For former Air Force veteran and ex-mall security guard William Rayford, making the cut as Rocksburg's first African American cop fulfilled one of his life's ambitions, even though it sometimes still gives him a case of the Steel City Blues. Rayford well-knows this town's dark history of prejudice, but dealing with it is something else. Now, with his fellow officers, Rayford is ready for whatever Rocksburg throws his way, even if it means patrolling the river flats, where things can get deadly pretty quickly.
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Saving Room for Dessert
By Constantine, K. C.
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2002 Constantine, K. C.
All right reserved.
AFTERWARDS, RAYFORD couldn’t remember exactly when he’d gotten the feeling, and he wanted to remember because he knew this wasn’t just some good feeling. This one was serious. This one was going to make a difference. He knew it came during the run, the mile and a half he had to do in under twelve minutes, which he did in 9:04 and could have done faster if somebody had been pushing him. If somebody had really been pushing him he could’ve done it in eight, but when he passed the mile mark he also passed the last of the strung-out apps, and that was when he figured it was safe to take a look back. That’s when he saw that the closest app was more than two hundred yards behind and losing ground and he knew he wouldn’t have to do it in anywhere near eight.
And the feeling he got, so clear he could almost see it as well as feel it, was of total indifference. He didn’t care where he finished among this bunch of apps; he was just going to run, and to hell with everything. In the last five years he’d done so many sit-ups, so many chin-ups, run so many mile-and-a-half runs in under twelve minutes, taken so many written tests, so many oral tests by committee, he just felt fuckit. He didn’t say it. The words never formed in his mouth. But it was like they were printed in big black letters on glass or clear plastic, out there about twenty or twenty-five yards in front of him for the rest of the time he was running. Fuckit, William. Just run, man, and fuckit.
And after he saw the words and felt them as clearly as anything he’d ever seen or felt, the other words did form in his mouth, and he said them aloud and didn’t care who heard him.
“They don’t want me, they don’t want me, I don’t care, but long as I’m here I’m goin’ run their asses into the ground. They might not hire me, but they’re never goin’ forget this nigger turned their vanilla asses into tap-ee-oh-ka.”
And with those words in his mouth he glided the last hundred yards or so, vowing not to breathe so the sergeants with the stop-watches and clipboards could hear him when he crossed the finish line. And he hadn’t. Hadn’t doubled over either, the way every other app did when they came in—long after he’d come in. He remembered walking around, putting on his sweats, and starting his stretches before the next app even made it across the finish line, about two minutes after he’d crossed. He noticed the looks he was getting from the two sergeants, but he didn’t acknowledge them. He just noticed them and thought, that’s right, go on and look. Look at the nigger done whipped all these vanilla apps’ asses. By a whole long time. Just like I whipped their asses in sit-ups. And chin-ups. And if you’da had a push-up test I’da whipped ’em in that too. Y’alls goin’ remember William Rayford. You might not hire me, but fuckit, I don’t care, I’m the best y’alls seen today. Or any other day. Make you out a deposit slip on that.
And he’d had the same attitude the following morning when, just as the Rocksburg Safety Committee chairman was telling him he was excused and thanks for coming in, that funky dago councilman with the birdy voice chirped up,“Just a minute, Mr. Chairman, I got a question.”
Rayford had started to thank everybody for their time and the courtesy they’d extended him and had already taken a step toward the door, but he stopped where he was and waited for the question.
The councilman, who’d been quiet until then, said,“Suppose you got called to a robbery at, uh, say like a convenience store, a Sheetz or a 7-Eleven or somethin’. And while you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you know, asking questions and getting everything ready for the detectives, suppose you see another cop, you know, one who answered the call just like you, maybe even your partner in the car, suppose you see him put a pack a cigarettes in his pocket, coupla candy bars maybe. What would you do?”
Rayford saw that clear plastic with the black letters on it again, and the feeling swept over him like the gentle drizzle he’d felt as he walked from the parking lot into council chambers before this oral exam. Fuckit, the sign said. Hire me, don’t hire me, either way it’s not goin’ touch me.
He didn’t sit back down. He talked while he draped his raincoat over his left arm. He said,“If there was no doubt in my mind he took the stuff?”
“No doubt,” the councilman said.
“Then I’d go ask the clerk how much for a pack of cigarettes or the candy or whatever. And I’d pay him what he said, tell him the money was for what my fellow officer took, and then, after the detectives got there, I’d take my fellow officer aside and very politely I’d tell him, next time you take somethin’ don’t belong to you, and I see you? I’m goin’ write you up. That’s what I’d do, sir.”
The funky dago councilman threw back his head and laughed, but quietly. He didn’t make a sound. But he sat there laughing with his head back for maybe two seconds, and Rayford thought, there, see? Least he’s goin’ remember me.
“Is that it?”
“That’s it, Mr. Rayford,” the chairman said.“Unless Councilman Figulli has another question. No? We’ll be in touch, one way or another. Thanks again for coming in.”
“Thanks for giving me the opportunity,” Rayford said, and went out to his Toyota in the soft rain and felt good. He didn’t have the words to say how good it felt to not care how things were going to turn out. Now all he’d need to feel better was for the Toyota to start. Nothing wrong with the Toyota. Best car he’d ever owned. But the battery was dying, and he was broke and maxed out on both his Visa and his MasterCard, and payday wasn’t till Friday. He put the key in, closed his eyes and was saying a little start-the-Toyota prayer when he heard somebody rapping on the window.
“Rayford?” It was an older man, with grayish whitish hair sticking out around his ears from under a white Kangol cap.
Rayford easily recognized the face but the name wasn’t there. And he knew he should know the name.
Rayford wound down the window a couple of inches and tried to fake it. “Hey, man, hya doin’?”
“What, you don’t remember me? Huh? I can see you don’t. Balzic. How’d you do in there?”
“Oh oh, yeah yeah, hey, I knew it was you, I just couldn’t remember whether we were first name or what, you know? Hya doin’, Chief?” Rayford wound the window all the way down and held out his hand. “Good to see you, yeah. Hey, thanks, you know? Really appreciate you talkin’ me up, man, really.”
Balzic shook hands and said, “You’re welcome. But I didn’t do that much, believe me. So how do you think you did, huh? Pretty good? Nowicki told me you killed ’em on the physical stuff yesterday. Said he never saw numbers like yours before. Like what, you come in a minute and fifty-five seconds ahead of everybody in the run? Is that right?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Yeah, well, you know, personally, I think it’s a lotta bullshit myself. I mean I understand you gotta be in shape and all that, but puttin’ all that emphasis on the physical stuff? See, I think they all do that ’cause they’re scared to death to interpret the psychological test. That’s where I’d be lookin’. I mean, nothin’ personal here, I’m glad for you you’re in good shape, you know, stay that way. For your own health I mean. But what I’d wanna know is, so you can run the thief down, what’re you gonna do after you tackle him, huh? See what I’m sayin’?”
“Absolutely,” Rayford said. “And I agree. But I still wanted to do my best, you know, just for me. And I did. Those were my best numbers ever. And I think I did okay in there just now. Never know, but, uh, I didn’t stutter, I didn’t hesitate, I looked ’em in the eye. I knew what I was talkin’ about or else I told ’em I didn’t know. Course, hey, you know, up to them, right? Hey, whyn’t you get in, man, you’re goin’ get soaked out there.”
“Nah, this jacket’s, uh, my daughters bought it for me. It’s Gore-Tex, you know? Guaranteed waterproof. Nah, I’m alright. So, uh, you think you did alright, huh?”
“Yeah, I think. Hey, lemme buy you a coffee or somethin’, huh?”
“Huh? Yeah, okay, I could go for that.” Balzic walked around the car and got in as Rayford, eyes closed, turned the key. The only response from the Toyota was a dead click.
Balzic had opened the door and dropped onto the seat in time to hear the click, “Oh-oh. Deadsville, huh? Hey, no problem, my car’s right over there, c’mon, we’ll go in mine.”
Rayford winced. “Yeah, but I gotta get home sometime, gotta be on the job at four.”
“You still workin’ at the mall here?”
“Not anymore, uh-uh. One in the South Hills. Century Three?”
“Woo, that’s a long way from here. Belong to Triple-A?”
“No, uh-uh, that’s sort of a continuin’ problem I got. My mother-in-law, got-damn woman, all she got to do is eat, do her business, sleep, go to the store once in a while get some milk or coffee, go to the mailbox end of the block, drop some envelopes in. Keep tellin’ my wife don’t let your momma mail no bills, ’cause she get short, she tries to cash them checks.”
“What, the ones you’re payin’ bills with?”
