Nagler sat like a rock anchored in the hard iron soil. Ironton Park swirled with kids at play, screaming their young lungs out as they jumped from swings and bounced each other off the see-saw; mothers weary from the chase leaned against the new fences and just watched, raising their heads from time to time when a pain-filled scream pierced the excited air.
He had been slowly walking through downtown, just to get out in the air. The streets throbbed again with noise, the buses, trucks; the sidewalks again filled. Repair crews were long gone, replaced by painters and carpenters installing doors, fixing windows, remodeling storefronts. The city had replaced the banners that had hung from light poles and some of the merchants had tables of goods for sale on the sidewalks. Come to life, they seemed to be saying. Come back to life.
Nagler recalled a conversation he and Dawson had the night after the city hall riot.
“People are just walking around like nothing happened, Frank. Look at them. Talking on their phones, reading papers. We can really fool ourselves sometimes, can’t we, Frank,” Dawson said.
“What do you mean?”
“The city’s been in turmoil for weeks. Dead bodies in the bog, the floods, the stoveworks fire, riots at city hall. And everyone is just walking around like nothing happened.”
Nagler looked out the window at the street scene.
“Maybe just getting back to normal is what we have to do,” he said. “The best way to cope. I’ll bet a lot of those people had to repair their homes, or had to help family fix theirs. Some of those people lost their jobs because of the floods. Maybe they spend a few nights sleeping in the high school. After experiences like that, normal probably seems pretty good.”
He remembered that Dawson just shrugged. “Maybe.”
The phrase stuck in his mind.
Don’t know if I can, Jimmy.
He wanted it to be true, that he could find her, but at the same time he didn’t want it to be true. I could find her, he told himself. I’m a goddamn cop. A couple phone calls, and Internet search or two and I could find her. But he didn’t make the phone calls, didn’t search the web. Just carried her around.
As he was walking though the downtown he stopped by the train station. A gang of high school kids was on the platform waiting for a train. At first he just watched them. A few leaned against the station’s wall tapping on their cell phones, a few hunched in the corner smoking. Some had paired off, clutching one another in and end of the world hug. They held hands, smiled sweetly and sometimes kissed. The girls leaned their heads on the chests of their taller boyfriends and remained still as the boys stroked their hair, softly touched a finger to their girls’ lips or tickled their ass and waited as the girls pulled the roving hands away.
At first Nagler watched with amusement as a parent who has kids that age might, but the amusement vanished and he looked away. Then he left. As he passed through the parking lot near the train station, he saw a man and a woman embracing, kissing deeply, then folding into each other arms. He stared quickly at the ground and turned away.
He didn’t want to be watching romantic couples express their affection for one another; didn’t want to watch happy loving couples share that love. He pulled back from the world and walked on.
Find her; find yourself. That’s what Dawson meant.
Nagler was sitting in the gazebo in the center of the park. He and Lauren would have lunch here a couple of days a week in the warmer seasons. The shade, the noise of traffic and happy children was like a shield against the troubles that swirled through the town. They’d spread their lunch out on the bench that rimmed the outside of the shell and just take in the sounds, the scenes, sometimes talked, sometimes not.
The old warehouse that formed the park’s western border was receiving a colorful mural that told Ironton’s history in bright wide swirls of blue and green, yellow and brown paint.
Two students were outlining a wooden canal boat being hauled through town by a mule, and another splashed black and grey paint the bring to life a steam engine resting at the town’s Nineteenth Century station against a faint background of reddish factories and tall smoke stacks.
“You’d hate to think what Ironton might have been like if the canal basin was not build here,” she said one day. “All those strange foods and fashions the immigrants added to the mix. The city was this wonderful melting pot of the world. New layers of people filtered into the existing layers, the edges of the old neighborhoods blurring as they filled and grew smaller. They left the old troubles behind.”
Nagler recalled that he looked at her sharply after she said that. Left the old troubles behind. It didn’t seem to him that she was talking about the city.
He started to ask her what she meant, when she stood and said, “Time to go. Lunch is over. Thank you, sir.”
