Read A Drop of the Hard Stuff Online

Authors: Lawrence Block

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A Drop of the Hard Stuff (5 page)

Some months ago I had taken to keeping some clothes at Jan’s place. She’d turned over one of the dresser drawers to me, along with a couple of hangers in the closet. So I had clean socks and
underwear to put on after my morning shower, and a clean shirt, and I left what I’d been wearing for her to wash.

“You’re coming up on a year,” she said at breakfast. “What is it, a month away?”

“Five, six weeks. Somewhere in there.”

I thought she’d have more to say about that, but if she did she decided to leave it unsaid.

That night I met Jim Faber at a Chinese restaurant on Ninth Avenue. Neither of us had been there before, and we decided it was all right, but nothing special. I told him about my evening with Jan, and he took it in and thought about it, and then he reminded me that I was coming up on a year sober.

“She said the same thing,” I said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

He shrugged, waiting for me to answer my own question.

“ ‘Don’t make any major changes in the first year.’ Isn’t that the conventional wisdom?”

“It’s what they say.”

“In other words, I’ve got five or six weeks, whatever the hell it is, to decide what to do about my relationship with Jan.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You’ve got five or six weeks,” he said, “
not
to decide.”

“Oh.”

“You get the distinction?”

“I think so.”

“You don’t have to make a change when the year’s up. You don’t have to come to a decision. You’re under no obligation to do anything. The important thing is not to take any action before then.”

“Got it.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “what we’re talking about here is your agenda. She may have one of her own. You’re sober a year, it’s time for you to shit or get off the pot. That sound about right?”

“Maybe.”

“You know,” he said, “that business about waiting a year, that’s just a general rule. Some people, they’re best advised not to make any major changes for the first five years.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Or even ten,” he said.

We took in a meeting at St. Clare’s Hospital. Most of those attending were from the detox ward, and their attendance was compulsory. It was hard to get them to stay awake, and almost impossible to get them to say anything. Jim and I had been there a few times; you rarely heard anything insightful, but it served as a good object lesson.

I walked him home, and at one point he said, “Something to bear in mind. Something Buddha said, as it happens. ‘It is your dissatisfaction with what is that is the source of all your unhappiness.’ ”

I said, “Buddha said that?”

“So I’m told, though I have to admit I wasn’t there to hear him. You seem surprised.”

“Well,” I said, “I never thought he had that much depth to him.”

“Buddha.”

“That’s what everybody calls him. And what he calls himself, as far as that goes. Big guy, must stand six-six, shaves his head, belly out to here. He’s a regular at the midnight meeting at the Moravian church, but he turns up other places as well. I think he’s a former outlaw biker, and my guess is he’s done time, but—”

The look on his face stopped me. He shook his head and said,

The
Buddha. Sitting under the Bodhi tree? Waiting for enlightenment?”

“I thought it was an apple tree and he invented gravity.”

“That was Isaac Newton.”

“If it was Newton, it should have been a fig tree. Buddha, huh? Listen, it was a natural mistake. The only Buddha I know is the one at the Moravian church. Works the doors at one of those rough bars on West Street, if I’m not mistaken. You want to run that by me again? The source of all unhappiness?”

After I’d seen him home I went home myself. I’d stopped at the hotel earlier, surprised that there were no messages, and I didn’t see anything in my box this time, either. I asked the fellow behind the desk and he said that there’d been one person who’d called a couple of times but hadn’t given his name or left any kind of a message. All he could tell me was that the caller had been a man.

Jack, I thought, and he’d given up leaving messages because they didn’t do any good. I went upstairs, and I was hanging up my jacket when the phone rang.

A voice I didn’t recognize said, “Matt? This is Gregory Stillman.”

“I don’t think—”

“We met the other night at Sober Today. Jack Ellery introduced us.”

“I remember.” Jack’s sponsor, the jewelry designer, with one of his creations dangling from his ear. “I don’t think we got as far as last names.”

“No,” he said, and drew an audible breath. “Matt, I have some very bad news.”

V
 

T
HE MEMORIAL SERVICE
for John Joseph Ellery was held Monday afternoon in the same church basement where I’d heard Jan tell her story on Thursday evening. There was no AA meeting scheduled, but Greg had been able to make arrangements with the church for the use of the room. As far as I could tell, all of the thirty or so in attendance had known Jack in AA.

All but two, a pair of men in suits who might as well have been wearing blue uniforms. Cops, following the long-established routine of attending a service to see who showed up. I’d done that myself a few times, and couldn’t remember ever learning anything useful in the process. But that didn’t mean it never paid off.

The service was nonreligious, and there was no clergyman in attendance. When I arrived there was a tape playing quietly, something classical that I recognized but couldn’t identify, and when it faded out Greg Stillman got up in front of the group. He was wearing a dark suit, and had left the earring home.

He introduced himself as Jack’s friend and sponsor, and spoke for five minutes or so, telling a couple of stories. There was a moment when he seemed on the verge of being overcome by emotion, but he stopped talking and waited and the moment passed, and he was able to go on.

Then people stood up in turn and shared something about Jack. It was like an AA meeting except you didn’t wait to be called on, you just took your turn. And all of the sharing was about Jack. Aside from the anecdotes, the gist of it was that Jack had had a rough life and a bad drinking story, but that he’d found real hope and comfort in the program, and was genuinely reborn through the twelve steps. And, by the grace of God, he’d died sober.

There’s a comfort.

