50 to Life

Chris had nearly been at the end of his rope and this might just be his only way out.  The only thoughts that comforted him now were the thoughts he’d imagine of what life would be like with the woman he wished he was free to be with, but with every indulgence in these delusional fantasies came the price of knowing that it would never happen . . . at least not until now. Still, it was impossible to rid his mind of the image of Kim’s dark hair falling on her shoulders framing her beautifully round cheeks as she leaned in to embrace him all those months ago.  It had been one of the few times he had felt comfortable touching her, and for reasons that couldn’t be rationally explained, it was the last time he felt a touch that meant something to him.  With each passing day, however, his memory grew hazy and his thoughts grew narrower.  He hadn’t been absolutely sure that something had sparked between them, but he felt drawn to Kim in a way that just didn’t seem rational. In more ways than one, Chris knew that his attraction to Kim would be his undoing and that it could be dangerous, but there comes a point in every man’s life where risks need to be taken otherwise he’d be doomed to spend a lifetime living a life he never wanted.

Autumn came rolling in leaving a trail of dust withering with the unfulfilled dreams of summer.  The air thickened and the wind now carried a wistful breeze each day for the past week. Chris stepped outside and felt the breeze gently brush his face as he heard the brown and red leaves fall from their low branches. Before today he’d earnestly start every day with the expectation that little in his life could possibly change.  There had been an inner peace he felt knowing that each day would be like the last and although the seasons would change, his life would remain constant.  There had been an eerie solace in the promise of routine that he had grown accustomed to. Life was far from perfect but as long as he could sleepwalk through it, it would all be fine in the end.  Then as if his subconscious conspired against him, a memory of Kim would intermittently jolt him awake and remind him of the life he couldn’t have, a life that if he was free to pursue would most likely liberate him from the dull comfort of routine and force him to meet new challenges each and every day, not the least of which would be staying hidden and alive.

Staring out of the bus window on this occasion, he discovered a song emanating from his heart and it played and beaconed him towards freedom. The song that he couldn’t get out of his head was “Wanderlust” by Paul McCartney.  It wasn’t a love song by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a song about being free.  Whenever his mind jolted him out of his routine, this song would play and he’d imagine himself with Kim smiling innocently next to him on the deck of a cruise ship as they sailed for the shores of Jamaica. The wind would blow her hair about and as they’d embrace he could almost feel it sweeping across his face and nothing else would matter.  With his hands around her waist, he’d feel the tight fabric of her bathing suit and they’d retire to their room where all they would hear would be the sound of the ocean.  They’d watch the sun rise the next morning, discover whatever pleasures awaited them, and each day would feel like an adventure.  As Chris stared out through the dreary urban sidewalks, he’d turn each pathetic urban stick figure tree into a palm tree on a distant shore, and it until he turned away from the window that’s where he lived.

When the daydreaming ended, Chris found reality almost too difficult to bear.  The Caporelli family was a piece of work, and he’d only wish he’d been able to get out before he married the patriarch’s daughter. He knew enough to put a number of members away in prison for a lifetime, however, the problem was he’d be dead long before he could even get to the stand, and there was the matter of Francesca who hadn’t been a terrible wife.  They had met before news broke out of the Easter Massacre, which had implicated her family. Her father, Paulie Caporelli, had done well to evade investigation prior to that.  As the owner of a popular livery cab business, he had emerged from the 1990s crackdown on the mafia entirely unscathed despite having a hand in the leading drug and prostitution rings in the city.  Chris had been a driver and one night he had been asked to drive the boss’s daughter home and from that night they had been inseparable. A year later, after a lavish wedding he found himself married, but when he had wanted to quit his job as a livery driver to pursue a degree in business management, Franscesca balked at the idea of temporarily sacrificing her lavish lifestyle so he could go back to college.  Paulie offered to move his new son in law up in the organization, but Chris had always aspired to be more than just a soldier on the lines of a mob front.  He chose to leave his life in the Caporelli business behind and go back to school and earn a business degree, however, he found himself indebted to Paulie Caporelli for continuing to keep Francesca in the lifestyle she had grown accustomed to while he pursued his degree.  In no time, he found that Paulie had insisted on some quid pro quo and he was forced to occasionally comply with a few odd favors to appease his father in law. Sometimes, Chris had even resorted to cracking a few skulls despite the fact that he abhorred violence.  For the most part, Paulie had restricted his requests to just helping out on routine collections until it inevitably turned into more than that.

Last night he had been paired with his brother in law, Sal, on what was supposed to be another one of those routine pickups, but it had gone fatally wrong. Sal had arrived in his wind chafed blue Sudan around dusk and what was supposed to be a quickie collection deal turned into a deranged shootout of Reservoir Dogs proportions. There was just nothing else to compare it to the more Chris thought of it.  Sal had gone nuts executing people left and right once Billy, the club owner over on 9th Street, refused to cough up the outrageous vig on a two times college basketball bet over some technicality. Next thing Chris knows, Sal whips out his fucking pistol and starts mowing down the customers in a rage.  Police arrived just in time to see what was going down and the next thing Chris knew he was in a shootout alongside the last person he would want to be standing next to in that scenario.  Blood spewed everywhere.  Hostages were taken, and somehow Chris and Sal made it out alive and unidentified, but the more Chris thought of it the more he hated himself for being trapped in the situation to begin with.  It’s one thing to find yourself in fubar mix-up of your own doing, it’s another thing to get mixed up with people like Sal Caporelli and almost get killed because some loser failed to fill up the Caporelli coffers.

So, this was it. Chris decided that today would be the day that he would quit it all. He’d quit the Caporelli business, quit on his wife, and quit on his entire life even the business school.  Instead of going to class this morning, he’d rush to find Kim at her job, confess his feelings for her, and maybe, just maybe she’d run off with him and they’d find a quiet place to lay low before settling down in some hick town where they could live quietly and happily ever after.  Chris thought it would be just like a fairy tale, only this was a fairy tale full of slimy sociopaths who just wanted to control every aspect of his life as if controlling their own territory in Manhattan wasn’t enough.

Kim worked at a diner in Jackson Heights.  It wouldn’t take long to get there, Chris thought.  He wondered what her reaction would be. If she looked anything like the way she looked when they first met, he knew he was done for.  He had been instantly attracted to her as he spotted her when he stopped in to her dad’s diner for a coffee break late one night.  Her hair had been frazzled from working a long overnight shift, but she had been reading a book on the life of Elliot Ness and they instantly began talking.  He never thought he’d meet a woman who had been as fascinated as he was about the history of the mob going back to the era of Prohibition. It took only minutes before she felt comfortable sitting at his table chatting up the whole night away with hardly any customers to worry about serving.  Chris had even learned quite a few things about the role the women’s suffrage movement had played in getting Prohibition passed around the same time women had won the right to vote.  It didn’t take long, however, for Kim to spot the wedding ring on Chris’ finger and once Chris told her that he had married into the Caporelli family, a grave disappointing look had crossed her face.  Still, that first evening had been full of magic. He had so much more chemistry with Kim and found himself wishing he could be free to get to know her better at the very least.

Over the next year and a half, Chris found himself wandering into the Jackson Heights diner to see Kim and talk to her, but over time his inability to get closer to her frustrated him. One night 4 months ago before he could ever imagine being in a bloody shootout, he decided to stop going to the diner. He made no big pronouncements about it, but he just thought to himself that there was no way he could continue to imagine a future with Kim when there was no way of leaving Francesca without significant risk to his own life. Besides, wasn’t he being selfish to some degree continuing this long fascination with another woman when he had no means of giving Kim the full attention that she deserved? Wouldn’t Kim be better off finding a guy who could devote his entire life to her, a guy who didn’t have dubious ties to the mob, a guy who could maybe actually make her happy?  Doesn’t she deserve that?

It was a difficult stand to take because Chris missed Kim incredibly in the months that followed, but he felt he made the right decision for her sake.  Then the shootout with Sal happened, and Chris had an epiphany.  He couldn’t continue to live out his life knowing that he longed for Kim with every fiber of his being.  He felt secure in the knowledge that they could make each other happy if they could only be together.  As he approached the diner in Jackson Heights, he had made up his mind once and for all that he’d take a stand and propose that they start a new life together albeit on the run for a while, but sooner or later he figured the heat would die down and the Caporelli family will eventually have bigger targets and concerns to deal with.

It was still early morning as he walked in.  The smell of scrambled eggs greeted him as he walked through the door.  He took his usual spot at the corner table by the window and waited for Kim to emerge. When she did, she was wearing a red and white striped blouse with her hair falling gently on her shoulders.  He stood up to embrace her as she approached, but she shuddered.

“Chris, what are you doing here?”

“It’s a long story but we need to talk.”

“Sally called out this morning. Now is not the best time.”

“Kim, there’s a lot I need to say to you.  A lot that I’ve been holding back, a lot that I just want to tell you so you could know and react and maybe decide where we go from here. I just need a few minutes.”

“Sorry, Chris. I can’t . . . Yes, Mr. Franks – I’ll be right with you.”

Chris waited for what seemed like hours only it had been around 40 minutes.  The breakfast rush began to die down and finally Caroline came in to relieve her.  Kim approached Chris’ table with an exhausted look on her face.

Ignoring her sigh as she sat down, Chris continued as if he had never been interrupted, “Listen, I’m crazy about you. I think you know that. I want us to be together. I’m starting over. I’m leaving everything behind. . . Everything.  We can run away together.  Who knows, maybe in a couple of years we can come back to New York, but right now I need to be away.  The only thing I got going for me is that I’m not a snitch.  Sooner or later, Franscesca will meet a muscle bound blowhard and she’ll forget all about me and it’ll be safe.  Meanwhile, the two of us can maybe spend time together outside of this diner and maybe find out more about each other and maybe we’ll learn what I’ve suspected all along that we were meant for each other. I know it sounds crazy and believe me, I’m not trying to freak you out, but this is the situation we’ve been dealt and I think we can make it work. Talking to you over that year and half and being here those nights with you were some of the best times of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite as remarkable as you.  You’re a woman I admire and respect and I think maybe time will prove that we were meant to be together. Stranger things have happened….”

Kim frowned as tears welled up in her eyes, “Chris, I’m flattered you feel this way, but stop and listen to yourself. You sound crazy, and besides that . . .it’s too late.  Maybe if you made this gesture months ago things might be different, but I’ve met someone.”

Chris noticed the ring on her left finger.  The diamond was small but formidable. He swallowed some air and the more his eyes focused on her ring the more his heart shattered.  He had once laughed at a kid who wanted to be a boxer with a glass jaw, but a heart of glass proved to be far worse.  In that moment, Chris looked deeply into himself and his future and found nothing but sorrow. If he could bring himself to cry he would have, but his tears had long since ceased to function. There was nothing left to say so he stood up, said goodbye, wished Kim well, and told her that whoever gave her that ring was a lucky son of a bitch.

Instead of going home, Chris found the nearest police station and confessed to the massacre at the nightclub. He took the rap for Sal Caporelli and let the cops throw the book at him. Some may say he was lucky to not live in a death penalty state, but a lifetime of dreaming of the life he almost lived with Kim while living in the penitentiary could be considered either a blessing or a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.

The Sweet Release

He waited for her though he knew she would never come.  What time was it?  What day?  What month?  What year?  What decade?  It didn’t matter because all he could do all – and all he could think of to do was wait.  Jimmy knew he’d be stuck there and that the wait would be interminable.  Sure, he could go through long stretches without thinking of her but that would require more effort than he could muster.  A cool breeze swept over his face and he could almost detect her scent in the air.  That serene scent of roses mixed with just a tinge of magnolia reminded him of the love of his life and the pride he once felt walking arm in arm with her out of town hall when they married.  That day it was as if she had pulled him from a wreckage even though she must have felt like he was the one saving her.  That was Magdalen and she had come a long way.

Her parents brought her over on a ship from Europe when she was just 5.  They had travelled all the way from Lithuania where her father had been a doctor.  He managed to establish a respectful practice in Larose but many years of hard work and long hours had practically made her estranged from him.  When he met her that summer she often said that she had raised herself and that her mother had always been distant.  If he closed his eyes, he could just about remember her.  Those brown eyes and her those rose colored cheeks that perked up when she smiled could almost help a man forget who and what he was running from.  Back in another life, he had done some of the worst deeds one could ever imagine but almost like a baptism it seemed that almost all of it washed away the day he arrived on the bayou. Larose had always stood in his mind ever since his father had taken him fishing on what he had thought was a vacation.  No matter what his Dad had been up to, he always found time to take Jimmy fly fishing on the bayou during that summer.  The trip may have ended abruptly, but for Jimmy the streaming waters of the bayou had continued to call him throughout his maturity into adulthood.  Ugly truths and detestable deeds would pass down from father to son and the life he found himself living resembled that of his father more than he cared to admit, but the one place of solace he could find within his mind’s reach had been the streaming cool waters of the bayou in Larose.  Naturally, when it came time to go on the lam, this would be where he’d return and he would not regret it.

The glazing hot sun beat down on him that day.  It was as if the humid air anticipated his penitent soul and upon natural instinct sought out its own payment in sweat and discomfort.  It had been a long time since he had to walk in such intolerable heat but he knew there’d be some kind of toll. Jimmy had just been grateful to be granted this new life.   He had hitchhiked his way over from Atlanta where he narrowly escaped with his life.  He was determined to shed his entire life and perhaps that prior life was now melting away from his body in the form of sweat.  He had $10 in his pocket and little to no idea what he’d do to survive when he spotted the town library off Ledoux Blvd. His only thought was to get some relief from the sun.  The promise of air conditioning and perhaps a comfortable chair were enough to convince him he should head straight to where he’d find relief.

Once inside, he spotted her right away.  She was dealing with your usual run of the mill petulant teenagers.  They gave her a hard time because they had practically expected her to write their report on the English Restoration for them. “My job is to help you find the titles you asked for, and I’ve done that.  They don’t pay me enough to research and write your term papers for you,” She said.

One of the teenagers continued to harass her and the matter had escalated to some extent when Jimmy felt the need to intercede. He spoke up to the taller one whose beard looked like he had smudged dirt below his cheeks.  He said, “I’m not sure what your problem is but I think the lady has done her job.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business, pops,” said the shorter blond haired one.

“We could take this further,” said Jimmy, “But I should warn you that I don’t get pushed around.”  That’s when Jimmy took out his blade.  “You see this?”

The taller one had begun to shriek but swallowed his cry just before the sound reached his lips. Jimmy caught it and sensed his fear but more importantly the taller one knew that Jimmy sensed it.

Jimmy continued, “I’d never dream of using it over some petty squabble that could have been avoided of course, but it’s here nonetheless and I do know how to use it. “  Jimmy stared directly into the taller one’s eye and whispered, “Special forces.  Took this Schrade blade off an enemy sniper in Iraq who had probably taken it from one of ours that he hit.”

Both teens backed away.  The shorter one pathetically tried to apologize on behalf of them both but Jimmy simply waved his hands and they each practically bolted out of the building. That’s when he first noticed her. She turned towards him and though she may have been modestly dressed, his eyes studied her face and her smooth white neck. In that particular instant he thought of taking her in his arms and kissing her, but he knew that that would only have worked in a fantasy.  Though he knew he was inexplicably drawn towards her, he decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to act as casually as possible.

She spoke first, “Hi.  Well . . . thank you . . I think. Um, my name is Magdalen and although I’m grateful for what you just did, I feel like I should tell you that threatening teenagers in the library is totally not cool so if I ever catch you flashing that knife at someone again I’m going to have to ask you to leave.  So, uh . . . that’s that. I should be on my way –“

“Wait.” Said Jimmy. He was tempted to reach out for her but stopped himself. “It’s just that I’m new in town and . . . I think I need a place to stay.  I just arrived and well, I thought maybe you might know about an affordable place.  Actually, if anyone could use a hand I’m actually looking for work too . . . I know it’s a bit awkward for me to ask you like this but you seem like someone who might just point me in the right direction.

Magdalen nervously chuckled, “Well, if you know your way around a grill I know Pirot’s Diner is looking for a cook and there’s a bed and breakfast not far from where I live on Montague Street up near St. Charles. “

Jimmy boldly asked, “Would you mind taking me there?”

