By: Bob Kalkreuter
“Uncle Frank, you out here?” The voice was young, clear, and female.
He was sitting outside, on a straight-backed chair placed on the dirt path that led from the porch, giving him the best view of anyone coming up the road. He was smoking a cigarette in darkness spoiled only by moonlight left over from the gauntlet of dark clouds and leafed-out trees.
“Mama says you ought to come in. Says it’s going to rain.”
Frank was an ex-cop, a thin man with a graying beard and dark, worried eyes. As he smoked, the red tip of his cigarette moved like a tiny, single-pointed sparkler.
“Okay, Rachel,” he said. Still, he didn’t move.
Crutches lay alongside the chair, chipped, wooden crutches that had been used by his brother-in-law, Jesse, when he’d first come back from Iraq. Before he’d gotten his artificial leg.
Now, Frank was using them after breaking his own leg in a wreck on the winding road down the hill to the river, where a teenager, high on booze or drugs or both, spun out of control.
After an hour in the emergency room, Frank called Jesse for help. Instead, Maria showed up. His sister.
“I thought you were taking Rachel to Disneyland,” he lied.
“That’s next week.” She cocked her head. “You don’t seem glad to see me.”
“Of course I am,” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I just didn’t think you’d be in town.” In truth, he’d called Jesse because he didn’t want to hear another of his sister’s lifestyle lectures.
Despite that, things between them were pretty good. Most of the time, he looked forward to seeing her for holidays and cookouts. It gave him the sense of family he’d missed since his wife and daughter left four years ago. Maria had always been there for him, although she usually exacted her price. And at times like this, when she figured she had him at a disadvantage, she was particularly aggressive. She never seemed to forget she was his big sister, and she wouldn’t let him to forget either.
Jesse, on the other hand, was the wild card in the family, unpredictable, but easy-going and friendly, a guy who loved crowds and parties and keeping up with his Army buddies. Occasionally, he’d brag about the three kings in his life, as he called them: the Drin King, the Smo King, and the Fuc King. Although never in front of Maria.
Jesse was a bit reckless. Consequences weren’t things he took seriously, such as the time he volunteered for Iraq. But like Frank, he enjoyed fishing, hunting, and every sport he could find on tv. So they got along, he and Frank.
Now, lying in the emergency room with a broken leg, Frank looked at Maria. “Well, since you’re here, can you give me a ride home?”
She glared at him the way she might a teenager. “And then what? How are you going to drive?”
“You’ll manage? Your right leg’s in a cast. You’ve got to see the doctor on Wednesday. And go to the store. I can’t drive over there every time you need something.”
“I’ll just try not to need things. Besides, Jack’ll stop by.”
“Jack? He didn’t even come to your retirement party.”
“He was out of town.”
“Convenient, for him.”
Frank grimaced. “His father was in the hospital. He wanted to come. Anyway, we were partners for five years. He’ll help me.”
“Yeah, you were partners all right.” She grunted. “Where was Jack when the brass came down on you?”
“He didn’t want to get canned.”
“Well,” Maria said, pausing. She looked away, then back. “I guess you can stay with us. For a couple weeks anyway.” Her voice rose sharply. “But you’ve got to sober up. And no more of that crazy shit…”
“What crazy shit?” he’d said, eyes widening. “What crazy shit are you talking about?”
“You know what I mean. That crusade you’re on.” She pursed her lips, the way she did when annoyed. “And you can’t smoke in the house either.”
“Okay,” he said. From experience, he knew Jesse would sneak him a few beers, although he also knew he wouldn’t get any hard liquor until he got home.
He could live with that. He didn’t drink much hard liquor anyway. And up until the day he got fired, he never drank hard liquor at all.
But the crusade she complained about, he wasn’t giving that up.
This night, however, sitting alone in the speckled moonlight, it wasn’t liquor, beer, rain, or even Maria that held his attention. Jack was on the way to pick him up.
