If I couldn’t laugh at almost everything, I’d be dead.
Valerie nearly ran over a cat.
“Damn, Valerie, that’s the first thing you’ve missed all day. You know I hate cats. Put it in reverse. He’s still out there.”
We were on our way to see Kim, my lovely former breeding partner in the lovely suburb of North Park. It was five steps above Vaporville, a hundred below Northland. Little frame ranch style houses mostly, with Village Inn restaurants and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores mixed in, it looked like every other bedroom community in America. Except for the snow in the winter and the deadly humidity in the summer, if you were dropped there by a UFO, there was nothing about the place that would tell you where you were. The place had no place.
Let’s say I dumped you in Philly. You’d see row houses, three feet from stoop to street. Maybe you’d see some real colonial buildings. You’d have some clues. Beamed into NYC, the middle of lower Manhattan, even monkeys would know where they were. Pop out of a cake in the valley near L.A. and you’d be lost. It’s the source of the sprawl infection that kills cities and makes every place look the same. Same houses, same Home Depot, same Outback, same bad traffic, same smell, same Tommy Hilfigger on the same teens — in America, most of the time, we don’t know where we are. You’re in Indianapolis, Dayton, Oklahoma City. Look around. See the Holiday Inn? You might be in Northpark.
Val turned left off Pudd at the Holiday Inn. One Hundred Twentieth Street ran east about a mile before it hit Burr; not Aaron, Raymond. We took Burr two blocks to One Hundred Twenty-second, then left on Hamilton; not Alexander, George, one block to One Hundred Twenty-second Terrace, which started curving around until it morphed into One Hundred Twenty-third Terrace Place. We were going slowly now, trying to read the signs. That was good news for all the kids on their Big Wheels. If Valerie hit one at this speed they wouldn’t even bruise. Finally we turned up One Hundred Twenty-third Terrace Place Circle. It was a cul-de-sac. Four-five-six-three-nine was a John Cougar song. A little pink house with a bright yellow Ford Focus in the drive, it was the American Dream with plastic siding. There were also three TV satellite trucks and the K-Mad News Bronco out front. Shit.
I had Valerie circle back down One Hundred Twenty-third Terrace Place to Lee; not Robert E., Harper, to One Hundred Twenty-fourth Terrace Boulevard to One Hundred Twenty-fourth Terrace Boulevard Circle. We parked in front of a pink house with a blue Ford Focus in the drive. I boosted Val over a white plastic privacy fence. We casually walked past a woman mowing her backyard. She was still trying to think of something to say when we hopped another fence and walked towards the back of Four-five-six-three-nine One Hundred Twenty-third Terrace Circle. We were almost to the deck when somebody closed the drapes on the sliding door.
I had a feeling Kim didn’t want to talk to me. But I knocked on the glass anyway. “Kim.. Kim.. It’s me!” I’m sure that helped. After a minute of knocking I was beginning to think she had some resentments. But I’m persistent. Valerie sat down on a beige plastic chair by a round beige plastic table with a beige and slightly darker beige umbrella. She was in it for the long haul, too.
“Kim… Kim… Kim…” I was almost chanting. I was knocking in a monotonous rhythm. A sharp knock with my knuckle that made the steel frame of the sliding door start to resonate. Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat…Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat… Tat.
“Kim… Kim… Kim… Kim…” Chants have great power. In Tibet when the monks chant you can see God. Kim was beginning to see red.
“Go away!” Well, she was glad to see me after all.
“Kim… Tat… Kim… Tat…”
The curtain swooshed to the right. The door slid open a crack. Kim’s face popped out. She looked awful. She used to dress like a tasteful Motley Crue groupie; now she was on the softer side of Sears, and she had been spending too much time in tanning booths.
“Kim, you’ve frosted your hair. It looks great.” And they say men don’t notice things like that. I can be so thoughtful.
Her expression changed from dismay to disgust. Her head withdrew back into the house like a frightened turtle. The door snapped shut. Watch your fingers! The curtain closed. O.K., maybe my approach had been ill-advised. Maybe pity would work.
