A nightmare awakens me from my sleep. I lie there for a moment just listening to the familiar hum of the Frigidaire in the other room. Its buzz reminds me of where I am and returns me to consciousness. I look out the window from my bed. The beacon of the Guardian building blinks mindlessly. The city is unscathed and still standing. Detroit, America’s fourth largest city. It’s all still here. I am still here.
The dream had been about a nuclear attack. It was a mind’s eye view of an American Hiroshima, taking place right now, in 1963. There was a specific moment that had filled me with dread and terror. The moment when a blinding white light flashed in the sky and I just began to comprehend the inevitability of what was to come. I could do nothing but remain frozen and submit to the impending death and destruction.
I climb out of bed. A return to sleep is out of the question. I fill the percolator with some Hillsborough and turn on the television. It’s channel after channel of white static noise. They have all signed off. Only one shows anything. It’s the American flag waving proudly as jets fly overhead. Then it too, turns to nothingness.
The percolator is agonizingly slow. How I wish there were a Chock Full ‘O Nuts around here the way there was near my New York place. Or even a Horn and Hardart. Coffee and toasted pound cake. Simple comforts. Distractions from too many thoughts and too much knowledge. I consider going out to the 24-hour place over on Gratiot but I can’t seem to find the will.
Only hours later am I able to fully set aside the apocalyptic visions of my dream. Yet, sleep still eludes me. Instead of nuclear demise, the painful, dull reality of my life sinks in. I am in Detroit. Again. After vowing all those years ago never to return.
Decades spent all over the globe and I end up here, doing this. Fate is one mean bastard sometimes. Fate and that damn yapping poodle in a suit back in D.C.. I have to get out and move on again. New York, West Berlin, Saigon, anywhere but here. Maybe after…
I stop my thoughts mid-track. After the nightmare, I just can’t deal with that other thing right now. But it would be good to see her. So much so, that I start to seriously consider a late night visit. I doubt that they would let me in. But I can try. I don’t need to wake her. Just let her sleep. I put my clothes on. Ten minutes later I’m in the Skylark driving to Henry Ford Hospital to see my mother. It’s a little after five AM.
I drive down the exit and into the never-ending tunnel of Eisenhower’s concrete dream. The highway sits below the city surrounded by steep walls and covered by bridges. Tens of thousands of people had been moved out of the way to create all this. Most were Negros, so, nobody really cared too much.
Even with the occasional night crawler and shift worker on the road, the journey is short. I arrive at the hospital within minutes. I try to formulate a speech in my head as to how to explain this off hours visit. There is nothing logical I could say. It doesn’t matter. I get a sympathetic young thing named Judy. I tell her I want to see my mother just for a second. No need to wake her or talk to her. I just need to see her. Judy doesn’t ask for any further explanation. She just lets me in.
The hospital smells assault my senses. All the cleaning chemicals in the world can’t cover the scent of death. I open the door to my mother’s room. She is asleep. I am thankful. The Ovarian Cancer is eating away at her, ever more quickly. At this point, my only wish for her is that she pass away with as little pain as possible.
I stand there silently. She looks so very, very small and tiny. She was so strong to put up with what she did in life. And now this. My thoughts are broken by the opening door. It’s Judy. As much as I want to stay, I know I have already been a benefactor of her sympathy. I take one last look at the frail woman in the bed and I leave the room.
Out of instinct, I start to grab for my wallet to thank Judy for the breach of rules. Then I realize it would do nothing but insult her. She is not a bad looking girl. I wonder if she is looking for something else from me. A warm smile and understanding eyes confirm that I am mistaken. Her actions are of kindness and pity. Nothing more. I am grateful and tell her so. Her warm response only makes me feel more pathetic.
I return to the parking lot feeling disgusted with myself for being so weak. Now is not the time to give in. After all that I have endured over my career, death should be second nature. Friends had died and I had almost died, many times over. But none of it had prepared me for this.
A soft, freezing rain starts to fall. I climb back into my car and return to the highway. I head away from my apartment and, instead, turn toward Oakland County. I just need to feel the freedom of escape on the open road.
As I drive, the orange glow of the sodium vapor lamps start to reflect off the pavement. The roads are getting slick. I turn on the radio. One of Stax’s greatest. Otis Reading. But between his pleading voice and the lyrics to the song, I feel myself being pushed further to the edge. It affects me far more than it should. It’s just a song. But somehow it hits too close to home. I turn it off. The steady rhythm of the windshield wipers is far more comforting.
The car speeds through the night. I know I should be more cautious of the weather. One patch of ice and I will slam into a concrete wall. Right now, I just don’t seem to care.
I make it without killing myself, or anyone else, all the way out to Southfield. There is nothing in Southfield. Which is why I am shocked when I spot a diner off the highway. It must be new. Almost everything along the highway this far out is. How many a developer had gotten rich by knowing in advance where the highway would be going? Eisenhower could talk all he wanted about how highways were created for improved defense logistics. The truth is, they are there to make people money just like everything else in our great capitalist system. None of which really matters to me. Especially, not now. I am suddenly starving.
The diner isn’t the shiny chrome setting I had expected. Instead it’s all plastic and fake wood. I don’t even ask for a menu. Coffee, ham, eggs. Perfect.
The food and coffee do wonders for me. I question how much of an effect pure exhaustion has had on my mental state. I consider calling in and driving even further out into the country. No. Poldowski would try to make a thing out it. I really wish someone had told that fat bastard I didn’t really work for him. But, sadly, he was told that I did. This, in spite of the fact that anything I did of any importance (importance being a relative term) skipped right over him and went directly to Davis and the people upstairs. It is not a good situation. He has his rabbis and I have mine. Two more pawns in the great maneuverings of the corporate empire. And, in the meantime, we both just seethe with hatred for one another.
I climb into my car and head back downtown. There’s still time for a shower, shave and some more coffee before I have to deal with Poldowski’s bullshit.
The highway is surprisingly crowded on the drive back in. Shift workers and delivery trucks have been supplemented with commuters coming in from their newly built houses. Levittown had nothing on Detroit for bland neighborhoods of identical crap boxes. They were springing up like weeds out in the farmland. Then again, I shouldn’t complain. Mom’s house out in the country might actually be worth something, soon. They start building out that far, you never know.
I reach my apartment, shower and shave. It’s still too early to go into work. I consider going in anyway but the thought of that place and Poldowski makes me think better of it. Not that he ever got in before 9:30. But still. I decide to just sit around and read the paper for a while.
The Wings won again. Good to hear, I guess, but they really aren’t my team. Unfortunately, the Rangers are. To say they are having a bit of a rough patch is an understatement. People are all over Muzz to do something bold and save the season. I miss the Rangers. It was habit, for a brief while, to walk over to 50th and Eighth and catch a game at The Garden. All that seems like a very long time ago. It wasn’t. But enough has happened it might as well be a hundred years back for all its relevance to the here and now.
I look for any little snippet of information on the big soccer tournament going on in Europe. My team was already knocked out but I was pulling for the Scots. Nothing. Not even a line or two. You would think I would learn by now that nobody in America considers soccer a sport. Their loss.
The rest of my search through the paper only reinforces my contention that the local news rag is pretty much useless. There is next to nothing in it except news on the Wings, Lions, Tigers, Pistons and anything, no matter how remotely trivial, about the automotive industry. Thank God I have a deal with the newsstand in the office lobby to get me the New York Times every day. The exorbitant price is well worth it just to get some real news once in a while.
I get restless trying to kill time and decide to just head to the office. Hopefully, Poldowski will remain true to form and not be in for a while.
I actually enjoy the drive down Woodward and through the Grand Circus. I check the marquee of the Fox Theater as I go by. Lawrence of Arabia is still playing. I keep telling myself I should get out and go see it. Then again, I keep telling myself I should get out and do a lot of things I don’t end up doing. In the end, it just always seems easier to stay at home.
I soon arrive at my new place of employment. Its sheer scale is overwhelming. Four gigantic towers of imposing gray stone topped off by rows of columns. A base and spine holding them together and unifying them into a single, massive complex. The Romans would have been proud of such ability to express imperial might.
Should anyone miss the point, a huge sign at each end of this intimidating structure informs all what they are looking at. This is General Motors. The single largest and most powerful corporation the world has ever seen. What is good for GM is good for America, indeed. And if you don’t agree, watch yourself. These boys have deep pockets and powerful friends. They have plenty of people that can help you and a few that can really hurt you. People like me.
Officially, my title is Special Security Officer. Something nice and bland which made it sound like I stand in the lobby directing messengers to the proper elevator. The truth is, I report directly to Davis, VP of Operations, and take care of whatever he needs me to take care of. Of course, someone forget to mention all this to Poldowski. Not an accident, I’m sure, since the moron would make it known all over town who I was and what I did. However, the constant frustration of having to pretend I work for Poldowski, the nominal “Chief of Security,” is an annoyingly high price to pay. I live for those phone calls from upstairs that let Poldowski know I am on my own for a while. Sadly, there have been far less of them, so far, than I was counting on.
I had been offered the position after a colleague of mine from my days in West Berlin heard that I had been exiled. Davis was an old Army buddy of his. The good news for Davis, and GM, was they were able to get their hands on someone like me. The bad news was all the enemies they made in powerful places by doing so. To say I had to watch myself was a bit of an understatement. Davis made it clear he could, and would, only go so far to protect me. Too many problems with Poldowski or anyone else and I would be out on my ass. I appreciated his honesty.
The New York Times is waiting for me when I get to the newsstand. I make small talk about hockey with the old guy who runs the place. He makes sure to mention the Rangers losing streak to me a few times. I don’t mind the ribbing. This is probably the most interesting part of my day the way things have been going. Lately, my time had been filled with paperwork and not a whole lot else. Talking about the need for a new goalie is bliss compared to that.
I grab my Times and wait under the vaulted ceiling for the elevator. It’s only a little after eight but throngs of eager workers are already in. I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry when I see how very similar they all look. The men all wear the same suit, same shoes, and have the same haircuts. The GM look. Playing my role to the hilt, I am dressed in a more slovenly, cheaper version of the corporate uniform befitting someone from Security. I fit right in.
The lights are already on in the office when I arrive. Elizabeth is there. Blond. Twenty-Four. Well-built. A looker to be sure. I can think of worse sights to greet me in the morning. She also seems pretty bright and holds herself in a way that makes me wonder about her. She’s not some girl that dropped out of high school to go to secretarial college like the rest. She’s had an education. I think about asking her outright but decide it might be more interesting to figure it out for myself. There’s also the off chance somebody put her here for the very purpose of keeping an eye on me. I wouldn’t put it past Davis or any of the rest of them upstairs.
I briefly exchange greetings with Elizabeth and get on with the day. Three cups of bitter coffee and twelve pages of expense reports later, Poldowski walks in. The site of his obese body annoys me on sight. He then spends far too long trying to chat up Elizabeth who gives him polite but abrupt responses to all his queries. I also notice that he is perspiring profusely even though the office is on the chilly side. His sweat smells like alcohol.
As usual, he has a bag of donuts and a hot chocolate with him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the hot chocolate already had something else added to it. He sits down in his chair with a thud and an exaggerated groan. And then he starts in on me. It’s exactly the same every morning.
“So, you done with those reports yet, Halford?” You don’t get ‘em in by noon, that all comes out of your own pocket.” I don’t even acknowledge that he has spoken to me and keep digging through my receipts. “Hey, you hear me? Noon or don’t bother.” I look up at him. “They’ll be done.” I say it with as much neutrality as possible but I am sure my disdain for him is evident through every word. I glance at him just in time to see his pudgy hand shove half a Bismark into his mouth. It’s hard to imagine this pig was once one of the city’s finest. Twenty years on the job with the Detroit Police Department and now look at him. Disgusting.
“After you’re done, I need you to update the key log.” I’ve never heard of “the key log” but I know from the smirk on his face that the task will not be a pleasant one. “What’s the key log?” I ask. “Just what it sounds like. I thought you were supposed to be smart. That’s what they keep telling me. How smart you are. You think you’re smart enough to match up who has what keys?” “Isn’t that a job for Maintenance?” I ask. Poldowski finishes shoving the other half of the bismark into his mouth.
Sticky, yellow cream hangs off the side of his lips as he talks. “All the number four and five keys are us. We have to make sure nobody unauthorized is poking around where they shouldn’t be.”
I can just guess how monotonous the chore is going to be. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of those damn keys out there. Elizabeth walks over with a thick ledger in her hand. “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I should be able to help you with it later.” She smiles. It’s that look again. An invitation. My eyes watch the back of her as she returns to her desk. I wonder what her game is. “No, you can’t Hon’. I have some other things in mind for you.” Poldowski grins. His power over a young, attractive female is probably as big a charge for him as his perceived power over me. Elizabeth smiles but my guess is she despises him as much as I do.
My day is as tedious and hellish as Poldowski could have wished for. Between the boredom of the work and my ever increasing exhaustion, time barely moves. I try as hard as I can not to show how hateful I find it all. Giving that satisfaction to Poldowski is out of the question. All the same, I seriously consider just walking out the door and never coming back. It’s only when Poldowski leaves for his liquid lunch that I feel some sense of relief. I know he won’t be back for hours. All the same, I have forms to fill out and keys to log. It is not a happy day.
Poldowski never even bothers to come back. Out at a quarter to twelve and never seen again. Maybe he got hit by a bus. To be so lucky. More likely, he’s passed out in some bar with drool hanging off his chin. Either way, without him around, the work gets done. The key log will take weeks of calling and confirming who does, or does not, have a key. But I even manage to make a big dent in that. Elizabeth was right, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. But it’s still pretty damn bad.
I leave around eight. I am starving again. Everyone else had long ago headed back to their houses and families and had probably just finished a nice dinner. Me, it was looking like five-day-old leftovers or I was going to have to stop somewhere. Funny how soft I had gotten. There was a time I could go days with just a bit of anything and not think twice about it. Now I was in danger of becoming Poldowski. Fat, lazy and stuffing my face all the time.
Of course, none of these thoughts keep me from heading over to Lafayette Coney Island. Chilidogs with a Detroit twist. In fact, as far as I could tell, they were the best thing this city had going for it. The dogs themselves were good but the chili was what made them. Add some onions, a side of fries and a Vernor’s and you were talking heaven. Even better than Nathan’s, which is saying something. The setting worked for me too. Simple. Basic. Open to everyone. People from everywhere with all sorts of backgrounds came here. Cops, lawyers, auto execs, factory workers, even the occasional negro. A true plus in the Detroit column.
I’m dead tired but the tedium of the day has left me angry and frustrated. I stop by a bar and get a couple of beers. Four Molson’s later, the world is feeling like a happier place.
I don’t get home ‘till around midnight. It still takes me forever to fall asleep. My mind is racing. I review the sequence of events that lead me here. The how. They why. It fills me with frustration and anger. I did what I had to do. None of it matters. Not now. Nothing matters. It’s done. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I think of New York. I think of her. Anika. Dark hair. Long legs. Brown eyes. So young. So God damn beautiful. I can almost feel her. But then she slips away. I am here. Alone. In Detroit. I can dwell on the past all I like but it’s not going to change things. This is my life now.
Morning comes quickly. I wake up dazed and out of it. Another restless night’s sleep. I try to remember my dreams. I can’t. I switch my thoughts to the day ahead. Keys and phone calls about keys. Should be great. I slam down a couple of mugs of Hillsboro. It helps. But not much.
I scan through yesterday’s New York Times. I can’t seem to focus on any of it and the words mean nothing to me. The French are still giving the Brits a hard time about joining the European Common Market. Africa is in turmoil. Laos is still a mess. I don’t want to think about any of it and move on. I check the sports scores. The Rangers actually won. Maybe it’s an omen. A sign of a turn around for both me and the team. Somehow, I doubt it.
The drive is uneventful other than a switch in the movie marquee. Seems Lawrence of Arabia has had his day. I am annoyed at myself for never seeing it. Maybe I can catch it at some two-bit, second run, theater. At that point, it will be a scratched up print with poor sound. A torn up relic. But it’s better than missing it all the way around.
The old guy at the newsstand is smiling when I get there. He already knows the Rangers won. I think he’s disappointed it hasn’t made me overwhelmed with joy. If only it was that easy. But it helps, all the same. Silly banter about defensemen and forwards takes some of the dread out of being here. At least I’ll have something else to think about as I update my mind-numbing paperwork.
Elizabeth is already in and looking lovely when I arrive at my desk. After some small talk, she offers to help me with my task. I decline. She gets enough harassment from Poldowski already. Doing anything that would put her even more in his line of fire just wouldn’t be right. Besides, these people are paying me for this. If that’s really how they want to use my skills, so be it.
Poldowski stumbles in at his usual time. His stench is even worse than usual. Maybe he switched brands of rotgut. I try to ignore him and focus on the list of names I need to call today. I notice they are all very European sounding. I’m guessing not one Spic, Jew or Negro in the bunch.
I work through lunch and manage to get through more than I thought I would. The secretaries I talk to seem to have the issue of keys under control, which doesn’t surprise me. They seem pretty on top of everything at this place.
I knock off around seven-thirty, grab a sandwich at the drugstore, and head home. I spend the rest of the evening listening to a new album from that Franklin girl. Most of the arrangements are bland but every now and again she’s actually allowed to sing like she means it. The lady has a voice, to be sure.
The next couple days are the same monotony. I try to stop fighting things and just accept that this is the way things are now. Just go with it. To some degree, this attitude works. The key log and all the rest of the nonsense I spend my days doing gets easier and easier. It’s a throwback to boot camp, twenty-years past. A reminder of the satisfaction one can get out of successfully doing whatever is thrown at you, no matter how trivial.
It still gets to me more than it should that this is what I do with my life now. But it’s better. I also start to take a bit more joy out of the little things. My conversations with the newsstand guy, the egg sandwich from down the street, banter with Elizabeth. These are the things that manage to keep me sane and allow me to get through my days. Without them I would just dwell on things either long gone or that I can no longer influence. Pointless for all concerned.
