Conduit

CHAPTER ONE

My very first hit I’m like 13 years old. I never even smoked a cigarette before, but I want to be Kat Borkowski, and she’s the one hands me that joint. This is at Newt’s on Blair Street back in the day, before it got cleaned up and put on airs with some calling it Shissler Playground, the official name. At that time, dark at night with no neighbors around. 

Sun just set. Older guys chat us up, their curses ring hard against the backbeat of cooing pigeons. I say older, as in 15 or 16. It’s one of those moments I wouldn’t even think about except that everything that comes after makes it the moment that matters most. 

Springsteen croaks “Dancing in the Dark” on a boom box near the stickball square, and there’s a summer vibe on an April night. The dusk melts our acne and teenage awkwardness and I see how we’ll be in a few years: Taut, tart, and funky — like a Calvin Klein ad. 

So we’re all cool together. The boys — three of them — look at Kat in that way. But they look at me now, too, and my boobs strain against my bra and I am already a little buzzed by the power I suddenly hold over them. 

I glance at the winking stars as the el lumbers by. I told my parents that I am sleeping over another friend’s house tonight — Kat’s off-limits — but I don’t know where I’ll wind up. I swig some Jacks, coax the burn down. I am younger than either of my daughters are now. 

As we talk, one guy steps back from the circle, takes something out of his wallet. A boy with a wallet. That’s a revelation, too, another crack in childhood’s cocoon. Soon they’ll be driving and I’ll be riding. That’s a little later, though. Tonight is a different passage. I know what it is he lights. The sweet smoke slowly circles his face, reaches out and tickles my chin. He passes it around. 

“Watch out for reefer madness, now.” 

Kat inhales, holds, savors. It’s not her first time. Then she exhales and a strange light brightens her eyes as a single tear drifts down her cheek. Babs, her baby sister, is cute and perky and will always be. Kat is languid, her voice sinks and rises like a song that doesn’t quite begin and never wants to end. 

She hands me the joint and for an instant I think of the reasons why I should just say no, like the First Lady preaches. The wife of the only Republican Dad ever voted for. Reason one: Dad. Antonio would punish me forever. Mom: Her heart would break. I am Cheryl DeMarco, after all, a good kid in a cop’s family and I shouldn’t be doing this. 

Isn’t that cool? I really shouldn’t be doing this. 

But I do what Kat Borkowski does. I inhale, hold it, fight the nausea. The guys smirk, they know it’s my first time. Well, fuck them. I let it out and, just like that, I feel it. I giggle and Kat joins me. I notice things I never noticed before, like the way one boy’s hair waves, and that there’s a button missing on another’s jacket. Next hit and I am drifting in the ebb and flow of mellowness. A rainbow cuddles Kat and she floats. I reach for her as if she’s a balloon gotten away.

“I’m right here,” she says, with a chuckle that rattles her throat.

“Baby took too much,” the guy says.

It’s going to be all right. This is just a one-time thing and everybody does it and I never understood how beautiful life is. Never. Kat will be here for me.

I glace at the stickball strike zone and I see a landscape like the one Mary Poppins jumps into. I want to dive headfirst into that wall.

CHAPTER TWO

Then, it’s 13 years later. I am 26 and it’s the night my father died. My mother insists that I had nothing to do with it. My siblings don’t play; they curse me over the phone. They’ll be in tomorrow. At one point, I slump at the kitchen table, crying and sick from withdrawal. Crystal tugs my arm: “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” I shake loose and run out. 

I should head to my apartment, but I don’t want to be alone. Dizzy’s not there. He’s heard about Antonio and decides to visit friends “in Jersey.” That’s as much as he’ll narrow it down. If he’s scratched the itch enough he could be with another woman and know something? I don’t even care anymore. So I walk Fishtown the night my father ends, seriously thinking about following Dad to the other side. 

Mom knows this. Earlier she’d said, “Be fair to your girls. Please, be fair to me.”

Well, what’s fair? Having a junkie moms? A waistoid daughter? I am scheduled for rehab the next day, but this fills me with dread, not hope. Dread of never again floating on the Sea of Mellow. Dread of losing forever the beautiful images, of expanding my consciousness until I become an angel looking down. Dread of failure, too. Some people in the neighborhood go in and out of rehab like they have season tickets. Maybe one or two escape for good. Not great odds. 

As I walk, the past strolls by. The birth of babies, the breaks with men, the smoking, snorting, huffing, and shooting up. The headline about Kat Borkowski. “Body Found In Park ID’d As Missing Fishtown Woman.” I’ll get a headline, too, just because I’m Antonio’s daughter and everybody will know why. The obvious gets headlined.

Other images, and I don’t realize until years later that the future also has a go at me. I do not kid. My own chemical Book of Revelations. Bottles of home made beer, tips left on a bar, the smell of smoke, Marty Daniel’s coughing fits, the gun fired at Bobby Delaney, Truck Andrew’s big-ass horse farm Valhalla, Flash MacFarland’s sad, skeptical look, the counseling license on Gary Nettles’s wall, Crystal’s CD, Debbie’s trophies, a bright red toolbox, a love note that turns into some sort of formula. I don’t know what any of it means. The visions are pieces of the life I am meant to live, if I decide to live. They are not encouraging.

I look up, and I’m at Newt’s. I hear kids, loud then hushing one another, up to something. Three boys and two girls and — wait — I recognize Babs. She’s 20 and still hanging at Newt’s? She takes a joint. Inhales. What am I going to do? Tell her just say no? I turn. I am sick. 

Wretched.

The word comes to me. I stumble a bit. That morning I had an entire conversation with my Aunt Kitzy, Dad’s aunt, really, paying her respects and she’d asked me to fetch her tea and when I came back into the room, it was empty.

“Where’d Aunt Kitzy go?” I asked.

“Cheryl,” Mom says, shaking her head, “she was never here.” 

None of this that I am seeing is real. Or some of it is. I don’t know. The row homes, four or five abandoned, blink sadly like tethered beasts. A deep, rustling sound as if the earth clears its throat. Something hits me flat on the head. A big raindrop, the beginnings of a downpour but the wet washes rusty over the scene. “Smack! Smack! Smack!”  against the asphalt. I start hurrying off when Babs calls out.

“Cheryl DeMarco! Don’t leave me!”

I swing about, but the kids are gone. 

Where they ever there? And who’s there now? 

More voices. “Don’t leave me” — Spindles. “Don’t leave me” — Marty. “Don’t leave me” — Jim Delaney. “Don’t leave me” — Dizzy. “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

I squint, can just make out four men. In robes? Priests? No, not robes. They’re wearing ponchos. They’re scowling. Years later, I learn that Newt’s had once rested on Lenape land that they called Kachamensi: “The place where the chiefs meet.” Someone walks toward them and I faintly recognize her. As the men gather this alternate me into their protection the individual raindrops meld into a single force. Before they disappear into the wall or the past or the netherworld or wherever the fuck they came from, one of the chiefs turns, juts his chin out at the real (I think) me. A decision’s been made. I will live.

CHAPTER THREE

Thirteen years after that and I am 39 and it’s 2014. Wiser, tougher, more flexible and on the cusp of early middle age. People tell me a lot of that “40 is the new 30” bullshit, but I don’t need no mantra to straight-arm the ageing process.

This is the night Bobby Delaney tries to pull his prank — which turns out to be the last goof poor Bobby ever tries in this world. The door opens and in he comes. He’s looking at me looking at him in the mirror behind the bar. 

I see suit, tie, combed hair. 

Jim Delaney! 

Well, he smiles the way Jim used to smile, stands straight the way Jim used to stand. I’d heard Jim would be visiting the hood and here he is. I imagine movie music swelling as we reconnect, but then suddenly, Babs Borkowski calls from across the bar.

“Yo Cheryl!”

I shift my gaze, see her in the mirror too; see that she’s looking up from wiping down one of the tables. She’s tired, I can tell by the way she swipes her droopy blonde hair back with her wrist. It’s nearing closing time here at Iffy’s, which is short for “If My Wife Calls, I’m Not Here.” It’s a neighborhood place that squats on Girard Avenue, right near the I-95 ramps. There’s only about a dozen hard-cores left, but the box still blares Springsteen, and the remnant’s shouting “Born to Run.” My ass, “Born to Run.” We’re not getting out of here for another hour. I glance again at Jim. 

“Where’s the….?” Babs starts, but I cut her off. 

“Bottom drawer, right-hand corner,” I yell. “Hasn’t moved for years.” One of the table legs is wobbly, in need of a screwdriver. Babs always forgets where we keep the tools. They are hidden in different places; once upon a time the place had a toolbox.

Babs says something to the fellows and though I can’t hear, I can pretty much lip-read. It goes, “Believe that shit? Bitch misses nothing.”

“Who you calling bitch, skank!” 

We talk like this sometimes, put on a little show. If anybody else tries saying something along these lines, he’d get cold-cocked, and I don’t need no friggin’ boyfriend to fight my battles, neither. They’re never around when you need them anyway. 

Which brings me back to the Delaney brother. When I look at him again he makes the gesture — our secret signal. A hundred years ago I won a karaoke contest singing a “Supremes” song, and I did that cute little pushing movement with my hand the way they did. That was on a Jim date. As soon as he does this though, I’m onto him. 

I whirl about.

“Nice try, Bobby!” I shout. Jim and Bobby Delaney are identical twins and you’d think that I’d have been attracted to both of them but Bobby, poor Bobby, is quirky. He stays in the neighborhood. Jim’s in the world. Bobby moves paper; Jim moves mountains. I should say: Bobby did move paper. Now, he barely moves.

“What are you talking about?” he shouts above “Hey Jude.” 

“The hand, my man, the hand,” I say. “You did the” here I am imitating the “Supremes” push — “with your left hand.”

“So?” He begins walking over to me, which I’m glad about since maybe when he gets close enough I can stop shouting. 

“Jim’s right handed,” I say. 

“Cheryl, I’m not Bobby! I’m Jim! What’s it going to take?” He’s leaning over the bar, and now I’m pretty much convinced that it’s Bobby. 

“Well, it’ll take more than that mousy-ass suit, dude,” I say. “Your brother would not be caught dead in it.” 

“You never change, Cheryl.” 

I shrug. “Do, in some ways” but, as far as appearances go, he’s right. I take care of myself. “How the hell does she do it?” Three letters: D, N, and A — DNA. 

I will turn 40 in 72 days, three hours, 27 minutes, but you’d never know it. I am olive-skinned, full-figured, and stand 5 feet 7. I have brown eyes, that someone once described as “please love me eyes,” and that the nun who expelled me from one of my grade schools called bedroom eyes. “Dago Barbie,” one of the patrons say, and he’s half-right. I’m Irish and Italian.

I look like my mother, Rose, the former beauty queen, but roll like my father, Antonio, the late Philadelphia police inspector. He could walk through a room in seconds and then three days later tell you exactly everything that had been there. Guys can’t fool this pretty girl. 

Bobby never could, that’s for sure. I want to ask him when Jim is coming home, or if he’s back already, but Spindles is tapping his glass on the counter at the other end. I head down there to give him his last. As I do, I see in the mirror that the door opens quickly and somebody else comes in. 

Ah, shit.

I want to go home, man. I don’t want to see customers at this time of night. So even though nothing in my bearing suggests that I’ve even seen this guy (I hope he walks right back out) my attention fully falls on him. Still, for just the tiniest fraction of a second, I freeze when he reaches behind. By the time he pulls the gun, I’m grabbing Babs (who, thank God is back behind the bar looking for the screwdriver) by her belt and pull her to the floor. 

“Down! Down! Down!” I yell. 

Babs slams onto the mat. I remember one of my old lovers, Dizzy Tanner, used to say that fighting brings you into a heightened state of awareness, like Zen. (Sounds like giving birth, I told him.) But now I know what he meant. It’s slow.

“Boom! Boom!” 

I am huffing and puffing and “mother-fucking” my way across the floor, crawling over Babs and I grab the gun under the counter. 

I can’t really call it hesitation, but I do think about my girls, Crystal and Debbie. My daughters from two different men, but no fathers, just a couple of responsibility avoiding assholes. Do I want to make it that they have no mother too? 

“Boom! Boom!” Two more shots; more deliberate.

 Fuck it!

I jump up, fire. The guy wears a ski mask. Thin, about 5 foot 11. 

He runs toward the door and I shoot again and this time I think I nail him. He bends just a bit, like somebody at church who doesn’t quite know when to genuflect. 

I see that one of the other guys in the bar charges that asshole. It’s Spindles, believe that shit? 

People are crying, “He shot Jim Delaney!”

I yell, “It’s Bobby!”

I jump over the bar, like I am back at a high school track meet and it’s just another hurdle. Except I don’t need a running start this time. Adrenaline lifts me like I’ve bounced off a trampoline. When I land, I fire again, but the creep’s out the door. 

Fuck! 

I glance down at Bobby. Not good. He’s been gut shot. I am enraged about Bobby. But also about all the broken glass and overturned chairs and even there’s a hole now in the mirror, my mirror. 

Who’s going to clean this shit? 

I rush past Spindles, who’s built as you might expect so I just push him down. He hits one of the tables, and it gets upended. 

Damn! More work. 

“Call the cops!” I shout, barreling through the door. 

I see the guy halfway up the street. He’s hurt, limping, sort of feeling his way along the parked cars. I shoot again, and this time he crumples. I can’t tell if I hit him or he’s ducking. 

Am I going to jail for this?

In that moment a car bulldozes down the street. 

Good. The Cops. 

The car stops hard and while it’s still jerking to a standstill two guys run out, grab the asshole and hustle him into the backseat. 

I start running toward them, but I’m not firing because that’s a tough way to hit a target and also I don’t really know who the hell this is. 

Get that license! Get that number!

I reach the corner, and peak about carefully because maybe they’re waiting. But the car’s already nearly out of sight. 

I don’t even catch my breath. I turn around and sprint back to Iffy’s, back to Bobby Delaney. I see Babs and a few of the fellows outside, under the “Iffy’s” sign. 

“In the kitchen,” I tell her. “One clean towel. There’s a bottle of peroxide. Soak it. Quick!”

Bobby’s writhing on the floor, moaning, crying out. A few of the guys are standing over him with I-smell-shit looks on their faces. 

“Move!” I yell, and they part.

The nice shirt I’d just finished teasing him about is torn open, the suit is crumpled up around his neck. That’ll do for a pillow. My sneakers squeak, as if I’m stepping in orange juice left too long on the floor, but it ain’t orange juice.

I kneel.

“Bobby! This is Cheryl.”

“Cheryl! Help!” He’s wheezing.

“I got to move you.”

I grab under his knees, bend them up. 

He screams, and I mean it sounds like something my grandfather used to talk about in the slaughterhouses. 

“Babs!” I yell. 

“Here!”

Her hand reaches over my shoulder with the damp towel. The peroxide infiltrates my nostrils. I lay it over his chest for now.

“Damn, no rubber gloves,” I say.

“Here!”

Babs. Good girl.

I slapped the gloves on, pick up part of his intestine, and put it on his stomach. It’s like handling an eel, something about ready to slip out of my hands. 

Don’t think! Do!

Bobby’s quieted down, and that worries me. I glance up. He’s looking at the ceiling, his chest moving with quick breaths. I place the towel over the intestines and the wound. Then he screams. 

“Cheryl!”

“I’m here, Bobby!”

“I don’t want to die!”

Babs behind me says, “Here come the cops! Ambulance too.”

Good. They can take over.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Stay with me!” Bobby pleads, his eyes swinging toward my voice. 

“The medics are here, Bobby.”

Where the hell are they?

“My pocket,” he gasps. His hand starts moving toward his pants pocket but trying this makes his face convulse. I ease him back.

“Later, Bobby,” I say. “Promise.”

“Please!”

I reach into his pocket, pull out an envelope folded once. I unfold it. “Lorraine,” is written on the front. 

“My fiancée.” 

He’s delirious. Bobby Delaney has no fiancée. 

“Deliver it,” he says. 

When Bobby says “deliver,” I realize that the mumbling around me are some of the macho men praying the Our Father. “….But deliver us from evil.”

Bobby grips my hand.

“Cheryl, did you ever love me?”

He doesn’t really need me to answer. 

“Help’s coming, Bobby,” I say. I hear the guys outside. 

I yell, “What are you doing? Catching a smoke?”

Bobby cries, “Cheryl, did you ever love me? I loved you.”

I know, but I never loved him — not the way he wanted me to, not the way I loved his brother. 

Tell the dying man that you loved him for God’s sake.

 But I made my own mathematical formula long ago. Saying “I love you” to someone you don’t really love throws off the universe’s balance. It’s why there’s suffering in the world. 

“Cheryl,” he cries. He’s getting weaker. His eyes close. 

Just do it! Do it!

“Yes,” I say, and I’m sobbing. “Yes, Bobby Delaney. Cheryl DeMarco loves you.” 

He dies. 

CHAPTER FOUR

After they carted Bobby away one of the cops took the gun. Might be a problem there; it was registered to Marty and, technically, should have been on his person. I didn’t think they’d make that big a deal out of it, though. I mean, come on. 

I peeled my bloody gloves off, let them drop to the floor like a couple of dead birds. People kept coming up and saying things, but I can’t recall what. There was a deflating buzz in the air, reminding me of an Eagles’ game where someone’s going to catch one in the end zone but then drops it. 

I climbed onto a stool and blew strands of hair out of my eyes; just watching. Babs had turned on the overheads and the rescue people brought their own lights, so suddenly dingy little Iffys looked like a car showroom. A crowd gathered outside across the street, behind the yellow crime scene tape.

My beige sweater and black jeans were blood-stained. I twirled about, checked the mirror. There were smudges on my cheek and forehead, too. Dirt maybe? Hopefully. I went over to the sink, threw some water on my face and the movement made me realize that I ached, like I’d been carrying something on my shoulders. I took off my sweater. My elbows were scratched and bruised. Veins had popped out on my forearms that I hadn’t noticed in years. All in all though….

I’ll live. 

I zombie-walked back to the stool. 

In the near corner Babs talked to the cops; her statement a string of questions. 

“And then I heard shooting? And then Cheryl it must have been pulled me to the floor?”

She started crying and a lady rescue worker comforted her. I should go over, I thought. But I couldn’t just yet. 

Me and Babs, we’ll form our own little therapy group. Lots of time for that.

Everyone being questioned; Spindles was in his glory. 

“Cheryl, there, she’s the one chased him off,” he said. His ragged goatee had perked up, the glassy eyes filled with purpose. If he’d had a tail, it’d be wagging.

The cop turned, smiled. Cute.

“Don’t worry, miss, someone’s coming to take your statement. You are very brave, by the way.”

Brave enough, but not quick enough. 

There was commotion by the door and in strode Flash MacFarland. That is Philadelphia Police Lieutenant Michael “Flash” MacFarland. The other cops glanced at him, one came up and handed him some paper. The place had been controlled chaos before, but now Flash hoisted the center of the investigation on his back and carried it about with him. 

I was in shock still, must have been. I saw Flash all the time and in the normal everyday you don’t notice changes to someone. Now, though, it was if I’d hadn’t met up with him in years. 

He’d put on some weight, grown a little gray and a little bald. At 6 foot, 5 inches, still imposing. He’s one of those men age makes handsomer. He’d been Dad’s protégé and I crushed on him as a teenager. But there was something undefined about him then, like a beer that’s gone flat. That was then. Age had shrunken his features, made his eyes appear soulful, given him confidence and gravitas. Responsibility and the weight room had turned him into a hottie, an oldie but goodie, and girls much younger than me — nubiles with Daddy issues — would stare. Or maybe they were looking for a free ride.

Flash was his nickname the way some people call a tall guy “Shorty.” Very deliberate, he wasn’t going to rush for nobody or nothing. Dad used to say that you’d never want him on your rapid response team but when you needed someone to hunt a bad guy down in a methodical and unintrusive way — someone who would never give up — Flash was your man. 

He came to me, sighed through his mustache. 

“Haven’t I told you not to be a hero, girl?” 

I pointed with my foot to the bloody floor.

“Some hero,” I said. Then I held out my still-shaking hand. 

Flash patted me on the back, and I didn’t lose it. 

“Antonio would have been proud,” he whispered.

“Just trying to run a bar here.” 

Flash looked around, nodded at the surveillance camera over the bar. 

I shook my head. Both cameras had blown fuses about two years ago. Marty was always meaning to replace them.

“God, how I hate this place,” Flash said. 

I was trying to think of a response, when a cop called from the kitchen door.

“Lieutenant? The owner?”

Marty Daniels hobbled in. He’d come in through the alley, the backdoor. He wore a trench coat with yellow pajama pant legs sticking out, making him seem as if he balanced himself on stilts that had been cut too low. 

“Oh, shit,” Flash whispered. 

Marty’s wobbly even when he isn’t roused in the middle of the night with the news that there’d been a murder at Iffy’s. He’s 82, and slowing. He’d long ago stop worrying about ear and nose hair and all the other signs of aging that guys dread. But once a fighter, always a fighter and he shook the young cop’s hand off his shoulder.

“You can goddamn tell you’re not from the neighborhood,” he shouted. 

The cop smiled, and sometimes that’s the wrong thing to do to Marty. He reared back to spray some venom when Flash called over. 

“I know you’re not interfering in police business, right Daniels?” 

Babs and I rate Marty’s glowers and he now turned a Toxic Death Star toward Flash.

I said, “Take a deep breath, now, Marty.” 

“All my breaths are deep,” he growled. “Since this COPEDE-whatever the hell it is.”

“COPD,” I said. 

“Emphysema,” Marty said, throwing himself into a coughing fit. “That” choke-choke “was a good enough disease” choke-choke-choke “for me father.”

Even as he wheezed, Marty took in the mess, calculating how much he was going to get from insurance.

“Well, now it’s called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” I said.

“Smart Cheryl,” Marty said.

“Funny,” Flash whispered. “I was just telling you how dumb you are. You really want to fight for this asshole’s property.”

“Marty wasn’t the one shot on the floor,” I reminded.

By this point, Marty had made it over to us as if swimming through choppy seas. As he approached Flash turned, began walking toward the other end of the bar.

“I demand to speak to the guy in charge!” Marty shouted.

Flash stopped. The two of them looked like the crane addressing the mound.

“You will get your chance, Daniels.” 

“Yeah, next Tuesday.”

I expected Marty to smell like an old man: stale smoke, spilled beer — but no. 

“Were you with a French whore?” I asked.

“Aftershave.” He kept moving closer to Flash. He choked again, came up for air. “I am having a conversation here.”

“No, actually, we’re not,” Flash said. “But when we do, I will probably ask you about those” pointing to the cameras “and why you think so little of your employees’ safety.”

“Listen, I tell all of my people to just give them the money,” Marty said.

“He didn’t ask for any money,” I said. “Money wasn’t the issue.”

But no one heard me. 

“Where were the cops!” Marty yelled. “Why ain’t no one in custody?”

“Old man, stick your finger in my chest one more time and I will charge you with assault of a police officer.”

“Fuck you.”

I stepped in between. 

“Marty!” I grabbed him by the elbows, looked him square in the eye. “You’re not doing any good here. Babs needs someone to talk to.”

He and Flash exchanged some glares over my shoulder, but slowly he looked around, spotted Babs at the far end still talking in a dazed way to the rescue workers.  

“He’s upset,” I said, turning toward Flash who dead-eyed the retreating figure. “Let it go, Flash. He’s not going to be here on earth much longer.” I didn’t actually know that. Marty, being Marty, could conceivably live another 20 years just out of spite. 

I added, “He’s got chronic conditions.”

“Yeah, they say asshole-idity is incurable.”

He shook the Marty vibe off, looked at me closer.

“Are you OK?” 

I could feel myself well up, but beat it down.

“Not everyday a guy dies in my arms,” I said.

“But are you OK?” he asked. 

Flash had been one of those who’d shaken their heads when they heard that I’d decided against using a mentor to help me kick the habit.  I liked working without a net.

“Thirteen years, Flash. That’s a whole lot of clean over a whole lot of bumps in the road.”

“This isn’t just a bump.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be calling my shrink first thing tomorrow.”

“Maybe right now?”

“Right now, I got to pee,” I said.

And I did. I went by the bar and into the kitchen. A couple of cops were talking by the back door. 

“We chased off some bag lady,” one said. 

“Miss Lotty. She wanted food,” I said. “I’ll catch up to her.” 

Tomorrow, or whenever they’d let us open the place again.

They went back to gossiping and I grabbed Debbie’s geography notebook that she’d left on the cook’s desk. I stepped around the Mardi Gras decorations by the cellar door that I’d just taken down last weekend. I snatched a pair of rubber gloves near the dishwasher and went into the employees-only bathroom. 

I got away with it — really, they don’t like you touching things unless they know what — because I couldn’t shake the thought of holding Bobby’s intestines, the musty, clocked toilet smell of them, the heat they’d given off, the feel of them in my hands. If I’d been myself, if I hadn’t gone through what had just happened, something — pride, or concentration, or maybe just glancing about just a bit too much — would have given me away and one of the cops might have stopped me. I fully intended to give them Bobby’s letter. Just not yet.

I kept that bathroom clean, hell I kept all of Iffy’s clean. That was one of my main jobs, and those Department of Health cats looked as if they died and seen the light whenever they visited. But clean’s a constant battle, and the shine at the start of the night morphs into “this damn mess” that has to be taken care of at the end. The bathroom was fairly large, I told the contractors to think hospital when the rebuilt it. Toilet, sinks, mirrors and hand air dryers spaced about. 

The trashcan overflowed and balls of toilet paper had started to swell and unweave. I turned on the water, sat on the thrown. The envelope wasn’t sealed, and it was smudged with Bobby’s blood. I took out the letter, trying to avoid “compromising the evidence” as Dad used to say.

As I read it, memorizing it, sweating became a problem. I kept wiping my brow in the crook of my arm to avoid letting any of me drop onto that page. I very carefully put the letter back into its envelope, and balanced it on the sink. 

Then, I wrote down that letter word for word in Debbie’s notebook.

Hi Lorraine, 

I feel that letter writing is such a lost art, and I just proved it again. “Hi Lorraine” is the way you’d begin an email, something you dash off to one of your 2,000 “friends” on Facebook.

Pages. Tongue-tied Bobby Delaney letting in hang out. A lonely man’s monologue. I copied in shorthand, my own little code really, a throwback from my day — and I mean one single day — as a secretary. The guy had Roman hands and Russian fingers. Why, oh why, didn’t I sue? My hand glided over the pages, jots, dots, dashes, letters forming “words” no human being could ever say. 

Damn, Bobby! Get to the point!

I knew that once I’d given Bobby’s letter to the cops, I’d never see it again, not even a copy. Forensics would do what they needed, and then it would be put with the other clues in an investigation of his execution. Good chance that this grieving woman of Bobby’s, if she existed, would be left without her lover’s parting words. Well, Cheryl DeMarco keeps her promises. 

Someone knocked at the door. 

“Just a minute!”

“It’s me. Let me in. I need to see you.” 

Babs’s voice sounded as if it was being filtered through one of those machines that disguises identities by making everybody sound like a space alien in schlocky movie. The sweat now dove freely from my forehead onto the pages. Splat. Splat. Splat. I kept wiping, praying that the ink wouldn’t smear too much. 

“Cheryl!”

“I’m kind of occupied now, hon.”

“Cheryl….” A couple of sobs squirmed around door bolt. The handle shook. 

“Babs, I am going to the bathroom.”

Meanwhile, scribbling like a madwoman. 

She pounded on the door: “What are you doing?”

“Bathroom!”

“Cheryl, what are you doing? Are you OK?”

Babs heard the faucet. Hell, she knew my bathroom schedule. I closed my eyes for a second, remembered that day when she was small and walked in on me and Kat smoking meth in the Borkowski’s basement. 

“I’m stronger then that!” I yelled, immediately realizing that the intensity of the reaction just confirmed her fears. Babs and I were always being offered shit from wiseasses and we long ago decided to just take it from them and then flush it down when they left. And it wasn’t just grass either. The other day some clown flirted with meth. We knew that users will use no matter what but we said to ourselves that the best battles were the hopeless ones.

“Hell, we’re mothers, aren’t we?”

Babs cried, “Cheryl, let me in!” 

“I promise I’m OK!” 

Suddenly, a loud rap. 

“Ma’am!”

One of the EMT women. “Inspector MacFarland says to come out now.”

But I am not fucking using.

I called, “Just a second! Just a second! Holy shit!”

I heard Babs say, “I’ll get the other key.”

I kept writing, but I knew I’d never finish. Just one more paragraph. The keys jangled outside and I stood, pealed off the rubber gloves, threw them in the toilet and flushed. 

The notebook. They’re going to want to see it now. Fuck can I hide it? The trash? No they’ll look.

 I crammed the notebook into the only hiding place: the little crevice between the wall and the hand dryer with the loose bolts. 

The door crashed open and Babs ran by, hugged the seat and began hurling. 

“Are you OK?” the EMT worker asked.

“Why?”

The woman motioned to Babs. 

“She was worried they you had been wounded, and hadn’t told anyone. Apparently, the Inspector thought the same.”

I stretched out my arms in a “go ahead and search me” way. 

“Well, I am shaken,” I said. “Who wouldn’t be? But, as far as injuries….”

Babs cried, “I am so embarrassed.” She was done upchucking, stood and headed to the sink to rinse her face and mouth.

I patted her on the back.

“It’s OK baby. It’s OK.” 

“I can stay with her ma’am.”

“Miss,” I said. “I’m still in my 30s.”

That didn’t register. She began, “Inspector MacFarland….”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “And I have something for him, too.” 

CHAPTER FIVE

Marty stopped me on the way to the bar. He’d been collaring anybody willing to talk. 

“You take time off,” he said, leaning in like a man thinking about tying his shoelace. “As much as you need.” He must have mouth-washed before coming over.

There is that, at least.

“Er, thanks, Marty but you know me and the girls got this habit? Called eating?”

“Sick days!” he said spreading his arms, talking more for the benefit of a pretty policewoman nearby than for my sake. “Tell me how many bartenders in this city get sick days?”

“I’m a manager,” I said. “And I’m running out of sick days.”

Crystal had had her tonsils taken out; Debbie had had a nasty infection. I never get sick myself.

“Dip into next year’s,” Marty said. Choke-choke. That one must have hurt. “I know where to find you if I need you.”

Marty wasn’t just my boss, he was also my landlord. About 10 years ago he’d bought the building I lived in and I wanted to move the next day. Turned out, though, there were certain advantages. If I paid my rent late a couple times in a row, it could be the beginning of a conversation about a raise. After the first few times, Marty would avoid the subject.

Flash stood apart over by the jukebox, conducting the investigation like a maestro at the podium. Someone would hold up something at the other end, Flash would nod and that something would get evidence-bagged. Another cop pointed to a mark in the bar, Flash would point to where he thought the bullet ricocheted.   

“I was worried you fell in,” Flash said, not quite knowing whether to shift into banter because he quickly added: “You sure you’re up to this, Cheryl? I’d like to get at least some of the information from you tonight, while it’s fresh.”

“Here,” I said, thrusting the letter into his chest.

“Yeah, the witnesses mentioned.”

“Sorry about fingerprints.”

“Guys will sort it out.”

“Bobby Delaney had a secret fiancée,” I said. 

“It’s possible,” Flash said.

“I guess.” 

“You find out about people after their gone,” Flash said. “Mistresses come out from under beds, millions of dollars found stashed in old coffee cans. Wife and kids of a dedicated doctor are shocked to find out about his other wife and kids from the other side of the city. People.”

“Bobby did not have a mistress, Flash. No million dollars, either.”

“There are secrets, is what I’m saying. Even in lives that seem most boring.”

“Took me a long time to reach boring,” I said. “At least until tonight, it was nice and boring.” 

“Bobby Delaney’s love life,” Flash said slowly, as if ordering a mixed drink in which every ingredient counted. “Bobby Delaney had a love life. Well, why the hell not? Bobby was a good guy. A sweet guy. Why shouldn’t some woman somewhere love Bobby?”

He held up the letter. “Did you read this?” 

“Hell, yes.”

He winced. 

“He asked me with his dying breath to deliver it, Flash.” 

“Poor sad Bobby.”

“Who the hell writes love letters anymore?” I said. 

“A Twitter love letter?”

“But that was Bobby. Totally into gadgets and, yet, totally old-fashioned. I’ll bet the girl’s the same way, I mean if there is a girl. Woman.”

“Just a nice, quirky, harmless guy.” 

“Who was killed execution-style,” I said. 

Flash looked around at the overturned tables, chairs and broken glass. 

“You’re thinking a professional did it like this?”

“I don’t think the guy wanted to shoot anybody else,” I said. “He needed to kill Bobby then get out of Dodge. A hired gun, and whoever hired him. That’s the professional.”

“Five bullets. How much dead did he want?”

“We’re not talking a marksman here,” I said.

“What did Bobby do for a living?” 

We had taken seats across from each other at one of the tables. He must have put the investigation on cruise-control. 

I said, “You know, we should understand that every sentence in this conversation can begin with, ‘Remember, this was Bobby Delaney.’ Last steady job he had was for Pillar Pharmaceuticals over in Jersey. But they axed him more than 10 years ago. He’s kicked around since, mostly living off his severance. I think Al helps him. Jim has definitely helped.”

“Just scratching by,” Flash said. 

“And not minding in the least. Bobby worked some odd jobs too. Remember?”

“Very odd.” 

“You know he was a brilliant man right, Flash? I mean he was an inventor. One year for Christmas he brings me this machine that actually opens and locks the door on the sound of your voice. Think of if he had gotten a patent. But he didn’t care about money.”

“What happened to the machine?”

“Oh, Marty didn’t like it. Didn’t trust it. He wanted good old-fashioned lock bolts.”

I could hear choking from the kitchen. 

“That any crack-head can break,” Flash said.

The cop questioning Spindles held up his notebook; Flash responded with an impatient wave. Good night, Spindles. 

“We just called Al,” Flash said. “He and Jim are heading down to the morgue to ID the body.” 

“Autopsy?” I asked.

He looked at me.

“But why?” I said.

“Because we don’t know why he was executed and maybe something in his bloodstream might tell us.”

“Bobby didn’t do drugs.”

“Yeah, and he didn’t do women either,” he said, holding up the letter, and placing it into a plastic bag. “Weren’t you and Jim Delaney an item?”

So many people experience the love that they thought would save them, but which doesn’t in the end work out. You cry, hell you grieve even. Then you move on. You get over it. You might even become friends with the guy because it’s at least something. I’d been through the process a few times. So why did my eyes sting at the mention of me and Jim Delaney?

It’s this crazy night. Old poison rising through the skin. 

“You’re going to get checked out by the EMT,” Flash said. “I don’t like your complexion. Let’s see a blood pressure reading.”

“That was a long time ago, me and Jim,” I said. 

“That’s not the first time Bobby tried to pull that Parent Trap bullshit on you, right?” 

I looked away. 

“We can stop at any time,” Flash said.

“I’m good.”

“We’re just talking.”

“Just talking. Bobby said we were simpatico.”

“How so?”

“We’re both autodidactic, he says.”

I use that word with almost anybody else, there might have been a reaction. “Yo Cheryl! Forsooth?” Some wiseass shit, like that. But Flash knows me.

I said, “I’m thinking, ‘Maybe we are simpatico, Bobby, but you’re a genius. I just read a lot.’ I never led him on, swear to God, I never did.”

Flash’s hand engulfed my shoulder. I could still hear Bobby’s question: Cheryl, did you ever love me?

I said, “He knew where we stood. Friends. But every once in a while he’d do his best Jim impersonation just to….”

“That was mite insensitive.”

“Jim was a long time ago,” I said. “He thought I was over it. I thought I was over it and I am. Tonight is … different.”

My cell buzzed. I held up my hand, turned away from Flash.

“Mom!” Crystal shouted. 

“I am fine, honey.”

“Somebody got killed there tonight? Shot? Did you shoot somebody?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Come home!”

“They posted a policeman right outside.”

I heard Debbie in the background: “How many people did she shoot?”

“Both of you calm down,” I said. “I am fine.”

“I can’t wait until we’re out of this neighborhood,” Crystal said.

When Crystal won the scholarship to Nazareth Academy in the Northeast, she said that the worst part of her day was having to come back into Fishtown. I looked at Flash, and he sort of saluted. The interview was over.

“I’m on my way, hon,” I said and clicked off.

Flash shook his head. “Moving with two teenage girls. I don’t envy you.”

“You heard. Crystal can’t wait. Debbie?” I made the “so-so” gesture.

“And you?” Flash asked.

“I need water,” I said. We walked to the bar, Flash taking a stool, while I manned my station. I served myself, then grabbed one for Flash. He opened it, took a quick swallow. Normally, he’d never accept anything from anyone. Our interview wasn’t quite over.

“Bobby would try to mess with you?” Flash asked. 

“He would never let it get to the point where he’d actually do anything to me in the guise of Jim. I would always find out. It was sort of our little game. We’re talking….”

“Yeah, I know. We’re talking Bobby Delaney here. Did he say anything unusual to you? Give me something.”

“It happened like this,” I said. 

“The last conversation he had with you before tonight.”

Seemed like a million years ago. 

“It was just last Tuesday, Mardi Gras,” I said. “He leans over to me and starts spouting poetry and I get pissed and say, ‘Do you see the crowd I got here tonight, Bobby? Do you want a refill, or not?’” 

“What poem?”

“Poetry was very much Bobby. He wasn’t distressed in any way. He was normal, for Bobby.”

“Do you remember the poem?”

“Robert Browning,” I said, and damn if Flash didn’t start reciting.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life,

For which the first was made.

“How the hell did you know that?”

“The nuns. I’d like to tell you it’s the only Browning I know. Truth is it’s the only poem I know. That and ‘Who Has Seen the Wind’ and the Paul Revere. Why did he pretend to be Jim tonight?”

“Jim’s in town,” I said. 

Flash waved, dismissing another witness. Babs had begun picking up overturned tables and chairs. 

“Save it,” I called. “We’ll come in early tomorrow. Open late if we have to. Marty will need to be here, to replace some of the broken shit.”

 “I need to do something,” she said. Her arms hung limply at he sides, her shoulders drooped. She looked as if she wandered in the debris of a car crash she’d survived.

“Hon, you need to go home and sleep,” I said.

She turned to me, the eyes seeming to just make me out.

“Sleep?” she asked.

“Take Tylenol PM.”

“This is a crime scene for the next few hours anyway, Babs,” Flash said. “Maybe even a few days.”

“Don’t let Marty hear that,” I said.

Flash sneered. “I’d love to close him down forever.”

“Gee thanks, Flash. It’s not much, but it is my job.”

“You’ll get better job,” he said. 

He called over to Babs.

“Don’t move anything else.”

Babs stood for a second, looking guiltily at a table.

“That’s OK, don’t worry about that,” Flash insisted. 

“Sleep!” I yelled. 

Babs went to the kitchen to gather her things and I turned to Flash. 

“I can talk about Jim,” I said. 

“It was years ago.”

“And, hey, I am over it.”

I didn’t convince him.

“Why don’t you go home too, Cheryl.”

“Maybe the question isn’t who in the world would want to murder Bobby Delaney,” I said. “Maybe the question is who would want to murder Jim Delaney.”

“When did that occur to you?” 

“Somewhere between pulling Babs’s ass to the ground and jumping over the bar. You want to know is Jim Delaney the type guy who could make enemies who would hate him enough to hire scumbags to try to kill him?”

“Is that what I’m not asking?”

“Remember Clare McDonald,” I said.

Clare McDonald was an 86-year-old widow who’d been beaten and robbed for the change in her pocket a few years ago. 

“I don’t know Jim Delaney well enough any more to tell you what his enemies might do,” I said. “I knew Clare, though. So nothing much shocks me. You get drugs involved, and people will do anything. There is evil.”

“I’ll be talking to Jim tomorrow,” Flash said. 

“Talk about sightings. Jim visits his family about once a year. But he doesn’t come in here, or anywhere else in Fishtown. No one’s seen him in 11 years.” The day after 9/11, to be exact.

“And?” 

“I know he lives in North Carolina. Ex-wife, two kids,” I said. “They’re fighting over visiting rights, Al tells me.”

“What’s he do?”

“Maybe you should talk to him.”

Flash glanced down at his water bottle. Spoke as if reading off the label. 

“Joined the Navy Seals. Served in Iraq, then Afghanistan. Then” — our eyes meet — “quits. Just like that.”

“People do leave the military.”

“Starts working for a drug company, makes a shitload of money. Somewhere along the way, the fall. A fall which I think caused the divorce, not the other way around.” 

My face felt as if it might catch on fire. My eyes began tearing as if I’d been hit by smoke, and my nose started running. I reached for my water but my hand shook, so I pulled back. I lifted my gaze.

“What are you doing, Flash?”

His scowl disintegrated into dismay. 

“I am so sorry, Cheryl. You’ve had a rough night.”

I put my head down on the bar and, to my surprise and horror, a huge sob erupted. I fought to catch my breath, and when I did, I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. I kept thinking of that weird wink Bobby had given me, the “Supremes” gesture. The fragility of everything struck and the guffawing just rolled out of me. 

“Medic!” Flash called. 

“Rough night?” I managed to say. “Well, hell, I guess so!”

CHAPTER SIX

The night had dampened a bit, since I’d gone sprinting after that shooter. The sky had grown heavier and it looked as if rain was coming. There weren’t that many cars along Girard Avenue. It’s a walk I took every night and, funny, a woman alone in the wee hours should be frightened. I never was. Wary, yes. But everybody in Fishtown knows me. Someone trying to snatch me would have to deal with my switchblade and pepper spray and the neighbors who’d come running, not to mentioned there’s a police station right on Montgomery Avenue.

I thought about the new place in Fox Chase, about how much needed to be done between now and when the girls got off school in June. Truck Andrews has been real nice about it, giving me the keys and saying I could move stuff in little by little. He’d also said I could pretty much do what I want with it.

Officer O’Mally — the fellow Flash insisted escort me — was all “yes, ma’am, and no ma’am.” Just out of the academy, too young for me. Cute, but not “charged,” as Babs would say. Short for “sexually charged.” Or, if he was, he hid it well. Long strides that he shortened when he realized I wasn’t quite keeping up. He tipped his hat to me at the door. Nice.

Before I’d even reached the last step, I heard Crystal. 

“Oh, Mom!” she cried, throwing open the door. 

“I’m all right, honey,” I said, hugging both my girls on the landing as we crab-walked back inside. 

“You look like something out of some horror flick,” Debbie said.

“Debbie!” Crystal yelled.

I said, “Oh God, no fights, please. Not tonight. Boil some water. We’ll have tea.”

I went to my room pulled off my clothes, stashed them in a trash bag. I mean everything, even stuff, like my panties, that hadn’t been stained. My shoes — black sneakers, actually — I decided to just scrub down. We chatted as I did this, having to raise our voices. It’s a small apartment, but the corners block the sound, noise doesn’t flow.

I wrapped a towel around me, went into the bathroom. Threw the towel off. I looked at my naked self for a few seconds. Aside from the scratches and bruises on my arms, there was just one welt on my right knee. Could have happened when I hit the floor. Or maybe when I jumped over the bar. Or, hell, it could have happened earlier in the night and had nothing to do with the shootout. No way of knowing. 

I’d been dreading this moment since I’d held Bobby’s guts in my hands. The moment alone. I began to shake — Damn! Damn! Damn! I couldn’t stop it — and I held myself tightly as I nearly doubled over. Visions kept coming; Bobby, laying on the floor, the look on his face, his eyes staring wide and wild as he asked me if I had ever loved him. 

I let the steam ooze over the mirrors, fog the room. The heat rolled over me as I stepped into the tub. I prayed, at first trying to zero in on targets — my girls, Bobby Delaney, the Delaney family, Flash, Babs, Spindles, other Iffy’s idiots, starving people in the world — but I couldn’t concentrate. So it became a sort of om. Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary.

I wished I’d figured out religion a little better.

I need sleep. I really, really need sleep.

But of course, no sleep. I remember once asking my dad why he wasn’t scared. 

“I get scared, but I get rid of it,” Antonio said.

“Get rid of it?” 

“Turn fear into aggression. There are ways to do that.”

I had done that, in the moment.

Now what?

I’ll be packing, I decided. I have a license to carry — one of Antonio’s friends had fixed it up years ago — but I hardly ever do. For one thing, I don’t want to shoot anybody if I can avoid it. For another, guns are awkward for a woman. Where to hide them? And if you don’t hide them, it’s not exactly the icebreaker you want on first dates. I guess I could wear cargo pants all the time, but really…. 

Debbie rapped on the door.

“You OK in there?”

“Never better.”

I went out and sipped chamomile tea with the girls. We huddled on the couch like when they were little and I gave them a very abbreviated version of events thinking that might make it easier, but I began to cry anyway. 

“It’s OK Mom,” Crystal said, rubbing my back like she did in the bad old days when I wasn’t much of mother at all. Debbie kept playing with one of her gadgets.

“I’m still a little upset,” I said.

“Yeah, well, no shit,” Debbie said, still not looking up.

When they were little they were so similar, very much my daughters. Two mini-me’s. As they grew their fathers came out. Crystal: doe-eyed, soft, placid, soulful. Debbie: quick, sharp, active, fearless. Crystal is 17; Debbie 13, but the gap is larger than that.

Babs tells me that kids in her family are so different from each other that they might as well be separate species. “Same biological Dad. Same Leroy.” Babs always tries to make me feel better about my mistakes. She’s taken over Mom’s role as a reminder that forgiveness exists so I might as well latch on. 

The girls and I whispered, then talked, then talked louder, then laughed and shouted and that was when we knew we were close to pulling off acting as if nothing had happened. Just another night. We learned long ago that you can pretend your kind of reality. Soon, finally, we went to bed.

That’s when I jumped back to that moment. 

Cheryl, did you ever love me?

Healing doesn’t happen just like that. I am sort of an expert and knew that I could either lie awake afraid, or angry. I choose anger. But I didn’t become angry at the asshole who killed Bobby, or Marty for not giving me a raise this year, or the soccer coach who benched Debbie because of her attitude. I got mad at me, my younger self. I got mad that I am a bartender in Fishtown and I could have made so much more of me. 

You want a list of the things I could have done with my life? Antonio once gave me one, but that was during a different time in our relationship. Those were the days when everything my father and me gave each other exploded in our hands. So, I never saw the list; tore it up right away. I may have torn it up and threw it in his face. The good old days.

Here’s what I could be: one kick-ass corporate manager (and then a $300-an-hour management consultant. Sweet!), a forensic scientist, a hell of a cop (I don’t even think about that one, it’s so ingrained — it’d be like thinking about your height or something), a great newspaper reporter, wait, fuck that, with this body? This face? Make that a great television reporter. I don’t know if I could have been an actress, that seems a bit tricky to do and I wouldn’t like where the method might lead. 

Jobs people look up to. Jobs that you step back and take notice. When they tested me in tech school the advisor told my parents that I could be a nuclear physicist. Yes, I said tech school, by that point I’d become one of the woodshop kids. I did terrible in regular school, refused to open a book and flunked tests on purpose because I wanted the boys to like me. It worked. 

Let’s see: lawyer, accountant, software engineer, pilot, nurse — no wait, fuck that — doctor (physician, to you), and, here’s one: biomedical engineer. How about sales director or vice president in charge of public relations? Yeah, I could do them but it would take some effort, because I’m not naturally a bullshit artist. I mean, I can turn on the charm with the best of them, the tips I get a week are one of the reasons I keep bartending. That’s different. I am truly nosy. Let’s see, other jobs. Physical therapist. Psychologist, you kidding? Yes, I can be a pharmacist. Real estate agent. Teacher. Hell, even a professor. 

Listen, bartending paid the bills, I lived right up the block, and I had two girls to raise. 

Now, though, my life’s about ready to begin. I’m going to get my GED, figure out what I really want to do, then go to college. 

Dad was right, but if I think about Antonia too much I get weepy and I can’t stand being weepy. That’s how finally I fell asleep that night. Trying not to be weepy. 

CHAPTER SEVEN

The first time Bobby Delaney came into Iffy’s with a six-pack of his beer — brown bottles without labels — it had been an early morning Tuesday after a slow Monday shift. We were closing. This was in 2002, and a rainstorm rattled the windows and doors, and occasionally lights blinked. Babs and I were wiping down, running the dishwasher, making a list of supplies we’d need the next day. Seeing Bobby annoyed me. 

Man! Don’t you realize that there’s no one else here?

Bobby put a package on his table by the wall, opened and shut his umbrella a few times to wring it out. He looked different, and not just because of the wet hair. He’d left his slouch and squint somewhere outside. This was an altered Bobby Delaney. He seemed alert, even a bit commanding. Jim-like, even.

“Hey!” Babs yelled. “We just mopped there.”

Bobby leaned the umbrella against a chair, and then did something so uncharacteristic that it made me bristle. He winked at me. 

Fuck is going on?

Jim Delaney had been gone to parts unknown for over a year, but the Jim deal still stung. I’d just started dating again. Complications had invaded my emotional fortress. Guys find out their dream-girl’s got kids, suddenly you’re seeing knuckleballs and the timing’s all screwed up. If Bobby tried to move in on me, I’d have to kill him.

I said, “Why the shit-eating grin, amigo?”

“Cheryl DeMarco, I hold in my hand something that will change your life.” He lifted a six-pack from the bag. St. Paulie Girl bottles had once occupied the carrier slots.

“We do sell take-out, you know.”  

“Not this take-out. This take-out you won’t find anywhere else. This is Delaney’s Durango Lager.”

“You’re home brewing. Great, put me out of business, why don’t you.”

“The micro-brewery of all micro-breweries,” he said. “I’m going to win awards for this. Maybe a Nobel. But I need a focus group of one. Join me?”

Babs said, “Go ahead, Cheryl. My uncle home brews. Best beer around.”

Bobby whipped out a bottle opener. 

Snap. Snap.

“Glasses,” he said. “You need to see this beer, experience it.”

“Fancy that,” I said.

But, what the hell, I grabbed two old glasses from a box under the sink that I kept meaning to throw away. They were “Randall Cunningham” foot-longers, that’s how old they were. Cunningham left the Eagles back in 1995. I went over to his table pulled up a seat opposite. I might find out what’s new with Jim.

He poured, and maybe I was tired but there was something mesmerizing about the way it doubled back on itself, reminding me of documentaries about how the oceans team with life, or the galaxies were formed. The smell conjured the incense Truck Andrews would burn in one of his acupuncturist offices. 

Liquid incense? I don’t know about this.

Bobby slid the pint over.

“This going to change my life?” I asked.

“You won’t change at all.” 

I held it up to the light. It could have been cold soup, a meal.

“You sure about this?” I asked.

He drank, put down the pint, exhaled. 

“Heaven!”

“The shit I do for my customers.”

“I’m not customer, I’m a fan.”

Bobby coaxed the sip out of me, raising his head as I tipped the glass, and going through the motions of swallowing. Deep impact. I couldn’t call it abrupt; it didn’t startle me. It lured me in, but quickly, as if I were gatecrasher. I do not bullshit when I say I left my body and looked down.  The bar shone in a light that didn’t come from any bulbs. I turned, saw myself staring ahead blinking, a bit stunned. A near-death experience.

“Damn good,” I said, choking as I placed the pint ever so carefully back onto the table. 

People assume that recovering addicts can’t drink, but that’s not always the case. Alcohol had never been my problem, it didn’t do much for me. It certainly wasn’t an entry. Me and my shrink had worked it out years ago.

But this beer scared me. I swallowed again, felt the warmth flow in and out. I hovered even further out in space, a satellite far removed from the cruel sad circus below. This should have been the unknown frontier, but I wasn’t just any tippler and the sensations were all too well-known. I twirled slowly in the stratosphere, turned, then plummeted. 

I slammed the glass down.

“Idiot!”

Bobby flinched, raised his hands. 

“There are drugs in this shit!” I hissed.

I could hear Babs back in the kitchen banging around.

“I swear to you, no!” 

“What is it with you fucking Delaneys?”

Bobby leaned over, talked to me like some teachers I’d had.

“There is absolutely nothing harmful in this brew,” he said. “No chemicals. It’s yeast and barely and proteins, and a fermentation process no one ever dreamed about. But no chemicals. I wouldn’t sabotage you like that, Cheryl.”

There was something in it though because, normally, the way I flared would have been just the beginning. I would have stepped onto anger that rolled on like a train. I called it the Rolling Rager. It is so intense that I lock myself away. It’s junkie residue, and there are triggers, and I avoid them. I hadn’t seen this coming. 

“There, that’s it,” Bobby said, talking to me the way I’d heard Truck calm horses. “We’re OK, right?”

“Maybe.”

I quaffed deeply from the Cunningham glass this time, downed nearly a quarter of it. 

“Careful,” Bobby said. “It’s not picnic beer. Sip it.”

I put the glass down, exhaled and realized with relief that the Rolling Rager had pulled away from the station leaving me behind. I smiled.

“No drugs. Swear.” Bobby stammered.

“Sorry you saw that.”

He closed his eyes, looked to be giving thanks. 

“You have to admit it’s one hell of a brew,” he said. 

“Shit, yiz are making me wish I was a beer drinker,” Babs said, coming back into the bar.

“It’s got to be fattening,” I said.

“You drink that beer, you never have to worry about becoming fat,” Bobby said. “You drink that beer, and it’s [singing] ‘Where everybody knows your name….’”

“Stop!” Babs and I yelled at the same time.

We pointed to each other, said “Jinx.”

We’re like two halves of the same cyborg. Some shifts we say “jinx” about 20 times.

“It’s the Cheers theme song,” Bobby said.

“And singing it will get you flagged at Iffy’s,” I said. 

I took another swig, thinking that maybe I’d gotten used to it. Didn’t happen. This time I sat by the ocean, felt the eternity of ebb and flow in the soles of my feet. I overheard a conversation about light and water, being and nothingness, and realized I overheard the whales talking.

“Damn!” I said. “Bobby Delaney, maker of Miracle Beer.”

“Something like that.” 

“I won’t become fat, and I’ll find the man of my dreams.” 

Babs called above the rattling of tossed beer bottles, “You’ll eat at Le Bec Fin every night.”

Bobby took a swig.

“And let’s not forget the lottery,” I said. “Miracle Beer will make you win the lottery.” 

“Miracle Beer.” Bobby savored it. “You sure Delaney’s Durango Lager isn’t better? Took me all of 30 seconds to come up with it.”

“Miracle Beer,” I ruled. 

“Well, miracle might be stretching it, but only somewhat,” he said. “It is one fine brew.”

And I will never forget the smile on Bobby Delaney’s face that night.

CHAPTER EIGHT

How could an entire carload of asshole assassins disappear? So, yeah, I was frustrated. The day Flash called me I had bundled up the girls and sent them to Babs’s for a few nights. 

“We’ll be patrolling by there and call us if you hear or see anything — and I mean anything — that makes you nervous. You won’t be bothering us. Call.”

“But what?”

“Nothing.”

“Flash.”

“I just don’t think these guys are going to go after you and I can’t afford the 24 hour guard for too long.”

“You’re sure they’re not coming after me. You’re sure my family’s safe.” 

“You weren’t able to ID the guy or the car for that matter. You weren’t the target. They’re not within a hundred miles of Fishtown.”

“This, you know?”

“Remember what your Dad said.”

“Yeah, I know. Cemeteries are filled with certainties.” 

“I’m more concerned about Jim Delaney than I am about you.”

I didn’t flinch at the name this time. Ridiculous. I’d had too many lovers between then and now. 

He’s just an old friend.

“Does he know anything?”

“Now, Cheryl.”

“I know.” 

But as a matter of fact, I believed that Flash MacFarland would tell me more about an investigation than he would the average citizen. He was one of the ones always encouraging me to get my GED. Why don’t I go back to school, try out for the force? Of course, he’d stopped saying that so much recently, every once in a while asking, “How old are you again?” 

I said that day, “You still have no idea who did it.”  

I was standing by my window, watching the lights blink on up and down Girard Avenue. I’d just called Babs, said goodnight to my girls. The police car was still there, but I knew it could pull away at any moment. 

Flash cleared his throat. “Don’t go shooting other people, now, girl. You don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way. Run. That’s the best self-defense.”

“I got a license,” I said. “So you think I hit that guy? I guess not direct enough. They didn’t go to the hospital, that’s for sure. How many cops you think were chasing them?”

I was getting more agitated and Flash sighed. This Bobby Delaney case took a bit more out of him than the usual. 

“Just remember, you can’t fight all your battles by yourself,” he said. “You’ve friends in high places.”

“Yeah, and I got friends who are just high — or dead.”

“You OK?”

“Flash, with all due respect, I wish the hell you’d stop asking that.” 

I hung up, drank a Coors Light and went to bed. The conversation with Flash was just one of a dozen things whirly-gigging about my noggin before I nodded off.

CHAPTER NINE

I’m a light sleeper anyway. I miss nothing: the creak of a door, the settling of a load-bearing wall, the slightest rustle of living room curtains. It was a little after 5 a.m. when I awoke. There was noise at my door. Someone knocked about trying to get the key in the two locks. Whoever it was finally managed and came inside. Nothing stealthy about it. Crystal, I thought. Probably needed a book for school that she’d left here. 

“Honey, I’m in here!” I yelled, as I jumped out of bed, started wiggling into my jeans. “You should have called. I don’t want you walking the streets alone, even in the morning. Just call me, Crystal. That too much to ask? Oh, and I think it’s a history book and it’s over by the bookcase.” Yada, yada, yada… like that. 

First clue, she didn’t respond. Crystal and me have this synergy whether we’re fighting or chatting like chums. I say something, she says something back. We get caught into this rhythm; this mother-daughter dance that had been choreographed back in the womb; back when I’d get a craving say, for mashed potatoes, and she’d give me a good kick after I was done. 

The second clue, I smelled smoke, stale clingy cigarette smoke; the same cloud that always trailed me home from Iffy’s. My heartbeat picked up just like that.

Please, not again. 

We’d been burglarized twice in ten years. I began to sweat, I could feel a wet patch expand under my arms.

Focus. 

I kept talking, acting as if I still believed it had been Crystal who’d entered. I pulled a sweatshirt on; I’ll be damned if I was going to get killed in a dirty bra. All the while talking, making it stream of consciousness, not asking any questions, not leaving the least little opening for a response. 

I swept aside the throw-rug, pulled open the floor boards covering the hiding place. I grabbed my gun, backed away from the door and toward the window. 

Come on, Selma. Time to come out.

Selma was the weapon’s nickname. I didn’t want the girls or anybody else referring to my gun, but if they had to, they would do it in code. I opened the window, and the screen as well. A .357 Chiefs special. When I’d bought it a few years ago the guy dangled a semi-automatic, but I said “no thanks” because Antonio had told me that they sometimes jam.

“Damn it’s hot in here,” I complained. “It’s only March. Not even spring. Shouldn’t be this hot. Honey, give me a minute.”

I stepped out the window, down the fire escape.

Forgot my friggin’ cell phone.

I need to get to the nearest pay phone or, hell, just run down the street to the precinct. Get the cops, come back. Except, it galled me. 

I’m going to let some low-life druggie intrude into my life? Fuck that.

I ran around the front of the apartment.

I snuck up to the second floor, our unit. Good, the door was open. I pushed in just a bit. I saw him, standing with his back to me, looking into my bedroom. Even though I expected to see someone, it still made me shiver. And here I am holding Selma and ready to shoot again. I don’t like this. 

He wore a torn denim jacket, too-tight jeans, an old-man’s sort of cap. But this guy was young, strong. I could tell by his stillness. Did something look familiar to me? 

“Motherfucker,” I said, “you so much as twitch and I’ll blow your fucking head off. My father’s a cop, and some of my friends are judges. I won’t do any time. Don’t move your hands, turn around real slow.”

Something about the way his arms slumped reminded me. But no, I thought, it couldn’t be him. And yet, and yet…. He turned and I saw him fully in the overhead light. 

“Who are you?” I said. 

“Cheryl, you know who I am. As-Salāmu `Alaykum”

“What?”

“Peace be upon you.” 

“Dizzy Tanner never talked like that. And Dizzy Tanner is dead.”

They told me he was dead. Because he’s Debbie’s biological father they’d sent me a letter. 

“In the flesh,” he said. 

“They told me you killed yourself. That you were distraught over something.” 

He took off his cap, and that left no doubt. His blond hair stood at spiked attention. I could get a better look at his eyes as well, eyes whose vibrant blue I used to drown in. 

I steadied my hands, kept my aim true. “They said you killed a man on the oil rig and then killed yourself.”

“I jumped overboard, yes. Could you stop aiming your gun at me?”

“What the fuck do you want?” I continued to point the barrel at the center of his head. 

“I know you hate me.” 

“I call the cops, they’ll probably have questions.”

He moved back a bit, almost as if I’d hit him.

“You don’t want to do that,” he said.

“I knew that they didn’t tell me the full story.”

“I’m clean now, Cheryl. I’m different.”

“No, Dizzy, you’re not. A different man wouldn’t come sneaking into his ex’s apartment.”

“Who was sneaking?”

“You heard me talking in there, but you didn’t answer. Who do you think you’re bullshitting?”

“I want to say I am sorry.”

“Yeah.”

“But go ahead. Call the cops. You’re right. I’m clean now, but I have shit in my past.”

“Indeed.” I didn’t lower Selma.

“They’ll put me in jail and then Debbie will know I’m alive.”

“She doesn’t have to know.”

“But she’ll find out. Or you’ll tell her.”

“Not me.”

“If they arrest me, she’ll find out somehow. She’ll sense it.”

Debbie would too. For a fuck-head, Dizzy always had an instinct for the vulnerable spot. I got a better look at him. Man, he’d aged. He was, what?, about five years younger than me. That’s one of the things I liked about him at the start. But we just fed each other’s destruction, and that destruction blossomed, or exploded. Debbie was the only good thing to come out of it. 

“I am now a Muslim,” he said.

I had to laugh. What the hell else could I do? So Dizzy. Always into something different. He couldn’t just be a guy from the neighborhood. Just a regular working stiff. No, he thought that it might be a good idea to become Communist — this when the entire Soviet block was crumbling. He’d latch on to some idea, Eastern mysticism, say, and he’d cling to it and cling to it and cling to it because it made him feel different. Oh, he’d light the incense candles. He’d tell you all about the fucking chi. You would be convinced that the next step is some fucking ashram in India and much to your amazement, even if you’d seen him do it before (because he’d gotten so intoxicated on the next thing that you were convinced against your better judgment that it was the last thing), he’d switch it up. Suddenly, Eastern mysticism was so yesterday. He always wanted to be special. 

But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. We used to shoot heroin together, me and Dizzy. With two little kids in the apartment. Oh, yeah, baby. That’s the way it went down. I was a real mother of the year, I was. Oh, it was a great relationship, a wonderful partnership until he hit me once and I waited, and waited, and waited and finally pushed him out of the second floor window. He didn’t go to the hospital, but he didn’t come back, neither. 

“I don’t have any money,” I said now. “Please just be honest with me, for once! That’s what you want, right? I mean, Dizzy, you broke into my place!”

He bowed his head, moved his sneakers. There was something different, no doubt about that. 

“I could use some cash,” he said.

“So you came here to steal.”

“I came here to ask.”

“Bullshit.”

“I did send you money.”

I whispered, “You faked your suicide, you asshole. Debbie didn’t even collect life insurance.” 

He began to protest, but I moved the gun. 

I said, “Do you know how much you owe me in child support, if I ever decided to go after you?” 

“I will pay you.”

“But first you’ll steal from me.”

“I am desperate.”

“Need a fix?”

“I am clean. Just hungry.”

I spun away, but kept Selma in my hand. Stepped into the kitchen, grabbed a roll from the breadbox. Threw it at him. 

“Here! I don’t care about your inner journey! I don’t care about your changes! I don’t want you to make amends! Don’t fucking tell me about Allah! I certainly don’t want you hanging around! You know better, I mean you must know better, than to fuck with me!”

He wasn’t reacting the way the old Dizzy would, and that unsettled me too. He was quiet.

“Over in the Middle East,” he said. “I worked for an oil spill cleanup company.”

“And you converted. That’s so typical. How long will this stage last? Know what stage I’ve been stuck in the last eighteen or so years? Adulthood. Motherhood.”

“Yeah, you were always such a good mother.”

“I am now. I am since I pushed you out the fucking window. I am since Antonio….”

I was crying. I couldn’t believe I let that fucking little freak do that to me, but I was crying. The image flashed before me. My father swinging from a rope tied to a waterpipe in our home. My father, dead of despair. My father killed himself because of me. I was sobbing.

“Get out! Get out! Don’t come back! And if I die mysteriously, the cops will find out about you. Believe that, motherfucker!”

I stood there shaking and sobbing for I don’t know how long. I only know that when I next became aware, he had gone. He’d taken the roll.  

CHAPTER TEN

That April morning reminded me of when the Girl Scouts went camping and we kids awoke in the woodsy fog, with the dew on everything, and our breaths steaming in the sun-spears slicing through treetops. Except I wasn’t a Girl Scout anymore. The gun range was a big patch of what must have once been a farm in Bucks County. 

“So this is where you shoot,” I said.

“No, this is where you shoot. Cops got their own range downtown.”

Dad didn’t even have to knock on my door that morning; I’d been awake for an hour. As I went downstairs, I heard the newspaper being dropped on our stoop. Antonio cooked me a special breakfast, “something that will stick to you,” just like he had on other occasions like my First Communion or the first time he took me to an Eagles game. Scrapple, eggs, toast, orange juice. 

You can’t get a gun license in Pennsylvania until you’re 18, but that hadn’t stopped me from wanting to shoot. I’d been begging Antonio for years, but Mom had always vetoed it until now. This was my birthday present. I had just turned thirteen. 

“You’re not going to outgrow this until you try,” Rose had said. Maybe I’d become more responsible. Maybe, even, I’d start making my bed. Poor Mom. No idea of what was in store.

Antonio fixed it. We bypassed the bureaucratic stuff: Saying why I needed a gun, getting checked out by the cops, and then interviewed. I was ready.

We chatted warily as we drove up I-95 with the sun rising over the dusty cityscape. The fissure that would rupture in a few years placing my father and me on opposite sides of the law had already begun to show. I fought over everything, and when I wasn’t shouting, I’d withdraw in snarling surrender. 

“So changeable,” I once overheard Mom lament. “Somewhere along the line fey became mercurial.”

“This is my house,” Dad said. 

Yeah, but it’s my life.

One thing stayed constant: I wanted to shoot. I had heard Dad and some of his friends joke in the kitchen about first-timers, about how they’re never ready for the recoil, how they shut one eye when firing, how the noise freaks them out even with the headphones. I knew that the idea was to relax. 

Before we went to our assigned targets we had to demonstrate that we knew how to load, aim, and hold the weapon. Antonio showed me what to do in case of malfunction, and how to fix it. 

I noticed then that that there were other fathers with children, but they were all sons. No other daughters that I could see. No other women, period. 

“I want to go home,” I said.

“What?” 

His smile stretched into place like a stop sign.

“Butterflies, Scooch. You’ll get over it.”

No I won’t.

I’d gotten a glimpse of the boys on the way in. Some were huge — football players and wrestlers, I imagined. Even the thin, wiry ones held themselves with confidence. Not strutting — you don’t strut here. But quick, efficient, and powerful. These boys could break me in half. Or ignore me.

Mom and Dad were perplexed when I had quit track that fall. I was better at the 100-yard dash then anybody. Some of the guys I’d beaten out were the same ones who, when watching the TV news minutes in homeroom, whispered “dyke” whenever there’d been a feature on the first woman astronaut, or the first woman Navy Seal. No one dared call me that to my face. I caught looks, though. The agony of those I’d defeated turned into withering stares that they didn’t bother to hide on my fields of glory. Fewer and fewer boys talked to me at the dances. Of course I quit track.

“Pay attention now, sweetie,” Dad said.

I want to go home.

All around me, the steady, patient voices of instructing fathers carried in the crisp air, but no one else had been called sweetie. 

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The first shots of the day. 

“Oh, Daddy!” I said. “I didn’t know about the noise.”

I’d even been tempted to fake fainting, but knew I could never pull that off. Antonio had been in his teaching crouch. Now he rose, and when I looked up he blocked out the sun and scowled fiercely down.

“I didn’t raise a quitter,” he said.

Oh, but I am a quitter.

“That noise didn’t scare you,” he added. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but….”

I glanced about. Guns were serious business. Everybody comprehended that lesson and no one noticed the drama I’d started to kick up. They were focused. I looked again at Antonio. In Fishtown, I knew all the escape routes. Bedroom, friends, streets, school, television, music, mother. Here, I had nowhere to run.

“You will not be afraid to fail,” Antonio said. 

“I’m not,” I whispered.

“You will never see any of these people again.”

Trapped, and I knew it. The lesson resumed. 

“Never take your eyes off the target,” he said. “Don’t anticipate your shot, relax, keep your feet shoulder width, get your balance. Fire when you’re ready.”

“Can I fire off three like he did, Dad?”

I would be so awful that they’d think I was cute.

“You will shoot one at a time.”

Boom!

