The Lure, page 4
This morning had gone well, too, although he was calming down. Frightening as it had been, it had happened to him. That made it remarkable. That kept him in high spirits. High enough to tease Alison.
“Promise you won’t breathe a word?” he said, taking on her conspiratorial tone.
“I’m not sure I want to hear this.”
“I deal drugs. Mostly cocaine. But a little heroin, too. The cops raided my place.” He waited for the appropriate confused/horrified response to register on her face. “Luckily the place was clean. Not lucky, really, I was tipped off. There’s this former junkie who runs for me. Actually, he’s still addicted, which is how I get him to work for me, and…”
Boyle’s office door opened. Noel stopped in midsentence and got off Alison’s desk. She turned back to her typing. They heard the voices beyond the door, the department chairman, oily smooth as usual, the excited voice of the young man who exited first, shaking Wilbur Boyle’s hand. Noel had seen his type before—tousled, dirty hair, granny glasses, denims a size too small, a corduroy jacket with worn houndstooth elbow patches—the costume of the career graduate student.
Boyle spotted Noel. “Did you get my note, Mr. Cummings? Do you have a moment now?”
Not waiting for an answer, he went back into his office.
“Here goes,” Noel whispered to Alison and headed after him.
“You must be Noel Cummings,” the graduate student said. “You wrote that article contra Wilson.”
“I admit it.”
“Everyone’s talking about it in Chicago. No kidding. We think it’s a terrific critique!”
“Thanks,” Noel said, and would have stayed to find out what else they were saying at the University of Chicago, but Boyle was signaling to him.
“Nice boy,” Wilbur Boyle said when they were alone. “Very up on things. Might join our staff next year.”
He motioned Noel to sit down, but remained standing himself, looking up at the high windows under the prominent eaves of the old building.
“When I first took this office, I thought how wonderful it would be, right here in the heart of Manhattan overlooking the park. A roof with eaves to keep off sun and snow. Birds singing. All I notice now is pigeon shit.”
Noel sat down and automatically inspected the bookshelf. A glance told him not a volume had been moved since his last visit at the beginning of the term. He’d heard such prologues before. They always led into a long, convoluted soliloquy of disappointments, hardships, and department problems. To listen to one was to hear all of them. But to break in was a breach of etiquette.
Noel used the time to prepare answers to Boyle.
The chairman got to the point rather suddenly, breaking off in the middle of a platitude to ask, “By the way, what is all this about, yesterday morning?”
“I witnessed a murder.”
The handsome, well-cared-for, middle-aged face stopped for a second as though a plaster mask had received a light hammer tap.
“Really. I think the victim was a police decoy. I never found out more. He was still alive. He sent me for help. It arrived too late for him. They said they would call to check my story. They even began to beat me up. Their chief stopped them.”
“Not a nice bunch,” Boyle said, all sympathy and interest. “What happened?”
“Some men knifed him. In one of the abandoned piers on the Hudson River.”
Boyle winced, but seemed fascinated. “And they let you go?”
“Here I am.”
“If only you’d told me,” Boyle said, “you needn’t have come to class. I would have found someone else. Or canceled it.”
“I didn’t mind,” Noel said. He was enjoying himself now. “I thought work would keep my mind off it. It was grisly.”
“It must have been.” Those words said, Wilbur Boyle was once more the unworried, slick university administrator, his hair stylishly long, neatly combed, his clothing meticulous, his tone that of an aging politician. Boyle had made his name with one idea in one book twenty years ago. Since then, nothing had panned out, except this job. He’d done his best to glamorize it and himself.
“What were you doing there? In that area, I mean?”
“I bicycle every morning, before class.”
“Sounds invigorating.” Boyle shuddered. “And that’s all?”
“What else would I be doing in an abandoned pier at that hour?”
“Then you aren’t the one,” Boyle said, sighing with obvious disappointment.
“No one tells me anything in the department. But I had heard an intriguing rumor that one of the staff was seen at curious hours recently in that area. Getting material. You know, of course, that area is a center of homosexual bars, clubs, haunts of different sorts? I was certain I’d soon be reading a proposal for a ground-breaking study on that milieu seen from within. It’s needed. It sounded good. Very good. I’d hoped that person was you, Noel.”
“Me?” Noel had been following Boyle with interest. He hadn’t heard such a rumor nor did he know of the area’s reputation. Boyle’s last words startled him.
“Vain hope, I see,” Boyle said, curling his upper lip. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you do owe the department a thesis, don’t you?”
“So it wasn’t entirely foolish of me to harbor the thought that this would be the long-awaited work?”
“But we’ve always discussed my ideas beforehand.”
“I know. I know. To what end? What was the most recent one? Ah, yes, something about the impact of a drug rehabilitation center suddenly placed in a middle-class neighborhood. What happened to it?”
“The crime rate rose five hundred percent in four months. A month later it was closed down, reopened in Harlem. It was nothing.”
“It might have been something. If you had chosen to do it.”
“As a book?”
“The Current Ideas imprint needs such books. That’s why I began it. Or have you forgotten?”
How could anyone forget Boyle’s pet project? Noel was reminded of it in some way every week. Boyle was using it to show up the other branches of the University Press: it was becoming an obsession.
