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 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.

Sealed with a Kiss

They call poison the typical method of murder for disgruntled wives so who was I to stray from convention? Sure, Henry had money and I wanted it, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as that.  Money and independence does help though.  How else is a woman supposed to get along in this country while Ike and every other goddamned fool I know has their knickers in a bunch about Sputnik?  I did my time waitressing and I figured I’d let the younger broads tackle that noble profession for as long as they could handle it.  I know better. Men are mostly saps when it comes down to it – at least the type of men who let themselves fall in love so completely.  They meet a pretty lady – one that they like – and they promise her the moon, the stars, the treasures of the earth, and everything in between. A smart woman knows how to use that, but frankly in my case I was hardly dishonest – slightly deceiving? – Perhaps but hardly dishonest.

I told him the score the very first time I met him only he wasn’t paying attention. As usual, his mind drifted off into his own private thoughts and maybe he convinced himself that he heard what he wanted to hear. I was waitressing at a joint called Bob’s Grill, a diner in the Catskills, when I noticed his sorry blank eyes staring out the window.  When I asked him if something was wrong, he rushed an apology at me, and when I insisted that no apology was necessary he found it to be the right occasion to blather on about the meaning of life and his disappointment in the life he found himself in – typical wealthy socialist guilt if you ask me.  I listened, I endeared myself to him –batted my eyes at the right time and so forth- and before I knew it we were laying side by side beneath the stars in the dingy parking lot of Bob’s Grill.  My life would never be the same.

“Ever feel like you’re living a life that isn’t meant to be yours?” he asked with that boyish whimsical smile of his.

He was wearing a collared white shirt beneath an expensive looking blue sweater.  The fabric felt as soft as anything.  He lacked the rugged look of the men I had been accustomed to flirting with.  He came from good stock and there was no way of hiding it, try as he might.  He just didn’t have the guts for it even if he wanted to pretend to be otherwise.

“There are worst things to be than a well-to-do young man philosophizing with his waitress in a diner,” I replied.

“Oh, I know that.  You think because I come from wealth that I should be happy?  It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve been reading Nietzsche and he says essentially that God is dead and life is meaningless – that Nihilism has prevailed in the modern age.  For you perhaps it means nothing but for me – well- I consider myself a contemplative person.”

“I figured you would,” I told him, “You do seem like someone who thinks an awful lot.”

“I do. It’s like I find myself living in age where my life is of little consequence.”

“If you find your life to be of little consequence then I could hardly imagine your opinion of an inconsequential young girl like me.”

“But that’s just the thing – I look at you and I know that you are important – perhaps more important than me.  Is that not at least one aspect of the true nature of love?”

“Love? Why we hardly know each other. You should be more careful about who you say such things to.”

The conversation started to go in circles until it began to get late, but I set him straight as I stood up to go back to my car.  I told him, and I remember that night clear as day.  I’ll never forget the words I used because like my husband, I also thought a lot about the important matters of life.  I had also spent many a night pondering love and the meaning of it all usually before drifting off to sleep in bed and each and every time I thought about these matters I had arrived at the same conclusion.

I said, “You want to know what I think?”

“More than anything,” he said.

“I think that I want to live alone and I want to die alone because in the end we all die alone.  Even those seemingly lucky enough to die at a tender old age with loved ones beside them on their deathbeds holding their hands – even those people die alone. Death is a solitary experience and I believe life is meant to be one as well- at least my life anyways. What good is it to waste your years pining for the approval and validation of a beloved when all they have to offer you are decades worth of grief, aggravation, frustration, and disappointment.  You live your life to marry and grow old with someone and really what do you get out of it? Companionship and to me companionship is worthless.  People use it as a panacea when it’s really a lousy substitute for joy. If you ask me, cherish and enjoy your solitude because truly that solitude is worth more than anything in the world anyone could ever offer you.”

Now if that doesn’t sound like a gal shooting a man down in flames I don’t know what else would. I spoke to him straight and honestly giving him the best possible explanation of my own philosophy.  The last thing I expected was that he would ignore just about everything I said and lean in to kiss me.  I pretended to like it. After all, a young man with money is hard to find.

So, all the expected things happened. I met his family and acted the part of the daintiest damsel amused by dinner parties, flower arrangements, hosting, and all the nauseating things wealthy people put themselves through. Instead of good stock, however, I learned that my wealthy husband came from a long line of inbreeding, pampering, and devastating family secrets that would no doubt crush the entire lineage if these secrets ever saw the light of day. I played my part and listened to the gossip preparing for the inevitable day that he would make me his wife.

After months of courting, the proposal came as we rode in a carriage through Central Park and I said all the right things and made all the right facial expressions and embraced him in just the way he liked and I also let him kiss me in the exact manner he liked and let him linger and dote on me for however long he wanted.   I suppose most women would be flattered and happy to attain this kind of attention but I found the whole thing intolerable.

We married and on the wedding night when it was no longer necessary to remain chaste, I pushed him off with all my might.  He was such a fragile thing, my husband, that a heavy wind could carry him away.  When he asked what was wrong, I reminded him of our initial conversation and told him that I intended to remain in a marriage of convenience with him.  We would sleep in separate rooms and that we would leave each other in peace to each do as we respectfully pleased.  It was that moment when I saw the look of utter defeat in his face. It was that moment when I sense that he had truly lost the will to live. I kindly reminded him that I knew all the family secrets and besides that his family would be embarrassed by the prospect of divorce and that I doubted that neither he, his mother, nor his sisters were prepared for a lifetime of shame and ostracization.

