by David Rae
It is less of an advantage than you might think; seeing ghosts. For a detective, it is a help, but it’s not evidence that you can submit to court. Imagine what would happen if I did?
Defense lawyers would have a field day with that. It’s not that big a help anyway. Yes, plenty of victims are killed by people they know. But those are the easy cases. It’s usually fairly obvious who the killer is when it’s a friend or neighbor or family. And even then, most ghosts don’t know who killed them. If you don’t see them kill you then how do you know?
Take that kid at the hit and run. The ambulance was there, people were screaming. The body was left for crime scene investigators to photograph and measure and check for paint. The boy—somehow that’s still how I think of them—was standing at the curb watching. No one else could see him. He was looking at his body lying dead.
I walked over and sat down beside him.
“What’s happened to me?” he asked. They don’t all speak, most of them don’t, but this one did.
“I’m dead aren’t I? That car hit me, and now I’m dead.”
I turned toward the ghost and nodded my head.
“I thought so,” he continued. “At first it was really sore, and now it’s not. Now I’m here, and I’m there too.”
He stopped talking and pointed down at the body.
“What do you remember?” I asked. I hoped he could give me a plate number or even the make and color of the car.
“It’s my fault,” the kid said. “I was goofing around and just ran out. I should have looked. Now the driver will be in trouble, and I’m dead.”
I shook my head. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “The driver was going too fast and should have stopped. You mustn’t blame yourself.”
But he wasn’t listening. Ghosts never do.
“Did you get a license plate or did you see what kind of car it was?”
And even as I say it, I know how stupid it is to ask. If the kid had seen the car, then he wouldn’t have run out. It was too late. He never saw it hit him. He just felt the pain and then felt nothing.
“What happens now?” he asked me.
“They’ll take your body to the morgue,” but I know that was not what he meant; he meant what happens next. Where did he go now. They want me to tell them it’s alright. But I can’t tell them any of that because I just don’t know. Does anyone?
~ ~ ~
Not all ghosts are the same. The kid from the road accident was quiet and could talk. The drug dealer with his throat cut, his ghost was running around screaming and holding his neck as if he were trying to stop ghost blood from pouring out. Of course, by the time we got there, he’d been dead for hours, maybe even days. I’ll need to check with forensics, but the nose tells. I’d say a day max from the smell, but not less than twelve hours. Some gangers had come in, stolen his stash and slit his jugular. He must have died quick. The dive was sprayed with blood, and the gangers had left prints all over the place. It was going to be easy to pick up two spaced out kids with blood all over them and then get their prints.
My partner was talking to me, but I couldn’t concentrate because of the ghost screaming. I want to tell the ghost to calm down, but of course, I couldn’t say anything in front of my partner. I sent him off to get coffee.
“Shut up you,” I tell the screaming ghost. Dead or not, I got no sympathy for dealers. Besides, all the screaming wasn’t doing anyone any good, especially not me.
The ghost looked at me startled. This one had been screaming in my ear for the last half hour, so I know he’s got a voice.
“You know the guys did this?” I asked.
The victim didn’t speak, just sort of shrugged. That kind of shrug that says screw you cop, I ain’t telling you nothing. Even the dead don’t always co-operate.
“Suit yourself,” I said. “We got enough forensic to get them. All we got to do is pull over enough guys till we match prints. I just thought we could save some time.”
“Why should I help you?” He stood glaring at me.
“Dirty cop,” he said. But now he was easy to ignore, the guy was starting to fade away. They do that. It’s like they only got so long. Some of them last for years. In a way, it’s good that they fade; otherwise there’d be so many ghosts in the city my head would explode. Most last longer than this guy. That kid at the crossing for example. He’s still there.
When my partner comes back with the coffee, shit coffee from some cafe down the street, he hands me my cup and tells me we got them. The gangers were too dumb to get off the streets. Some patrol car picked them up. Well, that’s wrapped up nicely. We head out, the victim’s eyes, his ghost eyes, not his real ones, still glaring at me. His real eyes were inside a body bag now.
