Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
Inside, she pointed to a rag doll sitting on the nearest piece of furniture, a child’s chair near the entryway. “That was holding the door open.”
I looked at Cookie, who had started to tear up.
Whiskey’s apartment had an emptiness about it, and there was a faint smell of sour milk. In the front closet I found an old snowsuit and a couple of women’s jackets. I plunged my hands into the pockets. Nothing but a few pieces of Kleenex.
Lorraine turned on the lamps. My first thought was to look for Whiskey’s purse or a satchel, something that would hold her wallet, so I did a quick walk-through, my mind focused, my eyes moving all around, searching underneath the furniture and in every room. Nothing.
I returned to the living room. It had windows on either side. Out the bay window was a sliver of a water view. The walls were newly painted in an egg white, probably Lorraine’s doing—I couldn’t see Robert lifting a brush—and the apartment was furnished in used Ikea. A worn sofa by the fireplace had a few children’s books strewn on the floor beside it, and next to them sat a stuffed elephant with droopy ears. Built-in bookshelves on both sides of the hearth held magazines and paperbacks—mostly mysteries and DIYs. One was titled
Speech Patterns of the Rich and Famous
. Whiskey was a woman born in the bowels of Brooklyn determined to make it, and for a single mom, she’d found herself a piece of the golden fleece, a swell place to live.
A broken vase sat on an end table in a pool of water and cut mums; a shard of glass lay on the floor beside one of the legs. Cookie started to pick it up, but I told her not to touch it. Detective Jane Templeton’s foreboding look flashed before me.
In the small kitchen a bowl of half-eaten cereal and an empty glass once filled with milk sat on a small table. I looked out the window over the sink and tried to imagine what life was like for Whiskey, caring for a young girl and working her buns off. I tried to get into her head and felt a lot of bravery, a lot of bluffing for her daughter’s sake, a lot of stuffed fear.
Where are you, Whiskey Parnell? Why did you leave?
“Did you say something?” Cookie asked.
I crossed my arms and held in my tears. “Just muttering.” My hopes for finding Whiskey were tanking.
Lorraine flipped the wall switch and we walked into the bedroom. There was a desk by the window. I looked in the drawers but found nothing. No sign of a computer or iPad. There were two beds, a small one against the wall, with polka-dotted sheets bunched around it on the floor, stuffed animals all over it, the covers drooping over the side and an assortment of clothes, shoes, and socks surrounding it. The other bed, a double with a plain chintz spread, was also unmade, but the sheets and blankets were neatly turned back. The closet door was open. A woman’s robe lay on the floor. On the opposite wall, a door led to a small bathroom. Makeup and a brush lay on the sink. Some powder spilled into the bowl and onto the floor. My mind played a clip of the place crawling with crime unit techs. They’d be filming, shooting photos, grabbing evidence. They’d have a field day while Maddie’s world crumbled.
It seemed like Whiskey left in a hurry, probably in the middle of the night. I looked around for a note, like “Gone to store. Back soon,” something you’d leave for a child. I found nothing. But who was I kidding—why would anyone leave a child?
When I worked as an intern at Brown’s, a large agency in the tri-state area, I learned that sometimes adults just disappear. Skips, we called them. But there were compelling reasons. Lots of times they were men who didn’t want to pay alimony. Or people who owed a loan shark or had gotten themselves caught in the murk of organized crime. Sometimes people left right before they committed suicide. Their bodies turned up charred beyond recognition, or we found them floating, or we never found them. My teeth began to grind when I thought of finding Whiskey’s burnt body in some charcoal pit and having to tell her daughter.
I forced myself to think sunny thoughts. With a good job and as far as I knew no financials hounding her, I couldn’t see the reason for Whiskey’s voluntarily leaving her child in the middle of the night. Something must have driven her. More likely, someone must have forced her. But who and why?
Cookie pulled out the desk’s middle drawer and was rummaging inside it when we heard footsteps in the hall. My heart did that elevator thing I hate. I looked at Lorraine and Cookie looked at me, her hand stuffing a small book into her bag.
“Knock knock,” a sandpapery voice said. Heavy steps entered the apartment.
A Cameo Appearance
A disheveled guy swayed into the room. “You’re supposed to say ‘Who’s there?’”
“And you are?” I was surprised by the iron in Lorraine’s voice.
