Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I was scared to death that night. I admit it.
I sat in my second-story window, taping my hands and looking down at the cars on the street. I should have been wearing a white undershirt to complete the picture, and playing my saxophone while the people passed below me on the hot sidewalk. If I could have played the damned thing worth a lick, I would have. Instead I just sat there and watched an early moon rise high above the buildings. When I saw it, I said to myself, here’s one more excuse not to go through with this. A full moon is nothing but trouble for me. If you think it’s an old wives’ tale, just ask anybody with a job like mine. Go ask a cop working the night shift, or a doctor in the emergency room. He’ll tell you. A full moon means a busy night.
I thought about finding some music to calm me down. Something slow and easy. But I figured no, that’ll just drive me nuts, so I went downstairs and jumped some rope. Then I worked the speed bag, one hand over the other as fast as I could, fast as a drum roll. I hit the heavy bag for a while, just long enough to make my hands hurt and my arms feel slightly numb for the rest of the evening. Anderson held the bag for me, and watched me with that knowing smile on his face.
“Somebody’s a little wired,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re anxious about tonight.”
“Not at all.” A lie as big as the lump in my throat.
“Come on, Joe,” he said. He let go of the bag. “You’re acting like a kid.”
Good old Anderson. He was the owner of this old wreck of a place, this old bus station turned into a gym with two apartments upstairs. He was a good trainer, a good landlord, and an even better human being, but I wasn’t sure if I could deal with him today. Not on this day of all days.
“It’s been a while,” I said. “You know that.”
He knew. “Long enough,” he said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
I didn’t have an answer to that, so I just wrapped him up in a sweaty bear hug. He tried to dodge me, but from what I hear he was a slow man even at his fighting weight in 1960. The years since hadn’t made him any faster.
“I’ve got to get dressed,” I said. “Go bother somebody else.”
“You’re gonna be fine, Joe. Just relax.”
“Easy for you to say.”
I left him there, went up the rickety old stairs two at a time, and hit the shower. This was my sad excuse for a home, this room and a half that had once been the bus station’s main office. It still held the faint smell of cigarettes and bus fumes, but at this point in my life it seemed to fit me. Or at least if it didn’t, it wasn’t something I even cared about. I stood in front of the closet and went through the shirts, looking for something that matched my dress pants.
“When in doubt,” I said. I picked out the white shirt, figuring white goes with anything, right? Then I had a ten-minute debate with myself on the tie issue. Red tie. Blue tie. The red tie won in a split decision.
When it was firmly knotted around my neck, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and took a good hard look at myself. Was I up for this?
Hell no. But it was too late to back out now. Even with a full moon.
I checked my messages. There was one from Howie, wishing me luck. He was my best friend, going all the way back to elementary school. Now he was a detective on the Kingston police force. What mattered tonight was that he knew how hard this would be. He was the only guy who really knew.
“I’ve got to get psyched for this,” I said. “Get my head on straight.” It was too early to leave yet, so I went back to the collection. Never mind slow and easy. I needed something huge, so I pulled out Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun. It’s a blistering assault on the ears, with eight of Europe’s strongest free jazz players going at it back in 1968 like it was the end of the world. Owning this album is probably illegal in many states.
I cranked it up to eleven and let Herr Brötzmann rattle the windows for me, along with most of my brain cells. It never failed. When it was done, the silence was even more deafening.
It was way too warm for a jacket, but I grabbed one anyway. With just a white shirt and a tie I’d look like the counterman at a muffler shop. I went back down the stairs, hoping to avoid the gym and any further helpful commentary from Anderson. Or any of the other muscleheads in the gym. Anderson had probably told every single last one of them.
“Hey, Joe!” he yelled after me. “How many cats were you strangling up there?”
I gave him a wave and was out the door.
The sun was low in the sky when I stepped out on Broadway. Kingston’s Broadway, that is, not to be confused with the Broadway in New York City, ninety miles down the river. We don’t have skyscrapers on our Broadway, or big theaters. But there’s a Planet Wings franchise across the street from me, and yes, they deliver.
