Bryan VanDyke’s work has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, New Delta Review and Pacific Standard. He is a graduate of Northwestern and Columbia’s MFA program. In 2013, he was an artist in residence at the Catwalk Art Residency in Catskill, NY. He is the curator for a reading series for emerging writers at the renowned KGB Bar in New York.
The ashen smell in the air reminded Bernie of trash fires in Cambodia. But then again, everything today reminded him of something else. He parked his car in a garage near Journal Square and walked a mile to the water taxi docks in Hoboken. Left his cell in the car—didn’t want a link to the outside world. He planned to call Iris from a pay phone, but he never did. In a fogged-over trance, he passed through morose streets and encountered people who didn’t really seem to be there. He wasn’t entirely sure that he was there himself.
At the ferry terminal, he saw police on horseback. They all delivered lines from the same doomsday script: no access, no river crossing, nothing to see. But Bernie wasn’t here for spectacle. He offered his help to all the cops who’d listen; they said they had more volunteers than could possibly be put to use. Bernie said he had medical training, and one cop looked interested until Bernie let slip he was a dentist.
“What we got here, doc,” the cop said, “is bigger than a root canal.”
After dark, Bernie joined the crowd at the pier as a witness to the ongoing rescue effort. Barges would arrive from across the Hudson carrying men sheathed in white dust. Burly, confident men who accepted hugs of support from young, wet-eyed women. The workers would disembark and pass near the barricade, touching outstretched hands. Bernie tried not to feel jealous—jealousy was not appropriate here. Even though he hadn’t kissed a woman in over a year. Not since Iris told him to move out so that she could figure out what she wanted. Fourteen months later she still didn’t know what she wanted, although she was certain it wasn’t him.
Until recently, Bernie sometimes sat up late into the night and tried to map out in his mind precisely how his marriage hit a dead end. He was certain the problem began almost five years earlier, when Iris was pregnant. They were ecstatic until the first sonogram session, when the technician told them dispassionately that their unborn daughter might not be developing viably. Explaining matters to friends later, Bernie and Iris said that Pammy (they’d already chosen a name) had simply grown wrong. Her stem cells had serious flaws. Stems cells in her feet thought they were hand cells. Stem cells in her ears acted like cells for her nose. Iris miscarried on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. Bereft, Bernie went for a long drive that night. He parked on Chestnut Street downtown and stared into bars where drunken revelers were singing “Danny Boy,” and he tried to remember what it felt like to stand at the beginning of an unwritten life.
They tried to resume their unremarkable lives: they labored as dentists in their shared practice, Patton & Patton; they met old friends for dinner; they hunkered down into their hobbies—Iris training for half-marathons, Bernie writing crosswords for the Philadelphia Inquirer. But too often they would sit in bed at night and watch television in silence.
Tests identified the cause of their daughter’s problem: a mutated chromosome in Bernie’s DNA. All of his children had a fifty-fifty chance of dying in the womb. He and Iris were cautious and rational by nature, and they decided not to risk again what they’d barely endured once. During their courtship they had created a shared dream for their careers, for a large family, for a house on the Main Line. They’d snagged two out of three, but happiness isn’t at all like arithmetic; the closer you get to what you want, sometimes the worse off you are. Six months after the miscarriage, Iris turned to Bernie during Jay Leno’s monologue and asked if they should break up the practice. She meant more than just Patton & Patton.
They were always fair with each other, always honest and rational, if maybe a little bloodless; after weeks of debate, they decided on a waiting period in the form of a furlough abroad for Bernie. He had a friend who worked for Doctors Without Borders, and they had a rare need for dental practitioners in Cambodia. Bernie said he’d like the chance to do real, selfless work like this. The unspoken corollary to this idea was that by taking on this task, he would travel as far from her as the curvature of the earth could allow; and after all that time apart, after he came back home, if nothing had changed, they’d call it quits.
At the shore of the Hudson, Bernie Patton sat on a railing and rubbed his forehead in his hands. His skin felt rough and dry, as if he’d aged as a result of his impetuous decision to come here. He considered the walk back to his car at Journal Square. He decided that he should head back home, that this trip was a loss, but when he stood up, he came face-to-face with a red-haired man holding out a conciliatory cigarette.
“You look like you could use a smoke,” the man said. He introduced himself as Chuck.
Bernie took the cigarette gently and held it with both hands. Chuck brought out a matchbook, and Bernie shook his head. From his trousers Bernie withdrew a brown leather wallet. Tenderly, he slid out a worn square photograph. The photo was of a small Asian girl with a wide inviting smile and cheekbones that hinted at a beautiful adulthood. “I haven’t smoked since the day I found her,” he said wistfully. “This is my daughter, Pam.”
Genuine worry creased Chuck’s forehead. “She’s not across the river, yeah?”
