Wanted for Questioning
By Tom Mitchell
Copyright 2011 Tom Mitchell
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Neil crossed the prison lobby and came to a halt at the metal detector outside Control, a room encased in bulletproof glass and outfitted with TV monitors, two-way radios and banks of telephones.
A guard with a ruddy complexion addressed him through a grille. “We’re locked down, I need to see your identification card.”
He got out his wallet and held up a photo ID: Massachusetts Department of Correction, Neil McGuire. His hair was short in the picture, taken two years earlier when he started working at the prison. Since then he had let it grow long. And lately the circles under his eyes had darkened, making him look older than his twenty-eight years.
“Your pal came through ten minutes ago,” the guard said, writing on a clipboard. “No going beyond the ad’ building.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Stabbing. Hewitt, Charles. Did you know him?”
Neil didn’t respond.
“Shower room, blood everywhere.” The guard glanced over his shoulder at a black guard, then leaned close to the glass. “Colored boy.” He searched Neil’s eyes as if he could read another man’s thoughts. “Step through,” he said, redirecting his gaze.
Neil placed his keys and pocket change on a tray, and carried his leather portfolio through the metal detector. No beep.
The guard waved him on.
Numbed by the news of Charles Hewitt’s murder, Neil watched his shoes lead him down a narrow cinder block corridor. A massive steel door rolled sideways and he stepped into a windowless box with a surveillance camera up in one corner. As the door clanged shut he pictured a rat crouched in the start box of a maze about to run a bewildering labyrinth.
The door on the opposite wall opened with a rush of cold air. He followed an icy walkway to the administration building. Inside, he passed the empty visiting room and climbed a set of stairs to the second floor.
Bernie, his partner, was nowhere in sight. He decided to try the records room. Their supervisor had been politicking for an office in the administration building for nearly two years. No results yet. When they weren’t able to borrow an office, they had to meet with inmates on the first floor in a supply room, surrounded by mops and pails and cartons of toilet paper.
No one looked up as he entered the records room; the clatter of typewriters made it difficult to hear anybody come in. He sat up front in a wooden chair next to the coffee urn.
A telephone rang. “Records, Diane speaking.” She was new, still giving her name when she answered the phone.
He turned his attention to the coffee urn, filled a Styrofoam cup and dropped a dime in the collection mug. Then he took out his appointment book. Friday, February 2, 1973: two new men set up for the afternoon, have to phone the wives and reschedule; Charles Hewitt at eleven—scratch Charles.
Hard to get used to it, people dying before their time.
Almost a year now since his kid brother got killed in the war. His mother didn’t seem to remember much about the soldiers who came to the house or what they said, and she waited a whole week to let him know Richie was gone. After his first tour in Vietnam the two of them got drunk one night. Richie’s war stories left Neil with searing images of adrenaline-stoked rampages, young soldiers turned hellhounds avenging the deaths of buddies. Not home six weeks, he re-enlisted. Combat had gotten into his blood. On the second tour his letters all began with “How’s everything on the home front?” He didn’t say much about himself and less about what he was doing. Sometimes he might describe the countryside, or a sunrise. Mostly he asked for news about goings-on back home.
Neil clenched his teeth. A year since Richie’s funeral. It seemed longer.
And now Charles Hewitt was dead, the prison in a lockdown. Guards scouring the place for weapons, body-searching every man, cell by cell. They’d find plenty of weapons, always did; the risk of getting caught without a weapon far outweighed the risk of getting caught with one.
Then it struck Neil, he might be the only person working there who knew why Charles Hewitt was murdered. The prison locked down and here he was, camped out on a chair in the records room drinking coffee, knowing full well what got Charles killed.
A hand on his shoulder startled him. “Guess you heard,” said a familiar voice with a Southern accent.
“Yeah, Bernie, I did.” Neil got up from the chair and faced him.
Bernie was a couple of inches taller and heavier set. Rimless glasses and a full beard gave him an avuncular presence that belied his age. He continued in his Carolina drawl. “Glenn wants to talk to us, says an investigator from the state police might want to ask some questions, or the assistant warden, wasn’t sure who.”
“You go ahead. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“Sid’s driving out,” Bernie added, turning to leave. “He wanted to be in on the meeting.”