Within a few years, I would be hitting the coke, meth, and smack. The surges from those firsts connected me to the universe, made me feel as if I’d seen the face of God and nothing in this world could touch me. Before those moments, though, there was this one. The power of the weapon surged up my arm, shook my shoulder, made the soles of my feet tingle. 

In what might have been the last time I agreed with my father wholeheartedly, I thought, yeah, he was right: I would never see any of these guys again. I held power.

I knew Antonio had watched to see if I’d flinched. I hadn’t. But I’d been too ready for the recoil and overcompensated. The shot went wide.

“You’re jerking the trigger, Cheryl. Squeeze, and let it surprise you.”

Boom! 

Overadjusted. High.

“You’re still jerking. Just use the tip of your finger.”

Boom!

A black blister rose just inside the bull’s eye. He didn’t say much the rest of the morning, and I must have shot fifty rounds. After a while, some of the others at the range began noticing, one or two standing a bit behind me watching. I was the center of boys’ attention. This thing I held in my hand, which felt lighter and lighter, made me their … what? Equal? 

No, superior.

And I liked it.

“The target,” Antonio reminded.

“I know, Dad. I’m not stupid.”

I fired off three. 

Boom! Boom! Boom!

“What did I tell you?”

“Bull’s eye!” I shouted.

“Come on.”

We gathered our equipment, as the boys and their fathers — my audience — quietly dispersed. Antonio stalked back to the registration building and I had to jog to keep up. I’d seen this before. Anger settled upon Antonio in silence, and he was quiet even when the guy at the counter handed me my last target and said, “You may want to save that.” 

Then, I saw it. Antonio smiled again, but this time the gesture wasn’t a stop sign. He was savoring my victory. As we drove home, I realized that many of my father’s emotions defaulted into silence, including pride. 

“Guns are the real shit and you are moving too fast,” he mumbled at one point.

He couldn’t fool me any more. He’d loved what I done. I reminded him of him. He’d wanted to pat me on the back, say “nice going” but my defiance had removed that option. Still, I got the message. I was a natural. 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

When I hugged Babs Borkowski outside of Iffy’s the day the place reopened, she broke down, sobbing onto my shoulder. She couldn’t quite catch her breath. I rubbed her back. 

“Let it out.”

“Cheryl, if it weren’t for you I’d be dead.”

“I am not going anywhere,” I insisted. 

Which wasn’t what I’d told her twenty years before. I’d bumped into her on the same street, at the same hour, and a light rain mourned the day in the same manner. They had just found Kat Borkowski. 

“My sister, my beautiful shiny golden older sister is gone forever,” Babs had sobbed. “No hope. No hope.”

She shook and then I started shaking, but not only from grief. The itch crawled all over me.  

I ache.

“Don’t you leave me, Cheryl,” Babs had cried. 

But I needed to leave. I needed to score some shit from somebody who waited down under the El — someone, who, four years later, would father Crystal. Mr. Non-Entity, I call him. At that moment, I was thinking about how I’d be late again for the stinking textile mill and probably catch some static. Now was the time to cop a deal. Antonia and Rose had begun to suspect; my idiot siblings downright accused. I held the card, though. I was nineteen, an adult. I could do whatever the fuck I wanted. So, I’ll leave the house, if that’s there stance. Dad’s not going to arrest me, no matter what. I’ll survive, if only Babs would just stop clutching. I peeled her arms off me. 

“Honey, you know I love Kat,” I said, as I started backing away.

“Where are going?”

“And I love you.”

She held out a hand to my disappearing form.

“I am always here for you.” I began skipping sideways, not quite shutting her off yet. “If you ever need anything, anything at all….”

“Where are you going, Cheryl?”

I turned, and sprinted toward my connection. 

“Cheryl!”

So, add Babs to the list of people I’ve let down. It wouldn’t happen again. That morning, following Bobby’s murder, she’s the one who finally stretched out of the embrace. I would have held her all day, if she wanted.

“Go home, Babs. I can handle this.”

“I love this world,” she whispered, trails of hair stringing her brow. The rain lightly brushed our faces.

“You are alive, and in this world,” I said.

I’d been tempted to tell Babs about Dizzy, but not now. 

“It’s going to be a long day, Babs. You up to this?” 

She hugged me again, then pulled away, surprised. 

“You brought Selma.”

“Protection,” I said.

Dizzy’s visit cinched it: I will be carrying. At least I’ll go down blasting.

“But under the bar….”

“Evidence. Cops got it. Besides, I’m not always in the bar.”

She looked at my hip.

“You can’t notice.”

“Sometimes that’s a good thing.”

She closed her eyes, cupped her ears. “I am hearing Antonio.”

So was I. 

“Did you go to the hospital?” She meant to get checked out; cleared for concussion. “I mean you at least you got coverage.”

About two years after starting I told Marty I either get benefits or I have to work at Redners, where almost everybody gets benefits. Debbie breaks an arm or leg and I’m looking at bankruptcy. Marty hooked me up with some plan through the United States Bartenders Guild. It was something. By the time Babs came on board, Marty had stopped offering. 

“Where’s the benefit to me?” he grumbled.

Now, I said: “I’m fine.” 

“Cheryl….’

The rain kicked it up a bit.

“The biggest health challenge I got is not catching friggin’ pneumonia out here.”

We turned and faced Iffy’s. The bricks looked soaked through, raindrops sparkled on the windows. A few solitary nightlights glowed inside. The place might just as well have been closed for three years, instead of three days. 

We were going to barrel back into our old routine, roll up sleeves and work like it’s London during the blitz. Stay calm and carry on. So long as we have our stiff upper lips…. But in that one instant, we couldn’t move and I saw that she saw fear in my eyes. 

Don’t waste adrenaline.

Another Antonio theory. Adrenaline works miracles, Dad thought, but only in spurts. Keep pumping yourself, and that energy turns against you, makes you jumpy, impulsive, explosive. A chump.

“Screw this,” I said. 

I marched up to that door and unlatched the three bolts. Click. Thump. Rattle. I swung it open, stepped inside. The air hung heavy, and I noticed something I hardly ever hear: the tick-tock of the big-ass clock on the wall. I flipped on the overheads and that’s when we gasped.

“What the hell?”

Marty had promised to hire a cleaning crew. 

“Hope he didn’t pay them much,” I said.

They’d righted the tables and chairs, and swept up some (not all) of the broken glass. But as far as getting the place ready, as far as the stuff we’d have to do before letting people in, nothing. Dirty plates loitered about the bar and blackened pans overflowed the sink. The trashcans were filled.

“Divvy up,” I said.

So we worked, and chatted about the shooting, and we stopped for a few moments and cried about Bobby Delaney (well, she cried) and then we worked more. When we chatted again, I made sure that it was about anything but the shooting because you can only stare into the abyss for so long. 

The phone rang and I made Babs answer.

“No, I don’t know when Cheryl DeMarco will be here,” she said. “No, she’s not talking to the press.”

They must have pulled my picture from some Facebook page. Yeah, that was me on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News. “Beauty Battles Like a Beast!” the headline read. I knew when that photo was taken — outside Nazareth High School right before the winter dance. I’d dropped Crystal off and took her picture and then another girl and her mom got into the picture-taking business and I must have had mine taken about 20 times before we said enough. Laughing the whole while, me and the other ladies (one a lawyer, the other a nurse practitioner — I told them I was in retail marketing) because really, isn’t this supposed to be about our daughters? I looked good and … frivolous. Too damn happy. The poor Delaneys hadn’t even buried Bobby. 

Babs and I were about halfway done when someone rapped on the door. The sign we’d posted said that we wouldn’t be opening for another two hours.

“If this is one of these reporters….” I said. 

Yeah, the article had been complimentary, but the writer wanted to know for the follow-up if the heroic bartender — a civilian — had discharged a weapon in a residential zone. Neighbors heard what sounded like a shot.

“We’ll just keep that between us,” Flash had told me the night of Bobby’s murder. “Nobody needs to know.”

I looked down at the bloodstains on my jeans then back at him. 

“Did I hear you right, Flash?”

“Nobody needs to know.”

If I hadn’t already been in shock that would have done it. Mr. By-The-Book bends the rules.

Now, the rap again. This time more persistent. Whoever it was wasn’t going away.

“I’ll get it,” Babs said.

I’ll get it.” 

They don’t intimidate me. 

I starred through the square clear block in the center of the plate glass, but raindrops blurred the view. I squinted and could just make out someone squinting back. 

“Cheryl!” the guy called. 

When I opened the door Al Delaney stumbled in as if he’d been eavesdropping and been caught unaware. The rain had humbled Al’s usually well-groomed hair, making it darker and thinner so it looked like a swim cap. His shoes squeaked, and the water had thrown a coat of glimmer over facial stubble that Al doesn’t usually sport. For the first time since I’d met him years ago, Al Delaney looked like shit. 

“I wanted to see where my boy died,” he said.

“I had nothing to do with that story in the Daily News, Al.” 

“What did you think?”

“Think?”

His eyes were wide as he blinked wetness out of them, and in them I saw Bobby’s last pleading moments. I wanted to look away. 

“About that newspaper article.”

“They always get stuff wrong.”

“They made my boy out to be quiet, lonesome,” he said, shaking his head. “Bobby was never quiet. Never quiet around me, anyway. You know that, Cheryl. He always admired you. He always talked to you.” 

Well, he did and he didn’t. Many the night Bobby would nurse a pint while watching the tube. But when I’d asked him the score, he didn’t know. 

“He wasn’t a quiet loner,” Al said, hands balled into fists. “He wasn’t a loser. He wasn’t.”

“Let’s get you some coffee, Al,” Babs said, heading back into the kitchen. 

“Tea!” I called. “Serve Al Delaney coffee only if you want to poison him!”

It’s strange how some old people can be cruising along — fit and happy, sharp and funny — holding the years back the way a city under siege holds back the invader. Then something happens, maybe a fall, or financial setback — or the murder of a child — and suddenly the army breaks through, swarming the ramparts, and swamping the moat. Just like that, the person is frail and death seems like a tardy friend. Had that happened to Al?

He’d been one of the few people who could say, “I am a marvel,” without bragging. Al usually bounced out of bed just a couple of hours after I shouted “last call!” Jogs, and I mean in the neighborhood, he had no fear. A little light weight lifting. Some calisthenics. All before breakfast which, by the way, looks like something some bird would peck at. Al’s tall, rangy, and taut. He and Marty are the same age. Go figure. He looks like that wacky play-write, Samuel Becket, except happy. Basically.

Maria, Al’s wife, died from Alzheimer’s years ago and we all thought that he’d die real soon after. That was how close they’d been. He did swoon, but then rallied. Started out volunteering at Saint Laurentius, where I sent my girls. (Everybody told me to send them to the public schools because of the Catholic tuition, but I refused even though the bills killed. The Philly public schools — not so great.) Now, Al works there. 

He told me once, “I went to the school and said, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ They said, ‘You’re 60 years old but maybe we’ll give you a try.’ Right? Like a substitute and coaching one basketball team, right? Now, I’ve got seven jobs there.”

That was Al. There were women my age and younger, even, who would lay their shoes under his bed in a minute. But Al never had much time for anyone since Maria. He’s religious, flirted with the idea of becoming a deacon. I think Bobby once even told me his dad seriously considered the priesthood. Then all the scandals broke about altar boys being diddled and Al backed off from the church. He still went to Mass, but usually left right after Communion.

“I just think God’s given me extra energy,” he told me once, a bit at a loss to explain his own vigor. “He’s allowed me to be strong. Being very active I get a chance to get my mind clear. I’m kind of the guy everybody likes to be with.”

He didn’t look like that today.

“They say you tried to save him, Cheryl. Did he suffer a lot?”

“When people get shot the way Bobby did, it usually means that they’re in shock,” I said. Bobby was in shock. He was also in excruciating pain.

“Here Al, have a seat.”

I started helping him over to the table like you’d help any old man, but he’d have none of that, and shook me off. Good. The old Al Delaney might show up after all.

“Any last words?” he said, slumping into a chair. 

I slid my hand into my back pocket, felt Bobby’s love letter. Al has a right to know, but does he need to know immediately? 

“He….” I began. 

Should I do this?

“Yes?”

“He asked me if I ever loved him.”

Al’s eyes narrowed, but then Babs came with his tea.

“And cream. And sugar.” 

She’d given me some, too. I unfolded the teabag, poured from the little aluminum server into the mugs. Al eyed his warily, then began dipping his bag. Babs’s heels click-clacked back into the kitchen.

Al said, “I am so sorry.”

“You know what, Al? I told him that I did. I told your son before he died that I loved him. It’s the truth.”

Al’s 1,000-yard stare overlooked the cup, the steam, and me.

I repeated: “I did — do — love him.”

“He was talking about something more than just friendship, girl.”

“I know.”

He shook his head. “Who’d want to kill Bobby?”

“You know how Bobby was dressed, right?” 

“He was trying to kid you. Make you think he was Jim. Your Flash MacFarland asked Jim about that. About where he works. Does he have enemies? Jim that is, not Bobby. This wasn’t just a random shooting. The guy wasn’t trying to rob Iffy’s, right?”

“No.”

“I ask Jim, does someone want to kill you? He says it’s possible. I say, ‘Possible? You mean to tell me that there are people who’d want you dead? Because of where you worked?’”

“Worked?”

“He’s….”

“In between jobs?”

“Maybe you should get this from Jim.”

“Al, it’s me.”

The reunion with Jim Delaney would come this time, I realized. I should be excited, and I was. But part of me wanted to dodge. 

I said, “I know he’d done something after the Seals. Then he worked for a drug company. Chief of security?” 

“I don’t know,” Al lied.

“There are a lot of nut jobs who hate corporations, especially drug companies.” I snapped my fingers. “Matrix! That’s the name of the drug company Jim worked for. Bobby told me it did government subcontracting.”

Al leaned over, whispered.

“Top-secret shenanigans. I just lost one of my boys. Murdered. Now, the cops think that maybe those killers didn’t get the right Delaney. Now they might kill my other son.”

“What’s Jim going to do?”

“He’s not Bobby. Jim’s Navy Seal.”

“What was Matrix working on?”

“You think Jim tells me? You remember Jim.”

Oh yes, I remembered. His silence would drive me crazy. It was a different quiet than Bobby’s. Bobby was a sponge, Jim was steel. 

“Amazing how unalike twins can be,” I said. 

He sipped his tea, put the cup down.

I took a deep breath. 

“Al, I never asked you….”

“Your mother could always tell them apart,” Al interrupted. “I mean when they were little, and that took some doing in those days.”

“Two very different guys.”

“Rose was wonderful,” Al said. “Like my Maria. When she died, finally, well Bobby never got over it. I kept telling him that losing a parent was just part of the natural order. I knew it then. I really know it now. His mother’s death changed him. He never got out of mourning.”

Suddenly, Al slammed his hand on the table. “He was brilliant! You know, when he got laid off from his drug company, he made it his mission to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.”

“If anyone could do it….”

“Impossible. And I told him so. He thought that Bobby Delaney working in his basement could come up with something that thousands of researchers and millions of dollars wouldn’t find first.”

“If they ever find it,” I said. 

“Jim tried to tell him. Jim oversaw a whole division at Matrix that searched for the fountain of youth. A drug that would stop the aging process.”

“Jim worked on that?”

“Jim was usually tight lipped about everything.”

“Right, the Seals,” I said. 

He took a sip. I took a sip. He leaned back. I leaned back. Then we both leaned forward.

“But when he left government, he got a little more open about things,” Al said. “Plus, it’s not a hard guess. You can bet every drug company in the world would love to come up with that one. Think of how much people would pay for it. Look at our culture. There’d be crowds, mobs wanting that stuff.”

Speaking of crowds…. 

I glanced at my watch, and Babs from behind me called over. 

“Stay. I got it.”

“I don’t want to mess up your schedule,” Al said, downing his cup.

“Not a problem.”

I brushed crumbs into a napkin, checked the saltshaker. He wasn’t quite finished, though.

“Yes, people would kill for a drug that stops the aging process. Nice, normal people would go psycho for it.  Nice, normal people turn psycho when they get behind the wheel of a car. I told MacFarland about this. He wants a motive? That’s a motive.”

An image of Mom flashed before me, the last days with the scarf on her head and curled into a fetal position. 

“All the things you get when you get older,” I said.

“Cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes; almost anything that can take you down, you’re chances of getting it go up with age.” 

He stood slowly. Looked again at the floor where his son had been murdered. 

“People have started businesses and invented things in their basements,” he said. “But nobody’s ever come up with a drug just working by himself. It’s never happened. But try telling Bobby that.”  

As if Bobby were still here, as if the discussion continued. 

Outside the rain shifted and banged on Iffy’s door. 

CHAPTER TWELVE

That night you’d have thought that the Eagles or Phillies were in the playoffs, or that the Mummers passed by, and die-hard partiers had found the place to make their last stand. Waves of customers surged through the door at intervals that seemed strangely timed, a rhythm I couldn’t quite follow. People who’d hadn’t been in Iffy’s in years stopped by and there were a goodly number of women hanging out for a change. 

It didn’t hurt that it was Friday. So the place was already rockin’ and rollin’ by six o’clock when Marty hobbled in. Not through the kitchen, as usual. The front door, making an entrance. Wearing his ancient boxing robe with “Fishtown Fury” on the back, and smaller, below it, “Daniels.” Strings of the red fringe dangled about his white ankles and the pockmarks where the black velvet had frayed could have been craters on the moon. Up until a few years ago he’d brag about how it still fit, but anymore he seemed lost in it, and when he put the hood up he looked like a wounded cat staring from a cave. 

“Yo Marty!” guys yelled and he tried to fist-pump but only got half-way. Some young stallion played bodyguard and escorted him to the bar.

“Damn!” Marty said, with a gleam in his eye. Choke-choke.

“Ca-ching!” Babs said.

“You wandered too far from your oxygen,” I said. 

He glared, but didn’t have the energy to zing back. 

I couldn’t resist: “Don’t worry about us, Marty. We’ll handle it. No need to pitch in.”

He waved, tired and slow, and started toward the kitchen. I knew he’d be heading out the backdoor, down the alley, around the corner, across Girard (the bodyguard would have to stop traffic), into his house, to tuck himself into his little trundle bed. 

“You are evil, Cheryl,” Babs said. “He can’t handle this.”

“Yeah, and I want him to remember next time we talk about raises.”

“‘We’ is it? We starting a union, are we? Thought you like dealing with him one-on-one.”

Another rush of customers sent me down to the far end. I suppose being so busy was a good thing, but I still bartended in a fog. I’d reach for a mug or wipe down a table and the image of Bobby’s intestines flashed. Or I’d see his terrified, pleading eyes. I made mistakes. Gave somebody too much change (and that never happens), poured Spindles a Sam Adams instead of a Coors Light. 

When I realized I said, “What the hell?”

“Trying to kill me, Cheryl?”

Spindles smiled and his teeth looked a lighter shade of brown, mostly because of his burnt face. He each year he spent a few weeks house-sitting his brother’s place in Florida. His duties were to walk the dogs and clean up after himself. He fished all day. That’s the nearest he had to a steady job. He’d just gotten back the night of the shooting. 

He’d brought a toy with him this time, one of those remote-controlled dinky helicopters. He placed it on the bar, pointed the remote and it lifted off. It hovered just above Spindles’s head and, you know, it was a perfect fit for such a whacked scene. I didn’t appreciate it though, when it whirled by me, the blades going click-click-click-click-click….

“Enough,” I said. 

“Isn’t it cool?”

“It is an outside toy.” Though, actually, I’d seen them at Oxford Valley Mall over Christmas flying around one of the kiosks. 

“Come on, Cheryl.”

“Either land or I will shoot it down.”

That brought a roar from the crowd, and the copter landed. 

“Put it away,” I ordered. Then another roar and I thought that was overdoing it until I saw that the Flyers had scored.

I made a mountain of tips because, you know, I was a hero now. At least to them I was. The girl of their dreams, Miss 36C-23-35, could not only talk sports and trash, do shots and sing Beatles. She could shoot, too. Laura Croft is make-believe. I am real.

Calls echoed from everywhere. “Hey Cheryl, got a minute?” “Cheryl, how ya doin’?” “Cheryl, mind if we put that newspaper picture on the wall? See? The wife framed it.”

Just when I began to think that I might be hot shit my cell rang. 

“I can’t come home tomorrow,” Crystal said. She was sleeping over a friend’s. So was Debbie. “We’re driving up to New York City.”

“Who’s we?”

I didn’t wait for details.

“You can’t go.”

I hung up. The cell buzzed again.

“Now look, Crystal….”

“It’s me.” 

Debbie.

“I told your sister.”

“You are so intransigent.”

“Combustible, too. 

“You think you’re all that.”

I hung up. Another buzz. 

I am going to kick their asses.

“Mom, it’s all taken care of,” Crystal said. “Debbie’s going to the Conwell-Egan game tomorrow.”

We talked for a minute, and that’s a long time in basketball and bartending. Apparently they had worked it out.

What the hell.

As long as they weren’t going to our Girard Avenue apartment without me I could live with it, I guessed. 

“Just don’t get killed.”

I was too busy to keep arguing. 

Somebody was in a country-western mood because I must have heard “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Crazy” and “Before He Cheats” about seven times. The smell of spilled beer and sweaty bodies bumping up against each other put me on alert, but no fight broke out. I didn’t even have the fear that it would happen. There were too many women in the place and, basically, a good vibe. 

My cell buzzed again. Truck Andrews.

I’m not answering it.

A few minutes later, another buzz. 

“Hi Truck, I’m at work.”

“Concern for your safety and the safety of those children weighs heavily upon me.”

Didn’t we go over this last call?

“I didn’t know you drank, Truck.”

“The lure to imbibe sometimes overtakes me.”

I could barely hear him.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“If….”

“If what?”

“If someone were so abominable as to trigger a little nuclear device above the city called Brotherly Love, the genie would be left out of the bottle. With such an act the new Dark Ages would come calling.”

Another conspiracy theory. Last year it was polluted water supplies, or chemicals in food. Truck had a million of them.

How did Mom put up with this shit?

“No one’s going to nuke me, hon.”

“My sources….”

“I will call you tomorrow.”

Conspiracy theories are like weeds. They don’t need much to grow. That night I was on the lookout too. Most of Dizzy’s friends were either dead or in jail. Still two from the old crew showed, drinking cokes like Amish tourists. They’d somehow made it out of Needle Park, just like I did. They’d kicked the habit but on this night had circled back close to the nightmare they’d at one time never thought they could escape. 

Fishtown rests right off I-95, and near bridges over to Jersey and pretty close to Route 1, too. It’s a little island in the middle of crisscrossing getaways. The smack would appear in our neighborhood first and back in the day these were the guys who dealt and used, and ran from the cops down the alleys. It became such a regular thing that houses along some escape routes extended their little backyards until there was no longer any path to run down. Dizzy and I had run a lot in those days. 

So did his two buddies over there.

The one; I forgot his name. But there was Scratch. A steamfitter, now. Called Scratch because that’s what he did when he was using, like lice crawled through his veins. He was still high-strung, wide-eyed. Yet, somehow, Scratch had survived. 

I searched for any sign — the glance my way, or the whispered huddle — anything to tip that they knew the second biggest news to hit Fishtown this month: Dizzy Tanner had risen from the dead. 

I listened for his name that night. Scanned the crowd when I could for clues that I wasn’t the only one who knew. Nothing. Dizzy was too street smart. He’d risked enough telling me. He wanted to stay dead. They don’t jail dead guys.

I thought of his face when he was high, how light filtered through. His essence clung to me almost as closely as Bobby’s. The sort of metallic smell of a druggie. His crooked smile when he’d scored. The excuses slithering down like old oil over our lives’ engines, making everything murky and justified, hiding my junkie existence even from myself.

“No luck in men!” Mom had proclaimed. 

That echoed with me over the long night and after the place had closed and everybody finally — finally! — had gone the hell home. How many good guys had I discarded because they hadn’t brought the thrill? How many assholes had I let in? Mom was right.

No luck in men.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Once I did have luck, though. I remembered that every time I heard “Walk This Way,” or anything by Aerosmith. Jim Delaney and I loved Aerosmith.

Back in 2001, I was twenty-nine and Debbie was five. I had been off drugs, off Dizzy, and really into Jim. He’d just gotten out of grad school, just interviewed for a job with one of the drug companies over in New Jersey. He was always a gentleman, always proud. He tried to pay for dates, but sometimes he couldn’t carry and I had to help because it was either that or stay home. 

“You will pay me back,” I promised. 

We’d have pizza and beer, talk about life and the future. It was “a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and thou,” working class style. Then, of course, “wow!” The future, the future, the future…. one day it rushed us, and I mean all of us in America. 

Jim and I were walking in Penn Treaty Park the night of our breakup and it was such a strange feeling. We kept looking up at the sky, seeing no planes. It was September 12, 2001.

“They really did it,” he said. 

We both had known some people who had known some people who’d been in the Towers. Everybody seemed connected by two degrees of separation. 

He glowered fiercely into the Delaware. “They hate us and what we stand for. Democracy. Freedom.” 

I squinted, putting him into a different focus. I’d felt as if I’d fallen into an old movie. 

“When you going back to school?” I asked.

Jim had gotten his masters in pharmacy, and was student-teaching at La Salle, at least until the drug company came through. He turned, put his hands out as if he carried an infant, and confessed.

“I’m joining the Marines. My country was attacked. I want to defend it.” 

“You’re going to leave me?” 

I could not believe I’d said that, but we’d stepped together into another era and were bound to stumble over unfamiliar things. Did I mention that it was a beautiful evening? The sky was calm, blue like bath water that invites your tired bones, and maybe you want to light a few scented candles too. 

Jim stood in his windbreaker with a million colors reflecting off the water and spearing through the trees. He looked like mythology. A vision. Better, of course, then he had ever looked. Why do they reach their height of attractiveness just as they’re going? And I knew it. I mean I knew that this would be the end for us, even as Jim said, “It doesn’t change anything.”

I stood back.

“Bullshit!” I shouted.

Jim looked about nervously. A few kids throwing a football grew quiet. A cop parked in the lot glanced up from his newspaper.

“Keep it down,” Jim whispered.

This was the start of a season of paranoia, when people looked for anything unusual, when a child’s lost schoolbag on the street drew swat teams. So, I calmed myself. I’d already lost, I knew that. I needed to accept it. Still, this was fresh and our instincts were in sync: We both wanted to fight. Me, here and now. Him, on some dusty battlefield. 

“You say you love me.”

“Cheryl.”

“Don’t act like this doesn’t matter. That we don’t matter. We do.”

“May I kiss you?”

“Oh my God.”

“God lost yesterday,” he said. “Allah won.” 

“Listen to you.”

“I have to do this. And it’s not as if we won’t keep in touch.”

Back and forth like that but, give me this much, he never really convinced me that it wasn’t over. We kissed and, yeah, we found a spot, my mother’s basement, where we could be. 

I clung to him. Holy shit, it embarrasses me to remember. 

We called and emailed during boot camp, and then they put him in some special program and we went retro and wrote letters. At least I did. Jim replied a couple of times and then, nothing. Something had been severed.

Jim used to say how he could pick out my whisper in roaring crowd. 

“You’re putting me on,” I said. “I’m Philadelphia. Fishtown.”

In movies, my voice plays the lead’s best friend.

He disagreed.

“Your a great drummer with a feel for a song,” Jim said. “You fill in gaps and know when to back off and lift a guy’s words when they need lifting.”

This was not an unusual observation. Men had complimented my voice all along. It used to worry Mom. It even strikes me when I hear me on a recording. It’s deeper than I imagined and follows its own rhythm, mostly because I have nine thousand things on my mind. 

“Then you laugh and I just want to dive in,” Jim said. I knew what he meant. I’ve got Mom’s laugh.

Yeah, when we’d resorted to letter-writing, that’s when the relationship got buried. It got dead, as I say, that night at Penn Treaty. Still, I had not quite been ready to give up. You know that book that all the chicks bought a few years ago? What was it? Oh, yeah. He’s Just Not That Into You? Well, it hadn’t been written yet. 

I even went around and talked to Al, making sure that I had the right mailing address, making sure that Jim hadn’t somehow gotten hurt, was in a hospital bed somewhere and wondering why I wasn’t inquiring about him. 

“He’s not overseas,” Al said. “Not yet.”

“I’m worried.”

“He calls us every weekend. He’s doing fine, Cheryl. I don’t know what to tell you.”

The look in Al’s eyes told me everything. It said, “Jim’s moved on, sweetie. Maybe you should too.” 

I had never been rejected before. Who rejects Angelina Jolie? 

It’s the kids. That’s why. 

But I thought Jim and I had discussed all that. What had I done wrong? I sent him one last…. Well, it wasn’t even a letter. It was a birthday card. 

I wrote, “Dear Jim. Are you dead?”

I was pissed off at him for a while. But considering what other men had done to me (Exhibit 1: Dizzy Tanner) and considering how I still really loved the guy, I recalled my time with Jim Delaney with fondness. I remembered him standing in a shower of gold looking like a god. 

Definitely charged.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I’d gotten there first, found the freshly dug grave, then circled around and parked a few cemetery blocks away. I stayed in my car, kept sunglasses on, though I knew anybody could pick me out thanks to my beat Ford Focus — my “Fuck-Us.” Built to be humble, but striving to be noticed. Truck had sold it to me for twenty bucks. He’d bought it from one of his field contractors.

“Is his name Mr. Magoo?” I had asked.

Truck tried to refund me the twenty.

Dents here, dings there. It drove the way Marty Daniels walked, cough included. A sizable crater on the passenger backside of the roof would sometimes puddle in the rain, and sag in the snow. The vehicle had begun life as red, but somewhere along the way had been parked over a fire and black burn marks reached up the sides. Scrapped-in words filled a little rectangle on the hood. “Going places.” “Rent due.” “No mas.” “My Maria.” Also, marks — 1, 2, 3, 4, scratch, 1, 2, 3, 4, scratch — like someone counting down days. Hey, it rode, required no payments, and had lasted me three years already. I could not complain. The odometer had stopped at 139,000 miles.

Me and that car; there was a disconnect that day. I wore a little black cocktail dress, long leather boots, and matching jacket. I couldn’t afford anything new and the outfit was a tad too young for me, but I pulled it off. I always do. Babs and me once met for lunch downtown and she laughed by the time I’d gotten to the table. 

“When you came in every guy in this room turned full around and looked at you,” she said. 

“And?”

“You got it.”

“Well, it don’t last forever. Tell them to take a picture.”

She gestured to where some dude was actually pointing his phone at me.

“Yo Buddy!” I called. “Mind? Freaking pervert. Try that shit on me and I’ll open up a can of whoop-ass on you.” 

He folded his phone, slunk away. I lie awake some nights because guys like that exist and I have two daughters to take care of that I can’t watch every minute.

A few early arrivers came, those who either hadn’t made it to the church or didn’t like funeral trains. Old guys who played poker every Thursday afternoon in the corner of Iffy’s emerged as if from hibernation, bundled and as dressed up as people can be who insist on wearing baseball caps. 

Babs got stuck driving Spindles, who I almost didn’t recognize. Hair slicked into a helmet, dark double-breasted suit that he probably bought 25 years ago. Skinny. Skinny. Skinny. Like a collarless dog picking at garbage, steadying himself on arthritic legs. How can somebody drink beer every night and have only the slightest bump of a paunch to show for it? 

I didn’t get out until I saw the caravan. It snaked around the cemetery until the hearse stopped by the green tarp. I’d spotted Jim Delaney’s car right away. You couldn’t miss it: a bright red Tesla Roadster worth about $150,000. 

It didn’t surprise me that he hadn’t ridden with Al. Jim Delaney could never be a passenger. 

“Hello, stranger,” I whispered, as I stepped into the wind and sun.

When the Tesla door opened (there are no handles, he had to push a pad — I’d done my homework), a round bald-headed man tipped out. Had Jim asked someone to drive his car? I shielded the sun with my hand, getting a better look. By this point I was about 25 feet beyond the outskirts of the gathering crowd. Car doors opening and shutting. 

This should be easy. I’m looking for Bobby’s lookalike.

A cloud slid over, erasing the glare, and opening my eyes. 

I’ll be damned! It is Jim. What the hell happened?

My disappointment — my gut-sinking, soul-bruising frustration — surprised me. You’d think that with Bobby being gunned down I’d be shocked-proof. That a little thing like someone not aging the way I expected wouldn’t have thrown me, but it did. The twins angle; that must have been it. I’d expected Jim to age the way Bobby had. 

Usually, if you don’t see somebody for ten years you leave yourself open to the possibilities. People let themselves go. Debilitating, transformative illness works us over like Silly Putty. Chronic pain shrinks us. Then there’s Twinkies, Cheetos, French fries and Big Macs. There are consequences. But don’t they come later? Bobby had been my template for how Jim was aging. Not bad, I believed. I’d expected a vision that at least nodded to that memory of the beautiful boyfriend who’d gotten away. 

He limped up to the limousine and helped Al get out. At one point I didn’t quite know who leaned on who, as if they played some exotic version of Chinese fire drill and Jim would find himself inside the limo. When they righted themselves, he walked his father to the grave, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice that Al moved like the younger man.

The limp, the weight, the baldness were what I picked up on my first view. Over the next few weeks I’d get used to that, as well as the puffy eyes, stubborn stubble, shaking hands, and of course, wrinkles, wrinkles, wrinkles. Now, though, I was shocked.

I remember Antonio saying, “I never thought I’d live long enough to tell you that Ringo’s the handsome one.” Now I knew why Jim had stayed away on his visits home. I never thought I’d live to say that Bobby had been the twin who’d kept his looks. How could identicals land such different paper routes? Jim the Navy Seal, the dashing man of action. Well, proof again that war really is hell. 

Meanwhile, sounds of mourning surfed the breeze. People cried, folks who hadn’t even known Bobby that well. They responded to the violence, the whimsy of fate. Could have been anybody. “I’m usually at Iffy’s that night.” “I was actually there. I’d seen it. I’ll never forget.” “Not even safe drinking a beer in the neighborhood bar.” Big strong men snorted into their hankies, looking awkward and lost without their banter.

Flash MacFarland and a lot of others from the 26th District had gone to the wake the night before. Now, at this burial, a few more uniforms. Then there were two guys, one overdressed, the other underdressed and I wondered who they thought they were fooling. There was probably surveillance somewhere. Searching the crowd, just like me. 

Arsonists have been known to gaze at their handiwork, and murderers will sometimes do that too. If the cops had gotten any closer to finding the killer, they weren’t admitting it and it certainly looked like Bobby’s day had become in part a crime-fighting fishing expedition. 

I closed my eyes. Wind tickled my hair, sun kissed my face and I recalled how I used to feel after that first slam of smack. How the worries of the world drained off, and the colors invited heaven down. I opened my eyes, thought about Bobby’s beer, about how the gift of my poor murdered admirer made me feel almost the same way, minus the ticket to hell. 

God, I wished I could get high, shoot up. 

Then, I remembered my girls.

Never again. Put it out.

As the priest began, I looked for someone who might be Bobby’s mysterious Lorraine. I didn’t know everybody there or, I found out later, even recognize some people I did know (parts of Fishtown had turned out in style), but I could see how the pieces fit, how the connections worked, and I doubted that Lorraine, if she even existed, had come. 

One woman did stand out. She dressed in Amish style clothes topped off by a scrubby Churchill Downs hat kept in place by a dramatic, billowing scarf. Lotty the Catwoman had been driven to the burial by the guy from the health department who’d have to every once in a while threaten to condemn her house unless she let the SPCA take away some of her feline buddies. 

I would never want to see Miss Lotty out in the cold, but I so hated her house. I wanted the city to roll down Thompson Street and bulldoze it. Funny how some buildings resemble their owners, the way pets might. Lotty’s house was old and eccentric and was the landmark younger people talked about just before they left the neighborhood for good. Every once in a while the yuppies circulated petitions about it. It was even more than that for me, of course. Lotty’s house visited me in nightmares. 

Lotty held a bag and I saw a little black head peek out. Jinx was like Lassie or Rin Tin-Tin. When the originals died their babes carried on, raking in acting bucks for the lucky SOB who owned the animals, or the rights, or however the hell they handle something like that. 

There was always a Jinx, a black cat that added to Lotty’s witchiness. Jinx was as much Fishtown as Kissling Souerkraut, or Old Brick Church or hell, come to think of it, Iffy’s. Just how and where Lotty mated the Jinxs of her life, that special in-breeding that might just as well have been cloning, no one knew and she didn’t seem to care. A black cat is a black cat. Is there really that much difference? Maybe to Miss Lotty, but not to the rest of us. 

Did she understand what was going on now? Bobby had been kind to her. Many an afternoon they’d sit at Iffy’s, Bobby playing chess, and Lotty smiling vacantly out the window. He’d move her pieces for her.

“No matter what, you win,” I’d tell him. 

“Miss Lotty wins.”

“Do you want a sandwich, Lotty dear?” I’d ask. I was nice to her; she understood the rules. She could come in the off-hours, get in from the weather. 

The priest prayed “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and Lotty dabbed her eyes when they lowered Bobby. Jim helped Al into the limo. Blackbirds sprung from one budding tree to another and then back again. You’d swear you were in the country, except for the row homes across the street that leaned drunkenly into each other.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

I stayed behind, thinking that I’d pay my respects to the mound of dirt once everybody left, but everybody didn’t leave. The red Tesla held its ground; Jim was waiting. As I walked over, I fought off irrational annoyance, kept telling myself it had been years. Still.

He really doesn’t mind if I see him in that state? Did I ever mean anything to him?

I hoped that my sunglasses didn’t give away just how hard I stared as I approached searching for any glimmer of the vision I’d last seen on September 12, 2001. 

The chin barely asserted itself, the hair had gone gray before leaving. The eyes were his, but sadder. Jim took a few steps toward me, compensating for whatever it was that made him limp. We exchanged an awkward hug, his flab making me reach. 

Ew.

“I wanted to thank you personally, Cheryl,” he said. “You are a true friend of the Delaneys.”

The voice hadn’t changed, but his breath smelled like stale coffee, and cigarettes. His teeth could have camped out comfortably in a meth head’s mouth. I decided to set the boundaries.

“Good old Jim,” I sang. “Good old Jim Delaney.”

Nail one.

“Yeah, it’s me.” Warily. He was getting the message.

“An old friend’s like an old shoe.”

Nail two.

He turned, looked over to the mound. 

“It’s been a long time, Cheryl.”

“I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Nail three. 

He turned back, smiled. The dimples had faded as well.

“I almost don’t recognize me. But, please dear God, enough about that. How are you holding up, Cheryl?”

“I got two teenage girls. I can take anything.”

Even this.

“Not many people see what you saw.”

“Bet you have at one time or another.”

He let that statement float off. 

You need to stop. You made your point.

“You parking this in Fishtown?” I asked, toeing one of the tires. 

“In Dad’s garage. Got all the alarms on. Sleeping with one eye open. It’s the only thing Eloise didn’t take from me in the divorce.”

“Give her time.”

“Gave her a lump sum, since I’m not working. Everything we’d save, what we made from selling the house, my 401-K. She knows she can’t get anymore out of me.”

“You’ll be easy to find in that thing.”

“The cops can be a pain in the ass and I can’t resist letting her rip, sometimes.”

He didn’t owe you a thing. Stop taking it personally.

The waste was what got me. Jim Delaney had gone off to be a hero and returned a broken, dissolute lump. Maybe life had done it to him but that wasn’t what I sensed. I detected an addict, someone who’d thrown it all away. I’d heard that tone too many times, an exhausted psyche pushing through normal conversation, a guy lifting words as if they were weights. Blatant dysfunction makes me want to hurl, then bolt.

“You decided not to roll with Al,” I said.

“He’s got a couple of my cousins with him.”

I guessed he realized that he sounded a tad removed because he quickly added, “I’ve been good to Dad, and Bobby.” He rubbed the scar on his neck, making it change color. 

“So you have.”

How else could Bobby have lived? His severance and unemployment had to have given out long ago. He might have been on disability, but how much was that? He told me once his house was paid off. That still didn’t explain everything. 

“You heading to Finnegans Wake?” Jim asked.

Family and friends had been invited to launch at Finnegans, a big Irish bar downtown on 3rd Street where the city’s movers and shakers threw their bashes. Overrated, but it served its purpose, which was that every once in a while that was where I’d tell Marty I’d be jumping to if he didn’t pay me more. 

“The competition,” I said. 

“Bobby would have loved it to have been at Iffy’s, but since that’s where it happened….”

“Iffy’s is the last place I want to be on my day off.”

“You didn’t have to stay so far away, you know,” Jim said, pointing to the grave mound as if throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. “You didn’t want to steal any of Bobby’s thunder. I know you.”

“Do you?”

“You didn’t want to remind people of that night. You certainly didn’t want anyone telling you how much of a hero you’d been while my brother was being lowered.”

“I don’t like crowds.”

“Yeah, right.”

“It’s a celebration of Bobby’s life.”

“Which you were a big part of.”

Was I? 

I said, “Finnegan’s Wake is a nice place. Much bigger than Iffy’s.” 

“Then come.” He stretched out his hand to me.

I explained that I had to take Debbie to soccer practice, Crystal to one of her coffeehouse gigs and even if I hadn’t I would have still needed to do what parents do a lot of: Be there. 

“Hear you’re moving on up,” Jim said. He leaned against his car, breathing with effort. 

“Stop dreaming, and you might as well start dying. That’s what you told me once.” 

He ran his hand over where his hair used to be. 

“Was a time when people overestimated me. Now people underestimate me. I’m the same man.”

“Of course you are.”

He sighed, jammed his hands into his suit pockets.

“Is this the way it’s going to be between us?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Stop punishing me.”

“Stop punishing yourself,” I snapped.

He smiled. Must be nice to win a round every once in a while. 

“You know,” he said, “if they invented a pill that makes you stay trim and healthy I suppose we’d all choose to take it, wouldn’t we?”

“Life’s made up of choices.” Trying to find my footing, looking for my casual disdain.

“Now that’s something you taught me all those years ago,” he said. 

The past pulling into the station once again. Jim had believed in me when I was a bad bet. A single mother, who hadn’t been long recovered. Jumpy. Moody. Hard to handle.

“You were supportive, Jim.”

“I was.”

“And then, you left,” I reminded.

Damn! Another point for him.

“That wasn’t choice,” he said. “That was just DNA.” 

I forced myself to smile. 

“You just buried your brother. I just buried a friend.”

“And a customer.”

“That too. This tension might be a way of mourning.”

He stood. The blush had drained from his face. I guessed that was a good sign.

“Fox Chase is nice, Cheryl. Nazareth Academy is a great school. I admire you.”

“Yeah, and I’m getting my GED, too,” I said. 

“Excellent!” 

I’ll show you and everybody else.

“You’re going to be late for lunch.”

“I can afford to skip a few meals,” he said. “Hee, hee, hee.” God, even his chuckle repulsed me.

“The apartment is cute, right across from a park.”

“But?” He got off the car, moved closer. Was that alcohol I smelled, too? 

“Most neighborhoods change,” I said, “but not Fishtown. Except for the yuppies, but that’s good change. I don’t know about the move, tell the truth.”

Then it happened. If I hadn’t been so pissed off at him already, I probably wouldn’t have reacted the way I did. I would have deftly deflected. Hell, I deftly deflect sloppy passes about twice a week. 

He’d been leaning closer, and suddenly put his arm on my back. I started to shake it off when his fat-ass face blotted out the sky. I turned my head, pushed him back against his car. He nearly fell over.

“You fucking crazy?”

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. 

“Who do you think you are?” I yelled. “Who do you think I am?”

“I… I…”

“Creep!”

“I just thought you felt something, too.”

Right there, that day, right in front of his dead brother’s grave, I smacked Jim Delaney so hard my ears rang and hand stung. That’s when finally I found the inkling of the man who’d left me a decade ago, because there was toughness there. The real Jim lived, and I almost cheered, but then he made the mistake of smirking. I swung, aiming right for the tip of his nose where I knew that impact would make him bleed like a faucet, but he swatted my hand away. His speed surprised me.

“Hell do you think you are?” I said.

“I’m….”

I glanced at the gravestones, remembered where we were. I waited, breathing deeply. My instinct was to stalk off huffy and offended, but wouldn’t that be like every other woman? 

Screw that. 

“I’m damaged,” he said finally.

“Well, boo-fucking-hoo,” I said. “Welcome to the human race.”

His hand traveled over his face, rubbing his eyes, his cheek, that funky scar. 

“Can we start again? For Bobby’s sake?”

I glanced over to the mound, then stepped into him. 

“Friends,” I said, jabbing him in the chest. 

“Friends,” he said, holding up his hands. “Promise. By the way, what are you doing tomorrow?” 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I sat on a bench in Penn Treaty Park with the river to my back. I’d given even odds that I’d see Dizzy again, but I vowed I wouldn’t be surprised next time. I didn’t want to think about him, but I couldn’t overlook him either. I brushed a hand against my hip, felt the accessory under the coat. Dizzy surfed my thoughts, but something else lurking below suddenly broke the surface.

I really don’t want to do this.

Do what? At that point I did not know what I refused. I turned, looked at the quiet water, but knew of the currents underneath that could pull a human being down and send the corpse to the Atlantic Ocean. I am a landlubber from a family of landlubbers, but Antonio used to talk about how tough it could be to find Delaware River suicides.

I really don’t want to do this.

I wouldn’t let that thought break the mood. After I’d finally gotten rid of Jim at the cemetery, I approached Bobby’s grave. I slowed my breathing, got rid of residual anger. I prayed. That respectful quiet had followed me from the tombstones to my apartment — where I’d changed and holstered up — and now to this spot. 

I collected feelings, as well as thoughts, as moms and preschoolers strolled by. I needed to mourn. I pulled out Bobby’s letter and read it again realizing, once more, that I never really knew him. What kind of bartender was I? What kind of friend? 

Hi Lorraine, 

I feel that letter writing is such a lost art, and I just proved it again. “Hi” is the way you’d begin an email, something you dash off to 2,000 “friends” on Facebook. That’s this age, but we don’t belong to this age, do we? This is a letter in which I bare my ghost to you, my essence, my eternal core. Look deeply at it and realize that you gaze upon yourself. I am you. 

I was tempted to read the great love poems, or study an anthology of legendary romances before putting these words to paper. That’s so like me, isn’t it? Do your research. Do more research. Do even more research. Before you know it, a life has slipped away in rooms where people still look up things in musty books. 

I don’t know who I am, Lorraine. I have no existence until you look at me. There is no Robert Delaney unless you say there is. Allow me to begin again.

I am not going to do this.

A decision started to come into focus but I batted it away with a helpful hand. Some baby had pulled off her moccasin and I ran it back to the mother, who must have been in her early 20s, about the age I was when I had Crystal. No ring on the finger, just circles under the eyes. 

Crystal’s father had made no pretense of wanting anything to do with being a dad or husband and I had cringed at the thought of always having to run into him, of Crystal always having to see him, but then he died driving drunk one night when she was about three and I swear, some days, I barely remember his name. 

Call me cold but I thought Dizzy’s “death” was another stroke of luck, but then he double-crossed me. No matter, really. He would not become part of Debbie’s life.

I don’t even have the time to do this.

I went back to my bench. A river breeze rattled Bobby’s letter. I focused.

This is Bobby Delaney? Bobby Delaney talking about ‘baring my ghost to you?’ Bobby Delaney, the old Bobster, calling himself Robert? Bobby Delaney was not a poet. He was not a Robert. Was he? What was he?

I was a lonely man. I would make efforts to connect. I saw how easy it was for Jim and Dad to be the sort of men people gravitated toward. Had I seen that from before memory and knew I could never compete, and that pulled me in another direction? Or kept me directionless? My brother and I are different. It’s one of the first things identical twins assert. But then the question: In what way? Character is fate, the Greeks said but they neglected to take into account birth order. I am two minutes younger than Jim, and that has made all the difference. And then I met you, Lorraine, and I get up everyday now with such blessed purpose. 

I know what people think of me in the village. I am an eccentric, a character out of Dickens, the inventor who never invents, the chemist who never mixes, the quiet hysteric always on the verge of changing the world — except he never does. Yes, a character out of Dickens, and you might say that probably not too many people in the village read Dickens, so how would they know? They just do, somehow, I’ve always found. 

But I love people. People outside the village are mistaken about us. They underestimate Fishtown, and Fishtown, my village, doesn’t much care. There are people quietly working away here, challenging the accepted dogmas of science, pouring the foundation of the future. 

I love the village. It is home. The people are true. My friend the bartender tells me always that I am going to make a name for myself someday. She may have once believed that for it is easy to see my brother in me but then, just as easy to forget him.

I felt myself blush. Bobby Delaney mentioned me in a letter he wrote to his lover; a letter he planned on delivering the day he died. I quickly skimmed to see if he had actually written “Cheryl” somewhere, but he hadn’t. 

I just can’t do this.

People want people to believe in them. That’s all Bobby wanted, but sometimes believing in somebody can be a full-time job, and not just “attaboys” thrown to the crowd while running a rag over a bar. 

With you I know that I will indeed make a name for myself. With you I know that making a name for myself doesn’t really matter. I am a winner right now. Today. Not in some sloppy future that I may never even see. 

My dearest Lorraine, I love you. You complete me. You are that first twinkle of a buzz when I sip my home-made beer, you are the brooding poet’s object. You are not just beautiful, graceful, and funny. You believed in me when nobody else did. Now, I am at the threshold of the preferred world, a healer who makes all other healers pale. I have ageless hope within my grasp.

I am old-fashioned. You say that is one of the things you appreciate. I am a man with the sort of talents that are a curiosity. I brew beer. I repair computers. I create pharmaceuticals, of a sort. There is a special bottle of Champaign that I have in safe keeping, only you and I know where. 

I frankly don’t know if I will ever drink from it. But, Lorraine, if I am taken from this world for some strange and dark purpose, please know that I love you. When you hear the low moan of a tugboat on the Delaware or see children walking home from school and one lonely boy straggles, please om along with the tugboat a prayer for that lonely boy. When you see a man drinking quietly in the corner of a bar, lost in memories of things that were, or fantasies of things that never were — and never, ever can be — say a prayer for that man. Then, say a prayer for me. 

And no matter where your life leads, and I hope it stops at only the finest places, remember that once there was a man who loved you, who loved the way you’d turn your head when he spoke, or the way you smoothed the back of his forever disheveled collar. 

And when you’ve reached your end and let your hair down among the stars there will be one shade who feels that purgatory has finally ended, that heaven’s stairway descends. I will climb because of you and then, again, because of you I will fly. I am forever, 

Your lover,

Bobby Delaney

I folded it, stuffed it in my jeans. Was that beautiful or gross, or both? When I was little Antonio would read to me from the police blotter. I learned “perpetrator,” “confiscated,” “premeditated,” and “assault.” They were my building blocks of language.

I loved reading books and newspapers. I never read a damn thing they wanted me to read in school, but I spent hours at the library before I got old enough to spend hours running the streets. When I dropped out, I had the highest IQ in class.

You have to do it.

I remembered the line from “Death of a Salesman,” when Willy Loman’s life ends. “Attention! Attention must finally be paid to such a person!” I shivered as a Jersey wind bounded over the river and slapped me, making me tear up with revelation. Bobby Delaney was trying to tell me something. Not Lorraine, whoever she was. Me. I knew it sounded conceited, egotistical. 

Get over yourself.

But I was the one who always smoothed his collar. 

What about the bottle of Champaign? Doesn’t that prove Lorraine exists?

No. It was a love letter to me. I just knew it. He couldn’t have written those words without conjuring a vision. Hers wasn’t the name he called before he died. I remembered how he smiled when I sipped his beer. The Champaign was part of a code, a message. Maybe the cops will crack it. But maybe….  

I will do it. I have no choice.

I decided to take on a new project. It wasn’t enough that I was moving out of Fishtown, raising daughters, managing a bar, going for my GED, and getting into random gun battles. You’d think that would be a full table setting, but apparently it wasn’t.

Now, I decided that attention must be paid to Bobby Delaney. I was not going to let him fall into his grave marked forever as that peculiar sad half of a twin, the half that hadn’t done much with his life. I vowed to find Bobby Delaney’s killer, and that meant finding the true Bobby Delaney. 

I clutched my coat as I walked home and wondered: What would my father think about me messing in a police investigation?

Well, tough. 

This was my going away gift to Fishtown, because Bobby’s story was the story of a lot of lives in an old neighborhood that never had sense enough to give up. 

Raise a toast and hold it higher then the standard of living. 

Bobby was every guy who ever held down a spot at a corner bar, nursing dreams of greatness while keeping a steady eye on a world flashing past on the other side of a freshly poured mug. Just another guy from Fishtown? I rejected that category.

Holding Bobby’s guts in my hands meant that I touched a man in a way that I’d never touched anyone before. And now, strangely, he had touched me. He loved me. I owed him. Simple as that.

Done.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Morning, and just another-day-a-thon in Fishtown. I had errands. I could use some groceries — not much, lunchmeat, rolls, and snacks for one of Debbie’s basketball games. I also had to drop her tuition off at St. Laurentius. There was a special slot at the rectory door. With everything going on, I’d forgotten and I was a few days late on the monthly bill. 

Usually, I’d crank up the Fuck-Us and head on up to the Thriftway on Aramingo Avenue, then circle around to the school. Today, though, I needed to walk, clear my head. I would buy the lunchmeat at Garrisons Grocery Store, then drop off the tuition. 

Another bright day, but windier and colder. Should I go back for something warmer?

Keep trucking.

I pulled my hoodie up, stuffed my hands in the pockets. The morning rush wound down as I walked up Girard and over Susquehanna to Memphis where I turned and saw somebody strut into the Fishtown Fight Factory, where Marty had gotten his start back in the Stone Age. Place never closes, even on Christmas. Crazy-ass boxers. Kids would rather fight than eat. The wind kicked up a bit and I hurried down Memphis to the store. 

Garrisons doesn’t draw attention to itself, blending nicely with the houses. It’s an old-fashioned corner store, and once in a while guys will still sing out front. Of course, they’ll also deal until the cops chase them off. 

It’s opened seven to seven, and closed on Sundays, except those few times during snowstorms when people couldn’t drive. Everything costs more than at Thriftway. But the lunchmeat’s so much better and, besides, I get perks. 

The manager’s an Iffy’s regular they call Clout who has a wife and two kids and who always describes himself as blessed. Antonio blessed him. Of course, Antonio’s blessing often resembled a kick in the ass. Back when Clout was a teenager, that’s what he needed. Dad nudged him off a path that would have led to prison or Burne’s Funeral Home. Got him clean, involved with PAL. 

“He saved my life.”

“Yeah, he had a way of doing that.”

Clout showed Fishtown that you could be a drug addict and not necessarily an alcoholic. He was the reason people didn’t pull fire alarms when, years after he’d hit bottom, I came along with the same problem, and lack of problem. And because Antonio saved his life, there’s always a discount for whatever I’m buying. I don’t know if it comes out of his pocket or it’s some arrangement he’s made with the owner, but I’m not proud.

“That Debbie, she’s growing up,” Clout said over his shoulder while slicing the Land O Lakes. 

“And mouthier and mouthier.”

“You want some gloves?”

Pause. 

Boxing gloves? A joke? 

But he reached down, pivoted and slapped winter mittens on the counter. “It’s cold out there this morning.”

I didn’t need the gloves. 

I got the food and headed toward the school. The wind rippled my cloths and the Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers flags on some of the cars. A trashcan lid skidded down the street. A chill snuck up my ankles and rattled my chest. I shivered and felt with my elbow for Selma’s handle. 

Too much going on. Too many mysteries. Don’t let your guard down. 

Probably, if I had let my guard down, I’d never have seen him. I turned a corner onto Berks, where the school is, and a guy who’d turned another corner at the same time suddenly stopped. 

“Hey!” I yelled.

Dizzy lurked near my daughter’s school. He hid behind a hood and big sunglasses, but I knew it was him. I charged, hoping he would either stand and fight, or try and bullshit his way out. He ran. 

“Dizzy!” I screamed. “Stop him!”

But there weren’t that many people around to stop him and they were just waking up. Dizzy flew past before they could react, that’s if they wanted to help. This was the city. 

Was a time when Dizzy and me would sprint through alleys, either running from cops or running to connections and I could never keep up. Not this time. I gained, and when I threw the groceries aside, I gained even more. 

There was plenty I wanted to yell at him. “Bastard.” “Asshole.” “Junkie jerkoff dickhead.” For starters. Then, maybe “I am getting that restraining order!” Or, “You broke the deal, now the cops are going to find out you’re alive and ready to do your time.” Or even a longish spiel about how Debbie’s doing well and why would he want to soil her memories? I wanted to say all that but I could barely breathe. We were motoring. 

Where the hell is he going? Does he have a car stashed somewhere?

He spun down Sepviva, then Norris. I kept gaining. I would win. Selma wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to kill him (much) and anyway it’s hard as hell to hit a moving target when you’re running full throttle. I didn’t have a clear shot and slowing down to get the gun, aim, and fire would let him get away. 

He did some of the stupid things people do when they’re being chased. Tip over trashcans, weave in and out of traffic. I kept gaining. He circled around a trash truck, thinking he could pull a U-turn while I kept going.

“Help!” I shouted to the trashmen, but they were plugged into their music.

“Go baby!” I heard one say. 

The laugh died when he realized this was serious, he was too late as well. 

Closer, closer, closer. I could tackle him. I grabbed his hoodie, but it was the kind that zipped up and he slipped out. I stumbled a bit, and he put some distance between us. 

I’ll catch up.

But I didn’t because luck met Dizzy Tanner at the intersection of Berks Street and Frankford Avenue, when he jumped on an 89 bus that just happened to be passing by. 

“Stop him! Don’t let him on!” 

The bus belched and kept going and I sprinted through the fumes toward the next stop, But there wasn’t anybody at that stop and nobody getting off there and the light was green. I could see an old man looking at me through the back window as if I’d dropped from another planet. I pictured Dizzy slumping in a seat, gasping for breath but happy, victorious.

Fuck him.

I leaned over, hands on knees, fighting for breath. I fought back a wave of nausea, my legs cramped up. 

Shit!

Jogging is definitely not the same as running. 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

“Staying forever young isn’t just the stuff of pop music or fairy tales,” Jim Delaney shouted. We were cruising with the Beatles like “it was 20 years ago today” and I was grooving, I have to admit. I’d made my peace with Jim, sort of, and this ride was a nice byproduct. The retracted roof let the wind slap my hair about like a pirate’s flag. 

I could get used to this.

The river on the right headed the opposite way, back toward Fishtown, last seen a good 45 minutes earlier. Weather-roughened houses balanced themselves on columns on the left, propped up and bearing witness to the flood of 2004. It was bright, unseasonably warm for late March. We wore sunglasses. Winter pays no mind to the calendar, though. The sex-kitten meteorologists said a cold front moved our way so we enjoyed while we could.

“Aging is the wildcard in geo-politics,” Jim said. “A drug that would stop people from aging would change everything. Think of the ramifications.”

This was a couple of weeks after I’d made that vow at Penn Treaty Park; after the run-in with Dizzy Tanner. In fact, it had been two and a half weeks of straight-through work at Iffy’s. Thinking was the last thing on my mind. I felt like a teenager playing hooky — Cheryl DeMarco’s Day Off — and suddenly life was nothing but possibility and the rules needed stretching. 

“Just a number, age is,” I said. 

We rolled up River Road in Bucks County, heading toward New Hope, which we would have to crawl through before shooting inland toward Central Bucks. Destination: Valhalla, Truck Andrews’s farm. It’s a ride I’d done dozens of times but the old Fuck-Us never stepped it the way Jim’s Tesla could, that was for sure. 

What could spoil this?

Kid you not, my cell buzzed about five minutes later. Babs. 

“Charlie Manson came looking for you today,” she said.

“Is this a riddle?” 

“Is Jim with you?”

“Babs says, ‘Hello.’” 

Babs said, “OK, I’ll ask questions that you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to. How are you?”

I laughed and, after a pause, she did too because we both knew that she wasn’t trying to be funny. Babs. 

She lowered her voice. “What the hell happened to Jim Delaney? Definitely not charged anymore.”

“I would have to agree.”  

“So anyway, I’m in Iffy’s,” she continued, “and this guy comes in, looks like your typical office worker on casual Friday. Except he’s got Charlie Manson eyes, fidgeting like on crystal meth. I mean train’s left the station hours ago. Asks for you. I say ‘Cheryl who?’ Then I ask him, ‘Who the hell are you, if you please?’ What did he say now?”

Babs paused, and I said “speak up” and when Jim turned the volume down, I whispered “thanks.”

“Oh, yeah,” Babs said. “‘Compelling.’ Says he has some compelling information for you. I say, ‘Leave your number, why don’t you. If I run into this DeMarco woman, whoever the hell she is, I’ll give it to her. Not many Eye-talians in this neighborhood, though.’”

“Not a problem,” I said.

Somebody’s always looking for somebody in Fishtown. Maybe we’ll help the cops but everybody else — bankers, bikers, bounty hunters, bill collectors — gets zilch. Sorry, buddy, I know nothing. Move along.

“He gives me the closing-time leer, and then bounces on out,” Babs said. “At first I thought he might be a reporter, but a reporter would leave his number, right? Identify himself? Cheryl, my love, maybe you’re fixing on telling me just what the hell is going on?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” 

“Collection agency, is it?”

We both said: “Maybe” and then, right away, “Jinx!”

That nice couch I bought two years ago. Didn’t have to start paying for 12 months, and that seemed like a great deal at the time. It dawned on me later that 12 months is the same as a year and, hell, that goes fast. Meanwhile, shit happens as it always does. Different bills, different priorities. Also stains, dirt, broken springs. Remember, two teens. I’m left with junk I haven’t paid off. But I will eventually, I’ll pay everybody I owe.

Babs said, “Is it connected to Bobby, you think? Was our mysterious visitor one of the bad guys?”

“We may never know.” 

Damn Marty. He still hadn’t fixed the surveillance cameras. Last time I mentioned it, he growled “I’ll get to it.” Yeah, maybe by 2020. Just in time for hindsight.

“I knew I should have gotten more,” Babs said. “His name or whatever the hell he was driving. The plate. Text Crystal and Debbie — is that what you want of me now? Tell them my place after school?”

“That would be just dandy,” I said. I clicked off about a minute later. 

Jim asked, “Everything OK?” 

“Babs is running the bar by herself so, no, everything is not OK.”

He exhaled. “I know how it is when you think you’re indispensable,” he said. “How much pressure.”

“Let’s see: Running a bar. Fighting in Kandahar against the Religion of Blowing Shit Up. Gee, Jim, I’d say you had more reason to feel stressed than me.”

The last time I’d seen him, at his brother’s funeral, he’d worn a suit worth thousands. Today, he was dressed in streets. Yet he looked more presentable, less worn. 

You caught him at his absolute worst, let us hope.

He was trying. He nearly succeeded with the carefree vibe, but he gripped the steering wheel and I could see something working behind the sunglasses. He didn’t repulse me today; the shock of seeing how much he’d let himself go had dwindled. We could be friends, and I just might need a friend like Jim, but not because of what Babs had just told me. 

Somebody wanting to do me harm wouldn’t just wander into Iffy’s before lunch asking questions. Bill collector, I decided. Or reporter. The Bobby Delaney execution was still news, so long as the cops couldn’t make an arrest. There was also still the rumor that I had fired my weapon on the street.

“Some cops work 30 years without ever having to draw their revolver,” Antonio used to say.

I tightened my stomach, squeezing the ball of fear that rested there, squeezing it so hard that I dissolved it. Kind of a Zen exercise, except what the hell do I know about Zen? I’ll ask Truck. He knew.

I leaned over, turned up the Beatles.

Will you still need me,

Will you still feed me,

When I’m 64?

“We were talking about aging,” I said. 

“Youth is the one thing that money can’t buy,” Jim said. “Is that something you’d want, Cheryl? A drug like that?”

“Hell, yeah!” 

And not just for vanity, either, although who am I kidding? I wouldn’t want men looking through me. I also wouldn’t want to be a victim. I see the old ladies walking around, leaning on strollers. Might as well have a target on their backs. Dizzy used to purse-snatch, and he didn’t like challenges. The ones who were sharp would fight and then he’d knock them to the ground during the tug-of-war, and that’s assault. They’d also come close to ID-ing him. No, thanks. Dizzy liked easy.

When I had jumped off of the 12th step — full of recovery fervor — I tracked some of Dizzy’s old victims, and the families. I’d send a few dollars, a gesture of restitution that I really couldn’t afford. I’d mail the money anonymously, no return address, but pretty sure it wouldn’t get lost because Tommy the mailman is old school. He does his job. 

Jim cleared his throat, reminding me that I wasn’t alone.

Should I tell him about Dizzy?

I said, “Crystal loves the Beatles. She loves all the new stuff, too. Adele, especially. It’s funny how kids today like the old music, though. What my parents listened to didn’t interest me in the least.”

“My boys are way into the Rolling Stones. I try to explain that they’re assholes. Jagger. Richards.” The names said with disgust.

“McCartney,” I said. “Lennon. Anyone famous, really. I mean, thousands of people each day telling you how wonderful you are? How does that not fuck you up?” 

He said, “If you’re famous you’re guilty until proven otherwise, in my book.”

Yeah, I liked Jim a lot better that day. No smell of alcohol, no fumbling for words. His movements were deft, sharp, quick. Fat, but no longer disgusting. Exit: Jabba the Hutt. Enter: the over-the-hill athlete. 

The boundaries had been drawn. The kiss thing was forgiven, but not forgotten. Sign says: Dude, no touchie, no feelie. He understood. So, he had emotions for me. Hey, if I’d stopped socializing with every guy who had emotions for me I’d be a very dull girl indeed. So long as the guy knows how I feel and that I’ll never feel any different, then it’s OK. 

“This is nice, Cheryl.”

“Keep your eye on the road.”

We are just friends, got it?

He’d called me the day after Bobby’s burial, all apologetic. Asked if he could see me. 

“I’m pretty booked this week,” I said. I told him that Truck asked me to ride up and visit him; had information he wouldn’t discuss over the phone. 

“That’s just the way Truck rolls.”

“Let me drive you?” Jim said. “As old friends? I promise no funny business?”

“You don’t sound sure.”

“Absolutely no funny business. How’s that? You’re not interested in me that way. I get it.”

I told him I’d get back to him by noon the next day and then waited until 25 hours after the deadline to call. I’ve had whack jobs who’ve stalked me. Happened twice, and with Dizzy back it might be happening again. So, yeah, I was testing Jim Delaney and he passed when he got the hint that I didn’t really want to spend time with him. That’s when I wanted to spend time with him.

“Isn’t life ironic,” he said. 

The shock of Bobby still weighed on him and we’d dealt with that at the start, after we had popped onto 95. 

“I caused my brother’s death.”

“Is that what this ride’s going to be about?” 

“I am in mourning.”

“You didn’t cause shit! Come on, Jim!”

“You’re sounding like Dad.”

“Al’s a wise man.”

“They were coming after me.”

“You don’t know that for sure and you certainly didn’t know Bobby was going impersonate you. Besides, who exactly wants you dead, my man?”

“I am ex-military.”

“I seem to remember.”

“Involved in some shit there.”

“Where?”

“Afghanistan. Iraq.” 

“That narrows it.”

“And I worked for big pharma,” he said. “You may have noticed that we’re not the most popular team in the bowling league.”

He might have some ideas of who might be after him but he wasn’t about to tell me. 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“So, geo-politics?” I asked.

Jim touched the dashboard and the roof closed, the music softened. Then, he looked at me. 

“Eyes on the road.” 

“We’re getting older.”

“No shit.”

“I mean as a country,” he said. “As a civilization. All the industrialized nations are getting older. You need 2.1 children per family to sustain the population. Now, the Muslim countries, they’re doing just dandy. Places like: Somalia 6.91, Niger 6.83, Afghanistan 6.78, and Yemen 6.75.”

“Yeah, but who the hell would want to live there?”

“I’ve got more stats.”

“Wait,” I said. “Pen and paper.” 

He lifted his arm off the rest between the seats. 

I swung up the little door, began rummaging. “Are these real numbers?”

“I memorized them.” 

“Go ahead, professor,” I said, grabbing a pen and notepad. “These countries with all the rotten kids can’t feed them.”

“That adds to the problem. It adds to the impetus to migrate or, as I like to put it, invade. There are cities in Europe that will be majority Muslim in about 10 years. The West is getting senile. You go to places like Canada at 1.5. Or Spain at 1.1. By 2050, Italy’s population will go down by 22 percent. It’s like that all over. China, Russia, Japan. They’re dying. We’re all getting old and dying.”

“Except the Muslims.”

“Some of them, their birth rates are leveling off too. But for now they’re all much, much younger.”

“How about America?”

He swallowed as if something had gotten caught. He obviously obsessed about this, but it wasn’t the only thing that bothered him. It wasn’t solely Bobby’s murder, either. There had been one sharp turning point. The divorce? I didn’t think so. 

What happened to you, my old beau? 

“The United States is treading water at 2.07 births per woman,” Jim said. “Know who might help us?”

“Illegal immigrants.”

Yes, illegal immigrants, but his talk had jumped on the express that overshot stations. Jim seemed a little manic.