“She’s safe with her mother.”
Chuck did not ask why Bernie had come here rather than remain with his family. Perhaps he could sense from Bernie’s posture or the pitch of his voice that this was not a topic he wanted to discuss. Bernie was glad to avoid having to explain his situation—the studio apartment he lived in downtown, the every-other-weekend paltry visits that he had with his daughter. Instead, Bernie gestured across the water at the blue sky between the buildings in the skyline. “I drove down here hoping to do something,” he said. “But that hasn’t worked out.”
“I came here hoping to do something, too,” Chuck said. He reached under his light windbreaker and pulled out an expensive-looking camera. “I’m hoping maybe you can help.” He showed Bernie a telephoto lens that looked as sleek as a gun silencer. He showed Bernie the camera’s liquid crystal display screen. “It’s a digital SLR,” he said. “Cost me almost two grand. Got more lenses, too.”
“Are you a reporter?”
“Sort of. I know someone who can sell photos on the Internet. First, I’ve got to get over there.” Chuck had appeared genuine and thoughtful before, but those aspects faded as he revealed more of his plans, and a less attractive person emerged. “All I need you to do is distract those two jokers over there,” he said, gesturing to a pair of police officers. “Act crazy or start yelling, and I’ll slip over the barricade here. Once I’m on the other side, I’ll figure out a way we can get you across, too.”
This plan appalled Bernie, especially the idea that Chuck sought to sell photographs of the wreckage, but he checked his response, not wishing to start a confrontation. Smiling, Chuck winked, turned on his heel, and moved in loping strides along a line of police barricades. He was not far off when Bernie stood up and waved with both arms at the two cops. They were the same height, but one was old enough for a pension, and the other was a kid whose cap looked too large. The older cop drew nearer and asked Bernie if there was a problem. The kid lagged behind, watchful, like a trainee.
“That man there,” Bernie said, pointing. “He’s trying to sneak in and take pictures.”
The older cop grabbed at his belt as he ran. The younger kid kept his hand on the top of his cap. Bernie walked briskly behind them and, with no one left to tell him otherwise, stepped casually around the barricade. Inside, he walked toward a boat bobbing at the dock. At the boat ramp, he was intercepted by an E.M.T. wearing an orange vest and holding a clipboard.
“I’m a doctor,” Bernie said carefully. “I was sent up from Philadelphia.” Part of this was true. He was a doctor. But no one had sent him. The E.M.T. never asked him what he was a doctor of or questioned his story; he just handed Bernie a laminated orange badge, wished him luck, and waved him on.
Just after midnight, Bernie shoved off along with a hushed crowd of other volunteers. He rode near the bow of the boat, staring at the city across the river. The crossing felt pertinent and fantastic, part of a still-coalescing history or myth. He had the familiar, prickling sense of life’s vast uncertainties. He had felt a similar sense five years ago when he crossed a flooded branch of the Mekong to reach an orphanage on the other side of the world. The gold-colored building had three columns on a long porch and two mangrove trees. Bernie remembers how those tree leaves rustled outside while he checked the teeth of a quiet little girl who wasn’t quite three, but who gripped his hand confidently between her small, soft fingers. As if she had no idea the odds she was up against. Her dusky skin had smelled of pineapples—the juice was said to lighten the skin, and a dark color would be a handicap in this orphan’s inevitable career as a prostitute. The smell of pineapple juice still lingered on his hands later that night when he went with a few other Westerners to see the temples at Angkor Watt. Sitting in a jeep in the middle of the rutted-dirt street, he’d smoked a cigarette and stared at the stars in their ferocious clarity and decided to go back for her, for the girl in the orphanage.
Bernie stood near the ship’s bow and watched the shore as they neared the southern tip of Manhattan. A familiar voice at his elbow said, “And so we meet again.” Bernie recognized Chuck’s voice even before he turned around.
“Those flatfoots couldn’t hold me,” Chuck said.
“I’m surprised you made it.”
Chuck brought out his expensive camera. He opened the aperture and turned the camera so that the running lights on the bow reflected off the broken lens. “So much for my plans,” he said. “But I’ll find some way to turn this to my advantage.”
The motors in the boat shifted to a lower gear, and the blades roared below the water line. Up ahead at the pier, Bernie saw a small crowd of people huddled beneath a single beacon. Bernie again resisted the impulse to lecture this man; this isn’t the place, he thought, and I’m hardly qualified to do it. “Everything happens for a reason,” Bernie said absently.
“That’s my motto, too,” Chuck said.
