Mayla beamed at Quinn, who was once again dressed in his old street clothes, when she passed him on the stairs the next afternoon. “How are you doing today, neighbor?” she exclaimed. “I saw an incredibly beautiful woman coming out of your apartment early this morning just as I was getting ready to go out for breakfast. I’m betting she’s the one you’ve been mooning over all this time. Tell me you finally got lucky.”
Quinn appeared worn and haggard. He was in no mood for conversation but didn’t want to appear rude. “Yes, Penelope stayed the night,” he said at last.
“Well, you don’t seem overjoyed about it.” Mayla was taken aback by Quinn’s attitude. “I would’ve thought you’d be jumping up and down and handing out cigars.”
“I didn’t get much rest. I woke up around five and then just lay there till she left.”
“Why? You can’t sleep after sex? You should have taken an Ambien.”
“No, that had nothing to do with it.” Seeing his neighbor’s concern, Quinn let down his guard. “Just as Penelope and I finished making love, it came to me why she was there.”
“Why she was there?” echoed Mayla. She wasn’t able to keep the incredulity out of her voice. “I would have thought even you could have figured that much out.”
Quinn rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “The trouble is that now that I understand what’s been going on and why Penelope is suddenly so anxious to be with me, I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. I spent so long searching for answers, and now that I’ve found them, the truth is only making me miserable.”
“You’ve totally lost me,” Mayla said as she took another look at him. She eyed his appearance critically. “I see you’ve gone back to wearing your hoodie.”
Quinn straightened. “Yes, I’ve done pretending I’m someone I’m not. It was because I wanted to impress Penelope that I started wearing those designer clothes in the first place. Now I can see what a total idiot I was to ever have stooped so low.”
Mayla threw up her hands in irritation. “Why do you always have to overthink things? Can’t you just accept that the woman wanted you to make love to her?”
“I wish I could. But Penelope would never have gone to bed with me unless she had something to gain. I know that now. Her being there didn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Do you remember what you were telling me the other evening about the dark veil you weren’t able to see through? Don’t you realize this is the same thing all over again? You’ve made up some crazy scenario in your head and now you’re trying to convince yourself that you’ve found the truth at last. It’s so sad to watch. Maybe Penelope did break Behan’s heart, but that’s no reason to think she’s out to break yours as well.”
“The more I think about Behan, the sorrier I feel for him. He had so many wonderful people in his life – you, Viktor, Violeta – if only he’d taken the time to appreciate them. He didn’t have to make a fool of himself running after a woman like Penelope.”
“Quinn, can’t you see? It’s no different for you than it was for Behan. You have friends all around you – you just have to reach out to them.”
“You should have been a philosopher instead of an actor.”
“Why did you have to fall in love with a married woman? There are so many single women in this city who’d jump at the chance to go out with a good looking guy like you.”
“Thanks, Mayla. But that’s the whole problem right there. I only want the things I can’t have. Anything that would give me true happiness I turn my back on and run away.”
“Who’s philosophizing now? But you’re right. You want to be miserable.”
Quinn cast his eyes down at the floor. “I wish so badly it weren’t that way.”
“Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself, won’t you? I did the same thing as you. I had my own chances when I was younger, but I always thought someone better would come along, someone I could fall in love with as deeply as you’ve fallen for Penelope.”
“It doesn’t happen often. This was the first time for me, and I’ve already hit middle age. Penelope was pretty much my last shot at a normal life. I keep wondering if the same thought was going through Behan’s mind when he begged her to marry him.”
“Never mind about Behan. He’s not with us any longer. The real question is what are you going to do about Penelope? Are you going to keep seeing her? You can’t very well throw her out the door after you’ve just spent the night with her.”
“If it were up to me, I’d never let her go.” Quinn put his hand on Mayla’s shoulder. “I don’t think it’s going to work out that way though.”
“So it’s over then? Just like that?” Mayla pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bag.
“It’s more like it never was.”
“I can’t believe you’re actually saying this.” Mayla took a long look at Quinn while lighting her cigarette. “Men can be such fools.”
The hotel was on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street, only a block above Port Authority. It was ultramodern and deluxe, part of a large chain that had bought in during the Times Square redevelopment project. The seedy buildings surrounding it weren’t shown anywhere on the hotel’s website or advertising.
Quinn rode a series of escalators to the fourth floor where the ballroom hosting the couture show occupied most of the floorspace. A table had been placed near the head of the escalator. Two stylishly dressed young women, one of them blonde and the other a brunette, both with elaborately coifed hair and perfectly done manicures, sat at a folding table and checked in the guests as they arrived.