Of course, all this new found peace of mind can’t last. The following week, Poldowski decided he didn’t like the system we used to keep track of the keys. A system he created. In fact, he starts to wonder if maybe we should physically check that everybody still has them instead of just taking their word for it over the phone. This bolt of lighting thought occurs to him after I had spent days and days on the phone, updating the ledger the way he originally asked for. The fat bastard is messing with me and just trying to make my life harder for the sake of it. The guy is a moron. Sadly, he’s a moron that can make my existence a lot more tedious than it needs to be.
I decide to focus on things that really matter and leave during lunch to visit my mother again. Henry Ford is abuzz with activity during the afternoon. I guess I had gotten used to how quiet it is during the hours I usually make it over there. I even have trouble finding a parking space.
When I finally get in, I am told she is down the hall having some sort of tests. I’m a little surprised they are testing her for anything. At this point, it seems that everyone has reached the conclusion that the cancer can’t be stopped. It’s just about making her comfortable until the end. I corner a doctor and find out. The test is to measure how fast the cancer is spreading. I’m told that she appears to be going even quicker than they had predicted.
I know I should be relieved that she is going faster and will not suffer any longer than she should. But, the truth is, I am not ready to say goodbye. I tell myself that I shouldn’t be so selfish. Whatever is best for her. The more quickly she goes, the less horrible it will be for her.
I sit in her room and wait for her to return. Eventually, they wheel her back into her room. She is out cold from the drugs they gave her during the tests. It would have been nice having a bit of conversation with her. All the same, it’s good to just see her again, even asleep. I decide to get some food and come back after. Maybe by then, she’ll be awake.
I get into my car and drive down to Greektown. A gyros and some lemon potatoes later, I’m feeling a bit better about life. Funny how a good meal always seems to make everything easier. I am also feeling well rested and fully coherent for a change. So much so, that I am almost irritated at being reminded of the difference between getting a normal sleep and my usual zombie-like state.
I go back to Henry Ford. My mother is awake by the time I return. She manages a little smile when I walk in. It makes my day. “I’m surprised to see you with the sun still out” she says. “I have a few hours between things” I say. I take a seat by her bed. “I was out at the house the other night. Everything is fine” I say. She gives me a reprimanding look. “You should sell it” she tells me, once again. “I’m not going to sell your house. It’s your house” I reply. She is insistent. “We both know I’m not going to ever need it again. It’s yours. You should sell it and use the money for something nice for yourself.” I really don’t want to be having this conversation. Not in the least. Just as I am about to argue with her, something in her own body attacks her. Her smile turns to a grimace. She is being eaten away from the inside.
The attack subsides but whatever bit of strength she had for conversation is now gone. I soon say goodbye and leave her be. I walk out feeling angry and helpless. She deserves a better end than this. This slow, painful demise is not befitting of such a great woman.
I don’t bother going back to the office. I know Poldowski is out, so he won’t even notice. Instead of logging keys, I try to drown my anger and depression with a few rounds of Stroh’s. The beer is so weak it doesn’t even get me drunk. I switch to Vodka. It tastes like water and goes down just as easily. A bit later, mission completed. I am drunk.
I know going home would be pointless. I am way too furious and wound up for that. Instead, I stop by another little bar I like in Hamtramck. The place is filled with workers from the nearby assembly plant just off their shift. I don’t quite fit in wearing my cheap, GM issue suit but they don’t seem to mind. The jukebox plays white versions of negro songs. The tunes are the same but the rough edges and soul have been removed. Not exactly my taste but it works well enough. I sit down at the bar and have a Schlitz.
Before I know it, I’m arguing with a guy about Cadillacs. He keeps saying the new ones are much better than last year’s model. Newer is always better, these days. It’s the American way. I keep telling him the two models are exactly the same mechanically. He doesn’t seem to get my point and keeps talking about how much better the new one is. Being that he’s on the line that builds them, he doesn’t like my argumentative attitude. Especially, when I tell him it’s still the same very basic, very primitive car underneath, just with a different wrapper. I realize this could get ugly and how silly the whole thing is. I decide to back down. I tell him I see his point and switch the conversation to sports. Of course, he’s a Red Wings fan. Everybody in this town is. I make sure not to slip up and tell him I follow the Rangers. I can’t take another argument tonight.
Not surprisingly, the next morning I wake up feeling horrible. Even after plenty of coffee and time to get my act together, I still feel like hell. Thankfully, I don’t look nearly as bad as I feel. As it turns out, later that day I am summoned by Davis.
I take the elevator up to the top floor. Every floor in the building is pretty nice. But the top floor, the “Executive Level” is really a sight. All dark wood, brass and marble. They want anyone allowed up here to know that this is the seat of power. The court of kings. No expense has been spared to make that loud and clear. I stop at the receptionist desk and tell the gal I’m there to see Davis. After being made to wait for a half an hour, a well built young thing with red hair shows me the way to Davis’ office.
My guess is most of GM’s worker bees would be pretty unnerved by the atmosphere. But I had met Davis once already when I got hired and knew he was just another office shmoe in a dark suit. More than that, given the company I had once kept, this is small beans. All the same, a certain amount of respect has to be shown or Davis will take offense. He is used to being treated as a titan of industry and I’m sure he thought of himself exactly as that. Who was I to puncture his grandiose self-image?
My little red headed guide hands me off to a stern looking spinster. Davis’ secretary. For a second I wonder why Davis didn’t just use his position to get the prettiest assistant he could. All the other big wigs seemed to. Maybe it was to keep himself focused on work. More likely, this old bitty could run circles around any of the sweet young things around here and Davis needed the back-up.
A firm handshake and some small talk later, I’m sitting in a high back, leather chair in front of Davis’ enormous desk. I wonder how good he is at his job and how much of it is he simply looks the part. He is perfect for it. 50s. Slightly graying hair. Handsome but no pretty boy. He is the poster boy for the GM leadership.
Davis seems somewhat irritated. I wonder if I’m showing too much confidence. During our first meeting, I didn’t judge Davis to be a man that took his self-worth from the way others feared him. But maybe I was wrong.
After the usual small talk banter and questions about how I was settling in, we finally get down to business. Davis informs me that Poldowski has a new assignment for me. It something that’s fairly important. My first thought is wondering why it wouldn’t just come straight to me.
Poldowski shouldn’t be trusted with anything important. Ever. Unless, of course, it’s really not that important. But then, why wouldn’t Davis just keep his nose out of it and let Poldowski hand me whatever pile of dog crap he was going to? Then I get it. It’s a test. If I can manage to do something meaningful without cutting Poldowksi out, I’m in. If I can’t get it done or I piss Poldowski off too much, we have a problem. Or should I say, I have a problem.
Looks like Poldowski’s people had gained some new influence. I wonder what sort of dirt he had on them. I can’t imagine anyone important pushing for him otherwise. Either way, the message is clear. Do this right, everybody comes out friends. Screw it up and I’ll be out on my ass. So much for Davis watching my back.
The briefing from Poldowski that takes place the next morning is one for the ages. He is already drunk, of course. We meet down the hall in one of the vacant conference rooms. I guess he wants it to look official. He takes a large cardboard file holder out from under his arm and tosses one of the files toward me. I open it and see a photo of an ordinary rank and file guy. He’s a negro but looks pretty much like any worker on the line. Poldowski’s breath makes the room stink of gin as he speaks. “I need this guy gone.” I look through the file quickly. I’m not seeing anything that triggers a reason. “Why? Because he’s a negro?” Poldowkski grunts. “I don’t give a damn that he’s a nigger. He’s a God Damn Commie. Find a way to get rid of him the union can’t mess with.”
I dealt with many Communists over my former career and this man in the photo did not strike me as one of them. “What did he do?” I ask. Poldowski seems annoyed I’m making him explain. “He’s been making a stink over at Pontiac Assembly about worker conditions. He’s got the union up everyone’s ass over there. Find something on him and get rid of him.” I keep remembering Davis words of warning and bite my tongue. This is ridiculous.
I decide to buy myself some time before my true feelings come out. “Alright, I’ll take care of it. Anything else?” I say. “Make sure you do. And quickly. I got friends over there counting on this” Poldowski says. I nod. “Like I said, I’ll take care of it.” Poldowski looks me over to see if he can spot anything in my expression. My new-found, cooperative attitude is throwing him. He leaves as unsure as ever if I am friend or foe. He’ll find out soon enough.
I spend some time looking over the file. This supposed Communist menace is named Leroy Hawkins. I’m seeing nothing but eighteen years service to the company and a good, solid, work record. Then I see the complaint. He had gone to the UAW last month about bathroom breaks. I don’t know why I am surprised but I am. They want this man destroyed because of bathroom breaks. Unbelievable.
I drive over to Hawkins place about five. He should just be getting home unless he stops somewhere else on his way back. It’s a nice little house over by Eight Mile. There’s a yard. A wood fence. The whole deal. All kept immaculately well. I see a ‘61 Pontiac in the driveway. I assume it’s Hawkins’.
I knock on the door. There’s no answer. I try again, a little louder. “Just a second.” It’s a man’s voice coming from the back yard. I walk toward it. Seconds later I see a man no taller than five-three with a beer in his hand and a wide smile. “Yes Sir. What can I do for you?” he says. I introduce myself and tell him I’m there on behalf of GM to investigate his recent claims regarding the plant. His expression remains joyful and he seems completely unphased. I had expected him to clam up and get defensive. Either he is very confident that the UAW will protect him or he doesn’t understand the way the company deals with these things.
Hawkins explains to me that one of his co-workers, a man he’s known for ten years, has a medical condition that makes him need the bathroom a lot. The line supervisor, Diamati, either doesn’t believe it or just doesn’t care. As a result, this friend of Hawkins has actually urinated on himself trying to hold it in. “That just ain’t right, a grown man being put in such an embarrassing situation. How would you like to be dirty-en yourself like that in front of everyone? I just had to do something about it” Hawkins explains. What he did about it was go to his shop steward who bumped it up the chain at the union. Hawkins kept on top of it, too. He was just trying to make sure the situation was taken care of. Unfortunately, someone in the very union he pays to protect him had something going with the company and let them know what he was up to.
Two things were becoming very clear to me. Hawkins didn’t understand who he was dealing with and it was a legitimate, reasonable complaint. Why this Diamati guy just didn’t let that poor guy take a leak when he needed to I can only attribute to something personal. Maybe he liked the power he had over another man to deny him even a bit of dignity. Either way, Hawkins wasn’t getting it.
“Some people have been saying stuff about me being against the company. It ain’t true” He explains. “I thank the Lord every day that I was able to raise myself up from nothing and make my life into something. And it’s all thanks to General Motors. The company let me be a man and provide. They gave me this house, that car, some money to take my kids to Disneyland every year. I owe the company everything.” He says it with such total conviction, I believe him without question. “But the man was dirty-en himself in public. I had to say something. You understand, right?” I nod. I thank Hawkins for his time and tell him to have a good evening.
The next day I drive over to the Pontiac Assembly Plant. I see row after row of brand new Bonnevilles in the lot. It’s quite an impressive site. Detroit’s latest and greatest ready to be shipped out all over the country. I discretely talk to a few other people about the situation with Hawkins. Everyone backs him up. He’s a hard worker and a solid company man through and through.
All of which makes my meeting with Diamati something I am not looking forward to. From everything I found out, he’s probably just a racist shit that likes messing with Negroes. Then I realize there’s one major problem with this theory. The man who actually has the bladder issue is white. Hawkins had put himself in the line of fire for a white guy, not another negro. It all makes me wonder again what the hell Diamati’s problem is. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to find out for a couple days. It’s Diamati’s days off.
The guy with the bladder issues, some guy with a Polish sounding name I can’t pronounce, is also off. In his case though, it’s on medical leave. I think about talking with him but am told he’s out of state staying with his sister. I end up leaving the Pontiac plant even more confused than ever what all this nonsense is about. It’s hard to believe this could really just be about a guy needing to take a leak. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all going to have to wait, regardless.
I go back to the office. Poldowski is out but Elizabeth is hard at work. She seems to have no problem interrupting whatever she is doing to shoot the breeze with me for a while. Pure small talk and not much else but it flows easy and kills off a good chunk of the afternoon. She really is a great gal. Certainly easy on the eyes too. I really should ask the girl out sometime. I swear she almost sees me thinking this and can read my mind. Something in her expression just gives me that “well, go ahead already” green light. So, I do it. I ask her to go to a concert by Little Stevie Wonder. He’s a blind kid who sings and plays piano. Great stuff. Not that it would have mattered. I think I could have asked her to stare at rocks all evening and she still would have said yes. We makes plans for dinner and the concert.
Even though I’m tired and feel like doing nothing more than plopping down in front of the T.V. for the night, I stop in and see Mom. She’s not up for much conversation. I notice a change in her appearance. She looks more hallow and death like. Once again I am reminded that it will not be long now. By the time I leave, I am ready to head to a bar to take the edge off. Then common sense kicks in and I realize I really just need to go home. Much to my surprise, I follow my own advice and do just that.
It’s already pretty late but I decide to give Michael a call. We had known each other for over a decade now and had served in several parts of the world at the same time. Our years together in Indochina had, in particular, brought us closer together. He was French but had fallen hard for an American co-ed. He, eventually, ended up marrying her and moving to Chicago. She had since become an Adjunct Professor at the university. He retired from his duties for the French government and opened up a little store selling toy soldiers and military collectibles. From everything I could tell, the two of them now had the perfect life.
Michael picks up the phone. He is in a great mood. I lay out the Hawkins situation for him and get lots of support but no real advice. We both know I’m the one that’s going to have to figure this out. At the end of the conversation he tells me I should drive down to Chicago and visit them this weekend. Even though it’s a long drive for just a couple days, I quickly agree. I know seeing them for a bit will do wonders for my spirits. Besides, what the hell else am I going to do with myself this weekend?
As tired as I am, it’s a rough night. I wake up after a few hours and have a really hard time getting back to sleep. Around four AM, I just decide to quit fighting it and get an early start on the drive. I shower, shave and pack. I’m on the road before five and heading for Chicago. Being a Saturday, the highways are even more empty than usual. I fly through the darkness and leave Detroit behind. At least for a little while.
I make good time and will be in Chicago well before ten at this rate. Michael and Joy will probably still be lounging about the house in their robes at that hour. Well, Michael anyway. Joy might well be at the university preparing lecture notes or doing research or whatever she does there. Michael would normally have gone into his little shop but he had some kid down the street he pays minimum wage to when he doesn’t feel like going in himself. Thanks to my impromptu visit, today is one of those days for him, I’m guessing.
As I head west across the state, I start to lose some of the radio stations I normally listen to. They don’t have the wattage to get out this far. I turn the radio off and let my thoughts wander. It’s not the misery of my exile in Detroit that occupies my thoughts. It’s Anika. Hard to say how much of this is an involuntary obsession and how much of this is pure indulgence. Not that it matters.
When my mind drifts to memories of her, I follow willingly and without resistance.
Sometimes I wonder how someone who I spent so little time with could have gotten to me so much. Part of it is easy enough to understand. The girl is gorgeous. Not just pretty. But almost other worldly. She is the kind of woman that walks into a room and just owns it. Men stare. Women stare. She is that damn beautiful. If that isn’t deadly enough, she has the brains to match the looks. Not to mention, the whole exotic foreigner thing going for her. West Germany doesn’t seem all that exotic anymore but still. Something about that accent worked very, very well with the rest of the package. Not that it really matters, I guess. She’s gone and I’m sure she has since moved on. Maybe someday I’ll face reality and do the same.
I hit some construction work and don’t reach Hyde Park until a little after ten. I knock on the door to the apartment and wait. Michael and Joy both greet me. Before I even realize what’s happening, I am simultaneously being lead inside and having a small bag of something held up to my face. “Look at these. Beautiful. Almost like those from my country” Michael says. He holds up something green in his hand from the bag. It’s a green bean. Michael shoves it under my nose.
“Smell that. Fresh, local. None of that dead, lifeless garbage from your American “super-markets.” I am actually impressed how much venom he packs into the word “super-markets.” I smell the bean. Nod. I look at Joy to rescue me. She is far too amused by the whole thing to help. “We got it from the little stand down the street. Soon your big “super-markets” will drive him out of business and we will have nothing like this.” I finally get a moment to respond. “I’ll take it up with the people in charge. Would you mind letting me put down my suitcase?” Joy and Michael both grin. It’s good to be here.
Michael cooks us a great breakfast of omelets with a side of his precious green beans. I had already eaten at some highway rest stop along the way but it didn’t matter. The food is fantastic. He was even right about the green beans.
The conversation turns to recent events in their lives. The store is not doing very well but that doesn’t seem to be too much of a worry. Even though Joy is only getting about half of what her male colleagues are because she doesn’t have to support a family, it’s something. Between the store and Joy’s pay they are doing alright.
Then the talk turns to recent news of world affairs and economics. I am not really in the mood for it but it’s out of my hands. The argument between Joy and Michael gets heated. I am not even sure what they are really arguing about and don’t really care. Something about Joy’s claim that the free market system is the most logical and efficient way of determining things. Michael’s response to her is actually pretty amusing. “So, basically, what you are saying is the rich are right because they are rich. Everybody else is wrong or else they would be rich too. And the government is always wrong, no matter what, just because they are the government?” Joy grins, sits back in her chair and answers with one word. “Exactly.” Michael turns to me exacerbated. “You see what I have to put up with?” “Yeah, poor you” I tell him. These two are the luckiest damn people in the world to have found each other and they know it.
We sit around for a couple hours over coffee talking. I finally give Michael the present I had bought for him. It had actually been very difficult to find. It was only because a friend of mine in London helped out I was able to get it. I hand him the box and he opens it. It’s an antique toy soldier. Some very specific one he needed to complete a set he already owned. From his expression, I can see that he is pleased with it. Of course, after thanking me profusely, he launches into a diatribe about how plastic is going to ruin the way toy soldiers are made and how everything good in the world is being replaced by poor substitutes because they are faster, cheaper and more convenient, not because they are better. I can’t say that he is wrong. All the same, I am glad Joy is able to eventually shut him up about it.