The service concluded with a song. An ethereal young woman with big eyes and see-through skin stood up in front of the room and said that her name was Elizabeth and that she was an alcoholic. She hadn’t known Jack very well, she said, but she had sobriety in common with him, if nothing else, and Greg had asked her to sing, and she was glad to do it. She gave an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” including one verse I couldn’t recall having heard before. Not long before I got sober, I’d heard Judy Collins sing the song on a record they played at a whore’s funeral. That would have been hard to improve on, but this version came close.

There was a coffee urn—it was, after all, an AA crowd—and people gathered around it afterward. I turned to look for the cops, thinking I could see if they wanted coffee. I figured they wouldn’t take it without an invitation. But they had slipped out, and I headed for the door myself until I heard my name called.

It was Greg. He took my arm and asked me if I had a minute.
“A few minutes,” he said. “There’s a conversation we ought to have, and then I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

The next time I saw Jack Ellery he was dead.

And that was at the viewing room at the morgue, where Greg and I looked for a long moment at the mortal remains of a man we’d both known. Then he said, “Yes, that’s him. That’s Jack Ellery.” And I nodded in affirmation, and they let us out of there.

Outside he turned up his collar against the chill and wondered if we’d get more rain. I said I’d missed the forecast, and he said he never knew what the forecasts meant. “They used to tell you what it was going to do,” he said, “and even if they were wrong a lot of the time, at least they gave you a clear-cut answer. Now it’s all percentages. What on earth is a fifty percent chance of rain? How do you respond to that, carry half of an umbrella?”

“This way they’re never wrong.”

“That’s it exactly. ‘Well, we said only a ten percent chance of rain and it poured all day, so all that means is a long shot came in.’ Just because you’re a meteorologist doesn’t mean you don’t feel the need to cover your ass.” He took a breath. “I never asked you this, but do you prefer Matt or Matthew?”

Either’s fine with me, but it only confuses people to tell them that. “Matt’s good,” I said.

“Matt, why do they insist on a formal identification? He was in prison, he has a police record, they’d already identified him from fingerprints. Suppose there was nobody around who could do it. They’d get along without it, wouldn’t they?”

“Sure.”

“I really didn’t want to see him like that. My father’s funeral was open-casket, and there he was, like something from a
road-company Madame Tussauds, and that’s the image I was left with, this lifeless waxen effigy. We had our problems, God knows. I was not the son he’d had in mind, as he made all too clear. But we made it up during his last illness, and there was love and mutual respect there at the end, and then that final hideous glimpse of him eclipsed the strong and vigorous man I wanted to remember. I knew that would happen, I dreaded it, but at the same time I couldn’t
not
look. Do you know what I mean?”

“How long ago was this?”

“A little over a year. Why?”

“Because time will probably change that,” I said. “The earlier memory will supplant the other.”

“That’s already begun to happen. I didn’t know whether I could trust it, whether it was real. Or just some form of wishful thinking.”

“Wishful thinking may have something to do with it,” I said, “but it’s still real. We wind up remembering people the way they were, or at least the way we knew them. I had an aunt with Alzheimer’s, she spent the last ten years of her life institutionalized, while the disease ate her mind and her personality and everything that made her human. And that’s how I knew her, and how I remembered her.”

“God.”

“And that all faded out after she was gone, and the real Aunt Peg came back.”

Over coffee he said, “I barely looked at him just now. All I really saw were the wounds.”

He’d been shot in the mouth and the forehead. They’d shown the corpse with a sheet covering him from the neck down, so if there were other wounds we wouldn’t have seen them.

“I hope you’re right,” he said. “About the image fading. It can’t
fade too soon for me. Thank you for that. More than that, thanks for making the trip.”

I hadn’t much wanted to keep him company, but it was a hard request to say no to.

“I didn’t want to go at all,” he said, “and I certainly didn’t want to go by myself. I could have found someone else to come, some AA friend of Jack’s, but you felt like the right choice. Thank you.”

We’d headed north on First Avenue when we left the morgue, and stopped at a coffee shop called Mykonos just past Forty-second Street. When he ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, I realized it had been a while since I’d eaten, and said I’d have the same.

“Besides,” he said, “there’s something else I want to talk about.”

“Oh?”

“The two men at the back of the room. They were police officers.”

“Somehow I sensed as much.”

“Well, I didn’t need radar, because I saw their badges when they interviewed me. In fact they were the ones who asked me to make the formal ID. I asked them if they were close to solving the case, and they said something noncommittal.”

“That’s no surprise.”

“Do you think they’ll solve it?”

“It’s possible they’ve solved it already,” I said, “in the sense that they may know who did it. Of course that’s not the same as having sufficient evidence to bring a case to trial.”

“Could you find out?”

“Whether or not they know who did it?” He nodded. “I suppose I could ask around. An ordinary citizen wouldn’t get a straight answer, but I still know a few people in the department. Why?”

“I have a reason.”

One he evidently preferred to keep to himself. I let it go.

I said, “I’ll see if anybody wants to tell me anything. But I can make an educated guess right now as to who killed Jack.”

“You can?”

“Not by name,” I said. “Maybe it’s more accurate to say I can guess why he was killed. Somebody wanted to shut him up.”

“He was shot in the mouth.”

“At very close range. Essentially, somebody stuck the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, and this would have been after the forehead shot killed him. Put that together with the Ninth Step work Jack kept talking about and the message is pretty clear.”

“I was afraid of that,” he said.

“Oh?”

He looked at his hands, then raised his eyes to meet mine. “I got him killed,” he said.

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