THE PLACE WHERE HE BELONGS
BY JIM FUSILLI
After nearly twenty years at the United Nations, his wife was offered a position with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and she was thrilled. He was not. “Jeff, are you sure you’ll be all right leaving here?” she asked. What could he say? A fair-minded man would acknowledge she’d sacrificed for his career.
During the first week in town, they were invited to a cocktail party in Cambridge. “How long had you lived in New York?” inquired one of her new colleagues.
“Forty-nine years,” he replied.
“And you are…?”
“Forty-nine,” he said, scratching his two-day growth.
“Oh my goodness,” said the man’s wife, “I wonder what you’ll make of us.”
When they were leaving, the host called him Joe.
They settled over by the Museum of Science, and he explored the music clubs-the Dise and T.T. the Bear’s, mostly. He went to shows at the Orpheum, where he had opened for Jesse Colin Young long ago, and concerts at the colleges and at Berklee, roaming by himself while Maya prepared for her lectures. A few musicians he worked with in the ’80s played the Garden, and he walked over, hunched and shivering in a biting wind as he crossed the Charles. Backstage, hugs all around and “What are you up to?” “You know,” he shrugged.
He called Club Passim and asked if he could do a set or two. Thank you, no.
Soon Maya said they were better suited to Beacon Hill, near where several of her colleagues lived, and she found a condo on Beacon Street, two floors in a brownstone built in 1848, the former French consulate, reasonably priced by Manhattan standards, an investment in a down market, and with space for his music room. “Your call,” he said, since he’d made only $6,200 in royalties in the previous year.
She said that she felt revitalized by the new city, that Harvard was a miracle of intelligence and discourse. She was learning, and having fun. He noticed that she no longer asked if he wanted to go back to New York. Boston was becoming her home, while he felt he’d been exiled.
With little else to do, he soundproofed an upstairs bedroom and brought in his equipment-his upright piano, his guitars, a classic Fender bass, his old reel-to-reel tape recorder, mikes and stands, cables, and silver tape. He put baffle over the windows, his old Persian rug on the floor. His platinum album went downstairs in the living room. The label had sent one to every songwriter who contributed to the Grammy-winning soundtrack album. His tender love song was performed at weddings, and even people with little interest in pop music knew the words he’d written. This went on for years, the money rolling in. Then a comedian did a version on Letterman, mugging it up as he serenaded a pig in a straw bonnet. No one took the song seriously from then on. You couldn’t listen to the original version without thinking of the comedian, his rubbery face, squealing voice, and the damned pig. In time, his publisher dropped him. Who’d sing any tune written by a man whose music was so easily ridiculed? Fortunately, they’d set aside enough money for their son to finish at Stanford. His wife had preached frugality even in his best years: before the chaos of his sudden acclaim, they’d planned on having more children. They tried even when it seemed too late.
Beacon Hill was unbearable. He couldn’t find its rhythm, couldn’t recognize the cues. He was out of place, and nothing he did made him feel any better. Daily life was a relentless series of insults and indignities. People were smug and complacent. Common courtesy didn’t exist. No one said hello or thank you or held open a door. His wife, a temperate soul, couldn’t disagree completely when he said there was something odd and off-putting about the place. A cleaner on Charles Street misplaced two of her suits for nine days and never apologized. She’d ordered a case of wine for a party at their apartment and it never arrived. “Service isn’t a priority,” she concluded. He couldn’t find plantains at the grocer’s, and the bagels sucked. No one knew what he’d done.
She loved her job, and called the neighborhood a walker’s delight-the town houses, antique shops, Acorn Street, the esplanade on the Charles, the way the sun shone when spring finally arrived. She took his arm as they crossed the Salt-and-Pepper Bridge, sailboats gliding below.
After Maya went to bed, he’d walk across to the Public Garden, his guitar and case in hand, hoping something would come to him. In Washington Square Park, he’d have drawn a crowd. Here, nobody cared. During the day, he’d slip into a T-shirt, tug on jeans, and bring a sandwich to a bench where he’d watch swans drift on the lake; nearby were flowers and nannies with cheery babies running on chubby legs. He’d smile, nod, but no one responded. In New York, he’d meet friends for lunch. He’d see people on the street. Everybody was open and welcoming. Hey, Jeff! they’d shout. Here, there was no refuge, no place to hide. He was a balloon drifting toward the high, boundless sky.
