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Because he’d been one, an airline pilot, he was accustomed to keeping irregular hours so the prospect of being on call appealed to him. He imagined waking up to a ringing phone—they don’t ring anymore, he thought, they chortle—saw himself backing down the driveway at irregular hours, ten thirty at night, two in the morning.
Friends in Need was the official name. You can bet Tom was never going to call it that. The Church Thing, he settled on finally. At the orientation, an excruciating evening at the rectory with three other volunteers, all retired men, an accountant, a high school principal, a man who’d owned a cleaning company, Father Roberto handed out lists of emergency numbers (women’s shelters, poison control) then talked at length about the kinds of situations volunteers might encounter. “An older person needs somebody to go along to the doctor, maybe, to listen and remember what gets said. Somebody stranded when a car breaks down. Something as mundane as waiting for a delivery or repairman. And on up from there, I’m sure, once we get rolling. There might be a problem at school, say, or a dispute with a neighbor. The kind of thing that benefits enormously from the presence of a cooler head.”
They worked through the rotation twice and nobody got a single call. Then, as was bound to happen, Tom picked up the phone one afternoon and an unfamiliar voice asked, “Is this The Friends in Need person?”
“Yes, yes, it is. Who’s this, please?” Father Roberto had instructed them to say How can I help? but Tom couldn’t bring himself to.
On the line was Mrs. Georgette Boucher who needed help with a garage door opener that had suddenly stopped working after twenty years. Mrs. Boucher didn’t know where the manual was, Mr. Boucher was long dead, the car couldn’t be gotten out and was needed.
Tom’s mother died of breast cancer in her early sixties. Had she lived to be an old lady he’d have liked her to comport herself the way Mrs. Boucher did, which is to say decorously. There’s no chance that would have happened, Tom’s mother having been a garrulous woman with high highs and low lows, but there you are. It was a pleasant business, helping Mrs. Boucher, especially since it turned out that somebody, the man who cut the grass, Mrs. Boucher thought, had turned off a light switch he shouldn’t have. There was a piece of masking tape stuck to the wall above the switch on which somebody, Mr. Boucher presumably, had written, “Do Not Turn Off.” That masculine writing, faded, unheeded, made Tom momentarily uneasy, but fixing the door opener was literally a matter of flicking a switch. Tom had a cup of perked coffee and a stale butter cookie and basked in Mrs. Boucher’s gratitude. She was impressed that he’d been an airline pilot but was glad for his sake and for his family’s that he was retired now.
“Bastards,” she said harshly and with great emotion. “Those goddamn bastards. I still shake when I think of it.” She held up her two hands to show him. “I’m glad my husband didn’t live to see it. I sometimes wish I hadn’t. I sometimes think, is this the kind of thing I’m staying alive for?”
Next came the mother of a teenaged boy who’d been arrested for stealing a car. This was no garage door opener. Still Tom felt he was able to be of some use. He spoke to the arresting officer on the mother’s behalf and sat next to the woman in juvenile court. When the judge let the boy off with a warning, the mother embraced Tom with tears running down her cheeks. To his own surprise, he returned the embrace easily.
He looked forward to his days on and was relieved when they were over. The program was catching on. He generally got at least one call. He gave an eighty-two-year-old man a ride to the airport. He sat with four children while their mother took the fifth to the emergency room for his asthma. Margaret was happier. The program didn’t get Tom out of the house all that much, but it did give him something new to talk about, and she was proud of his participation, feeling she deserved some credit, too, for loaning the world her competent and reliable husband.
It was Sunday afternoon, and Tom was watching Tiger Woods on TV and thinking that he, Tiger, was awesomely talented but lacked heart or something, breadth of personality, something. “Part of the problem,” Tom thought. Another part of the problem? Even when he makes an impossible shot it’s boring to watch, how can that be? Moving from chair to couch in anticipation of a nap, he checked his watch and was glad for the nice fat chunk of time till dinner.
Then the phone rang.
Shit. Be for Margaret. Please be for Margaret.
“Telephone, sweetie,” she called from the bedroom. “Tom? Pick up.”
Her brightly solicitous tone suggested it was a church call. “Hello,” Tom said brusquely, trying to sound as if he were in the middle of something.
“Yes, hello, I’m sorry to bother you. Father Roberto gave me your number.”
It was a man, Tom’s age more or less, white, educated. Surprised, embarrassed about the abruptness of his hello, Tom still hoped the man was calling to say he wanted to become a volunteer, in which case he could be dealt with quickly. “Right. What can I do for you?”
