From the passenger's seat, Nancy Meagher said, "Ted Williams used to play some sport, right?"
Behind the wheel of the Honda Civic, I didn't glance at her or the white-on-green traffic sign as I turned us into the new tunnel to Boston's Logan Airport. "Sacrilege, Nance."
"Because I insulted a public-works project?"
Even without looking, I could feel the playful smile, like a model on a postcard from County Kerry, as she needled me oh-so-subtly about the difference in our ages.
Traffic in the Ted was light, the reason we'd taken Nancy's car instead of mine on that cold Wednesday evening in early January. A prosecutor in downtown, she lived in my old neighborhood of South Boston, and the political deal on the tunnel project was that Southie residents could get a windshield decal that let them use the new route when it was otherwise restricted to commercial vehicles. Which made driving to the airport -- usually an unpredictable nightmare -- into a milk-run of no more than ten minutes.
Nancy said. "John?," the playful smile still in her voice.
"It's not as much fun to needle you if I don't get timely responses."
"Ted Williams was the best outfielder the Red Sox ever had, and -- "
"Better even than that Bill Russell guy?"
The Hall-of-Fame basketball center for the Celtics. "I'm beginning to understand what teachers mean by 'not educable.'"
Nancy shifted in her seat, but didn't change her tone. "You're just jealous."
"My going to San Francisco."
An educational conference for prosecutors was being held there, and Nancy had been chosen by her boss to be the assistant district attorney attending from Suffolk County, a genuine feather in her professional cap. But I'd promised another private investigator named George-Ann Izzo that I'd help her with an industrial surveillance, and she was estimating a solid week for the job. Frankly, George-Ann would probably --
"John?," now a different tone in Nancy's voice.
This time I did turn my head toward her. "Only half right."
"About your going to San Francisco. The part that makes me jealous is I won't be there with you."
Nancy brought her left hand up to the back of my neck, very gently drawing her thumb and forefinger along the strands of hair at my collar. "Me, too."
"Of course," I said, "there's a good chance this 'El Niño' thing will wreck the weather out there for you."
"Funny, I heard the warm currents were actually reaching the beaches, almost like Los Angeles."
"The TV news said those same warm currents were also bringing sharks up from the south."
"The sharks won't get me lying in the sun on the sand."
"Then again," I said, "you'll more likely be spending your days taking copious notes in some conference room."
Nancy tugged a little on a couple of my neck hairs. "I was thinking more of how I'd like to be spending my nights."
"But I promised George-Ann, and -- "
" -- a promise is a promise."
"Always," I said.
Nancy started grazing my skin at the nape ever-so-lightly with her fingernails. "John Francis Cuddy, consistency is not always a virtue."
I leaned my head back against her hand. "You keep doing that, and the concept of virtue will probably fly off our agenda."
The nails dug a little deeper. "Imagine, making love in a tunnel named after a famous hockey player."
"You sure know how to kill a mood."
She slid her hand out from behind me, but she was laughing softly doing it.
"This is the final boarding call for Flight Number One-thirty-three to San Francisco."
In the brightly lit departure lounge, Nancy and I watched the airline's gate agent put down his microphone. The flight seemed only about half-full, so the boarding process had gone quickly.
A little too quickly for me.
Nancy said, "You'll call me about the decision on your apartment, right?"
Around the time we'd met, I started renting a condominium in Boston's neighborhood of Back Bay from a doctor leaving for a residency in Chicago. The doctor had called me the prior week, saying she was going to extend another year and asking if I wanted to stay on as a tenant. Nancy was the first woman I'd cared anything about since my wife, Beth, had died young from brain cancer. Nancy and I had been through a lot, and we'd finally begun talking about living together. She was renting the top floor of a three-decker from a Boston Police family named Lynch, several generations of whom lived on the first two floors. But Nancy wasn't sure the older Mrs. Lynch would swing for a "living-in-sin" arrangement in her house, and I wasn't sure the doctor's one-bedroom condo would be big enough for us and Nancy's cat. Her pet went by "Renfield," after the madman in Dracula who ate small mammals, but he'd --
"I really worry when you zone out on me like that."
