Main Pickle’s Progress
Pickle’s ProgressMarcia Butler
Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is a fierce, mordant New York story about the twisted path to love. Over the course of five weeks, identical twin brothers, one wife, a dog, and a bereaved young woman collide against each other to hilarious and sometimes horrifying effect. Everything is questioned and tested as they jockey for position and try to maintain the status quo. Love is the poison, the antidote, the devil and, ultimately, the hero.
“The four main characters in Pickle’s Progress seem more alive than most of the people we know in real life because their fears and desires are so nakedly exposed. That’s because their creator, Marcia Butler, possesses truly scary X-ray vision and intelligence to match.” —Richard Russo “Butler’s debut is character-driven…starts with a crash then slows as the characters’ personalities develop. In this study of how childhood experiences shape perception, and how deception keeps people caged, Butler shows that nothing need be set in stone.” —Kirkus Reviews “Oh, what a pickle Pickle’s Progress puts us in--a duke’s mixture of villainy, deceit, betrayal, and, Lord help us, romantic love--all of it rendered in prose as trenchant as it is supple. Clearly, Ms. Butler is in thrall to these fascinatingly flawed characters, and by, oh, page 15 you will be, too. Let’s hope this is just the first of many more necessary novels to come.” —Lee K. Abbott, author of All Things, All at Once “How does healing happen? Sometimes in quirkier ways than you might expect. Butler’s blazingly original debut novel is a quintessential moving, witty, New York City story about the love we think we want, the love we get, and the love we deserve. I loved it.” —Caroline Leavitt, NYT bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World “Written in brave and startling prose, Butler has crafted a fast-paced tale of tragedy, passion and love. Throughout this surprising work, we see NY in all its beauty and raunchiness, so that the city itself becomes an integral part of the complex and compelling plot. Rare is the brilliant memoirist who also writes fiction with the same sure hand, but Marcia Butler is such an author.” —Patty Dann, author of the bestselling novel, Mermaids “Pickle’s Progress is a wild trip into the heart of New York City with wonderful, complicated, highly functioning alcoholics as tour guides. Marcia Butler’s characters are reflections of the city they live in: beautiful but flawed, rich but messed up, dark and hostile - but there’s love there, if you know where to find it. Butler’s sharp, artistic sensibilities shine through here, and the result is a brutal, funny story of family, regret, and belonging.” —Amy Poeppel, author of Limelight “Like the first icy slug of a top-shelf martini, Marcia Butler’s debut novel is a refreshing jolt to the senses. Invigorating, sly and mordantly funny, Pickle’s Progress offers a comic look at the foibles of human nature and all the ways love can seduce, betray and, ultimately, sustain us.” —Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of This Could Hurt “Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is funny, sharp, totally original, and completely engrossing. It joins the pantheon of great New York novels. I loved every page.” —Julie Klam, NYT bestselling author of The Stars in Our Eyes “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shake your head, but you’ll keep turning those pages to find out what happens to Karen, Stan, Junie, and Pickle in this riveting, dramatic version of musical chairs.” —Charles Salzberg, author of Second Story Man and the Henry Swann series Copyright © 2019 Marcia Butler Cover and internal design © 2019 Central Avenue Marketing Ltd. Cover Design: Michelle Halket Cover Images: Courtesy & Copyright: Unsplash: Mac Peters All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Published by Central Avenue Publishing, an imprint of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd. www.centralavenuepublishing.com Published in Canada Printed in United States of America 1. FICTION/Literary 2. FICTION/Family Life PICKLE’S PROGRESS Cloth: 978-1-77168-154-4 Trade Paperback: 978-1-77168-155-1 Epub: 978-1-77168156-8 Mobi: 978-1-77168-157-5 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 For Ralph Olsen And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” Genesis 25:23 1 TWENTY BRIDGES CONNECT THE ISLAND OF Manhattan to the rest of the world. Only one spans westward, over the Hudson River, and spills onto the lip of America’s heartland. Each year, more than one hundred million vehicles make their way onto eight lanes on the upper level and six lanes on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge, travelling back and forth in the name of a dollar, perhaps for some manner of love, maybe just for the view. And if cars and trucks aren’t enough, walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders, bird-watchers, and jumpers alike can also enjoy the scenery from the walkway known as the South Sidewalk. The eastbound on-ramp from Leonia, New Jersey offers a surprisingly short approach. Suddenly, as if from thin air, steel cables loom above, swinging like silver-spun jump ropes playing Double Dutch over the vehicles. Massive and audacious, the bent cords ascend and seem to evaporate into a vaulted sky. On a misty night, the terra-cotta buildings to the east, in Manhattan, appear as boxy smears of potter’s clay, notched out with squares of glass, reflecting an occasional headlight hitting the mark. Be it a reveler returning from a late-night party, or a sleepy trucker clocking a twelve-hour overtime shift, the George Washington Bridge suspends many disparate lives during the early hours of a Sunday morning. Karen and Stan McArdle pulled onto the George Washington Bridge, headed toward the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was just after three a.m. and they were cranky, probably because they were drunk. They’d stayed at the dinner party far too long and Karen had a few more cocktails than she’d needed, placing herself in that vulnerable corner where Stan could prick her with his épée of marital righteousness. That’s just how their relationship felt—sharp and sometimes dangerous. Yet strangely alive as they explored those moments, when one or the other might lunge forward and twist that bright, cold metal a tad, then deftly retract the sword. The trick was to know how far to penetrate the dagger, and how long it could linger without bleeding out the heart. The urban élan of Manhattan still appealed to Karen and Stan while most of their friends had left years before, joining the ranks of Leonia-Teaneck-Hackensack-Weehawken-Hoboken converts. For a long time, Saturday night yuppie dinners had been the way they’d managed to stay in touch. Recently though, the gatherings had felt more like a gloomy obligation. Their friends, now annoyingly sober, continued to pop out one indulged and irritating child after another. This was not a lifestyle trend Karen and Stan subscribed to. Some might have considered them to be “working” alcoholics. Karen preferred the term “highly functional”—certainly a few notches up from the category known as “pre-twelve stepper.” At least, that’s what she liked to tell herself. Labels didn’t matter at this moment though, because Karen and Stan itched and scratched as they approached the bridge and that inevitable descent down a mountain of alcohol into a gully called “hangover.” Karen glanced at Stan, noticing a determined grimace on his face. “What’s wrong now?” “Don’t ask me to go to these dreadful parties ever again. I’m done. Cooked. We’ve absolutely nothing in common with any of those dullards. Zilch. The conversation? From diapers to college SATs and back again. Numbing. I’m brain-dead just thinking about it. Okay?” “Whatever. But yeah, you’re right. It’s gotten boring.” “Hallelujah. Finally we agree on something.” “Shut up. I just said I agree with you—that’s a positive.” Karen slid down in her seat with her fingers massaging her temples, attempting to head a migraine off at the pass. The traffic proved as smooth as crushed velvet, the weather a depressing drizzle, and Stan’s classic thirty-year-old Volvo hummed, with over two hundred thousand miles under the hood. He usually kept well under the speed limit—an attempt to avoid cops who might pull them over and sniff the yet-to-be-metabolized vodka pooling in their gullets. But as they drove through the 5 mph E-Z Pass lane, Karen heard Stan gun the engine. She glanced at the speedometer: 30 mph. Gripping the steering wheel at ten and two, he began to count the cars passing on the left, ticking them off by lifting his fingers one at a time. At the count of ten, with all his digits sticking in the air and using only his palms to steer, he curled them back down and started over. Counting was just one of Stan’s “things.” Karen’s eyelids drooped as she mused about the remainder of the night ahead of them. At this pace, they’d be home in about ten minutes, the Volvo tucked snug in a neighborhood garage. A fight was then sure to erupt over who’d walk their dog. The Doodles could hold it like a flyweight champ, and a typical Saturday night found him holding a topped-off bladder and pawing at the front door while Mommy and Daddy sparred. A typical spat began with Stan slamming his keys on the foyer console, declaring, “I did it last night.” “But I did it last weekend—both days. Stan? Just take The Fucking Doodles out.” Stan would relent with, “Oh God.” Or, “Why me?” Tonight, Karen dreaded a rerun of their tired sitcom. She wanted to bank at least six hours of sleep, because they’d made plans for a Sunday breakfast with Pickle to discuss the brownstone the three of them owned together. Details of the joint ownership had become a prickly point, and Stan’s twin had demanded a sit-down. So, Karen made a tactical decision that when they returned home tonight she’d just take The Fucking Doodles out. One of them had to be somewhat coherent for the breakfast meeting. Karen relaxed, satisfied with her preemptive concession. Her head lolled back and forth on the car headrest, the motion nicely paced, reminding her of the pulse of some music she couldn’t quite name. Then there were the chunk-ker-chunks of the tires as they rolled over the regulated patches of asphalt repair, creating a jagged counterpoint. The two rhythmic worlds almost never synced up. But if she waited long enough, eventually, they did. Then she’d start over. It was a surefire way to get her head together, and for a few moments she even forgot she was drunk. Suddenly her heart quickened; she opened her eyes—wary. “Stan?” His fingers continued to work the steering wheel and he didn’t answer, still wrapped inside his universe of one through ten. “Stan!” “Huh? Wha’s wrong?” “The oil.” “What oil?” “The car oil—the slick theory. We just started levitating. I can feel it.” “Please. Silence—I’m begging you. I’m counting.” “No, listen. This is serious. Remember the oil slick theory? It’s worse in the first two minutes of a rainfall and we’ve just entered minute number three.” “Now you’re counting?” “I have to. The cops. Plus, we might die.” Stan blew out a thin stream of air. “Jesus, Karen. I’ve never crashed the car, as you well know. Just close your eyes if you need to. Anyway, I noticed you went way over your martini limit tonight, so your perceptions are not, shall we say, to be trusted?” “Ugh. You’re disgusting. I hate you.” Karen crunched further down in her seat, disheartened that she’d even engaged in the futile exchange. Stan always managed to trump her with some kind of straight flush. He patted her hand. “The hate keeps us close, dearest. Just like the love. Right?” “No comment,” she hissed. But she took Stan’s point because she did trust him. With a brain born for calculation (even when they’d been drinking), he’d determined the travel distance when they’d first started attending the dinners in New Jersey. At just over six miles, door to door, Stan figured they could make it without being stopped for speeding, or getting into a crash due to the weather. Or the oil. Or the alcohol. That’s what drunks did: they planned. And counted. Sometimes, they even prayed. Karen saw Stan’s fingers resume whatever it was they needed to do on the steering wheel. She drifted back to her tire-pulse samba (or was it a waltz?), waiting for