Slip kid, slip kid, second generation
Only half way up the tree
– Pete Townshend
My bedroom walls are covered with posters of my heroes: Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar, Roger Daltrey clutching a microphone to his mouth, Keith Moon flailing on his drum kit, his arms a blur. I’m listening to their latest album, the volume kept low because my mother is already asleep across the hall. My head is fuzzy from too much beer and too much weed. I think I hear my old man running up the stairs. Then I hear him calling my mother’s name, and I know some serious shit must be hitting the fan. The old man never runs.
Then I’m running too, to see what’s going on, hoping I don’t smell like dope. The old man is already filling the stairway when I get to the hall. The Greeks call him Tavros—Bull—because his shoulders and arms are so heavily muscled from years of heaving tool cases down at the warehouse. He stands on the top of the step, his collar loosened, his face stroke red.
Mother comes out of their bedroom, her hair mussed from the pillows. Without makeup, she looks haggard, her face drawn and colorless.
“Paul?” she asks.
The old man’s thick chest heaves with each breath.
“Paul?” she asks again, louder.
He raises both arms and turns his calloused palms upward before letting them fall to his sides. “They shot Father George,” he says, and the first thing I think is, Billy, what the fuck did you do?
Mother covers her mouth, her eyes blackening to puddles. Before he can tell us more, a piercing scream from Yiayia, my grandmother, cuts through the house, pushing every other sound right out the damn walls.
We find her lying in bed, propped up by two pillows, the room dark except for the flickering black and white television on her dresser. An arthritic hand points towards the TV. Mother rushes to her and sits with one arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. I stand shaking beside the old man, feeling smaller than I usually do next to his bulk, and stare at the screen. I recognize the gray cut limestone of our church. The camera pans the parking lot, then focuses on a sign, “Reserved For Pastor;” Father George’s Toyota is parked in front of it. The camera cuts to footage of a body on a gurney being rushed towards an ambulance, its back doors swung wide. One paramedic trots alongside, holding a bag of plasma above the body. The gurney stops and another paramedic pounds on Father George’s chest.
“Mother of God,” the old man whispers in Greek. He places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes as if looking for something solid to hold onto. I swear to Christ the only thing keeping me standing is his grip.
Yiayia makes the sign of the cross in Orthodox fashion—right to left. Her lips move in silent prayer as she crosses herself three times. Her whole body is shaking, like she has palsy or something, and now I’m scared the news is too much for her.
Goddamn you, Billy.
Mother’s tears catch the TV’s flickering light. “We have to call somebody. Somebody must know something.”
“Yes.” Father straightens. “Yes.”
This new mission of discovering the details of the shooting revitalizes him. The old man strides from the room as if he plans to call Billy himself. I lean against the wall, my head buzzing worse than before, wishing I could be absorbed into the floral wallpaper that’s hung in this room for as long as I can remember. I choke down the bile.
Yiayia pulls away from Mother and shoves her blankets aside. Her yellow-white hair, normally rolled tight in a bun, hangs loose to her shoulders. She shuffles to her altar, a small table covered with a white cloth; icons of Jesus The Teacher and Saint Peter hang above it. Resting on the table sits her worn Bible, a small vial of Holy Water, a blood red egg wrapped in white mesh from the previous Easter, and her Candelie. She lights the candle and starts praying in Greek, but I’m thinking it’s too late for that.
Mother and I leave her mumbling in front of the icons and head downstairs, where the phone book lies open on the kitchen table. The old man hates the phone and holds the receiver in his thick hand away from his face. Clipped bursts of Greek shoot from his mouth like rounds from an Uzi. I can only make out a few words. I sit at the table and listen as he rattles into the phone. His muscles tense and bunch beneath his clothes as if he’s about to rip the damn phone right off the kitchen wall.
Mother sits next to me and follows his half of the conversation, shaking her head at what she hears and what I can only guess at.
The old man hangs up the phone and turns to her. “He’s gone, Christina. They shot him. Five times.”
Five times? Jesus, Billy.
Mother’s whole body shakes. “Who?” she manages to say, her voice twisted like her throat’s not working right.
The old man opens and closes his fists. “They don’t know. They think it was a robbery.”
The robbery I planned.
The old man is breathing hard now, like he’s still running up the stairs. “They found him in his office. Shot in the back. He died on the way to the hospital.”
Mother leans forward, her arms crossed in front of her stomach like she’s going to be sick, and asks again, “Who shot him, Paul? Who?”
The old man shakes his head. “They’re still looking,” he says.
I sit in the chair, the beer souring in my stomach, my head feeling like it’s in a vise, and wonder where the hell Billy is now.
“It wasn’t a robbery,” Mother says the next morning, freezing me in the kitchen doorway. For a minute, I think maybe Billy didn’t kill him after all.
Outside the kitchen window, the early morning sky has lightened to purple, the same color as a deep bruise. Mother sits at the table still in her robe, her eyes swollen and circled from crying and lack of sleep. The Courier-Express is spread before her. I feel like shit and I can’t tell if I’m hung over or if it’s the guilt eating me.
“What are you talking about?” Father asks from the stove. He holds the coffee pot in one hand, a cup in the other. “Of course it was a robbery.”
She shakes her head. “Not according to this.”
“It has to be a robbery. What else could it be?” He sets the coffee pot back on the stove and then sits at the kitchen table holding the empty cup.
“There was no sign of a break in. No broken windows, no kicked in doors. Nothing.” Mother has delicate fingers, the kind that should have plucked harp strings or glided over ivory keyboards, not the kind that should trace the details of a homicide in the morning paper.
