When he reached for the beer the waitress had just set in front of him, he spotted the splatters of dried blood on his bare arm. Up and down the inside, and a larger stain at the base of his thumb. Yes, some were dried points of paint from his job, but there was blood, too. He scanned his clothes…here and there, other spots–most small, inconspicuous on the blue of his jeans and running shoes, but there they were. He glanced around but no one seemed to notice.
"Hey, uh, miss, can you tell me where your men’s room’s at?"
The waitress behind the bar smiled without looking at him as she threw ice into a tumbler and cocked her head towards the back corner. She hadn’t seen.
"Right back there, just go around the bar, take a right and head straight. Can’t miss it."
He slid off his stool and turned toward the corner when a hand clamped his shoulder.
"Hey. I saw you back there."
He didn’t know the guy, who was about the same age but half a head taller, thin–runner thin, and wearing a blue windbreaker. The town had been full of them for the past week. The stranger shot him a look that told him that he had seen what he’d done.
"Uh, yeah, I was there."
"I thought so. I, uh, saw you coming this way and followed you here. I wanted to…man! What the hell happened back there?"
"I don’t know. I don’t know what just happened. What do you think it was? Who would have done that?"
"I got my ideas. But it happened, and I really give you props, man, the way you ran out there."
"I can’t remember what I did or when I did it. I just reacted. A lot of people did. I mean, when the second one went off, I didn’t know what to think."
"That could have been us! I walked right past where the second bomb went off. But man, when everyone was trying to get away, you were heading towards the smoke…you were one of the first ones."
"Nah, man, not me. There were plenty out there before me. I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t know whether to hit sidewalk, take off, or what. But then you see the people lying there, hear the screams… After the second one went off, that seemed to be it, so I just did what I could. But there were others out there before me!"
"I went out there too, but by the time I did, the cops and medics started showing up, then the ambulances, and I figured I’d just get in the way… Lee." The taller man grinned and held out his open hand.
"Patrick… Pat, call me Pat. You gonna have a drink? Have a drink, have a drink. We need it. Sit down."
Lee seemed to limp a bit as sat down, ordered a cabernet and a big glass of ice water, then took hold of one of Pat’s arms, oblivious to the spots of blood. Pat had to resist the temptation to jerk away… or should he show them off? This guy would understand. He had been there too.
"Pat… Pat… good to meet you. Yeah, I can’t stay long. Gotta get back to the hotel. Forgot to charge my phone and everybody’s probably trying to call. My wife knows I’m okay, so she can tell them, but man! That was… what the hell happened out there? I guess it makes sense, if you’re a terrorist. All kinds of people packed into a tight space, national… international attention. They know the kind of attention the Boston Marathon gets."
"I hope to God nobody died, but I tell you, some of those people didn’t look too good. Blood all over the place. Body parts! There must have been some kind of shrapnel, too… even people yards from the bombs were bleeding with these small cuts. Jeez, I can’t believe all that shit. Made me think of the opening to Private Ryan."
"Probably too early to say, but I think it’s gotta be another one of these right wing, tea party nuts," Lee said, tightening his grip.
"You think so? Another one? What else have they done?"
"Oh man, all over the country! That congresswoman in Arizona… I think that kid in Colorado at the Batman movie, they said that was Tea Party. That guy on TV with the rifle at the rally… that was in Arizona, too… what do you expect? Gun nuts who hate the government, white supremacists, Sarah Palin fanatics. I mean, who knows at this point, but you gotta think they’d love to attack Boston. It just makes sense."
Pat looked thoughtful. "Wow, I had no idea. My aunt’s into that shit, but all she does is go on about is how pissed she is the government’s blowing all our money on bailouts. ‘The constitution this, the constitution that.’ To be honest, I don’t know why they get such bad press, but whoever it is, I hope they catch whoever did it. And I hope they bring back the death penalty for those bastards."
"Well, not here in Massachusetts. You don’t want that here. This isn’t Texas… we’re not like them. But if I’d lost somebody out there, I might feel that way too. So… all your people are OK? You were just there to watch the race?"
"Yeah, I didn’t know anybody out there. I came down because I’ve been going every year since I was a kid. Used to bring my own kids there… until a couple years ago. I love it. It’s like the whole city comes together for one thing. All these people out running, some of them fat, middle-aged, out of shape, busting their butts to prove something. I guess I can relate to them!" Pat grabbed a fistful of love handle and shook it. "But forget about seeing the winners–it’s too tough to get close the finish line that early. I like watching the slow-pokes limping over the finish line. It’s kind of inspiring."
