Read Richard Montanari Online

Authors: The Echo Man

Richard Montanari (3 page)

    
'Thank
you.'

    
I
glance at the sky, at the buildings that surround Fitler Square. It is time.
Well, it was lovely talking to you.'

    
You,
too,' replies the woman. ''Enjoy your day.'

    
'Thank
you,' I say. I'm sure I will.'

    
I
reach out, take one of the baby's tiny hands in mine, give it a little shake.
'It was nice meeting you, little Ashley.'

    
Mother
and daughter giggle.

    
I
am safe.

    
A
few moments later, as I walk up Twenty-third Street, toward Delancey, I pull
out the digital recorder, insert the mini-plug for the earbuds, play back the
recording. Good quality, a minimum of background noise. The baby's voice is
precious and clear.

    
As
I slip into the van and head to South Philadelphia I think about this morning,
how everything is falling into place.

    
Harmony
and melody live inside me, side by side, violent storms on a sun-blessed shore.

    
I
have captured the beginning of life.

    
Now
I will record its end.

 

    

Chapter 2

    

    'My
name is Paulette, and I'm an alcoholic.'

    'Hi,
Paulette.'

    She
looked out over the group. The meeting was larger than it had been the previous
week, nearly doubled in size from the first time she attended the Second Verse
group at the Trinity United Methodist Church nearly a month earlier. Before
that she had been to three meetings at three different places - North Philly,
West Philly, South Philly - but, as she soon learned, most people who attend AA
meetings regularly find a group, and a vibe, with which they are comfortable, and
stay with it.

    There
were twenty or so people sitting in a loose circle, equally divided between men
and women, young and old, nervous and calm. The youngest person was a woman
around twenty; the oldest, a man in his seventies, sitting in a wheelchair. It
was also a diverse group - black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Addiction, of course,
had no prejudice, no gender or age issues. The size of the group indicated that
the holidays were rapidly approaching, and if anything pressed the glowing red
buttons of inadequacy, resentment, and rage, it was the holidays.

    The
coffee, as always, was crap.

    'Some
of you have probably seen me here before,' she began, trying to affect a tone
of lightness and cheer. 'Ah, who the hell am I kidding? Maybe I'm wrong about
that. Maybe it's ego, right? Maybe I think I'm the shit, and no one else does.
Maybe that's the
problem.

    

    Anyway,
today is the first time I've really had the balls to speak. So, here I am, and
you have me. At least for a little while. Lucky you.'

    As
she told her story, she scanned the faces. There was a kid in his mid-twenties
on the right - killer blue eyes, ripped jeans, a multicolor Ed Hardy T-shirt,
biceps of note. More than once she looked over at him and saw him scanning her body.
He may have been an alcoholic but he was still most definitely on the make.
Next to him was a woman in her fifties, a few decades of heavy use mapped in
the broken veins on her face and neck. She rolled a sweaty cellphone over and
over in her hands, tapped one foot to some long-silenced beat. A few chairs
down from her was a petite blonde in a green Temple University sweatshirt,
athletic and toned, the weight of the world just a snowflake on her shoulder.
Next to her sat Nestor, the group leader. Nestor had opened the meeting with
his own short and sad tale, then asked if there was anyone else who wanted to
talk.

    
My
name is Paulette
.

    When
she finished her story everyone clapped politely. After that other people rose,
talked, cried. More applause.

    When
all their stories were exhausted, every emotion wrung, Nestor reached out his
hands to either side. 'Let's give thanks and praise.'

    They
joined hands, said a short prayer, and the meeting was over.

 

    'It's
not as easy as it looks, is it?'

    She
turned around. It was Killer Blue Eyes. At just after noon they stood outside
the main church doors, between a pair of emaciated brown evergreens, already
struggling through the season.

    'I
don't know,' she replied. 'It looked pretty hard to begin with.'

    Killer
Blue Eyes laughed. He had put on a short cognac leather jacket. A pair of amber
Serengeti sunglasses were clipped to the neck of his T-shirt. He wore
thick-soled black boots.

    'Yeah.
I guess you're right,' he said. He clasped his hands in front of him, rocked
back slightly on his heels. His good-guy, not-to-worry pose. 'It's been a while
since I've done it for the first time.' He held out his hand. 'Your name is
Paulette, right?'

    'And
I'm an alcoholic.'

    Killer
Blue Eyes laughed again. 'I'm Danny. Me too.'

    'Nice
to meet you, Danny.' They shook hands.

    'I
can
tell you this, though,' he continued, unasked. 'It gets easier.'

    'The
sobriety part?'

    'I
wish I could say that. What I meant was the
talking
part. Once you get
comfortable with the group it gets a little easier to tell your stories.'

    'Stories?'
she asked. 'Plural? I thought I was done.'

    'You're
not done,' he said. 'It's a process. It goes on for a long time.'

    'Okay.
Like, how long?'

    'Did
you see that guy in the red flannel shirt?'

