Snow clung to the massive wedges of cracked concrete piled among the stands of bleached winter wheat which grew wild in the shadowy field under the bridge to Canada. Beyond, the silver river slipped by, giving up no secrets.
She hadn’t dialed the number in three years.
He answered, as always, without saying anything.
“I think I killed somebody,” she told him.
A click, the mournful hum of the dialtone, and the rush of angel’s wings.
She had known instantly that something was wrong with the bum: he had looked around the quiet street, at the house she and Sara had just left, at the vacant lot across the from it, with none of the craftiness of the insane, without a trace of defeat.
But she’d already been in the car, deaf behind the windows, when he stopped Sara to speak.
Sara had nodded, reached for her pocket.
And then there were five of them.
Wendy swung the little black coupe in a tight circle and aimed.
Sara broke first, flying up the steps of the abandoned house they’d just left. Most of them scattered.
One jumped on the roof.
Wendy threw it into reverse, two wheels on the sidewalk, two in the street, roared backwards, and slammed the brakes.
The man’s body smashed through the windshield of a derelict sedan across the street. On her own windshield, delicate drops of blood beaded.
She threw the door open.
“Sara!” she shouted.
She left the car running, sideways, in the middle of the street, and sprinted up the steps of the old home. The door, which had been open moments before, was locked tight. The beveled glass stared back at her like a one-eyed man, resigned to the fact that he’ll someday go blind.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see them coming: one from the alley, one dark shape crossing the empty lot between the homes across the street, one from the main avenue, where traffic still ran by impassively. The one from the alley was closer to her car than she was, already.
But she beat him to it.
He slipped into the car beside her without warning: no lights snuffed behind her, no shift in the shadows that surrounded her.
“You want to go now?” he said. “I’ll take you.”
She held her breath for a moment, to suffocate tears.
“Dean,” she said. “I left Sara there.”
The man and the sedan were gone when they returned. Where they had been the square of pavement was dark with grease, littered with sparkling fragments of safety glass.
Dean pulled her gently back into the shelter of the massive lilacs and sumac that had overgrown the yard since someone last cared for it.
The wooden storm-cellar door lifted easily and without protest. The two of them crouched in the darkness until the weak moonlight worked up enough courage for them to see by: a rough, hard-packed floor, littered with cassette tapes and newspapers flung wide open, their hearts exposed, their memories fading.
She shadowed Dean through the inky rooms, strong with the smell of stale cigarettes and small heat fires: all empty, except, in one, a few pieces of coal, pulled from the heart of some Pennsylvania mountain and carried across the country only to find itself again forgotten underground.
Upstairs the birds on the wallpaper shifted nervously as clouds rolled over the face of the moon. The mahogany bookshelves waited with failing hope. Half the ceiling in the kitchen was missing, lost to fire or water, street-light from the second story windows shining down through the gap.
Dean scraped the sides of the chimney, tapped the stubborn walls gingerly, as if trying not to wake anything. In the front bedroom, in one of the classic five-sided Detroit cupolas, he found it: a cigar box, hidden under the only floorboard that didn’t creak, filled with what might only have been a child’s favorite thingstorn movie stubs, ribbon, a packet of papers tied with string, except for the piece of bone, and a small leather pouch of unset jewels and antique rings.
Sara wasn’t at home, the bar, the café.
In the freezing air, the steam from the grates rose in white towers past the windows of the fourth and fifth stories of the empty skyscrapers, lunging after the cars that passed between them like ghosts eager for new souls in the grave.
Fourteen emeralds, an opal ring, pale blue ribbon.
Music from the bar below her room leaked through the windows, under the door, up between the floorboards.
Dean dropped the last yellowed newspaper clipping on her small table.
They didn’t seem to follow any particular theme: a shipwreck, costume party, baptism, list of which flowers connoted which feelings, a burglary, a shooting, spanning the early decades of the last century.
“I thought you left town,” she said.
He rose, went over to her narrow bed, and pulled one of the blankets from it. Then he crossed the room and laid down at the foot of the door.
“I did,” he said.
In the dark, his hands were still cold, his face still burning.
When she awoke, she had no idea if it had been a dream.
