When me and Joe got home from Vietnam, we went into business together, cutting hair. Bought a little shop in the old neighborhood and been there ever since. Back then, wisecracking Harlem barbers weren’t a cliche yet — at least not south of 110th Street.
The Blue Celeb
by Desmond Warzel
When me and Joe got home from Vietnam, we went into business together, cutting hair. Bought a little shop in the old neighborhood and been there ever since. Back then, wisecracking Harlem barbers weren’t a cliché yet–at least not south of 110th Street.
Me and Joe open up the shop at ten in the A.M, seven days a week, without fail. By five after, I’m halfway through the sports section and Joe’s halfway through the day’s first beer. A regular routine, that’s what I like. Never had a change come around here that didn’t turn out to be for the worse, sooner or later.
Last change came about six weeks ago, only we didn’t know it at the time. And we didn’t understand what we were really looking at until just today.
It was Monday morning, ten o’clock. I flipped the sign to OPEN and paged through the Post in search of the Yankees’ latest shenanigans, while Joe retrieved Heineken Number One from the dorm-style cube fridge under the back counter. At quarter-past, Miss Loretta showed up, just like always. All part of the routine.
She ain’t a small woman, so she don’t show up all at once. I don’t know Miss Loretta’s weight–and it’s not proper to speculate–but watching her carry it all around with nothing but a cane in each hand for support, well, it’s nothing less than impressive. Balance-wise, it must be like trying to sit on a stool with one leg missing.
So we saw her coming. It takes her about ten minutes to get across the street. But she’s like a glacier; to the naked eye, she don’t even seem to move, but in the end there’s no escape.
She’d come, as usual, to give Joe hell about his drinking. She usually starts warming up on the sidewalk, so she’s in full voice when she finally eases the door open.
“–and then you’ll be sorry, Joe Reese!” Joe didn’t say nothing. “You hear me, Joe Reese?”
“Miss Loretta, my wife starts in on me at seven every morning. By the time you get here, I’m acclimated. Don’t hear a thing.”
Then she turned her wrath on me, as usual. “And you, Bill Wiggins. Every morning he opens up a beer and you do nothing to stop him. You call yourself a friend?”
“Friend?” said Joe. “What friend? All me and Bill do is argue; you just never close your mouth long enough to notice.”
“God’s gonna punish you, Joe Reese. You’ll burn, see if you don’t!” Miss Loretta’ll go to church on you in a second if she gets the chance. Joe’s only answer was to take a healthy swig of Heineken and savor it, swishing it around in his mouth like we were at a wine tasting. “One of these days, I just won’t darken your doorstep anymore. Then you’ll be lost for good!”
Joe swallowed the beer. “Darken the doorstep? Woman, you darken the whole damn–”
“Thank you, Miss Loretta,” I interrupted. “Your concern, as always, is appreciated.”
She was still carrying on as the door closed behind her, and she kept it up the whole way down the sidewalk. I always find myself holding my breath until she’s out of sight.
“Well,” I said, going back to the sports section, “that’s out of the way. One of these days, skip the beer. I’d like to see the look on her face if she thought you quit. She might even leave us alone.”
Joe thought about it, then took another drink. “Nope. Not worth it. And hey,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me you were buying a car?”
“Keep drinking, Joe,” I said. “You still got enough brain cells left to be dangerous.”
“Uncalled for. I’m looking out the front window, I see a car. Maybe you see something different when you look out, I don’t know.”
He was right. There was a car parked out front: a boxy four-door, light blue like a bad prom tuxedo. Looked like a mid-80s Chevy Celebrity; must have been about the last one left on the road. But it wasn’t mine; I haven’t owned a car in ten years.
“Well, I don’t see nobody else in here,” said Joe.
“Maybe it’s your car and you’re too drunk to remember.”
“It was here when I got here.”
Was it? The street’s usually empty–we’re the only storefront on our side that isn’t boarded up, and most of our business arrives on foot–so that robin’s-egg-colored eyesore should have stood out like a neon sign. But to be honest, I didn’t remember seeing it. Then again, at my age, what does that prove?
“Wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing, even if I did still have a license,” said Joe.
“Too bad,” I said. “It’s a perfect fit for you. Old and ugly. But if I were you, I’d paint it red. Go with your eyes better.”
Just then, the first customer of the day came in: Curtis, a thirty-year regular. “Morning, Curtis. You want me or Joe?”
“How much you had to drink, Joe?”
Joe held up the half-empty bottle of Heineken. “Just this.”
“Okay, I’ll take you, Bill. Joe ain’t no good until he’s got a six-pack in him.”
Joe gave his token protest, and I set to lathering Curtis up; then two more customers came in and the barbershop talk began in earnest. I didn’t give the car any more thought until we were locking up for the night, and by then my dogs were barking so bad I wouldn’t have cared if there was a North Vietnamese T-54 parked out front. I just wanted to get home and soak my feet.
But more than a week went by, and the thing was still out there. It was a Friday, but business was slow as an arthritic snail. Hardly a face had shown itself but for Miss Loretta (and she don’t count, because she ain’t a customer–more like an occupational hazard), and me and Joe were stuck with each other for company. The blue Celeb had become a running joke; we’d accuse each other of owning the thing and being too ashamed to admit it. But the gag was wearing thin; and right when I figured it was worn clean through, in walked just the man to get something done about it.
Francis Boone, “Frank” to his friends (a very small group, in which I’m proud to be included). He’d started out his career on foot patrol here in Harlem about the same time me and Joe opened up. He’d soon begun patronizing our shop, having gotten into his head some idealistic notion that a cop ought to engage with the neighborhood he worked in, whether or not they engaged him back. And though he’d quickly switched to motor patrol (“I’m a slave to that damn radio”), and shot up through the ranks (“Just rising to my level of incompetence”), and was now an Assistant Chief and Commanding Officer of Manhattan South (“Nice raise, but the increment isn’t worth the excrement”), he still schlepped all the way back up here every couple weeks so I could have a go at his flattop.
We liked it just fine. Regular police presence meant less trouble for us and he was easy for the riffraff to spot; usually, his was the only white face in the joint. More important, nothing in this world could get him to accept a free haircut.
Frank hung up his jacket and hoisted himself into my chair–not so easy a feat as it was back in the day. He nodded at the car out front. “Whose Celebrity?”
“Joe’s,” I said.
“Bill’s,” Joe said.
“I don’t blame either of you for disavowing it. How long has it been there?”
“Week and a half,” I said.
“That long? How can it still be there?” Frank craned his neck toward the front window, trying to see down the street to the corner. “What are the parking regulations on this block, anyway?”
“Signs have been missing so long, I couldn’t really tell you.”
“I’d think the street cleaners would have had something to say about it by now.”
“Frank, there ain’t been a street cleaner on this block since Carter was in office.”
“That I can believe. You ought to file a complaint with the city.”
“We did. In 1983. We’re still waiting. Lesson learned.”
As usual, it only took a few minutes for me to finish knocking the ends off of Frank’s hair; we talked some baseball while I evened out the sides and brushed him off (me and Joe like the Yankees; Frank’s a Mets man, born and raised in Flushing), then we adjourned to the sidewalk to discuss the matter of the car.
