On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before.
Then: she rarely slept neat in a nightgown, pillows plumped, face shining with cold cream. She sometimes woke in a rumpled bed with a snoring figure beside her; more often she woke alone on the sofa with near-empty bottles and near-full ashtrays, her skin clogged with stale smoke and yesterday’s makeup, her body tender, her mind empty. She would sit up, wincing, aware of the ache in her neck and of the sad, sour taste in her mouth.
Now she wakes, not with the thickness of a headache or the softness of a blurred night behind her, but with forced clarity. Her days begin with a bell, with harsh voices, clanging metal, yelling. With the throat-scraping smells of bleach and urine. There’s no room in these mornings for memories.
Then, she would make her way across the hallway each morning, and into the kitchen to put coffee on the stove. She would light her first cigarette of the day, and listen to the morning come alive around her: to the blast of Gina’s radio overhead, Tony Bonelli’s heavy tread on the stairs. Doors slamming, cars starting up. Nina Lombardo yelling at her kids next door.
She would go into the bathroom at the end of the hallway and lock the door behind her. More than a year since Frank moved out, and she still didn’t take her privacy for granted. She would strip off yesterday’s clothes, and wash in the tiny basin: her hands, her face, under her arms, under her breasts, between her legs. Sometimes she could smell herself—that ripe, yellow odor that she still thinks of as peculiarly her, and that embarrassed her on those days she woke up with company.
Like a bitch in heat ain’t ya, honey?
She would scrub between her legs with the rough blue washcloth, hard, so that it hurt, and then harder still. Would rub herself dry, pushing along her thigh with the heel of her hand, making it look firm for a moment before letting it fall back into the familiar dimples. Hang up the towel, shrug into her robe, back down the hallway into the kitchen where she poured coffee, thought about the sugar in the jar, never tipped a spoonful into her cup.
Into the bedroom, where she pulled on slacks and a shirt. If she was working a shift at Callaghan’s later, she would take out her uniform, hang it on the outside of her closet, check for loose threads and spots. A crisp blouse ironed on Sunday evening. A skirt, just a shade too tight. Shoes lined up, toes together, the heels too high to be practical for a cocktail waitress on her feet all night. But the eyes on her gave her a certain glow that made the tips increase, that made the hours go by faster.
Then she lit another cigarette, slipped her feet into her house slippers, and took her coffee back to the bathroom. Only then, awake and alert, her clothes protecting her, could she look in the mirror.
Skin first—always skin first. On a good day, it was as pale and smooth as a black-and-white photograph. On a bad one, blemishes and old scars speckled the surface and needed to be hidden. She set her cup on the edge of the basin, took another drag on her cigarette, and balanced it in the ashtray that sat on the shelf.
Each morning she smeared on foundation with fingers that trembled depending on how much the view in the mirror had upset her, or on what kind of night she’d had. There were days when her hands were shaking and sweating so that her makeup was patchy, or when her skin was so marked that two layers of foundation seemed to make little difference. On those days, she slapped her face as she applied it. Punishing. She watched her eyes in the mirror as she did it. Hard enough to hurt, not hard enough to mark.
Then the powder, patted into the familiar mask. She pursed her lips, stroked blush into the hollows made beneath her cheekbones, squinted until the face in the mirror became a blurred oval, and she could see that the stripes of color were even. Enough. She blinked, took up her pencil, focused. The eyebrows first: high, surprised arches framing her long eyes. Shadow, liquid liner, three coats of mascara. She worked like an artist: blending, smudging, deepening colors. Occasionally she took a drag on her cigarette, a mouthful of coffee. A final dusting of powder; a coat of lipstick, blotted; a comb through her hair, teasing it taller; a silver spiral of hairspray. And it was done. For the first time that day, she could look at her face as a whole.
She was Ruth, then.
Now she is one of twenty shivering women in a tiled room, huddled beneath thin trickles of lukewarm water. Twenty slivers of cheap green soap. Twenty thin towels on twenty rusty hooks.
In here, she closes her eyes, blocks out the echoing shouts, the singing, the cursing. Tries to pretend she’s alone, and concentrates on getting clean. She never feels clean enough. In her first week, she asked for a nail brush, and she digs the bristles into the soap, focuses on picking up the shards of slimy green, on working it into a thin lather between her palm and the brush. And then she scrubs, the way they used to scour her face at the convent school until her skin burned. She closes her eyes and sees herself as she was then—thirteen and tiny; flat-chested; lank-haired; her face a film of oil, covered in red and white pimples. She feels the water sting her skin in the same way, inhales the same smells of bleach and steam, and she isn’t sure where she is any longer and she knows that it hardly matters.
And when the guards shout at her to move it along, she opens her eyes and takes her rough towel and rubs her skin until it smarts. Later she will take the tiny mirror they have allowed her, and look at a fragment of her face and see the shine, the oil, the pimples and know that she is still being punished.
Just occasionally she will lift the mirror to her eyes—quickly, so as not to see the worst—and smooth out her eyebrows, lick her finger and curl it up her lashes, wipe away some of the shine, and try to see herself in her reflection. Tiny vanities are all she has left of herself.
She dresses quickly in the graying underwear and cotton dress they have given her, and pulls on a sweater because she is never warm enough. She waits for the inspection—of her bunk, her cell, herself—and then it’s time for breakfast.
At one time, breakfast meant magazine-perfect thoughts of coffee pots and warm toast and sunshiny pats of butter. Of a mommy and a daddy and tousle-headed children with milky mouths. Of smiles and kisses and the start of an ordinary day. She thought pictures like these would help lift her out of here, until she learned that the sunshine images would return at night, and the brightness of those breakfast smiles would make her sob into the darkness. Now she concentrates on one moment at a time. On the echoing sounds of the stairwells. The cold metallic handrails. Then the feel of the tray and the plastic cutlery. The smell of eggs and grits and grease. The taste of bitter coffee and the noises that three hundred and twenty-four women make when they chew.
