The first layer contained nothing new, nothing nobody hadn’t ever seen before: McDonald’s supersize Styrofoam suitcases in white and foamy loamy yellow, big waxy cups that once held shakes, cigarette butts, Christmas-colored crack vials, and endless amounts of plastic bags that had somehow not blown away and gotten stuck in trees or choked birds. The next layer might contain old transistor radios, pipes of all kinds going nowhere, full of dirt, stones, ice, or air. Usually, the machines moved only dirt and rock, but once in awhile the world opened up under foot and digging had to come to a halt. McQuilty scratched his skull under his hard hat, descended into the pit, and climbed into his backhoe.
A group of school children was being given a tour of the construction site. They lined up along the rim of the pit in yellow and green rain jackets against the slight drizzle. Another driver passed out hard hats while their teacher shouted over the sound of the construction equipment. A warehouse dating back to the 1920s had stood on the corner of Doughty and Everit Streets. It was being torn down to give way to an office tower, but as McQuilty’s company had dug beneath the old basement whose walls collapsed like a big old tooth, they discovered another earlier structure. archaeologists were called in, and after examining the newly exposed planks, doorjambs, beams, and the odd doorknob, they determined the remnants of the structure were a house which very likely had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The site was not declared a historic landmark. Demolition and digging continued, but the site was not without interest. A few neighborhood schools did tours as the foundation was being dug. McQuilty’s boss pointed out the post and beams, the ghost of a wooden house or meeting room whose cellar was used as a resting point on the long journey of escaped slaves.
McQuilty had found all kinds of things in the city. Each group of immigrants left their fossils behind. He’d unearthed sewing machines, sinks, fireplace mantles, fragments of clothing, relics of a pressing shop, a backdrop from Yiddish theater painted to resemble a street corner. It had a lot of acute angles as if the whole set had been constructed out of lightning bolts. In the southern end of the city he’d unearthed tins of Chinese medicines too rusted to open, buttons manufactured in Amsterdam, shards of porcelain, body armor, convex ridges poking out like the dorsal fin of a corroded swordfish. Once his backhoe had struck the remains of a Lenape long house. That was a major find. All the ham-handed digging of the machines gave way to delicate excavations. archaeologists sent by the city found snapping turtle rattles, a wind up drill made of rope and wood, bits of scored pottery, and spirit masks used for curing illness, still bright red, horsetail hair still attached.
The school children descended into the pit, hardhats perched on their heads. They looked like walking mushrooms.
“This is where we started to hit the wall of a basement that was much older than the Gleinfelder Gresp Warehouse which was built in 1926.”
A kid with a Spiderman backpack asked about alligators in toilets and dinosaur bones in Gowanus, and McQuilty’s boss laughed as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever been asked. McQuilty started up his backhoe.
“Does anyone ever steal the valuable stuff you find?”
This was the last question McQuilty heard as he drove to another part of the hole. The sides of the pit looked like a layer cake of dirt, rock, old walls, and foundation lines. There was rarely anything worth stealing to be found at the sites, but McQuilty had occasionally taken things. The backhoe made large gouges in the earth; that was what it was designed for. He would never find any easily liftable loot from its oversized jaws, but if he got out from time to time and sifted through the dirt he might find remnants from people who thought they were on the surface of the earth, and that surface was a permanent thing. Over time they and their city were buried and shifted to make way for the city of the pre-War, the War, the city in the Atomic Age, and the city of the Future. Inadvertent scattered time capsules, he found them all the time. In his own basement he kept a circle of jade, leg irons, a jaw bone, a yellow bakelite radio, a brittle plastic troll doll with long green hair. He kept them, next to his fishing gear, a couple of dead televisions kept for parts, and toys his children had outgrown but he couldn’t yet get rid of, reindeer and elves put out in December.
He was supposed to take his son fishing off Pier 42 in Canarsie. The fishing wasn’t great, but like digging in the dirt, once in awhile he caught something worthwhile: the odd snapper and eels his kids yelled were disgusting bloated water snakes tangled up with condoms, Coney Island White Fish. It would be worse, he thought, to drive a subway, and spend day after day pretty much underground except when you got so far out in the boroughs the train was allowed to surface. So he pictured the ocean. From his house he looked out over water to the city to the west, past the crumbling warehouses and Civil War-era docks which, too, were about to be demolished to give way to a big box superstore that sold cheap furniture from Sweden made in China. He didn’t fish where he lived, but if people thought the Red Hook docks were abandoned they were mistaken. People ventured out on them at night. Sometimes a body or two would turn up, but he didn’t pay much attention to the adventurers who looked for liaisons and other kinds of trouble where floors and walls gave way to water so easily.
