Character Names

Have you ever read a novel where some of the character names really bothered you? Or maybe you found the name to be a perfect fit for the character? Have you ever kept forgetting who characters were? Confusing multiple characters with one another? I’ve been thinking a lot about my character names recently, and whether they really work for my book or not.

It’s a hard thing to realize that a name is just not working. As writers, we spend so long on developing our characters, and a name is part of that development. Sometimes we fall in love with a name so deeply that the idea of changing it would alter the entire story.

A few of the characters in my third novel, This Never Happened, have gone through name changes. Sometimes it’s other characters in the story who appear to fit a certain name better that precipitates a name swap. Sometimes they fall victim to the “same letter syndrome”, when two characters’ (especially main characters’) names begin with the same letter and causes confusion for the reader. As a writer you need to eliminate as much unnecessary confusion as possible.

Cepik “Epic” Small is the novel’s protagonist and obviously has a very unique name. Initially I wanted to simply name him Epic but this was slightly too unusual for a given name so I did some research into similar-sounding names that could use Epic as a nickname. I discovered the Polish Cepik (pronounced Seh-pick) and from there gave him a bit of family history that was not entirely necessary for the story but helped flesh him out a bit more. The name Epic originally tied into the first working title of the book: it was going to be called Epoch (as in an important event in history) and Epic sounded similar enough in pronunciation that there would be a common thread there. After much consideration this proved to be a little too far outside the box so some simplification was needed. The surname Small came to me via one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally. There is a character with the line: “I’m Ben Small. From the Coney Island Smalls.” My book takes place in Coney Island and I just couldn’t shake the line out of my head, so it’s kind of an homage. Also, I like the juxtaposition between the words “epic” and “small.”

Below are some of the other characters in This Never Happened who have unusual – but hopefully memorable – names:

  • Abigail “Abi” Ayr: discovers an unexplained connection between herself and Epic. Abigail is a pathological liar and may have some rudimentary psychic abilities. She loves video games and referencing games such as Minesweeper and World of Warcraft.
  • Gideon Flat: Epic’s new therapist, after his previous one (Doctor Griffin) dies.
  • Armand Bester: Epic’s friend, co-worker and would-be writer/playwright. His play – called The Duality of Three – is eerily similar to events in The Third (a fictional novel that Epic is reading).
  • Zoltan Lintzel: An odd scientist who is somehow connected to a MMORPG and is also strangely familiar with Epic’s past. He claims to be from Switzerland. Zoltan is Hungarian, Lintzel is German. I liked the idea of not really knowing the man’s origins.
  • Margaret “Margo” Asus: An actress from The Duality of Three; played the dead girl. Was the name of the waitress at the UnDiner until I felt it was a better fit here. Her name holds a connection to the mythological pegasus, with “Peggy” or “Peg” being a nickname for Margaret (therefore Margo Asus = PegAsus).
  • Doctor Griffin: Epic’s former therapist, recently committed suicide. Just like the Margo character, the good doctor also holds a connection to a mythological creature (Griffin = lion/eagle hybird).
  • Lobstero: Abi’s father. His hands are deformed and have the appearance of lobster claws. Lobstero is a performer at the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore.
  • Wilma Dradtstl-Small: Epic’s mother, left them when Epic was only five years old. Practically the only thing Epic remembers of his mother is her oftentimes telling him he was “born ten thousand years too late.” But what did she mean by this?
  • Dorothy: Waitress at The UnDiner, the Coney Island coffee shop frequented by Epic. Was Margaret Asus, then momentarily Lorna before becoming Dorothy.

Novels Within Novels

In my new novel (“THIS NEVER HAPPENED“), I’m exploring the novel-within-a-novel concept. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. It’s true, I already did this in my second book (“THE FALLING“). In The Falling, my main character (Tommy) is a novelist whose debut work (“BLANC“) was essentially a detective story set in 1940’s New York. Tommy based the detective character on himself while modelling the amnesiac serial killer he was chasing after an old friend (Patrick) who Tommy had been harboring negative feelings for. When Tommy gets it into his head that Patrick has returned after ten years in a grand act of revenge, he also decides that Patrick is using the scenes in Blanc as inspiration. I used three “excerpts” from Blanc and placed them sporadically within The Falling, at points in the story where Tommy’s feelings might be justified by the reader. But these were also scenes that intended to help readers better define the true nature of Tommy’s and Patrick’s close relationship.

But where the fictional novel within The Falling served the story as non-linear character development, my new story utilizes the concept in a very different way.

The FallingThis Never Happened COVERIn This Never Happened, the protagonist (Epic Small) is riding the F-Train through Brooklyn when he finds a tattered copy of a book on the seat beside him. Below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my book:

“The novel is entitled The Third. The cover is a painting of two identical left forearms, with their wrists facing out. Somebody has defaced the cover with a bright green marker, having drawn juvenile slits along the wrists with blood streaming out. Like they are bleeding pesto or possibly belong to some sort of space creature who has assumed the form of a man. Checking the front matter, I discover this is an English translation of a French novel by the author Jean Trepanier, first published in the Seventies. This translation was published a few years after that. The back cover offers no synopsis, no indication of what the reader might be in for.”

Epic begins reading the novel right there on the subway, and realizes without a doubt that this is going to be a confusing tale. It is a story about twins, though the two men (Tristan and Luca) share no relation and don’t really look alike. The fictional author (Jean Trepanier) continues to describe Luca’s physical features differently; he’s Chinese, he’s an Eskimo, he’s a little girl, or he’s morbidly obese. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the descriptions change but the reader and Tristan and all the secondary characters are meant to simply assume they are identical twins. Luca proposes that the two men switch lives, and without much of an argument from Tristan the two swap jobs, apartments and girlfriends.

The Third is written in a way and perceived by Epic to be something that is worth questioning. Is this a real book? Was it intentionally planted on that subway for Epic (and him specifically) to discover? And in another twist, when Epic discusses the strangeness of this book with his therapist (Gideon), it turns out that Gideon has read it too. But Gideon’s version of The Third is a little different: there is a whole other character in his version, one that does not exist in Epic’s: a third twin (er, triplet, I suppose) plays a key role in this alternate version, and his name is simply The Third. Why the divergences in the two books? Who holds the “correct” version? These are all questions that I’m hoping readers will ask, but ultimately, the two copies of The Third play a key role in the bigger picture of This Never Happened. They serve as clues towards the secret within the entire story.

Still transitioning from the outline-to-writing stage, my goal is to have This Never Happened completed at the end of 2014.

Excerpt: THIS NEVER HAPPENED – Chapter Four

In an effort to share some of what I’m currently working on, here is an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Four of my new novel, THIS NEVER HAPPENED. Our protagonist, Cepik “Epic” Small, is a lonely soul, lost in New York (Coney Island specifically) and searching for his proper identity. He has recently began sessions with a new therapist (his previous therapist killed himself) and he’s had brief but strangely significant encounters with an mysterious as-yet-unnamed girl. Here, Epic is riding the subway on his way to work.

So read on! Comments are very much welcome.

CHAPTER FOUR

Every time I ride the F-Train I feel lucky. I don’t know why that is exactly since I don’t think good luck has ever befallen anyone who’s rode the F, but inevitably I will catch myself thinking, “This is the day something special will happen.” Because of this, I don’t take the F-Train very often; in fact I avoid it as much as possible. Because too much good luck, too much eager anticipation for something unknown cannot be healthy. And how likely is it that good luck could be a constant anyway? That goes against the very idea of luck. Maybe it’s something akin to this pleasure delaying, like Doctor Gideon said to me yesterday. Still, based on the alarming fashion in which this train shook upon leaving the station there was certainly no reason to believe good luck was on its way.