There is a long line of these moments, one after another, like beads on a rosary. She need only hold one at a time, and then they are over, and she can walk to the library and say good morning to Christine. Christine is the librarian and a lifer, and therefore has certain privileges. She was a schoolteacher in Port Washington until she killed her husband with an ice pick and a kitchen knife.
Christine is almost sixty: slender, dark-haired, unfailingly courteous and serene. Her husband wanted to leave her for his twenty-two-year-old secretary, and she had to use the kitchen knife to finish it when the ice pick stuck in his shoulder. She skips breakfast because she is always watching her weight, so the books will often be piled ready by the time Ruth arrives.
Ruth’s job is to load the books onto the cart, spines facing outward, giving a little thought to the order of her route and to who might want to read what. Then she sets off on her rounds, collects the books she distributed on previous days and gives out new ones, making a note of who has read what, which books are returned and which are so dog-eared and tattered they will need to be taped up or pulped.
And every day, as she pushes the cart along each landing, and peers into each doorway and says hello to the women she knows will answer, she thinks of that last morning. She has learned not to think of breakfast but she cannot help remembering this. The figures curled up on their beds napping or reading, keeping pace with the words using their fingers, never fail to remind her.
On that last day, she finished putting on her face and closed the bathroom door behind her. Minnie circled in the hallway, whining softly. Ruth clicked her tongue and cooed at her, fumbled for her shoes and keys, and headed out into the morning. The air was bright with the promise of another hot day in Queens. They walked for fifteen minutes, past neat, sun-bleached lawns, past rows of identical apartment buildings, Minnie tugging at the leash, Ruth smiling at the men they passed, nodding to one or two women from behind her sunglasses.
Back at the apartment, Ruth drank a tall cold glass of water, reheated the coffee and poured another cup, watched Minnie eat for a moment. Then she decided it was time to wake the kids.
Only they were always awake already. She knew before she lifted the hook-and-eye catch each morning and opened the door to their room what she was going to see. If it was winter, they would be snuggled together in one bed under the blue blanket, Frankie’s arm around Cindy as he read to her. His eyes would be fixed on the page, the book balanced on his raised knees, his other hand following the letters. When he reached a word he couldn’t pronounce, he would skip over it or look at the pictures and make it up. Cindy would be holding her doll, her thumb in her mouth, eyes flickering between the book and her brother’s serious face. When he read something funny or did one of his special voices, she would clap her hands and laugh.
But on hot days like that July morning, they were always up, standing on Cindy’s bed, looking out of their first-floor window, waving at everyone who passed by. Even the faces they didn’t know would smile back at those wide toothy grins, those soft baby cheeks. Ruth knew she should be proud of these kids. She should be proud of herself, bringing them up practically alone. They had toys and books, their clothes were neat and clean, they ate vegetables for dinner every night. They were safe here. It was a friendly neighborhood: when they climbed out of their window back in the spring, an old lady brought them home before Ruth even knew they were gone. She had to hide her surprise. The woman looked a little crazy—bright red hair and a shapeless flowered dress—but she hugged and kissed the kids good-bye before they ran inside. She clearly wanted to come in after them, but Ruth held the door and stood in the gap.
“It’s hard, Mrs. Malone. I know. I am alone a lot of the time too. It’s hard.”
Her voice was harsh, heavily accented. German or maybe Polish. She looked at Ruth and there was judgment in her eyes.
Ruth smiled tightly at her and opened her mouth to say good-bye.
“I want to say, Mrs. Malone, if you need help, you must only ask. We are just living over there”—pointing—“number forty-four. Come by any time.”
Ruth stopped smiling and looked her right in the face.
“We don’t need help. We’re fine.”
And she slammed the door and walked into the kitchen where she took down the bottle that was never opened before six at night, and took a long swallow. Then she went into the kids’ bedroom where they were waiting for her and she laid into them both with her tiny hands. Because they’d made her take a drink. Because of the way the old woman had looked at her. Because she was so tired of all this.
On that last day, she heard a faint giggling as she approached their room. She lifted the catch and there was a thud as they jumped down from Cindy’s bed and pattered toward the door. When she opened it, Frankie scooted past her, turned right to go to the bathroom. He wouldn’t use Cindy’s potty any more. He was a big boy, he said, almost six. Cindy was only four—still her baby. Ruth bent and picked her up, buried her face in the soft golden hair, headed left down the hallway. Cindy’s legs circled her waist; one plump arm curled around her neck. She felt her daughter’s eyes on her, stroking her powdered cheeks, her sooty lashes, the sticky cupid’s bow of her lips. Felt those tiny fingers like kisses, patting her skin, tugging and twisting her hair. Sometimes Cindy told her, “You look like a princess-lady,” and she drew pink mouths and round pink cheeks on her dolls, colored their hair red with her finger paints.
Ruth reached the kitchen, let Cindy slide to the floor. Frankie came in, his hands wet, took his seat, frowned at his cereal.
“Can we have eggs?”
Inwardly, she sighed. Nine in the morning and she was already exhausted.
“No. Eat your cereal.”
He pouted. “I want eggs.”
“For Chrissakes, Frankie, we don’t have any fucking eggs! Eat your cereal!”
As she walked out of the room, she saw Cindy’s face crumple, heard the start of a wail. She opened the screen door, let it slam behind her, breathed deeply.
She was aware of the crying behind her, of Minnie barking, of the eyes on her from the surrounding windows. Carla Bonelli up on the third floor. Sally Burke’s nosy bitch of a mother in the next building. Nina Lombardo looking out from next door. Fuck them. They weren’t bringing up two kids single-handed, trying to hold down a job, trying to make a living, dealing with a crazy ex-husband. They didn’t understand what her life was like.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Everything about Frank that had once made her heart race—his way of saying her name, the way he looked at her—after nine years and two kids together, all of that had become like the throb of a familiar headache.