He reluctantly agreed to let me have my way as he had no other choice and we spent several  years at a kind polite distance from each other.  Neither one of us had cause or reason to be hostile, and I suppose I could have gone on just the same with having the freedom to move about as I pleased and the money to go where I wanted.  I could spend entire days reading my books without being disturbed for meals at someone else’s convenience.  We didn’t have pesky petulant children to tend to and the convenience of our arrangement suited us both. He was free to stay out at his clubs all day and go off writing his dissertations on philosophy impressing his friends and family, and I was content to often arrive at an empty house and enjoy my much valued peace, quiet, and solitude.  There was an understanding and that’s how I preferred it

Then, one evening he came to my room and I could tell something was wrong as I saw him choking back his tears.  He told me his mother had died. She had been sick for many years but the woman, fate, happenstance, or coincidence decided that that night was the end.  She left this world knowing of our arrangement but with the comforting knowledge that her precious family secrets were all safe.  As Henry was about to leave, I called him back. I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps a sudden wave of compassion hit me; perhaps my composure waned in the wake of despair; but more likely I sympathized with poor Henry because my own mother died when I was young before I ever knew what warmth and compassion could possibly be.  I saw Henry there with that dim feeble awkward look on his face and saw a wounded bird. I grabbed him by his collar, kissed him, and hugged him letting him collapse in my arms.  I even let myself cry as well.

That’s when things changed. That’s when the arrangement changed.  It happened without much resistance from me. Before I knew it, we began sharing our meals together every day, going out socially together, laughing giddily with one another, sharing private indulgences, affectionate glances, and ultimately sharing our bed.  Over the course of  the next 2 years, we became a real married couple doing everything together and my previously private and independent life withered away to nearly nothingness. I was actually really quite happy.  We both were.

Christmas came and I found myself with child, and just as I had forgotten my old attitudes, I found them making a sudden and unexpected return. Henry was preparing plans for the nursery deciding where things could go. The man couldn’t assemble a crib if his life depended on it so he brought in an old school friend to help him. The baby would arrive any day now, and it was better to have the crib ready than not, and then it hit me. With the pain of my first contraction I knew I had unwittingly surrendered my principles.  Not only had I succumbed to a potential lifetime of living under the thumb of a man, but my child – perhaps a girl just like I was – would be forced to carry on the cycle of subversion of the will, subversion of independent thought and space.  I had not only allowed my own solitude to be corrupted I was now bringing forth a new life with its own needs and its own empty void of dependence.  All my previous aversions to social living flooded back to me with this intense torrent of pain, and I despaired.  In my heart I knew nothing but despair.

Anyone who gives their heart completely is an utter fool. I know this because I became one.  I hadn’t set out to be but that’s what I became.  I needn’t have experienced the entire spectrum of life’s disappointments to know where my life with Henry would end up.  He was never good-looking and that naïve smile combined with his contemplative nature would grow wary on me.  His body would bloat and become frail with age and he would eventually become a burden as I would as well to him.  I had enough worries contemplating how to care for myself without having to worry about the needs of another.  I suppose it was good fortune that our baby was stillborn. Henry and I went through the motions of mourning.

I kept up appearances with him as I planned his demise. I decided poison would be the best and least detectable manner.  It would be a simple matter of slipping it into his food when he wasn’t looking.  He’d conveniently die and I would inherit his share of the family fortune and that would be that. This time I would remain resolute and resist any urge towards over-sentimentality.

On the third day of administering the poison he caught me.  He took hold of my wrist as I was about to do the deed and asked me what I was doing. There was nothing more to do but tell the truth and hope for mercy.

He asked, “Those attitudes you claimed to have when I first met you – the ones that kept us apart early on in our marriage – have those points of view returned?”

“They have indeed.”

“Then would you truly like to be alone without me?”

I told him, “I would.”

With that he disappeared into our bedroom, closed the heavy door, and truly left me.  Through the closed door I heard him yell out one last time, “I love you, Laura!”  Then, an awkward silence. Then, a single gunshot.  Henry was gone.

The freedom I had always craved – the independence I desired and now have – if I allow myself to exist thoughtlessly I can just about enjoy it.  It’s when the silence hits me, stuns me, and shocks me that I can’t help thinking that the emptiness of it all is ultimately unbearable.  Time drags on and all the comforts I can afford do nothing but refuse to shorten the length of days. I often find myself thinking back on that very first night I met him and that high minded philosophical conversation we shared. I find myself reliving that moment again and again only it wasn’t so much the conversation but the kiss.  When I remember it now the words we both said become meaningless and nonsensical.  When I remember it now, this time I find myself enjoying that first kiss.  That’s how I choose to remember it now and that’s how it shall forever be.

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.

