TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY
By Tom Bruno
September 10th, 2001—David was in love. He didn’t know her name, what she did for a living, or whether he’d ever see her again. Forty-second Street and Eighth Avenue, just outside the Port Authority Terminal, where a jovial Greek man sold soft pretzels from a pushcart that smelled like burnt toast. That’s where he first saw her. He had just come in from one of the Jersey suburbs, shoes polished, pants pressed, shirt ironed, collar starched, laptop and cellphone charged; she was lighting a cigarette and waiting on the corner for a cab.
The pretzel he’d bought was coated in grains of kosher salt so big they looked like rice, and David wished he had remembered to pack a banana for the commute as he wolfed down bite after bite, feasting on the sight of the girl smoking on the curbside. It was a hot day, too hot for his Brooks Brothers suit, too hot for her leather miniskirt and matching bolero, too hot to enjoy a cigarette even. David had quit about nine years back, but not a day went by that he didn’t wish he hadn’t.
The Greek looked up from his newspaper and smiled. “Poli omorphi,” he said. “Very beautiful, no?”
David felt flustered as the girl turned and gazed in their direction. She was wearing a pink blouse under the leather jacket, with a metal choker that looked expensive. She took long, absent drags on her cigarette as she scanned oncoming traffic for her ride. Her hair was reddish-brown, her eyes were so blue he could tell from a block away.
“Yes. Very beautiful.”
Her taxi arrived. The girl tossed the still-burning butt into the gutter and got into the back seat. As the cab pulled away, he swore he saw her looking right back at him through the window before disappearing down Eighth Avenue.
“You should have said hello,” the Greek offered unsympathetically.
David tried to think of a response but couldn’t. He looked down at his watch. 8:46 a.m: he was going to be late for work.
He looked back at the Greek, who had returned to his paper, reading the soccer scores from Athens. “The girl—is she here every morning?”
“Physica! Of course.”
David looked at his watch again and bit his lip.
“Good luck!” the Greek laughed.
David crossed against the light and made his way up Forty-Second Street, past the West Africans selling bootleg videos and music, past the hoodlum offering “Fake I.D.’s, weapons, whaddaya need?”, past the peep shows that never called it a night, their barkers on the street bleary-eyed and hoarse. Halfway to the Times Square subway entrance and his train downtown, however, he stopped at a newspaper kiosk and bought a package of cigarettes.
Just one wouldn’t hurt, he thought to himself. As he lit up and took a furtive puff, he felt as if the whole city were watching him. But he didn’t care.
It was love, all right.
“You’re late, Sanders!”
Prescott van den Heuvel was not a supervisor to take lightly. Everything about his outward appearance, from his barrel chest and hairy arms to his suspenders, his gold cufflinks, and his smart tie bespoke business. He fixed one angry eye on David, the other monitoring a bank of computer screens that flashed the up-to-date prices of shares, bonds, and durable goods.
“Sorry, chief! The 8:05 broke down this morning.”
Prescott’s nose was twitching. “Never mind that a trader worth his salt should already be working by 8:05, Sanders—and when, pray tell, did you start smoking?”
David looked sheepish. “It was just one cigarette, boss.”
Prescott looked around, then spoke in a lowered voice. “You know the Company policy, Sanders. I just hope you weren’t smoking down on Wall Street, or they’ll be writing my ass up, too!”
“Don’t ‘sorry’ me, son. Now you know I’m supposed to report you for the lateness and the smoking, but I’m going to let them both slide—this time. I like you, kid, and I don’t want to see you blow a promising career opportunity just because you’re green.”
“I said quit saying you’re sorry, Sanders! Tomorrow’s another day, so just set your alarm clock and get it right."
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” But David’s thoughts were returning to the girl on the corner.
He felt a momentary pang of guilt that tomorrow’s late arrival would be premeditated and not accidental. But soon he could hardly contain his excitement as he went out onto the trading floor. David wondered if anyone could tell his mind was not on trading trading—not that he cared.
After all, tomorrow was another day.
8:46 a.m., the next morning. There she was, standing at the intersection of Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue, just outside the Port Authority Terminal. David watched her from afar, just as he had done the day before. She wore the same outfit—the same skirt, the same stockings, the same pink blouse, the same choker. Again she stood and smoked, waiting for her cab.
The Greek manning the pretzel cart smiled at him: “Poli omorphi. Very beautiful, no?”
