I wait until Saturday. I can’t turn up on an old woman’s doorstep in the darkness after work. I get off the subway a stop early so I can get the feel of the neighborhood before I call on her. The streets are quiet here, with tall old apartment buildings along the boulevards and freestanding houses on the sidestreets. Delores Madder’s house is brown, with a generous white porch wrapping around its side. There’s a window open on the second floor, lights on in the back of the first floor. I ring the doorbell. No one answers. I knock, but the house is silent. Not even the creaking footsteps of someone ignoring the door. I walk around the side of the porch and peer through the old warped glass. It’s a living room, there’s a pile of knitting on the sofa and a full ashtray on the coffee table. Signs of life. I can see the entryway too, the inside face of the door. There’s an odd thing there, mounted on the side molding. It’s a little security camera.
Maybe she lives alone.
With the lights on and the window open, it seems likely she’ll be back. I get a coffee on the boulevard and find a bench outside the graveyard. The light is filtering down through the diminishing leaves. People have their heads down, watching the sidewalk as they move along beaten paths to the day ahead. Across the street I see a woman, I think she is someone I haven’t seen in fifteen years. Then she comes a little closer. It’s not her at all. It was just the way she kept tucking her hair behind her ear.
After a while I start to catch a chill, so I walk a loop around her neighborhood, down along a wide, divided boulevard with grand apartment houses set back from the road. They’ve got names carved into the lintels of their entryways: the Mildred, the Diplomat, the Luxor. Architectural delusions of grandeur. The center median of the boulevard is lined with benches. Along each block there are a dozen people sitting and standing. They’re crooked and old, bundled up, arguing, feeding pigeons, taking what sun there is to be taken. Maybe Delores is here, maybe she’s one of those ladies in headscarves. A woman gets up and crosses the street toward me. She walks purposefully down the nearest cross street and then veers around a corner. She’s walking up the street where Delores’s house is, five or six blocks on. I follow her. She’s slow and I get too close. So I stoop over, miming the actions of tapping a stone from my shoe. When I stand up, she’s gotten to the corner of the big street just before Delores’s block. She turns left, the wrong way.
“Shit,” I say out loud. I wanted the woman to be her. I’m scouring the world for hidden messages. The woman who is not Delores hears me swearing and turns around. She spits into the gutter and keeps on.
I’m so close now, and impatient. It’s been an hour and a half, I think. I cross over and walk up the steps. If she isn’t there I’ll have to come again another day. The street seems empty, but there’s the camera, and there are always more eyes watching a quiet street than anyone imagines.
From the door I can see her, down the hall past the front stairwell, she’s crossing the kitchen at the back of the house. She’s small and thin, her shoulders rounded forward, succumbing inexorably to gravity. When I ring the bell she comes back into view and takes off the glasses she’s got on a chain around her neck, squinting at me through the dim hallway. She wipes her hands on her apron, removes it, and walks toward me.
I smile at her, and I can feel how bright and false it looks. I’m not even sure what to say. She turns a deadbolt and opens the door. “Yes?”
I fumble in my pocket for the photograph and hold it out to her. “He’s your son,” I say, hoping it’s true.
Her jaw sets and she takes a deep breath. “I have no son. I have a daughter.”
But I can see the resemblance, now that I’m watching her face. She’s got the same deep blue eyes, the same fine long nose.
“He looks just like you,” I say.
Her lips pull tight, a hint of disgust. “He was my son once.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not welcome here.”
I’m not either, her stiff, tall posture makes that clear. She’s made herself impassable, and it’s clear she’s had some practice at it. I hold my ground. I don’t say anything hoping she’ll fill the silence.
“Who are you? You’re not the usual type comes looking for him. He owes a nice clean girl like you money too?”
“No. I need to find him though.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re up to, but he’s a deadbeat and I don’t know where he is. And when I saw him last Jimmy Carter was the president.”
She shuts the door and stands with her hands on her hips, waiting for me to leave. I stay where I am, holding her gaze through the warped glass. Tears are coming into my eyes, and they’re real. I dig my thumbnail into my palm to still them. Weakness won’t help here is what I’m thinking.
But I’m wrong. She opens the door again. “Well you can’t just stand on my porch all day.”
