th like pleats in a human accordion. Tom and Todd took their places between the final posts. Others fell in behind them at once, mostly men, some in heavy fleece workmen's jackets, some in Mr. Businessman topcoats and Mr. Businessman haircuts that were beginning to lose their finely barbered edge. Tom guessed that the line would stretch all the way to the end of the parking lot by dawn, and that would still be at least four hours before the doors opened.
"Shut up. You sound like my mother."
"You're a common thief, my friend. And how stupid to steal what you can never sell."
"Shut up, genius, I'm warning you."
Rothstein thought, And if he pulls the trigger? No more pills. No more regrets about the past, and the litter of broken relationships along the way like so many cracked-up cars. No more obsessive writing, either, accumulating notebook after notebook like little piles of rabbit turds scattered along a woodland trail. A bullet in the head would not be so bad, maybe. Better than cancer or Alzheimer's, that prime horror of anyone who has spent his life making a living by his wits. Of course there would be headlines, and I'd gotten plenty of those even before that damned Time story . . . but if he pulls the trigger, I won't have to read them.
"You're stupid," Rothstein said. All at once he was in a kind of ecstasy. "You think you're smarter than those other two, but you're not. At least they understand that cash can be spent." He leaned forward, staring at that pale, freckle-spattered face. "You know what, kid? It's guys like you who give reading a bad name."
"Last warning," Morrie said.
"Fuck your warning. And fuck your mother. Either shoot me or get out of my house."
Morris Bellamy shot him.
The first argument about money in the Saubers household--the first one the kids overheard, at least--happened on an evening in April. It wasn't a big argument, but even the greatest storms begin as gentle breezes. Peter and Tina Saubers were in the living room, Pete doing homework and Tina watching a SpongeBob DVD. It was one she'd seen before, many times, but she never seemed to tire of it. This was fortunate, because these days there was no access to the Cartoon Network in the Saubers household. Tom Saubers had canceled the cable service two months ago.
Tom and Linda Saubers were in the kitchen, where Tom was cinching his old pack shut after loading it up with PowerBars, a Tupperware filled with cut veggies, two bottles of water, and a can of Coke.
"You're nuts," Linda said. "I mean, I've always known you were a Type A personality, but this takes it to a whole new level. If you want to set the alarm for five, fine. You can pick up Todd, be at City Center by six, and you'll still be first in line."
"I wish," Tom said. "Todd says there was one of these job fairs in Brook Park last month, and people started lining up the day before. The day before, Lin!"
"Todd says a lot of things. And you listen. Remember when Todd said Pete and Tina would just love that Monster Truck Jam thingie--"
"This isn't a Monster Truck Jam, or a concert in the park, or a fireworks show. This is our lives."
Pete looked up from his homework and briefly met his little sister's eyes. Tina's shrug was eloquent: Just the parents. He went back to his algebra. Four more problems and he could go down to Howie's house. See if Howie had any new comic books. Pete certainly had none to trade; his allowance had gone the way of the cable TV.
In the kitchen, Tom had begun to pace. Linda caught up with him and took his arm gently. "I know it's our lives," she said.
Speaking low, partly so the kids wouldn't hear and be nervous (she knew Pete already was), mostly to lower the temperature. She knew how Tom felt, and her heart went out to him. Being afraid was bad; being humiliated because he could no longer fulfill what he saw as his primary responsibility to support his family was worse. And humiliation really wasn't the right word. What he felt was shame. For the ten years he'd been at Lakefront Realty, he'd consistently been one of their top salesmen, often with his smiling photo at the front of the shop. The money she brought in teaching third grade was just icing on the cake. Then, in the fall of 2008, the bottom fell out of the economy, and the Sauberses became a single-income family.
It wasn't as if Tom had been let go and might be called back when things improved; Lakefront Realty was now an empty building with graffiti on the walls and a FOR SALE OR LEASE sign out front. The Reardon brothers, who had inherited the business from their father (and their father from his), had been deeply invested in stocks, and lost nearly everything when the market tanked. It was little comfort to Linda that Tom's best friend, Todd Paine, was in the same boat. She thought Todd was a dingbat.
