by Benjamin Schachtman
Your breath smelled like pad thai when you slammed me against the wall, steel biting my wrists, the stubble on your jaw prickling over my earlobe. You growled through clenched teeth –
“Up against the wall, bitch” – and twisted my arm. The slick smell of peanut oil, the salty bite of fish sauce. I jerked sideways, kicking backwards like a blinded horse. I caught something hard, your shin or your knee. The air whistled between your teeth. The bright, soapy scent of cilantro. For a minute, just the sound of clothing rustling, animal snorting. I saw stars, tasted hot coins in my mouth, smelled brick-dust in the air. Then I was swimming in squid ink, my face against the cool vinyl of the back seat. Through the black cloud I saw your face. Handsome, distracted and cool, going through my purse. Usually the uniform wears the cop, boys living the all-year Halloween dream, but you looked comfortable, good. You reminded me of my father, butchering chickens. The way he could do something without thinking about it, without thinking about anything, that was what it meant to be a man. That’s what I wanted. Not to worry. Not to be like my mother.
You turned and glanced at me through the window. Just a flicker of your eyes. And I thought, ‘I am, though. Little mouse is just like her mother.’
From the backseat the riots unfolded cinematically: slow motion flames, smoke twisting out of windows, halos around flood lights.
“Thompkins is a shit-show.”
Your partner sounded almost indifferent.
“Maybe we should go around.”
You shook your head, cursed under your breath.
As we came up on the park the crowds thickened, bodies bouncing against the car, muffled shouts. An overturned police van, shattered safety glass in the street like spilled jewels. I remembered watching a documentary, when I was young. The humid dark of the cafeteria, all of us crowded around the school’s one working television. Jacques Cousteau in a bathoscope, deep under the ocean. The pressure threatening to crush him, ‘like a sardine can,’ Cousteau had said.
In firelight, a couple embraced, lips pressed together hard. They were tackled to the ground by men in helmets and body armor. They clung together. Batons rained down on them. We drove on. Bodies thudded against the door. A face pressed against the glass, a bandana wrapped around the mouth, eyes bright and wet, stunning blue irises ringed in red from the gas. Your partner toyed with his phone.
I spoke up loudly: “Sardines.”
“Shut the fuck up back there.”
I stared at your reflection in the mirror and smiled.
At the precinct house the police vans were double parked, the curb lined with battered protesters dazed from electrical shocks, faces drenched in tears and snot, wrists bleeding from plastic ties. Inside, behind bulletproof glass, two young men sat at desks, buckled into armored vests, filling out paperwork. They said nothing as you walked me through the metal detectors and into a holding cell.
“Can I have a phone call?”
“The fuck would you call? Sit tight.”
You slammed the door and – from the soundless room – I watched through the glass as a detective dressed you down. You pointed at me, he pointed outside at the crowds. He walked away while you were still talking. I watched you, trying to stop yourself, trying to salvage some pride. It can’t be easy, when being a man is all you have, to be unmanned like that. I wondered, what would be your solace? Were you content with the idea that one day you’d make detective, that one day you’d castrate some young beat cop, make it all even? Or would you just hog-tie me, fuck me with a broom handle?
It could have gone either way.
Eventually you came back into the room and sat down. We had our little chat. I kept thinking how handsome you were.
“It’s your lucky day.”
“I didn’t play my numbers today.”
“We’re not charging you.”
“Nothing to charge me with.”
“Prostitution, vagrancy, possession, assault. Easy enough to arrange.”
“Too bad. About the riot.”
You looked over your shoulder. The lockers behind the desk where they kept riot shotguns.
“I’ll make the best of it.”
“I’m sure you will.”
You glared at me.
“They’re bad for business, though, aren’t they? Cock-blocking you ladies, so to speak.”
“I’m off today. Riots come and go.”
“You can’t really… sympathize? Bunch of lazy students.”
“I’m short on sympathy.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“But I understand.”
“So, you’re with them, then?”
“I’m not real political.”
“I’m sort of a sensualist. I’m like my mother that way.”
I paused, looking at you.
“You know, you’re a good-looking guy.”
“I’m not offering. I’m just saying.”
“Get up. I’ll drop you off on Avenue C.”
“That’s not where I live.”
“Well I don’t give a fuck where you live, that’s where I found you, that’s where I’ll drop you.”
“I could walk.”
“Not safe to walk.”
“Not safe on Avenue C. Not real sure it’s safe in your car.”
“Not sure you have a choice, cunt.”
I stood up.
“It’s a shame you have such an ugly mouth.”
You shrugged and walked behind me. You lifted the cuffs until pain crackled in my shoulder sockets, then removed them. You handed me my purse. I riffled through it quickly.
“Are you really going to keep my panties?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Come on. Let’s go.”
