He should have felt anxious or annoyed. This was the worst part of the job: doorstepping the recently bereaved. But it had to be done. If the Shipleys did not talk to him, they would have to talk to someone else. And at the moment, he felt that there was no one better to talk to than Drew Dunkel. After all, he was kind, compassionate, and good company.
And tonight he had a date with Miranda.
A gust of wind swept down the street, throwing an intricate, eloquent pattern of ripples across the water in the street. The sight reminded him of something.
He closed his eyes and felt a pleasurable surge of fatigue behind his eyes, as if all the blood in his brain had yawned at once. He had not slept well again last night; he did not know if he had slept at all. It didn't seem to matter. Lately—since Miranda, he supposed—his body did not need much sleep. It coursed through its own cycles of weariness and wakefulness, with wakefulness predominating.
He seemed to need as little food as sleep. It was as if he had tapped into some deep reservoir of energy. He could almost believe he was beginning to lose weight.
Cigars these days went straight to his head. Caffeine went straight to his heart. Even colors seemed brighter.
He had to laugh. It was as if he were in love.
He could hear his heart in his chest, humming in tune with the pulse of the city. Through the haze he could discern the ghostly outline of downtown, and, for once, the sight did not fill him with dismay. He thought of all the people riding in to work, all the sad and scoured-looking faces on the trains, scarcely hiding their resentment behind masks of indifference. For once he did not feel disdain or impatience with the anonymous crowds, but instead something like gratitude. Those people kept it all going. It may not have been the largest, cleanest, or safest city in the country, but it worked. How had he failed to be awed by the way it roused itself each morning from its giant's slumber and went about its business? How could he have remained unmoved by the harmony in which its countless components interacted? Humans, these humans, his neighbors, made skyscrapers and microchips, sidewalks and satellites; they served and saved and calmed and cured one another. The very name of the city was an invocation, one that people applied thoughtlessly, every day, to an infinite tapestry of drama, duty, art, achievement, perseverance, and quiet heroism. This city—his city—may have been just one of thousands like it, but that only made it a miracle among miracles.
He could feel the thrum of the power lines above his head, the purr of the subway beneath his feet, the vibration of radio waves piercing the mists with the crackle of communication. The city was buzzing with news. Somewhere, something was happening. Everywhere something was happening. Everything was happening everywhere—and he was tuned in to all of it.
Drew pulled at his cigar and held the smoke; at the same moment, as if taking its cue from him, the sky held its breath: the rain slackened, then stopped altogether. Drew stepped out of the bus shelter, blinking and craning his neck like a hermit stepping out of his cave. The trees along the street seemed to stretch their arms and shake themselves off. The gutters gargled, as if performing their morning ablutions. To the south, a fan of sunlight pierced the clouds, reaching down like God's own fingers to touch the earth. This too reminded him of something. What?
He patiently exhumed the memory. It was the day Miranda had met him at the restaurant. After the meal, emerging together into a lull like this, she had pointed at the sky, the fanned-out streak of sunlight coming down through the clouds.
"I tried painting that once," she said. "It never looked right. No matter what I did, it always looked painted. I finally realized that it's supposed to look painted. In reality it looks painted. I mean, look at that. Doesn't it look fake?"
"It's almost too beautiful," he agreed, not sure what she meant.
"It looks wrong. Physically, optically wrong. Like it shouldn't be coming in at that angle, or rather all those angles, at all. If the sun is a million miles away, it shouldn't be coming in like that."
He hadn't understood. But now he did. If the sun was a million miles away, its rays should come in through the clouds at a shallow angle, almost tangential to the spot you were standing on the earth's sphere. But instead, they looked like they were coming straight down, as if the sun were hovering directly above the clouds, only a few miles away. It looked, he thought, the way it would have looked in a Ptolemaic cosmos—as if the earth, indeed the viewer, were at the center of the universe. It looked like a painting.
The rain resumed. Like a boy putting the lid back on a box of candy, he put away the thought of Miranda, for now.
He curled his toes in his shoes, to give his happiness an outlet.