That’s how it all began.  The love of his life entered into it in a fashion reserved for fiction in a library no less. Jimmy now relived that first meeting many times over in his head.  It wasn’t long after that he confessed to her that he wasn’t really in the Special Forces but that he had been involved in a life calling that had been beset with violence nonetheless. It was a life that he grew into because of who his father was.  As much as he told her how much he regretted it he would never be sure if Magdalen could ever understand.  It was a risk letting her know the truth after knowing her for only one day, but he couldn’t bare to hide anything from her.  They had just made love in the quietly serenity of her bedroom in her small apartment and immediately afterwards he had become plagued with guilt.  He realized that he loved her and that perhaps if he was lucky she loved him too.

Besides, it wasn’t all bad.  The reason Jimmy had ended up on the run in Larose was because he decided to do the right thing.  Two children had been murdered during the last gang wars, victims of stray bullets.  One had been a precious little girl, a toddler just learning to walk.  When the gunfire broke out, Jimmy had been the closest person to her.  She had rushed towards him for safety and just as Jimmy had reached out for her, the splatter from the gunshot to her head covered his face. Jimmy survived that night but he could no longer live the life he was born into.  He decided to turn state’s evidence against the rival gang.  He became a “rat.” Once that happened he knew he’d lose everyone even all of his fellow gang members. He prepared himself for a lifetime in witness protection and had resolved to give up the life of a soldier in the gang wars, but then something happened. Jimmy had been wise to dirty cops before.  Growing up on the street he’d grown accustomed to knowing that just about anyone could be “on the take.”  Strangely though he never guessed that the two detectives in charge of keeping him in custody before the trial would turn out to be dirty.  He didn’t realize it until he had no choice but to kill them. It was either them or him.  Though he had sworn off guns after the tragedy of the girl, he had always kept his blade handy.

Magdalen sat next to him with her mouth agape.  She listened to his story, started to cry, then she pulled him toward her and kissed him. It was the most sensuous kiss he had ever had.  Every nerve in his body awoke and it was as if that one kiss from this immaculate woman washed away his every sin.

“Why would you trust me after what I just told you?” asked Jimmy

“Because I believe you and . . . everyone could use a bit of forgiveness,” said Magdalen

“I think I know why your parents named you Magdalen,” said Jimmy.

She smiled in her own uniquely demure fashion.

He continued, “It must be because of Mary Magdalene.  She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.”

Magdalen said, “My parents aren’t religious. They just liked the way my name sounded.”

“Fair enough,” said Jimmy, “But the love and understanding you’ve shown me. . .  Well, I don’t think of myself as anything even resembling Jesus but I think for the first time you’ve helped me feel free to forgive the person I used to be if thatmakes any sense. Sorry, if I sound too grandiose, but all my life I’ve been led to think that only certain types of people would ever be kind to me.  You’ve proven me wrong.”

She kissed him again and for many months and years they shared a life together.  They kept his identity hidden and Jimmy made quite a positive impression on both her parents and the community.  They began raising a daughter together and named her Mary, but now Jimmy found himself waiting.  The game had come to a close.  The skin he shed while leaving his previous life behind had revived itself in a twisted fashion and now he found himself tied literally in chains.

His tormentor approached, “Just what do you think is going to happen here.”

“I’m just waiting,” replied Jimmy.

“Waiting? Waiting for what?”

Not for what, though Jimmy, for whom.  He waited for her. He would wait for her even though there was no chance of a rescue. No chance of return to Magdalen or to Mary.

“Have you given much thought to what happens when you die? . . . Because you should. You see I’m pretty sure that when you die nothing happens.”  His tormentor laughed a boisterous laugh. “That’s why I’ve kept you alive for as long as I have.  What kind of punishment would it be if I just killed you and poof!”  His tormentor clasped his hands together, “Nothing . . . everything just goes blank and in a way it frees you.  No, pain and torture are much better for driving home the point to someone who’s been . . . shall we say naughty.”

Jimmy refused to speak to him.

“You must long to be dead by now.  Most people would. I mean, every recognizable thing that would make you human has been . . . brutally damaged.  I dare say your manhood isn’t even intact.  That wife of yours . . . she’ll be disappointed.”

At this, Jimmy gathered up all the energy he could muster and spit out a blob of mucus and blood directly at his tormentor’s face.

“It’ll be all over soon,” said his tormentor, “But just be warned that death may not be the sweet release it advertises itself to be.”

Jimmy steadied his thoughts, closed his eyes, and prepared himself.  He pictured Magdalen in her blue blouse as she was in the library when they met.  He held on to her image in his mind with the grip of a man clinging to life from a ledge. He held on to his memory of her naked skin, the rush he felt all over his body when he gently kissed her neck, the feeling of her lips pressed against his, the way his fingers felt running through her hair, her eyes as they locked with his, her voice whispering her love for him in his ear.  He held onto all those things until they each slipped away.  Then there was nothing.

The Lady Behind the Pistol

She stood over him watching the life drain out as a glossy haze covered those blue eyes.  The bullet had struck his neck and instead of dying instantly, he bled and bled staring back at her in utter astonishment.  It would have been amusing to her if she didn’t feel that pang of guilt.  She knew it was only the bullet that bit his flesh.  All she did was pull the trigger, and what’s a mechanism like a gun for if not to be used occasionally.  She felt powerful. This is what God must feel like when he kills and no wonder He does it so often.  The blue dress she wore would have to go, a casualty of a lover’s broken heart, but what a shame it would be since Paul had always remarked that she looked like an angel in it. Poor Paul, a young man not more than 25 who lived his life with all the wonderment of a boy only to be left to rot soaking in his own blood. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say only no one ever remarked how curiosity could dress to kill or how the cat might only be a pup and that the pup only has one meager life to live.

The smoke that rose from her pistol put her into a hypnotic trance. In that smoke she saw Paul as a baby in his mother’s arms, then as a child running amongst other children in an empty field.  Then, she saw him as the young man who wooed her away from her parents and ran all the way with her to the big city. In the smoke she thought she could glimpse fragments of his life that she never saw before.  As she watched she imagined what he’d been like before she met him.  She thought to herself, how could a boy be even more of a boy than what he is now? There he lay bleeding in his short trousers and beat-up dirty shirt and she imagined that if he could get up, all he’d really want to do would be to run off to the park and mount the monkey bars. He lacked the sophistication required to cut in the big city and in her eyes that alone was a cardinal sin. They’d run off here without a plan and without a care in the world, just two young lovers in love ready to experience life and maybe take a shot at the big time. Sure, she knew that the streets had never been paved in gold and that they both would have to work hard to earn their keep, and when life had just been about the two of them, all of it was as perfect as it needed to be.

Then she met Phil and he swept her away.  She had been working in a local jewelry store and when Phil walked in it was as if he owned every jewel there ever was including the one in her heart. He had come to buy a gift for his wife’s birthday, but from that very instance little else mattered to her.  Phil had conquered her heart without even knowing it. He flirted with her and began taking her out after her shifts. Paul had always been working.  Paul worked so hard but could only give her so little. Phil offered her the world and she took it.   They began meeting in motel rooms, sneaking away every stolen moment they possibly could.  She fell in love with Phil even though she knew he’d never leave his wife. Phil offered her a world of jazz and speakeasies.  They frequented The Cotton Club and had met Owney Madden and Hoagy Carmichael all in the same evening. She rubbed shoulders with the bee’s knees and it had all been terrific.

Once Paul found out there was little she’d thought he’d do.  She thought he’d skulk away defeated like some helpless little puppy, and at first that’s exactly what happened until one fateful night. He must have had them followed prior to this. One night, Paul burst into the motel room with Phil’s wife Delores, her hair in curlers in her tattered nightgown.  There was a woman beneath all women, she thought as she heard Delores shriek obscenities at each of them.  Well, at least Phil could be all mine now, she had thought.  Now that the game was up and the secret was out she thought maybe Paul had done her the biggest favor of her life.  She thought that every night forward would be spent with Phil beside her in their bed.

The next night Phil came by with the most serious looked she had ever seen on him. He brushed her aside as she moved in for his embrace. He turned a cold cheek as she leaned in to kiss her.  That’s when she knew she had been had.  She listened as Phil told her that they couldn’t see each other anymore and nearly fainted in disbelief as he told her he was going back to his wife. Reality came crashing down as she realized that it had all been a fling.  All those glamourous evenings, all the wine, and the passionate nights they spent had all been a dance.  She’d been taken for a ride and now she would have nothing.  Now, there was nothing to do but to return to that boy.

Life in Wyoming hadn’t been kind.  She knew all too well she came from abusive parents who wanted nothing more for than to stay put where they could control her. Paul had come from similar circumstances.  His father was a wheat farmer, but when Prohibition passed everything changed. Until then Paul’s father had been a kind and gentle man. Then, once lean times began it was as if he had been taken over by a dark uncontrollable force.  She had grown up alongside Paul and ever since they were small children it was as if she and Paul had been fated to be together.  Their parents perpetuated the lark, but then something in nature had changed everyone even her.  It was as if her spirit became hardened. Paul had been the only one resistant to it.  It was as if he was determined to remain a boy despite growing into a man’s body.  When Paul came to her window one night and suggested that they run away together, she though it had been the most adult thing he had ever thought of. She followed him everywhere when they first arrived in the city.  It was as if she was afraid to be alone.  They were the only ones who looked out for each other.  Then, they each buried themselves in work to the point where they rarely saw each other and then she met Phil and well, that just changed everything.

The gun felt warm even though the smoke had dissipated.  It radiated in her hand, but despite everything her hand did not tremble.  She coolly convinced herself that she had merely come to talk to him. The fact that she brought along the pistol that Phil had given her as a birthday gift not long ago was just a mere coincidence. In all the years she had known Paul before coming to the city, she never felt exhilarated around him. It took only one meeting with Phil to discover what true exhilaration was.  True exhilaration was firing a weapon.  Phil once remarked to her after giving her the pistol, “Now, you don’t have to take any guff from nobody.”  Holding the gun and firing it at a target now that was empowering to the point of it being nearly divine. He had prepared her for what it would feel like.  When she asked Phil what it felt like to kill a man with a gun, he told her everything.  “The first time it wreaks havoc on your stomach, but then about a minute later once you get used to the idea that the bastard got what he deserved, then it doesn’t matter much that a man is dead. Then, you realize that it only bothers you if you let it bother you.”

Phil’s words echoed in her brain. It wasn’t so much the words themselves or what they meant.  It was just the power she felt watching Paul grapple with death as he clenched his neck on the ground.  The blood spilled out of his hand like a sieve and those pretty eyes of his began fading. She wondered what he was thinking as he looked at her knowing that she had taken the only thing away from him that truly mattered to him or to anyone.  She wondered why he said those things to her if he was merely going to seek comfort in another woman at the first sign of abandonment.  That night when he brought Delores over to the motel he stood up in front of Phil’s face and told him that she had deserved a man who could share his life completely with her. Paul told Phil that she was the most remarkable woman he had ever known and that if Phil was going to take her away that she deserved to be more than a bit on the side.   Even now, she imagined those words of devotion coming out of Paul’s mouth.  It only took Phil leaving for her to see that Paul had been looking out for her the entire time, but it hadn’t been that simple.  Sometime while she and Phil had been together, Paul also fell for another woman only she hadn’t cared enough to realize it.  We love who we love and it’s never of our choosing.  No one ever truly possesses a heart that is not their own,  she thought. With that, she turned her back on Paul and walk away as the silence consumed him. . .

As the silence consumed him, Paul looked at her.  She turned her back and began walking away.  That blue dress always made her look like an angel. Her soft long white legs moved so gracefully that they looked like they reached up to heaven.  She may have been deadly but she was beautiful all the same.  He knew he was a goner.  He let go of his neck and uttered in a final breath the name of the woman he truly loved. Paul took comfort in knowing that that name didn’t match the name of the woman who killed him. The woman who pulled the trigger had long since become a stranger to him.  The woman he thought of in his final moments was truly remarkable.  She was the brightest woman he had ever met. He struggled to hold on to the few brief conversations they shared.  He also struggled to hold on to the feeling of her embrace wishing that he had been bold enough to kiss her the last time he saw her.  It could have been the beginning of something special.  He thought of how his hand might feel stroking her hair and how soothing it might be to have the freedom to embrace her whenever they wanted.  If he could only touch that lovely face one more time.  If he could only draw her closer to him, maybe he’d tell her all of the things he felt about her. He gazed one last time at the feminine creature briskly walking away. Then, he looked up at the ceiling, pursed his lips together one last time and uttered a name.  It was the name of the woman he wished he had the opportunity to fall in love with.  It was a desperate plea for a love that never came to be but a love that could have been something . . . special.

With renewed determination, the feminine creature upon hearing Paul utter that name rushed back into the tenement room and put a new bullet between his eyes. As she did so she infuriatingly shouted, “THAT’S NOT MY NAME!!!” It had only been one syllable but it was one syllable too many and she knew she didn’t have to take any guff.

The Last Dame to Fall For

If one were to walk across West 35th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues on a weekday morning, one might be inclined to walk past the office building next to an old Irish pub without giving the complex a second thought.  Unless you had planned to go there ahead of time, the building was inconspicuous.  The grey building almost begged to go unnoticed. You might notice the newsstand towards the end of the block and perhaps you’d peek in at the tailor’s shop or even the barber shop’s windows further down. Men and women would stop and give the newsie a nickel for their paper and perhaps even stop to get their shoes shined the next block over on a comfortable spring day. Businessmen, eager to read about what Truman might be doing concerning the steel worker’s strike, glided by the place perhaps frustrated at the prospect of a sitting duck President and the impact his actions might have on the economy of the country. In the office building at 25 W 35th street, however, the events of the nation or indeed the world economy – while of casual interest – seemed of little importance to Clark White as he stared out of his 4th floor window.   His neck itched from the fabric around his old shirt collar as he’d discovered that he smoked his last cigarette not 20 minutes ago.  The bourbon in the flask at his desk had long since been emptied and now the prospect of the wait in a long uneventful day seemed a bit of a chore to him.  There hadn’t been a new client in weeks and one by one men and women would rush past the office building as he stared after them from his office window.  None of them even gave a thought to old crotchety Larry who begged for change outside the next door pub.  They all walked past him smug and secure in their status in life knowing that wherever they had to go was so much more important -that indeed their lives themselves – were so much more important than that of a drunken hobo’s.  Clark had grown accustomed to this casual disinterest that had become humanity’s most characteristic trait. He watched, he observed, and he followed everyone who walked past and tried his best to guess where they were headed and moreover who each of them were and where they might fit in this scheme of the globe that we call life. It had become his own personal pastime and he embraced it with vigor. Besides he needed some mental exercise to keep his faculties sharp during fallow times.

Clark was truly in the nadir of his life.  Clara had upped and left taking the kids 5 months ago with barely a hint of protest on his behalf, and the solitude he’d subsequently discovered nurtured the healthy stoic bliss he felt on occasion.  It felt peaceful to be alone like sunlight broken by the branches of a row of trees leaving just the right amount of shade.  Still, these were the down times. There was hardly a client in months and he’d taken to letting his secretary, Barbara, leave early several days a week to save money.  After many years in the private detective business, he had gone through feast and famine and had come to expect each in cyclical measure.

Then, he spotted her.  He recognized her as the woman who worked the gift shop at the Empire State Building.  He had been there just last week to pick up a gift for his Aunt Myrtle. He remembered her charm and the natural grace in which she walked.  She was quite a remarkable woman.  She appeared to be about 35 years old, and though she dressed plainly in a faded blue blouse and grey plaid skirt it was as if an inner beauty resonated from her like a shining jewel. She’d look like a million bucks no matter what she wore.  Her medium length black hair had been arranged in a bun with random loose strands falling across her shoulders.  As she walked towards his building, Clark thought that she looked just as he remembered her.  Then she paused, tossed old Larry what appeared to be a dime and headed inside.  Clark assumed she must have had some business with the other office but to his surprise just seconds later he heard a simple knock on his door. It was her.

He remembered that he had sent Barbara home and leaped out of his spot by his office window into the anteroom leading to the door in the hallway remembering to straighten his tie along the way. “My apologies, Mam, as my secretary has left early for the day. Follow me.”  He led her to his office and introduced himself, “To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms . . .?”

“Davenport, Beverly Davenport.”

“Yes, I remember you from just two weeks ago. I went to the gift shop to purchase a gift for my Aunt.  I must say it made quite the impression.”

