An excerpt from Erik Raschke’s forthcoming second novel, The Death of Fiction.
If Detective Francisco Alcantara and Detective Lionel Matos had arrived an hour earlier, the studio apartment would have smelled of birth. They would have experienced the sweet and tangy odor of life-sustaining secretions. Marmalade and iron and rehydrated cod. A merlot stain. Cantaloupe-innards. Aloe. But the time had passed and the still air of the apartment had now absorbed and eventually unified the various smells into a thick pungency that overpowered the senses in one solid, graceless rush.
Aside from the smell, the studio apartment was, thought Detective Francisco Alcantara as he entered, simply too small for human habitation. While in parts of Manhattan, such living spaces were all too common, small closets that could run $3000 or more a month, here, in Washington Heights, it would be unimaginable to rent a space such as this to junkies much less to tenants, who, judging from the hundreds of books that lined the walls in this particular apartment, were educated or at least well-read. The detective had been on investigations that took him to the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City, where he met highly-paid creative directors or financial consultants, living in former rat-holes that were now outfitted with LED floor lighting and Swedish-design furniture. Francisco and his partner spent countless coffee breaks speculating on what had brought about this peculiar shift in civilization; where the top-tier of professionals paid unimaginable amounts to live in high-design tenements. He had grown up with a million kids who had made one promise to themselves: that they would someday have a backyard. So what made New Jersey and the rest of America, with its spacious homes, three-car garages, expansive green lawns, and five-lane highways, just that distasteful to certain white people?
Paradoxes of gentrification aside, the two detectives were not so interested in the vast amounts of blood which seemed to cover almost every inch of the studio apartment (for truly it seemed that every drop had been wringed from the victim’s body), but instead were intrigued by the aroma, not one entirely unfamiliar, but nonetheless curious in its potency. Alcantara and Matos almost closed their eyes as they concentrated, nostrils stretched almost comically, and while neither detective spoke of what they were experiencing, for they had worked far too long together to chat casually over something purely sensorial, they quietly understood that such stenches were generally the result of extraordinary violence.
Francisco tucked his nose under his loose cotton shirt, just under the second button, clearing the stench much in the way wine is spit out during a tasting. After a minute he returned his olfactory factory to the air of the studio apartment. What he found, aside from the previous offerings was warmed, slightly rotted orange peels, synthetic mink fur, dung (while growing up, many of the poorer kids had received summer passes and he was free to spend each and every day lying on the benches, staring at his favorite, graceless animals: the elephants, rhinos, and giraffes), creamer, rain-soaked brick, rhubarb-cobbler, a freshly cleaned fishbowl, blown circuitry, a deflated balloon, solidified bacon fat.
The two police officers who had first arrived on the scene were becoming visibly agitated by what they were suffering through here in this empty studio apartment. They had forced themselves to become accustomed to the smell, their minds adapting to the gut-twisting insidiousness of what surrounded them, but the detectives, fresh from the street, brought with them their own cologne and the interior of their sedan, and somehow that became too much. The genesis of this violence, the origination of the act, had been rationalized by the two officers into a shadow, but had, with the appearance of these two seemingly fastidious detectives, become a hulking apparition.
Detective Lionel Matos started pulling blood-covered books from the shelf and studying the spines.
“How long you been here?” he asked the two officers.
“About twenty minutes,” the tallest officer, a J. Sanchez, said somewhat sharply. “It was just a regular dispatch. The only heads-up we got was because it was the super calling.”
“This was what we got.”
“Nobody hanging around outside?”
They shook their heads.
“You guys security guards or something? Come on.”
“There was really nothing.”
“You get paid what you earn. Next time pull your head out and take a look around.”
Officer J. Sanchez started to speak, but his partner, B. Waters stopped him with a shake of the head.
“It’s like…” Detective Lionel Matos raised a finger. “You ever see that Monty Python? You know, where the fat guy can’t eat anymore, but he asks for a mint. And then Pop!”
“My brother watches all those,” Officer B. Waters said.
“He does? That’s great.”
“There ain’t no body parts,” J. Sanchez pointed out with all seriousness.
Lionel eyed them both with a frown and suddenly his top lip curled while his eyebrows arched sky-high. “What I’m saying here is that this is a typical case of internal combustion. You see it more and more nowadays. ‘I think therefore I am.’ Heard that have you? The stink of individualism. That’s how you know. Burning flesh. But ain’t like normal burning flesh from outside in? That’s phosphorous. In the old days napalm. No, here the explosion is internal, the blood cooks first. The organs dissolve. Nothing hardly happens to the skin. By the time of combustion the guy’s insides are nothing but broth.”
“Who’s to say that there was much there inside to begin with. We all know that guy. The one who thinks he’s everything, but ain’t nothing. These shelves are our first clue right? The guy’s got hardly any space, but what’s he decorate with? That’s the problem with individualism nowadays. It used to mean you used your own damn hands. You went out and cleared your plot of land. Raised your family on your own sweat. Took yourself out to pasture when you couldn’t do no more ‘cause you had proved yourself see. But this. What is this? Books? That only proves what? You got time to read while the rest of us try and make a living?”
The two officers chuckled nervously, distrustfully.
B. Waters started, “If the guy had exploded wouldn’t there be skin or clothes or…”
“We see this kind of combustion all the time. Once a week wouldn’t you say Francisco?”
Francisco held a dish sponge up to his nose, holding it there for almost a minute. The two officers studied Lionel then Francisco. Then J. Sanchez said: “We ain’t never seen anything like this.”
They shook their heads simultaneously.
“Geez, I wonder why?” Lionel hissed and looked over at Francisco. “What’d I say? I told you we was back in the Dark Ages. It’s that little guy in Tibet who’s going to come out of this millennium the better. Everything going faster, but no one able to stop and analyze nothing. Smart-phones. Intelligent software. And these two here guys. They believe me when I talk about internal combustion. Technology. You tell me what good it is? All I see is everyone getting stupider.”
The two officers let their faces sag.
“Why you doing this?” Francisco asked, tossing the sponge back in the sink. Lionel just waved them all off bitterly with one hand and went outside to smoke a cigarette.
Francisco went to the bathroom to relieve himself. The victim had a stack of magazines next to the toilet, Publisher’s Weekly, Narrative Magazine, Poets & Writers. Each issue had a face of someone noble, wise, who had published poetry or a novel or a memoir. These people were decidedly white and even the ones who weren’t, the true Latino and African-American voices as they were declared, had a decidedly Anglo appearance too, perhaps just in the way they had posed like the white authors, with gazes of contemptuous intellectual authority. Francisco didn’t recognize any of the authors, hadn’t even heard of their names, but there was something wholly clubby about these magazines, something, perhaps in the combined anonymity of the featured authors with patronizing titles like How One Author Forever Changed Our World, that suggested a short-sighted, manufactured exclusivity.
Francisco opened one of the magazines and discovered several pages of writing workshops in places like Aruba, Morocco, and the Maldives. There were advertisements for trips costing thousands of dollars, where participants were treated to massages, catered dinners, and poolside drink service. Francisco himself paid a good portion of his salary for his own evening writing classes at the YMCA and Hunter College Continuing Education, but nothing like the fees involved here. Who were these aspiring writers who had $7000 for a ten-day retreat in Costa Rica and what did they write about? Long expositions on their gourmet dinners with other workshop participants?
Francisco finished in the bathroom and returned to the blood-covered studio. The two officers hadn’t moved from their spot, but were now leaning toward one another, sharing a business card and discussing carpet cleaning rates. Lionel walked in at almost the same moment, refreshed and jittery from nicotine.
