Nagler took a left from the main road, turning into the subdivision where Lauren Fox grew up. The houses were neat ranches, one and two story homes built in a neighborhood started after the war, set on large lawns, fully treed, yards with bikes, boats, a second car, a few camper-trailers, a Winnebago or two. Some had rear additions or decks extending into the back yards. Barbecue units, canopies, satellite dishes tacked on the side of the house pointing to Jupiter. Lawn chairs, long green hoses, paved driveways. Life easy, calm and predicable.
Suburbia before the Wall Street and Internet money spoiled us all. Before we all became rotten kids.
Suburbia built by decent people who worked hard with modest aims and goals. Who wanted to be good at their jobs and friends to all those for whom they cared. Homes built by people who had known some sacrifice. The last of the war generation, the Eisenhower Americans whose dreams of glory died in Dallas, or were trampled underfoot when the Daley cops opened up the heads of the Hippies with billy clubs.
They sent their kids to school with the hope that what was kind and good in the world would stick and the hate and horribleness would fade. And that their children would make the difference.
Had they been deceived? As Nagler drove out of Ironton the scenes from the stoveworks fire flashed in his head. Not the bodies, not the rush and turmoil of firefighters, the EMTs holding clear plastic masks over the mouths of a half-dozen who got trapped when the side wall collapsed, not the sky turned red.
In that grey dawn, he saw the pile of debris where that homeless crew lived. It was stacks of cardboard boxes and broken wooden pallets, now after the fire sopping wet and covered with debris. A few shredded blue tarps were draped over clotheslines to make tents, plastic buckets positioned under holes in the roof to catch rain. Trash was scattered all over: Fast food bags, cardboard boxes for French fries, paper cups, foam shells that once held chicken or a steak, tatters of clothes, old socks and plastic bags. But he chiefly recalled the eyes, dark holes burned into the faces smeared with charcoal from the fire, bodies wrapped in off-color sweats; the eyes stared nowhere; eyes that held no fear, hardened beyond pain.
Is that what the people who built these homes dreamed their country would become? he wondered. Did they even know such places exist? Not as long as their Golden retriever can chase squirrels in the back yard and their three-year-old can run through the sprinkler. Not as long as the smoke from Ironton’s fire drifts in the other direction.
Frank Nagler did not like the coldness that was settling around his heart.
As he pulled into the driveway at 138 Maple, Nagler realized that Lauren had become the person her parents had hoped: Decent, forgiving, intelligent and kind. And she had made a difference.
She came to Ironton with no more than a $500,000 state grant and a program that had no real structure except that which she would apply.
Nagler had been assigned by the mayor’s office as the liaison to her office to help her get into some of the neighborhoods she needed to reach: The rougher ones, the ones with ten families in a home built for two, where sometimes the kids were passed around for entertainment, where the crack heads left their works in the hallways so they crunched under your shoes when you walked from floor to floor in the dark.
More than once he had seen her turn those soft brown eyes coal black and hard and back some reluctant landlord sputtering in Spanish about how he knew the mayor into his sloppy troubled house to point out exactly what damn violation she was talking about, what five families sleeping in the living room she wanted removed, taking that sweet suburban sensibility to a place no one in the town government that had hired her had thought possible.
Of course they really had not wanted her to succeed. They had been here before and bluffed their way past the state inspectors and latest do-gooders until they went away and filed a report that said, “Ironton never changes.”
The local officials had seemingly become so used to their torn up streets and half-empty downtown, it had become a point of pride. So they celebrated the past, put up murals of miners and ironworkers and held annual festivals that tossed about names no one knew except when they gave directions. For all of Howie Newton’s bluster and myth-making about how he worked hard for the common man, Nagler knew, that during his reign as mayor the only municipal project that was completed on time was the one that paved the streets in his neighborhood.
Even Gabriel Richman was like that, Nagler realized. His dreams were too big, giant structures with no foundation. A collection of words, ideas, concepts that had no shape, no center and no chance of succeeding. He like the others before him didn’t want to do the legwork, did not want to lay that foundation. All that work took too long.
It was easier to make big speeches and find someone to blame when all the stick houses collapsed
And into that mess walked Lauren. They tried to force her out more than once. They cut her program’s shared funds, until the state made them repay it. They lost her purchase orders. The inspectors failed to show up when she called. The paperwork always got lost. The families were back living in the attic a week later and the landlord who swore to the judge that he had seen the error of his ways was at the Trenton Street Club’s barbecue fundraiser by Saturday.
The Old Iron Bog was not the only thing in Ironton that stunk, Nagler knew. But Lauren persevered.
He’d see her at the end of the day with that broad smile on her face as if she had just spend the day at the beach instead of in the mayor’s office reminding him of what exactly he signed up for when he agreed to have the state program in his town for five years.
What had she got into?
Nagler hoped a visit with her parents might help him figure that out. He wasn’t supposed to be here, he wasn’t supposed to be doing anything but running the night shift, and it was not just Foley’s disapproval that had stopped him. More than once he had started his car’s engine, rolled out of the driveway and west from Ironton; more than once he came to the split in the road where the left fork went to Lauren Fox’s town, and the right fork turned to the interstate and back to Ironton. More than once.
