It was early on one of those powder-blue late September mornings when middle-aged commuters stand on platforms, watching airplanes pass before the sun and hoping the apex of some great arc in their lives hasn't already been reached.
On the far side of the Hudson from the train station, the Rockland County palisades glinted like they'd been freshly chopped by God's own cleaver. From the rustling trees along the shoreline came the same sound of money in the wind that the old Dutch traders must have heard when they first rounded this little bend in the river.
The water was brownish and turbulent, as if a low flame was on underneath. Out by the narrowing of the channel, a forty-five foot cabin cruiser skimmed across the surface, leaving a broad foamy cape. The ripples spread, pushing the cat-tails and the submerged bluish gray mass closer to the crooked-in elbow of land beside the Riverside station.
"Hey, what is that thing?" said Barry Schulman, standing at the railing.
He was a tall vigorous man of forty-eight, with curly brown hair, a rugged Roman profile, and the same generally rangy physique he'd had playing point guard at Rutgers. In another era, he would've been referred to without self-consciousness as a man's man, since he wore his gray Italian suit with a certain casual grace but had never considered using salon hair care products. His nose, broken years ago in a wild scramble under the backboard, was still slightly crooked, but his smile conveyed a kind of relaxed assurance that seemed to say: if you guys just give me the ball, everything will be okay.
"I dunno," said his friend, Marty Pollack, who was squat and short with hair singed on the top and frosted on the sides by the dragon breaths of stress and heredity. "Weren't they supposed to start dredging the river for PCBs? Maybe they're already churning shit up."
The shape moved with the pitch and roll of the tide, washing closer to the shore and then draining away while a half-dozen black ducks with iridescent green necks floated nearby, watching curiously.
"So how you doing?" asked Barry as more people descended from the overpass above the tracks and joined them on the platform, waiting for the 7:46.
"I'm dying, Barry, I'm dying." Marty Pollack sagged against a Club Med poster. "You see the story in the business section last week? Ad pages are down sixty percent this year."
"Is that right?"
"We've already laid off half of the staff and the head of the magazine division's talking about closing down Extreme Golf before the end of the year. And we just refinanced our mortgage so we could pay for the pool and the new kitchen."
"Jesus." Barry touched his shoulder. "Like Dylan says, 'high water everywhere.'"
"'He not busy being born is busy dying.'"
"He once wrote a song about Catfish Hunter too, so we all have peaks and valleys...listen, we're still alive, right? At least we're not buried under a couple million tons of rubble."
"I know." Marty grimaced. "But I still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with my heart pounding. It's awful. I'm turning into a Nyquil junkie, trying to get back to sleep. I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Barry turned and looked across the tracks at a parking lot full of imports with American flag decals in the windows. Was it just his imagination or were there actually fewer cars here than there were two weeks ago? It didn't seem possible. This town lost only four men. He remembered getting into the station late that night and seeing Carl Fitzsimmons's Honda Civic still sitting by itself in the lot as one by one everyone else got in their cars and drove home, leaving its solitary white frame glowing desolately under the sodium vapor lights.
"Look, you can't live your life like that," said Barry. "It'll paralyze you. You can't give the bastards the satisfaction."
"What're you talking?" Marty drew back. "Did you think I meant the towelheads? I meant the economy, ya moron. Who's gonna pay my fucking AMEX bill?"
They both laughed uneasily as the platform filled up. Men and women trudged down the concrete steps in somber shades of charcoal and navy, turning on cell phones and Palm Pilots like grim comic characters shedding their family identities and assuming their alter egos: Wall Street Man, Middle Management Woman. No one dressed down for work now that the boom was over. They arrived in year-old four-by-fours from the sprawling McMansions, expanded splits, Contemporary Colonials, and Instant Estates high up in the hills that some of them could no longer really afford.
This was one of those places where the working people traditionally lived closer to the water while the striving classes ascended into the hills. But the New Economy had torn through town as dramatically as the infamous 1899 tornado that left cows and bowler hats dangling from the oak branches on River Road. Through most of the nineties, real estate prices had skyrocketed; scrappy little linoleum-encrusted ranch houses with tiny unrenovated kitchens were selling for close to half a million. Precious little antique stores and galleries started popping up on streets decent middle-class people used to be afraid to walk down. A French restaurant that managed to get a qualified rave in the Times replaced a hardware store that always smelled like turpentine and potting soil. But then the prosperity had suddenly receded, leaving everyone stranded. So now you had converted warehouse condos and super-sized chain stores sitting vacant along the waterfront while stockbrokers' wives up in the hills brutally nickel-and-dimed their Mexican gardeners.
"You know what I'm thinking?" said Marty, turning and looking down at the water again fifteen feet below. "I'm thinking that's not driftwood or a newspaper. I'm thinking that's something else. Like maybe a dead seal."
"A dead seal?"
"I'm telling you, I've been coming to this station longer than you have. I've seen all kind of things here. I've seen a bald eagle on the trestle. I've seen marriages break up while people were waiting for the 8:09. A couple of years ago, everybody got scared because there was a guy in an orange inmate's uniform on the platform and we all thought he'd just escaped from the prison up the river. Turned out he'd just been released and couldn't wait to change his clothes before he caught the train back to the Bronx."