“Scale models of the building often do make good gifts, Mr. White. I’m glad she liked it.”

“So, to my original question. To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms. Davenport.”

“My sister, Cecily, is missing.  I would like for you to find her. I think she’s in some kind of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I believe she’s been kidnapped.  I found a ransom note this morning.”

“Why come to me? Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“Because the note specifically says that if I were to involve the police that they would murder her.”

“Do you have the note with you?”

“Yes, it’s right here in my purse.”

“Before I look at it.  Tell me a little about your sister. What does she look like?”

“Well, Mr. White, she looks just like me.  You see we are identical twins.  I was raised by mother on a poultry farm in Delaware while my father took charge of Cecily raising her here in the city. Our family split up when we were just babies and Mama raised me with help from my uncle Phil.  She never re-married but when Mama fell ill and passed away of consumption a year ago, I felt there was nothing left for me in Delaware, and I thought I’d relocate here in New York City to reconnect with my sister. Father wanted nothing to do with me.  My existence had been nothing but a nuisance to him and he let me know upon my arrival that I was to make my own way in the world and that I should not expect him to carry the same burden for me as he did for Cecily.  I assured him I would find work and that he needn’t concern himself with me if that was his wish. I only wanted to get to know my sister and Cecily had expressed the same interest in getting to know me. I then picked myself up by my own boot straps and secured my position at the Empire State Building gift shop, found a cheap room for rent, and these last 6 months have been some of the happiest times of my life living and working in this city getting to know my sister in the process.”

Clark became instantly intrigued by Beverly’s story. He listened as she spoke plainly and eloquently about her life.   He became transfixed by the sound of her voice and the movement of her lips and how beautiful those lips were unadorned by lipstick. Her round face gave each expression –from concern to focus to frustration over her set of circumstances to anxiety about the whereabouts of her sister – each of these expressions danced across her face like the beauty of an elegant poem, the kind Clark could never write even if he tried.  Her milky white neckline appeared to beckon him to bring his lips closer so that he might kiss her, but he knew this to be nothing more than a fit of temporary delusion. Still, he found himself drawn closer to her as she spoke.  He briefly looked at the ransom note and listened as she spoke of her sister’s impending engagement to a man named Henry Collins, a young bank teller who had been in business with her father. It was as if the room darkened around her and she was his only source of light as she described how her sister had been raised in a rather luxurious fashion and how her manners were not up to par with what her mother had taught her.  The anguish in her eyes moved him as she described how she had wished she had grown up with her sister and how her sister was the only family she had left.  Suddenly, as if becoming self-aware of his own crush he decided to speak.  He needed to say something anything to clear up his mind and re-focus though he had been paying attention to her every word ever so intimately.

“If you were any other dame I’d be suspicious of your story but I believe every word you’ve told me is true,” he said pulling himself back towards his chair reaching for a non-existent cigarette. He then added, “You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke on you, would ya?”

“No, Mr. White. I don’t smoke.”

“Nasty habit, and my advice is that you never do.  Call me Clark if you will.”

“Clark . . . why would you say you’d be suspicious if I were . . . someone else.”

“Identical twins,” Clark said, “If a woman were lying it’s because she’d need a man like me to go on a wild goose chase to serve some kind of a purpose probably having to do with a family fortune or inheritance of some kind. If she weren’t lying, and that’s what I believe, then she’d be a woman in great danger.”  Clark paused for a minute in silent reflection then blurted out, “Beverly what you need is a bodyguard not a private detective. It’s fortunate for you that you’ve come here to me because I can provide both services in one. Did anyone follow you here?”

“No, why would anyone do that and why would anyone lie about a matter like this?”

“Beverly, you may be the only woman in this town without a sense of guile. Most women . . . well every woman I’ve met anyway . . . they represent themselves one way while really being another.  No one is ever completely honest and no one is ever completely themselves.  We all show ourselves to be the way we would like people to see us.  Men do it too obviously, but women . . . society drills it into them to present themselves a certain way even if they’re not.  Men have more liberties to expose their personalities as they please.  Women don’t have that kind of freedom so they adapt and usually only a very keen eye could discern the true nature of a woman and know whether or not she is who she makes herself out to be.  I have one of those keen eyes and I after scrutinizing your every word and movement I know that you are who you say you are, and I think you’re in trouble.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.  What does this have to do with my sister and why would someone present themselves falsely?  How am I in trouble?” Beverly flustered.

“Sometimes it’s something that’s done without even thinking.  Usually, there’s no true harm meant in it.  It’s second nature for women to want to illicit sympathy and to promise a nurturing ear, shoulder, and more for the sympathizer.  That’s how women win husbands, my dear, and most of the time the deception to whatever degree that it is a deception results in the mutual benefit of two the parties.  Then, before one knows it children arrive, and legacies are made and what had once been a quid pro quo becomes a lifelong commitment that everyone is content to partake in.  It’s only when the curtain is drawn and the husband solves the mystery of his fascination that the mystery is blown and neither party can ever truly be happy.”

Beverly spoke up, “You say this as if you speak from experience.”

Clark responded, “Only those of us who have solved the mystery could truly attest to it.  Therefore, it is best to be blissfully unaware of the formula of life I’ve described to you and regard it solely to the case of your missing sister. You say your sister was soon to be married?”

“Yes, a lovely if peculiar young man.”

“How so?”

“He seemed very happy to court Cecily but had refused to ask our father for her hand in marriage.”

“As if he knew ahead of time that he would refuse?”

“Very much so, but they were so in love that Cecily had threatened that she was going to elope with him.”

“And the only reason you know that Cecily is missing is because of this ransom note asking for $1 Million which could only be paid for by your father.”

“Yes, but my sister would never go along with such a conspiracy.”

“I suspect she would and that’s why you’re in trouble.”

Clark quickly devised a plan and asked Beverly for her cooperation.  The ransom note had demanded that Beverly meet the kidnappers at Cecily’s uptown apartment with the cash. Clark knew that would have been the death of her.

Hours later Clark found himself in a lavish upscale Manhattan apartment.  There seemed to be mirrors everywhere to amplify the size of the space.  It was dark but he wasn’t alone.  Despite his objections for her safety. Beverly insisted that she come along with him. Clark agreed as long as she agreed to stay out of sight. He found a closet nearby where both of them hid. They’re cover didn’t last long. Soon they were discovered and a fire fight ensued.  Clark and Beverly took cover behind on upturned table as Cecicly’s lover fired his pistol.  It was just as Clark thought.  They were planning to kill Beverly, take the money and leave her body to be found and mistaken for her sister’s.  That hadn’t planned on Beverly bringing Clark along with her.  Clark seized the advantage when the round of shots halted, ignored the pounding thunder that echoed in his ears.  He swung from behind the overturned table, fired his revolver, and sighed a sigh of relief when the thump of the man’s body hit the ground. Outside the foyer a muffled cry struggled not to be heard.  Seconds later a woman appeared running towards Henry Collins’ body.

“You killed him! You ruined everything, both of you!” Cecily screamed with utter contempt.

Clark looked at her face, the exact duplicate of Beverly’s and pondered for a minute.  Cecily was bedazzled in jewels and had thrown off an elegant ermine muff just before she reached the body.  She had lived a privileged life and it could be presumed that she colluded with this man to strike out on her own without the burden of caring for her father.  She spared no thought for her sister.  It had been obvious that she had duped Beverly all along.  Beverly, with tears streaming from her beautiful eyes crawled out from behind the table.  Cecily’s eyes reddened with rage until she uncontrollably screamed, ”You had everything!!!!”

Confused, Beverly sobbed, “You grew up in wealth.”

“But I had father to deal with.  There’s no amount of money that could make up for that.  This was my chance to get away and live on my terms.”

Clark interjected lowering his gun, “Beverly indeed has a quality that you never possessed. She lacks the trait of beguilement.  You and all women like you have that trait in spades.  It’s what got your lover killed and it’s what deceived your sister. Indeed, I fear you have broken two hearts today, young lady.”

Beverly listened intently to Clark’s words.  His words pierced into her very heart, and she turned looked at him and thought perhaps she could love this man.  Perhaps she could say something to Clark that would demonstrate her appreciation for solving the immediate matter at hand so efficiently, but most of all she wanted him to be wrong and she wanted to prove that he was wrong.  She wanted to show him that he spoke in generalities and that human nature was so much more complex than he gave it credit for. Then, she glanced back at Cecily and felt Cecily’s rage pierce through her heart and she became saddened.  She was saddened because she had just lost her sister, her only remaining family.  She was saddened to think of the loss of not having grown up with Cecily living apart, not doing what sisters do together.  She imagined all the esoteric laughter that they never shared as girls, all her childhood running in the field that could have taken place with Cecily by her side.  She missed the fact that they would never get to talk about boys or help each other get dressed for parties or big dates.  None of that ever happened and now none of it ever would.  Staring into Cecily’s eyes, all she saw was darkness and then a shiver went up her spine as she pulled her eyes away.  She rested her gaze once again on Clark beside her and imagined a life with him and saw only loneliness, anguish, and despair. In the space of a few minutes, Beverly acknowledged to herself that she lost more than a sister.  She’ll soon lose a man who truly saw her for who she is as well.

Summer ended and with its passing came a slew of new cases.  It was as if Beverly’s case had opened up the floodgates. Clark was cast in the positive light in the papers and now the office buzzed daily with the kind of lively commotion that had seemed improbable just weeks ago.  Still, Clark thought of Beverly each day and debated the prospect of walking over to the gift shop in the Empire State Building with some flowers or some other courting gesture.  Indeed, after allowing for an extended lunch break Clark White excused himself as he walked passed Barbara to begin his exit from the building when Clara, his estranged wife appeared in the archway.  Her face timidly beckoned to him and Clark recognized all the familiar trappings.  He recognized the unwitting guile of the woman, but after an instant he couldn’t resist.  He grabbed Clara by the arm, kissed her and told her he was excited to have her back. Later on in bed as he stared at the ceiling he thought of Beverly and how undeserving he was of her.  The mystery behind that lovely face would have to remain for someone else to solve and who ever that lucky man happened to be, Clark knew he’d never measure up. Clark turned, kissed his wife as she lay sleeping, and dreamed a dreamless sleep, yet when he awoke the following morning the firmly planted image of Beverly remained warded in his mind where it would forever remain.

The Sweetest Thrill

It was a good show and I killed it but all I could think about was Ralphie’s men waiting for me in the wings. Couldn’t they wait until after the encore?  Was that too much to ask? Something must have been up.  Maybe they suspected something.  Maybe Ralphie thought I talked to the Feds. I didn’t know what was the score and I was nervous even though I knew they were just trying to scare me –  that there was no way they’d risk hurting me when my entire earning potential hinged on my returning to the stage 8 performances a week -still, when you’re in as deep as me there’s no telling what they might do.  As the applause began to wane, a look of panic must have creeped up on me as I noticed the facial expressions on some of the couples in the first row turn from that of amusement to that of puzzled concerned.  They must have thought I was about to have a seizure.  Part of me wishes I had. What was I supposed to do?  Charlie had put me in this mess. He raked up all those gambling losses until he well over his head and then up and left me to hold the bag.

Here’s the thing with show business.  You spend a whole lot of time with people you don’t like.  You have to.  You have no choice.  It’s like a marriage and putting up with your in-laws.  Before I met Charlie, I was an up and coming starlet.  The future was bright, the world was my oyster, and yes, I know these are all tiresome clichés but in my case it was true.  I became the understudy to Francine Baudilini, a quite fragile thing who had previously broken through in her debut “Ain’t that Grand,” an otherwise forgettable musical, but she dazzled the right people and hit all the high notes.  I had spent years waiting for an opportunity to join a real company after spending years scrounging and paying my dues with the Guestling Repertory singing my lungs out on stage every night doing mostly vaudeville – a little singing, a little dancing, a little T and A – whatever kept the asses in their seats.    The one advantage I always had was that I could sing better than anyone else in the group.  They used to bring me out and I’d get the crowd roaring with “I Get a Kick Out of You” or move them to tears with “If you Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain),” which was a great number to close on.  I’d have all the men in the palm of my hand.  Still, I had my sights set on Broadway.   It didn’t matter how many gin joints I played, a woman of my talent must embark upon the ultimate stage. I finally got my big chance just as I met Charlie.  He was an insurance broker and bought me a few drinks after a show one night. We got to talking and I found out his brother was the producer of “City by the Bay,” and it just so happens they were in the middle of casting for “The Sweetest Thrill.”  The buzz on this musical was huge.  Francine Baudilini had just secured the lead and none other than Harrison Caskell – only the most raved about handsome Broadway actor to grace the stage – had been cast as the male lead.  This musical was going to be huge, and now I had my foot in the door having met Charlie, who was quite a likeable chum but a sap nonetheless.  I did what any sensible young woman would do in this situation. I married him.

Charlie and his brother Ken came from money, but they lived modest lives. Their strict father would have it no other way.  You see, Mr. Fengold was a bit of a miser.  Their mother died of consumption shortly after giving birth to Charlie, and though there was a family fortune and a vast estate to be had neither of the two sons could rightfully claim it until they had proven their worth.  Mr. Fengold was indeed a nasty bastard if I may say so myself.  Our wedding present wasn’t even something we could use.  He gave us a tin cap because he admired Johnny Appleseed so much and it was meant for us to keep as a reminder that we should live frugally.  I swear the old man would have only been proud of his sons if they had lived like hobos planting apple trees even if they couldn’t even be properly harvested and could only be used for cider.  I could tell Charlie resented him. He resented having to prove his worth, having to compete for his father’s affection with his brother Ken who was no prize himself.  Sure ken may have made a name for himself as a producer but the man was a miserable philandering drunk half the time although he could be charming for the precious few moments he was sober.

Charlie hated the insurance business, but it was work he could manage and it carried a title he could use to sway his father into believing he had some meaningful calling.  The rest of Charlie’s family were a bunch of stuck up hypocrites who liked to put up their noses at me because I was a performer.  They always made me feel as if I was beneath them and they were constantly judging me. I was used to these kinds of people though.  That’s what most people in show business are like.  They smile, kiss, and hug you but they never truly respect you.  They either ignore you completely after the obligatory greeting at a party or they brush you aside as if you were a worthless piece of garbage while rushing on to their next utterly mundane conversation.

I learned to play the part I needed to play both to land the part in “The Sweetest Thrill” and to appease the wretched in-laws. It was quite a balancing act but I managed it. The director recognized the talent in my voice and I was suddenly the understudy to the lead role with a sizeable ensemble part for regular performances.  I had everything I wanted, and it was enough for me even if I had to put up with the unpleasantness I mentioned.  Then, one night 4 months ago I found out Charlie was a gambler. He’d bet on horses, baseball, dogs, and all the while when I was on stage every night he’d be at Gusto’s, a former speakeasy in the bowery where there was a fully operational casino run by gangsters of course.  He came home one night stinking of booze. I was exhausted as usual, and he belted out the loudest scream I’ve ever heard. It was unrecognizable as any kind of sound a human could make.  It was almost like a howl and it was followed by blubbering.

“I’ve lost it all, my sweetheart. . . I’ve lost it all. Don’t hate me . . .”  Those were the only discernable words I could make out.  He collapsed in a fit.  The next day, I sobered him up and he explained the whole thing to me.  He was up by 4 grand but then his luck faltered.  The cards failed to come his way and before he knew it he was down by 30 then 40 then finally 85 grand.  I told him we don’t have that kind of money.  He said he knew.  He said he’d go figure it out, that I should get ready to get back on stage for the show and that he’d figure it all out tonight.  A swell job he did of figuring it out since he decided to blow his brains out with the pistol I bought him for his birthday. Would it be awful of me to say that I wasn’t all that disappointed or upset?  I tried to muster some tears for the funeral and perhaps the performance was convincing enough, but I simply felt nothing.  Charlie may have been a sorry sap for me. He loved me and he probably thought taking his life would solve my problems.  That’s why he did it – it was the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loved.  Sometimes I blame myself. I look at myself and wonder why I can’t even appreciate the fact that Charlie died for me. What can I say? He loved me more than I loved him.  Of course I loved him and all, but a man should never allow himself to love a woman more than she loves him.  It proves fatal every time although perhaps not always quite in the literal sense.