We spend the afternoon just walking around and talking. It’s cold out but sunny. Joy has declined to join us, using work as an excuse. Between the lectures on the evils of America, how to cook chicken properly and why soccer is better than hockey, Michael lets me in on little bits of more serious information.
Like me, Michael had recently heard some news about South Vietnam. They are preparing to put in even more U.S. troops. He also confirms my fears about Deim and the impeding change of leadership in Saigon. I shake my head in disgust. All the anger and frustration I thought I had left behind suddenly wells up inside me once again.
Michael calms me down and moves the conversation to his thoughts on Algeria and the ramifications for his own country. There are a lot of people that consider President De Gaulle a traitor for giving Algeria back to the Algerians. For all their boasting about freedom and equality, many French don’t think that those rules apply to their own colonies. In fact, Michael seems very worried that one of the assassination attempts on President De Gaulle will, eventually, be successful. He ominously says it is just a matter of time.
From the way Michael is talking, I know his fear for De Gaulle’s life is not based on rumors. Officially retired or not, he still has access to many secrets and many friends in high places. For all Michael’s claims of being out of the game, he is still too valuable to be left alone for very long and he knows it. Eventually, someone will call on him and threaten to destroy the wonderful life he has built with Joy.
In spite of making sure to ridicule the stupidity of the sport at every turn, Michael takes me to a Blackhawks game. I appreciate his sacrifice. Toronto is in town. I would have enjoyed the game anyway but being able to see Arnie Brown play is a real bonus. Muzz was talking about bringing him to the Rangers. God knows, we could use some help with the defense. The game turns into a slaughter as the Hawks outshine the Leafs in a big way. Final score, 4-1, Hawks.
Following the game, Michael and I head to our favorite bar in town. Michael seems concerned about me and how I’m adapting to my new life. Or, not adapting, as the case may be. However, he’s very happy I asked out Elizabeth and wants to hear everything I know about her. At this point, other than a physical description, I have very little I can share with him. I’m caught a little off guard by one of his comments. It’s about Anika. He knows all too well how much I dwell on her and let memories of her cloud my mind. “She was no good for you, My Friend. No good. Let her go. There are many beautiful women in the world. Find another one and move on. If not this Elizabeth, someone else.”
My mood sours with his words but I don’t argue. I know he is just trying to look out for me. Besides, the night is far too enjoyable to let it be destroyed by an argument over a relationship long over with. We order more beer and I get Michael talking about the cassoulet he recently cooked. It sounds great. I even make him promise to cook it for me next time I come down.
Sunday passes quickly and I take off after a late lunch. I arrive back in Detroit feeling happier about life than I have in quite a while. It’s only when I’m lying in bed that night that my good mood fades. I’ve got to deal with this Hawkins thing again tomorrow. I am not looking forward to it.
I greet Monday morning with dread. After way too much coffee and a glance at the paper, I drive back out to Pontiac Assembly to talk with Diamati. It turns out my earlier assessment about him wasn’t that far off. He is old-school Italian through and through, from olive complexion to over-exaggerated hand gestures. It turns out the man with the bladder problem is Polish and Diamati hates Poles. End of story. As Diamati put it “If those damn Polocks can’t help from wetting themselves, what can I do about it?” Unreal. It’s bad enough dealing with the whites hating the blacks and vice-versa in this town but it is so much more than that. It’s the Italians versus the Poles. The Danes versus the Swedes. The Germans versus the Russians. Sometimes the whole city just feels like a bunch of little street gangs looking to fight one another. It would be laughable if it didn’t make people’s lives hell for no reason.
Thankfully, there are people like Hawkins and other line workers who really don’t seem to make much of a distinction between any color, race or country of origin. As far as they are concerned, they are all just Pontiac Men or Olds Men or whatever. True and loyal to the company. The very same company that will sell them out in a heartbeat if they cause any trouble.
I leave the assembly plant knowing what I have to do. I am all too well aware that it is going to go over like a lead balloon. Hawkins is not the problem here, Diamati is. However, something about the situation weighs heavily on my mind. I would have expected Poldowski to back his fellow Pole. Instead, here he is backing Diamati, a man who clearly has some problems with Polish folks. I can only imagine that Poldowski valued things more than national heritage or doing things simply because they were right. Thinks like secret payoffs and gifts from people for helping them out with their problems. It’s worth checking into.
I consider going to Davis with all this. The first problem is he might be part of the same kickback and payoff scheme. I kind of doubt it. He makes a pretty penny already and at his level the game is played much more subtly. It’s more favors for favors instead of messy things like cash.
Still, though, I have to assume Davis knew what sort of situation it was when he sent me in. He made it clear that it was a test. The problem is I am not even sure what answer he is looking for. Report back to him with the facts or keep my mouth shut and just go with it. Sadly, the more I think about it, the more I realize the answer he wants. It’s to see if I can be a good company man and quit fighting the system. I’m not sure I can bring myself to do it. Hawkins seems like a good man. Railroading him over this just isn’t my style.
Over lunch I fight a feeling of increasing anger that my life has been reduced to such trivia. This Hawkins thing is supposedly the important part of my work. In some ways, saving Hawkins matters a lot to me. What they are doing, or trying to do, to him, is unbelievably screwed up. But it isn’t the sort of high-stakes game I am used to. Well, other than to Hawkins and the Pole, of course. There has to be something better than this.
My mind goes back to that day in D.C.. I wonder, yet again, if maybe I messed this all up for no reason. I had a good thing going for me and I blew it. I said “no” to the wrong people, damn well knowing it was going to cost me big. And I did it anyway. As much as I tell myself it was the right thing to do, sometimes I wonder if it was just about my own God damn ego. A way of telling myself I would stand up to anybody, no matter how powerful. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. The rest of my life is going to be damn tedious and boring. Bathroom breaks. My life has become about bathroom breaks.
As much as I hate the very thought of it, I return to the office. Much to my surprise, Poldowski is there, something I’m not real thrilled with. He immediately asks me how I’m doing with the Hawkins thing. I tell him I haven’t been able to find anything on Hawkins. Predictably, he is not pleased with my answer. He throws a tantrum which includes yelling and the smashing of a coffee cup against the wall. What surprises me most isn’t that he acts like such a petulant child but that he does all this right in front of Elizabeth.
Amazingly, Elizabeth keeps her cool even as Poldowski goes on a tirade about “college-educated nigger lovers.” Most of it is just a blather of nonsense and obscenities. The whole time I am almost praying that he takes a swing at me. Self-defense would be a good excuse to finally give him what he deserves. Especially since I have Elizabeth here as a witness.
He never does. He’s almost foaming at the mouth with hatred and venom for me but he never lets it get physical. Maybe he knows what a bad idea that would be for him but I doubt it. More likely he knows there’s a better way to get his revenge. He keeps saying the same thing over and over again that day. “Davis won’t be able to save you from this. You’re done in this town.” This is going to be ugly.
Poldowski takes off and leaves it alone. I can only hope he doesn’t do anything too stupid against Hawkins. In the meantime, I’m going to have to figure out how I smooth all this over with Davis. If this was a test to see if I could get along with Poldowski and follow the company line, I just failed miserably.
Elizabeth and I chat about the tirade we have just witnessed. To say she is sympathetic is an understatement. She hates Poldowski as much as I do. As we talk, I realize how much I’m looking forward to the concert with her. More than I’ve looked forward to anything with anyone in a long time. The thing about Elizabeth is that the girl is a total mystery to me. I mean, even more than most women are. There’s something about her that just doesn’t fit this place.
Once again, I think about the possibility that she is in the office to keep an eye on me and/or Poldowski. I decide I’m just being paranoid but the thought still lingers. A background like mine will do that to you. Hopefully, on Friday, I’ll get some answers. Then again, eye-balling those legs, talking might well be the last thing I’ll have on my mind.
As tired as I am after work, I decide to drive out to the house. Hopefully, the recent heavy rain hadn’t damaged the roof. The Motown Music Hour makes the drive pretty painless. Too bad I couldn’t say the same about being in Farmington.
I was raised out here. It used to be a nice little town with a proper main street and some nice country around it. Now it’s all suburban hell. Row after row of “Tri-Level” houses, one after the other, on roads named after trees. Entire neighborhoods had appeared over what had been open fields just five or ten years ago. The American Dream, Eisenhower style.
I drive up the hill and see the old place. My mom’s house. Where I grew up. It sits on a hill just outside of some new development called “River View Terrace.” Unless they put one in, which wouldn’t surprise me, there is no river and not much of a view. But who am I to judge these things? I’m relieved to see the front windows are all still fine and nobody has broken them. It wasn’t a break-in I was worried about as much as some stupid kid thinking it’s a good time to throw rocks through the glass.
It occurs to me I haven’t been out here in a couple of months. Not very responsible of me. How terrible would it be for Mom to get out and find her house all destroyed? My heart sinks as I realize the ridiculousness of that thought. She won’t be coming out. Her remaining days will be spent at Henry Ford, not here in the house she adored.
I open the door and flip on the light. Everything looks fine. I quickly check all the windows, the sinks and the ceiling to make sure everything is o.k. They are. I plant myself in the well-worn chair in front of the TV and just sit for a while. My mind jumps to memories of my youth. This really wasn’t a bad area at all to grow up in back then. It’s a shame it’s all ruined now. Soon, it will look like every other place in the country and be filled with company men and barbeques. Could be worse, I suppose.
Sometime during my little trip down memory lane I must have fallen asleep. I wake up and look at my watch. I’ve been asleep for three hours. I search for an alarm clock and set it. At this point, I might as was well just stay.
Even though I’m on a sofa about two inches too short, I get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. I leave early enough to give myself time to shower and shave at my place downtown.
Morning at the office is hell. Elizabeth is out somewhere which leaves just me and Poldowski. We don’t say a word to each other. Just being in the same room with the fat bastard makes me ill. Poldowski must feel the same way about me. He takes off for his drink fix even earlier than usual. It’s not even eleven when he decides to call it a day.
Later that afternoon, I decide to check in on Hawkins. I pull up in front of his little house and knock on the door. There’s no answer. I step around to the backyard. No one is there. “You got no right to be here. This is still my house.” It’s Hawkins. I turn and see him standing on the back stoop. He does not look good. “Mr. Hawkins, I’m here to help” I say. “I don’t need anymore of your kind of help. What you people did to me is just wrong.” It looks like Poldowksi moved damn quickly. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Did something happen?” Hawkins looks at me with a look of total distrust. “Like you don’t know. You show up here all friendly and acting helpful and then right after…” “Right after, what?” I ask. “The lies. You people just tell lies.”
I walk over to him and get him to elaborate. Hawkins had been fired. They had found a set of company tools in his car and accused him of theft. He swears up, down and sideways to me, he never stole the tools or anything else. I know he is telling the truth. Planting something in his car would have been one of the easiest ways to get rid of him. Don’t have evidence? Create some.
They had really done a number on Hawkins. The tools were just the starting point. They used that to search his house and found a whole trove of stolen goods in his garage. Enough to convict him of a felony and maybe even get him some jail time. But what kills me is that Hawkins doesn’t seem concerned about any of that. All he can think about is his kids.
“My own boys think their Dad is a thief. Imagine what that’s like, Mr. Halford. I keep telling them it’s all a mistake but what are they supposed to believe? They see all this stuff in my garage and hear all the lies from the police. I always told them to trust the police. What are they gonna believe?” His eyes come close to tearing up. This is destroying him. He’s gone from being someone his boys looked up to and respected to a common thief. I wouldn’t be surprised if thoughts of suicide are in his head.
“I believe you, Mr. Hawkins. I know you’re a good man.” He nods. “I’m not a thief.” “I know” I reassure him. “Somebody planted all those things and wanted to find you with them.” He looks surprised. “Why? Why would anybody do such a thing?” His naivety is startling. “Because you complained.” He shakes his head. “No. I don’t believe it. I’m a good worker and the company knows it. They wouldn’t do something like this. No way.” I know he’s wrong but he seems firm in his conviction.
I calm him down and get some more details from him. It wouldn’t have been difficult to frame him. As hard as he tries, he can’t name anyone he might have offended. In his version of reality, he gets along with everybody. It takes every bit of discipline I have not to tell him “everybody except the company.”
My last words are to him give him something to hang on to. “Look, we’ll get this sorted out, OK?” It’s a promise I am not sure I will be able to hold to. However, after seeing his face and what they have done to him, it’s one I will try my damnedest to keep. There is no way I’m going along with this. Poldowski and Diamati need to be stopped. If Davis has a problem with that, so be it.
I start that night. Poldowski and his pals aren’t all that clever but it’s going to take some time. In fact, it’s a frustratingly tedious task.
I spend the rest of the week in bitter silence with Poldowski. Neither one of us says a word about Hawkins. I keep waiting for the call to be summoned to Davis’ office but it never comes. Instead I am left buried in a mound of paperwork and meaningless forms. Maybe this is my punishment. I don’t play ball, it’s death by tedium. In the meantime, my work continues. Watching, waiting, talking to people who know the things I need to know. It’s the beginning of a long, slow, haul but it needs to be done. I’m not letting them get away with this.
Aside from that, the only motivation I have to get up in the morning is Elizabeth. Friday evening finally comes. After work, we part ways to return to our separate apartments. I would have been happy just going right from work to the dinner but she insists on going home first and changing. I guess she wants to get all dolled up for me. I spend the intervening time catching up on my backlog of New York Times.
There’s more information about events in Asia on one page than in a week’s worth of Detroit papers. About twenty minutes into it, I feel myself getting depressed again.
I put the papers away. Those things have nothing to do with me anymore. They are somebody else’s problem. Not mine. I’m just another working stiff in Detroit getting ready for a night with his gal. As much as I like the sound of the line in my head, I know the minute I think it that it’s a lie. For one thing, I haven’t even gone out with this girl and already I’m calling her mine. I guess that’s one way to deal with things.
Eventually, it’s time and I make the short drive to Grosse Pointe to pick her up. As I get nearer her address, the houses get larger and larger. In fact, several of them would much better be described as mansions. This is were members of automotive dynasties always lived, and for that matter, still live. The Dodge family, the Ford family, the Fisher family, this is their turf. Even now, this is the place to live once you reach a certain level of seniority and power. It’s non-negotiable. An expected part of your executive-level duties.
I pull up into the drive of a massive Tudor-style house and park in the circular driveway. I’m glad Elizabeth warned me she lived with her parents still or I would assume I had written the address down wrong. I couldn’t wait to hear what Daddy Big Bucks did to be able to afford all this. I see the little gate she told me about and walk down a narrow path to the guest house. I knock on the door.
Seconds later, Elizabeth greets me. She looks amazing. For a second, I wish we could just stay in and have a private night together instead of going to the concert. Hopefully, later. I guess my reaction was pretty obvious. “Keep looking at me like that and we’re both going to get into trouble.” I snap out of it. As we walk back to my car, I already know it’s going to be a great night.
I rudely start right in. “Nice little house, you got there.” “You mean the guest house?” “All of it” I say. She’s perfectly comfortable talking about her money. None of the fake proper people don’t talk about these things I hate so much. It turns out Elizabeth’s grandfather invented the automatic ignition. Before that, it was all hand cranks and broken arms. To say it was a popular invention is clearly an understatement. The house, or mansion, was granddad’s and passed down and down again to her dad.
I immediately wonder if her dad met the fate of most of the rich kids I had met in my life. Spoiled, lazy and incredibly miserable. Most of them seemed to feel they could never live up to expectations, so they didn’t even bother to try. It sounds like her dad escaped such a fate. At least, that’s the cover story she gives me when I ask what her dad does.
I’m annoyed at myself for even asking. Why should I even care how a man makes his living? But the question is out there. “He’s a Senior VP over at the Glass House” she answers. I glance over at her. I have no idea what that means. “Ford. My father works in Dearborn for Ford.” She seems to be laughing at me. “You’re really not from Detroit are you?” Even if I was, my Detroit and hers are pretty different places. Working at GM or not, this girl is on a different level with this town than I will ever be. All of which raises the question, what the hell is she doing working for Poldowski as a secretary?
I continue being rude and come right out and ask her. She looks at me with a totally straight face “I’m there to meet a husband.” I try to keep my expression neutral but I am extremely disappointed. Then she cracks up laughing. She mocks me for a while that I believed her. She makes jokes about convincing Poldowski to marry her. Even in jest, it is a thought which repulses me.
She finally gets serious and says she just wanted a job. Working at Ford was never an option because she would always be treated as the boss’s daughter, which she hates. The same goes for her being in some cushier position at GM. The scions of Detroit all seem to know each other and she would still not be treated as a normal person. In addition, she confesses a truth I had already seen first hand. She really isn’t a very good secretary.
We arrive at the concert venue. Elizabeth’s outgoing and joyful mood suddenly ceases. I look at her, trying to figure out why. She looks frightened. I see her eyes on the crowd waiting in line for the show. It’s almost all negroes. “Are you sure we belong here?” she asks. “Yeah, this is where the blind kid is playing tonight.” She looks at me very seriously. “No, I mean, are we going to be OK here? They’re all…” I cut her off. “I knew what you meant. And yes, we’ll be fine.” My tone sounded much harsher than I meant it to be. I apologize and offer to skip the concert and take Elizabeth somewhere she will feel more comfortable. She declines. As long as I’m sure we’re welcome here, she’s in.
The show is amazing. Little Stevie Wonder has a voice I don’t love but the way he uses it is pretty impressive. Hell, he’s a kid and he’s blind. Of course it’s impressive. But it isn’t some novelty act. This kid is so good it wouldn’t matter if he were thirty and had full sight. Good is good.
