When the Dead Cry
Carl Schirmer’s last day as a human was filled with portents of his strange life to come. As he completed his morning ablutions, he saw in the bathroom mirror his hair, what little of it there was, standing straight up. He smoothed it back and tucked it behind his ears with his damp hands, but it sprang back. Even the few strands left at the cope of his shining pate wavered upright. His hair, rusty gossamer, stuck out from the sides of his large head like a clown’s wig.
With his usual complaisance, he shrugged and commenced to shave his broad face. Today, he sensed, was going to be an unusual day. His sleep had been fitful, and he had awoken to a breed of headache he had never before encountered. His head was not actually aching—it buzzed, as though overnight a swarm of gnats had molted to maturity in the folds of his brain. After completing his morning cleansing ritual and checking the coat of his tongue and the blood-brightness under his lids, he put his glasses on, took two acetaminophen, and dressed for work.
Carl was not a stylish or a careful dresser, yet even he noticed that his clothes, which he had ironed two nights before for a dinner his date had canceled and which had looked fine hanging in his closet, hung particularly rumpled on him that day. When he tried to brush the wrinkles out, static sparked along his fingers. The morning was already old, so he didn’t bother to change. He hurried through breakfast despite the fact that his usually trustworthy toaster charred his toast, and he skipped his coffee when he saw that no amount of wire-jiggling was going to get his electric percolator to work. Not until he had left his apartment and had jogged down the four floors to the street did he realize that his headbuzz had tingled through the cords of his neck and into his shoulders. He was not feeling right at all, and yet in another sense, a perceptive and ease-ful sense, he felt sharper than ever.
Carl lived in a low-rent apartment building on West Twenty-fourth Street and Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, and he was not used to smelling the river, though he was only a few blocks away from the Hudson. This morning, the air carried a kelpy sweet-and-sour odor of the Hudson. Immense cauliflower clouds bunched over the city, and the blue of the sky seemed clear as an idea.
He strolled down Twenty-third Street with an atypically loose stride, face uplifted to the path of heaven. Spring’s promise-haunted presence drifted through the tumult of clouds, which was odd, since this was November. The rainbow-haired punks that loitered about the Chelsea Hotel looked childbright and friendly today, and Carl knew then that the ferment of a mood was indeed altering him. But he didn’t care. Though his blood felt carbonated, the city looked benevolent, and he went with the illusion.
At the corner of Seventh Avenue, a drunk approached him, and he handed over a dollar, appreciating the serene desuetude of the woman’s face. Nothing could depress him this morning. And the sight of the place where he worked sparked a smile in him. He managed The Blue Apple, a bar and restaurant at Twenty-second and Seventh. Except for the neon sign in the vine-trellised window, the antiquated structure looked smoky with age. Until Carl had come along, the narrow building had been an Irish bar with the inspired name The Shamrock, run and owned by Caitlin Sweeney, an alcoholic widow supporting her thirst and a daughter with the faithful patronage of a few aged locals. A year ago, after losing his midtown brokerage job to the recession and his own lack of aggression, Carl had let a newspaper ad lead him here. He had been looking for something to keep him alive and not too busy. And then he had met Sheelagh and wound up working harder than ever.
Caitlin’s daughter had been sixteen then, tall and lean-limbed, with green, youthless eyes and a lispy smile. Carl, twice her age, lost his heart to her that first day, which was no common event with him.
He had experienced his share of crooked romance and casual affairs in college, and for the last ten years he had lived alone out of choice sprung from disappointment. No woman whom he had found attractive had ever found him likewise. Gangly, nearsighted, and bald, he was not ugly but lumpy-featured and devoid of the conversational charm that sometimes redeemed men of his mien. So instead of contenting himself with the love of a good but not quite striking woman, he had lived alone with his male vanity and close to his indulgences: an occasional joint, a semiannual cocaine binge, and a sizable pornography collection stretching back through the kinky Seventies to the body-painting orgies of the Sixties. This puerile life would have proved sufficient if not for Sheelagh. She made all the years of his aloneness seem worth the wait for her uncommon beauty—a tall, lyrical body with auburn tresses that fell to the roundness of her loose hips—but, most exciting of all, she needed him.