“How’d they get in then?” the old man asks, the coffee cup small in his hands.
“An unlocked door.”
“Which one? The one from the parking lot?”
Mother shakes her head again. “No. The little one on West Utica. The blue one.”
The blue one that doesn’t lock right, the one I told Billy about.
“The one to the basement? Who’d leave that unlocked?”
Mother looks up from the paper. “It’s been years since I was down in that basement. It’s all winding hallways. Somebody must have known their way around pretty well to get in and out of there, especially in the dark.”
The chords and tendons are visible in the old man’s neck. “Who? A Greek? Ridiculous!”
He stands up, crosses to the kitchen stove, and finally pours his coffee. I grab a box of cereal from the counter and begin to eat directly from it, just to give my shaking hands something to do. The cereal tastes like sawdust.
The old man bangs the coffee pot down on the stove and turns towards Mother like an idea has just smacked him in the forehead. “What was taken?”
“Nothing?” he repeats. “Nothing?”
“Not a thing.”
“This can’t be,” he says in a small voice, the possibility finally taking hold.
I plunge my hand deep into the cereal box. “What’s there to steal anyway?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“What’s there to steal?” Father asks, his voice loud again. He holds his cup so tightly, I wait for it to shatter. “What do you mean, ‘what’s there to steal’? There’s plenty to steal. The Sunday collection money. Gold chalices, sterling silver candle holders, the jewels on the gospel. There’s a fortune in that altar.”
It’s the same list I told Billy when he asked.
The walk to school is cold. Wind from Canada swirls across the lake and loosens the last grip of summer. Every brittle leaf that scrapes across the pavement reminds me that snow will soon blanket the city and accumulate on the roofs, in the gutters, and on the dead limbs of skeletal trees. I hate winter and already feel weighted down by the layers of clothing I’ll wear in the coming months: thermal underwear, heavy sweaters, down-filled parkas.
I walk towards Kenmore West High School, unable to think of anything else but Father George. I try to piece together his last minutes. I knew he had attended the wake of an old Greek; my parents had gone to pay their respects. The funeral parlor is here in Kenmore, so Father George would’ve traveled south on Delaware Avenue to get back to church. I picture his blue Toyota moving down the street like a scene filmed from a helicopter. The car makes its way through the ‘S’ turns in front of Forest Lawn Cemetery, the headlights knifing through the darkness, before accelerating out of the curves. Father George picks up speed as he heads towards church, only slowing to go around the fountain at Gates Circle. After several more blocks, the right turn signal flashes amber and the Toyota turns into the church’s deserted parking lot. He pulls into the spot reserved for him near the side entrance and kills the engine. He gets out of the car, slams the door shut, and heads to the side door. After unlocking it, he makes his way down the hall, past the church office, to his study.
Where’s Billy? Hiding in the corner? Did Father George turn on the lights? How many steps towards his desk did he take before the shots ring out? Three? Four? And why the hell did Billy shoot him? That was never part of the plan. I picture Father George sprawled on the floor, the blood soaking through his black suit coat, and I vomit in the bushes near Kenmore West.
Where the fuck did Billy get the gun?
When I straighten, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and see my friend McGuire laughing at me along with everyone else who saw me throw up; the girls turn away in disgust. Kenmore West, a four story brick building built during the thirties as part of the WPA program, looms behind them like a factory. A giant smokestack rises from the roof, but I’ve never seen smoke come from it. The school looks like it could survive a Soviet blast.
I walk towards McGuire and the rest of the juniors and seniors who are smoking just off school property. McGuire’s hair is longer than mine, brushing the tops of his shoulders. He wears faded jeans and a green fatigue jacket. He’s growing his first mustache, a ratty thing he constantly strokes like a two-inch pet.
Another kid, one I don’t know, stands next to him. His red hair is cropped short and cut around the ears, marking him as a “Joe’s Boy,” a kid who goes to Saint Joe’s, the all-boys high school a few blocks away. He isn’t wearing the khaki pants and blue shirt and tie they’re required to wear. Instead, he’s dressed like me and McGuire in tight Levis and motorcycle boots. He bends forward, cups a match with a freckled hand, and lights a cigarette.
“Still sick from last night?” McGuire asks, grinning at me. He fingers his mustache.
“Fuck you,” I say, stopping in front of him. I nod at his cigarette, bumming one without speaking.
He reaches inside his army jacket, pulls out a pack of Camels, and shakes one loose. “You look like shit.”
“You seen Billy?”
He digs deep in a pocket designed to hold hand grenades and ammunition and pulls out a plastic lighter. “Not since last night when he dropped us off. He was so wired, we might never see him again.” He turns to the red-headed kid. “You’ll love Billy. He’s fuckin’ nuts. Last night we’re in his car and he shoots the ‘S’ turns on Delaware with the lights off, driving totally fucking blind. We must’ve been going about eighty, sliding from lane to lane, beer spilling everywhere, all of us screaming. Then he comes out of the last turn and pops the lights and we’re almost off the fucking road.” He shakes his head. “Fuckin’ Billy.”
He lights my cigarette, still shaking his head, and I inhale and let the smoke fill my lungs and calm my stomach. I blow smoke just past the Joe’s Boy’s face but close enough to make him blink.
“Who’s this?” I ask.
“Fehan. They kicked him out of St. Joe’s last week.”
“I’m Pete,” I say, and shake the freckled kid’s hand. We all call each other by our last names, like we’re in the army or something. Except for me. My Greek name is too hard to pronounce, so I’m just Pete. Billy isn’t Greek, but he’s always been just Billy, too, ever since we were kids. His old man used to call him Billy The Kid before he took off.
