can you call me please?
It was a text from Sterling. He’d been calling me for the last few days, but I’d let it go to voicemail, then ignored the voicemails. I didn’t feel like talking to him. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone.
too complicated. call please.
I pressed his number. Procrastination had its advantages, but it also had limits. He picked up on the first ring.
“She lives,” he said.
“She’s trying to,” I said. “What’s up?”
“They want to talk.”
“They always want to talk.”
“Not that way. The real talk.”
“Here’s the thing. Time’s running out. They’re feeling it. Thought we’d try something different.”
“Get us all together. Physically. Attorneys from all sides. Plaintiffs. The whole bunch.”
“Get everyone to the same table, and make everyone stay there until we get a settlement.”
My first instinct was to say no and hang up. But I didn’t. This was something different. In the two years since the crash there’d been a grinding cycle of proposals, counter-proposals, trial delays, threats, stalemates and still more trial delays. Attorneys representing a few of the parties had huddled in meetings before, but not all together.
“Powhatan Conference Center.”
“Just outside of Fort Lee. About two hours north of you.”
“Week from now, if we can get the logistics down.”
“Why do you need us?”
I meant the plaintiffs.
“Like I said. Big show is coming. Now’s the time to turn up the pressure.”
The first trial date was one month away. That was the big show.
“And the other side knows the plaintiffs are coming?”
“No. We’ll tell them when they get here.”
It was a smart move. They’d never agree to meet if they knew we were coming. It enhanced the pressure. The last thing the defendants wanted was a group of weepy, surviving spouses standing behind a bouquet of microphones. And the media would be there because of her. It didn’t matter that her estate had been the first to settle just four months after the crash. She still had a hold on them. She had a hold on all of us.
“What’s the judge say?”
“He’s all for it. Wants a settlement.”
“How many?” I asked.
“How many what?”
“The others,” I said. “How many have committed?”
Out of the original seven plaintiffs, three had settled.
“All of them are coming,” Sterling said. “Except you.”
I knew he’d save me for last. I’d be the toughest.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“That’s Cassidy-speak for no,” Sterling said.
“That’s Cassidy-speak for I’ll think about it,” I said.
“When will you let me know?”
“When I’m done thinking about it.”
I swiped off the call before Sterling could reply. I didn’t need to hear anything else. I’d already decided.
Sterling met me in the lobby. He was wearing a t-shirt, sweat pants and had a white hotel towel around his neck. He looked surprised to see me, even though I’d told him I was coming.
“Good gym,” he said.
He knew I worked out. I looked around. The lobby was crowded, the check-in line long.
“Pilgrims,” he said.
“Self-improvement pilgrims,” Sterling said. “Some kind of big seminar.”
There were two gigantic posters in the lobby, one at the entrance and one at the front desk, each dominated by the angular profile of a 30-something woman with mid-length black hair and striking, cerulean eyes. Underneath the face was a name. Lynn Quinn Kirk. I recognized the slogan at the bottom of the posters from her TV ads: I am here to change you.
Sterling was looking down at my black suitcase on wheels.
“I travel light,” I said. “And you said this would run just a few days.”
I nodded at the check-in line.
“Time to que up.”
“I’ve got it,” he said.
Sterling walked past the check-in line to the other end of the front desk. I looked around for Clay. He was one of the plaintiffs who hadn’t settled. I didn’t see him. Sterling returned and held out a card key.
“Yeah. Fourth floor. And the booze in the fridge is complimentary, so don’t be shy.”
“I’m never shy,” I said. “Clay here yet?”
“No. Later today,” Sterling said. “He asked about you.”
“If you were coming.”
Sterling looked at me. He was waiting for some kind of reaction. I didn’t give him one.
“You need me anywhere today?” I asked.
“No. Attorneys kick things off tomorrow. Morning conference.”
“Where you going?”
“Gym,” I said. “I was told it was good.”
“Some of the others may get together for dinner,” he said. He waited a beat. “I can safely assume you’re a no-show?”
“Assumptions are never safe,” I said. “But that one is.”
I’d made my way through a half-hour of core work on one of the gym’s floor mats when Hamlet walked in.