Her eyes were suddenly full of tears and she blinked her way down a couple of steps and sat heavily, took her cigarettes and lighter out of her pocket.
For a moment, she was back outside another apartment building in another summer. She was sitting on the stoop, her hand cradling the swell of her stomach. The door opened and her husband was there beside her, crouching low. She turned to him, and he kissed her cheek, put his hand over hers, felt the baby kick.
“How you doing, honey?”
“I’m okay. Tired.” She stretched, yawned. She was always tired. It had been the same when she was carrying Frankie: the last two months, all she’d wanted to do was sleep.
He reached into his jacket pocket. “Got you a present.”
She took the small package, tugged at the paper. There was something soft inside: not jewelry, then. Maybe stockings? A nightdress?
It was a toy rabbit: soft plush fur, glassy eyes staring up at her.
“It’s for the baby.”
She nodded, struggled to her feet, saying something about dinner. Left the rabbit on the step, only noticing later that he’d brought it inside and put it in the nursery, up on the shelf where Frankie couldn’t grab it.
She wonders sometimes if that’s when she started to resent him.
On that last day it took her a moment to come back to herself. She blinked again, realized her cigarette had burned down to the filter. Stood and turned to go back inside, nodding toward Maria Burke’s window. The curtain twitched and Ruth smiled to herself.
Now, as she pushes the library cart from cell to cell, this is what she remembers. She remembers that she went back inside, into the kitchen, poured more coffee, looked at the kids over the rim of the cup.
Cindy was chewing on her cereal, her blue eyes on her brother. Frankie was staring down into his half-empty bowl, his face sullen, his lip sticking out. Just like his father.
She took another mouthful, asked, “Did you have fun with Daddy yesterday?”
They looked up at her. She could see they didn’t know what was the right thing to say.
“What did you do?”
Cindy dropped her spoon with a clatter. “He took us to his new house. It was nice.”
“Yeah? I didn’t know Daddy had moved out of Grandma’s place.”
She was surprised his mother had let him go again. Surprised he’d had the balls to do it.
She asked, “Does Daddy live by himself now?”
Cindy shook her head, her mouth full again. Ruth waited and it was Frankie who answered.
“He’s got a room in a big ol’ house. He shares a bathroom with three other men. An’ a kitchen. They got one cupboard each for their stuff. The cupboards have padlocks.”
She nodded, took another sip of her coffee to hide her broadening grin. How the hell did Frank expect to get custody when he didn’t even have a house for his kids? She put her cup down.
“Okay, Mommy doesn’t have to go to work today. What do you want to do?”
Cindy stopped chewing, her spoon dangling from her hand. Frankie looked up, sulk forgotten.
“Really. Do you want to go to the park?”
Cindy started to whoop, dropped her spoon again, did a wiggling dance in her chair.
“The park! The park!”
Frankie looked at Ruth from under his long eyelashes. “Can Daddy come too?”
There was a stillness, like breath drawn in. She took a last drag on her cigarette, turned away, and crushed it in a saucer. Still with her back to them, she said, “You saw Daddy yesterday, Frankie.”
She turned back. “Do you want to go to the park or not?”
Frankie nodded and Cindy beamed again. “Can I wear my dress with daisies, Mommy?”
She smiled at her daughter. Her easy, angelic daughter. “Sure. Finish your cereal and we’ll go get you washed and dressed. Frankie, you want to wear your Giants shirt?”
He shrugged, staring down at his bowl.
“Frankie, I asked you a question.”
“Yes, Mommy.” Still not looking up.
“Okay. Mommy’s going to finish getting ready. Frankie, put the dishes in the sink when you’re done, then you can watch cartoons with your sister.”
He nodded. She decided to let it go this time, took her coffee into the bathroom. Checked her face. Reapplied her lipstick.
She did not know that this was the last morning she would be able to do this freely. That it was the last morning her face would be hers alone.
It is easier to think of the rest of that day through the filter of her retelling.
She remembers a windowless room. Wooden chairs.
Then a click. The hiss of static. A man clearing his throat, giving the time and date.
And then the questions. Her hesitant, faltering replies.
“We went for a picnic in Kissena Park.”
“I guess . . . about two-thirty.”
“Uh . . . meatball subs and soda. Pepsi.”
“We drove there. The kids were in the front seat with me.”
Frankie, rushing down the slide toward her, bolt upright, legs out, chin up. Jumping off the end, running straight back up the steps. Cindy on one of the baby swings with the safety bars, despite her protests, because she always forgot to hold on.
“Higher, Mommy, higher!”
Pushing harder. “Higher, Mommy!”
Her laughter like bubbling water. Dimpled hands clapping. Blond hair flying.
She pushed until she was tired. Then they went to sit in the shade, a little way apart from the other mothers. Ruth spread out the blue blanket she had taken from Frankie’s bed and they watched Frankie on the slide. One of Norma’s kids kicked a ball wild and it bounced close to Cindy’s face, making her squeal. Frankie ran over, squared up to him: the boy was two years older and four inches taller.
“Hey! Don’t you hurt my Cindy! Don’t you hurt her!”
The kid looked like he might laugh, so Ruth called Frankie back, showed him that Cindy was fine. They shared the last of the soda between them.
Within five minutes it was forgotten and Frankie trotted over to the jungle gym. Ruth leaned against the rough bark of a tree, holding Cindy against her, soothing her, half-listening to the voices around them.
“I said to him, I said, for Chrissakes, Phil, she’s your mother, you need to tell her, and he said yeah yeah, but I know he won’t say anything, he’s such a . . .”
