Long Bright River: A Novel (3 page)

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
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Lafferty and I are dismissed from the scene. It will fall to Sergeant Ahearn, now, to close it, to oversee the medical examiner, the East Detectives, the Crime Scene Unit.

Lafferty, next to me in the car, is quiet at last. I relax, just a little, listening now to the thwack of the wipers, to the low crackle of the radio.

—All right? I say to him.

He nods.

—Any questions?

He shakes his head.

Again, we lapse into silence.

I consider the different kinds of quiet that exist: this quiet is uncomfortable, tense, the silence of two strangers with something unsaid in between them. It makes me miss Truman, whose silences were peaceful, whose steady breathing reminded me always to slow down.

Five minutes pass. And at last, he speaks.

—Better days, he says.

—What’s that? I say.

Lafferty gestures around us.

—I said the neighborhood’s seen better days, right? It was decent when I was a kid. Used to come up here to play baseball.

I frown.

—It’s not bad, I say. It has good parts and bad parts, I suppose. Like most neighborhoods.

Lafferty shrugs, unconvinced. He’s been on the job less than a year,
and already he’s complaining. Some officers have the ugly and destructive habit of criticizing, at length, the districts they patrol. I have heard many officers—including, I regret to say, Sergeant Ahearn himself—referring to Kensington in terms unbefitting of anyone whose role is to protect and uplift a community.
Sergeant Ahearn says sometimes, at roll call.
K-Hole. Junktown, USA.

—I need a coffee, I say now to Eddie Lafferty.

Normally, I go to a little corner store for my coffee, the kind with glass pots on burners and the smell of cat litter and egg sandwiches seared into its walls. Alonzo, the owner, is by now a friend. But there’s a new place I’ve been eyeing, Bomber Coffee, part of the wave of businesses that have recently opened on Front Street, and I suppose it’s Lafferty’s disdain for the neighborhood that makes me suggest it.

There’s something about these new places—Bomber in particular—that draws me to them every time I pass. Something about their interiors, made of cool steel or warm and resonant wood. Something about the people inside, who seem to have been dropped into our sector from a different planet. What they’re thinking and talking and writing about, I can only imagine: books and clothes and music and what plants to put inside their houses. They’re brainstorming names for their dogs. They’re ordering beverages with unpronounceable names. Sometimes I just want to be off the street for a second, to be around people with worries like these ones.

When I pull up in front of Bomber Coffee, Lafferty looks at me. Skeptical.

—You sure about this, Mike? he says. It’s a reference to
The Godfather.
One that he probably doesn’t expect me to recognize. What he does not know is that I have seen the entire
series several times, not by choice, and that I have disliked it profoundly each time.

—You ready to pay four dollars for your coffee? he says.

—I’d be happy to treat you, I say.

I’m nervous when we walk in, and I’m annoyed with myself for
feeling this way. In unison, everyone inside pauses briefly to note our uniforms, our weapons. An up-down glance I’ve gotten very used to. Then they return to their laptops.

The girl behind the counter is thin and has bangs that go straight across her forehead and a sort of winter hat that holds them in place. The boy next to her has hair that’s dark at the root and dyed a faded platinum toward the end. His glasses are large and strigine.

—Help you? says the boy.

—Two medium coffees, please, I say. (I note with some satisfaction that they’re only two dollars and fifty cents.)

—Anything else? says the boy. He has his back to us now, pouring the coffee.

—Yeah, Lafferty says. Throw some whiskey in there while you’re at it.

He’s smiling as he says it, waiting for recognition. It’s a particular brand of humor I recognize from my uncles: corny, expected, harmless. Lafferty is tall and mildly handsome and probably used to being liked. He’s still grinning when the boy turns around.

—We don’t sell liquor, says the boy.

—It was a joke, says Lafferty.

The boy hands us our coffee solemnly.

—Do you have a restroom I could use? says Lafferty. He’s dropped his friendliness by now.

—Out of order, says the boy.

But I see it there, a door along the back wall of the place, clear as day, with no sign, nothing indicating it’s in disrepair. The other employee, the girl, won’t meet our eyes.

—Is there another one? asks Lafferty. With many places, members of the PPD have an understanding: we don’t have an office, and we’re in our vehicles all day. Public restrooms are an important part of our routine.

