Recently his father had said, man, this is your time. Was Karl aware of this? Aware that there was a small window and before long no window at all? The words were meant as a spur. For a few days, despite his father’s implicit hostility, the words took effect. Karl was emboldened. But then, inevitably, work and distraction swallowed the charge. Basic wisdom slipped to the side. And now his doctor at the Plursky Center on 39th Street—traditional medicine, a holistic bent—asked this: could you try loving your life? In his frayed boxer shorts, perched on the examining table’s butcher paper, Karl stared at the man. He waited for some smile, a conspiratorial wink. Before Karl could speak, the doctor was leading him through a breathing exercise.
Karl interrupted. “Are there drugs for it?”
“For what?” Dr. Roth asked.
“You know, for loving life.” It came out sarcastic, though Karl realized he wanted rather badly to know.
Roth handed Karl his folder without looking up. He shook his head, then opened his hand toward the door. Usually the doctor walked Karl and his folder to the front desk, then patted Karl’s back as he waited for the elevator. That touch meant more to him than he liked to admit. Now that he was alone, the disappointment arrived in Karl’s mouth, a sudden, rust-tainted spring. For the moment he was not in a position to speak.
On the street Karl started toward the law firm where he worked. The firm occupied the twenty-second and twenty-third floors of a shabby Park Avenue tower. His little office, which looked into the girdered belly of the MetLife building, sat next to the firm’s accountant’s, a woman named Marta given to outbursts in her native German. Usually Karl kept his head bent and tried to concentrate, though he wondered what her severe-sounding words meant. He was a sixth year associate at a firm that specialized in litigating airplane insurance. Soon he would be up for partner. At one time he’d loved this work, the cautious, painstaking craft of making a document without a crack. He could look down at a draft with number 1 pencil in hand—electric sharpener reached to unconsciously—and hours would pass in less time than it took to retrieve a soda.
But now Jar, a new partner imported from a large Chicago firm, was overseeing his work. Swiftly he had located a weakness in Karl that no one else had noticed. (Employees were called by their initials, a short-hand derived from the firm’s phonelist. Karl, with initials KRP, was Karp to his workmates and Krap when he drank with them and likely behind his back.) It had taken Jar less than a week to see that Karl required almost double the time to complete a standard document. For years Karl had found ways to cover this fact. He stayed late. He worked at home with a carton of orange juice and sleeve of saltines at his side. Yet Jar stayed late too, and ran an ongoing calculation of when reasonable profit turned to not.
Jar would be waiting for him now, platinum spectacles dropped to the tip of his nose, a coy smile that was not a smile at all. Glancing up, Jar would maintain the expression, unmoved, until Karl departed his doorframe.
With a doctor’s appointment, time off could be stretched to two hours. Fifty minutes now remained. When he was hungover, Karl liked to sneak into the Yale Club on his lunch break. He wasn’t a member—he’d gone to the University of Florida, information he shared with no one—yet he’d found it took only a pressed suit jacket, a small if authoritative wave, and a swift turn past the doorman. Once inside he never risked the elevator but climbed four flights to reach the luxurious overstuffed chairs and amber lamps of the club library. At the moment, though, Karl’s need was more specific. He paid regular visits to the Oyster Bar beneath Grand Central. Its appeal extended beyond the she-crab soup. There was the sensation of being underground, and this was not an unrare craving for Karl. Though the subway was an option, there was the constant motion to endure. The Oyster Bar’s low-arched ceilings felt sturdy and pre-modern, even if the strings of gosling bulbs trembled with what Karl believed was the movement of the locomotives overhead. Fortunately there were no windows or natural light to contend with.
Karl sat at one of the stationary stools at the horseshoe counter, the province of single diners and frugal pairs. He’d come here once with Priscilla, though he’d been careful not to touch her. Now he ordered the soup and a glass of beer from one of the old waiters. Karl stopped him as he turned. “A half dozen Blue Points,” he said too loudly. “Can you please add that?” Here was evidence of loving life! Perhaps he’d fax his lunch bill to Dr. Roth.
Soon the waiter dropped a plate of the gray shellfish on chipped ice. The first one, the smallest of the six, tasted faintly of tin. Karl tried a second. It tasted even more sharply of metal. Holding the knotted shell before his mouth, as if whispering to it, he discreetly slid the slippery mass from his tongue back to the shell. He overturned the other shells, hiding what he could not eat.