that reassuring sync-up, and hoped that the Volvo was gripping the road. “Are you asleep yet?” He couldn’t leave her alone. Karen, irritated, grunted. She turned her body, sidled closer to Stan and considered an answer worthy of his idiotic question. “I thought you preferred me dead to the world. But since you ask, I was dreaming of someone.” “Who?” “You sure you want to know?” She whispered into his ear. “Shit. This is stupid.” Without looking at her, Stan palmed Karen’s forehead and pushed her back. “No, you’re stupid.” Karen’s voice began to rise with irritation. “And now I’m wide awake, thanks so much, and a tad this side of sober. That doesn’t exactly feel good. Now slow the fuck down.” “There’s no one on the road. Calm down.” “That’s not true; you’ve been counting the cars nonstop.” “My fingers have been working at a very. Slow. Pace. Pay attention.” “First you want me to sleep—now it’s pay attention. Make up your mind. You’re insane—” Karen broke off mid-rant. “Stan. What’s that?” “What?” He looked in the wrong direction. “Straight ahead!” A woman was standing directly in front of them, perhaps five hundred yards ahead, with her hands at the sides of her face, mouth open, like the Edvard Munch painting. “Jesus!” Stan jammed the brakes and the Volvo immediately spun out. Karen’s oil theory held water after all because she felt the car skim the road, then pick up speed. Though no longer in control, Stan pumped the brake, and after performing a 360-degree pirouette, they bashed into the side guardrail. Neither had worn their seat belt and Karen’s upper body flew squarely into Stan’s. Their faces mashed together with a force that punched a simultaneous grunt out of them. The impact jarred Karen’s senses—first, a throb at her gum line, and then a pain digging straight into her front teeth. She rimmed her lips with her tongue, tasting tin mingled with vodka breath. And then she heard herself begin to whimper—not only for her bloody mouth—but also because she was drunk and her heart couldn’t quite bear the shame. Just as quickly, things felt oddly serene—church-like—with only a rapping of gentle rain on the hood, puncturing the quiet of the car interior. Her world felt freshly precarious, as if the planet were indeed flat and teetered on a spiked axis. Karen was afraid of tipping over, terrified to even move, unsure of the damage to herself, Stan, and the woman outside. Yet, cars passed them at a good clip. The accident was apparently a fender bender and not worthy of real concern. She let her head drop and pressed her face into the crook of Stan’s elbow, into the fabric creases of his dress shirt—that crisp, white, 100% cotton, usually ironed by Stan to within an inch of its life—now soaked with his dank sweat. He whispered into her hair, “Karen? Tell me you’re okay.” She felt tears springing but didn’t want to be vulnerable. “My mouth feels weird,” she mumbled into his elbow. Stan pushed her up and scrutinized her face. “My God. Your front teeth are bloody.” Karen’s eyes opened wide with astonishment. “Shit. Stan—I stabbed you with my teeth. I can see the dents.” Blood oozed from Stan’s forehead, dribbling down along the creases of his nose, coagulating at his lips. Enamel to flesh. The irony was not lost on her; this accident had provided more physical contact than they’d managed in a long time. Stan tentatively prodded Karen’s wobbly teeth and stroked the blonde fuzz on her upper lip, then kissed her bloodied mouth. She didn’t wince, but leaned forward, accepting the pain. Just then the rain abated, and she heard a primitive sound outside the car. “NOOOOOOO!” It was an inhuman wail—one that would have been hard to identify in nature, if not for the fact that Karen could see the source. The Munch mouth produced the howl again. “NOOOOOOO!” Karen pushed away from Stan and climbed out of the car. She stumbled to her knees, momentarily forgetting how drunk she was, and from this vantage point was surprised to discover the extent to which the car was damaged. The front grill of the Volvo was bashed in and steam pissed out from the bottom of the car at several locations. One of the tires was flat, and another, was also headed for that fate. After scrambling to her feet, Karen ran over to the woman, grabbed her arms, and shook her. “Are you all right? What happened?” The woman wrenched herself from Karen’s grasp and bent over, hugging her own waist. She aimed the next words straight into the asphalt. “Jacob—Jacob—Jacob.” Karen backed up, giving the woman some distance. “Okay, okay. But please. What’s wrong? Just tell me what happened.” “He’s gone. He jumped. He ran and went over the side.” The woman spoke with almost no inflection, like she was reciting a grocery list. “You mean somebody jumped off the fucking bridge? You’re kidding me, right? Tell me this is a joke.” “No joke.” The woman dropped to her knees and folded up. Karen ran back to the car and thrust her torso into the passenger-side window. Stan appeared to be asleep, or perhaps he’d lost consciousness from the hit to his head. His toothy wound frightened Karen and she wished, for what seemed like the ten-millionth time, that they were sober. Reaching over, she poked at his arm. “Stan.” He started awake, trying to reorient himself. “Wha?” “Call your brother, right now.” “Why?” He winced as he touched the gash on his forehead, then stared at the blood on his fingers. “That woman says a guy jumped off the South Sidewalk. Call him.” Stan shook his head back and forth, bewildered. “God’s sake, Karen. I’ll just call 9-1-1.” “No. I want Pickle. He’s close by. Plus, we’ve been drinking and I don’t want this to get complicated. He’ll know what to do.” “But he’s in the city. We’re in Jersey. He won’t have jurisdiction.” “No, we just passed the state line—look.” Stan turned around. There it was behind them on the opposite side of the bridge roadway: “Welcome to New Jersey.” His head bobbed with recognition. “Yeah, I see your point. Okay. Pickle.” Karen dragged her head and shoulders back out of the window, then turned to find the woman now propped against the guardrail, utterly still, with her legs stretched in front, her feet canted out in balletic first position. She was drenched, even with the light rain, so Karen surmised she must have been on the bridge for hours. The woman’s inscrutable expression unnerved her. Crouching down, she tried to rouse her by seeking eye contact and gently shaking her shoulder. When she got no response, Karen put her arm around the woman, who then began to moan, “Jacob.” A goner, for sure. “What happened? Miss, can you just tell me what happened?” The woman looked up, stared at Karen for several seconds, then jerked her head to the side and dropped her eyes to the pavement in what Karen took for embarrassment. And with that gesture, Karen was instantly grateful, because she realized she didn’t want to know the answer. Any explanation would have been a falsehood, the true reason surely unknowable. The kind of agony that might propel a man into the Hudson River stirred Karen in a place she could not acknowledge, and an awful gush of newly sobered reality pinched her heart. It was always strange, this spiked alertness, occurring on so many early mornings when nothing was certain and everything felt at risk. As she looked into this woman’s face, she recognized some aspect of herself, and Karen wondered how the hell she’d gotten to this place in her life. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Stan hadn’t drifted off again, and noticed his fingers punching at the phone. Pickle almost never answered on the first, second or third try, and she saw Stan’s frustration as he redialed. Finally, his lips began to move. He wiped his mouth and grimaced at the blood on his palm. Karen sprinted to the car and grabbed the phone away from Stan, putting Pickle on speaker. Pickle’s voice boomed into the car. “Fuck. It’s three in the goddamned morning, Stan. Why are you calling me?” Stan rested his forehead on the steering wheel, then jerked up with pain. “Pickle. Thank God you answered.” “What … Stan, this’d better be good ’cause I got a lot going on—” “Wait. Karen’s here too. I … we’ve been in an accident. On the GW Bridge. We’re on the New York side, heading into Manhattan.” The pause was long enough for Karen to wonder if they’d been cut off. Pickle finally broke the dead air. “Okay. And?” Stan sighed. “Yeah, we’re loaded.” “For Christ’s sake, Stan. Get some help. Get some therapy. Get to the AA rooms. Do something. I’m begging you—” “Wait, Pickle,” Karen interrupted. “It’s not what you think. Some guy jumped off the bridge.” “Hold on—lemme turn on the two-way.” Karen heard crackling and mumbled voices from Pickle’s police scanner. “Right. I hear it now,” Pickle said, his voice softening. “Somebody must have called in your accident, but there’s nothing about a jumper yet. Okay, you guys hang tight. I’ll be right there. And for the love of God, don’t talk to anybody till I get there. Got it?” The phone went dead and Stan gave Karen a wounded puppy expression. She crossed her eyes and smiled sarcastically as she threw the phone into Stan’s lap. “See? I told you he’d fix it.” “God, Karen. Yes, yes, yes. You were right. Let it go. For once.” Stan tried to breathe through his nose. He hawked up a big snuff, aimed his head out the window and spit. With that effort, he let his body slide down to the right, landing across the gearshift between the seats. “Ow.” He waved his hands at her to back off. “Lemme sleep.” Karen felt a body come up behind her and then a hand on her shoulder. Turning around, she was surprised to see how tiny the woman was—a few inches shorter than Karen, who was petite herself. “Help me. Please? Can you help me?” The woman’s face, expressionless, and her voice, a low monotone, caused a curious hyperawareness in Karen. It was a contrary sensation of being badly needed while at the same time having no agency over what was happening. She ushered the woman into the backseat of the Volvo, then clambered in next to her. The woman slumped forward, her head down at her knees, lips touching her sodden wool coat. Red hair billowed around her head, illuminated now by a beacon of light from the very top of the bridge. The glow made the woman’s tangled hair look like a spiderweb, with no order to madly spun strands. Karen placed her hand on the woman’s arm and gently squeezed. The woman took in a shuddering breath and turned her head to the side. It was then that Karen realized the woman was just a girl, really. Not one crow’s crease at the edge of her eye. Her forehead was unlined like an ingénue, and a sparse set of ochre freckles smattered a thin, upturned nose. Karen tried once again for information. “What’s your name?” “Junie.” Stan jolted upright, quickly turned around, and seeing the two women in the backseat, shook his head. “Karen. Sit up here.” “No. It’s better if I’m in the back. For the cops.” “But I need you here. I don’t feel good.” “Not now, Stan.” They sat—almost at military attention—like waiting for the firing squad, while Karen willed herself into sobriety. She listened intently for Pickle’s distinctive siren, always sounding a half pitch above the others. He’d refused to get it repaired. Pickle McArdle was like that. 2 WHEN APPROACHING THE GEORGE WASHINGTON Bridge from the Manhattan side, the Bridge Apartments rise improbably out of asphalt, cement, and oil slick. The building serves as a New York City landmark for radio heads announcing congestion at rush hour. “Traffic is backed up for two miles approaching the Apartments,” is a frequent warning to any driver heading out of the city on a typical Friday afternoon. The high-rise is deeply ingrained in the psychic architectural lexicon of New Yorkers who own a car and have a need to travel to New Jersey on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Living in the Apartments requires a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging resignation. Air quality is dodgy most days. The floors shake continually from eighteen-wheelers rumbling underneath the building on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Yet, despite these atmospheric and automotive tectonic shifts, residents—solidly middle-to lower-class—remain stoic, or better, sanguine. Perhaps a reflection of the flexibility of New Yorkers, the building is mercurial—simultaneously in-your-face yet off-your-radar. Pickle gazed