“I worked on a program that was basically a government run pharmaceutical company,” he said. “The idea was to manufacture vaccines and get them out to the public pronto in case of biological attack. It was top secret when I started, but I see they did a profile recently in the New Yorker so, what the hell, I guess some of it’s out of the bag by now. It’s part of the Defense Threat Nuclear Reduction Agency. It was all about finding loose nukes but the mission broadened while I was there to include chemical and biological weapons. Protecting us from same.” 

“And….”

“Well, there’s defense and there’s offense. Even back then I’d attend conferences that dealt with highly speculative solutions given by people who wanted to address this demographic shift. Because if we don’t, then radical Muslims will indeed take over. It’s arithmetic. Debbie and Crystal might be forced to wear a sarong.”

Not if I don’t put them in a nun’s habit first.

I said, “Sounds serious.”

Too serious. The Delaware sparkled, and tree branches stretched toward the sun and here we were glooming and dooming. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw somebody in Muslim dress. I know downtown you see them, but Fishtown isn’t downtown. These numbers, these facts about population decline, they weren’t real to me either. 2050? I’ll be dead. I had enough to worry about. Raising kids. Moving. Going back to school. Wanting someday to make the sort of money that could let me buy a home around here. Dreaming, even, of buying a farm like Truck’s. But I could tell by the way Jim’s jaw tightened when he spoke that he saw a different landscape. 

“Debbie and Crystal won’t wear no sarong,” I said, more for his sake than mine.

“But their girls might have to.” 

“You’ve got them married with kids? I’m just trying to get them through their teens. And, anyway, since we’re in fantasyland I want grandsons. Boys. I’ve had it up to here with girls.”

“This is waaaaay in the future.”

“It better be,” I said. “So what are you saying? The government is trying to make anti-aging cream?”

 “Sounds like something a starlet might peddle,” Jim said. “It would be a drug. Or some combination of drug and therapy.”

“Science fiction,” I decided.

“Right, science fiction. Like microwaves or cell phones or laptops. You know, they might make one of them-thar spaceships and land a man on the moon.”

“I get it.”

But just in case, he added: “The blur between science fiction and science fact keeps getting blurrier.”

We drove in silence as we inched through New Hope. It was the middle of the week, so the town wasn’t that crowded. I checked out the stores, watched as waitresses swiped off outside tables in anticipation of a lunch rush. I wondered what they made in tips in these parts. It’s a younger, hipper, crowd. Bikers on the weekends. A bartender smoked by the entrance to one place. Tight jeans, low-neck blouse, cleavage galore. 

Go for it, honey.

The word “honey” made me think of my girls and suddenly the knot of fear that I’d thought I’d squeezed out of my stomach kicked my insides like a baby. When I used I was needy. I didn’t just want to get high, I had to get high. I would do anything to get high. 

The urge now struck. Some strange man was looking for me today. Dizzy Tanner’s on the loose. Bobby Delaney’s murder was unsolved and I had possibly wounded the shooter. What the hell was I doing joy-riding? I needed to get back to my girls.

I must get back to my girls.

The girls I ignored when I shot up, the girls they’d threatened to take away from me. The girls I gave away, for a time, to my parents. 

I can’t let anything happen to them.

That morning Debbie had said, “Go Mom. Say hello to the mystic cows.”

They both chanted “Ommmmm.”

It was their way of goofing on his new-ageyness. 

“He doesn’t own cows,” I reminded.

“That’s because he can’t eat them.”

Now, I said to Jim: “Turn around.” 

“Excuse me?”

I nearly yelled the request but my cell buzzed and when I saw it was Flash, I felt nauseated, sure it was bad news. 

His text read: “Babs called. Have my men on your girls. They are safe. Important for you to have a good time. Say hello to your nutty father-in-law.”

Jim said, “Do you really want me to turn around?”

“I just…. It was a panic attack. I’m OK now.”

“You? Panic?”

“My girls. I’m worried about them. But they’re safe.” I shook my head, let my hair bounce about my shoulders. Then, an awkward eruption. 

“Whatever!” I said and giggled nervously. I was embarrassed because I sounded like a teenager myself. Jim took note.

“You’re uncanny,” he said. 

“People tell me all the time. The real test is seeing someone who hasn’t seen you in a while. If that someone says ‘you haven’t aged,’ then you know you’re doing something right.”

“You haven’t aged.”

“Babs says that whatever it is, I should bottle it.”

“It?”

“You’re the expert. I guess I’m one of those people blessed with extra energy, like your Dad.”

“But what are you doing?”

“A bit of exercise. Stretching. Jogging. I work on the torso. Four hundred sit-ups a day, then some other stuff for that because sit-ups just helps one part of the core. Plus, my life. I mean before I got my piece-of-shit car, I walked everywhere for years. You know that, Jim. But I’m no fanatic. I love cheese fries and cheese steaks and fried mozzarella. Anything with cheese. I eat red meat. Hell, I eat at Iffy’s. Think of that.”

“You’re certainly well-preserved.”

“Sounds like you’re talking about a mummy.”

He scratched his head, frowned. “This started as a compliment.”

“The answer is DNA.”

“Don’t think that big pharma doesn’t notice. Aging reflects damage to cells, tissues, organs. There is some interesting research going on.”

There’d been some hopeful experiments on lab animals where they’d fire up the hormones until they’re young again. Then there was something called telomerase, this enzyme. If you inject it in mice you can actually see repair of damaged tissue. There are something like eight hormones that drop off as you get older. I was getting a headache. 

“Scientists want genetic repair,” Jim said. “That’s key. They’re trying to get there by using retrovirus, just sort of inserting it into the gene. It’s complicated shit. Involves stem cell research, something called zinc fingers. You attach these zinc fingers, which are like these microscopic protein structures, to things called endonucleases.”

“Spell it,” I interrupted. 

“Shit,” he said, but gave it a go. Later I found out that he’d been close, off by one stinking letter.

“Anyway, if you can do that properly, you cause something called homologous recombination and that can replace poor DNA sequences. There is so much stuff being done along these lines, Cheryl, you just wouldn’t believe it.” 

Why wouldn’t I believe it? We worship youth.

I flipped a page, kept jotting.

“I have a tape recorder if you need it,” he said.

We were cruising through Central Bucks on some winding road. The trees leaned over and the light stepped down as if through cathedral windows. 

“Why keep the pen and paper?” I asked. 

“In case all other means of communication are down.”

“Down?”

“Say somebody launches a nuke above Philadelphia.”

“That’s the second time somebody’s mentioned that to me.”

He wanted to know who.

“Truck,” I said. “He wants to save the world.”

“Noble pursuit. A nuke wouldn’t even have to land. It just has to go off near the earth’s orbit and it would knock out all the satellites. It would throw the entire Northeastern seaboard and parts of Canada back to the Dark Ages.”

“Truck says the exact same thing. This will be an interesting visit.”

“Electrical power grids for cities would be down. No cell phones, TV, computers. No heat or air conditioning. This is on top of the fatalities from the blast and the radiation, which could be considerable. Pen and paper would come in handy.”

“Wouldn’t all the carrier pigeons be dead, too?” 

He wasn’t listening. “It would be handy to have some means of communication other than word of mouth. Anyway, I like sometimes just jotting down ideas the old-fashioned way. It’s a habit I’d gotten into back in graduate school. You know what they say about old habits.”

“This is the sort of shit you think about?” 

“We all have quirks,” he said.

“Is that what broke up you and….”

“Eloise. No, and yes. Quirks and the fact that I got a girl at work pregnant.”

Well, well, well. 

“I fucked up,” Jim said. 

“That will do it.”

“Still taking notes?”

“This part I’ll remember.” 

CHAPTER TWENTY

We reached Truck Andrews’s Valhalla around noon. When we turned up the dirt driveway to the refurbished old house, Nature Boy galloped along the fence, keeping pace. So cool, watching those muscles; that black mass of meat and bone charging along. 

Jim whistled.

“He’s something, isn’t he?” I said.

I rolled down the window, listened to the hooves, their intricate pounding hinting at the determination that no machine could beat him. Of course that contest had been decided a century before. A hundred Nature Boys dwelled under the Tesla’s hood, but Jim didn’t want to win. He wanted to keep the view.

Sooo beautiful! 

Talk about animal magnetism, I wondered if sparks would fly from his coat rubbing against the breeze. All that wild majesty, there was just something about it. 

“He likes you,” Jim said.

“Of course.”

Jim’s low-hung racer spun out a cloud as we approached the front of the house. We parked, settling in between the pick-ups, clown cars, and a pile of solar panels. When Truck came onto the porch it was as if he’d dismounted after a cattle drive. He wore — no lie — a cowboy hat and I think his boots were the real thing, spurs and all. He was never one to blend and I could almost see what Mom had found physically attractive. Then he spat — a big ptewy! over the rail and wiped his mouth on his shirt — and that took care of that. He was back to being just Truck. As he walked toward us, I was struck by how some big men can wear the limps and gimps of time gracefully, forging their own strange dance of experience.

Nature Boy now lolled nearby behind a fence that he probably could jump with ease if he ever tried. He turned, nickered, raised his head searching for something, then began walking toward his friends grazing on a hill in the middle distance. Taking his time, knowing that the others would make room for him. 

“I praise the road that has brought you to me,” Truck said, leaning toward the window. 

I checked Jim. He smiled deferentially, giving away nothing. I’d warned him about Truck’s peculiar talk on the ride up. Jim said he had heard hundreds of different languages in his travels. 

“How many can you speak?” I had asked. 

“None, now,” he said. “You’ve got to keep at it. I’ve forgotten two languages, three if you count English.”

When we got out, Truck spread his arms as if offering creation. 

“Mi casa es su casa.”

In the distant fields some trees seemed to be stretching after a nap. Out on that far end of his property there was construction going on, cranes, trucks, bulldozers moving around like elephants at the watering hole. There were trailers close by. I spotted a few portable toilets.

At the other end of the spread, there was a large green tent, which I guessed the workers used as offices. Beyond the scene clouds moved in. Rain approached, its scent graced the air.

“A grain silo?” I asked.

“It will be torn down to its foundation, then raised like the temple in Jerusalem.”

“I thought you’d just replaced the old one three years ago.”

“Do not be lulled into thinking that I am not suing that charlatan contractor, either.”

“What else is going on over there?” It looked like two foundations were being laid.

“I need to store my grain in the interim,” Truck said “It’s a huge underground shed, although not huge enough. I’ll have to let some just rot.”

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“Joseph interpreted the pharaoh’s dream, and the Egyptians stored their grain for the seven years of famine,” Truck said. “I too have seen a prognosticated about a coming famine.”

“I remember,” I said.

The end is near. It always is, for you.

Truck turned to me, nodded ever so slightly. Probably picked up my skepticism. Why not? I didn’t much bother to hide it. 

“I am even story some in Fishtown,” he said. “Laying just outside the perimeter of my office is a storage facility. Sacred seed I have corralled their by the bushel-fulls.”  

 “You got a permit for that?” Jim asked.

“To the bureau of License and Inspections I trod,” said Truck. “I never realized that asking to store a mountain of grain is akin to wanting to store a mountain of fertilizer.”

“You can blow up shit with grain?”

Jim asked, “Wheat, I take it?” 

Truck nodded.

“Wheat, corn, even soybean can be turned into explosive,” Jim said. 

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“To extrapolate even further, unlike fertilizer, grain can be processed and control. It can act as a propellant.” 

Jim said, “Back in ancient times — the ’50s and ’60s — rocket fuel was grain-based.”

“Purists in the art of propulsion look with nostalgia upon those days,” Truck said. “They covet the long shelf life of those fuels.”  

Jim asked, “What do you do for a living, Mr. Andrews?”

“Now, good sir, it will be a very long visit indeed if you persist in calling me Mr. Andrews.”

“Truck here is an acupuncturist,” I said. “Well, a businessman. Ever hear of Holistic U? He started the company.”

“I am semi-retired,” Truck said. “And I have been blessed with a varied career, a life of experience. I have done a little bit of everything.”

Truck drew his remote, pressed a button, and opened the gate. It slid silently on its hinges and then closed automatically behind us. As we started across the fields, a cloud passed over. Jim took off his sunglasses. I pushed mine onto my hair.

“Truck’s a hippie, and damn proud of it,” I said.

“We’re probably on opposite sides of the ideological divide, Truck,” Jim said. “But I admire a man who sticks to his guns.”

“I am strictly a-political these days, Jim.” 

They said each other’s names as if translating them.

“I guess this farm keeps you too busy,” I said. 

“Oh, I have other considerations, other works that bedevil me. I am never idle.”

“What else?” Jim asked.

By this time, Truck had led us out a good ways into the field, where he’d placed a portable toilet. 

“This talisman of our throw-away culture merely impersonates a Johnny-on-the-Spot,” Truck explained.

He hit a button on the remote control and the sides of the structured bent down revealing a model rocket about the size of a man. An antique Apollo spacecraft stood at attention.

“The detail!” Jim exclaimed.

When we went over to it, he and Truck pointed to everything that had been replicated, right down to the mechanical arms that held the rocket in place and which dipped away at the moment of launch.

“What did you work from?” Jim asked. “Old movies?”

“A friend of mine was in the employ of NASA for nearly two-score years. In a moment of inspiration, he clandestinely slipped me some blueprints, engineers’ plans.”

“It works?” Jim asked.

“Right down to the parachute descent.”

“Apollo 11,” Jim said. “I’m half expecting Neil Armstrong to wave from the capsule.”

“Perhaps a miniature Neil robot will materialize.”

“You can do that?”

Truck worked his hat down on his forehead. 

“The encroaching clouds are manifestation of a deluge to come,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Looks like rain.”

When we’d finally returned to the wraparound porch Truck led us to the back.

“What can top that?” I asked. 

Truck pointed toward a structure about a quarter mile away on fallow land. A long tent.

“Look familiar?” 

“It’s a command post,” Jim said. He rubbed his jaw, processing. 

He turned to me. “When we set up a headquarters over in Iraq or Afghanistan we’d create a safe zone, and our offices were air conditioned tents. Truck, here, has gotten a hold of one, or he’s built one.”

“I know what command tents are,” I said.

Truck gazed intensely at his remote control. 

“OK,” he said. “Now!”

He pressed a button and then, an explosion. The sound stomped over the fields like an angry giant, blowing warm wind at us. The tent had disappeared in flames and smoke. The horses reared and galloped to the far end of the property. I knew that the cranes and bulldozers in view from the other side of the porch scratched along. The workmen must have been told this was coming. Truck would have warned them.

I turned to Jim, but he wasn’t there. He’d fallen to the floor, holding his hands over his ears. His arms shook. 

“Jim!” I shouted.

I started helping him to his feet. Truck reached down and grabbed Jim by the belt and lifted him.

 “Truck, look what you did.”

One Delaney twin had died in my arms. 

Please, don’t make me watch the other one go.

“Calm now, sir,” Truck said. “Watch.” 

When Truck pressed another button, I flinched as if approaching fire, but then I looked where he pointed — toward the tent. Just like that the flames died, the smoke dwindled. It was as if a wet thumb and index finger had snuffed out a match.

“Look, Jim, it’s OK,” I said. 

But he still hyperventilated, bruises had risen on his face. He blinked as if trying to get his sight. 

“What were you thinking?” I said to Truck, who didn’t look so good either. He inspected Jim with such empathy, I thought he might start crying. 

Great. Just great.

“I’d planned this all day,” Truck said.

“Why?” 

“Vanity, sheer vanity. To impress you and your friend with my inventiveness.”

“Well, he’s impressed.” 

“I didn’t know.”

“Let’s get him the hell inside.”

“I’m OK,” Jim said, when we entered the foyer. “I am battled-hardened.”

In the gloaming, he started melting onto my shoulder. I rubbed his back.

Yeah. Battle-hardened.

“My brother, my good kind hearted brother is dead,” he sobbed.

I held him. Eventually, I worked him over to the couch, laid him down. As Truck went about switching on solar energy lights, I watched Jim fall asleep. Just like that. When Truck re-entered the living room I motioned for quiet.

“I will walk with this guilt for the rest of my allotted time,” Truck whispered.

“Oh, hell, will you stop being so dramatic? Speak up, too. He’s out.”

“I am truly sorry, Cheryl.”

I offered all the “you had no ideas” and “he’s just lost his brothers” and “it’s really not about yous” that I could, and finally Truck backed away into his kitchen. 

“You must be starved,” he said.

Come to think of it, I was. 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

A thunderclap and then rain fell upon Valhalla like sheets of glass that had been dropped from a plane. Jim rolled over, borrowing deeper into the couch.

“The horses are OK,” Truck called from the kitchen. “The trainer looks after them.” 

I quietly stepped away from Jim and headed out to take a front-row seat as Truck performed dinner. He’d been a sushi cook in one incarnation. He liked spectators, and explained each step as if talking to a studio audience. He could move for a big guy. Within 45 minutes Truck served some sort of vegetarian schmere, a main dish made of tofu and soymilk and seeds molded into a loaf that, after he’d gotten done with it, tasted like the best chicken I’d ever eaten. 

“I’ll be damned,” I said.

We ate and chatted, talking about the girls, Fishtown, the Delaneys. He explained how the tent antic was to demonstrate a system he’d invented to respond to bombings. I nodded and listened for Jim in the next room.

“It’s a beautiful place, Truck,” I said. “You know I’ve always loved it.”

It made me happy to think that this was where my mother died. I remembered coming up here once in the winter when she was first diagnosed and watching the snow falling on the fields as we talked about old times. 

“What the hell is happening in the neighborhood?” she asked. 

I sang from American Pie:

And in the streets, the children screamed,

the lovers cried and the poets dreamed. 

But not a word was spoken, 

the church bells all were broken.

Mom interrupted: “Don’t sing the part about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost heading for the coast. I want them right here with me.”

She had tied a scarf around her bald head and, by this point, even her eyebrows were gone. She looked like some eastern mystic until the thick Philly accent came tumbling out. 

“Your mother loved this dish,” Truck said.

The rain had eased a bit, but kept a steady beat. 

“You think about her a lot, don’t you?”

“Not a day goes by when I do not say, Rose would have liked this or that — or not. She blesses me still.”

I had wanted her to be one of those stoic old widows who dressed in black for the rest of her life and barely even smiled after her partner died. I wanted her to be the Queen Victoria of Fishtown. When Truck came into her life I struggled with it. 

“God, you’re seeing an awful lot of that man,” I’d said. 

We were in the kitchen of the row home she’d moved to after Antonio died. She stood at the sink looking down at the kids playing in the alley. Her back stiffened and right away I wished I had just kept quiet. 

“Nobody will ever take Antonio’s place,” she said, and it shocked me to hear her call my father by his first name. She’d always referred to him as Dad to the kids. “You’re father would not want me to be a lonely old lady, dying of a broken heart.”

“Look at me,” I said, and she turned with big, sad, wet eyes. “He’d want you happy.” 

I went over and hugged her.

“We talked about this, him and me,” she said. “You kidding? He was cop, I was a cop’s wife. Every cop talks about this with his wife. ‘What happens if I’m killed? I would want you to find someone else.’ Of course, Antonio, being Antonio, had to add, ‘Not that anybody could keep up with me.’”

“Spouse.”

“What?”

“Cops talk about this with their spouses,” I said, thinking that if my life had gone differently I could be wearing the blue.

“Meh,” Rose waved dismissively. “Modern times.”

“And guess what, Mom? Dad would have liked Truck.”

Antonio appreciated outsized characters that lead meandering lives. He loved color, and Truck had it in great supply. 

Which was why our little supper together gave me pause. Truck seemed diminished, quiet, reflective. He said, “I need you to get a message of great import to your friend, Lieutenant Michael McFarland.”

“Flash.”

He blushed. For all of his “kumbaya” shtick, Truck hated asking anybody for anything. A tether of gray hair had come loose from the ponytail, and dipped across his cheek. The goatee (a bit darker than the head hair) was meant, I think, to give him an intellectual cast. Truck was like me: self-taught. He pictured himself as the guy sitting at the campfire after Armageddon explaining to survivors how exactly we got here. 

I asked, “You in trouble?”

“Yes.”

“Truck? What?”

“I mean we all are facing terrible trouble.”

Here we go.

Then he told me about Davy Crockett, and not the guy who died at the Alamo. The Davy Crockett Truck talked about was a small nuclear bomb, made during the Cold War that could be launched by a field artillery weapon. 

“That devil stalks the area,” he said. “Some people, I don’t know who, have gotten a hold of one.” 

This didn’t exactly knock me out of my seat. Truck saw conspiracies everywhere. When they’d first gotten married Mom, ever the dutiful wife, tried to keep up with them. I bought her big ass construction paper and she’d label each one: “Corporate Malfeasance,” or “Kennedy Assassination,” or “Oil Well Pollution,” or “Pharmaceutical Companies Hidden Studies,” or “Whale Salvage.” Then there was, “Nuke Locations.” Even with the tracking board, after awhile she couldn’t follow all the digressions, detours, twists, and zigzags. Then she got sick and finally had to give up. After he’d worn her down she’d decided that the best thing to do was to smile and let him talk. 

“I’ll ask Flash to call you,” I said.

“That is the measure of my request.” 

Then, he held up his hand and added. “I think I hear your friend.” 

“I didn’t hear a thing,” I said. 

“I will look in upon him.” 

I called Babs when he left. 

“It might be a longer visit than I thought.” 

“The girls are fine.”

“But that guy today at Iffy’s….”

“They’re at my house, and there are cops outside,” Babs said. 

“Jim’s in bad shape.”

“Stay the night if you need to. Is it raining up there, too? It’s really coming down here and….”

When Truck came back I asked, “How is he?”

“Embarrassed. Wishes to take refuge in my study. Needs to make a phone call. Says that he is not hungry, but I will let this nourishment keep for his contentment when the time abides.”

“I am so sorry about this.”

The rain started in again, this time with wind that made the tree branches slap about. 

“I made the guest room up for you,” Truck said. “Jim can sleep in the study. I mean if that is how you….” 

“It is how I’d prefer it. Jim and I are friends. Just friends. But we’re not staying.”

It was about 4 o’clock. I could have used a nap. 

“I have some television,” he said. “I do not watch it much myself. But I can give you some DVDs, ones Rose liked. You will want to outwait this storm and possibly even rush hour.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

So I watched a romantic comedy in Truck Andrews’s guestroom, grateful that we could comment on the plot and actors and skirt all the stuff that probably should have been discussed: Mom, him, Mom and him, the past. I just pretended to follow the movie while marveling at the dives and drives of life.

Truck had moved to Bucks County after he wrote a book about bullying in schools that made him rich. He’d kicked around for most of his life. He could just as easily have been some eccentric old guy living in an efficiency apartment on Hutchinson Street instead of Ben Cartwright, but he’d stumbled onto a good thing. 

He’d been a real hippy, at one time. I mean the living-in-the-commune variety. He’d been a Vietnam War protestor, and a musician. He could still play a mean guitar. He lived by himself for some years, in a shack in Montana. I don’t know, but sounds as if he may have been a squatter or hobo. Maybe he was Ted Kaczynski’s neighbor. He kept notebooks and journals from those days. Boxes of them filled with his observations, philosophy, poems, stories, screenplays, and the stuff that eventually became his bestseller: Make Schools Safe Now! 

He tried acting. I think he’s still in Actor’s Equity. He gets the Academy Award nomination DVDs every year. He’s been in a lot of movies; screen name “Bob-Cat Lotus.” You’ve seen him many a time. He was the guy getting shot, or shoved off a cliff, or hanging in the background looking tough. He’s built like a bowling ball; short, stocky, low center of gravity. One of his favorite parts was playing Al Capone in summer theater. The next year he played Sigmund Freud. Versatile. Heavy, but hard. He works out, lifts weights, very disciplined guy. 

I first met him when he came into Iffy’s. (Everything goes back to Iffy’s with me.) He was opening his acupuncture center down on Delaware Avenue. Now, acupuncture is just the sort of thing Truck would get into. It’s New Agey. Me? I think it was invented 5,000 years ago by some slug-eating Chinaman who thought the ache in his stomach was a pissed-off ancestor. 

So, there’s supposed to be this life energy, this chi. And the acupuncturist is supposed to use his needles to connect this chi, to make this chi flow to the right channels in order to heal you. Because, you get sick, don’t you know, when the chi is blocked from traveling up and down these passageways called meridians. Make sense? Yeah, I know. But I’m telling you people buy it. And did I mention Truck is a rich man?

Anyway, he comes into Iffy’s and he’s asking me questions about the neighborhood. 

“Don’t know how much business you’ll get around here,” I said.

“Well, you have gentlemen, young and old alike, who frequent your establishment and who have back pain. They have had it for years and no healer seems skilled enough to help them. Correct?”

“Right.”

“Those are the souls who will come onto me.”

“And you can fix them.”

“I heal the suffering all the time. Or, actually, my protégés endeavor to repair the multitudes. I am a licensed acupuncturist, but I am mostly an administrator these days.”

Some of the guys caught the accent, gave him a look, but left it alone. You accept characters in Fishtown. In fact, I detected some cowboy-hat envy.

“Administrator?” I asked.

“I own Holistic U.”

“Which one?”

“All of them.”

“The big mahoff,” I said.

“In this parley I detect a linguistic cliff between us.” 

“You’re the man. The guy in charge.”

Remember that I’m doing about a thousand things. I’m washing down counters, checking stock, tending to customers, making sure that hot food is hot and cold drink is cold and none of that lukewarm bullshit. I am a CEO. So, hand it to him, Truck offers me a job. 

“Just like that?” I asked.

“You are a hard worker, strong and industrious. You interact with the masses in a manner with which I am most appreciative. I will match your salary.”

“Now, that part I understand.”

“Including the tips.”

I looked at him for a long moment, wondering if the old coot was coming on to me. 

“No, young lady,” he said. “Half my age was my last ex-wife. Finally got that sort of differential out of my system.”

“What happened?”

He looked into his beer. “She did not know the lyrics to the songs. Down to that it came. I just cogitate that you would be a good employee.”

“Can I think about this?”

He sat back, looked at the ceiling.

“You know, perhaps we should both think about it. Here sits a man who trusts his gut. I do not know why. Because here also sits a man who has taken the vow of matrimony four times and stood in judgment before a bankruptcy judge on more occasions then that. People call me Truck.”

“What’s with the whacked syntax?” I asked.

He chuckled. “I was born when they were stringing electric lines across that part of Mexico where my father happened to have moved us at that time. Very remote. I learned to read on the King James Bible. We had no other books in the house.”

“What’s your real name?”

“Truck Andrews.”

“Real first name.”

“I would be much obliged if we left it at Truck.”

He wasn’t the first customer to offer me a job and he wouldn’t be the last. But there was always something keeping me at Iffy’s. Well, hell, the money. I got great tips, and where else could a dropout make enough (barely) to raise a family? I liked the people. I walked to my job. And after what I’d put myself and my family through in my younger years, I needed anchors. My girls. My mother. My friends. My Iffy’s. 

But that doesn’t mean a woman can’t be tempted, you know? I may have actually worked for Truck Andrews as, I guess, one of his office managers. I could have stayed on at Iffy’s part time, if I really needed to. Hell, even if I had to quit, Marty would have hired me back in a minute if the Truck stop hadn’t worked out. 

But then something happened that had never happened before. The stain glass door slowly opened and I knew someone old or hesitant or both wanted to peek inside. I was thinking that I needed to spray some liquid wrench on the hinges when in shuffled Mom.

Oh, shit.

My mother believed that decent women didn’t go into bars. They dined at restaurants. 

“What’s the matter?” I said to her dazed face. “Are the girls OK?” Crystal was babysitting Debbie for the first time; I was jumpy.

“Doctor phoned,” Mom said. 

She’d gone to a specialist just the day before. She been spotting, and Mom was way beyond the change.

“That was fast,” I said. Not a good sign.

She walked up to the bar, put her hands on the back of one of the stools for support. Didn’t even notice the man in the cowboy hat. She probably wouldn’t have noticed Madonna if she’d been sitting there. 

“I told you I should never have gone,” she whispered. 

“What did the doctor say?”

She needed a hysterectomy immediately. Cancer. He wouldn’t know how far it’d spread until he was in there. 

“Mom,” I stuttered. “It’s going to be….”

I couldn’t finish. I wanted to say everything was going to be OK, but I didn’t know that for sure. She stood there, her big lavender eyes wet and lips quivering, waiting for consolation I couldn’t give. 

That’s when Truck rolled into her life.

“Mame, I am a survivor of the beast myself. Colon cancer. I can tell you a few things. Let us go and set at this table over here.”

“Who the hell are you?” Mom asked. Then, to me: “Who the hell is this?”

I was about to tell this stranger to fuck off but Truck tipped his hat to her and suddenly I saw Mom’s defenses melt. Her shoulders relaxed. She tried to smile.

Truck said: “I think I am somebody who can help, if you will let me. A healer is what I profess to be.” 

And that was that. Mom, who for years fended off the attentions of would-be suitors, had met a strong man when she was having one of her worst days. Actually, it was one of my worst days, too. Still can’t shake the image of my mother talking to this cowboy at Iffy’s. Thank God, that was the only time she would ever come in. When Babs finally deigned to honor us with her presence about a half hour later, she actually said “Oh!” when she saw the two of them. As in, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I am seeing this.” 

That was a weird phase, their courtship. At first, neither I nor my mother could acknowledge what was happening. It was “My friend Truck is taking me to the flower show,” or “Truck — you know, my friend? — showed me a very nice restaurant last night,” or “Old Truck helped me with this damn tax filing.” 

As I mentioned, Mom had once been Miss Philadelphia. She modeled. She was gorgeous. Even at this stage in her life it didn’t surprise me that men responded. Some of my uncles would have liked to have taken her away with them. She just had that “whatever” that few women have, that doesn’t fade. It was more than sex appeal, although that was a big part of it. 

It wasn’t Platonic between Mom and Truck. That I understood right away. I jumped on the Internet, did some research. Made sure that Truck was legit. Well, he was legit all right, legit all the way. He’d stayed with her. First came the happy years of remission. They at least had had that. Then, came the other and all the positive thinking and chi energy in the world couldn’t stop the disease. Truck hired nurses and read the newspaper and books and poetry and prayers to her, and eased her crossing. He was there when she died; I wasn’t. She just didn’t wake up one day even though the doctors had said that she had a month or two to go. 

Now, as the movie credits rolled, the curtain came down upon my reverie. Time for real life. Truck flicked on the overheads. The rain had blown through and — by my wristwatch — the rush hour had petered out. 

“Time to leave,” I said. 

“You sure?”

But Truck got up and led me down the hallway toward his study. He was used to living alone. Keeping company probably burdened him as much as it did me. He stopped, motioned to the door. I knocked.

“Ready to go, Jim?”

When there was no answer Truck stuck his beefy arm around me and opened it as if he were tossing crumbs to birds. The lights were on, making the image of Jim seem even more garish. He was slumped over Truck’s desk, head on a book, some random papers near his elbow. The room smelled of sweat, pipe smoke, leather, mints and … alcohol. Jim groaned and looked to be reaching for something, swiping halfheartedly. That’s when I saw the empty bottle on the floor beside the desk. I thought at first that he’d hadn’t even used a glass, but over by the fireplace shards sparkled like diamonds. Jim’s aim had been untrue. 

“Fuck is his problem?” I said, but that might have been the wrong move.

“What do you want?” Jim growled into the book.

I looked at Truck.

“A relapse,” I explained. 

“So I see.”

Jim lifted his head, his eyes were slits and there were dents in his pink face where he’d been conked out against the book cover. I walked over; Truck stayed at the doorway.

“What’s a vet got to do to get a drink in this place,” Jim said. Or, at least, I think that’s what he said. 

“We’re not at Iffy’s.” I glanced nervously back at Truck, embarrassed as if my husband had been found drunk in the gutter outside church on Sunday. Why was I owning this?

“Demons trouble your friend,” Truck said. 

Yeah, no shit.

But the way he put it keyed me. “Your friend.” That was what caused my embarrassment. I had invited Jim into this home. Now look. I grabbed his arm to coax him over to the couch. He shook me off at first, then grudgingly got up, stumbled over and fell, knocking the wind out of the sofa cushions. 

“You feel sick?” I asked. “Here’s a trashcan right here. Just in case.” I toed it over to him.

“I killed them,” Jim slobbered into his elbow.

“Bobby?” I asked. 

Please, not that again.

“Them!” he said, rising a bit and waving a piece of paper. “Them! I said them! Seven men, because of me. My confidential informant, the guy I said should be given a medal, made an American. He’s the one. He killed them. My friends. Dead. Those poor families.” He groaned, “Oh. Oh. Oh.”

“Relax,” I whispered, easing a quilt over him, rubbing his back.

He wasn’t finished. “You know, you dress like the natives, all done up in turbans and man jammies and going out on patrols and talking to the people, protecting them. Giving the kids medicine. You think this gives you insight. Then the son of bitch — a man you called your friend — turns around and blows himself up and kills seven of your brothers.”

“Quiet.”

“I am finished. Done.”

I wanted to run. He smelled of all the dysfunction I prayed that I’d left behind and never wanted to revisit. From outside, I heard a horse rear up and roar – you couldn’t really call it a neigh. I knew that Nature Boy called.

“Is it still raining?” Jim asked.

I didn’t answer. He closed his eyes, slumped as if he were animatronic and someone had pulled the plug. Just that fast, he was sleeping, breathing peacefully. I picked up the paper he’d been brandishing from where it had fallen. It was a newspaper clipping from 2006. An arrow made by magic marker pointed to a small item at the corner of the page that carried the headline:

CIA Confirms

7 Agents Killed

In Terrorist Blast

I looked at Truck. “I guess we will stay the night,” I said. 

He kept his eyes on Jim, shook his head. 

“Demons,” he said. “We’ve all got demons.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

My father stands before me in police uniform, hands on hips, shoulders straining against his leather jacket. Behind him spears of light from the sunset over the Delaware River pierce the dusk. He smiles at me, his golden girl. I put my hand in his and we walk from Penn Treaty Park through the heart of Fishtown toward our house on Norris Street. 

We pass Miss Lotty pushing her shopping cart down Girard Avenue, her eyes focused on her cat, Jinx, perched like some Persian prince on a heap of old newspapers. We wander through the streets where feral boys play street hockey. They cut back on the noise and obscenities when my father glowers. 

“Yo, Mr. DeMarco!” shout the Delaney twins, and the others echo the greeting, and stop the game and the cursing until we pass. 

On Montgomery Avenue, he tips his cap to pregnant Mrs. Borkowski, asking if she needs help with the bundles she carries.

She thanks him and says, with her easy smile, “Don’t you know we preggers are as strong as horses?” 

“Never doubted it, miss.”

I realize again that my father, Antonio, is strength and gentleness blended just right. I am so happy he’s in my world, but then the thought steals into my consciousness, a slight uneasiness at first. 

“This can’t really be.” For one thing, it’s too early for the Delaney twins.

It’s those doubts that keep me from insisting that Dad carry me on his shoulders, carry me through childhood, carry me through life. I crane at his granite face and, as I do, he glances down and winks. 

“Well, Scooch, what do you have to say for yourself?”

And I answer, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

Then I awake in sweat and fear, remembering all over again how Antonio DeMarco, the greatest man I ever knew, died in that horrible way. 

The day begins and once again I’ve beaten the alarm. 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Johnny McBride — the Johnny McBride of that old kick-ass garage band, Johnny and the Social Climbers — called daughter Crystal up to the stage. This was at a coffeehouse across the bridge in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Crystal had already done her set, had tied the audience in a cute bow and presented it to herself as a present. The girl is good.

She’d been writing songs and singing for anyone who’ll listen since she was 11. I know. The music industry. You might as well buy a lottery ticket, play the horses, or do some funky things with stocks. Becoming a pop sensation is no game-plan for the future. I realize that. Crystal realizes that. She does great in school (scholarship to Nazareth Academy, did I mention?), and I think I have her convinced to take something sensible in college, unless she’s accepted by Julliard, and you know how tough that can be. Hey, meanwhile, leave us dream a little here. I was in the audience with my “date,” Al Delaney, who’d driven me over because the Fuck-Us was in the shop again and Jim was, well…. Shit, do I need to get into it? 

When Johnny called Crystal back up that night, she smiled shyly, wrinkled her nose, rolled her eyes, made you think that she really didn’t want to do this encore. She maybe even fooled somebody. If she did, it lasted until the first claps made her beam. She weaved her way toward the front. Everybody knew her. She’d played there enough times. And now a South Jersey legend wanted her for an encore. 

“How could you not love her?” Johnny asked as Crystal took her place. “I love the braces! Everybody love the braces?”

Wild cheers. They loved the braces. 

“Yea!” I shouted. 

I put $1,200 worth of love into those braces. You have kids you’re always broke. Ah, but they can on occasion bring such joy. (I am not being sarcastic for once.)

My daughter’s voice lingers in the higher registers when she joins McBride in singing one of his old hits, “I’m Seventeen.” She reminds you of a country singer — the drippings and trills — but my baby wants to go to the topper-most of the popper-most, as John Lennon said back in Hamburg days. 

At one point McBride hushed her because he didn’t want her to sing the line about “been through it all; drugs, sex, and alcohol.” Talk about true to life. Johnny swigs from a bottle of water these days. I remembered the stories about McBride’s stoned age; the days when he’d visit Letterman and Leno, dragging his bad boy shtick onstage. Now he’s sober and rickety underneath the showmanship. It was a good set, though, and a good song.

The audience appreciated the contrast between the grizzled barroom rocker who’d made his mark back in the ’90s and my just-starting-out daughter who, if I may so objectively report, is one angelic balladeer.

“She’s got it, doesn’t she?” Al said, leaning toward me. 

Jim had gone back to North Carolina after our visit with Truck, back to his AA group, counselors, and doctors. Our ride the morning after the visit with Truck had been awkward; long silences interspersed by his apologies. 

“I will clean myself up,” Jim had said.

“You can do it.” 

I wanted this all to go away. I didn’t want to waltz with him near the abyss because I’d fallen too many times. And even though I’d been clean for years it might just as well have been for an hour. He was fragile. I was fragile. See, I miss that smack and coke and meth euphoria every single day, and some days more than others.

I didn’t ask about his drunken revelation, and he hadn’t offered. Between that, his divorce, and Bobby’s murder I felt as if I kept company with a carton of eggs that had been dropped a couple of times. 

“This isn’t me,” Jim had said.

I wanted to explain, “But it is you. This is you. That drunken slob blubbering in Truck’s study last night is you. Next time I’ll make a video.” I didn’t say it, of course. Instead, I skipped to the next part, telling him how a shrink had helped me kick, and had opened just enough space between cause and effect for me to pretend, and convince myself most times, that I might not have caused all that damage. The sickness had caused it. How this shrink had taught me about blurses; blessings that are also curses. 

Jim said, “I’ve got a shrink.”  

I’d seen this before. When a good guy — wait, wrong word, let’s say “noble.” When a noble man like Jim Delaney goes bad, he goes very bad indeed. Jim probably kept telling himself  “I’m not the sort of man who cheats on his wife,” right up until he was checking into the motel that advertises the mirrors on the ceiling. He wasn’t with the woman who’d broken up his marriage anymore. He was free, too free. Another blurse. 

At one point during the ride Al had called.

“Your dad says hi.”

I mentioned Crystal’s upcoming coffeehouse because Al would want to know. 

After Jim had gone, the Fuck-Us broke down. Al called and asked me if I needed a ride. He loved watching Crystal’s act.

When Crystal was at St. Laurentius I made her play basketball, even though she wanted no parts. I know, evil momma. I had to do something. She didn’t seem to do much except watch TV. Well, send your kids to that school, and you find out fast that Al Delaney’s all over the place. Al coached the kids in a Saturday morning league and I figured if anyone could get my daughter interested in sports, it was him. Al had been a three-letter man in high school and played semipro baseball. He’d signed with the Cincinnati Reds, but then he’d broken his leg. That didn’t keep sports from dominating his life. Guys who Al coached, some of them who made it to the pros, would come back to the neighborhood and take Al to dinner. Two girls he’d coached made it to the USA Olympic soccer team. But the not-so-talented kids loved him, too. Al made it fun and challenging, but mainly fun. 

“It’s just a game,” he’d say. The exceptionally gifted ones heard “It’s life or death,” and all the others heard, “You can develop skills here that will see you through, starting with being a member of a team.”

If Al Delaney couldn’t get Crystal DeMarco into sports, nobody could. So it was that Al the unstoppable force met Crystal the unmovable object. She did not want to be there. In games she’d stay as far away from the ball as possible. We’re talking basketball here. When anybody threw her the ball, she immediately threw it away, didn’t matter to which member of which team. When they ran down the court, she’d sort of skip along the sidelines. It was painful to watch. But good came of it. First, little sister Debbie sat with me in the stands and focused on the accomplished players like a dog might worry a bone. She swore that she’d kick ass when she got her chance, and damn if she didn’t. 

Second, we found out what Crystal really wanted to do. Al found out. When I walked over to the school to get her one time, she met me outside the gym and said, “Mr. Delaney wants to talk to you.”

“Wait here.”

The place was dark, and smelled of rubber, sweat, and trash cans that needed emptying. Nothing had changed since when I went there. Except for the presence of Al Delaney. He sat on the bleachers next to a guitar, looking like one of those aged rock stars in reverie after a fine performance, getting out to sit where the audience — the love — had been.

“I didn’t know you played,” I said. 

“Don’t,” he said. “But, you know, my mother wanted me to play. She just knew I could be a musician, God bless her. Wanted to name me ‘Ludwig,’ but Dad vetoed that, thank God. She got me lessons with some old biddy. And I hated every minute and finally my father stepped in and said, ‘Let the boy play sports!’ And that’s where I shined.” 

I know the secret songs that guys carry inside. Jim Delaney’s was a ballad, a memory of rebellion that had gone wrong. Marty’s was swing from the 1930s. Truck, even though he’d renounced religion, carried those old Baptist spirituals. Al’s was a jingle, so upbeat you’d swear he was selling something. 

I said: “So you’re telling me that Crystal isn’t an athlete?” Me, trying to be funny.

“But she could be a wonderful musician,” he said. 

“She sings,” I admitted.

“I saw how she looked when one of the other kids played guitar. You see a look like that in a kid’s eyes, you need to act.”

“How much are lessons?” I had just paid tuition. 

“Miss Ida Blanton says she’ll do it for free,” Al said. 

Ida was the music teacher, crotchety, hard of hearing. The milk of human kindness had curdled in her by the time I went to Laurentius and it had been getting more sour with the years. Ida? 

“When you drop Crystal off on Saturdays, when I run the games, she’ll be teaching Crystal,” Al said.

“For free?”

“Well, with Ida, I do for her, she does for me. It’s like that.”

Oh, I see.

Al had women half his age chasing him, but he never really showed much interest. Maria was the only one for him. 

But hell, you got to hand it to old Ida. Go for it, girl!

“Here,” Al said, leaning the guitar toward me.

“I can’t take that.”

“Why not? It’s not doing anybody else any good.”

“Doesn’t it have, you know, sentimental value?”

“No. Now my old baseball mitt — that I would never give away. In fact, I want to be buried with it. This thing?” He extended his arm and I took it. “This just reminds me of the one time my saintly mother rubbed me the wrong way. Mom would be happy that somebody with talent is getting some use out of it.”

Crystal took to it. I’d always thought of her as the quiet, analytical one but the girl’s got passion to fill the Delaware. I do dread people looking at me and saying “stage mom.” I questioned myself, got other opinions. Am I pushing her? I’d talked to Johnny McBride earlier that night. He laughed.

“Pushing her? Just try and stop her.”

“You see something.”

Johnny look at me as if I’d just beamed down. My eyes kept flitting to the polished bald head. Back in the day his dark hair had rocketed off his face like exclamation points. Time.

“You see something,” he said. “Let me point out the obvious. Crystal’s got a ton of talent, which is important. Talent’s not the only thing, but Crystal’s got a ton of it. But the thing is, she’s also got … you know, the guts and the heart to get up there and do it. Talent’s part of the equation. Part talent, part guts, courage, drive and motivation to get out there and go play everywhere you can and every time you can.”

Now, as Crystal and Johnny did their thing, I turned to Al and said, “See what you created?”

“Yeah, isn’t she great?”

As Mom’s relatives would say: The craic was good. I mellowed out a little. Put Bobby’s murder, Jim’s breakdown, and Dizzy’s resurrection behind me. Forgot that I was 39 about to turn 40. Stopped thinking of the upcoming move, and the GED. I wished I had a drink (what the hell? I wasn’t driving) but nothing’s perfect in this world. 

Crystal finished her duet and was hanging around with the musicians over in the corner when Al said, “I think we should talk to Lotty.” 

“In that house?” I looked over to Crystal. I fought an irrational need to go and hold her.

“Miss Lotty might know something,” Al said. 

“Why?” 

“Because Bobby wrote things. He didn’t keep diaries exactly. He had journals. He wrote down thoughts and experiments and stories and formulas, but real-life things would slip through. You know, ‘Dental appointment tomorrow,’ or ‘Must work on being more patient’ or ‘Tell Dad I am sorry,’ or ‘Lotty holds the key.’”

“Hell’s that mean? Key to what?” I shifted in my seat, felt Bobby’s love letter pressed against my butt cheek.

“She stops at Iffy’s.”

“Sometimes she’ll even buy a drink,” I said. “Mostly though she stops at the back door for food. Maybe I’ll give her a six-pack.”

“Cheryl.”

He held out his hands in a what-the-fuck gesture. I sat up, my back straight.

“Me denying her booze is not going to sober her up,” I explained. “She’ll get it somewhere. You want Miss Lotty to barter with thugs?”

“You’re enabling her.” 

The gentlest of rebukes from Al the grandfather, but I wasn’t taking it. 

“I am protecting her,” I said. “Me giving her beer gets her home behind locked doors.”

“But….”

I held up my hand.

“I also drive her to the AA meetings down on Frankford Avenue. She goes in, eats a donut, leaves. It doesn’t take, Al. Do you want to drive her next time?”

“I overstepped,” he said, holding out his hands, arching back.

“I don’t mind.”

But I do, really.

I said: “I don’t like to say anyone can’t be helped, but Miss Lotty? I watch out for her when the addicts are scrounging for change. Sometimes the best you can do is ease somebody’s passing.”

Al smiled with his eyes.

“You can’t always save the world, Cheryl.”

“But maybe I can keep Miss Lotty from being rolled.”

He nodded, looked at his hands. 

“You know….” He swallowed, as if trying to get something down, but I know he was trying to get something out.

“Go ahead, Al. It’s me.”

“It’s just that I never told you how I admire you for kicking that shit.”

“You never really kick it. You only have a truce. It’s like the Korean War. It’s still on, just that’s there’s been a 60-year ceasefire.”

“Worse than a plague, drugs are,” Al said. “It messes up people. Messed up you and that Dizzy. Turned him into a creep. A dead creep, now.”

“He’d been dead to me a long time before they told me he was dead.” 

I needed to tell somebody about Dizzy, but not Al.

“I pray for him, for all the departed,” Al said.

“I pray for the dead. Did you tell the cops?”

“About the Miss Lotty connection? She won’t tell a cop anything, you know that. We need to visit her.”

I glanced across the room, and a finger of panic poked my throat, making me choke. I stood.

“Where’s Crystal?” 

She flicked a wave to me from the shadows. Her antenna must have picked up my concern. 

Don’t wander.

She came more into the light, with a stud musician in tow. We were going to have to talk.

“You’re still jumpy,” Al said, when I sat.

“Look, Al, you don’t need me to visit Miss Lotty.”

“She knows you; seems to like you.”

Seems. She was quiet, that one. No singing. No long stories. No drunken confessions. 

“I guess somewhere in that noman’s land of a brain, she may harbor a soft spot for her favorite bartender.”

“She’d open the door for you, Cheryl. Invite you in.”

But I don’t want to go in.

Al looked away, shook his head as I watched another of the guys who’d been talking to Crystal start to tune a guitar. He looked to be about 20. Cute. I saw him smile quickly at Crystal and she gave him a thumb’s-up.

Hands off, dude.

I glanced again at Al as he argued with ghosts at the bottom of his coffee mug. Here, I thought ghosts only dwell in alcohol fumes.

“As if the gunman’s vanished,” he said. “Your friend MacFarland, he’s not the sharpest, is he?”

Why do people feel the need to take potshots at Flash in my presence?

“Sharp enough to want people to think that way about him,” I said.

“You’re carrying. Is that because you feel so safe?”

“You can tell?”

I thought my jacket hid it. 

“Cheryl, everybody in Fishtown knows you’re carrying.”

Good.

“Listen, Al. These things sometimes take a bit of digging. Nobody’s going to get away with nothing.”

“Promise?” 

“It is my educated guess, as someone knowledgeable in the ways of human nature and the daughter of a policeman, that those assholes will be caught. They were way too sloppy, way too out there. Why didn’t they wait outside for him? Why didn’t they wait until he was alone?”

“Exactly.”

“They wanted what they did to be known to somebody,” I said. “It was a message.”

“Where do you come up with this stuff, Cheryl?”

“I might be barking out my ass.”

“Still, everything you say, I thought. I’m hoping the cops think it too.” Then he reached over, touched my elbow and added: “What do you say? Lotty’s?” 

I looked at his hand — spotted and wrinkly — the only part of Al that acted its age. Well, the only part I wanted to see, anyway.

I said, “I need to ask you about Jim.”

“I talked about drugs being horrible a few minutes ago,” Al said. “I realize about alcohol, too.”

“Jim said….”

“Did you know that when an alcoholic relapses, it’s not like he’s back on a gradual decline,” Al said. “If when before he got sober he’d hit rock bottom, if he’d been on the streets, in the gutter, totally heading for death, that’s where he hits when he goes off the wagon. There are no stages. He’s right back to where he’d been wallowing at his worst.”

I let that sit.

“Jim told me what he told you and it’s true,” Al said

“Sure it’s true. Nobody gets that busted up over nothing.”

“It was in the papers. And they kept his name classified but then they had to put it out there. By that time Jim had been pulled from the field.”

“I saw the article.”

“He’d developed this confidential informant. He really admired the guy. The guy saved Jim’s life two times. Twice. Guy got himself wounded doing it. This guy was rock solid. One of the moderate Muslims, someone we could depend on. Then he….”

“Why did he do it?”

“Been deep cover mole all along.” Al sipped his coffee, thought about it a moment. “That was the end of the Jim we all knew. He just could not forgive himself. He always liked his beer. Drinking just … happened.”

The dude Crystal liked so much; now it was his turn. He sang about waking up one morning and waiting for the bus in the cold and thinking about a girl he loved who had walked out on him. It was all very sad. I thought about what Jim had told me on our long ride. How only 1 percent of the country does the fighting and everybody else wants to pretend nothing’s going on.

I asked, “Didn’t the agency….”

“The agency was great. Every time he relapsed, they put him in rehab. Five times. Jim would joke that he should be dating Lindsay Lohan. They never demoted him. In fact they were so nice that Jim had to leave. He couldn’t take the niceness. With his background and clearance, he got that job with that pharmaceutical company like that. Made a ton of money but that didn’t last either. You know, he cheated on Eloise.”

“I know.”

“That ended that. That’s what I mean. Jim takes vows seriously. His oath to his country and to his marriage were sacred to him. Jim disappeared. You see what he looks like. Then, little by little he tried to come back one last time. He’d gotten to the point where he cared again when Bobby was killed. He blames himself.”

“That’s just stupid,” I said.

“Nothing can convince him otherwise. He’ll keep himself together….”

“Sure he will.”

“At least enough to help find Bobby’s killer. He’ll keep himself together that long.” 

I could see the familiar, bright-eyed Al wilt as he talked. In his place slumped the old man Al would be if he could ever admit that he aged. What happened to Bobby and was happening to Jim would go on happening to Al. He’ll prove to be mortal yet.

He looked at me shyly. 

“Look, Cheryl, I realize that you going into Miss Lotty’s….”

I put my hand on his shoulder. 

“We’ve all been places recently that we’d rather not go.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

A few mornings later, Al and I stood outside Miss Lotty’s house on Norris Street. A couple of the windows were broken and boarded up. The rusted railing on the five steps leading up to the front door tilted. You could see that it had once been black, but had corroded into a brownish grayish decay. It would soon collapse. 

A light drizzle coated Fishtown.  

I went up to the door, knocked. I waited one minute by my watch. Knocked again. Two minutes. Knocked again. I was getting wet and aggravated. 

“Lotty?” I called. “It’s me? Cheryl from Iffy’s?”

I held up the paper bag I carried to the peephole. 

“What do you want?” The voice scratched its way through the crack under the door. 

“It’s safe, Miss Lotty.”

A cop car parked on the corner purred in the late-morning wetness. There was a cop car on this block a lot. Sometimes the bicycle cops road about, too. You’d see them with their yellow jackets (cute!), and just them being there was enough. Kids around here were rough, and Lotty wasn’t the only old lady target. 

“Lotty, it’s Cheryl?”

“Who else is with you?”

I tried to see if I knew the cop and he blinked his lights. Well, he knew me and I might have known him but I couldn’t tell. Flash would be hearing about this visit. 

OK by me.  

“Al Delaney,” I said. I grabbed Al by his jacket, placed him in front of the peephole. “Bobby’s father? He’s not the SPCA, Lotty. Promise.”

The city tried to evict Lotty about 10 times over the years and an old friend of her father’s — pretty sharp downtown lawyer — got her off the hook. He’d hire guys to go in there and clean the place out, take out whole dumpsters worth of shit, then give all the cats to the SPCA (where, of course, they killed them — probably why Lotty was always in mourning). They made her promise to be good. The hearings didn’t last long. The city and the state would have to be Lotty’s guardians if they threw her out and so long as there was a chance that she could live by herself safely — and cleanly — with the help of her father’s estate, then they didn’t want to take that step. 

Still, neighbors complained periodically and the little local newspaper, the Fishtown Tattle, wrote stories. (Dad’s picture used to be in the Tattle a lot when I was a girl. He’d be giving some PAL award or swearing in auxiliary police.) When the old lawyer died, the Iffy’s regulars took bets about how long it would take before Lotty was carted off. Then, the old lawyer’s son took over, carrying on the family tradition.

You can’t miss the house. It’s next door to an abandoned lot, with overgrown weeds and she lets her cats out there to hunt for mice. It’s big inside.

Everyone knew the dark outlines of Lotty Carlisle’s decline and fall. She’d once been a promising, pretty daughter of a medical student and an art major. Then her parents divorced and both went on some vision quest to find themselves, but those journeys toward the light didn’t include the kid. Lotty moved away from Fishtown but then somehow, seemingly at two-year intervals, always returned. Every re-emergence presented a Lotty that was just a tad more shy, a little bit stranger. Pretty but peculiar and her looks didn’t protect her; in fact the mean girls targeted Lotty. 

She barely escaped childhood with her sanity, like a lot people do. Most of us can shrug off the embarrassments and humiliations of youth, and some us use the material to fashion ourselves into the heroes of our generation or, at least, of our imaginations.

Unfortunately, Miss Lotty got married. Mr. Carlisle was an asshole who beat her, but she still loved him the way that some girls do. She stuck with him, and would bitch-slap anybody who’d say anything bad about him. They had a child, and it didn’t ease martial discord when rumors spread that Mr. Carlisle was not the biological father. 

One day the 11-month old crawled into the dryer in the summertime and that’s where they found the body. Lotty still carries a laminated picture of the little casket; it’s pinned to her dress. The jerk husband left, and maybe that was a bonus, but Lotty never saw it that way. The city investigated Lotty for negligence and she’d had the first of her major breakdowns on the afternoon the jury ruled “not guilty.” Who knows? Maybe Miss Lotty thought that they’d made a mistake. She didn’t talk much after that.

 Now, she again asked: “What do you want?” 

“I brought beer?”

The door inched open just as the rain started coming down for real. A pile of unopened mail and magazines fell out. 

“Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” I said, and Al and me pushed through. 

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could see Lotty’s face, looking as if I had just told a dirty joke in church. 

“You are coming into my home,” she said. The two cats at her feet eyed us. A few critters behind her bounded up the shadowy stairway. I took it in, the buckets on the floor catching water, the peeling wallpaper, the nicks, scratches, and stains. Distinct odor of kitty litter that had been much abused. Also, rotting vegetables. It smelled like when you get stuck behind a trash truck in August. There were some rodent corpses somewhere, too. I did not gag.

“Just in time, you saved us from getting drowned,” I said. 

She eyed the bag, looked to be chewing slowly on her tongue. “Whatcha got?’

“Rolling Rock. See, I remember.”

She blinked, closed the door. The rain scratched the house like strays that wanted in.

“Cheryl,” she said.

It was a statement. I never felt so solid. I was one of the anchors of Lotty the Catwoman’s world. 

“Yes, Miss Lotty. It’s me.”

She stepped back, still somewhat barring the way. We could go so far and no further. She pushed her thousand-yard stare in Al’s direction. 

“Your son was killed,” she said. 

“Yes.”

“Murdered.” 

“Cheryl, here, she tried to save him.  Fought off the man who did it.”

“We wanted to talk to you about Bobby,” I said.

She turned, shuffled down the hall. I had heard that she’d once studied to be a ballerina. Took some imagination to picture that. 

She turned left into the living room. There were newspapers, heaps of clothes, and stuff she must have trash-picked. I think I saw a microwave oven, a space heater and about six or seven dishes of cat food. Three old standing lamps crowded into one corner. Three mirrors, one of them on the floor leaning against the wall. Wild hats with fake flowers and loop-de-loop ribbons hung on nails in the wall. There was a torn “Go Phillies” banner (“Go Phill…”). There were half empty MacDonald’s bags and even on this cool damp day, flies buzzed about. The peeling paint created competing brown and blue surfaces. I couldn’t tell which was the newer coat. Everything looked as if it’d been partially chewed or clawed. I’d heard that Lotty got cat food delivered in bulk direct from the manufacturer. I closed my eyes, for a second, tried to recall the place as it had once been.

No. Don’t go there.

When was the last time she’d been cited, the last time her lawyer had had the place cleaned? Six months ago? A year? I wondered how long it took her to gather this much decrepitude. 

“You’re not going to tell on me, are you?” she said. 

“That’s not why we’re here,” Al said. 

She looked at me.

“It’s the truth,” I said.

 “Have a seat,” she said. 

Al and I looked at each other. Where was a seat? My hand had been resting on a couple of folding chairs. I hadn’t even noticed. I handed one to Al. Lotty collapsed in her lounger, which looked to be the only unoccupied space in that room. 

I took the six-pack out, pulled away a can, stepped carefully over some piles of whatever, and handed her one. She took it, pulled the tab, and took a swig. The foam ran down the corners of her mouth, and she wiped with a Kleenex, swiped from a box at her side. Dabbing the corners of her mouth like a pantomime of high tea.

“Happy birthday,” I said. “Nothing like that first taste of the day, right?”

“It’s not my birthday,” she said.

“We’re celebrating late.”

Crystal that morning had scolded: “You’re going to bribe that old alcoholic with beer?”

“Yes,” I had said. 

“That’s immoral.”

“Situation ethics,” I said. “They teach you that in school, yet? A poor mother steals a loaf of bread in order to feed her hungry children. Right or wrong?”

“Not the bread story,” she said.

“I’d do it again, if I had to.”

“But Mom, you said yourself there were other things going on. Really the stealing was part of the dysfunction. Besides, Dizzy Tanner stole the bread.”

“Stealing bread to feed the children,” I repeated.

“And beer for a street lady,” Crystal said. “Yeah, there’s a real similarity there.” 

“Right or wrong?” I challenged. “Right or wrong?”

Now, Al said, “Bobby and you were friends.”

“Your son called me an idiot.” Lotty smiled. 

“My son would never say that to a woman.”

Lotty focused on the space between Al and me. Sometimes she made eye contact, but that took something out of her. 

“Called me the idiot seven,” she said.

I said, “Savant, Al. Bobby was calling her an idiot savant.”

“He said it under his breath,” Lotty said. 

“When did he say it, sweetie?”

“Playing ‘Transfer.’”

“Transfer?” I asked. 

“Our game. Bobby invented it.”

Al said, “He never mentioned that to me.”

I asked, “How does it go?”

She started rocking.

“Miss Lotty, this is Cheryl.”

“I know who you are!” she shouted suddenly, grasping the arms of the lounger and becoming rigid. She bared her teeth, leaned forward. There were gaps in her grimace, the teeth that were there were brown and yellow. 

“It’s OK,” I said. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

“They hurt Bobby!”

“Don’t be afraid, Lotty,” I said. “No one here’s going to hurt you. This is Cheryl. This is Al. We want to find out who hurt Bobby, that’s all. Maybe the game, Transfer, has something to do with it. What is Transfer, Lotty?” 

“Game.”

“Yes, a game. But what?”

“Bobby wrote.”

Al said, “Yes, Bobby wrote all the time.

I said, “What did Bobby write?”

“Messages,” Lotty said. 

I said, “Messages that he wrote?”

“In disguise,” she said. “I figured his messages out. I did the math.”

I stood, reached into my back pocket. 

“Does this have a message, Miss Lotty?”

I stepped over some debris, like I was doing a yoga exercise, handed her a copy of the letter Bobby had given me. She merely glanced at it.

“Yes,” she said, the shadow of a smile flickering. “There’s a message here. Is Bobby coming?”

“Bobby Delaney’s dead, Miss Lotty,” I said. “You remember that, right?”

Al pointed at the letter, “What is that?”

I gave him a not-now look, as I stepped back into my seat. 

“Is that Transfer, Lotty?”

“‘Hi Lorraine,’” she quoted. “That always opens it. That starts the game. We were at first going to call the game ‘Hi Lorraine.’”

Al asked: “Is that your real name? Lorraine? Your Baptismal name?”

Rocking, rocking, rocking.

I said, “Only Bobby Delaney called you by your real name, is that it?”

“He called me special,” Lotty said. “Is he coming? He always makes me laugh.”

Al started to explain again, “Lotty, Bobby’s….”

I grabbed his arm. 

“Play the game, Miss Lotty,” I said.

“Bobby’s not here.”

“This might help us,” I said. 

“Help?”

Al said, “It might help us find his….”

I squeezed his arm again.

She reached into the side of her lounger, pulled out a school copybook. 

“Transfer,” she mumbled. She produced a pen that had been stuck inside the notebook like a page marker. She started deciphering, writing and crossing out, looking at the words, holding the paper up to the tip of her nose, squinting. Her tongue extended out the side of her mouth, and she looked like a kid either pretending to be dead, or Michael Jordan taking on a full-court press. Over in the corner on a bureau was a photo of a baby boy. Somebody had shellacked it for her. 

“I done this one before,” Lotty said, looking up and tucking her tongue back into her jaw. 

“Can I see?” 

She clutched the copybook to her. 

“It’s Transfer,” she said. 

I was standing over her, balancing myself on some old books and a pile of clothes. Just then a cat strutted from behind the lounger and I jumped. 

“Jinx!” Lotty called. 

Jinx number whatever shot me a desultory look and then bounded away, knocking down a pile of magazines, and upending an empty bowl. 

“He can move for a cat that size,” I said. “Might want to make him the official mascot for Iffy’s.”

I turned back to Al, who stood and looked fiercely at the copybook. 

“You see the size of that cat, Al?”

A nod, his eyes still transfixed on Miss Lotty.

Come on, Al. You’re going to scare her.

I said to Lotty, “You know, Bobby always said you were the best at Transfer. Said you are amazing. I told him I didn’t believe him. Told him nobody could be that good.” 

“Did you play with him?” Lotty asked. 

“I wanted to but he wouldn’t let me. I tried once and I just wasn’t any good at it. He said, ‘Sorry, Cheryl. Only one who can play this game is Lotty.’”

“He said that?”

“Would I lie?”

Al coughed.

A scene flashed before me. Some neighborhood I couldn’t even remember. Might have been Camden. Shadows around me growing as the shit worked its way through my veins. Wondering if I should kill myself. It had all been built on lies. 

“Can I see how good you are, Miss Lotty?”

She looked down at the copybook, like a mother might watch a sleeping baby. 

Suddenly, she tore the page out. I thought for a minute she might rip it up, but instead she handed it over, reminding me of one of my girls giving up something I’d confiscated. 

“Wow!” I said, with a whistle. “Would you look at this?”

I remembered a picture of Einstein standing in a room of blackboards covered with these sorts of equations. 

“It’s fantastic.”

Lotty clapped her hands quickly like a little girl whose father had just won her a stuffed animal. 

“Bobby says I’m incredible.”  

“What did Bobby say that it meant?”

“That you will never get old, Cheryl.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The rain had stopped by the time Al and I left. We were both drained. 

“I need to get this to Flash,” I said. “This is a bona fide clue.”

“Flash won’t know what it means,” Al said. 

We were getting into his car. I looked around, but the cop wasn’t there anymore. 

“I’m making a copy, maybe two,” I said. “Drop me off at the library, will you?”

Al stared ahead for a moment. He sighed, turned the key and started off. “I don’t know if anybody will know what to make of it, Cheryl. I always knew that Bobby was in his own little world. He was a sweet soul.”

“Brilliant.”

“Oh, God. Yes. That.”

“I sampled his homemade brew.”

“My son made the only beer guaranteed never to give you a hangover no matter how much you drank.”

“Sounds like experience talking.”

“I wonder if he kept the formula somewhere? Making beer might be a neat hobby to take up.”

By this point we were about a half block away from the library.

“Here’s OK, Al,” I said. 

I made the copies and dropped one off at the precinct. Flash escorted me out, starring down the traffic on Montgomery Avenue that crawled carefully by. 

“They might be in Florida, they might be in Alaska,” he said. “They might be on Frankford Avenue or hunkering down in one of those nice crack houses in North Philly. Doesn’t matter. I’m going to get them. That’s my promise to the Delaney family. Oh, before I forget, tell your stepfather — Mr. Andrews — that I am checking out what he said about the little nuke.” Flash’s face betrayed no hint of skepticism. He was good. 

“Don’t kill yourself,” I said. “It’s Truck.” Technically, he was my stepfather.

“He’s a joiner, isn’t he?”

“Never met a conspiracy theory that he didn’t buy,” I said.  

That night at Iffy’s I was excited. I was Antonio DeMarco’s daughter after all. I’d finally sprung the Fuck-Us from the shop, too. For the first time since the shooting, nobody mentioned Bobby. The Phillies were in spring training and everybody couldn’t wait to see the Four Aces in action.

The girls were at friends’ houses and after closing up Iffy’s, I packed as many boxes as I could, trying not to make too much noise as I carried them down the stairs. By the time I’d loaded up and started on I-95, it was around 4 a.m. I decided that I’d sleep at the new apartment. A few visits prior, we’d spread some sleeping bags on the floor.

I was alert. I watched to make sure that nobody followed. Here’s the problem: Somebody can hang back a good ways if they’re tailing you on a superhighway, or know where you’re going. I didn’t notice a thing until I got off the Academy Road exit and by that time he wanted me to notice. He turned on his brights, came up fast.

Give me a break!

He did back off, but did not disappear. He followed me through the Upper Northeast, pass Nazareth Hospital, across Roosevelt Boulevard and on toward Fox Chase. 

This isn’t coincidence.

I wanted to call Flash or 911 but didn’t. He hadn’t really done anything. When I got to the golden statue of a lion that’s at Bustleton and Southhampton Avenues the asshole finally turned off. 

Alleluia.

I swung onto Verree Road, headed toward Tustin Street, my soon-to-be new home. I smiled when I saw the dark trees of Pennypack Park. I am so going to love exploring those woods.

Suddenly, a car pulled out from one of the side streets, nearly back-ending me. 

What the…? 

Blinding light and then a crunch. The guy rammed me. 

I struggled to hold the car on the road, then floored it.

Lights blinded me again. 

“Shit!” 

Another ramming and this time I shot over the curb. The Fuck-Us flew off a slope, slammed the ground and headed toward a tree. The airbag popped and I felt as if I’d belly-flopped in a pool. I managed to push the brake down as far as it could go but that’s not what saved me.

What saved me was this: The ground was still muddy and the tires couldn’t get traction. The Fuck-Us just died, sighed and decided “the hell with this” a few feet from solid oak. As the car rocked, I tried to catch my breath and reach for Selma. No good. My arm was pressed against my chest. Out on Verree, an engine shut off, a door slammed. Footsteps rushed toward me. 

A light shined in my face as I pushed my shoulder against the door and fell out. I hit the ground at his shoes, and an instant before I tried to roll under the car, I glanced up and saw his badge. 

The cop asked, “Have you been drinking, miss?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

On that cold March night in 1998, I took two buses to the Aramingo Diner. It was Friday. Mom would be playing bridge. Dad would be eating out, ordering the tuna noodle casserole and drinking about seven cups of coffee. All that caffeine and yet the man slept dead. 

Evening settled early as I staked a spot around the corner from the diner’s entrance, in the parking lot. I smoked, pretending like I waited for someone, which I was, but I’d been told to move too many times off corners or from in front of shops so I tried to look impatient, which, again, I was. 

