The Kiln by Mary Ann McGuigan

Kevin, a journalist who aspires to literature, reports on a fire that his high-flying cousin survived; by Mary Ann McGuigan.

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The hollowed-out ground floor - like a great black cavity in an otherwise shiny tooth - is 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 is acrid and everywhere. It's nearly ten p.m., and firemen move in and out of the building. Some are taking a breather near the curb, their Styrofoam cups marked with ash from blackened fingers. They're not allowing anyone inside, and none of them - at the main entrance, at least - can tell Kevin if any of the people who were scheduled to receive awards have been hurt. He knows his story will never land ahead of page six unless they were.

Kevin spots a police sergeant he knows and heads toward him, press pass out. "Cronin," he says. "How's it going?"

"Bad. We got eight serious injuries, and I haven't heard back from the hospital yet. There'll probably be more." Cronin is a stocky man, wears his cap - now coated with ash - low over his brow, peering out as if the world is an unending parade of suspects.

"Can I go in?"

Cronin shakes his head no. "They're not finished combing through everything. It'll be a long while before anybody gets in."

Kevin gives 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, was a star-studded crowd all right. Two moguls from Goldman Sachs were taken out with their suits singed. They were here for some kind of awards ceremony."

"Yeah. The Stevies. Dirksen was supposed to cover this. He's sick or something." That's not true. Donnegan bargained with Dirksen to cover the fire.

Cronin's attention moves to a noise across the street. A tie shop and a boutique have closed up, but an older couple is standing under the awning of a dimly lit restaurant, staring at the chaos across the way. Cronin, seeming satisfied that all is well, glances again at Kevin. "The Stevies?"

"American Business Awards. Corporate America's version of the Oscars." Kevin pulls up his collar, wishing he hadn't worn such a light jacket.

"Just what they need. Another excuse to blow smoke up each other's ass. I saw that pooh-bah who runs CitySaver here."

"Foster? You saw him?" Kevin tries to sound casual, but he feels his chest tighten. He'd seen the article that mentioned Sean's nomination.

"Yeah. You know him?"

"He's my cousin." Kevin tells him. "Where'd you see him? Is he okay?"

"I think so."

Kevin isn't sure which would bother him more - finding out Sean's been injured or having to talk with him if he isn't. Sean has been leaving messages on Kevin's phone for two weeks - short, light-hearted tidings, like voices from a time when there were lots of chances left. Kevin is 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 doesn't see much room for that anymore.

In any case, Sean is the latest Wall Street wonder, and Kevin can't take this story back to his editor without a quote from him. He feels for his notebook in his jacket pocket. It's with him all the time, even when he's not on assignment. In weak moments, when thoughts meant only for fiction barge in, he gets them down. Usually, by the time he returns to them, the trail is cold. Still, the book is 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 can't shake off. They have a way of taking over - brazen squatters in a life that has no place for them. Nearly every day, he swears he'll stop, and nearly every night the images land on the page: aunts, solid and secretive, holding court, deciding who gets cursed, who's reprieved; a father, pathetic and threatening, filling a bedroom doorway with misdirected rage, like a phantom who's taken a wrong turn. The pictures fill his head until there's barely room enough for real life.

"You look a little out of it, Donnegan," Cronin says. "The smoke getting to you?"

"No. No. I'm fine. Eight hurt you said?" He looks for space in his notebook.

"Yeah. Pretty bad."

"Let's hope they're hedge fund managers. We can easily do with a few less of those."

Cronin chuckles. "Well, your cousin broke that mold. Kavanaugh says he got at least sixteen people out."

"Out of the building?"


"Christ. He never does anything small-scale. Where is he now?"

"Check with the guys over there." Cronin points to a group of firemen clustered in front of their truck a few yards up the street. "They're probably stuffing him with coffee and donuts."

"Thanks, Cronin."

He gets only a few steps away when Cronin calls 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 that was using illegal aliens. Donnegan's story on it in the New York Post made the front page.

"Too late," called Cronin. "The scrapbook's ruined."

If Kevin could have 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 literary wannabes in some college on the side. But his stories stay longer and longer in the drawer, the characters too familiar to pass as anything but the demons he grew up with.

