Full Court Proust <after one too many Robert Parker mysteries>
It wasn't your usual invitation, and it wasn't gift wrapped. Still, Celtics tickets professionally torn in half don't appear under my door every day, and since the evening's options had narrowed to staring at my Molson Ale in the long-neck, amber bottle or doing nothing, the game had some appeal. A little stale air couldn't hurt.
I read my digital watch. A short read. I blinked. No luck. Sometimes when I did that it would pass a minute. I also liked digital watches because they never let you look back or ahead. It was always now, now. Who was it who said that those who lived in the perpetual present were granted a form of immortality?
"Wittgenstein," came a familiar voice. I looked around, half expecting to see someone.
It was six p.m. in my perpetual present; time to check my messages and count my mail. Happy hour. The pile hadn't changed any since I last stared at it—people offering me something or wanting something; people trying to do me a favor or do me a harm. "People," I thought aloud to myself.
"Who you talking to?" It was me again, asking a rhetorical question. I shrugged it off.
There would be people at the Garden. There always were, during games. I would go.
As I stepped out of my office I passed a couple dozen would-be clients waiting with varying degrees of patience. They had made it through another day, they could come back tomorrow. Let some other gumshoe tend to their needs, find their missing spouses, postpone their fates—disappoint them. It ain't me, babe.
No time for clients.
No time for sergeants.
I had stared at my Molson Golden Ale, opened an envelope containing half a Celtics ticket (If you haven't got a ticket, a ha'ticket will do) and checked my messages on a Panasonic, microprocessor controlled answering machine. I could see the article in Detective Quarterly: "Supersleuth — Where Does He Find the Time?"
"What th' hell you doin' in there all day, Prust?" growled one of those I pegged as less patient (Did you get that, Detective Quarterly?), slowly uncoiling from his corner of the waiting room floor. He was pushing seven feet, and I didn't see seven feet pushing back. His brand name sports jacket had been discounted at a Marathon Sale-a-Thon. The Greek Passion. His jacket was several sizes too small for him, so either he was badly served or he was still growing. In either case he would be cranky.
These thoughts jockeyed for position in that part of my brain not reserved for Shellye. A very small part. A very small jockey.
What was I doing in there all day?
I decided to ask what he was doing in my waiting room, when he suddenly grabbed as much of my arm as he could, which wasn't very much. My arms are smaller than most tree trunks, but only most. Not that I had done much with them lately. Not since the loss...
The loss ... I felt a fever rise through the knotted muscles in the back of my neck. I spun around, taking much of the room with me. Fully extended, the Impatient One was about my height, but roughly one-third my weight. Less filling. I grabbed him by the collar with one hand and the stomach with the other. My face was inches from the beads of sweat that formed on his upper lip.
"It's 'Proust.'" I said. "Not 'Prust.'"
He couldn't see it. Probably never would. I left him standing there with his mouth opening and closing but no words coming out. The sounds of silence.
His jacket fit, now.
* * * *
I decided to do a little explore before the game started. The office down the hall always let me use their pay phone. I had never been able to figure out what they did in there, but the men wore suspenders and stripped shirts. The women had that forced gaiety and gentle mocking quality expected of career women in their homes away from home as they provided hard nosed competence yet remained mother surrogates for wounded males. Mary Richards! Mary Richards! As I watched them play out this bastardization of the female role, I thought once again that offices were like extended families, all of whose members believed theirs to be uniquely strange, involuted and womb-like. Nearly everyone I knew referred to offices other than their own as 'the real world.' Shellye had a theory about that.
I dialed the number I knew by heart. When the voice came, I told her what I needed and she gave it to me, thanking me again for using New England Telephone. Based on what I learned, I was able to phone direct to the main number of the Boston Celtics. I could have used the phone book, but I liked to keep in practice. Hone your skills, my horoscope suggested.
But first, sustenance. No horoscope needed.
* * * *
It's called Steve's, but it hasn't been for years. Steve passed it along to Joey who sold out to a multinational by the folksy name of Integrated Resources whose corporate slogan is, "Because there's money to be made." I kid you not. Still, the ice cream was as cold as the ambiance. It fit my mood.
I brushed past the pickets and made my way inside. Fellow name of Melville worked the counters. He'd seen it change.
There was a time when the ice cream was made on premises. Now they kept the original machine as a nod to their more modest past but trucked the ice cream in from some factory where the labor was even cheaper. Super freezed to prevent premature thawing. Shellye! Shellye! Shellye! There was a time when it was called Oreo, not Cookieo. Cookieo. High-dee-ho, Big Bird, let's have some Cookieo! There was a time when if you were foolhardy enough to ask for frozen yogurt—they'd look at you funny. It was tougher then, but it was real.
The crowd had changed, too. Used to be regular guys would hang out there, hoping to cop the toppings that fell off the cones. Now it was just the swells: Cambridge types holding up the line by demanding samples of different tastes — putting a spoonful on the end of their tongues and making chipmunk type smacking noises with their tight little mouths as their eyes rolled around their perfectly shaped heads and their eyebrows knitted. And then asking for combinations of flavors that weren't available. And then giving the used spoon back to the counter person as though he was a personal servant to this smart-ass lisping suburban mall-rat. It was better before they built it.
Melville had seen it all, and I had seen it all with him. We had a special bond.
"Evening, Proust," he sang out, "Long time no seamen!"
Special bond or not, he never liked me. The muscles in the back of my neck tightened again. I took a deep breath, inhaling a fair number of the toppings they set out on the counter. Bittersweet. "Relax, pal," Melville boomed. "Shellye told me in confidence."
I hadn't thought of Shellye since the ticket was slipped under my door. Could there be a connection? If so, what was it between?
"What'll it be tonight, pal?" Melville asked, snapping me out of my reverie.
"Surprise me," I answered, and he did.
* * * *
I had no idea that yogurt could get so cold and stay so soft. Ah, wilderness. I blew Melville a kiss on my way out and bumped into a scrawny, pimply student who was drugged out of his mind. He was missing a couple of teeth but wasn't the sort to look for them.
"You're stoned." I pointed out. I was feeling the yogurt.
"How'd you guess, man?" he replied, his head falling down and then whipping up again, as though snapped by a powerful wind.
"I'm a private investigator. I know these things."
"That's really cool, man" he said sarcastically, trying to push me aside. Not easy for someone under the influence and barely a welterweight. Not easy, indeed.
"I guess that's why they call it 'dope,'" I smiled, trying not to touch him or the flies that found him even more attractive than other flies.
"I guess that's why they call you guys 'dicks,'" he smiled back.
That cost him the rest of his teeth.
Long time, no seaman.
Why the ticket? And why now?
