s coat, now mixed with the undertaker’s sweet perfume. He studied the crowd and then focused on the little family group standing at the grave. “Sure, your mother is looking lovely as a black rose this morning.”
“She always liked you, in spite of everything.”
“And you’re father looks angry, as usual.”
Feeney looked over at the man standing next to the priest in his rimless glasses, lawyer’s coat and bow tie, black for occasion. “I think he knows what really happened.”
“Out at the beach?”
“He wants to meet with me and Smiley tomorrow. He says he is going to have the old man’s license pulled. Which will ruin him, of course.”
“Don’t worry. He isn’t after the license. He just wants to put you in a box so you’ll agree with him about next year. That’s the way he plays.”
“About law school? I thought you were going to take my side on this?”
“We had an agreement, your father and I. I could have you until you went to college, follow me around, be party to my shenanigans, as your father always called them. And in return I wouldn’t go against him on this matter.”
“You made a deal for me?”
The old mayor laughed under his breath. “Truth to tell, in the last few years I would have promised anything to keep you at my side.”
“What are you doing here anyway?”
“I have a gift for you. And I can still keep my word to your father.” He pinched Feeney in the ribs.
“What is it?”
As suddenly as he had appeared, the old man was gone. It was Smoots, the mayor’s loyal driver and confidant, standing there while his father scowled. “The flower, kid. Pay attention,” Smoots whispered. “Throw the flower in the hole so they can start shoveling.” That would signal the end of the graveside ceremony and the commencement of ritual drinking and remembrance back at his grandfather’s house, including lies, laughter and the ruthless realignment of loyalties. This time a tear had opened in the fabric of political power so great that a full night of shared singing and inebriation would be required.
But what Feeney had not noticed before, and what now captured his attention, was a young woman easing her way toward him through the congregation of mourners, glancing occasionally behind her. She was alone and beautiful—pale with high cheekbones, doleful eyes, paint-splashed work boots and a heavy coat. About her head whirled a cloud of red hair dancing furiously in all directions so that she seemed to be travelling in a perpetual miracle of light. On either side, people started to hug each other as Father Dugan downshifted into the benediction. Hundreds who had loved the Boss in life began beating their black wings slowly back and forth against the cold, but she kept coming toward him, her hair flaring like the fire storms that spin across the surface of the sun. The church bells began to toll slowly, a signal that people could light their cigarettes and take the first deep puff all at once as if part of some secret sigh from another world. A professional man with a dark complexion was passing back and forth behind the others, wearing a puffy blue parka, searching the crowd. And now she was beside him. “My mother made me memorize that whole passage from the Bible,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth. “The apple and everything, word for word. She said I was a sinner.”
“You’re a sinner?”
“But truth is,” she gave him a sideways smile: “I kind of liked the story.”
“Did you know the Boss?”
“I’ve seen him before; I come to all the big funerals. I’m an art student over at State College,” as if that explained everything.
Start by pretending innocence, then suggest the possibility some future humiliation. That was the usual script. There was no accounting for the back room deals and secret arrangements his grandfather had been involved in, and as a young man Feeney had seen it all. So it came as no surprise that a creature as strange and beautiful as this one would appear now to present her demands. Creditors and co-conspirators were all slithering out of the woodwork, asking something for their silence. But in this case she didn’t seem to be following the normal script: the pledge of life-long loyalty, then the veiled threat. Either that or she was a lousy negotiator.
“Don’t be sad,” she whispered. “He isn’t really dead.”
“I was there. Take my word.”
“Death is nothing. Just a stairway to another, more beautiful world where all is forgiven.” She was wearing rings on several of her fingers, and a jangle of bracelets made of earth friendly materials, including one made from some sort of braided twine. “Don’t turn. Just keep looking straight ahead like I’m one of the family.”
“And this other world you’re talking about?”
“All our friends and enemies, all our neighbors and our teachers and our pets, all living peacefully together.” She leaned closer to him: “You don’t believe me?”
“I’d have to see some evidence.”
From across the open grave, Feeney’s father frowned and jerked his head to summon him to his side, but Feeney pretended not to see.
“I’m sorry. You need to go somewhere, don’t you,” she said. “You’re on a schedule and I interrupted.”
“No, I think I’m done here.”