I knew what you wanted, knew how dangerous you could be. I knew that life was animated by death, the force that through the red fuse drives the beast. Still I could not help myself. The beauty of your face was apart from life and death, apart from the world. Too much, I was too much like my mother. I had read too much, thought too much. Felt too much. I could hear her still, years later, praying that I’d be different. She had whispered as she drove the shovel blade into the earth, as she panted, as the dirt rained down over her shoulder. We walked to your car. You smiled at me again and I could hear her: por favor, por tu madre, no seas como yo. Oh ratoncilla. Huye, huye.
Oh, little mouse. Run, run.
We parked up by the Con Edison plant, the street was empty. On your radio I heard that the riot had been squeezed from the east and west and had spilled up into midtown. The concrete shone with unreal orange light. You turned the car off and undid your belt. A twinge of fear struck the tendons in my neck like guitar strings. I tried to laugh.
“Kind of brightly lit for a rape scene, don’t you think?”
“Nothing like that. Just two people.”
In your lap you held yourself, small and limp, a bald hamster sleeping in your palm.
You rolled your eyes.
“Just, come on.”
I wondered how often you had watched me. On the street we saw cruisers all the time. Detectives, too, making hourly trips to the bodega for coffee. I pictured you in a used Toyota, Giuliani-era with flaking paint and a spare tire. Off duty. Maybe you had sat there for hours, clutching a knife or an unregistered revolver in your lap. Maybe your hand down your jeans.
You snarled: “What’s the hold up, bitch?”
But I didn’t have to say anything, your little hamster barely twitched and you stuffed it back in your pants. You shoved me against the passenger window and told me to get out. I opened the door and you shoved me again. Before I could get to my feet you were out of the car, coming around the front bumper. Your foot connected with my stomach and you hissed, “stupid homeless whore, stupid fucking bitch.” Then you stopped, smoothed your hair behind your ears and got back in your car. You flashed your lights, squawked your horn. You limped away, bleating, to go rut against a tree or drink your instinct into submission. As you drove away, an old Pakistani woman came running over from a bodega. She helped me over to a bench and brought me a cup of tea. She wrapped a silk pashmina around my shoulders and wouldn’t take it back when I offered. We didn’t have to say anything.
You didn’t go back to the riot. You were still sitting in your cruiser on the corner of 1st Avenue when I walked by and spotted you. I leaned against a tree and smoked a cigarette, then two or three more. I thought you might have seen me but, eventually, you got up and went into the station. I smoked the rest of a pack. Maybe an hour passed. Finally, you came out, walking slowly, your handsome face down, your shoulders hunched under some invisible weight.
I followed, watching the sad, crushed contours of your chest. Maybe we could relate: a father who didn’t care, a mother who cared too much. A man like you, well, how could that not go all the way back? I pictured you in royal blue pajamas, curled up in a twin bed with rocket-ship sheets. Your little fists clenched, eyes hard, staring into the dark, proving you could face the monsters. Such a handsome and brave little boy.
You stopped at a bar. I watched from the window, my hands hot and itchy with the thrill. Someone stood you a round, a shot and a pint. You took the shot, but left the pint half full. I hid in a pizza joint while you left, shuffled towards the subway.
We took the F train towards Queens but then stopped at 14th Street. I felt panicky, for a minute, because the connecting tunnel from Sixth to Seventh is long, straight, and brightly lit. Hard to hide. But the trains were still crowded, people fleeing the riot, or – indifferent to it – pouring in and out of Manhattan on the crosstown L to Brooklyn. And even without the crowds, it might not have mattered. You hardly looked up from your boots the entire time. You trudged ahead, ignoring all who called out to you. The homeless poet hocking stanzas, the balloon-animal man, a balladeer, an old Mexican woman begging, ‘por favor, mister, senora, please.’ They reached out to you, through you, fingers through smoke.
You stood on the platform as the express came and went. At last a local rolled through and you got on. I got on one car behind you, sitting at the head of the car, watching you through the space between the cars. Through midtown the train buzzed with talk of the riot, already the stories stretching out towards myth. Most had gone to watch, a few braggarts – having not heard about the gas, or being too drunk or too brash to care about such discrepancies – claimed to have been involved.
In your train car, you sat, swamped by party-goers, students and young professionals, children dressed up as old people. You looked straight ahead, or down at your lap. Once you glanced towards the back of your car, in my direction. But I don’t think you saw me. I don’t think you saw anything at all.
After midtown, the trains emptied out. We rolled up through the Upper West Side and Harlem. An older Dominican woman sat across from me in blue Columbia Hospital scrubs, a little Pleiades of blood on her breast pocket. She caught me looking at it and shook her head.
“What a night.”
I nodded in agreement. She narrowed her eyes at me.
I feigned a surprised laugh.
“Costume party. In the Village.”
She smiled faintly.
“Good night to stay inside.”
“So I heard.”
She pulled out a small paperback, a harlequin romance. A stop later she was dozing in and out, the book folded closed over her thumb, barely holding the page. In your car you sat, drinking from a flask and shaking your head from side to side.