“So all kidding aside,” Officer B. Waters, asked the two detectives, “and internal combustion and that sort of thing, you guys seen this before?”
Francisco had long relinquished verbal authority to Lionel, because in the end, it didn’t really matter who said what. What mattered was the outcome. And in those terms, Francisco’s silence was a considerable theory in itself.
“You’ll see it.” Lionel grunted.
“But have you guys seen it?” B. Waters pressed.
“They’ll work it out in the bathroom. In the bathtub. Trying to dispose of the body in pieces. Usually when business is good. Don’t ask me why. We’re looking for something else and we find Jackson Pollock’s bathroom. Ain’t never seen a case where they didn’t pull the curtain around either. Minimizing the mess is stuck in all our pea-brains.”
Lionel yanked out another book and ran his finger through the congealed blood. “But this here. This ain’t nothing like that. This is art. What do you think the rent on this place is?”
“The tenant was the only white guy in the building,” J. Sanchez pointed out.
“You know they got brokers around here now?” B. Waters said. “The Heights. Believe that?”
“Two blocks down from me. Completely renovated. Every damn building on the block.”
“Around Columbia,” Lionel continued. “No one outside anymore. At six everyone inside, checking e-mail.”
“It’s all circular,” Lionel said. “These neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re filled with trash. Sometimes bonbons. You ever see those guys? The ones who toss buckets of paint onto canvas. They listen to Jimi Hendrix and Def Leppard. I saw it out at the Meadowlands, must have been seven, eight years ago because my kid made me go. Skateboarding. Motocross. And this guy tossing buckets of paint onto a two-story canvas.”
“I seen it on TV,” B. Waters nodded. “Sure. On the Oprah channel. Yeah? You tell me you don’t watch it with your wife sometimes?”
Lionel waved his hands. “Naw, television ain’t the same. See, you’re standing there and you can feel the beat ‘cause they have these speakers stacked, like they do at concerts right? And I ain’t one for art, but this guy. With all the colors.” A quick shake of his head. And then to Francisco. “Yeah, you Mr. Writer. What’s a better word for ‘sublime?’”
“Get your head out of your ass. What about all them writing classes?”
“We don’t study adjectives.”
The two officers now looked from one detective to another. Judging from Francisco’s impassiveness, he seemed to possess the regality in their relationship, yet Lionel’s muscles and physique and confidence hinted at another kind of power, a will that couldn’t be stopped.
“The body has what, twelve quarts blood?”
“We’re eighty percent water or something like that.”
“There’s got to be at least twenty quarts on them walls.”
“What’s a quart? One of them milk cartons?”
“I’d say five gallons.”
“I don’t know. Ten?”
“This,” Detective Matos holding his arms wide and throwing his head back, “my grandma would say is ‘special.’ Look at all this blood.” Then to the two officers, he said. “Who’s buying coffee? Me? Milk with sugar. Actually, today, I’m going with two sugars!” Then to Francisco, “Let’s get some people down here howaboutit? CSU?”
“You’re calling the Lieutenant.”
“Not my turn. If he asks tell him I’m busy searching for a sack of skin.”
Francisco shook his head and Lionel looked through the top of his eyelashes at his partner. “What? What’d I say? We got a room full of blood here. Anybody got a sense of perspective for my partner?”
The studio apartment was on the ground floor and through the rusted window grates all Francisco really saw were bits and splashes of asphalt as well as the heavy buildings that had looked old, even when he was a boy, and therefore had never really aged. He could see the Eastern corner of the once grand theater on the corner of Broadway and the two officers walking toward Amsterdam Avenue for coffee, most likely debating where Lionel and Francisco’s divergent personalities converged.
Even though a homicide (if that’s what this macabre spectacle could be called) had recently occurred, there was nothing remarkable about the street on this morning; no frantic witnesses, no bullet shells, no bodies; just the perpetual threat, like on so many of these streets in Washington Heights, of spontaneous violence. And perhaps that is why Francisco suddenly had a flash of the victim, looking out this exact same window, just before the end, and recognizing a world whose intense volatility was, in its essence, the sublimity of the human condition.
Francisco had an aunt who had once lived on this street. As a boy she was a cacophonous marvel of bracelets, hoop earrings, stiletto heels, fluorescent nails, musk oils, flower perfume, strawberry soap. When she walked down the street her personal failures steamed away in glorious ostentation and the unavoidable snickering was, for her, a less painful confrontation than the chronic disappointments in her life. Francisco’s mother would plead with her sister to dress more conservatively, but her requests were futile. It was apparent, even to young Francisco, that the negative attention his aunt’s appearance drew on the street was a kind of desperate affirmation of how she viewed her place in life. When she moved to Los Angeles where she was confined behind steel and metal for so much of the time, she seemed to whither. She dreamed of buying a convertible, but even then, anguished over the fact that California traffic never gave her the exposure of upper-Manhattan.
Francisco began to circle then pace then circle. It wasn’t the shining parquet floor that creaked with every step, but the supporting beams far underneath. He pressed his foot against the noisier spots, creating his own repetitive creaking, assuming that the victim had once done the same. He sat in the only chair in the room, resting his elbows upon the cracked vinyl arms. There was the hum of the victim’s small white refrigerator and the clicking of a brushed aluminum wall clock. An ambulance siren began, stopped, and then began again.
Francisco heard Lionel come into the hallway, just past the door, speaking in a low, concerned tone, maintaining a terse monologue.
“Back foot. Adidas. Twist-stop. On-ball. Right. Right. Right. Nine o’clock. Linoleum. Back to door? No. Side-movement. Unknown. Give for Mark. Print jam.”
Gradually, his partner’s voice faded, but just when Francisco was sure he was alone, he would hear one or two more disconnected words.
He received a text message from his commander: “Confirmed w/ Concerned. In Rout.” Lionel’s phone, out in the hallway, beeped with the same misspelled message. Errors replicated infinitely until they became fact. That was what Lionel had forgotten to say in his tirade against technology.
He felt the complicated satisfaction of having arranged an investigation. There would soon be so many voices and opinions from experts, witnesses, journalists, and politicians. They would look to him. Defer in their own way. Now, however, there was a deeply satisfying stillness; no clues, no one to give useless information, no clear motives. Everything was speculation.
Francisco placed his phone inside his jacket, moved away from the chair, and knelt down. From his low position he could scan every corner of the room, hoping something obvious would immediately appear. The blood in the studio apartment had been consciously distributed. So, while the apartment had a two-person sofa, a footstool, a narrow closet, and a small kitchen, the blood hadn’t strayed farther than the bookcases. The artist had started with the A authors and then splashed the corners where the walls met the curled ceiling trim. Since the blood had only rolled to about the middle of the bookcase, the assailant had reapplied a fresh coat and thus the top and the bottom were separated by incongruent thicknesses. Strangely however, it all worked together, the book-bindings, the sour smell, the heinousness. There was a gentle harmony to the bombast, much in the way Beethoven balanced a fugue with a timpani and a flute.
From the application of the blood onto the bookcases, Francisco was able to trace the assailant’s footsteps, where he or she had dipped his or her brush and then touched the wall before painting the blood in a clockwise direction. The brush itself was wide, the hairs coarse, and provided little maneuverability. It was the kind of brush one might use to paint fences or a wooden deck. And since blood had less consistency than, say, latex, it ran quicker and therefore Francisco was able to determine from the drips where each stroke ended and the next one began.
The book spines themselves had absorbed differing amounts of blood depending on whether they were sheathed, had a plastic jacket, were hardback, cloth, or paperback. The strokes were continuous, level, and when it came to avoiding the electrical sockets, conscientious. The painter had not necessarily paused at any particular book or section of the shelves. There seemed to be only one exception, another detail that Francisco had immediately noticed when he entered; Your Native Land, Your Life was pulled slightly farther out than the other books and while many of the pages had been ripped out, there was no blood upon its spine.