“Would you really print something like that?” Noel asked, hoping to deflect Boyle onto his favorite topic.
“Like what? The rehab center? Or the murder?”
“No. I wasn’t thinking about that.”
“Maybe you ought to, Noel. No, don’t interrupt. You realize that the social sciences are based on being right on the spot, living it, reporting it. All the great ideas in our field have come from being within a society. Look at Mirella Trent. She worked three months as a guard in a women’s prison for her book. And it turned out to be the best one we’ve done in the series. We need more of that. Not more critiques of someone else’s ideas in another grad school journal.”
When was the last time Boyle had done fieldwork? Noel wondered resentfully. Unless that was what he called all those uptown cocktail parties. He was even more irritated by the department chairman pointing out Mirella’s book as a guide. Everyone knew what a sensational muckraking feminist tract that had been: a best-seller that had pulled the Current Ideas imprint out of a financial hole. Not to mention the decisive blow it had dealt to Noel and Mirella’s on-again, off-again two-year relationship. Boyle couldn’t be ignorant of that, either.
“May I remind you,” Boyle was saying now, “that when I first took you on here, I had high hopes. I know you’re good in class. Students fight to get into your lectures. But I can no longer guarantee that will be enough to keep you in line for tenure.” There it was—the threat. Noel had been waiting for it.
“You saw that young man who came out of my office before. He’s already coauthored one book. He’s bright, eager. Why shouldn’t he work here?”
“You’ve made your point,” Noel said, standing.
“You have to realize my position, Noel. I
“I know.” Which he did, from hearing it from Boyle so often. But he didn’t care. All he wanted was to get out of that office.
“And you know I hate to exert pressure. It’s not my style.” Of course not, Noel thought. It doesn’t match your mirror-shine shoes or four-thousand-dollar face-lift.
“Don’t let me go into the board meeting this term-ending with empty hands, Noel. Give me something to show for keeping you.”
“I will,” Noel lied: anything to get out.
Boyle seemed surprised, pleased. “Good. You must know how I detest these administrative duties,” he said, suddenly unruffled and friendly again. “Why don’t you show me something substantial soon? We’ll meet over lunch. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?”
“I won’t let you down,” Noel said at the door. He had to force himself to shake the plump, slick hand.
“Shit!” he said as Boyle’s door closed. “Shit!”
What was happening to him?
He was in a black mood by the time he left the uptown IRT and walked to the apartment he had taken on Madison Avenue after Monica died and the five rooms on Riverside Drive had seemed so vast and empty. This place satisfied him. It was a good-sized studio—with a tiny kitchen and bath off to one side, a sleeping loft built over a small study area. The ceilings were twelve feet high. He had a working fireplace, long walls for built-in closets and bookshelves. There was traffic, loading and unloading outside from seven in the morning until noon, but by afternoon the neighborhood was quiet and most nights it was country silent.
He had let himself into the apartment and dumped his books when the phone rang.
“Noel? Is that you? This connection is bad. Should I call back?”
“Mrs. Sherman? My side is fine.”
“Well, I guess this will do then,” she said, her nasal voice unmistakable. “I just wanted to check if you were coming up this weekend.”
The minute she said it—half pleading, half reminding—Noel remembered: today was March third. In two days, Monica would have been twenty-eight. They had always visited her parents for her birthday, and after she died, the Shermans had insisted Noel continue the tradition. How they had loved her! How good they had been to him after it happened, never leveling a hint of reproach for letting their only, their wonderful daughter drown. Of course they had known Noel most of his life, were almost family to him. And usually Noel looked forward to seeing them.
“I know it’s a long trip, now that we’re so much farther away,” Mrs. Sherman apologized.
“No problem.” Brewster was only an hour and a half by train, a pretty ride along the Hudson River. Noel enjoyed being out in open country in cold weather. He hated the city in winter.
She was armed with train schedules, and they agreed to meet by eleven on Saturday morning.
“Peter is so much looking forward to seeing you,” she said. “He made sure to ask if you were coming. We hardly see you.”
“I’ll be there,” Noel said. But the minute he put down the receiver he knew he would do it this year only out of duty. Something was wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was there, gnawing away at him, not the usual flood of memories, but something else, something different.
He put on a record, one of Monica’s favorites—the last Beatles album—and tried to remember her. Nothing happened.
He went to the closet, pulled out a box of photo albums they had collected for years and opened it randomly. The snapshots he peered at had been taken some eight years ago. They were still in college then, living together in a small basement off campus. She’d tried to be a lighter blond that year and had dyed her hair platinum, and cut it quite short. As usual, she had pulled it off. She had looked like a golden retriever, glossy, smooth, tanned, long-legged.