A mauve All-American pulled up to the curb in front of the house. The passenger, a woman, got out almost before the vehicle had stopped, and went inside. The driver, a man, killed the engine and sat there for a minute before following her.
Drew stepped on his cigar and called the city desk. Telerude himself answered.
Hey John, who's my photographer for the Shipley piece?
"Drew?" quavered Telerude, with incipient hysteria, like someone who had woken blind.
"Sorry John," Drew said, switching to voice. "I was on sill."
Fucking Luddite, he thought without malice. "I'm in Brotoks, they just pulled up."
"Who's that now? Oh, the Shipleys. Both of them?" he asked with characteristic irrelevance, buying time. In a few minutes he'd be up to speed.
"Yeah, both of them. Mister and missus. I wanted to shoot them while I'm here."
"We're short today. Tammy's upstate on that sewage thing and Harv's got Vim chasing rainbows. Did it stop raining where you are?"
"For about a minute. Sun broke through down Green Rock way."
"That's what we heard. I could find out if Roy's free."
"I'll try him myself. Vim too."
He called Vim first. He liked Vim, more or less. Vim was as abrasive and eager as any of the staff photographers, but did not seem so desperate to win friends. Anyway, he admired Vim for using his real name, not changing it to something inoffensively all-American like Vince Sanders or Jim Smith.
"Catch any rainbows?"
"Fuck out of it," Vim sighed. "Supposedly Carillon got some sun they'll let us use. Don't you love investigative journalism?"
"Well, I've got something for you maybe. Though it's not quite as edgy."
"The suicide not-suicide kid?"
Drew gave him the address.
"I guess I can be there in twenty."
"Call when you get here. I'll be inside."
He rang the bell. Someone pulled aside a curtain and, not subtly, peered out the window. He pretended not to notice, his eyes fixed sadly on the door, his hands clasped behind his back. At last the door opened.
"Mrs. Shipley? I'm Drew Dunkel with the Post-Times. I spoke to your husband."
"What about?" she said slowly. She had already changed into a housecoat. Her eyes were red—but not from crying, he thought.
"About Nathan," he said, carefully matching her tone.
"What about Nathan?"
"It's okay, Rhonda," came a voice from inside. "I said he could come by. Come in, Mr. Dunkel."
The woman remained in the doorway, staring at him as if he were television. Drew smiled melancholically at her.
"Rhonda, let him come in."
The woman shuffled aside. Drew stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The house was warm and moist and dark, like a locker room after a game. There was a familiar smell, comprised of dust, and sweat, and frozen food left out to thaw, and bad sleep. It was the smell of life on hold, the smell of mourning.
He could use that, he thought. "The smell of mourning." No: "The smell of bereavement." His heart accelerated, running ahead of him to his desk, eager to get started on the writing.
Gerard Shipley was a tall man; he stood in the hallway, behind his wife, with his hands in his pockets, like a mild bodyguard. He made no move to welcome Drew, no move to acknowledge the fact that a stranger had entered his home.
"Well," said Drew. He was distrustful of hackneyed formulas, all those prefabricated expressions of sympathy that came too readily to the tongue. So at times like these he became laconic, even inarticulate. "Thanks. For talking to me. It's awful, about your son."
"Yes," said Gerard Shipley.
"You are a newspaper reporter?" said his wife, articulating exaggeratedly, like someone taking care not to slur. Tranquilizers, Drew supposed. He would not use that.
"Yes. I work for the Post-Times," he said, scrupulously addressing them both.
"Rhonda, you remember Drew Dunkel. Dunkel and Hearnes, the Holroyd scandal. You read the book."
"That was a long time ago," said Drew, grimacing to conceal his pleasure. "I don't blame you for not remembering. Anyway, I've been off the political beat for years now."
"I was sorry the other one died," said Rhonda Shipley vaguely.
"I know it won't count for much," he said, "but I've done this a few times. Talked to families, I mean. In situations like this. And it never gets any easier."
An expression of distaste twitched across Gerard Shipley's face, and Drew changed his tack.
"I won't take up much of your time."
