All he wanted was a quarter, fifty cents, a dollar maybe. The guy was a soft touch, absolutely–the softest. You could see it in the way he clutched the suitcase with his big-knuckled hairy old hands and kept blinking his eyes as if he’d just got out of bed or something. People were spilling out of the train, the usual crush–a scrawny black woman with the pale splash of a birthmark on her face and two angry-looking kids clinging to her dress, a tight little clump of pin-eared teenagers, guys with briefcases and haircuts hustling up the ramp with their chop-chop strides–and nobody had spotted the old man yet. Roger stood motionless, twenty feet from him, and waited. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rohlich holding out his battered Orioles cap to a polyester wonder with sunglasses like a visor, and he saw the look of annoyance, the firm set of the jaw, the brush-off. Rohlich’s voice came back to him like a bad radio over the squeal of the train’s brakes and the scrape and clatter of shoes on the pavement and all the birdy jabber of the arriving and departing: ‘Hey, who bit you in the ass, man? All I wanted was a quarter–’
But the old man, the softest of touches, never moved. He stood rooted to the floor, just in front of the BALTIMORE sign, his watery old eyes roving over the crowd as if he was an explorer and he’d just discovered a new tribe. The man was old, Roger could see that, seventy at least, and he didn’t have a clue as to where he was. Ducking his head and sidling across the floor with the crab-walk he always used on touches–never come up to them directly, never freak them–Roger moved in. He was moistening his lips to make his pitch and thinking, A buck, a buck at least, when the old man’s face suddenly lit with a smile. Roger looked over his shoulder. There was no one there. The old man was smiling at him.
‘Hey,’ Roger crooned, ducking his head again and rolling it back on his shoulders, ‘hello. I mean, how you doin’?’
He was wearing a suit, the old man, and nothing too shabby either–probably mohair or something like that–and his hair was perfectly parted, a plumb line that showed a swath of naked pink scalp beneath. The skin was drawn tight under his cheek-bones and there was something strange about his lips, but the milky eyes were focused now. On Roger. ‘Well, well,’ the old man said, and his voice was deep and hearty, with an echo to it, ‘good to see you again, a real pleasure.’ And he reached out his hand for a shake.
Roger took the hand, a dry, old man’s hand, held it a moment and looked into his eyes. ‘Yeah, sure. Good to see you too.’ He’d begun to wonder if the guy was mental or whatever–he was probably looking for his nurse. Or his keeper. But that watch–that was a Movado, three hundred bucks, easy–and he had a college ring that looked like something. ‘Real good,’ Roger added, for emphasis.
‘Yes,’ the old man said, and he smacked his lips and held the suitcase out for Roger to take. Roger could feel his heart going. This was too good to be true, a fantasy in three dimensions and technicolor too. He looked over his shoulder, scanned the place for cops and took the suitcase. ‘We’ll be at the Sheraton again, then?’ the old man asked.
Roger took a deep breath, his eyes uncontainable, a whole hive of bees buzzing around inside his chest–Just get us out of here–and said, ‘Yeah, the Sheraton. Of course. Just like last time, right?’
The old man tugged at his nose as if he was afraid it might drop off his face. He was studying his shoes. ‘Just like last time,’ he repeated.
One more look around, and then Roger hunched his shoulders over the suitcase and swung toward the street exit. ‘Follow me,’ he said.
The train always brought back memories–there was a rhythm to it, a discontinuous flow that seemed to peel back the layers of his mind like growth rings in a tree. One minute he was a boy hunched over the radio with his mother as his father’s voice spoke to the whole USA from out of the clasp of the impermeable dark, and then he was a father himself, his step light on the cobbles of Beacon Hill, and then a grandfather, and finally an old man on a train, staring back at himself in the flicker of the window. The train did that to him. It was like a drug, a narcotic, a memory solution leaking drop by drop into his uncertain veins. And that was funny too: He was on a train because he didn’t like to fly. Richard Evelyn Byrd III, son of the greatest aviator of them all, and he didn’t like to fly. Well, he was old now–he’d had enough of flying when he was a boy. A young man really. He remembered the bright flaring skin of Antarctica, the whole ice shelf shaved close with a razor; felt the jolt of the landing and the hard sharp crack of the skis on the ice just as vividly as if they were beneath him now; saw again the light in his father’s eyes and the perfect sang-froid with which he confronted all things, the best and the worst alike.