There’s a delicate electricity in the air tonight, a feeling like if one were to tread ever so far from where they were meant to be sinister events might unfold. The clear summer twilight seems to hide dark clouds beneath it, rather than the other way around. Yet the rancid, musky odour of the Coney Island station greets me as it always does, smacking all my sense at once. Sure, it’s still comforting in a way, but I feel like I need to put myself outside of my comfort zones (again, as Gideon suggested) so I find a seat in the open and across from another passenger, in fact the only other person in view, rather than a shady spot in the corner of the last train. The old man ignores me, he of the two-piece checkered suit and ascot, looking like Al Pacino from The Godfather. On his feet he showcases a pair of worn bowling shoes, one noticeably larger than the other. His left arm rests upon a massive garbage bag on the seat beside him, its contents unknown but enigmatic. The deviant smile on his face captures me for a moment; why is he smiling so? I want to keep staring, but I know I’d be utterly defenseless should he make sudden eye contact with me. Thankfully my hand glides against a newspaper beside me, which is enough to turn my attention elsewhere.

Tonight I’m riding the F-Train to Roosevelt Island. I’m meeting Bester, a coworker of mine, at The Salt Mine, a trendy new restaurant on Roosevelt’s Main Street. The small island, slivered between Manhattan and Queens has a dark and dirty history of penitentiaries, lunatic asylums and holding pens for victims of Smallpox. But today Roosevelt Island is slowly transforming itself into the latest of New York City’s gentrified neighborhoods offering luxury condos for a young, affluent demographic. I was supposed to pick up the company van from Bester at our warehouse in Gowanus but he called asking me to instead meet him on Roosevelt Island. There’s something wrong with the van. I don’t know the first thing about the inner workings of my single-slice toaster, but Bester apparently thinks I’m the company’s newest expert on vehicle repair. My guess is he did a little weed-induced off-roading through Queensbridge Park in the van beforehand and simply requires an alibi before filling out the night’s routine paperwork. I figure as long as he’s spotting my subway fare it’s all fine with me.

The copy of the Daily News beside me seems to have gone untouched, as if the Sunday edition had been delivered directly to this seat. I catch the words “Coney Island” right on the front page in big, bold serifed letters. There’s rarely ever front page news about Coney Island, and if there is it’s only because of a tragedy. I remove the newspaper for a closer look. Apparently there was a homicide yesterday, it happened during the Mermaid Parade, just a few blocks away. I try to recall if I heard sirens or screaming, but it’s almost like I wasn’t even there yesterday, like Gideon had me under hypnosis or something. There are no names or much in the way of description, sensationalistic journalism at its best. A man in his late twenties/early thirties was strangled with his own shirt. He was discovered by a homeless man in an alley, who had probably wondered at first who had taken over his turf. I think again about how long it’s been since I’ve talked to my father; he probably isn’t worried about me, but I remind myself that I really do need to call him one of these days.

The next few pages are of no real consequence. I glimpse over them as the train stops at Avenue U Station. A penguin at the Central Park Zoo that was believed to have died yesterday was now miraculously alive again. Some gibberish about a coma-like condition called cerebral hypoxia. Hypoxic hypoxia or some such thing. Simply glancing over the article doesn’t give me any glaring insight, nor do I really find it interesting enough to read deeper. The rest is so mundane it seems the same stories have been printed over and over again. Effortless stories for the simple sake of daily dissemination; a sewage pipe burst in the Upper West Side; a new dog park opens in the Village; Hampton green tomatoes may reduce cervical cancer.

By the time my train reaches Avenue N Station, I’ve already tossed the paper aside, without bothering to fold it back neatly into its once pristine condition. On the seat there is now a book which I hadn’t spotted when I took the newspaper. I almost wonder if somebody left it beside me as they passed by, but I’m confident in my certainty that no one other than the gentleman across from me had been in this car. It is a novel, a softcover and dog-eared in its condition.

I pick it up, and it feels only slightly heavier than I imagined, just enough to seem significant.

The novel is entitled The Third. The cover is a painting of two identical left forearms, with their wrists facing out. Somebody has defaced the cover with a bright green marker, having drawn juvenile slits along the wrists with blood streaming out. Like they are bleeding pesto or possibly belong to some sort of space creature who has assumed the form of a man. Checking the front matter, I discover this is an English translation of a French novel by the author Jean Trepanier, first published in the Seventies. This translation was published a few years after that. The back cover offers no synopsis, no indication of what the reader might be in for. I’ve been meaning to read a new book so without any consideration I simply open the novel to Chapter One and start reading as the F-Train disembarks from Avenue N.

The writing is by no means extraordinary, but this may be due in part to the English translation or maybe Jean Trepanier is simply a poor writer. Or possibly both. Right from the start, the novel does not seem so out of the ordinary. It is about a young man named Tristan Montminy. Tristan is a Parisian university student who also works part-time in furniture construction, but I get the feeling that what he does is not actually important. I’ve always wondered how writers decide to craft their stories. Obviously not all information in a book is relevant to the story but where do they decide to plant the clues about what really matters? Clues about where the tale is truly headed?

The book opens with Tristan in the middle of building an oblong kitchen table when his girlfriend Emilia shows up in a huff. She is pissed at him for something he doesn’t even remember doing, but he’s not too worried about it; he’s been forgetting things lately anyway, presumably a result of all the marijuana he’s been smoking. Trepanier then takes us on a two-page journey to Tuscany, where Tristan and Emilia once took a trip together and came home with a wooden vegetable crate full of pot. After a brief and fruitless argument Emilia exits, just as abruptly as she entered. From there, Tristan continues his woodworking, now with the author inexplicably going into great detail about the grain and the color of the wood. Seriously, there’s nearly four pages of description here. I look up from the book: the F-Train has stopped at 42nd Street/Bryant Park. Only four more stations until Roosevelt Island. The old man across from me is still smiling at nothing in particular. If only I could find the strength to ask him what kind of prescriptions he might be on because it’s definitely not what I’m taking.

As the train starts off again I continue reading. Tristan is on his way to class, though there’s never any mention of what classes he’s coming from or going to. Upon entering the lecture hall, Tristan stops. He suddenly recalls a dream he had one week before; a dream he did not remember until now. However, the reader is not privy to the details of this dream, which I find irksome. Tristan is soon snapped out of his reverie when someone calls out. “Luca!” they shout. “Hey, Luca!” Tristan looks around and spots a stout young man he doesn’t recognize. This person is most certainly waving at him. “Luca! What are you doing here?” he asks.

It takes my brain a few seconds to register hearing that we just left the 21st Street/Queensbridge Station. What? How did I miss my stop? The old man is gone now too, probably having exited the train while my attention was caught between the pages of the book in my lap. The next stop is Jackson Heights, a fair extra distance from where I want to be, and I sit on my own the entire way there. I fold the corner of the page I’m at in The Third and watch a darkened Astoria and Woodside pass by the window. The subway is so close to a few buildings that I can see the details of the lit apartments. Tiny slices of unknown lives flicker by, not unlike a film reel, almost animating the goings on inside. Mostly just televisions tuned to the same channel. The lonely blue light is so hypnotic that I almost don’t realize the train slowing down. Slipping the copy of The Third into my bag I exit the eastbound station and run the gauntlet over to the Manhattan-bound side, barely making it in time for the next F-Train. I scramble through the swarm of commuters spewing from the train and find a spot, again in the middle car.

There’s some bug buzzing around the tip of my nose and when I try to brush it away it hovers around my left ear, humming its maddening song just for me. Then into the right ear. As I swat at the thing maniacally I almost miss the girl outside the window. She must have just gotten off as I went the other way. I know for sure that it’s the same girl I saw during the parade yesterday, still in the same clothes, still wearing the same sunglasses. I can clearly see a skull-and-crossbones pattern on the back of her denim jacket. Although shrouded by the eye wear, I can tell she recognizes me too. That, or she just might have a staring problem. It’s the same look from across the street as the day before. I don’t even have time to raise a hand or nod in mutual recognition before the F-Train rattles off and the girl disappears back into a faceless crowd.

