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The City When It Rains

Thomas H. Cook

  The City When It Rains

  The City When It Rains

  Thomas H. Cook


  Open Road Integrated Media ebook

  For Justine, of course.



  CORMAN’S EYES DRIFTED slowly over the enormous vault of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Even at night, the stained glass windows shone brightly with small glittering wings of electric blue, red and green. Up ahead, an old man was trying to pray, but a single fly kept distracting him, swooping at his ear. He swatted at it from time to time without lifting his head. It was an odd scene, and for an instant, Corman felt the impulse to reach for his camera and record it, then realized it would be the kind of photograph that only pretended to deal with the greater ironies by focusing on the little ones. A fake, he thought, and yet?

  “Why’d we come here?” Lucy asked.

  Corman drew his eyes from the old man and settled them on her. “The people who built Saint Patrick’s weren’t allowed to drink,” he told her. “Did you know that? The Archbishop made that rule.”

  Lucy looked suspicious. “How do you know?”

  “Mr. Lazar told me,” Corman said. The two of them had been walking silently through the deepening snow, and as they neared the cathedral, Lazar had stopped suddenly, nodded toward its gray facade, then gone into a detailed discussion of how the blue granite had been shipped from Maine, the marble from New York and Massachusetts. From the building itself, he’d moved to the travail of the men who’d built it, how they’d dug the immense foundation out of solid bedrock. As Lazar spoke, Corman had been able to see them working through twenty years of summer heat and winter cold, growing old in their long thirst, while a succession of robed Archbishops and red-capped Cardinals had patrolled the site, glancing suspiciously at their lunch pails. He remembered a picture he’d come across which showed a crowd of workmen as they sat on one of the high steel girders of the skeletal cathedral, one of them with his hand lifted high in the air, boldly toasting heaven with a small square flask. It had been one of the photographs he’d planned to use in his picture history of the old city, a book without words, not even a title, a book that would let the eyes do everything.

  Lucy looked at him wonderingly. “You okay, Papa?”

  Corman nodded, half-regretting all the hours he’d spent thumbing through the Herald, Leslie’s Illustrated, the old Police Gazette and scores of other lost recorders, while Lazar had smiled at him indulgently from the corner of the North Hall Reading Room.

  He pulled his camera bag onto his shoulder, stood up, glanced at Lucy. “I’m ready to go,” he said.

  He took her hand, drew her from the pew, then down the aisle past racks of weaving candles, the church gift shop and poor box, finally through its enormous carved doors.

  “Where are we going now?” Lucy asked once they were outside.

  “Home, I guess,” Corman said.

  They threaded briskly through the still heavy Fifth Avenue traffic, then ambled more slowly down 50th Street until they reached Broadway. The crowds had grown thicker by then, congealing around them as they would have done in the old city too, in great swirling throngs that swept across the unpaved avenues, encircled the music halls, gathered in dense laughing clusters beneath the gaslights of the sporting clubs. It was their vast anonymity which moved Corman each time he looked at pictures of them, the way time made their once different faces seem featureless as bits of plankton.

  He took Lucy’s hand, closing his fingers tightly around it, as if to seal her frail identity within its sack of skin.

  “You don’t have to hold on,” she said as she pulled at his hand. “Let go.”

  Reflexively, he released her, and the two of them headed south until they reached 45th Street. The great neon crater of Times Square shone before them. A huge Minolta sign flickered brightly from the top of one of the buildings, and Corman thought of his own cameras. Not the ones he used in his work, but the dusty, unsalvageable relics he kept stacked up in his closet, boxy old museum pieces that reminded him of the shutterbugs who’d gone before him, recorded the world, then departed, leaving only their cameras behind, the still surviving eyes of the beholder.

  “Can I get gum?” Lucy asked.

  “I guess,” Corman said.

