Natalie’s photographs are beautiful on purpose, not like the ones I make with my plastic lenses, where beauty comes as a chance procedure. Tonight she stops by to show me some pictures she’s taken nearby. “I don’t understand it,” she says, twisting the ends of her long yellow hair around two fingers as she tabs through the photos on her laptop. “They’re all a little blurry. Like my lens was fogged. But it wasn’t. It’s clean.”
“That happened last time too,” I remind her. “These streets are furtive. They don’t want to be seen clearly.”
“You’re weird,” she says, turning back to the computer.
“I’m telling you, these streets have things to hide.”
Natalie shakes her head. She thinks she is a realist, logical, and that this will lead her to what is true. I’ve tried to tell her, but she’ll never believe how mystical the truth can be.
Now I take the photograph out of the drawer I’ve stored it in. I hold it up for her to see. “When?”
She reaches out to take it but I keep my grip. I don’t want her to see the back. She retracts her hand, her brow wrinkles. She leans forward to look at it more closely.
“Mid to late ’70s, I think.”
“How can you tell?”
“Well, the edges are rounded, and the image quality is too lousy to be 35mm film. My guess is it’s from a really small negative, 110 film. Kodak Instamatics used that, the pocket ones. They made them in the ’70s, they were super popular. And there’s the paper too, it’s got a funny grain.” What Natalie sees when she gives the world scrutiny is always a revelation to me. I can’t see past the man’s face. Natalie sees paper, geometry, history.
“Besides, that’s what men looked like in the late ’70s. Don’t you see?”
I envy the precision of her knowledge. I toss the picture back in the drawer.
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know, I found it in a junk store. I got curious. He reminds me of someone.”
“There’s something so perfect about a man you won’t ever meet.” Natalie says. “He can’t make any mistakes.” She thinks I’ve fallen in love. I don’t contradict her.
After she leaves, I go out for a walk. I want to check on the little street, but it fronts the road where the whores walk. I head the other way, and when I see the guy who’s always got his arm in a sling, what I think is how easily people come and go here. How the neighborhood fills the blanks people leave behind, and opens spaces for them when they return. I haven’t been here so long, but I’ve already seen it happen.
The man with the sling says “Hello, lady.” It’s what he always says. I know him and I don’t know him. When I moved here, he and his cousin used to sit in lawn chairs in front of the parking lot, nodding out. They were lean and wolfish, even all slack in the creaking chairs. They were kind to me, protective when I passed by them on my way home late at night.
They both went away and only one came back: bowed, broken, swollen and aged. He is of the corner but he doesn’t work there. He’s had his arm in that sling for a year now, and the other day I saw him pushing a roll of bills inside it, but he doesn’t have the sharp eyes of a lookout or the quick hands of a dealer’s boy, and he’s too old to be either. He’s fucked up too often to be part of the trade. But still, just like Dealer a few blocks away, he works the crowd on the corner and across the street in the courtyard of the projects like a politician.
He asks me things when I pass by. How’s my day, or where I’m going when I set off past the confines of his turf. There are things I want to ask him. Things like: what happened when you were gone that year, where is your cousin, what were you like before all this, why are you alone among the corner’s players such a gentleman, wanting nothing from me but a warm smile. There are things I want to ask him but I never do. There is some unspoken contract it would break. We’re neighbors. There are things it’s better not to know.
Saturdays move slow in the neighborhood, but I’m impatient. I’m waiting for the mail. I try examining the trees. They’re turning, and the lazy dawn rain has deepened their colors. The ivy is red, the molting sycamores reveal patches of green and yellow skin beneath damp grey bark. Across the street, my neighbor is standing idly in front of his small blue townhouse. He’s the mayor of the block, a white man with an overgrown mustache. He’s been here for thirty years, he told me once, moved here back when it was different. By different, he meant dangerous. Now he’s retired, and he’s always out in front sitting on the little bench by the door with his newspaper, pacing around the sidewalk barefooted, carrying a coffee mug whose steam is long spent. It’s just a prop, signifying his mastery here, how the street is an extension of the house he owns. He can carry his dishes out here, and he needs wear no shoes. He knows all our names, and which cars belong to whom. He knows what’s happening to the parking lot they’re digging up at the end of the street. If I asked him, he might know about the vacant lot on the little street. But I don’t ask him about that yet.
I sit down on my stoop, and catch his eye, patting the spot next to me. I’ve brought my coffee out too. A challenge. He comes over and stands by the iron gate, a few yards away. He’s no fool, he knows I want something.
“Who lived here when you first moved in?”
“In your house, let me see.”
“No, in general, in the neighborhood.”
“Poor people. People who could afford to get out of the projects, but not that far, or didn’t want to be far from the rest of their families.”
“And you. You lived here too.”
“There was one other white family, on the next block. They didn’t last.”
“They never really got comfortable.”
“With living here. With being the only white people in a poor black neighborhood. Barring your doors without looking like you’re scared.” He scuffs his flip flop against the edge of the gate, and then the words he utters startle me. “Aren’t you ever scared?”
Honesty would serve me here, he’s the only person who really knows the block and isn’t strung into the illicit dealings of the corners. If I opened myself, he might tell me something I could use. “I don’t think about it,” I tell him. It’s the best I can do.