I don’t see ghosts all the time. And that’s good. I don’t wake up, and there are ghosts hanging above my bed or when I’m on the john, or trying to eat. Most of the time it’s just me and living people. My partner, the guys at the station, they get me. We understand what it is. You see things all the time. I mean bad things, not ghosts. I mean dead kids at crossings and dealers with their throats cut and bodies washed up, and God knows what else. And you get used to it. That’s the worst thing. You see all the shit, and somehow you find it just doesn’t affect you. It’s like you don’t care anymore, and it’s like that because you don’t care. Some of the guys drink to forget what they see. Most of us don’t have to forget what we see. We drink to forget we’re heartless sons of bitches that don’t give a damn.
“Come on, let’s see what they got to say for themselves,” Coburn tells me. I let him drive and drink the shit coffee he brought me.
The pusher’s name was Suarez. I knew that anyhow. We’ve been to his place before for busts. We’ve had dealings with him. He’s slick. He’s jumped off the hook a few times. Neither of us is grieving.
When we get to station, the gangers are in rooms waiting for us. Jammer and Stick they called themselves. Of course, they had no ID. The boys will run their prints and then we’ll get their real names.
“So Jammer, that went down bad,” I say.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I never done nothing.”
Sometimes, they’re so dumb you just want to slap them.
“I’d tell you to give it up, but I don’t care. We’ve got your prints at the scene and the victim’s blood all over you and your little friend. Don’t say anything, please. It’s not like we’re going to cut a deal or anything. I’m just curious that’s all. I want to know which of you will rat the other one out first. My money’s on Jammer—that’s you right?”
“My money’s on Stick,” says Coburn. “He looks smarter.”
“Well you can’t go by that,” I say. “These boys both look dumber than my ass. I mean, ‘Stick.’ What kind of a name’s that? Thick as a stick. Maybe beat with the ugly stick.”
“Where’s my lawyer?”
“Oh, he’s coming,” says Coburn. “He’s just got to change his pants first.”
“Tell you what. We’ll wait outside till he comes. We just jiving you anyway, cos you’re going down.”
We get up to leave, and Jammer starts to talk.
“What’s that you’re saying? You need to speak louder.” Coburn says.
We sit back down. Suarez’ ghost is standing behind Jammer. His eyes are glaring at us again. Jammer can’t see him and neither can Coburn. At least I don’t think he can.
“Dirty Cop.” Is that all he can say? I close my eyes, and when I open them again, he’s gone.
“We didn’t do nothing,” Jammer is telling us. “We were there sure ok. But Suarez was gone when we got there, bleeding out. Man, there was blood everywhere. Of course, we go blood on us. We picked up some stuff and left. That’s all we know.”
“So you’re saying it was all some kind of accident. Maybe Suarez injured himself with a letter opener.”
“Hell no, some dude cut him bad. That’s why we got out there quick.”
“But not so quick you couldn’t take his stash?”
“Don’t try to pin this on us.”
That made both of us laugh. When we went to see Stick, it was the same deal; the exact same story.
“What if they’re telling the truth?” asked Coburn as he drove me home. That made us laugh all over again. Even better.
Coburn dropped me off. I say home, but that’s gone. Michelle threw me out about two years back. Now I live in some shithole apartment. I should have insisted that Michelle sold the house and used half the money to get a decent place, but then she’d have to move and take the kids to some dump like this. I shouldn’t have cared; guys like me don’t care. That’s what Michelle said when she kicked me out. But somehow I did care. I like to think the kids are ok; like I do something for them.
I open the door and lie down on the bed. I can smell it straight away. It’s faint, just on the edge, but it never goes away: apples, pears, vanilla.
~ ~ ~
“Who died today?” I ask Coburn when he picks me up next day.
“We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we.”
We don’t have to wait long. The call comes in, and we head over. Coburn parks, and we head down the alleyway. Body in a dumpster; we know this routine.