“Tat… Tat… Kim, I smell ginger snap cookies. Can I have a couple? I just got out of jail, and I haven’t had real food in days.” I walked over to the Sears gas grill, swung up the cover, turned the valve, and hit the ignite button. “Got any hamburger, Kim? I could grill some up. You always loved my burgers. Kim?”
Valerie had seen enough. “Sit down and shut up, idiot.”
There was a wasp-like sound in the air.. I obediently took her place in the beige chair. She went to the door.
“Kim, it’s Valerie. I know he’s an asshole, but we need to talk. We might be able to help find Torey. Kim? Please open the door. We can find him, Kim, but we need your help.”
I really thought that was a lame-brain approach. I knew Kim and she wasn’t going to… The door slowly slid open. Kim walked back into the kitchen. We followed her.
Val gave me the “Keep your mouth closed or I’ll get out the pinking shears” look.
Kim slumped down at the kitchen table. She held on to a coffee mug with both hands and looked for an answer in the milky brown contents. Val joined her at the table. I tried to blend in with the yellowish, flowered curtains.
“What do you want? Do you really think you can help?” She was torn between her natural disdain for me and her frantic maternal instincts for her missing child. Kim sounded tired, very tired.
“We want to find Torey, Kim. All we want to do is find Torey.” Valerie was good. I almost thought she cared. And, of course, she did. It’s just that I didn’t want to think about caring. That would only remind me how much I cared, how desperate I was. I have two ways of dealing with feelings. Avoidance and total immersion. Right then I couldn’t let go and go under. I had to stay on my game. Torey was depending on that. I only ask that you understand why I was acting the way I was.
“What can you do? The police told me they’d find him.” Kim’s voice didn’t have any brass.
I couldn’t help myself. “The police? They’ll find him? They’re not…”
I was about to say that the cops were looking for a dead boy. I was about to say that Valerie and I were looking for a live one… but Val held her hand up. Stop in the name of love! Before I break your…
“Kim,” Val continued like I hadn’t said a thing, “I know we can find him. I’m not sure the police can. Kim,” Val touched her lightly on the arm, “you know the cops have their own list of things to do. Torey’s on the list, but he’s not at the top. You know we can help. Give us a chance.”
“I’m going crazy,” she sobbed. If she started to cry we’d be here for a week. I admit it. I can be pretty thoughtless. “The press won’t leave me alone. You saw them out there! I don’t know what to do. Jeff just left, I’m all alone.”
Jeff was obviously the current flame. When shit like this hits, you find out who’s lovin’ you and who’s fuckin’ you real quick. Kim had found out. It was a familiar feeling for her. Standing there in the corner, it sank in for the thousandth time; I was no Alan Alda, either.
“I just want Torey back.” She was a little girl whose kitten had wandered off. No, it was deeper. I had to admit it to myself. She was a mother and her kid was gone. Her feelings were indescribable. Just like mine.
Sometimes you watch one of the news channels and they’ve got a story on about a missing kid. You think how terrible it is. You shudder inside, your stomach tightens, and your vision almost blurs imagining how you would feel. Then you see an interview with the mom and dad, and maybe they look like Mr. and Mrs. “Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe their house looks filthy. Or maybe they have strange braided hairdos. Whatever, you make a judgment. You don’t like them. They don’t speak well. They say something stupid. They aren’t telegenic, and they blink too much in the bright lights. They are flawed, you decide. They are not like me. They don’t feel the same way I would feel if my kid were kidnapped or trapped in a hole or killed. It must be their fault. You may never say it out loud, but you think it.
I hope you aren’t thinking that now. Maybe Kim and I aren’t what you’re used to. But don’t even imagine that the feelings we have aren’t the same horrifyingly primitive ones you would feel. Don’t judge us, yet.
“Tell me what happened, Kim.” Valerie sounded like a priest offering absolution.
“Torey told me he was going over to the church. They had some kind of meeting for the altar boys or something.”
Damn, he was an altar boy. I hadn’t even known that.