I stroll down to the café, there’s a long line. A young girl is off in the corner, dancing. Her moves are slow and subtle, cleaving to the bassline and the places where it stretches out a beat too long. She’s unaware of anyone’s eyes on her. Her face is awkward, but it’s evident that she will grow up hard to resist. Her twin sister comes out of the bathroom. She’s stiff and unmoved by the music. But she’s taller, and there’s more symmetry in her face. She will have to fashion herself aloof and unreachable to match her sister’s charms. She leads the way out the door, and her sister shimmies along behind her.
When I get back home, it’s there. At the top of the pile of mail inside the front door. A plain white envelope, City Hall postmark. It’s a handwritten list of six names, each with a date of sale. They go back to the 1940s. There’s a checkmark by one of them, 1980. I’m guessing that’s when it was sold as a vacant lot. I imagine myself at the end of the story, that I will go back and tell it to the clerk, that he will be charmed for his part in the unfolding of it. But I know that I won’t. I stare at the list. Line them up, I think. Knock them down. There is Cinco, the man the letter was sent to. And there is the young man in the photograph. There is some unofficial chain of title that will lead me to both of them.
I take my laptop out on the fire escape and watch the street wax and wane. The corner boys are hovering under the birch tree, shuffling in place, hoods up against the rain. “Man,” one says. “It’s DAYtime. What we gonna do now?”
I see hundreds of people every day, some strange, some familiar, and the ones that fall in between. If I took a different subway line and saw you sitting in the corner, diligently shining your shoes, what’s to say I would ever see you again. We cross paths and have no effect, just the ripple of awareness. Fleeting, unmemorable. Your name could have been Vasquez or Jones or Negri or Madder or Janicki or Flood. These are the six I’ve been given. I could have seen you. You on the corner, shining your shoes. What if it was you?
The story the deeds tell goes like this. Thaddius P. Jones bought it in 1947 and sold it to Enrico Negri in 1954. Another Negri, likely the son, sold it to Milos Janicki in 1971. Janicki seems to have died without a will, and the city sold the house to Josédalgo R. Vasquez in 1979, who sold it to Edward Madder in 1980. When Madder sold it to William W. Flood in 1985, it was listed only as a lot. No house. Flood defaulted last year.
Natalie’s day job benefits me now. I call her and demand her passwords for the research database. She asks why and isn’t surprised when I won’t tell her. She surrenders anyway. I log in. This is what private detectives use too. I search for each man. It’s thrilling and easy.
Three men named Josédalgo R. Vasquez are roughly the right age, have lived in the city for long enough, and are still alive. There are two named Flood of the right age. I write down what the database lists as their current addresses and phone numbers. I look for Madder; he is unaccounted for.
The sun has come back around the trees, sinking down, just a blur of light in the hazy clouds. I’m late to meet Jimmy is what the sun tells me. I close up the house and walk down the block.
I haven’t seen anyone on Dealer’s corner in a while. Tonight some of his boys are leaning on the bodega dumpster, aimless and slack.
So, I try something new. I talk to them. “Haven’t seen your boss in a while, he ok?”
The fattest one steps forward and squints at me. “What boss?”
“That guy who’s usually around. Older than you. Always says hello.”
He shakes his head. It’s like a teacher does, you’ll get it someday honey, I know you will. “Lady, I know you ain’t police,” he says, and points his finger at his chest. “But to me, you might as well be.”
Jimmy takes me dancing, and laughs when I skip a little on the way home. He stops for cigarettes and I keep on walking around the corner looking up at the moon. It’s as big and bright as possible given the orbits and angles of planetary motion. It hangs low by the borough’s lone skyscraper, dwarfing the neon clock on the tower. I stop a while, leaning on a parking sign’s metal post, washed over by the impossibly lovely light. This man walks along, gnawing on a fried chicken leg, giving his back to the sky’s spectacle. I stop him. “Did you see the moon?” I ask. He pulls the chicken away from his teeth and looks at me as if to say, but you don’t look crazy, honey, what’s up with that? Finally he plays along and asks, “It full?” I say, “Yeah, and it’s really really big,” and I point behind me. He shifts around a moment to see. Then he turns back to the way he’d been going, shakes his head, and sucks a sliver of meat from its bone.
I wait on the stoop for Jimmy. To my great surprise, he doesn’t care about the moon either.
The night is quiet and it’s quiet between us too. In the morning, I wake very early, and leave Jimmy a note, knowing it’s not enough to patch the crumbling heart he’ll feel in the interval between finding me missing and finding my words. Outside, I pace around the block, plotting my attack. The warm air is full of dew. The laundromat is empty, and almost elegant now that it is stripped of bright fabrics and plastic bottles and bored women. Only the man who runs it is there, passing a load of whites from a metal cart into a dryer. There’s a radio on, in Chinese. The man comes over to weigh my bag. Then the radio switches to English, but it’s not a radio after all, it’s a language lesson. “When-will-the-car-be-ready?” The soothing voice asks three times, each with a different inflection. Then another round, Chinese and back to English: “I-am-ready-to-face-tomorrow.”
I sit on the bench outside, listening to the lesson go on for a while, marking time until it’s late enough to start knocking on doors. Finally I head for the subway.
There’s no train, and there’s no train. Everyone paces in small circles, or rocks back and forth on their feet. They lean out past the edge to check for lights, it’s like a Busby Berkeley number, bodies fanning in sequence. There’s a young woman dressed not like a secretary, but how she imagines a secretary would dress. It’s a little too fanciful, her shoes are dainty and the headband holding back her dark hair is almost a tiara. A skinny man swings a book by his side, his fingers marking his distracted place.