out the large window in his apartment, tossed his cell phone into the pillow at the head of his bed and flicked off his police scanner. If he looked down, his current view of the bridge and the Hudson River might reveal a one-car demolition derby or a swan dive into the water. But he felt disconnected from what he knew had just transpired: both. That was the curious paradox about living thirty-two floors above river level—the panorama that excited him also made him a witness to an occasional tragedy. But most days, he considered his view as just a wide country road dangling from metal marionette ropes, all manipulated by some version of God. He assumed his twin brother and sister-in-law were holding up traffic. But then he noticed that cars were, in fact, moving steadily in both directions. Through the fog, the glow of headlights engorged as they moved toward him, while red taillights fizzled to nothing. This meant, of course, that their accident was negligible. No one crossing the bridge would know that a man had leaped to his death, unless they stopped to ask. And no one in his or her right mind would stop, or even care, at this hour of the morning. He fumed; let them wait. Pickle burped. The Indian food he’d eaten a few hours earlier sat leaden in his stomach. Yellow-orange curry had dribbled down the front of his sky-blue Mets T-shirt—not a nice blend of colors. And he stank. Of saffron, of body odor, of someone else’s cigarette smoke, of his own fetid breath. Yet the woman asleep under his bedcovers, not having moved an inch during the call with Stan and Karen, hadn’t seemed to mind the offensive scents escaping from various parts of his body. Hasty sex and the late hour had thrown her into a hard sleep. But not Pickle. Sex always woke him up and made his brain go a bit mad—pinging on all pistons. He walked to the other side of the bed, kicking a shoe with a stiletto heel out of his way, and poked at her through the covers, guessing at the location of her ass. She didn’t move but snorted in disgust. “Come on. Get up,” Pickle barked. “No.” The pillow muffled her voice. “You have to go.” “Why?” Now she canted her head, eyes like slits, toward Pickle. “Because I have to go to work.” “You said you had the day off.” She propped her torso up on both elbows, her heavy breasts swinging like Newton’s Cradle. “Something’s come up. You gotta leave.” The woman finally turned over, tossed the comforter back, stood up buck naked, and began gathering her clothes. After a quick stop in the bathroom for a pee, she threw a parting shot over her shoulder. “Pickle, think a hundred times before you call me again.” Pickle locked the door with a snap of his wrist and turned to consider his jumbled studio apartment. The bed was front and center, because that’s where he spent most of his time during the few hours he wasn’t working his typical sixty-hour week. A Parsons table doubled as a surface for a laptop and meals, one armless chair tucked underneath. He’d jammed an old dresser inside the only closet, shoving his hanging clothes, mashed and wrinkled, to one side. But what did he care? He wore jeans and T-shirts most of the time, anyway. With the kitchen taking up one wall and the west-facing window soaking up another, the remaining wall space was dedicated to a flat-screen TV mounted directly opposite the bed. This 400-square-foot room was the sum total of Pickle’s personal life since he’d joined the police force, straight out of cadet training. At the time, one room and low rent was all he could manage and even needed. But through the years he’d come to prefer it, love it, in fact. Because his eyes owned the near and distant horizon, like a bird in an aviary where, in at least one direction, there were no limits. Dumpy as the place was, Pickle had a surprising million-dollar view. Before he left to rescue Stan and Karen, he returned to the window and stood dead center of the bridge’s crossed steel trusses, like enormous see-through Legos anchored deep into the ground. Pickle cast his eyes to the westernmost point and pondered what it might feel like to not be Stan McArdle’s twin. They were truly identical—the rarest—indistinguishable even at third glance. As infants and then as toddlers, their mother had been reduced to dressing them in different colored outfits just to tell them apart—they were that interchangeable. On fourth glance, the one distinguishing mark was a red mole on Stan’s leg. That dermatological miracle was the only indication that they were different—and to Pickle’s young mind, like midnight and noon. Growing up, Stan gave Pickle searching rights whenever he felt the urge. Lying on the bed, pliable as a damp rag, Stan allowed Pickle to inspect his body to locate that dot, again and again, which Pickle saw as important as an Eagle Scout merit badge. But it was impossible to share with the world, as the thing lived on Stan’s uppermost thigh. So, when the public at large pointed out for the ten-millionth time—Look! They’re completely identical!—Stan refused to drop his drawers on command, much as Pickle pleaded. They were adults now—still the same weight, wrinkles appearing at the same pace, temples greying not at all—still utterly identical. And ridiculously handsome. The swivel-headed stares continued—now not so much for being twins—but for their Clark Gable looks. With emerald eyes, coal-black hair and clear, wan complexions, the brothers could pull a noisy room down to a whisper. Pickle turned to the mirror glued to the back of the front door of his apartment and scrutinized his face. Sure, he was good-looking—that part was easy and didn’t even count, because he wasn’t responsible for that luck of the genetic draw. The problem was he didn’t feel smart enough, and not nearly clever enough. He wasn’t terribly ambitious and though he’d risen in the ranks on the police force, he couldn’t even acknowledge that small amount of success. The truth was, he’d just never live up to the way of his brother. The corner of a framed photograph poked out from under the bed and caught his eye. Pickle had kicked it there months ago, for what reason, he couldn’t exactly remember. Bending down, he pulled it out, dragging along with it an unused condom covered with dust balls. It was an eight by ten, black-and-white image from Karen and Stan’s wedding. They stood in a line—Stan at the left, Karen in the middle and Pickle on the right. The shot was not posed; they were all in mid-motion, but the lens’s focus landed squarely on Karen. The photographer knew his craft and had zeroed in on her beauty. That left Stan and Pickle a bit fuzzy. Still, the composite impression was decidedly a trio shot. Pickle strained to recall the exact moment, and what might have caused Karen to glance away from the camera. Her gaze, aimed skyward, left her mouth in a crooked, slightly ironic smirk. Her eyebrows slanted in a concerned parenthesis, as if a hawk were about to swoop down, grab her by the hair and drag her off. She looked just this side of afraid, dressed in virginal white. This was the only image Karen had given Pickle from the dozens taken that day. There were so many that perfectly captured the wedding, now in evidence stacked across the mantel above the living-room fireplace in the brownstone. But this one was not exceptional, with expressions that didn’t particularly flatter any of them. It was such an odd selection, and he had pressed her about it. “This is a shitty photo. Why’d you even bother framing it?” he’d asked. Karen had flatly dismissed him. “I don’t know, Pickle. It just looks like who we are. Okay? Let it go.” He did let it go, for a long time. Now, before coming to their aid once again, Pickle suddenly understood what she meant. Karen was the only one in focus. 3 FOUR EVENLY PLACED ORANGE TRAFFIC CONES blocked one lane of the Manhattan-bound off-ramp from the George Washington Bridge, allowing for police to travel west toward the accident, and for eastbound traffic to filter through. With all windows opened wide and a soggy breeze passing through, Pickle idled his car for a few minutes on the Manhattan side of the bridge. He took a deep, wet breath. He was headed toward a tragedy, yes. Someone was dead and that was, of course, a pity. Yet Pickle couldn’t help but feel invigorated, almost hopeful, because the night itself was glorious. Bulky rain clouds floated above him and the moisture at street level shimmered. Chilled droplets from the invisible mist clung to the hair on his arms and he rubbed the sky’s sweat into his palms, hoping to create energy from the friction. Pickle gunned the gas in neutral; the engine roared, yet nothing moved—an inert power he admired. He shifted the gear into drive and deftly swerved around the cones. “Assholes,” he muttered to himself while jabbing at his siren. With each successive punch to the horn, Pickle hoped to dissipate the feelings of frustration that arose when he thought of Karen and Stan and the brownstone. A century-old piece of Upper West Side real estate, it was truly a gorgeous hunk of Queen Anne architecture, albeit a wreck. In spite of the need for a gut renovation, Karen had explained to him, the brownstone was ideal for two units. She and Stan would occupy the parlor floor and sublevel with access to the garden, and Pickle would live on the two upper floors where skylights flooded the top story with sunlight. How nice. Sounded perfect. But it hadn’t happened. Karen and Stan’s space had been renovated first and they now lived there. The second phase—Pickle’s—continued to languish into an endless stall. Which was all the more irritating because initially he hadn’t particularly wanted to buy in. After all, Pickle had argued, he’d be giving up his view. But as Karen kept at him in her usual nudgy fashion, he gradually came around and eventually found himself excited by the prospect. So, he’d forked over a considerable chunk of his savings. Now their meeting, scheduled for the next morning when Pickle had hoped to lay his frustrations out on their lovely mid-century modern dining table (in the very house he was supposed to be living in, but wasn’t), was in jeopardy. All because some dumb jumper and his brother’s subsequent drunken fender bender had collided on his bridge. He glanced down and was reminded again of his last meal, staring up at him from the front of his T-shirt. Pickle absently scraped the crud off with his fingernail. A crusty remnant flew onto the dashboard and slid into the defrost air vents. “Fuck them!” he yelled to no one in particular, and thumbed the siren once more—this time with feeling. As he slowed to a stop, Pickle took it all in—the experienced cop—guessing who might feign innocence and who was surely not guilty. On the face of it, the scene presented as deceptively serene: people sitting in a car, each banged up, but both easily repaired. Several cruisers fanned out with their noses abutting the Volvo, splayed like half of an all-black color wheel. While Pickle waited for someone to notice his arrival, he watched his crew from a distance. They stood lined up like matchsticks at the barrier to the Hudson, looking south toward the Battery. Some joked as a coping mechanism, while others were obviously sobered by the assumed fate of the jumper. Finally, a few heads turned his way, sides were poked with elbows, and they busied themselves. A uniformed officer strode up to Pickle’s car, shaking his head with a grim expression on his face. “We just got here. It’s a mess, Pickle.” Pickle stared over the rim of the steering wheel and then glanced up into the officer’s expectant eyes. He wanted to hear about the jumper from his crew because the scanner hadn’t leaked that information. With a jab of his chin, he prodded the cop to continue. “And? What’s so messy? I heard the scanner—it’s a simple accident.” “Well, sure, that’s what we thought, too. But the woman in the car told us that somebody went off the bridge. We just called the Coast Guard. Fat chance of living through that—the Hudson is high and rough as hell tonight …” The cop lingered on the potency of the river’s tide status, then looked both ways and leaned in closer. He brought his voice down to a whisper. “But, Pickle. It’s your brother. In the car, I mean. That’s why we waited for you.” Pickle widened his eyes for maximum effect and snorted. “My brother? Okay. Let me get in there and talk to him.” The officer shuffled away and Pickle began to