The two-story ranch was dark blue and had a large corner lot. A clothesline ran from the side of the porch to a maple tree in the back and a yellow blouse, a white towel and some men’s shorts swayed in the breeze. Evergreen shrubs were clumped on either side of the two-car driveway and stone steps curled from there to the front door.
He cupped his hand to her eyes and peered into the garage where one car occupied the left hand stall.
It was Lauren’s green Neon. Nagler recognized the duck sticker on the rear window, the symbol of some wildlife federation. That and the City of Ironton parking sticker.
What the hell?
It could not be that easy, he thought as he knocked on the wooden storm door.
Her mother answered the door and in the dimness of the hallway that the sunlight had not filled for a moment Nagler saw the familiar image of Lauren: the dark hair pulled back over her forehead with a barrette, the thin nose and lips and an endless pool of brown eyes that had drawn him into their depth more than once, brown pathways to a soul whose beauty and pain he had only begun to understand when she left.
But in the full light of the day Adrienne Fox proved only to be the rough sketch of the stunning woman her daughter would become. Maybe, Nagler thought, age and the recent loss of Lauren had taken away the underpinning of that face, but as he studied it he knew that her mother’s face had always been rounder, softer, and the eyes, though the same brown, less well defined as if the light that filled them from within was always less focused, less bright. Her mother was smaller, slighter and now, clearly, more frail.
“Is it alright that we talk in the backyard,” Adrienne Fox asked. “Lauren was always there, reading.” Her voice had a hollowness that was left after the substance of the world had been yanked from people’s lives, after they had been told their loved one had disappeared. The mouths of the survivors moved, the words floated out and drifted away in the breeze, broken bones of thought caught in a throat and coughed up.
Nagler wanted to start with the car, but backed off.
“I know you have questions for me about Lauren’s exit from Ironton, but first do a mother a favor: tell me about my daughter, Mr. Nagler,” Adrienne Fox said. “Tell me why she was so wrapped up in you and you in her and yet the two of you parted under such strange circumstances.”
That was not where he wanted to start the conversation; it was the question Nagler had been avoiding for too long.
“What do you mean, strange circumstances?” he asked.
“She left Ironton without saying good-bye to you, isn’t that right?” she said. “It seems to me that Lauren leaving the city at all could have been considered strange, correct? She only hinted at events and circumstances, so I don’t know details. But she asked us for help, something that she had never done.”
I could pull the cop thing, he thought. Just the facts, ma’am. Foley would be pretty upset to find out he was here, Nagler knew, but he didn’t care. He found himself reevaluating his positions on Foley, and not because Foley had busted him to the desk on the overnight shift. It was a lot of things. The odd behavior at the bog crime scene, the tour of the stoveworks, the general coldness that had settled in between them. But, Nagler thought, if you are about to bust someone in rank, you might stop being so friendly. There were a lot of things that just didn’t add up. And now Lauren Fox’s mother wanted a report card. Man. But maybe it is time for this, too.
He let out a long breath and scratched his forehead. Interviewing murderers was easier.
“I, well, I loved your daughter,” he said, feeling his face flush, the words sounding strange as he said them, as if he was talking about someone else, about people and events from a very distant past. It was like prom night. Being grilled on how he was going to treat their precious baby. But then he paused, and knew was a relief to say that, to speak out loud those words that he has only whispered to himself.
Lauren had dropped into his life and before they had even gotten to know one another, they had fallen in love. That was how it was supposed to be, he thought as he walked in that rose-colored daze that lovers fall into. But maybe it was the closeness of their work. They saw each other daily and worked on problems of her job often. He was on the end of the phone line when she ran into trouble or needed a police detail to clean out a house. Or when the crap from the mayor’s office got too deep, or when they just wanted to be together, sitting in her office alone, silent, staring.
“Surely, Mr. Nagler, it can not be as painful as discussing her absence.”
“Mrs. Fox, Lauren, well, was different. I remember walking away from our first meeting shaking inside because I knew that I had just met someone who stuck. And each time I saw her after that it became more and more, I don’t know, interesting. It had been a very long time.” Since the third grade, he thought.
“She called me after that meeting,” her mother said. “She was as star struck as you were. I had never heard her speak of some with such affection. You were special to her as well, Mr. Nagler.”
He felt the sadness rising, the quivering in his heart as beautiful Lauren Fox once again filled him with the love that had changed him.
But then he asked, “did she tell you about my wife, Martha?”
Adreinne Fox smiled softly.
“Of course she did. And I’m sorry she died so young. What a heart-breaking story, I am so sorry. I remember her saying it was hard for her to think about such an event, since she was so close in age to your wife when she died.”
Nagler stared at the ground. All those years he has talked to no one about Martha, not even Dawson, really. But that day Lauren Fox accompanied him to her grave, the words poured out like water from a crack in a rockface, words he hadn’t spoken for years.