They disembarked well south of the site. Guides led them through streets where a strange snowfall of office paper had settled on benches, in gutters, and upon trees. Taxi cabs and delivery trucks stood unmanned in the middle of the streets. Later, when Bernie tried to explain to people what he saw, he could never quite describe how awful but spiritual the streets were in their absolute stillness and silence. Sort of like his inability, after returning home from Cambodia, to instill in Iris a sense of what it felt like to spend months treating abscesses, rotten teeth, and rancid gums in villagers outside Battambang. You can’t recreate the experience of pain or terror or shock—those sensations are immediate by nature. They do not exist in the secondhand. Far easier to relate are moments of bliss, like the flight home when his new three-year-old daughter slept on his shoulder. Or when he put the sleeping child in Iris’s arms and said here she is, this is our Pam, I found her. Before that moment, Iris had been skeptical—the girl’s too old, she’d said; she won’t look anything like me. But in the moment, Bernie saw how her hesitation evaporated.
As the volunteers trudged up the Lower Manhattan streets, a hard rain began to speckle the ash like beach sand; after a block of walking, the ash turned to white slurry, and the leader of the procession led the group into the refuge of the cavernous lobby of a dark building, the headquarters of a bank, someone said. Portable lamps in the lobby were running off a loud, whirring generator. The leader said that a runner was bringing over waterproof coats and steel-toe boots. The volunteers must wear the right protective clothes before entering the Site. Bernie sat on the lobby’s mosaic floor and rested. He ignored the curses of Chuck, who’d just taken off his shoe. He showed Bernie a cut on his ankle; he’d stumbled on some rubble in the street.
“You’re a doctor,” Chuck said, “right?”
Chuck nodded toward Bernie’s orange badge, which marked him as a physician.
“Do I need some kind of shot now?”
Chuck was still staring at his ankle when a man in a white hardhat rushed out of a stairwell, through the lobby, and into the street. Three more men bolted outside after him. A few volunteers jumped up and chased after them. Then another person scrambled to his feet. Bernie and Chuck were moving before they had a chance to think about what they were doing. Chuck still had one of his shoes in his hand. Out on the street another crowd was running from the building next door. Someone said another tall building was about to fall.
The volunteers ran in a herd, falling and slipping in the wet mud like terrified animals. They raced back up the street that led back to the pier; some men tripped over the cords that connected the sodium lamps along the trail; one enormous lamp teetered, toppled, and shattered. Chuck tripped and, down on one knee, called out to Bernie for help, begging Bernie not to leave him behind.
He wanted to leave Chuck, to let fate deal with him, but before Bernie had traveled three steps, that aching impulse—that relentless humanitarian impulse—pulled him back. He yanked Chuck to his feet and shoved him toward the pier. Once Chuck was on his feet, Bernie ran ahead, even as Chuck limped along, whining for more help. He’d already helped Chuck far more than that vulture deserved to be helped.
“Shut up,” Bernie shouted at him. “Just shut up and run.”
He thought Iris would be proud if she could see him now. She always said that Bernie never gave his best to people who deserved it, because he always gave all he had to people who didn’t deserve it. He knew this accusation held true, especially where their marriage was concerned. Their life together should have begun a long, rich middle era after Pam’s adoption. But Bernie had brought back more than just Pam from his time abroad: he also carried troubling memories of the diseased and starving children whom he couldn’t possibly help, the sick and the weak villagers, the broken old women and men in their filthy homes. On the first Thanksgiving after he came home, he wanted to spend the holiday serving food at a homeless shelter. For Christmas, he suggested they forgo gifts, except for Pam. Iris followed his altruistic lead, although not without stating mild misgivings. She did not want to drain life of all its pleasures, she said. A few months later, he proposed another leave of absence from Patton & Patton. He wanted to do clerical work for a group that builds wood huts in Central America. Iris absorbed Bernie’s patients as a result. She handled the pick-up and drop-off of Pam from day care, too—Bernie had no time. He still doted on Pam at night, and he told Iris often that he loved her, but those were words and gestures and could not make up for the fact of his absence in the prosaic matters of life.
Bernie slowed to a jog after he saw the crowd at the pier. A large group of out-of-breath volunteers had returned here, like terrified goslings all returned to the nest. Gasping for breath like the others, Bernie waited in silence for the sound of tearing metal, splintering stone, or popping glass. The wait lasted until the word came that the warning had been issued in error. A television reporter had announced that the Deutsche Bank building was falling, but the report had been retracted. The building, slashed from rooftop to lobby level, continued to stand.
The volunteers shuffled back up the street, a little less fearful but far more tired than before. Already, they’d forgotten how real the terror had felt a half-hour earlier. Chuck was one of the first men to head up the street. He was wearing new boots now. He had a raincoat now, too, and he was walking with one of the rescue effort organizers. He pretended not to know Bernie at all.