I shivered, my nose dripped, and my cough was dry and persistent. I probably ran a fever, too. Lights from the cars and overheads splashed upon the asphalt, conjuring little rainbows in oil slicks, and rain this side of freezing stung my face. I couldn’t stop shaking. I’d only worn a dungaree jacket; I’d hocked my winter coat. I felt in my pockets, counted the coins. Realized I didn’t have enough bus fare to make it back home. 

Damn. This better work.

Trying to warm myself, I paced a bit, and as I walked by the diner’s window I glanced over and thought I saw Lotty the Catwoman. What the hell was she doing here? I stepped toward her and Lotty tottered a bit toward me and I realized that I looked at my reflection. I laughed. 

Come on, Miss Lotty’s a hundred years older than you. 

That mix-up wasn’t the strange part, though. The strange part was that my mistake forced a moment of clarity. A horn sounded on the street — the loneliest noise I’d ever heard and it made my insides drop like they do on a rollercoaster. I’d realized that I’d made my life into solitary confinement. I was a prisoner of poor choices, my only contact to the outside world being to once in a while tap on the walls of addiction and listen for Dizzy to tap back. 

I held myself. I knew that I’d probably be dead soon. I accepted that; sometimes I welcomed it. That night, though, I felt just how much emptiness weighs. 

Time to go.

I stayed, of course, but I did something I hadn’t done since I was little. I prayed. And it wasn’t one of those “just let me score,” or “I need money,” or “don’t let Dizzy leave me.” It was acknowledgement of where I’d put myself. 

“Please, dear God,” I whispered, bowing my head. The wet strings of hair dangling into my eyes looked like prison bars. “Please help me get out of this.”

They say that God answers all prayers; that if you ask with humility whatever happens to you is the answer. It might not be the answer you want. I always thought that lets God off the hook, and years before when I dropped out of Catholic high school, I had decided that this life is all there is. Spirits belong in ghost stories. I wanted out. I was just about to walk off, to find me a blade and park my ass on a warm vent and cut myself to the deep sleep. 

That’ll teach them.

Then Antonio’s Lincoln Continental pulled into the lot. If I hadn’t pawned my watch I would have checked to see just how late he was. I knew it was him because he parked in a spot at the far end, facing out. Dad never liked the idea of someone behind him. 

He and Flash emerged and I started walking toward the door, timing myself. They were talking intensely about something then strode in silence, Flash looking a little defensive. 

“I promise you, sir, we are closing in on night owl,” Flash said. Of course, I didn’t give a damn what night owl was. I didn’t give a damn about much in those days. I’d learned years later, when I did give a damn, that night owl was a program that Antonio spearheaded to change the way plain cloths detectives operate.

They didn’t notice me skulking among the cars until they were about 20 steps away and Dad said, “Hold it” and put his hand on Flash’s chest. 

I darted over. 

“Daddy!” I said. “Please, Daddy!”

Usually, Antonio would look through me and keep walking. 

“Go ahead, Sergeant,” he said. “This will take a second.”

Flash stalked off, scowling and hating what I’d put my father through.

“I heard you were out,” Dad said, coming closer and lowering his voice. 

I faced charges for possession and burglary. I’d been out of jail three days, and high for two. Then, the withdrawal and Dizzy hightailing it to who-the-hell-knows where.

“You didn’t visit me. Mommy did.”

“Look at you.”

“I don’t have food, Daddy.”

“Where’s Dizzy?”

“Looking for a job.”

Lie. 

“You haven’t even asked about the girls.” 

Somehow I’d wrangled a deal with my mother, and they took the kids for about six months, but they never tried to become legal guardians. Mom said later that they just hadn’t gotten around to it.

“Mom told me they’re OK. I asked.” 

Lie.

He shook his head.

“You need help, Cheryl. If you’re going to live any sort of life, you need real help. But I’ve told you that before, haven’t I?”

“I promise this time….” 

Lie.

“We’ve been through it. I’ve been through it. I don’t know what I can do to make you change. You’re throwing your life away. I never thought I’d have a child who….”

He bowed his head, put his face in his hands. That was the only time I ever saw my father cry and it kind of disgusted me. Even as screwed up as I was, I was shocked. Then, I felt embarrassed. This is a man who should not ever, ever cry. Maybe others, but not Antonio DeMarco, the baddest-ass cop in Fishtown. This was a Mount Rushmore of men. It just wasn’t right.

“Daddy,” I said. “Please?”

“What do you get out of it?” he asked. 

“I’m going to clean up this time, promise.”

Lie.

What I got out of smack was warmth sliding through me like syrup and melting my problems. It was better than sex because you really didn’t have to work. You didn’t need to deal with another person. It was just you and the feeling. 

I’ve thought about that night often over the years. For some stretches I could think of nothing else but that night. I tried to see it through my father’s eyes. There before him stood the little girl he’d pushed on the swing. I was always such a go-getter in grade school and we’d talk about history and, especially, geography. Dad loved geography. I was his favorite.

“Don’t cry, Daddy. Please don’t cry. It kills me to see you sad.”

Lie. 

I only cared about getting high.

He rubbed his forehead, his eyes, forming a mask of self-control. 

“You want money,” he said. 

“It’s not just about the money.”

Lie.

“And?”

“Dizzy lost his job, Dad!”

Lie.

“I’ve been looking but can’t find nothing.”

Lie.

“You’re not working because you’re a junkie and a pusher, Cheryl. So’s Dizzy.”

“We both want to change, though. We’ve signed up for rehab at the clinic. We’re starting next Monday.”

Lie, lie, and lie.

Antonio looked at some passing flashing lights. I don’t remember everything he said when he turned back. The gist was that he’d give me money if I promised to stick with the program. 

“Sure!” I said quickly, and I could see the deadness enter his eyes, the way he must look when he arrested a particularly offensive critter. I’d been in dozens of programs before. Nothing ever stuck because I didn’t want anything to stick. You need to get inside the head of a junkie to understand.

He threw his shoulders back, steeled himself. 

“Come around tomorrow at 10,” he said. “Your mother will be out. I’ll be in the basement, back by my workout room.”

“Do you have a few bucks just to tied me over?”

I need something tonight, man. Now.

“OK, Cheryl,” he said, pulling out his wallet. “Here’s a $100. Oops!” The bill fluttered out of his hand, landed in the puddle I’d been standing in. I bent and scooped it. A dog could have shitted it out and I would have picked through the feces. 

He said, “I’ve got more, but you need to come around tomorrow or else the spigot dries up. Listen to me. I still believe in you, Cheryl.”

“I won’t let you down this time, Daddy,” I said, stepping back. I needed to get the hell out of there, make a call.

“Remember that I am telling you this,” he said. The fog had thickened and my concentration waned. Antonia was a blur, and his words barely reached me. “You are better than this life that you are leading.”

Then he walked away and I ran to the pay phone down on the corner, scoring smack and a ride home. Later that night, the rush hit me and I felt so peaceful and happy. I tried to remember at one point how it happened. 

“Your father,” Dizzy reminded. 

He’d come home. He had an unerring instinct that told him whenever I scored. He was always happy to join me, especially when I paid.

Somehow the next morning I got my ass out of bed. Dizzy pulled me by my leg and dragged me onto the floor. 

“What the fuck?” I screamed. 

“Your old man,” he shouted. “The money. Don’t fuck this up.”

“OK, I’m up.”

“Bullshit! Get up! Now!”

“Motherfucker!” 

The neighbor banged on the wall. We were at our second home, Scratch’s place on Allen Street. The neighbor was an alcoholic asshole so we stopped fighting long enough to yell at him to fuck off. 

Here’s what I didn’t notice as I walked down Allen to Montgomery, down Montgomery across Girard, and down Norris Street that morning. I didn’t notice that the sky was clear, and a warm front had moved in. I didn’t notice that daffodils, crocuses, mums, and bellflowers had already started to bloom because of the mild winter. (I hadn’t noticed the mild winter.) I didn’t notice the statues of Mary and Saint Joseph that centered many a little lawn. I didn’t notice the flags in the windows and yellow ribbons tied around trees, or telephone poles. I didn’t notice that kids were out in force — didn’t make the connection that it must be Saturday. Later I remembered all of these things that I didn’t notice. 

I did notice — right then — that I felt nervous. My fever from the night before had broken but that damn cough would swoop up and rattle me from inside. I had to stop a few times and lean against a wall. I couldn’t tell if the jitteriness sprung from my cold or from the drugs. I almost at one point turned around.

Fuck Dizzy. When’s the last time he got money?

I hadn’t been on this side of Fishtown in a while. I avoided Dad, Mom, old friends, my childhood home. In years to come, my mother would avoid that section, too, but for different reasons. One of them being that it cut her to see how the house that she’d lovingly cared for decayed more and more as Miss Lotty and her cats settled in. The DeMarco plan had always been to keep it so that her three children could come back for Thanksgiving, even though my brother lived in Malaysia and my sister was stationed in South Korea. They called Mom once a week, but avoided me, and still do. 

The house stood at attention, the cleanest dwelling on the street. Mom would scrub the steps and the sidewalk. Dad mowed the lot next door even though the city owned it. The railing that tilted in rust and ruin when Al Delaney and I visited Miss Lotty, proudly anchored an American flag. 

That day the door was open, which was good since they’d changed the locks after I robbed them the second time. I’d sold the shit — Mom’s jewelry, mainly — before they could confront me. Another idyllic memory.

“I’m here!” 

I went through the living room, where the curtains were open and sunlight blazed in, just as Mom liked. I thought I heard whispering, and jumped at something that moved. It was me in the mirror. Another coughing fit and I nearly passed out watching how scarlet my face became.

Fucking reflections.

At least I didn’t mistake myself for Miss Lotty this time. 

“Daddy?”

Voices crept up through the floorboards. Was he on the phone? Watching TV? It wasn’t until I opened the basement door that I realized that the conversation came from the talk radio station my father liked. The lights were on. He must be working out. 

I called out again, as I sort of skipped down the steps like it was Christmas. “Are you exercising? You know, that’s another thing I want to get back to doing….”

Many physicists believe that there are an infinity of alternate universes and, though they don’t mention me by name, that means an infinity of Cheryl DeMarcos making an infinite number of choices in an infinite number of lifetimes. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s why back around the time Cain killed Abel, people got this crazy notion that we exist, that we steer ourselves through time. That’s when the “what if” game was invented. Maybe it’s part of cosmic DNA.

So these alternate Cheryl DeMarcos in middle school realized that the cool kids were full of shit and preferred to hang out with the geeks and nerds, people as intelligent as the Cheryls. The alternates didn’t always make the right choices but made just enough of them at just the right moments that they’d gone on to become television reporters, nuclear physicists, lawyers, accountants, software engineers, pilots, doctors, biomedical engineers, physical therapists, psychologists, pharmacists, college professors. Making an infinite number of DeMarco parents so proud. Maybe Cheryl DeMarcos went on to become police inspectors, like their Antonios before them. Whatever their fate, this infinity of Cheryl DeMarcos were able to avoid the next moments. 

But not me. 

I glanced at the room at the other end where my brother lived for a time but now was storage space. Was there anything there I could steal and sell? I looked at the little bathroom near the steps that opened out to the backyard, thought about the times I’d use that to smoke pot. I headed to the other end of the basement, turned the corner, and peeked inside the workout room. 

And all the infinite moments collapsed into one. 

Antonio had done it so that he faced the door. His mouth frozen in a grimace, his head already blue. I could see how it happened. He’d tied a rope around the water pipe — the pipe he’d decided should be exposed for its decorative potential when he’d rebuilt the downstairs. He’d kicked the chair out from under him. His feet were inches from the ground. 

The second before I broke down a thought wormed its way out of the core of my subconscious. 

What about my money? I need my money.

Then I glanced at the weight bench and saw an envelope marked “Cheryl.” 

“No!” I cried. “No! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Dad! Dads! Da!” I backed away, knocking down a lamp. I wanted to run to the shadowy old toilet and throw up. I started screaming instead. I grabbed his legs and tried to lift him, but of course it was too late. 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 Anyone who goes through something like that usually says that the hours afterward are a fog. But my regular life was fog in those days. The part after the discovery was clear. I can remember entire transcripts of conversations with cops, coroners, funeral home employees, newspaper reporters. Mom and I stumbling over words of comfort. I remember just how I broke the news to my brother and sister over the phone and just what they said to me, how they damned me. 

They were right, everything they said was true. 

“You’ll never change,” they said, and I thought, yeah, but I can escape. 

“I’ll be back, Mom.”

“Where are you going?”

Outside, the day was just as I’d left it. Still blue skies, still unseasonably warm, still a ton of kids playing on the streets. I wanted to call Dizzy, but I didn’t have a cell phone. 

As I walked up Girard, I heard music: County Crows singing “Mr. Jones” and I knew Dizzy waited. When I got to the apartment, I saw that he’d stolen enough from somebody to cop us a bag. Shit must have been worth $1,000. He’d gotten out the hardware, had already baked himself to wonderland. 

“You get it?” he asked.

I sobbed into his shoulder. He did not put his arms around me.

“He’s dead. Daddy’s dead.”

I told him the story, following him around the apartment as he searched for something, probably money or munchies. 

Suddenly, he swung toward me. “He set you up,” he yelled. “The ultimate mind-fuck. The ultimate ‘fuck you’ to Dizzy Tanner.”

“Right, it’s all about you.”

“I need that money. We need that money. This here,” he motioned to the bag, the syringes, “is layaway.” 

I didn’t want to say anything, but I did. 

“The money was in an envelope, right there next to his weights. I couldn’t take it.”

Dizzy kicked some old plastic orange chair that we’d trash-picked, sent it flying against the wall.

“You fell for it.”

“Dizzy, my father’s dead!”

“Right. He didn’t need that scratch anymore.”

It steamrolled from there, that argument. Like a thousand other fights we had about money and jealousies and whose turn it was to cop. And like a thousand other fights we just kept getting louder as the words got nastier: “bastard,” “dickhead,” “bitch,” “cunt.” Like a thousand other fights, except, this time….

“I’m leaving, you fucker. My mommy needs me and my daddy’s dead.”

All the certitudes crumbled that day. I never saw it coming; that backhand. Bony knuckles boring into my molars. The sound of one hand clapping. I flew against the wall. I was still standing though, and that pissed him royally. He swung again, and this time the side of my head took it, my ear nearly exploding. I hit the ground. 

I don’t know how much time went by, but when I awoke I saw him over by the window, looking out like the lord of Girard Avenue. I started whimpering. He glanced back, shook his head, then turned away.

“My Dad’s going to kill your fucking ass! Just you wait!”

He turned again, this time smiling his junked-up smile. He’d been busy. 

“I don’t think so, baby,” he said, twisting the words softly. 

I remembered. My father would never be able to help me again. I sat up, felt the swelling on my face and head. My impulse was to jump out the window. 

He blocked the way, though. He had turned, and leaned his body out while calling to one of his creep friends.  

“Yo, Smoke! Where you heading, man?”

“Yo, Diz!”

“Yo, yo, yo.” 

Back and forth. I stood by leveraging my shoulders and arms against the wall. I glanced at his pant cuffs that had risen to reveal sticklike ankles. He was really leaning.

As I stumbled toward him, Dizzy glanced behind again, but this time the smile was different. He’d worked something out. We were all good now. Everything was forgotten, and I was forgiven. He must have figured that he would just talk me into going back to my parents and getting that envelope. Then, we’d have make-up sex, and learn to live within the new rules of our relationship, his rules. 

“Yo, yo, yo.” 

The conversation kept going. I wanted to stand next to him, rub his back, brush my head against him like a bad kitty, but I never got there. I didn’t so much faint, as slid to the floor. It was a soft landing, he hadn’t heard. I almost whimpered again, almost begged for help, love. 

But I could have sworn I heard Antonio. I still believe in you, Cheryl. Remember that I am telling you this. 

It wasn’t even a decision, it was reflex. I took two or three deep breaths and then grabbed Dizzy’s pant cuffs and flicked that motherfucker right out the window. 

I later learned that he hit some garbage bags, and I guess that’s as good a way as any to avoid manslaughter charges. His buddy helped him. There were bruised ribs and a concussion, but nothing broken. I didn’t even look out the window. I was exhausted. I curled into a fetal position right there on the floor and when I awoke it was dark, and Saturday night music filtered in.

I’d heard that the guy he’d “borrowed” those drugs from had gone after him. I also heard that the cops got video of him breaking into one of the warehouses at the docks. 

“That asshole — he ain’t coming back,” Babs had said.

I kept looking over my shoulder anyway, right up until the letter about how he’d been killed. 

I went to detox, began rebuilding. I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, then I didn’t want to talk about anything else. And I listened, too, becoming the support group’s major mojo, running it like I would later run Iffy’s. On the outside, I kept away from the people who’d been devastated by Antonio’s death. 

Mom finally broke through, though, about a year later. 

“He’d suffered the depression all his life,” she explained once again. 

“That makes what I put you two through OK?” I said.

I’d come to get the girls; Mom had been babysitting. The kids had set up makeshift forts and dollhouses with some of the empty boxes that were strewn everywhere. Mom had decided to move; too many memories. She’d already found a buyer. At that point, though, I didn’t know that the buyer was the lawyer for Miss Lotty or, rather, for the estate Miss Lotty had inherited from her father. 

“He’d be proud of you now,” Mom said. “Now that you’ve gotten rid of that bum and now that you’re bringing up your girls by yourself. You beat the devil.” 

“Hmmm.”

“You just need to stop it, Cheryl. You upset me. Something on the job was bothering him.”

“It was me. He wanted me to find him.”

“I was his wife. He left me too. I couldn’t help him.”

“But you didn’t kill him.”

“You think torturing yourself is good for your girls? I know my husband. It was not you. Me and him talked about you a lot. Never gave up hope. But we also … detached.”

“Detached?”

“You were going to do what you were going to do, Cheryl. We went to Al-Anon.”

“Dad? Al-Anon?”

“That’s why it wasn’t you and please stop saying it.”

My siblings still shunned me, and perhaps always would, and I offered that fact as evidence that perhaps Mom was too free with her forgiveness. 

“They’ll come around,” she said. “People come around.”

Some do. 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Flash visited about three years later. He came into Iffy’s at closing and I poured him a Guinness. On me. The last time I’d even seen him was when I passed him going into Citizens Bank Park for a Phillies opening-day game. It was two years after Antonio and Babs had talked me into a girls’ night out. Mulling with the crowd after being frisked at the turnstile, I felt heat on my neck. I’d passed near some outtake fan and when I glanced back at it I noticed a man dead-eyeing me. I was about to turn full to him, to give him a “fuck’s your problem” stare when I realized it was Flash. 

That moment of unfiltered hatred being directed at me made me think immediately of certain unsavory connections that I’d thought I’d closed off. In that instance, I so wanted to get fucked up again. And I knew right where to go to get what I needed, if I decided that that’s what I needed. I whispered to Babs to tell everybody something had come up at home and got the hell out of there. 

When I got back to Girard Avenue — without making any detours, I must point out — I poured myself a tall burgundy, let the warmth settle inside. Alcohol is no substitute for rocket fuel. I never worried about my drinking; I considered it a weak placeholder. I only hoped it wasn’t too weak. I called my girls at my mother’s just to hear their voices, then fell asleep watching the Phillies blow an early lead.

I looked for that look again as Flash settled into his stool. It wasn’t there, just blankness. He downed half his beer in a very un-Flash-like gesture. I braced myself; stood before him, wished I could get a blindfold for the firing squad. 

Let him get it out of his system. Whatever it is, you deserve it. 

Flash quaffed again, sighed after swallowing. “He was the best man I knew. The top of the line.”

“Me too,” I said.

Flash turned his baggy eyes upon me. I remembered how handsome he’d been years before. 

“He loved you the way a man can only love someone who breaks his heart,” he said. “How proud he was when he took you to the station for the Christmas parties when you were a little girl. Then, you stopped being a little girl and became something else.” A long quaff, then the finisher: “I hated you.”

“I know you do,” I said, pivoting, pouring him another. 

Did hate you,” he said. “Not anymore. I dreamt last night.”

“Oh?” My father’s death anniversary.

“Me and your Dad were sitting on the stoop in front of the house on Norris and he nodded at the street. And I looked and there you were, a little girl skipping rope. ‘Take care of her for me, will you?’ your Dad said. And you know, I’ve started reading the Bible and I’m up to the part where King David is pulling all his nasty shit. He was the mess-up. Always arguing with the Father.”

I typed “Who was King David’s father?” into the tiny search engine in my head before I realized that Flash meant the man upstairs.

“David gets the hots for some married woman so he puts her husband on the front lines in a battle making the poor sap a goner. Then he screws the woman. He likes the perks of power, David does.” 

A light went off in the kitchen. There was a thump and Babs cursed. I leaned over yoga-style on one foot and made sure she was OK. When I looked back at Flash his head was bowed. 

“And the king repents, eventually,” Flash said. “And God forgives him. And that’s the easy part. The hard part is him forgiving himself. He manages. But the Bible never mentions how hard it must have been for the sap’s friends to forgive David. But they have to forgive him, right? God demands it.”

Men have compared me to a lot of different things in my life, but that was the only time I’m King David. 

I said, “Same Bible that says an eye for an eye?”

“I want to help you,” Flash said, pushing his glasses to the bridge of his nose. “I want to help as much as a man who’s gone bankrupt twice, paid alimony out the ass, and can’t play office politics can help. I want to be your link to Antonio. I want us to be….” He searched his beer.

“Friends?” I offered. 

I appreciated how much it took for him to say it. The first time I’d ever been in Iffy’s was when I was around nine or ten. Antonio took me. Now, Antonio was not a big drinker. Maybe a beer now and then. But that was when Flash had just bought the bar. So, out of loyalty, we’d go there about once a week. Dad would nurse a Schmidt’s, and he’d prop me up next to him so I could eat peanuts and drink a Coke. I loved it. Sometimes, he’d even buy me a slice of pizza. He liked showing me off, Dad did. 

This was in the late 1970s, early 1980s and owning a bar had always been Flash’s dream.

“This is my retirement plan,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do this. I can see me expanding. I’m even thinking of changing the name. ‘If My Wife Calls, I’m Not Here,’ doesn’t exactly appeal to the new people moving in.”

Flash’s wife didn’t like the name. In fact, she’d been against the entire venture.

“It’s going to ruin us,” she’d warned.

“Kidding?” Flash said. “It’s going to make us.”

He’d told Antonio this and I’d overheard. 

Antonio said, “Don’t worry. She’ll come around.”

Strange to recall a time when Flash was a genuinely happy man. He sang behind the bar, glad-handed people, told jokes. I think I even remember him doing a little jig, yeah, a goofy little dance when the Phillies came from behind one time. People really do change. Was that even Flash? 

He never did get around to changing the name. First, he and Antonio came up with some candidates. He didn’t like the sound of “Flash’s.” Then, Flash got the idea of holding a contest with the regulars to rename the bar, the winner gets a cruise to the Bahamas. But Flash had trouble raising the money for the trip because he’d been making so many repairs on the place and when he did finally raise the money, he needed it for something else. 

The work never ended; there was always some pipe bursting or wall to be torn down and rebuilt. Always plastic hanging down some part of the building. Flash bought this big-ass toolbox, fire engine red. He could barely lift it and, in fact, dragged it around sometimes. To me, a kid, it looked like a Barbie dollhouse, the one with all the furniture. 

And there were surprises in it. One time Flash dragged it over to me.

“What do you think might be in here?”

He moved some of his tools around, showed me the bottom. Then he turned a brace, that was actually a lever, and the floor of the box moved to reveal a secret compartment filled with Milky Ways, Hersey Kisses, peeps, Kit Kats, and about a half dozen other kinds of candy.

“Help yourself, sweetie,” Flash said.

“Only two, Cheryl,” my dad said. “Rose would have a fit.”

“I call this my secret Halloween compartment. Now, only you, me and your dad know about it.”

I heard years later that the toolbox became a fixture, and on crowded nights some guys would use it as a seat. Those crowded nights, unfortunately for Flash, were fewer and fewer.

The recession hit. Usually, Iffy’s is recession-proof. I mean, there may be a slight dip in profits, like we’re seeing these days, but people often respond to hard times with hard liquor, and the chatty companionship of people who don’t expect too much from you. 

But that recession of the early 1980s hit Fishtown particularly hard. Bridge Textiles closed, laying off 1,200 people. The workers who live in Fishtown, a lot of them still came around. But Flash lost all of his lunch crowd and the Friday night after-work partiers just disappeared.  

Some other shit happened, too. Schmidt’s had started its long death slide and the local beer that was so cheap had suddenly begun to get more and more expensive. About a year and a half after Flash had taken over, Antonio visited Iffy’s for the last time. 

“Here, Sweetie,” he said, to me handing me my book. “Here’s your Nancy Drew.”

Right, like I was going to read when something horrible and fascinating went on before my eyes. Because when Flash served my father a beer this time he sort of froze. 

“It’s going to be OK,” Antonio said, reaching across, patting his protégé on the shoulder. “People survive worse.”

“I’m broke and the only woman I could ever love is leaving me,” he said, as if talking about someone else. 

I noticed for the first time that we were the only ones in the place. I glanced about. The “open” sign was turned inward. The outside neon didn’t blink. In the corner a “For Sale” sign leaned accusingly against the wall. The toolbox was locked.

“You’ll recover from this,” Antonio said. “Maybe she just needs some time to think things over. Maybe she just needs her folks to remind her about what ‘for worst’ means in a vow. Maybe it can still work.”

Nope, wrong about that one. Flash’s wife never returned to him and he never remarried. I think he may have dated one or two people in all the years afterward. For the most part he was as celibate as Bobby, except without the meekness. 

That was my early lesson about how money can break you. My parents worried that Flash might even do himself in. Of course, I didn’t realize that until years later. 

“A cop whose going to that wouldn’t go through all that trouble,” I overheard my father saying one night. “Cop will just eat his gun. No need to go all baroque.” 

Flash did get over it in a sense. He functioned, became the best cop he could be. But in a lot of ways he was never the same.

CHAPTER THIRTY

The day after I got run off the road, Flash said, “We don’t know if it’s connected to what happened to Bobby.”

“Hell of a coincidence.” 

“You’ve told me everything?”

No, but Dizzy needed me alive so that he could stay “dead.” It wasn’t him.

A tow truck pulled the Fuck-Us out of the park. I was shaken. The cop asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said no. He took down the information, asked a few questions about the other car (which I never got a good look at) and then asked me to take a breathalyzer. Then came the questions about the gun. Long night.

The next day I called Flash as I headed back toward Fox Chase. 

“So you’re driving and talking on the cell?”

“Hold on.” I put the phone on speaker, laid it beside me on the car seat.

This is a major issue?

“So how’s the chase going?” I asked.

He sighed. 

I said, “I can even tell you how it was supposed to go down. The guy would have pumped some smack into me right at the scene and people would think I died because I’d gone back to my bad old ways. They expect it.”

“No, Cheryl.”

“Yes, Flash. You asked me last week if I was OK. I could tell by your tone what you meant. ‘You’re under a lot of stress, Cheryl. You’re not going to use again, are you Cheryl? What about the girls?’”

“You are putting words in my mouth.”

“Yet another bad habit. Hey, but that’s a hell of a lot better than a habit I kicked 13 years, five months, two weeks, and four days ago.”

Flash let that lay.

“So the guy runs me off the road, makes it look like the trauma of having Bobby die in my arms was too much for me. I was driving stoned.”

“It doesn’t answer: Why? Why would somebody want to kill you now? Guy kills Bobby Delaney because he thinks he’s killing Jim Delaney.”

“Right.”

“That’s one theory,” Flash added quickly. “So, you figure he goes after Jim again but even that doesn’t make sense because guys I know doing this sort of thing would be getting out of Dodge. They wouldn’t circle back to the crime scene. Only arsonists do that.” 

“And professionals,” I said. 

“No this is one of those guys who did it to score some drugs or to pay off a gambling debt.”

“Just your average run-of-the-mill scumbag for hire?”

“There’s no reason for them to go after you, Cheryl.”

“I can bet my daughters’ lives on that?”

“I’ll station somebody outside your apartment again.”

“Which one?”

“How long is this move going to take?”

“How does forever sound?”

“Let me know what you hear,” Flash said. 

Oh, I hear things, the words and gaps, the lines and the in-betweens. Years ago Bobby owned a dog named Cheyenne, a little Australian terrier, a real yap-yapper, who died of old age about the time his mother died of Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t get to the funeral but Babs had given me the blow-by-blow. 

Some weird transference took place. It was Jim Delaney, the Navy Seal, who seemed shaken at their mother’s funeral. Bobby played the good host, greeting people like a politician. He fussed over the body, straightening his mother’s collar, making sure the rosary lay just so. 

Then, the next month Cheyenne died and Bobby sobbed at Iffy’s. His mother had given the dog to Bobby, could see where her son’s lonely life headed. The dog was Bobby’s link to mommy. 

“I’m alone, Cheryl,” Bobby cried. “All alone.”

“You are not. You have Al. You have Jim. Jim’s wife, what’s-her-name. Your nephews.”

“Alone! Alone!”

“You have me!” I insisted. “You have these low-lifes in here.”

Actually, Bobby was losing the Iffy’s crowd. 

Spindles called over: “What the fuck?” 

“His terrier just died,” I explained.

“Oh!”

There were a few knowing nods and a couple of “that’s a tough one” and the fellows got back to nursing their beers and grudges. 

Even Bobby seemed to calm down.

“I’m on a mission, Cheryl,” he said, grimacing. 

“What, Bobby?”

But he’d just kept repeating that he was on a mission. Eventually, Bobby was Bobby again and I got back to serving the philistines and didn’t think much about his mission. So many guys on so many barstools were on missions. Meanwhile, one for the road. 

The original Iffy’s (or whatever it was called) was torn down in 1882. The new building started life as an inn, becoming over the years a blacksmith’s, a saloon, a notary, a grocery store, a car repair shop, a drugstore, and then, on Dec. 5, 1933 — the day Prohibition was repealed — a bar again. 

It had been a speakeasy — the drugstore was a front — so few renovations were needed. Few renovations were given. The joint creaks and cracks when it’s windy, sags and moans with rain or snow. When it’s empty, before the shift starts, I sometimes think of everybody who’s ever hoisted one, imagine all the stories over all the years, all the political arguments, all the bets about all those lousy Phillies and Eagles teams. I don’t see ghosts, I hear them. Stories crowd me like music. Long-gone conversations restart from where they’d ended decades ago. Some poor soul making one last point about William Howard Taft. Maybe somebody needs to tell them they’re dead, maybe they don’t realize it yet.

The day after I’d got run off the road I was back at work. When I came in, before my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could barely see two guys at the bar. I heard Marty’s growl, “…every fuckin’ day.” Who was the other fellow?

“Dizzy?”

“What’s that, Cheryl?” Spindles called over. 

Not Dizzy, but I’d already pulled up my sweatshirt, reached for my gun. One of his toy helicopters sat on a stool next to him.

“New pistol?” Marty asked.

“Hello, stranger!” Babs called from the kitchen.

I said “hi” as I exhaled, hiding my weapon again. 

“OK? Babs asked, suddenly at the bar.

“Fine, I’m fine.”

Spindles has 20 years on Dizzy, but they’re built the same and he wore a hoodie, not the usual Phillies cap. 

“Sure?” Babs asked.

“What you griping about now, Marty?” I asked. 

“I’m saying that life is connecting the dots,” he said. “Try telling that to the fucking know-it-all doctors. Now, Cheryl here, she connects the dots. Know why? Because she listens.”

“Yeah, Marty, I listen even when I’m working my ass off for you.”

“The taps are all hooked up,” Babs said. “I was just down there.”

“I take back every rotten thing I ever said about you.”

“Don’t overextend,” Spindles said. 

“Get a job yet, man?”

I inspected the kitchen. Not bad. Then I went down to the cellar. As I ducked through the doorway, it felt as if I’d walked into a damp, warm bar-rag. The two overhead light bulbs hung like baby ghosts too tired to flutter away. I swiped a spider’s web and crept over to the kegs. Everything hooked up, just as Babs said.

I could hear water running. I swear sometimes that they must have built Iffy’s over a stream but Marty says it’s the screwy pipes.

The gamey, fishy smell settled into my nostrils, reminding me of a school field trip to a farm. Barns are not always pleasant places. Marty swore that there were no critters down there. 

“Just make sure the rodents who ain’t here have plenty of poison to gnaw on,” I told him. “And no traps. This isn’t Wild Kingdom. I ain’t disposing of corpses.”

Over in one corner was an office. It was supposed to be my office. Marty built it special for me about 10 years ago. I’d been thinking of leaving and it was one of his bribes. This is the dance he and I sometimes have. I stayed when the old fart broke down and paid for my health benefits. 

I never use that office. Gives me the creeps to be down here. 

Laying against the far wall were about five slabs of sheetrock, and they’ve been there for about seven years. I smiled at them when I turned to go upstairs, and that’s when I saw it. It must have been the way the light from one of the bulbs hit it, just the slightest spark. I thought maybe it was a snake or something, and I almost screamed. No, it wasn’t moving. It wasn’t alive. I stepped closer, got a better look.

“Hello,” I said. It was a piece of ribbon, brand new. “What have we here?” I tilted one of the slabs of sheetrock forward. 

There, tucked behind it, were streamers and decorations and party favors. A big sign said “Happy Birthday, Cheryl!” 

Those suckers. They really think they can surprise me? 

I took out my keys, squinted as I searched with my fingers for the one I hardly ever used. There. I went into the office, turned the light on. It worked. We hadn’t had a good bulb in there for ages. Another sign something was up. Felt under the desk, no key. I had taped it to the underside myself. I searched around on my chain for a small one that I’ve used maybe twice. 

Do I even still have it? 

I’m a thrower-outer by nature but, for some reason, that doesn’t apply to keys. I have three or four old sets in my drawer. I can’t bring myself to chuck them. 

Where the hell is it?

There it was. Tiny, it looked like something Crystal uses to lock her diary. I unlocked the desk drawer. 

“And hello to you, too.”

It was all right there. The invitations, the food order, Crystal’s playlist, even reservations for two limos to drive people home who needed to be driven home. Half of Fishtown was going to be there. 

Why isn’t the other half coming? Not as if they got something better to do.

There was even a note; Babs must have written it to herself for some reason.

“40 Is Only A Number!”

I stood there carefully shuffling through it all, finding out the day and time. Marty had agreed to close Iffy’s for that Saturday; first time that’s ever happened. 

When I finished rooting around, I covered my tracks. Put everything back just as it was. Locked the drawer, locked the door, backed away. 

Upstairs, as I began wiping down the kitchen stove, I wondered if I should let them know that I knew. I glanced through the door, out to the bar. Babs was bustling about, getting ready for the night. I didn’t want to disappoint her and the rest of them, including Crystal and Debbie. But on the other hand I wanted this to be a hum-dinger and nobody can throw a party like me. Would it be pushy to take over?

Maybe it would be my last hurrah at Iffy’s. I was wiping down the shelves, feeling like Mr. Miyagi rubbing down clockwise, and then counterclockwise, trying to reach enlightenment, but just getting a bit pissed off that nothing seemed to have been done while I was away, and disappointed in myself for scheming how to take over my birthday party when people around me were getting murdered.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

“You don’t have to do this,” Jim Delaney said. 

I stood at the same window I’d tossed Dizzy Tanner out of all those years ago, phone in hand. Workmen down on the street sipped coffee near orange cones; further on, at the hardware store, an awning came down. The world awoke. Someone walking by spotted me and waved. I flicked a back-at-ya, though I hadn’t really noticed who it was. I’d been up for hours, yet felt as if I wasn’t quite awake. The day rushed me. I kept it at arm’s length, and wondered when the hell were they going to give me back my gun. 

Come on Flash, help me out here.

This was the first I’d heard from Jim since the disaster at Truck’s farm. So, he was far enough along in rehab to make phone calls, eh? 

I remembered that phase, reaching out to the world. The people sounded the same, but the silences were like nothing you never heard. Thoughts were either stillborn or cut out of you, and wandered about like baby deer on the highways near Fairmount Park, all spindly and vulnerable. 

“Is this really you?” Babs had asked all those years ago.

Don’t know. 

Bless her true heart, because that was the question. “You” was being rebuilt, this time to function without giving in to addiction. My daughters, I had kept telling myself, deserved that their mother raise herself, climb out of the tomb. Then, perhaps, I could raise them. My father, if he existed somewhere, worked for my reclamation.

Yeah, I remembered and knew that it had been an intense two weeks for Jim. 

“Dad needs to hire one of the young neighborhood turks to help him lift and clean,” Jim said.

“I can lift and I can clean,” I said. “I do it all the time.”

“Which is why you could use a day off.”

“You know how nosy I am.” 

He choked out a laugh, but there wasn’t much room for mirth in so small a sound. After all, we were talking about cleaning out his murdered brother’s mysterious home. The cops had gone over it and found nothing. Now, Al wanted to get it ready to sell, but more than that. He’d find clues the pros had overlooked — “I know my son.” 

Jim, too, was protective, and my nosiness crack had given him pause.

“It’s me, Jim, remember?” I said. “I can keep secrets.” 

Like, for instance, I told no one about the tragedy in Kabul or about you kicking yourself out of the CIA. No one knows that Dizzy is alive.

“I should be there,” he said. “I should be doing this.”

People down on the street greeted each other and I thought of the Louie Armstrong song. 

I see friends shaking hands.

Saying how do you do.

They’re really saying I love you.

“You are ill,” I said, turning away from the window as if that gave me more privacy. “This is an illness. You are not the only one this has happened to. I have been ill. You know that. It’s part of Cheryl the Bartender’s curriculum vitae. I can tell you that this bad dream will fade. You are getting better and soon you will be out and soon you’ll be up here with us.”

He coughed again. 

“I saw my boys the other day,” he said. “Eloise brought them.”

“She did?”

“I asked to see them.”

See you like that? 

I hadn’t wanted Crystal and Debbie anywhere near me. I wished they’d never even known.

“They need to see that anyone can get laid low,” Jim said. “Life lesson.”

“Got ya.”

“She sends me the nicest cards, Eloise does. After all the shit I put her through.” Another pause. Finally, he added: “I am Superman. This can’t be happening to Superman.”

Superman, meet kryptonite. 

“You served your country,” I said. “You did things, brave things, that other guys wouldn’t have the gonads to even try. And as for the marriage…. ” That stumped me. Were they reconciling? I didn’t want to say anything about what could be a fragile reconnect. What could I say anyhow? He’d fucked up, obviously.

“Brave, you say, Cheryl?”

“Yes, brave, I say.” 

A bitter chuckle, then: “Maybe an adrenaline addict.”

“Don’t do that, Jim. Don’t disinherit yourself from your good and noble acts. And yes, I say noble.”

“This don’t sound like you.”

“This don’t sound like you. If you are not brave, Jim Delaney, then nobody’s brave.”

“What your friend Truck must think.”

“Hey, Truck’s got his skeletons.”

“What’s this stuff about a bomb?”

“That’s Truck. See? No position to point fingers. Sees conspiracies all around. Convinced the world will end.”

“It will.”

“Tomorrow,” I said.

“You don’t take him seriously.”

“I do, and I don’t.” An image: Truck walking my mother back to his farmhouse after one her stays in the hospital. I was watching from behind and saw just the quick rub of his eyes, the sag of the shoulders. 

“And me?” 

“Only a fool wouldn’t take you seriously, Jim.”

“I am going to be myself again. Swear.”

Well, no, you won’t, but that’s a discussion for another day.

“You will look at me like you once did, Cheryl. I’ve lost six pounds already. Hitting the weight room. Jogging. Reading. Planning my comeback.”

“You will change,” I said. “Better than ever. It’s a nightmare, and there’s an ending.” 

“Watch your back,” he said. 

What does that mean? He’d changed directions on me again.

“Oh,” I said. “Knock on wood. I’ve never had back problems. Crystal is coming, too. She’s my back.” 

“How’d you pull that off?”

“Faculty meeting. Kids have the day off. Plus, what’s so strange? She likes being with her mother.”

“And?”

“I’m buying her driving lessons.”

“What’s the weather like up there?”

More May, than April. It would be going up to the low 70s, crisp and no humidity. I wore a t-shirt and jeans, all tucked in and tight. There were honks and wolf whistles when I walked down to the Dunkin’ Donuts. Crystal wouldn’t appreciate that; both the girls hated it when men noticed me. “You encourage it, Mom!” When I got back to the apartment, I threw on a long, baggy Phillies shirt that dangled to my knees. Made me look like a baseball nun.

“Crystal!” I called. “I got Dunkins!”

I got her the driving lessons because I am not a patient teacher, a point reinforced about an hour later as we rode down Girard. 

“Pull over,” I said.

She’d been behind the wheel for about two minutes, a record for me as a passenger. She’d gone a little too quick, couldn’t resist fiddling with the damn radio. 

“Enough,” I said.

I was in the backseat because we were going to pick up Al. I thought it’d be easier if he could just jump in, stretch out those fidgety legs. But it made it impossible to give Crystal instruction.

“Kindly take a chill pill, mother.”

“Kindly pull the hell over.”

Much rolling of eyes, sighs, and tsks, but she did it. 

The city’s cacophony swelled around us, with jackhammers, bus motors, car horns, and the el all competing for lead vocal. As I was getting out, Crystal suddenly screamed “Mom!” and spun about, grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back in with one arm. 

A car screeched, jerking to a stop right where I’d have stepped. I glanced back. The driver gave me an incredulous look. I closed the door, took a deep breath.

He inched beside us.

“You need to watch, miss!”

“Sorry!”

Older guy, a gentleman. Nearly as shaken up as I was. 

“Too nice a day to die,” he said, and then drove on.

“You OK?” Crystal asked. All the whines of teenagehood had fled. She’d simply reacted, and saved my ass. I’d gotten a glimpse of how Crystal the woman would someday handle crises. Not bad.  

She dangled the keys over her shoulder, but I pushed them back.

“Just drive,” I said, and said it again when we picked up Al and he offered to switch seats. In minutes, we were there. 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Bobby’s row home on Allen Street stood about three up from the corner. Built in the 1860s, it looked small, a typical father-son-and-holy-ghoster. I knew, though, that he’d added rooms and built the basement — his lab, really — out so that it was actually under his little backyard. Violated all sorts of codes, but Licenses and Inspections never bothered to check. Not many people knew.

“Listen….” Al said, reaching for his wallet.

“Stop,” I said. “We want to help. And we won’t take money. Remember how you helped me paint the apartment?”

“That was nothing.”

“This is nothing.”

A couple of guys home from work and drinking coffee on a stoop called over to us, asking Al if he needed anything. They were respectful, awkward. One actually doffed his cap. I made a mental note to give them one on the house next time at Iffy’s.

“Here we go,” Al said.

His hands shook, as he found the right keys and swung the front door open. Beeping began and he read me the code as I pressed buttons to turn off the alarm. We fumbled through the foyer: a calm, female voice came through wall speakers saying: “The temperature inside is 68 degrees. Would you like to adjust?”

“No,” Al said. 

In the living room, the air was sweet, as if a girl with high-end perfume had just gotten up to refresh her drink. The shades opened then, and sunlight crashed through the widows, washed away the dark shadows. 

“Bright,” I said. 

The voice responded, “Adjusting.”

The shades twisted, lowering the exposure.

“That’s fine,” Al said, and they stopped. 

Classical music began playing softly. 

“Smart house,” Crystal whispered.

“My son brought a little bit of NASA into Fishtown,” Al said. “If this old stuff isn’t your cup of tea, sweetie, it’ll play anything you want.”

“I love classical,” Crystal said. 

“Good music for working,” I said.

“But watch,” Al said. Then he ordered: “Play Crystal.” 

Just like that one of my daughter’s self-produced CDs began. I’d forgotten I’d given one to Bobby.

If I whispered

Oh so quietly

Would you promise

To solemnly

Swear to me?

When the song ended (a real beauty, by the way) the classical stuff began again. That was fine with me. I wanted to work, not think. Bobby’s place looked like a showroom in an upscale furniture store. Even the magazines on the table — National Geographic, Car and Driver, Readers Digest — seemed to have been placed there to enhance the suggestion of lived-in-ness, and betrayed no philosophical or political leanings whatsoever. It could have been a waiting room; he didn’t want to offend anyone.

“What about the kitchen?” I asked.

“Can goods stacked in alphabetical order,” Al said. “Everything labeled. The refrigerator looks like a landing craft, everything arranged by size.”

I’d been inside maybe twice, and Bobby had told me about some of his improvements. Lights, temperature, and security (including cameras that can see in the dark) were all hooked to a central control computer that also ran the video and audio system. I’d seen him pull out a remote control at Iffy’s and turn on his lights, start the music, and check up on an experiment. If anyone approached at night, the recorded sound of a dog barking would scare him off. Bobby got the security, without having to put up with the smell of a pooch. Or the worry about watching another companion die.

Now, the voice said, “Incoming from Patty MacDonald” about a half second before Crystal’s phone buzzed. 

Crystal turned away and talked to friend Patty for two minutes and 17 seconds. I know because the house told us. When she clicked off, I extended my hand. 

“But what if someone needs to reach me?”

“They can leave a message.”

The voice said, “Incoming from Barbara Borkowski.”

I answered, laughing. 

“Babs! We were just talking about you!”

My call lasted 37 seconds; I told her I’d tag her later. 

I said, “OK, here’s the deal. Crystal and Cheryl’s phones go right up here on the mantle.”

“Mine, too,” Al said. “We’re a team.”

“And we turn them off,” I said.

“I’ll turn off the computer’s voice,” Al said. “When Bobby’s here alone, it’s not a problem. But with other people in the house, the damn thing never shuts up.”

We were set. We started upstairs, worked our way down. It was more unpacking and colleting then cleaning.

“How could anybody be so neat?” 

“That’s Bobby.”

There was some dirt. At one point — in the guestroom — the dust we unsettled when we opened boxes and routed through closets reached toward the skylight. After a bit, a vacuum in the wall near the floor kicked in, and the dust disappeared like a genie getting sucked back into his lamp. 

“A house that cleans itself,” I said. “Bobby still amazes, even from the other side. You’re going to get a lot of money for this place, Al. Some yuppie’ll think he died and gone to Starbucks.”

But Al wasn’t considering the bottom line. He’d been leaning over, dragging a bag of books out of a closet. 

He stood, suddenly, and made an announcement. 

“See what the world lost?” 

“I know, Al. I know.”

The white and black pattern of the place made me think of a chessboard. Who knew how many gadgets there were? In the master bedroom, Al said: “Check this.” He tilted a painting on the wall, a print of Mother Teresa praying. Something clicked, then the bookcase moved aside to reveal a room that looked like a cross between a small library and a security control station. Three TVs beamed images of various sides of the exterior. 

“What else does he have?” Crystal asked. 

“He didn’t tell me everything,” Al said, “but each room has this, though.”

He turned a knob on the wall. We froze. 

Cricket, cricket.

“The nothing switch?” I asked.

“Nope,” Al said. “If somebody were in his lab in the cellar, he’d be able to hear it.”

“Baby monitor,” Crystal said.

“His work was his baby,” Al said, putting his hands in his pockets, leaning against the wall. “Bobby loved life. Bobby loved gadgets, and experimenting, and reading. Bobby loved….”

Too much of the morning was spent reminiscing, and oohing and aahing over Bobby’s house. Not enough cleaning, packing, or straightening. 

“We’re distracted,” I finally pointed out. “We need to split up, work on sections.”

“You check out the basement,” Al said. 

“The lab? Are you sure? What about those clues you’re looking for?”

“I’ve been down there three times already,” he said. “Once, with the cops. Maybe fresh eyes….” He shrugged.

“Can we turn off the cameras?”

I found it a little creepy.

You had to go outside to get to the basement, that was the only door — or at least the only one we knew about. It was locked, and Al had given me the key. Very low tech, considering what I’d just witnessed. I unlatch the chain, stepped down — one, two, three, four — into the musty room. I remember reading about how people in the days before refrigerators and electricity would store food underground to preserve it. The air was colder, and a deep chill rattled me as I groped about for the light switch. This is where Bobby Delaney had placed all his hopes and dreams. What did the psychologists call it? Sublimated sex drive. You either become a saint, or overthrow Weimar and invade Poland.

“Lights,” I said, taking a stab.

The place lit up so brightly that I stumbled back. 

There were test tubes and tables with books and a blackboard with computations. It seemed to be a combination of laboratory and lecture hall, but who would that lonely little guy ever lecture to? I saw where the basement bulged out under the backyard. The floor was brick, with two drains like in an industrial kitchen. And clean. Bobby had hosed and scrubbed the place down often. 

“No mice down here.” Except for the ones he kept in cages, but they’d already been carted off.

In fact, Al had done a lot of work. The bookshelves were cleared, and what had been on them had been packed into boxes that hadn’t yet been sealed. I peeked and saw lots of reference books and journals. 

There were some gadgets on lab tables, microscopes, a few computers, with “do not remove” notes taped to them. The cops probably wanted to take a look. There were machines I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t want to mess with for fear I’d break them. There was nothing to do. I let my arms flap to my sides, like an immigrant who hadn’t made the cut for day work down at the docks.

Over in one corner, in a glass case attached to the wall, there was a baseball bat. I knew about it. It had been autographed by Mike Schmidt the day he’d hit his 500th homerun. Al and Jim had been tempted to bury it with Bobby, but decided — in the “what would Bobby have wanted” fumbling after the murder — that it might be nice to keep it in the family. 

I turned to leave and that’s when I spotted a paper bag with a red bow stuck to it on an office table in the corner. All by itself. How had I missed it up until now? As I approached, I could see the greeting card that leaned against it. 

“For Cheryl,” it read. 

Al had stuck a yellow post-it on the bag. “Bobby wanted you to have this.” 

The card featured balloons and sprinkles and the message, “Lordy, Lordy, Cheryl’s turned 40.” Inside were “before” and “after” pictures. One, I don’t know where he got it — I looked about 16. Pretty in pink, but already using, I could tell. The other, a recent snapshot after a busy night at Iffy’s. Hair hanging in my eyes, sweat on my face. I looked half dead. Well, here’s proof for everyone who says I haven’t aged.

Birthday Girl!

What do you get the woman who has everything? I don’t know, but I knew what to get you. A new concoction from the Delaney microbrewery. And something to read during the slow times.

Thanks for all the hours of listening — listening even when I wasn’t talking, picking up the vibes of this knucklehead’s mad schemes and wicked dreams. Thanks for just looking the way you do, for being a feast for my poor, soar, bloodshot eyes. I know I’m not the only Delaney who thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Thanks for putting up with my crush (you know it’s true) and letting me know that it ain’t happening without making me feel like shit.

I’m not clever like you, so no poems. I’m not only left-handed, but left-brained, too. It’s math and science for me. 

Seriously, I wish it could be more, Cheryl. Please don’t ever change. 

With admiration.

Your not-so-secret pal.

Not dated, but it must be fairly recent. I had to think about the “no poems” line and then I remembered what I’d written for one of Bobby’s birthdays. 

The years you wear deceptively

One would never guess your age

Because ever since you were 21

You’ve looked like Satchel Paige

I gave him a nice bottle of Glenlivet, straight off the cargo ship from Scotland. Let me tell you, that shit ain’t cheap. I made him a special lobster and steak dinner, too. 

“Can I order that?” Spindles had asked.

“This is not on the menu.”

I do not necessarily credit my kindnesses to Bobby as virtue. I always had one antennae turned toward Jim, hoping that what I might do for his father, mother, and brother would get back to him. That my name would not fade. I couldn’t help thinking this way even after his marriage, even after the birth of his boys. 

I checked out the contents of the bag. A six-pack labeled “Catcher in the Rye Lager” and, under it, a copy of the novel, Catcher in the Rye. That startled me because while Bobby and me talked about books, we never talked about that particular book. 

I held a bottle of Catcher in the Rye Lager up to the light, saw the floating particles that signal truly great beer and that get siphoned off in the industrial brewing process. There was another note in the six-pack, again in Bobby’s handwriting.

“Cheryl: You can’t drink this for 366 days. It needs to age that long. April 3 of next year. I’m thinking of calling it Champaign Beer. Right now, tastes like shit. I guess this is a present for your forty-first birthday. You already have the one for this year.”

No I don’t. That was on your to-do list, Bobby.

I put the beer, novel, and card back in the bag. Maybe I’d never drink the beer, who knows? Keep it as a memento. I should stop drinking beer, anyway. I patted my stomach, glanced at myself in the shine of one of the metal tables. “Mirror, mirror….” That’s what Dizzy mumbled whenever we snorted nose candy. 

Thinking about Dizzy jolted me. He’s still out there. I turned to head back upstairs to Crystal when I heard the voice. I spun quickly, grabbed at my side, realized again that I didn’t have Selma. A speaker in the ceiling crackled.  

“Get away from the wall, those switches. Girl, you should be on my side.”

An intruder had snuck up on Al and Crystal.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

“What do you want?” Al asked.

“For one thing, where’s that nosy little bartending bitch?”

“Hey, asshole!” Crystal screamed. 

“Honey,” Al said. 

I’d asked Al to turn off the cameras. Maybe he’d turned off the alarm system by accident. I bet that Crystal had turned on the monitor. 

Good girl.

“If you can hear this,” the guy yelled, “then you know I have — what’s your name?”

“Selma,” Crystal said.

Selma — he had a gun. 

“I have Selma. And the old man. Come on out and join the party.”

“She’s not here,” Al insisted. 

Crystal added, “She’s coming over with her friend — the cop.”

“Well, then, I’ve got to move fast, don’t I?”

An image: A mother looking up after the launch of a space shuttle carrying her daughter, wondering about the explosion. The horror on her face. 

“I want all the formulas,” the man said. “I want anything stored in any bottles. I want to see his lab. It’s downstairs, right?”

“Let the girl go,” Al said.

“When I’m done, she’ll go.” 

I routed frantically for anything I could use, dumping boxes, opening empty drawers. They couldn’t hear me, not with these reinforced walls. I found a cell phone, dead as a lump of coal, but with a cord. I plugged it in. Sweat started dripping in my eyes. My breath was short.

“I can give you money or anything else you want,” Al said. “Just get out. Now. It’s not worth it. We don’t know who you are. Disappear.”

“I can give you money, old man. Your son the pharma troll? His kind thinks that everything’s about money. He pollutes the earth, lets the people in Africa have the anti-malaria drugs they need to survive only if they agree to be guinea pigs. Now you think he can buy your way out of this? Everything’s for sale, isn’t it? How do you sleep at night?”

Fuck is this nut talking about? 

A bar blinked on the phone, just the faintest glimmer in and out. It’ll have to do.

I texted Flash. “Send cops to Bs. Man with gun.”

“Jim’s not here, either,” Al said.

“Join us,” the man said. “We will make a new world together.”

He was talking to Crystal. 

“What about my mom and sister?”

“They already said they’ll join.”

“Is that why you called her a nosy bitch?”

I ran over to the Mike Schmidt display. Where was the key? I tried the latch and, luckily, it wasn’t locked. I had hoped that an alarm would go off, scare the guy and notify the cops. It occurred to me that Bobby hadn’t hooked his system in with the cops. He would want to handle his own security.  

Did my text get through?

Looks like it’s me and Mike Schmidt.

I hurried up the steps but in the backyard, I hesitated for a second. Should I run to a neighbor’s? Call the cops from there? But what if something happened to Crystal? It didn’t even occur to me to pick up a knife as I crept through the kitchen. 

Al said, “If you don’t want money, then what the hell do you want?”

“I told you: knowledge,” the man said. “Knowledge to rule the world. Knowledge to free the world from the big corporations that control it.”

Oh, boy. Great. A fucking nut.

“Just think where we’d be if the people controlled the atom? The genie would never have been let out. There are pirates afoot, but they’re not Somalians. They’re from GM and IBM and Procter & Gamble. Capitalism is in its cancerous stage. It must be excised. Globalization is the scourge of modern life.”

He was lecturing. Crystal was his student.

“Your son is a puppet for organizations you barely know exist,” the man continued. “The World Bank. The International Monetary Fund.”

“Don’t you mention my son,” Al said.

A thump, then Crystal crying out.

“Mr. Delaney! Oh, my God!”

Something was going on, but the man kept right on talking. “It’s the destruction of the earth, unless someone stops them! It’s the oppression of the people!”

“He needs a doctor!” Crystal said. “You hurt him!”

“He shouldn’t have fought.”

“He wasn’t!”

Bobby had a bureau at the dividing line between the dining room and living room. Part of it was a mirror that let me see around the corner. Crystal and Al were on the couch, the guy standing over them. He was stocky, moved with effort. He swayed, as if trying to get his bearings. Blood ran down Al’s face. He leaned back, unconscious. Just then, Crystal spotted my shadow, exclaimed. 

I bounded around the corner, and he turned, raising his gun. I screamed, brought the bat down on his forearm. There was cracking. The gun when flying against the stairway.

“Pssst!” It went off like someone trying to get your attention. Silencer. The roof blistered.

“Fuck!” he yelled, grabbing his arm. 

I reached back, ready to come down on his head. He tumbled out of the way, and I smashed the floor. We both looked at the gun. He tried to get up, couldn’t quite manage because of the pain, and sort of hopped low to the ground toward the weapon. I kicked him in his upturned ass, sending him sprawling again but he still tried to motor forward, still reaching for the gun. As I raised the bat again, he wound around on the floor like a break-dancer and kicked me in the stomach. 

How the hell could he manage that?

I hit the floor. The bat thumped and rolled away. I couldn’t breathe.

“Fucking bitch!” he yelled. 

“Mom!” 

Crystal jumped over the guy, grabbed the gun. Tried to point it, but her hand shook.

I needed separation. He needed me close. He rolled on me. 

“Get off her!” Crystal screamed.

He had me by the throat, his stale breath heaving into my face. I glanced at Al. He stirred, becoming dimly aware of the struggle, but still mainly out of it. 

He can’t help.

I reached down and managed to grab the guy’s balls, started twisting. I felt something snap. He screamed, and just then Crystal kicked him in the head. 

He jumped up, knocking her into the stairs. 

Now the guy had gotten the bat somehow. He was about to bring if down on my head.

Boom!

The bullet tore into his chest, and he looked surprised and annoyed. He and the bat dropped at the same time. 

“Crystal? Honey?”

I glanced over, saw that she wasn’t near the gun; it had somehow gotten half way up the steps.

I looked at Al, who gestured toward the doorway where a familiar figure hovered. 

“Sorry I took so long,” Flash said.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

“Name’s Morton Relay,” Flash told me. We were talking over the phone about a week after the break-in at Bobby Delaney’s. I’d just opened Iffy’s. I was in the kitchen, doing inventory.

“And?” I asked.

“First: How are you feeling?” 

I chuckled. 

You know, Flash, it’s been the longest time since I’ve tried to bash some guy’s fucking head in with a bat. Makes a girl think.

I said, “Not sleeping so good. So — Morton Relay.” 

“Sketchy at this point, Cheryl. From Montana.”

“People are actually from Montana?”

“Actually, no. He was born in California. Wound up in Montana. Teaches junior college. Junior colleges, I should say. Sort of an intellectual nomad. One of those guys who can’t get tenure so he has to scramble.”

I sat at Marty’s desk, idly rearranging his photos. Marty the young boxing stud raising his arms in victory. Marty at his newspaper booth he ran on Broad Street brandishing the “Man Walks On the Moon” edition of the Inquirer. Marty standing outside Iffy’s, holding the door open, inviting you in for a pint. Marty behind the bar, as if getting ready to man a shift. 

Talk about staged.

“So what did he teach, this Morton Relay?” I asked.

“Philosophy.”

“God.”

“Yes, and a little theology, too.”

“What the hell did he want?”

“If we take him at his word, he wanted information, something about whatever it was that Bobby might have been working on.”

“Anything else?”

Pause. The grill spat as it heated up. 

I asked, “Want to know what I think?”

“Shoot.”

“This Morton Relay is an anti-globalization guy. Strong streak of libertarianism there. Maybe a bit of an anarchist. Perhaps even one of those sovereign citizens.”

“You always amaze me the stuff you know.”

“True, that.”

“And I realize that you realize that the groups you rattled off are different from each other,” Flash said.

“Yeah, I know. Right wing. Left wing. Wing nut. But what do they have in common?”

“They don’t trust the government?”

“Not just the government. These anti-corporate types don’t like the pharma companies even a little bit and know Jim worked for one. But then, somehow, they find out that what Bobby’s been working on might be even more threatening. What would threaten them?”

“What?” 

I said, “Well, if it’s Jim they’re after, something that would benefit big pharma, or make it look good.”

“And Bobby?”

“Now Bobby is the X-factor. They hadn’t figured on Bobby.”

“How so?”

He wanted to see what I knew. 

OK, I’ll play your game, Flash.

“They feel that whatever Bobby was working on is now Jim’s legacy. So they think they killed Jim that night at Iffy’s. They find out that they killed the wrong Delaney — maybe. Because they also find out that Bobby’s the one they should have been worried about all the time. Maybe.”

“Too many maybes,” Flash said.

“What about that formula? That anti-aging drug?”

“Forensics still has it.”

“You’re doubtful it’s anything?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“You’re doubtful.” 

“I don’t believe in fairy tales, Cheryl, and Jim Delaney led an interesting life. He needs clearance just to talk to me about some things. We don’t know everything Jim did or who may have been interested.”

“Not so with Bobby,” I said.

“Do you know how many crackpots claim to invent some miracle cure in their basement? Not that Bobby’s a crackpot, I mean no disrespect. It’s just that….”

“Understood,” I said. “You don’t see Bobby as the motivator.”

“You have to assume that these guys have some common sense but maybe I’m giving them too much credit. We’ll keep looking.”

“Did you get everything from the house?” I asked. 

“The next day we came over and packed up the journals. All the stuff we’d left because we thought it didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter but….” 

“Did you ever think you’d be going through Bobby Delaney’s stuff?” 

“Usually you don’t work on crimes that involve science,” Flash said. “Usually it’s drugs or sex, or drugs and sex. And money, of course. Now, this might turn out to be about drugs and sex and money, anyway. But it also happens to be about science. Our forensics guys are going over his journals now, but it’s slow. Not too many human beings speak the language of the Bobby Delaneys of this world. We may have to get some outside help. Talk to the geeks at Penn or Temple.”

“Princeton’s right up 95,” I said.

He asked, “You still taking precautions with the girls?”

“I am.”

“Don’t tell anyone where they’re at,” Flash said. “Tell me, makes you feel better.”

Just then I saw that Babs was trying to reach me.

“I got to get this, Flash.” 

I clicked off and back on.

“Babs?”

“It’s me.” Daughter Debbie sounding sullen.

“Don’t use Babs’s cell.”

“She said I could.”

“I say you can’t.”

“Mom, I can’t use my cell because my charger is back on Girard. This sucks! Why can’t we go home?”

“We been through this.”

“We’re in prison.”

“I hope my friend isn’t hearing this.”

I noticed that Crystal wasn’t complaining, not after what she’d seen at Bobby’s. I’d hooked her up with a therapist, kept my fingers crossed that my health plan would cover it. Meanwhile, I didn’t want them alone in that apartment. 

“OK,” I said, “here’s the deal….”

I promised Debbie that I’d bring her some of her stuff, including the cell phone charger. I needed to run an errand anyway. 

It was Monday, so Marty came in for his inspection. He looked more haggard then usual. Then I remembered this was the anniversary of Katrina’s death. 

“You didn’t sleep either,” I said. 

“Fucking birds keep me awake.” His shoulders slumped more than usual. Love had cut him deeper than any fist. He needed to get his mind off things. I told him to hold down the fort.

“You can do it,” I said.

“Do you hear panic in my voice?” That voice sounded like it might if he were talking into a fan. 

As a matter of fact, I do.

“You’re going to open, right?” he asked.

“I’m not deserting you. You’re so worried, bring in one of the part-time girls early.”

“Yeah, me and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. We’ll be over in the corner. Sometimes I wonder why I even try to keep this place going. I just can’t….”

His complaints echoed dimly as I stepped out. Another damp day, rainfall records fell every time I turned around. There was more honking on the streets, more aggravation on walkers’ faces. The gloom was getting to people. 

I went home, packed up, headed for Babs. I delivered the phone charger and some other necessities of life — hair gel, laptop, even some spending money — to the prisoners, thanking Babs again for looking after them.

“Not a problem,” Babs said. “We’re having a good old time, right girls?” 

I heard Crystal strumming her guitar in another room. I peeked in. She sat on one of the guest beds. I gave her a hug.

“OK?”

“Believe it or not I’m not totally freaked,” she said. “Really, Mom. I didn’t really see anything. Remember? I ran from the room? I was brave, wasn’t I?”

“My God, yes.”

“I’m already over it.”

Time will tell.

When I stepped back into the hallway, Babs said: “Maybe some retail therapy will help, right girls?”

Debbie flashed an outrageously phony smile. Babs gave me a look to say “that youngest of yours is a pip.” I lingered for about an hour, trying to make everything all better at once until finally, Babs pushed me out the door.

“Go already! We’ll be fine. You have errands.”

Indeed, I did. On the way to Iffy’s I stopped in at the 26th, and picked up Selma, finally.

“Lieutenant MacFarland apologizes for the delay,” the desk sergeant said. 

She handed it over slowly, hating the idea of another gun on the street. 

Hello, Selma.

“I’m Antonio DeMarco’s daughter.” 

“I know.”

“I am a responsible gun owner.”

“I know.”

She didn’t sound convinced, but I didn’t have time to convert her. I needed Selma. Morton Relay had put a number on me before Flash got him. My arms ached and I couldn’t fully turn my neck. Huge black-and-blue marks stained my thighs, and the lump on the back of my head had just begun to disappear. Flash had made me get checked for a concussion. What had the doctor asked? “How much of this can a 40-year-old body take?” 

I repeated the question when I swung back into Iffy’s.

“You’re not 40, yet,” Marty said.

“Think I’ll make it?”

He glanced at Selma. “My money’s on you. I wish you could make that thing look like a cell phone on your hip. It might put the customers more at ease.”

“Since when do you know my birthday?”

I’d been waiting for someone to slip so I could take over my surprise party. 

“I pay you, don’t I?”

“Speaking of which, Marty….”

He hobbled away. 

It was a typical Monday. A few hardcores came in to watch football, and I wondered yet again why we even opened. But Marty wanted a seven-day a week place, and that was that. Spindles brought in his toy helicopters.

“Go ahead,” I said. “It’s not crowded.”

He put on a show, Spindles did, getting three in the air at once and making them dance to the music the way some water fountains do. I would someday tell Spindles that his skills impressed me. But not then. I wasn’t up to feeding anybody’s ego. 

That night, after work, I felt so tired I could cry. I ached. All day, I hadn’t thought about Bobby or getting run off the road or Jim’s meltdown or Morton Relay. But not thinking exhausted me.

I went back to the apartment on Girard Avenue. I wanted to test it a few nights before I brought the girls home. I had Selma now, and Flash told me that while he couldn’t afford to station cops outside yet again, patrols would drive by once in a while. That would have to do.

I unlock the door, turn on the light and say: “Let me sleep.” But my mind has other plans. Thoughts jump like salmon in a documentary I wouldn’t watch. I comfort myself, singing that line from “Strawberry Fields.” “There’s nothing to get hung about.” Everything leads to everything. 

I digress, and digress, and digress and whenever I drift off, a noise from the street bears down like a train and I jump. I start thinking and digressing all over again. The insomnia blogs say don’t lie in bed trying to wrestle your way to unconsciousness. That never works. Get up, watch TV or read a book. 

So, I start The Catcher in the Rye, wondering how Crystal or Debbie might react to Holden Caufield’s adventures when it’s their turn to read it. I’d forgotten how much of a tedious whiner the protagonist is. I’ve dated many Holdens, with heads so far up their asses that I rolled them like a hula hoop. That’s why when I come across a man — a real man who knows what he wants and can take punishment and realizes that there are causes bigger then himself — I go wobbly. I guess I’m like a lot of women, looking for someone as good as Dad. Poor, me. There aren’t many Antonios out there. Plenty of Dizzys, though, and a shit-load of Spindles’s. 

Catcher isn’t lulling me to sleep, either, and when I get to page 29, I discover something that wakes me even more. The book stops and a new one begins. Bobby had performed surgery on this hardback. He’d cut out the rest of the story and carefully added new pages. He didn’t just paste them in, either. He’d bound it seamlessly. I don’t know how he’d managed to find the matching paper. No one could have suspected that something funky had been done. 

There is a title page: Conduit.

I’ll be damned.

Conduit is fiction even though the girl in the story is “Cheryl DeMarco” and the pursuer is “Bobby Delaney.” The first line: “I had found it; the secret men have been searching ages for. I wanted to give it to her.”

It goes on, “People later asked me what had driven me to create the substance that could change everything. I told them, ‘The love of two women. The first, my mother. The second, the girl I’d always felt to be my soul mate. A girl I’d decided to wait for.’ This is not a love story, however. It is science. It is about arriving too late. When my mother died of Alzheimer’s, I dedicated my life to finding a cure. I failed, but in failing I’d stumbled upon something else. Something for the woman who would never know how much I loved her, would never know that I loved her so much that I didn’t want her to change. She would not experience the corruption of the body.”