Elizabeth seems to relax and get into the music. My first concern was that she would be fearful for her safety all night. My second was she would play tourist and find the whole night exotic because most of the crowd was negro. Neither happens. She just sways to the music and gets into the rhythm. From the looks of it, Little Stevie Wonder has a new fan.
The show goes on for hours. I offer to take Elizabeth out for a drink or some food afterward. She declines. I am surprised by how much the rejection bothers me. She explains about having to go to some charity event the next morning. I believe her. However, I am still disappointed. My hopes for a different sort of night are formally put to an end as we kiss goodnight. I get her cheek. Once again, not unexpected but disappointing all the same.
I return home reflecting on the night. It had far and away been my best evening out in Detroit since moving back. Elizabeth is a really interesting girl. Rich but not snobby. A good kid but willing to take some risks. Damn easy on the eyes, too.
The next evening, I stop in again at Henry Ford. Mom looks better than she has in a while. Not better exactly. She still looks like a living skeleton. Just like she has more energy and coherence about her than she has in a long time. But there’s something about it that is deeply unsettling. Kind of like watching the last drops in the tank get used up.
I tell her about Elizabeth. I tell her as much as I can think of that makes my life sound like it is working out instead of the pile of crap it really is. She sees right through all of it. She always does. “You can’t keep fighting the world, forever. Settle down and embrace life. Maybe with this girl, Elizabeth. She sounds like exactly what you need.” I’m not sure how to answer that one. I remind her that Elizabeth and I have only had one date. “Well, if not her. Someone. Maybe after you sell the house…” I cut her off. I don’t want to hear it.
One the way home, I stop in at a pizza place to get a pie to go. As I’m waiting for it, I stare down at the dollar bill in my hand. “In God We Trust.” Words officially declared the National Motto in ’57 to make sure we weren’t like those Godless Commies. I wonder if Eisenhower, the very man who warned an ignorant public of the military-industrial complex, ever saw the irony. He added words of God to the all-mighty dollar bill.
I go home, eat my pizza, watch TV and go to sleep. At 4:19 AM, that night I get a phone call. My mother has died.
I make the funeral arrangements more quickly than I thought I would be able to. I’m not sure who I need to notify of her passing or invite, so I just start guessing. In many ways, my mother was still a stranger to me. It is a difficult and consuming task which gives me little space to grieve. Time simply passes, as I allow myself to be swamped in the logistics of death. I feel numb and let my mind focus on the next thing that needs to get done. There is nothing else.
When I tell Elizabeth, she is all concern and sympathy. It’s almost too much. She even offers to go the funeral with me but I decline. I really just want her to back off right now and leave me be. Eventually, she seems to get it and just reminds me she’s there if I need her.
The funeral is nice and goes off without a hitch but I hate it. Having to stand there mingling with strangers and listening to their condolences is not what I want right now. Far more people ended up coming than I had originally expected. I guess Mom had a pretty complete life for herself here in Michigan. I never would have known.
My days pass in a blur. I deal with my sorrow by burying myself in the Hawkins thing and continuing my efforts to bring down Poldowski. It’s amazing what you can learn about someone if you just ask people the right questions. It also occurs to me that my single biggest reason for staying in Detroit is now gone. Once I sell the house in Farmington, my ties to this place will forever be severed.
I call in sick and don’t even bother going into the office. My days are spent working against that fat bastard who thinks he’s my boss. He’s looking like a much easier target than Diamati. It’s only a matter of a week or so before I should be ready to make my play.
One evening, I hear the door buzz to my building entrance. I assume someone hit the wrong button and don’t even answer. They keep buzzing. Finally, I get sick of the noise and let them in. I stand in the hallway ready to have it out with this person for forcing their way into the building. It turns out it’s for me, after all. It’s Elizabeth.
She walks up to me with a bag of groceries in her arms. “I was hoping you were home. I feel like cooking” she says. I’m not thrilled with the idea. “That’s nice of you but I already ate” I say. She walks right by me and into my apartment. It’s a mess. She doesn’t say a word and heads toward my seldom used kitchen.
“Elizabeth, I appreciate the thought but I’d really rather be left alone” I say. She just smiles and starts taking out the groceries as she answers. “You can be alone after you eat.” I’m surprised by her confidence and attitude. Yet, somehow, it fits her.
Around the time when she’s boiling the potatoes I stop fighting it and enjoy the gift I have been given. And I don’t mean just the food. I grab her by the hips and turn her around. This time, when I kiss her, I don’t get cheek. We end up in bed soon thereafter.
Elizabeth’s lack of experience shows but there can be no denying she is a very beautiful girl. Her bare body is a lovely sight. Curvy in all the right places. It is not the type of sex I am used to anymore. There is an innocence to it. A lack of memorized moves and agendas. For lack of a better word, it is almost “sweet.” No one is more surprised by this than I. It had been like this with only one other girl and I was nineteen at the time. It was a strange experience to have again as a bitter, cynical old man nearing forty. However, certainly not a bad one.
As I am walking her to her car the next morning, Elizabeth dumps a little piece of information on me. “I want you to know, if you ever want to leave GM you have plenty of other options.” I’m not sure what she is getting at. I start to explain to her how I will soon be blackballed all over town for not following the company line at GM. She cuts me off before I can finish explaining. “You say the word, I can get you a job over at Ford or Chrysler or pretty much anywhere else in this city.” At first I think she is overestimating her abilities and underestimating the might and control of General Motors. Then I see the look of confidence about her. If nothing else, she believes it. And, not that she actually says it, but I swear I almost hear her say “haven’t you figured out who I am yet?”
I had been sharing my bed with automotive royalty and never really thought about what that might mean. If it all goes to hell over this battle with Poldowski, which it will, Elizabeth is offering to be my ticket out of GM. Not only Daddy was connected but probably all of Granddad’s offspring were in positions of influence.
Unfortunately, it would be the same job, different empire. Just somewhere else in this city. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have exactly the same problems somewhere new? More than that, there’s another implication here. This deal is only good if we remain a couple. What can be given can also be taken away. But it’s something to consider. I thank her for her offer and tell her I’ll think about it. We also make plans to reunite as soon as possible. At the very least, she is a lovely distraction from things I don’t feel like dealing with right now.
A few days later, I finally have enough of what I need on Poldowski. I’m torn between doing it all without Hawkins’ knowledge or forcing him to get involved. The man needs to learn how the world really works. If he doesn’t, it’s only a matter of time before Poldowski, or someone just like him, crushes him again. At the very least, I need Hawkins to understand what I’m about to do.
I drive out to Hawkin’s house with a large, cardboard file. Hawkins is sitting there on his front stoop. He looks years older than when I had first met him. I see a beer in his hand and worry if he’s been driven to alcoholism by all this. My fears are unfounded in that regard. He’s as sober as can be.
We exchange small talk for a bit. Then I hand him the file. At the last minute, I had decided to take out all the financial stuff. The remaining information will make more of a visceral impact. It’s photos of Poldowksi in bed with the wife of one of his cop buddies. Turns out, that’s where he was headed all those afternoons, not the bar. I was kind of surprised the fat bastard had it in him. But given that she might be even nastier looking than he is, I guess it makes sense. Like they say, there’s someone for everybody in this world.
Hawkins takes out the photos. A look of disgust comes over his face. I assume it’s from looking at the two obese, naked, bodies together. I’ll be the first to say, it’s not pretty. “What is this?” Hawkins asks. I explain it to him. “It’s a guy named Poldowski in a very compromising position.” I tell him how Poldowski is connected to Diamati and how it’s Diamati and Poldowski who have framed him. I also tell Hawkins who the woman is and why Poldowski would be afraid if that photo ever got out. The reaction I get from Hawkins is not what I expect.
“What sort of people are you?” he asks. “I’m not going to judge a man for who he decides to share his bed with. Who am I to cast stones?” I explain it to him again. This is a way to save his skin and make things right. He keeps holding the file out to me like it’s a bomb that’s about to go off. “If that’s what it takes to get justice, then I’m not interested. I will not be dragged down to something like that. I would rather be in jail than know that I’ve become someone who would do something like that. I am not a thief and I am not a blackmailer.” His eyes are defiant.
In spite of all my efforts, he is not to be swayed. His arm remains extended with the file thrust toward me. I reluctantly take it back. I remind him one more time of the type of people he is facing and the consequences of not stopping them by whatever means necessary. He stands firm. He’s not interested. I head back to my car as I feel his eyes burrow into the back of my head. I glance over to see him standing in front of his little house. A house he will probably lose over all this.
The short ride back gives me time to figure out what’s next. I’m far too used to people not wanting to dirty their own hands but more than willing to let me do it on their behalf. Hawkins isn’t that. I really think he wants me to burn those photos of Poldowski and leave him to his fate. I know I should probably do exactly that. If Hawkins doesn’t want my help, just letting the whole thing drop will make my life a whole lot easier. It might not even be too late to keep my job, if that’s what I really want.
I decide to stop in at a swank hotel bar I like and think on it for a while. A well-dressed Oriental man sits next to me at the bar. I barely notice him as I down a couple of good German beers. He seems intent on his own business and starts sketching something in a notebook. We just both sit quietly like that, trapped in our own worlds, for quite a while. Finally, he shatters the silence.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Could you please pass me a napkin. I seem to have gotten ink on my hand.” His English is perfect. No accent. Nothing remotely Oriental about it. I guess he’s a regular American. I pass him a couple napkins without saying a word. “Thank you.” It’s only when I see his sketchbook that I take any interest in him at all. It’s a line drawing of some sort of building. He sees me looking. I apologize. It’s not my place to be in his business.
To my surprise, he moves the pad so I can see it better. “You like it. It’s just an office tower but a very special one.” The drawing is so quick and rough it’s hard to give him an opinion. “Yeah. Looks great.” He puts out his hand and introduces himself.
He’s an architect. It turns out the tower is some big project in New York. When I tell him I lived there for a while he seems very excited. He loves the place. We even end up talking about The Rangers and the plan to tear down Penn Station to the build a new Madison Square Garden. I must have needed the conversation. Two hours later I walk out of there feeling ready to deal with the world again. Screw Davis, Poldowski and all the rest of them. Even if Hawkins doesn’t need this to get done, I do.
The next afternoon, I arrange to meet Poldowski right outside his equally fat friend’s house. I just, very casually, sit on the stairs of his playmate’s apartment building. If Poldowski has any sense at all, which I admit is a stretch, this will be enough to make the point. If not, it’s photos, threats and angry words.
The expression on his face when he pulls up in front of the building is priceless. Bewilderment, anger, resignation all in the span of three seconds. He glares at me one last time and drives off. The conversation we have back at the office is brief. It takes place in the same conference room where this all began. Poldowksi gets right to it.
“What do you want?” he asks. “Get the charges against Hawkins dropped” I tell him. He doesn’t move for a long time. I just keep waiting as he thinks it through. Finally, he nods in agreement. “And get him his job back” I say. “I can’t do that. It’s not up to me” Poldowski protests. He goes on to explain how there are a number of people over at Pontiac Assembly that want Hawkins out. Even if he tells them otherwise, Hawkins’ job can’t be saved. Not anymore.
I think about telling Poldowski get it done or else. But I realize he is probably telling the truth. Hawkins had stepped right into it and angered a whole lot of people. Just forcing Poldowski to cooperate isn’t going to fix that. “At the very least, he retires with full pension. Anything else, you and your buddies over there got a real problem.” Poldowski protests furiously. Sweat pours off his little pink forehead. But, eventually, he says he’ll try.
We part ways. I am confident Poldowski will try his best to make me happy. However, I am not sure at all that the other parties involved will agree to the deal. I have a boatload of financial information that would get them all fired and maybe even land a couple in jail. It would almost certainly be the end for Poldowski. He had been amazingly brazen about the kick-backs and favors he had done over the years. The others probably wouldn’t fare much better. But there’s the question of how far up things go. It’s one thing just taking that fat bastard and his buddies down and quite another to declare war on the whole damn city.
Friday night, I am left alone. Elizabeth had some family function she needed to attend. Thankfully, I was not asked to accompany her. I watch some TV and finally go to bed around one. I’m waken up about forty minutes later by the phone. My first thought is that it’s about Mom. Then I remember. She is already gone. A wave of sadness and grief hits me. I just sit there on the edge of the bed, paralyzed as the phone keeps ringing and ringing. It’s probably some drunk that just misdialed. But they keep at it. I angrily force myself to pick it up and answer with a gruff “hello.”
It’s Michael. I immediately become concerned. “What’s wrong?” I ask. He sounds like he’s been out drinking. He mumbles something about not knowing. I ask him if something has happened to him or Joy? Did they have a fight? He tells me no. Nothing like that. “I was just out with Beuford, my friend in Washington” he says. I never met Beuford but his name had been mentioned to me once or twice down in D.C. “It happened months ago. I didn’t know. I would have told you if I had. You have to believe me.” I tell him I believe him but urge him to get on with it. “You know she was no good for you. No good at all.” I start to show my annoyance. I hate when Michael gets like this instead of just coming right out with it. “What are you talking about? What is it?” And then he tells me. “Anika. She’s dead.”
His words barely register. “What?” I ask. He says it again. “Anika is dead. It was months ago but I just found out.” “How?” I ask. “A car accident. She was alone. Probably drunk…” “And you just found out now?” I ask. I am astonished that I ask about that and not more details. “I know you already had a hard time letting her go. The best thing you can do is get on with your life like I always tell you.” His words make me furious. This is not the time for lectures. He never understood what Anika meant to me and never would. To most people, she was just another pretty girl. To me…I hang up the phone and tell Michael I’ll call him tomorrow.
I just sit there by the phone, thinking and remembering. I don’t sleep at all. I can’t. Poldowski, and everything else about Detroit empties from my thoughts instantly. My mind is filled only with images of Anika. It makes all the rest feel like total bullshit. And now she is dead. It just doesn’t seem possible.
I hunger for answers and details about what happened. How could months have gone by and I wouldn’t have even known? I think back to when Michael said she died. What was life like here? The entire time she was already gone and I didn’t even realize it. My tired brain dwells on this fact for the remainder of the night. Not how much she meant to me. Not memories of our past. Not even what really happened to her. But why didn’t I know? How could I not somehow sense that she was gone?
I call Michael again the next morning and get a few more details. He apologizes for being drunk when he called but hopes I understand. I do but am far more concerned with learning more. He begs me to just let it go and not even look into it. But he knows me better than that. When I ask for some more information, like the exact date of the incident, he has it all for me. He had written it down knowing that I would probably ask. All the same, the information is very brief and incomplete. She died on the L.I.E. at 3:50 AM, on October 19th. That’s about the extent of it.
There is nothing I can do about Anika. She is gone. Any normal person would just accept the news and move on with their life. Instead, I find myself almost overwhelmed with the need to act. Passively accepting the news simply does not feel like an option.
Whatever effort I put into things, nothing is going to bring her back. Yet, the answers, so far, seem incomplete. I need to know how she died. I need to know why if there even is a “why?” Odds are it was just a car accident, nothing more. But I need to know. That’s all there is to it. I need to know.
I drive over to the main library over on Woodward. The librarian sets me up at the microfiche machine and brings me the dates of the newspapers I had requested. I even get the New York Times again, on the off chance I just missed the story. Nothing. Eventually, the Daily News comes through for me.
The Daily News is a paper more about Long Island and Queens than The Post or The Times. Sure enough, they have a little box about the crash on page nine. They even have a photograph. A late model Cadillac that is smashed to hell. The wheels are bent all out of shape, the hood crushed, and the windshield cracked. It’s quite a wreck.
Underneath is a small caption. “The driver, Miss Anika Hauptman, 23, is believed to have died instantly.” I keep reading the line over and over again. Something in me just refuses to connect it to the girl I once knew. “Any luck?” the librarian asks. “Yeah, thanks.” Something in me still can’t seem to accept that she is dead. It’s right there in front of me but it seems impossible. Twenty-three-year-old girls don’t just die like that.
I make some notes and leave the library. I need to go sit somewhere and think this through. I walk down the street to the hotel bar. I just sit and think and churn everything over in my head. Anika is dead. It seems even more surreal than my mom dying. At least, in some way, I was prepared for that. But this…
I drink a couple of beers as I mull everything over. I realize how much I want to just forget everything about Detroit and just focus on this thing with Anika. Not that there’s anything to even really focus on. I try to be honest with myself and figure out how much of it is even about her and how much is me just looking for a way out of exile.
My life here really isn’t so bad if I think about it. Well, Poldowski and his pals are pretty lousy but the rest, anyway. Elizabeth, is a real great gal. A guy like me could certainly do worse. Her poise and confidence are remarkable. She’s certainly not bad in the looks department, either. I play my cards right, maybe I could have something pretty special with her. She certainly seems game to find out. Yet, here I am, thinking about bringing up ghosts from my past and destroying everything.
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a hand on my shoulder. It’s the Oriental man I shot the bull with before. The guy doodling buildings in his notepad. At first I am annoyed but soon I realize that the small talk could not be timed better. I need something to silence the chatter in my brain. I am just going in circles.
Time passes in distracted conversation with my friend about everything from sports to our favorite cities in the world. The very last thing we discuss is his big architectural project in New York. He seems very excited and says he thinks he finally is onto something. In his words “Something to show how great and strong America is.” It’s two massive towers that will stand over the entire skyline of Manhattan. He tells me it will be named “The World Trade Center.”
My friend eventually leaves but I stay for a while longer. The beer is too good to walk away from.
My brain continues to churn with thoughts and plans. I know I should get back to dealing with Poldowski, paying more attention to Elizabeth, and making sure my life here doesn’t all go to hell. As much as I complain about life here in Detroit, I know I can screw it all up even more. Anika died in a car crash. It’s bad news. But it’s not an excuse to ruin the few good things I actually have going for me. I try to convince myself I should just get back to business here in Detroit and not worry about Anika anymore. It almost seems to work for a few hours.
