Two Angry Fritters
At 6:33 PM, Mendoza and I arrived on site at 3319A S 42nd St, the upstairs unit of a duplex. Complainant answered the door, visibly distraught, and identified herself as Ms. Valerie Ognavic, sole tenant of the unit, along with a bull-mastiff which showed no outward signs of aggression. Her report specified that at approximately 6:00 PM she returned home with her pet to find the door of her unit wide open and damaged. Clear evidence of forced entry was noted, perhaps with a crowbar or claw hammer. Downstairs and next-door neighbors denied hearing any commotion. Apart from damage to the door, the unit had not been defiled in any way. Ms. Ognavic stated upon questioning that the only item she could declare missing from the quarters at that time was one cherrywood cutting board, previously hung from a hook on the wall of her kitchen. She did not ascribe randomness to the theft, claiming that a month prior, her automobile, a ’95 sky blue Accord (GP2-74H), had been broken into. One patent leather CD case was stolen, the CDs themselves dumped out on the seat. Ms. Ognavic confirmed filing a police report in regards to this incident as well. She was then able to correlate that both the CD case and cutting board in question were gifts from an ex-boyfriend residing, last she knew, in Oberlin, Ohio. She claimed that the relationship had ended under duress after her boyfriend at the time, identified as Kenneth Anthony Leibowitz, displayed repeated episodes of predatory and hostile behavior. A temporary restraining order was successfully filed against Mr. Leibowitz in December of 2000, granted by the Ohio courts. Said proceedings were cited by Ms. Ognavic as her “prime motivating factor” for accepting a job offer with the UW system . . .
You have to work with what you’re given. Maybe it’s not an ideal situation, being boxed in a state-of-the-art vehicle with one inscrutable FBI agent, not knowing which piece I embody on her chessboard, the pawn or something a bit more regal; but there are nuggets of opportunity to be mined from my dilemma. They require tact, and the recognition that I’m dealing with someone who is acutely trained to be able to see right through me.
I start in a small-talky sort of way by asking Rousseau a little bit about herself. People can’t ride the entire way in silence. It’s not like the scenery lends itself to much comment. There are certain instances, like right after a rainstorm, when sunlight dripping through iron clouds can paint the farmland in the palette of a bruised golden apple. Today is not one of those days. She has the Sirius XM tuned to a slinky R&B station, and it’s her prerogative to turn up the volume if I start to bore her. Instead she turns up the charm with me the same as she did with Naomi. It so happens that she’s an actual human being—with a husband, Gilbert, and a home in Racine—not a drone stashed away in some compound to be activated at the flick of a red switch.
The summation is that she’s ex-military, grew up middle-class in Detroit with an early love of computers inspired by her father, a systems analyst. She enlisted out of high-school in an I.T. capacity. “I was a cyber operations specialist. Essentially I was hacking for Uncle Sam, and I loved every minute of it.”
After her tour, Rousseau enrolled at Michigan State, majoring in Criminal Justice. Undecided over what field to enter with her skill set, she stayed in academia and earned her Master’s. “I was honestly leaning more toward NSA, but the Bureau came and courted me first, and the Bureau is nothing if not persuasive. Only time I’ve eaten caviar was on the Bureau’s tab, back when I was still a hot commodity. Now I’ve been old news for—let’s see—it’ll be going on eighteen years in October.”
“How was it?”
“All eighteen years?”
“Actually I meant the caviar. I’ve never tried it.”
“Oh,” she laughs. She makes a face as if trying to invoke the taste, rolling phantom fish eggs around in her mouth. “Tastes like the sea, I guess. Wasn’t too bad. I would eat it again if someone else was picking up the check.”
I feed her a few (less prestigious) résumé bullet points from my own life before canting toward what really interests me. “What branch did you serve in?”
“Army. I got out just before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Mostly I was stationed in Texas. Fort Sam Houston. Not a single tree in sight for miles around. I’m the kind of girl who needs some trees to look at, you know what I mean? Did some time in the Netherlands though. Beautiful countryside over there.”
“So I’ve heard.” I’m doing the math based on her Saddam comment and realize that Rousseau must be at least ten years older than I had her pegged. “Glad you had a better run of it than Maguire,” I say. “Seems like the Army did a real number on him.” For some reason this played as seamless in my head, a sophisticated trap of dialectical ingenuity, instead of a propped-up box with a carrot and a string.
