OIL IN WATER
“What?!” An incredulous Hart stared at his father-in-law across the broad expanse of Bicky’s mahogany desk. “How the hell did you let that happen, Bicky? Every regulatory agency within a hundred mile radius is gonna be on this. Not to mention the citizens’ groups. The lawyers are probably running to the courthouse now.” Hart rubbed his temples.
“Oh, would you cut the dramatics,” Bicky said.
“Negative. Positive. Attention’s attention. You must like it regardless.”
“Of course I don’t like it. Who wants to get sued?”
Hart paced the floor and ran his hands through his wavy black hair, puzzling out the next move. Bicky grabbed a cigar from the humidor, put his feet up on the desk and lit up.
“Did you get the leak in the Gulf under control?”
Hart interrupted his pacing to stare at his father-in-law.
“Well did you at least tell them it was fixed?” Bicky lit his cigar with great care.
“Or that we were working on it? They might not come inspect if you tell them that.”
Hart struggled to control the myriad profanities readying themselves for dispatch. “You know, the thought just occurred to me that I have no idea how I’ve managed to work for you this long.”
Bicky chortled, set his feet on the floor and shuffled through the newspapers covering his desk, a cigar wedged between his teeth, his right eye closed against the smoke. “My, my. Somebody needs a nap.”
“You might prefer to pay the paltry fines rather than fix the problem, but I’m the guy they come looking for. And I’m not playing cover up for you or your sorry-assed company anymore.”
Bicky leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Are you job hunting?”
Hart waved him off. “And yes, as a matter-of-fact, the leak is fixed. Mahajan and Stu finished the job.” Hart sat down opposite Bicky and glared at him. “I suppose you heard what happened to Stu on this trip?”
“Yes. Most unfortunate. But you managed to save the day once again.” Bicky smiled, baring his picture perfect, ultra white teeth. It was a malicious smile and Hart shuddered. “Sonia always said you were her hero.”
The blow was calculated and intended, hitting its mark with precision. Hart blanched. He felt better, more in control since the dive with Stu, but it was tentative and fragile and he knew it. A wave of nausea surfaced and he swallowed the telltale saliva pouring into his mouth along with the urge to vomit. Hart walked around to Bicky’s side of the desk and stood at the window behind him, a breech of etiquette, definitely a threat. Bicky sat motionless, refusing to turn around.
“You better give the man some time off unless you want to lose your best diver.”
“I’ve already sent a memo. He’ll be receiving a substantial bonus in his next paycheck.”
“It’s not about the money, Bicky.”
“It’s always about the money, David.” Bicky opened The Philadelphia Inquirer with care as if it were a sacred parchment. The front page news covered the oil spill in the Delaware River and continued on A-3 with a full two-page layout .
“Not for Stu. You can’t keep giving him six-week rotations with no time off to see his family. He’s got a baby. And plenty of money saved.” Hart glanced at Bicky who registered nothing, then down at the street below; people scurried along, no bigger than ants. He knew why Bicky liked this window. From here, the world outside was sterile and inaccessible like most things behind glass were. From here, both the minutia and the momentous in life fell the same way, like raindrops swept into the storm drain en route to the river. The river where all would be washed clean. The problem was what to do when the river needed a bath.
Hart caught a slight twitch in Bicky’s shoulders as he rounded the corner and he smiled to himself. Although he would never intentionally harm his father-in-law, there was no telling what he might do in a fit of rage. And there was something about Bicky that could bring a man to a boil. More than once lately, Hart found himself wanting to throttle the stink out of him.
“Duly noted. I’ll make sure he gets the next three weeks off.” Bicky sighed and turned to the Daily News . “Happy?”
“As a clam. Although I’d sleep better if I knew you did it because you understood why.” Hart knew that everything Bicky did sprang from an ulterior motive as opposed to a stab of conscience, but still he held out hopes for redemption.
“I never understood that clam reference,” Bicky said. “Is it because they look like they’re smiling or because they harbor expensive jewelry and think only they know about it.”
Hart continued pacing.
“Sit down already. You’re grating on my nerves.”