As I lie in bed, I realize that something is bothering me. The car. A brand new Cadillac. The Anika I knew didn’t make much to begin with and spent every dime she had on clothes. I know she has lots of friends, some of whom are pretty well off. Maybe one of them had leant her their car. It’s either that or she had gotten hold of a lot of money recently. I start to wonder if she had a wealthy new boyfriend. Why that would even matter to me at all is another question. But it does. In fact, the thought would not leave my mind the entire evening. I am filled with jealousy, concern and disgust that Anika might have had a male benefactor.
I am consumed by memories and the need to know more answers. It’s something I don’t even really understand. The most obvious answer is that a girl I knew got in a car crash and died. End of story. But I couldn’t just leave it like that. Nobody will ever understand what that time with Anika meant to me. But it mattered. And so does finding out how she died. Even if it’s just a straight-forward car accident, knowing that for sure will make it much easier to deal with.
I make a decision right then and there that I have to go to New York. If it’s as straightforward as the paper makes it sound, I’ll be back in a couple of days. Or maybe I won’t come back at all. I don’t know. All I can figure out right now is that I need to do this. And the sooner I get going on it, the better.
Morning comes and I make a couple of phone calls to New York. I remember Anika’s old address and take a shot. The operator gives me the number and puts me through. A young woman answers. I introduce myself and tell her I was a friend of Anika’s. My concern is that the new tenant will have no connection to Anika and have no clue what I’m talking about. But I get lucky. The girl tells me she was Anika’s roommate.
Her name is Victoria. She sounds young and the accent comes off as more Southern than New York. Victoria and I had never met. I explain my connection to Anika to her. At least, part of it. I tell her I am planning on visiting New York soon and just want to talk with someone else that knew Anika, too. I admit that I hadn’t even known about the accident until just recently and am pretty shaken up about it. It comes off as the very emotional and desperate plea of a sucker who had fallen for Anika, not the voice of a man investigating a suspicious death. Whatever the case, Victoria agrees to meet with me when I get to New York.
I make a few more calls to book a flight and hotel to New York. I am on an American Airlines flight out of Detroit Metro in two days. Sooner would have been better but there are still a few other things I need to take care of.
The next day, I meet Elizabeth in a coffee shop. She is all smiles and happiness. I guess she had a good day at work. I can’t help but get a glimpse of her legs as she scoots into the booth. She catches me looking and seems to enjoy the moment.
We make small talk for a minute but she almost immediately senses something wrong. “I need to go to New York for a while” I say. “Did Mr. Davis finally call and give you something worthwhile to do?” she asks. Her eyes glance down at the plastic-coated menu. She doesn’t seem all that concerned about the news. “No, it has nothing to do with the company” I tell her. “A friend of mine died.” Elizabeth looks up. She is all sympathy.
“I’m so sorry. Was it someone you were close to?” I’m not sure how to answer the question. She waits for me to continue. “An ex-girlfriend, actually.” The word “ex-girlfriend” sounds incredibly trite coming out of my mouth. The word could apply to many of the women I’ve been with. None of them are Anika.
As we keep talking, I realize that Elizabeth assumes I will be gone for just a few days and then life will resume in Detroit as normal. It’s a perfectly logical assumption. I don’t know why I feel the need to contradict her. But I do. In fact, I do something that surprises me. I tell Elizabeth everything.
I tell her everything about Anika and why I need to look into her death. I tell her a thousand different ways that I think she’s amazing but right now I need to put this thing from my past to rest. Elizabeth just listens quietly to all of it. No judgments. No yelling. No cross-examination. Hearing myself talk about it makes me realize how ridiculous it all sounds. It doesn’t matter. I know what I feel and I know what needs to be done. I can’t just let this go.
We talk for the better part of an hour. Elizabeth doesn’t say that much. But when she does, it’s reasonable and without anger. My guess is she’s not pleased by any of this but is doing her best to keep it contained. It’s hard to tell.
When it’s time to part, I expect a cold send off. Elizabeth lets me know otherwise. She kisses me the way she had during out nights together. Warmly and intensely. I guess it’s just her way of saying goodbye.
I spend the rest of the day sorting through some information I had collected. The hard part is deciding how much of it to use and how much of it to just let be. In the end, I condense it into just a few pages and stuff it into a large envelope. I slap on all sorts of stamps to make sure the postage is covered and leave it atop my suitcase. I probably shouldn’t even bother but I can’t help myself. At least this way, I’ll know I tried.
The next morning, I make a stop before heading to the airport. I go to see Hawkins again. I pull up to his, now familiar, house. This time, there’s a ton of stuff piled in his driveway. Old chairs, boxes, random clothes, it looks like something between a garage sale and a junk yard. I step out of my car and see Hawkins carrying a box out of the house and heading toward the rest of the junk with it. He is not happy to see me.
“I heard you left the company” I say. “That’s one way of puttin’ it” he answers. “Did you get your pension?” I ask, just to confirm what I had been told. “Yeah” he says. He puts the box down. “What are you doing with all this stuff out here?” I ask. “Getting ready.” I wait for him to continue. “I’m done with this city. The people up here just ain’t right. I loved this place. Loved my job. Tried hard to be a good man and make everyone happy. It just doesn’t seem like that all matters much to anyone.” He looks at me with a cold, hard look I have never seen before from him.
“Why did you come here, Mr. Halford? Do you expect me to thank you?” I don’t answer. “I’m moving back to Atlanta soon. So, don’t worry yourself any about trying to help me out anymore. I never wanted your kind of help to begin with and I certainly don’t want it now.” I see his point. Bottom line is he still got forced out of his job and screwed over by a company he was loyal to for over a decade. I’d be a little bitter too, if I were him. I say a few meaningless words, get back into my car and drive off. It was the reassurance I needed to do what I probably would have done anyway.
I make a final stop before heading to the airport. I dump my envelope in a mailbox. It’s to Davis. The first part is my resignation letter. My brief career at GM is now officially over. I could have put it off but I have no idea how long I will need to be in New York. Besides, I hate the job and will probably be getting fired soon, anyway. So, why not just get it over with?
The rest of the envelope’s contents are about Poldowski and his pals. It details the kickbacks he has taken and favors he has done. It’s damaging stuff. Or should be. But my guess is Davis will just bury all of it. He’s the one who told me to do as Poldowski said, after all. But you never know. Maybe the information is so ugly that Poldowski will still get fired. Whatever happens, it’s not my problem anymore. I have a plane to catch.
I arrive at Detroit Metro only twenty-minutes before my flight. I walk up to the gate and look out the huge, plate glass, window at the sleek and slim silver plane I am about to board. I have to give Boeing credit. It really is a beautiful piece of technology. I had flown all over the world. Yet, each and every time I see a modern jet, I feel a twinge of excitement. What a marvelous thing to have dinner in New York and then wake up in London. The entire world is more connected now. Great cities are accessible. Different cultures can be experienced. Deals can be made face to face between men anywhere in the world.
My nostalgia for flying is interrupted by a screaming kid. Kids are fine but kids and flying are a bad combination. Luckily, he seems to be there to greet his Grandmother, not join me on the flight to New York.
I sit back and relax in the wide, comfortable seat. The very attentive and attractive stewardess seems determined to find something she can do for me. I really just want to stretch out my legs and rest. I need to work out some more details of this whole thing but right now I just feel tired. Before the plane even gets off the ground, I am already asleep.
I wake up, not sure if I’ve been out for an hour or ten minutes. I remain motionless with my eyes closed. Conversations of vacation plans and new contracts blend into the comforting white noise of the engines. I start to think of what I need to do regarding Victoria and how to handle this whole thing.
I can’t seem to stay focused. My mind drifts toward memories of Anika. That very first time I saw her. How she walked into the room in that black dress of hers. I don’t even remember if she was with someone. I’m sure she was. It was a screening party at the Alliance Francaise. I think it was some actor friend of hers. Now, I remember. I barely noticed him but when I do, remember thinking he was just a friend. Something about the way he was with her just didn’t read as romantic.
I could have still left the party, at that point, and been safe and clear. I didn’t. I talked to her. Some stupid comment about the annoying French film we had just seen. It wasn’t a movie I much cared for. She thought it was brilliant. I told her we should continue our debate over dinner some evening. She agreed and so it began.
That dinner was the first night I saw that look on her face which sunk me forever. It’s hard to explain what makes it different from a normal look but is it. Very much so. It’s this expression that comes across her entire face. It’s a look like opium. It warms your body through and through and makes you want to do anything to see it again. Before you even realize it, your entire world seems to be about making her happy and just seeing that expression again.
Jesus, what the hell is wrong with me? I feel like some housewife gushing about her long lost love. I can’t believe my own thoughts. For all I know, the reason men were so enamored with Anika came down to two very primeval things. She was stunningly beautiful and a blast in the sack. A rare and deadly combo, sure to make all men who encountered it simpletons and slaves. Clearly, I was one of them. Just another sap given a little taste of something and wanting more.
I am disgusted with myself for my over-romanticized versions of life. Who would have thought someone like me would be such a sucker? I sit up and ask for some coffee. Once again, I find myself questioning the wisdom of this whole little expedition. Even if Anika’s accident was rigged, so what? It really isn’t my business. More than that, I have nothing but a gut feeling that anything is off to begin with. Like Michael had said that night he called. “Accidents really do just happen, sometimes.”
I fall asleep again and stay out for most of the flight. When I finally awaken, I see the skyline appear out the window. We’re flying right over the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s a great sight to see. A truly impressive metropolis. I remember my conversation with my Oriental architect pal in the bar about his doodles. I try to imagine his twin towers being built down there in Radio Row. I can’t see it. Something about the whole idea of them just feels misguided.
I get a cab from Idlewild into the city. I booked a room for three nights at the brand new Hilton they just opened on West 53rd. It’s a bit expensive for my tastes but the location is good. It’s right off of Sixth Avenue and near Anika’s old place on the Upper West Side. It doesn’t hurt that I can also take a stroll up to Central Park if I have some time.
Even the cab ride makes me nostalgic. Especially when we hit the bridge. Out of all the places I had lived in the world, this was one of the only ones that ever felt like home. The rest just seemed like places I was visiting. Even if those visits lasted for years.
I check in. The first thing I do is call an old army pal of mine, Mathews. I had already given him the heads up I would be in town and might need his help on something. I ask if I can buy him a drink that night. He tells me to meet him at McGradey’s when he’s off his shift. I should have known he would want to meet at McGradey’s. All the cops at his precinct make the place their second home. Sadly, more than a few are at the bar more than their homes. The comfort of colleagues and beer can be far more appealing than a wife who doesn’t understand and kids that hate you.
I have a couple hours until I meet him. I had slept through dinner on the plane. I decide to head over to Lindy’s to get some grub. It’s nothing that great but tastes familiar. I decline the incessant push from the waiter to order Cheesecake and decide instead to walk over to the Chock Full ‘O Nuts. I get some toasted pound cake and coffee. The nutty tasting brew is even smoother than I remember. I get a can of the stuff to take back with me.
I take the IRT downtown and meet Mathews. The bar reminds me of that place in Hamtramck. Only here the arguments are over which rookies are going to wash out instead of problems on the assembly line. I am already on my second Guinness when he walks in. He looks much older than I remember him. He’s got a big gut and he’s lost his hair. The guy is only four years older than me but looks like he could be my dad. Still, it’s good to see him.
“Sorry I’m late. How are you, Lieutenant?” We shake. I notice the long, familiar, scar up the back of his hand and up his arm. “Doing great. Drop the Lieutenant stuff though, would you? He smiles. We both know he said it just to give me a hard time. “Old habit.” We settle into a nice bit of small talk and remembrances. Mathews has already colored the memories with sentiment. Even the grenade that almost killed him near Ben Tre seems to bring back fuzzy feelings for him.
Mathews orders a Schlitz and gives me the update on his life. His marriage is still going strong. His eldest daughter just got married. As is to be expected, he thinks her husband is an unworthy bum. Even life at the precinct has been cushy since he went to Stolen Property. No more neighborhood beats or random murders to ruin his day. All in all, he sounds pretty damn happy with things.
I give him the brief rundown on my exile in Detroit. I try to put a positive spin on it. I’m not sure I succeed. He tells me I should move back to New York. I’ve heard worse ideas. Then I tell him what I’m there for and why I asked to see him. He keeps the same smile on his face but I know he’s not happy about it. Especially, when I ask him if he can get me the accident report.
He looks at me trying size me up about something. “What is it?” I ask. “Is this really a personal thing or are you getting me into something?” I try to put him at ease. “I’m out of that other game now. This is definitely, personal.” He studies me for a second. Decides I’m telling the truth. “I’m sorry to hear that” he says. I can tell that he means it. “Yeah, she was a sweet kid.” I take another sip of my beer. I really don’t feel like getting into anymore details about it. Mathews agrees to get the report for me. I knew he would. But it’s a favor he is not comfortable with. If it weren’t for our history together, I’m sure he would have told me to shove it, personal matter or not.
I leave with a promise that I’ll have my report tomorrow. I make sure to pick up the tab for his whisky shots, knowing full well I owe him a lot more than that for his help. I walk out of the bar and into the cold night air. The Guinness was a fine choice. In spite of the winter chill, I decide to walk back to the hotel.
The noise of traffic comforts me. I watch the river of yellow Checkers battling with cars for territory as I near Park Avenue. Other cars join the fray. A small imported thing holds its ground against a Chrysler Imperial bearing down on it. Horns blare. Insults are exchanged. It’s good to be back.
The next morning I call Victoria. She has acting class at eleven but says she can talk to me if I get up there right away. I arrive at her Upper-West Side apartment fifteen minutes later.
I buzz her apartment and walk up the four flights of stairs to her unit. It’s a walk I had done many times at one point in my life. Usually Anika and I ended up at my place, not hers. Yet, I was here enough to know it well and feel the presence of her everywhere. I knock on the apartment door and half expect her to answer it. Instead, I am greeted by a short but interesting young girl. I introduce myself to Victoria.
Victoria is young. Very young. For some reason I assumed she would be around Anika’s age but she is years younger. Only eighteen or so, I would guess. She has red hair, brown eyes and enormous breasts that look like they are going to topple over her short frame. It’s not my usual type but the girl definitely has a certain quality about her. I’m guessing it assures her of a long line of suitors. There are plenty of men who would go crazy for a set of curves like that.
The apartment is filled with objects I am unfamiliar with. Either Anika had acquired them since we broke up or a lot of this stuff belongs to Victoria. We sit and get down to things. It turns out, Victoria really didn’t know Anika very well. She had only been Anika’s roommate for about five months. They had met at the Academy of Dramatic Arts and were roomies but they rarely saw each other. Anika seemed to be out all the time. She, eventually, stopped even taking classes.
I ask Victoria if she knows who Anika might have been out with. Her answer is probably correct but not real helpful. “Men. There always seemed to be some new guy in her life. I can’t remember there ever being a time when she didn’t have one or two hanging around if she felt like having some company.” Neither can I.
Something must have shown in my eyes. “I’m sorry” Victoria says. “For what?” I ask. “You probably didn’t need to hear that.” “I asked” I say. “Was there anyone in particular. Someone steady she used to see more than the rest?” I ask. “I don’t know.” “Do you happen to know whose car that was she was in at the time?” Victoria shakes her head. “Anything you can tell me at all about that time, right before, might be helpful.” She shakes her head again. “Sorry, like I said, she wasn’t here much and we really weren’t that close.” I nod.
I ask if I can look at Anika’s room. “Sure, but there’s nothing in it anymore. I packed up her stuff and put it in storage. I need to get a new roommate. It’s not like I can pay the rent on my own forever.” I look through the room anyway. It’s completely empty except for a bed, dresser and empty nightstand.
Victoria follows me in. “If you’re willing to pay the storage bill, you’re welcome to take her stuff. It doesn’t look like anybody else wants it.” “Did you try to contact Anika’s family?” I ask. “No, the funeral home said they would try but they didn’t sound optimistic they could even find them. They’re in Austria or Germany or something” she says. It’s hard to say how much of the offer is about me getting the stuff and how much about her making some money selling things that aren’t really hers. All the same, I take the deal.
There’s something about Victoria that seems too clever by half. She’s holding out on me. I’m sure of it. I’m not sure how and I’m not sure why. But it’s there. I consider forcing the issue. But I let it go, for now. If I run out of leads, this girl and I are going to have a much different kind of discussion. One I’m sure she’s not going to like.
Victoria gives me a form with all the storage information on it. It’s some place all the way out in Brooklyn. Cheaper than Manhattan, I assume. What a pain, though. There’s no way I can get out there before I have to meet Mathews again. I thank Victoria and she hits me with one more unexpected surprise. “If you really want to thank me, you can take me out to dinner sometime while you’re here.” I take a good glance at her curvy body and consider the offer. It might not be a bad thing to do. For now though, I beg off. However, I do it in a way to leave the door open for later. Whether it’s for pleasure or business, Victoria and I are probably going to be spending some more time together in the near future.
I meet Mathews the next day for lunch at another bar. This one smells of corned beef and potatoes. Huge metal steam trays behind glass display the workman’s feast. We both get a healthy portion and take a seat in a hard, wood booth.
We drink, eat and talk over our food. Mathews’ smile is still there but I know him well enough to realize I have put him in an uncomfortable position with all this. He’s a by the book guy these days, just looking to keep his nose clean. What I asked him to do could have caused him some issues with his shift commander. All the same, I get my accident report.
I ask Mathews if he read it. “Only real quick. Didn’t look like anything unusual to me.” I thank him again and promise to repay the favor somehow. For a second I consider offering to introduce him to Victoria but then I come to my senses. Putting temptation in front of a good family man like that isn’t a favor, it’s cruel. Or maybe I’m just a bastard and already trying to keep little Victoria to myself even though I probably won’t do anything with it. Who knows? I order another Guinness and move the conversation to important things like sports.
After a couple of pints we’ve exhausted the discussion about the Rangers and the Giants. Mathews hits me with something that catches me off guard. “You’ve got that look in your eye” he says. “Yeah? What look would that be?” “The one you always had when you finally got a new assignment to throw yourself into. In all our years together, I never knew a man more miserable on leave or happier than a pig in shit on something nobody else wanted to touch.”