“He said he was going to spend the night at Greg Jackson’s house. He went over there all the time. I didn’t think…”
“What church, Kim?” Val was cool, not cold, just cool. She was still touching Kim’s arm.
“Infant of Prague, up by the Mall on Parker. He always rode his bike. It’s not very far. Greg lives about a block from there. I thought he was safe. He’d spent the night there almost every weekend. I never let him do stuff like this until we moved here. I thought this was a better neighborhood.”
“When’s the last time he saw Mikey?”
A cloud passed over her face. “Mikey…” She almost choked on his name, “Mikey… Torey never saw him, except on that damned videotape. He was always watching that video you made him of Mikey and him at Fairyland. I hid it from him, but he always found it and put it back in his backpack. I was going to throw it away, but I couldn’t. I gave up. And now they say there were some terrible things on that old tape? That Mikey was molesting….” She couldn’t go on.
“I don’t think it was Mikey, Kim. I really don’t.” Val needed her to believe that. I needed to believe that.
“I just don’t know. The police think he did it. But I don’t know. Detective Vandy showed me part of the tape they found by that whore’s body.” I let that remark go by.
Kim choked up, cleared her throat, and went on. “He held a manila folder up to block Torey’s face. I couldn’t watch that and see Torey’s face.” I wondered how I’d react. Kim went on, “The detective wanted me to see the hands that were… that were… well you know, the hands.”
“They weren’t Mikey’s,” I blurted out. Val silenced me with a “shut-the-fuck-up” look.
Kim hesitated. “I don’t know. The tape was so old and beat up. The Tilt-a-Whirl stuff was grainy. Hell, Tory’s watched it so many times he’s almost worn it out. He…” Kim struggled to keep control. “The part with the hands is real foggy-like. I couldn’t really tell about the… the… the hands.”
I got the feeling that Kim didn’t think Mikey did it either. She knew Mikey’s shortcomings, who didn’t? But she just couldn’t think he had done what they said. He couldn’t have…even with that small flickering doubt…she wouldn’t believe he did it… yet. What I did know for sure was that I had to go see my old friend, Doug Hunter. In child abuse circles they say victims can become perpetrators; I’d read that in Time magazine. It was more than a guess that Carl Vandy might even get over his Mikey fixation. I wanted to talk to Hunter before the cops did. I didn’t want any competition at St. Philomena’s. I’d have to move fast.
There was a knock at the door. It was even ruder than my tapping on the patio door. It sounded like the KGB, or the FBI, or the Prize Patrol – they’re all the same. “I’ll get it,” I volunteered. It was one thing I could do. And getting out of Val’s hair would probably help her with Kim.
The knock boomed again. The doorbell rang, “Ding Crackle …Ding Crackle.” Kim needed to fix that. I opened the door a crack and came face to face with a celebrity.
“Hello, sir, sorry to bother you at a time like this, but I’m Liz Nice from Eyewitness Six.” As if being Liz Nice excused her from normal human courtesy.
“Are you the step-father?” She was so close, so right and so wrong. I was a bit irritated. “Can we talk? I’ve got a live shot coming up in five minutes. Will you go on camera?” What a journalist.
“Just a minute, please.” I had to close the door carefully because she was oozing forward slowly like the Blob. Another second and she’d have been inside. I started back into the kitchen, but as I got closer, I could see Kim and Valerie’s heads close together. Val’s arm was around her shoulder. I decided not to interrupt them. There was no need. I was sure my intentions were good. I’d already decided where I was going next. I needed a solo shot at Doug Hunter. My gut said that my old pal was the key to Terri and the key to finding Torey. Forgive me for usurping the Charles Bronson trademark, but I didn’t want any Constitutional niceties slowing things down. There was a bunch of TV cameras outside. I had a great idea. Why check it out with Val or Kim?
