Through Grace and Circumstance1
Author's Note: This story was first presented as part of the September 25, 2015 Anniversary Celebration at CABB, one of the stories of the First Contact project. As September 25, 1987 was our 'first contact' with the world below, so, too, did other characters experience first meetings, first findings, first realizations ...
Leave us now.
In all my born days, I’d never heard a woman more unambiguous. Flat out, downright, no ifs, ands, or buts. Go on. We’re done here. Done with a capital ‘D’.
‘Course, she thought to thank me. For everything, she said.
Well, I got me a pretty good look at everything.
But she left me. Left me standing there in the doorway, free to look. Free to do whatever I was gonna do after …
Like maybe run at the–
… at him … with a busted two-by-four in my hand or a chunk of iron pipe. I’m lethal with a stick, and that old storeroom was a chock-mess of handy weapons; I could’a grabbed one, easy. There was a gun on the floor, too, and even though it’s been a few years, I can still shoot straight. Always could, practice or not. I figure she backgrounded me pretty good before she ever showed up at the shop that first day, so she knows. Hell, I’ve taught her a few of my tricks already. But she left me standing there anyway. ‘Cause she trusts me. Trusts me with the most precious thing in her life. I heard it in her voice. I’m here.
In his, too. Catherine.
I'd have done pretty much anything for her anyway. Before tonight. Before …
And, God’s my witness, I’ll do this too.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The phone rings after midnight, the news is never good. Somebody’s in jail. Somebody’s hurt.
As big as her voice was down there in that doorway, it was that small coming through the receiver.
“Isaac?” she whispered. “Isaac … I … I … It’s Catherine …”
I was already out of bed and reaching for an undershirt before she got her name out. She wasn’t calling one of her girlfriends or one of the lawyers at her office or one of the cops she worked with. She was calling me. No matter we’d hit it off and were gettin’ along real good, talking about a whole lot more than what sent her my way in the first place, I didn’t imagine myself ever being Catherine Chandler’s middle-of-the-night man, so I knew she had her reasons. I skipped right over the what-happeneds and the are-you-okays and went straight to the where-are-yous.
She told me, and once the address sank in, I grabbed the twenties I kept in a bottomless Coke can in my refrigerator, shoved ‘em in my pocket. I’d need extra cash just to get a taxi driver willing to drop me off at the corner she called me from, let alone drive us around down there this time of night. I laced my shoes up tight and locked all the locks behind me, but halfway down the stairs I turned and took the steps two at a time, back to my door. Inside, I studied my bookshelf. There it was, stuck between The Invisible Man and Catch-22.2, 3
Yeah. I read. But I was a believer in keeping little stashes here and there – mattress money, my momma called it – and I’d slipped a couple of folded c-notes down inside the spine of a book of poetry: Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. 4
A good thing I had. The first cabbie I hailed wasn’t moved by an extra twenty. The second one agreed quick enough, but then changed up his mind before he pulled away from the curb, made me get out. Third time’s the charm, if you take into account the forty I gave the driver to take me there and the hundred I promised him for sticking around. Show me the money, he said, so I did, told him an hour, two tops, and it was his on top of the regular fare. He gave it a go, but nerves got the best of him, or maybe he was moonlighting and he did have to get to his maintenance shift at the hospital. Whatever. He took off without his combat pay, left us to foot it. ‘Course that left me with plenty of lip-loosening money. Tell it true, old dude.
To tell it true, Broome Street and environs was a dark place. The cops we ran into – luckily a couple I knew from the old days – said they’d take my number, give me a call if they found any more dead bodies.
He’s not dead, Catherine said. And no way anybody’d contradict her.
Check with Downtown Emergency, one of ‘em told us. That’s where we send the injured.
Funny. Catherine’s face went even paler at that. I didn’t understand … then.
