“What do we do?” he said, breath steaming.
“We wait,” I told him. “He comes out that door and we wait for him.”
The tower loomed in front of us, massive and commanding, a cold gray stone obelisk devoid of sensation or spirit. Thin clouds of white and pink sojourned past it right to left in the bloody dusk. I could feel people standing behind the dark windows looking down at us.
“What did you used to do before this?”
“I always did this,” I said.
Delivery trucks and taxis and limousines slid past us in the street. People walking their dogs. Vagrants and their stammering supplications, toothless, vacant red eyes.
“I used to be a newspaper editor. Worked at the copy desk in Cherokee.”
“I was fired for various things,” he said. “One time I invented a tasteless headline.”
Breath and life of the city, slow exhaust of time. The creep of evening as stars born into the shimmering gradient. The city clicks and claps and howls, it gurgles and screams and beeps all around us. Thundering humanity. Lights flicker and change colors. Everywhere people are moving.
“There was a guy, a priest,” he said. “He got caught with a little boy in the sacristy of a church in town there. Everyone suspected him for years but they couldn’t do anything. His brother was mayor and his father had been mayor before him.”
I didn’t say anything and watched the tower.
“So a janitor catches him standing with his robe up around his waist and this kid on his knees and so naturally he got arrested. We ran a story about the incident and followed the case while his trial was pending. One day he hung himself in the cell. Used a bunch of shoelaces he tied together. Of course we ran a story about it.”
“That’s a lot of goddamned shoelaces. So what did you do?”
“Father Ferris was his name. He was very well known in the community. I mean, his family basically ran the whole town. Anyway, the headline we originally ran with the story was: Father Ferris Dead, Hangs Self in Cell. I stayed late that night after everyone in the newsroom had gone and I promised the Chief I’d take the finished proof to press. I read the story some schmuck had written and decided to leave it alone but I had to change the headline.”
He held up both hands as if arranging the words out in the air before him.
“Father Phallus Gets the Rope.”
“Not too bright.”
“I knew what was going to happen.”
“It’s not even really that clever.”
“I thought it was.”
“How was the reception in the community?”
“I ever go there again, my murder is certain.”
“Aren’t there journalist ethics or something like that?”
“Very stringent. Many newsrooms are shaped around an agreed framework of principles. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of ours.”
“That headline, changing that headline, that was my way of giving the bird to the priest and the Church and the paper and the community all at the same time.”
“You’re very proud.”
“It was my greatest moment.”
“This is terribly depressing, this conversation.”
“Where is this goddamned guy, it’s freezing.”
He shifted his body weight to reach into the pocket of his jeans. He brought out a crushed pack of cigarettes and handed me one.
“You quit or something.”
“Or something,” I said, watching the tower. The sky had darkened to a deep pensive ruby and there were patterns of birds floating black and stark against it. Square white lights in a few windows in the tower, white eyes watching.
“I need to quit,” he said. “I been saying this for maybe twelve years.”
“Quit. ‘Quit,’ he says.”
“Easy. ‘It’s easy,’ he says.”
“It is. You just don’t put the thing in your mouth.”
He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
“How long did you smoke?” he said.
“And you quit. Just like that.”
“Just like that.”
“How long’s it been. Since you quit.”
“You haven’t had a cigarette in two months.”
“Not a pull.”
“Okay, bull shit.”
Pigeons and squirrels suspicious and drunk with cold huddled around us, hungry and mad. A handful of them inspected our shoes beneath the bench. Sirens in the distance, people in dark coats walking swiftly on the sidewalks. Taxis. Bicycles. An ambulance. A man in a bear costume with a sign hung around his neck: Who is John Galt?
“Maybe the guy’s dead in there,” he said. “You ever think of that? One of these times a guy gets hip. He feels it coming. He’s afraid of the fear.”
“You talk too much.”
“These guys are just a link in the chain of their own lies. The bonded untruths. Their lies are their memories. They become them. They have to know it’s all going to end violently one day. Feel it behind them like their shadow on the wall. They poison themselves in their spacious offices. They hang themselves in the restrooms.”
“They got no clue.”
“Oh, they know,” he said. “They know the end is inevitable. It’s an arm’s length. They delay it until it consumes them in waves of paranoia.”
“There he is.”
“That’s not him,” I said.
He finished his cigarette and pitched it into the gutter. The pigeons swarmed onto it and then ignored it. Darkness folded over the city and wrapped the base of the tower in a waxen white glow. People all around. People on cell phones, people selling magazines and designer handbags. I looked down but the pigeons and squirrels were gone and I wished for a cup of coffee. The ground trembled with the rumbling current of the subway below.
“Maybe we missed him,” he said.
“We didn’t miss him,” I said. “He’s watching us. Doesn’t want to leave just yet.”
“How do you know?”
I didn’t answer him. He craned his neck to get a better look at the tower entrance and then he relaxed again.
“Maybe my mother was right,” he said. “Maybe there is a God with a stake in our lives. Everything we do.”
“What the hell are you talking about now.”
“Or maybe we’re all part of the spirit, man. One great spirit. Bacteria in the meta-culture of some giant soul. All of us are a part.”
“Please just stop, man.”
“I’m just trying to make conversation.”
“Make it quietly.”
When the man came out of the building he was a lot younger than I expected. He wore a charcoal suit coat buttoned to the neck and he carried a black nylon bag with a shoulder strap. He blew into his hands and I stood and began to cross the street and then it started to snow.