"Have you seen the weather forecast? I have. It's going to be cold. Fog off the lake by morning, maybe even freezing drizzle. Freezing drizzle, Tom."
"Good. I hope it happens. It'll keep the numbers down and improve the odds." He took her by the forearms, but gently. There was no shaking, no shouting. That came later. "I've got to get something, Lin, and the job fair is my best shot this spring. I've been pounding the pavement--"
"And there's nothing. I mean zilch. Oh, a few jobs down at the docks, and a little construction at the shopping center out by the airport, but can you see me doing that kind of work? I'm thirty pounds overweight and twenty years out of shape. I might find something downtown this summer--clerking, maybe--if things ease up a little . . . but that kind of job would be low-paying and probably temporary. So Todd and me're going at midnight, and we're going to stand in line until the doors open tomorrow morning, and I promise you I'm going to come back with a job that pays actual money."
"And probably with some bug we can all catch. Then we can scrimp on groceries to pay the doctor's bills."
That was when he grew really angry with her. "I would like a little support here."
"Tom, for God's sake, I'm try--"
"Maybe even an attaboy. 'Way to show some initiative, Tom. We're glad you're going the extra mile for the family, Tom.' That sort of thing. If it's not too much to ask."
"All I'm saying--"
But the kitchen door opened and closed before she could finish. He'd gone out back to smoke a cigarette. When Pete looked up this time, he saw distress and worry on Tina's face. She was only eight, after all. Pete smiled and dropped her a wink. Tina gave him a doubtful smile in return, then went back to the doings in the deepwater kingdom called Bikini Bottom, where dads did not lose their jobs or raise their voices, and kids did not lose their allowances. Unless they were bad, that was.
Before leaving that night, Tom carried his daughter up to bed and kissed her goodnight. He added one for Mrs. Beasley, Tina's favorite doll--for good luck, he said.
"Daddy? Is everything going to be okay?"
"You bet, sugar," he said. She remembered that. The confidence in his voice. "Everything's going to be just fine. Now go to sleep." He left, walking normally. She remembered that, too, because she never saw him walk that way again.
At the top of the steep drive leading from Marlborough Street to the City Center parking lot, Tom said, "Whoa, hold it, stop!"
"Man, there's cars behind me," Todd said.
"This'll just take a second." Tom raised his phone and snapped a picture of the people standing in line. There had to be a hundred already. At least that many. Running above the auditorium doors was a banner reading 1000 JOBS GUARANTEED! And "We Stand With the People of Our City!"--MAYOR RALPH KINSLER.
Behind Todd Paine's rusty '04 Subaru, someone laid on his horn.
"Tommy, I hate to be a party pooper while you're memorializing this wonderful occasion, but--"
"Go, go. I got it." And, as Todd drove into the parking lot, where the spaces nearest the building had already been filled: "I can't wait to show that picture to Linda. You know what she said? That if we got here by six, we'd be first in line."
"Told you, my man. The Toddster does not lie." The Toddster parked. The Subaru died with a fart and a wheeze. "By daybreak, there's gonna be, like, a couple-thousand people here. TV, too. All the stations. City at Six, Morning Report, MetroScan. We might get interviewed."
"I'll settle for a job."
Linda had been right about one thing, it was damp. You could smell the lake in the air: that faintly sewery aroma. And it was almost cold enough for him to see his breath. Posts with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, folding the job-seekers back and for
His eye was caught by a woman with a baby hanging off the front of her. They were a couple of zigzags over. Tom wondered how desperate you had to be to come out in the middle of a cold, damp night like this one with an infant. The kiddo was in one of those papoose carriers. The woman was talking to a burly man with a sleeping bag slung over his shoulder, and the baby was peering from one to the other, like the world's smallest tennis fan. Sort of comical.
"Want a little warm-up, Tommy?" Todd had taken a pint of Bell's from his pack and was holding it out.
Tom almost said no, remembering Linda's parting shot--Don't you come home with booze on your breath, mister--and then took the bottle. It was cold out here, and a short one wouldn't hurt. He felt the whiskey go down, heating his throat and belly.