Coburn flips the lid, and there’s the body. She’s lying in the trash curled up like she’s asleep. She’s not bruised or bleeding, at least not so that we can see. She’s naked. She has skin that color, not white, not black, not Latino; a sort of blue-gray, the color of faded newsprint. Yesterday’s news. Her hair glossy black and cut short, still in its shape close to the skull.
Coburn looks at her strange.
“Shit, it’s her.”
“You know her?”
“We know her,” he said.
Sure enough, it’s her. We called her Vi, but every time she came in she had a new name. Her official name was Elisabeth. That’s too long a name for a call girl. She sold it around on the corner. She’d stand and bob and weave like the rest of the girls. She wasn’t any different from the rest of the girls. All of them were just the same really. Some were loud and sassy, others quiet and even shy, but all of them were broken really, if you saw them right. Maybe that’s why men come looking for them. Maybe they like broken things.
“You ok?” I asked Coburn. “You better not puke on my crime scene.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t look too much of a crime scene anyway, does it? The girl’s been stripped and washed. Likely forensics will find squat. Whoever did this knew what they were doing. This is a professional job.”
I’m looking down at Vi, and then I’m looking over at her.
“Want to talk about it?” I ask, but both Coburn and Vi’s ghost shake their heads. Just as well, I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
“So how long dead?” Coburn asks me. We should wait for forensics, but you can tell by the smell. There’s the normal smell of trash and then there’s the smell of rotting meat. That’s all you are now, Vi. There’s another smell: the perfume you always wore. It wasn’t the kind of perfume that street girls usually wear; more like a little girl’s perfume. I could smell it.
“Day or two, my guess.”
“Then that’ll be right. I learned the expensive way not to bet against your guesses.”
“Don’t matter. Like you said, this body is cleaner than the president’s underpants.”
“There’s not much to do here anyhow,” said Coburn.
“Sure go get coffee,” I said.
When he left, Vi came and stood next to me. She didn’t look mean or angry. She looked like someone that wore little girl perfume: a scent of apples and pears and just a hint of sugar.
“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me everything. I’ll listen. You know I always did.”
But she just shook her head. Ghosts tell you nothing most of the time. They don’t care about anything. Maybe that’s why I can see them, because I don’t care.
Vi put her hand in mine and looked at me. Coburn came back with two cups of more shit coffee. He went over and looked in the dumpster again. There was Vi.
“Someone laid her down real gentle,” he said. “She’s not just been dumped in there like trash. Look, whoever did this rolled her onto her side and closed her eyes. They arranged the body all peaceful.”
“Flip the lid over,” I said, but he shook his head.
“Doesn’t seem right to close it over. I know what she was, and she had some mouth on her when she got going, but she was okay. She deserved better than this.”
“Yeah, we all got our favorites,” I said, looking Vi straight in the eye.
“No, wasn’t that,” said Coburn. “I don’t do any of them girls. I’m happily married. I don’t want to mess that up by fooling around with some tramp.”
Then he looked all apologetic.
“Don’t, it’s fine,” I told him, and it was. I was long over Michelle. How does he do it? How does he go home from this and just pick up where he left off. He doesn’t drink; he doesn’t mess around. He’s happily married, and he’s good at his job. How come I can’t be like that? But I knew that answer. It’s because Coburn really didn’t care. Vi was nothing to him, just some street girl we’d shakedown for info once in a while. She was even less than that now.
“Come on,” I said, once the crime scene team arrived. “We better go talk to the girls.”
It was a bit early for the girls to be out. They needed their beauty sleep, or they had appointments at clinics, or who knew what they’re doing. We drove around a bit. Vi’s ghost sat in the back seat. I was glad she came with us.
We picked up one girl, then other, but they all had some story: no, haven’t seen Vi in a while. We heard she got herself sorted, cleaned up. Heard she took up with some guy. Heard she moved away. Heard her parents died and left her money. Heard Vi just made it to the end of the rainbow. All the girls’ hopes and dreams come true. Sure it happens sometimes. It must do. There’s got to be some girls get off the street somehow. Otherwise, the streets would be full of them. Gotta be some way off the streets other than dying. Just don’t ask me what it is, I surely don’t know.
