Jimmy cooks me dinner in my kitchen. I watch the precise motion of the knife in his hands, the hands that make music, that pluck vibrations in taut strings. My table is strewn with books and half-read newspapers. I refuse to move them away, I only push the piles toward the edge of the table, clearing just enough space for our plates. Jimmy puts his hands on his hips and laughs. He seems to understand that the domestic character of the evening doesn’t rest easily on me. He seems not to mind my discomfort. He puts his beer down on a copy of The Odyssey. The meat in the oven sizzles.
“What do you do, at night. Other nights?” It’s not a jealous question. His voice is easy, none of the knots of attempted detachment. I’m a curiosity to him, more and more. He’s playing. He’s trying to match the distance I keep.
I pretend not to know all that. I point at him with my fork, a mock defense. “Are you asking me if I sleep with other men?”
“Do you seriously think I’d ask you that? Wouldn’t I snoop while you went to the bathroom or something, search for your journal or your box of photographs?”
“So you mean how do I live.”
“Yes. How do you live the many hours of your life I don’t know about.”
It’s a terrible, unanswerable question, but I can see it’s asked honestly. I try to meet him there. “I spend a lot of time alone. I walk around the neighborhood, I talk to the people who talk to me. I take pictures, you know that.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Next question.” I can only turn one page at a time.
“Do you have friends? You never talk about any.”
“Natalie,” I tell him. “She’s the first person I met when I moved here. She’s my friend.”
“Why did you need to move?”
It was the first thing I asked him, I recall, why did he come here, and he never asked in return. I was so cagey that day, he has been playing his cards well. I’m not sure how to talk about the act of leaving a loss behind. Not yet, not with this man. “My old city fell out of love with me,” is what I say.
He shrugs at my retreat from specificity. He picks up his beer and wipes the damp ring off the book with his sleeve.
“How long until the food is done?”
“At least an hour, why?”
I stand up and take his hand. “Come on, come with me a minute.”
He follows me, I knew he would. I lead him down the stairs to the street. We walk around the corner and the pavement glittering with shattered glass. Jimmy pulls back. He knows where we’re going.
“What is it with you and the empty lot?”
I realize, though Jimmy does not know this, that it’s the same question he’s already asked. The one I can’t answer. “I think something happened there, a long time ago. Didn’t it feel spooky when we broke in?”
We’re at the little street now. The lights are on in the house next to the lot. We stand on the corner for a few minutes, watching shadows pass behind the curtains in the front windows. “I don’t know,” Jimmy says. “It’s just an empty lot.”
“There was a fire there. I looked it up.”
“There are lots of fires in this city.”
The evening’s charmed ease has worn off him. He’s impatient now. “Let’s go. I have to turn the meat.” He starts back around the corner.
A curtain rustles. The door begins to creak open. The form of the man who steps outside is so familiar it doesn’t matter that his face is still in the shadows. It’s Dealer. A boy with a surgical mask around his neck pops his head out too, Dealer sends him back inside. So this is where Dealer’s operations are. I don’t know if he’s seen us. I do the only thing I can do. I turn slowly and follow Jimmy back to my house.
After dinner Jimmy slips his fingers over my collarbone and slides my shirt away. He touches me gently, gently and then grabs a fistful of my hair and pulls me down on the bed. He’s like that, Jimmy. Stronger than he looks.
I sleep. I dream of bicycles with flat tires and narrow escapes. I keep getting away just as the dream shifts, I’m somewhere else and then I’m running again. I can’t see who chases me, but I feel the gravitational force of his approach. I feel him behind me and then I wake up gasping. Jimmy pulls me close and the warmth of him draws me back down into sleep.
In the morning I’m still shaken from the dreams. I feel I haven’t slept at all. I pass by the man from the house next door, he looks away, as always he does. He’s younger than he is old, and thin, and the thing about this man is the tremendous pouches under his eyes, sagging down to his sharp cheekbones. I imagine that he never sleeps. His landlady lives on the ground floor of his building, but it is him I see on the weekends tending to the things growing in barrels out front. Pulling weeds tenderly, pinching wilted flowers. I wonder if he has made peace with his insomnia. Maybe the pockets beneath his eyes are filled with undreamt dreams.
When I rise from underground in Midtown, there’s a plain-faced couple lingering by the subway steps, they’re pressed close and kissing softly. It’s lovely to watch, it makes you want to kiss the next person who walks by. But no one else sees them. Everyone is late for work, or dazzled by the neon lights.
Connection or coincidence, I can’t stop asking myself. The photograph, the fire, Dealer’s cutting house. The layers and layers of vice. The papers on my desk are riddled with errors, and I am grateful, hunting them pushes everything else from my mind. I stay late. The assistant brings me another contract. I thank her and look back at the papers on my desk. I can feel her lingering in the doorway. I imagine the wobbling ankles, the slack lower lip as she pauses on the verge of speaking. Today she is brazen. She tells me people are having a drink, asks would I like to come.
I look up at her, I put my pencil down. It’s perverse, the way I enjoy making her uncomfortable. I lace my fingers together behind my head and lean back. She smiles a searching smile. “No thanks,” I tell her. “I’ve got plans.” She sighs and pulls the door closed behind her.
Back in the neighborhood, I stop at the bar a few blocks from home. It’s at the border between the downscale end and the blocks that are filling with prosperity. It’s been there a long time, watching the money come and go. Behind the mahogany bar are glittering bottles and a mirror the size of the wall, framed in the same mahogany. I sit in the back. I don’t want to be faced with my own image.
It’s around nine by the time I gather my strength to go home. When I get to my stoop a man in a cheap suit gets out of a grey sedan, another shuts off the car and follows. I hurry into the vestibule. The first one knocks on the door’s long glass panel. I press 9-1-1 on my phone and keep my finger over the call button. The landlord’s dog is barking, deep and fast. I hope they can hear her. I open the door a little.
What happens is not what I’m expecting at all. He flashes a badge.
It takes me a while to equalize. I feel like I’ve stood up too fast. He must be used to that, the long moment of adjustment to the surprise of his presence on a doorstep. “Hi,” I say finally. “Can I help you?”
It’s strange how we revert to the language of service in the face of institutional authority. Can I help you. I have nothing to sell him. I don’t want to help him. I distrust men with badges. But my deepest reflex is still one of deference as the leather cover of his badge flips closed. He doesn’t ask my name.
“Do you know what trespassing is, little lady?”
“I got a report you’ve been messing around on somebody’s property down by the canal.” He holds up the lock and chain broken by Jimmy’s bolt cutters. “Look familiar?”
“Are you charging me with something?”
“No sweetie pie, I’m warning you about something. We got a mutual friend, and he wants you out of his hair. You get the picture? You been told nicely to stay out of what all isn’t your business. Isn’t that right.”
Dealer. This man, this cop, he’s dealer’s errand boy. “Yes,” I say, and force myself to look him in the eye. What I am being shown here is that I have no recourse. I am on my own.
The cop reaches out and smoothes an errant lock of my hair behind my ear, a mother’s gesture from which I flinch. “Then we understand each other. Be good, and you’ll never see me again. Don’t think about the alternative.” He descends the front steps and gets back into his car.
I watch him drive away. Dealer with the cops in his pocket. Cinco and the empty lot. The house full of shadows. I go upstairs and perch in the frame of the back window, looking out toward the little street, trying to make the mismatched pieces fit.