PART I – The Letter
CHAPTER ONE: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights
I’ve known Thomas Mueller long enough to know most everything about him, except perhaps the most important thing of all. I watched Tommy that morning as he took a bite out of the big apple. Of course the metaphor was ridiculously obvious but that had always been his way. The man was palpably metaphoric. It was clear just how much Tommy loved the city. New York City. The CKY Grocery on Amsterdam had giant, bright red Spartan apples every day of the year, even if it wasn’t the right season. He loved that grocery, and the old, shaky Persian man who owned it. Tommy emphatically, yet erroneously believed that the CKY Grocery was the genuine heart of the great city. All five boroughs embodied distinct feelings for him, but there was only one that he’d ever truly romanticized. To him, Manhattan was the entire world.
He loved everything between the East River and the Hudson; from the Financial District up to Harlem; from Avenue A to Zabar’s. He loved the four seasons, although autumn was easily the most anticipated. To Tommy, Central Park’s bright, almost copper hues in the fall were the epitome of orange. He loved the unique perfume of deli meats and subway steam. He loved the rain with such verve that every time it so much as drizzled, he would turn to the sky so he could feel the drops sprinkle onto his teeth. Because every raindrop that hit him had already experienced that much-envied journey from the tips of the skyscrapers all the way down to the cracked and foot-stamped sidewalks. He believed every inch of the city had its own predetermined genre of music that suited it to a tee. The modal jazz of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter was absolutely meant for the Upper East Side, north of 61st Street. Precisely between Gershwin and gospel. He loved the view from his apartment, even if it was just the leaves of the tree outside in July or the thin shadows of its bare branches crawling along the plain brick wall in January. Tommy loved his career. He loved his friends. And he loved that first big bite of apple I watched him take each and every morning.
Everything was perfect in the city, and as long as things remained the way he wanted them to, Tommy would continue to love the city forever.
Which is exactly why his jaw dropped when he opened the letter he found in his mailbox that morning. The first bite of still un-chewed apple fell out of his mouth and firmly planted itself within the crack of that 113th Street sidewalk.
“You guys are not going to believe this,” Tommy said as he removed his coat and scarf. He sat down next to Kate and across from Jesse, placing the still-not-quite-yet-brown apple core onto Kate’s empty but egg-yolk smeared plate. She hated that about him, how he’d walk into the coffee shop everyday as though he owned the place.
“Not now Tommy,” Kate interrupted. “Jess was just about to spill the details of his date last night.”
Jesse struggled, but managed his best ear-to-ear smile. Still, Jesse’s fake smiles were far more beautiful than most of the city’s genuine ones.
Tommy was impressed. “Our man Jesse finally scored himself that elusive second date, huh? My oh my. If this day were any other, I’d say that kind of information wins out.” He reached into his coat pocket and waved the envelope in an attempt to gather up their attention. “But not today, my friends.”
“Whatever,” Kate spat out, not the least bit interested in whatever news Tommy had brought along with him that morning. She anxiously slapped her palm on the table, allowing the salt and pepper shakers a tiny jump. “Come on Jess. Out with it.”
Jesse finished his last drop of coffee and immediately signaled the waitress for a refill. “It’s not such a big deal,” he said. “We ate dinner and saw a show. End of story.”
Tommy knew for sure that wasn’t really the end of the story, and he was fine with that. But although Jesse’s highly unimaginative yarn was adequate enough for him, Tommy knew Kate wouldn’t be quite as satisfied.
And she wasn’t. “Dinner?” she asked, with one of her infamous one-word questions. Kate didn’t like to waste words, unless of course it was to tell someone how disappointed she was in them.
The waitress returned with the refill. She knew well enough to leave sufficient room for Jesse’s preferred amount of cream. Jesse concentrated on the steady stream of shining coffee pouring into his cup. “The Wing King’s on 87th Street,” was his answer for Kate.
“Show?” There it was again: the one-word question.
“Some off-Broadway play. Honestly, I don’t even remember the name.”
Tommy laid the envelope onto the table, only to see it continue to go ignored. He positioned it so that it sat precisely in the middle of all three of them; he calculated the measurements in his head. And he was careful to make sure the letter sat outside the shadows of the ketchup bottle and napkin dispenser.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Kate grumbled. “You squeeze out a second date and the best you can do is take the girl out for chicken wings? There’s got to be a bazillion better restaurants in this city that you could have picked.”