The air in the pit smelled like earth and gasoline. He dug for awhile then he got out of the cab and poked around. That was when he saw what was left of a hand sticking out of the ground.
The address she’d been given was near the bridge in a building so far west that Olive, as she walked over cobblestone streets, could smell the ocean. On this marginal edge, she felt the city recede. To her left and right store gratings were rattled down and locked as if never to open again, sealing up darkened floor-throughs whose purposes were unadvertised and unfathomable to a casual observer. These were businesses that opened so early each morning it wasn’t yet light, and they closed around mid day. Freezer trucks pulled up to loading docks where they were met by men in helmets who, in their blood-spattered white coats, removed huge carcasses of meat, hooking them onto tracks which circled overhead in front of warehouses before disappearing back into the buildings. A carton of enormous pink high-heeled shoes lay next to an abandoned loading dock. Pink spikes, glittering in the sun stuck out the top. Olive picked one up. Both her hands fit in it. At the bottom of the box was a damp reddish-brown wig.
Trying to locate the address she’d been given, Olive walked to the end of the street where she found a man in a strapless blue dress leaning against the chamfered corner of a loading dock singing to himself.
If you have planned
To go out west
Travel my way
Take the highway
That’s the best.
Get your kicks
On Route 66
A car pulled up, and the man in the blue dress slid into the back seat with an expression of familiarity and boredom as if he had all the time in the world and nothing would ever surprise him. He would have to pretend to be shocked, she thought, it would be an act, and although he was a complete stranger to her, Olive began to wonder what her own threshold of horror might be. Was the margin right before her, was she wounded at every turn, or was the jolt so dim and distant she could hardly remember what it was to be left mute and incredulous. Not even able to articulate the juncture left her feeling in a kind of limbo, inconsequential and abstract, looking at a box of spike heels and listening to the sound of traffic.
The construction site ought to have been easy to find even though it was some blocks from the subway.
“Hey, Olive.” A man called out to her from a blue Ford Escort. Bernie Fischer, assistant to the coroner. “It’s right around the next block. You want a ride?”
“No, I’m good, Bernie. I’ll walk.”
Since she stopped traveling, she worked for the city. Now she knew all kinds of people in what her father called law enforcement. Sometimes they called her Dr. Levin, sometimes Olive, sometimes the old men called her doll.
The address was on the last corner of Everit Street, a vast pit. Cranes and backhoes had been moved to one side. Men in hard hats stood pointing to a depression in the earth roped off with yellow plastic tape.
As a child she used to dig things up in the dirt in a quarry near her house. Once she found a fragment of jaw bone, a one inch long piece with a chipped grey incisor still stuck in it, which she imagined had belonged to an Iroquois or a Mohawk. “Looks like a dog to me,” her father had said. To humor her, he took it to the police station to see if they could date the fragment, listening to a ball game on the radio as he drove, the tooth and jaw wrapped in a Kleenex stuck in the glove compartment, treated more like a bottle cap than the piece of Cro-Magnon Man she hoped she had found.
Her yard had yielded no more treasures, so occasionally she buried objects herself in order to find them. Her mother gave art classes at the local community college, and Olive borrowed her teaching props: a ceramic bowl, glass vase, a brass Buddha, things her mother brought into her class so the students could practice painting still lives. Twenty minutes before she was supposed to walk into a classroom her mother tore the house upside down in a fury to find her props. Olive was afraid to relieve her mother’s anxiety by digging the objects up because as the culprit of an annoyance crime she would catch it no end. Hours later at dinner her mother told a story of acute aggravation; she had had to stop at a 7-11 to buy replacements: bottles of Coke, Tide, Mop N’Glow, Fanta Orange which she emptied out and stuck on a table for her class to draw. She had no theories as to what had happened to her usual props because she couldn’t imagine who would want to steal them all those things of so little value.
As Olive made the descent into the construction pit she recognized the coroner, Rizzo, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Levin,” he nodded.
