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Pittsburgh Noir

Pittsburgh Noir

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       It rained on moving day, quarter-size drops splashing like bloodstains on the stone walkway. The movers cursed under their breaths and one of them slipped as they were carrying in an antique sideboard. The heavy end left his blunt hands, landing with a crash that chipped the mahogany veneer.

Andrew watched from the doorway of the house, relieved that the damage was on the left side.  Given its placement in the dining room, Christine would be unlikely to notice. 

       She had a tendency to overreact and he imagined if she’d been the one to see the accident she would have yelled at the movers and they might have abandoned the job half-done, a trail of possessions left on the front lawn to soak up the rain.

       Luckily, she’d been out of earshot, down the hall in what was to be the boys’ bedroom, picking paint colors with her mother. 

       It was their first house. She made him lift her over the threshold in full view of her parents and the movers. He’d done the same thing in their apartment six years earlier, just a week after their wedding, tired and tanned from their honeymoon in Aruba, both of them laughing as he’d hoisted her into his arms and swung her over the narrow doorway of their apartment. 

       Six years later he felt embarrassed and a little annoyed. Things were different between them. Christine was noticeably heavier, for starters, carrying twenty extra pounds of baby weight, which no one was supposed to mention even though her younger son was six months old. “You look so good!” all her friends said, as if there was some unwritten female rule to lie about physical appearance. 

       She was giggling as he hoisted her into his arms and he forced a smile. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the movers, a young man with heavily tattooed arms, staring at him with a hardened expression while smoking a cigarette. Andrew flushed and looked away, but not before seeing the man toss the cigarette onto the lawn. His lawn. 

       He hadn’t wanted to buy a house. They’d spent six years in a duplex in Squirrel Hill and he’d been happy there, able to walk to the university or stop for milk on his way home, just a few blocks to meet friends for a drink in the evening. It met all his needs, until the convenience store got robbed in broad daylight, and a neighbor was mugged, and the lawn chairs disappeared. Christine started saying that she didn’t feel safe. She talked about moving out of the city and said it was better for kids. When she got pregnant with their second son, Andrew knew his days in the city were numbered.

       Fox Chapel was too expensive for them, but Christine refused to look further out, arguing that it had good schools and they’d be close to her parents. Not an incentive for Andrew, but after six years of marriage he’d learned when to shut up.  

       In their price bracket, they were stuck looking at fixer-uppers, which meant 1960’s era ranches or early ‘70’s faux colonials, with avocado kitchens and baths, and basement rec rooms. The house they settled on—a four bedroom with potential--had a red Naugahyde bar in the basement. Andrew pictured himself standing behind it and offering his friends martinis. It was so retro it was almost hip. Almost. He felt panicky. 

       Their realtor, an older brittle blonde with orangeish skin named Tippy Cooperman, looked right at home sidling up to the bar. “You’ll have lots of fun down here!” she brayed, smacking the black Formica counter. 

She turned every criticism of the house into something positive. So when Andrew noticed that it needed new windows, Tippy said, “Look at all that natural light!” As for the overgrown, bushy, two-acre lot she said, “Such a great deal for all this land!” She pushed them to make an offer, saying it was a great investment.  

       The only investment Andrew could focus on was the time it would take to get the house and yard into shape. Christine looked at the larger homes surrounding them and agreed with Tippy. Apparently, her father agreed, too, because the next day, after they’d been out to see it with their daughter, his in-laws offered to give them the down payment and cover the closing costs.

       “It’s a good starter home,” Donald Wallace declared after he’d walked through it. He was a large, ruddy-cheeked businessman with a full head of silvery white hair, who’d amassed a fortune by tripling the size of his grandfather’s plumbing supply company. Semi-retired, he spent his days staring at a flat screen in his enormous home or playing endless rounds of golf at the country club. He was the sort of man who distrusted academia and thought even less of scientists. When Andrew couldn’t easily sum up his research in physics, it was immediately suspect. 