I don’t respond. I clench my jaw and just keep quiet. I’m not about to justify myself to him or anybody else. The silence between us is filled with bar chatter and the sound of a television going on about Ovaltine and appliances. It feels like it never ends. “Sorry. Just the beer talking. After what you did for me, the least I could do is pull a report for you without busting your chops about it.” I nod. His comment still stings. We make meaningless conversation to try to patch over the moment. But it’s too late. The damage is done. War buddy or not, Mathews crossed a line and he knows it.
It’s already after two in the afternoon by the time we part company. I hail a Checker and tell the driver I need to get to Brooklyn. He refuses to take me until I promise to double his tip. He agrees but makes sure to let me know how much he’s going out of his way to do this for me. I’m told that being a cabbie is hard enough in this town without having to spend the day out in Brooklyn. I weep for him inside, the poor soul.
During the ride I start to regret the way I acted with Mathews. He’s a good man and been a good friend. He had every right to say what he said to me. I shouldn’t have been so difficult about it.
The cab heads down the FDR and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Although it’s the middle of the day, the sky is a mean, cold gray and Lady Liberty can hardly be seen. The storage place is right on the other side, just a few blocks over from the pretty Brownstones of the Heights. The ride barely gives me enough time to look over the accident report. Like Mathew’s said, it looks pretty normal. A one car accident where the driver lost control and hit a wall. There is no mention of alcohol. There is no mention of speeding. Just bare bones information.
We arrive at a brick storage warehouse. I consider telling the cabbie to wait but it could be a while. I’ll find some other way back even if it means shlepping Anika’s stuff a couple of blocks to the train stop. I pay him well but instead of a thanks get another earful on how much I have made him go out of his way. I’m not sure why I ever expected otherwise.
I approach the clerk at the warehouse and pay the amount past due. For now, I don’t say anything about closing the account and moving the stuff out. He shows me a little map and tells me there’s a 12 x 12 closet area that’s Victoria’s. I head down the hall and unlock the door.
Inside are cardboard boxes stacked one on top of the other. There really aren’t that many of them and I wonder why Victoria rented such a large space if she didn’t really need it. It could be there was more in there but some of it had already been cleared out. I’ll have to ask my short and voluptuous little friend about that, later.
The first box is all books. You wouldn’t guess it but Anika was actually a very well read young lady. Hard to say how much of it she really enjoyed and how much was to have the right thing to talk about at cocktail parties. Either way, she read quite a bit.
I empty out the books looking for something specific among them. A diary. I don’t find one. I’m not sure she even kept one, so I’m not all that surprised. All the same, it would have been useful, not to mention interesting, reading.
The other boxes are as equally unhelpful. Some LPs, bathroom stuff, a few tattered copies of plays, a catalogue of classes at The Art Students League and several boxes of clothing. I’m actually surprised to find so many of Anika’s dresses still here. I know they were expensive and I would have thought Victoria was the type to keep them for herself or sell them. I guess they were the wrong size. I see a few of them I recognize and a whole lot that I don’t.
I return to the front desk and ask the clerk if anybody else has been in the storage room. After I slip him a finn, he pulls out the logbook and searches for me. Nobody had signed in but Victoria. That doesn’t necessarily mean she was the only one here. Someone could have just not bothered, or not wanted to, sign the log. But it looks like the stuff had been pretty much undisturbed by anyone but Victoria. I pay the guy in advance for the next month’s rent on the storage space. I’m not sure what to do with it or if I’ll even need it later. But, for now, the price seems worth it.
It’s already pretty late but I decide to go out to the crash site in Queens. It takes a while but I eventually hail a cab. The ride takes us past Flushing Meadows where I notice two tall columns being assembled. Work has already begun on the World’s Fair. I’m not sure what the structures are going to be once they finish them. Maybe those are the observation towers I had read about. I really don’t know much about the fair other than the controversy.
It seems Robert Moses told the international body that sanctions these things to take a hike. Now, instead of pavilions showcasing the best of foreign cultures we’re going to get a nice dose of the American future as brought to you by every large corporation in the nation. DuPont, Bell Telephone, IBM, Kodak, Westinghouse, Sinclair Oil, Polaroid, Ford, GM,…you name it. On top of all that, there are actually plans to bring Michelangelo’s Pieta over. I’m not sure how a statue of Christ’s fallen body fits in with everything else. It seems like a pretty odd mix to me. Anything to keep them happy and keep them buying, I guess.
We get to the scene of Anika’s accident a few minutes later. It takes quite a bit of explaining to tell the driver I want to be left off on the side of the L.I.E.. I get a big lecture on safety. I think the cabbie, an old Greek guy, is just pushing for a big tip. I’m wrong, he seems really concerned I’m going to get hit by a car.
He parks the cab on the shoulder, puts on the hazard lights and lets me off at the location. He looks at me with curiosity and concern as I walk up and down a thirty foot area along the shoulder of the road. As the cars whiz by at sixty miles an hour, I realize his concern about me being hit is well founded.
It’s hard to concentrate with all the traffic. It makes me feel like I need to do this very quickly instead of being as thorough as I would like. Aside from getting hit, if a cop goes by, he is sure to stop and make a fuss. I’m really not in the mood for that, right now.
I find the skid marks. They are hard to make out but once I see them, I can follow their trajectory. They head up a stone embankment and into a reinforcement wall. There’s even some bits of broken glass near the point of impact.
I visualize what must have happened. Her last moments. I can almost hear the car as it skids and is lifted up and into the wall. I let myself get too into the scene. It’s a mistake. I imagine Anika’s face seconds before the end. The terror. The confusion. The helplessness. A truck blows by only inches away and snaps me out of my daze. I realize how close I just came to adding an additional fatality to the location.
I head back to the cab slowly. I ignore the horn blasts of a passing Lincoln and think about the skid marks. The fact that they are so defined means that the breaks still worked. As for the trajectory, I can’t tell anything from it. Maybe it really was just an accident.
I hop back into the cab. “Find what you were looking for?” the cabbie asks. “Not really.” I ask him to drive me back to the hotel. I feel frustrated I can’t do more today. All I can do it put in a call to the cop who made the report. I doubt he’ll even talk to me without someone vouching for me. I hate having to ask for something from Mathews again. Maybe I can find out some more on my own first. At the very bottom of the report is a note. “Car towed to Wilkin’s.” I’m hoping I can figure out where that is. With any luck, the car will still be there.
The first thing I do when I get back to the hotel is find a Queens phone book. I catch a break. There’s a listing for “Wilkin’s Salvage” in Willets Point. It seems out of the way from the crash site but they probably have a deal with the cops. Throw some stuff my way, I’ll give you a cut, kind of thing. It’s too late to head back out there. They open at 8 AM. I make sure to put in for a wake up call bright and early so I can get out there right when they open.
I feel the urge to call Elizabeth. I want to hear her make fun of Poldowski, the way she does. I get as far as dialing the operator to connect me. Then I put the phone back down in its cradle. It wouldn’t be right to do to her. Until I figure this all out, I should just leave the girl alone. I decide it’s time to go take that walk in Central Park. I feel like I should be working non-stop on this thing but I’m still not sure what I should even be doing. Maybe the walk will help me put a good plan together.
I end up cutting across the park over to the East Side. I walk down Second Avenue and notice several new bars and restaurants that weren’t here before. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly some things change in Manhattan while others remain untouched by time. It’s a good feeling being back on these streets. I even find the building I once lived in off of Sutton Place.
It was a nice place but not too nice. I was officially just a bureaucrat, after all. I loved my cover. I was “Special Trade Representative to the International Commerce Forum,” a special council of the United Nations. I even had an office in the U.N. It was all part of my duties for The Powers That Be back in Washington.
I spent much of my time in that role traveling. The Indochina region, mostly. And down to D.C., of course. But when I was home here in New York, I really enjoyed it. Too bad I managed to screw all that up. No regrets really. I did what I had to do. I just wish Poodle Boy hadn’t taken it all so personally. Then again, if he hadn’t, I would have been surprised. The truth is, it played out exactly the way I thought I would. I just wish it wasn’t like that.
Just thinking about it starts to make me angry again. I decide to focus on happier thoughts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work either. Far too many of them involve Anika. I walk back across Midtown and stop to look at the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. It just makes me feel like one of those ridiculous tourists Anika and I used to make fun of.
I make a stop at Richardson’s on the way back to the room. It’s been less then a year but the place is filled with new faces. Even the bartender I used to shoot the breeze with is gone now. I have a burger and a couple of beers and call it a night.
It’s still far too early for me to sleep. I try to watch some TV. Nothing is on and the hotel room increasingly depresses me. It’s all brand new and follows the latest trends. An impersonal box for transients, standardized to be exactly the same in every city in the nation. After a few more miserable hours, I finally just lie there in the dark trying in vane to fall asleep. Instead my mind wanders again. Anika.
I start to remember the time we had drunken sex on the floor of my living room. Surprisingly, the thought doesn’t arouse me. Instead of getting excited by the flashback I find myself getting ever more depressed. The sadness is not over her death but something far more selfish. Simply that we are not together. That fact would not have been changed regardless of the smashing of chrome and steel on a darkened stretch of highway. Anika was already long gone. There was nothing in the cards that would have altered that, even before that night on the highway.
I am already up by the time I get my wake up call at 6:30. Getting a cab is easy and, unexpectedly, I don’t get guff from the cabbie about taking me out to Queens. The salvage yard is in the Iron Triangle, near where they are building the new stadium for the Mets. There’s a whole section of dirty little fix-it shops and junk yards right there. Wilkin’s is smack dab in the center of them.
There’s no one in the office when I get there. I stroll around a bit among the dead metal looking for someone. All I find is a junk yard dog barking his head off. I suppose I should thank the scruffy mutt. His bark finally gets me some attention. A guy in coveralls appears and asks what I’m looking for. When I tell him, I get the answer I am dreading.
“No, that car would have been scrapped a long time back. We would have stripped and compressed it, weeks ago.” I offer him some cash to check more thoroughly. It’s probably a waste of five bucks but I really want to see that car. “What?” the man says to himself. “What is it?” I ask. He’s scanning a very messy looking notebook. He looks up beaming. “Looks like I was wrong. We have still have that car. With a little effort, I might even be able to find it on the lot for you?” I hand him another finn.
We head down a row of GM’s finest all smashed to hell. Pile after pile of Cadillacs that have been marred, bashed and mangled. Among them is Anika’s. It’s resting on top of another heap with yet another wreck piled on top of it.
Seeing the wreck in person stops me cold. I think the guy with me says something about heading back to the office but I am not even sure. I am too focused on the twisted and broken steel in front of me. I had seen the photo but seeing the damage to the car in person feels like a whole different thing. It really catches me off guard how destroyed the front of the car is. Anika didn’t stand a chance.
The entire hood is mashed into itself. The front wheels dangle like they are only attached by a tiny thread. The windshield is completely shattered. Then it hits me how much damage could have been done after the fact. In the photo the windshield was cracked but intact. My guess is when they lifted it up there, or dumped that other wreck on top of it, it shattered entirely. It’s going to be pretty hard for me to figure out what damage was done when.
I climb on the neighboring pile of wrecked cars. Perched on a ‘49 Eldorado, I take a closer look at Anika’s mangled car. You can still see blood on the seats. Her blood. I distance myself from what I am really looking at. I then awkwardly lean over to look at the exposed engine bay of her car. I find what I’m looking for but can’t see it clear enough from where I am. The numbers are too small. This isn’t going to work. It takes over an hour and costs me fifty bucks but I get the car lowered to the ground.
As they set it down, the front of the car just collapses onto the dirt. The front wheels have completely given way. I spend almost an hour just going over the car. I look into the engine bay and get the serial number. That should be more than enough to help me figure out who really owned this car.
As for trying to figure out anything else that happened, no dice. The car is in bad shape from its time here in the yard. Whatever evidence of tampering there might have been has probably been masked. All the same, it’s worth checking into some things. I need to make some more calls.
During the cab ride back to the hotel I realize I have another option besides calling on Mathews again. If I need that serial number traced I can just call GM. I know enough about who to call and what to say to probably get the information I need. Odds are nobody knows anything about me. So, if I act official and sound official, there should be no issues. Thank God Anika wasn’t driving a Chrysler or I would be up a creek.
I make the call from the hotel room. I get the wrong department at first but am switched over to the people I need. The person I’m talking to is some low-level clerk and is reluctant to do anything for me. I ask to talk to her supervisor. I give him the whole spiel on who I am and how I need the serial number traced for part of a special investigation I’m doing for GM. I use just the right amount of names and insider knowledge to sound legit. He tells me it shouldn’t be a problem and hands me back to the clerk. I hear the supervisor say “Give him whatever he wants.” That was easy.
I am hoping to get the serial number information right away. Not gonna happen. Even though the clerk is trying their damnedest to help me out, she doesn’t have the records I need in front of her. The best she can do is to get my number and to promise to call in a day or two with the information. Why it would take two days to get such basic information is beyond me. Yet, this is the way GM works. A large steam ship where everything moves through bureaucratic channels and takes forever. It’s worse than the military.
I hang up, unsure what my next move is. I know I should be doing something about Anika. I just don’t know what that something is. It’s all hurry up and wait. I pick up the phone and dial Michael at his store. He knows nothing about my little impromptu trip or investigation and is sure to give me an earful about it. He picks up the phone after the fifth ring.
When I tell him what I am doing and why his initial response is quite brief. “You are an idiot, My Friend. You are giving up the chance to start again for the sake of chasing ghosts.” I don’t argue with him. We then talk for a while about the city of New York. He likes the place as well but swears he could never live here. Too loud, too brash and too busy for him. The conversation eventually leads to talk of Elizabeth.
He tells me I should make a real effort to keep her. At the very least, I should keep open the possibility of something down the road with her. He insists that someday I will come to my senses and realize I had a good thing going. But by then, it may be too late. I know he is right. What I don’t know is how I would do that. What could I possibly say to Elizabeth right now that wouldn’t just make things worse?
The rest of day feels like a huge waste of effort. I spend more time in the library. I get some more local papers to see if there’s anything on the crash that I missed. After a few dull hours, I come up with nothing new and decide to get an early dinner.
I’m feeling lazy and just head to the Horne & Hardart in the Chrysler Building. I plug some change into a machine and get a soggy tuna sandwich. Two bites in, I want to kick myself for not just walking a few blocks over for a pastrami at Wolf’s.
Even knowing it’s probably useless, I stop at the Arts Students League on the way back to the hotel. Anika had that catalogue mixed in with her belongings but my guess is she never had the time to actually do it. I talk to an administrator and am given a thorough once over. I guess she wanted to make sure I wasn’t some sort of pervert. As it turns out, I was correct that Anika wasn’t enrolled as a student. However, she had been there a few times. She had done some modeling for them.
In spite of knowing how ridiculous it is, I find myself angered by this fact. Models at these art places are often asked to stand around with their clothes off. The idea of these little aspiring Picassos ogling Anika does not make me happy. They can tell me all they want how they don’t look at the human form that way. I’m not buying it. Not with someone like Anika, anyway.
All of which makes it hard to come off as calm and easy going when I start asking the students questions as they arrive for their evening classes. I’m wondering if Anika managed to become involved with one of these young artistic types or, worse yet, one of the lecherous instructors.
After a few inquiries, I find someone that remembers Anika from one of her classes. A young co-ed who tries to explain how she is determined to “mix the figurative elements of the Ash Can School with the kinetic power of the Abstract Expressionists.” I make a half-hearted effort to seem interested and press on about Anika.
“Do you know if she was seeing anyone, romantically?” I ask. “I think I heard her tell someone she had a boyfriend. Like, a regular. But it wasn’t someone from the school.” “But it was someone she was serious about?” I ask. “Yeah. At least that’s what I was told. I don’t know his name or anything. All I know is it was a “he” which was very disappointing.” She waits to see if I’m shocked by her declaration of lesbianism. I’m not. Given the things I’ve seen, it barely raises an eyebrow. My art student friend is clearly disappointed she didn’t get more of a rise from me as I continue. “And you never got the name of this beau of hers?” I ask. The art student shakes her head. “No. Sorry.”
My final questions involve the person that my friend got all her information from. “Oh, his name is David. David Osgood. But you’ll have a tough time talking to him.” “Why’s that?” I ask. “He got drafted. I think he’s in West Germany or someplace already.”
I say goodbye and thank her for her help. If I put some effort into it, I could probably track this David Osgood student down through my connections in West Germany. My guess, however, is that it’s going to be a whole lot of work for a questionable pay off. There’s got to be some other way of finding this mysterious boyfriend of Anika’s that makes more sense.
I head back to the Hilton and ask at the desk if I got that phone call from GM. No dice. I go back up to the room and decide to follow Michael’s advice. In spite of not having a clue as to what I’m going to say, I call Elizabeth. It rings and it rings. “Hello.” I am surprised how good it is to hear her voice.
She asks how I’m doing and I tell her how nice it feels to be back in New York. I realize as the words are coming out of my mouth that even this comment may be a slight to her. She lets it go and wants to know what I’ve been doing with myself since I left Detroit.
I ask her how much she really wants to hear. When she says “all of it” I believe her and tell her all about Victoria, the crash scene and the wrecked car. I even tell her about my art student and her lesbian comment. Elizabeth seems thrown by it more than I had expected her to be. She tries to cover it up and act as if such things are an everyday occurrence in Grosse Pointe. For a moment, I think the conversation is about to take a more interesting turn. It doesn’t. So, I just move on.
I get into almost everything with her. I even tell her how frustrating is that so much of my trip is sitting around and waiting for people to get back to me or find me the information I’ve asked for. Her reaction to all this is hard to gauge. She seems to appreciate how up front I’m being with her but is clearly not happy that I’m doing all this. Things get especially tense when she asks if I have any idea when I’ll be getting back to Detroit. The words “I don’t know yet” don’t sit very well.