Toward the small kitchen, which was really not much more than a stove and a sink, Francisco found the classics. The bookshelf stepped up over the cabinets and the top of the books met the ceiling. The classics here were all hardbound books, most of them tattered and worn and some still with discounted price tags. There were only a couple that Francisco recognized from years ago: Hamlet, Beowulf, The Jungle Book, and Lord of the Flies. The rest were strange, three-word titles that at first meant nothing, but eventually aroused a flash of recognition.
“Everybody is writing,” his writing workshop teacher, a large, self-irritated man who buried his sensitivity in cynicism, once said. “But no one reads anymore. Not even the classics. And that’s why no one sees the grand metaphor in our current human communication breakdown.”
Metaphors feed on ambiguity like whales sifting the oceans for plankton, his teacher added, staring at no one, yet, in a way, raging against them all. Ambiguity only provides more ambiguity, more questions which in turn feed the inquisitive mind. Don’t you see it? This absurd, magnificent eco-system of contemplation.
To a detective, ambiguity is contrary to the investigative role and metaphor is simply a distraction. But to a writer, the right metaphor lifts the novel into the skies with the lyric of Homer and Virgil. Francisco’s inner-narrative was caught somewhere in between, married to the practical, but seduced by the possibilities of fiction’s similitudes. Strangely, there was no one Francisco could confide in about his metaphysical dilemma. Most people in his direct circle were either lost to academia or were so tied to the corporeal that even Fantasy Football was a demanding abstraction.
Francisco exhaled and then inhaled much less than he had just exhaled. He exhaled again, but less than he inhaled. He could allow the murder to creep into his system, the crime to attach itself to his blood cells. Most detectives were so philosophically wrapped up in the meta that they overlooked the turgid micro symbiosis that occurred every day in cities, the touching of subway poles, door handles, being coughed on. Even the air sucked in through the air-conditioner. It wasn’t politics or films or religion that connected us, it was colds, bacteria, carbon dioxide. Fingerprints, DNA, and police files were besides the point. Every day we inhaled second hand smoke from a killer.
To the right of Francisco, a green scrapbook lay on the small coffee table, a table that also looked as if it were often used as the dining room table. The scrapbook was the kind commonly found on the bottom shelves of magazine stores next to manila envelopes and printer paper. There was nothing written on the outside and no attempt to beautify the plain cover.
On the first few pages of the scrapbook were reviews for a book entitled The Death of Fiction: A Memoir. Most of the reviews were denoted by either stars or thumbs up and, from what Francisco could gather, The Death of Fiction: A Memoir had been received by critics with neither excitement nor disparagement. Three stars, one thumb up. That was the average.
There were also a few cancelled royalty checks glued to the tops of the pages. Francisco’s heart sank when he read the paltry amounts printed on these checks. Surely published writers didn’t make so little? That was never how the movies made it seem. And besides, he had seen the house of that great vampire writer on MTV with its four-car garage and mini-golf course.
But these numbers. These numbers were something. They were low enough to make Francisco reconsider. Hell, they weren’t even half of what he paid for his writing workshops.
Next to the checks were printed and alphabetized e-mails from friends and family who had contacted the author and shared their enjoyment over his work. They were often encouraging more in their love for the author than of the work itself. Most of Francisco’s friends were like Lionel and barely managed through a newspaper. But he did have two cousins living near Cornell and a step-sister in Seattle who read. They were always saying, “You’re getting so much better. Send me more…” but their compliments often lacked the warming touch of specifics.
The rest of the scrapbook was devoted to some spectacular scandal involving the “The Death of Fiction’s” author. One headline asked: Fiction Over Fact? while another was simply: Memoir? Francisco scanned through the articles and realized that the writer had been featured on a few television shows, both national and international. However, he had done something disgraceful, something traitorous and deceitful and had been banished from the large publishing world forever.
While Francisco was hardly one to follow the trends of publishing, conversations about these false memoirs did often arise amongst his fellow workshoppers. Some would feel betrayed that an author had spiced his or her life story with half-truths. Others would, quite disingenuously, question the motivations of the scandal’s participants. And only a few agreed that lying was the natural state of human thought. His professor, with his unflappable opinions, was oddly silent on the matter.
Francisco set the scrapbook down and closed his eyes again. He needed to focus now, to pull out from the bottomless traps of analysis. Philosophizing is luxury. Introspection is sloth. First impressions of a crime scene were what always helped him in the end, when the final pieces were put in place for a district attorney and the finer details were needed for immediate recollection. His impressions darkened the gray between the gaps in the facts. He could always be called to account for what the forensic technicians missed. It was indeed what had helped him get promoted to detective in only a few years on the force.
And now, as soon as he placed the relativities of language and meaning to the side, he found what he was looking for. There was a familiar scent, the faint smell of narcissism, a smell of cement and semen and rhododendrons, a smell that had plagued so many cases recently, a smell that gave no clues, but nonetheless suggested a well of motives. Francisco breathed as deep as he could. He took in the room. Yes, if his suspicion was right the narcissism wasn’t only limited to the victim and the killer, but a whole host of supporting characters. With this clue, he could begin to connect each contact point where the crime, like a mist, had been carried by the perpetrator’s movement.
When Detective Francisco Alcantara’s mother had been on her deathbed, her bedroom had also smelled like the empty studio apartment in which he now stood. The one-month anniversary of her death had just passed, but the sensations of those final moments were as affecting as a perfect cappuccino, served in an empty café, in a foreign country, on a blustery day.
Her death had not been so unexpected, but the end was sudden. She had clenched her son’s hand and feverishly trembled from what felt like muscles located inside her bones. Her eyes remained mostly closed, although here and there, she blinked rapidly. Even though Francisco knew what was happening, he kept asking; “What’s wrong mamá? Mamá?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she assured her son in the same soothing manner in which she had for thirty-five years.
Then, a subtle, creeping violence snowballed upward from her spine, debilitating the nerves, squeezing the muscles one last time. These last few seconds were a climax of his mother’s resolved, internal fight against a force that had always seemed to work against her. The shuddering, the shivering, the tongue swallowing. And even when her body went limp and a grayish bile seeped from her mouth…after Francisco’s mother was ascending (for she certainly knew this to be the case) her heart still pumped three or four times, her chest heaved irregularly, her last breaths gave off the odor of pickled pork’s feet, and she elbowed her nightstand, as if alerting it to some spectacular scene in a movie that was being missed.
He held her hand while her blood stilled, continuing to ask her if everything was alright, but no longer expecting an answer. The facial muscles slackened and her lips darkened. What a wretched stare she had had, her mouth stuck open and her eyes fancying the stubborn crack on the ceiling that had frustrated her through several contractors.
How naïve he had been to believe those movies where death was graceful, almost agreeable. That, my God, there was even time for last words. What fantasy! And while he had seen corpses in all forms — whether they had been decapitated or, in the case of a vengeful restaurateur, minced — he had never, in his thirty-five years, witnessed the slow ending of a life, the shaky deceleration of the body’s organs. And he had never held the hand of a loved one as they passed.
Not knowing what else to do, where to go, Francisco sat on the floor, next to her bed, and cried. A single child, raised by a devoted mother, he had lost the one person who could look evenly through his being. For only she had witnessed the development of his two personalities, two raging sides, forged from two different fathers. She who had always been so eccentric, so outspoken, so vivid in life, who had always been his conscience, his guide… she was now perpetually still while he was more alive, more aware than ever before.
