by Felice Picano
Both women had stepped away from the table. Lizabeth, his agent, to the restroom, Andrea Kelton, the editor who'd just said the words to make him float on air while seated still on the big moderne banquette, had received a phone call from her office, and had wandered off somewhere at the far end of the restaurant trying to get better wireless reception. Leaving Niels LLewellyn alone to sit and gloat. Around him: the delicate tinkle of crystal and silver against porcelain in the overpriced eatery, and it's otherwise artful sonic decor of swirling waters covering the multi-million-dollar deals being proposed and sealed by the industrial and media movers and shakers about the big, posh, water-hushed room.
It was something to savor, as had been Kelton's words, "this is unquestionably your breakthrough book. We're so proud to be involved!" Followed rapidly by further indications of how proud they actually were, including the stunning figures of the enormous first printing the company had settled upon, the pre-publication acceptance as a "main selection" by the book club, with its own concomitant huge printing, and even -- he was to expect it as soon as this week -- an unprecedented further advance upon his advance of a year past, actual cash more than double what he'd received, as though confirming the success of a novel not yet in print, never mind one liable to ever succumb to the vagaries of the marketplace.
Lizabeth returned first, and confirmed the second advance and pre-sale, and huge printing all meant there were to be no vagaries of the marketplace at all now. They -- she and he, together for twenty-six long years, through wheat and chaff -- had been elevated, as though on an enormous dose of morphine, a good half foot so far above the buy-and-sell mentality that had so enclosed them all of their professional and personal relationship. Niels was now about to become a "personage," and she too, at least in the "industry" a correlative mini-personage. They toasted each other's good sense and tenacity and lifted a glass edge toward whatever literary gods there still might be in this ghastly age, to help them ever onward.
Then Kelton was back, closing the phone and saying, "The advertisements are set now for a national vend. Six major newspapers and three magazines," and Niels sank back into the banquette and listened almost as though he were not the major reason, but instead some hanger on, or better yet and ironically, given his age, a child, as the glories of his immediate future were trotted out in all the brightest colors with metaphorical pennants excitedly set to fly in front of him.
He was hardly a child. Closer to sixty than fifty. No friend to the reflections of window panes and looking glasses that had a startling way of creeping up and suddenly presenting him to his nowadays always unsuspecting and usually horrified self.
"About time," some would say. His previous agent, gone into real estate in Gulfstream St. Pete; his sister, an aged thing upon a stick who -- lived in Middleton, New Jersey on a government pension and who he still held responsible for his mother's death: responsible by means of her unbending maternal neglect; was it half a lifetime ago? "About time" a few dusty professors would utter, those not yet retired, who'd gone to college with him, saying it with a bit more fire, a smidgen more respect. "About damned time!" his few pupils over the years would celebrate, wherever they celebrated these days; he expected in their overpriced apartments in the wilds of Queens or Staten Island, after all, who could afford to live in Manhattan except the wealthy and the few like him who actually were more or less rent-controlled unto death?
The celebration soon over, the women once more drawn to the cell phones, someone -- he didn't know, he didn't care, which-- paid for the, of course, overpriced lunch, and they all stood, made kissing like gestures in each others' direction and slowly slid out of the water-tumbled dining chamber and into a corridor, into a bar, toward a coat check room, into another corridor and out onto the front foyer where men with suits even he knew were ridiculously expensive -- suits he soon could buy should he care to change his look ("Post-Graduate" one magazine had written of his habitual costume) -- were entering.
In the Spring afternoon sunshine, Lizabeth spotted a taxi, and Andrea mentioned they were going the same way. Touchy kisses this time from the two of them, as the middle aged women skipped chattering like preteen girls through the Mid-Fifties street traffic and into the cab door, "No-No"ing another matron foolish enough to try to beat them to it. Then the taxi was slid forward, they were gone, and Niels was alone.
"It's April ninth!" Niels found himself saying to three other women, stepping around him without even a look back headed into the restaurant's foyer, then he moved out of their way, forward into the two o' six p.m. noise and grime of a midtown sidewalk.