“. . . so his boss came over for dinner on Saturday. I made that turkey roll thing, Joanie’s recipe. You know. And my lemon pie. He had three helpings. Three! I never saw . . .”
She felt Cindy’s head droop, felt her limbs grow heavy. She let her own eyes close.
“He says he’s working late, but I know what that means. I call the office and there’s no reply. And when he gets home, I tell him straight, I say, I know what you’re up to, Bob, but he just...”
Ruth came to with a start. Her arms were empty. She sat up, heart thudding. Angela saw her face and laughed. “They’re over there, with Norma. Don’t worry!” Ruth breathed out, nodded her thanks. Checked her watch and got to her feet.
“You leaving already?”
She brushed down the back of her slacks, folded the blanket. “Got to go. Got to make a call and get dinner for the kids. See you, Angie. See you, Norma.”
She walked toward the playground, called Cindy and Frankie to her, put an arm around each of them. They left the park together, the three of them. For the last time.
“We left at four.”
“Because I made sure to leave by then. I had to make a call before five.”
“Arnold Green. My lawyer.”
“He told me to call back. Normally he finished work at five, but he told me he’d be working late.”
“Well, we came home. Oh, I picked some food up first. From Walsh’s Deli. On Main Street. There was nothing in the apartment for dinner.”
“Uh . . . meat. Veal. And a can of string beans. Milk.”
“No, we drove straight home. The kids went outside to play, and I called Mr. Green again. We talked for… I don’t know, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes.”
“Well, about the custody case. Look, why is all this necessary? What has this got to do with anything?”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’m just upset, I guess. I understand. I’m sorry.”
“Do you have another cigarette?”
“He told me that my former sitter is going to testify against me.”
“No—not about the kids! She’s claiming that I owe her money. Six hundred dollars. It’s bullshit. She says that if I pay her, she won’t testify for Frank. He wants the kids to live with him and she’s threatening to help him get custody.”
“I told you, it’s not true. She’s trying to blackmail me into giving her money I don’t owe her.”
“Like hell I will.”
A pause. The click of a lighter.
“It’s just another problem I have to deal with. That Frank left me to deal with.”
“Christ, Arnold, she’s lying! . . . I told you before, she’s a mean bitch and she’s just bitter because I fired her.”
“Okay, Ruth, okay. Calm down.”
“I am calm! Jesus. What does this mean? What does it mean for the case?”
“It depends. I need to hear what she has to say first. I’m going to talk to her again before the hearing.”
“He can’t win, Arnold. He can’t.”
“Don’t worry, okay? She doesn’t make a good impression. The judge won’t like her. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“He can’t get the kids. I won’t let him take them. I won’t.”
“He won’t win, Ruth. No judge is going to take two young kids away from their mother unless . . . well, he won’t get custody. It’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure? You don’t sound as sure as you did last week.”
“Ruth, don’t worry. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“You better be right. He can’t have the kids. He can’t have them.
I’ d rather see them dead than with Frank.”
“Yeah, then I started dinner. No, wait— first I made another call.”
“A friend. He told me he’d call back.”
“Just a friend.”
“Okay, Christ—okay! His name is Lou Gallagher.”
“Yeah. That Lou Gallagher. The construction guy.”
Another pause. The murmur of voices, just low enough that the tape couldn’t catch them.
“Lou said he’d call me back. So I started dinner. The kids were out front with Sally. Sally Burke.”
“I gave them half an orange each and she was helping peel them. I could hear her talking to them and they were giggling. They were...oh hell, I just...”
The noise of water being poured, a glass being set down.
“Thank you… I… then I called them inside.”
Setting the table, standing over the stove, she thought about her conversation with Arnold Green. About Frank, pushing his way into the apartment last month, telling her he was going for custody of the kids. And why. His sneering face, as he’d listed all the nights she’d been out late, all the men she’ d spoken to. Danced with. Flirted with.
“You’re not fit to be a mom.”
“They need someone reliable taking care of them.”
“Your own mother agrees with me.”
She watched the kids eat, all the while brooding and prodding that tender spot his words had left. Then she said: “Wanna go for a ride?” Frankie and Cindy, both holding their plastic cups up to their mouths, finishing their milk.
“Come on, let’s go, before it gets dark.”
The kids in the backseat, covered by the blue blanket, giggling at the adventure, Ruth alone in the front. Jaw clenched, hands tight on the steering wheel. That son-of-a-bitch thinks he can take my kids away? He can think again. I know Frank. I know he can’t manage alone. He must have a woman. And I’m going to find her.
“Let’s play a game, okay? Look out for Daddy’s car!”
If I can find your car, I can find your place, and who knows what I’ll find there, Frank? All about your new life and your new girlfriend. How dare you talk to me about the men in my life! There ain’t no way you’re living like a monk, you goddamn hypocrite.
You call me a bad mother? You got a big shock coming, and you’re too dumb to realize it.
Driving for an hour, the kids in the back growing quieter until she heard Cindy snoring gently and Frankie mutter something in his sleep. Still no sign of Frank’s car.
She yawned. Shook herself. Realized she was too tired to keep driving. Turned and headed for home, stopping for gas on the way.
“I undressed the kids, washed them—they had grass stains on their knees from playing in the park and they made a mess when they were eating dinner. I put fresh T-shirts and underwear on them, and I put them to bed.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. You think I let my kids stay up all night? It was nine-thirty.”
“Then I started cleaning the apartment. Mr. Green told me that the court would inspect it and it would have to be reported as a good home for the kids. So I was in the middle of a big cleaning project—you know, painting the hallway, clearing out closets, replacing the broken screen in the kids’ window.”
“What? No, I had a spare one—I got an air-conditioner in my room, so I had a spare screen—my old one.”
