“Would you recognize him again?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
She sat back, one leg raised and propped beside her on the chair, the other tucked under her. She looked at me for a long time. “Patrick,” she said.
She smiled sadly and shook her head. “You’re going to have a hard time getting a date for a while.”
We were just about to call Billy Hawkins the next day at noon when he walked into the office. Billy, like a lot of people who work in Western Union offices, looks like he just got out of detox. He’s extremely skinny and his skin has that slightly yellowish texture of someone who spends all his time indoors in smoke-filled rooms. He accentuates his lack of weight by wearing tight jeans and shirts, and rolls his half-sleeves up to his shoulders as if he has biceps. His black hair looks like he combs it with a clawhammer, and he has one of those drooping Mexican bandit mustaches that nobody, not even your average Mexican bandit, wears anymore. In 1979, the rest of the world went on, but Billy didn’t notice.
He plopped himself lazily into the chair in front of my desk and said, “So, like, when you guys going to get a bigger office?”
“The day I find the bell,” I said.
Billy squinted. Slowly, he said, “Oh, right. Yeah.”
Angie said, “How you doing, Billy?” and actually looked like she cared.
Billy looked at her and blushed. “I’m doing... I’m doing all right. All right, Angie.”
Angie said, “Good. I’m glad.” What a tease.
Billy looked at my face. “What happened to you?”
“Had a fight with a nun,” I said.
Billy said, “You look like you had a fight with a truck,” and looked at Angie.
Angie gave it a small giggle, and I didn’t know who I wanted to pitch out the window more.
“You run that check for us, Billy?”
“’Course, man. ‘Course. You owe me big time on this one too, I’ll tell ya.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Billy, remember who you’re talking to.”
Billy thought about it. Thought about the ten years he’d be doing in Walpole, fetching cigarettes for his boyfriend, Rolf the Animal, if we hadn’t saved him. His yellow skin whitened considerably, and he said, “Sorry, man. You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and tossed a somewhat greasy, very wrinkled piece of paper on my desk.
“What am I looking at here, Billy?”
“Jenna Angeline’s reference check,” he said. “Copped from our Jamaica Plain office. She cashed a check there on Tuesday.”
It was greasy, it was wrinkled, but it was gold. Jenna had listed four references, all personal. Under the Job heading, she’d written, “Self-employed,” in a small, birdlike scrawl. In the personal references she’d listed four sisters. Three lived in Alabama, in or around Mobile. One lived in Wickham, Massachusetts. Simone Angeline of 1254 Merrimack Avenue.
Billy handed me another piece of paper a Xerox of the check Jenna had cashed. The check was signed by Simone Angeline. If Billy hadn’t been such a slimy-looking dude, I would have kissed him.
After Billy left, I finally got up the nerve to take a look in the mirror. I’d avoided it all last night and this morning. My hair’s short enough to make do with a finger comb, so after my shower this morning, that’s exactly what I did. I’d skipped shaving too, and if I had a little stubble, I told myself it was hip, very GQ.
I crossed the office and entered the tiny cubicle that someone had once referred to as “the bathroom.” It’s got a toilet all right, but even that’s in miniature, and I always feel like an adult locked in a preschool whenever I sit on it and my knees hit my chin. I shut the door behind me and raised my head from the munchkin sink and looked in the mirror.
If I hadn’t been me, I wouldn’t have recognized my face. My lips were blown up to twice their size and looked like they’d French-kissed a weed whacker. My left eye was fringed by a thick rope of dark brown and the cornea was streaked with bright red threads of blood. The skin along my temple had split when Blue Cap hit me with the butt of the Uzi, and while I slept, the blood had clotted in some hair. The right side of my forehead where I assume I’d hit the school wall was raw and scraped. If I wasn’t the manly detective type, I might have wept.
Vanity is a weakness. I know this. It’s a shallow dependence on the exterior self, on how one looks instead of what one is. I know this well. But I have a scar the size and texture of a jellyfish on my abdomen already, and you’d be surprised how your sense of self changes when you can’t take your shirt off at the beach. In my more private moments, I pull up my shirt and look at it, tell myself it doesn’t matter, but every time a woman has felt it under her palm late at night, propped herself up on a pillow and asked me about it, I’ve made my explanation as quick as possible, closed the doors to my past as soon as they’ve opened, and not once, even when Angie’s asked, have I told the truth. Vanity and dishonesty may be vices, but they’re also the first forms of protection I ever knew.
The Hero always gave me a dope slap upside the head whenever he caught me looking in the mirror. “Men built those things so women would have something to do,” he’d say. Hero. Philosopher. My father, the Renaissance man.
When I was sixteen, I had deep blue eyes and a nice smile, and little else to take confidence in, hanging around the Hero. And if I was still sixteen, staring into the mirror, working up some nerve, telling myself tonight I’d finally do something about the Hero, I’d definitely be at a loss.
But now, damnit, I had a genuine case to solve, a Jenna Angeline to locate, an impatient partner on the other side of the door, a gun in my holster, detective’s license in my wallet, and...a face that looked like it belonged to a Flannery O’Connor character. Ah, vanity.
When I opened the door, Angie was rifling through her purse, probably looking for a misplaced microwave or an old car. She looked up. “You ready?”
She pulled a stun gun from the purse. “What’s this guy look like again?”
I said, “Last night he was wearing a blue cap and wraparounds. But I don’t know if it’s like his regular uniform or anything.” I opened the door. “Ange, you won’t need the stun gun. If you spot him, lay back. We just want to verify that he’s still around.”