From that album it was easy to get into the others. Noel sat in the curved-back rocking chair he and Monica had bought on the spot one morning after an all-night party, and went through album after album of photographs: a dozen of them, beginning when they were children living next door to each other in Mamaroneck. Many photos through junior high, she always a few inches taller, always a bit more mature—as in that snapshot of them at the Shermans’ lakeside house in Connecticut, Monica staring right out at you, Noel squinting—a slim, curly-haired boy of thirteen. The next album covered high school, when he finally passed her in height and weight, and Monica had grown radiant in her fair beauty, indomitably high-spirited, so securely the most popular girl in school that one could almost overlook the serious, gawky young man who inevitably appeared next to her—Noel, the obligatory chaperon. Monica was always the main attraction, looking seductive at seventeen in her first bikini (Noel to one side, holding a surfboard); or ravishing in a cocktail sheath, strand of pearls and pearl earrings, which he (in white jacket and black tie with tartan cumberbund) had given her for her twentieth birthday; or fresh and cheerful in her short white cheerleader’s skirt with the tight-fitting bodice, her hair long and sun-streaked (Noel half in shadow, wearing basketball shorts and a shirt with the major letter he had gotten that year); Monica smiling, in every conceivable pose and outfit, and always next to her, Noel.
That was how it ought to appear, if photography conveyed truth. It was always Monica for Noel. If not from the day she stepped into his driveway where he was patching a flat tire on his Schwinn and introduced herself as the new neighbor, then from only a month or two after that. She was always first, through high school and college, work and marriage, right up to that afternoon on the lake.
He didn’t have to look at those last snapshots taken the day she died. He recalled that day well enough, even after three years: how much of the margaritas he’d drunk from the Thermos. How she’d awakened him after he declared himself drunk and sleepy. How they’d made love in the little skiff, sloshing around in a half inch of water, their limbs slithery with it. The soft undulation, the sun shimmering on the lake. Her splash afterward as she dove into the water. Her taunts for him to join her. How she had left him alone to nap. Then the vague cries, his slow awakening, and the sudden clear sight of her arm and hand straight out of the water, gripping at air. His frozen terror the instant before he snapped fully awake and dove in. How he had grabbed her crumpled form, slowly sinking downward. How he had dragged her up and into the boat, thrown her over on her stomach, pumped her lungs. How he thought he had succeeded, and got the engine going, shooting back to the dock, praying, cold-faced, with her inert body. How he had listened to the doctor later, watched the old locals shrug, heard that of course cramps were common after intercourse, it happened all the time. And how that night he’d sat in the tiny, freezing cabin with Monica’s corpse and slowly realized that after eighteen years of knowing her, being with her, living for her, everything had changed.
As the years passed, that day alone stood out clearly for Noel—the others became vague, even with the photo albums—the day he had failed to save her life. This recalled, he always felt a catharsis. The ritual finished, the records and the photo albums would be replaced in a back corner of the closet, the ghost relaid.
As it was this early evening. Relieved, he threw himself into two dozen impromptu sit-ups, his stockinged toes wedged under the crossbar of the kitchen table. He followed that with more exercises, showered, had dinner, studied, watched a few hours of TV, and went to sleep early.
Lying in bed, he felt exhausted. Somehow Monica seemed further away than ever before. Now school, his career, Boyle’s ultimatum, clouded her image. Just before he fell asleep, Noel briefly saw that bloody man with no face.
“Someone’s waiting for you,” the old man Gerdes, the doorman, said.
Noel lifted the Atala over the threshold and rolled it into the storage closet next to the mailroom.
“Well,” he asked, when he had locked the bike away, “where is he?”
“I let him in.”
“He said he was your uncle.”
“My uncle? What uncle?” Noel demanded, jabbing the elevator button.
“Don’t know. He said he was tired. Not all old men are like me, you know, on my feet all day.”
The floor arrow above the elevator pointed to five.
“Why couldn’t he sit down here?”
“He said he was your uncle.”
It was coming down slowly. At three, now, stopped. Probably Mrs. Davies, holding the door open to get her menagerie in.
“When did you ever meet any uncle of mine? Imagine letting a stranger into my apartment! If anything’s missing—”
He withheld the remainder of the threat, as the elevator landed with a thump and sure enough, Mrs. Davies and a half dozen dogs of various sizes and colors exited in a rushing barrage of fur and barking, their elderly owner spinning about, trying to hold on to their leashes.
Whatever could have been in Gerdes’s mind to do such a thing? Noel wondered as he ascended. Had his Uncle Al come to visit him? Why hadn’t Aunt Antonia called beforehand? Was there trouble in the family?
His apartment door was slightly ajar. Music from the radio seeped out into the hallway: Mozart. Noel stood still, took a breath, and slowly opened the door all the way.
Only when it was fully open did he see the man sitting in the rocking chair, bathed in morning sunlight from the tall windows. At first, Noel didn’t recognize him. When, a second later, he did, it was with a sudden rush of fear. It was he, the chief of those men in the abandoned Federal House of Detention, the man they had called the Fisherman.
“Come in! Come in!” he said cheerily. At Noel’s baffled, apprehensive look the Fisherman got up from the rocker and came to meet him. “I didn’t know when you’d be back, so I asked the doorman…”
“I know.” What did he want?
“You don’t seem too pleased to see me.”
“I hoped I’d never see you again. I’ve tried to forget that morning.” Noel closed the door, wondering whether anyone else was in the apartment. The bathroom door was open, no one could hide in the kitchen. In the closets?
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