“Well, I took the screen into their room earlier in the week but I noticed some… some dried dog mess on it. We used it to fence in Minnie’s puppies when they were just born and I guess it was never cleaned right. So I put theirs back—the broken one—but I couldn’t bolt it in. I’m going to… I was going to clean mine and replace it as soon as I could.”
“No, I closed the window. To keep the bugs out.”
“Then I collected all the empty bottles around the apartment and put them out for the garbage. I made a pile of old clothes. Mostly Frank’s stuff that he’d left behind when he moved out. I washed the dishes. Then I was tired, so I sat on the couch and watched some TV.”
“Um . . . The Fugitive. On CBS.”
“Until about eleven-thirty. Then I called Lou again.”
“No, not at home. He was at Santini’s. On Williamsbridge Road.”
The phone rang out ten, twelve times before one of the hostesses picked up. Ruth asked for Mr. Gallagher and the girl asked who was calling. When she heard it wasn’t Mrs. Gallagher, her voice became less refined.
“Gimme a minute. I’ll see if he’s around.”
She put the receiver down and Ruth listened to her heels clicking into the distance. Music, laughter, the clink of glasses. She wondered what Lou was doing. Who he was with. Why he was taking so long.
Finally she heard footsteps, a change in the air as he picked up.
“Lou, it’s me. You didn’t call me back.”
“I was busy, sweetheart.”
Her legs were tucked beneath her on the sofa. She tapped ash into an overflowing saucer.
“You could come over.” She hated the pleading note in her voice.
“Where are you?”
“I’m tired, Ruth. I’m just gonna have a drink and go home.”
He wasn’t alone. She knew he wasn’t, just as she knew he wasn’t going home. He was with the bowling girls again. The women who said they were going bowling to get away from their husbands. When she’ d had a husband, she had been one of them.
After she hung up, she felt like she had an itch she couldn’t reach. She fell back on the couch, smoking and thinking.
The phone rang. She snatched it up, her voice breathy, but it was only Johnny.
“Hey, baby, guess who’s here?”
He was drunk. He’ d probably been drinking all day again.
“Meyer’s here, and Dick. Remember Dick, baby? Dick Patmore. He wants to see you. Hell, I wanna see you, baby. I miss you. I ain’t seen you in weeks. Why don’t you come over?”
“I don’t have a sitter, Johnny.”
“Can’t you get one? I’ll give you the money. You know I’m good for the money, baby.”
“It’s late and I’ve got this custody thing coming up—I have to see my lawyer tomorrow.”
She listened to his heavy, ragged breathing.
“Johnny? I’m going to go now . . .”
“There was a time you would’ve got a sitter. A time you’d have come down here like a shot.”
“Look, this isn’t a good time.”
“What’s changed, baby? I haven’t changed. I still love you, baby. Ruthie. I love you, Ruthie.”
Then his voice changed.
“Is it that guy? Gallagher? Is he there?”
“No, of course not. That’s . . .”
“Are you with him now? You’re always with him, these days.”
“Johnny, there’s no one here. It’s late and I have to go. Call me tomorrow.”
She hung up and turned the TV on again. Poured herself a drink.
“I checked on the kids at midnight. Frankie was half-asleep but he needed to use the bathroom. I tried to wake Cindy but she just rolled over, so I let her sleep.”
“Yeah, I put the catch back on their door afterward. I always do.”
“No, I don’t remember doing it, but I always do.”
“We put it up a year ago. Frankie got up one morning and ate everything in the refrigerator. He was sick for hours. After that, I got Frank to put a lock on the door.”
“Then I took Minnie for a walk. I saw Tony Bonelli—I waved to him. He had his dog with him too. I was gone twenty minutes, and then I sat on the stoop for a while. It was nice out. A little cooler. I could hear people in the distance. And music. I thought maybe it was the World’s Fair.”
“I think I bolted the front door when I went back inside.”
“I think so.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Look, I don’t remember, okay? I don’t remember! If I’d known I’d need to remember...did you bolt your door last night, huh? Do you remember doing it?”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m just upset.”
“No, I’m okay. I can keep going.”
“I gave Minnie some water, then I went into my bedroom and lay down. Just for a minute, but I must have fallen asleep. Something woke me up. I don’t think I was out long.”
“Uh . . . two-thirty . . . two forty-five.”
“No, I don’t know. Maybe a nightmare. I thought I heard one of the kids crying, but when I listened—nothing.”
“I went to the bathroom. Oh, and then the phone rang again. It was Frank.”
“He wanted to talk about Linda, my sitter. The one who says I owe her money.”
“I just wanted to get him on the phone. Told him to drop dead. Hung up on him.”
“Yeah, I was mad. He called me sometimes in the middle of the night, hoping to wake me up. He wanted to make me mad, and it worked.”
“I took the dog out again. Around the block. Then I sat outside for ten minutes or so.”
“No, I didn’t check on the kids. I checked on them at midnight. They were fine then. They were . . . Christ.”
“No, I’m okay.”
“I said I’m okay.”
“I took a bath. I was still hot and I took a cool bath. Then I went back to bed.”
“Around three forty-five I guess. Maybe four.”
She woke when the alarm went off at eight, sticky with sweat. The memory of a dream: a crying child, a dark sky, a white face.
She struggled to sit up, ran her hands through her hair, yawned. Another hot day. She heard Gina coughing upstairs, and then Bill Lombardo yelling at his wife through the wall. A door slammed.
She put coffee on the stove and headed to the bathroom where she stripped and washed. Pulled on her robe and back into the kitchen where she poured a cup of coffee and lit her first cigarette of the day. She was supposed to be seeing her lawyer later, but for now, she put on pale Capri pants, a pink shirt. Barefoot, she took her cup into the bathroom. Started the routine that would bring Ruth to life in the mirror.
