Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Narrow bands of sunlight laddered across the floor, up the couch, and over Nick Hanley’s face. The brightness blinded him as soon as he opened his eyes, and he lay there waiting for the explosions of color to fade. When he sat up, the Koran on his chest fell to the floor. It had been open to verse 2:216: “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you do not.” He drew up the blinds. To the west, where the towers had stood six weeks earlier, there was nothing but sky and the sun sinking toward the edge of the world.
He descended into the noise and chatter of the street to stare at the mosque across the avenue, a square structure of white brick with a long white sign across the top that said who knew what in Arabic. He smoked a cigarette as brown-skinned men filed out onto the sidewalk. They stood in groups of three or four, speaking a language Hanley could make no sense of. He flicked his cigarette into the street and walked over, pulling another from the pack.
“Hey, friends,” he said.
The men went quiet at his approach.
“Do you have a light for a brother?” Hanley asked.
One of them smiled and produced a plastic lighter. Hanley leaned in close so the man could light his cigarette.
“So, how was prayer?” Hanley asked. “What did you pray for?”
“We just pray,” the man said. “It doesn’t have to be for anything.”
“ ‘We just pray,’ ” Hanley echoed, smiling. “Gentlemen, these are new and wondrous days. It’s time to get your hands dirty. Blow up a bridge or gas a subway or something. Heaven’s not going to come down to you.”
The man made a sound that could have been the start of nervous laughter.
“Don’t fear me,” Hanley said. “I’m just another child of light.”
The man’s face hardened. One of the others said something in their language.
“Pulvis et umbra sumus,” Hanley went on. “ ‘We are but dust and shadows.’ You and your families and your seventy-two virgins — and me, too. Certainly me, too. Pray your way out of that if you can.”
“Have a good night,” the man said in a tone that meant Fuck you. He started off down the street.
“Try not to blow anybody up on your way home,” Hanley called.
The other men outside the mosque turned to look at him. Hanley surveyed the group and found, at the mosque door, the imam, a small man in white with a white beard and thick-lensed glasses that magnified his eyes. Next to him stood two young men — his sons, to judge by the similarity of their features. Hanley had seen them before.
The imam smiled wearily at Hanley.
“You know what I mean, Father,” Hanley called to him. “Don’t pretend you don’t.”
The imam tilted his head to one side. Hanley pointed at him for a long moment. Then he went on up the street beneath the darkening sky.
There were places in the city where people had built shrines to the dead and missing. One was on the brown-brick wall of a church. Along with the American flags and the prayer cards were affixed photographs and missing-person fliers. Hanley stood looking at the names and the faces, some in black and white and others in rain-faded color. Candles lined the base of the wall, all extinguished now in pools of melted wax. Children had drawn pictures of burning towers and daddies in heaven and firefighters standing on clouds with Jesus and flags, so many flags, a thousand red and blue crayons rubbed down to nothing.
He found Reed’s photo between one of a man at a law-school graduation and another of a woman at an office Christmas party. Reed smiled the lopsided grin he reserved for after he’d made a joke that he didn’t expect anyone else to find funny. It was one of Callie’s photos.
Hanley remembered standing over her, white dust still in his hair, as she knelt and spread them out on the floor, trying to find the right one.
“Which one looks the most like Reed?” she asked.
“They all look like him,” Hanley said.
“But it has to really look like him, so that if people see him, they’ll know to call us.”
“If they don’t, then we won’t find out he’s OK.” She picked up a photo, examined it closely, then dropped it to select a new one.
“Here,” he said, “let me choose.”
“No, I can do it.” But she kept picking up the same pictures and putting them down again. Soon she was crying, her shoulders slumped and her hands limp on her knees. Hanley reached out but did not quite touch her.
“Don’t tell him,” she said. “OK? Don’t tell him I couldn’t do this for him.”
Hanley knew there was no danger of anyone telling Reed anything anymore, but he went through the motions: searching for his friend, walking all over downtown with Callie, putting Reed’s face on walls and streetlamps, watching her say to everyone she passed, “This is my boyfriend. Have you seen him?”
Now there could be no doubt that everyone in these pictures was dead. Standing before the church wall, staring at the faces, Hanley thought, Somebody really ought to tear them all down.
