Việt Nam, like alcohol, gets into your blood; death is the only cure. I took that to be as good an excuse as any to spend my free time in the Ex-Wife’s Place, a bar a half-mile from Fort Monmouth with an interior that must have started out as a diner, complete with metal-edged, formica tabletops. Suspended ceiling fixtures with fiberglass shades provided too much light to make solitary drinkers like me comfortable; the seats, both barstool and boothbench, were upholstered in what appeared to be randomly chosen turquoise, pink or mustard. Bruce Lee posters occupied places of honor on the otherwise bare yellow walls
Sammo the barkeep turned up the sound on the TV and the newscaster’s voice cut through my thoughts: Big Minh and Colonel Kỳ were withdrawing from the South Việt Nam presidential election, claiming Thiệu had rigged the electoral process. I needed another drink to toast Thiệu’s victory. “I’ll have what I’m having,” I told Suzie.
“You got it, toots.” She wore black hot pants with lipstick to match, a nurse-white halter top with a button front and a shirred back that bared a good deal of skin. Black suspenders ran directly over her breasts, and huge silver hoop earrings bobbled in time with her gum-chewing. Her long black hair was fastened into a smooth ponytail that fell straight to the bottom I watched as she headed to the bar. When I’m drunk, which is most evenings and all weekends, I admit to myself she’s the reason I’m here so much; when I’m not, I remind myself I have a husband stationed at Ft. Lewis, and that I’m killing time until the both of us get out of the Army in January. I forced myself to focus on my book: Niven’s All The Myriad Ways. I was on the last story, feeling a little “Becalmed in New Jersey,” when Phillip Cherry slid into the booth across from me. The flourescent lighting bounced off his thick glasses, veiling his blue eyes.
“Hello, Holmes.” That’s me, Andrea Holmes.
“Phil? Am I that drunk?” I had last seen him a year-and-a-half ago in a scruffy little bar we called the Sunset Grill that faced the South China Sea, welcoming the sunrise and the monsoons, along with a hundred other sleazy bars that catered to GIs in Vũng Tàu, a quiet little resort town 90 kilometers southeast of Sàigòn. “How’d you track me down?”
“I called your aunt. How many Drusilla Holmeses can there be in Wheaton, Illinois?”
Suzie brought my order and bumped me with her hip. “Who’s this?”
I stubbed out my cigarette, shut my book and dropped it into the boonie hat tucked in the corner of the metal-edged table. “Suzie Goodman, meet Phil Cherry.”
“Pleased to meetcha, Mr. Cherry.” She glanced at him, then me. “You know each other from ’Nam.”
“Vung Tau,” said Phil. “Andi was the company clerk.”
“Secretary. He’s a medic. Treat him nice.”
“I treat everyone nice, even you. What’ll you have?” It came out as “Wottle ya ’ave?”
“You got Dos Equis?”
“Ballard’s and a double bourbon.”
“It’s good to see you again, Phil. Tell me the Army wasn’t dumb enough to post you to Fort Monmouth. I thought you were due to get out?”
“I re-enlisted; I’m on my way to Connor Troop Medical. Fort Drum in upstate New York. But—”
“Here ya go,” Suzie said, parking her tray on the table to distribute our orders. Phil paid, but her big smile went to me.
He waited until Suzie was gone. “I got off the plane in San Francisco and took a cab to the Castro where I picked up the prettiest boy I could find.” He knocked back his shot. “I would’ve thought you’d have been there before me, picking up—”
I cut him off. “You were saying?”
He dropped it. “After you left for Cu Chi, I transferred from Vung Tau to Long Binh. I met a cute librarian named Arnie, but three months later he was transferred to Cam Ranh Bay, so we wrote to each other every day.”
“That pretty boy I picked up in Frisco—the fucker robbed me. I can replace my clothes, but I want my car back. And—I left a gym bag, full of all the letters from Arnie, in it.”
“Letters? You kept them? Dumb shit.”
Suzie brought us another round without asking. “On me,” she said with a wink when I offered her money.
“I’ll pay you to get back my letters and car back from that asshole. Screw the money.”
“Cash money? Why me?”
“I’ve seen you use your switchblade. And—I know you’ll be discreet.”
There were two reasons the Army would kick you out early: proof that you were queer was number one. If you never wanted to work again, it was quick and painless. Reason number two: pregnancy. Neither one of us had to worry about that; I’d sober up long before I’d get knocked up—voluntarily, anyway. “Tell me about the car.”
“It’s a ’55 Chevy Nomad.” A two-door station wagon. “I bought it in San Francisco for $800. We stayed at the YMCA in the Mission district for two nights, and I bought the car on the first morning. On the second, I woke up with him, my money, my stuff and my car all gone. He even took my duffel bag. Mom wired me fifty bucks to get me to Ft. Drum and get paid, but I came to see you first, because I want my car and I want those letters; he can keep the rest. Although I wouldn’t mind a bit if you kicked him in the nuts.”
I pulled a napkin out of the chromed dispenser. “What’s his name?”
“Billy Franchotti. You should be able to talk to his mother and grandmother, who live in Long Branch; they’re Franchottis too, but I don’t know their first names.”I made notes: Long Branch was three miles on the other side of the Fort, past Monmouth Park, the racetrack. “What makes you think that’s his real name?”
He turned red. “I made him prove he was over 18.” The only thing worse than being queer, in the Army’s eyes, was being a child molester. Not that they saw a lot of distance between the two, but child molesting, murder and treason would get you thrown in jail instead of out.
“Fake IDs are easy to get.” Maybe someday they’d put pictures on driver’s licenses. “Give me a description.”
“Here’s something better.” He flipped open his wallet and passed me a strip of four pictures taken in one of those show-us-your-tits photo booths. The last of the four showed Billy licking the side of Cherry’s face, both of them grinning like idiots, Phil’s glasses shoved crooked by Billy’s arm around his head. “We were celebrating; I’d just bought the car.”
Billy was indeed young and pretty, coal-black hair in a jelly-roll, smooth skin just this side of olive. I slid the strip into my wallet and waved for Suzie, who brought us another round. I didn’t ask Phil why his first act off the plane had been to pick up a boy when he was supposedly committed to Arnie; sometimes there’s no explanation for the things men do. I rubbed my forehead.
Suzie noticed. “You got a headache? Here’s some aspirin.” She slapped two on the table beside my drink and waited. “Well, take ’em. They don’t do you any good on the table.”
Meekly, I swallowed them with my beer. “Thanks.” She’d been bossier and bossier lately.
“Sure. I always carry ‘em. Someone’s always got a headache.” A headache Mary? She marched off; her patent leather platforms stretched her height to over five feet. I wondered why she wasn’t wearing lacy white tights, but she looked better without. We stayed there drinking, Suzie finding ways to brush against me, for another hour. The more I drank the more I was able to enjoy Suzie; I told myself it was the booze. Then I found the coaster she’d left under my shotglass with her name and phone written on it. I’d been dreading this moment for weeks.
I rushed Phil and left a tip on the table. Suzie caught us at the door: “You forgot this,” she said, holding the coaster.
I didn’t know what to say; Suzie rolled her eyes. “You’ll have to forgive her,” said Phil, taking the coaster. “She’s forgotten what little she knew about manners.”
I got mad. “Phil—” I handed the coaster back to Suzie; the muscles in her jaw clenched and she walked away.
“That was smart.”
“Piss off, Phil.” We drove the few blocks to my place in silence, each of us caught in some DMZ of our own, mostly because I was unwilling to tell him he was right. I gave him the sofa and bunked on the floor. I was too buzzed to sleep and found myself remembering the flight home, outbound to the world from Biên Hòa airbase in 100° heat.
When Bob sat next to me on the Freedom Bird, I was in a low spot, but I would’ve been a sucker for anybody going to Chicago, let alone anybody as big and gentle and funny as the slow-talking midwesterner who bought me drinks in the Tōkyō airport, jammed ass to elbow in one of those crowded little bars packed with tables the size of dimes. We left at dawn with Fuji-sama floating pink in the sky and landed for fuel at Anchorage in the shadow of Mt. McKinley’s pre-dawn snowcap. In San Francisco we caught American back to Chicago—lucked out, scoring two standby seats across the aisle from each other—and hit the dirt in thirty below; another typical January in the City by the Lake, with no one to meet either of us.
“My turn to buy you a beer,” I’d said, pointing to a tiny airport bar in O’Hare. We chatted for an hour, enjoying room to breathe—unlike Tōkyō—as if we hadn’t spent a day together on the plane. Finally, I said I had to go, my aunt would be worried, I should call Momma in Brazil.
“How worried? Will your aunt call the cops if you go missing three or four days?”
“Missing?” I waited, but all he did was smile. “She knows the date was just a guess.”
“Then we have a week or so before the APB goes out.”
“Bob, what the—?”
“I can afford to put us up in the Palmer House; tomorrow being Monday, City Hall will be open.”
“You’re crazy.”“You act like that’s news. Now, listen, I know someone who knows someone who can get the waiting period waived—”
been luckier with him than I deserved, but it didn’t
me from drifting off to sleep remembering the softness of Suzie against
my shoulder in the bar.
I gave Phil my spare key and dropped him at the Finance Center so he could get paid; he planned to take a taxi to the used-car lots along on Route 35, where he could buy a junker for the drive to New York.
On my desk at the IG’s office, I found a note from Captain Weed: “I’ll be out Thursday. I’m sure you and your typewriter will find happiness together.” I’d known him back in Củ Chi; he’d asked for me when he found out I’d been posted to Ft. Monmouth.