The corner of her mouth makes an amused twitch. I feel my face grow hot. “If you want to know about Maguire, then ask me about Maguire. We’re on the same team, aren’t we?”
“Sure. Of course, but I—”
“Don’t worry, if you tread on classified material, I’ll let you know. I won’t just shoot you in the head.”
“I appreciate that.”
The humor fades from her face as she notches down the radio. Past her window lay greenish-gold hummocks of pasture and the blue delineation of Lake Michigan. “He said it was casualty detail that rattled him so badly. A different platoon in his battalion got ambushed by IEDs. His guys were sent to clean it up, salvage what equipment they could, gather the dead, try and piece everyone back together. He said heaping all those fried limbs into the back of a Jeep, like cordwood . . . I just thank Jesus I was spared from doing anything like that on my tour. You might not have a sane woman sitting beside you otherwise.”
“So he snapped? Right there on the spot?” We are crossing into Ozaukee County. Real territorial prudes, those Ozaukee sheriffs, a bunch of pot-bellied bucks in constant rut.
“It began as nightmares. Nothing out of the ordinary, sorry to say. There were people he could talk to about it, at least until his company moved out of FOB to an isolated outpost. Then he said the nightmares started creeping into all hours of the day. His CO would be talking to him and Devon would watch him wipe some sweat off his brow, except when the CO brought his hand down, it would be smeared with dark, sticky blood. Full-on hallucinations, if what he claims is true.”
I’m keenly sympathetic. But none of that changes the facts. “So we’ve got a mentally unstable ex-boyfriend who shows up in town six weeks before Khadija goes missing.”
“Yes, we do. But we’ve also got witnesses who can place him at the party until your guys broke it up. We’ve got Elise Van Driest, as well as two roommates, who can place him at her apartment that night from 1 AM until he dropped her off at her grandmother’s house later that morning. Then we have him on Walmart surveillance until more or less when you apprehended him.”
I didn’t know about the roommates. This is the first I’m hearing about fucking roommates. “Were he and Elise ever alone?”
“If they were, it couldn’t have been for more than an hour.”
“An hour is enough,” I say.
“Enough for what?”
“For whatever transpired.”
“We don’t know what transpired,” she insists calmly. “What we need is for Khadija to show up in some way, shape, or form.”
I take that as the polite way of saying dead or alive, and my indignation bubbles over. “Well, that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? That’s why you’re here.”
“I phrased that poorly,” she concedes. “What I mean is credit card usage, phone activity, something that would signify she’s run away, that she hasn’t been sucked up into the ether.”
“She hasn’t run away.”
“What makes you so sure?”
There are a dozen different factors making me so sure, but at present they’re all inexpressible. Rousseau is gracious enough to pretend her question was rhetorical. She turns up the radio, letting me stew in the passenger seat like some gutshot old cop, one who can’t comprehend the town he thought had become part of him.
She speeds the entire way with a sense of impunity. We make Brookfield in frankly incredible time. The Holiday Inn is built on a commercial strip within walking distance of various malls, restaurants, and a movie theater. The parking lot appears packed to capacity. Earlier, Rousseau had expressed some curiosity in attending a pro wrestling reunion. I wish I shared her zeal. Instead I’m bracing myself for something truly depressing. She texts her supervisor that we’ve arrived. Then the two of us—she in her suit, I in uniform—head conspicuously into the building.
We ask for directions at the lobby. The hotel is very large. I expected we’d be able to follow the din of full-throated voices, but there is only elevator music. The receptionist points us down a corridor, past the pool, into a distinct wing all its own dominated by the ballroom. Before we go, she asks whether we’d like her to call the manager. Rousseau assures her that no such precaution is necessary. We navigate toward the ballroom, coming upon two heavy doors. A laminated sign is taped to the surface that reads: “WWE – $40 Entry.”
Standing on the brink, I must admit my curiosity is finally piqued. I push open the door, nearly colliding it with a card table. There sits an old woman guarding a cash box. She is eager to take our money and stamp our hands, her sole function at this event, but she doesn’t make too much of a fuss when I walk through, telling her, “We won’t be long.”