The she-crab soup arrived. Karl always looked forward to the Wednesday special. He gave the bowl a shake. The pale contents quivered—stagnant, mucal. He stared at the soup. Could this be possible? Stirring the pinkish liquid, he trickled in water from his glass, but the soup became stringy. Karl scanned the patrons around him. A young man in a gray suit, pin-striped as if with fresh chalk, sat across from him, holding his newspaper alongside his soup. The newspaper was folded into a single neat column, as a prosperous father might have taught. Two elderly black ladies sat to his side, sharing a bowl, alternating spoons, more interested in their conversation.
Karl lifted the napkin from his lap and laid it across his full bowl. He tucked a $20 bill under his half-finished beer. A problem was presenting itself. He was not certain of its origin. With ten minutes to spare, he walked once around the train station before starting back to the office, careful to breathe evenly, and not to look down at his feet.
* * *
Five times Karl had made love to Priscilla, a paralegal at his firm. Each time, in the aftermath, he’d found himself in a cloud of distress. For most of the night he lay awake watching the pulse of her neck. Tristesse, one of his lawyer friends remarked, not about Karl’s situation but about a sex-laden foreign film, was what the French called this feeling. Of course the French had a specific word for it. If there was in fact a word for what Karl so distinctly felt, he considered, it might not be such a devastating thing to contend with. Still, he struggled to move the distress from the front of his mind. Never before had he slept with anyone but a girlfriend, and never with the requirement of secrecy.
After the third bout of tristesse, Karl sent Priscilla an email, disguising but also to his mind distinctly revealing that something was wrong. He leaked out just enough wrongness to send a signal, one that he hoped could just as easily be perceived not to be a signal. He knew he couldn’t be with Priscilla again. Yet a week later, at almost midnight, he phoned her. Within twenty minutes he was exiting a cab, then creeping hand-in-hand with her past her roommate’s bedroom door.
She was dark-haired and short. Her hips bowed out suddenly from her slender waist and her legs continued this line, robust ankles not at all matching her long, delicate fingers. Karl lusted for both at once: the refinement of her upper half, the lusty rancor of her lower. At work she maintained a reserve that matched her top. When she walked her head remained unerringly steady. So it surprised him how hungrily she came at him in bed. “It’s always the quiet ones,” she whispered, biting his shoulder, drawing up a crescent of blood.
Karl worked at keeping the distress to himself. Either the feeling moved off or it occupied some location along his periphery. Like a private tide, his hunger for her returned. Fortunately the office she shared with two other paralegals was the floor below, with little reason for them to collide.
Now Karl walked the long way around his floor to avoid Jar’s doorframe. Without breakfast or lunch, his stomach churned. He knew he must set himself to work. There was a motion to quit to complete by day’s end. Jar would then expect him to drop by to retrieve his next assignment.
Cup of coffee in one hand, Karl worked for an hour without moving. The third paragraph was giving him fits, precisely where the document deviated from boilerplate. There was an idea to convert into legalese, but the idea resisted translation. This was not typical. Karl was unsure how to proceed. Yes, he was a plodding worker, but never without a grasp of the argument at hand. He studied the string of words, uncertain they formed sentences. Like high school Latin, his command of syntax seemed to have slunk off.
Without at first knowing it, Karl dug the sharpened tip of his pencil into the gap between his thumb and forefinger, and pushed it deeper when he noticed the black filament beneath the nail. A tear of blood dropped to the page and splattered, then another. He got up from his desk. He knew he must see her.
Descending the fire escape stairs—a place where he and Priscilla had, in a playful moment, decided they should meet and make love—he turned out onto her floor. Her office was at the southwest corner, facing the Hudson and Palisades. Karl stopped just before her door. They worked on no cases together. Were her officemate present, he would have to make something up. There was some plausible thing to say, he was sure, something encoded that would summon their intimacy, yet nothing came to mind. He could remember only her hip as she lay on her side sleeping. He liked to cup his hand along its sharp curve. Thrillingly, he registered the bone just beneath. Karl stepped into her office. If he had to, he would make up a case. She would have to go along.
Priscilla sat at her desk, her back to him. Out the window the late afternoon sun was propped on the roof of an apartment building, poised to roll off. Karl tiptoed up behind her and peeked over her shoulder. He could smell her, flowery perfume barely covering something dank, almost feral. She stared into the sun. Her hands were clasped. She spoke, perhaps seeing his reflection in the window.
“You go right ahead,” she said. “Do what you want.”
Karl waited for her to laugh.
“I mean it. Go ahead and fuck him,” she said fiercely. “When I say I don’t care, I do not care. You follow me, dear?” Inside her clenched fists must be her thumbs; at the moment they were clubbed.