Her real name was Franny, but Sterling called her Hamlet. One week she was ready to settle, the next she wasn’t. This had gone for the last 18 months. She’d worked her way through four attorneys and three therapists. The gym was big and I was laying on the floor, but Hamlet spotted me in seconds. She walked through the tangle of chrome machines and stood over me, staring down.
“Hi there,” she said.
“When’d you get in?”
She waited for me to ask. I didn’t.
“Got in last night,” she said. “You like the suites?”
We looked at each other for a few moments. I was supposed to say something. Anything.
“You look different,” I offered.
She wanted me to say something positive. Hamlet was an optimist.
She reflexively brusher her fingers across her bangs and stole a look at herself in the nearest wall of mirrors.
“Right you are. My colorist. She’s a force of nature. Told me to go from vanilla chai to cream soda.”
“Cream soda,” I said.
She looked at my hair.
“Yours is so light. Like platinum. And you’re cutting it so short now.”
I didn’t answer. I wanted to get on with more core work, hit the weights and then tick off a few miles on the treadmill. Hamlet wasn’t in a hurry. She was never in a hurry. Her eyes wandered over to a TV on the far wall.
“You just can’t get away from her,” she said.
I looked at the TV. It was an ad for Lynn Quinn Kirk. The TV was muted, but the captions were on. First, the most important question: Why are you here?
“She’s taken over the hotel,” Hamlet said. “Those posters. And all those TVs.”
They were everywhere: flat screen TVs propped up on easels near the front desk, at the entrance to the hotel bar and in the elevator lobbies of each floor. They were motion-activated. When I passed the one on my floor, Lynn Quinn Kirk’s face popped onto the screen. What are your priorities? There was a pause. Let me tell you what they should be.
“You know who Lynn Quinn Kirk looks like?” Hamlet said, still staring at the gym TV.
I knew. Hamlet knew that I knew.
“Deja,” she said. “It’s her eyes. And the set of her mouth.”
I started doing crunches. Maybe Hamlet would take the hint. She didn’t.
“You see that documentary on her?” she asked.
I stopped the crunches. She meant Deja.
“I started watching. Got distracted.”
I’d watched the first six minutes of it, a two-hour documentary entitled The Dreams of Deja Diego, before turning it off. I’d assumed it would be chronological, but it ambushed me by opening with several black-and-white stills from the crash scene. I didn’t want to see anything I would recognize, even though I knew I wouldn’t.
“I didn’t know she grew up in Jersey,” Hamlet said. “Montclair. That’s not far from here.”
Hamlet took another look at the TV. It was some kind of infomercial on muscle balm.
“Think she’ll win?” Hamlet asked.
Deja Diego made only three films. She won the supporting actress Oscar for the first and best actress of the second. The third wrapped a month before the helicopter crash. They held it for year, then released it, leading to a posthumous nomination.
“Vegas. They seem to know. Have her down as a three-to-one favorite.”
It was a safe bet. She was internationally famous when she died. Now she was something else. And she was the subject of the last text Daniel sent me.
guess who’s on board?
Deja Diego. the actress
wow. gonna ask for her auto?
Daniel never answered. By that point the helicopter was losing altitude. It would crash eight minutes later.
Hamlet said something I couldn’t quite hear.
“You think she did the right thing?”
“Settling. So quickly. Her estate. They were out of it so fast.”
“They liked the number. So they took it.”
“I know,” Hamlet said. “They took it and ran. And here we are.”
And one of us is trying to get through her workout.
“I came really, really close this time,” Hamlet said. “Even my spiritualist said all the signs were synchronizing.”
I made a mental note to tell Sterling: four attorneys, three therapists and one spiritualist. I started doing crunches again. This time it wasn’t a hint. I needed to sweat.
By the time I finished, Hamlet was gone.
I was in line for the concierge, waiting to get a restaurant recommendation. There was a couple ahead of me, asking about the best wine bars in the area. They wanted three to choose from. I scanned the lobby for Clay. No sign. After the gym, I’d returned to my room for a shower. I was dressing when I got a text from him: be there later. will look for you.
The couple ahead of me got their list and moved away. The concierge suggested a good bar & grill about two blocks west of the hotel. I was almost out of the lobby when I heard a hey from behind me. I thought it was Clay. When I turned I found Brennan. He was one of the remaining plaintiffs. Sterling called him More. Every time he neared a settlement, he derailed the process by asking for more.