Except for Frank’s silver Mercury, it was the only car on the block. We circled it, the three of us, Frank peering in each window with a cop’s practiced eye. He was hoping to find some excuse to search the car without the owner’s say-so: a body, maybe, or at least a crack pipe in plain sight. But no dice. Apart from being in serious need of reupholstering–looked like someone went at the seats with a Weed Eater–the interior of the thing was immaculate.
“It’s funny,” said Frank, “that two gentlemen whose profession depends on keen eyesight and attention to detail could have stared at this car for over a week and not noticed that the keys are in the ignition.”
“That solves it, then,” said Joe. “We’ll move it around the corner so we don’t have to look at it no more. I ain’t got a license, Bill, so you’ll have to do it. Go on, get in. What do you think, Frank? Look the other way a minute? Help a brother out?”
“I would say that falls in the category of Things You Should Wait to Do Until After I Leave.”
“How,” I asked, “can a car sit here this long, in this neighborhood, with the keys in it?”
“Look at it,” said Joe. “Who would want it?”
“I wonder if it even runs,” said Frank. He took a notebook from his pocket and jotted down the Celeb’s license plate number and the VIN off the dash.
“Only one way to find out. Get in there, Bill. Start her up.”
“What part of ‘After I Leave’ didn’t you understand?”
“Don’t worry, Frank,” I said. “I been honest my whole life, and if I do start a life of crime, it ain’t gonna be with a twenty-five-year-old car. Besides which, I kind of want to wait and see if anybody comes back for it. I wanna see what this nut looks like.”
Fast-forward about a month; that brings us to last Tuesday. The Celeb was still out there. We hardly talked about it anymore. It was just part of the landscape now, like a piece of graffiti or a busted sidewalk: it bothers you for a while, but you soon enough put it out of your mind because you got more important things to worry over, and griping about other folks’ thoughtlessness doesn’t pay the rent.
It was the end of summer vacation; for me and Joe, that’s the busiest time of year because during that week, if you’re under eighteen, your haircut’s on the house. We been doing that since we opened.
If these boys want to run around all summer looking like the Wild Man of Borneo, I guess that’s their parents’ business. But the way I was raised, you get your hair cut for your first day of school. And if it’s free, then there ain’t no excuse. For the girls, either; I got deals with the salons in the neighborhood to do their hair at no charge that week and send me the bill for their time and expenses.
I figure if you look good, you’ll feel good, and then maybe you’ll do good. I don’t know if that holds water, but nothing else has worked, so what have I got to lose by trying?
That year, the turnout seemed a bit low. (Why? If haircuts were free, wouldn’t you make your boy get one? My mother sure would have.) Even so, it was hellacious business. You know how kids are: they come in waves, a dozen at a time, raising all kinds of Cain in my shop and on the sidewalk outside. Me and Joe would work the scissors and clippers as fast as our old hands allowed, but they’d just keep coming, all of them dressed in that oversized basketball gear that passes for casual wear nowadays, like we’d been invaded by an army of miniature LeBron Jameses (as if the original wasn’t more than enough).
After a while, it’s like any assembly-line job; it gets so you don’t notice the time slipping by. Five hours had passed without my even knowing (except that my belly was beginning to kick up a fuss, and I was thinking about going for a bite, work be damned); what finally made me look up was a sudden break in the commotion.
There was a new arrival on the sidewalk out front: Maurice Williams. And I’m not talking about the front man for the Zodiacs; we weren’t about to be treated to an a capella rendition of “Stay.” I’m talking about the guy they called Big Time.
I don’t have to describe Big Time; you all know the type. Loud and cocky. Thirty years old but dresses like a kid. Never works but always has money to flash around, ’cause he moves more junk than a garbage barge. Thinks he’s something special even though there’s another one just like him on every street.
And those boys out there flocked to him like Superman just landed. How come? All he had going for him was some cash. If money’s all they care about, why not idolize Morgan Freeman? Or CC Sabathia? Hell, he works right up the road.
Well, Joe looked outside the same time as I did, saw Big Time glad-handing those boys, and damn near flew out the door, yelling to wake the dead.
“Boy, you better get on away from here!”
That got a smirk from Big Time. Got smirks from some of the boys, too. It don’t take them long to pick that stuff up.
“Who you callin’ boy, oldhead? Maybe I come for my free haircut.”
“These are school haircuts, boy. If you ever set foot in a school, I ain’t heard about it.”
Big Time made like he was coming at Joe. Joe didn’t even blink. “Ain’t nobody scared of you here. Come on inside; I’ll knock your junkie ass out.”
Big Time started darting his eyes around, looking for something he could latch on to and save face in front of the kids. He saw the blue Celeb.
“That your car, oldhead? Looks like it. Tell you what–I’ll go steal it, then you won’t have to be embarrassed by it no more.”
Big Time strolled over to the car, the boys parting to let him pass like they were the damn Red Sea. “You watch,” he said to them. “I’m gonna take this old nigga’s car, and he’s just gonna stand there and do nothing.” He opened the Celeb’s driver’s-side door, and then he started cracking up. “Hey, oldhead! You left the keys in it. You dumb as hell.”
“You go ahead and take that car, boy,” called Joe. “Do your mama a favor and drive it into the East River.”
Drive it anywhere you want, I said to myself. Just get it the hell outta here.
Well, he tried. The Celeb wouldn’t turn over.
I can’t say I was surprised. As far as I knew, the thing hadn’t been started since it showed up; that battery had to have been deader than Elvis.
The Celeb’s door opened and Big Time stepped back out onto the pavement.
“Hey, oldhead, your car don’t start. What’d you do, sell the motor? You need some quick cash for Viagra?” That got a laugh from the kids. Big Time must’ve figured it was a good exit line because he sauntered off down the sidewalk and turned the corner, and all he left behind was admiring looks on some of the boys’ faces, which took way too long to fade. Where are those short attention spans when you need them?
Next morning. No kids yet; too early. Joe was nursing a Heineken, Miss Loretta was haranguing him about it, and Assistant Chief Frank Boone of New York’s Finest was sitting in my chair, trying his best not to crack a smile.
“Joe Reese, you better change your ways, and fast! You better pick yourself up out the gutter! You crawl any deeper into that bottle, you’ll never come out again!”
“Miss Loretta,” I said, “every day about a hundred grand worth of crack cocaine passes by this shop. Why don’t you go out and give some of them dealers a hard time, instead of pickin’ on an old veteran?”
“Those young men need ministering to, but I ain’t the one to do it. They just as soon kill you as look at you. No respect for women. I might be righteous, but I ain’t crazy. I come in here, at least I know I won’t get shot.”
“You just go on thinkin’ that,” Joe said, and polished off his bottle.
Miss Loretta turn to Frank. “You see how he speaks to a lady? That’s the liquor talkin’.”
“That’s right,” said Joe, “you so damn annoying, even beverages talk back to you.”
That was enough for Miss Loretta, so she finished up her lecture and left.
“That is a singular lady,” said Frank, after Miss Loretta receded out of sight.
“You’re damn right she’s singular,” said Joe. “Would you marry her?”
“Have another drink, Joe.”
I went back to work on Frank’s flattop. He’d let it go longer than usual. “So, anything new and interesting happening downtown?”
“Nothing nearly so interesting as what’s going on right here,” said Frank.
“The Celeb out there? I finally ran it. The VIN doesn’t exist; that’s strange enough. But the license plates don’t exist either. Never issued. Nobody can tell me why. It simply isn’t in the system.”
“The plates are fake?”