So, one big nothing that’s what we got for all our work. We wrote it down. There were no leads to follow. No one knew who Vi’d taken up with or where she moved to, or what her parents’ address was. No one knew where the end of the rainbow was. When we talked, Vi would look the girls over smiling at them. These girls were her friends. But Vi still wouldn’t talk to me. Maybe later she would, when we were alone.
Coburn was talking to some colored girl. I wasn’t even listening much.
“I heard it was a cop she took up with,” the girl said.
“A cop eh?” said Coburn.
“Yeah but not you,” she answered. “You’re not her type. You’d need to work out more.” The girl started laughing.
“Hey. You should work out more, Coburn,” I said.
“Yeah well, you should wash more, both of you.” He replied, and me and the girl laughed and laughed. I could see Vi laughing too. I could see Vi’s ghost laughing like a little kid at Christmas.
“You should work out more too,” Vi said, and only I could hear.
“I will,” I said to Vi and Coburn both at once. “But on the way back, stop by the store for more soap.”
The colored girl started laughing again.
“Get you more soap! Honey, you’re a cop; that smell never washes off.”
And suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. Coburn grabbed the laughing girl by the arm and threw her to the ground. He slapped her across the face.
“What the hell you do that for,” shouted the girl. She sat on the sidewalk crying. “You just going to let him do that?”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I said. Only Vi could hear the shame in my voice.
“Now listen up,” said Coburn. “If you got a name for that cop, then I want it, and if you don’t then you better get it.”
The girl looked at me again.
“I know who it is,” I told Coburn, “It’s Starsky and Hutch. She took up with both of them.”
And suddenly it was okay again. Coburn laughed this time.
“Sure, took up with a cop,” he said.
He helped the girl to her feet, and everything was smiles again.
Coburn’s got a short fuse. You get used to it. I can handle him. No harm done.
When we got back to the station, forensics on Suarez are ready.
Coburn reads it out.
“Single blow, puncture wound to the carotid artery, bled to death. Puncture by a sharp instrument, probably a knife, time of death twelve hours previous. Just like you said Big H.”
“I think we can let this go then,” I said.
“Sure,” agreed Coburn. “DA is happy to proceed.”
“Them dummies still sticking to their story?”
“Nope, their lawyers are trying to cop a plea. They’ve stitched each other up. Both of them got plenty previous.”
I looked around, but Suarez’ ghost was gone. I shrugged. I wasn’t going to miss him.
Coburn dropped me off at the store. He thought it was funny.
“Go get soap,” he said. But that was okay, I need to go to the store anyway.
Vi followed me into the store, and I picked up stuff for the shower and stuff to eat. When I got home, the smell was still there like always. I took out the trash, and when I got back into the apartment, I sat and ate in front of the TV. I could see Vi fine. But she didn’t want to talk, and neither did I. Suited me just fine, pretending things were normal, or as normal as they get with me, and with her, and with ghosts. I took a shower. I wanted to get all the dirt from me. I stood under the water letting it wash over me.
“Are you staying in there forever?” Vi’s ghost asked.
“Just getting clean,” I said. “What is that scent anyway?”
I went and laid down on the bed, face down. Vi came and sat on the edge of the bed. I could feel her there. It felt like there was something really sitting there. It was as if there was a real person there. I could feel it. She sat there all night looking at me, waiting for me to speak. Words didn’t come.
~ ~ ~
Next day they got Vi’s tests back. I sat, and Coburn read them out again. He’s good at reading.
“So, some bruising ‘round the throat, enough to leave a mark, but not the cause of death.”
“Nope, they’re old, maybe a week old. Like I said, not the cause of death. To be honest, she wouldn’t be a hooker without some bruises.”
“Yeah, I guess. What else?”
“Nothing much. Like you said, the body was clean. Washed spotless. No skin under her fingernails, no hair, no blood or saliva. No semen.”
“So no use, then.”
