Cold steel. I should have worn gloves. What I thought a shotgun blast turned out to be the massive metal hatch slammed shut by the wind. As I rose from the deck, another gust pushed me toward the edge like a hockey puck until I fell to my knees. When it passed, I forced myself to stand upright and join my friends. This was no place for a woman to look weak. I gripped the low railing and tried to ignore the slight sway of the bridge tower and the haloes of rust around the rivets that held the posts in place.
Seven-hundred feet above the Verrazano Narrows, the biting March air came in hard off the Atlantic. During a lull, I squinted as the setting sun reflected off the crystalline cluster of Manhattan. The pale green Statue of Liberty appeared no more real than the tiny replicas sold all over town. A pair of toy ferryboats played chicken in the choppy waters of the Upper Bay.
From the top of the bridge’s Brooklyn Tower, the distant World Trade Center seemed shorter. An illusion of perspective, perhaps, or whimsy, like my sense that the nearer of the twin pillars had a head start on getting to Hoboken. Up the East River, the parade of bridges faded into the thickening air above the Friday afternoon traffic. I finished my tour meditating on the serene simplicity of sky meeting ocean beyond Coney Island.
A couple of Greek guys from the sandblasting crew, Spiros and Nicky, shared a joint. The recent round of piss tests practically guaranteed six weeks’ indulgence before they had to get clean again. Eight hours in moon suits and crotch-biting harnesses entitled them to some relief.
Spiros offered the doobie to me.
“No thanks. Richard may be coming by for my boy. I need to be ready.”
Nicky nodded in sympathy. He knew the situation with my ex-husband. “I could have a talk with him.” He flicked his knife open and grinned like a psychopath.
“Appreciate the offer but DFACS would probably take Jonathan away from me.”
Nicky put the knife away. “The boy would know to treat his mama right.”
“He’s four years old. He thinks his dad is all about motorcycles and junk food. I’m just about work and making him eat vegetables.”
Spiros smiled and handed the joint to his cousin. “You should come back to Greece with me. When we get our boat, I will take Jonathan fishing. He will become a man.”
Nicky gave him a shove. “She will marry me. You will be a deckhand.”
As he did at the end of each day, Spiros whooped and made a show of pulling off his Port Authority issue work gloves one by one, turning his body, rocking his hips like a stripper. Getting a new pair each morning and tossing them from the bridge in the evening fulfilled some primal need or a sacrifice to some ancient thalassic deity, he never said. I had my own little rituals, my own little prayers.
Nicky grabbed his wrist. “Not from up here, Spiros. They hit a windshield, somebody gets hurt. We go to jail or back to Greece.”
Spiros’ eyes widened and he put the gloves back on. “Okay. I wait ‘til we get back down.” He winked at me. “Then I do it.”
Nicky shrugged. “My cousin, he’s a little crazy.”
I appreciated Nicky’s calm and control. I needed to know I could rely on someone on the way back down. I forced a laugh and tried to lose myself in the graceful arcs and lines of the suspension cables painted in stark shadows on the water. The silhouette shifted as a wave pushed ahead of a cargo ship. The dark lines soon undulated like plucked strings. Seized by the sensation that the bridge itself was collapsing, I dropped to the deck and splayed myself out like a starfish.
I offered no resistance when Nicky and Spiros each took an arm and dragged me back to the hatch. The vertigo faded as I grasped the ladder rails and passed each rung. Another gust closed the hatch again with an echoing "boom" as my foot reached the floor. Alone in pitch darkness, fear gathered in my gut. This was not me. I climbed the high peaks of the Adirondacks and piloted hot air balloons with my sister. I never felt this way before.
Light returned soon and a backlit head appeared above. Spiros’ wild hair gave him away. “You going to be okay, Liz. We’ll have you on solid ground in no time.”
Too numb to smile, I simply nodded. The trips to the top were a weekly ritual that awakened my senses and refreshed my spirit, even on days when the job superintendent, government inspectors, and union goons seemed united in a conspiracy to intimidate or annoy me off the job. Most of the guys were not even subtle about it. For any gathering of two or more, the laughter paused when I approached and resumed when I walked away. My Greek friends did not play that game. They understood alienation.
The three of us squeezed into the tiny metal box that served as an elevator. With only a scissors gate for a door, we heard every click, pop, and squeal of metal on metal. Through a narrow space between the men’s shoulders, I watched as rivets seemed to float up like bubbles. Though my companions reeked of garlic, sweat, and cannabis, I took a few deep breaths and thanked God they were there.
I felt safe with these guys and not just because the quarters were too tight for much of an assault. Nicky took his shot at me the last time he went home, showing off the suitcase of cash he saved in his first year of work. He claimed we could live like royalty in Greece. I considered how a straight-haired blonde with lightly freckled skin would fare in his village of dark-haired, olive-skinned women. He looked sad when I declined the offer and only mentioned the idea in jest ever since. Sometimes, I thought I should reconsider.
At the end of our long descent, Nicky jostled the gate aside and we resumed normal breathing. “I’ll get the heat going in the truck. You’ll feel better in no time.”
“Thanks, but I gotta get my toolbox. I stashed it on the platform.”
Spiros raised a hand. “I’ll get it. Where’s it at?”
“I hid it pretty good.”
“I’ll join you.”
A suspension bridge moves in many ways. An engineer explained it to me in terms of the interplay of the wind with the towers, cables, and the massive concrete anchors that tied it all to the earth. The sensation often followed me home and lulled me to sleep with a gentle rocking, like after a day of body surfing at Jones Beach.
Hanging below the road decks, the work platform moved to its own rhythms. I watched in awe as the eighty tons of steel rose from a barge over the course of a day. Massive as it was, it responded to wind out of synch with the bridge, playing hell with my balance, like being onboard a small ship in choppy seas. The structure had since traversed most of the four thousand feet between the towers as work progressed.
Spiros stayed close behind, coaxing me along like a goatherd as we weaved our way through the clutter of compressors, generators, and hoses. He waited as I crouched and reached into a gap between one-ton bags of abrasive sand. I found my rope, drew my metal toolbox into the light and twisted the combination lock knob.
Spiros chuckled. “I could pop that lock open with a screwdriver.”
I opened the lid and slid my logbook inside. “Yeah, it’s just a legal thing. I gotta be able to say I kept the sample filters secure on the chain of custody. No big deal.” I closed the lid and replaced the lock. “Let’s go. I gotta pee bad.”
Spiros pointed to the three portable toilets I mentally dubbed the Chambers of Terror at the far end of the platform. “Nobody in them now. Shift’s been gone an hour.”
“No, thanks. Last time I stepped into one of those, I ended up puking so hard I wet myself. Besides, I’ve seen your artwork.”
Spiros beamed. “I have been drawing since I was a little boy.”
“It’s good, but can’t you draw some clothes on them once in a while?”
“In Greece, we are surrounded by statues of nudes. It is the essence of beauty. It’s Guatemalans and Mexicans who exaggerate everything, draw just the body parts they like.” He put a hand on my toolbox. “Let me carry that for you.”
“Thanks but no. Pete sees you carrying my load, it would be trouble for both of us.”
“Pete’s an asshole.”
Nicky’s truck stood by the top of the ladder blocking the right lane of traffic. Car horns blared as we climbed into the cab. By the time we got back to the staging area, feeling returned to my frozen face. Nicky tried to break me out of my funk. “It’s Friday. Pete’s probably already on his way to Atlantic City. Gonna lose his whole paycheck by midnight.”