"About time!" he repeated to himself with secret joy, wondering with a start how life would be different now. "You're lucky, N.," Scott Fortismann had said to him only a few nights ago, "Fate is saving you for last, for when you're ready for it. Unlike poor schmuck me you'll be able to handle and thus enjoy your fame when it comes." To which Neils had answered, "If it comes!" and been clapped on the shoulder and assured all across Riverside Drive and into Scott's hundred thousand dollar Merce coupe, that it would, it would, Scott Fortismann knew for sure.
Scott of course had become famous early, twenty-eight, world-famous at thirty-four with Nets, and so had been famous seemingly forever and it had ruined him. Scott would reiterate that to Neils during their long (and on Scott's part--increasingly booze-tinged) meals. And Neils could see for himself: the lengthy, expensive, disgraceful, emotional, first divorce. The seemingly abandoned children who'd come to hate Scott. Nicky nearly murdering his father that insane afternoon on the yacht in Antiqua. Brenda in and out of jail or Payne-Whitney or more lately caught up in the bust of the latest escort service to take her in. Scott himself going from wife to wife, girlfriend to girlfriend, even drifting into Neil's territory a while, with that much younger and somewhat questionable African-American minimalist, what was his name, Nigeria Sands? More disrepute at their very public breakup at the Venice Biennale. Providing ignominious material for half a week of say-anything-just-so-long-as-you-show-everything (and they did!) European scandal sheets. Their few remaining friends, their colleagues certainly, and much of the reading public had come to expect Scott Fortismann's very public romances and break-ups so they could afterwards savor them, endlessly rehashing them, appreciating them, a great deal more then his dwindling output of serious plays.
Scott Fortismann would probably be the only one of what was left of Niels so-called "circle" (long perdu thanks to car accidents, air accidents, overdoses, suicide, cancer, and AIDS) who'd be truly happy for Neils now. The others, well, what had Samantha W. mouthed off last week? "For every artist who makes it in this damned country, fifty others have to fall down in front of a bus." No, they wouldn't so much like it, would they? No matter what they would actually say to his face -- and who could blame them?
He'd reached the corner of Fifth Avenue where a complete tangle of traffic appeared to come from two directions. A crowd of pedestrians were gathered under the construction scaffolding, barring Neils from even seeing what was going on in the middle of the intersection -- if not from hearing shouted driver's curses and the incessant honking of car horns.
When he'd passed here earlier on his way to lunch, three construction workers had been sitting just over there, somewhat elevated, chowing down on hero sandwiches and messily drinking out of big thermoses as he'd stepped around the corner. One of them, maybe twenty-six, slab-sided big, with a mess of thick, bark-colored hair and post-twilight blue eyes, had suddenly stood up and stretched himself to his full six feet and two inches, and Neils had stopped short on the sidewalk and just gawped at the big child-god as the fellow's eyes closed and his mouth smiled and his muscles played along his arms and over his chest, obvious through his thin "Metallica Rocks!" T-shirt in sheer animal pleasure at such a simple activity as yawning and stretching. Cupid's dart had stung Neils so suddenly then, so utterly, he'd become nauseated. He'd felt such complete astonished unmitigated desire and such an opposing instant equal realization of the impossibility of it's ever being fulfilled, that he had actually had to turn away and retch.
Andrea and Lizabeth had noticed how pale he was when he'd arrived at their table not long after. They plied him with brandy and fabulous news until he'd forgotten the godling, and his own embarrassment, doubled of course when said deity had noticed Neils about to pitch forward over the two by four temporary wooden railing onto the filthy curb. Said deity had rushed forward and grabbed Neils, shouting, "Eeth! Give me a hand! This old guy's goin' under."
He'd been freshly mortified by the shout, and of course, they'd easily grasped him, and pulled him over to where they sat, where the third one had plied him with tepid coffee from a thermos, the three of them clucking over him, "Jeez, we thought you was a goner!""Is it your ticker?" and worst of all, Apollo-in-construction-boots demanding, "Look me in the eye, so I can see you're all right. C'mon, right in the eye! Udderwize we're calling E. Em. Ess. C'mon, fella!"