Behind him, Rachel shrugged and went back into the house, letting the screen door slam. Moments later, Maria came outside and stood beside the chair, drying the wetness of supper dishes from her hands with a kitchen towel. She was a short, dark-eyed woman, now in her early fifties. She had a tattoo of a red rose on her wrist. Her hair was dyed shiny black. “What’re you doing out here?” she said.
Frank didn’t look at her. “Nothing,” he said, knocking ashes from his cigarette. He held a half-empty can of beer between his thighs. “Just getting some fresh air.”
Kneading the kitchen towel, she studied him. “You promised you wouldn’t drink.”
He nodded at the beer as if surprised to find it there. “Oh, this? Jesse gave it to me.”
“I know who gave it to you.”
“Well, beer’s not really drinking. Isn’t that what Dad used to say?” He laughed as if he’d told a joke, but kept an edge to his voice. A warning perhaps, to anyone but Maria.
“Dad was an alcoholic,” she said. “Is that what you want to be?”
“Okay,” he said. “I get it.”
She didn’t look pleased, only skeptical.
He took a final drag on the cigarette and flicked away the stub. The glowing remnants of tobacco hit the ground and separated, tumbling into pieces.
“Frank…” she said. “What are you doing out here? Really.”
“Jack and I are going to play poker.”
“Poker? You don’t even like poker.”
“What do you mean, I don’t like poker? How do you know what I like?”
“Does… is this about the woman they found Friday night? Is that what you’re doing?”
“We’re going to play poker,” he said, trying to sound stern. He lifted the beer and sipped, as if in defiance.
“You’re not a cop anymore,” she said. “It’s not your problem.”
Frank didn’t say anything. Instead, he looked across the empty road into the darkness he knew to be a large hay field, once owned by his grandfather, decades past.
“There’s nothing you can do, Frank.”
“I could have stopped him. But I didn’t.”
He didn’t respond.
Maria frowned. “It’s not your fault, you know. Besides, you don’t know he did it. Robinson or Robin something, wasn’t it? You don’t know he did anything.”
“Robinette. His name’s Robinette. And I do know it. He killed her.” He ran his thumb and forefinger along both sides of his mustache, feeling the coarse hairs.
“Didn’t the judge let him go?”
Frank nodded, but didn’t speak.
“Well, even if he killed that woman last year, how do you know he killed the one Friday night? Maybe you investigated the first one, but Friday night, you weren’t even…”
“He killed her!” he repeated loudly. Then softer: “Both of them. I know it.”
Maria sighed. “Why don’t you come inside? It’s going to rain and Jesse said there’s a game on tonight.” She looked at him sideways. “Rachel’s going to bed soon.” She hesitated, then touched his shoulder the way she might comfort a child. “Maybe we can even find another beer somewhere.”
“I should have killed him when I had the chance,” he said.
“That’s the crazy shit I was talking about,” she said, straightening up and turning away.
Frank sat in the passenger’s seat of Jack’s old Chevy truck. The headlights swept through the rain that bounced up from the black-tarred road. Not a hard rain, just enough to sparkle like a swarm of fireflies.
“You know I can’t do that,” said Jack. He was a large man wearing a beat-up Stetson and scuffed boots. He liked to talk with his hands, sometimes even lifting them both from the steering wheel at the same time. “The Chief’s got me working on a string of robberies on the south end. Rowdy’s on Robinette.”
“Rowdy? He can’t find his ass…”
“The Chief doesn’t even want me talking to you. He’d be pissed if he knew…” Jack’s voice trailed away.
“What is it about Robinette he doesn’t understand,” said Frank.
Jack lifted one hand from the wheel, using it to point directly at Frank. “It’s not his fault Robinette’s loose.”
Frank shrugged. “So now he’s killed again.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do.” Frank pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “And so do you.”