toy with how to approach this. For a nanosecond, he considered the glee he’d feel by a future filled with schadenfreude, as he considered throwing Stan and Karen, metaphorically, under the Volvo. He’d expose them as the drunkards they were and it would serve them right, but good. He’d already fixed a bunch of their DUIs and was damned weary of bailing them out of serial drunken fracases. Then again, he thought … they were family. Resigned, Pickle sucked air in through his teeth and picked a strand of saag from between two back molars. He wiped it against the windshield, crawled out of the car, and sauntered over to the Volvo. Bending down at the driver’s-side window, Pickle’s eyes silently commanded Stan and Karen to not utter one word. Not yet. They looked back at him, dumb and smug, like a couple of cows getting a last-minute reprieve from the slaughter. He then gave himself three full seconds to sniff the booze and determine the damage. Not too bad, actually—he’d smelled worse from them. This was a rare moment when he could claim dominance, and he relished the feeling, lingering just long enough to notice someone else in the backseat: a small woman, slumped to Karen’s right. The detail lodged in his brain but he had to get on with business. Pickle made a quick about-face to his crew and stated only what was necessary. “Back off, guys. It’s family.” Now the cone of silence descended—for cops and victims and perps—before the timeline began and circumstances were recorded. When stories got straight and tight. Where people took the room to breathe and assess and consider. And get sober. It might take three minutes or thirty minutes, but that invisible buffer was always there to aid and abet. And it was needed. Pickle understood too well that most people, even cops and their families, were just bottom-of-the-barrel human. Karen watched Pickle deal with the logistics of the jumper, pointing here and there, getting his crew in order. While they’d waited for him to arrive, she and Stan had tried to pose as the sober people they wished they were. They barely took a breath. But now that Pickle was here, she felt untethered from the knots of tension inside the car. She slowly exhaled and relaxed a bit. Junie finally lifted her head and scooted her body closer to the open window. She looked out toward the Hudson and pushed her hair back from her face. With this new perspective, even in the pitch of night, Karen saw Junie’s red hair crackle with dappled refraction as strobes from the cop cars bounced off the curls. Stunning. Junie must have been embarrassed by Karen’s scrutiny because her body dropped back down and she draped her arms up and over her head with fingers twitching, hiding herself—if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. She rocked her body and moaned the jumper’s name, “Jacob.” Stan turned around. “Karen. Jesus. Keep her quiet. I can’t have this woman going surreal and nutty on me,” he implored. “She’s not nutty. She’s practically a child. Where’s your compassion? Don’t be such a self-centered monster.” Karen rubbed Junie’s back with one hand and poked the back of Stan’s head with the other. “Ow! Dear God, what I wouldn’t give for a belt right now.” “Right. Your solution for everything.” “And yours as well—” Their voices had picked up volume, and Pickle’s head popped back into the open window. “Shut up. No arguments. Nothing. Think Helen Keller. We’re almost done.” The young woman stopped rocking and slowly lifted her head to meet the new voice. She narrowed her eyes to examine Pickle—then turned to see Stan’s profile. Back and forth. The oddness of seeing identical twins seemed to draw her out. “I don’t want to go home,” Junie whispered. “What do you mean?” Karen asked. “I can’t. I’m all alone. I don’t think I can handle it.” “Don’t worry, Junie,” Karen reassured her. “You’ll come to our house.” Stan stiffened. “Jesus, what are you saying?” Karen rubbed Junie’s hands as she reasoned with Stan. “How can we expect her to go home, Stan? Look at what’s just happened.” She turned to Pickle, who was unusually silent, staring at Junie with an odd expression on his face. “Pickle, tell him. Tell him it’s okay for her to come to our place. You’ll fix it, right?” Pickle thought about what to do and he lingered on the fact that the girl’s fate was in his hands. He began to inspect her more closely—this Junie someone, who was now staring him down, clearly afraid that he might decide to ruin her life. Her eyes were not the predictable green to complement her hair, which he imagined would turn a brilliant orange in daylight. No, they were the swimmiest blue possible, firing off shards of sapphire as light shot past her face. And those eyes were the shape of overgrown almonds, presenting a soft and somewhat surprised expression. And then June—his favorite month, of all things. Now, on the bridge, in the rain, with the musty odor of Junie’s wet wool coat enshrouding them inside the car, Pickle sensed that something utterly beautiful and possibly life-altering was close at hand. His breath quickened. He would pull this woman out of the abyss of a dreadful night and a jumper’s death, and deliver her into the breaking light of day. Pickle nodded at Junie, then turned to Karen. “Yeah, sure. She should stay at the brownstone. I’ll fix it.” Junie squeezed her eyes shut. Stan groaned. Karen smiled imperceptibly. Pickle felt a rustle of motion behind him as the cops crowded in, having given him all the time he and the cone were due. One cop stepped forward and tapped him on the back. “Pickle? What’s it gonna be?” Pickle pulled out of the car window and faced his men. “Okay, the woman says the guy ran from her and went over on his own. I need to get her to the station for a statement. You guys stay here and take it up with the Coast Guard police. I’m gonna drive her in. My brother and sister-in-law will come with me. Get the Volvo towed. Let’s move it.” The orders were given, yet no one moved and a few yawned. “Let’s go, for fuck’s sake! There are no mysteries here. This is not a happy story.” The cops dispersed to a million corners. Karen helped Junie into the backseat of Pickle’s car and Pickle directed Stan to the front seat. Pickle revved the engine and took off toward Manhattan as the rising sun, cresting over the top of the Bridge Apartments, blinded him. 4 DURING THE DRIVE TO THE PRECINCT, PICKLE had called in his partner, Lance Burke, to assist with Junie’s interview. Now, as he ushered her into the room, Lance was prepared with coffee and had already set up a recording device in the middle of a table. He and Lance had been an effective duo for a decade now, with an easy give-and-take. While Pickle was known to bend rules, Lance, for the most part, played straight, which somehow leveled everything out. They were known as Frick and Frack at the precinct, because Lance was as memorable as Pickle. His ruddy face, tracked with premature wrinkles, was topped off with an unruly mop of greying red hair which seemed in perpetual need of a barber. He wasn’t exactly a bad-looking guy, Pickle conceded, but Lance’s glow was not the brighter of the duo. Additionally, their differing statures gave them a comedic Laurel-and-Hardy appearance. Pickle stood over six feet and Lance barely reached five foot five. Because they presented as opposites, people often expected them to think and behave differently, as well; tall-handsome cop vs. short-average cop somehow translated to good cop/bad cop. Or maybe it was the other way around. Pickle wasn’t sure how it all worked—he didn’t particularly care. All that mattered was that he trusted Lance in the most sensitive of arenas: criminals and women. They seated themselves so that Junie could see them both, and Pickle and Lance could make eye contact without moving their heads. Lance shoved inkless pens and stubby pencils to one side. He pressed “record” and, after the preliminaries of date, time, and place, he prompted Junie to begin. “Ms. Malifatano, please tell us in your own words what led to this incident on the George Washington Bridge—and the subsequent death of Jacob Kalisaart.” Junie shifted uncomfortably in her chair, rubbed her eyes, then gathered up her hair. She plucked a longish pencil off the table and dug the tip through her hair and against her scalp to position a messy bun at the top of her head. Pickle, poised to just listen, watched her preparation. He’d be the witness to her recounting of the facts, or what she believed to be the truth, which he knew could be mutually exclusive. He sipped lukewarm coffee and tipped his chair onto its rear legs, with the back splat resting into a corner of the small room. And he thought about the blunt tip of that pencil making a dull grey mark on the skin of Junie’s skull. She began with a sigh, sad and resigned. “We were both going to do it. Kill ourselves, I mean.” She closed her eyes, as if to remember, or forget. Or maybe to lie. Pickle pushed these usual notions away because in his fantasy, Junie was on the earthly side of angelic. After several seconds, Lance nudged her. “You wanted to kill yourself.” Her eyes remained shut, perhaps in embarrassment, Pickle assumed. “Yes, I have the note and we signed it. I have it—here.” Lance leaned in. “You have the suicide note with you?” “Yes. And the blue tape.” “Blue tape? For what?” Disclosure of a note and the tape seemed to open a floodgate. Junie’s eyes popped open, wild and frantic. She straightened up in her chair and wrapped her arms around her midsection in self-protection. “I really can’t talk about it. It’s private. You wouldn’t understand. When can I go?” Lance reached over and slid a beat-up box of tissues toward her. Junie grabbed a few in quick succession, blew her nose, and then wadded them in her fist. “I know we won’t understand … of course,” Lance reassured her. “But we have to get a statement from you. Someone has died, so this is now a police matter. We want to get you out of here as quickly as possible. So, the sooner you tell us what happened, the sooner you’ll be able to leave. Okay? You were saying something about a note and blue tape?” “Okay. Right. I’ll just tell you, I guess.” She blotted the corners of her eyes with the tissue ball. “I was going to tape the note to the bridge to let everyone know what had happened. That we’d done it. But it was raining and the tape didn’t stick, and we got into an argument about it. Jacob said I hadn’t planned well enough. And of course, he was right …” Lance cocked his head as a subtle signal to Pickle: listen up—be vigilant. Junie’s recounting seemed to cause her to forget herself and where she was, so her recitation tripped along like a wife relaying the mundane details of her day to a disinterested husband. But Pickle knew that under duress, people often said things that sounded odd, mixed up or facile. Too pat. He rubbed his nose as an indication to Lance that he’d understood the cue. Junie pulled a damp, folded piece of lined notebook paper out of her pocket, along with a small roll of blue construction tape, and placed them on the table. Lance leaned toward the microphone. “Let the record reflect that Ms. Malifatano has produced a piece of paper with writing on it and a roll of blue tape. Go on.” “Well, we hadn’t planned on the rain. Or I hadn’t, anyway. And that’s when we started to fight. About the blue tape.” Now she became animated—very different from the collapsed girl Pickle had met on the bridge. She paused to put her finger to her lips. Her eyes widened with a fresh memory and then her finger wagged in midair. A correction. “No. Wait. It was more like he was mad at me for not checking the weather report. But it never occurred to me that rain would be a problem for the blue tape. I mean, it’s an obscure thing to prepare for, you know? I’d checked for everything else. I knew when to walk onto the bridge—which day was best and what time. Drivers aren’t as alert in the middle of the night, and particularly a late Saturday night. So, I hoped they wouldn’t notice us.” As she talked, Junie’s voice continued to notch up in pitch. “How do you know all that?” Lance grunted. She smiled, as if happy to finally have an interested listener. “I researched it—on Google. And Wiki. Plus, I knew that the barrier on the South Sidewalk is only waist high, so it’d be easier to jump. The Brooklyn Bridge has much higher barriers. Did you know that? The George Washington is