And so he'd been forced to actually look close-up at those eyes and so be able to determine their exact shade of semiconductor cobalt which he now knew so very well he could mix it at any paint store, not to mention the naturally frosted three different tones of browns of his leonine mane, or his complexion like that satin found on century-old Valentines, or the exact cut of his Medici upper lip, the slightly fuzzed depth of his matching dimples. Neils had almost lost it again. He'd gaped again, until they declared, "Yawl right, now!" and "Wan't help inna taxi?" all of which he fended off, with many mumbled thanks and gratefully downcast eyes, getting as far as fast away as he could and then once past the construction site looking back once, only to be startled by his Adonis' head thrust out over the sidewalk and his somewhat worried face, his big right hand stuck out in a peace sign vee, to which Neils at last responded with one of his own, before somehow managing to actually stumble the twenty yards or so to the nearby restaurant.
Neils didn't see any of the three now. Could they have already left for the day? Then he heard one: Apollo himself shouting and then there he was, in a sort of setback where the boarding had been nicked three feet into the building dig to allow for a temporary enclosed chute, probably for rubble to be dropped from the top of the construction to its collection site far down below. Hidden within the crowd, Neils felt safe in turning and gawking at the perfection of the creature as he waved his hands, and shouted up some obscure lingo, possibly to one of his colleagues from before. It was almost amazing watching him.
Neils became aware of the crowd thinning, his cover lessening, and was about to persuade himself that he'd soon be spotted again -- but would that be so very bad? he might even go over and thank him for his trouble earlier? -- when his peripheral vision caught something else.
The enclosed chute next to the construction worker had been shaking from side to side, perhaps as a result of larger pieces tumbling down through it, and at an upper section he could see a piece of something seemingly caught fast. It bulged suddenly, maybe two feet above the construction god's head, then more rubble came down into it, finer stuff, then it moved horizontally maybe four inches on either side. Suddenly it half detached from it's lower portion, which swung around a hundred and eighty degrees, revealing, as he'd feared , a good sized chunk of concrete wedged in tight.
It was the workman's absolute total failure to see any of it taking place at all that impelled Neils forward, through thinning pedestrians, shouting and knowing he couldn't possibly be heard over the noise of the chute, over the traffic, but that he had to do something, or it would disgorge directly over, on top of, right onto the fellow's head.
Not even realizing what he was doing, keeping his eyes all the time on the broken shaft, Neils dove across the sidewalk. Panicked even further as the construction worker headed directly under it's opening, directly under where more rubble had been dropped down and where the structure now swung side to side. Neils was yelling, "Get away! Get away!" Yelling loud enough it turned out for the worker to turn to the sound of his voice, a split second of surprised but pleased recognition on his handsome lips, his mouth opening to say something back, as the concrete wedge began to give way, and Neils threw himself directly at the worker's midsection the way he'd seen defensive lineman tackle a quarterback on televised football games, with utter disregard for gravity, himself, where he might land even, and he felt the young fellow's complete astonishment as he caught the blow and tumbled sideways virtually head over heels, Neils all the while thinking, "God! Have I done enough!" just as the noise above him reached a thunderous boom and Neils looked up and his vision seemed closed down to a overhead tunnel of unstoppably charging black rubble, and he understood that he'd succeeded in saving Apollo but that now the ton of concrete was for him alone, and there wasn't even time for the next thought, before it all went quite dark.
* * *
". . . so I told him, Tyrone, 'No! I am not going to that restaurant with you! I don't care how many of your friends are waiting there!" Can you believe that? Him telling me that -- just to get me to go? What an idiot . . . Hold on! I think this patient is conscious. Hello, sir? Sir? Better get that intern at the desk. Sir? Hello. Can you hear me? Can you recognize. I'm Tyesha Melton, your nurse? How many fingers am I hold. . .? There you are, Doctor, I was just. . . . Yes, sir, we were about to turn him over like we usually do at this time and he just now opened . . . "
Neils registered it all, and with a sigh of relief he thought, oh, good! Here I am. It worked. I saved the lovely boy, and suffered some little concussion and all will be well. The intern who seemed to be of Middle-Asian origin with untypically bad facial skin but lovely brown eyes simply drenched in several rows of eyelashes said, "Please, Sir. I'm Doctor Kawalor Dohendry and you have had a serious accident and have been out of commission for four days and three nights."