My mind goes: click, click, click. Stopping the corruption of the body? That’s an old religious idea. The thought that God gives some people, Mary for instance — you know, the Blessed Mother — a pass on death and decay. So that makes “Bobby” God? 

Too deep for me.

In Conduit, after the mother dies, “Bobby” gets a job at an institution that handles only Alzheimer’s patients. Here I put the book down for a moment, rub my eyes. 

Fiction, meet fact. 

That really happened. I remembered Bobby and that job, never complaining that it was beneath him. Stayed there for about two and a half years, and then quit.

He told me at Iffy’s on an afternoon when the Phillies businessmen’s special had been rained out. 

“I got what I needed,” he said. I had let that go because being a bartender means shadowboxing with narratives. You need to be patient. But he never elaborated.

In Conduit, “Bobby” the orderly secretly tests the compound he’d been working on to cure Alzheimer’s. Unexpected outcome. The people’s minds deteriorate more rapidly, but they live longer than Bobby or anyone else could have expected. 

The doctors, administrators, nurses, and everybody at the institution notice the trend, but write it off as an anomaly. “Bobby” has ethical struggles.

“I dream at night of Josef Mengele, and think to myself, ‘What gives you the right?’ I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I rationalize. For these poor souls, life is meaningless anyway. They died long ago. I hear their families say that all the time. I am trying to free them. I am trying to spring them from the prisons of their minds. I am not Mengele!”

“Bobby” knows he’s closing in on something unique. This is an age when biologics rule medical research. Protein-based drugs, rather than chemical-based, are the new frontier. The human cell is a moving target that you can attach substances to — for the right price.

“Bobby” spends the next several years in his basement, trying to figure out how the main molecule that he used in his anti-Alzheimer’s compound worked, and how to reproduce it. 

Music plays. Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beatles, and Stones. The Mad Scientist Top 40. “Bobby” hits walls. Oh, my, but how he hits walls — figuratively and literally. He stomps out of the lab swearing never to return like a man who’s been wronged by his mistress, only to come crawling back when the craving hits. Finally, one wall seems way too daunting and he turns his back on his work for a month, thinking that he’s failed. 

But he can’t fail. He refuses. So he fiddles around the edges of his research, plays with it. He realizes that he may never find the cure for Alzheimer’s, but perhaps…. “Bobby” figures out that if he refines his formula and gives it to people without a genetic tendency to Alzheimer’s, it actually stops the aging process. 

“Interesting,” he murmurs, not yet understanding that he’s changed history. “Who should I give this to? Who would I, Bobby Delaney, want to make immortal?”

Finally, I doze, and walk on fog. Faces from the edge peer at me, and I realize that they’re waiting to be served. 

Oh shit, not this anxiety dream again. 

I look for the bar, can’t find it at first but then the fog lifts and I realize that I am seated, with a coaster before me. I’m a customer. Now, this is different.

“I have something for you.”

It’s Bobby the bartender, pouring a beer. I am so relieved I am not working. He smiles, pushes the mug toward me. I look around. There they sit. Antonio and Rose, Crystal’s biological father, guys I partied with years ago who OD’d, Maria Delaney, Katrina Daniels, boys from the neighborhood in uniform playing cards. Benjamin Franklin (charged! Who would have thunked it?) and William Penn give each other the evil eye from opposite sides of the room. Grace Kelly, sitting at a table, crosses her legs, smiling coolly at the magic W.C. Fields does. Frank Rizzo leans back, taking it in, with no intention of drinking his glass of water. Over at the doorway, I see the back of Dizzy Tanner’s head as he leaves. What just scurried between his legs? Looks like Jinx the cat.

“Notice anything?” Bobby asks.

I do not take the bait. I quaff his beer and it is beautiful, healing, peaceful, poetic, spiritual. I sigh and wipe my mouth.

“This is what heaven tastes like.” 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

My first birthday card waited for me at the apartment a few days later. It hadn’t made it all the way through the slot, just hung out there. Not like Tommy the mailman at all. Well, his wife was pregnant again; he had things on his mind. 

I didn’t need to see the handwriting, the calligraphic marvel of loops and lines in which my address had been drawn, rather than written. The card was from Aunt Brittany. Of course it was; hers was always the first to arrive. Aunt Brittany — Mom’s oldest sister — never forgets. 

She’s 84, lives about five blocks over, a little too near Frankford Avenue. Can’t sleep unless she hears the El. On her own since Uncle Ned died. More energy than people 20 years younger. She knows by heart all the anniversaries and birthdays, First Communions and baptisms. 

I opened the card and a crisp ten-dollar bill drifted to the ground. The same thing every birthday. When I was I kid, I loved it. Hell, I even loved it when I was using. Now? From this old lady who counts her pennies? I’d tried several times over the years to give it back, but Aunt Brittany wouldn’t budge.

“Tradition,” she’d say, waving me off.

“But….”

“Get away from me!”

Aunt Brittany is…. I was going to say immortal. Strange. I can’t say that anymore, can I? Aunt Brittany only seems immortal. Old age either creeps up, or jumps out of the bushes and mugs you. It creeps up on Marty Daniels and Truck Andrews. 

Now, take someone like Aunt Brittany. Plugging along, independent and as full of life as a kid on Christmas and then she falls, this alternate-universe Brittany, (because let us not jinx the feisty old gal herself). Maybe Alt-Brittany breaks a hip. Infection locks in. She’s put on meds: Not just the antibiotic for the infection. The machine, her old body, has been slowly rotting from the inside and the docs discover high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood pressure and — coming late to the party — diabetes. Alt-Brittany gets depressed, and she’s prescribed something for that, as well. Visitors squint at Alt-Brittany, search for that old spark. She’s not the same and suddenly her middle-age kids ask her if she’d ever thought about living someplace else, you know, someplace with people who can look after her. She waits to die.

You can’t go around thinking like that, of course. You can’t carry mortality in your purse (even if you happen to carry one) because, first, nobody will want to be around you, and second, you wouldn’t want to be around yourself. 

But, no, Aunt Brittany wasn’t forever. Neither was Mom, Antonio, Bobby, this one, that one, that one, this one…. These wonderful lights pass from my life. Aunt Brittany sets aside certain envelopes for giving. To St. Laurentius, the American Cancer Society (that’s what got Uncle Ned), the Wounded Warrior Project. 

Ned had fought in World War II and, in his own way, had been wounded. So many of that generation of men lived in shellshock desperation but, of course, they didn’t know it back then. 

Those were the men who inspired the stories of the monster fathers, who coped by drinking and whoring through manic cycles. Uncle Ned had not, let us say, been easy, but Brittany loved him and stuck with him, eventually nursing him to the beyond.

Aunt Brittany was glorious, in other words. She barely had enough to feed herself, but couldn’t imagine a life where you didn’t give. I was one of her charities.

“Eat already!” she once said to me when we bumped into each other outside of Garrison’s. She slipped me a twenty and I gladly took it; more crack for me. Mom got wind and turned off that faucet. 

“I’m doing a whole lot better now, Aunt Brittany,” I’d written years ago. She’d been on my list of people to send restitution letters to. Step 9 of the 12. 

I stood in the doorway of my apartment, looking at the card, the bag of groceries at my feet. The cheese and ham suddenly settled in the bag and I jumped. 

Easy.

I closed and locked the door. Her card was custom made at Hallmark. “Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is forty!” Loud print. Inside, a note. “I’m praying that the rough times are finally over for you, girl. You’ve had enough for a lifetime.”

I thought, “Well, Auntie, I might be one of those people who have a few lifetimes to get it right.” I wondered if you could get used to living with immortality as much as you got used to living with mortality. How different is it to fool yourself that you’re going to die when you’ve spent you’re whole life fooling yourself that you won’t? 

There was a P.S.: “Heard Jim Delaney’s back in the neighborhood. Have you seen him?”

She damn well knew I had. Next time I’m over there, I decided, I’ll tell her about mine and Jim’s dates, if you could call them that. Throw her a bone. 

I stood at the door thinking about my old aunt, one of the few extended relatives not shunning me, as window light flipped like a slideshow projector that might throw a picture on the screen sideways. The wind pressed against the building. 

Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is 40!

Little Debbie used to brag about what great genes she had because her mother still looked young “but she’s old, man, really, really old.” Crystal would roll her eyes, tell her that whatever age I happened to be back then (32? 33?) is not old. Debbie wouldn’t believe it.

Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is forty!

And the guys keep coming. Always somebody making a pass and me feeling pretty good about that. Feeling good about knowing eyes were turned on me at Iffy’s when they thought I wouldn’t notice. I caught them. Even the ones who’d figured out about the mirrors. I was their fantasy girl.

Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is forty!

Babs, my “little sister,” looking haggard during busy shifts, chugging energy drinks and asking me if I needed any, and me not once saying that I do. Running into old classmates in Center City, dressed for success and showing the world they’ve made it and left Fishtown far behind, but me wondering anyway what the hell had happened to make them look like that? Balding, fat, wrinkly — accomplishment kills.

Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is forty!

Not yet, I thought. Maybe not ever. Am I even 30? I don’t think so. Not according to Bobby’s Conduit. Go by that and I am 29, and will always be 29. Is it possible? If so, then maybe I’m not immortal — I mean I could get hit by a bus or, something more absurd, attacked by a one-worlder in a row home. Still, I’m pretty damn close. 

Lordy! Lordy! Cheryl is forty! 

I did a little dance right there in my apartment, not feeling winded at all anymore. There were a million things I needed to do for the move, but what bumped up to first on my list was “it can wait.” Everything could wait. I had plenty of time. I relaxed with a magazine, checked out the weather channel. 

That mood lasted until Debbie came home. She’d had a half-day, but her attitude was full-throttle.

“I am so sick of grade school.”

“It goes fast. You’ll be 29 before you know it.”

“That’s random. Mom? What is it?”

“Thinking.”

I could live a thousand years.

“Tell me.”

“About how fast you are growing up,” I said, slumping on the couch across from her. I didn’t even bother to tell her to pick up her things.

“Not fast enough,” Debbie said.

“Pretty soon I won’t be able to call you my little girl.”

“You OK?”

“My grandfather died young.” 

“What are you talking about, Mom?”

“Nothing. Nothing.”

Something. Something. 

“We never have any food in this house.”

I went to the kitchen, slapped a sandwich together for her. Roll, butter, ham, cheese, mustard. 

“Eww,” Debbie said.

“Don’t eat it then.”

Grandfather had had a heart attack at 41, was what I’d always been told. I saw through that now. Bobby’s revelation hoisted me onto a plain where more of life spread out. Most people get dead before they get wise and maybe I was fooling myself. It came back to me, though. Things Antonio had let slip over the years that I could now see didn’t add up. Grandfather had killed himself. That’s why grandmother had had to struggle so. 

“Three jobs she worked to support us,” said Antonio, the dutiful oldest son.

Life insurance companies don’t pay for suicides. Mom and I learned that hard lesson. Antonio had been insured to the max, but we never saw a dime.

Why did grandfather kill himself? Would I ever find that out? I didn’t think so. Nobody from that time was around anymore and I doubted if Aunt Brittany knew. The fact that I hadn’t figured it out meant that they didn’t want anyone to know. How many family secrets lay buried, never to be unearthed? Would we want to unearth them? 

Mom had always told me that Dad didn’t kill himself over me. I made myself believe it some of the time for sanity’s sake. Had Mom told me everything? Had she told me anything? 

“Can I go over Brenda’s?” Debbie asked.

“Homework.”

“Science project.”

“OK. I’ll drop you off, but call me when you’re done. I want to make sure I’m here.” 

“Where you going?”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Truck Andrews was at his office in the Penn Treaty Building. We’d been on the phone a few times since he’d asked me to deliver the message about the Davy Crocket to Flash.

“How did the inspector react to that ominous pronouncement?” Truck had asked in one call.

“Are you trying to whisper, or do you have a cold?”

“I cradle an end-time revelation.”

“But, Truck, if someone’s got the phones bugged, it won’t matter if we whisper. They’ll hear that too. Can they even bug cell phones?”

He chuckled at my naiveté. 

“We are docked in someone’s harbor every minute.”

“Truck, if somebody was watching me every minute of every day, he’d be pretty damn bored. Actually, I know a few guys who wanted to do that and I got pretty damn bored.”

“All I am asking….”

“Flash got the message about the nuke and, no, he never mentioned it again.”

“He does not believe it. You do not believe it.” 

“There is so much bullshit going on in my life right now that — believe it or not — your loose nuke is the least of my worries.”

“Why would Inspector MacFarland ignore my entreaty? This is the post-9/11 world.”

“When you coming down this way again?” I asked. “The Phillies are interesting.”

Truck’s office reminds me of the Japanese teahouse at the Art Museum, although less linear, more organic. Exotic flowers and plants spill over vases or dangle from the ceiling. A little waterfall lays down rhythm to oriental-tinged muzak. The air is not exactly scented, which can be too much, but smells like a garden holding off decay the way a real garden would. Allison, the receptionist, brings a cup of chamomile tea.

“To relax you,” she says, smiling and almost bowing as she backs away. 

I’ve seen people fast asleep here. Not me. The more they try to relax me the more I’m ready to bolt the hell out of there. I can’t get comfortable on the cushiony seats that want to hold me like quicksand. After about five minutes of pampering, I’m ready to bite my nails. After about 10 minutes, I’m ready to bite somebody else’s nails. I used to joke about it with Truck.

“I feel like any minute someone’s going to rush me with a dental drill.”

“Your chi had been dislodged,” he explained.

Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.

He had continued: “If you would but approach new experiences with an open mind.” 

“Oh, Truck….”

I chased those memories away as I now waited. It wouldn’t help to recall all the times Truck and me could not communicate. I needed information.

Truck came out from the inner office in a few minutes and he was a sight. (He’s always a sight.) Off were the cowboy hat and spurs. On were the flowing robe and prayer beads.

“Look at you.”

“Summoning of life energy is what these environs are for.”

He ushered me into his room, gestured to a chair. It looked like a therapist’s office, but nicer than the ones I’d gone to when I got clean. 

“You have with you information?” he asked.

“Say somebody takes a drug and he stops aging.” 

“That you came to me to ask?”

“Please. The syntax.”

He was about to object, but I recovered. “I need to pick up Mom’s mail you told me about.”

He sat behind the desk, folded his hands. 

“Continue.” 

“A drug that stops the aging process. What do you think?”

“I know that there is no such chemical agency.”

 “Right. It’s bullshit.”

“That I did not say, Cheryl. I believe that nature gives us the ability to transcend time. There are natural herbs and….”

“Yeah.”

He picked up a crystal, turned it and watch how the light reflected off and through it. I could just hear the little waterfall in the waiting room, and the bang of a drawer and I imagined Allison filing something away.

“I have long studied these portents, Cheryl. I have heard it prophesized that it can be done, if one reaches the right state of enlightenment. Of course, tricky, tricky, tricky. You reach a level of enlightenment where you can stop aging, chances are you are going to accept your mortality and will want to age, will want to shed the vessel. The circle of life an enlightened one will not interrupt.”

“Got it, Rafiki.”

He signed. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s me, Truck. Make allowances.”

I sipped tea, glanced at the wall, looked for a clock. He leaned back, his head in his folded hands.

“Would you want to stop aging, Cheryl?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“No.”

“I strive to live in the moment,” he said. “Find the moment and you find eternity.”

The music changed. Now Gregorian chant.

“Not afraid to die?”

“What is this really about?” Truck asked.

“It’s about a drug.”

He leaned forward, held my gaze. I refused to blink.

“I think foolish people would sacrifice progeny for such a drug,” he said.

“Foolish?”

“You are a comely young woman. Your mother always said that was your downfall. You are too pretty, she’d say. She was thinking about certain former boyfriends who had led you down the wrong path. I am sorry, should I have said that? You look sad.”

“I choose every path I went down.”

“People would pay a lot of money to look like you forever.”

“So would I.”

“Biologics is the next step in fighting cancer. Proteins that attack the disease cell by cell. A drug that fights aging might operate in such a fashion.”

“Cell by cell.”

“Aging happens at the cellular level and every human body’s cellular map is different. I will not hazard if they could make one drug that would stop everybody from aging. But they could harness one process that stops one person from aging and maybe that process, that drug therapy, would stop everybody from aging eventually. In the cell, there is something called the telemore. It is real. Not like meridians whose existence might legitimately be called into question.”

He smiled. 

“Mom used to say that you know everything.”

I heard a door open and close in the waiting room. I wondered if he’d built secret passageways, hidden tunnels, fake bookcases.

“I endeavor to facilitate research, but do not take my word for it,” he said. “As they say: Google is your friend.”

“Who needs Google when I got you.”

“A strand of DNA appears like a spiral staircase,” he said, as if reading it off the ceiling. “At each end of the staircase, are the telemores, bearing a resemblance to the plastic at the end of a humble shoelace. They keep the ends of cells from fraying. As you age, the telemores function less righteously. Actually, I should say that over time, the telemores start to fray and you start to age. If a biologic agent could somehow stop the fraying of telemores, could somehow function at the cell level, you can theoretically stop the aging process. But, it would take years, even if someone discovered the right idea. You would have to test it at the cellular level, first, then work your way up through more and more complex organisms. And when you finally reach the point when you are ready to test it on people, I will be long deceased and so, possibly, will you. But even in the heavens beyond we will be able to hear the earthly outcry. It would be much more intense than what happened over cloning.”

“It would?”

“Because the collective human consciousness would become God hanging out a vacancy sign on the gates of a new Garden of Paradise. Humans would be messing with human nature in an prideful manner.”

I glanced over his shoulder, out the window. A plane descended toward the airport, and I could just hear the happy screams of kids below in Penn Treaty Park. I thought of Jim and me all those years ago, of how our lives diverged from that point, of how they’ve become intertwined again. A cool breeze tickled my neck.

“We’re all time travelers,” I said. “We exist in time.”

“It is perhaps not just happenstance that we sit here discussing a drug, a drug that may or may not be.”

“And?” 

“She who liberates herself from the Devil’s grasp can never escape the smell of sulfur. Your mother’s curiosity worried over addiction like a guard dog on a thief’s ankle. She could never understand though she tried mightily to do so.”

“Let’s not go there, Truck.” 

“I am Rose’s agent. Her closer. She always wondered how it could have been that her daughter wound up in crack houses. What had she done wrong?”

“I always told her it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t Dad’s fault. I made choices, walked step by step into it. Then, I made choices and backed away, step by step.”

I wasn’t tearing up. That would come later. I wasn’t even angry. I was curious about how much Truck would push. This was something new. 

“There must be a reason,” he said.

“There probably is.” 

“You have a disease that I treat all the time.”

“I thought you were retired.”

“I am a healer forever.”

Still curious, and not just about Truck anymore. Usually, I would have told someone — even someone close to me — to fuck off by now.

I said, “What I had was free will and a hell of good time, for a while. Then, it was just hell.”

“Recovery forever blooms.” 

“I don’t need your help.”

The piped-in chants swelled.

“Perhaps I need your help,” Truck said. “You drink beer.”

“I do.”

“You know about cross-addictions?”

Now it was my turn to lean forward.

“My mother loved you. You were good to her, saved her from dying a bitter old widow. But you are not my counselor, Truck.”

He held up his hands. 

“I have trespassed. I am sorry.”

“Forget it.”

“What am I thinking?”

“I said forget it.”

“I am advanced in years and miss the connections.” 

“You’re not that old, Truck.”

“So many people for whom I hold powerful affection have crossed the river. Friends and relatives who grace this earth, they do not venture around as much. The guys in Vietnam who were POWs? You know what they say was the worst of it? It wasn’t the torture or the questioning or the maggot filled food. Horrible, but it wasn’t the worst. The worst was solitary. Being cut off from human contact. That’s kind of what aging is like, Cheryl. Being led toward solitary confinement. It’s a perp walk, except you did everything right. Ate right. Slept right. Exercised right. Had the right luck. Annual physicals. Took your meds. Then, you look up one day, and it is like the light comes at you through prison bars.”

Suddenly, the Gregorian chant stopped and the opening chords of “Take It Easy” rumbled through the office. 

Well, I’m running down the road

Tryin’ to loosen my load

I’ve got seven women on my mind….

“Two o’clock already?” Truck said, checking his watch. “Allison demands a half hour of what she calls real music every afternoon as a wake-me-up. We agreed to oldies.”

“Good for Allison.” 

I stood. “I’ll be 40-years-old in a few weeks.” 

“Cannot hardly believe it.”

“So, you wouldn’t love to stop aging, Truck?”

He escorted me to the door.

“Absolutely not. The sadness of getting old is part of life, Cheryl.”

“Or the sadness of getting older being taken away from you,” I said, again picturing Bobby Delaney’s guts in my palms.

Truck held the doorknob, but didn’t turn it.

“If they ever invented something that could do that, I would endeavor heartily to destroy it.” 

“Why?”

“Think about it, Cheryl. Capitalism benefits if nobody ages. You get a huge market of people who will stay in the ideal demographic for hundreds of years. Vanderbilt and Rockefeller couldn’t have dreamed of the riches that would come from something like that. It would be calamitous for the human race.”

“But, Truck, the system’s done right by you. You’re well-to-do.”

“Too many struggle.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

I had planned on going over to Miss Lotty’s house that same day. I’d later thought about what might have changed if I had. Maybe everything, maybe nada. What I do know is that when you live with teenage girls there’s always drama and I had to drive Debbie to Franklin Mills Mall because Maureen’s boyfriend had been mean to her (Maureen). 

“I still don’t know why I have to pay for this,” I said.

“I’m just bird-dogging. Giving her some leads on retail therapy.”

“Oh, yes.”

She turned her sweet smile upon me.

“It’s your chance to lecture me about life, Mom.” 

“Wise-ass, and I don’t know about life. Nobody knows about life until they’re about 102 years old and, by then, they don’t give a crap because you’re sitting in their own crap.”

“Eww.”

We came home, finally, and Crystal was there, and she’d had a bad event too. The next days were stumble-hours, things seemed a bit off, some false starts and confused moments. My babies were just a tad more irrational than usual. Too much girl energy.

Then the earth tilted again, spilling another cold spell through the streets. Not so bad by day, but I had to clutch my spring jacket to me when I walked up Miss Lotty’s stoop a few nights later.

“Miss Lotty? Hello?”

I knocked again. Waited. I threw a few pebbles at the window. From inside a thump, one of the cats bounded somewhere. 

“Miss Lotty?”

As I walked away, the headlights of a car shone from behind. I looked back at the guy parking and hurried on. I wasn’t thrilled to have been seen by neighbors, and I was hoping that whoever it was didn’t recognize me. 

I dreaded my next stop — Iffy’s. So many times I’ve checked in on my off days for food or drink or to show off my latest date or just to see how things were going, and the next thing I know I am working the bar and wondering how the hell that could have happened. 

This night, the jukebox played “Drive” by the Cars when I peeked inside. 

“Yo!” Babs called. She’s not in my league, but she doesn’t miss much either.

There weren’t that many people at the bar, for which I was simultaneously glad and sad. I wouldn’t be collared to work, but the recession — oh, excuse me, I mean recovery — took something out of the business, had been taking it out for the last few years. 

“Fucking rough,” Marty would growl. He always poor-mouthed, of course, but I kept an eye on the receipts and knew that lately he had cause. It was weird. More people drank, but they ran up less of a tab. Meanwhile, we couldn’t keep up with takeout. 

“Where the girls?” Babs asked.

“Home.”

“You’re not worried?”

“I am playing offense. 

“You packing?”

I lifted my jacket, let her see Selma.

“I was hoping to find Miss Lotty here,” I said.

“The Catwoman was here, left about an hour ago. We were so slow I was actually happy to see her. Never thought I’d say that.”

“She’s a good soul.”

Babs fanned her wrinkled nose. “Maybe, but her body is rotten foul.”

“She wasn’t home just now,” I said.

“She doesn’t answer her door, right?”

“Give me a six pack of something fancy. Yuengling. What the hell? Let’s do it right.”

“Cheryl, you’re going to bribe an alcoholic woman with drink?”

“And an order of fries and a cheese steak to go.”

“To go, to go, to go,” Babs sang as she headed over to the window to put the order in.

As I waited, one of the guys who worked down on the docks tried to talk me up. 

“You’re looking pretty sweet tonight, hon.”

“Really, Joe?  You’re not. You look fat.”

He blinked, shook his head at his beer. 

“You are tough,” he said, trying to laugh it off. 

But I’d injured his vanity. Strange how the biggest slob men are the most piggish, always checking out and grading any woman who walks by. As if he’s the prize. I wasn’t taking no shit from Joe. I’m not usually that mean, especially to customers. But that guy could be an asshole, liked to pick on Spindles. 

So, really, fuck him.

“Here you go, hon,” Babs said, handing me the bag. “On the house.”

I must have looked shocked.

“Really,” she said. “Marty says to.”

“The CB?” Cheap bastard.

“The CB himself. Told me the next time you bought something, it was on the house. Probably doesn’t want you suing him.”

I glanced over at Joe, still pouting.

Here’s the thing about putting somebody down. I can’t do it, even in self-defense, without feeling bad.

“Joe, I was just kidding.”

“I know,” the peacock feathers fanning out before my eyes. “Here, let me buy you a drink.”

Men.

So, I left the bar slightly pissed off, itching for a fight. As I headed down Girard Avenue, a car passing me slowed. I put my hand on Selma.

“Hey Cheryl! Need a lift?”

I knew the voice but couldn’t connect it to a name. It would come to me, but meanwhile I waved him on. As I headed toward Norris, I glimpsed some shadows in one of the alleyways, money and drugs being exchanged. 

“Don’t do it!” I wanted to yell.

But that wouldn’t have stopped me back in the day. Some people can roll the rock and not get hooked, or so I’ve heard. These were the streets my daughters walked. I thought again of my Fox Chase apartment.

As I did, desperate, deserted laughter tumbled from a pickup truck and, from nowhere, the old craving hit. I nearly did an about face and headed back to the thugs I’d just hurried by, tempted more than I’d been in years to use again.

Get through this day — this night.

I dragged the image of Antonio, of how I’d found him, from the snows of my mind. His feet dangling, the ungodly purple of his face. I trudged on.

I went up Miss Lotty’s steps. 

“I brought you….”

Something was wrong. The lock had been jimmied. Cut marks glowed against the dark oak as if someone clawed their way in. Somebody did it in the time it had taken me to hit Iffy’s. I glanced up the block. It was late, and people had left their stoops. Good. I placed the bag of beer and takeout on the porch. I pushed with my fingers and the door creaked open. 

The smell of cat piss and rot held its ground against the breeze following me in. I knew what I should have done. I should have stepped away quickly and called 911 to report a possible robbery. Maybe, forget 911 and just called Flash. He’d come running. 

“Should I?”

A siren sounded far off replacing, for a moment, fear with an overpowering loneliness. I got a sense of the burden of hours that Miss Lotty lived with. Had she died alone? I drew Selma, started stepping my way through the junk. My excuse would be that I was delivering food to a shut-in. My excuse would be that I suspected that there was something wrong so I investigated. My excuse would be…. 

Screw the excuses.

I flipped the light-switch in the entryway, but nothing. Had it been out when Al and I had visited? A hazy glow ebbed from under the door that opened into her living room. I made out voices; Miss Lotty’s talk radio. Something suddenly ran by, brushing my legs.

“Shit!”

I nearly shot it. Fucking cats ruin everything. 

Damn! 

If someone were inside, he’d know I was here. Should I call out again? Maybe he’d think I didn’t suspect a thing and maybe he’d do something stupid. 

“Miss Lotty?” I yelled. “It’s me, Cheryl from Iffy’s? I brought you some food? Some … beverage?” 

Everything a question. Not convincing. 

Steady.

My body held back the flood of adrenaline that made me want to dash the hell out, or charge in firing. Instead, I stepped lightly toward the living room door. My breathing came back to me as if I wore a mask. The night clustered coolly in the dilapidated home, but I sweated. I kept swiping my eyes with my forearm. The radio argument got louder and more heated as I crept along.

Not too late to turn back, Cheryl. Yes it is.

I slammed against the door, throwing it open. I crouched, turning until I made a full circle. A single tired lamp threw a candle’s worth of light. Shadows upon shadows, what was solid was smoke, what was smoke might be real. My eyes adjusted a bit and I could make out her lounger. It faced the wall this time. I approached. The radio debate heated up, they were going at it over Obamacare. I turned it off just as they went to a commercial.

“Miss Lotty?” 

I didn’t want to get too close because if someone was in that chair, he could grab my gun. I reached over with my foot, spun the lounger around. A clump of darkness, rags bunched together. She must have used them as a pillow. Suddenly, eyes flashed open on one of the rags. 

Jinx growled, throwing a look of golden hatred at me. 

I stumbled, nearly shooting the ceiling.

“Fuck!”

Jinx bared its teeth. 

“It’s OK, boy. OK. You know me.”

The cat’s eyes held me as I backed away.

“Well, maybe that’s the problem. I promise: I’ll find her.”

Talking to a fucking cat. Even if it understood, it wouldn’t give a shit.

I don’t know what drew me to the room that I hadn’t seen in years, and had hoped to have never seen again. I could have begun searching upstairs, and worked my way down. That made sense. I could have just called Flash, or even Al. That made more sense. I could have headed back out to the street and considered my options. That made the most sense of all. 

But no, I grabbed the flashlight on the mantel and picked my way through the debris and cat litter toward the cellar door. I stopped only when I put my hand on the knob.

The memory of Antonio’s legs, of his toes pointing as if he’d just jumped off a diving board. Of his face that day when I couldn’t stop myself from looking; that blackening face and bulging eyes that have wreaked so much sleep. 

Don’t do this. 

But I had to. I opened the door. Another room, another weak light bulb. I inched my way down steps made as narrow as a plank with all the cans and boxes. Near the bottom, I knocked something over, and a small avalanche spilled down the last three stairs. A few more cat cries made me clutch Selma at my side. I didn’t want to pull, didn’t want to trip and discharge. 

I flicked the flashlight toward the far end to what had been at one time Antonio’s workout room, and had ended up being his death-room. Light filtered through the keyhole, and under the door. I could almost hear myself from years ago. “Daddy? Daddy? Are you here?”

I can’t do this.

I stood facing the room as the quiet of the house closed in. My companions were my breathing, my beating heart. Veins throbbed in my neck. I couldn’t take another step. I decided to head back out, but found that I couldn’t turn and walk away either. 

“Miss Lotty? Are you here?”

I shook as if some fever worked toward the surface. Suddenly, adrenaline broke through and I rushed the door, screaming “noooooooo!” 

That’s what Spindles said later that he heard because Babs had sent him over to make sure I was OK. He said it reminded him of the sound from the slaughterhouse he’d once worked in. 

“I wasn’t going near that,” he said.

I remember some. The cops had to pry my arms from around Miss Lotty’s legs. I had lifted her, thinking there was a chance I’d come in time. My arms were losing their grip by the time they’d come. My shoulders, neck, legs buckled. 

“It’s too late, Cheryl.”

But how was I to know? I couldn’t look at her face or the rope around her neck. 

They tell me I was crying, “You’re not dead! Please! You are not dead! Talk to me, Daddy!”

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

My mother sold our house to Miss Lotty’s caretaker lawyer back in 1999 for about $45,000. Now, Miss Lotty’s estate could probably sell it as a fix-me-upper for at least $200,000. Would have to do hardly any work beyond chasing off the cats, carting away the litter boxes, and tossing all that trash. Then, probably gut it to the foundation and start all over again. Other than that…. Two hundred thousand frickin’ dollars for a dump where two people committed suicide. 

That number lingered above the burial as if delivered by angels; nobody knew its origins but everyone believed. It pointed to the award for those who’d owned property in the neighborhood and had stood their ground all these years. The priest prayed: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” Yeah, and so does real estate and the generation that cometh gets a buyer’s market these days.

Fishtown was changing.

“We need to stop meeting like this,” Spindles whispered. 

I had missed the funeral Mass, walked down to the cemetery to stand again on the outskirts. A mustiness too lethargic to become rain clung to everything. At the gravesite three distant cousins who’d been summoned from who knows where, stood dry-eyed and probably surprised that they were heirs. The bag lady had saved pennies and owned property. Who knew? The relatives were a man and two women, middle aged and normal looking enough. They stood together and yet strangely apart from each other, shoulders, backs, and their attention forming walls and moats. Battle lines already drawn for the opening skirmishes over who’d get what. A few people gave their condolences, but it was obvious that condolences weren’t called for, so most of us let them be.

Meanwhile, in some minds, I’d become Miss Lotty’s family. The neighborhood knew how I’d discovered the body and some of the women came over and hugged me, patting my back and telling me she’s in a better place.

“Says who?” I asked, and that gave me my space.

They stepped back and said: “How are you holding up, hon?”

A lot of the mourners were Iffy’s regulars and some with guilty faces because hadn’t they mocked Miss Lotty a few times over the years? Or a few hundred times? There was even a handful of the new breed, the professionals whose slow descent upon Fishtown had driven up property value, and guaranteed that change can come to even our gritty little slice of reality. 

Marty had foreseen this in the early 1980s, started buying houses and then, finally, Iffy’s. 

“It’s a stone’s throw from downtown and a safe neighborhood, compared to the other neighborhoods close to Center City,” he’d said. “Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”

About seven or eight years ago Marty sent me and Babs to bartending school. 

Babs was insulted but I said, “About time.”

Iffy’s was changing, too. 

Back when Flash MacFarland owned it, when I was a babe, you could get Bud and Schmidt’s on tap and not much else, and variety hadn’t expanded by the time I started working there. We’d pour Seagram’s or Jack Daniel’s, but if someone came in asking for a martini or Manhattan, not to mention … what was it those professional girls who came in ordered that time? Yeah, if someone came in asking for the Summit, or the JakeWalk, or Ward III, or the Hound of the Baskervilles, him and his three heads would be shown the door. Most nights we didn’t even serve wine.

Now we have the drinks with the little umbrellas, (which I haven’t had to reorder for a long time, thank God, but still). The professional crowd stops in once in a while and they mix well with the neighborhood chumps. But they never become regulars. They’d rather party downtown. We’re still basically a neighborhood bar where tough guys drink. More women come in, that’s one difference. Marty one time wanted to change the name.

“No wonder the gals don’t visit. ‘If My Wife Calls, I’m Not Here.’ That joke wore out its welcome on its second day.”

The chorus had chimed: “The second hour.” “The second minute.” “The second second.”

I’d said, “Don’t mess with the brand, Marty. Iffy’s will always be Iffy’s, even if you change the name.”

I won that one and the yuppies think the place has an edge, they feel like their living a bit dangerously. They have no idea. 

Yeah, Fishtown was changing. I wondered, at the gravesite, what Antonio would have made of it. They’re building a casino on the waterfront where the old Jack Frost factory had been. It’s going to be called the SugarHouse. At Frankford and Girard is the Frankford Hall. Top of the line bars, and the best German cuisine this side of the Rhine. When I was a girl it was a strip joint and Antonio had made closing it down one of his life’s missions. He finally got them on health violations, and the plot went fallow for a few years. 

When I finally move out, Marty’s going to renovate my apartment, showing off the hardwood floors, building new bathrooms with fancy fixtures, and kitchens where the old-fashioned coexists with the brand new — countertop brick ovens and French-door refrigerators with computers that tell you when something’s gone bad. People are always tempted to sell, cash in, and head to the burbs. But that wouldn’t be home. 

“Fishtown is still fucking Fishtown,” Spindles says. 

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed that morning. Funerals make you mourn, but not necessarily for the body before you. Spindles’s nephew a few years ago had been shot five times on the street, killed by two white punks over drugs and a girl. 

Fishtown is still fucking Fishtown. 

Frankford Hall is in the hood but not of it. Patrons come from as far away as New York, but folks from York Street can be found at Iffy’s.

“Where you heading?” Spindles asked, as we walked from the grave.

“Vacation, man. And I do so need the time off.”

I went to my garden in the backyard at the apartment in Fox Chase. My very own Eden. Easter came early that year and I took the girls with me to spend a week in the new place. They’d wanted to go down the shore. I promised we would in the summer. I still had a lot to do.

“Move-in date is July 1, remember?” I told Babs. “Shit, you’re my best friend and you’re forgetting my life.”

“You have a life?” 

“I just want out,” I said.

“Are we getting notions, hon?”

“I need to move, that’s all.”

Mom would recite:

Patience is a virtue,

Possess it if you can,

Seldom found in woman,

Never found in man

Mom had patience. Antonio was Job. Babs has patience. Crystal, patient. Debbie, not so much. Me? I am the most impatient person I know. Everything was taking too long. The move, the investigation into the murders, even the bad dreams that I’d been having lately. I’d find myself wondering in my sleep, “When the hell is this nightmare going to end?” They were different. In one, I am stuffing Bobby’s intestine back into him, as he starts singing that Joni Mitchell song “Forever Young.”

Then there’s the dream where Crystal is playing at a coffee house and says, “This one’s for you, Mom.” And I’m there, all right. A baby in a stroller. 

Fucking dreams. 

Daytime wasn’t safe either: Bobby’s guts and Lotty’s dangling feet. I wondered if I should see a shrink.

“Let’s go girls.”

A stillborn chill clung to the world, and we wore jackets, as we drove up I-95 that afternoon. 

“Are we going to have to do something?” Debbie asked. 

“What do you mean?”

“You going to make us paint?”

I started humming.

“Are you going to make me paint to make me a better person or show me responsibility or anything like that?”

“No, sweetheart, I am going to let you set up your bedroom — your very own bedroom, may I add, that you don’t have to share with your sister — just about any way you want to set it up. Bedsides I already painted your bedroom, remember?”

To Debbie’s specifications. Two walls in school bus yellow. The two others in hot pink.

“I can put up posters, right? It’s my room.”

“Posters. Glitter. Strobe light. Turn empty Coke bottles into decorations. Go crazy.”

“I want a couple of cork boards so I can make notes to myself.” 

“What about your computer?”

“I just like seeing things, touching them.”

“Your room,” I said. “Crystal can do what she wants with her room, too. Within reason.”

I glanced in the rearview. Crystal hadn’t heard. She was hooked to her I-pod. 

“She’ll want to draw on the walls,” Debbie said. “The artiste.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

We reached the place, and as the girls were totting their bags to their rooms I walked right out back and plunged my hands into the soil. I kneaded the dirt through my fingers; I even bent down and took a deep breath, savoring what for me would become sacred ground. 

“What’s to eat?”

I went in, washed up, cooked dinner, watched some telly with the babies, and went to bed. As I burrowed under, I could still smell the sweet earth. 

My garden, my garden.

I sat in my lounge chair the next day, drinking coffee. Morning peeked out over the trees in Pennypack Park. I liked the view of the Delaware River in Fishtown, but I had had to walk to see it. This beauty would be served to me on a platter the size of the sky. Unopened cartons and boxes surrounded me. Drop cloths had been bunched to the sides, holding the dust of old paint and the dried drops of the new. 

I’d bought garden gloves but, for that first day of work, hardly used them. I cultivated new friends: gerbera daisies, pink spray roses, red tulips, hydrangea, yellow irises, purple hyacinth, white monte cassino asters, green button spray chrysanthemums. I loved them all. 

Truck had given me a discount if I agreed to take care of the backyard. I could plant anything I wanted. 

“Except, of course, something ponderously fruitful, like pumpkins,” he’d said. “Pumpkins populate the sacred earth, if you let them.”

Some of what I planted were seeds, some were the flowers themselves. I bought them at a garden store I’d found on Bustleton Avenue. One of my boyfriends once described how I looked when buying flowers. I forget who the guy was. It wasn’t Jim, and it certainly wasn’t Dizzy Tanner. 

“It’s like you go into shock, or you trance out,” he’d said. 

“I do not.”

“It’s like,” and his eyes became wedges of concentration and he leaned forward a bit, like one of those acrobats who can hold themselves at odd angles. 

It’s true. I am blinded. When I see these colors waving at me, I can barely move. I have to choose. I would try to imagine how they looked on Girard Avenue. Now, I worked with a true canvas and needed new materials. I concentrated like a painter might when she’s measuring exactly how to apply a dab of color to a miniature. I tried to picture what would look best in light, what best in shade. Which splash of color should go here, which there? Perennials versus seasonal. Death and rebirth, versus death and oblivion. The sun, the sun, always thinking of the sun. 

“Can I help you, miss?”

I swung around. 

“I’m sorry,” a young man said smiling “Did I startle you?” 

He was tall, sculpted, his beefy arms rippling through the sleeves of a polo shirt and the apron straining around where a neck should be but was taken up by muscle that squared right to the shoulders. Charged. A football player, perhaps a wrestler, too. High school or college? 

I squinted and could just see the little boy he’d so recently been peeking out from behind the man he was laboring to become. Trying to find his cool. I pictured that slab of an arm around my Crystal. Not her type, I decided. She’d want the please-fuck-me-I’m-too-sensitive kind. And I’d be right there to tell her to wait until marriage. 

“Just looking,” I said.

“You know,” he said, clearing his throat, “I’d be happy to show you around. I am a 4H Club member, so this isn’t just a job for me.”

Now there’s something you don’t see in Philly everyday.

I asked: “Going to school?”

“Villanova,” he said. “Where do you go?”

Bullshit spill in isle 9.

“Hon, how old do you think I am?”

He blushed, shuffled a bit. 

I laughed. 

“Well….” he began.

“How old?” 

He put his mitt up. “Why don’t you let me buy you lunch sometime and I can guess?”

“My daughter’s about your age,” I said.

“You’re kidding.” 

“I’ll get help when I’m ready to decide,” I said. “About which flowers to buy, that is. I’ve already decided about your lunch offer. The answer is ‘no thanks.’”

He’ll bounce back. That’s what players do.

“Sure?” he said.

That was fast. 

“See ya.”

His smile wilted and he backed off.

When I finally had chosen, a little girl came over to help. I carted away over $300 worth of flowers. That was just the start. 

I spent the rest of the morning on my knees, etching my mark upon the earth. Maybe in another life I was a farm girl. My daughters certainly weren’t; they were slugs. The princesses finally rose and wanted breakfast and I told them to get it themselves and, by the way, it’s lunchtime. 

“Please Mom?”

I relented. Then, since this was a vacation, we went out to Neshaminy Mall and shopped a bit and saw a movie. Then lunch. Then reality. First Debbie asked if she could sleep over a friend’s house. Then Crystal wanted to know if she could head down the shore for a few days.

“Hey!” I said. “This was supposed to be family week, remember?”

“We’re not down the shore,” Crystal said. 

“I am aware of that.”

“So we’re just going to, like, look at each other for six long days?”

“Aren’t you excited about moving?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. But I didn’t think we were moving into prison.”

“Prison. Great.”

I dropped the girls off in the late afternoon and worked. I’d reconciled myself to spending a quiet evening in my new place, sipping beer in the lounger, surfing the web or watching a movie on Netflix and then curling up in my sleeping bag, pretending to be on Truck’s farm and hearing horses clopping through the meadow.

As evening settled, the air grew chilly and damp. I hadn’t heard a weather report — no cable hookup yet — but rain was moving in. I hoped it would be one of those nice steady soakings, the perfect follow-up to planting. I’d saved the majority of my work for Mother’s Day, when I knew the more delicate flowers would be able to survive. I knelt in the yard, looking at the clouds tumble into each other. I closed my eyes and prayed for Antonio. 

“Why, oh, why can you not find a man of character and honor such as your father?” Mom used to lament.

The clouds blackened, the birds called, and I stabbed the soil with my garden shovel, flinging the dirt onto a little pile. I dug with vengeance as I thought about my meeting with Flash MacFarland. He’d asked me on the night of Miss Lotty’s death to stop into the precinct when I was up to it. 

“Sure. When I can.”

Then, the day after the burial he called, and told me he’d come pick me up.

“That’s OK. I could use the walk.”

Why the rush all of a sudden? 

I didn’t have to wonder long. He’d met me in the lobby, buzzed me through some doors, and led me to his office, an office that had at one time belonged to Antonio, although I wouldn’t have realized that if I been led there blindfolded. 

You see, Dad couldn’t have too much light. He had the overheads, but also lamps. Mind that it wasn’t a cozy cave. The brightness freaked me out a bit, reminding me of the glare of an operating room. 

Now shadows disturbed me, though the muted light helped Flash. Long ago, typewriters moved out when computers moved in and he wanted less glare because it let him see the screens better.

I took a seat, and he walked around to his desk, touched his keypad.

“It was murder,” he said, plopping down and making his chair sigh.

My eyes welled; my nose stung as if I’d been slapped. 

“Somebody did that to Miss Lotty?”

Flash pointed to his screen. “Made it look like suicide. The coroner’s report is conclusive.”

“Oh.” 

“I am so sorry you saw that in that room, Cheryl. I mean, I know….”

“Can we turn on a light?”

“Yes, absolutely. For sure. I am sorry.” 

“Stop saying that, please.”

He rolled his chair to the wall behind him, flicked the switch and there was light and a slight buzzing sound as well.

“I am going on vacation,” I said. 

“That’s a good thing.” He rolled back to his desk.

“I am tired.” 

Tired of dead bodies, tired of worrying, tired of violence, tired of history, tired of thoughts, and tired of closing thoughts off.

“It could be worse.”

I couldn’t even laugh.

“How the hell could it be worse?” 

“You could be dead.”

“Give it time.”

“Whoever killed Miss Lotty Carlisle wasn’t still in her home when you … entered. In the front, out the back. Did he steal anything? Who can say for sure? Our forensics guys are in there now. The motive? There may be a connection to Bobby Delaney, but we haven’t found anything definitive. It could be random, another druggie who probably by now forgets what he did.”

“I don’t believe this.” 

“I am trying, Cheryl.”

“I know.”

My anger stopped flowing toward him, came back on me. 

“The son-of-a-bitch was strong, we know that much,” I said.

“How did he do it? He strangled her, tied the rope around her neck, the other end around the pipe and then….”

“I know. I saw.”

Our eyes locked for a beat across the Sahara of his desk.

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” he said.

“No.”

“Talk to somebody.”

“I am.”

“To somebody who can help.”

“It would help if you caught these guys.”

“We will. But maybe in the meantime you should….”

“Crystal-Debbie are my medicine. They worry about me. But they’re still teenagers and they have their hormones and expect their mother to shake things off. They need me to be Cheryl DeMarco.”

“I am talking to somebody,” Flash said. “I can recommend him.”

He looked at me the way he had when Bobby was murdered. The way Mom and Aunt Brittany and so many others evaluated me through the years. Wondering if I was going to fall off the wagon. Even after all this time. 

“I turn 40 in a few weeks,” I said. “I went into rehab on my 26th birthday.”

“You don’t miss it?” Flash said. “I miss the booze sometimes.”

“Raising Crystal-Debbie: That’s my drug of choice these days.”

“How are they holding up?”

We chatted a bit and the conversation changed from business to casual. The kids, the neighborhood, what’s new with you, what’s new with me. Finally, I said, “I need to go.” 

I needed to get out of that office. I needed to get rid of the bad taste of that room where Miss Lotty and Dad had died. 

This is what I need. 

I dug beneath the threatening weather. This was busy work, nervous energy for I’d stopped planting, guessing that what was coming might not be good for sprouts. I’d come out the next day with the wet ground. That would be the time to plant. Still, I dug the holes until, finally, I looked up and saw the darkness rushing down.

Time to go in.

I couldn’t move. 

All at once, the rain broke through and I stood stiffly. I ached, not only from gardening, but everything I’d been through recently. It was worse then when I ran the marathon that time. I closed my eyes, raised my face toward the sky, held my palms out as if I said the Lord’s Prayer. I shuddered as water ran down my back, over my shoulders, into my sneakers. Thunder broke, lightening flashed. It was a ways off.

I am so sorry, Miss Lotty. I am so sorry, Bobby. I am so sorry, Daddy. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. 

I sobbed, my shoulders shaking. I dropped the shovel. 

I could have saved them. I should have saved them.

I fell to my knees.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I don’t want to live forever.

The flowers I’d planted bent, then disappeared. The holes I’d dug filled with water, the little mounds I’d shoveled turned into mudslides that ran in gullies toward the alley. I picked myself up, stumbled toward the back door. Just inside I pulled off my cloths, they made a sucking sound as they clung to my skin. I dropped them, letting them lie wet and sullied by the backdoor. Then I tiptoed naked up the stairs and into the bathroom, shivering uncontrollably. 

I stepped into the shower, and let the hot water run over me. I was still crying, I couldn’t stop and I could barely breathe. I grabbed the fixture, brought it to my face, leaned into it like a blues singer. The water ran into mouth, and down the sides of my face. The spray drummed my forehead, eyes, cheeks. I turned the water on my body, my arms that still carried scars from another life. 

Let it out.

As if I controlled it, as if I was the gatekeeper of this Niagara of regret. I was so relieved that the girls weren’t there. Slowly, the weakness passed. I loved the way the hot water stayed hot even though I showered for a long time. On Girard Avenue, the steam would never last more than 10 minutes. Thinking like that, thinking of little stuff, silly stuff brought me back. 

CHAPTER FORTY

The storm had slowed only a little by the time I’d gotten dressed. Rivulets snaked down the windows and outside cars swished by, their lights sprinkling the asphalt. I looked about the apartment, feeling sealed off by the unlived-in-ness of it. I thought of time capsules buried under churches or courthouses or flung into space. One mirror leaned against a wall, and I gave myself a good look from a funhouse angle. 

Ageless. But not invulnerable.

The rain kicked up a little more. I moved boxes into whatever rooms they belonged. After I’d unpacked almost everything that I could, I considered painting, but then thought to hell with it.

“Enough for one day,” I said and my voice echoed through the barren rooms. Such an echo, you shouldn’t let go to waste and Crystal doesn’t get her voice from her father. I sung “Call Me Al” (well, the refrain, anyway) as I brought out a glass and a bottle of wine. 

I am not normally of the grape but this had become something of a special occasion and I poured myself a large burgundy and toasted beginnings, old friends, and the rain and trees in the park. I toasted the dead. I toasted my great-grandparents, people who’d passed generations before I came along and whom I never gave a thought to before. I thought of them now. I ordered a pizza and in a short time, there was a rap on the door. I gave the kid a good tip for working in such weather. 

“Drive safe,” I said. 

I didn’t want to watch movies right away. I wanted to look out my window, at how the flashes of distant lightening threw ghosts upon the tops of the trees in Pennypack Park. I switched to Coors light, raised the silver bullet to the night. Man, I was tired.

“Get away,” Flash had advised.

I’m far away. With the rain falling and the sky closing in and this peace settling on me so that I feel as if nobody can touch me. God’s in his universe and I’ve got my gun. 

I smiled. 

Up, down, and up again. 

My period was coming on, but PMS had never affected me like this. 

I slept finally. And in my dream, I was leading my girls across a field. They were both much younger, Debbie about 4 or 5. The field was Wyeth, but then turned into Pennypack Park. Green and lush with a creek bubbling up its spine. We were walking toward the playground on the corner of Tustin Street and Verree Road, and I was telling them that they’re going to meet new friends and have adventures. 

“And will you be with us, Mommy?” Debbie asked. She asked that a lot after I’d thrown Dizzy out. 

“I am never, ever going to leave you.” 

“Crystal says I am going to die,” Debbie said.

“Crystal!”

“Well, there seems to be pretty good evidence,” Crystal said.

In my dream. Remember. In my dream.

“You are not going to die, Debbie,” I decided.

“Daddy’s dead,” Debbie said. “You told me. And if Daddy’s dead, Mommy can die.”

“Sweetie, hush. I am not going to die.” 

Then, I am down the basement at Iffy’s standing among the ruins of what must have been one hell of a birthday party. It looked as if spaced-out Mummers had marched through; I stood in trash up to my knees. Birthday balloons wilted from spikes and the big banner had fallen face down.

Who’s party was it?

And why had it been thrown in the cellar?

Then — you know dreams — the scene changes and I am back on Norris Street approaching that room again. I look to where a mirror was but it wasn’t there now. How old am I? Which corpse am I going to discover? I don’t want to move, but my feet don’t listen. I am being pulled along.

I weep, knowing it’s a dream and cursing myself for not being able to get out of it. The door opens for me, and there are Antonio’s feet. 

“No! Please!”

Something different about this one, though. I sense another presence, over in the bathroom. The door’s ajar and I start walking toward it. 

“Hello? Who’s here?”

Something pulls at my pocket, and I look down to see little Debbie, tugging insistently.

“Keep me,” she says. 

I awoke. That little hand pulling was, in real life, my cell phone buzzing. I wiped my eyes as I fumbled to answer. Were the girls OK?

“Hello?” The slightest pause. “Hello!” I insisted.

“We need to talk.” 

Dizzy.

“Fuck is this?”

“I really need to talk to you Cheryl, please.”

“I don’t want to talk to you. I’ll call Flash. Get you jailed.”

“You’re not going to do that.”

“Keep away from Debbie, asshole.”

“If you’d just listen….”

I hung up. That did it. I’d have to tell Flash. Then, I’d have to tell Debbie. Shit. Where had Dizzy picked up that whiney voice? I glanced at the radio. Almost midnight. What the fuck was he thinking? The phone buzzed and this time I did look. Him. How did he get my number? I ignored it, but then I saw that he’d texted me. “Right outside. Let me stay night. Am homeless. Am changed man.”

He’s fucking nuts.

I pictured him in Fishtown looking up at my apartment, not realizing I wasn’t there. Right down in Kensington there was a men’s homeless shelter. 

Go there. 

The rain started drumming again, and a chill had crept into the room. Guess now was as good a time as any to try the thermostat. When I stood, lightening struck nearby and I froze.

“Holy shit!”

He was out there. We had our moment. He’d seen me seeing him. He might have been out there watching me sleep. 

Fucking creep. I need to get those curtains. 

I called him. 

“Two things: I still have my gun and you just fucked yourself good because now I am going to get that restraining order.”

“Can’t you just forgive me?” He stepped into the halo of a streetlight. 

“You are stalking.”

He brought his one arm up, pleading. “I don’t want to start over, Cheryl, I know it’s too late for that.”

“Dizzy, if you are not out of my sight in five minutes I will call Flash MacFarland and he will find you. And he will put you in jail. And you will probably stay in jail for a long time, little man. You’ll be somebody’s bitch.”

“We once had something.” 

Believe this shit? 

I held up Selma.

“What I had was a desire to see you dead.”

“You’ve shared things with me that you never shared with anyone else,” he said. “I know about the first time you smoked a joint. I know about Friends Hospital, about your brother and sister cutting you off. Hell, I even know about the secret Halloween compartment in that cop’s toolbox.” 

“Yeah, and I know you’re an abuser.”

“I made mistakes,” he said, turning and pacing on the sidewalk the way he must have paced jail cells. “It’s rainy. I’m hungry, sleepy, and cold.”

“Get a job.”

“I need to….”

He turned, looked back up at me. 

“We do share something beautiful.

“Share my ass.”

“I want to tell Debbie goodbye.”

Now what?

“You’re going to get your wish,” he said. “I am going to disappear.”

“Too slow.” 

If I called Flash now would he come running? 

“I want to explain to my little girl. I want her to know what Daddy’s about.”

“Don’t worry, when she’s old enough, I’ll explain.”

He put his hands together, imploring me and for some reason that’s the gesture that made me bend ever so slightly. 

Damn. We did have something once. We shared an illness.

I forced myself. “I’ll say that Daddy was basically … basically a good man whose life was ruined by drugs. Daddy, your real Daddy, Debbie, the man he could have been, is dead, for all….”

“That’s not the whole story.”

“It is for me.”

“You should know that I would never, ever do anything to hurt her. I would kill anyone who tried to hurt her. It’s just that…. My daughter should know about my spiritual journey.” 

I stopped bending.

My daughter is going to be kept away from her loser, psycho father.”

“I have changed.” 

“Yeah.”

“There is something greater than myself.”

“Hmmm.”

“Cheryl, please, try to remember what we had.”

Oh, I’m remembering all right.

“If you try to break in I will shoot you.”

“I wanted to say goodbye,” he said. “I wanted to let her know.”

The last little plea, the Hail Mary pass although now that he’s found — ahem — Allah, he can’t try a Hail Mary pass anymore, can he? Hail Mary passes are for infidels. 

I stepped closer to the window, right up against it. I clicked off. He looked at his cell, then back up at me. His shoulders slumped. Game. Set. But not quite match. Match will come when I tell Flash and the little weasel winds up in jail. I watched as he turned and started walking into the park in the rain. 

He carried a sleeping bag with him and I wondered where he’d gotten it. 

Not your problem, Cheryl. 

The woods embraced him. 

Feel no mercy for psychos, even if he is the father of one of your children. 

I actually slept after that, a superficial skate upon the surface of unconsciousness. Around five o’clock, I awoke. The rain had stopped. 

I put some coffee on, and ran down the street to the honor box for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There were some coupons I wanted so I snagged three copies. 

So much for honor. 

Turned, was about to head back when (damn!) I just couldn’t do it and dropped what I owed into the box. I am my father’s daughter, after all.

When I came back, I saw that mail had been delivered the day before, laid on the table by the entrance. I usually picked up anything addressed to the old tenant, mostly junk. I didn’t want the nice elderly couple upstairs feeling as though they had to take care of my mess. A few envelops with my name on it had actually arrived. I hadn’t officially changed my address yet but, somehow, the people who peddle bullshit had anticipated my move.

That’s when I found it. It slipped out of the pile, landing clickity-clack on the floor. A DVD. Taped to the case was the message: “For my daughter.”

I flung the mail into a corner, threw on my coat, and marched outside. 

I don’t need Flash or anyone else to help me deal with this. 

The grass was high, my sneakers were soaked in three steps and so were my pants up to my calves.

Where are you, asshole? 

For a man who prides himself on his elusiveness, Dizzy was easy to find. There was a fire and I stumbled through some brush following the smell of smoke. When I pushed aside one low-hanging branch I stopped. 

There he was in the clearing, kneeling and praying by a little tent. He bowed in what I guessed to be the direction of Mecca. He hadn’t heard me; too involved with himself. Typical. He was crying. He said something in, I guessed, Arabic and then he moaned “Please. I beg you. I don’t want to do this.”

I felt the DVD in my coat pocket. Dizzy said that he wanted Debbie to understand him. Well, maybe I should at least look at it before I toss it. Not for him, God knows. For Debbie. He stopped praying and held his hands up, palms skyward.  

“Your will, not mine,” he said. 

Then he dug something out of his breast pocket, popped it into his mouth. 

What’s this?

That’s when I backed away convinced, now, that he’d indeed changed. Before, Dizzy had been a low-life druggie, petty thief and woman abuser. But I’d never considered him crazy, only crazy like a fox. Something was off.

I am definitely getting that restraining order. 

The DVD might make it pretty easy to get one, too. 

That’s me: Always thinking ahead. 

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

Jim Delaney called me the morning Dizzy dropped off his CD, about an hour after I’d stumbled upon that prayer jazz in the park. Iman Dizzy Abdul Atta. The man believed his own bullshit. 

“Lunch?” Jim asked.

“You’re out?” I got up, went over to the window. Nobody there. Good.

“Furloughed.”

That doesn’t sound promising.

“I can come and go as I like,” he added quickly. “This program … you know how they all have their own quirks.”

“It uses the 12 steps, right?”

“I’ve come to respect you so much, Cheryl. I mean, we all know about the recidivism rates. You beat the odds, you really did.”

I thought I saw something outside and I leaned over to the far corner of the window and could just make out Dizzy Tanner walking with his two bags toward the bus stop on Verree Road. 

“I didn’t beat anything,” I said. 

“Yes, of course, you don’t really beat it until you’re dead.”

“Don’t jinx me, now.”

“I can leave the program for good anytime I want,” Jim said. “They give you suggestions, but it’s not jail. It’s all about free will. Isn’t that what it’s always about?”

His talk waved and snapped like a flag. The hangdog undertow treaded so deeply that I could hardly hear it, but it was there, pacing along. Meanwhile, Dizzy had caught the bus — bang-boom. He had a schedule? 

Please let that be the last of him.

“They say it’s OK for you to be out so soon?” I asked.

“Yes. Well, I’m going back tomorrow. But there are certain things I need to set right if I’m going to get myself right.”

Shit. Am I part of the cure? 

I leaned against the wall, brought a fist to my mouth.

“It’s been a pretty rough ride for me, Jim. All this has really….”

It’s broken my heart, screwed me up good. You should understand that.

“That’s one of the things I need to set straight. I heard what happened. What … who you discovered.”

One good thing: If Dizzy is spying or lurking, a visit by Jim might send him along.

“I want to forget,” I said.

I needed to text the girls to tell me before they come back to Fox Chase. I needed to be here.

“Let me take you to lunch,” Jim said. “I realize you’re in shock, a little. I think what I have to say will help you.”

He picked me up around 11, bounding to my door like the Jim of old. As a matter of fact, I would quickly learn that there was a lot about him that reminded me of the Jim of old, but I was not swayed. His bravado rested on fragile ground. He projected a persona he hadn’t yet fully adapted. Still, the transformation on the outside was remarkable.

“Look at you,” I said.

“It’s noticeable?”

“You know it is. How much?” 

“I don’t weigh myself, but a lot. I keep buying new cloths.”

“That’s so great, Jim.” 

But will you keep it off?

The angles and edges of his face had reasserted themselves, as if he’d never been jowly. No more puffiness under the eyes and those eyes burned again with turquoise ambition. Had it only been six weeks? 

“You’re hair,” I said.

“Plugs.”

“May I?”

He tilted his head, and I rolled strands in my fingers as if asking for money. Then, for the first time that morning, he smiled.

“And what’s this?”

“The marvels of modern dentistry,” he explained.

“So I see.”

He looked his age, again. In fact, his transformation had been so radical that I wondered if he’d somehow gotten hold of Bobby’s brew. No, he couldn’t drink. He was battling time the old-fashioned way: diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery. He was still young enough that he could slog off years of self-abuse and neglect. 

Men can do that, damn them.

“So this is the new place.”

“We’re still unpacking.”

“May I?”

He did a quick walk-through, and I followed. He moved like an athlete again, caught up in the rush of second chances and the flow of energy that addiction had for too long thwarted. His glances shot here and there, capturing details. That made me uneasy for a second; he reminded me of a Secret Service officer checking out a venue for the president’s visit. Then, relief bubbled up. 

For once, someone’s looking out for me.

“Nice backyard,” he said, settling by the kitchen window.

“My garden, finally.”

“I am happy for you, Cheryl.”

He turned then, looked at me with something I didn’t want to deal with at the moment. 

Oh no, Jim. I’m not….

“Ready?” he asked. 

“If you are.”

As we headed out of the apartment, I looked for the Tesla. 

“I got something a little more sedate,” Jim said. “A little less flamboyant.”

A Taurus. 

“This is a switch,” I said, easing into the passenger seat. “At least it’s still red.” Bright red.

“I needed the money and plus the Tesla reminded me of too much bad shit. Sayonara to the Bond-mobile.”

Sayonara to automatic parking and zero to 120 in a minute. Sayonara to state-of-the-art hotshitness.

“Disappointed?” he asked.

“I love the new-car smell.”  

It took about a half hour to get to the Langhorne Tavern in Bucks County and most of what he told me he revealed on that ride. I cozied into the conversation of an old friend, while embracing the sunlight. Last night’s storm had scrubbed the sky. As we turned onto Verree and headed toward Red Lion he said, “I haven’t used it that much. I’ve had it for a few weeks. It’s a safe ride. Before I start her, I check for bugs and…. Hey, by the way, have you ever been to the Langhorne Tavern?”

“Bombs.”

“What?”

“You were about to say you scope for bugs and bombs.”

“Cheryl, you are safe with me.”

You’re not always here.

“When I heard about Miss Lotty,” he said, “I knew that it wouldn’t be fair to not tell you what I know. It wouldn’t be smart, either.”

“Right now? I thought the big reveal was coming over lunch.”

“This here is the traveling cone of silence.”

“I’m listening.”

He looked pensively ahead as if he searching for the beginning of his tale on a road sign.

“You will understand,” he said, finally. “You’re one of the few people who know exactly what I’m talking about, what drives me. It’s about being an addict and trawling with the bottom feeders and then making the decision to live rather than die.”

“I think I follow.”

“I needed to make things right. After what happened in Afghanistan. Even though I hadn’t yet hit bottom — that came at Valhalla — I wanted to somehow….”

“You can’t raise the dead, Jim.”

“I want to bury them. Properly. Like how you’d like to bury your father and your ex, Dizzy.”

“You have no idea.”

“But I do. I kept in touch with my old contacts. I went back to Iraq as a private citizen. Of course I knew that the agency kept tabs on me, but I still managed to piece together the plots.”

“Plots? Plural?”

He glanced at me.

“Come on,” I said. “You’ve come this far.”

“Yes, plots. Biological and nuclear. But there are always plots. Guys in the Arab world — they talk big.”

“You told the agency?”

“No, I didn’t. I will when I get more. I want to foil the plots, to save the day.”

“Jim, I’m no expert but being Antonio’s daughter means that I’m not exactly an amateur, either. Shouldn’t somebody else know?”

“When I have enough to give them, when I can guarantee that I’m not looking like a damn fool, then I’ll give them. I can’t stand to think that I’ll be patronized again.”

I’m getting a headache.

He reached over, patted my forearm.

“Listen to me,” he whispered, even though we traveled in the cone of silence and even though he’d checked that morning for bugs — and bombs. “They want to set a nuke off over Philly.”

“Like Truck says?”

“Like Truck says.”

“They, whoever they are, also want to release a biological element into the city. A new sort of black plague. Before you ask, I don’t know what. Could be synthetic. Could be old school: smallpox.” 

“You really need to tell Homeland Security.”

“They’re taking steps. So am I.”

“Meaning?”

“These groups want what terrorists always want. To spread terror. But I made sure that they’re playing for something else, too.”

“The anti-aging formula,” I said.

“I needed to bait the trap. I needed to bring them out. So I put it out there that I was working on something top secret for Matrix. Something that changes the game, changes history. I used my contacts to spread it around that my team had cracked it, that I had the formula. That I kept working on it even after Matrix fired me. I used some of the research that I dug up. Used some of the stuff that Bobby showed me.”

“Bobby was in on this?”

“No. At least I didn’t bring him in on it.”

“There are two terrorists cells that want to get this fake formula,” I said. “Who exactly?”

“Not sure, yet.” 

“What do you know, Jim? Are they Muslim? Russian? Chinese?”

“One is definitely Muslim. The other is home-grown.”

“Religious nuts?”

“Don’t know.”

“This Morton Relay. He was an anarchist. A environmentalist.”

“That he was,” Jim said. “So we’re talking two groups: Muslims and anarchists. What would Antonio DeMarco say to that?”

“He’d say that he’d seen too many investigations go bad because the investigators drew conclusions before collecting all the evidence.”

“He would say exactly that. Any good copper would. That’s why I need more time until I tell someone. I’ll have to walk back on bridges I thought I’d burned.”

“What are we sure of?”

“That this is the battleground,” he said.

“Why Philadelphia?”  

“It’s not New York and it’s not D.C. That Kelly up in New York operates the best anti-terrorism squad in the world. And D.C.? All those federal cops from all those federal agencies, one or two of which nobody’s ever heard of? Also, the symbolism. An attack on the birthplace of our nation. The statement: brotherly love’s not going to cut it. Plus….”

“Go on.”

“There’s a conduit they’re both using.”

“A conduit?”

“You can’t just buy nukes or biochemicals. This conduit has promised to get it to them. And the conduit lives in this area.”

“You’re not going to make me ask, right?”

“No, I don’t know who the conduit is. I’m not even sure he exists, only to say that everything points to his existence. It’s the only way everything happens.”

“Are they in a race or something?”

He looked at me again. 

Come on.

“There is something in the works on our end. It’s called Dog Fence. Its purpose is to disable nukes that are on our soil that are not ours. It goes into effect soon. The technology is complicated but basically Dog Fence jams the nuclear triggers with electric waves. It operates sort of like those electric fences that keep dogs on the owners’ property.”

I said, “So, there’s a deadline — emphasis on dead. The nuke group wants to launch before Dog Fence is up. But can’t the eyes in the sky spot something like that being fueled up? I mean, I read about North Korea all the time.”

“That’s the rub. NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — rejiggered the satellites so that they’re not flying over the East Coast that day. It would be too complicated to dismantle all the automatic defense systems that would be triggered. It’s sort of a planned see-no-evil approach.”

“And if the bad guys find out that’s happening….”

“I think they already know. I can’t prove it, but I think they do.”

“How?”

“We had to tell other countries that we’re realigning our satellites. We gave them some bullshit reason but the word get out.”

“You know this.”

“I strongly suspect.”

“Tell somebody.”

“Not yet.”

Why not?

“Why the rush for the bioterrorism part?” I asked.

“That, I don’t know. Maybe the time’s just right for them. They’re close to getting it and as soon as they get it, they use it.”

“Was Bobby part of this?”

“Bobby got caught in it. He called me a few days before. I told him nothing, but Bobby was unique. He said, ‘Remember how you told me that you’d take one for me?’”

“He said that?”

“I said, ‘What are you planning, Bobby? Please don’t do anything.’ I made him promise, but he broke it.”

As Jim said this he swallowed as if he had trouble getting something down.

“Oh, Jim.”

