In This Rain
It surprised him, how light she was.
On reflection, he supposed he should have expected it. Doll-like delicacy had been one of her allures, along with silken skin and hair the color of sunshine. Though no child, she had a child’s eagerness, a child’s daring. She never balked, just giggled and plunged in. Her only request was not to be marked; she was vain about her beauty.
Though beauty like hers aged poorly. Sometimes, watching her sleep, he’d wondered what she’d do that dreadful morning when she woke withered and dry as an autumn leaf.
Now that day would never come.
Oh, he’d done her a favor, then? No, of course not. He’d done what he had to do, as always. That ability to see the necessary and carry it through was his singular gift. Though sometimes, particularly lately, particularly when hard choices leapt from nowhere as this one had, calling for decisive, irreversible action, he’d felt a wave of crushing weariness. He was exhausted by a lifetime of demands. Having to look ahead, outsmart, outmaneuver. Having to be better. Once, he’d been sure the view from the peak would be worth the climb. But slowly he’d come to know that the path he was on, littered with boulders, pitfalls and traps, crept onward forever but never reached the top.
So he’d switched to a different route.
And it wasn’t much longer until the climb would be behind him. What had happened tonight was an unforeseen stumble, and he’d done what he had to, to right himself. He regretted the need. But he couldn’t risk her willful silliness endangering everything, not now.
He’d assumed she was asleep when the phone rang. He’d left the bedroom. But it should have occurred to him she might follow. It was her sport when he was on the phone, to distract him with her tongue and her touch. He should have known.
Still, in the end, it was her fault. The flightiness he’d found so appealing was dangerous in the face of knowledge she never should have had.
“Ann Montgomery? She’s a friend of mine!” she’d beamed, repeating a name she’d overheard him use. “I didn’t know you knew her!” Then pouting: “Wait. You’re cheating on me with her, aren’t you?”
He’d stroked her hair and whispered no, and she’d said, “You are! When do you see Ann? Daytime? Lunchtime?” It was a game to her, as everything was. “Oh, yes, you bad man! Okay, don’t tell, see if I care. I’ll ask Ann.” He’d laughed with her and kissed her. And in his mind, run through his choices.
She might forget.
He might be able to buy her silence.
Or threaten her into it.
But only one choice could guarantee permanence. And way too much was at stake, now, for anything less than a guarantee.
Gently, he put her down. He gazed at her delicate, blanket-wrapped curves, then slammed the car’s trunk. Rolling out into the pounding storm, he headed for a spot he knew where the river wrapped the island. He could ease her in and leave her there. No one would see, no one would take note, at this hour, in this rain.
– 1 –
Ann Montgomery sped up the Thruway thinking about Joe Cole’s garden.
The old garden, the one in Riverdale that wasn’t Joe’s anymore: she couldn’t keep her mind off it.The old garden, the one at the house that wasn’t Joe’s anymore: she couldn’t keep her mind off it. TheIts breathtaking chaos of its color and scent,the collision shape and sizeshades. Its bright gleams and secret shadows.
How amazed she’d been, the first time she’d seen it. that surprised and delighted and changed with each step Joe had led her through the house, a shipshape sparseness that didn’t surprise her, suiting well her new partner, so precise, methodical, soft-spoken, and civil. The wood floors and white walls stood in quiet contrast to the asphalt anarchy outside the front door; but outside the back, she’d found a wild extravagance that made her stop, open-mouthed. She’d turned to Joe to find out who the gardener was, himself or the thin-lipped Ellie who’d looked her up and down at the door. But Joe’s eyes weren’t on her. She followed his gaze to a vine loosed from its stake, a flower head faded but not yet cut, and she didn’t have to ask.
Intense, powerful, this memory of Joe and his garden: but not enough to distract her from the highway or her location on it. She was coming up on the exit she’d never taken, that led to the college she’d never been near. There, the concert hall, to honor the man whose will endowed it, bore his name, which was the same as hers.
Ann added speed, pushing the car through curves. As she’d done for distraction and for buttressing since she was nine, she called Jen.
