In the fell clutch of circumstance
You don't normally get up in the morning and think, "Today is the day I'm gonna die." No, usually ya get up an' say, "If the boss says just one cross word to me, I swear — I'll let him have it good." It bein' Monday and all, and runnin' on just three hours of sleep — a fella doesn't necessarily get up in a good mood.
The alarm clock went off and I hit the snooze two or three times, trying to steal a few extra minutes. You know how it can be when you're tired and the bed is just warm enough, the sheets softer than ya remembered. I had to wait five minutes for the hot water to make it up through the building and into my shower, and then managed to help the wife rouse the kids for school while trying to gulp down the last of the coffee.
We'd been working in 18-hour shifts at the gas company, trying to contain a major leak in an old gas line. I had been able to swing home to catch a few hours of sleep before headin' back into the hole. Our crew got called out over 72 hours ago to investigate a complaint when an entire building downtown called about smelling gas fumes.
That's when the fun started.
We'd only been on the scene a few hours when we felt the first explosion. Anybody else wouldn't have recognized it, and we could tell that it was down deep. Probably in the old tunnels below the subways and sewers. Oh, I should say that not many people know these tunnels exist, but I do. I know. A man don't work in the hole for 15 years and not know 'bout them tunnels. Anyway, when we felt it, we assumed that a small pocket of gas must of built up in one of them rock chambers. It wasn't nothin' big, mind ya — but we could feel it all right! Just a deep down, low rumble.
As minor as it was, that was all it took to get the city in an uproar once it hit the news. There were two more small explosions after that. Nothin' to cause any serious damage by themselves, ya understand. But the possibility of loosing half of Tenth Avenue was creepin' up on everyone's mind.
That's why I was down there — following the old Three Line, and wishin' I had one of them canary birds like the miners used to take in the hole. Stan and Frankie were running the Two and Eleven Lines back in the K-10 Junction, 'cause they were the juniors. They didn't know the older lines or tunnels. Me, I run the oldest lines, cause I know 'em like the back of my hand.
I had my air tank, but I wasn't using it. There didn't seem to be any sign of the gas where I was checkin', and there wasn't no sense wastin' it. Knowin' gas like I do, I figured it'd be better to keep it in case of a real emergency. Sometimes ya just get this feeling, ya know what I mean?
The Three Line ran in a tunnel that didn't have any other access. Pretty much just a straight line that ran East an' West, even though it curved to the North and South in parts. I know what yer thinkin'. Why would you have to check a straight pipe for a leak? Well, it wasn't all that straight. Every time the pipe made a bend of any sort, you had to have an elbow or joint to account for the new direction.
I knew I comin' up on the place of the third explosion. Not that I had any signs or anything like that. It was just a feelin'. A bad feelin'.
I gotta learn to listen to them feelings more often.
It started as a faint hiss. I swung my light up along the pipe in front of me, then behind. There it was. A small leak starting just behind me. There musta been a lot of pressure in that line for a leak to just start up like that. I swung back and reached for my radio.
"Base Red, Base Red. This is Mason down in Delta-Tango Niner. Do you read me?"
"Mason, this is Base Red," they answered. "Go ahead."
I recognized that voice. "Larry? That you?"
"Yeah, Mase. Whatcha got?"
"I got a snake that's backin' up and wants to be a Python down here."
"Yeah, it's the Three line. It's buildin' up. Can you release?"
There was a pause, and I knew he was checking the routes where he could divert the gas. I coulda told him what he had to do. There were two valves that had to be slacked and then he'd be able to send it through the auxiliary line uptown, but he came through before I had the chance to call.
"Yeah, sure. We'll evacuate Three and push it through the number seven aux line. Can you confirm?"
I joked and told him I had a hot date, but if he hurried then, yes, I'd wait to confirm. I knew it would take several minutes before I would notice the release of pressure from the line. It'd take a minute to attach the evacuation vacuum which would clear the line. And that's when it happened....
The pressure was slacking, and the hiss was barely audible now. If Larry hadn't set it straight as quick as he did it woulda been ten times worse than it was, an' I wouldn't be telling ya this now. But before I explain what happened, ya gotta understand that Larry was a guy I could trust. By having him at the other end of the line, I probably let my defenses down, thinkin' that he could take care of things from his end. I'm not tryin' to place any blame here. After all, tryin' to maintain gas, is like trying to catch a storm cloud. I'm just sayin' that I shoulda never assumed that everything was gonna be fine, just 'cause Larry was at the helm. Ya don't turn yer back on a punk with a gun, just 'cause yer buddy says it's safe.