“I think Bobby somehow found out.”

“He sacrificed himself?”

“No,” Jim said quickly. “He … this is conjecture.”

“Go ahead, conject.”

“I think Bobby wanted to play the shell game with them. Who is Bobby? Who is Jim? I think he wanted to get into the spy game.”

“So, we’ve been right all along. Someone thought they were targeting you that night.”

“I feel horrible, but not guilty. Maybe because I’ve overdosed on guilt from what happened in Afghanistan. Bobby acted on his own for his own reasons.”

“You’re telling me everything?”

“Well, I have theories that I’m not going to float. I don’t want to hear your theories, Cheryl. I just want to hear what you know.”

That’s when I told him about Dizzy. About the visits, about the need to connect to Debbie, about the conversion to Islam. There were no gasps or shudders or interruptions as there would have been if I had told someone like Babs or Marty or Spindles. There was only an old-fashioned “Man!” when I finished. 

“So, he wants to say some sort of farewell to your daughter. To explain himself, as it were. Anything else?”

I felt the CD in my pocket.

Not yet. Not before I see what’s on it.

I said, “Isn’t that enough?”

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Over lunch we picked at the odds and ends of the mystery. Shows you how much I know. I thought I understood Jim Delaney, but I didn’t. Not really, not as deeply as I should have. There’s a difference between spotting that someone is — for instance — jealous, and perceiving the depth of envy that could — say — make a person kill. I’d always known what Jim cared about, but not how much he cared. And unless you can nail motivation, you can never truly figure somebody out. That would come, though. What made Jim tick would soon be revealed.

The restaurant stood at the corner of Maple and Bellevue avenues, looking a little bit like a lighthouse. The white painted bricks glinted in the sun, the windows darkly reflected traffic.

“It’s a bar and a restaurant and a hotel,” Jim said. “They rent rooms by the week upstairs.”

“You like it.”

“One of my favorite places, outside of Iffy’s.”

The Langhorne Tavern contradicted Iffy’s; it was a restaurant first, bar second. I wondered about us getting lunch where alcohol flowed, but maybe Jim needed to shadow temptation to build his resistance. The hostess showed us to our table, leading us through a rustic interior. We sat in a little room off to the side of the tavern right near a huge fireplace — hundreds of years old — that had been discovered by accident during renovations. We’d beaten the rush, had the place to ourselves.

“What about Miss Lotty?” I asked. “How does she fit?”

“Don’t know. Let’s….” He made a lower-the-decibel gesture.

I whispered. “Well, let me guess. These terrorists, they want that formula. They also want to make sure that nobody else gets it. Miss Lotty, poor thing, knew too much.”

“Possibly.”

Yes, possibly. It’s possible I know too much as well.

The waitress came, got our order. Jim decided on a meatball sandwich as an afterthought. I’d known what I wanted from the get-go. The waitress looked about 10 years older than me. Sweet. Friendly. No ring, though. I could tell — I just somehow knew, I always do — that she’d been pushed around. Men.

“I am so sorry that you somehow stumbled onto this,” Jim said, at one point. We’d been talking about something else.

“So am I.” 

He squinted. 

“I’m just a bartender from Fishtown,” I explained. “You’re used to this spy-game shit. I am way out of my league.”

“That doesn’t sound like Antonio DeMarco’s daughter.”

“I’ve witnessed two murders in the last month; seen three dead bodies. I’ve been shot at and have shot back. Someone murdered Miss Lotty and tried to make it seem like a suicide; the exact way Antonio DeMarco killed himself. That sort of shit will change you.”

Before he could respond, our order arrived. I have to admit that the food was delicious. The turkey on my club sandwich had been carved from a roaster, not on a deli slicer. Maybe, I thought, that’s something I should consider for Iffy’s.

The conversation loosened up, and we talked mostly about our rotten kids. Not that it had become a normal date.

Too late for that. 

When they brought the lights up a bit, I asked: “What’s the plan?” 

Jim floored me by coming out with a quote Antonio loved.

“To do right as God gives us to see the right.”

“Abraham Lincoln.”

Jim leaned forward, took a greedy sip of his iced tea. 

Yeah, eating in a bar: not a good idea. 

“You know, you go to a place like this and you get just a hint of how dark it was for most of history,” Jim said. “I mean before light bulbs. You know what a candela is?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Well, by my calculation, the output of a standard candle is 1 candela. The output of a 100-watt bulb is 120 candela. Huge difference. Now, about 325 steps away from here is a graveyard that nobody could prove was there until 1992.”

“A graveyard?”

“Humor me. I’ve read up on this.”

“I love history.”

“This graveyard is filled with Revolutionary War soldiers. And it was only by the weak light of a couple of lanterns that it was found. In January 1777, an 11-year-old girl, Jane Richardson, saw some of Washington’s troops hacking through the frosted ground. This child just happened to look out her window on a deep night on the edge of the Little Ice Age.”

The troops buried the dead from the first and second Battles of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton. Of course, Jim said, nobody knew for certain if this really happened. It was mentioned in a letter that one of little Jane’s grandchildren had written at about the time of the Civil War. 

“Just a throwaway line that someone kept, as if flashing a family heirloom.”

The story made it into journals that were preserved in some local museums. In the early 1990s the owners of the land where the graveyard was thought to be, wanted to build something there and hired an archeologist from Temple University to check it out, to make sure hallowed ground would not be desecrated.

“They excavated for three days, found nothing,” Jim said. “They were just about to call it quits, it was getting dark and everybody was tired. They tried one last place and found the back of a grave shaft. They think that there might be about 165 bodies there, but nobody’s sure. They made the place into a monument.”

As he spoke, Jim gazed intensely in what I soon realized was the direction of the graveyard. It was the second time that day I’d seen the sort of longing so overwhelming that it resembled supplication. Though he wasn’t on his knees, Jim might just as well have been because his bearing mirrored Dizzy’s in the park that morning. 

“I’d like to take a look,” I said.

The graveyard lay about two blocks away, next door to a restaurant called Bella Tori. A stone marker told the story of its discovery, and a flag flew at half-mast. 

“These men almost fell off the edge of memory,” Jim said, as we sat on the bench. “They sacrificed everything for just an idea and they were almost lost forever. And even though we don’t know their names, we can remember them. Think of how many people fought and died for this country who were never given their due. Think of it. In the agency’s lobby there’s a monument to the fallen. No names, just stars. People have no idea, Cheryl.”

“They don’t.”

“I have no idea. I thought I understood Oudi.”

“Your snitch?”

“My C.I., yes. His name was Oudi. A Pakistani, who lived in Afghanistan. He was intelligent, with a first-rate disposition. A smiling, kind man whose sisters were killed by the Taliban. Stoned by them. Everything pointed to him being on our side. And he was for so long.”

He went on that way for a while, as we sat on the bench at the gravesite. A breeze shifted, pushing aside some leaves. The light danced a bit. I listened, wondering what comfort I could give. 

Finally, I said: “You’re strong, Jim.”

“I’m getting there.”

I reached over, rubbed his back. It didn’t lead to anything. 

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Babs Borkowski never said, “I lost my sister. I am not going to lose you.” She never said it because we never say the obvious to each other, Babs and me. She knows. Several levels of connection take place beneath our banter. 

She knew about Dizzy, for instance. 

I stopped by Iffy’s the day my vacation ended. 

“Let me guess, the girls are at Neshaminy Mall,” Babs said. She bustled about, getting ready for the night.

“You and your sixth sense,” I said.

They were at the mall, each hanging out with her own friends. I made Crystal promise to take Debbie home on the el.

Babs stopped rinsing glasses, looked at me in the mirror and nonchalantly said, “You know what else I know? I know he’s back.” This could have been the opening of a “how did you find out” conversation, and with anybody else it would have been. 

As I pulled a stool up, Babs continued: “I thought it was what happened to Bobby and all the other shit,” she said. “You had reason to be preoccupied. But I figured it out, hon — I mean I always do, don’t I? — that something else was going on.”

Just then I heard a buzzing sound and swung about. A toy helicopter dived near me. 

“The fuck, Spindles? We’re talking here!”

He’d been fussing in the corner when I came in. Now, he looked over, leering, his rummy eyes glittering in the shadow cast by the bill of his cap. The helicopter dipped near again and I jumped to grab it and smash it on the ground. I missed. 

I swung about, pointed.

“Spindles. Put. It. Away.”

He sighed into his beer, but the toy flew back to its master. 

“The return of the wicked bitch of the west,” he said, as the chopper landed.

“I heard that asshole!”

He mumbled something else. Spindles could get surly like that — with his Michael Jackson falsetto — and I would once in a while put him in his place.

“I heard you got a job, man,” I called over. Something about the Thriftway down on Aramingo Avenue.

Spindles winced, turned his cap toward his beer. “Not yet. Rough out there. Bad times.”

I walked over, not letting him shut me out. 

“Please,” he said. “No mas.”

“Don’t you ever call me bitch again, understand?”

“Just kidding.”

“Don’t try to bullshit me again, neither.”

“I never could.”

He squirmed. Good. He wanted the subject dropped and me to go back to Babs. I had other plans. 

Finally, he said, “I’m sorry.”  

“You should be.”

I didn’t move. 

“Shit,” he said, starting to gather his things.

“Listen, we could use a grill man some nights,” I said. I’d been weighing this for a while. The last guy — a kid in and out of college — moved down the shore. Behind me, Babs slapped the dishrag into the sink.

Spindles turned his grim, tight smile upon me.

“No shit?”

“And a bar-back,” I said. I was tired of lugging cases of beer upstairs. “You’re not going to get rich. But you can maybe earn a little under the table. That, plus a cut of the tips. Think you can handle it?”

The smile faded.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” I said. “Only thing, you can drink all you want after your shift. But, not before and definitely not during. Understand?”

“Define ‘before.’”

“You interested or not?” 

Come on Spindles, I’m offering you something here.

“When do I start?”

“Have another beer, my man. Then, we’ll talk.”

I headed over to Babs who gave me a “what the fuck you thinking?” look. I responded telepathically: When was the last time somebody gave Spindles a chance? She turned on the radio, cranked up the volume.

“Marty’s not going to go for it, you know,” she hissed.

“Marty says I’m the manager. So, I’m managing.”

“Anyway, that’s not important right now. Let’s get back to the other.”

“Yeah, Dizzy’s been around a couple of times,” I admitted.

“Doesn’t that merit like, you know, a mention? The man is dead. Or not.”

“Yeah. Well.” I went around behind the bar, pushed myself onto the cooler, let my legs swing. Babs leaned against the mirror; two of her held me in sight. 

I said, “Everybody thinks he’s dead which, for him, isn’t a bad situation.”  

“What does he want?” 

I looked at her.

“Such an asshole,” she said. “On top of everything else you’ve got going on and that jack-off has to come begging? A ghost with his frickin’ hand out.”

“I told him to stay away from me and the girls. I don’t want Debbie to know.”

“He agreed?”

I shrugged.

“You need to get a restraining order, hon. Guy like that doesn’t learn.”

“Protection from abuse order,” I said. “That’s what they call them in Pennsylvania.”

“I don’t care if they call it the stick-your-ass-out-the-window order. He needs to be restrained.”

I lifted my shirt, showed Selma.

“This restrains him.” 

She started to object, but I cut her off. “I do intend to get a restraining order anyway because it will give me cover when I have to shoot dead that son of a bitch.”

“No jury would convict you.” 

“Dad used to say how dicey juries can be.”

Spindles had sidled up to the bar, pretending not to listen. Now he chimed in: “They’ll give you a medal.”

“Listen: Debbie is not to know about this, understand?” 

“What the hell goes on in his mind?” Babs said. 

“You reminded me.”

I had planned on putting Dizzy’s DVD in anyway, before anyone but Spindles had hunkered down. I didn’t know what Dizzy might say, what that creep might accuse me of. 

“Do you mind, this is a little personal,” I said to Spindles.

He slid dejectedly off his stool.

“Got to crap, anyway,” he said, as if he’d been weighing the pros and cons.

“Thanks for sharing,” Babs said. 

“Do I have to stay in there?” he asked.

No, I decided suddenly. 

I said, “Spindles, you can come out anytime you want. I need witnesses.”

And that’s what I got. As I was putting the DVD into the machine, the door swung open and Al Delaney limped out of the sunlight. 

“Anything new in the investigation?” he asked, slumping at the bar. “Anything you can share? Talking to your friend Flash MacFarland does absolutely no good.” It must have taken everything Al had not to have called me on my vacation.

“You’re limping,” I said.

“Am I?”

“He’s trying, Al. He really is.”

“My son gunned down in front of a half dozen witnesses and Philly’s finest has no clue. You’re doing more investigating than the cops, Cheryl.”

I’d walked from behind the bar, took a seat next to him, rubbed his back. He felt brittle, had lost some weight.

“What have you learned?” Al asked. 

“No more than you. This guy Morton Relay is — was — a college professor.”

“The nutty professor.”

“The nutty dead professor.”

“But even that….”

“Flash saved our lives,” I reminded.

“Did he have to kill the guy?”

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” 

“Maybe you can,” he said.

“I know that this guy Relay wanted to save the world. He was a one-worlder. Anti-capitalist.” 

I should ask Truck if he’d ever heard of him. It’s possible. Antonio used to say that fringe characters lived in a virtual village where idiots knew one another. 

Babs poured Al a Coke, not too much ice. 

“No, just water, please,” Al said.

“Poland Spring,” I said, starting to get up. “It’s stocked in the kitchen under….”

“Stay,” Babs said. “Shit, you ain’t even on the clock until tomorrow.” 

Turned out she had one handy, twisted it, poured it, and slid it onto the bar. Al took a sip, looking like an alky putting quivering lips to the first taste of the day. His hands shook, wide circles under the eyes. 

“Then, your step-dad Truck….”

“He’s not my step-father.”

“Your Mom married him.” 

“When I was all grown, Al. Only one man raised me. We been through this. What about Truck?”

“He calls me and I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Asks me about Bobby’s experiments, as if I understood my poor son’s mind. Talking about some serum or something that stops people from getting old. What the holy hell? I say ‘Try diet and exercise.’ You know, to get him off the subject because I got dinner on and, frankly, I’m starving. He just keeps going on and on about this serum. Finally, I say, ‘Bobby was real, not science fiction.’ But that doesn’t stop him either.”

Babs said, “Truck’s trying to figure out what’s going on, just like the rest of us.”

An edge in her voice made me glance at her in the mirror. She gave me the squint. I smiled, tilted my head toward Al. 

Let’s humor the old fellow.

Babs would have none of it.

She said, “So Truck thinks that this drug exists?” Keeping her eyes on me.

“Swears that Bobby slipped this magic potion to somebody and that’s somehow connected to his murder and all this other crazy stuff. I told him where to get off. ‘Listen, you,’ I says. ‘My family’s suffered enough. We don’t need stupid rumors. My son would never endanger someone that way. He would never experiment on a human being. You are disparaging his memory. Cheese and crackers, give the boy some credit. He’d at least test it on animals first.’”

A bottle broke, stopping Al in mid-rant. Babs stood behind the bar looking at me, hand outstretched as if warding off unseen danger.

“Shit,” Babs and I said, then she added: “Jinx!”

I knew this time it wasn’t just to scare off bad luck. 

“It’s just a bottle, hon,” I said quickly. “Need help sweeping it?” 

“Got it.” 

Babs actually shook her head as if throwing something off her back and fetched the dustpan and brush. 

The bathroom door creaked.

Al threw his greeting at the mirror. “Spindles.” 

Another man’s presence made Al change the subject and tone.

“What movie did you put in?” Al asked.

“Tell him, Cheryl,” Babs said. “Tell us everything you know.”

I didn’t go quite that far, and Babs damn well knew that I wouldn’t. But I did tell Al about the resurrection of Dizzy Tanner. I gave the abridged version, rushing it because I wanted to get to that DVD. Al took it in slack-jawed, interrupting me a few times.

“But Dizzy Tanner is dead.”

“Think you’re surprised?” I said.

“Didn’t you get a letter?” 

“I saw him,” Spindles said. “Over by Penn Treaty Park. Gave him a look.”

Babs said, “Wow! Bet that scared him!” 

“He didn’t like it one bit, but I didn’t care,” Spindles said. 

“Dizzy Tanner is dead,” Al insisted, tapping a saltshaker on the bar. “You got that letter.” 

“Forget about the letter, Al. Folks who wrote that letter will probably be as surprised as I am.”

“Why didn’t you tell Flash?” Spindles asked.

I smiled.

“Well, did you?” 

He quaffed his beer.

“What and play the best card I got? Dizzy becomes too much, I will tell Flash. There are cops in a lot of places — in a lot of countries even — who’d like to get a crack at Dizzy Tanner.”

Al said, “I still can’t believe he’s alive.”

I said, “Here’s proof.”

I hit the play button. 

Static, then some coughing as a picture jumped about into focus. It took a moment to recognize Dizzy. When we did, Al harrumphed, and Babs and Spindles giggled. Not me. I got a little nauseated thinking that there had at one time been more than a 50/50 chance that I would spend the rest of my life with this idiot. 

Dizzy sat in Muslim headdress, eyes like missiles, Irish freckles standing their ground. It looked like one of those tapes you see on the news. Scratchy, jumpy, the voice not quite in sync — an Osama production. 

Dizzy missed his cue, blinked. Then, he said, “As-Salāmu `Alaykum.” 

Babs laughed, and this time it sounded like throat-clearing. 

“If it be the will of Allah, my daughter, you will see this video. You are flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood. I want you to know why it is that your father choose to become a martyr.” 

The smiles on Babs and Spindles froze; the joke had soured. Al looked at the screen like a boxer might size up a challenger right before opening bell. 

Dizzy droned on about how he’d been an addict, thanks to “your mother.” 

“That would be me,” I said.

About how he’d been in prison, lost, desperate and finally, after he’d gotten out, finding a job with an oil-spill clean-up company. 

“That could have been what changed me, but I was still too full of pride and sin,” he said. 

Just then the DVD froze. Babs stomped, but that did no good. I sprung over, reached up and whacked the set. 

Dizzy continued, “I lived the life of a dog, a philistine, an infidel.” 

I said, “I can vouch for the dog part.”

“By Allah’s grace, martyrdom will cleanse me of my sins.”

Babs said, “Yeah, Dizzy. You and the 70 virgins. Little boys, I bet.”

Then Dizzy told about how he’d killed a man over cigarettes.

“It is my most grievous sin, the taking of that life,” he said. “To take the enemy’s life in jihad is to be blessed. But I was an infidel and an evil black rage came over. We were drinking and gambling, Allah forgive me, and he said he’d won the cigs from me. I called him a cheat and a liar. He smiled — such an impudent man — and rose as if that ended it. As he started walking toward the hatch, I sprung upon him. He was a big guy, but I had surprised him and knocked him against the steel wall. He screamed, and that was the last sound either of us made except for the grunting. There were two others, but they were too drunk to do anything as I kept banging that man’s head. A piece of his brain stuck on my forearm, but that only enraged me more, thinking that if I could beat his newly-murdered body enough, I could even be attacking his soul, fighting him with one foot in eternity. That was the hate I was in. His death wasn’t enough! The narcissism and throbbing desires made me think that I was God, that I could not only kill a man but punish him in the afterlife.”

I glanced about. The four of us sat mesmerized as if he were a little Hitler, and we were a bunch of Germans who’d wandered away from Oktoberfest. I remembered why I would do anything for Dizzy, why he’d had me for so long — had me in a way no other man had had me before or since — until he made the fatal mistake of laying his hands on me, and breaking his spell. 

The ship’s guards had heard the commotion and came after him. There was another scuffle. Dizzy broke free, grabbed a lifejacket, and jumped overboard. 

“There was nothing but sea. Nothing. The abyss awaited me, and I dove right in. This, I came to realize later, was my leap of faith.”

The guards started shooting, the water going plink, plink, plink, around him. They kept firing until he was out of range, their shouts and threats starting to blend with the ubiquitous cries of the seagulls. One warning soared. ‘You’re going to die out there, asshole!’”

“But Allah clutched me in his hand, and his hand was a strong current that carried me far from that ship, far out into the Mediterranean. My life preserver nearly slipped off, but I clung to it, all the while thinking, ‘What’s the use? Just go to sleep.’ I knew that by now the rest of my life was measured in minutes and I began to imagine that it might be nice to let myself sink into death’s embrace. The sun grew larger as it floated toward the horizon. The water silvered. 

“The cold embraced me and I felt nothing for I had never heard the voice of Allah before. I had been drunk during the fight, during the murder, but now suddenly sober. Rapturous clarity came over me, as if I had floated above the water and looked down upon my silent struggle, thinking in a detached way that there must be more than this, there must be some meaning in life beyond our appetites and oblivion. Then it happened, my daughter, my Nahlah.” 

He looked off-camera; what he divulged pained him. In his own twisted way, he did love Debbie. 

Hell, in his own twisted way, he loved me. I don’t want that kind of love and I certainly don’t want it for my daughter.

Dizzy looked back. “You must know of your father’s journey. You must know why I fight the righteous fight and believe what I believe. Allah willing, you will understand one day and you too will follow the path of righteousness.

“Just then, with the sea becoming rough and my will to live ebbing, I heard the Muslim call to prayer as clear as I hope you will someday hear this voice of mine. I kept fighting, begging for another chance. I prayed: ‘Allah, have mercy on me, a sinner. Save me, and I am yours.’ And the call to prayer, and I wanted so badly to join in, to pray with the believers, to deliver my life to the source of all good. The prayers became louder and then they changed, as if the chants had led me to another level of awareness. But they continued to mutate and I realized as I’d begun to lose consciousness that it was some sort of motor. Then, darkness.

“The men who rescued me, who dragged me aboard later said that they’d been swept off-course by a quick gale. So, if you only believe in this world, it was a mathematical impossibility that led them to me, chance so outrageous it would be as if I’d won the lottery. But not just any lottery. It would be a lottery in which one single black ball is thrown in with a million white numbered balls. Picking any particular ball would be improbable, but picking that one black ball would mean that the divine hand had played a part. Understand, daughter, that you cannot imagine the vastness of the sea until you are upon it. I’ve known men who walked to the far end of a ship and just died, overcome by the endlessness. 

“Allah saved me that day. But that wasn’t the last of his miracles. After they took my money and any of my clothes they could use, the next step was to have been my murder. I was American, after all. But they didn’t do it, and here’s why. When they pulled me out, half delirious, I was mumbling, saying something about Allah. Talking about how great he is. When I awoke, I told them my conversion story because, by now, I was converted. I wanted to find where those chants might lead me. 

“This man — I will call him Wasrhu — who later became my great friend and mentor, held a pistol to my temple. ‘I don’t believe you,’ he said. ‘I think you are CIA and I am going to cut your head off and film it for all the folks back home. Congratulations. You are the next Daniel Pearl.’ I said, ‘If I die, I die happy because I am saved. Allah, praise be his name, has let me see the light.’ He looked hard at me, almost through me. If he thought for a moment that I lied, if he thought that I blasphemed, then he would have done it. I knew it in that moment and getting to know Wasrhu as a friend later just reinforced it. You see you cannot bluff this man. Lie, and he knows it right away. 

“He smiled. ‘It is a sign,’ Wasrhu said. ‘Osama will have use for the likes of you.’ I told them in my thick Philadelphian accent that made them laugh, ‘Yo, I’m willing to serve.’ I don’t fit the profile of a martyr. I am not Arabian. I could be very useful. I was spared so that my death will have significance. You cannot live a meaningful life if, at the end, you deliver no import. And by now as you watch this, if you watch this, you know that I am dead. I speak from the other side. 

“And no, I will not be flying a plane into one of America’s buildings. There are other ways to kill that great decadent Satan. So open a country, so much freedom to move about as one pleases. There are trains and reservoirs and food supplies. Yes, so many ways to do the Prophet’s work. By now you know what I have chosen. I shall spread fear and death among the infidels simply by walking in their midst. 

“I will go to one of those disgusting shopping malls, one with a multiplex that shows the immoral movies, and I will walk among them. I will be death. I will have the final say. They will never know until the outbreak. The plague will come upon them. The plague will descend at the ‘Asr, the hour of afternoon prayer. And when they curse me, and slander me, and call me psychotic, just remember my little one that I fought for what I believed in. I died for what I believed in. I will make them pay, make them drink from the spring of their sinfulness so that the bitter lingers a thousand years. 

“When they are reeling, within a fortnight fire will rain down upon the infidels. The agents may not be true believers, as am I. But remember the saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Follow your heart, my beautiful Nahlah, and you will find Islam, this I truly believe. You are my gateway to the future. You are my marker, my statement to the world. I will be remembered because of you, because I dwell within you. You are my daughter. You will follow me.”

I cannot trace the dots back that I must have connected to react the way I did in that instant. I can’t untangle logic from instinct; they both helped. All I knew was that I knew. 

I jumped off the barstool, turned to Al.

“Got your car?”

“But Dizzy’s DVD isn’t over.”

“Do you have your car with you?”

“Outside, if some little urgent hasn’t stolen it.”

“Let’s go.”

Babs said, “Me too!”

“What?”

Babs called back: “Spindles, you’re deputized! Call Marty! Man the bar.”

I started to protest but she cut me off.

“Our baby Debbie is in trouble,” she said.

“She might be in trouble,” I said, but we were on our way.

“Keep those damn helicopters grounded,” I shouted back.

I told Al as we hopped into his SUV, “I don’t want to get you involved in this, but my car’s such a piece of shit. Can’t be breaking down. Not now.”

“Where?”

“Neshaminy Mall.”

We spun onto I-95 and headed toward Northeast Philly. I clicked my cell phone.

“This is Crystal,” the recording said. “Obviously, I am not here. Leave a message and I will get right back to you. Meanwhile, here’s my latest song.” I skipped the song, went directly to her in-box.

“Mom, honey. I really need to talk to you. If you get this message I want you to come home right now. Don’t worry about your sister. I’m getting her. But if you do see her, take her with you. You both need to leave that mall, baby, please. It’s dangerous. I can’t explain right now. Get out. Trust me. Run as if you’re running from a fire. OK? OK. I’ll try Debbie.”

“Call Flash,” Al said when I clicked off. 

“This is a hunch,” I said, trying to stay focused. “Just a terrible hunch. I am not calling that busy man over a hunch. If we’re lucky, I’m wrong.” 

“And if you’re right?”

Babs screamed: “Watch it!”

He had swerved, but hadn’t noticed that the car in that lane had blown a tire, and was hobbling to the shoulder. Al hit the brakes, glanced at the three mirrors, swerved again, with someone leaning on the horn, and shot up the highway.

“Nice,” I said. My heart pounded so that my ears throbbed. 

I got Debbie’s message also. This time, I was not as urgent. Almost nonchalant. I ended with: “And call me as soon as you get this.”  

“Call Flash,” Al insisted.

“What are you doing?”

He was reaching into the side compartment. He pulled emergency lights out, opened his window. We were going 80, and the air came at us as. He slapped the lights on his roof.

“That ought to give us some traction,” he said. “I’m a volunteer responder.” 

“Didn’t think Philly had those.”

“Philly doesn’t. Fishtown does.”

The car slid over lanes, and through traffic as if it was a water bug gliding along a lake. We barreled off the Langhorne exit, headed down the Route 1 Superhighway with our lights still flashing. 

He glanced at me.

“It’s a big mall.”

I learned later that Dizzy had planned to set up a booth, and offer brochures and five-dollar bills to passers-by. The ruse was that the folks would take the money and agree to look, just look, at a brochure advertising some nightclub called The End of the World, which doesn’t exist. Five dollars would supposedly be the cover charge for Friday nights. It didn’t matter what it was supposed to be for. The fact was that Dizzy — the man who looked like a hobo and had come to me twice for a handout — would be giving away money. Where had he gotten it?

We screeched through the parking lot, around the perimeter, then closer to the stores. Then we drove into the lot across the street, a companion mall, where there was a Lowe’s and Target. Nothing. 

By this time he’d cut the lights, drove so as not to attract security. We could have been a father with two grown daughters hunting for bargains. My phone buzzed. 

“Crystal….”

“You want me to run out of the mall? I am not running.”

“Walk fast, then. Find Debbie. Get out. I will tell you…. Al! There!”

I’d spotted Dizzy. He emerged from behind a dumpster used to collect clothes for the poor. He started walking toward the mall. Al drove at him. 

“Not too close,” I said.

“How close?”

“Here.”

Dizzy stopped, looked to see who came for him.

When I jumped out a smile crested on his stoned, wind-burned face. I later learned that that was the rash that became the blisters that eventually would have killed him. But not before he’d spread the mutated smallpox to every man, woman, and child who’d stopped to get free money. 

I brandished Selma. 

“Stay! Don’t move!”

He waved at me, looking like a drunkard sloughing off a nagging wife. 

“Allah be praised!”

“Debbie’s in that mall, Dizzy!”

“Praise be to Allah!”

He started walking again. 

Please stop. Please. Please. Please. 

I ended that and began a new mantra.

I am Antonio DeMarco’s daughter. I am a good shot. I aimed at his leg; fired.

It looked as if he were in a ballet, he leaped and did a twist, but he landed more like a blindsided tight end than Baryshnikov. Al started to go over to him, but I grabbed him. 

“No!”

Dizzy groaned, wreathed. 

I started to call Flash as Dizzy curled into a fetal position and then before I’d even been able to make the connection he’d straightened out. His arm pulled back as if he were starting a lawn mower. Then, two quick explosions.

I shot again and Dizzy fell back as if pinned by the earth’s magnetic field.

That’s when I realized that Babs screamed, “I’m hit! I’m hit!”

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

“You’re an incredibly strong person, Cheryl,” Gary Nettles said. 

“I’d like to think so, but then again here I am.” 

Back in Friends Hospital. 

He smiled. “You have not changed.”

But Gary had. He looked older. He lifted weights, and ate right, but he slouched now and his reflexes had slowed. People mostly show their age by the adjustments they make. Gary used to be a runner, now he was a jogger. When he sat at his desk his elbow upended a pencil jar. The Gary of 13 years ago would have caught the mistake in mid-spill. Now, the writing instruments kicked up a cacophonous little fuss as they scurried here and there.

“What a mess!” 

As he gathered the pencils and pens, I noted that his beard was still neat, but now salt and pepper. The way he leaned down and scooped off the rug made him seem vulnerable, almost frail. When I helped, he thanked me and I caught the embarrassed twinkle in his eyes, but that gleam wasn’t as bright as I’d remembered. Family photos told me his boys were out of college, but there were no updates, nothing to indicate what they might be doing now. I didn’t see his wife, but he still wore a ring.

He noticed me noticing.

“Time has been kind to you.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Gary.”

“I mean, obviously you changed, but for the better. There was a clear demarcation and it was 13 years ago. Almost exactly. We worked hard on those demons, didn’t we?”

“We did.”

“But you’re not the walking wounded, Cheryl. All that’s wonderful and effervescent about you has not diminished.”

“And it ain’t going to diminish, neither.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Beer’s the spirit.”

He checked his notes, thumbed through my folder. Outside, a cloud passed over, throwing the campus into shadow and silencing the birds. Yes, Friends had buildings where you could actually open windows. How quaint. There must be a reason for that, perhaps something therapeutic. I know Gary held to an almost 19th century belief in the rejuvenating power of sunlight and fresh air.

“Look what you’ve gone through, Cheryl. I’ve treated people with anxiety over ill-fitting underwear and they’re in here for weeks, even months.”

“You’re kidding.”

“You’d be amazed. But you? You’re about ready to go home.”

Good. I have teens to raise, a move to complete, a couple of murders to solve. 

“About ready?”

“It’s your call. I mean, the insurance company depends on my diagnosis and if I say you don’t need to be here then they’ll stop paying and you’ll have to go home. But my diagnosis depends on how you feel. Residual trauma might overtly assert itself in the future, but we can deal with that on an outpatient basis.”

“Monthly visits?”

“Weekly, at first. You’ve been through a lot. Therapy can be a way back to less troubled waters. If I’m in your shoes, I’d want to see somebody.”

“I’m pretty busy.” 

I don’t want weekly sessions.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be the one who’s talking instead of the one who’s talked at?” Gary asked.

“Would it?” 

I folded my arms.

Gary said, “Everything you say in here goes no further than these walls unless….”

“….Unless you feel that I might be a danger to myself or others. Yeah, I know.”

“Therapy is a journey, Cheryl. For those who can’t function, to help them function.  For those who can function, to help them function better.” 

“I feel rested, that’s for sure. Restless, even.” 

Five days. That’s how long I stayed at Friends this time. Five stinking days, that’s all.

“You can’t expect to shoot someone dead — the father of your child, no less — and then go about normal business,” Gary said. “Even if it’s self-defense. You can’t expect to see your best friend shot — that’s a nightmare also. And those are only the worst things that happened to you this spring, but they are by no means the only things. How many people have you seen die in the last month?”

I told him.

“Violent deaths, too.” Gary looked down at his notepad, flipped the pages. “Violent death. Violent death. Terrorist attack and violent death.” He glanced up. 

I swallowed. “I am strong.”

“Indeed you are, Cheryl DeMarco. And it’s the strong ones who come to me.”

“Not just underwear freaks?”

“I shouldn’t have told you that. That points to a real problem that I don’t mean to make light of.”

“You were saying about the strong ones?”

“Cops. FBI agents. Firefighters. They hold it in, and it festers.”

“I don’t hold it in.” 

At least I didn’t think so, but he stuck to his prognosis.

“I applaud you for holding it in because you couldn’t function if you didn’t. You hold it in for your daughters’ sake. For the sake of all the people who lean on you.”

“It’s a blurse,” I said.

“Ah, you remember.”

“Of course I do.”

“You steel yourself but steel gets heavy. Weekly visits will be the opportunity to put it down and rest a while. It’ll be good for you and for the people who matter: your girls, your friends, your boyfriend.”

“Jim’s just a friend,” I said. 

Gary turned his bright blues on me. His large hands formed a pyramid in front of his face. He’d been an athlete once, a defender in soccer. He let slip that they nicknamed him the Hunter. 

“Why do you carry a gun?”

“Protection.”

“I worry that you may overreact someday. Think somebody might be out to get you who might really be just an innocent bystander. And then….” He shrugged. “How would you ever live with yourself?”

“You’d be amazed by what you can live with.”  

“Well, self-defense is one thing….”

“I’m not talking about self-defense,” I said.

“Yes, of course, Antonio. And we can talk about that again, too, if you want.”

“Somebody really is out to get me,” I said. “I am not imagining it. You read the police reports, right?”

“Well, I do know that the police aren’t thrilled that you’re packing. They never are with that sort of thing. They say leave the crime-busting to them.”

Had Flash talked to him? 

He continued, “Of course, that’s just the standard response of all cops to something like that. In a case like yours, they might offer 24-hour protection. How are your dreams, by the way?”

“Whoa! Where’s the segue?”

“Segues are overrated.”

My dreams were not too original, simply replaying the shooting’s aftermath. 

I stand over Babs in the hospital as they get ready to wheel her into the ER. I tell everybody that I’m fine but actually I hyperventilate. Quietly; no one notices. The lights work me up, mingle with adrenaline, make my thoughts rev. Memory skips back to Wildwood when we were girls and got too much sun. Back to long easy everydays, salt air, meandering kites, and the far-off moans of ferries. 

Was it just two years ago that Babs and me snuck in a daytrip to the shore? No Iffy’s? No kids? How in hell did we pull that off? 

“Ready?” someone says in my dream, and an ocean of memory goes as quiet as the womb. I look up to see an airplane pulling an ad — REALITY — along the coast. Illusion crumbles as I turn about.

I am still not right. EMT workers, nurses, doctors — they’re shadows whose voices drag like undertow. I see only Babs and then, of course, Leroy. Somebody had called him; I didn’t even know he was in town. Leroy holds her hand, crying. Babs pats his head, looks at me. 

“Is it true that you are ageless?” she asks.

“I’m whatever you want me to be, baby doll.”

Then they take her away and I walk around the neighborhood near Nazareth Hospital for I don’t know how long and come back just as they’re wheeling her into recovery. She’s lost a lot of blood but she’s going to be OK.

She wakes up for a second, looks at me and says: “Jinx is ageless” 

“Jinx is a cat,” I say.

Leroy over my shoulder says: “Can I be alone with my wife?”

As I leave I hear Babs mumbling “not her fault,” but I know that the bad feeling between Leroy and me will be there for a while. I don’t blame him.

Flash later told me that they hadn’t closed the mall, even though they’d confirmed that Dizzy had been infected by mutant smallpox. The disease died with the host. I don’t know how they figured that out so fast, but they did. With no one looking they took chances. Hazmat vehicles disguised as trash trucks parked in a circle around the area and men in spacesuits went about their work unobserved. The less the public knew, the better. Antonio told me — and this was way before the 2001 terrorist attacks — that that sort of thing goes on a lot more than we realize.

Meanwhile I acted brave at the hospital. I did fine until I realized that Babs was going to make it and then when I found Flash waiting for me outside I collapsed. Sobbing, crying, blubbering — the circus come to town.

Flash got me out of there and into Friends. 

“But I don’t want to go!” I wailed.

“Cheryl, look at me.”

I tried, but I couldn’t focus. 

He said, “I am taking you to Friends. You need to do this for the sake of your girls. You need to.”

“Take me home!”

He didn’t and eventually, I accepted. They gave me some drug, and baby I slept the death-sleep. Felt good.

The next morning Flash escorted two FBI agents to a little conference room to meet me. This with Gary’s grudging consent. I was still in shock, but they now knew they dealt with terrorism and they had to investigate. 

One of them stood against the wall. The other, the leader I guessed, took a seat and motioned to me to sit across from him. Of medium build and somewhat stocky, the way he glanced at everything underscored his interest in his job even though, I’d say, he was a few years north of 65. His gray hair flipped back in a pompadour, and a ruddy complexion revealed that he’d spent more time in the field than probably his superiors liked. Guy couldn’t help it. He was hands-on.

“Boothe Rendell,” he said. He slid his card on the table over to me. I looked at it. “In case you ever need to call. I wrote my cell number on it.”

I picked up the card, stuffed it in my pocket. It felt as if I lifted a log.

“I promised both Mr. Nettles and Lieutenant MacFarland that this would be a brief encounter. Are you up to this?”

“How about I raise my hand when I want you to stop. Just like at the dentist.”

He smiled.

“This is preliminary. Promise. We’ve managed to keep all this away from the press.” He hesitated. 

“He was my ex-lover,” I said. “We didn’t get along. What we had died years ago.”

“I’m sure you didn’t want to shoot him.”

“I don’t want to shoot anybody. My father taught me how to defend myself.”

“You were right to defend yourself, Ms. DeMarco.”

“Well, technically….”

“You were right to defend your daughters. You possibly saved hundreds — perhaps thousands — of lives.”

“Hooray for me.”

I ran on empty. 

“Tell me what you know.”

I did, from the time Bobby was shot until the time I told Dizzy to stop. I told them about Miss Lotty and Morton Relay and … all of it. Or all that I could remember. Boothe Rendell held my gaze, the other guy took notes. When I told them that I might be ageless, they glanced at one another.

“You said everything,” I said.

“So I did.”

“I am so tired.”

Rendell rose, extended his hand. My hand plopped in his like a bird that’s been shot out of the sky. He gently lifted and lowered. 

“We’ll catch up to you after you’re discharged,” he said. “You’ll have more strength.”

“I’d better.”

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

Flash walked me back to my room. As we padded down the hallways, we heard murmurs from the other side of half-open doors. Bags stacked in the hallways signaled arrivals and departures. No one stayed on this ward for long. Patients with deep psychosis or manic-depression lived in a different building. On my floor were people like me: nervous breakdown and exhaustion types, workaholics, bulimics, anorexics, and other obsessive-compulsive personalities. 

Sometimes the energy spiked, but right now was mellow. We could have been strolling through the dormitory of a college for the deaf. One girl gently cuddled her guitar. She couldn’t quite sing or play it again, but she didn’t want to let it out of her sight either. They allowed her to hold it for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. I thought of Crystal, of course. I almost hugged her the first time I spied that scene. 

“Make any new friends?” Flash asked when we got to my room.

“They tell me I’ll be out in a couple of days.” 

The anti-depressant hugged me; the walls shifted and oozed. Flash and I spoke underwater. 

“Rest,” Flash said. 

We sat on chairs on either end of the long window, like diagonally placed bookends. 

“I forgot to tell them about the formula,” I said. “Flash will you tell them about the formula? Why didn’t they ask? I tell them that I don’t age and they don’t blink.”  

His hangdog expression drooped even more. From somewhere down the hall I heard trays being unloaded. Lunchtime approached. 

“Cheryl….” He began. He cleared his throat.

“Good ahead. You might as well tell me.”

I know what’s coming. 

“It’s about that formula….”

“How long had you known?” I asked. The Penn researchers had found that Bobby’s formula was a useless fantasy.

“I wanted you to have a vacation. You needed to get away from this malarkey.”

“What was all those computations then?”

“I am a bit out of my depth,” Flash said.

“So am I.”

“If I understand the scientists, it was….” He shrugged. 

“It had to be something.”

“It was a stab at a new compound that would stimulate the brain. A mild stimulant.”

“Mild stimulant? So Bobby and Miss Lotty died for a cup of coffee?”

“We don’t know what they died for. Or Miles Relay for that matter.”

“But we know about Dizzy,” I said. “He died for Allah.”

“Your father and I never worked a case like this. This far-reaching. This frustrating. I know he’d want me to explore every possibility. I even brought my big old toolbox to Miss Lotty’s house.”

“That red one from Iffy’s those years ago?”

“The same.”

“With the secret candy department?”

“You remember.”

“I do.”

“No candy, but tools, still. So I’m pulling up boards and sawing into plywood where I think something might be hidden. Doing with my own hands. I am searching, believe me.”

I felt even more exhausted, suddenly, and I decided to wean myself off the meds. It was more than just the meds, though. 

What was I thinking? 

Why would I put so much credence into what Bobby said? Maybe I should call Jim, tell him not to waste his or his scientist friend’s time on that formula. Had they already figured that out? 

“Does Gary know you’re telling me this about the formula?” I asked.

“He thinks it’s best that you learn about it in here.” 

“In these controlled circumstances, you mean. I feel silly. I guess there’s no sense searching for Champaign either.”

“Champaign?”

“That’s another version of Miracle Beer.” I held my hand next to my lips, whispered: “It’s supposed to be the antidote.”

“An antidote for immortality?”

“I guess in case you change your mind about this whole never having to age thing.”

Flash slumped, crossed his arms, and lowered his head. All he needed to do now was face the wall.

But I’m still not convinced. 

Reality is as malleable as myth. I’d invested too much in agelessness. I wouldn’t let it die easily. Maybe it’s not the drug that stops the aging process, but maybe it’s the beginnings of a drug that does that. Was I going to take the word of the investigators in this case? Investigators — including Flash, God bless him — who haven’t even been able to make one arrest, or come up with any real clues? No, I want more confirmation than just some nameless Penn scientist. Considering that I was in Friends, I’d keep that to myself. 

Flash looked over. “I appreciate you want to cooperate. But I’ve told the feds that you won’t be ready to talk to them again for at least 10 days.”

“Think they’ll listen?”

“If not to me then to your doctor.”

“My shrink. But the clock’s ticking, isn’t it? Dizzy on the DVD says that the day is about a couple of weeks off. His day of reckoning.”

Flash said, “That’s what Dizzy Tanner believed. Then again he believed that killing innocent people is a keen way to make a political point.”

“Say the formula’s useless….”

“It is.”

“But somebody thinks it’s real.”

“Cheryl, the formula is useless.”

“I know that Flash I’m just trying to understand. For instance, I don’t understand the deadline. Can’t the religion of blowing shit up blow shit up anytime?”

“They can and do.”

Dog Fence, Jim had said.

I said, “Maybe something I know could help the FBI.”

“What you know, I know,” Flash said. “I will tell them. You need to concentrate on getting better.” 

He bent a blind, looked out the window. Spied the nice little garden in the courtyard with the flowers just beginning to bud.

“I am so sorry that you are in here,” he said.

“Don’t Flash.”

“Remember your dad used to call you Pretzels?”

“And Freckles. And Beautiful Face. And Scooch. I once counted 17 nicknames, and I think I left plenty out.”

“I let your dad down. I should have protected you.”

“You do protect me. You saved me from Miles Relay.”

“You should have told me about Dizzy.”

“That was sort of personal.” 

“In a way I’m glad the feds are involved. They have the resources for something like this. You’re part of a very select group. Only a little more than a handful of people know that Dizzy was contaminated. Not even Al Delaney knows the whole story.”

“I’m feeling awfully tired, Flash.”

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

Some mornings, after breakfast, I’d stroll about looking at the flowers, tracking the weather. There were a scattering of odd little buildings on the grounds, old and historic and some occupied by administrators and doctors and their families. This had been the first institution for the psychologically ill in the country. It was founded in 1813 by Quakers who were ahead of their time regarding the humane treatment for, as they put it then, the “mentally agitated.” I got that from the brochures I’d read while waiting for my sessions with Gary Nettles.

I talked to Crystal and Debbie everyday, but only once a day, as Gary had suggested. Debbie seemed ticked off; Crystal wanted to care for me. Some things don’t change. Debbie doesn’t remember “me the monster,” and gets impatient when I have to make space for something that, for her, doesn’t exist. Crystal knew the dark impulses and self-destructive desires that wrestled within me all too well. She wanted the old Cheryl to keep her distance.

“You’re going to make it, Mom!”  

“I’ll be saddling up before we know it, honey.”

“What are your days like?”

It wasn’t all counseling and contemplation. Two afternoons I played tennis with the girl with the guitar. Turned out she was older then she looked: in her mid-20s. Neither of us had played before and we laughed at our ineptitude as we ran around, whacking the ball so that it skittered behind us, clanged against the fence, or dribbled weakly away. We put it everywhere but between the lines. 

“How long you been in?” I asked her the first day as we gathered our things, and started walking back toward the central quad.

“Oh, maybe a month,” she said, squinting into the trees. “Long enough to get a nickname: Guitar Girl.”

“I’d love to hear you play.” 

“Yeah, well, so would I,” she said, but realized that sounded negative. “I’ll probably get out of here next week.” 

I wondered how long she’d been saying that. 

“I’m a short-timer myself,” I said. “Stress.”

She looked at me, waiting for elaboration, but I gave none. If I told about the shootings she’d probably run. Anyway, I could talk to Gary, if I wanted to.

“You from Philly?” she asked. 

“Sort of. Fishtown. You?”

“Somerton.”

“What high school?” I asked.

“Archbishop Ryan. Class of ought-3.” She flashed her school ring. 

“I would have been the class of 1989. I’m going for my GED. Got sort of detoured.”  

We’d come to a fork in the walkway where we’d part: me back to my room, she to a session. Her sunglasses had been in her hair and now she pulled them down like an aviator.

“You’re kidding,” she said. “You don’t look anywhere near your age.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

Friends Hospital gave me a breather. I don’t know if it did much more than that, but I certainly needed it. The best part came on my second to last day. I got a call as I woke up from a nap. 

“Hello?” I whispered. The slightest pause, and I said: “Hello” again, this time putting more into it.

“Hello yourself, girlfriend.”

“Oh Babs!” I started crying, turned my back to the door and the hallway. 

“You’re just glad you don’t have to deal with Spindles by yourself,” she said. 

“They told me you were out of Nazareth! I wanted you to build up strength before I called.” 

“Get this,” she said. “It was only a flesh wound.” And when she said “flesh wound” I said it too.

“Jinx!”

She started laughing, then moaning.

“It hurts!”

“Oh, baby.” 

The stitches slowed her a bit, but the old Babs was back. I could tell by her voice. Not that there wasn’t emotional residue. There’s always that when you encounter violence. But Babs was tough. Babs was Fishtown. Hell, Babs was Iffys.

“Who’s watching the kids?” she asked.

“Crystal, sort of.”

Just the slightest hesitancy to mark the end of an era.

“At your place?” she asked.

“No way. She’s at a friend’s house. Debbie’s at another friend’s. It’s the same street. Crystal looks in on her sister every once in a while. She is 17.”

“Bout time you realized it.”

Of course we went over what happened, filled in details, exchanged impressions, weighed theories. With Babs I could even grieve about Dizzy. That’s normal, she said. Every abused woman cries about the abuser when he dies. 

“Fuck you talking about abused woman?” I said.

“There are different kinds of abuse,” she explained.

“Oh, right, professor. Well, I killed him. Does that count?”

“He killed himself.”

And we went into that as well. It was Babs and it was great. I loved that part of our talk, but loved what came next even more. I got to what Flash had told me about the formula.

“Why would Flash lie?” she said.

“He’s not lying. He’s probably right. I mean, think about it. It’s comic book shit. DC, not Marvel. On the other hand I want other opinions.”

“Look at you,” Babs said. “Is it DNA that’s the reason you look so good? I know, you’re part Vulcan.”

Outside, I watched the Guitar Girl walking purposefully back toward our dorm, giving two overly friendly squirrels a look. Our talk — the Cheryl/Babs banter — became normal, like we’d stepped into a time machine. We discussed children, the neighborhood, schools, upcoming marriages, births, baptisms, funerals. We skated the perimeter of the circle of life. As if nothing had happened. The everyday that so bored and frustrated us now threw a lifeline and we grabbed it. We could almost forget, but….

“I am so sorry I got you into this,” I said.

“You kidding? Girl, without you things would be dull. Everybody should take at least one slug in their lives.”

“Listen to the Warrior Princess. I’m getting out of here tomorrow but don’t you pick me up.” 

“I can drive in a sling.”

“You need to heal.”

“I am healed.”

I talked her into taking it easy; her body had been through a lot. 

“Like yours hasn’t.”

I goodbyed at Friends that night; I knew that next day I’d just want to go. I made an appointment to see Gary the next week, but we both understood that that was a formality. 

“You’re going to snuff me, aren’t you?”

“Those copayments are a bitch.”

“How about I do the first two sessions pro bono.”

“I’ll think about it, Gary.” 

But he knew, and I knew he knew, and he knew I knew he knew, and….

“Please take care of yourself, Cheryl DeMarco.”  

“It’s OK. You can hug me.” 

He smelled of cigarette smoke, spearmint gum and aftershave. 

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

The next morning early I checked myself out and waited on a bench in my favorite clearing for Al Delaney. I closed my eyes, turned my face toward the sun. I heard footsteps and watched as my Crystal approached.

“Mom!” 

I held her tight as she sobbed into my shoulder. 

“I am not going anywhere, kiddo,” I said. 

“Can’t all this stop?”

“I promise it will. Did Debbie get out OK?” 

Her travel team had made the soccer championship.

“She wanted to bag it,” Crystal said. “I wouldn’t let her.”

“That would be crazy,” I said. “You can see I’m OK. This was just a little stress. Your mom is no nut. Well, not too much of a nut, anyway. I’m going to take care of you.”

“I’m going to take care of you.”

She grabbed my bag and we headed toward the parking lot. Something about her threw me. My daughter had changed in just a matter of days. I know teenage girls and how young people in general try out different persona. They change all the time, in that sense. This was different, authentic, profound even. It’s like I’d missed 10 years of growth. Crystal exhibited a decisiveness — almost assertiveness — that I’d hadn’t seen before. She’d always been insightful, but in a dreamy after-the-fact way, like a poet. Not someone you’d want to put on the witness stand. Now she took in details, processed them. I realized in a few moments that for the first time I saw Police Inspector Antonio DeMarco in her. 

“How’s Al Delaney?” I asked. 

“Doesn’t need to be here,” she said. 

She’d reached in her pockets for the keys and jingled them in my face.

“Really!”

“Mr. Delaney took me for the test and I passed no problem.”

“Congratulations, sweetie!” 

As a sign of respect, I didn’t grab the “oh shit” handle even once on the ride. 

After what I’ve been through I’m going to worry about that? 

Crystal rewarded my faith with an easy flight and a smooth landing on Girard Ave. 

“So good to be home.”

“I’ll get you lunch, Mom.”

“Huh?” But she was already in the kitchen.

I called, “Honey, I’m not an invalid.” 

“I bought you a hoagie. I didn’t actually, you know, make anything.”

I ate in the sunbeams that peeked through curtains that were drawn to just where I’d left them but not before I’d made a quick inspection. The girls had tried. No cloths on the coffee table or half-open books and magazines by the sink. No blood on the walls either. 

“We’re staying here tonight,” Crystal said. It wasn’t a challenge but a decision.

“Bet on it.” 

The cops had Selma again. But I’d taken the new gun from Iffy’s, so we were as safe as we’d be anywhere else. Flash promised yet more protection parked outside. I was starting to be a drain on the good taxpayers of Philadelphia 

About an hour later, when Crystal was in their bedroom writing a song, Debbie burst in dressed in her soccer uniform. She filled the apartment with a robust, animal vitality. I knew I was in for it. They’d lost, but she’d not finished fighting. She hugged me, told me how much she loved me. She then proceeded to give me shit over Dizzy. 

“Why didn’t you tell me he was alive?” 

“Because of who he is.”

“But that’s why you should have told me. I had a right to know, Mom. I had a right to talk to him.”

“Honey, he killed himself. I could not have seen that coming.”

“I wanted to see my father one more time!”

She slumped on the couch and sobbed. 

You raise two girls, and some days are just going to roll this way.

I took her in my arms. I fleetingly considered telling her to not reveal any of this to anyone, but knew it wasn’t the time and figured she wouldn’t be tempted to anyway. I wanted to say: “Baby girl. You didn’t even know your father. He’s not the sort of person you’d want in your life.” I thought of the famous people who’d wanted nothing to do with the parent who’d abandoned them: John Lennon, Steve Jobs, Jack Nicholson.

“My father never loved me,” Debbie cried. 

“Your dad was a damaged man,” I said. “He couldn’t really love. Or, he was one of those people who saved all his love for ideas. He didn’t really care about the people in his life.”

“He couldn’t love?” she said, finally coming up for air.

“But, see, that’s where you come in, sweetheart. He could love you. You’re father died loving you, wanting you to have a good life. You saved him. Because if someone goes through life and doesn’t love, it’s as if he’s never really lived.”

“I’ll never be as good as Crystal.”

Oh, boy. It’s all coming out now. 

“You mean as an athlete? As an artist who paints and etches some dynamite designs on your wall?”

“That doesn’t count.”

“Everything counts,” I said, “and you and your sister have different talents. Want me to tell you a secret? You’re a lot more like me than Crystal is.” 

“Mom!”

Oops. Well, too late now. 

“Crystal is much like her father,” I said. The Unmentionable One.

“I’m like you?”

The shock was wearing off.

“A stubborn dago, just like me,” I said.

“I’m half Irish.”

“And quarter Italian, quarter Polish. Part alligator and certainly a little bit mule.”

“Talk about winning the lottery,” Debbie said, her cute Dizzy-like smile spreading across her face. She would always be the slightly wounded one. 

“How about some Haagen Dazs?” I asked. “I’ve got three pints of caramel cone.”

“Summer’s coming,” she said. 

“All the more reason to celebrate, man! Get your sister.”

The easy, and even the not-so-easy, conversation cleansed, reminding us that things could again be normal. I talked to Crystal about little hurdles: a gig that fell through, a record company executive who’d promised to listen to her demo but who hadn’t gotten back, a woman — a real talent agent, not some charlatan — who had waxed about Crystal’s brilliance and potential (and would she please, please, please sign with her?) and who then seemed to have vanished. 

“Honey, from what I hear about the music business….”

“Mom, you know nothing.”

“I’m just saying that’s why college is….”

“Right — something to fall back on. Well, what if I don’t go to college? Where would I go? Temple? Drexel? La Salle? What if I want to try and make it on my own, without a net?”

“No Juilliard?” 

“Juilliard is impossible.”

“Where’s that Crystal DeMarco confidence?”

She smiled, rubbed her face against my arm. Buddies again, for at least a second and a half, before I had to go and ruin it.

“You can do anything,” I said.

“No I can’t. That’s such a cliché. That’s such bullshit. I can’t play tight end for the Eagles, right? Or second base for the Phillies?”

“Not unless they trade Utley.”

“People can’t do anything. There are limits.”

I got up, looked out the window and down the street to the Presbyterian church. Pigeons circled about the dome, fluttered, did an awkward dance, half in the air, half on the roof. How strangely beautiful — the urban birds suddenly looking exotic swooping and spilling in reflected light. 

The girls changed places, more talk, and then the television.

I laid back and thought of everything I had to do: the move, staying on top of the teenagers, cooking a meal, the wash, watering the flowers, getting my car inspected and instead of revving up, I just grew more tired until finally….

This time, the light tilted at a different angle as I crept through my parents’ basement. I shook and, in my shattered sleep, wept, knowing it was a dream and cursing myself for not being able to get out of it…. There were Antonio’s feet, dangling as always. But, like I said, something different this time. Instead of looking up at the face, I glanced into the corner. Somebody watched me. I could almost make him out, but then I awoke, cupped my face in my hands.

“Mom?”

“I’m OK. Just a bad dream.”

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

With Truck and me it wasn’t like we were sitting across from each other in the wee hours nursing drinks and talking in low voices. This conversation happened in bedlam, understand that.

He’d called a week after Friends and I could barely hear. Babs for some reason had decided that we needed karaoke and the warbling was awful. 

But God bless her, though. Look at her. You’d think that getting shot was just taking another Fishtown-bullshit-fact-of-life in stride. 

I would have to interrupt with: “Hold up, Truck?” Then, to someone down the bar: “What’s that, hon? Another?” But I was good at this, used to it. The only time it messed up my flow was when someone paid his bill. Then I put Truck on hold. I don’t like to be distracted when dealing with money. So I am cutting out a lot of the stops-and-starts. 

Also, meanwhile, I need to point out that Spindles was cooking in more ways then one, sliding plates out the service window and barking table numbers. He was good at it. Not only could he cook, he could manage. He wielded the spatula and spoon like a conductor melding symphonies together from two different orchestras. The teens that worked in the kitchen hopped to it; Spindles took no shit. Dude was suddenly alive. Where was the old Spindles? Nobody knew, and nobody cared. That guy wasn’t missed.

“Well, he can’t drink when he’s working, so at least we put a dent in that,” Babs had said.

“He’s charged, now,” I said. “Look, he’s got an ass. Who knew?”

“Phu-leeze,” Babs said. 

I tried to put Truck off. “Listen, can I get back to you with my cell? We’re mobbed.”

“It would be a healing experience for the girls to spend a Friday or Saturday here in country surroundings,” he said. “Let you all breathe the elixir of fresh air. Get away from the insanity and instability for a day. Center yourselves. This cannot be good for those young ladies, or you.”

“I might just take you up on that.”

“By the way, you remember that gift card?”

Truck had given us a bed-and-breakfast weekend in Lahaska so we could shop til we dropped.

“Saving it for a special occasion,” I said. 

Like when I have money.

“I do need to tell you that it ran out.”

“Shit.”

“But it’s OK,” Truck said. “I’ve got a deal with the manager. He gets treatment for half price. When you want to use it, just call me and I’ll can call him to activate it.” 

“You know how teenagers are. Can’t pry them away from friends.”

“Even for shopping?”

I hadn’t even told the girls because when they shop my bank account takes a hit. 

“Oh, don’t worry. It will be used.” I was trying to exit but he wouldn’t let me.

“Remember when you graced me with news about that formula?” 

“Free Bird” began blasting through the bar. Who the hell was singing that one? Babs? Again? Now I knew why she was so hot to have karaoke. 

Mental note: Kill Babs.

I said to Truck, “Go ahead.” 

“I have been pondering that. Do you perhaps have a duplicate?”

“No one actually believes that it’s real,” I said. “In fact, Flash says it’s fake.”

“But you, Cheryl, were smitten for a while by the possibility presented. Immortality. Imagine.”

“I wasn’t the only one smitten.”

“Blessed are the truth-seekers,” Truck said. “There is nothing here, though, in this formula but gesturing ego for which people will forfeit God’s greatest gift. Life, once so precious, has now become cheap. Why just the other day I read news about a youngster from North Philadelphia who was killed for his Eagles jersey. Counterfeit or no, I entreat you, Cheryl, do not discard that formula.”

“I have a copy,” I said, tapping my thigh. “Flash MacFarland has a copy; I don’t know how many copies were made from that one and floating around the police department. I know they made one for the forensics guy. Jim Delaney has a copy. That’s four definite right there, at least.”

“You mention the elusive Flash MacFarland. Why does the inspector not return my phone calls?”

“He’s overwhelmed,” I said. “People who pester cops get a reputation.” 

Hint, hint.

“He probably believes that I am of that portion of the population upon which others confer the disparagement: crank.”

“Don’t think that’s a medical term. Anyway, I don’t read minds.” 

Much.

“I am thinking about all the people who could die in such an attack.”

“Looks like these Philly terrorists want to go biological,” I said. “Exhibit A: Dizzy.”

“I am persuaded to believe that such a breed would use any means.”

“You know, Truck, we’ve got to get together again. Soon. I could use your advice. But right now, I’ve got thirsty patrons and they’re wondering why their favorite psychologist is taking so long on the phone.”

“I have just one last request.”

“Quickly.”

“Ask your friend Flash if he knows a gentleman who goes by the name of Porter Beckerman.”

“Cop?”

“I believe that he once functioned as a medical examiner.”

“Rings a bell, actually,” I said. 

“Porter Beckerman might have answers,” Truck said. “Tell Flash MacFarland that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I will lay out my thesis when we next meet,” he said. “Sounds like all hell is breaking loose there.”

“Always is.” 

Spindles yelled through the kitchen server. 

“Cheryl? Where are you?”

And for the tiniest fraction of a second, I didn’t know.CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

When I’d finally unplugged the karaoke and the customers crawled home, I cleaned for the next day and then sat back and thought about — get this — “Young Goodman Brown.” 

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. 

That’s the one. That day I had helped Crystal with her English lit homework. I’d forgotten how freakish that story is. 

Remember, now, I’m a 21st century woman. By the time I finished grade school, I’d seen 8,000 murders and 200,000 other acts of violence on television, give or take. At the movies, I’d witness every sort of mutilation, torture and mayhem. I’d seen eyes hacked out and tongues cut off. I’d seen aliens pop out of guys’ guts. I’d seen flesh-eating zombies, and blood-sucking vampires. I’d seen bodies shot, knifed, carved, diced, sliced, thrown, and blown to smithereens. How could anything written in the 19th century scare me? Well, predetermination scares the shit out of me because — even though I am skeptical, some might even say, cynical, about Calvinistic voodoo — there’s a part inside worried that it might all be true. 

I don’t want to believe it, but how do I know that no matter how hard I try nothing’s going to prevent me from a destiny I’d never imagined, let alone sought? That there’s no such thing as free will? That any good in the world is a ruse? Hey, I can relate. Once you’re an addict it’s easier to believe in hell than it is in heaven. Hawthorne was all about predetermination and that’s why his story moved me but also, sometimes, old shit from centuries gone by affects you. “Mona Lisa.” “David.” Hamlet. They call that old shit art, and it lasts for a reason.

You don’t necessarily have to reach that far back. Once when Crystal was little I decided to show her Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I was thinking Doris Day and “Que Sera, Sera” and a nice cozy mystery. When the kid in the movie gets kidnapped, I had to turn the damn thing off, Crystal was crying so much. 

Young Goodman Brown dreams (but was it a dream?) of heading out to an induction ceremony in the forest, where he’s going to be admitted into a cult of devil-worshippers. Why is he going? We never really find out. Who is “they?” Well, it’s all the “good” people in the village, the church minister and the woman who taught him catechism when he was a child, mixed in with the not-so-good. They are one. It’s the living and the dead. He sees the shades of his father and grandfather and eventually, he sees that his wife, Faith — his last hope that the light of goodness can flicker somewhere on the tired old earth — has gone over to the dark side as well. The dream changes him forever.

“A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream…. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

I explained to Crystal: “Evil rules the earth.” We’d been sitting in the living room and outside someone was leaning on his horn. “The people who are pillars of his community turn out to be malevolent.” 

“Sounds like cheerleaders.”

“It’s as if the good guys in Fishtown, the Delaneys, Borkowskis, O’Haras, Pulanskis, Warsawitzs, Sullivans, McGearys — who else? — McDevitts, MacNamees, O’Reillys; all the people you know and respect turn out to be serial killers or something. Your teachers, your coaches, your friends. They’re all hiding the fact that they’re horrible, evil. What then?”

“It would suck to be me.

That night, as I unwound with Babs and Spindles, I smiled about that. 

“Out with it,” Babs said, as she rinsed a mug.

“You really don’t know people, do you?” I said. 

“In this job? I know people.”

“You’re never surprised?”

“Your ex just shot me. That surprised me a bit.”

“Until Bobby, I thought I’d seen it all,” I said. “I don’t even really know you or Spindles here, when it comes right down to it.”

“Damn,” Spindles said. He’d gotten off his stool as well, trawled his pockets for a cigarette for the walk home. 

“You OK, hon?” Babs asked, rustling into her hoodie. “Don’t get philosophical on me now.”

“One more Yuengling ought to do it.”

“Drinking alone?” Spindles said. “You’re getting more and more like me.”

“That was uncalled for,” Babs said. 

“Get out of here, both of you. I’ll lock up. Let me finish in peace.”

“On Marty,” Spindles said. 

“It’s a perk.” 

I toasted the camera.

“Wish I had your job,” Babs said.

“Want all the shit that goes with it, too?”

“Is that camera on now?” Spindles asked.

“Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t,” I said. 

It’ll get done — someday. 

I took a swig, savored it. 

“Ben Franklin was right,” I said.

“Oh boy,” Spindles said.

“Beer is indeed proof that God loves us very much and wants us to be happy.” 

Babs touched my shoulder. “You sure you’re going to be OK?” 

“There’s a cop parked outside the apartment so I know the girls are fine,” I said.

“No,” and she shook me a little. “I am asking are you OK?”

I looked at her, spotting that touch of sallowness about the eyes that hadn’t been there before the shooting. 

Would it be there for now on?

“It’s been a rough patch,” I admitted.

Babs guffawed, let go of my arm, actually doubled-up, slapped her knee. 

“Rough?” she managed to day. “Is that what you call it?”

I started laughing, too. Couldn’t be helped. Everything rushed me in an avalanche of hilarity. The same visions that had that morning made me want to weep now made me laugh. Bobby, Lotty, Dizzy and even Antonio. 

How horrible! How side-splittingly horrible!

“What the hell else can happen?” Babs managed to say.

“Please!” I said. “No more!”

“I could crank up the karaoke again,” Spindles said. “A little ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ might be just the thing.”

Babs and I pointed at each other and laughed even harder. 

“Jinx!”

“Told you it could get worse,” I yelled. 

“Hey,” Spindles said. “I can sing.”

By this point we were neighing and gulping for air like two breaching horses on Truck’s ranch. 

“You are trying to give me a migraine, aren’t you?” I said, shoving Spindles across the room. 

“Shit!”

“I want to stay and party with you,” Babs said, when she caught her breath.

“No, God, no. One of us has to be a responsible adult. Get home to your family. I will not stay long.”

“Can’t we keep you company?” 

“Spindles, if you stay, you’ll have to pay.”

That was enough for him, he flicked his long, stick-like fingers in farewell and dragged his bones out the door. Babs had to be with her mother and kids; Leroy was back in Alaska. She finally settled down, stopped laughing and when she left, I poured another cold one — my last, I promised myself. I checked the mirror, my eyes were wet. If I’d worn make-up there’d be streaks down my face. 

Man! 

The chill that entered when they’d exited, sat right down next to me making itself at home. I zipped my blazer up to my chin. 

Porter Beckerman. Truck said that this Beckerman had been a medical examiner for the city at one time. Who knows? Maybe it was somebody Antonio had invited over to the house on a few occasions. I didn’t want to pester Flash with Truck’s nutty theories. He’d always been too easy of a crutch for me, for all of us.

Flash had taken care of everything when Antonio died. Mom was too grief-wasted, and my brother and sister too distant. I was locked away in the first rehab stint that counted. So it was Flash who’d planned the funeral, organized Dad’s papers, and even chipped in some money for our education. 

I’ll have to research Porter Beckerman. I’ll have to contact Flash again. I’ll have to…. 

I couldn’t get that fucking dream out of my head. My father’s shoes becoming Miss Lotty’s swollen legs. I just couldn’t shake it. 

My cell buzzed. 

“You still have Bobby’s formula, right?” Jim Delaney asked. 

“You scared me.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“You know what time it is?” 

“Bar still open?” 

“Closed for about an hour. Just finishing up.”

“I am speeding along 95, hoping that the cops don’t decide to ticket my ass. I wanted to catch you before you went home.”

“Slow down. You caught me.”

“The formula?”

“Right here,” I said, patting my back pocket. “I keep it close. Why?”

“I need a copy.”

“Jim? You there?”

We’d gotten disconnected. I folded my phone, waited. He buzzed again within five seconds. 

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Dad told me about your little adventure.” 

“Jim, I meant to call you, tell you how sorry I am about that. I don’t want to drag Al into this shit. I don’t want to drag anyone into it and I sure as hell wish I could extricate myself.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, it gave him a new lease. He’s like a boy reading a Hardy Boys mystery. All he can talk about is how he’s helping the investigation.”