“I’m a photographer here for the show,” said Quinn when it was his turn. “The model Violeta Vargas put my name on the list.”
The redhead picked up a clipboard. “What did you say your name was?”
The woman flipped through all the pages on the clipboard – there must have been at least a dozen – and then went through them a second time more slowly. “I’m sorry. I don’t see your name here,” she said at last. She turned to the blonde beside her.
The blonde was unperturbed. “Well, if you’re a photographer, the others are already at the end of the stage. You might as well go in and join them.”
Quinn didn’t argue. He made a straight line for the pit and placed himself where the other photographers were setting up their equipment.
“You’re blocking me,” said an angry voice behind him.
Quinn knelt down. “Sorry about that. You should be able to see all right now.”
The photographer behind him grunted and then went back to fiddling with the Canon he had already mounted atop a Manfrotto tripod. The DSLR had been fitted with such an exceptionally long lens that Quinn briefly considered asking the photographer how he expected to get anything but headshots with such a setup. Then he decided it wasn’t any of his business and began unloading his own gear.
Quinn would have liked to have shot with one of Behan’s film cameras, but knew his tight budget couldn’t be stretched to cover the cost of film and processing. Instead he had opted to bring his own DSLR, a camera he had used regularly on his travel assignments. What Quinn had found he needed most on those shoots was a lightweight body with an extended ISO range for the times he was forced to shoot in low light without a flash.
“That’s a great camera,” commented the woman seated beside Quinn.
“It’s a solid piece of equipment,” Quinn replied. “It’s already given me good use.”
“Hell, yes,” agreed the woman. With her hair in a bun, she resembled a schoolteacher. “I wish I had one. It’s not practical for me, though, if it doesn’t have video capability.”
Quinn studied the spotlights that had been brought to bear on the length of the runway. “It looks bright enough in here. I could probably get away with 3200, but I’ll play safe and keep it at 1600. That should work fine as long as I leave the lens wide open.”
“You’re doing better than me.” The woman was envious. “I’m stuck at 800 on this old clunker. Anything above that has too much noise to be usable.”
Quinn regarded the woman’s older DSLR and the bagful of lenses placed beside it. “You have any tips you want to give me? This is the first time I’ve shot one of these shows.”
“You’re kidding, right? Well, it’s no big deal. This is just something the designer is putting on for some out of town buyers. He wants to get an idea what the reaction will be when he puts the full line up at Fashion Week in February.”
“Is his stuff any good?” Quinn nodded in the direction of the designer, a suave older man who stood at the head of the runway making sure everything was in its proper place.
“It’s as good as you make it look in your photos.”
“Fair enough,” said Quinn.
“There won’t be many more of these ballroom extravaganzas. Designers are wising up and putting all their stuff on YouTube. Using the internet saves them a ton of money.” The woman gave Quinn a doubtful look. “Is this really the first show you’re shooting?”
“The very first, and also probably the last. I’m just doing it as a favor to one of the models. She wants some runway shots for her book.”
“Then you should know not to use any flash,” the woman instructed. You can blind the model with flash and make her fall.”
“Don’t worry. I never use on-camera flash if I can help it. The lighting’s too flat.”
The show started ten minutes late. There were no announcements, just a blare of pop music as the models began filing on stage one by one.
Violeta was easy to spot in the line of models. She was the only Latina there. The others were all wide hipped blondes who needed to lose a few pounds. Violeta was tall and regal and kept steady the stern unsmiling expression models always affect on the runway.
Quinn waited to take his shots until Violeta had paused at the end of the runway and then pivoted directly in front of him. She waited there for several seconds in order to give the audience a better opportunity to examine the clothes she was wearing. It was then that Quinn fired the camera in rapid bursts. Even using a high ISO, he wanted to make absolutely certain there would be no chance of motion blur.
The show went on for about an hour. Quinn, like most photographers who had gotten their start shooting film, carefully counted his exposures even when there was no need. He photographed only Violeta and disregarded the other models passing before him, but he did make sure to get at least several exposures of each outfit Violeta had on.
After the show had ended, Quinn waited for Violeta outside the ballroom’s entrance. “I think I got it all,” he said when she finally appeared.
“Thank you so much,” said Violeta. “You were so great to do this for me.”
“It was an interesting experience even if I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
“It’s also good practice for you. I’ve already told you that you can make good money shooting shows at Fashion Week.”
“No thanks. Once was more than enough for me. There’s not enough room in that pit to even breathe. You can’t move without blocking someone else’s shot. And the guy behind me seemed never to have heard of deodorant. Even if I could get the press credentials, I wouldn’t want to do it.”
