Ray woke to the tinkle of breaking glass. Susan, crashing into the concrete. He shook his head blearily. It must be an accident out on Warren Street. He rose from where he was laying on the couch and stumbled a couple of steps to the round window. He peered out, but the street wasn’t visible from this high up in his house.
It was still night. But he was awake, more or less, and had to see what was going on. He shuffled down the hall in gloom barely penetrated by streetlights, then clanked down the spiral stairs from the third floor, listening for sirens. He passed the kitchen on the second floor and continued down the metal steps into his art gallery on the ground floor. Cold air struck his legs, coming from the street side of the room. He stopped and came fully alert. It must have been some accident to blow the door open. And where were the sirens?
He gazed at the back of the window display. The sculptures still sat there, but something was missing. It took a moment to get it. The name of his business, Ray of Darkness, painted on the glass, was gone. Because the glass was gone, except for jagged shards sticking from the frame.
Kids throwing rocks? He’d never heard of anything like that in Hudson before. There was always a first time. His eyes scanned the floor. Just glass shards, sparkling in the streetlights. Maybe they used a baseball bat.
Should he call the police? We’ll send a squad car. He'd stand around while they eyed the weird contents of his gallery and made a report. All that time—with idiot Rockefeller drugs laws still on the books—he’d be worrying about his stash of dope in that cigar box up in the rafters.
It was getting light, almost six. Ray called Bodine.
“Did I wake you?”
“It’s okay. About time to get up, anyway.”
“Someone just busted my front window.”
Bodine said, “Bummer. Especially with it being so chilly. I’ll come over with some plywood.”
Ray got his coat and stood huddled in it as he waited. The wind gusted in the jagged hole in the glass. He was cold and felt exposed. Goddamn it. He'd have to get new glass, paint Ray of Darkness on it…but at least the sculptures in the window were okay.
What broke it? He got down on hands and knees, careful not to cut himself, and looked under his desk.
Ah. A brick. He fished it out and stood and held it to the first rays of sun streaming in the window.
An old brick. The shivers he’d been holding at bay broke through.
A billion old bricks in the world. It couldn’t be....
He turned it in his trembling hand. Stamped in big plain letters was the word “LENT.”
* * *
Two weeks earlier….
They say never Google your ex.
A New Jersey woman died Saturday in a fiery crash on I-89. Susan Brandon was traveling in the southbound lane north of Saugerties around midnight when she apparently lost control. Her car crashed into a bridge abutment and burst into flames.
The words punched Ray in the gut. His eyes flicked away from the computer screen and for a long moment his mind was blank aside from the vague shapes of sculptures in the gallery. He read on.
By the time rescue vehicles arrived, her body had been burned beyond recognition…
Ray sipped tiny breaths high in his chest. Some wickedness in his mind had him at the scene of the accident, rubbernecking, staring at twisted flaming wreckage, at a black lump that used to be Susan. And now the thought came: I killed her. The rage that had consumed him thirty years ago at the end of their relationship had finally spread to her, burnt her to a crisp.
He shoved the thoughts away. Tried to picture her alive. Standing there the last time he saw her as he drove from their house, her face twisted in sorrow, but also full of that terrible resolve. His only solace at that moment had been, This is as bad as it gets. Only this was worse. A hole opened in him, filling with raw anguish. Back then, he’d never wanted to see her again. Now he truly never would.
It was time to stop, close the computer, with its windows on things no one should ever see. But he searched for her obituary. Paused for a moment, then clicked.
Susan Branford is survived by her loving husband, Phillip Roberts of Monson and daughters Megan, 13, and Beth, 10. Susan excelled at everything she took on in life, in her position as claims adjuster at Mutual Insurance of Central Jersey, on numerous local boards, as a wife and devoted soccer mom…
The hole in him expanded. Married. That was no surprise, but still unwelcome news. Two kids was harder. Those kids could have been ours.
What path could have taken her from fervent spiritual seeker to insurance claims? Her faith had never been in the things of this earth, but in the promise of that un-seeable, unknowable something.