He reaches the firemen gathered by the ladder truck. In among them is a man in a white shirt, torn at the shoulder and dirty, but Kevin doubts that it's Sean. He's tall enough, but the bald spot at the back of the man's head doesn't match his memory of him. When the man turns, though, there's no mistaking the profile. The chiseled features and the cleft in the chin give him the markings of a haughty son-of-a-bitch. He isn't. Kevin hasn't seen his cousin since their grandmother's funeral more than five years ago. Sean was already a success by then, with two start-up private equity funds that went through the roof. Losing touch with Sean was Kevin's doing. He stays away from the family. When he's with them he's frozen in time, a young man with a future, winner of an O. Henry short story prize, a writer cursed with too much promise.

He can hear Sean laughing. The laugh intrigues him, always has, makes him sound as if he knows some secret about life that everyone else misses because they're looking too hard. The firemen look tired. Sean does too. Kevin shakes off the thought of what they've had to look at all night. "Mr. Foster," Kevin calls when he gets close enough.

Sean turns, spots Kevin, and looks pleased to see him, but Sean spends a lot of time with politicians these days, which makes Kevin wonder if the welcome is genuine. "Mr. Donnegan," Sean says, "I almost didn't recognize you." Kevin assumes he means the extra pounds he's put on. He's a big man, powerful-looking despite his perpetual slouch, but working all day and writing fiction till he falls face-down on the keyboard leaves no time for fitness routines. "You look great," Sean tells him, and Kevin has no clue whether this is true or not. He doesn't think about his looks. His hair is a darker blond now, but at least most of it is still there. He doesn't spend time studying mirrors.

Sean extends his hand. Kevin sees it's black and bruised, but can't stop himself from squeezing a little. "Tough night here?" he says. Sean nods, pulls away from the contact, disturbed maybe. The firemen stir, as if to give the two their space, but Sean motions them to stay. He introduces his cousin, explaining he's from the Post.

"You're a little late," says one of the firemen. "The Daily News was here and gone."

Kevin would have gotten there sooner if it hadn't been so hard to leave his daughter's concert. He hates 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 don't have the taste to recognize. At home, her practice sessions can lull him into believing he could be happy in his boxed-in life, as if a soundtrack can change a movie's ending.

"Fine name, Donnegan," one of the firemen says. "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 knows. But for Sean's father - the bastard Brit, as the Donnegans called him, and not always 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 - believed themselves charged with defending the Irish Republican cause against all stray oppressors this side of the Atlantic. In truth, the Donnegans never liked Foster to begin with, but his ancestry relieved them of having to question why.

Kevin watches his cousin with the men. Apparently he knows all their names, and he's already learned enough about some of them to tease a bit. The firemen welcome it, maybe eager to put some distance between themselves and the night they've just passed. Jeez, Kevin thinks, maybe he should run for mayor. There's been some talk about a bid. He's been changing whole neighborhoods with his CitySaver Fund, a private equity deal that invests in businesses in the poorest neighborhoods. The fund was so successful so quickly 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. He was here tonight to receive the American Business Award for Social Responsibility.

"How did it start?" says Kevin. "Do they know yet?"

"Nothing yet," Kavanaugh says, turning away from him. Kevin can see the question isn't welcome.

"Did you get any names?" he says to one of the men near him.

"I misplaced my pencil," the man tells him.

Someone else asks Sean if he ever found that woman's shoe. "I told Torricelli to send you back in for it, didn't I?" says Magee, a big man, one of the few with gray at his temples, sitting on the running board of the truck. His palms are huge, his neck a tree trunk, and sitting there, one leg extended like an ancient root, he seems to Kevin less like a tired man than a physics lesson. Power at rest. His laugh is like a rumbling underground.

"And I got 'em," says Sean.

"That's what I call a hero," somebody says.

"I had no choice. They were Ferragamos." The joking reminds Kevin of how his father behaved with his friends - the guys he'd served with in Viet Nam. The more Kevin pressed them for what really happened over there, 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 dark laughter, the long silences that hinted at ugly memories, made Kevin 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 by the banter and the drink.

"Your cousin knocked himself out tonight," Kavanaugh tells Kevin. "Risked his ass getting people out of the building."

"Damn," says Kevin, although he isn't all that surprised. He's seen him go up against worse demons than fire when they were young. Nearly every Donnegan family party turned into a drunken brawl.

"So you're the reporter in the family?" Magee says.

"Kevin is the writer in the family," Sean insists.

The remark irks Kevin. He doesn't want that brought up - especially not on a night meant to pay homage to Sean Foster and his unmatched success - and he doesn't want to be drawn into this charade: Let's pretend we're all comrades now that we've breathed in the same carcinogens all night, pretend each of us matters equally in this fly trap of a city.