“No, that’s just it–they’re real. Or they look real enough to fool me, anyway. Up-to-date registration sticker, and the alphanumeric pattern is right. Would be right, if it hadn’t been skipped over.”
“Except,” I said, “it hasn’t been skipped over, because those plates are sitting right outside.” I finished up with Frank and brushed him off. He stood and stretched.
“If you ask me,” he said, “this silliness has gone on long enough. If you want that car out of here, I’ll arrange to tow it. Hell, the keys are still in it; I’ll drive it to the impound myself, if it starts. You guys can come along; the catharsis would do you good.”
“Funny you should mention it,” said Joe. “It don’t start. In fact, just yesterday–”
But Frank had quit listening already. Something else had his attention. Then we heard it, too: sirens, both long and short, all mixed up together. The three of us leaned out the front door all at the same time, Three-Stooges-style, and squinted down the street–none of our eyes being what they used to be.
It was about five or six blocks down. A big crowd and lots of flashing lights, but we couldn’t make out any more than that.
“I’ll be back in a minute or two, gentlemen.”
While Frank was gone, a couple of customers drifted in, both school-age, both freebies. Me and Joe went to work.
Ten minutes later, Frank came back. “Well, that was a hell of a mess…” He saw the boys in the chairs and trailed off in a hurry. He sat, real quiet, until we were done. As they left, Frank told them to go on home. “Don’t be nosing around in all that commotion out there.” Sure enough, they made a beeline right for it.
When the coast was clear, Joe retrieved his beer and took a swig. “So what’s all that ruckus?” he asked.
“Either of you gentlemen know a man named Maurice Williams?”
“Big Time.” Me and Joe said it together.
“That’s the one.”
“Funny,” said Joe, “I was about to tell you before. He put in an appearance here just yesterday. He was messin’ around in that car out there. Couldn’t get it started, though. Why? What’d he do this time?”
“Nothing,” said Frank. “Nor is he likely to. Mr. Williams has gone to his final reward, courtesy of the number 101 bus.”
I had never seen beer come out of Joe’s nose before.
The look on Frank’s face suggested he hadn’t expected laughter.
“Apparently Mr. Williams just stepped into the street out of nowhere. The witnesses all say it happened too quickly to be avoided. The driver’s really upset about it.”
“Well, if he knew who he hit, he wouldn’t be,” said Joe.
“Come on, Joe.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Figures. The one day the 101 runs on schedule and he clobbers somebody. Bet he won’t make that mistake again.”
“Man, I told Big Time them transfers ain’t good for a return trip,” said Joe. He was practically howling. “But the brother wouldn’t listen. And look what happened.”
“Come on, guys. The cop is supposed to be the most cynical one in the room. A man lies dead. It doesn’t matter who it is; it’s still a tragedy.”
“Othello is a tragedy, Frank,” I said. “You been off the street too long. There’s some people the world’s better off without, and you know it.”
“I’m sure Mr. Williams has a mother, and I’m sure she’s going to feel differently.”
“Oh, we’ll be hearin’ from her, don’t you worry,” said Joe. “And by the time the city gets done payin’ her off, you ain’t gonna have a pension left, Frank.”
“Gonna be vigil time pretty soon,” I said.
“Damn straight. Bunch of hypocrites millin’ around with candles, blockin’ traffic, keepin’ one eye peeled for a news camera so they can sob about what a nice, friendly guy he was. Don’t matter how many people he shot, or how many babies he made, or how much junk he pushed; it’ll still be ‘Nice guy, what a tragedy.'”
“Wow.” Frank put his suit coat on, real slow, just shaking his head. “You know, Joe, nothing you say surprises me. You don’t have two intact brain cells to rub together.”
“It’s hard work living down to your expectations, Frank.”
He turned to me. “But you, Bill…that isn’t like you.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. Frank was almost out the door when Joe piped up. “See you in a couple weeks, Frank?”
“I wouldn’t miss it, gentlemen.” And the door closed behind him.
We didn’t alienate him too bad, I guess.
That isn’t like me, he’d said.
Sure it is.
Yeah it’s true–I’m the friendly neighborhood barber, always ready with a kind word or a sympathetic ear or a dirty joke or whatever else you need.
But life itself–even the happiest life–is hard enough; I got no use for somebody who earns his living making it worse.
Frank’s a cop; he understands that, even if he wouldn’t admit it then.
Adiós, Big Time, I thought to myself, and to hell with ya.
With Miss Loretta and Frank both out of the way, we got through the rest of the day without anyone else passing judgment on us. After we closed up, I went and had my supper at Scruffy’s Barbecue. Later on, I’d be regretful of all that hot sauce, but some days I just ain’t in a hurry to run home and spend the evening in the company of the TV. You understand; or you will, one day.
Well, me and Scruffy, being fellow entrepreneurs, we got to talking about this and that, and so it was almost dark when I got out of there. And although I usually wouldn’t pass by the shop on my way home from Scruffy’s, I started thinking: we hadn’t seen the owner of the powder-blue Celeb, but we’d only been watching for him during the day. If he ever did show up, it would probably be after hours, when nobody was around. So instead of going straight home, I went back the way I’d come.
Damned if there weren’t two people sitting in that car when I got there.
No, it wasn’t the owners. Just a couple of kids horsing around. They split when they saw me coming.
There’s hope for them, I thought. At least they had the sense to be afraid of getting caught; that put them one up on most of the punks who run around here.
On Saturday–day before yesterday–Frank Boone came back to the shop. Joe started riding him right away. “Another haircut? I ain’t a surgeon. They don’t make scissors fine enough to cut hair that short.”
“Maybe he’s thinking of gettin’ a place up here,” I said.
“Please don’t,” said Joe. “The second you move into this neighborhood, it’ll get all gentrified. Property values’ll shoot up and you’ll put us out of business.”
Frank pulled a bunch of bills from his pants pocket. “If you put half the effort into running your business as you do into perfecting your comedy routines, you would have noticed that I forgot to pay for my haircut on Wednesday.”
Come to think of it, he had. “For that, you came all the way up here?”
“I don’t usually go to the office on Saturdays. There’s nothing good playing at the movies, so it’s either this or spend the day with my family.”
I took his money, and gladly; except for Miss Loretta, there hadn’t been a soul in the joint all day. “Have a seat, Honest Abe, and shoot the breeze a while.”
Frank helped himself to a chair in the waiting area. We chewed the fat about the usual–Frank’s rambunctious kids, Joe’s nagging wife–and worked our way around to the subject of the blue Celeb. “Saw some kids messin’ in it the other night,” I said.
“I told you Wednesday,” said Frank, “say the word and I’ll get it out of here.”
“Between the car appearing out of nowhere and the nonexistent license plates, we got ourselves a genuine mystery here. You tow it, it’ll just rust away to nothing in some impound lot, and I’ll still be wondering about it when I’m lying in my grave.”
“If you ask me, Bill, it’s more of a nuisance than a mystery.”
“I’d like to lock it up,” I said. “Keep the kids out. But I can’t lock the keys inside, obviously.”
“You could lock it up and keep the keys here in your shop,” said Frank.
“And if the owner shows up while we’re closed, then what?”
“Bill, I believe you may be over-thinking this a little.”