The convention is set up like any run-of-the-mill trade expo. Each wrestler has their own booth hung with promotional posters and regalia, their own small table stacked with glamor shots waiting to be autographed. They are all in costume, which lends the scene a circus quality, as fans (90% of them middle-aged men) stride up and down the aisles snapping pictures on their phones, or soliciting conversation. Anthemic rock music is piped through speakers. A skylight lets in the day’s brilliance. The floor is carpeted in some garish hotel pattern, but at the south end is a hardwood area for dancing. Today, in place of a DJ, there looms a wrestling arena, an actual ring, its foundation curtained off by black vinyl, its perimeter drawn with taut nylon ropes. Two men are in there at this very moment, sparring, men past their prime, a little loose in the gut and chest, but with arms that could still bend steel girders. One has a grizzled look--long, tangled dreadlocks and a wiry beard. The other dons a spiked crew cut and goatee recently dyed jet black for the occasion. His nipples and ears shine with piercings. The men’s tights adhere to rippling slabs of quadricep. As they explore various holds on each other, Rousseau and I exchange looks.
“Let’s just find Herschel,” I say.
One good thing, at any rate, is that no one pays close attention to us. We are the least exciting feature in the room. We incorporate ourselves into the roving current, scanning each and every booth. Wait until Gavin hears about this, I think. All these names and faces from the old days popping out at me, faces confined to television screens, T-shirts, action figures, never to reality. Now, to spy their blemishes, the splotches and lines afforded by hard, lean living, it’s not unlike discovering Elmo is your gas station attendant. An arthritic Elmo with bad teeth.
I’m particularly affected when I spot none other than my first celebrity crush, Portia Magnotta, the premier female wrestler of the Eighties, right up there in the same breath as Fabulous Moolah and Wendy Stone. She is a far cry from her televised heyday, plasticized by Botox and collagen, one globular breast appearing to sag lower than the other inside a zippered jumpsuit, but it is her nonetheless. Watching her cavort with adoring fans who have probably, like me, jerked off to her merchandise more times than they can count, I’ve got to say it arouses a bittersweet fondness.
With no sign of Herschel in the central aisle, we are about to turn around and try the adjacent line-up, when we fall victim to the hypnotic sight of one fifty year-old man pinning down another. The submissive man’s leg is pinioned vertically in the air. Every meaty fiber in his throat pops out as he grinds his teeth and strains against the weight of his nipple-pierced opponent. Although there is no referee (I imagine the pay offered for such a gig would be insulting), the match is called by giddy fans who all chant in unison: “One! Two! Three!” The victorious one releases his prey, whose leg slams to the canvas with amplified impact. The victor rises, both fists clenched in the air, projecting his swollen bronze torso. Sweat glistens on curlicue chest hairs. The spectators applaud. They offer their hands to the combatants to assist them down. Two more wrestlers queued off to the side take their place. One of them is black and a little flabby but with shoulders a mile apart, heaped on either side of his head. His coarse hair is molded into four conical stalagmites. An impressionable look, to be sure, but I’m having difficulty conjuring up a name.
His opponent, I gently nudge Rousseau’s arm to point out, is Herschel Gimbe.
He appears to be the crowd’s favorite. A chant immediately goes viral: “Cro-NUS! Cro-NUS!” The black wrestler has a dullness in his eyes like why did I ever agree to this? He hasn’t even bothered to squeeze into tights. All he wears is a ripped pair of jeans . . . Then it hits me upside the head, pressed from the annals of my childhood. Levi Onassis, one of those love-to-hate-him villainous archetypes whose signature was to wrestle in jeans. The urge to snap a photo and send it to Gavin is, by this point, nearly irrepressible.
The men circle and size each other up, biding their time, letting suspense churn among the audience until the frenzy is palpable, until the air tastes like nickel and endorphins. They signal their readiness with a discreet head nod, then lunge forward on their haunches, Herschel with a great deal more energy. I can already tell he relishes being back in the ring. He emanates a pure, violent delight, clamping one giant carpenter’s hand behind Levi’s skull. The other he attaches to the man’s bicep, whirling him around, attempting to topple Levi in the first ten seconds of the match. But Levi stays upright. He charges Herschel at mid-pelvis. Herschel splays his legs, going limp, letting his body weight crush down on Levi before he manipulates the move by dropping to his shins, face-planting Onassis on the canvas (though not really; Levi’s elbows absorb most of the impact).