  The theaters had let out, and crowds of well-dressed people were heading toward the restaurants and drinking holes of the theater district. Limousines stretched east and west from Broadway to Eighth Avenue, shining elegantly in the blinking lights of the theater marquees. The people who got out of them looked happy, energetic, untroubled, as if nothing remained for them but to live on stylishly, strive to perfect the tango.

  Lucy grasped the arm of his jacket, tugged him forward. “Let’s go faster,” she said excitedly, taking on the pace of the street, moving through it effortlessly, as if her body had been streamlined to its flow.

  Corman adjusted his pace immediately to keep up with her. The crowds parted to let them pass. He smelled powders and perfumes he could recall from the days when he’d still lived with Lexie.

  Lucy glanced up at him, smiled brightly. “We can get it there,” she said, pointing up ahead.

  At the shop, Corman lingered on the sidewalk while Lucy went inside and roamed the counters looking for just the right gum. Not far away, workers were cleaning out one of the last of the area’s slum hotels. Large metal containers had been placed at the curb and workmen were filling them with old mattresses. A wave of yellowish light washed over them from inside the hotel. They seemed to push through it heavily, as if it were made of millions of small fibers.

  Corman took out his camera and began to ease slowly toward them in the way Lazar had taught him, bearing down upon a picture like a matador, getting close, holding steady.

  Through the lens he could see the workmen as they dragged the mattresses by their edges, then hoisted them into the bins. In his hand, the camera felt warm, pliant, alive, as if it were a keen-sighted animal he’d trained to be his eyes. He calculated the light, adjusted for it, began shooting.

  For a time, he concentrated on the workmen, their enormous black work gloves, sweaty shirts, trousers white with plaster dust. Then, moving steadily closer, he began to focus on the mattresses instead. He could see how stained they were with food, drink, the body’s various fluids, and it struck him that each mattress presented a scaled-down portrait of its owner’s individual biological history, the times he’d made love, bled, thrown up, sweated something out. It absorbed the physical elements of his destiny better than any photograph ever could, and as he continued to inch forward, shooting one picture after another, Corman could feel the camera’s old inadequacy once again, its distance from the source, the way it seemed to keep him just one small step away.

  “We can go now,” Lucy said as she rushed up to him. “Before it starts to rain.”

  Corman remained in place for a moment, then tilted forward slightly, focused on a single reddish stain. It was impossible to know what had caused it, blood, nail polish, raspberry jam, any of a thousand separate things. And yet something about the stain drew him toward it, the way it spread out across the fabric, flowery, petaled, and to Corman’s eye at least, curiously beautiful in the odd way that only things in themselves could sometimes be.

  They stepped under the large awning of the Broadway just as the first wave of heavy rain broke over the city.

  “We barely made it,” Lucy said.

  Corman nodded, glanced at the building’s creaky revolving door, and imagined the thousands of men and women who’d glided through it, leaving trails of cologne and aftershave that still floated somewhere in the stratosphere.

  The owner of the building was converting
it to cooperative apartments, and he’d placed a stack of brochures for prospective buyers on the small table in the lobby. Corman picked one up as he headed toward the elevator, and read it idly while he waited.

  The writer had done a good job, and as he read, Corman saw elegant people going in and out of the building, heard cabs honking impatiently outside, felt the syncopated rhythm of this part of the old city, its once jazzy life. And yet, in the end, the writing had come out faintly sad and sentimental, nostalgic in a way that turned nostalgia itself into a form of letting go, of hoisting the white flag.

  He dropped the brochure into the small metal garbage can between the elevator doors and looked at Lucy. “What’d you do to day?”

  “Nothing,” Lucy said, rolling her eyes slightly.

  “What’s the matter?”

  “You always ask that.”

  “It’s something I want to know.”

  “But it’s always the same,” Lucy told him. She shifted about impatiently, popped her gum. “We read about Columbus, that’s all.”

  “The man who discovered America.”

  Lucy looked at him scoldingly. “Not really. The Indians were already around.”