“I feel a little silly asking, I just drove around for twenty minutes to see if I could find a couple of teenagers, no luck. I need help lifting an air conditioner, a big one, bringing it up from the basement, actually. I heard the announcement at church this morning and thought maybe one of you guys could give me a hand.”
Tom bristled, eyed his place on the couch. “As it turns out, I’m right in the middle of something. Would you mind calling me back in a couple of hours?”
“Not at all.”
Certain the man would never call back, Tom felt obliged to have a somewhat longer conversation. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Arthur Belanger,” the man said. Then he laughed.
“Sorry, do we know each other?”
“I’ve seen you at church, I think. You and your wife. I’ve only been in town a couple of months. The priest always looks at you when he makes the announcement about your group. He always sort of looks your way.”
“Listen, why don’t we go ahead and do it? An air conditioner, you said?”
“That’s right. A big one. A big old Norge, remember them? You don’t have back problems or anything, do you?”
“No, nothing like that. Where do you live?”
“Deerfield right off Lake Street, number 47.”
For a moment Tom wondered if some degree of caution might be in order. He’d be entering a stranger’s house alone, after all. An image of a dungeon presented itself, a secret room off the basement of an ordinary suburban house, a place where unspeakable acts of homosexual violence might happen. The rape scene from Pulp Fiction came back to him. Should he suggest bringing one of the other men along? No sooner was the question framed in his mind than he felt diminished by it, as if to voice it would be to capitulate to some modern ill he’d resisted until that moment. “Good. I’ll be right over.”
Margaret lay on the floor in the bedroom exercising along with a video. The young woman on the screen was beautiful and stern in red leotard, tights, and headband. “Work that powerhouse,” she commanded. “Let’s go, come on, don’t quit.”
“Somebody has a problem and we go, right? That’s the idea. Help is just a phone call away.”
Margaret did two more crunches then groped for the remote and hit stop. “What did he want?”
“Help moving an air conditioner.”
“Oh. That shouldn’t take too long at least.”
“No it shouldn’t, so if I’m not home in half an hour send back up.”
“Do you have a bad feeling, really? Maybe you shouldn’t go alone. Give me a minute to change and I’ll come.”
“No need for that.” He wanted sympathy not help. “It’s here in town. It’s right over on Deerfield. I’m not feeling very charitable is all. I was sound asleep when the phone rang.”
Margaret got up and kissed Tom on the lips. She smelled of fresh sweat. He thought of the beautiful woman in the red tights.
“You’re going to heaven,” she said, “if anybody is.”
The house was unprepossessing in the extreme. Tom’s heart sank when he spotted it. An early sixties ranch that hadn’t been kept up, olive siding, white brick, peeling shutters with diamond cut-outs. It was a holdover from the town’s middle-class past before property values shot up and bigger, grander houses were built or improvised. Tom was disappointed that the smart, capable-sounding man he’d spoken to on the phone lived in such a house.
“Come in, please,” said Arthur Belanger. He was about Tom’s age, balding, tall and thickset, with dark eyes and heavy brows, more ethnic than Tom had expected. Greek? Italian? Jew? He was wearing Bermuda shorts and a white undershirt but that seemed a concession to the heat. Arthur Belanger didn’t carry himself like a man who ordinarily answered the door in his undershirt. “And please excuse the mess.” Belanger’s hair was damp and freshly combed. He smelled of Listerine.
Following Belanger up three steps into the living room, Tom saw that the house was nearly empty. No carpet on the floor or curtains on the windows. Just a black leather couch, a glass-topped coffee table, a couple of high-backed dining room chairs serving as end tables. One had a ceramic lamp on it, the other a stack of what looked like business letters and invoices held in place by a stapler. There were newspapers strewn around, the Times, the Wall Street Journal. On one end of the couch was an accordion file jammed full and on top of that, a laptop. An oscillating fan sat on the floor near the couch and was on but didn’t seem to be doing much good. The room got direct afternoon sun and was stiflingly hot.
Tom didn’t want to know what a person would be camped out in a suburban house, attending to some kind of business, but he felt obliged to say something. “Are you just moving in?”
“I’m not sure what I’m doing. I bought this place as an investment, never had any intention of living here but as things have turned out, well, here I am, right? Sit down, please. Can I get you something to drink?”
Had Arthur Belanger been a much younger or older man or a woman or non-white or working class, Tom would have accepted the drink. Under the circumstances he felt entitled to refuse it. Belanger could be expected to know the value of another man’s time. “If it’s all the same to you, Arthur, can we just get to it?”
“Of course. It’s down in the basement. This-a-way.”