I went back to the door and eased my way out so that Liz couldn’t ease her way in. She did not respect my personal space. Lint brushes don’t get as close as she did. Her perfume smelled like a produce aisle. In person she was malnourished, and either padded or altered. Her proportions were all wrong. And her eyes — up close they were a beautiful light, light blue. Wait, those were designer contacts. I’ll bet she had different pairs for different lighting conditions on her makeup table. All the kids wear them now days. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had some cat’s eyes lenses to match some twisted Fredericks of Hollywood outfit. My imagination was too good. I felt a little nauseous.
“Are you the step-father?”
“No, I’m a friend of the family. Ms. Janus’ spokesman.” This was going to be fun. I hoped it would work.
“And your name?” I hadn’t thought of that. She asked for my name… my name is…
“My name is…” I scratched my chin. “…my name is…Jose Jimenez.”
Jesus Christ, did I really say that?
She didn’t blink. It might have been impossible for her to blink. She scribbled the name in her notebook. “Do you have a statement? We go live in three minutes.”
“Yes, I’d like to read a statement from the family.” Did I say read?
“All right, step right over here.” She led me out a bit onto the front sidewalk. It was a tactical mistake. The other crews saw it and rushed forward like a school of land piranha. In seconds, cameras were being set on tripods, and a forest of microphones on sticks was pointing in my direction, like English pikes at Agincort.
Liz was pissed. She’d lost her exclusive. She’d get even later. We were live in one minute. If I was going to read a statement, I needed a statement. Words were flying around my brain, clumping, separating, and re-clumping again, like the protein building blocks of life in the primordial soup. I searched my pockets and found a piece of paper. I pulled it out. It was a page from a Chicago Cubs program, a line-up insert from the last time I’d been to Wrigley, June 23rd, 1984. It had the Cub batting order on one side, the other was blank. I might be able to fool the cameras.
It was the greatest baseball game I had ever seen. Cubs versus Cardinals, a sunny day, and the team was actually in the race. Willie McGee hit for the cycle for the Cards and gave them a six run lead. Five, four, three… the Cubs fought back. St. Louis put in Bruce Sutter, the best reliever going, but Ryne Sandberg, the All-Star second baseman, homered in the bottom of the ninth to tie it. And then facing Sutter, the best closer in the league mind you, he homered again in extra innings to win it. I got so drunk at Murphy’s. It was one of the best days of my life. The Cubs lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Sure, the lineup wasn’t going to help. But thinking about baseball helps me control myself. You should know that.
One of the camera “guys,” a good looking blond chick fresh out of Get-a-Job College, or Pay-Your-Loan University said, “We go in ten seconds.” I could tell she liked me. “Five…four…three…” Two fingers, one finger and a point, I was on. No I wasn’t.
Liz Nice stepped in front of me and did a lead-in holding her mike with the big “Six” logo up high on all four channels in town at once. I thought her expression was almost orgasmic. But I always think in sexual terms. For Liz it might have been closer to seeing Yahweh face to face. The expressions on the faces of her colleagues from the other news departments was a mixture of horror, anger, and indigestion. I really didn’t hear what Ms. Nice said, exactly. It was something that contained the words “tragedy,” “lost boy,” “stunned city,” “fearful parents,” and “lost hope” — stuff like that. The only thing I remember clearly was the term, “The deadly daddy.” God she was good. It was almost my turn.
“…Now, speaking for the family is family spokesman, Jose Jimenez.”
I saw a faint hint of recognition and panic in the face of the only old, by that I mean over forty, reporter there. He wasn’t quite sure if he had heard what he had heard, but it was too late to stop now.
I stepped to the microphone. “Good evening. My name Jose Jimenez…” I glanced back at the “old” reporter. He wasn’t running yet. But he might have been contemplating packing up. “..First I want to thank all of you for being here today…” Like even a neutron bomb would have kept them off the lawn. “The family, Ms. Janus, little Torey’s mother, has asked me to read the following statement…” I looked down. I saw the names. Gary Mathews…the Sarge is in Charge! Thank you baseball.