I still had an obligation to fulfill as Ralphie Capresi wasn’t going to just forget about the 85 grand that Charlie owed him just because he kicked the bucket.  Imagine my surprise when two of his men showed up backstage after a performance one evening.  Strong man Nick Stagali and his fellow goon “Bad”Baldy Florenti would be two men that would alter the course of my life forever.  They showed up by my dressing room door and let me know about Ralphie’s intention to collect from me. When I told them that I’m simply the understudy and that there’s no way I could pay it back in a timely fashion, I could hear the wheels in motion inside their heads.

“How about if you became the lead?” they asked, “How much would that earn you?”

I knew right then and there what they were planning.  There was no way to stop it. I felt terrible, but it excited me simultaneously.  To think that I would be the star with my name on the marquee.  To think I’d have my chance.

“The Sweetest Thrill” is a musical that feels like it was practically written for me. The female lead, Charlotte, goes from vaudeville juke joints to national radio sensation after getting a lucky break.  She marries an actor but the actor cheats on her and treats her badly until one day she meets the man of her dreams and they decide they should kill her husband and run away together after inheriting the husband’s estate.  The plan proves fatal since the police catch on and Charlotte gets killed in the crossfire while the two try to escape. The final song Charlotte sings is the showstopper, a song called “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song that if you pull it off, it proves you could sing anything. It’s also a challenge not only to sing all the notes properly and hit all the high notes but the actress playing the part must really put her acting skills to the forefront and sell this heartbreaking ending to the audience.

Before I knew it, I mean within a spurt of time that felt like a blink, Francine Baudilini suffered her “accident” if you could call that brutal beating an accident. Both her legs were broken and she suffered several broken ribs.  I truly felt awful about it, and I feel even worse thinking about it now. I actually feel more sympathy for her than I do for Charlie because she didn’t do anything to deserve that. Sure enough, however, I seized upon the opportunity of a lifetime.   Everything soon followed, the fame, the glory, everything but the money that went with it.  I was being bled dry because of stupid debt that wasn’t even mine.  They forced me to appoint Nick Stagali as my agent / business manager. My pay went directly to him and what he did was leave me enough to pay for a dismal room downtown and food for the week.

When I asked him how much longer the arrangement would last for, he simply replied, “A very long time.  Keep in mind there’s also a vig on top of the principle.”

The bump in pay I received for landing the lead was clearly not enough to satisfy my debt within a reasonable time so I had to come up with something.  I resorted to seducing Nick Stagali. Nick was a large man, very rotund but with muscular arms and thick bovine legs.  I figure that he wouldn’t know how to respond to a gal he wasn’t paying suddenly putting the moves on him.  First, I acted as if I was a bit faint and pretended to fall in his arms.  I let my eyes linger into his.  Then, I reached him and kissed him.  He quivered underneath me as we made love and then I knew he was mine. I knew I had leverage and that I could control him.  The question then became how do I get Ralph Capresi off my back?  The quickest way I knew how was to turn Nick against him, but it wouldn’t be easy.  If his goon partner, “Bad” Baldy, figured out what we were up to I knew the game would be up.

The best way to best a man’s loyalty is to see if he’ll kill for you.  Dying for you is easy, even a sap like Charlie could do that.  I told Nick one night that “Bad” Baldy tried to force himself on me and roughed me up when Nick couldn’t be there the previous night. It was a lie but I’m an actress and Nick was gullible. He believed me even though I wore the same makeup that I wear in the show after “Charlotte” gets beat up.  He then confronted “Bad” Baldy, who I later learned received this name because of how he treated women in a whorehouse who didn’t give him what he wanted.  All this time I thought it was because he was bald but apparently, when some low life unfortunate thing refused to please him the way he wanted he turned on her, brutalized her, and then cut off all of her hair using a Bowie knife. Suffice it to say, I have no regrets regarding “Bad” Baldy’s fate.  I figure a gunshot to the face is probably more generous than the man deserved.

For Nick, killing “Bad” Baldy meant he couldn’t turn back.  He began plotting to run away with me imagining that I’d somehow like to live in Cincinnati somewhere or perhaps Kansas City.  He could start over with a new crew and work his way up and all that jazz, but the problem was that that didn’t solve my problem at all. I didn’t want a life with Nick any more than I wanted a life with Charlie. What was I going to do out there? Knit sweaters and watch the man guzzle beer into that pot belly of his? I wanted to stay where I was.  I wanted to be on that stage and I wanted to be a star.

That night I snuck over to Gusto’s while Nick lay in bed asleep.  The place was a dank slimy pit of cigarettes and booze. I nearly fell to the floor from the smell of the joint. I saw losers and boozehounds lapping up their drinks eying their card dealers with one desprate eye while appraising the milky white skin of their cocktail waitresses with the other eye.  Everyone turned around to look at me as if I was some creature from a lagoon or something or other.  I spoke up and demanded to speak to Ralph Capresi.  They took me to a back room up a set of winding stairs.  There were no windows and the cigar smoke that lingered everywhere looked and smelled hideous.

“Why hello there, Mrs. Carter,” said Ralph Capresi chomping on his cigar using my stage name.  There’s no way I was ever going anywhere with a last name like Fengold and as for my maiden name well that’s just privleged information.  “What brings you to our esteemed establishment on this beautiful evening?”

“I want out,” I said.  “I want to live my life without worrying about having to pay you.”

“And what can you offer me for this.”

“I can offer you information.”

“Go on.”

“Nick, he’s betrayed you. He killed “Bad” Baldy because Baldy found out he was talking to the Feds.”

“He told you this?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You’re saying Nick is a rat and Baldy’s dead?”

“Yes, and I could prove it.”

I took out a tourmaline ring that Baldy wore that I took off his body while Nick wasn’t looking. It was enough to convince Ralph to make a deal.  I would be free of my debt as soon as Nick was taken care of. My fate relied on Ralph successfully having Nick killed before he could talk to the Federal Agents that I boldly lied to him about.

I walk home that night filled with hope for the first time n many nights.  I know it’s wrong to rejoice in the death of a man, but these were all criminals after all and this entire ordeal had put me through enough.  It was well after 2 am when I walked in and to my amazement saw a man in a brown suit waving his badge in my face as I crossed the threshold to my door.  He introduced himself to me as Agent Simon with the Federal taskforce investigating organized crime and racketeering.  They were called in when Baldy’s body had been found in an ally nearby some hours ago.  Nick had been taken into custody and had testified to the whole thing.  Technically, I hadn’t committed a crime but I was a material witness of course and so they decided to bring me in. I told him my story but embellished a bit to make myself seem a bit more sympathetic. I wanted them to believe I felt awfully devastated about Charlie, Francine, and even for Nick killing Baldy.  They bought my performance and I was easily able to explain my fling with Nick as I was a helpless woman who fell for her captor, one who had been prone to violence and decided to kill Baldy after Baldy tried to rape me.  It was all very convincing and I even think Agent Simon fought back a few tears for me as I told it. After all, I had been through a horrifying experience.

Now came the kicker. I asked if they were going to apprehend Ralph Capresi.

“Sorry, Mam. Capresi is too insulated from the crimes we’re investigating.  We can’t pin anything big on him.”

“Well, what about extorting money from me and my poor Charlie?”

“Ms. Carter, we can’t move against Capresi now and that charge is one he could easily fight and win in court.  We must build a case, and if you want to help us, you need to cooperate and play along with him as if you still are going to pay him back as usual.”  A little while later, Agent Simon left.

So, that was it.  That was my big opportunity to get out of this infernal mess Charlie has put me in.  Once Ralph got wind of Nick’s arrest, I didn’t hear another word from him. He assigned two new goons to me making one of them my agent who makes sure Ralph Capresi gets his cut in perpetuity.  They’ve taken to making their presence more aggressively known to me in case I should think about talking so they show up waiting for me in the wings as I finish the encore and take my bows. They want me to know that they always get their cut and thus far they seem to be right about that.

Nowadays, I perform and kill the audience every night. I summon up the tears for the show stopping “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song of heartbreak, despair, and death only now I feel the emotions for real. I wouldn’t dream to think of Nick or Charlie when I sing that song. I never would. I never cared for either of them more than I care for myself.  I sing the song for me and only for me. Last night I spotted Agent Simon in the audience and I summoned all my acting ability to persuade him that I sang for him. I think he bought it.  Little does he know that I’d never truly sing for him. In my heart I sing for myself and all my love and all my despair and all my grace and beauty.  Those things will always be mine and mine alone but Agent Simon . . . he doesn’t need to know that right now.  I imagine his eyes gazing upon me and I know he thinks I sing for him. He thinks he could have me . . . all of me. Men always believe that.

A Final Letter to Liz

Dear Liz

I realize the music I listen to may be a few decades behind anything you listen to but if you have the heart to do it I want you to find the song “It Makes No Difference” by The Band.  Honestly, that probably sums up my feelings about you and my whole situation – indeed, my entire life – given the fact you won’t be seeing me for a long while.  They say the law always catches up somehow and perhaps I’ve broken a few bones too many in my line of work.  Still on the eve that I go away, my thoughts are not of my impending imprisonment but of this song and of course you. It’s amazing to think that I saw you every week for five years and never once told you how I felt about you although I know you’re smart enough to guess. I think now more than ever you deserve to know and the words must be said. There’s a line in that song that goes,

“Now there’s no love as true as the love that dies untold.”

As many times as I’ve heard that song over the years that line had always failed to resonate with me until now and it’s really because it rings true for me.  There’s something about unrequited love that makes life both bittersweet yet nourishing to the noble soul. It just makes me think about the prospect of never seeing you again and how even though it’s for the best, it still hurts.  The regret is still there even though there’s nothing I can change about what caused it.

Who am I kidding?  I’ve never been a poet nor am I some highfalutin philosopher qualified to quote song lyrics as if I’ve just discovered the meaning to life. I could barely string together a few sentences on most occasions but since you’re so important to me it’s the most I could try to do so I only hope I make sense and you understand me.  I’m nothing but a runner for a bookie, but you know that already.  You knew that from the first night we met.  I walked up to your cash register and ordered my Big Mac meal with no pickles and you gave me a wink but then as the evening wore on and I conducted my business that frown appeared on your face.  You even told the manager that I was engaged in illegal gambling activities and that perhaps he should do something.  Little did you know the franchise owner himself sanctioned my little operation.  He knew I worked for the Duke of Earl.  That’s all that needed to be said, but then how would you have known that.  I mean a kid like you, how would any one expect you to be familiar with the ways of us low lives.

I apologize if this is a bit awkward to you, but there are things that I’ve been wanting to say and even though a lot of time has elapsed I still don’t quite know how to say it or even how to approach you. The briefest way to say what I’ve been wanting to tell you for years is to just admit that I have feelings for you, but as you may know, things are bit more complicated than that.  I’ve been attracted to you for a long time probably since the first time I saw you behind the cash register at our McDonalds on Nostrand Avenue. I just instantly found you to be a bright, warm, intelligent, beautiful woman with a good sense of humor and I always looked forward to seeing you every week so that’s why I made it a point to make our McDonalds my personal place to conduct my business and over time I coordinated my business meetings to coincide with your shifts so I’d have an excuse to see you – I know it sounds pathetic but I have very few real friends so try not to be creeped out by that.   You know what I do. I set up meetings with the Duke’s clients, hand out winnings to the winners, collect money from the losers, and anyone who didn’t show up at the appointed time at our McDonald’s . . . well, let’s just say I tracked them down and taught them a lesson, but this letter isn’t about me and what I’ve done it about my feelings for you.

I remember the night things changed between us like it was yesterday.  You had just been promoted to shift manager and as luck would have it two thugs walk in just before midnight and decide they want to hold the place up.  I needed to bide my time before making any sudden movements but the look of panic that crossed your face gave me a chill down to my spine.  I knew what I had to do.  I saw it as my duty to protect you.  Just as they had asked you again about the safe, I walked up behind the shorter of the two guys, grabbed his ski mask, pulled it up and stuck my gun right in his nose as he turned around.  You woulda thought the guy shit his pants.  I looked at you and saw a look of relief.  I stared the other guy down.

I told them, “You two better leave right now or else things will get ugly starting with this motherfucker’s brains on the floor!”

I got the bigger thug to take off his ski mask.

In all their nervousness the bigger one replied, “We weren’t going to hurt anyone, Yo.”

I said, “Do yourselves a favor and never come back here again.  You come back here and I’ll make sure The Duke will hear about it.  You understand?” Then I added, “Smile, you’re on camera!”

They all too eagerly nodded in agreement.

Then I said, “You want to hold some place up why don’t you give those liberal yuppies over at Starbucks and Whole Foods a scare.  Better yet, go to Whole Foods and suck each other’s dicks there so you fit right in.”

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see a smile reach the corners of your beautiful mouth.  I think it was the first time I ever truly saw you smile.  The two thugs left and you sat down at my table with me and we talked until the end of your shift.

I said, “I don’t know about you but all this organic food shit is just turning everyone into a bunch of pussies.  That’s why I come here.  Fast food may be poison but at least it doesn’t sell you some liberal self-aggrandizing fantasy either.”

I could tell you appreciated my sense of humor even if you didn’t whole heartedly agree with the sentiment.  To be honest, I don’t even agree with half the shit I say. I just say whatever I think might get a rise out of someone, but after that night things changed.  Whenever I’d walk in, my eyes instantly searched for you and I suspect your eyes greeted me with a warmth I hadn’t known until then.  You started sitting with me on your breaks and we’d talk about current events, movies, sports, or anything really.  I sometimes found myself ready and willing to lose myself in your beautiful brown eyes but I always reminded myself that we were in public and obviously it wouldn’t do me any good for any of the Duke’s clients to think I was some puppy dog in love with a girl at McDonald’s.  One time this middle aged degenerate gambler, Marco caught on and started teasing me.  I waited for the next time he lost and made sure he knew not to do that again.  Headlocks do that to people, I suppose.

Don’t think me a violent guy.  I mean I don’t resort to violence unless I have to, but in my business you find that no matter how much you may wish to avoid a conflict, conflict always finds you. It’s unavoidable. Working with the public, I’m sure you understand. How many times have you confessed to me that you were so close to slapping some bitch because she complained her coffee was too hot?  Or some uppity college kid who wants to return his burger because he asks for no pickle?  Or how about the fucking drug addicts that somehow manage to get the key to the bathroom and leave all their paraphernalia for you to clean up once they finally decide to leave hours later?  Or what about those bozos who think that McDonald’s employees are beneath them and that you should worship the ground they walk on because they occasionally drop some money there?  They remind you that you’re not smiling or chastise you for conducting their transaction too quickly when they want to talk about the weather with you?  All those people give you grief and you’ve told me all about it.  Well, I have to deal with similar things although it’s different.  There’s always the guy that doesn’t want to pay because his bet “wasn’t heard right.”  They’ll come to me and say, “I took the over not the under.  Why don’t you give me a break?”  There’s the fucking young yuppy liberal generation types that like to look down on me when they lose.  They’ll say things like, “I bet you’re real proud of yourself. You just took the money my Dad gave me for books. Guess I’m failing that class.”  Then there’s the ultimate no-no that always happens when a guy says, “Talk to the Duke. I’m good for it.”  Hehe. “I’m good for it” is code for “I don’t have the money please don’t rough me up.”

The point is we both have our ups and downs in our jobs. That’s something we have in common. We both work thankless go-nowhere jobs only the difference is that for you your job is a stepping stone to a future honest living.  For me, well this is as good as it’s ever going to be for me.  Once you’re born a low life, you stay a low life.   There’s no getting out of it once you start.  My future was doomed from the first day I made my first collection for the Duke.  Sure, maybe the Duke might give me some more action and recently he’s allowed me to put some of my own money on the street, but that’s all coming to an end now.

I’m sorry, I know this letter has rambled on and on about things that don’t matter. I have a habit of doing that.  The point is that I care for you very deeply and I think you know the reason why I’ve never told you before but let me say it anyway.  A woman like you deserves better than me.  Maybe if I had moved up in the hierarchy to the point where I had a decent no-show job so we could lie to your family about what I did maybe then perhaps if you felt the same way we could be together, but even then I know I could never truly measure up to being the man you deserve.  You deserve an honest man – someone who does something better than being a runner for a bookie, someone you could be proud of, someone who could lavish all their attention upon you, and give you all the love and affection you deserve.  It’s funny how getting to know you gave me an opportunity to just imagine what my life could have been like if things had gone differently for me. I think the happiness you’ve given me by allowing me to be your friend will be enough to sustain me in prison.  I know I’ll spend many nights imagining a life that could have been.  Hell, I’ve done that for many nights already and that’s something prison could never take away from me.

