An Altar Of Bones
I’ve come to appreciate the irony, and I hope Rhonda is a good enough sport that she has too—the fact that I wooed her with the same motorcycle she would come to despise. She claimed it was out of concern for my safety, but when I put on my Freudian hat I swear it must have signified to her some dangerous phallic liberation.
On our first date we took it over the Daniel Hoan bridge, so named after a former socialist mayor of the city. It crosses the Milwaukee River inlet and was one of my favorite spots to ride, almost two miles long and 120 feet above the water, with nothing but Lake Michigan to the east, while to the west lay skyscrapers, soaring overpasses, old County Stadium, the three monstrous glass domes of the horticultural conservatory, and Neo-Gothic steeples surmounting Catholic basilicas. Barges and freighters drifted beneath us. Seagulls sunned their wings on the bridge’s tied arches. I kept our ride short and sweet, owing to the bitter March climate.
We dined at a Bengali restaurant, which we’d agreed in a previous conversation we both wanted to try. We were too young to even order a bottle of wine, me by just two months. She divulged to me her almost manic craving for new experiences, enjoying her richly-spiced, yogurt-smeared Tandoori chicken. By working at Carlotta’s since the age of fourteen, her enthusiasm for the food of her own culture had diminished. I said that made sense, that the waitstaff at this restaurant probably went home and feasted on burritos.
“It’s the same with music my parents would play growing up. Carlotta is about the same age as them, and from roughly the same region of Mexico, so she likes a lot of the same artists. One day it might make me nostalgic, but right now it gets awfully tiring.”
She was still living with her parents. Since then, they have retired back to Zacatecas, living in the house they paid to have built via thirty-odd years of remittances. Her sister is in Macon, Georgia, married to a state assemblyman, while her brother serves a prison sentence for racketeering and writing bad checks. Overall, about a 50/50 success rate on achieving the American dream. All of that still lay in the future, of course.
“What music do you prefer?” I allowed myself one textbook first-date question. “If Carlotta gave you free reign over the sound system, what would you play?”
“Don’t laugh, but I’m in love with the Eighties. All things Eighties. The hair, the movies, the clothes, and especially the music.”
“I’m upset you didn’t wear leg warmers.”
Our eyes were both watering from the heat of our plates. She had chosen an intimidating spice level, and not be outdone, I had done the same. We were both learning the fundamental difference between Indian hot and Mexican hot. Luckily, beside the red votive candle sat a bottomless basket of Pashawary bread, perfect for extinguishing the fire in our mouths.
“I happen to be a devoted Blondie fan,” I confessed. “Does that count?”
“Let’s see, I only wanted to be Debbie Harry growing up. While all my friends went Selena crazy, I saved up for a leather jacket and knee boots.”
“I can picture it now.”
She had a way of smiling back then—mischievous, cautionary—and it cemented her place at the forefront of your mind. “Who did you want to be when you were a kid?” she asked me.
“Easy,” I said. “Reagan.”
The next day I scoured the local venues for any Eighties band reunion tours coming through town. The best I could track down was The Church, and their opener was another obscure Australian band I had never heard of. Rhonda’s eyes popped with excitement when I told her. It’s possible she was exaggerating. The concert went so well that while frontman Steve Kilbey crooned their big U.S. hit, “Under The Milky Way Tonight,” we had our first kiss. The ambience was straight out of one of her beloved Eighties movies.
Fortified with confidence, on our next date I asked her out for pizza at the original Zaffiro’s on Farwell. The tenor of the place led you to suspect that in the bathroom you might find a gun taped behind a pull-chain toilet. Italian mandolin played softly. I hadn’t been sure whether I would go through with it, but every ingredient seemed perfect. Between the appetizer and the entrée, I withdrew the small velvet box. I saw her momentarily panic. She stopped sipping her water mid-swallow, though her shoulders relaxed when I gave it to her to open.
The earrings were a success beyond what I could have hoped for. She behaved as if no man had ever given her jewelry before. I thought her eyes might actually tear up at one point. I sat back, giddy with relief, sipping my house red. I was no longer feeling too guilty at that point, having been tenaciously justifying my actions for weeks. I told myself that, as an inborn romantic, the dead man would be beaming down at us right now, pleased to see that his generosity and good taste had still managed to kindle joy in a gorgeous woman’s heart. Instead of being fought over by relatives and leaving the ultimate inheritor to wear them in sadness—a sexless, melancholy relic—they had inspired passion, they had brought two lovers closer together, and hadn’t that been their original purpose?
Well anyway, I liked to think so.
I took her home that night. For as brazen and mature as Rhonda came across, in the realm of love she was a novice. Up until her graduation nine months ago, her time had been divided between high-school and Carlotta’s. Now she was taking a pause from academics to save money and decide what she wanted to do next. She was family-oriented, work-oriented, and yes, faith-oriented. That much I could glean through conversation. But as we lay together on the futon in my apartment, having kissed for a good long while, I decided to go for the buttons on her blouse. It was then she took my hand and confided in me that she was a virgin. I was not disappointed and only moderately surprised. I wondered how, with her looks, she had been able to pull it off.
The animus didn’t begin to creep in until I realized, through a lot of beating around the bush, that she intended to stay chaste until marriage. It was like telling me she was a Freemason or a medium. I had heard of girls who saved themselves until marriage, sure, but they had taken on mythical proportions in my mind. An endangered population, I thought. And I had noticed the ring of course: sterling silver, an infinity crisscross design, the mirror-cut cross inset with a single diamond. She had told me it was a present from her father. Being naïve and inexperienced in these matters, I had never put two and two together that it was a purity ring. A pussy shackle. A deed of ownership held by the Church, enlisting her in what amounted to undercover nunnery. Carlotta, ever a fountain of business logic, had advised that Rhonda not wear it while waitressing. Such a tangible obstacle to men’s fantasies could affect her tip rate.
I asked how far she had ever gone with a man. I was relieved to hear, once finally breaching the flush-faced wall of Catholic shame, that she had done nearly everything under the sun besides actual intercourse. Oddly enough, she had probably tried more things than I had. Few demographics can outdo the abstinent in terms of inventiveness.
“I like you, Mickey,” she said in earnest. “I understand if this puts you off. You’re so handsome, I guess you’ve had lots of girls.”
“Not so many,” I answered. “Tell me about your old boyfriends.”
“What’s there to tell?” she frowned.
“Tell me the most turned on you’ve ever been.”
“When we were kissing just now.”
“Don’t lie. I’m a big boy,” I nuzzled her. “I can handle it. I want to know, I promise. Hearing about it will turn me on.”
She gawked at me like I was babbling depravities, until she saw that I meant it. Then I could tell the scandal and heterodoxy of my request excited her a bit. She decided to recount her very first sexual exchange, perhaps because the details were most vivid. As she spoke, I coaxed her into more and more detail, kissing her neck, running my fingertips up and down her inner thigh. She described the blood-heat of an uncircumcised cock in her mouth, that first cock, the first time she ever laid eyes on one erect, wrapping her hands around it, pleasuring a man, watching it ejaculate. How bizarre it had seemed, like some stalk of coral from an alien reef, but also how exciting. She had caused a man to orgasm just by sucking and touching. She better understood the efficacy of this technique when the boy proved chivalrous enough to reciprocate. (“I don’t know whether I breathed the entire time he was down there.“) She equated it to flying through something warm and airless, a vacuum, then finally gasping back to Earth in a volatile rush of wind and light. As she came to this climax in her account, I pushed my fingers up under her dress. She doused her panties and stiffened there in my arms.
Afterward, she was immediately mortified, afraid that she had said too much, been too explicit, and had wounded or angered me. I promised her the opposite was true, that if she wanted proof it was there for the taking.
Rhonda became a new sort of thrill, because the seductive phase continued on indefinitely. The seduction, I realized, was my favorite part. Contrary to my initial disappointment, prolonging that stage reinforced my interest in her, far exceeding what I had felt for any other woman. Given my youth, I should be forgiven for mistaking this for love. I met her family. They were kind enough, polite, because I had a solid profession and no kids, but Rhonda never stayed the night for fear of being judged by them. We would fool around like adolescents, then cool off in time for her to be home by midnight.
Of course, we didn’t wait until marriage. That was out of the question. I broke her down eventually. Quid pro quo. She had told me about her earliest sexual encounters, so I began dropping references to my own. I watched her try to remain impartial, even to get aroused by it as I had, but on the inside I could tell it was destroying her, virtually corroding her self-esteem to hear me bring up other women. I grew more audacious all the time. Her jealousy built to such an unbearable degree that to this day, notwithstanding her other grudges borne against me, I’m sure she is still convinced it was her idea to break her celibacy. A lifelong pledge violated. The ring from her father now just a chintzy ornament without substance.
She was so disappointed in herself that, in wanting to allay her remorse, I made a rash proposition. “Move in with me.”
“Stop it. I feel awful enough as it is.”
“Why should you, goddamn it? You’re a grown woman. And we’re in love, aren’t we?”
We were lying in bed then and she rolled over to face me, cheeks ruddy with tears, eyelashes glued together, body racked and tense from continuous crying. I realized, looking into her guileless brown eyes, what I had said and what I could not take back.
The long and short of it is that her parents essentially disowned her for a time, once we started living in sin. She wouldn’t admit how much it bothered her. She joined in whenever I mocked their prehistoric values. But I knew. This went on for eight months. For that whole time the question grew and hovered between us like an inextricable moth. I guess the tipping point came when she commented that it was her parents’ anniversary and they wouldn’t even pick up her calls. Needless to say, the whole thing struck me as cultic and medieval and I told her so at every opportunity, but I was fighting a lifetime of indoctrination. What else could I do?
In the end, it was easier to give an inch and take my mile.
It was easier to propose.
The drabness of the police station’s ground floor could be a Better Homes and Gardens cover compared to its basement. If a serial killer ever struck in Judson Bottom, our basement is the first place I’d check, as it provides one of the coziest atmospheres in town for someone of that headspace. A veritable maze of brick and stone, sweating Cold War paranoia from its bunker-like walls, some rooms are completely bricked off, Cask of Amontillado style. I’ve done my share of exploring down there. Wojcik let me take home a set of teak shelves which were discarded in one of its many haunted alcoves. One can read the Wild West pathos of department heads past. People have actually excised bullets from the walls and found hollow casings rolled into corners. There are imaginative black stains mottling areas of the floor. A breeze without scientific origin rolls through interminably, shuddering the cobwebs.
“All of it,” the Chief forswears. We are upstairs in the kitchenette. “I’m giving the Feds free reign over all of it when they show up. They said they want a command center, well, that’s fair by me. They’ll be cozy enough and so will I. Out of sight, out of mind.” I can tell by his grimacing, tight-jawed smile that he is on the verge of nervous collapse.
“Did they say how many are coming?” I ask.
“A team,” he snorts. “How many are in a team? Five, ten, twenty? That’s what I’m saying. It won’t matter. They can have the entire dungeon. Pack the whole fucking Bureau down there for all I care.” It sounds like maybe he’s regretting his decision to alert the Feds, but I’ll hold off on saying I told you so. I’m not convinced his heart can take it. “It’s out of my hands,” he keeps muttering, as if to some reproving angel on his shoulder. “It’s out of all our hands.”
“Did you mention Devon?”
“I said we had a suspect in custody. And I asked them to put in a request with the Army for transcripts of both his psych evals. Lord knows they’ll get them a hell of a lot faster then we would.” Wojcik dumps dairy-free creamer into his coffee. “I guess these Millennials don’t have the same stomach fellas had in my day.” Then he adds, with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, slamming a cupboard door, “That or they have something we lacked.”
The last time I checked on Devon, twenty minutes ago, he was sitting handcuffed in a holding cell under constant observation. His bloody hands, scraped raw from punching at the grate in my cruiser, were bandaged with gauze. Remarkably, he doesn’t appear to have broken any bones. He was done wailing and hyperventilating, content to stare at a dirty patch of floor, though his electrified eyes and quivering lip still signaled him unapproachable.“I’ll give him another hour to cool off,” I say, “then try my luck again. Break him in slowly.”
“Negative,” the Chief answers. “You’ve put in a whole shift already. Go home and pop some sleeping pills so you’re not a piece of shit for your brother’s party tonight.”
My brother’s party? How the hell did he remember when it had completely slipped my mind? “I forgot all about that,” I admit.
“I know. Just don’t overindulge. I’m all for having a good time but I need you in peak condition tomorrow. It’ll be hell for me on my own.”
Flipse walks in, out of his sweats and back in uniform. He greets the Chief brightly. Wojcik grunts something unintelligible, his mind invested elsewhere, and sweeps past him. I follow a few paces behind. Flipse mutters a low insult in my ear that sounds like “toadie” and probably is.
On the way home, I pull my bike over in the middle of nowhere, onto a little patch of gravel that marks my favorite trailhead in the Kettle Moraine. Nothing exists here but an old clapboard pump house standing on the banks of the Sheboygan River. Back in the locker room, I changed out of my uniform into a pair of basketball shorts and a Sturgis T-shirt dating back to 2005. Sleeping pills don’t agree with me, not unless I want to be out like Rip Van Winkle and dead to the world the whole next day. A good run usually does the trick much better. A loon sings, eerily human and heartbroken.
The trail is easy to miss, rough-hewn into the forest, used mainly by deer. Five minutes into my jog I’m sweating through my shirt. “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” as the summer refrain goes. When I run I can think clearly about anything or not think at all. Either choice is preferable to sitting idly, devoured by speculation, twitching on and on from one unfounded theory to the next. The clacking keyboards and polytonal chatter of the police station, the three gray walls defining my cubicle, none of it is conducive to free and easy cognition. I must think: to block out the pain that boils in my unprepared lungs, the lactic acid churning like napalm through my muscle fibers. I must think: so I can ride it all out and come out the other end freed from distraction.
The tall grass is alive with the static of insects. Kaleidoscopic light showers from a patchwork canopy; green varieties of oak, sugar maple, ageless box elders. My feet land, circumspect, between exhumed root systems. The hot oppression of the forest, crawling with birdsong, at once rotted and lush, is like a chamber of my mind brought to life, and I am free to inspect behind every tree. She is crouching there, behind a poisonous baneberry bush, or she has climbed high into the mossy tangle of limbs. Out of sight.
I come to a clearing where the river is plainly visible, though I have been able to hear it rushing alongside me, a tireless competitor. Glutted by the night’s rainfall, it sprays up a gauzy mist, deep-looking like old bronze, except in the pebble-bottomed riffles where trout accumulate. The larger ones get stuck. They flap their tails maniacally, writhing around in pursuit of an exit. The sun catches their silver bellies as they twirl, until finally, the narrow sucking run back into the river’s main artery vanishes them downstream…
The ride into Milwaukee is not as therapeutic as I hoped. Congested roads defeat the point of biking in my opinion. In the rural stretch leading to the city’s northernmost suburbs, my mind is not on the road at all. For all I know I passed through a wormhole somewhere between Oostburg and Cedar Grove. I’m thinking back to Rhonda’s first trimester, when I proposed we take off work and bike out to the Bighorn Mountains to camp there for a few days, relax, hike around, get out of the city and breathe real air again, alpine air. She agreed, much to my delight. We got about as far as Sioux Falls before she complained it was too uncomfortable on the back of the bike and we turned around without seeing any mountain peaks, or even a substantially steep hill for that matter.
As the city skyline appears, I weave through stop-and-go interstate traffic. There must be a wreck somewhere up ahead. Envious drivers throw me dark looks, especially when I make use of the margin to bypass a few dozen cars in a row. I enjoy hearing jots of music, every genre one can imagine, as I breeze past open windows. Semis vomit exhaust from their sunlit chrome stacks. Tall wire fences line the overpasses to keep pedestrians from lobbing trash or anything more sinister onto the hoods of passing commuters. At my downtown exit, I swerve down the ramp past graffiti and panhandlers. There is no mistaking the heartbeat, the verve, the nostalgic patches of cobblestone, the juxtaposed motifs of Olde German and Skid Row and modernist chic, all of it intertwined like a family of bastard orphans. I am home.
The Shamrock Steakhouse sits on the corner of a five-way intersection. It has valet service and al fresco dining at black-umbrella bistro tables. Two men in slacks and shirt sleeves smoke cigarettes out by the curb. I have no clue whether I’m underdressed. I only now take any notice of what I’m wearing. The smell of their cigarettes is oddly attractive and mixes well with the charcoal odor wafting through the glass doors. I check in with the maître d’—“reservation under Gavin Fontanel”—and fortunately he guesses the party I mean even though the reservation has been made under someone else’s name. He smiles and leads me through a blood-hued, dimly lit chamber with a low coffered ceiling. Parties dine by votive candlelight. Silverware squeaks rudely on dishes. A waiter pops a champagne cork. The men are florid from drinking too much red wine, and the women’s eyes wash over me with what I interpret as lusty hollowness. Somebody laughs, while at another table somebody chokes to death. I am shown into another room, just as large, where I immediately spot Gavin seated at the head of a white-linen table in the company of six other men. A spot has been left vacant for me at his right-hand side. The vice presidential post. I would rather do almost anything other than sit down.
The maître d’ gestures at me victoriously, as if I am a lost child he has returned to the rightful parents. Then he is off again, a svelte, swift mirage. Gavin stands and we embrace. “Jesus,” he says, “feels like it’s been forever.” And I know he’s right. We stand there tabulating on our fingers and decide it’s been a shade over four months. He is looking well, except that he has gained a little weight. I’m the one who should be gaining weight, languishing in my little town writing parking tickets and gobbling Danish from dusk till dawn. Instead, the idea of putting an entire steak in my mouth, or even a few bites, nauseates me. I could use a drink, however. A drink is quite another story. But no one comes immediately to take my order.
“Mickey, you remember such-and-such.”
“Of course, of course. How the hell are ya?”
“Ah, you know. Living the dream.”
“Sure. Same shit, different day.”
“You got it.”
“How’s the wife?”
“She’s fantastic. How’s the kid?”
“Too smart for his own damn good. Or maybe my own good.”
Guffaws, wisecracks, fraternal back-smacking. When I finally get a double rye Manhattan in my hand, the whole ordeal starts to feel more natural. I remember my script, the ins and outs of masculine camaraderie, which is nothing so complex but not without its essential nuance. A bunch of guys, guys who are convinced they used to raise hell back in the day, let out on their own for the night, free to be dapper and debonair bachelors again. The Manhattan goes down a little too quickly. My head admits a pleasant cloudiness. Everything said becomes more interesting, more engaging. The waitress comes over, takes our orders. Someone asks if there’s a police discount (someone always has to ask) and we all laugh. The waitress is thus put in the awkward, time-wasting position of having to act impressed, or indebted, or like if it were up to her we would all get furious blowjobs under the table. That’s all we want, isn’t it? To be treated like the heroes we are, instead of cash cows who forget to take the trash out, fix the leaky faucet, put the seat down. I raise my empty glass, hear the ice clink, and realize my hand is shaking.
Gavin can perceive my tension, my unease. “I saw something about your town on the news,” he confides. “Hey, if it can happen there, I guess it can happen anywhere.”
“He and Bruno were good buddies growing up,” I manage to say after clearing some blockage in my throat.
“Hell, no wonder you look like such a wreck. Have you been sleeping?”
“I covered a graveyard shift for a guy last night.” And I tactfully leave it at that, pivoting the subject to the reason we’re all here. “Besides, let’s see how much sleep you get after this big promotion.”
“That’s right,” the cop across from me chimes in, a guy I remember named Ishizaki. “Those fucking gang bangers don’t sleep, I promise you that.”
“Just wait,” says another. “Watch the crime rates plummet. Ten years from now we’ll be having steaks with Mayor Gavin Fontanel.”
“Amen to that.” We all raise our glasses in a toast.
Gavin puts on a humble face and thanks us all for coming tonight. Admittedly, I fear for him, the idea of his visage being all over the news for Crips and Bloods alike to identify and know by name, not knowing anything about him beyond that he’s a vengeful and pernicious pig, not knowing that his fast pitch was the stuff of neighborhood lore, or that he volunteered at the Humane Society ten hours a week as a kid, or that he was the one to call an ambulance when Mr. Galadari had his stroke in the Sendik’s parking lot. Gavin throws back his drink, the same as mine (he’s the one who first turned me on to Manhattans), and leans in for another personal aside. “Before I forget to tell you, we had to put Ajax down.”
I put on a sympathetic face. “Jesus, I’m sorry. He was one loyal mutt. Clever, too.”
I let him continue and tell me everything I already know: that Ajax had been having seizures, that they found a tumor in his brain, malignant, metastasizing with a fury. I let him tell me about the cremation, about the urn in the living room. “But there’s an upside too,” he says. I know what the upside is. He takes out his phone and pulls up a picture of a German Shepherd named Molly. Molly was his partner back when he worked K-9 as a beat cop. They patrolled together for six years before he got promoted and had to part ways. He cried about it. I would bet I’m the only man at this table he’s admitted that to. “—Molly’s gone into retirement.” Excitement tugs at the corners of his mouth. “I pulled some strings and I was able to adopt her.” His face is beaming, the way it did when he was a kid and got that gig at the Humane Society. “She’s home with us now. She and Valerie get along like sisters, I swear.”
But I already know this, too. It was all covered over a joint at The Osthoff resort.
There is little variation. Whenever anyone hears you were a Milwaukee cop in the Nineties, they inevitably want to know about one thing. I try not to be insulted. I was still in high-school when it happened.
July 22, 2001. Arriving home late from patrol, I dragged my feet up the flight of stairs leading to our second-story duplex. Even though Rhonda ought to have been home by now, I found the door locked. After I turned my key, it still only opened an inch. She had put on the chain. I called her name, irritable, my mouth dry and craving a cold beer. I heard her race over, apologizing under her breath, trying to keep me quiet by example so I wouldn’t wake Bruno. “Hi, sweetie.” She shut the door in my face, undid the chain, and reopened it. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking my lunchbox as I pushed my way through. A light was on over the stove, otherwise there was only the blue glow of a muted TV in the living room. The rooms were stacked on top of each other in that place. Bruno’s “baby room,” in fact, was just a walk-in closet, and that was troubling because he wouldn’t be a baby much longer. His third birthday lay right around the corner.
Rhonda had quit her job at the restaurant when he was born. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, at least for the formative years. I had no problem with that, except when, out of boredom, she scared herself silly watching the news or some heinous biopic on the Lifetime channel. “Were they talking about it at work?” she asked me, unpacking my lunchbox on the counter, throwing away the empty yogurt cup, sticking the sandwich baggy in a drawer for reuse, putting my ice packs in the freezer.
I slumped into a kitchen chair. The blinds were closed, so I opened them and looked out at the parking lot of an apartment complex next door. Some guy had parked his Regal next to a dumpster and was cleaning it out, bumping music through the speakers and subwoofer. “Talking about what?” I said.
“They’ve been playing it all day on the news. It’s the tenth anniversary of Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest. Ten years already, can you believe it? I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“You didn’t let Bruno watch that,” I snapped.
“He doesn’t understand anything,” she laughed.
“That shit seeps in. It’ll screw him up in the head.”
She opened the fridge, took out a can of MGD, since Spotted Cow was out of our budget in those days, and popped the tab. She sat across from me at the table and slid the can over. “How was work?”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Probably not. You already have this place vaulted up like Fort Knox. You know, Jeffrey Dahmer never broke into anyone’s home. Just saying.”
She shrugged, gave a self-deprecating smile. “I feel much better now that you’re here.”
I drank my beer. Sometimes it was hard to believe she had grown up in this city.
Our place on Palmer had a distinct feminine touch in those days. The lease said we weren’t allowed to paint, so she’d found other creative licenses to take. On Saturdays, without fail, she would roll Bruno down to the farmer’s market in his stroller and buy fresh flowers. She stopped doing that when we moved to Judson Bottom. Home always used to be synonymous with greenhouse aromas.
When my beer was empty, I strolled through the living room and shut off the TV in passing, unavoidably glimpsing decade-old footage that didn’t need to be replayed for anyone who had seen it once. Authorities in hazmat suits wheeling a 52-gallon tub out of Dahmer’s now-demolished apartment building on 25th and State. At the time, gawkers could not have imagined in their wildest dreams what the tub contained: multiple human torsos dissolving in a chemical bath. On top of that, District 3 police had discovered half-eaten muscles and organs in the refrigerator, severed heads in the freezer, numerous bleached skulls kept for souvenirs, as well as two full skeletons. Dahmer told interrogators that his plan was to build an altar of bones, that if they had arrested him six months later they might have found him meditating before the macabre construct in a black leather armchair. Now there’s an image.
Polaroids of the fresh corpses, not only dismembered but contorted into lascivious poses, were confiscated from his dresser. Everyone knows the rap sheet by now. Necrophilia, cannibalism, injecting acid into live brains, masturbating with raw human entrails, just about every abomination inconceivable to most minds. And he did it all with neighbors living above, below, and on either side of him. That’s the part that jars me most, actually. Imagine, where did those neighbors live now, and how often did they talk about it? Did ever a day go by when they didn’t think about it? Was the sight of a closed door enough on its own to turn their stomachs?
To get to Bruno’s “bedroom” you had to pass through ours. At the very least he had a window above his bed, a necessity on those stifling summer nights. We had just converted him from a crib because he was having less and less trouble escaping. He slept with a Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, wearing only a diaper. His hair was already thick and lustrous like his mother’s. I swear it had grown in that way before he was six months old. One of my favorite sensations in the world was to run my hand through it, feeling the living, breathing organism we had created, the velvet over his temples, the rubber-ducky cartilage of his ears. Would I ever adjust to that? Would it ever go away, just being overwhelmed by the sight of him?
Fatherhood had been unplanned for, grossly and preternaturally unplanned for, but I like to think I set all my energies to the task at once. I felt I had a lot to prove, owing to the contempt I felt for my own dad, who was still alive at the time, not partaking in what I would call life by any stretch of the imagination. It was only when Rhonda’s prodding wore me down that we went to visit or invited my parents over, and it pleased me that most of the time Bruno began crying as soon as his bottom hit grandpa’s lap.
Rhonda’s family was much more prevalent in our lives. It had been that way from day one, from the baby shower to the baptism at St. Anthony’s in Rhonda’s old neighborhood. The priest repeated everything in Spanish and English. Her sister, Dominique, was named comadre, and since Rhonda was not close with her brother, I asked Gavin to be compadre. These were more or less equivalent to the godparent roles. They had to stand up there at the altar with us and repeat oaths to steer the child on course should his parents go spiritually astray. They had to provide the ceremonial gown and crucifix for Bruno. As I remember, Dominique had hand-sewn the gown. Gavin, a lover of irony, bought the crucifix from an Ashkenazi jeweler in Sherman Park, denying he’d paid an arm and a leg for it when a trip to Walmart would have sufficed. The church was beautiful, the priest’s old-world manners implicitly humbling, but I haven’t been back since. Work was my excuse. Bruno and his mother went on regular holy outings every Sunday. After mass, her family would prepare a big meal together.
I leaned in and kissed an upturned cushion of baby fat. He stirred, wriggled a little, his hands curled up on the pillow the way only infants sleep. The sounds of the city enveloped us, an importunate siren always somewhere in the distance. For all its faults, I thought Milwaukee was a great place to raise a child, with its day-one exposure to so many disparate cultures, backgrounds, lifestyles, eccentricities. I wished for my son to grow up “worldly” and “tolerant.” Rhonda’s urban phobia, meanwhile, was ratcheting up every day as Bruno got older. In two months the 9/11 attacks wouldn’t help any. I didn’t quite understand it. I was the one who saw the grimiest underbelly, the worst renderings this city had to offer, and yet I was the one electing to stay. Did I equate fear and avoidance as traits of my old man—or did I just never tire of scapegoating him?
“What’s for dinner?”
“Chicken enchiladas.” She was pulling them from the oven, setting them on the stovetop to cool. “They’re fast and easy and I know they’re your favorite.”
I came behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist, nibbled her throat, spoke into the small hairs at her nape. “You’re my favorite.” She held my arms and we swayed like that for awhile to the boom-thump-boom of the subwoofer outside.
“Are you and what’s-his-name still getting along?” she asked, her voice drifting down from a cloud of inner peace. “The Salvadoran?”
“Mendoza, yeah. He’s fine.”
Beauford had retired in ’99 to “abolish assholes and nincompoops from my new millennium.” My partner was now a guy named Mendoza, fluent in Spanish, a real asset, as mine was very choppy despite my constant interaction with Mexicans. I suppose I enjoyed working with him, thought him affable enough and blessed with above-average common sense. I even forgave him the sunflower seeds that perpetually flecked his teeth, making his mouth look like a fucking lint trap.
That day we had responded to an apartment in the lower forties on a frankly confounding B&E call. The complainant was a woman who lived alone with her dog. The pair had been out most of the day running errands, as the dog, Ajax, had had a vet appointment. While Mendoza surveyed the place, I interviewed the victim, a flighty, hippie sort of woman in horn-rimmed glasses. She was a college music professor, new to town from Ohio, quite young and endowed with, among other riches, a magnetic character.