People are still pacing and checking their watches. Ten minutes go by. A few more. Then suddenly we are in it together. The skinny man steps close and asks me if I heard any announcements. He thinks it might be better to give up and walk to the next station. I ask him what he’s reading, he says it’s dry but useful, and reads the title aloud to me in a mocking voice. Then he rocks forward to check the tracks again.
Behind us, a bald man in dorky sneakers asks the girl where she got her tiara.
I nearly fall asleep as I ride the train to its farthest reach. Vasquez number one lives in a high-rise out here. I find his name and buzzer in the puzzling grid of metal buttons on the wall of the entrance. I am brazen. When the intercom crackles on, I say, “I’m from the Zoning Department.” The door clicks. I go up.
An old, tired man stands outside his door at the end of the 10th floor hallway. “You’re from where?”
“Zoning. We’re sorting out some confusion on a deed. There’s a property in question, at, just a moment.” I pull out the narrow reporter’s notepad from the bottom of my purse and flip through the pages. I tell him the address of the empty lot on the little street. “Are you the Vasquez who sold the property in 1980?”
“No lady, I never owned a thing in my life. That it?”
“That’s that, yes. Thank you.” I turn back to the elevator.
“Hey lady,” he calls out after me. “You city people got no phone? They workin’ you Sundays?” The smile on his face is not friendly. “Maybe you want a better story than that.”
I have a better plan for the next one. The address for this Vasquez is in a modest neighborhood of detached houses. I walk up and down the block. I mime confusion. From the house next door emerges a woman whose rolling fat undulates as she walks. “No time for you Witnesses today,” she says, shaking her hand, no, no, no.
“Oh, no,” I say. “I’m just looking for a house.”
“Nobody selling on this block.”
“No, I’m not buying. I’m looking for where my mother lived when she was little. She showed me a picture. But I only know it’s on this street, near the subway.” I scratch the pavement with the toe of my shoe. I want her to think my mother is dead. I want her sympathy. I want to slip her suspicions.
“Tell me what the house looks like, maybe I can help.”
“Kind of like that one,” I point to the Vasquez house. “How long have they lived there?”
“That house, they’ve been there since the grandpa bought it, one of those soldier loans back when.”
“Oh, that can’t be it then.” I’m about to turn away when I realize I’m walking away from the scene without a crucial detail. Who owns a place is not always who lives there. “But I remember my mother talking about them, I think. They owned some apartments somewhere else. The mom was always griping about the tenants.”
She looks puzzled. “No, that must be some other family. Look around you,” she waves a hand at the street. “People here are just getting by.” She stands a moment, watching me. Now I feel like I can’t leave until she goes on her way. “You got a real needle in the haystack project there, don’t you.”
Yes, I tell her, and she walks on, shaking her head.
Vasquez number three lives back in my own neighborhood, the Italian section down by the highway. At the end of my block, a cop is walking her beat, seeing nothing, sending text messages as she strolls. The corner boys, unexpectedly, are harmonizing on someone’s stoop. Near the junior high school, a little kid is trying skateboard tricks on the stairs. He keeps falling down. The big kid says, “it’s okay, skateboarders are allowed to hang on to something,” and then he winks at me.
The house is a four-story brownstone with generous windows. An iron gate encloses the front yard, whose most prominent feature is a faded St. Lucy statue in a plexiglass shrine. Across the street a man is hosing down his sidewalk, eyeing me casually. I think about waiting until he’s done, but it’s clear there are eyes on this street, whether I can see them or not. I take out my reporter’s notebook and open the iron gate. As it creaks, I can feel the man’s gaze heavy on my back.
There are two bells. The top one says “Rosetti.” The bottom one says “Vasquez.” The ground floor apartment is dark, the windows covered only by yellowed shades. The three floors above have matching curtains. What I’ve learned is he’s got a ground floor apartment, and he isn’t home. I hear rustling and look up. There’s an old woman looking out one of the parlor floor windows. She taps on the screen. “You need him?”
There’s some construction scraps stacked by the trash bins. I take a wild stab. “I need some work done on my place. Someone from my office recommended him.”
She cackles a little, tosses her old grey head back. “You don’t want my brother for that honey.”
I’m not sure if she means she doesn’t buy it, or she advises against it. I just thank her and go back out onto the street. From the gate, I turn back. She’s still there. “It’s such a pretty neighborhood here. My sister’s looking for an apartment. Do you know anybody needing a tenant?”
“You want my brother after all, then.” She points down the street. “He owns two of them.”
“But he lives in yours?”
“I cook,” she shrugs, as though that were an obvious explanation. “I cook Spanish. He likes it better than my husband does. My husband eats at his mother’s. I want nothing to do with those noodles she makes. Send your sister by on Friday, he’ll be around then.”
“Thanks,” I wave, a bright smile.
Walking back home, I see what a trap my improvisation has made for me. Now I need a sister. I’m assessing my options. I can skip work and go back pretending to be my own twin. I can rope Natalie into this, but she’ll want to know why and I don’t want to tell her. I’m hoarding it. I’m a miser of secrets. And besides, I own a wig.
On the wide avenue, three men with flags are leading a parade of old ladies clutching lilies and a motley brass band sweating a dirge from their horns. They trail along behind a statue of Jesus on the back of a pickup truck. I ask one of the old ladies, she waves a hand encircling the scene and says, “It’s holy.”