“Well, no there’s something. She had an abortion recently.”
That’s something. That made me sit up. Vi looked at me and winked.
“Yes, not a very neat one either. It seems that someone did it on the cheap. Might even have done it herself. These girls know their way around a curtain hook.”
“Except this one never.”
“Well, maybe. Does it matter, looks like a botched abortion and maybe she bled to death? That’s what killed her.”
“So still a homicide.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Coburn, he’d lost interest. I looked at Vi, but she’d turned away. I could still see her, plain as ever except now she wouldn’t even look at me. Come on Vi, speak to me.
“Who was her pimp?” I asked, but I knew the answer.
Coburn put the report down.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said. “There’s nothing to gain. Suarez killed Vi in some cut-price butcher’s job, then some ganger killed Suarez. Write it up, and it’s over. We got plenty other cases to run.”
Vi still won’t look at me. She still won’t say nothing.
“Something’s not right,” I said.
“So what?” said Coburn.
“I don’t know.”
“Alright,” he said. “I know that look. It means you got a sniff of something and you’re not going to let it go. What do you think?/ She took up with a cop and he got tired and did a bit of cleaning up? Cops don’t do that. When a cop gets tired of one of these, they just let them go. If they even last that long. They always head back to the street, back to their pimps. They’re just resting up for a bit. That’s how it works.”
I’m looking at Vi while Coburn is speaking. Is that how it was Vi? Just resting up huh? But Vi is shaking her head. “No, not like that at all,” she says.
I drive. Coburn is sitting on his fat ass drinking coffee and eating doughnuts.
“You should work out more,” I say. He just shrugs and stuffs more doughnuts in his mouth.
“Whatever,” he says when he finally swallows his mouthful.
We’re going around to see who knew Vi was knocked up. The girls would have known that and who she would have gone to for help. We go by the crossing, and the kid is standing in the middle of the road. I move to brake. Coburn spills coffee down his shirt.
“What the—” he starts. “You think that’s funny, don’t you?”
I drive right through the ghost kid. When the car touches him, he disappears. I look in the rear-view mirror, and I can see Vi staring right back at me. The kid’s gone, I’m sure I did him no harm. Can you hurt a ghost? Still, it kind of shook me up. I pull over and get out.
“You drive,” I say.
“I always have to drive,” Coburn says.
“Quit your whining. I just need you to drive for a bit.”
“Ok,” says Coburn sliding over to the driver’s seat. “But is there something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I tell him. The kid’s gone. I look back at the crossing, and I can’t see him. I don’t know if I’m happy or sad.
We go see the girls again. Nope, none of them knew she was knocked up.
“It’s no big deal,” one of the girls tells us. “Happens all the time, you go get it cleaned out and take a few days off.”
“Who does the cleaning?” Coburn asks.
“Well, that depends. Could be just about anyone.”
“Who did yours last time?” I interrupt.
That throws her; she’s a bit less sure of herself now. She wanted to make out it was no big thing. She wanted to make out it was just like getting a car serviced. She didn’t want to talk about it, not about her.
“Who said I’d had one?”
“Happens all the time, though. You just get lucky?” I reply.
“No, I had one.”
“What’s the big deal cop? It’s legal.”
“Sure, if you got a license. I don’t know if your health insurance covers you. What kind of benefits you get.”
The girl seemed to sag.
“I don’t have health insurance. None of us do. I know you like to call us ‘Sex Industry Workers,’ but it’s not like that. Not by a long chalk.”
I wait for her to go on, and she does.
“Ok, I’ll tell you. My man takes good care of me. I know it’s not ‘cos he loves me or nuthin’, but I earn him good money. It’s worth looking after his investment. Last time he took me to a clinic, a real one, no horse shit. The whole thing cost a couple a thousand dollars. But if I miss a week or two weeks then we’re losing money. Some use those backstreet boys, but after they’ve done the job, some girls never work again. It’s a false economy, my man says. He’s smart. But not all pimps think that way. They got one girl, and they can get another easy. Most go to backstreet, to unlicensed clinics. It’s a few hundred dollars, and you hope for the best. Some guys even think they can do it themselves. But you know all this, what are you asking me for?”