“So you going?” Fehan asks me.
“Going where?” I ask.
“What the fuck,” McGuire says. “Don’t you Greeks own a friggin’ radio? Haven’t you heard?”
The old man had tuned every radio in the house to WBEN, the all-news station, and kept the black and white Philco blaring in the front room in case of breaking news about the murder. Even with all that I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, so I just shoot twin streams of smoke out my nostrils to show how bored I am with them.
“The Who’s coming here,” McGuire says. “In December.”
“Here?” I ask, looking from McGuire to Fehan then back to McGuire. “You’re kidding.”
Fehan shakes his head. “They just announced it. We’re camping out for tickets to get good seats. You in?”
“In? I’m first in line,” I say, but I’m looking past them, hoping to spot Billy on the street.
The warning bell rings, signaling ten minutes until homeroom. Both Fehan and McGuire take final drags on their smokes before flicking their butts at a couple of freshman. They start heading towards school, but I don’t move.
“You coming?” McGuire asks, over his shoulder.
“No,” I answer. “I gotta find Billy.”
I walk fast towards Billy’s house, the taps on my boots clicking out a warning on the sidewalk. Billy, McGuire’s cousin, is older than us, already out of school and on his own; he shares a flat with three other guys on the west side. He buys booze for us and sells us weed, sometimes lets us hang out at his apartment and listen to albums. I don’t have to walk far, though. Billy is waiting for me when I turn the corner from Kenmore West. He’s leaning against his car, a black ’72 Cutlass. His arms are folded across his chest; a forgotten cigarette burns between his fingers.
He looks worse than I do. His thick, sandy hair is parted in the middle but sticking up in back, like he slept in a chair all night. He’s still wearing the same Who t-shirt from the day before—the black one with the Kids Are Alright album cover on it, the one where the band is sleeping against a wall, their heads resting on each other’s shoulders, a giant Union Jack tucked under their chins. Sunglasses cover Billy’s eyes, but I know they must be red and burning, sensitive even to the pale autumn sun.
“Motherfucker,” I say, walking right up to him.
“What are you going do? Hit me?” he asks.
Even in my boots he still has a couple inches on me; he outweighs me by twenty pounds. “What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking anything, Petey Boy,” he says, his voice so soft and low I can barely hear it over the passing cars. “You’re the thinker, Pete. It was your plan.”
“It wasn’t a plan, Billy. It was us bullshitting around. It was a game—which place we could rob and get away with it, like which girls we’d fuck if no one would ever find out. I wasn’t serious.”
“The cops aren’t going to think it was a game, Petey Boy. You’re in this as deep as I am.”
“You’re crazy, man. I’m not in this at all.”
“You’re not, huh?” He leans close so I can smell last night’s booze on his breath. “If I get pinched, I’m telling the cops you were with me, that you pulled the trigger.”
There’s a roaring in my ears, like too much blood is running in the wrong direction. “They won’t believe you.”
“Only a Greek would know about the blue door with the shitty lock. Or how to get from the basement to the church office.”
“You’d know the collection is biggest on the first day of Sunday School when all their parents bring their kids, not me.”
“I wasn’t there, asshole.”
“No?” Billy jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the Cutlass. “How many people saw you driving around with me last night—the kids at the arcade, the guy at the beer store, the waitress at the pizza place? How many is that? Eight? Ten witnesses? Maybe more?”
“That was earlier, Billy. Before you shot him.”
“Was it? You think a jury won’t put the pieces together?”
“My prints aren’t on the gun,” I say, my mind racing, trying to find a way out of this.
“I’ll tell them you wore gloves, Trigger Man.”
“Jesus, why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”
Billy sighs then, a long, noisy exhale the way my old man does when he finally gets to the friggin’ point. “You gotta help me.”
“Help you? How the hell can I help you?”
He notices the cigarette he’s holding and looks surprised that it’s still between his finger and thumb. He takes a drag, blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth.
“You gotta help me find the gun,” he says, his voice breaking for the first time. “I lost it.”
We’re driving down Delaware in the Cutlass. Empty beer bottles from last night roll by my feet. This ride is different than when we blindly shot the ‘S’ curves; there’s no yelling or laughing, no Who blaring from the 8-track; Entwistle’s bass isn’t pounding in my chest like a second heartbeat. Billy’s not talking much, just ashing one cigarette after another. Like my father, he has the radio tuned to the all-news station, but Billy’s waiting to hear them say his name. I half expect them to say mine, too, but I know that’s just me panicking.
I’m trying not to look scared. The window is rolled down and the cool fall air is rushing over my face and blowing my hair back. The wind is the only thing keeping me from getting sick again. My stomach clenches every time I think about getting arrested, thrown in a cell, and having my face and name all over the papers and TV. The Greeks will have nothing to do with my family if that happens, and it will kill my old man. He’s always down at the church for some meeting or another, volunteering for this committee or that fundraiser. If this were back in the old country, they’d run us out of the village and burn our house behind us. Hell, they still might.
Police cars are angled in front of the church and along West Utica. News trucks from all the local channels—WBEN, WGR, WKBW—are parked on the opposite side of the street, narrowing the road so we have to slow down to pass; Billy grips the steering wheel like he’s afraid of being yanked out of the Cutlass by his hair. Yellow police tape marked “Crime Scene” cordons off the area in front of the small blue door. A newspaper photographer is snapping shot after shot.
“Jesus, there’s cops everywhere,” I say, turning in the seat to watch a cop on his knees crawling behind bushes.
“They’re looking for the gun,” Billy says, checking his rearview mirror to see if anyone is following him.
“How the hell did you lose it?” I ask.