“Because in this other world there are no schedules. We meet for poker games and ballroom dancing, lunches along the river, and long walks in the evening.”
“We all play musical instruments and everybody is treated with respect.” She watched the man in the blue parka.
“Is that guy following you?”
“I need to get away from here.”
“Me, too. Seriously.”
“Why don’t you offer to buy me a cup of coffee?”
“Your planet or mine?”
“Just pretend like we’re old friends,” she said, slipping her hand into his.
Feeney had flown home for two weeks right in the middle of his senior year. His grandfather asked him to help during the last days of the campaign. Be his deals guy, everyone said. Figure the plusses and minuses. Tell him the truth. Personally, he couldn’t see the votes. But Smoots, ever the salesman, said that the town would rally in the end. Have faith in the people, he said. They will remember the devotion and the leadership, the long years of struggle and strife. They will come to the polls as never before and send the Boss off in glory one last time.
“There’s a diner just up the street. You okay with that?”
She pulled her heavy coat around her and took his arm. “No. We have to go somewhere else. I can’t be seen.”
It couldn’t have been her idea to go to his grandfather’s apartment down along the river. She wouldn’t have known it existed. Not many people did. But Feeney, who went everywhere with the man in the last years of his life, knew that his grandfather kept a private hole-in-the-wall on the third floor of a tenement, standing plain and stubborn among the gray and battered mills. It was more a poker parlor than an apartment, and more a museum than a poker parlor, his refuge in the busy years and a place to hide toward the end when his big house on High Street got too full of ghosts.
There was a kitchen, a couple of sparsely furnished bedrooms, a big back room full of signs and banners and materials from past campaigns. The front room had been all done over with lace curtains and mission oak furniture of the sort he had grown up with. Old posters from his political campaigns hung on the wall, along with pictures of himself with Jack Kennedy and the governor and senators and all those Massachusetts pols, cutting ribbons and celebrating victories. There was the famous front page photo of the Mayor holding his naked grandson aloft, just as the newborn baby relieves himself. Headline: New Feeney Christens Press. There was the picture someone took of the Boss standing on the town hall steps after another victory with young Feeney, aged nine at the time, squinting out from the mayor’s big shadow, counting the crowd. If you want to know who Boss Feeney really is, Smoots used to say, come here. Come back in time to when he was a boy, when he worked hard at school, raised hell on the weekends and was truly loved, no strings attached.
“I can make you coffee, or I can pour you a drink if you’d rather. I’m not sure—“ “What are you having?”
“Definitely the drink.”
“Make it two.” She slipped off the coat and let it fall to the floor. Underneath, the girl was wearing a plain print dress and a worn sweater.
“There’s no ice.”
Italian style, then. Just a little whiskey in the bottom of a water glass. Feeney poured two; they looked at each other, tapped glasses and drank.
Another thing most people didn’t know about the old man was his record collection, one of the finest on the North Shore. All vinyl and carefully preserved, it included those big multi-record albums with great brown paper sleeves that contained the complete operas of Verdi, Puccini, Bellini and Donizetti. Everything recorded by Caruso and Corelli was there, as well as two generations of Irish tenors and a respectable sampling of the world’s best known symphonies. They were all gifts from friends and contractors who wanted a favor, with little notes written on the jackets. “Let’s hit the high notes together.” “The secret to great music is the silence.” Good vinyl in mint condition was hard to come by, and Smoots always kept a list of the records the old man was looking for at any time. Which you would consult if you had any brains at all. You didn’t want to bring the Boss a record that was too sophisticated, or something he already had. That could get you into more trouble than bringing him nothing at all. So if you needed that road contract, those taxes waived, a shellfish license or a job for your retarded nephew, you called Smoots. He checked his list and made a recommendation. Dvorak’s Symphony Number Two by the London Symphony, the old silver-red label. Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. The Decca recording with Renata Tebaldi. (“Pace, pace, mio dio.”) Not that the Boss knew anything about opera, far from it. But he knew what he liked and he had even marked his favorites with little red checks. Smoots called his efforts to manage the Boss’s record collection the greatest engine for turning corruption into beauty since Pope Julius II used the gold confiscated during the Inquisition to pay for the Sistine Chapel.
“Does anyone live in this place?” she asked.
“They could. Someone could crash here for days.”