David looked at him. “Didn’t you say that yesterday?”
The Greek looked confused. “Did I? Me singhorite! I see lots of people come and go here, and sometimes I lose track, katalaves? You understand?”
“Sure,” David said, returning his gaze to the woman. All day yesterday, all he could think about while he pretended to do his job was how he’d walk right up to her and introduce himself the next morning. Maybe bum a cigarette, all casual. He’d ask to share the cab with her; it didn’t matter where she was going. Uptown, Midtown, Downtown. Queens, even.
So why was he still half a block away, hiding behind the pretzel vendor? He stood and watched her cab arrive, watched her toss her cigarette into the gutter, watched her climb into the back seat and disappear down Eighth Avenue, all over again.
“You should have said hello.”
David whirled around to face the Greek. “You said that yesterday, too!”
“Did I?” The pretzel vendor chuckled.
The Greek looked side to side. Then he spoke, in a slow and deliberative voice: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
David looked at him, then looked back at the taxi, which had just missed the light and was still idling within a stone’s throw of the two of them and the pushcart. His heart stopped. She was staring right at him! There was no mistaking it for a passing glance this time. Their eyes met. David smiled; the girl smiled back, just as the traffic light turned green and the cab lurched away and out of sight.
David turned back to the Greek. The newspaper was back in front of his face, the same headlines, the same news, the same sports scores as yesterday, but the vendor eagerly devoured them like they were brand new—September 10th, 2001, read the masthead, in English and in Greek.
Tomorrow’s another day, David thought to himself, his spirits soaring. He lit a cigarette and crossed the street. On the way up to his subway connection he passed the same junkies, the same pimps, the same bootleggers as the day before, all of them barking identical pitches as yesterday. “Fake I.D.’s, weapons, whaddaya need?”
David paid them no heed. Ahead of him the famous news ticker of Times Square crawled in large glowing letters—the same news as always. He rounded a corner and headed for the stairs to the subway station, but he was cut off by someone who suddenly appeared in his way. David very nearly fell headlong trying to avoid him.
“Hey!” he said, brushing ash from his cigarette off of his sleeve.
“So sorry!” the man said, in a loud, pinched voice. He was a tourist, and as produced a map out of his bright blue fanny pack and began to unfold it David winced. He was already late for work.
“I was wondering if you could help me find Rockefeller Center. I’ve been walking around in circles all morning!”
David puffed on his cigarette. “I’d love to help you, buddy, but I’m kind of in a hurry. I’m sure someone else here would be happy to—“
The tourist gripped his left arm as David attempted to back away. His expression had changed as well. “Mr. Nollett. You will accompany me to Rockefeller Center and make it look like you’re helping me. Understood?”
A chill ran down David’s spine. The man knew his last name—his real last name. David nodded and the tourist relaxed his grip, although his demeanor did not change. “Put that cigarette out, Mr. Nollett. You are not authorized to smoke on the island.”
David mumbled an apology and did as he was told.
The tourist fixed him with an angry stare. “Do you know who I am, Mr. Nollett?”
“Um, from the Company?”
“Yes. From the Company. I’m the man you only see if you’re screwing up. So guess what that means, Mr. Nollett?”
David croaked, “I’m screwing up?”
“This is the second day in a row you’ve failed to arrive at your designated role on time. We at the Company appreciate that there may be days when delays getting into the City are unavoidable, but transit was running just fine this morning.
“But your unexcused latenesses—for which your pay will be docked, mind you—are not nearly so troubling as your newfound bad habit.”
David looked at his feet as they walked. The man continued: “Some of my colleagues were concerned when we saw the history of tobacco addiction in your personnel file, but I convinced them you’d be worth the risk. You have a real gift, Mr. Nollett, but it seems my faith in you may have been misplaced.”
“That being said,” the tourist said. “We’ve decided to give you one more chance. After all the effort that goes into selecting our employees, it would pain us to admit that we’d made a mistake in hiring you.”
“Thank you, sir!”
The man turned to disappear into the crowds milling about Rockefeller Center. “Oh, and Mr. Nollett?”
“You don’t want to see me again.”
Prescott van den Heuvel was not a supervisor to take lightly. Everything about his outward appearance, from his wiry, hyperkinetic frame to his silk shirt, his silver cufflinks, and his obsessively clean-shaven face bespoke business. He fixed a suspicious eye on David, the other scanning a bank of computer screens that flashed the up-to-date prices of shares, bonds, and durable goods.