Neils began to say something but nothing came out -- he only could croak.
The nurse lifted a little pink cup of water to his mouth, and he sipped, while the doctor looked on benignly, and Neils tried to say something and still nothing came out but frog talk.
"Not to worry, Sir," the doctor said, "These things happen. Maybe later we shall speak. Can you nod your head?"
Neils nodded his head and even he could tell that the motion he made, if it existed at all, was very very minor.
"Good, Sir. Good progress, I think. We will now be able to communicate," the doctor said, smiling fatuously.
Communicate? Neils wondered. I, who could write a page-long sentence without the need of more than a single semi-colon! You call this communicating?
"Your son is waiting in the other room. Nurse, get him," Dohendry said
Son? I have no son?
"He slept over all three nights in this very room, upon a narrow cot we brought in. He insisted. What a good son! In my homeland of course this would be unextraordinary, even expected. But in the U.S. (he pronounced it You-Ass) it is very uncommon for such devotion from a family member. Ah there you are, Sir."
Neils looked up and it was the Apollo from the construction site. Unharmed. Dressed in different clothing, clean pants and shirt, but the same fellow, more gorgeous than ever. He had his hands together, as though he'd been wringing them, and he looked so sad and yet hopeful too now.
"Yes," Dohendry went on to the Apollo, "As I told you would happen, he is fully conscious now." The doctor did something, tucked in a blanket or something, Neils couldn't make out the darting little movement indicative of care. "But as I also told you, he is unable to speak. The crushed trachea you understand. It is temporary," turning to Neils, "only temporary. It is a like a rubber tube that has been given a blow," he illustrated in the air with a karate chop to one forearm, "and it needs now come back to normal." Turning now to the Apollo, "He is fully conscious and understands. But only in nods can he communicate."
Neils looked with astonishment at the construction worker, who suddenly pushed the little doctor aside, fell upon Neils and hugged him, sobbing loudly.
"Oh, look, nurse," Dohendry was saying beyond the big clasping body. "such a lovely reconciliation. I take back all the bad things I have said about American fathers and sons. Every word of it." He then turned to the other nurse and said something rapidly in a foreign language Neils had never heard before. She responded back and it necessitated them going to some machine at the end of the room, while Neils remained unable to do anything but bear the big young lovely clean smelling head and torso and arms of the Apollo thrown about him, still sobbing, until finally the big tanned face pulled back, streaked with tears, cobalt eyes brimming over with tears, and the quivering Michelangelo lips whispered "Why'dya do it? Why'dya save my life like that?" Before he resumed hugging him and sobbing.
It was during these moments that Neils had the most bifurcated emotions he could have possibly imagined. First, of course, and obvious, the pleasure of the big delicious fellow all over him, grateful, delighted, his warmth, his sheer presence; next to that, opposite it, the absolutely below zero chilling recognition, that Neils action had not at all resulted in some little concussion and all would be well, because he was more or less paralyzed, wasn't he? Paralyzed, unable to speak, unable to move anything but he imagined his head a quarter of an inch, side to side.
Neils Llewellyn died then as he had lived in his previous life, realizing what his impetuous and altruistic act had cost him, he felt his spirit leave him and he died. Once again all went black.
