The Disappearing Woman
The guys in my station house, when they’re not bitching and moaning about money and the lowlife dirt bags they come face to face with on a daily basis and how people just don’t respect cops anymore, smile and talk fondly, poetically almost, about their parents. Me? I never do. Did I love my mother and father? Instinct, neighborhood customs, and Church used to make me feel obligated to embrace those sentiments, but how could I? My life with them had been harsh and ugly. When my father wasn’t whipping me with whatever he could get his hands on, while my mother watched in grim silence or hid in another room, he made it clear through looks and words that he couldn’t understand what I was doing in their squalid apartment. On a good day, when my father wasn’t out to get me, I spent most of my time alone in my room or else on the streets of my tough Brooklyn neighborhood, where I learned how to fend for myself.
At best, my relationship with my parents was strained and completely lacking in terms of love, guidance, and support. At its worst, when my father drank to excess, searching the bottom of a bottle for all that was missing in his life—something he did more and more often during his last couple of years—and my mother shrieked and cried and cursed the day she was born, my existence was unmitigated hell. It was like trying to cross a boundless minefield. Even during those times when I thought I knew what to say (or not say) and how to react to my father and mother, more often than not I stepped in the wrong direction and got blown to Kingdom Come.
When I think back to those days I am generally chilled to my core; at other times I burn with long-suppressed rage. I also regret what happened at the end.
I remember how I used to stay out as long as possible, even during brutally hot summer days and bitterly cold winter evenings. I knew not to invite other boys to our apartment, even when my father was drinking only beer, which he could handle, and not Irish whiskey, which would send him reeling, at which point he would repeatedly smack my mother’s face, after which he would drag her into their room and roughly push her onto the bed. Long after I had fled our cramped walkup and was out on the street I thought I could hear his bestial grunts and her pitiful cries of, “No, Tom. Please. No.”
Several times a week, generally as I edged into the apartment and hurried to my closet of a room or as I was on my way out, my father would give me the look—the unmistakable signal to stand at attention before him. Enthroned on the one and only “good” chair in the sparsely furnished living room, he would focus his bleary eyes on me through the haze of blue-gray cigar smoke that generally enveloped him, and growl, “Remember these words, you little shit. …” By the time I was old enough to understand language I knew what he was about to say, but I always stood there and patiently waited. It was either that or take another beating. After carelessly flicking ashes in the general direction of the nearby pedestal ashtray that my father had inherited from his father and which my mother always threatened to put out with the garbage (but never did), he would announce that “Every damned thing, from jamming your goddamned pinky toe against a piece of furniture on your way back from a middle-of-the-night piss to losing all your dough on a bet, happens for a reason.” I always nodded and waited, knowing he would continue. After taking a noisy gulp from his can of beer or a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle and then puffing mightily on his cigar, he would point one of his immense thumbs in my direction and menacingly announce, “It’s always a bad reason. Remember: whatever the hell goes wrong in your pitiful excuse for a life is your own damned fault.”
Of course, he was correct: things do happen for a reason, or for a number of reasons. I also know that my father was mostly right about the mistakes that I have made—especially from the time I was on my own. And then, when I fall into one of those reflective moods during which I think about my life, I wonder about people who have made sudden appearances and then just as quickly disappeared. One was a woman with a nametag that read Evangeline. When I think of her I reflexively touch my chest, to the place where the bullet pierced my flesh and nicked my heart. That scrap of hot lead and that woman entered my life on the same dank evening, within a few hours of each other. The bullet came close to robbing me of my life. The woman was a mystery, for a while.
