He sat on the park bench covered in dirt and ash. A light, late spring rain shower began to streak the dirt on his arms. People stared at him as they hurriedly walked past. His body ached and his throat was raw. He was on the east side now, close to the 4, 5, and 6 trains. The subway entrance was just a few blocks away. He could make it there and then get a train uptown to the Bronx. That was his hope.
There was a crowd gathered around the entrance to the subway. Two cops stood vigilant on either side of it. Thick yellow tape was spread across either side. People peered beyond the cops at the blocked stairs leading to the subway.
“System’s closed,” one of the cops said.
He started walking uptown. He stopped in a deli for a bottle of water. He drank it down and then continued walking along with so many others. He checked his phone again. There was still no service. He knew his wife would be worried. He knew she probably was trying to reach him as he was trying to reach her. He wanted to get home to her but that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
He trudged uptown, almost in lock-step with the crowds escaping the city the only way they could. His legs ached, but he kept them moving. The rain ended almost as quickly as it had begun. He stopped when he was close to the Williamsburg Bridge. He could continue walking uptown and then into the Bronx and home. Or he could cross the bridge and get to his car parked in the garage near the bar he owned and managed on Grand Street. He realized that was what he had to do. He needed to clean up. He had a change of clothes in his small office in the back of the bar. He couldn’t go home covered in dirt. He wouldn’t want his wife to see him the way he looked now.
He walked with all the others across the bridge. Once, along the way, he stopped and moved to the edge of the bridge that was protected by sturdy wire netting. He tried to look down at the turbulent water of the East River but it was hard to see because of the netting. He put his hands on the wires and pushed. There was no give. He had heard of jumpers off the Brooklyn Bridge and even the George Washington Bridge, but he couldn’t recall ever hearing about someone jumping off the Williamsburg Bridge. Now he knew why. He moved back into the procession of people trudging toward Brooklyn.
It took an hour and a half but he finally made it to the bar. He had his key and opened the sliding grate that covered the bar’s entrance. He went inside and pulled the grate down behind him. He didn’t want anyone entering.
He found the remote control behind the bar and turned one of the televisions on. Every station, even the sport’s stations, were covering the explosion. He tried his phone again. Still there was no service.
He washed in the sink in the bathroom and changed into his other set of clothes. He looked in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and they stung. He wished he had eye drops for them but he didn’t. Had he been crying? He didn’t even know.
“You’re better off walking,” the lone garage attendant said as he finally unearthed his car and drove it to the exit. “Roads are jammed from what I hear. And bridges are closed for the time being.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” he said as he took the keys and got into the car.
He stayed on the local roads in Brooklyn parallel to the parking lot that was the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. After about an hour and a half, he made it to the Grand Central Parkway. To get to the Bronx he had to cross the Triboro Bridge. He eased onto the ramp for the bridge and then stopped. No one was moving. He had the radio on in the car. The talk was of all the dead. He tried to find anything but that.
“Bom bom bom…
Dang a dang dang
Ding a dong ding
Blue moon blue moon
Blue moon dip dip dip”
He almost smiled when he heard that. The song his Uncle Frank used to play on the little tape recorder he carried with him almost all the time. Blue Moon. The city was on high alert and some station was playing ancient doo wops. He listened to the end of the song and then went back to the news of day.
He tried to call his wife again, but the coverage was still down. He sat in his car near the ramp to the Bronx-bound side of the Triboro Bridge. He looked out the window of the car at the pedestrians walking across the bridge. He noticed that there was a high fence above the walkway of the bridge. You would have to climb the fence to jump into the water below. It was almost too much effort, even for the suicidal, he thought. Or maybe not.
After over an hour sitting there, the traffic, almost mysteriously, began to move. And at the same time the traffic moved, his phone began buzzing with text messages and voice mails. He didn’t bother to look or listen to any of them.
As he drove across the bridge he heard on the radio that the bridges and tunnels had reopened and that some of the subway lines were back up and running again The gate was open to the small driveway of his three bedroom home not far from the Throgs Neck Bridge. He pulled in and before he could get out of the car, his wife was out the door and running to him, followed by his two children.