* * * *
I decided to follow a hunch, though I didn't know whose it was, and double back to my office. Retracing my steps wasn't a problem. I'd found my office before. You can go home again. The tricky part was not arousing the suspicion of those would-be clients. My car could serve as an office until I got a better handle on what was going down. I remembered when we would say 'going on,' rather than 'going down,' but then, I remembered a lot of things.
I took a detour through the Public Gardens, drove over Beacon Hill and round the State House, passed Louisberg Square and drove over the Charles River. I ventured up Mount Vernon Street, waived to the traffic cop who was whistling hysterically from his booth, turned into Charles Street and found myself facing right on into the Public Garden again. Eventually, this detour would lead me to Kupel's Bakery on Harvard Street. Bagels in the key of minor. I found a hydrant to park by, entered the crowded shop and took two numbers. I was hungry.
"Another stakeout, Mr. Sleuth?" It was Mrs. Freedman, never far from the store, her smile frozen in the position of a delicate lady who has just cleaned a toilet.
"How'd you guess, Suze?" First name basis with the owner. One of the perks. I made a siren sound, like I imagined the Nazi SS made back then. It was a little joke between us.
"You go now," she whispered, packing me off with two dozen free bagels, her hands shaking in appreciation.
By the time I got back to the vicinity of my office in the part of town you didn't dress up for, I had gone through most of the bagels. I was using an onion bagel as a napkin and wishing I had ordered something to go with my catch. A little cream cheese, some whitefish salad. Something.
* * * *
I was still wishing I had ordered something to go with them when the limo pulled up next to what was left of my car. It had a traditional mansard roof and Fieldstone siding. Painted pink. The limo took up most of the city block and wasn't about to give it back. I didn't figure to be talking to the driver.
Two outsized members of what I guessed were my species uncoiled themselves and ambled over. Each was about two inches taller than the other, and both were sporting toothpicks.
"Boss want to see you," recited Toothpick One while Toothpick Two let me see his .38 caliber bulge.
"Is that a gun, or are you just glad to see me?" I asked sweetly. The reaction was swifter and more violent than expected. Toothpick One's eyes widened and his jaw opened, displaying a rather nasty set of teeth, while Toothpick Two went into a karate crouch, virtually doubling over with silent mirth. Toothpick One began laughing and sucking for air and coughing at the same time so the effect was like someone laughing, sucking and coughing at the same time. His partner kept laughing, though not so silently, now. If this kept up, they'd blow my cover. Tears streamed down both their cheeks on both of their faces. Toothpick Two recovered enough to gasp, "Listen, Proust..." but then he fell into it again, his chest heaving, his nostrils flailing as he attempted to fill his lungs with air that contained the stench of ethnic cooking. They leaned on each other and sighed, as enforcers do after a good laugh. Toothpick One recovered sufficiently to remind me that "the Boss"—presumably his—wanted me in the limo.
"No problema," I said.
This convulsed them even further, so I accompanied myself to the front entrance, looked in, and saw an old friend.
I joined him.
* * * *
To call "Bo" Langston an old friend is like calling a persistent case of herpes an old friend. Familiar, yes, but you sought a cure. Put another way—
"Well, well," Langston interrupted, looking up from his newspaper "if it isn't Boston Angst."
"The pleasure be mine, Boston Blackie," I said, using the female spelling and affecting an English accent I had overheard in Harvard Square. Move over, George Plimpton. His face lightened. "I see you met the boys." He could have been talking about a congenial meeting of gentlemen at the club.
"We set to conversing." I said.
"It seems I underestimated you, Proust."
"Word," I smiled. That was street talk for, 'right on.' And he knew it.
He opened his tight little mouth enough to reveal the monogram on his left incisor. Class act. He claimed to own a chain of small but serviceable sea food restaurants, but I could guess how he made his money. His rings make a joyous sound as the car went over bumps. "Mr. 'Bo' jangles," I observed. He glowered at me. The rest of the drive was less eventful.
We pulled into the hydrant in front of "his" place. Uncle T's was a favorite nightspot of the hip and would-be hip, in the part of town you dressed up for. As we walked inside, a young black man sized me up, paying special attention to my gym bag and size 9 sneakers.
"Hey, fella, wanna race?" me said.
"No thanks," came my reply. "I already got one."
Langston's glower became a wide-eyed stare. Couldn't believe I'd fit in so easily.
Uncle T's featured supper and wall pictures of Langston with famous celebrities. The people working there greeted Langston, who busied himself with the apparent details of running the business. All the trappings of ownership, I thought. A sleek black woman appeared at our table with an order of New York style clam chowder and a side of crab sauce. Langston sat back in his custom built swivel chair, pleased with himself and with things in general. Was there no one he missed? Had he no depth?
The woman's face remained impassive, her eyes smaller than they were in what could have passed for her youth. What had she sacrificed to be here?
"Proust," he began, ignoring her completely, "you have a little something — half a little something, to be exact, — that is mine."
He sat as far back as was physically possible without actually lying down. He had practiced.
"Our, uh, friendship would be greatly improved, as would your chances of walking out of here alive, were you to lay it on me."
"Were I to lay it on you?" I repeated. "The 'bro be crossing cultural lines be he?"
"Listen, Proust." His one good eye narrowed to a mere slit while his other good eye opened as wide as a saucer. This wasn't going the way he wanted. "I control all the black restaurants from Dorchester to Mattapan, and no two-bit, penny ante—"
"Mixed metaphor!" I said.
"What?" he exploded.
"'Penny ante' and 'two-bit' mean different..."
"They're Not Metaphors—They're Expressions!" he bellowed, his voice rising an octave with each word. Diatonic, but effective. The waitress remained impassive, her eyes aimed in our direction but focused on something long ago and far away. "They are casual but acceptable ways to impugn the stature of one who has little to start with."
"Yo!" I said, standing corrected, stalling for time.
"Siddown, Proust," Langston snapped. "I'm going to ask you this once and once only." I could hear him breathe. I had no choice. "Will you give me the ticket, yes or no?"
"That twice." I said.
There was a pause as palpable as the way Shellye showed her love for me.
"Proust," he sighed, shaking his head slowly, "I've been truly patient, but you leave me little choice. Would you like to meet Nero Mattes?"
"I'll pass," I said, giving Langston a long, significant look.
I knew people did it. But until that moment, I had never actually heard someone count to ten out loud. When he was done, he was shaking so hard I had to help him push a hidden button. As it turned out, that's when Nero Mattes appeared.
Nero Mattes's traceably human feature was that someone had named him. In fact, his parents had only given him a nickname before hastily abandoning him at an address that didn't exist.
There he stood; all muscle and no moral code whatsoever. Did He who made the lamb make thee? I wondered idly. Before I found out, I was kissing the business end of a .45 Magnum. No more Shellye for me.
"Say goodbye, Proust." It was a prepared speech.
"Goodbye," I said.