Cont’d…

Progress

This Never Happened COVER

Just a quick update on the progress of my third novel, still tentatively called “THIS NEVER HAPPENED.” Things are coming along great! I’m still mostly working in the outlining stage, with roughly four chapters fully written. I’ve had a few major plot points that were tying my story together, but they weren’t really tying each other together (if that makes sense) until a few days ago. Sometimes a bunch of great ideas don’t really work unless they’re playing off one another, which is what’s finally happening with my novel. The characters are also all starting to play off one another nicely, with interestingly unexpected connections being made as well, which always helps a novel’s progression.

Basically, I’m liking it! And I’m excited about opening up my Google Doc every day. So there you go.

Hopefully I can share another few pages one of these days.

Themes

As I (slowly) write my third novel, and try to hone my craft a little more with every sentence, the idea of THEME keeps popping into my head. Buzzing around my brain all the while nagging me to not forget what my point is here. I think with this story, much more so than my previous two, I need to keep my themes evident in everything; every word in every sentence of every chapter must all be leading somewhere, hoping to say something coherent and meaningful.

My third novel (tentatively named “THIS NEVER HAPPENED”) juggles such ideas as Identity, Dreams, Reality, Memory, Happiness, Depression, Purpose, Family and Love. It treads into Boy-Meets-Girl territory. It plays with the reader’s head, making them question what is real and what is not. And before you it, it turns itself over and transforms into a far-fetched and sci-fi laden mystery. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. And it takes a lot of planning and outlining to keep everything on the tracks, heading in the right direction. The key to this? A solid theme, of course. But there’s more to this as well.

A question or two: Do most writers pick one single theme and run with it? Do they keep it loose and not worry too much about whether the reader will identify their theme? Are their books thematic-heavy, impossible to not pick up on it? Is it more common a writer’s work to have multiple themes? Does it sometimes have no theme at all? Does anything go?

Next, I decide to revisit my original synopsis for the book, the hook if you will, hoping my burgeoning ideas for the story will remind me why I’ve chosen to write the story. Here is one of the first things I wrote when I started this project, then tentatively known as “EPOCH”:

Epoch: A black hole collapses and ten thousand years later a baby boy is born. Each event is linked wholly to the other. As the boy grows up he feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere and he eventually becomes certain he was never meant for this world.

After much deliberation and considering my original hook and dissecting the ideas and chapters I’ve already gotten down, I decide that my main theme is Identity. My main character has never felt like belonged and has always had a difficult time trying to fit in and figure out who he was meant to be. But knowing where this complicated tale is headed, I also want to make Reality a theme. I figure this particular novel is best suited to be heavy on these two themes so how do I start really tying them into the story?

Next, and with a fine-tooth comb, I go through the five full chapters I have so far (roughly 10,000 words) and make sure the idea of Identity is really tied into what my characters say and what my main character thinks (this is a First-Person Narrative). I take a look at all the words and re-think why they’re there and if I could use a better sentence. This is something that will be done again in the editing stage, but by then it will mostly be for grammatical reasons and making sure my exposition reads clearly.

Reality is something that begins to be questioned later in the book, and plays a large role, but it’s the kind of idea that is best used with a smattering of clues, first unnoticeable, then with a light dusting, and finally a full-blown “make the reader question everything that’s happened” scenario. I remind to think about this as I go, but the truth is that with proper outlining the editing stage will help me decide when too much information is being given or if more is needed.

But for now I’ll be saving my document and closing my computer for the night. In bed I’ll think about this more-refined direction and hope that the words will start to flow a bit faster tomorrow.

How about you writers out there? How do you tackle the use of theme in your work?

Open the Box

The dusty, brown box stares me down, blaming me for the funk I’m in. I haven’t written much lately. Nothing worth noting. It’s not my fault, I tell myself. It’ll come, I say.

I’ve been misled by my own misdirection. Hey, look over here. There’s something worthwhile over there. Open this book and your eyes will land on the most galvanizing passage. That website is sure to inspire you if you will only keep clicking. The box just needs to be opened.

I am not unlike a tree at winter’s end, my bare branches waiting to be full again. But unlike the tree which simply waits for spring, I am responsible for filling my own branches.

Here, let me open that box. Watch the words grow once more.

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Nine

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: From Montauk to Morningside Heights

ONE YEAR LATER.

The wind bit into Tommy as he waited for the E-Train out of Jamaica. It didn’t bother him though. If Rachel had told Tommy that he would one day enjoy the two and half-hour train ride from Montauk he would never have believed her.

The train station was full of sketchy and unsavory characters, but Tommy didn’t mind them either. A pair of homeless men huddled in the corner, ignored even by the security guard who wandered listlessly on patrol. The two men could have been twins for all Tommy knew; with their scruffy beards, drab monochrome clothing and matching New York Islanders hats. He had bought a wholly unspectacular Spartan apple at the station, paying for it with a crisp twenty, and Tommy tossed the men all of the change that had been rattling in his pocket ever since. They probably weren’t really Islanders fans, he thought in an attempt to justify his own charity.

Tommy had surprised the Ponzinis that morning when he showed up on their doorstep asking Dick Ponzini for his daughter’s hand. Patrick told him the whole scenario sounded a little old-fashioned, but he didn’t want to dissuade his friend from making any life changing decisions. Tommy’s father had done it the same way, as did his grandfather before him. No one in the family was quite sure how Leyland Mueller had proposed but Tommy imagined it must have gone down in the exact same fashion. Just a day before, Tommy visited Ellis Island to find his great-grandfather’s name; he felt it would serve as some sort of familial approval of his proposal to Rachel. It took him well over an hour to find the tiny name etched into the Wall of Honor. It was both comfortable and unsettling to read his own moniker nestled in amongst thousands upon thousands of faceless, long-dead immigrants. A year ago, Tommy considered going by his proper birth name, but the truth was that he still hated it. He decided to stick with Tommy rather than pretend things were any different than they had always been.

Heeding Patrick’s advice from the day of the tennis match, Tommy agreed to simply tell Rachel he loved her. He paid her Columbia professor fifty dollars to give him ten minutes at the start of the lecture, Rachel’s Socio-Cultural Anthropology class. Tommy put on a smelly tweed jacket and a fake mustache and proceeded to bore the entire lecture hall by bull-shitting about the societal merits of Super Mario Land for a full seven minutes. He hadn’t practiced any of it, but the majority of students weren’t really listening anyway. Rachel knew it was him right from the start, but she was simply too dumbfounded to do anything but smile at the man’s lunacy. Eventually Tommy just wrote “I love you Rachel Ponzini” on the whiteboard. He asked her to see him after class, and then he left. Rachel moved into Tommy’s 113th Street apartment exactly four days later.

The E-Train finally pulled in and it was even colder inside because somebody thought it would be a good idea to leave the air conditioning on. Still, Tommy refused to let anything bother him. The cars clack-a-lacked beneath Forest Hills and Queens Boulevard and Hunters Point before thundering through the East River. Tommy loved the ease of the subway system, but if there was one thing he missed when riding into Manhattan from Long Island, it was seeing the glorious skyline of the world’s greatest city coming into view. New York City never ceased to stand guard, ever vigilant as its people perpetually changed. They continued to face new ordeals every day, but the wisest of them knew it would always be so. Their ebbs and flows were not pre-determined but they were also not entirely unexpected. The city would always breathe in and out.