He wandered into a dingy basement bar. A flag hung above the door, and in the window a crude cardboard sign read GOD BLESS AMERICA. Four men who looked like bikers sat at the bar watching a baseball game. One wore a leather jacket studded with spikes and a skull-and-crossbones patch on the sleeve. Another had dark tattoos on his neck; there was no picture or word that Hanley could recognize. The tattooed man was just finishing a story as Hanley walked in, and the other bikers laughed.
“What’s up, friends?” Hanley said as he took a seat at the bar.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.
“Some ice, drowned in Scotch. How is everybody? Is everybody good?”
“I’m good,” said one of the bikers from the end of the bar. “How about you? You good?”
“Quite,” Hanley said. The bartender put the glass in front of him, and Hanley raised it. “To our boys fighting overseas.”
The bikers raised their glasses. Hanley drank. Then he said, “Gentlemen, I have come here to declare jihad.”
The tattooed man laughed. “Who are you declaring jihad against exactly?” he asked. He pronounced jihad like he was hawking up phlegm.
“The Big Kahuna,” Hanley said. “The Man Upstairs. Call Him what you will. I challenge Him to appear before me today, in whatever guise He so chooses, to fight me in a duel. He may decide the time, the place, even the weapons to be used. Are you with me?”
“He’s drunker than you are,” one biker said to another.
“Sure,” the tattooed man said to Hanley. “We’re with you.”
“My opponent is wily,” Hanley went on. “ ‘No man shall know the time or place,’ He says, but I will circumvent His cunning gambit with one of my own: I shall wage my war perpetually and without end.”
“How does that work exactly?” Crossbones said.
“My opponent is by nature a coward,” Hanley said. “He prefers to attack from a distance and indirectly. But I shall give Him no choice but to engage me in the open. Let Him strike me dead now, right here on this humble bar stool, if He has the courage.”
He looked toward the ceiling and waited, arms outstretched. Hanley did not die, so far as he could tell, and his hands dropped to his lap. “You see, gentlemen? A coward. Already I have won a small victory.”
“Just wait,” the tattooed man said.
“I have waited these twenty-nine years,” Hanley replied, lighting a cigarette. “I’m done waiting. Tell me, gentlemen, what is your opinion of the victims of these recent attacks on our sovereign soil? Not the firemen who charged up the stairs. I mean the men and women who simply died. The ones vaporized when those planes first hit. The ones who jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. The ones who died just because there were too many stairs between them and the earth. Are they heroes?”
The bartender cleared his throat and nodded at the TV. “This is some matchup, isn’t it?”
“I’d really appreciate it if you stopped talking,” the tattooed man said to Hanley.
Hanley stared back, smiling. “And what would you fill your ears with if I stopped talking? What exactly am I keeping you from? There’s a war on. I stood and watched the towers fall, gentlemen. I watched them collapse into dust.”
“I had a cousin who was one of those firemen you’re talking about,” the tattooed man said, “and I’ve had just about enough of your bullshit.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Perhaps I saw him. Perhaps he went right by me on those stairs. I was going down. What do you think, sir, about the survivors of that day? Not the heroes or the victims, but the survivors. What do you think about them?”
“Fuck him,” Crossbones said to his friend. “He’s crazy.”
The tattooed man said to Hanley, “What did you come in here for? To get your teeth knocked out?”
“Gentlemen! Not half an hour ago I stood before a church wall covered with photos of the missing and dead, and I have had enough of it. We have worshiped the victims for too long. Is it not time someone took those faces down? Will you join me in this great endeavor?”
“Why don’t you pay up and get out of here,” the tattooed man said.
“Perhaps I’m not making myself clear,” Hanley said.
He threw his glass at the tattooed man. The tumbler bounced off the man’s skull and shattered on the floor.
They were all on him at once. Jolts of pain, flailing limbs, a sense that he was rising out of his body.
Hanley came to on the sidewalk, tasting blood. He got to his feet and leaned against a parking meter until he trusted his legs to carry him. Then he limped down the street, greeting passersby.
When he returned to the church, he found Reed’s smiling picture and tore it from the brick wall. He tore down the ones beside it, too, and the crayon drawings and the prayer cards. He clawed at the faces of the dead, bloodying his knuckles. People shouted, “What’s wrong with you?” Someone grabbed him and threw him against the hood of a parked car. He lay there laughing, then stood and took a bow before walking up the street, wiping blood from his busted mouth.
