I have the day marked on my calendar. The legal limit of deer hunting season. A week before the moment comes I lose all hunger, and too the desire to sleep. Penance, purification, my bodily instincts take on meaning. Jimmy’s worried fingers graze the circles under my eyes. He thinks he sees pain, but I feel as peaceful as a monk.
When the day comes I ride the commuter rail, watching the city’s sprawl fly by. At the last stop, I get off and walk toward the smell of the sea. The bar is there as Vasquez said it would be, hard by the water, at the edge of the world. Inside, it’s all stale air and dark wood. Four men hunch over the counter, nodding at the television, sighing into their drinks. There’s a phone booth in the back, wooden, with a collapsing door. Inside is a girl sitting on the little seat, her biker boot propped up against the crook of the door. At a back table, there’s a skinny guy in a hoodie, reading Proust. Things are smashing against each other here, the neighborhood churning over. It’s the apex of the transition, when the working men and the idle youth misspend their hours side-by-side. I pay for a shot and sit at the bar with the old men. I’ve come here with questions, I can’t play it off as a coincidence. All I can do is wait for the man with the hangdog eyes to show up, and ask.
The old man next to me touches my wrist and speaks without turning toward me. “Let me tell you something. Don’t ever get any older than you are right now. It’s rotten. The body betrays you,” he says and bangs a cane I hadn’t noticed hard against the bar.
“I’ll try,” I tell him.
He waves at the fat bartender. “Get her another one, whatever she’s got.”
The bartender pours another shot into my glass and raps his knuckles on the bar, signaling that the drink isn’t mine to pay for. I clink glasses with the old man and thank him. He hands me the newspaper that’s folded in front of him. “I don’t know what you came here for but I know you’re not here to chitchat with these old bones.”
I take the paper. “Cheers,” I say and resettle myself in an empty booth. I stare at the paper but there’s too much anticipation running through me, and I wind up rereading the same sentence over and over, turning a page, fixing on a different line, still without comprehension. All the while I’m imagining what will happen when Bonner turns up. If he does.
The boy reading Proust packs up and wanders away. The girl emerges from the phone booth, I’d forgotten her. She’s been in there half an hour, maybe more. The side of her face is red from the pressure of her cell phone against her ear. She slams the folding door shut and stomps back into the room. Two of the old men go outside, smoke a while, and come back, bringing wisps of the rancid smoke in with them.
The bartender holds a remote up in the air toward the TV, scanning through channels until he lights on a football game. I’m on my third whiskey when Bonner walks in. It’s the eyes, of course, the eyes betrayed by gravity. That’s how I know him. He pulls a stool up to the bar, the bartender pulls him a beer from the tap. He lays down a twenty and leaves the change in front of him on the bar, he’ll be here a while. I stand up and approach the bar. I lean in next to him and ask for another shot. I’m already a little tipsy, and it’s a good thing.
“Excuse me,” I say, in the upward lilt of a question.
He doesn’t look up from his beer. “We know each other from somewhere?”
“No, but I wanted to talk to you.”
He turns now and faces me. The round eyes sag, and the crevices curving down from the sides of his nose to his mouth are deep and dark. He takes off his tweed cap and rests it on the bar, settling in. “About what?”
There isn’t any way to make this casual, so I press right to the point. “I’m looking for Madder.”
“Don’t know anybody by that name,” he says, draining his beer and plunking his glass in the bar’s gutter to show the bartender he wants another.
“From the army. You were in the army together.”
“Are you sure,” I ask, stupidly. I was prepared for refusal, but not this.
He reaches over the bar and picks up a pen, a napkin. He writes an address. He writes a time, it’s a few hours from now.
“Try this guy. He comes here too. The other black guy. Somebody gave you a bad tip.”
I stuff the napkin in my pocket. “Okay, thanks. Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother,” he says and turns his attention back to the beer before him.
I put on my coat and walk out the door.
Two hours later I come to the stoop of the address on the napkin and knock. It’s Bonner at the door. “All right, come on in. You don’t ask a man things like that in a public venue.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was anything much, just looking for your old friend.”
“That’s a man’s own business.”
“Thanks for helping me”
“I haven’t yet.”
“You know him.”
“Army, like you say.”
“Do you know where he is now?”
“You know lady, you’re not the first person come looking for Madder. Lotta people want a piece of him.”
“What do you mean?”
“You meet him, he’s the life of the party. All charming, full of schemes that sound like everybody’s ticket out. Then it’s watch your wife, watch your wallet, watch your bank account. Leaves people with empty hands when they’re supposed to be full.”
“So he cheats people and they come looking for you?”
“We were partners.”
“Partners at what?”
“Why did you quit?”
“Got tired of cleaning up his messes.”
“So what happens when people come looking?”