"His stories win prizes," Sean goes on, and Kevin wants to hit him. For years after that O. Henry 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 twisted partnerships are the norm, it's a lot more palatable to claim your fame by telling people how to invest than by telling the truth. Sean is the family's golden boy, living proof that they can't really be as fucked up as they seem.

"I was surprised to find you here," Kevin says, wanting the subject changed. "I figured they'd have sent the Town Car for you by now."

Sean raises his eyebrows, maybe surprised at the sharp edge, but he quips something back about the driver getting lost in Queens. The response from the others is subdued, as if they sense something behind the exchange, something mean.

Someone hands Kevin a coffee. After a few quick gulps, he starts at Sean again. He wants to know how he decided which guests to rescue. "Did you rank them by income level or just pick the ones with the best connections?" He feels animated, almost high. He wants to force these men to see through this convenient camaraderie. Sean's life isn't about them. It's about money, and any good it does for anyone else is accidental.

Sean doesn't take the bait. He directs a comment to someone nearby. But Kevin won't let up. He wants to know where Sean buys his shirts, whether they're designed just for him.

Sean pulls at his ruined sleeve, as if to give Kevin a better look. "It's a hand-me-down," he tells him. "Don't you recognize it?"

The others laugh, and Magee grins through the steam of his coffee. "Well, hand me down the rest of the stuff in your closet," he says, "and I'll sell it to pay for the trip to Vegas my wife keeps askin' for."

Another fireman, older than the rest, moves from the sidelines into the circle, takes off his helmet, and tosses it near the truck. It lands with a heavy and serious thud.

"Hey, Pitman," Sean says. "Time for a break?"

Pitman nods, stops beside Sean, places an arm across his shoulders. His thick salt-and-pepper hair is plastered to his scalp where the helmet left its impression. "This guy lookin' for some trouble?" he says to Sean.

"Him? He's harmless," Sean tells him with a laugh. But Pitman doesn't seem to think it's funny, and Kevin can see there's some kind of bond between these two.

"And that's the truth about the shirt," Sean tells the others. "A family tradition. Right, Kevin?"

"Right," says Kevin. "I've still got the drawers me da's da sailed over in. Stains and all." Quick laughter follows, like a welcome relief.

"Probably doesn't take much to make your type shit your pants," says Pitman. There's laughter again but not as easy this time. Kevin sees the men are bracing for something, curious about how he'll respond to Pitman's taunt. But he's met this type before, men like his father, easily riled by anyone whose physical abilities are irrelevant to making their way in the world, men who put no more at risk than a new idea.

"You've got that right, fella," Sean offers. "We get nervous when the wind changes direction." He looks uneasy, rubbing his palms on his pants the way he did as a kid. Kevin can tell he wants to cool things down. Sean knows a nasty temper is his cousin's only inheritance, and he wouldn't want it on display here.

"Can we talk for a bit?" Sean says, motioning toward the bar across the street.

Before Kevin can respond, Pitman steps toward him and Magee puts his coffee down, gets to his feet. "So you're a newspaperman," Pitman says, standing much too close. "You gonna be quotin' the rest of us in your story?"

Kevin ignores him.

"Oh, I get it," Pitman says 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 tells him.

But Pitman keeps going. "How come I ain't seen your ass at any other fires? Only the ones that affect the bottom line, right? Maybe the next time we get visited by terrorists, you'll come by again," he says. "The reporters love to hear from the rank and file when there's bad guys around." He flicks the press pass that hangs from Kevin's lapel, a gesture that brings Magee closer. "You sure you don't need me to say a few words?"

"I'm sure," Kevin tells him. "But next time I do a story on assholes in uniform, I'll track you down."

"Come by anytime," says Pitman, "and I'll rip you a new one."

Before he can think about it, before the rage even registers, Kevin swings at him, but Pitman blocks the punch and pushes Kevin hard, leaving him so unsteady he has to reach for the side of the truck to right himself. Laughter breaks from the others, and Sean puts an arm around him, no doubt hoping to calm him down. It doesn't. The insult has dislodged something in him, a resentment so large he can't put it aside. He shoves Sean out of the way and connects so solidly to Pitman's jaw that it lands him into Magee, standing behind. Within seconds Kevin is restrained by men on every side as Magee half-carries Pitman over to the truck. "Let go," Pitman calls, laughing. "We got a live one here."