When the first plane hit Tower One, Hanley heard only a muted thud in his office in Tower Two. Everyone spent a couple of minutes trying to figure out whether the explosion had occurred in their building or not. At first they were all told to stay put: if they went downstairs, they would only get in the way of rescue crews. When they heard it was a plane, Hanley thought how easily it could have been his building that had been hit. He couldn’t help feeling grateful, because however many people had died over there, it was still better than being dead himself. He looked to see what he could of the other tower, but the office faced south, and all he could see were sheets of paper fluttering against the clear sky, whipped by the wind and falling like confetti over the city blocks far below, and the Statue of Liberty standing above the sun-dazzled water, and Staten Island and New Jersey curving toward the horizon.
Hanley commented to Reed that this was one of those things people would talk about for months to come, and they would be able to say that they were right there when it happened — a tiny piece of history that grazed their lives.
People decided they should evacuate, just in case. Hanley, normally so skeptical of everything, did not question this. He and Reed joined the others filing down the stairs. “At least we’re getting some exercise,” Reed said. People chuckled nervously. Someone else said, “You think they’ll charge us a sick day for this?” The steps went on forever. Hanley’s knees ached.
Around the fortieth floor Reed stopped and said, “The ring. The fucking ring.”
Hanley looked at him, not knowing what he was talking about.
“My grandmother’s ring,” he said. “The one I’m giving to Callie. It’s in my bag.”
“So it’s the ring I’m giving to Callie,” he said, angry to have to repeat himself, angry to have forgotten it. “I’ll find you outside.”
He turned and went back up the stairs, past all the people coming down. Hanley watched him go. Later he would think that he should have grabbed his arm and said, Who cares about the fucking ring? It’ll be there tomorrow. Let’s just get out. It hadn’t occurred to anyone then that a second plane would hit or that the towers would fall. Still, Hanley could not see the logic in going back up those stairs for a ring. Did Reed think it would be stolen or lost? Was it just the embarrassment of having forgotten it, this past and future heirloom? Hanley never figured it out, just as he could never figure out why he had turned and continued down, shaking his head as though this were just another of Reed’s minor bad decisions, something Hanley would chastise his friend for later, and Reed would nod sheepishly and say, Yeah, OK, that was a bad idea.
Hanley never told Callie about the ring. He didn’t know what the revelation might do to her, what new configurations it might twist her grief into. There is always something worse.
The day after his fight with the bikers, Hanley’s lip was still swollen, and his hand was sore from the one punch he’d gotten in. At happy hour he convalesced at The Hospital, a dark dive crowded with aging punks and girls in sleek glasses and IT guys with loosened ties, a babble of voices talking over the jukebox, the candlelight scattering shadows from their faces and the shadows creeping back.
He remembered how quiet the nights had been in the week following the attacks. People still went out, but their voices were low, their smiles subdued. They were contemplating the new reality, giving conversations only half their attention while the other half pondered the possibility of violent death. Now, six weeks later, the bars were louder than ever.
Sonia was working tonight, the bottles lined up behind her full of pulsing liquid light. She had known Hanley and Reed for three years.
“You start a fight?” she asked.
“It’s a long-standing feud. I don’t know who started it.”
She sighed and leaned toward him, her arms on the bar. “Nick, I’m worried about you.”
“But I go on. I am a child of light.”
Hanley’s phone rang. It was Callie. He rarely answered it anymore, but sometimes he listened to Callie’s voice-mail messages. Through the earpiece she sounded small and distant: She was worried about him. She wanted to know if he was OK. She was having bad dreams. She wanted to see him. She wanted to tell him a joke Reed had once told her. She screamed and called Hanley the worst kind of person and said it was his fault that Reed was dead. From her window she had just seen Reed walking down the street — she was sure of it — but by the time she’d gotten downstairs and out the door, he was gone. She sobbed and hung up.
Hanley listened to each message just once, then erased it. Otherwise, he knew, he would play them over and over. The messages from his mother, from Reed’s parents, from his friends and co-workers — these he simply deleted without listening, but Callie’s he had to hear. Her voice kept materializing in his phone, her number flashing across the narrow display. He could not bring himself to call her back.
Callie’s number flashed again, lighting up his phone, when all he wanted was to sit here drinking whiskey and telling Sonia about the unsecured nuclear materials in underfunded Russian facilities, just waiting for some apocalyptic zealot to get ahold of them. He imagined a dirty nuke in Times Square. Every day he learned of some looming possible disaster. He didn’t understand how people talked about anything else. Sonia seemed alarmed that such terrible things could happen, or maybe she just worried that Hanley was losing his mind.
