IRVINGTON, NEW JERSEY
"ACAMERA PHONE," Matt Hunter muttered with a shake of his head.
He looked up for divine guidance, but the only thing looking back was an enormous beer bottle.
The bottle was a familiar sight, one Matt saw every time he stepped out of his sagging two-family with the shedding paint job. With its crown 185 feet in the air, the famed bottle dominated the skyline. Pabst Blue Ribbon used to have a brewery here, but they abandoned it in 1985. Years ago, the bottle had been a glorious water tower with copper-plated steel plates, glossy enamel, and a gold stopper. At night spotlights would illuminate the bottle so that Jerseyites could see it from miles around.
But no more. Now the color looked beer-bottle brown but it was really rust red. The bottle's label was long gone. Following its lead, the once-robust neighborhood around it had not so much fallen apart as slowly disintegrated. Nobody had worked in the brewery for twenty years. From the eroding ruins, one would think it would have been much longer.
Matt stopped on the top step of their stoop. Olivia, the love of his life, did not. The car keys jangled in her hand.
"I don't think we should," he said.
Olivia did not break stride. "Come on. It'll be fun."
"A phone should be a phone," Matt said. "A camera should be a camera."
"Oh, that's deep."
"One gizmo doing both… it's a perversion."
"Your area of expertise," Olivia said.
"Ha, ha. You don't see the danger?"
"A camera and a phone in one"- Matt stopped, searching for how to continue-"it's, I don't know, it's interspecies breeding when you think about it, like one of those B-movie experiments that grows out of control and destroys all in its path."
Olivia just stared at him. "You're so weird."
"I'm not sure we should get camera phones, that's all."
She hit the remote and the car doors unlocked. She reached for the door handle. Matt hesitated.
Olivia looked at him.
"What?" he asked.
"If we both had camera phones," Olivia said, "I could send you nudies when you're at work."
Matt opened the door. "Verizon or Sprint?"
Olivia gave him a smile that made his chest thrum. "I love you, you know."
"I love you too."
They were both inside the car. She turned to him. He could see the concern and it almost made him turn away. "It's going to be okay," Olivia said. "You know that, right?"
He nodded and feigned a smile. Olivia wouldn't buy it, but the effort would count toward something.
"Olivia?" he said.
"Tell me more about the nudies."
She punched his arm.
But Matt's unease returned the moment he entered the Sprint store and started hearing about the two-year commitment. The salesman's smile looked somehow satanic, like the devil in one of those movies where a naive guy sells his soul. When the salesman whipped out a map of the United States – the "nonroaming" areas, he informed them, were in bright red- Matt started to back away.
As for Olivia, there was simply no quelling her excitement, but then again his wife had a natural lean toward the enthusiastic. She was one of those rare people who finds joy in things both large and small, one of those traits that demonstrates, certainly in their case, that opposites do attract.
The salesman kept jabbering. Matt tuned him out, but Olivia gave the man her full attention. She asked a question or two, just out of formality, but the salesman knew that this one was not only hooked, lined, and sinkered but fried up and halfway down the gullet.
"Let me just get the paperwork ready," Hades said, slinking away.
Olivia gripped Matt's arm, her face beaming. "Isn't this fun?"
Matt made a face.
"Did you really use the word 'nudie'?"
She laughed and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Of course Olivia's giddiness- and nonstop beaming- was due to much more than the changing of their mobile phone service. Purchasing the camera phones was merely a symbol, a signpost, of what was to come.
Two days ago, Olivia had taken a home pregnancy test and, in a move Matt found oddly loaded with religious significance, a red cross finally appeared on the white stick. He was stunned silent. They had been trying to have a child for a year- pretty much since they first got married. The stress of continuous failure had turned what had always been a rather spontaneous if not downright magical experience into well-orchestrated chores of temperature taking, calendar markings, prolonged abstinence, concentrated ardor.
Now that was behind them. It was early, he warned her. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But Olivia had a glow that could not be denied. Her positive mood was a force, a storm, a tide. Matt had no chance against it.
That was why they were here.
Camera phones, Olivia had stressed, would allow the soon-to-be threesome to share family life in a way their parents' generation could never have envisioned. Thanks to the camera phone, neither of them would miss out on their child's life-defining or even mundane moments- the first step, the first words, the average play-date, what-have-you.
That, at least, was the plan.
An hour later, when they returned to their half of the two-family home, Olivia gave him a quick kiss and started up the stairs.
"Hey," Matt called after her, holding up his new phone and arching an eyebrow. "Want to try out the, uh, video feature?"