"I’ll tell you, Pat, after this year, you can kiss that good-bye. You’re gonna need special security clearance to get anywhere near the finish line. Only official runners they can check out in advance. Any nut with a bomb or gun can pose as a runner, so they’ll be checked and screened, mark my words. Plus, from a runner’s point of view, I don’t see why they let them out there with the people who pay, the real marathoners."
"I don’t know. I like to think it was a kind of, what they call it, rite of spring. Anybody can get out there and show what they’re made of. But yeah, I can see your point. Kind of the end of an era. So how about you? You run it this year?
"Well, to be honest, yeah. I’d just come in and was hanging around for someone before heading back to my hotel."
"You run with those on?" He gestured to the tight jeans the man wore.
"No, the wife brought them down for me… you never know how cool it’ll be after the race. Plus, you’re exhausted, low body temperature. Plus my wallet, keys, phone… Phone! For all the good it did me. Just had enough juice for a couple of calls. Good thing she had hers so she could let everybody know we were okay."
The wine and water came, and Lee slugged down the tumbler of water until the ice cubes rattled against his lips.
"Oh, man, that was good. Anyways, she was on the other side, the library side. She wanted to get back to the hotel, and I was waitin’ on a guy I ran with for a couple of miles back on the hills. He was in rough shape, so I wanted to see how he did. So I was hanging out a block or so from where the second one went off. That’s when I heard the explosions."
"That’s about where I was, too." The TVs over the top of the counter, in every corner of the room, flashed scenes of ambulances… interviews with people like them who had been there, endless talking heads. The bar was less than a mile from the finish line, and they could hear the ambulances whining back and forth from all over the city to Boylston Street. It seemed that everything in the city was concentrated on that one stretch of road.
"Listen, I can only stay for one… wife’s waitin’ on me. But I just had to talk to someone who was there. So I saw you help that lady, I saw you carry her…what kind of shape was she in?"
"Her left leg was… Well, no offense, but I don’t think I can talk about that so much now. I just got to process what went down. I mean, it could have been me… could have been us. And people lying around in their own blood… at the marathon! The Boston Marathon! I mean, what the fuck?"
"Well, again, you might have saved somebody’s life out there today, carrying them over to the paramedics. Man, I just want to tell you, that was… something."
"Just at the right place at the wrong time, as fucked up as that sounds in a situation like this. But really, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Let’s talk about something normal. You just ran a goddamn marathon! Did you have a good race?"
"Did I have a good race? The finish line blows up and he asks me if I had a good race. Weird as it may sound, I can hardly remember anything about running after… what happened. But yeah, I guess I did. I ran about what I expected, came in under four. That was my goal, my cut off point. Wasn’t hurtin’ too bad afterwards. I’ll walk funny for a couple of days, though, but compared to some people…"
"I gotta hand it to you runners. To even think about helping people after going twenty-six miles, that’s amazing. So you from out of town?"
"Yeah, not too far away, I guess. Long Island. This was my third Boston. Most unforgettable one, too. "
"So, what do you do back in Long Island?"
"Believe it or not, I’m retired, ha, ha, ha! Used to work for the Long Island Railroad, first a driver, then made it up into management. I’ve been out a few years now."
"Retired? But you’re, like, what? Forty? "
"Yeah, I wish. Forty-eight. Been out about three years now on… well, on a kind of disability."
Pat scanned the man, unsure of what to say. He looked impeccably fit and obviously must be–he’d just run a marathon covering miles at a speed Pat probably couldn’t have held for more than a few blocks. Pat’s waist size had been keeping up pretty well with his age, a couple of years more than Lee. In the silence, he felt that tug in his gut about shooting off his mouth that he usually got before he said something stupid. And as usual, he ignored it.
"Retired on disability? How’d you swing that? I mean, running a marathon in under four hours, you gotta be in pretty good shape to do that. I mean… "
"Yeah, but… it’s hard to describe. Hitting the road an hour a day is one type of stress, physical stress, you know? But work stress is another thing, psychological pressure… hard to describe. I mean, I got doctors to back me up on this, I got it all certified. They know what they’re talking about. Plus it’s pretty common… it’s part of the system, and to be honest, one of the reasons I took that line of work instead of doing something that would have made me more money. Retiring at my age, in that line of work, I’m pretty typical, actually."
Lee shot Pat a half-smug, half-embarrassed grin, a guilty admission between two conspirators. Hey… we’re getting away with it! Pat flushed. His gut tugged even more, but this time he decided to give the guy a break after a day like today.
"Yeah, I’ve heard of stuff like that. I guess I’m just jealous–that is a pretty sweet deal. I got some friends and relatives who work for the government. They’re always bitching, but they’re doing better than everyone else right now, unless they’re bankers or something. They don’t seem to be working too hard, either."
