Authors: Julie Smith
Mrs. Prescott has done the math for the mothers, and this six weeks is going to require As from all four of those girls just to get Ds. She’s not sure any of them is what she calls Newman material. Meryl says that Newman material also has a lot to do with donations to the school, and her father is going to give five thousand dollars, and there’s probably a secret formula that mixes grades with parents’ contributions, so she’s not worried. But she must have some kind of dignity problem, because she’s not willing to come out of tenth grade with an F in Geometry, and that means I’m still going to have four friends at least until June. Meryl says we should have a slumber party at my house.
If people are going to come to my party, I want to have it, and I want to have it just the way they would. My mother won’t have Rena spend the night, and when I think about it, I’m relieved but angry anyway. She also won’t buy me shortie pajamas. So I cut the legs and sleeves off my silk pajamas and make very good hems in them, and there’s not a thing my mother can do. There’s also not a thing the other girls can say because the truth is that my pajamas are really better than theirs. At least I hope they are. My mother lets me have Coke. She doesn’t know that Coke and Oreos are right while Pepsi and Hydrox are wrong. Daddy knows, and he’s not telling. He doesn’t think I should have to squirm through life. But there’s no way to tell that to my mother because she likes to see me squirm. At least that’s the way it looks to me.
When my very cute house is quiet, and we’re all sitting around in my very cute living room, Linda R. looks at my parents’ desk and says, “So, is that their desk?” As if it is a peculiar kind of furniture found only in some obscure foreign country. Which to most of them it might be. I haven’t seen desks in most of their houses. Or bookshelves. I tell her yes. “So is that where you found the letters from the lady that got killed by the Nazis?”
I tell her yes.
Linda R. crawls right over to the desk and opens the bottom drawer. It’s the drawer where we keep all our memorabilia. Very neatly. My baby book, my mother’s baby book. A scrapbook of photos and an envelope of more photos. My mother’s diploma and my father’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, which he got four years and two months after he left Germany. And the packet of letters, which always lies nestled in the lower right-hand corner at the front. It’s impossible to miss, and Linda doesn’t miss it. She plucks it without the tenderness a person should afford these pages and pages of aerogramme paper, thin as onionskin. “Be careful with that,” is all I can think to say.
She undoes the ribbon, and they cascade to the floor. I leap to take them before they can fall out of order. I have read them, but I’ve read them like a detective who doesn’t want even fingerprints left behind. Linda pulls back, offended, as if I’ve called her a slob. “Hey, I just want you to read us one. Read it in
Of course, the one on the top of the stack is the last one, the most frantic one. My grandmother has seen the light now that it is too late. She is writing to my father in New York, sorry she didn’t listen to him when he said they had to leave. My father has enlisted in the military to survive.
I think you know people on Park Avenue
, she says.
People on Park Avenue have money. I understand you can still buy a way to America. Please ask your friends for help. I don’t know why I don’t hear from you
. I read it in German. I translate without playing around.
“God, she didn’t get it, did she?” Meryl says.
“Did your dad really know a lot of rich people?” Louise asks.
I don’t say anything.
“Well, how come your father didn’t just go over and
her?” Louise says. “I mean, just get on a plane or something? That’s what I’d’ve done.”
I tell her it was 1943. That ought to connote more than the fact that commercial air travel didn’t exist, but it probably doesn’t.
Louise says, “So what happened next?” She is far too excited.
“She fucking died in a concentration camp,” I say. I fold the letter back and put it in its envelope and reassemble the packet of letters so it’s impossible to tell they’ve been touched. I put them back in the drawer. I go to sleep hours before they have their fill of Coke and meanness.
Mrs. Prescott comes to take me out of Geometry class, and Mrs. Walter makes her wait until the end of the period; such is her power. I’m not bothered until she tells me she’s taking me home. This is not something Mrs. Prescott would do; it’s too generous. People who work at Newman are not generous because they would be destroyed by the children. She protects herself, saying nothing in the car, and when we approach my house and I see my grandparents’ car and a police car, she doesn’t do anything except say that someone will get me my homework. I have to walk in alone.