“What’s this about the formula? You didn’t lose your copy, did you?”

“One of my kids thought he was doing me a favor and decided to wash my cloths.”

“Oh, no.”

“Swear, first time that’s ever happened. Shows you just how whacked out a divorce can make children. These kids are spoiled, never had to do any chores. I wanted them too, but I was vetoed.”

I don’t want to hear this.

“That’s what happened?” I asked.

“The copy of the formula that I have is now a clump of damp paper.”

“I’ll make a copy of mine.”  

“Do the cops have it?”

“It’s a fake. Surprise, surprise. But it’s still evidence. They’re not letting go of it. What does your guy say?”

But the connection had broken again.

CHAPTER FIFTY

Mist glazed the park by the time we got there, making every branch and walkway glisten like a boxer’s greased body. A haymaker of rain headed our way. The river smelled like moldy vegetation on Truck’s farm. Death and birth rode the dark current, brought to us by runoff from upstate. There’d been a lot of flooding in Easton and points north. I missed the Delaware already. It wound through my memories. As a toddler with my wee hand in Antonio’s I once asked about the source. 

“It flows from God’s mind into the devil’s deep,” he said, imitating my mother and making me laugh. 

Of course, Fox Chase wasn’t Des Moines; and even after the move I could drive down to the water any time I wanted. But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t stroll along its banks or look at the way lights played upon its moody surface. It would stop being part of my life once I moved from Fishtown. 

“You tired, Cheryl? You’re quiet.”

We were in Jim’s car. He didn’t look tired; he looked young and alert. A cowlick of new hair dipped dashingly onto his forehead. Beyond him, city neon burrowed half-heartedly through the fog, like a drinker’s glare at last-call. The muted light traced the sharp lines of his new profile. The remaking of Jim Delaney continued.

“Sorry about my copy being destroyed,” he said. 

“Yeah, Jim. Could be gold.”

“Could.”

Is he putting me on?

“Hasn’t your friend the scientist told you it’s worthless?”

He scratched his chin and I’d recalled the last time I’d seen Jim do that: September 12, 2001 when he’d announced that he wanted to fight for his country. 

“I need to tell you, Cheryl….”

“You never showed your friend.”

“I planned to, at first. Then, I decided no.” 

“So then you don’t really need this copy.”

“I am studying it — me. I do have a PharmD. I’ve worked for drug companies. I know the research, can check out the right journals.” 

“You even know what you’re looking for?”

“I know enough to decide if someone with more expertise needs to take a look. I didn’t want anyone to think I’m some sort of naïve simp.”

“You care that much about what people think, Jim?”

“Come on. A drug that stops the aging process?”

“You could have just asked him to evaluate it.”

“She” — with emphasis — “has a life. If I see something in it, then maybe I’ll ask her. Whether it is or isn’t, isn’t the point.”

“It’s not?”

“Somebody thinks it is real and he’s killing people. If it is in fact a true formula, if my little brother Bobby made a world-shattering discovery,” he added with an embarrassed laugh, “then I don’t want too many people to know about it anyway.”

We’d gotten out of the car, the only gold coin in a fountain of rusty pennies. There were a few junkers nearby, abandoned by their owners and waiting for a city tow. I slid my arm into Jim’s as we walked, all the while telling myself that I had stopped being physically attracted to him long ago, that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life nurturing a wounded warrior, that our case was closed: I just didn’t have those kind of emotions for him. So why did it feel so nice that our sides brushed each other as we moved? 

“Bobby was smart,” I said. 

“Brilliant, but you are aware of what we’re talking about here?” 

I looked at him. 

“Yes, of course you are,” Jim said quickly. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it weren’t for all the stuff that’s happened; if it weren’t for the possibility that someone somewhere thinks either me or Bobby had pulled off the pharmacological miracle of the ages. People are naïve.”

“People dream.”

I remembered him from 10 years earlier, before war and marriage and children and divorce and the death of his twin brother. How alive Jim had seemed then, how invulnerable. His efforts to recreate himself had paid off. Closing my eyes it felt as if we’d step back through time. 

We’re all ageless, aren’t we? I mean that part of us that matters. 

“I’d forgotten how much I’d missed Fishtown,” he said. 

“Kidding?”

“No.”

“Jim, Fishtown is the place people escape from when they want to make a better life.”

“A lot of new people moving in. Young professionals.”

“They’re not Fishtown. That’s overflow from Center City. Now, you. You’ve arrived, my friend. And you didn’t arrive in Fishtown. You arrived in that big house down in North Carolina.”

“Well, the jury’s still out on that, so to speak.”

“You know what I mean. You’re well-to-do.”

“Another one for divorce court.”

Just then a car backfired on Delaware Avenue as some drunken teens screeched by. They yelled something, the music blaring so that I could feel the base line snake up my leg. I put my hand on my hip, felt the gun.

“And you miss this neighborhood?” I asked. 

“Talk to me in five years.”

“Why?” 

“In five years you’ll have gotten your degree, gotten an office job, maybe moved to a nice suburban house in Bucks County and I’ll bet you’ll wake up one day, realize that the girls have moved on with their lives and you should do the same and it will hit you. You’ll wish you had never left Fishtown.”

“Not likely.” 

“Your friends are here. Your past is here. You’ll want to grow old with the people you’d been young with. You’ll want to stay close to the memories.”

“These days the memories aren’t so pleasant.”

He gestured toward a flash in the sky.

“Rain’s coming.” 

“I don’t mind the rain, Jim.”

We’d walked around the bend, and now circled toward the river. We clicked. I’d walked with guys and afterward I’d sworn that I’d just been in a three-legged race. 

“Still done with men?” he asked, carefully looking ahead.

“Don’t know.”

We stopped. I spotted the old twinkle.

“Still think our moment passed?”

“I admire the work you’ve been doing on yourself.” 

He looked down, smiled sheepishly. 

“It’s noticeable?”

“I have no patience for bullshit, Jim. Yeah, it is noticeable, and you know it. You’re like Lazarus.” 

He turned, and we were walking again. He was pleased, but tried to hide it.

“Lazarus was never the same after he was raised from the dead,” he said. “He was always a little sad, always felt out of place. Never quite belonged. He was the quiet guy with his back to the party, staring out the window or at the bookcase. Being raised from the death wasn’t exactly a blessing and wasn’t exactly a curse.”

“It was a blurse,” I said. 

A flash of recognition; a connection that surprised him. We were fellow travellers in trauma survival.

“Exactly,” he said. 

“Do you buy that?”

“Not entirely. What happened in Afghanistan. Those seven men. That was a curse. I’ve yet to find the blessing part.”

From somewhere I heard a woman call for her dog. “Here, Scout! Here, Scout! That’s a good boy!”

Jim said, “What’s with your friend Flash? It seems like the investigation is going nowhere and then suddenly he’s calling me up with questions.”

“Such as?”

“Did Dizzy Tanner ever hang out with Bobby? He asked me this before Dizzy….”

“Before I shot Dizzy. Maybe Flash is on to something?”

“Well?”

“Well, what?” I asked.

“Did they ever hang out together? It’d be news to me.”

“You might have noticed that there’s a lot about Bobby’s life we’re only just finding out,” I said. “Dizzy and Bobby knew each other, but that’s Fishtown. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s too much in everybody else’s business.”

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village….

I admitted: “It would have been an odd pairing, though.” 

“Then Inspector MacFarland wants to know if I knew about the formula. Don’t worry I didn’t tell him that you gave me a copy. But now I’m wondering if I can go to jail.”

“What? Flash wouldn’t do that. Besides, it’s our secret. Hey, it’s not like we stole something from the cops, or even interfered with an investigation.”

“They might not see it that way.”

“Lotty broke the code and Lotty gave us the formula, a copy of which I promptly handed over to Flash, who now says it’s worthless. We’re safe. Well, except from the people who are trying to kill us.”

“Us and everybody else.”

“I hope Dizzy was the last. He was the last, right?”

“I hope,” he said.

“You hope?”

We faced each other again.

“Dizzy was part of a cell. Bobby’s murderers are part of another cell.”

“Why Philadelphia?”

“I don’t know.”

“And what about this Electronic Dog Fence?”

“I told you everything.”

Yeah, right.

He knew more than he was saying. His eyes soften and the slightest smile played upon his lips.

“What about us?” he asked. 

“I don’t know, Jim. Will I be the one you found on the rebound?”

What the hell does his wife look like, anyway? 

He’d neglected to invite me to the wedding and I don’t think I’d ever seen her picture at Al’s. Come to think of it, Bobby never showed her either, although Bobby was never really the kind of guy who flashed photos. They didn’t like her — Jim’s family — I suddenly realized. Maybe they had reason. 

How far along are you and her with the divorce? 

I’ve had friends who’ve gone down that road. Sticks with a guy who’s just this close to getting his long-sought-after freedom, this close to dumping the first wife and marrying my friend, but somehow something always gets in the way and before you know it, you look up and five, ten, fifteen years have gone by and hell, she might as well come on out and admit it: She’s been some married man’s fool. 

“Baggage,” I said. “Everybody’s got baggage, and it doesn’t disappear with any makeover.” 

“I’m not asking you to grow old along with me,” he said. “I just want a couple of dates, that’s all.”

“Why not just one?”

“What do you call this?”

“A rendezvous.” 

We had stopped at his car again, by the driver’s side. 

“Are you just marking time?” I asked.

“Just let whatever’s going to happen, happen.”

I reached into my back pocket, unfolded both copies of the formula and handed them to him. 

“Take your pick,” I said.

“Golden,” he said, squinting at the figures. 

A sudden gust made them flap. 

“Careful,” I said.

He leaned against his car, placed his hands upon my shoulders. I could hear the pages of the formula rustling near my ear. There was a certain friction there. I’d remembered Jim’s come-hither look from years ago and saw it again. 

Here we go. This kiss will answer a lot of questions, and ask a dozen more. 

That’s when I noticed a shadow moving up the street right next to the Penn Treaty office building. What with the fog and the drizzle, I could just about make out movement, more than an actual thing. But the movement suggested a thing. 

Suddenly, one of the automatic lights on the building’s truck loading dock flashed on.

“Shit!” I screamed.

Jim had been leaning into me. I pushed him off, snatched his keys with one hand and drew my gun with the other. 

“What the…?” 

I fired at the sky. Gun barrels and arms jutted out of the car’s windows and the driver floored it toward us.

“Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!”

“In!” I screamed, shoving Jim into his car as the bullets flew about us and the back window shattered.

As I fired from behind his open door, he rolled over and sank onto the floor of the passenger’s side. 

I dove in and slid the key into the ignition. 

Great, it’s the right one. 

No fumbling. The window on Jim’s side shattered as I spun out of the lot. They tried to ram us and just missed. Guns blasting. That gave us precious seconds as they had to reverse. I’d gotten about five car lengths away before they barreled after us, still firing.

Cops will be coming. This is a firefight.

Suddenly, there was a crash and I’d thought that they’d hit us again. Instead, a torrent of rain smothered the windshield like a blanket. It was the sort of downpour where people put their blinkers on, sidle to the shoulder, and wait it out. In the exposed backseat, it sounded as if twenty toddlers were throwing temper tantrums, furiously kicking their legs. Meanwhile, the assholes kept shooting.

I glanced at Jim, who peeked above the seat. 

“Here!” I shouted, thrusting the gun at him. 

He fired once.

“Don’t be stingy!” I yelled.

But he was swaying with my swerves, trying to get a bead. The rain stung his eyes. I glanced at him and then out my window to see the road. I’d given up on the windshield, the wipers couldn’t swipe fast enough. My side was getting soaked. I squinted and could just make out a green overhead road sign.

“Hold on!”

I turned up the ramp, then floored it down the street, went about a block and stopped at the corner. Jim’s back hit the dashboard.

I know Fishtown. That’s how we escaped. I always told people I could get anywhere in the neighborhood blindfolded. 

Well, I just did. 

The ramp leads from Delaware Avenue to I-95. It’s right next to another ramp that basically circles you onto the quiet little street that leads to Kissling’s. Even on clear, bright days people get confused, especially if they’re not from the neighborhood.

“Why’d you stop?” Jim asked.

“We lost them,” I said, “that’s why. Nothing like the sound of squealing rubber to draw attention. You OK?”

He rubbed the back of his head.

“Yeah,” but he didn’t sound sure. We were both horse, as if we’d been running, not riding. 

“Bleeding?” I asked.

“How long we staying here?”

“I want to make sure they can’t spot us just in case they decide to back down 95 and back down the ramp and do another search of the neighborhood.”

He was picking glass off the passenger seat, as the rain tapered off.

“You sure you’re OK?” I asked.

He sat then, squishing like a kid’s galoshes.

“So long as we have that formula,” I said, “I’ll be the most popular girl in Fishtown.”

That’s when we looked at each other, eyes wide. I floored it, racing back to the parking lot at Penn Treaty Park, but I was too late. We searched for a while but the wind must have swept the papers out to the Delaware. Either that or the rain pulverized them. Either way, the formula was gone. 

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

Jim collected shards of glass from the car seat, the floor, and the dashboard. He did this after we’d finally given up trying to find the copies of the formula. As he cleaned, I called Crystal expecting a sleepy voice that would rev into alarm — are you OK? — but instead she was wide awake. Teens.

“The cop’s still outside, Mom,” she said. “He hasn’t moved.”

“Super.”

“Have fun with your friends, Mother,” Debbie called in the background, and I left it at that.

The rain had stopped, but water still gushed down gutters and little lakes had formed near the entrances of backed-up sewers. Jim picked at the debris as if his hands were chickens going after grain. He placed each piece into a plastic grocery bag he’d found under the seat.

“I think we should go, Jim.”

Who knows if those assholes would be back or if the feds might come at us with questions? 

Yet the more I wanted to bounce, the slower Jim moved. Finally, I made it a Zen thing; stopped trying to hurry him.

“There are other copies,” I said. “Somewhere.”

“With Flash.”

“Exactly.” 

Fat chance we’ll get to see any of those.

When he looked up, I saw that he was drained, as if fighting off an infection. 

“You got all the glass,” I said. 

I dangled the keys, expecting him to grab them, but he only slumped into the passenger’s seat. 

“When we get to your place, I’ll drive,” he promised.

“You OK?”

“I see a lot of shit because I’m military,” he said. “Navy Seal.”

“You were a Navy Seal, Jim. Now you’re a 32-year-old guy who’s getting his life back. You just finished rehab. You’ve gotten some work done.”

“On my house?”

“On your body.”

Two drops of sweat slithered off his chin and into his lap. Plop. Plop. He turned slowly, as if discovering me for the first time. “OK?” he asked.

“Are you OK?”

“Nerves of steal,” he said with a smile that quit halfway.

I turned on the car. 

“We’re going to the hospital,” I decided.

He could barely speak he was breathing so hard. I flew onto Delaware Avenue. Wind rushed in the smashed window but I thought, what the hell, the blast of air wouldn’t hurt and it might help. I even didn’t mind hitting a few big-ass puddles, figuring the spray might wake him. I hooked a corner and that jostled him.

“The hospital?” he said.

“I might want to get checked out, that’s why. We were banging around. An X-ray wouldn’t hurt. Letting a doc flash his light thingy in my eyes would probably be a good thing, too. How about you?”

“You are the worst bullshit artist ever,” he slurred.

“Worst, as in I do it so well? So often?”

“I can read you from a mile away.”  

“I’m an apprentice bullshiter, a free agent malarkey-er. Jim?” 

I glanced at him, flipped on the overhead light. He seemed to be turning blue, the murky whites of his eyes fixed blankly on the road. 

“Jim!”

I punched his knee.

“Fuck!” That woke him a bit.

“Tell me your symptoms.”

“Symptoms? Symptoms?” His voice rising. 

Very pissed indeed. Good. Get the blood flowing. 

Then, suddenly he deflated as if air was let out. “Tired. Shortness of breath. Let’s see. Symptoms.” He coughed. “Very tired.”

I asked him questions as I cruised down Delaware Avenue, and swung right onto Callowhill Street. I rushed toward Jefferson University Hospital, the teaching hospital. St. Joseph’s or Hahnemann might have been closer, but why not the best?

“I’m a Navy Seal,” Jim pointed out yet again. 

“Not any more, Jim. You’ve been out of the military for years now. Don’t you remember? Who’s the president of the United States?”

“I am 32 years old.”

“Who’s the president?”

“My name is Jim Delaney.”

“Correct again.”

Just then a PECO truck turned the corner, moseyed in front of me. I hit the brakes. The guy took his time. 

Get the fuck out of my way. Come on! 

I beeped and a beefy arm swung out the window and dangled a lackadaisical digit. 

“He shouldn’t do that,” Jim said. “You need to make me sleep. I am so tired. So….” 

I punched him in the knee again as I U-turned and headed back to my apartment, dialing 911.

“What is your emergency?” The voice so crisp that she could have been riding in the backseat.

I gave her the address, my name, the situation. 

“Is that where you are now?”

“Yes, I’ll be waiting outside.”

“The symptoms?”

I glanced over, his head had slumped back and I pounded his knee yet once more but, this time, no response.

“My boyfriend is having a heart attack,” I said.

“Are you a medical professional?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t need a damn ambulance,” Jim growled. 

I spun into the parking space outside my apartment, and told him to keep an eye out for the guys who tried to shoot us earlier, trying anything to keep him awake. The siren bore down upon us. The cop keeping guard flashed on as well.

“Hear that, Jim?”

“Osama,” he said. “Osama is president. Stinking Barack Osama.”

The ambulance pulled up.

“Why’d you do it?” Jim asked, laying his head to face me. 

“You’re going to be OK.” 

“Why did you call the ambulance?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I said. 

Now I needed to explain to EMS what was going on and light a fire under their asses. The PECO truck wasn’t the only reason I had ditched going to Jefferson and doubled back to my apartment. An ambulance guarantees that you’re not going to be triaged. Jim was a healthy 32-year-old man. Whoever manned the admittance desk might not think he’d need to be seen right away. 

“No siren, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I rode with Jim as we flashed through the quiet streets. Dark, perhaps the darkest part of the night. I glanced at my cell phone. It was 3:45. 

Damn a lot can happen in a little bit of time. 

I recalled Bobby’s eyes, the look in them when he knew he wasn’t going to make it. That’s why I did it. The stress and that memory made me take Jim’s hand and kiss it. One of the EMS workers, the woman, shot a quick glance our way, then turned back to her business. I caressed that hand as if it were a bird with a broken wing. I could tell he worked a desk job. I’m used to guys with rough, calloused paws. Something about the softness moved me. Suddenly, the hand itself moved and he lifted his oxygen mask.

“Don’t move the mask, hon,” the EMS worker said.

Jim got agitated. 

“Just one thing,” he said. 

“Go ahead. One thing, then you got to promise to leave that mask be.”

“Find the bomb, Cheryl,” Jim said. “You’ve got one more day. Clock’s running.”

“He’s in shock,” the woman explained. “You’d be amazed what people say when they’re in shock.”

“Dog Fence is being set up. Now’s their time to fuel the rocket.”

“Where the hell’s the rocket?”

“It doesn’t have to be huge,” he said. “It could look like a water pipe or an exhaust chimney on a ship. It’s … somewhere.”

Shit. That narrows it down.

Jim closed his eyes, rested. 

Al was already there when we arrived, looking — not surprisingly — like shit. Somewhere among the crazy moments of that ride, I had called and told him where we were heading.

“What the hell happened?” he asked, rushing over and jarring Jim.

“I’m OK, Dad.”

“Cheryl?” The lights flashed on Al’s face, making him seem as if he weren’t quite solid.

“Let’s get him settled, first,” I said. 

The paramedics rolled the gurney off the truck, making so much noise that I almost wanted to shush them. They had been giving him fluids and I had to admit that he looked better, but not to Al. 

“Are you feeling OK?” Al asked, and he couldn’t hold it in and broke down. “My son!”

“Don’t Dad.”

I am leaving so much stuff out; stuff about the ICU, the male nurse covered head-to-toe in tattoos and as big as an offensive lineman who turned out to be the gentlest man you’d ever want to meet; me fiddling with the TV and Al and I watching a rerun of The Wonder Years; talking to three docs in a row who asked the same questions; helping Al fight the paperwork. It was a blur.

On around dawn, Al and I were standing outside the hospital, watching the early morning people rush to work. Center City wakes up tap dancing, barely able to contain it’s excitement. The buses leaned this way and that as they barreled by and the toots of impatient horns reminded me of the machines Jim was hooked up to. We needed somewhere to talk.

“It’s on me,” Al said.

We walked down Walnut Street to a nearby Starbucks. Al had some cappa frappa thingamajig. About six zillion calories. 

“So, he’s got diabetes,” he said, shaking his head. I pointed to the little mustache from the drink and he snapped up a napkin and swiped — zip, zip. 

“Prediabetes,” I corrected. “Jim will be discharged in another, oh, I’d say, hour or so.”

“Not good, but could have been a hell of a lot worse. How do you treat it?”

“A couple of regulars at Iffy’s have prediabetes and they’re basically following a diet and they’re OK.”

“They tell you this?”

“They tell me everything, Al, believe me. Can’t make them stop. I know the last time they slept with their sweeties. Even the last time they slept with their wives. So, a diet? That’s just basic info.”

“Their anti-diabetes diet includes beer?”

“They’re not strict.”

“I’ll say.”

“But if you catch it, it means no insulin. No sticking the fingers. I mean, this is just me talking, OK? Doc might say I’m full of shit.”

“Most docs are full of shit,” Al said.

“He’s already exercising, doing a lot of good stuff for his body. He’s got the self-discipline, we know that.”

“He’s got it back, anyway.”

 “He’ll just have to watch himself, that’s all. Maybe stress has something to do with it.”

“Ah,” Al said with a wave, “stress is good.” 

“I wouldn’t exactly call it healthy, but a life totally without stress means you’re not doing much of anything interesting.”

“I can help him with the exercise,” Al said.

“Yeah, me too.”

Al actually blushed and seeing him, so did I. 

“Jogging together. You and my son. I can just picture it.”

“Al, stop.”

“No, no. I like the image. I always liked you as a couple.”

“Liar. I’m like seven years older then him. Back when we were going out I had a couple of kids. You no way wanted us together. Now, I can see why. I wouldn’t want Crystal or Debbie falling in love with someone that much older with that much baggage.”

“Was I really against you and Jim?”

“You were nice about it. Very nice, considering you believed that your pride and joy was this close to throwing his life away.”

“Only proves what a consummate ass I can be. I’d love to see you two together now.”

“I still have kids,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, and so does he. What he doesn’t have is a woman who appreciates him.”

“Al, I love you. You know I do. But this conversation….” 

“OK, change of subject. What the hell happened last night?”

I told him, and as I spoke he shrank away from me ever so slightly.

“What is it with you, little girl? Why do people want to kill you?”

“Well, Al, if this is some guy’s idea of getting a lady’s attention, I’d just as soon not.”

“Did you tell the cops?”

“Well, I was going to but then….” 

“Are you going to tell the cops?”

“Flash and me are in contact.”

“Who’s working with him on this?”

“In the department? Don’t know. That night with Bobby, a lot of uniforms showed up. Flash’s in charge.”

“People kill one son and shoot at the other and the frickin’ cops do nothing. Why do I pay taxes?”

“Well, the feds are involved now. That kind of puts it into perspective for Flash and the rest of Philly’s finest.”

“This is out of their league, in other words,” Al said. 

“Well, Dizzy did try and launched a biological attack on the Western Hemisphere. I’d say that kind of thing challenges the local guys.”

“Dizzy Tanner from Fishtown part of an international plot to destroy America? Nobody would believe it if they tried to put that into a movie.”

“How about Dizzy becoming a Muslim?”

“What’s next? Spindles for Congress?”

“He’s doing OK these days,” I said.

“Isn’t this about the time of year he visits his son in Florida to dry out?”

“This year he wants to keep cooking.”

“He’s good?”

“Come in sometime and order the Spindles Burger with cheese fries. New special. That old man can do it.”

“We’re not discussing fine cuisine, here,” Al said. 

“No, but I’m telling you it’s good finger food. Don’t know how he does it, but word gets out. Business is picking up which is saying something in these hard times. He can move, too. You should see him when he’s busy.”

“Exactly how old is he?”

“Spindles? He’s got to be in his late 50s. I always thought he’d try to wait it out until retirement, but here he is.”

“Did he ever have a job? I mean a real job?”

“Salesman, just like you. Traveled around. He got tossed about 20 years ago. I think that’s when the wife left. That’s when he became part of Iffy’s scenery.”

“Spindles was a salesman? And hardly anybody knows his real name.”

“He never told.”

“Quirky.”

“Fishtown.”

“Spindles, the man without a name.”

“Spinofsky,” I said. “Leonid Spinofsky.”

“What?”

“He had to give me his name when he started working for me.”

“Not a mick?” 

“Half,” I said. “He even gave me his Social Security number. Eventually, Cheryl DeMarco learns everything.” 

“We’ll miss you,” Al said. “I never realized how much until all this shit started happening. You’re a good ally in a knife fight.”

“Except they’re not using knives.”

“I will miss you.”

“I’m changing residences, not jobs.”

“For now,” he said. “You told me your plans and I think they’re great. GED, then college. You’re not going to be managing a bar forever.”

“There are a lot of bartenders out their holding a college degree, and some of them have more than one degree. Anyway, tell the truth, Al, I’m not thinking about what I’m going to do long-term. I got goals, sure, but basically, I’m just trying to survive. That’s all.”

“Survival is a dicey proposition these days,” he said, finishing his cappa frappa. “Wish I’d gotten something to eat.”

“Go ahead.”

“No, there’s a McDonald’s down the street. I’ll just slip in there for some hash-browns. Then I’m bringing my boy home with me and I’m sleeping with my gun under my pillow. Like you say, survival.” 

“You got a gun?”

“Just bought it. After what happened to Bobby? After what happened to us in Bobby’s house? No offense, but after waiting and waiting for your boy Flash to actually do some police work? I decided to take no chances.”

“Don’t blame you at all,” I said, patting my side. 

“Jim told me you were asking about Porter Beckerman,” Al said.

“You knew him?”

“What made you ask about him?”

I took a swig of my coffee, glanced out the window. People hurrying by, the crowd getting larger inside. People along the walls and in line eyeing us, wanting our table. Why were we taking so long? The crowd made me calm and then nervous. Calm because I can hide in it. Nervous because anybody else could hide in it. 

Al said, “Porter Beckerman was….”

“I know, the medical examiner years ago.”

Al said, “Somehow he was connected to Fishtown, though he didn’t live here. I think he lived in the Northeast. Might have even been Fox Chase.”

“Connected to Fishtown?”

“Around about a week before he was killed all those years ago, I saw him leaving a house. Your old house. Then, it was the house that Miss Lotty owned. Banks own everything. The American dream.”

“Well, her father actually did own it, though,” I said. “That’s why the lawyer always visited.”

“Lawyers. Bankers. Bond traders. What the holy hell is happening our neighborhood?”

I thought that Al was about to launch into one of those Truck-like harangues against banking and big business and oil and the drug companies. Instead, he fell silent. 

“How did you know it was him?” I asked.

“I didn’t. I only made the connection after I saw his picture in the paper, after he died. Lost control of his car, wasn’t it? I didn’t think much about it, except the way you think about any piece of bad news that doesn’t affect you personally. ‘That’s too bad,’ then you move on. I had my own problems. My wife had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was raising two teenage boys. There is only so much concern you can shine upon the outer reaches of your life but you know that, don’t you Cheryl? Your father had just been found, and I spent time each day praying for your family. I didn’t know Porter Beckerman, and wasn’t really curious to find out how he might have been connected to Lotty Carlisle.”

I glanced again out the window at the passing faces. Everyone had troubles. Yet, some somehow rise above them. What did Antonio say? It’s all up here, knocking his big index finger against his noggin. It’s all attitude. That’s what separates winners from losers. Antonio and Al had approved of each other.

“That was the only time I ever saw him,” Al said. “I haven’t really thought about it since. Surprised I even remember thinking about it. We live our lives in our heads, don’t we?”

“Not many people visited Miss Lotty.”

“What was it your father use to say? Sad little person, he called Lotty Carlisle.”

“Gifted little person, apparently,” I said.

“Was this Porter Beckerman connected to the lawyer in any way?” Al said. “Was he related to Miss Lotty? I thought she didn’t have anyone helping except for the lawyer. You asked Flash?”

“He remembers him. It’s vague.”

I stretched, and yawned.

“Yeah, Cheryl, get some sleep.”

A feeling of paranoia came over me, as if someone tired to lock me inside a trunk. I needed to get home to my Zoloft and my crib. Suck my thumb, take a nap. I needed my strength. I felt that this happy horseshit was, for me, soon going to end one way or another.

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

Al offered me a lift, but I could tell he didn’t want to leave Jim yet, and I didn’t want to see him again. I couldn’t really say for sure whether what we had was the beginning of a romance. But if it was, seeing him at that point would have jeopardized it. Love is a dance where you get close then draw away. Close then draw away. Forward, backward. Forward, backward. It can last a lifetime, so they tell me.

“Respect yourself,” Antonio would say.  

I am, Dad. For once, I am.

I nearly fell asleep on the El, rocking and closing my eyes for a sliver. And I dreamed again about Dad. And the same horrible reliving of when I found his body. And the same sensation that something lurked off to the side, something just out of view. And I shook the way I did when I used. The train must have jostled and in my dream I looked up at his face again, and this time, suddenly, his eyes opened. 

“Find my killer,” he said. 

I awoke with some black guy sitting a few seats down grinning at me. 

“Damn girl,” he said, “when God made you He have all the lights on!”

“Dream on, bozo.” 

I bolted out the door just before it closed and stepped right into another decision. 

I am not one to put stock in dreams; except to believe that they point to anxieties I thought I’d buried. But there was something so disturbing about the vision I’d just had. The sound of the el echoing toward the next stop put an exclamation point to it. 

I’d have to visit Miss Lotty’s house — and my girlhood home — one more time. 

Because who am I to argue with my father? 

Work crews were cleaning the place, someone had already bought it and wanted to make it a rental. That’s what I’d heard. So, going in there this time would be trespassing, and the new people wouldn’t take that lightly. When I got home, it took a little doing but I finally got a hold of Miss Lotty’s lawyer.

“Oh, yes, she spoke highly of you,” he said.

“She did?”

“In her fashion. I can tell you that the cops are still stumped by her murder. They think it might have been a kid, an addict, looking for anything he can sell.”

“That’s really what they think?”

He paused.

“I can see that you and I are going to get along well, Ms. DeMarco.”

“Call me Cheryl. And no addict did that. Speaking from experience, an addict would have grabbed something and bolted.”

“Lotty tells me your dad was a police inspector.”

“Many years ago.”

“And you’re police as well?”

“My ex, unfortunately, was an addict. He died recently. Young.”

“Addicts don’t beat up old ladies?”

“They don’t stage suicides.”

“What can I do for you, Cheryl?” 

I told him. 

“Well, like I say, she would have approved,” he said. “I have to tell you Ms. DeMarco — I’m sorry, I mean Cheryl — that the number of people my client felt that way about could be counted on the fingers of one hand. She liked you and someone named Babs and, of course, Bobby and some guy named Drindle, I believe is was?” 

“Drindle? Never heard of him.”

“She wandered, as you know. She didn’t just stay in Fishtown. I think she hung out in Kensington and Port Richmond and Brewery Town.”

“Yeah, that worried me.”

“But people protected her, watched out for her. Just like you did. Well, maybe not quite as intense as you. She was injured and handicapped in many ways. Yet, in others, she was quite unique. I would say….”

“Savant?” I said.

“That, I think, captures it. Like the way people with autism can be. Few people can reach someone like that. Bobby Delaney, he was one, he could reach her. You’re another. You’ve got a unique touch. Don’t lose it.”

“Drindle,” I said. “You ever meet this guy? What does he look like? Where does he live?”

He chuckled. “You are making way too much out of an offhand remark,” he said. “For all I know he could have been made up. Oh, yes, she had imaginary friends. Ms. Carlisle was a child in many ways, with a child’s capacity to delight and annoy.”

“How about you?” I asked. “Were you able to reach her?”

“I was her connection to her father.”

“So when can I meet you there? At the house, I mean.” It would make it difficult snooping with someone looking over my shoulder, but I’d figure out a way.

He said: “You can’t. I’m traveling for two weeks starting tomorrow. I can put the key in your slot. It’ll be in an envelop. A note of clearance, too. You feel comfortable with that?”

Not really, but….

“Sure,” I said, too tired to propose another course of action. “I appreciate the trust.”

“Hey, when a man can’t trust a bartender….” 

“Too true.”

“But you’re more than just a bartender, aren’t you?”

I didn’t quite know how to handle that so I opted for honesty.

“I am,” I said. “Here’s my address. Got a pen?”

I slept most of the day and straight on through the night. I remember one of the girls coming in and asking me something and me saying don’t leave the apartment and she, whoever it was, not giving me any lip. 

“Cop still outside?” I murmured.

“Yes,” she whispered and I still couldn’t tell which one it was. She hesitated, watching me. I must have looked like shit. I wanted to reassure her but sleep swallowed me whole like the sea. 

I got up once to pee and the TV was on. They were watching one of the Twilight movies. 

“I’m sorry I’m so pooped,” I said. I usually don’t launch into conversations when I’m in the middle of a sleep cycle because it tends to wake me. But this time, I knew I’d have no trouble going back.

They were lounging on the couch and paused the movie. Crystal, especially, I could tell had questions. Had they seen Jim’s car outside? I was hoping he would have gotten it towed. Had someone come around asking for me? I put my index finger up. 

“I will explain everything,” I promised. I glanced at the coffee table. An envelop with my name on it. 

Good. The key is in my possession, safe and sound. 

I stumbled back to my bedroom, collapsed on top of the covers, burrowed my head into a pillow. Again, I was out. The alarm clock roused me the next morning and I jumped out of bed as if it were any other morning and not one in which I’d just slept more than 20 hours. 

“Listen to your body,” Truck always says.

I’m listening, I’m listening. 

I packed lunches and helped the girls find their cloths and books. It was one of the least combative mornings we’d ever had: no cross words, sarcastic tones, or rolled eyes. I didn’t like it at all so I was relieved when, after Crystal left, Debbie asked, “Are you, like, shooting people again?” 

“Oh, I so love it when you act flip.”

“It’s a fair question, Mom.”

“Yeah, like I have a history of violence.”

“Ahem.” She gestured to my handgun. 

“It’s legal.”

“That makes me feel so much better.”

“It’s protection.”

“I’ve got one parent left and she likes getting into running gun battles.”

“Not fair. I do not like fighting anybody but self-defense is something that I’ve long ago decided….” 

Back to normal, sort of.

When Debbie left, I debated whether to go around to Miss Lotty’s at night but, what the hell, the lawyer gave me permission and the envelop containing the key also contained a “to whom it may concern.” Besides, it would have to be after Iffy’s closed and in the dark and, frankly, I was a little chicken. 

I drove over to Miss Lotty’s house, went inside. The place was already shaping up — just getting rid of the cats helped. Light made an appearance, now. The sun shone in from newly installed windows and a couple of skylights. With all the clutter gone, it looked so much bigger, so much more like my girlhood home. Within a year, maybe less, there would be little feet scampering around the rooms, blazing a trail of memories for a happy family. Now, though, the place was quiet, but without the ominous feel that had made my skin crawl in my other visits. 

Most of the junk had been thrown away as well as the furniture, but of course a lot of it was one and the same. I stood in the middle of the living room, sighed. I didn’t know what the hell I was looking for, and even if what I was looking for had once existed in this house. 

But what’s this? 

Someone had torn up the carpet to reveal a decent wood floor and one of the boards inched up. All it needed was a few taps with a hammer.

Across the room Flash’s old toolbox sat in a pool of sunlight. The red coat had dimmed, now almost rust colored. Nicks and dings cut crevices on the surface that had been at one time so smooth that many an Iffy’s patron partied nights away sitting on it. 

I opened it, looking for a hammer. Instead, I found paper, old newspaper articles and loose-leaf pages. I thought that maybe someone had used it as a makeshift trashcan, and I burrowed under the debris, found the cold surfaces of hammers, wrenches, drills, and screwdrivers. The clippings bobbed about like garbage in a stopped drain. 

One caught my eye for I had seen it in my nightmares. “Police Official Found Dead.” In fact, many of the clips were about Antonio. I’d seen them before and, eventually, through the years had managed to read every one, feeling as if I jabbed splinters into my fingers each time. 

“Why?” I said aloud, my voice echoing in the emptiness. 

Why would Miss Lotty keep articles about my father’s death? But they weren’t only about that. There were also some letters and, here, an article about Porter Beckerman, that ghost who’s suddenly become so important in my life. 

There was also a notebook, and I recognized the handwriting. It wasn’t Miss Lotty’s. It was Bobby Delaney’s. The airiness of the house that I’d just minutes before celebrated now seemed as endless as an ocean. I drifted toward horizons at the edge of the world. I could barely hear the traffic on I-95. 

It may have taken me a year to piece everything together. It may have taken me forever. I don’t know. One of the jobs I’d probably never do is researcher. I just don’t have the patience. I need to be active so I probably would have put the toolbox aside for “just awhile, promise” and chased after more interesting leads. In fact, I was already losing patience, wondering just what I’d hoped to find in searching a deranged old woman’s house. 

Then I came upon it, just one short scrawl at the margin of one of the copybook pages. Bobby’s handwriting. “Porter Beckerman = Lotty Carlisle’s father.” Then, at the bottom: “Nidal A. Ayyad, World Trade Center.”

I looked out the window. 

There was a stream of information leading up to that conclusion and I’d been tempted to review those pages, but I guessed how it was going to work. Bobby Delaney had figured it out with forensics and documentation and plain old grunt work. He’d figured it out just by being Bobby, brilliant Bobby.

So I skipped ahead to the conclusion. Porter Beckerman’s death had not been an accident. He’d been killed.  Bobby, who’d been anal about documenting and dating everything he touched, had figured this out about a week before he was murdered.

“But why, Bobby?” I thought “Why was Porter Beckerman murdered?” 

And why was the stuff about Beckerman mixed in with the stuff about Antonio? This annoyed me. My father’s case should stand alone. It was as if some perfect stranger asks to be buried with you. Sure, you’ll be dead and you won’t know the difference.  But even dead bodies need their space. 

Maybe they were part of the same case. Maybe Porter Beckerman had known something about Antonio’s death. Maybe it wasn’t suicide, after all. Forget about living forever. If I could find that out, I could die happy tomorrow. I could feel myself tear up, as the world of guilt I’d been carrying, the guilt I’d naively believed I’d put behind me, lifted just a bit. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re carrying until you put it down. Maybe, that’s death. The easement of all that made us mortal, the coming of an ecstatic spirit self. Here was something that could change everything. Here was rebirth.

Keep it together, girl. These are just theories. Antonio committed suicide. Of course, he did. Know that fully until knowledge indisputable fact replaces it. Even if you’re right it just creates another mystery. Who killed my father?

Almost without thinking, I pulled the lever that would reveal what had once been the secret Halloween compartment. 

If there’s still any candy in there it went bad long ago.

The end of an electric wire brushed against my palm and I jumped. There were about four wires and they’d been cut, but that’s not what made me freeze. At the bottom, in black marker and capital letters a message lay like a thrown gauntlet.

“DIZZY WAS HERE.”

It might not be him who wrote it.

But I knew it was. Even beyond the grave this asshole taunts. How the hell had he gotten into Flash’s toolbox. Who was the message for? 

I heard a car pull up. I ripped a page out of the copybook and slammed the toolbox shut, snapping the holds. I ran over to the window, glanced out. Flash, but in his own car and dressed like a civilian on a Saturday. He even stretched in the sunlight, yawned as he checked out the surroundings. Must not be on the clock.

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

It’s like someone had thrown a lifeline back to the frazzled middle of my life, offering a chance to not have to go through everything that came after. I was that happy to see him, thinking that if I could be proven right about Antonio, Flash would look at me in a different way. I wasn’t the selfish horrible child who’d driven her father to his death. I was just another kid who’d gotten into some bad shit and had somehow righted herself. An admirable person, even, who could shake herself loose of everybody’s damn forgiveness. I rushed the door, threw it open. 

“Lawyer told me you’d be here,” he said, stepping up.

“Whatever happened to attorney/client privilege?” 

“That’s only if the guy actually works for you.” 

Flash checked out everything as if he was buying the place. I could see the details registering — click, click, click. If the different look of the house surprised or impressed him, he wasn’t letting on.

“It’s not a crime scene anymore, right?” I asked.

“Technically, no. What’s up?”

I handed him the letter. 

“Permission to remove items,” he read. “Like what? You’ve got this guy eating out of your hand. He ask you for a date, young lady?”

“Miss Lotty borrowed some shit from me a few years ago. Just want to take it back. He thinks that she would have been OK with it. Says she felt connected to me. Don’t quite know how to take that. Also….” I could see something in his eyes, “you heard what happened, right?” 

“Well, yes, Cheryl. A major running gun battle along Delaware Avenue doesn’t stay a secret. I’ll need statements.”

“Jim’s home.”

“I’ll get to James Bond. Why didn’t you call?”

“Meant to.”

He stepped a bit closer. I resisted the urge to step back.

“You’re not interfering with a police investigation, right? Your dad raised you.”

“Just trying to protect myself.”

“I protect you.”

“You do.”

“Any injuries from Wednesday night’s escapade?”

“We lost our copies of the formula,” I said. “One of the reasons I’m here is to see if maybe I can dig one up.”

“Don’t worry about it. I told you already: The reason you look younger than your age is because of good genes.”

“Some thugs think otherwise.”

“Let them. If they come back enough for some quack formula, we might bring this to a close.”

“That’s your plan?”

“It’s not foolproof. For instance, we can’t protect you if you keep eluding the police guard.”

“I wasn’t eluding anybody. Jim just showed up at Iffy’s. We went for a ride.”

Flash smiled. “Just happened to show up, eh?”

“We’re friends,” I said quickly. “Just friends.” I could feel myself blush. 

“There’s one thing I do need,” he said. 

He walked over to the board that had been sticking up, pulled. It came off like a lid. Then he stuck his arm in the slot, grabbed something. It was one of those little safe deposit boxes. 

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I was taught by the best, remember? I am Antonio DeMarco’s pupil. Besides, I can’t give away all the secrets of my trade.” 

“Come on.”

“She had it written down in one of her notebooks. Very exact. I didn’t think Miss Lotty could read, let alone write.” 

“Apparently, she knew a lot.” 

“And you?”

“I’m just trying to find out why she was killed.”

“Leave that for the pros, will ya?” he said.

“Isn’t that…?”

“Evidence? We took all the evidence or else you wouldn’t be allowed in. This is what is known in the trade as left-over shit.”

“Aren’t the forensics guys supposed to do this sort of thing?” I asked.

“Have to give them a reason to come back out. This is Philadelphia, remember. It’s easier for me just to grab it.”

I was this close to talking about the clippings I’d found, even handing them over to him. This close to telling Flash that there was a chance that Antonio had been murdered. I wanted so badly to tell him. Nobody steps up to the edge of redemption and hesitates. You want to jump right on in. “I didn’t do it!” I wanted to shout. “I am innocent! Innocent! Don’t you see? Mom had been right all along, for all these years. Of course, she didn’t know why she was right. But we know, don’t we Flash? Aren’t you thrilled?” 

But as we talked we circled the room. I’d realized later that we’d been shadowing each other like a couple of fighters, and by now he’d moved to the far end, where he stopped. I stopped. We occupied diagonal corners, and waited for the bell. A big old cloud chose that moment to scrape the skyline and threw us into shadow, and as the light ebbed I sensed that Flash was not just in the shadow, but of the shadow. He’d become the shadow and his quietness, the silent way he watched me without looking, occupied its own turf in a room that now didn’t seem as big and airy. I shivered. 

Suddenly, something tumbled onto the floor, then bounded by.

“Shit!” I yelled.

“It’s OK!” Flash said. “It’s that fucking cat.” He put his hand over his chest. “Yipes! I thought they got those beasts out of here.”

“That’s Jinx,” I said. “Figures he’d be the last to go. He must have been hiding the whole time, someplace where they couldn’t find him.”

“Jinx,” he said. Flash looked a little like Jim had looked the night before — dazed.

“You remember Jinx….” I began, but he held up his hand, visibly trying to stabilize his vitals. 

“I need to….” He leaned against the wall. 

His breathing rhythmically settled, like a feather floating to the ground. That’s when it happened. I remembered that I had forgotten that I’d heard the same quiet cadence before. Trauma had pushed that memory away. Trauma had even pushed the sound away, burying it beneath my “No! Daddy! No! Daddy! No! No! No!” But it had been there all the time, hiding. Now, it forced itself upon me. Yes, it came to me, of course it would. Eventually, I’d have figured it out or something left behind by Miss Lotty or Bobby would have knocked sense upside my head. As it was, I leaped over logic to get there knowing I could retrace the steps I hadn’t taken. It’d been there before me all along. 

I wasn’t crazy. Someone else had been in that room, someone who let me take the blame for my father’s suicide. Someone who coldly locked my soul in a prison of guilt for something I hadn’t done and watched me squirm and wilt and fight against those walls every day of my life. One mean, cold, murderous son of a bitch. 

I mimicked the way he breathed, and he probably thought that I did it because of Jinx as well. That’s the only way he couldn’t have noticed that something was terribly wrong with me and that an entire continent of certainty had shifted. 

What had Antonio found out about Flash that had made Flash so panicked that he had killed my father, his mentor? 

I remembered Flash, slumped at Iffy’s ruined by the recession. Flash had been ruined by money and some people fight the perverse tendency to fall in love with what ruins them. Some people surrender. 

It came back to me, also, what he’d said to Antonio all those years ago outside the diner. “I am closing in on night owl, sir.”

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

Time was running out. Jim had said that the Dog Fence’s deployment would happen the next day. Someone wanted to make that deployment moot and just where did this Flash MacFarland, a man suddenly a stranger to me, fit in? 

“You OK, Cheryl?” Flash asked. 

I moved my hip just a bit, felt the gun at my side.

“Don’t I look OK?”

“Matter of fact, you look sick.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“It was just a stupid cat,” he said.

“You almost flew out your skin.”

Careful. 

I was sounding way too angry.

Do I pull my gun? Do I force him to confess? Do I smile and exit and run like hell down to the FBI office and spill? I held the truth, but anybody else might call it a hunch. 

“I hate to admit this, but I’m scared,” I said. “I’ve been shot at and probably would be dead by now if you hadn’t arrived at Bobby’s house just in time. You saved my life, Flash. Mine and the Delaneys.”

“It has certainly been a rough two months for you.”

“I don’t break easily,” I said. “I’m not a crier by nature.”

“But that’s changed, too, hasn’t it? You can’t go through this stuff without it affecting you. Men in combat cry, but you fight through the tears. That’s what you’re doing. Even when Dizzy Tanner showed up out of nowhere — yeah, sure, you cried. You also threw those rolls at him.”

Now, how did you know that? Stay away from me, fucker.

“When do you want me to talk to the feds?” I asked. 

“Well, there’s no rush on that score since you already talked to them once. They’ll get around to you. The main thing is to get better.”

Fucking bastard. I’m a lot better now that I know my enemy. No wonder the cops couldn’t solve Bobby’s murder. 

“A statement is only as strong as the dependability of the witness,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Your little stint at Friend’s, if this ever becomes a legal case, you can bet that the opposing lawyer will dredge that up.”

“How would it ever become a legal case? The bad guys are going to sue me?”

“They’ll sure as hell try to stay out of prison. And the feds; you do want the FBI to believe in you, right? Look, you’re shaken, confused. You don’t know who to trust.”

Fucking real, I don’t know who to trust.

“Every defendant gets a day in court. Or, most do. Your stints in a mental institution….”

“Will taint my testimony?” I asked.

“You know lawyers. Hell, you probably dated some, knowing you, Cheryl.”

“A few.”

“Are you taking your meds?” 

Fuck you. You’re leaving nothing to chance, are you?

I said, “Yes, but there are side effects.”

“Listen,” Flash said, trying to sound like his old self. “Do me a favor.”

He walked over to the wall, leaned over the toolbox. 

Does he know about the clips? Does he know that I know about the clips?

I stepped back, careful not to look down at my gun. 

“Do you mind if I put this toolbox in your car?” Flash asked, facing the wall.

Do it. Pull your gun, make him talk. Make him confess. It’s your father he killed. He might have killed Bobby and Miss Lotty, too. What are you waiting for?

But he had put enough doubt into me. What if it turns out that he hadn’t killed Antonio? I dismissed that as soon as I thought it. He did. I knew — I mean knew — that he did. And yet, and yet….

“Where do you want me to deliver it?” I asked. 

“Just keep it in your trunk for now,” Flash said. “I got too much shit in mine. It’s my toolbox. I don’t want any of the workmen playing ‘finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers.’”

“Why is your toolbox here again?” 

He’d lifted the thing, balancing it on his knee to get a good grip. He huffed and puffed and his face turned red. 

Maybe he’ll die of a heart attack. Wouldn’t that let me off the hook?

He was damn sturdy, though. I led him out to the street, to my car. I looked around. Spring had decided to stay for a while. The air was crisp, inching toward 60 degrees. No humidity. Up the street, one old lady weeded her little flowerbed sitting in a chair, trying to save what was left of her cartilage. Over on the next street, a couple of kids were chalking the asphalt. 

What the hell are they doing out of school? Down, Mom. Not your concern. You’ve got witnesses. Good. 

Although, really, if Flash were going to try anything, he’d have done it inside Miss Lotty’s. I opened the trunk and he threw it in. The back of my car groaned, sagged. I couldn’t stop stealing looks at him and he caught me a few times. The shit he said about paranoia. His reminder that I’d been in Friend’s. It didn’t matter, none of it mattered. 

This man had killed my father. And when I prove it — and I will prove it — then this man will pay. 

“Why is your toolbox here?” I repeated.

“My toolbox is here because I’d lost the one provided to me by the Philadelphia Police Department and I hadn’t gotten around to getting it replaced.”

“The police department counts it pennies. I remember Dad complaining too.”

“Do you know how many guys have to work two jobs?” he said, suddenly animated. “Guys give everything to this job. Guys give their souls. That’s the thanks we get.”

Yep, money. That’s the motivator. 

“You didn’t find anything,” I said.

“Didn’t say that. I found some correspondence that led directly to me pulling that safe box out.”

“I’ll hold it for as long as you need. I can use the tools?”

He winced.

“Men and their tools,” I said.

“Some men and their tools. Truthfully, I would let you. But it’s locked and I don’t have the key on me.”

I tried the lid. Damn if it wasn’t locked. 

When had he done that? 

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I am moving, may I remind you. One thing I have enough of is tools. I don’t really need yours. Right now, I am just into tools. I want to compare.”

“What a woman,” he said.

Chatting like that for the last few minutes. Having to chat because if I allowed myself to consider what I now knew Flash did, I would have given myself away. I possibly already had. 

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

My thoughts were tracers ricocheting off a disco ball. So many mysteries and possibilities now radiated from one point — Flash MacFarland. 

Is he connected to Bobby’s death? Is he connected to Dizzy’s return? How about Miss Lotty and Morton Relay? 

Jim suspected that there were two terrorist groups in the area. A Muslim cell and this mystery group. Who? A drug company? An oil company? A rogue CIA agent? 

Why not? Jim is rogue. Why can’t there be two? 

What had Jim said? What word had he used? Conduit. That was it. There’s a conduit, to which flow all the tributaries. 

It’s all going to be tied up. I’m going to get the answers. Won’t I? But they never did find Kat Borkowski’s killer, did they? 

“Believe me,” Flash had said, “we want to catch the guy who did it more than anything.”

“I know that,” I responded but, actually, I didn’t know that. And which “it” was he talking about? Bobby? Miss Lotty? Morton Relay? The gun battle on Delaware Ave.? Me getting run off the road? That sounded quaint now. 

This much I knew: Flash MacFarland murdered my father, a man who’d never been anything but good and kind to Flash. If Flash could do that, then he’s capable of anything, and he had wasted no time to get to that anything. To cover up Dad’s murder, Flash deep-sixed the coroner, Porter Beckerman, who happened to be Miss Lotty’s biological father. That’s not just my paranoia. Bobby Delaney and Miss Lotty had reached the same conclusion. It started to come together.

Of course, the demon inside wouldn’t let me get away with it. 

What if you’re making this all up? You can’t prove any of it. What if none of it’s true?

I could just hear some lawyer braying: “Are you — Ms. DeMarco — referring to Loretta Carlisle, a character in the neighborhood known as Lotty the Catwoman? You and this Catwoman are the ones who claim that my client is a murderer?”

“Your Honor, I object. Counsel is leading the witness.”

“Your Honor I am simply trying to establish that Lotty the Catwoman falls far short of what any court would describe as an expert witness, or even a credible witness due to known infirmities. Furthermore, there’s this disqualifying characteristic: Ms. Carlisle is deceased. She is unable to corroborate that any of the material being presented had in fact been generated by her. Ms. DeMarco was taking anti-depressants at the time she claims she’d formulated her theory that Police Inspector Flash MacFarland killed her father. The much-decorated police inspector, I might add. My expert witness will testify that depression and paranoia mix a powerful cocktail. It’s a drink called delusion.”

Yeah, the Flash-as-conduit narrative would be a tough sell, and it probably wouldn’t even get to a courtroom. The second I brought it up, Flash’s fellow cops would close ranks, like cops always do. No wonder why Flash had talked me into going to Friends Hospital. He’d told the feds about my addict past. He’d done all the subtle things to undermine me. 

Keep this suspicion to yourself for just a little longer.

By this time tomorrow, Dog Fence will have been activated. Fishtown won’t get blown sky-high. Will that make whoever the hell it is doing this go away? Or will they just get more desperate? Will they try anything to launch this little nuke? 

As I turned the corner onto Girard, I passed the cop car, gave the wave. Big smile and a wave back. 

Suddenly, I didn’t feel good about this “protection.” 

Babs was waiting outside.

“Where am I supposed to take them?”

I hushed her, and as we climbed the steps in the apartment building, I stopped, turned, put my finger to my lips. We carried the cone of silence right through the doorway. The girls were there with sour mugs. 

“We’re bored to death,” Crystal whined. “Hey!”

I’d grabbed the TV control from her, pumped up the volume. 

“Huddle,” I commanded.

We came together in the center of the room. 

“What the hell is going on?” Debbie asked. I could feel her shoulders tense.

“Babs is going to take you someplace. For a long ride. Here.” I handed Babs the Lahaska gift card Truck had given me. “You’ll be staying at a nice place. Eat at a nice restaurant. Nice. Nice. Nice. And the niceness is already paid for.”

The girls started in at once about this sleepover, and that excursion to the movies, and can’t they just hang out with their friends. Debbie had soccer practice, Crystal had an audition.

“It can wait,” I said.

“It can’t wait, Mom!”

“Come on. No one’s a better time than Babs.”

Crystal: “I know. It’s just that I had other plans.”

“Are we visiting the mystic cows?” Debbie asked and they both went “ommmmmm.”

“No, you’re not going to Truck’s farm.”

“Good, cause that’s boring,” Crystal said.

“This is shopping,” I said. “Lahaska. You’ve been before.”

“Are we bugged?” Debbie asked. “Is that why all this drama?”

Damn. If they were littler I could bullshit them, make it seem like a game. They need to know; be alert. I wished it were different.

“I’m just not taking any chances,” I said. “And, anyway, don’t you want to shop?” 

“Uh, money?” Debbie reminded.

I put my hand up, twisted into my bedroom, fished out some green from the floorboard, stepped back into the huddle.

“Here’s one hundred and fifty dollars. Each.” 

“Wow!” 

“What about work?” Babs asked. 

“You’re off today and tomorrow, remember?”

“I am?”

“I’ll talk to your supervisor,” I added with a wink. 

At that moment I really looked at Babs for the first time since we’d gotten in. Her hand trembled as she brushed back a wisp of hair; her eyes were wide. 

“I’ll see that you get the hours someway or get the money,” I said. “Even if it comes out of my pocket.”

“What about Marty?” Babs asked.

“I’ll handle him. I always do.”

“He’s grouchier than ever these days.” 

“He’s mine.”

“I’ll do whatever you need me to do, my friend.” 

“This is really creeping me out,” Debbie said.

“The case is cracked,” I said. “Arrests will come down. I just want you girls out of the way because there’s going to be a lot of stuff coming out about Debbie’s father.”

“But I want to know!” Debbie said.

“You will! But not from some damn reporter sticking a microphone in your face.”

“Microphone? Reporter? It’s like I’m Rihanna.”

“I’m Rihanna,” Crystal said. “I can drive, Mom. Maybe Mrs. Borkowski should stay home. Stay with you.” 

I looked at Babs. 

“Go home,” I said. “Crystal drives now.”

Babs rose from the huddle.

“No,” she said.

“There’s nothing to worry about, really,” I said. “Just taking precautions. You know me. Playing it safe.”

“You? Safe?” Babs said.

“We can handle it,” Debbie said.

“You’ll concentrate better with the girls out of the picture,” Babs said. “I am OK. I am not missing my chance to be part of this.”

The TV show played Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”

“Look, I parked on Flora Street,” I said. “You and the girls leave by the fire escape. Head down the alley. Here are my keys.”

Crystal snatched them.

“We’re not babies, Mom. Mrs. Borkowski, you’re still injured. We’ll be safe.”

“I am coming,” Babs insisted. 

“I am driving,” Crystal said.

“Deal,” Babs and I said at the same time.

Jinx.

“This will be fun,” Babs said. 

“No heroics, Mom,” Crystal said.

“I just want you to use the damn Lahaska card,” I said. “Really, the danger is gone. Completely.”

Debbie said, “Yeah, except for the bug, and us having to leave by the fire escape, everything is perfectly normal.” 

“Loose ends.” Then I called, “Crystal!” for she was already heading to my bedroom. “Please phone Truck. Tell him we’re going to use his card.”

“Why?” Debbie demanded.

“Just do it!”

“What about Flash?” Babs asked. “You call him?”

“Yes,” I said. “Move! I can’t go until you leave.” 

As the girls climbed onto the fire escape and began scampering down, Babs — half in and half out of the window — turned to me and mouthed, “Who killed your father?”

“Why you asking?”

“Who?”

“Flash,” I said.

She winced, then backed through the window, following my daughters.

I leaned out, watched them climb down the fire escape. God, they made a racket. I glanced about. Old Mrs. Gotisman sat by her kitchen window. Was a time when she missed nothing. Now, she can’t see or hear. I waved at the blank face as Babs and the girls hurried up the alley. 

Faster! Please! Faster!

“Hi, you’ve reached 2-9-9-2. Leave a message.”

I said, “We need to talk, Jim. I think you know what about. I’ll try to reach you again.” 

When I clicked off I saw there was a text message from Truck.

“U there?”

At this point, I still didn’t know my next step, but it wasn’t going to be a long chat with Truck Andrews. I’d just gotten rid of the girls. They were safe. So was Babs. Jim? With Al.

What to do? What to do? Nothing. Think it out. How did Flash kill Antonio? Flash is a big man, but my father wasn’t small. Flash had to kill him and then do a lot of grunting and lifting to get Antonio into a noose. Unless he had help. It’s coming together.

I wanted to run to Miss Lotty’s papers and dig up all the clues and conclusions. Then, I remembered. I’d left them in my car. I grabbed my cell again, began to call Babs when I stopped, remembering the bug — if we were being bugged. That’s when the paper flew out of my pocket. It was the one I’d stuffed there when I heard Flash’s car pull up outside Miss Lotty’s. “Nidal A. Ayyad, World Trade Center.” 

I stepped over to the computer, logged off of Debbie’s Facebook page. I googled Nidal A. Ayyad and found out that he was one of the co-conspirators in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He had rolled with the Blind Sheik. 

I walked to the window, watched as a trash truck rolled up the street, and I silently coaxed a Lincoln Continental as it inched around it. You don’t realize how much you talk to yourself when you’re alone until you consciously don’t talk to yourself. At other times, I might be saying, “Come on, dude. You can do it.” That day I just let out a few grunts as I swayed. When the car maneuvered back into the flow I sighed as much from impatience, as relief. 

All the shit going down and I get hung up on this? 

The Lincoln was the same color as the one Antonio had driven all those years ago. I remembered the last time I’d seen him behind the wheel when he’d pulled into the Aramingo Diner parking lot the night before I’d found him dead.

I promise you, sir, we are closing in on night owl.

Yes, that’s what Flash had said. Night owl — Antonio’s baby. Putting more plain-cloths detectives on the street during the hours that crime actually happens. 

I promise you, sir, we are closing in on night owl.

I glanced over at my computer, looked at the scrap of paper on my desk. Revelation came as a brush of coolness across the back of the neck. It was the quiet chill, the winking sunlight, the slowing traffic, the pause in the day. 

I promise you, sir, we are closing in on Nidal.

That is what Flash had said. Nidal, not night owl. But why? Nearly everyone connected to that case had been convicted in 1994. Nidal was already in jail. How could he have been closing in on him? Yet, that’s exactly what Flash had said. But he’d so wanted me to think he hadn’t said it. 

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

My cell buzzed. It was Iffy’s. 

“Spindles?”

“You at home?”

“Yeah, what is it?”

He coughed, muttered something.

“Talk into the phone. You OK? Spindles?”

“No. Jim Delaney came in looking for you. And then….” 

“Stop blubbering. Jim was there. Then what?”

“I couldn’t do anything, Cheryl, honest I couldn’t. Thought they was going to kill him, kill both of us. He could still be alive. I just got myself free. They took him. Taped me up.”

I might have let out a cry. 

Please, God. Not Jim. Not more of this!

“Call the cops?” I asked.

“On the way.”

“Describe them. How many?”

“You’re at Girard Avenue, right? That apartment? Not Fox Chase?”

I happened to be staring out the window at the birds circling the church dome when I spotted it. At first I thought it was another pigeon, but this thing hovered, dipped, and glided in such a way that I took a closer look. It turned, and was coming at me.

“They told me to tell you to go to your window,” Spindles said. “Some sort of message.”

“I’m there.” 

I said this in as calm a way a person can say something who’s running through her apartment and diving onto a fire escape. 

When the blast came, I was already in the alley, running past rattling windows. Amazing how much explosive can be crammed into a toy helicopter. As I sprinted, I heard the sirens and wondered how much of the front of my apartment was left. My cell buzzed again. Spindles. He really needed to know how I was doing.

Be seeing you real soon, hon. 

The three blocks between my apartment and Iffy’s I covered by the road less traveled. I followed the alleys, jumped a few fences, got a couple of dogs yapping. With quickening steps came another revelation. The harder I ran, the stronger I felt. Adrenaline wasn’t the fuel that made me leap and bound like Venus Williams, it was the trigger. Flash had been so insistent about the formula, making sure I understood that it was worthless. He’d wanted me to feel worthless. Now I shook and jived and tore ass through the neighborhood like a superhero; all I needed was a cape.

“Out for a jog, Cheryl?” someone called. A young mother hanging wash on the line. She’d heard my footsteps, stopped and turned and saw me coming. She wore a tank-top that did her no favors. 

“Late for work,” I yelled. 

“Go get ’em, girl.” 

My cell buzzed. Spindles, yet again. Getting more and more confident that he’d completed his mission each time I didn’t answer. 

I slowed to a walk when I reached the back of Iffy’s. I unlocked the gate, closed it gently. I crouched down, and spider-crawled my way to the basement door. Unlocked that as well.

I flipped the switch at the head of the stairs, turning out the lights. I paused a second, letting my other senses kick up. I heard, smelled, touched, and almost tasted my way along. As I treaded down the steps and into the basement, floorboards squeaked above me. Not overt dunderhead squeaking, nothing like that time at Bobby’s house. It could have been just the settling of the place, another sign of old age.

 It wasn’t, though. This was Iffy’s, and I knew better: Knew my bar better than I knew either of my apartments, better than I knew my car, better than I knew myself and, obviously, better than I knew some people I’d thought I’d known all my life. Somebody was up there, one sneaky son of a bitch. 

I crept through the basement, past the office where they stored all the things for my alleged 40th birthday. Up the stairs I climbed and skipped the creaky third step and here, the fifth one up and had shifted on me and groaned under my foot. I was insulted, as if Iffy’s had done something behind my back. I heard scurrying in the corner of the basement, no doubt frolicking on the part of the rodents Marty swears we don’t have. 

I tried the door, but it was locked from the other side. 

Since when does anybody lock that door? 

Someone heard me then. The floorboard squeaked more, and there was a small rattle, and a clicking sound. 

Keep calm, now.

I had heard that sound before. Almost like someone trying to start a car with a dead battery. I gripped my gun, put it right to the bolt. Started to squeeze the trigger. Then, changed my mind.

Keep your head. 

The key. I searched, found it. I didn’t let them jangle, I could hear myself breathing, it seemed as if my body burned. 

I’m going to kill his bony ass.

I unlocked the door. As I peeked out, something flew by, and I ducked, bending into military position, ready to shoot. I stepped out and there was Spindles, seated at the bar and smiling, with two of his little helicopters spinning around him. Just smiling that goofy way he smiles except it wasn’t quite as goofy this day. There was even a beer in front of him. He flinched, but then recovered and sat straighter. 

“You’re not going to shoot me,” he declared. He took a swig of beer, but most of it ran down the side of his face. 

“No?”

“Shoot me and we all go boom.”

“I’m in a gambling mood.”

He turned on his stool, faced me. 

“How the hell did you escape?” The grumble/whine I’d heard so many times over the years when I’d shout “last call.” “Doesn’t matter, Cheryl. You used up your nine lives.”

“That’s not your usual,” I said. Dark stout, almost the color of tar. “Doesn’t it block you up?”

“This?” he said. “Why this is special beer, Cheryl. But you know all about special beer, don’t you?” 

The helicopters suddenly started chasing each other in a circle around him. He pressed the remote as if texting on a big-ass cell phone, letting his thumbs do most of the work. The toys rose and dove in shafts of light from the windows, messing with the dust particles a bit.

“I’m supposed to think they’re bombs?” I said.

“We don’t know, do we? Maybe you ought to put that gun down.”

Fuck that. 

I kept him locked in as I eased into a standing position. The helicopters stopped circling, started to bob like dueling water fountains. Once or twice during our conversation, one would fly toward me, then twirl away. Each time, I’d raise the gun, ready to shoot it out of the air. At the last second, it would stop and retreat and I couldn’t help but wipe the sweat off my forehead. 

I’m a good shot but I don’t know if I’m that good. 

“Down, I say,” Spindles said. “Put the fucking gun on the floor. Lay it there gently.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll do that.” I kept the pistol trained on the center of his head. “You ready to be a martyr, Spindles?”

“Yes. Are you?”

I laughed because even though Spindles was not who’d I always thought he’d been all these years, a part of me held tightly onto a part of him. Martyrdom wasn’t in that mix, I could see that.

Sure enough, he said: “I ain’t going to jail, I can tell you that much. I’d rather die than go there.”

“Relax,” I said. “You’re too old. Nobody’s going to want to make you his bitch.” 

He was sweating, and I noticed a tremor that made his head unsteady. He wanted to live. His fear was what made him dangerous.  

“I didn’t think there was any Miracle Beer left,” I said.

“There won’t be, after I’m done this. Here’s to our long lives. Why should you have all the fun?”

“Only thing miraculous about that beer is that people believe the hype,” I said. 

“This is the most important beer ever invented.”

“You think?”

“You think,” he said. “Look at yourself woman. It’s not just DNA. You’re not the only one wants to be immortal.”

He pointed at the sink, “But maybe you think that beer is the most important.”

I could just make out a couple of empty bottles.

“He called it Champaign,” Spindles said. “It’s like in Star Trek. That matter, anti-matter bullshit.”

“You’re overthinking it, my friend.”

“We once were friends, weren’t we, Cheryl.”

“We still are.”

He smiled at some private image.

“Maybe we can work out a deal,” I said. 

“Put that gun down we’ll talk.”

He choked then, the hacking sound cracked against the corners of the bar. 

“How does this shit work?” he asked. 

“They didn’t tell you?”

“Who?”

“Are we going to play this game?”

His breathing had been growing more labored. I remembered what happened whenever I took some Miracle Beer — and it wasn’t that. No flu-like symptoms. No writhing or blackouts, either. 

“You don’t want to be a martyr, Spindles. Nobody talks about immortality the way you just did and then blows himself up. My quarrel isn’t with you.”

“Right. If it weren’t for my two boys here, you’d have shot me.”

“I am not a murderer,” I said.

“Dizzy Tanner might dispute that, if he was here.”

“If you’d hurt one of my girls with that trick you just pulled then, yes, I would have killed you.”

“And then we both would have died and your girls would be orphans.”

“If those toys are actually bombs.”

“You need more proof than what just happened at your apartment?”

I tried to maintain eye contact but he kept looking away like a distracted teenager, glancing at his gadget. The fuzz on his head followed the streams of sweat now running down his face. They could have been some sort of funky tattoo. He clutched his stomach a few times, and I wondered what I would do if he fainted on me. 

Hope I’m right about the helicopters.