The pathetic thing is that this isn’t even the first love letter I’ve written you.  There have been many over the years but every time I came close to giving one of my previous letters to you, I always stopped myself and reminded myself why I don’t deserve you.  It all goes back to that song by The Band, “It Makes No Difference.”   There’s another line in that song that goes,

“These old love letters / I just can’t keep / ‘Cause like the gambler says read ‘em and weep / And the dawn don’t rescue me no more.”

Do me a favor and listen to that song just one time and think of me.  Then, move on with your life. Get back in school, become one of those liberal yuppies I make fun of and make something of yourself. I know you have it in you to rise above your circumstances.  You’re so smart and you’re good at everything you do.  Don’t hold yourself back. If you take away anything from your time with a loser like me remember this: Keep your head high and don’t be a sucker.  It’s the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you so take it to heart and stay away from men like me who may have a big enough heart but lack the ambition and drive to be better than who they are.

Take care, Liz, and listen to that song when you can and let that be my goodbye because “It Makes No Difference” really does sum up my life completely.

Love,

Sal

Absolution

Perhaps it’s the years I’ve worn the collar that have made me cynical and fatalistic or maybe it’s because I’ve never truly believed in God, but time and time again I look at my time absolving sins in the confessional as an elaborate game whereby I prey upon the superstitions of my congregation.  Admittedly, I realize it serves its purpose much like when George Steinbrenner apologizes to the fans or signs some up some ballplayer for big money.  It makes the player feel good because he’s hit a payday and it makes the fans feel good because they feel like they’re being rewarded.  Really, all that’s ever achieved are headlines.  Confession gives the believer the same feeling.  It’s a cathartic release for the sinner to say what they’ve done and feel like it gets washed away.  Some say they could feel the spirit of Jesus Christ within their souls the moment they exit the confessional.  They rush to do their penance and all the wrongs they’ve committed suddenly disappear like they’ve never happened.  It amuses me to think of the power religion has over these people.  They commit the most horrific deeds 6 days out of the week and then they come in at 8am on Sunday and confess so that they could deem themselves pure enough to receive Communion.

It’s amazing that so much of human behavior could be dictated by ancient fairy tales and superstition.  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” indeed.  Typically in my 30 years as a priest, I’ve dealt with your garden variety cheating spouses, the occasional remorseful shoplifter, the drunk who neglects his family, drug addicts, prostitutes, and all varieties of poor judgement and disgraceful behavior.  I’ve waved my hand and pardoned them all only to find them sitting across the booth from me time and time again confessing to different varieties of the same sin.  Humanity is nothing but a forgetful drunken fool repeating the same pratfalls time and time again.  If there were a God, we would be his court jesters trouncing upon his stage naked and unashamed for his bitter amusement.  If God exists, he is nothing but a spectator at the cinema filling himself up with popcorn and candy feasting his eyes on all sorts of atrocities, devastations, pornography, murder, violence, as well as the quiet humiliation of those who suffer in silence.  In an ironic twist, I am meant to be his vessel on Earth, and I do very much the same thing. I listen, I observe, and I pay witnesses to the destructive nature of the very human beings I’m supposed to be helping but in actuality I do nothing.  The kicker is that they admire and respect me for this just as they do the God they claim to worship. I’ll tell you, life in the priesthood is a real racket.

It must have been around this time last year when Joey Calonzo entered my confessional. I knew who he was the minute I laid my eyes on him through the shadows of the screen meant to guard his face.  The perception is that you’re supposed to be anonymous in these boothes but the priest knows his congregation.  I had performed the baptisms of his children and I knew who he was. I also knew how much he contributed to the Church. At first I figured, how bad could it be? I listened as he went through the initial motions all the while shifting on his knees.  He was a strong muscular man for a 50 year old.  I imagine he could lift his own body weight but he had weak knees.  He sometimes limped down the aisle at church telling anyone who expressed concern that he had been in a bad car wreck some years ago.  He wore a nice grey suit that day with the most remarkably flashy cuff links. His head was balding but it didn’t take anything away from the fierceness with which he carried himself.  He was a man to be feared if you saw him walking towards you on a dark secluded street.  If you actually did see him walking towards you on such an occasion, it might actually be the last thing you ever saw.  Joey was a hitman.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 years since my last confession,” he said.

“Was that around that time that Father Palisimo passed away?”

“It is, Father.  He used to hear my confessions but since he passed I haven’t felt comfortable confessing my sins until now.”

“Go on, my son.”

“I’ve seen the life leave the eyes of many men since my last confession.”

“You mean you’ve committed murder.  You realize that murder is a mortal sin.”

“I do, Father, but Father Palisimo absolved me of my sins in the past and I was hoping you might do the same.”

“What you ask is not easy. Murder is not only a mortal sin but also an egregious crime.”

“I realize that Father, but I also know that as a priest you cannot violate the Sacrament and turn me in.”

“In order to be forgiven for your sins, you must truly repent and commit to change your life for the better so that you may live in peace in the love of Christ,” I said.  I knew that his chosen profession wouldn’t permit him to do this, but I had to say something that sounded noble to reinforce the reverence he afforded me.

“Father, I admit that I cannot change but I truly regret my actions. Is that not enough?  It was for Father Palisimo.”

“Let’s set this aside for now. What other sins have you committed?”

“Father, I have also committed adultery on many occasions.  I know Anne-Marie loves me and I love her but she doesn’t satisfy me, Father. I’ve recently found myself not only lusting after other women but I also believe I’ve fallen in love with another woman.”

“What is her name?”

“Tina Vitale, Father.  I’ve sent her a single white rose every day for the last 3 months. I feel as if my heart belongs to her but I know I can’t leave my wife.”

“Divorce is against church teaching of course.”

“That and she’s liable to take me to the cleaners, Father.”

At this I chuckled. It’s strange how miniscule a petty thing like infidelity appears when compared to such a horrific crime as murder. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes.  I gave him the impression as if I had taken on the weight of the world deciding whether or not to fulfill the Sacrament. I had to do this so as to at least give the appearance of wise contemplation. In actuality, I was merely thinking about the perfect words to use to keep the ruse going.  I wasn’t about to let Joey Calonzo or his blood money leave my church for another.  I’m sure Saint Mary’s would love to have his bankroll in their pockets.

I started, “My son, you have committed deeds that are truly evil, however, I believe you’ve shown true remorse.”  Waving my hand in front of the screen I continued, “You will say 30 Our fathers and 20 Hail Marys and you will try every day to walk with Christ and show compassion for your fellow man.  You will do something kind for your wife and be a good father to your children.”

“I will, Father.”

He then said his act of contrition and left. I must admit to have felt a heavy burden on my heart since that day. Joey’s confessions became a weekly ritual, and I sat, listened, and waved my hand accordingly as he recounted crimes and details that might make your stomach turn.  The city around us was falling apart, and it felt like Joey and I were just superfluous dust meandering through a wellspring of urban decay. Not even baseball could cheer me up.  The Mets were in the gutter and the Yankees had Dave Winfield who could never come through in the clutch.  The city itself just seems to be decaying every time I turn around to look at it.  Depravity runs wild on the streets, and fewer and fewer young people come to church on Sunday morning.  More and more it’s become a haven for perfume soaked spinsters and widows.  They need someone to reassure them that their lives mean something, and I sell the snake oil they need at just the right time to prevent them from losing their minds. The kind smiles they offer me disguise lifetimes of despair and self-serving sacrifice. It’s become harder and harder to disguise my own contempt of it all.

The one comfort I have in this life is the knowledge that on the day Joey Colonzo dies, the moment his life extinguishes, he’ll know he will have been had.  He won’t see a light.  He won’t see St. Peter.  His consciousness will vanish into the ether just as everyone else does.  He’ll dissolve into the same nothingness as his victims and my knowledge of that makes me feel good about what I do.  I provide a service.  Without religion, this city would have decayed decades or even centuries ago. Men like me provide a service to keep society from complete self-destruction. Men like Joey Calonzo would have no sense of morality whatsoever and they would kill for sport instead of killing to fulfill a contract.  I’ve done more for this city than God ever could.

After all those gory confessions of murders, torturings, and fighting, I’ve become almost numb to it.  Instead, in our recent sessions I’ve come to let him breeze past those mortal sins and had him tell me more about his affair with Tina Vitale.  If one didn’t know better, after the first few minutes it might appear as if our confessions transformed into a gossip column. He’d tell me about all the wonderful things he bought her and about how he can’t stop thinking of her. He wrote her love poems, and I truly came to believe that he genuinely loved her despite his status as a sociopath.

It’s amazing how a man capable of such ugly behavior could turn around and almost appear human.  Tina’s mother passed away of cancer recently. Joey not only paid for the funeral but he also bought the most beautiful pendant for Tina’s mother to be buried with.  The damn thing must have cost about 20 grand, and it looked as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. On it he had an inscription which read, “I will forever abide in Christ as he abides in me.”  During the wake, the mourners were all invited to lift it slightly from the body’s chest to admire it and declare how beautiful it was and how peaceful Mrs. Vitale looked as she wore it in the casket.  In fact, everything about it was beautiful and graceful. It was as if her dead body had become this adorable accessory to this beautiful jewelry. I performed the ceremony taking on my usual somber reflective tone for such occasions.  My performance was exquisitely convincing, the body rested in all its peaceful glory, and the faces of the mourners took on a surrealist impression. Everything was as it should be.

As I finished my final blessing, I looked into Tina’s eyes and then I looked into Joey’s eyes and said, “Surely, she will find life everlasting as will each of us who believes in our lord, Jesus Christ.”

Joey held Tina in his embrace and nodded reverently.  Tina tried to suppress her tears and buried her face into Joey’s arm.  I embraced them both, held them in my arms, and said, “Don’t fret, Tina. Think of the saying on the pendant and let that give you comfort.”

Tina replied, “But those are just words. I don’t even know what it means”

Joey Calonzo looked to me for a sage response, but I merely stood back, smiled, nodded, and left. I could still hear him call out to me as I approached the doors.  I tried not to listen. Instead, I focused on the rain pouring down like pellets fired from a careless carbine.  The gutters would soon be awash with fresh waters from the heavens.  The streets would be cleared of those who wished to get away from the torrential downpour, and for a brief time the city would be still with the exception of the rain.  The parked cars would remain parked and the street corners would be clear of drug dealers and would-be muggers.  The prostitutes would abandon the streets and the wind and the rain would force all sins to be committed indoors far from the omniscient sight of their neglectful God.  For that moment, I felt truly free, truly peaceful, and I relished the relative solitude I was about to have for myself upon clearing the archway until my senses awakened and I heard his voice. It was clear as day and could penetrate any distance. “Bless you, Father,” he said.  I could feel the eyes on my back so I turned around, smiled, waved my hand and said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Afterwards, I returned to the rectory, retired to bed and prayed. I prayed for dear life that there should not be a God.

The Gentlemen

They watch you.  They wait for you to leave your home and they watch you and follow you wherever you go.  They all resemble James Cagney, and they all smoke cigars with those stylish grey suits and feathered fedoras keeping both eyes on you and making sure you don’t leave town.  It’s been like this for 3 weeks now in our little town, and every time I so much as go out for some eggs to fill up the icebox they silently follow me walking behind me at a steady pace.  They don’t follow me inside the grocers as the agreement the town made with them prohibits them from internal surveillance, but anytime we go outside, one of them is always ready and waiting to follow us.  Anyone who dares to protest or heaven forbid run – well, they end up disappearing, probably smoked. That’s the way it is here in Connorsville, and who knows how long it’ll last.

All of us have our own families to protect so there’s little chance of anyone stepping out of line.  No, the key is to wait it out. That’s what Sheriff Henderson told us. “Wait it out, and one day they’ll just leave. In the meantime, just go about your business, send your kids to school, and don’t change your routine.”   I suppose when faced with something this disturbing human instinct is to crave normalcy.  The various routines that define our lives during whatever phase of life we happen to be in traditionally offer us some comfort. No one likes to admit it but routines are indeed comforting.  Whatever inconveniences or distractions that occur in our lives only serve to help us appreciate whatever routines we have previously defined as “normal.”  The weekdays I’m used to getting Samantha ready for school while Susan makes us breakfast.  Then I read the paper while eating my scrambled eggs, finish getting dressed, walk Sammy to school with Susan, then head on over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue for a typical day of number crunching for the various businesses in town.  It’s mindless work, but it pays well and it’s given us a good home in this quiet little town.  We settled down here 5 years ago right after Sammy was born and figured this small town would be a nice place to raise her.  I liked the idea of a quaint little community where the neighbors all knew each other and everyone looked after everyone.  Sure, there was more than the usual round of gossip, but Susan had always been smart enough to keep enough distance from the uglier gossiping circles that tend to form in small towns like these.

The truth is that after spending our whole lives living in a big city, we craved something different.  Susan’s father had been a banker, and she grew to resent the hustle and bustle of the city with its loud boisterous noises every minute of the day and people always in a hurry.  She had always wanted her dad to slow down and finally he did, only it was because his heart gave out. She didn’t want me to suffer her father’s fate.  A job in finance could be stressful, especially when working for people whose every action in life is motivated by greed.  A cousin of hers told her about an accounting job opening in Connorsville far from the big city, a town with a population of only 300 people on the other side of the country.  It would be a huge lifestyle change for each of us, but after all the stress of my big city job, I had been determined to make the arrangement work.  We would be able to afford a house twice the size of the one we had in the city, and the arrangement became ideal. Sammy loved living in a big house with large backyard where she could play and run and do what kids do as they grow up.

I was playing catch with her in our backyard when Harry Summers drove by and told me there was this big town hall meeting that everyone had to go to.  Something had happened and there were important decisions to be made. He offered to drive me and I left Sammy home with Susan who had been preparing dinner for that evening. Harry had left his 2 year old son home with his wife as had most of the men who attended the meeting.

After some initial rumbling and waiting, a clearly panicked Sheriff Henderson got up at the podium to speak.  The sweat on his brow had been clearly visible as were the armpit stains in his uniform shirt.  He shuffled back and forth nervously hesitating before Carl Smolder prompted him to speak.  After all, Carl had his customers to get back to at his bar and this had taken up precious time for him already.

“Well listen up,” began Sheriff Henderson,” Everybody listen up!” The town hall quieted down as we all listened. “There are some gentlemen here from the city and the bottom line is that Connorsville is now under their control, but if we all cooperate they will be gone before we know it.”

“What is this some kind of joke?” asked Stanley Ruthman.

“Not a joke.  These gentlemen . . . well all they want is for us all to stay put and not leave town.  Connorsville has become a . . . location of strategic importance to them . . . but I’ve been assured that it’s only temporary.”

We were explained the rules.  We were all to adhere our regular routines only there would be one of these gentleman following each and every one of us wherever we go.  We were not to leave town and to make it easier on these gentleman, any irregular outing should be coordinated by house numbers.  So on even numbered days, even numbered households could have one unplanned outing to say take a stroll or go into town spontaneously.  The same would apply to odd numbered households on odd numbered days.  Each household would get a sum of $600 a week for every week that these gentlemen remained.  The payments would start immediately, and if anyone objected or protested in any way . . . well, that would be dealt with by rather discouraging means.

Most of us were clearly unhappy about this, but none of us had the courage to do anything.  Why stick your neck out when you know it’ll just be cut off? We all had families to protect and so we all agreed to go along with it.  Besides, it was made clear that these men would never actually enter our homes or follow us inside any building or structure so long as we were deemed in compliance.  Our routines were not to change and so work could get done and this extra cash would be some decent pocket money.  Clark Gasling had always wanted a pool in his backyard and Stephen Fowler had wanted to redesign his kitchen.  I always thought it would be nice to own a 2nd television set even though having just one set was considered a luxury. We each had our own ideas of what to do with the money.

The first few days came and went without incident. I had to explain to Sammy that there were men that would follow us while I took her to school every morning but that when the time was right, these men would go away.  She had even tried to say hi and wave to the pair that tailed us the next morning, but they ignored her and simply followed with their eyes on us each step of the way.  After Sammy had gone into school, I approached one of them and told them it wouldn’t hurt to have manners.  That’s when I was greeted by a snub nosed pistol in my face and told to “Stop making trouble or I’ll smoke yah.”