"The video only lasts fifteen seconds."
"Fifteen seconds." He considered that, shrugged, and said, "So we'll extend foreplay."
Olivia understandably groaned.
They lived in what most would consider a seedy area, in the strangely comforting shadow of the giant beer bottle of Irvington. When he was fresh out of prison, Matt had felt he deserved no better (which worked neatly because he could afford little better) and despite protestations from family, he began renting space nine years ago. Irvington is a tired city with a large African-American population, probably north of eighty percent. Some might reach the obvious conclusion about guilt over what he'd had to be like in prison. Matt knew that such things were never so simple, but he had no better explanation other than he couldn't yet return to the suburbs. The change would have been too fast, the land equivalent of the bends.
Either way, this neighborhood- the Shell gas station, the old hardware store, the deli on the corner, the winos on the cracked sidewalk, the cut-throughs to Newark Airport, the tavern hidden near the old Pabst brewery- had become home.
When Olivia relocated from Virginia, he figured that she'd insist on moving to a better neighborhood. She was used to, he knew, if not better, definitely different. Olivia grew up in the small hick town of Northways, Virginia. When Olivia was a toddler, her mother ran off. Her father raised her alone.
On the elderly side for a new dad- her father was fifty-one when Olivia was born- Joshua Murray worked hard to make a home for him and his young daughter. Joshua was the town doctor of Northways- a general practitioner who worked on everything from six-year-old Mary Kate Johnson's appendix to Old Man Riteman's gout.
Joshua was, according to Olivia, a kind man, a gentle and wonderful father who doted on his only true relative. There was just the two of them, father and daughter, living in a brick town house off Main Street. Dad's medical office was attached, on the right side off the driveway. Most days, Olivia would sprint home after school so that she could help out with the patients. She would cheer up scared kids or gab with Cassie, the long-time receptionist/nurse. Cassie was a "sorta nanny" too. If her father was too busy, Cassie cooked dinner and helped Olivia with her homework. For her part, Olivia worshipped her father. Her dream- and yes, she thought now that it sounded hopelessly naive- had been to become a doctor and work with her father.
But during Olivia's senior year of college, everything changed. Her father, the only family Olivia had ever known, died of lung cancer. The news took Olivia's legs out from under her. The old ambition of going to medical school- following in her father's footsteps- died with him. Olivia broke off her engagement to her college sweetheart, a premed named Doug, and moved back to the old house in Northways. But living there without her father was too painful. She ended up selling the house and moving to an apartment complex in Charlottesville. She took a job with a computer software company that required a fair amount of travel, which was, in part, how she and Matt rekindled their previously too-brief relationship.
Irvington, New Jersey, was a far cry from either Northways or Charlottesville, Virginia, but Olivia surprised him. She wanted them to stay in this place, seedy as it was, so that they could save the money for the now-under-contract dream house.
Three days after they bought the camera phones, Olivia came home and headed straight upstairs. Matt poured a glass of lime-flavored seltzer and grabbed a few of those cigar-shaped pretzels. Five minutes later he followed her. Olivia wasn't in the bedroom. He checked the small office. She was on the computer. Her back was to him.
She turned to him and smiled. Matt had always disdained that old cliche about a smile lighting up a room, but Olivia could actually do that- had that whole "turn the world on with her smile" thing going on. Her smile was contagious. It was a startling catalyst, adding color and texture to his life, altering everything in a room.
"What are you thinking?" Olivia asked him.
"That you're smoking hot."
Olivia hit a button, and the screen vanished. She stood and gently kissed his cheek. "I have to pack."
Olivia was heading to Boston on a business trip.
"What time is your flight?" he asked.
"I think I'm going to drive."
"A friend of mine miscarried after a plane ride. I just don't want to chance it. Oh, and I'm going to see Dr. Haddon tomorrow morning before I go. He wants to reconfirm the test and make sure everything is all right."
"You want me to go?"
She shook her head. "You have work. Come next time, when they do a sonogram."
Olivia kissed him again, her lips lingering. "Hey," she whispered. "You happy?"
He was going to crack a joke, make another double entendre. But he didn't. He looked straight into those eyes and said, "Very."
Olivia moved back, still holding him steady with that smile. "I better pack."
Matt watched her walk away. He stayed in the doorway for another moment. There was a lightness in his chest. He was indeed happy, which scared the hell out of him. The good is fragile. You learn that when you kill a boy. You learn that when you spend four years in a maximum-security facility.