The wooden chair left Neil with a stiff neck. He rolled it gingerly back and forth, finished the coffee, and thought about what to say if the subject of his notes came up. For once he was glad they didn’t have an office. The notes were at home, there’d be time to change them. Sid was an easygoing supervisor but—now with Charles murdered—he’d be irate if he found out what went on their last session.
Bernie stood waiting outside Glenn’s door. Lettering on the frosted glass read Chief of Rehabilitation Services. When they entered, Glenn, in his customary three-piece suit, straightened the papers on his desk and motioned for them to sit down.
“Gentlemen,” he said, giving them a patronizing nod, “I’ll ask that you not discuss any of this outside the prison. Neil, you were seeing Mr. Hewitt?”
“And his sister.”
Glenn consulted a sheet of paper. On the wall behind him was a Master of Social Work diploma from Boston University. Next to it, a framed photograph showed a younger Glenn proudly pumping the arm of Joe Vollmer, two-term ex-Governor, currently back on the front page for his indictment in a highway construction scandal. “…Esther Johnson, a sister, is listed as next of kin.”
“Oh? She didn’t mention you. I conveyed the news by telephone, a painful task.” Glenn’s gaze lowered reverently. He took the opportunity to adjust the silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. “I’ve touched on this briefly with Bernie. In my experience these investigations can become rather complex. You understand that public discussion of Mr. Hewitt’s affairs would be neither appropriate professionally, nor would it serve the best interests of justice.”
“I understand.” Yes, Glenn, I understand what a pompous ass you are.
“Good. As professionals, we all grasp the importance of keeping this in the family.” He bared his teeth in a cloying smile. “Sid’s on his way. A state police investigator may want to interview you, Neil. From your sessions with Mr. Hewitt you could be privy to facts that bear on the investigation, improbable but one never can tell. When Sid arrives, as I advised him when we spoke, you’re welcome to use my office. Questions, gentlemen?”
Bernie and Neil exchanged glances. “None right now,” Neil replied. “We’ll wait down in the cafeteria.”
* * *
“Here he is, Bernie. At last.” Neil pushed away a half-empty coffee cup.
In his fifties and overweight, Sid tramped stiffly across the cafeteria’s checkerboard floor. “Where do all the friggin’ cars come from on Fridays?” He looked at Neil. “Too bad about your man, Neil. We’ll talk upstairs.” He did an about-face and led the way.
Sid tilted back in Glenn’s swivel chair, peeled the cellophane off a cigar, and lit up with the silver lighter he kept in his jacket pocket. “You form attachments,” he began, “it’s natural. When I was first in this business, I took one of my state wards to a Red Sox game. The kid had a terrific time. Next day, a Sunday”—Sid paused to catch his breath—“the little putz throws himself in front of a streetcar. Had me depressed for months.”
Neil shrugged. “Charles Hewitt and I never really connected.”
“Not surprising, hard to get through to these guys.” Sid turned to Bernie. “I don’t recall us going over any of Hewitt’s sessions.”
“We haven’t. Neil’s talked to me about him some.”
“I was scheduled to see him this morning.”
“How about a quick summary.”
“I started meeting with him and his older sister, Esther, three months ago. After release he was going to live with her and her husband.” Neil rubbed the back of his neck. “He was twenty-five, in for dealing heroin. He’d done close to four years of a ten-year sentence, got denied his first time up for parole. Didn’t say much in the sessions. Real aloof.”
Sid reached for an ashtray.
“Early on, we got into some family history but lately we talked mostly about getting a job and the situation at Esther’s. Her husband and Charles didn’t hit it off; she was worried about that. The husband had lined up a job in an auto body shop but Charles didn’t want any job his brother-in-law helped him get.”
Bernie looked at Neil. “Weren’t you starting to tell me, a few days back, you had an interesting session with him?”
“Oh, right. Last Friday Esther phoned and canceled. Car trouble. Charles asked if we could meet without her. I made an exception to our rule, figured it would be okay. He opened up a bit, said he was tired of the drug scene. Recently his old girlfriend started coming out for visits. She’s attractive. I saw them in the visiting room. He wanted to marry her.” Neil thought about how much he should say. “We talked more about the auto body job. Why not give it a shot, I said. He knew he wasn’t going anywhere without a job lined up, told me he’d reconsider it. At the end of the session he even thanked me.”
Sid studied his cigar, rolling it between his fingertips. “When a man’s time gets short, there’s often men who’ll try to make trouble for him, out of jealousy, to settle a score, or whatever. Hewitt mention anybody giving him grief?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“You‘ve got good notes of the sessions?”