Despite my hangover, I called all five of the Franchottis in the Long Branch phonebook before lunch and gave them a song-and-dance about switched luggage. On the drive over, I hoped the overcast wouldn’t produce rain; Miss Agnes, my beat-to-shit ’67 Rambler, had a dead wiper motor, and I had replaced it with two lengths of electrical cord threaded through the vent windows: pull left to raise the wipers, pull right to lower them. The process fit well with a car that had a spare tire mounted on the front grill and a paint job that looked like camouflage, the result of her many owners using different colors of spray paint to cover the plentiful rust. I’d thought about getting some OD and tan spray paint from a friend at the quartermaster’s office to cover the places where her original watery white showed through, but I didn’t want to start a fad.
The west-facing wooden house on 7th Avenue was mostly stairways and turrets. I pushed the doorbell for “Sonya Franchotti/Manager, Apt. 1.” A short, dark-haired, slightly plump woman opened the inner door and talked through the screen. “You’re Andi, right?” she asked, holding back three wriggling greyhounds. The smell of chicken and dumplings simmering on the stove filled the house.
“Andi Holmes,” I confirmed. We managed to get me inside without a jailbreak; I tried to scratch everyone’s head, but they butted each other out of the way. She shook my free hand.
“I’m Sonya, but you should call me Sunny. They’ll calm down after you sit. Drink?” I wanted a beer but asked for a Pepsi. She went off to the kitchen to get a cold one, leaving me alone on the window seat. I spotted a nest of pictures on a crowded lamp table and picked one up, expecting the kid I’d seen in Phil’s photo-booth strip; the tall and skinny blond boy I saw instead was not nearly as pretty as Phil’s two-night stand, but he wore an open expression that made me wish I knew him.
A grey-streaked blonde woman came into the room. “You must be the one who called about Billy; I’m Bunny.” She looked barely old enough to be Sunny’s mother, who in turn looked barely old enough to be Billy’s mother.
Bunny sat and Sunny returned with a cold can. I peeled the tab and dropped it into the trash. “Now, when exactly did Billy leave home?”
“The day he was sixteen, he dropped out of high school. He came home early and packed up all his stuff,” said Sunny. “I didn’t know he hated me so much. That was his birthday. April first, ’69.” Over two years ago.
“Now, Sunny, you know he didn’t hate you, he was just rebelling like every other teenager.”
Two dogs curled up on the rag rug in front of the unused fireplace and blinked their shiny brown eyes. Contestant number three scrambled up onto the window seat and settled her chest against my thigh with a wheeze. “Could I talk to some of his friends?”
“Only Junior,” said Sunny. “I’ve no idea if he’s home or—”
“He’s a truck driver,” inserted Bunny.
“How about other school friends?”
Sunny shrugged. “The only friend he had besides Junior was that creepy Watanabe boy—”
“Creepy isn’t the word. He was mean to animals.” Bunny shuddered. “And a hunter. But no one’s seen him since he dropped out of school. Not even his parents.”
“Do you remember when that was?”
“Sure. He took off two months after Billy,” said Sunny. “Just before school closed for summer. That would have been um—”
“Late May. Shirley doesn’t understand why he didn’t wait until school was officially out,” said Bunny.
“Do you think the two boys left together?”
“It’s possible, I suppose, but then Billy would have had to find someplace to stay for two months. Why wouldn’t he have left town?”
Sunny made me promise to call her if I found Billy in the search for my luggage, and wrote down numbers for Junior Bourke, and Shirley and Seiji Watanabe. A service station on Rt. 36 had a working phone booth, where I called Junior. A woman answered, and I gave her my spiel about the switched luggage. “Junior’s on the road until next Wednesday.” I tried to give her my office phone. “You should call back, I’m bound to lose a note.”
Seiji Watanabe answered my next call, and spoke rapidly with a Japanese accent. He didn’t believe my luggage story. “I’m just a private citizen. I only want my suitcase,” I said. “I don’t have any credentials—”
“Then I will not talk to you,” he said. The hangup sounded like an icicle snapping. Miss Agnes took me back to the office, where Captain Weed was still out. I swiped a steno pad and spent a few minutes transferring notes from napkins and updating them before calling my apartment.
Phil answered cautiously on the fifth ring. “Hello?”
“You sound like a kidnapper. If I were Bob, I’d be on the phone with the FBI.”
“Send one million dollars in small bills,” he said, changing his voice. “Or you’ll never get her back alive.”
“Save it,” I said. “We ain’t got that kind of money.”
He shifted to his normal voice. “Find out anything?”
I caught him up, but didn’t tell him that his Billy Franchotti
the one I was looking for weren’t the same. He told me
a car; we made plans for dinner and booze. The only reason to
plan for the booze was that someone had to get it. Phil elected
I saw Phil off at 0600; we were trembling from the hangover and our eyeballs felt like they were set in sandpaper. He’d found himself a rusty black Falcon station wagon for pennies. It had no floorboards on the driver’s side, and the spring that pulled the clutch pedal back was busted. Instead of fixing it, the previous owner had installed a rubber band, made from an innertube, which looped around the pedal, up and over the rear-view mirror, and hooked onto the driver’s-side clothes hook.
I went shopping after work and came home with a Smith & Wesson snubnose stainless .38, several boxes of ammo and a gun-cleaning kit. The smelly kid at the pawn shop had pushed a Colt Cobra, the same kind of gun Ruby used on Oswald. The Cobra was a nice piece and I had wanted it, but I couldn’t afford double what the S & W cost. I’d also bought a jane—a little pink funnel—from a medical supply house. The technical name, I discovered, is “feminine urinary director,” but nobody calls it that. Why they made it pink I couldn’t say. Did they think women would pee on their fingers if it were blue?
I wondered if I weren’t taking this PI business a little too
seriously. The extra bottle of bourbon helped me over
it. I even
had a desk drawer at home in which I could keep the bottle—if it
lasted past the night.
I called Junior’s number at lunchtime. The same woman I’d talked to before said, “Yeah, he’ll be here this afternoon.”
“Is it OK if I come over after work?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” Her voice was loaded with “why bother fighting it?” I didn’t probe because I didn’t care. I wrote down the directions; it was in Long Branch, not far from the racetrack.
I stopped at home long enough to change into jeans and an old shirt and some real shoes. I hung up my summer greens, hoping they’d stay smooth; I hated ironing nearly as much as wearing makeup, but the material wrinkled so easily that I was forced to iron most mornings. Captain Weed didn’t notice that I never wore makeup, but he would notice a wrinkled uniform. I had to wear heels with dress greens, and I’d managed to get good enough with those to avoid falling on my rear, but I spent a lot of time with my feet hidden behind the desk and my shoes off. When I enlisted I hadn’t really thought about having to wear heels and panty hose and dresses.
Junior’s place was a dilapidated pink stucco house with crooked white shutters and high ceilings. Kids’ toys were flung all over the mostly grassless yard. A small dog growled at me bossily when I came in through the gate and followed me to the door of the house. I could feel its hot breath and cold nose on my ankle as I pushed the doorbell. The woman who answered stared at me through the screen; she was almost my height, 6'1".
“You a detective?” she asked. Not hostile, merely curious.
“Nope. Just a private citizen.” But I’d obsessed about my “case” ever since Phil had hired me.
She nodded. “I’m Gin; c’min and sit. He’s out back, workin’ on the car. I’ll get ’im.” She pushed open the screen door and went to the back of the small house while I searched the living room for a seat and smelled diapers. I went for the least-spat-up-upon chair I could find. I deposited the stack of books and games on the floor and parked. Two small heads peered around the corner of the door Gin had gone through. One blond, one redhead; one boy, one girl. One crawling, one barely walking. Both were filthy and quiet. I smiled at them. They ducked back around the corner. A tall redheaded man holding a white rag covered in black streaks strode into the living room. Quite a feat, since there weren’t any paths; if I had tried striding I would have left a trail of broken toys.
Junior pushed junk off a chair onto the floor with substantially less care than I had taken. I stood up to shake his hand; he was a good six inches taller than me, but didn’t have that permanent slump that some tall men acquire through fear of banging their heads on doorframes and ceiling fans. His face was a knobby mass of acne and freckles. He wasn’t handsome by a long shot, but despite the skin I wouldn’t have called him unattractive. He looked older than the 19 or 20 I thought he might be. I wondered if he’d been held back a year or two. He sat. So did I.
“Gin said you wanted to ask about Billy,” he said. “I don’t know where he went. But I hope you find him. If you do, can you let me know?”
“Sure. Did it surprise you when he moved out of his mother’s house?”
“Nuh-uh. He told me he was going to do it, an’ I helped him. I took him to change his learner’s permit into a real driver’s license, I took him home to pick up his stuff. I drove him to his grandmother’s place and left him on the porch. That was the last time I ever saw him.”
“Did you think it was odd when he didn’t get in touch with you after that?”
“Fuck, we was best friends. He should have called me when his grandma wouldn’t take him in.”
Gin’s voice floated in from the kitchen. “Junior!”
He barely raised his voice. “Sorry, hon.” He shrugged. “Not supposed to swear around the kids. ’Scuse my French.”
I waved his apology away. “Where would he have been likely to go? Who would he have called, if he didn’t call you? Timmy Watanabe?”
“Yeah, if he couldn’t get me he would have called Timmy. But Timmy was as likely to leave him as help him. Timmy didn’t care much about anyone but himself. Billy never could see that in him.” Junior looked sourly at the floor. “He thought pretty much everyone was gonna be nice to him.” He looked up at me. “Pretty much everyone was.”
“Did he have any girlfriends?”
He looked at me sharply. “He was queer!” he said. “Never had no girlfriends. I thought you knowed!”
“His mother and grandmother didn’t tell me,” I said. I’d wondered, but Billy and “Billy” were two different people.
“Well, he was.” He shifted uncomfortably. “It bothered me. It bothered me a lot. But we was best friends for years before he figured it out. And when he told me—I couldn’t let him down. I just couldn’t.”
“Did he have boyfriends?”
He shook his head. “No one steady. No one I knew names of. He knew I didn’t want to know, so he didn’t tell me much. Except when he couldn’t stand to keep it to hisself.”
“So can you remember any times like that? Anything that could help me?”
