Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“So tell them what you know and no fibbing, but remember, don’t think for one minute you know why grown-ups do what they do.”
Maddie shut her eyes. While she worked her head up and down, a few tears broke loose and rode down her red cheeks. She swallowed and hugged a pillow. “Okay, so to answer your question about when I went to bed Monday night, I don’t know for sure what time it was. Right now Mom and me sleep in the same room until we strike it rich and can afford a bigger place. I think my final goodnight kiss was real late because Mom said, ‘You’ve done it again, Maddie, dawdled until midnight.’”
“So there. More questions for the kid?” Robert asked.
I shook my head. “Oh, wait a minute, one more.”
Robert slapped a hand to his forehead and Lorraine flattened her lips.
“Did you hear any strange noises in the middle of the night?” Cookie asked.
“What kind of a question is that?” Robert asked.
Maddie shook her head. “When I woke up, Mom wasn’t there. Her bed was rumpled, her robe on top of the dresser.”
“I didn’t see her robe there,” I said.
Maddie’s face crumpled, and I slammed a fist into my side. Why did I need to be such a niggling ass?
“Because I hung it up in the morning when she wasn’t there.”
“That’s it. No more questions.” Robert stretched out his arm toward Maddie. “But you’re slacking off with the paint, kid. C’mon, we got work to do. Your uncle’s on the way, and we don’t want him to see your head naked as a jaybird, do we?”
There seemed to be a vacuum sucking up all the air in the room after Maddie left. I looked at Cookie.
“Remind me and Clancy never to have kids unless they turn out to be like that little girl.” She lowered her head and stowed her mirror.
I fingered Whiskey’s journal, wondering if I could excuse myself and get the hatbox full of old volumes from her closet. I needed to wrap my head around her soul, at least pick up some of her droppings, Jane Templeton’s don’t-touch-anything dictum be damned. I said something about the hatbox to Lorraine and she insisted on getting it herself, saying she’d be back in a few minutes.
After calling Trisha Liam to give her an update and listening to her rant about what was taking me so long, I thumbed through Whiskey’s notebook and came across some interesting information about her brother, two entries in this book alone. He must have been an important part of her life. Cookie told me as much many times, but she’s got five siblings. Me, I’m a single child, a brat, without any inkling about brothers or what good they are.
I’d just settled back for a read when Lorraine returned with the box. From the corner of my eye, I saw her place it by her chair and disappear into the deeper parts of the apartment, probably to clean up after Robert and Maddie. Since Cookie was busy texting, I succumbed to the temptation of Whiskey’s journals, going over to the box and stuffing all four of the books into my satchel, opening one, and beginning to read.
A Sunday in September
I grew up in Brighton Beach, messed up by my ma, abandoned by the man who fathered me. Notice I didn’t say my father because I think of myself as a fatherless child and a one-off at that.
“I can do without men. Dogs if you ask me,” Ma said, and she said it on more than one occasion—when she was sauced, when she was hung, or just plain maudlin and inscrutable.
My brother, Warren, who was older and graced with the right kind of name. I mean, Warren, it has the ring that goes good with business of whatever shade of grayish yellow. But he didn’t think so, and quick as a South Brooklyn Boy in July, he changed it, not the Marsh part, but the Warren bit. Changed it to Tommy Marsh. Sounded more lawyerly, he said. Sounded more used-car salesman, I thought.
“Change your name? Over my dead body,” Ma said.
Tommy said she might as well save dying for something important because there’d be lots more stuff she wouldn’t like. I thought I’d like to see that happen, her death, I mean. I shudder to write it now, it makes my head rumble. But a second later I slapped my face for even thinking it. Ma was Ma after all was said and done, better than a No Ma, didn’t I find out.
The next week Tommy came home looking like a greased pole dipped in ink. That’s what Ma said, because he’d gone and dyed his hair black. Two weeks later it was red at the roots. You might say Tommy had a problem, and you’d be right. He had a problem by the name of Ma. Same as me. Maybe that’s what would kill me in the end, my mind and its inability to crawl away from my Ma problem and be done with her once and for all. But not me, I keep running back to all the Ma Substitutes in my life. And there have been many, believe me.
A Wednesday in February
My brother is a lawyer, a few years older than me. He took me under his wing.