“You’re late, Sanders!”
David tried not to do too obvious a double-take at his boss’ transformation. It could mean only one thing.
“Sorry, chief.” The apology was directed at this new Prescott van den Heuvel, but it was in truth meant for the other one, the one he had inadvertently gotten fired.
“Well don’t just stand there! You’ve got a whole lot of trading to do, if you’re going to make up for the first hour of the market.” The new Prescott beamed, directing his voice to not just David, but to anyone who might happen to be listening.
September 10th, 2001—
David walked through the Port Authority Terminal in a daze. The kinetic sculpture in
the foyer was the only sign of life in the strangely empty bus station, a series
of balls careening around a contraption in a plexiglass cube. A
conveyor belt grabbed ball after ball from a reservoir at the
sculpture’s bottom and lifted them slowly to the top, only to drop them
back again into the machine’s bowels.
course each ball followed was meticulously preordained by the laws of
physics, but designed to look as wild and haphazard as possible.
Sometimes a ball took the fast and easy way down; other times it would
get whirled and bumped and redirected, at times appearing to fly out of
the contraption entirely before the trickery became apparent and the
ball resumed its inevitable downward progress.
David would come to work early to watch this twin work of science and
art, mesmerized by the controlled chaos and the reaction to it of
casual passersby. Today, however, he walked right past it and stepped out onto Eighth Avenue, his mind focused solely on the girl who he knew would be on the corner of 42nd Street, as she was every morning.
Something was wrong. It was almost nine o’clock, but there was as of yet no sign of her. David wandered over to the pretzel vendor, who unlike yesterday and the day before was not buried in his newspaper. In fact, it was as if the Greek had been expecting him.
“You missed her! She was here early this morning. Very strange. I think she was looking for you, but she couldn’t wait. Den akous ta nea?”
“What?” David asked, still reveling in the Greek’s revelation. She was looking for him!
“The news! Didn’t you hear?”
“They caught someone trying to blow up the Towers.”
“I pirgi, vre! The Twin Towers. Very strange, no?”
“No one knows, but it’s made everyone a little crazy today, katalaves? Maybe that’s why she had to go.”
“The girl?” David was now trying to process this other piece of news.
“Nai, nai! The girl. Who do you think I’m talking about? She gave me a message for you, in case you came.”
The Greek proferred a pink piece of stationary. David grabbed it, numb. Someone tried to blow up the World Trade Center?
David was full of questions, but the Greek was busy breaking down his pushcart,. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going home! The Company told us to take the rest of the day off. Didn’t you notice there’s no one on the streets?”
To be honest, David hadn’t. Eighth Avenue was still a sea of cars, but he suddenly remembered that the perpetual gridlock of Manhattan was composed of unmanned vehicles, acres upon acres of clockwork traffic that gave the appearance of hustle and bustle. Other than the empty automatons, which honked and jockeyed for imaginary position, he and the Greek were alone outside the Port Authority Terminal. David had been so focused on the girl that he hadn’t noticed the whole island empty out around him. Even the ubiquitous tour buses had disappeared.
“I only stayed as a favor to the girl. I wait to give you the message, and now I’m going. You should go, too, en taxi? All right?”
David returned to the terminal in search of his ride back to Jersey. A string of empty buses idled in place, waiting to take straggling employees home. He kept walking until he found one embossed with his destination—“NEWARK”—and got on. The driver greeted him, switched on the interior lights, and waited for him to take a seat before backing the vehicle out of its designated parking spot and on its way back across the Hudson River.
David looked down at the note. He unfolded the scented pink paper, inhaling its perfume. The note was written in long, loopy letters that he’d long since forgotten to write himself: just a time—tonight, at midnight—and a place—an address on Astoria Boulevard, in Queens. David sat back as the bus plunged into a tunnel, emerging across the river amid the suburban morass of New Jersey.
Although the clouds had begun to roll in and threaten rain, he could see shafts of sunlight falling into the Meadowlands, and decided to take a short detour along the boardwalk on the tidal marsh’s edge before heading home. Getting out of work early today was a real treat, and he thought he’d linger amidst the reeds and the waterfowl and think about the morning’s events without the distractions of his apartment.