“Yeah. Exactly. Go ’head, laugh. I know you want to. If everybody’s brain is a thousand molecules, that woman got seventy-nine. Three months ago—yeah, you’re laughin’, go ’head—but no shit, man, she tried to cash a check I wrote to Ma Bell. Woman walk in the got-damn Giant Eagle, told those people the check’s made out wrong, somebody made it out to Ma Bell ’stead of Mrs. Bell. Tried to tell ’em that’s who she was, Mrs. Bell, and here the check made out to AT&T. She heard me say it was made out to the phone company, and she still thinks Bell owns all them companies. Go ’head, laugh, it’s okay.”
Balzic was laughing, shaking his head.
“Had to go down the station house, man, bail her ass out. That’s what ain’t funny. Told my wife, said, this ain’t this woman’s fault, this is your fault, she don’t know no better, you the one lettin’ her mail them checks. You got to mail them bills your damn self, you can’t be lettin’ her do that. Woman got a history of stupid shit long as her legs, you know, and she used to be six feet tall before she got osteoporosis. I mean the woman got some long legs.”
“Cut it out,” Balzic said, “I got a crick in my neck, it hurts when I laugh. So, uh, what, she try to cash your Triple-A dues?”
“Yeah, man, tried to cash that too. Told ’em her name was Ahmed Aman Amal or some Muslim shit like that, told ’em some dummy made it out to three As—you think I’m makin’ this up, it’s the truth. Yeah, and if you talk to the woman, she sounds intelligent. And she will try to make you think she’s smarter than she is. But see, she can’t read, and she fronts all the time. Sit with a newspaper in her lap watchin’ the TV news, try to make you think she just read somethin’ when what she did was hear it on the TV. It’s pathetic. If she wasn’t my wife’s momma I could maybe work up some kinda feelin’ for her, you know? But the woman has seriously fucked up my life. I probably told you, I musta, ’cause I tell everybody, so I musta told you, but she’s the reason I had to get out the air force. I was an E5, man, with four years in, all set to re-up for six, makin’ damn near eleven hundred a month, all those benefits, goin’ get maybe a three-grand re-up bonus, and what does my wife say? No, William, uh-uh, we goin’ give all this up, yeah, ’cause we got to go back to Pittsburgh, man, take care of Momma.”
“Yeah, you told me.”
“Been a money cripple ever since, man. Workin’ three jobs to get sixty hours, you believe that? And sixty hours, that’s a good week. And no health insurance, no commissary prices, no PX prices, no vacation—I used to get thirty days paid leave a year, man! From day one! But since I got out? Six years, man, every vacation day I’ve had is unpaid sick time. ’Cause of this woman thinks she’s Mrs. Bell. Or Mrs. Triple-A.”
“C’mon, let’s go, you’re hurtin’ my neck,” Balzic said.
“What am I goin’ do with my car?”
“C’mon, we’ll figure somethin’ out.”
Balzic drove to Muscotti’s, where he ordered and paid for coffee and pointed Rayford to a table against the wall so they wouldn’t have to put up with Vinnie ragging everybody at the bar. Loudly.
“Man, whyn’t you let me pay, I wanted to buy.”
“Well then you’d have to deal with the bartender, and I was already in here once today and he’s pissed ’cause his gums are shrinkin’, he gotta get a new set of choppers, and he doesn’t have dental insurance, and he doesn’t wanna spend the money, so he’s takin’ it out on everybody. He’s alright, I just didn’t know if you were ready for him or not. You can’t pay him too much attention, that’s all, or he’ll drive you nuts. So, uh, listen, you know if you get this job, they’re gonna tell you you gotta move here within six months, you do know that, don’t ya?”
“Well nobody told me that exactly, but I figured. Pretty S-O-P, right?”
“I don’t know how it is everywhere else, I just know about here. So, uh, how’s your family gonna deal with that?”
“Don’t have the job yet, Chief.”
“No no, no Chief. Mario, okay? And if you don’t get the job, I’ll be the most surprised guy in America. Nowicki’s been takin’ heat from the NAACP about no black cops ever since he became chief. So when he was talkin’ about your numbers, your written score—”
“Wait wait, he told you my written score?”
“No, not the number, I didn’t ask him that. Asked him where you finished, that’s all I wanted to know. Told me you came in first—”
“First on the written? No shit?”
“First, yeah, that’s what he said.”
Rayford started to whoop but saw the sign go up in front of him again. Fuckit. Don’t care, man. Do not care. Allow yourself to smile maybe, but do not allow yourself to care.
“Anyway, what I started to say before was, uh, as much heat as Nowicki’s been takin’—and not just him, the whole council too, they all been catchin’ hell about no black cops. So hey, now? You know, anybody starts bitchin’, Nowicki’s got your numbers to show ’em. Makes it easy on him.”
“So what you’re sayin’, if I’m hearin’ you right, you’re sayin’ even though I’m first in all these tests, except the orals which we’re not goin’ know about for a while, right?”
“Yeah, coupla days probably. And the psychological too, don’t forget. Course they won’t say anything about that.”
“Yeah, okay. So despite all that, I’m goin’ get the job because I’m black?”
“No, you’re gonna get the job because you were the best app they had. But when somebody starts bitchin’—and somebody will—’cause that’s just the way people are—oh what’s this look you’re givin’ me?”
“What look, I’m not givin’ you any kinda look.”
“The hell you’re not. You’re lookin’ like you’re pissed ’cause they’re gonna give it to you for the wrong reason.”
“No, man, no, uh-uh. I’m just sayin’, you know, I work my ass off to stay in shape, and to keep up with what’s happenin’. I go to the library two, three times a week, I do my homework. And to get the job ’cause I’m black?”
“You’re gonna get the job ’cause you came in first in all the tests—the ones they can measure, okay? Like I said, nobody’s gonna talk about the psych test. All I’m tellin’ you is, from Nowicki’s point of view, that you happen to be black with the best scores means down the road there ain’t gonna be any suits landin’ on his desk from pissed-off white guys who came in ahead of you on the tests, okay? ’Cause no white guys did. So that just makes his job easy. And believe me, there’s nothin’ a boss likes better than an employee who makes that happen. So stop givin’ me that look.”
“I’m not givin’ you any look, I’m just …”
“Just what? C’mon, what? This I gotta hear.”
“Okay,” Rayford said, rubbing his palms together, bopping his head. “What I’m tryin’ to do is teach myself not to care how things come out. I been workin’ on it for a while now. Like years and years. But it’s not easy, okay? It is definitely not easy. Thing is, I been through so many of these things, you know, and it’s such a got-damn comedown when it doesn’t happen? I’m really workin’ on tryin’ to keep myself separate from the result. Am I makin’ any sense?”
“Yeah, you’re makin’ lotsa sense. But, you know, I’m havin’ a little trouble understandin’ why you’re havin’ so much trouble hookin’ up with any department. I don’t get around anywhere near as much as I used to, but still, I hear all the time about departments all over the place lookin’ for good apps.”
“Yeah, right, me too. But my wife still got her momma. And every time I go through the drill, I mean, most of the time I know goin’ in I can’t take the job ’cause that got-damn woman won’t move and my wife, no matter what I say, she ain’t about to leave her.”
“Well that’s what I was askin’ you earlier about movin’ here.”
“I know. And I don’t know how I’m goin’ work it, but I’m goin’ work it somehow. ’Cause I told my wife, if they offer me this one, I’m takin’ it, I’m sick a this bullshit scufflin’ around from one lame-ass job to another. I’ve had to turn down six jobs, man, ’cause my wife wouldn’t move. So you’re right, man, no question, the jobs are out there. Went through the whole got-damn drill six times—well a lot more than that—I’m just talkin’ ’bout the times I actually got an offer and then I had to say no and tell ’em why. And that shit gets around, don’t think it don’t. Before this one here, the last three departments? Soon as I told him my name they said they weren’t takin’ any more apps. So I said, nooo, uh-uh, no more, man, they offer, I’m takin’, this is it!”
“You must really love your wife.”
“Huh? Hey, I ain’t pussy-whipped, man—”
“Didn’t say anything about pussy. I said love.”
“Yeah, okay, so you did. Well. I do. Sometimes I love her so much it … it pisses me off. I didn’t know love was supposed to be such a got-damn problem. I mean, that’s why I’m workin’ so hard at not givin’ a got-damn. ’Cause all the times I did good and I had to say no ’cause my wife wouldn’t move? That shit will break you down, man.
“But it’s not just her. I mean everybody in this got-damn country, they’re always talkin’ this bullshit ’bout how you have to work hard, and if you do work hard, then you’re goin’ get the result, the job, the goal, the prize, the raise, whatever.
