by Kenneth Wishnia
From CHAPTER ONE
“He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.” – Proverbs (28:1)
Lázaro Pérez had a woman’s heart.
I mean that. He had a heart transplant three years ago and the organ donor was a woman. He always said it made him the man every woman wants: strong back, soft heart. I needed that heart of his. His store, the only one in the barrio open past 1 A.M., was always a haven for me when I had to get out of the apartment or risk becoming a New York Post headline for murdering my indiscriminate-fucker of a boyfriend. He also let me run up one hell of a tab when I needed it bad and no one else would give it to me. I don’t think he ever knew how much he meant to me just by being there.
Lázaro was killed on April 28th. Two punks held up his corner store for $211 cash and shot him dead. There was no other motive. Just two punks who lost control of the situation. Lázaro was a tough one: he got shot in the hand one time chasing two other punks out of his store and still managed to tackle one of them so hard the guy fingered his partner before the cops even got there.
I told the police detective these particular punks would probably party for a week until the money ran out then go and hit another place, and to watch for the same M.O.
“What M.O.?” he said. “Two greaseballs held up a store and shot the owner. That’s as common as Lincoln-head pennies.”
But there’s always an M.O. I decided to find it.
I remember that April 28th was unseasonably cold. It rained all day and into the night. Lázaro’s store was isolated on a corner facing the park. That’s probably why they picked it. He had a small hand-written sign on the doorframe that read “THIS IS A LEGITIMATE BUSINESS” because so many people cruised the block looking to score drugs and head back to White Plains or Jersey by way of the George Washington Bridge.
Now Lázaro has a ragged, bloody hole in that woman’s heart of his. That’s murder. Not something that happens during afternoon tea in quaint drawing rooms in the English countryside. And that’s why there’s a commandment against it, although sticking it alongside lying and dishonoring your parents kind of skews the priorities if you ask me. You can always take back a lie, apologize, regain your honor. You can’t bring back the dead. I’ve tried.
And there’s always that same out-of-focus family snapshot or sickeningly sweet high-school graduation photo of the smiling victim they run in the papers alongside a description of the cold, blood-stiff, fallen chest battered open with .38-caliber slugs.
He also used to give me a break on beer prices (“volume discount,” he’d joke as he bagged the six-pack) while his doe-eyed younger sister Flormaría swept the floor, sweeping her arms in wide arcs around her 7-month belly.
I have a child now, a two-year-old. A beautiful raven-haired daughter with soft canela skin a shade darker than mine and a shade lighter than her father’s, that bum.
I used to stop up and see Antonia’s father on extended “coffee breaks” back when he was unemployed and I was a cop patrolling past his building. Raúl and I went from 0 to 60 in 8.4 seconds. Then I wasn’t a cop anymore thanks to a premature mid-life crisis helped along by a full-blown drinking and drugging habit and we fizzled on and off for a while before some of his sperm got loose and Antonia happened. I had learned to stop abusing myself and was driving a cab for a living at the time–that had to go. For a while, Raúl did the right thing by me, moved in and started splitting the bills. It was still hot once in a while. Even after the birth we had to stop the car one time because my breasts were leaking milk. Turned him on so much we did it right there in the rest area on the New York State Thruway. But after a year he split, unable to handle the commitment. Looking back, I’m surprised he lasted that long.
I entered into a long line of unrewarding positions, which leads me to now: I quit my new job today. Working the cash register in a Komputer King chainstore isn’t so bad, but it’s one of those discount outlets where the sales reps know nothing about software (“Soft where?” we call it, because so much of it disappears out the door concealed inside $250 trenchcoats), so the customers used to ask me questions and I had to do a lot of unpaid homework to hang on to my job. Now it’s May and so hot today we went into the back room and took our five-minute coffee break standing right in front of the air conditioner. So the boss comes up to us and tells us we’re talking too long and to get back to our servile positions.
“The party’s over,” he says, “I’m crack-i-i-i-i-n-n-g down!”
“No, you’re cracking up,” I say. Words are exchanged. I take the subway home. Short three days’ pay.
Broadway. Recognized by Australian Aborigines 12,000 miles away, its meaning in midtown has been secured in thousands of films, photos, artifacts. From 42nd to 59th, The Gay White Way. North of 200th Street it has a different meaning. Like railroad tracks in the old days, west of Broadway means tree-lined streets, the old stone parish church and Catholic school, the park. East of Broadway means you’re on your own. Guess which side I live on.