The good is so flimsy, so tenuous, that it can be destroyed with a gentle puff.
Or the sound of a phone.
Matt was at work when the camera phone vibrated.
He glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was Olivia. Matt still sat at his old partner desk, the kind where two people face each other, though the other side had been empty for three years now. His brother, Bernie, had bought the desk when Matt got out of prison. Before what the family euphemistically called "the slip," Bernie had big ideas for the two of them, the Hunter Brothers. He wanted nothing to change now. Matt would put those years behind him. The slip had been a bump in the road, nothing more, and now the Hunter Brothers were back on track.
Bernie was so convincing that Matt almost started to believe it.
The brothers shared that desk for six years. They practiced law in this very room- Bernie lucrative corporate while Matt, barred from being a real attorney because he'd been a convicted felon, handled the direct opposite, neither lucrative nor corporate. Bernie's law partners found the arrangement odd, but privacy was something neither brother craved. They had shared a bedroom for their entire childhood, Bernie on the top bunk, a voice from above in the dark. Both longed for those days again- or at least, Matt did. He was never comfortable alone. He was comfortable with Bernie in the room.
For six years.
Matt put both palms on the mahogany top. He should have gotten rid of the desk by now. Bernie's side had not been touched in three years, but sometimes Matt still looked across and expected to see him.
The camera phone vibrated again.
One moment Bernie had it all- a terrific wife, two terrific boys, the big house in the burbs, partnership in a big law firm, good health, loved by everyone- the next his family was throwing dirt on his grave and trying to make sense of what happened. A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. You walk around with it for years and then, bam, it ends your life.
The phone was on "Vibrate-Ring." The vibrate ended and the ringer started playing the old TV Batman song, the one with the clever lyrics that basically consisted of going nah-nah-nah for a while and then shouting "Batman!"
Matt pulled the new camera phone off his belt.
His finger hovered over the answer button. This was sort of weird. Olivia, despite being in the computer business, was terrible with all things technical. She'd rarely used the phone and when she did, well, she knew Matt was at the office. She'd call him on his landline.
Matt pressed down on the answer button, but the message appeared telling him that a photograph was "incoming." This, too, was curious. For all her initial excitement, Olivia had not yet learned how to use the camera feature.
His intercom sounded.
Rolanda- Matt would call her a secretary or assistant but then she'd hurt him- cleared her throat. "Matt?"
"Marsha is on line two."
Still looking at the screen, Matt picked up the office phone to talk to his sister-in-law, Bernie's widow.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," Marsha said. "Is Olivia still in Boston?"
"Yep. In fact, right now, I think she's sending me a photo on our new cell phone."
"Oh." There was a brief pause. "Are you still coming out today?"
In another move signaling familyhood, Matt and Olivia were closing on a house not far from Marsha and the boys. The house was located in Livingston, the town where Bernie and Matt grew up.
Matt had questioned the wisdom of returning. People had long memories. No matter how many years passed, he would always be the subject of whispers and innuendo. On the one hand, Matt was long past caring about that petty stuff. On the other, he worried about Olivia and about his upcoming child. The curse of the father visited upon the son and all that.
But Olivia understood the risks. This was what she wanted.
More than that, the somewhat high-strung Marsha had- he wondered what euphemism to use here- issues. There had been a brief breakdown a year after Bernie's sudden death. Marsha had "gone to rest"- another euphemism- for two weeks while Matt moved in and took care of the boys. Marsha was fine now- that was what everyone said- but Matt still liked the idea of staying close.
Today was the physical inspection of the new house. "I should be out in a little while. Why, what's up?"
"Could you stop by?"
"Stop by your place?"
"If it's a bad time…"
"No, of course not."
Marsha was a beautiful woman with an oval face that sometimes looked sad-sack, and a nervous upward glance as if making sure the black cloud was in place. That was a physical thing, of course, no more a true reflection on her personality than being short or scarred.
"Everything all right?" Matt asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's no big deal. It's just… Could you take the kids for a couple of hours? I got a school thing and Kyra's going to be out tonight."
"You want me to take them out for dinner?"
"That would be great. But no McDonald's, okay?"
"Perfect," she said.
"Cool, I'm there."
The image started coming in on the camera phone.
"I'll see you later," he said.
She said good-bye and hung up.
Matt turned his attention back to the cell phone. He squinted at the screen. It was tiny. Maybe an inch, no more than two. The sun was bright that day. The curtain was open. The glare made it harder to see. Matt cupped his hand around the tiny display and hunched his body so as to provide shade. It worked somewhat.