I checked my watch. It wasn’t even seven o’clock yet, so I still had an hour to kill. I could have gone down to the Shamrock for a quick one, but then I figured no, that would be another room full of guys with advice for me. Might as well go uptown, find a quiet place where nobody knows me, and get my game face on.
I got my car out of the back lot, my old black Volkswagen with the big dent in the rear bumper. I headed up Broadway, past the YMCA and the diner, past the old brick buildings with the ancient lettering high on the sides. fine furniture. women’s clothing. From back before the malls came to the other side of town.
I drove past my office. Past the old Governor Clinton Hotel, which was now an old folks’ home, around the corner and past the stockade, to the original part of the city, over three hundred years old. Kingston was the first capital of New York State, until that day in 1777 when the British came to burn it down. On the plus side, that meant that no matter how badly things went this evening, it could only end up being the second-worst day in Kingston history.
I parked on Front Street. It was six thirty-five now. Only one thing I could think of doing.
I stepped into the Blue Jay Way and ordered a beer from the tall guy behind the bar. He must have been six foot six, easy. I took the bottle to the high table by the front window, hung my coat up on the hook, and sat down. I watched the people walk by and the slow procession of cars on Front Street.
The tie was a mistake, I thought, loosening it. It makes me look like I’m trying too hard. And I wonder what the odds are I’ll walk out of here and forget my jacket. Probably even money.
I honestly don’t drink much anymore, but I figured a couple of beers was exactly what I needed. Just enough to take the edge off things. Put everything in a slight fog. And damn, tonight it tasted pretty good, after a long Saturday in the gym, after a long week of chasing my clients around and trying to keep them on the path of righteousness.
I turned away from the window and looked around the bar. It had been totally redone since the last time I had been in here. New owners, a whole different feel to the place. People were throwing darts in the back. It must have been some kind of Saturday night league, a real serious setup, with two tournament-quality boards and bright track lighting over the whole deal. You probably brought your own darts to this place, and you probably had to be pretty damned good.
I could get into this, I thought. Something new to focus on. Something to lose myself in, if only for an hour or two. I was always up for that. Anything to get me out of my own head.
Just then somebody cranked up the jukebox, and I swear to God it was Michael Bolton’s voice suddenly filling the place, some song I couldn’t have named if you put a gun to my head. I looked around to see if it was somebody’s idea of a sick joke. It had to be one of the dart throwers, putting on the lamest excuse for music he could find just to throw off his buddy’s game.
But no, there was a woman standing there by the jukebox with a dreamy smile on her face, her head moving slowly to the music. She was getting out more singles from her purse, and nobody was there to stop her.
“’Nother beer?” It was the tall bartender standing over me.
“In a minute,” I said. “But you’re kidding me with the jukebox, right? You don’t actually have Michael Bolton in there.”
“What, you don’t like jazz?”
I waited for the ceiling to cave in on his head, or for the earth itself to crack open beneath his feet. “Please tell me you didn’t just call this music jazz.”
He smiled at me, went and grabbed the second Bud I didn’t ask for, and put it down in front of me. I shook my head and went back to looking out the window. It was just starting to get dark outside now. I could see a faint reflection of my face in the glass. I still didn’t look ready. Not by a long shot.
I tried to think of anything else in the world. I ran through my cases, all the clients I had seen that week. Summer is the absolute worst time of year for me. No school, no commitments, just long hot nights with everybody out on the streets, not necessarily looking for trouble but available if trouble happens to drive by.
The next song came on, and my hand on the Bible, it was Kenny G. On a jukebox in what looked like a perfectly normal bar. That clinched it for me, so I took one more long pull off the beer and left it there. I threw some money at the bartender before he could say a word and left.
I walked a half block down Front Street, past the Chinese place. The smell made me hungry, even though I was still way too nervous to eat anything. That made me think of dinner, which made me remember my jacket. I went back to the bar and grabbed it.
When I was back outside, I crossed the street this time and killed a few minutes looking at all the stuff in the pawnshop windows. I had bought my saxophone here, an old Selmer alto with gold finish. I practiced for at least an hour every day, but I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. But what the hell. It was another thing to occupy my mind. Pretending I could play the saxophone, pretending I could box. That and the work. The work was always there waiting for me.