The Foreword

This is what my life has been reduced to.  I’m writing a Foreword to a book that I haven’t read by an author I’ve never met, some rising star who lit up the literary world with his first novel proving yet again just how fickle the world could really be.  Most of the themes that were explored in that first novel shared a remarkable similarity to some of my work yet he’s the one who’s considered refreshing, original, and transformative even.  I can recognize hogwash from a mile away, and I’d bet any amount of money that he read my work and just decided to put his own spin on it and now look at what a success he is. I found three of my novels in the bargain bin of my local bookstore the other day and you know what I did?  I left them there to rot like the dying irrelevant corpses that they are.   There’s not enough whiskey at the bottom of this bottle to make me swallow my pride enough to get through this no matter how much my agent, Sal, begs and pleads with me.  “It’s an easy score,” he told me, “Gavin Saugherties gets some prestige by having you write the forward to his second novel, and you get your name in print again.  He sells books, you sell books.  It’s a win-win.”

I should have thought about letting Sal write this blasted thing.  With that stubby beard and those foppish clothes of his he might as well be a writer.  He sure knows how to dress the part.  I once considered sending him in place of me to a book signing 8 years ago.  If someone asked about the photo on the back of the book, I would have just told him to concoct some bullshit story.  That’s what writers do anyway- they tell stories.  What difference does it make what they look like or where they come from?  Everyone thinks a writer has to be this erudite  repository of knowledge; they all have this illusion that creative people live such sophisticated lives as if the literati blessed some golden goose in the sky and deposited us on earth to enlighten the insipid masses. Well, far be it for me to change anyone’s way of thinking.  Gavin Saugherties is just the type they’re looking for. He fits the profile – college professor by day, literary genius by night with the standard trophy wife and most likely a bimbo to pork on the side. You look at him and say, “Why, that guy knows something.  Let me read what he has to say.  At the very least he might make me interesting at dinner parties. I can go on to tell people how I’m reading the latest Saugherties novel, and people will ‘oooh’ and ‘aah’ with affected interest and maybe that hardbody with the phony laugh and the fake tits will fuck me once she sees my Lexus because she thinks I’m so astute.”

People think I can’t recognize hypocrisy when it’s probably the only thing I’m adept at spotting in human behavior. There isn’t a human being alive that doesn’t want to have their ego stroked. They say, “To flatter you must deceive,” and that’s the motto this world lives by.  Is Gavin Saugherties a halfway decent writer?  Should I plough along with this Foreword and discuss modes of isolation that I found compelling in his first novel as if he’d reinvented the wheel? Should single him out as an incendiary voice of this post-post-modern era engulfed in the flames of a cultural abyss?  That’s precisely what I should say even though I don’t mean a word of it because that’s what the occasion demands.  I’m supposed to be honored that this hack who probably couldn’t even string together a sentence 4 years ago wants some prestige credit with his readers who have probably heard my name bandied about by some uptight bibliophile still singing praises about the books I’ve written over a decade ago.

This is the part of the book that most people skip through anyway, so what difference does it make if it’s the drunken ravings of a broken down has-been. The success anyone has in this business owes a lot more to luck than it does to talent and if you ask me (and apparently someone has since I’m writing this damned Foreword), Gavin Saugherties has been struck with the good fortune of having a great deal of luck and a nominal amount of talent, which will take him a lot of places in this dismal world.

I never asked anyone to write any of the Forewords to my books.  They came to me, and that’s how it should be.  As I take another swill from the good ol’ whiskey bottle the thing that occurs to me most about writing this blasted Foreword is the fact that my words will be on pages that will not even be numbered. 20 years ago, if someone had told me I’d be writing some fluff piece introduction to a guaranteed bestseller having to agonize this much over pages that won’t even be numbered for an author that I carry so little respect for, I’d say they were crazy and laugh them out of the room. Well, now the joke is on me.

I should probably spout some nonsense about how the author you are about to read will take you to new horizons and get you to re-examine some of your pre-conceptions of art, life, and love. This is the part when I’m supposed to say what an amazing talent Gavin Saugherties happens to be and how his first novel, The Inimical Penumbra, is hardly the pretentious banal garbage the title makes it out to be.  Oh no!  It most definitely awakened within me a heretofore untapped existential perception of the very themes I’ve spent a lifetime exploring in my own now very irrelevant fiction.  Yeah, that’s the fucking ticket.  Swallow that shit, dear reader, because that’s what you want from me and you know it.

Someday, Gavin Saugherties will lose all use for drinking glasses because he’ll drink straight from the bottle as I do now.  I may be in the grave by then, but if there is any justice in this world his fate is sealed.   If I leave you, dear reader, with the admonition that success is fleeting, it’ll most definitely mean nothing to you. What do you care? You haven’t created anything.  Gavin Saugherties has done all the work for you so you can come away from it with pithy observations about characters and situations that you can walk away from instantly. No, my advice to you is to continue on with your unexamined life because those of us who know better suffer more than you can imagine.

To Gavin Saugherties, when you read this, just know that the day will soon arrive when you’ll wish you had remained one of the masses.

If you haven’t done so already, please ignore the lunacy with these unnumbered pages and proceed to the novel.  The journey of your escape now awaits you.