“Won’t that just put him in a bad mood Monday?”
Spiros nudged me. “How would you tell?”
The staging area occupied a fenced-in lot below the Staten Island end of the bridge. Trailers and shipping containers modified to serve as offices and locker rooms formed an ugly little village, but the toilets received more regular service than those up on the platform. The one I selected looked relatively new but still bore the cruder sex art of lonely Latins. None of it bothered me as much as the sight of Pete’s truck so late on a Friday.
Spiros noticed it too. “Pete mess with you, I cut him.”
“Thanks, Spiros. If I’m lucky, he’ll be on the phone with his bookie.”
Nicky grinned. “Or his mama!”
Gloom returned as my friends drove away and I approached the lair of the beast. My job required providing the superintendent with copies of my daily report. The paint crew foreman dozed at a makeshift desk as he pretended to study a blueprint.
“Wake up, Randall. Time to go home.”
He gave me a wink. “Been waiting on you, Liz. Copier’s giving me fits.” His upstate accent was like an old friend, his graying mustache and wild eyebrows reminders of my granddad. His feigned ineptitude was a little joke between us.
“Let me guess. It’s out of toner and you want me to take care of it.”
“You know I’d just end up making a mess, Liz. You got a way with this machine. For me, it’s like hooking up an icy milker to a jittery cow.”
“You’re pathetic.” I took the cartridge from his unsteady hand. “At least pay attention this time, Randall. I may not be here much longer.”
“Don’t say that! You’re the only thing that gets me to show up anymore.”
The less endearing voice of the loathsome toad Pete came from the far end of the container. “That little environ-mental case in there? We need to talk! Now!”
With an apologetic shrug, I handed the toner cartridge back to Randall and shuffled sideways past the shelves of tools, blueprints, and hard hats toward the one person on the job who could make me wish I were somewhere else.
Pete stood with his knuckles bearing down on the sawhorse table that served as his desk. His stance and bony shelf of a brow evoked a throwback to an earlier version of our kind. The short brown beard, smeared around his mouth like barbeque sauce, suggested “scavenger.” The Neanderthal ecology included a six-point buck’s head on one wall, a heavily laquered bass on another, and a stuffed owl on a shelf. With Pete as the centerpiece, the scene had the feel of a diorama assembled by a sixth-grade boy the night before it was due.
Pete’s rudimentary language, word-like noises connected with obscenities, completed the scene. “The hell you doing to my goddamn project? We were on schedule to move over to the fucking Brooklyn tower and now we may have to hold off.”
Sorting all the sounds into words did not help much. The part about stopping work sounded like bad news. I had no ready response.
With a filthy forefinger, Pete thumped an eight-by-ten color photo. “This look familiar?”
I recognized the pigeon’s head caressed by the wing of a larger bird. The next shot showed the predator fighting for altitude, talons pushed deep into the dull gray feathers highlighted with ruby drops of blood. “Yeah. I took that a couple of weeks ago. Boss told me to get some pictures of the cable hardware.”
“Why so many shots of a fucking bird?”
“My first time using a motor drive. Thing takes half a dozen shots in two seconds.”
Though not quite the truth, I did struggle with the fancy Nikon camera the company assigned me for the duration of the job. With a 400x telephoto lens, it was the magic wand that could make my fantasy of traveling the world as nature photographer come true. I just needed that award-winning shot.
Pete grunted and tapped the photo of the bird. “Permitting department blew it up to identify the damn thing. Somebody thought it was a goddamn eagle so they called in Environmental Protection. Turns out it’s an osprey, another damned protected species nesting on my project. We already had falcons to deal with, now we got this.”
“I was just doing my job.”
“Your job, missy, is to document paint removal, monitor lead dust in the air, and stay the hell out of my way. You’re not here to take pictures of every whale, bunny, or whooping crane you see.” He tapped the photo and snorted. “I should call a goddamn exterminator.”
“It just happened to be there!” Not entirely true. One print on my dresser showed this same bird with its wings spread, framed by the elegant array of cables and girders. Others showed the impact of predator on prey, the explosion of feathers, the return to the nest with the day’s meal. I may have been culpable. “I need this job, Pete, I’m not looking for trouble.:”
“Yeah, just like you’re not the one who complained about my calendar.”
It was useless to argue this point. As the only female on the job, I automatically became the prime suspect when the directive banning sexually explicit pictures came down. In fact, nudity did not trouble me a bit. I grew up on a dairy farm, where productive cows lived like queens and lesser bulls were unceremoniously nutted. The top-heavy models Pete worshipped made me think of early-morning milkings, udder infections, and back pain. None of the women on Pete’s precious calendar would last a day doing what I did. Climbing ladders. Squeezing through hatches and between girders. They would die getting their tits caught on something or kill half the men through sheer distraction. God made me a B-cup and that suited me fine.
Though not my boss, Pete could make my life miserable in a number of ways. He had already adjusted the schedule several times on short notice, making it tough to arrange care for my little boy. His obvious delight in my difficulties made me careful not to complain in his presence. My rising rage only made my throat seize up. My report would have to wait until Monday. Randall, his fingers covered in black watched sadly as I rushed by.
The moment I entered my apartment, I knew Richard had been there. The scent of menthol tobacco lingered by the door. He smoked Kools, non-filtered when he could get them. If not, he ripped the filter off and lit the ragged end.
I quit smoking as soon as I knew of my pregnancy. By the time Jonathan came into the world, Richard took to burning cigarettes as if for the three of us. Despite my begging, or maybe because of it, he refused to take his nasty habit outside. His philandering, though, took him all the way over to Jersey on a regular basis. The divorce terms gave him visits with Jonathan every other weekend, not free access to my apartment. Changing the lock would just piss him off.
The inevitable note lay under a beer bottle on the kitchen table. For a high-school dropout, Richard had remarkably good penmanship. A passing student until high school, his spelling and punctuation worsened with each brain-baking weekend. “Cant take Jonathan out next week. Got a Motocross and I know you dont like him having any real fun so am taking him up to Reginas toonite for a party.”
No warning message on the answering machine. He knew my answer. At least half the money Richard should have sent me for child support went up Regina’s nose. The rest surely went up his. All the while, he fed me this line about his imaginary motorcycle repair business. In his version of life, I would not report his failure to pay and he would make it up to me someday.
After ten rings, Regina picked up. By my reckoning, time enough passed to lay out and snort a couple of lines. “Who is it?” She croaked like a frog. I pictured her with head tilted back, unwashed stringy black hair hanging down while those enormous but noticeably mismatched boobs Richard found so fascinating threatened to throw her off-balance.
“Rich ain’t here.” Her voice faded as she spoke. I pictured her hanging up.
I shouted. “Tell that scumbag to bring Jonathan back home! We have plans!”
Dial tone mocked me. I was still cursing into the phone when my sister Pam came in and took the receiver from my hand. “Let me guess. Dickhead has Jonathan.” She knew the drill. Richard knew I would come so he could shake me down for money to help him get through another rough patch. “Guess we’re Jersey bound. When will this shit stop?”
Richard won my younger heart with thrilling rides on his Triumph Bonneville. I found his bad boy image irresistible even as his long black hair whipped my face at ninety miles an hour. His idea of fathering consisted of subjecting his child to similar extremes of motion, noise, and danger. Richard preferred anything powered by an internal combustion engine, but he could make something as simple as a swing a near-death experience. Jonathan loved it all. I hated being the grownup, always putting the brakes on fun, but my mom-bone dictated I do so.