“Jesus, Len.” His wife was crying. “You’re safe. Thank God.”
She hugged him tight. His wife Kathleen. Blonde, beautiful, Kathleen who he met at the Chase Bank almost 10 years earlier when he was financing his first bar in Brooklyn. Who he fell in love with almost immediately.
“Everything was jammed up,” he said. “The subways were down. And the traffic…”
“I know honey,” Kathleen said. “It was horrible not being able to reach you. But the service came on awhile ago. Didn’t you get my messages?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re home.”
He stared at her and then nodded. Yes…he thought…I’m home.
His seven-year-old daughter curled under one of his arms while his five-year-old son pushed himself under his other. He hugged both his children and with his wife next to them, his family made their way into the house.
His wife slept close to him that night; her head on his chest. He could hear her slight snoring and he could see the glow of her blonde hair in the darkness. Looking at her hair made his stomach lurch. He got out of bed quietly so as not to wake her.
He wandered into the living room and sat in the chair in the dark. He stared at the dark television until the sun came up.
The next morning he checked in with his staff and partners at the three bars he owned in Brooklyn; all in Williamsburg. He knew he had to get back to work, but he didn’t want to go to Brooklyn. His legs were achy and his shoulders sore. His throat was still raw and he had a headache that would not go away. But that was the least of it. He had a bare, empty feeling inside that seemed to be consuming him. He knew his face was clouded. He felt as if he was in a trance-like state that he couldn’t shake.
He did his best to hide what he was feeling from his wife. He tried to keep the calm, steady demeanor that attracted her to him and what also helped him succeed in the cut throat, high pressure night life world he was in. His many years studying the martial art Muay Thai and practicing the mental flow state that complemented his physical training helped him focus without stress on what really mattered. That demeanor was a calming influence on his staff and sometimes his hot head partners.
After the phone calls, which took almost all morning, his wife made him lunch.
“You’re not going in today?” she asked him as she sat down opposite him at their kitchen table.
“Not today,” he said. “The others can handle everything without me.”
She took his hand and focused her blue eyes on him. “That’s good, ‘cause you’re not yourself. Maybe you’re coming down with something. I know what happened yesterday was horrible, but I don’t remember you taking it this hard back when the towers fell.”
He finished his sandwich and stood up and shrugged.
“I’m gonna go take a little nap. Wake me if I’m still sleeping after a half an hour.”
Her eyes were on him as he moved to their bedroom.
There was a buzzing sound he heard faintly in his stupor, just loud enough to bring him back to the edge of consciousness. He was in that somnambulant state when the door opened letting in bright light. He felt a nudge at his hip.
“Len, there are people here for you,” his wife said.
The buzzing that was incessant was coming from his phone that was on an end table next to the bed.
“You have to get up. They want to talk to you. I don’t know what it’s about but there are a lot of them.”
He pulled his body up and grabbed the phone. There were over a dozen messages.
“What people?” he asked.
“Outside, Len. Trucks. Reporters. Something happened. They want to talk to you.”
She had his attention now. He got out of the bed and headed to the front door. As soon as he opened the door, voices shouted to him coming from multiple directions from people holding microphones.
“Are you Len Buonfiglio?” They asked in unison.
They were standing on the other side of the fence of his front lawn. There were vans with satellite dishes on them. His wife was standing close behind him.
“What’s going on, Len?” his wife asked.
“Are you Len Buonfiglio?” they asked again.
His neighbor, rotund Victor Casale pushed himself to the front of the fence. He was smiling broadly at Len.
He slowly made his way to them at the fence. He looked at Casale. And then looked at the mass of reporters.
“Yeah, I’m Buonfiglio. Why?”
One of the reporters up front had a tablet. He held it up to Len and pressed the screen. He watched what they showed him but showed no expression.
“Was that you?” the reporter asked.
Len just stared at the screen.
The reporter pressed the screen again.
“Look again,” he said. “Is that you?”
