Depending on where he wakes up, Henry Tuhoe's train ride is either a life-affirming journey through a pastoral wonderland of lakes, woods, and river palisades or an oppressive death trek through the biggest cemetery ghetto in the world.
Today it's all cemeteries. Gravestones of all shapes, denominations, and price tags, a mile-long stretch of a half-million granite guillotines on either side of the tracks, pinching in.
Lately, even on those less frequent occasions when he does happen to awaken and look out upon a glorious stretch of river, the tacking sailboats and tug-drawn barges, he sees nothing. He doesn't see or feel the beauty of any of it. Instead he sees only the slack tide of the river inside him, separating anxiety from despair, and the only thing that he feels is regret. Regret for not having even the smallest urge to take some kind of meaningful action, to pursue something even remotely honest or admirable regarding . . . well, anything.
Which is to be expected when one is living a middle-manager, commuter life at the age of thirty-two, when one's wife, who of late has taken an interest in the occult, recently insisted that one get a vasectomy and then rarely lets one touch her anyway.
This morning, awakening to the gravestones, Henry sits up in his window seat and sees everything. Every plot, every marker, every mass- molded ornament in all of its excessive, maudlin detail. From the crudest unpolished stones, for which even the word slab would be an overstatement, to the condominium-sized mausoleums of those who felt obligated to say fuck you to their neighbors, even in death.
The song in his headphones is "Fleeing the Valley of Whirling Knives," by Lightning Bolt.
In these first waking moments, as the train jerks and shudders toward Grand Central and the sleeping businessman next to him leaks drool on the keyboard of his laptop, oblivious of the soft-core love scene from a Hong Kong action flick playing on his screen, Henry thinks of how his life to this point has been so precisely planned and ordered, the conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations. So much so that he decides if he were to write down how the next fifty years of his time on earth will play out, he is certain that he would get a troubling amount of it right.
Last week on the 6:18 into Manhattan the train slowed to a stop just below Tarrytown. After ten minutes the engineer announced over the PA that because of police activity on the southbound track they would be backing up and switching to the northbound. Henry sat up and looked out at a gathering of forlorn police and MTA officials contained in a ring of yellow tape, stooping over a body bag just beyond the shelf of the Tarrytown platform. Later that day he read on Twitter that it was a suicide. Not the first track-jumper he'd heard of, but seeing the body bag as dawn broke over suburbia had affected him.
On the way home that night, passing the scene, he thought, If you do it in the morning, you hate your job. If you do it in the evening, you hate whatever it is you're going home to.
Looking back out the window this morning, he can't help but feel that these graves are all his, and that he lies rotting beneath every last piece of stone, every cross, every Star of David, every pedestal- mounted archangel twisting skyward. He lies beneath the faded miniature military flags, the wreaths of white carnations, the single red roses, and the tilted vases of flowers plastic and dead. He lies beneath the rain-smeared Polaroids, crayon notes from children and grandchildren, yearbooks signed by teenagers who weren't in the car that night. Beneath the Barbie dolls and baseball gloves and dog biscuits, the footprints of grave dancers and the stains of grave pissers. Beneath the paperback copies of Wordsworth and Whitman and Danielle Steel, the half-drunk bottles of fine champagne and small- batch bourbon, twenty-five-year-old tawny port and brand-stinking-new Mad Dog 20/20.
He lies beneath all of it, staring into the wet press of earth above.
Henry Tuhoe, all of thirty-two, without the slightest inclination to rise.
Yet he does.
Not a Station
The world is sweating. Billions of gallons a day oozing, dripping, puddling, staining. Beading on foreheads, glistening on backs, trickling down anxious underarms. Sixty percent water, with traces of sodium chloride, ammonia, calcium chloride, copper, lactic acid, phosphorous, and potassium. The universal metaphor for hard work. It's sexy. It's disgusting. And if you happen to be the vice president of underarm research for the world's largest maker of antiperspirants, it's gold.
The world is sweating and it's Henry Tuhoe's job to stop it. Or at least make it smell better.
The rush-hour walk through Grand Central. Madness or beauty, entertaining or terrifying, depending on who you are, where you're going, which path you choose to spit you out onto the concrete of the city, the ambiguity of career.