Karl reached out to her wrist. Priscilla yelped, and bolted upright. A black earpiece flew from her ear. Karl recognized a cellphone on her desk. “Karp,” she said. “What are you doing?”
Motionless, he waited. He’d been certain she was speaking to him, and now that he understood otherwise some heat rode up the back of his neck.
“Hold on a second,” Priscilla said, lifting her finger. She plucked the cord from the cellphone and then spoke into it. “Whitney, I have to go. I’ll call back. Just think about what I’m saying.”
Karl took several steps back.
“Well?” she said.
“Just stopping by.” He motioned toward the phone in her hand. “What was that all about?”
“Can we get coffee?”
She looked flatly at the window. For a full minute neither of them spoke. “Not a good idea,” Priscilla said. The sun had gilded her cheek. In this new attitude, in this astringent tone of hers he’d never before encountered and to be truthful never believed could exist, she was quite remarkable. Remarkable, and eleven years younger than he was.
“No,” she said, pointing the antenna of her phone at his reflection. “I can’t. I have other problems. Problems that preclude us.”
“Preclude us?” he said. “You remember me?”
“You’re Karp? Or is it Karl? I’m not sure.” Turning toward him, she gasped. “What happened?”
Karl looked down. Like an IV drip, the blood was plunking from his thumb to the carpet. “I cut myself.”
Her face paled. The things she’d whispered to him would not ever, it appeared, be whispered again. “It’s—you’re leaking,” she urgently whispered.
“I’d like to see you tonight,” he said. “Is that possible?”
“Karl, I’m sorry.”
Her officemate walked through the door, a freckled, pert-nosed redhead known as Dot. She looked at Karl, a slight smile twitching her lips. “Hi Karp,” she said.
Karl nodded to Dot, then looked back to Priscilla. He tipped his head to the side, hoping his pleading was obvious only to her.
“I’ll call you,” she said.
The last time they’d been together, after drinks and porterhouse steak and a bottle of wine shared at a bar counter, Priscilla had led him back to her apartment. Though her roommate was in her bedroom, light coming from her cracked door, Priscilla had dropped to her knees in the kitchen. Glancing up, her brown eyes flashed with the stray streetlight. He believed at that moment she might love him; it settled over his face like a warm mist. No tristesse, there’d never been tristesse. Beyond any encounter, any experience he could recall, Karl beamed with want.
He now ran his hand along the wall of the hallway, turned and ran up the back stairs. In his office, he shut the door, struggling for air. It took a minute to get his breath back to normal. He could feel the humiliation, a new variety, still in his face. His cheeks and forehead were a different color—he was certain of this—as he was certain the color wouldn’t leave. Karl rested his head on the papers on his desk. Thumb in his mouth, he let the fatigue wash over him. In a moment, he was asleep.
* * *
The phone was ringing. Karl woke, thinking it was a siren. Then he recognized the walls of his office, the white paint that had yellowed like the pages of a drugstore paperback. The document he’d been working on was blotted pink with blood and saliva. Karl shook his head and picked up the phone. Someone was whispering to him.
“Karp, it’s me,” Priscilla said. “Meet me in the stairwell one floor above yours. Ten minutes.”
Before he had a chance to say okay, she hung up. Karl left his office. Someone was singing. He stopped at the accountant’s door frame. To his astonishment, it was Marta. She was holding the phone upright before her, like a baby, a black plastic baby, singing into its mouth in German. Her voice was pitched differently. Turn away and she could be an altogether different woman. When she looked over, smiling crookedly, Karl stepped away.
Then Jar called out. “Karl, come here.”
Karl stopped, palmed the wall. Three steps back and he was looking into Jar’s office. Jar was not wearing his glasses. He appeared younger, his hair blonder, his skin blotched red. His nose was exceedingly small. “You need me?” Karl asked.
Jar fanned a document in the air before him. “This. Your motion. It’s what we refer to in the trade as shit. A piece, a pile, a trail. You choose.”
At first Karl said nothing. He rested his hands flat against his thighs. Some part of him prayed he might lift off, a newly-minted rocket flung into space, dropping somewhere in the middle of the country.
“Need I say that it doesn’t make sense?” Jar said.
Priscilla was in the stairwell now, prepared, no doubt, to deliver something definitive. Sitting on the step, certainly not holding her head in her hands, certainly not stricken with what was coming. Karl wasn’t stupid, he didn’t think, though he still wished in this moment that he could tuck his face against her pale throat, that she would run her fingers through his hair as she once had for almost an hour.