“I came out of the bathroom and I took the dog for a walk.”
“Eight forty-five. Maybe a little later—I couldn’t find my shoes.”
“Fifteen minutes. Probably less.”
“Um . . . a couple of people. No one I knew.”
“We got back and I fed Minnie. Refilled her water bowl. Drank another cup of coffee.”
“Yeah, about ten after nine. No later.”
“Nothing unusual. I could smell something burning. Toast, I think. And I could hear Gina’s radio. Oh, and I heard a phone ringing somewhere. Distant.”
“No, nothing else. Except...well, the silence. The apartment was quiet.”
“Yeah, I remember noticing the quiet. Wondering if they were still asleep. And I . . . then I opened the door.”
But none of that tells how it was.
Minnie whining, restless. Ruth’s hurried, self-conscious walk, tugging at the hem of her shirt, feeling the heat seep through her layers of makeup. Thinking about her meeting with Arnold Green that afternoon, about Frank, about the rent due at the end of the week.
Back at the apartment: the taste of lukewarm coffee. The crack in the ceiling she’ d noticed the week before and forgotten about. The smell of hairspray through the half-open bathroom door. Her headache and her clumsy rummaging for aspirin.
And then the silence. Not just the fact of it, but how loud it was. How the space that would normally be filled with voices and giggling and the pad of their feet was just that: space.
And the sight of her hand in front of her, lifting the catch, pushing the door. And again, and again, and again, every moment since: the slow sweep of the white-painted wood, and the widening expanse of light, and her hand falling to her side through the weight of the still air, and her voice catching in her dry throat. And the room beyond. Empty.
So that was how it began. With a locked door to an empty room. With her running out into the street, a set of sweat-slick keys held tightly in her hand, pressed hard into her palm. With her circling the block calling their names.
It began with anger. If they’ve climbed out the damn window again, they’ll be in a whole heap of trouble.
And then the anger faded to a gradual awareness of her uneven breathing, of the sickness in her stomach. A realization, as she came back to the corner of 72nd Drive, that her skin, her hair, were wet.
She turned both ways, unable to decide which direction to go.
The wrong choice could mean.
She bit her lip to kill that thought. Turned left.
So many kids. Every gleam of fair hair was a jolt to her heart. Then she saw a little boy ahead of her, and there was something about his walk. She grabbed his arm and spun him around.
“Frankie! What the fuck . . .”
She looked into the face of a stranger and dropped his arm, saw his mouth open. Barely registered his rosebud mouth breaking into a howl. Barely heard his mother.
“Hey! Hey lady! What the hell do you think . . .”
She walked on, faster, until she lost sight of where she was going. Kept her eyes fixed on the faces that passed her, on the sidewalk ahead. She walked unevenly, avoiding the cracks.
Step on a crack and break your back
Step on a crack, kids ain’t coming back
She pressed her hand against her mouth to stop anything escaping, began to run. She ran with no sense of where she was, then took another turn and she was back on 72nd Drive. She saw a figure hurrying toward her. Realized it was Carla Bonelli. Saw the woman’s lips move, managed to get out:
“Frankie and Cindy are… they’re… I can’t find them… help me find them...”
Carla went to take her arm but Ruth shook her off angrily, stared wide-eyed around her, and then back. “Find them. Please.”
And she moved on, stumbling, her arms wrapped around herself. Carla stood staring after her.
Back home, Ruth picked up the phone with shaking fingers and dialed. Pressed the receiver hard against her ear, clenched her other hand, nails digging into her palm. Listened to the phone ring.
“Frank? Have you got the kids?”
“Don’t fool around! Where are the kids?”
“They’re not here. They’re . . .”
“Of course I checked their room! I’ve been all around the block.”
“Twenty, thirty minutes—I don’t know! I’ve looked everywhere and I… I can’t find them.”
“Please. If you have the kids, tell me. Don’t do this, Frankie. Please.”
It was the last time she called him Frankie.
He said something, but she couldn’t take it in, just heard the words “coming over” and when he hung up, she clung to this. She went to the window to look for his car, and put a cigarette in her mouth. It took her three attempts to light it.
Frank arrived. She opened the door and he took her in his arms. Ruth stood stiffly for a moment and then patted his shoulder. He let her go and then he just stood in the hallway.
“You need to . . .” she gestured toward the kitchen and finally he began to take charge.
He picked up the phone and she heard:
“I want to report… my kids are missing. I want to report my kids missing.”
“An hour ago.”
“My address or the address the kids live at?”
“No, we’re . . . they live with their mother at present.”
He brewed more coffee, made her sit down. Poured a glug of brandy in and watched while she drank. It was the last of the bottle that Gina had brought down on New Year’s. It burned and Ruth shuddered, but the sick feeling disappeared. She looked at him, saw his lips slide back over his clenched teeth in an imitation of a smile.
“Okay, honey. Okay. The cops are on their way. We have to stay calm. We have to think.”
Minnie trotted in and pressed her nose against Ruth’s knee until she pushed her away. She couldn’t bear to be touched.
It took Ruth a moment to get to her feet. She had to pee, and then she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her face was covered in a film of perspiration, and her eye makeup had smudged.
She repaired the damage as best she could, lifted her arm to comb her hair and smelled sweat. She looked in the mirror again. Beneath that layer of makeup, her body, her face, were all wrong. She looked wrong. Smelled wrong.
You smell like a bitch in heat.
She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes. Put on a clean blouse that flattered her figure. She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.
As she walked back into the kitchen, there was a knock at the front door.
There were two of them. Two cops, in her home. One of them, the younger one, said, “I understand that you’re separated, Mr. and Mizz Malone?” That’s the first thing he said. Then he said, “Is this about custody?” She had no idea what he meant, what to say.