Up in my kitchen, I stand by the back window and look at my notebook, the list of names and addresses. The men named Flood will have to wait until next weekend. There’s one more thing I want to do tonight. I call Jimmy and tell him to come over at 10. “Bring a bolt cutter,” I tell him. “A big one.”
An afternoon haze overtakes me. I run down to the bodega for coffee. The old dude with the beatnik beard is strolling around like he owns the place. The corner boys let it ride.
In front of the bodega, that guy who wanted to carry my groceries is back. He’s not looking so fine today, a grubby t-shirt and sweat beading up on the dome of his head. He’s pacing off some anger, punching the air. “He’s not even a citizen. What’s he talking about,” he grumbles to the guys by the bodega. He spits in the gutter. “Cocksucker.”
Back toward home, there’s a young woman, she’s small and her clothes are smaller. Her face is shadowed by a stiff trucker’s hat. Beside her is a beanpole of a man rocking a baby carriage back and forth. He’s older, and just shy of homely. “Excuse me,” the man says, as he points a finger back and forth between him and the girl. “If you saw the two of us together, would you think we made a fine couple?” The girl is giggling, hiding her face further under the hat.
“You’re both beautiful,” I say.
“See,” he says to the girl, and then turns back to me. “She don’t want to be with me. What’s that about?”
“I guess that’s her problem, right?” I say, catching the girl’s eye so that we are in on the joke together.
I walk on by and the man calls out after me. I look back and there he is, all gangly with a silly grin and a big thumbs-up.
The coffee propels me through the night. Now it’s almost ten. I put on my darkest jeans, a black hoodie. I bring a camera, my excuse for the expedition. Jimmy is never late. When the doorbell rings, I grab a tiny flashlight and go down to meet him. He’s standing there on the stoop with the giant, long handled claw.
“Where’s your bike?”
He holds up the bolt cutters. “I thought you lost your key.”
“No. Come with me.” I tug his arm and lead him down the street.
We walk by one of the whores, swaying on her candy red heels, and another, more desperate, with pockmarked skin and runs in her stockings. Candy Shoes nods at the bolt cutters, “Y’all got a license for those?” She cackles softly and keeps swinging her hips as a truck crawls past with its tinted window rolled down to look a her.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re going exploring,” I tell him. The fact is he will do what I ask him to. I stop at the corner of the little street. All the lights are out in the two houses. We walk past them to the fence gate.
I point to the chain. “That. Cut that.” He does. I swing the gate open, Jimmy follows me in.
He kicks an empty beer bottle, it grates on the blacktop. “Shh,” I say. “We’re not supposed to be in here.”
He leans back against the fence. He’s stewing. I can feel it. I set the camera down on the ground pointed toward a shock of broken glass in the grassy ledge between the lot and the canal. I fuss with the settings so it will keep the shutter open for five minutes, exposing the film to what little flecks of light there are. Jimmy watches me kneel over the camera. “You could have just told me it was for that.”
“You like surprises,” I say, even though it isn’t true. I’m the one who likes surprises. “Let’s look around.
“We might get in the picture.”
“It’s ok, we’ll just be ghosts.” I start pacing the boundary of the lot, along the fence. I’m looking in the space where the blacktop ends just short of the fence. It’s full of weeds, some of them on their way to being trees, their leaves grown massive to collect the light their stalks need to grow thick and tall. It’s what you’d expect. Broken glass, sundry trash, a fallen tree branch angled near the corner. I hear the shutter click, and walk over to wind the film and take another.
Jimmy is poking his foot around in a thicker patch of weeds on the other side of the lot. “Anything interesting over there?”
“Nope. How long are we going to be here?”
“Not too long. I’m sorry, I thought this would be a little more exciting. Breaking and entering!”
“I’m glad you didn’t do it alone.”
I’m still walking the fence. At the back corner I hear something rustling in the weeds and skitter away. I find a fallen branch and rattle it through the weeds to be sure. The branch stops short of the fence. There’s something solid there. I look back at Jimmy, he’s got his fingers wrapped in the fence, looking out over the canal. I shine the tiny flashlight on the weeds, take a deep breath, and bend the plants aside with one hand. It’s a pile of singed aluminum siding, dented and blackened.
All the sudden, Jimmy’s behind me. “Stand still,” he says. “There’s someone in the street.” I like it when the man in him comes out. He holds my shoulders. There are two voices, a bottle breaks, another flies into the canal. They are men. They are laughing. They are drunk. Their sneakers squeak on the street as one calls a race and the other springs into action. They’re gone.
I show Jimmy the charred fragment of siding. “What do you think?”
“Looks like there was a fire. Something burned, that’s for sure. Was there a house here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I’m just curious.”
“You’re always curious.”
Being known is what most people want, but it makes me want to run. I change the subject. I take Jimmy home with me. He deserves it.
On the way to work the next morning, I’m daydreaming, imagining the missing house on the little street in flames. A man catches my eye. He’s standing by the doors as we cross over the bridge in the morning’s clear light. He’s wiry and unshaven. He looks at me just a beat too long. Then his gaze drifts back to his girlfriend, her back is to me. She tugs a hank of her long dark hair. He shrugs, and raises a flat hand to the level of her chin. He wants to change her. She shakes her head. They’ve been holding hands but now he drops hers and turns back to the view of the wide river. She keeps looking at him as he rests his temple on the glass and watches the blue girders of the bridge flash by. She puts her fingers on his chest, and getting no response she settles back. He looks at me again, his eyes say: it would be different if it was you. But he is wrong. Who among us is happy?
