Authors: Triss Stein
Ah, that sounded more like the somewhat scary Zora I remembered from class.
So half the story was over. Or at least, it was the beginning of the end chapter. One of the end chapters. Would it help Savanna? Not at all. Would it help provide some healing for Zora? Could you transform grief into the satisfaction of revenge? I thought back to the drunk driver who killed my husband and thought the answer was yes. Somewhat. Maybe. But it didn't change a thing.
I had a dinner date. Sort of. Chris would scoff at the use of the word. In fact she did, carefully explaining that a date only applies if there is potential for romance. Otherwise it is just “dinner plans.”
I love being condescended to by my fifteen-year-old. Though she had a point. I was having dinnerâwhich I would bringâwith my friend Leary, who is older than my father and is overweight, grouchy, and ill. At least half of his many ailments are lifestyle related, a subject he chooses, vehemently, not to discuss. At his request, I would bring spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and wine. I sneaked some broccoli onto the menu and some ground turkey into the meatballs. Good thing Chris likes broccoli, because I knew I'd be bringing it home.
Chris could come but she turned me down with homework as her excuse. She's met Leary and though she won't admit it, I think she finds him scary.
I had his number now, though. I first met him doing research. He covered Brooklyn as a reporter, way back when, and I needed to know what he knew about a long-ago notorious landlord. It took a while to get his cooperation. A long while, and several meals. Now I know the belligerence disguises loneliness, though he'd throw me out if I ever said so. I don't know if he was ever married, in love, had children. Most of his old friends seem to have moved away or died or forgotten him.
I went over to see him once in awhile, and when the weather was nice, I might take him out in his wheelchair. I tried to make the visits on Wednesday, when a housekeeping aide comes and his place is clean enough not to be a health hazard. Besides being grouchy, the man is a slob.
He also knows more about Brooklyn before my time than any human being has a right to. He lost a leg to diabetes so he can't get around easily, and he was never what you'd call a people person. To be honest, perhaps an anti-people person. I often wondered how he functioned as a reporter, asking questions, getting answers. Maybe he just scared people into telling him what he wanted to know.
He liked my visits, even if he would never say it.
His building is slowly deteriorating along with his neighborhood. The security door is often open, and often broken. I can get in easily.
“Leary!” I pounded on the door of his apartment. “Answer, dammit. I'm hauling heavy bags.” I always worry if he doesn't respond quickly. Once I found him beaten up, and twice I've found him sick.
I struggled in, and put my bags down. He rolled himself out in his wheelchair.
“I brought enough for two meals.” I found clean dishes in the dish rack and set the table. When l moved the stack of mail and papers to another table, with more mail on it, I saw a flyer for the Espy exhibit.
“Would you be interested in seeing this?” Maybe I should think before I speak. I had no idea how I would manage that.
“I did see it. You think you're the only person I know with a car?”
“Drop the shoulder chip or I take the wine home.”
“Tut, tut, where are my manners?” He paused and said in another tone, “Once in awhile, social services arranges for an outing. Ya know, through one of those do-gooder organizations.”
“And? And?” I portioned out dinner.
“Okay, okay, it was a nice day out. Except for all the old ladies on the bus.” He looked at his plate. “That's a bird-size serving.”
“Here. I'll add garlic bread. â
“Ah, garlic, seasoning of the gods.” He considered the small piece of butter-soaked Italian bread. “Worth the heartburn.”
“Leary? Did you remember any of the Espy photos?”
“What? How old do you think I am? Sweet jaysus. But yeah, I have seen a lot of them before.” He focused on his food, but I knew the smug gleam in his eyes.
“There's more. Spill it.” I moved the garlic bread out of reach, just to emphasize my point.
“You got me. I knew him.”
“Espy! What are we talking about? He was old by then, sick.”
“Not really. Never, really, but he hadn't chased a story in years. Naah, decades. He missed it. You never really lose that addiction, being an adrenaline junkie.”
Like someone else I knew?
