Sometimes questions mean more than answers. But Bissell Langley was an answer man. He had the credentials that affirmed his answers could be trusted, or at least his coworkers knew their asses were covered when they cited Bissell Langley as their source, their authority. He was surrounded by an air of decisiveness, settled fact, proven theory, straight lines from A to B – no raised voices, no dustups, no violent disagreements. No excitement. In fact, downright indifference. Money would be made, people would get paid, no one would hang. This is how business was done at Anders & Bagley, and this was how Bissell Langley lived out his existence.
The 5:15 express train from the city stopped at Stamford and four stops along the north branch line. It arrived at its last stop as the 6:20 train. Runners – passengers who made it just as the doors were closing – were often forced to stand for the first forty-five minutes or take the middle seats in three-seat rows. Once the doors closed, the train seemed to hold its breath for the first forty-five minutes until it reached Stamford, when it finally exhaled, opening its doors for the first time and letting off the Stamford passengers. The train and the remaining passengers seemed to relax. Runners took seats that had been vacated and those who had been crowded into full rows took the opportunity to spread out filling the intervening seats with their coats and briefcases. Those who remained on board shared an unspoken camaraderie, a common disdain for the Stamford passengers. And for the last four stops, the train progressed toward increasingly tony and exclusive neighborhoods reflecting passengers’ ability and willingness to spend more time and money to remove themselves from the various unpleasantries of the city – crime, traffic, noise, people – at least certain kinds of people.
In the lead car, Bissell’s usual air of indifference had an added edge of annoyance as Russell Wiegand – colleague at Anders & Bagley and classmate at Cornell – dropped into the end seat of Bissell’s row and deposited his briefcase, with trench-coat draped over it, into the middle seat alongside Bissell’s. Russell was an old school friend, but one that Bissell would have been glad to lose touch with as career eclipsed school. Russell was a salesman – what Bissell considered a pseudo-professional. And he was the worst category of salesman – the kind that survived by trading on his connections. If he were the kind that drew on his wits and cunning, Bissell would have respected that acumen. If his position were justified by a graduate degree of some sort, Bissell would have been forced to acknowledge that qualification. If he were hard-working, Bissell would have recognized him as an honorable beast of burden, a cog in the machine of business. But Russell Wiegand was nothing if not for his ability to trade on the connections of his father and his grandfather and his wife’s family and his old schoolmates from Cornell and Exeter. And if he proves unable to make enough money or inherit enough wealth by the time the connection well runs dry, he’ll end up a divorced functioning drunk whose name no longer makes anyone’s guest list.
This day happened to be the fifteenth of October. The sun was setting behind low clouds as the train stopped at Glenbrook and Springdale. It was almost dark at Talmadge Hill as a light rain began to fall. And for the last five minutes, the train traveled on in darkness, with the train cars now glowing from the inside out, the windows now showing passengers the world rendered as indistinct shapes in browns and greys. At this point, Russell transformed himself from a silent annoyance to an active irritant. He turned to Bissell and began, “You remember that night we all went with our dates to the State Diner after that play – the Don Quixote thing?”
“You mean Man of La Mancha,” Bissell filled in dutifully.
Russell continued slowly, as if recalling the pieces in his mind, “And Preston goes, ‘I dub thee Knight of the Dreadful Countenance.’”
“Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” Bissell corrected.
“Yes! That’s right!” Russell smiled looking off toward the far end of the car. “Pres says to you, ‘I dub thee Knight of the Woeful Countenance,’ and he turns to Claudette.”
“Callietta, my wife’s name is Callietta.” Bissell corrected without showing his irritation. “It’s a form of Caroline, means ‘beautiful’.”
“Pres turns to Callietta and says, ‘Or is that what we’ll be calling your wedding night, the Night of the Woeful Countenance?’” Russell shook his head fondly remembering the scene. “Pres was always a riot. A one-man laugh-riot. Damn straight.” He paused almost wistful. “It’s nice to be able to share those memories with someone after so many years. Those really were the best years of our lives.”
“If you say so.”
Preston Merton had always been loud, brash, but somehow demanded attention and a certain respect. He had snuck a pint of peppermint schnapps into the theater and passed it along their row when the house lights went down. He had hoped the liqueur would encourage their dates to partake, but the boys ended up drinking most of it. By the time the final curtain came down and they walked to the diner on State Street, the buzz was wearing off for many of them and the effect of the schnapps on Preston in particular had progressed from loosening his tongue to sharpening it.
Russell gazed, now more wistful, and turned to Bissell. As if in homage to Preston Merton, he offered, “You know, it’s true what Preston said about you: Your brain is where unwanted facts go to die.”