He sighed heavily. “No. I mean, I remember once or twice he got real happy? But no names—and I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.”
“How about his Mom? Why was Billy so determined to get out of there?”
He looked around. “Hey, you want a beer?”
“Sure.” The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
He got up and went into the kitchen. I could hear muffled giggles from the children. The refrigerator door thumped solidly shut. He came back in and handed me a can. “You want a glass?” He pulled his own tab and took a drink. The small heads peered around the corner and gave me giggly smiles hidden behind dirty hands.
“Nah.” It was ice-cold, dripping with condensation, and badly needed. I leaned back in the chair, encountered a bump in an unexpected place, and sat straight up. “So. Billy’s Mom?”
“Sunny found out,” he said. He looked sad, haunted. “I went over there one night and I saw them through the living room window. She was hitting him.”
“Found out he was gay, you mean.”
He nodded. “Billy said it was like he’d been sent to live with some other family. He din’t know her any more.”
“And his grandmother? Why did he think it would be OK to stay with her?”
“Billy and her was real close.”
“So—no lovers that you can remember?” I asked.
The word made him uncomfortable. “Nope. Sorry.”
“And how did his mother act after he was gone?”
He peered at me closely. “She stayed mad for a while, but when she came to my wedding she acted real sorry that Billy wasn’t there. She cried a extra lot. He shoulda been my best man.”
I made a decision and showed him the strip of photo-machine pictures with “Billy” and Phil.
He studied it. “I don’t know the guy with glasses,” he said at last, a puzzled expression on his face. “But this here’s Timmy Watanabe.” He tapped the licker. “What’s going on?”
“He’s my friend,” I said. “Timmy here showed Phil a driver’s license that said he was Billy Franchotti. What do you think is going on?”
Junior looked uneasy, but he refused to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion. “I dunno,” he said. “Timmy used to drive around in his old pickup truck all the time, and he could have run into Billy that night. Or Billy could have called him, since I wasn’t home.” He looked down at the picture again. “They could have gone off together.” He paused. “But what happened then?” He shrugged his shoulders expansively. “Who knows? Maybe they traded identities.”
“What was Timmy like? Any friends of his around that I could talk to?”
He looked back at the picture again. “I never knew he was queer,” he said slowly. “He spent a lot of time chasing pu—girls.” The tips of his ears turned red and he didn’t look at me. “Um, he drove all over the place in that old truck. With the radio on real loud. Friends? Billy. Others, well, he’d get friendly with some new kid, and pretty soon they’d figure out the friendship was all about what they could do for Timmy. Billy was the only one who stuck. Timmy liked to hunt, liked it enough he had a gun rack in the truck. But he never had no dogs. He wasn’t—he didn’t like animals, and they didn’t like him.” He looked like he had a bad taste in his mouth.
It was a pattern, I saw, avoiding logical conclusions. “How do you stand with the draft?” I asked, making conversation.
“I got two kids already,” he said, his gaze moving to the vicinity of the kitchen. “They’re letting me alone. I hope they keep it up.”
“I hope so too, Junior.” I meant it. I wanted to go back to ’Nam so bad I could taste it and hear it and smell it, but I wouldn’t wish combat on anyone, and Junior was the very man the infantry was hungry for. I changed the subject. “Did Billy ever talk about going off somewhere for big adventures?”
He looked thoughtful. “San Francisco,” he said. “But I guess somebody like him’d think that.”
“Yeah. Anywhere else?”
He spread his hands helplessly. “He felt trapped. He wanted out. He would have gone anywhere with anyone.” He rubbed his eyes. “I miss him.”
I gave him my address and phone numbers, in case he thought of something else. He said it wouldn’t do any good since he was leaving Thursday morning for two weeks on the road. He had a good job, one that made him enough money to support Gin and the kids. No education, but he had a good life—as long as he could keep out of the Army.
It was still light and I had no information, nothing except a nagging dislike for Sunny. How could a mother be that rotten to her own child? Even where there’s love there’s pain, and sometimes hate. I sat outside in my ugly old Rambler for a few minutes smoking and making notes. My head throbbed from not quite enough booze. I wanted to go to the liquor store and buy a bottle, but I went home and tried to be good. I turned on the TV and stared at it for ten minutes, one shoe off, the other on. There was nothing to drink, not even a beer. I had that diffuse, enervated feeling that told me I wouldn’t sleep no matter how hard I tried. I put my shoe back on and drove to the Ex-Wife’s Place. I had to park Miss Agnes in the alley with the garbage cans.
Suzie glared at me, cold as a deep freeze. “I didn’t think you’d be back.” But she remembered what I liked to drink.
“I didn’t mean to mislead you.” She wore dangly, bright red bakelite earrings, bright red hotpants with a starched white blouse and red shiny knee-high boots, with matching lipstick and hair band.
“That’s all right.” But it was plain it wasn’t.
I looked up into her face for the first time that evening. She had a bruise on her left cheek which she’d tried to cover with too much makeup. “What happened to you?”
“None of your business.” She left to wait on someone else. I should have ignored the feeling inside that insisted I come back and tell her I was sorry. I should have ignored the gnawing worm at the bottom of my gut that ate away at me, silent only when drowned in booze.
When she put my next shot and beer on the table, I caught her wrist. She tried to tug away. “I am terribly sorry that I hurt your feelings, but if you want me to leave—”
“If you don’t let me go, I’ll scream,” she interrupted and stalked away. She didn’t tell me to leave, so I stayed, until almost 2200; Suzie didn’t warm up, but on the plus side she didn’t get any nastier. Sammo, the barkeep, looked at me more times than he ever had before, but refrained from kicking me out; I guess Suzie kept him from it. Out of guilt or booze, I left her a larger-than-necessary tip; she could use it either way. I went outside, rolled down windows and sat in Miss Agnes smoking and feeling worse than I had in the booth.
The back door of the bar opened and Suzie came out, her purse-strap looped over her head. I watched her walk around the cars and cans to the end of the alley where she turned right. I didn’t hear a car door slam, so I started Miss Agnes, wove through the alley and turned right. A couple of blocks away I caught up with her and honked. She scowled at me.
“Excuse me, miss. Can you tell me where the nearest cliff is? I need to drive over it.” She smiled a little bit, so I leaned over and pushed open the door. She rolled her eyes and got in. “Where to?”
She looked over at me steadily. A minute went by in which I memorized her face, framed with those red-hot earrings. “I know a bar that’s open late,” she said.
“Which way?” I thought; “I better take you home,” I said.
She told me where she lived, eight blocks away from the bar, an easy walk from my place. “Why’d you come back?”
“Because I felt rotten about what I’d done.”
“You only wanted to apologize so you’d feel better.”
“You should tell me to go to hell, then.”
“Hmmph.” She settled back in her seat. I drove in silence to her place; it was much too close to my apartment. “I’d like it if you came in for a drink.” She held her purse in her lap and looked straight ahead through the windshield.
“I won’t get misled, I promise.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I just can’t.”
She looked at me strangely, made no move to get out of the car. “I thought that was fake,” she said, pointing to my wedding ring. “I thought it was just to keep the guys away.”
“I got married when I got back from ’Nam.”
“Where is he?”
“His—his name’s Bob. He’s—stationed in Ft. Lewis. We’re waiting until we both get out of the Army to move back to Chicago.”
Suzie opened the door, started to get out. “Nuts,” she said. Her hand hooked my neck; she pulled me to her and kissed. I didn’t want to respond, but I couldn’t make myself pull away. She smelled faintly of vanilla and cinnamon; her mouth was soft, and her lipstick tasted nice. “There.” She slid out, pushed the door shut, stuck her head in the window. “Any time you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
I stayed long enough to see her trot to the door. I found an
all-night grocery where the clerk looked at me oddly when I
bought a TV dinner. The rear-view mirror showed
Suzie’s red-hot lipstick smeared on my lips; I scrubbed it away
with a little spit before heading to my liquor
store in Eatontown, where I bought two bottles of bourbon.
I put the dinner in the oven; by the time it was cooked, I’d
had enough bourbon that it tasted no worse than C-rations. I
finished the bottle and passed out on the living room floor; I
of unexpected kisses and earrings shaped like cherries.
The Watanabes lived in the second nicest part of Long Branch, two miles from Junior, in a hundred-thousand-dollar home on the edge of Branchport Creek, one of the brackish tributaries that webbed the Jersey Shore. Their view was of the backsides of houses more exclusive than theirs, across the water on Seneca Place. I wondered what Seiji Watanabe did for a living that he could afford a price twenty times what Junior was still paying for his. I parked in the three-car driveway and pushed the doorbell. After talking to Seiji, I didn’t expect to hear any dogs; I’d had warmer conversations with an ice cube.
The door finally opened. “Yes?” The small woman peered around the doorframe like Junior’s kids. I’d assumed that “Shirley” was a name for the convenience of Anglos, but she was neither Japanese nor Japanese-American, and a good deal younger than her pure white hair indicated. I had wondered how a Japanese couple could adopt a white baby.
“My name is Andrea Holmes,” I said. “I called about your son Timmy, and about Billy Franchotti, last week. Your husband wouldn’t talk to me.”
She blinked at me nervously, looked up and down the street. “Go up to the soda fountain. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” The door shut in my face. I drove downtown and parked in an angled slot outside the drugstore. I ordered a chocolate soda with French vanilla ice cream and waited. I wondered how Shirley Watanabe had ended up married to a Japanese man; the mixed marriages I’d run into before were all the other way. She was too young to have served in WWII.
She showed up at my elbow halfway through the best soda I’d ever had. She was a little below average height, five foot two or three, between thirty-eight and forty. Her hair, old before she was, was combed in a perfect pageboy that looked poured, not brushed, as if it were a plastic wig or thick paint; it matched her perfectly smooth face, the face of the rich. Her outfit was just as perfect, a medium grey skirt and vest with a pale pink blouse and matching sensible heels.