Sid gestured toward Neil’s leather portfolio, propped up against the leg of his chair. “Let’s have a look at your notes. The investigator might want them for the record.”
“The file’s in my desk at home,” Neil said, doing his best to sound frustrated.
“We should go over your file—pain in the ass, not having an office out here. How about we get together tomorrow sometime?”
“On the weekend? It can’t wait till Monday?”
Sid’s face darkened. He looked at Bernie, and back to Neil. “Neil, a man’s been murdered. The one thing we can contribute to the investigation is your notes. All I’m asking is we go over the notes, make a copy for us and offer the originals to whoever’s in charge of the investigation, that’s all.”
“I understand, Sid. But Monday morning would be a lot better for me.”
“Okay then, first thing Monday. Let’s get together out here, eight thirty sharp. Bernie, I’d like you here too.”
Glenn’s phone rang. Sid answered it. “Kaminsky here. …We did. …Don’t think so. …Fine, Glenn, we’ll be right down.” He hung up. “A state police detective would like to speak with us in the warden’s office.”
The warden’s secretary offered them coffee, which they declined. A placard on the reception area wall admonished visitors NO SMOKING. Sid, minus his cigar, had already started to fidget. Neil inquired if there was a telephone he could use to cancel his afternoon appointments. She let him use one of hers. Then Bernie made a call.
Finally an intercom box squawked out something unintelligible, and she led them into the warden’s office, a large room with windows that looked through a chain-link fence into the prison yard. The warden sat unsmiling behind an oak desk, the assistant warden sitting at his side, not three feet away—Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a pair of jut-jawed Dick Tracy clones. Glenn and a well dressed man Neil presumed was the state police detective were seated on a couch.
Glenn did the introductions: Warden Sanders, Assistant Warden Cox, Captain Jack Garrity of the state police, Sid Kaminsky, Bernie Rosenkranz, Neil McGuire.
Sid had been introduced to the warden before but Neil and Bernie were meeting him for the first time. The warden and his assistant shook their hands without getting up, while Captain Garrity stood to greet them. Garrity was as tall as Bernie, bull-necked and round-faced, with the ready smile and firm handshake of a seasoned politico.
The warden pointed them toward chairs. “Sid, I hear you and Glenn go back a ways.”
Sid grinned. “Long ways, hey Glenn? Met at BU on the GI bill. Glenn was the brainy one. Me? If it wasn’t for Uncle Sam, I’d still be driving a cab. We sure had some good times back then.”
“Bet you did,” said the warden. “Heady days, those were, after the war. Wish we had time to chat but I wanted to give Jack a chance to go over a few things. Then you boys can make this a three-day weekend.”
Captain Garrity sat with a spiral notebook balanced on one knee. He turned to Neil. “Glenn tells me Charles Hewitt and his sister were being seen in counseling by you, Neil.”
“Right, he was planning to live with her when he got out.”
“If you don’t mind, Captain,” Sid interrupted, “some background on our program, what it’s designed to—”
“I don’t need—”
“A brief explanation. We provide family counseling to inmates coming up for parole, get their family members out to the prison before release.”
“Sounds like a good concept.” Garrity bobbed his head acquiescently and turned back to Neil. “How long were you seeing Hewitt and his sister?”
“Three months, nine or ten sessions. Not every week. If his sister couldn’t come out, we’d cancel the session. Like last Friday, she left me a message her car wouldn’t start.”
“Then you hadn’t seen Hewitt for two weeks?”
“Actually, as things turned out, I did see him last Friday. Got her message too late. Ordinarily when the family member cancels out, I’ll ask a guard to phone the cellblock so the inmate doesn’t come over to the ad’ building for nothing. Anyway, Hewitt surprised me, said he’d like to talk if that was okay with me.”
“I see,” Garrity said. “Then it was a week ago you met with him alone for…how long?”
Neil cleared his throat. Relax, he told himself, be cool. “Our sessions last fifty minutes.”
The answer occasioned a puzzled look from the assistant warden toward his boss. From what Neil could make out, the warden ignored him and continued to leaf through a thick manila folder on his desk.
“I should explain one thing here,” Neil went on, “we have a rule if we see a man without his wife he isn’t allowed to discuss their relationship. You know, so we don’t get caught in the middle? But with a sister I didn’t think the rule was that important.”