the best, even though everyone thinks most suicides happen on the Brooklyn Bridge. Like in the movies. But that’s not true. Anyway, there’s lots of terrific information on Google, and … ohhhh.” Pickle leaned forward. The front legs of his chair smacked down on the linoleum floor, causing both Lance and Junie to jump. She let her head drop, with her chin to her chest, and then slowly rolled down and set her forehead at her knees. The pencil in her hair slipped out, fell to the floor, and inched toward Pickle’s chair. Her bun gradually uncoiled itself from a tight twist and spilled forward over her head. Clusters of orange snakes fighting each other. He leaned down, tweezed the pencil with his fingers like an undetonated grenade, and gently deposited it into his jacket pocket. Lance rolled his eyes at Pickle and then broke in. “Okay, Ms. Malifatano. Take a break for a moment. Is it all right with you if we read the note?” She rocked her body forward as a sign of consent. Lance nodded to Pickle. The room was only about ten by ten, so any movement would feel intrusive and Pickle didn’t want to slice into the potent mood. He silently lifted the paper off the table, nudged the note open and read the words he knew she had written: Dearest World, We are not sorry. No, we mean what we’ve done. We’re not sure who we loved or who will love us after we jump. But you all did matter, if only for a bright second or two when we were able to know our minds. Goodbye. Junie and Jacob Handing the note to Lance, Pickle spoke for the first time during the interview. “You wrote that.” He stated it as a fact. She grunted a confirmation. “It’s beautiful.” “Thank you,” Junie mumbled into her knees. Lance’s head snapped toward Pickle’s as he motioned a silent “what-the-fuck?” gesture with his hands. Pickle ignored Lance. “But I’m—we’re—very glad you’re alive. I understand that this must be difficult. But without going into the reason why you both wanted to kill yourselves, can you tell us how Jacob happened to jump without you?” He’d just floated the money question. Simultaneously, the feeling in the room shifted as rays of the early morning sun broke through the windows—high on the walls, skirting the ceiling. Pickle knew this particular light as a perceived indication of progress by the unfortunate individuals who found themselves here. He had witnessed this phenomenon over the years. The emergence of sunlight, for some reason, prompted the assumed guilty to fold and throw their chips on the table. They were weary and ground down, not to mention hungry and possibly amped up from multiple cups of coffee. So, after a very long night, it made sense that sunlight equaled hope, and suspects could then reasonably deduce that a bunch of sunlit words might get them out of this room and into another, perhaps bigger and better room. Or maybe even out of the fucking building. Fat chance. Sunshine, Pickle thought, was one clever son of a bitch. “Please go on, Ms. Malifatano,” Lance encouraged. Junie straightened up, shoved her sweater sleeves to her elbows and rubbed her hands up and down her face—smudging mascara, or what was left of it. Taking in a slow breath, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and squinted from the sunlight. “We fought. About the tape and some other things. Jacob was out of sorts and kind of nasty. And that hurt, because on the subway ride up to the bridge we’d held hands and were close. The subway car was empty, so it felt private. Then, on the bridge, things started to change, mostly with Jacob’s mood. I remember thinking it was all so irritating but also strangely typical—like we were standing in the kitchen, bickering like any old couple. But Jacob was unpredictable, generally. He began to run around in small circles and shake his hands, and I realized then that he might have taken a speed pill. He did that on occasion—the speed—to cut into his depression. Anyway, I tried to get him to stop. I pulled on his arm and then both my hands slipped down to his hand. I held on really tight—like playing that game where you have teams pulling on a rope. What’s that called?” “Tug of war,” Pickle said as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands cupping his chin—really fascinated now—like watching the endless last ten seconds of the Super Bowl. Lance’s foot poked him in the shin under the table and Pickle shot back up, regaining a pretense of appropriate decorum. “Right. That game. Then I noticed that my feet were on an area of the pavement that for some reason wasn’t too wet. The rain had been coming, off and on, but mostly a drizzle. I noticed this because I had very good traction. And then I remembered that I’d worn my new sneakers. I bought them just the other day and the soles were still rough—you know—good for gripping? Anyway, I set my legs apart and pulled, and managed to stabilize Jacob so that he stopped twirling.” Pickle winced. Why would she buy a pair of sneakers if she were planning to kill herself a few days later? It was the obvious question and Pickle sensed Lance’s eyes trained on him. But people did all sorts of things that were perceived as normal, before they offed themselves. Such as, “Oh, I had dinner with Uncle Joe last night. He seemed to be doing better and I noticed he had a healthy appetite.” Only to discover Uncle Joe a few days later, lying in bed with a self-inflicted gunshot wound entering through his mouth and exiting out the back of his head onto the upholstered headboard. And then, finding his wife stuffed in the closet with her throat slashed. Something like that, anyway. Pickle avoided Lance’s stare and tried to rid himself of his tendency to overthink things. He didn’t want to be a cop right now. Because mostly, people were just too weird. They’d give ice-cold or emotionally overwrought versions of both horrific murders and simple fender benders. And then talk about the shoes they wore. Okay, he reasoned silently, the sneaker purchase was simply not an issue. Junie paused to pull her hair around to her left shoulder. “When I finally got him to stop, I let go of his hand and turned around because I heard a car coming closer—from New Jersey. We were on the South Sidewalk. I told you that already, right?” “We know. Go on,” Lance encouraged. “Well, it’s just that I hadn’t seen a car for a few minutes. Or at least I think it was a few minutes. Maybe it was just a few seconds. But I remember being surprised about the sound of the engine—kind of like an older car, or diesel fuel. Anyway, when I saw the car approaching I was suddenly embarrassed about even being there. Because just at that moment I felt exposed—out on a limb. Maybe even crazy. Here I was on a bridge, ready to kill myself, and the most mundane things kept popping into my head. It’s hard to explain. You know?” She dispensed a defeated sigh. Pickle was back to tilting on two chair legs with his fingers interlocked behind his head. He was listening with half an ear now, more preoccupied with her face—wondering what gene pool was responsible for birthing that head of hair and those wondrous eyes, and her clotted beige freckles. With a neck so lithe, so swan-like, it was hard to imagine she had the strength to hold up her skull, let alone that thick mane of hair. Her body—as much as he could see—looked very thin. Pickle concluded she didn’t have muscles worth a damn. Her only obvious strength seemed be her ability to sit there and tell two strangers what clearly embarrassed her. The humid atmosphere had made all three of them clammy. Junie’s wet coat, hanging on the back of her chair, must have increased the dew point in the small room. Lance’s forehead shone with sweat. Pickle’s armpits were drenched and he surely stunk, but was too self-conscious to take a quick whiff. But floating on top of everything rode her peculiar body odor—a feminine stress smell—feral, really. It comforted him that her smell dominated his. “We’re almost finished. You’re doing fine. Just push through and you’ll be out of here,” Pickle assured her. Junie shot Pickle a weak smile, then her face retracted back to a blank façade. “Okay. When I turned to see how far away the car was, I let go of Jacob’s hand. And that’s when it happened. He ran and climbed over and jumped, all in what seemed like one motion.” Junie put her hand to her mouth and swallowed with difficulty. “I need water, please. I feel sick.” Lance quickly reached to the floor, scooped up a bottle of water and poured a few inches into a paper cup, then set the bottle beside it. Pickle scooted a metal wastebasket closer to her chair with his foot. She drank, slowly first, then refilled, gulped, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Thanks. I’m okay now. When he jumped, at first I was surprised, because I was alone. See, we were always together—we had that kind of relationship. I guess you’d call it codependent, overly so. Anyway, that was my first reaction—surprise. Like, this couldn’t be happening and we needed to have a huge do-over. Because we’d planned it together and now he hadn’t held up his end of the bargain. I’d been deprived—tricked out of something that was my right, too. And just then, I wanted to be where he was. In the river. Dead. And now I’m alive, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. And that is SO. NOT. FAIR.” She hurled the last three words at Pickle. He flinched. And for the first time, she bawled, from the very bottom of her lungs. It was a wretched sound, like some kind of cog mechanism with interlocking parts made in different centuries. The crunch and grind of her howl was unlike anything he’d ever heard before. And wrong, like an early death. Pickle clasped his hands together, fingers laced, placing them over his crotch in the prayer position. It was nearing late morning by now and the next shift would soon gather in the precinct room down the hall for their daily directives. Pickle had no idea what internal clock he was running on, but he’d never felt more awake—alive—in his life. His palms itched badly and it was all he could do to not pull a comb out of his back pocket and scrape them raw. His mind buzzed as he imagined drinking her hot tears, salty as they surely were. He’d rock her quiet, like the baby/girl/woman he knew she was. He wouldn’t press her. No, he’d coax her back to the living. And when she was ready, she’d meet his gaze, with her almond eyes and her blue irises and her orangutan-colored hair and her past life of hurts. Then she’d see him, and know him. Pickle looked at his watch, then reached over to the recorder. “Terminating at 10:14 a.m.” He pressed the button. Click. 