"Come in to the sitting room. Rhonda, you can go back to bed."
"He was my son too, Gerard." She spoke softly but icily, not too blunted by the tranks to be sharp. Drawing herself to her full height and rolling her shoulders back to a posture of dignity, she asked if he would like a drink. The look of distaste flashed again upon the husband's face. But you could not please everyone all the time.
"A coffee if you have one."
"I suppose you want a few ... sound bites," said Gerard when they were settled in the so-called sitting room. The man sat with his elbows between his knees, like a lanky teenager. Miranda, Drew suddenly recalled, had the most wonderful posture.
"That's about the size of it," Drew agreed cynically. "Though we don't call them sound bites in the newspaper business. They don't make much sound in print."
"That so. What do you call them?" asked Shipley, without interest.
Rhonda Shipley returned with his coffee, piloting it as if it were a sailboat in a tricky wind.
"Misnomer though, that, isn't it," muttered Shipley. "Should by rights be 'quotations.' 'Quote' is a verb."
"That's quite true," said Drew, silently disagreeing: surely 'quote' was also a noun. "Thank you," he said to Rhonda Shipley, and sipped the coffee. His tongue immediately reported that there was some mistake. This was not coffee but some altogether different substance. Instant coffee, perhaps. It tasted vile. He put the cup down slowly, miming satisfaction. "I'm reminded of the fact that you are a ... scholar, Mr. Shipley?"
"Hardly that," said Shipley, neither flattered nor modest. "Merely an academic." Then, with the gentle condescension of the scholar imparting knowledge to a layman, he talked for a few seconds about his area of specialization and his employment at the university. Then, with a glance in his wife's direction, he said, "But I guess we should be talking about Nathan."
"If you don't mind," said Drew.
"Won't you need to take notes?"
"I'm recording," he said, and put his PDR on the table. "My assistant will transcribe our conversation later. Tell me: what kind of boy was Nathan?" he asked, jumping right in, as he always did, to downplay the official start of the interview. Nevertheless, the question seemed to catch the Shipleys off guard. It was Gerard Shipley who, at length, answered first.
"He was a lovely child."
Rhonda Shipley moaned. It may have been only a grunt of agreement held too long, slurred by the drugs; but to Drew it sounded like a whimper of animal pain.
"He was clever at piano—I suppose these are the sorts of things you can use?" Shipley's upper lip, Drew noticed, was red and speckled, as if inflamed. "He loved music. He used to dance, even. Before adolescence struck, and he learned that dancing was effeminate, and that effeminacy was ... Well, it's an old story."
"He had beautiful hands," said Rhonda forcefully, then quickly faded: "Such beautiful, intelligent hands ..."
He waited for them to go on, but they did not. They had lapsed into silence, into their private miseries. He sensed that they did not want to reminisce, or get sentimental, in front of one another. If he could have talked to them individually he might have had better luck. One on one, people usually opened up completely; most of the time, in fact, he had to cut them off once he had what he needed. It was not that people loved talking about themselves, but simply that they needed to talk. But they could not talk to, or in front of, their friends, their coworkers, their spouses. It was strange: they must know that, in talking to him, they were effectively talking to everyone, since their words might appear in print the next day. And yet they spoke to him freely, as if he were not a reporter but a father confessor, a psychiatrist, or a lawyer, someone sworn to secrecy. He was, anyway, a recognized professional, someone paid to listen, someone whose job it was to be talked to. You could unburden yourself to a reporter in a way that you could not to your neighbor or your spouse.
"What about recently? Did he seem unhappy?"
"That's just what the police asked," said Rhonda.
"Next you'll be asking if he had any enemies," said Gerard.
Drew said, "They asked that?"
"Things like that."
"But they don't actually think ..."
"Who knows what they think."
In fact, as Drew knew, the police had classified Nathan Shipley's death as "suspicious." This did not necessarily mean anything; almost every corpse not pulled from a car wreck or removed from a senior citizens' home received the label, however briefly. But the police were being more reticent than usual about this case. They had not released any names, and had even led Casey from the Argonaut to believe, or not stopped him from incorrectly deducing, that the boy found in the basement was not a relation of the homeowners but their tenant. It was precisely Sergeant Harmon's caginess that had sparked the reporters' interest. If Harmon ever grasped the concept of forbidden fruit they would all be done for.