My neighbor, Mrs. Cho, gave me a guilty smile as she opened her door. A wave of steamy air laden with the pungent odor of fish and cabbage made my eyes water. It was a good thing she didn’t mind sitting with my boy at our apartment instead of hers. My color TV helped.
“Liz! Your husband come pick up Jonathan. He say it okay. I have no way to ask you.”
“It’s not okay, Mrs. Cho, but I don’t blame you. I need to get a cell phone.”
She put her fingertips to her lips. “But they are so much money!”
“So are Richard’s ransoms.” I shuddered when I thought of all the cocaine I had probably paid for. “This is going to stop, Mrs. Cho.”
She looked hurt. “You don’t want me watch Jonathan?”
“No, no, no! I mean, Richard won’t be taking him anymore.”
Mrs. Cho tapped my wrist. “I don’t like that man.”
“Join the club.” Seeing her confusion, I tried again. “He’s bad. Very bad.”
We smiled and nodded together as I handed her a check.
Regina lived out in the crummy Jersey suburbs past Caldwell. It was close to an hour from Staten Island on a good day outside of rush hour. It being Friday afternoon with rain moving in, we were in for a slow ride. Pam did her best to stay upbeat as she drove.
“You know what this traffic and Regina have in common? They both suck hard.”
I forced a laugh. “What gets me is that a judge approved the terms of the divorce. An attorney charged me a shitload of money to define the rules of visitation, yet I find myself stuck behind a stinking fish truck hauling "Meat Without Feet." It was funny for the first mile or so.”
Pam obliged me by wedging her Beetle into the next lane. For the next twenty minutes I pretended not to notice the fish truck driver’s stare and kissy faces. Jumping off the Goethels Bridge had never seemed so tempting.
Rain turned oncoming headlights into a headache-inducing mass of luminous urchins. Pam’s obsession with avoiding toll roads usually bothered me, but I was comforted knowing we would not be trapped on an interstate behind or in the inevitable wrecks. The rain let up by the time we reached Pelham at half past eight. My new challenge was finding Regina’s house.
Pam finally snapped the third time we passed the same pink Caddy parked at a curb. “Why didn’t you write down the address?”
“I hoped I would never come back. Richard always picks up his mail at my place.”
“Let’s just kill him this time and bury him someplace closer to home.”
The idea had appeal but I could only think of Jonathan. It would be too hard to explain to a four-year-old and get no easier as he grew up. “I think the street was named for some kind of tree. Maybe Cedar or Elm? I think it was a dead end.”
“Well, we just passed Pine, Oak, and Laurel. Can you narrow it down a little more?”
I could not. The modest homes, decades old, shared a shabby commonality from generations of architectural and landscaping fads. Each house and yard was uniquely ugly.
A cluster of cars in a yard and more on the roadway shoulders signaled the site of a party. Richard’s Camaro, a mottled mass of beige body filler and red primer, stood out like proudflesh.
I poked Pam’s shoulder. “Drive past a bit and let me out. Try to park so we don’t have to back out or turn to leave.”
Pam gave me the "duh" look. “Just see that you don’t get cornered.”
Rock music blared from cheap speakers working far beyond their capacity. Maybe the Ramones, maybe not. I pushed my way through a house teeming with girls too young to be drinking and guys too old to be hanging out with them. I looked for the black braided ponytail Richard adopted as a sign of pride in his Seneca heritage when he tried to borrow money from his grandmother near Buffalo. Though his hairstyle had devolved into a mullet, I recognized the slouch. Seated on the back porch steps, he entertained a wide-eyed blonde with his one-handed joint rolling technique. His ancestors would be so proud.
I jammed a booted toe into his ribs. “Where the hell is Jonathan?”
Richard sat up straight, gave me the Elvis sneer, and moved his head out of time with the thundering beat. “He’s fine. He’s with the other kids on the trampoline.”
He may as well have said guillotine. I looked frantically around for signs of crippled children. “You got shit for brains, Richard! He’s four years old.”
“Relax! It’s right next door.” He pointed to a fence where a pair of growling Rottweilers stared back with a hatred for my kind. Realizing his mistake, he crooked his arm over his head and indicated the yard on the other side. Little screaming heads emerged above the fence like popping corn. I recognized none.
“Any adults over there?”
Richard gave me the eye-roll. “Regina’s got it covered. She’s a mom too, you know.”
The bitch stood not ten feet away, doing tequila shots with a bald-headed biker type with barbed-wire tats and a food-encrusted beard. I cringed at the thought I ever kissed the man who kissed the woman who shared a shot glass with that dude.
I called out to Regina. “Who’s watching the kids?”
She looked up, half-dazed, the whitened tip of her nose describing tiny circles in the air. “Amanda’s on it. Don’t be so damned fretty.”
“Amanda? Your twelve-year-old?”
“She’s thirteen and very mature.”
If by “mature” she meant “desensitized,” that may have truth. I sought “responsible.”
Winding my way through a dark labyrinth of discarded appliances and defunct vehicles, I found Amanda on the tailgate of an old station wagon lip-locked with a boy at least four years her senior. The kids in her charge were three rusty car lengths away.
A sharp cry drew me to the trampoline like a lasso. I found Jonathan with one leg dangling through the space between the fabric and the rail. Wearing shorts pants, his thigh was being pinched by one of the springs. He wrapped his arms around my neck and I pulled him close.
Pam appeared at my side with a keychain flashlight. “No blood but that’s got to hurt.” She grabbed my elbow as I started toward Regina’s. “If we go down the driveway on this side of the fence, we won’t have to deal with Dickhead on the way out.”
I followed her lead. We had barely gone ten feet when a collective wail went up behind us. I turned to see a jumble of children’s limbs writhing in a pile. Little heads moaned or cried out. Fabric straps dangled from the circular metal frame that enclosed the children like a petri dish; a sick experiment gone awry. Pam handed me her key ring and pulled at the tangle of arms and legs. Still holding Jonathan, I did my best to shine light where needed. After a minute, she looked at me alarmed. “No broken bones, major injuries. We need to go.”
Through gaps in the fence, I saw the reason for her urgent tone. The trampoline failure coincided with a pause in the music. The children’s cries were enough to awaken even the drug-dulled senses of parenthood remaining among the young mothers at Regina’s house. Richard followed as if in canine response to all those females in motion.
Holding Jonathan tightly, I did my best to run. He grew quiet, as if he knew to let me hear any approaching danger. Pam parked the car alongside a steep embankment with hardly any shoulder. “I can’t get him in the car seat from this side.”
Pam started the engine “Just get in! We can strap him in down the road.”
“Bitch! Gimme back my boy!” As he had so many times before, Richard grabbed my purse and yanked. The strap broke. He lost his grip and fell backward down the embankment.
Still carrying Jonathan, I ran around to the front passenger side and slid in. “Go!”
The rear wheels spun mud at Richard as he struggled up the rain-slicked slope. The drive wheel gripped pavement just as Richard pounded a fender and screamed threatening gibberish.
Pam shifted into second and exhaled with force. “Did he get your purse?”
I held it up by the broken strap. “He fell on his ass!”
Pam leaned into the steering wheel and laughed. “I’ll never give you grief again for buying Chinatown knockoffs.”
Jonathan started to cry. I put my face into his chest and joined in. After a couple of miles, I was out of tears. “Pam, I need to get him buckled into his car seat.”