“Oh my god,” he heard his wife mutter as she stood close behind him looking at what the reporter was showing him. Seeing what he was seeing.
Len stood there.
The other media barked a flurry of questions his way.
“Why did you do it?”
“Are you a paramedic?”
“What made you risk your life?”
He said nothing. He didn’t expect this. He didn’t want this.
Victor Casale extended his hand over the fence to Len.
“The video is all over the news, Lennie. I knew it was you right away when I saw it. You’ve made the neighborhood proud,” Casale said.
Len stared blankly at his neighbor’s hand but did not shake it.
“Len?” his wife whispered. “I don’t understand.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. He didn’t know what to say to her.
“I don’t understand at all,” she said and then ran back into the house.
The press remained camped in front of his house all afternoon. The phone calls on his cell phone were from friends and relatives who had seen the news. He listened to a few of the messages. They all wanted to talk to him. To tell him how proud they were of him. He didn’t call any of them back.
His wife retreated to their bedroom and shut the door. He could hear her sobbing in there. He should have known this would happen. After awhile he went into the bedroom. She had the shades pulled down and it was dark. She was sitting on the bed with her hands on her lap.
“I didn’t want you to freak out or anything,” he said to her. “I didn’t want you or the kids to know how close I was to it.”
She picked her head up to look at him. Her eyes were red. “I’m your wife, Lennie. You don’t tell me something like that? How could you do that to me? How could you let me find out like this?”
“I didn’t know it would turn out like this.” He waved his arm toward the front lawn and the media circus camped there.
“No? How could it not?”
“I’m okay. It’s all okay,” he said as he sat on the bed next to her. He took her hand in his.
He knew it wasn’t. And she knew too.
“What were you doing down there anyway?” she asked. “You said you were in Brooklyn and staying at the bar. What were you doing in Manhattan so early? You never told me you would be in Manhattan. You’ve been doing that a lot lately and I never said anything about it. Should I have, Lennie?”
He didn’t answer her.
“Are you going to tell her today,” the woman with the long dark hair who lay naked by his side said to him. Her hand was on his burly chest as they lay there. She turned her big brown eyes on him.
“Today. I promise,” he said and then caressed her hair, looking down at her wondering how all this happened and where it would ultimately go. There had been plenty of temptations at work but he never succumbed. He never indulged like some of his partners had. He was faithful to his wife and to his family. He loved them too much to risk losing them.
And then he met her. It was innocent at first. She would come in early and they would talk before the bar got crowded. She was an immigrant from Lebanon. She was smart; an associate art professor at Columbia; the youngest in the department. He had studied art too but gave it up a long time ago. Maybe that was a reason he felt such an attraction to her. She pursued what he always wanted and never did. He just didn’t know. So when she came to the bar, they would talk about art. But not just art—they talked about everything. They talked about things he never talked about with his wife.
She knew he was married and had children. She knew it from the beginning. Though he wanted her very badly, he couldn’t do it. He would not cross that line. He didn’t want her to think of him that way; as a man who betrayed his family for a fling; an affair. She knew he was holding back; that he was trying to be honorable. But it was a lost cause—for both of them. Still, it had to come from her. He would never make the move. It took a while, but one night, after maybe one glass of wine too many, she finally said: “Come home with me.”
He knew what it would mean to his life. He always tried to stay strong. To do the right thing. To be a man of honor. But when he heard those words from her, he did not hesitate.
He gave it time to see if it was just a temporary affair; a mid-life crises, something like that. But it wasn’t. He was sure it wasn’t.
“I hate this,” she said. “I hate that your children will be hurt. I hate that your wife will be hurt, but I need you in my life, Len. I need to see you every day. Do you feel the same way? Please don’t do this if you don’t. I may be tiny, but I’m fierce. I can take it.”
He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t express himself like she just did, but the feelings were the same. He knew it would be very hard on Kathleen and his kids. He knew what it would do to his life, but he couldn’t live like this; cheating on the sly.
“Yeah, today,” he said.