Just then, a pack of three regulars came in: Terrence, Rich, and Oscar. Terrence and Rich saw both chairs empty and headed for them; Oscar did a quick about-face, exiting the shop and walking back down the street, all casual-like. Oscar had a minor warrant or two out on him; he must’ve recognized Frank and gotten spooked.
Me and Joe set to work on Terrence and Rich. They were usually excitable guys, but today the conversation was real subdued. Our customers all know that, as cops go, Frank’s one of “the good ones,” but it’s difficult sometimes for a brother to be himself around the police, and old habits die hard. Pretty soon Frank gave up on the conversation and leafed through a stack of newspapers and magazines instead. We finished up the haircuts in a hurry; it just felt like it took all day. Terrence and Rich paid and left without hanging around to chew the fat.
“Damn, Frank,” I said. “Way to work the room, Officer Bringdown.”
But Frank’s attention was occupied by a flimsy newspaper he’d rescued from the stack. “The Harlem Renaissance,” he read. “What’s this?”
“Some local weekly paper. It’s a freebie. Girl comes in and leaves it here whether I want it or not.”
“Look at this,” said Frank. “You know, it’s nothing personal–I love you guys, if not like brothers, then at least like cordial acquaintances–but I don’t miss working up here every day. This place gets weirder all the time. Did you read this?”
“Probably not,” I said. “What is it?”
“Two kids burglarize a sixth-floor apartment; they go to leave and find the door blocked by the ninety-year-old occupant, brandishing a twelve-gauge shotgun.”
“Good for him.”
“They hightail it out the window. But it’s dark, so they don’t see that part of the fire escape isn’t there, and they end up taking the express: six stories, straight down to the sidewalk.”
“Jesus. When did that happen, Frank?”
“Thursday night.” He handed me the paper.
The story read just like Frank said, but I didn’t get to the end; my eyes got hung up on the photos of the deceased burglars. The boys’ names–Kevin Johnson and Andre Porter–didn’t ring a bell, but there wasn’t any mistaking the faces scowling at me off that page. They were the two kids I’d chased out of the blue Celeb on Wednesday.
I’ve always thought that the strangest thing about coincidences is that they really do happen. All the time. Otherwise they wouldn’t need a word for them.
Can’t make me like ’em, though.
I couldn’t sleep. And endless George Lopez reruns on Nick at Nite just weren’t doing it for me.
Rather than wander the streets at that time of night–I’d come down with insomnia, not stupidity–I went to the shop and sat in my chair in the dark, watching the dealers and crackheads go by and lying to myself that I wasn’t staking out the blue Celebrity.
Meaning to raid Joe’s beer stash–to smooth the way for Mister Sandman–I stood and stretched. All the joints in my body cracked at once. I don’t like that; at my age, I don’t know how many cracks I got left in me, and I hate to waste them.
But I didn’t have time to worry about that. While I wasn’t looking, somebody’d gotten in the Celeb, and I thought it might be the owner. For one thing, he was white.
These days, there’s a lot of places in Harlem where you can leave white folks unattended and they’ll be okay. This wasn’t one of those places, and sure as hell not at night. You see a white guy in this neighborhood after dark, you better believe he’s here for a purpose; either that, or he’s so stoned or crazy he don’t know what’s going on.
Could’ve handled it better. The guy saw me and took off running.
I don’t think I’m that scary-looking. Maybe he was just afraid of black people. Or maybe he was just afraid of black people who come running out of buildings in the middle of the night, waving their arms and yelling, “Is that your car? Is that your car?”
I guess I got overexcited.
But I wasn’t letting this go. I was too close to getting to the bottom of it. The chase was on.
I’m a man who knows his limitations, though. No way I could catch a guy half my age, so I kept up the patter while I ran, hoping to say something that would make him stop. “Stop” didn’t work, and neither did “Hey” or “Wait up” or “Hold it.” I tried “Halt” in case he’d been in the service; no good. I tried to reassure him with, “I ain’t robbing you,” but he either didn’t believe me or didn’t care. “We can help each other out,” I said, and then wondered why I’d said it; now he probably thought I wanted to have sex with him.
He kept getting further and further ahead. “You don’t stop, I’m gonna get a heart attack,” I yelled. “This ain’t how I was fixin’ to die. All you got to do to save my life is stop and answer a couple questions.”
I was this close to giving it up; my side felt like someone had shoved a stiletto in there and given it a twist. Then I caught a break; for the first time, this damn city’s never-ending dysfunction actually helped a brother.
A couple blocks up and over from my shop, there’s a little grocery owned by a friendly West Indian fellow; the poor bastard’s been stuck in a feud with his refuse collector for months and he can’t get his garbage picked up for love or money. But he still holds out hope, and meanwhile he’s gotta put the stuff somewhere.
The guy ducked into an alley to try and shake me–the alley next to the West Indian grocery. Suddenly he found himself headed uphill, climbing a mountain of trash bags; he made it the whole way up before surprise kicked in, his footing gave out, and he went tumbling down the other side. That took the wind out of his sails, enough that he was still on his hands and knees when I reached the top.
Someone of my years should know enough to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground–or firmly on the trash heap, in my case. He certainly ought to know better than to tackle a much younger man. But I’d had enough and the gloves were off. When I say I tackled him, I mean tackled; I did a suicide dive that would have made Mil Máscaras blush. Even better, I didn’t break a single bone.
“That your car back there? The blue Celebrity?”
“Let me go, man.”
“It’s okay, boy. Just tell me about the car.”
“It’s not my car. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Look, you’re not in trouble. In fact, nothing would make me happier than to find out you’re the owner.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“Where you live, boy?”
“Wherever. Nowhere. I don’t live anywhere.”
He wasn’t lying. Now that I was calmed down a little, I noticed how scrawny and bony he was. He had on a denim jacket over a heavy sweatshirt–in late summer, mind you–and it still felt like I was wrestling a skeleton.
I relaxed and let up on him a little. “That’s really not your Chevy?”
“What were you doing in there?”
“Looking in the glove compartment. For cigarettes.”
“The glove compartment? You see anything in there? Insurance card, title, anything like that?”
I let go of him. He just sat, staring. I wondered what he was seeing that I couldn’t.
“Okay, look–” I began, and he still didn’t move. “Stand up, boy.” I took him by his jacket and jerked him to his feet. It was like when you grab an empty suitcase thinking it’s full. Swear to God, I’ve had dogs that weighed more than him.
“What are you doing in Harlem?”
“Am I in Harlem?” He just kept contemplating the wall. “I don’t know where I am.”
“Jesus. All right. First: if you’re gonna root through people’s cars, go out to Nassau County where nobody has a gun. Second: here.” I ain’t smoked regularly in years but I get the urge sometimes, so I keep a pack of Newports in my shirt pocket. I gave him the smokes, and twenty dollars besides. “Break that twenty on something to eat, then jump on the first bus downtown. You won’t last a day up here.”
He mumbled his thanks.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Thirty. One. Thirty-one.”
“You got a ways to go yet, boy–you better get yourself together.”
We made our way back over the trash heap and Whitey took his leave.
“Hey,” I yelled after him. “You take care of yourself.” He didn’t turn around, but he gave me a little wave before he disappeared around the corner, so I guess it registered.
Damn, but I wish that car had been his.
I went home after that. Still took me forever to fall asleep. Can’t figure why. I’d done more running that night than in the last ten years.