Rinse your mouth before you hit any of the job booths, he reminded himself. Guys who smell of whiskey don't get hired for anything.
When Todd offered him another nip--this was around two o'clock--Tom refused. But when he offered again at three, Tom took the bottle. Checking the level, he guessed the Toddster had been fortifying himself against the cold quite liberally.
Well, what the hell, Tom thought, and bit off quite a bit more than a nip; this one was a solid mouthful.
"Atta-baby," Todd said, sounding the teensiest bit slurry. "Go with your bad self."
Job hunters continued to arrive, their cars nosing up from Marlborough Street through the thickening fog. The line was well past the posts now, and no longer zigzagging. Tom had believed he understood the economic difficulties currently besetting the country--hadn't he lost a job himself, a very good job?--but as the cars kept coming and the line kept growing (he could no longer see where it ended), he began to get a new and frightening perspective. Maybe difficulties wasn't the right word. Maybe the right word was calamity.
To his right, in the maze of posts and tape leading to the doors of the darkened auditorium, the baby began to cry. Tom looked around and saw the man with the sleeping bag holding the sides of the papoose carrier so the woman (God, Tom thought, she doesn't look like she's out of her teens yet) could pull the kid out.
"What the fuck's zat?" Todd asked, sounding slurrier than ever.
"A kid," Tom said. "Woman with a kid. Girl with a kid."
Todd peered. "Christ on a pony," he said. "I call that pretty irra . . . irry . . . you know, not responsible."
"Are you drunk?" Linda disliked Todd, she didn't see his good side, and right now Tom wasn't sure he saw it, either.
"L'il bit. I'll be fine by the time the doors open. Got some breath mints, too."
Tom thought of asking the Toddster if he'd also brought some Visine--his eyes were looking mighty red--and decided he didn't want to have that discussion just now. He turned his attention back to where the woman with the crying baby had been. At first he thought they were gone. Then he looked lower and saw her sliding into the burly man's sleeping bag with the baby on her chest. The burly man was holding the mouth of the bag open for her. The infant was still bawling his or her head off.
"Can't you shut that kid up?" a man called.
"Someone ought to call Social Services," a woman added.
Tom thought of Tina at that age, imagined her out on this cold and foggy predawn morning, and restrained an urge to tell the man and woman to shut up . . . or better yet, lend a hand somehow. After all, they were in this together, weren't they? The whole screwed-up, bad-luck bunch of them.
The crying softened, stopped.
"She's probably feeding im," Todd said. He squeezed his chest to demonstrate.
"You know Ellen lost her job, right?"
"Jesus, no. I didn't know that." Pretending he didn't see the fear in Todd's face. Or the glimmering of moisture in his eyes. Possibly from the booze or the cold. Possibly not.
"They said they'd call her back when things get better, but they said the same thing to me, and I've been out of work going on half a year now. I cashed my insurance. That's gone. And you know what we got left in the bank? Five hundred dollars. You know how long five hundred dollars lasts when a loaf of bread at Kroger's costs a buck?"
"You're fucking A it doesn't. I have to get something here. Have to."
"You will. We both will."
Todd lifted his chin at the burly man, who now appeared to be standing guard over the sleeping bag, so no one would accidentally step on the woman and baby inside. "Think they're married?"
Tom hadn't considered it. Now he did. "Probably."
"Then they both must be out of work. Otherwise, one of em would have stayed home with the kid."
"Maybe," Tom said, "they think showing up with the baby will improve their chances."
Todd brightened. "The pity card! Not a bad idea!" He held out the pint. "Want a nip?"
He took a small one, thinking, If I don't drink it, Todd will.
Tom was awakened from a whiskey-assisted doze by an exuberant shout: "Life is discovered on other planets!" This sally was followed by laughter and applause.
He looked around and saw daylight. Thin and fog-draped, but daylight, just the same. Beyond the bank of auditorium doors, a fellow in gray fatigues--a man with a job, lucky fellow--was pushing a mop-bucket across the lobby.
"Whuddup?" Todd asked.
"Nothing," Tom said. "Just a janitor."