His phone lit up a third time.
“Shouldn’t you answer that?” Sonia asked.
“It’s a wrong number,” he said.
She moved down the bar to make someone a gin and tonic, and Hanley tested his wounded hand’s ability to make a fist. Then he listened to Callie’s messages.
She was crying. She said something about a tape. She said, “Where are you?” She said, “Can you fix it?” She said, “Please come. Please.”
A cab took him up Broadway, through Columbus Circle, where pigeons fluttered in fading daylight, to Reed and Callie’s apartment on 81st Street. He pressed the buzzer, and a crackling voice said, “Hello?” When he got to her floor, she was standing in the doorway, wearing one of Reed’s blue dress shirts and a pair of his basketball shorts.
Callie put her hands to Hanley’s face, gingerly touching the bruises and scabs. Then she was crying. Out of a kind of helplessness, he held her.
“I didn’t know where you were,” she said into his shoulder.
She pushed him away. “I said, I didn’t know where you were. Do you get that?”
“Come in,” she said. “Sit down.”
The apartment still looked the same as it had when Reed had lived there, only tidier. Reed’s books still lined the shelves; the photos of him and Callie and Hanley rested on the end tables. The TV played a movie with the sound off — an old black-and-white comedy in which Abbott and Costello run into famous movie monsters: a werewolf, a vampire, a man stitched together out of dead people. Once intended to horrify, they were made laughable and harmless in the film. Hanley and Callie sat on the couch and watched a slapstick chase scene.
“You were upset,” Hanley said. “On the phone.”
“The tape broke.”
“The answering-machine tape. From when he called. I was listening to it a lot, and it finally broke, but I fixed it. I taped it together. There’s a little gap where I repaired it, but the rest of it’s still there. What happened to you, Nick?”
He stared at his hands and smiled sourly.
“You can’t just disappear like that,” she said. “Are you hungry? Can I make you something?”
“I’m all right.”
“You look very much the opposite of all right. Come on, let me make you an omelet. Does an omelet sound good?”
“Sure,” he said. He hated omelets. It was Reed who’d liked omelets. She got up and went into the kitchen, and he followed.
“What did he say?” Hanley asked. “On the tape?”
She didn’t look up; she was greasing the pan. “Oh, just that he . . .” She wiped at her eyes. “Mostly just a joke about how tired he was from climbing the stairs, about coming home early from work.”
“He must have called when he went back up,” Hanley said.
She stood there, her hand on the handle of the pan. “I wish I knew why he did that. Some stupid thing he left in the office? Some file for work?” She laughed. “I have these one-sided conversations where I just scream at him for going back up to get some stupid, stupid thing.”
Hanley had to jam his fists into his pockets to keep from punching the wall. The eggs sizzled in the pan.
“You know what I thought of the other day?” Callie said. “For the first time in I don’t know how long? The story about how you guys rafted up the stream to high-school graduation.”
The stream ran behind Reed’s backyard and a mile later passed the high-school football field, where the graduation ceremony was to be held. He and Reed had the idea to get an inflatable raft and row upstream to the ceremony, dressed in their caps and gowns. They would time it so they arrived just after the valedictorian’s speech, walking up from the water, waving and smiling, and everyone would break into applause. People would talk about it for years.
But the current was stronger than they’d thought. They yelled at each other to row harder, cursing and laughing. Then they heard a hissing sound and looked at each other in disbelief. Hanley kept putting his ear to the rubber, trying to find the hole, and Reed couldn’t stop laughing. “Of course!” he cried. “Of course this would happen!” In the scramble to find the leak, Hanley ended up tumbling headfirst into the stream. He stood waist-deep in the water, his gown soaked and cap lost, while the raft drifted back downstream because Reed was laughing too hard to row, that high, goofy laugh, and Hanley watched him go.
“The part where you fell in,” Callie said. “God, the way he would describe your face as you fell.”
“We missed the entire graduation,” Hanley said.
“Tell me another story,” Callie said. “Tell me one about him that I haven’t heard before.”
“I think you’ve heard them all.”
“That can’t be true. Please tell me one, Nick.”
“Let me think,” he said.
He went back into the living room. The setting sun turned the walls red, and in the window burning clouds of pink and violet smudged the sky like the fingerprints of angels. The answering machine was on the desk by the TV. If he had any real courage, he would smash the tape to pieces.
She set the omelet down on the coffee table, and he sat on the couch and picked up the fork.