“You certainly have a way with those old school memories, Russell.” Bissell stared at Russell without expression, thinking, Is this my cross to bear, this walking disappointment, this least common denominator of my life to date, this human lamprey? He latched onto me at Cornell. He followed me to A&B. Have I wronged Poseidon to deserve this? Perhaps his father will pass and leave him everything so he won’t have to work anymore, or his father will disown him and he’ll just fade into the shadows. I don’t care which, but it can’t happen soon enough.
“You know,” Russell said, now quietly, his head tilted down looking at their briefcases, “I’m glad we’re still in touch. I think it’s made a difference in my life, just knowing you were here, seeing a friendly face occasionally at the office, occasionally around town.” Russell turned to look straight ahead.
The 6:20 train rocked gently and slowed gradually as it neared the bumper-stop at the end of the line, arriving in full darkness. As the train gave its last, extended howl of the brakes, passengers queued up at the doors, looking out into the parking lot, locating their umbrellas, bracing themselves for that last jolt before the doors opened. A light rain was falling. A blanket of cloud hung just above the train, obscuring the lights along the train platform and around the parking lot, creating a ceiling of diffused light overhead. Lamp posts along the street and around the parking lot rose from the pavement only to disappear into the cloud layer, each one pointing toward a disembodied glowing orb some distance above. The doors opened. Travelers issued onto the platform and headed for their parked cars or their attending spouses in the line of cars drawn up in the Fire Lane. They paused at the door to open their umbrellas or lift their newspapers or briefcases over their heads. Some indistinct voices accompanied the clatter of hurried high heels and oxford brogues in double-step. Bissell always waited until the rush at the doors had passed. He rose from his seat, placed his bowler atop his head and exited, opening his umbrella without impeding anyone behind him or inconveniencing anyone ahead of him. And he proceeded in a straight line from the door of the train down the ramp from the platform into the parking lot. One car rolled by and stopped momentarily in front of him. It was Russell, who lowered his window and called to Bissell, “Fare ye well, O ye Knight of the Woeful Countenance!” He pulled his car into traffic a little too fast and a little too aggressively, causing an on-coming motorist to give a short honk. Bissell sighed without smiling and continued past the station building onto Elm Street.
His dark figure, umbrella-shrouded, bowler-domed, bobbed rhythmically along the sidewalk. With each loping stride, the spike atop his umbrella threatened to pierce the low-hanging blanket that seemed uneasily suspended overhead, showing neither the commitment to descend as a true fog bank or the reserve to withdraw a decent distance as a low-hanging rain cloud. Leather oxfords on wet sidewalk sounded a crisp but reserved sibilance. He passed the public park that bordered the train station, down two more blocks of Elm to where the street split into two one-way sections divided by a ten-foot-wide landscaped park median. The sidewalk on either side of the street gave way to accommodate the wider lanes. The six blocks that now lay in front of him were some of the most desirable in town. They were built twenty or thirty years ago when the commuter train came to town. They were imagined as the best of “in-town” living. Everything seemed to slow, and Bissell’s mind began to relax and wander, shaking off the evening’s unpleasantness.
Bissell continued another three blocks past brick- and wood-frame colonials and Georgians to his house. Suddenly, with the crackle of leather pivoting on concrete, Bissell Langley turned into his front walk, stepping into the bath of incandescence from brass coach lights surrounding his front step from three directions. His large black umbrella tilted back on his shoulder as he prepared to navigate the door. Shifting the grip on his briefcase to his ring and pinky fingers, he tried the doorknob with three fingers. He dropped his umbrella point-down to the side of the door before sliding through and depositing his briefcase alongside the console table in the entry way. “Home!” he announced to the house, “Walking Beatrice!” With his hands free he reached down to pat and shake the old but affectionate thigh-high mass of golden curls that rubbed against his legs. Quickly establishing the head and neck, he wrapped a finger around the collar and with the other hand grabbed the leash that hung on a hook by the door. The leash clasp found its loop on the collar and with one motion Bissell Langley grabbed at the box of plastic bags that sat next to the leash.
A voice came from the house, “Glad you made the 6:20. I was able to pick up some salmon and asp –.” In two steps Bissell was out the door with Beatrice and the voice inside the house became one more muffled undertone in the dark night. Picking up his umbrella, Bissell and Bea strode out onto the sidewalk. At first, Bea looked up at Bissell as if continuing her greeting ritual, shaking at both ends. She was a sweet old dog whose senses were dimming, and more and more she preferred to just sit alongside or – as much as possible atop – the members of her family. Within a few steps she began to follow her nose diligently into the darkness along the familiar path, unbothered by the rain and in no particular hurry.