I felt it before I heard it. You know, the sensation ya get when your skin starts to prickle and your stomach clenches up. The roar started way down the East end and just came barreling up at me. I raced forward and shut the valve as quick as I could, letting the gas build up behind the release, and then I took off runnin'. I don't know where it might have started, but that fire was chasing down the pipe from the direction I just came, so I headed further into the hole, deeper and deeper, until it blew.
After I could gather my senses, I realized that it was the strangest, most God-awful thing I'd ever experienced. I've never seen the likes of it before in my life. Normally, a gas explosion just... is. It don't chase down a line like that. I can't explain it, I'm just grateful for it.
It left me in a bad spot though, half covered in a landslide. Damn thing took my radio, my light and my tank with it. Coulda been worse though. If I didn't have my tank on, I probably woulda been crushed, or at the very least, I woulda had a hole in me the size of Brooklyn! Later, after they brought me out, I was able to see what happened to my tank — cut wide open like some cardboard box.
I was in a bad state of mind. Half buried, cut off from the world without my radio. Hell, they probably all thought I was dead. My only hope was to get free and try to make it to the West end of the line. It took some work to push free, but I wasn't broken, and when you're life may be in mortal danger, you can ignore cuts and bruises no matter how deep they run.
I pulled myself along toward the other end, bumpin' and scrapin' and bustin' my shins through the dark more than I had in the explosion, but I had a bad feelin'. The same bad feelin' I'd had before. I knew that third explosion happened somewhere down this line, and now that I thought about it, that would explain the backup. If the third blow and crushed the line, then the gas would be backin' up behind it, and could have caused the pressure leak I'd found. It would also mean that I'd be cut off from getting out through the West end.
I was right.
There was a landslide at the end of old Three. But I could feel the pipe. It wasn't crushed. The valve had been turned off. I felt along the wall and found that the joint had been busted off. Someone had closed the release valve on Three.
Now, ya have to understand how a gas line is set up. When a line goes, it's like a pipe-bomb. Either the metal will split right down the side, or it'll turn shrapnel. In any case, it's gonna take a large chunk of wall down with it. If a leak had ignited, which we assumed was the case, then the tunnel in that section would probably collapse, but how would anyone be able to shut down the valve from this side of the cave-in? If the valve had been shut before the explosion, then it would have taken out the line on both sides of the shut-off valve, because pressure would have built up equally on both sides. No. Someone had shut this valve after the explosion. But that's what I was there for, and no one passed me on the Three line, and as I said, there were no other accesses or adjoining service tunnels to turn down.
You know the feeling you get, when a slow realization starts to form in your head. You're so busy deducing what happened, that when your mind finally comes to the only logical answer, be it good or bad, ya get this feelin' of accomplishment. Then you take that answer and use it in the next part of your formula — which, in this case, was the fact that I was sealed in, cut off now at both ends in this damned hole — and start making new realizations. That 'someone' who had shut this valve didn't pass me in the tunnel, and was in here with me. Trapped with me... and hadn't called out.
Two things rushed through my mind. The first, and most grisly, was that this other person was somewhere near, an' I'm not talkin' about 'near', as in yards. I'm talkin' 'near', as in close enough to breathe on ya!
He had to know I was there. I'd been cursing all the way down the tunnel every time I busted my shin or got knocked in the head. I can't think of anything that freaks me out more, than not being able to see someone who can see me. The second thought was that perhaps the other was dead — killed by the explosion, or maybe he wasn't there at all anymore!
"Is somebody here?" It seemed a stupid question to ask.
There was no answer.
I tried to make my voice sound sure and firm when I said, "I know you shut off the valve."
The fact that I got an answer, when I wasn't expecting or hoping for one, liked to have scared me out of my skin.
"I had to stop the gas."
"Yeshish Maria!" Resorting to the curse I learned from my father when I was a kid, I must have fallen backwards trying to get away. I couldn't tell where the voice came from. Soft as it was, it echoed around the tunnel.
"Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you," the voice said. It was black as pitch, and no matter how sincere the voice sounded, I coulda jumped through rock.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. No. I demanded. When you're that scared, you can only sound angry.
"I was investigating the explosions."
"You with the company?" I didn't try to hide my suspicion.
"Company?" My question confused him.
It was definitely a 'him.' Now that I tried to measure him up, to see if I might be able to protect myself with force, if need be — I started paying attention to that voice. It was soft. Kinda scratchy, but at the same time smooth. "The gas company," I aswered him.