Saugerties was just ten miles south of here. She’d been coming to see him.
Southbound—so she came north to Hudson, changed her mind, headed home…no, she couldn’t have been coming to see him. They hadn’t spoken in thirty years. She must have been at some business meeting in Albany, a late dinner. Was she drunk? Impossible. Susan rarely drank, would never think of driving less than sober.
When did it happen? Just a year ago last November. That somehow made it worse. Like maybe he could have done something about it.
He found a photo. A group shot in a hotel lobby, plastic name tags, some kind of conference. She had aged well. Even after all this time and that bitterest of ends, she still sparked something in him. She was pretty as ever. And under the obligatory grin, she was still dead serious, even noble. The bozos smiling to either side of her probably thought they took their jobs seriously. Nobody took any job as seriously as Susan, whether it was assessing damage for an insurance claim, or chasing down God.
He stared at the picture, at the trace of something in her eyes. A shadow.
Sadness? Defeat? He was probably projecting his sorrow onto her. She was just showing her age. When was this photo taken? Barely a month before the…accident.
He finally tore himself away from Google. Closed the computer and looked up, blinking at the bright street outside.
At least she’d kept her maiden name. That was the old Susan. It’s how he’d found her. The obituary didn’t mention anything about a long-ago ex-husband, but of course it wouldn’t.
* * *
Actually, it was Bodine who’d said “Never Google your ex,” capping off a lecture about the perils lurking behind that friendly search box. Bodine was well aware of Ray’s curiosity, should have known that telling him not to type something into Google was like telling a kid not to look in that box up on the shelf in the closet. That it was the first thing he’d want to do. The only surprise was how long he’d resisted.
Except curiosity didn’t really explain it. Ray could see any of a number of other exes online. Google them up, find out where they were, even who they were hanging with now, no harm. But why did he Google Susan? It made no sense. He’d been in a gruesome funk for months now, deep in the shadows. No news of her could possibly brighten his mood.
But this was pure blackness. It launched him from his chair and toward the door. He grabbed his coat. On his way out he flipped the sign to Closed. The icy air slapped him in the face. He hesitated on the sidewalk. Should he go tell Bodine? No. Ray didn’t need another lecture right now. He headed across Warren Street to Jo’s Joe, his friend’s coffee shop. She might have a few minutes before the lunch rush.
The warm air in the little foyer embraced him with its promise of the essentials of caffeine and sugar. The prospect of unloading to Jo kept the terrible news at bay. He eyed the armchairs in front enviously before parking himself at his usual table in back. Jo reserved it for him in the slow hours between breakfast and lunch. Jo was strict about no eating in those comfy chairs. Besides, Ray needed to reciprocate her reserving his place by taking it.
He looked around for Jo, and a minute later she appeared from the kitchen bearing four late breakfasts without benefit of a tray. She delivered them along with her great smile to some day-trippers up from the city. They caught the smile, her straight, flaxen hair framing that wholesome face, heard the hint of Scandinavia on her tongue, and assumed she was a simple soul from the Midwest. A farm girl, maybe. Which she was. They didn’t know of her fierce intelligence, the tangled nightmare of a family she’d escaped back in Minnesota. They couldn’t guess that she cursed like a sailor and loved her longtime partner Louise like no one Ray had ever known.
Jo got the food on the table and came over to Ray. Jo’s great smile, to those who knew her, actually had at least a hundred variations, expressing everything from joy to sorrow and even anger.
This smile remained in place—nothing short of the death of a close one could erase it—but her forehead knotted, and she laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“I just found out my ex-wife died.”
“Oh, Ray, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were ever married.”
“It was a long time ago.” He looked away. He’d come here to tell Jo about Susan, but now he couldn’t talk about it.
She got that. Reached down and gave him a quick hug. “The usual?”
“No, just a cup of coffee.”
As he drank it, then another, the news of Susan faded, like a summer squall retreating over the horizon. And it was just another morning at Jo’s, the same as every one for months. He stared from the window at the drops melting from icicles on the roof, the hum of chitchat rising and falling like waves, punctuated by the tinging of silverware.