“You should become a paralegal. I’ll get you a good job. I know three lawyers opening up their own shop.” The sun shines in Brighton Beach and sends its shards streaming from my brother’s glasses as he’s talking to me.
“Why won’t you get me a job where you work?” I ask.
“Not your type of place, sis. We chase ambulances.”
“Who cares, I can run after them. Anyways, what kinda brother are you?”
“The kind that knows the men who work in my office. Trust me.”
Did you ever meet a lawyer who didn’t say “trust me”?
I was interrupted in my read by the arrival of Whiskey’s brother. After introductions were made, Tommy Marsh sat on the edge of the sofa holding his head, wads of dyed blue-black hair poking through red fingers. Poor guy was in agony.
“I never thought she’d wind up like this, never. How could she abandon Maddie?”
“What do you mean, ‘like this’?” Lorraine asked.
“Gone. Whiskey’s gone, can’t you feel it? I can. Geez, you read about this happening all the time. Am I the only one who can feel it? She’s vanished. Got too much for her mind to handle or something.”
“Still alive?” I asked. I held my breath waiting for his reply.
He sat back on the sofa and Lorraine asked if she could get him something, a glass of water, a beer or maybe some brandy. She stood before him, expectant, her mouth working.
He shook his head. His fingers trembled. I half expected the hair dye to slither down his cheeks along with whatever was oozing from his eyes.
But he was nothing if not a lawyer, and soon after he’d gulped down a full glass of water, he worked back into his smooth ways. He cleared his throat and the real Tommy Marsh slipped from my grasp. “She wouldn’t just chuck it all. And she’d never, ever leave Maddie.”
I asked him for the usual—her social, the names of her doctors, any scars, tattoos, birthmarks, her boyfriends, her old addresses, but he couldn’t come up with anything. He was a blank slate, or at least a cautious one. Later Cookie told me that brothers, unlike sisters, don’t have the kind of information sisters do. Whiskey was born out of luck. Not only was she missing, but she had Tommy Marsh for a brother.
While he wasn’t good for solid information, he did tell me what Whiskey was like growing up, her dislike of the neighborhood, how she felt like an outsider, how she always came up with unique ways to have fun, Coney Island being one of her haunts. He told me about her first job at Nathan’s Famous and how boys flocked around her and her disastrous affair with a Malcolm somebody, “a housepainter, I think.”
I looked at Cookie, who shrugged.
Tommy continued. “They lived in Cobble Hill someplace for a while until Whiskey moved out. She told me he bored her. A sucker for the flash in the pan.”
Lorraine hugged herself.
“And there was another painter she was crazy for. I can’t remember his name. Whiskey went through men like water through a sieve.”
I was silent and so was everyone else in the room. I could feel Lorraine’s concern.
“I got her a job at Weinberg, Kalamazoo & Marsh.”
“Your law firm? But I thought you didn’t want …” I bit my tongue.
He nodded. “All these years, she’d been trying to get out from under.”
“Out from under what?” Lorraine asked.
Cookie sat there not saying much of anything, just taking him in. I could tell she didn’t trust him.
“Brighton Beach, Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel, Shoot the Freak, what have you. In some ways, my sister is like a yo-yo. She had to leave Brighton Beach. She said it often, but at the same time she was drawn to it. She tried to get out from under Ma, yet she talked about her constantly, about how she hurt Ma.”
I chewed on this information for a while. Cookie chewed on her gum, nodding.
“You remained close,” I prompted.
“You might say, but lately we kind of had a falling out, especially after she left that Malcolm whatever his name was.”
No one said anything, but our expectation for him to explain hung in the air.
“He was so good to Maddie. Malcolm. Treated her like he was her father. Took her places, a children’s museum someplace in Brooklyn. The park, they went to the park almost every day after he picked Maddie up from school.”
I wondered how he knew this, and I wrote down a bunch of question marks. My pen scratched the pages while he spoke, and when he stopped, I let him have his own thoughts for a while, but by now the story was pushing at his insides, so eager was he to get it all out, as if by the telling, he’d be done with the guilt or whatever it was pouring out of Tommy Marsh.
“She had plans, big ones for herself, but when she moved away from Malcolm and went to Liam, Trueblood & Wolsey, we kind of lost touch. Her leaving Malcolm was a slap to Maddie; her leaving my law office felt like a slap to me.”