They dressed and walked out of her apartment together, stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. She had an English muffin with an egg and cheese. He had a bagel with cream cheese. They sat at a small table and ate quickly. They walked to the subway with their coffee. She had to get uptown for a class she taught. He hadn’t showered and knew he had to before he went home. He would go back to her place, shower, and then go back to Brooklyn to get his car before driving back to the Bronx. He wanted to be home well before the kids were back from school. He didn’t want them around when he told his wife what he had to tell her.
“Your hand is all sweaty,” she said.
It was. His mouth was dry too. His mind was on what he was going to say to his wife. How he could possibly explain his betrayal. How he could admit to her, the mother of his children; that he wanted to be with someone else.
“Just think of that land of promise,” she said, sensing his discomfort.
He grinned at her. “You mean the “Promised Land,” like that song?”
She loved her reggae music and he knew there was a song with that title on a mix she downloaded for him onto his phone.
“No, I mean the Land of Promise.”
“Oh that one?” He smirked.
“Yes funny man.” She pinched his bicep. “I mean it. Somewhere small and beautiful and always warm. I hate the cold. It’s better when it’s warm. It’s going to all work out, Len, isn’t it?” She looked up into his eyes.
“It is,” he said, but he wasn’t so sure.
They were in front of the subway entrance. She stopped and hugged him. Her smile radiated brightly as she took both his much larger hands in hers, squeezing them. She wore big blue-rimmed glasses. Her dark hair was in a ponytail. She got up on her toes; he was over a foot taller than she was, while he bent to meet her lips. They kissed and then she started down the subway steps, turning to him, smiling tentatively before disappearing into the subway station.
He walked away from the station and put on his ear buds. Her talk of the land of promise, or whatever it was, made him want to hear that reggae mix. He played it on the sound system of the bar whenever she came in. He was hoping it would soothe him. He was anxious about what he had to do. That tune, “Rollin’ Down” or was it “Rain From the Sky,” was the first track
He was a block and a half away from the subway station when, over the music, he heard what sounded like a bomb go off and felt the ground shift under his feet. He froze for a moment and then, no longer thinking, just reacting, turned and sprinted back to the subway. He saw others running in the opposite direction. He almost knocked a woman over as he ran. Smoke was fuming out of the subway entrance. Without hesitation he ran down into heavy darkness.
“Nura,” he shouted.
He heard cries and he heard groans. There were bodies on the ground blocking him from getting further into the tunnel and even to the turnstile. From what he could tell through the dense smoke there were a pile of bodies scattered around the entrance to the train tracks. A train was stuck in the station; there were no lights from inside. Some of the bodies were moving. Most weren’t. One of the moving bodies was blocking the turnstile, slumped against it. A woman. But it wasn’t Nura. The woman was coughing. His first response was to move her to the side so he could find Nura. He had to move her to get into the tunnel and the train that lay broken on the tracks. She was in there. He was sure of it. He had to clear a path. That was what he wanted to do. For no reason he could comprehend at the time, he picked up the woman, and carried her up the subway steps to the street and after setting her down gently on the curb, he ran back down into the station.
“Nura!” He screamed now.
A voice called for help. Was it her? He wasn’t sure. He looked at the dazed open eyes of one of the bodies. He picked that one up too, heavier than the last, and carried it up out onto the street placing it next to the other and then went back down again. He did that four other times, each time his calls to Nura were more frantic. The smoke in the tunnel was thicker. His eyes were burning and so was his throat. Still, he had to go back down there. The next one would be her. He was sure of it. He had to get her out.
He sucked in the air outside and started toward the subway entrance again but this time he was blocked by an army of police, paramedics and firemen who, seemingly, appeared out of nowhere. They were streaming down into the subway. He knew he was struggling with someone; he wasn’t sure if it was a cop or someone else; two of them held him tight. He tried to land a roundhouse kick to one of them but his legs were heavy. He couldn’t lift them that high. They wrestled him away and then kept an eye on him. He wandered around for a few moments and then ran back and tried to get down into the station again, calling her name. Again he was blocked by a cadre of first responders. He couldn’t get back down. He couldn’t get to her. They wouldn’t let him.