“I’ve asked other photographers at these shows for photos, but not a single one ever came through for me. Can you believe that? What’s the big deal about emailing a few jpg’s? A model always wants photos of herself that she can use in her book.”
“I doubt all those spotlights were the same color temperature, so I’ll probably have to tweak the white balance in Photoshop. Other than that, it was all pretty straightforward. I should be able to finish editing the photos in a couple of days and give them to you then.”
“There’s no big rush,” Violeta reassured him. “Take your time and work on them when you’re not busy with other jobs.”
Quinn laughed. “What other jobs?” he asked.
“I just wanted to tell you I was wrong about you,” said Quinn.
“Thanks,” said Curwin, “but it honestly isn’t any big deal.” Without looking at it, he knocked back the shot of Bushmill’s the bartender had placed in front of him.
“It is to me. I had you down as a murderer.”
“No way. There’s only one person I ever wanted to be rid of, and he doesn’t count.”
Quinn didn’t give the comment much thought. “I’ve got no idea who you’re talking about; but if he’s as worthless as all that, then he’s not worth bothering about in the first place. Just stay away from the fucker and forget about him.”
“I would if I could.” Curwin stared despondently at his drink. “But I can’t.”
“This is all getting too mysterious for me, man. Let’s change the subject before you get me completely spooked.” Quinn looked about him at the Irish tavern’s worn interior. The few young professionals who sat on stools at the bar looked completely out of place; the booths against the wall were empty. “Did you know this place is shutting down? They even had an article in The Times about what a loss it was for the neighborhood.”
“It’s too bad. It has a great atmosphere. I can see why you like it so much.”
“I used to stop off in the old days with Behan for a couple of quick ones, but this is the first time since I’ve been here since I got back. Look at it. It’s a workingman’s bar in a neighborhood without workingmen. No wonder the owners can’t make the rent.”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Curwin knocked back another shot and signaled to the bartender for still another. “Neighborhoods are like people. When they’re gone, they get written up as history. All anyone remembers about them are the good times. The bad times – the days when people weren’t safe walking down the block – those get forgotten.”
“That’s pretty cynical.”
“Sorry,” Curwin apologized. “It’s the mood I’m in, I guess. But I am glad you wanted to meet with me again. I’ve been thinking a lot about you and Pen, and I’m glad you’re the one she’s going to be with. I’m happy for you both.”
“Fuck that. She and I are never going to be a couple. Even if she weren’t married, for the time being at least, she still wouldn’t want someone as down and out as me.”
“Yes, I noticed you went back to wearing your hoodie. It suits you better. You seemed too uncomfortable all dressed up.” Curwin chuckled at the memory. “But don’t be so sure appearances will stop Pen. I know her. She has a lot more heart than she lets on.”
Quinn took a long drink of his Guinness. “I didn’t mean to speak against her,” he said in a softer tone. “I’m not here to insult your wife.”
“I appreciate that even though the marriage will soon be over.”
Quinn didn’t bother to look up from his drink. “Whatever you say.”
“I meant what I told you just now, Quinn. I’m glad it’s you Pen will be with. I want you to promise to take good care of her.”
“Are you drunk? You’ve only had two, but you’re already getting all teary eyed on me. I invited you here to apologize for suspecting you of murder. I was hoping we could let bygones be bygones. It doesn’t look like this is a good night for you though. Why don’t we finish our drinks, and do this again some other time.” Quinn put his money on the bar.
“Was that the only reason you wanted to talk with me?” Curwin asked.
“There may have been other things I wanted to tell you, things I’ve discovered about Penelope; but they can wait until the next time we see one another.”
“I don’t know if there will be a next time. I’m thinking of going away.”
Quinn was caught off guard. “That’s pretty sudden, isn’t it? Have you told Penelope what you’re planning?” He studied his companion more closely. “Where are you heading off to anyway? You’ve probably got enough money to travel wherever you want.”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Curwin put down his drink long enough to mull it over. “When I was a kid, I had a book with pictures of India in it. I used to look at this one photo of the Taj Mahal and think how great it would be to live there.”
“It’s really a mausoleum, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone actually lives there.”
“Yes, you’re right, but I was too young then to know that. It just seemed so beautiful and serene there, a place I could finally be at peace.”
“Well, go there then if it makes you happy. Being at peace is always a good thing.”
Curwin returned to what he’d been saying before. “I’d go a lot easier knowing you were watching out for Pen. Promise me you’ll take care of her.”