I saw a new sax in the window. I thought to myself, maybe the one I had was defective. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t play anything harder than “This Old Man” after six weeks. But damn, three hundred more dollars.
Next to the sax was a mace, one of those big sticks with the spiked iron ball attached to one end with a chain. It looked like the real thing, too. Like you could cause some serious harm with it. It made me wonder what kind of life you’d have to be living if you woke up one morning and had to go pawn your mace.
A car drove by slowly, loud music throbbing in the warm night air. I could feel the bass notes under my feet. I took one quick look at the faces inside, saw only the glowing red tip of the driver’s cigarette. But the girl sitting next to him, I thought I recognized. Her head was tilted back, both of her hands held high through the moon roof, reaching for the stars.
I couldn’t even place the name, but I remembered something about a box cutter smuggled into school. She didn’t use it, I thought. That’s right. I remember now. In the moment of truth, she didn’t actually cut anybody. Assuming that’s the same girl . . . If it is, hell, she’s just out riding around on a hot night. No real trouble there.
I can’t help thinking this way. Everyone I see, especially the kids on the verge of adulthood, I imagine the traps dug on either side of them, the wild animals waiting at the bottom. Tiger on one side, alligator on the other. Just waiting. Most days it’s a useful way to see people. It makes me good at what I do. Which is usually the only reason I get up in the morning anymore. But eventually it takes its toll on me.
I walked by Artie’s, checked my watch, thought yeah, this is the place I really need. It was the only other bar on Front Street, now that JR’s had been turned into some kind of New Age body salon. Artie’s was old-school, the kind of place that was maybe eight feet wide, all the way back. You had to squeeze your way past the men on the stools. And no jukebox.
Yeah, a shot and another beer would work. Watch the game on the television above the bar. Maybe forget this other thing entirely. Just bag it and spend the evening right here.
I kept walking, avoiding that temptation. It was a beautiful night. Get some air, walk around a little more, get yourself psyched up.
I checked out the Uptown, the little jazz club on the corner. Having this place in town, it was a miracle. All of the other stuff that was going on here in uptown Kingston—the art galleries, the upscale antique stores, even the dance studio—it was all worth it if it meant having a real jazz club, too. We were just close enough to New York City that a really good player would make it up here once in a while. Tonight there was a trio scheduled—nobody I’d ever heard of, so it could have been three guys trying to be the Bill Evans Trio and sounding more like “Jazz-tastic” at the Holiday Inn. Or it could have been something real and amazing. Maybe I’d get over to hear for myself tonight, if I suddenly found myself free. Or hell, maybe if things went really, really well . . .
Yeah, right, Joe. That’s gonna happen. I checked my watch. Twenty minutes until Zero Hour. I walked around the block again. I walked slowly so I wouldn’t sweat. Last thing I needed. I checked my hair in a storefront window, straightened my tie. I didn’t look myself in the eye this time.
It was seven fifty, time to head over to Fair Street. I rounded the corner, past the Senate House. I didn’t stop to read the historic landmark signs. I could have recited them, I’d been in this town so long. All my life. I kept my head high, taking deep breaths, walking straight ahead to my final destination.
This is something you need to do, I thought. You know this. You set this up yourself and now it’s time to go through with it.
It was seven fifty-seven when I got there. In the past, it would have been a welcome sight. The brick walls, the red awnings, the gold letters stenciled on the windows. Le Canard Enchaîné. A real French place, run by a couple from Paris. I could see they were doing good business tonight. It was a perfect Saturday night, and I could hear people talking, laughing, enjoying themselves.
This will be easy, I told myself. It’s just a blind date, right? You’ve faced a lot worse. You sparred with Maurice and it only took nine stitches to sew up your eyebrow.
And on the job, hell. You’re a probation officer. You’ve had guns pointed at you. Knives. Two-by-fours. Garden hoses.
And then Laurel.
If you can face what they did to Laurel and still be standing here today . . . you can face anything.
Even a blind date.
I closed my eyes for a moment, took one more deep breath, and then opened the door.
After two long years, it was time to start my life again.
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