The one and only time I saw Evangeline was when I dying. Well, technically, it was right before I died, as I was dizzily free-falling through a numbingly cold, desolate realm of existence, until I no longer exhibited life signs, and was, therefore, dead in a clinical sense. Then, as alarms buzzed, the ER doctors who had managed to stop the bleeding from the ragged wound on my chest zapped me with who knows how many potent jolts of electricity—which I do not remember—and, for better or, more likely, for worse, I was back in the land of the living, or so they told me when I came around and was more or less able to understand what they were saying. Groggy, confused, shaking, achy, and feeling not quite there, as if I was floating above my hospital bed, swathed in gauze or ensnared in a filmy spider web, I looked down and saw people in white hovering over a man who I knew was me. Evangeline was no longer there. While I was in that bewildering, otherworldly state, and despite the fact that I should have had other things on my mind, I desperately wanted her to explain what she had said. So, although I barely had the strength to form intelligible sentences, I focused on the young, dark-skinned doctor with thick glasses who was examining my wound, and opened my mouth. I was surprised at how difficult it was to speak and by the faint, scratchy sound of my voice, which seemed to echo and rattle around in my head. I realized that I was no longer floating above the bed or sheathed in gauze or a spider web. The doctor looked at me, smiled, and whispered in heavily accented English, “Don’t talk. You’ve been through a lot. They’re going to operate on you. It won’t be a minute.”
Even though I could not call to mind the details, I knew he was right. I had been through a lot. The popping sound that I was beginning to remember reverberated through my brain; the acrid odor lingered in my nostrils. Every muscle in my upper body throbbed, and with each chilly inhalation through the tubes that somebody had placed in my nostrils I moaned. A blunt pain radiated down my chest, as if a dull blade was slowly, relentlessly sawing from my heart to the bottom of my abdomen. My brain throbbed and pulsated with explosive fury. In spite of that, I had to ask about Evangeline. I was sure that was the name on her uniform. Although I could not describe it, I could picture her face. I heard her sorrowful voice. I remembered her touch, brief as it had been. For reasons I could not grasp, except for the fact that she had been there before I had faded out and that she had said something in a heart-rending voice, I had to talk to her, so I tried to speak again, managing only to croak, “E … van … geline.” When the doctor asked whether Evangeline was my wife or girlfriend, I swallowed hard, slowly shook my head, and whispered, “Nurse. Dark hair. Sad eyes. Where you’re … you’re standing. Minute ago. I passed out. Then they brought me back.”
“We understand,” a nurse who was standing nearby said. She was older than the doctor and spoke like someone who had seen it all and was no longer surprised by anything. “You were dreaming. It seems real. That happens, especially with the pain meds we shot into you and all the blood you lost. It happens to lots of trauma patients. You drift in and out, lose time, confuse what’s real and what’s not.” She checked the IV bag above my bed and then said, “I was here when they brought you in, a few hours ago. You were bleeding out. We stopped that and transfused you. You were stable and conscious. Then your heart stopped. We ran back in and zapped you. You’re out of the woods now. You’re a lucky guy. It grazed your heart. They’re going to extract it. The bullet.”
The word ricocheted through my brain. I ached, as if somebody had worked me over with a baseball bat (something that had been done to me one evening during my riotous adolescence), and was painfully cold. And, as what had happened began coming back to me in a series of jarring, dark waves of sickening recollection, I wondered about the car horn. The gunpowder smell was still in my nostrils. I had not looked at the shooter’s face. All I had seen was the gun, a long-barrel revolver, its cold steel blackness pointed at me. I remembered thinking, This isn’t going to happen. But it did. That was why my chest felt heavy and why breathing was so arduous. I could not picture the man or his car. All I had seen was the gun. It wasn’t going to happen, but it did.
Despite my discomfort, and as the distressing mental video of what had occurred on the sidewalk in front of the building where I have lived for years became clearer, I pushed aside more relevant thoughts, and whispered, “I know, but … I … I saw her. Evangeline. There was a nametag. She said something. I don’t … understand.”
The young doctor smiled again. Even in my bewildered state, I knew that he was forcing it this time. After looking at the nurse, who was tapping on a keyboard, he said he did not know anyone by that name. The nurse shrugged her shoulders and said that she would ask around. The doctor placed a dressing on my chest. Then he moved back, snapped off his latex gloves, and dumped them into a pail. They were bloody.