No surprise, then, that I was seriously dragging ass yesterday morning. Skipped breakfast and still didn’t get to the shop until five after ten. When I turned the corner, an ambulance was heading off down the block. No siren, no lights, no hurry–it was either really minor or too late altogether. Bunch of locals standing around gawking and running their mouths. Joe was with them.
“Hey, it’s Hugh Hefner” said Joe, checking his watch. “How goes the life of leisure?”
“What’s all this?”
“Guy died down the street. I found him in a doorway at the end of the block. He was already gone.”
“They say how he died?”
“Stroke, heart attack, overdose, who knows? Wasn’t no blood or nothing. He wasn’t all that old, though. White guy. Go figure.”
You know I had to ask.
“Scrawny guy, denim jacket and sweatshirt?”
“How’d you know that?”
“We gotta talk. Inside.”
Me and Joe went in the shop; the others took off to spread the news.
“Lemme guess,” said Joe. “That white boy, he was in that car out there.”
“Last night. How’d you figure that out?”
“I know a pattern when I see one. You think you’re the only brother who can extrapolate?”
“So you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“No crazier than you was yesterday.”
“So you ain’t gonna make me say it aloud?”
Joe didn’t answer. We just stared out the front window at that Celeb.
It looked the same–not sinister at all. In fact, that ridiculous powder-blue paint job was about the least sinister thing you can imagine.
Which bugged me. Evil should look evil. Otherwise, what the hell chance do any of us have?
Yeah, I know. Why’d I bother presenting myself as a veteran, a responsible businessman, and a charitable person–a proverbial pillar of the community–only to start going on about a devil-car? Because that’s four people who sat in that Celebrity, and four people dead. To me, that goes beyond coincidence; but even if it didn’t, would you take the chance?
Look: I believe in God and Jesus Christ. Most days, that’s sufficient. But I know enough to know I don’t know very much. Why was that car placed out front of our shop; were we meant to vanquish this evil or succumb to it? I couldn’t account for it any more than I could explain God. The car, like God, just was. (Lord forgive me for that blasphemous comparison.)
Only one thing was for sure.
“We gotta get rid of that car.”
“We’ll tow it. Frank said he’d handle it if we wanted.”
“Towing ain’t good enough. I couldn’t rest knowin’ it was loose in the world.”
“We’ll lock it first.”
“Someone could still break in.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“We can’t take the chance. As long as that thing’s intact, it’s dangerous.”
“We take the doors off, or the steering wheel, make it undrivable.”
“Drivable don’t enter into it, Joe. What does ’em in? Is it sitting in the seat? Closing the door? Turning the key? We can’t take any chances, ’cause we don’t know the rules. You ask me, I wouldn’t even open the door.”
“We should lock it. Right now.”
“I said I ain’t opening those doors.”
“We should ask Miss Loretta to do it.”
I didn’t mean to laugh. It just slipped out. Our vulgar sense of humor got us through Vietnam without going loco, and old habits die hard. But leaving aside that even Miss Loretta didn’t deserve to die, you couldn’t cram her into that Chevy even if you buttered the inside.
Anyway, we’d be spared a visit from Miss Loretta today; it being Sunday, she was off bothering the Lord instead of us.
I took up a post in the front window to keep an eye on the car while Joe searched the drawers and cabinets. It took him fifteen minutes of digging through old tax returns and newspaper clippings, but he finally come up with what he was looking for: a yellowed scrap of notepaper with Frank Boone’s home number on it.
He’d given it to us when he made Assistant Chief and moved to Manhattan South. He promised he’d be up for his regular haircuts–and he always has been–but he really must’ve felt like he was abandoning us. I’d told him I couldn’t imagine a situation where I’d call him at home, but he’d pushed it on me anyway and now I was glad he had. But it was the Sabbath; I caught myself hoping Frank wasn’t a churchgoing man.
If I had to do his job, I’d be in church every spare minute.
But Frank was home. He and Joe talked a bit, and then Joe came back to the window.
“What’d he say, Joe?”
“We got it covered. First thing tomorrow, crack of dawn, it gets towed. Frank knows a dude who knows a dude; he’ll open up the yard early for us, fudge the paperwork, and we’ll crush that car till it’s the size of a coffee table. Then, ain’t nobody gettin’ in it.”
“Why not today?”
“A city yard? With city employees? On a Sunday? There’s some things even the great Frank Boone can’t do. We just gotta watch the thing till then.”
“Should we close up shop?”
“No, we’ll just take turns cutting. Keep one set of eyeballs on the Celeb, no matter what. And Frank’ll be up late this evening.”
“Tonight? How come?”
“To bring us some burgers, and to take a shift on guard duty.”
“And he don’t think we’re crazy?”
“Hasn’t had a chance to yet. He didn’t ask no questions, just said he’d take care of things.”
“Frank’s good people.”
“Yeah, he’s a real mensch,” Joe said, and meant it.
END PART I
BEGIND PART II
It was dinnertime when Frank showed up, and for a split second I wasn’t gonna let him in. We’d never seen Frank Boone in anything except a suit or, back in the day, his uniform. The guy pounding on the glass was wearing faded jeans, a ratty sweatshirt, and a Mets cap. When it comes to cops, you don’t think much about how they live and what they do when they ain’t in uniform. Probably because most of them behave like there ain’t nothing else to them but their uniforms.
But it was Frank, and even if it hadn’t been, I’m not sure my empty stomach would’ve let me turn away a guy with a case of Bud Light in one hand and a bunch of plastic take-out bags in the other, no matter who it was.
“What you got in the bags, my man?”
“Burgers. Wings. Chili. Barbecue. Those fries from Chalky’s. You name it. I’m here for the duration.”
I kept out three Buds and stowed the rest in Joe’s cube fridge while Joe and Frank laid out the spread. The three of us sat in the front of the shop, drinking, eating, laughing, telling jokes; it was like Jaws without the big fish.
We were each about three beers in when Frank opened up a Styrofoam container and started chowing down on forkfuls of some unholy green mess. He was half-done with it when his manners caught up with him and he offered it around.
“Hell, no, I don’t want none of that nastiness,” said Joe. “What the hell is that?”
“Creamed spinach. Are you sure you wouldn’t like some? Me, I could eat pounds of this stuff.”
“Go to it, baby; that’s all you.”
“This is real soul food, Joe. You should try it. Your people practically invented this stuff.”
“My people, the negroes?”
“No, your people, the barbers–” And then Frank was up and out the door, badge in one hand, flashlight in the other (where’d he been hiding them?). “Son, you’d better leave that car alone! Get on home to your mother! Don’t you know there’s school tomorrow?”
A teenage shadow took off running. The dark swallowed him up right away; there ain’t been but one or two workin’ streetlights on this block in years. Frank came back in.
“I didn’t even see that kid,” said Joe. “You, Bill?” I hadn’t seen him either. “It’s a damn good thing you were here, Frank. We gotta shape up, but quick.”
I had to ask. “Frank, he didn’t get in the car, did he?”
“No, I stopped him before he opened the door.”
“You said no one was to open the door. So no one will be opening it.”
“Now that I’ve demonstrated my commitment to this project, may I know exactly what it is I’ve just accomplished?”
“If I’m right, you just saved that boy’s life.”
I told Frank about the two would-be burglars and the skinny white junkie, how they’d all sat in the Celebrity and then died shortly after, just like Big Time had done. He didn’t say anything while I was telling the story, just sat there polishing off that creamed spinach of his.