He ran his hand over Martha’s name cut into the red granite slowly, as if touching the cold stone would transmit his touch to his wife’s face.
Lauren touched his shoulder.
“Love like that doesn’t end, Frank. It grows silently and holds us together. You don’t need to be ashamed of it, or afraid to talk about it,” she said. “And you need to stop blaming yourself for her death. There was nothing more you could have done. I know that your love meant everything to her. I’m sure it gave her great strength.”
Frank Nagler looked up from the ground and at Lauren Fox’s mother.
“I hadn’t realized that was what I was doing. All the anger I had directed outwardly for years was just a way of denying that it was cancer that killed her, not me. But when you’re 24 and the woman you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with dies, it’s pretty easy to blame yourself. I always worried that your daughter thought she was Martha’s replacement.”
“No.” He glanced around the yard. This is nothing like the place me and Martha grew up in, those hard Ironton streets, he thought.
“The place Martha and I grew up in was a darker, troubled place than here,” he said. “Martha was my way into the world, even when we were kids. My family wasn’t rich, so things were harder. But she just had this ability to get everyone’s attention, and then laugh when they looked her way. We were kids. Everything was a big adventure, a big gamble, and then I never knew why, but being with her made everything easier. I was uncomfortable in public and sort of used Martha as my way in. And after she died I just pretended for a while she was there helping me. I loved her and needed her and never thought she’d die. And then she died and I eventually backed away from the world.”
He let out a big breath. “I’m sorry. There’s a lot of things going on. I haven’t talked to anyone about Martha for a long time.”
Adrienne Fox’s eyes were red and she clutched a tissue to her mouth. “You speak so well of her. I’m glad you had that experience. Lauren was right. She said there was more to you than anyone knew.”
“I don’t know,” Nagler said, embarrassed he had rambled on so. “By the time Lauren came to Ironton, I had that whole aloof cop thing down pretty well. No one bothered me, so I was able to get away with it. But it was a different behavior when Lauren and I met. I had added years of police work to the layers, so I like everyone else had this image of themselves. I had done some good work as a cop, was known to be reliable and effective. But then you start believing that you are something you’re not and start believing your press clippings, start thinking that you are better than you are. But Lauren had this way, quietly, that said, ‘oh yeah, prove it,’ and I realized I had to be better, be sharper if I was going to be with her. I was just trying to keep up with her. She had a way, your daughter did.”
Do I continue?
“Then something changed. Maybe it was working so close,” he said. “ Everyday, there was some big issue. We rarely talked about anything else, it seemed. There didn’t seem to be enough time. She was so filled with her job, the details, the grant applications, the ways to make a banker come up with a hundred grand for a housing project, how to get the county to kick on for a river clean-up, the dreams.” His voice cracked.
“I remember the day they broke ground for a playground. It was big deal, something she had worked on for months, the first big project she had pulled together. The night before we had a disagreement — she said she felt uncomfortable about us being seen together so often–and I hadn’t seen her before the ceremony. It’s not like it was secret. We were seen everywhere. Anyone could come into her office and find us there. The old town manager always scowled at me when I would run into him in the hallway outside her office.
“But it made something clear. No matter how close we were there always seem to be a gap between us that never went away. She said she was shy, but I wondered about that because I had seen her back the toughest landlords against a wall without fear and it didn’t seem to me that a shy person would have been capable of that.”
He paused and glanced at the treeline.. What the hell was he doing? Where’d this need to confess everything come from. Dawson would think he’d lost his mind.
“What are the words you’re supposed to say to break through that, I don’t know, wall? Especially when there wasn’t one there before? What are you supposed to do? I never figured it out,” he said.
“Personal fortitude and lack of shyness are not the same thing, Mr. Nagler,” Adrienne Fox said. “Lauren was always brave and forthright. She lived a life filled with friends and adventure, but at the end of the night she would be the one coming back from the high school dance alone because she had turned down every dance. She would want the quarterback to ask her to dance, but then would stand in the shadows while he walked by to ask another. That was the contradiction of my beautiful daughter. She was so much of the world, the center of everything, yet so afraid and lonely. She was a little girl who grew up very much alone. Her brother is ten years older and her father and I worked. So she had a lot of time, perhaps too much time, alone. When she talked of you I prayed that you would be the one that burst through that bubble she surrounded herself in.”
Nagler ran his fingers through his hair. What I knew about her and what I didn’t know, he thought.
Then he continued, “anyway, at the groundbreaking, after the ceremony, she is standing on the sidewalk, waiting for me. Not saying anything, just smiling. She could have been laughing at me, for all I cared. I went to her side and we just looked at each other. Then she said ’it’s OK now?’ and we walked away. It was then I figured out the distance between us. I was trying to draw her out, to bring her into the world, and she was trying to draw me into that bubble as you called it, to that place of calm in her soul, the place she lived and retreated to when the world got out of hand. The place that all that love came from. I should have listened. She was wiser.”
Later Nagler and Adrienne Fox walked through the neighborhood. A river cut off the back side and stopped the housing development, opening the land to farms that rolled toward Pennsylvania with waving corn.