John Galloway died suddenly in his sleep on Christmas morning. By then he’d entirely forgotten who he was, but he never forgot how much he loved his wife. Keekee Kaufman awoke one evening to discover she was perfectly fine; her schizophrenia was simply no more. She walked out of Bellevue and made her way across the Triboro Bridge. As she looked down onto the East River she found no desire within herself to jump off. Troy “The Shark” Dunlop was found dead and shirtless on the floor in the men’s room after suffering a severe heart attack from massive energy drink consumption. Apparently he had been practicing some ultimate fighting moves in the bathroom mirror when it happened. He never did find his missing Randy Couture bobble head doll. Dwayne Reamer eventually found himself in an editing position at Pendulum Publishing. He even garnered his own small office overlooking West 39th Street. His office was big enough for a mini-fridge, so nobody could steal his yogurt anymore. He had also been putting the finishing touches on his own book: Catch Me if You Can: the Next Generation of American Catchphrases.

Tommy transferred subways at the 50th Street Station, taking the 1-Train north. The station smelled particularly grimy that afternoon, but the grimier the better. To Tommy, that only meant the city was running as it should. It was comforting. He sat as far back as he could in the train’s very last car. A beggar with no legs slowly patrolled the subway, pushing himself on a skateboard with his calloused hands. Tommy had no change left in his pocket, but he did find a pen which he dropped into the coffee tin hanging from the man’s neck, claiming everyone could always use a good pen.

An unfunny lawyer named Hugh Morris contacted Jesse Classen one day in February, letting him know that something had been left for him in John Galloway’s will. It was a comic book collection, still mostly unsorted and piled up in the basement of the Gramercy Park home. When Jesse went to collect it, he was astounded by the sheer volume of valuable rarities. At first he refused to take them, but once his friends managed to convince him that it would represent the final stage of the healing process, Jesse finally succumbed. There was a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #1, an assortment of rare Buck Rogers and Lone Ranger comics, a three-hundred issue run of the newspaper edition Spirit comics from the Forties, and most incredibly of all, a near-mint copy of Detective Comics #27. Jesse quit his job as assistant manager at Midtown Comics and used the value of the collection to open his own comic book shop in the Lower East Side. He called it Edie’s Bunker, and he was the store’s sole employee. When Jesse was ready to see Sharona again he did just as he was instructed and went to the streetlight on MacDougal Street to find the necessary information regarding her next show. But there were no posters to be found. There was an ad for free computer lessons, and two of the nine phone numbers had already been torn off the bottom. And there was another girl there, taping up her own poster for a lost cat. It wasn’t her cat, Jesse learned, but her friend’s. Betty Bentley hated musicals and chicken wings and black licorice and comic books, but the two of them decided to give each other a shot anyway. Jesse soon found that compromising was far better than living alone with regret.

The 1-Train came to a slow stop somewhere between Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center. The lights went out and most everyone onboard panicked. Tommy could easily tell which of the passengers were tourists and which were not by the levels of alarm they displayed. It was funny to him just how obvious people could sometimes be. He took the moment to appreciate the artwork spray-painted onto the tunnel walls just behind the window. There were areas of New York that Tommy knew he would never get the chance to see, which bothered him more than most anything else. It was moments like these that he savored, considering himself even luckier than he was just the moment before.

Kate Prince and Gene Schneider divorced in March. It turned out that Gene had never had an affair, nor did he want one, but Kate was done either way. She took enough time for herself to finish her first novel, The Falling. She self-published the book but failed miserably in promoting herself. She wasn’t looking for fame or notoriety; she was just happy to have finally finished it, and she was proud of herself. When The Manhattanite eventually did end up being a success, just as Tommy predicted, Kate still did not let it get to her. Tommy deserved all the accolades he got. Eventually, she found an editing job at another publishing company and the very first book she pulled from the slush pile turned out to be an award winner. Kate finally returned to the gym, but balanced her new lifestyle out by taking up smoking. She claimed to have curbed her Nicorette addiction through cigarettes. For her birthday, Jesse made Kate a collage. It was a collection of GAP ads taped together with the addition of comic book word balloons glued above Kate’s head. The many denim-clad Kates were saying such things as “Bow before the might of Doom!”, “Walloping web-snappers!” and “By Odin’s Beard!” It was very Warhol-esque. Kate kept the collage above her desk at home, proudly showing it off to anyone lucky enough to spend time with her.

From the Cathedral Parkway Station it was only two more blocks to the coffee shop, but Tommy leisurely took his time. He was looking forward to meeting with his friends and telling them the big news, but he’d been in much less of a hurry lately than he usually was. Besides, he knew his friends weren’t going anywhere. New York was no longer just his; it was all of theirs. They still continued their attempts at convincing Patrick to get out of Brooklyn and move back to Manhattan, but they didn’t push him too hard since they all knew it was bound to happen eventually. Sheldon was already starting to show the signs of a budding Thomas Mueller. The boy loved being in the city, he loved hearing the trains underground when he passed a station stairwell or a grate on the sidewalk, and he quivered a little bit before heading back home to their apartment on India Street. Sheldon was quick to make friends with hotel doormen; he helped Uncle Jesse out every Saturday at Edith’s Bunker; and once a month he would bug Tommy enough to take him on the three hour sightseeing boat tour around Manhattan. He loved listening to Tommy tell the stories of every building and every street and every bridge they passed, and never ceased in suggesting Tommy give tours for a living, since it sometimes seemed Uncle Tommy had nothing else to do with his time. Tommy’s only response would be to challenge the boy to do the same.

As he approached the corner or Broadway and 112th, Tommy stopped for moment to process everything that had gone through his mind that morning. He thought about his brother and how much he would have loved to have had the chance to share the city with him. Everything was perfect there; it no longer mattered how much things changed or whether or not they remained the same. Tommy would continue to love New York City forever. Patrick, Kate and Jesse watched him from the window of Tom’s Restaurant. I couldn’t help but watch him too. His passion would never cease to astonish and baffle us all. Patrick almost gave Tommy another second to collect himself, but he chose to bang on the glass instead, snapping him out of his fervor.

 

THE END

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Eight

TWENTY-EIGHT: Seventh Street – East Village, 1947

How peculiar it was that as Kaspar Delancey lay face-up on East Seventh Street he could recall only the good that had ever touched his life: his first piece of Coney Island saltwater taffy melting on his tongue; his father opening the front door the day he returned home from the war; the apple tree in his backyard; tickertape parades; sitting on 23rd Street with his best friends, watching the girls’ skirts blow with the wind; riding the cable cars to Battery Place. The falling snow cleansed his soul, even as his mind was preparing to set his one last sin free. The heavy flakes danced upon his one good eye, but he did not blink them loose. The snow graced his cracked lips with a moment of wet respite; it tickled, but he could not bring himself to lick it away. That one last memory was slipping from his grasp, like trying to keep an ocean liner from leaving port, almost out of his grip entirely.

It was the other cop, Sergeant Oster, whom Kaspar had just wrung the life out of, as though the bullet wound would not have been sufficient. Kaspar left the bloodied man on the station platform before hustling back up to the street. Buster Broome, tenacious as ever, was still on his trail, and Kaspar knew as soon as he spotted it that the parked car with its engine running would be the fastest way back to the South Street Seaport. It was a United Nations limousine of all things, but there was no driver inside. Maybe he had run across 33rd for a pack of Lucky Strikes? Or maybe he’d stopped for an impromptu photo of the Empire State Building? Whatever the reason for such fortuitous charity, Kaspar did not consider it for long. He settled into the driver’s seat and closed the door without anyone suspecting anything. But before laying his weathered sole on the pedal, Kaspar stopped himself. It wasn’t out of fear because he knew for certain he would never be caught, especially if Broome was the only one who insisted on doing the chasing. That detective was the only person to come close, but Broome would surely have to admit defeat sooner or later, wouldn’t he?