“See, this martial arts teacher 1 had in Alabama, he’s the one started me thinkin’ about it, about how you have to separate yourself from the result of what you do. He used to drum it into me, every class I took from him. And for the longest time I didn’t know what the hell he was talkin’ about, thought he was crazy, tell you the truth. I mean I tried, ’cause I liked the dude, I really respected him, you know? He had his shit together. And he was old too. Sixty somethin’—”
“Woo that’s old,” Balzic said, laughing.
“Yeah, I know, I know, but I was eighteen when I met him. And sixty was ancient to me then, you know? And I figured ’cause he was so old and so together, the man must know somethin’. So I tried, I mean I could get it in my mind, you know? I could intellectualize it—that’s what he said was the first trap. And that’s what I did for years and years, all I did was think about it, but I never really got past that, you know? Thinkin’ about it? I could never really keep what I was doin’ separate from what I was hopin’ I was gonna get as a result, you know? Not until yesterday.
“Then yesterday, man, for the first time, I actually got the feeling, I mean I could see this sign, I know this is goin’ sound like some serious bullshit, but I could actually see the words out there in front of me, like they were printed on glass or a piece of plastic or somethin’ clear like that. Big black letters. Fuckit. Just fuckit. Just run. Don’t care where you come in, it don’t matter where you come in. And after all these years of thinkin’ about it and thinkin’ about it, it finally happened—I mean it happened over my whole body, it wasn’t just happenin’ inside my mind, you know?”
“So this was good, right?”
“Yeah, man, it was like this huge weight fell offa me. And then today, when I was in front of that committee, I had it again. I was givin’ it my best shot and not carin’ how it was goin’ come out.”
“But then I tell you how you’re probably gonna get the result you want but maybe not for the right reason—”
“Yeah, man, right, exactly, you tell me that, and 1 lost it. That fast, man, I was back all twisted up again. That just funked me out. Shit. Now I got to start all over.”
“Yeah, well, you know what the Buddhists say.”
“The Buddhists? Don’t take this wrong, man, but anybody ever look like a dago Catholic, man, it’s you,” Rayford said, laughing despite trying not to.
“I know, I know, but yeah, the Buddhists. My one daughter, she got me started with them after my heart started playin’ games with my mind. They say life is a series of moments, the Buddhists, so you have to approach each one like it’s brand-new. And believe me, nobody knows more than me how hard that is. So I got some idea what you’re talkin’ about. All I’m sayin’ is, don’t let yourself get all tied up over that. If the result happens, you know, then that’s your karma. If you lived each moment as fully as you could, you were makin’ karma—least that’s my take on it. But don’t quote me, okay, ’cause I’m king of the backsliders. I’m always draggin’ this, uh, this wagon around with all my bad memories and prejudices and so on. So approachin’ anything like it’s brand-new, for me that’s no sure thing, believe me. Hey, c’mon, let’s go see what we can do about your battery.”
“Told you, man, I’m broke. And maxed out on all my plastic.”
“I’m not. C’mon.”
On the way to Tony Finelli’s Garage, Balzic said,“I’m gonna say somethin’, and I want you to think about it. I know you got the makin’s of a good cop or else I wouldn’t’ve done any talkin’ for you, alright? But even if you get this thing with your mother-in-law straightened out, and you’re able to move here? It’s not gonna be any picnic for you here, you know that, right?”
“Yeah I know that.”
“Well from my own experience I’m gonna tell you somethin’. The worst is domestics. Inside the residence? They’re fire, man. You say the wrong thing, you may as well be spittin’ gasoline. But the next worst—and it’s really gonna be tough for you if you don’t think ’em out before you get outta the car. That’s the ones between the neighbors. T-D-K-P-S. Trees, dogs, kids, parkin’ spaces, man, I’m tellin’ you, they’re dynamite lookin’ for a fuse. And when you show up? You? All these hunkies and dags, especially the old ones, what they’re gonna see first, before they see the uniform, what they’re gonna see is your skin. And if you don’t come on super cool, calm, and collected, they’re gonna turn on you, no matter what the beef was that prompted the call.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think you know why.”
“I think I know why.”
“No, excuse me, but I don’t think you do, you’re too young. This goes back to when the unions were startin’ to organize, way before my time, but not before my father’s time. The steelworkers and the miners, when they were tryin’ to organize in the early part of this century, whether they walked out or got locked out, it didn’t matter which. ’Cause if it went on for too long, the owners, they’d bring in the scabs. And guess what color most of them were. They also brought in the immigrants too, the new hunkies and the new wops. But the immigrants, eventually they could blend in. Not so with the blacks. And that shit? That old resentment over them bein’ scabs? That’s still here, man. Even though those unions are dead. ’Cause the owners, that animosity between the old union guys and the scabs? The owners worked that, man, they worked that to their benefit for years and years. Decades. And it’s still here, don’t think it isn’t. I swear I think sometimes it got passed down through the genes.”
“I do know that,” Rayford said. “I have read my history.”
“Yeah? Well good. But knowin’ it is one thing. Havin’ to deal with the results, that’s somethin’ else again. What I’m tellin’ you is, you gotta be real careful how you get outta the car. Be real careful how fast you walk up on people. And especially be real careful to keep your distance, three steps at least, and if you gotta get physical with somebody, unless it looks like somebody’s gonna get hurt bad or killed, don’t even think about doin’ it without backup. And even with backup, you be absolutely sure you don’t let anybody get behind you. These things over trees, dog shit, parkin’ spaces, I’m tellin’ ya, people come outta the houses with everything you can think of in their hands, every tool they got in their cellar, everything they got in their kitchen. So you make sure their hands’re empty when they’re comin’ to see what the noise is about.
“And don’t forget the spectators. Worst beatin’ I ever took on the job was from a woman I coulda picked up with one hand. And all because I didn’t think she packed the will or the gear. Big mistake. She hit me with a metal servin’ spoon, caught me in the throat with the first one, second one right under the nose, third one I managed to get my arm up, that’s when I saw the knife in her other hand. Look here.” Balzic pulled his sleeve up and nodded to the scar on his left forearm.
“Twenty-three stitches to close that up, and what fooled me was she never said a word. Had her hands behind her, just walked up and started swingin’. Turned out the guy I was cuffin’ was her son. God only knows why she swung the spoon first, ’cause if she’da swung the knife first? She’da laid my throat open, I never saw it comin’. That was the first time I ever pulled my piece on anybody. ’Cause I did everything wrong. Didn’t call for backup, never challenged her, never looked at her hands, and soon as she caught me with the spoon, he started kickin’ at me, her son, so I had to resort to usin’ my piece. I’m backin’ up, blood flyin’ everywhere, I’m tryin’ to get my piece out, they’re both comin’ at me, I finally clear my piece, I’m screamin’ get on the ground or I’ll kill you both. And thank God, they did.
“But from then on, buddy boy, nobody walked into my space they didn’t show their hands, I didn’t care who else was there or what else was goin’ on. Fuckin’ pope himself, he walked up on me, he’da had to show me what he was holdin’. What I’m sayin’ is—and you can’t ever forget this—their animosity for you goes a lot deeper than it ever did for me. And you can’t forget that. Not for half a second. Not for a tenth of a second. ’Cause nobody’s reaction time is as fast as somebody else’s action time. Burn that into your brain.”
Balzic got out, and went and talked to somebody standing under a lift using a hammer and chisel to take a rusted exhaust system off a Nissan.
Rayford got out and went and stood beside Balzic.
“What year’s your Toyota?”
“So whatta ya say, Tony? Got somebody go up City Hall, put a battery in this kid’s car?”
“Soon’s I get this thing off. Sent my kid out to get a whole new system for this forty-five minutes ago, he still ain’t back. Which means either he’s makin’ it himself or else he thinks I forgot where the Nissan garage is. Eighty-seven Toyota, huh? Whatta ya want, three-year, four-year, five-year, what?”
“Best you got,” Balzic said, ignoring Rayford’s protest that he couldn’t afford the best. “Put it on this,” Balzic said, taking a Visa card out of his wallet and holding it up first for Finelli to see and then for Rayford, who continued to protest.
“Aw stop it. You can pay me back a buck a week for the next two years.”
“Buck a week? Man, how much you wanna make on this deal?”
“What’s it gonna cost me, Tony?”
“With tax, seventy-four nineteen. Just sold one, that’s how I know—holy Christ, finally, you’re back. What the hell you doin’?”
A teenage boy who bore a strong familial resemblance to Finelli shuffled up, shrugged, and said, “They were busy.”
“Busy? They were so busy it took you forty-five minutes to go one mile there and back, is that what you’re tellin’ me?”
“Yeah, right, they were busy.”
Finelli gave the tailpipe one final whack and ducked out of the way to avoid the rust as it clattered to the floor. “Hey, Albert, your mother says I gotta put you to work, so I lay off a guy worked for me for three years to do that? And you’re gonna disappear for forty-five minutes at a time? Don’t ever do that again. Where is it?”