Tom followed Belanger through the kitchen and down a narrow staircase that smelled of mildew and something else, sour beer? In the basement was a mountain of refuse, black plastic garbage bags, full and empty, sheets of crumbling drywall, a couple of ancient plaid suitcases, a printer and screen, a golf bag, cleats, sneakers, clay flowerpots with dirt still in them.
“Jesus,” Tom said, turning away. The mound of garbage, old things, personal things abandoned, repulsed him.
“Awful, right? I need a dumpster, can you believe? This place was rented for years. The last tenants were a bunch of young guys, five or six of them. Why they wanted to live out here I don’t know. As I say I never planned to live here myself. I bought this place from a client years ago as a favor just about.”
“Are you a lawyer?”
“Hardly. No. An importer. Fine wine and champagne. Business is way off. Plus, like everybody else, I took it on the chin in the market. A tough couple of years one way and another. Fucking Arabs.”
“You said it.”
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. You’re a pilot, the priest said?”
“Retired. Two years last week in fact.”
“Just as well. Not a great time to be working for the airlines either.”
“My wife and daughters are glad I’m not flying anymore.”
“I’ll bet they are. Well, here she is. Thirty-six hundred BTU’s.”
It was mammoth, a representative of the very farthest reaches of the room-air-conditioner category. Beyond something this big there was only central air. In fact, the unit Tom was looking at now was at least as big as the one that sat in the garden outside his bedroom window.
“Jesus, a Norge. Knock on any Norge, remember that? Does it work?”
Belanger pointed to an orange extension cord. “You don’t think I’d carry it upstairs without testing it first?”
Something about the testiness of the remark made Tom see Belanger in context, suffering in the heat, attending to invoices and business letters, making calls, sending e-mails, sweltering, frustrated, irritable. And then, down in the basement for one reason or another, discovering the old air conditioner, plugging it in to see if it worked, picking up the phone and calling Father Roberto.
Here was a man who didn’t have a couple of hundred dollars to spend. What about credit cards? Surely Belanger had those. What’s a room air conditioner cost these days? (Tom hadn’t bought one in decades.) Three, four hundred dollars tops? Tom could not imagine himself unable to buy something he genuinely needed.
Belanger seemed to sense Tom’s pity and bristled. “What do you think? Can we do it?”
Tom wanted to take Belanger out and buy him a small room air conditioner, one that would cool a bedroom anyway. But he couldn’t bring himself to make the offer. Or could he? The prospect of lifting and carrying the massive air conditioner was truly awful. Tom was long accustomed to paying people to do things he didn’t want to do as much as he didn’t want to move that thing. We’re not kids, he thought, making the case to himself. Somebody could get hurt.
“Well?” Belanger asked.
“We take our time, we rest between, we’ll get it up there.”
They experimented with a couple of different positions. When they were ready they looked directly into each other’s eyes and lifted. It was up, the monster was up off the ground. They carried it ten paces then put it down clumsily and hard.
“I don’t know about this,” Belanger said, one hand on the air conditioner, leaning over.
Another go, another six or seven feet.
A few deep breaths and then, “Ready?”
“Go. Now. Go.”
The stairs were narrow. Somebody had to be above the air conditioner and somebody below it. Belanger took the top position.
“Hey,” Tom said.
“What? You want me down there?”
“I got it.”
“Because we can switch.”
“Now you say that. Come on. Let’s go.”
Moving the behemoth over level ground had been hard. Going uphill was hideous. Before the first step had been scaled sweat ran down their faces. Tom felt nauseous. What an undignified death, he thought, crushed by an air conditioner.
It became clear that what was needed was for them both to be on the bottom pushing. Belanger squeezed past while Tom made sure they didn’t lose any ground. Side by side, they closed their eyes and heaved.
The bastard was upstairs. The big bastard was on the kitchen floor.
“We’re dragging it now, Arthur. We have to.”
“We’ll tear up the floor.”
Tom looked at the filthy brick-patterned linoleum. “You care? You don’t care.”
“What if I get a blanket to put under it?”
“We’ll roll it on. Wait a minute now.”
Belanger left the room for a moment and came back carrying a pink sheet with a ruffle along one edge.
“Nice,” Tom said. “Yours?”
“You wind up with things, over the years. I’ve been married. I have daughters.”
They tipped the air conditioner—“Tim-ber,” Belanger said—and it fell.
“I thought the whole goddamn floor was going.”
“No, huh-uh, we’re good, we’re in business.”
They dragged the air conditioner into the living room and over to the window.
“I need a glass of water and about five minutes before we move into phase two, Arthur.”
“Want a beer? I’ve got beer if you’d rather.”
“Yeah, give me a beer.”