Finally, I get Elizabeth talking about herself a little bit. It’s not all that exciting. Her life has maintained the same patterns and schedules it always has. Yet, it actually pleases me to hear. Knowing she is just going on with her normal life undisturbed by me and all my bullshit makes me feel a whole lot better. It’s only when I finally realize that she is simply putting a brave face on things that I know it was a mistake to call her.
I realize all I have done is, once again, strung her along. What the hell is wrong with me? I don’t know why she doesn’t just tell me to take a hike and leave it at that. I tell her it might be a while before I can call her again. I need to keep her out of this. Until I can get my head screwed on straight, the best thing I can do for the girl is just to leave her the hell alone.
For some reason, I can’t get the thing Mathews said to me out of my head. The thing about looking for a mission. I know there’s some truth to it. Being in Detroit was killing me. A slow, agonizing death of tedious chores and putting up with that fat bastard. For all I know, Anika means as little to me as I meant to her. Maybe this is my way of using her for my own ends. Payback for her being the girl she was instead of the girl I wanted her to be. Who the hell knows? Right now, the more I think about anything, the more muddy it seems to become.
A few hours later, I am just starting to get into a deep slumber when the phone rings. I glance at the clock. It’s after one in the morning. When I pick up, it’s Mathews’ voice on the line. He says we need to talk. Right now. When I prompt him to tell me what’s up, he says we need to talk in person. He also makes a point of saying it needs to be away from the station house and not filled with his fellow cops. We agree to meet at a place in Kips Bay, called Molly’s, in half an hour.
I throw on some clothes and catch a cab to the bar. Molly’s plays the ye olde Irish card a bit heavy. White stucco walls and sawdust on the floor included. But they pour a good pint and the shepherd’s pie used to be pretty decent. More importantly, no self-respecting Irish cop would be caught dead in the place.
Mathews is already there when I arrive. Before I can say a word, he is on me. He starts talking before we even grab a table. “You promised me this wasn’t government business” he accuses. “It’s not.” “Then maybe you can explain why I just got read the riot act by the shift commander. They’re talking about suspension.” “What?” I ask. “For an accident report?” “Not only that, he made a point of letting me know I was being looked at by the brass over this.”
I am stunned and confused. “That makes no sense. You’re a good cop and haven’t done anything wrong.” “Except pull that report for you.” I ask him to sit. “The thing about the brass was a bluff. There’s no way.” He looks at me for reassurance. He’s not convinced. “You know how it works. They want you out, you’re out. There doesn’t have to be a reason.” Sadly, I know he’s right. I wish I had something good to say to him to put him at ease but I’m coming up empty. “What the hell did you get me into?” he asks again. The thing is, I’m not really sure.
Why looking into Anika’s death would prompt such an over-reaction is truly a mystery to me. Unless the report has nothing to do with it. Maybe word had come down from any of my, it seems, numerous enemies. Maybe there’s some rule that if anybody helps me they will be made an example of. But that theory seems thin. Poldowski didn’t have the juice and Poodle Boy wouldn’t go that far. At least, I don’t think he would.
I start to explain to Mathews why some people back in D.C might be looking to hurt me. I can’t really get into any details with him. Even what I give him is too much and he senses it. “You know what? I don’t wanna know anymore. Seriously. Whatever you got yourself into, best of luck to you. But please, I got a wife and kids now. Don’t get me screwed over this.” I promise him I won’t. It’s a promise I will do everything possible to keep but I walk out of there knowing I might have already cost Mathews his job.
In spite of the cold, I decide to walk back to the hotel. For one thing, I am wound way too tight to try to sleep now. For another, it gives me some time to try to figure this out. I feel like crap about Mathews. He’s a great guy and if I hurt him on this…I keep wondering if they are really that cheesed at me. So much so that they would be meddling with the NYPD. Poodle Boy did promise to make me pay for my disloyalty. But it doesn’t make sense. There’s way too much downside. Then again, they weren’t always the most sensible when it came to risk.
There’s another other possible reason for all this fuss that has nothing to do with D.C. Maybe I had struck a nerve in some other way. Maybe all my instincts that something is wrong with this whole Anika thing are being vindicated. If that’s the case, whoever is behind this is pretty damn connected. They not only found out about the report being leaked, they also had the means to warn off Mathews. Given the other scenario involving Washington, this one almost makes me feel gleeful.
As, I stroll through the eerily silent streets of Midtown, small, illuminated pockets of snow begin to appear beneath the streetlamps. It’s coming down fast but the flakes melt almost instantly as they hit the ground. I keep thinking of the accident site. There was nothing unusual about it. But what if Anika wasn’t alone? What if the driver of the car was somebody else who left the scene? Someone big. That would explain the reaction.
By the time I get back to the hotel it’s almost three. I wake up the next morning, bright and early, out of habit. I try GM again for that serial number. Still no dice. I wonder what’s taking so long. Then I begin to worry that somebody has shut me down. They could have finally realized I wasn’t who I claimed I was. It’s even possible the same people that wanted to spook Mathews had pull there, too. No, I’m being paranoid. They are just moving at the speed all things at GM do. Very slowly.
I grab a Times to read in the coffee shop. The lead story does nothing to settle my nerves. The Commies had developed, yet another, new generation of H-Bombs. For all Kruschev’s talk about toning it down, there were others in the Soviet Empire determined to make America pay for embarrassing them. The Cuban Missile Crisis might have looked like a victory. The problem is it might be a classic case of winning the battle but losing the war. The conflict isn’t over. Not even close. All Cuba has done is make the hard-liners even more intent on reestablishing the glory of the Soviet Empire. A few hundred million people need to die in the process, so be it.
I finish my steak and eggs and decide to take another look at the wrecked car. It’s either that or deal with more aspiring theater actors or art students. I take a cab out to Willets Point again. I get to the yard without much hassle. Get out. The guy at Wilkin’s recognizes me and waves. I keep walking. It’s only when I go down the long row of smashed Caddies I realize that he is walking behind me. I guess he has something he wants to tell me. It’s at that very moment I look to where I expect to see Anika’s car. It’s not there anymore.
“Where is it?” I ask. The Wilkin’s guy is still too far away to hear me. I wait for him to catch up. “Where is it?” I ask again. “That’s what I was going to tell you. They took it” he tells me. “Who? Who’s they?” “The FBI. They came by yesterday afternoon just a couple hours after you left.” “Are you sure it was them? Did you see their identification?” The man nods. “I did the paperwork myself.” I ask the next question. “Can I see it?” I ask. “The car? I just told you…” “No, the paperwork” I say. He just smiles. We’re back to that again.
It costs me twenty more bucks to get him to show me the paperwork. It looks official. The agents are even listed along with their shield numbers. There’s no reason given for impounding the car. Just their right to do so.
I am amazed. Did I really trigger all this just by asking Mathews for that report? This certainly feels like a very efficient and deliberate cover up and they’re being none too subtle about it. On the one hand, it’s a mighty big red flag that I’m onto something somebody doesn’t want me to know about. On the other, they may have succeeded far too well in closing me out before I had the chance to get anywhere. If that engine serial number doesn’t lead somewhere, I’m not at all sure what my next move is. The FBI? What the hell? None of this is making any sense to me. Not one damn thing.
I make some more notes from the FBI paperwork and slip the Wilkins’ guy another ten just for goodwill. I am hemorrhaging cash and wonder how long I can keep spending like this before the well runs dry. Considering that I don’t have a job to go back to, it’s a bit unsettling to be draining my savings account of what little is left in there. The fact that it all seems to be going for a lost cause is also a bit unnerving. I am no closer to figuring out what happened to Anika now than I was the night Michael told me she had died. I’m nowhere.
It take forever to call a cab and finally get out of the scrap yard. All these cab rides are adding up quick and taking a toll on my cash reserves. As I am adding up the numbers in my head, we drive past the fair ground in Flushing Meadow again. I am shocked by what I see.
A flatbed truck has pulled into the lot and is slowly weaving its way through the other construction. There’s an ICBM on it. A missile designed to carry nuclear warheads and kill millions of people. From a distance it looks like A Titan II.
The cabby sees my expression. “It’s for the space exhibit.” I look at him through the mirror, still baffled. “I read about it. They’re going to have a big part of the World’s Fair devoted to space travel. They might even have the capsule there that John Glenn went up in. Wouldn’t that be something?” I nod. “Yeah, yeah it would.” I sit back in my seat and try to get the visions of blinding white light and nuclear death out of my head. I think the cabbie is still yammering on about the space exhibition but I stop listening.
I get back to the hotel and stop by the front desk. I ask about messages. There’s not only a message from GM, there’s the information I need right on it. “1962 Brougham, Engine Serial 542203012, Delivered 3/61, Roy Montana Cadillac, Manhattan.”
I don’t even go up to my room. I check the phone book for the address of Roy Montana Cadillac. It’s over on the Far West Side down in the Forties. I head out the door happy to have something new to work from. Hopefully, some smooth talk and a few bucks will get me more information about that Caddy. If I catch a break, maybe I can even figure out who owned the car Anika died in.
My mind churns as my cab sits stuck in cross-town traffic. I keep wondering why they were so obvious about confiscating the car from Wilkin’s. It doesn’t make any sense. It had been sitting around for months, untouched. I had even already gotten everything I needed from it. I’m assuming they knew that. Unless, of course, I missed something. Maybe there was something about the car I hadn’t noticed right away. Some sign of tampering, maybe, that I might have found if I looked a little closer. No, it doesn’t gel. Maybe it was all just coincidence. Maybe the timing between me checking out the car and its confiscation aren’t related at all. It seems odd but stranger things have happened.
The more I think about it, the more I come back to the most obvious conclusion. The flack Mathews took and this over-the-top show by the FBI are a message. I’m being warned. Waved off that I am dealing with things I had no business dealing with and should stay away. If I had one bit of intelligence, I would do just that. Instead, my mind races down a list of people with that sort of influence. None of them are people I am really looking forward to going against.
We finally get to the dealership. Montana’s is a new place all the way over on 11th Avenue. It’s all fresh and shiny. Plate glass windows and neon signs. The rows of spanking new Caddies remind me of the wrecks at Wilkin’s. How long before their new owners trash them or tire of them and send them off to an early grave? Even cars seem disposable now.
I walk in and ask to speak to the Sales Manager. The jerk talking to me doesn’t get it and tries to keep the potential sale for himself. I say it again a bit more firmly. This time the young huckster takes a hike and gets the man I need to speak with. His name is Edwards. He’s an older guy with a pot belly and a tie that went out of style a dozen years ago. I tell Edwards I’m here to look up some information on a car. Some guy offered me his brand new Caddy to settle a debt and I want to make sure it’s actually his before I agree. Edwards is confused but when I make it clear there’s a nice commission in it if he helps me out, he’s in. In fact, he is filled with enthusiasm as he leads me back to his little office.
I stand there and watch him pull a large, ringed binder off a shelf. His fingers flow down the page. “Ah, here it is.” I wait for him to continue. He doesn’t. In fact, his expression changes entirely. He closes the binder. “I’m sorry, Sir. As much I would love to help you. I’m afraid our records are confidential.” I take out forty bucks and offer it to him. “Maybe this will help you get over it.” He refuses the cash. He’s serious.
I consider raising the stakes and throwing more at him. Aside from further damaging my bank account I see the look in his eyes. He’s not going to budge. Whatever name he just saw scared the hell out of him. I tell him to keep the forty anyway and thank him for his discretion. He takes it.
If I know Edwards’ type, the second I am out the door he will still be on the phone to someone telling them I was asking about that car. It could still work out. With any luck, the party in question would see that I hadn’t been frightened off. Maybe they would even want to talk with me as badly as I want to talk with them. Then again, it’s just as likely I just bought myself a serious beat down from someone. Hard to say, at this point. All I know is I’ve reached one more dead end and am forty dollars poorer. There’s got to be a better way.
The next day is more of the same. I basically just kill the whole day off chasing my own tail and getting nowhere. I think about calling Michael just to bounce some ideas off of him. I know what he would tell me though. He’d remind me what a waste of time this is and how I should just head back to Detroit. Michael had almost become like a religious convert. He was lost in the world we were both apart of but found salvation in the quiet life. His mission now is to save me and make me see the light. As much as I appreciate his concern, sometimes listening to him preach gets more than a little old. I am just not in the mood for it, right now.
It’s still pretty early but I need a drink. It’s that same nagging feeling. I am missing something and I know it. I go over the accident scene again and again in my head. There’s nothing there. It looks like what everybody says it was, a normal, tragic, single-car accident. If it hadn’t have been for the big show someone was putting on to scare me off, I might even have even stuck to that conclusion.
I think of the wreck itself. It was so messed up from the way Wilkin’s handled it that it’s hard to even tell what’s what. But the FBI took it. That must mean something. They must have thought there was something about that car that was interesting. For the life of me, I just can’t figure out what it is.
I think about it and think about it. My mood sours as my brain races in never-ending circles. I’m waiting for the big light bulb to go off but instead just giving myself a headache. I realize how sad this whole thing is. How sad and pathetic I am. Without resources, I am nothing. I’m just some washed up nobody, throwing away his meager savings getting drunk in the name of a girl who never gave a shit about him in the first place. At least I was worthy of bedding her. That’s something to be sure. How many a man that saw her can only dream of that?
Four Scotches later, I finally know what I need to do. I head up to my room to call Victoria. “I’m coming over right now.” It’s a statement not a request. She protests but soon agrees.
Victoria is all dolled up and ready for some fun. Too bad that’s not what I’m there for. She seems more than a little disappointed once she figures out the reason for my sudden visit. I know she’s holding back on me. I don’t know how or why but I go with it. I lay into her pretty strong. Victoria stands firm and tells me she doesn’t know anything that she hasn’t already told me. I keep pressing. In fact, I turn into a real bastard. I don’t hit her or even threaten her. I don’t need to. She gets it. She sees the look in my eyes and knows I’m not bluffing. It terrifies her and she gives in. Gushing tears the whole time, she starts to apologize over and over again.
Victoria leaves the room. She says she has something she needs to show me. My first thought is that I should always trust my instincts. My second is how terrible it would have been if my instincts had been wrong and she had been clean. That would have been ugly.
Victoria comes back with something in her hands. Letters. Love letters. A big stack of them. They are not to her. They are to Anika. For a second, I try to figure out if she held them back to sell later or out of fear or what. But it’s none of that. The words come pouring out between the tears. Victoria is a very sick little girl. She didn’t just admire Anika. She wanted to be her. She simply kept the love letters for her own warped, psychological needs. A way of indulging in her fantasy of being the woman she never could be. Whatever. I’ll leave Freud and Victoria’s psychiatrist to figure it out. I just want to see the damn letters.
Victoria keeps apologizing and crying. So much so that she’s a real distraction. I talk her down and get her to be more reasonable. I tell her it’s fine. It’s not and she needs help. But I lie to keep things moving. The letters are all from the last six months. There’s no envelopes anymore, just the letters. Victoria had tossed the envelopes a long time ago. I guess she didn’t like being reminded they weren’t to her.
I scan the letters. They are all signed by one guy, Paul. “Paul who?” I ask. Victoria says she doesn’t know. He never came to the apartment. When I ask her if it might have been his car Anika died in, she says Anika stopped talking to her about those things. Which makes sense. Anika probably figured out Victoria had a few screws loose and cut her losses. The downside is that Victoria doesn’t seem to have any more of a clue who Paul is than I do. At least, not in real life. All she has is the fantasy of him and some image of herself as Anika. The whole thing is too twisted for words.
I leave with my treasure in hand. A stack of letters by someone else who fell hard for Anika. Hopefully, something in the letters leads me somewhere. I am surprised at the bitterness of my own mood. I know these letters are an unexpected break. I don’t feel any happier. In fact, I feel miserable. Reading the letters to Anika doesn’t help the situation. I expect the usual gushing admiration from the guy. What I don’t expect is the answers Anika seems to have given back. They are painfully familiar. She is playing him exactly the way she had once played me.
Instead of letting myself slip into adolescent thoughts of how much she did or didn’t really care, I try to think of Anika. The real Anika. What sort of man was this Paul likely to be? My guess is he was smart, rich and powerful. My failure to hit that trifecta had ensured I was a short-term investment for her. But it was a pretty safe bet this guy had at least two of the three himself. I curse Victoria time and time again for throwing out the envelopes. Of course, she didn’t remember a thing about the return address. All she could give me was “They were from New York but somewhere really strange I have never heard of.” Not very helpful. By the time I finish them, I am no more clear on who Paul is than I was when I began.
The next day I spend the entire morning in the room reading the letters again one by one, line by line, very slowly. There is precious little to go on. The best I can come up with is in the fourth letter I read. It mentions how much Paul is looking forward to showing Anika the fireworks, next weekend. At first I don’t think much of it and assume he just means the usual bash over New York for the 4th of July. Then I see the date of the letter. March. Fireworks in March. If I can trace the event, maybe I can find somebody who saw this Paul guy and Anika.
Although my body is exhausted, my mind feels sharper than it has been in a long time. I head to the library. The big one with the lions. I go through all the local papers looking for events that past March. There’s got to be some listing for fireworks in one of them. Chinese New Year? A sports celebration? A parade? Nothing. I even go through the Daily News for information on Long Island. Nothing there either. I slam my fist on the table. Eyes everywhere turn to me. Sharp mind or not, I’m losing it.
As usual, by the time I get out of the library it is already too late in the day to do what’s next. I need to go down to the Manhattan City Clerk’s Office and check on fireworks permits. It will mean more greasing palms and spending cash and probably lead nowhere. Of course, the office closes at four and it’s already past that. Another day lost waiting.
After an over-cooked chicken dinner at a coffee shop, I head back to the room to make another phone call. It rings and rings. Elizabeth doesn’t answer. I pace around like a caged animal needing to do something. I head out for a long walk. It’s raining a little but I hardly notice. I stop over at Times Square just to look at the neon reflecting off the wet pavement. The Admiral TV sign is still there just the way I remembered it. I guess it always will be.