Bissell offered some resistance to her tugging, primarily to avoid having to break stride, but also to prevent any wildlife encounters like her past run-ins with cats, skunks, and racoons. As they fast-walked the better part of two blocks, Bissell contemplated the rain drops. Bissell enjoyed applying his mind to intellectual exercises like fluid dynamics. The rain presented itself to him as a suitable exercise. The light rain that was falling seemed to be made up of slow, heavy drops, a distinct contrast from the heavy, sullen rain that accompanied the morning commute, sheets of uniform droplets moving with militaristic precision. And yet, in both instances, each individual raindrop reflected all of creation except the contents of the individual droplet, and each with a perspective unique to that droplet. And then, as if watching a science-class filmstrip, he saw in his head cartoon images of cool dust particles and H2O molecules floating in the air. As cartoonish water molecules bump up against cartoonish dust particulars, the molecules condense one by one, clinging to the cooler particles. And then eventually one water molecule joins the group, making it too heavy to remain suspended. They fall as a raindrop out of the frame, like some cartoon character who realizes he’s just run off a cliff. In the next frame, we follow the falling drop. Aerodynamics takes over. The awkward, ungainly raindrop – shaped at first like a hamburger bun – falls, creating turbulence that causes additional drops to bud from the waffling edges until, in the next frame, the surface tension of water takes over pulling the remaining drop into a tight aerodynamic sphere forming a stable rain drop. In the final frame, we’re given the formula for terminal velocity, and we see that a two-millimeter drop would top out at around two miles per hour while a six-millimeter drop would reach speeds in the range of ten to twenty miles per hour. The filmstrip ends, the reel receiving the film flaps as it continues to spin, and some AV nerd flips on the lights. So, we see that tonight’s rain, having little if any distance to fall, is made up of unusually slow falling drops, and those drops consist of an unusually high proportion of large, slow drops. But even so, the large drops would still –.
Bissell’s thought bubble burst as Bea started to pull off the sidewalk toward the bushes. Bissell held her back. “Whoa, Beatrice! What scent are you onto?” They had reached the public park, and she seemed to pull toward the bushes on the right, where the land sloped down slightly. Bissell pulled her back, not wanting to allow another wildlife encounter. When he heard what sounded like a human voice, he allowed her to move forward. Possibly someone had had an accident or a health episode? He became curious and eased her forward further until the sound became a voice and the voice became words. “Virgil Caine is the name . . . Huh . . . Take what you need and leaf-leave the rest, but they should neffer haff – huh – taken the very be-est.” Bea wagged her tail and bobbed back and forth, uncertain whether her finding could be trusted.
Bissell spoke from the higher ground of the sidewalk. “Are you all right?” He drew Bea’s leash in and took a step into the grass. And then another. He could see the soles of a pair of hand-made shoes and a handsome trench coat, much like his own. Soon he was bending down, peering behind the bushes into the shadows. Suddenly a face rose out of the darkness toward his own. “Na-a-a na nana na na-a-a-a.” A strong scent of alcohol slapped him in the face. “Dah dum de dum . . . Dah dum de dum.”
“Let’s get you some coffee,” Bissell suggested, “Let’s just go another block down to the train station. There’s a coffee kiosk there.” He hoped to drag him along to the train station and perhaps then on to the police station or perhaps run conveniently into a policeman. He hoped this situation might resolve itself by being moved into the light. “Are you alright? Do you need medical attention?” Bissell offered the man a hand. He grasped his forearm and rose to his feet, climbing slowly, unsteadily up the slope.
“I’m fine.” He spoke slowly without focusing his eyes. “But there are always people in need. Some don’t know where to go to get what they need. Some don’t know what it is they need.” He turned his unfocused gaze upon Bissell. “Some don’t know they’re in need. I always try to help where I can. I’m a humanitarian.” He turned his gaze upon Bissell and his eyes began to focus.
“And what might you need?” Bissell asked, drawing him out into the open. Bissell noticed the coat was clearly at least two sizes too large for the man. The shoes were untied. “I bet you could use a cup of coffee. And maybe a bite to eat.”
The man, now clear of the bushes, seemed to struggle for his bearings. He appeared small in the oversized coat and shoes. He paused as if thinking or just befuddled. “Forgiveness. I just need forgiveness,” the man said, his voice trailing off, his gaze getting distant again. “I manage to get everything else I need . . . but sometimes getting what I need leads me to sin. I offend my God daily.” And then suddenly he focused on Bea and then Bissell and blurted out, “I didn’t mean to hurt . . . him.”
“Do you mean the guy you got this coat from? And maybe those shoes?”
The stranger looked at Bissell and focused his eyes. “Yuh.” He spoke haltingly, sparingly. “You . . . You want me to show . . . show you where he is? . . . Where he is?”
“Yeah, why don’t you do that. He might need some help, too.” Bissell felt suddenly like Preston Merton herding a frosh girl through a Theta Chi party, except in this case, he was leading his prey in the direction of sobriety and ideally arrest. “Or maybe we can get you both some coffee.”