“When’d you get in?” he asked.
“Where you headed?
“Out for a walk.”
I didn’t tell him about the bar. He’d want to come along. He nodded toward the hotel bar.
“Really need to talk. Maybe a coffee?”
Coffee had a shorter lifespan than drinks. We headed to the café next to the bar. I took a closer look at him when we settled into a booth at the back. More looked different from the last time I saw him, about 18 months ago at a press conference. His hair was longer and slicked straight back, and he’d put on some weight. He ordered an iced coffee. I asked for a diet soda. We batted around some small talk until the waitress returned with our drinks. More stirred his coffee with a straw and got down to business.
“Think we’ll get a settlement?”
“Maybe. They’re pushing.”
“Everyone seems to want to avoid a trial,” he said.
“Attorneys are terrified of juries. Judges are terrified of reversals.”
“How about you?”
“What about me?”
“You want to settle?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“I don’t know. Heard some talk.”
“What kind of talk?”
“That you’re not really into it.”
“This,” he said, nodding toward the lobby. “All of this. Getting together, getting it done.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Around. From the start, you’ve been, I don’t know. Detached.”
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t being evasive. I didn’t know how to answer.
“Know what we call you?” he asked.
“As in bell curve. Everyone’s worried you’ll sign for a lower number, drag us all down. Blow the bell curve.”
There you go. Everyone had a nickname.
“You probably heard, right?” More asked.
“I’m getting married.”
He waited for me to say congratulations. I sipped some more soda.
“Met her at my grieving spouses support group. Got two kids. Daughters. They’re in junior high.”
Two kids. I saw where this was heading.
“Two daughters,” he said again. “So you can see why I want this over.”
“Yes. I do.”
I tried to give him an empathetic look. Empathetic looks were not my strong point. We stopped talking. More caught the waitress’s eye and signaled for the check.
Marriage. More would be the first of our group to get remarried. The word wasn’t in my vocabulary. It’d taken me a year to remove Daniel’s clothes from our closet. All except his shirts. They still smelled of him.
I was halfway through my first Bulleit when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I knew before turning it was Clay. I got up from my stool and we hugged for a long moment. He smelled pleasantly of faded cologne.
“What you drinking?” he asked as he sat next to me at the bar.
“You always had discriminating tastes.”
He signaled the bartender, pointed at my drink and put two fingers up.
“Trying to get me drunk?”
“Trying to get us both drunk.”
The bartender brought over the drinks. Clay raised his glass.
He said it dryly. We clicked glasses.
“How’d you find me?”
“Asked the concierge to suggest the best bar within walking distance,” he said.
“He must be getting kickbacks.”
“I’d give him more than a kickback if he’d pull the plug on that woman.”
“The one on all those TVs in the hotel.”
“Lynn Quinn Kirk.”
“Yeah. Her. She keeps popping up, asking me if I’m making the right decision, if I’m headed in the right direction.”
“What do you tell her?”
He started laughing.
“You run into any of the others?” he asked.
“Hamlet and More.” I didn’t mention More’s remarriage. He wouldn’t care.
“So we’re all here,” Clay said. “Four remain of the original seven others.”
That’s what Clay called the original plaintiffs. The Seven Others. He got it from the media. In the first reports after the crash, they started their reports with Deja, who was scouting locations for a film she was producing, then listed the names of our spouses. But after the first day, it became the crash that killed Deja Diego and seven others. They never mentioned the names again.
We went silent. It wasn’t awkward. We’d known each other before the crash. Daniel and Clay’s wife, Angela, were colleagues at an advertising firm. That’s why they were on the helicopter. They were headed to an agency retreat. There was more. There’s always more. Clay and I found out a few weeks after the crash. David had taken his work laptop on the helicopter, but left his personal laptop at home. Clay discovered texts on Angela’s cell phone. She had two phones. Two laptops. Two phones.
Daniel polished off his drink and signaled for another.
“Guess we should take inventory,” he said.
“You find anything else?”
“No,” I said.
I’d stopped looking. The laptop was enough.
“You?” I asked.
“You found something else?”
“Birthday card. In the back of some book in her nightstand.”
He looked at me.
“Did you just ask me what book?”