Not that Jen would answer. Sunday morning? Once, they’d been party animals together, dancing wherever the music was, drinking whatever was served, and though Ann these days preferred her own den, Jen was still joyfully on the prowl.
“Hey, get up,” she said into the air, her cell phone on speaker in its car cradle, “The sun’s shining. You remember the sun, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Guess where I’m going, win a prize. You have an hour till I’m there. Get on it, girl.”
Brief, that phone message, but it took her past the college exit, this highway’s only pitfall. The pounding storm that had started Friday night and hung stubbornly on through yesterday had left shiny roadside puddles and scrubbed the air. She loved to drive this road: her joy in it had led to guilt each time she’d taken it to the prison, to see Joe. She’d never told him how she’d looked forward to the wide sky (he could see a slice of sky from his cell), the rolling land (the prison’s grounds sloped steeply) and the feel of soaring through it (he could go nowhere in the prison without permission). Odd, she thought, that though now he was out, she was heading up to see him along this same road.
It was her father who’d taught her to drive like this, fearlessly and fast, when she was too young to be legally behind any wheel, when with her father beside her she feared nothing. Lean into it, Annie, he’d say. Be part of what’s coming, not what is. Her mother preferred the back seats of limos and cabs and to this day
“After what happened to your father I’d have thought you’d want to be more careful.”
“Nothing ‘happened’ to him. You and that bastard, that’s what happened to him,” Ann always answered, because it was true and because it made her mother turn away, her lips pressed into a thin hard line.
Flying up the left lane, Ann was forced to slowhad to slow behind a blue SUV cruising at sixty-five. She flashed the Boxster’s lights, , crept closer, hit the lights again. Nothing. She gave the SUV the lights again and hit the horn.
He acted as though she weren’t there.
VeeringAnn right. She, she moved alongside, stayedheld there a minutemoment, then shot ahead. As she swerved back left in front of him she slowed to sixty. His shiny bulk loomed in her mirrors. He blared his horn blasting and flashed his, lights.
She acted as though he weren’t there.
Another blare, and he gunned the big engine; she had Tosca in the CD player but the blue SUV had so much power under that overgrown hood she could hear him anyway. He charged into the right lane; she sped up so he couldn’t pass on her right. Hell with you, you s.o.b., she thought, though she didn’t know him, didn’t know what was on his mind, any more than she knew what had been on her father’s when he skidded his Ferrari through a curve and slammed into a stand of trees outside Zurich twenty years ago.
She was yanked back from that Swiss hillside by a cloud-splitting horn blast and a shriek of brakes. In her mirror a Toyota sprayed gravel as it peeled onto the shoulder. The blue SUV wove wildly back behind her, then steadied and slowed. The Toyota, which must have been tooling along in the right lane unseen by the SUV — God knew she hadn’t seen it — squealed to a stop.
Ann held her breath and listened. Nothing: No scream of metal or crash of glass. She watched in the mirror as the Toyota edged back onto the road, its driver probably still cursing out the guy in the SUV. He had a right. Bastard almost killed him.
The bastard who’d been driving the legal limit in the proper lane until he’d pissed Ann Montgomery off.
Shit. Her hands pounded the steering wheel. She glanced back once more, then sped up and left them both behind.
The second act of Tosca came to an end. Ann tried to swallow away the sour taste in the back of her throat. No harm, no foul. And goddammit, maybe next time that SUV bastard would pull over when someone wanted to pass him.
No. He wouldn’t. She held steady for half a minute. In the rearview she saw the driver pound his steering wheel. Grinning, she considered flipping him off, but resisted. She just hit the gas and sped away. That should teach him.
Should, but wouldn’t. He’d never get it. The next time, he’d be the same jerk. People don’t change.
Yes they do, she argued with herself. A baby can distinguishSmall children hear differences between between sounds that seem the same to adults, a skill that fades once a childonce a child starts talking and learns which sounds are useful. A person changes like that: by discarding pieces, littering the roadside with what he doesn’t need.
If he’s lucky, she thought, racing up the highway. Sometimes — a crumpled car, skid marks on slush — what a person throws away is something he really should have kept.