The next moment—or so it seemed—I was being wheeled down a hallway, my field of vision limited to harshly lit overhead lights and water-stained ceiling tiles and a side view of guys from the precinct walking next to me. A deep voice behind me said, “You’re all gonna have to wait here until he’s out of surgery and in a room. We’ll take good care of him.” I was aware of the fact that the warm hand that had been on one of my bare arms was gone. When I turned my head to see who had been touching me, no one was there. I felt myself being pushed through a doorway into a room whose function I immediately understood. A nurse jostled me as she did something with the IV line in my arm. Then, as I began to panic, thinking that I did not belong there, that my life had left me and I was in the wrong place, that I was not even in my body, a masked face hovered over me and said, “Here we go.”
One day, six months later, with my eyes closed, I concentrated on the reality of where I thought I was. My head swam. Once again, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lost. Cold. I knew that when I opened my eyes I would have to deal with what was in front of me. I hoped it would seem real. I knew I’d have to force myself to believe it.
“Finley, you in dreamland or some other good place?”
I opened my eyes, turned to Nick Grosso, and frowned. He raised his eyebrows. Masking my discomfort, I said, “No. Just thinking.”
“Okay. Good. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re here. You ready for this? If not, you can stay in the car.”
I saw that Nick had double parked. As he opened his door and exited, I unfastened my seatbelt and cautiously straightened out, careful not to overly stretch the still-sensitive muscles of my chest. As I followed Nick along the sidewalk I attempted to rouse myself by thinking, This is real. Do it like a hundred other times before.
Ahead of me, Nick approached a uniformed officer in front of a still-handsome brick building that had seen better days. Dugan. That was his name. Dugan flicked his head to the side and said, “Underground garage. Two vics. Man and woman. Blood everywhere. Faces burned too.” I pictured the scene; it did not upset me. In fact, I thought it would do me good to investigate the crime scene, not because I like blood and violence, but because that was what I needed. After months of an agonizingly slow, frustrating recovery, which was hampered by repeated infections, and after a half dozen sessions with a psychologist—during which I revealed one or two things that I had kept locked up tight and never planned on saying out loud—I had to return to my purpose in life.
I stooped under the crime scene tape, walked down the ramp to the garage a few paces behind Nick, and worked to block out disturbing thoughts by focusing on my list of procedures, even though, after all these years, it was securely in place at the center of my consciousness: step carefully; scan my surroundings, taking inventory of all that I see; write notes; snap pictures; ask questions; write more notes.
And, occupying a murky corner at the back of my mind was the knowledge that something dicey could happen, something that could rapidly spin out of control. I thought about the routine radio call that took a sharp turn which had, quite literally, put me at a knife’s edge. It happened on a frigid December morning when I was in uniform, with just a few weeks under my belt. Danny McCreary, my partner, and I responded to a call about a body in the rear courtyard of an apartment building. We were the first ones on the scene. As we pulled up, McCreary, who was a veteran, warned me to turn around and move away if I felt sick. He said, “You don’t wanna contaminate the crime scene, especially that way. You’ll get a rep, a bad one that’ll live with you for years.” Even though it was the first body I had ever seen that had suffered a violent death, I was neither disturbed nor shocked. I felt nothing. It was a woman, white, early twenties, long dark hair, wearing only a pair of torn panties. The areas around both of her eyes were bruised. There were scrape marks on her shoulders, the left side of her forehead was caved in and bloody; her hands were blood-stained. Shards of glass were all around. After McCreary examined the body and called in the information, we scanned the trash-strewn area. Then we looked up at the building. People were gawking through closed windows; a few of them were clearly alarmed. One woman seemed to be sobbing.
Then, higher up, we spotted an open window with fluttering yellow curtains. Nobody was there. It was an icy day with a wicked breeze. Why would somebody leave a window open? McCreary and I stared for close to a minute. When nobody appeared at the window, he told me to go up there, saying he would wait with the body until Crime Scene personnel and detectives arrived. “Wait in the hallway, outside the apartment. Nothing else. Stop and question whoever goes in or out. Don’t knock. Call me if there’s trouble.”
The window was on the fourth floor. I jogged to the front of the building, into the lobby, and up the staircase. I waited on the fourth floor landing for a few seconds, trying to figure out which door belonged to the apartment in question. I also needed to give my heart a chance to stop thrumming and for my breathing to return to normal. Inhaling deeply and rubbing my cold, clammy hands together, I looked down the very long hallway and stared at what I thought was the door.