Francisco had remained in his mother’s bedroom for hours after her death. His emotions were intimately tied with the memories playing out in his head and his memories were intimately tied to the smells of that room; even a window, opened an inch, would have disrupted a decade. For it was not her body in the bed or the pictures on the wall or even the regular pile of detective novels by her bedside that brought him back to who he was when he still wanted to be someone other than who he’d become. It was, indeed, the complex variation of smells that triggered memories of who she was, how she had raised him, and the way she had held him, when he was still very young, until the nightmares faded and sleep overcame him gently.
When the studio apartment filled with people from different labs, Francisco could no longer think amongst the chatter and hum. There was little for him to do except hypothesize with technicians into futility, so he stepped out into the hallway, and almost ran into a hunched man standing in a doorway, a man whom he deduced was the superintendent because, at this early hour, he wore faded work clothes and had that close to broken expression, of a man determined to maintain a quiet order in the face of disrespectful tenants.
“¿Hablas español?” the man asked.
Francisco explained to the man, like he had so many times over the years of his life that, while his parents had come from the Dominican Republic, they had forbidden Spanish in the home. They were in America now.
“Ah, there are two types of Dominicans, aren’t there?”
“You know anything about what happened here?”
“I was about to ask you,” the super moved his eyes to and fro. “None of your friends seem that interested in asking me and I’m the one who called you.”
“I appreciate it.”
At this moment, a young boy, hiding the thin tone of youth under a wide, gray Yankees tee, appeared in the doorway. He had aqua-blue eyes so unnatural that his very irises set Francisco on edge. His smile gave away the family’s financial situation, incisors jumbled, canines in need of direction. The super motioned, as if from the dugout, for the boy to approach.
“This is my son.”
The boy’s hand was as soft as a basketball used for years on asphalt, his handshake reluctantly submissive, and his blue, blue eye contact awkward and deferential. Francisco had spent his whole life interpreting personalities through a simple introduction and he deduced that this boy here, Rafael, was, albeit resentfully, at the mercy of his domineering father.
Just beyond the boy, Francisco could see inside the superintendent’s apartment where a young man, no older than twenty-one or -two, was resting on a golden couch, wrapped in a worn earth-colored terrycloth robe, surrounded by pink and lavender velvet curtains, the light from the television reflecting from the white tile floor and turning his eyes green, red, and burgundy. The young man seemed defeated, permanently muted, for something had got him early out of bed and something had driven him into the living room where he now gazed passively at CNN. But his slouch was submissive in that he had retreated into the thick cushions of the couch and away from the images of car bombs and mangled children. He had retreated in a way that suggested he was too afraid to turn off the television, to go back to bed, and was now caught somewhere between this howling medium and the growls of solitude.
There was such an intense desperation playing out in the superintendent’s living room, mostly on the part of the interior decorator, as if they hoped lavishness would be an effective talisman against the insidiousness of the city that lay beyond the windows. The young man, so absolutely removed from what was happening in the hallway, probably had never noticed the plastic ivy looping the framed watercolor of Playa Sosua at sunset. He had never noticed the small American flag propped on top of the trophy case nor his own photo, in Marine blues, set out front and center on the glass shelves. In fact, he hardly noticed the steaming cup of coffee that sat before him.
“Him?” Francisco asked, nodding toward the young man.
The super shook his head.
“He looks like he’s been up for a while.”
“He’s been looking like that for the last three months. He’s my other son. Ricardo. He was north of Mosul. About ten miles from the Syrian border.”
“His tour over?”
“That wasn’t a tour.” Then the super glanced at Francisco’s empty hands. “You want to take notes or something?”
Francisco half-nodded, but made no effort to retrieve his notebook.
“He was my teacher,” the boy said.
He glanced toward a technician who was using electrostatic on a doorway. “The guy who lived there.”
“I don’t know how that principal got away putting them thugs all together,” the super said. “No one checks these things? You know I called her once. To ask her about my son’s class. To tell her it wasn’t right. But she couldn’t even call me back. Why? Because she’s a principal?”
“Can you give me some names?” Francisco asked the boy.
“Lucinda Filipondo,” the father said.
“I’m talking to the boy.”
“And I’m talking to you.”
“I know who Lucinda Filipondo is,” Francisco said. “I went to school there.”
“You going to take my name down on this sir?” the boy asked. “Please don’t.”
The boy’s face tensed and he exhaled through pursed lips as if playing a clarinet. “Raheem Espinal, Cesar Devlin, Jeriel Salazar, Franklin Ortega, Ritchie Alcantara, Salvador Ronzon.”
Francisco took his time writing. “More?”
“What do you…”
“Those are the boys who did it.”
“O.K. So what exactly are you giving me here?”
“Well, that’s great. I don’t.”
“They said they was gonna do it. In class. They said they was going to do all sorts of things. Torture and murder. Mr. Bobbins told them that if they ever got off welfare or stopped selling drugs and lifted a hand to do anything, he would consider his job as a teacher complete.’”
“You see,” the super said. “That’s Filipondo. She running a school where teachers talk like that?”
Francisco took the boy aside. “You saying, he was encouraging his own murder? That right?”
“He said good books, books that made us angry about life, you know as people and not races, those was the kind that ‘sharpened teeth.’ But sometimes he said other things. Things that he knew about our family. Things that we wanted to hide. He say it right there in class. He didn’t stop with Raheem and Cesar and the rest. He said things to all of us. Real things. That’s why some people were mad.”
“I don’t get it.”
“He made us feel bad for being poor.”
“Every day he said stuff.”
“You must have heard something else. Something more direct, like Raheem or one of the boys actually threatening him.”
A shake of the head.
“You spend a lot of time with your teacher?”
“What’s your problem? We’re talking here. Me and you. Your story is that you heard your classmates plotting to kill your teacher. Nothing else?”
The boy shook his head. He hated how easily these kids could hold back vital information. They were born resisting authority
“You ever seen Mr. Bobbins before?” the boy asked.
“How could I?”
“No one ever seen him really, you know. He wore make-up every day. Clown make-up. And a top-hat. He didn’t care about nobody. He was that crazy.”
Francisco saw this boy, years from now, as a super, just like his father, fixing leaks, cementing over holes. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t hopeless. The sadness was the time stretched in between now and then.
“I might be back again,” Francisco said. “To ask you questions. I want you to really start thinking through your answers. Can you do that?”
The boy nodded and Francisco watched as he went back to his father.
Afterward, Francisco found Matos outside, combing the front of the building. His partner seemed, in this world, only to have patience for details.
“Cesar Devlin and Salvador Ronzon.”
Matos looked up. Blinked.
“The super’s boy gave me the names. The victim was their teacher.”
Matos looked over the ground discouragingly and exhaled like the breath of God. Then he pointed at Francisco, squinted, and shook his finger as if to say: “I told you this would happen.”
They were at the back of Gloria’s restaurant and the regular customers, generally the older men who were just beginning to while away the day, would either wave or ignore Francisco and Lionel, depending on how they recognized the law. Lonnie Guzman, whose son Manny was serving ten years in Rikers for armed robbery, and who had seemed relieved when the police had arrested the boy, but also bitter over the harsh sentence, gave a quick nod and a wan smile to the two detectives, but made no further attempt at conversation. Ricky Ortega, who was addicted to selling all kinds of illicit merchandise, and had been arrested by so many undercover detectives that they had to start recently bringing in fresh-faced guys from Newark just to catch him, was now standing at the far end of the counter, burying his nose in his sweet coffee, making direct eye contact with the No Smoking sign.
