With a generous heart and a practical nature, George Cullen was a born problem-solver. He stayed close to Wild Bill Alexander through the years, doing what he could to make things easier for the veteran, who was old enough to be his father. The connection went back two generations, when the Cullens and the Alexanders lived next door to each other in identical brick houses down on Fifth Street in a deeply flawed America the likes of whose beauty would not be seen again. The loss was an article of faith with George, who was too young to have been there.
The fact was, there was not much of substance that George could do for Wild Bill, who had survived the Bataan Death March. He was sixteen at the time, having lied about his age to join the Army taking on the Japanese in the Pacific. He came out of the Philippines with a hatred of Douglas MacArthur and shattered nerves. Neither ever went away. He worked in the shipping department at Ontario Iron Works where he was famous for his reaction to sudden loud noises. Bang, and he would drop to the concrete floor, cover his head with his arms, and whimper. As the years went by and America turned into a different country, the men he worked with and the foremen who supervised them showed less patience with Bill, and less sympathy.
In his later years at the plant, he worked the night shift by choice because it was quieter. Even on that quieter shift, there were men – white, black, Puerto Ricans, and Tuscarora Indians from the reservation – who came up behind him and clapped two pieces of metal together just to see him react.
George worked at Ontario Iron, too. He was a welder. One night he took on three young guys who were hassling Bill on the factory floor. The fight happened out in the parking lot by the light of a moon that had seen worse, but maybe not much worse. The three of them left George bleeding from the mouth and with a couple of cracked ribs. Thinking back to what happened, he believed that he had done the right thing and would do it again.
Bill had a daughter, Margaret. He had a wife, too, although Veronica was an inconstant presence in the home. She went away for long stretches of time, coming back with stories of unlikely events that had befallen her. As the years went by her tales got taller. Once, she reappeared looking bedraggled, with circular burn marks around her eyes. The burns, she explained, had been made by the engine of a spaceship departing the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Because of Veronica’s wandering ways, Bill wound up raising Margaret pretty much on his own. In practice, that meant significant aspects of the raising fell to Margaret herself. In the early Seventies, accustomed to making her own decisions, she moved to a commune in California. Wild Bill took her leaving as desertion and pictured the worst. At that time, anybody who used the word ‘hedonism’ meant something pretty awful by it, and Wild Bill’s imagination was fed by pop culture images of hippies, orgies, bare breasts and more. He suffered.
While Margaret was out in California, George got into the habit of stopping off at the Stone Jug with Wild Bill after work. They sat at a table and shelled pickled eggs with their draught beer, and Bill worried out loud over his daughter. With the exception of loud noises – and what he kept inside, which was a lot – Bill Alexander had gotten far enough past Bataan to live what looked from the outside like a normal life, with normal thoughts and feelings. It was normal, at that time, for a parent to worry that his child was in danger, either physical or moral.
Margaret came back from California changed. To those who had known her before she seemed aloof, as though she looked down on people and could not be bothered to explain herself to them. Her habit of saying Wow! every other sentence annoyed some old friends. She saw contrails of color in places where other people only saw sky, but they wrote that off to her time in the commune. She was attractive in a self-possessed way, blonde and short with an appealing stubbiness. When she wanted to, she made people feel she was hearing the deep message behind their words. The trait served her well when looking for a job, and she became executive assistant to the vice president of a company that manufactured cardboard boxes. Not very exciting work, but she craved stability after her unsettled years in the People’s Republic of Sierra Nevada.
One day it was obvious to everyone at the box company that Margaret was pregnant. She never told anyone who the father was. Wild Bill was mortified to discover that his unwed daughter planned to have and keep the child. Veronica at that time was living in Miami, where she claimed to be managing a Latin swing band. She mailed home a box with booties and blankets she said she knitted, but they were obviously things she picked up at a thrift store. George opened a savings account in the child’s name with twenty five bucks. He gave Margaret the passbook, pointing out that it was not too soon to start saving for college.
Wild Bill’s mortification rocketed up when Margaret gave birth to a black baby boy. Estrangement followed. Bill swore he would disinherit his daughter and her bastard son. Veronica, who had come home for the birth, pointed out that the man who was still technically her husband didn’t have a pot to piss in, so disinheriting them had no practical consequence. This was her moment to behave with magnanimity, but she couldn’t quite pull it off. She was clumsy around the baby, and her conversation was full of maladroit attempts to rationalize her getaway, which was always imminent. The woman had a deep need to escape, and to be seen escaping.