“Where’s what—Jesus, what did I send you to get, huh?”
“Oh. Out in the truck.”
“How’s it gonna get on this car if it’s out there? I’m s’posed to carry it in? Hey, I don’t care what your mother says. This is the last time I’m tellin’ you, you pull this crap again I’ll take you down the recruitin’ office myself, I’ll enlist you in the goddamn marines for four years, see how you like that. What, you forgot Bill was sick? You forgot I’m here by myself?”
“They were busy I’m tellin’ you.”
Finelli wiped his hands on a rag and disappeared into another part of the shop, calling out, “I gotta go up town, put a battery in this guy’s car. You better be here when I get back, you hear me? You walk outta here like last week, you’re not gonna be livin’ in my house tonight, and that’s not a threat, Albert, that’s a promise.”
“Jesus, whatta you want from me, I can’t help it other people ain’t on your schedule.”
Finelli came back out wheeling a battery on a dolly. “What do I want, huh? I just told ya: be here when I get back, okay?”
“Yeah yeah. Where’m I gonna go on what you pay me?”
Finelli stopped short wheeling the battery outside, causing Balzic to bump into his back. Finelli started to say something else to his son, but Balzic held up his hands. “Hey, Tony, fight with your kid later, okay? Please? Better yet, talk to your wife.”
“Yeah, yeah, right, let’s go. I’ll follow youse up there, go on. City Hall, right? Where am I gonna go on what you pay me, fuck me. My son’s a fucking load, he don’t wanna work, my wife’s been babyin’ him since the day he was born. Ah fuck’s the use.”
Balzic waited until he and Rayford were in his car before he said, “Think you got family problems, huh? Wanna trade yours for his?”
“I’ll keep mine, thanks, but listen, about this battery, man—”
“Don’t worry about it. See, from now on, every time you see me you’ll have to listen to my stories. You try to escape, your conscience’ll bother the shit outta you. I know what I’m doin’.”
RAYFORD HUNG up from talking to his wife more disgusted and discouraged than he was Monday in the marriage counselor’s office. The third marriage counselor. In six years. Right before their hour was up Monday Rayford said, “Charmane? You remember I told you I passed the sergeant’s test? Well, baby, they goin’ give it to me, you hear?”
“Been sayin’ that for how long now? They give it to you yet?”
“They goin’ to, that’s what I’m sayin’. And you know what that means? Big raise, huh? You hear what I’m sayin’?”
“You hear what I’m sayin’, William? I’m not movin’ my momma to no got-damn Rocksburg, I don’t care how much raise you get. I been tellin’ you that for six years now, when you think it might sink in, huh? And how many times do I have to remind you Pittsburgh got a large police department? They lookin’ for apps all the time.”
On the phone today it had been a rerun. That’s when he’d said, “And when you goin’ understand they haven’t put a class through their academy in more’n four years, how many times I got to tell you that? You say I don’t listen to you, you cap all over my ass to that counselor—who was your choice, remember that? This one was your choice, you picked this one—”
“I know whose choice she was, why you keep remindin’ me?”
“ ’Cause the first two was mine—”
“And they were both men!”
“Well now you got you a woman!”
“Both men, both Jews. You know I ain’t goin’ listen to no Jew tell me how to act, bad as they treat their women.”
“So now this one’s yours and she keep askin’ the same questions them Jews did—”
“Oh she does not, what you talkin’ ’bout?”
“—don’t interrupt me—”
“Oh listen to you, you the king, right? Don’t interrupt me, don’t interrupt me, that’s all you say. All you can say.”
“See how you do? And yet you just shut your mind to that one fact I keep tellin’ you every got-damn time we talk—talk, shit, we don’t talk. I talk, you look out the got-damn window—”
“And I talk, you look at your got-damn shoes!”
“Oh why we doin’ this mess, Charmane, can you tell me? And if you can’t tell me that, tell me why do I love you, can you tell me that? Least tell me that much, shit!”
“I don’t know if you don’t know.”
“Aw bullshit, Charmane, this is bullshit, baby. I love you, you know that. I love you like the first day. More. Worse. Love you worse than the first day, I didn’t get sick that first day. I got sick that night, yeah, right, if I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’—”
“And I’m sayin’ good-byein’.” And she hung up.
Rayford growled at the phone and wanted to bite it. That’s me, he thought. Police dog. William Milton K-9 Rayford. Growlin’ and wantin’ to bite, I need to be on a leash, need a motherfuckin’ handler, that’s what I need, don’t need no got-damn marriage counselor. And I’m not even no grown-up K-9, I’m a motherfuckin’ puppy! Puppy motherfucker, that’s me. Baby, why do I let you do that to me? Ten years! Ten years of this bullshit and I’m still as crazy for you as the first night, what the fuck is wrong with me? Am I ever goin’ get over this shit?
Aw shut your mind up, William, get your gear on, get your duty face on, man, get to gittin’, it’s time to go to work.
But in the middle of putting on his summer-weight black trousers, it all started again. Got-damn you, Charmane, be so easy to get me a lawyer, file the papers, send you a copy, do the drill, wait it out, get on with my life. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I love somebody else? Every woman I’m with, get ’em in the bed, all I see is you, can’t stop my mind from showin’ home movies of you, can’t stop my body from feelin’ you under me, beside me, on top of me— is this all this is? Pussy? Is this what I’m crazy about? ’Cause nobody fuck like you? Is that what all this mess is?…. Got-damn counselor ask me am I unfaithful to you? Shit, I ain’t unfaithful to you, I’m unfaithful to every woman I jump, can’t fuck none of their sorry asses without thinkin’ how much I’d rather be with you. Be better off polishin’ my knob than be with these women, all they do is remind me how much they ain’t you.
Aw, go on, man, listen to yourself, what are you, thirteen? Thirty years old, just passed the sergeant’s test, they’re goin’ make you a detective, and here you are actin’ like some got-damn thirteen-year-old boy woke up think his dick is broke just ’cause he had a wet dream. Least you can still put a crease in your pants.
Separate yourself from this woman, William, get her out your head! Stop thinkin’ like some got-damn pussy-whipped boy!
Rayford managed, briefly, to calm his mind while he put on his socks and shoes. He checked his watch against the Weather Channel’s. Theirs said 2:48, so did his, which meant twelve minutes to finish dressing and get to City Hall. He watched the local weather to see whether he might need rain gear. Sunny and warm, high of 66, low of 50, no rain predicted till Saturday. Too got-damn warm for April, too got-damn dry too. Where these April showers? Need some storms keep these honky motherfuckers out their backyards and in their houses.
He put on his white V-neck Commander T-shirt, then slipped into his Second Chance Monarch body armor and hooked up the Velcro tabs. Then he put on his short-sleeve black shirt, tucked it in, went to the front door, and checked himself out in the full-length mirror he’d hung the day he’d moved in. He put his cap on, squared it, put his heels together, saluted, and inspected himself up and down, from black cap to black safety-toed oxfords, all cloth cleaned and pressed, shoes polished to a high gloss.
He got his duty belt from the bedroom closet beside his bed and put it on, adjusting his duty-belt keepers to his buckleless trouser belt, then checked out his duty belt, sight and feel, from left to right around his back: key holder, baton holder, pepper spray, cuffs, glove pouch, flashlight holder, SIG-Sauer 9mm pistol in holster, and double-magazine case. He took out both magazines, made sure they were full, then replaced them in the case and snapped both snaps. Then he drew his pistol, eased the slide back far enough to make sure he had a live round in the chamber, then reholstered it and adjusted the retention strap. He made sure his PR-24 baton and four-cell MagLite flash were still in their holders on top of his black nylon gear bag, checked his wristwatch one last time against the Weather Channel’s clock, turned the TV off, picked up his gear bag and briefcase, gave himself one more inspection in the mirror, and went out, locking the door carefully behind him, ready for Mrs. Romanitsky to bless him.
After pulling his door shut, he turned around and there she was, peeking out her door opposite his. She came out, eyes dancing as usual, her palms together briefly, and then she made a cross in the air between them. “I’m gonna pray for you today, Officer William. You gonna be safe ’cause God will look out for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. As always, I appreciate your prayers. I know they’re keeping me safe. Now is there anything you need today? Anything I can get for you while I’m out and about?”
“Oh no, no no, you just watch out, you be good, God will be good to you, okay? I don’t need nothing, no thank you very much, you such a good boy, your mother’s very proud, I know.”
“I’m sure she is too, ma’am, wherever she is. I have to go now, okay? Anything you need, you call the station, tell ’em to tell me and I’ll get it for you, okay?”