They drank, arching their spines, rubbing their lower backs, shaking out arms and legs. Tom finished his beer and was headed to the glass coffee table with the empty when Belanger said, “My ex-wife was in the north tower.”
“9/11. My ex-wife worked at the World Trade.”
“Did she get out?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Your ex-wife, you said?”
“That’s right. We’d been divorced twenty years, twenty-two, in fact.”
“Still. No. I’m sorry.”
“She jumped actually. She was one of the jumpers. There’s a picture. It ran in The New York Times. Why would they publish something like that, can you tell me? People, I mean some of them upside down, falling to their deaths. Come on. And please don’t tell me about the first amendment. Don’t tell me about freedom of the goddamn press.”
Tom had come downstairs on the morning of the twelfth and found Margaret crying over that photograph. That photograph, specifically, had cost Tom sleep and now it would cost him some more.
“What can I say, Arthur, except I’m sorry for your loss. I, really, it was a horrible thing.”
“She had children, for God’s sake. She had grandchildren. Did it ever occur to those people that her children and grandchildren would see that picture?”
“Are they your children too? Did you have children together?”
“We did. Three girls. None of them can stand the sight of me. I was not allowed to attend the memorial service, I was barred. The tribunal met, the witches of East Brunswick, and decided my presence would be an insult to their stepfather, who, I should say to be fair, raised them, including putting them through college, with precious little help from me.”
Tom looked at the pink sheet with the ruffle and thought of the spiteful, grief-stricken girl it had once belonged to. He thought of his own girls and how mysterious they were to him, how it was Margaret who really knew them.
“She was a piece of work, my ex. Nora. Leaving me was the best thing she ever did. Went back to school, got an MBA, and this was twenty years ago. It wasn’t like it is now.”
“Good for her.”
“Are you kidding? Seven figures the last couple of years, easy. Nora was the smartest person I’ve ever known. In terms of sheer brain power. Capacity to process information. Interpersonal skills something else, maybe, but a brain like a computer.”
“Not many guys would admit that about an ex-wife. Or a current one for that matter.”
“And I said it before. Not to her, of course. I’m not that highly evolved.”
“The point is she deserved better than to have to jump out a window because some hollow-eyed sand nigger decides the West is evil and Americans have to die. And then what do we do? Somebody takes a picture and we put it in the goddamn newspaper. I can’t help but feel there’s a message in that about how all this is going to wind up.”
“I remember that picture.”
“Course you do. Everybody remembers that picture.”
“I still have trouble believing it happened. After all these months I still have trouble believing they flew planes into those gigantic buildings and knocked them down.”
“Well, you can believe it. It happened.”
“Do you know what I wonder, what I wish I knew one way or the other? It’s morbid, I know. I haven’t said this to anybody else. I wish I knew whether they killed the pilots or just tied them up.”
“Of course. Because you are one. You were one.”
“Because if they didn’t kill them first, they had to watch it happen. Imagine being in the passenger seat while somebody drives your whole family a hundred miles an hour straight into a brick wall.”
Belanger looked at Tom for a moment then drank the last of his beer. “Come on, let’s finish this. Let’s get this done, shall we?”
Three unsuccessful attempts. The window ledge was about two inches too high, it seemed. Finally they got one of the dining room chairs, hoisted the air conditioner onto it, and then, in a fresh go, on up into the window. Belanger plugged it in, then went around shutting windows.
“I’m going to throw you out of here now, my friend. It’s been so hot I’ve hardly slept the last couple nights. I’m so tired I’m seeing halos.”
“No problem. I should be getting back anyway. And listen, Arthur, if there’s anything else—”
“There isn’t but thank you. I hope you’re not too sore in the morning, buddy.”
They shook hands. Belanger walked Tom out and stood in the doorway while Tom made his way to his car. They waved then Belanger disappeared into the house.
Tom looked at himself in the rearview mirror. The muscles in his arms and legs were quivering, and he had various cuts and scratches on his hands. I’ll take four aspirin when I get home, he thought, I’ll soak in the Jacuzzi after dinner. He backed out onto the road and pulled away fast, beginning to rehearse the story he’d tell Margaret. He described the house and Belanger’s circumstance, the mound of garbage in the basement. He saw Margaret’s expression. She would know from his demeanor that something unsettling was coming. She would be braced for it. “His ex-wife was in the north tower,” he said out loud, tasting the beer he’d just finished when Belanger had told him. “Ex?” Margaret would ask just as he had. “His ex-wife?” Would he tell her about the photograph? No, he decided, he would not. He would use restraint. He would spare her. That much he could do. “Don’t tell me about the first amendment,” he said helplessly, driving too fast, flying. “Don’t tell me about goddamn freedom of the press.”