I trundle out of the subway looking forward to seeing my kid a few hours early and getting to spend some time with her. Maybe I can make a real meal for her tonight. She’s going to forget mamá can cook if I don’t remind her once in a while. In front of the grocery store a guy who stinks like a damp rug that’s been left in the trunk of a car for the summer offers me $50 worth of food stamps for $40 cash so he can buy alcohol or drugs. Or maybe some rug shampoo.
I tell him, “You know, the White House is cutting food stamps to the poor because of frauds like you.”
“Wha–? White House?” he asks, truly dazed.
“You know, the White House. It’s that thing on the back of the $20 bill.”
“Oh!” his face lights up. That. “Okay, twenty.”
Oh, what the fuck. If I don’t buy them, somebody else will. Little Antonia gets her favorite tonight. Shrimp.
Five flights up to mamita Viki’s apartment. She opens the door, this mother of eight, grandmother of twenty and great-grandmother of six (so far) working without papers on a strictly cash basis. What did you think I can afford some fancy daycare? Mamita Viki takes care of at least five kids all day every day because the parents have to work. She takes all ages. Gives some of these kids the only square meal they get. I squeeze past her squarish body through the narrow hallway into the living room where two boys five and six years old are trying to see how many times they have to run around the coffee table before the rug wears through to the wood.
Antonia is wobbling around the hall in her red overalls trying to master the lively art of throwing a rubber ball. She pinches the ball with remarkable strength, but isn’t so good at releasing it. She’s really only 18 months, but that gets pretty tedious to repeat, so I always say she’s two. For you non-parents that means she’s still in diapers and speaks in priceless baby talk.
“Mommy!” she says, throwing her arms up, letting the ball bounce backwards behind her.
“Hey, beautiful!” I get the best hug I’ve had all day–or ever have these days.
Mamita Viki asks me point blank why I’m so early today, so we talk for awhile over Spanish coffee so strong beads of sweat form on my upper lip. After a lifetime in Santo Domingo, she claims that’s the best way to keep cool on a hot day. My proxy grandmother tells me a girl with my education is better off looking for another job.Mamita Viki has the seniority to call a thirty-ish mother of one a “girl” and get away with it. She says with my law enforcement background I should try social work, she knows I’d be good at it because I do it for free all the time and why not get paid for it?
“Because I can’t stand the system,” I tell her in Spanish.
“Who can?” she says.
“I need a 9-to-5. How am I supposed to work an investigator’s hours with a kid?”
Mamita Viki nods. “Such a waste.”
“Well, we’ve got to be going. Tonia, where’s your bottle?”
Antonia points in the direction of the moons of Mars. We look around for it. After awhile mamita Viki crouches down in front of the refrigerator and pulls the bottle out from under it. The warm milk supplement has separated into sour water and hyperactive yogurt cultures.
“¿Qué has hecho?” I ask Antonia.
Mamita Viki laughs. “I telling her que el paquete dice ‘Store under refrigerator.'”
“That’s ‘Store under refrigeration,'” I tell Antonia, knowing she doesn’t understand me yet. “Next time.”
Five flights down to the dim haze of a city so humid you almost envy the roaches, who seem so much better prepared for it. Nothing fazes them. I’d carry her, but it’s too sticky out and I’m already lugging two environment-destroying plastic bags of groceries. The paper sacks would never survive all this abuse. I cross Broadway at 207th Street and pass a group of dominicanos in front of a bodega slapping dominoes down on a card table hard enough to break them. The two old ones are content to nod at me as I pass, but the younger ones ask, “What do you want, baby? Name it!” and promise, “I’ll give you half my kingdom!” At least they show some respect when I’m with the kid. When I’m by myself they say things that you won’t find indexed in Gray’s Anatomy.
Three flights up to my one-bedroom I get intercepted by Mrs. McRae, who just lost her husband of 43 years, may he rest in peace. She is one of those white-haired little old ladies who moved in after World War II and never paid the rent late in her life. Her face is grey with agitation and fear, like she’s just been robbed.
“Mrs. McRae, what’s the matter?” I ask hurriedly.
“Filomena, you know the law–can they do this?”