She’s softening. I can see it written into the lines of her face. Loneliness, empathy she’s tried hard to put down. I look down at my feet and then into her eyes again. I am harmless. “Please? Tell me a little about him.”
She lets me in and waves me into the front parlor. She comes back with a bottle of gin and two glasses of ice. It tastes like metal.
“He’s too old to have broken your heart, I hope to God.”
“It’s not that. I have something that’s his. I want to give it back.”
“Where’d you get this thing of his?”
She’s not asking what it is. She doesn’t want to know. Like everything else she’s said, it doesn’t speak well of him. “Someone left it for me. It’s complicated.”
“How’d you get mixed up with him in the first place?”
“I’m not. I mean, I’ve never met him.”
She draws her chin back into her neck, squints an eye at me. All skepticism looks this way. I’m not getting anywhere. “You want some truth from me,” she says. “Truth takes an even trade.”
What happens instead is I tell her something that feels like the truth, but it’s a lie as big as any I’ve ever told. “It’s my brother. He’s gone.”
“What’d he run from? Gambler?”
“No, drugs. An addict. I gave up on him and now he’s gone and I can’t live with it anymore.”
She lays a warm hand on my shoulder. “They’ll take everything you’ve got, honey. You did right. You leave it lie now. You can’t help him.”
“I know that. But I can’t live with it either.” It’s true except that I know exactly where to find him. I know which corner and I know which woman’s run-down apartment and I know the plasma bank and I know the kind mechanic who gives him work every time he tries to get clean. What’s true is my sorrow, my crumbling resolve.
“What’s Edward got to do with it?”
“I found the picture in my brother’s room, with a letter. It said something about a piece of out of town work.”
“But the picture’s so old.”
“Yes,” I fill in the blanks as fast as they appear. “The letter said so. It said, ‘add an extra lifetime, but you’ll recognize the eyes.’ I can imagine that’s true.” I look into hers, the same stunning blue.
“I wish I could help you. But the last time I saw him was his sister’s funeral. I washed my hands of him after that.”
“What happened to her?”
Her lips set hard. She lets the question settle and drift away. “For years there were men coming around looking for him. They threatened me but I’m not afraid of them. Nobody brings violence to this block. It’s watched over.”
I can tell she doesn’t mean the police. “The camera.”
“It doesn’t work. We’ve all got them here though. Fakes, every one.”
“When there’s something to back them up they do.”
“Who came looking?”
“People he owed. People he crossed. Women he left.”
Her pure contempt echoes between us. All I can think is what a charmer he must be. “So you don’t know where he is?’
“I make it my business not to.”
“Is this where he grew up?”
“No. I moved here after my daughter died. This was my uncle’s house. He died too. Everybody dies. I’m here alone now.”
The daughter. Each resolution carries another mystery inside it. Delores screws the top back on the bottle of gin.
“You did the right thing when you cut your brother off. I know you won’t listen to me, but forgetting him is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
“Did it work for you?”
“I’m tired,” she says, “You get to be my age and just the sound of the stars setting wakes you.”
She shows me to the door. The house creaks as if it were just as tired as she.
When I get home, Natalie is waiting on the stoop in a stream of afternoon sun. “You’re late,” she says. “I was about to leave.”
I pat my pocket and discover I left my phone at home. Natalie too is lonely, and acutely aware of flagging attention. I lean into her disappointment. “I’m sorry,” I tell her.
She’s got a camera around her shoulder. “Let’s walk, the light is good.” She heads across the projects and I follow her down the long residential street on the other side, waiting for her to walk off the little prideful injury. One of the bodegas over here is gone. I’m standing in front of the drawn metal shutters trying to remember when I last saw it open. A few days, a week, maybe. A big man with a little dog trailing passes by shaking his head. “Ain’t right,” he says. “Hurt’s comin’ down.”
Natalie is halfway down the block, talking to an old woman who has parked herself in a lawn chair in front of her building, swaddled in sweaters, taking in the last of the sun. I can see the negotiation from here, the woman shaking her head and playfully waving Natalie away, Natalie’s innocent shrug, the woman’s surrender. Natalie kneels down and lifts her camera. What will come of it is not unlike the aerial landscapes she shoots, but now it’s the face, abstracted as a landscape seen from above, a pattern of lines and divots and hills. She backs up and takes another one at a more flattering distance, the one she’ll send to the woman. She’s just writing down the woman’s address when I catch up.