She skootched herself up on the stool to my right and ordered a cherry Coke from the counterman. She looked over her glasses at me. “Seiji would be very upset if he knew I talked to you,” she said. Every “s” turned into a “sh.” “Seiji never wants to hear from Timothy again, and I’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Kids never do. I don’t want to see him or talk to him, but I’d like to know where he is and what he’s doing, even if Seiji doesn’t.”
“If you can tell me something that’ll help me locate him, I’ll let you know.” I explained about my friend. I studied the flawless skin of her flawless face.
She didn’t believe me about the luggage and didn’t care that I lied. “Timmy got a girl pregnant a couple of months before he disappeared,” she said. “Seiji and I—worked out an arrangement when she told us. She, uh, went to an unwed mothers’ home; he was going to go in the Army, but instead of reporting to the induction station, he disappeared. Billy—”
“You signed papers to put a sixteen-year-old in the Army?” I was incredulous.
She shook her head. “No, no, he was seventeen,” she said. “The Army won’t take sixteen-year-olds even with parental consent.”
He must have been held back a year. “What happened to the girl?”
“She had a miscarriage, and died,” she said, her face as impassive as if she had told me she had a flat tire. She slurped her drink to a finish and laid a nickel-stamped postcard on the counter. “I got this three months after he disappeared.”
The postcard was from a San Francisco YMCA. I wondered if it were the same one where Phil had stayed. It read simply, “Safe. Not coming back.”
She slid another card, with a six-cent stamp, onto the counter. “And this one arrived today.” She looked at her watch. “Would you mind? Those cards are all I have, and I need to get home before Seiji.” She left. The cards remained.
The second one was another YMCA postcard that pictured the remarkably ugly Mission district Y. Timmy’d obviously relied on his mother knowing his handwriting. Postmarked Tuesday, it read, “Coming home.” I slapped the counter. Shit. I’d let her get away.
The counterman came up and said, “Someting wrong, little lady?” He was old and bald and the flourescent lights glinted off his gold frames.
I bit back a nasty retort about not being anyone’s little lady. He was too old to change and it would only annoy him. Besides, he might not serve me any more ice cream sodas if I were rude to him. “Just bad news. Sorry to make a scene,” I said. Shirley’d left enough on the counter to pay both tickets with a dollar tip.
It was already dark when I stopped at the liquor store for cheap
I hadn’t had anything to eat but the ice cream soda.
As soon as I came through my apartment door I unscrewed the plastic lid
of the bottle and drank. I swallowed as fast as I could, stood
gasping until it hit. I spilled a few drops on my shirt, and was
pissed at the loss of good liquor. Then I rummaged for something
to eat; I found a box of limp crackers
and a weezy green onion in the fridge. I ate them before I threw out the other furry
monuments to my good housekeeping. I watched Dick Cavett with
and Yoko Ono. I passed out before the end but made it to the
of the bottle; I was good at that.
I wandered out into the hall wearing a blanket, unlocked the mailbox and found three pieces of yesterday’s mail. Two were the usual pieces of junk flotsam washing up on my shore; the third was a letter from Phil. Chào em! it began. “Hello, little sister,” my ass. He gave me his address and phone numbers, home and work. I called at lunch to fill him in. Phil confirmed that the second card was from the same YMCA where he had stayed with “Billy”; in the Mission district, within walking distance of the Castro. “What’s next?” he asked.
“I start watching the Watanabes’ place. The only reason Shirley showed me those cards was to let me know Timmy was going to be in the area; and the only reason she would want me to know that is so I could intercept him. She doesn’t want to deal with him, and I got the strong impression Seiji would beat the living snot out of Timmy. So I buy an invisible car and go on a stakeout.”
“You’re having too much fun.”
“Heard from Arnie yet?” I asked.
“No, I wrote to him at the same time I wrote to you.” Arnie was still in Cam Ranh Bay, not due home until late November, but he’d be out, entered in the active reserves for two years, then the inactives. I wondered how that was going to work, what with Phil having re-upped for three more years.
I was due to get out of the WACs in January, which I hoped wouldn’t be as horrible as last January. Bob and I had holed up in the Palmer House, waited the three days for the blood test results and stood in line at City Hall. After the ceremony, I had called Momma in Brazil: “Momma? Good news—”
“Josh is dead,” she keened. A traffic accident in
Germany, of all things. “Where the hell have you been?”
I had never, ever, heard my mother swear. I’d had some idea that
once I got back here to the world, it would be easy to stay sober and
easy to stay straight. I’d known all along I’d been wrong about
the booze, but with my remaining brother’s death, sobriety never had a chance.
Khrushchev was dead, I heard on the news. I felt a little sad; in a way, this was someone I’d grown up with. Momma and I always thought he was kind of cute, but we kept it to ourselves; to Dad, he was the Communist Menace incarnate. Sooner invite the Devil to dinner.
I spent a long time on the phone with Bob and felt worse afterward. I’d gone ahead and told him what Phil had asked me to do. I left out the part about why, because I didn’t want to say. Of course that was the part Bob wanted to know most about. We’d fought, but I hadn’t had to tell him; it was a victory, but I didn’t know who for. I had tequila for lunch; he’d forced me.
Miss Agnes and I went out to buy a stakeout car; she had too much personality to be demure. I ended up with a Falcon pickup, not quite as ratty as Phil’s wagon, but close. His was black, mine was—approximately—white. Some of the splotches were white house paint. Some were spray enamel. Others were beige. The tailgate didn’t work well because the previous owner had apparently backed out of his garage and done a Y-turn into a tree every day for years. The hood had a big round dent that would fit a bowling ball, but it ran, and the doors and wipers worked. The philosophy student who’d sold it to me asked $75 and took the sixty I offered without argument.
I left it at his place while I took the title to the nearest insurance, check-cashing and notary public joint for licensing. I called Captain Weed at home. “Do me a favor?” I asked. I was pleased that he didn’t ask why I needed a second car, since I wasn’t going to tell him. He was a good guy—actually, one of the best—but a little naive. He dropped me off and went patio-stone hunting.
I pasted my temporary sticker to the windshield and drove to the nearest service station to fill up, where I noticed a phone booth. I was hungry, so I searched the yellow pages for a nearby restaurant; I wasn’t particular. I flipped a little too far. “Storage Services, Meat” caught my eye. I flipped back to restaurants, stared blankly at the “by cuisine” listing. I paged back. Meat lockers. For hunters. Timmy Watanabe had been a hunter. I checked the time and the ads. Damn. The most likely one was closing—no, had closed. Damn again. But the dime had already dropped, so I dialed anyway. A nasal male voice said, “Hello?”
“I’ll give you ten bucks to stay open until I get there.” That was ten bucks less booze I’d be drinking unless I got reimbursed from Phil. He owed me. I wondered if he knew how much. I didn’t really care; I was having fun.
Ten seconds of silence. “How far away are you?” I had him.
Five minutes later I was talking to Darrell Wilson, a brand-new junior in high school. I gave him a fake name; if what I suspected was true, I didn’t want any followable connections. “I’m looking for a long-term renter, one that’s paid in advance and probably hasn’t been visited for a couple of years.”
“I’m not supposed to do this.” He flipped through index cards in a filebox of account-holders. He bent close to peer at one card, then another.
“What do most people store in these things? Deer?”
He inspected another card. “Only a few of them are hunters,” he said. “Most of our lockers have a half, or a whole, steer in them. From those guys who go door-to-door and sell you your own cow? For like twenty bucks a month, you get all these steaks and so on.” He pulled out a card and looked at it. “It’s a scam. I wouldn’t eat that meat for anything.” He tucked the card in his shirt pocket and went back to looking.
He didn’t find any more, and handed me the one from his pocket. “Tom Wickham,” I read. Rented since March of ’68. “Try calling the phone number,” I suggested.
He dialed. After a minute he put the receiver down. “Disconnected,” he said, his forehead creased.
I wasn’t surprised; the number had probably never existed. “Let me have the key,” I said.
He worried. “Uh, I don’t think I better.”
I put another ten on the counter. “Where’s the harm? I’ll take a quick look, be right back.” He seemed to be wrestling with something that I was pretty sure had nothing to do with a conscience. “Another ten when I’m done.” He unlocked the keybox, took out the duplicate and handed it to me.
“Hurry,” he said. There was sweat on his forehead. He slid the second ten into his pocket and I went out the door looking for meat locker 23.
“Thanks, Darrell,” I said, five minutes later. He was ready to leave, his books shoved into his knapsack; he grabbed the third ten and practically shoved me out the door. I drove back to the gas station and had a cigarette while I gave him time to close up and get out.
I gave the Oceanport police dispatcher the name of the storage facility and the address; then the locker number. I refused to be chivvied and made her read the details back. Then I said, “There’s a body in there with a bullet in its forehead—and a hell of a case of freezer-burn.” I hung up, smeared the receiver, and got the hell out of there. I didn’t waste time explaining that the body was the boy I’d seen pictures of at Sunny’s house; it was the cops’ job to find out stuff like that. I didn’t mention Billy’s expression, either, one that was going to haunt me for a long time. It was the face of a dog whose adored owner had suddenly started to torture it. It broke my heart.
I wondered if there had ever been a real Tom Wickham, and I wondered what had happened between the two boys that had turned Timmy against Billy. I imagined it wouldn’t have taken much;some people are just born evil. Billy seemed to have been a pretty nice kid; I wished I’d known him.
I grabbed Chinese takeout—and a six-pack—before I drove to the neighborhood where the Watanabes lived. I parked my Falcon away from the street light and under a tree and ate sesame beef from the carton with disposable chopsticks. I could make out the front of the house and the side with the garage. I was taking a risk; if someone spotted me and called the cops, I was dead meat. This wasn’t Texas; open booze in the car meant jail.
I didn’t care; I took a drink and slumped down in the
After a while, it got too quiet for me, so I turned on the radio.