He paused. That pause told me all I needed to know. If he lied, I'd know it. If he was really with the company, he would have said so right away. "No," he finally answered. But that was all: no explanations, no details, nothin'. Honesty wouldn't be enough to satisfy me now. I was too wired after all that had happened. No sleep, long hours, an explosion, caught in a cave-in and now trapped with some looney who wandered around down here playing with gas mains. That last thought really spooked me.
"Did you cause the explosions?" I regretted saying it the moment it left my mouth.
"No." Again the monosyllable.
He answered so calmly I couldn't tell what he thought of my agitated questions. I thought that maybe he was tryin' to lull me into thinkin' he wasn't a threat, but I didn't believe him. I didn't know what to do — what to expect, and I was startin' to feel the extent of my injuries. I don't know if I just started breathing heavy or if I moaned a little, but I could feel him step toward me. I shied away, my eyes going wide trying to see what was there. "Keep away from me! I can hear you!"
"You're hurt," he said, and for a moment it sounded to me like he really cared, but I wouldn't be persuaded. I knew nothin' about him, except that he was where he shouldn't be.
"I ain't hurt so bad that I can't bash you up if you try somethin' funny, pal!"
I heard him sigh and step back. At least, I hoped he was steppin' back. We were quiet a long time, not knowin' what to do or what to say. No matter how ya looked at it, we were in the same boat — both trapped like so many rats.
"You're from the repair crew." The way he said it, made it sound like a statement more than a question.
"Gas Company," I answered. "New York Gas and Electric." It seemed an innocent enough answer to offer. It wasn't nothin' he could use to hurt me with, but his next question was.
"Will you tell me your name?"
The way he asked it took me back. Not "what is your name" or "tell me your name," which demanded the answer of a name — an answer that most people would give without a second thought. No, he asked if I would tell him my name. I could've answered with a 'No' and that would have been the end of it. And, oh, was I tempted to do just that. Too many stories of a man being tracked down by his name alone — hunted to his home, his family attacked or murdered outright, flashed through my mind.
"Maybe," was all I could offer. "What's your name?" If he wanted to play fair, then I would, too, but he had to go first.
For some reason, I believed him. But if first names were all he wanted to exchange, then it was fine by me. "I'm Mason."
"Mason." I think he was just confirming it. "The last explosion — did it seal the tunnel?"
Part of me didn't want to answer. Part of me wanted him to think I could escape. I don't know why I answered him, except that maybe I was feeling I could trust him a little. And we were trapped. Maybe he could help us escape. "Yeah. Yeah, it all came down."
He didn't respond to that. I couldn't tell if believed me or not. He hadn't moved from his spot by the opposite wall. In a strange way, it was comforting. The quiet he offered now was a chance for me to collect myself, take stock of where I was, even if I couldn't see a damned thing. I could hear the sound of water all around, but in different ways: drippin' ocassionally from the moist walls into the mud, splatterin' along the sloped concrete of the tunnel, flowin' in a stream in the floor's trough. From what I could remember of the last time I was through the Three line, there was a sharp bend past the barrier that now blocked the passage, that was more of a pocket in the tunnel. I had assumed that was where the gas had built up, and from the feel of things I was right.
My strange companion, from what I could tell, for the senses are always heightened when another is utterly useless, was rather tall. Standing just over six feet myself, it seemed to me when he spoke that he was 'bout my height. He seemed intelligent. He didn't have a thick New York accent like me, though, and I had to wonder where he was from. Before I realized it, I was asking him as much.
Again there was a long pause before he answered, and it seemed to me that his voice held a hint of amusement. "New York. I suppose you would say, Manhatten."
He kept doing that — answering in such a way, that you had to think he was tellin' the truth, but not quite. " 'The slickest way to tell a lie is to tell the right amount of truth — and shut up.' " I heard him gasp at that, and for a moment I wanted to kick myself. Nice goin', Mace. Antagonize the guy, why don't ya. Call him a liar to his face.
"Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land."
That was all he said, but he was right. "Yeah. Do you read science fiction?" I did that on purpose. You know... change the subject. I just insulted the guy, and he was naming my quote, instead of clobberin' me.
"Some." There was another long pause, and I thought that he wasn't going to say anymore, but when he finally spoke again, for some bizarre reason I can't explain even now, I knew he didn't start the explosions. "I prefer classic literature, poetry; but I occasionally pull a bit of science fiction from the library."
Another silence fell over us. I was gettin' pretty cold. I don't know if it was because of the damp, or if I was going into some mild shock, but I clenched my hands trying to squeeze the warmth from my palms and rubbed the knuckles over my thighs.