Garrity nodded. “And what did he talk about?”
“About wanting to change his life, stop dealing drugs, even stop doing drugs. This past month, since around Christmas, his old girlfriend started to visit. Getting back together with her was important to him.”
“In your opinion, she was a positive influence?”
“Absolutely. She warned him it was either her or drugs. They were thinking about getting married.”
“Did he ever tell you he was in any kind of jam?”
“Beefs with other inmates?”
Neil shook his head no.
Garrity jotted something in his notebook. “…Far as you know, he wasn’t in a gang?”
“From what little he told me, he kept pretty much to himself.”
“Anything else you can think of, Neil, from your counseling sessions, from talking with his sister, or plain old intuition, anything that might relate to the stabbing?”
Neil looked down, allowed several seconds to tick off in order to appear extra conscientious about the answer he gave, then looked up. “Not a thing, Captain.”
Garrity turned to Warden Sanders and Assistant Warden Cox. “Other questions?”
The warden tapped a pen on his desk pad. “Wouldn’t appear Hewitt was the type who’d tell his woes to a counselor.” He flipped shut the manila file folder and glanced at Cox.
Neil sensed some friction between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Sid spoke up. “Warden, we keep comprehensive clinical notes of our sessions. Neil’s notes are at home—we don’t have an office out here yet—but we can bring Hewitt’s complete file out on Monday, sooner if you’d prefer.”
“Want to see their file?” the warden asked Garrity.
Sid straightened up in his chair. “Where will you be on Monday, Captain?”
The warden pointed to Glenn. “Bring Glenn the file, he’s our liaison man. He’ll be in constant touch with Jack throughout the investigation.”
“That’s best,” Garrity agreed.
Warden Sanders set the manila folder aside and looked at his wristwatch. “Noon already. Chow time. Thanks for your assistance, boys. Sid, nice seeing you again.”
Sid went over to the warden’s desk and shook his hand, then shook hands with the assistant warden and Captain Garrity. Dutifully, Bernie and Neil did the same. When Garrity shook Neil’s hand, he gave it a viselike squeeze and held on longer than Neil anticipated.
* * *
Bernie, Sid and Neil walked out of the administration building together, across the icy concrete walkway that led to the steel box, and past Control, where an older guard behind the glass acknowledged Sid with a friendly wave.
By the time they reached the parking lot, Neil felt lightheaded with relief. Under the circumstances he had acquitted himself well, he thought. The art of prevarication took practice. And over the weekend he’d be getting more practice, rewriting his notes.
Sid lit a cigar and invited them to lunch, on him. Neil begged off, claiming he had no appetite, which conveniently was true. Bernie said he’d been trying to lose weight. So the three of them went their separate ways.
Neil drove his old Saab home on autopilot, his mind on other things. He needed to fix his notes. If he had consulted with Sid about his last session with Charles Hewitt, none of this might have happened. Everything discussed in these sessions will be held in strictest confidence, he boasted to inmates, in strictest confidence. He kept his promise at least. Besides, he wasn’t getting paid to spy on people. A hundred years from now they’d be killing each other in prisons, nothing he did was going to change that.
A package had been left on the front porch, addressed to the landlords. The only thing in the mailbox was his roommate’s Rolling Stone. Neil climbed the flight of stairs to their apartment and deposited the Rolling Stone on the kitchen table.
He shared the top two floors of the house with Michael, a graduate student. The landlords, Lou and Howard, Armenian brothers in their seventies, lived on the first floor. In Neil’s three years of living there, he had never seen Lou or Howard away from the house when they weren’t together. They walked down the hill together; they went for Sunday drives in their ‘53 Studebaker together; and they shopped at the local supermarket together, taking turns putting items in the cart.
Neil grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and headed up to his room on the third floor. The landing on the stairs between the second and third floors had a gaudy stained glass window, the closest he had come to a church since his brother’s funeral. Once in his room he went directly to his desk and opened the drawer where he kept his notes.
Right away he found what he wanted, C.H. 11/72.
His notes were prefaced with shorthand from the prison file. 15, quit school, shoplift, juvie hall. 16, taken in by sis, loses job, juvie hall car theft. Adult, drug possess, 6 mos county jail, 2nd offense, sells heroin to cop, state prison.