This morning, an hour before Geometry class, my father killed himself in his office.
He found a bag made of plastic in the store, put it tight over his head, and waited to die. The policeman has a manila envelope with some evidence in it that he wants me to look at. Everyone in the room is wide-eyed and dry-eyed, and
I’m supposed to be that way too, but I bawl like a baby, and I can’t look at stupid evidence, and I don’t know who they think I am. I see Rena standing by the wall, and her eyes are wet and red. She loves my father. He always jokes with her, tries to use a Southern accent and says he’s from the south of Germany. I go over and hug her because among Mrs. Prescott and my mother and Rena, she’s the only hugging type I’ve seen today, even though she’s tall and skinny. The policeman wants a sample of my handwriting. My mother tries to sound protective. “She doesn’t need to give it to you,” she says. “We’ve got a million samples all over the house.”
Rena whispers to me that they have checked her handwriting too. Rena has very girlish writing. In fact, she writes like a fifth-grade girl. Which, if I think about it, is probably what she was when she quit school. I tell them I’ll write anything they want if they will tell me what this is all about.
In the manila envelope is one of my father’s mother’s letters. It’s the one I read at my party, but that doesn’t mean anything because it was the one on top. Scotch-taped to it is a note. The note says,
Hitler didn’t kill your mother. You killed your mother.
I go over to the bottom drawer of the desk. Everyone follows me. I can’t believe no one has looked. My mother knows about the letters. I pull the drawer open. Slowly, while my mother explains rapid-fire that this is where the letter came from, that it was in a packet, that she should have thought of this before. The packet of letters is gone. Well, the letters are gone, but the ribbon is lying on the bottom of the drawer, swirled around. And under it is a scrap of paper. I recognize it. It’s torn from the pad we keep by the telephone in the kitchen. In the same handwriting as on the note attached to the letter, it says,
You’re not so smart
kay, okay, so the mayor is looking to start a new antiterrorist task force and he only wants the cream of the crop from law enforcement.”
Tommy Mulligan had settled into his joke-telling stance, his back to the bar, elbows resting on the hammered copper surface. He faced his audience, seven or eight other cops and a few nurses, standing in a loose semicircle at the back of the crowded room. Thursday was nurses’ night at the Swamp Room, and the place was packed. Nurses’ night at a cop bar was always busy. Nurses’ night at a cop bar in the Irish Channel was very busy. Nurses’ night at the Swamp Room was a zoo.
“Which mayor?” someone asked.
“What?” Tommy said.
“Not this bald prick.”
“Better than Barthelemy,” another said.
“So’s bin Laden.”
“Could it be Morial?” a nurse from Touro suggested.
“Screw him too. All the money in heaven for Comstat, but splits hairs about the goddamn raises.”
“It don’t matter which mayor,” Tommy said, sensing he was losing his audience. “It’s a joke. Let me tell the fuckin’ joke.”
Tommy had been hitting it heavy for the last hour, and his face was already flushed and sweaty. He’d reached that point in the evening where he thought he was the wittiest son of a bitch on God’s green earth, and that was usually Lew Haman’s cue to leave. But Lew wasn’t going anywhere quite yet tonight. He sat silently next to Tommy, his back to the others, facing the bar in the rear, its rows of bottles decorated with casually tossed toy stethoscopes and white garters.
The Swamp Room had been a real bucket of blood when Lew was a kid, with a large scratched and smoke-yellowed Plexiglas panel in the floor. Beneath it two alligators were kept in a tank that, as he thought about it now as an adult for the first time, had to have been woefully small for them. His father would let him come in to watch them be fed, and more than the feeding itself he remembered the horrendous stench when the panel was lifted.
The space where the Plexiglas had been was covered with stone tile now, and sometimes used as an impromptu tiny dance floor. The whole bar had been rehabbed about twenty years ago, just long enough that it was beginning to look shabby again.
“So he calls in two state troopers,”
“two FBI agents, and two New Orleans detectives.”
It was the awful end to an awful night, and Haman was not in the mood to indulge his partner’s humor. He drained his Jameson on the rocks and signaled the bartender silently to bring another.