Lessons in a Restaurant Beating

Max was an expert in loving women he couldn’t have. He was the type of guy who’d get infatuated with a woman after one look and Paulie wasn’t shy about telling him that.  Needless to say, Paulie was confident that Max would never get too far in life.  The kid seemingly contented himself to a lifetime of being a waiter, busboy, and occasional musical performer at Angelo’s.  Paulie had owed his dad a favor – the kind of debt that wasn’t spoken about.  Max’s dad was in the midst of doing serious time, and Paulie knew that he owed him.  The least he could do was make sure poor Max had a job.   When the day came for Saul Kleinman to turn himself in for Insurance fraud and name names, Paulie had been confident that his name wouldn’t be one of them.  Good ol’ Saul would never do that and combine that with the fact that poor Maxy didn’t have a mother, well Paulie thought, a lifetime job was the next best thing. Max was a good kid who did what he was told.  He was good with the customers and if it wasn’t too busy, he’d take out that acoustic guitar of his and croon out a decent tune or two. It was always love songs with this kid, yet in the couple of years since Paulie took him in, there had never been a single broad who stayed with Max long enough.  They’d all leave once they figured out the kid had no larger ambitions.  Every time a girl left him, the kid would be heartbroken.  He’d spend a whole week humming nothing but “I’m Thru with Love” to himself all throughout his shift.  The ones who stayed were trouble, and Paulie felt fatherly enough towards Max to shoo them away before Max fell too hard.

One night after Paulie had closed down Angelo’s to begin counting cash and receipts, he heard the distinct crooning of Max’s voice and his guitar strumming “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and that’s when Paulie knew the ship had sunk.  Max had fallen and there would be another round of flirting and courting followed by stolen kisses in the middle of the work shift whenever she’d visit.  Then, she’d end up spending a couple nights over at Max’s apartment before deciding that spending the rest of her life slumming wouldn’t be quite her thing.  After all, most of these girls had fathers or brothers who were connected and why would they settle for a life beneath their standards?  Of course it may take them a month or two before coming to that conclusion, but it always happened.  Paulie tried to explain to Max that that’s just how dames are, but damned if Max ever listened and Paulie supposed that the kid had got to get laid sometimes.  He just wished that Max hadn’t invested the emotions he invested in these girls.

So just as Max had come around to the 2nd chorus, Paulie poked out his head to see who the lucky broad was and mentally wager just how long she’d stick around.  Girls loved that artsy shit especially when their young.  Paulie remembered courting his Angelina in similar fashion only he’d sing to her in Italian and she’d giggle and then they’d both have to wait until Paulie received approval from Angelina’s father to see her with a chaperone (of course).  That was back in Puglia though and it seemed a lifetime ago.   As Paulie’s semi-bald head poked from behind his desk to see just who Max had been singing to through the narrow doorway, he swore he heard the same giggle he had heard coming out of Anglina’s slender mouth some many years ago.  Then he saw the brown hair in a neat bun and the blue dress shaping her figure just right for that plump bosom of hers.  Her legs had been healthy and meaty and Paulie was just about to think to himself that he finally started to like Max’s taste in women – these women with their Jane Fonda workouts trying to turn into stick figures just wouldn’t do for him – when he finally saw her face.  It was Mary, Nick Santorino’s sister.  The girl he had known since she was a baby had now grown and returned from nursing school to visit her father’s family.  As much as he liked her and admitted to himself that she may indeed be the perfect match for Max, he also knew Nick Santorino – the hothead kid who had always been protective of his little sister especially since their parents had split up in that explosively messy divorce.  This was bad news. Paulie needed to put a stop this and fast.

After exchanging quick pleasantries with Mary, Paulie cocked his head at Max saying, “Hey Maxy, shouldn’t you be rushing home?  You got to be here fresh and early tomorrow.  No excuses!  Plus if you hurry home you might get there in time to watch the Honeymooners rerun at midnight.”

They both laughed that secret laugh of lovers before Max interjected, “Thanks uncle Paulie, but don’t worry I’ll be here.  Mary and I are just going out for one drink and then we’re each heading home.”

Other than physically restrain Max, there was nothing Paulie could do but let the two of them go out on their date.  That’s what young people do anyway, and in most cases Paulie would not have minded but the prospect of Max getting tangled up with Nick Santorino frightened Paulie.  He thought about it all night even after he had shut the lamp next to his bed after giving his nightly kiss to the picture of Angelina on his nightstand.

Nick Santorino was a typical hothead who Paulie had encountered at various times as he grew up in the neighborhood.  Always protective of his little sister, Nick had been only 13 years old when started getting into fights with other boys who flirted with Mary.  Nick couldn’t have been older than 16 when he took on a tall High School senior who had played varsity football.  Not only did Nick win the fight, the football kid had been beaten to a bloody pulp and had spent nearly 3 weeks in the hospital.  Paulie asked himself how could Max even think about fooling around with Mary Santorino knowing that history.  Most of the time Paulie gave Max enough credit to at least respect the fact that the kid wasn’t stupid, but this had been absolutely moronic and the sad thing is that he suspected Max knew that as well as he did.

The next morning, Max showed up bright and early so Paulie pulled him aside, and asked, “Kid, are you crazy?”

“Let go of me, Uncle Paulie,” said Max as he struggled to straighten his collar after Paulie loosened his grip.

“I just worry about you kid.  You’ve got no one to look out for you and Nick Santorino is the real deal.”