Pam reluctantly pulled in at a defunct gas station. “Can’t believe you used to ride on the back of Dickhead’s motorcycle.”
“When you work with so many stump-fingered and one-eyed men, you start to appreciate safety gear. I feel naked without my hardhat.”
Jonathan fidgeted and resisted. His father let him crawl around his car as if it were a moving playground. “Stop it, Mama. This sucks!” His vocabulary was growing as fast as his body. The straps were a little tight.
Just as I closed the door, a car screamed by on the narrow road. Before I could say “told ya so” to Pam, the tires squealed and the headlights swung back around. “Shit! It’s Richard!”
The familiar blotchy Camaro pulled into the parking area and stopped, the high beams making us squint. Richard got out brandishing a baseball bat.
“Go-go-go! He’ll kill me!”
My sister nodded, put the car in reverse, and slowly backed up.
“What are you doing, Pam? Hit the gas!”
“Be cool, Sis. I got this under control”
She did. When Richard picked up his pace, so did she. When he broke into a run, she sped up until we had a good fifty feet between us. Richard was far from his car when she spun us around and took off as fast as ninety horsepower would allow.The metal bat bounced harmlessly off the back bumper. In the sideview mirror, I saw Richard puking on the pavement like a dog.
It took a while to catch my breath. “Where did you learn that trick?”
Pam laughed. “I watch a lot of crappy cop shows and movies late at night.”
“I’ll see you get an Oscar, but no more stops until we get to a police station.”
Three miles on, headlights rapidly brightened behind us. We suddenly jerked forward.
“Son of a bitch bumped us!” Pam sounded more incredulous than terrified. It happened again. “He’s trying to run us off the road!”
The Camaro pulled up beside us. We were going sixty on a road that called for thirty-five. He could have passed us with ease but stayed beside us. In the dark interior, I could see the red glow of Richard’s cigarette, then his face was bathed in light.
Pam locked the Beetle down as the Camaro slid into our lane behind us. An oncoming semi swerved to avoid a head-on collision. Its back end fishtailed down the opposite lane. Pam squeezed us over to the left shoulder. The truck’s rear end swung by in an arc, pushing the driver’s side mirror flat against the door. When we came to a stop, the truck blocked the road completely, with Richard on the far side.
Below the truck’s frame, I saw the Camaro’s headlight beams swing away. “Looks like he’s going back.”
Pam slapped the steering wheel. “Shame. I was hoping he’d been crushed.”
I shook my head and cocked it toward the backseat. “Aunt Pam’s just kidding, honey.”
The boy was wide-eyed. “Big truck.” He had no other comment.
I could only hope that he did not understand that his father had very nearly killed us. Riding with Richard must have made him think every ride was a demolition derby.
Pam started us off at a conservative speed. “Sorry, Sis. You know how I feel.”
Growing up on a farm was hard for my empathic sister. She cried when our father spoke of slaughtering livestock and tried to rescue the live turkey an uncle brought for the family dinner. She dramatically declared her veganism that holy night when my mom served it. Much as Pam loved animals, she harbored a strong hatred for certain humans, especially Richard. No matter what I said, she knew the bruises in our honeymoon photos were no accident. At holiday dinners she scrutinized my face like a plastic surgeon. The concussion that put me in the hospital was hard to lie away. She convinced me that time to go through with the divorce.
The first town we came to had three churches, four liquor stores, and two pizzerias. The police station was unmanned when we pulled in.
“Pam, let’s just get Jonathan back home.”
She snorted. “You need to swear out a warrant on that son-of-a-bitch.”
“You know he can’t pay child support if he’s in jail.”
Pam’s voice went up two octaves. “Child support? Has he ever paid you anything?”
“He needs to get his business going. He’s a pretty good mechanic.”
“Yeah, and he can roll a joint one-handed. How did he pay for that bag of weed?”
She had me down to my last line of defense. “Jonathan can’t grow up without a father!”
“He needs his mother more than he needs that piece of shit. He tried to kill you both tonight.” That he nearly killed her too didn’t need to be said.
“Well, I don’t see any point in hanging out here. Can we deal with this in the morning?”
“No! He’s still out there. He knows where you live. I’m pretty sure you have to get a restraining order in your county of residence. Richmond County night court goes on until midnight. We can be there by 11:30 and snag a judge.”
In the backseat, my boy slept. Mouth open. Head at an awkward angle. I could imagine his neck broken. A chill ran down my spine. “Let’s do it.”
Just past midnight, I stood in front of a tired old woman in a dingy judge’s robe. After a few questions about my sanity and sobriety, she signed some papers and we were out the door.
The gunfire in my dream became a pounding on my bedroom door. The nightstand clock said seven A.M. I wanted to go back to the gunfight. “Have mercy, Pam. We were up until two.”
The door opened wide, letting in too much light. “Yeah, I’m exhausted too but we have to go to the local cops in Jersey to have this served. We can rest later.” She dropped the sheaf of papers on the nightstand.
“Can’t it wait a little while?” I pulled the covers up to my chin.
Jonathan ran in and jumped on the bed. “Come on, Mama! We’re gonna get donuts!”
I shot my sister a look. “Aren’t you the one so down on sugar?”
She shrugged. “He’s young. He’ll burn it off. Besides, we’re going to see cops.”
Jonathan tugged at my blanket. “Sprinkles!”
“Alright, already. You heard Aunt Pam. Cops will lock me up if I’m not dressed.”
Pam took him by the hand. “Let’s give your mom some privacy. If she’s not out in five minutes, we’ll come back with water pistols and take her in.” That got his approval.
I gave the documents a cursory read. Reassuring as it was to have the law on my side, I found it hard to believe a few flimsy sheets of paper were much protection.
The drive out to Pelham was much more pleasant than that the night before. The Saturday morning traffic was light, the sky clear, and the temperature about fifty and rising. The donuts were warm. When we parked in front of the police station, the horror returned.
Pam looked me in the eye. “You okay, Sis?”
“Yeah, it’s just—”
She pressed a finger on my upper lip. “Don’t forget last night. Not ever.” She watched me for a few seconds before withdrawing the finger. “Had things gone his way, Mom and Dad might be getting a phone call from this station right about now. A very sad call.”
Pam’s penchant for drama sometimes worked.
“Let’s go.” I got out and opened the rear door to unbuckle Jonathan.
Pam nudged me aside. “I’ll get him. You go on in.”
The Pelham police department occupied a quaint brick building that suggested a town not beset by crime. A Lieutenant Kirby manned the desk. His round face and white hair made me think of a beardless Santa better suited for pursuing the naughty and handing out candy canes to the nice. I presented the papers and tried not to smile. This was no Christmas wish list.
Lieutenant Kirby tilted his head and made little clicking sounds with his tongue. “I’m afraid Staten Island is out of our jurisdiction.”
“That’s where we lived together before the divorce. He still gets mail there, but he lives here now, with his — girlfriend.”
“Do you have that address?” He held his pen in a show of readiness.
“I know where it is. I can give you directions.”
“We’ll need a physical address to serve this.” Lieutenant Kirby slid the papers back to me as Santa might a request from a nine-year-old boy for a death ray.
Pam came to my side and put Jonathan’s hand in mine. She stood on her toes and leaned as far as she could over the counter, holding out the papers “This guy tried to kill us.”