Billy lights a fresh smoke from the butt dangling from his mouth. “I parked a few blocks down so no one would see the car. After…I shot him, I panicked. I just ran. The gun was in my jacket pocket. It must’ve fallen out. I didn’t hear it hit the ground. It must be laying on the grass around here.”
He turns on a side street off Utica and pulls to the curb out of sight of the cops. “I parked by that mailbox,” he says, pointing. “Let’s look from here to there. We can’t search for it on Utica, not with all those cops around.”
“Jesus, Billy. What if someone recognizes the car from last night? Or thinks it’s weird that two guys are crawling around their lawn just a couple blocks away from a murder scene?”
Billy gets out of the car and eases the Cutlass’ door closed. “Welcome to my world, Petey Boy.”
I get out of the car but don’t take a step. Billy is walking with his head down, checking the grass on either side of the sidewalk. He goes about ten feet before he realizes I’m not moving. “What?” he asks.
“Why’d you shoot him?”
Billy just stares.
“Everybody loved that guy. My mom was up all night crying and my old man looks like he’s going to explode. Our phone’s been ringing off the wall with other Greeks calling and crying. It’s like you shot the whole damn Greek community, Billy. It’s fucked up.”
Billy walks towards me with his head down. He stops a few feet in front of me. When he looks up, his eyes are all red and watery, but I can’t tell if that’s from chain smoking or if he’s about to bawl.
“I pulled the gun and told him to back the fuck off when he walked in on me, but he wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t even scared. He looked pissed, like he couldn’t believe anyone would rob his church. Then he said he was calling the cops. When he turned and reached for the phone, the gun just went off.”
“Five times? The gun just went off five times? What the fuck, Billy.”
Billy shuts his eyes and sways. “I don’t know, man. All the booze and pills and dope. It just happened.”
“And for nothing. The paper said nothing was stolen.”
“I got something.” Billy says, and opens his eyes. “Twenty bucks.”
The whole family is crammed in the Front Room, waiting for the six o’clock news. The room, the smallest in the house, is long and narrow like a shoebox. We’re the only family I know that doesn’t own a friggin’ color TV. Each time I ask the old man about getting one, he tells me he’ll buy one when the black and white dies. The damn Philco shows no signs of giving out, as if it could go on showing us the world in two colors for another ten or twenty years.
The old man fills the overstuffed chair, a chair too damn large and bulky for the Front Room but perfect for him. He lowers the paper.
“You’re just getting home from school now?” he asks.
I tell him I stayed after to get extra help in math and then hung out with the guys. No one notices the mud on my boots or grass stains on my knees. He opens his mouth to ask another question but stops at the first beats of the snare drums announcing the start of Channel 7’s newscast. Fast cut images of the city flash on the screen—City Hall; springtime in Delaware Park; skiers swooshing down snowy slopes; O.J. juking left, then right. I imagine the colors—O.J.’s red and blue jersey, the greens and yellows of the park, bright ski vests against a backdrop of white—but all I see is gray.
The murder is the lead story. The same video of the exterior of the church and the parked Toyota are shown again. The anchorman tells us that the police still have no motive, no clues, no weapon.
We couldn’t find the gun either.
“I wish they would stop showing that,” the old man says as we again watch the paramedics pound on Father George’s chest. He grips the arms of his chair so tightly his knuckles whiten.
“They showed it at noon, too,” Mother says. “And during those news breaks between my shows.”
The video of Father George being wheeled to the ambulance ends. The camera is now inside the church, just outside Father George’s study; yellow police tape blocks the doorway. The shot zooms in on the bloodstained carpet, the stain wide and expansive. There’s more blood than I imagined.
“They can’t show that!” Father yells, sitting now on the edge of his chair.
Mother holds a hand to her mouth as the camera focuses on the splattered desk.
Jesus, Billy, I think, and slide down the wall so I’m sitting on the floor. I hug my knees to my chest, wanting to turn away from all that blood, but I can’t. On the screen it’s black and white, but in my mind it’s bright fucking red, so bright it’s searing my brain.
The camera cuts to the airport. Father George’s wife, Presveteria Vicki, had been visiting her family in Cleveland; the reporters are waiting for her when she arrives. Dr. Lambros, our Parish Council President, has his arm around her, trying to console her. Her head rests on his shoulder. She weeps uncontrollably, her whole body shaking. The cameraman must have been kneeling, angling the lens upwards to capture the tears and the way her face twists.
“Poor Vicki,” Mother whispers. “Poor, poor Vicki.” She pulls the afghan to her chest.
I hadn’t thought of Father George’s wife, his widow now, or their three kids, all younger than me. For the first time since I heard my father run up the stairs to tell us about the murder, I feel like crying. It’s like those five bullets ripped through his body and hit everybody.
“Look at those reporters,” Father says. “Damn vultures.”
I’m hoping Billy’s mug shot fills the screen next, and at the same time I’m scared that it will. Instead, they run video shot outside the church earlier in the day. A pretty reporter is interviewing a tired-looking homicide detective. Thick bags hang under his eyes. He licks his lips and swallows, as if he’s trying to rid the taste of cigarettes and coffee from his mouth. The detective stands a foot taller than the reporter. He tells her that they’re considering every angle and following up on all leads, that they haven’t ruled anything out yet.
The old man starts to say something in Greek, but the phone rings, cutting him off. I don’t move to answer it. I know it’ll be another Greek, another person hurting, who just needs contact with someone feeling the same way. My father heads to the kitchen to answer it. I wonder if they call other Greeks or just my old man. They probably think if anyone knows anything, if anyone has any answers, it would be him.