When I get to Midtown, I ride up in an elevator full of women talking about their insomnia. I’ve seen them before, they go out and smoke at 10:30 every day, and I always wonder if they’re on a punch clock or just accustomed to the rhythm. They fill the elevator with the scent of soured smoke. As I leave the elevator, I can’t help sniffing my sleeves to see if it has clung to me. It hasn’t. I close the door to my office and call Natalie at the newspaper. “How do I find out when a house burned down and why?”
“God, I have no idea.”
“Ask someone. One of those boys on the city desk. They’d do anything for you, wouldn’t they?”
“I’ll call you back.”
My in-box is empty. That won’t last long. I go outside to the corporate piazza where people go to smoke. At a table, a girl on a cellphone is droning vapid relationship advice. All around her, everyone is kissing. As is often the case, I feel for just a moment like I’m dreaming. I sit down on a stone bench and turn my face up to the sun. After a while, I imagine that I can hear papers rustling on my desk. I go back up, there’s a contract to proof. I want to think I have special powers of perception, that I did hear the papers. What I really heard was the sound of probability.
Natalie doesn’t call back until the end of the day, but she’s got an answer. The Fire Department has a records archive. She gives me the number. “Say you’re me,” she says. “Say it’s for the paper.” I try calling but they’re closed already. City bureaucrats keep bankers’ hours.
Back in the neighborhood, things are jumping. Dealer’s back. I haven’t seen him for a while. He’s glad-handing his corner boys as I cross the street. He looks good, better-kept than he used to. “How you feelin’ baby,” he sings out to me through a big grin, “long time no see.” He says it just right, familiar and curious, as if I were the one who’d been gone all that time.
Later, Natalie stops by. We go up to the roof with a bottle of wine and settle into the lawn chairs I keep up there. “So what’s with the fire?”
“Just an empty lot. Somebody said there used to be a house. I get the feeling there’s a story. So I want to find out. Why.”
“What kind of story?”
“You know, just a neighborhood story.”
“Is this about that picture you showed me?”
I nod. I can give her that much.
Natalie pours herself some more wine and points to the building across the street. It’s one floor taller, and from the darkness we can see a couple making out on the top-floor fire escape. He keeps pushing into her, she’s bumping her head on the bars, adjusting. “What do you do with it all?”
“All the stories.”
“I write them down.” It’s a lie, but it gives some sense to my fixations.
Walking through the projects toward the subway, I see two beat up cars and a van parked on the courtyard sidewalk next to one of the towers. Maybe a dozen men are standing around by the van, it all seems friendly enough. But there are small groups of people clustered around the courtyard, watching, keeping their distance. I get closer and I see what it is, an undercover in a football jersey is jangling two pairs of cuffs on his finger.
On the far side of the trouble, I walk past a man in a neatly tucked t-shirt. He’s talking to an old lady with a granny cart. “I didn’t know they sell drugs in that building.”
“Shit yeah,” the old lady says.
I get to work early, just in time for the bureaucratic day to begin. I call the Fire Department again. A woman answers in a monotone, “Fire Department Records can I help you,” as if it were all one word.
“I’m trying to find records about a fire at a particular property.”
“Address and year please.”
“I don’t know the year exactly.”
It’s a long time before the line picks up again. It’s a man’s voice this time.
“Records,” he says.
“Hi, I’m a reporter, I’m trying to get records about a fire.”
“Charlotte said you don’t know what year. That makes it difficult to find.”
“I’m a reporter,” I tell him, naming Natalie’s newspaper. “I’m following up on a tip.”
I hear him sigh. “I should ask you for a formal request in writing for something like this.”
“I can send you one if you need me to.” Brinksmanship.
“I’d have to do it anyway, wouldn’t I. Do you have at least a vague idea of when?”
“Between 1980 and 1985.”
“Okay, could be worse. What’s the address?”
I give it to him. “What happens now?”
“Call me in a few days, I’ll see what I can do.”
Someone knocks on my door. It’s the assistant with a pile of contracts. I hang up the phone and put on my glasses. I stare at the pages and wait for the errors to reveal themselves to me.
After work, I’m walking up the street toward home and I see a man standing in front of my house. He’s looking back and forth from the basement apartment of my building to the one next door. He’s maybe 45, in jeans and a bomber jacket, salt and pepper hair. He looks too suburban for this neighborhood. I can’t put my finger on it, maybe his jeans have been ironed. He looks up at me, sheepish, and explains, “I’m looking for my sister’s place. She just moved here with her husband. Latina girl? I can’t remember which one is her house.”
“Well,” I say, pointing to my building. “It’s not this one.”
“Great,” he says and stands in front of the house next door with his hands on his hips. He’s not ready for the door yet. He paces a little as I walk up the stairs and then gathers himself. He walks through the iron gate. I hear it scraping on the sidewalk.
As I close the door behind me, I think: that man is an axe murderer.
I’m letting all this mystery get to me.
I toss through a sleepless morning, then linger over daybreak breakfast at the diner. The old people are dabbing the butter off their toast. The man in the suit speaks Italian in a heavy voice. The boy’s face twitches as his father talks. They don’t seem to know each other very well.