Did not compute. No one had ever taken him at his word and actually said "goodbye." His eyes rolled around his massive head, searching for a niche in which to fit my words. Springing from my seat and using my bib as a makeshift whip,
I snapped the gun from his oversized hand. We stood there, facing each other. Even without a bib, he was fearsome. From the corner of my eye I noticed that Langston had slipped out. Executive privilege. I'd deal with him later. If there was a later.
I heard a noise just off to my left. I dropped to the floor and spun around only to find the waitress fidgeting with my order of New York style clam chowder. She didn't make eye contact.
"There's no sense in fighting. Langston'll kill you sooner or latter," she said. It was neither a question nor a statement. I didn't know what it was.
"Yo, homegirl," I said to her as Mattes began his inevitable assault, "I ain't fronting, and I don't mean to bust a move on you, but don't you want to break?" Mattes' strategy was to find the shortest distance between two points, one of which was him, and to lumber along it until he made contact with the other point, in this case, me. If legend was to be believed, this strategy served him well. From where I stood, legend looked believable enough.
She sighed. "What are my options? I mean, working here is not what I thought I'd end up doing. The pay's nothing to write home about, though the tip's are good, and the hours—" I wasn't listening, but I assumed hers was a familiar story of baleful, beaten women forced to sell their bodies to callous and kinky Johns. I had to concentrate on the task at hand. The task was coming my way.
Mattes was about twenty pounds heavier than me but only an inch or two taller. He was used to dishing out punishment but probably never took any. I would have to test his limits like a child tests a parent's limits. Only this child was set to kill me. Where was T. Berry Brazelton when I needed him?
I faked left, shuffled my feet a little to the right and landed the best bolo punch ever seen in that portion of the restaurant. It had an impact, but not a big one. Mattes was startled, more for the affrontry shown than for the impact of the blow itself. I had scored a psychological point, but it was pearls before swine. He backed off for a moment and then came at me with renewed fury. Was it something I said?
"Langston don't care Jack about you." I told her between breaths. "In a few years, he be dissing you." She just stared at me, open eyed. Innocent.
Mattes lunged at my midsection. Mistake. It put him slightly off balance and made my counterpunch all the more effective.
"That's not true." protested the victim. I assumed that tears were coming from her closing eyes—eyes that had seen too much, too soon, too early. "He thinks I have a future with his organization. He respects me."
"He got a funny way o' showing it den, don't he?" I said. Shellye had a funny way of showing her respect for me, too. Palpable, yet funny.
Mattes and I had settled into a rhythm where he would lunge for my stomach and I would counter with a looping punch to his head. Over and over went this dance of war, until I was aware of nothing save the dull ping of my fist on his massive skull and his grunt as I knocked the wind out of him. Lunge! Ping! Grunt! Lunge! Ping! Grunt! His breathing was becoming labored. I was working up a slight bead of sweat on my forehead and felt the frozen yogurt melting away. Still, I had gotten only two hours of sleep and was feeling it. Three months ago I wouldn't have felt it. Three months ago I got a good night's sleep. And I wasn't alone, either. Shellye slept the whole night through. I woke up every now and then to stare at her, to make sure she was still there. With me. The room was secured. She wouldn't leave.
Lunge! Ping! Grunt! Lunge! Ping! Grunt! went our bloody ballet. Whoever it was who wrote Time Must Have an End, never did the warrior waltz with Mattes.
"Aldous Huxley," came the familiar voice, as though I didn't know.
I wasn't sure what Langston had planned for me when he returned. My only hope was to get the laconic black woman to talk.
"Yo, honey—" I began. "—You mind I call you honey?"
She gave me a strange look. I was getting a lot of those lately, but that didn't make it any easier.
"'Honey' is fine," she said at last, her eyes boring into mine with the trace of a smirk. Progress.
Lunge! Ping! Grunt! No progress.
"It not my nevermind how you got here." I said. "All I know is what that I be able to get you out. I got a 'sheen that clean, and I'm mean!"
I made a mental note to tell her that she was beautiful when she was angry. Mattes's breathing was becoming even more labored. I managed to wrap my left leg around his right arm and to jam my left arm under his knee while enveloping his torso with my elbow so that I had locked us in a clench of death. Pure of heart, the strength of ten, and the weight of one. One big one. Locked into place like a bleeding jigsaw puzzle, the two of us careened around the dining room. Lunge! Ping! Grunt! The blood he spat mixed with the beads of sweat that had formed on my forehead. And Shellye said I didn't have any class. If only she could see me now.
Honey was ready to talk. "I can trust you, can't I, Proust?" She didn't wait for an answer, and I didn't have one for her, so she didn't miss anything.
"Langston's right on the verge of closing his largest restaurant deal and someone you know—"
Her speech was interrupted by Mattes who crashed into her at that moment. He wiped the blood off his face and muttered, "Watch out, bitch!"
Whatever Code I was operating under; whatever self-imposed restrictions had limited me, were henceforth null and void. I lost my temper.
"All black women are whores to you? Is that it, Mattes?" I said between clenched teeth, putting every last bit of strength and training into my punches. "Is that it?" I yelled again, as he staggered back towards the wall.
I had had enough. Aiming my .45 Magnum, I told him to say goodbye. Never too late for a speech lesson.
"Goodbye," he said. The sincerest form of flattery.
"That's the last thing I expected you to say, Mattes..."
He snickered. I emptied the Magnum's contents into his face.
"...the very last thing."
By the time the bullets emerged from the back of his skull, Mattes had died his single death. Had he been a tree in a forest you would have heard him fall.
"I win." I said
"You lose," Langston said, reappearing with a police special I knew he shouldn't have. Honey's eyes closed up again; she stood perfectly still, without life or list.
"I didn't tell him about your big deal!" she cried, frightened.
"Oh, right," I said, sarcastically. Why would she lie?
"Your indiscretion could cost you, girl," Langston said.
"'Woman,' sucker!" I corrected him. Shellye always said my feminism would get me killed someday.
"Moot," said Langston, readying his gun.
"Moot, moot", came a familiar voice. It was Speare. I would never know where he came from or how he knew I was there. I would never ask. All I knew was that my odds had improved considerably. It wasn't just the outsized Magnum Speare held weightlessly in his hand, though there was that. It was his entire demeanor. His head was perfectly round and perfectly bald; his sunglasses wrapped around his entire skull. Such was the force of his personality that few could look directly at his face. Hoods who had promised not to backshoot him were often fatally surprised to find that he was facing them all along. The animal purity of his motions allowed him to glide gently above the surface, creating the impression of a black hovercraft—an Afrobot whose moral code featured retaliatory violence and canine loyalty. I knew nothing about him, really, but I would have done the same if our situations were reversed.
"Since when you a grammarian?" I said
"Any time a sister's denigrated, we're all denigrated." He replied. "Besides, she's too old to be a 'girl.'"
"So dig, you thought I needed help?" I said. I didn't need no help three months ago.
