"It may not seem like it," Florence started, refilling her brother's coffee cup. Her voice was gentle, trying to be supportive. She quickly looked him over as he dropped into a barstool. “You will get through all of this."
She took a discreet look around the crowded diner. Satisfied that all of her regulars were subtly taken care of, she sat down at a stool next to David. Folding her hands in front of her, she looked over at her baby brother.
As David looked back at her, Florence noticed just how worn and beaten he had become over the last few days. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and rubbed his wide, green eyes. Thick bags were forming under his eyes. His voice croaked with emotion and his eyes shot across the room, jumpy with exhaustion. "I don't know what the hell I'm supposed to do," he said, running a hand through his hair. “I’m completely lost, sis.”
“It’s been so long since you’ve called me that,” Florence said, pouring herself a cup of coffee. A small smile crossed her plump cheeks.
Everything about David’s appearance had been hastily thrown together in the stuffy haze of the morning. His charcoal grey suit was slightly ruffled, and his black necktie was out of line. When he took off his cap, his normally neat chocolate brown hair was wild from inattention. He glanced up at the ceiling and brushed a wild strand of hair out of his eyes.
David always looked like a school boy to her. Barely thirty, he still had a very round, soft face. His gentle, boyish features were still very visible, even under the three day beard covering his cheeks.
“When was the last time you shaved?” Florence asked, taking a sip of her coffee. She gently smacked him with the side of her hand, trying to lighten his mood.
“I don’t remember,” David replied, looking down at the coffee in front of him.
The Brass Kettle Diner was busy with the afternoon lunch rush from the near by financial district. The tables were filled with the usual Wall Street crowd. Many of the men had their shirtsleeves rolled up to combat the oppressive humidity which swallowed Manhattan during the dog days of summer. The diners kept mostly to themselves, many paging through folded copies of the Times or the Journal, stopping occasionally to fan themselves with their hats.
Despite the lingering and uncomfortable heat, the room felt like quiet sanctuary away from Manhattan. About fifty tables were packed into the dining room. Fresh flowers decorated every table, successfully creating a welcoming environment.
Florence exhaled sharply, resting a supportive hand on his bony shoulder. She took a moment to consider her words before continuing. "What you need to do is stay strong for that baby." Her relationship with her brother had always been tenuous, and Florence could feel herself walking on egg shells with him. She tucked a stray strand of graying hair behind her ear as she took another scan of the restaurant before refocusing her attention on him. "I understand what you're going through, David. Honestly, I do. I remember everything Dad went through after Mom died."
David was only half listening to her; his eyes were glued to his coffee cup. His eyes were a million miles away, fixating on the thoughts looping in his head. He dropped another sugar cube inside and mindlessly stirred it until it dissolved in the dark brown liquid. He took a long swallow, not flinching as the his throat burned from the coffee.
In truth, Florence barely remembered anything from after their mother died. They were 16 years apart. After Bridget Freeman died while labor with David, Florence moved out with her then fiancee, leaving David to fend for himself with their father and his drunken tirades. She was probably sympathetic, but nothing beyond that. “Yes!” David snapped, honestly tired of hearing about how much she understood something she didn’t remember. “I killed Mom. I know. Dad made that abundantly clear for years.”
Florence took a sip of coffee. She smiled to herself, privy to a pleasant memory he was too young to remember. She rested her hand on top of his, looking him squarely in the eye. “Believe it or not,” Florence began. She spoke slowly, thinking through what she wanted to say carefully. “You’re a lot like Mom. I think that’s why Dad had such a hard time after she died.”
It had been two days since Jessica died, and three days since he had any real sleep. David took a long sip from the cup in front of him. Coffee, and the fear of what he might see upon closing his eyes, were the only things keeping him awake.
"Are you listening to me, David?" Florence asked, topping off his coffee. Her voice was direct as she looked up and took another survey of the room. "Thomas needs to be your first priority, now."
"I can't provide for that baby," David replied. He pulled off his glasses and dropped his head into his hands. Look back at her, David continued. His eyes were glued to a spot on the wall as he spoke. ”I don't know the first thing about being a father.” He could hear his voice in his head. It was flat and tired.
“David, when was the last time you slept?”
“I haven’t been able to close my eyes,” he replied. His body had long passed the point of exhaustion. His muscles were only functioning through the sheer need to keep moving forward. “I tried to lay on the sofa last night, but I kept hear her screaming—all that blood.” His breathing was deep and shaky, as he struggled to keep a hold on his crumbling composure. He lit another cigarette.
“You need to get some sleep,” Florence said. She gave his fingers a slight squeeze. Leaning over, she dropped her head slightly, meeting his eyes. “I’m sure things will seem clearer with a nights sleep behind you.”
David shifted his eyes toward the ceiling beams above their heads. He stretched the knots out of his aching back, hearing his joints pop. Pulling his hands back in front of him, he took another long sip of coffee. His voice cracked as he continued, “I had to make the arraignments for this damned funeral.”
The last two days had been spent going through the motions, pretending he knew what he needed to do. In truth, he had no idea. Despite everything, they had never spoken of this as an eventuality. Jessica was twenty-three, she wasn’t supposed to die for forty or fifty years.
David dropped two dollars on the counter, and pushed himself up from the bar stool. He could feel his breath catching in his throat. He needed fresh air and to be alone. "I'd better get back," he said, pulling his cap down onto his head.
“Please take a few minutes and eat,” Florence pleaded with him, emotion swelled in her voice. “You can allow yourself that much.”
David looked towards the door, deliberately avoiding eye contact with his older sister. "Jess' god awful sister is watching Thomas... I really should go..." He spoke quickly. The sound of his heart pounding in his head was almost deafening.
“Please let me know how I can help," Florence said.
David didn’t answer as moved towards the door in the corner of the dining room.
Florence stood up and took a few steps to catch him, and reached out for his arm, stopping him in his path. Her voice was sincere. She looked him up and down as he turned to meet her eyes. “I’m here for you, David. What can I do?”
Ignoring her, David sucked in a centering breath as he moved through the door and stepped onto the cobblestones of Thames Street.
Just a half city block, Thames Street was far too dark and narrow to truly be called a street. The diner was one three or four storefronts jammed into what was little more than an alley separating the back facings of two towering skyscrapers.
Leaning against the tan brick, David looked up at the sky, which just a blue sliver visible between the two roofs far above his head.
In the claustrophobic alley, David felt the heat quickly becoming trapped in the layer of pollution hanging over the city. He squeezed his eyes closed as he shuffled down the street. The chugging of traffic and the trumpeting of horns down nearby Broadway grew louder with each step.
David had hoped for more than a pat on the arm from his older sister. They had hardly spoken in the last few years, only writing the obligatory letter around the holidays.
Broadway looked like a bright light at the end of a long railway tunnel.
David exhaled sharply. Between the aches and pains which had burrowed into his muscles, and the sheer exhaustion, it took tremendous effort to simply put one foot in front of the other.
Increasingly aware of the stifling heat, David tugged at his bowtie, which felt like a noose around his neck. Anything he could do to get some fresh air flowing under his stifling collar. Sweat pooled just underneath his shirt.
He pulled his hat down further over his head as he stepped out onto Broadway and into the bright, summer sunshine. The sun was quickly heating up the pavement as he moved toward the street car stop he knew was up ahead about a block.
He stopped on the pavement, and plunged his hands in his pockets as he waited for the streetcar. His head was throbbing, thanks to a deep tension headache. Shielding his eyes from the harsh sunlight, he spotted the streetcar two streets up.
He pulled out his pack of cigarettes, lighting himself another one.
Taking a drag on the cigarette, he could feel his breath slowing. The adrenaline in his system slowly dropped away. His body gradually coming back under his control.
Around him, businessmen moved about their day. The streets bustled with activity as men in polished, well tailored suits moved between office buildings, talking quietly amongst themselves.
He dropped his spent cigarette into the gutter as the streetcar slid to a stop in front of him. David stepped aside, letting riders exit through the tight doors.
David shuffled his way to his usual seat near the back. Sitting on the hard wooden bench, his mind flashed back to the countless times when he had sat in the same spot with Jessica. They would squeeze close together, their hands intertwined.
He wrapped his arms around his body, and leaned against the window of the street car. Closing his eyes, David let himself get lost in the gentle rocking as the carriage continued down the street.