It was hard to believe that the Meadowlands—the last bit of open space for hundreds of miles up and down the coast—was once a toxic wasteland. For centuries, New Yorkers had used the marshes as their dump. Even at the turn of the last millennium, the area was dominated by landfills, industrial rot, and the occasional nameless victim of organized crime. It was such a mess that no one wanted to invest the money it would take to clean it all up, so the swamps lay fallow as towers were piled upon towers all around it.
When every other available adjacent square inch had been used up, contractors at last set themselves to task of reclaiming the long-forgotten region, but encountered a surprise or two when they did. Aside from having notoriously soft ground that was lousy for pilings or other buttressing foundations, the Meadowlands had undergone a remarkable transformation.
Left to its own devices, Mother Nature had effected a cleanup far more deep and long-lasting than anyone could have managed. Migratory birds appeared once more in this oasis of salt and sun, blue crabs and other shellfish recolonized the tidal creeks, and foxes, rabbits, white-tailed deer—even a bear or two—were being spotted in the wilds. Life had returned to this place of death, and in a rare and uncharacteristic moment of sensitivity the Government recognized it as the rightful miracle it was and moved to protect it.
It was during the very same year that the island of Manhattan was designated by the Government as ah “historical theme park,” under the auspices of the Company. A former Disney executive came up with the idea of turning the whole island into a not just a shrine or a museum, but a living reminder of what America had been at the turn of the last century, on the eve of its darkest day. America had experimented with historical parks before, from the Pioneer Village of Salem, Massachusetts to the extremely successful Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. But what the Company was proposing to do in Manhattan went leaps and bounds beyond its predecessors. The island would be open and transparent to tourists—both the casual spectators who observed from their buses that were wired for live audio and video feeds from the City below and the “free-rangers” who plunged into the thick of things and explored the world of September 10th, 2001 by foot.
Such a simulation required hundreds of thousands of actors. The Company’s payroll ballooned as unemployed aspiring thespians filled out the bit parts of the city that never slept. David, however, had come to his role in a rather odd way. Having passed the Government exams for the civil service, which he had taken at his parents’ behest, he ended up working for the agency responsible for the Company’s finances. Millions of people applied to Central Casting in hopes of being offered so much as a bit part, but David soon learned that the easiest way into the Company was internally. David worked as a bureaucrat for a year and a day before he had ingratiated himself with his superiors enough to ask for a transfer, and just like that, he was in.
The boardwalk snaked towards a large rock outcrop in the middle of the swamp. It was the largest piece of solid ground for acres, and had a commanding view of the tidal marshes in every direction. David stepped off the boardwalk at the rock, where a set of stairs and iron handrails had been hammered into the cliff-face for an easy ascent. He huffed and puffed his way up.
The Meadowlands surrounded him in every direction now. David stared at the Empire State Building to the east, then let his gaze drift down towards the gleaming towers of the World Trade Center, which the Company had rebuilt girder for girder, following the original blueprints. He thought about lighting up a cigarette, but considering the fact that he was already out of breath from the climb, decided against it.
David liked working for the Company. His role offered him the chance to live like a real Wall Street wheeler and dealer, and for five years he buried himself in the part, coming in early and staying late. He loved pacing around and bellowing like a madman as the indices went down and then back up again throughout the day, knowing that the crowds of tourists watching every moment. He liked going to the fake Brooks Brothers store on his lunch break and getting himself a sharp new suit, or Bruno Magli for a pair of shoes, or Hermes for a nice silk tie. He liked his three-martini lunches at the Tavern on the Green, dinner with the boss at TriBeCa, and making an evening of it with his fellow traders Thursday nights, hitting the piano bars, drinking scotch, and smoking cigars, which were reluctantly permitted by the Company. So what the hell was his problem now?
He thought about the girl, and his still-thumping heart ached. Ever since he caught his first glimpse of the girl on the corner he’d been flirting with his livelihood, and that just wasn’t like him at all. In fact, David was lucky that those crazies had tried to bomb the Towers, or else Central Casting almost certainly would have fired him today, as they had the original Mr. Van den Heuvel the day before.
David looked back at the Towers, which were crisp and bright in the midmorning light. How bizarre was it that someone would try to blow them up. And why? He doubted he’d ever hear the truth of the matter, since the Company liked to keep business of park operations as secret as possible, so as not to spoil the ambience of the simulation. Still, he couldn’t imagine that people wouldn’t be talking about it on the job tomorrow, even if it did mean breaking character.