“So, what did you find?”
“We had a murder like this one a month ago. The body was found lying face down in one of the narrow cul-de-sacs near the river on the east side near Chinatown. It was the kind of murder that might have gone unnoticed because the corpse lay anonymous in the morgue for over a month; a long time,” the coroner said, “for a white person to go unclaimed and unidentified.” That fact had begun to annoy him so he spoke with an even more matter-of-fact tone about the brutality of this killing which was, in his opinion, unusual for city murders. “Gunshots, stabbing, even cement overshoes, you know, drowning, are the common methods of homicide, but this man’s face had been deliberately burned beyond recognition, and his tongue cut out so he won’t speak again in this life or any other. I’ve seen many kinds of death, but someone has gone to great lengths here, someone,” he said to Olive, “has gone to a lot of trouble. It isn’t something you see every day.”
Photographers, holding handkerchiefs over their noses were snapping pictures of the victim, looking away as quickly as possible before turning to photograph the parts of the pit which showed where the Underground Railroad had been. Someone covered the body with a plastic sheet.
“A shame all this had to be torn down,” a policewoman pushed a cup of coffee to Olive.
Olive lifted the plastic sheet and looked at the body. She had seen bodies like this before. It had been part of her job. Clearing away pre-Colombian tombs she’d examined the mutilated bodies of middle-aged men and adolescent boys offered as sacrifices. They meant little to her other than calcified fragments to be cleaned, numbered, removed before looters took the pieces and sold them for forty or fifty pesos. She’d also seen evidence of more recent executions like the one the coroner described, but she put these images out of her thoughts. These kinds of murders didn’t happen in New York. In Guatemala, in Los Angeles, maybe, but not here.
“The victim is a thirty-year-old Caucasian male. Small tattoo of knotted snakes in the shape of the number 10 on his left shoulder,” the coroner said aloud.
“Why obliterate his face?” someone asked.
“It’s hard to say,” Olive answered. “You know, Rizzo, this looks like a recent death and the body was dumped here. This isn’t slave remains. You don’t need an archaeologist.
“Why the number ten?”
“In Mayan hieroglyphics numerals below twenty were given faces and personas. Ten was a number feared by the Maya, and it was symbolized by a Death’s Head.”
The Mayan decapitator god rode a plumed serpent and sliced the world into quadrants all of which spit John Doe out, his body sprawled on the dirt as if he’d accidentally fallen out of a window.
“Death’s Head, huh?” Rizzo raised his eyebrows. “You sure that isn’t some kind of mushroom?”
Olive shrugged, and turned her collar up against the drizzle. Above the rim of the pit a Metropolitan Doughnut sign flashed off and on, green and pink.
“When’s the last time you saw markings like these, like this tattoo?” Rizzo asked.
“In a labyrinth.”
Rizzo raised his eyebrows and looked toward the blinking Metropolitan Doughnut sign.
Olive might have said she saw such markings from the crest of the Coney Island Cyclone last summer while sitting next to Vladimir the Human Torch. Maybe the mark was on his shoulder, too, or maybe it had been spray painted on the side top of a hot dog stand, and was only visible from the peaks of the Cyclone.
“No, really, in a labyrinth.”
To find the ruin they had driven for hours up and down shoulderless mountain roads in southern Mexico, passing men on horseback carrying machetes, past herds of sheep who bumped into each other like crazy, and through towns where people gathered in angry groups. Ladinos (white or mixed race), already departed or living invisibly behind closed doors, had been approached in the night and told that they had a week to leave their land. If they stayed they’d be killed. Painfully alert after a long flight, Olive felt she could stay awake for hours and need not sleep again for weeks. Villagers peered into the windows of Olive’s van, staring at the white or mestizo faces of her colleagues with undisguised hostility. She put her foot on the accelerator and sped ahead believing whatever happened in these hamlets had nothing to do with her although she breathed the same smoky air, ate the same food, and traveled the same roads as everyone around her.