        Donald’s small, plump wife, Joyce, bustled about on moving day, watching over the grandkids and helping Christine direct the placement of furniture. Smiling, she told Andrew that “of course” she and Donald would ensure they got invited to join the country club.

       That night, their first night in the new house, they lay in bed in their master bedroom suite, which was painted a bilious shade of blue. Christine whispered, “Can you believe it? We’re homeowners!” She sounded elated. He felt only panic: His life was over; he was thirty-two years old.   

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A Thousand Doors

 

A Thousand Doors

THE ARCHAEOLOGIST 

     The desert is timeless. It preserves and erases, covering up or wearing away any object that settles on it. Looking at it is like gazing across a vast ocean, wave after wave of rippling sand, stretching endlessly toward the horizon. 

     It’s almost three o’clock in the afternoon—that’s hell in the Sahara in June. I’m driving outside of Luxor, away from the far reaches of the Valley of the Kings, and conscious that the SUV is a metal box, absorbing heat. I had to pull my sleeve down to open the door handle to avoid burning my skin. It’s over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

     The excavation site is behind me, and I can’t help looking back in my rearview mirror, although I know there is no one following. I have the A/C on full blast and I can still feel the heat. Nobody travels in the desert in mid-afternoon at this time of year if they can help it. My hands are clenched on the wheel, my neck is stiff. The knot in my stomach won’t loosen and my mind won’t stop replaying what happened. The day didn’t start like this.

 

     Nine Hours Earlier…

     I wake, as I do every morning in Egypt, to the azan. It can be hauntingly beautiful, the call to prayer, although not so much when it’s a plethora of voices competing to be heard from multiple minarets. I’ve learned Arabic well enough to follow along. The first call of the day always includes this line: As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm––Prayer is better than sleep. 

     “That’s debatable,” Jenny says as we pass each other in the hallway of our rented house. “I’m praying for another hour or two of rest.” But she says it with a smile, moving out of my way so I can take my turn in the cramped bathroom.

     The tile floor is cool under my feet. All the floors are tiled, different colors and patterns—yellow starbursts in the bedroom I share with Jenny and Lenor. We try to keep the house free of the ubiquitous sand, leaving our boots in a dusty pile near the front door, although it’s hard with five of us. Khaled and Patrick share a room and bath across the hall from ours.

     We leave for the excavation site early, like we do every morning, because it’s cooler then, and morning is the only tolerable time of day to be outside. We haul lots of bottled water and sunscreen, and equip ourselves with hats to block the sun, and masks and scarves to keep the dust out of our mouths and eyes. The sun is just beginning to rise as we head out, an ominous orange sliver.

     The excavation is beyond the West Bank of the Nile opposite Luxor, but it might as well be another planet. Luxor is relatively quiet compared to Cairo, but it’s still a city and a tourist mecca. On our way to work we pass the horse-drawn caleches that carry tourists from hotels to Karnak and other famous sites, before we join the traffic crossing the bridge over the great river. 

     We leave behind the noise of the city and soon enter a stillness that is broken only by our own conversations and the sound of shovels and trowels. 

When I first came to the desert I found the sameness alarming. Sand as far as the eye could see, everything a bland beige. It was only over time that I noticed the subtle color gradations and learned to spot the rare desert flower or the occasional wind-whipped, wizened tree. 

     I’ve come to appreciate the peace of the desert. The silence. Certainly, it’s better than the cacophony of Egypt’s cities. Especially Cairo, with its madness of a million honking horns and crushing hordes of people. 

     Dr. Adley met all of us at the airport there, striding across the crowded terminal, instantly recognizable, with his shock of silver white hair, hawk-like nose and craggy, sun-baked skin. “Call me Richard,” he said with his plummy English accent, animated and imposing, well over six feet tall and towering over everyone except Patrick. I’m surprised and almost giddy—the great Egyptologist asked me to call him by his first name! That he hugged all the women, but not the men, didn’t register in the moment.

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Swamp Killers

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