Kaspar turned and released the key, and the engine slowly sputtered into silence. Maybe South Street was exactly where Broome would look for him? Maybe Kaspar should head uptown instead? Or leave the city entirely? No. He’d rather die than give in first. Opening the door, he stepped back out onto 33rd Street. There was a buzz in the air, but there was also an eerie silence; it was the kind of feeling one gets the moment before something horrible hits, before there’s a chance to do anything about it. And that’s when Kaspar Delancey saw him: Buster Broome was standing on Fifth Avenue, his pistol drawn, no more than two hundred feet away. The two men stared at one another, both knowing what they wanted to say but neither willing to utter the first word. Kaspar stepped back an inch, just as Broome inched forward a step.

But no one around them paid any attention to either man. One woman turned her head up, noticing something in the sky. Another man pointed. The buzz in the air grew louder, the unnerving silence ever quieter. There was a scarf floating gently on a breeze, like a bird with no particular destination. Something else followed behind it, something much heavier than a bird. One man muttered something to Jesus. Another said something incomprehensible to God. Kaspar knew neither would be able to help. A woman shrieked. Another fainted, hitting the sidewalk hard. But not nearly as hard as Evelyn McHale hit when she fell from the sky. Falling eighty-six floors from the Empire State Building’s observation deck, Evelyn McHale crashed into the roof of the parked limousine with a heavy thud. If Kaspar Delancey had not second-guessed himself he would have been just as dead as she. As Manhattan crowds often do, they gathered quickly. People shouted, and Kaspar only had a moment to see her body, smashed into the husk of the automobile, posed elegantly like she had meant to land just so. Her lips still wet with life; her eyebrows smiled as if having a pleasant dream; her suicide already a work of art. Kaspar reached out for her just as Broome finally reached for him.

~~~~~

So many times he had cheated death, and for what? Just to lie helplessly on East Seventh staring up at the snow and waiting for everything to simply stop? That didn’t seem fair at all. The flickering light outside McSorley’s Old Ale House seemed to be the one indication that life still persisted. Drunken men hollered wildly inside.

With his mind now a clean, blank slate, Kaspar brushed the snow from his face and sat up. He couldn’t recall when or why he ever decided to lie down in the middle that street. Kaspar had no idea if the detective had ever managed to catch him; in fact, the name Buster Broome no longer had any meaning to him. Nor could he recollect the reasons for why he had forgotten all of the atrocities he’d ever committed. But for some reason, as his thoughts and his world slowly faded away, Kaspar Delancey was finally thinking of himself as a better man.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Seven

PART V – Epilogue

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Riverside Park – Upper West Side

ONE WEEK LATER.

Undoubtedly, it had been the longest tennis match in the history of man. Between the time the match begun and the time it ended, Patrick Kohn had seen the sun rise and set in a dozen different countries. He had married, honeymooned in Venice, and watched as his wife suffered through two miscarriages before they finally had a son to call their own. He worked as a shoe salesman, a limousine driver and an investments advisor. He bought a house in Seattle. He was involved in three car accidents, two of which were his own fault. He set up a model train set in his garage. He read forty-three books, most of which had been adapted into movies he’d already seen. He put on thirty-eight pounds. He’d been the victim of both mail fraud and a bomb threat. He found fifty bucks on the bus but it had blown out the window when he opened his wallet, along with another fifty he was saving for a haircut. He watched his wife die from a brain tumor. He sold his house in Seattle and bought an apartment in Brooklyn. He made friends and lost friends and found friends again.

In the time between his first serve and his last, Thomas Mueller had written six novels and had articles published in every major American literary magazine. He dated and/or slept with thirty-one different women and saw his favorite hockey team win one championship. He grew two inches. He walked every single street in Manhattan and he had been to Staten Island one time on a dare. He played the New York lottery once and won sixteen dollars, spending all of it on chocolate milk at the CKY Grocery. He discovered he wasn’t the man he thought he was. He loved friends and hurt friends and found friends all over again.

It took Patrick ten years, four months, seven days, one hour and thirty-three minutes to defeat Tommy, but he had finally done it. The two men sat together on a courtside bench, guzzling water and catching their breath.

“I didn’t think I would ever beat you,” Patrick said. “I thought you had me there.”

“I had you ten years ago, but I guess you’ve learned a few tricks since then. That’s quite the backhand you’ve got now.” Tommy wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his Rangers sweater. Even though it was a crisp November morning, he still should have known better than to wear a hockey jersey for a game of tennis. But Tommy didn’t care about a sweat-stained sweater and he didn’t care about losing the match to Patrick. He had only suggested they meet that morning at the once-familiar Riverside Park tennis courts for one reason: to apologize. “Listen Patrick,” he said slowly with a lump in his throat. Tommy knew that the only way he was going to say it was to just let the words thump against his teeth and stumble out of his mouth. “I’m really sorry for everything that happened.”

The only reason Patrick had agreed to play tennis that morning was so he could accept Tommy’s apology. Still, he let his friend carry on a little longer first.

Tommy continued. “I know I can be a big, mulish idiot sometimes, but I had no reason to treat you the way I did. The truth is I realize now that all the shit that happened in the past few weeks was only inevitable. You were wrong when you told me about the falling. Because the reality is that I had already fallen. It was ten years ago when you left us all.”

“That’s not true Tom,” Patrick finally said.

“Sure it is. For me, it was worse than when my brother died because I replaced him with you, but when you left there was only a void.”

Patrick still couldn’t shake from his memory the image of the boy with his head buried in the school locker. That was the first time he’d met him. Thomas Mueller did not cry often, but he had never been very good at hiding his tears. “But that was such a long time ago, Tom.”

“Don’t we all hold onto things a little longer than we should sometimes?” Patrick knew it was true but he still did not have an answer. “Why’d you come to New York with us if you couldn’t stay forever? Sometimes I felt like it would’ve been easier if I had left first. Not that that would ever happen.”

Finally, Patrick considered the mistakes he made years ago, the same ones that had obviously hurt Tommy so much. “When we’re young, I guess we don’t think things will matter as much as they do. All the small, selfish crimes we commit. The microscopic damages are never quite so insignificant.”

Mince Wilson had said the same thing to Tommy, only using very different words. It’s entirely possible that Keekee Kaufman and all the rest would’ve agreed upon the inevitability of Tommy’s needs surpassing their own. Certainly Rachel would too.

After a long moment Tommy said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should say to Rachel.”

“What have you come up with so far?”

“I thought I’d tell her that even if everyone everywhere left everyone else forever, I’d still never leave her.” Patrick turned his nose up as if there was an unpleasant smell in the air. “No good?”

“Tom, that’s awful. That’s like a line from a movie.”

“I’ve got more. You’ve just got to let me get warmed up first. Here we go, how about this: You’ll always be the same old someone that I knew. Won’t you believe in me like I believe in you?”

“What’s that from?”

“It’s Billy Joel.”

“Come on Tom, you’re a writer! Have you told her you love her?”

“Not in so many words.”

“It’s only three words Tom. And if you really mean them, they’re pretty darn good ones. I’d suggest starting with that and seeing where it takes you.”

Tommy realized that if he had the same talk with Kate or Jesse they probably would have given him similar advice. Either that, or just told him to shut up and be a man. But Patrick Kohn always had a way of making everything seem possible. It was the same as when he pulled Thomas Mueller’s head out of that locker in the ninth grade and it was the same as when he said he’d go anywhere with Tommy, even when he knew Tommy’s version of anywhere would only ever be New York.