“Ouu, thank you, God bless you, you’re so nice.”
Every day, for nearly six years, it was the same exchange, almost word for word, since the first afternoon he came out of his apartment in uniform and startled her as she was coming back from the grocery. She’d dropped one of her bags of groceries at the sight of him, quickly asking what was wrong. He’d said nothing was wrong, he’d just moved in that morning and would be living there for just a while until he could find a larger, more suitable place for his wife and child. She put her other plastic bags of groceries on the floor, crossed herself, put her palms together, and rocked back and forth from the waist, saying thank you repeatedly while looking at the ceiling.
“Is there a problem, ma’am?”
“That man,” she’d said, pointing at the ceiling, “he plays his music so loud, till one, two o’clock in the morning, I can’t sleep, could you maybe ask him, please, not so loud, okay?”
“You talk to the owner about it?”
“I tell him, I ask him, please, but he don’t do nothing.”
“Alright, I’ll check it out when I come home tonight, okay?”
“Oh, please, would you? I would be so happy, thank you.”
When he came off duty that night, his first on the job, as soon as he got out of his car, Rayford heard the music, some white-boy blues, some Stevie Ray Vaughan wanna-be. He listened for a moment on the sidewalk, then went inside and listened by Mrs. Romanitsky’s door. Then he went upstairs and had to knock three times before a grunge-ball with a fish belly hanging over his sweat-pants opened the door. He had a vacant grin and was gnawing on one end of a foot-long stick of pepperoni. As soon as the door opened Rayford smelled the pot. It took considerably longer for Grunge-Ball’s grin to dissolve as the uniform registered in his brain.
“Almost right,” Rayford said. “Woe is you is more like it. Got a complaint about your music, but my nose tells me I got probable cause to look for controlled substances, namely marijuana, which I can smell all over you.”
Grunge-Ball tried to close the door, but Rayford put the side of his left foot and left forearm against it. When he did he happened to catch a glance through the living room into the kitchen, and his jaw dropped and he started to laugh.
“Oh-oh, what’s this I see? Are those grow lights I see? In your kitchen? You got grow lights in your kitchen?!”
“Oh now what you goin’ say, you growin’ tomatoes in there, is that what you goin’ say?”
“Uh, no. Huh? Tomatoes? Fuck you talkin’ ’bout?”
“Oh man, step back inside, turn around, put your hands behind your back—let go that pepperoni.” Rayford snatched it out of Grunge-Ball’s hand and tossed it into the room onto a couch with a broken right leg.
“Hey, man, that’s Armour brand, man, you don’t throw that around, that’s primo”
“Well listen to you, my man the pepperoni connoisseur, huh? Do what I tell you, pep con, and the only problem you’re gonna have is with a judge, you hear me? Turn around, I said, put your hands behind your back.”
“Oh man, you just can’t come in here,” Grunge-Ball said, but he got into a laughing jag from the pot and then, still laughing, tried to push his way past Rayford into the hall. Rayford spun him around, grabbed his left wrist and twisted it back and down, got that wrist cuffed, stepped on Grunge-Ball’s left toes while pushing his right shoulder down and pulling his left wrist up, and before Grunge-Ball knew it he was on his knees, saying, “Man, somethin’ bit me on the toes. Fuck was that? You got a dog?”
“You don’t stop squirmin’, it’s goin’ bite you again.”
“That ain’t right, man, siccin’ a dog on people. Where the fuck’d it go, man, you got a magical dog or somethin’? Where’s it at?”
“Magical dog? You’re trippin’ out. You need to stop smokin’ your own product, my man, you’re growin’ some mutant weed.”
And so, on his first day of duty with the Rocksburg PD, Patrolman William Rayford made his first drug collar, arresting John Harrold Walinski in apartment 3C at 335 Detmar Street, Rocksburg, and charging him with violations of Act 64, the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act, Section 13, paragraphs 1, 12, 30, 31, 32, and 33, possession, possession with intent to deliver, and use of paraphernalia for the purpose of planting, propagating, cultivating, growing, harvesting, etc., etc., a controlled substance, namely marijuana in excess of thirty grams. This arrest led to the confiscation of fifty marijuana plants at various stages of cultivation, most about six inches tall under the grow lights in the kitchen but five of them nearly four feet high in a closet. Also confiscated were three cookie sheets full of marijuana leaves and buds drying in the oven, several boxes of Baggies, a carton of Top cigarette papers, and two scales.
The arrest, detention, prosecution, conviction, and subsequent incarceration of John Walinski also led to the daily gratitude of Mrs. Romanitsky in 2A, who ever since had greeted Rayford as soon as she heard his door open if she sensed he was beginning a watch, at seven, three, or eleven o’clock. If he opened his door at any other time, she did not appear, but at the beginning of each of his watches, she never failed to appear and bless him with her prayers.
For a long time Rayford thought she was just some lonely old honky woman, half nuts from living alone for so long, but the more it became clear his wife and son were not moving to Rocksburg to be with him, the more easy it became for him to slip into relying on Mrs. Romanitsky’s prayers. Nobody else was praying for him that he knew of, and even though in his private heart he thought religion was just the way rich folks kept poor folks satisfied with their poverty, he knew in his bones he wasn’t big enough to turn down anybody’s prayers. He’d take all the prayers he could get, even though he believed that as long as all you were worrying about was your immortal soul, you were no threat to stake out a corner of what might be yours in the here and now. And if Balzic was right about how rich folks had played with the emotions of early union organizers in the mills and mines by hiring blacks as scabs—and Rayford had no doubt of that—then religion was just the hammer on that nail in the coffin of poor folks, white, black, brown, red, or yellow.
Still, after nearly six years in this apartment building—and he’d never signed a lease for longer than a year at a time—Rayford had had no choice but to reassess who was half crazy from loneliness, Mrs. Romanitsky or him.
Social life for blacks in Rocksburg was nonexistent. He’d heard that at one time there had been a black American Legion post, but that had closed long before he’d arrived. There were two black churches, Bethel AME and Rocksburg Baptist, but Rayford had no interest in church or church socials. It was true that if his mood was right, a good gospel group could get him off his behind and onto his feet, the operative word being “good,” but if you didn’t go to church, the only place you could find good gospel was on the radio or the TV, and given the state of radio and TV ownership in Pittsburgh, the chances of that were slim.
Still, early on, within a month after moving to Rocksburg, Rayford heard about a black club in Knox, Freeman’s Club and Barbecue, fronted by two blacks for a mafioso with the unlikely street name of Fat Buddha. It wasn’t much. Just a bar, a grill and barbecue pit, a tiny dance floor, a jukebox, a couple dozen tables, and every Saturday night, an open mike for any local musicians who wanted to jam, mostly the blues and rock ’n’ roll but occasionally jazz. Free-man’s was where Rayford had met the women he was unfaithful to, every one he managed to bed doing nothing for him as much as magnifying his memories of Charmane and intensifying his hunger for her.
Somehow, to his irritation and annoyance, every woman he’d met in Freeman’s who’d looked clean enough to take out into day-light had managed to find his phone numbers, home and cell, even though he’d never taken any of them back to his apartment and had given each one a different misspelling of his last name, Reyford, Raiferd, Reyfird, Rayfer. He thought that should have been enough to protect himself from their prying minds, but the fact that he had a spotless red ’97 Toyota Celica, decent clothes, and a steady income seemed to put a serious jump in their curiosity about him.
He also never discussed his job with any of them. That was his first rule; he never told anybody he met socially outside of Rocksburg that he was a cop. Too many brothers had been through the system with God only knew what resentments for him to open himself up to any of those possibilities. And the last thing he wanted was any sister to have that information to trade to any resentful brother.
So he was perplexed that not only one but all four of the ones he’d been seeing off and on had found out his unlisted phone numbers and called him constantly. He had a machine and caller ID and never took any calls without screening, but every day that he came home from work or shopping or eating he would find at least one message from one of the sisters and sometimes one from each of them, and sometimes many more than that.
On his way to City Hall, he was trying once again to recall if he’d slipped and told one of the bartenders in Freeman’s his numbers after too much Wild Turkey one Friday night. He couldn’t fully convince himself not to worry about it, even though what was done was done and even though he knew it wasn’t like him to slip about things like his numbers. More and more lately he’d been thinking that one of the sisters had a relative or an old boyfriend who was a cop and had run his plate through DMV, then got his insurance carrier off the title, and got his phone numbers from his insurance agent while making up some jive about an accident mix-up. Had to be. Or more likely it was some dude who wanted to be the new boyfriend.