Aware of the fact that the park’s sudden closure would have made the news, even if the reason why had not, David switched on his phone and almost immediately it began to buzz. He sighed and answered the call, letting his mother excoriate him as he clambered back down to the boardwalk. Most of the time he’d bristle at his parents telling him what and what not to do, especially where his job at the Company was concerned—a job they expressly forbade him to take, but now one they expressly forbade him to lose with equal vehemence. But not today. Already his mind was preoccupied with the evening ahead. 11 o’clock. He nodded and grunted at his as his mother continued her tirade, all the while wondering only one thing—what was he going to wear tonight?
David reached Astoria Boulevard at a quarter before midnight, out of breath as he ran down the stairs built into the rusty dusky red girders that supported the ancient subway tracks and bounded the last few stairs onto the cracked and pitted concrete pavement. He passed shop after shop that was still open for business and bustling with customers, despite the hour. Although the street itself was nowadays closed to motorized traffic, it thundered with the footfalls of a million souls, some going to the island, their costumes perfectly in place; others returning from another gruelling shift of make-pretend, ties unknotted, blouses wrinkled, hair akimbo.
David weaved his way through the jumbled pedestrian mass, following the ancient thoroughfare until it reached a three-way intersection. Standing in the middle of the chaos was a building of chrome and neon that looked like a turn of the century diner. David looked down at his address one last time and saw it matched that of the vintage eatery.
He stepped closer to the shining box of polished metal and tinted glass, and noticed that his mystery girl was still waiting for him, sitting alone in a booth flush against the diner’s front window. David smiled and crossed the establishment’s threshold.
“Table for two?” the host asked in a familiar voice. Two? David stopped and looked over his shoulder before he remembered who the smiling man before him was. The Greek! The host nodded as David made the connection, then laughed.
“I told you to talk to her!”
“Don’t worry. Ola einai en taxi. O.K.? She’s waiting for you. Follow me.”
David did as he was told, and in a moment he was sitting opposite her on a cold vinyl cushion, with two tumblers of ice water, an ashtray, and a half-empty coffee cup between them; through the window, the crowd outside seethed. The host set a menu before him and disappeared.
David looked at the girl. She smiled. He took out a package of cigarettes he’d bought from a kiosk on Astoria Boulevard and offered her one.
She wrinkled her nose. “No, thanks. I don’t smoke when I’m not working.”
“It’s required for us, you know—I mean, the Undesirables. But you go ahead. I don’t mind.”
David lit one for himself. He’d rehearsed this conversation ten thousand times in his head, yet already it had gotten away from him. He took a nervous drag from his cigarette.
“You know, they didn’t even want us on the island at first.”
“The dealers, the pimps, the junkies, the prostitutes. But it didn’t work. People saw right through it when they came, felt it was all wrong.
“The Company only grudgingly added the underbelly to its fake Manhattan, but it required that all the Undesirables smoke, so the tourists would know what we were right away.”
David tried to think of something meaningful to say, but couldn’t. He fiddled with his water glass uncomfortably.
“I’m sorry!” she blurted out. “Here I am, going right into shop talk when we’re both off duty.” She looked at her wristwatch. “Well, at least one of us is. I should be heading to work right about now— hookers with hearts of gold don’t exactly work nine to five now, do they?”
David found his voice amidst the sudden panic. “Wait.”
The girl sized him up with a mischievous glance in her eyes. She was just as beautiful as she appeared from afar, but under the fluorescent lights of the diner she took on an even more desirable aura. Perhaps it was simply that he was seeing her at the beginning of her work day, and not the end, as he had before.
Leather, fishnets, hairspray—somehow she had turned these three improbable ingredients into a masterpiece. Today she wore a yellow blouse, but every element was as it was the day before, and the day before that. Her auburn hair had a little more hold, her stockings showed no runs, her shoes betrayed no telltale scuffs. Her dark red lipstick was still perfect despite half a cup of coffee, and the rest of her make-up was unaffected by the humidity “I like your shirt,” she said.
David had chosen an expensive red silk shirt for the occasion, along with a pair of black gabardine wool slacks and some nice Italian leather shoes. Her compliment eased him somewhat, but he was still distressed at the prospect of their rendezvous ending so soon.
She sensed his tension. “Relax, David. I’m not going anywhere.”
David looked at her in shock. “How do you know my name?”
“I made it my business to find out,” she said. “Mine’s Amber.”
“That’s a lovely name.”
“So what’s it like?”
“Being an Undesirable—playing one, I mean. Do you like it?”