  “Yes, they were,” Corman said. “Even in Manhattan.”

  The elevator arrived. They rode up slowly, then walked down the long, somewhat smelly corridor toward their apartment.

  “Mr. Ingersoll’s cooking sausage again,” Corman said. He twitched his nose. “Jesus.”

  A small white envelope had been taped to the door of the apartment. Corman quickly snapped it off, sank it into his coat pocket.

  “What’s that?” Lucy asked.

  “Just a note,” Corman said. “From the landlord.”

  Lucy looked at him worriedly. “Are we behind again?”

  “Just a little,” Corman told her as he opened the door.

  Once inside, Lucy went directly to her room while Corman sat down at the small dining table and read the note with the little edge of panic that always pressed against his flesh when money was tight. He waited a few minutes for it to subside, then began assembling the rolls of film he’d taken during the day: a fire in the Village, but nothing spectacular, an auto accident on the Upper West Side, a broken water main in the Garment District. He’d taken seven rolls of film but there was nothing worth developing.

  He unstrapped the police radio from his belt, set it down on the table and turned it on. For a few seconds it was quiet. Then a patrolman mentioned a woman who’d jumped out a window on West 47th Street almost an hour before. He ended with something about a baby or a doll or something. Static covered the last of it.

  He sat back and waited for something else to break, but the radio remained silent except for the usual traffic mishaps, petty thefts, domestic squabbles, nothing Pike or any of the other photographic editors would be interested in, no heroic measures or last minute rescues.

  He stood up and paced the room restlessly. He could feel his own edginess building slowly, insistently, like a pressure beneath his skin. He knew part of it was money, the rest just his nature. Finally it overtook him and drove him to Lucy’s room. He tapped lightly at the door.

  “Come in.”

  Corman opened the door, peeked inside. “I have to go out for a shoot,” he told her.

  Lucy looked up excitedly. “Can I come?”


  Her face fell slightly. “I never get to go on the night shoots.”

  “You have school.”

  “But I want to see things, too.”

  Corman shook his head. “No.”



  THE RAIN WAS falling heavily by the time Corman got to 47th Street. The photographer from the Crime Scene Unit was perched on a small portable ladder, his body bent forward, the camera pointed toward the woman. His name was Shepherd. Corman had seen him many times before, knew the old brown hat, pea-green raincoat, thick white socks, all now completely soaked in rain.

  “Just finishing up,” Shepherd said dully as Corman stepped up to him. He aimed the camera steadily, seemed to freeze.

  Watching him, Corman admired the care he took, the way he never let things distract him. He supposed the photographers of the old city had worked the same way, as if they’d had no lives outside, nothing to break their concentration, but only the darkness beneath the short black hood, the single tunnel of silver light. And yet, he thought, there was a dark flip side to such intense concentration, since focus shut out everything it didn’t center on.

  A bright flash swept the street as Shepherd shot the picture. Corman flinched, turned to the left and made his way toward the two men who slouched idly under a green cloth awning a few yards away.

  The awning was badly tattered. Its torn flaps snapped softly in the breeze. It would make a marketable picture, had what Pike called “symbol potential.” In this case, urban decay. As Corman moved toward it, he could see that it only fitfully protected the two men from the hard, pelting rain.

  “Lousy weather,” Santana said as Corman joined him under the awning.

  Santana was a shooter for a lower Manhattan weekly who sometimes turned up at fire and crime scenes when things were slow in Soho or Tribeca. He was always friendly, almost jaunty, insensibly happy in the way birds seemed happy, along with other lower forms.

  “It always rains on a street shoot,” Santana added. His skin was smooth and brown. He looked around thirty, but Corman had noticed that he liked to act the old pro, even when talking to men who’d been on hundreds of street shoots when the air had been bright, hot, dry, no rain in sight.

  “Christ, look at that,” Santana said. He pointed to a cascading sheet of water that plunged from the top of a tenement to the street below. “Like fucking Niagara.”