“This” is a legal-looking letter she’s holding out to me with a trembling hand that only buried her husband last Sunday. I lower the groceries onto the stairwell and take the letter, keeping hold of Antonia, who is already squirming to be set free in the apartment. (Sesame Street hasn’t gotten around to teaching abstract concepts like “patience” yet.) It’s from the landlord, writing from his office above the clouds in Trump Tower, telling Mrs. McRae that since the lease was in her dead husband’s name, she has one week to clear out of the apartment she brought two cops and a schoolteacher into the world in. They must still be at work, so I get asked the legal questions.
“They can’t throw you out,” I tell her first. “You’re immediate family and you’ve been living here since 1947.”
“You’re sure?” she asks. The mail must have come around 1:00. I read three hours of agony in her face.
“They can’t throw you out,” I reassure her.
“But can they do this?” she says, letting me give her back the letter.
“The law can’t stop them from writing this garbage and hoping you believe it,” I say.
So she reminds me for the forty-fifth time about how her husband helped take back Okinawa from “the Japs” and now look at this country, but I have to agree, Trump Tower landlords threatening little old ladies with eviction is pretty irritating. Like anyone is going to buy into this crumbling place if they ever break enough laws to go co-op. What yuppie’s going to invest in a place that’s not old enough to merit preservation, just old enough to be falling apart? Elevator? 1924 was a bad year for elevators. Just six flights of stairs, honey.
This is being done to half the buildings they own, but you’d never be able to establish a pattern because they set up a different corporation for each building just to break the chain of accountability.
Finally, the apartment door is open and the baby is free. Pyew! I didn’t have time to take the garbage with me as I dashed out with the kid this morning. Banana peels and shitty diapers. A winning combination. And the goddamn landlord must have been doing some more of his non-union “renovation” in the warehoused apartment upstairs (since when does it take 29 months to renovate a one-bedroom apartment?) because the floor is covered with a fresh coating of paint chips that dislodge from the ceiling every time they have trampoline practice upstairs, or whatever the hell it is they do up there at 7 A.M. on Saturday mornings. What, rest after a hard day? Not for me. Now I’ve got to vacuum up the pre-war paint chips so the kid won’t swallow them and die of pre-war lead poisoning. As an ex-cop I happen to know that no construction activities are permitted other than on weekdays between 7 A.M. and 6 P.M. as cited in section 54.14 of the NYPD’s Guide to Law, but a knowledge of the letter of the law never bought me much consideration when I had a shield, so why should it start happening now?
Someone has shoved a leaflet under my door telling me to come to the tenant’s meeting tonight to discuss the landlord’s underhanded tactics. At least he hasn’t hired motorcycle gangs to beat down our doors at 3 A.M. Yet. I put the perishables away and get out the $5 garage sale vacuum cleaner. It’s so weak I have to bend down and stick half the paint chips down its throat by hand. It takes so long Antonia has time to grab lots of loose chips to play with and I have to trade her for something less deadly half a dozen times. She should have come with a label: “ONE BABY: All parts included. Just add love.*” Then in fine print: “*May require a lifetime of maintenance.”
When I’m finished vacuuming I get to roll around on the floor with her, acting like a lunatic and talking baby talk. –Hey, I have to speak in complete sentences all day long.
Cooking is a serious pain. Living with a baby has crammed so much into these two rooms that the place upholds the Puny Apartment Dwellers’ Law of the Conservation of Volume: Whenever an object is placed on the shelf, another object of equal volume must fall off the shelf.
I unplug the toaster, pick the black-and-white 10-inch Korean TV off the floor, plug it in and put the toaster on top of the TV so I can catch the news while I wash and chop the vegetables. The big news is of interest to parents everywhere. Two executives are being sentenced to a year and a day for distributing chemically-flavored sugar water as “100 percent apple juice.” A couple of hundred thousand a year they make. You’d think six-figure salaries with five-figure bonuses would be enough money. What are these guys missing that they have to commit fraud to get more? I chop up a carrot that never stood a chance.
Local news brings a hot case from Long Island. A psychologist took the stand in a murder trial in support of the defendant’s argument that he was possessed by a manipulative character from a “role-playing game,” whatever the hell that means, that forced him to kill his parents. I suddenly become aware of the chicken blood dripping from my knife to the cutting board. I was born in the highlands of Ecuador, so I know where we get our meat from, but sometimes I recall our pre-modern position somewhat further down the food chain, and I don’t like being reminded.