Two weeks later when she disappeared, he knew that had been a conversation as scripted and planned as any speech in a play. It had indeed been time to go.
Nagler leaned his head against the post, suddenly light-headed. He had been watching some children ride the whirl-a-gig in the playground. They grabbed the metal handles and pushed the heavy circle slowly around until they began to run alongside to keep up. Then one by one they jumped on and held on for dear life as the spinning ride twirled and twirled. When it slowed they’d let go and squealing, fly off on to the grass. Their mothers would yell, and giggling, the kids would do it again.
But it wasn’t the twirling, spinning ride that sent his head elsewhere. Instead he saw in his mind the dedication ceremony for the playground. It was more than two years ago and it was the last time he saw Lauren Fox.
It was the biggest event to happen in Ironton in years. Something so positive that even the snarling politicians of the city could not find anything harsh to say. Corporations had donated the funds, and volunteers from a dozen organizations worked under the supervision of Tommy Travelo, the public works director, to clean the site and erect the playground equipment. Schools hung banners along the fences, and the excited students pulled at the locked gates while the speeches were given.
Nagler recalled they had not seen much of each other in a week or more. His assignment had changed, and with the playground and a project at the middle school, Lauren had been out of her office more than she had been in it. But more, there was the silence. The phone calls diminished, the emails were not returned. Was the blush off the romance, or was it all just work?
Lauren was working the crowd as she usually did at these events. There were speakers to line up, and because this was a playground dedication, she had to get a dozen mothers to control their four-year-olds. He watched as she smiled at the children and got them to stand as straight as possible even as they fidgeted and looked over their shoulder at the swings and rides and climbing frames inside the locked fence.
She shook hands with the corporate donors, the city officials and when they were all seated, she stood off to one side and waited. That was when he saw her look at the ground and rub her eyes. She looked away from the scene a moment and out into the street.
Then she turned and found his face at the back of the crowd and he started to smile back. But she wasn’t smiling. Her face was filled with a hurt he didn’t understand. The ceremony had begun and she intently paid attention to the speakers. But her eyes were dark and while she tried to show a pleasant, interested face to the crowd, Nagler could see it was just an act. The veneer was soft, but it was a face of hurt and anger, and from where he stood, Frank Nagler knew it was aimed at him. He just did not know why.
The sounds of the playground and the street returned. He could still see her on that podium, still see her torn face. Oh, Lauren. Oh, sweet girl. What did I do?
Find her, Jimmy? She was right in front of me and I couldn’t find her.
Spill me out of this twirling gyre, let my feet find ground. Stop the noise in my head, hide the flashing pictures; let the spinning end.
He leaned forward and covered his eyes with his hands and inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. That old feeling came back, the one that left a hole inside him, that old loneliness returned. He sat up and glanced around. The invisible sheen, like a plastic wall, was back. He was on the inside and everyone else was on the outside. Stay there, he thought. Never again.
He saw Lauren stand on the podium and then saw her sitting on the bench inside the gazebo.
“Nothing is simple, Frank,” she said as she picked up the food wrappers. “Nothing is at it seems. There’s more here than meets the eye.” Then she winked.
Nagler smiled, and then shook his head. That’s what she wrote on that sticky note in the packet she left in her apartment freeze. There’s more than meets the eye. Did she mean us? All those feelings kept to ourselves, how we justify our hurt later with indifference?
Or did she mean here, in this park? She’d know I’d come back here. Am I that easy to read? That easy to fool?
One by one he examined each section and piece of equipment in the park. The band stand was old, maybe seventy-five years, the war memorial dated back to after World War I.
The playground, he thought.
I wonder what she buried under the playground? And why?
There was one more item in the metal box buried in the playground: An envelope with his name scrawled on it. He almost threw it away. He didn’t want to read one more distant attempt by Lauren Fox to make him feel better. No more hints, no more reaching back. Was any of it real? After hearing Howie Newton’s tale, it was hard to believe that anything Lauren did was as it seemed. Nagler put the envelope on the table and thought, I feel a little bit used. Dawson, it turned out was right: We didn’t trust each other, Nagler thought.