“I’m glad you’re home Patrick,” Tommy said. He held his hand out and the two men finally shook.

Patrick took a moment to admire the Upper West Side apartments peeking out from just behind the trees. It was quiet enough to hear the Hudson River to the west. “Me too,” he said.

Breathe out.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Six

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: The One Man Show – Harlem

THREE YEARS EARLIER.

It was probably the nicest fall morning that Leyland could recall since he arrived in New York. Truthfully though, he felt each day was unavoidably better than the last. But this was different. Seventy-two degrees. No humidity. There was a special feeling in the air, a smell in the breeze. It was perfect. He was preparing himself for a book signing that morning even though he told his agent on numerous occasions how he hated Tuesday signings. For some reason or another, all the perverts and stalkers and nutcases seemed to come out on Tuesdays.

Leyland was right there when it happened. He was at the Downtown Dunkin’ Donuts at Church and Murray, shaking some sugar into his coffee when he heard it. The coffee rippled menacingly. The low rumbling was the kind of noise that instantly indicated something was wrong. Outside, people screamed. A few cars banged into one another, their drivers justly distracted. There was a stream of conversation unlike any Manhattan had ever heard. Word got around fast. The North Tower had been hit.

Fifty minutes later, he was unrecognizable amongst the masses crowding the streets and sidewalks for a good look. But five minutes after that, Leyland stood out like Cleopatra’s Needle, the sixty-eight foot tall Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, as hordes of people ran as fast and as far away from the falling South Tower as they could. Yet he remained standing. He anchored himself to the blacktop, watching the second building come down, swallowing itself up into its own dust and dirt. He didn’t run. He didn’t panic. As the mess of everything that once was blew towards him, he contemplated what it all meant, even considering the possibility that he may have made a mistake when he decided to come to New York.

Amidst everything, he reached out and caught a paper in his hand. The paper was just one of millions, maybe billions that were within the World Trade Center’s walls. Most were probably incinerated. But this one piece of paper flew from somewhere within the South Tower right towards him. As the chaos enveloped him, Leyland read what was on it. It was an email, sent the night before and printed out at 8:43 that morning:

From: Yolanda Higgins [yoliggins@hotmail.com]
Sent: September-10-01 11:56 PM
To: Rondell Greene
Subject: Sorry
Ronnie,
I’m so sorry for everything that happened this afternoon. You must know I never meant what I said to you. If you still want me to, I’ll wait for you at the One Man Show after work tomorrow. I’ll be there at 7:00.
-Y-

Leyland didn’t know why the email had been printed, but he could only assume that Rondell Greene would not have lived to make his seven o’clock date with Yolanda Higgins. Although Leyland was not the intended recipient of the message, he was quite possibly the only living person who was aware of its existence.

Obviously, the book signing had been cancelled, though there were no notices sent. It was one of the things about that morning: there had been far less communication on purpose, for much of the information that New Yorkers would normally have emailed, instant-messaged, telephoned or printed posters for had no need to be sent or received. It was all understood in a unique way on that Tuesday. Like most, Leyland returned home much later than usual. It was impossible to catch a cab or ride a bus. Most people did not want to go into the subway stations. He ran like a crazy person out of Downtown, across Midtown, through Central Park and into Morningside Heights. He looked back every minute or so, but the smoke was consuming everything behind him. It was as though he was running to avoid being wiped from existence too. He’d lost his cell phone somewhere along the way. Television and electronics stores were crowded with people, both inside and on the sidewalks, somberly watching the flickering screens in the front windows. He’d never seen so many people crying. And yet the sky remained startlingly blue that day.

Once at home, he called Kate and Jesse and his family in Seattle to let them all know he was safe. But after that, even before showering the thick grime away, he pulled out his phone book and looked up the One Man Show. It was in Harlem, maybe a half-hour’s walk from his apartment.

Tom’s Restaurant was open, its television sets were crowded with patrons. Kate and Jesse were at their usual table, waiting for Leyland to arrive. He pressed his hand against the window when he saw them. The glass seemed to bend more than it should have. Leyland went inside, but he only sat with them for a few minutes. He was shaken, but there was a strength about him that needed to keep moving.

“Where are you going?” Kate asked when he got up from the table. She didn’t want to tell him how much she needed him at that moment.

“Harlem.”

“What the hell for?”

Leyland pulled the folded email out of his pocket and showed it to them.

“I don’t understand,” Jesse said. “You’re going to meet this girl? Why?”

“I don’t know really. I just think I need to. To make sure she’s okay.”

None of them were big believers in fate, and on any other day this would have seemed like extremely bizarre behavior, even for Leyland. But on September Eleventh, the air was thick with inexplicable decisions and unquestioned actions.

“I saw the towers fall. They were falling right in front of me. I’m not going to let this madness be only reason for getting out of bed this morning. Today has to have been for something.”

With that, he headed to the mysterious One Man Show café. He didn’t know Harlem even had cafés, but there it was, right between a laundromat and a fried chicken restaurant. It was an odd little place. Like many other businesses in Manhattan, it had an innocuous façade, a feeling of anonymity poured out onto the strangely tidy sidewalk. The One Man Show was a wholly different world inserted deep within the ghetto’s intricate latticework of gangsters and prostitutes and garbage and drugs and fake storefronts and stolen taxicabs and ignorant travelers. Inside, there was not a soul in view, but he could hear the din of a television from one of the back rooms. He followed it. There must have been twenty people crammed into that tiny manager’s office, each one smelled worse than the last. They watched the television without a word but still did not hear Leyland enter. He knocked on the door frame and waved the email that he never once let go of.

“Does anyone here know a Yolanda?”

Every head in the room turned to him. They didn’t seem to comprehend what the stranger was saying. “I’m looking for Yolanda Higgins. Is she here? Does anybody know her?” He would have believed he was talking a different language if the big man who looked like a hound dog hadn’t expunged himself from the crowd and approached Leyland.

The man explained to Leyland that Yolanda Higgins was a regular patron at the One Man Show café. No one had seen her, but it wasn’t really a surprise considering how many plans would be changing without notice on that day. So many patterns shifting. The man’s big eyes were extremely wet, and Leyland could tell that even underneath a day’s worth of tears, his eyes were always that wet. Without warning, the man threw his arms around him. It was unexpected, but Leyland didn’t fight it.

When he finally relaxed his grip, the man said, “I don’t know if Yolanda will show up tonight, but you’re welcome to stay if you want to.” He returned to the back room, rejoining his associates. “There’s coffee and beer behind the counter too if you’d like,” he added. “Help yourself.”

Leyland stood in the same spot for another few minutes, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. He had been preparing for his book signing only a few hours ago and now suddenly he was standing in a Harlem café while the city teetered on the brink of ruin. He knew he should have run back to the coffee shop to be with Kate and Jesse, but he stayed there instead. He poured himself a glass of water, realizing then just how thirsty he was. He sat down at a small table for two and he made the decision that he was not going to wait for whoever Yolanda Higgins might have been. Instead, he chose to write. Starting on the back of the filth-ridden email, he soon moved on to some napkins and scrap paper he found behind the counter. The remains of the towers still smoldered as Leyland wrote about everything he never thought he knew.