As for Margaret, what passed between her and her father was known only by the two of them. She hid the hurt by becoming enigmatic. She answered questions with a question. She hummed tunes nobody recognized. She made muddied references to people, places, and events expecting everyone to know what she was talking about. At the same time, in the privacy of her own home she was a loving mother with a sense of humor and an equally useful sense of shame.
Off and on through the years, George tried to reconcile the Alexanders. He understood the important things. That love bruised easily, and the miracle of repair required precise environmental conditions to do its work. That pride was a failure of the imagination. That insects bred in the mucky underside of grievance. That time was a voracious consumer of memory and intention.
It didn’t work. The Alexanders did not get put together again. As for Ransome, he was a cool customer, emotionally speaking. He accepted the fact of his broken family for what it was. Either that, or he did such a good job pretending that people believed he meant what he didn’t say. By one of those quirks of genetics, he looked nothing like his stubby blonde mother. He was tall and lithe with medium-brown skin. In high school the girls had gone crazy for him, but he took that in stride, too. He may have looked nothing like Margaret Alexander, but she gave him his self-possession, and the instinct to hold himself apart. Which of course only made him more of an enigma, and more attractive to women.
The city was not huge. Through the years, Ransome could not help running into his grandfather now and again. When that happened, they both took pains not to acknowledge the other. One time and one time only, Ransome came close to crossing the invisible line dividing them.
He was already a fireman at that point, married to a city attorney named Cheryl Roundtree who considered herself the lucky party; she won the mate-for-life jackpot. They had precociously verbal twin daughters and owned a home in Deveaux, still the neighborhood of choice for people who could afford to buy there. One mild May day, he was working afternoons, after the shift, he stopped by the Stone Jug to have a drink with his fire-fighting friends. It was the same bar where George and Wild Bill used to hang out, so no surprise to find Wild Bill there now, downing boilermakers. He was alone, and over his face wrath and sorrow moved like animals hunting in tandem.
It was his grandfather’s expression, haunted and haunting, that made Ransome think about going over to him, saying hello, seeing what happened. But the instant he stood up from the table where his buddies were sharing a pitcher of Genny Cream Ale, Wild Bill got up from his barstool. He slapped a ten-dollar bill on the bar and blasted out the door in a huff. Ransome sat back down and finished his beer.
All of that lay in the past which, the way time worked, one day seemed distant as dinosaurs, another day close as razor burn. George did not stop trying to bring the Alexanders together, but eventually he had to accept the truth: he was going through motions. His wife died young. His kids left the city and were making lives for themselves elsewhere. He began spending more time visiting them in Grand Rapids and Peoria, less time plotting happy endings for Wild Bill.
George kept a calendar on his refrigerator with the birthdays of everybody he cared for. He sent cards to all of them. Inside each card he enclosed a lottery ticket, hoping the recipient would hit it big. Once, a grandson won five thousand bucks, which cheered everybody and spurred George to keep the tradition going.
It was because of his calendar that he realized Margaret was turning sixty, and that gave him the idea for one grand final gambit. He reserved a room at Rotella’s, the best Italian restaurant in the city, down on Pine Avenue in what used to be the Italian section. The City had done its best to ruin the neighborhood, face-lifting it into an unconvincing simulacrum of Old Italy, but Rotella’s was as good as it ever was. A private room there was an extravagance for a retired welder living on a pension pittance and Social Security, but George’s children were doing fine, his own needs were modest, and he didn’t give a damn about money anyway.
He was canny in the way he went about inviting people, vague when they asked who else was coming. Veronica had come back to the city a few years earlier, claiming she intended to stay. So she was on the guest list. She had come home with money but did not say how it came into her possession. She made sure, by her spending habits and a kind of running commentary on the relative merits of different brands of consumer goods, that everybody knew she was well fixed.
Ransome brought along Cheryl and the twins, and Margaret brought a friend from Pilates class who had also once lived in California. Margaret and I, we’ve bonded, the woman said to everybody she was introduced to. She too had seen colored contrails in her time.