“If he’s dead, they ain’t found him yet,” Jay said, handing over the sheaf of cheap paper. He squinted against the morning light streaming into the alley behind the courthouse, a skinny kid with large dark eyes that looked like he’d stolen them from someone twice his size, nervous like a bird, taking in a thousand things at a time, too ready to fly.
Dean flipped through the last day’s deaths: a hooker, a house fire, two kids. On a separate sheet was a list of names, former residents at the abandoned address. “This it?”
Jay nodded. “I thought you left town.”
“Just like you did,” Dean said.
“But poetry,” the kid behind the counter was saying, “isn’t journalism.”
The girl, who was clearly meeting someone like him for the first time, nodded shyly.
Dean slid the list across the library desk.
With a deep sense of the incongruity of his position, the kid pulled the half-dozen small boxes of microfilm and handed them over, without looking at either one of them.
Evlyn Lavery’s father had been, among other things, a silent investor in Detroit’s Electric Park, a sprawling, raucous riverside amusement of the teens and twenties which the city finally succeeded in condemning in 1927, the year she turned nineteen. Her father, the son of a Methodist circuit rider, determined never to be poor again, had nursed a deep suspicion of the character of that decade’s market: he had invested in Electric Park two years before his daughter was born, and taken the moderate return originally promised him in 1916, as he always did, rather than chasing stars by letting it ride, a strategy he followed in all his dealings, which meant that, when the crash came, his family was, as Evlyn understated, “fine.”
But his daughter had come of age on the midway, below the creaking of the fourteen-hill roller coaster, amid screams and flashing lights, grinding candied nuts under her heels, dancing the nights away in the grand pavillion that hung over the river as if suspended by invisible cables anchored in the sky. Maybe if she had had a chance to see it with adult eyes, it wouldn’t have haunted her all her life. But the park was razed in 1928, and the country plunged immediately into the Great Depression, as if, across the nation, all the lights had gone out, all the roller coasters had tumbled down.
At twenty-one, she broke an engagement and left town: the first of three she would break, with an automotive heir, a tutor, a baron, before settling down in a brief marriage to a journalist in Paris.
That marriage ended with a disappearance which lasted so long it seemed it must actually be death, until she resurfaced in Canada six year later, thinner, perhaps taller, unapologetic, offering congratulations to her former husband on his recent marriage in both English and Spanish, a language she had never before spoken but which she now developed the habit of lapsing into when bored with conversation.
All this they gathered from a Sunday Free Press article which had appeared in the late 1960’s, shortly before her death and the riots that would plunge the city into permanent chaos. The cowed interviewer was obviously out of her depth, the subject witty but tired, playing the part more out of pity than conviction. The one subject she was completely silent on was her disappearance.
According to the dates Jay had given them, she had lived in the abandoned house Wendy and Sara had been in from just after her return, until her death.
“No reason,” Wendy told him. “There were lights inside, that moved from room to room. I thought I was seeing things.”
He watched as if memorizing her features before a long journey.
The party looked like a bad dream. Bright streamers turned black by the photograph threatened the revelers like the legs of some great insect breaking through the ceiling. Disguised in elaborate masks, with the doughy bodies and pale faces of city-dwellers in the early part of that century, the guests struck elaborate poses: Pharaoh, policeman, bandit, belly-dancer, fairy.
“But look at this,” Wendy said.
In the background, half-lost beyond the streamers, hung an oval painting: a female figure in pale dress, with what seemed to be the mouth of a great cave gaping to her left. In the picture of the baptism at St. Mary’s, above the head of the priest, his hands blurred by tremors, the upper half half-lost to the cropping: that same cave, the hem of the girl’s dress.
“I guess it was a gift,” the man at St. Mary’s said. He was nervous, fey but somehow virginal, his black turtleneck tucked into black chinos, his face and hands indistinct, as if part of him had already departed for the next world.
It was a cave, and the girl was a saint. Inside the cave, deep in the dark paint, Wendy thought she could make out the glimmer of another pair of eyes.
The man giggled, gesturing to take in the stained glass, the stone virgins, the dome that soared above them. “But I guess this all is, really.”
It didn’t matter. Both of them had caught the name on the small brass plate: A.J. Barrett.