“Lauren told me she went skinny dipping in the river,” Nagler said.
“I would not be surprised,” her mother said. “But why are you telling me about it?”
Nagler laughed. “Because she’d want me to. ”
His head suddenly filled with Lauren’s soft voice as she told him of swimming in the river. She and her two best friends went to the river behind a corn field and after trying to talk one another out of it, stripped and jumped into the water, splashing in a girlish frenzy. They were all sixteen and had been friends since grade school she said.
“What are you thinking, Mr. Nagler? Of my slim, naked daughter and her young friends?”
Her voice had no edge, but was soft with a newfound concern.
“She had just come out of the water,” he started to explain the vision. “On the other side, on a big rock. She turned and faced the others, shimmering, naked, the water pealing off her shoulders, breasts, thighs. She tipped her head forward and shook the water from her hair and let out a shriek. Then she jumped back into the pool and the three girls met in the middle and embraced for a long, long moment, arms locked around each others’ necks their breasts and hips touching, locked, kissing each others’ necks and shoulders and promising they would be friends forever.”
He glanced at Adrienne Fox, expecting her face would be hard, angered by the embarrassing story.
“That is how she told the story to me,” Nagler said. “I think she did it specifically, first, yeah, to see how I’d react, to see how embarrassed I’d be, but mostly, because she knew it said something about her that no one in Ironton knew. A risque tale from her youth. She told it without blushing or shyness. She told it because she wanted me to know that she was a lot tougher than anyone thought she might be. I wonder now if she told it because she knew that something was about to happen.”
They turned back to the house.
Nagler finally got to ask his cop questions, but other than a few generalities, it was clear that Lauren Fox had told her parents little about her time in Ironton, but that alone was intriguing, he thought. It was either so dull and routine that it was not worth speaking about, or it was so strange and dangerous she didn’t want them to know for fear they would speak to the wrong people.
On the front porch before Nagler said his thanks and farewell, Adrienne Fox said, “it’s possible, Mr. Nagler that that place Lauren was trying to draw you into was not as you saw it, but instead the only place she felt safe. She was drawing you there not only because she loved you, but because she trusted you. It was the place where she was always alone. She was asking you in to make her feel less lonely.”
Before he walked away, she placed a small brown envelope in his hand. It contained a key.
“It’s the key to her apartment in Easton,” Adrienne Fox said. “We own some property there and she lived in one unit after leaving Ironton. All her mail was sent here. She was hiding. That’s why her Neon is here.”
“Where is she now?” Nagler asked.
Adrienne Fox look off into the brighter distance, the answer troubling her eyes, which withdrew, growing darker.
“We’re not sure,” she said. “We got a telephone call from her several months ago in which she said she was leaving Easton because she saw a woman from town hall who had caused her trouble.”
“Did she say who that was?”
“Yes. I’ll never forget the name because I thought it unusual. Glance.”
Shit, Nagler said to himself. Debbie Glance.
I’m going to have to speak with her, he thought. But how? I’m not supposed to be investigating anything, and he knew that if Foley suspected he was poking around at anything, they could pull him off the desk, knock him back to patrolman, fire him. This is a strange box I’m in, he thought.
The road to Easton, a town just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, is a winding, old country road that by accident became the main route from the northwest part of Jersey to Pennsylvania. It hugs a river on one side and a steep cliff on the other. It was a perfect road for riders on horseback, slow wooden wagons laden with hay or iron ore, or for tourists, but, filled with traffic, not for anyone in a hurry. The fifteen miles to Easton took more than forty minutes. It’s all the subdivisions, he thought. He must have passed a dozen. Houses perched on hillsides, lawns spreading right to the riverbanks, and with them acres of shopping centers. He passed one shopping center that seem to be nearly a half-mile long, with three large stores at the either end and in the center, and dozens of smaller ones scattered in between.
Was this was Gabriel Richman had in mind for the iron bog?
Nagler shook his head. Why did Ironton miss out? The monied interests in this state can pretty much do what they want, where they want. But they didn’t want Ironton, he thought. How strange, when it seems so easy to get.
As he drove he went over the stoveworks fire and all the confusion, lights, odors and sense of desperation when firefighters realized that three people were still inside the burning hulk; then the commands, men and women scrambling for helmets and flashlights as an arc of flame flashed overhead, the wet battering of the brick by thick, gleaming ropes of water fired from the hoses on trucks that lined the roads and fields.
He was interviewing the survivors as they were treated for burns or smoke inhalation, or just offered soup. He spoke with a dozen and had yet to find Del Williams.
That was the last question he asked, “Did you see Del?”
The answers sounded alike: “Yeah, man. He was standing in the middle of the camp, yelling at us to get out, god dammit, get out. A couple of the guys passed out, and he was pullin’ on their clothes and sleeping bags, yellin’ at them, you know? They was smoke and fire all over hell. So thick … couldn’t see or breathe… Get out, get out. God dammit, get out.”
“Do you know where Del went?” Nagler asked.