When the crew with whom she traveled reached the ruins it was hot in the deserted plazas and on the steps of the pyramids. Workers employed to restore the stone façades usually hung their lunches from branches of nearby trees, but they had all gone home for the day. Climbing the steps to the tomb of the kings Olive sprinted ahead of the others as though she had springs in her shoes. She was anxious to return to the maze which had been constructed at the top of the pyramid, but quick as she was, another archaeologist, Quinones who made her uncomfortable, and a photographer overtook her and entered first. Olive followed slowly, hand on the wall. The beam of her flashlight bounced off the walls of the tomb. The surface was full of glyphic information: guide books, dictionaries, newspapers of lost civilizations. It wasn’t the shells of department stores or skeletons of office towers that survived but cities of the dead.
A breeze blew through the stone labyrinth as if someone had turned on an electric fan, and it lifted the hair which hung down the back of her neck. She made her way deeper into the puzzle, stopping to feel hieroglyphics carved into stone. Under her fingers the carved symbols turned into something Braille-like and not always translatable. She ran her hands over what felt like beaks and intestinal loops, and wondered if these were prayers for the sacrificial victim. She could hear Quinones’ voice around a corner saying something about uncalibrated radiocarbon years, reminding her that she lived in a century when that could be said, uncalibrated radiocarbon years, with a certainty about the perimeters of beginnings and endings that left no room for hazy guesswork, unlike the Mayans themselves who believed a span of time included any influences which might linger after the end of the day on which those events occurred. Periods of time spread or contracted according to the sway of the events which occurred within them. It could be August but if you were still smarting from a slap in March, then you would be justified in declaring that for you it was still early spring and you were entitled to be miserable. Periods of mourning could go on indefinitely.
A lone man who had remained behind turned on a generator which provided illumination, so as she rounded a corner a point of light shone ahead just before the next turn in the corridor. There were no actual chasms in the floor anywhere, but a perceptual rift she couldn’t cross gaped and then closed. If the generator were to blow or go out for any reason, she was sure she would be left alone; the others would evaporate, lose her in the maze, and finally in their anxiety to be gone before dark, they would desert her. She might be able to find her way out on her own. If not, it was possible she was so deep in the maze that no one would discover her body for months. She came to a stop at a corner, hand on a long-lipped god with fangs, Chac the god of rain and lightning. The grooves and ridges formed erotic cryptograms, she was certain. Outlines of body parts fit together like puzzle pieces, although she knew pictures of sexual arrangements of all kinds were often intertwined with images of torture. Olive groped in the semi-darkness, imagining a portrait she had once seen of a woman who pulled a thorny rope through her tongue while another pierced her lips with the spine of a sting ray, symbol of self-sacrifice. The generator held and they returned to the village just as sunset, but Olive did not go back to the maze again.
Another forensic archaeologist walked down the steps into the excavation. A short man, Dauber, he’d been in Rwanda, Bosnia, and now retired in Brooklyn, he was often called in when there wasn’t much left to identify.
“So, Rizzo,” Dauber shook his hand, “you’ve got a body here.” He looked under the plastic sheet.
“He’s not Mexican, he wasn’t a slave,” Rizzo said. “OK, I shouldn’t have called you.” He turned to Olive. “Go home, Dr. Levin. I’ll call you if I need you. Dauber can take over.”
Olive started her ascent, looking back only once. The streets were emptying out, even the meat packers who had a few warehouses on the street, even they were gone. She walked along the iron ribs poking through cobblestone where trolleys once ran. Apart from the sound of the last trucks pul-ling up or driving away, the streets were very quiet. Flies hovered over joints of bad meat which had been splashed with brilliant blue dye. She saw a cow’s head peering out of a dumpster. Eyes shut and sunken, it was covered with flies while rats scratched along loading bays as if they were archaeologists digging through an abandoned site. The man in the blue dress, a fast worker, had returned to his post by a dock, and he looked at Olive as if she were a menace to him and to others.
“You’re nutso, lady.” He started to sing a Nat King Cole song again.
This can’t be love because I feel so well
This can’t be love. I get no dizzy spells
Someone leaned out a window and yelled, “Shut the fuck up, will you?” The man grabbed his crotch through the dress and sang even louder.
My head is not in the skies.
My heart does not stand still
Just hear it beat
This is too sweet to be love.
Olive walked around the corner and headed toward the subway, leaving the sound of singing and shouting behind. Storefronts began to come alive again. She stopped in front of a plate glass window, smoked over so it was impossible to see inside. Its sign read:
E & T Body Piercing and Tattoos. Comfortable & Private.