“She wouldn’t like the close-up,” I say. “None of them would. What happens when you show them someday?”
“I’ll never show these.”
She’s quiet a moment, we walk a block or so that way. “It’s a collection,” she says finally. I can’t argue with that.
Natalie turns down toward the canal, and I think of taking her to the little street, to the empty lot, and telling her the story. It’s unfolded before her averted eyes, the photograph, the databases, the bureaucratic phone calls. She has asked and I haven’t explained. I could now.
“How many portraits do you take in a week?”
“One a day. You know that.”
Maybe she’s right, maybe I already knew, but the ritual looks different to me now. What I see is how like animals we are, every one of us. We do things, we are compelled to, we can’t stop, we don’t know why.
When the light is too low to clear the buildings, Natalie packs up her camera and I walk her to the subway. Heading home, I’m walking fast and feeling sour about the inexorable shortening of the day. There are two big women on a bench, a third standing before them leaning into her speech like a preacher. “We’re Christians,” she says. “We’re not supposed to wear jeans.”
As I rush around my corner, I almost plow over three men with parkas over their pajamas, each pulled along the sidewalk by a dachshund on a leash.
Now I’m free. I run up the stairs and call Vasquez. He told me he’d answer any question I asked, and I’ve come to a new one. The phone rings a long time. I imagine him staring at the unfamiliar number on the phone’s display, deciding. Finally he picks up.
“It’s me,” I say.
“You just can’t get enough, can you, Red?”
“I talked to his mother.”
“You’re a selfish girl, you know that? Bothering people in their homes.”
It’s a slap, and it’s one I’ve had coming. “I’m sorry.”
It’s a long time before he says anything. I’m not even sure he’s still there until I hear an ambulance screaming in the background. “You can play your game with me, but why don’t you leave the old ladies out of it from now on.” Unwittingly he has become my partner, he knows he is culpable now.
My head sinks into my waiting palm. There is no real medicine for shame.
His voice comes softer now. “You called me for something besides a talking to, what was it?”
“There’s something I didn’t tell you last time,” I say. The lie comes easier with repetition. I almost believe it now. “I’m looking for my brother. I found the picture in his things.”
“What happened to him?”
“He got mixed up in some trouble. I’ve run out of options. Madder is my last hope.”
“That’s a hard place to be.”
“That’s why I called. You said you had an army buddy. The one who introduced you to Madder. Maybe he knows where to find him.”
“Another door for you to knock on.”
“The last one, I promise.”
He’s quiet again, all I can hear is the squeak of sneakers on a wooden floor. He’s pacing, and I know he’s giving in. “You want Joe Bonner. He works down by the docks, over on the Polishtown side of the river. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years, but if I wanted to find him I’d try at the bar next to the Coast Guard station, around closing time.”
“He’s the last one.”
“You’re gonna have to wait a few weeks. He takes his vacation this time of year. Hunts deer upstate.”
“Thank you,” I say. I should be more grateful, but I feel as though I’ve earned it.
“Don’t say I sent you.”
“It’s not exactly ethical, what I’m doing with you here.”
I wait a beat. “What’s he look like?”
“He’s a big guy, eyes like a basset hound. Walks with a limp.” He pauses. “Nobody got out of there whole.”
“Is he white or black?”
“Black. You know what? I might not have told you if you hadn’t asked. You should quit while you’re ahead, you know that, right?”
“I know,” I say, and the truth of it feels heavy as iron. If I could stop, I would. And that’s what I tell him.
It’s only late afternoon, but it feels like weeks since yesterday.
And so I wait for the moment to come. There are dull things to occupy my hands and still my racing mind. I wash the dishes, I carry the laundry to the corner and leave it for the squat Columbian woman to wash. Back home, there’s a stack of sweaters the moths have ravaged, I’ve been planning to mend them for weeks. I weave the needle in and out of the threads I’ve laid. The holes vanish.