There was nothing to listen to, but I kept the volume low and listened
to it anyway. With the windows open, I could smell the sea.
after the second beer, I had to try out my Jane. It worked well
but I decided to bring a pickle jar next time, one with a lid. At
all the lights in the house went out. I locked the car and peered in the garage window. Two cars, both expensive,
neither one of them Phil’s. I walked back to my junker and
home to finish the bottle of Early Times.
I got dressed enough to go pick up the Sunday Monmouth Inquirer off of the floor in front of the mailboxes downstairs. I opened it up to look for the meat locker story and spread the paper out on the floor in the sun to read the news. There it was, not page one but not so small you could have accused the press of trying to cover it up. The cops had questioned the owner of the place, but the article said nothing about Darrell. If the cops’d dusted the key to locker 23, they wouldn’t have found anything: I’d deliberately smeared it—and everything else I’d touched—before giving it back; I bet Darrell had too. He hadn’t struck me as a dummy.
“The body has been identified as William Semple Franchotti, aged 16 years at the time of death,” the article read, “which the Coroner’s office estimated took place on April 1st, 1969, based on the condition of the body and on information received.” If they were right about the date, Timmy had done in his friend Billy the same day he’d been turned away from Bunny’s house. I checked my notes again. “Tom Wickham” had rented the meat locker over a year before Billy’s sixteenth birthday. I doubted if it had been premeditated—Timmy was a hunter, after all, and there were plenty of other wrapped packages of what I had guessed were animal parts in the locker—but I wasn’t going to rule it out. The paper said Tom Wickham was wanted for questioning, but they had no description. Whoever’d rented the locker to him was long gone, and the owner of the lockers had kept rotten employee records.
I read the rest of the paper, saving the funnies for last, as usual. Then I got myself another Pepsi and sat at the kitchen table, thinking. Had there been other victims? I reached for the phone book to look up other meat lockers, but decided it would be easier to search the newspaper morgue. I could talk Captain Weed into letting me have a couple of hours off on Monday to drive over to Freehold, the small town where the Monmouth Inquirer was published. It was a very small town; I sometimes wondered if they realized that women had had the vote since 1920.
That night, I spent a couple of hours at the bar, watching Suzie, and letting her flirt with me. I didn’t flirt back, no sirree. The bruise on her face was almost gone; after the first drink, I forgot I’d meant to ask her about it.
Later, I parked under the same
tree where I could see the Watanabes’ driveway and listened to the same
nothing radio. I’d forgotten to bring something to drink, so I
sat there stewing and scowling until nearly 0100, when I gave up and went
home. I had a double to put me to sleep. It didn’t help,
so I finished the bottle and passed out on the floor.
Next morning, I had carpet burns on my cheek and the Attica State Prison riot was all over the Monmouth Inquirer’s front page. I arrived at work with only a little more than an ordinary hangover. Captain Weed didn’t blink an eye when I asked for time to run errands in the afternoon. “Sure,” he said. He looked over his glasses at me. “As long as you don’t drink on my time, I’ll work with you.”
I immediately felt guilty about the beer I’d had with Junior last week and swore to myself I’d never do it again. I thanked him and headed out to Freehold, where I looked through every issue of the Inquirer for 1967, ’8 and ’9. I found the small missing person notice for Billy, in early April of 1969; I guess nobody cared enough to submit the news when Timmy disappeared. I found an Estelle Stevens, thirteen, gone missing in ’67 from a nearby school district, when Timmy had been fifteen. I wondered how many lockers he had rented.
I’m a completist; I kept looking through the rest of
’69, and found an October obituary: Janine Watanabe,
1954-1969. “Eatontown High has lost its most popular
cheerleader,” it began. “Prevented by health issues
from attending school since May, the vivacious brunette was nonetheless
voted Captain of the Cheerleading Squad at the beginning of the school
year. ...” Obit pictures often look as if they’re of
the corpse; this one could have been used as a yearbook picture.
“Survived by her parents, Seiji and Shirley
Watanabe, grandparents. ...” Shirley must have become
pregnant three months after adopting Timmy—about whom not a
I went to Billy’s funeral, hoping Timmy Watanabe would be dumb enough to show up. Of course he wasn’t, and his parents stayed away as well. Junior was still out on the road but Gin showed up and dealt calmly with the two small children, and had enough cool left over to comfort Sunny and Bunny, who were basket cases. The flowers were mostly small, unimaginative arrangements, except for one that was small, spare, nearly Swedish modern, and another twice the size of the next largest, so full of birds-of-paradise and overfed mums and purple glads and red-and-gold ribbons that it could have graced an opium den. After the service, I checked the names. The big one was signed simply, “The Watanabes.” The black-edged card on the artful one read, “All our love, Virginia, Delbert, Maxine and Eric Bourke.” I’d call myself Junior, too, if I had a name like Delbert.
Estelle Stevens’ parents were in the phonebook. They lived in Eatontown, in a neighborhood with trees and old houses in the shade. I pushed the doorbell and waited. I heard slow shuffling noises; eventually, the door opened.
“Yes?” He peered at me through lenses almost as thick as Phil’s. His hair was half grey and half blond; he wasn’t all that old, but something had leaked out of him, leaving a deflated, stooped husk. He leaned against the door frame with his shoulder; the opposite hand held a cane.
“Mr. Stevens? My name is Andrea Holmes, and—”
“What’s this about, please?” He had an old man’s voice, raspy and hollow.
“I understand that your daughter—”
He straightened like a bear in the mouth of a cave sniffing Spring. “Stella? You have news?”
“I’m sorry, no, but I’d like to ask you and your wife some questions about her disappearance.”
He deflated, became just another old man again. “Marjorie died last year.” He looked down at the floor. “I feel like slamming the door in your face, young lady, but that’s not very Christian of me, is it? Please, come in.” I wanted to know, so I did.
There was no air conditioning; ceiling fans kept the house somewhat cool. “I have freshly made iced tea,. Would you like some?”
“I would, yes. Thank you.”
He turned away; the cane thumped on the hardwood floor, which once upon a time had been highly polished and was now visibly dusty. “It would save time if you followed me to the kitchen,” he said without turning. On the walls of the hall between the living room and the kitchen, there were hundreds of photographs of an elfin blonde girl, each picture in its own individual frame. He kept talking as we walked. “Stella was our only child, and when she went missing, something inside us went missing too.”
Her face was too asymmetrical to really call pretty, but I couldn’t stop looking at the photos; one showed Stella in green tights and leotard, with wings and a pointy hat, holding a magic wand. Tinkerbell couldn’t make everything right.
“The tea is in here, miss.”
“She’s lovely,” I said, my voice catching. I barely remembered to use present tense.
“She was.” He looked at the wall. “I should face reality and take them down. She’s been gone nearly four years; I know she’s dead.”
I wanted to reassure him, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I poured myself a glass of iced tea and dumped in a heaping spoonful of sugar. I stirred noisily, the way I used to when Gram made tea for me and Josh and Dana when we stayed at her house on home leave. At the time, anodized aluminum glasses had been the latest fashion, dripping with condensation. Now, they were old and badly designed; these glasses could have come out of Gram’s cabinets. I remembered peonies and plastic flamingoes and a yard full of silver maples and weeping willows, all surrounded by corn taller than even my father. And I remembered Gram fussing at Josh because he used so much sugar: “You’ll get diabetes,” she would say, and the three of us would laugh and laugh. He never had time. Nor did Dana.
“We thought we were never going to have children,” he said, stirring sugar into his own tea. “We gave up birth control years ago, and we were overjoyed when Marjorie finally became pregnant. Stella was our heart’s desire and the light of our lives. My wife died of a broken heart.” He looked at me bleakly. “Once upon a time, we were heavily involved in our church and community. We would sing God’s praises every Sunday. Now I don’t see the point.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I don’t know what your interest is in my daughter,” he said.
I moved on. “Did you have any warning signs? Any new friends she talked about?”
“There was a boy she mentioned, a few weeks before—” He stopped and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry. A few weeks before she went to school for the last time, she chattered on about a boy with an odd name. But Marjorie and I could never remember what that name was. We fought about it many times, before she died.” He stopped, choked.
I hesitated. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, but I forged ahead. “Um, is it possible that the name was Watanabe? Timmy Watanabe?”
He sighed deeply and looked out the spotty kitchen window, both hands propped on the handle of his cane, knuckles white. “It’s possible. It’s possible. But I couldn’t be certain.”
I finished my tea and left as soon as I could, plotting how dead I could
I’d spent hours every night the last week watching the Watanabes’ house, and had seen nothing. There were never any new cars, no suspicious comings or goings, no package deliveries—nothing. As far as I could tell, they had no social life whatsoever. And I’d come to realize that if I were Timmy, I would make a special effort to arrive during the day when Seiji wasn’t home—and I was working. It pissed me off that I had wasted so much stakeout time, and it didn’t help that Bob and I had had yet another phone fight yesterday.
I sat in the Falcon, stewing; in my shirt pocket, I had a letter from Việt Nam. They were far enough between that I’d made myself wait until after tonight’s vigil to read it. I looked at my watch; 2030. I looked at the house. Nothing. I drove to the Ex-Wife’s Place.
Suzie wasn’t there. Sammo spotted me looking lost and motioned me over. “Suzie’s off tonight; she told me to tell you to come to her place if you showed up.”
“Oh, uh, to her house, uh, apartment. Right?”
His heavy shoulders lifted. “She said you knew where it was,” he said, and turned away to wait on a paying customer. It was easy enough to go buy a couple of bottles at the liquor store, but it was impossible to start the car and drive home. I went through two cigarettes before I was able to turn the key with a trembling hand. It took another cigarette and a big gulp from one of the bottles to get me out of the car and up the steps to look at the names on the buzzers. I pushed “2A Goodman” and nearly ran.