"I'll call you about the condo."
Nancy slipped both her hands up under my arms, her palms firmly planted on my shoulder blades as we hugged each other. "The Lynches will feed Renfield, but he might like you to come play with him once or twice."
"I'll stop at the pet store first, pick up a couple of canaries."
The gate agent looked at us rather pointedly as he reached for his microphone again. "All passengers should now be..."
I put my lips close to Nancy's right ear. "I'm going to miss you, kid."
"What, you aren't already?"
Kissing the lobe above her earring, I got a whiff of her shampoo and perfume, but even more a scent that was so specifically, definably Nancy that I thought I could find her by sense of smell the way a momma dog can identify one of her puppies in the dark.
Turning to go, Nancy said over her shoulder, "Call me at my hotel."
"But don't forget about the time-zone difference."
A last smile just before the gate agent closed the jetway door behind her.
I turned and began walking back toward the main terminal, an emptiness welling up inside me. Nancy and I had been together a lot over the holiday season. Just before Christmas, we attended the Chorus Pro Musica concert at the Old South Church on Boylston Street. We celebrated New Year's Eve by going to three First Night events: medieval carols at the First Lutheran on Marlborough, a saxophone tribute to Duke Ellington at the First Baptist on Commonwealth, and a salsa show at the Church of the Covenant on Newbury.
Nancy had called it "a very yuppie-scum evening."
Reaching her Civic in the Logan parking garage, I realized there was another reason for my emptiness. Because of Nancy's trial duties as a prosecutor, usually she was the one staying in Boston while I traveled somewhere. It was a different feeling, her leaving me behind.
A feeling I'd had years ago, with someone else I loved.
Shaking that off, I turned the key in the ignition.
When I got home, the little window in my telephone tape machine was glowing a red "1," meaning I had a message. Playing it, I heard George-Ann Izzo's voice tell me that our job for the next day had been cancelled, but that the client had called her only "a few minutes ago. Then the machine's atonal voice recited the time George Ann had called me. Four-ten, or a good fifteen minutes before Nancy and I had left her apartment for the airport.
In other words, if I'd just checked my messages by remote from Southie -- or even from the gate at Logan itself -- I could have gotten a ticket on that half-empty flight and spent the long weekend with Nancy in San Fran'.
Picking up the phone, I tried her hotel out there. The desk clerk I drew told me he indeed had a reservation for a "Ms. Meagher, assuming that's 'Nancy Eugenia,' sir." I laughed silently that she'd use her middle name for the hotel when she never did usually, then realized that probably the District Attorney's office would have made the reservation for her. The desk clerk also said Ms. Meagher hadn't checked in yet, which didn't surprise me, since I figured her flight would still be hours east of the city. I left a message for Nancy that I might be able to join her after all and would call back at a reasonable hour in the morning.
I remember going to bed that night feeling pretty good. For the last time in a long time.
Nancy's boss had bought her plane ticket in addition to making her hotel reservation, so the airline called the D.A.'s office first. A secretary there who knew about us reached me at 6:50 A.M. Eastern Time on Thursday morning, just before I would have awakened to the clock radio.
And the frantic bulletins about Flight #133, en route from Boston to San Francisco.
Trying to look back on it with some objectivity, the people at the airline were pretty good about handling what had to be their worst nightmare, too. They made every effort to contact each passenger's family/friends/lovers and shepherd us to a ballroom in one of Boston's bigger hotels. They set up bottomless urns of coffee and laid out a buffet for every meal. And all the while, they marched a rotating cast of experts to the podium on a raised stage "for the purpose of providing information as it becomes available."
The exact sequence of the next twenty-four hours is still pretty hazy. And for someone who supposedly makes his living by being observant, I have almost no memory -- almost no inkling, in fact -- of the other stunned and grieving people sitting or standing with me in that ballroom. All I remember doing is watching the experts ascend the platform, each contributing one more piece to a puzzle that couldn't be solved.