Herschel is extemporizing like a wild man. There is nothing kitsch, nothing nostalgic or cornball about any of this, not for him. He fights with the same barbarity that made him a star, the same fight-for-your-life intensity beleaguering his face that made him stand out as something of an everyman among his more polished, acrobatic peers. Instead of the MMA guru, he is the barroom brawler, though not incapable of a great dropkick now and again. With Levi lying face down, Herschel reaches across his back, grabs hold of his left leg, and pulls ever harder, meanwhile biting his knees around Levi’s head like a crotch-smelling vise. It is one of the most uncomfortable, amorphous positions I’ve ever seen two human beings engaged in, and I’ve seen my share on the internet.
As Levi thrashes around halfheartedly, Herschel—the far better showman of the two, huffing and grunting, practically roaring at times, beet purple in the face—hooks Levi’s knees over his shoulders and starts dragging the poor bastard’s misshapen head around the ring. It is Achilles taunting the gates of Troy with Hector’s corpse. I get the impression this is not scripted, that Herschel is trying to shame his opponent into getting more enraged, more impassioned about the sketch. If so, then the desired effect is achieved. Levi liberates himself in a series of mad convulsions, his legs thundering onto the canvas. Herschel’s eyes are lit with the prospect of facing a true rival now.
The crowd senses this shift, the upsurge in adrenaline saturating Levi’s system. The clamor inside this Brookfield Holiday Inn ballroom recalls the days of the Colosseum. The washed-up old men become gladiators fighting not for cash or fame, but a far more primitive incentive, simply to live to fight again. They read into each other’s movements, predicting by a hair what is underway in the enemy’s mind, what grip they must position themselves to break out of, what fancy leg work they must avoid to keep from being tripped and pounced upon like wounded meat on the Serengeti. Sweat drips off of them in a glaze, until they are like two angry fritters. Whatever choreography once existed has fractured into chaos.
I glance over at Rousseau to see if she is registering my boyhood excitement, the revival of the id, undeniable when flesh hammers against flesh in any context. Judging by her face, one might expect she is politely waiting for the two men to finish up a conversation.
Levi is finally able to throw Herschel against the ropes. The great yak of a man comes springing back, no doubt preparing like the rest of us for a classic clothesline, or if we’re lucky, a chokeslam. Instead, Levi surprises us all. He ducks, wraps his cylindrical arms around The Cannibal’s waist, heaves him skyward until that apex moment when it looks like Herschel is going to be flipped over his back—and then reverses course, swinging Herschel down again. And down he goes, like a pick-ax into a bed of stone. My own teeth rattle watching the collision. My own shoulders cringe at seeing the severe new angle of his neck, convinced that his cervical vertebrae must be reduced to powder. There are some cheers, but mostly an empathic “Ooooohh” circulates through the crowd. For a glimmer of an instant, Levi is undisguisedly pleased with himself. The spell is broken for him, for me, for every fan boy in attendance, when Herschel makes no move to get back up.
Indeed, he doesn’t move at all.
I had been meaning to drop in on Valerie that day to deliver the bad news, but Mendoza and I were kept tied up by a full slate of criminality. A jeweler who was badly slashed in the course of a robbery. A bit of arson at a rented warehouse on Avenue C. A woman out of her head on PCP who attacked a mail carrier with a tennis racket. In other words, there wasn’t an interval to spare where we could have dropped in. There was barely time to choke down a sandwich. So after work, with two and a half hours of overtime already under my belt, I made a detour to 3319A S. 42nd St. on my way home. Quite a radical detour, admittedly. She lived in the polar opposite direction from my place, more en route to Carlotta’s.
The bad news pertained to an hour’s worth of research I had crammed in at my desk the previous day. Aided by today’s technology, I could’ve cut that time frame in half, but owing to the snail’s pace rebuffering rate of my Intel Pentium III, an hour was deemed relatively efficient. Kenneth Anthony Leibowitz. Here is what I was able to dig up on her toadstool of an ex-boyfriend:
In high-school, his essay on the carbon cycle won first place in a regional Earth Sciences composition contest sponsored by the Jules Montaigne Foundation. His prize consisted of $1,000, a tour of the Foundation’s geological laboratories headquartered in Minneapolis, and a plaque hung up in the facility, heralding his name to future generations of custodians who would be polishing it once or twice a year. Music, however, was always where his heart truly lay, though I came up short trying to unearth any accolades he had earned in that field. He received a few meager scholarships. Otherwise his parents paid his way into Oberlin in the fall of ’96. I came across class photos, along with a few other images, one of him dressed as a satyr at a D&D convention taken by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and one of him wearing sunglasses and engaging in a charity poker competition down in Nashville. An intriguing, mercurial sort of character, at least in his online persona.
