Read Slipping Into Darkness Online

Authors: Peter Blauner

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled

Slipping Into Darkness (10 page)

BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, it’s enough already. I . . . just . . . want . . . closure . . .”

 

“What?”

 

Tom tried to work the tip of his shoe under the gum to dislodge it. “I’m saying this has been going on for twenty years. We’re like professional victims. It’s the only thing that defines us anymore. And I’m sick of it.”

 

Francis stared at him, brought up short by that word,
closure.
Not something a man losing his eyesight wanted to contemplate.

 

“And so, what’s your mother going to say?” he asked.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“How’s she going to feel if she picks up the paper next week and sees the case has been totally dismissed?”

 

Tom lifted his foot and saw a single elastic tendril had stuck to the sole of his shoe. “To be honest with you, Francis, she hardly ever reads the paper anymore. She’s off in her own world most of the time.”

 

Francis shook his head. “I made her a promise, Tom. I told her somebody would have to account for what happened.”

 

“I understand that, but—ah,
fuck.
” Tom tried to scrape his shoe against the edge of the step.

 

Francis watched him, thinking of the way certain things stuck.

 

“You know, I went to the wall for this case,” he said. “I mean, I
really
went to the wall, Tommy. Some people might say I even went over it a little. And I wouldn’t do that for just anybody. But I had a special feeling about your family.”

 

“I know that, Francis. I know my mother trusted you.”

 

“Yeah, well, we had some common ground.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah, you know, death in the family. My mother got hit by a car when I was nine.”

 

“Jesus, I didn’t know that.” Tom looked stunned, the pinkness fading behind the eyebrows.

 

“Yeah, she was in a coma before she passed, but . . .” Francis found himself playing with the antenna of his cell phone, pulling it out and pushing it in. “Anyway, your mother reminded me of her a little bit.” He stopped himself. “And so when I took this case, she made me swear I’d do right by you guys.”

 

“Oh, I remember.”

 

“So I don’t feel right, just forgetting that. I’d like to talk to her about what’s going on.”

 

“Well, she’s not home right now.”

 

Francis looked at the downstairs window again, almost sure someone had been there a minute ago.

 

“Well, ask her to give me a call when she’s up to it. She trusted me to stay on this. We were on the same wavelength that way.”

 

“That’s great, Francis. Except for one thing.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

Tom grimaced down at the gummed-up end of his shoe and shook his head. “My mother is out of her fucking mind.”

 

 

8

 

 

 

T
HERE ONCE WAS
a woman who wished very much to have a little child, but she could not obtain her wish.
Eileen stepped away from the curtains and went back to her desk. The madwoman cackling in her hovel. Or rather, her garden-level floor-through that her son could have charged $1,900 a month for. She opened the fairy-tale book again, stirred her tea, and rubbed her thermo-stockinged feet on the hardwood floor.
At last she went to a witch, and said, “I should so very much like to have a little child; can you tell me where I can find one?”
Well, of course, that’s where the problem started. Baby brokering through a witch.

 

“Oh, that can be easily managed,” said the witch. “Here is a barleycorn of a different kind to those which grow in the farmer’s fields. . . .”

 

“Early use of fertility drugs—and by a single woman yet!” Her mind told her hand to write large, but the letters came out small in her notebook, the latest of the bizarre side effects from the meds she was taking.

 

And so what happens? She went back to reading the
Hans Christian Andersen Treasury
she had propped open on the desk for inspiration. The barren woman pays her money and plants the seed, and, lo and behold, a beautiful tulip springs up.
Hmm.
Then she kisses the enfolded red and golden petals—
yes,
this is a fairy tale—they open up, and there upon the green velvet stamens—
could the imagery be any more blatant?—
is a tiny delicate maiden.

 

But is it a small fully formed young woman or is it still a child? Eileen stared at the actual tulip she had on her desk, as if the secret were hidden inside its pursed red leaves. No, she couldn’t make up her mind. She was stuck again.