“He’s across the street.” He led the way onto the public golf course. “Up by this bench up here.” He marched into the course, into the darkness beyond the reach of the streetlights. The ground started to rise. Bissell knew it to be the second tee. In a short time, they were surrounded by fog. “You know, the gate is open,” he seemed to be musing. He looked at Bissell as he continued walking, now trudging uphill. Bea wagged her tail and looked back and forth between the two men. “Those that hang around the gate, they’re free to go back and forth . . . because they can’t commit to either direction. But they’re swarmed by hornets and maggots eat their blood.”
“What gate is this? Did you leave him at the gate?”
“No, the gates of Hell.”
Oh, of course, the gates of Hell, Bissell thought to himself. “You’ve been to this gate?” His question went unanswered. Bissell attributed this rambling to liquor, hopefully not psychosis. He knew there was no gate or fence in this area. The golf course was wide open. The only fencing was isolated sections to prevent people hitting balls into residential properties. Bissell tried to get back on track. “You said there was a man who was in bad shape over here?”
“I left him by this bench.” The stranger seemed to puzzle, turning his head.
“You’re sure it was this bench?” Bissell was trying to make sense as well. “Maybe it was–,” he said, gesturing with his umbrella, “The next bench?” Bissell continued in a lower tone. “Perhaps your friend made it home last night after all. Maybe there’s no one here.”
The man stopped and stood up straight, as if cued. He held out his right hand to one side. “There was one man committed to virtue.” He held out his other hand in the other direction. “And there was another man given over to sin.” He continued as though repeating something he had rehearsed, but not rehearsed enough. “But there was a third man,” he said, now holding his right hand out in Bissell’s direction, “Who was uncommitted, pursuing neither virtue nor sin. He was left – he was the one left – he was left standing by the open gate. Neither master wanted him.”
Bissell was growing weary of this exercise. “I see no one.”
“No, you don’t see.” He leaned forward, his eyes intent on Bissell. “Both masters will spit you out! They will spit you OUT!”
“Come on, let’s get you some coffee, maybe some food. How about that? We’ll find something you don’t have to spit out.” Bissell tried to herd him back toward the road, back toward the center of town, where, God willing, he’d spot a cop or get him to continue another two blocks to the police station. He would even spring for coffee and a sandwich. “Come on. Come on.” Bissell gestured with head to lead him away, as he held his umbrella in his right hand and Bea’s leash in the other.
“You’ve heard my word. I have no more to say to you. You decide the verdict and your own sentence.” The man stood stiffly, holding his head high at a strange angle, his eyes wide.
“Ok, sure. I’m deciding we go get some coffee and something solid for you to eat.” Bissell continued his thoughts unspoken, And I’ll find a way to deliver you to the nearest policeman who can drop you in the drunk tank – or I can just leave you here and make a call when I get home.
“Wait. Gimme your hat.” He was suddenly deadly serious.
“Your hat. And your watch, your wallet. You’ll have no more need for them.”
“No, I’ve offered to get you some coffee, maybe something to eat . . .” Bissell gestured again with his head toward the center of town.
The man took a step forward, reaching for Bissell’s bowler hat with his left hand. The quickness of his movements caught Bissell by surprise. Bissell managed to fend off the man’s reach with his right elbow, as Bea’s leash hindered the full extension of his arm. The sudden flurry of movement and the change in the stranger’s facial expressions elicited an immediate reaction from Bea. Growling, she lunged and seized the man’s left forearm in her jaws. Through several layers of heavy fabric, the man felt the pressure of her bite and her weight pulling, but no more. Finding his balance, his right hand emerged suddenly from his pocket with the faint glint of a knife blade. He swung in the direction of Bea. His blade encountered mostly fur. It found enough of her to produce a whimper but not enough for her to surrender her grip on the man’s forearm. The faint glimmer of blade swung back toward the man’s right hip. Bissell dropped his umbrella down like a worthless shield between himself and the stranger just as the blade began an upward path toward the opening in Bissell’s overcoat and suit coat. Thoughts flashed though Bissell’s mind, Not Beatrice! How dare you hurt Beatrice! The motion of the blade shredded the umbrella’s canopy and the stranger’s hand pushed against the ribs and stretchers of the umbrella – and stopped as the tip of the blade pressed against Bissell’s shirt button. The man froze, staring down at his blade. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He broke out in a cold sweat. “I didn’t mean to hurt your dog. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
Bissell held his breath, waiting for the blade to do its work. Staring at the blade pointed at his belly, he said under his breath, “I forgive you.” When time began to move forward again, Bissell took a step back and said in a normal voice, “Some coffee?”