“Don’t remember.” He shrugged. “Just some book.”
The bartender brought over Clay’s drink. He looked at mine, saw it was half full and moved away.
“The card,” I said. “Was it funny or serious?”
“Funny,” he said.
I was hoping he’d say funny. It made it easier. I finished my drink and eyed the bartender. He was going to get his exercise. He placed my drink on the bar and brought another for Clay to save the trip. I tried to pace myself, but sank half of it. I leaned into the bar and let my mind drift. Muzak was playing from somewhere in the ceiling. The tune sounded familiar.
“They took it from us, you know,” Clay said.
“Anger. Getting angry. It’s like we’re not allowed.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Does it help?” I asked.
“No. It just leads to something else.”
“Retribution,” he said. “Or wanting it.”
“How do you get it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ve got some ideas.”
“Do I want to know?”
“Probably not. But I’ll tell you.”
He took another sip of his drink and turned in his stool to face me.
“You ever think of us?”
“Us as in us?”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“No because it’s a bad idea, or no because you just never thought of it?”
“The latter. But it leads to other issues.”
“Like where does it get us?”
“It gets us to linearity.”
“I’m not even sure what that is.”
“It’s a mathematical concept I’m appropriating. Or misappropriating. It’s supposed to mean a straight line from one sequential point to another, but in a kismet kind of way.”
“Yes. Does that make sense?”
“Just think cosmically. Cosmic linearity.”
I tried to look pensive and thoughtful, but cosmic linearity wasn’t on my mind. I was thinking: I am 30. I have handled all sorts of men. Yet it never fails to stupefy me what they’ll say to get you into bed.
Clay’s glass was empty. The bartender started toward us. I turned his glass upside down. The bartender backed off.
“That a comment on my intake, or my proposal?” Clay asked.
“Both,” I said.
I felt linear. Linear and economical. Maybe it was the bourbon.
I woke up to several texts from Sterling:
this is moving along
numbers look good
And finally: give me a call
I made coffee in the hotel room and dialed him up.
“You still here?” he asked.
“Here as in here in the hotel?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“I don’t know. Thought you might just up and leave.”
“Am I that difficult?”
“Can I take the Fifth?”
“Take anything you want. But you asked me to call.”
“Wanted to update you. Talks are going well.”
“Well enough that I may actually have a good number by this afternoon.”
I didn’t reply.
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“Ok. I just wanted you to know. We may need to meet today on short notice.”
“I’ll be around.”
“Ok. Keep your eyes peeled.”
“The press. Once word leaks out, they’ll be all over this.”
“I’ll send them your way.”
“You’re always so kind to me.”
“Hotel rooms bring out my charm.”
Sterling seemed confident, but I was betting against a settlement. Litigation has more moving parts than a helicopter. I finished my coffee, watched the morning news, spun through a backlog of work emails and then tried to read a book of essays that didn’t interest me. I went down to the café for a quick breakfast, stopping at the entrance to see if any of the others were around. None were in sight. There was a Lynn Quinn Kirk TV by the café entrance.
Have you made a critical decision today? Have you made the critical decision?
I went in and ordered Irish oatmeal. I was hoping it would be the only critical decision I had to make that day. On my way back to the room I stopped to check out the indoor pool. It looked as good as it had online. I needed a change from the gym, and hoped Hamlet wasn’t into swimming. I went back to my room, brushed my teeth and changed into a black, one-piece suit.
There was another TV stationed outside the pool. It popped on as I passed.
You’re taking this plunge. But how deep will you dive?
The swimming area was empty except for a couple and their two children splashing around in the shallow end of the pool. There was no lifeguard, just a half dozen signs warning that you swam at our own risk. I walked over to the lounge seats at the deep end. I’d brought my book, but it was just a prop. I wanted to do some laps, then lay back and zone out in the clammy, chlorine-saturated air.
There were two lap lanes roped off on the right-hand side of the pool. I did some stretching, then dove in. The water was tepid. I started with a slow, even breast stroke, then stopped for a breather after five laps. I did another five with the crawl, then finished with the butterfly.