The widest variety of standard and exotic body jewelry
Very Safe and Fast in a Personal and Pleasant Atmosphere
As featured in Newsweek, Vogue, and on the Howard Stern show.
Eros & Thanatos Body Piercing and Tattoos existed in the same few city blocks as the dead man’s number ten tattoo. Olive had thought what the Mayans did to their bodies had a connection to how they constructed their pyramids, plazas, and calendars, but she wasn’t sure exactly how the pierced and ornamented body reflected their architectural division of space and how they thought about the passage of days. Quinones had made fun of her theories. He just wanted to date the stuff, take a few readings, photographs, tell jokes about ancient dicks, then get back to their hotel with a pool before the sun set. She held her hand out in front of her, then felt the holes that ran up the side of her ear and the rings in them. The body was divided into isolated parts that didn’t talk to one another. Was there any correlation between what people did to their bodies and what they did to the spaces they lived in? Both could be abused or defended. Something was done to the city that surrounded Eros & Thanatos. It was torn down and rebuilt, it erased itself, ate itself. Why not rupture or mark anything and everything? A building, a site, a group of people. Was the city that sheltered Eros & Thanatos part and parcel of the same set of relationships (puncture, pain, disgust, envy, riddled or decorated, the torturer and the tortured) that were exercised in their private and sterile backrooms?
“Yo, Olive.” Bernie Fischer caught up with her. “So you got called by mistake.”
“Yeah, it looks that way.”
“Time for coffee?”
“Sure, Bernie, why not?”
I met Frankenstein (not his real name) in his car, parked in an alley off Nevins Street. Frankenstein was sitting in his grimy black Lincoln Town Car eating a piece of cheesecake from Juniors. The red and white striped bag was on the seat, and he tossed it into the back so I could sit down. I had a sample of my work in a plastic folder, and I was reluctant to give it to him with his hands all cheesecakey, but Frankenstein didn’t look like the kind of fellow who would have Handi-wipes in his glove compartment or like the kind of person you could make suggestions to about hygiene.
I made copies of credit card holograms. I made them out of wire and mirrors, photographs, bits of plastic. They were worth a fortune, and I knew it. I handed him two sample holographic decals, Citibank, MasterCard circa 2003. He said they looked like the real thing. Yeah, they do, are you interested in doing business, I asked? He nodded. OK, I patted my briefcase. I have more in here. You have cash? He nodded again, but the next thing I knew, or didn’t know, I was whacked on the head, knifed, my body dumped in this pit and covered over by a few inches of dirt.
My contact, Mr. Frank N. Stein, must have thought the digging was finished, an office tower would be built over my remains, and no one would ever know. But it didn’t work out that way. The foundation was not completely dug out. When I met Mr. Stein I was wearing an orange jacket and checkered pants. I wanted to stand out, to be noticed if anything happened. I was wrong about dead men not wearing plaids. It turns out they do.
How did I get into the hologram biz? I went to art school for awhile, then dropped out. I painted a mural of the Acropolis in my uncle’s restaurant in Queens. Through the internet, believe it or not, I got interesting in holography and expanded from there, making reproductions for credit cards. I thought of credit cards as a kind of populist art form. Like Mughal miniatures the size of a dime, but art for the people, not just for the sultan’s court. Nothing wrong with that concept.
My name was August Lassiter. When my identity is learned people or a single person with considerable diligence will dust my home and workshop for fingerprints and sweep armloads of bits and pieces into boxes and black plastic trash bags. They were so delicate and absurdly fragile. The models eventually crystallized into cash, but the transformation required a lot of trouble, a great deal of effort and know-how. Not much is left of my business I bet, just ruins, illegible scraps of wire, plastic, and film.
I worked out of the top floor of a house in Greenpoint. My worktables were littered with small wooden rods, bits of cloth, silver angel’s hair, and other fragments of things; the beginnings of the models. In my workshop you could find images of dogs borrowed from an old Greyhound bus advertisement or maybe a fragile Mona Lisa who was destined to smile on a Chase Platinum card or maybe Norstar West. All these tiny bits, these flea circuses, were tied to amalgamates, abbreviations. Nothing was called by whole names.
“How do you like my midgets?” I used to say that to visitors, and I showed them how the hologram labels would be laminated onto plastic cards.