"Ya know," I remarked, "we're gonna have a problem here soon." I heard him turn his head toward me, his hair (it must have been pretty long) rasped against his shoulders, and I could picture a puzzled look being tossed at me. "The air. We're gonna run outta air if they don't get us out soon. My tank was ruptured in the last explosion."
"We may have more to worry about if the gas returns."
I told him that the line was emptied before the last explosion hit, giving him some description of what happened.
"A pressure leak?" he asked.
"Yeah." His tone sounded strange to me, as if he knew more than he was telling. "Why?"
"I'm afraid I might have been the reason for the last explosion. I shut this valve when..."
Now I knew something was wrong, and all my original doubts came back. My original fear-turned-anger lashed out at him. "When? When what!?" He didn't answer, and that only made me angrier. This time I demanded, "What did you do!?"
"I was investigating the damage from the explosion," he told me, "checking the old gas main for further danger, when the third explosion went off. I had noticed fumes in a small alcove about 15 feet back, but it didn't seem likely to ignite, it was so faint. I tried to stop the flow of gas by shutting the valve when my friends came to help me. I didn't want to put them in danger. I'm sorry if I was the reason you were hurt. I didn't know the work crews were so close."
When he spoke of his friends I could hear the compassion he felt for them, kinda like how I felt about my buddies, Stan and Frankie. When you work close with someone for a long time, especially when it's doin' the kinda thing we do — you start to think of 'em more like family. And he really sounded upset by the fact that I was caught in that last blow. It was then that I felt all my suspicion drain away.
"What were you doin' down here? I mean, it's not like you're bein' a good Samaritan stopping to help a fellow human being. You could get yourself killed down here."
The pause came back again, and this time I knew it was because he was protecting someone, probably those friends he was talkin' of. It was becoming obvious that he didn't want to lie to me, but he couldn't tell the truth either.
Then, like a light bulb flashing on, it occurred to me. "You live down here, don't ya." But he wouldn't answer me, so I pressed him. "What are ya? Something like those mole people ya keep hearin' about from the transit cops?"
I heard him lean against the wall, a soft rustling sound that must have been clothing brushing against rock. "No. Not like that," he whispered, his voice even lower than it had been. "Please, don't ask me anymore. I can't give you the answers to your questions."
What could I say? I knew he couldn't lie to me. The only way he could avoid giving the truth was to beg me not to ask for it. He wasn't like anyone I'd ever met before. I grew up in the city, I raised my family in the city, and I'd only been out of the city once before — on my honeymoon. I grew up on suspicion. You get that way when yer lied to, cheated, mugged and knocked around enough. I could count on my two hands the number of people I trusted.
I had every reason in the world to think this man was a terrorist of some kind, a vandal at least. I hadn't known him for more that thirty minutes, but I knew he was good people. And I knew we had to get outta there.
"Well, Vince, if we don't do somethin' about getting our sorry asses outta here, they're gonna find us bloated an' blue."
He seemed relieved in the change of subject. "No, we won't suffocate. As I was saying, I shut off the valve so I could remove the joint. This section of pipe is ruptured at the other side of the landslide, so I opened this end to let the air flow through."
"Wait, wait." So much of what he told me didn't make sense, that I didn't know what question to ask first. "How do you know the pipe is open on the other side? And how did you get the joint off? It's welded on!"
"My friends know I'm here. They tapped out a message to me to open the pipe on this side. We were speaking to each other through it." He knew my next question before I could ask it. "They went for help."
"But how did you break the weld?" He didn't answer, and I knew that silence right away. So I offered him his answer. "The weld was already broken by the explosion?"
He sighed softly, and I could hear him slide down the wall to the floor. There was nothin' for it. We could only wait now, wait for someone to come. The company would think I was killed in the last explosion since I wasn't answering my radio, so our only hope of escape was Vince's friends.
I swung my leg around to sit Indian style, and hooking a tender calf muscle with my steel-toed boot, I plopped to the floor with a grunt. It was more of an effort than I would have guessed, and it must have sounded even worse, because Vince was asking me again if I was all right.
I told him I was just sore. Unlike him, I had no trouble lying. The blood in my mouth was making me sick. I could feel a warm trickle from my forehead growing sticky and cold along my cheek. Even though I couldn't see through the dark, I could tell my left eye was swelling shut. My ribs ached, and it was all too easy for me to distinguish the cuts from the bruises. For the first time, I was glad it was dark, glad he couldn't see how bad I felt. I was never one for pity, and if I wasn't dyin' then I wasn't needin' any pity.