“Call me Arthur. I’m Whiskey’s friend. And Maddie’s, too. Ask anyone who’s seen us together. The kid loves me. You are?”
“Whiskey’s landlady.” She stepped toward him.
He backed up. “Where is she?”
“So you’re in Whiskey’s apartment without her? You should know there’s a law against breaking and entering.” He jutted out his chin.
Lorraine crossed her arms. “Do you know where Whiskey is?”
Arthur started backing away, his head twisting from side to side as if Whiskey or Maddie would appear any moment.
“Wait.” I grabbed his sleeve and felt imbedded grit in the cloth. Cleaned up and sober he’d be decent looking. Intriguing even. His hair was like a thick brush, dark red, parted in the middle. And the collar of his red flannel shirt was spotted with grit. Not too tall, but muscular. Underneath the flush of a drinker and two-day stubble, I saw patches of skin the color of buttermilk. He was older than I pictured Whiskey to be, I’d say close to thirty-five judging by the lines forming around his eyes. He rubbed his left arm, and I noticed a rawness around his wrist, broken skin on the back of both his hands and knuckles. I figured he’d been in a recent brawl. Not surprising—the guy was a barfly. I wondered why Whiskey would keep company with such scum.
His eyes were like a snake’s. “I … we … I just came by to say hello, but if she’s not here, she might still be swooning over stars, for all I know.”
He wasn’t making much sense. We stared at one another for a moment, saying nothing. He smelled like rancid socks and cheap cologne.
Cookie cocked her head, glowering.
In an instant something seemed to click inside him, and he switched from being a defiant drunk to trying out for the part of Mr. Charm. He said he was Whiskey’s friend from way back when they both lived in Brighton Beach and waited for our recognition or welcome. When there was none, he continued with his blabbering, telling us he hadn’t seen Whiskey in a while. He knew she was dating someone, a painter, he thought. Star-struck was the word he used to describe her. Stammering a little, he said as how he was in the neighborhood, and he thought maybe they, meaning he and Whiskey, could get a bite or a drink and do some catching up.
“Maddie too, of course. She’s such a darling, don’t you think? I’ve missed her, missed them both. I was hoping for a little peek at the girl, a kiss on her sweet cheek, but I guess she’s not here either, is she? She’d know me right away.”
I said nothing. Lorraine continued to glare at Arthur, her lips pressed together like thin strips of steel.
“We’ve spent many hours in the park, me and Maddie. She loves my neighborhood. Once I took her to Coney Island and she loved the boardwalk and the seagulls soaring into the wind, and of course eating at Nathan’s Famous.”
I didn’t quite believe him, but I listened to the lilt in his voice, memorizing everything he said. Lorraine edged closer to him, her presence like a Mack truck blocking the road.
Arthur’s eyes shot from Lorraine to the floor. “That’s where Whiskey and I met, you know.” He started in again on Maddie. “I love how the little one laughs when I push her hard on the swing and her shoes touch the sky. We call it touching the clouds. Well, now, why would she be here? It makes sense, doesn’t it, she’s with her mother.”
“She’s in school.” Lorraine’s words were like ice cubes.
I looked at Cookie’s mouth as it formed the word
“Can I have a contact, your cell number, say, in case we need to …”
“For when Whiskey shows up,” Lorraine said. “We’ll call you as soon as she does. We wouldn’t want you to worry.”
“When Whiskey shows up, tell her to give me a ring. She’s got my number.” And in a flash, he was gone, the door slamming behind him, and I heard steps stumbling down the stairs.
I went to Columbia on a scholarship contrived who knows how. In those days, books were my booze. I covered all the Russians—Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the lot—while I sat in the wingback chair pulling the stuffing out of one arm as I poured over the words. When I hit the Irish writers, I was flying high. One day—I remember like it was yesterday—I was in the middle of
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
with Dad singing in the shower, the Irish tenor in his voice tremulous with amazement and soap. Afterward he sat, the towel drooping, too flummoxed to dress himself. He was dead by evening.
After the funeral, I worked my first job in between classes, a step-and-fetch-it for the Coney Island fat lady. She called me her McGirdle. “Oh, my sweet Arthur McGirdle,” she’d simper, “hold me tight,” her tent of a dress straining against thick haunches.
