She was standing below where the streetcar would stop if there was a streetcar this late, and she would not look up. She was standing so lovely in the feathery snowfall, her black hair all spilled over the white of her coat…”
by larry kimmel
I was too early, so I stopped for coffee. The curbs were still piled high with snow, but the morning sunlight slanted down on a street of dishwater slush. There was hardly anyone around.
Inside the restaurant, the same stingy sunlight came through a window that read BURT’s, backwards, and fell across a bunch of men talking at a round table in the window. To my left, the waitress was rattling dishes behind the empty counter. The coffee she had brought steamed on the table in front of me. I lit a second cigarette from the one I was smoking and listened to the talk of the men at the round table.
“I’d have hated to be the one that found her,” one of the men was saying. “I don’t think Petie’s gonna be good for much on the job today.”
“Naw. He won’t be. He’s already went home,” put in another.
“They say she was half undressed, and when they turned her over they couldn’t have told she was a woman by her face.”
“How’d they identify her?” asked a little guy they called Spoondie.
“They have their ways,” put in a big, simple, round-faced guy. He said it in a tone of unholy dread.
“Who was she anyway?”
“Someone new to the neighborhood, I guess.”
“I won’t know her, then?” asked the little guy.
“No, you don’t need to worry about that, Spoondie.” There was a general, small laughter to this.
“It’s like the murder two years ago,” said a square-built, bully of a guy. But nobody picked up on it and the group drifted off onto other neighborhood ills. And I drifted off into why I was here this morning.
I’d come to see Nancy. We’d been separated more than a week now and she was staying over here in West Oakwood with a stupid friend of hers. I’d come all the way across town to talk with her and here I sat with a coffee in front of me, lighting a third cigarette from the second.
Over a week ago, on Christmas Eve, Nance and me had gone to The Hungry Lion downtown and had a lobster dinner, my first lobster dinner, ever, and Nancy got to laughing at the way I “attack” the lobster and it looked like we might bury the past, maybe.
It had been my fault. But now with the offending girl out of town, it wasn’t too hard for me to think of starting over with Nancy. I could understand how Nancy might feel otherwise, but we were having a good time, just then, and I felt hopeful. It was the first we’d had a good time since last fall when Nancy asked just what was going on.
That was the hardest thing I had ever had to do, was tell her. But she’d asked, and I thought she deserved better than a lie. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
When we left The Hungry Lion we took a streetcar, then walked the last six blocks through a fine, feathery snowfall. It was beautiful. When we got to the apartment I was feeling real tender towards Nancy and I started hugging her and fooling around some. I liked feeling her through the smooth, new dress she was wearing.
She didn’t exactly put me off, but she wasn’t real friendly either. But I thought, “Well, the girl’s like that. Sometimes you got to say it right out, `Do you want to do it or not?’ And then you’ll know one way or the other.” Mostly, the one way.
But tonight it was the other. “Why would you think I’d want to do that?” she pretended surprise.
“Come on, Nance,” I said, “why not?” I shouldn’t have asked. The whole lobster dinner was a waste. “Why not?” I insisted, and thought to myself, “You always got to hear it, don’t you?” My mood was getting ugly. “Why not?”
“Because …. “
“Because what?” I snapped. I was mad now. “Because of … that?” Meaning the business with the girl who’d left town, but no answer, of course
“And other things.”
“And other things? What other things?”
“You know. Everything.” She looked and said it so wearily, I felt sorry for her. “All of it,” she added, throwing up her hands half-heartedly.
I could understand it, but I didn’t like it. I started in on her, all the while saying, “Sssssh, sssssh, the neighbors will hear,” to everything she answered. Finally she put on her coat. It was the white, wool coat she’d sewed herself last fall. “I’m leaving,” she said.
“Where will you go this time of night?” I wanted to know. I was worried about her. She’d never gone off like this in the middle of the night. I was worried for her and scared for myself.
“Somewhere,” she answered.
“At least tell me where,” I asked. “At least give me an idea.”
“Maybe to Alice’s.”
She got her purse from the coffee table and I grabbed it and took out the car keys. She grabbed for them, then started to hit at me and kick. Dropping the keys, I grabbed her by the lapels of her coat.
“Let go, you’ll tear the coat.” She kept struggling though, and scratched me good along side the face. I pulled her in close to me so she couldn’t get at me again like that. And then she went hysterical and all I could do was keep on holding onto the coat and hissing at her not to wake the neighbors. I always hated the neighbors to hear us. But she kept on being hysterical.
Then a seam in her coat made a rending sound and fast as that she wasn’t hysterical anymore. “Don’t tear the coat,” she said, coldly and evenly. I didn’t want all that hard work torn either, and I let go my hold on the coat.