"Take your fuckin' hands off me," Kevin yells, struggling to free himself. They hold fast. "Let me go!" he shouts, still kicking and thrashing, until one of the men empties a bottle of water over his head. The wet, cold shock of it jerks him back, but he can't understand what's happening, why this encounter has set him on edge.

"Get hold of yourself," Sean tells him in a harsh whisper.

"I'm okay, for fuck's sake," Kevin says, finally relenting. The men loosen their grip.

He puts his fingers through his wet hair, then spots Cronin coming toward them. The officer stops to say something to one of the firemen by the truck, nods in response to the reply. When he reaches Kevin, he seems more curious than concerned. "What the hell's going on over here?"

"Nothin'" says Kavanaugh.

Cronin folds his arms across his chest and glances at several of the men in turn, doesn't seem convinced.

"His hair caught fire," one man says.

"We got it under control," says another.

Cronin grins, tells Kevin he'll catch up with him later, and heads back toward the avenue.

"Sorry about this," Sean says to no one in particular.

"No need," someone says. "Pitman's been cutting his anger-management class."

"You must have skipped a few of them yourself," Magee says to Kevin, and bends to pick up his notebook for him. Kevin stares at it, as if he's having trouble recognizing it. The cover is worn, the binding cracked. The pages are swollen from constant use, from the weight of the words. The sight of the thing makes him cringe, as if he's faced with a bully he knows he can't run from anymore.

"Ain't this yours?" Magee says, a bit louder this time, and Kevin takes it from him. He holds it only long enough to test the weight of it and judge how far it will travel, before he flings it toward the building into a pile of burnt plaster and ceiling tiles and parts of wall and wood that have fallen under the axes of these brutal Nightingales. It settles into the pyre of smoldering ash.

One of the men puts his helmet back on. Another tosses a cup into the debris. Sean and Kevin head away from the group, toward the street. A few of the men come to shake Sean's hand. Others call out their goodbyes.

"This your idea of a change of pace, a one-man auxiliary of the NYFD?" Kevin says to him when they're 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 laughs.

"You might try getting out more yourself," Sean says, but Kevin doesn't understand what he means. "I thought I'd see you at the christening last month."

"You mean Cathy's baby. Yeah, well."

"Your mom and dad were there," says Sean, but Kevin doesn't offer any more. Inside the tavern, the bartender nods and they take a table by a window with so many electric beer signs in it they can barely see the street. It's almost eleven o'clock now and the place has a sleepy feel to it. The only other patrons are a couple in the corner, saying nothing, and a man at the bar reading a paper. "They had a big spread, music, the whole nine yards. Aunt Bridget's first grandchild and all," Sean says.

Kevin nods.

"Nobody's seen you for a while."

"I know," Kevin says, then studies the bottles behind the bar.

Sean gets the waitress's attention. He orders a beer and Kevin orders Glendronach. "Straight up?" asks the waitress. He nods. When she leaves them, Sean gives him a long look, but Kevin doesn't want that kind of contact. He wants to get this over with as quickly as possible. Sean's always been big on maintaining family ties, a choice that borders on self-abuse when it comes to the Donnegans.

"What's up with you?" Sean says. "Pitman got to you pretty easily."

He shrugs. "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 punch on my jaw."

Kevin doesn'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'm calling you a dirty name."

"Because I'm not a writer," Kevin says, his tone sharp. "Writers write stuff that matters. I file news stories about things that are never going to change, things most people wouldn't give a shit about even if they did."

"And how many people care about the stuff in those literary journals?"

"You've got me there."

The waitress places drinks on the table for the silent couple in the corner. The ice in the glasses makes a merry, celebratory sound, as if it's been delivered to the wrong bar. The couple don't look up at her, but when she leaves them, the woman leans forward, says something that elicits a grunty laugh from her companion.

"I'm not trying to beat you up," says Sean. "I'm just saying 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 fiction anymore?"

Kevin shrugs. "Not the kind that gets placed."

"But you've had at least a dozen stories published."

"That's not a lot, not at my age."

"So what's the problem?" Sean has been tapping his palm on the table, his pinky ring clicking each time, and Kevin wants to grab his hand to keep it still.

"I have to work for a living."

"So get some other job."

"Some other job isn't going to pay for the house and the clothes and the gourmet dog food."