They sat in the kitchen. Ruth put a clean ashtray on the table, and one of them got on the phone to someone. He came back, and there was a look between them, then he took Frank off into the living room. She was left with the younger one. He told her his name but she forgot it.
He just sat there, asking questions. What were the kids’ full names? Their ages? Had they gone missing before? Did she have a recent photograph?
Then he asked, “How long have you been separated from your husband, Mizz Malone?”
“I don’t . . . what does this have to do with the kids?”
He said nothing, just waited.
“Since last spring. Frank moved out in April last year.”
“Why did you split up?”
She looked at him, sitting there in his cheap suit and his scuffed shoes, and she knew she couldn’t make him understand. None of her reasons had been enough for Frank, for her mother, for most other women she knew. It wouldn’t be enough for this cop, this kid.
“We weren’t getting along. We were arguing a lot.”
“And now he’s suing for full custody of the children? On what grounds?”
“He says I’m… he’s claiming the children would be better off with him.”
He wrote that down and then his voice got stern.
“If this is some kind of game, Mizz Malone, if you’re doing this to get back at your husband, you better stop before it goes too far.”
She looked at him. A game? Her face grew warm and she could feel a prickling at her hairline, and she couldn’t hold it in any longer. “What the hell is all this? Why aren’t you out there looking for my children? You need to find my children!”
He cleared his throat. Ignored her. “Have you hidden the kids somewhere?”
Something in her eyes made him raise his hands. “Okay, okay,” he said. His face was flushed. He looked like he should have been in high school.
She swallowed hard, then took a long drag on her cigarette. Shook her head, although by then he’d left the room.
It burned down to her fingers and she threw the butt in the sink, ran cold water over her hand. The icy spattering on her skin woke her: she became aware of the sourness in her mouth, the sick feeling in her stomach.
Time passed. Frank came in, asked if she’d eaten that morning. She made a gesture with her shoulder, pushing him away. Drank more coffee. All she could hear was Frank’s harsh breathing as he smoked, occasionally the murmur of the other cop’s voice on the phone.
Frank left the room and she heard water running in the bathroom. Then there was a knock at the door and she heard Carla Bonelli’s voice. There was a low murmur and she heard “. . . to help. Can I see her?” Another low rumble, then the door closed. Frank came in and said, “Carla wanted to come in. I told her it was best not to.”
She didn’t understand, but she nodded.
He said, “I asked her to take the dog too. Just until . . . for now.”
She nodded again, lit another cigarette, stared at the clock on the wall until she remembered it had stopped the week before. It had made them late for Frankie’s dentist appointment.
Another knock at the door and footsteps in the hall. She looked at Frank and he looked back at her. Voices. Two men stood in the doorway: one was the kid cop with the pink face.
The other man was older. There was a stillness about him that let her mind rest for a moment. He was big, square-shouldered, wearing a loose-fitting suit that hung from his large frame. His skin was yellowish, waxy, with large pores, his face sagging above his thick neck, heavy eyes drooping above a scowl. His nose twitched as he looked at her, like she smelled bad. She smoothed her skirt. Patted her hair.
He reminded her a little of an actor she’d seen somewhere. In a film, maybe with Ingrid Bergman. Something that was on the TV one afternoon.
He was still looking at her and she realized he’d said something. She had to get him to repeat it.
“I’m Sergeant Devlin, ma’am. I’m in charge here.”
His voice was pure Bronx.
Jerry, that was the actor’s name. Jerry something.
She nodded, began to turn away. And then, “We ran your name through our files, Mrs. Malone. Seems like our officers have been here before. Several times.”
He took a piece of paper out of his pocket.
“Noise complaints in April and June last year. And March 5 and May 19 this year.”
“I don’t . . .”
“And one count of public intoxication. November 12, 1964.”
She smoothed her hair. Cleared her throat. “What does this have to do with my children?”
He just kept looking at her. Then suddenly, “We need to search the apartment. Might need to take some things away with us. That a problem, Mrs. Malone?”
She shook her head. What else could she do?
She and Frank sat silently. She chewed the skin around her nails, stared at the clock again. Every noise made her jump. Then Devlin was back in the doorway.
“We need you to come with us for a moment.”
She looked at his face. “Did you find them? Did you find Frankie and Cindy?”
He looked her straight in the eye. “Just come with us, please.”
She stood. “Both of us?”
His eyes flickered to Frank. “Yeah.”
She expected him to lead them to the kids’ room, but instead, they went outside and around to the trash cans. She almost laughed when she saw what they’d done. The cans were empty, their contents all over the ground. Two more cops in uniform were raking through piles of garbage: empty milk cartons, food packaging, cans of dog food, pieces of orange peel, papers, coffee grounds. The smell turned her stomach. Devlin pointed to a plastic sack, the top untied. “Is this yours, ma’am?”
She looked at him, looked at the bag. She walked over and looked inside. ere were nine or ten empty bottles. Gin. Bourbon. Wine. She looked back at him. Was he serious?
“I don’t know. I can’t remember what I threw out recently. Maybe.”
His face didn’t change. Frozen, just like an actor in a still. He nodded at one of the uniforms, who came over holding an envelope. He thrust it into her face and she recoiled; it had been lying under old food.
“It has your name on it, Mrs. Malone.”
She saw it had contained a bill for something, she couldn’t remember what. But she remembered opening it and throwing the envelope away and putting the bill in the drawer. Wondering when she’d be able to pay it.
“That was in the same bag.”
“Oh. Then . . . yeah, I guess it’s mine.”
“And the bottles?”
She looked again. “Well, yeah, I guess they’re mine too. If the bill was in this bag with them.”
“All of them?” He did something with his mouth.
“What does this have to do with the kids? Why aren’t you looking for Frankie and Cindy?”
“Just trying to establish some background, ma’am.”