Nagler grabbed his raincoat and went for a walk. The cold air stung with a driving rain and flecks of snow, a punishing wind. The streets were empty, and the water was pushed along by the wind so it left a smeared, greasy reflection of a swinging traffic light on the blacktop. Rainwater swirled around clogged drains; it leaked into storm drains and into the river, which spilled over lawns, which became swamplike. He stopped under the awning that shielded the windows of the old Richman’s department store. The owners had painted the windows black to hide the fact that all the stores were empty.
And now we’re down to this, he thought. Secrets, lies, deceit. It’s what I’d expect from the likes of Howie Newton and Gabe Richman. They think they can make the world spin just for them.
I guess I never really knew you at all, did I? The smiles, the soft kisses, the questions in our eyes. Did I need to be in love with you that much that I was unwilling to question anything you did? He walked again in the brooding rain. He pulled the collar of the heavy coat tighter and retreated inside the shell.
The envelope was still on the table. He picked it up. And he put it down. He walked away. He came back.
What the hell, he sighed.
It was a single photograph of Lauren. Nagler remembered taking it at the park during one of their lunches. She sat facing him, but her eyes were looking off into the distance. A few strands of hair settled on her cheek and her face was serene. He remembered she glanced back at him after he took the photo and smiled, her eyes deep with affection, and he remembered how open, how special, how blessed he felt at that moment.
He placed the photo on the table and with his index fingers squared it up against the envelope. He ran a finger down each side of the photo and then without knowing why, touched her face, trying to make some perfect arrangement as the hollowness inside opened again, the silence drove out the sounds and inside his empty shell, Frank Nagler placed his left hand across his mouth and began to weep.
What is it that cracks the thick stony shell where love hides when bruised? A simple glance, a long, unfocused stare that suddenly snaps to clarity? An unexpected word?
Frank Nagler didn’t notice at first, but he soon felt filled with her. It was beyond mere knowledge, deeper than sensation; it became part of his breath, a shine in his vision, her name like some unknown foreign taste that clung to his tongue, a nectar that nourished him through the day.
He called her sweet girl.
In notes stuck in reports he returned to her, scrawled on yellow sticky notes, in emails, and later when they met, a whisper in her ear, sometimes more breath than thought. He would send her a note each day that just said, “Hey, sweet girl.”
Then on days they never met, or did not share some casual greeting, Nagler felt the contraction like the shrinking of a parched fruit, sides sucked in as the moisture drained away, shriveled, weakened, hollow.
That smile went right through him, and the empty parts of his soul became infused with sound and light; all the hollowness filled with weight.
We’ll spend a day sprawled on our backs in a room with a high ceiling, coffee cups, beer cans, food wrappers strewn careless as dreams. I want to know what you were like at three, who your friends were at seven, why you didn’t like the girl next door, and fawned over the boy who lived three streets over and sat in the fourth seat on the right side of the school bus and carried a black book bag that had a fire breathing dragon stitched into the back. Was he the dangerous one? The one who walked outside the lines, who shook the very Presbyterian in you to the bottom of your boots?
Did you cheer at football games and just die when the teams lost the championship, or walk in a bubble if they won?
Tell me who was your first love, the first time you and your friends really broke the rules and got grounded, the first time he kissed you and you walked home through leaf-filled streets looking in the windows of your friends’ homes.
Tell me what moved you, what music you loved, what books and films, the places that stirred you, the events that made you laugh and cry; what it was that moved your life in the direction it took.
Tell me why you are. Tell me who you are. Tell me what you are.
And I will absorb it, cherish it, revel in its detail and hold it all dear because it is you that I hold. It is you that I love.
And when you are done I will spill all I know at your feet and let you pick the parts you like, laugh at the parts that are strange and fear those things that are harmful. Wash it all away.
And when we are done there will be just the two of us, in that moment, raw, naked, free; just the two of us in that moment with all of time ahead.