Lee blanched. "No, no, that’s not true, I worked plenty hard, as hard as you can work in a place like that. But it’s the stress… you wouldn’t believe the bullshit! The bureaucracy, the frustration… that’s the killer. It eats you out alive. Glad I’m out while I’m still young enough to enjoy myself a bit, ha, ha! So, how about you?"
"Uh, I’m a contractor. Renovation, painting, light construction. That is, when I can find the work. Things have been tight since the crash. Property values aren’t great, so there’s not a lot of people who want work done right now. And when I do find somebody, I gotta lowball the estimates so low that I make squat. There’s always somebody cheaper… a ton of cheap labor out there. Then there’s the taxes… the usual taxes and then on top of that the goddamn audits! I’m on my third one in seven years. They just keep comin’ after you… paperwork, interviews, asking for this paper, that paper… When I first started, I was doing pretty good, but now…"
"Yeah, but it must be great being your own boss, calling the shots. God, the jackasses I’ve had to work under. Bastards didn’t know nothing, didn’t do nothing. One of my bosses, this guy used to come in to work around eleven a couple, two, three times a week and then just crash at his desk for a couple hours. He’d bring in these enormous fast food lunches, big gulp-sized cokes or something. He was a big guy too, about as wide as he was tall. And this is a guy was making twice what I made. And who do you think wound up having to do what he was supposed to do?"
Lee tapped his chest a couple of time with the most put-upon expression Pat had ever seen.
"I mean, that’s the kind of crap I had to put up with. Ah, the economy’s been picking up, things’ll get better."
"They’ve been saying that for the past five years. I guess if you’ve got investments you’re doing okay. But I’m getting killed. Plus I got alimony, child support. Don’t even get me started on that."
Pat finished off his beer and set the glass down a little harder than he had to. The waitress looked over.
"You guys all set? Ready for another round?"
Lee grinned at her and waved his hand. "I’m good."
"I could use another." Pat tore the wet napkin underneath his empty glass again and again with a single finger.
"Yeah, I hear you, man. The economy’s still a little rocky for some. Maybe you should think about doing something else. I don’t know… work for a company. Work for Massachusetts, or better yet, the feds. Get one of those relatives to see if he can get you into a government job… that’s how I got mine. Maybe you’ll wind up on TV tonight, and everybody’ll want to hire the hero."
"Yeah, right. But the government job thing… you remind me of my Uncle John. ‘Get a government job!’ he was always saying. Old bastard knew what he was talking about."
Lee smacked Pat on the back and cocked his head. "Hey. Worked for me. Unless you come out of Harvard or Yale or can cook up some social networking start-up, that’s your best bet. You have job security! Benefits!"
"Well, my dealings with Motor Vehicle Department kinda soured me on operating in that kind of place. I never got along too good with bosses, so I thought I’d do better working for myself. Thing that gets me is, I’m working my ass off, either to find work or do work. I’m living in a shit hole in Lynn now. Half an hour drive north of here. All I can afford. And half the people who live around me don’t seem to be working at all. But they seem to be doing better than me! You know, they’re not raking it in or anything, but they’ve got everything that I got and they just sit around all day. All the single moms… then there’s this guy in my building, just rides around the neighborhood all day poking around on his new iPhone. Tells me he’s out on ‘disability,’…uh…"
Lee looked like he was going to say something then looked away. An ambulance wailed by. A woman in the bar was on phone, and in their silence they could hear her say, "I can’t get through to him. I called and called and he doesn’t answer…"
Lee looked back and shook his head. "Yeah, but we’re lucky. You got your health, you got everything."
"Yeah, you’re right. Timing had been a little different today, we wouldn’t be sitting here. People are dead. There are people who won’t walk again… at least on their own feet. Talk about disability…"
Lee smirked. "Yeah. Well, listen buddy. I just had to follow you in here to tell you were great out there. Above and beyond the call of duty. A hero."
Pat grimaced and shook his head.
"And you mark my words. It’s a bunch of right wing nut jobs. Boston Tea Party! That type of anger isn’t healthy. But they know how to handle kooks like that. They’ll get ’em."
The waitress set down Pat’s beer and adjusted the bill. Lee reached across Pat and snatched it up.
"This is on me today. You deserve it. You have a good one and I hope things work out. Gotta get back to the hotel, recharge the phone, y’know. Ha! Everybody’ll want to know what happened out there–and I’ll tell them about you! You ever down in Long Island, you look me up, okay?"
He walked away without leaving his last name or address. Pat finally made it to the bathroom to wash off as much blood as he could.
He stayed for a couple more beers, watching for news about who did it, why they did it. There was nothing besides the endless replaying of the same film footage: the runners, the first blast, the second, the smoke, the fallen, and the sense that thing would never again be like they once were.
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