I knew what McCreary had said, but I was impulsive and a risk-taker in those days. I also had (I still do) a sixth sense. I knew something bad had happened in that apartment, and so, I instinctively walked to it, as a thirsty man is drawn to water. After lightly tapping the butt of my gun in its holster, I knocked. There was a faint rustling sound. Then silence. I knocked again. No answer. I thought about calling McCreary … to say what? That I had knocked on the door, someone was there and was not responding? I waited a few seconds. Then I called through the door, “Hello. It’s the police. Please open the door. It’s important.” Nothing. The door of the apartment across the hall opened a bit. I turned and looked. The door closed. I moved away and looked toward the staircase, hoping to see McCreary or some other officers, but nobody was there. I returned to the door. “Are you hurt? You need assistance?” I asked. Nobody responded, so I said, “Listen. I know you’re in there. I’m not going away until I talk to you. Are you okay?”
A male voice said through the closed door, “I’m fine.”
Taking a chance, I said, “The woman who fell out of the window … is she your wife?” No answer. “Your girlfriend?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It must be cold in there … with the window open.”
“It’s not open.”
“I think I need to check on you.”
“No. I have to go to work. I’m late.”
“So, you’re okay. Good. I won’t bother you. Have a nice day.”
I moved away from the door and waited. A long, tense period of time passed. The voice asked, “You still there?” I did not answer. When I saw McCreary and two plain clothes officers come up to the landing at the far end of the long hallway I put a finger to my lips and signaled that they should retreat down the stairs. Again, the voice called through the door, “You there?” When I did not answer, the door unlocked and slowly opened a crack. I flattened myself against the adjoining wall, two feet away, my hand on the gun in its holster. As the door creaked open and a giant of a man stepped into the hallway, McCreary and the detectives appeared on the landing again. McCreary shouted, “Connor! Knife!” He and the detectives drew their weapons and called out to the man to drop the knife. I drew my gun, but before I could lift it, the man pivoted, reached for me, grabbing my shoulders, turning me around, and pulling me to him so that my back was against his huge chest. One long, powerful arm encircled me, clamping my arms to my sides. As I elbowed him and frantically tried to raise my gun, the man, who stank of booze, held me firmly. Then I felt the sharp blade of the knife against my throat. I froze. The cops, who were about twelve feet away, with their guns pointed in our direction, stopped advancing. They shouted commands to the man, who, using me as a shield and keeping the knife firmly against my neck, walked backwards, dragging me into the foyer of the apartment. He was predator; I was prey. He stopped moving. My legs trembled. The pressure of the knife against my throat was suffocating. He told me to drop my weapon. I maintained my grip, figuring, if I could squirm loose I would be able to turn and unload on him. McCreary and the two plain clothes officers stood in the hallway, only a few feet away, pointing their guns at us, but they held fire.
The man breathed foul, hot, alcohol-infused breath into my ear and hissed, “I said drop it.” He pressed the blade more firmly against my throat. I felt sweat or blood trickle down my neck and to my chest, but no pain. I thought I was going to die. My head swam. “Drop it. You don’t, I slit you open.” Those words pounded in my brain. I pictured the blade cutting deeply into my skin and then slicing my trachea. I tried to free my arms. The three cops in the hallway again shouted for the man to drop the knife, but they did not move any closer to us and they did not shoot; as large as he was, the man seemed to be able to keep his body hidden behind mine. I was choking, more from fear than the pressure of the blade. I tried to swallow. Tears of hot rage and frustration welled in my eyes. I let the gun fall to the floor. “Shut it.” He held my arms so tightly to my sides that I was unable to touch the door, so, still holding me close, with the knife blade digging into my skin, the man said, “Do this right.” He loosened his grip on one of my arms and nudged me forward. I pushed the door closed. “Now lock it.” I did as he ordered.
We stood in the dim foyer of the cold, silent apartment.
“Now what, champ?” I wanted to say. Instead, I remained silent and waited.