“I tell them ‘you find him I want a piece.’”
“He owes me.”
“So you protect him?”
“He owes me money. The day he’s got some I wanna be first in line for it.”
“Who comes after him?”
“Are you afraid of them?”
“Lady, I’m afraid of nobody. But I don’t take chances, either.” He sighs, and his eyes do too. “What do you want with him, anyway? He owe you too?”
“No. I found something that’s his.”
His glance rakes me over, up and down. “How do you know he wants it back?”
“He might not. I don’t know.” I want this man’s respect, somehow. I won’t get it. The only story I have for him is a story of weakness, desper-ation. I spin it out for him. Like Vasquez, like Delores, the lie that feels true begins to soften him.
“Shit,” he says. “He’s not even that hard to find. Men come looking for him are punks. He’s in a Section 8 house way uptown. Terrific Tenements. Cruel joke, right?”
What startles me is how little satisfaction I take from what I’ve just learned. He’s not in front of me yet. But he’s close now, this man made of flesh and false promises. A jolt of nausea runs through me.
Bonner holds his metal screen door open for me and sends me out into a sudden, shivering rain. It lasts the whole long train ride, and drenches me as I hurry from the station to my house. At home I step into a hot shower to shake the chill, but it won’t abate. At last I give up. I dry off and listen to the water churning down the drain, then I crawl under the covers. The chase was an abstraction until it materialized into coordinates. I lay sleepless through the long night, imagining myself at last in a room with Madder, aging him in my mind like a police sketch. When dawn comes I drift off into a sharp, vivid morning dream. I wake to find it’s all taken place in the space of an hour, the city is still creaking to life. In the dream I have, none of this has happened. In the dream I have, I take the letter back to the post office. In the dream I have, I never even find the vacant lot.
No dabs of powder can conceal my weariness at the office as the day churns by. My eyes are Bonner’s eyes, puffy, shadowed, hollow. I cross paths with my assistant in the bathroom, and for once she draws a tight breath and speaks directly. “You look like a truck ran over you last night. Are you okay?”
I look up, and draw my face into a placid calm. “I’m fine.” I offer no explanation, no mitigation.
“Oh,” she says. Now she’s awkward. I haven’t responded with a confession. “I thought, nevermind.” She disappears into a stall and I hear the slippery sound of her skirt lining against her skin as she slides it up. When I get back to my desk, I see an improbable thing. It’s hardly winter yet and it has started to snow. I lean over the contract I’m proofing and focus on each word individually. I find no mistakes, which isn’t possible. I start over. This time the mistakes shimmer.
When it’s time to go home, the snow has just stopped falling and everything glitters in the darkness. Out on the sidewalk, behind me someone is singing, she sings a little off key but everyone knows the song anyway: “a beautiful sight… we’re happy tooonight… walkin’ in a winter wonderland.” A few passersby from the other direction smile. I turn around. There’s a woman in a parka, she’s maybe fifty, or she has smoked all her life and is younger than that. She’s got her arm hooked into the elbow of a man in a hoodie, she’s leaning in tight, smiling like a child caught sneaking something small but illicit. She catches my eye. “It’s a good song,” I say as they pass me by. She laughs and laughs and I stay still and listen to her until they round the corner and drift away.
I stop at the butcher’s back in the neighborhood. I want some of the good pasta he sells. He’s young, the butcher, already bald, with eyes that are a little sad. It must have been his father’s shop once, or his uncle’s. His hands have an intimacy with the countertops, he has been back there his whole life. He works with knives, he works with death, although he doesn’t think of it that way. And the thing is he’s got the sweetest voice, low and gentle and full of something that sounds like love, but can’t possibly be. When you need someone to tell you that everything is going to be okay, it’s his voice you want, shhh honey it’s all gonna work out fine.
I wish I believed him. I swing out through the door back onto the street. I hear a man’s voice sing out, “You cookin’ me dinner, baby?” It’s Dealer.
“I thought you were cooking for me.”
“I don’t cook for any woman.”
He’s losing his smile. He takes me by the arm like a gentleman, but there’s force behind it. “I’m gonna walk you home,” he says.
I’m tired of playing along. “What do you want?”
“You’re wearing out your welcome, know what I mean?”
“I’m not bothering you.”
“You stirring a lot of things up these days. Time to stop.”
“You keep telling me that. Got something to hide?”
“Don’t push me, woman. I’m a man of business and you best stay out of it.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in your business?”
“You askin’ too many questions outta too many people around here.”
“If I was a narc, would I be that clumsy?”
“I don’t know what you are, but you pissing me off, and you gonna stop, or you gonna move.”
I shake my arm free from his grip. I don’t know what he thinks I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter now. I’m almost done. I have no questions left for the neighborhood. I have one last errand. Then it’s over.