From then on, I had to content myself with following along. I could sense the frustration growing in the town, but no one dared to speak up.  No one dared upset the new “normalcy” that had been established.  We became prisoners in our own town vigorously following our normal routines under constant watch of these gentlemen.

I saw the strained look on Harry Summers face as he drove past my house today.  The gentlemen followed him in their Bentley.  He had been likely planning to go to the grocers but when he saw me, something inside him stirred. His face turned red and a defiant look crept across his face. He looked upset as he slowed down in front of my house. I had been watering my lawn with Sammy as he approached.  As soon as I noticed something amiss, I sent Sammy inside.  The gentleman watching me nodded in approval.  Then, I looked back just in time to see Harry’s truck speed off wildly down the road toward Bricket’s Underpass.  What was he thinking? I wondered.  The Bentley behind him sped up to follow.  They rammed him from behind then sped up alongside and ran him off the road.  Before I knew it, pistols were pulled out and Harry Summer’s brains had been spilt across the grass leading to Gaitlin’s townhouse.  The gentleman assigned to watching me water my lawn nodded in approval and smiled. I must have looked horrified, but as long as I didn’t do anything out of line I knew I’d be safe.  I went back to watering my lawn although I made sure Sammy stayed inside.

I don’t know what the destiny of Connorsville will be.  If the gentlemen ever leave, I imagine it’ll become a ghost town because I can’t imagine anyone would feel safe here ever again.  Tomorrow happens to be a big day at work for me. I look forward to getting up, eating my scrambled eggs, taking Sammy to school, and heading over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue.  There’s news of a new account being opened and that might mean a big promotion for me along with a raise of course.  I’ll try my best not to dream of poor Harry tonight, but if I do I’ll be sure to dream about the good times I had with him as my neighbor.  I imagine that whatever mess his blood and brains might have made up the road will soon be cleaned up.  These are gentlemen we’re dealing with after all.

Detective Frank Fights Back

This is the 3rd story in my planned series, The Detective Frank Chronicles.  The stories are episodic so you don’t have to read the prior stories to enjoy this one.  

If you wish to read the 1st story, Detective Frank’s Daytime Dilemma, you can find it here: https://jackl0073.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/detective-franks-daytime-dilemma/

If you wish to read the 2nd story, Detective Frank Takes a Swing, you can find it here: https://jackl0073.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/detective-frank-takes-a-swing/

The following is a work of fiction.  The views and opinions of the characters don’t necessarily reflect those of the author. 

It was just like the old days back on the job though this was not quite a stake out as it was protection detail.  Officer Holliday loved his family.  They were all he lived for, yet he never knew they’d ever be in danger just because certain people took offense to him doing his duty.  First came the headlines in the paper then came the threats against him followed soon after by threats to his family.  His Dad, Louis Holliday was a good friend of mine, proud that his son had made it onto the Force.  Over the years I’ve spent several Thanksgiving dinners at the Holliday household and I remember when his son Michael had been just a wide-eyed boy with his entire future in front of him.  He came from good people, and all he ever wanted to do was make his family proud.  Even after all the disdain, threats, and humiliation he’s endured over the past months his family had much to be proud of.  It’s a shame that there are factions at work right now whose only desire is to besmirch the good name of a loyal and dedicated officer.  I’m not just telling you this story because I know the family nor is it because I myself am a retired police officer.  I’m telling you this story because maybe there’s someone out there who still needs to be convinced that the majority of cops protecting our city right now are good people.  They may not all be perfect, but they deserve to be treated with honor and respect.

It was my eighth straight night on voluntary protection detail.  The snow had become a menace that winter and although it wasn’t snowing at the time, there was plenty on the ground.  I figured since I knew the family it was the least I could do to help them out.  Every night until then had been uneventful.  I’d park across the street from Michael’s modest two-family home around 8pm and keep watch all night until 8am.   No one had asked me to do it, but I felt like I had to.  It made his family feel safe.  His wife, Samantha, was such a sweetheart and he had 2 teenage sons.  I knew that they would feel safe again in their own home with me outside.  They’ve gotten to know me through the years and they know I’m quite the badass who’s fully capable of taking on anyone who’d ever think of messing with them.  That’s what loyalty is.  Loyalty is having someone’s back and making them feel safe, and I’d like to think I’ve built quite a steady reputation for being loyal throughout the years while I was on the job.  Now that I’m retired, why should it be any different?

Samantha frequently came outside to offer me food or coffee despite my protestations. Nights like this call exclusively for soup and coffee.  That was my only fuel while I was on the Force whenever I had this kind of assignment so I figure why break with routine.  Spaghetti and meatballs are bit too messy to eat in your car anyway. Samantha kept telling me that she couldn’t thank me enough and that she couldn’t believe I’d be doing this for free as a retiree.  If she only knew the messes I’ve entangled myself in since retirement, she might have a clue that maybe I haven’t quite settled into retired life just yet.  Perhaps, I never will.  There are plenty of guys like that who just can’t let go of the badge but those stories rarely end happily.  I’m beginning to think my own story to be quite problematic but there is little I can do about that now.

I just knew that Samantha needed to feel safe sleeping in her own home knowing that nothing would happen to her or her family as they slept at night while Michael stayed at a hotel until the media coverage of the story blew over.  When some godforsaken hack website published his home address, he nearly hit the roof.  The only thing that would reassure him was knowing that I’d be right outside keeping watch over his home every night until things blew over.  Trust me when I say that was the only way to convince him to be apart from the family he loved.

My phone rang at about 11:30pm.  It was Vivian. We never dated while she was my superior officer nor even after she had left my precinct, but I recently reconnected with her after she phoned me with news that she found her biological mother.  That was many months ago now.  We met up for coffee and soon afterwards I found myself in a relationship with a woman that I had only known professionally for many years.  We did see each other socially quite a few times back then but there was always a respectable distance between us.  I suppose a mutual lingering affection existed – that feeling that perhaps we were kindred spirits of a sort – but at the time she was my boss and boy did I keep her busy.

Back then she was Lt. Vivian Marshall to me and every time I’d get myself in a mix I’d find myself along with my partner Hank in her office for the typical commanding officer reaming that is actually quite like the movies.   You know those cop movies where the main cop character does something to get himself in trouble early on and then there’s the obligatory scene where said cop gets read the riot act by his commanding officer?  Well, for me that was Vivian for a good 6 year stint in my career going back quite a few years ago – more than I care to recount here.   There was always an unspoken understanding between us. We were the same age, divorced with kids, and both of us were stubborn and equally pigheaded at times when we couldn’t get our way.  After she left my precinct, she softened up towards me considerably and we’ve remained good friends. She retired before me, and every once in a while I’d get a call out of the blue or an invitation to a birthday party.  Her call to me months ago about finding her biological mother was different.  I thought I heard that frog in her voice indicating that she was teary-eyed.  When she finally blurted out that she had found her biological mother after all these years, I didn’t know what to say other than that I was happy for her. We started seeing each other shortly after that.

So the call came in on my cell phone that night as I sat in my car in front of the Holliday house and it was Vivian.  She had spent the day getting to know her biological mother after many years of searching.  This had been perhaps their 3rd or 4th meeting. I imagine it must have been strange finding an old woman in her mid-70s who had abandoned her when she was a baby but Vivian had quickly developed a rapport with her and it had been important to Vivian to find this woman. She began telling me about her latest visit when I noticed a shadowy figure approaching the house.  At first I thought this suspicious person would just walk on by, but whoever it was stepped onto the lawn approaching one of the first floor windows.  I dropped my phone and shot out of my car like a cannon.  The figure’s arm pulled back in an attempt to throw a heavy object at the living room window when I leapt towards the figure and tackled the person from behind to the ground.  A brick covered with a note fixed to a rubber band fell from the person’s hand onto the grass beside us as I turned the person around and saw a woman.

I quickly got back up to my feet and helped the would-be assailant stand up informing her that I was placing her under citizen’s arrest.   Before me stood a frightened red-headed, tall woman in her mid to late 30s.   She trembled in her black hooded heavy coat, one that had been covered in snow after our awkward little tussle.  I might have found her attractive if I had encountered her in a bar with those freckles and dimples on a face that looked as innocent as anything.  I asked myself what this person could possibly have to do with attacking a police officer and his family in such a way.  I picked up the brick and on the note attached to it had been the slogan that had been repeated at every anti-cop protest that had taken place in the city since Officer Holliday’s fateful encounter with an unarmed black man, “I can’t breathe.”  Beneath the words though there had been scribbled a logo or symbol of sorts.  I tried to look at it closely but I could barely see.  It looked like a triangle with an elephant on top.  I couldn’t look at it too long. I began to reach for my cell phone but realized that I had left it in the car.

The woman shivered in front of me not just from the cold but also out of genuine panic and dread.  Her delicate hands had turned into a strange pale pinkish white color. As her red hair frayed at the ends and blew about her face I told her, “Listen, the police are going to come soon and take you in. I’m not going to lie. They’re going to ask you some tough questions.  Did someone set you up to this?”

The tears running down her face as she nodded all but answered my question.  Then, I saw her eyes widen and her mouth gape open.  I thought I heard the distinct sound of a car driving across the road, and then it hit.  I could feel the bullet tearing through the flesh between my shoulder blades and just as I started to turn around I fell to the ground.   My head hit the cold snow beneath me and all I could see was the snow in front of me turning red as if someone had clumsily spilled some red paint on the snow.  I knew my wound was behind me so the blood couldn’t have been mine.  The blood had to be hers. I turned my neck just enough to see the remnants of her red hair speckled with blood as it blew recklessly in the wind.  I could almost see the tattered remnants of the back of the black hood stained with the dark red ink of her blood.  Then I remember trying to let out a shout at that moment but succumbing to a restless sleep instead.

I’ve been shot before.  This was nothing new, but in all the years of being shot and being shot at I’ve never slipped out of consciousness into a comatose state, and I’ve never had such nightmares haunt me to the point where I begged for the eternal repose of death.  Suddenly, it was years ago and I had just put on my uniform for the first time.  Looking in the mirror I was shocked to see someone else.  Instead of the younger man I was 36 years ago, I saw a grizzled old man in need of a cigarette gulping a bottle of whiskey.  The face looked completely unfamiliar, but he wore my uniform and he spoke in my voice as he yelled at my ex-wife to keep the kids quiet and out of the way.  All I could do was stand and stare in silence as the man in the scruffy beard adjusted his collar looking back at me snickering and sneering like a scoundrel.   He knew I was there.  Indeed, he seemed to take an odd pleasure in the fact of my watching.   I looked about me and noticed my service revolver sitting on the bed nearby.  As I walked over to grab it, the taste of whiskey flooded my mouth. I found myself gulping back swallows and swallows of drink that had never been put to my lips.  Picking up the gun, I felt sluggish again. My head was swimming.  I felt outside myself. I staggered back to the mirror ready to take aim and fire at this wretched doppelganger on the other side only to find him gone.  Suddenly, the cries of my children as infants flooded my eardrums until they were all I could hear.  Trying as much as I could to regain some composure, I turned around and started walking towards my bedroom door calling out softly towards my two sons telling them that I would be right there to pick them up and hold them.  I found myself wondering as I approached the door, where do I find the baby bottles?  Where are the diapers?  Where is the formula?  Then, I steadied myself and found myself instantly transported to the children’s room where two cribs stood side by side.  The crying from both cribs intensified but as I walked closer towards the cribs, the room elongated and the cribs kept moving further and further away. I reached out and called out to my two sons but they didn’t hear me. They kept crying and yelping and snorting and writhing but I could do nothing to help them.  Looking down, I saw that bottle of whiskey in my hands and drew it closer to my lips collapsing in utter helplessness. I kept calling out and calling out but nobody heard me.  It was as if I wasn’t there.  Then, I was running . . . chasing someone. I had to get them.  I had made a mistake. Shimata!! That’s the word – the Japanese word – that would fit the situation. I had made a mistake.  That was the word that my Japanese girlfriend (what was her name again?) had taught me at that time.  It’s the closest thing to a curse word that she would utter out when she made an error.  Only this wasn’t her error, it was my error. I was stupid. I was dumb.  The guy told me all he wanted to do was reattach his prosthetic leg. What harm could that do? “Officer Flecha, please?  I just want to put my leg on I promise I won’t run on you.” What harm could that do?  The guy was caught.  Why not be charitable? Show the guy some sympathy. The game was over.  It was over and done with.  What good would it do to humiliate him and take him into the precinct handcuffed balancing himself on one leg? Why not let the man have one last shred of dignity?  So, I un-cuffed him and allowed him to put his leg back on only just as soon as he did, he opened the car door and bolted faster than anything.  Now, I had to chase him down, but that wasn’t the worst thing. No, the worst thing would be the laughter.  This whole thing could follow me for my entire career. Yes, I would come to be known as the cop who let himself get outrun by a one-legged perp. The wind blew across my face as I ran with desperation.  My cheeks welled up and now tears started streaming across my face.  The speed at which I ran made the tears blow off my face as they would across a speeding windshield.   I was gasping and gasping for air.  Suddenly, I found myself leaping into the air. I tackled the guy. Off went the leg as I struggled to get my breath back but no matter how much time I took I couldn’t catch my breath.  I read the guy his rights again and I noticed he was crying too.  Crying because he was caught without his leg again? Perhaps. Did it matter?  I told myself that it didn’t.  Then, I was surrounded by my fellow officers who took the perp away, but behind my back they all laughed.  They laughed and they laughed and there was nothing to comfort me but that one bottle of whiskey I had been nursing since the start of it all.  With the addition of a pack of cigarettes, a bar, and an open tab all the pain – the pain of humiliation anyway “Shimata!!”- it all went away, but by the time that happened I had lost something else and I could never get it back.

Reality began to fade again or perhaps it wasn’t reality that was fading. It was the nightmare that faded and reality that returned.  Indeed, the reality was that I was in a hospital bed and it was Vivian’s lovely face that I first saw through the haze. “We almost lost you,” She said.

I was still groggy. I searched for words but they had all but escaped me. Perhaps my own vocabulary had won the footrace after all. Looking around, I noticed tubes and felt the stick of an IV needle in me, and I desperately wanted nothing more than to rip it out get out of there.  There was an investigation to be done and I was wasting precious time dreaming away while the shooters ran free.  Everything flooded back to my mind and I could see the red-head and her brick and her note clear as day in front of my face again. I began to lift myself but Vivian rose from her chair and put her arms around me in gentle restraint.

“You need to rest.”

Finally, I started to talk, “The woman – is she?”

“She’s dead, Frank.  One of the bullets hit her right between the eyes. She had no chance.”

“But the note . . .”

“The police have everything they need. The detectives on the case are good group. I used to work with one of them. It’s all in good hands.  If the bullet that hit you had been an inch more to the left we wouldn’t be talking right now.  You’d be dead or paralyzed.”

“Vivian, I have to find who’s behind this.  The woman indicated that she had been set up.”

“I’m sure Detectives Ramos and Claufield are looking into it, but right now I’m concerned about you. Let me get the nurse and let her know you’re awake. There will be plenty of time for you to discuss the case with the detectives. “

“I have to help.”

“Help? Frank, you’ve done enough. Let’s not talk about it now, okay.”

After that, well you can probably guess all the stuff that took place while I was in the hospital.  The recovery, the doctors, the detectives with their questions, my official statement, visits from Michael Holliday and his wife – all the stuff you might have expected to happen –  it all happened, but nothing could describe the urgency I felt to get healed and to get back on the case.  I pride myself on the fact that I never let anyone who took a shot at me get away.  That’s something Vivian could never understand.  Was the case in capable hands?  Of course it was, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a job to do.  The sense of duty rose up within me as my body healed.  All I could think about was tracking down those shooters, finding out who had sent that woman to throw a brick into the Holliday home, and bringing them all to justice.   Vivian may have been a cop in the past, but she was also capable of being passive and letting things like this go.  In the past it had been her job to keep me in check and I found myself in familiar territory as she implored to me that not every incident needs to be turned into some vendetta.  I listened as she told me I wasn’t a detective anymore.  I needed to transition back into civilian life just as she had and that she would help me.  I nodded but her words went right through me.  They meant nothing, and the more she protested the less she began to mean to me.  Did she think she was still my superior officer barking down orders after I slipped up?  Did she think that hospital room was her office and my bed the desk between us, an object to wield to rein me in and control me for my own good?  I began to secretly resent her for the way she kept talking and talking to me as if these were the old times when we both had lives that still mattered.  She wanted me to be like she was – sedate, settled, and sober- content in the knowledge that we can’t take control over the things that matter the most in life.  I kept all these feeling bottled up inside me, but each time she spoke to me I wanted a drink and a cigarette – hospital rules and the fucking mayor be damned.   Once they had finally let me out of the hospital I took out my frustrations on her by making love to her brutally ignoring the pain I felt in my bones. Even that didn’t satisfy me and I spent the entire first night back home wide awake staring at the ceiling with Vivian’s naked body sleeping peacefully beside me.