Somebody told us that bizarre wind and rain conditions caused by El Niño made the San Francisco control tower ask incoming flights to stay aloft a while longer, finally forcing many to circle over the ocean off the peninsula. Somebody else said the problem for Nancy's plane was almost certainly caused by El Niño as well, perhaps in a parallel way to the incredible turbulence that had rocked a Japanese airliner only weeks before, even killing one person on board.
However, nobody was sure just what the problem for Flight #133 actually had been.
The tower tapes of radio transmissions from the aircraft held the voice of a man (identified to us as the copilot), screaming, "We're tumbling!" A woman (the pilot) then gave half an order to "Kill the -- ." After that came an earsplitting noise, like a car shredder ripping an old wreck apart for scrap.
Probably the sound of the starboard wing shearing off.
Somebody in a uniform explained why weather conditions kept rescue planes and helicopters on the ground out there until almost twelve hours later. A different somebody in a similar uniform described how the boats that could brave the wind and rain got bounced around "like so many apples in a punchbowl." A genuinely empathetic somebody related how hard it was on the crews to find the floating, often mutilated bodies of eighty-six passengers, and -- to his credit -- he nearly cried when he let slip an acronym for the other seventeen people who'd been on board Flight #133.
"BNR" was the acronym, by the way. Standing for, "Body Not Recovered."
A nerdlike somebody at the podium said the reason so many bodies weren't found is that they might have been carried away by the crazy currents churning off the coast. A pompous somebody else felt more strongly that given the likely magnitude and uncertain angle of the aircraft's impact on the water, some of the bodies ("...and believe me, I know how hard it is for all of you out there to hear this...") were probably dismembered to the point of being...pulverized. Finally one somebody had the guts to climb the ballroom's platform and say that, in her opinion, the warm waters brought in by El Niño probably contained roving schools of sharks.
All I really cared about, though, was that "Meagher, Nancy Eugenia" had been listed among the BNRs.
The following days were, if possible, even worse. After I'd lost Beth to her cancer, I'd "adjusted" with alcohol, to the point of nearly creaming a kid on a bike with my car. This time around, I was a lot smarter.
No establishments beyond walking distance.
Bellied up to one bar or another, I'd stare raptly at the screens oftheir television sets, usually with the audio muted so that sporting events or CNN became pantomime experiences. Only a few news stories not about Flight #133 registered on me, and even they had to be somehow related to each other. I watched reporters in California cover the funeral for then-congressman Sonny Bono, who had joined one of our own Commonwealth's premier political clan in dying on a ski slope. I watched different reporters in Florida cover the homicide-by-drowning of the young daughter of another former rock star, still-shots of the JonBenet Ramsey tragedy from Colorado apparently being used for comparison. Broadening my horizons, I watched footage of massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda. Graphs of the Hong Kong stock market starting to rise while the South Korean one continued to slide. Even a nearly incomprehensible piece on the renaming of countries over the last twenty-five years.
I sobered up -- briefly -- for Nancy's memorial service, arranged by the D.A.'s office. Collectively, we who had known her nearly filled Gate of Heaven church in Southie. There were classmates of hers from New England School of Law and coworkers from the courtroom, even a number of opposing attorneys from Nancy's trials. I sat in a pew near her landlords, the Lynch family, as good and accurate things were recounted by a priest I'd never met. He then asked if anyone wished to come forward and offer their thoughts as well. Everybody waited for me to go first. When I didn't, others went up to the altar rail, and then everybody waited for me to go last. When I didn't do that, either, there was a final, short hymn, and the service was over.
Walking out, I saw people who'd come more for me than because they'd known Nancy well. Robert Murphy, a black lieutenant commanding the Homicide Unit; Mo Katzen, a crotchedy reporter for the Boston Herald; Elie Honein, a Nautilus club manager; and even Primo Zuppone, a mob enforcer. Each tried to talk with me or get me to agree on a date to talk. I fended off all of them.
