The old man dropped. His arms jerking out sideways made his things fly up and away from him in conflicting spirals. Fred grabbed the rolled newspaper out of the air at the same time as he reached to hold people back. “Man down,” he called, “give him room…” and looked for blood. Shrieks developing among them alerted the travelers. They began to press against each other in two directions—forward to enjoy, and backward to recoil from, the fallen man. Fred knelt over him. The old fellow was breathing, but he’d gone the same green-gray as the linoleum floor of Logan airport’s terminal E.
The crowd, swelling forward as the plane emptied, began to split into new streams, aiming for the other booths in which the officers started to scramble back of their glass, reaching for phones or calling to each other about the activity in the no-man’s land between the arrival bay for flight 147 from Paris and passport control.
“Medic,” Fred shouted toward the uniforms. He loosened the man’s stained brown necktie and opened his shirt. Green as he was, there was no blood outside him so he’d not been shot. He’d looked it, the way his arms whirled out. The bones of his face jutted blue under his pallor. His eyes rolled with his shallow gasps. He needed a shave. Was it alcohol on his breath, or only mortality? Their fellow passengers, filing past, kicked the man’s possessions into a heap at his feet. His scuffed shoes were a thin yellowish leather that could be dog. There was a cardboard-looking briefcase. A blue canvas container the size of a gym bag might have been used to transport chickens. The contents of a white plastic sack had scattered: receipts, a black eye mask, lozenges, and four little bottles of the red wine they had served on the plane.
“Get medical help fast,” Fred told the first uniform to appear above him, that of a very pink man with short red hair who dithered without bending. “Tell them heart, or stroke: something like that,” Fred said.
“Move along folks,” the officer shouted into the crowd. “Nothing to see here. Please move on.”
It was another three minutes before Fred was joined by enough uniforms to assure the sick man room. Nothing yet in the way of medics—but one agent moved into the stream of arriving passengers asking for medical volunteers.
“No, I don’t know him,” Fred answered a question. “Just happened to be behind him.” Once enough uniforms had collected they’d rolled the man onto his side and two of them held him steady, one propping his head on her thigh. The sick man wore a dark brown corduroy suit that had seen better days. His cloth cap had come off, exposing a mottled head, mostly bald, but with unkempt straggles of gray hair back of the ears. “You’ll take it from here then,” Fred said, standing and shouldering his bag again, before he turned for the nearest booth.
“Pleasure,” he told the agent, responding to the question glanced across half-glasses, when the officer wanted to know what Fred had been doing in Paris on a four-day trip. He hadn’t been able to buy Clayton Reed what he’d gone for, since Clay at the last moment had come over chintzy, refusing to allow a bid of more than a hundred grand for a Sargent watercolor any fool would know was worth the quarter million it had sold for. A bid as feeble as Clayton’s hardly qualified as business. Pleasure didn’t cover it either. The trip had proved to be an elaborate extension of Clayton’s native ambivalence. Much as he loved the painting, he despised Sargent more.
He’d had no luggage to check through, but the emergency had held Fred up. By the time he got to customs the baggage area was crowded with loaded trolleys. However, the customs agents had gotten wind of the potential for pedestrian snarl that was back out of sight, where the planes emptied. They’d been given the word to move things along. Customs barely gave Fred a nod as he passed beyond their influence and into a lobby packed with its afternoon gaggle of family greetings, punctuated with the odd driver carrying a sign reading C.O.P.A.C. or MR. PERKINS. Among them was someone waiting for a skinny old man in a brown suit—father, uncle or grandpa—who was in for a sad surprise over the loudspeakers? “Would the person meeting Mr. X, repeat, Mr. X, please report to the…” and so on; however they did it here. Only as he pushed through the doors and reached the sidewalk did a couple of medics appear, carrying tools of their trade and moving at a pace calculated to allay anxiety in the public. “He’s in a bad way,” Fred reminded their backsides. While he waited for the shuttle bus, the lime-green Massport fire and rescue trucks started pulling up to the curb, upsetting the stream of taxis. And an ambulance siren, at some distance, added color.
# # #
This had been a slow, damp, golden autumn. None of its effect could be appreciated until Fred got out of the subway at Charles Street station and started on foot for Clayton’s place on Mountjoy. Beacon Hill was bathed in a glow of brick and gold, warmed by an afternoon sun that had not yet slanted into evening. All the antique-and coffee-and what-not-shops were open for the Friday trade that ought to keynote a strong weekend. Fred swung through the pedestrians, eager to stretch out after the plane’s cramped quarters.
The air was sweet and vaguely sad, tainted with the somnolent decay of the year’s turning.
