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I zero in on the three-on-the-tree gearshift on the steering column of Joey Velez’s narco-white Chevy Caprice. I’m riding shotgun as Joey tears northwest on the mountain stretch of Route 2222 in the dark, the road twisting roller-coaster right and left, up a hundred feet in the air and straight back down, the car hanging on by a hair with Joey cackling at the wheel.
“Joey.” I try to focus my eyes. “I thought you were dead.”
“No, man,” he laughs, throwing a wink in my direction. “Pretty near. Wake up, pally, we gotta see someone.”
I remember he drove off a cliff on a dark night in March. Then I remember it’s March now. The Caprice streaks off the road, arcs into the air weightless as my stomach leaps and the car noses down.
I jolted awake, kicking my feet, wheezing from another rerun of the Joey dream that’s punctuated my half- sleep for the last six months. Wake up, it’s just a dream. What difference would it make if I’d been with him that night? He would’ve flown off the cliff anyway and we’d both be dead. Or I could have woken him up. Or we would’ve taken a different road. I threw my arm over my eyes against the sunlight streaking through the venetians.
“I’m leaving your father, I’m not leaving you. You understand that, don’t you, honey?” I’m ten years old, standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom in our apartment in Elmira, New York, watching her pack.
“Don’t you, honey?”
My mother was a glamour gal in the early 1950s, a beautiful WASP with long, silky black hair, sparkling blue bedroom eyes, and at five-eight, a full two inches on my father. With heels and her hair up like a half- raunchy Audrey Hepburn, she towered over him in what I took to be the wedding picture, Dad a skinny immigrant’s son, a scrappy street Yid in a borrowed suit. But with her on his arm he felt like Lucky Luciano, feeding her lies about his “connections” and showing her off at nightclubs he couldn’t afford. By daylight he was just an ex-boxer who did favors, like the time I was eight and he went to prison for a deuce for one of the big boys. A mobster’s lackey, she said. A nobody. The day they paroled him, she packed a suitcase and called a cab.
“Where we goin’, Ma?”
I watched her at her makeup table, brushing mascara on her long eyelashes, framed in the mirror with me in the background, a dwarf stage-door johnny. When the taxi honked she kissed me on the cheek and walked out.
In my dream, I’m always sitting alone at the bare kitchen table, trembling, waiting for him to come back from the big house with his forty dollars and his new suit. The doorknob turns. I have to tell him she’s gone, and I don’t know what he’ll do. Maybe he’ll kill me.
I can still feel her kiss on my cheek, still hear her voice echo.
“I’m leaving your father, I’m not leaving you.”
Watching from the window as the blue and white taxi drove off, I knew for the first time that I was completely alone. And that I always would be.
Ring. Click. Tape rolling. “This is Dan. Go ahead.” Beep.
“Hello, Sergeant Reles? This is Martha Nell from Dispatch.” Her voice twanged with tour-guide cheer.
“Pick up, please.”
I killed the machine and worked up the spit to speak. “Yeah.”
“Did we wake you?” she said with a sympathy I save for widows and orphans. “Have I told you how good it is to have you back? You know you’re on call.”
“No. Waller,” I muttered. “I’m not even next.”
“Sergeant Waller got a call on Saturday, one o’ those murder-suicides? Filled out the forms and got home by lunch. And I guess they changed the rotation with you back in action, because you’re next on the list.”
Miles must have rigged it so I’d come up soon and win some points fast, coming off suspension. I opened my eyes. Sunlight hit my retinas and burned back to my ears. “No.”
“New case today. City bus knocked down a boy and dragged him down East Twelfth.”
“Vehicular deaths. Traffic Department.”
“Isn’t that funny? That’s just what Lieutenant Niederwald said you’d say!”
I coughed something dead from the back of my throat. “Look, Martha Nell—”
“He said to tell you Capital Metro anticipates a lawsuit, so they’re claiming it was suicide.”
“Christ. Where is it?”
“The ravine that cuts under the 700 block of East Twelfth, just west of Casa Rosa Apartments.”
“Any ID on the remains?” I sat up heavily and scratched.
She’d already hung up.