He remembered visiting Charles’s sister Esther in the projects, sitting with her on the sofa having tea and cookies, and those sweet little kids of hers gaping at him from the kitchen doorway, wondering who was this man asking questions about Uncle Charles. Esther told glowing stories about how generous Charles was to her children, bringing them presents, sitting them on his knee while they opened the boxes. She agreed to come out to the prison once a week but explained her husband wouldn’t be coming due to his work schedule. As Neil was leaving, she cautioned him about the gangs that loitered between the buildings. It was October. A midafternoon sun hung over the tops of the yellow brick high-rises, one indistinguishable from the next, like mushrooms sprung out of nowhere—the place was built on a landfill.
Esther attended the sessions faithfully and stayed generally upbeat. Charles, on the other hand, brooded. He was unenthusiastic about the prospect of living under the same roof as her husband. Then when Valerie, his old girlfriend, came into the picture, his mood improved. He asked whether she could attend the sessions with Esther, but Neil was forced to hold him to the rule that only relatives were allowed to participate in the program. Still, after that, all he wanted to talk about was Valerie.
The last session’s notes were the shortest, two pages. Two pages that needed rewriting. Neil sat there at his desk, thinking about that last session, wishing he had it to do over.
* * *
Charles showed up promptly at eleven, a striking man with bronze skin and wide-set eyes, not as tall as Neil but far more muscular. The baggy prison-issue denim shirt and trousers couldn’t conceal his build—he spent his daily exercise periods lifting weights.
“Esther called to cancel,” Neil told him. “Car wouldn’t start.”
Charles smirked. “Husband’s a mechanic, right?”
Charles’s face was hard to read, although it was mainly a question of whether he was looking a little more sullen or little less sullen. Now he looked more sullen than usual.
“Just relaying the message, Charles. A guard called your cellblock but you were already on your way over.”
“Can we talk anyhow?”
Neil hesitated before answering. “If you want.”
They walked down a dead-end corridor to a door labeled SUPPLIES. Neil went in first. The air was overheated and stale. The one window in the room, a barred window high on a wall, hadn’t been washed for so long it was more translucent than transparent. Cartons of toilet paper were stacked haphazardly in a corner, and assorted mops and pails and cleaning solutions littered the concrete floor. Three folding metal chairs occupied the center of the space. Neil closed the door, and the two men sat facing each other.
Charles began. “I might take that body shop job, get my act together. Valerie’s too good to lose, she ain’t gonna put up with a whole lot of shit from me.” He looked away self-consciously. “We’re talking about getting married. Having kids. I need something for us to rely on, cars are always getting dented.” He rambled on about the plans they were making.
Neil had seen them together in the visiting room. Valerie was pretty and knew how to dress.
Charles said she had a steady job at Filene’s Basement, and a decent apartment big enough for them and a child. Her mother lived nearby. Valerie could go back to work after the baby was born. They could save their money, maybe buy an old house and fix it up. He said he realized the life he’d been leading was a ticket to nowhere; the people he called his friends weren’t real friends, all they cared about was getting high and partying. Valerie hadn’t abandoned him when he first went to prison, he explained defensively, she had put him on ice for a while to make him think about what was important. And recently she warned him if he didn’t stay away from drugs and his old friends when he got out of prison, they were finished. She was the most important thing in his life, that was clear to him now. He spoke freely.
The session the week before with his sister was more typical. Esther sat upright in her chair and reminded Charles of the consequences of not mending his ways. She told him to swallow his pride and take the job her husband had arranged with a friend. It was a respectable job, she said, the business was black-owned and successful. What more could somebody coming out of state prison expect? Charles responded with grunts and monosyllables.
This week, though, without Esther there, he seemed eager to talk.
“Valerie missed her visit Sunday,” he said, his eyes tightening. “I called her and she apologized, sounded upset.” He paused and picked at a fingernail. “Ever been double-crossed?”
“Once or twice maybe, how about you?”
“I remember you saying, when we started, you wouldn’t tell nobody what we talk about.”
“Except Bernie—you’ve seen me with him—and our supervisor, so we can review what we’re doing as a program.”
“What if I want to say something between me and you, and it don’t go no further? Nothing to do with your program.”
Neil thought about how to respond. Inmates were constantly trying to redefine what was discussed in the sessions, challenging the ground rules. But until now Charles had been so tight-lipped he decided to let him go on. “Okay, strictly between us.”