Not long ago, even before his unfortunate move to the suburbs, Henry would consciously alter his route to avoid the main concourse because he was certain that it would be attacked. Smart-bombed or dirty-bombed or lit up with the rush-hour gunfire of a martyr. He used to try to arrive extra early or a little late to avoid the prime-time crush of people, because only an amateur would bring down a landmark off-hours. He used to walk up the ramp from the lower level by the Oyster Bar or take one of the side halls to the east or west. They wouldn't attack there, would they? Could the Oyster Bar ramp have been in their recon photos, their crude schematics? But now he just walks the shortest distance, not because he's suddenly become courageous or defiant or because he feels invincible or the least bit safer. He does it because he's been trying to convince himself that he no longer gives a shit.
The brush of shopping bags against his wilting quadriceps. The smell of fresh bagels and overpriced coffee from the market on the Lex side. A blur of suits. A swirl of skirts. Hints subtle and nauseatingly acute of every imaginable varietal of sweat. Once in a workshop they asked him smell it. They passed around beakers.
At the base of the mezzanine stairs a crew is trying to film stop- motion footage of the crowd for a TV commercial, but in a subconscious expression of what they think about the cinematic cliché, commuters keep bumping into, getting too close to, the camera. Bustling, time- lapsed Grand Central? Show us something we haven't seen. The director, his powers useless in the real world, throws up his hands.
Some days Henry glides through the crowds in perfect sync. Sometimes he plays a game in which he tries to avoid physical contact for the entire workday. On the train he'll sit near the window on a three- seater without fear of being bothered, because on good days people would rather stand than take the middle seat between two other humans. He will dodge bodies walking through Grand Central, and on the sidewalks leading to his office he will slip and slide, juke and glide, eluding contact like a tailback, a Formula One driver, a xenophobic, germ-phobic, paranoid freak.
However, on other days he'll find himself jammed three across on the train and slamming into everyone off of it. He'll attempt to bob and weave, to synchronize movement, to change speeds and anticipate footsteps, but nothing will work.
Today is one of those days. Gathering himself after blindsiding an angry businesswoman while sideswiping a SWAT cop with a bomb-sniffing dog, he wonders if there is any kind of correlation between the cemetery-waking days and the awkward-passage days, or how about between the level of difficulty of the walk to work and the level of difficulty of the day that follows? He decides to make a note of it, which means he'll never think of it again.
He's listening to "Subbacultcha" by the Pixies.
A trade show in the old waiting room, Vanderbilt Hall. Well-scrubbed, blond white girls in old-fashioned Dutch dresses and kerchiefs handing out tulips and four-color travel brochures. Henry thinks Grand Central is so much better now than when he first came through it with his father in the eighties. Transvestites beating off in the men's room then. Foul-smelling squatters in the waiting room. The stars overhead in the main concourse buried beneath generations of diesel soot and cigarette smoke, decades away from restoration.
It's a terminal, not a station, his father had corrected him back then. Stations connect to other places. Terminals terminate. They end.
He accepts a complimentary tulip from a blue-eyed, pink-cheeked girl and asks how the weather is in Holland this time of year, hot and muggy or cool and dry. Armpits of the world want to know. The girl hesitates a moment, looks at the bunched tulips in her hand as if they are a bouquet of roadkill, then looks over her shoulder for help from her team leader. Of course she's not from Holland, Henry realizes. She's just some college kid part-timing for a travel bureau, wearing a costume like a Disney character.
His father was forty-six when he died at a corporate teamwork off- site. Massive heart attack. Jostling among junior execs eager to be the first team member to administer CPR, to catch the eye of the boss. Then a dozen white-collar workers in matching T-shirts that say No Limits! carrying his stretcher in a synchronized sprint to the ambulance, the medi-chopper, all thinking, or at least attempting to demonstrate, Together we can do anything while the paddles fail and the tiny monitor flatlines.
That's how Henry imagines it, anyway.
He puts up his hand to retract the question, to wave off the not quite Dutch girl, but before he can speak he's jolted by the vibrating phone in his pants. Rachel. He recently told her it has become illegal to use the phone on the train, so now she calls him within minutes after his scheduled arrival.
"Did you check . . ."
"And the pool?"
"It's green. Again. Like a fluorescent radioactive green. What did you do?"
"I used the tester. I added the stuff."