Ecuador makes the international news! That can only mean an earthquake, a military coup or maybe Madonna decided to buy the place. No, not Madonna, just our stuffy old Secretary of State taking over a meeting of Latin American leaders to express his regret at Ecuador’s newly reestablished diplomatic ties with Nicaragua, as if that’s any business of his. But when he gets to the Chambers of the Ecuadorian Congress, he is shocked and outraged by a wall-sized mural by one of our notorious commie-simp artists that apparently equates the C.I.A. iconographically with Nazi-style fascist militarism. A spokesperson for the U.S. says this will “not send a good message to the people of the United States.” Ecuador’s new president says the mural stays. The camera picks out Fidel Castro for a reaction. Boy, is he getting old. Yipes! –I almost slice off the tip of my forefinger with the kitchen knife.
In sports, the Mets beat out the Expos 2-0, ending Dave Cone’s recent slump. Let’s go Mets. They get Cone in front of the mikes to tell us if he feels his luck is changing. “It’s more than a 360-degree turn,” says the ball player.
I hope it’s more than 360 degrees, because from what I learned in geometry class, 360 degrees leaves you right back where you started. We really ought to keep a sharper eye on these sports figures. Try teaching a kid math after he hears some quarterback go on about how he gave “110 percent.” Who’s the kid going to believe, some wimpy math teacher or a star quarterback?
After dinner I go over the finances. Shit. I need a new job. Fast. Even if I got one tomorrow payday wouldn’t come fast enough to cover the bills. That means I’ve got to shake down Antonia’s dad for his court-ordered thirty-six bucks a week. A phone call won’t do it, I’ve got to go see him. For a lousy thirty-six bucks. Wonderful.
The Worm only lives six blocks away. Not nearly far enough, but too far today with the kid and diaper bag. He’s got his usual party going. Five or six of his worthless friends are there while he sits in the middle of a sagging couch I saw on the sidewalk three weeks ago, cheating on somebody with his new girlfriend. That’s Antonia’s dad, as volatile as ether in a bedpan, he never understood that you can’t be married from 6 to 9 P.M. and be single from 9 to midnight. Well, he’s somebody else’s problem now. Except for this weekly bullshit. He has the nerve to pull the proud father routine in front of this semi-nude 40D-breasted teenager who’s still young enough to be impressed by a guy who drives a car with a stereo they can hear in North Jersey. Notice I say “drives,” not “owns.” It’s easy to look prosperous when all it takes is ten percent down. Isn’t that all a leveraged buyout is? I tell Raúl he’s setting his sights too low, he should take his act down to Wall Street and score big. He laughs. She laughs. I’m glad we’re all having such a great time.
“Look what Raúl bought me,” says the talking centerfold, showing off an 18k gold chain. Raúl always had plenty of cash on hand, though I never saw him work terribly hard.
Since he’s doing so well I ask him for $72. I try to make it sound good, like I want this week’s and next week’s together so I don’t have to come after him again on Monday, but I’ll say this for the Worm, he knows me well enough to know we need the cash. That puts him at the advantage, so he’s in no hurry to pay. Instead he starts telling the girl how we couldn’t have sex right after I gave birth so we had pseudo-sex–you know, baby oil between my breasts, sixty-
nine–before I shut him up. He still got out those two sentences, all in front of the kid. At least most of the terminology was vague. And this guy’s on my beautiful daughter’s birth certificate. I’ve got to mother twice as hard to make up for it.
“That was a long time ago,” I say.
“Only a year,” he says. Does he have to remind me?
“A year is a long time ago,” I tell him. What gets me is this bronze-skinned babe-ette on his arm is a neighborhood girl, so she’s got to know who he’s two-timing to be with her. The proud father. He must read it in my eyes that I’m about to drag him into the bedroom and blanch him the old-fashioned way unless he comes across so he pre-empts me and makes a big show of getting out his wallet and tossing a few crumpled bills my way. The girl giggles. He probably spends $40-$50 a night just getting her in the clubs, since she’s underage. I shut the door on my way out. I just love it when I leave a roomful of people laughing at me.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I spend trying to get some job interviews. I’ll know it when I see the one for me, but I just haven’t come across “Mattress Tester: Sleep All Day. Excellent Benefits.” Wednesday turns cold and rainy. Down at 35th and 8th, where handwritten cardboard signs in foreign languages taped to lampposts advertise daily piecework to illegal workers, a guy is on the corner, freezing his wet butt, proffering a clipboardful of what he claims are “Good jobs with good pay,” to which all I can say is, “If the jobs are so good, why are you handing out leaflets on a rainy street corner?”