Leverett had put him on the train in Boston and his daughter-in-law was waiting for him in Washington. He repeated it to himself, aloud, as the car swayed and clicked over the rails. Leverett. His daughter-in-law. Washington. But no, that wasn’t right. It was that pleasant young man from the Geographic Society, the one who’d been so nice about the rooms at the Sheraton, he was the one. Of course he was. A first-class reception all the way. And that was only as it should be–he, the son of the father, travelling all the way to the nation’s capital for the unveiling of the new commemorative stamp honouring the man whose legend would never die, the last of the men in the old mould, the last hero. Yes. And he would talk to them about that–to Walter what’s-his-name at the Geographic Society–about his father’s museum. He had a reindeer-skin mukluk with him now, in his suitcase, from the 1929 expedition–just to show it to them, just as bait. There was a whole houseful of stuff back in Boston, a shrine, and it was a shame it wasn’t on public display, now and permanently–and why not? For lack of a few dollars? They were financing presidents’ libraries, weren’t they? And paying out welfare and food stamps and whatnot? What would the Byrd Museum take? A million? Two? Well, he had his father’s mukluk for them and that was worth a thousand words of pleading and haggling, ten thousand.
And then the train stopped–he felt it lurch at his insides and for an instant he thought he was up in the hard pellucid Antarctic sky all over again, and he even felt the chill of it. But the train stopped, and there was his suitcase, and he got off. Washington D.C. The capital. He recognized the station, of course he did. But where was his daughter-in-law? Where was the car? Where was that pleasant young fellow from the Geographic Society?
The old man’s voice kept nagging at him, a fruity drone that caught and swallowed itself and vomited it all back up again. Why weren’t they taking the car? Were they going to walk the whole way? And his daughter-in-law, where was she? But then he’d change the subject as if he wasn’t even listening to himself and the next minute he’d be rattling on about what a bracing day it was, just like high summer at the South Pole, ha ha ha, and now he was laughing or choking–it was hard to say which. Roger stayed two paces ahead of him, head down, fingers locked around the handle of the suitcase, and listened to him bluster and wheeze. ‘It’s not much farther,’ he said. ‘You’ll see your daughter-in-law, she’ll be there, and everybody else too. Here, this way,’ he said, and he paused to let the old man draw even with him, and then he steered him down the alley out back of the recycling centre.
They were six blocks from the station now, and the throttle of Roger’s heart had eased back a bit, but still, with every step he had to fight down the impulse to take the suitcase and run. That would have been the easy way. But he would have been a fool to do it and he knew the game was going to be a whole lot richer if he played it right. If he could just get the old geek into the back of the warehouse, a quiet place he knew where the newspapers were stacked up twenty feet high, he could dig a little deeper. What else did he have besides the watch and the ring? A wallet maybe? Cash? Credit cards?
At the door to the place–a big aluminium garage door that was pried up in the corner just enough to allow a no-waist man holding his breath to slip right on through–the old guy surprised him. He didn’t balk at all. Just took a glance at the trash blown up against the concrete block wall as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world, pinched in his gut and followed Roger into the dark echoing vastness of the warehouse.
And that was it: they were safe. It was over. Anything the old man had was Roger’s, right on down to his undershorts, and there was nobody to say any different. Roger led him behind a column of newsprint and set the suitcase down. ‘Here we are,’ he said, turning to face the old man, ‘the Sheraton.’
‘This isn’t the Sheraton,’ the old man said, but he didn’t seem upset at all. He was grinning and his eyes were bright. ‘It isn’t the Ritz-Carlton either. You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?’