I'd gone through all this before, you see. I "knew" how to grieve. Or at least how I grieved.
Once I'd driven myself home, I went back to hitting the watering holes. On bitterly cold nights, understanding bartenders poured me into cabs if they were concerned their self-absorbed patron might die from exposure.
And, frankly, that's probably a little bit of what I was doing. Trying to die in a way that wasn't exactly suicide, because I wasn't putting a gun to my head or diving off a bridge. But I would have been deliriously happy if something beyond my control had conveniently, mercifully taken me off the board.
For what it's worth, the capper came exactly eleven days after the crash of Flight #133. I was in a nearly empty bar late on a Sunday night, even more hammered than I'd gotten the previous ten. I remember thinking, I can't talk to Nancy anymore, because she's gone. Then, ordering what I was firmly told would be my last round, I had a brainstorm.
I could call her apartment in Southie and get the outgoing tape message.
Hear her voice.
I remember leaving my fresh drink on the bar top and stumbling into most of the few people in the bar as I weaved my way back to the pay phone. I even remember putting in the quarter -- Jesus, the feel of it leaving my fingers -- and how warm the metal buttons were on the keypad, I guessed because somebody else had just made a call. After punching in Nancy's home number, I counted the rings -- three -- before her machine kicked in. And then her cheery but no-nonsense announcement started, and I could feel the dam break behind my eyes. I tried twice to hang up the receiver but couldn't quite manage it.
I did manage to stagger out of the place and back home to my empty condo.
The next night, from just inside the front door of his three-decker, Drew Lynch said, "John?"
I watched the young police officer relax his right arm, the revolver in that hand now visible against his sweatpants and hanging down loosely at his thigh. "Sorry to bother you, Drew, but there're some things I'd like to get from the third floor."
"Sure." He stepped aside to let me come in. "How're you doing?"
"Not great, but I'm functioning."
It was almost twenty-four hours since the dam had broken in that last bar. I'd spent the morning and afternoon working through the accumulated paperwork at my office and drinking lots of water chased by aspirin for the hangover. As Drew stared at me, though, I realized I wasn't quite functioning on the amenities level.
"How's your family doing?" I said.
"Okay. Mom's still taking it pretty hard, and on top of that she's gotten some kind of flu. Nothing that'll kill her, but -- "
You could see Drew wince as his own words struck him. "Christ, John, I'm sorry. I didn't -- "
"Don't sweat it. We're all a little off from this thing."
"Right." Then a hesitation before, "Yeah."
He turned, and I followed him up the front stairs.
At the second floor landing, Drew opened his apartment door. "And don't worry about Renfield."
Jesus. Not only hadn't I been worrying about Nancy's cat: I'd completely forgotten the poor little guy existed.
Drew said, "We've been feeding him and doing the litter box. My wife even carries him down to our place sometimes so he has somebody to play with, and Mom cuts up scraps from the table."
I cleared my throat. "He likes that."
"Yeah." Drew hesitated again. "You, uh, need any help up there?"
"I don't think so, but thanks."
As Drew closed his door, I climbed to the third floor. At the landing, I could hear scratching sounds coming from the other side of Nancy's door.
I turned the knob and pushed slowly. As soon as the door was ajar, a gray tiger head was forcing the issue, scuffling out crablike on rear legs that had some kind of congenital defect requiring them to be literally, clinically broken and reset by the vet. Because Nancy had been flying --
God, it hit me hard enough, I nearly went down.
I closed my eyes, steadying myself. When I opened them again, I could see Renfield, now trundling toward his food dish in the corner of the kitchen. He sat back on his haunches and looked up at me, meowing once.
After Renfield's operation, I'd had to pick him up from the animal hospital because Nancy was...away. Given what he'd been through -- including having his hindquarters shaved down to the skin for the surgery -- the cat had kind of imprinted on me as a substitute parent. At least, that's how the vet explained it. When I was around Renfield, he paid unusual attention to me, including licking my hand and always trying to crawl into my lap by rearing up awkwardly and pawing my pant leg with his clawless front feet.