  “Yeah,” the other man said. His name was Fogarty, a shooter for a Brooklyn biweekly.

  “You’re late on this one, Corman,” Santana said after a moment. “The whole world’s come and gone. What’s the matter, you don’t keep glued to the police frequency anymore?”

  Corman’s fingers reflexively moved to the radio handset which hung in a black holster from his belt. “I was taking a walk with my daughter.”

  Santana waved his hand. “Well the ME’s already been here. And Shepherd’s the only guy left from CSU.” He shook his head. “He’s taken a full roll already. God knows why.”

  “He’s got a morbid streak, that’s why,” Fogarty said with a grim smile.

  Santana looked at him doubtfully, the little black moustache twitching to the right.

  “No lie,” Fogarty said firmly. “He hangs around like a fucking fly, sniffing, sniffing, rubbing his skinny little fingers together.” He did his standard imitation of a fly frantically raking its front legs. “Like that, you know?”

  A single car swept by, throwing arcs of water from behind. Fogarty’s eyes followed it, squinting slightly to see who was behind the wheel.

  “Shepherd’s a pro,” Santana said. “The way I hear it, first he shoots the hole, then the splinters on the floor.”

  Fogarty faked a shiver.

  Santana laughed. “You got a moral streak, Fogarty, a belief in humanity. I admire it.”


  Corman’s eyes shifted back to Shepherd. He’d stepped off the ladder and was now breaking it down, getting ready to tuck it under his arm, return it to the CSU wagon. As he bent forward, small bursts of water leaped from the back of his coat, as if to strike at him was the whole secret purpose of the rain.

  “A couple shooters rushed over right after the jump,” Santana told Corman. “One from the News. One from the Post. Some video cams, too. But nobody looked that excited.”

  Corman looked at the woman, then the mound of blue blanket her naked arm seemed to be reaching for. “What happened?” he asked.

  Fogarty’s head drooped forward as he scratched his face. A line of moisture spread out from the brim of his hat. “Same old shit,” he said to Corman. “You been foll
owing the cop house long enough to know that.”

  Corman’s eyes returned to Shepherd. He was loading everything into the back of the CSU wagon. Two men lounged in its front seat, both of them smoking cigarettes. They had cracked the window slightly on the driver’s side and a steady cloud of white smoke curled out of it.

  “You got the field now,” Santana said to Corman, “but you’d better make it fast. The EMS boys’ll scoop it up pretty soon.”

  Corman looked at Fogarty.“Did you get an ID?”

  Fogarty shook his head. “It’s not my beat, Hell’s Kitchen.”

  Santana laughed. “He just came over because the wife’s riding the pink pony, right, Artie?”

  Fogarty glanced at Santana, winked. The two men laughed together, old comrades in the wars of love.

  “Listen, Corman,” Santana said after the laughter had trailed off. “I hear Lazar died.”

  “Not exactly.”

  “Went to Florida, something like that?”

  “He had a stroke,” Corman told him. “He’s in a home up on 106th Street.”

  “You two were real close, right?”


  “Your rabbi. Taught you everything.”

  Corman nodded quickly. “I’m going to take a few shots,” he said as he stepped out from under the awning, into the rain again.

  The woman’s body was sprawled across the smooth wet street. She wore a long white dress, but as the rotating lights of the EMS ambulance rhythmically pulsed over it, they turned it faintly orange. She lay face down, her body bent slightly at the waist. One of her arms pressed against her side. The other stretched out over her head, nearly perpendicular to her tangled hair, the fingers thrust out rigidly, so that they nearly touched a torn strand of the blue blanket. Her head was lifted, as if balanced on the tip of the chin, her face raised, despite the fact that her nose was crushed nearly flat. A trickle of blood ran from her ear, then moved in a gently curving line along her throat. In a standard black-and-white, it would look like a piece of soft black cord.