In the first few hours, confusion.
The numbers kept changing. The French were saying 121 dead, which meant—according to the manifest—there must be 11 alive. But New York—how could they have known more than Paris? more than Atlanta?—New York was insisting on 130: the French hadn’t included their own countrymen—9 dead, 2 alive—in the initial count. They hadn’t thought the U.S. would care. We had our own numbers to deal with, or so their logic went.
But by late afternoon on June 3, 1962, the number finally stuck: 130. Of those: 121 Americans.
The mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen, he was everywhere those first few hours, those first few days. He was in Atlanta at the Cathedral of Christ the King. He was in New York, with the political bigwigs, looking at mimeographs of the evidence. He was in Paris at the crash site, kneeling, his head bowed. His photograph was on everyone’s front page. He was on the television, on the radio, in your ears, in your face.
“It’ll be a month,” he said, “a month before the bodies will be identified.”
The bodies—Atlanta’s bodies—had been burned beyond recognition.
In the three days before the manifest was finally printed, the phone calls to the South were nonstop, even as they went unanswered. Artists from New York, collectors from LA, they were all calling. There was confusion in the art world about who, among their southern friends, had actually gone on the trip and who had merely alluded to the possibility.
Sidney Woolsey, for instance. Hadn’t he mentioned taking his wife and daughter? Didn’t he say something about showing Joan the Louvre?
What about Morgan Robinson? Investors had been calling his house forty-eight hours straight. No one was answering.
Del Paige—the president of the Atlanta Art Association—why hadn’t he been in touch? He would have been able to answer all their questions, but he wasn’t returning anyone’s calls.
And what about the Bentleys? The lovely, lovely Bentleys? They’d talked about the trip, but surely they hadn’t actually gone, not with three small children at home. Or was that precisely why they had gone? Hadn’t that been exactly what Raif had told them last fall, in town for the Assemblage exhibition at MoMA? Hadn’t he said that Nance needed a break? “She works herself to death,” he’d told them. “We have the maid. We have the nanny, but she insists on doing it all.”
There were people who knew what was going on, of course. Obviously there were people who knew.
Robert Tucker, for one, he knew something. He knew because he’d taken the call from Ralph McGill, his publisher at the Atlanta Journal, on the morning of the incident.
“It’s bad,” McGill had said. “It’s everyone. I don’t know what to say. I—”
Robert could hear several other extensions ringing in the background on the other end of the line.
“What do you mean, it’s everyone?”
When McGill called, Robert was sitting in his leather recliner—a gift last Christmas from his in-laws—watching as water from the sprinklers hit the lowest panes of the first-floor windows of the house on Forrest Way. For several minutes, he’d been watching. Every time, the water evaporated before the sprinklers came back around. That’s how hot it already was.
“Lily Tucker, Robert’s wife, wasn’t due for two months, but the baby hadn’t been sitting right and her doctor had warned of the possibility of an early delivery.”
“I’m truly sorry,” said McGill. “Tell Lily I’m so sorry.”
“Are you at work?” Robert thought he could hear the relentless ricochets of the newsroom, but the noise—frenetic, intense—could have easily been from a train station or the airport. “It sounds like you’re at work.”
“I have to—” More phones. “It’s chaos. Come in when you can. No. Strike that. Be with Lily.”
Lily Tucker, Robert’s wife, wasn’t due for two months, but the baby hadn’t been sitting right and her doctor had warned of the possibility of an early delivery. Her parents, George and Candy Randolph, had taken the flight to Paris three weeks earlier. “A last hurrah,” Candy had said, “before we become grandparents.” They’d sworn—sworn up and down—that they’d be back in time for the delivery. They hadn’t known of the recent complications.
And now this news.
This news that was so inconceivable that Robert didn’t immediately believe it. Nor did he immediately comprehend the event’s necessary reverberations, its effects, its consequences on every aspect not only of his own small life but on the town, his town, on Atlanta.
Robert was still in his study when he hung up with McGill. Lily was somewhere upstairs. He could hear water being run. In the last week, since the doctor’s new warnings, she’d been running baths sometimes three and four times a day. She’d be in there when he left for work in the morning, and she’d be in there when he came home. He leaned back now and listened to the water, to its gurgling through the pipes.
“It’s bad,” McGill had said. “It’s everyone.”
Robert closed his eyes and thought of Rita.
All that spring, Robert had worked to convince Rita to take the trip. “You’ve never been abroad,” he’d said. “You’ve never seen Paris; you’ve never seen Rome. You’re so young. Look at you. You’re so goddamn young. Get out there. Go see it. Go live.”
“You’re tired of me,” she’d said. “Admit it and I’ll go. I’ll do whatever you ask if you just admit that you’ve soured of me.”
“Darling, anything but sour, anything but tired. This geezer wants you to see the world.” Robert Tucker was forty-two years old.
“You mean to fall in love with your wife while I’m gone,” she said. “You mean to wash your hands with me.” Rita was twenty-three, a little more than a year out of school and only a few months younger than his wife.
“Of me,” he said.
“Of me.” She stood arms akimbo and cocked a hip. She was playing at Bette Davis, maybe Sophia Loren. He couldn’t quite place the imitation. They’d seen so many matinees by then. “You see? You agree. You’ve all but confessed.”
“Darling,” he said.
During this particular conversation, they’d been in Purgatory—what the staff referred to as Purgatory—which was the storage unit for the several thousand reams of paper housed in the underbelly of the Journal’s warehouse at Five Points, the intersection of Decatur, Edgewood, Marietta, and both Peachtrees.
“Yes,” she said. “I see. It’s all starting to make sense to me. I’ve got the plot.”