Right now, though, he just cried again.
I walked over to the food bowl. Full of the dry cereal stuff as well as some fresh-looking canned glop.
As soon as I was near him, I noticed Renfield stopped crying and began chowing down. When I turned and started to walk away, he cried a third time. Turning back around, I saw the cat was staring at me.
I turned for good this time and went past Nancy's bedroom to the living room in the front of the third floor. It was exactly as we'd left it twelve days before. From behind me, I heard a rhythmic, bonking sound.
The noise Renfield's rear knees made against the hardwood floor, his legs churning like the linkage on a locomotive's wheels.
As soon as he crossed the threshold into the living room, Renfield stopped before looking up and crying some more.
I went over to him and bent down. He started licking my hand, his tongue like sandpaper. Then an almost fierce purring began.
"Renfield, I'm so sorry."
I walked carefully past him as he tried to move between my shoes.
In Nancy's bedroom, I opened her closet door to get the one suit I left there. That scent of her rocketed my memory back to the departure lounge for Flight #133.
I grabbed the hanger holding my suit and closed the door, trying not to inhale.Renfield, now at the bedroom sill, cried again.
I kept only a few other things at Nancy's place. Two shirts, three pairs of underwear, five (for some reason) socks, all in "my" drawer of her dresser. And a dopp kit on top of her bathroom's toilet tank.
Renfield was at the bathroom threshold now, crying some more. I stepped over him and toward the kitchen. Above the sink, Nancy had thumbtacked a photo she'd gotten some obliging tourist to take of us when we were at the beach together the prior summer. Judith Harker was the name, from somewhere in Arizona, I knew, because I had to give her my business card so she could mail the print to us. In the shot, Nancy and I were on a blanket, sitting with our knees up and touching each other, my right arm around her shoulders, Nancy's left hand resting on my left wrist over my left knee. I wore a yearbook smile, Nancy the same but with her eyes crossed, mugging for the camera.
I tried to remember another photo of just us, together. I couldn't. Almost two years, and only the one shot.
Setting down the clothes and toilet kit on Nancy's kitchen table, I very carefully pried the thumbtack out of the photo and the wall as Renfield began crying again behind me.
The cemetery is on a harbor hillside only a few blocks from the Lynches' three-decker. There's a gate that's kept open, even at night, so folks can visit when they get off work. I walked down the macadam path to her row, stopping at the gravestone with ELIZABETH MARY DEVLIN CUDDY carved into the marble.
John, what's the matter?
She could always tell. Always.
"It's Nancy, Beth."
Trouble between you?
I shook my head before lifting it away from her and toward the inky blackness of the water -- Jesus, the ocean water -- at the foot of the --
Oh, John. No...no....
Just a nod this time.
She paused. Then, How?
I told her. At first, in short, choppy phrases that an English teacher probably wouldn't count as sentences. Once the words started coming, though, I began to get more detailed, even glib.
Beth waited me out before saying, This is the first time you've talked it through, right?
Do you feel any...better?
I took a deep breath. "No more than I did after losing you."
Another pause. John, I think you have to accept that Nancy's death is going to be different for you.
Though I hadn't said it as a question, Beth answered me anyway. You knew for a long time that I was sick, that I was going to --
"Goddamnit, Beth, it's just not fair!"
The thought jumped out before I was conscious I'd spoken it aloud.
A third pause. If you're waiting for life to be fair, John, I think you're in for a very long siege.
I looked down toward the water again, then immediately back at her stone. "It's not just that Nancy was taken so young, or so...abruptly. It's that because they didn't find her body, she doesn't have even a grave."
And you don't have any special place for visiting her.
Beth was right. "Nowhere she wasn't..."
I tried to take a deep breath again. Couldn't.
"You're right. I don't have Nancy anymore, and I don't have a place I can be with her that doesn't remind me of..." I shook my head.
This may not help, but there's a reason why you weren't on that plane.
"Sure there is. I didn't check my messages in time to -- "
Not what I mean, John. There's some reason why you were spared.