“Not to worry,” said Max casually, “It’s all under control.  You see Nick is out of town on business.”

“And when he returns?”

“When he returns, we’ll be extra careful.  I promise.”

“You don’t think anyone’s going to tell Nick that you taking his little sister around town?”

“She’s an adult now.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Why do you always get this way when I fall in love, Uncle Paulie?”

“Because you kids – you think you know what love is and you don’t. “

“Uncle Paulie, it’s not like we just met.  We’ve known each other through the years through the same circles.  She’s a wonderful woman and I love her now.”

“She may be a wonderful woman, but she could also get you killed, Max! You fall in love with a girl if she so much as looks at you the right way.  I know what it’s like to be young. I used to be young too, but being young is no excuse for being stupid, my boy.”

“Maybe I don’t have as many years under me as you do, but I know what love is.  I could tell you her favorite song, her favorite movie. I could tell you she likes her drinks strong but not too strong.  She’s a little insecure about her body, but she has the prettiest face that I could only dream of waking up to in the morning.  Someday that dream will be a reality.”

“Max, the reality is that she’s not worth risking your life for beautiful as she may be.  You’re risking your life to see her right now.  Would she do the same for you?”

For several days, Paulie avoided talking further with Max about this issue. It was futile to argue with young love.  Kids today do what they want and fall in love with whomever they want and most of the time no harm comes to them.  Max had taken to serenading Mary every night after the restaurant closed until one day Nick Santorino barged in wearing a pinstripe suit and sporting a billy club.

“I hear you’ve been seeing my little sister,” called Nick as he stepped inside.

Max put down the guitar speechless.

“No, don’t you put down that guitar. Let me hear the song.  I’ve been told you serenade her every night.  Is that true, Mary?”

Mary spoke hesitantly, “Nick. . .”

“Answer the question!”

“Yes, Nick, but he’s just a kid and I swear it’s all innocent.”

“I want to hear ol’ Maxy boy here sing a song.  What’s wrong with that?  Come on sing to me Maxy and you better not make me ask again.”

Paulie could see Max shaking as he picked up the guitar and sat on the stool. From behind the bar, there was nothing Paulie could do.  The days when he used to keep a pistol within arm’s reach were done.  Anyone foolish enough to try to rob Angelo’s in this day in age would be an idiot who didn’t know what would be coming to them.  Besides, even if the pistol had been there, Paulie couldn’t possibly risk the wrath of the Santorino family coming down on him.  He’d be finished.  Still, part of him wished that pistol had been there because he cared enough about Max that he might have risked it all if the opportunity had been just right.

Max began strumming and took a stale shot at playing, “My Baby Just Cares for Me” when Nick interrupted, “That’s not the song you were just playing for my sister.”

“Oh, well that’s just a different old tune just by Cole Porter,” said Max shaking a bit.

“Oh, so tell me Maxy what’s the song called?”

Paulie stood in silent paralysis as he watched the scene unfold.

Max stuttered with the sweat pouring down his brow.  He quietly said, “Let’s Misbehave.”

Nick snarled a vicious smile, “Say that again, pal, and this time louder.”

“Let’s Misbehave,” said Max awkwardly.

“Sing it to me.”

Finally, Paulie spoke up, “I think the kid’s learned his lesson, Nick.  He won’t see your sister anymore.  I’ll vouch for him.”

“Shut up, old man!” shouted Nick from across the room as he angled his tense frame towards Max who sat shivering in his school. Nick’s face turned a bright red with a pronounced vein protruding from the side of his head.

Max picked up the instrument and began playing the song as was requested singing, “We’re all alone no chaperone could get our number / The world’s in slumber / Let’s misbehave.”

Paulie shut his eyes at the same time he heard the loud smack of the billy club across Max’s face.  He couldn’t bare to watch as more thumps hurried in quick succession and he could hear Max writhing in pain while Mary pleaded with her brother to stop to no avail.  Max suffered smack after smack and punch after punch once Nick had been done with the billy club.  Finally, Nick grabbed the guitar and bashed Max over the head with it after spitting on the helpless bag of bones that was Max’s body on the floor.   The restaurant emptied out and Paulie called the ambulance.

Day after day, Max begged Paulie to see Mary, but Mary never showed.  Paulie saw that despite the beating, Max foolishly thought Mary would come to him the second she was free from her brother.   When news arrived of Nick’s arrest in an armed robbery, Max had shouted in triumph, “Finally, Mary and I could be together!”

He phoned up Mary and had her come by the restaurant.  Paulie could only make out fragments of their conversation here and there, but the gist of it could be understood once he heard Mary say, “Well, all you’ve got going for you is this lousy job. I deserve more, Max.”

Soon after he left, Paulie found Max quietly crying in the basement. He pulled Max close to him and embraced him.  He said, “It’s alright Maxy. It’ll be okay.”

Max tearfully looked Paulie in the eye and said, “You were right about her.”

Paulie stood with his arm around Max and said, “You’ll know when you meet the one.  The magic will be there just as it was for me and Angelina.” Max nodded with authentic resignation.