When I finished, he looked over at Joe. “Do you think Bill is crazy?”
“I’m here, ain’t I?” said Joe.
“Good enough. Pass me that barbecue.”
“So we crush the Celeb–then what?” I asked, handing him the bag along with a fresh Bud Light. “We don’t really know if that’ll be enough. What do we do with the thing? Leave it in the junkyard? I don’t like that idea.”
“We’ll go in on a storage unit and lock it away for good. Or sink it in Long Island Sound and let the mussels have at it. We’ll figure something out.” He popped open the beer. “It seems to me that this entire situation raises a number of questions.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “How does it work? Where’d it come from? Are there others? And the question that bothers me the most: how many people has it killed that we don’t know about?”
“I wouldn’t dwell on that last one,” said Frank. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
“And that’s a short enough drive as it is,” put in Joe.
“I mean it. I don’t want to come in here and find you leafing through last month’s obituary pages.”
“You won’t,” I promised. “I’m sticking to the sports section from here on out. It’s got enough tragedy for anyone. Bein’ a Mets fan, Frank, you’d know all about that.”
By nine o’clock that night, we’d eaten and drunk our fill and then some. I suggested it might be best to start watching the Celeb in shifts; Frank and Joe were splayed across the chairs in the waiting area, snoring, before I’d even finished my sentence. Apparently I’d volunteered to take first watch just by bringing up the subject. (I thought I’d learned my lesson about showing initiative back when I was in the service; obviously not.)
Two hours went by. I spent most of it standing at parade rest in the front window; partly to keep the car in sight, but mainly to keep them two barber chairs out of sight. This was going to be my second night in a row with barely any sleep, and I knew if I sat down and put my feet up, I’d be out in half a minute. I’ve given in to my share of temptations in this life; none of them would have felt as good as kicking back in one of those chairs.
But my will was strong, and soon enough it was eleven o’clock.
Call midnight the witching hour if you want. My vote is for eleven o’clock, at least around here. Things change at eleven o’clock. Decent folks are going home to bed or, if they work graveyard shift, tucking themselves out of sight in their warehouses, plants, and sweatshops; other sorts are just waking up and emerging from the shadowed places where they’ve passed the daylight hours. The steady rhythm of the working day starts to fade, replaced by the aimless waltz of the hookers and crackheads. For just a short while, the line that separates the ordinary from the uncanny fades away, and it feels like anything can happen.
Midnight? By that time, everything’s set in stone. At eleven o’clock, the possibilities are still endless.
If that blue Celeb ever sprang to life and tried to mow us down, it’d be at eleven o’clock.
But the moment came and went, and of course the car stayed put. My feet were hurting like hell; it was time to wake up those two goldbricks and let them fight over who had the next shift.
I was just getting ready to do that when, blocks away, a pair of no-account fools I’d never met (and never would meet) let their jackassery get out of hand and ended up changing the whole way I looked at things. For the second time in a week.
Whenever they interview a bystander after a shooting, the guy always says he thought it was a car backfiring. Not me. Even if I’d never been to ‘Nam, just living in this neighborhood would’ve made me an expert in small-arms fire. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a car backfire–is that even a real thing, or just something they made up for TV and movies?
Point is, this was gunfire I was hearing. Two different guns; a genuine shootout.
My first instinct was to lock the door, but Frank was up and gone before I could move so much as an eyelash. By the time I got outside, he was already getting into his Mercury.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t you take your eyes off that car.” He threw the Mercury in reverse, hit the gas, and made a perfect moonshiner’s turn that would have brought a tear to James Garner’s eye. He took off in the direction of the shots and was out of sight in seconds.
Joe came out of the shop, yawning and stretching, a fresh Bud Light in his hand. “What was that all about?”
“You didn’t hear those gunshots?”
“It takes more than that to wake me up. You musta forgot where you live. Gunshots are like heartbeats–I only notice ’em when they stop.”
“Speaking of which, I don’t hear them now.” The streets were quiet except for sirens off in the distance. I never saw the cops respond to a shooting so fast; I suppose it was because Frank the Assistant Chief called it in personally. Nothing against Frank, but I can’t help thinking that shouldn’t make a difference.
“Good,” said Joe. “Maybe they nailed each other, whoever they are. Two thugs for the price of one. Nice and neat.”
“Yeah, maybe.” In my experience, bullets don’t concern themselves with neatness. They just go wherever you point them; they don’t exercise judgment, and I ain’t sure we’d want them to.
We waited, me pacing back and forth in front of the shop, Joe perched on the trunk of the Celeb, his feet resting on the back bumper. Beats me how he could bear to sit there; just thinking about it gave me the willies.
Something like an hour went by; nothing. Joe started getting antsy, wanting to go inside, but I didn’t trust us not to nod off. He held out ten minutes more, then he climbed down off the car, clutching the small of his back.
“I gotta go for a walk,” he said, twisting at the waist violently enough to make me cringe, “or I won’t even be able to stand up tomorrow.” He started off down the sidewalk, in the same direction Frank had taken off in.
“Hey, you might want to go the other way. That’s where those shots came from.”
“Then that’s where the cops are. Which is exactly where I want to be, this time of night.”
Joe disappeared around the corner, and it was just me and the Celeb. There was a hellacious quiet over everything. The creatures of the night had temporarily retreated to their lairs; the sirens had scattered them like the kitchen light scatters roaches. Probably the streets were empty for blocks around. It was almost more than I could take.
The only souvenir I brought back from Vietnam, apart from a handful of medals and my new best friend Joe, was a mild case of tinnitus–the fancy term for “ringing in the ears.” Mine don’t really ring; it’s a continuous high-pitched tone, like having a smoke alarm going off in my head, all the time. Mostly I don’t notice it, except when someone brings the subject up in conversation, then it’s all I can think about.
The stillness smothering that street was perfect; for the first time in my life, there was nothing to compete with my tinnitus. It was terrible and oppressive, like an air-raid siren coming from everywhere at once, and it nearly drove me to my knees. I didn’t know which possibility was scarier: that I was suddenly going crazy, or that the tinnitus really was this loud all the time and I just never noticed. All I knew was, there was nothing I wanted more than for somebody to come around the corner and break the unnatural silence. I’d have preferred Joe or Frank, but I’d even have settled for a bum ranting about the government, or a screaming match between two hookers over a territorial dispute.
After about an eternity and a half, I got my wish; off in the distance, a pair of headlights came into view. It was Frank Boone’s Mercury, hauling ass back up the street. As it turned out, I’d have been better off with the bum or the hookers.
Something seemed off from jump street. The way Frank bolts into action in a crisis, it’d be easy to think the guy’s a bundle of nerves. Wrong. Frank is smooth and cool under pressure; that’s why the NYPD keeps kicking him further and further upstairs. There’s nobody better at handling a hundred problems at once.
Just now, Frank’s car was not being driven in a smooth and cool manner. The way the headlights were juking back and forth, it looked like he’d come down with the shakes. The Mercury’s swerves got wilder and wilder; with half a block to go, the car jumped the curb altogether and screeched to a halt behind the Celeb, two wheels on the sidewalk and two in the street. I couldn’t see inside; all I could see was the headlights, slanted off-kilter thanks to Frank’s parking job. The car reminded me of a spaniel cocking its head; it looked as confused as I felt.