The phone’s still ringing when the doorbell buzzes, and I’m afraid it’s Billy wanting to go back and look for the gun again. I get to my feet and open the front door, but it’s not Billy wanting to conceal evidence or McGuire wanting to make plans about getting Who tickets. Two men stand on the porch, and I recognize the taller one from the news. Up close the bags under his eyes seemed heavier, but the skin coloring is the same shade of gray as it looked on the Philco. My heart starts to pound, like Moonie is smashing it with drumsticks. A weird vibration makes my hands tremble so bad I stuff them in the front pockets of my jeans. I think of all the cop shows I’ve watched on TV—Kojak, Baretta, Hawaii Five-O—and I start hearing the word “accomplice” bounce around in my head. I expect the detective to reach for the handcuffs, to spin me against the wall, to read me my fucking rights.
The tall cop, the one from the news, pulls a gold badge from his suit coat pocket and tells me that his name is McCarthy and his partner is Gorski.
Gorski nods. Neither of them smiles. It’s like fucking Dragnet on my front porch.
I nod back, too stunned to talk, and McCarthy tells me they want to speak to my mother.
“My mother,” I repeat, sounding retarded.
Gorski stares at me, taking in my long hair, my grass-stained jeans, the mud-caked boots. I imagine him running my face through mug shots and wanted posters and I hear Daltrey singing, “I’m the punk with the stut-ter.”
I step aside and he smiles before squeezing past me into the house. The smile looks unnatural on his face, as if he doesn’t use those facial muscles much. Thin lines crease from the corner of his eyes and the sides of his mouth, but they weren’t laugh lines. I can’t imagine that tall bastard laughing at anything.
“Peter? Who’s at the door?” Mother calls from the Front Room.
“The police,” I answer, pushing the words out my dry mouth. “They want to talk to… you.”
She walks towards us, taking small steps, as if her legs can’t be trusted. She pats the sides of her hair, feeling for forgotten hairclips, and motions them towards the Front Room. I’m not sure why she bypasses the larger, more comfortable living room. Maybe she feels safer in the room we use every day. She leads us there and turns off the television.
The detectives sit beside each other on the couch. Gorski pulls a small notebook from his shirt pocket and flips it open. Mother sits engulfed in Father’s chair, and I take my place in the doorway, still stunned that two homicide detectives are in my house and that I’m not handcuffed in the back of their Crown Vic.
The old man joins us, summoned by the strange male voices. He stands next to me, and I feel small again.
“They’re detectives.” Mother twists a handkerchief in her lap. “They want to ask me questions.”
Father nods at the two men. “Gentlemen,” he says, his voice strong and unwavering, as if talking to the police is a daily occurrence for him. “What kind of questions could you have for my wife?”
“Just a few, sir,” McCarthy says, and he starts right in, asking us our full names and Gorski writes down our answers. Then he wants to know about the volunteer work my mother does at the church, but he’s not interested in her singing in the choir or baking for the Greek Festival; he wants to hear how she covers the church office on Wednesdays, especially last Wednesday.
“Who else was down there with you?” McCarthy asks, and I swear Gorski is staring at me the whole time, his cop eyes boring into me. I can’t even look at him.
Mother turns to the old man for help, but he only shrugs his thick shoulders. None of us knew what the cops want.
She looks back at McCarthy and sighs. “Father George was there and Manny, the accountant, came in to do the books around ten.”
Mother rubs her forehead, trying to massage the memory back. “Father George had several appointments. The Morphis girl and her fiancé, Mrs. Tzimas from Greek School. I don’t remember the others, but their names would be in the appointment book. Oh, and Frank. Frank was there.”
“The custodian?” Gorski asks, without looking up from his scribbling.
“Yes, he was there when I arrived.”
“But he didn’t work all day, did he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.
She looks at Father, her eyes widening, as if she had just remembered something horrible. “No.”
“Father George fired Frank last Wednesday, didn’t he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.
Gorski’s head jerks up from his pad. “No?”
Mother eyes Yiayia’s afghan folded neatly on the couch. I can tell she wants to grab it and cover herself. “Frank quit.”
“Why did he quit?”
She folds her hands in her lap, lacing her fingers tightly together. Then she unlaces them and crosses her arms in front of her chest like the old man, leaving the handkerchief on her lap. Mother tells the police that it’s a big church with a great deal of wood to polish and carpet to vacuum. There are Sunday School rooms to clean, lawns to cut, sidewalks to shovel and steps to salt in the winter. Frank told Father George he wasn’t being paid enough for all the work he had to do. They argued in the church study, the same room where he was later killed, and Mother had heard it all.
I see where all this is going, and I want to scream at the cops that it wasn’t Frank, that it was my friend Billy who pulled the trigger, that I was stoned but home when it happened. But I don’t say shit. I just stand there, trying to avoid Gorski’s eyes, feeling everything spiral away from me.
“Did Frank threaten Father George when they were arguing?” McCarthy asks.
“He yelled that Father George was always riding him, and Father George yelled that Frank was sloppy and that we were paying him to do the job right. Then Father George said that if he couldn’t handle the job, he should quit. So Frank did.”
“You didn’t hear Frank threaten Father George, ma’am?” McCarthy asks again.
“The yelling was so bad, so ugly, I left the office. I went to the ladies’ room.”
“The accountant said he heard Frank tell Father George to watch his back. You didn’t hear him say that, ma’am? That he should watch his back?” McCarthy asks.
Mother sinks way back in the old man’s chair, like it’s swallowing her. She shakes her head. “I was in the ladies’ room.”
