Dennis steps onto the stage and whispers something to Chief, who wears a sweater vest and wingtips. Chief nods as Russ passes him the microphone. Behind them a black cape covers a ten-foot-tall object. I recognize the shape of the object. It's from Trudy's Barn. Only when I saw it, blue tarps covered it. Trudy's top secret commission.
“I've received word that our VIP has arrived, so I'm going to kick things off,” Chief says. He glances up into the balcony and catches my eye. I look away.
“I'm not much for making speeches,” says Chief. “But I've been asked to say a few words on this solemn occasion, even though we all know why we're here. So, Russ? Thanks for warming up the crowd. I'm going to be brief, because we're definitely violating the fire code here.” A dozen people laugh good-naturedly.
“I got to know Nick pretty well on the mission trip we were both on last fall, in New Orleans, to help rebuild homes there,” Chief continues. “Nick was a fun guy, but there was a seriousness to him, too, a sensitivity. He was very observant, and a good listener and hard worker. He helped keep the mood light, despite all the devastation around us.
“And all you have to do is look at Nick's photographs to know he was a humanitarian, in the truest sense of that word. Nick's photographs are his legacy, and that's why we've put together, here to my right, a sort of walk-through installation of his most gripping work from our mission trip last fall. I hope you'll all take the time to enjoy the photographs. Police Officer Frances Hogan and reporter Dennis Jolette, of Nick's former employer,
both had a big hand in putting the exhibit together. Let's give them a round of applauseâbeautiful job, guys.”
Applause ripples the crowd. The photographs are several feet wide and tall and mounted on easels. I wonder where France and Dennis got the money to put all this together. Their own paychecks, probably.
Some shots I recognize from Nick's e-mails; most are new to me. The photos of New Orleansâand there are so manyâshow construction, as opposed to destruction, which I'm sure was Nick's thematic intention. My eyes go to the photographs of people I know. Russ, a tool belt cinching his hips, points to a ceiling joist. Little Pastor Sheila from the back: She wears a Tyvek suit, and she stands before a towering pile of rubbish. Father Chet in his sleeping bag and collared pajama top. He shows the cover of his book, titled
With Every Step, Peace.
One shot is of Nick, riding in the interfaith van. The shot is slightly out of focus, and I wonder who took it. He wears the “Wippamunk Loves New Orleans” T-shirtâthe very shirt now balled up in my bag. I reach into the bag, next to me on the bench, and gather the fabric in my fist.
“Now,” Chief says. “Local artist and one-of-a-kind original Gertrude Chaffin was commissioned to create something to remember our boy Nick Roy by. And I think you'll all agree that what she came up with is exactly how we'll remember Nick:
“So, Trudy? Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. I want everyone to know that Trudy donated this work. She wouldn't accept any remuneration for her efforts. We're still undecided about where this statue will be permanently kept. There's talk about raising funds for a park in town, in his name. If anyone is interested in heading that up or helping out with it, please speak with me afterwards.”
Trudy takes the stage and speaks softly into the microphone. “Many of the people responsible for todayâFrances Hogan, Russell Stapleton, Emmett Murtonen, and so onâare my former students. How marvelous it's been to sit back as the years unfold, and watch them become whatever they are to become in this world. How wonderful, the people who have emerged from this place, this town. Nicholas was my student, too.” She replaces the microphone in its stand and bows her head. So does everyone in the hall.
A minute of silence passes.
“Well,” Chief finally says, and people lift their heads. “Without further adoâI've always wanted to say thatâlet's unveil what's under here. Mr. Stapleton? Will you do the honors?”
A camera flash bursts; the new guyâAllenâsnaps shots as Russ reemerges from the front row. He somberly grips the edges of the black cloth and sweeps it away. The crowd seems to hold its breath collectively. Then, as one, the crowd moves up a foot or two, closer to Nick.
He's larger than life. He wears faded jeans, a down vest, and rectangular tortoiseshell glasses. Even from way up here I can see that Trudy got the minutest details right: a small gold paperclip binds the broken left stem of his glasses. A diamond-shaped pockmark is etched on his chin, where his grandmother's Maine coon cat bit him when he was seven. He wears his tan Timberlands. The sleeves of his red flannel shirt are rolled to his calloused elbows. The lens protrudes from the camera in his hands. He looks like he's just spotted something he wants to photograph.