Charles folded his arms. “I could tell by her voice something bad happened. Walter stops by her apartment, invites himself in, starts bragging about his new car, all the money he’s making. Big Walter, me and him, we was supposed to stick together. Instead he goes and gets his ass paroled early. She called him on it. So he beats her up…rapes her.”
“Jesus, is she okay?”
“She’ll get over it, after a while.”
“Did she call the police?”
The question elicited a sneer from Charles. “Police? Where you been all your life? Ain’t no crime raping a black girl.” He looked down at the floor. This was the first show of emotion Neil had seen from him. “My friend Big Walter. He’s got till I get paroled. He’s a dead man.”
Neil shifted on the metal chair. Walter’s name had come up in a prior session. Esther wagged a finger at Charles, saying something to the effect that if it weren’t for Walter he wouldn’t be in the mess he was in.
“You listening at all?” Charles demanded.
Now it was Neil who looked away, buying time. Charles intended to rig the scales of justice since otherwise there would be none. “…A lot of wrongs go unpunished in this world.” Hearing himself, Neil knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say.
Charles shook his head resolutely. “That ain’t my world, I’m gonna kill the motherfucker.”
“What about your plans, you and Valerie?”
“Accidents happen. Junkies OD all the time.”
This was trouble. He never should have met with Charles alone. Now he had to persuade him, and persuade himself, that it was nothing but angry talk. “Remember the first day we met? I warned you if you tell me you’re going to commit a crime, I have to report it. Remember? So I need to hear you say you really didn’t mean—”
“You’re gonna report me, fuck up my parole?” The determination in Charles’s eyes turned to rage. “I can’t believe you, man.” He spun out of his chair toward the door.
“Wait, Charles, let me finish.”
Without looking back, he stormed out and slammed the door behind him.
Neil sat perfectly still, trying to collect his thoughts while inside his head the slam of the door decayed like rolling thunder. After agonizing a minute or two, he reached for his portfolio, took out a pencil and legal pad, and started to write.
When he completed his notes, he read them over and thought about the situation. A lot of wrongs go unpunished in this world. Where did that come from? It wasn’t just lame, it came across as a dare to carry out the threat. Hell, he would have reacted the same way. What self-respecting man would tolerate the rape of his fiancée?
He stared at the words on the legal pad. He was obligated to disclose Charles’s threat to Sid, then Sid to Glenn, then Glenn to the warden, and inevitably it would get to the parole board and Charles would be denied parole, all because his counselor had overreacted. But the hearing was three months away. Why not wait a week? Charles probably would calm down by then, and Sid would appreciate that he hadn’t panicked and screwed up Charles’s chances for parole.
He’d discuss the situation with Bernie. But give it a couple of days so he could look at things more objectively himself. Charles Hewitt was going nowhere for at least three months. There was plenty of time.
* * *
Neil carried the folder down to the living room, reached into the fireplace and opened the damper. He took the two pages of notes from the last session and crumpled them into balls. When he put a match to the first one, it flared up, catching faster than he expected. Before it singed his fingertips he dropped it onto the fireplace grate and watched it burn. Then he repeated the ritual with the second page, and that was that. What went on between him and Charles would remain their business forever.
Now all he needed to do was write a sanitized version of the last session. He brought another beer up to his room and sat at his desk.
His notes were written on yellow legal pads with a variety of pens. No patterns there. But the notes of his other sessions with Charles were longer than two pages. He’d have to expand on what they discussed about steering clear of the drug crowd, the opportunity to work at the auto body shop, and how much he was looking forward to getting together with Valerie. And leave out the part about Walter raping her and Charles vowing to kill him.
The rewrite took more time than he expected. His mind was racing. It would have been easier if he hadn’t burned the originals. As best he could, he reconstructed Charles’s words. “My friends, all they want to do is party.” … “V’s too good to lose.” … “We’re talking about getting married, having kids.” … “I need something for us to rely on, cars are always getting dented.” And he made up conversation in order to expand the new version to four pages, like most of their other sessions.
Finished, he downed what was left of the second beer.
Charles Hewitt, dead at twenty-five. Born the same year as his brother, died a year after Richie. How would Charles’s obituary read? Dead drug dealer? One dead drug dealer, one dead war hero—obituaries have a way of glossing over details.
