It had been kind of eerie, actually.
But as he walked back into Live Bait, to see Francesca staring at him expectantly, the possibilities that had occurred to him the moment he'd seen the man walk by began to play themselves out. If a vertically challenged pedestrian with a sense of humor could make the man who created Grumbler take a second look . . .
"I just had a brainstorm," he said, picking up his Coke glass once more.
"Is that what you call it?" she asked archly. "I would've thought you'd seen your car about to be towed or something."
Thomas smiled, mind working. "What about live-action?" he asked. "Why haven't we ever really discussed the possibility? I mean, I know what they'll say, 'Oh, Willow had a dwarf in it, and that tanked!' But Grumbler's just one character."
A man rising from his seat behind Thomas bumped his chair and didn't bother to apologize. Thomas barely looked at him, engrossed in his own thoughts. Francesca was contemplating, looking at Thomas over steepled fingers.
"I know what you're going to say," he preempted. "'It's too expensive.' But with the digital computer tech these days, it wouldn't cost that much. No more than animation, probably."
"They never did Winnie the Pooh live-action," Francesca finally said, allowing a thick strand of red hair to fall across her left eye. She didn't brush it away. Too focused.
"Not true. They did it once, but very cheaply, and very badly. Nobody ever really invested in it, but that's because the Pooh characters are supposed to be stuffed animals, which makes suspension of disbelief even harder than usual," Thomas countered. "This is different. All the creatures in Strangewood are intended to be flesh and blood. It's magical, but it's a real place."
Francesca looked away, then. Her eyes scanned the restaurant for nothing in particular. Thomas had known her too long, and this particular reaction meant she had something to say that she didn't think he'd want to hear.
"What?" he asked. "I don't understand why this idea isn't working for you."
It was several moments before she faced him once more. She chewed her lower lip in a way that might have been sexy if there were any physical attraction between them. Instead, it only frustrated him because she was holding back.
"Frankie, what?" he pleaded.
"I'll pitch it if you want," she relented. "But I don't know if anyone will go for it."
"For God's sake, why the hell not?" he asked, incredulous. "It's the most popular series of children's books in decades. Why wouldn't somebody pick it up?"
"They may," she explained. "But — and again, this is just me — I think that Strangewood in live-action might actually be kind of frightening to some kids, and I worry that the studios will feel the same."
"Frightening?" Thomas repeated. "You're joking! Well, obviously you're not joking. This isn't your kind of humor. But, still . . . what's scary about Strangewood?"
"There are a lot of scary things about Strangewood," she insisted. "That's half the fun, and half the reason it's so popular. But live-action is too . . . I don't know, too real. But, look, I'll pitch whatever you want."
Thomas was kind of cranky, now. He understood what Francesca was saying; had to admit to himself that she was right. There was an air of menace to almost everything that happened in Strangewood. Grumbler, for example, was so well-loved was because he was a bully, a potentially dangerous character, no matter how loveable. He carried a pair of Colt Peacemakers in armpit holsters. In the books he'd threatened the life of Mr. Tinklebum at least a dozen times. And the way Thomas wrote him, Grumbler had meant it.
But still . . .
"Look, just put out some feelers, all right?" he concluded. "With Disney snapping up the animation rights, it's going to be a hot property. Even without Nelson DeCastro."
"You're the creator," Francesca replied.
For some reason, the response struck him as amusing, and Thomas grinned. "Yeah," he said, "that'll be my epitaph."
* * * * *
The afternoon sunlight glowed orange off the glass and steel as Thomas piloted his Volvo sedan along the Saw Mill Parkway. Nathan was in kindergarten at St. Bridget's in Tarrytown, where he still lived with his mother. Thomas had moved to Ardsley, only a few miles away, right after the separation. Just close enough, and just far enough.
On Fridays, Nathan was in the afterschool program so that Thomas could have a full workday before picking him up. Most weeks, when he didn't have to be in Manhattan for a meeting as he'd had to today, he showed up around three o'clock anyway.