A subdued applause circulates, then fades. The room returns to silence, except for the sound of one person weeping. And for once, the weeping is not coming from me. It's coming from Arthur. SomeoneâNick's uncle Raymond?âbear-hugs him.
My hands fly to my mouth. I stand and knock over the little bench, and it clatters to the floor.
Everyone turns and looks up. No one speaks, but the faces are kind. So kind and raw that I can't look at them. I can't look at anyone or anything.
I run down the dark balcony steps and out to the parking lot, and among the neatly arranged rows of wet cars and trucks, I hang my head between my knees, Polly Pinch style. I take deep breaths.
Deep, deep breaths.
It's EJ. I recognize his chef clogs. He wears them with wrinkly black slacks, a more-wrinkled button-down shirt, and a cheap tie that hangs two inches above his waistbandâthe same exact getup he wore to France's academy graduation, years ago.
I'm still bent over. Blood buzzes to my head, and snot drips to the slick pavement. My neck feels stretchy and my lips tingle. But I don't cry. I don't g.d. cry.
“I can't look at you right now, EJ,” I say. “You of all people.”
“I know. I know. It's okay. You don't have to look at me.”
Zell's doubled over in the parking lot, still in the fancy clothes she wore on television. She's soaking wet; they both are. He watches her a moment, wondering what to say, wondering whether this whole thingâthis
âwas a mistake, after all. Maybe closure is a myth.
The town hall's front doors swing open, and people stream out, pulling on lightweight raincoats and popping open umbrellas. At the sound of their voices, Zell straightens but still doesn't look in EJ's direction.
“Let's go sit in the van,” he says. “Come on.”
She nods, and they hurry to the Muffinry van. He climbs into the driver's seat and unlocks the passenger door for her. Once inside, she stares through the rain-blurred windshield at the people, in bunches of twos, threes, and fours, zigzagging through the lot. Droplets cling to the ends of her hair.
This is not an uncomfortable silence, EJ thinks, sitting there, as rain plinks off the van roof. It's a patient one. He strokes his goatee, which he trimmed for the occasion. It has a tendency to grow in uneven points if he's not careful. He gets a whiff of Zell's hairspray, then his own sweet and earthy smell, like chopped almonds.
“Did we do the wrong thing?” he finally asks. “With the statue and all?”
“Of course not. It's amazing,” she says. “It's perfect.”
“Want to see something else cool?” says EJ.
Zell half laughs, raising her eyebrows, studying her fingernails. “What?”
In the back of the van sits an enormous wooden sandwich half. The bread is thick and white, and lunchmeats are layered along with cheese, hard-boiled egg slices, and a greenish paste. Olive paste, EJ knows. He remembers the salty tang of it, and how Charlene called it tapenade.
He whistles admiringly, to lighten the mood a bit. “It's a muffaletta,” he says.
Zell half laughs again, crouches, and makes her way toward the back of the van. She touches her fingertips to the wondrous, ridiculous muffaletta. She presses her lips to it, just for a moment, then kneels next to it.
EJ joins her, resting his hand on the top slice of bread. If only the statue were real, he thinks. If only he could take a bite, feel that many-textured comfort.
He tells Zell about his visit with Ye Olde Home Ec Witch, to commission the muffaletta. Mrs. Chaffinâhe had a hard time calling her Trudy, even though she insistedâgave him a tour of her woodshop. He strolled among the creaturesâan otter sunning on a beach chair, raccoons square-dancing atop a garbage pail. She showed him her latest school mascot, hopelessly un-PC: the Wippamunk High School Mountaineer, a barefoot, toothless old man waving a shotgun, with torn pants, knobby ankles, and a long, scraggly beard.
“Was Mrs. Chaffin really as mean as we made her out to be, back in high school?” EJ asks. “Or were we the mean ones, all along?”