Neil stretched out on his bed and closed his eyes, breathing slowly, trying to relax, letting the alcohol take effect, beginning to drift in the red-gold sky behind his eyelids, a sky of shimmering stars and fading afterimages of the room, drifting away from his job at the prison, away from Glenn’s unctuous smile, away from the warden and the state police investigator … drifting … drifting in a private sky.
looking for love
Neil’s eyes opened to a darkened room. A streetlight cast a long, silver trapezoid onto the wall. Green numerals on the alarm clock glowed 7:39. Lying on his back, he realized he still had on his jacket and tie from work.
The telephone rang. He sat up and reached for the receiver. His neck was stiff; he tried swiveling it and, for his trouble, got a sharp twinge below one ear.
“You two doing anything tonight?” It was Bernie.
“No, Terry’s out of town, took the train down to New Haven to see her parents. Anyway, we haven’t been getting together as often, started to feel like being married.”
“Sounds familiar. Reason I called, a friend of mine in Cambridge is having a party, social worker I did my internship with. Sharon Graber. Very Jewish and very straight, but a good sense of humor. I told her Kelly and I would stop by. She said bring friends. Why don’t you come with us, get your mind off today. She has roommates.”
“What are the roommates like?”
“Never met any of them. But Sharon’s available and—how do I put this discreetly—she’s got an outstanding set of melons. What d’you say? We’ll pick you up in twenty-five minutes.”
“You talked me into it. Let’s stop for some alcohol on the way.”
After he hung up, the telephone rang again.
His mother this time. They hadn’t communicated for months. She was asking him to dinner next weekend. A kind of reconciliation, he suspected, being the first anniversary of Richie’s funeral. But the last thing he wanted to do was spend part of a weekend with his mother.
“Can we make it Thursday night?”
She took a few seconds to answer. “Thursday will be fine. Six thirty?”
“Seven’s better. After work I need to get cleaned up.”
“Thanks, Ma. I’ll bring a bottle of wine.”
“That would be nice,” she said, “Good night.”
When Neil switched on the lamp beside his bed a patchwork of colors came to life, the red of a madras bedspread, a blue Oriental rug, bright orange bookshelves laden with record albums, and the jungle greens and yellows of a Rousseau print. Three dormer windows formed alcoves where potted plants hung. A succession of houseplants had come and gone. He never could remember whether this one needed more water or less water, or that one less sunlight or more sunlight. Terry helped as best she could, but any plant subjected to his husbandry soon languished, dropped its leaves and died.
He stood naked before his open closet, deciding what to wear. His physique was athletic, kept in shape by motocross racing, a weekend obsession in the warm weather. Over the past two seasons, though, his competitive instinct had begun to fizzle, which showed in his results: no firsts and a lot of did-not-finishes. Before the chill in the room gave him goose bumps, he settled on blue jeans, a sweater, and the leather boots and belted canvas jacket he wore when riding his street bike, stored in the garage for the winter alongside his motocross racer.
Terry didn’t approve of motorcycles. For that matter, on a Friday night with Terry out of town, he would have been hard put to say what they had in common. She was the sweetest woman he had ever known. But recently when they made love a malaise crept over him, a nagging fear that, for all her sweetness, sooner or later he was bound to turn her sour. She didn’t seem to notice.
Downstairs he studied himself in the bathroom mirror. The longer he let his hair grow, the worse it looked. He dragged a brush through it several times, gave up, and tied it back in a ponytail. To cover up the day’s body odor, he reached under his sweater and swiped his armpits with a deodorant stick. That done, he rehearsed a smile in the mirror, staring deep into his own eyes. They were hard, accusatory eyes, more gray than green, eyes that over the course of twenty-eight years had lost their lilt.
* * *
Bernie had to park a block away from where Sharon lived, a North Cambridge neighborhood of old two-story houses with gabled roofs. Sharon’s house was newer and looked out of place. The car at the end of the driveway looked out of place too, a silver Porsche 911 in showroom condition.
As Neil followed Bernie and Kelly up the front steps, he remarked, “That wouldn’t by any chance be Sharon’s Porsche?”
Bernie shook his head. “No way, it’s German. She used to get on my case for that old Beetle I had.” He pressed the buzzer and almost instantaneously a woman opened the door.
“Come in! Come in!” she gushed in a husky contralto. Judging by the size of her breasts, this had to be Sharon. The second Kelly and Bernie stepped across the threshold, she threw open her arms and gave Bernie a bear hug. “It’s wonderful to see you!”