Amber swirled her cold coffee in its cup and looked out the window. “It’s a job,” she said.
David pressed the question. “But do you enjoy it?”
“Do you like yours?” Her eyes had returned to his face, searching.
David glanced down at his untouched water glass, which was beaded with moisture that soaked the paper underneath. He sighed.
“I used to.”
Amber leaned forward in the booth, magnifying her presence. “Why?”
“It’s just the same thing, day in, day out. You know? Maybe I’ll buy a new shirt every other week or go to lunch somewhere nice, but aside from that it’s...”
“Yes?” Her blue eyes sparkled.
“It’s always the same.” David blushed and stubbed out his cigarette. “I can’t imagine it’s like that for you, though. The same thing every day.”
Amber smiled. “You’d be surprised. It’s funny. Tourists come and think they’re seeing a giant improvisational act. But that’s not how it works. Every last part is scripted and scheduled, whether you’re trading bonds on Wall Street or looking for a john on Eighth Avenue.”
David eyed the girl with growing suspicion. “You know what I do, too?”
“I told you...”
“You do your homework,” he interrupted her. “Yes, yes. I’m getting that. What’s really going on here, Amber? Are you from Central Casting? Is this some kind of test?”
“Lower your voice, David.”
“We’re not exactly alone here.”
David glanced around at the adjacent booths and the formica counter to his right and her left. All were full of patrons getting a midnight breakfast, but no one seemed to be paying much attention to them.
He lowered his voice anyway. “I don’t understand. We’re not on duty. Why the hush-hush?”
“We’ve been watching you for just about five years now, David Nollett,” Amber said. “Under all those other eyes, you have to wait for just the right moment.”
“You’re not from the Company.”
“Then who? Are you a talent scout?” David’s heart leapt at the thought of being hired away by another park – perhaps New Orleans, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Amber smiled again. “In a matter of speaking. Have you ever heard of Greenwich Village?”
The name meant nothing to David. Amber didn’t look surprised. “It’s okay, no one has. Imagine that, Old Manhattan’s last stand, erased from history itself!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Not all of the island’s inhabitants were happy with the Company’s plans to remake the city into a historical theme park. Greenwich Village was one of those neighborhoods that resisted the bulldozers.”
“I don’t understand.”
Amber leaned even closer. “Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to all those old New Yorkers, the ones that didn’t want to leave?”
David frowned. “I guess not. I always assumed they were bought out by the Company. That or they got jobs.”
“Not all of us, David.”
“All of you?”
“Some of us took the Company’s measly compensation checks. Others held out for employment in the new park, lousy jobs for lousy pay, nothing but bit parts and Undesirable roles. But others fought.”
David felt a shiver run down his spine as she recounted these events—it was as if she’d been there herself, all those years ago.
“Some fought out in the open. Picketing, marching, lining up in front of the construction vehicles as they attempted to demolish Old Manhattan. But others saw the writing on the wall. The Company was too strong, too well-funded, too well-connected. They didn’t give up the fight, however, but merely took it underground.”
David stood up with a start. “You’re the ones who—“
“Shhh!” Amber sprang up from the booth as well and clapped a hand to his mouth. She tried to pull him back down to his seat, but it was no use.
The ones who tried to blow up the Towers!
“You... You...” David tried to get his words out, but Amber’s fingers turned them into angry confused mumbles.
“Please,” she whispered. “It’s not what you think. Hear me out, and I promise I’ll let you go and do whatever you want about this afterwards. Okay?”
Despite himself, David ceased struggling and sat back down.
A little of the familiar sparkle had returned to her eyes. “First of all, we had nothing to do with the bombing. There are a lot of groups who have an axe to grind against the Company—some are violent; others, like us, are not.”
Amber grimaced. “We call ourselves the Village Idiots. I know, not my first choice of names, but it’s the work that matters.”
“We bring disorder to the system. Our members infiltrate the park as actors or service personnel and sow a little confusion here and there while keeping a step ahead of the Company.”
David was astonished. He’d never heard of any malcontents on the island, either in his year working for the agency or the five he’d spent acting on Wall Street.
“The Company has zero tolerance for deviants. You saw how quickly they were on your case, after only one tardy?”
“And your boss. They cashiered him with no questions asked. That’s how they maintain order. But it’s a fictitious order, David- Manhattan was never this way, not the real city!”
“But why lie?”