Jar stared at him. “What should I do?” Karl said.
“I don’t know there’s anything you can do,” Jar said. He stopped fanning the document. Slowly, looking down, he began to rip it into long strips, creating a neat, crosshatched pile. “Only the first two paragraphs that you copied from elsewhere. Elsewhere,” he repeated, “a place, I might add, that you seem to regularly visit.”
Karl’s face felt wet with something. He didn’t dare reach up. He could not recall which of his hands he’d injured. He could not conceive of where this conversation, this crack-up, was going to land him. Like a paper bag close to giving way, the outline of his heart felt distinct and in peril. “You could give me another chance,” Karl said.
Jar looked up from the pile he’d made. He must be near-sighted, his eyes were working to focus. “You could try different work.”
Karl cleared his throat. He thought of Dr. Roth, how he’d listened to his heart with such care, moving in an exacting pattern across Karl’s chest as a lover might. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning this is not something you’re especially good at. Why kill yourself?”
The words swept across his face like a blast of wind. “I guess that’s what I’ve been doing,” Karl said.
Jar put on his glasses. “Very, very slowly. I guess you could say yes.”
Trace the same route for a while and another became impossible to fathom. The familiar view was more than a comfort; it was, as Karl considered it, the sky over his head. He could not begin to figure how you replaced that length of sky. Karl shook his head as if it were a fire catching. He lifted a hand from his thigh and slapped his neck. “Probably not the best career strategy,” he said. “Killing oneself.”
“Afraid not,” Jar said.
“What would you do?”
“I have no earthly idea.”
Karl got a picture in his head of Priscilla’s neck as he felt the quickened pulse in his own. “Do you have a son?” he asked.
“Well—” Jar said, hesitating, searching Karl’s eyes. “Yes. But a very small one. At his age he could just as easily be a daughter.” He paused, tugging at an ear. “Were you my son—my adult son—I’d suggest a good long think. Find a rock. Sit on it for a while.”
“I think I’ve tried something like that,” Karl said.
“What did you see?”
“Not what I wanted,” Karl said. “I had a hard time getting down.” And though Jar was smiling at him sadly, Karl reached forward. “Jar, I’m sorry. I have to leave.” He struck Jar’s desk twice, as if he were knocking at the door of an empty home. Jar started to titter. Karl stood up and walked out.
* * *
The stairwells of the older buildings of Manhattan, even the ones high above the city, smell sweetly, mustily, of a cellar. This one was low-lit and painted a faint mid-century blue, so that scaling the stairs was not unlike ascending the cavity behind a waterfall. Priscilla was not on the appointed floor. Karl climbed higher. Three more flights and he would reach the exit door to the rooftop. As he climbed, what he now recognized as hope—what had so briefly floated in his chest as he struck Jar’s desk—began to falter, then leech away. The sinew in his legs, ankle to calf, was stretched like cord. He was near falling.
Then Priscilla was there, seated on the last step, sullen and dark. Her hair was drawn back into pigtails, skirt gathered at the knees. The light make-up she wore was scuffed away on her forehead and the ridges of her cheeks. She appeared younger in this old space.
“Thought you forgot me,” she said.
Karl stopped a foot before her. “I’m sorry. I had a meeting I couldn’t leave.”
“So I’ve been thinking,” Priscilla said.
“Thinking?” he said. Something had cleared in his joints, as if they’d been oiled. He fought a sudden urge to jump. He kept talking. “I mean, really. You love me, I love you. What else is there to say.”
She snorted and shook her head, smiling vaguely. Her face was flushed. Blossoms of red, like carnations, had popped up on her cheeks.
He reached out a hand, which Priscilla took. Pulling her to her feet, a step above him, they were for the first time the same height. Between them it had always been looking up or looking down. Karl thumbed the points of her hipbones.
“Want to know what I was thinking?” she repeated.
With one hand he turned her around, so she faced away. She didn’t stop him from doing this. The back of her head appeared smaller than he remembered, and somehow far more unsure than her front. He reached around and covered her mouth with his hand, then he ran his fingers into the hollow of her trembling throat. “There,” he whispered. “There there. Of course I want to know.” Along one of the tendons of her neck, like the honeycomb of a harmonica, Karl opened his mouth. A moan was vibrating in her throat. He bit down a little, then pulled away. Left behind was a faint oval that would soon be gone. Mouth in her hair, he whispered, “But later. Okay?”