"Babe, it's part of life to need," Speare said simply, manipulating two toothpicks in his mouth. I didn't ask where he got them. "I could see that you couldn't handle Mattes without help. You've got issues."
"Jesus Christ." It was Honey again, with new found hopelessness, as two armed thugs made their entrance through the service door. Langston's silent alarm? To this day, I don't really know.
"You kill us, we kill your boss." Speare said to them simply. "You planning to work for his corpse?"
"They're bluffing!" snapped Langston. "Take 'em out!"
The thugs shared a moment of confusion until they spotted the remains of Mattes. "Holy cow!" stammered one of them.
"Formerly 'holy shit,'" I added, as they fled on their own. I got in the last word.
"Look like we got a little standoff, 'Bo.'" I said. He wasn't fond of his nickname, either.
"Of course I be thinking about Shellye," I said to Speare. "But a man does what a man do."
"You're reaching," was all Speare would say.
"You're reaching," was all he would repeat.
"What's to stop me from killing you right now, Proust?" said Langston, his face striped with rage.
"You got asbestos underwear?" Speare answered quietly. He was whistling the Flight of the Bumblebee under his breath. I had to put my ears next to his head a couple of times, it was that imperceptible. Langston never heard it. You had to spend a lot of time with Speare to know what he was whistling and what it meant. I still didn't know.
"Look, Nigger—" Langston began, looking at Speare.
"You should talk!" I cut in.
They wisely ignored me.
"I've got no beef with you—"
"Nor I wi' ye'" Speare cut in. Plimpton redux.
In the micro second that it took Langston to change cultural gears, Speare floated over and relieved him of his clearly illegal firearm.
Langston's eyes met and locked with where he alone instinctively knew Speare's eyes to be. They spoke softly and only to each other, even though I was, next to Speare, the largest living person there. What I could make of it sounded like this:
"Wha' fo, mo?"
Speare picked up his gym bag and turned to me.
"He says he underestimated you and that you're free to leave."
"We dis his main enforcer and his hired hands, and we 'free' to leave?" I said, incredulously.
"Good a time as any," Speare pointed out, so we departed, leaving Honey leaning out for love. She would lean that way forever. While Speare held the mirror.
We felt an even number of eyes boring into our backs as we emerged from the restaurant. We turned around to see Langston and his retinue pile into his massive car. The mighty engines fired up, and Langston's traveling empire took off in a huff. "Don't go away mad." I shouted at them as they passed.
The car skidded to a surprisingly graceful stop and came careening back towards us. I whipped out my .45 magnum. Big game.
Langston's taut face appeared at the window. His eyes were slits.
"What did you say?" He hissed.
"I forget," I lied.
He shook his head audibly, as once again the traveling empire spun off. This time it left rubber.
I had begun with questions and no answers, and all I had to show for it were more questions. I was left, therefore, with more questions than answers. The syllogism of despair.
* * * *
Speare and I walked along in silence. Whatever part of Boston we were in was always especially nice at that time of year.
"'Nor I'?" I said, laughing.
"'Wi' ye'?" he said, laughing.
"'Nor I wi' ye'?" we both said, laughing.
"I got something interesting today—" I broke in.
"Figured you might have, babe," Speare said, showing me the other half of the Celtics ticket.
Nor I wi' ye'.
But first a trip to the Garden.
* * * *
My gym bag and height got me to the outer office of the Celtic's President and Resident Legend without attracting attention. Most picketers didn't carry gym bags and weren't as tall as I was.
I could smell the cigar smoke as I neared his office. Shellye said she always felt ambivalent about cigar smoke; something about deep smells from her deep past that were deeply hidden or something. I never knew how far the involuted paths of her self awareness went. All I knew was that I wanted to be there with her as she endlessly explored them.
"Can I help you?"
It was the Receptionist.
Generous of the New York Public Library to let one of its guard lions do a little moonlighting.
She looked briefly in my direction, let her eyes flutter in annoyance and boredom (practice makes perfect), took in a large draught of air and went back to her work on the comic section of the Boston Herald. Heady stuff.
"If I were to give you a million dollars," I began hopefully, "would you let me see Mr. Auerbach?"
Her double take peeled away the crust of years.
"Of course, not," she replied, looking me over and over. "But you are an original. Now, out." Back to the Herald.
"Dick Tracy in trouble again?" I clucked, demurely.
"What if I were to tell you," I grinned, "that I'm a player."
Her head nodded so imperceptibly I didn't notice it.
"In that case, Mr. Auerbach will see you now."
She pushed a hidden button and motioned me towards the inner office.
It was that simple.
But it shouldn't have been.
* * * *
In this case, the stuff of legends meant the stuff that Mr. Legend had strewn around his cramped though immodest office. All of it testified to his undeniable and unprecedented success: pictures of "Red" in paternal poses with his various charges, and pictures of the Great Man meeting other Great Men, each of them thinking he got the better of the picture. Among the multitude of posters and team photos was one small, yellowing picture of the former redhead with his biological family; a wife and young girl. The walls were covered with news clippings of past victories, stolen draft choices, trophies—
"What's with the goddamned inventory?" exploded the Roller of Cigars. "I'm not making a goddamned insurance claim, for Chrissake!"
"No offense, your won-ness," I bowed, letting him see my half of the ticket, "but I wonder what sort of claim you are making."
His eye landed on the ticket and didn't take off. He must have pushed a hidden button, for there is no other way to explain the sudden emergence of two of Boston's finest. Unless it was a coincidence.
I knew Lieutenants Lockridge (no relation) from an earlier, more idealistic time. They were both good cops—the best, really—but they had very different ways of going about things: Lockridge, a second generation Boston cop, was a stickler for the rules. He had short red hair and a temper to match. I saw him yell at a guy once, really go after him, screaming and everything. With his thick wrists and rolling local accent, he was a real type. Lockridge, for his part, knew the rules, but he knew when to bend them. He figured there would always be bad guys, so his pension was safe. Still, he cared. When he came into a room, all he needed was one look around and he knew exactly where he was. They accepted one another grudgingly but never made peace with their shared last name. I tried not to help.
"This is getting us nowhere!" shouted Auerbach angrily, though we hadn't begun, and I, for one, had no idea where we were supposed to be going. Still, I was impressed with his desire for results.
"Perhaps—" I began,
"Look, Proust," said Lockridge, his face flushed and his eyes, fists and teeth clenched, "We've taken just about enough of your lip—"
"Just about enough?" I asked sweetly. "Or enough. I ask merely for information."
He glowered at me, restrained from physical assault by the thin veneer of civilization I counted on when Speare wasn't around. With Speare there, the veneer was thick.
Lockridge laid an experienced hand on his partner's shoulder, guiding him away from me. Lockridge continued his glower.