Roger gave him back the grin. There was a long pause during which he became aware of the distant beep-beep-beep of a forklift somewhere on the far side of the warehouse. ‘Yeah, sure,’ Roger said finally, I was only joking, sure I was. Can’t fool you, huh?’ He settled himself down on a stack of newspaper and motioned for the old man to do the same. He lit a cigarette–or the stub of a cigarette he’d picked out of an ashtray at the station. He was taking his time, enjoying himself–there was no reason to rush, or to get violent either. The old man was out there, no doubt about it.
‘So what’s in the suitcase?’ Roger asked casually, shaking out the match and exhaling through his nostrils.
The old guy had been sitting there, as content as if he was stretched out in his easy chair back at home, smacking his lips and chuckling softly to himself, but now his face went serious. ‘My father’s mukluk.’
Roger couldn’t help himself. He let out a laugh. ‘Your father’s who?’
‘Here, let me show you,’ the old man said, and Roger let him take the suitcase. He propped it up on his bony old knees, popped the latches and pulled back the lid to reveal a nest of garments, socks, shirts, handkerchiefs and a tweed sport coat. Rummaging around a moment, he finally came up with what he was looking for–some kind of shoe or boot or something, made out of fur–and held it up for Roger’s inspection as if it was the Hope Diamond.
‘So what did you say this was?’ Roger asked, taking the thing from him and turning it over in his hand.
‘My father’s mukluk. For the museum.’
Roger didn’t know what to make of this. He pulled quietly on his cigarette a moment, then handed the thing back to him with a shrug. ‘Is it worth anything?’
‘Ha!’ the old man boomed, and Roger was afraid he was going to get to his feet and try something. ‘Worth anything? The very mukluk Admiral Byrd wore in Little America? The very one?’ The old man drew himself up, cradling the shoe to his chest. ‘And I tell you something–and you can tell Walter from me,’ he said, lowering his voice in confidentiality, ‘I’ve got plenty more where this came from. Plenty. Notebooks, parkas, reindeer pants and finnesko boots, the sun compass itself–the very one he used to make his fix on the Pole.’ He rocked back on his haunches. ‘Yes,’ he murmured, and he might have been talking to himself, so oblivious was he of Roger and his surroundings, ‘you tell Walter. All we need is maybe a million. And that’s nothing these days. Nothing.’
The old man was as crazy as plantlife, but that only took you so far, and though Roger had nowhere to go–hadn’t had anywhere to go in maybe ten years now–he was getting impatient. ‘You’re absolutely right,’ he said, cutting him off in the middle of a windy speech about his museum, and he used the phrase as an excuse to lean forward and shake the dry old hand again. But this time, unlike the first, when every eye in the station was on them, Roger expertly slipped the watch over the bony wrist and dropped it in his coat pocket, and the old man didn’t know a thing about it.
Or maybe he did. His expression changed suddenly, as if he was trying to remember something. The lines stood out in his face. He looked old. Old and constipated. ‘I’m thirsty,’ he suddenly announced.
‘Thirsty?’ Roger roared, drunk with his own success. ‘Hell, so am I–what say we share a pint or two, eh? Have a party. Drink to your mukluk and your museum.’ He stood and patted his pockets theatrically, enjoying himself all over again–he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had this much fun. ‘But I’m a little short–you got any cash? For a drink, I mean?’
Another facial change. The jaw clenched, the eyes caught hold of him. ‘You’re not the young man from the Geographic Society,’ the old man said quietly.
‘The hell I’m not,’ Roger protested, and he was so frisky all of a sudden he spun around twice and threw out his arms like a tap dancer rising to the finale. ‘Sure I am, old man, sure I am–but listen, what did you say your name was?’
‘Byrd. Richard Evelyn Byrd. The Third.’
Oh the solemnity of it, the dignity. He might have been announcing the King of Arabia or something. Roger laughed out loud. ‘Bird, huh? Tweet-tweet. Bird the Third.’ Then he let a hint of ugliness creep into his voice and he stood over the old man now, no mistaking the posture: ‘I said, you got any cash for a drink, Bird the Third?’