And it was Lionel, not Francisco, who was always analyzing the reactions of the men and women they met on a daily basis, looking for a clue to whatever mischief their children might be up to. A half-smile, a too-eager nod, a loose shake of the hand. Lionel’s suspicions often haunted him for days and at first Francisco thought that Lionel had perceptive abilities that he lacked, but now, after almost a decade, he realized that suspicions were just suspicions and rarely amounted to anything more than a complex interaction of misinterpretations, insecurities, and paranoia.
“I grew up the same as you,” Lionel said, watching, with disgust, as Francisco ate fried salami, fried cheese, fried eggs, and fried plantains. “But man, sometimes I can’t stand being your partner. Filling yourself up with grease like that.”
“You’ve forgotten your roots.”
“You gonna bring up the fact my wife is white again?”
“I’ve never brought that up.”
“Or that my bastard father was Polish?”
“Never brought that up either.”
“You saying I’m the only one here who brings up race?”
“I’m saying that I never said anything about your father or your wife unless you asked me.”
“You know what your problem is? Self-righteousness. You’re above all this. Above me. You should come down here sometime. To my level. It ain’t so bad.”
“I never said you was short either.”
Lionel waved his fork like a sword and grinned. “You meet the super?”
“I didn’t think I had to since you was talking to him.”
“We need to go back there. You and me.”
“I need your nose.”
“You got it.”
“The older son. He’s decorated.”
“Good for him.”
“He’s long gone.” Francisco twirled his finger.
“Man. They’re coming in waves. You hear about that kid over on 168th? Blew a hole through his grandma. The slug made it into the neighbor’s television. Right over a crib.”
“That Richards and Lucos?”
“Yeah. Said it took eight guys to cuff the kid. Believe that? The Rangers was begging for the kid to come back a few months ago, but now that things is coming to an end, they’re looking the other way. We might as well join forces with the sanitation department since we’re doing the same job.”
Francisco swirled the coffee at the bottom of his cup. “I’m out of milk.”
“Lonnie Guzman over there. Don’t he live a couple apartments down from the Ronzons?”
Francisco raised his eyebrows and turned around while Lionel waved the man over. Lonnie Guzman promptly broke off conversation with Gloria and walked to the back of the restaurant. Gloria also, as if sensing Francisco’s need, trailed behind with a fresh cup of coffee.
Like so many Dominicans in Washington Heights, Lonnie Guzman had quickly lost the softness of the Caribbean. He had once been honest and caring, but his honesty had been turned against him one too many times so now he tried to conceal his thoughts the best way his sincere personality would allow: by squinting.
“How’s the boy?”
“They’re turning him into a real criminal out there on Rikers. You’ll have your work cut out for you when he gets out.”
“God bless America, eh? And God bless your boy. You look good. I seen you out running along the Hudson. That’s good for you. I ought to start doing that more. How long you out for? An hour or so? That’s really good for you. And listen, this ain’t got nothing to do with you, but your neighbor Salvador Ronzon. You see him lately?”
Lonnie gazed at the two detectives as if they were leading him into a trap. He rolled his shoulders, but only so slightly. “He broke the washers in the basement. The city put them in three weeks ago after five years of nothing.”
“O.K. Yeah, but you seen him?”
“You guys don’t care? I’ll tell you this. It’ll be another ten years before they put new ones in and by that time we’ll all be living in electronic clothes.”
“I like that,” Francisco said, mopping up egg yolk with a piece of fried bread. “Plug in your sweater and you’re good to go.”
Lionel offered his palms. “We discussing the future of domesticity?”
“This city,” Lonnie said. “If we can’t even get new washers what’s that say about…I’m barking up the wrong tree. Ah, my boys. I’ve been lucky. Except for Manny. But the ones that go the way we don’t want ‘em to, well those are the ones that you thank everyday you don’t see. Everyone just praying that they’ll disappear. But it usually takes years and by the time they do, we moved on to wanting to get rid of someone else.”
“You think Sherlock Holmes had to go through this kind of nonsense?” Lionel said to Francisco. “I ask a question and I get a list of stuff I could care less about. It’s them search engines? Everyone posting their ideas and believing that millions, billions of people are reading them just because Google lists ‘em.”
Lonnie frowned, but appreciated something in Lionel’s rant. He knocked once on the table.
“I’ll tell you this. Last week I heard Salazar throw something at his father. Then he left. That man ain’t nothing, but a shell. He used to be just like his damn son, but now he ain’t nothing. Some kids, you know, they’ll suck the life out of anyone. Even their fathers. Rico Ronzon. You know what he used to be like? He was his own army. Nobody who care ‘bout their life look at him except with a smile. In the old days he would of seriously messed up someone like Salazar Ronzon. But I guess that’s the difference between fathers and sons eh? Like my Manny. If he had been anyone else we would have sparred.”
“Maybe Rico’s the way he is because of his wife?” Francisco said. “She wasn’t the sweetest woman.”
“That? You guys all say that it was suicide, but no one just jump from them buildings onto the highway like that. I got friends in them two buildings. 179th got a reputation. Some of them–whoa–they have reasons to jump. But you’re up so high and them cars is going so fast. The brain. It don’t register. You can’t imagine what your death will be like and that stops you from jumping.”
Francisco shifted his weight. “We proved Salvador didn’t kill his mother.”
Lonnie displayed his right palm. “You and I. All of us. We got different sides. You stand up for that boy. His father can’t. The court made the decision…the same as yours. But now Salvador breaks our washers. He and his crazy friends. Two buildings have to go back to scrubbing stains in bathtubs. You arrest my boy. Not that he didn’t do it. But Salvador? Come on. Like I said, we all got different sides. What’s fair and what’s not, well, that all hangs on all our heads.”
“What the hell are you saying?” Francisco asked.
“Nothing. Really, nothing.”
“I wasn’t gonna let your boy go.”
“A decade gone. How can you say…”
Francisco got up from the table and met Lonnie’s eyes. Lonnie’s bitterness over the loss of his son would never permit a sympathetic space for Salvador Ronzon. He put on his jacket, made his way to the front, set the tab on the table, and waited for Gloria to add up the total. The men around him abruptly cut off conversation and in the back of the restaurant they could all hear Lionel reminding Lonnie, in sharp words, that his son had executed two Thai delivery boys over sixty-three dollars.
As the two detectives stepped out into the pointed sunlight and stretched, they simultaneously glanced up 175th. Most of the vans from forensics were still parked haphazardly. In most cases, the technicians could pull a sample in only a few minutes. Francisco checked his voice-mail messages.
“They got a room full of blood,” Lionel said assuredly.
“That’s exactly why I’m worried.”
“Them techs love their coffee and cigarettes.”
Francisco hung up his phone, stared at it as he might a whining child, and said: “They hate being up here.”
“I don’t care for it so much either. That’s why I’m heading down to Chelsea to see some of the galleries.” He hesitated and then nudged Francisco. “Heineken and prime-rib.”
“Yuh. In the Meatpacking District?”
“Hey, snippy. I didn’t film Sex and the City down there. Look. I’m me. Lionel. I’m barely a detective. A grunt. A workingman. You want more self-deprecation?” He threw out his palms. “You were the one who wanted to talk to Lonnie. He ain’t worth nothing. He’s old and beaten. Listen. Listen to me. Are you listening? O.K. Chelsea. A few galleries. Tartar and a martini.”
“Tartar. That’s about right.”
“Hey, once again, I’m your friend here.”
Francisco sneered and raised his shoulder into his ear.