I swear to Christ the only sound in the friggin’ Front Room is the ringing in my head. It’s so loud I’m sure everyone can hear it, especially Gorski. I can feel his eyes on me without even looking.
“Did they argue a lot before last Wednesday?” McCarthy asks, interrupting the ringing.
Mother shrugs. “Father George wanted his church clean and that’s what he expected.”
“I see,” McCarthy says. “Can you think of anything else that might have happened last Wednesday or recall anything else about the argument?”
Mother shakes her head. She looks drained, like she just did something really hard and is now exhausted.
The detectives exchange looks and stand. Mother rises with them. Gorski slips his notebook back into his shirt pocket.
McCarthy hands Mother his card. “If you think of anything that might help us, please call.”
Mother takes the card, her hand shaking, and places it on the arm of the chair, as if the business card was burning her fingertips.
“I’ll walk you out, gentlemen,” the old man says, and the three of them head for the door.
Mother slumps back in the chair. The color is gone from her face. “Peter, get me some water.”
When I return, the old man stands with his hand resting on her shoulder. They talk in quiet tones, stopping only when they notice me.
I hand her the glass.
Father pats her shoulder. “At least we know who did it now.”
“Frank didn’t kill anybody,” I say.
“Of course he did,” he says, his eyes black stones. “He knew his way around every inch of that church. He could have slipped in and out of there easily in the dark. He could have left that door open or had a key made. He probably even knew Father George’s schedule. And now we know why he did it. They’ll search his apartment and find the gun and that will be it.” He turns away from me, his final point made, the conversation over.
And I still don’t say shit about Billy.
“Come on,” Father says, offering his hand to Mother. “Let’s get some coffee. The pot’s still warm.”
She takes his hand and leans into him as they walk to the kitchen.
I flop down in Father’s chair and throw a leg over the arm. My parents’ wedding picture stands on one of the end tables. No one will ever call me Tavros. From my mother’s side, I have inherited the slight build, the thin bones, the narrow shoulders. My face, however, is a carbon of the old man’s, especially when he was young. We share the same oval face, the same cleft chin, the identical straight nose. Our faces are mirror images, but that’s where the similarities end.
The ringing in my head grows louder.
The next morning, I sit at my desk, forging the old man’s signature on a note excusing yesterday’s absence, when the phone rings in the hall. I hear the bathroom door unlock and my old man answer it. He talks for a long time, his voice a low grumble. I’m surprised to hear him hang up the phone and knock on my door.
He enters my room shirtless, his skin warehouse white, his stomach soft and loose over the waist of his pajama bottoms. Even his arms and shoulders don’t look quite as thick with his shirt off, as if his muscles had shrunk during the night. The towel draped over his right shoulder is smeared with shaving cream; a daub still clings to his earlobe. His hair, rumpled from sleep, looks more silver than I remember, the same color as newly forged tools. He sits on my unmade bed.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, turning the note over so he can’t see. “You look sick.”
“I am sick.” He runs his fingers through his hair, rumpling it even more.
“Should I get Mom?”
“No, not that kind of sick.”
“Who was on the phone?”
“So early? What’d he want?”
Father takes a deep breath and looks at me; his face is shaved smooth on one side and dark with whiskers on the other. “I want you to come home right after school today. Don’t stay late, not even for math.”
“All right,” I say, not knowing what the hell he’s getting at. “Why?”
“Get some rest after school. Sleep if you can. Don’t eat much. Just something light. Then try to sleep again.”
He looks at me for the first time. “Threats have been made.”
“Threats? What kind of threats? Against who?”
“He’s dead,” I say, and the old man looks at me like I’m one sorry bastard. His voice is a whisper now, and I have to lean forward to hear. “His body, Peter. They threatened his body.”
He looks at me to see if I had understood, then hisses, “Desecration.”
Billy, I think, what the fuck did you do now?
The old man rubs his palms on the top of his thighs as he talks. “The threat was called into the police. They don’t know who it was. Some lunatic, probably.”
“What did they say they were going to do?” I ask. None of this is really making sense.
He takes several breaths, as if he’s pulling the words from deep inside him. His eyes grow bright with tears. I don’t remember ever seeing the old man cry and it scares me.
“Cut him,” he says. “His face, his heart.”
“Jesus,” I say, and slump in my chair.
Why would Billy do that? To throw the cops off his trail? I picture him calling from some corner phone booth, the Cutlass rumbling in neutral at the curb, the cherry pipes sounding angry. I wonder if McGuire is with him, riding shotgun, fingering his mustache and doing one hitters while he waits for Billy to finish his call.
“The wake will be at the church, not a funeral parlor. There’ll be police there guarding him,” the old man says, “but the Greeks need to be there, too. The Parish Council and their sons will be sitting in the church around the clock keeping watch. We’ll do it in shifts so we’re fresh in case something happens. I signed us up from eleven o’clock tonight until seven tomorrow morning. The graveyard shift.” His smile is sad, ironic. “That’s why you need to rest.”
My mouth gapes, unable to form words. It’s all too fucking surreal to be true.
He looks towards my bedroom door. “I need to tell your mother. I don’t want her to hear about the threats on the radio or read about it in the papers.”
He stands to leave.
“I have plans,” I say.
“What kind of plans can you possibly have at eleven o’clock at night?”
“There’s a concert. I want to wait in line for tickets with some friends.”
I wonder if Billy will be there. I suppose it would look strange if he wasn’t. I try to picture all of us—me, Billy, McGuire, Fehan—riding to the concert in the Cutlass like nothing happened. The car would be smoky with dope and loud from laughter and Townshend’s power cords, but somehow I can’t see me there.
The old man sits back on the bed. “A concert.”