“Vi, she was knocked up, and then someone tidied things up. We just wondered who might have done that.”
The girl, Angie, looked at me. I thought her eyes flickered over to Vi’s ghost. It was like she could see her too.
“She’s dead then, I’m guessing.”
“I can’t say anything about the case.”
“That’s ok honey, you don’t have to. She’s dead. She got knocked up and went to her man. Suarez is one mean son of a bitch. Surprised he didn’t just beat it out of her. Surprised he didn’t just dump her in the river. No way he’s paying for anything for that girl. If she got cleaned out, then she found the money for that from a John or else he did it himself. He’s done a few I’ve heard. I think he had plans to earn a bit from it on the side, but he wasn’t any good. One of the girls he done bled out. No one’s gone take that to a hospital. Suarez, that’s the one. Hope you can make it stick.”
“Hell, my man isn’t no angel, but that man is the devil. You should see how he beat that girl. I hope he rots in hell. Vi was a good girl; she didn’t deserve that shit.”
“Suarez, is dead,” said Coburn.
“Is he now? Well good. But what happened to not telling me about the case.”
“It’s on a need-to-know basis. Besides, it’s not even a live case. We got two gangers banged up for it. Big H thinks it’s just too neat. Suarez kills Vi, some gangers kill Suarez. The gangers get more or less handed to us on a plate.”
Angie looks first at me and then at Coburn. “And what do you think?” she asks.
“I don’t care,” says Coburn. “I think they all had it coming, and the streets are better off with them not on them. But if we can pull down a few more gangers then I’m okay with that. I like to keep my partner happy.”
“Sure you do,” I said. “That’s why you always get me shit coffee.”
“Just the way you like it, boss,” smiled Coburn.
“Well good luck with that,” says Angie.
~ ~ ~
When I get home, the answering machine is flashing. It’s Michelle, and she’s mad.
“You forgot Tommy’s birthday. You said you would take him out. He’s crying his eyes out.”
That’s the edited version. You already know about how I’m a shit and all that. Excuse me for not cancelling those murders from my schedule.
I pick up the phone and call Michelle.
“I’m real sorry,” I say. “Let me pick up some burgers, and I’ll swing ‘round.”
Well, she goes off on one.
“You’re right,” I say. “But this isn’t about me; it’s about Tommy.”
I don’t think she’s going to weaken, but to my surprise, she agrees. Half an hour later I’m sitting in the yard with Tommy and Annie eating burgers.
Tommy is telling me all about school and about his friends and everything. He’s as happy as a puppy, and so am I. But Annie is saying nothing; she’s just looking at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Tommy again.
“It’s alright, I know it’s not your fault.”
I look at Tommy. What does he mean by that? Of course, it’s my fault.
“It’s not your Mum’s fault either. Or yours.”
“I know you love me,” Tommy says.
“I sure do,” I reply and give him a hug.
“And Mum?” he asks. Way to go Tommy, blindsided by an eight-year-old. I don’t know what to say.
“It’s complicated,” I tell him. It sure is complicated. I don’t even understand it myself.
When we’re alone, Annie speaks to me.
“I know about your girlfriend.”
“Dad, I know. When I was over, I saw her things in the bathroom.”
She just looks at me. “They sure weren’t your things Dad.”
“Well, they’re not there now. It was just. . .” I’m not sure what it just was.
“It’s okay Dad. Was she nice?”
“Not as nice as you, sweetheart.”
Soon Michelle comes out and tells the kids it’s time for bed. Tommy and Annie try to get her to let me stay longer. But she’s having none of it. They don’t make too big a deal. Then I head out. Michelle walks me to the car, probably to make sure I leave.
“That was a good tonight,” she says.
“Yeah, thanks for letting me come,” I say. Suddenly I want to stay, with her.
“Don’t spoil it,” she says. “Annie told me about your girlfriend.”