“Alright, you want this debate, you got it. This is real,” Lionel jabbed into the air, motioning at the buildings across the street, “that’s real,” then at the ones toward the south, “and that,” toward a Subway store across the street, “well, maybe not that, but down there, it changes. We all know it ain’t real. Who cares? Nothing in Manhattan is real no more. Says something about you that you always got to bring it up. Put a camera lens and a coke mirror up to a whole city and…? Just cause it got buildings don’t make it no different than what’s her name…Lindsay Lohan. You just like all them people who say that New York has changed, well, you can’t disagree with that. But who’s saying it huh? Who’s saying New York’s lost its soul. Not me. I don’t care. I think tartar is delicious. But there’s always someone complaining. Probably the same guy since Manhattan was all forest, moaning and groaning about no more trees. But you see, it’s the people complaining who were responsible once for affecting and now they’re seeing their change and they’re getting uppity.”
“This was your argument last time. Verbatim.”
“My high-caloric friend…you’re going to look back some day, when you’re old and gray and unsatisfied with your overweight life and you’re shooting insulin and have nothing to talk about except this job here, and then you’ll think back and say, ‘Lionel was right. About everything.’”
“I already do say that.”
“Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, they all got rooms full of blood. See that? Every damn case. Blood. Here and blood there. This whole city is filled with ‘em. And the blood is getting thinner with each rent adjustment. Get it? Everything is coming to a point where everything else is just a wax statue of itself. Thank God we got the culture of the dispossessed. That’s our heartbeat bro. Negligence and dispossession surrounded by decadence and opulence. If I’m wrong then being Puerto Rican’s right.”
Francisco smirked and Lionel caught his eyes and whistled between his top teeth.
“I know you loved the canned food out of bodegas. That dusty, over-the-expiration-date crap. We all grew up with that. But I’m asking you to relax a little and have some tartar with me. Hell, I’ll pay. Why? Because I can afford to.”
A block or so down Amsterdam, a blue BMW M3 pulled over in front of an electronics store. Two young boys got out and the passenger went up to the store, knocked, and was let in while the driver leaned against his car and texted. They wore the kind of designer clothes that read like billboards, with each stitch of clothing covered in logos. Lionel and Francisco’s eyes moved in their direction automatically.
“Those boys start a dot-com business?”
Francisco reached inside, took out a leather case, and put on his bifocals.
“The way you move. It’s like watching my grandma.”
“Jose Devlin,” Francisco said, still having to squint.
“I’ll find out where his brother Cesar is,” Lionel immediately marched off.
Francisco removed his glasses, folded them, placed them back in the case, covered them with a cleaning towel, and snapped everything up tight. Then he slowly placed the case back in the top inside coat pocket. By the time he began walking, Lionel was already a block away.
In the few times Francisco had followed Lionel into an art gallery or a museum, his partner had never failed to point out that some of the best pieces were by artists who had a destination in their mind and broke every rule in order to get there. Lionel had always believed that good police work meant breaking the rules. And now, living up to his mantra, Lionel picked up his pace, bound across Amsterdam, came at the blind side of Jose Devlin, pushed him so hard that his cell-phone went hurtling into the street, and leapt on top of the boy. Francisco jogged over to hear Jose saying.
“Get off me bitch!”
“Say one more word that would offend my grandma and I’ll knock you out.”
The boy let out a string of curses. Lionel raised a fist. Francisco told him to relax.
“Yeah, relax man. Like your partner said, you cock….”
Lionel slammed the boy’s head on the ground. The dull thump made Francisco wince.
“Say it…Finish your sentence. Curse one more time and see what happens. My grandma in Heaven can hear every word. Now, I got two questions. How’d you get the car and where’s your brother?”
“Cesar,” Francisco said, from his distance.
The boy exhaled. “Cesar?”
“His teacher’s dead.”
“Your brother has a history.”
“I got to repeat myself?”
“Teachers ain’t nothing.”
“I got the car because of my teacher. “Pushed me over a desk. And cracked something in my back. Now I got a car none of ya’ll could ever afford. Once I sue your ass over this I’ll buy myself an …”
Lionel pounded the boy’s head into the asphalt again, this time harder. Francisco stepped back. His eyes broke character and he searched Lionel for a half-second.
”I told you to stop cursing.”
“Ass ain’t cursing.”
“What is it then?”
“What’d you do to the teacher?” Francisco asked.
“He just pushed you?”
“My grandma didn’t like liars either.”
“I busted his nose.”
“And you got suspended. Bust a teacher’s nose. He gets sued and you only get suspended. Man, that grates on me. What’s this say about civil rights? Where d’you go to school?”
“I don’t need school no more,” Jose replied.
Then a look of hatred came across Lionel’s face. “That’s right. You got Mr. Andrews fired. Oh yeah. That’s right. Two years ago. He was my teacher, you know? He taught me all about the history of the world. Romans. Queen Elizabeth. Trujillo. I remember reading about him getting fired and why, I said to myself, Jose Devlin, Jose Devlin, Jose Devlin, I wonder if he’s from the same worthless family as Cesar. Some scum like you getting a lawyer. Taking away a teacher like that. Then driving around in a car like this. That ain’t equal rights. That ain’t constitutional nothing!”
“Where’s Cesar?” Francisco asked.
“I don’t know.”
“He do his own thing.”
“You aren’t in a position to play with us.”
“You know my brother. He changed back after that one night. You was all there. I don’t need to explain. He’s his own person now.”
“One more chance to tell me where your brother is.”
“He go to Inwood Hill Park. Fishing or whatever with his teacher. That faggot who wear all the make-up.”
“That’s it? ‘Cause that’s not enough.”
“Man, you can’t threaten me. I’ll get my lawyer, you mother…”
And with that, Lionel’s fist silenced Jose.
In their car, Francisco strummed his fingers on his thighs while Lionel started the engine.
“You turn us into criminals.”
“Why’s that? I’m all ears.”
“The head. I can handle that. But knocking him out.”
“I didn’t knock him out,” Lionel shook his head violently. “That’s just your story.”
“My grandma’s listening.”
“Don’t try to civilize me when you go attacking someone for no reason.”
Lionel exhaled and glared with hatred at Francisco, threatening straight from the eyes.
“What’s my story then?” Francisco said.
Lionel pulled out onto Amsterdam and made a full U-turn, heading north. His face was bright red.
“That kid offended me. I acted. You were offended by my actions? So what? You should have acted too.”
“That a threat?”
“That a threat?”
“You know, it’s a little silly to get huffy now. You really think any of this matters in the big scheme of things. I mean look who’s driving the BMW? Not us, that’s for sure. We’re just sitting here arguing. No. No. It’s a boy who sues a teacher. He gets an M3 and I’ll bet you my salary his lawyer is driving a 7 series. Think. Really analyze the situation. Get your brain a little dirty for once. The brother parks across the street. I knock him out, according to you, cause my story is totally different…but I do find out where our number one suspect most likely is. In fact,” Lionel held up a finger as they waited at a red light. “We’ll catch Cesar and you know what, I’ll probably rough him up too. And he’ll admit what he’s done and get a lawyer who will bring up his mother’s death and your role in his mother’s death, Mr. Alcantara, and they might even bring up that I roughed up a juvenile. Probably not though, because by that point the boy’ll already be acquitted in the jury’s thick heads. We’ll stand there and show pictures, big pictures, and have all sorts of damning testimony. We’ll even show them the room full of blood and you know what? They’ll say, ‘A room full of blood? Come on, that’s ridiculous. There can’t be a room full of blood.’ You know as well as me they’re going to be skeptical of authority, of minority authority.”
“Don’t bring race into this.”