Ray had been a fixture at this table since the day his art career ended. That ending came with a literal bang when he slammed his latest sketchpad down on the pile, yanked the curtain closed on his studio, and stalked over here.
The essential lever, the mysterious piece that hooked his eyes up to his hands, that performed the alchemy of art, had broken. His eyes still saw, but the only result was junk thoughts. His hands—which once made art, art that sold!—had turned useless, jittering and fussing, tapping polyrhythms on the table’s edge and worrying his napkin into fine shreds.
Not today. Susan had retreated over his mind’s horizon—chased by caffeine and habit. But something was different about his hands.
They were itching.
Ray waited until Jo was in the kitchen, tiptoed up, and grabbed a pen from behind the counter. He sat down with his placemat and drew. He sketched a couple of women across the room. He could tell that they were old friends, knew they were dishing about somebody or something, but all he’d gotten down was lifeless hair and a couple of empty smiles.
He gave up and doodled in the margins the arabesque pattern from the tin ceiling.
He’d filled the placemat, but his fingers still itched. Why? Because what had them itching was the poison fruit of his Google snooping. It had set off a storm in him, and he needed to vent it. Sketching those women didn’t do it. And he wasn’t drawing a fiery wreck.
He turned the paper over and started...writing. He filled the page in no time. While Jo was in the kitchen, he snagged more placemats from where she kept them next to the silverware.
“You’re drawing again!”
Startled, Ray looked up at Jo beaming down at him and his left hand shot across his work, covering it while the other whisked her pen under the table.
Jo reached down and gently pried his fingers off the placemat. Her smile slipped a hair and her eyebrows rose. “Oh. You’re writing. What the fuck? I knew something was up with you.” A bell chimed in the kitchen, and she rushed off to deliver someone’s lunch.
What the fuck about covered it. Was he really writing? He peeked down at the placemat. Words. So he guessed he was writing. He folded the placemats and stuffed them in the pocket of his leather coat, placed a twenty on the table, and left.
The cold air smacked his cheeks. He huddled down Warren Street toward the river to Bodine’s. The snowbanks were mostly melted, revealing dark lumps of greasy trash from last fall and road sand that blew in his face.
The only evidence of the abandoned Palace Theater on Warren Street was the faint scar where the marquee had been. The windows were covered with weathered plywood and the doors sealed with a rusted chain. The sole entrance now was the old emergency exit on the alley in back. As Ray turned right on Fourth Street and headed for it, he heard the faintest trace of pumping bass. He smiled. He was one of the only people in town that knew Bodine lived there.
Ray’s knock on the door was answered by howling and the thunder of approaching paws. A minute later, Bodine cracked the door and Mingus barged out, gave a yip, and abruptly changed gears, sucking up to Ray for a pet. His tail beat on the dirt of the alley.
Bodine leaned out of the door. “Hey.” He nodded for Ray to come in. Ray’s friend was tall and thin, with straight blond hair in a ponytail. He looked a decade, or even two, younger than his fifty odd years, depending on the light.
Ray nodded at the dog. “Good doorbell. How can you work with that…shit?” Some kind of mindless techno. Ray and Bodine had been in a band for years, and as musicians agreed that for them there was no such thing as background music. If it was on, they couldn’t help but listen, for better or worse. Worse in this case.
Bodine laughed. “This is just a little experiment. You’ll notice it has absolutely no content. And no, I’m not losing my good taste. It’s terrible. But it might actually help me concentrate.”
“Is it working?”
Bodine just gave a little smile.
Mingus trotted across the theater and back upstairs to Bodine’s office in the old projection booth. The theater was unheated and dark, the museum cases and neat piles of Bodine’s odd private collection hulking in the dim light leaking from above.
Ray followed Bodine up into the office, and Bodine shut off the music. Ray asked, “This a bad time?”
