"THE BITTER ANGEL OF EAST SIDE DRIVE"
- Chapter 1 -
"He Looked the Most Like a 'Paul'"
Maggie awoke with a start at 5:00 a.m. That in itself should have told her it was going to be a strange day. She knew better than to try to go back to sleep. It wasn't gonna happen. It wasn't a dream that pulled her out of a sound sleep, for there were no tiny
remnants dancing in her head that told her something strange and interesting had been cavorting there.
A sound from the street? Not possible. Her hearing wasn't all that keen anymore, so it was a subject best relegated to that special place in her mind that she often referred to as: Nevermind, Maggie!
Her expensive hearing aids were dumped carelessly in the drawer of her telephone table in the kitchen. She seldom wore them at home unless she needed to make a call. Telephones were not high on her list of priorities anyway. Come to think of it, she no longer had a list of priorities.
Maggie got out of bed with a bit of effort, drew on a bathrobe and padded softly down the hallway. She turned on a light and set a kettle of water to heat on the stove. Dropped two slices of toast and waited for them to pop. It wasn't even daylight yet, and it would be another hour before the sky to the east would begin to lift its curtain on the day.
She buttered her toast and poured her coffee and walked into the living room where her La-Z-Boy stood behind the draperies facing the picture window. She plopped down with a sigh.
The street below was already buzzing with traffic; headlights piercing the fog like long arms reaching into the mist. Early risers from outlying areas were heading along the thoroughfares to begin the early shift in the city. Trailer trucks with throaty air horns, barely discernable to her aging ears, were getting a head start on deliveries to warehouses across the river. Newspaper vans rumbled slowly along, dropping off their string-tied bundles on street corner after street corner.
Maggie lifted her eyes from the street and looked around the rest of the darkened neighborhood. There were a few lights on here and there in the apartment complex across the way. It was a huge building, almost twice the size of this one, almost twice as prestigious, more than twice as expensive. The Gateway Complex at 341 East Side Drive still had that "just-built" look of clean, white concrete, tinted glass and stainless steel. Its contractor had not taken into consideration that the enormous bay windows in the living areas of every unit provided a bird's eye view to inquisitive souls across the street. Some tenants put up heavy, thick draperies for privacy, but most did not.
Margaret Kincannon, recently retired, had discovered a fascinating pastime one frigid afternoon, not long ago. It was during the coldest part of the winter, and she was standing in her new apartment, hanging her new draperies and looking out the window at the neighborhood. She had taken a moment's pause to glance at the building across the street.
It was like looking into the back of a dollhouse … the open part where every aspect of the dolls' lives could be viewed like fish in an aquarium. She found herself staring.
Maggie smiled, suddenly fascinated as she watched the tiny fantasy people moving around in their tiny glass rectangles. In that instant a whole new world opened up. Human beings were interesting creatures, and here was a whole miniature community, playing out their miniature dramas in front of her eyes. Her former lonely existence of boredom and silence opened like a rose bud, blossoming into a most welcome adventure of delight, discovery and fantasy.
Maggie began to look forward to each day with an enthusiasm she had not realized in years. Her imagination began to bloom also, and she allowed it free reign.
She was on her second cup of coffee when she saw Paul in Apartment Eight move slowly from the black hole of his bedroom into the dimly lit cavern of his living area. Ordinarily he would not be out there so early, but she already knew this was not an ordinary day. He was still in pajamas and bathrobe. He was a man of unpredictable nocturnal pursuits; up early one day, still PJ clad at noon on others. She had seen him fully dressed as early as 6:00 a.m., and as late as midnight or even later. Sometimes in the middle of the night when she could not sleep and looked for a diversion, she would see him pacing over there, moving rapidly with a labored gait. Perhaps he could not sleep either.
Perhaps he was taking today off. Everyone deserved a day off now and then, didn't they?
As she watched, Paul stood motionless a few feet back from his big window. He was, as usual, unshaven. His dark shining hair lay in wild disarray. He was half leaning against the back of a dark leather chair on a half-bent elbow, staring into the distance, into space, looking almost wistful. Wistful and lonely and sad. She wondered what might be going on in his mind.
Of all the tenants at Gateway, Paul was her favorite. She liked Fancy Nancy too, and the Athertons, especially Scooter. But Paul was by far the most fascinating and the most mysterious. Fancy Nancy was a young, dark-haired beauty, and obviously wealthy. Her chic wardrobe and expensive jewelry almost seemed to define her as a person, and she was fun to watch as she posed like a trollop in front of the full-length mirror on the wall next to the entrance to her apartment.