Suddenly, Auerbach started shaking. Nobody else joined him. Looking at me without the penetrating lasers he had used to successfully bully the League for decades, he was just a pitiful, aging man.
"I got a problem even I can't solve," he rasped.
A pitiful, aging, arrogant man.
"I understand that you are what is known as a 'wise-guy.'" he said slowly, pointing his cigar at me, the smoke describing the arc of a parabola.
"I've been associated with some very special people over my career. And let me tell you something." He pointed at me. "All the great ones are wise-guys."
I basked in the sphere of his glowing cigar.
"Some wise-guys," he continued, "are just assholes, like yourself."
Lockridge was beside himself. Lockridge shot him a look, but he was enjoying himself as well. Well, why not, I thought to myself; might as well party. This can't last.
* * * *
"We've had some losses," began the very famous man.
"I'm in shape," I smiled, "but I haven't touched a basketball in years."
He looked at me and shook his head. "No, no," he said gesturing. "Different kinds of losses, every bit as important as basketball games."
He leaned back in his chair. His cigar had gone out. In the distance I could hear a tea kettle whistling. I wondered if he heard it, too.
The way the sun came through the windows accentuated his many awards. Nice effect.
"What I am about to tell you," Auerbach began, his voice shaking and unsteady. "is grave and ... very personal. Only you and the officers here know about it."
"Can I tell my friends?" I asked.
Auerbach slowly leaned forward, palms up on the desk. A non-alcoholic flush on his face.
"My daughter and my best player have been kidnapped." he said, barely above a whisper.
There was a stunned silence. An embarrassingly long silence.
Looking at Auerbach as he slumped in his chair, it was hard to believe he had ever hobnobbed with America's version of royalty.
"I assume you mean Larry Bird as your best player." I said at last.
"He is clearly the best all-around player," I continued, "though you can't win without a dominant center."
"Yes..." Auerbach replied, sadly, "I know."
* * * *
Auerbach said he knew of no reason for anyone to steal Larry Bird; he was, after all, retired; there had been no ransom note, only an anonymous phone call claiming responsibility and complaining about things "moving too fast." When pressed about his daughter, he admitted he had no proof that she was kidnapped; he simply hadn't seen her for years and wanted to give her the childhood she deserved.
I told El Legend that I would do what I could to find his player and his daughter, but that I would keep my half of the ticket. His eyes followed it hungrily as I put it back in my pocket. Lieutenants Lockridge told me to keep the hell out of their way and that the full resources of the Police Department were at my disposal.
It didn't add up, and I didn't have many clues, all of which meant that I had an excuse to see Shellye. I bathed, just in case, and changed gym bags, just in case.
I arranged with Speare to meet her at the S&S Deli, in Inman Square, Cambridge, MA 02139. Their literature claims that "S&S" is a corruption of the Yiddish "Ess und Ess" (eat and eat) which the Benevolent Founding Grandmother wanted as the theme of her New World restaurant. I saw no reason to disbelieve that heart-warming story.
I got there early and mingled with the shorter but sincere pickets outside. The S&S had evolved from its sawdust on the floor roots to mauve walls and new age, totalitarian pillars. It obviously bothered some people. I recognized some of them as picketers of Steve's and the Boston Garden. One of them muttered something about "things moving too fast," but I didn't pay too much attention. I preferred it the way it used to be as well. But Shellye liked it just fine, now.
I glanced out and was fortunate enough to see Shellye and Speare gliding down the street, so close they could have been hand in hand. People would cross the street to be near Shellye, only to catch a glimpse of Speare and recoil in fear. Whenever they walked together they created a pulsating mob. They made their own waves.
The pickets surged and parted as they approached. Timing their arrival as Mexican divers gauge the waves, they cut through the pickets while the tide was out and joined me effortlessly at table. For a while I didn't see Speare, despite the fact that he was wearing the skins of five different African Yaks. Had I seen him I wouldn't have asked where he got them. Indeed, I might have noticed him and his, but Shellye chose that very moment to sit down across from me as naturally as if she had been doing it all her life. There was no restaurant then, no kidnapping, no missing daughter, no pickets. Just a hint of her fragrance (she wouldn't tell me what it was), and her eyes.
And then, after what seemed a while, there was more.
There were her fine, sharp features, features you could shave with; her eyes fashionably close together; her knitted eyebrows; the layers of clothing she carried on her back like a warrior; and finally—her essence, which was to her, alone, born.
She was frighteningly beautiful.
In time, she let her eyes meet mine with a look that was more genuine than real. I didn't know how much more of this I could take. I saw my chest move up and down, but I couldn't feel myself breathe. If I were a bell...
She was hideously beautiful.
"What happened to your face?" she asked. All this, and words, too.
"Nothing," I replied, truthfully. "Just the ravages of time."
"It shows," she said supportively.
Speare chatted up the owner in Yiddish while a battery of waiters served exotic rolled pancakes.
"I love your relation to food," I smiled, breaking the ice.
"You don't know the half of it," she said, during mouthfuls. She was a professional nutritional consultant, and partial to the S.& S. Deli, across the street from New Words Bookstore, in Cambridge.
"What have you got for me?" she asked at last. Whenever she said 'me,' she was referring to herself. It was just something unspoken between us.
I told her about my meeting with Auerbach, his missing personnel, the pickets, Langston, my fears and dreams.
She took it all in, missing nothing. Infinity. By Shellye. Speare moved only imperceptibly to stab at the food. I never saw him swallow.
"So, how far do you think this Hourbuck would go to get his player and daughter back?" she asked. Perfect, that she couldn't get Auerbach's name right.
"Hard to say," I nonetheless said, "but he has a reputation for getting what he wants."
"Sometimes," Shellye said, as though nothing had changed between us, "a man can get what he wants without getting what he needs."
"Wanting's not the same as needing," Speare agreed.
"How the heart approaches what it yearns," said Shellye, looking intensely, but not at me. I hated it when she did that.
"What a man needs..." Shellye began.
"...or has..." Speare continued.
"...or wants..." Shellye went on, nodding.
"...or eats..." I guessed. They stopped, looked at me, at each other, and then at the table. There was a moment of silence. I could hear them sigh. We were a team.
"From what you've told me," Shellye began again, fully into her professional mode. "Outbeck's relation to his team is that of father figure. Larry Bird would be his chosen son. It's interesting, is it not, that Averbeak chose to seek out his daughter only when his surrogate son was abducted."
"Sublimated guilt," suggested Speare.
"Yes," said Shellye.
"Yes?" I said.
"Yes," said Speare.
"But," I asked, "who would steal a former professional basketball player. Especially such a visible one as Bird?"
The pickets had become louder and more vocal. "The More Things Change, The Worse They Get!" shouted some. "Hands Off Our Past!" shouted others. "...Moving Too Fast..." mumbled still others.