This was June. Birds were singing on the branches of all the available trees. In yards across the city, grass was thrusting its billion heads up begging to be cut. Flowers of every description bloomed primly or in full abandon depending on their nature. Little kids rode tricycles with glee as if nobody had ever invented the internet to undermine their parents’ attention span.
The antipasti was terrific. At Rotella’s it always was. Everyone had tucked in before Wild Bill, the last of the party, arrived. He came into the room using a walker. Seeing his accommodation to decline twisted the strings of everybody’s heart. Although he was pushing ninety and had fallen a couple of times, he still lived on his own. Every setback was followed by a comeback. The words ‘Bataan Death March’ no longer had the resonance they once did in American society, but every time George saw Wild Bill he could not help thinking about what the sixteen-year-old soldier had endured.
Bill must have known why George was throwing the party. You did not forget the date of your only child’s birth just because you were estranged. So his showing up was a good sign, suggesting that the view from the high plains of old age had opened his eyes to reconciliation. Some version of that thought was percolating through everyone’s mind as he made his way to the table and took a seat at the farther end, leaving the walker within easy reach. A waiter in a traditional black jacket poured him a glass of wine with Rotella’s traditional panache. In a time of non-stop fakery, it was good to see the real thing.
People were flustered, not sure what to do or what to say, or how to go about doing and saying. Veronica, at the opposite end of the long table, sat gaping at her husband. They had never divorced even though they had not spent a night under the same roof in decades. She had come to the party dressed in something gold, something black, something expensive and jingly, and her mouth kept opening and closing like a fish’s.
The rest of the guests found themselves holding their breath waiting for destiny to deliver its verdict.
Bill cleared his throat. He looked around, but his gaze did not light on any single individual. They seemed to be, in his perspective, a collective noun. He picked up his wine glass and stared at it. He tasted it, set down the glass. He had come in carrying a plastic bag of the sort grocery stores were phasing out. Now he picked it up and drew out a knife. It was a big one, with a blade that meant business, if your business was homicide.
He raised the arm attached to the hand that held the knife. It was not a warlike gesture, but it was ambiguous. You could take it however you wanted to. Veronica took it as a signal of hostile intent and let loose a scream. She leapt to her feet ready to man Rotella’s ramparts and hollered, “stop him, he’s going to kill someone.”
George stood up. So did Ransome. To their credit, neither of them did anything. They must have known there was no need. Veronica’s theatrical reaction had already achieved what she intended. It drove Wild Bill away from the birthday party. To a person, the guests were frozen in place, watching him stand and pull the walker to him and make his way out of the restaurant, moving like a man whose mind was made up. Irrevocably. Well, it was.
At the place of honor in the middle of the table, Margaret was crying tears of regret, tears of loss. Ransome and Cheryl stood on either side of her trying to comfort her. Veronica had buttonholed Margaret’s Pilates friend and was telling her an outrageous story, not meant to be taken literally. George stood there for a moment, hands gripping the back of his seat as though to keep himself upright. Then he went out after Bill, who was stumping down the sidewalk piloting his walker. Fluorescent green tennis balls on the feet gave the thing a misplaced homey look, like slippers downtown.
Something clenched in George, and then it unclenched, leaving him with a supremely clear head. It had to do with the power of seeing, which was mixed up with the power of feeling until they became one and the same thing. Standing outside Rotella’s, George Cullen saw a prisoner of war who had survived an ordeal that took down thousands. He saw a man whose nightmares dripped acid into his daydreams, whose nerve endings would never be anything but raw. A man who had thrust away and lost his family and would not stop being baffled by how it had gone so mercilessly wrong. A man trapped in the beneficent sunlight of June whose country had changed so much since he mustered out of the Army in San Francisco and took a train back east and went to work in a factory that neither recognized the other.
George went after him.
“What do you want?” the old man said.
“You need a ride, Bill?”
“Called a cab. Meeting it on the corner.” He drew a breath, let it out with extraordinary control. “It wasn’t what they all thought it was.”
“What did they think it was?”
“I never cared what color that boy’s skin was.”
“It was Margaret, wasn’t it?”
They had been keeping pace, heading for the corner where a driver in a blue and white cab smoked a cigarette, one arm hanging out the window, impatient for his geezer customer to get there. Bill stopped walking. George stopped with him.