– 2 –
Harlem: 134th Street
T. D. Tilden leaned on the water tank steel and fired up a blunt. No way he was walking to the edge of the roof again, look down like some bitch wondering where her date got to. Not going to let this nigger get him stressed.
The first hit made him less jangly, like it always did. He looked at the clouds running across the sky. Truth was, sometimes he come up here just to hang. This roof, he could sit and draw, no one saying Hey, lemme see that shit. He drew the clouds, and the buildings, sometimes these right here or ones from his head, too, the ones he was going to build when he had his business. Sometimes he drew the flowers from the next-door backyard. He’d wave down at the old lady there and she’d always wave back.
No, not so bad up here. Just, this Kong fucker should have more respect. Making him wait every damn time, what was up with that? T. D., he liked to be on time. It showed you knew what business was and you wasn’t scared of it.
T. D. watched the clouds some more and got lost in a movie in his head, him going off to his business. Setting his Kangol on, kissing Shamika goodbye. He could see her baby-don’t-go smile, but he the man of the house. Got to take care of business.
Or maybe Shamika come with him. Shamika be his secretary at his office high up in some glass building, one of those buildings downtown he never been in yet but he been seeing them all his life past the roofs of Harlem. Shamika been working for Mr. Corrington for a year, so she knew all what secretaries got to know, typing, all that. Damn, he liked that idea. Shamika, sitting at a big desk, saying Mr. Tilden too busy to talk to you now.
That made him smile. Shamika wasn’t like other girls T. D. knew. She didn’t run around announcing his private business. He could talk to Shamika, like about this Kong asshole, he could brag on himself and he wouldn’t find it coming back at him from the street.
Thinking about Kong messed up his mellow mood. The way Kong talked when he told T. D. what he wanted him to do next. Like T. D. was some retard, like what Kong wanted him to do was so hard. Even coming with those drawings that one time. Kong don’t know about T. D., how he don’t need drawings, how you tell T. D. something, he see the picture in his head. Well, how he gonna know? T. D. sure as hell ain’t about to tell him, just like he ain’t told Kong he know Kong wasn’t the one drew those drawings. You could tell from how he explained them to T. D., someone else had to explain them to him.
Sure, job like this might be hard, if you was big and clumsy. That’s why Kong didn’t come with T. D. no more, T. D. knew that. Too busy, that was bullshit. The first job, Kong almost got their asses caught, all his noise clomping up that damn scaffold. Then taking out that drawing again, like T. D. wasn’t about to remember? T. D. knew what the job was, he knew what to do. Truth was, he’d know which of them damn bolts to pull without ever seeing no drawing. It just worked that way with him. He knew what was holding what up, just by looking. But that was another thing he wasn’t about to tell no one.
Anyhow, it was easier without Kong. T. D. was quick, he was quiet, he could slip in and out of places like a shadow. Sometimes, climbing on this watertank steel right here, he almost thought he could fly. Like if he let go the steel he’d swoop down close to the rooftops, for a second or two look like he was bound to hit something, but he’d soar back up again. Kong was lucky he found T. D., that was definite. Kong should be more grateful, not disrespect T. D. like he do.
The money wasn’t that good, neither, now he thought about it. Maybe he’d tell Kong that. These three jobs, they was — what was it, when you was in the union? “apprentice,” that was the word — they was apprentice jobs. Now you seen what I can do, you got to pay more. Yeah, that’s what he’d tell Kong. Serve the fucker right, always keep him waiting.
He jumped when the roof door creaked but he made himself stay where he was. He watched Kong walk out onto the tar and look around. Big light-skinned fucker, head all shaved and shiny. Frowning around like this roof was his and better not be nothing on it he didn’t like.
Kong found T. D., nodded and said, “T. D., my man.”
“I ain’t your man.” Fuck, this cocksucker was scratching on his last nerve.
Kong smiled. He didn’t move, but it seemed like maybe he did. Like sometimes on the corner, you could feel the subway running uptown even if you couldn’t hear it.
T. D. suddenly got cold. He blew out smoke and decided to quit. Didn’t have to put up with this shit. There was lots of work out there for someone smart and quick as him. “You got what you owe me?”