"We know that the Boston Garden is slated for demolition and that these good citizens object," said Speare. "But kidnapping's not their style. They more the letter to the Editor type."
Suddenly, Shellye was all eyes, and our race the richer for it, as she noticed the picketers seemingly for the first time. She took a complete visual inventory of one of the more fashionable women. "Easy virtue," she said at last, under her breath. We all laughed. Shellye understood other women in ways that I could never hope to.
I ordered coffee and dessert. I put in some Nutrasweet, which was neither, and thought about the case.
"We don't know who gave me and Speare the tickets," I summarized, "how Langston knew about them or why he thought they belonged to him, or who would order the kidnapping of a 6' 10" public figure. We don't know what, if any, relation there was between Auerbach's sudden desire to see his daughter again and Bird's disappearance."
Shellye hadn't looked directly at me in minutes. I'd initiated all the conversations, made all the jokes, done all the laughing. The pit in my stomach was returning. A little voice was saying, 'Proust, oh, Proust! Here, Proust!' but I didn't want to go. Shellye was slowing down, but it would be a while before she was done, and I wanted to be alone to sort things out. I excused myself and left them arguing the fine points of Old Testament ontology.
I'd said what I had to say on the subject, anyway.
* * * *
I got back to my office the only way I knew how. Once there, I climbed the outside fire escape and broke into my back door. Using a specially modified credit card (don't break in without it), I was able to slip unnoticed into my office. Nothing had changed since the last time nothing had changed. If anything, things were exactly the same.
Outside I could see a man and a woman hugging. Or was it a mugging? There were ways to tell. I heated up some water in a potboiler given to me by a woman I wish I had known. I watched it. It boiled. Sometimes I amaze myself. It was 4:53. Seven minutes too early for Jack Daniels. I passed the time with Canadian Club.
If Langston was involved, that could only mean that Infanti was covering for him. And Infanti never did anything without an O.K. from Lumbargi. But what was the motive? What was the Celtics tie in? How did Auerbach's relation with his players and his daughter figure into all this? Was he Connected?
I spoke to the picture on my wall. It spoke back. I wondered which is worse, speaking to a picture or hearing it speak back. "Not liking what it say." It was Speare, breaking and entering. Mentally.
Since nobody was around, I used the phone book to find the number of a paralegal who claimed she owed me a favor. It was cheaper than calling information, and a paralegal was cheaper than a legal. Her voice was willing. I told her I wanted inside information about any real estate deals that involved preservationists and the Boston Celtics. I also needed all the dirt she could dig up on Auerbach specifically and father-daughter relations generally. She was happy as a pup to be of help. She wasn't two years out of school and was just feeling her way around. She liked my suggestion that I help her with the feeling around part.
"You know, of course," I told her just before she hung up, "that this is technically illegal."
"Jesus, you're right!" she said suddenly, and hung up. So much for youthful enthusiasm. Shellye often said that my youthful enthusiasm distinguished me from other people and even from other life forms. It was that important.
I decided to call a reporter who had to give me what I wanted—perhaps, though, not what I needed, I mused bitterly.
What a man needs... ...what a man wants...Old Testament ontology...
"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!, I've got an insight!" I chanted mockingly.
How the heart approaches what it yearns.
"Greenberg, here," came the phone. I could just see his 1940's hat balanced precariously on his 1920's head.
"Proust, here," I countered, and filled him in on what I needed. And wanted.
No difference. No difference, at all.
He asked what was in it for him, and I said I'd let him dial the number when we called out for pizza. He accepted that with cynical grace and told me to wait for his call at the public phone booth at Steve's.
That gave me an idea.
The idea was to go to Steve's.
* * * *
I took the Red Line to Davis Square and heard portions of three string quartets and one embittered folk song. The Bartok was strained. I wondered why they didn't put rubber wheels on American subways. We had managed to get rubber on the wheels of our cars and busses, but there was still the sense of being punished when one took the subway. Purgatory or bad urban planning? I knew of three articles being cranked out on the subject at that very moment. They didn't need a fourth. I exited the Red Line going north on Holland Street, past the Somerville Theater, when I stopped, nodded my head as though satisfied with a completed task, turned around and walked south on Holland Street, past the Somerville Theater, towards Steve's.
The pickets had grown in numbers. They were shouting about preservation while they marched with grim purpose. I spotted two young women marching together, one of whom had a button on her fatigue jacket that said, "Hi! I'm Lenore, a Lesbian." Daughters of Sappho, I perceived. Fine with me. It would be a while before Greenburg called with the information I had ordered, so I decided to strike up a conversation with the odd couple.
I stepped in line next to them, tipped what would have been my hat, and clucked sensitively about Holly Near. Nothing. I was too big to be ignored, yet they weren't buying any. One of them looked away in what would have been disinterest had there been enough interest to generate it. Their clothes were faded; probably the result of the very public pre-concert hugs Boston Lesbians give one another. I had warned them of the consequences. They could never understand what business it was of mine.
Lenore's partner shot me a tentative look. A chink in the armor? It was all I needed. Grabbing her by the wrist, I told her why I was there.
She looked up at me searchingly, tears coming, and asked, "Have you ever spoken to a woman without grabbing her wrists?"
We marched on in silence.
Suddenly, She of the Wrist starting speaking.
"Damn! that really hurt," she said
Her confession was interrupted by the man with the tweed jacket that almost matched his brown pants and Rocksport shoes with heels as soft as his arms. The lush sweater his first wife bought him was wrapped around his neck, its arms hanging down over his soft stomach. He wore a scarf in summer and carried a hardback copy of What Color is Your Volvo? He had a lot of character in his eyes, but most of it was from reading. I knew who he was but enjoyed asking him anyway.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"The Faculty Advisor," he responded with impunity. He must have known who I was, because he didn't ask. "And I insist that you stop bothering my people."
"'My people?'" I said, my face inches from his, my neck stretched to its limit, my body bent forward, my shoes untied, I noticed.
"You know what I mean!" he blustered, fingering his scarfs. "It's just that—"
"I'll talk to him," said my new friend, the Wrist Giver. "Alone."
The Faculty Advisor started to protest, but just one of my 14" forearms was enough to give him pause. As I walked her inside Steve's, I turned to Lenore and said nothing.
She managed to look at me without smiling and resumed her long march.
* * * *
We found a quiet corner, away from the ads for vegetarian roommates, guitar lessons and used Volkswagens. I sat and gently played the piano while she tried to open and close her fingers. Neither of us ordered. Melville understood.
"I didn't know you played the piano," she began.
"How could you have?" I said.
* * * *
In time, she told me about the Radical Preservationists, their goal of Zero Change and how important their work was. The Faculty Advisor was their leader, and he demanded strict adherence to his principles. He was fair, though.