I start to speak, but she goes on.
“You don’t have to answer to me.”
Like I told Tommy, it’s complicated. I look around, and I see the ghost of a marriage. It’s sad and wistful, but it’s dead.
“Thanks again,” I say.
~ ~ ~
When I get back home, Vi is there. I can see her plainer than ever. She watches as I take her stuff—toiletries, tampons, hair clips—and throw them in the bin. There’s a bottle of that cheap perfume she always wore. I can smell it as she stands behind me. I open the bottle but it doesn’t smell of her, it doesn’t smell right. It’s like apples and pears but not like her. I hold it for a while and then throw it away with the rest of the trash.
Vi still doesn’t speak, but I can see her eyes filling with hurt. It seems like you can hurt a ghost after all.
I lie down on the bed and Vi’s ghost lies down beside me. I can feel her warmth.
“We need to talk,” I say.
Vi puts a finger to her lip, “Hush.” And then she leans into me the way she used to.
“Was it mine?” I ask.
“Could have been, who knows. Would you have believed me if I said it was?”
“It didn’t matter. I’d have taken care of you, and the baby.”
But Vi is shaking her head.
“No, I know you’re one of the good guys H. I wish it was yours. I wish I could say to you ‘That’s yours,’ but why would you believe me? Sooner or later you’d start to think and wonder, and then you’d look at me and the baby different.”
“No, I wouldn’t have. I have been cool. You should have trusted me. You should have told me. I deserved to know.”
“I couldn’t tell you. I tried so hard, but I couldn’t. And then I thought I’m going to lose you.”
“So I lost you instead.”
I lay there just thinking about that first time. I came home from work and Vi was waiting at the door.
“What do you want here?” I said, and then I saw how bad she was beat up. She had blood from her nose all down her front.
“He do this?”
“You better come in and clean up.” How’s that for a pickup line.
Vi went through and showered off. She used my shampoo to wash her hair, and I let her wear one of my shirts. I made her something to eat and then I slept on the couch and let her sleep in the bed. She said I didn’t need to, but I did.
She came back a few times. I had needs. It became regular. She said I didn’t need to pay, but I did. I needed to pretend that this was nothing, just business and that I wasn’t getting in deep. But I was lying to myself. I always was a sucker.
Once, afterwards, I turned to her and said, “What’s the big deal with sex anyway. I mean, there’re six billion people in this world. Somewhere, someone is doing it every second, about a hundred thousand someones doing it.”
“It’s just like breathing, H,” she said. “It’s only a big deal when it stops.”
“Nah, people don’t kill each other for breathing someone else’s air,” I said.
She laughed, “You’re taking the metaphor too far.”
I do that a lot. I get words jumbled up and in the wrong order and use them the wrong way. It’s like I’ve got something inside I need to say, and when I reach for the words to say it, they’re not there because there are no words for what I feel, not really. I can try and change what I say, but it’s never any better. It’s never any closer to the truth. It’s never any closer to what’s really inside.
Vi smiled at me. “It’s like that for everyone, Big H. It’s like that for us all. It’s like that for me. And if I could find words for what’s inside no one would believe me.”
“What is inside?” I asked her.
“Who knows,” she said and went through for a shower. This time she used her own stuff. The stuff I threw in the trash later.
Why are you still here Vi? Those are the words I can’t say.
~ ~ ~
When I get to the station the next day, Coburn is all jumpy.
“Can we just leave this, Big H. There’s nothing here. Why are you doing this?”
And he’s right. I need to start letting go.
“There’s just one thing I don’t get. If she’d finished with Suarez, why’d she go back?”
Coburn says, “Come on H, they always go back. It’s like they’re stupid. How do you think they end up on the game in the first place? She went back to get cleaned out. She got knocked up, and her new John kicked her out. We got other things to do H.”
Coburn is right. I nod my head. We get in the car and go.
“I know who Vi’s new John was,” said Coburn.
“You do huh?”
“You have been real shook up lately Big H. Ever since the accident you’ve been on edge.”