Three to go.
For the thousandth time lately he lamented joining the force so late in life. He’d come on an old man of thirty, and now he felt like a dinosaur at forty-seven, old even for a detective; and fuck that television
Law and Order
bullshit with fifty-five-year-olds running down gang-bangers in an alley. Everybody knew that if you hadn’t secured a desk job, you were an asshole to stay on past your early-, or at most mid-forties. You were an asshole or you were Lew Haman, with three years to go. Same thing, he decided.
“So the mayor takes all six guys, and he drives them upstate, somewhere in the woods, middle of fuckin’ nowhere. He tells them ‘Here’s your first test. Go into the woods and find a rabbit. Bring it back out here.’”
They had been only fifteen minutes from going off-duty when they got the call. Lew had planned to go straight home after work, to skip the Swamp Room, the nurses, the drinking. He made such plans often, and rarely adhered to them, but you never knew. It might have happened tonight. Then the call came in.
Two uniforms had been driving along Magazine Street toward Jackson when a short, heavyset Hispanic woman stepped off the curb into traffic and waved them down. She told them that two kids had just robbed her on Constance Street. One held her face tightly scrunched in his hand while the other cut the shoulder strap on her bag with a large knife. The one holding her face pushed her backwards unexpectedly, and she fell. Then they ran off, laughing.
The uniforms loaded her into the back of their car and started cruising the side streets. Within a few minutes she began screaming and gesturing at a kid in a hoodie and ghetto-slung pants walking up Fourth Street toward Laurel.
“That’s him,” she said. “The one that pushed my face.”
The uniforms jumped out and confronted the kid, and he reached one hand under his sweatshirt. One of the cops yelled, “Drop the knife!” then fired three times.
“So the first two guys to go in are the state troopers. They look at each other like
—catch a rabbit, no fucking problem.
These are Troop D guys, country boys. They go into the woods and they come back out in about five minutes with a goddamned rabbit. Mayor tells ’em
and he sends in the second team, the FBI guys.”
Ernie Lowell was about the nicest guy you could hope to meet. His nickname around the Sixth District was Reverend Ernie, a moniker bestowed upon him because he was always counseling fellow officers about staying on the straight-and-narrow, and avoiding the lure of drinking and dope, corruption, or ill-gotten pussy. He was married and had five children. To a lot of the other cops he seemed too good to be true, but Lew had always found him to be a sincere guy. He was a year younger than Lew, but had been smart enough to come on earlier, and was now in his twenty-fifth year, planning to retire in about six months. He’d never shown much interest in moving up in the ranks, and until tonight he had never, to Lew’s knowledge, drawn his weapon from its holster, much less fired it at anyone.
Ernie’s sergeant was the first to arrive after the shooting, and he relieved Ernie of his gun. The sergeant put Ernie, shaking and in shock, in the backseat. Ernie’s partner told the story to the sergeant, and the mugging victim backed it up. There were no other witnesses on the street. No one but Ernie had seen a knife.
Lew and Tommy arrived next, and Lew dropped Tommy in front of the scene, then drove a few yards down the street until he could pull over to the curb. He walked back to Tommy and the sergeant. The kid in the hoodie was face down at their feet, the hood of his dark green sweatshirt still covering the back of his head. There was a thin stream of blood running from under the body, and the slightest beginning of a damp red stain on the back of the sweatshirt, as though one of Ernie’s shots had almost, but not quite, gone through the body.
“What have we got?” Lew asked. The sergeant repeated Ernie’s partner’s story. Lew walked over to the partner and got it again from him, then spoke to the mugging victim, who also corroborated it.
“And you’re sure this was one of the guys who robbed you?” Lew asked.
“That’s him,” she said, pointing to the body with her chin. “That’s him.”
Lew turned to leave.
“I think that’s him,” she said to his back.
“So the FBI guys, they take out an attaché case filled with all kinds of bells and whistles. First thing they do is divide the area into two sectors, and each one picks a sector. Then they disappear into the woods with global positioning equipment, sonar, and who the fuck knows what else. They’re gone for about an hour, then they come back, and sure as shit they’re carrying a rabbit.”