Why the Mona Lisa? A visitor asked. Why not firecrackers, a steaming cup of coffee? This was not a subject I ever thought about. Some holograms were framed and hung near an aquarium filled with iridescent fish, glowing like cards themselves.
“They’re very small,” I explained. “The scale is almost one to one. Depth must be limited to one inch or so for the hologram to be successful; it’s easier to reproduce, the shallower the relief, the better. The models are about as big as your hand.” I took my visitor’s hand and made it into a fist, “Like that,” I’d say. “The filmplate is either eight by ten or eleven by fourteen; these models are very small, but they have to be made quickly.” She tried to pull her hand out of mine, but I held onto it. I’m used to holding filaments, strips of foil, diamond chips no bigger than the head of a pin which will eventually be used to signal large financial transactions. It takes strong hands, no joke. She pulled harder, knocking over a bottle of red paint. Newspaper had been spread over the worktable, and the red pool spread over the advertisements and columns of print, finally covering the tiny arm of a figure destined for a hologram. The surface of the table looked like the site of a miniature disaster.
“One more dead soldier,” I pulled the little man out of the pool, but in the process inadvertently crushed him as if he were an ant.
Now my clothes are disheveled, pants down around my ankles, shirt unbuttoned. Hairs are snipped from my body and placed in plastic bags, fibers collected and also placed in labeled bags. My nails scraped and hands, shreds of rubber cement still clinging to them, bagged. They note my hair is dyed an assortment of colors, and I once had a gap-toothed smile. My body was boxy, almost like a wrestler who’d abandoned the ring but hadn’t figured out what to do next.
I’ve seen that Olive, that forensic archaeologist before. She’s been interviewed on TV, when something very gruesome and very old is found, she talks to the camera.
4. Weegee Junior
The children were hurried out of the pit. The news of what had been found scared the girls, but the boys thought it was the most fantastic thing they’d ever heard, something they would talk about at dinner, at school the next day, and for a long time afterwards. Years hence even when they would be away at college the story of finding a dead man during a class field trip was a fantastic “you can’t possibly top this” kind of tale the kids from American suburbs whose biggest adventure was at shopping malls – they in particular could only gawk with envy at their urban roommates.
The medical examiner smiled at the children. She was five months pregnant and had a six-year-old at school. In her bag action figures (Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman) and half a hard, ancient bagel jangled against her wallet and cell phone. She’d seen intestines, all kinds of decayed, putrefied innards, severed limbs in unexpected places. Nothing made her throw up. Nothing even came close.
“Where’s the fire, doll?” a man in a baggy trenchcoat and a big box camera emerged from the mist at the top of the pit. He touched the medical examiner’s arm, and she smiled at him with a forbearance that her colleagues, when shoved by the photographer, sometimes lacked.
“Down there, Marty.” She pointed to the plastic-covered body.
It was Martin Mittelmann, the old man who thought he was Weegee. He turned up at crime scenes around the same time the police did just like the real Weegee, and he took pictures he claimed to be selling to newspapers although he was not actually on staff anywhere or employed by anyone. Even as a freelancer, his credentials were dubious, but he moved with a professional urgency that could have fooled the children, maybe. Rizzo and Fischer and the others didn’t even bother to roll their eyes anymore or to say, as they used to when he hovered around, what’s a party without Marty? As the coroner and detectives moved in, Mittelmann was marginalized with subtle choreography. Sometimes he protested, he had a job to do, pictures to take for the evening edition of The Eagle or The Bugle, the names changed, but they were never the names of real newspapers, and nobody paid any attention to him anymore. If they bothered to give him a “scoop” it was only to humor the guy.
“So what’s the story here, rookie?” He asked a sergeant.
“A man fell to his death, a shoplifter running all the way from Fulton Street. We found ten pairs of shoes in his pants.”
If Martin knew he was being lied to he didn’t show it, but rather took out a notebook and scribbled down some observations.
The children shivered as they waited for the bus which wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another thirty minutes. Their teacher was nervous about children freaked out by what she would later tell parents were “remains, that’s all.” She didn’t notice Mittelmann slowly being shouldered towards her class.
“Didja’ see anything?” a boy asked him, envious that someone had gotten close.
Mittelmann proceeded to tell him what he had seen. “The guy’s got no face. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The kid turned green. Martin was suddenly enjoying himself.
