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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Lives of Crime


by Lois S. Bassen




            The hammer was still stuck in the old jeweler’s brow and he was alive when Ryan arrived. EMS was right behind him. By the time the sirens had wailed the victim away into the winter night, his son had calmed down enough to answer questions. Ryan saw the middle-aged man was mildly retarded, spoke in chopped sentences, couldn’t focus, but not like someone in shock, like someone who never could. All Ryan could get was it was about rubies. “Not the good ones,” and that detail  disturbed the short, overweight man far more than the hammer in his father’s forehead or that he’d been an eyewitness, close enough to have his father’s blood spattered on his white shirt. However, he was more useful than the unconscious victim or his hysterical wife, a wailing, short woman named Minnie who kept repeating her husband’s name in Yiddish until she’d been carted away with him in the ambulance. Those EMT’s earned their money.


            It was a routine armed robbery except for the hammer; Ryan had been handed these cases since his wife Eileen, also a cop, had been killed in the line of duty eight months earlier. Which left Ryan with a six year old son to raise. The PBA had a good deal, paying half the housekeeper cost and finding a woman to come in to take care of Sean after school. Maryrose Magro also lived in Jackson Heights. She could pick Sean up right at the school door with the other mothers with strollers. Maryrose had a stroller of her own with a two year old girl in it. So now Ryan had some peace of mind because Sean’s afternoons and evenings until Ryan got off work were probably more normal than they’d been when Eileen was alive.


            Ryan wasn’t going to get any more information from the jeweler’s retarded son. He made arrangements for him to be taken home to Bayside in a black & white. The robbery was similar to four others that had taken place within the past six weeks in the same area of south Queens, some of them house break-ins, and now these braver, more desperate dives for real cash from local stores. This was the first violence on the familiar MO; Ryan congratulated his colleagues on drug arrests for making his perp strung out enough to take a hammer on this job. Ryan knew the guy from enough descriptions: white, late 20’s, dark blue windbreaker (cold in this weather-shivering), straight dirty blond hair. Looked like a Con Ed repairman, seen peeking into the front windows of the small, single family houses in Maspeth, cut screens, relocked windows after he entered, an anal retentive burglar, left the pillowcase he wiped prints away with in the kitchen sink (no gloves), no one knew they’d been robbed for at least an hour until someone noticed something was out of place, moved, or gone. Had ripped off a deli under the new ownership of one of the many Koreans moving into this outer borough of 1970’s NYC, a man more afraid of the police than the slender thief who’d taken his first night’s receipts. First a liquor store, now the jeweler. “He got out of the camps,” his retarded son had whimpered, then shrugged as if he forgot what he meant. Ryan figured the tough old Jew had resisted, fought back one more time. That kid was just one more Nazi to him. The jeweler gave him some cash and cloudy rubies. Nothing of great value. He robbed the robber even as he was struck down. Cabochons, Ryan remembered they were called. Eileen had had no interest in jewelry.


            Maryrose was 23, married to a high school Social Studies teacher named Tony. Ryan and Tony were the same age, 35. Maryrose had been Tony’s student at Bayside High School. She had been a very good student, accepted at Queens College and even Hunter in the City, but she came from a cracked family, father divorced the mother, remarried a younger woman, had another kid, and had no time or money for Maryrose. So she got a job as a teacher’s aide at Bayside, and one thing led to another. Married two years later at 20, a two year old girl by the time Maryrose was 23.


            Ryan hadn’t made a move toward her; if he lost her, it would hurt Sean. The night of the hammer robbery, Ryan got in late. He watched Maryrose giving Sean a bath. Her little girl was already asleep in the living room of the apartment in the portacrib he’d set up for her there. Sean was singing a song he’d learned at school, something about March winds blowing, May bringing us flowers. It wasn’t March yet, just February, with blizzard warnings announced at quarter hour intervals by hysterical weather reporters on radio and TV. Ryan stood in the bathroom doorway, watching Maryrose soap down Sean’s back, shampoo his straight blond hair (like Eileen’s) up into a point on the top of his head and show Sean how he looked in a quickly fogging hand mirror. Sean laughed and dived into the bath suds. He popped out of the water and stood up, hugging Maryrose hard in his little arms and crowed, “I love you!’