“We’re journalists,” he said, “not fiction writers. Leave that nonsense to New York.”
She slapped a rolled-up paper against an open palm. “Send her to Paris, you think. She’s young and more than arguably attractive.” She paused, pushed her hip to the other side, posed dramatically. “Ahem. I continue: Send her to Paris with one hundred–plus of the city’s most fabulously wealthy art patrons and she is bound—bound!—to find a replacement for—how did you say it? Oh yes—this old geezer.”
“She’d built herself up, pulled herself from the cesspool of the DeKalb public school system, put herself through college, and gotten a job not as a secretary but as a reporter.”
“Rita,” he said, moving toward her, putting a hand on that extended hip. He brought her waist close to his, and let his hand travel toward the wonderful bottom curve of her ass. She wore what she referred to as string undies.
One thing Robert liked about Rita—in addition to the string undies toward which his fingers were inching nearer and nearer on that day in Purgatory—was that she’d come from almost as little as he. She’d built herself up, pulled herself from the cesspool of the DeKalb public school system, put herself through college, and gotten a job not as a secretary but as a reporter. She was a go-getter; she was feisty. Smart, tenacious, outspoken, she was opinionated about everything, including the clothes she wore, which were something of a cross between a beatnik’s and a socialite’s. On any given day, the bottom of Rita might pass for Katharine Hepburn (those high-waisted, wide-mouthed trousers of Philadelphia Story), while the top half might look ready for a night with Herbert Huncke in some basement bar in New York City.
Rita whacked Robert’s hand just before it made contact with the string. “Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool,” she said.
They’d seen The Hustler in the afternoon the summer before, and ever since she’d taken to quoting from it as though she were Fast Eddie. “But I’m not a sucker”—her words, off script now—“Your game . . . Oh sure, I see now, your game isn’t for me to find a replacement in the ‘it’ crowd. No, you’ve got nicer plans for me. You think I’ll meet a Parisian. Sure. You think I’ll never come back.”
In fact, what Robert had been thinking was that he’d complicated his life. He was about to be a father. He had a fair amount of personal debt. He was in love with his wife, but he was also in love with his mistress, a woman nearly two decades his junior, which he didn’t think was fair. His age, his circumstance—Rita was right. He didn’t think she deserved him. She deserved something better. He wanted her to go away and find someone else because he didn’t think he’d ever be able to break it off with his wife, whom he’d once regarded as his best friend but since the pregnancy had regarded as a kind of stranger. He wasn’t strong enough. It had to be Rita who did the ultimate breaking. And so he’d spent all that spring advocating that she take the swank gig and cover the trip for the AJC.
“You’ll see France,” he said. “You’ll see Italy.”
“I’ll be bored to tears by that crowd,” she said. “Snobs.”
“They drink like fish,” he said. “You’ll fit right in.”
“I haven’t had a drop,” she said, “not in a week. At least a week. You haven’t even noticed.”
“It’s paid vacation,” he said.
“You’re the boss.”
“It’s not like that. It has to be your choice.”
And on and on it went for many weeks until she did finally make the choice. She gave in. “You’re right,” she said; the trip was six days out. “I need to go. It’ll give me an opportunity to think.”
Of course, by that time, Robert’s in-laws had also decided to make the journey, which had given him pause, which had made him slightly antsy, slightly sick to his stomach, in fact. But he’d been with Rita on and off for over a year, and she’d never threatened to tell and no one at work even suspected. So when she finally signed up—“to fly over with the lot of them,” as she’d said—he was happy for her. He was heartbroken and happy.
For the past three weeks, as the socialites toured the museums of Europe, Rita had trotted behind them, writing little ditties, chronicling the day-to-day inanities of the expedition:
the Parisian chill is unrelenting . . .
the women complain constantly of their heavy coats and pine for the
breezy dresses that hang, unseen, in the closets of their hotels . . .
half the group has drunk the tap water in Italy and caught a bug . . .
the other half are very nearly always hung-over . . .
Her daily column had been a hit with readers. McGill had been talking about raising her up in the ranks, moving her from beat coverage to a weekly column all her own—“Girl About Town,” he’d been calling his idea. “Girl About Town.” He was charmed by his own generosity. It was to be a surprise when she returned. The entirety of the AJC staff—not just Robert, not just McGill—had been proud of their cub, of the valiant effort she’d put in rubbing elbows with the city’s elite. There’d been a general upswing in the mood of the newsroom just yesterday simply because Rita was coming home. In one day, their Rita would be returned to them. They were gay as gay could be.
But something had gone wrong.
Something horrible had happened.
The jet had begun its takeoff, yes.
But in less than a minute, in fewer than ten seconds in fact, if the eyewitnesses were to be believed, the plane had returned to the runway, its metal belly slamming hotly and lethally—and, oh god, that terrible sound!—into the earth.
Candy and George and Rita, too, they were all gone.
The phone rang again. Robert picked it up, pushed the switch hook to terminate the call, then restored the handset to its housing. He yanked the cord from the wall and stood.
Overhead, he heard the movements of his wife sloshing about in a full tub. He heard the drain being pulled and the subsequent torrent of sudsy water through the pipes of their house. He heard his wife’s voice; it was calling his name.
Lily was calling Robert’s name and calling it—he was aware even then, even in that split second—in a manner she would never again be able to duplicate, in a timbre she would never quite recover, a timbre free of grief and the intimate knowledge of immediate and insurmountable loss.
Robert Tucker was about to leave his wife.
He leaned over abruptly and retched.
From Visible Empire. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018 by Hannah Pittard.