He looked at me like I was a simpleton. But that’s how investigators need to be: simple, pure, no preconceptions.
“Ungrateful. Ashamed of her roots. But that’s Whiskey. So we move in different circles. Whiskey tries to get out from under Brighton Beach, but it’s not that easy.”
I was beginning to get a feel for Whiskey. And I could tell by the way she looked into a space beyond the room that Lorraine was, too.
“If Whiskey isn’t back in an hour, we’re going to call the police,” I said. Why I hadn’t done so earlier, I didn’t know, not really. Or rather, yes, I did know why. And it wasn’t just for Maddie’s sake. My dithering started with a woman called Jane, the devil’s detective. You’ll meet her soon; you’ll see what I mean. And the longer I waited to call in Whiskey’s disappearance, the more I dreaded Jane Templeton’s rant. Besides, I was hoping against all hope that any minute a car door would slam and footsteps would run up Lorraine’s stoop and Whiskey would appear. Her image flickered in my head, a woman the worse for being almost worn out, lipstick smeared, hair a mess, standing in the doorway, for whatever reason frantic around the edges. “Have you seen Maddie, my little girl?” she’d ask in a breathless panicky way.
Tommy asked why we hadn’t reported her missing before this, so I dragged out the Maddie’s-welfare excuse.
He sat on the edge of the couch again, holding his head. When I closed my eyes, his form was etched into my brain, stretched to gauntness, nervous-twitched, long-necked—your normal everyday Ichabod Crane type. Caught.
“Does the name Arthur ring any bells?” I showed him the sketch Cookie made.
Tommy recognized him immediately. “That piece of scum is back again? That never-get-lost, drag-you-down lowlife?”
“We met him this afternoon,” Cookie said. “He smelled like a moldy keg of beer.”
Tommy Marsh pulled at his hair and teetered on the sofa’s edge while the three of us gave him a rundown of our encounter. All the while Tommy Marsh kept shaking his head, saying Whiskey told him she’d broken up with him years ago.
“He’s not Maddie’s father, is he?” Cookie asked.
Tommy’s head sank almost to his knees. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Lorraine leaned over to him. “We could find out if we could find Arthur. Do you know where he lives?”
Tommy Marsh didn’t have a clue. “I thought you were looking for Whiskey.” His jawbone flexed.
“We are. But the more we find out about her past, the closer we’ll be to finding her.”
“Name’s McGirdle, I know that much. Or at least it was back in the day.”
“Where did he live ‘back in the day’?” I asked.
“Not sure. Someplace around Coney Island, I guess. When I first met him, he worked at Shoot the Freak and moonlighted for the fat lady.”
“There was a fat lady?” Cookie cracked her gum.
Tommy Marsh shrugged. “That’s what he said, but you can’t trust the guy. Told a million tall tales. Whiskey was crazy about him. ’Course, she was, what, only sixteen. Known him since way back when.”
“How long were they together?”
“On and off. Oh, it didn’t last, I knew it wouldn’t. The guy’s from a different planet. Every once in a while he’d show up. And when he did, it was like she couldn’t help herself—she was drawn to him.”
Lorraine shot me a look.
I motioned to Cookie, who followed me into the hall.
“Here’s Whiskey’s old address in Cobble Hill,” I said, texting her the information. “Would you mind doing a neighborhood?”
“I thought you’d never ask. I’ll call Clancy. Maybe he’ll help. Unless”—she made air quotes—“he’s got to go to his cousin’s again.”
I squinted up at her.
“Don’t even think about asking. We’re okay, I think. It’s just that he was so fierce for me at first, but lately, some of my shine seems to have worn off. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. I don’t know, I keep waiting for the excuse, you know, ‘I’ve got to help my folks out, I’ve got to cancel, I forgot about my cousin’s birthday. We’ll get together next week.’ It starts out great but by the second month …”
No wonder Cookie was in a mood. My heart squeezed for her. She was gorgeous with a perfect figure and men flocked around her. But as soon as she invited a guy to listen to one of her lectures or started talking to him about her writing and the authors she loved, his ardor faded. Cookie just couldn’t find Mr. Right. I hoped Clancy was better than the others, but I had my doubts. After all, there was only one Denny.