“What are you saying?”
“Like me. I could move in. If I wanted to, of course.”
“Yeah, well that’s not going to happen.”
“You never know. Maybe I can talk you into it.”
“So, what do you do? You paint?”
“All the time.” She was running a finger along the shelves of his record collection, sliding a sleeve out and cocking her head to read the label. “Hey, I know this one. We had it in class. Can I put it on?” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D minor.
“Be careful you don’t scratch it.” Feeney was tall and freckle fair with a helmet of yellow curls, and the whisky had brought color charging to his cheeks. He had been a track star in high school, a state champion in fact. Good grades, earnest student. Supposed to be on his way to the best law schools next year, and then into his father’s firm. He was quiet, honest, with a wry sense of humor. You would never know from anything he said that by the time he finished high school he had been in on backroom deals with every major political figure at the city and state level. Both parties, two administrations. But right now he was a little dizzy. “The Boss always listened to this stuff at full volume. Wrapped in his blanket, stark naked underneath, waving one arm like Caesar.”
“And no one complained?”
“Who would you complain to?”
“I love your grandfather’s world, all powerful and alone.”
“It had its moments. Yours?”
“You cannot imagine.” She poured another shot for both of them. They drank. She poured again and raised her glass in the air before knocking it back. “To the end of all things beautiful.” “What does that mean?”
“Going out in glory.”
“You mean him? Yes, I guess so. But his time had passed, and I think he knew it.” “To the passing of time, then.” Her speech was a little slurred, but never in his life had he seen a more beautiful smile.
Pretty soon they got to the second movement, the scherzo, and the painter stood up, went into the other room and came out a minute later wearing a man’s shirt and nothing else, and for the first time in his life Feeney had a close-up view of a semi-naked adult woman with the lights on, unrelated to him in any way, who smelled, my god, like a pile of autumn leaves. She was still talking, of course, at least her mouth was still moving. But he could no longer hear anything because he was concentrating entirely, as any music lover would, on Beethoven’s use of the two tympani during that movement, boom boom, boom boom. She guided him to the couch and loosened his tie. Boom, boom. And before you know it she was unbuckling his pants and he was trying not to panic, boom, boom, as they moved into the B flat andante with the horn solo, a slow ceremony of show and tell, first her turn and then his. She slid into the long low ululations of love, whispering instructions to him and guiding him with her hand. They would have taken all the rest of the afternoon, but Beethoven has his own demands. The fugato movement must come; the presto will not be denied. The pace quickened and by the time they reached the Ode to Joy where the chorus bursts into song—‘freude, schoener goetterfunken’—she was kicking the walls and shouting at him: “You must keep up, Feeney, you must keep up.”
Later, sitting alone against the wall, Feeney looked up and saw his grandfather lying on the couch, his eyes closed, his hands folded across his chest, his powdered brow and his rouged and silent lips stilled to a new strangeness. Looking at the Boss this way, it was hard to remember the passionate, ham-handed, bonfire of a soul that had once warmed that body. For years his grandfather dragged Feeney to picnics, funerals, and political rallies like bait where he would stand on a milk crate and sing “Down by the Salley Gardens” to lure women over so his grandfather could shake hands with their husbands who until that moment thought he was just another scheming Irish pol. Later the Boss would unload the scraps of paper, the business cards, and the notes written on matchbook covers into Smoots’ hands. Promises made. Phone calls to schedule. Flowers to send. The kid had the details. Then it was Smoots’ turn to collect the money. In paper bags. Stuffed inside a Christmas card. Once it was delivered in a Superman lunchbox. Feeney saw it all.
It was always the Boss who picked him up at the house when they were going out, pinned a black band to the sleeve of his coat or stuck a little spray of lilies of the valley in his lapel. It was the Boss who reminded him to go to the bathroom one more time and gave him the advice that formed his life: we must forgive our enemies so we can make space in our hearts for dreams. The world is an orderly place where through love and loyalty good men will ultimately prevail, yours truly to the contrary notwithstanding. The old ways are best. The strong must help the weak. Be nice to old ladies, they are the most dangerous creatures in all of politics. We must endure our trials and our defeats from time to time, knowing that if we do not lose faith, fortune will return to raise us up onto her shoulders once again.