“Man, they was just layin’ there. And Del, he was pullin’ and pushin’ at ‘em. Man. Just get out. Get your asses outta here.”
Four of the buildings were ablaze when Nagler arrived, creating a wall of fire maybe three hundred yards long and a hundred feet high. The fire companies surrounded the buildings and dozens of water streams arced from the black ground to the red and white canopy of flame and smoke, flashing in and out of the yellowed spotlights.
There had been only one other fire of such magnitude in his lifetime, Nagler thought, a lumber yard fire when he was a kid. He could see the glow of the fire from his house in the hilly streets in the north part of the city. He hunched on the roof of his house and watched the horizon burn. The glow lasted all night like the sun rising in the wrong direction.
That was when he learned about Ironton’s other great fire.
It was Ironton’s version of the Great Chicago Fire, an uncontrolled blaze that consumed half of the stores in the downtown. The fire started in a pile of hay in a barn attached to one of the city’s old railroad hotels and quickly spread from wooden building to wooden building until it reached the outer wall of the city’s first brick building. Firefighters used the wall as a fire break and stopped the advance of the flames, but had to watch as the rest of the buildings collapsed into blackened heaps.
Why’d I remember that? Nagler wondered. When was that? He remembered reading an old historic society bulletin about it. It was during George Richman’s first term as mayor.
He parked the car in Easton just off the main drag, got out, and looked for the house number of Lauren Fox’s apartment.
He remembered recalling the Great Fire and staring out over the burning stoveworks. He summoned the snatches of the city’s history. George Richman already owned the mines and the ironworks and the railroads before he became mayor, but he was just one of the city’s industrialists. As mayor he changed the direction of the city, a change, Nagler recalled, that began after the fire that leveled half the downtown.
The change was written up as the great revival of Ironton. There were lots of newspaper stories that made comparisons between Ironton and the mythic Phoenix, the bird that rises from its own ashes. Nagler smiled. Didn’t think Dawson was that old.
The apartment smelled closed up and stale. It was still furnished in manner that suggested it as used by a family member and not a tenant. The matching couch and chairs were plush, the rugs padded and thick. The refrigerator had an in-door icemaker and the bedroom was dark with thick floor-length drapes. It seemed to have been recently cleaned., as if Lauren’s parents expected her to return after a months-long vacation.
He looked out the windows that overlooked the street. It seemed quiet and ordinary, just rows of apartments or condos, cars lining the street, flowers in wooden boxes on windowsills. It seemed a settled place.
It was the quietness that got his attention, the lack of substantial foot or vehicle traffic. It was so quiet that a stranger might draw attention, and it made him wonder if this was where Lauren saw Debbie Glance.
Standing in the living room of the apartment he was puzzled why Lauren’s mother would give him the key. The place looked swept clean. Did you think it was going to be obvious? He chided himself. So he searched: he opened drawers, closets, looked under the bed, felt beneath the mattress, looked in the linen closet, but found nothing.
It was in the freezer. A manila envelope with his name written in black marker.
Her pulled open the clasp and took out about a dozen sheets of paper.
“Hi Frank,” the top page began. “If you are reading this, you’ve already met my mother. I figured you’d get here sooner or later.”
Attached to the first page was a yellow sticky note.
“Hi. I wrote most of this while still on the job in Ironton. Hope it helps. Lauren.”
In the margin, she wrote, “I had to do it this way, Frank. Sorry. There’s more than meets the eye.”
It was written like a diary.
I arrived in Ironton, New Jersey about four years ago. I was hired by the city with state funds to begin programs that would lead to more jobs and better housing.
I thought I had better start writing down things about the third week I was in the job. There was so much going on, so many details to organize, that I began to lose track of them. After I missed a meeting with the town manager and he scowled at me for about ten minutes, I began to get organized.
At first I despaired over the condition of Ironton. I mean how could a city with such a history of success, a city with strong leaders and past economic strength fall so far? I saw homes that has not been repaired obviously for years, and when I asked how the city could let the landlords get away with it, I was told that’s just the way it is. But children were being exposed to bedbugs and rats and filth. Blocks of houses were like that. Jiminy. Drugs were everywhere. I looked up the Census data and almost twenty-five percent of the city’s population earned less than thirty thousand dollars a year. The high school drop out rate was nearly fifty percent. I learned the city was a destination for immigrants and maybe ten percent of the homes had three or more families living there. The newest immigrants were from South America and not one person at city hall spoke Spanish. I know I didn’t!
I was overwhelmed. O-ver-whelmed. I called my mother and cried on the phone, and she’d listen because that what mothers do. But then my Dad would get on the phone and in that brusque Dad-way would tell me that I had to get past the fears and concentrate on the solutions. Then he’d say “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He always said that. And it always made me feel better.
So I started to sort through the work, even though it took the city a month to get a computer into my office. I bought a lot of legal pads and kept hand-written notes. The state wanted to see three issues tackled: job creation, housing, and code violations. I wasn’t sure what the city officials wanted. Their attitude seemed to be, the state told you want they want, so give it to them. But it wasn’t that easy. Most of the state grants required some city money or labor. Mayor Richman said he would get the city council to set aside some funds and get the county to use inmate labor for some of the projects. But, you know, he didn’t really seem to care about the state funds or what could be done with them.