“Sure, T. D.” Kong walked toward him still smiling, like it was cool with him that T. D. was over by the tank and Kong had to do the work, walking over.
T. D. knew it wasn’t cool but fuck if he was going to say anything. He finished off the blunt, ground out the fire, and pocketed the roach. “About the next job,” he began. You got to give notice, he knew that. He wasn’t in no union but he knew about being businesslike.
“No next job, T. D.”
What shit was that? “The fuck you mean, no next job?” How could he give notice, walk out on this asshole, if there was no job to quit?”There was a problem Friday, my man.”
“I ain’t your fucking man and there wasn’t no fucking problem! Nobody saw me, heard me, nothing. The way that storm was pounding my ass, you lucky I ain’t charged you double!”
“Guess you don’t read the paper.”
T. D.’s face heated up, like it always did when somebody talked about reading. His moms, always coming with Reading is all that, you got to try, Thaddeus, you just got to try some. He sneered, “Don’t have no time for that shit.”
Kong shrugged, like he knew it didn’t have nothing to do with time but he didn’t give a shit could T. D. read or not. “My people says there was a problem.”
People? The asshole coming like he got people? He somebody else’s people, no doubt about that. “Well, fuck,” T. D. said. “Don’t matter. Don’t want no more of your shit, anyway.”
“My shit? What shit is that?”
“I quit!” T. D. spoke too loud and too fast, like he seriously gave a damn. He told himself to chill. “I ain’t working for you no more. I already decided that, before you come talking about there was a problem.” There, at least Kong would know T. D. got there first.
Kong nodded like T. D.’s moms did sometimes, like T. D. was right but it didn’t matter. T. D.’s face went hot again.
“Just give me my fucking scratch,” T. D. said.
“I don’t think I got no more scratch for you, my man.”
“The fuck? The fuck you mean, you don’t think? You owe me!”
“You fucked up.”
“Bullshit! Oh, bullshit, nigger! You pay me, or you be sorry.”
“How you gonna make me sorry?” Kong asked this like he was just interested, like he was asking, How you gonna light that blunt, you ain’t got no matches?
“How?” Damn, that was a good question. But from nowhere, T. D. had the answer. “Them drawings you give me,” he said. “For the first job? The ones you say I better study, the ones you was so serious, I better give ’em back?”
“You gave ’em.”
T. D. smiled big because Kong sounded confused. “I copied their asses.”
“I got copies. Zee-rocks.”
Kong’s face rippled into a grin. “Naw. You ain’t got no copies. Why you gonna do that, make copies? I know you didn’t.”
“Did,” said T. D. Damn, this was fun. “Because you was so serious. I thought, these things is so important, maybe I need to keep ’em.” That wasn’t the real answer. T. D. liked those drawings. They were like little pieces of blueprints. He was planning on studying them. Not the way Kong said, but to practice making lines like the ones in them. Maybe even work out the words. “You want them, you got to pay me. What you owe me, plus extra. For my trouble. I got to go get ’em for you.”
“What, they far away?”
T. D. wasn’t falling for that, no way. “Just show me the money, bro.”
“Couldn’t be no trouble, getting ’em. You just ask your moms, right? Nice lady, your moms. Got a skinny ass like you. Or Shamika. Bet Shamika got ’em. Hot bitch like that, I know I’d give her my copies.”
“I ain’t saying, cocksucker! You want ’em, you gotta pay me.”
Kong nodded his huge head, up and down, up and down. “All I got to do? I pay you, you give me the copies? Awright.” Kong smiled again. Because of the blunt, T. D. didn’t see right away that this was a different kind of smile. He tipped to it just before Kong slammed him in the gut. As he crumpled, Kong’s fist smashed his jaw. The clouds spun crazily. T. D. sucked in air, tried to stand himself up. Kong clamped onto his arm. T. D. tried to shake him off, to yell What the fuck? but he didn’t have the breath and Kong didn’t let go.
All this time Kong didn’t say a word, even when he dragged T. D. to the edge of the roof, even when he picked him up, even when he tossed him off. Whoa, T. D. thought, tumbling through the air; and he tried to soar, swoop down near the rooftops and fly up again. For a second or two, he thought he had it.