The shooting hadn’t even been a full nights’s work for the Purple Gang: that night, they’d also set an entire fleet of Model T’s on fire on the ice that covered the Detroit River between the United States and Canada, cars which, less than an hour after the blaze began, dropped gently beneath the icy highway which then formed again above them. Strangely, or predictably, the city hadn’t sent divers down until the spring, when they found nothing unusual: just a tangle of rubber and metal, the underwater photographs of which circulated for years as evidence of space aliens, government science, communists.
The man they’d killed wasn’t anybody special, which was part of what made them so dangerous in those last hard days of Prohibition: death you could make sense of wasn’t anything like as powerful as death that might arrive without reason, at any moment.
He was a salesman, or so the police claimed, based on the flimsy case and roll of receipts they found with the body. Of books, it seemed, although he didn’t have any on his person, just drawings of them, along with selections: Arrian’s description of Alexander’s tears, an Aurelian meditation. He was killed in an alley, as he left a downtown speakeasy. At the time of that printing, the only article the Detroit press ever published about him, inquiries were being made, but they had located no next of kin.
“Nobody ever did,” Jay said.
He squinted at the crabbed handwriting on the copy of the police report Dean held in his hand. “License says Pennsylvania.”
“They say all kinds of things,” Dean
Jay shrugged. “Well, nobody came,
so we buried him.”
“Where?” Wendy asked.
“Woodlawn.” He pointed at a letter and number scrawled in the lower right corner. “It’ll be marked with a brick.”
“Thanks,” Dean said.
Wendy turned to go. Behind her, she heard a faint whine and slap.
When she looked back, Dean held a thick roll of aging receipts in his hand.
“I figure you’re the last people in this world to care about him,” Jay explained.
The first snow began to fall as they drove to Woodlawn Cemetery, which made it even easier to see that the grave marked by the brick Jay had told them had been disturbed recently, the outline of the coffin a scar of brown, the grass replaced, but unconvincingly.
“What do you want me to say?” Dean asked. “The desert. A tramp steamer. Where have you been?”
She didn’t answer.
The salesman had sold a few books in Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Toledo, and then had a run of luck in Detroit, mostly at the tonier addresses: Brush Park, Arden Park, Boston Edison: entire leatherbound sets, marbled end-papers, gilt-edged, engraved: timeless poetry, modern marvels, ancient history.
Dean shuffled through the delicate carbon copies, all orders, with the exception of the last, which the others had been rolled in, creased by the spent rubber band that had held them together through the previous century. The only receipt, in strange handwriting, and for a single volume: Walt Whitman’s poems, sold at the Cadillac Hotel, Room 123.
“Look,” Dean commanded. A tall old man, his white hair bright against a navy watch cap, his back to them, crossed the vacant lot between her building and the freeway.
Behind him at the window, she followed his gaze.
“That man doesn’t live here,” he said.
“How do you know that?” she asked.
When she awoke, he was gone.
And someone was knocking on the door.
The box sat open on the table. Quickly, she swept the contents into it, threw her window up, and dropped it onto the fire escape.
“Paul?” a woman’s voice called: older, drunk, or high.
Wendy peered through the peephole. Some kind of stain darkened a wide swath of the woman’s gray sweater, which plunged in a deep v-neck to reveal a cheap lace camisole.
When Wendy didn’t answer, the woman pressed her palm to the door, gently, as she might have laid it on a man’s chest. Then she vanished.
Sara’s call came just as the white sun began to crack open the morning sky.
The river hadn’t frozen completely since the twenties: great blocks of ice floated down the gray channel, disappearing in the distance under the thin bands of steam that flowed from the forest of smokestacks downriver.
Sara sat so still she seemed frozen to the bench.
“He’s a rich kid,” she said. “So he’s dangerous.”
Evlyn Lavery had no children, but her brother had a son, and that son had a grandson: Chase, the last of the Lavery men, and the first to believe the rumors of the fortune his aunt had hidden in the home his family had abandoned after her passing: because only he knew the sort of measures his family was accustomed to taking, or because that children’s story held his only hope to escape a gambling debt, or a greedy mistress, or simple boredom: the story changed each time he told it.
Sara had locked the door of the old house against them, hidden in the basement, counting, singing silently, when she couldn’t simply erase the time, until the windows dimmed, went black. Then she’d crept out into the darkness. She straightened, blind, took a stepand strong arms twisted hers behind her back. Expensive cologne, cheap liquor, a gentle laugh. Then fear choked her and the stars went black.