The hand shook, the fingers fumbled in the jacket pocket, and there was the wallet, genuine calfskin, receptacle for the sort of notes and documents that separated people like the old man from Roger and Rohlich and all the other bleary-eyed, rottentoothed bums and winos curled up on their sheets of cardboard across the city. In that moment, Roger almost felt sorry for the old retard–almost. But in the end, of course, he felt sorrier for himself, and in a quick swipe the wallet was his: five twenties, folded and joined with a paper clip, three ones, a return ticket, Washington to Boston. Photos: an old lady, a kid in a little league outfit, some white-haired old duffer in a parka. And what was this, what was this?! A Visa card, thin as a wafer, shiny as a pot of gold.
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the first man to fly over both North and South Poles and leader of two Arctic and five Antarctic expeditions.
He was used to a cocktail before dinner–a Manhattan, generally, shaken, and with a twist instead of a cherry–and a good cabernet or pinot noir with his meal, but this was something he hadn’t experienced before, this was something new. The young man passed him the bottle–GALLO WHITE PORT, the label read, ALCOHOL 19% BY VOLUME–and he took a long gulping swallow that left his chin wet and his stomach burning. He was thirsty, nearly parched, and the liquid–it was cold, it was wet–went down easily, and after the first drink he didn’t care what it was. When the bottle was gone, the young man produced another, and though he’d been hungry, though he hadn’t eaten anything except the egg salad sandwich and the apple his son had given him at the Boston station, the hunger faded and he felt better and better as the evening wore on. He was telling the young man about pemmican, how it was the highest-energy food man had yet to devise and how many calories you had to replace daily just to stay alive at seventy-five below, when all at once he felt as lucid as he ever had. He caught himself up so suddenly he almost choked. This wasn’t the young man from the Geographic Society, not at all. There was the same fringe of patchy, youthful beard, the startled blue eyes and delicate raw skin, but the nose was all wrong and the mouth had a mean, hurtful look to it. And his clothes–they were in tatters, soaked through with the grease and leavings of the ages, reeking, an unforgivably human stink he could smell from all the way over here. ‘This isn’t Washington,’ the old man said, understanding now that he’d gotten off at the wrong stop, that he was in some other city altogether, a place he didn’t know, understanding that he was lost. ‘Is it?’
His face shining with drink, his ragged arms flailing at the air, the young man howled with manic glee, kicked at the newspapers heaped up round him and finally had to clutch his ribs tight to stop the laughter. He laughed till he began to cough, and he coughed till he brought something up and spat it on the floor. ‘You are out there, Bird,’ he said, straining at each word, and the laughter seized him again. ‘You are really out there.’
So: he was lost. It had happened to him before, two or three times at least. A trick of the mind, that was all, one little mistake–getting off at the wrong stop, turning right instead of left–and the world became a strange and unfathomable place, terrain to explore all over again. He didn’t mind. They’d come for him, Leverett and his wife, sweet girl really, and the grandchildren, they’d find him. But then a little wedge of concern inserted itself along the fracture lines of his psyche, and it became a worry. Who was this man if he wasn’t from the Geographic Society, and what did he want? And what was this place? Newspapers. Drifts of them, mountains, a whole continent, and all it was was newsprint.
He took the bottle when it came to him and he took a drink and passed it back, and there was a third member of their party now, another hand interposed between him and the young man who wasn’t from the Geographic Society. Matted beard, nose like a bird of prey, eyes frozen into his head, and he didn’t know him, not at all, but why did he look so familiar? He felt himself drifting. It was cold, damnably cold, for what–October, wasn’t it? ‘Early winter this year,’ he murmured, but no one uttered a word in response.
The next time he noticed anything, it was the candle. He must have dozed. But there it was, the candle. A light in the wilderness. The bottle came back to him and the feeble light leapt out suddenly to illuminate the new man’s face and he knew him, knew him as well as he knew his own son and his own father. ‘You,’ he said out of the void, ‘I know you.’