The door swung open and the driver stepped out. It wasn’t Frank; it was Joe, wild-eyed and breathing hard.
“Joe, that’s Frank’s car,” I said helpfully.
Joe fumbled with the Mercury’s back door. The way he was scowling and clenching his jaw, I thought maybe he was having a stroke.
“Joe, what are you doing with Frank’s car?”
He finally got the back door open and scooped up a loose bundle off the seat.
“Joe, did Frank say you could take his car?”
By the time I got the question out he was already by me, headed for the blue Celeb. He flung open the door, tossed in the bundle, and slammed it shut again.
He turned and looked at me, and when our eyes met, it was like somebody cut his strings. He sagged against the Celeb, hands on knees, catching his wind.
“What was that? What’d you put in there?”
He didn’t say anything. I went over and held my face as close to the Celeb’s window as I could without touching it.
It was a kid. A little girl, maybe ten years old. I could barely make out her little brown face in the Celeb’s shadowy interior, but the beads at the ends of her braids encircled her head in a faint white halo.
Joe’s voice came from behind me, real quiet. “I got my wish,” he said. “Two jackasses got into a fight. I don’t know what about. Don’t matter; it’s always the same stupid crap. They started shootin’ and took each other out. I’d have called it a happy ending, you know?”
“But she got in the way of a stray round.”
“She didn’t get in the way of nothin’. She was across the street and up a block. Sitting on the front stoop, drinking a Coke.”
“Why is she here, Joe?”
“A Coke. A little treat. Just to stretch out the last few minutes of summer vacation a bit longer.”
“What do you think you’re trying to do, Joe?”
“You didn’t know this state had the death penalty for stayin’ up past your bedtime, did you? Me neither.”
“We seen a lot, you and me. We crack jokes about death; we got a lot of opinions about who deserves it and who doesn’t. Well, this ain’t an opinion. She didn’t deserve it. Factually. Objectively.”
“Joe, there must have been a dozen cops down there. Plus, Frank himself is gonna know where you went. You want to go to prison at your age?”
“Don’t matter, if this works.”
“It ain’t going to, Joe. What makes you think that car works both ways?”
“Why shouldn’t it work both ways? Tell me why one way makes any less sense than the other.”
“It doesn’t. But you’re trying to cram reason in where it doesn’t fit.”
The sirens started up again. This time, they were growing louder.
“Get out of sight, Joe.” He hustled into the shop and locked himself in the bathroom. The first cruiser that pulled up had Frank Boone riding shotgun. Less than a minute later, the sidewalk was swarming with cops.
I wondered how Frank would want to play this; did his sense of duty outrank our friendship? I figured it was about fifty-fifty.
“He put her in there,” I said, pointing at the Celeb. “Damnedest thing I ever seen. Pulled up in that Mercury, put her in the other car, and ran off like a crazy person.” I took my lead from old Daffy Duck cartoons and pointed at random. “He went that way.” Sure enough, about a third of the fuzz broke away from the main pack and took off in the direction I’d said. Life imitates art.
Meanwhile, Frank hurried over to the Celeb and retrieved the body. He handed her off to a pair of uniforms, and they hustled her into a black-and-white and sped away to whatever godforsaken place it is that you take dead little girls to in this city. After that, Frank guarded the Celeb–real casual, just to make sure nobody got in–while I gave my statement about the crazy pervert who’d driven up, discarded a corpse, and scrammed. I made up all the details on the spot; even gave Joe a limp and six extra inches in height. It was a marvelous piece of fiction; I got a future in literature, if the schools ever start teaching people to read again. And Frank never batted an eyelash, just let me carry on.
Frank’s a natural leader of men. With the respect he commanded among the other cops–along with some flattery and gladhanding–he convinced them to let the matter drop; that getting the little girl’s body back had been the important thing (true) and that, lacking witnesses, they probably wouldn’t find the guy(also true, but only because the real thief was hiding twenty feet away).
The fuzz cleared out and it was just me and Frank and the blue Celeb. He already knew what Joe had done. I told him why.
Getting Joe out of the bathroom was tough going; it took us fifteen minutes to convince him I hadn’t ratted him out and there wasn’t a SWAT team waiting in the shop.
First thing he did when he came out was grab a beer from the cube fridge and crack it. “Whole time I was in there, I was wishin’ I had one of these.”
“You got a problem, friend,” I said.
“Well, I thought they was gonna slap the bracelets on me. I was regretting not being able to savor my last beer as a free man.”
“Yeah. I gotta admit, I’m developing an appreciation for the simple things in life myself.” Me and Frank helped ourselves from the fridge and joined Joe in a silent toast to the innocent dead.
“I take it,” said Joe, “that it didn’t work. I’m grateful there’s no lynch mob out front, but I was hoping for a hero’s welcome.”
“Did you really think it would work, Joe?” said Frank.
“I don’t know what I was thinkin’. I turned the corner and saw the child laying there–”
“Antonia. Antonia Powell.”
“Antonia. God, that’s pretty. Well, I just went crazy for a second. It seemed only right that the car ought to work both ways. For some reason, after all these years I suddenly expected life to be fair. Shows what I know.”
“Did you give any thought to what you were putting the girl’s mother through? I’ll be astonished if we don’t wind up on the receiving end of a lawsuit.”
“Not if it had worked.”
“I know you’ll smooth it over, Frank. Just turn on that charm of yours. Hell, you’ve already talked yourself out of being mad at me for stealing your car, right?”
“I’m still deciding.”
“If this thing doesn’t go away, just tell me and I’ll turn myself in.”
“It’s fine, Joe.”
“I ain’t kidding. What do I care? I could use some time away from the world. And from my old lady, too.” He took a swig. “Either way–thanks, Frank. You’re a good egg.”
Frank clapped a hand on each of our shoulders and herded us toward the front of the shop. I think that was the most affection I’d ever seen him show (the only time men of our generation will hug another dude is if he’s dying in our arms; I’ll take a friendly tap instead any day). “We still have some unfinished business, gentlemen.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep the rest of the night.”
“Man, I wish it would’ve worked,” said Joe. “What’s the point in being one of the good guys if you can’t get a win once in a while?”
Nobody had an answer for him.
We retired to the sidewalk to finish our vigil. The street was quiet and empty. Even though we didn’t talk, it wasn’t like the overbearing quiet I felt before; that was gone. Just having other human beings nearby, living and breathing, was enough to drive it off.
About an hour ago, an SUV pulled up. Old sucker, too: a Plymouth Trailduster. They didn’t even call them “SUVs” back then. I swear, it had three hundred thousand miles on it if it had a yard, and the engine idled rougher than an army bedsheet. The passenger door opened and a lady got out. Nice-looking lady, but for the tears running down her face and her hair sticking out every whichaway. She made straight for Frank; she was blubbering so much, though, I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
“Oh, hell,” said Joe. He whispered it, but it must’ve came out louder than he meant it to because the lady laid off of Frank and whirled on us instead.
“You!” She came at us, pointing at Joe with one hand and violently wiping away tears with the other. “You’re the man who ran off with my baby.”
I wasn’t sure who to watch. The woman? She didn’t look to pose a real threat to Joe, but there’s no knowing what a distraught mama is capable of. Frank Boone? He was a dear friend, but if he tried to arrest Joe just to please this gal, knowing what he knew, I might not be able to stop myself from getting in his way. The driver of the Trailduster? Hadn’t noticed him until now, but the SUV’s dome light revealed a brother in his thirties, wearing a blue work shirt and a haunted expression; I figured if he was gonna make a move, he’d have already done it, but you never can tell.
