At certain hours, like this one, midtown is just like the shift change in a factory town. A crowd spills out, merges briefly, overtakes the sidewalks and quickly disperses toward home. These are the nights when I catch sight of my brother stepping behind someone waiting at a far crosswalk, or pushing his way into the revolving door of a skyscraper. I’ve stopped following the mirage, and I’ve stopped running from it. But it’s still his broken face I see when I feel the thread-thin tug of someone trailing behind me through a sea of strangers.
Now, back in the neighborhood, I can’t shake the ghost. There’s an hour of daylight still in the sky. I pick up a camera, and then I pull the old photograph out of the drawer where I keep it. The man in the picture never changes. He grins at me, his eyes shine. I slip the picture into my pocket.
Julio calls out to me from his corner. “Hi mami, taking the pictures again?”
“It’s a compulsion,” I say, and he nods, I’m not sure if his English stretches that far. “Julio, how long you been living here?”
“Since they kick me out of Spanish Harlem, mami. Long time.”
“Did you know a guy named Cinco, in the old days here?”
He chuckles. “Five-o? No lady, I know nobody Cinco here.”
I take a deep breath and slide the picture out of my pocket. The risk is only more suspicion, and I’ve crossed that line already with startling finality. “Do you know this guy?”
Julio crosses his arms high over his drooping gut. “Did you get a new job, mami?”
I jerk a thumb over my shoulder. “No,” I say. I’m ready for this one. “I found it in the house. There was a box of stuff in the closet.”
He runs his tongue under his upper lip, the moustache quivers. “He’s nobody to me.”
I nod, keep walking. I pass by the little street, it’s deserted. I go on down to the first bridge over the canal and stop in the middle to take a few pictures of the oily and shimmering water. I loop back around by the projects. The man with the sling is rocking back and forth on his feet, looking around. His eyes look pretty lucid. “Hi lady,” he says. “How you doin’ today?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Out for a walk.” I take the picture out of my pocket and show it to him. “This guy look familiar to you?”
He tips his head one way, then another. “That’s a pretty old picture.”
“You lookin’ for somebody?”
“I found a box of old stuff in the basement of my building. I’m just curious. I guess he used to live there.” It’s at least plausible, and most of the neighborhood already thinks I’m strange.
He just shrugs.
“Maybe someone else would know?”
He looks off into the distance a while. “I don’t know. He’s white, you know? Nobody I know keeps much track of y’all. Except you, with that hair. Everybody sees you.”
My face goes hot, I know a flush is spreading over it. “Yeah, thanks,” I manage to say and turn away.
I must have expected fortuity, but I need a better angle. So I walk toward the river and knock at Vasquez’s door.
He opens the ironwork gate that guards his entryway. “You again.” He squints, his head jutting forward as if pulled by his nose. “Red, that’s good. You look better without the wig.”
“Thanks.” I smile. I’m no more than a foot away from him, and once again it feels like he might reach out his good arm and rest his hand on my ass, begin to ease me into a slow swaying dance.
He leans back against the door frame. “You want the apartment after all? Or maybe you just couldn’t stop thinking about me, huh?”
“I was hoping you could help me with something.”
“Depends what it is.”
“I just want to ask you something.”
“I’ll answer any question you ask, Red.”
I hand him the picture. “Do you know who this is?”
He holds it up. “That’s Madder. Guy who bought my building. He who you’re looking for? If I knew that, I woulda told you to quit before.”
A tremor of emptiness moves through me. “You mean because he’s dead. That’s what you told me before.”
“Dead, gone, what’s the difference.”
“Which one?” My voice breaks.
He reaches out and touches my shoulder. “Okay, gone, last I heard. What do you want with him? He’s an old man now.”
“I have something that belongs to him.”
“How do you know it’s his if you don’t even know the guy?”
I don’t answer him. I can see he doesn’t believe me and I don’t know what else to say.
He looks over my shoulder, waves at a neighbor. “Whatever it is I’m sure he doesn’t need it. Throw it away.” There’s something new in his tone, clipped and cold. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be asking around about a guy like Madder.”
“Why not. What’s he done?”
“He’s the usual suspect, a hand in everybody else’s pie, women lying for him all over town. I’m telling you. That building I had, it burned when Madder owned it. Not once, twice. The man’s got no ethics at all. Loose canon. Men do what they do, but not in their own neighborhood.”
“Are you saying he burned it down?”
“I’m not saying anything except he’s no prince.”
I nod. This is supposed to deter me, but Vasquez’s elusiveness only pulls me in deeper. Here’s a new blank space in the story that cries out to be filled. “Do you know where he is now?”
“Far away, if he’s got any brains. Too many backs he stabbed down here.”
“I have to find him.”
“I don’t get you. You don’t know the guy and I told you he’s a motherfucker but you got this major need to find him?”
“I can’t explain.”
Now the silence is mine. Compulsion doesn’t fit into words, neither does the ache it soothes. “It feels wrong to keep it and wrong to just throw it away.” I tell him finally. “So I’m stuck.”
“That’s the stupidest reason I ever heard.”
From upstairs, his sister’s voice, calling him to dinner like she’d call a little boy. He shrugs and locks the door behind him. “You know how hard it is to find someone who don’t want to be found?”
I nod. I want to tell him everything. I want to tell him I know it both ways, but I can’t tell him a thing.
It’s dark by the time I walk back through the projects. Dealer’s on his corner, and I go by as fast as I can. He’s got one of his boys backed up against the wall, one hand on the boy’s shoulder and one his chest. “Don’t tell me stories, son,” he says. He’s talking softly but with force, his tone all the more menacing for how controlled it is. “Don’t tell me a story unless you was there. Do not,” he says and pushes harder on the boy’s chest, “Do not tell me the story of the story. You hear?”
Now the man in the picture has a name. Madder. The second-to-last man who owned the place the letter was sent to, who owned it when it burned. And this Madder, he was bad news in some unspecified way. A man who seemed not to work for his money. A man who had women in the palm of his hand, in the pocket of his coat. Where he has me now.
Walking home, there’s an old man shuffling slowly along in front of me, his wrist leashed to an equally slow dog. He’s going slow because he’s old, certainly. But also he’s reading a magazine, clutching it with two hands, the way a small child would hold a book. He’s not very tall, I can see over his shoulder. It’s porn.
The dog pulls at the leash, and the old man stops while it pisses on a scraggly sapling. They move on and he folds the magazine, tossing it into the public trash at the corner.
I stop at the corner bodega for a Coke. A small pregnant woman with a big voice comes in and says to no one in particular, “Where’s my husband at?” She looks at the proprietor. “How come you don’t know where my husband’s at?”
“He’s off today,” the man says softly.
The woman turns to a tall black girl in gold heels and tight jeans. “You grown up,” she says, louder than necessary in the cluttered aisle. “I saw you. You grown up to be a good lookin’ girl.”
The girl speaks softly too, the woman has stolen all the volume the room gets. “Thank you very much.” She looks a little embarrassed.
“Where’s my husband,” the woman turns back to the proprietor. “You a bad father-in-law, how come you don’t know where my husband is,” she asks, cocking her hand on her hip. “Hmph.” She doesn’t leave him much room to answer. The man looks startled and shakes his head. She gives him a hard look and then, thinking better of the whole thing, she just sways her hips out the door.
I follow her out, and reach into my pocket to check that the picture’s still there. Madder. I call information and ask for Edward Madder. Of course there’s no listing for him. Nobody hides in plain sight. But there is one for Delores Madder. The address is in a neighborhood that used to be rough and no longer is, on the far side of a vast and gracious graveyard.