"Vince," I had to ask the question that had been gnawing at me, "if you were trapped from your friends on this side of the cave-in, why didn't you just try an' go around the other way — back through the East tunnel?"
The silence answered my question. I sighed my frustration. These seemed like such simple questions — why couldn't he answer?
He must have felt guilty, because he now tried to make small talk. "Where are you from, Mason?" he asked me.
Reluctantly, I let him change the subject. I told him I hailed from the Bronx. "Grand Concourse, actually."
He knew the area. "I —," he hesitated, as if trying to determine if what he was about to say were 'safe' or somethin'. "I have... a friend... there."
"Well, now ya got two of 'em." I hoped I could put him at ease. He seemed so uptight. I thought I heard him chuckle a little at that, so I continued. "I have a family."
"Yes?" He seemed agreeable to keepin' the talkin' about me. "Do you have children?"
Yeah, well — that did it. I must have smiled. All fathers love to talk 'bout their kids. "Uh-huh, three of..." I stammered. My amused smile disappeared faster than it had appeared. "... ah, two. Two kids." I don't know if it was intentional on my part, but it was too late to stop now. I knew the questions he would ask, and he did.
"Two?" His voice was almost tender, holding just enough doubt to tell me he had caught my slip.
"Uh, yeah. Two. Twins actually. You should see 'em." I started to ramble, speaking too fast to make up for my unease. Telling him 'bout the the time I caught 'em playing in the Plaster-of-Paris, covered head to toe in the white stuff — lookin' like a couple of three-year old statues. I went on and on about how they liked to share everything, and how Jerry was the family compromiser, while his sister, Jennifer, was the little hell-raiser.
Vince sat quietly through all this, and when I finally stopped for air I realized that I wasn't foolin' him a bit. I could feel his stare, and the silence between us grew. It went on and on — his knowing silence. He knew, but he wasn't going to ask or try an' change the subject to let me off. He was gonna sit there until I told him about it. I didn't know how to stop it, so I did what came naturally.
I got mad.
"What?" This guy was way too weird for me. "I told ya — I'm fine, just some bruises. Nothin' broken."
"What is broken, is not your bones," he told me then. "It's your heart."
No way I was gonna let this guy psycho-analyze me. "I don't know what yer talkin' about."
"What is it that has made you so bitter? What happened to you?"
I told you his voice has a strange quality to it. It's true. I can't explain it. I mean, this guy was no pansy. He wouldn't admit it, but I knew he had to be pretty damn strong to rip that elbow off the pipe — even if it was already broken. But his voice was gentle, caring and still masculine, virulent. It reminded me of a poster of an Indian squaw dressed in deer hide, flanked by two wolves. The caption read, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength." That was what his voice reminded me of. The poster belonged to my son — my other son.
"His name was Chris," I began. I could barely hear my own voice, so I knew he had to strain to hear me. "He was my first. He was jumped in the park, back in the brambles."
I stopped as the memory of that time came crashing back on me now. The night of worry, alternating between anger and fear. The knock on the door the next day. I hadn't gone in to work — I couldn't. Not until I knew my boy was safe. I couldn't be optimistic. The city has a way of killing the optimist — slowly chocking the life from the heart, burning the hope from the mind. When that knock came, I nearly couldn't answer the door, and when that door opened and the cops stood where my son should have been, I realized that the city took more than just an ideal that day. I realized that the basis of optimism is sheer terror of the possible. I realized that part of me was dead — no more than dust to be scattered by the wind.
"Some punks from a gang jumped him," I finally said. "They were high — crack probably. They were just out for trouble, and my son was in the way." Somehow, from somewhere, I found the strength to tell him these things. "They beat him. For no reason, except for a jolly.
"Chris was fourteen. The boys who killed him... the youngest was twelve."
Vince was so quiet, I didn't know if he was even still there. He wasn't like a lot of people. You know, like the ones who try to finish yer sentences every time you pause, or the ones who try to make ya believe that they understand what yer sayin' even before ya finish yer thought, an' then there are the ones who always jump in with an impulsive argument and keep ya from finishin' what you were gonna say. He never did any of that, even if it was a really long pause. He would just sit there, all patient like, an' let ya... feel... what you were sayin'.
