Home | Archive | Itineraries | Events | FAQ | Columns/Links
Advertise | Newsletter | About/Subscribe | Submissions | Art Walk | Books | THE2NDHAND Writers Fund

Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

THE2NDHAND installment 23 features "SPENCER HANGS OVER NEWARK," a short story by Brooklyn-based fiction writer and music journalist (for Cooper Press, ARC and others) Tobias Carroll. The story follows a businessman on a cooked-up trip to New Jersey from a Plains state to return a wallet he stole in his youth to a convict just out of jail -- the moral dilemma in the undercurrent of protagonist Spencerís story plays second fiddle to an examination of the fleeting bond between two minor criminals: view the pdf of the issue here.

To order Installment 23 by mail, please send $2 to:

4038 Clairmont Ave.
Birmingham, AL 35222
c/o Todd Dills

Or by donation using any major credit card via PayPal (allow a couple weeks for delivery):

Tobias Carroll

Somewhere near 700 feet, Spencer looks down at the seaport of Elizabeth, streetlights like pinpricks in a child's planetarium. The 737's wing angles down by minute degrees, reaching out toward Manhattan as the plane makes its final approach. The airport beckons, a harbor of new glows and old concrete. He opts for the window seat just behind the right wing whenever he can get it for this moment: looking back over his shoulder at the ground, gazing at industry in miniature. The slumber of oil refineries, cargo loaders, outlet shops. The diminished motion on the turnpike now that the day's commutes have ended.

He hopes the rental will be waiting for him with a minimum of wait time. Couple years before, he'd signed up with a few of the agencies, reluctantly put his vitals on file. That abbreviated wait helped to coax the lull into something manageable, something that reduces the old anxieties and apprehensions into a dull white noise, a simple shrieking, easily ignored. Six hours airborne -- nine by local time -- and another 90 minutes on the road; at least another 90. The lone downside to this seat is that, barring an empty flight, you're always one of the last to leave, standing hunched over, stray strands of hair flirting with the fans and reading lights.

Spencer dwells in the moment and doesn't regret his choice. He's always traveled light on these trips. A gym bag in the overhead compartment, a novel or two and a shaving kit. If he's lucky, if he's played time right, he'll pass a K-Mart or Target or shopping mall on tonight's drive to his destination. He'll get the casual clothes there, the $8.99 three-pack of boxers, the navy blue socks and thin white undershirts, maybe stand there a while to savor the 9PM crowd and share their exhausted feeling of displacement.

He'll buy the suit in the morning, as he's done in the past, and again thank his maker that he rarely needs tailoring. Shipping costs to send it back to Boise are always high, but the line item on the monthly bill is innocuous enough. He understands this: his method is far from the easiest way to travel. Spencer doesn't care. It's his preference to do things this way, and he'll bear the cost.

Below, he sees trucks and cars the size of gnats, tiny globes of light at the end of poles. Sees buildings, perfect squares and circles fringed with rust, mats of green dividing them. All rendered in a clear night's shadow, colors muted, their motion precise and determined. He can't shake the feeling that their speed is somehow wrong, that the highway's 65 miles per hour have had their danger stolen, from where he's sitting. Consider vantage the thief of velocity.

He reaches into his pockets: wallet in his left side pocket, keys and phone in his right. Spencer is aware that he can pack his keys away until his return: the house keys and car keys and office keys from Boise will open no locks in the Garden State. And yet they're there, present because of the wet panic he feels between the moment when he reaches down and detects their absence and the onset of remembrance: keys on the table, keys on the dresser, keys in the duffel.

It's January. Bitter cold outside, he knows, and a bitter kind of cold back west as well. He'd told Alice almost nothing, alluded to a business meeting; his company had offices out here adjacent to military bases of a certain size, so the explanation was certainly plausible. He feels the plane turn and descend at a faster rate, his stomach seized by the rarefied sensation. He breathes slowly, skull tapping out something like a prayer, to slow this moment.

Whenever he stands to use a plane's bathroom and begins his walk to the rear of the cabin, he feels intuitively that he is walking on something less substantial than the floor below, can sense the tens of thousands of feet beneath his feet and the surface of the earth. It never fails to quicken his heartbeat, as though a step to the wrong place would reveal the inherent illusion behind the floor, would send him on a quick descent through the clouds. That sensation never quite leaves him until now: that final movement of the final approach.

Ten years ago: he'd been back east for a conference, had found himself wandering near the old hometown. Late-night coffee at a Starbucks, reading a copy of the Register he'd bought earlier in the day. One of three patrons at that hour, the light brown wallpaper reflecting the hanging lamps' midrange luminescence. Patterns tattooed on the walls evoking a nautical womb, a maritime sweat lodge stripped of the discomfort. Going section by section through the paper, skipping the national news and delving into local politics, sports, and the like. Reaching the birth announcements after an hour, skimming it to see if any names looked familiar, if any middle-school pals or lost loves had become parents in the past few days.

It was then that he saw one of the names: Alphonse Tilden. A wildcat dread hit his stomach, and he knew -- knew before the research, before the phone booth and the ersatz stakeout -- that Tilden was one of them. Spencer added a day to his trip within the hour, put miles on the rental he'd never relate to a soul. Sat in the car outside a hospital for three hours drinking soda and reading a biography of Harry Truman. Finally, the doors opened and Tilden stepped out. Spencer saw his face, saw his head from the proper angles as he turned to go, and received the necessary confirmation, his memory coldly embracing the moment.

Spencer took down Tilden's address from the phone book. Upon his arrival back home, he dusted the wallet off, made sure that it was free of all traces of himself, replaced the $23 that had lain within it that day in 1973, and mailed it anonymously.

It was a broiling hot goddamn July at the fairgrounds near Newark. Spencer up there with Alec and Ray, all of them fat pampered kids, barely seventeen, thinking a little danger would be a good thing. They thought it'd be smart, be keen, to make a minor-league ruckus. It was something they barely knew how to do: they'd been bullied once or twice, thrown into lockers; the near-miss boys' room fights; the stare-downs after the last bell rang, walking toward the buses parked outside. Spencer and Alec and Ray all were kids who looked away first.

Stupid kids, naive, without any idea of how to raise a proper ruckus.

The fair near Newark: Alec and Ray hinted at things, feinted starting something; Spencer called them on it and they eyed him and said, Well, what've you got?

And Spencer walked cold out through the fairgrounds, sweat wringing his eyes into squints, and stole a guy's wallet. Walked past him, saw the back pocket bulging, and reached, pulled. He figured the guy'd be onto him in a second, all of a sudden start wailing on him, but no such luck: he'd gotten it clean. Briskly, he walked deeper into the crowd, pulling three more along the way, Alec and Ray a hundred feet behind him, two hundred, gaping.

They dubbed him Spencer the Klepto when he got back, and it stuck long enough. Kept the money for themselves, tried to get beer but couldn't quite pull off the look to buy it. Ended up making a half-assed run to A.C. and getting laid up in Seaside instead, spending a weekend on the boardwalk acting fake tough and praying they'd find someone who'd sell them some beer or gin, something in a bottle to get them wasted. Down there they were anonymous, no story before that moment, no preconceived notions but their own. They tried acting like the kids who'd stared them down, adopting gruff demeanors and glaring at one another and saying, "Awright kid, you're going down tonight." They could pull it off for maybe half a minute before one of them busted up laughing and called Spencer a klepto and he'd say Yeah? And who got us the money for this? There'd be a pause and then, Fuckin' klepto! And the laughs came, and it was all right.

Alec joined the Navy a few months after college and vanished. Ray stayed local, drank hard and ended up on probation by '77. Spencer sent him a card last Christmas, but the gesture wasn't reciprocated. He hadn't anticipated that it would be.

Below him, the miniatures grow larger. The airplane's rate of descent always amazes him, a traversing of thousands of feet, seemingly at minuscule increments, and yet the final hundreds pass in a moment. Cars and buildings now rendered at a one-to-one scale, earth's plane made tangible. A forced communion with one's fellow travelers, the impending hive-mind rush to exit the plane a singular concern. Traveling light meant you didn't have to reach into the compartments overhead, could simply reach under the seat in front of you, procure all that you needed, and make for the plane's doorway.

That moment, by Spencer's estimate, is 10 or 15 minutes away. He gazes back over his shoulder, feeling a barely discernible sensation of falling, and again sees the vaporous lights of industrial New Jersey. It's a train set, he thinks, a model train set, and wonders for a moment if that's something his sons would like, if he should bring something back this time. He puts his family out of his mind then, detaching himself from his life in Boise, his home, job, car. He's a portable man for the next few days, a device with one purpose.

After the return of Tilden's wallet, Spencer devoted the occasional Saturday to seeking out the remaining three names. He kept the wallets in a locked box in his desk and, after an initial cleaning of all three in conjunction with Tilden's, never looked at them.

Recent years had been better for his efforts. A wedding announcement in St. Paul gave him a lead on Mikal Devore, and a passing mention of Nicholas Bester in a story from a newspaper in Austin, Texas, had not gone unnoticed. In both cases, he fabricated a convincing reason for travel, observed each of these men, knew his instincts to be accurate, and made the anonymous mailing from back home.

Richard Leblanc had been harder to locate.

Web searches, phone books, and the usual avenues turned up nothing. The thought entered Spencer's head that Leblanc could be deceased, but a revitalized search of obituaries and death notices was equally fruitless. Spencer tried as best he could to keep the process from interfering with his life: searching only at home when his family was elsewhere, taking the occasional lunch at the library a few blocks from work, and developing an anonymous email account for any and all correspondence related to the project.

In the autumn of 2003 he found his answer. It came, unexpectedly and unwittingly, from an aspect of his home life. Although they had met at a conference years before in Kansas City, Alice's hometown and his own shared a state; a two-hour drive was all that divided them. Her cousin Raymond, an attorney more than a decade her senior, had been staying with them over a long weekend when a call had come for him. A news story, Raymond had explained later, about a case he'd handled as a young public defender. A con man and counterfeiter who'd broken the nose and jaw of his arresting officer; they'd locked him up for years, fights within the prison walls affixing more time to his sentence like trailers to an office building.

"I had some bad ones," Raymond had said, "but this guy seemed all right. Wicked temper, though. Wicked goddamn temper." And then the rueful shake of the head. Raymond was a virtuoso at that. "Guess that's what did him in."

This prisoner -- the pugilist and forger -- was due to be released in a few weeks. He'd return to society a man in late middle age, reformed but for all practical purposes lacking a place. A reporter from the paper would be profiling him, hence the call for Spencer and Alice's guest. Alice, who was fond of such information, asked the prisoner's name, and it was then that Spencer learned where Richard Leblanc had been for those many years....

For more view the pdf of THE2NDHAND Installment 23 here.