As I walk, I rack my brain for things that might involve fireworks. In this town, that could be damn near anything. I realize I should probably let Victoria calm down a bit and speak with her again. She might know more than she thinks she does about this Paul guy. Maybe if we go over things nice and slow she can remember something about him. A clue as to where he works or what he looks like. I’ll finish this search for mysterious fireworks first but if that leads to nothing, as I expect it to, it’s back to Victoria.
I get back to the hotel. It’s just after ten. I take the chance and call Elizabeth again. I hope I don’t wake her up. It rings several times. Either she’s asleep or she’s out. Where she would be out and with who, on a weeknight, is beyond me. I’m not sure I like the idea. Not that I have any claim on her but if she’s out with another man I will not be happy about it. I hang up the phone and just stand there for a second not sure what to do with myself.
In spite of knowing that it’s a bad idea, I lean back into the pillows and let my mind transport me to times past. A time when Anika was mine. I focus on remembering every detail of her body. Even if I was used, it’s not like I didn’t get something out of the arrangement. I was just too much of a sap to see it that way at the time.
I almost expect to have dreams about Anika that night. I had thought about her so intensely I felt sure to be haunted by some aftershock of brain chemistry. It doesn’t happen. I dream, alright. But it’s nothing fun. I just keep seeing the wrecked Caddy. Something about the image fills me with anxiety. It’s like the thing is taunting me for being so damn stupid and not seeing what it’s trying to tell me.I wake up at four AM frustrated, angry and confused. I am losing my God damn mind.
I never get back to a sound sleep. At least not that I remember. Around six I just give up trying and get up. I splurge on room service and down a pot of coffee and some eggs. It costs more than a steak dinner would have but not having to go out is worth it. I’m not ready to deal with the world yet.
I think back to the car. Think about all the ways it might have been tampered with that could have caused the crash. Without being able to give it a thorough look while it was up on a garage rack, it was impossible to tell much. The only thing that strikes me as strange is the way the wheels fell. They were pointed the opposite way from the steering wheel. It was probably just a result of the steering column being crushed when Wilkin’s dumped the damn thing on top of another heap. There is just no way to tell.
In spite of knowing it’s a waste of time, I make another call to GM. I use the same cover story about being on official company business. Once again, I am promised full cooperation. I end up talking to one of the engineers who worked on the Caddy. I tell him some bull-shit story about a number of recent crashes and that I’m making sure there’s no design flaw involved. All hush, hush, of course. The last thing GM needs is a story leaked about a problem with their top of the line models. The engineer buys it and seems deeply concerned.
I ask him to point out the most likely systems to fail. The things that could most easily cause an accident. After assuring me again and again none of them could, I start to get angry. I tell him he needs to understand how bad this would be for GM if word got out before we were able to get on top of it. He reluctantly points out the vulnerable areas of the Caddy. Areas that he assures me would not ever “just fail” but were probably the most critical and susceptible. The brakes and the steering column.
The brakes are a given. I had seen many an “accident” caused by induced brake failure. It was an easy but not all that effective method. Far too often, the brakes would fail at a time when the car was not moving fast enough to cause the fatality you were looking for.
It’s the steering column issue that is new to me. Something about the way the Caddy was designed meant that only a couple of bolts attached the column to the front axle. Should those bolts come loose, the entire column could separate and the car would be unsteerable. I start to wonder if there’s some way the bolts could be loosened just enough to come out when the car gets up to speed. If there were a way to make sure they fell out only at maximum speed from the road vibration, that would do it. I thank him and hang up.
The call does nothing more than confuse me even further. Yes, that might be what happened to Anika’s car but it was far more likely it happened as a result of either the crash or the way Wilkin’s tossed the wreck around. Determining, simply, that it could have been done is useless. I have to prove it was done deliberately. All of which raises a mighty big question I have yet to answer. The motive.
Why would anybody want Anika dead to begin with? I still have nothing but a bunch of hunches, random thoughts and guesses. Nothing I have come up with goes against the most obvious answer. It really was just a car accident. Nothing, that is, except for the big show by the Feds and the way they came down on Mathews for pulling that report. It seems the more answers I get, the more confused I become.
I’m out the door before eight. This could be a mighty long day. If I strike out at the Manhattan City Clerk’s office looking for that permit, it’s going to be ugly. I’ll have to go borough by borough to check all the other offices. Hitting all five boroughs in one day is not possible. This is going to take a while and could get really tedious. Hopefully, I’ll just find the permit in Manhattan and be done with it.
The Clerk’s office is an even bigger nightmare than I am prepared for. I wait my turn along with the other poor souls needing an official OK from the powers that be. It’s hours before I can even talk with someone at the Manhattan office. And, of course, when I finally do, I come up empty. I had expected at least a couple of events in Manhattan that month, involving fireworks. It seems there were none. At least not officially.
It’s after noon already before I get out of there. I stop by a joint in Chinatown and get some pretty good chow. It beats the disgusting Chop Suey I tried to eat the other night, that’s for sure. But I don’t have the time to linger and enjoy it. I hop on the train and head out to Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Clerk’s office is even worse than the one in Manhattan. There are less people waiting but only one gal trying to handle everything. She seems like a nice enough broad but speed is a foreign concept to her. It’s almost as if she is deliberately making each task asked of her take as long as possible. I guess she wants people know what a strain it is for her. She could not look more put out when I ask her to check the records for me.
After all that, I get an answer that doesn’t help me in the least. There were no fireworks shows requiring permits that month in Brooklyn either. For the first time in this whole escapade I learn something useful though. Certain smaller displays don’t even require a permit. On top of that, a lot of people just don’t bother. The good news, I guess, is that even without a permit there could have still been fireworks. The bad news is that if Anika was referring to one of those smaller shows, I don’t have a clue how to find out about it.
I start to wonder if I should be spending my time elsewhere. Even if I get the location of some event, so what? I’ll still need to find some witness that was there to help me find this mystery guy. The one thing I have going on that count, is Anika. If Anika was there, people would remember.
I decide to stick with it and play out the fireworks permit thing. After Brooklyn I can go to either Queens or Staten Island. Queens is a whole lot closer. I look at my watch. I can probably only make it to one more office today before time runs out. Seems these government types have a hard time doing any work after four. Must be nice having hours like that. Queens is the easiest but it’s a nice day out. I decide it would be a good day for a ferry ride.
I hop on the ferry at Battery Park and try to enjoy the cruise. I’m feeling tired but otherwise alright. My brain even feels like it’s working properly for a change. Who knows what the hell was going on with me yesterday when I confronted Victoria? I hadn’t been like that in a long time and can’t say that I miss it. I shouldn’t begrudge it too much, I guess. In the end, it got Victoria to fess up and that pile of letters handed to me.
I stand quietly on the bow as Manhattan fades into the distance. The sun is out and the skyscrapers reflect on the shimmering water. It’s a great sight that make me feel like a tourist. Why someone like my Oriental friend feels the need to build massive towers down here is beyond me? But what do I know? Maybe my friend had it right and I was the one out of step. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I have never been out to Staten Island before. It’s like an amusement park ride to Main Street U.S.A. It’s even more quaint and small-town than Farmington. All of which makes it seem extremely odd that it is considered part of New York City. To me, like most people, New York is that thing across the water with Wall Street and busy streets and big buildings. This? This is like the land before time. There’s even a little league baseball game, right out of Norman Rockwell, going on.
The walk from the ferry to the Clerk’s Office takes me past at least half-a-dozen Italian food places. Among them, there’s a bakery promising the best cannoli on Staten Island. I make a note to go back after my business at the Clerk’s office. I love those things.
I walk into the Clerk’s and am amazed how small the office is. Its walls are covered with information on how to get tags for your pets, register your bicycle, and how to get a parade permit. There’s nobody in the place. Quite a shock after dealing with Manhattan and Brooklyn. I ring a little silver bell on the desk and wait for someone to come. They don’t. I hit the thing again, a little more deliberately. A large man waddles up from the back. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was Poldowski’s Italian cousin.
Much to my relief, the clerk may look like Poldowski but is nothing like him in terms of personality. In fact, the guy is downright cheerful. Hard to say how much of that is natural and how much is the payday he is expecting. The other clerks had asked for nothing and given me the information I was seeking without a hassle. This guy…this guy gave me one of those “you know how it works” looks and I slip him a finn. He keeps his hand out. I give him another fiver. Still no movement. When I shake my head no to indicate that’s it, he shrugs as if I couldn’t blame him for trying.
The most amazing thing is he doesn’t even have to look up the information. He’s known the answer all along. He writes the address down and hands it to me. “Here’s the address. They have a big shindig every year” he tells me. “Who?” I ask. “You know, people. Why do you want to know anyway?” he asks. “I’m looking for a friend.” My answer throws him. As I’m walking out, he has one more bit of advice for me. “You know, you might just want to head back to the city. They don’t appreciate unannounced visitors up there.” “I’ll take my chances” I tell him.
His warning makes me even more determined to check it out. Who is it that I’m supposed to be so scared of? For that matter, what sort of person has fire works as a private event? Reminds me of the kind of crap King Louis did at Versailles or something. Maybe that’s it, I am about to approach the King’s Palace without permission and will be arrested by the guards.
After some difficulty in figuring out the local geography, I take a short train ride to the neighborhood I need. It’s already getting dark by the time I get there. I get off at an open platform and walk down the street. It’s covered with huge trees and dotted with modest houses that look like they’ve been there forever. It’s a nice neighborhood. As the light fades it’s harder and harder to read the addresses. Finally, I find the place I’m looking for. It’s hard to tell anything regarding what sort of house it might be. All I can see is the giant stone wall surrounding the whole place. I guess I found the King’s palace.
Just as I’m contemplating jumping over the wall to get a better view, I’m covered in blinding light. It kills my eyes and it takes a second for me to realize floodlights have gone on. I worry if I triggered them somehow but it seems more likely they went on just because it got dark. Between the huge wall and the floodlights, I am intrigued. Everything about this place screams “mobster.” That thought is confirmed a moment later when a guy twice my size approaches me. I hadn’t even seen him coming. No matter. It will be good to chat.
The guy is clearly a bodyguard. Italian. Built like a guerilla. Well practiced in the art of intimidation. I guess somebody should have told him I don’t get intimidated so easily. “Hey there” I throw at him as friendly as I can get it. “Sir, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to move on. This is a private residence” he says. I’m surprised he can get such large words out of his mouth.
“Who’s house? I can’t see anything but this giant wall. Is it somebody famous?” He is annoyed with my question and my ignorance but lets it go. “Nobody like that, Sir. Just a businessman trying to maintain some privacy for his family.” “A businessman? Like the guy that owns Maytag? Who is he?” He’s getting even more sick of my act than I am. He straightens his body and sends out the message. Get out or get a beating. I think I even see the outline of a .38 under his jacket. I better not push my luck. I apologize for bothering him and wish him a fine evening.
The ferry ride back gives me time to figure out my next step. As much as I really don’t want to get the guy in any deeper, I know Mathews is the one to ask about all this. Whoever lived at the address was pretty conspicuous and was sure to be known to every cop in the city. I wish my own knowledge of the Five Families was more complete but I never needed to know and never really cared much. Just a bunch of psychopaths in suits as far as I’m concerned. It wasn’t making me happy to think that somehow Anika had become involved with them. Not in the least.
As predicted, Mathews bitches up a storm when I phone him from the ferry terminal back in Manhattan. He even hangs up on me. I call him back and persuade him to just tell me the basics. He agrees but is none too happy about it. We make plans to meet at a bar far away from any cop shop. It’s out of his way but he can’t risk someone seeing us together. He also tell me it’s going to have to wait until tomorrow. I think about pushing him but decide to let it go. I thank him and make an early night of it.
I eat a bland dinner and watch some mindless television. Then I end up lying in bed at the hotel thinking way too much about the past. About how everything had come together and life seemed like it couldn’t be any better. I was somebody for a while. As much as I tell myself it was just another job and being part of that privileged world didn’t mean much, I know otherwise. I had access to all the right people. I was about as inside as you could get. And then I threw it all away.
The thing is, at the time, I really didn’t give a damn. All I cared about back then was that I had lost Anika. Not that I ever had her. Nobody holds onto a girl like that. She flutters into your life just enough to show you what you’ve been missing. Then she disappears forever and takes it all away again. I’d had my share of minor-league versions my whole life. Pretty little things that were after something and willing to trade what they had on offer to get it. They never stuck around long but it was fun while it lasted. Truth be told, I had always come through such arrangements just fine. Funny how it took a damn Kraut to put me in my place.
My brain keeps churning and sleep once again remains out of reach. I put my clothes back on and head out. I’m about to walk into the hotel bar when I decide I need to cut back on the late night alcohol. Instead I make the trek back to Chock Full ‘O Nuts. As usual, the coffee and toasted pound cake do wonders for me.
The next day is all stalling and killing time until I can talk with Mathews. When it’s finally time, I hop on the IND. The train is running about as fast as frozen molasses. I’m a half-hour late by the time I arrive at the bar to meet Mathews. Not the kind of thing that is going to help me calm him down. I expect him to be furious when I get there. He’s not. In fact the word that comes to mind when I see him is “bemused.” I’m not even sure where I learned that word, and certainly don’t use it much. But if there is a time, it is now. Mathews leads me over to a private booth and lays it out for me. I start to understand his reaction.
“You, Friend, took a sight seeing tour, yesterday, of one of the most powerful guys living in our fair city. That house you were gawking at belongs to Carlo Gambino.” He waits to see if the dime drops and I get it. I don’t. I know he’s a mobster but that’s all I know. Mathews goes on. “Old Man Gambino likes to keep to himself, which is why he is way the hell out in Staten Island instead of Brooklyn with the rest of them. But the man has reach.” “What kind of reach?” I ask. “Gambino controls everything. And I mean, everything. Even the other bosses are terrified of him. He’s got pull with everybody from City Hall to my Sergeant. Hell, he has reach all the way out to California. You understanding what I’m telling you?” I look at him to continue. “That he’s a mobster. Yeah. So what?” I say. Mathews gets annoyed. “Look, I’m just letting you know he is not a man you should be bothering. Alright? You don’t want to listen, that’s your business. Just leave me out of it.” He gets up to leave. I grab his arm.
“Wait. Just tell me one more thing.” Mathews is not pleased but I go on. “Is there somebody named Paul that works for Gambino?” Mathews breaks out laughing. I’m glad he’s amused because I’m sure as hell not. My anger starts to show and breaks Mathews out of it. He finally answers. “Yeah, there’s a Paul, alright. Castellano. Look it up in the papers. You can read all about him.” And with that, he walks out the door.
Mathews’ answer leaves me hanging all night. It’s not until I can get back to the main library and look Castellano up that I get some clarification. Mathews was right, there’s plenty about him. Turns out Paul Castellano is Gambino’s number two. Whereas, if you didn’t know any better, Gambino comes off as a nice old man, everything about Castellano reads killer. He’s been a suspect in dozens of murders but always finds a way to stay out on the streets. Witnesses against him have a habit of disappearing or ending up dead. The details on the murders are none too pretty either. While growing up, Castellano had trained as a butcher. He put those carving and slicing skills to good use on some his victims. He’s a very sick and frightening guy, to be sure.
My mind returns to Anika. Would she really be involved with a guy like Castellano? It doesn’t feel right. Yes, he has the power she was drawn to. Yes, he has money. He may have even be pretty bright. But it’s off. I just can’t see it. Maybe if he was a stepping stone to someone else. But even then. I just can’t see Anika involved with a murderous psychopath like that.
Once again, I find myself questioning how much I even knew her. I had been wrong about an awful lot of things with her. Especially at first. But by the time it ended, I thought I had it figured out. I thought I finally saw her for who she really was instead of being blinded by her looks like some love sick high-school kid. My momentary lapse into self-loathing and self-pity passes. I get back to thinking about Castellano. I force myself to face the possibility that Anika really was with him. It’s not what I would have expected from her but I have to at least consider the possibility. Maybe Anika got caught up in some mob business.
I keep mulling over the mob connection and the whole thing with the FBI and the car. I even realize it’s not as far fetched as I would have liked that Anika was friendly with Castellano. It’s all coming together and looking none too pretty. All of which leads to the question of the day. What the hell am I doing?
If that’s the sort of girl Anika really was, why should I care about any of this? Let her go and get on with life. She deserves what she got. Move on and quit stewing. There’s a beautiful, sweet girl waiting for me back in Detroit. Go back now and maybe it’s not too late. Keep up with this and it will all be screwed up for good. Anika had already made a mess out of me once. Why let her do it to me all over again? I go out for another long walk to clear my head. I don’t reach any conclusion or have any great epiphany. I just realize that the “why?” stopped mattering to me a long time ago.
When I return about an hour later, the desk clerk calls me over. Someone had left me something. A package. I open it. There’s a short note and a book inside. I look closer at the book. It’s poetry by some guy named T.S. Elliot. “A gift from an admirer?” The clerk asks. “I don’t know who the hell T.S. Elliot even is” I respond. I read the note. It’s from Victoria. “I kept this from you because I didn’t think I could part with it. After giving you the letters I realized how very wrong my behavior has been. The book was given to Anika just a couple of weeks before her accident. It’s from her boyfriend. Take care and I’m sorry, Victoria.”
Just from the feel of thing I know this is no normal book. It’s old and unusually nice. I’m guessing one of those first editions rich folks like to buy. Inside is an inscription. “Even in darkness, there can be beauty. Paul.” Paul? Castellano? No. I’m not seeing it. There is no way a violent psychopath like that has a sensitive side and is into poetry.
I carry the book with me back up to the hotel room. I try to read some of it but it’s meaningless to me. Longwinded sentences about nothing much, as far as I can tell. It’s only after reading it for an hour or two that I realize that something about it seems familiar to me. It’s not the book though, it’s the smell. It’s the perfume Anika used to wear.