“I met him because we were doing a story about him, some anniversary thing. They got out a bunch of old pictures he took, and got one of him, himself, very rare. He always said he belonged behind the lens, not in front of it. He lived upstate then, all retired.”
He reached for another piece of bread. “Really hated it. I mean, he could see cows out the window. This is a guy who lived across from a police station so he never missed out on a story.”
âYou're making that up.”
“No, I am not and I didn't just hear it from him.” He grinned at me. “Always have to have some corroboration and I did. I got the address and believe me, it was a real dump.”
I looked around his living room without a word and he saw me do it.
“Worse. Way worse. One room, bathtub in the kitchen. But he could see the station out the one window, and could be out and on a cop call in two minutes. Like the man says, location, location, location.”
There he was, Leary the living, breathing time machine. That's why I put up with him. And because I have become fond of him. Hard to explain but true.
“I have a book from the exhibit.”
“Yeah? Learn anything?” He was now scraping tomato sauce out of the pasta bowl.
“Did you know he was a Brooklyn boy? He came from Brownsville.”
Leary shrugged. “Don't know if I did, or not. It wasn't important. His whole career was shooting the dark side of Manhattan. And he started real young, like a kid. You could do that then. Ya know? No one cared about his roots.”
“Well, I care. I'm looking at Brownsville now for my dissertation.”
“When are you going to get that thing done?” He looked mischievous. He knows it's not a welcome question.
I shocked us both by tearing up.
“Hey, hey.” It's probably the only time I've ever seen him with no words. He handed me a napkin. I mopped my eyes, took a gulp of wine and a deep breath. Two deep breaths.
“Sorry about that. I just feel likeâ¦some daysâ¦I'm stuck in the swamp. Forever.”
He was silent, drinking. Finally he said, “Even been stuck in a real swamp?”
“Your tears are clouding up your eyes, not your ears. You heard me. I said, âreal swamp.'”
I stopped crying. “I live in Brooklyn. New York. Not in, like, Louisiana.”
“I thought so. No real swamps. Bet you've never even seen one?”
He seemed to be waiting for an answer. “True.”
“You got no idea. I was in âNam. There are real swamps and then there are problems, okay? You have a problem. So fix it.”
Strangely, his lack of sympathy helped. I took another deep breath, looked him in the eyes and said, “What do you know about old-time Brownsville?”
It turned out to be nothing. It was never his home or his beat, but he did have a few more stories about Espy. I couldn't figure out how I could use them in my work, but I wanted to.
Back home I left a note on my door for Chris, “Do not wake me,” and staggered off to bed hoping to sleep a long time.
The call that woke me the next morning was the NYPD. They caught me just before I needed to leave for work. They wanted me for a lineup today, as soon as I could get there, to help identify some young men who had accosted me the other day.
Oh, crap, I thought. My days, my whole life, was tightly scheduled. There was no room for this.
I called the museum and told them I had an emergency. Then I e-mailed my actual boss with more details and headed out into the day.
A lineup would be a new experience for me. I told myself it might be interesting. I was trying not to think about the young girl in the hospital, in a coma, the real reason I was going to a police precinct first thing on a workday.
As I hurried into the station, the name of the detective contact in my hand, I walked right into a little crowd of an officer with Ms. Talbot and Mr. Wilson from the library. We shook hands politely, like the cordial strangers we were.
“You remember what I said?” Wilson said. “It's those guys, the ones at your car. They been following herâ¦”
“Sir!” The officer snapped it out. “You remember what I said? We can't have any talk here. You come on with me now. Yes, you too, miss.”
Into a small room, cement block, drab and crowded. A woman with a no-nonsense air came in and introduced herself as Sergeant Asher. She explained what we would be doing, reminded us this was an important case, and we were led off again, this time separately. I was glad I had work with me. I am never without it, because I am never caught up, let alone ahead. I would make the most of my waiting time. And then I wouldn't have to think about where I was and why I was there.
A few pages into a scholarly source on Brownsville crime in the 1930s, when mob activities were a part of Brownsville life, I asked myself what in the world was I thinking?