I thought back to one of the first visits I'd made to the graveyard after Beth had died. "You know that."
"Mind letting me in on it?"
A short pause this time that passed for a small smile. If only I could.
Suddenly, I started to feel the cold. "Do me a favor?"
"Keep an eye out for Nancy. I think you'd like her."
I was back in the condo -- finally opening almost two weeks of home mail -- when the phone rang. I thought about letting the tape machine handle it, then realized nobody had called me, morning or afternoon, at the office. Odd for a Monday.
"Buenas noches desde Florida, John."
"The one and the same."
Justo Vega was a friend from my military police days in Saigon. He'd been practicing law in Miami most of the time since, helping me some months before with a case down in the Florida Keys that had blown sky --
"Sorry, Justo. Something wrong with the Keys thing?"
"No. No, unfortunately I disturb you on a holiday for another matter."
A hesitation on the other end of the line. "The third Monday in January. Martin Luther King."
No wonder there'd been no calls at the office. "Sorry -- " I decided I had to stop saying that. "I've been kind of stuck on another matter."
A longer hesitation. "John, there is also something else, no?"
When you soldier with someone during bad times, there's a certain connection that's beyond even good friendship. "Yes, but I've gotten a little tired of talking about it."
"Of course." The longest hesitation yet. "I am not sure I should be burdening you with what I will say now. Yet, if you were calling me, I would want to know of it because of an old debt we both share."
"The Skipper, John."
Shit. Back in Vietnam, "the Skipper" was the nickname the lieutenants like Justo and me used affectionately for Colonel Nicolas Helides, our commanding officer. Though we were Army, not Navy, we called him that because his real love outside the military was sailing. Helides graduated West Point while most of us came from ROTC programs, but the man treated us all as sons. And in a bar one night when he wasn't around -- the Skipper drank alcohol but never cursed and didn't suffer gladly those who did -- six or seven of us took one of those expletive-laden, drunks-in-arms oaths to watch out for him like we would our own fathers. In the end, of course, Helides was the one who watched out for us, especially during the all-night horrors of the Tet Offensive, keeping us together -- and almost sane -- as we lost whole squads of our troopers behind barricades of Jeeps, the MPs standing their ground against Viet Cong armed with AK-47s when all we had were the .45 calibre Colts drawn from our hol --
"John, you are still there?"
"Sor -- " Last time with the apologies. Last time.
"I just kind of...zoned out for a minute. The Skipper died?"
"No," said Justo. "No, he has had his share of health problems, but that is not why I am calling you for him."
For him. "What's the trouble then?"
"If you do not know already, I think the Skipper would want to tell you this himself."
If I didn't...Shaking my head, I finally started focusing. "He's in Florida, then?"
"Yes, but not Miami. Up in Broward."
"The county, which for you is the Fort Lauderdale area, twenty miles and a little north of here."
"Justo, the Skipper wants me for something...professional?"
"You might remember, I'm not licensed down there."
"It will not be a difficulty in this situation."
"As I said, if you do not know already -- "
" -- the Skipper wants to tell me himself."
"And not over the telephone."
"For a good reason, I believe."
I considered it. Surrogate father, surrogate son. And then I realized something else.
For the first time in almost two weeks, I hadn't thought about Nancy for five minutes.
"John, if this is truly a bad time..."
"No, Justo. No. I'll be there."
"I am very glad you will come." A different tone of voice now. Relief, maybe? "And do not worry. We will fly you into Fort Lauderdale, and I will have you picked up by Pepe -- you remember him, yes?"
"Tough guy to forget."
A musical laugh. "And he has become only more so. However, my Alicia and our three daughters love him, and I could not do without his help. When can you leave Boston?"
In my mind, I went back over what I'd seen at the office that day. "How about tomorrow morning?"
"Excellent. You have a preference among the airlines?"
"One flight's about the same as another," I said.
Which did make me think of Nancy, and of how stupid my last comment would forever sound.
Copyright © 1999 by Jeremiah Healy