“O.K. so they’ll look at Cesar Devlin and his older brother Jose and then look at us and think that we are the Oreo cops and that Cesar is just being framed, because, once again, you simply can’t believe that there is such a thing as a room full of blood. It’s unfathomable. Absurd. Out of proportion. I mean Cesar could have eight, nine previous felonies and adding those up don’t amount to a room full of blood. I bet two homicides on his record, still… And then, poof, he’ll be off. I mean poof! Poof! Poof!”
“I get it.”
“Hours and hours of salaried work will be down the drain. Then, here’s the best part, you’ll write a novel about this someday and no one will publish it, because it simply won’t be believable. You’ll get these little, pale white people saying, ‘I just don’t believe this’ or ‘it’s too cliché.’ Crazy, huh? I mean the irony of it all. You, a guy on the street busting his balls and you get your work called cliché by someone who’s still getting an allowance. But hey, there’s one consolation. You still with me Francisco? In the end, nothing will really change except you. You’ll be disappointed in the system, in the government, in me, in white people, but really, it was ultimately because you believed in a certain way of doing things that let you down. Me, at least I got a couple good punches in.”
Lionel stopped in front of the park and cut the engine. He called in help for a search of the park: mountain bike cops, the Hudson patrol, etc. They’d be rushing over. Every cop liked searching parks on a nice day.
Then, Lionel reached into his pocket, took out a packet of gum and offered a stick to Francisco. But the last thing Francisco wanted after a conversation like this was the sting of artificial peppermint.
Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies, knows that the group of six boys, Raheem Espinal, Cesar Devlin, Jeriel Devlin Alcantara, Franklin Ortega, Ritchie Salazar, Salvador Ronzon, would eventually turn on each other. They had known each other for most of their lives, had been to all the same birthday parties, kissed the same girls, shared each other’s fried chicken and fries, knew who wore what shoes, knew what was hidden under each other’s bed. They had always tested the same in the statewide tests and therefore had always been in the same class except for fifth grade when they reorganized the school into four mini-schools and everyone wore slightly different uniforms. But that had only lasted one year, because there hadn’t been an immediate improvement from the year before and the Board of Ed. was forever anxious. Three of the four principals had been fired and new principals, fresh from the mayor’s “Principals Academy,” were hired, but they tried too hard, yelled too much, and burned out by November and spent the rest of the year locked in their offices. That was the year the kids walked from classroom to classroom with no one stopping them. The boys were always together in this stairwell or that hallway. There was a smoke bomb going off almost every day and together they were blamed and together they were expelled which meant long afternoons in Ft. Tryon avoiding bangers and whistling at girls. The following year Mr. Bobbins was hired and while they were all tossed into his classroom, everything changed. It was lockdown from the first day. Kids still roamed the halls, but no one ever came or left Mr. Bobbins’s room without permission. If you tried, Mr. Bobbins could say things that left you more humiliated than you’ve ever been in your life.
All six boys had read Lord of the Flies with Mr. Bobbins, but only two had really enjoyed it, Ritchie Salazar and Raheem Espinal. The other boys had, however, savored every last sentence of Of Mice And Men. For them, Lord of the Flies was tedious and rambling, mean white kids with no sense of street etiquette. “We’d eat them up here in the Heights,” Jeriel had written in a personal response. “White suckas showing what white people do to each other if they living on an island. Man, we got more pride than that.” Mr. Bobbins had read that essay aloud and, with his usual condescending, yet comradely smirk, had even given Jeriel a gold star. Even though Jeriel made enough money with deliveries to buy himself a real gold star, if not a dozen, Raheem saw him cut out Mr. Bobbins’s plastic gold star and pinch it into his engraved cell-phone case.
Now, as they sat in the golden forest on Inwood Hill park, the Hudson below a gray mass of sludge that was still somehow capable of reflecting the gray sky above, the boys could look at each other’s backs and know what the other was thinking. Cesar was thinking about his mom. He always was. Salvador was thinking about his uncle’s tricked out Civic and what it felt like to ride in the back with cylinders of liquid fuel right under your ass. Raheem and Franklin were probably thinking about books. They were the only ones that read outside of class or just read. And Jeriel, well, Jeriel was thinking about the year his grandmother sent him back to the D.R. to shape him up, but he had just returned even worse than he had left. Murders, hookers, smoking weed on cigarette boats. Some sucka had even tried to pop him right in downtown Santiago by all the tourists and vendors, but the bullet hit his straw hat instead, just like in the old westerns. In the D.R. Jeriel had fallen in love with a woman who had a three-year old. When the family found out about that, they shipped him back to NYC.
But there was something beautiful and grand about all of them sitting there, together, in an old-growth forest, next to Indian burial grounds, in one of the most densely populated cities in America. It was a moment that they knew they would never forget, that would change them, like the day they all tried hang-gliding off that building on 176th or when they stole a Lincoln town car and drove it to that State Park in New Jersey and ate homemade ice-cream named after presidents and swam in a real lake. Those were the memories they savored for when there wasn’t no money for dinner or the cable was cut-off.
This moment however was different. They were with a body. The body of someone whom they hated and loved and who had, at one time, had some terrific power over them.
Franklin Ortega, who always got nervous when things got too quiet, said: “You remember that story Mr. Bobbins told us about Osama Bin Laden?”
He checked faces. There was no immediate reaction, but he knew they were listening.
“And that teacher that he taught with in Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden was in his class? Remember? And Osama said that he thought it was good that in Of Mice And Men Lenny died in the end because he was big and fat and stupid and made life difficult for everyone else.”
“’Simple life,’” Salvador said.
“’Made it difficult for everyone to have a simple life.’”
“What difference it make?” Raheem scraped a stick against a tree. “Serious.”
“Osama want a simple life for everyone. Like them niggas from Harlem that always come around trying to turn us into Muslims. They always saying that Islam is this and that. Always saying it give you a simple life.”
Ritchie said: “Remember when Bobbins made you spell ‘stupid’ and you spelled it with two ‘OO’s.’”
“So? He call you Ritchie Retardo.”
The boys all laughed, some, who weren’t afraid of Ritchie, laughed harder.
“But that a crazy story about Osama,” Franklin tried again. “I mean, in class we all think it kind of messed up that Lenny gets shot.”
“I didn’t think it was messed up,” Jeriel said.
“Whatever. You don’t think period. But I’m saying, it make sense that Osama thought Lenny should die. He have no heart.”
“Maybe he all heart.”
“You can’t want someone to die and have heart,” Cesar shook his head like he was having a seizure.
“When people in the way, they need to go,” Jeriel half-groaned.
“That true, but who decide who in the way? You? You a dumb ass!”
Jeriel glared at Cesar, but didn’t do nothing. They had been in three fights and each time Cesar made Jeriel bleed. People from as far as 168th had come to see those fights and even though it was free, they got their money’s worth.
Now, all the boys sat on a granite outcropping, some with their backs together, some facing each other, but not staring, all gazing out over the Hudson. The Bronx street bridge overhead was still, but every so often a van would roll overhead, rattling and grumbling. The sounds of the cars and traffic were comforting because the sounds of nature were, of course, suspicious.
An Amtrak came along, slow and cautious, crossing over a narrow bridge that floated over the lagoon. They could see the passengers inside, some reading papers and others looking out the window. A collection of self-contained thoughts and concerns. To the passengers in the train, the boys were a blur, their puffy black jackets and brown work boots making them, from the distance of the Amtrak, indistinguishable.
“Something smell,” Salvador said.
“It’s Bobbins for sure,” Jeriel confirmed.
“Why dead bodies got to smell?”