“The rosier the past, the greater the outrage—if Paradise wasn’t perfect, why care if you’re kicked out?”
“So what, you’re saying the Government —“
“I’m not going to get political.” Amber cut him off. “This isn’t even about that.”
“What is it about, then?”
“It’s about the truth.”
“The truth? That the Company fudged a few details along the way? This city was dead!”
Amber narrowed her eyes. “But what is now? Stuck in the same day, day after day. It’s worse than before—it’s a living death. And you know it, David, you’ve felt it in your bones, or else you wouldn’t be here right now talking to me. We’re all trapped.”
“And how does blowing up the World Trade Center fix that? Isn’t that how we ended up here in the first place?”
“I told you,” Amber hissed. “That wasn’t us. No, we have a different idea. A beautiful idea.”
“Well, what is it? Isn’t that why you brought me here?”
She shook her head. “No, not tonight. I have to report for my shift. And you have to decide what’s important. If you don’t want any part of this, consider us gone and out of your life forever. We’ll just disappear the way we appeared.”
“The way you?”
Oh. They must have engineered the bus’ curious malfunction that morning. Was the mechanic one of them, too?
“You’ve thought of everything, then. So why me?” This was the one piece of the puzzle that still had David perplexed. If they could manipulate things already, what good was he to them?
Amber smiled. “Come back here tomorrow night and you’ll learn everything. It’s all or nothing, David — your decision.
“Now I really have to go. It was nice meeting you, finally. I mean that.”
Amber got up, straightened her leather miniskirt, then leaned in and gave David a peck on the cheek with her perfectly glossed lips before slipping out of the booth, out of the diner, and out of sight, just another pair of heels walking down Astoria Boulevard.
David remained at the table after she left. He stared at the perspiration on his water glass, the lipstick on the rim of the coffee cup. He looked around the diner, wondering how many of its patrons were part of this shadow city he’d never known existed.
He put a hand to his cheek where she’d kissed him and cursed. David got up to leave.
“See you tomorrow!” The Greek didn’t specify whether he meant tomorrow morning on the corner or tomorrow night here in Astoria, although they both knew it would be both.
The next day was excruciating. David went to work on time, nodding to the Greek and only casually glancing up and down Eighth Avenue to see if she was there, knowing full well she wouldn’t be. The new Prescott van den Heuvel was pleased to see him return to his previous punctuality, never mind that the actor who played his boss had only been there once before, so how could he possibly remember if David was chronically early, late, or anything in between?
David tried to throw himself into the role, but feared that he was overdoing it. He’d punched up a few history books after getting back from the diner since he was unable to sleep anyway, and learned that everything that Amber told him was in fact true. There was even an interview with the Disney executive responsible for the park’s inception that admitted as much. “People remember what they want to, and that’s what we’re here for. If you’re looking for facts and figures, open a history book. This is not a historical park, it’s a historical theme park.
“Where are all the slaves in Colonial Williamsburg? Do we feel cheated because we don’t get to see the brandings and whippings that history tells us happened? No.
“The accuracy of certain details is far less important than the theme itself. Colonial Williamsburg reinvented itself as quaintness personified, whereas we in New York are striving for innocence.”
Innocence. David had done a lot of reading last night about the history of a country he thought he knew. He read about the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and countless other less-than-innocent episodes that had never come up in the course of his education, even at the University. What was so astounding, however, wasn’t that such awful things were perpetrated, but that the information about them was still readily available to anyone who wanted to know.
Who wanted to know? That was the question, and at last David understood what Amber was trying to explain to him the night before. The island’s carefully cultivated amnesia had slowly become the whole nation’s. The past was September 10th, as re-told by the Company, with the Government’s blessing and financing. Why go back any further? And why look ahead? The history forward was war, death, destruction, misery; so, too, was the history behind. Living in the today and thinking only of the tomorrow was hardly a new idea in the world—especially for America—but only a former Disney executive could turn it into a theme park.
So David stumbled through his day on Wall Street, his brain buzzing with too much knowledge and a lack of sleep. He stared at the electronic tickers on the wall and laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny, Sanders?” His new and improved boss barked at him, casting a nervous glance at the mirrored observation gallery and the carefully hidden cameras.
“That stock tanked today, in real life.”
Astoria Boulevard was as dazzling and full as it was the day before, a roaring, thundering river of humanity. The Greek was there to seat him when he arrived, a knowing smile on his face. And she was there, in the same booth, the same leather skirt and jacket, the same styled hair, stockings, and jewelry.