We crossed the street. When my buddy caught up to us, Catherine was hunkered down next to an old wino, talking to him, patting him on the shoulder, reaching in her pocket for a pack of cheese crackers and a candy bar, junk food I’d bought to hand out because it bothered her, just giving them drinking money or worse. He took me aside, said we ought to pack it in, that the odds weren’t good. These were cruel streets, hungry streets, he said.
I’ll be careful, I told him.
Careful won’t cut it, brother.
And I nodded. I’ll talk to her, I said. But I didn’t. Not about that, not about quitting.
Anybody else probably would give up the search, just go home and wait for what comes next.
Anybody else but Catherine.
She taught me something tonight and taught it to me fast: what it means to never give up.
What it means to never want to. To be unable to. To have no choice.
Oh, man. To have no choice.
We weren’t going home without him. Without Vincent.
I bought a few more candy bars at the corner bodega and changed my last hundred for fives and tens to make it last. Handed her a cup of the most god-awful coffee, which she drank. She carried the empty cup crushed in her fist for two blocks until she found a garbage can to stuff it in, even though we kicked through trash on the sidewalks and the gutters were clogged with it.
I reckon she’ll try to pay me back. I wonder if she’ll hand me an envelope face to face, or if some Saturday afternoon after her session, I’ll find a few bills tucked under the blotter on my desk at the gym.
I don't want the money. I already feel like I’m the one who owes her, owes him.
Either way, I won’t say anything, ask her anything. I want to be the kind of man she can always come to and know just what she’s getting. The kind of man who deserves her trust.
I oughta confess, though, that I didn’t … exactly … leave … after. I was right outside the door. I … listened. But I gave her … and Vincent … and the solemn old man I saw walking out of that golden light like some fairy tale king … enough time to get good and gone before I sidled back into the room. I just stood there a minute, staring into that … that mystery … knowing I had to do something, I just didn't know what.
There were two Silks bleeding out on the floor behind me. Another thug in the hall a ways back. Two gals sleeping it off upstairs. I really didn't expect them to wake up and come exploring, but you never know. They had guns we didn’t take the time to kick very far away. I didn’t want them or anybody they might bring down – other gang members, the police – to know where Catherine disappeared to.
The cinder blocks were busted through, and beyond that … a tunnel, a chiseled-out, rock-walled, honest-to-God tunnel. Going where? I took one step – one step – through that opening and then that light … that light that came from somewhere else … … … just winked out.
Man, oh, man, was it dark. I hoped it wasn’t wherever she was.
I’d like to tell her I took care of that open door. It took some shouldering, lemme tell you. I brushed the scrape outta the dust on the floor with my jacket, the footprints, too. And I wiped down the handle with my shirttail. Just in case. You know. Because somebody, eventually …
If it only slows ‘em down, better that door is shut.
Better that light is off, too. Because it called me. I mean, it called me way down deep. You see it, you gotta follow, right?
So, yeah. Better the door is closed.
If my old buddy from the force calls me, I’ll tell him we found her friend and got him home. Be tellin’ it true, won’t I? But I pretty much gotta phone in an anonymous tip about the basement of the Beaumont. Even scumbags have moms and grandmas and kids …
Listen, I know the guys at the 7th. Lower East’s a rough beat, and given the explosion at the pool hall and everything else they were chasing down, they’re just gonna figure turf war between Shake’s boys and the Silks. Who’s gonna tell ‘em anything different? Anything believable, anyway. And if they ask if I have any information … well … I got a reputation with those guys, still got cred. Catherine does too, DA’s office and all. I just don’t think us being down there’s gonna ping the radar, and if it does, we’ll cross that bridge together, me and her.
That girl, Lucy she said her name was … Poor kid. I found her huddled on the floor so cried out she could hardly walk, even with my help. I had to keep an arm around her waist to get her up the steps. Both those women had come to and stumbled off, Lucy told me. For all I knew, we’d meet folks with guns on the stairs, and whether it was the cavalry or reinforcements wouldn’t matter. We needed to get out of there.
No questions, asked or answered.