Staring at his platinum album, he saw his gaunt, ghostly reflection and was surprised to find he was still there.
“Did you hear about the baby?” Maya said, as she hung up her skirt.
He shook his head. “I didn’t go out.”
She was going to ask if he heard it on the radio, but he’d become completely disengaged. He’d even stopped streaming WNYC. “A baby is missing. Stolen.”
She came to him with a flier she’d been given at the Charles Street T station. It said the baby was taken in the Public Garden yesterday. She had been sitting in a stroller over by the Make Way for Ducklings statue. So many children were laughing and playing. One fell and cut a knee on the cobblestone. When a nanny rushed over to help, leaving the infant’s stroller for a moment…
“You could jump into a car and be on 90 to New York in five minutes,” he said.
“They’re looking for people who were in the park to help.”
“Good luck.” He had it in his mind Beacon Hill wouldn’t piss on somebody if he was on fire. He didn’t believe her when she said it wasn’t Beacon Hill’s fault, reminding him that he’d struggled for the past few years in New York.
He went to his studio while she made dinner-salmon and a cold rice dish she’d picked up on Charles Street. When he came down, she was pouring Pinot Grigio as she read a working paper on the Fair Trade movement.
After they ate, he brought the dishes to the sink. Soon soap bubbles rose and popped.
“Jeff. Are you coming?”
He grabbed a towel. “Where?”
“To the vigil, remember? Everybody’s helping with the baby.”
“Stop it,” she said. “I’m going. I wish you would.”
“I’ve got work,” he told her. “I’ll be upstairs.”
After he brought the trash to the basement, he walked outside and stood on the steps. Over in the Public Garden, hundreds of people were fanned out, studying the grass and grounds, looking into the tulip beds, hoping for a clue, any tidbit of information, a revelation. Klieg lights police had stationed on the pathways shed an eerie glow throughout the park, and there were long, quivering shadows. Kids in shorts and hoodies served cold drinks. An uncomfortable silence and an unsettling sense of dread filled the early summer air.
Maya was over by the Angel of the Waters, the statue that reminded him of one with the same name in Central Park, and she was chatting with a thick, busty blonde. As the other woman lectured, Maya folded her arms, solemnity on her face. When she spotted him, she beckoned him with a wave, but he pointed upstairs and made a little gesture like he was strumming a guitar. Then he went back inside.
“I’m onto something,” he said when she returned. “Don’t be surprised if I don’t come to bed.” He held up a cloth sack she’d gotten at the Museum of Fine Arts that he’d filled with snacks and something to drink.
“Jeff,” she said, as she kicked off her flats, “look at this.”
Another flier. A sketch by a police artist.
“It looks like you, Jeff.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said, as he nudged it back toward her.
“Gail McDermott thought so.”
“The blonde on the first floor…Runs a PR agency…”
He didn’t know anyone in the building. “No,” he said, tapping the flier, “that guy is old. He’s half bald. Scruffy. It’s not me.”
“I didn’t say it was you…”
“I’m going upstairs.”
“They’re going to drag the lake tomorrow,” she told him.
Walking away, he said, “She’s not dead.”
He couldn’t keep the baby in his music room. It was as dark as a cave, and the soundproofing left the air stagnant and stale. He’d changed her and fed her and burped her and held her, tickled her chin, combed her downy hair with his fingers, bathed her with warm water with a face cloth, cooed at her, sang to her, played little figures on the piano. But the carton he converted to a bassinet was stupid, and she needed sunlight, so he brought her downstairs into the kitchen and sat with her on his lap by Maya’s basil plants and thyme leaves.
“Hey baby,” he said as he cuddled her in his arms.
Out on Beacon Hill, people had pulled their chins out of the air and were treating each other with decency and humility. They had a cause bigger than themselves now, something beyond parading their imaginary status. Or so he assumed. He hadn’t left the apartment grounds since he took Baby Alice. Remembering that a few residents in the building didn’t retrieve their Globe until the day’s end, he brought her to the center of the king-sized bed, nestled her on goose down, and took the creaking spiral staircase to the lobby. As he started back up, the Globe under his hand, he heard the baby cry and hurried back to scoop her in his arms. He said, “It’s all right, baby. Everything’s all right.” He bounced her and rubbed her back until she sighed and stopped fussing. He kissed her moist cheek.