I located his profile on a few scam dating sites. He described himself as a gifted downhill skier and an avid concertgoer. His favorite movie was Kubrick’s 2001, his favorite book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was a lanky, asymmetrical, but not altogether bad-looking kid. He had a winning smile and a great silky head of hair to save him from banality. His most colorful endowment, though, was a vertical scar across his right temple. He had it in every picture I saw where the camera angle afforded a view, pictures taken over the span of a decade, though I couldn’t find any reference to a major accident where he might have received the blemish.
A perusal of the Oberlin White Pages showed that as of 2000 he was still living in town. I placed an anonymous phone call from my desk in the precinct, just to see, not sure what I would say if he picked up. It didn’t matter, because his answering machine engaged, so I was able to hear his voice nonetheless. A quirky, affable kind of voice. Your buddy with the heart of gold who can’t seem to land a girl because he’s too down-to-earth, too guileless. “Hey, you’ve reached Kenny. I’d no doubt rather be at home, but reality’s got its meat hooks in me at the moment, so please leave a message and we’ll chat later, I promise. Signing off!”
The beep goaded me to speak, to say something omniscient and paralyzing. “We know what the fuck you’re up to, Kenny. We’re watching you. Leave the girl alone or we’ll make your life miserable. We’ll upload kiddy porn onto your home computer and kick in the door seconds later. You pathetic scarfaced bag of fucking pig cum.”
Instead, I opted for the more codified route of placing a call to Oberlin’s Police Department, relaying the situation to them, asking if they might drop in on Mr. Leibowitz and obtain alibis on his whereabouts for the past 48 hours. Beyond that—I hated to admit—my hands were more or less tied. Stalking cases are notoriously sticky, constructed on hearsay, on he-said-she-said fallibility. Obviously it takes a modicum of common sense to recognize that no one else would have broken into a car, then an apartment, and stolen two such symbolic, inexpensive items: the cutting board and the CD case. But without evidence, the defense would simply label it a set-up, a ploy by a vengeful woman to besmirch and imprison her ex-boyfriend—who, yes, happened to have a restraining order filed against him. I prayed that the cops down in Oberlin would be able to arm me with some legal fodder.
In the meantime, I was not feeling myself. I stared into the retina-burning heat of my Intel. The thought of returning home did not appeal to me. The allure of a reheated supper and David Letterman was somehow sapped of its glamorous sheen. Valerie Ognavic’s plight was like a bit of backwash tasted in every sip of every new thought or idea. At least I had to keep telling myself it was her plight, and certainly not the woman herself.
Oberlin Police contacted me the very next day with some discouraging news. They had arrived at the suspect’s address to find it ostensibly vacant. They then dialed the property owner, who informed them that Leibowitz had skipped town, simply disappeared. What’s more, he was three months behind on his rent payments. They were in the process of getting in touch with family members, former co-workers, in order to try and glean some kind of explanation. I thanked them for their cooperation,
Night had fallen by the time I arrived at Valerie’s, so I was worried I would startle her. Her house was a butterscotch color with white trim. From a downstairs window wafted the smell of curry, the chatter of Hindi voices over a loud television. I climbed the exterior wooden staircase in the back of the house, which overlooked a steep embankment consisting of crabgrass and litter. Atop the embankment ran 43rd St. Given this set-up, Kenneth would have been afforded a surprising amount of privacy during his break-in.
Ajax barked at my knocking. Valerie had not yet found time to replace the damaged door. I stared at the ugly gouge now, as I heard more than a few additional locks sliding out of place, picked up recently at the hardware store with or without her landlord’s permission.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“Officer Fontanel, ma’am. I was here yesterday.”