Days and weeks would pass while Max sullenly hummed the tune to “I’m Thru with Love” to himself.  On previous occasions, Paulie would get fed up with such sentimental nonsense, yet this time Paulie found himself humming and even singing along thinking of his beautiful Angelina as she was when they first met back when the world was young.  In fact the world had only stopped being young when she died a few years ago.  He imagined that that had been because he had been in love.  As he counted the cash to be prepared for the week’s payout, he briefly considered the thought that maybe in a world like this it was truly better for Max to be “through with love.”  Then, he shook off the notion, gave into his own sentimentality, and thought that Max will indeed find love if it’s the last thing he does and even if it is the very last thing he does, it would be well worth it.

The Professor

Staring at a blank page is the hardest thing to do for a writer.  At least that’s what I’ve repeatedly heard and have often found myself saying.  When you’re inspired to write something, the blank page disappears easily, and there’s no stopping you from going off on your journey, but what happens when you’re uninspired?  Well, that’s when you’re really forced to be creative.  It was 1984 and I was at the library checking out the new novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, The Talisman, when I first noticed her.  She was sneaking her cigarette in between the stacks quietly reading Anais Nin crouched up like a cat just waiting to pounce on anyone daring enough to interrupt her. Seeing as how I was desperate for some kind of stimulation, I decided – perhaps unwisely – to approach her.   You must understand that when one has writer’s block there’s a desperation that is easily given into.  Experience alone becomes paramount because one never knows when or where a particular muse might present herself. After all, what’s a writer without his muse?  In all my years of writing, it had been my experience that finding a muse is rather easy.  Keeping a muse on the other hand, well . . . if anyone has figured that part out they’d be both awfully wealthy and infinitely prolific. Muses are well – forgive my use of the title of the book I was reading at the time – much like a talisman.  They provide a unique comfort to the artist but damned if any of us know precisely why.

So, there she was reading a volume of Nin’s diaries, and I daresay I approached her without even knowing what I would say.  I usually try to think things through, but that’s the other thing that happens during writer’s block.  The mind just doesn’t function in quite the same way even when attempting to do something other than writing.  She spotted me in her peripheral vision, and despite the fact that I could tell she was gearing up towards nastily shooting me down, I proceeded anyway.  At the time, I figured I had nothing to lose.  She sat there crouched like a tiger in a blue blouse and black faded jeans.  I easily noticed and began admiring her every curve trying my best to ignore the scowl that appeared to be shaping across her face.  At the time I was bold enough to find this hint of her fury invigorating. I imagine, she’d perhaps inspire a vignette at the very least – just enough to get my juices flowing so I could start working on my novel again.  I had already accepted an advance and my editor had been pestering me for a draft so I casually began to cease answering the phone.  Whenever a writer doesn’t answer the phone, it’s usually a sign that they are working so I thought that would at least buy me a little time.   For now, I thought reading and seeking out some inspiration would do me good. It’s impossible to just sit at a desk and write.  I used to tell my students that all the time.  They were usually more than happy to listen to that piece of advice as it gives them a bonafide reason to validate their usual procrastination.  I always said, “Whatever works” so why not take my own advice and see if this apparently lovely creature before me might conjure up something worthwhile to write about.

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here,” I said failing to think of something clever.

“You’re being rude.  Can’t you tell I’m reading?  Men – hmphh – You think that when you see a woman reading that they want you to interrupt them.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all. I was merely . . . observing that you are in violation of proper decorum.  Uh – there is indeed a sign that you may have failed to observe at the entrance.”

She put the book down, stood up with her cigarette jostled between her delicate fingers and approached me.  When she saw that my eyes met hers, she quickly tilted her head and pointed towards the supervising librarian – at least that’s the title I’ve given him.

“Go ahead,” she said, “Tell him.”

“I shall not.  I don’t believe in tattling. I believe it to be . . . bad form.”

“Bad form? Decorum? Are you some kind of professor?”

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am.”

“Where do you teach? Kingsborough?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I go there and I think I’ve seen you around.  What do you teach?”

“This semester, I’m about to begin teaching my first course on motifs of existential crisis in Contemporary Literature.  I also teach a writing workshop.  Perhaps, you’d like to enroll in one of those.”

“Perhaps – but will I learn anything from you?”

“Um – excuse me.  What do you mean?”

“I mean you don’t seem like the type of person I could learn anything from.  I mean all you people have your degrees because you’ve managed to either kiss the right ass or impress the right white men.  I’m guessing you just kissed the right ass judging by your rather uninspired approach.”

“I’ve never been so insulted by a student in my life . . . I’m not quite sure how to respond to such irreverent behavior.  I shall have you know that I am really quite the authority on  . . .”

“Save it for your students, Professor.  You want to go ahead and tell Michael that I’m smoking?  If you tell him in just the right way he might give me a cursory glance and maybe I might be forced to put this out, but if you’re clumsy I guarantee you he’ll just walk away and ignore you.”

“I told you, I don’t consider myself an informant.”

“Try it anyway.”