—Nope, says the boy, and he hands us the cups. Anything else? he asks again.

I proffer my money silently. I leave. We’ll go back to Alonzo at the
corner store for our afternoon coffee. Alonzo lets us use his dim, filthy little restroom even when we don’t buy anything. He smiles at us. He knows Kacey. He knows my son’s name and he asks after him.

—Real nice kids, says Lafferty, outside. Sweethearts.

His voice is bitter. His feelings are hurt. For the first time, I like him.

Welcome to Kensington, I think. Don’t pretend, yet, that you know anything about it.

At the end of our shift, I park our vehicle in the lot—I inspect it even more thoroughly than I normally would, making sure that Lafferty is watching—and the two of us walk into the station to turn over our activity log.

Sergeant Ahearn is back in his office, a tiny closet of a space with concrete walls that sweat whenever the air-conditioning is on—but his own, something that belongs to him. He has a sign on the door that says
Knock First.

We do.

—Inside, he’s sitting at his desk, looking at something on his computer. Wordlessly, he accepts the log, not looking at us.

—Night, Eddie, he says as Lafferty leaves.

I linger for a moment on his threshold.

—Night, Mickey, he says. Pointedly.

I hesitate for a moment. Then I say, Can you tell me anything about our victim?

He sighs. Looks up from his screen. Shakes his head.

—Not yet, he says. No news.

Ahearn is a small slight man with gray hair and blue eyes. He’s not bad looking but he’s insecure about his stature. At five-eight, I look down on him by at least two inches. The difference sometimes sends him up on his toes, hovering there while he talks to me. Today, sitting at his desk, he is preserved from this humiliation.

—Nothing? I say. She hasn’t been IDed?

Again, Ahearn shakes his head. I’m not sure if I believe him. Ahearn is strange: he likes to keep his cards close to his chest, even when he has no reason to. A habit meant mainly to emphasize the relatively insignificant amount of power he wields over us, I believe. He’s never liked me. I attribute this to a mistake I made once, shortly after he was transferred into this district from another one: he gave out some misinformation during roll call about a perpetrator we were looking for, and I raised my hand to correct the record. It was a silly, thoughtless move on my part—the kind of thing, I realized too late, I should have told him after the fact, to preserve order and rank—but most sergeants would let this small infraction slide, would say thank you and perhaps make a joke about it. Ahearn, on the other hand, gave me a look I will not soon forget. Truman and I used to joke that Ahearn had it out for me. Beneath the lightness of these exchanges, I believe that both of us were actually concerned.

Now, I say to Ahearn: I’d never seen her working before. Just in case you were wondering.

—I wasn’t, says Ahearn.

You should have been,
I want to say. It’s important information. It means, perhaps, that she was either new to our district or simply passing through. Patrol officers are the ones who know our sectors best: we’re the ones on the streets, getting to know every store and residence, getting to know the citizens who populate them. The East Detectives who came out to the scene did ask me that question, at least, and several other questions as well that mollified me with their specificity.

I say none of this. I tap once on his doorframe. Turn to leave.

Before I can, Ahearn speaks. He’s looking at his computer, not at me.

—How’s Truman? he says.

I pause. Taken aback.

—Fine, I assume, I say.

—You haven’t heard from him lately?

I shrug. It’s difficult to figure out Ahearn’s agenda sometimes, but I’ve learned he always has one.

—That’s funny, says Ahearn. I thought you guys were close.

He holds my gaze for just a moment longer than I’d like.

On the way home, I call Gee. We speak only rarely, these days. We see each other even less. When Thomas was born, I made the decision to give him an entirely different sort of upbringing than the one I experienced, and this means avoiding Gee—avoiding all the O’Briens, really—as much as possible. Begrudgingly, out of some unshakable sense of family obligation, I perform the perfunctory ritual of bringing Thomas to visit Gee sometime around Christmas, and I phone her once in a while to make sure she’s still alive. Although she complains about it on occasion, I don’t think she’s actually bothered by our absence. She never calls me. She never offers any help with Thomas, though she’s able-bodied enough to work her catering job all right, and to put in her hours at Thriftway, too. Lately, I’ve developed the conviction that if I stopped contacting her we’d never speak again.