Lieutenant Kirby went from pretending to be helpful to pretending to do a job. “Lady, we got procedures we gotta follow. You want to serve a restraining order, we need an address.”
Pam rapped her keychain pepper spray on the counter. I knew she meant no threat, but Lieutenant Kirby looked unsure. I gently moved her aside and turned back to Kirby.
“How about you follow us over there?”
“Only three of us on duty today. I gotta cover dispatch. Get the address and come back.”
“Come on, Pam. If we go now, they might still be sober.”
Pam had more to say as we walked to the door. She pointed to a poster on the wall showing a smiling patrolman and a familiar slogan. “‘Serve and protect’ my ass! They just come to outline the body, hang crime-scene tape, and count shell casings.”
I nudged her out the door. “Let’s not get ourselves arrested.”
Pam kicked at the door as it closed behind us. “Who needs cops? I’ll serve his ass.”
“Is that legal? Doesn’t it have to be an officer of the court or something?”
“This is just a temporary order. You need to press charge. Stop his bull—” She glanced over at Jonathan. “— shenanigans.”
“I don’t know. He’s kind of a slow learner.”
She whispered in my ear. “They’re probably still in bed. When Dickhead comes to the door, he’ll likely be barefoot. God knows there will be plenty of beer bottles lying around the yard. I smash a few on the steps, toss the papers on the landing, tell him he’s been served and run like hell. Just keep the engine running”
“Jesus, Pam! That’s diabolical. You working with the CIA now?”
She laughed. “Hey! You can learn a lot from television.”
I looked at Jonathan. Another wild ride might be one too many. “Pam, we can’t count on everybody following the script. All we need is the address. We don’t even have to stop.”
With daylight and landmarks fresh in our minds. We slowed to a crawl as we moved along what I could see in the daylight was Larch Street. I took one more look at the wording of the document. It read like the opposite of our wedding vows.
Pam cackled. “Looks like the cavalry beat us here.”
A pair of patrol cars occupied Regina’s driveway. If we were to believe Lieutenant Kirby, one-third of the Pelham police force roamed the yard, inspecting party detritus. The remainder stood by the front stoop, looking up at a wild-haired woman in a hockey shirt that left one wondering if she had on underwear. The boobs gave Regina away. Smoking a cigarette, she gave the young cop the same look she would anybody who might turn her on to some blow.
Pam cut the engine and coasted to a stop two doors shy of Regina’s. “Give me the papers, Liz. We need to do this with the cops here.”
“Thanks, Pam, but I need to do this.” I dug in my purse and tossed her my crappy camera. “Maybe he’ll try something and you can get him doing the perp walk.”
Pam smiled. “Proud of you, Sis.”
Jonathan looked around as I kissed his forehead. “I hate trampolines.”
I glanced at the welt on his leg and shuddered. “We all hate trampolines.”
Regina’s clownish smile suggested she had been bouncing as she applied her makeup. Her expression turned downright ugly when she saw me. “Officer Montalvo! There’s the bitch! She’s the one who run him off the road!”
Barely suppressing a smile, Officer Montalvo turned to me. “Missus Decker?”
“Former, actually.” I looked to Regina. “Something happen to Richard?”
She locked her eyes on mine. “Yeah! You tried to kill him!” She pointed at the envelope in my hand. “That your confession? Arrest her, officer! She’s a murderer!”
I kept my gaze on Regina. Her left eye twitched in an unsettling way. “Is he dead?” The question left my lips sounding more like curiosity than concern.
“Practically! Like you care!”
I turned to Officer Montalvo and handed him my papers. “I have a restraining order to serve on my ex-husband.”
He looked it over and handed it back. “You should come down to the station.”
I saw no point in telling him I had already been there. “I need to deliver this first?” I looked up at Regina. “Where is he?”
She shook a finger at me. “You should be cuffing her! She needs to be locked up!”
He motioned me to the bottom of the stoop. “Mercy Hospital, intensive care. He went off the road late last night and they only found him this morning.”
“He was chasing me, my son, and my sister. He rammed our car.”
Officer Montalvo winced as Regina continued her screeching tirade. “If he’s involved with her, I don’t doubt your story. Go serve your order. He won’t be bothering you for a while anyway. Just come by the station after that for a deposition.”
All the way back to the car, the appeal of a dead Richard grew in my mind, making me feel guilty. I hated him all the more for that. We once loved each other. We had a child. We almost had a life together. At some point, he just quit being the man I thought I married.
Pam dropped me off at the emergency-room entrance. “Don’t let him get to you, Liz. Whatever happened, he did it to himself.”
“Was Daddy on the trampoline?”
I glanced at Pam. We had not actually told him that his father was hurt, but we had not exactly kept it a secret. “He has a tummy ache. He had too much candy last night.”
I hoped he thought the term a euphemism for “boogers.” “No, honey. Just candy.”
“And beer.” My boy had become much too wise for his age.
I looked to Pam, trying hard to sound upbeat. “I won’t be long. Not much for me to say.”
“We will be fine.” She grabbed Jonathan’s foot and he giggled. “We’ll drive to the top of the parking deck and ride the elevators up and down. Jonathan can push all the buttons.”
The pale, wrinkled woman at the information desk looked as if she could use a transfusion and few pounds of air. It took her four tries to find Richard in the computer. “Poor dear’s in the ICU. Room 612.” She eyed the envelope in my hand. “Is that a ‘get well’ card?”
“Oh, this? Yeah, sure.”
She tilted her head and pursed her thin, chapped lips. “I suppose that will be alright. You just can’t bring any flowers, balloons, or plush toys until the patient is in a regular room.”
Eyeing the nearby gift shop, I wondered if they had a stuffed rat for sale. I passed it by and headed for the elevators. A door opened as I walked up. A soft-faced nun in full habit joined me. She looked at me with sorrowful eyes when I opened my envelope for the fifth time that day and wrestled with the legalese. “Advance directive?”
“Beg your pardon, Sister?”
“‘Do not resuscitate order? Maybe I can help you with that.” She took the papers from my hand. Her sympathetic frown turned to a scowl. “What did he do to you, child?”
“Tried to kill me, my son, and my sister by running us off the road.”
She shuddered. “Good Lord.” The elevator stopped at the floor below mine. The nun handed back my order as she stepped out. Just before the doors closed again, she put her hand against the safety bar and leaned in. I braced myself for a lecture on forgiveness, love, and the sanctity of marriage from this bride of Christ. Instead, she looked me in the eye and shook a gnarled finger. “If you get the option, just pull the plug. Men like that don’t change, at least not for the better.” The door closed but I could make out a muffled, “God bless you.”
Still sorting that out, I sucked my breath when the door opened again. A sign on the wall indicated the ICU to my right. The envelope gained gravity with every step. My pace slowed when I reached a set of swinging doors. Engraved plastic signs overhead spelled out the hospital’s policies concerning visitation hours, children, and qualified relatives. Seeing no mention of ex-wives, seized by doubt, I froze until a man wheeling a pair of gas cylinders pushed by and held one of the swinging doors for me. I obediently followed him into a brightly lit circular space with individual patient rooms arrayed around the perimeter. I approached the curved desk where a pair of pretty Asian nurses spoke softly into headset microphones as they tapped at keyboards. Moving waveforms and shifting numerals on a bank of monitors behind them meant nothing to me, but the vivid colors gave me the sense that I was on the set of a cheesy sci-fi movie or game show. Blended odors of bodily excretions and chemicals intended to neutralize them made it real.
