Authors: Mary Beth Keane
“You want to see her?” Stanhope asked, taking off his hat. There, tucked inside the lining, was a snapshot of a pretty blond woman with a long, slim neck. Next to it a Saint Michael prayer card. Also tucked in the lining was a photo of a younger Brian Stanhope with another guy.
“Who’s that?” Francis asked.
“My brother, George. That’s us at Shea.”
Francis had not thought to put any photos in his hat yet, though he, too, had a Saint Michael prayer card folded in his wallet. Francis had asked Lena Teobaldo to marry him on the same day he’d graduated from academy, and she’d said yes. Now he imagined that would be him soon, telling people there was a baby on the way. Lena was half-Polish, half-Italian, and sometimes when he watched her—searching for something in her bag, or peeling an apple with her knuckle guiding the blade—he felt a shiver of panic that he’d almost not met her. What if he hadn’t come to America? What if her parents hadn’t come to America? Where else but in America would a Polack and an Italian get together and make a girl like Lena? What if he hadn’t been at the pub the morning she came in to ask if her family could book the back room for a party? Her sister was going to college, she told him. She’d gotten a full scholarship, that’s how smart she was.
“That’ll be you, maybe, when you graduate from high school,” Francis
had said, and she’d laughed, said she’d graduated the year before, that college was not in the cards for her but that was fine because she liked her job. She had a head of wild curls, brown shoulders above some strapless thing she was wearing. She was in the data processing pool at General Motors on Fifth Avenue, just a few floors above FAO Schwarz. He didn’t know what FAO Schwarz was. He’d only been in America for a few months.
“People keep asking me if we’re going to stay in the city,” Stanhope said. “We’re in Queens now, but the place is tiny.”
Francis shrugged. He didn’t know anything about the towns outside the city, but he didn’t see himself in an apartment for the rest of his life. He imagined land. A garden. Space to breathe. All Francis knew was after the wedding he and Lena would stay with her parents to save money.
“You ever heard of a town called Gillam?” Stanhope asked.
“No, me neither. But that guy Jaffe? I think he’s a sergeant? He said it’s only about twenty miles north of here and there are a lot of guys there on the job. He says the houses all have big lawns and kids deliver the newspapers from their bicycles just like in
The Brady Bunch
“What’s it called again?” Francis asked.
“Gillam,” Stanhope said.
“Gillam,” Francis repeated.
In another block, Stanhope said he was thirsty, that a beer wouldn’t be the worst idea. Francis pretended not to hear the suggestion. The patrolmen in Brownsville drank on the job sometimes but only if they were in squad cars, not out in the open. He wasn’t a coward but they’d only just started. If either of them got in trouble, neither of them had a hook.
“Wouldn’t mind one of them sodas with ice cream in it,” Francis said.
When they walked into the diner, Francis felt the trapped heat wafting at him despite the door having been propped open with a pair of bricks. The elderly man behind the counter was wearing a paper hat
that had gone yellow, a lopsided bow tie. A fat black fly swooped frantically near the man’s head as he looked back and forth between the policemen.
“The soda’s cold, buddy? The milk’s good?” Stanhope asked. His voice and the breadth of his shoulders filled the quiet, and Francis looked down at his shoes, then over at the plate glass, which was threaded with cracks, held together with tape. It was a good job, he told himself. An honorable job. There’d been rumors there wouldn’t even be a class of 1973 with the city slashing its budget, but his class had squeaked through.
Just then, their radios crackled to life. There’d been some morning banter, calls put out and answered, but this was different. Francis turned up the volume. There’d been a shot fired and a possible robbery in progress at a grocery store located at 801 Southern Boulevard. Francis looked at the door of the coffee shop: 803. The man behind the counter pointed to the wall, at whatever was on the other side. “Dominicans,” he said, and the word floated in the air, hovered there.
“I didn’t hear a shot. Did you?” Francis said. The dispatcher repeated the call. A tremor jumped from Francis’s throat to his groin, but he fumbled for his radio as he moved toward the door.
Francis in the lead, Stanhope right behind him, the two rookies unsnapped the holsters on their hips as they approached the door of the grocery. “Shouldn’t we wait?” Stanhope asked, but Francis kept moving forward past a pair of payphones, past a caged fan that stood beating the air. “Police!” he shouted as they stepped farther inside the store. If there’d been any customers there when the robbery was taking place, there was no sign of them now.
“Gleeson,” Stanhope said, nodding at the blood-sprayed cigarette cartons behind the single register up front. The pattern showed the vigor of someone’s heartbeat: blood that appeared more purple than red reaching as far as the water-stained ceiling, settling thickly on the rusted vent. Francis looked quickly to the floor behind the register, and
then followed the grisly path down aisle three, until finally, lying in front of a broom closet, a man sprawled on his side, his face slack, an astonishing amount of blood in a growing pool beside him. While Stanhope called it in, Francis pressed two fingers to the soft hollow under the man’s jaw. He straightened the man’s arm and put the same two fingers to his wrist.
“It’s too hot for this,” Stanhope said as he frowned down at the body. He opened the fridge next to him, removed a bottle of beer, popped the cap off by striking it against the end of a shelf, and chugged it without taking a breath. Francis thought of the town Stanhope had mentioned, walking in his bare feet through cool, dew-damp grass. There was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, see if he liked it—the words he’d chosen when he told his uncle Patsy that he’d gotten into the police academy—because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are. One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic and next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.