I wondered why I did that, I mean, dump on him like that. I tried to tell myself that he wanted me to, that he pushed me when I was weak and disoriented, but I couldn't do that to him. He deserved better than that. It was all me. I'd been lettin' it eat me up inside for so long, that I didn't think I had the courage to face it. I didn't know I felt this way — that I could have so much hate and anger in me. My feelings, my thoughts took shape and gained substance and direction as I spoke to him, as if he were a ruler guiding a pencil — forcing me to look at things like I never did before.
I sighed thinkin' if I breathed heavy enough, I could force it all out.
"What about your wife?"
He was really good at comin' out from left field. He had a way of seeing all the angles of a problem, and noticing when somethin' was missin'. The way he spoke, his tone, made me think that he was constantly thinkin' about everything I was sayin'. His voice sounded like he was comin' out of some deep contemplation, but I was always under the impression he was alert. I never got the feelin' he was lost in thought and only half listenin'.
"God, she was great. Meg — her name's Meg. She cried for days, but then she stopped. It was almost as if she said, 'Okay, that's enough!' But, ya know... I still see her just starin' at his picture on the dresser. I don't let her know I'm watchin', but I see that far-away, sad look in her eyes.
"She's always been strong. I swear, that woman has the courage of a lion. She can be stubborn, but I wouldn't love her if she were one bit different. She's everything to me. Her and the kids.
"I find myself sitting on the front stoop, or up on the fire escape some nights, and just thinkin' about her. Wonderin' what I ever did to make her love me — what I did to deserve her." I didn't feel stupid telling him these things — things I would never share with Frank or the guys.
"Sometimes I feel bad that I can't give her everything she should have, 'cause she deserves everything. Ya know what I mean?" He might have murmured yes, but I couldn't tell. "What about you, Vince? You got a family? Someone special?"
He was all quiet again, and this time I felt hurt. I mean, here I am spillin' my guts out to this... this... stranger! Makin' myself look like some love-sick fool — nearly cryin' with the memory of my son, and he wouldn't open up to me. I felt cheated. I felt like he was shuttin' me out, and God knows why, but it really irked me. Just because I felt I could trust him. I let him in, let him see part of 'me.' Not the 'me' that I carried around with me at work. Not the 'me' that was husband and father, but the 'me' that was... was... I don't know. Sensitive?
I realized that I was bucking the system. The same system that most men just flow right along with. The system that almost kept me from sharing my thoughts about Meg and Chris and the twins. In my mind, I felt like the biggest fool that ever walked the earth, but there, in that damp, dark tunnel with this shadowy specter who was Vincent — I felt free. Free to show my love for my kids; free to cuddle my wife in front of the guys when they came over to watch football (and even free to maybe pick up the plates and walk 'em into the kitchen to rinse them off, while they sat there open-mouthed and starin' after me like some hen-pecked old man).
So while I was having these feelings of 'sensitivity,' there sat my silent companion, debating whether or not he could trust me with a few personal answers.
"Come on, Vince. I can understand the other stuff..." I stopped as I heard him stiffen with apprehension. "Yeah. I know you didn't answer me 'cause yer hidin' somethin'. Some things just aren't meant to be shared. I kin live with that."
"It's not that I don't want to tell you. I've made promises," he tried to explain.
"Sure. That's fine. I kin respect that. But, fair's fair, ain't it?"
Now I don't want ya to get the impression that I can read minds or nothin', but I could feel his thoughts. They had a power to 'em, like the air was charged with 'em, and I could practically hear his turmoil. He was doing something on the ground, maybe twirling his finger in the sand.
"I, too, have a family," he began. "A rather large family. Friends, actually, who are more like a family than any I have ever known. My father takes care of us all, as if we were his real children."
I interrupted. "Real children? Whatya mean? Are you adopted?"
He told me he was, and went on to tell me a story of how he was found outside St. V's hospital — his namesake. He told me about his foster father: a doctor, a born leader and basically a fair man in all matters that didn't concern his adopted son. Vince also told me about a brother, and how they schemed and planned all these fantastic trips and voyages.
"Sounds like my boys," I told him. "They were always hatching some trouble or other."
"They were close?" he asked me.
"Speaking from experience..." he began, his tone was like one of them Oriental masters talking to a student, "pay special attention to the children left behind. Let them know that you understand their pain — for they are in pain. The young ones understand the least, and hurt the worst."
I told him that he sounded as if he lost his brother, and he explained that the boy had run away leaving everyone to think him dead for 20 years. "So you see, I empathize with your children. I lived that nightmare myself."
A silence fell between us, but this time it wasn't one of anxiety or regret. It was just a time to gather thoughts, a time to think. It was almost comfortable, and it made me realize that it was the kind of silence shared between friends when words weren't necessary.