“It’s fine. Just let me finish this.” Ray leaned against the ancient theater organ. Bodine sat at one of the towers of computers. Doing what, exactly? His work. But what was that? Ray didn’t ask. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He stole a glance at the screen. Columns of numbers racing by. Windows opening and closing. E-trading? He doubted it. That was too capitalistic for the old commie. Hacking was more like it. Whatever it was, it had to be very hard to do. Probably dangerous, too, or Bodine would have long since gotten bored and quit.
Bodine slammed a few keys with the finality of the ending chords of a song. Only five minutes, but Mingus was already crashed out in his bed. Ray sat in a swivel chair and spun around to Bodine, who looked at him. “What’s wrong?”
Jo’s question. “Is it that obvious?”
Bodine laughed. “Your face is what I believe they call an open book.”
“Let me show you.” Ray walked to Bodine’s computer, bent over, and winced at the strings of code. “This thing have Google?”
Bodine clicked a few keys. Ray reached around him and brought up Susan’s obituary and sat back in his chair as Bodine read.
“I’m really sorry, man. Even if you guys happened a thousand years ago.”
Ray pulled the placemats from his pocket, unfolded them, and showed them to Bodine. Bodine glanced at them, then looked at Ray. “What is this?”
“What I just did over at Jo’s.”
“Writing.” Bodine’s eyes bugged. “There are strange things in this world—two headed zebras and smart rednecks and…. You want to be a writer?”
“No, no. This terrible thing happened, and I couldn’t draw it.”
“And being the tortured artist, you had to get it out of yourself somehow, or you’d…explode, or whatever it is you creative types do.”
“Something like that.”
“So you wrote about it.”
“Well not the accident, but…” he choked the name out. “Susan.”
Bodine sighed. “The little writing I’ve done falls somewhere between doing taxes and getting a root canal. Maybe several.”
“You pay taxes?”
“When there’s a 1099…. But maybe writing will be good for you. Horrible as that thing with Susan is, it might be the kick in the butt you need to do…something.”
Mingus snorted in his sleep, as though agreeing.
Bodine said, “Well, if you’re going to do it, I hope you don’t use a pen and paper.” He made the writing tools sound like horse and buggy. “This is the twenty-first century, Ray.”
“I’ve got a computer.”
Bodine groaned. “What, that old piece-of-shit PC?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Bodine held up a finger—one minute—and disappeared into the closet. They might be best friends, but vast reaches of Bodine’s psyche were off limits. And so was his closet. Given all the stuff Ray had seen come out of it, it must be huge.
Ray went over, leaned down and scratched the dog’s head, the way Mingus liked. Bleary eyes looked up at Ray. Would he rather be still sleeping or being petted? Ray didn’t care. He was a dog. His job was getting petted.
Ray heard Bodine returning and stood. The object in his friend’s hand gleamed in the overhead halogens. It was a different color, but the same shape as the placemat. And the same shape as something else. They formed a series. One, two… Ray frowned as he lined them up in his mind.
Bodine looked at him. “Ray?”
He raised a hand—nothing. Bodine handed him the laptop. It was cold. It was completely different than the placemats. Just a computer. There was no series.
Ray said, “You don’t need it?”
Bodine pointed to his array of hardware. “Does it look like I do? Got one exactly like it in the living room.”
“Where’d you get it?”
Bodine lifted a finger to his lips. “Must have fallen off a truck.”
A perk of Bodine’s mysterious computer business.
Bodine scowled. “This is going to be like trading in an old shitbox for a Ferrari. You don’t watch out, it might run away from you. But hook it up to Wi-Fi and you’ll be able to go online anywhere you want in that house of yours. But please promise me you’ll get some security.”
“Nobody would have the patience to hack into that old clunker of yours. But this new one… You never know when someone in some white van is gonna sneak up outside your place with a satellite dish and break into your computer.”
“Come on. What do I have that anybody wants?”
“You never know. There’s some good freeware out there. You can Google it. Hacksafe, Botgard.” Bodine’s eyes flicked to the closet. “You need anything else? Crack cocaine? A rocket launcher?”