When the victims were identified, the newspapers published pictures of them all. He stared at the portrait of Nura Azar provided by Columbia University. In it she was smiling…beaming. The photograph made her skin look darker than it really was. Or than he remembered it was.
He wondered what he should do. He felt obligated to do something for her. As far as he knew she only had one living relative, a sister who lived in Paris. He called the coroner’s office to find out details; if her remains were picked up. The coroner’s office would not talk to him. He wasn’t an authorized family member. He called Columbia University and inquired about her there and got the same blowback. They wouldn’t talk to him. He tried to identify someone, anyone, with the Azar surname in France. There were hundreds and he started to make some calls, but he couldn’t speak French so got nowhere.
In the weeks after, he was contacted by movie producers, book publishers, literary agents, television networks and others who wanted to sell his story. He talked to none of them.
It took him awhile to go back to work and when he did his partners wanted to exploit him; to promote the bars by using his tabloid name, “The June 1st Hero,” in connection with the bars. He never went back after that and did his business with them from home. But really, he didn’t do much of anything.
It was late summer when he sat with his wife and children on folding chairs set up just below the steps to City Hall. He wore a navy blue jacket, a white dress shirt and dark sunglasses. The heat was intense and he knew he had sweated through his dress shirt. His wife wore a dark green dress and the children were immaculately attired and groomed as if they were going to Easter Mass with their grandparents. They were just a few blocks from the site of the explosion. The Mayor was going on about Len’s bravery that day. How he risked his life and saved six people. He was going to present him with the keys to the city for his bravery.
He had resisted. He didn’t want this, but the Mayor had been persistent. He and his staff put the pressure on him to hold a ceremony to honor him. They pressured his wife.
“It has to be done,” Kathleen said. “But promise me, Len that you never ever tell them the truth as to why you were there that morning. That’s all I ask from you. For our sake. Don’t humiliate us by telling them the truth.”
She didn’t have to ask. He knew that secret was something he would have to keep inside him. That was where it belonged. Along with so much else he could never let out.
Now he had to stand up there with the Mayor who gushed about his heroism. As if he rescued those people because he was brave. The survivors were there, assembled close to him. They hugged him in gratitude. If they only knew that he didn’t care about them. There was only one life he wanted to save. They were in the way. And they were lucky they were. He carried them out of there to clear the way—to get to her. That was what he told himself. He was convinced of that. And now he was being called a hero. The thought made him sick.
He glanced at his wife as he stood next to the Mayor. He marveled at how beautiful she was. She looked back at him and then quickly looked away. He stared at his children. He lived a charmed life, he thought. He wasn’t sure when, but knew now that life was coming to an end.
The Mayor smiled and shook his hand firmly and handed him the key to the city. He played along as best he could. He even smiled when he took the key.
The city provided a limousine to take the family home. They were quiet in the car. His son slept against him. The air conditioning was drying the sweat on his shirt. They were on the Bruckner when he stared out the window. Dark clouds were forming north of the glorious ugliness of the South Bronx. There would be a thunderstorm soon. He could see the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance. He looked at how high the bridge was elevated above the water. His eyes went from the bridge’s apex down to the water below; he estimated it to be a very long drop.
He looked away and instead stared at his beautiful daughter and son. He tried to get the image of the bridge out of his mind. He closed his eyes tight and thought about being somewhere else. He tried to think about the Land of Promise.
When they got home, his wife went with their son to help him change out of his clothes and hang up his jacket. He went into their bedroom and took the leather case that held the key to the city out of his pocket. He opened it up and removed the key from the case. He looked at it closely. It was gold and had the Mayor’s name engraved in it. He studied the key a moment more and then shoved it deep down in his dresser drawer under a pile of socks and underwear.
Brian Silverman has been a professional writer for over 30 years. A lifelong love of mystery literature along with his knowledge of the Caribbean prompted him to write “Breadfruit” which was published in the Fall 2107 issue of Mystery Tribune and was selected for inclusion in the Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Otto Penzler and Louise Penny. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.