“But that’s not all you’ll find down in the hole. There are other ghosts on this site, escaped slaves, sweatshop workers, department store clerks on a first name basis with customers they see often. They hurry to grab a cup of coffee and a piece of pie while on their lunch break, catching headlines about the sinking of the submarine The Thresher off the coast of Cape Cod, or the war in Cyprus between Turkey and Greece, and when they’re done they read the comics because like everyone else, they’re following the adventures of Dondi,
the World War II orphan who ends up in Midville, USA, Apartment 3G, the soap opera about three working women in New York, and the Arthurian Prince Valiant, the strip so beloved by William Randolph Hearst.” None of these characters ever aged, a feature Mittelmann himself took comfort in intuitively.
The kids laughed at Mittelmann. He laughed with them. It seemed the dignified thing to do, but children made him a little nervous. Sometimes small children put on capes, but they know if they run into a telephone booth they won’t turn into Superman and suddenly have the ability to fly. This was one reason they made Mittelmann edgy.
“Thanks, kids, but I have a job to do.”
As the body was prepared for the morgue, people jostled for space on the walkway leading out of the pit. The movement created a domino effect and once again, Mittelmann was pushed even beyond the group of third graders. Finally giving up, he walked away from the crowd and from the site, oblivious to the man in the blue dress. He walked all the way to his apartment on Livingston Street.
Mittelmann lived above a storefront accountant who hardly ever occupied his place of business. In Martin’s apartment were warehoused box after box of black and white pictures. He spread his prints out on the floor like movie stills, fan-like with himself at the center. Color printing was anathema, vulgar, and to speak of digital cameras to Mittelmann was to speak in Martian.
At night when all the backhoes, cranes, and plain old shovels are locked or driven away, the remaining equipment guarded only by hard plastic Port-o-Sans no one would go near anyway, the real ghosts come out, not just the phantoms of Mittelmann’s daydreams.
There are escaped slaves feeling their way north by the placement of lichen on trees, sailors about to ship out to Flanders, secretaries on lunch break circling want ads because working for Gleinfelder Gresp is slowly going nowhere. They greet August Lassiter who has his face back now and marvel at the digital gizmos he speaks of in sestinas: gigabytes, burning disks, games with names like Super Smash Bros. Melee. The ghosts are left breathless.
Lana Gleinfelder sits on the edge of the pit, humming a Nat King Cole song, swinging her legs, putting on lipstick between phrases. Her mirror keeps fogging. This Auggie did something to tiny pieces of plastic with which you could buy the world.
“What a caper!” someone says.
“So, you mean I’m like Caspar the Friendly?” Auggie shouts up at Lana.
She clicks her mirror shut and smiles at him.
“Caspar who? Never heard of the guy.”
The gaggle of confused, twittering souls bore her. She can’t stop worrying about the Gleinfelder business even though it’s been kaput for decades. When the glass office tower is built, she worries the lot of them will just be fluttering around, knocking into the glass like homeless urban hawks that really belong somewhere else, they just can’t figure out where.
She shrugs at August. I’m not supposed to be here. I should be retired, living in Florida, bragging about my grandchildren. Instead I’m stuck here with this bunch of bedlam-making diehards.
Her death began when Gleinfelder was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. She was supposed to marry a man named Harris. Harris was a trumpet player, and her father didn’t like him, but her father had a lot of troubles and Harris who didn’t have two nickels to rub together was just an add-on in the wide spectrum of his troubles. It was a common story. When news of the Gleinfelder collapse reached Harris, well actually Lana had told him herself, he told her money didn’t matter to him. She knew this already. Then on December 7, 1941, the day that was to live in infamy, she got a letter from Harris. He was shipping out, he’d joined the navy and wanted to make a clean break. He was on his way to what would be called the Pacific theater. Reading between the lines, Lana knew her father was right. Harris was a crumb who was after her money, and now that it was gone, so was he.
“Well, now he’s twiddling his thumbs somewhere in Guam. He was torpedoed; it’s been over fifty years. Serves him right, the moron. He never even had the chance to come back and get what was coming to him.” She fluffs her hair as if to say Harris is history.
Still, Auggie isn’t sure he knows what she means by all this. “So, you really hold a grudge, lady.”
“Boy, do you have a lot to learn,” Lana sizes him up. He’d never realize that he was doomed to not ever get over being whacked by Frankenstein either.