"Boo hoo, for Chrissake. You're not the first writer who had to support a family."

The waitress brings their drinks and Kevin downs half the single malt in a swallow. He can still taste the smoke in his mouth.

"You've got some expensive tastes," Sean says, lifting a finger toward the Glendronach.

"I made some choices. It's done. This is my life."

Sean puts his beer down. "You're full of shit."

Kevin is stunned by this. It's not Sean's style. He's a consensus builder, a manipulator. He doesn't confront. Kevin presses his back against the chair, takes a closer look at him.

"You heard me," says Sean. "You're full of shit. I don't think this is about the job at all."

"What's the difference? I haven't finished a story in over a year anyway."

"Why not?"

Kevin doesn't answer.

"You worried about what the family will say?"

He shrugs. Sean puts both elbows on the table, hands together, and Kevin sees the dark soot stains along the arms of his suit, elbow to wrist. The stitching at the shoulder is torn, and Kevin thinks of hobos dancing in top hats, remembers how much fun Sean used to be.

"You think maybe Uncle Peter will send his sons out to every newsstand in the tri-state area again?" says Sean.

He laughs. "That was insane, wasn't it?"

"The New Yorker must have broken all sales records that month. I'm surprised they didn't publish a story from you every issue to keep the numbers up."

Kevin grins, remembering how crazy it was.

"That's better, cuz," Sean says. "You need to see the upside to the family's little peculiarities."

"What's the upside of Aunt Kate having a nervous breakdown? They had to hospitalize her after she read that story."

"It wasn't a nervous breakdown; it was an anxiety attack. It just lasted a little longer than her first two. And anyway, I think it could have had something to do with her son walking out the back door of his fourth rehab center."

"Whatever. I don't want to deal with all that again."

"So you don't deal with the family at all?"

Kevin takes another sip of his drink. "Let's just say I like the temperature outside the asylum a lot better."

"You might feel differently if you stayed in touch with them. Things change. It's not like it was when we were kids."

"You don't know shit about what it was like for me as a kid."

Sean sips his beer. Kevin can hear the couple in the corner whispering hard. The woman's back is hunched over, urgent. The man looks away from her, puts his drink down on the table with a thud.

"How is Terry doing?" Sean says.

"She's okay. She does a great job running the show. She's got an Excel spreadsheet posted on the fridge that tells us when, where, and who to pick up and deliver every day."

"You've got a million excuses, don't you?"

"Fuck you."

"Fine. Jump on me," Sean says. "That'll solve it."

"I'm not asking you for any solutions."

"No. You don't want any."

Kevin hates when Sean starts with the bootstrap bullshit, the Cinderella insistence that they can make the best of a bad start. "Listen. I don't need this." He stands, letting the chair scrape noisily against the floor.

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

"He was asking for it."

"Yeah. And so were you."

Kevin takes a twenty out of his wallet, tosses it on the table. "That fucker's just like my father. He doesn't like me or anybody else who thinks for a living."

"You don't like you, Kevin."

Kevin can't really argue with that. "Listen. I'm sorry about the potshots before. I was out of line." He turns to go.

"Wait a minute. Sit down," Sean tells him. "Bad enough you don't answer my calls. The least you can do is spend a few minutes with me."

Kevin feels like the loser in this Monopoly game, the guy who'll be wiped out on Park Place if the dice fall wrong. He doesn't want to spend a few minutes with Sean or with anyone else pretending to have answers. He wishes now what he 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 a city where extortion is an art form.

"I need your help," Sean says.

Kevin gives him a side glance. "Bullshit," he says.

"Will you sit down and listen?"

He lowers himself back into the chair.

"You remember somebody named Beth Campbell?" Sean says.

Kevin shakes his head.

"Wait. No. Sorry," Sean says. "She would have been Beth Miles when you knew her."

Kevin feels like something just smashed into him, like a wave that leaves you weak.

"She says she knew you in high school, says you two were in some kind of writing group together? You remember her? She's on the tall side, long dark hair?"

Kevin can picture her face, the thick eyelashes, the smile that erased her pensive look, and the image stirs up a heavy dose of lust, not just for Beth but for the freedom she brought to him, the permission to be himself. "Yeah," he says, "birthmark on the side of her face near her ear? Great body?"