—Go ahead, says Gee, after several rings. The same way she always answers the phone.

—It’s me, I say, and Gee says, Me who.

—Mickey, I say.

—Oh, says Gee. Didn’t recognize your voice.

I pause, letting the implication settle. The perennial guilt trip. There it is.

—I was just wondering, I say, whether you’d heard from Kacey lately.

—Why do you care, says Gee, warily.

—No reason, I say.

—Nope, says Gee. You know I steer clear. You know her shit don’t fly with me. I steer clear, she says again, just for emphasis.

—All right, I say. Will you tell me if you hear from her?

—What are you up to, says Gee. Suspicious.

—Nothing, I say.

—You’d stay away too, says Gee, if you knew what was good for you.

—I do, I say.

After a brief pause, Gee says, I know you do.


—How’s my baby, says Gee, changing the subject. She has always been kinder to Thomas than she ever was to us. She spoils him when she sees him, produces from her purse mountains of ancient, half-melted candy that she unwraps and feeds him with her hands. I see, in these small charities, an echo of the way she must have been with her own daughter, our mother, Lisa.

—He’s very fresh these days, I say. Not meaning it.

—You stop, says Gee. Very faintly, at last, I hear a smile in her voice. You stop that. Don’t talk about my boy like that.

—He is, I say.

I wait. There is a part of me that hopes, still, that Gee will come around first, that she’ll ask me to bring Thomas by, that she’ll offer to babysit, that she’ll ask to come see our new place.

—Anything else? Gee says, at last.

—No, I say. I think that’s it.

Before I can say anything further, she’s hung up the phone.

The landlady, Mrs. Mahon, is raking in her front yard when I pull into the driveway. Mrs. Mahon lives in an old two-story colonial with a haphazard apartment built above it as a third-floor addition. The apartment—ours, now, for the better part of a year—is accessed by a rickety staircase up the back of the house. The lot is small, but there’s a long backyard behind the house that Thomas can use, and an ancient tire swing that hangs from a tree. Aside from the backyard, the apartment’s main appeal is its price: five hundred dollars a month, utilities included. I found it on the recommendation of another officer’s brother, who was moving out of it. It’s not much, the brother said, but it’s clean, and the landlady gets stuff fixed fast. I’ll take it, I said. That same day, I listed for sale my house in Port Richmond. It pained me to; I loved the house. I had no other choice.

Out the driver’s-side window, now, I wave quickly at Mrs. Mahon, who pauses when she sees me, stands with an elbow on top of the wooden handle of her rake.

I get out. Wave once more. There are groceries in the backseat, and I occupy my hands with them, making small noises to indicate my great and perennial haste. I have always sensed, from Mrs. Mahon, a needfulness that I do not feel prepared to examine. For one thing, she is almost always standing in the front yard, waiting to engage anyone who might pass by (I have noticed that the postman, too, wears a wary expression as he approaches); and to me she always looks simultaneously worried and
hopeful, as if wishing to be asked what’s concerning her, so that she may expound upon it for a while. Unbidden, she dispenses advice—about the apartment, about the car, about our choice of attire, which is generally incorrect for the weather, according to Mrs. Mahon—with the kind of urgency one might typically reserve for medical emergencies. She has short white hair and soft ropes of flesh between her chin and her collarbones that sway when she moves her head. She wears seasonal sweatshirts and loose light blue jeans. I have heard from the next-door neighbors that she was once married, but—if this is the case—nobody seems to know what happened to her husband. When I am feeling unkind, I imagine he might have died of annoyance. Whenever Thomas has a moment of bad behavior getting into or out of the car, I can count on Mrs. Mahon to be gazing at us from her window, a referee watching a play. Occasionally she has even emerged to get a better look, arms crossed in front of her, displeased.

Today, when I straighten up from the backseat, holding my groceries, Mrs. Mahon says, Someone stopped by for you.

I frown.

—Who? I say.

Mrs. Mahon looks very gratified to be asked this question.

He didn’t leave his name, she says. Only told me he’d come by another time.

—What did he look like? I say.

—Tall, says Mrs. Mahon. Dark hair. Very handsome, she says, conspiratorially.