A final bolt slid, then the door cracked open with the chain still attached so she could get a look at me. Once I passed security clearance she let me inside. I put out my hand for Ajax to sniff. He was a brindle bullmastiff, somewhat tiger-striped and sooty looking. His head bore the weight of a bull’s and stood above my waist. I’d caught Valerie in her summer loungewear, a tank top and a pair of leggings. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, her makeup washed off for the evening. A dish covered in aluminum foil sat atop the stove. I apologized for butting in on her like this after what I’m sure was a long day.
“Please, drop by whenever you like.” She walked into her living room and turned down the Classical music on the stereo. I peeked in after her, saw an apple-green sectional with an open book lying face down on the cushion. There was a glass of white wine on hand. The TV sat inert, a windbreaker draped over its black lifeless screen; just a convenient coat rack instead of an ever-engaged focal point like at our house. “It’s never a bad time to have a cop around.”
“I heard from Oberlin PD. I thought I’d stop over on my way home and give you the news in person.”
She stood by the stereo, gilded in lamplight. She asked, since I was off-duty, if there was something she could offer me, a drink perhaps. When I declined, she insisted my day couldn’t have been any picnic either. I guess I wore exhaustion on my face. “I watch the news,” she said. “I know what a circus it can be out there. I feel for you guys every night. Please, have a seat. Relax.”
She motioned me to a chair at the dining room table, inviting me to my choice of whiskey, wine, vodka, beer. “I have a little of everything. It’s not top shelf, but it’s not terrible either.”
I wondered how much of this hospitality was for my benefit, and how much was her trying to delay my inevitable bad news. “To be honest, a nip of whiskey sounds like heaven right now,” I heard myself saying.
Before long, we sat across from each other, me enjoying the hot zing of bourbon on my tongue, Valerie clasping her glass of wine. Whatever she had cooked smelled delicious, like garlic and rosemary. I was so comfortable that I needed to coerce myself into darkening the mood with the important matter at hand. Ajax lay curled up by the pantry, reduced to a third his original size. When I explained that Kenneth appeared to have temporarily dropped off the grid (easier to do circa 2001), I asked her if any names came to mind whom the Oberlin cops should look in on. Friends, family, et cetera.
Looking more irritated by the news than anything, as though I’d told her the City had to tear up her block to replace a water main, she replied, “He never had a kind word to say about his family. And most of his friends he kept at arm’s length. I guess the first names that come to mind are Paul Rodriguez and Adam Lorne. Paul was Ken’s boss at The Occipital. It was this art house theater in town. They liked to go out and drink scotch together and talk movies, foreign films, anything without a plot or a budget. Adam was another cellist. He was more talented than Ken but also more timid. I remember Ken liked to put him down to build himself up, and Adam was always just smiling about it.”
I produced a pen and a notepad. “I’ll pass those names on to Oberlin.”
“You think he’s still in Milwaukee then.”
My pen hovered over the page. I was embarrassed of the bite marks on the cap. Our eyes met and I told her, “Personally, yes. He’s clearly in a very unstable place right now. You’re probably all he thinks of, to the point where he can’t even hold down a job anymore. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No.” I could tell by her face there was a lot of baggage lurking behind the answer, which she filtered down to, “Not at the moment.”
“Because if you did, I would advise him to look over his shoulder as well.”
She chewed her bottom lip, debating whether there was someone she should call, whether he fell into a germane time frame, and whether she could bring herself to dial his number this far into the mending process. “Do you see a lot of guys like Ken?” she asked tiredly, taking a large drink of wine. “I suppose he’s nothing special.” Her nails had silver treble clefs and bass clefs painted on them, alternating from finger to finger. I had noticed in the living room a music stand holding a sheaf of composition. This must have been the dystopian rendering of a childhood ideal. A self-sufficient musician making her way in the city. Now add a few dashes of paranoia, and a two-ton attack dog for protection.
I told her we all encounter Kenneths in some degree, the senseless hurdle of insecure people hoping to leech onto someone else’s determination, or at the very least, inspire pity. The narcissists who must be negotiated with, handled delicately, stealing time from an otherwise purposeful day. The man or woman whose life means nothing on its own, whose entire character is derivative, parasitic. “—No, nothing special, to answer your question.”
It could have all been in my head, but I swore I saw her shoulders relax, some of the mist clear from her eyes. She asked me if I liked lasagna.