There was a low cackle, a dribble of hard-edged laughter from two ravaged throats. ‘Yeah, we know you too, Bird the Third,’ the young man said, and his voice had changed, the tone of it, till everything he said sounded like a schoolyard taunt.
‘No,’ the old man insisted, ‘not you … I mean’–and he looked the newcomer full in the face–‘I mean you.’ The inspiration had flared in his brain, and he knew the man even after all these years, a great man, his father’s equal almost, the only other man in the world who’d been to both Poles and back again. ‘You’re Roald Amundsen.’
The laugh was ugly, almost a bark. The man showed the stubs of his teeth. He took his time, drinking, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. ‘Shit man, sure I am,’ he said, and the other one was laughing again, ‘and this here, your friend with the bottle, this guy’s Santy Claus.’
Roger was on a tear. For a full week, seven whole days and maybe more, he didn’t know where he was. He hadn’t had this much money, all at once, since he’d left New Jersey, when he was a kid living in that lopsided trailer with his mother and stocking the shelves at Waldbaum’s. The whole thing with the old man had been unreal, the sort of score everybody dreams about but never makes, never. Oh, sure, zombies like Rohlich would tell you they were hitch-hiking once and Madonna gave them a lift, or some high roller in Atlantic City handed them a C-note when all they asked for was a quarter, but this was unreal, this happened. Those five twenties alone could have kept him flying for a month or more, but of course they’d disappeared, dropped down the hole where all of it went sooner or later–usually sooner. He didn’t know where he’d been or what he’d done, but he ached all over, so it must have been good, and he needed a drink so bad he could taste it. Or couldn’t taste it. Or whatever.
And shit, it was cold. Too cold for this time of year. Cold and drizzling. When he woke up an hour or so ago he’d found himself on a wet slab of cardboard out back of the fish restaurant the yuppies flocked to–Cicero’s–and he didn’t know how he’d got there or what he’d done the night before, and his pockets were empty. No loose change. No nothing. He’d wandered over to the mission and passed a short dog around with the black guy they called Hoops, and now he was wet through to the skin and shivering and looking for a benefactor so he could invest in the Gallo Company and warm up where it counted most. He remembered the old guy’s watch then, the black Movado, and felt around in his pockets for it. It was gone. He had a further–and dimmer–recollection of pawning it and getting ten bucks for the thing and being all pissed off about it, but then he wasn’t so sure–it might have been another watch and another time.
He stayed on the street for a couple hours, it got a whole lot colder, and all he came up with was ninety-two cents. By then, his thirst was driving him crazy, so he bought a can of beer and went over to the warehouse to see who was around and maybe trade up for a hit or two of wine. He saw that somebody had tried to hammer the crease out of the door and that they’d moved a whole shitload of papers out and a whole new shitload in, but other than that nothing had changed. There was nobody around, so he made himself a little igloo out of bundled newspaper, drank his beer in two swallows and tried to stop shivering for a minute at a time.
At first he didn’t hear it–or it didn’t register. The place was cavernous, with a ceiling you could fly planes under and walls that went on for a block, and it was noisy, middle of the day, trucks rumbling in and out of the South Street entrance with cans and bottles, and Mr and Mrs Nice driving up with Sis and Bud to deliver their neat foursquare string-tied bundles of newspaper. It was noisy and he didn’t hear a thing but the muted rumble of all that activity and he wished five o’clock would come and they’d shut the place down and go home and leave him in peace, but after a while he became aware that somebody was there with him, just up the next aisle, muttering to himself in the low sweet singsong tones of the crack-brained and hopeless. Another bum. Somebody he knew maybe. A man with a short dog and maybe a bite of something scavenged from the top of the bin out back of the supermarket. He felt his spirits lift.
He pushed himself up, keeping an eye out for the watchman, and slipped up the next aisle. The papers had fallen in drifts here, sloppily stacked, and he fought his way through them in the direction of the voice, his harsh ragged breath crystallizing before him. There was a nook carved out of the wall, and he saw the back of a white head, the old withered stalk of a neck, and there he was: Bird the Third.