"Are you married?" I asked. It seemed to be, naturally, the next question to ask.
"No." There was something sad in the way he said it, and at the same time it almost sounded ironic.
I pushed. "Got someone special?"
A wistfulness filled the dark when he answered, "Yes."
"What's her name?"
"Catherine," and I felt I'd glimpsed something precious he held to his heart. Something fragile and wonderful, and sad.
"Can ya tell me 'bout her?" It seemed the polite way to ask.
"What can I tell you that you don't already know yourself? I know you feel as I do. Just now, when you spoke of your family, your wife... everything you said. She is everything to me. She is in my thoughts when I awake, and my last thought at night. My dreams are filled of her; her smile, her hair, the way she looked when I last saw her. I want nothing but her happiness, and I would gladly die to give it to her. She is strength, and courage, and love, beyond anything I have ever known, anything I can ever hope to know. She is a part of me as no other can ever be.
"What we share is nothing like I have ever experienced before. She gives me everything and asks for nothing. She is kind and generous, but she is no fool. She won't be taken advantage of. Her sense of justice, and her battle to protect the weak and helpless is something I constantly marvel at.
"There is so much I want to to give her, and so much I will never be able to give her. The only thing I had to offer was my heart, but she stole it from me the moment I found her."
Boy, once you got him goin' he could really keep up a conversation. I knew I'd found his button all right. I could practically feel his passion, his devotion to this woman. It hung heavy and thick in the air, mesmerizing and hypnotic, almost as if it were a mythical love fashioned by the Gods and stars.
I was so enraptured, that the sudden metallic clicking jerked me back into a reality of gas leaks and explosions. I know for a fact, that I cried out something less than appropriate.
"What the hell is that?"
He was up in a flash. "My friends have returned," he muttered. I could hear him scurrying from the ground and rushing to where I knew the pipe to be.
"Tell them not to use anything metal!" I warned him. "They might spark something!"
"Vincent? Vincent? Are you all right? Mouse said there was another explosion." The voice, rather high for a man, but definitely masculine, came floating to me through the air.
"Yes, Pascal. I'm not hurt," he told them.
"Father's been worried sick ever since he heard about that last blow," I heard the voice, Pascal? explain. "Catherine was in a near frenzy. She left work. We all thought the worst when she showed up."
"Please, Pascal. We're all right. Have someone send a message back to them. Tell them I'm safe."
Again, I found myself marvelling at this man's nobility — more concerned with his family's worrying, than with his own well-being. It occurred to me then, that I couldn't see if Vincent was injured or not. If I could hide my pain from him, then he could just as easily hide his own from me.
I heard the man Vincent called Pascal, ask incredulously, "We? Who else is with you?" but, before Vince could answer, I asked him, "Vince, if I asked you for the honest-to-God truth, would you tell me?"
His answering sigh was one of acquiescence. I could read his unrest, so I tried to reassure him. "I won't ask you to break any promises, but will you tell me the truth?"
He answered firmly, "Yes."
"Are you hurt?"
He seemed stunned, surprised that I would ask such a question, but he did answer me. "No. In all honesty, I tell you I am not hurt." And I believed him.
"Mason, why did you lie to me about your injuries?"
Now it was my turn to be surprised. He must have sensed it, just as I sensed his feelings while we spoke. "I know you are bleeding... badly."
"How? Can you smell it?" It hadn't occurred to me that I may have been making the poor fella sick with the stench of so much blood.
"Yes, but I can also see it."
I was beyond shock. He could see me?? All this time, I'd been like a blind man trying to see from useless eyes. The blackness as thick as any wool blanket preventing me from seeing my companion. I didn't know what to think. I had been fighting dizziness for the last hour, and it left me weak in body and mind. A troop of dancin' hippos with green polk-a-dots could have paraded around me, and I wouldn't be able to tell if they were real or not.
Again, he sensed my confusion and answered my unspoken question. "I have unusually sensitive eyes."
Finally, I found my voice. "Yeah, well... when you asked, I didn't know if I could trust ya."
"Can you?" he asked me.
I didn't understand. My mind was becoming boggled. "Can I what?"
"Can you trust me?"
I said that I could, and did. He argued that I didn't even know what he looked like, but I said that I didn't need to know.
"I don't care if I never see what you look like. You could look like a cross between my mother-in-law, an alligator, and a prairie dog, but you'd still be the same ol' Vince to me, pal."