Barry watched the play of fragmented light on the water as other commuters joined them at the rail. The shape below was starting to take on more definition among the shadows and grains of river grit. A rounded white corner broke the surface briefly and a gull swooped down to take a closer look.
"So how you doing?" asked Marty. "I guess bio-tech's been hit pretty hard like everybody else the last few months."
"Yeah, well, I always said we weren't in it for the quick score." Barry cast a glance up the tracks, checking to see if the train was going to be late this morning. "If I wanted absolute security, I would've kept litigating."
"So where's the stock at?" Marty glanced at the Journal folded under Barry's arm.
"Tell you the truth, I don't even look anymore." Barry put on a half-smile. "You get hung up on every little dip and rise in the market, you'd have three coronaries a day."
"Well, so long as you're not living and dying on your options."
"Oh, yeah, right. Hahahhahahahhaha..."
Barry felt a candle dribbling at the bottom of his stomach.
"We're doing fine," he said. "I'm a lot more worried about other people we know."
"Excuse me." A spiral-haired lady in a brown Donna Karan business suit stopped baby-talking into her cell phone. "But what is that down there?"
"That's what we were just trying to figure out," said Marty, stepping up on the first rung of the railing to get a better look.
"Could be an old buoy," said a stocky man with a fifty-dollar haircut and a complexion like a cinder block, beside them.
"No, that's not an old buoy," said Barry, just as the lapping of the water revealed and then covered what he saw clearly as a shoulder blade. No. He looked again, trying to see a buoy.
The 7:46 sounded its horn in the distance and the gull lifted off from the endlessly undulating surface of the water.
"Hey, is that a leg?" A ruddy white-haired man in a Burberry coat came over, looking as if he'd missed a few too many trains whiling away vodka gimlet afternoons at the Oyster Bar.
"Maybe one of us should call 911," said the man with the cinder block face, whipping out his Motorola.
"Hey, what is that thing?" said another man with a lantern jaw and rimless granny glasses. "That looks like somebody's back."
Barry glanced up and saw the doughy young cop who'd been directing parking lot traffic come hurrying through the overpass above the tracks to see what the fuss was about.
"Maybe it's just a mannequin," said Marty, leaning out over the railing. "Where's the head?"
"It's not a mannequin," said Barry, becoming very still.
"How do you know?"
The dribbling in the pit of his stomach turned into a milky curdle. Twenty or thirty people stood at the railing, watching the morning change shape. The train kept hammering toward the station, beating the air ahead of it like distant tympani.
"I was an ADA in the Bronx for four years," said Barry. "I know what a dead body looks like. Look at the wrinkling on the soles of the feet. They call that Washer Woman's Skin."
The swaying of the water brought the bluish mass halfway up onto the little spit of sand just beyond the mossy rocks below. For a few seconds, the gray puffy bottom of a foot, a well-toned leg, and the back of a thigh were visible.
"Oh, my God," said the woman in the Donna Karan.
The gulls' screech-song echoed over the water as the cop ran down the platform, trying to secure the gun bouncing at his side.
"But where's the head?" Marty said again, as if he was arguing with a store manager. "It's gotta have a head."
The water lifted her one more time and finally deposited her on the shore.
Barry first noticed a blue mark on the ankle, a tattoo with wings. Then a violin curve to the buttocks, ample womanly hips. A long, marble-smooth back had retained its soft girlish indentations. The shoulders were slender and the arms were spread as if she was graciously welcoming guests into her home. Veins and viscera sprouted from the place where her head would have been.
A smell like rotting fish, overripe vegetables, and methane rose up. Every other mouth on the platform had a hand over it, as if people were having nightmares with their eyes open. For a fraction of a second, Barry thought one of the bodies from the catastrophe in the city had somehow floated thirty miles north to their small river town.
The train streamed noisily into the station, dull silver grooves and gasping brakes rushing by mindlessly. Just as it came to a halt, a small whitish stone crab crawled from the gash where the middle of a neck had been.
The woman in the Donna Karan instantly erupted with vomit: beige and pink chunks of bagel and lox geysering out over the edge of the platform and splashing on to the rocks and body below.
The train's doors popped open. Barry stood immobilized, not sure whether to get on or not. The police would need witnesses. The young cop from the parking lot had just arrived out of breath, trying to figure out how to proceed.
"All aboard!" The conductor called, his withered turtle face poking from the lowered window.
Barry looked down the platform and saw everyone else hesitating as well, not wanting to be the first to get on. Whaddaya supposed to do here? What's the protocol? No one wanted to pull a Kitty Genovese but the train was huffing. The man with the cinder block face decided to end the standoff, turning off his Motorola and swinging his briefcase as he stepped smartly through the doors. TCB, babe. The ruddy guy in the Burberry followed, not looking anyone in the eye, obviously damn uncomfortable about this. But with the barrier breached, people flooded on after them.
Marty rugged at his sleeve. "Hey, Bar, come on," he said. "We gotta get to work. It's not our problem."
His misgivings would be nagging him all day like a sliver of glass under the skin. But Marty was right; work was where they needed him this morning. Somebody else would stay. He took one more look over the railing and then reluctantly joined the boarding crowd.
© Peter Blauner