 

She tore the page she’d been working on from the notebook, crumpled it up, and threw it under the desk into the wastebasket already overflowing with the morning’s discards. She put her pen down, her ink-stained fingers stiff from the new drugs. No concentration at all. Not even close. She padded back over to the window and hid behind the drapes again, watching the two men talk on the sidewalk. It wasn’t the obvious sexual symbolism that kept stopping her, she decided. All the great ones had a powerful erotic undertow:
Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty.
It was the absence of feeling. This has to be one of the saddest stories ever told. A huge ugly toad kidnaps Thumbelina to marry her son, carrying her off to a lily pad in the middle of a stream, never to see her mother again.

 

But Andersen never mentions the mother’s heartbreak. Never even considers it! He just prattles on about the frog and the blind mole and the swallow that appeared to be dead.

 

She went back to the desk and was confronted with another empty page. How could she ever have thought she could convey what it was like to lose a child? She must have already been drugged when she agreed to this deal, way back in the early Reagan years. The light blue lines on the page seemed to fade before her eyes, leaving her nothing to write on. How do you illustrate the half-life of grief? How do you write about the heart drawing back into a dark corner? The blood drying up in your veins. The ashes you can’t quite spit out of your mouth. The gradual loss of sensation. The offensiveness of other people’s laughter.

 

The poor woman must have sat by the window night after night, scattered tulip petals at her feet, waiting for the child to return, dull massive ache enveloping her like a cloud. Maybe she got really fat, eating potato chips and ice cream, watching TV test patterns. Maybe she got drunk every night and woke up every morning surrounded by empty bottles of pinot and chardonnay, wondering how they all got there. Maybe all that kept her alive were those little jagged shards of hope that kept sticking into her. Small barely discernible things. A movement in the grass, a change in the wind, a faint voice in the night, a rumor that somebody might have seen Thumbelina floating by on a lily pad or sitting at a craps table in Vegas. Maybe even two men right outside the window, mentioning her name out loud.

 

 

9

 

 

 

DOWNSTAIRS FROM HIS lawyer’s office, Hoolian noticed an elegant caramel-colored coffee place called Starbucks by the subway entrance. Sleepy-eyed tousle-haired college girls sat at round tables, typing on laptops and reading nineteenth-century novels in the windows. Famished and tired, he stopped in and ordered a chicken Caesar salad, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a venti decaf vanilla latte with foam, thinking it sounded very debonair when the girl in front of him ordered it. He was surprised when he blew in the cup and found it barely half full.

 

Still, he felt like he’d achieved a minor stake in the social order by paying for a meal. He ate quickly and furtively with an arm crooked around his food. A pretty girl at the next table pulled her black turtleneck over her chin and turned the pages of
Les Misérables.
On his way out, he nodded to her and then realized he was still carrying his silverware, as if there were a corrections officer at the door waiting to collect it from him. Nonetheless, he decided this was a wonderful place and he would come back here soon, with a Signet Classic of his own.

 

A few blocks later, though, he saw an almost identical place on Union Square, also called Starbucks, the women inside looking a little more harried and insistent.

 

He walked west past the park, wavering from moment to moment, between knowing he had work to do and wanting to just stop and stare. At Mexicans unloading fruit crates in front of Korean bodegas, rising numbers on digital tote boards, ads for
Sex and the City
on buses. Women in experimental-looking shoes and men with cell phones squished to their ears gave him the evil eye, as if just by standing there in his grubby old clothes, looking up at the sky, he’d disrupted some fantasy about the glamorous lives they were leading.

 

“Stop acting like you in a Stevie Wonder song,
Country.
” A bicycle messenger in bright yellow spandex and goggles zipped by at warp speed, nearly rolling over the tips of his work boots.

 

Of course, it was
that
obvious. He might as well have been a Klingon or the Man Who Fell to Earth. The thing was, he couldn’t stop staring. The city was the same, but it was different. It was cleaner, less permeable. You could no longer simply inscribe your name on its soul with a spray paint can and a blank wall. Old landmarks were gone, new ones had taken their place. The words “Met Life” were on the Pan Am building. The whole place was like a half-shaken Etch-A-Sketch screen, with some of the bold lines erased and the faint generations of a trillion previous patterns visible only when you looked very closely.