The boys had already unwrapped the body and covered it with dried leaves. They had each, over the years, seen dead bodies, neighbors who had been shot by gangs or friends who had stepped into traffic or parents who had committed suicide, but none of the kids had actually attended to a body. Lifting the heavy flesh of the dead; the flimsy appendages, the limp back muscles, the neck no longer supporting eight pounds of skull and brain. They had never learned to hold back the urge to gag or wretch or tremble especially when the smell of putrefaction assaulted their senses.
As they had carried the body they thought of that stupid book by Faulkner which wasn’t so much stupid as boring and not so much boring as pointless and perhaps not even pointless, because the point pounded on you through the whole book. No, As I Lay Dying, was a big stupid metaphor with all those fancy sentences. The only reason they had liked it was precisely because Mr. Bobbins had read it with such passion. They loved Mr. Bobbins’s voice when he swam carefully through the words and tied each sentence with his own emphasis. His voice became intimately tied with the author’s; his inflections, tone, the way he rounded off the sentence of every chapter so that he might as well be throwing it into the ocean tied down with a weight. When Mr. Bobbins became the story, it was impossible to do anything other than love it. And Mr. Bobbins had loved both books, even if the boys hadn’t, and both books had at very least stuck with them and especially with Franklin who carried on now: “Osama said that if Curley’s wife had been wearing a burqa, Lenny never would have done nothing bad.”
“Man, shut up with that already.”
“But that’s what Bobbins said!
“Who care? Osama a faggot. If I was in the army, I’d get that motherfucker. Blam!”
“You is stoooopid.”
“You are stupid.”
“I liked As I Lay Dying,” Jeriel said.
It had been impossible to escape to Faulkner as they pushed a shopping cart first through Ft. Tryon, across Dyckman, and into Inwood Hill Park. People had indeed looked, because what were six boys doing pushing a shopping cart full of trash? But no one asked them, no one questioned their motives and they prayed that they wouldn’t see a policeman, which they didn’t, but they did have to lift the cart over gutters and up a few steps here and there.
Then in the park, the road quickly disintegrated into stone. It took five of them to push and pull and the sixth, which was usually Jeriel, to point out the best path. The cart had groaned and screeched and the wheels had turned this way and that, but never in the way they wanted, and several times the cart had almost tipped. They had deposited the bags of trash into the forest so that it was only the wrapped body in the cart and once again, they each prayed, silently and to themselves, that they wouldn’t see a policeman or a jogger or anyone who might be suspicious.
And perhaps their prayers were answered because they saw no one.
So they pushed the cart up the first hill and past a hollowed bunker that George Washington used when they bombed the British coming up the Hudson. And since it was fall, the leaves twirled downward leaving a trail of color through the air. They sweated the cold sweat of panic and fear and the October chill that seeped into their polyester jackets clung between their shoulder blades.
It took them nearly two hours to get through Inwood and to the Hudson. The worst was on the last little stretch, from the path down to the river. There was no path so they couldn’t push the cart and therefore they all had to carry the body. They tripped and fell and yelled at each other, but finally made it. And as they were all standing there a Circle Line Cruise went by with a banner that said “Happy 400th Henry Hudson!” And none of the boys knew what this meant and didn’t really care. They were just happy that they had made it without being seen.
Franklin Ortega had been the first to cry, his pupils lost behind steamed glasses. Salvador Ronzon, while he tried to comfort Franklin with quick a rub of his palm on his friend’s scalp, had held back tears himself. These tears encompassed everything they had witnessed; the room full of blood, the pin-holed corpse that had once been their teacher, the shadow of the murderer, breathing heavily in the darkness of the stairway, unmoving, unafraid of the boys who were too afraid to confront him.
But what had really shook the boys was how purple and stiff Mr. Bobbins body had become and how, when they had unrolled it out from the blankets, the arms had twisted and turned so awkwardly that the boys thought for a second that they might be causing Mr. Bobbins’s pain. And what had been so strange, was that in life Mr. Bobbins, while joking and listening, had always kept a certain distance, as if the boys might breath some contagion upon them. But here, they could sit as close as they wanted while his milky eyes no longer had the capacity to stare back.
Jeriel Devlin, big and stupid and so quietly perceptive, poked at Mr. Bobbins’s ear with his index finger. When he spoke, even those who hated him considered his words with a special weight because while his words were thick and monosyllabic, the observation was always valuable.
“He got two pierced ears.”
“’Cause he was in a band,” Cesar replied.
“But why two? That’s faggot.”
“Lot’s of ‘em got two pierced ears. Ja Rule.”
“He a homo too.”
“He ain’t got two pierced ears,” Franklin broke in, “and he with Beyonce.”
Salvador stood abruptly, lifted a large stick and smacked it against the base of a tree. The sound was thin, piercing and the vibration that it must have left in Salvador’s arm, painful. But Salvador’s dark blue eyes and his darker than most Dominican skin, had a fiery strength in the subdued winter gray day.
The boys all shrugged and shivered, mostly inwardly, staring out at the Hudson and the billions of oily ripples. The wind was racing across the Hudson from New Jersey sounding perpetually threatening, but never really delivering much except wind-born dust.
Salvador went walking down to the edge of the water, standing on a smooth granite rock and peering out. Franklin thought about how he and Mr. Bobbins and the class had been walking here only a few months ago. He had asked Mr. Bobbins why, out of all the parks in New York, he enjoyed this particular park where there were no open fields or basketball courts. Bobbins had replied that Inwood Hill Park could let him imagine what it had been like, a little over a hundred years before, when the Algonquian used this very place as a burial ground.
Jeriel said something, almost inaudible, but the surprise was enough to get the rest of them to watch what he was doing. He had knelt down close to the body and the dew from the trees and the blanket had rubbed off much of the make-up on his face.
“Mr. Bobbins have a tattoo?” Jeriel said, inspecting the wrist of the corpse, where a small symbol of a star lay just under the palm.
“I said he was in a band.”
“Lots of people who ain’t in bands have tattoos.”
“Mr. Bobbins was a writer.”
“That stupid hat.”
“What his hat have to do with him being in a band?”
“Or having a tattoo?”
“Or being a homo?”
Jeriel stood straight up and gazed down at them. “You alls is faggots.”
“Man, sit down,” Salvador said all tough.
Franklin moved over and looked at Bobbins’s wrist. “I never seen this before.”
“You looked at his wrist closely?” Cesar asked.
“He didn’t have a tattoo on his wrist,” Salvador said. “I would have seen it.”
All the other boys responded in the affirmative.
Jeriel spit on his hand and began to rub the make-up on Bobbins’s face away. The boys crowded and knelt down next to the body. Their faces shadowed. They didn’t know what they were looking for.
The make-up started to come off slowly, but surely, thick white clown make-up that revealed blotchy, dying skin. Their breathing formed and collected clouds that instantly dissipated. Jeriel spit again and again, but the make-up seemed to be oil-based and his saliva formed droplets upon the white skin. Jeriel became impatient with the process, the boys repulsed, time sped by.
“It’s not Bobbins,” Salvador said at some point, but everyone hushed him, as if his words would contaminate the verdict.
They were shocked, confused. This was the body of someone else. It had to be.
Suddenly Cesar was hitting them all on their backs, pointing at the inlet of water only yards away. A police boat had spotted them for they had made little effort to hide. There were shouts. The boys knew how to run from cops on their blocks, but this was a forest. They scattered quickly, scrambling up the hill. They could hear the police yelling. They all kept looking back at the body and then racing ahead and then looking back at the body. They all wanted to say goodbye, but they weren’t even sure now who they would be saying goodbye to.
Erik Raschke grew up in Denver, Colorado and received a Masters in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. He taught in Washington Heights, Manhattan, for many years. His first novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2009. He lives with his family in Amsterdam where he is currently finishing up his second novel, The Death of Fiction.