“She broke my heart,” Bill told him.
George wanted him to say more. He didn’t care if the cabbie was pissed at the delay, if they stood there on Pine Avenue until the sun went down and cars with neon wheels rolled past them sending out repetitive bass lines so full of force the shop windows trembled in their frames. He wanted to hear what Wild Bill Alexander had to say. Bill seemed to know what he wanted but shook his head.
“You take care of yourself now, George.”
He moved on.
It was an awful benediction. Something final, something somber, hovered over the words. George watched him walk to the cab, fold his walker expertly and put it into the back seat. He got in next to it, and the cabbie drove away. It seemed to George that a door had just swung shut that would not open again.
He was wrong. In July there was a fire in Lasalle, a multiple-alarm conflagration in an apartment building. Ransome’s was one of the platoons that responded. He was on the scene when a seriously wasted deadbeat from the corner apartment on the third floor came out coughing and hollering that his girl friend was still inside. She wasn’t. She had left after he got so ripped he was incapable of answering yes-or-no questions. She had a life, she later told a reporter from the Gazette, and it did not revolve around a full-time fiend. She deserved some respect, not to mention compensation.
At the time of the fire there was no way any of that could be known, and Ransome wound up on the team of three who went in after her. As they were coming out, a floor collapsed. He fell into the hole that was created. His buddies got him out, but he inhaled a lot of smoke, to the detriment of his lungs. One leg was broken, and his upper body was badly bruised.
To his credit, any time a local news program carried a story with the expression ‘fire-fighting hero’ in it, Ransome switched off the television. After three days in the hospital, he came home to recuperate. When it seemed safe, Cheryl went back to work. Having retired from Ontario Iron Works, George’s schedule was flexible. He was able to stop by Ransome and Cheryl’s most days to see if something around the house needed doing.
That was how he learned about Veronica’s new squeeze. Veronica was in her eighties now, but her eye had never stopped roving. Rocco Fratelli was younger than Veronica but totally smitten. He loved driving her around the City in his Escalade as much as she loved being driven. She also loved dropping hints about her boy friend’s low connections in the world of organized crime. Those connections were entirely a fabrication on her part. Rocco had been in the construction business until learning by chance, in his fifties, that he had a gift for investing. He did it the old-fashioned way, spending days researching a company before sinking money in it. He never corrected Veronica when she insinuated a sinister past he did not have. He was a mellow man with talkative strong hands who dressed well, ate well, and enjoyed good wine. He was secure in his sense of himself and asked no existential questions he was not prepared to answer.
George figured Veronica’s campaign of innuendo was just her way of passing the time. A hobby. She made up ridiculous things out of long habit. But by August, when it was clear that Ransome was getting his strength back and would suffer no long-term damage from the fire, a pattern had emerged. Veronica was building up a scenario. Rocco had enemies, she let it be known. He might have to disappear at a moment’s notice, and naturally she would go with him. If that happened, and shady characters showed up asking questions, or the police came by, everyone in the peanut gallery was supposed to play dumb.
She was laying the groundwork for her decision to leave the city one more time. At her age, it was possible she would not set foot on home ground again. She might well die in exile. Why she felt compelled to make a story of her exit, to rationalize what she intended to do – which no one was trying to talk her out of doing – was a mystery.
To celebrate Ransome’s return to work, Cheryl organized a picnic in their back yard, where a row of stately conifers showed the local fences how you went about achieving privacy with class. The crows that hung out in those trees were opinionated, but the noise they made only added to the convivial feel of the day, the place, the occasion. George was there, of course, along with a son who was visiting from Peoria, and his son’s young son. Margaret was there with a scrapbook of the articles that had come out about Ransome’s brave action at the Lasalle fire, and links on her phone to all the video.
Everyone expected Veronica. They expected her to be late because that was her style. They expected Rocco to chauffeur her there in his pearl gray Escalade. What they did not expect was for Veronica to show up at the wheel of the car herself with Wild Bill in the seat next to her. There was no walker. He went on his own power from the driveway to the back yard where people were drinking wine coolers and making jokes about Ransome getting burned as he manned the grill. Careful, George said more than once, we don’t want to have to call the fire department,
Together, Veronica and Bill Alexander made for quite an entrance.