Tommy and Lew stood over the body and compared notes as the ambulance arrived.
“Anybody else see the knife?” Tommy asked.
“No,” Lew said. “Did you look at him yet?”
“Not yet,” Tommy said. “Shame it’s Reverend Ernie.”
“At least Ernie’s black,” Tommy said, and Lew looked at him. “You know, no media. Black cop, black perp, offsetting minorities.”
“No yardage gain?”
Lew looked over at Reverend Ernie in the backseat of the sergeant’s car and nodded to him. Ernie looked confused, as though he didn’t recognize him.
“So now he sends in the last team, the New Orleans detectives, you know. Old-time guys, polyester pants and skinny ties. They disappear into the woods and nobody hears a thing for about three hours.”
The bartender returned and stood in front of Lew. Lew looked at his glass and saw that it was empty again. How many was that? The bartender rapped his knuckles sharply on the bar twice, indicating that the next round was on the house. He gestured broadly at the row of bottles behind him. “Make a wish.”
Lew looked at him and smiled for the first time that day.
Make a wish.
He wished that his hands didn’t shake so much in the morning. He wished that he didn’t hurt all the time, like there was an animal dying inside him. He wished that his daughter wasn’t living in Algiers with a drug dealer who might or might not be a member of the gang Lew just got assigned to monitor. He wished that he wasn’t having an affair with his doctor’s receptionist. He wished his wife didn’t know.
“Jameson,” he said, still smiling. The bartender poured generously.
He wished he wasn’t partnered with Tommy Mulligan. He wished he could still feel drunk when he drank, not just the dulling of pain. He wished he hadn’t stopped off tonight, or that he hadn’t had this last drink, or that he wouldn’t have the ones that would follow. He wished that he wouldn’t have to drive home tonight to Metarie as he did most nights, with his shield case open in his lap, badge and ID card readily visible for when he got pulled over. Mostly he wished he didn’t have three years to go. Three years was too long. It was too damn long to be stuck with the likes of Tommy Mulligan, a bad drunk, and a loud, stupid braggart. A man who couldn’t hold his tongue for three years. A man who would crack if pushed, even slightly.
He wished he didn’t make decisions that were wrong; knowing they were wrong, feeling compelled to make them anyway.
He wished there hadn’t been three men on the scene before he arrived today, and he wished there hadn’t been three knives under the body when he’d turned it over. Three knives stupidly, amateurishly tossed, practically on top of one another. He wished he didn’t feel the sickening weight of two of the knives in his left pocket. He had left the one that most closely resembled Ernie’s description. He wished he had six months to go, like Ernie, instead of three years. Three years if he could even get Tommy Mulligan past a grand jury without stepping on his own dick.
The bartender replaced Lew’s drink again as Tommy turned and winked at him.
“So, after like three hours, there’s suddenly all this fucking noise. Bang. Crash. Whap, whap, whap.”
Tommy emphasized every sound by pounding his hand—palm flat—on the bar.
“The two New Orleans boys come out of the woods, and they’re carrying this deer. And the deer is like, all beat up. He’s been worked over. So the deer looks at the mayor, and the deer says,”
and Tommy paused, savoring the moment. He was just telling a joke in a bar. Not a care in the world. He was beaming.
“‘Okay, okay, I’m a rabbit.’”
Lew raised his glass and let the laughter behind him blend in with the background bar din. It sounded distant, and somehow warm and cozy. Inviting. He wished he was there with everyone enjoying himself. He thought about where he’d toss the knives into the lake out at the West End tomorrow. He drank half his drink in a swallow and held the glass in front of him, looking through the amber fluid and ice at the bar mirror. Tommy Mulligan nudged him, hard, and some of the drink spilled from the glass and ran down his arm. He felt it inside his shirtsleeve.
“Get it?” Tommy said. “Do you get it?
‘I’m a rabbit.’”
“Sure,” Lew said, feeling the cold liquid almost to his elbow. He continued to look through his trembling glass at the faraway party in the mirror.
“I get it,” he said, “I’m a rabbit.”