She wore loose white shorts and a lime T-shirt with black lettering that curved over her breasts: “I wish THESE were brains!” “You can’t smoke in my place.”
I took the butt out of my mouth. “Uh—” The hall was too clean to crush it underfoot.
“Oh, for—Give it me.”
“Sorry.” I followed her inside to see her toss the wet remains into the trash. The apartment was small; the door opened into the living room. Nothing but linoleum marked off the kitchen on my right. A short hall led from the kitchen to a single bedroom on the right and a bathroom on the left. On the wall over the sofa hung a large stained-glass sign in the shape of a pair of spectacles with a black frame; orange-and-black Art deco lettering on the lenses spelled out “Dr. Hornsby—Eyeglasses.”
“Here, have a cookie,” she said, handing me a pink Depression glass plate.
I ate one. “Hey. These taste just like Momma’s!”
“She must not be any more of a cook than I am. It’s the box recipe.” She held up the round oat carton.
“She’s an—uninspired—cook,” I admitted. I wolfed another one. Two. Three. “Uh, they’re still good. Good.”
She was amused. “Do I really make you that nervous?”
“Uh. No, no,” I lied.
She stepped too close to me; her hair was down, loose, flowing down her back; her skin was white, and her dark freckles stood out against it as vividly as stars on an astronomical plate. I could feel the warmth from her body. She put her arms around my neck. “Why don’t you ever kiss me?”
“Suze—” I was in a panic, and I let it show.
She let go. “Come have dinner,” she said in a flat voice.
“Suze, I already ate. And you know I—”
“You’re just saying that. Sit. I have more things to get ready.”
I sat. But she was too quiet, so I said, “Uh, maybe I should leave.”
“Don’t you dare,” she said, her back to me.
Desperate for something to ease the pressure, I dug in my pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Mind if I read? I got a letter from my—friend, in Việt Nam.” I’d almost said Mama-san, but she wouldn’t have known what I meant.
“Sure,” she said. “Go ahead.” I couldn’t tell if she was over the hurt or not.
“She’s in Củ Chi. Where I was stationed,” I finished, anti-climactically. There were two letters in the envelope; I read the one from Mama-san first, saving the hand-printed one for last.
“I didn’t know anyone kept in touch with friends in Vietnam. How long have you been writing?” She shook a pan.
“Since I left,” I said. “I wrote to her as soon as I got back, and I got the first reply in March.” Mama-san’s letter, all in Vietnamese, said that there weren’t very many places to work at Củ Chi anymore, and that they were very lucky to have a place with the 86th Signal Battalion. She didn’t know how much longer it was going to last. She and Due, Papa-san, had thought about going to Vũng Tàu, where his brother lived, but had decided that when Củ Chi finally closed they would go to Sàigòn. “We will be safest there, I think,” she wrote. “I hope you are well and that you are happy in your marriage. Love, Thanh.”
I didn’t know the answer to that one. I guessed I was, but Bob and I hadn’t spent enough time together for me to know for sure. I looked at Suzie’s back, and ached.
“I almost forgot,” she said, “I got you some bourbon.” She had to stand on a little ladder to get the bottle out of the cabinet over the refrigerator. “It’s the same brand you drink at the bar.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying not to notice that she stood way too close to pour it. I pulled out the next letter. It had been written in English, in pencil, on thick school paper; every word had been laboriously looked up in a dictionary so she could get every single one of them spelled exactly right.
Suzy parked the bottle on the table. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I choked out. I handed the paper to her.
She read it aloud. “Dear Andi, I love you and I miss you and I want you to come visit me. When are you coming back? Love, XOXOXO, Hue.”
Suzie put an arm around my shoulders. “Can’t you go back?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Not without re-enlisting. Even if I was stupid enough to do that, I wouldn’t have any guarantee they’d send me home—back.” I rubbed my eyes with my free hand. “I should face it. I’ll never see her again.” I looked around, and she handed me a tissue.
Suzie waited while I blew my nose. “At least you’ll have her letters. Some people don’t even have that.” She kissed the top of my head. “And some people never made any friends at all over there. Think about that! All they made was enemies!”
I smiled. “That puts it into perspective.”
“Here. Have another drink. Dinner’s almost ready.”
“You too,” I said. “Don’t want me drinking alone, do you?”
She shrugged, poured herself a glass. She looked at it a while before downing it in one gulp.
“You OK?” I asked.
“Sure, toots. Let me get the food.”
“How come you call me toots?”
“Don’t you like it?”
“I dunno. I guess. But why?”
Her smile broadened. “Ever see The Big Sleep? With Bacall and Bogart? I love those old movies.”
I looked at her with interest; she dumped the pasta in a lavender colander set in the sink. “No kidding.” I liked the way she looked at me, even though I wished she wouldn’t. I cleared my throat and cast about for things to talk about that weren’t about how much I liked to look at her. “That bruise you had last Wednesday. Where’d you get it?”
Her jaw clenched. “Some guy wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “Sammo had to throw him out. Tuesday. Lucky he knows karate. Or one of those martial arts; he studied with that guy on the posters.”
“It made me mad that someone hit you.”
“I could’ve just walked into a door,” she said.
“No, I could tell it wasn’t that. You got home safely that night, but he could have been waiting for you.”
“Sammo walked me home Tuesday. You drove me Wednesday. He hasn’t been back.”
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to come to the bar to get you on the way home.”
“You worry too much.” But she liked it that I worried, and smiled as she forked pasta onto more pink glass plates and spooned marinara sauce over.
I wouldn’t let it rest. I wondered if I were only jealous. I asked anyway. “What’d he look like?”
She rolled her eyes. “What’s it matter? He hasn’t been back. Really.”
“Humor me,” I said.
“Oh, all right. Young and handsome, like a movie star. Slicked-down black hair. A little like Victor Mature. You know, kind of Mediterranean-looking. No glasses.”
I sat up straight. Junior’d said Timmy liked girls too. It was a long shot, but I showed her the photo strip, somewhat beat up for having been kept in my wallet.
“That’s him, and that’s your friend, Mr. Cherry. The one who tried to make you take my phone number.” She smiled. “Why do you have these pictures?”
“Because he stole Phil’s car, and Phil asked if I could try to get it back.”
“No shit? Cool!” She thought a second. “Well, he said I’d really like his car, but he didn’t say what kind it was.”
“I don’t suppose he mentioned where he was staying?”
She shrugged. “Eatontown. Does that help?”
I stood. “I have to go look. Maybe I’ll spot his car.”
Her face closed up like a television shutting down. “Be careful. You’ll call me?”
“I’ll see you at the bar when this is over. Promise.” I stopped at the door and looked back. She rubbed her eyes and smiled. She was sure she’d never see me again. I couldn’t leave it at that; I stepped forward and she came into my arms. I held her long enough to wish I didn’t have to stop. I bent and kissed her on the mouth, quickly, and left.
I got into the old Falcon, and wondered whether I should think about selling it, even though I’d just screwed the plates on that very day. I bet I could sell it to Captain Weed; he’d already borrowed it from me once to haul patio stones. I had helped lift and load. Olivia, his seven-year-old daughter, sat on my lap during the ride and asked him if he were going to become a truck driver.
I headed down Route 35 through Eatontown and toward Route 36 where all the motels are. Army personnel stay there with their families when they arrive for duty at Ft. Monmouth. Several places offered “Efficiency Apartments by the Week/Month.” I figured those were my best bet; all their signs are lit up in the dark, in order to get noticed by Army personnel coming in the night before their report dates. I’d passed three or four when I noticed something on my left. I wasn’t certain, so I went on to the next traffic circle to make a 180. I drove slowly as I came abreast of the efficiencies.
Parked in front of one of the apartment doors was a ’55 Chevy Nomad, the same salmon and charcoal combination that Cherry had described. It had no plates, just a temporary tag stuck in the tailgate window. I pulled in and went to the office of the Surrey Motel. “Lowest Rates. 2 Room Efficiency Apts.” Next door was the Mayes Motel with an unlit “For Sale Or Lease” sign.
The office was at the South end, underneath a black-and-white striped awning that was supposed to stretch the entire length of the building, but the wind had blown the rest of the awning up onto the roof and no one cared enough to flip it down. The whole place was built of brick, painted in multiple thick, pitted layers of white. Every apartment had a picture window, and every picture window had fat venetian blinds pulled firmly closed. Every door had a black-painted frame with the central panel white, and a black fretwork horse-and-carriage stuck at eye-level to conceal a peephole. I opened the glass office door, decorated with Visa and Diner’s Club emblems. The man behind the counter was enormous. “Didn’t you see the sign? No vacancies,” he rumbled.
“I’m not looking for a place to stay. Can I leave a message for the guy in unit 19? I just want to know if his car’s for sale. The Nomad?”
He looked slightly less hostile, now that I wasn’t trying to get him to do any actual work. “His name’s Terry,” he said. “You can leave a message with me or stick it under the wiper blade.”
“It’s safer here, out of the rain.” I wrote an innocuous note on the piece of paper he handed me, gave it to him. “When do you think he’ll get back to me?”
My note was inspected closely. I’d put a fake name and phone number on it. He shrugged. “I don’t see him much. He’s paid up for a month.”
“Thanks. Mind if I go look at the car?”
“Suit yourself,” he said, turning back to what he had been reading before I came in: Penthouse. I’d become used to seeing guys do that in ’Nam, but that didn’t make it any better. Even when they weren’t looking at me, I felt like they were stripping me in their heads.
I left the office and walked down under the roof overhang to unit 19, where I knocked on the door. No answer. I walked over and looked at the car. I inspected the temporary tag through the glass. Philip Cherry. Unidentifiable lumps hid under an old blanket in the cargo compartment. I walked back to the door of 19, and knocked again. I pushed my ear against the door and rattled the knob; it felt cheap.
No. 18’s door opened; a tall, severe-looking woman peered out at me. “No one’s been there for days.” She had iron-grey hair and more than a little iron in her spine.