“You too, Sharon.”
When she released him from the embrace, she said, “Is it my imagination, Bern, or have you put on weight?”
“We’ll pretend it’s your imagination.”
Sharon’s hair was dark, cut short. Her blouse had a plunging scoop neckline, displaying her assets to full advantage.
She turned to Kelly. “You must be Kerry! Kerry, I’m so happy to—”
“It’s Kelly,” Kelly corrected her.
“Kelly, of course. What a pretty name.”
Sharon had failed to notice Neil lurking in the shadows, a six-pack of beer tucked under one arm. After he stepped inside and closed the door, Bernie did the introduction. “Sharon Graber, this is my friend Neil McGuire. He’s not Jewish but he knows some Yiddish from all the money he spends in delicatessens.”
“Oh, Bern! You love to kid me. Does he kid you like that, Kell? Neil, I didn’t see you back there—our porch light went out last week and we don’t have a ladder to reach up that high.” The pace of her speech slowed. “What we womenfolk need around here is a big, strong maaaan.” A passable Scarlett O’Hara.
Neil laughed and shook her hand. In his own version of a Southern drawl, he told her, “I am delighted to meet you, Miss Sharon, I surely am.”
“The feelin’ is mutual,” she replied, checking him out. “Let me take your coats. I’m putting people’s things on my bed.”
There was a knock on the door.
“You’re busy,” Bernie told her, “just point us in the right direction.”
“My room’s past the kitchen, last door on the left.” Sharon motioned down a long hallway. “Well, Neil, we’ll have to get better acquainted when I can take a break from my hostessing duties.”
“Looking forward to it.”
“If you’d like to put your drinks on ice, there’s picnic coolers in the kitchen.”
Neil followed Bernie and Kelly down the hallway to Sharon’s room. “She always that hyper?” he asked.
“Hyper? The girl was excited to meet you, that’s all.”
Sharon’s bed, a narrow twin bed, was piled high with coats. On her nightstand was a Mickey Mouse alarm clock. What wasn’t pink in the room was white, and the windows had frilly lace curtains. The room could have been a child’s, more Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm than Scarlett O’Hara.
They tossed their coats onto the pile, and Bernie and Kelly headed back up the hallway with their bottle of wine. Neil took his six-pack of beer into the kitchen, opened a bottle and put the rest into one of the two picnic coolers on the floor beside the refrigerator.
Then he went in search of the bathroom.
The hallway was a muddle of doors. He knocked on one, got no response, and opened it. Wrong door, inside was a dark bedroom. The next door turned out to be a linen closet. A sliver of light shone from under another door. Neil tried the knob; it wasn’t locked. When he cracked open the door, a woman yelled, “Hold your horses, I’ll be out in a minute.” She sounded more annoyed than embarrassed.
Chastened, Neil shut the door and stepped back. After two or three minutes had elapsed, he began to feel annoyed.
Finally a toilet flushed and a tall, shapely black woman came out. She was wearing a business suit. With a sneer, she brushed past him and hobbled unsteadily up the hall. He suspected she’d had too much to drink. Then he changed his mind and decided it was a limp.
The lockset on the bathroom door, he discovered, didn’t latch properly. While he was peeing, someone else started to come in without knocking.
“Occupied,” Neil warned. Whoever it was continued on in and closed the door. “D’you mind? I’m not done yet.”
When he zipped up and turned around, Kelly stood facing him. She gathered an errant strand of her auburn hair and tossed it over her shoulder.
Kelly was in her early twenties yet she seemed older. Neil suspected she’d had a difficult adolescence, growing up too fast, like a lot of pretty girls with prettier figures. She worked at one of the big insurance companies downtown, secretary for one of the VPs.
“Like my new dress?” she asked, pirouetting, hands on hips. The dress was blue satin, oriental style with an alluring side slit; embroidered on the bodice in red, orange and gold thread was a dragon.
“Very stylish,” he said, giving her a quick once-over.
“I couldn’t resist. The fit was perfect and it was on sale, from Hong Kong, one hundred percent silk.” She smiled coquettishly and took a tortoiseshell compact from her handbag. “Do a few lines with me? Bernie’s all paranoid since his father’s heart attack. It’s dynamite coke.”
“Nah, I’m working on this beer,” he told her, already halfway to the door. In the hall he cautioned the guy waiting, “It’s occupied,” and, in return, got a puzzled look.