~~~~~

Leyland had written the entire first draft of The Manhattanite inside the One Man Show. After a couple of months, he had really started to abhor that café, but he knew he would never get any real work done at the coffee shop, since everyone in his life knew that they could find him there. Besides, the One Man Show had surprisingly better coffee than anywhere in Morningside Heights.

He hadn’t seen the big man with the sad, wet eyes since the first time he entered the café. He supposed that he never actually worked there. That day felt like such an incredibly long time ago. It was almost as though Leyland had imagined everything that happened on the day of the attacks, but the One Man Show had an ability to generate its own strange illusions at times. There was no other place in Manhattan quite like it. The nondescript Harlem café seemed to lure the city’s most blatantly volatile visionaries. Bohemian bull-shitters who had been talking about change since the Sixties but had yet to act on any of their complex, albeit completely delirious, talk of revolution. Leyland knew that if any of them had ever intended to change their worlds, they would have been down in the Village fifty years ago, rather than hiding in a dusty coffee shop in Harlem. Still, Leyland sat among them. He drank their coffee and used their toilet. But he was not really one of them. They paid him no attention either. They were far too busy trying to transform the world with their wasted ideas.

The second time Leyland came to the One Man Show he brought his writing pad with him, continuing right where he’d left off on the flimsy napkins. Kate and Jesse didn’t understand the sudden fury with which he had decided to write, but they did not question it. They knew better than to question anything he wished to embark upon. The scratching of pencil on paper was the only sound that would carry him through the story he wanted to tell. He wasn’t at the café to amuse anyone but himself. This new book was not meant for anyone else. It was not for recognition’s sake, not to make a name for himself. That had already been accomplished. And he was not writing for the purpose of saying something profound and prolific to entertain the masses. It was just for him. It might have all seemed very righteous and noble, but that was exactly where Leyland’s biggest flaw lay. He thought only of himself any more. The truth was that for the first time since coming to New York, Leyland Mueller was beginning to lose direction. The falling towers had shaken something loose deep inside of him. His girlfriends no longer served any purpose, and he gave them nothing more in return that was of any greater consequence than a night or two of guilt-free sex. And most of the time, it was nearly impossible to find someone who desired anything more than that.

But on one mild December day, just as Leyland’s writing was hitting a wall, he felt a pair of eyes watching him. There was a girl seated across the room. She sat just like everyone else around her, but while the crowd remained unnoticed in an unremarkable flurry of being, this particular girl was so still that he was convinced she must have been there just for him. Amidst a room full of idiots oblivious to the two of them, they had been exposed to one another.

Her eyes were extraordinary. Her eyes were not the same as any of the other girls Leyland had known. Her eyes were not forgettable. To him, this was the most important staring contest he had ever been a part of. If a blink could result in losing her, even for just a microsecond, he did not want to risk it.

And then he blinked. And she was gone.

She was gone.

~~~~~

Leyland didn’t know why, but he expected the girl to show up again the following day. He awoke the next morning with the feeling he must have imagined it all, but he was clever enough to know he hadn’t. He sat at the small, round table for two, exactly where he had always sat. Just like at the coffee shop with Kate and Jesse and even Patrick; he was particular in that kind of way. He watched the door, waiting for her. Daring her to enter. But it was his current girlfriend, Daisy, who had shown up first that morning. She had fire in her eyes. She hated that café more than he did. Daisy came to the table, but she did not sit down; it was obvious she was not planning on sticking around long. It didn’t really matter to Leyland just what it was she was angry about, but the safest guess would have been that he had said something insensitive to her the night before. Barely listening, he bit his upper lip in response to whatever accusations were being thrown his way. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s upper lip was a sign that one was hiding something. Whatever the case may have been, Daisy eventually slammed her hands down on the table and charged back out of the café. She bumped into someone on her way out the door.

That someone came and sat down across from Leyland. It was the girl from the day before, but he did not notice, already having gotten back to his writing pad.

“I don’t even want to know what that was all about,” she said to him comically.

Leyland looked up into those glorious eyes of hers. They exchanged momentary and awkward greetings before proper introductions were made. “My name’s Leyland,” he said. “Leyland Mueller.”

And she followed with, “Rachel Ponzini. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Leyland bit his lower lip a little. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s lower lip was an indication of nervousness, which was an emotion that never came to him too often. So, suffice it to say that biting his upper lip was a far more natural reaction for him.

“Leyland,” she mused. “That’s an interesting name.”

“It was my great-grandfather’s.”

Many of the One Man Show’s patrons stopped and took notice of Leyland and Rachel sitting with each other at the small, round table for two. They looked on, noticing them both for the first time. Individually they could have vanished into their own little worlds, but together they were simply unavoidable.

“Don’t do that,” Rachel told him.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t put your pencil down.” She pushed the pencil and paper towards Leyland, who reactively gathered them back up. “I’ve seen you in here many times before, always writing whatever it is you’re writing. And you keep to yourself so perfectly. You don’t care at all about these squabbling fools around you.”

He took in the shape of her head. Round like the ripple from a raindrop with a flawlessly pointed chin. Her complexion was almost golden under the soft lights of the café. Her brown hair curled around elfish ears, shaped like tiny crescent moons. Perfectly pouty pink lips that shone like wet paint. The scratching of lead on paper was a strangely complementary sound to the sincerity in Rachel’s voice. But it was her eyes that really captured his attention. They were like tiny wet mirrored balls of energy. They were brown. They were olive. They were black. And they were brown again. The color of Rachel’s eyes changed so rapidly, that it was impossible to distinguish the dominant one. Her pupils were at once dilated and infinitesimal. Leyland could see himself in there too. And there was a thin, squiggly blood vessel on the bottom of her right eyeball, just above the lip of her eyelid. Rachel had just enough imperfections to make her seem as though she was someone Leyland had known his whole life.

“Do you know what a group of playwrights is called, Leyland?”

He didn’t know what the right answer was because he really had no idea what she was asking.

“It’s called a plot. A plot of playwrights.”

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“I know all the inane group nouns used for identifying gatherings of the like.”

How peculiar, he thought. This brilliant girl seemed as though she might be full of trivial information. Rachel pointed to the opposite corner from where they sat, towards a congregation of egocentric dramatists. They were obnoxiously reading screenplays out loud to one another. “A condescension of actors,” she called them. Without so much as twitching her eyes, she motioned towards the front of the café where a group of turtlenecked intellectuals sipped water as though it were red wine and used words like henceforth and dichotomy. She pronounced, “A wrangle of philosophers.” And she worked her way around the rest of the room, “A brow of scholars…an illusion of painters,” all the while keeping her attention focused on Leyland.

“That information seems rather unnecessary. Where in the world would you have learned all of this?” he inquired, not really caring if she was telling him the truth or not. He didn’t believe for a second that someone like Rachel could have been from Manhattan.

“I live and breathe. I take in everything around me, and I can separate the weak from the strong. I see powerful minds being used recklessly, and I see the weak ones that will rise above. I see you. You are an undiscovered star in an exhaustively explored solar system. And I see something in those eyes of yours that I’ve never imagined before.”

Leyland stopped. “I have no idea what you just said.”

“Yes you do.”

He looked back down at his writing pad. The last sentence he’d scribbled on the page was: “Everything was possible. There was nothing in this city that I hadn’t already imagined.”

“I love your accent,” he told her. “Where are you from?”

“Montauk.”

“Where is that, Europe? I’m getting a Switzerland vibe.”

“Long Island, actually.”

“Ah. Close enough.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with Long Island?”

“If I have to explain it to you…” he started, but then decided to finish with, “At least it’s better than Jersey.”

He’d never before felt what he was feeling now. It was intoxicating. He was relatively certain she liked him, but he still did not really know anything about her. He knew that she hated these transparently erroneous revolutionists around him. He knew she liked to use big words like that too. And he knew that her eyes were the key to discovering everything else about her that he didn’t know.

“Would you like me to buy you a coffee?” Rachel asked him. “Because it’s obvious you weren’t planning on offering.”

Leyland apologized. He didn’t want to tell her that her very presence seemed to make all common sense disappear. It sounded too corny, even just in his head. Instead, he requested, “A regular coffee, please. With sugar.”

“All right then.” Rachel got up from her seat, and walked over to the counter. At the same time, those around them returned to life, as though the show they had been so focused on was now taking an intermission.

But when Rachel returned to the table, the patrons of the café once again began to take notice of the couple. She brushed her curls away from her mouth as she sipped her coffee. Leyland could tell exactly how much sugar she used by the expression on her face after every sip. He thanked her for the coffee. “But don’t think I’m going to start expecting special treatment,” he added.

“I hope you don’t think me strange,” she said. “And I’m not being presumptuous. I don’t believe myself to be anything other than what I am. I know all about the importance of benevolence.” She took another bitter sip of coffee.

Leyland leaned towards Rachel, and fixed his eyes on hers. “You don’t need to justify yourself. I was just a little stunned, is all.”

Rachel watched him as he reached into his bag and pulled out the most unremarkable pencil he could find. He sharpened it with a small pocketknife and the shavings drifted onto the tabletop. Being with Rachel was as comfortable a feeling as he’d never known before. He didn’t suffer from an obligation to entertain her. He didn’t expect anything from her. He was simply with her, and that was enough. Still, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to tell Kate and Jesse, since it was obvious this was going to be more than a one-night stand.

“You must like writing a lot,” she asked him, although it really was more of an observation than a question.

“It’s pretty much my only talent.”

“What do you write?”

“Have you ever heard of a book called BLANC?

“I saw a movie called BLANC. Wasn’t that Scottie Pippen?”

“Shaquille O’Neal.”

Rachel gave him a look, as though Leyland was personally responsible for all of Hollywood’s poor casting decisions.

“Obviously,” he said, “it was not my choice.”

“Let me ask you this though: have you ever written anything important?”

“Important? I’ve had five novels published!”

“But what else? Is there anything you’re proud of?”

He thought about what Rachel might have wanted to hear. “Mostly just love letters to girlfriends.” He glanced up at her with a transparent spark in his eyes.

She smiled, knowing she had just the right answer for him in return. “But don’t you need to know about love in order to write a love letter?”

The scratching of pencil on paper intensified as Leyland continued, “I’ve come here every day for three months now. I thought I had something important to say the day the towers fell. But I realize now that I never really had a reason to come here until yesterday, when I saw you across the room. And I just realized that all of the shit I thought was worth writing about is really not very important at all. I’ve never really had anything to say until this moment.” He blew the bits of lead off his paper and shaved his blunted pencil some more.

The afternoon sun was breaking through the window behind him, and from inside his shadowy silhouette Rachel could still see the glimmer in his eyes. The anticipation on his lips.

“Did you know you have a freckle on your right eyelid?” he asked her. “I notice it every time you blink.”

“I didn’t know that,” she whispered truthfully.

Leyland excused himself, and he took his coffee cup to the counter for a refill.

When he returned, Rachel was drawing in his writing pad. He glanced over as he sat back down. It was a sketch of a cat, but one of its eyes appeared circular, while the other was drawn as an ‘X’:

CAT

He had to ask, “What is this?”

“This is a cat that is both alive and dead. You see, one of his eyes is marked with an ‘X’, the universal cartoon symbol for death.”

“But I don’t under–”

“It’s a paradox, Leyland. An experiment conducted in the Thirties proved that something, in this case a cat, could simultaneously be both alive and dead. The scientist, Schrödinger, placed his kitty cat in a box with a canister of cyanide connected to a radioactive device. If an atom in this device decayed, a detector would trigger a tiny hammer to smash the glass canister open and the cat would die.”

Leyland took a closer look at the picture. “I don’t think I get it.”

“Suppose that there is a fifty-fifty chance of this happening. Clearly when the box is opened the cat would be either alive or dead. But is the cat alive or dead prior to the opening of the box?” Rachel took another long sip of coffee, giving him a moment to contemplate the conundrum. “Because radioactive decay occurs at the quantum level, where events are purely random and foreseeable only in a statistical sense, there is no way to know for sure what had happened to the cat unless the box was opened. The cat’s entire existence is reduced to a statistic. A decimal point is all that keeps Schrödinger’s cat alive.”

He sat back in awe. Leyland could barely begin to comprehend everything that must have been in her mind, and he realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would never know all the answers. Just sitting across from this girl was almost more than he could bear. His coffee was already cold. And it was exhilarating. “You’re not really from Long Island, are you?”

Rachel didn’t waste time answering the question. “I had read about all of this years ago,” she told him instead. “I find it stimulating how there can be so much going on that we have absolutely no control over. It’s all circumstantial consequence.”

A lock of curly brown hair fell across her face. She smelled of jasmine. She blinked. As perfect as that freckle was, Leyland would have been satisfied if he never had to see it again in his life. It would mean that he’d be looking into her eyes that much more.

“Can I make a suggestion?” Rachel asked.

“Of course.”

“I think it’s time we got out of here.”

And they did.