In turn, I told her about Bird, Auerbach and his daughter. Surprisingly, she seemed to know something about it all, especially about the Celtics' struggle to demolish their historic stadium to make way for a new one. As we spoke, she seemed to loosen up. Was it something I played? Her breasts became more prominent, her hair longer and more flowing. As she poured out her heart, she revealed a gentle, vulnerable side I had only guessed at on the picket line. And as she spoke, she shifted ever so imperceptibly in her seat, revealing more and more thigh. She had makeup, now, and her shoes were fashionably confining. She was desperate to please and hopelessly dependent on my opinions and strength.
"Who are you working for—" she purred.
"I'm sorry, little one," I interrupted, gently taking her hand in mind, placing it on my knee and then removing it. "But my code prohibits me from taking advantage of women who are vulnerable. I'm not sure you're ready—"
Ready or not, here they came, the Five Townies, led by scarf face himself.
Faculty Advisor removed one of his scarfs, leaving the others intact. Power disrobing. "You will leave, now," he warned. "or something—" he pointed to his thugs, "—untoward might occur."
The townies, all local boys I grew up with, folded their respective arms for greater effect. They squinted for much the same reason. Probably everything they did was to achieve that effect. And it worked.
"There's five of them," my friend pointed out, all smiles.
"Don't worry," I said. "I get paid to even things up."
"By whom?" she lisped, demurely. But I didn't hear her. Reaching into my gym bag, I got just the right amount of nylon twine, tied my hands together and let each one of the punks punch me as hard as he could. I felt my teeth rattle in my head and my vision get blurry. Struggling to get my hands free, I noticed Faculty Advisor manfully reading the wall menus, pretending not to be involved (Steve's in-house ACLU observer) but I knew which side he was on.
By the time I had worked my hands free, the only sounds were those of labored breathing; beads of sweat being formed and Boss Tweed's lips moving as he pretended to read the menu. My friend had rejoined Lenore on the picket line—in more ways than one. Something about the women. But what?
Winsome, lose some.
I hadn't thought about Shellye for some time, I noticed. But not for lack of trying.
Since they didn't know what it meant, the boys were unable to take advantage of their numerical superiority. I held them off, but my heart wasn't fully in it. These were mere football players and body builders. Not a fighter among them.
"Hey, Don We Now Our Gay Apparel!" smirked one of them, pointing to Lenore and my friend on the picket line.
"Guys," I pointed out. "Lesbians are women who either were born with or developed a psycho-sexual affinity for other women. They not only have rights, they have reasons for their lives, and if you are threatened by their independence, that is your problem, not theirs."
I tried to make the total number of words come out to a multiple of five, since I was punching each of them flush in the face with each word of my speech, so strongly did I believe it. By the time I was finished, so were they. Then it was me, alone with Faculty Advisor, and he didn't like the odds.
I blinked hard at him. He flinched.
"I can arrange to have you killed!" he screamed with that pathetic resonance peculiar to male academics.
"I have connections. I know people! Tenured people!"
"Your sweater," I said, disparagingly. He cocked his head and let his soft lips drop; his scarfs dangled impotently from his clean little neck.
I left medical instruction with Melville for the treatment of the boys I had hurt. If he planned to make use of it, he didn't let on.
I walked outside to answer the phone. Greenburg. As I waited for him to switch to a secure line, several Cambridge types tried to use the phone. I flashed them a picture of Speare; my way of thanking them for respecting my privacy.
Greenburg told me that I wasn't going to like his news. An understatement. The part about developers being in a battle with the Celtics over the parcel adjacent to the Garden was not the problem. The fact that the Radical Preservationists were militantly trying to stop the Celtics from building a new Garden was not the problem. The problem was that the person behind this group wasn't the Faculty Advisor. It was Shellye. That was the problem.
* * * *
After a workout that featured a grunting pushup for every level of my soul searched (the sound of one man snapping), I set up a meet at Blade and Boards, the Boston Garden's very, very club.
At the Garden, I flashed my half-ticket to one of the grey-haired, caucasians who manned the turnstiles. Blacks stood only a slightly better chance of playing for the Celtics than taking tickets for them. Shame they couldn't find qualified applicants.
The circular table had all the players; Auerbach, Shellye, Langston, the Lockridges and Faculty Advisor. They were nervous, but hungry. Speare was nowhere in sight. Comforting.
I ordered for everybody who didn't order for themselves. Lockridge asked me if I was going to order for myself. "Very funny," I said. But in fact, it was a good question.
I told the waiter we'd all have steak, medium, and the House Gin. "Will you be having that with the meal?" he asked obsequiously. "No," I replied. "You can bring the steak now."
The waiter piously brought out the appetizers. "Scampi," grumbled Auerbach, exhausting his quota of small talk. I put some food in my mouth. I chewed. I swallowed. I could get used to this.
Who was it, I mused, who proved that music was the food of life?
"Shakespeare." It was a familiar voice.
"Who the hell you talking to, Proust?" came Auerbach.
"No one" I said, quickly. "Just working on a hunch."
We were silent as the waiter went about his business, setting down our plates in the order that we had entered the restaurant. Justice du jour.
"And a barf bag for your Jewess?" he asked, indicating Shellye.
I started to go after him, but Auerbach motioned me down. "I'll take care of him later," he growled ominously. No tip, I suspected.
I looked at Shellye for as long as I could. I didn't deserve her. "There are questions," I said, to her silence.
"Issues," I corrected myself. She liked that word.
"Why," I persisted, "if you control the Radical Preservationists, did you pretend not to know who Auerbach was?"
"That's it?" she asked after a beat. Her voice had that tired quality it had when she was tired.
"This is complex," she began—the consummate professional. "But I want you to think of Auerbach's image as a father figure."
I recalled the team photos, his arms protectively around his players. "I understand," I said. "He has clearly played a fatherly role to many Bostonians over the years—"
"Your understanding of the fatherly role is too shallow," she corrected. We were on familiar ground as far as my understanding of something being too shallow was concerned.
"Simply put," she continued chewing, "he is my father."
"Jesus, Joseph and Mary!" said the Lockridges.
Langston shrugged. Auerbach turned his outsized knuckles down and his palms up. Faculty Advisor shrugged. Langston turned his palms up. Auerbach shrugged. Lockridge whistled through his teeth. Faculty Advisor nodded. Lockridge shrugged. I wondered what Speare was doing.
From our table at Blades and Board, I could see past the banners (the Bruins hung Divisional Championships, while the Celtics only hung World Championships) all the way down to the parquet floor; its fabled dead spots and live memories. Speare was sharing the pre-game practice with some of the Celtics.
There is no more graceful, no more fully demanding sport than basketball, and here was a collection of the world's finest. They moved with an economy of motion, an understated purpose that was the envy of dancers. Speare was better than all of them, of course, except a couple of the new Mormons and one blond—Bird!
"Bird!" I screamed.
"Another hunch?" smirked Auerbach, smiling in a mean sort of way.