I nod and wait for him to explode, but his voice is dead calm.
“What kind of concert?”
“The Who,” I say.
He just stares.
I point to the poster behind him. “Those guys.”
He turns and studies the poster of my favorite album cover. I’d bought it from a used record store just days before. The poster hadn’t been for sale; it was part of a display, but I slipped the clerk ten bucks when the owner wasn’t there, and he looked the other way when I took it. The poster is an outdoors scene. Blue skies streaked with clouds contrast with the rocky terrain that dominates the shot. The picture was taken right after the band finished pissing against some cement structure; they’re zipping their pants, buckling their belts, as they walk away from the wall, the piss stains clearly visible on the cement behind them. Across the top of the poster written in blue is the title of the album: Who’s Next.
The old man turns to me and gestures over his shoulder with his thumb. “Those guys?”
I nod. “Their drummer died last year, so this is probably their last tour, my last chance to see them.”
He begins rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers, talking while he rubs. “How’d he die?”
I clear my throat, knowing it’s going to sound bad even before I say it. “Overdose.”
The old man stops rubbing his eyes, leaving them red and watery. He looks at me for what seems like forever before he speaks. “When I was your age, I dropped out of school to work,” he says, starting in on a story I’ve heard a million times before. “Your Papou died and all his responsibilities became mine. Mr. Aleveras hired me as a picker at the tool factory. I’ve been working there ever since.”
The old man looks at the poster behind him again, then turns back to me. “You need to start making your own decisions. You’re not a baby anymore.”
He rolls his head from side to side, as if his thick neck muscles are bunched tight. The numbers flip on my clock radio with an audible click. We both glance at the time.
“I better tell your mother about tonight.”
The old man starts for the door then stops. “Oh, they arrested that bastard Frank,” he says. “His fingerprints were all over Father George’s office, and they found keys to the church that he never turned in. And the sonofabitch doesn’t have an alibi either.”
“They don’t have the gun,” I say, wondering where the hell that piece is, whose jacket pocket it’s stuffed in now.
The old man waves at the air like he’s swatting my words away. “They have enough without it, but that will turn up, too.”
I sit in the chair but don’t move, like my ass is bolted to the seat. I stare a long time at the door after my old man closes it behind him. The only sound I hear is my breathing, the numbers flipping on my clock radio, and that damn ringing in my head, like someone is holding a tuning fork to my ear.
I walk the long way to Kenmore West. I don’t want to hang out with McGuire and Fehan and the other smokers this morning. I don’t want to talk about The Who and what songs they might play or if we’ll get tickets on the floor. The morning news ran video of Frank being taken away in handcuffs, McCarthy and Goski holding each arm; the image is burned into my brain and I can’t shake it. In the clip, Frank is wearing his Yankees cap, the one he wore when he cleaned the church, and he’s yelling at the camera that he didn’t do it, that he was home alone watching the Yanks on TV the night Father George was killed. Then the mayor, Jimmy Griffin, fills the screen. He’s a little prick Irishman and doesn’t give a shit about anyone except the Irish in the First Ward, his old neighborhood. He’s praising McCarthy and what a great job he’s done to crack the case so quickly, blabbing on about what a safe city we have and how priest killers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He doesn’t mention Gorski at all.
The whole thing makes me sick and I’m still sick as I walk to school. As soon as I saw the mayor I knew Billy was going to get away with it. Old Jimmy Griffin and the cops wanted to arrest somebody—anybody—as quickly as possible. Murdered priests are bad for the city and they want this story off the news and out of the papers right away. I know sure as shit that they’ll railroad Frank straight to Attica. There was a guy on the radio this morning already talking about bringing back the death penalty for priest and cop killers; my old man said he’d be the first one to sign that petition, to cast that vote, to pull the damn switch.
Then part of me thinks that if Billy gets away with it, then I get away with it, too, even if I didn’t do anything more than come up with an idea of how to rob the church, an idea I never took seriously. If Frank’s convicted, then things will eventually get back to normal for me, for Billy, for my old man. I won’t go to juvie, Billy won’t go to jail, my family won’t be shattered and run out of town. And that part of me that’s thinking all this shit, that voice that’s getting louder in my head with each step I take and that sounds nothing like my old man’s voice, is the part of me that I hate the most.
By third period I’ve had enough. The teachers’ words are just noise; I didn’t take a single note all morning. McGuire and Fehan aren’t in my English class and I don’t see them in the hall between periods. I keep seeing Frank, though, wearing his Yankees cap and yelling at the camera that he didn’t shoot anybody. When the bell rings, I blend in with the BOCE kids, the ones who go to school for a few hours, then get bussed out for vocational training—welding, food service, auto repair. Billy told me once that half the kids in the program end up working the line at Chevy and the other half end up in the Marines catching bullets. Nobody stops me or notices me and then I’m out the door, around the corner and gone. I don’t even try to be cool. I’m running now, my legs and arms pumping hard, my breath short and gasping from too many smokes; pain stitches across my right side and down both shins, but I keep running straight to Billy’s house.
The Cutlass is parked right out front for everybody to see. It’s been washed and waxed since yesterday, the black paint glossy, the chrome gleaming, and it pisses me off. The shiny car looks like a big middle finger, Billy’s way of saying that this is the getaway car that nobody saw, that he killed a good man and will get away with it, that some other poor bastard will get twenty-five to life instead of him. After I catch my breath, I kick the rear quarter-panel as hard as I can, leaving a good size dent, my own middle finger to Billy.
I can hear The Who even before I get to the door. It’s the part of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” where Daltrey gives one of his vocal cord-ripping screams, the kind that hurts the back of my throat every time I hear it. The sound is raw, predatory; it’s why Billy likes Daltrey so much.