I would have been better off at this moment with almost any other topic. A fashion magazine would have been good. Even a nice serious work on something far removed. Say, the Dutch in old New York. But not this subject, in this place. The building was from a later era, but I could imagine a few ghosts here, Kid Twist Reles and Pep Strauss and Tick Tock Tannenbaum, smiling at the cops, offering them a cigar and swearing to them they were on the other side of Brooklyn when the car was stolen and the body loaded into the backseat.
I shook my head and reminded myself I am a scholar, not a science fiction writer or a superstitious dimwit. There are no ghosts. I took out my laptop and started adding some scholarly notes to work I had already done. This fact. That date. Anecdotes, with the note, “Possible urban folklore.” Apocryphal would have been even more scholarly, but it seemed ridiculously high flown in the context, which was Brooklyn tough guys who could not write a threatening note and get the spelling right.
Ten pages into my source material, twenty-three notes in my database, an officer came to get me. I was led to a dark room with a big internal window and they told me what to do.
Because four boys had threatened me, we would do this four times. I was calm and cold. I had seen a TV program about mistaken identification by witnesses but I knew I could identify two of them at least, the one who had grabbed my arm, and the one who talked most. The others maybe not.
So the first four were all the same size and age and color, muscular older teens, variants of a medium complexion. I had a minute of panic. What if I get it wrong? And then I closed my eyes, and thought of a voice saying, “Maybe we got to take her somewhere and search her.” And his hand on my arm.
And there he was, a smile that only moved his lips. A nose that might have been broken.
I snapped my eyes open and saw him. “Number three.”
The second group was harder. It could have been any of them, none of them, all of them. I said so, apologetically, and the voice said, “Don't worry about it. Are you sure?”
The whole group walked off. Was one of them the one? I reminded myself that if I did not know I could not say.
The next one was easier. He was the one who did most of the talking, the one who called me “Little lady.” It was not an endearment, not the way he said it. I had a very good look at him.
That day he wore a jacket with red leather sleeves and a wool cap with writing. Here the whole row was dressed in indoor clothes, plain long sleeved tees, hands hidden, but there he was. Short hair with a jagged cut hairline and a tattoo curling up the side of his neck.
“It's four. I'm sure.”
The last was as impossible as the second. Someone came in to turn on the lights and tell me I was free to go. A thank you and a card for any further contact.
I was shaking.
The two library workers were in the hall.
“You came alone, so we thought we'd wait for you. It's stressful, isn't it? Are you doing okay?”
“Sure.” And suddenly, I was a little better. “But how are you doing? I am just so stunned about Savanna.”
“Stunned. Lord, yes. She âs been with us three years. We get attached to those kids. I know her aunt, so I spoke to her.” She shook her head. “That family is devastated, of course. The aunt said nothing left to do but pray so we will do that.”
I didn't know what to say. I'm not a great believer in the usefulness of prayer, but I did not want to be rude.
“Now I was raised up in the church too, but today, I'm thinking a couple of good friends with baseball bats would be more useful.”
“Oh, Wilson, please! It won't help Savanna one bit.”
“But it would make me feel better! After I became a grown man, I stopped beating on people, but right nowâ¦” He shook his head.
I won't lie. I kind of agreed with him.
“Did we all pick out the baby gangsta? One with the tattoos? He their so-called leader?”
We had and I was reassured. There were no mistakes on this and they knew the other two I had not been able to pick out.
And we had all chosen the same first boy.
“In my opinion, that one's a juicer. Got that muscled-up look, know what I mean? Because of boxing. Short temper, too.”
“Around here a lot of boys box,” Ms. Talbot explained. “They all think they could be the next Mike Tyson or Riddick Bowes. That's the only history some of them know.”
I was surprised and Ms. Talbot snorted. “Oh, yes, they are both Brownsville boys. Lots of others too.”
Wilson cut in. “Or some of these kids just want to look like they are boxers without doing the real work. They have short tempers and no sense. No hope, neither, but I am not feeling too sad for their poor little angry selves this day.”