The nurse closer to me finally spoke without taking her gaze from her computer screen. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Richard Decker.”
“Are you family?” She said it like a border guard.
“Wife.” I thought it best to leave off the “ex” for the moment.
She still had not made eye contact with me. “We’re not showing him as married.”
“We have a child.”
She glanced up briefly. “Your name?”
“Elizabeth.” I hesitated. I had been going by my maiden name for some time, but I had not changed my driver’s license back. “Elizabeth Decker.” I held out my opened wallet.
She examined the card and nodded. “Six twelve. Right behind you. Ten-minute limit.”
The curtain at the space marked 612 completely covered the opening. I shuffled over and hesitated until an incredibly cute male nurse pushed past me. I followed him in. As he changed out a pair of IV bags, I studied the room, the floor, and finally, the patient. Blood-soaked bandages covered most of his face, but the jagged scar on the left jaw let me know it was Richard. He called it a gift from his father. I knew better than to ask for details. His eyes were slits amidst swollen flesh. His teeth were clenched in what I took to be a grimace of pain.
“We’re still cleaning him up.” The nurse spoke with the manner of a bored, gay mechanic. “Some broken bones. Left leg. Right arm. Clavicle. Maybe more. We have to keep him restrained for the time being.”
I had to smile at his choice of words. We shared a common goal.
By the time the nurse left, most of my ten minutes were up. I considered coming back the next day until I saw Richard’s eyes open slightly. They went from bleary to full of fury in exactly two beats of the heart, if I read the monitor right. Other readings went from gentle curves to spikes. The heartbeats came faster. Despite the plastic tube in his mouth, I could make out his words. “I get outta here, I’m coming for you.”
I unfolded the document and smoothed it out on his chest. “It’s a restraining order, Richard. You can read it later. Just don’t come near Jonathan, Pam, or me ever again. Consider yourself served.”
His puffy eyes narrowed noticeably. Several alarms started beeping.
One of the Asian nurses yanked the curtain open and gave me an accusatory look. “What did you do?” She pushed me aside and started checking out the various connections to Richard’s body. An anxious doctor joined in. I backed away and retraced my steps to the parking deck.
Being back at work was not the relief I hoped for. I struggled through most of the morning servicing the air-sampling equipment near the south bridge abutment. My patience gone, I cursed the machine when it failed to operate perfectly the first time.
Randall offered to help, violating union and company rules. “You’re probably losing suction at the intake. Let me tighten that hose clamp.”
“I got it, Randall!” I tapped his knuckles with a screwdriver, surprising us both. I could tell he wanted to comfort me with a hug as much as I wanted to cry into his shoulder. Neither of us could indulge in that there and then.
“Just take your time, Liz.” He retreated to the cab of his truck, cracking the window just enough to let out smoke.
Having cross-threaded two of the six cowling screws, I was ready to toss the sampler into the bay when Randall returned with a walkie-talkie to his ear and a grim look. “You can knock off, Liz. No point in messing with that anymore.”
My screwdriver took a bad bounce when I threw it at the toolbox and dropped through the deck grate to the water below. “Have I been fired?”
Randall took a deep breath. “We gotta shut down for a while, darlin’. You can quit making yourself crazy.”
“What’s going on?”
“Eggs hatched. We gotta wait for the little critters to fledge.”
Tears welled up as I pictured the fluff-covered chicks in their nest, the mother bird shielding them from the wind with her wings. I imagined the fledglings teetering at the edge until reality reclaimed my vision, and I saw dozens of winged paychecks taking flight. I put my hand on Randall’s shoulder and bent in the middle. ”Oh my God! Everybody’s going to hate me!”
“Just going to be a few weeks. The guys will get their base pay.”
“But you know they count on that overtime! They all know this is my fault. I might as well have put those damned birds up there and made them fall in love!”
I heard guys cursing behind me. Randall looked over my shoulder. “What say we take a little trip topside? May be our last chance for a while.”
A paint crew glared from the back of a passing pickup. I needed to make myself scarce for a bit. “Looks like they got the word. Let’s go.”
As we walked to the Staten Island tower, a few workmen hollered insults at me until they recognized Randall. It was a relief to get inside the structure, out of sight. Neither of us spoke until the elevator arrived and a couple of sullen welders got off.
I latched the scissors gate and we started up. “Guess those guys were right. I have been kind of a bitch lately.”
“You’ve had your share of troubles.” Randall pulled a silver flask from his coat, unscrewed the cap and offered it to me. I declined with a wave. He shrugged and took a sip. “Got a daughter your age. She married an asshole. He beats her. I want to kill him. Trouble is, she says she still loves the piece of shit.”
For the first time in my life, I felt qualified to give adult advice. “You can’t tell her a thing. She has to hear it from someone other than you. Can I talk to her?”
“I’d appreciate that, Liz. She means the world to me.”
We spent the remainder of the ascent with only the hum and chatter of the elevator, watching the rivets pass like falling hail. At the top, Randall wrestled the gate open, and we entered the dim labyrinth of stairs, ladders, and bulkheads. Had I not known we were inside a suspension bridge tower, I might have guessed we were below decks on an aircraft carrier.
Pausing at a landing, Randall played the beam of his flashlight along the massive barrel cables into the black recesses of the structure. “Up there, they cross the saddles. That’s where the forces come to bear. The decking, the pavement, the towers, and the weight of the cable itself. It all joins together, flexing, pushing, and pulling.”
Randall proffered his flask again and I took a sip, just to be polite. Kentucky bourbon. “Never thought you’d be one to drink on the job, Randall.”
“I’m off the clock. Might as well enjoy our break.” He lifted the flask. “To our little feathered friends. May they fly soon.”
We each took another drink. Right about then the humming started. Some days I sensed a low-frequency vibration that made the bridge seem alive. Down by the road decks, the traffic noise dominated. Up inside the tower, shielded from the wind and vehicle racket, sounds echoed and mingled. There were squeaks, groans, clicks, and something akin to moans just at the threshold of human hearing. A deep, resonating “boom” startled me. “That’s normal, right?”
Randall smiled. “Daytime heat expands the girders and decking. It warps the panels, stretches the cables. That’s why they pump in grease. Let the strands slide past each other. The big metal gives in little fits. The sounds travel through the towers like they were drums.”
A series of ‘thuds’ at various intervals demonstrated his point. Randall, wide-eyed, pretended to bite the tips of his fingers for a moment, then pushed my shoulder and laughed. “Engineer once told me all this energy exchange is like a nuclear explosion stretched out over a thousand years. Atom by atom, strand by strand, the whole thing’s falling apart.” He read my face. “You got nothing to worry about, Liz. It ain’t but thirty years old. This bridge is still young and strong. Just like us.” He took a Charles Atlas pose.
“You might want to try some Grecian Formula, Randall. That white hair kind of gives you away.” I respected this man far more than I did any of the suits with their degrees and power ties. To me, he was like the bridge: strong, resilient and more complicated than he appeared. I loved them both. When Randall finished his cigarette, we moved onward and upward.
Poking my head up through the open hatch at the top of the tower, I spotted my Greek pals at the far end of the deck, smoking it up. Nicky called out, “Liz! Come see the Statue of Liberty. It looks like a little chess piece.” He held his hand out and viewed the Mother of Exiles between two fingers. I guessed they were on their second joint.
On my way to join them, a gust of wind blew my hair across my eyes. Instinctively, I dropped to my knees. Feeling hands on my shoulders, I stood and flung my arms wide. “I’m alright! I’m alright!”