When Carl had arrived, The Shamrock brinked on bankruptcy. He would never have had anything to do with a business as tattered as the one riven-faced Caitlin had revealed to him were Sheelagh not there. She was a smart kid, finishing high school a year ahead of her class and sharp enough with figures and deferred-payment planning to keep The Shamrock floating long after her besotted mother would have lost it. Sheelagh was the one, in her defiant-child’s manner, who had shown him that the business could be saved. The neighborhood was growing with the artistic overflow from Greenwich Village, and there was hope, if they could find the money and the imagination, to draw a new, more affluent clientele. After talking with the girl, Carl had flared with ideas, and he had backed them up with the few thousand dollars he had saved. With the debts paid off, old Caitlin reluctantly became the house chef, and Carl took over the bartending, the books, and the refurbishing. A year later, The Shamrock had almost broken even as the Blue Apple, a name Carl had compressed from the Big Apple and the certain melancholy of his hopeless love for Sheelagh. That love had recently increased in both ardor and hopelessness now that Sheelagh had finished high school and had come to work full-time in the Blue Apple while she saved for college.
On Carl Schirmer’s last day as a human, when he entered the restaurant with his collar of red hair sticking out from his head, his clothes knotted with static, and his eyes shining with the beauty of the day, Sheelagh was glad to see him. The new tables they had ordered had come inand were stacked around the bar, legs up like a bamboo forest. “Aren’t they fine?” Sheelagh asked.
In the year since they had first met, she had filled out to the full dimensions of a woman, and Carl was not addressing the tables when he answered: “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”
With his help, she moved aside the old Formica-top table from the choice position beside the window and placed the new wooden one there. Sunlight smeared its top like warm butter. She sighed with satisfaction, turned to Carl, and put her arms about him in a jubilant hug. “It’s happening, Carl. The Blue Apple is beginning to shine.” She pulled back, startled. “You smell wonderful. What are you wearing?”
He sniffed his shoulder and caught the cool fragrance misting off him, a scent kindred to a mountain slope. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Long night on the town, huh?” She smiled slyly. She truly liked Carl. He was the most honest man she’d ever known, a bald, boy-faced pal, soft around the middle but with a quiet heart and an inward certainty. His experience as an account exec had earned him managerial skills that to Sheelagh seemed a dazzling ease with the world of things. For the first year, he ran the entire business on the phone, shuffling loans and debts until they burst into the black. He was a solid guy, yet he pulled no sexual feeling from her whatever. And for that reason, he had become in a short time closer to her than a brother. She had confided all her adolescent choices to him, and he had counseled her wisely through two high school romances and the lyric expectation of going to college someday. He knew her dreams, even her antic fantasy of a handsome, Persian-eyed lover. “From the looks of your clothes,” she went on, “your date must have been quite an athlete.” Her lubricious grin widened.
Carl pridefully buffed the thought with a smile and went about his business. The redolence of open space spun like magnetism about him all day, a day like mostothers: After getting the espresso machine and the coffee-maker going at the bar, he brought the first hot cup to a hung-over Caitlin in the kitchen.
The old woman looked as wasted as ever, her white hair tattering about her shoulders and her seamed face crumpled-looking from last night’s drinking. Grief and bad luck had aged her more harshly than time, and she wore a perpetual scowl. But that morning when she saw Carl back through the swinging door of the kitchen, his hair feathering from his head and his clothes clinging like plastic wrap, a bemused grin hoisted her features. “Don’t you look a sight, darlin’. Now, I know you don’t drink, and you smell too pretty to have been rolled— so, mercy of God, it must be a woman! Do I know her?”
He placed the black coffee on the wooden counter before her, and she quaffed it though the brew was practically boiling in the cup. “It’s not a woman, Caity.’’
‘Ah, good, then there’s still a chance for my Sheelagh” —she winked one liver-smoked eye—”when she’s older and your hard work and bright ideas have made us all rich, of course.”
Carl took down the inventory clipboard from its nail on the pantry door. “Sheelagh’s too young and too smart to be interested in a bald coot like me.”