A single call to the university where the father was purported to teach had provided Drew with the names of only two professors who had not made it to class on the day after the suspicious death was discovered, and only one of these, of course, lived in Brotoks. Then a call of commiseration to Gerard Shipley at his unlisted number (courtesy of a rather discourteous Edna, Drew's third ex-wife) had won him this interview. All that groundwork for what would surely be a non-story if the coroner came back with a verdict of suicide. Moody, self-murdering teens were not news. But if the parents had any doubts ...
"He was unhappy then, I take it."
"I don't suppose we really knew," said Gerard Shipley after a silence.
"That's not true," said Rhonda Shipley, but with so little emphasis that she sounded as if she were agreeing.
"I mean at the end. The last six months or so we ... sort of lost track of him."
"He lived here with you?"
"Yes but he ... We didn't ... He moved into the basement around then. I mean several months ago. He has—he had a room upstairs as well. But he wanted more privacy. He was seventeen. I don't know if you have ..."
"Yes," said Drew, his heart expanding to fill his chest. "A daughter. Twenty."
"Well, you don't need to have them to know what it's like, either. We've all been seventeen. Anyway, the basement has a separate entrance. The former owners used to rent it out as a suite. After he moved down there, we stopped seeing much of him."
"He didn't seem unhappy to me," said Rhonda Shipley. "I often went down. For his laundry, and one thing or another. He didn't seem unhappy. Distracted, maybe. Confused."
"Of course he was unhappy," said her husband. "I mean, he must have been, mustn't he?"
"But not like that. Not depressed. Not ... suicidal. The world made him sick, maybe, but he was too much of a fighter to ..."
"He was ... 'political,'" explained Gerard, handling the word with distaste. "He went to rallies. That kind of thing."
"It was a phase," said Rhonda Shipley softly, like someone uttering an article of faith.
"We never knew," said her husband. "We just never knew."
His face crumpled.
Drew withdrew himself from the scene, retreated behind the mask of his face. One had to do this, had to remove oneself, if one were to emerge from interviews like this unscathed. The first few times he had let himself be carried away on the wave of their grief, telling himself it was not only the natural thing to do, but useful, too: opening himself to them allowed them to open up to him.
But soon it had worn him down. And soon he had realized that all their stories were alike. Mourning had a smell; it had a distinctive look and sound, too. The parents all said the same things: He was a lovely child; she was such a happy girl; what happened?
But then the Shipleys surprised him.
"The astonishing thing," said Gerard Shipley, tears on his cheeks but without the slightest warble in his voice, "the ridiculous thing, is the extent of your anger. If he were still alive, by Christ, I'd want to strangle the living daylights out of him for this."
Here was something that Drew had never heard before. It struck him as true, almost obvious. If someone hurt your child, you felt anger. If someone killed your child, you felt hatred. Nathan Shipley had killed himself; his parents hated him for that.
But, although it was true, he could not use it. He could not imagine it in print. I'd want to strangle the living daylights out of him. It wasn't the sort of thing the bereaved parent of a teenage suicide was supposed to say. It wasn't in the script. It would offend people. It would make Gerard Shipley look cold and heartless. He couldn't use it.
On the other hand, why not? How long had it been since he'd written something that wasn't in the script? And wasn't that precisely where life was lived, where news was written: off the page, off the cuff?
With a swelling buoyancy in his chest, he saw an image of the kind of man he could be. The kind of man that he had once been. The kind of man that Miranda still thought him to be.
A man who wrote the truth. A man who made a difference. The man who had broken the Holroyd scandal.
Drew Dunkel, reporter. Drew Dunkel, best-selling author. Drew Dunkel, Pulitzer Prize winner.
Looking out from behind his funereal mask at the silently weeping Shipleys, Drew felt almost giddy with optimism.
He could—he would—change his life.