“I can’t do that, Cecil. I wish I could. But Penelope isn’t going to end up with either one of us. I’m going to see her just one more time, and that’s only so I can tell her I’ve finally figured things out and gotten to the truth. Once I’ve done that, I’ll have repaid my debt to Behan and I can go back to San Francisco.”
“Penelope’s a good person. Really she is.”
“I know you mean that, Cecil, and it does you credit that you’re so willing to stand up for your wife. But I just can’t see it that way. My eyes have finally been opened.”
Curwin got up slowly from his barstool. “Think about what I said. I won’t be seeing Pen again before I go. Next time you meet with her, tell her I loved her more than she imagined. I might not always have shown it, but the feeling was always there inside me.”
“Hey,” Quinn protested. “I’m sure she knows that much already.”
“Maybe. But tell her anyway that I said it.” Curwin put his hand on Quinn’s arm and pressed it. “Please. You’d be doing me a bigger favor than you know.”
It was the first time Quinn had been back to the senior center. He looked around the lunchroom but didn’t see Cal anywhere.
“Excuse me,” Quinn said to the volunteer at the door, “but the last time I was here I met an elderly gentleman named Cal. He was a big man but sort of easygoing and gentle. Is he around today?”
“Cal? Oh, Lordy,” exclaimed the volunteer. She put her hands together as if in prayer. “He just died this past week. It happened all of a sudden. He went to the emergency room and never came back. A perforated ulcer, that’s what the doctor said done for him.”
“That’s too bad.” Quinn was crestfallen. “He was one cool old guy.”
“Yes, indeed he was. But that’s the way it goes. Old people die all the time and those of us who are left can only sit here watching them being carried out one after another. After a while, we just sort of ignore it or it would end up being too much for us. We know well enough it’ll be our own turn soon enough.”
“He told me his woman had died. Did he have any other family? It’s sad to think of an old man dying all alone.” Quinn looked down. “That’s the way it was for my father too.”
“If Cal had any family, he never mentioned them to us. It’s sad, yes,” said the volunteer. “but none of us here have anyone. Or anything. This place is the end of the line.”
“I guess there won’t be any funeral service then if Cal didn’t leave behind any wife or children to grieve.” Quinn seemed unsure how to best phrase his next question. “What’ll happen to his remains if there’s no one to claim them?”
“Oh, someone from here will claim the body so it doesn’t end up being dissected at one of those medical schools.” The woman was emphatic on that point. “The city has got a proper cemetery out on Hart Island and buries us poor for free. Not that I’ve ever been there. They make the convicts from Rikers dig the graves. There ain’t no headstones on those graves, but there ain’t anyone going out to pay their respects anyway.”
“I get it,” said Quinn. “Alone in life, and alone in death.”
The woman looked him over. “Have you been coming here long? Excuse me for saying so, but you do look a bit young to be here.”
“No, it’s only the second time. The first time was when I met Cal.”
“Well, maybe it ain’t as bad here as I make it sound. They’ve got good food, and there’s plenty of company. That’s what’s most important. No one wants to be all by themselves when they’re old.”
“I can understand that well enough,” said Quinn.
“What do you do for a living?” the woman asked. “Do you work around here?”
“No, I take photos occasionally, but I haven’t been doing much of that lately.”
“Oh, a photographer. That’s so wonderful. We have a big New Year’s Eve party here every December 31st. Maybe you’d like to photograph that. ‘Cept it don’t ever take place at night. We get together at lunchtime on New Year’s Eve and have our party then. You’d have a big laugh watching us old folks count down to midnight while it’s still only one o’clock in the afternoon. We do it that way ‘cause most of us aren’t going to be able to stay awake till midnight in the first place. Besides, at our age, another year ain’t such a big deal. We’ve seen enough of ‘em come and go.”
“Maybe I’ll come back for the party then and take some photos. I’d be happy to give a copy to everyone I shot. It sounds like it might be fun.”
“It’s not the photos themselves that means so much to us. We’re all of us past being so vain we need to see what we look like. No, it’s having someone like you take the time to stop in front of us and remind us that we’re still here. If nothing else, those photos are proof we’re alive and breathing and that the world hasn’t forgotten us altogether.” The woman got up then, reached out a hand for her walker and moved slowly away to join her friends on the other side of the room.
Outside, on Columbus, Quinn saw on the sidewalk faded chalk drawings of cookies and milk. A light snow had begun to fall and would soon cover them completely. In the store windows, holiday decorations sparkled and shone. On the other side of the avenue, parents and children had gathered around the bright green Christmas trees lined up for sale.