I walked Lucy home. Neither of us said much. I told her my name; she told me where she lived. She said she wasn’t hungry when I asked. I said I’d better not have any coffee when she offered. This is it, she said and pointed.
I watched her from the sidewalk. Street light seeped into the entrance well.
She put her key in the lock. Isaac?
Vincent … Did he … ?
She knew his name, but she didn’t give anything away. Not one thing past that. She didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, but I figured out she’d helped him … Vincent … get to the Beaumont. She was trusted, too. He’d found her trustworthy … like Catherine found me. His name was a codeword, a secret that connected us, me and Lucy.
When she looked up at me, her face wasn’t the pale and blotchy mess it had been. More … lit.
With hope, I thought. Breathless hope.
Yeah, I said. He made it. Made it home.
And then she smiled, and I’m telling you, it was a sight to behold. She was changed.
I am too.
The Silks who’re left and the wannabes … they’ll make it hard on the girl, Lucy. She needed to move, and she needed to move fast. She didn’t argue the point when I made it, but she didn’t know what to do either. How written all over her face. That miserable qué será, será hunch in her shoulders.
Throw some stuff in a bag, I told her. You're going home with me tonight. She didn’t argue that either.
I put her up in the hotel across from the gym, in a street-side room I’ll be able see from my front window. Tomorrow … later on today, I mean … I’ll run this past her: I could maybe round up a couple guys to help me box up her stuff – she doesn’t have much, I couldn’t help but notice – store it for her here until I can find her some place more permanent, some place decent nowhere near her old neighborhood. Maybe she could answer the phone at the gym a couple days a week while I talk to some friends about full time work. Get her outta the life … if she wants out.
That’s what Catherine would do. Show her some light.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Four flights of stairs to the apartment. The penthouse, he called it. He was beat, had to pull himself along by the railing the last two floors, the toes of his shoes dragging every tread. How long had Catherine’s walk been, he wondered, to where Vincent lived. I have to take him home. What was his home like?
Fantastic, he imagined. Glorious. How could it be otherwise?
He dropped his keys on the table inside his narrow foyer, shrugged off his jacket, headed for the kitchen. Popped some ice out of the plastic tray in the freezer and ran a glass full of tap water. Once upon a time, after an all-nighter, he’d have broken out the bottle, stretched out on the couch with three or four fingers of Rittenhouse Rye. Not any more, not in years. And even if booze was something he could manage, he didn’t want his senses dulled. Broke-down tired, he wasn’t ready to sleep. What if this was all a dream? He’d stay awake, keep it alive a little while longer.
I won’t ask any questions, he’d assured her, but he couldn’t help going on, nudging. If there’s anything you can tell me …
Turns out she didn’t need to tell him anything. She showed him.
He’s hurt, she’d worried. Hurt and alone.
But there, see, she was wrong.
I knew you were close, he’d heard Vincent say. He was hurt, but he was never alone. She wasn’t either.
What did that feel like, that kind of connection? He’d given up expecting it for himself, but now … now, because it belonged to them, it seemed possible again. I was never giving up.
Maybe one day …
Maybe one day he’d get the chance to tell her that he didn’t really have any questions, just … truth. This truth …
I don’t who I saw in that doorway, but, Catherine, I know what it was.
Love. It was Love.
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.5
They’d proved that.
If he opened his window and sat in the sill, his back against the frame, he could watch the sun rise over one tower of the bridge, see a sliver of the East River shine like gold. He waved at Lucy standing in her room across the street and pointed, and she cranked open her window too, leaned out, bracing herself on both arms.
It was a different world out there. Yes, it surely was. And a new day, the newest ever. Deserving of celebration.
He raised his glass to the dawn.
1. Tyler Knott Gregson. First Sight. 2011.
2. Ralph Ellison. The Invisible Man. 1952.
3. Joseph Heller. Catch-22. 1961.
4. Nikki Giovanni. Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. 1980.
5. William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act 1, scene V