The story they told about young Feeney was that when he was thirteen, after listening to negotiations for an hour, he whispered in his grandfather’s ear.
“Well go ahead, say it out loud.”
OK. Hawkins, the contractor, puts in a low bid, Feeney explained softly. He gets the contract through the city council, then discovers a little known rule about bridges—and Feeney cited the section and paragraph—that requires him to use extra stone. Expensive stone, expensive to move, but what are you going to do? So the final money goes back up to where Hawkins wants it, the city council looks good because at least they are on the record for trying, and everybody comes out okay. Maybe a little on the plus side.
“Where’s the leverage?” asked his grandfather.
“What do you mean?”
“Never do a deal that leaves you with no wiggle.”
“Well, it’s your friend over in Lynn who sells him the expensive stone.”
After that the Boss took him everywhere.
“That girl has seen the end of the world, boy,” his grandfather said without opening his eyes. “Not many people can survive such an experience. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
“She’s not like anyone I’ve ever known.”
“Where is she now?”
“On the back deck.”
“Go to her, boy. Quickly.”
In fact, the painter had climbed up onto the railing and was balancing herself, skinny and naked, arms flung wide, three stories above the rocky riverbank below.
Feeney caught her just in time.
“Sooner or later every young man has to learn the secrets of love and death,” his grandfather told him. “And she will teach them to you.”
“Both on the same afternoon?”
In fact, love and death seemed to be everywhere that year. That was the summer they began the expansion of the nuclear power station across the river, and the town decided to celebrate by throwing a party for the new construction workers. Colored lights were strung in the streets, hot dog stands and beer kegs were set up on the wharf, and a barge was anchored out in the river with a band and a dance floor big enough for everyone. But one of the girls who was out there twirling by herself fell into the darkness and had to be hooked up off Plum Island the next morning, all white and greasy. This first death seemed to be simply bad luck.
Then after Labor Day Mr. Anthony DellaCroce, who could barely speak English, went down into the cellar of his farm house and blew the back of his head off with a shotgun because his daughter had come home after a summer in California married to a boy from Jamaica. He could not bear the vision of the young black man lying between his daughter’s legs. Down at stuttering Ralphs, at Peanut’s barbershop and even at the Jolly Roger there was talk that two violent deaths in three months was too much for one town. It could not be an accident.
In October, when the mornings turned crisp and clear and the maple trees began shifting into their robes of gold, there was a third death. Mrs. Stoats, who lived out by the lumber mill, had died that spring of the cancer, and her two daughters, with some reluctance, had stepped into her conjugal shoes and begun to beget the next generation of Stoatses. But on a cold and moonless autumn night the father mysteriously fell on a pitchfork, and word got out that the older brothers had taken over the begetting duties themselves.
Then Sally Benjamin came down sick. For more than forty years she had walked the streets at night carrying an old canvas bag, into which, in all that time, no one had ever seen her put a thing. Nor, in all that time, had she ever been seen to take anything out. Like one of those Japanese gods who carried the sorrows of the world in a sack over his shoulder, she came out in the evening and walked from one end of town to the other and then back. Never missed a night, never spoke more than a few words. Now someone said she had the flu. People began to believe that there must be something rotten in the town. Some deep sin for which they were being punished. A sickness that needed to be purged from their midst.
Feeney and the painter did not leave his grandfather’s apartment for three days. She wouldn’t go out and Feeney was afraid that if he left, even for a few minutes, she would disappear like a dream at dawn. Nor did Feeney and the painter speak about her little episode on the back deck. He didn’t want to think about what it meant, and she just shrugged it off. The two had other things on their minds.
With a sixth sense for what made him tick, she offered Feeney a deal. He agreed to order out for food and get his friend Scooter Sabatini to drop off some clean clothes and a few other items, and she in turn would teach him about everything that was true and beautiful in the world. She taught him about music. With little more than one semester of music appreciation herself, and that poorly remembered, she introduced him to Chopin, who was Polish she said, like her mother. She played the Nocturne #2 in E flat over and over again which, she pointed out, had been composed when Chopin was Feeney’s age, and having sex all the time like a rabbit. She played Beethoven, who was Polish, too, she explained. She took Feeney’s hand in hers and showed him how to follow in delight as the melody was passed from instrument to instrument, how one sings and the other sings back, how the conversation builds and then bursts the bounds of the orchestra to leave the listener singing out loud like an instrument himself. A man like that with the capacity to imagine such beauty, she told him, suffered greatly. Beethoven went deaf at twenty-seven and decided to kill himself. ‘With joy I hasten toward death’, he wrote. But she said he snapped out of it.