“You lost that fight when you broke into Robinette’s place. His lawyer’s threatened to sue the city if we…”
“Well, let the son-of-a-bitch sue. He’s guilty as hell.” Frank lit the cigarette, trying to sift the right words from the hurricane of his thoughts.
“So what did you gain by breaking into his place?” said Jack.
“He did it. You know he did.”
Jack shook his head. “No I don’t. And you didn’t find anything to prove it, did you?”
Frank glanced into the drizzling darkness. They were passing the rain-blurred bowling alley where he’d spent so many high school hours, now closed after struggling to stay in business for years. The windows already plastered with concert posters. And in the next block there was the café where he and Jack used to eat lunch so often. Where he’d taken Carol on the last day they’d spent together, before she moved to Memphis with her mother. Now closed as well.
Truly, a neighborhood in decline.
But that wasn’t all Frank remembered.
Nearby, among a cluster of small, struggling mom-and-pop stores, was another memory that wouldn’t leave him alone. “I saw Robinette, Jack. With her. Last year, at the ATM, the day before they found her body.”
“I know. You said. And I believe you. But the cameras didn’t catch her, so there’s no evidence.” Jack touched the brim of his Stetson. “I know you believe she was with Robinette, but what if it wasn’t her?”
“What do you mean, wasn’t? I saw her.”
“Well, if it was, we’ll get him.”
“He’s done it twice now,” said Frank. “At least. We need to get him or he’s going to do it again.”
“We? Frank, aren’t you forgetting, you’re not a cop anymore?”
“I remember. Every day. You think I like mall security?”
“Well, Rowdy’s looking into it.”
“I saw them together. I know it was her.”
“The light over the ATM was out that night.”
“It was them, Jack! The two of them, together.”
Jack took a deep breath. “Don’t you understand, they’ll throw you in jail this time.”
Although Frank had been wrestling with that same exact argument since he’d heard about Friday’s murder, the answers he’d given himself were different. “Not if nobody knows…”
“Goddamn…” Jack stopped the truck in the middle of the block and faced Frank, his eyes widening. “What are you saying? Murder him?”
“Murder?” said Frank, but even as he said it, he wasn’t sure what he really did mean. “No, not murder, but…she was Carol’s age, Jack. Carol… my daughter.”
Jack hit the gas and pulled into the next parking lot. A deserted strip mall. Climbing the short grade, the motor rattled like a box full of loose gravel. He slipped the transmission into neutral. Resting one hand on the steering wheel, he moved the other through the air, gesturing, as if conjuring up his words. “I know Frank. And what happened is awful. But if Robinette did it, he’ll make a mistake, sooner or later.”
“Sooner or later? How many others are going to die?” Frank’s leg was starting to feel cramped, and he tried to move it a little to the side, bending to shift the cast a little closer to the door. But the space was tight, and the little movement he could manage didn’t help.
The truck motor idled with a spasm of metallic hiccups.
“I thought you wanted to play poker,” said Jack.
“I do, but…”
“Then why are we talking about Robinette? I’m not taking you there.”
“Maybe we can find something. We don’t have to go inside…”
“Damn it, Frank, you’ve got to get over this. You’re not a cop anymore. And even if you were… Hell, you can’t keep taking things in your own hands.”
“I can’t sit back…” Frank stopped, not knowing what to say next.
“You got fired last time. What else do you want to lose?”
Frank almost said ‘I don’t know’, but didn’t.
“You’re letting him get under your skin,” said Jack. “Let Rowdy take care of it.”
“And it doesn’t bother you to see Robinette get a free pass?”
“He’s not getting a free pass. We’ll get him, if he did it.”
“And how many others is he going to kill first?”
“What’s going on with you, Frank?”
Outside, the night was grainy and wet. Frank felt trapped. He looked at the cigarette in his hand, watching the smoke twist toward the ceiling. “I should have done something when I had the chance.”
“Well, you did do something. You lost your job. Me, I’m not getting fired.”