Now it was going on five, and traffic on the Saw Mill was snarled. Sister Margaret would wait, of course. She was a lovely old woman, not even the slightest whisper of Sister Teresa, the ancient, belittling crone who'd taught Thomas when he'd attended junior high at St. Bridget's.
The school was as boring and nondescript a hunk of real estate as ever graced the real estate rolls of Roman Catholicism. St. Bridget's church, in and of itself, was a gorgeous edifice, with a towering spire and an enormous oval stained glass crucifixion scene above the altar. But the rectory across the street, and the school next to that, might as well have been military bunkers.
When Thomas pulled the Volvo into the lot behind St. Bridget's, it was twenty minutes past five o'clock. Sister Margaret was on the rear steps watching Nathan clap erasers, a beatific smile on her face. As Thomas slammed the car door, she shot him a stern glance. It occurred to him that nuns just weren't as imposing now that contemporary thinking had allowed most of them to wear civilian clothes rather than the traditional black-and-white habit. Still, Sister Margaret was forbidding enough without the penguin outfit. If you didn't know how sweet she was.
"Hi, Daddy!" Nathan cried happily, all smiles, though he squinted through a cloud of chalk dust. "I just have to finish with these erasers, and then we can go!"
"You got it, buddy," Thomas replied, chuckling to himself. Nathan was a conscientious little boy. Truly a good kid. His eyes were ice blue — Paul Newman blue, Emily had always said — and his hair a sandy blond that could go either way, lighter or darker, as he grew. Bright, healthy, handsome, gregarious. That was Nathan. The Randalls — back when Thomas and Emily could still be collectively referred to as the Randalls — had been extremely fortunate.
But even the joy of Nathan's presence only delayed the inevitable. Thoughts of Emily brought to mind one of Thomas's favorite songs from the seventies. It was the Manhattans, he thought. "Some people are made for each other, some people can love one another for life. How 'bout us?"
He'd always believed wholeheartedly in such romantic drivel. At least until real life had intruded on radio daydreams. It had been quite a blow to him. The truth of the answer — which of course was "no" — hurt him deeply.
Entropy. Love fades. Nothing gold can stay. Time flies.
Depressing shit, all of it. But at the end of the day, he had a successful career, and he had Nathan. So in spite of the heartaches, Thomas was a relatively happy man.
"My apologies, Sister," he said as he mounted the school steps, remembering quite well the respect drummed into him over the years he'd spent at St. Bridget's.
"I'll forgive you this time, Thomas," the nun warned, though the smile had already returned to her face. "But only because you're usually so early."
"Thanks, Sister M. You're the best," Thomas said.
He turned to call to Nathan, but paused as Sister Margaret's hand rested lightly on his shoulder.
"Thomas?" she asked, and he regarded her again, puzzled by her tone.
"Is everything all right between you and Emily, these days?" the nun asked, then flushed slightly. "I mean, other than the obvious. Has there been any additional stress or . . . or hostility, that Nathan might have noticed?"
There was genuine concern in her soft inquiry, and so Thomas was unwilling to brush the Sister's questions away as he might have with anyone else prying into his personal life.
"Please understand, my interest is only in Nathan's welfare," she continued, obviously worried that she might have offended him.
"I understand perfectly, Sister," he replied. "But other than the stresses of the divorce itself, I don't know of anything . . . I mean, Emily and I have been working hard at making it all as easy as we can on Nathan. Has something been bothering him?"
Sister Margaret frowned, then raised her eyebrows and sighed.
"It isn't any one thing, Thomas," she admitted. "He just seems very distracted the past few days. I asked him if anything was bothering him and he did say he was sad, but that's not too unusual in a child of divorce."
Thomas noticed that, unlike many other members of the clergy he'd known, Sister Margaret didn't make the word "divorce" sound filthy. He was grateful to her for that.
"I suppose it's nothing," she said finally.
"I'll have a talk with him," Thomas decided. "Thanks for your concern, Sister."
"He's a wonderful boy, with an extraordinary imagination," Sister Margaret enthused. "I suppose that's not very surprising for a child whose father created Strangewood, but it's still an admirable quality."
A sly grin stole across Thomas's face.