Spiros jumped back. “I didn’t mean anything, Liz! It looked like you was scared again.”
“Ir’s okay. Today, I am fearless!” I tied my hair back and moved on.
Nicky and Spiros shared a laugh and what I suspected were lewd comments in their native tongue. I didn’t care. I took their photo and handed my crappy little Instamatic to Randall. We took turns, getting our souvenir shots, my camera, their camera, me with Nicky, me with Spiros and Randall, each of us alone.
Certain we had exhausted all possible combinations, we turned to see a massive freighter pass below. Randall watched me closely. This time, I reveled in the power of it all. A peregrine falcon rose on an updraft not twenty feet out from the edge of the deck. Before I could get a fresh cartridge into my camera, the winged warrior started his descent toward a flock of pigeons. I joined the guys in a joyous “Whoa!” at the explosion of feathers. Much as I wanted to believe it to be the female out on the hunt, I knew it was more likely the male. I found it satisfying enough to see a father properly providing for his mate and young.
Nicky became suddenly grim as he ate the roach and washed it down with a small bottle of Schnapps. “I’d like to sic that bird on that son-of-a-bitch Pete.”
Spiros nodded. “He’ll get what’s coming to him, one way or another.”
Randall spat. “Bastard’s trying to get his kin on the payroll. You guys need to watch out.”
Nicky pounded the railing. “He already screwed me. There was a pneumatic wrench in my locker and he just happens to find it, right in front of everybody. He’s all like ‘What’s this? You stealing this, Nicky?’ Then he says I should go back home on the grease slick I come in on. What the hell he mean by that?”
Randall lifted his hardhat and scratched his scalp. “That must be what the meeting this afternoon’s about.” He had everybody’s attention. “Union rep’s coming by to meet with the man from personnel. They only do that when somebody’s getting fired.”
We shared views about the clueless management, the idiotic inspectors, the union stewards, but most of all, the job superintendent. Not a word about the birds and their role in our predicament. For the moment, we still had jobs. Nicky and Spiros had to get back down below to pack up. I had to break down my samplers and file my daily report. As the elevator could only hold three, Randall opted to stay behind.
When we reached roadway level, I could see that something had changed in the hour since Randall and I went up. When Nicky pulled the gate aside, a felt-tip rendering of a bug-eyed naked woman stared back at us. The letters “L,”, “I,” and “Z,” appeared to the above right with an arrow pointing toward the stick figure head. It was a crude drawing, even by Neolithic standards. The breasts simple cones. The crotch a cluster of curlicues. It was as if the artist knew of the female anatomy solely from Picasso paintings. Disembodied male organs menaced the stick figure like meaty mosquitoes.
Growing up with two older brothers, my sister and I made a game of critiquing the art they drew on walls, doodled dusty windows, or carved into the smooth gray bark of beech trees. Pam’s clinical deconstruction of their anatomical depictions always cracked me up. She would have judged these renderings harshly.
Spiros pointed at the wall and looked me in the eye. “I did not do this.”
“I know, Spiros. This does not rise to your level.” It was true. He knew how to portray the natural swag of a woman’s breasts and the curvature of the hips and thighs. If he had a failing, it might be that his version of the female pudendum resembled a centipede, but not curls.
We got our gear together and Nicky flagged down a company truck. I kept my hair tucked in my hardhat and the brim pulled low as we climbed in the back amongst traffic cones. Spiros found a fairly clean tarp and pulled it over us. “You know, we’re not supposed to ride like this. We gotta cover up until we get back to staging.”
I tapped his knee with a knuckle. “You just don’t want to be seen with the Bird Bitch.”
Spiros grinned. “Just watching out for you, Liz.”
The crunch of gravel and squeak of the gate signaled our arrival. When we stopped again, Spiros started to pull the tarp aside, then tugged it back. “That fucker Pete’s out there.”
Nicky peeked out. “What’s he doing behind the dumpster? Taking a leak?”
We got our answer when the driver cut the engine. There was a familiar rattle followed by a minute of silence and then the rattle again.
Spiros spoke in what would have been a whisper had he not been angry. “Asshole’s spray-painting more shit!” He cracked open his knife, a mean-looking piece of steel. “I’m going to cut his ass this time! Maybe I go to jail but he’ll be in the hospital for sure!”
Nicky grabbed his wrist. “Don’t forget the Lipsi!”
I recognized the name of the fishing boat they planned to buy. It came up often in their conversation, whether they were speaking English or their native tongue. Nicky carried a photograph of the vessel in his wallet. They spent many of their breaks just looking at it and discussing the rigging, the engines, and the money they would make. Breathing hard and gritting his teeth, Spiros folded the knife and slid it back into his pocket.
Nicky kept a hand on his shoulder as Pete came around the dumpster and got into his truck. “Keep the cover on until he leaves. Then we’ll go have a look.”
We listened as Pete’s truck bounced through potholes and slung gravel when he exited the lot. Spiros slipped under the tarp and ran off toward the dumpster.
Nicky and I exited with greater care. When I had both feet on the ground, I grabbed Nicky’s arm. “Oh shit! I forgot my tool box! I gotta go back!”
We had to step aside as a couple of guys with a forklift unloaded the flatbed.
Nicky winked. “No problem! This truck’s going right back. I’ll come with you.”
“You don’t have to. I can handle my own stuff.”
Spiros returned just then, a can of aerosol paint in his hand and fire in his eyes. He blocked my way. “Don’t even go look, Liz. It’s about you. It’s bad.”
“Really, Spiros, I don’t care what that asshole paints.”
“Well, I do. It’s about me too.” He looked down at the ground. “It’s about both of us.”
“Okay! So I won’t go look. I have to go back to the platform anyway. I left my bag.”
“Then I go too. I’ll bet that’s where Pete was headed.”
Nicky’s eyes widened. “Spiros! Don’t forget!”
Spiros pulled out his knife again, but this time he didn’t open it. Instead, he handed it to his cousin. “I’m not going to cut him. I just want to talk to that son of a bitch.”
They shared a brief staring contest and a few words of Greek, none of which I knew. Nicky finally grinned. “So we all go together, three musketeers, just no swords. Okay?”
Spiros shrugged. I nodded. We climbed back on the truck and covered up.
It was a long ride. To get back to the southbound lane, we had to go all the way over to Brooklyn, get off the bridge, back on the approach and then halfway back in heavy traffic. My comrades spoke earnestly with each other in Greek all the way to the access point. As best I could tell, Nicky was trying desperately to talk Spiros out of a very bad plan.
We parked right behind Pete’s truck in the blocked-off right lane. The cab was empty.
Nicky looked relieved. “Why don’t you stay here, Spiros? I’ll go down with Liz.”
Spiros smiled but not in a joyful way. “I just want to say goodbye to my good friend Pete. I got a feeling I won’t be seeing him again.”
Nicky looked at me and turned up his palms.
I grabbed Spiros’ arm. “I don’t care what he did. Don’t do anything we’ll all regret.”
Spiros just smiled and bade me to follow Nicky down. Halfway to the bottom, Nicky called up to me. “Whatever you do, Liz, just keep looking either up or down.”
Naturally, I looked straight ahead and saw what he meant. Yet another pair of lime-green boobs on a badly rendered body, one arm reaching out to what, by context, I took to be a human penis counterbalanced by a pair of oversized testicles. A faint scent of paint still hung in the air, and a few rivulets of green dripped down the steel wall.