“Do you know where you are?” he’d asked her.
She shook her head.
He’d bound her wrists to the chair with striped silk neckties: navy, pink, tangerine, lime. The shape of his face was fine, his cheekbones high, his blue eyes wide, dark hair curling over the collar of his black shirt, his voice rich, an inheritance from the preacher in his lost history.
His great-grandfather, Evlyn’s brother, had built a mansion, behind a great stone façade in Arden Park, one block off Woodward Avenue, which Chase’s grandfather had left him, an inheritance which had called him back from the coast, dreaming of chandeliers and childhood winters, to find the old rooms empty of all furniture, the neighbor’s home abandoned, the carriage house half-burned.
His efforts, like his reasons, varied with each telling. That night he described filling all the rooms again, with lush rugs, antiques, mirrors, paintings, family photographs, all taken back months later when he couldn’t pay for them. The next morning he admitted he’d never actually purchased anything, which didn’t explain the well-appointed den he held her captive in.
“Why that house?” he asked her.
“Why any house?” she asked him.
“Sara,” she told him.
“That’s not really your name, is it?” he asked.
Sara slept the first night, what was left of it, dozing in the velvet chair. The next morning he came with coffee, then a sandwich, around four. After that, she heard sounds, but didn’t see him anymore. Another of the men, a kid really, gray-faced, clearly bentmaybe someone Chase found on the streets, looked in as night was falling. And then the house fell silent.
She slipped free of the knots easily, but waited for hours longer to be sure the sounds she heard were only the house, talking to itself, and nothing else. Then she slipped out of the den, through some kind of library, and down the wide diamond tiled hall to the front door.
The old man’s eyes were the color of the lakes, blue struggling through the grey. He watched from the other side of the street as she hesitated at the door of her building, as if something that ran deeper than the street lay between them.
Dean opened the door before she could turn the key, his eyes bright from lack of sleep. Beside the door, his boots stood, caked with black dirt, the workshirt dropped beside them still stiff with cold.
“Sara came back,” she said.
“They follow her?”
“She doesn’t know.”
“They only dug up the first foot,” he said.
“He’s still there?” she asked.
On the Scarab Club steps, two policemen flanked a statuesque brunette in a white evening dress. One of the club’s mighty front doors was ajar, letting so much light stream into the darkness that the other door was almost lost to it.
The date was familiar. Wendy flipped through the fragile pages again.
Moments later, she had found it: the painting had been stolen from the midst of a Christmas Party, the date of the salesman’s death: the same day the Purple Gang’s flaming sedans had fallen through the ice to the riverbed.
The little boat had gone down in the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, on Lake Huron, unlike most of the other freighters which had foundered that bitter night, on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, where the storm had come up so quickly and completely that five ships sank and two trains had collided in the white-out, one mournful steam whistle blowing through the blizzard all that night and half the next day, before the steam ran out. Across the midwest, hundreds of duck hunters, caught unawares, had frozen to death in their blinds and tents.
Compared to the outright carnage in the west, even the writer of the article didn’t seem much interested in the sad fate of the little barge, which had sunk at the lower end of Lake Huron, with its cargo. All hands were saved, the writer continued, almost begrudgingly, before listing their names: Hank Drew, Dick Bailey, Andrew Jackson Barrett, all Detroit sailors.
“You think the sailor stole it?” Dean asked.
She shook her head.
Probably they both knew that the Cadillac Hotel had nothing to tell them. The golden scrollwork on the ceiling stretched down the expanse of the main lobby into deep gloom, the fine chairs scattered or broken, the chandeliers wrapped in gauze, as if home to a new breed of gypsy moths. A blue book lay open, face down, in front of the elevators. Room 123 was as ruined as the rest of them, looking down on Washington Street, brightly lit, deserted: a desk, but no chair, no bed, the mirror in the bathroom reflecting light that didn’t seem to come from anywhere. On the top floor, the glass roof of the Italian garden was still largely intact, the blue faces in the columns staring down at them with the same otherworldly indifference with which the ones in the façade had regarded their break-in.