Wednesday night is the candlelight vigil the neighborhood arranged in front of Lázaro’s shuttered bodega. I change Antonia, put her in a dark green dress and take her down there. This once-bright spot on an unfriendly block looks grimy and bleak under the steely grey sky reflected off the wet bricks and metal. Flowers cover some of the graffiti. The only other color is the yellow notice pasted over the metal ribs of the shutters. Next to the Police Department seal it says:
SEAL FOR DOOR OF D.O.A. PREMISES
THESE PREMISES HAVE BEEN SEALED BY THE N.Y.C. POLICE
DEPT. PURSUANT TO SECTION 435, ADMINISTRATIVE CODE.
ALL PERSONS ARE FORBIDDEN TO ENTER UNLESS AUTHORIZED
BY THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OR PUBLIC ADMINISTRATOR.
FOR INFORMATION CONTACT:
It’s a form, so they have to write in the voucher and phone number of the 34th Precinct. My old precinct. Pretty grim reminder that murder is so common they have standardized forms for it. The 34th logged 75 homicides last year.
Antonia wants to hold the candle, so I have to give mine away in order to remove the temptation. It’s just starting to get dark as the Dominican assistant pastor to the Irish head pastor gets up in front of everyone to say a few words about how Mr. Pérez came from Puerto Rico, how even though he was trying to reclaim this block for the community he had to keep the store open until after midnight seven days a week just to meet the $3,000-a-month rent, he knew most of his customers by name, was shot in the back, and died while trying to dial 911, which is pretty much every human being’s nightmare. I hug Antonia closer to me.
Flormaría approaches me through the crowd with her husband Demetrio, and my stomach muscles tighten. Her face is grim and streaked with shiny wet streams as the tears roll onto her 7-months-pregnant belly. There’s a moment where I can’t find any words for her, then she throws her arms around my shoulders and hugs Antonia and me. She loosens her grip and says, “I want you to find Lázaro’s killers.”
Demetrio looks at me as if he knew this was coming, had tried to prevent it, and is sorry it happened. I nod. He puts his hands on Flormaría’s shoulders. She doesn’t move.
“Give them time,” I say. “They just started working on it.”
“Por favor, Filomena,” she says, “tienes que ayudarnos. You must help us.”
“I will. If you need it.”
“Gracias. Gracias. Sólo confio en tí.”
They want to take a picture with the family, so Flormaría is politely asked to stand next to the authorities. A somber photo op is still a photo op.
Mrs. Santoro gets next to me and says if only I were on the job, like in the old days, the criminals would be in jail already. I tell her the police are working on it. Old Marco must have heard the whole thing because he turns, the fire reflecting off his eyeballs, and says, “Lázaro’s soul is very troubled. He has gone to the Grand Master. Papa Legba les encontrará.” Papa Legba will find them.
I’m cold enough without Old Marco calling up images of Lázaro’s shadowy form, suffering and wandering alone through the lonely corridors of night, seeking an audience with the Voodoo god. Especially since Flormaría just asked me to get involved.
Now the Police Department’s Public Information Officer gets up to say that they are proceeding with their investigation, which at the present time shows no sign of involving Dominican mob retribution as has been rumored, it’s just a robbery that went wrong. Yeah. Real wrong.
I scan the crowd and spot an old familiar face standing along the perimeter next to the local assemblyman and city councilman, who have both turned out. It’s Sergeant Betty Nichols from the Midtown South Precinct. We used to run a lot of cross-checks together because it was the lowliest dogwork our two precincts could find for us.
“Sergeant Betty,” I say, going up to her, getting next to her warmth. “Your beat get extended?”
Sergeant Betty restrains herself at the scene of a homicide, but she has to tell me, “Somehow I thought you’d be around here. Is that little Antonia?” she whispers. “How big she got!” She rubs the backs of two fingers against Antonia’s cheek. I put my arm around Betty’s shoulders and we survey the scene.
“The feeling never changes, does it?” she says.
“Do you know Police Officer Janette Ivins?” she asks, separating so I can shake hands.
Officer Ivins is a dark-complexioned black woman a few inches shorter than me and maybe 20 pounds heavier. She looks like she’s new to the force but could probably teach the Commissioner a thing or two about city living.
“She was the first Officer on the scene,” explains Sergeant Betty.
“Oh, so you’re with the 34th?” I say. Officer Ivins nods.
“You want to move away from here and go for a drink?” asks Sergeant Betty.
I say yes to the first part.