I stood on the runners of my sled and looked forward. I snugged my fleece neck gaiter up around my nose and it smelled like my unbrushed teeth, raw meat, dog shit. Before us stretched some of the most lonesome country on earth. It was huge and thrilling, and we were a part of it.
An understanding rippled like a current from the dogs to me, and from me back to them. Without a word, they jolted forward, leaning into their harnesses as we glided into the coming night. The only witnesses to our silent transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness. Simon sat on a bench in Central Park—in Strawberry Fields, to be more precise—and felt his heart shatter. No one could tell, of course, at least not at first, not until the punches started flying and two tourists from Finland of all places started screaming while nine other park visitors from a wide variety of countries caught the whole horrible incident on smart-phone video.
Tourists streamed in and snapped photos with the famed mosaic—group shots, solo selfies, some kneeling on the inlaid stone, some lying down on it. Simon wore a suit and tie. Across from him, also sitting near the famed mosaic, a—what do you call them now?
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Odd or at least funny memory: Simon used to walk past this mosaic all the time when his children were young. When Paige was maybe nine, Sam six, Anya three, they would head from their apartment only five blocks south of here, on Sixty-Seventh Street between Columbus and Central Park West, and stroll across Strawberry Fields on their way to the Alice in Wonderland statue by the model-boat pond on the east side of the park.
Unlike pretty much every other statue in the world, here children were allowed to climb and crawl all over the eleven-foot-tall bronze figures of Alice and the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit and a bunch of seemingly inappropriate giant mushrooms. Dad, look! But Paige, their firstborn, had been quieter, even then. As she grew older—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—Paige would sit on a bench, just as Simon was doing now, and write stories and song lyrics in a notebook her father had bought her at the Papyrus on Columbus Avenue.
Personalized plaques were installed on the benches, most of them simple memorials like the one Simon now sat on, which read:. The beautiful Meryl, age Paige would move from bench to bench, read the inscriptions, find one to use as a story prompt. Her hair was matted clumps. Her cheekbones were sunken. The girl was rail-thin, raggedy, dirty, damaged, homeless, lost. Sometimes his attempts were well organized, like when he hired the private investigator.
More often, his efforts were hit-and-miss, haphazard, consisting of walking through dangerous drug-infested areas, flashing her photograph to the stoned and unsavory. Simon had wondered whether Paige, who had recently celebrated her birthday how, Simon wondered—a party, a cake, drugs? Did she even know what day it was?
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He walked the quad, remembering how enthusiastically all five of them—Simon, Ingrid, incoming freshman Paige, Sam, and Anya—had arrived and helped settle Paige in, how he and Ingrid had been so cockeyed optimistic that this place would be a great fit, all this wide-open green space and woodland for the daughter who had grown up in Manhattan, and how, of course, that optimism withered and died. Part of Simon—a part he could never give voice to or even admit existed—had wanted to give up on finding her. Life had, if. Sam, who had graduated from Horace Mann in the spring, barely mentioned his older sister.
His focus had been on friends and graduation and parties—and now his sole obsession was preparing for his first year at Amherst College. Her answers to his attempts at conversation consisted of one word, and rarely more than one syllable. His upstairs neighbor Charlie Crowley, an ophthalmologist downtown, got into the elevator with Simon one morning three weeks back.
The doors slid open. Charlie took a deep breath. Instead he started hanging around Strawberry Fields in his spare time. He asked a few of the vagrants who played if they recognized her, showing a photo off his phone right before he tossed a couple of bills into their guitar case.
A few said yes and would offer more details if Simon made that contribution to the cause somewhat more substantial. He did so and got nothing in return. There was almost no physical overlap between his once-lovely daughter and this strung-out bag of bones. But as Simon sat in Strawberry Fields—usually in front of an almost-humorously ignored sign that read:.
The musicians, all of whom leaned heavily on the grungy-transient-squalid side, never played at the same time or over one another. The transitions between one street guitarist and the next were remarkably smooth.
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The players changed on the hour pretty much every hour in an orderly fashion. It took Simon fifty dollars to meet a man named Dave, one of the seedier street musicians with a huge helmet of gray hair, facial hair that had rubber bands in it, and a braided ponytail stretching down the middle of his back.
Dave, who looked to be either a badly weathered midfifties or an easier-lived seventy, explained how it all worked. Gary was the self-appointed Mayor of Strawberry Fields. Big guy. Spent, what, twenty years here keeping the peace. And by keeping the peace, I mean scaring the shit out of people. Only forty-nine. Total anarchy without our fascist. You read Machiavelli? Like that. Musicians start getting in fights every day. Economic self-interest, thought Simon the financial analyst.
I also try to make it what you might call diverse. Simon knew what he was saying. He also knew that if he gave Dave two one-hundred-dollar bills torn in half and promised to give him the other halves when Dave told him when his daughter signed up again, he would probably make progress. Simon sat across from Paige and wondered whether she would spot him and what to do if she bolted. Simon had rehearsed all kinds of lines in his head.
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He had already called the Solemani clinic upstate and booked Paige a room. That was his plan: Say whatever; promise whatever; cajole, beg, use whatever means necessary to get her to go with him. Another street musician in faded jeans and ripped flannel shirt entered from the east and sat next to Paige. His guitar case was a black plastic garbage bag.
Paige nodded. She scooped the few pathetic wrinkled singles and coins up and then lowered her guitar into the case with surprising care. That simple move—lowering that guitar into the case—hit him hard.
Oh, for the past hour he had tried. Across the mosaic, Simon stood too. His heart pounded hard against his rib cage. He could feel a headache coming on, like giant hands were pressing in against both his temples.
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He looked left, then right. And most addicts and by extension, their families had a tale to tell. Maybe their addiction started with pain medication after an operation. Maybe they traced it back to peer pressure or claimed that one-time experimentation had somehow evolved into something darker. Aaron Corval was scum—obvious, unsubtle scum—and when you blended scum and purity, the purity was forever sullied. Simon never got the appeal. Aaron was thirty-two years old, eleven years older than his daughter. In a more innocent time, this age difference had concerned Simon.