“I know what you mean,” says Zell, eyeing the huge toothpick protruding from the top of the sandwich. She still can't look at him, he knows.
“Anyway,” he says. “It's for my friend in New Orleans. This baby, I mean.” He slaps the muffaletta twice.
“Charlene?” asks Zell.
Zell points to EJ's left, at an old amplifier left over from his and Russ's The Massholes days. “What's that?” she asks.
From atop the amp, EJ retrieves a shallow tub of ice. Inside the tub is a Bundt pan filled with snow.
“I'm going back down to New Orleans,” he says. “I'm staying down there for a while, until I figure some things out. This snow is for Charlene, too. She says she hasn't seen snow in years. Can you imagine that? I've been keeping this snow in my freezer. And I just thought I would test it out, drive around with it in this little tub of ice, to see if it melts. And so far, so good. I figure I can stop on the way and replace the ice, as needed.”
He hands Zell the Bundt pan. “Travis'll run ship while I'm away,” he says. “You shoulda seen the Muffinry today. A ton of people came to watch you on TV. Is Ingrid okay?”
“She'll be fine.” Zell's fingertips brush the snow inside the pan. “You love her? Charlene?”
“That's what I'm going to find out, I guess,” EJ says.
“She's the one whose new church you were going to see.” She sets the pan of snow next to her.
EJ grips Zell's shoulder, which feels as hard as wood. She hiccups and sucks in her bottom lip, just like a little kid who fell off a bike and skinned her knee. But she doesn't cry. The rain drums harder against the van, slashes sideways past the little round window above her head.
“Life used to seem so simple,” she says. “Me, Nick, Ahab. Nothing else really mattered.” She breathes hard through her nose. Her face is all scrunched up, but her cheeks remain dry.
EJ doesn't know what to do, and he's run out of things to say. So he kneels and leans into her, wraps his arms around her, and squeezes. His goateed chin scrapes her scalp as she returns the embrace.
“I've got to start from scratch now,” says Zell, her voice quiet and steady. “Every day. Every minute, it seems.”
“There was nothing I could do,” he says into her damp hair.
“It should have been me.”
“It could have been me. Easily.”
“But it wasn't.”
He feels it break over him like a windy gust: hot breath and tears, for all they've lost. “Don't hate me anymore,” he pleads, weeping. “Don't hate me because it wasn't me.”
Zell buries her face in his chest. Her fingertips are freezing-cold points on the nape of his neck.
“I could never hate you, Silo.”
DAY AFTER THE POLLY PINCH INCIDENT, Ingrid's peppy as ever. She even goes to school that Monday, and she and Garrett come over later to tell me about the party her teacher threw, and how she read Dennis's article on the Warm the Soul contest to the class, and afterward they talked about cooking and food allergies and being on TV.
And the next day, just an ordinary Tuesday, I wake up, throw back the curtains, and enter the attic.
I'm not sure why. Maybe it's simply the notion that overtakes meâthe notion that it's time.
I'm surprised how dusty the steps are. I mean, you think of furniture getting dusty, and shelves, but not really stairs. But my feet leave prints on each step, as if in snow.
I tote the turntable with me. At the top of the stepsâbefore I even look aroundâI plug it in and set it on the floor. Soon Gladys singsâin every beat of my heart, there's a beat for you.
I stand straight and tall, throw my shoulders back, and face the unfinished room. I half expect Nick to be there, edged in red light, his back to me as he clips a photograph up to dry. I imagine slipping my arms around him, smelling his smellâcoppery sweat, woods, Old Spiceâover the pungent odor of darkroom chemicals.
But the red lights aren't on, of course. The sun shines through loose slats in the boarded-up window.
I run my fingers over his equipment. It's all pretty dusty: the enlarger, the copy stand, the developing tank, the print washer. The sink, the tongs, the film reels. The sponges and gloves. Dust coats the jugs of chemicals on the floor. I caress his beat-up old camera bag, the one he never used anymore but couldn't bear to throw away. I page through an old notebook in which he scribbled the names of people he encountered around town, for captions. I finger that little brush-thing that puffs air to clean the lenses. The bristles are so soft.