“I was hoping the station wagon was for sale,” A man peered out behind the woman. I pretended I couldn’t tell he was an officer by his haircut.
“That’s a real nice car, but he hasn’t driven it since we got here.”
“Really? My boyfriend sure would like it if I got him that car.” I blinked and smiled vapidly. The severe-looking woman looked more severe. “How long’s it been here?”
He scratched his head. “We’ve only been here six nights. Waiting for quarters.” I looked blank. “On base. Fort Monmouth. Anyway, we haven’t seen the car move the whole time.”
“Well, thank you so much!” I turned to go.
“We could take a message for him, if you wish,” the man said.
“That’s all right, I left one at the office.”
“Good luck,” the woman said sourly.
“Why? Doesn’t he give people messages?”
“As far as I can tell, that fat slob doesn’t do one thing around here.” She looked back in the apartment. “He’s the owner, and I don’t think he has these places cleaned between renters. Our toilet was filthy, the oven has never been cleaned, and the whole place stinks. I think that’s from the grocery store behind us, so maybe it’s not his fault. There are no maids and we have to change our own bed linen; that is his fault.”
“Well, thanks. Guess I won’t be staying here!” I gave them a cheery wave and walked back to the Falcon.
I sat at my kitchen table with an open bottle of Early Times and thought
about that doorknob. Bob would shit a brick the size of the Pentagon
if he knew what I was contemplating. I couldn’t hide from myself
the notion that that was part of the attraction. I also thought about
Suzie, and when I did I took another drink, and another one after that.
I set my alarm and tried to sleep.
When the alarm went off at 0200, I was grateful. I had drifted in and out of something I was too wired to call sleep. I changed into dark jeans and a navy shirt, dug my toolbox out of the living room closet, finished the bourbon, and locked up behind me. The toolbox went into the Falcon’s bed and I headed down 35, careful not to speed.
I drove by the Surrey Motel slowly, counting the doors from the far end. I’d go in the front if I had to—that cheap lock wouldn’t keep anyone out—but I hoped for a back door. There were twenty-four units, which made number 19 the sixth from the end. All lights were off except for the blinking neon sign, “No Vacancy.” Even the office and the sign pointing to it were dark, which I hadn’t expected, but was grateful for: Penthouse boy actively discouraged late guests. I looked for cross streets.
I turned left at the next stoplight; that led me to a street parallel to the efficiencies, and between that street and the motel was an alley. I could see all the back doors of the apartments. I parked the Falcon as many blocks away as my nerves would allow. I chose the biggest screwdriver from the toolbox—it was easily 30 inches long—and took it with me. The flashlight had new batteries; the .38 made a small bulge in my pocket. I tossed my cigarette away and pulled on driving gloves; it was eight blocks to the motel. The moonless night enhanced the slight chilliness. The streetlights that worked were mostly concentrated on other streets, so I was able to shave some distance off my route by going through a few yards.
The alley was paved, not graveled. I was able to walk right up to the back of unit 19 without noise. I gave a gentle twist to the knob, but it was locked. No lights shone through any of the motel windows. The back of the big grocery store on the other side of the alley was blank and effectively blocked passers’-by view of the rear of the motel. Several feral cats clustered around a dumpster and eyed me warily.
I aimed the flashlight at the latch of 19’s window; it too was locked, but it looked even cheaper than the knob. I stuck the screwdriver in the wood between the sill and the window and levered it softly. The latch gave with a very small thump. I held the gun in one hand and eased the pane open with the other.
A wall of stink hit me like a sandbag in the face; Timmy wasn’t ever going to turn up on Philip Cherry’s doorstep. I didn’t want to go in, but the key to Phil’s car had to be in there and he was counting on me. I tucked the gun back into my pocket, took a deep breath and climbed in the window. If I could shovel pigshit in Indonesia, I could get through this.
There were dirty dishes in the sink, but no water. I moved what I could and crawled over the rest, but I still got some nasty slime on my left knee. The first thing I did was unlock the back door’s cheap lock; I could have popped it with the screwdriver and made less noise than I had with the window. The whole place was built worse than some mobile homes I’d worked on, as if it would last no more than a year.
The blinds were all shut, cutting down but not eliminating the possibility that someone could see the flashlight; I clicked it on and off. I couldn’t see much till I moved through the doorway separating the kitchen from the main room. There was a bed, a sofa, and a nightstand and dresser made of thin-guage steel. And a dark lump with blurry edges, the source of the smell, by the front door. I moved closer to the dresser; most people, when emptying their pockets before settling in for the night, put all their pocket cruft somewhere they’ll be able to find it again. I always dumped my coins and cigarettes and lighter into my hat. No luck.
I checked the drawers and the closet; there were clothes in them. Timmy had planned to stay a while. No keys, no gym bag full of Phil’s letters. Nothing in the nightstand drawer but a Gideon Bible. I went back and searched the kitchen. Still nothing. My gut clenched at the thought of going through Timmy’s pockets. Before I did that, I should make sure the body was his. I shone the flashlight in its face. Timmy Watanabe, purple as an eggplant, a hole the size of a nickel in his forehead, stared at the ceiling. I was pissed; I’d wanted him dead and someone had beaten me to it.
My gorge rose as I squatted, but at least I had gloves. I flashed the light back on, waved it across the floor. Nothing. I reached for his pocket and stopped. I took a deep breath, and remembered I’d seen a pair of kitchen shears in the drying rack I’d moved to get in. I got them and crouched next to the oozing body: snip, snip. Nothing. I remembered; the bruise on Suzie’s face was on her right, which meant Timmy was a southpaw. I clipped open the other pocket. My shoulderblades relaxed; I hadn’t realized I was that tense. The kitchen gloves let me work the keys out without touching him directly, but I could still feel, and the gelid mass made me queasy. The missing billfold was probably in his butt pocket, but I figured he deserved to keep it; all I cared about was the Chevy key.
I closed and locked the kitchen window. I turned the knob on the cheap lock so it would latch behind me and carried my screwdriver with me around the side of the building. When there were no oncoming headlights, I slid behind the wheel of the Chevy, which started on the first turn of the key. I was halfway home before the reaction hit. I pulled over in a side street to light a cigarette and search the car. Under the blanket was the gym bag with Phil and Arnie’s letters.
I parked the wagon in one of the guest slots and tossed the gloves into the dumpster. Inside, I chugged a quarter bottle of bourbon before climbing into the shower to scrub myself raw. I wondered if I would ever get the stink of decay out of my nose. I’d only been gone an hour and a half, but it felt like a month. I fell asleep thinking how pleased Phil was going to be. The alarm woke me two hours later with barely time to get dressed; luckily, I had a pre-ironed uniform. I was a couple of minutes late, but Captain Weed smiled and asked how I was feeling; he shot me a funny look when I said, “Fine, sir. Damn fine.”
I took a cab at lunchtime to pick up the Falcon and drive it back to Ft. Monmouth. It was a splurge; I could have asked the Captain to haul me around, but I had a different favor I wanted from him. Late in the afternoon, I asked if I could take Friday off. “Without a lot of paperwork. Would that be possible? Sir?”
“Now, does this involve a lot of drinking, Specialist?”
“Uh, no, sir. I’d like to deliver a car to a friend of mine at Ft. Drum, sir.”
“Male or female?”
“Cars, boats and hurricanes are female, sir.”
“One more like that and you can forget it, Holmes.”
“Ah. Does your husband know?”
“Is my personal life really your concern, sir?”
He sighed. “I could make a case for it, Holmes. Upholding the morality of the modern military, and all that.” I started to open my mouth. “But I won’t, because you’re right, I wouldn’t ask a man these questions.”
“Uh, thanks. I guess. Sir.”
He waited, playing with his pencil and watching me. Finally, I asked, “Sir? May I go?”
“Yes, of course. Take Thursday, too; there’s nothing going on and I can type enough to get by. But—I was hoping to extort a little more information from you.”
“Sorry, sir. My friend—and he’s just a friend—lost his car and asked me to find it for him. I found it. I’d like to take it to him and see upstate New York. You probably don’t want to know any more than that, sir.”
He slapped the pencil down on the blotter and sighed. “I should know better, shouldn’t I?”
“I should know better than to ask for information from a woman who carries a switchblade.”
“Sir, you promised you wouldn’t bring that up.”
“You’re right. And notice that I’m not even curious where you keep it.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.”
I turned back to my typing and went back to work. He went back to reading his briefing handbook.
A few minutes later, he said, “And I’ve even forgotten all about the time you made me ride in the back of that goddamn deuce-and-a-half. Completely forgotten. Gone. Wiped out.”
“Like it never happened, sir.”
Later, I sold him the Falcon; he forced me to take $80. He
me to my apartment and waited while I signed the title over to
After he left, I burned the photo strip of Timmy and Phil, then drove
Miss Agnes to the Eatontown diner and had a steak dinner to
but I didn’t feel joyful. I’d promised Suzie
I’d come and see
her after it was all over, but I was too scared. Instead, I brought
home two bottles of tequila and nearly finished both before I passed
I was sitting on the sofa in a T-shirt and my boxers at 2220, watching the news, waiting for Dick Cavett; my goal was to watch all of Cavett and get to the bottom of the second bottle. Someone pounded on the door. “Hol’ on!” I yelled. I stood up, tripped on the coffee table and nearly fell. I clutched the robe around me and opened the door. “Fuck you want?”
Suzie shoved in and slapped me hard enough to cause stars. “I thought you were dead! If you’re that scared of me you could have called the fucking bar! Which arm would that have cost?”
I held my cheek. After a minute of slow, blurred thought, I said, “You don’ know where I live.”
“I’ll forget I found out.” She turned and started down the stairs.
I staggered out onto the landing and said, “Wait!” She looked back. “Drink?” Something somewhere in my brain was jumping up and down, trying to get my attention. She took another step, looked back.