* * * *
It was beginning to make sense. I realized that Auerbach had used the "kidnapping" of Bird to get my attention. I was probably wrong for not verifying his claim with the media—the sportswriters would have noticed if Bird was kidnapped. But I was right in thinking that he would have been an incredibly stupid person to kidnap: too public, too tall, too well known. So far, so good.
But why did Auerbach want me on this case? And since when did Shellye care about preservation? Could there be anything more about her I didn't know?
Clearly, Langston and the Faculty Advisor were merely hired hands; working this city, then taking off when things got too hot. I'd seen their type before. They came with the territory. Part of the deal. Routine. Par for the course. OK, enough. But who had hired them?
I tried to face Shellye. "Why?" I asked, remembering my question.
She actually put down her fork. "When we fail to preserve those institutions which define ourselves—"
"Horseshit!" broke in Auerbach, his face at full flush. Even Lockridge was taken aback by the force of his fury. Lockridge remained calm, having seen the old man go off before. "She's the head of a real estate syndicate that's planning to make the ultimate restaurant, and this is the only site big enough for her ambitions! If she stops us from expanding, our lawyers say she can get controlling interest in the land!"
I'd never seen Auerbach this unhappy.
"Twenty acres, she says she needs! And do you know what the name of the restaurant is going to be?" He paused for emphasis. I wondered why.
"Table for One, that's what!" He stopped. Spent.
Which one, Shellye. Which one?
"Did you kill Mattes?" Lockridge seized the moment to ask me. "Your prints are all over his wounds."
I looked very hard at him.
"Sorry I asked," he said, sheepishly.
"Is this true, Shellye?" I said. In the silence that followed, Speare appeared at the door and probably gave me a wink. The Celtics were down a man. I was up one.
"You've got to understand," began Shellye, "that is, you've got to try to understand, that there is more to you and me than you and me. We have something very special—"
"Permanent," I said hopefully.
"—special," she continued, as my heart soared. "And the 'me' part that is separate and yet aloof from you cannot fully thrive, cannot be fed in the abstract..."
"Mumbo jumbo," Speare said, approvingly.
"...without the me of us going further inside than I've ever been or could expect you to take me or me to take me with or without you, but especially now."
My head spun without being kicked. Familiar ground. "What about Mattes and Langston?" I asked, clutching.
"I set that up," said Auerbach, his eyes twinkling at the memory of it. Any deal turned him on. "because I knew you'd never give up once your life was threatened. Tall white guys go nuts when you threaten them," he said shrewdly, always the street-wise manipulator. "I used you to flush out Shellye so I could deal with her on my own turf," he finished, menacingly.
"Well, I don't like the deal, daddy," whined the daughter with a gun. "And I'm tired of living in your shadow. Yes, I want my own restaurant. And yes, I'm willing to do anything for it!" With that, she put down her fork again and opened fire, expertly killing Langston and the Faculty Advisor. No more co-general managing partners for Shellye!
You should have seen the look on the Faculty Advisor's face.
She shot out the lights and raced out the door with Auerbach, Lockridge and Lockridge close behind. I began the pursuit. Somewhere, a baby cried.
* * * *
One problem with chasing somebody in the Boston Garden is that there are 15,351 somebodies to choose from. Another problem is that I wasn't sure who to chase, Shellye or Auerbach. Both had lied to me. Shellye had a gun, was in an emotional frenzy and had just killed two men in cold blood; but Auerbach was truly overbearing. I decided to go after Shellye, anyway. We needed to talk.
At first the throngs kept me from moving quickly. I kept bumping into teenagers pretending everyone was looking at them as they walked by, oblivious to the adulation; occasional women (none of them deep), and the archetypical fifty year old male who stood next to me at every sporting event, in every city, at every urinal.
As the game approached, people found their seats. I made better time circling the ancient oval stadium, slipping occasionally on the remains of discarded junk food.
I spotted a Steve's ice cream vendor. One person's landmark is another person's gentrification.
Shellye was trying to establish her own identify, to strike out for herself, I thought. The people she had killed would only be missed by someone else who was trying to kill them. Her beef with Auerbach was the classic death struggle between Daughter and Patriarch, and the feminist in me rooted for her. Better him than me, I reasoned. If her pickets put Steve's and the S&S Deli out of business, that was their lookout. I was picking up speed, breaking a sweat. Auerbach was not in his accustomed box seat, where for decades he had passed judgement, armed folded, stern.
Everybody had a seat.
I began to feel less clear about why I was chasing Shellye, or where I fit in her life. Was she using my ability to order food to advance her career as a nutritionalist? The fans seemed to mock me as I ran by, going round and around the oval, not finding the one I sought, not finding answers to questions I hadn't asked. One particularly obnoxious lad kept putting out his hand so I had to give him a "high-five" with each lap. When in Rome.
"Chief!" the crowd shouted, in honor of Robert Parish, the Celtic's center without whom they cannot win. It sounded like they were booing, because the fans made the sound come from the back of their throats, like someone saying, "duh." Why was Shellye running? Was I trying to catch her or to save her? If the latter, from what?
I kept going, faster now, as only a handful of stragglers kept me from opening up to full speed.
The crowd gave its usual introductory cheers to Ed Pinkney and Dee Brown. Old friends, loyal employees. I picked up speed, the seat signs became a blur. I could only see a profusion of shirts, too many green, as I raced by. Shellye said green wasn't my color, either.
"Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" came the sheet of noise, as Local Hero took his seat. For a moment, I felt pride in having rescued him. Just for a moment, though. Then, a great crushing pressure. Where did I fit in? If Shellye got her restaurant, where did I fit in? Would she still let me order for her? Did I really want her to get it? I began throwing out imaginary punches; felling pimps, baleful women, lesbians, students, academics, preservationists, lesbians, patriarchs, paralegals, lesbians, cops and robbers. Nobody could touch me as long as I was punching. My breath came easy, now; my body tuned to its task. The game had apparently begun—there was nobody in my way as I ran flat out around the oval, between Stadium and Lodge.
What would I do when I found her? What would I save her from? My lips became dry, I found it hard to breathe. I got to the top of a breath but couldn't get release. Maybe I'd go back to my office. I knew how to get there, the clients would be distracted by the game. I could be alone. No one to see me be all alone. I was running as fast as I could.
Suddenly, there was silence. As if the entire Garden had pulled in its collective breath. In the silence, I heard a small staccato voice, saying,
"It's OK, it's OK, it's OK!"
I looked around.
It was a familiar voice.
Then, a sheet of noise, a cascading sheet of pure animal sound as the crowd — lawyers, plumbers, children, shallow women, men at urinals — everybody roared. They were standing, now, screaming their approval; screaming one cacophonous shriek of approval.
"Go! Go! Go! Go!"
I looked around.
It was a familiar voice.