“Then you know why I can’t let this go then,” I said.
“Sure I do, and it’s the same reason you got to let it go,” said Coburn.
“So who else knows?”
“Just me H, just me. I guess I wouldn’t be much of a detective if I didn’t figure it out.”
“It’s not like you think, Coburn.”
“How do you know what I think?”
“You think I killed them both, don’t you.”
“I know you better than that H. If she was pregnant you’d have taken care of her. I know you. You’re a sucker for these things. You wouldn’t hurt her. Not ever.”
“But you think I killed him.”
Coburn sits in the passenger seat, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts as if we were talking about a ball game.
“Not so sure. It’s a clean hit. It’s like you to do it right. The same as tidying up the girl, that’s like you too. I don’t care if you did H. Suarez had it coming. I wish it was me that did it. Especially after what he did to Vi. I liked her too. I know you think I’m harder than you. You think I don’t care because mostly I don’t, but she was different. I don’t mean like that, I just mean she got under your skin is all. She made you care.”
“Yeah, she did that all right. I didn’t kill him. I think those gangers really did it. They must have got lucky, I’d take Suarez against two punk kids any day, but it wasn’t me.”
“So how did it go down H?” Coburn asked.
“About a week ago she left. I never even knew about the kid. She never told me nothing. Guess that she was too scared to say anything. Instead, she told me it was over. I got mad, what’s this all about. I tried to make her stay, but she wouldn’t.”
“That the last time, you saw her?”
“See,” Coburn said. “It’s good to talk about these things.”
No, it’s not.
~ ~ ~
Vi is still there that night.
“Why are you still here?” I find the words, or maybe she just knew what was inside.
“Because you won’t let me go,” she said.
“What happened Vi, I need to know,” I said.
“I went back to him. I know it’s no good for us. I know I’m no good for you. I told him about you. He was mad. I’d cost him money, and now I was going to cost him more. He wanted to know how he could be sure I wouldn’t run away again.”
“You didn’t need to do that; you could have stayed. Even if you wanted to go, I’d have given you money. You didn’t need to go back to him.”
“I know that. I guess I was just stupid like Coburn said. But we wouldn’t work even without the baby. When your kids come ‘round or your wife phones up, I can see I’m a problem you can’t solve. There’s only one way to solve it.”
“Not this way,” I said.
“Can’t change it now,” said Vi. “You got to let me go, H. You know why I’m here. You got to let me go the way you let Suarez go. I forgive you.”
“I forgive you too,” I said.
She’s lying next to me. I can feel her warmth and smell her cheap perfume. But she’s fading away. Suddenly I can’t smell her anymore. She’s gone. There are so many things inside me I can’t find the right words for. I tried to say them to her, but nothing came out, absolutely nothing. I think there are no words for the things inside, or maybe I’m just taking a metaphor too far. How come Vi was so smart? I asked her that once.
“How come you’re so smart, and you’re a hooker?” I asked.
“It’s because I’m a hooker that I’m so smart,” she said.
So smart and so dumb, that’s Vi.
~ ~ ~
The kid is still there at the crossing when I drive past. It’s early. The crossing is busy, and I park around the corner. No one else can see him ducking in out of traffic. It’s a bit spooky seeing those cars hit him, and then he’s back on the sidewalk. I sit down on the curb. No one cares, they just see some rough dude sitting. The kid comes and sits beside me. I try to find words, but I only find one. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” says the kid, “It’s not your fault.”
“Then who the hell’s fault is it?” I grumble.
“I should have looked before I stepped out. It was the other car that hit me anyway.”
“It’s my fault, I tell you, it’s my fault. I should have just let the car go. It was probably just some flyboys anyway.”
“It’s okay,” he says again. “I forgive you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”
“I’m ready to go now,” and just like that, he’s gone. I’m alone on the sidewalk, just some old guy talking to himself.
What happens next kid, can you tell me, what happens next? Does anyone know?
First published in CRAZY TOWN ANTHOLGY