The door is open. I don’t bother knocking; no one would hear it above The Who anyway. The living room is dark except for the weird glow of a lava lamp and the lights on Billy’s stereo spiking and dropping with the volume. The sweet smell of hashish hits me. Fehan is sitting on the couch Billy and I garbage-picked a few months ago. He’s doing hash under glass. A sewing needle pokes through an album cover with a piece of hash stuck on top. He lights it and covers it with a glass and waits for it to fill with smoke. When it does, he tilts the glass, sucks it empty, and then sinks far back in the cushions.
Billy and McGuire are standing in the corner by the speakers. They’re passing back and forth a bottle of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. The commemorative bottle is shaped like a powder horn from pioneer days. McGuire holds it by the neck and waves it around as he sings along with the music like Davy fucking Crockett at a rock concert. Billy doesn’t see me at first but when he does he lets loose a rebel yell and walks towards me with his arms outstretched. He’s still yelling when he wraps me in a bear hug and lifts me off the ground.
When he puts me down, he keeps his arms resting on my shoulders. Our faces are close, his eyes wild and dilated.
“It’s over, man!” he yells, above the music. “It’s fucking over! They busted someone else. They’re not even looking for me anymore.”
McGuire lets out his own rebel yell when he hears this and walks towards us.
“He knows?” I ask.
“Hell, yeah, he knows,” Billy says. “He’s my cousin. Besides, I had to tell him why we’re celebrating, didn’t I?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the plan,” McGuire says, smiling like an idiot. His face is slack from whiskey and dope. He stops in front of us but his body keeps swaying.
“There wasn’t any plan,” I yell. “It was just me and Billy talking one night.”
“Fuck that,” Billy says. “It was a great fuckin’ plan. It would’ve worked, too, if they didn’t make the bank deposit right after church.”
“And if that priest didn’t try to be a fucking hero,” McGuire adds, and I want to punch his stupid Irish face. The album side ends and the needle keeps hitting the record label so a scratching sound comes from the speakers. Fehan’s too hashed to get up and flip it.
“What about the gun?” I ask, keeping my voice calm like I’m just making conversation with two old friends. “That may still turn up. Your prints might be on it. You got a record, right? For that Drunk and Disorderly? They got your prints on file, dude. They’ll match the bullets to the gun and the gun to you.”
Billy’s face goes a little gray because he knows I’m dead right. “Then we’ll just have to find it first, Petey Boy,” Billy says, and squeezes my shoulder until it hurts, that scratching and popping sound coming from the speakers the whole time.
Billy laughs when I tell him I’m not camping out for Who tickets.
“No one’s going to cut his body, Pete,” he says, grinning, but he never admits to making the threats.
My family, even my Yiayia, stops talking to me when I tell them that I won’t be standing guard over Father George. My old man doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t even glare at me when I tell him. I wait for the yelling, the curses in Greek, the long listing of reasons why I’m a piece of shit, but I get nothing, just a nod, leaving me to fill in that long list for him.
I’m at the church but not inside with all the other fathers and sons. I’m not sitting in the hard pews with the saints’ sad faces staring down at me from the stained glass windows. I’m not sneaking looks at Father George laid out in gold vestments in his coffin in front of the altar, or smelling the stale incense that shrouds the church, or jumping every time the old building creaks, thinking it’s some madman breaking in with a knife. I’m not crying.
I’m outside, dressed in black like I’m in some bad movie, crawling around trying to find the gun. I move slowly, looking everywhere, pressing myself into the ground when a car goes by, the dew soaking through my clothes. I picture Billy and McGuire and the long line of kids in front of the Central Ticket Office on Delaware, wrapped in blankets, trying to stay warm, counting down the hours until tickets go on sale in the morning. A hundred different cassette players are probably playing a hundred different Who songs at the same time in a weird jumble of sound. I see and hear it like I’m there, but I’m not.
I cover the same ground, search the same lawns that Billy and I did before and the same ones the cops must’ve already checked; even in the dark I can see the pressed grass and the footprints of everyone that’s come before me. Time passes, but I don’t know how much and I keep looking, moving slowly, my eyes roving back and forth, my hands feeling in front of me. If I don’t find the gun, I’ll have to rat Billy out and testify against him. Then he’ll tell them it was my plan, that I pulled the trigger, that he only drove. Except for Billy, I’ve never heard of anyone as deeply fucked as I am.
Then, on a lawn overgrown with ankle-high weeds, I see the gun, the streetlight reflecting off the bluish barrel. The size, the smallness of it, surprises me. I thought something that had done so much damage, hurt so many people, affected so many families, would be a hell of a lot bigger, but it’s not. It’s a deadly little thing. I wonder if Billy really did wear gloves, if dew wipes out fingerprints, if he’d really pin the murder on me. It would be easy for me to take it, to dump it in the river or bury it someplace. It would be even easier just to walk away, to leave it there in the grass for the cops or some other punk to find. I lie there in the weeds not moving, hardly breathing, like I’m the one who’s been shot, and stare at that gun a long damn time, trying to figure out what the hell I should do now.
When I finally do stand up, I walk the few blocks to the corner of Elmwood and Utica and call the cops from a payphone in front of a bar. The lies come easy. I tell them I found a gun not far from where that priest was murdered while walking my dog, that I don’t want to be involved, that I’m going to stay anonymous. I give the address where I found the gun and hang up fast. My hand shakes when I light my cigarette. I lean against the wall, the orange neon light of the Elmwood Lounge washing over me, and wait for the sirens.