He didn't seem to believe me, and though I was fast losing my senses, I felt I had to tell him this. That for some reason as yet unknown to me, this was important to him. "Look, Vince. I've seen so much ugliness in the world, and I'm not talkin' looks here. I'm talkin' about the way people act towards each other: gossipin', stabbin' friends in the back, turnin' their back on a hungry fella who's down on his luck. That's ugly. An' mosta the time, the people who are the ugliest have the most perfect faces, the most perfect clothes and the most perfect homes. It don't matter how ya look, 'cause it's what's inside that counts. It's the beauty on the inside, in yer heart. Jesus, man! All this time we been talkin' an' you don't know that?"
I never heard him step towards me. There was a rumbling in my ears that drowned out his soft step, but it didn't startle me when I felt his hand grasp my shoulder.
I don't remember then if I knocked out or not. Things got pretty hazy, and I don't know how much I imagined and how much was real. I think there was a stream of golden light that fell on me after a rock was dislodged. There were lots a voices, hands... caring hands. They pulled and prodded. There was a rush of activity and gasping joy from a woman who ran into the middle of the group, I think. Hugs. I remember seeing lotsa hugs. That part I do remember, 'cause it made me feel sorta warm and safe.
That was the last solid thing I saw. After that, there were hazy faces and soft arguments. I thought I must be in the hospital, but I can't be sure. It just seems to me that a hospital should have been all bright and bleach-white, not the splotchy light and dark that I remember.
Later, I was jarred awake from being jostled on a gurney, and I remember that familiar soft voice saying, 'Good-bye.'
I healed pretty fast. I woke up and found myself in a hospital room. How I got there I didn't know, but I was later told that a few of my pals found me in the DT-9 tunnel where I'd been workin'. They told me I had been caught in the explosion. I remembered Vince and the time we spent together, but I couldn't figure out how I might have gotten to the other side of the cave-in.
Responding to my unvoiced puzzlement, the doctor told me not to expect to remember too much of what happened, and to just be thankful that the accident wasn't as serious as it could have been. Thing of it was, I could remember it all. Well, almost all.
Meg was nearly hysterical with relief and cried on my shoulder for nearly a full hour. We talked then... a lot! We talked 'bout Chris and the twins, and about ourselves, and when we thought we were all talked out, we talked about the city and all the people who lived in it. I didn't want to be like all the others, I told her. I wanted to do somethin'. Somethin' for charity, for the homeless, for the needy. I told her that I knew we didn't have much, but whatever we could do would be enough, because we were tryin'.
It was almost three weeks before they let me come back to work. I had been ready to come back after one, but the company put its foot down. When they did let me back, I had a big party waitin' for me. Our crew went all out with fresh deli sandwiches and Soho Sodas.
Ya know, I didn't even think twice about goin' back in the hole. Ya think I woulda been a little uneasy about it, but I wasn't. In fact, I was kinda itchy to get back down there. The explosions had been minor, really. Nothing more that flash flames that happened to occur in old and weak sections of the service tunnels, and since almost all of them were old and weak, it wouldn't have mattered if the explosions were just balloons popping! Or at least, that's what the Planning and Development Commissioner said, and I don't think the 7.5 million budget increase for renovations was purely coincidence....
Anyway, I was finally free to do my own reconnaisance of DT-9 and the old Three line. No one noticed that I shoved my signed, hard cover, first edition of Stranger in a Strange Land into my gunny -sack.
I left it on a rock shelf just past the cleared rubble that marked the locations of the cave-ins. I had inscribed it, "To Vince. For saving my life and being my friend. With my complete trust, Mason."
A few weeks later, I happened to be in the area again, so I stopped by to see if the book was still there. In it's place, I found a book of poetry by Shakespeare. I think they're called sonnets or something like that. Inside, it was inscribed, "Mason. For reminding me that what's in heart is the greatest beauty of all." He had signed it, "Vincent," but crossed it out and put "Vince."
We've been exchanging books now for over four years, and I've been a fan of Shakespeare ever since. I even got Frank and Stan to read it, and though they won't admit it to anyone else, I know they each used the poems they found in there to woo their girlfriends. Frankie even bought a copy of the book to give Maija as a wedding gift when they got married.
Even though I haven't seen Vince since that day, I know he's down there somewhere, and I know he's safe. As long as I keep gettin' books and notes and stuff from him, I know he's OK. I don't feel resentful for not seein' him. In fact, I'd be more than surprised if I did! After all, he promised to keep a secret and I would never ask him to break it. I've never told anyone about him, or about the people down there. I just let everybody think that I can't remember. But, ya know — sometimes I get the feelin' he's sittin' right outside my window on the fire escape!