It’s hot again after a few chill days. The kids on the subway are bursting out of themselves. A curvy girl in jeans and a skinny boy in school uniform trousers are sparring around the vertical pole, daring each other to take off articles of clothing, pretending that they might. She offers a seated boy a lap dance. He tentatively accepts, knowing there’s a catch here somewhere. She laughs at him, “No way!”
“I bet you all choke your chickens every single night,” she laughs again.
“What about you, huh?” ventures the boy she refused to dance for.
“Not me, no way. I’d never do that.”
“Never say never,” says the skinny boy.
“That one I’m sure. Never.”
Then a boy who had been silent through all this says, “You’re what, 16? Say you live to be 90. It’s statistically impossible in all those years you’d never.”
“Statistics is for white people,” she spits back.
At work I call the archivist at the Fire Department again. “You got an interesting one here, seems to me,” he tells me. “Two fires. The first one is 1981, house was vacant except for one old lady on the third floor, report says she’d lived there most of her life. She called it in. She got out and watched her worldly goods burn. The boys put it out, what was left was a bombed out shell. Enough structure that it could have been renovated.”
“What was the cause?”
“That’s the beginning of what’s odd about it. Was electrical in nature, but the inspector found that the wiring had been tampered with. It’s hard to prove anything in a situation like that, right? Bad repair work by the super maybe. No criminal charges.”
“But there was another one.”
“Yeah, 1984. That one was simpler. Owner left the building as it was. No renovations. He told the inspector he was saving his money to fix it up. Gotta put the egg back in my nest egg. That’s what he said to the inspector. Very colorful.”
“Was it the same inspector?”
“No, the first one had retired by then.”
“Arson, open and shut. Gasoline fire, the pattern of the initial blaze consistent with an ignitable liquid pour.”
“Who did it?”
“Nobody charged with it.”
“It was a rough neighborhood back then. Let ‘em burn each other down, I’d suspect that was the sentiment.”
“Can I have the names of the inspectors?”
The line goes dead for a moment. I hear him breathe. “I’m not allowed to release that information.”
“Even to a reporter?”
“Did you know that in the 1980s,” he says, “There were only three fire inspector positions for the entire city, couple hundred thousand fires. Those men were busy. Just three of them. Every time you read about a fire in the paper, it was one of those three guys telling you about it. Budgets back then. The city was broke.”
I am trying to figure out if there’s some way to kiss him through the phone wires. The ways people divulge things without divulging them are myriad and marvelous.
“They always skimp in the wrong places don’t they,” I respond.
“That’s right honey. Truer words never spoken. Can I do anything else for you? There’s only one of me here, and I’ve got a pile of records to process.”
“Good luck with your article.”
I hang up and dig through one of Natalie’s databases. The fires on the little street weren’t news, but other fires were. I get the names of the inspectors and run them through the identity database. Two are dead, the last has moved south. I get his number from information and place the call. He sounds a little groggy when he answers the phone. “Hi, I’m sorry to trouble you. I’m a writer in the city and I’m working on an article about the history of my neighborhood.”
“I’m left there years ago, lady.”
“Yes, but you were a fire inspector in the ‘80s, isn’t that right?”
“Well there’s a particular fire that some folks have mentioned to me. Unsolved arson, a little building by the canal.”
“I worked about six thousand cases in the ’80s, and there were two other guys did the same.”
“So you wouldn’t remember this one, I guess.” He’s gruff and surly, but I think I hear a particular edge in his voice. What it is that I hear is pride. I take a chance. “And I suppose at your age, the details are slipping away, aren’t they. I’m sorry to bother you.”
He bites. “Hang on there. I got the mind of an elephant. Old, my ass. Where was it?”
I tell him the address, the previous fire.
“I remember that one. You know why? Because that one really pissed me off.”
“How so? It was vacant. Nobody got hurt, I thought.”
“When nobody gets hurt, there’s one thing that still really burns me. I knew who the perp was. I had two eyewitnesses. Respectable folks.”
“But you didn’t give it to the police?”
“The police didn’t want it.”
“What do you mean?”
“The narcs wanted the perp more than I did. They ran the show back then. Stuck-up fuckers. Pardon me. The language.”
“I’ve heard worse. Thanks a lot for your time.”
“Jesus, I gotta go take some antacids now. Ulcer doesn’t like the past. Nice talking to you,” he says and hangs up.
After work I stop at the lab to pick up the photographs from the night in the empty lot with Jimmy. They’re dark, underexposed, all but the streetlamp’s pool of light on the canal, the light itself fragmented into lines, the water’s oily surface blurred with soft motion. In the best one, there’s a smudge in the penumbra of the light, that’s Jimmy, leaning on the fence. The camera had been just a hasty excuse for the trespass, but now I like that there’s murky evidence of it. That evening happened. This is all happening. There is my obsession, there is my canal, there is the man I keep in the shadows. At home, I tack it to the wall in the area dominated by cement and darkness. I wonder when Jimmy will notice it. If he’ll see himself there at the edge of things.
In the morning, I wake to the siren’s call, growing louder as I come out of sleep. There are fire engines roaring around the projects pretty regularly, and for the most part I tune them out, along with the beeping backup warnings of the garbage trucks and the shrieking laughs of the teenage girls on the sidewalks. Tonight it’s impossible not to see the trucks and their lights. In part it’s because now I’ve got fires on my mind. Mostly though, it’s the burning smell in the air.
I slip into yesterday’s clothes and follow the charred scent. My neighbor down the street is watching from the sidewalk in front of his house. He was a fireman years ago. A fall through the roof retired him, he likes to say, and he limps from the hip on damp days. He’s got a well-groomed afro and a gorgeous ‘70s Lincoln painted fire-engine red, of course.