5 KAREN’S HEART ALWAYS CAVED A BIT WHEN STAN was at his most vulnerable. Having returned to the brownstone, she surveyed the state of Stan’s special universe through his eyes. Not only were his shoes strewn from here to there, but clothing lay scattered, willy-nilly, across the floor. The kitchen sink brimmed with crusty dishes and the bedclothes were sullied by an unbearable clump of soiled towels. Karen truly felt for him, but only to a point. Because that was what Stan perceived as the hurricane he imagined swirling around him. In reality, one shoe was proud by two inches in a perfectly lined up row of Tom Ford loafers, a pair of trousers had ever so gently slipped to the floor from the back of a chair, a partially eaten piece of toast sat on a single plate in the otherwise empty sink, and a dry hand towel lay perfectly folded on their pristinely dressed bed. While Karen sympathized, she could not exactly empathize. Stan lived in his head, while Karen was, above all else, a brutal realist. They’d gone straight to the emergency room from the police precinct, once Pickle had been able to release them as innocent bystanders who’d unwittingly witnessed a bizarre incident, through no fault of their own. And coming off a stinking drunk notwithstanding, that was technically true. The diagnosis? Stan’s forearm had a deep bone bruise, the tooth gash in his forehead would heal, and he was anemic—a chance discovery from routine blood tests taken at the hospital. Karen would need to see a dentist; her front teeth wobbled. Their alcohol levels had passed muster at .05%. All told, Karen was relieved that they’d dodged yet another in an endless fuselage of drunken bullets. Once back at the brownstone (after Karen had taken The Fucking Doodles out), they’d collapsed on the bed for a five-hour-post-drunk sleep. Hungover and dehydrated, late morning now throttled them. Karen stabbed a finger toward the sofa. “Sit down.” “I can’t. I need to do this.” Stan scampered around the living room in his pajamas and robe, wincing mightily with each jostle to his bum arm, as he attempted to restore his imaginary disheveled world to lockstep order. Prodding the odd shoe into place with his toe, he inadvertently jumbled the others. Karen pressed, “I understand you feel you need to, but this is going to fly differently for a while.” Stan halted in mid-mania and gave a mighty kick to his shoes in frustration. He chugged deeply from a bottle of Icelandic glacier water. While his right fist clamped the neck of the bottle, his left arm was wrapped in an ace bandage supported by a sling, rendering it useless. Stan was a southpaw. He heaved a tortured sigh and looked at Karen as tears began to slip down his cheeks. Not wanting to witness a flood worthy of Noah, she turned her back to him and continued with a barrage of reasoning. “Stan, please. I don’t want to have the same conversation every hour on the hour, so let’s review one last time. You’re taking pain pills, so you’re going to have to cut out the drinking. And you can’t use your left arm, not to mention the computer or even a pencil. Come to think of it—” “Oh Jesus, Karen. Kindly shut up and stop being my mother or whoever the hell you think you need to impersonate. You know very well what the real problem is. I’m seriously compromised. And I couldn’t give two shits that I can’t write or use the computer, or do much of anything … although I’m sure that reality will descend upon me soon enough when I go back to the office. Because on top of all this …” Stan made a broad gesture with his bum arm and the torque of the sweep caused him to commit an unintended twirl. Karen spit out a laugh. “Yeah, go ahead and laugh your ass off,” Stan said, attempting to recover some dignity. “Reduce me to a blithering mess, why don’t you? But you’re right about one thing: I can’t drink. Unless I stop the pills, as you’ve advised ad nauseam. So instead of infantilizing me, try to be my wifey-wife for a change—you know, the supportive soul mate I married? The one who’s supposed to know me better than anyone?” Stan paused, and Karen knew this was her big cue to step in with some words of comfort. Instead, she remained silent with her back to him, arms crossed and foot tapping. “Okay—be like that,” he soldiered on. “But you’re on notice: I’m officially in withdrawal from alcohol. You know what that feels like. You’re lucky I’m not going into the DTs. Remember Sue Ellen in Dallas? Her ‘tremor scene’ in the drunk tank when she was screaming hysterically? When Miss Ellie and Clayton came to see if it was really her? Because she’d gone missing for a few days? Her makeup was so perfect … mauve … I think it was season eight. No, maybe the ninth … Remember?” Karen rolled her eyes to herself. “How could I forget? We’ve only seen that episode about four hundred times—” “You love it too, so don’t go all high and mighty on me. But that’s where I could be right now—in the drunk tank. And you seem to have no conception, no compassion for everything I’m juggling. I mean really. Look at this place!” Karen turned around and sliced her throat with her forefinger. “Stop all this shit right now. We had the accident less than twelve hours ago and you’re acting like the place has devolved to … to that place that starts with an A.” “Armageddon. I can see it right in front of me—the official end of my world.” Stan picked up the sash of his silk bathrobe with his good hand, wiped his eyes, blew his nose into the fabric, examined the mess, and then let it drop. A stunned look crossed his face as he realized what he’d just done. “This is what I’m reduced to. Where are the fucking tissues, for Christ’s sake?” She didn’t feel like even acknowledging his redundant question; a box of Kleenex was sitting right in front of him on the coffee table. Instead, Karen deflected and softened her tone. “Since you brought up the bible, it’s Sunday—let us rest and be grateful in it. Dear God in fucking Heaven. Anyway, The Doodles has been seen to and, at the moment, that’s all we need to worry about.” The Doodles, who’d been sitting in a corner of the room, heard his name mentioned. He sauntered over and plopped down onto Stan’s trousers—only after first clawing at the fabric to make his nest. His lower jaw protruded—a classic characteristic of the Brussels Griffon breed—and he heaved a wheeze of contentment. Then, as if to press the point of his pleasure, he spent a few moments licking his chops, which caused a few viscous dribbles to land on Stan’s pants. Stan promptly grabbed his trousers out from under The Doodles and skulked to the back bedroom. “Is nothing sacred in this house?” The Doodles followed the trousers. Now the living room became a welcomed vacuum of quiet. Shafts of light shimmered through the front windows and trees from the sidewalk blew dappled shadows across Karen’s arms. She stepped into the path of the sun’s rays to warm her face. Normally she loved early light, but this morning it was all she could do to keep her pounding head upright. Her hands clenched as she tried to regulate her breathing. Then she caught a disturbing glimpse of herself in the mirror over the fireplace. What a fright; like a morning facial mask dabbed with hot oil, every line seemed exaggerated. Karen’s beauty was not orthodox. Her oval face resembled fourth-century BC Etruscan bone structure; indeed, her features seemed carved from different eras of antiquity. Admittedly, her nose was a bit Roman, her lips a tad thin and her eyes a nondescript brown. Still, while one could pick apart the details, the composite was a heart-stopper. The brownstone, too, was a flawed masterwork, yet it also worked. Whenever Karen felt the burn of imperfection in herself, she simply looked up to the archways, which consistently measured a few inches off symmetrical. The hardwood floor borders didn’t quite match up in the odd corner. Then the ceiling, where century-old tin tiles had been patched in through the years with modern replicas, failed to blend under close inspection. Karen felt reassured that, yes, beauty just might come in complex packages. The amalgam of beauty and design were common ground for Karen and Stan. Their architectural firm, called simply McArdle, had grown into a sassy and well-respected powerhouse. At the masthead, Stan was considered to be a straight-up genius—his personality quirks mere trifling annoyances to be noticed and then tolerated. The tricky line in the sand was that Stan would not—could not—tolerate any deviation from his design concepts. Just one of Karen’s roles, as head designer, was to assuage the clients and patiently explain that accommodation was not a word Stan ever used or was even willing to admit was listed in Webster’s. And she’d remind them, at regular intervals, why they had walked through their office doors to begin with: to live in a one-of-a-kind McArdle environment. Within this rarified world of creating space, Karen and Stan connected deeply with one another—ironically, as twins might. They seldom needed to verbalize a design concept; their intuition was perfectly in tune, like a Steinway concert grand sitting on stage at 7:59 p.m. in Carnegie Hall. Often a simple sketch (on a bar napkin, like Stonehenge in the movie Spinal Tap, they joked) was all that was needed to communicate an idea. And Karen understood what a relief it was for Stan to be known immediately, and so thoroughly. He’d spent a lifetime explaining the “way he was” to, it seemed, everyone on Earth. Stan wore the cloak of the brain trust and Karen ironed it all out. Karen held her breath, waiting for the theme song of Dallas to emerge from behind the bedroom door. Then, as a twang of the country bass guitar thwacked, she released her air. Stan would be occupied for at least the next episode, or, forty-seven minutes. She stretched out on the sofa and smoothed her white terry-cloth robe, cinching the sash a bit tighter. Her mother had also worn just such a robe. As a young girl, Sunday morning was the best day of the week with her mother. Karen let out a weak giggle, realizing that here it was—Sunday morning—right now. And how odd that a piece of clothing had brought her childhood to mind. When it was early enough that the weather was still unsure of what it wanted to do, she’d creep downstairs. Then she’d turn the corner to see her mother’s hourglass silhouette in front of the window at the kitchen sink, wearing that white poly-fleece robe, blocking the seven a.m. light. Her mother sought a horizon young Karen could not yet imagine. One morning in particular, when her parents had been up all night with the card games and her father had just gotten to sleep on the sofa in the living room, Karen walked up behind her mother and wrapped her arms around her impossibly tiny waist. She squeezed her mother’s hands, which were clasped together at the heart level, as if praying. After a few moments, a gesture came back to her—a slight pressing. It was her mother’s way of saying, “Yes. I can have you with me now. I can even tolerate your touch.” They stood together like nested spoons while Karen waited for her mother to offer the words in a small voice, meant only for her, the rules Karen needed to remember for when she’d grow older. “Power over a man is simple: Be pretty. On second thought, be beautiful if you can manage it.” Karen nodded, and her chin rubbed into the plush robe on her mother’s back. It was not yet certain that she would be a beauty of any sort, and this worry kept Karen awake at night. Her younger sister, Betsy, resembled her mother’s Garbo looks. Karen favored her father, or so she was often told. But it was difficult for a girl to translate the handsome and angular face of her father onto her own, and call it beautiful. “If you can be lovable, that will help things along, of course.” Karen wanted to be lovable—tried her best. But she wasn’t quite sure what that looked or felt like. Or, whether she could even learn it, because wasn’t lovability something someone else decided? “You must be sneaky. This will, without question, be necessary.” Sneaky confused Karen terribly. What was it? She’d just crept down the stairs and took some comfort in accomplishing that. So, she could only hope that sneaky was already a part of her. “And always, always go for the money.” Money was still a mystery, an alien notion. She’d seen a lot of it on the dining table during the card games. The piles created feathery green mountains whose tufts occasionally floated to the floor. This looked beautiful to Karen. But when the men reached across and grabbed the bills and then crumpled them, hard, in their fists, Karen felt disturbed by their apparent urge to destroy something of beauty. Afraid to move a muscle, Karen took in her mother’s words, thinking and wondering, but mostly worrying. She blew a warm breath into the back of the robe and felt her mother’s shoulders settle down. She wanted so much to ask questions. But for now, she would have to be satisfied with understanding just small portions of each rule. She imagined if she rolled all the parts she did understand into a tiny ball, they would make sense, and explanations might not be needed after all. Maybe she could even figure out the rules on her own. The last Sunday morning, before the house caved in on itself due to the vanishing of her mother, Karen came down to the kitchen expecting to see her at the window. The sun blazed fully into the room; her mother’s body was not there to shape the morning light. She saw the fleece robe lying over her father’s slack form as he slept on the sofa. The robe collar was tucked snugly under his whiskered chin. Her chin. She saw, just then, that she actually did resemble her father and it felt like a hot poker to her eye. Karen blinked. A piece of green paper poked out of the robe pocket and she became brave. She reached down and plucked it out: a one-hundred-dollar bill. The paper found its way into Karen’s fist—crumpled hard—just like the men. And then all the rules finally tumbled together: clear, concise, and now understood. She might, after all, live as her mother had instructed. Lying on the sofa in the brownstone, Karen watched the sky morph into a grey color she’d never seen before. What part of