I knocked on the door next to where the Palmas had lived, and a woman's voice asked, "Who's there?" There was no effort to unbolt and open. I had thought long and hard about my ploy. I'd even rehearsed it driving to Bethesda. But I was not convinced I could be convincing.
"Bob Stevens," I said, cringing. "I'm looking for Hector Palma."
"Who?" she asked.
"Hector Palma. He used to live next door to you."
"What do you want?"
"I owe him some money. I'm trying to find him, that's all."
If I were collecting money, or had some other unpleasant mission, then the neighbors would naturally be defensive. I thought this was a nifty little ruse.
"He's gone," she said flatly.
"I know he's gone. Do you know where he went?"
"Did he leave this area?"
"Did you see them move?"
Of course the answer was yes; there was no way around it. But instead of being helpful, she withdrew into the depths of her apartment and probably called security. I repeated the question, then rang the doorbell again. Nothing.
So I went to the door on the other side of Hector's last-known address. Two tings, it opened shghtly until the chain caught, and a man my age with mayonnaise in the corner of his mouth said, "What do you want?"
I repeated the Bob Stevens plot. he listened carefully while his kids romped through the living room behind him, a television blasting away. It was after eight, dark and cold, and I'd interrupted a late dinner.
But he was not unpleasant. "I never knew him," he said.
"What about his wife?"
"Nope. I travel a lot. Gone most of the time."
"Did your wife know them?"
"No." He said this too quickly.
"Did you or your wife see them move?"
"We weren't here last weekend."
"And you have no idea where they went?"
I thanked him, then turned around to meet a beefy security guard, in uniform, holding a billy club with his right hand and tapping it on his left palm, like a street cop in a movie. "What are you doing?" he snarled.
"Looking for someone," I said. "Put that thing away."
"We don't allow solicitation."
"Are you deaf? I'm looking for someone, not soliciting." I walked past him, toward the parking lot.
"We've had a complaint," he said to my back. "You need to leave."
* * *
Dinner was a taco and a beer in a corporate bar not far away. I felt safer eating in the suburbs. The restaurant was of the cookie-cutter variety, a national chain getting rich with shiny new neighborhood watering holes. The crowd was dominated by young government workers, still trying to get home, all talking policy and politics while drinking draft beer and yelling at a game.
Loneliness was an adjustment. My wife and friends had been left behind. Seven years in the sweatshop of Drake & Sweeney had not been conducive to nurturing friendships; or a marriage either, for that matter. At the age of thirty-two, I was ill-prepared for the single life. As I watched the game, and the women, I asked myself if I were expected to return to the bar and nightclub scene to find companionship. Surely there was some other place and method.
I got dejected and left.
I drove slowly into the city, not anxious to arrive at my apartment. My name was on a lease, in a computer somewhere, and I figured the police could find my loft without too much trouble. If they were planning an arrest, I was certain it would happen at night. They would enjoy terrifying me with a midnight knock on the door, a little roughing up as they frisked me and slapped on the cuffs, a shove out the door, down the elevator with death grips under my arms, a push into the rear seat of a squad car for the ride to the city jail where I would be the only young white professional arrested that night. They would like nothing better than to throw me into a holding cell with the usual assortment of thugs, and leave me there to fend for myself.
I carried with me two things, regardless of what I was doing. One was a cell phone, with which to call Mordecai as soon as I was arrested. The other was a folded stack of bills--twenty hundred-dollar bills--to use to make bail and hopefully spring myself before I got near the holding cell.
I parked two blocks away from my building, and watched every empty car for suspicious characters. I made it to the loft, untouched, unapprehended.
My living room was now furnished with two lawn chairs and a plastic storage box used as a coffee table/footstool. The television was on a matching storage box. I was amused at the sparse furnishings and determined to keep the place to myself. No one would see how I was living.
My mother had called. I listened to her recording. She and Dad were worried about me, and wanted to come for a visit. They had discussed things with brother Warner, and he might make the trip too. l could almost hear their analysis of my new life. Somebody had to talk some sense into me.
The rally for Lontae was the lead story at eleven. There were close-ups of the five black caskets lying on the steps of the District Building, and later as they were marched down the street. Mordecai was featured preaching to the masses. The crowd appeared larger than I had realized--the estimate was five thousand. The mayor had no comment.
I turned off the television, and punched Claire's number on the phone. We had not talked in four days, and I thought I would show some civility and break the ice. Technically we were still married. It would be nice to have dinner in a week or so.
After the third ring, a strange voice reluctantly said, "Hello." It was that of a male.
For a second, I was too stunned to speak. It was eleven-thirty on a Thursday night. Claire had a man over. I had been gone for less than a week. I almost hung up, but then collected myself and said, "Claire, please."
"Who's calling?" he asked, gruffly.
"Michael, her husband."
"She's in the shower," he said, with a trace of satisfaction.
"Tell her I called," I said, and hung up as quickly as possible.
I paced the three rooms until midnight, then dressed again and went for a walk in the cold. When a marriage crumbles, you ponder all scenarios. Was it a simple matter of growing apart, or was it much more complicated than that? Had I missed the signals? Was he a casual one-nighter, or had they been seeing each other for years? Was he some overheated doctor, married with children, or a young virile med student giving her what she'd missed from me?
I kept telling myself it didn't matter. We weren't divorcing because of infidelities. It was too late to worry if she'd been sleeping around.