A man appeared on the screen.
Again it was hard to make out details. He looked in his mid-thirties- Matt's age- and had really dark hair, almost blue. He wore a red button-down shirt. His hand was up as though waving. He was in a room with white walls and a gray-sky window. The man had a smirk on his face- one of those knowing, I'm-better-than-you smirks. Matt stared at the man. Their eyes met and Matt could have sworn he saw something mocking in them.
Matt did not know the man.
He did not know why his wife would take the man's photograph.
The screen went black. Matt did not move. That seashell rush stayed in his ears. He could still hear other sounds- a distant fax machine, low voices, the traffic outside- but it was as though through a filter.
It was Rolanda Garfield, said assistant/secretary. The law firm had not been thrilled when Matt hired her. Rolanda was a tad too "street" for the stuffed shirts at Carter Sturgis. But he'd insisted. She had been one of Matt's first clients and one of his painfully few victories.
During his stint in prison, Matt managed to accrue enough credits to get his BA. The law degree came not long after his release. Bernie, a powerhouse at his uber-Newark law firm of Carter Sturgis, figured that he'd be able to convince the bar to make an exception and let his ex-con brother in.
He had been wrong.
But Bernie was not easily discouraged. He then persuaded his partners to take Matt in as a "paralegal," a wonderful all-encompassing term that, for the most part, seemed to mean "scut work."
The partners at Carter Sturgis didn't like it, at first. No surprise, of course. An ex-con at their white-shoe law firm? That simply wouldn't do. But Bernie appealed to their purported humanity: Matt would be good for public relations. He would show that the firm had heart and believed in second chances, at least in theoretical spin. He was smart. He would be an asset. More to the point, Matt could take on the large bulk of the firm's pro bono cases, freeing the partners to gouge the deep pockets without the distraction of the underclass.
The two closers: Matt would work cheap- what choice did he have? And Brother Bernie, a major-league rainmaker, would walk if they didn't agree.
The partners considered the scenario: Maybe do good and help yourself? It was the kind of logic upon which charities are built.
Matt's eyes stayed on the blank phone screen. His pulse did a little two-step. Who, he wondered, is that guy with the blue-black hair?
Rolanda put her hands on her hips. "Earth to doofus," she said.
"What?" Matt snapped out of it.
"Me? I'm fine."
Rolanda gave him a funny look.
The camera phone vibrated again. Rolanda stood with her arms crossed. Matt looked back at her. She did not get the hint. She rarely did. The phone vibrated again and then the Batman theme started up.
"Aren't you going to answer that?" Rolanda said.
He glanced down at the phone. The caller ID blinked out his wife's phone number again.
"I'm on it," Matt said.
His thumb touched on the green send button, lingering there for a moment before it pressed down. The screen lit up anew.
A video appeared now.
The technology was improving, but the shaky video display usually had a quality two steps below the Zapruder film. For a second or two, Matt had trouble focusing in on what was happening. The video would not last long, Matt knew. Ten, fifteen seconds tops.
It was a room. He could see that. The camera panned past a television on a console. There was a painting on the wall- Matt couldn't tell of what- but the overall impression led him to conclude that it was a hotel room. The camera stopped on the bathroom door.
And then a woman appeared.
Her hair was platinum blonde. She wore dark sunglasses and a slinky blue dress. Matt frowned.
What the hell was this?
The woman stood for a moment. Matt had the impression she did not know the camera was on her. The lens moved with her. There was a flash of light, sun bursting in through the window, and then everything came back into focus.
When the woman walked toward the bed, he stopped breathing.
Matt recognized the walk.
He also recognized the way she sat on the bed, the tentative smile that followed, the way her chin tilted up, the way she crossed her legs.
He did not move.
From across the room he heard Rolanda's voice, softer now: "Matt?"
He ignored her. The camera was put down now, probably on a bureau. It was still aiming at the bed. A man walked toward the platinum blonde. Matt could only see the man's back. He was wearing a red shirt and had blue-black hair. His approach blocked the view of the woman. And the bed.
Matt's eyes started to blur. He blinked them back into focus. The LCD screen on the camera started to darken. The images flickered and disappeared and Matt was left sitting there, Rolanda staring at him curiously, the photographs on his brother's side of the desk still in place, and he was sure- well, pretty sure, the screen was only an inch or two, right?- that the woman in the strange hotel room, the woman in the slinky dress on the bed, that she was wearing a platinum-blonde wig and that she was really a brunette and that her name was Olivia and she was his wife.