Later I found out it was because he wanted to build a shopping center on the iron bog. I had spoken with Maria, my contact at the state about that project and she made it pretty clear that no state department would support it, and I was going to have to tell the mayor.
I thought I was going to be sick before that meeting.
Mayor Richman had already held his press conference about the shopping center plans and the big billboard had already been unveiled. Talk about being too big for his britches. I thought he would have waited until he had done a study on the site to even see if it could support a shopping center. I mean, it’s A SWAMP! It’s a big hole in the ground filled with water. Oh, dear. So, yeah, okay, the concerns professionally were the environmental correctness of the thing, and the location and inability to attract financing. But, jeez, it’s still a big swamp. What was he going to call it? Swamp City. Home of Discount Pricing?
He didn’t want to hear that the state was willing to support a project for the big parking lot along the river. The state would have paid for the studies and the engineering and we could have built a project that would put jobs in the center of the city.
Mayor Richman just muttered about how the state was trying to run Ironton again, that they had tried it in the past and they were the reason there was a big, empty parking lot in the middle of downtown.
He told me to get out. And then he told me he was going to assign Debbie Glance to monitor my office. I had never even met her. I was a little scared. I wanted to quit, but Maria said she would speak with the mayor and calm him down.
So I stayed. Debbie Glance was not assigned directly to my office, but she began to get involved more often.
I learned a lot about Mayor Richman in those days, not the least of which was how mercurial he was. It seemed like no one had told him “no” before because whenever someone did, he grew cross and short; sometimes he left the room or called an end to the meeting. He reminded me of a little kid. I know he was the mayor and was used to leading and directing and generally bossing people around,…blah, blah, blah… but walking out of a public council meeting as he did one time because the council asked questions about the bog plan, seemed juvenile to me, not mayoral. Even I knew he needed the council’s approval and I’m not political at all. I thought he would have been more polished, more professional, but even in meetings he would talk about how “they” were not going to stop him, that his family had a legacy of leading this city in hard times, that he would bring the city back to its glory days when his great-grandfather George Richman founded the modern Ironton.
No disrespect Mayor Richman, but what I learned about your great-grandfather was that he was nothing more than a robber baron. He was a rich industrialist who bought political power and turned city into his own cash cow. I think what really gets the current Mayor Richman was that he is nowhere near as rich or skilled as his illustrious family member, and all the huffing and puffing is not going to make him so. Won’t be any Mayor Gabriel Richman statues anytime soon.
Then in the middle of all that, I met Frank Nagler.
Wow. Everything, I mean , everything, changed.
I met him at a community meeting. He was the key speaker, discussing a new program aimed at connecting a new division of community based police officers with neighborhoods groups. The response was somewhat predictable. The neighbors didn’t want more police in their neighborhood, they wanted the potholes filled, the street lights repaired and the drug gangs evicted. It seemed to get pretty personal at one point but Detective Nagler just calmly answered questions and took suggestions.
What I liked it that he made no promises, you know, like the gangs will be run out of town or some other John Wayneism. He just told them straight out that there were problems and with their help the city could make progress. He had a tremendous sense of calmness, and not just because he was a cop and used to taking over a situation, but he projected an aura that nothing ever was going to upset him. When I learned later that his wife had died when he was a young man, things made sense. Nothing else could ever be that horrible.
I guessed that was why he seemed weighed down. I didn’t think it was his job. He seemed so much to enjoy the give-and-take with the neighbors. He laughed at their jokes and smiled at the grandmothers, strongly shook the hands of all the men, and once in awhile paused with a puzzled face, then grabbed the man’s shoulder and they smiled broadly as the connection was made. More than once I heard him say, “Oh, right. I remember that.”
His eyes carried the weight of whatever it was. When he laughed they did not sparkle or share in the happy grin that spread across his face. They did not light up when he recalled a person’s name and the history between them flooded in, but remained sunken and still; I wondered what could cause such pain.
The crowd filtered out of the room, and I didn’t hear any grumbling. I even saw some smiles and heard a few positive comments, as if they were glad someone finally noticed. I was walking against the crowd like a fish swimming upstream because I didn’t want Detective Nagler to leave without introducing myself. I heard a person I came to know later as Jimmy Dawson the reporter asking Detective Nagler why he thought it would work this time, and all heard him say was, “because, Jimmy, it has to. We can’t give up again.”
Finally I got to the front of the room and said, “Detective Nagler, I’m Lauren Fox.”
Even before he turned around, he said, “please, it’s Frank…”
How do you describe that moment when it feels like you fell off a cliff and you’re just floating in the air? Well, maybe that’s how you do it. All I remember is that my heart was beating. I could barely speak. And I remember smiling. Later, when I became more rational, I mean he was sort of handsome, but pudgy, calm, very helpful but it seemed to me that he was like my father. And I thought, oh boy, you know how that goes.