“Somebody’s going to work,” he says.
There are people on any block who observe the comings and goings on the street, who keep its pulses. He is one of them, and at first I think he means me. Not that I am headed for my office, which I am. That he somehow knows about the quest I’m on.
“Me?” I ask, and instantly see my mistake.
“No, I mean over there,” he says, pointing toward the trucks. He rocks back and forth on heels. “I miss it,” he says. “You smell that and the adrenaline gets going.”
Then he closes his eyes. “Smells like victory.”
We’re quiet for a long time, watching the smoke wash through the air. “I didn’t see any flames.”
“They’re inside,” he says. “Smoke coming out the windows. It’s a little fire, looks to me. Just a lot of smoke. They’ll make quick work of it.”
“There must be a lot of fires around here.”
“What makes you say that?”
I realize how it sounds. Like I mean black people cause fires, or poor people. “Old buildings, renters. The projects can’t be too well built. I was thinking a lot of electrical stuff must go bad.” But he was right. I meant that poor people might not care about their houses, or that there are so many people drunk and on drugs around here, falling asleep with lit cigarettes. I am guilty of thinking in stereotypes and I am also partially right and it makes me squirm under my coat.
“You’re not wrong,” he says, and I think by the look on his face that he means all of it, all of what I haven’t said, too.
“Hey, how long have you lived around here?”
“My whole life.”
I try as hard as I can to make this all seem incidental. “I was down by the canal the other day.” I’m watching his face to see if it works. “There’s a vacant lot on that little street. What happened to the house that was there?”
“I didn’t know you were into real estate.”
“Oh, no. I can’t afford that. I’m just curious.”
“Curious.” He stops a moment. “Well, there was a big fire. Actually two of ‘em. Somebody wanted that building torn down the cheap way.”
“Did they figure it out?”
“Honestly I never paid much attention to the follow-up. We were busy. Fight a fire you have to be focused on the moment at hand. Always. I don’t remember a lot from those years, other than my baby girl’s smiles and the fires themselves.”
“What do you remember about them?”
“How the heat moved, what collapsed first, who we pulled out, who we lost.”
“You could write a book about that,” I say. “All those stories, the stories of the fires. Of the flames and what they did.”
He turns to me, grins. “Who says I’m not?”
The next night, I’m on the way home from a late dinner with Natalie when Dealer comes up behind me out of what seemed the empty darkness. “Hey pretty girl,” he says. “How you feelin’?” His shaved head is shining in the moonlight.
“I’m good,” I tell him. “You?”
He walks alongside me. He’s a little too close. He could put his arm around me from where he is, and I’d just fit under the crook of his armpit. I can feel the heat of his body, the fabric of his jacket just a whisper away from mine. I don’t like it at all.
“You know what, me, I’m fine as long as everything goes like it supposed to do.”
“Boys told me somebody messin’ around in that empty lot few nights ago.” He points to the little street.
I’m not sure how to play this. It’s a warning, but I don’t know how it’s supposed to work. “That a fact?”
He stops and holds onto the meat of my arm. “Don’t fuck around, you on thin ice here now. All the eyes on this street are mine.”
I look into his. Their warm twinkle is gone. They are hard and dark as the tinted windows on his car. “So you and your skinny boyfriend. What you doin’ breaking into that lot?”
I pull my arm loose from his grip. “Thin ice? It’s your lot? I’m sorry. I’ll pay for the lock.”
“Ain’t no matter who holds the paper on it. What I wanna know is what you doin’ there?”
“I was taking pictures.” It’s the truth. I have evidence.
“Taking pictures. In the middle of the night in a lot full of weeds and rats. You a funny one.”
If I didn’t feel so guilty, what would I say? I’d rattle on. “The light off the canal is pretty. I made some long exposures. You want to see?”
“How come you didn’t take them from the end of the street. Canal just as pretty there.”
I am sparring, a fleet footed bantamweight, I’m dancing around him, just a second ahead. “The light pole on the other side. I wanted it in the center. Symmetry.”
He shakes his head. A little corner of a smile.
I’ve got him, I think. Pressure’s off. “I poked around while I was waiting for the camera—it took a couple minutes each shot. Was there a house there before? It seemed like maybe there was a fire.”
He stops me in my tracks. I look at him, I tip my head to the side, puzzled, innocent. “What’s the big deal about the lot?”
“The big deal is it ain’t none of your concern. You feel me?”
“Okay,” I say. “I got it.” I want him to get out of my way, but he stands there, it feels like forever, a wall between me and what I want to know, between me and the place where I am safe.
On Friday I call and say I’ll be late, then I root through the mess in the hall closet until I find the wig. It’s moppy and dishwater brown. When I found it at the discount wig store, I couldn’t even believe they’d make a wig that color. Who would choose it? But I have, because what I want is to look plain. To become unmemorable. I tuck the loose strands of my scarlet hair beneath it and check the mirror. It’s not bad. I’m sure the old lady described me simply. “Fake red hair like a teenager,” or something like that. It can be useful, the striking hair. It’s all anyone remembers. Without it, I fade into the background.
I hit the street. By the lot at the end of the street, there are four men, huddled around a walleyed dog, their backs to the sagging fence. They’re always there. The accumulated stink of their cologne and their sweet cigarillos is unfathomable. Last week I saw a pigeon splattered in the street in front of them. It is still there.