Hart flopped down in a chair. Although the dark circles under his eyes looked permanent, physical exhaustion was remediable. Emotional exhaustion, however, had etched a deeper, wider swath in his soul and left scars so deep that even a truckload of vitamin E couldn’t eradicate them. Sonia used to put an eye pillow filled with lavender on Hart’s fatigued eyes when he hadn’t slept. Then she’d massage his feet until he did. The body repaired itself in sleep, she said. The healing occurred while the mind was dreaming. She said it wasn’t sleep that healed, but dreams. Whatever it was, Hart was deprived. He rubbed his eyes too hard and sparks of light shot across his closed eyelids. He finally stopped and looked, bleary-eyed at his father-in-law.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Oversee the cleanup for starters. I got guys down there now, but frankly, some of them couldn’t find their ass with both hands. And I mean that in the nicest of ways.”
Hart studied Bicky’s face. That smooth, tan, imperturbable face. He couldn’t remember if Bicky ever had plastic surgery, but if he hadn’t, he was some freak of nature. At sixty years old, Bicky had barely a crow’s foot. Maybe that’s what a clear conscience got you.
“Get you out in the field, man. Meet some people. Life goes on. So must you.” Bicky said the last bit summarily, but Hart pressed him.
“And by that you mean…?”
“It means what it means.”
“Coyness isn’t one of your best attributes,” Hart said rising.
“I’ve got a driver downstairs waiting to take you home. Call Phyllis an hour before you’re ready to leave for the airport. She’ll arrange for my private jet to take you to Philly. You gotta give them an hour to get ready, though, if you don’t want to wait.” Bicky smiled, his trademark, like he was in pain.
Hart sighed. The job did have its perks.
“Call me with the details as soon as you have them,” he said, returning to his paper.
Hart left without saying goodbye. Had he known at the time that this particular exit would be his last, he might have made more of an effort.
Mrs. Banes greeted Hart at the door. He tried to engage her in small talk, an activity toward which he knew she was favorably disposed, but she was tight-lipped and unflappable, a sure sign that something was up at the Coleman estate. He was not surprised, therefore, when she lead him to the drawing room where he found Kitty holding court with Jerry Dixon. Hart saw Jerry stiffen, but his facial expression didn’t change.
“Hey, Jerry,” Hart said, extending a hand. “Good to see you, man.”
“Good to see you, too, Hart.” Jerry shook the proffered appendage, warmth replacing wariness.
When Hart kissed his mother-in-law hello, she took his hands and held him to her, studying his eyes. He flushed, but did not pull away from the bony, arthritic pressure of hands that had aged overnight. He dared not look at them and was relieved when Kitty released him.
“Have a seat, David. Mrs. Banes will bring us some tea.” She turned to Mrs. Banes, but the housekeeper was already out the door.
“I’m going to make a few phone calls,” Jerry said.
Hart caught their exchanged glances and used the few moments it afforded to study Kitty’s unguarded face. It had lost that luminescent quality that pointed to eternal youth. Where all her high society friends had plastic surgeons on the payroll, buying face lifts and tummy tucks like magazine subscriptions, Kitty came by her beauty naturally, and could have passed for a woman in her forties rather than one in her sixties. Not now though. Sonia’s death had knocked those indigenous good looks right off her face; the former light scratching around her eyes and mouth now deep and embedded.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Jerry said, solely for her benefit.
Kitty nodded, rubbed her gnarled hands together and grimaced in pain. Tossing protocol aside, Hart knelt down and took one of her hands, and, rubbing in circular fashion, started with the knuckles then worked his way toward Kitty’s palm.
“It’s like it happened overnight,” she said in answer to his unasked question. She lifted her free hand, studying it abstractly as if the appendage were not her own. “Rheumatoid arthritis runs in my family. My mother’s hands looked very much like mine do right now for as long as I can remember. Although that never slowed her down much.” She curled her free hand into a fist, testing its suppleness.
“I thought I had it beat. I mean, there was some stiffness in my joints in the morning, and at odd moments when I stopped to pay attention, but I exercised and I ate right. I didn’t abuse my body.” She smiled and put her free hand up to Hart’s face, tracing the jaw line over a faint line of stubble while he continued massaging her other hand.
“They aren’t kidding when they say stress can kill you. It almost got me,” Kitty said. “Almost.”
Hart squeezed the sides of each finger and pulled them gently from their sockets, releasing the air that had gathered in the joints with a slight popping sound. Hart rubbed the other hand, massaging the stiffness out of the joints, the wrists, the knuckles. Kitty’s face look serene and for a moment, pain free.
“I know it’s not like the pain you have, but it’s my own and I don’t think I can come to terms with it. Children are meant to bury their parents, not the other way around.” Her voice caught and she said nothing further.