"Did I say something funny, Mr. Randall?" Sister Margaret asked, with feigned consternation.
"I was just thinking about my tenure at St. Bridget's," Thomas replied. "In the old days, the nuns would try to stifle my imagination as much as possible. I was drawing and writing things down all the time. They thought I was strange, a discipline problem, simply because I wasn't as serious as the other kids."
"That was the old school of thought," Sister Margaret agreed. "These days, we encourage wild imaginations. The creative impulse serves the child and perhaps, later, the world. It's a gift from God."
"Daddy, can we go now?" Nathan asked, exasperated. The boy had stood off to one side when he'd finished clapping erasers, but his admittedly limited patience had run out.
"Sure, buddy," his father said. "Say good-bye to Sister Margaret, and we'll go for that pizza I promised you."
"Pepperoni?" Nathan cried.
"You bet," Thomas answered.
Nathan whooped, waved good-bye to Sister Margaret, and ran for the passenger door of his father's Volvo. Thomas reached into his pocket and retrieved the keys. He depressed the tiny button on his keychain which deactivated the car's alarm system, and called a thank you to the nun even as she disappeared back into the school.
Thomas opened his door, instructed Nathan to put on his seat belt, and took another look at the school before sliding into his own seat. It was an old building, faded granite and cement. He'd always thought it tediously boring. But for the first time, he noticed an elegant simplicity to the school, to the name carved above the door and the crucifix that hung there.
The parking lot was also the playground, where he and his classmates took recess all those years ago. With the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves of the mighty oaks that still stood at the edge of the lot, and the warm late-afternoon sun beating down on the tar, and the birdsong so familiar as to almost disappear . . . it took him back. Just for a moment.
He wanted desperately for Nathan to have all the pleasure he'd had in those years. All of it, and more.
"So, how you doing, Nathan?" he asked as he started up the Volvo.
The boy didn't respond.
"Nathan?" Thomas prodded, as he glanced both ways on Broadway before turning left and heading south toward Ardsley.
Still no answer.
Thomas glanced over to see that Nathan was staring intently at a spot about his own eye level, next to him on the seat, whispering almost imperceptibly.
Ah, Thomas thought. Crabapple.
Thomas "TJ" Randall was an army brat. His father had been transferred often enough — from Massachusetts to Texas, California to Virginia — that he and his older sister, Tricia, never spent more that two years in the same school. At least not until their father died, and even then, not for some years. Eventually, Ruth Randall had moved her children back to her hometown of North Tarrytown, New York. Thomas was in the seventh grade at the time.
Since then, it had been the only place he'd ever thought of as home.
His mother died a month before his college graduation, and Tricia had long since moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a production assistant for a small television production company. She had come back, to the place Thomas called home, only twice — for her mother's funeral, and for Nathan's christening. They spoke perhaps half a dozen times a year.
Thomas loved his sister. He just didn't know her very well. Nor had he made much of an effort to correct that situation. Writing was a solitary profession, save for those friends he made in the business — with whom he spoke almost exclusively on the phone or by E-mail — and his agent. Perhaps that was part of the reason he had such a difficult time letting go of Emily entirely. She was the only person left in his life who really, truly knew him.
In his darker moments, Thomas wondered what it said about him that they could no longer live together.
Still, as long as he had his work, and he had Nathan, Thomas was content. There were a great many things he wished he could change about his life, but he had always assumed everyone had such issues. Yet, despite the lonely times, life was a pleasure. All he had to do, in those dark moments, was look into the eyes of his son.
North Tarrytown had recently won the battle to rename itself Sleepy Hollow, since local legend claimed that Washington Irving invented his tales of the Headless Horseman, Rip Van Winkle, and other fabulous characters there. Thomas had even attended Sleepy Hollow High, which had proudly worn its own name long before the town followed suit.
Thomas drove along Broadway through Sleepy Hollow and then Tarrytown proper, glancing from time to time at the Tappan Zee Bridge, stretching out across the Hudson River in the wan afternoon sunlight. Up the hill to his left was Marymount College, where his mother had gone to school.