He was amazed. He would have thought the guy would be long gone, would have found his people, his keeper, whatever. But still, there he was, and for a moment Roger felt a surge of hope. Maybe he had something on him still, something he’d overlooked, some piece of jewellery, a pair of glasses–hell, his clothes even. But then he saw that they’d already got to him. The old retard’s suit was gone, his socks and shoes too. Somebody’d switched on him, and he was dressed in a puke-green janitor’s jumpsuit and he was missing a shoe–or he’d found a shoe somewhere, a torn greasy old Nike sneaker with the toes ripped out. He was pathetic. A mess. And he wasn’t worth anything to anybody.
For a long while, Roger just stood there watching him. The old man was shivering, his arms wrapped around himself like coils, the bare foot discolored and bad-looking. He had that thousand-mile stare on his face, the same one you saw on some of the older guys, the Vietnam vets and whatnot. Roger’s brain was working hard, and for a moment he saw himself taking the guy along to the police station and turning him in like a hero and maybe getting a reward from the guy’s family or whoever. They had to be looking for him. You don’t come from that world with your haircut and your suitcase and your Movado watch without somebody looking for you, especially if you’re a little soft in the head to begin with.
It was a good idea for about eight seconds, and then it became a whole lot less good, and ten seconds further on it just plain stank. There wouldn’t be any reward–maybe for Joe Average and Mr and Mrs Nice, maybe for them, but not for the likes of Roger. That’s how things worked. There were two worlds operating here, the one where Bird the Third and all the rest of them lived, and this one, the real one, where you slept under things at ankle-level and ate the crumbs they gave you. Well, fuck that. Fuck it. It was just like the credit card. He’d tried it on maybe twenty liquor stores, the ones he knew and the ones he didn’t, and nobody took him for Bird the Third, no matter how much ID he showed or how hard he tried. Not the way he looked, no way. He was going to trade the thing for a bottle at this one place–Here, you want the card, Visa Gold? Keep it–but then the jerk behind the counter got nasty, real nasty, and confiscated the whole business, plastic, ID and all. That’s how it was.
He was going to say something, goodbye or thanks for the ride or whatever, but in the end he decided against it. Somewhere, in some deep tunnel of what used to be his reality and was now somebody else’s, he even felt a stab of pity, and worse, guilt. But he comforted himself with the thought that if he hadn’t been there at the station, somebody else would have, and any way you looked at it Bird the Third would have wound up plucked. In the end, he just shrugged. Then he made his way off through the drifts, thinking maybe he’d just go on down to the station and check out the trains.
Oh, but it was cold. Cold to the bone. And dry. He knew the irony of it all too well–a shelf made of water, frozen and compacted over the howling eons, and not a drop to drink. It was locked in, unavailable, dry as paper. He shifted position and winced. It was his foot. He’d lost all feeling in it there for a while, but now it came back with a vengeance, a thousand hot needles radiating all the way up his leg to the thigh. That’s how it was with frostbite. He’d lose his toes, he knew that, but they’d all lost toes, fingers–the great ones–even the tips of their noses. There were continents to explore, unknown corners to make known, and what was a little discomfort compared to the greatness of that?
He thought of his father in the weather shack where he’d wintered alone, the fear of that eternal blackness closing on him like a fist, alternately freezing and asphyxiating himself on the fumes from the kerosene stove. That was greatness. That was will. That was the indomitable spirit he’d inherited. But still it was cold, terribly, implacably cold, unrelentingly cold, and his foot hurt him and he felt himself drifting off to sleep. That was how it happened, that was how they died out here, numbed by the cold, seduced into sleep and forgetfulness.
He stirred, and he fought it. He beat at his thighs, hammered his hands against the meat of his arms, but he couldn’t keep it up, and before long he subsided. He tried to call out, but his voice was gone, and besides, it was the coward’s way–his father would never have called out. Never. No, he would have gone on into the grip of that Polar night, never wavering, never halting, on and on, into the dream.
Photograph © Associated Press