her mother did she remember most vividly? Was it her godless praying hands, her bewildering advice parsed out in a monotone voice, or the swing of her body? None of that. No, it was the warp and weft of the robe fabric. Karen rubbed her hands up and down the cloth as the end of morning, now devoid of any sun, seemed to ease her headache. She stood on wobbly legs and made her way toward the stairway to the lower level. Stan must have heard her footsteps on the creaking floorboards. He cracked the bedroom door open. “Karen, don’t go down there. Not today. Look at my clothes—all over the floor.” He opened the door wider and gestured around the bedroom for emphasis. “And The Doodles. He’s on top of my stuff. I need your help. My arm.” Karen dismissed him with a swat to the air. “You’ll be okay. Go back to bed. I want the space downstairs to be comfortable for Junie. It’s almost noon and they’ll be here soon.” Stan walked out of the bedroom and positioned himself between her and the stairway. “Why in God’s name are we bringing this clearly damaged woman into our home? You seriously need to think about this. We know nothing about her. She could be untrustworthy, maybe even a thief. You saw her in the car … like a ghost. She’s strange and odd.” “Strange and odd? Listen to yourself. Sounds like someone I know.” The Doodles skulked over to Stan and sat on top of his right foot. Stan rubbed The Doodles with his left toes. “Well, you don’t have to get personal. It’s just that I honestly don’t understand your reasoning.” Karen had to think about this, because she understood that her current decisions were being controlled by something other than common sense. “Okay. I admit this is impulsive and it probably is ill-advised,” she conceded. “God only knows why I’m taking her on. I don’t know … I just feel I must … that somehow it’s necessary.” “This is very unlike you. You clearly haven’t thought it through. For example, she must have family that’ll take her. Have you even thought of that? They’ll be wondering what’s happened to her. C’mon, Karen, call this shit off before we get in too deep.” Stan reached over and stroked her cheek. Karen, jerking back from him, shook her head. She couldn’t tolerate physical contact and noticed a tremor in her fingers. They quivered from not enough sleep or, more likely, a hangover. A strong Bloody Mary would solve all of this. Instead, she made fists and roughly stuffed her hands into her robe pockets. Laughter from the street outside caught her attention and she walked back to the front window to watch a street scene below the partially lowered blinds. She saw fingers holding cigarettes from swinging hands, baby strollers being pushed along followed by sneakered feet. Even a basketball bounced by. Everyone in the world was propelling the day forward, except her. Karen looked down at her bare feet—the polish on her toes had chipped. She’d gotten a pedicure just the day before, and couldn’t remember how or when this had happened. With her back still to Stan, Karen grabbed at some final reasoning, mostly for his benefit, but also for her own. “Look, we can’t let her go back to her apartment when her boyfriend just killed himself. That would be insanely cruel. And besides, she told me she has no family. She’s an orphan.” Stan laughed, raucous and cutting. “An orphan? You believe that crock?” Karen reached over and picked up a plastic tumbler from the dining table. Feeling the weightless goblet in her hand, she swiveled and heaved it toward Stan’s head. He managed to duck in time and the plastic ping-ponged off the wall behind him, bouncing several times before it rolled back to Karen’s big toe. “See?” Stan said with disgust. “You’re a mess. You can’t even hit me. But I promise you this girl will be a disaster. Mark my words.” “Whatever. But it’ll be my disaster. So today you’re gonna do something for somebody else for a change. And if you can’t do it for Junie, you’ll fucking well do it for me. Today, you are going to be nice.” She picked up the glass and placed it, just so, on the table. Stan stepped back and bumped into the wall as Karen walked past him to head down the staircase. “That’s good, Stan. Do your rope a dope, just like Ali.” Karen flicked on the light to the lower level. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw shadows through the frosted glass at the outside door. Curious, she unbolted the latch and found Junie in Pickle’s arms. “Dear God, Pickle. What the hell are you doing at this entrance?” “We just got here. I rang the doorbell upstairs—I don’t think it’s working. We came down here to try this bell.” “Why didn’t you knock upstairs?” “I’m not an idiot, Karen. I did. You and Stan were screaming at each other and couldn’t hear me. But forget that. Just let us in. Junie’s a mess.” Karen pulled Junie into the vestibule and then shoved Pickle back outside. She slammed the door shut and locked it. Pickle began to pound on the door. “What the hell, Karen? Don’t do this!” She ignored him and shepherded Junie into the bedroom at the back of the brownstone. Karen plunked her down on the bed, one of the few pieces of furniture in the room. She knelt down and positioned herself at the young woman’s knees, then pushed Junie’s hair back. She wanted a good look at her face because up until that point, she’d viewed Junie only through dim light at the bridge. Suddenly Junie draped her arms around Karen’s neck and they hugged. Each time Karen made a motion to disengage, Junie would claw her closer. As they remained in their entwined position, Karen thought back to Stan’s words of warning. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. Junie was not a stray pet that would adapt after just a few nights. Enveloped in Karen’s arms was a thoroughly distraught human being. For the first time in a long time, Karen had no idea what tomorrow would bring. A chill crept up her back. “Do you have to pee?” Karen whispered into Junie’s ear. Junie shook her head. “Do you need to eat?” “No.” Junie finally pulled away and stared into Karen’s eyes, waiting for directives. Karen looked down at the front of her robe and noticed Junie’s mascara smudges on the lapels. On impulse, she pulled off the robe, exposing herself in only a bra and panties. She then undressed the girl, who limply complied, and tucked Junie into the robe, knotting it loosely around her waist. She dragged the covers back and positioned Junie onto the bed. She pushed the girl onto her side and smoothed the covers over her body. Then she lifted Junie’s head and placed a plump pillow underneath. Karen climbed over Junie, lay on top of the covers and brought the girl close into her body, like melted granite slices. Her exposed back hairs prickled from the chilled air. Gradually, the warmth of Junie’s body bled through the covers and reached Karen’s chest and belly. Somehow the contrariness didn’t bother her. She stroked Junie’s hair and the girl began an intermittent whimper, which gradually turned into a sustained wail. Karen held on hard, as she witnessed an explosion of grief she wished she herself could feel. 6 SQUARED - OFF GRIDS DEFINE NEW YORK CITY, making navigation around town fairly easy for locals and tourists alike. But there are occasional streets that disturb the geometry. Roosevelt Avenue in Queens slices the patchwork asphalt at an angle. Broadway rips up the very center of Manhattan, beginning at the Merchant Marine Building in the financial district, then ascending into the Bronx and beyond. The Flatiron Building, situated at the triangle of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, whose chignon-like acute angle measures just six feet wide, was Pickle’s favorite New York City slice of pie. He stood close to the curve of the building and placed his hands on the limestone façade, cool to his touch, stubbly in texture. Then he looked to the structure’s top. Wherever his eyes landed, carved decorations reinforced his admiration. Eagles spread their feathered wings, ready for flight. Military shields stood at attention, prepared to do battle. Acanthus leaves twined around classic ball-and-dart edging. And it then occurred to him that this building, which capped off at just twenty-one stories high, was a reasonable height for a skyscraper. Though little else was reasonable at this moment, because he was about to do Karen’s bidding. When Pickle had delivered Junie to the brownstone the previous day, Karen managed the handoff in her usual pushy fashion, spiriting the girl into the lower level, then slamming the door in his face. After sitting on the stoop for a few minutes to assuage his bruised ego, Pickle decided to try the parlor-floor entrance again. This time he pounded like a firefighter. Stan let him in without a word and they sat around with coffees, eavesdropping on some painful sounds emanating from below. Stan appeared numbed to his apparent future living arrangement, while Pickle could barely contain the excitement he felt about the possibility that he might actually have some sort of chance with Junie. But soon it was obvious there was to be no inclusion or even discussion about Junie, according to battle plans laid out by Karen. After an hour, she’d come up and shoved a list of furniture items and her credit card into Pickle’s hand. Then, she shepherded him to the front door and pushed him out with the parting shot, “Pickle, I really need your help. Go buy all this stuff tomorrow. The salesman, Darren, knows Stan and me. He’s older and bald—you can’t miss him. It’ll be easy.” Pickle left the comfort of the Flatiron, walked a block south, and entered Design Within Reach. He looked around, walked up to his mark—the only bald salesman on the floor—handed him the list, and tossed Karen’s credit card on the desk. “Ring this up, and make a note that this is for McArdle, so I want the fastest delivery possible.” The man, startled, stared at Pickle. “Stan?” Pickle remained stone-faced and silent; he was in no mood for niceties, let alone explanations. “It’s Darren—remember me?” The man, confused, blinked for a few seconds and then continued. “We’ve worked together several times—all the Knoll furniture you and Karen installed in that triplex in SoHo a few months ago?” Pickle sacrificed a perfunctory smile, then crossed his arms. Waiting for … what? He didn’t really know—just that he wanted the guy to suffer. Why this guy? Well, he was standing in front of him. Poor sap. Darren, clearly floundering, tried again. “I think the address was the Printing House, just above Houston Street. Does that ring a bell, Stan?” Pickle felt himself cave. After all, it wasn’t this guy’s fault. “I’m not Stan. I’m his brother, okay? But I don’t have time for chit-chat. I want this stuff delivered by the end of the week. Per Karen and Stan.” Darren cocked his head to the side, and then squinted his eyes. “Oh. Sorry. Ah … you’re twins. You’re identical!” Pickle bristled, returned with a cold stare and pointed to the paper in Darren’s hand. “The list, please?” Darren examined the paper for a few seconds, logged onto his computer and scrolled around for inventory. He looked up, uncertain. “Well, there is a lead-time on several of these pieces. At least four to six weeks from day of order.” Pickle looked up toward the ceiling and shook his head. “I just told you this is for McArdle. You gotta move this to the top of the line for Karen. Is there going to be a problem?” “I’ll see what I can do,” Darren stammered. “Don’t see—just do. Obviously, this is an emergency, or she wouldn’t ask.” “Right. Let me talk to my manager and we’ll try to work something out. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.” “I hope not, because Karen already told me that they can get this Knoll shit, whatever that is, over the Internet—and probably for less money.” Pickle paused for effect. “Do you want the sale or not?” “Of course, Stan. I mean … Mr. McArdle. I’ll call Karen this afternoon with the confirmation and try to have it delivered by Friday.” Darren wrote up the order and ran the credit card through. “Can I just trouble you for your signature?” He pointed to the paperwork and Pickle reluctantly grabbed a pen off the desk and signed. Darren handed Pickle the credit card and stared at the signature. “Pickle?” Pickle slipped the plastic into his jacket pocket. “Yeah. Tiny Vlasic Pickles. Just like your dick. Have a nice day.” He walked out of the store and wandered north into Madison Square Park, past a bronze statue of the casually seated former New York State governor, William Seward. The day was fair, with a breeze somewhere between cool and warm, and infant buds on branches brushed the governor’s head. Pickle eased himself down on a bench next to the beat-up sneakers of a homeless guy who’d covered himself with cardboard. He looked right and left, noticing several vagrant men prone on the benches, grabbing much-needed rest that, Pickle knew, was difficult to achieve when homeless in the city. Cookie-cutter scenes fanned out in front of him: mothers with infants in strollers, swings filled with kids—their nannies pushing them from behind with varying levels of disinterest plastered on their faces. And with each belch from municipal buses behind him, starting-stopping-starting-stopping, Pickle imagined bombs primed to explode in his head. The twins had lived in apartments in Nassau County, where they spent their early childhood. Their mother raised them, the father having disappeared shortly after the twins’ birth. Pickle had only seen one photograph of him, displayed on a table by the sofa, holding both scrawny, premature infants—with either arm folded up in between their legs. His father’s eyes bore into the lens, assured—almost smug. And eventually Pickle saw that he had his father’s eyes, so it was as if he was looking at himself. Those eyes, like the Mona Lisa’s, seemed to follow his body as he walked through the living room on his way to the kitchen. This troubled Pickle and sometimes, when no one was looking, he’d crawl through the room just to avoid his father’s stare, or his own stare—self-similar—like a menacing fractal. Pickle had only a vague awareness of his mother’s precarious financial state. Just that things were never quite right, as she struggled to feed and clothe the family. They were not allowed second helpings at meals, but since Pickle knew nothing different, this was normal enough to him. Though he was often hungry again at bedtime, he knew not to ask for food. But as Pickle got older, something shameful seeped into his growing awareness of himself and his family. One day in the future he would name it: they were third-world white—very poor, fatherless, and secretly hungry. They’d never had a yard like other kids, not a swing set or sandbox in close proximity. So, his mother made a point of getting the twins to the local town park at least twice a week. That park became the equivalent of their absent backyard. She picked them up after school, drove to the playground and unleashed them to the grass and dirt. There were two small fields—one for soccer and one for baseball. It was understood that the twins would always participate in separate sports, mostly because no one could tell them apart. They were known as the “baseball twin” (Pickle), and the “soccer twin” (Stan). For that unbridled hour or so, they exhausted themselves while their mother went to an automat cafeteria across the street. Pickle imagined that she kept track of their games by watching through the thick plate-glass window, covered with chunky black lettering. Pickle tipped over on the bench and stretched out. The anonymity of Madison Square Park felt sweetly familiar; governor Seward, now his friend. Then a faint odor of decaying feet from his bench neighbor, like a rancid batch of smelling salts, startled him, and his head jerked in a disgusted reflex. The comfort from a few moments ago shifted and suddenly he felt like a released fish that was desperate for a gulp of watery oxygen to sift through its gills. The distant scream of a fire engine circled Pickle’s mind like barbed wire—a rescue attempt, but for someone else. Pickle turned his body toward the back of the bench. One spring evening, the other parents had gathered at the park to take their kids home after the scores were discussed and the losers placated. Pickle strained to see his mother exit the cafeteria. He waited on one end of the field—Stan at the other. Pickle saw the glass doors open, splitting the black letters in half. His mother said goodbye to a man with a prim peck to his cheek. They held onto each other’s hands as they separated, with their fingertips the last point of contact, and then walked in opposite directions. His heart pounded in anticipation, wanting desperately to tell her that he’d scored the winning run that day—something he’d never accomplished before. Her car was parked directly in front of the cafeteria, closest to Pickle. As his mother pulled out onto the street that flanked the park, Pickle gathered up his gear, readying himself to get into the car. But she made a U-turn and drove by, wiggling her fingers at him. He watched her speed to the other side of the field to pick up Stan, who jumped into the front seat beside her. She then made another U-turn. Pickle crossed the street and climbed into the back seat. Discussion of Stan’s game was already in progress. He never told his mother about his game-winning run. Of course, Pickle came to understand that his mother favored Stan. But he learned to ease the burn of it, to make it reasonable, and over time almost normal. And very, very small. He planted all the bones of his pain in a shallow grave, a skeleton that might one day spring back to life. Cars swished behind Pickle as he lay, cradling his head, on the park bench. Worn wooden slats chafed his hip bone through his jeans, so he turned onto his back. A nap was near and he imagined he could sleep. Then he thought better of the whole thing. Pickle stood up and leaned over the homeless guy he’d almost shared a cardboard blanket with. “C’mon. Nap time’s over buddy. Let’s go,” he ordered, pulling his badge out of his breast pocket and waving it under the man’s nose. Pickle took the cardboard off the man and saw that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Just jean cutoffs and sneakers, no socks. His entire torso was filthy, his arms blistered from infected injections. “Never mind. Sweet dreams.” Pickle re-nestled the cardboard over the man, who’d not moved a muscle during the exchange. 7 KAREN STEPPED IN FROM THE RAIN, SHOOK OUT her umbrella, and stashed it in the Art Nouveau bronze urn by the front door. She fluffed out her blonde hair, which had frizzed a bit from the humidity. She sloughed off her raincoat and hung it on a hook next to Stan’s various outer garments, neatly lined up according to the color wheel and length. Karen scrutinized her appearance in the floor-to-ceiling Art Deco mirror opposite the entrance console table. She’d soon turn forty-two, but was often taken for early thirties. Her signature clothing style helped: restrained bohemian with a hint of eccentricity verging on Galliano for Dior. But she couldn’t reasonably take any credit; nature alone had given her this odd beauty she’d grown into. And just as her mother had advised in her rules, much of Karen’s influence in business, and by extension with men, rode squarely on the back of her looks. Beauty trumped talent and even hard work. So, she worked at it—in fact, was ferociously dedicated to it. Karen stepped closer to the mirror to assess her bust: side view, front view, then back to side view. She nodded to herself and opened one more button at her bra line. Then she smiled. It was just over a week since the accident, and Stan still hadn’t made it into the office. Karen knew he was milking his maladies, plus, he’d maintained a regular diet of pain pills to keep him on the other side of coherent. But Karen, who’d learned the true meaning of the word “sanguine” since marrying Stan, wasn’t particularly worried. They had no new projects beginning—just four in current production. The McArdle staff, well-oiled in the challenges of New York City construction management, was more than capable of propelling things along. Indeed, Stan’s absence had allowed for a festive atmosphere in the office. The staff particularly appreciated this—as if they were able to let down their collective hair. The brownstone was unusually still and Karen wondered if anyone was home. Her bedroom door was closed; no sign of Dallas or The Doodles. This bode well. Karen welcomed the lull before the hurricane: all things Stan McArdle, when he’d certainly grill her in detail about her day at the office. Tucking into her slippers, she padded into the kitchen to consider what to prepare for dinner. She heard dense chords filter up through the radiator vents from the lower floor—Mahler, Symphony No. 5—music she knew well. Karen had been introduced to it in college via the questionably classic 1971 film Death in Venice, starring Dirk Bogarde. Visconti, the director, had used Mahler’s music as emotional background texture for the grim plot. The day after she moved in, Junie had asked Karen to bring down a dozen or so CDs so she could listen to music. This particular disc seemed to be at the top of Junie’s playlist. Karen opened the freezer and stared at four unopened bottles of Stoli, stacked on the upper shelf, like dead trout with lifeless eyeballs glaring at her. Stan hadn’t had a drink yet—she’d monitored all their liquor every day. And she’d managed to abstain, as well, now eight full days without. Karen fingered the iced surface of the bottles, her body heat instantly thawing the beautiful crystals. Quickly retracting her hand as if a burn had singed her flesh, Karen thought again of the movie—the final beach scene. Bogarde, whose brown hair dye drips down his whitened face, is ill from cholera. But this doesn’t stop him from lusting after the young boy. And that unrequited longing always squeezed Karen’s heart. Maybe that’s why she saw the movie whenever it played in art houses. The music reminded her of a quality of sadness that she simultaneously sought and avoided. Sought, because this sadness was how she knew herself to be. Avoided, ironically, for the very same reason. When the movie was over, she’d usually go to a bar and get hammered. Karen slammed the freezer door shut and pressed the front of her body against the cool surface of the Sub Zero. She rubbed her forehead into the metal and felt her breasts flatten; her pelvis connected and she became vaguely stimulated as the music downstairs ended with a whispered nothing. Confusion muddied her thoughts—booze, sex, music; she couldn’t seem to disentangle the things that both moved her and hurt her. Her mother had not given her a rule for this particular quandary. Now Mahler segued into the last movement. Junie must be awake—who could sleep to such bombastic music, she wondered. But all Junie had managed throughout the last week was to sleep—most of the day, according to Stan—and through the night, as well. Meanwhile, Karen had attempted to wrap up Junie’s loose ends by paying the final money owed on her rental apartment and arranging for her humble possessions to be moved into the brownstone. The young woman braided herself into what fate had planned for them all, and limply agreed to everything Karen proposed without question. It seemed that Junie was, indeed, alone in the world. Though Stan continued to voice suspicion. The hundred-year-old stair planks creaked as Karen descended to the lower level. She stopped halfway to listen for movement, then continued, stepping past shoes lining the hallway. What a difference a week had made to the lower level of the brownstone. Not only had all the furniture been delivered, but stacks of books towered high in corners of the front room. Clothing hung on hooks by the door to the backyard garden. The bath smelled of a recent soak with lavender soap. All this trace evidence of a life buoyed Karen, and she silently committed herself to one more day of sobriety. Karen knocked, waited a few seconds, and then pushed the bedroom door open to see Junie, awake and reading. The Doodles, also stretched out on the bed, popped his head up. Junie jolted forward, dropped the book to the floor, and quickly dialed the Mahler down. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in upstairs. Was the music bothering you?” “No, no—not at all. I just wanted to see how you’re doing,” Karen assured her. Junie remained quiet, grabbed a brush from the bedside table, and began untangling the snarls in her hair. Karen turned the music back up a bit, then perched at the end of the bed next to The Doodles, who presented his belly for a rub. She plucked an orange ribbon off the floor and handed the silk strand to Junie, w