The marriage was over, plain and simple. For whatever reason. She could go to hell for all I cared. She was done, dismissed, forgotten. If I was free to chase the ladies, then the same rules applied to her. Yeah, right.
At 2 A.M., I found myself at Dupont Circle, ignoring catcalls from the queers and stepping around men bundied in layers and quilts and sleeping on benches. It was dangerous, but I didn't care.
* * *
A few hours later, I bought a box of a dozen assorted at a Krispy Kreme, with two tall coffees and a newspaper. Ruby was waiting faithfully at the door, shivering from the cold. Her eyes were redder than usual, her smile was not as quick.
Our spot was a desk in the front, the one with the fewest stacks of long-forgotten files. I cleared the top of the desk, and served the coffee and doughnuts. She didn't like chocolate, but instead preferred the ones with the fruit filling.
"Do you read the newspaper?" I asked as I unfolded it.
"How well do you read?"
So I read it to her. We started with the front page, primarily because it had a large photo of the five caskets seemingly adrift above the mass of people. The story was headlined across the bottom half, and I read every word of it to Ruby, who listened intently. She had heard stories about the deaths of the Burton family; the details fascinated her.
"Could I die like that?" she asked.
"No. Not unless your car has an engine and you run the heater."
"I wish it had a heater."
"You could die from exposure.',
"Freezing to death."
She wiped her mouth with a napkin, and sipped her coffee. The temperature had been eleven degrees the night Ontario and his family died. How had Ruby survived?
"Where do you go when it gets real cold?" I asked.
"Don't go nowhere."
"You stay in the car?"
"How do you keep from freezing?"
"I got plenty of blankets. I just bury down in them."
"You never go to a shelter?"
"Would you go to a shelter if it would help you see Terrence?"
She rolled her head to one side, and gave me a strange look. "Say it again," she said.
"You want to see Terrence, right?"
"Then you have to get clean. Right?"
"To get clean, you'll have to live in a detox center for a while. Is that something you're willing to do?"
"Maybe," she said. "Just maybe."
It was a small step, but not an insignificant one.
"I can help you see Terrence again, and you can be a part of his life. But you have to get clean, and stay clean."
"How do I do it?" she asked, her eyes unable to meet mine. She cradled her coffee, the steam rising to her face.
"Are you going to Naomi's today?"
"I talked to the director over there. They have two meetings today, alcoholics and drug addicts together. They're called AA/NA. I want you to attend both of them. The director will call me."
She nodded like a scolded child. I would push no further, not at that moment. She nibbled her doughnuts, sipped her coffee, and listened with rapt attention as I read one news story after another. She cared little for foreign affairs and sports, but the city news fascinated her. She had voted at one time, many years ago, and the politics of the District were easily digested. She understood the crime stories.
A long editorial blistered Congress and the city for their failure to fund services for the homeless. Other Lontaes would follow, it warned. Other children would die in our streets, in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol. I paraphrased this for Ruby, who concurred with every phrase.
A soft, freezing rain began falling, so I drove Ruby to her next stop for the day. Naomi's Women's Center was a four-level rowhouse on Tenth Street, NW, in a block of similar structures. It opened at seven, closed at four, and during each day provided food, showers, clothing, activities, and counseling for any homeless woman who could find the place. Ruby was a regular, and received a warm greeting from her friends when we entered.
I spoke quietly with the director, a young woman named Megan. We conspired to push Ruby toward sobriety. Half the women there were mentally ill, half were substance abusers, a third were HIV-positive. Ruby, as far as Megan knew, carried no infectious diseases.
When I left, the women were crowded into the main room, singing songs.
* * *
I was hard at work at my desk when Sofia knocked on my door and entered before I could answer.
"Mordecai says you're looking for someone," she said. She held a legal pad, ready to take notes.
I thought for a second, then remembered Hector. "Oh yes. I am."
"I can help. Tell me everything you know about the person." She sat down and began writing as I ratfled off his name, address, last known place of employment, physical description, and the fact that he had a wife and four kids. "Age?"
"With four kids, it's safe to assume at least one was enrolled in school. With that salary, and living in Bethesda, I doubt if they'd go the private route. He's Hispanic, so he's probably Catholic. Anything else?"
I couldn't think of a thing. She left and returned to her desk where she opened a thick three-ring notebook and flipped pages. I kept my door open so I could watch and listen. The first call went to someone with the Postal Service. The conversation changed instantly to Spanish, and I was lost. One call followed another. She would say hello in English, ask for her contact, then switch to her native tongue. She called the Catholic diocese, which led to another series of rapid calls. I lost interest.
An hour later, she walked to my door and announced, "They moved to Chicago. Do you need an address?"
"How did you . . . ?" My words trailed off as I stared at her in disbelief.
"Don't ask. A friend of a friend in their church. They moved over the weekend, in a hurry. Do you need their new address?"
"How long will it take?"
"It won't be easy. I can point you in the right direction."
She had at least six clients sitting along the front window waiting to seek her advice.
"Not now," I said. "Maybe later. Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
Don't mention it. I'd planned to spend a few more hours after dark knocking on the doors of neighbors, in the cold, dodging security guards, hoping no one shot me. And she worked the phone for an hour and found the missing person.
Drake & Sweeney had more than a hundred lawyers in its Chicago branch. I had been there twice on anti trust cases. The offices were in a skyscraper near the lakefront. The building's foyer was several stories tall, with fountains and shops around the perimeter, escalators zigzagging upward. It was the perfect place to hide and watch for Hector Palma.