Down in her office in apartment 3, statue-still and silent, sat Gail McDermott, who, though she tried, couldn’t convince herself she hadn’t heard a baby’s cry. Fresh cup of coffee in hand, she lifted the flier with the police sketch from her in-box, and yeah, it did look like Maya’s husband, that New Yorker who was some sort of musician, the odd, scowling guy who dressed like a teenager and looked like he needed something no one could provide.
“Jim,” she called as she knocked again. “Jim.”
He opened the door a crack. “It’s Jeff,” he said.
“Jeff.” Gail McDermott introduced herself by handing him a business card. “I heard a baby.”
“Not here.” He scanned the card. McDermott Communications, it read. Specialists in Crisis Management. The building’s address was printed below.
“Do you have the baby?”
“Do I have-”
McDermott pushed in, and he watched as she surveyed the living room. Plain, plump, and round-faced, she wore business slacks and a snug white silk blouse. No makeup, her hair tucked behind her ears. Flip-flops and a PDA on her belt.
“No baby here,” Jeff said, standing by the door.
“I could’ve sworn-What’s this?” She stared at the platinum album, framed on the wall. “I love this movie. Wait-You wrote this song? That song?”
The one with the pig, he thought, yeah.
“That was my sister’s wedding song.” She turned. “That’s a beautiful song. Wicked beautiful.”
Upstairs, Baby Alice let out a cry. He sank as he realized he’d left the door open to his soundproof studio.
“Oh, Jeff…” McDermott said, puffing up.
Maya and Jeff, the baby in his lap, faced McDermott, who sat behind her desk, the Angel of the Waters in the Public Garden over her shoulder. Like Jeff, she’d converted a bedroom to a workspace.
“Why?” Maya repeated.
He said, “I don’t know why.”
“Was she in danger, Jeff?” McDermott asked.
“No. She was asleep.”
“Tell me what you were thinking…”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t thinking. I just, I don’t know, reacted.”
“To what?” Maya asked.
Is a man who no longer matters supposed to understand why he did something? “I don’t know. Really,” he replied truthfully. He looked down at the baby, who slept peacefully. Here, Maya, he wanted to say. I’m sorry. Take her and let’s go home.
But it was more, and much less, than that.
“Ever do anything like this before?” McDermott asked.
“No. Of course not.”
“We need a lawyer,” Maya said.
“I’ll get you one,” McDermott replied, holding up a blunt index finger. “But let’s think this through…”
She’d wriggled politicians, businessmen, and academics out of worse situations than this. Had the Patriots listened to her, the nation wouldn’t think of them as cheaters. Had Larry Summers, he’d still be president of Harvard.
She rubbed her temples. Stealing a baby from a stroller could seem a low thing. It had to be spun right. The guilty party had to define the crime.
“It was an impulse,” Jeff said.
“So this is what you do in New York? You have an impulse and you steal a baby?”
He hung his head.
“Have you called the police?” Maya asked. She was still stunned, the morning a blur since she was pulled from the lecture hall.
“That’s not at the top of our agenda,” McDermott replied. “We have to inculcate Jeff here.”
“Are you saying we sneak the baby back into the park?” Maya asked.
“We could do that,” McDermott replied. “But how does that help him?”
Maya frowned. “For one, he may stay out of jail…”
“That’s the minimum outcome,” McDermott said as she stood. “We can do better than that.”
Jeff brushed the baby’s hair from her forehead.
“Why does he take her?” McDermott said as she started to pace. “He’s distressed, his career in shambles, no one acknowledges him. He has a sort of psychotic breakdown. Do I have that right, Jeff?”
“Just about,” he admitted.
Maya looked at her husband, surprised he’d said it aloud.
“Or he’s committed an act of civic disobedience against Beacon Hill. He feels a smugness, a starchiness, a lack of soul…He’s worried the child will grow up with a distorted sense of self. She’ll be ill-equipped for life outside a tiny, out-of-touch neighborhood in a dynamic city, a great nation.”
Maya turned as McDermott circled behind her. “You don’t believe that, do you?” she asked.