Paul, however, had no mirrors other than a small decorative oval to the left of his front door. His place was plain and austere and refined. Built-in bookcases lined two walls, and stacks of books and magazines were everywhere. His heavy, brown leather furniture … and what looked like mahogany sidepieces topped with brushed-steel lamps … added further subdued elegance. Maggie was certain he was a professional man, as casually elegant as his surroundings. He dressed recklessly, most often in loose blue jeans with a casual sports jacket and sometimes an open-necked pastel shirt to offset the darker attire.
Maggie had spent thoughtful hours choosing names for her Gateway tenants. Careful observation from behind her draperies let her watch their comings and goings without becoming intrusive. At the same time she could gauge their habits and match their fantasy personas with their physical appearance and their particular mannerisms.
The man in her thoughts now was handsome in a strange way; the kind of handsome that seems to grow and spread with mounting familiarity. He was slender, and sometimes graceful without seeming haughty or autocratic. He had … possibly … a nice smile, but she'd seen it rarely. He was tall, but from this distance even her high-powered binoculars could not discern exactly how tall. He had a sharply defined face beneath the silvered scruff: thin lips, high cheekbones, regal nose and stern brow. His most redeeming features, Maggie believed, were the amazingly large, azure-blue eyes that dominated his face like beacons.
And yet, there was a sense of melancholy that clung to him, a guarded veil of sadness that seemed to radiate from deep within his soul. There was an aura of fathomless regret and quiet mourning, as though he had lost something very important in his life, and had not yet recovered. He spent most of his time in solitude, it seemed. Aloof and isolated, like a single grain of sand among billions on a beach, a lonely blade of grass on a hillside, one solemn face in the center of a happy multitude. A man alone in a crowd.
In this regard, Maggie thought, they were kindred spirits. She had lost something very important too.
She had watched him a long time before she finally graced him with a name. She'd narrowed the choices meticulously: Charles? Roger? Vincent? Edward? At last he had become, for her: "Paul" … because he looked the most like a "Paul"!
Eventually she discovered that he did indeed have a friend who stopped by once in awhile; a handsome, auburn-haired young man she quickly named "Richard". That one had been easy … but that was a whole other story.
By 8:00 a.m. the city was wide-awake and bustling with activity. East Side Drive, and a block north, Cranston Avenue, both of which fed into the main artery, were clogged with expensive cars, fancy pickup trucks and SUVs. Princeton's white-collar workers were all hell-bent on getting behind their desks by nine.
As Maggie peered across the street, she smiled to herself at the hurrying and scurrying going on in Fancy Nancy's apartment, one unit below Paul's. The girl wasn't going to make it to work on time. Not today. She was already running late with her primping, and the array of fashionable clothing piled on her beautiful oak credenza attested to her inability to make up her mind about what to wear.
She was a pretty kid, dark and slender, deep brown eyes and an impish smile, mid thirties and supremely gifted. She owned and operated an art gallery somewhere in Plainsboro, Maggie had heard. Nancy's stylistic work on display there was rumored to bring prices in the thousands.
But she was a material girl. Nancy's bangly-dangly earrings and other glittery googahs which adorned her person, tweaked Maggie's mind with silly images of a walking Christmas tree. She imagined that every time the girl moved, she jingled or tinkled or blinged. Maggie couldn't hear the sounds anyplace except inside her head, but they were certainly loud enough in there.
Finally Nancy pulled herself together and looked to be about ready to leave. She picked up a huge shoulder bag from the floor at her feet and draped it across her back like a sack of potatoes. She threw open her apartment door and stumbled into the hallway. It took two separate tries to finally get the door pulled closed behind her.
Maggie smiled again. The slam of Nancy's door had actually lifted a corner of the wall mirror. On the credenza across the room, sympathetic vibrations slowly dislodged a pile of slinky garments from the edge of the shelf. One by one, they undulated off the pile and slid down the front of the credenza to finally settle onto a glitzy heap on the floor. At last, only one beautiful blouse lay alone on the shelf with a long sleeve hanging down. Then, slowly, it too poured itself off the edge like molasses from a jar and joined its companions, thread by thread, on the deep ivory carpeting.
About the same time the pile settled onto the floor, Nancy's canary yellow RX8 pulled out of the underground garage and turned onto the street that led to Plainsboro.
At 9:15 a.m. Maggie finally swallowed the last dregs of her coffee.