“Looks good,” he said. Nothing seemed more impossible than taking the first bite of that omelet. She sat next to him on the couch, legs folded under her, and waited for him to eat.
“Did you think of a story?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he said, putting a forkful of eggs in his mouth.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I have heard them all.”
They sat in silence, him eating, her watching. He thought how Reed’s whole life was now a finished story, no more surprises, abandoned forever to the past tense. And Hanley still here, looking for new ways to break the world until it apologized.
“That was good,” Hanley said, setting the fork on the empty plate. His mouth tasted revoltingly like omelet.
“They still smell like him, you know,” she said, fingering the collar of the blue button-down she wore. “All his dirty shirts. They start to lose it after I wear one for a while, though. I only have a couple left. I tell myself I won’t wear them, but then I do. I’m saving them because if I ever meet someone else and have kids one day, I want them to know what he smelled like. Which is maybe crazy, but I’m saving them.” She reached an arm toward him. “Here,” she said. “Smell it. Doesn’t it smell like him?”
Hanley leaned over and sniffed the sleeve. It smelled a little like Reed and a little like Callie. He looked up to tell her so, and her eyes were close to his, and in them he saw tiny reflections of himself. He kissed her. When he started to draw away, she pulled him back and kissed him again. He undid the buttons to Reed’s shirt while she bit his ear and shoulders, her cheeks wet with tears. She was working on his belt buckle when they fell over onto the floor.
After it was over, they were both sweating and out of breath. He hadn’t been able to come, but he was too exhausted to go on. Lying on top of her, he could feel her heart beating, not quite in sync with his. She was stroking his back, his hair, his neck.
“Shh,” she said. “Shh.”
He rolled off her, and they lay there side by side. The metal legs of the coffee table were cold against his arm and leg. There was only the sound of their breathing and his own heart beating alone.
“He loved you,” she said. “He worried about you all the time. He told me how, after your father died, you couldn’t sleep, and he would stay over and sleep on your floor and talk to you about baseball or TV shows or girls.” She swallowed, and he heard the wet click in her throat. “He said to me once, ‘If anything happens to me, take care of Nick. He doesn’t know how to be alone.’ It’s funny. He said that just a few months ago.”
She curled up against him, her head on his chest, and he stared at the TV light flickering on the ceiling. Her breathing grew deeper and steadier. When he thought she was asleep, he slid carefully out from under her and put one of the throw pillows from the couch beneath her head. Getting dressed, he looked at Callie one last time, at the troubled line that ran across her forehead even as she slept. Then he left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Out on the street, Hanley hailed a cab and gave the driver his address. He watched the lights go by, the people he didn’t know and the buildings he did. Somewhere around 37th Street he realized the shirt he had on was not his but Reed’s. In the dark they had looked the same.
© Joseph Sass
There was no one outside the mosque when Hanley arrived. The hour for prayer was over, but he knew the imam sometimes stayed late. So he waited across the street, watching the lights at the intersection turn green, yellow, and red, over and over. Finally the mosque door opened, and the imam and his sons came out.
Hanley stood on the hood of a parked car and shouted over the traffic, “I’ve come to challenge you to a duel. All three of you.”
The old man shook his head in wonder. The older son said, “What?”
“I’ve read your book, and I know what it says: ‘Fighting is obligatory for you.’ So come on already.”
“Leave, or I will call the police,” the imam said.
“No police,” Hanley said. “Just us. Sooner or later someone like you is going to kill me anyway. Let’s get it over with.”
The traffic had passed, and Hanley jumped down to cross the street. He never saw the bicycle that sent him spinning off his feet. He just felt the weight of a human body, the hard angles of aluminum. His foot was trapped. Everything smelled of Thai food. The imam and his sons stood over him.
“Can you hear me?” the imam said.
The delivery boy got to his feet, brushed rice off his jacket, and tried to pull his bicycle away from Hanley to examine it for damage. The imam’s older son gently removed Hanley’s foot from the spokes.
“Your lip will need stitches,” the imam said. “How is your head?”
“You’re lucky I can’t see straight,” Hanley said. The sons lifted him to his feet. He felt dizzy. He had no strength. They hailed a cab and put him in it.
“How old are you?” the imam asked.
“Twenty-nine,” Hanley said. “How old are you?”