She seemed happy to see him.
“Five years ago, you transferred from the agency to the Company payroll,” she explained as the Greek poured them each a cup of coffee. “Your access privileges to the agency mainframe should have been deleted. They weren’t. At first we thought the agency had recruited you as a spy, so my superiors assigned me to keep an eye on you, from a distance.”
“You’ve been watching me for five years?”
“We had to be sure. Sometimes it takes a long time for a sleeper agent to activate. We’ve gotten burned before.”
David shook his head in disbelief. “Five years—and I only noticed you four days ago!”
Amber gave a sly smile. “Let’s just say I’m good at what I do. And technically speaking, you didn’t even notice me the day you were late. I simply chose to become visible, at long last.”
“So what made you decide I was trustworthy?”
“No one goes there anymore, David. Even if they do, they’re just passing through.” Her eyes widened. “But I’ve seen you linger there for hours. That’s how I knew.
“My superiors were skeptical, but in the end the call was mine. I knew you, down to every last quirk of your waking hours. Did you know that you have a slight bounce in your step when you walk? It’s only noticeable when you’re in a crowd, though. I know every last thing that makes you stand out, that makes you... you.”
David was silent for a long time. He was trying to remember her, a glance here or a shadow there, from the five years that he’d been working for the Company. Although he couldn’t recall anything definite, the indefinites, the maybes, the near misses were stitching themselves together in his head.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll help us. That I didn’t make the wrong call.”
Amber smiled; David smiled back.
September 10th, 2001—David was in love. He knew her name now, what she did for a living, and whether he’d ever even see her again on the streets of Manhattan. If all went well, he wouldn’t. He didn’t understand the technical details of the plan, but it involved a very sophisticated computer program, which using his access codes he had uploaded to Central Casting earlier that morning, via the agency’s mainframe.
The program had been ingeniously tailored to make miniscule changes in the schedules and scripts of all the actors on the Company’s payroll—a different word or two here, a minute earlier or later there. Taken individually, the changes meant nothing. Over a cast of millions, however, the bits and pieces would slowly but inexorably building to one thing, and one thing alone:
Total system failure.
It would take years to repair the damage—the Village Idiot programmer saw to that. The Company depended on millions of machines to maintain its carefully-crafted illusion. Replacing just one defective system could take a fortnight; replacing them all would put this false city out of business indefinitely, perhaps even forever.
What happened after that was anyone’s guess, but one thing was certain. For the first time in years, Manhattan would live again, or at the very least be allowed to die.
Amber stood on the corner of Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue, as she always did at this time of the day. Only today she did not smoke, and had traded her high heels for a pair of comfortable walking shoes. She spotted David at the entrance to the Port Authority Terminal, chatting with Stavros, her adoptive uncle.
He handed David a pretzel—slightly overcooked and caked with salt, as always. “So. Ola einai en taxi? Everything O.K.?”
“Well, then.” The Greek laughed at the anticlimactic nature of this important moment. Then Stavros’ face became earnest. “You did a good thing, you know.”
“We’ll take care of everything. Papers, money, anything you need to get out of town and lay low. Out of the country, if you want. Given the circumstances, that might be best, katalaves?”
“I appreciate that. But there’s something else I need to ask of you,” David started.
“My blessing?” Stavros beat him to it. “You don’t need that! But I give it to you anyway, thank you very much for asking. Just treat her decent. En taxi?”
The Greek smiled. “You learn quick! Maybe next time we meet I teach you some of the bad words, eh?”
Now it was David’s turn to be serious. “You’re sure you want to stay?”
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment for years! Of course I’m staying. Don’t you worry about me, I’ve been playing this game since before you were born. Now look sharp, here comes your girl...”
Amber smiled at the two of them. “Are we just about finished here? The man bought a pretzel, not your life story!”
Stavros nodded and returned to his newspaper, a tender look in his eyes.
“And as for you,” she turned her attention to David, hooking her right arm around his left. “My rates are pricey, but I can assure you I’m well worth it. So whaddaya say—my place or yours?”
“Either is fine. You’re the professional!” David replied, playing his assigned part for the very last time. “But if you’re interested, I know the most romantic little spot for just this sort of thing. It’s just outside the city.”
“Do tell,” Amber said, as they wandered down into the bus terminal and into the future. Tomorrow would finally be another day.