And now, Mulkern wanted me to “have a word with him.” In for a penny, in for a pound. Next time I saw Mulkern, I decided, I’d give him the “Your money rents, it doesn’t buy” speech and tell him to leave my hero father out of it while I was at it.
My father, Edgar Kenzie, had his fifteen minutes of local fame almost twenty years ago. He’d made the front page of both dailies; the photo even hit the wires and ended up on the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The photographer damn near won a Pulitzer.
It was a hell of a photograph. My father, swathed in the black and yellow of the BFD, an oxygen tank strapped to his back, climbing up a ten story building on a rope of sheets. A woman had come down those sheets a few minutes earlier. Well, halfway down. She’d lost her grip and died on impact. The building was an old nineteenth-century factory that someone had converted into tenements, made of red brick and cheap wood that could have been tissue and gasoline as far as the fire was concerned.
The woman had left her kids inside, telling them, in a moment of panic, to follow her down, instead of the other way around. The kids saw what happened to her and stopped moving, just stood in the black window and looked at their broken doll mother as smoke poured out of the room behind them. The window faced a parking lot and firemen were waiting for a tow truck to get the cars out so they could back a ladder in. My father grabbed an oxygen tank without a word, walked up to the sheets and started climbing. A window on the fifth floor blew out into his chest, and there’s another photo, slightly out of focus, of him flapping in the air as shards of glass explode off his heavy black coat. He reached the tenth floor eventually and grabbed the kids a four-year-old boy, a six-year-old girl and went back down again. No big deal, he’d say with a shrug.
When he retired five years later, people still remembered him, and I don’t think he ever paid for another drink in his life. He ran for city council on Sterling Mulkern’s suggestion and lived a good life of graft and large homes until cancer settled into his lungs like smoke in a closet and ate him and the money away.
At home, the Hero was a different story. He made sure his dinner was waiting with a slap. Made sure the homework got done with a slap. Made sure everything went like clockwork with a slap. And if that didn’t work, a belt, or a punch or two, or once, an old washboard. Whatever it took to keep Edgar Kenzie’s world in order.
I never knew, probably never will, if it was the job that did this to him if he was just reacting in the only way he knew how to all those blackened bodies he’d found, scorched into final fetal positions in hot closets or under smoking beds or if he was simply born mean. My sister claims she doesn’t remember what he was like before I came along, but she’s also claimed, on occasion, that there were never days when he beat us so badly we had to miss school again. My mother followed the Hero to the grave by six months, so I never got to ask her either. But I doubt she would have told me. Irish parents have never been known for speaking ill of their spouses to their children.
I sat back on the couch in my apartment, thinking about the Hero once again, telling myself this was the last time. That ghost was gone. But I was lying and I knew it. The Hero woke me up at night. The Hero hid in waiting in shadows, in alleys, in the antiseptic hallways of my dreams, in the chamber of my gun. Just as in life, he’d do whatever he damn well pleased.
I stood and walked past the window to the phone. Outside, something sudden moved in the schoolyard across the street. The local punks had shown up to lurk in the shadows, sit in the deep stone window seats and smoke a little reefer, drink a few beers. Why not. When I was a local punk, I’d done the same thing. Me, Phil, Bubba, Angie, Waldo, Hale, everybody.
I dialed Richie’s direct line at the Trib, hoping to catch him working late as usual. His voice came across the line midway through the first ring. “City desk. Hold.” A Muzak version of The Magnificent Seven theme syruped its way over the line.
Then I got one of those what’s-wrong-with-this-picture answers without ever consciously having asked myself the question. There was no music coming from the schoolyard. No matter how much it announces their position, young punks don’t go anywhere without their boom boxes. It’s bad form.
I looked past the slit in the curtains down into the schoolyard. No more sudden movement. No movement at all. No glowing cigarette butts or clinking glass botües. I looked hard at the area where I’d seen it. The school was shaped like an E without the middle dash. The two end dashes jutted out a good six feet farther than the middle section. In those corners, deep shadows formed in the ninety-degree pockets. The movement had come from the pocket on my right.
I kept hoping for a match. In the movies, when someone’s following the detective, the idiot always lights a match so the hero can make him. Then I realized how ridiculously cloak-and-dagger this shit was. For all I knew, I’d seen a cat.
I kept watching anyway.
“City desk,” Richie said.
“You said that already.”
“Meestah Kenzie,” Richie said. “How goes it?”
“It goes well,” I said. “Hear you pissed off Mulkern again today.”
“Reason to go on living,” Richie said. “Hippos who masquerade as whales will be harpooned.”
I was willing to bet he had that written on a three-by-five card, taped above his desk. “What’s the most important bill coming to floor this session?”
“The most important bill ” he repeated, thinking about it. “No question the street terrorism bill.”
In the schoolyard, something moved. “The street terrorism bill?”
“Yeah. It labels all gang members ‘street terrorists,’ means you can throw them in jail simply because they’re gang members. In simplest terms ”
“Use small words so I’ll be sure to understand.”
“Of course. In simplest terms, gangs would be considered paramilitary groups with interests that are in direct conflict with those of the state. Treat them like an invading army. Anyone caught wearing colors, wearing Raiders baseball caps even, is committing treason. Goes straight to jail, no passing Go.”
“Will it pass?”
“Possibly. Good possibility, actually, when you consider how desperate everyone is to get rid of the gangs.”
“And, it’ll get struck down within six months in a courtroom. It’s one thing to say, ‘We should declare martial law and get these fuckers off the streets, civil rights be damned.’ It’s another to actually do it, get that much closer to fascism, turn Roxbury and Dorchester into another South Central, helicopters and shit flying overhead day and night. Why the interest?”