The family had left by the time I finished. I was drying off at my lounger when a woman came in. She was about my age, with brunette hair down to her shoulders, wearing black warm-up sweats. She went to the lounger a few feet from mine and started peeling off her sweats. She was wearing a dark purple one-piece suit similar to mine. She took a matching swim cap from her bag and started tucking in her hair.
“You’ve got the right idea,” she said.
She pointed to my hair.
Nice and short. No need for a cap.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything. She went to the pool and dove into one of the lanes without hesitation. She was good, with a smooth, easy form. She started with the breast stroke, switched to the crawl, then capped it off with the backstroke. She came back dripping and breathing hard. As she toweled off our eyes met.
“College?” I asked.
“You swim in college?”
“Yes. What gave it away?”
“You fishing for compliments?”
I laughed. She smiled, finished drying and pulled off her cap. Her hair tumbled down. She sat on her lounger, facing me.
“Elquekay?” she asked.
“L.Q.K. Lynn Quinn Kirk. You here with the group?”
I was disappointed. She saw it on my face.
“Not a fan?”
“No. I mean, it’s not that I’m not a fan. I wouldn’t know enough to make a judgment.”
“But you’re skeptical?”
“The general concept. Of someone offering answers.”
“I don’t know about answers, but she seems to have a lot of questions.”
“You mean the TVs?”
“They can be intrusive. But they can be something else.”
“Helpful. Her questions. Have they found any” – she paused, looking for the right word – “resonance?”
I loved being blunt. It was the only fun in talking with strangers.
“Do you think she’s asking the wrong questions?”
“I haven’t considered the questions,” I said. “I’m still trying to figure out why she’s asking them.”
She didn’t seem offended, a sign that she’d had these types of conversations before.
“You may be overthinking them,” she said. “The questions, I mean.”
“Is overthinking a bad thing?”
Only when it manifests itself in resistance.”
“Resistance to what?”
“To answers. Answers that motivate you toward an examination ethic.”
“But wouldn’t that come at the expense of cosmic linearity?”
I don’t know why I said it. Or I did. I’d been hearing advice for 18 months from just about everyone. I didn’t need to hear any more. The swimmer sat there, perched on her lounger, looking at me.
“- hey, Ally - ”
“ – what is - ”
“ – hey, Ally.”
A small group had entered the pool area. One of the men was waving at the swimmer. She looked their way. We watched as they settled into some loungers at mid-pool.
“Ally, wanna race?” a woman called over.
The others started laughing. The swimmer looked at me.
“Guess I should go over,” she said. “Want to join us?”
“No,” I said. “No thank you. I have a meeting soon.”
She walked over to the group and said something. They laughed. I stopped looking at them, and gathered up my things.
When I got back to my room I stripped off my suit and got into the shower. I was soaping off when I decided to leave. Sterling shot me a text.
where you at?
lobby in 10, I answered.
I was checking out when a Lynn Quinn Kirk TV popped on.
Have you transcended what you’ve made of your life?
I handed my key card to the front desk attendant. He called up my account and told me everything had been taken care of. I’d made it halfway to the door when I heard my name. It was Sterling.
He didn’t ask why.
“Here you go,” he said, holding out a white business envelope.
“Numbers,” he said. “Very interesting numbers.”
His tone was different, clipped by tension. The man could just smell his third.
“I’ll take a look,” I said.
“On the way home.”
“I need to hear from you. Soon.”
I started walking to the door.
“Cass?” Sterling called.
He said something I didn’t hear. It was drowned out by Lynn Quinn Kirk’s voice from a TV near the exit. She asked the same question.
Have you transcended what you’ve made of your life?
The door swung open. I stepped out and handed the parking valet the ticket for my car. He took it and went away. I stood still, breathing in the air. I felt the envelope in my hand, but I wasn’t thinking about numbers. I was thinking about what I wanted to say to Lynn Quin Kirk. She had questions. I had an answer. Sometimes you don’t transcend what you’ve made of your life. It transcends you. A helicopter dropped from the sky. It took Daniel, and left me alone with the smell of his shirts.
The valet swung up with my car. He got out and held the door open as I fished a few bills out of my purse and handed them over. I popped the trunk and he put my suitcase in. I got into my car, pressed the GPS and started for the Turnpike. Sterling’s white envelope sat on the passenger seat beside me. I didn’t touch it. I would try not to think about it until I reached home.