But not for long, since he was now in intensive care in a large Manhattan hospital. And so, he came to again a few minutes later, only to see Dohendry and hear him saying, doubtless to the Apollo. "We must expect these little setbacks for the next few days. The shock. The shock of it all, and the happiness your father must now feel is naturally the cause of it. He will survive, believe me. A good son's affection . . . "
* * *
He did survive. With all the complications that ensued. Apollo's name turned out to be Danny Masini, twenty nine, of Center Moriches, Long Island. There was a wife, Sylvia Masini, pretty, demure, sweet, and a little Danny, aged twenty months, a cupid, a putti, an angel. The other workers from that day came in too: Ethan Skavenger and Anastas Doremates. They visited less often, but often enough, and sometimes with girlfriends. They lived in Merrick, Long Island. They visited him twice a day and every visit went on for hours and was filled with food and balloons, huge pop up get well cards, and flowers, music playing and people talking, and in short a little get well party. Soon, the nurses hung around more, to flirt with Anastas and Ethan and their friends, and so Neils got constant, adoring attention from them all. Doubled by Dohendry, who had appointed himself the little group's guardian, and who got Neils into total physical and voice Rehab, pulling strings for medicines not yet fully approved by the F.D.A. and who visited him daily with new methods, ideas, and potions, even when he was moved to a room down the hall and Dohendry was no longer assigned.
Neils made progress. He seemed to have no choice but to make progress. Soon his croaking was more nuanced, comprehensible to the beautiful Danny Masini, who insisted, despite the difference of their names -- for they'd gotten his wallet, his i.d., his card for the paltry catastrophic insurance -- to anyone who asked that they were related. How could anyone doubt it? Soon Neils was moving his fingers on his left hand, and with little Danny playing with him, his toes on his right hand, and Dohendry was there saying, "What did I predict? Not of course, with the spinal damage you sustained in the accident that you should expect anything like a full recovery, but with such loving friends, such a family, such a son, why I think you should expect a wonderful life.”
One day, perhaps five weeks later, his agent Lizabeth arrived. She was horrified to see him but hid it quickly. Neils got everyone else out of the room-there always seemed to be at least one of the workers' cumadres sitting with him very day, or someone's teenage brother helping him do Rehab. It was understood by all, and totally approved by all, that he would be living with the Masinis from now on, once he got out. On the weekends, various male family members and pals were helping to close in and insulate the sun room that faced west over the estuary down to the Great South Bay. Danny showed him photos and videos with construction progress reports and it would all be very beautiful. It was understood by all that Neils was "theirs" now, and they would take care of him, and do whatever was needed, from now on, no matter what it took. He knew they thought he was a bum, without two nickels to rub together, and he was waiting for the appropriate moment, once they were all settled, and "at home" to tell Danny the truth: that such virtue had a monetary reward too. He knew what Danny would say. "Who needs your money? We've got enough! We're family. Family!"
"Who are these people?" Lizabeth asked.
"What's happening with the novel?" he asked carefully and watched her slowly figure out what he was uttering.
"Everything we spoke of, except . . . " here she almost broke down, "The press we've gotten is astonishing. You saved this man's life. You're a hero. You're a public relations windfall. There's so much demand for your book, Andrea's executives decided to print and ship six months early.”
She then went on to explain her absence in Europe, at some European book fair or other, and then on vacation after, which was why it took her so long to find out about him.
"Andrea says photographers from People magazine want you," she said, awed. "That's a few hundred thousand copies, right there."
"Good," he croaked.
"Good? Look at you, Neils! What happened? Oh, God it's all my fault. I should have put you into a taxi, that day. Just look at you! "
She must have become very loud and sounded upset because suddenly the door opened and two people came in, Tania Skavenger, Ethan's sister, and Danny himself, the look on his face saying leave him alone or by God, I'll . . .
"What's happened," Neils croaked out the words carefully, quietly, grasping the edge of Liz's sleeve with his crooked (but growing stronger every day) two fingers, "Is that I'm happy, Liz."
Lizabeth backed off, all but thrust aside by Danny, who sat down and said, "Look at you, grabbing at ladies! You're something else!" He kissed Neils' mouth, and said to Tania. "Get me some of the green jello." Then to Neils, "How you doing? Danny's here and all is well. Ready for some?"
"Really, really happy for the very first time in my life," Neils muttered, as Danny readied the spoon of jello and made airplane buzzing noises, "Okay, sweetheart! Open up wide! Here it comes."