"No. I'm lying. I'm lying about the pool, Rachel."
"In the dark?"
"I could do it in the day, but that would mean I'd have to quit my job to be a full-time pool boy."
"I just didn't notice."
"I did it at three a.m. when I woke up downstairs in front of the TV."
"All I know is our pool is disgusting."
He takes a breath. He doesn't want to fight. Doesn't want to feel this way toward her. "You don't even like to swim, Rachel."
"It's an embarrassment. Every other pool on this block is a perfect shade of blue, but ours looks like a Superfund waste site."
"Every pool except at the houses that have been foreclosed. Look, I'll check it again when I get home." He moves to hang up, but reconsiders. "Listen, did you, you know, think about going back to talk to that guy? Philip?" Her shrink.
This time she clicks off. He puts the phone in his briefcase rather than his pocket. She's not a bitch, he reminds himself. She's afraid.
"Actually, I'm not from Holland," the young woman tells him. At first he has no recollection of speaking to her, no idea what she's talking about. Rachel's calls have a way of doing this to him, detaching him from the present, clouding reality, making him breathless with what he hopes is anxiety, because he's far too young for a heart attack. "But," she says, "I hear it's real sunny this time of year."
He scrolls to Scissor Sisters' cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," taps Play.
The Land of EEEE
Four years ago they transferred him from Oral Care to Non-headache- related Pain Relief. Three years ago they transferred him from Pain Relief to Laxatives. Two years ago he was fast-tracked to Silicon- based Sprays and Coatings and was making quite a name for himself, but when lawsuits not of his making led to the rightsizing of the division (because discontinuing it would send the wrong signal to class-action lawyers), they transferred him to Armpits.
He has a nine-thirty focus group, which leaves just enough time to drop off his briefcase and check his messages. Outside his office sits Meredith, his administrative assistant. "Morning, Meredith."
"You are a sought-after man." Meredith is reading the National Review. On her desk, already devoured, are the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Daily Racing Form. Meredith's auburn hair is pulled back, as it is every day, in a bun. A 1950s librarian's bun. Her loose-fitting skirt suit makes her look short and, if not exactly fat, then chunky. But Henry knows better.
"Who's doing the sought-aftering?"
"The emperor of eccrine glands."
"The armpit czar."
"Aka Doctor Sweat."
"Aka Giffler." He loves this machine-gun give-and-take. He loves the way it makes him feel as if they really know each other, as if he's one of the regular guys, nice to coworkers above and below, even though Meredith, a five-year employee of the firm, looks up to no man.
Meredith thinks the give-and-take is banal. "You got it. Giffler."
"Bloodcurdlingly chipper. He said he'll stop in on your nine-thirty."
Henry rolls his eyes. Poor me. Poor us. Meredith looks away, turns the page. The ironic rolling of eyes, the office politics of Henry Tuhoe and Giffler and the rest of them: beneath her.
His office has a decent view of Park Avenue facing east, but he doesn't bother to look anymore, unless there's a demonstration in the street or an aerial view of a tragedy. Like the runaway cab that killed three on the sidewalk last month. They gathered in his office, Giffler, Meredith, the rest of Armpits, not because Henry is the one they all run to for calm and assurance in a crisis, but because his office has the best view. That's the type of thing that seems to bond them now. Fatalities on the street below. Rumored and unexpected layoffs. So-and-so's cancer scare. The collapse of a market, an industry, a way of life.
On those occasions they'll gather and talk. They'll inquire about non- underarm-related, occasionally personal topics. They'll linger and joke, briefly revealing intimate aspects of their lives while chalk lines are drawn on the sidewalk below, gurneys loaded and lifted.
By contrast, the supposedly happy occasions-the baby showers in the seventh-floor conference room, the champagne toast for a job well done, and the soon-to-be-extinct ritual of after-work drinks-have the opposite effect on their relationships, their morale. Those rituals bore them, crystallize their sources of anger, and are breeding grounds for future resentment. She's making how much? They had sex where? The nerve, taking the corporate jet with more cuts to come. It's gotten to the point where even the people being honored can't finish their Carvel cake and warm Korbel and get out of there fast enough. Or maybe this is just how Henry has begun to see it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Holy Water by James Othmer. Copyright © 2010 by James P. Othmer. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.