Nobody knew how to react except George, who carried over a lawn chair for Bill and made sure he got a seat in the shade.
“You want a beer? Glass of wine?”
“Beer’s okay,” said Bill.
He took the can of Genny Cream from George and looked around the yard to locate himself, his gaze finally coming to rest on his wife. She was dressed in a bronze-colored pantsuit that gave her the look of a railway conductor from a previous decade. Her jewelry dangled. She was going for an insouciant look, but the years put a drag on the effect.
She told a story, and Bill listened with respect. That took some doing because the story was classic Veronica, hard to swallow in its absurdity.
“Rocco’s in the other car,” she told the picnickers. “It’s registered to his cousin, you don’t know him. They won’t think to look for us in a purple Jetta, will they?”
The gist of Veronica’s story was this: the jig was up, the shady characters formerly alluded to were gunning for Rocco. So the two of them were going on the lam. Every sunset might be their last, every bottle of Chianti Clasico whose cork they pulled might be the taste they took with them, going down. She kissed Margaret and Ransome and Cheryl and the twins goodbye. She hugged George and George’s son and grandson. She whispered something into Wild Bill’s ear. Then she got into the Escalade, looked up and down the street to be sure she wasn’t being followed, and drove away.
Later, George wished that he knew what she whispered into Bill’s ear, and how it influenced his decision. As soon as she was gone, he took the same knife he had brought to Rotella’s from the same plastic bag. He held it so everybody could see it.
“We used to make these out of rifle bayonets,” he said, calm as Sunday morning. “Back in the Pacific.”
As he spoke he looked directly at Ransome, although his intended audience was Margaret. Ransome listened coolly. Cheryl, who was sitting next to him, put a hand on his shoulder. Everybody shut up. Even the crows in the conifers were quiet.
“Had a buddy,” Bill said to his grandson, “name of Ransome. He was from Alabama, farm boy. Southern accent so heavy it sounded like he had a wad of cotton in his mouth. Never understood half of what he told me. It was him showed me how to make the knife. Ransome was next to me the day the Japs started marching us. Second day out, must have been noon because I remember the sun was straight up, he mouthed off and a Jap corporal ran him through with a sword.”
Bill had strapped the bayonet knife to his calf, under his pant leg. There was a lot of confusion, there was confusion all the time everywhere in the stumbling, driven army of prisoners. Somehow the Japanese did not find the knife. And it was the knife, he insisted, that kept him going. Any time he thought about doing something stupid, like rushing the strutting superior little corporal who murdered Ransome, he remembered the knife. Hanging onto it, not surrendering it, mattered more than anything else he could think of. If they came for him the way they did for Ransome, the way they did for every other poor son of a bitch they shot and stabbed and beat and starved, he knew he would take one of them with him, maybe two. They never found the knife.
When he stopped talking, nobody moved. George was glad his grandson was there to hear the story. Hearing it created something, or strengthened something, that would be a counterweight to the forces of inanity bearing down on the kid because he was young and it was the twenty-first century in America.
Wild Bill’s beer was warm. George took it away and replaced it with a cold one.
“My idea,” Bill told Ransome but stopped.
Ransome knew he was supposed to encourage him to continue. He didn’t. Bill coughed and went on of his own volition.
“My idea all along was to give the knife to Margaret to pass down to her kid.”
No response from Ransome. Margaret was crying soundlessly.
Bill put his head down. “All the things that went wrong…” His head went up again, looking at Ransome wondering how the man could stay so cool in the heat of so much family hurt. “… Too much remembering, the bad things. I was scared. My heart got broke. No mechanic. I never knew how to fix a goddamn thing. My fault.”
Then he stood up. His eyes were wet. He walked to the table where Ransome and his family were seated in a family circle. He held out the knife.
“Maybe you’ll give it to her.”
Ransome made no move to take the knife from his grandfather. Everyone was as still as death. Out on the street, a car went by, the steel guitar of a country music tune loud on the radio like jeering. It passed, and quiet rained down again on the back yard and everybody in it.
There was a moment. It was not a measurable unit of time, but George felt it arrive. It was depthless, as wide and broad as the effacing sky. He fell into it the way you would fall into a lake and go under. So did everybody else in the back yard. Like the rest of them he was obliterated. And refreshed. Then, when the moment passed, Ransome reached to take the knife.