“I knew your daughters wouldn’t be there,” he said. He sounded as if he tried to hold a conversation while lifting a piano.

Liar. No way you could have known that. 

“Gives me a warm-and-fuzzy knowing that you’re OK with killing me,” I said.

“They made me do it,” he said, slamming his mug down. 

“Spindles, I’m not a turn-the-other cheek girl. But if I’d killed everyone who’d tried to kill me since Bobby’s murder, they’d start calling me Rambo. I let the authorities do their thing.”

“Flash is the authority.”

“Not for long.”

“I ain’t going to jail.”

“You might not have to. If what you say is true, you’ll get a deal. It’s like you acted with a gun to your head.”

“That’s literally what happened.”

“Figuratively,” I said. 

He doubled over, groaned, forced himself back up. The helicopters hovered by each shoulder, facing me.

“Maybe you should stop drinking,” I said.

He smiled. “You been telling me that for a long time.”

“You’re not one of them, Spindles.”

He drank the beer down. Looked at the dregs. 

“I hate them freaks,” Spindles said. “Fucking Muslims. Your Dizzy tried to convert me.”

“He wasn’t my Dizzy.”

“They made him a martyr.”

“I made him a martyr,” I said.

“They’re….” He shook his head.

“But those freaks pay,” I said. “Money makes the world go round. Don’t matter who gets killed, don’t matter who’s betrayed. Gee, Spindles, I’m seeing a side of you that I never thought existed.”

“You don’t know what you’ve stepped in, girl. What the fuck is in this beer? This happen to you?”

As a matter of fact, no.

I said, “All these years I thought you were a broken-down Irish drunk. Here, you’re a broken-down Russian drunk.”

“I do other things.”

“Yeah, you go fishing in Florida every winter. Where do you really go?”

“Fuck you.”

“With a real name like Leonid Spinofsky, I’m betting you’d visit the mother country. I bet you have connections all over Russia, with the Russian mafia. My man Spindles, international dude of mystery. Who would have thought? Who could have guessed it in a million years? But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? No one would have guessed. Maybe somebody like Bobby Delaney because Bobby was a genius.”

“Russian mafia? You mean the mafia for the maladjusted,” he said. “Guess what? I’m feeling better.”

He didn’t look better. His eyes had grown wide as he scanned his remote control. 

“Bobby Delaney found out who you are; that you’re the bagboy for Marty and his friends.”

One of the helicopters buzzed me, like a blue jay protecting her young, but then flew back to its pilot. 

“I know what Flash and Marty told you,” I said. 

“Do you, now? You’re downright amazing. Here I thought you were just some little dago whore who liked doing drugs and men.”

My trigger finger flinch. I swallowed, beat down the rage.

I said, “They want to get the nuke, they said. But they already got the nuke. They want you to prevent me from stopping the launch. I don’t know where they told you that launch would be, but I can tell you.”

I pointed up.

“They’re going to blow up the sky?” he said. 

“It’ll knock satellites out. That’s all. Know what happens then?”

“Put that fucking gun down, Cheryl,” he growled. He was weeping. 

“Everything dies on the East Coast. Water filtration stops. Anything running on electricity goes. Millions of fatalities, because the electronic safety net goes pift. And we’re not even talking about the fallout, yet.”

“I know the story.”

“But you don’t know when the story starts — or ends — do you? It starts in about” I looked at my watch “three hours. And your death? Why, that’s just the prologue.”

“Bullshit.” 

“Where are they now?”

His knees had moved hire on the stool, he started balling himself up. He could barely move.

“Right, you don’t know,” I said. “You think you’re partners with Flash and Marty? They set you up, my man. You’re the ultimate fall guy. It’s not too late. Tell me.”

“You’re full of shit. For the last time drop your gun.”

He punched the controls with his fingers, and the helicopters rose and fell.

“Or what?” I said. “We’ve established that you don’t want to die. In fact, you want to live a long, long, long time. You want to be like me. To live hundreds of years until chance or ill will finally puts you away. You want to be almost immortal. So they told you to celebrate after you blew me up, drink from the bottle of youth. Do you really think they’d let you have the drug? You’ve been double-crossed, my man.”

He clutched his chest, the toys crashed into each other. I screamed, but nothing happened except for sparks and a smell that reminded me of model trains. I walked toward him, lowering my guy just a bit.

“Spindles, tell me where the launch is. It’s your one chance. Think of everybody you love who’s going to die.”

He pushed away from the bar, stumbled out of his chair. He looked at me pleadingly. I ran over just as he hit the ground. The symptoms suggested heart attack, so I began pumping, though I knew he hadn’t a chance. 

“Help me,” he said, clutching his neck.

“I don’t think I can. You weren’t supposed to drink that beer until after you’d check to see if I was dead, right? You started early, Spindles. You always started early.”

I grabbed my cell phone, began to dial 911 when he suddenly clutched my hand, sending the gadget flying.

“God, please help me!”

“Spindles, there’s still a chance for you,” I said. “A chance to avoid hell, you hear me? Where’s the launch? Where?” 

“Valhalla,” he said. “Truck. He’s got your girls. The toolbox. A bomb. I’m sorry. Please, God, forgive me.”

Then, he died.

Shit. And he never settled his bar tab.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

I dialed 9-1-1, using the phone behind the bar. I looked at Spindles, his mouth was twisted into a frozen “O”, his eyes were no-vacancy signs. Well, this death hadn’t hurt as much. This one I didn’t cause and this man, whom I’d thought I’d known for years, had tried to kill me and couldn’t have cared less if he’d taken my girls as well. My Fishtown of memories disappeared betrayal by betrayal.

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem Village….

“Hello, what is your emergency?” A woman’s flat affect. 

What the hell is my emergency anyway? 

I toed Spindles.

“I believe there’s going to be a missile launch,” I said.

Pause.

“Name and location?” she asked.

“A missile that will be fired into the lower atmosphere over Philadelphia.”

“I need to get information, ma’am.”

“Miss,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“Miss. I’m a miss. I’m not old. I will never get old.”

“You say there’s an emergency?”

“Listen to me, there is a farm in Bucks County….”

“What exactly is the nature of your emergency, ma’am?” A sprinkling of annoyance now seasons the robotic tone. 

I’m trying to prevent the most catastrophic terrorist attack to ever occur on American soil.

“Ma’am?”

“There is a dead body,” I said.

“Are you sure it’s…. You’re sure that the person is dead?”

“Oh, he’s dead all right.”

“How…?”

“…Did it happen?” I picked up the empty beer bottle, peeked at the dregs. “Poison, I’m guessing.”

“Name and location?”

I heard the sirens swelling toward my apartment. There were officers afoot, federal agents under man-covers, for all I knew. I think I heard helicopters, real ones. Maybe even Flash was nearby. The world crumbled.

“Ma’am?”

“Miss. I am a miss.”

This time she sighed. “Miss? Name and ….”

I said, “There is a dead body inside a bar on Girard Avenue, right near the entrance to I-95.”  

“Name of the establishment?” 

“Iffy’s.”

“Did you say Tiffany’s?”

“Name on the sign is ‘If My Wife Calls, I’m Not Here.’ We in the village call it Iffy’s.”

Pause. Exasperation? Visualization? Time for a break?

“Could you repeat?”

I did.

“Location?” I heard footsteps outside, saw shadows through the stain glass. Voices turning this way and that and then focusing on the bar’s door. 

“Miss?”

“Lady, ask anybody in Fishtown about Iffy’s.” 

I hung up, and got the hell out, down the stairs and then up into the alley. I knew they’d send a patrol car soon as I’d dialed 9-1-1. That might have been who was stopping by. I blinked as I emerged into the sunlight. Why is it that the world always goes to shit on nice days?

I walked down the alley as if I owned it, taking my time, making a point of it. 

“Cheryl, did you hear that explosion?”

“Hi Misty.”

Misty MacNamee, 90 years old and pulling a cart of groceries up her steps. Lived rundown, reminding my of Miss Lotty. A couple of tires rusted in the corner of her yard, near an unhinged gate. A few rows of bricks had been laid where someone had started to make a little patio, but then gave up. A statue of the Blessed Mother stood on a patch of budding grass, a white chip mark popping out on the blue porcelain of her gown. The end of a drainpipe lay near the spout. Her kids visited less and less.

“Heard it?” I said. “It happened right outside my apartment.” 

“Thank God you’re OK!” she said. 

I went into Misty’s backyard, pulled her cart into her little kitchen, barely making the turn. 

How the hell did she lug all this shit home? 

Some big-ass dog started barking from the front pallor. A whiskey bottle stood half empty by the teakettle on the stove. 

“Is this the part where you say Rover there doesn’t bite?” I asked. 

She jerked her thumb in the direction of the racket. 

“Hitler? Not hurt anybody?” She laughed, the air whistling out the places where she’d lost teeth. “Hell, no, I won’t tell you that. He’ll tear you to pieces. On a bad day, tear me to pieces. But he can’t get in here.”

Not for want of trying. The wooden barrier — five four-by-fours bolted into the passageway between the kitchen and the dinning room — that Hitler threw himself against buckled under each assault. Did I hear splintering? Misty hadn’t. She whistled softly as she unpacked her bags. 

“Nobody’s going to give you grief with him around,” I said, backing out.

She turned her wet, hard eyes on me. “You really cleaned yourself up, Cheryl.”

I received the judgment, suddenly rendered by this little bundle whom I’d thought had let the past go because she’d been so tied up in moment-to-moment survival. 

“I had no choice,” I said.

She placed a jug of prune juice on the counter.

“I know,” she said. “You had to clean up or die.”

“That’s what it amounted to.”

“It’s bullshit, mind you,” she said. “Look at me. I’m still alive.”

“Need help with that sugar?” 

“I got it,” she said, shoving the two-pound pack to the corner of her counter with her gnarled hand. She glanced over, eyes peering from under the babushka. “Your father never talked about it. He didn’t have to.”

Neither do you.

I stepped outside, hurrying a little now. If I was going to save the world I needed a car. 

Just then, I got a call from Babs.

“How are you guys making out?” I said. “Having fun? Shopping til you drop? Please remind my little women to spend wisely. Hello? Babs? Hello?”

“We’re OK,” she said finally. 

By this time I was out of the alley and heading up Morris toward Flora. I stopped, watched as the cars eased to the side as a fire truck barreled along with siren blasting. Frozen, because I knew that my girls weren’t OK. Babs’s tone told me only so much, though. 

“I’m listening.”

“We’re with Truck,” she said.

I’d never felt so alert. I could have been a bird of prey hovering in the breeze, spotting my easy kill scurrying along hundreds of feet below. At the same time, I’d never felt so drugged and removed, not even when I shot the shit between my toes. 

“Keep calm,” I said.

“I am. Ommmmm. Wait. He wants to talk to you.”

Some fumbling, then Truck’s voice.

“You know that I would never contemplate the idea of doing harm to you or your progeny,” he said. 

“What the fuck are you doing, Truck?”

“I am making a better world for … them. You. Everybody.”

“Stick to acupuncture.”  

“In your measurements I’ve always been found wanting,” he said. “A righteous appreciation of my capabilities was never forthcoming. Perhaps that now will change. That is the nature of revelation, is it not?”

“Fuck do you want?”

“I need you to stay away.”

“From where?”

“From anywhere you may think I might be. I am not there. Act rationally for at stake there is much.”

“Bastard.”

“I am saving the world.”

“If anything happens to them….”

“This I must reveal: Something already is happening to them. They’re caught in a capitalist nightmare that feeds a militaristic machine, and destroys the only home we have: Earth. It will happen, this destruction, and when it does, it will happen quickly. I might not see it and maybe not even your girls. But their children will. So will you. The elixir that roils your blood is as much a curse as a blessing.”

Blurse.

“You think that exploding a missile helps the earth?” 

“There will be a reaction….”

“No shit.”

“A revulsion on the part of the people. Revulsion becomes revolution. They will desire that the nuclear weapons become extinct, realizing it is either them or us. The veil will lift and they will come to see the dangers of an overly technological world. They will….”

“Surrender? You don’t know Fishtown too well.”

He chuckled.

“Provincial to the end. I do not toil to see anyone subjugated. I toil to enlighten the masses. They will see how we live on the brink and they will want to pull back. If I could do this — me a man alone — than anyone could. They’ll come to appreciate what I have wrought. How I cut out the cancer, like the good physician.”

“They’ll hunt you down like the quack that you are. Blow up whatever country that gave you the nuke to smithereens.”

“I did not obtain the devil’s tool from another nation. I got it on the black market. Amazing what you can buy without having to deal with those burdensome sales taxes.”

“Where are you?”

“I launch the missile. When I do, I take them down to the shelter, your girls, the others.”

The others?

“There are enough supplies, the fruit of past harvests, to last a year down there.”

“You are kidnapping them,” I explained. “You will go to prison for this. If you launch that nuke, you will be executed. You might even be summarily shot. It will be a new world, all right. Truck, do you understand me?”

“I calculate that if we wait a month, we can — all of us — hop in the SUV and head to Canada.”

“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?”

“In my office at Penn Treaty, there is a bunker of the underground type. Entrance is behind the furnace and the code is written on a piece of paper that I stuck behind a fuse box down there.”

“Mom always said you were a fool. We used to laugh at you behind your back.” 

Babs looked for an out, I knew, some way to conk him on the head and run like hell. With my children. I needed to give her that chance.

“Take yourself and Al Delaney and a few other people inside, doesn’t matter to me who you take,” he said. 

“We would laugh and laugh, and you would still give and give. Do you really think my mother loved you? After living a full life with someone like Antonio DeMarco?”

“If I loathed you,” Truck said, “if I did not countenance regard for your life, I would not now be offering salvation.” 

“What about the fucking fallout, you idiot?”

A conspiratorial little chuckle. 

“That should mostly fall on Ohio and there will not be that much.”

“How reassuring.”

He went on about his plan, telling me how I could take the girls and Babs and anyone else and head toward Canada, start a new life. How we can create a farm, live like we were meant to, as one with nature.

“Because, life on the Eastern Seaboard will not be hospitable to the chosen.”

“Let Crystal and Debbie and Babs go. Then, I will not kill you.”

“Trust me because I am fond of you, Cheryl, and fond enough of this country to give it shock treatment.”

“I know how you got the bomb.”

“It’s not as if you can do anything at this point.”

That’s what you think, asshole. 

I held my finger in my ear as I walked and talked. So much commotion. I was just one member of a mass of people flitting about on their cells, watching the cops and emergency responders crawl all over Fishtown trying find a mad bomber and searching to make sure that whoever caused the first explosion hadn’t planned a follow-up.

“Your friend Flash sold it to me, even though the Muslims offered more. He did not trust them to be discrete after your Dizzy Tanner pulled his little stunt.”

“Why did he do it?” But I already knew. 

“Do you know how much the Muslims paid for that mutant smallpox? How much I paid for the mini-nuke?”

“That’s all it takes to motivate people like your friend Flash and millions of others. Remember the turncoats? Guys who’d sell secrets to the Russians during the Cold War?”

“I beg you….”

“We can start a new world, Cheryl. We can truly go back to nature. Of course, we will not have any choice. We can live as we were intended to live. Join us.”

“My God.”

“God is nature and nature is God.”

“Is that how you get around the ‘thou shalt not kill’ clause?”

“Technology kills. Corporations kill. I am endeavoring to save us all. I’ll take care of you and the girls and the Delaneys and anybody else you want.”

“Like you took care of Spindles?”

“Who?”

Genuine surprise. 

OK, that must have been Flash’s doing. 

“They’ll catch you,” I said.

“Then I will be a martyr of the brighter covenant. I am doing it for you.”

Tick-fucking-tock, tick-fucking-tock, the fuse ran out the clock.

“You can have the life you have always dreamed of, Cheryl. You can have that normal life that you have always wanted.”

“The new normal.”

“We will return to the Garden of Eden.”

Yeah, and I know the serpent. 

“I don’t like camping,” I said. I needed to end this conversation without seeming to rush him.

“In no time it will not seem like camping. It will be life. Our new life.”

“I don’t even like bugs,” I said. “I’m not too into nature.”

“That is the disease of our age.”

“And you’ve got the prescription.”

“Save yourself,” he said, and clicked off.

I froze. Not crying, not yet anyway, that my two babies were in the hands of an asshole who keeps promising that he won’t kill them. 

One of the cops spotted me, slowed his patrol car, put his flashers on.

“You OK, Cheryl?” he asked, as cars inched carefully around him. Roadblocks had been placed everywhere and people were arguing with their GPS’s over what’s the right way to get the hell out of Dodge.

“Yes,” I said, slowly waking. 

He gestured toward Girard Ave. “Your apartment….”

“Yes.”

“The girls?”

“Weren’t home. I wasn’t home. Really I’m OK. We’re all OK. Was anybody hurt?”

“No, nobody, amazingly enough. These guys are always too busy with their porn to do anything right, right? They hate the immoral west, but they’re always online and going to the strip clubs. I was in the Guard and even in Saudi Arabia they….”

I needed to get going.

“Thanks for giving a shit,” I said. 

“You were moving anyway, right?” 

I paused for a second, not quite sure what he meant. 

He continued, “I hear your new apartment is nice.” 

“Do I know you officer?”

“I’m sorry, I’m not from the neighborhood.”

He gave me his name.

“I live in Mayfair,” he said. “Really, not too far from where you’re moving. Inspector MacFarland gave some lowdown on you. He wanted to make sure I knew where you might be if you weren’t on Girard Avenue. I’ve staked out your apartment once or twice. We said ‘hello’ a couple of times. Inspector MacFarland wanted to make sure….”

“I really need to go,” I said. “To the bathroom.”

He squinted. 

“My friend’s right around the corner.” Al, which was true. 

“Cheryl, get checked out by a doctor.”

Might not be any doctors left, if you don’t stop talking at me.

I waved him along, started walking toward Al Delaney’s place again. It wasn’t any accident that Babs said “ommmmmm.” They were definitely at Truck’s farm; Spindles hadn’t been bullshitting. 

“Are you going to try to turn this into a working farm?” I’d asked Truck when Jim and I visited him. 

“Let’s just say that I am not limiting my options.”

Apparently not. 

It had been all about cleaning up his little corner of the world, going organic. He’d been good to my mother, I thought. But then, through my mother, he’d made the connection go Flash. 

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

Al’s street was almost quiet when I arrived. It’s strange the way sound travels in a city, how it dies on the corners, or chases along the roofs, and then floats off carrying invisible dialogue balloons. I remembered once how I’d bought a balloon for Crystal when she was little, maybe two years old, and somehow the string came loose from her wrist and she cried as she watched it float away. I tried to comfort her, but I quickly got impatient and told her to get over it. A two-year-old, I said this to. I was too busy thinking about my next fix.

 Al’s steps and house were the brightest on the street. His wife used to scrub the concrete and the bricks and he’d continued in memory of her. One of those impeccably kept row homes, the immigrant pride in ownership handed through the generations until it’s a tradition for some families, like attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

Al’s bushes and white fence were works of art displayed on the greenest rectangle in Fishtown — as green as pictures I’d seen of Ireland. He didn’t just grow grass, he coaxed it to be the best that it could be. The flowerbed blazed red, orange, white, blue, yellow. No one had every heard him talk to his plants, but we’d just assumed he was sneaky about it. 

Sections of the house got repainted, so that the whole outside would be done every other year. Al’s statue of the Blessed Mother sported a frock that made me think of a storm closing in. No air conditioners hung out of windows, or welcome mats lay askew. The place’s curb appeal crested at the sidewalk in an edging of mulch that always seemed newly laid. I often wondered what he could get for the house, but of course Al would never sell.

His SUV was parked outside. Good. I knocked. No answer. I looked up the street. It could be the back lot of a movie studio, typecast as a city neighborhood. A ghost block, now, in between takes. I phoned him again, and again no answer. 

Shit!

I looked at the SUV. 

I need wheels, man. Can I pull this off? 

It had been a long time since I’d hotwired a car, back in my junkie days. Anti-theft systems had evolved. It wasn’t so much the alarm (who was going to give a shit when all hell was breaking loose down on Girard Avenue?) but the fact that the steering wheel would lock. Still, I didn’t have many options. 

Al would understand.

Just then, I thought I heard a thump from inside his house. 

“Al?” 

I put my ear to the door. Looked across the street, thought I saw a Venetian blind move. Somebody peeked. 

Thump! Thump! Thump!

I heard a muffled cry. 

I tried the door. Unlocked. 

Oh, shit. What now?

I drew my gun, headed quietly toward the noise in his kitchen. 

One, two, three….

I popped in, ready to blast away. 

“Oh, my God! Al!”

Someone had tied him to a kitchen chair, gagged him. His face had reddened from exertion. How long had he been struggling? He looked up at me, became more agitated. I motioned, asking him if we were alone. He blinked an affirmative.

“Where’s Jim?” I said, as I rushed to him. 

He groaned and slumped. 

“This might hurt,” I warned, and then tore the duct tape off that had been holding the gag in place. He choked, and I patted his back. He breathed out and then, as I pivoted to find a knife, started sobbing. 

“You’re safe now,” I said. 

I knelt and began slicing the ropes. 

“My boy!” he cried. “They took my Jim.”

“Who took Jim?”

Al lay his head on my shoulder as I worked the knife, kept sobbing and shaking. 

“You need to tell me.”

“That Truck character. And….”

“You’re free,” I said.

He looked at me, wondering if he could trust me. 

“Who else? Flash, right?”

He was bending over, weeping into his hands. 

“How did they do this?” I asked. “You bought a gun.” 

“Yeah, it’s upstairs.”

I managed to get the details. Al and Jim had just gotten home from a walk. Jim had been lying on the couch, watching television. Still weak from the glucose rush. Al went to the kitchen to make tea. He heard what sounded like a gunshot, but had actually been Spindles’s bomb. That’s when a man burst in, stuck a needle in Jim. Al ran right into the arms of another guy waiting out back. 

“Come on old-timer,” Flash MacFarland had said, as he forced Al back into the house. 

Al said, “They tie me up and stick a needle in me too, but it hits the back brace I sometimes wear. I pretend to sleep. I hear them talking on the phone to, I think, Spindles.”

“It was Spindles.”

“They leave with Jim.”

Things are unraveling. Flash doesn’t care anymore if someone finds out about his double life. He’s sure he’s not going to jail. 

“Al, I need your keys.”

“I’m going with you.”

“Stay here. Recover. Get stronger.”

“I need to help you save my boy.”

I turned, got a bottle of water from the refrigerator. 

“Here,” I said. 

“I’m going with you.”

“No,” I said. “Here’s what you’re going to do.” 

I gave him the address of Valhalla.

“Call the cops. Call the FBI.”

“Let me go with you,” but he seemed relieved. His breathing was labored, his hands shook. 

“What do I tell them?” 

“Truck is about to launch a small nuke into the stratosphere.”

“A what?”

 “But they won’t believe that. Tell them this: An armed man is hold up in a barn, threatening to kill people. Tell them your son is one of them.” 

“Oh, God.”

“Give them the address.”

“We’re all going to die, aren’t we?”

“Not today.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Al, I need to go. Just get people there.”

“I’ll just dial 9-1-1,” he said.

“No, you don’t want Philly cops involved for now. We don’t really know who Flash is working with, do we?”

“Then what?” he said.

“There’s a bomb shelter in the basement of the Penn Treaty Park building….”

“You think I want to live after this horrible shit?”

“Truck built it. Offered it as a bribe.”

“Do you really think I’d even consider this?” The redness had drained out of his face. He seemed to be feeling better. 

“I wanted you to know….”

“Know what? That I can save myself while everybody I love dies? So nuke me, I say. I hope the doggone thing falls right on my doggone head.”

He held out his keys and I grabbed them.

“He’s probably going to launch it within the next hour,” I said. “I need to get my girls and your Jim. You need to get some medical attention, too.”

“Why? The world’s going to end.”

“Please, Al. Don’t do this to me.”

I gave him Rendell’s card.

“After you call the feds, call an ambulance.”

I ran out the door, jumped into the SUV. I cruised through the narrow streets feeling as if I were riding on a tiger’s back. The machine practically bounded its way up the ramp and onto I-95. 

I checked my watch: 43 minutes to go. 

Will I make it? What will Truck do when the feds descend on his property? What will Flash do? 

I switched on the all-news radio.

“Police are on the scene at Girard Avenue investigating an explosion. No cause found as of yet but eyewitnesses claim that some projectile exploded outside an apartment building. No fatalities reported. Eyewitness News will keep you posted on this developing story.”

Yes, please do that. 

I kept listening. Static-y commercials, weather, sports. I was going to call Al again, when my cell buzzed. 

Truck. Text message. “Remember: Stay put.”

Fuck you. 

I decided to keep my line free. Al will need to do without me. 

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

The first thing I noticed as I approached Valhalla was that there was nothing to notice. No roadblocks, no flashing lights. No helicopters flying above marksmen in trees. Either this was the stealthiest stakeout ever, or…

What the fuck? 

I banged the steering wheel, as I stopped by the dusty road that led to Truck’s main house. I checked my watch. Ten minutes. Then everything goes “Boom!” 

Does it really?

Flash had mocked me. “Still taking your meds?” But this was real. I knew it was real. 

Was it?

I could see the grain silo through the budding trees. Wisps of smoke circled up the sides, as if a farmer was burning brush nearby. Wooden posts like popsicle sticks hugged the structure, seeming to bolster it. What had Truck said when he’d shown me pictures? 

“That’s just to keep that there silo from falling over while it’s essentially gutted and rebuilt.”

I had said, “But isn’t it kind of new? I thought you’d just replaced the old one three years ago.”

There’d been so much I missed, so many dots that had already been connected, the picture was that obvious. Yet, I hadn’t even bothered to look. 

When the missile was launched — if the missile was launched — those boards would fall away like the pillars that used to hold the old Apollo rockets in place; just like Truck’s model did on the day Jim and I had visited. 

Seems so long ago now.

The smoke did not suggest that someone else was around; no human hand was at work. The blaze could have been carried by some nomadic ember in the gentle breeze. The afternoon sunlight tilted across fields that seemed abandoned, as if people had left in a hurry to strike oil, or avoid natural catastrophe. Truck had followers. He’d bragged about them. Where were they? Wouldn’t his fellow one-world nutcases be dancing around the maypole? Where was Truck? Where was the maypole?

I called Al. 

No answer.

What could have happened? 

Well, whatever it was, he sure as hell hadn’t called the feds. Is he OK? Did they get Al as well? 

Not that, please. I should call the feds. 

But I wondered for a moment if I’d completely miscalculated. There was going to be a launch, but maybe they’d steered me here on purpose. Maybe I’d been too clever for my own good. I was going onto Truck’s property — that, I had to do — but first I punched in Rendell’s number and was about to send when there was a tap on my window. I looked up as a hulking shadow closed over me.

Holy shit!

Truck blocked out the scenery, the sky, the trees, the sun. He was smiling, and why not? He’d surprised me. 

Stupid!

“Now, Cheryl DeMarco, my communication to you was to keep your distance,” he said through the window, as if correcting a teen after curfew. 

“Where are my daughters, asshole?” Hand drifting toward my pistol.

“Calm down! Now!” He showed me the remote control and handgun that he held. “Rash deeds unleash consequences. I am your friend but if you hit send, then I too shall be induced to hit send. Cheryl, close your phone and hand it to me.”

“You can’t launch the missile yet,” I said. “You could only start fueling yesterday. It’s still filling up. You only had that small window before the eye in the sky caught you.”

“Spindles talks too much.”

No. I’m just a good guesser.

I reached for my gun, and he said: “I wouldn’t do that.” 

Truck motioned to the far end of his property, to the grove of trees that had so enthralled my mother — her natural sentries that marked time, and promised an afterlife. From behind a barn, a car now moved into view. My Fuck-Us sidled right up to the barn. Flash stepped out. Then he strode across the flat grassland toward his SUV, which was parked a good football field length away from the barn. Truck and I watched the whole time in silence, the wind gently kicking up a notch, the tips of tree branches seeming to put the maloik on the procession. 

Finally, Truck said: “Something happens to me, then that barn over there becomes an oven of perdition. I do not have to tell you who’s locked inside.”

I withdrew my hand, placed it on the steering wheel where he could see. He tried the door, but it was locked. 

“You’re one of us, now.”

“Did you love my mother or was that just bullshit too?”

“I cherished her,” he said, looking toward the garden she so loved to tend when they’d first moved up here. “She never knew about,” he gestured toward the silo, “this. I hid my plans from her, that’s how much I loved her. I put everything on hold until she passed. Come, get out.”

“You used her to get close to me and, through me, close to Flash.”

“It did not originate in that matter. And I am being nice to you, if you would just heed my words for verily to I say unto thee: You can live. So can the girls. And your little friend, Babs. Not to mention the CIA agent, Jim. Join me in creating a better world, Cheryl.”

“There are other CIA agents coming for you.”

“Still trying to deceive me,” Truck said.

I said, “Now I’m wondering whether you killed her.”

He actually stepped back, wobbled a bit. My hand twitched this close to pulling the gun and blasting, but he recovered and leaned in.

“I never caused her anxiety,” he said. “Not like you did. She used to say a rosary for you everyday.”

You are so dead.

I still hadn’t put down my cell. I nodded toward Flash.

“He’s on board with this bullshit? Can’t believe it. He never struck me as a one-worlder.”

Truck’s eyes narrowed. “Exactly how had he struck you?”

“How about that. A crack in the bro-mance.”

“We need to deal with the cynical among us,” Truck said. “When the launch happens, I give him the rest of what I owe and he’s on his way.” 

“You really got it figured out, don’t you?” Wasn’t he worried about fallout? He’d said that the winds were just right, but how does he know? Had weather been in the plan? How could they have accounted for chaos? 

“Put the gun away,” he said, his voice through the window sounding only a little muted. I flipped on Crystal’s CD, jacked up the volume.

“Can’t hear you!” I shouted.

He smiled, then suddenly shot in the direction of the barn, then spun the barrel back toward me. I turned off the music.

“Place it on the seat next to you,” he said. “Put the cell phone away. Then, get out of the car. We can talk about this.”

Fuck you. 

I said, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“You don’t have any cards and I am losing patience. Do you want your girls to be orphans?”

I laughed. “And I’m supposed to trust you?”

“You have to trust me.”

“The feds are coming,” I said. “I called them. They didn’t believe me at first, but I gave them a few tidbits that sealed the deal. They’ll at least check it out.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. He lifted his hat to shield the sun, pretending to be looking over his property. I glanced at the car clock. Five minutes.

“Well, they’re certainly taking their time,” he said. “My guess is you didn’t call them. Because if you had, then your babies would become collateral damage. Which makes it all the more foolish you coming up here. Did you really think you could stop us? I knew you couldn’t keep away. I knew you’d try and save the girls. Come on, now. Five minutes to go. Get out of the car. Join us. Let’s start a new world.” 

My heart raced, the sweat trickled into my eyes. His gun was drawn, mine stayed holstered. This wasn’t a Mexican standoff. He had me and knew it. Yet, he didn’t want to kill me. He wanted to convert me. That would be victory to him and that was the only reason I wasn’t dead. 

Just then my cell buzzed. I looked at Truck.

“Go ahead,” he said, gesturing across the wide field. “I know who it is.”

“What do you want?” I said.

“You’re not going to save the world,” Flash said. “Fuck the world, girl. You’re going to save your daughters. And there’s only one way to do that.”

“Save them for what?”

“For the utopia your friend there has in mind. Me? I’ll be somewhere in Canada.”

“I’ll find you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ll want to try. But I suspect you’ll have enough to deal with.”

“You killed my father, you asshole.” 

“You killed him. I just hastened the inevitable. You were a junkie. Still are. Once a junkie, always a junkie. Always foolish. I wanted to get rid of you. One less stain upon the world. Spindles fucked up. But your mom’s boyfriend there — he’s got ideals. Take his offer. It’s the best you’re going to get. I can’t promise you any love.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” I whispered. “I am coming after you.”

He laughed and it seemed as if all my guilt and all my hatred had become a reactor melting down into the core of my chest. I felt as if I could reach across the farmland and kill him just by exhaling in that direction.

“It’s almost a done deal, anyway,” Flash said. “Even if, by some miracle, you can stop the launch, I am way the hell over here and I push the button that blows up the car that blows up the barn that blows up your life.”

“You’re bluffing,” I said.

“Here’s the beauty part. You helped me plant the bomb.”

I glanced over at Truck, then back at the SUV.

I waited. My father used to say that Flash loved it when people underestimated him, that he would never show his cards, would never be “flashy.” But that was 25 years ago and people change. Time wears away virtues, along with flaws, and Flash had become way too sure of himself. 

“Remember that toolbox?” he said. “The one I asked you to hold for me? Well, after your friend got the girls, I checked out the trunk and sure enough, it was still there. You helped me plant the bomb.”

Truck all this while had been leaning forward, half listening and half concentrating on his remote control. I could see him growing more agitated and I realized he was in the middle of a countdown. 

“Give up, Cheryl,” Truck said, distractedly. “You’ve lost. Save your girls.”

Something moved in the bushes off to the side, and at first I thought it might be deer stirring. Then a huge black mass shifted into sight. Nature Boy. 

Truck must have left the gate open. 

“You may be right,” I said.

“Of course I am.”

Horses are stupid; that much I learned from visiting Valhalla. They take constant maintenance and are always breaking down, sort of like my Fuck-Us. I am tempted to say that Nature Boy recognized me, but could he have made me out through the car window? Wasn’t Truck in his line of vision? I wanted to believe that Nature Boy decided to try and save me, but Nature Boy doesn’t even know he’s alive. Thirst, or distemper, or indigestion, or seeking Truck’s attention might have had more to do with what happened next then my presence. 

Whatever the reason, that horse picked that moment — with just seconds left until launch — to rear up. The sound bounded about the little clearing like a fire alarm.

When Truck turned, I grabbed my gun and fired. He shot back, and glass flew all over. I felt it cut the back of my head because I had ducked, and was firing out the window — Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! — as if my hand and gun were the head of a rattlesnake. When I opened my eyes, I saw he was on the ground. 

I’d gotten him in the arm, but he was still trying to launch the missile with his free hand. I fell out of the car, kicked the gadget away. He then started crawling over toward his gun.

I like to think I warned him. Shouted: “Stop!” That’s how I explained it later but I really can’t remember. If I had shouted “stop!” he didn’t listen and I shot him in the leg. 

These long seconds. I was crying, cursing. I had pissed myself. Nothing but fear and hatred and pain in a dusty dervish dance. So mixed up in my hurt and adrenaline that I only distantly registered Truck’s long, loud wail. I glanced over at him. He’d gotten a hold of another gun. From where? 

He had me.

Please! My girls!

Maybe he would have missed anyway. A lot was going on. Music blared. Nature Boy reared up again and started galloping back toward the field. Truck suddenly smiled and I started screaming “No! No! No!” because could see how this was going to end. He placed the gun against his head and fired a bullet into his skull. 

My screams had taken over from where Truck’s wailing left off as if we were stepping down through the circles of hell together. 

The girls!

I looked over to the SUV. Picked up my cell.

“You fucking bitch,” Flash spat. “You did this. You did this to your daughters, just like you did to your father. Fucking junkie. Asshole junkie.”

The weird details that registered. I noticed that Nature Boy had stopped galloping. He was about half way between us. 

“Don’t!” I cried. 

“Too late. Take a look at what you did.”

“Don’t do it!”

“You going to run over to me like that horse there? Do you see me?”

He’d gotten out of the car. 

“Here’s the formula.”

I could barely make out a piece of whiteness that he waved. It could have been a flag of surrender. Oh, how I wished it was.

“Flash, listen to me….”

 “I knew you were twisted, but I never realized just how twisted until you said you wanted to age. You want to die. This is the formula, your only way out. After the kids are gone, what will you have to live for?”

“Flash! It’s over! It needs to stop!”

“I’d planned on making a lot of money from this,” he said. “But now, you made everything shit like you always do and I know I’m going to prison. Guess you’re going to prison too. The prison of living 200, 300, even 500 years. I know the thought repulses you, you sick bitch. But look. See? I am burning the formula. You are truly alone now.”

“Flash!”

His voice dropped to a whisper, a strange scratching. 

“Watch how your world ends.” 

I heard Nature Boy galloping: clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

Then, an explosion. 

CHAPTER FIFTH-NINE

The dead stare at me as if I’d just yelled “last call.” They want service, and I mix and pour and hustle behind the bar and can never find anything because nothing’s where it’s supposed to be and there’s some damn clock somewhere going tick-tock and I’m getting more and more pissed off. Such is the anxiety my dreams are made of. Gary Nettles says it’s post-traumatic stress. With exercise, medication, diet and meditation, I will get better. 

“But it might take some time,” he warns.

I smile. 

“Who all do you see in these dreams?” he asks.

Bobby, Antonio, Rose, Dizzy, Miss Lotty, Morton Relay, Spindles, Truck, Flash. The last four surprise me because my regret and sadness over seeing them, and knowing I’m only seeing them in a dream, is almost the same as for the others. I mourn assholes, the men who’d had no compunction about trying to kill my daughters, as much as I mourn victims. Mostly I twist, turn, and lie awake until I feel that I am falling from the top of Truck’s grain silo and I cry out. My bedroom door cracks, a face peeks in. 

“Mom, are you OK?” Crystal whispers. 

“Come here, sweetie.”  

She hesitates. Only little girls cuddle with their mommies in the dark hours, but then she decides it’s OK. When she asks if I am leaving, she’s really asking whether I’m going to get killed or go crazy or start using smack again or run off, but she doesn’t, of course, say any of that. Neither does Debbie, who will once in a while join us. 

“You’ve got me for a very, very long time,” I say, stroking their hair. “For all your lives.”

The illogic of that doesn’t faze them and I wonder if they somehow, on some level, know. If they ask — when they ask — I will wrestle with what to tell them. I am back to trying to speak the truth. Not out of virtue, but fear. And not everything to everyone all the time, of course. That doesn’t work. But lies nearly killed me. Of course, with the secret I am carrying, telling the truth might be a tough act. I wonder whether I should call off my birthday party but that’s not a lie. I am turning 40, even though my body doesn’t agree. 

We live in Fox Chase now. Nothing could be done about the Girard Avenue place. Marty’s son will have to gut it and build something new. That son has actually been nice to me. He’s as perplexed as everybody else by his father’s double life. Marty’s been bundled away to who-knows-where until who-knows-when. 

The good news is I’m not in danger anymore. That’s what they say and I believe them. This time my safety is guaranteed, well as much as anyone can guarantee anybody’s safety. For one thing, the media never got wind of just how close to catastrophe we came on a quiet little farm in Bucks County. The string of shootings and murders in Fishtown was written off, eventually, as just life in the city. 

As one of the guys at Iffy’s put it, “That sort of thing happens all the time in North Philly and nobody blinks.”

“This is Fishtown,” someone pointed out.

“What do you say, Cheryl?”

There are no toy helicopter bombs in North Philly, but I let that drop. I’d been thinking about other things, hoping that some enterprising young reporter wouldn’t get the scoop of the century. The scoop of history. Every time some scribe gets close, every time something gets tracked to me, the feds throw their pixie dust and journalistic curiosity runs off in another direction. Reporters are pretty stupid. 

If one could have seen me that day at Truck’s farm. Him dead at my feet. Flash’s SUV exploding and sending pieces of Flash everywhere. (I heard they’d found his right hand in a tree.) 

“You look like you’ve been through hell,” Babs said, after the cops bashed down the door of the barn and sprung everyone. 

“Well, you’re not exactly ready for the runway!”

We were all hugging, laughing, crying. But the feds interrupted, getting us into a humvee and scooting the hell off the property. They weren’t sure about booby-traps, but it turned out there weren’t any. 

We talked on the ride, with Crystal snuggling against my shoulder and Debbie just rocking with her head in her hands, me massaging her back. Jim spoke to the FBI agents in that flat tone those guys use.

Crystal whispered: “Will this be it for a while?”

“Promise.”

Babs told me how they’d gotten to the bed-and-breakfast, checked in. Then, Truck arrived and said he wanted to show them something on the farm. The girls were excited and, hell, even Babs threw her arms around him.

“When we got there he must have slipped something in their iced tea because they conked out and he told me to make that call to you,” she said. “Couldn’t believe it. He kept promising that nothing was going to happen to us and you know when a guy says that, it’s an even bet that something’s going to happen to you, and hard.”

“Mom,” Debbie said, “why did Mr. MacFarland….”

I hushed her, told her it was OK.

“You’re going to explain everything to us?” Babs asked. 

“We’ll talk, don’t worry,” I promised, and she might have noticed that I dodged the question. No, I wasn’t going to tell her everything. We don’t always need to know everything.

I did tell the feds everything and now they take note. I talked to Boothe Rendell about a dozen more times, and will probably talk to him hundreds of times before all this is through. These interviews usually take place at the Green Federal Building downtown, about two el stops away. 

“Do you mind coming to my office again?” Rendell will ask, and we schedule something. 

I’ve never actually seen his office. Our talks take place in a conference room, with windows looking out at the skyline. The last time I visited rain came down so hard it made rivulets that twisted and snaked across the glass. Rendell went over old territory. He does that a lot.  

“You were a person of interest the moment your former boyfriend Dizzy Tanner was murdered,” he said. “It’s just the story you told about living forever….”

“That’s why I don’t discuss it unless one of you guys ask,” I said. “Just the way you’re looking at me now.”

“Our scientists have nothing to work with but your blood samples. So far….”

“You don’t believe it?”

“Only time will tell.”

He took off his glasses, wiped them as he shook his head disapprovingly at the storm. He felt his forearm under his suit jacket and I knew there was a nicotine patch there and that he wanted so much to smoke.

“Tell me everything,” he said, thunder breaking on cue.

And I did — yet again. For me, these chats are therapy, almost better than what I get from Gary Nettles because here is a man who can take action, a man Antonio would have loved. I’d had enough of secrets. I wanted to go back to the way it was before Bobby Delaney died in my arms, the way it was before I found out about Marty, Spindles, and Flash. But I knew it could never be that way again. 

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem Village….

I wanted everybody to know. “This woman can theoretically live forever.” Or until the next nuclear crisis and the world isn’t as lucky as it had been in 1962 or 2011. 

“I throw myself on your mercy, Mr. Rendell,” I said, asking again if I had somehow broken any laws.

“Well, no,” he said. “You tried to tell us. We thought you were….”

“Crazy?”

“In trauma. You told Lieutenant MacFarland. Turns out he had his own reasons for quiet. You thought the right people knew, Ms. DeMarco.”

“Call me Cheryl, please.”

“You tried to help the authorities, Ms. DeMarco.” 

OK, don’t call me Cheryl.

“I have the dates you met with us, the dates you met with Lieutenant MacFarland,” he continued, shuffling papers in a file. “The authorities dropped the ball. We didn’t believe that what you were saying was plausible. In our defense, it’s a lot to ask. A drug that stops the aging process. Terror groups competing to get it. And it all revolves around an attractive, young bartender in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.”

Did he just say “attractive?” He definitely said “young.”

Rendell went on. “And this Champaign beer? It might be an antidote?”

“I’ll never really know. Lost it all in the explosion. I guess both groups wanted it that way and Flash, obviously, was out to please.”

“Up to a point. After he killed Morton Relay, all parties came to realize that there truly is no honor among terrorists. No one trusted him.”

“Except me.”

“And me. We here at the bureau should have realized something wasn’t quite right with the way your Lieutenant MacFarland handled things,” Rendell said. “Cops are like priests: When they go bad, they go very, very bad indeed. Of course, for the most part, he kept everyone in the dark.”

“Why Miss Lotty?”

“Because she knew the formulas, or at least they might be dragged out of her. He killed her in that manner that he killed your father, hoping that would make you have a nervous breakdown.

“It brought me to the brink. Killing Dizzy pushed me over. What else?”

“You want answers,” he said.

“Whatever you can tell me.”

“I don’t deal in supposition.”

“I’ve been through a hell of a lot,” I reminded.

“So you have.” 

And he told me more than just facts. Sure, he hemmed and circled around some information and qualified a lot other things and explained that it might be better if I don’t place too much stock in what he said. He was only trying to give a victim some context. He stopped sometimes and looked the storm, said it reminded him of the navy. Mostly, though, he divulged. 

“Flash MacFarland was the conduit between radical groups. One Islamicist. The other environmentalist. They operated quite boldly, almost like the gang-bangers in the badlands. Plots — whether drug plots or murder plots or terror plots — have a hell of a lot better chance of success if authorities are in on it. I’ve spoken to enough Russian and Mexican cops.”

As Rendell talked, his monotone just-the-facts voice reminded me of teachers I’d had. He said: “You may ask….” Or “You are probably wondering….” Once in a while he’d throw in “any questions?” 

The rain rushed the windows. We were on the 17th floor and lights from other office buildings sparkled. I thought of all the questions that come to me when I’m on the way home from one of these meetings. Rendell encourages me to call him, but I never do.  

“Did they work together, these two groups?” I asked. 

“Think of them as vendors bidding for the same products. The Muslims, your Dizzy and the people who killed Bobby Delaney, outbid the environmental crackpots for the mutant smallpox. Those environmentalists — Mr. Truck Andrews and Morton Relay and the people who fired at you on Delaware Avenue — they won the bid for the Davy Crockett, which makes sense because Mr. Andrews actually had the means to launch it. Grain-based rocket fuel. He knew about Dog Fence; strongly suspected at any rate.”

“How?”

“Because certain elements of the Russian underworld found out about the adjustment in the courses of some of our satellites. Paranoia did the rest.”

“That’s how they found out about the drug, too?”

“Turns out that Jim Delaney had floated the rumor of the drug that stops aging. Both sides wanted it, for their own reasons. The environmentalists because they thought it represented a power grab by the drug companies. The world would become Orwellian, in their minds, run by evil corporations. And you know about the Islamicists.”

I had told him what Jim Delaney had said.

“They were so sure that this drug existed,” I added.

“They wanted to believe and former Agent Delaney wanted to vindicate himself. When Bobby Delaney revealed what he’d been working on to his brother, Jim Delaney floated the rumor. He wanted to lure the snakes into the open. Be a hero. Be exonerated. Then your Dizzy made his mistake. He’d broken into Bobby’s house, or tried to. Bobby figured most of it out and realized that they were going after Jim. He wanted them to go after him instead.”

“He sacrificed himself.”

“He miscalculated. He didn’t think that they would strike that night at Iffy’s.”

“But at that point Jim and Bobby didn’t look … Jim had had a rough time.”

“Former Agent Jim Delaney had fallen off their radar and they suspected he’d try and disguise himself. What better disguise then to get yourself back in shape?”

“And both groups were talking to Flash,” I said. 

“How did you about the toolbox?” he asked.

“The only thing I knew about the toolbox was that Flash and Truck thought there was a bomb in there.”

“They’d planned on using that to keep you at bay.”

“Those gentlemen would have killed my girls,” I said.

Fuckers.

“They considered it their insurance plan. But they didn’t figure on Dizzy Tanner. When he found out that they threatened Debbie, he simply took the bomb out of the toolbox and reset it in the little safe. He left his graffito as a message for Lieutenant MacFarland; he was thumbing his nose.” 

“His one noble deed,” I said.

Give the devil his due.

“There was a lot at stake,” Rendell said.

“How could Flash get a hold of these terrible weapons?”

Rendell raised his hand, reached over and pressed a button on an intercom in the shape of a lunar landing vehicle. 

“This,” he said, “is some of the statement by Martin Danilczyk. You know him as Marty Daniels.”

No beeps, static, or cues. Just the voice, all at once and all encompassing. Suddenly Marty surrounded me; there were stereo speakers in the wall. The echoed words shadow-boxed each other and the breathing came easier to the old man talking than I remembered it coming in a long time. The prison doctors must be doing good things for Marty. As the words flowed, gusts of rain outside twisted and turned in bunches like images never quite coming into view. 

After I lost my crown in 1953, I tried to make a comeback but it never took. You know what drove me? I lived through the fucking depression, that’s what. Seen what it did to people. What it did to my people. I wanted to join the Communist party in 1941 when that son-of-a-bitch Hitler invaded Russia. My old broken down Dad stopped me then.

In the early ’50s, I wanted to help organize some of the unions down at the docks. But I met a man and to this day I will not say his name; you will never get that out of me who set me on a different path. Who would suspect a dumb ex-jock of high-level espionage? I would have done it for free. Instead, they set me up with a newspaper stand downtown and every two weeks or so I’d get handed certain packages that I then transferred to Mr. X.

 One time a guy a little younger than me dropped one of the packages off and I never exchanged more than passwords with these characters. You never wanted to know more than you should. That was part of the job, too. This was around 1962, and I remembered him. Crew cut, sharp features, the look of someone between jobs. The next year I recognized that I’d had a close encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald. Hey, I know who killed JFK. Communists did. 

You know something else? The newspaper stand also did me well. It paid for my house, it let me raise my two boys, it even paid for my divorce. My hands would almost curl up on those cold days. Bruises from fights I’d long ago forgotten would raise themselves. 

In summer, the sweat rolled off me, I had to cover the newspapers with plastic, so my droppings wouldn’t smear the ink. That little-ass fan I kept in there didn’t help none. I’d take a bucket with me, fill it with ice water from the firehouse, and pour it over my head. 

I worked 12-, 16-hour days. That was routine. My boys would help when they got old enough but mostly it was all me. Sure, I saved money. But I didn’t save enough to buy Iffy’s when Flash lost it. I got a little help from overseas to do that.

Ask me what my religion is and I’ll tell you my religion is the worker, the historical progression that will finally — finally! — assures that from each according to his ability and to each according to his need. Guess that makes me some sort of Christian, but the kind that don’t believe in no God. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed you’d think that would have sort of put me into retirement. Well, you’d think wrong. Because I wasn’t giving up. I not only believed in Karl Marx, but I equally disbelieved in capitalism. I swore to take down America and I’d work with anybody who felt the same. You are an imperialist stain on this world. Don’t tell me. I know. I know how the companies would treat workers if they could get away with it. They still treat them like shit. The big cats plunder Wall Street and then the companies plunder the earth. That’s right. What do you have to say to that?

Anyway, it was around then — the late ’80s early ’90s — that I, you could say, drafted Spindles and became frenemies with Flash. Spindles wanted a free ride and to avoid jail. Flash wanted money, money, money, money. I was the only true believer. 

My Mr. X, or his replacements, gave me access to some pretty disgruntled former Soviet scientists. With Muslim oil we could all help each other.

The recording stopped and Rendell kept thumbing through the file. 

“You know that in 1982 Lieutenant MacFarland lost Iffy’s, his wife, his family,” Rendell said. “Rough times for one of Philly’s finest. He is broken. He is desperate. He tiptoes toward the shady side. He starts out by stealing the pushers’ money. It’s small at first. It’s hardly anything. But it grows over the years. In my experience, Ms. DeMarco, evil is incremental. Eventually, he steals from Dizzy, but then he makes Dizzy Tanner his pusher. You’re surprised? You didn’t know that? Well, there’s no way you could.”

“I just thought Dizzy was talented. And lucky.”

“And connected. But your father starts to suspect that there is something going on. He doesn’t want to believe it of his protégé, of course. He can’t keep on blocking out the clues, though. By this time Lieutenant MacFarland and Marty Daniels are partners, and they are more than just into stealing and dealing. Marty Daniels had helped the man who had helped the plotters of the first World Trade Center bombing. The inspection turns toward Philadelphia but Lieutenant MacFarland runs interference. Your father finds out. There’s some sort of confrontation. Lieutenant MacFarland kills your father and then Dizzy Tanner flees because he suspects that Lieutenant MacFarland will try to kill him because he knows too much.”

“Here I thought it was because I threw him the hell out the window.”

“That helped seal the deal, I’m sure,” Rendell said. “When Porter Beckerman has his quote — accident —unquote, the suicide sham succeeds.” 

Rendell swallows, glances at me, looks back to his notes. “I imagine that was your private agony.”

I shake my head. I can’t go there. 

I say: “So Flash is the conduit. Money is his god. Allah is Dizzy’s god. The Earth is Truck’s god.”

“That perhaps simplifies things, but it’s basically correct.”

“Would you look at this rain.”

Going hard for a good 15 minutes. Lightning, thunder, at one point hail the size of golf balls. The windows never shook, although the lights on the Ben Franklin Bridge seemed to wink.

“Do you need a lift home, Ms. DeMarco? We’re nearly through for now.”

“I’ll just wait it out,” I said. “How much longer can this downpour keep up?”

He set the folder aside, sat back.

“Questions?”

As a matter of fact, yeah.  

“Is there a chance that you can reverse this? Make me age again? Make me normal?”

“So you don’t want to live forever, is that it? Most people would give a lot to be in your shoes.”

“You married, Mr. Rendell?”

“I believe in marriage, Ms. DeMarco. I am on my third.”

“Kids?”

“I believe in procreation, too. I have four children.”

“Think about it,” I said.

And for some reason thinking about it made this tough old coot of a G-man blush. 

“You have a point,” he said.

“Not just burying your kids, but burying your life. Burying your lives. Burying each generation, that is if you’re stupid enough to start families all along. You’d think that after the third or fourth time of burying your spouse and kids, that that would get old.”

“I heard something along those lines from close friends when I was about to marry for the third time.”

“And how is that working out?”

“Oh, wonderful!” he said, his voice cracking just the tiniest bit. Even the toughest guys have weak spots. “I really think I’ve met my soul mate this time.”

Yeah, sure you have.

“We’ll keep asking for blood,” Rendell said. “Our scientists are biting at the bit. But what we’d really like is your silence. Don’t tell anybody until we figure out what we’ve got and what to do. It solves a lot of problems, avoids some others. We think that anyone who’d thought that maybe you had taken this ageless drug is dead. The guys in jail — from the Delaware Avenue shootout or the ones who ran you off the road that night — are low information terrorists. They don’t know that much or, at least, don’t know what they know. They’re isolated, neutralized. We shouldn’t have to worry about protecting you, but we’ll put someone on you for six months just in case.”

I started to protest, but he stopped me. 

“You won’t know we’re there, don’t you see?” he said. “That’s the point. The agent will be invisible unless someone tries to strike.”

“I’m bait?”

“Absolutely not. You will be safe, I assure you.”

“I don’t want somebody staring at me and my girls all the time,” I said.

“She will not be intrusive. She will leave you alone in the comfort of your Fox Chase apartment.”

“Do I need a lawyer?” 

“In my mind you’re a hero, Ms. DeMarco. But if you want, get a lawyer. Go ahead. Him, you can tell about this Miracle Beer. He’ll probably think you’re a bit off, like the rest of us did. Like I say, it’s a lot to swallow.”

“How many people know?” I asked.

“Counting you? Three. Me, my supervisor, and you. Former Agent Delaney thinks it’s all a hoax. Or, at least, he’s not sure.” 

Babs knows.

Rendell paused, looked at me more intently. “We honestly don’t quite know what to do with you, ma’am.”

“Miss.”

CHAPTER SIXTY

Truck’s family (or what’s left of it and who I’ve never met) flew in and handled his memorial service. I stayed away and Crystal and Debbie were heartbroken that a man whom they’d come to regard as a surrogate grandfather had turned out to be a well-meaning monster. 

“Can I at least pray for him?” Crystal asked.

“Yes, sweetie you do that.” 

Truck did try to leave us something.

The phone rang about a week after we moved into Fox Chase. Truck’s lawyer tells me that he’d left a hundred thousand dollars to us. 

“I don’t want it,” I said. 

The lawyer figured that he’d misheard and began explaining what forms I’d need to sign to get the money, and started giving me his contact info. 

“I do not want it,” I repeated.

He kept going. “Of course his nephews and niece are getting considerably more than you are and he left a sizeable chunk to Green Way, an organization that promotes….”

“Yeah, I know what Green Way is and I still don’t want the money.” I glanced around, hoping that Debbie, in her bedroom, wasn’t listening. One hundred thousand dollars could pay for some of her schooling. Maybe a half-year of college. 

“May I meet with you, Ms. DeMarco?”

“I don’t take blood money.”

“We can work something out,” he said.

“No, we can’t.”

He started laughing.

“You’re refusing a gift of a one hundred thousand dollars without even giving it much thought?”

“Hey, I’m from Fishtown,” I explained.

“Maybe we can meet for dinner and discuss?”

“Are you asking me for a date?”

“Strictly business, promise. Although I did see a photograph of you and don’t wonder why you may think someone would try to date you.”

“I’m a bartender,” I told him.

“You must tell me how that came about.”

“A shitload of bills made that come about.”

“You can pay a lot off with a hundred thousand dollars. Come on. Just a drink or two.”

“I’ve got a boyfriend,” I said.

“But you’re not engaged.”

I hung up, and I be lying if I told you that I never regretted that decision. A hundred thousand dollars for a poor girl from Fishtown: That’s not easy to kick away. Every once in a while it bugs me, but not often and not for long. I’ll get that GED, get to college, make my own money. And a lot of it, too. I have plenty of time.

I was exaggerating when I called myself Fishtown. The neighborhood changed for me after the shit that went down that spring. 

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem Village….

Two Saturdays after what we’ll refer to as “the incident” at Truck Andrews’s farm, I rented a U-Haul, borrowed the barbacks from Iffy’s and headed to a sort of new life. I say “sort of” because I was still working at Iffy’s, but the bar had stopped being the cozy center of the world. 

It had rained hard the night before (of course), and the day itself was scrubbed clean, the air filled with rebirth, smells of shoots just shaking off the mud, and newborn animals hiding on the edge of Pennypack Park. 

I checked out my garden. The perennials I’d planted had started to show, and I placed a plastic chair in the corner, so that I could come out there some days and just watch. 

Truck’s estate had put the place up for sale and had already gotten an interested buyer. I bumped into her that day, and she said, “I am so happy you’re still going through with the move. I was worried that when your father-in-law died….”

“No need to worry. I’m happy I’m going through with it too.”

“Isn’t it just a gorgeous day?”

It was and I sat on my chair in my garden and let the late spring sun play on my face. I closed my eyes at one point and I must have dozed off because the rhythm of my breathing took a sharp turn at one point. I startled myself. When I opened my eyes I saw him, black and agile, proud and insolent. The black cat looked at me as if to say, “Well? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Jinx?

I leaned forward in the chair, made the little whistle sound and moved my fingers, trying to lure him. The critter wore a collar and tag. He belonged to somebody. Or, at least, he did once upon a time.

“Is it you, Jinx? Can it possibly be?”

I wasn’t going to find out that day, for he turned and bounded through the fence and into the growth of the neighbor’s brush. I still don’t know if it was him. I am not a cat person, and it didn’t make sense. What would Jinx be doing in Fox Chase? Still, that cat did seem to recognize me. 

I had told Rendell that his boys might want to track Jinx down. 

“You think Bobby Delaney might have experimented on the cat?”

“It’s in his notebooks. Cat named Jinx. I know it sounds wifty….”

“Well, Ms. DeMarco, I’ve got agents telling me this whole thing sounds wifty.”

“You’re the experts,” I said. 

“It is worth pursuing,” he decided. 

“How are you going to catch a cat?”

“We can be creative,” Rendell said. “Besides, the animal is a domestic. He may have found a new home. It is a clue worth pursuing. If we find the cat with 90,000 lives we can perhaps find a way to address your situation.”

My situation. Well, that’s one way of putting it. For a few days I left a saucer of milk and a handful of cat food by the garden fence. I would go to the kitchen window dozens of times those days and especially the time of afternoon when I’d seen the black cat. On the third day I did find cats: one grey and the other brown. I stopped putting out the food; as a new tenant I didn’t need to lure stray critters. The landlord might not appreciate it.

I’ll find you Jinx, eventually. If you’re out there to be found. Neither of us is going anywhere.

Meanwhile, I kept busy. For instance, I visited Jim and Al in the hospital. 

“I let you down,” Al said the first time I saw him. “You were counting on me. Everybody was counting on me.”

He was hooked up to machines and tubes and his face looked sunken, the eyes dwelling like exotic fish at the bottom of a pool, their brightness hidden in depths. That depressing beep you hear in hospitals kept going and every three minutes someone else would come in to check the meters or stick him, or pump something into the tube connected to his arm. 

A few of the cute young nurses (Oh, yeah? I’m going to outlast you, too, doll-baby!) would talk to him in the way some young people talk to old folks; like they’re 2-year-olds. Al and I smiled at each other when this happened. I read his mind: Maybe he could milk it. But then pride reared and he asked a skinny freckled faced one, “Who won the battle of Mugden?” and then started doing some math game with pie and then began teaching her stuff about the drugs she administered. All this in a low voice and when I asked a question or two, his answer was in a low voice as well. As if to say, “See? I am not deaf.” Freckle Face got the hell out of there. 

“Now you’re going to get a chance to heal,” I said. “Finally.”

“Promise?”

The doctors told me he was fine, basically. He’d fainted because of his condition and woke up only after the missile was supposed to have been launched. Rather relieved to see the sun, and no fallout. Happy that the world hadn’t ended while he snoozed. 

“A lot of help I was!” One big tear rolled down that beautiful, craggily face. What was it he’d cried out when this all started? “My boy! My baby boy is dead!” That had seemed like the end of the story for him, the sad bitter end but it was only a sad, bitter beginning. 

“Al! Look where you are? I let you down by not sticking with you. You fainted and I’m glad you didn’t have to lay there forever. You have nosy neighbors and sometimes nosy neighbors can be the best.” 

One happened to be walking by and heard the crash.

“A-fib,” Al said. “Very treatable. Very manageable. I just need to tweak the lifestyle a bit, doc says. No idea I had it.”

Oh, he was pissed, you could tell. I remember he got his first cavity at age 70 and he wanted to tear Fishtown apart, he was so angry. Tweak the lifestyle? Al? He’s the cleanest liver I’ve ever met. Probably has the cleanest liver, as well.

“And you’re going listen to that doctor, right?” I said. “No more drinking and whoring, eh Al?”

“You take the fun out of everything,” he said, but his eyes rose to the surface again, twinkling. 

Then, I’d go downstairs and visit Jim. Wait for the elevator. 

Ding! 

Make room for food carts, wheelchairs, or gurneys. Squish myself into a corner, avoid eye contact. When I get off and turn left at the signs, I try not to ease-drop or look in at the rooms I pass. But I’m not always successful. In one, I see a few people gathered about a frizz of white hair, and the slightest movement under some covers. They mumble a rosary. A soft light is on. The beeping sound is missing. A middle-aged man looks down, blows his nose. 

In another, noisy teens joke with a friend, who is weak but happy to not have to contemplate his mortality. Music is playing. I hear a beer being opened. They open a soda at the same time, think they’re being slick. But I can hear the difference and glance in, scowl, then shake my head.

“Hide it,” someone whispers.

Yeah, you’re smooth.

I’m at the end of the corridor, enter Jim’s room. He’s awake.

“I understand you’re a hero yet again,” Jim said. His leg was raised slightly. They’d broken it when they kidnapped him. He kept on kicking at them, and that’s how they’d dealt with it. He hadn’t cried out. Once a Navy Seal….

“Stop it,” I said.

“Shouldn’t I be the one rescuing you?”

“You’re the second Delaney who’s said that today.”

He shifted, grimaced, put his hands down, massaged his leg where the cast ended. 

“How is Dad? I keep meaning to get myself up there but I can just use the phone.”

“Runs up the bill,” I reminded. 

He shrugged. 

“People are pretty much in the dark about you,” he said.

“What people?”

“Neighborhood people. Iffy’s people. What other people are there?”

“They’re in the dark about me? I’m so out there. My life story? Everybody knows it. Girl meets drugs. Drugs beat girl. Girl defeats drugs. High school dropout. Very young mother. Not the best taste in men.”

“Present company excluded?” 

“Oh, for sure.” Keeping it breezy.

Jim asked me to raise his bed and I did and then something unexpected happened. The sunlight fell in an odd way against the building, entered the room and the beams blinded us, as if we were climbing the same staircase to heaven. We shielded our eyes. He looked up and we locked gazes for a moment, and it was sexual. Hell, it was nearly orgasmic. 

Finally, the Jim spark. 

I looked at his hands laying on his lap like a saint who’d worked the fields all his life. I looked at his matted hair. 

It happened. I kissed him. He kissed back. We kissed. His breath had a nice minty taste. We started a little tongue action. I wanted to breath him in, shove him on a pedestal. I wanted to take him to Fox Chase after a detour to the altar. Then we heard someone walk in, then quickly step back out into the corridor again. We’d been discovered.

Damn that Freckled Face.

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE

And then there is my 40th birthday party. 

It’s one of those nights that make you think about when you were young and looking for adventure and love and intoxicated by life’s possibilities. 

It came about that I threw it for myself. One night I turned to Babs and said, “Nothing happens here at Iffys that I don’t know about.”  

“You are such a pain in the ass, Cheryl DeMarco,” she said. “How the hell did you find out?”

I gave her an “are-you-shitting-me?” look.

“Thank me,” I said. “Throwing a party is a lot of work. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

“Right. Taking charge of your own surprise party. Did I mention you’re a pain in the ass?” 

“It’ll be a great party, minus the surprise.”

“Pain in the ass!”

That becomes her mantra as we’re working a few weeks later on a Saturday, putting up the decorations and helping Marty’s son, Mickey, back in the kitchen cook up the wings and make the hoagies and even cut up those bullshit little veggies into even smaller bullshit little pieces that people who’re watching themselves like to eat. Although if you dip the shit in Heluva Good Dip it sort of defeats the purpose, right? Doesn’t matter. I am not watching myself this night. 

About two hours before start-time, I go to Babs’s, shower up, slip into my little black dress. Crystal and Debbie are getting ready as well. Three women grooming for a big party. A lot of energy in that house. 

We walk down Flora, and up Girard Avenue and there are horns and I can’t tell if they’re for me or my beautiful daughters. We stop traffic.

“You dress too young, Mom,” Debbie says for the 29th time.

I smile. Before long in Iffy’s the music’s blasting and my daughters are greeting people like I’m royalty. I unplug the jukebox at one point and Crystal pulls out her guitar and sings happy birthday and then about 10 of her own songs. 

Crystal quiets the whole rowdy joint with her beauty and smile and that voice that dangles and twirls in the high notes, and dips and weaves. Debbie and her friends are having a good time at a corner table.

I am getting drunk. Sue me. Crystal ends her set, the jukebox starts smoking again. The noise builds, the floor buckles, the walls rock and everybody makes his way over at some point to tell me happy birthday and asks, when am I going to start aging? 

“Isn’t she a friggin’ pain in the ass?” Babs wails from behind the bar. “Forty friggin’ years old and she looks 20. Parties all night. How the hell can she do it?”

Babs’s is keeping this secret just a little too well. 

We’ll have to chat about that.

Jim is sweet, attentive, kind. Jim is Jim. The cast has come off, but he walks with a bit of a limp still. At a certain point I pull him outside.

“Is this bad for you?” I ask.

“I don’t want to drink.”

“If at any point, Jim, you need to leave….”

“I need to stay.”

We kiss, and as we do I slide my hand down to his coat pocket, feel the little square box that I know is there. The ring.

“Hey!” he says.

“Don’t ask tonight, Jim,” I tell him. “And when you do, definitely not in front of people.” 

“I thought you like putting it out there?”

“Not always.” 

Babs bursts through the door, leans outside.

“There the hell you two are. Why the hell don’t you come back in?”

“What the hell!” I say. “We’re canoodling here. Hell.”

“Your daughter the star, hell, she wants to sing like hell again.”

“Hell, does she?”

Jim: “Please, enough with the hells.”

“We’ll be the hell in in a minute,” I say.

“Hell!” Babs says.

“Hell!” I says.

“Jinx!”

My gaze slides over to the alleyway a half-block up the street. I half-expect to see feline eyes taunting me, but there is nothing. I am not discouraged. The answer, I know, is out there.

When the door closes, I look up into a little boy’s face. Jim is hurt.

“You do love me, right?”

“Jim….”

“I mean after all we’ve been through? I want to marry you, Cheryl.” 

“And I’m going to say ‘yes.’” 

That wasn’t convincing. Even I can hear the doubt. This is crazy. I think about all those years ago, on that day after 9/11 when there were no planes in the sky and he and I were standing at Penn Treaty Park with the soccer players and Crystal in her stroller and Jim saying he wants to go fight for his country and me thinking that, well, that’s the end of me and Jim.

“What is it?” he asks. 

I recite: 

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be

The last of life, for which the first was made.

He cups my chin in his big hand, lifts my gaze toward him.

“You’re so beautiful,” he says. “I wonder sometimes if Bobby really had pulled it off.”

“Please, not that again.”

D-Day for me is July 23, 2045. That’s when Crystal turns 40 (Debbie will be 37). But Crystal will probably look older than me. Maybe by then somebody else might come along and make the drug so that we’re all stuck at some age. 

“I will do everything I can to age you, darling,” Jim says, and it’s a lame joke but I laugh anyway and he hugs me again and suddenly — and I don’t know whether it’s the booze or the night air or the idea that a good man has fallen in love with me — but suddenly, I am feeling so much better. We can solve this problem. Isn’t that what couples do? 

I will have the normal life that Antonio had always wanted for me. I will have the success he dreamed I’d have. And I will get old.

Probably not gracefully, but you can’t have everything. 

END

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s