"That's her. Except she's out to here now." Sean places his hands out in front of his stomach. "It's her third. She started her own publishing company, one of these offbeat literary independents with books that get lots of good reviews and barely enough sales to pay for the paper." Kevin hadn't heard about it. "It's called Alleyway Books. They're way over on the West Side, on Fifty-third. They've had one semi-success, a book that's become a kind of cult thing, about a woman who stumbles into 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."

"Publishing is a good loss leader, if that's what you're after."

"I have a good feeling about the place," Sean says. "But I need somebody to look into it for me. Is she just having bad luck, or is the marketing faulty? What's 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 in, somebody who knows what to look for."

Kevin sees where Sean's going now. He wants to bring him back into the fold, or at least to place where he can see him more often. And for a moment, he indulges himself, pictures Beth's face across a table, delicious debates about what to trash and what to publish. Is it tripe or the newest new voice? He wonders what it would be like to be with her, to have a workday be something he isn't eager to end. Then he feels the glass in his hand again, Sean's eyes on him. "I can't," Kevin says.

"Yes, you can. I'm ready to fund this thing. I think she's got something good."

"Being in publishing is like taking a vow of poverty, except there's no reward for it in the next life either. I can't step back like that. Not at this point."

The woman at the corner table stands suddenly, heads toward the exit, not waiting for her companion, who's busy digging dollars out of his jeans. Fringe on the sleeves of her jacket sways with the exaggerated rhythm of her steps and when she passes their table, Kevin avoids eye contact but can't escape the smell of her swampy perfume.

"I need you on this, Kevin. This can work."

"Sean, I was only with Random House for three years, and I never got past assistant editor. I'm no publisher."

"You don't know what you are, for Chrissake. If you're a writer, then be one. And stop bellyaching about it."

Kevin rubs the fatigue from his eyes. "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," Sean says, pushing his glass aside, as if it's pointless to go on. "You're ashamed of who you are, the people you come from." The words begin to sound like a tired sermon, like he knows they won't really be heard.

"That's not it," Kevin says. "You don't get it. How could you? You were a success before you framed your diploma, for Chrissake. Insulated." But even to Kevin these protests sound like something committed to memory, a doctrine he's learned not to question. His excuses trail off. He can't look at Sean's face.

The bulb in one of the neon signs in the window buzzes above their heads. Sean stands but Kevin doesn't look up. "You're exactly where you want to be, Kevin. That's where you are," he says. "If that ever changes, call me."

Kevin lets him walk away, listens to the sharp even footsteps along the length of the bar to the exit. He traces the lip of his glass, feeling his breaths shorten, his heart pound. He should go after him. This could be something good. His gaze, unfocused, settles on his hand, still gripping the glass, his knuckles raw from the blow, but his anger has no energy left. It's like a weight, like a suit of mail. He looks over his shoulder toward the door, remembering something. But it's not Sean he wants, not yet.

He's up quickly and into the street. The smell of smoke outside encroaches, like a bad memory. He crosses the street, trying to remember where they were standing, but the truck blocks his view. He hurries to the pile, the place he thinks the notebook landed, but he can't find it. He turns toward the truck. The men are inside the building or gone, all except one. Pitman sits on the sideboard, studying something. It's the notebook. The sight makes Kevin's skin burn. He feels exposed, foolish, like an acolyte whose dog-eared prayer book's been found by a heathen. He wants to turn away, admit defeat finally. He's too tired to settle this physically.

"Hey. You lose something?" Pitman's voice is so flat Kevin can't tell whether it's a question or a dare.

He doesn't answer.

"I think this is yours," says Pitman. He holds the notebook in the air by a corner; the pages flip in the breeze, like damaged wings.

Kevin doesn't want things to start up again. He isn't afraid of the man. He's just tired. He forces himself a few steps closer.

"I guess I should apologize," says Pitman.

Kevin is surprised at this. "Forget about it," he says. "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."

He's puzzled.

"I'm talking about your notebook." Pitman holds it up again. "I shouldn't be pokin' around in it. But you trashed it, don't forget."

"Oh, that," Kevin says, feigning nonchalance. He wants to tell him it's all right, but it isn't.

"This is some kind of a story, ain't it?" he says, pointing to a page. "Or it's gonna be, right?"

"It could be, yeah. If it ever gets written."

Pitman beckons him closer. "I see what you're doin' here, with these notes. Decidin' why these people do what they do."

Kevin nods, though he's never thought of it that way. His characters have always decided for themselves.