Spiros, a few rungs up, pointed and shouted. “There he is! I’m coming for you asshole!”
Through a gap in piles of equipment and supplies, I saw Pete turn and look up at Spiros. He took off and disappeared behind a massive compressor close to where I stashed my gear. If he stayed low and his luck held out, he might evade one or two pursuers, but not three.
Nicky and Spiros went down the sides while I walked down the middle. The platform was only a hundred feet long and there was nowhere to go once we reached the far end unless he felt like a long, potentially lethal drop to the water below. Pete did not strike me as an Olympic class diver. His options were limited.
When we reached the compressor, my toolbox was still there, unmolested. Pete was gone. I grabbed my belongings and rejoined the posse. Most of the eastern end held only bulk abrasive bags about three feet high with less than a foot between rows. Few places to conceal a man of Pete’s size. The only remaining hiding places were the portable toilets known as The Three Chambers of Terror. It did not take long to narrow the field. Only one had the door handle flipped to show occupation. The man was an idiot.
Spiros said a few words in Greek. Nicky nodded and grabbed an extension cord coiled atop a makeshift workbench. They continued in their native tongue. I grabbed Nicky’s arm. “You’re not going to electrocute him, are you?”
Nicky gave me a playful shove. “We’re going to have a little fun with our friend Pete. Make sure he looks good for the meeting this afternoon.”
“What are you going to do?”
Nicky rocked his head. “Pete likes paint. Now, he’s gonna get his fill. Just have your camera ready when he comes out.”
Like skilled seamen, they wrapped the plastic privy with three tight loops and a slipknot. Stepping up on a bucket, Spiros sprayed paint through the venting slits just below the roof, pausing at regular intervals to shake the can. When the mixing ball rattled, Nicky threw him another can.
Pete played possum until the second can started to sputter. “You little piece of shit! I’ll kick your ass!”
The enclosure rocked on its skids, but the power cord held as Spiros emptied the can. Stepping down, he mimed a camera shot. I nodded and Nicky made a chopping motion with his arm. Spiros pulled at the knot and the cord dropped like a prom dress. The door flew open and Pete launched himself face-first onto the deck. I got off two shots before he touched down and a few more as he writhed and fought to catch his breath. “Sons of bitches! Tried to kill me!”
He seemed to be speaking to someone behind me. By Randall’s grin, I suspected he had been there awhile. “Oh, I don’t really know about that, Pete. I was looking for a pipe wrench and heard a commotion. Sounded like a stuck hog.”
“These bastards were trying to fixate me.”
I am not sure if I laughed at his pronunciation or the alternate interpretations that occurred to me. Pete deserved asphyxiation, but having him fixed sounded even better.
Pete glared. “What’s so funny, bitch?” He turned his attention to Spiros and Nicky. “I can have you greasers fired and on a boat to your shithole of a country. I got the goods on you.”
Randall cleared his throat. “Will that be before or after your Gay Pride march?”
“The hell you talking about?”
I took another picture. “You should have kept your hardhat on, Pete.”
He rubbed his matted green hair. It had to feel like steel wool.
“Motherfucker!” He opened the door of the portable toilet and examined his reflection in the crappy little mirror. “Jesus Christ! This shit won’t come out!”
I could not resist the set up. “The important thing is, you are finally coming out.”
Randall joined in. “Too bad it’s not St. Paddy’s Day. Maybe you could get by on that. Still, it raises a lot of questions. Sure you want to show up for that meeting looking like an elf?”
“You saying I can’t count on your testimony, Randall? You and me go way back.”
“That’s true. Thing is, Pete, you’ve been an asshole as long as I’ve known you. Besides, I could use these guys on my crew. At least one has shown he’s good with paint.”
“Don’t fuck with me, old man. You know I got connections.”
Randall’s voice dropped a couple of octaves and his accent drifted from Syracuse to Little Italy. “Yes, Pete, and I got connections who can have your connections disconnected.”
Pete’s expression turned grim. “Fine. I’ll cancel the meeting; tell them it was a misunderstanding. You can have these clowns. They can start by covering up all that graffiti by the elevator.” He turned to face me. “So what do you want?”
“Some respect for me and my buds. Another thing. Quit screwing with the schedule. The contract calls for forty-eight hours notice before you change it. You know I have a kid. Nobody comes between me and my boy.” It was a modest list and I couldn’t help thinking what a harassment lawsuit might have landed me.
“Okay, deal. Just one thing. You give me the camera, I give you a hundred bucks”
That was a lot of money for a twenty-dollar piece of crap. Still in my pocket, I ran my fingers over my tiny plastic treasure. Ever since I held the Nikon, my little Instamatic felt like a toy. I pulled it back out. “If you feel that strongly about it, Pete, you got it.”
Pete peeled a hundred-dollar bill from a roll, probably bribe money for the union boss or an inspector. We made the exchange. With a triumphant grin, he twirled my little Kodak by the strap and flung it into the air. It dropped into the water just ahead of an inbound cargo ship.
Feigning disappointment, as I fondled the film cartridge in my pocket, the result of a tactic, I would later tell Pam, I learned from a book, not television. “Just so you know, Pete, I’m a B-cup woman and proud of it!”
“I’ll make a note of that.”
“One more thing, as an artist, you really, really suck.”
Amazing how far one-hundred bucks, a cheap wedding ring, and a smile could go in a Brooklyn pawnshop. A Canon single lens reflex with auto-focus, a motor drive and a 400x telephoto lens made me one happy shutterbug, especially after the owner threw in a free tripod. Mr. Messina was practically my banker in harder times. He still waited until I turned over the money to confide. “I stopped buying film cameras six months ago. Everybody’s going digital. Come back next year, I’ll be selling what you just bought for ten cents on the dollar.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Messina. The pros still use film and I have a use for this now.”
I set up shop at the base of the Staten Island tower. A cleft that ran up of the side of the structure provided shelter from the wind and served more or less as a blind. Embraced by the sun-warmed steel of the bridge, I could watch passing boats, birds, and even dolphins with near invisibility. My main targets, during the forced work hiatus, were the osprey. They owed me the shot that would launch my photographic career.
I captured several instances of the male snagging pigeons and a few of the first of the two fledglings learning to fly. That one did not fare so well, and I had to look away as gulls attacked the little floating body that twitched less with each peck. The father made a few attempts to disperse the gulls, but there was only one of him and no shortage of them.
The payoff came the next day. For the first time in weeks, I saw the female take off from the edge of the girder that held the nest. She seemed to be struggling, as if her muscles were weak from her long stint at mothering. She suddenly folded her wings and dropped like a kamikaze, as if following her fallen fledge in a final act of grief.
Through my telephoto lens, I stared in horror at the disintegrating circle of foam where she disappeared. I did not realize that I had been holding my breath until I let out a gasp as she emerged with a metallic fish gripped in her talons, dripping water that shone like quicksilver in the morning light. She rose from the waves with great effort and settled in her nest without any vainglory. The surviving fledgling joined her for what I suspected would be their last meal together. It grieved me to know she would soon have to push the young one away to fend for itself but accepted the inevitability.
Mother osprey flicked the skeleton from the narrow ledge she called home. I gnawed the last edible portion of my breakfast apple and tossed the core into the living water. She stretched her wings and preened. I pulled off my headband and shook my hair free. She took wing and lifted on an updraft. I leaned back and laughed.