Todd peered in the direction of Marlborough Street. "Jesus, and still they come."
"Yeah," Tom said. Thinking, And if I'd listened to Linda, we'd be at the end of a line that stretches halfway to Cleveland. That was a good thought, a little vindication was always good, but he wished he'd said no to Todd's pint. His mouth tasted like kitty litter. Not that he'd ever actually eaten any, but--
Someone a couple of zigzags over--not far from the sleeping bag--asked, "Is that a Benz? It looks like a Benz."
Tom saw a long shape at the head of the entrance drive leading up from Marlborough, its yellow fog-lamps blazing. It wasn't moving; it just sat there.
"What's he think he's doing?" Todd asked.
The driver of the car immediately behind must have wondered the same thing, because he laid on his horn--a long, pissed-off blat that made people stir and snort and look around. For a moment the car with the yellow fog-lamps stayed where it was. Then it shot forward. Not to the left, toward the now full-to-overflowing parking lot, but directly at the people penned within the maze of tapes and posts.
"Hey!" someone shouted.
The crowd swayed backward in a tidal motion. Tom was shoved against Todd, who went down on his ass. Tom fought for balance, almost found it, and then the man in front of him--yelling, no, screaming--drove his butt into Tom's crotch and one flailing elbow into his chest. Tom fell on top of his buddy, heard the bottle of Bell's shatter somewhere between them, and smelled the sharp reek of the remaining whiskey as it ran across the pavement.
Great, now I'll smell like a barroom on Saturday night.
He struggled to his feet in time to see the car--it was a Mercedes, all right, a big sedan as gray as this foggy morning--plowing into the crowd, spinning bodies out of its way as it came, describing a drunken arc. Blood dripped from the grille. A woman went skidding and rolling across the hood with her hands out and her shoes gone. She slapped at the glass, grabbed at one of the windshield wipers, missed, and tumbled off to one side. Yellow DO NOT CROSS tapes snapped. A post clanged against the side of the big sedan, which did not slow its roll in the slightest. Tom saw the front wheels pass over the sleeping bag
and the burly man, who had been crouched protectively over it with one hand raised.
Now it was coming right at him.
"Todd!" he shouted. "Todd, get up!"
He grabbed at Todd's hands, got one of them, and pulled. Someone slammed into him and he was driven back to his knees. He could hear the rogue car's motor, revving full-out. Very close now. He tried to crawl, and a foot clobbered him in the temple. He saw stars.
"Tom?" Todd was behind him now. How had that happened? "Tom, what the fuck?"
A body landed on top of him, and then something else was on top of him, a huge weight that pressed down, threatening to turn him to jelly. His hips snapped. They sounded like dry turkey bones. Then the weight was gone. Pain with its own kind of weight rushed in to replace it.
Tom tried to raise his head and managed to get it off the pavement just long enough to see taillights dwindling into the fog. He saw glittering shards of glass from the busted pint. He saw Todd sprawled on his back with blood coming out of his head and pooling on the pavement. Crimson tire-tracks ran away into the foggy half-light.
He thought, Linda was right. I should have stayed home.
He thought, I'm going to die, and maybe that's for the best. Because, unlike Todd Paine, I never got around to cashing in my insurance.
He thought, Although I probably would have, in time.
When Tom Saubers woke up in the hospital forty-eight hours later, Linda was sitting beside him. She was holding his hand. He asked her if he was going to live. She smiled, squeezed his hand, and said you bet your patootie.
"Am I paralyzed? Tell me the truth."
"No, honey, but you've got a lot of broken bones."
"What about Todd?"
She looked away, biting her lips. "He's in a coma, but they think he's going to come out of it eventually. They can tell by his brainwaves, or something."
"There was a car. I couldn't get out of the way."
"I know. You weren't the only one. It was some madman. He got away with it, at least so far."
Tom could have cared less about the man driving the Mercedes-Benz. Not paralyzed was good, but--
"How bad did I get it? No bullshit--be honest."
She met his eyes but couldn't hold them. Once more looking at the get-well cards on his bureau, she said, "You . . . well. It's going to be awhile before you can walk again."