I should have known better.  I should have just walked away and admitted defeat.  This woman was utterly cunning and she knew it. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I didn’t want to admit to myself that perhaps she was right about me pinning my entire identity down after one brief encounter and deconstructing my entire sense of self-worth down to a tee.  Who was I really?  What did I really know about Literature with a capital “L?” What could she possibly learn from me that couldn’t be gleaned from a stuffy text?  The woman – this female student – this enigma of a lady if that’s what she was – had completely stripped me bare and revealed me in all my oafish nakedness to be nothing but a pretender, and I couldn’t just leave it alone. It wasn’t enough that I retained the respect of all my previous students.  It wasn’t enough that I was highly regarded by my peers as a professor of good renown. No, I craved the admiration this nymph had decided to deny me.

She puffed at her cigarette decadently, sneering at me behind her smile.  Her eyes focused on mine like a target, her lips pursed like a feline about to reveal her fangs.  Her claws gripped the book that she had recently picked up from the ground clutching at it as if it were her bible. I could sense her toes tightening beneath her shoes.

She shot me a look that demanded that I attempt to do what she had demanded of me. I moved towards this Michael as if I had been shoved though her hands never touched me. I stuttered and stammered as I approached him, “Um . . . that uh woman . . . yeah . . . her over there . . . she’s smoking a cigarette.  Could you kindly . . . kindly a -a –a ask her to stop?”

Michael – if that was ever indeed his name- just rolled his eyes at me in a perfunctory way and proceeded down the next aisle turning his back on me.

I glanced back at the woman, my eyes utterly deflated. She smiled puffing her cigarette, “Way to go, Professor.”

I said nothing and began to walk away but then she called out to me, “Don’t you want to know why?”

I turned around, and she laughed at the confusion she could see upon my face. I wanted to run away in that moment, but my ego wouldn’t let me.

“Ha! It’s because Michael . . . Well, he may look like a man but he’s really a naughty boy – the things I let him do to me  . . . Let’s just say I could use this entire library as my personal toilet and he wouldn’t say a damn thing to me.”

I let out a gasp of shock.  The expression on my face must have amused her.  Then, I heard the words I wish I had never heard. If I could take myself back to that fateful day and undo every aspect of it I would. Her lips slithered and hissed as she approached me with that sultry body of hers swaying as she walked.  Her tongue wet her lips before she spoke in just the right way as her neck craned up with her eyes sulking at me in a way that I’ve never witness before in a woman.

Then she said it,” Would you like a similar arrangement?”

I looked at her and said nothing.  She pulled into me and put my arms around her and said, “I bet you have a nice place.”

All I could say was, “I do.”

What happened next is all but a blur to me now after so many years only the entire experience felt like fire.  More specifically, I felt like I was on fire.  The pure carnal lust that woman managed to extract from me seems almost incomprehensible now.  I doubt that I was even really me at the time. It feels like all of it happened to someone else.  I suppose now I wish it had happened to someone else.

When the lovemaking concluded, she sat at my writing desk and began fiddling with the pages I had written for my novel.  I also had some short stories lying about. “Don’t touch that,” I said,” That’s my novel.  It’s not finished.  Feel free to read those.”

“Can I take these with me?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

She dressed herself rather quickly and gave some excuse about needing to get back home and rest for class the next day. I suppose I needed rest myself so I let her go reminding myself to get her name at the very least.

“I’m Melanie Hutsinger,” she said, “And I’ll see you in class tomorrow.  That writing workshop you mentioned?  Well, I’m already enrolled.  Goodnight, Professor Mullen”

“Call me Stan”

“Goodnight, Stan.”

I tried sleeping but my mind was on overdrive with the inspiration to write compelling me to spend the entire night clamoring away at the keys on my typewriter. I completed two short stories inspired by her along with four chapters of the novel I had been working on. The sound of vigorous typing was all that could be heard in my apartment throughout the night until the sun rose at dawn and I realized I had only just minutes to prepare before making my way to class. I had indeed found my new muse.

I gave my typical first day lecture for my writing workshop, and assigned my students to write their first short story for the class in time for next week helplessly glancing at Ms. Melanie Hutsinger the whole time.  I felt paranoid thinking that perhaps the other students might notice the pull going on between the two of us.  There had been other female students in the past, but this had been the first time that I felt such a powerful pull.  During the class, I could tell she did her best to disguise those cunning eyes of hers to make me feel at ease, but there was nothing that could have distracted my attention away from her.  Everything down from the way she dressed to every curl of her hair felt as if it all had spoken to me.  I had spent the entire evening writing about this woman in an inspired frenzy and now here she was in front of me looking through me and dissecting my every word.  It was the first time a woman had intimidated me.

When the lecture was over, she casually walked up to me and handed me back the stories she had borrowed from the previous night.

“Thank you, Ms. Hutsinger,” I said trying my best to disguise my fascination with her. “I appreciate you returning this to me. I would ask you what you thought, but I actually must prepare for my next lesson. Perhaps we can get together this evening?

“Professor, we can indeed get together this evening, but you misunderstand me.”

“How so?”

“I’m not returning these stories to you. . . . I’m handing them in for my first assignment.”

“You must be joking.”

“I assure you I’m not joking. I actually improved upon them greatly overnight.  You’ll see my notes, edits, and corrections in red.”

“Excuse me? But that’s . . . plagiarism”

“I told you when we first met that there’s nothing I could possibly learn from you.  You, however, stand to learn plenty from me.”

“I’m not quite sure how to respond to this.”