            The intensity of the child’s emotion stiffened Ryan. He realized he had been holding his breath. Maryrose surrounded the boy in a towel and hefted him out of the tub, murmuring, “You’d better get out before you’re all wrinkles.” She turned at the draft Ryan’s presence was making in the bathroom doorway. Ryan saw where Sean’s wetness had pressed against her so that that the outline of her bra, her nipples, and the full curve of her breasts were bared to him. He walked away.


            “Did you catch any bad guys?” Sean called.


             Ryan answered him from the kitchen where he was taking a long swallow of warm beer straight from the six pack next to the refrigerator. Maryrose followed the towel-swathed Sean walking barefoot into the kitchen.


            “Gonna snow,” Sean announced.


             “Maybe you’ll get a day off from school,” Ryan said. “You’re leaving wet footprints on the floor.”


            “So you can follow my tracks.”


            “But the floor’s cold,” Maryrose scolded.  To Ryan, she said, “He belongs in bed and I belong home before the storm hits.”


            Ryan intended to take over, but Sean grabbed Maryrose’s hand. “I want her to put me to bed!”


            As she led the child down the hall, Ryan silently agreed. It wasn’t just getting laid. He’d gone to Terese, a cop in his precinct. Ryan liked Terese and she wasn’t ugly. She was divorced and not interested in the past or future. Terese hadn’t come to Eileen’s funeral but a week later she stopped at the apartment and told Ryan when he wanted it, just to come to her, he was a nice-looking guy and Eileen had always said for her to look out for him if anything happened. Eileen wouldn’t want him getting a disease or anything because who would take care of Sean then? Ryan had heard Eileen’s voice in what Terese said on that summer day, but he’d had no appetite then. Later on, it came back to him, and they had a good time together, like the day before yesterday, so it wasn’t sex. But when he saw Maryrose, Ryan was like a horny teenager.


            He followed her to Sean’s bedroom and again leaned against the doorjamb, listening to her prompt Sean in his prayers and then sing a song. In a light but steady voice, she carried the old tune his grandmother had also sung to him: Here's the Japanese Sandman sneaking on with the dew/ just an old second hand man, he'll buy your old day from you./ He will take every sorrow of the day that is through/ and he'll give you tomorrow just to start life anew./ Then you'll be a bit older in the dawn when you wake/ and you'll be a bit bolder with the new day you make./ Here's the Japanese Sandman, trade him silver for gold/ just an old second hand man trading new days for old. Ryan again walked away while he could and went to the living room window behind the couch.  The snow had started. Ryan opened the sheer white curtains Eileen had put up by herself to look out at the thick gusts. He was on the sixth floor. He couldn’t see to the streetlight on the near corner. He shut his eyes and saw the rubies. Like swollen pigeon’s eyes, round, unfaceted. Ryan opened his eyes and looked at his wedding band.


            Maryrose returned to the living room and went to the portacrib where her little girl was sleeping, thumb in mouth. The child looked like Maryrose, with straight dark hair and a square chin. They both had plain faces. Chunky builds. Eileen called women like Maryrose meatloaf, as much for their domestic nature as their shape.


            Ryan was still holding the curtains away from the window. He gestured, “You going to take the baby out in this?”


            Maryrose kept her distance on the sofa-side of the window, looking out. “Tony is going to want us home.”


            Ryan felt hypnotized by the snow. He wished he lived in a house with a fireplace. He liked to watch fire blazing up and the smell of cabin-in-the-woods. He could hear Maryrose in the kitchen making a phone call. He heard her slam down the receiver. He went into the kitchen and took another warm beer.


            “You never ate,” Maryrose said. “Sit down.”


            Ryan ate the pot roast she’d kept warm with mashed potatoes and a still crisp salad she took from the refrigerator. She poured the beer into a glass for him and handed him a napkin. Ryan wiped his mouth. As he ate, Maryrose stood with her back to him, looking out the small kitchen window at the blizzard. Neither of them spoke; the storm roared, mauling the building. Ryan liked looking at her back as much as he liked the warm food. She had a wide and round behind. She was wearing blue jeans and a thick white turtleneck sweater. Her straight hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a plastic clip that made her look like a 50’s teenager. When he finished eating, Ryan took his dishes to the sink. Maryrose turned, ready to wash them.


            “You’re tired,” Ryan said. “Watch TV in my room. Fall asleep.”