“I was clearing out the apartment. My lawyer told me . . . there’s going to be an inspection by the court. He told me to clean the place. Paint it. Make it look nice.” She didn’t look at Frank.
Devlin looked at her for a long time and then, without taking his eyes off her, spoke to the cop in uniform standing behind him. “Make a note, Officer. Related to the custody case.” He made them sound like dirty words.
She turned, but Frank was avoiding her eyes.
“I was just clearing up.”
He nodded, but he still didn’t look at her.
More time passed. Ruth drifted into the hallway, paced the living room, chewing her nails, smoking past the lump in her throat. There was a man with a brush and a pot kneeling by the coffee table, dusting it with powder. He was working his way through all the rooms, leaving a white trail behind him. He glanced up at her but didn’t speak.
Back in the hallway, she noticed that the door to the kids’ room was ajar, the light spreading over the worn carpet. She took a step toward it, saw three men bending over the bureau by the window: Devlin, the pink-faced cop, a guy with a camera.
“Make sure you get it all.” Devlin’s voice was low, his tone intense, focused. It made her stop and lean against the doorframe.
The shouts from the searchers outside were a hundred miles away, distant and distorted through the hot, shimmering afternoon.
There was nothing on the bureau: a couple of Frankie’s books, a lamp, a tube of cream for Cindy’s eczema. Ruth had tidied up a couple of days before, put away a pile of laundry that had been on top of the bureau, some of the kids’ toys. She remembered wiping it, rubbing at the rings of a dozen cups. Remembered the smell of beeswax polish.
The photographer looked up at Devlin. He was short, with thin hair and round glasses. There were damp patches under his arms and his tie was crooked. She watched as he bent over, as he lined up his camera. As the sunlight through the window made a cloud of white dust specks dance.
The shutter clicked once. Twice.
Her head ached. She turned away.
More cops arrived. The phone rang often. Devlin was still there. He came into the living room, asked to speak to Ruth, ushered her into her own bedroom. She came in, still clutching Cindy’s toy rabbit. He stood with his back against the door. Her legs were shaking and she sat on the bed, pressed them together so that he wouldn’t see.
She tried to speak but was afraid that when she opened her mouth, the tears in her throat would spill out. Something inside her, something instinctive and ancient, kept her from letting go. Instead, she hunched over, holding the rabbit against her, holding in the sickness and the fear, bent double with the effort. Her mouth wanted to open and she had to clench her jaw to keep it shut. She had to keep the wrong part of her, the messy part, hidden.
Devlin took out a notebook and started to ask questions. At first she couldn’t hear. All she could feel was the soft, worn fur under her hands.
“She doesn’t have her rabbit.”
Her voice was too quiet.
“Cindy didn’t… she doesn’t have her rabbit. She’ll be scared without him.”
She looked up. He was frowning at her.
“Mrs. Malone, I need to ask you some questions. Please try to focus.”
She nodded at him to go on, and her voice was at and rasping when she answered.
“Midnight. I checked them at midnight. I took Frankie to the bathroom. He was half-asleep but he needed to use the bathroom. I tried to wake Cindy but she just rolled over. So I let her sleep.”
“I told you, I bolted the door afterward.”
“No, I don’t remember doing it, but I always do.”
Devlin went back to the living room, asked Frank to come into the kids’ room. Curious, Ruth moved to the doorway of her own room, watched them cross the hallway.
Heard, “What do you think, Mr. Malone? What do you think happened here?”
There was a pause. She could almost hear Frank thinking, could see him looking around the room, wondering what to say.
“I don’t know. How would I know?”
“Mr. Malone, I’ve got five kids myself. I understand how you feel. Is there anything you can tell us—anything at all? The smallest thing might be important.”
Frank again, slowly. “The window’s open. Whoever took the kids . . . that must be how they got in.”
“Why do you say that?” Devlin’s voice was sharp.
“Well, Ruth wouldn’t leave it open like that without the screen—she was always worrying about bugs. Frank Jr. got stung once—his arm swelled up and we had to take him to the emergency room. Whoever took them, they came in there.”
“Mr. Malone—are you sure your wife didn’t hide the kids somewhere?”
Another pause. “I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
She was in the living room, lying on the sofa, a blanket over her despite the heat. Frank kept telling her to get some rest. She was holding Cindy’s rabbit to her face, stroking the threadbare fur over and over, breathing in the smell of Cindy’s skin, Cindy’s hair, Cindy’s sleeping breath. When she got up to pee, she saw that the door of her bedroom was ajar. She pushed it, saw the young cop with the pink face kneeling on the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He jumped, turned. He was holding a blue overnight case that he’d found under the bed.
“What are you doing with that?”
He looked down at the case and blushed, and for a moment she thought he was going to apologize. Then he remembered what he was doing and the mask fell back into place.
“It’s just routine, ma’am.”
“Routine? That’s my case. That’s nothing to do with my kids. Why aren’t you out looking for my children?”
There was a shadow behind her and a smell of Players. Devlin.
“What’s the problem, Detective Quinn?”
“Mizz Malone was just . . .”
“I’m sure Mrs. Malone wants to cooperate fully, don’t you ma’am?”
She let her hands fall from where they were balled into fists, let her shoulders drop, and took in the wreckage of her privacy: the underwear strewn on the bed, the open drawers, the bags and shoes pulled out of her closet.
“We know what we’re doing.” Quinn unzipped the case.
A waterfall of postcards, letters, cards. He picked them up one by one and read the signatures. Dozens of them. All from men. Some from Frank, before they were married. A year’s worth from Johnny Salcito. A few from Lou Gallagher, going back to March or April. And some from other men, men she could barely remember.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. He looked up and his eyes went past her to Devlin.
She lifted her chin and permitted herself a small smile. Then she turned, and Devlin was watching her.
She dropped her eyes. Dropped the smile.