Continued from here:
Thomas McMahon needed help. He finally had admitted that to himself, but he didn’t know what the help would involve, what form it would take. He didn’t even know, for the longest time, who to ask.
He had disciplined himself to focus more on his work. There was now no story he would not volunteer to cover, the more so if it could take him more away from the Coast than towards it. At the same time, he’d heard from his editor that so much response had come from his stories of the Coast – both outraged queries about the moral fitness of the City and the paper covering it, as well as less publicized messages indicating that whenever a new Coast appeared, sales were huge – that there was no turning back now from them. The anonymity the stories still provided him helped, it allowed him to disappear even as comment grew to greater heights.
He had responded to that night at Dulac’s as well, having decided that the girl who he had accidentally frightened a touch that one night deserved better. He asked for and received a standing appointment with her, which pleased Dulac very well – she enjoyed the steady source of income, after all – as well as the girl in question, who seemed to appreciate McMahon well enough. He trained himself to remember to suffer no illusions – her affection was bought and settled well in advance – but she had started to remain with him more and more after each encounter, and he appreciated how she seemed to show real interest in his stories about his past. If it was a pose, she was a fine actress, one of Dulac’s best in her stable. Eventually he might get around to asking her name.
But he still needed help. The hand had not returned after the third time, yet he knew that it would yet reoccur, and the tension kept eating away at him. He could not relax. At the same time, he also knew he was pushing away his increasing disgust at his work in the Coast somewhere else in his mind, and could find no easy way to share it with anyone else. Work was out of the question, Dulac and her charge too coolly professional to offer more than the pleasantries one would expect, though he did appreciate that one evening with Dulac well enough. She had refrained from the subject from that point on, and McMahon took the hint, though felt disappointed.
In this context, an invitation from an older friend he had not spoken with in a long while was a godsend, and in his response he wrote back thanking him and wondering if he wouldn’t mind his taking of the opportunity to unburden himself on some matters related to work.
“Certainly, dear boy,” came the reply the following day. “What better person to do so than myself, who has seen everything in your field?”
Not perhaps this, thought McMahon in response.
Ephraim Baker had religious parents, very religious. “They were the kind of people, dear boy, who had to make sure it was known to all,” he had once explained to McMahon. “That meant making sure all their children were named after something in the Bible, including of course myself. It didn’t take with any of us, really. We’re all freethinkers now, those of us who are left.”
When McMahon had met him it was by chance, when Baker had returned to the newspaper office after much time away to catch up with figures there from his past. He’d worked on the paper in the previous decades, steering clear of direct controversy to catalog strange and witty stories from throughout the City. McMahon had a soft spot for this kind of work – it wasn’t his by choice but he liked a good yarn, and Baker, like a handful of other writers, had become one of the City’s best at telling them. Sharp and sarcastic when he needed to be, amiable much of the time otherwise, his attitude to life suited McMahon’s, and Baker had happily acted a mentor on various points for the then-new City inhabitant. A lot of McMahon’s savvy came courtesy of Baker’s warnings and suggestions, and they hadn’t been forgotten.
Baker had been able to retire on a fair amount from his parents after their passing and lived comfortably in one of the best parts of the City, far removed from where McMahon generally preferred to be. For all that he had grown edgy of late, he still preferred to be among activity, in the swirl of humanity, where Baker’s row house – one of the finest he’d laid eyes on, he admitted – lay in a quiet neighborhood populated by the kind of sober-minded people McMahon imagined ran law firms or banks, but weren’t quite plutocrats yet.
Baker’s servant led McMahon in, and not for the first time McMahon wondered at their relationship. Baker had been frank about his own tastes with McMahon (“It’s why you’ll never see me down at Dulac’s or anywhere else like it, dear boy – I’m sure they have the skill there, but not, I’m afraid, the practical equipment I require.”) and the younger man assumed that the servant provided for all sorts of requirements. Baker had never volunteered this, however, and McMahon chose not to ask, at least not beforehand and not today.
The meal was excellent, the afterdinner cigars and brandy of the highest quality and the conversation wide-ranging. Baker had not mentioned McMahon’s earlier request once throughout, instead entertaining the other with more tales and anecdotes from a rapidly disappearing past.
“Too much is made about progress these days. Don’t mistake me, Thomas, there is much to enjoy. But in the rush for it, much is forgotten or at least pretended that never existed in the first place. You hear those occasional complainers about political influence at City Hall, which their forebears lived in terror of many people here before the Civil War, and would have joined lynch mobs then if they could. Those who remember that now profess ignorance, those who are too young can’t imagine it ever being that way. Typical follies both.” Baker puffed at his cigar with a wicked grin. “But I would not expect it otherwise.”