But as we began to work together, I figured out that Frank was as non-judgmental a person as I’d ever met. He gave everyone a chance to explain. He listened. In a place where everyone was at each other’s throats all the time, that was a welcome change. He was assigned to my office and it was through him that I came to understand Ironton. He took me below the surface of the bad houses, drug deals, empty factories and filled in the blanks with the history of the city. I learned to see how some residents were working to make their neighborhoods better, to make their lives better. I had been through such places, but where I grew up in the suburbs was so far from Ironton it might has well have been another country. I had read about poverty, studied the impact of generational welfare, had worked with poor families as an intern for my college degree. But until that moment, until I had walked with Frank Nagler into the smelly, filthy, smirky-smiley world of the truly needy, the undereducated, drug addled, drunken, the truly sunken, desperate world of the forgotten, I thought I had understood. That was the moment I grew up, and for that moment thought I (mistakenly) understood the pain in Frank’s eyes. At the point that I thought I had no friends in the city, Frank arrived and gave me hope.
When did I fall in love with him? The first time he looked at me with those piercing blue eyes. He looked right through me, but in a way that was asking questions, asking me what I wanted, asking me who I was, asking me to look inside myself and find what I truly believed; asking me to stay.
Does love exist is such glances? Does it knit together such insignificant things, take form in messages left on phones, waves from passing cars or just an occasional smile? It must, because we had so little time to work at what there was between us before the trouble landed that it seemed to me that nothing would ever come of it.
Then I saw the note. “Hey, sweet girl.” I don’t think I ever told him how that made me feel. I smiled. I tingled. I cried. I felt whole. They were words of hope in the silence that surrounded us, a silence I alone knew would be deepened.”
Nagler leaned against the wall and rubbed his forehead. It was a strangely written tale. It had an odd tone as if she was writing to explain the whole situation to not him, but a third person. It almost read like a deposition, he thought. It was stranger yet, he thought as he read about her first observations about him, things she never told him or described to him. He felt embarrassed. He didn’t like being that closely observed. And then there was why? Why did she go through this charade, the apartment key with her mother, the envelope in the freezer?
There was one more page, scribbled in Lauren’s wide handwriting, just a few lines and notes.
“I think of you in the morning, remember sitting across the desk from you as we had coffee, sometimes saying nothing, but then you’d ask, “What?” I think just to start a conversation… and I think about how when we were together at an event or just out somewhere, it seemed like a play, watching everyone watching us. ….. I miss the kindness of your touch, how sometimes you’d run a finger down my cheek and across my mouth and I’d kiss it, how you’d softly kiss each of my eyes, and brush a hair from my forehead , and …… God I can’t do this…”
Mayor Gabriel Richman seemed stunned by the number of people in the hallway when he opened the door of his office to walk to the meeting room; and in the room itself, every seat and spot along the walls were taken. Richman had hoped the crowd would be calm, but there was a murmur building, a rising growl that he needed to headed off.
The fire at the stoveworks destroyed five buildings, four in the vacant complex, and another in a cluster of smaller buildings where two businesses had begun renovations.
On the streets of Ironton the fire sparked an outrage, an astonished hurt as the residents realized how their futures were suddenly clouded by the fire.
Maybe they believed they mill would reopen. Maybe their believed Gabe Richman’s super mall would be built over the Old Iron Bog. Maybe they believed because they had no choice, because the human heart is always filled with hope. To do otherwise was to accept that they were just pawns in some political game, chess pieces being moved on a board by an invisible hand; chumps, losers, dust.
The city was a simmering caldron of distrust that exposed itself in comments posted online under Dawson’s story about the fire, that crystallized in the shattering of glass at city hall as a few gangs of kids rattled noisily through the empty downtown streets breaking glass, dumping trash cans and throwing rocks at the windows of city hall. They were caught trying to push a Toyota onto the train tracks.
Richman called for a public meeting in hopes of bringing calm back to the city.
Five firefighters had been injured and three people died. They had no identification and a search for information and potential family members had begun.
Chris Foley thought they were just three of the homeless who had been living in the factory. That’s what he told the press. In Jimmy Dawson’s story about the fire, Foley said, “We haven’t determined the cause yet, but I would not be surprised if we find it started near one of the camp fires of the homeless bums that lived there. I saw the camp the other day. It was a trash-filled, disgusting mess. How could they live like that?”
Richman reminded himself to make sure had a tone of concern in his voice when he spoke about the dead. He stared at the floor a moment before stepping to the microphone. Why had I never visited them?
“Thank you all for coming,” Richman shouted above the din, which calmed. “I ask you to join me in a moment of silence to honor the three people who died in the fire.”
The room was filled with a shuffling silence that held everyone in its breath as even the hardest hearts acknowledged the pain of three needless deaths; held until someone in the hallway yelled, “Why honor the bums? They probably set the fire. Isn’t that what the cops said?”