Bottom line: I was paralyzed. Couldn’t have made a decision to save my life. Good thing I didn’t end up having to.
The woman got real quiet. “You did something to my baby. What did you do?”
Joe put up his hands, palms out. He stood his ground, though. I think he’d decided that if this lady needed to take out some of her grief on him, it was the least he could do. “Ma’am, you got it all wrong. It ain’t like that. I can explain.”
(There are probably other candidates, but I nominate “I can explain” as the worst three words a person can find himself saying. Nothing good ever follows.)
The lady reached out and took hold of Joe by his shirtfront. His expression would’ve broken your heart: sadness for this young mother, and resignation to the slap across the face he was sure she was about to deliver.
Instead, she pulled him toward her, and threw her other arm around him, and rested her head on his shoulder.
Joe kept his hands up; raised them higher, in fact. The message was clear: Everybody sees that she’s touching me, right? No misunderstandings?
The woman tilted her head up and looked Joe in the eye. “She’s okay. Antonia. My baby. Her eyes opened and she sat right up on the gurney.”
Joe just stood there, slackjawed. Me, too. Frank, too.
“She’s fine. Nothing wrong at all. They can’t figure it out. They’re still examining her now. And it’s because of something you did.”
“No,” said Joe, suddenly hoarse. “I’m sure she was okay all along. She musta just passed out or something.” His eyes got real wide and he just kept shaking his head “no.” He’d taken the risk of a lifetime, trying to save that girl, and now that it had paid off, he was refusing ownership of it. Frankly, I didn’t blame him one bit.
“She didn’t pass out,” said the woman. “My baby was shot. The bullet went in and right back out. There were two wounds. I saw them. They ain’t there anymore. There was blood. I saw it.” She pointed to a cluster of dark spots on Joe’s shirt. “And so did you.”
The woman threw her arms around Joe in a full-blown hug. Good thing, too. I think her embrace was the only thing holding him upright.
“They said this was where they found her. I had to try and look for you. To thank you.” The waterworks had started up again, and she let go of Joe to wipe her face. “How did you do it?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“My grandma used to tell me stories from when she was a kid, before she moved up North. But some of them, they weren’t really stories. Some of them, she told different from the way she’d tell a regular fairy tale. That’s because they were true. I know there’s all kinds of strange things in this world, even if most people never get to witness them. And I know what I saw. So you have to accept my thanks for my baby’s life. Because I need to know there’s one person who doesn’t think I’m crazy.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
“Thank you. Besides, you wouldn’t want to call my grandma a liar, would you?”
Joe forced the smile he figured was expected of him. “No, ma’am.”
She patted Joe on the cheek. “Sure you don’t want to tell me how you did it?”
“You’re better off not knowing. Just go give her a hug from me, then forget this ever happened.”
Quick introductions were made. The woman was Angela; the dude in the Trailduster was Antonio, her brother and the little girl’s namesake. It was at Antonio’s request that we broke up the festivities: “I gotta get to work. They wouldn’t have given me no time off for a dead niece, they sure ain’t givin’ me any for a live one.” There were hugs all around, then the two of them drove off.
I kind of hope I never see them again.
Though we had some talking to do for sure, it was quite a little while before me and Joe and Frank could scare up a word between us. And when we finally did speak, we didn’t say anything worth repeating; it was just a rerun of all the conversations I’d already had about the Celeb, with them and with myself. One difference: there was a little trace of desperation in our voices that hadn’t been there before as we tried to cobble together some point of view, some way of looking at the world, some philosophy to account for that thing.
Joe hauled the little girl all the way up here because he thought it made sense for the Celeb’s power to work both ways. He was wrong; it doesn’t make sense. It might be logical, but it ain’t sensible.
A car that takes life is evil. Evil makes sense. A car that gives life is good. Good makes sense. But this? Who or what would ever make such a thing? And to what purpose?
But, Bill, you might say, what about your scissors? You can cut hair with them, or you can run somebody through with them. Isn’t that the same thing?
Whatever, man. Thing is, I know where my scissors came from. And they don’t bump people off on their own when I’m not around.
At least, not that I’m aware of. After the week I’ve had, who the hell knows?
Whenever I hear someone say they don’t have dreams, I humor them, but I don’t really believe them. Of course they dream. They just don’t remember. Probably they have worse dreams than the rest of us, and their memory does them a kindness by keeping it under wraps. Can you imagine that? People spending a third of their lives in sheer holy terror, and the rest of the time they ain’t got a clue?
I can. Because this city is exactly the same way.
It’s dawn now. All over Manhattan, alarm clocks are going off, coffee’s brewing, OPEN signs are flickering on. Soon the streets will be crowded with ordinary people, who sleep soundly each night, who think they know everything about their city, who wouldn’t believe what goes on after dark even if you told them.
Day people. I used to be one, up until last week. Joe, too. Not any more; we know too much. We’re part of the cover-up now, keeping a lid on the night so the day people can go on fooling themselves.
I can see the tow truck coming up the street. Oh, we talked about calling off the plan–how could we not? We decided to go ahead with it. Even so, I’m fighting the urge to slip the guy a couple twenties for his trouble and send him on his way. I bet Joe and Frank are, too.
It’s tempting. We stow the Celeb someplace safe; then, if one of us ever falls and breaks his neck, or chokes on a fish bone, or just keels over from old age, the other two swipe the body, carry it over there, toss it in, and good as new.
But then what? Once word got out–and it would–we’d have three choices. Bring everybody back (impractical for about a million reasons), bring nobody back (we’re hip enough to human nature to know how long that vow would last), or decide, case-by-case, who deserves to live again and who deserves to stay dead.
Divvying up humanity into those two groups is easier than it sounds. We’ve all done it. Everyone has a list of people the world would be well rid of; I’d put Big Time on my list without a second thought, back when we’d thought the 101 bus was the only thing responsible for his death. But having the power to make it happen? And exercising that power? We couldn’t bear such a burden and stay sane.
And yet, we’d do it. It’d be like a drug. We’d know it was bad for us, and we’d do it anyhow, without even understanding why.
Trust me, I know. Because we already have.
Remember those two knuckleheads who offed each other and shot little Antonia in the process? They died the same time she did; we could run over to the morgue, Frank could bluster his way in, and we could swipe them off their slabs and put them in the Celeb. Who knows? They might be so grateful for a second opportunity, or so terrified from their time in the devil’s embrace, that they’d live honestly and righteously for the rest of their days. I think you can turn over a new leaf. If people can’t improve themselves, then what’s the point in anyone striving for anything?
But we didn’t do that. They’re dead, and they’re gonna stay dead; chances are, nothing would’ve changed anyway, and this city is slightly better off now that they’re gone. That was our decision. It was an unspoken one, but we made it, and it was unanimous.
Heaven help us.
The tow truck guy’s got the blue Celebrity all hooked up. We’ll follow him to the city yard and watch them crush it with our own eyes, then we’ll figure out what to do with the remains. I don’t know how long that’ll take. Joe and I might not be back in time to open up the shop on schedule. When Miss Loretta comes by to give her regular sermon, she might find the place still locked up.
That’s probably for the best. Somehow, I just ain’t in the mood this morning.