“You’re right there, Ephraim.” McMahon’s thoughts had been growing darker and Baker seemed to be waiting for him to speak frankly. With a mental shrug, McMahon figured now was the time.
“Ephraim, you’re a freethinking man, as you’ve always said, and I trust your judgment over that of many people – even my own family.”
“Flattering, to be sure, but you are evading whatever it is you want to tell me. Be frank, dear boy.”
McMahon smiled to himself, then proceeded, as if he was the journalist reporting on himself, to outline the course of his experiences over the recent months, not dwelling on details but providing them where he felt there would be some use for Baker’s judgment.
The older man listened carefully, occasionally sipping at his brandy, until McMahon’s story had reached its end. He had asked no questions and spent a minute or two thinking before responding. He swirled the liquid in his glass slightly, then looked keenly at McMahon.
“Do you think you are insane?”
McMahon blinked but realized that Baker did not mean an insult, but an earnest question. He paused. “I certainly can only hope not. But if I am, how could I tell?”
“True, true.” Baker frowned. “But if you have nobody to fully confide in other than myself…well, then again, what have other people thought of you lately? Surely things could be said.”
“If I knew exactly what people did think of me, Ephraim, I would have long since retired to tell fortunes from a stall somewhere, probably far away from here.” McMahon stood and began to pace. “Whatever it was had something to do with that night in the warehouse, that terrible night – and I’ll be frank with you in saying that something happened there which has affected me since then. If I seem to be in a slightly better mood tonight for the most part, it’s because I’ve been successful at keeping those shadows away due to other things.”
“Wine, women and song?”
“Wine, women and work. But no less effective for that, though I think I’m starting to give. I just know it’s going to go.”
Baker rubbed his chin. “You seem awfully sure about this even though you’ve indicated you’re in a better place than ever. I’d suggest, dear boy, that being your own worst enemy is not going to help you in your situation.”
“But what is?” McMahon’s pacing grew more frenetic, and he started to sense Baker gazing keenly at him, wondering if he was disturbing the old man with his activity. “I don’t want to live my life wondering if I’m going to get complacent and relaxed and then feel that hand again, that…awful hand.” He compulsively rubbed his shoulder, reassuring himself that nothing was there. “I’ve tried to describe it to you but I’ll say it again – it wasn’t human, and that was the worst part of it. If it was, then I could say I could understand it, somehow – could almost believe it was something that actually was of this earth. Now I know it isn’t.”
“You act as if it definitely exists, Thomas.”
“I don’t want to think it does and yet somehow I know.” McMahon stopped pacing, then settled, uneasily, into a corner chair. He stared at Baker open-eyed, wondering if that look was what caused Baker to look away almost as if he was abashed…or was it ashamed?
Baker smoked his cigar for a while longer, then leaned back in his chair. “You said I was freethinking, Thomas. How freethinking are you in turn?”
McMahon found the question strange but thought upon his answer. “I haven’t seen anything yet in this life to convince me there’s much else beyond it, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hmm.” Baker took a last puff of his cigar, then flung it in the fireplace. “I think, dear boy, that you might want to reconsider that somehow.”
“Ephraim? Have you changed your thoughts this late in life?”
Baker chuckled. “No, nothing like that. But I’ve lived and worked in this city long enough, noticed many things that nobody ever talks about. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to, and maybe I can’t blame them. Certainly I’d have to wonder why I haven’t talked about it more often, then again few have seen the City as well as I have, and maybe as well as you have too.”
“In a few years, Ephraim, but not now.”
“Well, you’re getting there.” He sipped at his brandy once more. “The City, like all cities, has its spirit, I think, for lack of a better word. Its sense of what it is. I think it is unconscious, not specifically alive, but it is there. Haven’t you ever felt something like that?”
McMahon wondered if the brandy was making either his head foggier or Ephraim’s. Still, the question seemed logical enough, at least at this stage. “So you’re asking if there’s a soul to the City?”
“A soul is too specific a word, Thomas. I don’t think that. But I think that there’s enough which goes on in this area of the world, where so many others come from all over, that it’s created something which exists independently of us all. I think when a lot of people pray to God or damn him in this City, the prayers and curses reach to that spirit, not God or anything like it.”
McMahon paused for thought. “It’s…interesting, Ephraim. I’ll have to think about it. But a question.”
“Why was it that the hands don’t feel human, then? If the spirit of the City comes from all of us, why that?”
Baker paused only for a second. “We may be human, dear boy, but are our true thoughts and actions? Perhaps the most human thing about us, in the end, might just be our shape.”
McMahon did not respond for a long while, staring into the fireplace and thinking.