So either it was time to change his numbers and stop going to Freeman’s for his social life, or else start motoring to Pittsburgh to find a new one. Or maybe he’d just go on a woman fast, no women for thirty days, no pussy and no booze, just eat veggie stir-fries and drink green tea and do yoga and lift and run. Yeah, right. The running and lifting and yoga and stir-fries and no booze he could handle, but thirty days without a woman? Hey, why not, he asked himself as he pulled into the parking lot on the south side of City Hall. Didn’t have a woman the whole time I was in air force basic. Didn’t die or go blind. Just did what I had to do. Why can’t I do that now?
Stop bullshittin’ yourself, William, he thought. You know what you want. You know what you’ve wanted for five years. You want to make another baby with Charmane, that’s what you want, you ain’t bullshittin’ nobody, man. You want to fill that black hole in your black heart where William Junior used to be. Before that got-damn woman let that boy crawl up on the back of that couch and get up on that got-damn windowsill. That’s what you want, William. And none of those women from Freeman’s is good enough to do that with, none of ’em got the looks or the body or the laugh. That boy looked like Charmane from the day he was born, same velvet chocolatey skin, same healthy body, same perfect fingers and toes, same brown eyes, same laugh comin’ up outta their bellies … great God almighty how they could laugh. And you’re never goin’ hear it again, William. Not in this life. So separate yourself from it. Get it out of your mind, get it out of your heart. Go to work. Do your job. Every second a new one. Every breath a new one. Just do them one at a time.…
Rayford parked his Celica in one of the slots against the chain-link fence that separated City Hall’s lot from the one used by the businesses in the South Main Commerce Building. He collected his gear bag and briefcase, locked his car, and checked his watch once more as he headed for the door into the station. It was 2:58. At 2:59 he was hustling into the duty room just as Chief Nowicki was coming out of his office, clipboard in hand, to begin the watch briefing. Rayford nodded and exchanged greetings with Patrolman Robert “Booboo” Canoza and Patrolman James Reseta, the two other patrolmen who’d be in the mobile units this three-to-eleven watch.
Nowicki waited for Rayford to set his gear bag and briefcase on the floor and then said, “Afternoon, gentlemen. Not much happening today, but we’re still lookin’ for the mope that tried to take off Leone’s Pizza yesterday. Detective Carlucci thinks it’s the same one that’s been takin’ off pizza joints in the townships. State guys gave us this Identikit mug shot from the three previous.”
Nowicki handed out copies of the mug shot and said, “Details of physical description, as you can see, are pretty crappy, the kids were too scared to take more than a glance at anything but his face. But all these kids’re sure about three things, and that’s the gun and the black ski mask and that he’s on foot. No vehicle. So you see anybody on foot near any pizza joint, convenience store, gas station, et cetera, with a black watch cap or black knit cap or anything you think could turn into a ski mask, tell him get on the ground and call for backup, okay?”
Nowicki paused there and studied Patrolman Canoza. “Booboo, you don’t have your vest on, do ya?”
“It chafes me.”
“Aw don’t even start with that chafes-me shit, I don’t wanna hear it, okay? You don’t have that vest on by the time I’m through talkin’, don’t even reach for the keys, you hear me?”
“It chafes me, I’m tellin’ you.”
“Cornstarch, baby powder, then the Commander shirt, then the vest, that’s the drill—fuck’s the matter with you?”
“It scares me to wear that thing, just reminds me how many crazies there are out there.”
“Oh man, now there’s perfect logic for ya, Boo, I mean it, there’re crazies out there, so what you do in all your smartness? Huh? You keep your vest in your gear bag. And why? ’Cause it chafes you. Don’t chafe nobody else, just you. I’m tellin’ you, Boo, you don’t put it on, you’re sittin’ down for ten days, no pay, I swear. I love you like a brother, you know that, but I’m not jokin’ around with you anymore about this. Put it on. Now. Or go home. Up to you.”
Canoza blew out a sigh from deep in his enormous torso. It sounded like somebody had cut the valve on a truck tire. Rayford glanced over at him, all six feet five and two hundred and seventy or eighty pounds depending on what he had for breakfast, and shook his head, but not so Canoza could see. Rayford knew better than to let Canoza see that. During Rayford’s first month on the job, he’d backed up Canoza at a call to a bar which the owner feared was being taken over by bikers as their favorite hangout. He’d seen Canoza yank two bikers off bar stools by their belts and carry them outside, one in each hand like they were gym bags, and slam them headfirst into the side of his mobile unit just because they laughed when he said the bar’s owner said their presence was costing him business. So it was true they only weighed about one-fifty, one-sixty apiece. Still, one in each hand wasn’t something Rayford would ever allow himself to forget.
“C’mon, Boo,” Nowicki said, folding his hands over the clipboard and rocking on his heels and toes, “get it outta your bag and get it on. I can’t understand you. You paid two eighty-three thirty-four for that thing. The feds paid a third, the city paid a third—why wouldn’t you wear it just to get your money’s worth out of it, huh? I don’t get that. Cheap as you are?”
“I’m not cheap. I’m frugal. Frugal is not cheap.”
“Frugal is not cheap, huh? What’s ’at mean—oh I know what that means. You took it outta your clothing allowance, huh? So it didn’t cost you anything. How frugal is that? Is that what you did? Say you didn’t, I wanna hear you say you didn’t do that, c’mon.”
“So what if I did?”
“So it didn’t cost you a penny then, you chinchee mother-fucker—put it on! You take it off ten minutes after you’re out there, I don’t care, but you get shot there’s gonna be two witnesses said you were wearin’ it when I handed you the keys to an MU. Nobody leaves till he puts it on, you hear me? James? William?”
Rayford and Reseta both nodded and mumbled their assent. Neither one wanted Canoza to think they were piling on.
“My ass is gonna be covered here,” Nowicki said. “And you better be wearin’ it when you come back in tonight, Boo, understand? And every day from now on, you hear me? Come in again without it on, you’re sittin’ down for ten days no pay, I’m not gonna go through this shit with you again, enough’s enough, you got me?”
“I got you. Yes sir, Chief Nowicki, sir.”
“Cut the bullshit, just get it on, c’mon, everybody’s waitin’ here. Boo, no shit, could your head be any harder? You get one of the best fuckin’ vests money can buy, and whatta you say? It chafes me. Jesus Christ, Boo, I knew you wouldn’t spend your own money, I knew if anybody in the department would take it outta their clothing allowance it would be you.”
“Aw c’mon, lotta guys took it outta that, you kiddin’?” Canoza said, taking his duty belt and shirt off, draping them over the back of a chair, and getting his vest out of his gear bag and putting it on. “Two eighty-three’s a lotta money, man. We ain’t all makin’ forty-five somethin’ a year like some people, right, guys?”
Rayford and Reseta threw up their hands, shook their heads, and started backing away from Canoza as though choreographed.
“Uh-uh, ain’t touchin’ that one,”
“Not a chance, Boo, not one chance in one and a half, man.”
“Oh right, like I’m s’posed to call you pussies for backup.”
“Well see there, there’s your problem right there, Boo.”
“Where the fuck’s your Commander shirt? No wonder you’re chafin’, Jesus. What? Oh don’t tell me—you didn’t buy any of them?”
“What Commander shirt?”
“We told you—oh listen to him, what Commander shirt? I told you, you gotta have ’em, they’re what keeps you dry, no wonder you’re chafin’. They let your sweat evaporate—c’mon, what the fuck, I got you guys a good deal on ’em, and look at you, that’s just a regular cotton T-shirt, you fuckin’ jaboney. Where’s your Commander shirt—in a fuckin’ drawer I bet, right? What am I gonna do with you?”
“You could sit on somebody else’s back for a while, Chief, sir.”
Nowicki threw up his hands. “Hey, Boo, what’re you doin’ here, huh? You lookin’ for a vacation, is that what you’re doin’ here? ’Cause no pay ain’t no vacation, my friend, and a suspension W-O-P ain’t no day at the beach either. My friend.”
Canoza shrugged into the vest, hooked up the Velcro, and held out his hands. “Look at this thing,” he said, looking down at the vest and then at Nowicki. “It don’t cover nothin’ below my belly button, it don’t cover my intestines or my genitals, it don’t cover my neck, it don’t cover my face or my head, you think the bad guys don’t know that? You think they’re nuts enough to shoot me, they’re gonna aim for my heart? Or my lungs? That asshole that used to work for Nixon, how many times did he say on the radio, hey, everybody, aim for their heads? You think that ain’t all over the Internet, huh? Every nutso out there knows we wear these things and they know how high they go and how low they go, and I just think it’s … it’s just givin’ us all a false sense of security when we put these on, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“Oh. So it’s not about chafin’ anymore, huh? So now it’s a philosophical protest, is that what it is?”
“Maybe. Maybe that’s what it is.”