“All of us who care so deeply about Torey make a plea. If you have any information about his disappearance, call the Police Department with your information at 290-0988.” It was Detective Carl Vandy’s cell phone number. He gave it to me once at an AA meeting. I work with safes. I have a great memory for numbers. “Any information, no matter how unimportant you think it is, will be appreciated. We hope and pray…” Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a priest duck into the house behind me. I lost my train of thought…”We hope and pray Torey will be safe at home with us soon. Also, we would like to thank…” I looked down. “We would like to thank Mr. Ron Cey for organizing the search of the Northland Woods area. We would also like to thank all our friends and neighbors who have volunteered to join that search starting at eight A.M. tomorrow morning. Finally, Torey, if you are listening, we love you. We pray you will be back in our arms soon.” That last part was the only true thing I had said. I honestly did get a catch in my voice at the end.
I put the paper back in my pocket. “Thank you again, ladies and gentlemen. No questions please.”
They all shouted questions at once. The bleacher bums were more restrained than this pack. I ignored them, slipped past Liz and in the door. I locked it, and I hooked the security chain, like that really would help. When I turned around, Kim and Valerie were looking at me like I was Rasputin. You could tell they thought I had gone completely mad. And they were right.
I was crazy. It couldn’t have gone any better. Now I’d just have to see if media mobs behaved like regular mobs. Or was it just another of my “great” ideas. I’d done my part. Though in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t used Ron Cey’s name. I hated Ron Cey. Every time the Cubs needed a big hit that year, Ron “the Penguin” Cey popped out. Maybe that’s why they were looking at me like that. Maybe they hated Ron Cey, too.
Val shoved me back into the door. “You stupid, insane, piece of….of….of…” It was a rare day when she was at a loss for words. But here we were. “I saw most of that. What are you doing?”
I gave her my best Robert Redford “The Sting” finger to the side of my nose and smiled. Kim looked like she’d been poked with a cattle prod, and hell if there wasn’t a priest standing behind her just looking a bit baffled by the whole thing. I walked right past Val, who was still off balance. I extended my hand and grabbed the padre’s. I pumped him like a dry well.
“So glad to meet you, Father. You must be from Infant of Prague, right, Father? You must have seen Torey Sunday night, Father. What’s your name, Father?” I was smiling but I must admit, I wasn’t feeling friendly.
He snatched back his hand and rubbed it with his left. I might have been squeezing it a little too hard.
“Yes. I mean, yes, I’m from Infant of Prague Parish.” He wasn’t so much baffled as slightly afraid now.
Kim spoke up. “This is Father Corleone, the pastor. He’s been real good to Torey.”
Now I was off balance. Father Corleone? A name straight out of “The Godfather.” Vito Corleone, you recall that, don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? If you met someone by the name of Corleone, wouldn’t you think it funny, or weird, or unfortunate? Even if you were bad with names, you’d remember his from then on, wouldn’t you? I remembered the name, and not just from the movies.
Let’s say you were at work. Let’s say you were down by “David’s,” the gay bar on the East side of Vaporville. Suppose you broke into a car. Let’s say it was a black Lincoln Town Car, with a Christian fish symbol on the trunk. Let’s say you found some cash and a Hospital chaplain’s badge inside labeled, “Father Ken Corleone.” You’d remember that, wouldn’t you? You’d think, “Ken…Ken Corleone? I’d change my first name to Sonny, buddy. A guy named ‘Ken’ doesn’t belong in ‘The Godfather.’ Ain’t that a hoot! Kenny Core-lee-o-knee, hah! What’re you doin’ at the gay bar, padre?” You’d remember that wouldn’t you? I did. I’d been in that car.
I was thinking about Torey. This was his priest, his friend. I was thinking about a friend I had when I was twelve. My stomach felt like I’d swallowed a flashlight battery. I also remembered a guy dressed in black running down a fourth floor hallway. Maybe my Great idea had turned to Idiotic in record time.
“Have a seat, Father. With all the recent tragic events, I feel like I need some spiritual counsel. You can help me, can’t you, Father?”
He only nodded. But I already felt better.
I knew he could give me some comfort.
“Valerie, give Father Corleone a chocolate chip cookie.”
had never been ordained, but I was about to hear confession.