They lay on pillows on the floor and listened together, sometimes becoming romantically distracted before the piece was completely finished. Of the records in the Boss’s collection, her favorites were the ones that featured the piano and the horn. She said the piano was complicated and emotional like a woman, and the horn was brave, single minded and forceful like a man should be. “Tomorrow,” she whispered to him, “we will listen to Rachmaninoff. Also Polish.” She taught him to dance, or at least they pretended to dance, she having no more experience than he. But they enjoyed holding each other and moving together to the music, making up the steps as they went along. She told him about the philosophers—to the extent that she remembered them from the one Western Civ course she had taken—and she said that Victor Hugo was her favorite. She explained how the Russians had invaded Yugoslavia, drawing the map of Europe on his bare chest with her finger. She wept as she told how they had killed all the babies, and he wept, and then they wept together, and then they made love.
She couldn’t say whether Chicago was a city or a state, and couldn’t tell you about anything beyond what she had experienced in person, or imagined. But he was learning that her world had a vast, strange beauty all its own. They began to see each other more clearly and speak more truthfully than either had ever done with anyone else before.
Feeney told her about his longtime hobby of counting the stars, and showed her the book where he kept a record of his observations. The idea is to write down the positions and brightness of each star, and maybe find a neighboring asteroid or even a new comet. “In space, everything that has ever happened is still happening. And you can see the patterns of the past playing out in even the newest constellations. It just depends on how you focus.” If you’re lucky, he said, you discover something no one else has seen and get to name a little piece of the universe. He told her about his grandfather, the last of a dying breed. Everything with him seemed to involve favor for favor, or threat for threat, much of it with people who were still in office now. Politicians had no choice but to do business this way, of course. But over the years the deals got more complicated, and Feeney often had to see all the angles and work the numbers quickly in his head while the old man was slapping backs and making promises. Life is give and take, isn’t it? But you have to be careful how far you are willing to go, he said. That’s the trick. She held his head on her lap and said nothing.
She talked about her dream of doing canvases as big as a wall, big enough to hold all the visions that came to her. Every artist has a masterpiece, one great work that presents itself just when you’re looking the other way, she said, so you have to be ready. It may be an impulse; it may come as an accident. Real artists sometimes didn’t know until it was over that this was the moment for which they would always be remembered.
The painter was twenty-two, two years older than Feeney, and from that advanced perch in life she taught him how to court her with flowers, how to talk to the florist over the phone, and what kind of card to send. Then, after pacing back and forth across the apartment until the delivery man arrived, she pretended to be completely surprised, delighted and—oh, my old man, she called him—overcome with happiness and obligation. She explained how to hide little offerings around the apartment which she would then discover by accident and be forced to repay the gift. How he should write love notes to her and put them under her coffee cup in the morning, and then she would answer them in her lovely, loopy hand. All that went into his star book.
She taught him when to be patient and when to be rough. When to be strong and when to submit. And sometimes she would lie beside him, face to face, her mouth only inches away and her blue eyes wide as she opened the flower of the world to his untutored imagination. Feeney was intoxicated. He floated through those few short days looking at life as though through lace; every hour a new lesson, every morning a pop quiz. Her favorite music became his favorite music; her desires became his in every small detail. They slept in each other’s arms and breathed each other’s dreams. There was rarely a moment when they were not somehow touching. “I am afraid to be so happy,” she whispered to him. At one point Feeney told the painter that he loved her. “Of course you do,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you? We’ve spent the last three days having sex. But you don’t understand. I feel the same way, and you don’t see that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You ever done this before? Been in love, I mean.”
“Not like this.”
“See? That’s what I mean. I’m making you nervous.”
“Why would I be nervous?”
“I don’t want to leave.” She took his hand. “Why don’t we stay here for the rest of the week?”
“I have to get back to school. But we can be together again when I am home for Christmas.”