They both laughed. Bodine was a confirmed pacifist and didn’t have any rocket launcher in there. Or crack.
Other illegal substances were another matter.
Ray headed home. He turned onto Warren, the main street of Hudson, the funky-chic little city on the river that gave it its name. Only a few thousand folks lived in town, but it boasted 165 antique stores. That naturally encouraged specialization. An icy wind raced toward the water, blasting him in the face.
Ray’s eyes may have become useless for making art, but they hadn’t lost their habitual hunger. Nor their capacity for judgment. The next block was like stepping back through time in the period rooms of a museum, each shop covering a different era. He frowned into a big display window packed with mid-century modernist crap. He smiled at the store with its svelte Art Deco lamps and chaise lounges. Gave an appraising eye to a smaller shop with Victorian chairs and couches, and finally yawned at a stuffy Second Empire living room.
A fast rattle of Spanish from some guys entering a bodega reminded him that Hudson wasn’t just a weekend playground for upscale New Yorkers. A block north of Bodine’s, seedy Columbia Street crawled its way down to housing projects by the river. A couple of blocks to the south, a state prison hunched under a bluff.
But this section of Warren east of Sixth Street was headed upmarket. And here was a brand new women’s clothing store with silk dresses in dazzling colors, flowering a little early for spring. Shit.
Liz. This was the kind of stuff she just loved. He started sliding down a familiar muddy slope. His home was across the street in the next block. He peered up at its brooding face. Bodine called it the House of Usher, and it definitely had a gothic vibe. It stood tall and unnaturally thin, like a severe old man, its ornate cornice a brow, and tucked beneath it a single, round, cyclopean window. What that architecture course back in art school had taught him was an oculus. Right now it was glowering down at him.
This was night and day from seeing it the first time, ten years ago. He and Liz had driven up from the city house hunting. Laughing and chattering away the whole length of the Taconic Parkway, his hand in her hair, her popping chocolate truffles into his mouth.
They’d been right where he was now when a flash of light caught Ray’s eye. The sun gleaming off the round window. He pointed and said, “Look,” but the gleam was already gone, just a trick of the sun’s angle. Later, Ray would joke with her: “It was winking at me.”
“You made that up. You and your famous imagination.” She liked it, then.
He eased the key in the door and pushed it open, his other hand muting the string of bells he’d chosen for the creepy mismatch of their tones. Their purpose was fair warning to all who entered, though the window display ought to ring a few bells as well. It contained the last of the reliquary parodies he’d made his stock in trade in recent years, somewhere in the uncanny valley between fine art and horror movie props. If you still didn’t get it, there was Ray of Darkness painted in shiny black Gothic script on the display window. Weenies and kids not admitted! The sign in the door said Closed, but there was no need to flip it: The gallery only opened mornings, and even then at his whim.
While he was fond of his sculptures, he did not like the twin phantoms that haunted his house. The ghosts of Liz and his muse were the cause of his extended funk. He slipped his shoes off and stepped softly so as not to wake them. He tiptoed up the rusted spiral staircase, making only a faint metallic hum. He glanced across the kitchen at the closed door of the bedroom, which he hadn’t dared enter in months.
Though it made no sense, he gripped the laptop like it was a shield or talisman that might protect him. He headed up the continuation of the spiral steps to the third floor. Tiptoed down the narrow hall past his studio. Nothing stood between him and that mausoleum of hopes and ambition but the red curtain he hadn’t pulled open since that last day. He couldn’t see the chisels, brushes, half-finished pieces, and stacks of musty materials entombed there, but he could smell their charnel breath of linseed and old glue. And he could feel them, accusing.
He retorted: It wasn’t me who left. Two more steps, and he entered the turret room behind the oculus, with the comforts of the purple velvet wingback couch, the window, and his bottle of absinthe. The one place in his house where he was safe from the ghosts.
He sat, pulled a placemat from his pocket, and read, shaking his head. He eyed the silver laptop. Maybe Bodine was right. Use the tool of the times.
He opened it, fired up a Word doc, and started typing.