“Okay. Okay. Duly fuckin’ noted. Now that you got it on, Boo, here’s the keys to thirty-three. Reseta, you got thirty. Rayford, uh, thirty-one. And since Rayford had so much fun with the United Nations, I figured why change the lineup, so, uh, same sectors as yesterday. So go. Remember: nothin’ without backup.”
Reseta and Rayford left first, shaking their heads at each other over what they’d just witnessed. Rayford was shaking his for another reason. The United Nations. Depending on his frame of mind, he also called it Belfast, though there were no Irish there, or Palestine, though there were no Jews or Arabs there either, or Rwanda, though there were no Tutsis or Hutus there either. It was in the Flats, down by the Conemaugh River, four houses at the end of one block, separated by what had once been an alley now overgrown with stunted and mangled maple and walnut trees, grass, shrubbery of a dozen different varieties, and in one backyard, a rusting truck camper. There were also six dogs, three in one house, two in another, one in another, and none in the fourth. And no garages. Lots of tree branches, lots of leaves, lots of dog droppings, and only so many places to park.
Yesterday, Rayford thought he was going to have to shoot somebody, a possibility that had never come up in his four years in the air force or in his first five years and eleven months in this department.
Yesterday had started with the session in the marriage counselor’s office, and had ended with him dancing backwards and drawing his nine, shouting at Nick Scavelli, “Stop where you are! You move again, I’m goin’ shoot you and your wife both!” Today had begun with that phone call to Charmane. Normally Rayford did not put much stock in omens or portents or signs or predictions. Normally he believed that every moment in this life was as different as every breath he took. You breathed from the time you were born and you were dead when you stopped breathing, but in between, once you had breathed a breath, you were never going to breathe that one again. So even though this was a different watch on a different day, and he was breathing different breaths, he didn’t like the way today had begun because it was starting to look like how yesterday began. And he really did not like the way yesterday almost ended.
Even worse, it was a beautiful afternoon, perfect summer weather, not April weather at all, the humidity was down, the temperature was in the high 60s, no rain was predicted by the Weather Channel till the weekend, which meant the United Nations would be out and about again, barbecuing, tending their seedlings, washing their dogs or their cars, doing something outside because it was too nice to be inside.
What I need tonight, Rayford thought, is a good thunderstorm, one to rattle every got-damn window in the Flats, and I ain’t goin’ get it. Shit.
Rayford hustled across the narrow drive and opened the passenger door of Rocksburg Mobile Unit 31, a black-and-white Ford Crown Victoria, and set his gear bag on the floor and his briefcase on the seat. He wedged his flash and baton behind the briefcase, closed the door, and went around the other side, in time to see Reseta disappear downward on the other side of his MU. Then, just as quickly Reseta was back up. Rayford knew what he was doing: Reseta was going down on one knee, making the sign of the cross, saying a quick prayer, and popping back up as though he’d dropped his keys. Rayford knew better. He’d seen Reseta kneeling and crossing himself too many times now to think this time was any different.
What was different about it was that until right after last Christmas, Reseta had never done it at all before. Right after Christmas, Reseta had changed, that was all anybody knew. And until last week, that was all Rayford knew. Then Reseta told Rayford what had brought the change about. And now all Rayford seemed able to do was ask himself why he kept forgetting to tell Mrs. Romanitsky about him. If anybody needed her prayers it was Reseta. A whole damn bunch more than me, Rayford thought.
Just then Canoza came down the steps from the station, across the parking lot, humming loudly, bellowing would be more like it, in da-da-dit-dat fashion, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” interrupting his humming to mock-whisper at Rayford, “Remember, you African-American asshole, nothin’ without backup.”
Rayford mock-whispered back, “I call for backup, you Italian-American asshole, you better have that vest on, that’s all I know.”
“And the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole, to see his asshole,” Canoza sang back at Rayford as he tossed his gear into his MU and then squeezed himself in, interrupting his furious humming to howl, “What the hell’s so hard about pushin’ the seat back when you get out? Bastards never push the seat back.”
Oh Jesus, Buddha, Allah, who’s ever out there, please don’t make me need backup tonight, please. Not that those two dudes ain’t the best backup a nigger could have, but please just let me keep my black ass in this motherfuckin’ vehicle all night. Except when I need to pee.
Rayford started the Crown Victoria, hooked up his seat belt and pulled out onto Main, heading south for four blocks before turning east on River Way and heading for the Flats.
And Momma, Rayford thought, if you see Junior, tell him I miss him so bad I could cry. Tell him just ’cause he never seen me cry don’t mean I don’t want to. Tell him everything be cool, all he gotta do is listen to you. And I miss you too, Momma. Wherever you are.
PATROLMAN JAMES Reseta turned north on Main and eased into the curb lane and stayed there through three traffic lights until he got to the intersection of Park Street. On the west side of Main, across the street from Rocksburg Middle School, were St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church and Elementary School. All of St. Malachy’s buses, five full-size and six vans, were lined up on the west side of Main from the church and back into the school playground. Reseta turned right on Park, waving and nodding at the crossing guard working that corner. On the opposite corner, another guard was working the intersection of Park and Maple, which ran parallel to Main. Rocksburg Middle School students who walked home used the doors on Main while all those who rode the buses used the doors on Maple, where twelve buses were parked on the west side of that street and lined up around the block and into the middle school’s parking lot.
Before Chief Nowicki convinced City Council to let crossing guards handle those two intersections, it had been the duty of a patrolman to handle both corners because one patrolman was all that was available at the beginning of the second watch. Whenever Reseta caught that detail, it made him nuts because there was no way one man could handle it. It was the kind of situation guaranteed to piss everybody off, the school bus drivers most of all. They had to live with the pigheaded wrongness of council’s not understanding the fact that one cop was needed on each corner. Fact was, while some Catholic buses were turning left to go east on Park, some middle school buses were turning right to go west on Park at the same time normal traffic was going north and south on both Main and Maple, Two schools, two intersections, twenty-one buses, hundreds of kids, and normal traffic in good weather was mess enough; toss rain or snow into the pot and what you had was traffic stew.
So Reseta was more than happy just to cruise the one block of Park to make sure the ladies in the goofy white hats and orange vests with their whistles and portable stop signs were on the job. What made him smile was how serious they were about their job, so serious they wouldn’t even return his waves. The most they would do was give him a slight toss of their heads or a raised brow. This made him smile because he knew they weren’t armed; if they had been he wouldn’t have been smiling. He believed in his heart that people who took their jobs that seriously shouldn’t ever be armed with anything more than a citation book and a pen.
He turned north on Maple, barely moving when he made the bend, 10 mph at most, but had to stomp the brake to keep from hitting two kids who sprinted out from behind the first bus in line, one chasing the other. When they got to the other side of the street, the second kid caught the first by the neck of his shirt, pulled him to the ground, grabbed his book bag and threw it up onto the porch of a house. When the kid who’d been pulled down got up and tried to retrieve his bag, the first one stuck out his foot, tripped him, and sent him sprawling face-first into the concrete steps of the porch.
Reseta jammed on the foot brake, put it in park, jumped out and sprinted to the fallen boy’s side, saying, “Don’t move, son, stay right where you are. You!” he shouted at the tripper. “Get on your knees, put your hands behind your head, and don’t move.”
Reseta bent over the fallen boy’s back and said, “Don’t move, you hear me? Stay right where you are, okay?”
“Why?” the boy mumbled, lifting his head and blinking up at Reseta. He was bleeding badly from the nose and less badly from the right cheek. His nose looked broken, but Reseta couldn’t be sure because it might’ve looked that way before the dive into the steps.
“Don’t move I said. Put your head down,” Reseta said, turning on the radio attached to his left epaulet. He called the station, ID’d himself, and said, “Ten-forty-seven Maple Avenue by the middle school. Young male, Caucasian, facial injuries, possible fractures, extensive bleeding, result of an assault.”
He got a 10-4 back while the tripper started to get up while whining, “Hey, I didn’t assault him, he tripped.”
“Shut up,” Reseta said. “I’ll get to you in a minute—I told you don’t move, who told you to stand up? Did I tell you stand up? Get back on your knees or I’m gonna put a stick across one of ’em.” That’s when he remembered that he’d left his baton and flash on the passenger seat. That’s how fast crap like this happens, he thought, and that’s how fast you forget even the basics. He reached around in back on his duty belt faking a move he hoped would make this kid think he had a collapsible baton back there. He didn’t. But the kid didn’t know that and the move worked. The kid knelt back down, but continued to whine that he hadn’t done anything, the other kid was clumsy, couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, was always tripping over himself, fell down every day, twice before lunch.
“Didn’t I tell you shut up?”
“Then who’s makin’ that noise? Not me. Not him either, he’s not sayin’ a word, so it must be you, and I just told you shut up. What, the connection between your ears and your brain, you unplug it or somethin’?”