As the dead man’s face turned ashen, Francis thought about how desperate the man looked, the way his neck was stretched and his chin pitched upward, like a drowning man craning for the surface of the water. It was only his second dead body. The first, a floater that had risen to the surface in April after a winter in New York Harbor, was not recognizable as a person, and perhaps for that reason it was barely real to him. The lieutenant who’d taken him along told him to get sick over the side of the boat if he wanted to, but Francis said he was fine. He thought of what the Christian Brothers had said about a body being merely a vessel, about the spirit being the pilot light of one’s self. That first body, a water-logged piece of meat hauled up, dripping, onto the boat’s deck, had parted with its soul long before Francis had laid eyes on it, but this one—bit by bit, Francis watched it depart. In the old country someone would have opened a window to let the man’s spirit fly out, but any souls
let loose here in the South Bronx would be free only so far as they could bat around four walls until, exhausted, they wilted in the heat and were forgotten.
“Prop that door, will you?” Francis called. “I can barely breathe.”
Then, Francis heard something and froze. He placed a hand on his gun.
Stanhope looked at him, wide-eyed. There it was again, the whisper-soft sound of a sneaker on linoleum, listening to them as Francis listened back, three human hearts pounding in their cages, another lying still. “Step out with your hands up,” Francis called, and then, all at once, they saw him: a tall and gangly teenager in a white undershirt, white shorts, white sneakers, hiding in the narrow space between the refrigerated case and the wall.
An hour later Francis was holding the kid’s hands, rolling each finger in ink and then on the card, then four fingers together, then the thumb. First the left hand, and then the right, and then the left again, three cards total—local, state, federal. After the first card there was a rhythm to it, like an ancient dance: grasp, roll, release. The kid’s hands were warm but dry, and if he was nervous Francis couldn’t detect it. Stanhope was already writing up his report. The grocer had died well before the ambulance arrived and now here was the killer, his hands as soft as a child’s, his fingernails well tended, clean. The kid’s hands were loose, pliable. By the third card the kid knew what to do, began helping.
Later, after all the paperwork, the older cops said it was customary to take a guy out for his first arrest. The arrest had been credited to Francis, but they took Stanhope, too, bought him round after round while he told the story differently each time. The kid had stepped out and threatened them. The blood was dripping from every wall. Stanhope had blocked the exit while Francis wrestled the perp to the ground.
“Your partner,” one of the older cops said to Francis. “He’s creative.”
Stanhope and Francis looked at each other. Were they partners?
“You’re partners until the captain tells you otherwise,” the older cop said.
The cook came out of the kitchen carrying plates piled high with burgers, told them it was on the house.
“You going home already?” Stanhope said to Francis a little later.
“Yes and so should you. Go home to your pregnant wife,” Francis said.
“The pregnant wife is why he’s staying out,” one of the others cracked.
It took an hour and fifteen minutes by subway to get back to Bay Ridge. As soon as Francis walked in, he stripped to his boxers and climbed into the bed Patsy had crammed into his living room for him. Someone had called the kid’s mother. Someone else had driven him to Central Booking. He’d said he was thirsty, so Francis had gotten him a soda from the machine. The kid gulped it down and then asked if he could fill the can with water from the tap. Francis went to the bathroom and filled it. “You’re a fool,” one of guys in plainclothes had said. He still had to learn everyone’s name. Who knew? Maybe the grocer had done something bad to the kid. Maybe he deserved what he got.
Patsy was out somewhere. Francis called Lena, prayed she’d pick up and he wouldn’t have to go through her mother.
“Did something happen today?” she asked after they’d chatted for a few minutes. “You don’t usually call this late.” Francis looked at the clock and saw it was near midnight. The paperwork and the beers had taken longer than he’d thought.
“Sorry. Go back to sleep.”
She was silent for so long he thought she had.
“Were you afraid?” she asked. “You have to tell me.”
“No,” he said. And he hadn’t been, or at least he hadn’t felt what he understood fear to be.
“I don’t know.”
“Try to keep it outside yourself, Francis,” she said, as if she’d been listening to his thoughts. “We have a plan, you and me.”
ILLAM WAS NICE ENOUGH
but lonely, Lena Teobaldo thought when she first saw it. It was the kind of place that if she were there on vacation she’d love for the first two days, and then by the third day she’d start looking forward to leaving. It didn’t seem quite real: the apple trees and maples, the shingled houses with front porches, the cornfields, the dairy, the kids playing stickball in the street as if they didn’t notice their houses were sitting on a half acre of grass. Later, she’d figure out that the kids played the games their parents had played growing up in the city. Stickball. Hopscotch. Kick the can. When a father taught a son how to throw a ball, he marched that boy to the middle of the road as if they were on a block tight with tenements, because that’s where he’d learned from his father. She’d agreed to the trip because it was something to do and if she’d stayed in Bay Ridge that Saturday, her mother would have made her bring food to Mrs. Venard, who’d never been right since her boy went missing in Vietnam.
Her cousin Karolina’s dress was hanging on the hook behind Lena’s bedroom door, altered and ready for Lena to wear in just six days’ time. She’d gotten her shoes, her veil. There was nothing more to do other
than wait, so when Francis asked if she wanted to take a little trip to check out a town he’d heard about through a guy at work, she’d said sure, it was a beautiful fall day, it would be nice to get out to the country for a few hours, she’d pack a picnic lunch. They unpacked that lunch on a bench outside the public library, and in the time it took to unwrap their sandwiches, eat them, sip all the tea from the thermos, only one person entered the library. A northbound train pulled into the station and three people got off. Across the town square was a deli, and next to it a five-and-dime with a stroller parked outside. Francis had driven them in Lena’s father’s Datsun—her brother Karol’s copy of
Led Zeppelin IV
stuck in the tape deck. Lena didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t have the first idea how to drive. She’d assumed she’d never have to learn.