He yanked me back. Then he kicked my gun away from where I had dropped it and whispered, “Get down. Down, with your face to the floor.” I did as instructed, taking a small degree of comfort in the fact that he had spoken softly. I hoped that meant he was calm and that he did not want to alarm the men outside, who would barge into the room and gun him down. I knew they were calling for back up and for Emergency Service Unit personnel. I wanted to look at the man, see his eyes. Was he frightened? I was.
Taking a chance, I turned my head and said, “I didn’t want this to happen.”
The man moved to my gun and picked it up. Then, holding it loosely in one hand, with the knife in the other, he said, “I was gonna die alone. Now we’re both gonna die.”
“Doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Don’t talk. I can still cut you open.”
“I know. I know that.” I turned my face down and stared at the floor, thinking about how he had not mentioned using my gun. Why? Was he more comfortable with his knife? Did he want to kill me silently, so as not to alert the men outside?
“I said don’t talk.”
“What the hell’s going on in there?” one of the detectives called out. When the man with the knife did not answer, the detective said, “Listen, if you don’t talk we’re gonna think you killed our guy, and then we’re gonna bust in and light you up.”
“He’s okay,” the man replied in a shaky voice.
“We want to hear from him, from Finley,” McCreary called through the door. “You okay, Connor?”
I turned my head back to the man. He nodded. I called out, “I’m fine. He’s not gonna hurt me.” I heard whispered talk outside of the door.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” the man said.
“I know. You’re not a killer. I think the girl threw herself out the window. Too bad about that. Not your fault.”
“Yeah. That’s what happened. I was gonna cut my wrists, but then you came along. Now I don’t wanna die, but I’m in big trouble.”
“Only if I press charges against you, and I won’t.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Not a lie, mister. If you let me go I can do you good.”
“How can you do that?” He sounded unsure and frightened.
“I won’t press or I can push to limit the charges.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I can put in a good word for you. Tell them you were suicidal. They’ll keep it at assault, second degree. That’s it.”
“You tellin’ the truth?” Now he sounded hopeful.
“Look, I want to sit up. I won’t make a move for you. You’re bigger and you’re armed. Let me sit up. We can talk our way out of this.”
“What’s going on in there? We got an army of cops coming. You okay, Connor?”
“We’re fine, Danny,” I called out, trying to sound more confident than I felt. “Leave us alone a minute. We’re talking.” Then, even though the man had not responded to my request, I sat up and looked up at him for the first time. He was well over six feet tall and probably close to three hundred pounds. Buzz-cut reddish hair; freckles. Dressed in a light jacket, jeans, and heavy boots. Through his clothes I could see that his arms and legs were massive, like tree trunks. There were bloody gouges on both cheeks. “We don’t have much time. Either they’re going to barge in and kill you, and I guess you’ll kill me, or we’re both going to walk out of here alive.” I focused on the knife: long, shiny, sharp; perhaps from a kitchen cutlery set.
I heard sirens.
The man, who was clearly nervous, said, “I didn’t do it. I drank a lot last night. We had a fight. She acted crazy. She opened the window. Threatened to jump. I didn’t wanna give in to her. She jumped.”
Of course he was lying. Nobody had opened the window; it had been shattered. He had pushed her through it. “I understand,” I said.
“It never shoulda happened,” the man whispered.
Shaking my head sympathetically, I said, “I know. She your wife? Girlfriend?”
“Wife. I wanted to move out. She didn’t wanna hear of it.”
“Some women hold on with a death grip. Right?” I smiled knowingly at the man. When he remained silent I wracked my brain for something to say. I knew I had to keep him talking, engaged. I had to make him see me as a person. “What was her name? And, what’s your name? I’m Connor.” I stood up.
After a bit of hesitation he said, “Sonny. She’s April.”
“Okay, Sonny—” Pounding on the door. “I’m fine. We’re talking!” I called out.
“This is the police. Open the goddamned door and come out with your hands up!” said a man with a gravelly voice.
“This is P.O. Finley. I’m okay. Give us a few minutes.”
“Finley, I’m Kemp. You’re not okay. Let me talk to the man who’s holding you.”