“I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
With that, Jack revved the engine and pulled into the street, heading back the way they’d come.
“Where are you going, Jack?”
“I’m taking you home.”
“What about poker?” said Frank.
“You don’t want to play poker,” said Jack. “And I don’t want to play cops and robbers.”
Struggling up the wet steps, Frank lost control of the crutches and slipped, clattering back and catching himself against the porch rail.
Maria flung open the front door. “What the…” she said, then: “Frank! What’re you doing? You all right?”
Embarrassed, he only nodded. By then he’d recovered his balance and her alarm turned to annoyance. “So what happened to the poker game?”
“Cancelled,” he said.
As Frank propelled himself into the front room, a calico cat leapt from the sofa and scampered into the kitchen. Maria went to an end table and picked up an empty wine glass, leaving an open magazine on the sofa.
Seating himself in an armchair, Frank glanced about the room. He lowered the crutches to the floor and ran his hand through his hair, smoothing away the beads of rainwater. “Where’s Jesse?” he asked, nodding toward the blank tv screen. “I thought you said there was a game.”
“He’s playing pool with Ben,” she said disappearing into the kitchen. “If you want to watch, go ahead.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He didn’t feel like concentrating on baseball tonight. “They went to play pool? Where?”
“I don’t know. The bowling alley I guess. Don’t they have tables there?” Her voice drifted back into the living room, bodiless.
“Used to,” he said, remembering the placarded windows they’d passed in Jack’s truck. “Does Ben have a table?”
From the kitchen came a tinkle of glass, then a dry laugh. “Ben? He lives in a trailer. I don’t think he’s even got a job.” She came back into the living room with a fresh glass of wine and a can of beer. Without speaking or making eye contact, she handed him the beer.
He took the can and looked at it with curiosity and amusement. He didn’t comment.
Returning to the sofa, she picked up the magazine.
“What’s going on?” he said.
She brushed back a lock of black hair. “Going on? Where?”
“The bowling alley’s closed. Where are they playing pool?” He waited as she sipped her wine, holding the glass to her lips longer than it took her to drink.
From somewhere beyond the kitchen came a series of chimes, a signal that the clothes drier was finished.
“You need to get that?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. “I think he’s cheating on me,” she said finally.
“Cheating? Who is? Jesse?”
“Of course, Jesse.” she said, arching her neck with a surge of energy. “How many husbands do you think I have?”
Frank watched her, unsure of his thoughts. So he didn’t speak.
“That’s what men do, isn’t it?” she said, clearly irritated. “That’s what Dad did, that’s what you did.”
“That’s not fair…”
“Fair? When were you fair, any of you?”
“Maria, I screwed up, I know, but…” He shook his head and sighed. “If I could change things…”
She took a sip of wine and watched him, as though she were running various responses through her head, weighing one against the other. “Yes you screwed up. But you got a bad break too. Dad was lucky. He stopped drinking and Mom let him come back. He even got to see his granddaughter before he died.”
“Yeah, he was lucky all right. He didn’t kill his daughter.”
Maria stiffened, looking aghast. “My God… Oh, I… I’m sorry, Frank… I didn’t mean…”
“It’s true. Beth took Carol to Memphis because I slept with that secretary.”
“Yeah, but… but that’s not why Carol’s dead.”
“Sure it is. I’m the reason she was in Memphis. And that asshole who ran the stop sign and hit her, he only got in the way.”
“That’s not true.”
Feeling a rush of anger and futility, he set the beer on the floor and reached for the crutches, pulling himself upright. “That girl, the one with Robinette, she was Carol’s age, you know.”
Maria started to rise.
But he shook his head. “I got it,” he said. “I’m tired of sitting.” Swinging forward on the crutches, he worked his way to the fireplace and turned awkwardly, starting a slow lap around the room. The wet rubber tips on the crutches squeaked on the hardwood floor.
“Frank,” she said, her voice slower, softer, and more deliberate, as if she were talking to an infant. “Robinette didn’t have anything to do with Carol.”