Back in my apartment the next morning, she brought me a beer and slipped a business card into my hand before giving me a long kiss full on the lips.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“I think you should talk to somebody.”

“A shrink?”

“Dr. Helen Markham has helped many men like you transition back into civilian life.  She comes highly recommended.  Veterans returning from the Middle East struggling with PTSD vouch for her.  I have a friend who had a husband return from Iraq and . . .”

“Vivian, I don’t have a problem. It’s not like I‘m coming back from a war zone. I got shot in the back. I just need to find out who did it and why.”

“How many times do I need to tell you you’re not a cop anymore!” Her voice rose with every word.  I could tell she had been trying to restrain the tears.

“Come on. Before this happened, you were amused when I talked about what happened in LA and what I went through with Hank’s daughter.  This is no different.  It’s in my blood to do this.  It’s in your blood too. I know you.  If this happened to you . . .”

“This would never happen to me.  That’s just it. I’ve left the job behind. I wouldn’t do police work again if someone offered me a billion dollars just to be a cop again for a day. I’m retired. I did my part and so did you.  It’s time to . . .”

“Time to what?  Sit back, get old, and get ready to die? Because that’s what retirement is.  That’s what that retirement party they threw for me meant.  It meant that that I was done, finished, so why not have a blowout – only I’ve proven over this past year that I still have life in me yet. I caught a man who murdered a soap star. I caught the bitch who slashed the face of Hank’s beautiful daughter, and now I need to do this.”

Vivian look up at the ceiling rolling her eyes, “Do this and then what, Frank?  Then what?”

“I don’t know. . . but don’t tell me that I’m finished because I’m not.  I’ll never be finished. If I get killed out there then so be it.”

“Then we’re done, Frank. I can’t let myself love a man like you. I can’t!”

An awkward silence and then the doorbell rang.  Vivian answered the door.  I heard her say, “He’s not going to talk to a reporter.”  As soon as I heard that I knew who it was and shouted, “It’s okay! Let him in!”

She walked back into the living room, embraced me, looked me in the eyes and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I nodded in the affirmative. I didn’t even think to say anything only now I wish that I had.  She turned around and shot Anthony Valenti a look that would just as soon kill him and told him, “He’s all yours.”

Anthony stood silently in his black vested suit his eyes following her behind as she left walking past him.  His five o’clock shadow had started despite the early morning hour, he shifted his neck tie, removed a flask from his inside jacket pocket and said, “Time for a drink, old friend?”

“You bet,” I said, “Good to see you again.  How long has it been?  Ever win that fucking Pulitzer you were pining away for?”

He chuckled and said, “I’ve learned to accept certain realities. The newspaper business isn’t what it used to be. Heck, it wasn’t what it used to be when I first signed up for it so what else could I expect.”

“I hear ya, Anthony.”

The company and the drinking helped me to at least temporarily put Vivian towards the back of my mind. I never could forget a woman who meant as much to me as she did, but sometimes a man has to just put things on a shelf while he sorts out other things. I wanted to tell her I loved her and I knew she loved me but pride and egos have a nasty habit of getting in the way. It was good to see Anthony again though. As a cop I used to have little or no respect for the media, but Anthony was different.  Most of his family including a brother and a sister were on the Force. His old man used to be on the Force, and when the paper he was working for a few years back wanted him to write up some anti-cop garbage to feed the public its usual swill, he upped and quit.  It took him a while to get back on his feet but he remained true to himself and loyal to the Police, which is why I knew I could trust him.  I knew he had information that didn’t make the papers.  It was this information that he was sitting on that could maybe help me find out who was responsible for what happened that night.  The sooner I resolved that, the sooner I thought I might be able to win Vivian back and perhaps even let her talk some sense into me.  I needed to act fast.

“Well, you already know the identity of the red-head, Lucy Berringer, but what you may not know is that she had a boyfriend, a black guy who went missing 2 months ago.  It’s been kept hush-hush.  This guy Sam Carter went out after a rendezvous with Lucy at a club and he was expected to be back later that night but disappeared.  Strange thing is that not Lucy or even Carter’s family reported him missing.”

“So, how do you know about this?”

“Lucy’s sister told the cops only after they leaned on her for something they didn’t already know.  The problem is that the cops don’t know what to do with this bit of information. They are considering all angles but my sources tell me that they still don’t know what Lucy was doing there that night about to throw a brick through the window of the Holliday household.  It doesn’t make any sense.  A white woman in her mid-30s with no ties to the anti-cop protesters suddenly decides to throw a brick at Officer Holliday’s window.  Why?”

I spoke up, “She was set up.  That’s why. But by whom?”

“I don’t know, but I bet it has something to do with the disappearance of Sam Carter.  Find out what happened to him, and I bet this case blows wide open, and when that happens maybe you give me the exclusive, eh.”

I chuckled, “Don’t let yourself sound so desperate, Anthony. I know you’re a good man, but let’s just take one thing at a time.  Besides, you’re the only reporter I know who isn’t a complete bastard so who else would I talk to?”

Before Anthony left I called him back for a minute, “You think flowers ought to do it?”

A sympathetic smile crossed his face, “Not enough flowers in this city, Frank.”  He grabbed his fedora from the desk by the door, waved goodbye to me, and left.

I decided to start with the retired parents of Sam Carter.  I found them easily enough. These days it doesn’t take much sleuthing to find anybody.  Those people who aren’t trying to hide could be found within minutes and those that are trying to hide could perhaps delay the efforts by an hour or two.  It’s the ones that hide in plain sight that you need to worry about.

Carter’s parents seemed honest enough.  They had been easy to find, and they were hoping I had information on their son.  They thought I was still on the job and I didn’t do anything to correct that impression. When I asked why they hadn’t reported their son missing, they started to become defensive.

“We love our son,” Lois Carter said in protest.

“I know that. I just want to help.  Is there anything – anything at all – that you haven’t told us yet?”

The father’s eyes tilted down and his face took on a somber impression, “They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“What are you trying to say, Mr. Carter?”

“My son.  Well. . .”

“George don’t!” interjected Lois Carter.

“We have to tell the truth, Lois.  It’s the only way to find our son dead or alive.  It’s the only way we’re going to know for sure.”

“Please, both of you. All I want to do is help you find out what happened to your son.  I promise that whatever it is I find, I will share it with you before I share it with anyone else.”

“Alright, our son was being held for ransom – only if we went to the police the kidnappers – whoever did this – they said he would kill us.”

“How much did they want?”

“That’s the thing.  He didn’t want money.  The man on the phone said it was a matter of patriotism -something about restoring the faith of America.   He said he was ex-military and that my son would be free as soon as his mission was accomplished.  Then, we never heard from the kidnappers again.  Then, you cops came around asking questions about Lucy and I didn’t know what to say.  I was told that if I talked to the Police he would kill Sam.  Then, one time when Lucy had come over, the phone rang and he gave her . . . instructions.  He promised to release Sam once she had done what he told her to do.   Then, that whole mess happened at that Officer Holliday’s house and we didn’t know what to do or say.  Lucy was a loving and kind woman.  She may have been older than Sam but we could tell they were in love. Now, she’s gone and we still don’t know what happened to Sam.”

I left the Carter household reflecting closely on the implications of what I had learned.  Sam Carter – a hostage? The perpetrators – ex-military? Could it be possible that the person responsible for this entire mess had been someone unwilling to adjust to his civilian life – someone who took up a cause and now put the lives of innocent people in jeopardy because of his own refusal to stand down as it were? These endless possibilities stirred in my mind cooking up as if they were ingredients in some kind of stir-fry.  I thought about this faceless man behind the phone.  What was his purpose? Was he acting alone and if not, just who did he work for? I needed to get to the bottom of it all.

On my way back home from seeing the Carter family, I drove past a group of protesters.  They were carrying signs saying “No Justice No Peace!” and calling for the blood of Officer Michael Holliday because he had killed an unarmed black man in the line of duty.  None of these people seemed to be aware of the sacrifices men and women like Officer Holliday make every day to keep them safe.  All they cared about was their own sense of self-righteousness so that they could all feel better about themselves believing that cops are all racists so that minorities could continue to be downtrodden despite the fact the cops I served with had come from all sorts of different backgrounds, religions and races.    These fanatics want to believe that cops are all white men when that couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact just about every cop I know would give their life to save the life of an innocent person regardless of the color skin of the person they were saving.  It’s what’s right. The man who died in the confrontation with Officer Holliday had been a menace to the community.  He was a low level hoodlum with a checkered background of domestic abuse who had even thrown his newborn infant son out of a car window just weeks before his death yet he’s now idolized as martyr by these ridiculous liberals. The world has gone astray.  What happened to the days when law enforcers were idolized instead of the crooks?  Gone are the days of my youth when young boys like me looked up to Dick Tracy, Batman, and Superman.  Those were the days when kids wanted to be heroes.  We wanted to save innocent lives, and we didn’t care who we were protecting.  It would become my duty when I joined the Force, and it’s that sense of duty that compels me today.

Just as I decided to shove the entire thing out of my mind, I noticed that across the way from the protesters, a pro-cop rally had sprung up with far fewer supporters.  They were handing out fliers to anyone passing them by.  I decided to get out of my car and have a chat and perhaps grab a flyer when something crossed my eye.  It was the logo scribbled upon the note wrapped around Lucy’s brick.  Had she scribbled it herself since the version on the flyer look polished and professional?  Was that her way of letting us know who set her up?  I asked the organizer and he told me that the rally had been funded by Gabriel Janus, a wealthy and influential friend of the Fraternal Order of Police.  This was his company logo.  The man had made many generous contributions both to the Police and to the Republican Party.  The organizer I spoke to talked about the man as if he walked on water.    It was then that I knew something smelled funny.

I went straight to the Janus Company Headquarters in midtown Manhattan and decided to see what I could find.  Once inside the tall post-modern building a life sized statue of the logo greeted me.  It was then I figured that it might be impossible to track down this very important man. I was surrounded by important looking men and women in expensive suits and quickly felt out of place. I decided I would try to put on my official demeanor and see if I could catch a receptionist off guard. I put on the old Flecha charm with the young woman in a green dress at a kiosk across the lobby.  Oddly enough she hadn’t spotted me as an interloper. Indeed, she seemed flattered with all the attention I had devoted to lavishing upon her. I imagine that important men walked past her every day and never truly stopped to take a genuine interest in her.  They only spoke to her when she was needed for something and only complimented her if she was effective at her job.

“The first star I see this evening I’m naming it after you, Deidre.  Where have you been all my life?”

“I bet a guy like you gets a lot of women with that line.”

“And if I have it has all been a prelude to you.”

She chuckled while keeping her eyes fixed on me through her angular eyeglasses.  The grin on her lips said all I needed to know. I had her.  It had been a while since I tried doing something like that cold so it was good to know I still had it in me. I told her I had a very urgent message for Mr. Jannus and that it simply couldn’t wait.  “Tell him his friend from the military sent me.  He’ll know who I’m talking about.”

After giving me her business card noting her phone number and email address, she got me through to where I needed to go. I found myself on the 11th floor of the building walking down a narrow hallway towards the very last door.  Another receptionist waved me though. Mr. Jannus was behind his desk. He was a thin young man in his mid 30s and I could tell right away he had been someone who had felt very accomplished.  Even if he had come from a wealthy family, the respect and the authority he had obtained were no easy task for a man this young.  He looked like an up and coming politician and the smile he greeted me with through those big wide white teeth told me all I needed to know.

I sat down with all the confidence in the world contemplating how far I would go with my bluff, “Sam Carter has escaped,” I told him.

“That’s impossible. Captain Nelson assured me that would never happen.”

“Well, it has.”

“Then why are you here instead of looking for him?”

“Honestly, none of us know where to look.”

“How far could he have gotten?  I mean weren’t you holding him at Nelson’s upstate ranch house?  He said it was a few miles in between neighbors. Very secluded.  Why come all the way here?”

“You know why.”

Jannus sniffed, “Money.  You guys are all the same. I thought this was about patriotism and all that ‘Hooyah!’ shit when it really is all about the payday.  Get him on the phone!”

I took out my cell phone and clicked on the one contact I knew would take this man down.  As soon as there was an answer I said, “Captain, we have a problem.  I think you better talk to Mr. Jannus and really settle this thing once and for all.  It’s about the package and our money.”

Jannus yanked the phone from me snarling, “Listen to me Captain Nelson, if I had known you were going to fuck this up and let Sam Carter go free I would have hired one of my other Black-Ops guys.  You men are a dime a dozen and I can’t afford fuckups.  You’ll get an extra million if you capture him alive but you had better be sure nobody else finds him. This operation has been a mess from the very beginning.  The whole purpose of this was to blame one of those anti-cop groups to make them look like the criminals that they really are so they could go running to Al Sharpton and cry about being framed like little babies. This was supposed be about winning the heart of America. Now it’s just a murder and kidnapping until you complete this supposedly new plot of yours to make it look like this Sam Carter set his girlfriend up.  We need Carter alive, do you hear me?”

With the volume turned all the way up on my phone, I could hear Anthony’s voice on the other end said, “Loud and clear.  You know this entire conversation has just been recorded and within seconds the NYPD will have this and converge upon your office within minutes.  Have a good day. I know I will.”

Jannus shot me a look of utter incredulity, “Who the fuck are you?”

“Nobody, I’m just a retired detective,” I said with the biggest shit-eating grin.

“This is entrapment. Nothing I just said . . .”

“Don’t give me that crap. I’ve heard enough lectures recently. If you know what’s best for you, you will cooperate with the police when they arrive. If you don’t, I’ll make sure that Carter gets rescued myself before you have a chance to warn your Black-Ops guys.  I’m not carrying a firearm but if you so much as reach for a phone you have no idea how much pain I will inflict upon you.”

Needless to say Jannus sang like a canary when the cops arrived.  The FBI got called in almost immediately and staged a raid on Captain Nelson’s upstate ranch house. They rescued Sam Carter but Captain Frederick Nelson, formerly of the U.S. Marines, escaped after a long firefight.  Anthony got his exclusive.  I imagine his name will be recognized for quite a long while since this story would occupy the front pages for weeks.  People might even get motivated to start buying newspapers again.  I imagine Anthony to be quite the hero in his own circles. Gabriel Jannus soon went from wealthy accomplished businessman to lifelong scumbag in a matter of seconds. You can bet that his name was shall we say “trending” for days.   His confession and his plot had been like something out of the movies.  It was all anyone could talk about.  I only hope that it brings people together because sometimes it’s not the people who are openly trying to divide us who do the most damage. Usually, it is people like Jannus operating in the shadows manipulating the worst qualities to come out in society.  On the surface, it looked like the anti-cop groups would have been behind something like this, but it was really someone far more sinister and divisive who had truly been the linchpin.  It’s the scoundrels that hide in plain sight who become the most dangerous and behind just about every scoundrel is the jingoistic call to patriotism to justify their evil deeds. These men don’t know what true patriotism is.  They lather themselves with snake oil and tell us what we want to hear. On our side we had Jannus and on the other end they have Al Sharpton.   If only Sharpton could be as careless on the phone as Jannus had been.

If only my story ended there.  It seems like a neat tidy ending doesn’t it? A few days after Anthony’s story came out, I went to visit Vivian. I decided perhaps a single white rose would do the trick.  I rang the bell, she answered the door and seemed surprisingly welcoming towards me.  I knew she hadn’t quite forgiven me but just seeing that lovely smile of hers made me melt. I went into my whole spiel and I was about to tell her that I had scheduled an appointment with Dr. Helen Markham just to get her to let me inside when a look of panic crossed her face.  She yelled, “GET DOWN!!!”