“Don’t talk, just nod your head if you understand me. Don’t say another word unless I ask you somethin’, you hear me?”
Tripper nodded, but Reseta could see he was bursting to whine and weasel his way out of what he’d done, so Reseta said, “I saw you chase this boy across the street, saw you grab him by his collar, pull him down, take his bag, throw it up on that porch, and I saw you trip him when he tried to get it, so if I were you, I’d shut my mouth and keep it shut.”
Reseta turned his attention to the boy crumpled half on the sidewalk, half on the steps. “How we doin’ here? Can you breathe alright? You feelin’ any pins and needles anyplace, your arms or your legs, huh?”
“Okay. That’s good. Now let me see you move your fingers. Don’t move anything else, don’t try to roll over, just move your fingers, that’s all I wanna see.”
The boy wiggled the fingers of his right hand. His left hand was under him and he told Reseta that.
“Okay. That’s good. Now if you can move your left hand without movin’ your neck, take it out slow and move your fingers on that one, okay?”
Reseta switched on his radio again and said, “Where’s my 10–47, huh? C’mon, guys, my bleeder’s still down here, I’m not lettin’ him move till somebody else decides he doesn’t need a body board. Still bleedin’ from the nose and cheek. Awright, 10–22 that, I hear the siren … and there he is, I see him now,”
The Mutual Aid ambulance, siren winding down, eased around the corner from Park and stopped in front of Reseta’s MU.
To the boy, he said, “Don’t move, you hear? You wait till they ask you questions, but you don’t try to move until they say so, you understand? I wanna be sure you didn’t hurt your neck here, the way you went into these steps, okay? Just talk, don’t move your head up and down like that—what’re you doin’, what’s wrong with you? You tryin’ to make me crazy? Don’t move I said.”
Three EMTs spilled out of the ambulance. Reseta briefed them and then got out of their way. He went to the tripper’s side and lifted him to his feet by his right arm and led him to the MU, where he told him to put his hands on the roof and spread his feet.
“Oh what, you think I’m holdin’?”
Reseta had started to pat him down but stopped and thought, you think I’m holdin’? What, am I in some kinda bad movie here?
“I told you shut up how many times now? You special ed maybe? Slow learner? Last time: shut up!”
Reseta continued his pat-down until he was satisfied the boy wasn’t holding any kind of weapon. He opened the back passenger door and told him to get in, sit down, and put his hands on the back of the front seat and to keep them there.
Reseta leaned in and spoke very softly. “I’m gonna ask you some questions now, but before you answer ’em—”
“When you gonna read me my rights?”
I am in some kinda bad movie, Reseta thought. I’m standing here in the middle of a beautiful sunny afternoon with a kid probably doesn’t even have hair on his balls, the kind of hairless prick likes to beat on people smaller than himself ’cause that’s how he makes himself feel big.
Reseta flashed back to the days when he was this tripper’s age, when he was the kid who got his books thrown all over the street, the one who got tripped, shoved from behind on the steps, the one whose homework got taken off him and who, after the smart-asses copied it, had to watch while they laughed and tore his up and threw it down a storm drain. It was smart-ass pricks like this tripper who made him want to be a cop when he grew up, made him dream about having his own mobile unit just like this one here, so he could put pricks like this one here in the backseat, take them for a ride to someplace where nobody was, maybe cuff them to a fence, maybe go to work on their hands and shins with his baton, ask them how they liked feeling helpless, friendless, small.
Reseta put his craziest face on, his wildest eyes, and glared at the tripper until he blinked and swallowed. “Whattaya think? You ready to answer my questions now?”
“Yes.” Tripper’s voice was suddenly quivery.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Maguire, huh? Irish, right, huh?”
Reseta had to step back, take a breath, count to ten. Because all he had to do was hear the word Irish, and a wagon full of bad memories suddenly appeared behind him, full of Guinnan brothers taunting and tormenting him. Little dago boy, scrawny little wop, macaroni arms, spaghetti legs, guinea head, garlic head—those were just the names he could bring himself to tell his mother when she asked him why his shirt pockets were ripped or why he had to have another new tablet or why his nose was bloody or his elbow raw or his knees scraped and his pants torn. He couldn’t tell his mother what they said about her husband, that he didn’t have a dick and balls, he had a pepperoni and a couple heads of garlic and that she didn’t have tits, nah, what she had was fuckin’ eggplants, all saggy and purple, that’s what they used to say, laughing with their heads back, all three brothers, like they were the funniest people God put on this earth. But when he was in Nam, when the VC and the NVA Regulars were trying to kill him and he couldn’t figure out any other reason why he should be trying to kill them, he found his thoughts turning more and more to the Guinnan brothers and the more he thought of them the less doubt he had about why he should be shooting at people whose country he was in, people who had done nothing to him.
And when he came home from Vietnam? Only Teddy Guinnan—the youngest one, the one who’d been in his class at St. Malachy’s Elementary and later at Rocksburg High—was still living at home with his parents. So Reseta bought an eggplant and let it get so squishy rotten he had to surround it with plastic wrap to hold it together. And when Teddy Guinnan came staggering up the street that night, drunk as usual, Reseta stepped out from beside his mother’s house, unwrapped the front of the foul purplish mess, tapped Teddy on the shoulder, kicked him in the nuts when he turned around, and then shoved that rotten eggplant in his face, as hard as he could up his nose and in his mouth, and then watched him squirm on the sidewalk clawing at his face and gasping for breath and groaning. And then Reseta leaned down and said, “There’s a little bit of my mother’s milk for you, you piece a Irish shit.…”
Joseph Maguire had summoned up some reserve of defiance and was trying his best to lock on to Reseta’s gaze, but he started to tremble in spite of his best effort to brass it out, suddenly trembling violently as though he were wet and cold even though it was sunny and in the high 60s.
“Where you live, Joseph? Wanna give me the address?”
“No,” the boy said, his whole head shaking, but especially his lower jaw and lip.
“Okay, I’m sure somebody in the school has it.”
“One twenty-three Elm Street,” he blurted out. “In Maplewood.”
“Ohhhh, Maplewood. That’s where a lotta doctors live, huh, right? Your father a doctor, Joseph?”
“Yeah. And my mother’s a lawyer.”
“Oh. Impressive. She Irish too?”
“Yeah. So what? Why you keep askin’ me that?”
“Doctor father, lawyer mother, wow. And both Irish. A winning combination. I have no doubt you’ll be in the U.S. Senate before you’re forty. Put your hands behind you.”
“What for? I’m gonna put my handcuffs on you, Joseph. ’Cause I’m arresting you. And then I’m gonna take you down the station and book your little Irish behind. Then I’m gonna take you down the juvey center and file a petition against you for assault and aggravated assault. In case your mommy hasn’t explained this to you, that second one’s a felony. And whenever I make an arrest I have to follow department procedure to restrain the arrestee, which means I have to put cuffs on you, so I can take you to the station in safety. And after I book you, then of course you’ll be allowed to call your lawyer, or in this case, your mommy.”
The boy put his hands behind him but suddenly stiffened his legs, shoving his back against the seat. Reseta quickly grabbed the boy’s lower lip, twisted, and pulled. The boy instantly came away from the seat, his eyes filling with tears.
“Last warnin’, kid. Don’t do anything like that again, you hear me? ’Cause if you think that hurt, that was nothin’. If you understand me, just nod your head, don’t say nothin’, okay?”
Excerpted from Saving Room for Dessert by Constantine, K. C. Copyright © 2002 by Constantine, K. C.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, no police officer likes working the Flats, a dangerous part of the city that can go from a quiet neighborhood into a war zone in nanoseconds. Things may seem serene for the moment, but any veteran cop knows that in the Flats a moment is all it takes to get killed. Working the Flats this evening are the Rocksburg Police Department¿s only African-American William Rayford, giant Robert ¿BooBoo¿ Canoza, and Nam vet James Reseta. Each has personal problems they bring to the job, but all three dedicated men know they must not allow their troubles to interfere with the beat if they want to live another day. Quickly the three officers are going to learn first hand how the Flats is different from any other neighborhood in town because the incident seems trivial, but the aftermath explosion proves dangerous and life threatening. Once series fans understand that Mario is not making a comeback and Rugs is not the headliner, the readers will quickly comprehend that SAVING ROOM FOR DESSERT is a gourmet feast for the police procedural crowd. The story line follows the three officers on routine patrols that turns nasty. The story line focuses more on the trio than on what they face as each has their moment of introspection involving their personal woes as much as their professional troubles. K.C. Constantine changes direction with this tale in which the crime activity is interesting, but the up front look at the three stars is fascinating and fabulous. Harriet Klausner