Hart hugged her gently, afraid that her frail body would crumble in his arms. He felt the warm tears land on his shirt in rapid succession. He rubbed her back until she pulled away and wiped her eyes. His heart, cleaved into two useless and ineffective pieces on the night his wife died, migrated an even greater distance apart. He held both Kitty’s hands in his, rubbing her knuckles with his thumbs the way he used to do for Sonia when her hands throbbed, the signs of the rheumatoid arthritis already apparent despite her youth.
“A paraffin bath would help this,” Hart said. “Sonia’s got a machine that melts the wax. You dip your hands in a bunch of times, put on plastic gloves and then a cloth mitt to keep them warm. I could bring it over.”
Kitty smiled. “It’s not paraffin I need, David.”
Mrs. Banes entered with a pot of tea and a platter of cakes. She poured the tea, added cream and extended the cup to Kitty. Hart let go of Kitty’s hands and took the tea pot from Mrs. Banes before she could pour him a cup.
“Thank you,” he said, and set the pot down next to Kitty. Mrs. Banes nodded and left.
Hart glanced at his watch. “I gotta go, Mom. I told Bicky’s pilot I’d be there by three.”
Kitty nodded and sighed. She handed him the tea cup which he set down. She lifted her arms to him and he pulled her to her feet. They stood facing each other, Hart still holding her arms.
“David?” she said. He lowered his head to better hear her. “May I ask something of you?”
“Of course, Mom. Anything.”
“Get out of the oil business. Before it ruins you.”
The smell of jasmine tea wafted up to him, and Hart inhaled deeply, searching Kitty’s inscrutable face for clues.
“It may be sooner than you think, Mom.” He looked at his watch again. “But right now I’m still on the payroll, so… I’ll call you when I get back.” He kissed her on the cheek and released her.
“Be careful then,” she said, touching his cheek before she eased herself into her chair. Not without difficulty, Hart thought, as he left the room.
Jerry was walking the length of the driveway when Hart came out of the house.
“Pretty big mess you got up there in Philadelphia, eh?” Jerry said.
“Worst part of my job,” Hart replied. Hart had his keys in hand, but Jerry stood rooted to the spot in front of the driver’s door and Hart couldn’t get in the car.
Hart always had an affinity for the man Sonia called uncle, joking and laughing with him whenever they had occasion to be together. But in the months since Sonia’s death, Jerry had become remote and uncommunicative and they found themselves with little to say to each other. More than once, Hart’s mind wandered back to the snippets of conversation he’d overheard while sitting in Bicky’s study, when his mind was reeling from the effects of his drug-induced state. Hart’s inability to recall those few days had left him with an uneasy feeling, like Bicky and his chief of security had been involved in some sort of conspiracy which Hart was not privy to, but at the heart of which was Sonia. Unable to recall more than fragments of what transpired, he’d put his suspicions aside, but the wariness revived itself at times, sua sponte and without warning. What Jerry wanted now, Hart could only guess, but something was bothering the man.
“What’s up, Jerry?”
Jerry bent his head like a bird trying to get a better view, and looked at Hart as if he’d just spoken to him in Aramaic. “Ummm.”
Hart eyed his colleague with a scrutiny generally reserved for problematic oil derricks. The once erect figure sagged a bit, the squared shoulders hunched, the closely cropped, military-style haircut had grown unkempt. Hart thought about his own appearance of late and cringed. How could one woman affect so many people . Their eyes locked and Jerry stiffened as if preparing for a blow.
“I… I blame myself. If I’d been there, I’m sure there was something I could have done. I had this feeling….” Jerry shook his head and stamped his foot like a bull ready to charge. “She’d be alive today.”
Hart stared at Jerry, mouth agape. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected the ex-marine to say, but it wasn’t that. “Hey, Jer. How could you have possibly known?”
Jerry cringed and stepped back as if Hart had delivered a physical blow.
“Jerry,” Hart said. “I could say the same thing. If anyone’s to blame it’s me.” Hart had never spoken the words out loud, although he’d thought them a million times, and they came out now, slow and deliberate. He was guilty, and what he stored could power a small city. The words hung in the air between them like wood smoke until they both looked away, blinking their eyes with the sting of it.
“I gotta go,” Hart said.
Jerry moved away as if commanded. Hart put it in reverse and didn’t look back.
to be continued. . .
to read what let to this state of affairs go here