Bernie had often seen willful blindness like this in the last days with Iris. He’d encounter her at night after Pam was asleep—after their fake parental smiles could be cast off like the ridiculous Groucho Marx masks that they were—and she’d look past him just like Chuck did now. He had quit Patton & Patton altogether, and he broke each day into frantic shards of time spent as a mentor at a community center, a driver for a senior meals program, and paymaster for a group that drilled wells in Gabon. He tried to make her understand. This work is important to people who have far less than us, he told her. This was their last argument on the matter. I know it’s important, she told him. But I want our old life back. The life we had before all this. The small, unimportant life that we had when all we had were our own selfish dreams. Can’t we just be glad that we’ve got Pam and go back to living like that?
We’re not those people anymore, Bernie said.
Don’t say we, she snapped, when what you mean is you.
A week later she asked him to move out. She did not use a rude or hurtful tone. She offered to pay the rent wherever he stayed. She was the only one with a salary, after all. Bernie tried to fight her; he said this split-up would be terrible for Pam. Iris delivered the deathblow in response: How much worse would it be if Pam grew up believing that adults who claim to love each other don’t ever actually make emotional connections?
Bernie and the volunteers waited and wandered in the intermittent rain until three o’clock in the morning. At last they were told to bivouac under a large banquet tent near the World Financial Center’s marina. “You’ve all got to get some sleep,” a police sergeant explained. “Otherwise, you’ll be worthless. We’re working in shifts down there. You’ll start in the morning.” As the other volunteers searched for softer places to sleep, Bernie slipped outside; he told a man in an orange vest that he needed to urinate, and he headed in the direction of the toilets but ducked down a path lit by flares.
He was only a few blocks from the Site when he stopped walking. Up ahead he could see piles of rubbish and ruin higher than five stories. Getting closer would require stepping over bricks, smashed cars, cut pieces of metal and wood that were once orderly and suspended high above the streets. There were no bodies. No signs of human life. He could be alone on the malevolent planet of a people who had died off thousands of years ago. Nothing stood between him and the Site, but he did not want to continue. He did not want to see the full evidence of what had passed. He followed the path back to the marina.
He collapsed on a wooden pallet beside a tall stack of shrink-wrapped water bottles. Lying on this hard makeshift bed, he closed his eyes and saw the children in Cambodia. He thought of a freshly uncovered mass grave he’d seen—a hiding place for victims of the Khmer Rouge. Standing on the edge of that hole, Bernie had seen bone-white skulls, countless skulls, so bright in the sun that they reminded him of the stars over Angkor Watt.
He laid his arm across his face. Around him volunteers wheezed and coughed in uncomfortable sleep. He had chosen to come here. This was not the worst place he’d ever been. In Cambodia he’d journeyed to villages along the Mekong and saw with horror the after-effect of local dentists who had injected battery acid into the gum line of patients and then prized out the infected teeth with pliers. He’d seen worse than this. Yet he’d never quite felt this alone.
. . .
In the morning he left the tent before dawn and located a functional pay phone not far from the marina. He punched the buttons for Iris’s house and stood in the sepulchral light, listening to the beeping on the other end, while a pair of oblivious seagulls turned in loops over the water. At last Iris answered.
“You said you’d call earlier,” she said.
He tried to tell her what had happened: the way he’d stolen across the river, the march through the rain, and the tent where he’d slept. He had conducted calls like this with her often before. She listened on the other end patiently—as she always had done—and when he finished, she asked him when he would come home. She hoped it was soon, she said. Home? She wanted him home? He hesitated; the urgency, the real emotion in her voice surprised him. During all the turmoil of the last couple of days, as he watched the planes strike the buildings over and over again on news programs, he often wished their marriage could have had one last chance to thrive. Might she feel the same?
“Did you hear me?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, swallowing. “I’m just surprised that you want me back.”
To answer him, her voice lowered an octave, lowered to a gentle tone that carries only the truth and always hurts: “Oh, Bernie,” she said. “I’m sorry, honey. I don’t mean that—I just wanted to know your plans so that I could tell Pam. She’s supposed to stay with you this weekend. But it’s all right. It’s all right if she stays with me instead.”
He stood beside the phone booth for a time after he hung up. He stared at the water and listened to the sound of sirens somewhere in the distance. By the time he turned back to the tent, he saw that Chuck had followed him outside and was seated on a bench near the river. He waved languidly for Bernie, as if inviting him over; still in a sad daze, Bernie complied.
“Here,” Chuck said, taking out a cigarette pack, “let’s try this again.”
He flipped open a matchbook, raked the phosphorus head across the flint, and held the spitting flame to a cigarette. He handed a cigarette to Bernie and offered his burning cigarette as a light. Bernie leaned in, cupped his hand against a wind that wasn’t there, and puffed at the flame. Chuck leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. Bernie kept waiting for Chuck to accuse him of being harsh last night, of ignoring Chuck’s cries for help. But the uglier parts of the night appeared to be forgotten, for good or ill. They were both here, and that was all that mattered.