In that second it was over, the pretense of caring torn away, exposing the red eyes, clenched fists and torn voices too long quiet. The room filled with loud voices, at first unsure of their message, but as others joined the shouting masses, they found the rhythm of rebellion, the syntax of pain, and the voices wrapped in the orchestration of rage, became one. In the hallway, the shouter was punched and grabbed and thrown to the floor where he covered his head until two police officers lifted him up and led him out of the crowd. Richman yelled out, “Please, please, calm down. Please sit. Calm down, please.” But his voice was lost in the howl, his feet rooted where he stood. The room vibrated with the concussive, rising sound of wordless rage, the voices of the stricken given air; shook as faces howled into the night. Voices wept, screamed, cracked with rage as they tapped into the seam of anguish that flowed like a flood below the surface, but now given an outlet, gushed to fill the room, lifting the wicked and innocent alike to face a judgment all were unprepared to meet. How long they had remained silent.
“Please, please, please,” Richman yelled out as police tried to push through the doors filled with people unwilling to move. Richman had seen these faces before. They were the faces of his youth, the hard leather skin, creased and cracked, mouths formed into sneers or angry scowls; faces of the beaten. He had seen these faces when as a boy he walked past the gates of the iron mills and saw the men leave the jobs for the last time, passing into the streets as a security guard leaned and pushed hard on his tiptoes as he struggled to shove the massive gates closed and with a loud metal crack jammed a steel bar into the latch.
Those were the faces that haunted Gabriel Richman.
That was the Ironton of his youth. The bloom of George Richman’s day long faded, the mills, the canal, the trains, all gone; the shops, the great stores, the frantic buzz that filled the downtown streets silent. The vacant stares replaced smiles, torn pants replaced new slacks. Torn pants, torn shoes, dirty-faced kids; streets with holes, houses with no paint, men huddled hopeless.
Those were the faces he stared into when he promised he would make things better, when he promised he could return Ironton’s glory days. Faces he had long forgotten.
He thought they heard him then, thought they believed. Only now did he realize how hollow their cheers had been.
“Please,” he shouted as his voice weakened. “Please, sit. Sit please.”
But they didn’t hear him; didn’t want to hear him. They had swallowed their voices for years as the city lost jobs, factories closed and parks and street fell to disrepair. “When is the park near my house going to be fixed? My kids need a place to play.” “The city hasn’t fixed my fence that was wrecked by a snow plow last December.” “How am I going to feed my family?” They had listened as politicians asked them to recall the glory of the past, when inventive men devised machines that needed workers to operate, when Ironton’s workers carried the region on their broad shoulders and prosperity spread out from the red brick mills of the city on the river like green streams of hope and changed the future of that section of the world. When generations of their fathers and grandfathers wiped their brows of hard-earned sweat and proudly held in their hands the product of their labors, the thing that held their souls; when they understood how their hard work had made someone else happy. But at the same time they understood the mathematical equation of their existence that said all their hard work would never erase all the steep steps between themselves and the factory owners, never shorten the path of their children to success, or allow them to measure their happiness on the same scale as the bosses’. Because a worker’s happiness depended on whether that new pair of shoes fit their child’s feet, and the bosses happiness depended on squeezing one more pair of shoes an hour from his workers and shaving three cents a pound off the price of leather. “Hey, Gabe, how’s that shopping center coming? Hey, Gabe, when am I going to get a job?”
And Gabriel Richman could not stifle that roar. All he could do was stand in its path as it rushed by.
It flashed by him, stripping away all the little constructs he had made in his mind, all the flimsy dreams he had foisted on Ironton’s citizens in hopes they would believe him and give him one more chance to connect the random and poisonous imaginings to reality.
But they had seen the “home for sale” signs grow on their street more numerous than new trees, had seen stores boarded up and their taxes rise even as the library closed on Saturdays, cops were laid off, and they had to pay for their kid to play football or take a school trip to New York City. They had seen their work hours shrink, their neighbor stare at the want ads knowing that at her age no one would hire her. They had seen the shouting newscasters say how on one hand unemployment was the biggest political issue the country faced, and on the other hand how much it was costing everyone else to have all these people out of work at the same time. Heard them say with big sad eyes how bad they felt that everyone was hurting at the same time, but those jobless masses had better find a way to get a job, even at some convenience store, because everyone else was not going to pay for them to be out of work much longer.
Stop being lazy. Stop asking for help. Get off your ass and help yourself.
How long can a beaten man be kicked? How long can a woman work one job, put her children to sleep with a of prayer of better times, and then leave them for her second over-night job and still be told she needs to do more? How long can you stare into the face of a worker and tell him he is not doing his best?
In that instant when the roar awoke, when the formless tortured cry rose from throats that finally had the stops removed, in that moment Gabriel Richman knew that his time had passed. How many times can we walk past the tent cities of blue tarps and look away?
All that was left was making sure he survived.
Jimmy Dawson, standing in a corner of the room marveled at the rage. He caught the eye of Frank Nagler who was pinned to the wall near the main door, and raised an eyebrow as he thought: It’s about time.
Fights broke out in the room; fists flew, blood was spilled.
It was a prelude.