At the end of the line there were only a few of us: a tired old professor stuffing red-marked papers into a tattered leather case, a delivery boy snacking on left-overs, two young girls laughing and playing with each other’s hair, joking in Haitian patois. And you, surly drunk, cursing loudly at the turnstile when it caught. When you hit the street, you glared at the kids, laughing, playfully shit-talking, rapping to the feeble beat of a small stereo in front of the pizza parlor; but you said nothing.
Up the hill you dragged yourself, along the steep curve of 242nd Street. From the hilltop you could see lights and smoke over midtown, but you didn’t look. You walked past a few of the last Gaelic dives, stopping to glance, checking the time, checking your wallet.
You settled for a fifth of whiskey from the liquor store, walked down into a garden apartment. A one-bedroom. No kids. No wife. From across the street I watched the television flicker for an hour. About as long as it took you to drain the whiskey. The lights went out.
No, you’d never make detective.
I imagined that a born detective is eaten away inside all the time, by meaninglessness, by the caustic, hollowing chaos, desperate to wrangle it, to fill some hole in the world or themselves. But you, you just shrugged at it. You swept up broken shards and handed them off, to someone else, to be taken somewhere else, to be assembled, to be reckoned with. You never had that hunger.
Except for me, I suppose.
Sitting in your car, watching me, you must have wondered. Struggled with it. Why? Why I spent my nights the way I did. Why, on that night, I followed you. Why things concluded the way they did, how far back the inevitability of that conclusion stretched. Motive. Meaning. What happened? You and me. Why?
When I was young, my mother would sing me a lullaby:
Run, run little mouse
Run, run home
There’s a fire in our father’s house
The words meant nothing to her, to me. I only remember a few lines, fragments. Only the sound of her voice, the simple melody, up a step, a half-step, falling again. The rhythm of breath. The depth of my sleep, her comfort in watching me drift off.
Your door wasn’t locked. There was no alarm system, the blue shield stapled to a plastic spike on your lawn only a scarecrow. Bronx Security, ‘Safe as Houses.’ Maybe they knew you in the neighborhood, or you were drunker than usual, had forgotten. For a moment, I thought perhaps you were sitting alone in the dark, holding a gun and waiting for me. But you were asleep on a futon, curled up in a ball with your back to me.
On a small desk was the empty bottle, your badge and gun. There weren’t many pictures. Single men don’t often keep many. But a few old frames held aged snapshots. A young boy – handsome, dark-eyed – and his mother. She was pretty, more than pretty, the benefactor of your own beauty. Another one, the mother, again, hair greyed and face drawn to a thin smile, the face of resolution. Chances were she’d passed, as mine had, long after burying her husband.
The street light through your blinds streaked your pale back. Up close, the fine grain of your skin showed nicks and scratches – maybe you’d had a cat, or maybe you’d roughed up other girls with sharper fingernails. Your skin was lightly freckled at the waist, the tiny ruddy marks swelling in size and number up along your spine and spreading out over your shoulders. A faint wisp of light hair curled in the space between your shoulder blades. Asleep, your face still looked hard. Cool and indifferent. Handsome.
I sat on the edge of the futon and saw – clutched in your hand, balled up under your chin – a pair of pink cotton underwear. Probably mine. But maybe you had a whole collection. I wonder if they brought you some measure of comfort. Helped you be brave. I let you keep them.
I looked down at you. Before I did it, the thing I’d come to do, I reached out and touched you. I smoothed a strand of hair over your temple, letting my fingertips rest on your skin for a moment. Just to prove I could touch you, that someone could touch you, the way you touched me.
On the way back downtown – back towards the riots, yes, but also the inevitable grind, the old business – I thought about your face. The way it had been. I had told you the truth: I am a sensualist. In spite of everything, just like my mother, something of an aesthete. Beauty knows no politics, no allegiances, no morality. It knows not kindness or cruelty. It has no history, answers no questions. It has no motives.
You and me, our time together was too short.
I had wanted to tell you, one of my earliest memories: in the village where my father was later buried there was an old plantation mansion set up on a hill. Marble columns, bright bay windows, everything carved, sculpted, and gilded. Uncannily beautiful. Otherworldly. There was always gossip: bodies in the basement, a disfigured woman in the attic, all manner of malice and perversion behind the façade. Jealously, envy. Rage. Eventually there was a riot. A revolution of sorts, though I barely remember. The mansion was burned to the ground. I was then a child; these are the things I was told later, by my mother. What do I remember? That there had been a house on a hilltop. That it had been beautiful.
What else is there to know?
© Benjamin Schachtman, 2018
Benjamin Schachtman is an ex-patriot of New York City, currently the managing editor of Port City Daily, an online media outlet in North Carolina. His fiction work has appeared in print in Anobium, The Conium Review, Dig Boston, Confingo (UK), and the Bad Version, and online at Slush Pile Magazine, Sixfold, Pif Magazine, and others.
Houses was read by Kristen Calgaro on 5th December 2018 for Cops & Robbers