“At least a bazillion,” Tommy mimicked under his breath. He slowly circled the envelope with his index finger hoping for some interest. Like a shark around a boat, eager for just one curious bite.
“Actually, it was her choice.” Jesse sprinkled two packets of sugar into his steaming drink. He focused on the granules as they plopped in one by one. It was almost as though he was attempting to count each single glittering speck. The tiniest droplet of coffee arced from the cup to the letter on the tabletop. Observant as ever, Tommy was the only one who noticed. He rubbed the globule off with the back of his hand.
“Cab?” Kate asked again, unrelentingly.
“I hailed her a taxi and gave the driver a twenty,” Jesse answered. “I thanked her for the night and walked home by myself. That was all.”
“What? Seriously? No kiss? No discussion of date number three?”
Jesse hesitated to answer any further. He looked at Tommy, for what might have been the first time since he sat down, hoping that maybe his friend could help put an end to Kate’s meddlesome barrage of questions. But Tommy refused to interfere.
“And really Jess,” she continued. “A twenty dollar cab ride wouldn’t have gotten that poor girl further than three blocks in this city.” Truthfully, twenty dollars equaled about twenty blocks (“a buck a block,” they say), but Kate’s sarcasm was on the right track.
“All right, all right,” Tommy finally complied. “Jess, we all know it was you who picked the restaurant. The last time I checked, you were the one with the freezer full of chicken wings, right? And are we really expected to believe that you didn’t take her to go see Wicked, and not some way-the-fuck-off-Broadway shit show?”
“Haven’t you seen Wicked like a kajillion times already?” Kate added.
“At least a kajillion,” Jesse conceded. “Okay, fine. We did see Wicked. But it was her suggestion. Really!” Without thinking, he dumped another pack of sugar into his coffee cup. “How could I possibly refuse though?”
“You couldn’t.” Tommy said with conviction. “And Kate should really know you better by now, don’t you think?”
Tommy, Kate and Jesse had been best friends for nearly fifteen years, since they were best friends in high school. The three of them had shared so many ups and downs over the years their bond was virtually unbreakable. They met at that exact booth every morning. Sometimes it was only two of them. Rarely was it just one. And it was unusual for the fourth seat to ever be filled, but it had happened on occasion.
The shadow from a crowd of people outside spread across the tabletop. “Hey!” Tommy banged on the window to get their attention. “Fuck off already!” He cursed seemingly at random, but there was nothing arbitrary or illogical about it to Tommy. He did it all the time. The only reason the group started coming to that particular coffee shop on a regular basis was because it had Tommy’s name on the sign: Tom’s Restaurant. Besides, as it turned out, that coffee shop made the best soft-boiled eggs too. It was also immortalized in the Seinfeld sitcom, the stand-in for what was known as Monk’s Coffee Shop, so it was not unusual for its windows to be crowded with fascinated tourists. Taking pictures of one another outside. Posing as though they were the first to ever do so. On the other side of that glass were a million faces Tommy did not want watching him slurping coffee and stuffing breakfast sausages into his mouth. He banged his fist on the window again. The crowd scuttled away like startled spiders, but his friends didn’t flinch at all. They never did. The framed poster of Cosmo Kramer watched them from the back of the restaurant. Again, Tommy carefully repositioned the envelope between them on the table.
And finally, Kate gave in. “Okay, fine. So what’s in the envelope Tommy?”
“And he thought you’d never ask!” Jesse joked, tapping out the last of the sugar from the packet with his fingertip.
“The two of you can laugh all you want, but I’ve got some serious news this morning.” He motioned as if he was going to open the envelope, but then leaned back in the booth, content to continue on with his proclamation. Tommy savored any moment in which he could hold everyone else’s attention. “Actually though, this is beyond serious. This is more than trivial. It’s bigger than Jesse scoring two consecutive dates with someone in his own age bracket!”
Jesse balled up the tiny sugar package and flicked it across the table into Tommy’s face, right between his eyes. His aim was uncanny, and if Jesse didn’t hate sports so much, he would have been very good at them. Tommy ignored it completely though; his exuberance carried him on and he emphasized every word with an extended index finger. “The contents of this envelope just might have the potential to significantly change everything that we know.”
Kate’s attention had already been diverted; she took her purse and dug deep inside for some money. Typically, she was the first to lose interest in anything Tommy wanted to carry on about.
“Hey,” Tommy said. “I’m not done yet. What are you doing?”
“Paying for breakfast. You know how long it takes to get change back in this place.” She found a ten and flagged down the waitress. “And I’ve got to get to work. Some of us still have real jobs, you know.”