In the grand ballroom, the parquet floor seemed to run on without end.
"Would you like to dance?” Dean asked.
On Michigan Avenue, the winter rain pinned the stray city paper to the ground, and the traffic ground it back down to pulp that floated gently on the shallow streetside puddles, like petals dropped by the ghosts of flowering trees.
On the street, the old man stood under the promenade as if waiting for the doors to open.
“I’m Wendy,” she said.
Barrett had only met her that once: he had been the sailor temporarily removed from his quarters to accommodate Evlyn on the night-trip across Lake Erie from Buffalo to Detroit. After boarding, she’d sat down on the edge of his bed, without turning on any of the electric lights against the gathering dusk, and when he’d returned hours later, he’d found her in the same position, enveloped by the dark.
The door of the little diner blew open. Wendy shrank deeper in her coat.
“Are you cold?” the old man asked.
Evlyn had met Rudy, she’d told Barrett, in Electric Park’s Turkish Village, where he was assigned to odd jobs, and to scouring the blackened pans the nuts were candied in: a tall, handsome, clumsy farmer’s son with a thick Kentucky drawl, come north to see if he couldn’t find on the streets of the city the living he hadn’t been able to coax from the clay, his perfect manners concealing a heart crowded with insistent dreams, of beauty, love, heroes, poetry, pirates.
One of her poor cousins, in hopes of a fifty-cent piece, told her father about them as the winter began, and Rudy, discharged from the park, had gone to Cleveland in late November to work the last sleepless weeks before the ice froze the lake ships into harbor for the season. After that, he’d worked in some machine shops, odd jobs, but all the sailors were home for the winter by then, and there were fewer jobs than men. He returned to Detroi and took a room at the Cadillac with an idea of taking her with himto Cuba, Montana, Canada, a different plan in each letter.
But the gang thought Rudy owed them a favor, and someone had seen the book in his hand, and discovered that Rudy had bought it from the salesman, after a chance meeting in the hall of the Cadillac Hotel.
Neither of them ever knew the salesman’s particular offense. Rudy came to her that afternoon to say it had to be tonight, they’d be watching at the end of the alley to make sure he killed his man, she had to be with him if they were to have any chance of escaping before they realized that the salesman had survived. He was going to shoot past him, they would slip into the service entrancebut that wasn’t how it happened.
The shot was so loud that she went deaf for an instant, and watched the man fall as if in a silent movie, when the organist had lost their place in the music. Rudy turned back, and for a brief moment the gun covered her, before it fell from his hand in the thin layer of wet snow that dampened the alley.
Then, fading in, the footsteps of the men who had been waiting on the street, rough congratulations, the body lolling in the backseat on the endless drive to the speakeasy, where they arranged the corpse in the street as part of some incomprehensible ruse to appease the police, and the long hour at the riverside, where they left her on the bank to watch the fire flare and die as the bloodied car dropped through the breach in the ice. Probably another car carried him over the bootlegger’s private highway to the other side, but she had always imagined him slipping under the ice as well, and walking along the riverbed into Lake St. Clair and then, still holding his breath below the green water, to Canada.
Rudy had promised her the painting, as he promised her everything she even glanced at in those first days after they met, at one of the parties the Scarab Club was famous for throwing in that part of the century. In Paris, five years later, she’d returned home one sleepy afternoon to find the canvas curling gently on her bed.
But when she disembarked at the foot of Woodward, she left it in Barrett’s cabin.
“Why did she come back?” Dean asked.
“He died over there.”
“And you never saw her again?” Wendy said.
The old man didn’t answer.
Downstairs in the bar, someone put the same song on the jukebox, again.
All fourteen emeralds glittered in her hand.
Lavery’s mansion had a broad, bland sandstone face, set well back on the corner lot. In several of the wide windows, and in the apartment over the free-standing carriage house, lights blazed.
In an upstairs window, Wendy thought she saw a child’s face.
The old lock gave way easily, as if relieved to give up its secrets.
In the little room the old man lay peacefully under a wool blanket, as if he were asleep.
The lights on the bridge gleamed like captured stars tied to a string.
Outside, Dean breathed on his bare hands, then stuffed them in his pockets again. One of the earthbound clouds from the steam tunnels towered over his head.
She went out to meet him.