That day the mail had come early, and Lana was late for work. She took the trolley down to the factory where she helped out with the family business. Gleinfelder’s made caps, and Lana liked the warehouse and factory building because it was usually so lively. When she got to work there was mayhem on the third floor, the radio was on, everyone was listening to the news about the bombing. She took Harris’ letter up to the roof of the Gleinfelder building to read over. Up on the roof it was quiet although windy.
We couldn’t make a go of it…
“What a sap I was. Spare me the clichés,” said Lana, tough as nails, but the letter blew out of her hand, clinging to some piece of drain pipe extending off the roof. She reached for it, the paper cartwheeled off the pipe and stretching out for the half-crumpled page, she fell.
“The way I see it, she read that letter, it broke her heart, and she jumped.”
Lana imitates the policeman who found the letter a few inches from her body.
“Are you kidding? Me? Take a flying leap because of Harris? Not in your lifetime. It was an accident for Christ’s sake, and no one will ever know.”
Auggie, the greenhorn who thinks he’s a cartoon ghost, isn’t listening. He keeps looking at his hand, turning it all the way to the left, then to the right, as if it were an x-ray with all the bones visible. The new ones never did listen to her, but she’s used to it.
Gleinfelder didn’t go bankrupt, after all. It was rescued by a merger or takeover, Lana never knew which, by Sandy Gresp, a man she had, in life, truly despised. Gresp with his talent for accounting gymnastics was ahead of his time and kept the business going for another thirty years. If her boyfriend had given her father more credit, hadn’t been so quick to take off, hadn’t written that letter which sent her up to the roof, they might, though probably miserable with each other if still on speaking terms, at least possibly still be alive today.
“Sandy Gresp with taste for his socks with clocks and so-called meetings you never saw, he was a sly boots, but at the same time when you saw him, you felt sorry for him. He never married, and he never understood what restricted meant,” she said to the chill air that blew off the East River.
“’I don’t understand why they wouldn’t seat me at that restaurant?’ he’d ask, opening and shutting files as if the answer had been filed away somewhere. ‘Say, Lana, why is there no order to speak of the way these invoices are arranged?’
“My father wanted me to marry Gresp. I had to work beside him from time to time, and so there were moments when I really did have to go into the stairwell or up on the roof just before Sandy would ask me to meet him someplace more private. Maybe I should have married him. It looked like a bad idea at the time, but now,” she makes a sputtering noise with her lips as if to say, nothing matters when you get right down to it. “I would have ignored his flat-footed treatment in restaurants, you know the kind that have marquees; I wouldn’t have raised eyebrows at his weirdo trysts with god knows who.”
“Yeah, you woulda,” Auggie surprises her with an answer. “I bet Sandy followed you up to the roof and gave you a push.”
“You’re going to have a lot of time to come up with ideas like that. Get used to it.”
She looks back into the pit. “I’ll miss the old joint, the creaky old freight elevator whose doors closed horizontally like a big mouth. One of Gresp’s innovations was to close the factory and contract the manufacturing out overseas. The building became just a warehouse, a kind of graveyard for caps. Then even that closed.”
“I’ll take care of this, officer,” Gresp said, pocketing Harris’ letter.
“I don’t think…”
“I’m family,” Sandy Gresp said in response to the officer’s protests.
Lana could still hear the detective’s voice as it spiraled into one of the many whispers she left behind. She hopped off the rim, landed lightly on the spot where August had so recently sprawled, and grabbed a stick.
“What are you digging for?”
“You got no pockets.”
“You’d be surprised.”
6. Restricted Area
When McQuilty revved up his backhoe the following morning he noticed scoring in earth and rectangular depressions, the shape of shoeboxes, but no footprints. Scattered around were damp, yellowed invoices. Kids or vandals might have broken into the site, but there wasn’t anything left to steal or even to write graffiti on. He decided not to tell his boss that things looked disturbed. When he gazed upward he could see the developer standing at the edge of the site, plans shoved in front of his nose. He barely glanced into the hole in the ground, but tripped on something as he turned away. The Developer, a man whose head rose from his collar like a light bulb, picked the thing up and tossed it over his shoulder. A framed photograph of a girl talking to a boy with a tattoo landed on the roof McQuilty’s backhoe. He didn’t even feel it.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.