“You are a young man,” the imam said. “You think you will be angry forever, but you won’t. And we are not the ones you are angry with anyway. You’ll be OK. Think of Job. You remember Job? He lost his home, his family, all that he loved. But he persevered. He got it all back. To survive is everything.”
Hanley tried to meet the man’s eyes through the thick glasses. He had a few things he wanted to say, but in his dazed state words were impossible. The imam gave the driver money and told him the name of a hospital. Then Hanley was alone in the back seat, watching the city night reel past.
“You bleeding?” the driver asked.
“A scratch,” Hanley said, dabbing his lip with his sleeve. His tongue felt swollen and dull. Blood covered his shirt, Reed’s shirt.
“Hey, try not to die back there,” the driver said.
“I can’t die,” Hanley said. “He won’t fucking let me.”
“Who won’t?” the driver said.
“He wouldn’t know what to do with me if He had me,” Hanley said. “He wouldn’t know the first thing to say.”
The emergency room was full of people sitting in molded plastic chairs, looking despondent, doing crossword puzzles, and complaining about the wait to anyone who would listen. Hanley went up to the window and told the nurse he needed to see a doctor.
She gave him some paperwork and asked him to wait.
“I was just run over by a bicycle,” he said. “My lip’s split in half, I can barely walk, and I can’t move my left hand. This is the fucking emergency room, right?”
“You’ll be all right,” the nurse said. She gave him an ice pack for his lip. Hanley sat down and waited. He watched the war on a silent TV: garish green night-vision footage, tracer fire lighting up the sky, something exploding. After a long time a nurse called his name and led him through a door and down a hall to where beds were partitioned off by blue curtains. She told him to lie down in one of the beds and wait for the doctor.
“I thought you were taking me to see the doctor,” Hanley said.
“The doctor’s busy,” the nurse said. She left, sliding the curtain closed behind her.
Hanley lay with the ice pack pressed to his lip. The blood kept coming. When he pulled the ice pack away, it was stained red. He turned it and held the unstained side to his lip. He heard footsteps pass one way and then the other behind the blue curtain. No one ever stopped to look in on him. After a while there were no more unstained places on the ice pack, and it wasn’t cold anymore.
He went down the corridor to a desk where two nurses sat laughing and joking.
“I need a new ice pack,” he said.
They turned and looked at him, smiles still on their faces. “You gotta go back and wait,” one nurse said.
“I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting I don’t even know how long anymore.”
“You gotta keep on waiting,” the other nurse said. “The doctor will get to you.”
“Where is the doctor?” Hanley said. “Is he here?”
“Don’t you worry,” the first nurse said. “He knows you’re waiting.”
“Does he know how long I’ve been waiting?” Hanley said. “Does he know I can’t stop bleeding?”
“He knows,” the second nurse said. “You go on back and wait now.”
“What about my ice pack?”
“Someone’ll bring you a new ice pack.”
Hanley threw the ice pack down the hall.
“You won’t get a new ice pack acting like that,” the first nurse said. “Now go and pick that up.”
“I come to you with my face split open, and you expect me to wait forever with a melted fucking ice pack,” Hanley said.
“You gotta wait like everybody else,” the first nurse said. “You ain’t dying.”
“Maybe you should get some more doctors,” Hanley said.
“We only got the one doctor tonight,” the second nurse said.
“And where is he?” Hanley said. “Where is he right now?”
“He’s around somewhere.”
“Well, fuck him,” Hanley said. “Fuck him, and fuck the two of you.”
He limped back down the corridor, past muffled sobs from behind curtains. He would find the doctor. He looked into rooms and saw examining tables covered in white paper, blue rubber gloves poking out of boxes, biohazard bins, great humming machines performing obscure medical functions. In one of the rooms a man looked back at him, a face in ruins, but it was only a mirror. He felt each drop of blood bead wetly on his lip before it fell.
At the end of a white corridor Hanley flung open a door and found himself suddenly out in the night. The air was cold and dry, thrumming with distant engines. He was in some kind of alleyway, facing a wall of green wood that had been set up around a construction site, its length covered with posters advertising concerts that had already happened. He walked along the wall but could not find an opening to see what was being built. A fighter jet shrieked across a strip of sky high above, invisible, defending empty space.
He doesn’t get it back. That was what he’d wanted to tell the imam. Not the same home, not the same family.
And now here he was at the avenue. The sleek, anonymous traffic, the endless stoplights, the windows of skyscrapers bright and vacant against the dark. He knew where he was. He didn’t know where he was. The blood would not stop.