I take the long way around, I’m steering clear of Dealer’s corner. The last thing I need is for him to see me waltzing around in a wig.
I’m practicing lies all along the way, and when I get over to Vasquez’s house, he’s out front, raking the leaves around the St. Lucy. There’s something awkward, hunched about his motions. I rattle the gate and call out “Hello.” When he turns I see the source of the awkwardness. He’s only got one arm.
I’d put him around sixty. Thin legs, barrel chest. He’s wearing dirty workman’s pants and a sweatshirt streaked with white paint. His hair is gray and buzzed like a soldier’s. There’s a gold watch around his wrist. I wonder how he gets it on. He doesn’t say anything, so I do. “I’m looking for an apartment. Your sister said to ask you.”
“Okay, hang on.” He drops the rake and goes inside, after a while comes back out with a ring of keys. “This way,” he says, and I follow him across the street and down to the far end of the block. He seems to be perfectly comfortable with me trailing behind him. No interest in small talk. He lets me in the front door of a brick apartment building, and I follow him up the stairs. On the third floor, at the end of the hall, he swings an unlocked door open and extends his arm across the threshold. “After you.”
It’s a nice place, well-kept. The door opens onto a big room with windows looking out into the fiery leaves of a tall tree. The paint is fresh, the floors are shiny with varnish.
He points to one end and then the other. “Kitchen, bedroom, bathroom over there.”
I walk around, open doors, look pensively into the closets. I end up in the kitchen, leaning back against the counter. I’m imagining my grandmother’s dime-store dishes stacked in the cabinets.
Vasquez is standing over by the windows. He narrows his eyes at me. “Look, lady, if you’re from Code, you know you gotta come here with papers. I’m tired of you people on my ass.”
I laugh, but I hear how nervous I sound. “I’m nobody, don’t worry.”
“Well, you don’t want an apartment, I can tell you that much.”
I set a hand on my hip and lean into it. There’s a way through this, but cautious. “How do you know?”
“You didn’t ask the questions. Heat included, is it noisy, stuff like that. People turn on the shower, flush the toilet.”
“Well, maybe I just don’t like the place.”
He is treating this as hypothetical, and he’s a little amused. He thinks a moment. “You’d look more awkward. You’d be trying to get out.” He leans back on the wall, crosses one foot over the other. “So, what is it?”
“I’m wasting your time, I’m sorry.”
“You gotta have a reason for this. So tell me, and then we’re even. I can tell the boys down at the bar about the kooky chick who didn’t want to rent an apartment.”
“I’m writing something. A novel.” I look down at my toes. The lies come to me like water, but my face can’t always conceal them.
“I’ve been looking at apartments, I’m trying to figure out where my main character lives.”
“You’re crazy. Don’t you just make that stuff up?”
“Usually, but I got stuck. I couldn’t see her at home. I couldn’t figure it out, so I just started looking at places. I’m really sorry.”
“So is this it, does she live here?”
He wants her to, I can work this. I shake my head. “No, it doesn’t feel right.”
He taps his foot. He’s in no hurry to shuffle me out.
I take a risk. “What happened to your arm?”
“Tet happened to my arm.”
“Whatever. I lived. That’s something.” He’s looking me hard in the eyes. I scuttle the urge to look away. “I got another building, but it’s the same layout. You wanna see?”
“I think it’s more dumpy than this. Gritty. She’s a little desperate.”
“I used to own a place down by the canal. Woulda been perfect for you, I bet. Gritty all right. Had a dive bar full of thugs on the ground floor.”
“What happened to it?”
“It was a rental. Supposed to be easy money, but you know. Dodgy neighborhood. The blacks were up to all kinds of things. Somebody was dealing drugs outta there. Too many cops nosing around. My uncle made me sell it. He didn’t want any attention on the family.”
“Who bought it?”
“Just some guy, was a friend of my army buddy. Dead now, probably. Kind of a dirtbag.”
We’re both quiet a while. There’s a whole room between us, but I feel like we’re dancing a slow box step, he’s holding the small of my back with his good hand, I’ve got mine on his lame shoulder.
“I bet you’re not writing a book either, are you.”
I look at my feet. “No.”
“Tell me the truth this time, what’s your story.”
Maybe the truth will work, I think. “I’m trying to find someone.”
“You lose someone?”
“Not exactly. I have something that belongs to someone else.”
“What makes you think I’d know anything about it?”
“It’s got something to do with that building you used to own. I knew about that. I knew you sold it to a man named Madder. I also know it burned down.”
“That’s just some old trouble over there. Ancient history. You should leave it lie.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“The bad kind. A soap opera of trouble.”
“I don’t want any trouble, but I need to find someone,” I say again, as if it carried the weight of logic.
“Lady, look for who you wanna look for, but that building is gone anyhow.”
“Then why did you tell me in the first place?”
He’s staring into my eyes again, unflinching. “Because you told all these lies to find out. And maybe it’ll keep you safe to know it.” He shrugs, turns away a little. “Plus it got you to stay a little longer. You’re good to look at, you know that.”
I want to buy him a drink, show up at his local bar and dazzle his drinking buddies. I want to take off the wig and show him how beautiful I am.
He pushes off the wall and heads for the door. As he’s locking it behind us, he turns to me. “To my mind, the real question is why did you tell me all that stuff. You don’t know a thing about me.” He raises an eyebrow.