 

He stopped by a Rite Aid to buy a new toothbrush and a pair of nail scissors just to keep himself groomed. Then he went by the Human Resources Administration offices on 14th Street and tried to get a case opened so he could qualify for public assistance. Ms. Morales, a big-haired lady behind a little desk, told him he had a choice of applying to stay at a city shelter or trying to get into a residential drug-treatment program. When he tried to explain that he’d never been on drugs, she looked skeptical. It was easier, he discovered, to lie and say he was a junkie than to convince her he’d been locked up for no good reason. She told him to call back later to see if a space had opened up in a halfway house.

 

———

 

By one o’clock he was back in his old neighborhood, wondering if he’d gone too far trying to sell Ms. A. on the idea that there were still people around willing to help him. At least some of the old landmarks were still around. The bicycle store on 88th Street, the stationery shops selling the
Irish Echo
and Lotto tickets, Gus Shoe Repair, Romeo’s Haircutting with the candy-stripe pole outside. He lingered for a few moments outside the schoolyard of St. Crispin’s, watching the girls in their short plaid skirts do battle with the boys in their maroon blazers and gray slacks. The rectory windows looked dusty, and he wondered with a sharp lancing pang if Father Flaherty was still alive. The old priest had written his recommendation for Columbia and told Papi that his son would go far in life. A kind of smothering shame settled over Hoolian when he pictured himself running into the priest and witnessing his quiet disappointment.

 

Instead, he continued uptown and soon found himself staring across stately paced traffic at the familiar light green canopy with the white numbers 1347 rippling slightly in the breeze.

 

He told himself he had as much right to be there as anyone else. This was his house. This was the block he grew up on. This was the part of town he knew best. These were the sidewalks where he’d first learned to ride his bike. Julian, the super’s son. Once more, he felt pierced with yearning, remembering Mrs. Lunning from 5E giving him a Combat GI Joe for Christmas one year. Of course, now he understood that his father would’ve just preferred four twenties in a plain white business envelope. Back then, though, it made Hoolian feel like he was the little prince of this building, running around with an oversize doorman’s cap cocked askew on his head and a taxi whistle around his neck, everyone smiling and looking out for him.

 

All of that was gone now. He swallowed, wondering what his friend T-Wolf was up to at that moment. Probably back on Carpenter Avenue in the Bronx, partying for the second day in a row, smoking blunts and hoisting forties, with relatives bringing over heaping plates of fried chicken and old girlfriends stopping by to check up on him. An unfamiliar anger clouded over him a moment: why hadn’t Papi raised him uptown, closer to family and friends who would welcome him back? A superintendent’s son wasn’t one thing or another. You weren’t upper class or lower class. You weren’t penthouse or street, American or Puerto Rican. You weren’t champagne or Malta Goya. You weren’t upstairs or downstairs. You were just stuck between floors.

 

Hands thrust deep in pockets, he ambled casually toward the canopy, thinking he’d take a quick look, see if any of the old crew was around. Twenty-two years Papi had worked in this building. One of the only Puerto Rican supers in this part of town.
Means we have to be twice as clean and work twice as hard, little man.
Always on the job by six in the morning, white shirt and tie, charcoal slacks, hair slicked back but never greasy. Omnipresent but invisible. Discreet but dependable. Whistling for cabs. Keeping sand fresh in the lobby ashtrays. Lestoiling the marble halls. Sweeping the sidewalks. Unplugging toilets upstairs. Checking out the contractors’ insurance. Making sure the service elevator was running.
Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. I’ll send the dry cleaning up. I’ll have the maid brought down. I’ll run this prescription around the corner to the pharmacy. I’ll have the car brought round.

 

Twenty-two years of keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut, of keeping his ambition back in the package room with the UPS parcels and Sherry-Lehmann wine store deliveries. And when his only son got locked up, they treated him like some smelly wetback just off the boat, virtually forcing him to quit. Of course, by that time Papi was so consumed by the case that he’d stopped turning over the sand in the ashtrays and making Valium runs for the stressed-out matrons.
BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen
The Mighty Quinns: Thom by Kate Hoffmann
His Dark Obsession by Blake,Zoe
Tell No One by Harlan Coben
To Catch a Mermaid by Suzanne Selfors
Moved by K.M. Liss
The Corruption of Mila by Jenkins, J.F.
Gelignite by William Marshall
The Calm Before The Swarm by Michael McBride