“There’s less pretension on Rodeo Drive,” answered McDermott, who had grown up in the Ninth Street Projects.
“No, I meant you can’t believe the police will accept that as an explanation.”
“The police will be easy,” McDermott said. “Getting your husband back on top of the music business is the trick.”
“I never was on top, actually.” Jeff stared at Baby Alice. He wondered what their daughter might’ve looked like if ambition hadn’t gotten between his word and Maya and their son.
“Go shower and shave, Jeff,” McDermott said, as she returned to her desk. “Maya, get over to Newbury Street and buy him some grown-up clothes. I’ll watch the baby.” As she sat, she added, “By the way, I get five hundred dollars an hour, and you’re on the clock until this is done.”
Okay then. Two in the morning and Jeff was in his spot, his guitar on his lap, his fingers on the steel strings. The Angel of the Waters hovered over him, wings open, arms outstretched. Cast as far as he could see, the park was splendid under a starry summer sky, the flowers asleep until dawn. In the near distance, a policeman patrolled on horseback.
He strummed a minor chord, another, anoth-
What? Was that…Was that a baby’s cry?
He put the guitar on its case, walked to the dry, shallow fountain at the foot of the statue, and, oh my God, there was a baby. The missing baby. Baby Alice.
He scooped her up, nestled her in his arms, and dashed to Beacon Street. There wasn’t a car in sight. Damn. Plan B. He raced to their building and rang every bell. Someone answered, a man with a high, flowery voice.
“I found the baby,” Jeff said hurriedly into the speaker. “The missing baby. I found it. Call the police.”
McDermott, in plaid pajama bottoms and a Big Papi T-shirt, reached him first, and by the time Maya rushed downstairs in her robe and slippers, most of the building was in the lobby, waving at the baby, patting Jeff on the back.
“Look, Maya,” he said breathlessly. “She was in the park. Under the statue.”
“It’s a miracle,” she muttered.
“She doesn’t look hurt,” McDermott said, peering over Maya’s shoulder.
Jeff nodded. He was crisp in new green khakis, a striped shirt from Brooks Brothers, and boating shoes, his hair combed, the part where it should be. For a moment, he drifted deep into the story McDermott had concocted. He felt like a man who’d done something worthwhile.
Wanting no part of the charade, Maya left to retrieve his guitar.
The police came. Two squad cars, burly guys in uniforms. The Herald beat the Globe there, and its photographer got him cradling the baby, cops surrounding them as they came down the brownstone steps. “Sox Sweep Yanks-Again!” read the Herald headline that ran alongside a vertical photo of Jeff and Baby Alice. “Our Angel Safe and Sound” was the caption. The story on page three identified him as a famous Hollywood songwriter. They got his first name right, all four letters, and found an old photo of him sandwiched between Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt taken at some benefit show long ago.
“That was an awful thing to do, Jeffrey,” Maya said, turning away whenever he approached. “You need help.”
Citizens Bank tried to give him the $5,000 reward they’d put up, but, as McDermott instructed, he insisted it go to Baby Alice. Her parents, cordial young lawyers who were saving to buy their first home, thanked Jeff by inviting him and Maya to brunch on Rowes Wharf. Over the meal, he learned the nanny was back in Nicaragua, courtesy of immigration services.
“Glad you got that poor woman deported?” Maya asked as they walked back to their apartment.
He was glad about a lot of things, if not that. The day after the baby was recovered, Jeff was flown to New York to appear on The Early Show, where he was interviewed about the Miracle of the Angel.
“Yes, I have some new songs,” he said as the interview wound down.
“Will you be writing one about Baby Alice?”
“I like that idea,” he replied, as McDermott had instructed when she media-trained him.
Some big country music star he’d never heard of asked to hear his new material. A publisher with offices in New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, and London offered to rep him. And a hip-hop mega-producer secured the rights to his old song from the movie, pledging to turn it into a hit again, “as soon as I find the look for the product.”
When he finally returned to Beacon Hill, he hardly recognized the woman who greeted him. Despite the turmoil, Maya seemed content, energized yet at ease, all the sharp angles gone. The pace of the old town suited her, she said. She’d moved on. “Go back to New York, Jeff,” she said, and he did.