We were okay now. “I’m sorry, Nance,” I said. But she just calmly bent for the keys. I put my foot over them. I didn’t want her to go off into the city night like that. I was scared for her out there at night. I kept my foot over the keys. I didn’t want to be alone that night, either. Not like that, with things wrong between us.
She straightened up. And we looked at each other for a minute and I could see she meant it. She was leaving me.
At the hallway door I said, “I’m sorry, Nance. I never meant it like that. Not any of it.” She didn’t say a word.
“Be careful out there.”
She went off down the stairs without the car keys. I leaned over the railing and said in a harsh whisper,
“How’re you going to get to Alice’s?”
“There’ll be a trolley.”
“Not this late.”
She didn’t answer, and I just let her go. It must not have been midnight yet, but I didn’t know that. I went back into the apartment. I felt awful. Then I picked up the keys from the floor and I opened a window. The yellow curtains stirred in the cold air. They had a wide, orange fringe at the bottom sewed there by Nancy when we’d first moved in, because they’d been too short for the new windows. “Nance. Nancy,” I called out the window, but not too loud. Again the cold air stirred the curtains.
She was standing below where the streetcar would stop if there was a streetcar this late, and she would not look up. She was standing so lovely in the feathery snowfall, her black hair all spilled over the white of her coat. “Nance,” I tried again. Still she would not look up.
Just then, as luck would have it, the two little old ladies from across the hall, who never went out nights, came out the front entrance of the apartment building three stories down. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, what they’d be doing out so late Christmas Eve. They came out the apartment building door and said, “Hello,” to Nancy.
“Nancy,” I shouted down, “you forgot your keys,” and she looked up through the streetlight and the falling snow and I tossed the keys the three stories down to her. They landed with a chink! on the sidewalk, disturbing its dusting of snow.
That had been Christmas Eve and the next day was wretched. I thought I might kill myself, not meaning to do it. I felt that bad.
I was lonely, too. Two corners and a jog over was St. Mary’s, full of people, but I didn’t feel right to go there. I wasn’t Catholic. And then there was the bus depot downtown. But when I went down there it depressed me, as always, only more so because there I was sharing the holidays with the winos. I never thought I’d end up alone on a holiday.
I went back to the apartment. I’d have got drunk, but there was nothing in the place to get drunk on. Nancy and me hadn’t been in Pittsburgh long enough to have the kind of friends you could drop in on, on Christmas Day, at least I couldn’t think of any. At last I took a train up to my mother’s in the country, which I hated to do, but I kept thinking I might kill myself by accident if I didn’t.
That was more than a week ago. Now I was here, sitting with a coffee in BURT’s in West Oakwood, chain smoking as always, and waiting for it to get late enough in the morning to see Nancy without disturbing her birdbrained friend, Alice. It had been made clear to me on the phone last night that I wasn’t to show up before ten this morning. So I knew to stick to that.
I don’t know what I planned to say. I felt angry at Nance, but I didn’t like being alone. It wasn’t her fault, I knew, but I kept remembering things like they were her fault and thinking of things she had done before we’d met that bothered me still. You know how that is. You know you are wrong, but the wrongness feels too good to give up, like prodding a bruise.
At any rate, I was sitting there chain smoking and sipping coffee from a cup with a brown crack in it and hearing, in between my thoughts, these guys talking about the murder that morning in their neighborhood.
There was this square-built bully in a plaid shirt and he was saying how it was like the murder they’d had around there two years earlier. He was bragging how he and his buddy, mostly himself, had found the body and was bragging how upsetting it was to him.
” … and there she was with her skirt up over her face and all bloody between the legs … “
I didn’t like hearing that. Things like that always troubled my mind when I heard them. They made me too sad.
I ordered another coffee. I’d come all the way across town to West Oakwood to see Nancy this morning after what had happened between us Christmas Eve and I didn’t need to hear what I had just heard. Nancy and me had been separated over a week, now, and Nancy was staying with this non compos mentis friend of hers, Alice, or Alas, or whatever, a real sicky, if you ask me, who kept telling you how she was in a state of grace because she hadn’t fucked any of the guys she went out with since her divorce two years before. She was Catholic, she said, and a priest had told her so. A professional cock-tease, I thought. Great way to get killed, I thought. Great company for Nancy at a time like this, I thought. But you can’t pick your friends’ friends for them.
I was sitting there feeling pretty sorry about the whole business and I didn’t need to hear any more sorry stuff about women, but I couldn’t help hearing this guy in the plaid shirt, bragging. He was saying for the third time:
“I was the first one to find her. It was ’round back of Hendrick’s Hardware. Me and Slate were delivering that morning. And I went around to the side entrance to open up and there she was in the cellar well. I’ll tell you, after the war I thought I could stomach anything, but finding her like that made me sick.”
“She was only twelve years old, wasn’t she?” asked one of the men in the sunlight at the window.