On the morning of the fourth day, Feeney woke up before dawn and heard her talking to herself in the bathroom. The door was locked. Water was running. She was speaking from the other side like a mother explaining something to a child, softly, carefully. I can’t go back; I can’t do the deal anymore. And now there’s no way out. I have lived a short and beautiful life and it is time to move on. Feeney beat on the door. He tried to pry it open with a pair of scissors, and finally he kicked it down to find her lying in the shirt she had slept in with a bottle of pills beside her on the floor. The whisky was on the sink and her face was pale. Her pulse was weak. Feeney panicked. He sat her up and tried to make her swallow water. He ran to the kitchen and got some milk—someone had told him drink milk if you get poisoned. He leaned her over and forced his fingers down her throat until a sudden splash of milk and whisky blew out of her mouth, including several undigested pills. More milk. More fingers. He fumbled with the phone, tried to remember the address, and before he understood what was happening there were men pounding up the stairs and shouting. Doors flew open; white overalls were everywhere; arms pulled him away from her while other men he couldn’t see started to give orders as equipment crashed into the room and gasping, gurgling hoses were hooked up to machines, and then to her. More sirens arrived and now the police were in the room as well and someone was dragging him off to a corner as they strapped the painter to a board and shouted and careened against each other down the stairs and out into the waiting ambulance.
Feeney was still trying to break free from the grip of the EMTs when the chief of police came through the door. “What the hell are you doing here?” the police chief asked him. “Aren’t you the Boss’s grandson?”
“I was just—”
“Do you know this woman? Are you related to her in any way? Say no.” “I guess not.”
“Well, this is a helluva mess,” he said.
“Is she alive?”
“Too soon to tell. Are you okay?”
“Where are they taking her?”
“Away. That’s all you need to know. Why don’t you put your clothes on, son, and then we’ll talk.”
The chief was in his sixties, short, weathered and weary with a laconic, Yankee accent that made even the most urgent matter seem mundane. He spoke softly and watched with an expert eye as others started to go through the belongings in the room, gathering open pill bottles into clear plastic bags. He turned his back on his men so that only Feeney could hear what he was saying. “Listen, son: right now, nobody knows who you are. No one is asking what you were doing here. So we’ve got a lid on it. But others are going to walk through that door in a few minutes and then questions like that are going to come up. Now in my experience I find that it’s always good to figure out ahead of time what your answers are going to be. Otherwise the wrong words come out of your mouth and then you can’t ever get them back.”
The others, the chief explained, would be reporters, family, someone from the poison control center. More police. “And you really don’t want to go up against them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I knew your grandfather.” He passed Feeney his pants. “He promoted me into this job, the same way he helped a lot of people. As you know. And those people will help you now. You only need to ask. So we’re going to be smart here, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t think I do.”
“When are you supposed to go back to school?”
“What about today?”
“What are you saying?”
“You’re a bright young man and you have a future. You don’t need to be tangled up in this story. You were staying here with her?”
“Just a couple of days.”
The chief studied Feeney for a moment and then straightened the collar of the young man’s shirt. “Well we’re not going to say that, exactly. We’re going to say you were walking by and noticed the lights on; you came up to see what was happening; and then you called us. Got that? A neighbor. That’s what we’re going to call you. A neighbor with no name.”
“Maybe she was looking for a place to crash. Maybe the door was unlocked. Came in out of the cold, got into the medicine cabinet. Happens all the time. Maybe looking for food, something like that. Innocent, nothing criminal.”
It took Feeney a moment to realize what the chief was telling him. “I’m not sure that will work.”
“You won’t have to do anything; just leave it to me. Your father’s been looking for you all weekend, so all you need to do is get in your car, go home and tell everyone you were staying with a friend. Get that straightened out. But don’t say anything else.”
Feeney looked out the window and watched the ambulance door close.
“Are you listening to me? I don’t know who this woman is, but we’ll take care of her from this point on. Now get your stuff together.”
“She will be all right? You promise?”
“Do you understand what I am saying? I know how you feel, but right now the most important thing is for us to focus on getting you out of here quietly. The woman, whoever she is, you have to forget her.”
Feeney was shaking with grief. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You had a good time; it’s over; don’t worry about it.
Below the window the lights were flashing, but the siren was not on. Feeney watched it roll up the street and disappear around the corner.
“Every man has a woman he has forgotten.”