            Her face asked the question. But Ryan looked down and washed his dishes. After, though it wasn’t late, he felt beat. He turned out the lights in the living room, checked Maryrose’s baby once, and lay down on the couch. He covered his eyes with his arm, pulled the crocheted afghan over him and sank into the dark. The sound of the storm rocked him to sleep.


            Maybe it was a strong gust; Ryan bolted awake, sitting up on the couch. Uncomfortable in his clothes, both chilled and sweaty. The blizzard bellowed outdoors. How many lives would this storm take? It was going to be a mess in the morning driving to Maspeth, maybe two feet of snow on these Queens roads, the last to be plowed out if you didn’t count Staten Island, which everyone didn’t. If you lived in Staten Island, you’d turned their back on a City glad to return the gesture with both arm and finger. The snow could slow down Ryan’s neat-thief, but finding the fence with the cabochon rubies would also be—


            At first, Ryan thought he saw the white gauze curtains billow, but there wasn’t enough of a crack anywhere around the windows to cause – then the phone rang. Ryan rushed to the kitchen to pick it up before it might wake the children, Maryrose. It was the precinct; the jeweler had died. “You couldn’t wait till morning to tell me?” Ryan demanded, then apologized because he’d left instructions to be informed immediately if it’d been upped to homicide so he’d know who’d be assigned. He hung up the phone and walked back into the dark living room.


            He saw the jeweler standing there, holding in his upturned palm a handful of rubies. Ryan froze. The jeweler tilted his dented head and turned his hand so that the rubies fell in a red column to the carpeted floor. Ryan’s eyes followed the falling stones; when he looked up, the jeweler was gone.


            His heart thudded in rhythm to the storm’s pounding. He tried to time it, like thunder after lightning. There was a scent of ozone and he felt dizzy. A stroke? Maryrose appeared in the archway from the hall. She was real. She was wearing red-striped pajamas Eileen had given him. They were too big for her.


            “Did the baby wake you?” she said, padding over to portacrib and tucking the quilt around her child.


            “It was the phone,” Ryan said. “Guy died.”


            “I can’t sleep anyway.”


            “Do you believe in ghosts?”


            “You look like one. Are you all right?”


            Ryan was shocked when he grunted. He took Maryrose in his arms and held onto her. She was warm and heavy and soft. He felt her heart pulse. She patted his back like a baby’s.


            “I didn’t know cops took it so personally,” Maryrose whispered, “but I guess you must, sometimes.”


            He looked down into her plain face, into brown eyes that caught whatever snowy light there was. Ryan shut his own eyes and leaned into a kiss she accepted and returned. He put his hand on the back of her head and held her, deepening the kiss into sexual demand, and still Maryrose allowed it, opening her mouth wider to him, welcoming him in. He grunted again. In his bed, he hid inside her and she covered him. Later, as dawn dimly began, they echoed the utter silence after the storm.

            “Thank you,” Ryan whispered.


            Maryrose laughed. Ryan thought of the falling rubies.


            Out of the shower, he walked into the living room wearing a terrycloth robe. Sean was on the floor, moving Transformers toward the two year old’s crib where she was sitting up, happily screaming through the thumb still in her mouth as his son threatened her with pretend-monster toys. Sean saw his father and joyfully reported, “Snow day, Daddy, snow day the radio said!” The white curtains were pulled back and revealed over apartment rooftops the dazzling view of heaven the aftermath of a blizzard sometimes allows even in Queens.


            The door buzzed. Maryrose, dressed, hair back in ponytail, answered it. At the same moment, Sean saw something in the carpet, scooped it up in his small hands, and said, “Look, Daddy!”


            Tony Magro was at the door, snow caked up to his knees. He looked sleepy and worried. He lifted his eager little girl up out of the portacrib. Ryan opened his hand to accept Sean’s discovery. For a moment, it looked like round, cloudy stones, but when he closed his palm, it felt like dried mud and disintegrated into dust as it drifted back to the floor.


“You have to go out in this? Magro asked. “Interesting case?”


            Ryan looked out the window at Wonderland; the teacher had the day off.


            “Somebody stole rubies,” Maryrose said.


            “You think you’ll find him—or them?” Magro said skeptically.


            He asks too many questions, Ryan thought, but thank God the wrong ones.