“Arthur, keep away from the girls,” my mother said, her voice puncturing the slamming screen door. “Join the army, they’ll educate and feed you. Leave, don’t look back.”
So I did, but I couldn’t stand playing war. I got myself disgorged the bad way. Do you know how hard it is looking for a job with a dishonorable discharge hanging over you? And they told me I was lucky. Desertion is a nasty crime, punishable by death during the Civil War, the loser chaplain said, pursing his lips and oozing out saliva. He looked me in the face with his bulbous eyes. “But you, they discharged. Ask yourself why and thank the God who made you.” What did he know?
A buddy, Berringer, promised to help, said his father was a big Brooklyn developer. I should have straightened myself out then, but no, not me, I just let my life drown on.
Brooklyn is a crowd teeming in the wilderness, smelling of fish and the sea, a bitch of the world at times, but it’s home. And a guzzle or two of the frothy stuff in the morning cheered me up. I got a job washing cars for Berringer’s old man. That first year after the army, things were fine until Berringer introduced me to sweet lady skag. I’d be upstanding and sober today if it weren’t for my genes and my friends. Life conspires against you and there’s no way you can get out of it. But don’t mind me, I haven’t had a hit in two days and my brain is jiggered. I’m going to do it this time, though, straighten myself, stay away from the dragon lady.
I first laid eyes on Whiskey Parnell in the Monday quiet after a bustling weekend. They’d opened a small Nathan’s Famous for the help tucked in back of the unpopular rides, and there she was behind the counter, stabbing at the spinning dogs. Chestnut hair with eyes the color of gray rubies sparkled in the salted air. I was a goner from the giddyup.
Whiskey was my first love, my only love. I knew it the first time I gazed at her and ordered.
“Two dogs and a cream,” I said, slapping my coins on the counter.
“That’ll be one-fifty.” Her voice was flat, disinterested, practiced. She didn’t bother raising her lids to look at me. I remember those lashes, though, the blackest I’d ever seen. When she stole a glance at me, the shot ricocheted off my soul. She had such rambunctious eyes, you see, like vertiginous blobs of mercury sliding around in egg whites. They sang a siren’s song. It went like this: if you grab me, you’ll know heaven in hell. It was the happiest ten seconds of my life.
“Feel like a ride on the Wonder Wheel?” I asked. There was a groaning in my blood, a foreshadowing, a hint at the beginning of the end.
She’d moved on to the next customer with studied disregard.
I felt hot shame creep into my cheeks. I was in agony. I pictured my old man staring at his shoelaces. Life is short. Bleak. Crunching my dog, I stared at her as a clump of mustard plopped onto my shoe, and turned away to take solace in the fat lady. But I didn’t forget Whiskey Parnell and her magic. No, I never could do that. Someday I’ll claim what’s mine.
But life has a way of slipping through the craters between my fingers. Some men have it made. Not me. Something always sours my plans. The day I met Whiskey on the boardwalk after a long hiatus was no exception. I couldn’t believe how she’d changed into an uptown lass. And there was me, thinking it was my lucky day.
I persuaded her to come with me and meet the wife, and I half-dragged Whiskey home. I thought they’d become friends, Flossie and Whiskey, you know how women can bond. Instead, in one day I almost lost them both.
Some magical thoughts must have passed between the two as they stood in the kitchen staring at each other. I watched Whiskey break away from Flossie’s wild gaze long enough to take in the empty bourbon bottles on the counter before pounding out the door, dragging Flossie with her. The image of the two women, one pulling the other out of my life: I needed a drink. But Flossie, bless her, came crawling back. Not exactly the same Flossie, but close enough.
I thought my new friends were the way out of my morass, but, no. Whiskey told me to get rid of them, to forget all my plans, and although I’d always listened to her in the past, I couldn’t do that now. I was in too deep. It was my way out, a fancy money-making scheme to foil the city fathers. And afterward, I’d somehow break free—how, I didn’t know, but Whiskey would help me, I knew she would. She knew how. Hell, she knew too much.
But when I listen to her, she helps me. Got to listen to her again, got to do something right, maybe clean the kitchen, spruce the place up a bit. Can’t drift forever. Got to get rid of the people pissing up my life, that’s what Whiskey would say, and she’d be right. First thing tomorrow, I’ll start. I’ll hit the straight and narrow, they’ll see.