    Danny
was talking about the older man, the guy in his seventies, the guy in the
wheelchair. 'What about him?'

    'He's
been coming to meetings for thirty-six years.'

    
'Jesus.
He hasn't had a drink in thirty-six years?'

    'That's
what he says.'

    'And
he still wants one?'

    'So
he says.'

    Danny
looked at his watch, an oversized Fossil chronograph. The move looked just
slightly less calculated and rehearsed than it probably was. 'You know, I don't
have to be at work for a couple of hours. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?'

    She
looked appropriately suspicious. 'I don't know.'

    Danny
put up both hands. 'No strings. Just coffee.'

    She
smiled. 'Irish?'

    'Bad
Paulette. Bad,
bad
Paulette.'

    She laughed.
'Let's go.'

 

    They
picked a place on Germantown Avenue, sat at a table near the window,
small-talked - movies, fashion, the economy. She had a fruit salad. He had
coffee and a cheeseburger. Neither would rate Zagat's.

    After
fifteen minutes or so she held up her iPhone, tapped the touch screen. She did
not dial a number, did not send a text or an email, did not make an entry onto
her contact list or schedule something in iCal. Instead, she took a picture of
Killer Blue Eyes, having earlier in the day deselected the option that attached
the sound of a clicking camera to the operation. When she was done she looked
at the cellphone's screen in mock frustration, as if something was wrong.
Nothing was wrong. The photograph, which the young man could not see, was
perfect.

    'Problem?'
he asked.

    She
shook her head. 'No. It's just that I can never get much of a signal around
here.'

    'Maybe
you can get a signal outside,' Danny said. He stood up, slipped on his jacket.
'Want to give it a shot?'

    She
hit one more button, waited until the progress bar made its way fully to the
right, and said: 'Sure.'

    'Come
on,' Danny said. 'I'll get the check.'

 

    They
walked slowly down the street, wordlessly window browsing.

    'Don't
you have to make that call?' Danny asked.

    She
shook her head. 'Not really. It's just my mother. She's just going to give me
shit about what a loser I am. I can wait.'

    'We
might be related,' Danny said. 'Like
closely
related. I think we have
the same mother.'

    'I
thought you looked familiar.'

    Danny
looked around. 'So, where are you parked?'

    'Just
up this way.'

    'Would
you like me to walk you to your car?'

    She
stopped. 'Oh
no.'

    'What?'

    'You're
not a gentleman, are you?' she accused him flirtatiously.

    Danny
raised a hand, three fingers up, Boy Scout style. 'I swear to God I'm not.'

    She
laughed. 'Sure.'

    They
turned the corner into a dim alleyway, heading toward the parking lot. Before
they took three steps she saw the glint of the revolver.

    With
a strong forearm Danny slammed her against the bricks and brought his face very
close to hers.

    'You
see that red Sebring over there?' he whispered, nodding toward the Chrysler
parked near the end of the alley. 'Here's what we're going to do. We're going
to walk over there and you're going to get in that car. If you give me any
trouble, make a single sound, so help me God I will shoot you in the fucking
face. Do you hear me?'

    'Yes.'

    'Do
you doubt what I say?'

    She
shook her head.

    'I
want you to say it out loud. I want you to say "I understand,
Danny.'"

    'I
understand, Danny.'

    'Good.
Good,' he said. '
Paulette
.' He kept a hand on her, leaned away. 'You
know, you've got great tits. You wear this loose shit to hide them, but I can
tell.
And
you're a goddamn drunk. Do you know what a plus that is?'

    She
just stared.

    'Me?
I've never had a drink in my life. I just have this weakness for weak women.
Always have.'

    He
ran his left hand slowly over her right hip, his other hand remaining on the
butt of the gun. He smiled.

    'I
think we're going to do it right here. What do you think of that?'

    'You
won't hurt me?'

    'No,'
he said. 'But admit it,
Paulette.
There
is
something exciting
about doing it in public. Especially with a total stranger.' He pulled down his
zipper. 'But that's why you drink, isn't it? Because you hate yourself? Because
you're a whore?'

    She
didn't know if it was really a question. She remained silent. He continued.

    'Of
course it is. And you know what? I bet you've gotten plenty loaded over the
years, and fucked plenty of guys in alleys. Right?'

    This
was definitely a question. When she didn't answer he took the revolver from his
waistband and stuck it between her legs. Hard.

    'Answer
... the fucking ...
question.'

    'Yes.'

    He
ran the barrel of the gun up and down, applying even more pressure. 'Say it.'

    'I've
fucked a lot of guys in alleys.'

    'And
you loved it.'

    'And
I loved it.'

    'Because
you're a fucking whore.'

    'Because
I'm a fucking whore.'

    'I
thought so.' He slipped the gun back into his waistband. 'You know that other
girl? She gave me a hard time. She didn't have to die.'

    'The
other girl?'

    'The
redhead. The fat one.
Marcy
something, the papers said. Smelled like a
cheap slut. Which she was, of course.'

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