“Wow,” Tommy proclaimed. “Bitter much?”
The waitress was quick to take the money and she whirred back around robotically to find some change. “You know what I mean Tommy. Jesse and I have to get up every morning and you don’t.” Kate slipped out of the booth and turned her eyes away from the two men, hoping they wouldn’t notice that she was deliberately avoiding eye contact. Hoping she could force the emergent tear back into her eye.
“Hey, I get up in the morning. Of course, it’s usually just to come here for breakfast and talk to the two of you.”
“Why don’t you tell Jess all about your life-changing letter and he can fill me in later?”
“Trust me. This is something the both of you will want to hear.”
For a moment, the envelope in front of them was forgotten. There was now another force distracting the trio. They each had something different weighing on their minds that morning, each had their own personal black cloud hanging above them, but at that moment Kate’s bad attitude seemed to be the prevalent issue. Whatever it was, it seemed to infect that one single table within that particular Morningside Heights coffee shop at that precise moment.
Quietly, Kate removed her coat from the rack. Tommy was the first to say something. “Kate?” he asked. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”
“You want to hear something funny?” she spoke, still purposefully looking off somewhere else. One of the waitresses was placing a fresh strawberry-rhubarb pie behind the glass pastry display. The cashier was having trouble closing the register, and slammed the drawer shut over and over and over. Kramer seemed to disapprove of everything within his sight lines.
“Why do I get the feeling that this isn’t really going to be something funny?” Tommy mused.
“I don’t think I’m in love with Gene anymore,” Kate answered. Tommy was right: it definitely was not funny. But it wasn’t a total surprise either. The marriage of Kate Prince and Gene Schneider had been one of the strangest couplings of all time. Intuitively, both Jesse and Tommy reached their hands over and placed them on the tips of Kate’s fingers, which were still anchored to the tabletop. “I’d like to believe that I was in love at some point. But to be honest, I’m really not so sure now.” Her eyes darted back and forth between her two best friends. “I think I might have made a mistake.” Breaking her hand away from theirs, Kate slipped on her coat and wiped her eyes with one sleeve, just to make sure nothing incriminating had leaked out. It might have been the first time in her life that Kate had ever admitted to making a mistake.
“Jeez. Now I feel bad for telling you about my date last night,” Jesse confessed.
“I just feel bad Kate’s been stuck with a dude named Gene for three years,” Tommy said to Jesse, managing half a smile in the corner of his mouth.
Friends like these never need to say the all-too-obvious I’m sorry’s. In some ways, their own empathic conventions were actually better anyhow. Their normal reactions were much easier for them to take than any overflowing sympathy.
“Have you talked to him?” Jesse asked, hoping the answer would be a yes.
Kate took the change from the approaching waitress. “No. Not yet. I just realized it all this morning, before coming here. But of course I’d tell the two of you first, right? Isn’t that how we do things around here?”
“It’s how we’ve always done things.” Tommy’s words were comforting. In a microsecond, their entire friendship weaved its way through all three of them. This wasn’t the first time they would run into a difficult obstacle together, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“Come on Kate,” Jesse said, taking one last gulp of coffee and rising from his seat too. “I’ll walk you to the subway.”
Tommy took note of the fact that the details of the letter on the table were not questioned again. “Call me if you need anything,” he said, watching them exit the restaurant.
The waitress collected their dirty plates and asked Tommy if he wanted his usual for breakfast. He replied with a look that seemed to ask, why wouldn’t I?
The plate with the apple core disappeared into the kitchen where it would be dumped into a bag amongst various items that were only ever destined to be forgotten. Tommy clutched the letter in his hands for a few minutes before sliding the envelope back into his coat pocket, worrying about whatever change the future might hold. He knew well enough that Manhattan would always send signals, if only its residents could stop and feel them. The city itself breathes in with every tragedy: every obituary in the New York Times; every jackhammer upon its streets; every time a girl leaves a boy; every slight transgression that takes place within its invisible walls. And every time New Yorkers breathe a collective sigh of relief, every time they find peace in themselves, every time they find each other again, every time they bring new life into the world or enjoy a good book, or put a fresh coat of paint on an old cracked wall. Manhattan exhales. The city breathes in. The city breathes out. Breathe in. Breathe out. I knew when Tommy could feel it, but he still had no way of knowing just what was waiting for him around the corner. He banged on the window beside him once more as another body blocked his view of Broadway.