“Yeah, she was the Clements’ youngest,” put in another.
“They say she knew the murderer or it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Yeah, he was a neighbor.”
“Wasn’t there supposed to be something between them already?” put in the big guy with the round face.
“You can’t believe everything you hear, Ted.”
“That’s for damned sure,” put in another.
“I heard she was pregnant and going to cause trouble … or something … you know … maybe … ” said the little guy called, Spoondie.
No one answered.
I lit another cigarette off the last. The second coffee was hot and black, but not so good as the first. The second cup is never much better than colored water. The bully in the plaid shirt got hold of the conversation again. “Big man,” I thought. “Bragging asshole,” I thought, but listened anyway.
” … so we went knocking on doors to make a call to the police, you know, but no one would open up.” He said it all indignant that no one would open up.
“You gotta understand, Hugh,” said another of the men, “they were mostly housewives with kids and their husbands were gone off to work already …”
“I know that, but this was an emergency.”
“They didn’t know it was an emergency. They were afraid. How did they know who was at the door? It could have been anyone.”
“They might have thought you were the murderer,” put in Spoondie.
“Spoondie’s right, that’s all you hear about on the news these days.”
“They should have opened up anyways,” Hugh grumbled, then went off again with his talking. “The first place we went to was the murderer’s.” He said it in a low, weird voice, like he was talking about some secret rites or something. He looked around the table and waited a moment. Then he went on.
“And that’s where we ended going back to. The second time we knocked, his mother let us in, and we made the call from there. Course, we didn’t know about him at the time. He came down from upstairs while I was on the phone. Just as cool as a cucumber. I wouldn’t have suspected him in a million years. Later, he said he was relieved to hear us making the call. Can you imagine that, ‘relieved?’ A thirty year old man living with his mother like that … makes you sick.”
“That’s the way them kooks is,” said the big, round-faced guy. The winter morning sunlight through the restaurant window made a simple moon of his pasty face.
“That’s the truth of it,” someone said, and they discussed the truth of it among themselves for a while, their neighborhood abounding in kooks it would have seemed. While they were still discussing it, I got my jacket off the back of my chair, left a tip, paid the girl at the counter, and was gone.
I never liked to hear about a woman being bothered and it was worse hearing it was a child. Straight murder seems just another way to die, but being molested first is too awful to think about. You can’t think about it.
On the street, all was grey, sharp, and wan. There was little traffic this time of morning, but what traffic there was went by with a sloosh, through the grey, juicy slush. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks either. The sunlight slanted down and got in your eyes in that particular way that winter sunlight does. I turned up my jacket collar. My feet were cold. All I had were a pair of loafers worn through in the sole. I slogged on.
I found nasty Alice Buttski’s place easy enough. It was a drab, frame, double-family house, number 47, with a huge porch. I’d seen it before. It was tucked in between some older houses. The neighborhood dated from the turn of the century and was partly run down, but not too bad. Along its curbs were huge, leafless maples whose roots lifted and broke the sidewalks.
When I came up on the porch I was still wondering how things would go between me and Nancy. So I wasn’t noticing everything I might have or I might have noticed something.
When I got to the second floor and turned down the dim hallway to where I remembered Alice’s apartment to be, I thought, maybe I should have phoned again this morning to make sure old Alice was prepared. But, no, she could go on a rampage if she wanted. It had all been set. She knew I was coming.
When I got to Alice’s door it was ajar. I knocked on the door jamb, not wanting to push the door open by knocking on it. Just in case.
When I knocked I heard Alice’s voice inside. “Come on in, it’s open.” I should have noticed something out-of-the-way, maybe, but I didn’t. I pushed open the door and there in a diffusion of grey sunlight, slouched in an old easy chair, was Alice, wrapped in a nude-colored bathrobe, her coffee cup poised in mid-air; and behind her, half turned from a shelf of books, stood a man in a shabby suit; and to my left, another man in a policeman’s uniform, his back to the window.
In the pale light from the window, they were a wax museum tableau, with six eyes fixed in three expressions of uncertainty. And I, uncertain too, looked past the man in the policeman’s uniform and saw outside the window. And saw that outside the window the sunlight through the bare branches looked strange … bleak … unreal…
And that’s when I knew.
(illustrations: troy dockins)
Larry Kimmel, primarily known as a haiku and tanka poet published in England, Canada, Russia, Romania, Japan, Australia, as well as the USA, has worked at everything from steel mills to libraries. He has four collections of poetry, “the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses”; “alone tonight”; “the necessary fly”; and “a river years from here;” also a novel titled, “A Small Silent Ordeal.” He lives with his wife in the hills of western Massachusetts. More info can be found at his website. More stories from Larry Kimmel can be found in the Vault of Smoke.