“It’s simple.  Here’s the arrangement spelled out for you.  We can continue to see each other socially.  You give me your work, I’ll improve it for you, and then you give me an A for the course.  Then at the conclusion of the semester, we are done.  Is that clear enough for you?”

I stood there dumbfounded.  I just hadn’t had a clue what to say nor how to respond.

She spoke up, “I’ll be at your place around 8pm tonight . . . oh and get some rest because you’ll surely need it.”

The rest of the day went by in a haze.  Surely I must have taught, spoken with other students and colleagues all the while distracted by the very notion of what this woman was proposing. When I got home, I took out the papers she had handed back to me and looked them over expecting to be unimpressed and perhaps slightly amused by the audacity of this young girl only I wasn’t.  To my amazement, she had absolutely improved upon every story she had been given almost tenfold.  I had spent months crafting these stories writing them and rewriting them pouring over each and every word attempting to make them something worthy of publication and in one night this . . . this girl had taken my words and my ideas and had given them the absolute best presentation possibly imaginable.  Her exquisite notes at the end of each story called me out on some of the aspects of my stories which were derivative.  She picked up on my admiration of Brian Kenwhistle and completely called me out on my attempt to emulate his style.  Many of my own colleagues wouldn’t have been a match for this girl, yet here was this absolute genius who had connived her way into my creative life. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was scared yet excited at the same time.

8pm came. The doorbell rang, and it was her. The confident swagger in which she walked in could hardly be described.  She declined to offer any kind of explanation to my queries, and simply demanded to know whether or not I agreed to the arrangement. Once I said yes, she disrobed and let me have my way with her again.

When she was ready to leave, I let her take my unfinished novel.  I had completely surrendered to her, just as she had wanted.  There was little point in resisting.  Saying no wouldn’t have proven anything.  After every one of my sessions, she would leave with some of my writing and I would be inspired to write even more, and it all continued to happen that way in quite a cyclical fashion.  I hardly slept for those months as I was constantly writing whenever I wasn’t with her.

During my time with her the closest she had come to explaining the mystery was in comparing me to Michael from the library.

“Michael could have resisted me at any time only he didn’t,” she said one time looking at me across the bed while she began getting dressed.

“Why is that?”

“Well, you are both alike. You think you’re in control of a thing, and you don’t realize how easily you’d give up that control for the right price.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Professor, we live in a patriarchal system where men control nearly everything.  Now most women – particularly feminists – see that as a disadvantage.  I don’t.”

“And why don’t you consider it a disadvantage, Ms. Hutsinger?”

“I don’t consider it a disadvantage because as long as men are in control that control can easily be swindled out of their hands just as I’ve done with Michael . . . just as I’ve done with you.”

“One might argue though that the price you pay is a steep one and that not every woman can do what you’ve done to seize the control they want.”

“You see that’s where you’re wrong. Bedding a man to get something you want isn’t a steep price at all for me.  It’s actually a pittance.  Feminists would have you believe that every time a woman like me uses a man like you that it’s a violation when really if the enjoyment is mutual I see it as rather a bargain.  You should ponder that as you work on your next project no doubt inspired by our sordid affair. When it comes to art I find that the lines between the artist and the muse very often get blurred.  If I inspired your writing am I not the one responsible for the art you produce?  Is not the muse the art and the art the muse?   Are they not one and the same?”

I had never quite looked at it that way.  She had indeed inspired me in ways I hadn’t fathomed before.

When the semester concluded, I lived up to my end of the bargain and gave her an A.  I never heard from her again.  The very night I had assigned her grade, I sat down at my typewriter preparing to write – hoping that the memory of her would continue to inspire me.  It did not.  I sat hours upon hours looking at a blank page.  My editor had wanted a new draft of my novel, and the deadline was fast approaching only I couldn’t write a thing.  Whatever hold she had over me that had empowered my writing had vanished, and though the thoughts raced inside my head, I could no longer summon the words to express them.  I became empty, hollow, a fragmented sentence without a verb. Just as easily and quickly as she inspired me, her absence had taken away any gift that I may have once claimed to have had.

I never completed that novel.  I stopped writing, gave up teaching, and became a banker. It’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve written anything.  On the internet a few hours ago I came across a story. A woman had been violently killed by her lesbian lover.  The female killer had been a novelist, and her books had been immensely successful.  She had multiple film deals and screenplays to her credit. Her success had come ever since she had gotten involved with a woman who had become her muse. The novelists was none other than Stacy Fontaine and her muse and victim had been none other than Melanie Hutsinger.  According to the article, Ms. Fontaine violently stabbed Ms. Hutsinger when Ms. Hutsinger had attempted to break off the relationship.  The authorities had figured it to be an open and shut case. I think it was probably much more complicated although I’ll never know for sure.

Perhaps, nature played a cruel trick on all of us and Melanie simply chose the wrong artist to serve as a muse.  Maybe she had thought that whatever mystical power she had would be better served by inspiring a female artist instead of a male one although perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion to draw without knowing the full story in intimate detail.  Killer and victim – artist and muse – perhaps the lines that define them will never be all that clear. All I know is that I came home earlier, and now by God, I could write again.  My words have filled these pages, and my tears are not of sorrow but of joy. Judge me however you will.