"I have to go in there," David stammered. He stepped off the path he had been pacing for twenty minutes, and turned to face William Conlon. His brother-in-law slowly paged through to a copy of the New York Times at the kitchen table. David's words came fast, fueled by the adrenaline pulsing through his system. He stopped, forcing himself to speak carefully and keep his tongue from tripping over the words. "What if Jessica needs me?”
William stood up and walked over to where David was leaning against the chipping kitchen counter. He placed a friendly hand on the younger man's shoulder as he poured himself a small drink and lit a cigar for himself. ”Doctor Stern and the girls have everything under control. You can't provide any more help than they are already doing Jess.”
William was Jessica’s eldest brother. A bookish man of 45, he was starting to show hints of his advancing age. A bookkeeper for the family dry goods store, his lined eyes were hidden behind a pair of thick, wire rimmed glasses. His dark brown hair had noticeably thinned on top. William took a deep puff on his cigar as he turned to take another look at the bedroom door.
"I need a drink," David said to himself as he moved towards the liquor cabinet. “Fuck!” He whispered, staring down at the blood seeping from underneath the torn fingernail he had been picking at all day. He sucked at the blood from under his thumb before reaching over his head into the cabinet for a glass.
In the corner of the room, Thomas was propped in his crib. The toddler coo'ed quietly over a set of alphabet blocks. Jessica had bought the blocks a few months earlier. She had called the toy an early birthday present for him. The toy was a success, the two year old appeared oblivious to the building tension in the room.
David reached back into the cabinet and grabbed the last bottle of brandy, which had been pushed towards the back of the shelf. "It wasn't this bad with Thomas," he said, filling a glass with the rest of the caramel colored liquid. He glanced out their dusty living room window overlooking the intersection of 42nd and Second Avenue. David closed his eyes, throwing the contents of the glass down his throat. It only took a moment for the familiar warmth spread through his body.
He thought back to the night two years ago. Jessica had a very difficult time delivering Thomas. He took a centering breath as he was finally allowed back into the bedroom. Pushing the door open, the only light came from a candle in the corner of the room where Anna and Katherine Conlon were working over the crying baby.
Jessica could barely open her eyes as David sat on the edge of the bed. Her back propped against the head board was the only thing keeping her in a sitting position.
“Baby,” David said. He ran a hand through her hair. Her hair was drenched with sweat, but feeling her under his fingers, convinced him that she was alright after then tension of the last four hours. He traced his fingers gently down her soft cheek. Her pale skin felt clammy to his touch. “How are you?”
He looked over her, letting his hand slide down her arm. A shy smile spread over his lips as he squeezed her hand.
“He looks like you,” she said, sliding her other hand onto of his. Her eye shot towards the corner of the room, where her sisters were still cleaning the squirming baby in a small wash basin. A small, exhausted smile crossed Jessica's face. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “He has your nose.”
“You did amazing, baby” David replied, kissing her gently on the lips. Her chocolate brown hair had streaked down around her face from the sweat dripping from her forehead. He wiped a couple of the errant strands away from her face. He leaned close, whispering into her ear. “I’m so proud of you.”
She looked up at him. In the gentle candlelight, her dark eyes glittered with specs of gold. Jessica mustered another tired smile. “I love you, David.”
“I love you too, Jessica.” He slid back against the headboard and wrapped his arm around her narrow torso. Her head lulled against his shoulder, and her body drifted off to sleep. He had closed his eyes, trying to un-see the blood coating the sheets around her.
"They know what they're doing," William replied, resting a tentative hand on David's shoulder, pulling him back into reality. William spoke quickly, his voice unconsciously trying to cover the screams coming from the other room. He cracked an unconscious smile. “Anna has helped with dozens of deliveries. Besides, she got Jess through having Thomas.”
Looking into his brother-in-law’s lined eyes, David could see the nerves which were starting to make an appearance. They had been listening to Jessica’s screams and the muffled chaos surrounding it through the thin walls of the room for the last four hours. Nothing seemed to be improving.
"It'll be fine," William added, trying to reassure himself. He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. His fingers trembled as he struck the match. Lighting the cigarette, he glanced towards the door before meeting David’s eyes. “Besides, Jessica is strong. She’ll get through this.”
The empty brandy glass slipped from David’s fingers, shattering on the dingy gray kitchen tile.
"Fuck!" David muttered, crouching to gather up the shards of glass. Looking up, he glanced in the direction of the crib where the baby had stood up and was starting to scream. "Would you--" David asked, looking towards William.
William stood up from the dining room table and stabbed his cigarette out in the ashtray on the coffee table. As William moved into the living room, Thomas greeted his uncle with open arms, pleading to be freed from the crib.
David yelped and pulled his hand back sharply. Glancing down, a shard of glass had sliced through the thin skin just above his wedding band. He pushed himself to his feet, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket with his other hand.
The chaos in the bedroom suddenly quieted, plunging everything into an uncomfortable silence. His wife had stopped screaming. David looked towards the door; his stomach churned. His eyes shot towards the washbasin which was sitting in the corner of the room.
Wrapping his handkerchief around his finger, he glanced over at William, who was cradling Thomas in his arms. "I'll take him," David said, walking towards them as he tried to put pressure on the cut, which was turning his white handkerchief a deep shade of crimson.
William turned around and handed off the squirming toddler to his father. “Are you sure?”
David took his son in his arms, holding Thomas’ small frame securely to his chest. Closing his eyes, David buried his head in his son’s blonde curls, inhaling deeply. The baby's hair was freshly washed, the smell of Jessica's favorite lavender soap flooded into his nostrils.
Thomas buried his face in David’s shirt, the pained sniffling quieted as the crying fit slowly passed.
"Doctor," David heard William say as the door creaked open behind them. He opened his eyes and turned instinctively towards the noise. He lowered Thomas from his face, letting the baby settle quietly against his shoulder.
Dr. Joseph Stern had stepped out of the bedroom. The elderly looked around the living room for a moment. His lined, gray eyes had a dazed air to them; he seemed to be collecting the strength to speak. His shoulders were hunched in exhaustion. He could barely raise his head enough to glance around the room.
David felt dread bubbling in the pit of his stomach. He could hear his heart beating in his ears in the silence of the room.
David felt his knees buckle slightly as his eyes were drawn to the blood coating Doctor Stern’s hands, which the elderly man was trying to subtly wipe with a washrag.
David swallowed hard, his throat suddenly parched as he tried to speak.”Doctor?” David asked, trying to blink back the colored spots which were starting to overwhelm his vision. He licked his lips as he continued, ”What happened?”
"I'm sorry Mr. Freeman.”
Seeing David’s unsteadiness, William lifted the baby out of his hands, cradling his nephew tightly against his chest.
With his hands free, David braced his weight on the edge of the counter as the spots continued to cloud his vision. He closed his eyes, sucking in deep breaths to calm the nausea pulsating through his system.
"Doctor? My wife?" David snapped, already knowing the answer he was waiting for. He opened his eyes and looked over at the Doctor.
"Mrs. Freeman didn't make it," the Doctor said, his voice dropping a sympathetic octave. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his black plants, suddenly aware of the stark coloring of the blood. ”She hemorrhaged during the delivery, the blood loss was just too much for her."
David threw his hand over his mouth, and ran to a wash basin as his body was racked with heaves. As the sickening sensation passed, his stomach feeling empty, David braced his head against the wall, sucking in shaky breaths as a sudden calm flooded his muscles.
"And the baby?" William asked, stepping forward as David struggled to collect himself in the corner of the room.
Thomas was propped against his Uncle's shoulder, his dark eyes shooting around the room anxiously.
William braced a supportive hand on David's shoulder; his own hand was trembling.
The Doctor shook his head in the negative.“The baby was a girl.” His voice was exhausted, devoid of tone or emotion after the exhausting four hour delivery. He remained near the door, the blood on his hands keeping him from reaching out to David. "I'm sorry David. There was just no way to save either of them."
David wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and slowly stood up. He blinked against the tears he could feel building up in his eyes. Feeling as if he had just been punched in the gut, he inhaled sharply as he watched Stern continue to wipe Jessica's blood from his hands. "Can I see her?” David spoke slowly, his voice sounding hoarse to his own ears. In the last six hours, he had probably smoked a half of a pack of cigarettes, the evidence was starting to build up in the small ceramic ashtray on the kitchen table. His hands searched his pockets for another cigarette.
Stern looked him up and down, studying him with a reluctant, medically trained eye. ”Are you sure? Take a minute and sit down." He reaching out with a steadying hand, placing it on his elbow.
William put Thomas back down in his crib, and turned to face David. He reached out, grabbing David by the arm. “Please sit down, David. You look about ready to faint."
David raised his hand, stepping away from the two men on unsteady feet. The spots were slowly starting to fade. He blinked back the sensation further. "I want to see my wife.” He paused, his voice was sharper than he had anticipated. He paused for a moment, trying to put a check on his tone. He licked his parched lips and looked up at the Doctor. He continued, his voice softer. "Please."
The Doctor continued quietly, he had gone through this too many times in the past.”Your wife's sisters are paying their respects. You may go in after. I'm sure you want to be alone with her.” The Doctor took a moment, and disappeared into the corner of the room, slowly scrubbing his hands in the washbasin.
After a few minutes, the door opened once again. Katherine and Anna Conlon shuffled out of the bedroom, their arms wrapped around each other for support. The spinsters had lived together their whole lives, only recently moving out of their family home into a tenement on Second Avenue, while continuing to work at the family dry goods store. Jessica was the youngest, and had been the first to split off from the family. David had always assumed that was why her family had never particularly warmed to him. He had stolen their little girl.
Both women were sobbing inconsolably as they shuffled into the living room. Anna spun abruptly as she passed David. She quickly wiped her nose as her emotion immediately exploding into a passionate anger. "You! You did this to her!"
Though she barely reached five foot, Anna was a feisty and intimidating figure as she threw herself right up against David's five foot ten inch frame. Her voice wavered with repressed emotion as she jabbed her finger in his face, emphasizing her point further. The Irish accent she worked so hard to repress came back in full force, as it always did when she became really angry. "It's your fucking fault! You killed her. The doctor said she shouldn't...that she couldn't have any more children. You did it anyway! How could you do that to your own wife?”
"Typical English ass," Katherine said, chiming in. She wrapped her arm around Anna's shoulder as her sister dissolved into tears.
William rushed up, trying to insert himself between his sisters and David, but Katherine continued her sister’s argument with ferocity. “Using up everything in your path! Jessica was in no condition to have another baby! Yet you went and did it to her anyway.”
“Let's get you home," William said, guiding the two women to the door. He held open the door as he attempted to steer the women into the hallway. “You both need sleep."
“You couldn’t turn it off!” Anna cried, her voice a hysterical screech. “You’re an animal!”
William turned back to David. His eyes reflected the exhaustion which was permeating the room. “I’m sorry. She didn't mean it."
"Yes she did." Blinking back tears once again, David pushed passed them, shutting the door to the bedroom behind him.
David stared at the knots on the unpolished wooden door, suddenly petrified to turn around. He knew reality was staring him in the face as he was swallowed up in the oppressively still room. The longer he stared at the door, the longer there was still a chance for Jessica to say something, to prove it was all a mistake, that she wasn’t really gone.
Turning around, he slowly walked up to the bed. Had it not been for the torrents of crimson blood violently soaking the sheets, Jessica could have just been sleeping. Her hair was still pulled up on her head in the quick bun before she had fastened before she went into labor. Her forehead still glistened with sweat. Despite the sounds which had been coming from the room just a short time before, her face was peaceful. Her eyes were closed.
"I think it's that time," Jessica said, struggling to sit up in bed. She reached for her stomach, struggling to breathe through the sharp contraction which had knocked her out of a sound sleep.
"Baby," David said, reaching over for her hand as he got his bearings. She had nudged him out of a sound sleep. He leapt to his feet, reaching for the robe draped over a chair near the bed. Fastening the tie around his waist, he turned to the bedside table searching for his glasses.
The night had been yet another heavy one. David had propped the bedroom window wide open, trying to encourage any breeze to make sleep come easier.
"I'm fine," Jessica said, closing her eyes. She slowly exhaled through her nose, hoping to ease the pain coursing through her system. She looked up at him, mustering a tired smile as she collected herself. "It just took me a little by surprise. I’m alright.”
"I'll call the Doctor," David said, moving into the living room to telephone Doctor Stern. As he opened the closed door into the living room, but turned around as he heard her let out a repressed gasp. “Jess?”
“I’m okay,” she called after him, mustering another smile. He could see a look of concern quickly pass over her face as she shuffled slightly in bed. She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes as she continued. “Would you telephone Doctor Stern please, darling? Just hurry.”
Crossing the living room to the telephone was hanging, Thomas looked over at the baby. Thomas was snoring soundly in his crib. He was spread out on his stomach, he had kicked off his blanket in the heat of the night.
“David,” Jessica said, reaching for him as he reentered the bedroom. He took her hand inside his as he sat down on the edge of the bed. He ran his free hand through her hair, which was already coated with a thin layer of sweat. “I’m here,” he said. He grabbed her hand inside of his. "I'm not leaving you, Jess."
“Is Thomas asleep?” She asked. Her head was resting against the metal headboard of their double bed, her eyes closed. The color had drained from her cheeks.
“Snoring soundly.” David said, smiling at the image of his son sleeping soundly. He watched her carefully, moving his other hand on top of hers. “Drooling a little too.”
She turned her head and looked over at him. “Would you tell him that Mommy loves him?” She asked, after a moment of contemplation. She reached over, running her fingers down his cheek. "Please?"
David felt his stomach flip as he brushed a strand of hair out of her face. Her normally calm eyes were moist, the slightest hint of fear visible in her eyes. “He knows that, Jess.” He said, trying to keep his tone soothing for her. A soft smile spread across his face as he ran his thumb over her full lips. He wrapped his other arm around her neck, leaning into her body until they were nose to nose. “He knows you love him.”
“Just tell him that for me,” she said, exhaling softly. She squeezed his hand. She looked up at him, making unblinking eye contact. “Please, David.”
Leaving a heavy hand on the doorknob, David turned and looked Jessica up and down.
He bit his lip, and climbed back into the bed next to her; he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He buried his head in the silky material of her floral print nightgown at her shoulder.
"I love you Jessica," he said, the words choking from his throat. He hugged her body tightly as his eyes filled with tears once again. The simple sentence was all he could muster. His voice, hoarse from one too many cigarettes, could hardly string two words together.
He forced out a sharp, shaky breath before continuing, ”You-- you promised me you could get through this.” He ran his fingers down her cheeks. Her skin was warm and soft. "You can't leave me. I--I don't think I can do this by myself. I love you so much."
He stared at the ceiling, taking a minute to form the words he searched for in his head. His tounge tripped over the words, which were slow coming out of his foggy mind. "I'm sorry, Jessica.”
David looked up as the street car rattled to a stop.
He and Jessica had moved into a tenement on Second Avenue and 42nd Street two years earlier. It was a massive brick building, made up of with young couples and growing, working class families. Compared to the rodent infested shack he had grown up in, it felt almost palatial.
Jessica was almost twenty-one and just over five months pregnant when they were married. She had tailored the dress herself, desperate to keep her tell-tale bump hidden from her mother and sisters.
As long as he had known Jessica, she had struggled with her reputation as the rebel of the family. Of her four sisters, two had become nuns, while Anna and Katherine remained chaste in their own way, living together rather than with men. Jessica had been the sister who moved out of the family tenement. She flirted with an interest in politics, especially the conditions in her family’s home country of Ireland. While her entire family were in favor of the Irish Free State, she was the only one who could actually speak to what was occurring.
Stepping off the streetcar on the corner of 2nd Avenue, David felt a pang in his stomach as a wave of nausea passed over him. He had been avoiding coming back here, trying to stay away from all the memories, but he had run out of excuses. He could feel his chest tightening, and it took all his restraint to put his hand on the doorknob to enter the building.
Stretching along the eastern edge of midtown Manhattan, the long blocks of the Murray Hill neighborhood were lined with new brownstones and freshly planted trees. It felt quiet and insulated, protected from the dated construction and constricting crowds which had taken over the rest of Manhattan.
He and and Jessica had circled the blocks half a dozen times before they rented the space. They had liked the quiet nature of the neighborhood. Jessica had been won over by the sight of a young mother playing hopscotch with two toddlers in front of their brownstone.
The tenement dated back to just after the Civil War, and the interior was just starting to show the creeping onset of age in the once elegant decor. As David climbed the creaking and chipping wooden staircase to the 10th floor, the yellow patterned wallpaper was starting to fade and peel in the most traveled areas. The local kids had started leaving graffiti on the landings, the wallpaper had smeared where the landlord had attempted to scrub the landings clean.
He took a centering breath before pushing open the door to apartment 1027. The door scratched loudly against the hardwood floors of the living room as he stepped inside.
“Where the hell were you?” Anna asked, looking up from where she was sitting. A stack of photographs spilled over the kitchen table. Anna's lined eyes were harsh under her thick spectacles as she braced her hands on her hips, waiting for an answer. She had Thomas propped against her shoulder, sleeping soundly. She spoke softly, attempting not to disturb her sleeping nephew.
“My sister asked me over for coffee,” David replied, hanging his cap on the hat rack just inside the door. He walked into the living room, and draped his suit jacket over one of the dining room chairs.
He stopped for a moment and looked around the living room; he rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “I was held up at work and have been running late all day.” He deliberately shifted his eyes from the signs of Jessica which still littered the apartment. He hadn’t had the time or the strength to move the shoes which were still by the door, or the handbag which was open on the kitchen counter. “I’m sorry.”
Jessica had spent months delicately decorating the tiny set of rooms. The walls were covered in a lightly patterned ivory colored paper. The furniture, while purchased second hand, was still three months of his salary. The room as lit through the tiny living room window. The sun was setting just to the west over the river.
David walked over to the kitchen and looked down at the pictures which were strewn across the table. Anna had found his stash of family photos, was paging through them. “What are you doing with these?” He asked. He tore his eyes from the photographs and looked up at her.
She had been looking at their wedding photographs. Looking through the stack, he saw pictures of himself looking dazed and completely unsure of how he had managed to find such an amazing girl. Jessica stood next to him on the warm pavement outside the church. Her dark eyes contrasted against her thick, white satin dress. Her fingers white knuckled her large bouquet tightly in front of her body, covering their unplanned pregnancy.
He looked at the pictures on the table. Even though they had been a couple for three years, he had still found it difficult to read Jessica. She always had an inherent complication to her manner. It was in her eyes. She had dark, intelligent eyes which seemed to have experienced more than she would have normally in her twenty-one years. He always had the feeling she was reading him.
“Happy?” He asked her, not bothering to look over at the photographer capturing the crowds mulling outside of St. Agnes’ Cathedral. The wedding party had spilled out of the close, hot church onto East 43rd Street. The unseasonably warm March sunlight was beating down on the hot asphalt.
Stifling was the best word to describe that particular day in Manhattan. Heat waves could be seen bouncing off the cracked sidewalk. A summertime like humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket; the air felt heavy and sticky.
Jessica turned to face him, a slow smile crossing her lips. She took a step into his body, wrapping her arms around his waist, pulling her body tightly into his. “Very happy, Mr. Freeman.”
“You look beautiful,” David said, staring down into her open, heart shaped face. He brushed the veil gently away from her eyes which stood out against the creamy white satin of her floor length wedding gown. He let his hand graze over her stomach, and for the first time she didn’t flinch. "You're glowing."
“I wish I could say it was as delicate as all that,” Jessica said, her eyes darting to the photographer. She began fanning herself gently with her free hand. A layer of sweat covered her forehead. She chuckled as she looked around at the wedding goers who were hovering around them. “Layered satin in the middle of August wasn’t my smartest decision, especially in my current condition.”
“I’m not sure marrying me was your smartest decision,” David said.
“I disagree,” Jessica said, flashing a bright smile in his direction. She shook her head slightly. “My family seems to think it’s you who are stuck with me.” She held onto his hand tightly, firmly pressing her body into his. As they dissolved into a kiss, they were alone on the sidewalk.
"Can you put those away?” David asked, looking up from the table full of painful memories. His voice was pleading as he turned to face Anna. “I can’t look at those right now.” He crossed the room to the kitchen, terminating the memories playing in his head.
“She was my sister too,” Anna said, walking over and laying his sleeping son in his crib. She was struggling to keep her voice at a civilized level as she turned back to face him. He had touched a nerve. Her voice was a sharp whisper as she continued. “You aren’t the only one who loved her.”
“You don’t think I realize that,” David snapped.
David opened the cabinet, and slowly brought a loaf of bread down onto the counter. He looked down at the bread; he closed his eyes, fighting to keep his composure under control. He grabbed a nearby knife.
“I understand that,” David snapped, looking up at her. The knife was white knuckled in his fingers, and crashed loudly on the tile floor. He looked up at her and ran his fingers through his hair as he dropped to his knees to pick up the knife.
His eyes shot towards the living room; Thomas was fast asleep in his crib. He kicked his legs and shuffled on the mattress at the sudden noise in the living room, but he didn’t wake up. “Look Anna, I’m sorry. Is there anyway you can keep Tommy for the night?”
“All night?” Anna asked; her eyes scrutinizing him harshly. She turned up her nose at him, judgement dripping from her expression. She unhooked the top button on her blouse, fanning herself with the back of her hand. She took two steps toward him. “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”
“I’ll be back in the morning,” David added quickly, anticipating her next question. He looked down at his hands; he could feel them trembling violently as he held them at his side. He plunged them deep into his pockets, as he looked up at her. “I just need a little more time—“
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Anna moved across the room to meet him. She took off her apron and draped it over one of the chairs as she moved into the kitchen. “I’ve been here all day watching your son, and you’ve been out drinking? You were with that whore, weren’t you? Do you think Jessica didn’t know about that slut you kept?”
David took off his glasses and painfully rubbed the bridge of his nose. His tear ducts felt dry and they burned. “She isn’t…” His voice was quiet, exhausted. He stopped, not wanting to justify anything to her. He continued, speaking slowly in a fight to keep his voice even. “Can you watch him, or can’t you?”
“I suppose the boy needs some kind of guardian,” Anna said, simply. She turned and looked toward Thomas. The baby was in his crib, sleeping in his own world. When she turned back to face him, her eyes were harsh as she looked him over quickly, her words cutting. “If it’s not going to be his father.” She stopped, tucking a strand of her dark hair into her prim updo.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” David said. He didn’t meet her eyes as he turned to leave the apartment. As he put his hand on the doorknob, he turned around a final time to speak to her. He thought for a moment more, simplicity was better. He coughed, keeping his voice even. “Thank you, Anna.”
He didn’t stop to wait for a reply as he exited the room, the think wooden door slamming behind him.
He took the stairs two at a time as he moved back towards the front entrance of the building. An embarrassed flush was spreading over his face as he moved, his cheeks starting to burn.
Stepping out onto the pavement, David pulled his cap off, and wiped the layer of greasy sweat off his forehead. Strands of hair stuck to his forehead in the humid night air. He ran a tired hand through his hair, pushing the annoying strands away from his eyes.
Heavy darkness fell over New York as David trudged uptown along Second Avenue. This part of the city was largely residential, and an uneasy restlessness hung over large stretches of the sleepy, brownstone lined blocks .
David paused long enough to step around the open cellar door of Santino’s Deli on the corner of 46th Street and 2nd Avenue.
Ever since coming back from Europe, David constantly heard how brave he was. Instead of feeling like the returning hero, he felt like a failure.
Closing his eyes, David forced his breathing to be steady as he drifted further away from the apartment. The weight sitting on his chest gradually dissipated as David wallowed in the silence pulsating in his ears. He slid his hands deep into his pockets, toying with the book of matches and pack of cigarettes weighing down his pants.
Occasionally the sound of fights drifted out of the buildings as David passed under the wide open widows. Up and down the block, windows were slid wide open in hopes of catching any breeze in the still and stagnant night air. Even the laundry on the lines stretching far above the street was unnaturally still.
David dug a match out of his jacket pocket and struck a cigarette. He took a comforting drag as he turned on 58th Street.
David glanced up into the washed out night sky as he slowly released the lung full of smoke. He stopped walking. It had been a long time since he'd looked up at the night sky; there seemed to be half the number of stars then he remembered. He took another puff off the cigarette dangling from his lips. Nausea churned in his stomach, sending a sickening pulse through his muscles.
The Birchwood was a quaint neighborhood bar nestled in the basement of a brownstone on the corner of 61st Street and 2nd Avenue. Looking around the quiet street corner, David stubbed his cigarette out on the rim of a trashcan as he turned into the bars main entrance. The narrow wooden door opened up onto an even tighter staircase. Stepping inside, he felt weighed down by the heavy air, smelling of musty body odor.
The stairway opened right up into the bar. A comfortable, dark space, most of the cliental were regulars who had been coming to The Birchwood for decades. There was a feeling of former glamour to it, but the ornate, emerald wallpaper was starting to fade. The elegant wood paneling was starting to chip and peel with age. It wouldn’t be too long before it would be in need of a good renovation.
David sat down at his usual barstool, taking a cursory glance towards the bored looking bartender. A calm stillness hung over the room, the small handful of drinkers all lost in their own problems. The only real noise came from a friendly game of darts in the back corner of the bar. Somewhere across the room, a piano played a vaguely familiar tune.
The bartender looked over at David, and took a step towards the liquor bottles which were spread on a rickety shelf behind the bar. “Your usual?”
“Brandy, please." David replied. His voice sounded flat and scratchy from too little sleep and too many cigarettes. The scars on his back itched. They always did when he felt anxious. David rolled his shoulders, hoping the moving fabric on his shoulders would relieve the overwhelming itching.
David took a long sip of the thick, brown liquid. He listened to the blood pumping in his temples as he the drunken sense of calm washed over him.
David balanced his smoldering cigarette on the edge of a nearby ash tray and ran his hands through his hair. With a moment to let his body stop, David realized how much his muscles ached.
Around him, the dimly lit, sweaty bar gently swayed as the alcohol settled on his empty stomach. David closed his eyes, resting his forehead in his hands. His head was pounding. It was a deep, sharp, tension headache. It felt like there was a needle stabbing into his head behind his eyes.
He set the shot glass back down. Sitting up, David dug in his pockets for his crumpled carton of Lucky Strikes. He let the cigarette hang loosely from his lips as he stared down at the bar in front of him, his mind groping for a next step.
"What are you doing here, Freeman?"
David looked up. Elise Carpenter was staring him down, a playful smirk on her face. Her hands were on her hips. Seeing the exhaustion on his face, she stopped. Her face morphed into a look of concern. She moved and sat down at the barstool next to him, resting a gentle hand on the small of his back. "You look like hell, David.”
Elise was an ex-showgirl who had made herself a comfortable home in the quiet Birchwood Bar. One of thousands of chorus girls who flocked to the Great White Way a decade earlier, Elise had been forced to adapt as Vaudeville lost its power and silent films moved out to California. It was a thinly veiled secret that Elise was also a high class prostitute, entertaining a small group of clients on the side to finance a comfortable lifestyle for herself.
Elise was a petite woman, not much older than twenty-five. Her thick blonde hair was piled ontop of her head into a thinly restrained up-do. Her tasteful make-up highlighted her large blue eyes. She managed to possess an easy, homegrown look to her. She was the girl next door, all grown-up.
“I feel like hell,” David said, blowing lungful of smoke into the air. It hovered around his head for a moment before it dissipated.
“Talk to me,” Elise said. She looked over at David, a small smile spread across her lips as they made tentative eye contact. Her hand grazed over the top of his as she continued. “You know I’m always here for you.” She spoke with a soft, almost husky voice.
"It's Jessica," David said, his voice cracking awkwardly. ”She— she died, with the baby." He fumbled in his pocket, reaching for his pack of cigarettes, the muscle memory keeping his mind distracted.
Elise looked over at him with doll-like eyes. She looked remarkably fresh in the oppressive summer heat. She averted her eyes; her tone dropping self-consciously. "Now I feel like an ass. I'm sorry."
"You didn’t know," David replied, lighting another cigarette. He paused, feeling himself choking on the words coming out of his mouth. He took a long drag from the cigarette, releasing the lung full of smoke slowly. He glanced over at her out of the corner of his eye. "I just wasn't sure where else to go. I’m sure you don’t want to see me…”
“David, stop it!” Her voice was sharp as she cut in, rubbing his back slowly. His breaths were slow and deliberate as he struggled to collect himself. She sat forward in her seat, bracing her elbows against the bar. She angled her body into his. “You know you can always come here...”
“I wasn’t sure… you know…. after last time.” David spoke slowly, thinking through each word before saying it as his mind replayed scenes from the past. “We didn’t exactly part the best.”
Elise looked straight into his eyes, there was a no-nonsense edge to her voice as she jumped in.“And in all the time we’ve known each other, have I ever held a grudge for longer than a week?” She stopped and took a moment to think. She draped her hand on top of his, squeezing his fingers gently. “You’re my best friend and I love you. I mean that.”
David dropped his head, “I feel so lost.”
She took the shot of whiskey in front of her as he sat up, angling her head slightly to face him. She stopped and dabbed her mascara with a bar napkin, as she looked over at him. "I'm sorry, David. Do you nee— do you want to talk about--" The concern in her voice was genuine. She ran a gentle, soothing hand through his hair as she spoke.
Cutting her off, David leaned in. He slid one hand around the back of her neck and guided her in for a kiss. His head was swimming from the liquor in his system. Elise didn’t seem bothered as he parted his lips, and his tongue explored her mouth with urgency.
Pulling back, Elise studied him with experienced eyes. There was desperation in the glassy and swollen eyes looking back at her. He had been crying a lot in the last couple of days. Searching for the right words, Elise gently traced her fingers down his scruffy cheek. ”Are you alright? Do you need to lay down?”
"Can we go upstairs?" David asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He looked up at her with wide eyes. "Please?”
Elise held out her hand to David, and glanced towards the rickety stairs in the corner of the bar. She flashed him what she hoped would be a comforting smile, "Come on."
His hands trembled as he helped her to the floor.
Turning the corner at the top of the stairs, David stepped forward, backing Elise against the wall with a soft thud. He opened his eyes, glancing at her through cloudy eyes. She met his glance with soft, unflinching eye contact.
The hallway above The Birchwood was narrow one. A shoddy wooden bannister was the only separation from the bar twenty feet below. The only light came from a few weak gas lamps hanging further down the hall. The wooden planks under their feet cracked and squeaked with each shift of their weight. The wall was lined with identical closed doors spaced symmetrically along the length of the hallway.
The air around them was oppressive as he kissed her. Each breath he took filled his nose with her lilac perfume, mixing with the musky odor of humanity in the sweltering summertime heat.
Leaning against the wall, Elise sighed deeply as she let herself get lost in his arms, her instincts taking over in the darkness. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around his neck, exhaling softly as relaxation cascaded over her muscles.
David breathlessly stood up as another couple sidestepped them in the tight hallway. The door slammed urgently behind them as they disappeared into one of the rooms.
He closed his eyes, pressing his forehead to her’s, suddenly finding himself overwhelmed by the heat of the moment. "The hallway is spinning.” He chuckled softly as he spoke.
Her fingers hovered over the button on his slacks as she struggled to gauge his body language. "Are you sure this is what you want?" Elise asked, a hint of breathlessness in her voice. "I understand what you’re going through David. Believe me, I do. You don't have to do th--“
David threw open the narrow door, and they backed into Elise's tiny bedroom. The bed creaked under his weight as she turned around and maneuvered him into a seated position on her slab of a mattress. Standing in front of him, she guided his hands on her narrow hips. She slid her cream colored blouse over her head, exposing a thin satin slip underneath. He slid the thin strap off her shoulder. The thin material slipped to the floor like water, exposing the curves of her body underneath.
"El..." David said, shuffling to stand up. He stared up at the pink halo forming around her body in the dim lighting of the room. He pulled off his glasses, and tried to rub life into his burning eyes. “I..."
Elise put her finger to his lips. "Let me.”She tugged at his tie, loosening the intricate knot around his neck. She bit her lip as she worked enough of the tiny buttons on his shirt before she could pull the slightly baggy shirt over his head.
With a quiet sigh, David wrapped his lanky arms around Elise's waist, resting his forehead against her bare stomach. Reaching down, she rested her hand on his cheek, guiding his eyes up to meet hers. "Do you want to stop?" She spoke gently, trying to make sure he understood her.
David stood up. Turning Elise around, he gently pushed her down onto the mattress, hiking her skirt up around her waist in one smooth motion.
Elise ran her fingers down his lean torso, sliding his wool pants down his legs. Looking up at him, she flashed him a small smile. She ran her fingers through his hair, brushing it away from his face. Elise yelped softly as he grabbed a small handful of her hair, pulling her face up to look at him and urgently kissing her exposed neck. She closed her eyes, and exhaled softly. Her stomach flipped at the sensation of his soft lips all over her neck.
Guiding Elise back onto the mattress, David lowered himself on-top of her. He inhaled sharply, and every muscle in his body contracted as he slid inside of her. He immediately fell into sharp, primal thrusts. One arm braced her neck, the other supported his weight against the headboard, which pounded against the wall with each rhythmic thrust. Looking up at him, David’s eyes were squeezed shut, lost in the moment.
Elise laced her hands around the back of neck. Her fingers toyed with his hair as he forced himself deep inside of her. She exhaled deeply with his each thrust. “Oh god,” her voice was throaty and breathless, urging him to continue. Her hips writhed, responding to the heat of his body against hers. Her legs wrapped around his waist, trying to keep him deep inside of her. She trailed her nails down his back. “That feels amazing.”
Closing her eyes, the sound of David's breathing dominated the room, each breath became quicker with each heated thrust. David let out a sudden cry as his body suddenly went limp, his muscles spasming from the sudden release. He laid on-top of her for a moment, panting as the throbbing sensation of the orgasm faded. His face was buried in her shoulder, his cheeks burned from exertion.
"I'm sorry," David said after a moment of silence. He rolled next to her on the bed. He covered his eyes, focusing on taking a few deep, centering breaths. Staring up at the ceiling, he wiped his eyes, brushing a strand of unruly hair out of his eyes. The moment had passed.
Exhaling sharply, David sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He dropped his head in his hands, trying to center himself. His voice was flat as he turned back around to face her. "I shouldn't have done that.”
Pulling the blankets up under her arms, Elise sat up and brushed her wild hair back out of her eyes. “You’re fine.” She reached out, resting a comforting hand on his elbow There was a pleading lilt to her voice as she continued. “You don’t have to feel bad about anything, David.”
David stared with an unwavering intensity at a spot across the room. Sliding next to him, Elise gently ran her fingers between his sweaty shoulder blades, avoiding the jagged, red bayonet and burn scars searing across his back. His muscles quivered with pent up adrenaline.
David dropped his face into his hands, dissolving into heaving sobs. His breath came in shallow bursts.
"Let it all out," Elise said gently, rubbing his back. She pressed her cheek against his bare shoulder as she ran her fingers over his torso. Her voice was breathy as a sigh escaped her lips. “It’s okay, David.”
"I killed her," David said, wiping his eyes with the palms of his hands. His shoulders heaved as he took deep, shaky breaths, trying to regain his composure. He squeezed his eyes closed, shutting out the stinging lamp light. “I know it sounds silly, but the more I think about it...I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all my fault.”
"She died in childbirth. It really, really wasn’t your fault." Elise said. She spoke slowly and soothingly. She blinked back the tears beginning to form in her eyes as he let out a pained whimper. She inhaled deeply as she struggled to find the right words. "You can't blame yourself for what happened to her."
"The doctor told us Jess-- she couldn't have anymore children. We did it anyway. If we--I-- hadn't done that, she'd still be alive. I don’t know why let her go through with it." He wrapped his fingers around a cup which was sitting on the bedside table. With a sudden surge of adrenaline, he hurled it across the room, the ceramic mug shattered as it smashed against the opposite wall.
Elise bit her lip and watched him drop back onto the bed. His body trembled from the surge of energy coursing through his system. He dropped his head into his hands, his breathing fast and shallow as he tried to collect himself.
Elise wrapped her arms around him, resting her chin on his shoulder. She listened to his raspy breathing before speaking again. "You didn't kill her. She was your wife...I'm sure she wanted another baby as much as you did.” Her words came slow, her voice was gentle. She watched as the blush slowly receded from the pale skin on his neck.
David stretched out on her bed, his hands covering his eyes. Shifting to look up at her, he was finally able to collect himself enough to speak, “Jessica is pregnant.” His voice broke slightly as he continued. “She’s going to have a baby.” His words were slow and thought out, trying to convince himself.
David stood up and walked over to where his jacket was slung over the nightstand. He sat down on the chair and dug through his pockets.“We just found out.”
David stared at his reflection in the mirror of her make-up table as he lit a cigarette. With a tired sigh, pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the window overlooking the street. Pausing, he took a deep drag on the cigarette as he watched people mull around busily on the Second Avenue. He turned around, looking at her with confusion.“Elise?” He asked, breaking the silence hanging over the room.
Elise stood up and fastened her robe tightly around her waist. She took a seat behind her make-up table. Her hair was frizzy and thick with volume. She repeatedly ran the brush through her hair. Every few strokes, she tugged to work through a particularly dense knot. “I suppose congratulations are order.” Elise’s voice had an icy twinge to it as held his eye contact through the glass.
“Sorry,” David mumbled, noting the abrupt change in her body language. He looked over at her with wide eyes. He walked over to her, resting a familiar arm on her shoulder. His other hand was clenched nervously at his side.“I know you don’t like to hear—“ He stammered as he continued, trying to make peace with her.
Cutting him off, Elise turned to face him and slowly rose from the chair. She ran her fingers through his hair and forced a friendly smile across her face. “David, you and I have known each other long enough, I hope we could talk as friends.” She spoke slowly, trying to calm him down. She ran her fingers down his smooth cheeks. “You look scared to death.”
He paused for a moment. He shifted his eyes and looked out the window. His voice dropped an octave, weighed down with nervousness. “I am.” He picked his shirt off the floor and slid it over his shoulder.
“Well,” Elise began, resting her hands on her hips. She looked up at him with tentative eye contact. “Are you going to marry the poor girl?” Taking a half-step towards him, Elise one by one began fastening the buttons on his shirt.
“I don’t think I have any other choice,” David replied. He paused, clearing his throat before continuing. He shifted his gaze, watching her slender fingers work the buttons.“I just don’t know if I’m ready to be a father. I don’t have any clue how to provide for a baby.” He forced out what turned out to be a nervous chuckle as he wiped at the anxious tears building up in his eyes, “I’m fucking scared to death.” An embarrassed blush spreading over his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t mea—“
“I won’t tell.” Elise said. Her lips pursed together, as a smile slowly spread across her face. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and looked him square in the eyes. “You know, if you talked to her, you might find she’s feeling the exact same way.” She brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes and wiped at one of the tears sliding down his cheek.
“I guess,” he said, sniffling quietly. He quickly wiped his nose. “We just found out. I’ve been trying to figure out what I need to do about everything.” He paused once again, sniffling. His voice cracked as he continued. “I just felt so awful... She was looking to me for some kind of answer, and nothing was coming to me. How am I supposed to be a father if I can’t protect my wife?”
“You don’t have to protect her.” Elise said, flashing him what she hoped was a comforting smile. “She loves you. I would think she wants to have a baby with you.”
"You're warm," David hiccuped quietly, sniffling. He bit down on his thumb nail; his eyes focused with unwavering intensity on the hardwood floor. He forced out a chuckle, as he wrapped his arms around his body. "I can't stop shivering."
"What you’re feeling is normal," Elise said, she wrapped her arms around him.
"I miss her so much," David whimpered. He dissolved into sobs. David collapsed, burying his head in her lap. His hands clutched at the blankets, looking for any support he could find.
"I know you do.” Elise gently stroked his ruffled hair as he sobbed into her lap. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply as they fell into silence. The only sound in the room was David’s pained sniffling. She spoke slowly, fighting to keep her voice even. "Let it out..."
"She's the only person who's always been there for me," David said, breaking the silence. His sentence was interrupted by his body wracking sobs. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. He wiped his eyes and exhaled deeply as he continued. ”All that time in Paris, all the shit with my family. She's the only person I've ever been able to lean on.” David stood up abruptly, grabbing his pants from where they were in a heap on the floor.
“Please stay, David." Elise reached out for his arm. She spoke quickly, trying to bring about a reaction from him. "I don't have anyone coming all night. You're welcome to sleep here. Don’t go back there alone."
David stumbled as he tried to slide into his pants. A look of forced concentration bled over his face. "I need to get back. That godawful woman is watching Thomas.” He spoke slowly, making a concerted effort to not slur his words.
“You're drunk," Elise said. She reached up, refastening her hair in a quick bun at the base of her neck. She reached out for his arm, trying again to get his attention. Her eyes were strong and unwavering as she stepped in front of him, forcing him to make eye contact with her. She grabbed him by the elbow. "If someone's watching the baby, stay here and go back in the morning with a clear head. Don't go out there alone."
Pulling back from her grasp, David dug in his billfold, dropping a few bills on her dresser. "I have to go." He opened the door, and took a half step out into the hallway.
"You're no good to anyone like th—,” Elise shouted after him.
David looked back at her for a moment, but he shut the door firmly behind him cutting her off.
David pulled the door shut behind him as he made his way through the dark hallway above the bar. It felt like no matter how many people told him to not feel guilty, or that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t shake the overwhelming sensation of responsibility sitting on his chest.
The odor of cigarette and pipe smoke was thick as he made his way back through the bar and toward the door. A piano tinkled a bluesy chorus, mingling with the quiet conversation of the bar after-midnight. David needed to walk, perhaps the peace of the night sky would be enough to quiet the pulsating insecurities in his head.
As David walked along the wood lined walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere is the darkness, a clock chimed three in the morning. David slid his dented gold pocket-watch from his breast pocket, quickly checking the time. Replacing the watch, David crossed his arms in front of him, staring at the planks of splintering wood under his feet as he walked.
Far below, the East River was an inky black divide in the darkness, contrasting against the yellowish city lights washing out the nigh sky.
At the highest point of the bridge, David could finally feel the relief of a cool breeze moving the sweaty, stagnant air. He closed his eyes as he walked, letting the cool wind hit the layer of sweat covering his forehead.
David averted his glance as a young couple strolled passed him from the other side of the bridge. The two teenagers were at the end of a long night out. The girl wore a tight, ruby red dress with a fringed skirt. She hung heavily on the arm of the boy. His evening attire looked a little rumpled. His tattered bowler was pulled down over his eyes. They giggled quietly, drunkenly engrossed in each others company. They seemed aware of nothing but each other as the world moved sleepily by.
David stopped, leaning heavily on the stone railing. Clasping his hands in front of him, he stared far out over the river. In front of him, the Brooklyn skyline looked sleepy. The water below him was eerily still, only disturbed by the wake of a trash barge chugging down the river. David closed his eyes, resting his head against a support post, the steel wire feeling cool against his forehead.
David leaned against the clammy metal fire escape, his hands clasped in front of him. The cobblestone streets below him were mostly empty. Every so often a lonely factory worker trudged home from a the late shift. Most though, were tucked up at home, escaping the unseasonably warm weather which hung over New York like a wet blanket.
David pulled out his last cigarette, before crumpling the wrapper in his hands and dropping it into the alley beneath him. There was a muffled clang as it bounced off something in the darkness. Lighting the cigarette, he took a deep puff, slowly releasing the lung full of smoke into the air above his head.
He turned around as the window behind him opened. Jessica brushed a stray hair out of her eyes as she climbed through to the fire escape. The rickety steel creaked underneath her weight. She inhaled sharply and stretched out the knots in her back as she took a quick look around the balcony. A look of wound exhaustion flashed over her face.
Moving towards the railing, Jessica unclasped the top button of her white blouse, which was already pulled out from her crimson colored skirt. Behind her, the warm glow from the gas lamp flooded through the window of their living room.
Jessica’s face glistened with sweat as she looked out over the city below them.
“You look exhausted,” David asked, looking over at her. He took a half-step to his right, positioning himself next to her, intwining his fingers with hers.
“I finally got Thomas to sleep.” Jessica said, he could hear the exhaustion in her voice as she softly exhaled and laid her head on his shoulder. Her body softly relaxed into his, leaning on him for support. “I wish I knew why he was so fussy today.”
Looking over, Jessica's blouse was almost transparent with sweat. “It’s so damn hot,” David replied, rolling his sleeves up around his elbows. His tie already hung loosely around his neck, the buttons of his shirt were unhooked to his collarbone.
They fell into a comfortable silence. Jessica was definitely mulling over something she wasn’t sure about; she squeezed her eyes shut. David wrapped his arm gently around her narrow waist. “You’re a million miles away. What’s the matter?”
“I saw the Doctor today,” Jessica said.
“And…” David said, trying to eliminate the pulsating silence which surrounded them in the early morning darkness. He searched her pale face, trying to find any hint as to what might have been wrong. He tightened his grip on her shoulder ever so slightly, afraid she was going to faint. “Jess...”
“We were right,” Jessica replied, finally breaking the silence. A small smile spread across her face as she let the moment sink in. She braced a hand over her stomach as she continued. “I’m pregnant. It’s still really early, but I am. The doctor said I’m not more than six weeks along.”
“You’re...” David paused and studied her face. Her face was suddenly glowing in the soft light streaming through the open window. Joy brimmed in her eyes as she looked up at him. He continued carefully, swallowing back his worry. “I thought he said you couldn't have any more… after Thomas.” His tongue starting to trip over the thoughts which were racing through his head. He wrapped his hands around her elbows, holding her at arms length.
The brightness in Jessica's face helped him relax somewhat as she spoke. “The Doctor said it was a chance in a million, but it happened.” She paused, it was her turn to study him. She took a step closer to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. A worried expression crossed her face, replacing her smile. She cocked her head to one side as she spoke. “You are happy about it, aren’t you?”
Forcing a smile, David ran his fingers down her soft, round cheeks. He spoke slowly, considering his words carefully as he spoke. “I am…It’s just…you had such a rough time with Thomas…” He could hear the worry in his own voice as he continued. Looking into her eyes, he opted for simplicity. “I just can’t loose you.”
“You won’t.” Jessica reached up, lacing her fingers behind his head. She guided his head down, kissing him lightly on the lips. She looked up into his eyes as a mischievous smile crossed her face. She took his hand in her’s, placing it gently on her stomach. “Believe it or not, I am stronger than you give me credit for. I have a good feeling about this.”
David brushed her cheek with his pinkie and wrapped his other arm around her waist, pulling Jessica tightly into him. Holding her close to him, he let herself get lost in her eyes. “I love you so much, baby.” He said, after a moment of silence.
As the couple continued into the distance, still quietly giggling to each other, David found himself alone yet again on the bridge above the East River. Still leaning on the railing, he looked down on the black water far beneath him.
A little further down the bridge, David watched as the boy backed the girl into the one of the tan stone pillars, they practically fell into each other’s embrace. They were sloppy, drunk and completely head over heels in love.
David had contemplated suicide once before. Surrounded by nurses speaking a language he didn't understand, his arms and chest covered in second and third degree burns. His wrists were strapped down, leaving him unable to move or scratch the constant itching flaring across his seared nerves.
David had been stationed at a trench dug in on the Western Front. Near the end of ‘17, the camp had been over-run by German infantry. The gun battle lasted for three exhausting days, ending in a mustard gas attack which took out three quarters of his platoon. David had been one of the lucky ones, his face was protected enough to escape the lethal, devastating burns.
The only thing keeping him sane through the four long months in a French hospital was the memory of his girlfriend waiting at home.
David stopped in front of the deserted facade of St. Agnes’ Church, the Catholic Church where he had married Jessica two years earlier. The church was located in the middle of East 43rd Street. It was a narrow block, barely wide enough for two automobiles to drive side by side. Ahead of him, the street came to an abrupt end at the terminal of Grand Central Station.
Stepping inside the church, David paused for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the muted darkness. He dipped his fingers into the warm holy water and made the sign of the cross.
Moving further into the room, the only sound was David's footsteps on the tan and brown ceramic tile. Six gas chandeliers hung from the ceilings, providing just enough light to illuminate the high ceilings, keeping much of the room shrouded in a bleak darkness.
The pews were sparsely filled with somber people, each focused deep inside themselves. The room was weighed down with an overwhelming heaviness. The partitioners dotting the pews were praying for reasons only they knew.
David did his best to not attract attention as he moved through the room towards the confessionals in the corner. As he walked, he dropped his right hand into his pocket. Jessica’s rosary beads clicked quietly as the smooth turquoise beads slid between his fingers.
Opening the door, the confessional was a dusty, claustrophobic space. An old candle flickered from a simple coffee table in the corner. Nearing the end of its life, the candle’s weak flame was barely enough to light the tiny closet. A simple chair sat in the middle of the room.
Entering the confessional, David dropped to his knees, making the sign of the cross. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been nine months since my last confession.” He glanced up at the barely discernible outline of the priest on the other side of the screen. It was late, and even the father’s posture looked tired. Looking ahead at the flickering candle, David pulled Jessica’s rosary beads out of his pocket.
“Tell me your sins, my son.” The voice on the other side of the screen was exhausted. “I’m here to help.”
“Well Father,” David began, taking a moment to think through the hazy mass of thoughts drifting through his mind. He passed the rosary between his hands as he continued. “Honestly Father, since my wife passed away, I find myself questioning my faith in the Lord.” David closed his eyes, tuning his ears into the foreign sounds of the hollow room. His shaky breathing bled into the pulsating silence of the confessional.
“I’m sorry for your loss, my son.” The reply was quick, a mere automatic reflex. The priest stammered momentarily as he struggled to think of the next thing to say. “Why--do you find yourself questioning God’s wisdom?”
“I find myself wondering why— if God is supposed to be this all-knowing, loving God— why would he do this?” David paused to collect himself, swallowing back the frog he could feel building up in his throat. “Why would he do this to our family?"
“You have to believe that God wanted to have your wife with him. She is in a better place, my son.”
“Is she?” David asked, his voice quick and barbed with hostility. The rickety chair creaked underneath him as David leaned forward, bracing his elbows against his knees. He ran his fingers through his hair and sucked in a deep breath. He looked up at the screen, trying to address the man behind it. “I beg your pardon, but I’m having a difficult time believing that, Father.”
“Sometime, all we have is our faith.”
David sighed heavily. It was an answer he had heard before. It was the same one spouted by the stream of priests patting him on the shoulder Sunday, before turning a blind eye towards his troubles during the week. He looked towards the ceiling as he continued, “I understand that, Father. But I can’t understand--why would a loving God--“
“Any proof you need is in the Good Book. Lean on that. It will help you through this difficult time.” David could hear the rote repition in the priest’s words, making it all the more difficult to take it seriously.
“Thank you Father,” David said, not caring enough hide the defeat reflecting in his voice. He sighed heavily, biting back the desire to say all the things flooding his mind. “For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God, and penance and absolution from you Father.” He ran a hand through his hair, looking around the one more time. He could feel angry heat spreading across his cheeks as he moved to stand up.
“You need to embrace your faith,” the priest repeated. He paused for a moment, before continuing. “Say twelve hail Mary’s and ten Our Fathers. Have no fear, my son. You will meet your wife again in the arms of the holy Father.” The pronouncement came quickly, made up from the top of his head.
Hunching as he moved through the tiny confessional, David stepped back out into the nave and maneuvered his way towards a pew near the back. “Ave Maria, gratis plena, Dominus mecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructose ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nune, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
David yawned and looked up from his thick Latin textbook. Outside his bedroom window, snow blanketed Greenpoint Brooklyn in a sea of fluffy white flakes. The muffled clap of hooves bled in through the thin glass. A horse and wagon slowly trotted down the otherwise empty street, making the early morning ice runs.
Pulling his blanket higher around his shoulders, David glanced up at the grandfather clock against the wall. The little wire hands showed it was a little before three in the morning. The dive bars would be closing and kicking the last few drunks back onto the street.
Quietly shutting his textbook, David stood up slowly and blew out his candle. Sliding under the covers of his bed, David pulled the blankets tightly around his chin as he forced himself to fein sleep.
Thomas Freeman always returned from his nightly excursion to the bars at closing time. David knew the smell. His father stank of cheap brandy and cigars mixed with the overpowering odor of cheap perfume from whatever whore his father had spent most of the night with.
Pulling the rough cotton up around his eyes, David squeezed his eyes shut as the bedroom door opened. Opening his eyes under the sheets, David could see his father’s wilting figure in the doorway.
A man of forty-seven, Thomas Freeman was showing the physical decline of an alcoholic. A steam laborer by trade, he had once been a physically imposing man. Age and alcohol had shrunk him down to half the man he had been. His skin was gray; his once black hair was thinning and was sloppy and unkempt.
David had vague memories of the attractive and well built man his father had once been, but those were quickly fading.
David had no such memories of his mother, who had died in childbirth fifteen years earlier. The only signs remaining of Bridget Freeman were sparsely placed photographs. The pictures of her had become fewer as the years passed. David kept one in his dresser, carefully hidden from his father’s sight. It looked to be one of their wedding photographs. In years of staring at the image, David decided his parents probably weren't much older than fifteen or sixteen. They were posed stoically in front of a nondescript painted background. In the picture, his mother could have been any girl in his school. Her petite figure was corseted tightly into a simple white dress. Even though her soft and angelic face was serious, David imagined she must have had a beautiful smile. His father looked like a different man. His arm was wrapped tightly around his mother’s cinched waist. Their bodies were pressed close to each other. Thomas looked down on his wife with a look of love and sensitivity which David couldn’t ever remember coming from the man he knew today.
“I know you're awake,” Thomas said. His words were slurred; his voice cracked from too many cigars over the course of the night. With no response from his son, Thomas took a noisy step into the bedroom, shattering the stillness of the moment. His boots clopped heavily on the splintering floorboards as he moved across David’s bedroom at a clumsy pace. “I saw your light from the street, boy.”
David kept his eyes closed, devoting all his focus to keeping his breathing deep and even. The stench of stale brandy oozed from his father’s pores. David rolled onto his stomach, wanting to avoid the nightly battle which his father actually seemed to enjoy.
“Don’t fuckin’ ignore me, boy!”
David yelped as Thomas grabbed him by the hair, and yanked him out from underneath the blankets.
David hit the floorboards hard, and scrambled up to his feet. He could feel angry tears brimming in his eyes as he stared into his father’s red and blotchy eyes. His scalp throbbed from where his father had grabbed him. David turned, facing his father squarely. He could see the outrage growing on the old man’s face as he refused to back down. “Maybe if you weren’t out drinking, you would know I have homework.”
“Just like you, wasting your time with that bullshit.” Thomas scoffed. He turned and looked down at the work which was spread over David’s desk. “You’re never going to amount to anything.”
“Anything to get away from here, and not turn out like you.”
“Check your tone,” Thomas taking a step towards his son.
Before David could react, Thomas reached out and grabbed him by the lapel of his pajamas, his other hand landing a punch squarely across his son’s jaw. He kept his fingers tightly around David's collar, staring straight into his son’s eyes. “Don’t you ever fucking talk to me like that! After everything I’ve done for you.” With that, he loosened his grasp on David’s neck.
Stumbling back, David's hand flew up to the stinging welt on his face. “What have you done for me Dad? Tell me before I have to pour you into bed.” He turned around to face his father, the words spilling unchecked from his mouth as he spit out a mouthful of blood. He wiped his nose, streaking some blood across his cheek.
As Thomas reached out to grab him again, David stepped back, ducking his father’s grasp. The alcoholic stumbled at the suddenness of the movement.
“You’re a goddamn drunk and an embarrasment,” David said. He took a steadying breath as he continued. “How does it feel that your fifteen year old son has to support you?” David paused, waiting for the next blow to fall, but his father was silent. The old man just stared at him, seething.
“If it wasn’t for you, your mother would still be alive.” Thomas said simply. “You killed your mother. You’re nothing but an ungrateful, spoiled child. I wish you would have died with her.” The words were said so simply, so matter-of-factly. “You should have never been born. I would still have her with me.”
“Fuck you,” David said, he could feel his emotions threatening to overwhelm his body. He ran his fingers through his hair, hiding his violently trembling hands at his side. Angry tears burned in his eyes, and threatened to drop down his cheek. He took a step back to avoid another unstable blow from his father. “Go to hell!”
David sighed as he got to his feet and tucked the rosary beads into his jacket pocket. Dull sunlight drifted in through the skylights above his head. David reached into his pants, pulling out his pocket watch. It had just passed 7:30am.