“You return empty-handed,” Clayton Reed complained, descending the spiral staircase into Fred’s work space, which occupied the ground floor of Clay’s town house. Fred had dropped his bag and shed his old blue blazer, and was looking through the debris on his desk. Clay, dressed in a tan linen suit, looked as if he were headed for a wedding, his usual condition. The thick strands of his long white hair were teased into a tousle. He plucked at it while he addressed Fred with a petulant inquiry that the lean features of his face subverted into the appearance of mere good manners.
Fred answered, “True, I was not in a position to bring home the Sargent. However I did pick up a newspaper against which you may test your French. It is the Canard Enchainé.” Fred retrieved the rolled paper from the wastebasket into which he’d dropped it when he discovered the thing under his arm as he put down his bag. The newspaper had held its shape on account of two red rubber bands, one at each end. “Today’s,” Clay approved, accepting the token. “We shall see what these jokers have to say concerning Jospin’s blunder. It will make a change from Thomas Pynchon, who is simply unfathomable. Nothing satisfies after Proust. I regret my decision to grapple with Pynchon. I suspect sometimes he means almost to be funny! Never mind. I leave you, Fred, to recover from your journey. Is there anything I need to know? Anything out of the ordinary brewing in Paris?”
Clay glanced around Fred’s study as he chattered, taking in the clutter of books, periodicals, and paintings propped where they could be considered. At principal issue these days was a small Church landscape whose central cow had a moose in its ancestry. Clayton had taken it from a New York dealer on approval, but with no intention of buying it. He owned a better one. He just wanted to gloat, then send it back along with a catalog of its defects.
“Strikes on the subway lines,” Fred reported. “Randolph bought the Sargent, naturally, with Bloom and Mirko both sitting on their hands in the front row, at Drouot Montaigne. So they knocked it out between them afterwards, or much as those three pirates hate each other, if none of them can control it for himself, they’ll own and sell it together.”
Clay slapped the paper on Fred’s desk, causing a flutter among the mail and reference materials. After this outpouring of impatience, calm claimed him once again. “You may be fatigued,” he offered.
Fred nodded, sitting at his desk and hooking the phone toward him.
“I weary of elegant ladies,” Clay explained, smacking the newspaper against his thigh. This must be his tardy rationale for refusing Fred a decent bid on a good picture: a triple portrait of Sargent’s nieces in a landscape composed of wind and flowers. “And nothing else caught your eye in all of Paris?” Clayton yearned. Because it did happen sometimes that Fred picked up a picture on his own, without consulting Clayton, if it was intriguing enough as well as cheap.
Clay waited until he was sure Fred was not going suddenly to recall that he had purchased an unexpected Chase or Botticelli, before he sighed and said, “I shall not need you before Tuesday.” He started up the stairs again, waving the newspaper in farewell. “And I do thank you for this. Most thoughtful, Fred.”
Fred waited until the cordovan shoes had vanished into the ceiling before dialing Molly’s number in Arlington. He put his feet on the desk and leaned back when he heard it connect. At the fourth ring it clicked onto the recorded treble voice of Sam, Molly’s son, striving for depth. “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to get a lawyer. You have the right to, oh, I forget the rest of it. Leave your message. Everything you say can and will be used against you.” Then Sam’s rare laughter, followed by the beep.
“I’m safe back and it’s four-thirty,” Fred started. “I’m at Clayton’s.
My car’s here, but it’s rush hour now, so…”
“Fred,” came Terry’s voice in frantic interruption. “Leave me alone, Sam! It’s Fred. Help Mom with the bags. Fred, what did you bring me?”
“A present from Paris,” Fred said. “What is it?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Then what did you bring Sam?” “I won’t tell you.”
“Then what did you bring Mom?”
The sounds of rattling grocery bags swept the phone from Terry’s voice, and gave Fred Molly’s. “Back safe?” she asked. “Sam warned me there are lots of women in Paris.”
“The best one sat next to me on the plane coming back,” Fred said. “Fascinating creature. She talked the whole trip. Italian. It didn’t bother her that my Italian is on the weak side. She…”
“You sure you want to keep on about this woman?” Molly asked.
Fred went on, “She reminded me of your sister Ophelia. Not only because she’s blonde—hers is natural—but the way she expects to be waited on…”
“Were you thinking of spending the night in Arlington?” Molly asked. “Or do you have a subsequent engagement?”
“My fellow passenger?” Fred asked. “Oh, I don’t know. She may be too much even for me. Not only did I have to read to her, she even wanted me to cut her meat.”
“What?” Molly exclaimed.
“She’s three years old,” Fred said. “She told me forty-seven times. I’m exhausted. I was giving her mom a rest.”
“Fred!” came Clay’s shriek of exasperation from the top of the stairs. “For God’s sake, man, what is this? A joke?”