~~~~~

When they emerged from the 110th Street Station they were only a few blocks away from Leyland’s apartment. Rachel led the way there, as if she had already learned everything there was to know about the man from somewhere deep within his eyes. But it was probably just the alcohol. They had stopped for some red wine after leaving the cafe, but ended up downing the bottle in Marcus Garvey Park. It was freezing, but the unusually mild New York winter meant they would not have to lie in snow, and the wine kept their bodies warm. On the crisp grass and beneath the setting sun, they held each other. They talked, but not about their dreams, because they were both living their dreams. And not about their desires, since nothing else mattered to them in that moment. Rachel didn’t speak of her past, and she didn’t ask Leyland about his.

They spoke of their lives; what they were doing today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Rachel liked slow music and fast movies. Leyland enjoyed just the opposite. White wine was Rachel’s favorite, while he had no preference either way. And it really didn’t matter why they’d opted for red.

In the distance between two old tenement buildings, they could see the tallest of skyscrapers peeking out from midtown. They agreed to go to the top of the Empire State Building together one day, since neither of them had never done so before. Leyland hadn’t because to him there was nothing worse than feeling like a tourist, and Rachel hadn’t due to her demophobia. She said she hated being in the middle of large crowds because she disliked the feeling of going unnoticed.

The setting sun directly behind the bare trees made their branches appear smaller, thinner than they actually were. Leyland wondered why they had never met before they did, and he knew that Rachel would have an answer for his query even before she responded with a single, eloquent word. She intimated that they were along the same lines as the cat in the box: their lives were nothing more than random percentages of possibility. Of course, it was just as he thought she would put it.

And Leyland worried where he could hope to find a love like hers again, when she inevitably left him. He had never once considered that a lasting love could ever be, so how could he possibly expect to ever find it?

Rachel didn’t pretend to want a tour of the apartment. His other women played those kinds of games; where they acted as if they were there for an actual visit, and not just the sex. Rachel wasn’t one for games, or concealing her intentions. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about her. You knew if Rachel liked you or if she did not. You knew when Rachel wanted sex, and also when she’d had enough.

Leyland woke up and felt the still-lingering heat of her body next to his. He tried to pretend for an instant that he didn’t know where he was, that he was somehow misplaced in space and time. But he was quick to shake those silly thoughts from his head when he realized that he didn’t want to miss out on a single second of Rachel. And he decided then that when he saw her next, he would tell her he loved her.

The note was waiting for him on the refrigerator, pinned beneath a Calvin and Hobbes magnet. Rachel knew he would find it there as he had already explained to her that the first thing he did every morning was go to the fridge for a swig of chocolate milk. He had no idea what time Rachel left that morning, he simply woke and she was gone. The note was written with one of his pencils, torn from a page of his writing pad and folded in half. He noticed it immediately. Drawn on the front was another picture of Rachel’s famous cat. He couldn’t tell if the cat was alive or dead. Inside, she had written the following for him:

Leyland,

In my experiences, I’ve found you only ever hurt the ones you love. The only roses that you watch die are the most beautiful ones. But even if everyone everywhere left everyone else forever, I’d still never leave you.

~~~~~

Leyland planned on going to the coffee shop to meet Kate and Jesse for breakfast. He would boast about Rachel and hoped the two of them would be just as excited about his new relationship as he was. But Jesse wasn’t there that morning and Kate was too busy complaining about her upcoming wedding to whoever this Gene Schneider person was. Leyland considered telling her that marrying Gene could end up being a mistake, but he was still too distracted by thoughts of Rachel.

Later, he passed the park where he and Rachel had shared the bottle of red wine the night before. Where they had dreamed of going to the top of the city together one day. The cork was still there, resting upon a wilted dandelion. Leyland knew that if the World Trade Center had not fallen that one day months before, he would not have ever found himself in Harlem meeting the last girl he would ever love.

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