“Give us a few minutes. We’re talking. Don’t come in,” I said.
“What’s his name?” Kemp asked.
“He’s Sonny. Leave us alone a few minutes.”
“One minute only; then you both come out, or we’re coming in.”
“Sonny, he means it,” I said. “Tell me the whole story. I’ll take your side when it comes before a judge. You’ll plead. You’ll be okay.”
“I don’t wanna go to jail. I’ve never been in jail. Never been in trouble before this. Oh, God. What am I gonna do?”
“You’re going to tell me your story. Then we’re going to open the door. They’ll cuff you and take you away, but I promise … I swear I’ll talk on your behalf.”
“How can I trust you?”
“What choice do you have?”
“What should I do? I don’t know.” He was close to tears.
“Tell me your story, Sonny. I’m listening.”
After a few seconds, during which Sonny, with the knife in one hand, repeatedly slammed his other hand, with my gun in it, against one leg, he said in a husky, tired voice, “It’s complicated.”
“Things involving women usually are.”
“I loved her. I been drinking too much. Put on a few pounds.”
He stopped talking. I said, “Tell me the rest, Sonny.”
“Lost my job. We stopped getting along; said I was moving out.”
“But April wanted you to stay.”
“Open the door now!”
“I’m fine, Kemp. We’re making progress. Sonny’s gonna let me go. We need to talk a bit more.”
“You sure you’re okay? I can get you outta there real fast.”
“I’m fine. If you bust in, you’re gonna spook Sonny.”
“Come out now!”
“Give us a few more minutes, Kemp.”
“It’s 10:08. We’ll give you two minutes. Then we’re coming in.”
“Talk fast, Sonny. What happened?”
“We talked. I told her I’d be better off without her. Then she got crazy. She’s always been crazy.”
“Okay.” Then, noticing a torn blue bra on the floor, I asked, “Why was she mostly undressed?” Sonny’s eyes widened. His large face reddened. I had asked the wrong question. I knew why she had on only a pair of torn panties. Thinking quickly and talking even more rapidly, I said, “I don’t mean to pry into your life, but my thinking is you were getting it on with her. That’s good. I mean it shows you were, you know, still close to her, not looking to hurt her. Then, what happened?”
“She wanted it, like she always did. Sex was never our problem.”
“I understand. Okay,” I said, trying to sound calm, knowing I had to wrap up the situation with Sonny before Kemp and the others barged in. “I get it, but, you see, when April jumped, you should’ve called 911. I figure you were too shook up to think straight. A neighbor saw her body and called. You were probably a wreck. You took a knife from the kitchen. You figured you’d slit your wrists. Then I came along, and you lost your nerve. I’m glad. You don’t have to die.”
“That’s it. She didn’t mean to jump. She stood near the window and lost her balance. Fell out. I tried to grab her. That’s how my face got scratched. I didn’t know what to do. I was in shock. I wanted to die. Then you banged on the door. Damn you!” Shaking and snarling, holding the knife and the gun, he approached me.
Sensing that he had reached the end of his rope, I said, “Okay, Sonny, I understand. You’re right. Just calm down.”
“Calm down? They’re gonna take me away.”
“They will, but I’ll speak up for you. If you hurt me, then—”
“Then, what?” he asked. “If I let them in, I’m gonna spend years in jail. If I hurt you … if I hurt you—”
“If you hurt me, they’re going to shoot you down. I don’t want to see that. Let’s let them in.” As I said that I turned away from Sonny and moved toward the door.
“Don’t touch the door!” Sonny bellowed as he reached for me.
The door smashed off its hinges, flew open, and crashed heavily into a wall. I saw the ballistic shields. Behind them stood two shotgun-wielding officers wearing black helmets, goggles, and body armor. As they burst into the apartment, they shouted, “Police! Drop your weapon!” One of them roughly pushed me down. In that same instant, the other officer shouted, “Drop it!” and then they opened up on Sonny. I remained on the floor, both horrified and energized, as hellish, deafening explosions filled the room. Then all was silent. I tried not to breathe in the acrid, metallic odor that lingered in the air.