Ajax watched intently as she served it up, licking his wrinkly chops, studying every movement of the spatula without blinking. He followed the plate as Valerie brought it over. “Let me freshen your drink,” she said. I handed her my empty glass. My wedding band was on full display, I think she might have even grazed it, but the subject never came up.
I complimented the breezy string orchestration coming out of her sound system. “It’s Prokofiev,” she said. “The MSO is doing a spotlight on him, so I’m trying to become well acquainted with his body of work. He can be awfully challenging at times. Like all the greats, I suppose.”
“You’re in MSO?” I was ashamed to admit I had never seen the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform, so I didn’t.
“Violin, third chair.” She brought me my drink and we were seated again, this time over steaming hot plates of lasagna. “I forgot to mention it’s vegetarian. I hope that’s alright.”
“Looks incredible.” I lifted my glass in a mock toast. “To Prokofiev.”
“To the Milwaukee Police,” she rebutted.
Artichokes, portabella, spinach, romano-vodka sauce. To this day I judge all lasagna, meat or no meat, based on what I was served that night. There was no sense that it lacked anything. I could have devoured three more plates if not for social niceties. We spoke mainly of trivial matters, the peculiarities of living in Milwaukee—the laggard transit system, the Red Star yeast odor permeating Menomonee Valley, and of course the weirdly prominent segregation among neighborhoods. Somewhere in the midst of this, raindrops began tapping on the window glass. Kenneth’s depravities were not mentioned again until I cleaned my plate and insisted (falsely) that I could not eat another bite. She confessed there was another dimension to yesterday’s crime, one she had discovered only after Mendoza and I left, and one which did not constitute traditional table talk.
“Thankfully, Ajax found it before I did.” She wrinkled her nose.
“When I pulled back the comforter—there’s no other way to say it. The sick fuck defecated in my bed sheets.”
“Marking his territory,” I said without batting an eye. She was so abhorred at sharing this with me that I didn’t want to make it worse by expressing disgust, the odd part being my disgust was minimal. This act fell right in line with the profile I’d drawn so far of Kenneth. When I imagined the look that came across someone’s face at such a discovery, I actually had to suppress an improper smile. “Can I ask you something?”
“Go right ahead.” She waved me on. Nothing was sacred. Nothing was shocking anymore. “Let’s put it all on the table.”
“That scar on his face. Do you know where he got it?”
Valerie toasted her glass to Ajax across the room. “A dog gave it to him, when he was just a boy. His neighbor’s rottweiler got off the chain and attacked him. He needed several stitches and had to speak to a therapist afterward because he kept having nightmares and panic attacks.” Now it was her turn to suppress a smile. “Long story short, Kenneth is absolutely petrified of dogs.”
“Good. What other precautions do you take, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You name it,” she said. “I keep a loaded Beretta by my bed, a knife in my purse, Mace on my keychain at all times. I really don’t care for guns—or rather, I hate that people should feel like they need one. I have a permit, if you need to see it.”
I gestured at her brutalized door, the one decorated like a police commissioner with myriad brass locks. “That’s permit enough for me.”
A pause elapsed, wherein we admired each other for a beat too long. I broke it off by glancing at the clock on the wall. Rhonda would be putting Bruno to bed in another hour. If I didn’t leave soon, I wouldn’t get to spend any time with him. I announced that I should be going, surprised by the vein of defeat in my voice. Telling myself I was just tired.
“It was very kind of you to drop in.” She rose to her feet a little too quickly. “You’re welcome anytime. I know a few other tricks beside lasagna.” Flushing, she corrected herself, “A few other recipes.”
“I gave you my card already, didn’t I?” Knowing full well that I had.
We shook hands beside the table. The dirty plates streaked with sauce were somehow incriminating. Never had a handshake felt so counterfeit, so rubbery and obtuse. “I appreciate the amount of care you’ve put into this dumb little problem of mine. I know in the grand scheme of things . . .”
We went on patronizing this way until it became unsustainably absurd. Then I wished her good-night and gave Ajax, who had loped over, a friendly pat on the head. When I opened the door, threads of water were streaking past the gutter. She cautioned me to be careful going down the stairs; they could be slippery when wet. She watched me descend about halfway down, then shut out the warm light pulsing behind her, the Prokofiev, the kitchen smells, and the specter of an unspeakable alternative.
Half a dozen locks slid back in place.