She pointed to the half-bottle in my right hand. “How many of those have you had?”
I scratched my head. I held up two fingers. That didn’t seem right; I used my left hand to fold one in half.
“Christ.” She trotted up the stairs and grabbed the bottle, pushed me out of the way, slammed the door. “Did you eat?”
“Food? Um. Steak?” She relaxed a little. “Ah, Tuesday! Yah. Tuesday.” I smiled, proud of my memory. “Say! How’d you get here?”
“You’re in the phone book, stupid.”
“Oh. Whatya lookin’ for?”
“All gone. Fuzzy. Threw out.” I hiccuped. “Up.” She turned on the hot water. “Don’ haffa do dat.”
“You’re going to be a wreck tomorrow at work.” She washed herself a glass and poured a double shot.
“Don’ haffa work. Goin’ Noo Yawk.”
“You won’t be able to drive.”
“’Course I can.” I hooked the bottle off the counter and drank.
“If I order pizza will you eat some?”
“Give us a kiss.”
She picked up the phone and dialed a number she knew by heart. I sat on the sofa with the bottle and waited. “The pizza’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Can you put some clothes on before he gets here?”
I stood, looked around vaguely. “Um.”
She made an exasperated sound and tugged my robe together to tie the belt.
I staggered a little and put my hand on her shoulder to balance myself, felt the close warmth of her body. I blinked. “Wanna fuck?”
She froze for a second. “I don’t fuck drunks.”
“’Sgood. Neither do I.”
She had to work at keeping a straight face. “Here, sit down and stop drinking.”“No.”
I opened my eyes to discover I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of Phil’s car; Suzie was driving and we were heading North on the Garden State Parkway. “What the fuck?”
Suzie glanced at me. “What what?”
“What the hell is going on? The last thing I remember is eating pizza.”
“You had a blackout, then. Haven’t you had those before? My friend Emily used to have ’em.”
“Used to? How’d she stop them?”
“She died. She moved to Minneapolis—like Mary Tyler Moore, y’know?—and froze to death her first winter there.”
“Shit.” I watched her drive; she wore a white denim jacket over a red tube top that exposed too much skin, tight white jeans and shiny white patent leathers. “What are you doing here?”
“Driving you,” she said. “You were too drunk.”
“Do you even have a license?’
“What, I need to pass a driving test?” She slowed for the Union Toll Plaza.
I sniffed my armpit. “I don’t stink.”
“That’s because I stripped you naked and shoved you in the shower.”
“Oh, hell. What else did you do?”
She threw a token into the toll basket and accelerated. “You scream when you come.”
“I do n—I thought you said you didn’t fuck drunks! Goddam—” I shut up when I saw the little smile.
“You’re awful easy to tease.”
“Just for that, you can wait until we get there to find out why we’re going.”
I tucked the check into my wallet and leaned back in the booth. “I had four candidates, people Timmy could conceivably call when he arrived in town. Sunny, Bunny, Junior and Shirley Watanabe.”
“Hmm. Sunny and Bunny?”
“Yesterday’s paper gave the date of Timmy’s death as the tenth, two days before the cops ‘discovered’ Billy’s body in the meat locker. The only reason for Sunny and/or Bunny to kill him was if they had known that he’d killed Billy. Billy was still considered only missing when Timmy was murdered.”
He nodded. “And Junior? What about him?”
“I thought he was a viable candidate, since he was Billy’s best friend. But I remembered that he’d told me he was going out on another run, leaving Thursday, and wouldn’t be back for ten days. I had the name of the trucking company where he worked; they verified he worked there, verified his description, and verified the times he was on the road. He was in West Virginia getting his truck unloaded—his signature on the paperwork proves it—and couldn’t possibly have made it back.”
“Which leaves Shirley. You’re sure there weren’t any other suspects?”
“Oh, sure, it could have been a total stranger, knocking on doors and plugging thugs at random.”
Suzie laughed. “So what did happen?”
“If I had started watching the Watanabes’ house on the 10th instead of waiting until the next day, I might have seen Shirley leaving at a very unusual hour. I called her after Timmy’s body had been found. She wouldn’t meet me in person, said I couldn’t prove anything. I told her that she was the one who had to live with her conscience. She hung up on me.”
“You think she has a conscience? A woman who shot her own son?”
“Of course she does. That’s why Timmy’s dead. Remember, I told you that the girl Timmy got pregnant, the one who died, was his sister, the Watanabes’ biological daughter. Shirley got pregnant not three months after she and Seiji adopted Timmy.
“Naturally, the paper didn’t say a damn thing about Janine Watanabe being six months pregnant, but since she was only 15, you can bet that her death involved something fishy. The obit claimed ‘health problems’ but didn’t say what she died of; Shirley said it was a miscarriage that killed her. I couldn’t get anything else out of her, so I went back to talk to Sunny; according to her, the Watanabes used to be pretty sociable folks. They sent their kids to public school, attended all the PTA meetings, went to chili suppers and pancake breakfasts. Seiji donated money to the sports teams, and could always be counted on to give money to a school cause, even after Timmy was thrown off the track team and Janine was no longer attending school. She was in that unwed mothers’ home. When Janine died, they fell apart. They not only stopped seeing their friends, they withdrew completely.” I lit a cigarette.
“But why would she give you those postcards if she was planning to kill Timmy? I don’t get that.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “My best guess is that Shirley wasn’t planning it when she talked to me and asked me to let her know if I found him. If he called her up and let slip that he’d killed Billy, say, then that, combined with what he’d done to his sister, could have pushed her over the edge.”
“But you don’t have real proof for any of this.”
“It’s all circumstantial.”
Suzie and Phil glanced at each other. “So what happens to her?”
“I’m happy to leave things the way they are. You didn’t see that wall of photographs at Frank Stevens’ house.” I wondered if I could write a letter to Stevens without it sounding crazy: “Dear Sir, I found out who killed your daughter but I don’t know where the body is and I can’t tell you who, but I took care of him. Love, Anonymous.” Well, that spoiled it: I wasn’t going to do it if I couldn’t take credit.
Suzie piped up. “What about the gun? Did you ask her about it?”
“They live fifty feet from the water line; I think that gun’s on the bottom of Branchport Creek.” I held up my little finger. “The entrance hole in Timmy’s forehead was about that big. If the cops dredge it up, I bet they’d find a .357 magnum. It’s about the biggest gun a woman her size could handle without getting knocked on her butt.”
“Uck. I wish I hadn’t asked.”
Phil shuddered. “It’s going to bother me for a long time.”
Suzie said, “It’s creepy, yeah, but what’s gonna bother me is a mom who’d kill her own son.”
I shrugged. “A son who got his own sister pregnant.” I lit another cigarette from the butt of the one I had going. Suzie waved the air. “The thing is, I know exactly where she was coming from.”
They looked puzzled. “Did you ever have to kill a rabid dog?” I asked them. They shook their heads. “I did once, in Jakarta. I was thirteen, I was the one who carried a knife—and Horatio-at-the-Bridge was my dog. He had already tried to bite several of the other kids before they told me he’d gone mad. And—” I swallowed. “Horry didn’t know any better; I couldn’t explain to him why he had to die. But I couldn’t ask anyone else to do it. I had no choice.”
The three of us got drunk that night, roaring stinking falling-down drunk, throbbing, head-pounding jelly-kneed hangover drunk, on ice-cold pepper-hot Tequila. Sometime before I lost my memory, Phil dug in the overnight bag I’d retrieved for him and pulled out a picture, which he passed around. “That’s Arnie,” he said. “Ain’t he cute?”
Suzie snuggled up to me. “What about you? You got any pictures?” Her hands wrapped around my arm. “Show ’em!”
“Nah, no pictures.” I reached for the bottle, but Suzie stretched to get my wallet. “Hey!”
I put out my hand, she turned her back, opened, dug. “Damn,” she said. “She’s right, Phil, not a single fucking picture!” She dug deeper. “What’s this?” She held up the lock of shiny black dead girl’s hair that had been hidden in the back of my wallet.
I took another drink of Tequila. “Drop it, Suze.”
She opened her mouth, but she saw that Phil knew whose hair it was; he looked at it a minute, quiet as a rock. Finally, he asked, “So why did you marry Bob?”
But I remember nothing I said or did after that.
Thor hammered out lightning bolts and rattled sheep’s bones inside my skull; Loki laughed. Phil and I sat in his kitchen; Suzie slept on the sofa. We spoke in low tones to avoid waking her. “Goddammit, Phil, why are you so stinking sensitive? You’re a guy, you’re supposed to be oblivious!”
“If I were a dumb jock, life would be simpler. Life would be simpler if we were all stupid.” He watched as I lit a cigarette. “What the hell are you going to do?”
“Wait. Wait for my enlistment to end, wait to leave Jersey, go back to Chicago, wait for the end of the war.”
“Wait to fall out of lust with Suzie? It’s better if you face it, you know.”
I turned my head. Becalmed. I was becalmed in New Jersey, which might not be Venus, but was a dead ringer for Hell. I was twenty miles up and all I could see was hot, bare dirt—and Suzie, eternally out of reach. “There’s nothing to face, Phil.”
“Suzie’s in love with you. You’re breaking her heart.”
“We are just friends.”
“Most people aren’t terrified of their ‘friends’,” said Phil.
I glanced out the bus window at the scenery; upstate New York rolled by. It started to rain, a gentle soft mist that sent me back to monsoon season on Highway 1. Suzie fell asleep on my shoulder, both comforting me and knotting me with anxiety; I could be strong, I told myself. I tried to read, but the check I was using as a bookmark, the check Phil had written me, kept distracting me. He’d been generous; the car—and his and Arnie’s life and reputation—meant something to him. “A. Holmes, PI” had a nice ring to it, I thought. I thought about little Stella Stevens, Janine Watanabe and Billy Franchotti. I thought about Timmy Watanabe, too, but there was no place in my heart that wasn’t glad he was dead.