The Kiln

“The Kiln” was first published
in Grist: The Journal for Writers in 2008.

The hollowed out ground floor—like a great cavity at the base of an otherwise shiny tooth—was a smoldering wreck, and the smell of burnt leather and wood and carpet and draperies and just about everything else that was once the Kennedy Ballroom was acrid and everywhere. It was nearly midnight, and firemen moved in and out of the building. Some were taking a breather near the curb, their Styrofoam cups marked with ash from blackened fingers. They were not allowing anyone inside, and none of them could tell Kevin if any of the people scheduled to receive awards had been hurt. He knew his story would never land ahead of page six unless they were.

Kevin spotted a police sergeant he knew and headed toward him, press pass out. “Cronin,” he said. “How’s it goin?”

“Bad,” said Cronin. “We got eight serious injuries and I haven’t heard back from the hospital yet. There’ll probably be more.” Cronin was a stocky man, wore his cap—now coated with ash—low over his brow, peering out as if the world were an unending parade of suspects.

“Can I go in?”

Cronin looked up at Kevin and shook his head no. Kevin was a big man, powerful looking despite his perpetual slouch. “They’re not finished combing through everything. It’ll be a long while before anybody gets in.”

Kevin gave him a look. “Who’s anybody?”

“Donnegan, since when are fires your beat?”

“When the ones gettin’ toasted have a lock on money this big.”

“Yeah, this was a studded crowd all right,” said Cronin. “Two top guys from Goldman Sachs were taken out with their suits singed. I heard they were here for some kind of awards ceremony.”

“Yeah. The Stevies.”

Cronin’s attention moved to a noise across the street, then, satisfied that all was well, he glanced again at Kevin. “The what?”

“American Business Awards. Corporate America’s version of the Oscars.”

“Just what they need. Another excuse to blow smoke up each other’s ass. I saw that guy who runs CitySaver here.”

“Foster? You saw Sean Foster here?” Kevin tried to sound casual, but he felt breathless, angry at himself for being taken by surprise. He remembered hearing about Sean’s nomination.

“Yeah. You know him?”

“He’s my cousin.” Kevin told Cronin. “Where’d you see him? Is he ok?”

“I think so. It was a while ago.”

Kevin wasn’t sure which bothered him more—having to find out Sean had been injured or having to talk with him if he wasn’t. Sean had been leaving messages on Kevin’s phone for two weeks—short, light-hearted things, like voices from a time when there were lots of chances left. Kevin was convinced that—despite the chaos—life was better when he and Sean were young. At least then he believed in the possibility of change. He didn’t see much room for that now.

If Sean was still here, Kevin knew there was no way he could avoid talking with him. Foster was the latest Wall Street wonder, and Kevin couldn’t take this story back without a quote. He felt for his notebook in his jacket pocket. It was with him all the time, even when he was not on assignment. In weak moments, when thoughts meant only for fiction barged in, he got them down. Sometimes, by the time he returned to the notebook, the trail was cold. Still, the book was crammed with months’ worth of scribbles, words meant to point the way back to a moment, a voice, a scene in his head that he couldn’t shake off. When they were ready, they’d take over—brazen squatters in a life that had no room for them. He swore he’d stop, nearly every day, and nearly every night the images landed on the page: sisters, solid and secretive, holding court, deciding who gets cursed, who reprieved; a father, pathetic and threatening, filling a bedroom doorway with misplaced rage, like a phantom that took a wrong turn. The pictures filled his head until there was barely space enough for real life to find room.

“You look a little out of it, Donnegan?” Cronin said. “Is the smoke getting to you?”

“No. No. I’m fine. Eight hurt you said?” He looked for space in his notebook.

“Yeah. Pretty bad,” Cronin said.

“Let’s hope they were hedge fund managers. We can easily do with a few less of those.”

Cronin chuckled. “Well, your cousin broke that mold. Kavanaugh says he got at least sixteen people out.”

“You mean out of the building?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit. He never does anything small scale. Where is he now?”

“Check out one of those fire trucks,” Cronin said, pointing up the street. “The guys are probably stuffing him with coffee and donuts.”

Kevin spotted a group of firemen clustered midway down 45th Street and decided to start there. “Thanks, Cronin,” he said.

He got only a few steps away when Cronin called after him, “Oh, yeah. I got a message for you from Skibniewski: He says to tell you it’s n i e w, not n e w.”

“The copy desk screwed up. I’ll make it up to him next time.” Officer Skibniewski had uncovered a brothel in Queens, using illegal aliens to provide services. Donnegan’s story on it in the New York Post made the front page.

“Too late. The scrapbook’s ruined.”

If Kevin could have had his way, the next time he had to rely on Skibniewski—or anybody else from NYPD—for a story would be never. Writing stories about crime and corruption was never the business Kevin thought he’d be in. By now, he figured he’d be living off his fiction, maybe teaching little literary wannabes in some college on the side. But his stories stayed in the drawer, their characters too real to fool anybody, too authentic to pass as anything but the demons he grew up with.

He got half a block farther on and saw some firemen gathered by their truck. In among them was a man in a white shirt, torn at the shoulder and dirty, but Kevin doubted that it was Sean. He was tall enough, but the bald spot at the back of the man’s head didn’t match Kevin’s memory of him. When the man turned, though, there was no mistaking the profile. The chiseled features and the cleft in the chin gave him the markings of a haughty son-of-a-bitch. He wasn’t. Kevin hadn’t seen his cousin since his father’s funeral more than five years ago. Sean was already a success by then, with two start-up private equity funds that shot through the roof. Losing touch with Sean since then was Kevin’s doing. He stayed away from the family. When he was with them he was frozen in time, a young man with a future, a winner of the O. Henry short story prize, a writer cursed with promise.

Kevin was close enough now to hear his cousin’s laugh. The laugh intrigued him, always had. It made him suspect Sean knew some secret about life that everyone else missed cause they were looking too hard. The firemen look tired. Sean did too. Kevin shook off the thought of what they’d had to look at all night. “Mr. Foster,” Kevin called when he got close enough.

Sean turned, spotted Kevin. He looked pleased to see him, although all the time Sean had been spending with politicians these days made Kevin wonder if the welcome was for real. “Mr. Donnegan,” Sean said, “I almost didn’t recognize you.” Kevin assumed he meant the extra pounds he’d put on since working all day and writing fiction till he fell face down on the keyboard at night took the place of having a life. “You look great,” Sean told him, and Kevin was clueless about whether this was true or not. He didn’t think about his looks. His hair was a darker blond now, but at least most of it was still there. He didn’t spend time studying mirrors.

Sean extended his hand. Kevin saw it was black and bruised, but couldn’t stop himself from squeezing a little. “Tough night here,” he said. Sean nodded, pulled away from the contact, disturbed. The firemen stirred, as if to give the two their space, but Sean motioned them to stay and began to introduce his cousin, explaining he was from the New York Post.

“You’re a little late,” said one of the firemen. “The Daily News was here and gone.”

Kevin would have gotten there sooner if Terry hadn’t insisted he turn his cell phone off at their daughter’s concert. He hated the school concerts: Hours of punishing mediocrity for the privilege of hearing his daughter sit down at last at the keyboard and transport a high school auditorium and everyone in it to a place they didn’t have the taste to recognize. At home, her practice sessions could lull him into believing he could have been happy in his boxed-in life again, as if a soundtrack could change a movie’s ending, release him from tyranny of the writing.

“Fine name, Donnegan,” one of the firemen said. “How’d your cousin wind up with a white-bread name like Foster?”

“My aunt married outside the tribe.” In most families, this would have been harmless enough, Kevin knew. But for Sean’s father—the bastard Brit, as the Donnegans called him, and not necessarily behind his back—family get-togethers were a move into enemy territory. No matter that Foster’s people had been in America for two generations; the Donnegans—especially Kevin’s father, Liam—believed themselves charged with defending the Irish Republican cause against all stray oppressors this side of the Atlantic. The truth was the Donnegans never liked Foster to begin with, but his ancestry relieved them of having to question why.

Kevin watched his cousin with the men. Sean knew all their names, and already he’d learned enough about some of them to tease a bit. Jeez, Kevin thought, maybe he should run for mayor. There was been some talk about a bid. He’d been changing whole neighborhoods with his CitySaver Fund, a private equity deal that invested in businesses in the poorest neighborhoods. The fund was so successful so quickly that he started another, making millions for private investors who could put up the stash it took to buy in and stay in. The Post christened him the Hood’s Robin Hood. That was why he was there that night, to receive the American Business Award for Social Responsibility.

The firemen welcomed Sean’s teasing, seemed eager to put some small distance between them and the night they’d just passed. “How did it start?” said Kevin. “Do they know yet?” “Nothing yet,” somebody said. Kevin could see that the question wasn’t welcome.

“Did you get any names?” Kevin said to one of the men near him.

“I misplaced my pencil, ” the man told him. Someone else asked Sean if he ever found that woman’s shoe. “I told Torricelli to send you back in for it, didn’t I?” said a big man sitting on the running board of the truck. His name was Magee. His palms were huge, his neck a tree trunk, and sitting there, one leg extended like an ancient root, he seemed to Kevin less like a tired man than a physics lesson, a personification of power at rest. His laugh was like a rumbling underground.

“And I got ’em,” said Sean.

“That’s what I call a hero,” somebody said.

“I had no choice. They were Ferragamos.” The joking reminded Kevin of how his father and his friends behaved when they were together—the guys he’d served with in Viet Nam. The more Kevin would press them for what really happened during the war, the more they’d joke and tease each other about what seemed like insignificant things—the wet socks, the bad food, his father’s hiccoughing fits. The laughter, the looks that hinted at memories, secrets, made him feel like an intruder. He wanted to prepare himself for what being a man would demand of him. But they kept their answers to themselves, camouflaged in the banter and the drink.

“Your cousin knocked himself out tonight,” someone said to Kevin. “Risked his ass getting people out of the building.”

“Damn,” said Kevin, although he wasn’t all that surprised. He’d seen Sean go up against demons worse than fire. Like at that family party when Sean was only thirteen. The whole clan was crammed into Aunt Bridget’s backyard, the women pressed against the fence, dodging the spray from the volleyball game in the pool, the men gathered round the gas grill like worshipers at the consecration. Sean’s parents had separated by then, and word had just gotten out that Ken Foster had been spending a fair amount of quality time with a girl barely old enough to drive—news Sean’s uncles took badly. Liam was determined to settle the score for his sister Moira and when Sean’s father arrived to pick him up, Liam got the payback under way, lobbing epithets over the fence. Foster ignored them. That pissed Kevin’s father off even more, and when he leaped the fence, Sean charged right after him to defend his dad. The grownups—who saw Foster’s predicament as the wages of sin—followed in time, a leisurely peace-making contingent, making its meandering wet way toward the gate. Sean was too small to make a difference. Kevin was bigger, of course, three years older, but he knew there was no stopping Liam Donnegan once he got this way. Still, Kevin charged in to help his cousin. He never forgot the pain in Sean’s face. Sean had heard the accusations his uncle had just made. Yet there he was, climbing up his uncle’s back to protect a man who’d crossed fidelity off his to-do list. Kevin wondered which of their fathers had done his family more damage. Even then, he couldn’t understand why he and Sean didn’t just let the two of them kill each other. Sean was too small to make a difference. Kevin was bigger, of course, three years older, but he knew there was no stopping Liam Donnegan once he got this way. Still, Kevin charged in to help his cousin. He never forgot the pain in Sean’s face. Sean had heard the accusations his uncle had just made. Yet there he was, climbing up his uncle’s back to protect a man who’d crossed fidelity off his to-do list. Kevin wondered which of their fathers had done his family more damage. Even then, he couldn’t understand why he and Sean didn’t just let the two of them kill each other.

“So you’re the reporter in the family?” one of the firemen said.

“Kevin is the writer in the family,” Sean insisted.

The remark irked Kevin. He didn’t want that brought up—especially not on a night meant to pay homage to Sean Foster and his unmatched success—and he didn’t want to be drawn into this charade: Let’s pretend we’re all comrades cause we breathed in the same smoke all night, pretend we both matter just as much to this fly trap of a city. Sean must have known it was all bullshit.

“Kevin’s stories win prizes,” Sean went on, and Kevin wanted to hit him. For years after that story was published, his mother wouldn’t speak to him. There was no mistaking where Kevin’s characters came from: the father, a violent drunk; the mother, pretending he wasn’t. In a family where partnerships like this were the norm, it was a lot more palatable to claim your fame by telling people how to invest than by telling the truth. Sean was everybody’s golden boy, living proof that they couldn’t really be as fucked up as they seemed.

“I was surprised to find you here,” Kevin interrupted. “I figured they would have sent the limo by now.” Sean’s expression changed slightly, but he quipped something back about the driver getting lost in Queens. The response from the others was subdued, as if they sensed something else behind the exchange, something outside the moment. Someone handed Kevin a coffee. After a few quick gulps, he started at Sean again. He wanted to know how Sean decided which guests to help out of the building. “Did you rank them by income level or just pick the ones with the best connections?” Kevin felt animated, almost high. He wanted to force the men to see through this convenient camaraderie. Sean’s life wasn’t about them. It was about money, and any good it did for anyone was entirely accidental.

Sean didn’t take the bait. He directed a comment to someone nearby. But Kevin wouldn’t let up. He wanted to know where Sean bought his shirts, whether they were designed just for him.

Sean pulled at his ruined sleeve, as if to give Kevin a better look. “The truth is, Kevin, it’s a hand-me-down,” he told him. “Don’t you recognize it?”

The others laughed, and Magee’s eyes grinned through the steam of the coffee he held to his lips. “Well, hand me down the rest of the stuff in your closet,” he said, “and I’ll sell it to pay for the vacation my wife keeps askin for.”

An older fireman named Pitman moved from the sidelines into the circle. He nodded to Sean, then took off his helmet, tossed it near the truck. It landed with a heavy and serious thud. His thick salt-and-pepper hair was plastered to his scalp where the helmet left its impression.

“It’s the truth, a family tradition,” said Sean. “Right, Kevin?”

“Right,” said Kevin. “I’ve still got the drawers me Da’s Da sailed over in from the other side. Stains and all.” The laughter got louder.

“Probably doesn’t take much to make your type shit your pants,” said Pitman. There was laughter again but not as raucous this time. Kevin saw the men were braced for something, curious about how he’d respond to Pitman’s taunts. But Kevin had met this type before, men like his father, easily riled by anyone whose physical abilities were irrelevant to making their way in the world, who put no more at risk than a new idea.

“You’ve got that right, fella,” Sean offered. “We get nervous when the wind changes direction.” Sean looked uneasy. Kevin could see he wanted to cool things down. He guessed, rightly, that Sean was wondering how much of his uncle’s temper his cousin had inherited. Kevin laughed to himself, certain that Sean didn’t want to find out here.

Kevin decided to back off. “Can we talk for a bit?” he said to Sean, motioning toward the bar across the street.

Before Sean could respond, Pitman stepped toward Kevin and Magee put his coffee down and got to his feet. “So you’re a newspaperman,” Pitman said to Kevin, standing much too close. “You gonna be quotin the rest of us in your story?”

Kevin turns away. “Listen,” he said to Sean. “I know you’re exhausted, but can you give me a few minutes?”

“Oh, I get it,” Pitman said to the others. “This story’s gonna be for the financial pages. He don’t need us guys. He’s got his headline: ‘My Cousin, the Fire-Fightin Fund Manager.’ ”

“That’ll do, Bob,” Magee told him.

But Pitman wouldn’t let up. “How come I ain’t seen your ass at any other fires? Only the ones that make headlines, right? Maybe the next time we get visited by Al Qaeda, you’ll come by again,” he said. “The reporters love to hear from the rank and file when there’s bad guys around.” He flicked the pass that hung from Kevin’s lapel, a gesture that brought the big man closer. “You sure you don’t need me to say a few words?”

“I’m sure,” Kevin told him. “But next time I’m doing a story on assholes in uniform, I’ll track you down.”

“Come by anytime,” said Pitman, “and I’ll rip you a new one.” Before he could think about it, before the rage had even registered, Kevin swung at him, but Pitman must have known it would be coming. He blocked it and pushed Kevin hard, leaving him so unsteady he had to reach for the side of the truck to right himself. Laughter broke from the others, and Sean put an arm around his cousin, a gesture intended to calm him down. It didn’t. The insult had dislodged something in Kevin, a resentment so large, it couldn’t be put aside. Kevin shoved Sean out of the way and connected a punch so solidly to Pitman’s jaw that it landed him into Magee, who was standing behind. Within seconds Kevin was restrained by men on every side as Magee half carried Pitman over to the truck. “Hey, let go,” Pitman called, laughing. “We got a live one here.”

“Take your fuckin hands off me,” Kevin yelled, struggling to free himself. But no one did. “Let me go,” Kevin shouted, still kicking and thrashing, until one of the men emptied a bottle of water over his head. The wet, cold shock of it jerked him back. He couldn’t understand what was happening, why this moment, this meeting with Sean had set him on edge.

“Get hold of yourself,” Sean told Kevin in a harsh whisper.

“I’m okay, for fuck’s sake. I’m okay,” Kevin said, finally relenting. The men loosened their grip. Kevin put his fingers through his wet hair, then looked up and spotted Cronin coming toward them. Cronin stopped to say something to one of the firemen by the truck, nodded in response to the reply. When he reached Kevin, he looked more curious than concerned. “What the hell’s going on over here?”

“Nothin,” said one of the men.

Cronin looked doubtful.

“His hair caught on fire,” one of the firemen said.

“We got it under control,” said another.

Cronin grinned, told Kevin he’d catch up with him later, and headed back to the avenue.

“Sorry about this,” Sean said to no one in particular.

“No need,” someone said. “Pitman must have skipped his anger-management class.”

“You must have cut a few of them yourself,” Magee said to Kevin, and bent to pick up his notebook for him. Kevin stared at it, as if he was having trouble recognizing it. The cover was worn, the binding cracked. The pages were swollen from constant use, from the weight of the words. The sight of the thing made him cringe, as if he was faced with a bully he knew he couldn’t run from anymore.

“Ain’t this yours?” Magee said, a bit louder this time, and Kevin took it from him. He held it only long enough to test the weight of it and judge how far it would travel, before he flung it toward the building, toward the pile of burnt plaster and ceiling tiles and parts of wall and wood that had fallen under the axes of these brutal nightingales and settled into a twisted pyre of useless, smoldering ash.

One of the men put his helmet back on. Another tossed a cup away. Sean and Kevin headed away from the group toward the curb. A few of the men come to shake Sean’s hand. Others called out their goodbyes.

“This your average day?” Kevin said to his cousin when they were halfway across the street.

“I try to get out when I can. You can go cross-eyed in front of a Bloomberg terminal all day.”

Kevin laughed.

“You might try getting out more yourself,” Sean said, but Kevin didn’t understand what he meant. “I thought I’d see you at the Christening last month.”

“Oh, you mean Cathy’s kid. Yeah.”

“Your mother was there,” said Sean, but Kevin didn’t offer any more. Inside the tavern, the bartender nodded and they took a table by a window with so many electric signs in it they could barely see the street. It was almost one o’clock now and the place had a sleepy feel to it, which surprised Kevin for that part of town. The only other patrons were a couple in the corner saying nothing and a man at the bar reading a paper. “They made a big deal out of it. Aunt Bridget’s first grandchild and all,” Sean said.

Kevin nodded.

“Nobody’s seen you for a while.”

“I know,” Kevin said, then studied the bottles behind the bar.

Sean caught the waitress’s attention. He ordered a beer and Kevin ordered Glenronach. “Straight up?” asked the waitress. Kevin nodded. When she left them, their eyes met, but Kevin didn’t want to look at him.

“What’s up with you?” Sean said. “That fella got to you pretty easily.”

Kevin shrugged. “I’m just edgy tonight.”

“Is that what you call it?”

“That’s what I call it.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d rather have landed that right of yours on my jaw.”

Kevin didn’t deny it.

“What set you off about the writer stuff? I don’t get it. I tell them you’re a prize winner and you act as if I was calling you a dirty name.”

“Because I’m not a writer,” Kevin said, his tone sharp. “Writers write stuff that matters. I file news stories about things that are never gonna change and that most people wouldn’t give a shit about even if they did.”

“You’ve got a gig with one of the biggest papers in the city. What’s to be upset about?”

“It sucks you dry.”

“So you don’t write any fiction?”

Kevin shrugged.

“So get some other job.”

“Some other job isn’t gonna pay for the mortgage and the private schools and the dog food.”

The waitress brought their drinks and Kevin downed half the single malt in a swallow, but he could still taste the smoke in his mouth.

“You do have some expensive tastes,” Sean said, lifting a finger toward the Glenronach.

“I made some choices. It’s done. This is my life.”

Sean put his glass down. “You’re full of shit.”

Kevin stared at his cousin, surprised. This was not Sean’s style. He was a consensus builder, a manipulator. He didn’t confront.

“You heard me. You’re full of shit. I don’t believe for a second that you’re not writing.”

“What’s the difference? I can’t publish any of it.”

“Why not?”

Kevin didn’t answer.

“You’re worried about what the family will say?”

Kevin shrugged.

“You think maybe Uncle Pete will send his sons out to every book store in the tri-state area again?”

Kevin laughed. “That was incredible, wasn’t it?”

“The O. Henry collection must have broken all sales records that year. I’m surprised they didn’t give you the prize again the next year.”

Kevin smiled.

“That’s better. You need to see the upside to the family’s little peculiarities.”

“What’s the upside of Aunt Kate having another nervous breakdown?”

“It wasn’t a nervous breakdown; it was an anxiety attack. It just lasted a while. And anyway, I think it could have had something to do with cousin John walking out the back door of yet another rehab center.”

“By the way, I don’t recall getting any points for leaving all that out of the story.”

Sean laughed. “The stuff about the eviction already put you beyond the pale.”

“Whatever. I don’t want to deal with all that again.”

“So you’ve disowned them?”

“Let’s just say I like the temperature outside a lot better.”

Sean sipped his beer. They could hear the couple in the corner whispering hard. The woman’s back was hunched over, urgent. The man looked away from her, put his drink down on the table with a thud.

“How is Terry doing?” Sean said.

“She’s okay. She does a great job running the show. She’s got an Excel spread sheet posted on the fridge that tells us when, where, and who to pick up and deliver for whichever extracurricular activities are on the agenda that week.”

“You’ve got a million excuses, don’t you, Kevin?”

“Fuck you.”

“Fine. Jump on me. That’ll solve it.”

“I’m not asking you for any solutions.”

“No. You don’t want any.”

Kevin hated Sean when he started this bootstrap bullshit, that Cinderella insistence that they could make the best of a bad start. “Listen. I don’t need this,” he said.

“So what are you going to do instead? Beat up on old firemen?”

“He was asking for it.”

“Yeah. And so were you.”

“He’s just like my dad. He decides he didn’t like me cause I think for a living.”

“You don’t like you, Kevin.”

Kevin stood, took a twenty out of his wallet and tossed it on the table. “Listen. I’m sorry about the pot shots before. I was out of line.” He turned to go.

“Wait a minute. Sit down,” Sean told him. “Bad enough you don’t answer my calls. The least you can do is spend a few minutes with me.” Kevin felt like the loser in this Monopoly game, the guy about to be washed out on Park Place if the dice fall wrong. He didn’t want to spend a few minutes with Sean or with anyone else who was going to pretend there was an easy answer. He wished now what he’d wished all his life, that he could have been born without this curse, born happy to drive nails or douse fires or even write news stories about shit that will never change.

“I need your help,” Sean said.

Kevin looked at his cousin, not sure whether to believe him. “Bullshit,” he said.

“Will you sit down and listen?”

Kevin gave him another look, then slid back into the booth.

“You remember somebody named Beth Campbell?” Sean asked Kevin. He didn’t. “No, no, sorry,” said Sean. “She would have been Beth Miles when you knew her.” Kevin felt something wash over him, a wave of longing so strong it made him weak. “She says she knew you in high school.” Kevin didn’t answer. “Says you two were in some kind of writing group together? Do you remember her at all? She’s on the tall side, long dark hair?”

Kevin could see her face. The image stirred up a heavy dose of lust, not just for Beth but for the freedom she brought to him, the permission to be himself. “She had this birthmark on the side of her face near her ear,” Kevin said.

“Yeah, that’s her. Except she’s out to here now.” Sean gestured in front of his stomach. “It’s her third. She started her own publishing company, one of these offbeat literary independent things with books that get lots of good reviews and barely enough sales to pay for the paper.” Kevin hadn’t heard about this. “It’s called Full Court Press.” Kevin groaned. “They’re over on the West Side, on 53rd. They’ve had one semisuccess, a book that’s become a kind of cult thing, about a woman who stumbles into some kind of a faculty scandal at an Ivy League college.”

“Fault Lines?”

“Yeah. That’s it. Anyway, she ran through the seed money her parents gave her and now she’s on the ropes. I’m thinking about backing her.”

“Well, it’s not going to win you any big money. That’s just not the game with independents. But it’s a good loss leader, if that’s what you’re after.”

“No. Really. I have a good feeling about the place. I need somebody to look into it for me. Is she just having bad luck, or is the set up faulty? What are the people in the industry saying about the list she puts out? I don’t follow this stuff. I need someone who can dig in and see what shape it’s really in, somebody who knows what to look for.”

Kevin saw where he was going now. And for a moment, he indulged himself, pictured Beth’s face across a table, delicious debates about what to trash and what to keep, precious pages offered up for judgment. Was it tripe or the newest new voice in fiction? He wondered what it would be like to be with her, work with her, to have a day be something he wasn’t eager to end. But he felt the glass in his hand, his cousin’s eyes on him. “I can’t,” he told his cousin.

“Yes, you can, Kevin. I’m ready to fund this thing. I think she’s got something good there.”

“Sean, being in publishing is like taking a vow of poverty, except you don’t even get to heaven for it. I can’t step back like that. Not at this point.”

“I need you on this, Kevin. This can work.”

“Sean, I was only with McGraw-Hill for five years. I’m no publisher.”

“You don’t know what you are, for Crissake. When are you going to knock off the bullshit? If you’re a writer, then be one. And stop belly aching about it.”

Kevin rubbed the fatigue from his eyes, rested his chin behind his fists. “How many stories about violent Irish drunks does the world need?”

“Maybe as many as it takes to get it out of your system.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re the one who’s in the way here, Kevin.” Sean looked away, seeing it was pointless to go on. The rest came out like a recording, like words he knew wouldn’t really be heard for years. “You’re ashamed of who you are, the people you come from.”

Kevin denied it, insisted that Sean didn’t understand. How could he? His success had come so easily, like insulation. But even to Kevin the words sounded like something he’d committed to memory, a doctrine he’d learned not to question. They trailed off, leaving them unable to look at each other.

The bulb in one of the neon signs in the window buzzed above their heads. Sean stood but Kevin didn’t look at him. From the wallet in his back pocket, Sean took out his business card. “You’re exactly where you want to be, Kevin. That’s where you are.” He tossed the card on the table. It landed leaning against the empty glass. “If that ever changes, call me.”

Kevin didn’t answer. He let Sean walk away, listened to the sharp even footsteps make their way along the bar to the door. He sat, tracing the lip of his glass, feeling his stomach tighten. He should go after him. This was something good. Why couldn’t he let it happen? His eyes, unfocused, settled on the maze of dots in the table’s marble top, merging, moving, like stars beckoning him into a crowded night sky. It was as if the world was falling away, his assumptions dissolving. He shook lose from the stare and saw his hand on the glass. His knuckles were still raw from the blow, but his anger had no energy. It was like a weight, like a suit of mail. He looked over his shoulder toward the door, remembering something. But it was not Sean he wanted, net yet.

He was up quickly and into the street. The smell of smoke outside encroached, inescapable, like a bad memory. He moved across the street, trying to remember where they had been standing. But the truck blocked his view. He crossed to the other side, hurried to the pile, the place he thought the notebook landed, but he couldn’t find it. He turned to look toward the truck. The men were inside the building or gone, all except one. Pitman sat on the sideboard, turning pages. Kevin couldn’t see what was in his hand, but he knew without question that it was the notebook. The site made his skin burn. He felt exposed, embarrassed, like a acolyte whose prayer book’s been found by a heathen. He wanted to turn away, admit defeat finally. He was too tired to settle this. But Pitman called to him. “You lose something?” he said, and his voice was so flat that Kevin couldn’t tell whether it was a question or a dare.

Kevin didn’t answer.

“I think this is yours,” said Pitman. He held the notebook in the air by a corner; the pages flipped in the breeze, like damaged wings.

Kevin didn’t answer. He didn’t want things to start up again. He wasn’t afraid of the man. He was just too tired. He forced himself a few steps closer to Pitman.

“I guess I should apologize,” said Pitman.

This surprised Kevin. “Forget about it. I was out of line.”

“I’m not talking about that. You don’t get no apologies for that. You’re a fuckin maniac. They shoulda let me have at ya.”

Kevin was puzzled.

“I’m talking about your notebook. I’ve been poking around in your notebook here. But you trashed it, don’t forget.”

“Oh,” Kevin said. He wanted to tell him it was all right, but it wasn’t.

“This is some kind of a story ain’t it?” he said, pointing to a page. “Or it’s gonna be, right?”

“It could be, yeah. If it ever gets written.”

“This kind of thing amazes me, how people’s minds work.” Pitman beckoned him closer. “That’s what you’re doing here. Trying to figure out why these people do what they do, right?”

Kevin nodded.

“Like this here, these questions: ‘Does she know her husband was cheating all along? Or will she learn it later? Does she stay, knowing he’s cheating?’ ”

Kevin nodded.

Pitman shifted his weight, motioned for Kevin to sit beside him. Kevin settled in, felt dwarfed by the size of the truck and all the equipment. He laughed at himself for wondering what it would be like to ride up front. “I think about stuff like that,” said Pitman. “A lot. I mean about what got people to the point they’re at. What went wrong.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. “Me too.”

“You can go crazy trying to figure people out. Hell, half the time I can’t figure myself out.”

Pitman sounded tired. Kevin wondered why he wasn’t with the other men, but the wrinkles, the gray hair reminded him that he probably had proven himself many times over, earned the right to rest while the young ones finished up.

Pitman elbowed Kevin’s side, as if coaxing him to share a confidence. “The daughter lets her father walk in front of a truck?”

Kevin nodded.

“This is based on people you know?”

“Yup.”

“Shit.”

“I don’t know if it’s believable though,” Kevin said.

“It ain’t like he didn’t have it comin. A real bastard.”

“But still.”

“Keep it in.”

Pitman reached for a bottle of water, held it up to see if Kevin wanted any. He shook his head no. Pitman unscrewed the cap, took a last half-hearted slug, and tossed it back into the box. Pitman closed the notebook, held it in both hands. “Sometimes I wonder what my kids think about me, how they really feel. I give ’em a hard time sometimes,” he said, his voice softening to a whisper, “and their mom.”

Kevin didn’t need to ask what he’d done. It was in the way he moved, in his face, creased with suspicion. He had to punish the world before it discovered who was really to blame. Pitman’s hands tightened around the notebook, and for a second Kevin was afraid he wouldn’t get it back, that he’d have to start all over without help, without a plan.

Pitman tapped the notebook against his palm. “You got some good shit there. Real people.”

“Thank you,” Kevin said. The words were like a balm, like a sanction. “Thanks for saying that.”

“You’re lucky this didn’t get trashed,” Pitman said, holding it out to him. “I figured you’d want it back.”

Kevin nodded, relieved, and took his notebook. It was dirty but not damaged, and the relief he felt was even bigger than he expected. He took out his handkerchief to wipe it off then tucked it back inside his jacket. The familiar weight of it anchored him.

Pittman leaned back against the truck. He looked tired. The street was very quiet, the gawkers long gone. The smell of smoke was strong, and particles of soot came toward them on the breeze. A piece of drapery wafted from a broken window. Pitman sighed, but not sadly. He seemed accustomed to ruin. In the distance, a siren pushed through the silence, insisting life go on.