Simon. A little pang in my abdomen. I say nothing.

—What did you tell him? I say.

—Said you weren’t home.

—Did he say anything else? I say. Did Thomas see him?

—No, says Mrs. Mahon. He just rang my bell. He was confused. I think he thought you lived in my house.

—And did you correct him? I say. Did you tell him we lived in the apartment upstairs?

—No, says Mrs. Mahon. She frowns. I didn’t know him. I didn’t tell him anything.

I hesitate. It goes against every one of my instincts to let Mrs. Mahon in on any part of my life, but in this case, I believe I have no choice.

—Why, says Mrs. Mahon.

—If he stops by again, I say, just tell him we moved out. Tell him we don’t live here anymore. Whatever you want to say.

Mrs. Mahon stands a bit taller. Proud to be given an assignment, perhaps.

—Just so long as you’re not bringing any trouble around here, she says. I don’t want any trouble in my life.

—He’s not dangerous, I say. I’m just not talking to him. We moved here for a reason.

Mrs. Mahon nods. I am surprised to see something like approval in her eyes.

—All right, she says. I’ll do that, then.

—Thank you, Mrs. Mahon, I say.

Mrs. Mahon waves me off.

Then, unable to restrain herself a moment longer, she tells me, That bag is going to break.

—I’m sorry? I say.

—That bag, says Mrs. Mahon, pointing at my groceries. It’s too heavy, and it’s going to break. That’s why I always ask the girl to double them.

—I’ll make sure to do that in the future, I say.

When I first went back to work after Thomas was born, I used to physically yearn for him toward the end of each day. It was something akin to hunger. Racing to pick him up from daycare, I would picture a string connecting the two of us that retracted, like a yo-yo, as I approached. The feeling has softened as Thomas has grown, morphed into a milder version of itself, but today I still take the back stairs two at a time, picturing his face, his wide grin, his arms outstretched to me.

I open the door. There he is, my son, bounding toward me, shadowed by the babysitter, Bethany.

—I missed you, he tells me, his face an inch from mine, his hands on my cheeks.

—Were you good for Bethany? I say.

—Yes, he says.

I look to Bethany to confirm, but she’s looking down at her phone already, eager to leave. For months, it has been clear to me that I need to find a different, and better, arrangement. Thomas doesn’t like her. He talks every day about his old school in Fishtown, his old friends there, his old teachers. But it’s nearly impossible to find someone who can switch back and forth from days to nights with me every two weeks, and Bethany—twenty-one, a part-time makeup artist—is both cheap and available at almost any hour. What she offers in flexibility, however, she lacks in dependability, and lately she’s been calling out sick so often that I’ve spent every personal day that I have. On the days that she does show up, she’s regularly late, which makes me regularly late, which makes Sergeant Ahearn more and more unfriendly each time we cross paths at the station.

Now, I thank Bethany and pay her. Silently, she leaves. And instantly the house feels lighter.

Thomas looks at me.

—When can I go back to my school, he says.

—Thomas, I say. You know your old school is too far away. And you start kindergarten next September, remember?

He sighs.

—Just a little longer, I say. Less than a year.

Another sigh.

—Is it so bad, I say to him.

But of course I feel guilty. Every evening after A-shift, and often in the mornings, too, I try to make it up to him: I settle right down on the floor next to him and play with him until he’s tired of playing, trying to teach him everything he needs to know about the world, trying to stuff him so full of knowledge and fortitude and curiosity that these qualities
will sustain him even during my long stretches away from him, the endless B-shift weeks, during which I’m not even able to put him to bed.

Now, he shows me excitedly what he’s constructed in my absence: a whole city of train tracks, wooden ones I bought secondhand, with construction-paper balls meant to represent boulders and mountains and houses, and cans and bottles that he’s fished out of the recycling bin to stand in for trees.

—Did Bethany help you with this? I ask him, hopefully.

—No, he says. I did it all by myself.

There is pride in his voice. He doesn’t realize—how could he—that I wish the answer had been yes.

Thomas, at almost five, is tall and strong and barreling, and already too smart for his own good. He’s handsome, too. As smart and as handsome as Simon. But unlike his father, so far, he is kind.

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
2.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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