Pitman shifts his weight, motions for Kevin to sit beside him. He settles in, feeling dwarfed by the size of the truck and all the equipment. He laughs at himself for wondering, even now, what it would be like to ride up front. "I think about stuff like that too," says Pitman. "About what gets people to the point they're at. What goes wrong."

"Yeah," says Kevin, though he wishes he'd just hand over the notebook, spare him the commentary.

"You can go crazy tryin' to figure people out. Hell, half the time I can't figure myself out." Pitman sounds weary. Kevin wonders why he isn't with the other men, but the wrinkles, the gray hair, remind him that he's probably proven himself many times over, earned the right to rest while the young ones finish up.

The man reaches for a bottle of water, holds it up to see if Kevin wants any, but there's not much left so Kevin shakes his head no. Pitman unscrews the cap, finishes it with a half-hearted slug, and tosses it back into the box. Then he closes the notebook, holds it in both hands. "Sometimes I wonder what my kids think about me, how they really feel. I give 'em a hard time sometimes." His voice has softened to a whisper. "And their mom."

Kevin doesn't need to ask what he's done. It's in the way he moves, like Kevin's father, on guard for attacks others don't see coming, and in his face, creased with suspicion. He has to punish the world before it discovers who the guilty one really is.

"She blames me, I think," says Pitman, then glances at Kevin, as if deciding whether it's safe to say more. "She's never said it, but I know she does." He stops, clears his throat before he continues. "My boy left the house when he was seventeen, never came back. Years ago. Nothin's been right since then."

Kevin doesn't know how to respond. "I'm sorry," he says, though he knows that can't matter.

Pitman's hands tighten around the notebook, and for a second Kevin is afraid he won't get it back, that he'll have to start all over without help, without a plan. "You got some good stuff here," he says, tapping the notebook against his palm.

"Thanks," Kevin says, surprised at how good the words feel, like some kind of sanction. "Thanks for saying that."

"You're lucky this didn't get smoked," Pitman chuckles, holding it out to him.

He nods, relieved, and takes his notebook, dirty but not that damaged. He settles back against the truck, wipes the notebook against the leg of his pants to remove the coating of ash, then tucks it back inside his jacket. The familiar weight of it anchors him.

Pitman leans back against the truck with him, and Kevin hears him breathe out slowly. The street is quiet, the gawkers long gone. The smell of smoke is strong, and particles of soot come toward them on the breeze. A piece of drapery wafts from a broken window above their heads. Pitman sighs, but not sadly. He seems accustomed to ruin. In the distance, a siren pushes through the silence, insisting life go on.


  1. Louise BraithwaiteJune 10, 2023 at 8:02 AM

    A good read. I liked how you explored tensions within families and the impact of "old school" ideas of what it means to be a man. Great work!

  2. This a rich story in which several imperfect characters interacting in several imperfect ways. I am struck by your use of silent characters (Kevin’s father and mother) to tell a shadow story behind the present story - Kevin won an O’Henry short story award with a piece whose plot and characters somehow shamed his family of origin. I want to like Kevin, he is the main character, I want to root for him, but he has so many self-sabotaging flaws… …I hope he goes to therapy in his next story! Please consider expanding this into a novel as I’d love to learn more about the other characters too - Sean, the firemen, etc. Great job!

  3. These characters feel like they hail from Providence, Rhode Island. I agree with Adam. You could expand this story if and when you feel inspired. The main character just can’t appreciate what he has. He is in danger of blowing up his life. Good, muscular writing. Well done, Mary Ann

    1. Sorry, Mary Ann, I should be more clear. I know a few police men and bureaucrats who work in Providence.

  4. I didn’t pay attention to the author’s name – and gender – until I penned my comments and I was surprised that the writer was not a man. And I wasn’t being sexist; I didn’t believe that a female writer could get inside the head of a male character so completely, so honestly. But the issue at point is not that Kevin is male, but rather, that he is a writer. Mary Ann, your reflections are so on track with the doubts, recriminations and mixed feelings that writers deal with on what seems a daily basis. The character study was excellent, the dialogue sublime. It was exemplary to reveal a contemplative side to the character Pitman, and was quite unexpected. In the end, there are no conclusions, only beginnings. Will Kevin take the job offered him by Sean? Will he continue with his writing? Will he come to grips with his family and his past? I would be very eager to read sequels – and prequels – to this very fine fiction. Thoughtful, honest and really fine work, Mary Ann.

  5. Strong dialogue and good story with plausible characters, succinctly drawn.