I heard the firecracker popping sound of gunfire behind me. The two of us crouched and rushed inside.  Together we raced towards the back of the house where the kitchen back door was located but we decided that exiting out of the back door would be a mistake.  Captain Nelson hadn’t operated alone and there was no doubt a perimeter had already been set up. If we tried to leave the house, we would be easy targets.

“Where’s your firearm?”

“Upstairs locked away in my bedroom!”

“You’re kidding me right!”

“Frank, I’m not a cop anymore. I don’t have guns in every room of the house.”

“Is it at least loaded?”

“Of course it is.”

“I’m going after it.  Go down to the basement. Find a hiding spot.”

“Wait!  The combination!”

“What is it?”

“36-24-12!”

“Got it,” I said as I bolted upstairs.

By the time I had reached the top step, Captain Nelson had already penetrated the house.  He came in alone.  He must have let his accomplices remain outside in case we tried to make a run for it.  I unlocked the safe, got Vivian’s gun, and carefully made my way back downstairs. He had decided to go downstairs and take care of Vivian first.  Then, I heard it.  A shot had been fired. I panicked and raced down the basement steps opening fire at the first glimpse of the musclular man.  I shot him in the back of his bald head just as he executed Vivian. I was too late.  The rest was black . . . darkness enveloped me . . . Then, the sound of sirens. I think you know the rest.

This time the police were able to round up all of Captain Nelson’s accomplices, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better. Vivian hadn’t asked to be a part of this, but she’s the one who is gone. I’m the one still here sucking down endless gulps of whiskey until I lose consciousness every night.  Dr. Helen Markham reccomended that I write up my story, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Writing it down only brings back the anguish I feel.  Does it matter to anyone that I wanted to tell Vivian that I loved her but failed to.  I doubt it. I doubt anyone is going to read this. My phone kept going off so much after the shooting but I didn’t care who was on the other end. I took my cell phone and threw it out the window the other night. Who needs those things anyway?  Does everybody really need to be connected to everybody else? What kind of an age is this anyway.  I swear to Christ those things were invented just to prevent men like me from ever obtaining any kind of peace and quiet.  As I stare at the whiskey bottle in front of me there is one ultimate transcendent truth this world and this life have to offer. I’ve said it many times before in a past life and I’ll say it again now:

The most beautiful three words in the English language are not “I love you.” That’s okay for the sheep, the saps, and the suckers that inhabit the planet.  No, the most beautiful three words ever uttered in the English language are, “Leave Me Alone.” I only wish I had remembered that while Vivian was still alive.

A Song for Her

The subway doors closed with their usual carelessness while Ken sat and listened to his music dreaming of her.  They could only be together within the confines of a song’s fantasy, but perhaps that was all he needed.  Either way, he had to learn to be content with a life that wouldn’t permit him to get to know her properly.  Dreams are almost always better anyway, he figured as he let himself get lost within the lyrics of the song like an old poem. “The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,” he sang to himself internally. At 1AM it hardly mattered if he sang aloud as he was the only one in the subway car, but proclamations of love were never quite the type of thing that emboldened him.  Come to think of it, not much else did.  He lived by a motto that suggested that one should be content with his life even if he isn’t.  Some might say it’s cowardly to live that way, but sometimes a good love song alone could make him feel like he could conquer the world, capture the heart of the woman of his dreams, and ride away in some sort of Don Quixote –inspired glory out into the sunset with a new love that would inspire him for the rest of his remaining days.  For a period of less than 4 minutes, Ken believed the love he had for Lizzie would be boundless and he had faith in that life he lived inside that song.

Winter would be brutal.  The snowfall alone so far had made it one to remember.  As they parted ways earlier, he had hoped only that she would get to home safely and stay warm.  As it is, he himself enjoyed the warmth that the subway car provided and dreaded the prospect of having to leave it once he reached his destination.  That would be a long way off though.  For now there was just him, “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, and his dreams of Lizzie and what she might be like if he were allowed to know her.  The frustration that he may never get to properly know the woman of his dreams sometimes got to him, but as long as he had her in his mind as the music played that would have to be enough.

It wouldn’t be a wise thing to make a move on the boss’s wife even if he could tell that little love existed between the two.  No, that was one marriage that Ken could never see ending.  Vinnie would sooner have her killed rather than let her off with another man and Ken was a low level underling at that so everyone would be gunning for him at the drop of a dime if that’s what it came to. No, all he could do was dream and love from afar so that’s what he’d do.  Besides, bad things happened to people who chased their dreams, got greedy, and decided to act on them especially in this business.  Though Ken found himself in love, he knew that love didn’t necessarily conquer all – not bullets anyway.  Cupid’s arrow was no match for a .45 caliber semi-automatic fired by on behalf of Vinnie Calabrese.

He valued his own life too much to act on his most paramount desire despite the fact he thought maybe he stood a chance if the circumstances were different.  That very night after the near fatal collision, she had come ever so close to asking him for a kiss.  Just as he leaned in, he could hear a car pull-up and sure enough it was one of Vinnie’s goons prepared to take Lizzie home leaving Ken to get himself home by subway.  He could tell Lizzie was shaken, and Ken almost forgot himself as he was about to suggest waiting for the ambulance prior to recalling just who would be involved.  The civilians from the other car seemed alright as they watched Ken and Lizzie leave the scene of the accident with petulant incredulity.  What did it matter anyway?  It’s not as if Ken was driving his own car?  It would take time but once it was discovered that he was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, Ken knew it would be best not to face any questions.  Still, Ken was deeply concerned with the bruise on Lizzie’s head.

For now there was only the music in his ears and his dreams of Lizzie that danced around in his head and that would be fine.   That was all he needed.  Perhaps he should have been hoping that the cell phone of the man in the other car failed to record video of his face; perhaps he should have been hoping that Vinnie’s rage would fail to peak as he heard the news of his wife involved in a serious car accident.  “Who was that idiot behind the wheel again,” Vinnie would shout to one of his goons.  Ken would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that these little things didn’t poke into his mind occasionally as the music played.  Still, this was his time with Lizzie.  This was his time to imagine what it would’ve been like to completely lean in and kiss her.  This was his time to imagine a world without men like Vinnie and his goons, a world where he and Lizzie were free to get more acquainted, fall in love, and have a future together.

The next song he played was “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty.   Ken close his eyes and the lyrics swam around in his mind.  He saw himself on a boat somewhere off in an imaginary sea with Lizzie beside him baiting some hooks.  She smiled that wide smile of hers, the one she rarely let anyone else see. Ken only first noticed it the first time he met her.  He had come around to Paulie’s place to drop off his collections when he noticed Vinnie and Lizzie sitting at the kitchenette drinking some coffee.  Lizzie looked bored to tears.  Her dark hair sat pleasantly on her shoulders and framed her face just perfectly for him.  Though she wore hardly any make up, her natural beauty was enough to captivate his imagination. Paulie had called over to him to take the kettle and refill Lizzie’s mug, and as he walked over to her he felt the rest of the room fade away just as it always did in the movies. His eyes had then met hers at a casual glance, but later on that night his memory had been triggered by this Tom Petty song.   “Run away, find you a lover / Go away, somewhere all bright and new / I have seen no other /Who compares with you.”

That night and every night since, Ken dreamt of Lizzie.  Nothing overtly sexual would happen in his dreams.  He dreamt they’d take the subway together and talk and laugh and just enjoy each other’s company.   They’d maybe catch a game when the weather was nice or see a show or go out for some clams by the beach on Coney Island and just walk the boardwalk without a care in the world.  Even though he hardly knew her, he felt the connection between them had been strong enough for something more to flourish if only life had been slightly different.

In reality, she probably barely even noticed him until that night.  That night he was given the task of driving her home from one of Vinnie’s clubs.  Vinnie had one of his important late night deals to be made and had to stay behind for one of his clandestine nefarious business meetings.  At least that’s what he made it look like.  For all Ken knew, maybe Vinnie had gone off to be with his goomar.  Ken had no idea which one of these possible scenarios was true nor did it matter. All he knew was that he’d be alone in a Mercedes with Lizzie.  Ken knew the score. He knew the car he’d be driving in would be stolen.  That’s was Vinnie’s business after all, and there’s no way Vinnie would want some low level guy driving his wife home in a humble Buik.  No, it had to be a Mercedes.  Truthfully, Ken felt Lizzie deserved no less.

Lizzie came out of the club wearing her brown heavy leather coat as snowflakes whirled around her lovely brown hair.  Like a gentleman, Ken got out and charmingly opened the passenger side back seat door for her taking her hand to assist her getting into the vehicle.  Ken was wearing his best suit, a grey one with pinstripes that made him look like a Wall Street executive.  He had received the call just 45 minutes ago to drive into Manhattan to Vinnie’s club on the Upper West Side and pick up his wife to drive her back home to Brooklyn.  There was important business to be done and no one else had been around to drive her. Vinnie’s regular driver needed to stay behind for Vinnie while Ken had held on to the red Mercedes he had borrowed running an errand earlier that day.   This is my big opportunity, thought Ken.  He knew he couldn’t exactly profess his feelings for her, but he could at least count on some time alone with her.  He could take in her beauty looking in on her through the rear view mirror smelling the perfume that would radiate throughout the car, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with her that didn’t involve refilling her coffee mug.   The stage would be set for him to be with the woman of his dreams, and Ken believed nothing could ruin it.

Ken could tell Lizzie was tired as she yawned a big yawn seconds after getting into the car.

“How was your evening?” asked Ken.

Lizzie sighed, “These places tire me out.  I pretend to enjoy them for Vinnie when truthfully I’d rather be home alone snuggling with a good book.”

“I know what you mean.  I’m not much of a club person myself.  Just relax and I’ll get you home.”

“Ah shit!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I left my keys in the club.”

“Should I turn back?”

“No, keep driving but take it slow.  I’ll have someone come and follow us.”

Ken listened as Lizzie reached someone at the club.  The person on the other end said they’d have someone drive the same route and that they’d either meet up in front of the house or stop somewhere so Lizzie could get her keys.  Ken enjoyed the sound of Lizzie voice.  It neither was the high-pitch shrill of the other men’s wives nor was it that stereotypical mobster wife sultry mess of a tone you sometimes get in the movies.  It had just the right tone to be unwittingly seductive exuding guilelessness that could only be genuine.  He imagined himself listening to her talk to him, and it didn’t matter what words she used, whatever she said would sound just right.  Ken imagined that Lizzie could be a singer if she wanted to.  Perhaps the show business life would be less kind to her than Vinnie, but at least she’d have some kind of freedom.

The brisk night air could be felt despite the heat on in the vehicle.  The snow started to come down more heavily, and the city streets were soon coated in a sheet of whiteness.  The windshield wipers dutifully kept the snow from obscuring Ken’s view, but nothing could prevent him from dreaming.  He had ran out of things to say and felt content enough to let Lizzie rest as her eyes lacked their usual flare of energy.

“You mind if I put on some music?” asked Ken.

“Sure, go ahead,” said Lizzie.

“I got this song stuck in my head and I just need to hear it.”

“What song is that?”

“Downtown Train –  the Tom Waits version.”

“It’s a beautiful song but I’ve only heard Rod Stewart sing it.”

“You have to hear Tom Waits sing it.  There’s just the right sense of loss and yearning behind it.  The Rod Stewart version is a bit syrupy.”

“I know what you mean,” said Lizzie, “Put it on.”  As she said this, that’s when Ken saw that rare wide smile of Lizzie’s. It told him she was genuinely interested.  She was no longer in that sleepy fog as she fixed her hair and leaned forward from the back seat towards the middle of the front of the car next to Ken.

Ken took out his phone and cued up the song while sitting at a red light.  The song started just as the light turned to green.  The opening guitar line chirped like a morning bird as the Mercedes drove off.  Tom Waits’ guttural voice came on soft and low, “Outside another yellow moon / has punched a hole in the night time mist.” Ken could feel Lizzie’s elbow against his bicep as he glanced over and saw her close her eyes and listen.

Tom Waits crooned on, “I climb through the window and down to the street / I’m shining like a new dime / The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds”  Just then, Ken could hear Lizzie let out a sigh and she whispered, “That’s me.”

He could hardly believe he established this kind of connection with Lizzie.  It was almost as if he had discovered a secret language to speak to her with.  The music he played would speak to her heart from his very own, and who knows what would come of it as there would be no way for her to leave Vinnie putting both their lives at risk, but at least their souls could figuratively sing to each other in the quiet moonlight in this very car on this very night.  He already decided that he wouldn’t kiss her even if she wanted to.  The music would be enough for him.  In a way, these lyrics and the way she took them in with her eyes closed and her full attention on the song, knowing that the song he played spoke to her very soul, in a way . . . in a way that was far more intimate than a kiss or even anything that might physically come afterwards.

Just before the chorus came on for a final time, she asked, “Ken, would you please play that song for me again after this is over.”

“Of course, anything you ask.”

Then after a pause she added, “I want you to drive fast.”

“But it’s snowing and –“

“Shut that mouth of yours and do as I ask, drive and drive fast.  I want to feel my heart race.”

Ken hesitated for a minute.   The next intersection seemed far enough so that he might be able to provide her with a brief thrill if that was all she wanted. He looked at her, and just then she kissed him on the cheek and said, “Drive.”

Ken put his foot on the accelerator and sped down towards the next intersection as Tom Waits gruffly wound down his song, “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train / All my dreams, all my dreams fall like rain / On a downtown train /On a downtown train.”  The light changed from green to red just as Ken thought he might have been able to make it.  He panicked putting his foot on the brakes only to have the brakes lock and the car continue to swerve towards the intersection.  Lizzie had her eyes closed seemingly relishing in the vehicle’s temporary loss of control.  Ken put his arm across to the seat next to him. He could feel her body crashing into his arm surging forward as the impact of the other car spun the car around. Instinctively, he pushed her body back towards the back seat preventing Lizzie from flying forward.

Her mouth opened wide as she landed back in her seat.  They stared at each other in shock.  With the car now still and the ringing in his ears starting at full force, he climbed in the back seat next to her and asked her if she was okay.  Her head had snapped forward into the headrest of the front passenger seat.  Ken could see a blue bruise on her head.  She looked at him tearfully and said, “I think I’m alright.  What happened?”

All Ken could think of to say as he held her shoulder awkwardly was, “I think I was driving too fast.”

Lizzie blinked a few times in a disoriented manner and then said, “That’s right I told you to drive fast.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  I’m just glad you’re alright,” said Ken.

Her eyes composed themselves and she looked at Ken endearingly.  Ken held her face in his hand, and just as they both closed their eyes, Ken could hear the car pulling up behind them.  As he was about to lean in to kiss her, a knock came on the window.  It was Nicky, one of Vinnie’s goons.  They got out of the Mercedes and it was agreed Nicky would take her the rest of the way home since no one was seriously hurt.

As he walked away, Ken could hear Lizzie ask, “What about Ken?”

“Let ‘em take the train, whaddayou care anyway?”

Then, Ken remembered his phone in the car.  He ran back to the Mercedes and grabbed the phone, which had somehow landed on the dashboard.  Most would believe he went back for his phone so that the police wouldn’t have that as evidence against him, but only Ken knew he went back for his phone for the music. He noticed the guy in the other car point his own cell phone at him knowing it might lead to no good but decided to do nothing. Ken never saw himself as the threatening type despite the nature of his work.  Besides, a violent outburst would be unbecoming of his noble love for Lizzie.  He listened as the stranger in the other car involved in the accident protested and yelled for him to get back to the scene of the accident blathering on about insurance information and police and ambulances.  None of that stuff mattered to him.  Even if he had been fatally injured, Ken had a hard time believing that any of it would matter even then.  All that mattered was Lizzie and his dreams of her and the music that allowed him to visualize her and the two of them together.

He laughed to himself as he got into the subway car. He sat down, played the Tom Waits song again, and imagined another lifetime in another world where he and Lizzie could be together.  As the song began he thought to himself, Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Lizzie will be one of those Brooklyn girls breaking out of her little world and perhaps I’ll even see her tonight on a ‘Downtown Train.’  Inside the length of one song, Ken even fully believed he’d see her once again on the train that very night.

The End.

Author’s Note:  This short story is a work of fiction inspired by some music as many of my stories are. For the sake of anyone who wants to hear the Tom Wait’s version of the song Downtown Train, here’s the youtube video: