Judson Bottom

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Homeland Values

Piss is pooled at the bottoms of the urinals.

One of them, I swear, has a pinkish tinge. I am three Manhattans in and my bladder takes its sweet time evacuating, making room for number four. I don’t want to admit it when the room spins and I have to shut my eyes. I hear the door open behind me. A presence descends on the neighboring urinal. Ishizaki speaks, “Are you headed to the Airport Lounge with those yahoos later?”

“Is that the plan?” I ask, opening my eyes. The color of the wall tiles reminds me of an armchair my mother once bought at a garage sale. It was leather, the exact hue of those rusty tampons I’d find periodically in our bathroom waste basket. She brought Gavin and me along to help load it in the truck bed, thinking it would make a good Christmas gift for our father. I know she hoped that if she put it in the living room, in front of the TV, he would spend less time in his garage study. She found an outrageously large bow to put on it and everything. My father didn’t believe in TV.

“There’s always a plan,” Ishizaki says. “You know that, Mickey.” He claps me on the shoulder, one hand still clutching his dick. I realize I’m still clutching mine even though I’ve been done for a few seconds. I wonder for a fleeting, absurd moment if this is a proposition. We laugh, neither of us knowing what we’re laughing at.

“I still have the ride home and I can’t afford to call in tomorrow,” I say, zipping my fly.

“Not my scene either.” He talks over his shoulder as I go to the sink and wash my hands. The vanity bulbs around the mirror cast me as swarthy and distinguished, an ideal candidate for the next Cigar Aficionado cover. “Back in my service days, sure. But when you have a little girl of your own, those places can be . . . let’s say, disheartening.”

“Sure, I get it. The whole she’s-somebody’s-daughter thing.”

“Right. Exactly.” He flushes the urinal, comes and washes his hands beside me. My time-delayed shadow.

“Do me a favor,” I say. “Tell Gavin I just ran out to make a call. Work related.”

“Sure thing.”

We dry our hands under the roaring machines and part ways outside the restroom.

The sun has fully set, turning downtown Milwaukee into a giant pinball machine. She picks up after the first ring. “I’m here at La Quinta, drinking Shiraz and watching a home remodeling show.”

“I’m looking at the La Quinta,” I say.

“You’re outside? Hold on a moment.”

I scan the honeycomb windows of a building across the street, several stories high. Movement catches my eye when one of the curtains on the eighth floor jerks aside. “You have a beautiful silhouette,” I tell her, swallowing hard, feeling at once dead and brutally alive. “Are you naked?”

I hear her smile into the phone. Then she hangs up.

Back at the table, my whole body aches. It seems impossible that I could inspire what I’m feeling right now in someone else. Me, the man seated beside his brother, trading memories and witticisms like we would baseball cards back in the day. “Work related,” he joked when I sat down. “What’s her name?”

I grinned, then asked whether his Golf had been affected by the Volkswagen recall. It wasn’t always this easy. There used to be more guilt, more shame, but with experience and repetition, I have managed to compartmentalize Valerie his wife from Valerie my lover, Gavin my brother from Gavin the cuckolded husband. Toward one I feel nothing but adulation and earnest affection; the other strikes me as a blind fool. I have done some reading; it is not unlike the emotional barriers put up by serial killers.

I nurse another Manhattan. The boys are fed, happy, buzzed, and ready to see some frolicking tits, some long stiletto-enhanced legs. I wouldn’t say I’m perspiring, but I seem to have been laminated in moisture ever since I first set foot in the steakhouse. The waitress comes one last time with the bill split among us. We all pitch in to pay for Gavin.

Outside by the valet station, the men congregate. A few burn cigarettes. A man bicycles past us ringing his spry little bell. Odd that I should recognize him even after twelve years. He is one of the local Jesus freaks, wearing a sandwich board crafted out of cardboard and twine. The street is too dark to make out what slogans he has Sharpeed on this time, usually something attacking the enclaves of humanity that are predestined for hellfire: Baby Killers, Homos, Muslims, Drunks, Junkies, Masturbators, Gangster Rappers, Obama. I watch him careen through the five-way intersection, skirting death about half a dozen times in the space of three seconds, horns blaring, brakes squealing. It’s as if a divine bubble is shielding him, or as if believing so is enough. Nobody else notices. Every sound gets diluted in the city’s milieu.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Gavin tells me.

“No. You either.” I force my attention back on my brother. “I always got a room for you in Judson. We’ll do some fishing.”

“Sounds great. Soon as I get settled in my new position I’ll take you up on that. Maybe I’ll bring Mom up again? She had such a ball last time. She still talks about it, if you can believe that. It’s incredible. Sometimes my name escapes her, but she can perfectly describe Bruno taking her out on the paddle boat.”

“Wow.” I try not to fidget. We’ve gone the whole evening without mentioning Mom. Why spoil it now? I still call, don’t I? I send Christmas cards. Is it such a crime that I don’t drag myself sixty miles to see her quartered like an animal in that Bedlam ranch? Gavin insists on correlating the onset of her mental deterioration with the death of our father, who eight years ago “fell off” Walker’s Point pier in a drunken, self-loathsome stupor. In my own humble opinion, Mom was far better off after that, at least for awhile. She treated herself, went on cruises, met people, even took up piano again, though she hadn’t played a note since she was just a little girl. She achieved a personal renaissance, a new flourishing golden era in between abandonments: the first one by her husband, the second by her faculties. “Absolutely!” I effuse. “You’ll have to bring her up.”

We execute one of those handshakes that turns into a hug. I congratulate him for about the fourth or fifth time, all the while fighting a barrage of muscular impulses to turn and steal a glance up at the La Quinta.

Is it a reoccurring dream? The whole thing smacks of déjà vu, but I can’t say with any certainty that I’ve had this dream before. I seem to recognize every component of it, right up until the very end. I’m in a crowded ballroom, dim, candlelit, standing in a kind of period piece. Everyone, men and women alike, are costumed in the height of Arabic fashion circa 1200 AD. Lofty turbans or sweeping burkas, layers of rich silk, heavy jewels that dazzle and gleam even in the soft maroon lighting. None turn to face me. The men are all engaged in flippant conversations, waving their hands, speaking Arabic or Farsi or God knows what; undecipherable to my ears at any rate. The women are like silent, dark-eyed phantoms. I glide from group to group, an unseen, estranged sort of voyeur. A sitar is being played somewhere at the other end of the ballroom. There are accompanying drums, thick, polyrhythmic, like bubbling water. I feel pleasantly stuffy. Maybe it’s the incense burning, the white smoke so thick it obscures the ceiling, but I have the sensation that I just drank a generous amount of mulled wine. The sitar reminds me of a laughing child, leaping and fleeing, fleeing a pursuer who is perceived to be harmless.

I come to a long banquet table. It is set with exotic delicacies on fine silver platters, food that seems to exude light, food that consists of colors not known in the Earth’s spectrum. It stretches on forever in both directions, me not knowing what to reach for, or even how to eat half the items available. I watch two servants, shirtless, wearing scimitars on straps across their broad chests, struggle with an exceptionally large platter. They lower it onto a reserved empty space of the table and disappear through a gap in the crowd.

Curious, I saunter over, only to find the decapitated head and two severed legs of an enormous black panther. Its gilded eyes are alive, accusatory. Its blood-matted fur retains a velveteen luster. The length of its claws still intimidates, even in this neutralized state. Stunned and offended, I follow the two servants through the gap in the crowd. Before long, I come to an oblong dais, or altar, arranged directly before the music performers. The remains of the butchered panther lay marinating in a pool of its own blood, blood the color of cranberry sauce, being harvested onto another platter by the sweat-backed servants.

Squeamish at the sight, I look away. My eyes land on a formation of belly dancers, seven of them, moving in unison like enchanted snakes, mystically attuned to the whims of the musicians. All seven of their nude bellies are swollen, disfigured by stretch marks, betraying late stages of pregnancy.

“What time is it?” she asks. Several seconds pass before I connect the voice to the warm slab of flesh pressed against me. “What time is it?” she repeats. “I can’t fall asleep.”

“It’s early.” I am suddenly wide awake, alarmed at the texture of my voice.

“You don’t know. You dozed off.”

“Did I?”

“I heard you snoring.” Valerie sits up in bed, naked, the overly starched sheets wrapped around her. I look around the La Quinta suite, really noticing it for the first time, more of a typical backdrop for our rendezvous, generic in every aspect. I can see why she would prefer The Osthoff. Setting is very important to generating a mood. What felt straight out of Nicholas Sparks at The Osthoff feels lifted from Elmore Leonard here. The lingering pot smoke in the air doesn’t help any. “You only snore when you’re drunk,” she says. “Did you come here drunk?”

“Put yourself in my shoes. What do you think?”

“I’m in your shoes. Every day, remember?”

She has me there. Her strength, i.e. her coldness, never fails to astound me. I can barely make it through a single evening with my brother anymore. He is always making references to my health, how pale I look, how distant and uncommunicative I’ve become, the fact that he always has to be the one to instigate a dialogue. Whereas she, by necessity, has mastered the schizophrenic armament; except it’s not even all that schizophrenic—more sociopathic, if I’m being blunt—because she has no problem bringing up Gavin in conversation, and usually quite fondly at that, making it all the more fucked up and surreal. I have to remind myself periodically that Gavin is her husband, not her queer roommate, not her live-in cousin. But in the end, what good are these reminders? Not only do they triplicate my guilt, they spark a resentment—comically hypocritical, but a resentment nonetheless—toward Valerie. For playing my brother. For making him a fool.

“You’re right, it is early. Only 11:30.” She reads the digital clock on the nightstand. “What time do you think he’s coming home?”

“Depends when he runs out of dollar bills.”

“A strip club? Really?” She scoffs with a level of judgment that quickly dissipates as the irony dawns on her. “I should go anyway. I don’t want to, but I should. I have an early rehearsal tomorrow.”

She plays third violin for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I ask her to tell me a little bit about the upcoming concert, grasping for anything to prolong her stay. My ignorance of Classical music is profound, don’t get me wrong, but decidedly less so since I met Valerie. She lies back down, facing me now, entangled in the sheets like a beautiful blue-eyed monarch in a cocoon. “We’re doing a piece by Mahler, and Vivaldi, and one by Brahms that I absolutely love. The dynamics in the Mahler are giving me some trouble.”

“You should have brought your violin. You could practice here.” She has a pigmentation on her left shoulder that is too small to constitute a mole and too large to be a freckle. I weave my fingers in her hair, enjoying the curvature of her scalp, the tiny ridges in her skull, her whole topography.

She can’t help tilting her head into my hand like a sated cat. “Yeah, sure. I wouldn’t want to subject you to that.”

“I love to hear you play. Any chance I’ll be invited to the concert?”

“I’ll try and plant the idea in his head. Make him feel like it’s his.”

We lean in, kiss, and I’m certain we’re going to make love again, only then we hear her cell vibrate on the table. Her clothes are neatly folded over a chair. She swears under her breath, climbs out of bed, checks her phone, and answers it, giving me the look. There is of course nobody else it could be. This sucker punch of Gavin’s presence in the room turns my stomach, the murmur of his real-time voice on the line, that modern loophole in the laws of physics allowing him to be both here and ignorant simultaneously. I rub my eyes, yawning to try and block out the sound of their conversation. I make up my mind to place a call of my own as soon as Valerie is out the door. The dream is still raw, like a peephole somewhere in my head, peering into warehouses of the imagination that exist in another dimension.

She hangs up, having told him she’s out for drinks at Ambrosia with two people named Cathy and Tamika. “He’s drunk too. I can tell. They’re still at the club.”

“So stay longer.”

She doesn’t answer but begins to dress. I get an erection watching her and smooth the sheets in a way so she can explicitly notice. With a smirk, she finishes clasping her black push-up. She crawls back onto the bed, straddles me, tugs the sheets below my waist, and we fuck one more time, fast and desperate, as if SWAT were about to kick down the door and separate us forever. She is stuffed beautifully into that bra. Her eyes are steamed over and pink from the weed, lashes almost too heavy to stay open, entranced and sedated as she keeps clawing handfuls of hair from her face. I time along with every bounce, thrusting into her, aiming for the heart. The box spring whines in protest. The headboard counts our cadence on the wall.

Afterward, we hold each other, still hitched at the groin, rocking ever so slightly, lost without time in the traffic noise swimming eight stories below. A defiant TV is cranked in the next room over.

When she can’t delay any longer, when she’s forced to leave, I light up the roach on the nightstand and finish what’s left of it, standing naked before the open window, looking out over the haloed city. Then I rummage through my clothes on the floor, find my phone, and call Wojcik on his mobile. It strikes me how dismayed he would be if he could see me now, smell the room I’m in. Or maybe it would come as no shock whatsoever.

He picks up after the fourth ring. The first voice I hear is Joanne’s, asking who the hell is calling at this hour. “Mickey, what’s up?” he grumbles, managing at once to ignore her and answer her question.

“Sorry for calling so late. How’d it go with the Feds?”

“What do you mean? It went fine.”

“Fine as in she turned up?”

“Not that fine,” he answers apologetically.

Even I am taken aback by the immediacy of my spiked heartbeat, the speedreel of worst case scenarios being projected through my head in savage Cinemascope. Wojcik must hear a difference in my breathing. He says, “Mickey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t being insensitive—”

“Did they speak to Maguire?”

“Only since the moment they stepped through the door. That’s all they did, as far as I can tell. Dragged him downstairs and I never saw him again. If they got anything valuable out of him, nobody bothered to tell me. But that’s to be expected.”

“I was hoping they’d want to work together on this one.”

“They’ve only been in town a few hours, Mickey.”

“A few critical hours, sure.”

I hear the mattress creak as he adjusts himself in bed. “Look, I may as well tell you now since you called.”

“What’s up?”

"One second, Joanne . . . I had a short conversation with the guy running this team. Pedroza. I came away with the impression that his people aren’t really here to investigate a missing persons case, not per se. They’re here to investigate the Mubaraks. I mean, to paraphrase what he said, his team are all a bunch of techies and hackers. A domestic terrorism task force. Their main objective is to trace every movement the Mubaraks have made over the past year.”

“I see . . .” Not really sure that I do.

“Now if it’s alright by you, Mickey, maybe we can pick this up in the morning.”

I apologize once more before leaving the man in peace, or as much as peace as he’ll be allowed. I set my alarm for half past five, not actually intending to sleep a wink but too messed up on every level to leave the fucking La Quinta.

The 5:30 alarm comes as a surprise. I must have fallen asleep watching TV. Now it’s playing some morning talk show, a bunch of jabbermouths in front of a fake skyline exchanging quiche recipes. I splash some cold water on my face, get dressed, and slip out of the room without luggage. A couple kids race past me in dripping wet swimming trunks, stinking of chlorine.

Last night, when I left the steakhouse, I rode around the block and stashed my bike in a parking garage. It’s attached by a skywalk to the hotel. Finding it this morning intact and inviolate, I deposit my ticket at the garage’s exit, pay the nightly fee, and cruise toward the interstate in the crisp metropolitan morning. Businessmen and women stop into cafés with striped awnings for bagels and coffee. Well-fed city pigeons pursue them for a fallen crumb. Commuters head to work via cab, bus, and bicycle. A guy in a polished suit pedals furiously, tie thrown over his shoulder, briefcase balanced precariously in a wire basket. He negotiates a curb the wrong way, the briefcase falls, thankfully does not open. Nevertheless, I imagine a cyclone of documents whirling out of reach, being sucked under vehicles and into sewer grates. I imagine the abject misery on the man’s face. Everyday tragedies, individually petty, but capable en masse of culminating in suicide or madness. One busted briefcase, just a link in a debilitating chain of human bondage.

You say I never laugh. I say speak for yourselves.

My belly starts to rumble around Saukville, as I merge off the interstate onto Highway 57. I decide I have just enough time to stop for breakfast at an institutional truck stop diner on the outskirts of Judson Bottom. The mid-morning rush won’t be underway yet: farmhands and construction workers taking a break from their preliminary labors. The place has been up and running since the 1940s, which is what I mean when I say institutional. Any alderman or mayoral candidate worth their salt gets a picture taken at the truck stop enjoying “the thickest cuts of bacon in all the county,” courtesy of Miesfelds’ pig farm.

A bell rings over my head as I step inside, less cheerful than ceremonious, like I’ve walked in on a Catholic ritual. The waitress says good morning, she’ll be right with me. I select a booth near a window where I can lord over my bike and the surrounding conifer forest. They are some of the tallest trees in the region, fed off the boggy rich nutrients of the Kettle Moraine. They taper down the highway, parallel to the power lines, for as far as the eye can see; an evergreen trench alive with crackling twigs, sentient critters, and whiffs of wood smoke from nearby campgrounds.

I am pleased not to recognize anyone in the place, just a lot of itinerant truck drivers and one tired-faced mother sitting alone with her young son, helping him to spread grape jelly on his toast. To pass the time, I wonder about their story, why they’re up so early, where they’re headed, whether they’re running from something. A man. Four old timers sit at the counter, gossiping in their oracular way about mutual acquaintances: death, scandal, disease, more death. The busboy pours my coffee. The waitress takes my order. Skillet steak rare, eggs over easy, hash browns. I find that I always relax my posture after I’ve ordered, slouching into the green Naugahyde with a fart sound. Oil sizzles in the back kitchen.

A man gets up from one of the other booths and approaches the counter, keeping a distance between himself and the old timers. With a mincing smile and a flick of the wrist, he beckons the waitress, who is tabulating a party’s bill. He looks to be in his forties, cut and polished, wearing a white polo and navy slacks, almost like a Mormon. His short black hair is parted down the middle, his face full and Germanic, and he wields a clipboard. The waitress confers with him about something, then she signs her name to the clipboard. The man thanks her and moves on, his confidence boosted now. The old timers deign to hear him speak. Two of them add their names as well, while the others pretend not to have heard a word. Afterward, when the man moves on, it seems their discussion grows more heated, between the ones who signed and those who did not. My curiosity is piqued, but only slightly.

I watch the Mormon-looking man make his rounds, covering every booth and table. His voice is such that it does not carry. I am only able to catch a few pleasantries, a stray word here and there, as a Patsy Cline ballad drowns him out. He approaches the single mother, bowing over their table with a salesman’s grimace, using animated talk with the kid. Eventually he procures the woman’s signature. He offers her son the same opportunity, waiting patiently as the boy takes the pen and makes his careful mark on the page. The mother’s stiff smile is marked with impatience for them to be left alone. I avert my eyes then, realizing I must be next in his crosshairs, pretending to be engrossed by my window vista. I watch his glare white shirt come closer in the glass.

“Good morning, sir,” he says when his thighs are brushing my table. “If I could take just a moment of your time. I’m going around with a very pressing petition. Are you from the area, sir?”

I tell him I’m a police officer in Judson Bottom, extra careful to be curt and uninviting.

“Fantastic! Then let me just preface this by saying we appreciate everything you fellas do. Some of us are plain disgusted with the way the media wants to slant popular opinion against our police force. We’re not buying it for a second. Let me also say you have a vested interest in this here petition. You see, I represent the newly organized CHV, Committee of Homeland Values, based right here in Judson Bottom, but we’re hoping to broaden our scope to all of southeast Wisconsin. What I have is basically a public safety petition, so I realize I’m preaching to the choir.” He chuckles. “I’m sure nobody is more aware than you, sir, of the spike in religious extremism lately. Would you be shocked if I told you that upwards of 500 registered Muslims are living in the tri-county area alone?”

He gives me room to react, so I add sugar to my coffee.

The man then slips into a spiel, doubting his ability to speak off the cuff. “Granted, we all know religious freedom is a right clearly defined by the First Amendment. All we’re lobbying for here is that our city governments recognize the need to conduct exhaustive background checks on any and all Islam-practicing residents. We feel this benign level of discrimination, if you can indeed call it that, is more than justified in light of recent endangerment to the community. Take the case of that boy from our neck of the woods. Now, I’m not suggesting your department is in any way responsible! I understand your hands are tied by bureaucracy and procedure and whatnot. But imagine if you’d had the state-sanctioned leeway to check up on him earlier, investigate his loyalties, his social interactions. Well then, it stands to reason, just maybe . . .”

He waits for me to finish his sentence and start agreeing. One of the man’s teeth is half a shade browner than all the rest. He sways on the balls of his feet, switching his clipboard between hands. In the very bottom box I make out the childish scrawl of the young boy. Adam? Aiden? It’s hard to tell. A bell sounds in the kitchen, so I use this to my advantage and say, “I think that’s my food coming. If you’ll excuse me now, I need to eat and be off.”

He stammers under his breath, thankfully not half as tenacious as a Mormon. “Of course. I appreciate your time, sir.” He slinks off, returning to his booth to tally signatures. As luck would have it, the bell does pertain to my order, and the waitress delivers one steaming hot plate with a bottle of A-1. Running short on time, I wolf it down like an animal. When I look up again, minutes later, to see who has triggered the door chime, it is the CHV petitioner cutting his losses.

It’s more than just the two black Escalades with government plates parked in the employee lot. It’s like the Feds have been fiddling with the thermostat, the quality of the air is different. The nuance in my fellow officers’ movements is more exaggerated or more suppressed. Most of them forgot about the basement. Nobody goes down there, not even to dig out some archaic file, since they have all been digitized. Now it’s the only appendage of the department anyone can think about. Trossen is probably among those who have never laid eyes on it, adding further mystique to the ongoing conjecture. He asks me whether I’ve “seen any yet,” like he’s referring to pixies or leprechauns instead of meat-and-bone hominids. He’s seen them, and so he describes to me their charming roboticism, their heavy black luggage, servers and laptops and lock boxes theorized to be packed with . . . what? The nuclear codes? He can recount all this but can’t apprise me of anything valuable, so I change the subject.

“How was Oneida? You and the lady millionaires yet?”

“Not quite. I’d say we about broke even. I won $700 at one point playing blackjack—” he snaps his fingers “—and kissed it goodbye just as quickly.”

“Sounds about right.”

“You’ve got to know when to quit. Isn’t that a song?”

“Something like that.”

“Chief says I’m supposed to help you with anything regarding this missing girl.” Trossen drops his voice to imply Wojcik’s stipulation that he not go blabbing about it.

“Right now, Devon Maguire’s my best bet,” I tell him, “which is why I’d like to know whether he’s still in custody. You want to sneak down there and find out?” He grins, ninety percent sure I’m joking. We’re hanging out in my cubicle. I open my bottom desk drawer, pulling out a stack of envelopes rubber-banded together. The Mubaraks’ fan mail, most of them handwritten. “How would you feel about digging up some handwriting comparisons?”

“Anyone in particular?”

“Party guests. It’s grunt work, I won’t sugar coat it. A lot of canvassing.”

“That’s my specialty.” He balls his fist. “See? These knuckles were made for knocking.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. It’s unusual for Trossen to be this facetious. He and Nicole Kidman must have had a real second honeymoon up at the casino. “Start with people in her grade, then go older rather than younger. I doubt underclassmen have anything to hide but their blood-alcohol levels.” I hand him the letters and a printout of Kofey’s license plate roster. Names and addresses are scribbled in the margins. Paper-clipped to the roster is a second document I was surprised and elated to find in my inbox, sent yesterday afternoon by none other than the amenable Chad McClellan. It’s a supplemental roster of party guests, also incomplete, but there are a few names that don’t overlap with Kofey’s. Like I said, lots and lots of canvassing.

“I’ll check in with you later and help out,” I promise. “It’s too much for one guy, I know. Right now though I need to go track down a hobo.”

Trossen eyes all the names in his hand with misgiving, wishing, perhaps, his knuckles had been made for something else. “A hobo? What for?”

“A hobo named Hawaii. I think he might have been holding Maguire’s place with Khadija while our guy was off losing his marbles in the desert.”

The idea had come to me over steak and eggs at the truck stop, as I sifted through my most recent interactions with Khadija. There was the sympathetic way she spoke about him in her bedroom, presenting the diagram she had made for the scholarship competition. “And Hawaii woke up in Indiana to a bunch of cops kicking him half to death.” There was also a clear memory of them sitting elbow to elbow at the railyard, mirror images of the way Naomi and her boyfriend, Skyler, were sitting. He is a new face to me, his appearance timely, like Devon’s.

With Trossen as my new conscript going door to door, I travel out to the railyard by way of Buckley St. I want to see how the Mubaraks are holding up and notify them of our big lead vis-à-vis Devon Maguire. But when I knock on the door, the house is dark. Nobody answers. It feels foreboding, like a crime scene, the nondescript place on the corner that all the neighbors whisper about, past which everyone walks their dogs, casting sidelong stares. The grass seems to have grown another inch since Tuesday, spurred on by the rain, dimming the truncated vandalism.

Someone down the block dumps a bag of recycling and the bottles crash together like a car wreck. The garbage lid slams. I retreat down the hill to my cruiser.

The morning has turned sticky and fuming with gnats. Dozens of them must be stuck to my face by the time I reach Jeff and Nancy at their shady oasis under the willow. Their routine is fairly predictable. When they’re not collecting cans they can be found around here, stretched out on a raggedy blanket, where there is no one to take offense at their presence. Perhaps the nearby boxcars serve as a comforting reminder that they can skip town at any time, should the need arise. I cross my fingers that Hawaii hasn’t done just that, with or without Khadija in tow.

Jeff is shirtless, burnt to a dirty bronze crisp, and Nancy’s cut-off shorts are almost invisible beneath her oversized T-shirt. She wears a set of cheap plastic sunglasses. The two are giggling over something. They ignore me until I’m all but on top of them, sweating in my black uniform.

“Bum us a smoke, Officer?” Nancy greets me.

“None on me.” I pat my pockets with a half-hearted look of regret. “Sorry, quit years ago. How are we doing today?”

“Peachy keen. Another day in paradise, you know what I’m saying?” Jeff crinkles his face into an atlas of sunspots and healing scabs. “I was in the middle of telling the Duchess here about some of my escapades out in San Francisco. You ever been out that way?”

I admit I haven’t gotten around to it.

“Used to be the greatest city on Earth for a rambler. Now you got the ‘tech boom’ whatchacall putting pressure on 5-0 to clean up the streets. I gotta say, I wish they’d dirty ’em back up again. I knew a guy out there who trained his ferret to sniff out loose change. You ever hear of something like that?” Nancy dissolves into bleating laughter. “It takes all kinds, Officer,” Jeff continues. “Different strokes for different goddamn folks. I knew a lady out there used to be a real famous opera singer—you mighta even heard of her—till her manager punched her in the throat. All ’cause she spread it around town he was impotent. You ever hear of something like that, Officer?”

I admit not until this very moment.

“Jeff’s been all around the world,” Nancy fawns, picking a yellow hangnail off her big toe. “Farthest west I ever been is Sturgis. Speaking of men doing terrible things, would you believe my boyfriend stranded me out there?”

“Sweetie pie,” Jeff pouts at her, caressing her thigh.

“He was a faggot,” she shrugs. “No doubt in my mind about that now. I can still picture it. He had a scrawny little leather fairy riding bitch with him when he tossed off into the sunset. I was fourteen, completely devastated, not a penny to my name. I tell you I about cried my eyes out. But I got a ride from a trucker and I still told him, take me anywhere but fuckin’ home. Shit man, I knew how to hustle a dollar my whole life.”

This is part of being heard. Sometimes you have to open your ears first, especially when courting those on the social fringes. Most of the time, squatters like Jeff and Nancy are happy to open a dialogue, as long as it’s understood that you’re not the only one with stuff to say.

“I thought you told me you was in Reno once, when you got locked in that basement for two days?” Jeff intercedes.

“Yeah, so? That’s a totally different story.”

“Reno is west of Sturgis, girl. That’s all I’m saying. You said you ain’t never been west of Sturgis.”

“Well, what am I, fuckin’ Pocahontas?”

I decide enough is enough and take advantage of this rift in the anecdote to butt in. “Not to take up too much of your time, folks. I need to know when’s the last time you saw Katie Mubarak. You know, that teenage girl who comes by here sometimes with her friends?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nancy rotates her hand in the air, signaling for me to speed up. “Princess Jasmine. Course we remember her. We started calling her that. I don’t think she minded. And Hawaii, Jasper’d call him Aladdin. Ain’t that right, Jeff?”

“They was sweet together,” he smiles wistfully, as I suppress a victorious smile of my own. Patience pays off. He scratches his jaw and tilts his head back. “Last time we seen her was . . . well, the last time you came around, Officer. What gives? She some kind of drug runner or something we ought to know about?”

“She’s missing.”

“So’s Hawaii,” Nancy says matter-of-factly, speaking from a world where the comings and goings of individuals are common and arbitrary. “Maybe they got married. Maybe he done took her back home to Oklahoma to meet Ma and Dad, and they’s living on the rez in a teepee or something. Raisin’ little . . . cumquats, or what have you.”

“When’s the last time you saw Hawaii?”

“Day before yesterday I guess,” Jeff muses.

“He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt her, Officer,” Nancy promises. “That boy is gentle as a lamb.” She pats her left breast. “Kept a baby bird in his pocket for damn near a week once, fed it mushed up worms till the thing died. Wasn’t for lack of trying though.”

“He’s skittish of cops,” Jeff warns me, echoing Khadija’s diagnosis. “Had a string of bad run-ins with the law, like most of us. But if I see him I’ll tell him you’re one of the good eggs.”

“I’d appreciate that, Jeff.” Then I take from my pocket a thin stack of business cards, which I’ve prepared ahead of time by wrapping in a crisp $20 bill. “Please, pass these out to whoever you think is most observant. They’ve got my work extension and personal cell on them. Tell folks they can call me day or night if they see or hear anything. If it leads to us finding Katie or Hawaii, there’ll be a monetary reward.”

“Aye aye, Captain.” Jeff eagerly takes the cards. “We’ll be your eyes and ears.”

“How big a reward?” Nancy asks, her eyes glued on the twenty dollars and where Jeff stashes it.

I make up some figures off the top of my head. “A hundred for Aladdin. Three hundred for Princess Jasmine.” We shake on the arrangement.

I’m about to leave them in peace when Jeff poses a question, “Doesn’t she have a brother too, that one?”

“She does,” I say in surprise. “You know Ismael?”

“Eh, I ain’t too good with foreign names, but he worked across the street at the Pig over there.” He points past the perimeter of the railyard, where the grocery store and its blacktop parking lot cook behind rippled veils of heat. “We got to talking a few times when he was out pushing shopping carts, helping old ladies with their groceries. I like to go over there and fish butts from the ashtrays. Damned if he didn’t start coming over here on a regular basis, dumping off bags of damaged goods, shit the store said had to be thrown out. There usually wasn’t nothing but a dent in the can, or some crushed packaging—” Nancy slaps his arm as a rebuke, causing him to screw up his face in self-awareness. “Oh, say, you won’t get that boy in any trouble? He don’t do it all that often, I swear.”

I promise I’m not interested in Ismael’s affairs, leading Jeff to iterate his opinion of me as a “good egg.” We say goodbye, though not before I remind them one last time about handing out the cards, and the importance of stressing to their cohorts that they do-not-hesitate to contact me. The distant peal of a train approaches. When I pivot to return to my cruiser, I realize something has changed. Parked behind it, virtually bumper to bumper, sits a shiny black Escalade.

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