“I could have stopped him. I knew something wasn’t right when I saw them at the ATM. I knew it.”
Maria rose and set down her wine glass. “None of this is going to bring back Carol, Frank.”
He kept moving, trying to concentrate on the crutches, and she kept watching him, only rotating her head.
“I know,” he said, his voice weak.
“Nobody’s blaming you for Carol’s death. Not even Beth. I talked to her last week, and she’s worried about you.”
“This isn’t about Carol. It’s about Robinette,” he said.
“No. It’s about Carol and Robinette,” she said. “And it’s about how you’ve made them the same, in your mind.”
“Bullshit,” he said.
“Frank, you’re not chasing justice, you’re not even chasing revenge. You think you’re responsible for Carol’s death. You think you can clear your conscience by punishing this Robinette. But you’re really chasing mercy. And mercy isn’t something anybody else can give you. You’ve got to give it to yourself. For God sake, you didn’t kill Carol or those girls.”
“Mercy?” he said, stopping to lean forward and freeing his arms by holding the crutches with the weight of his armpits against the padded crosspieces. He moved his hands around the way he’d seen Jack do so many times. “You think I want mercy?”
“Want? No. Not want. But that’s what you need…”
“Why are you always trying to run my life?” he said, raising his voice.
“I’m not trying to run your life. I want to help you.”
Frank scowled, re-gripped the crutches, and turned away, thinking he would head straight for the room at the back, where he’d been sleeping. Instead, he swiveled back to confront her. “You don’t remember him, do you?”
“Why should I remember him?” she said.
“He was that scrawny, freckled kid, back in ’78. Don’t you remember?”
“What are you talking about?”
He took a deep breath. “Robinette. He was the one who almost drowned, down past Grandpa’s farm.”
Her eyes snapped into sharp focus, and she stared at him. “You mean…”
“Yeah, the one I pulled out of the creek when he fell off the old wooden bridge. He couldn’t swim.”
“Jesus,” she said. “That was Robinette?”
“That was Robinette.”
For a moment it was quiet. Quiet enough to hear the pendulum from the grandfather clock in the corner of the room snick back and forth.
“You saved his life?” she breathed.
He nodded. “The son of a bitch. I should have let him drown. Hell, I should have drowned him.” He hesitated. “Instead, I saved his ass.”
Maria leaned forward. “Frank, don’t you think you’ve done enough? I mean, you liked being a cop, didn’t you? How long were you there, fifteen years?”
“Sixteen,” he said, and lowered his voice. “And yeah. I loved it.”
“So now you’re doing what, the night shift at the mall? You love that too?”
He didn’t respond.
“Well, you’ve punished yourself enough, don’t you think? If you had it to do over, you wouldn’t do the same thing now, would you?”
He wanted to say he would, but the words came out before he could censor them. “I don’t know. Well, maybe, yeah, I guess I would.”
Maria’s face clouded. “You’re lying. That’s not true.”
“Goddamn, Maria,” he snapped. He squeezed the crutch handles. “I’ll tell you what’s true. I’m sick and tired of your bullshit. If I say left, you say right. I’m 37 years old. Don’t you think it’s time you gave up trying to run my life? You’re worse than Mom ever was.”
Maria looked at him, startled. Picking up the wine glass, she took another swallow of wine and glanced around, as if she were afraid of being observed. “There’s a reason for that,” she said. “Seeing you this way is painful for me. I’m frightened.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
She drank again. “Frank, I’m not your sister. Mom was supposed to tell you, but she got sick, and it didn’t seem fair… I got cold feet.”
“Tell me? What?” he said, trying to fight a sick feeling already gathering in his gut.
“I was sixteen,” she said. “And I couldn’t… I just couldn’t give you up.” She sat with the wine glass cradled in both hands. “I’m sorry, Frank. But it breaks my heart, seeing you struggle like this.”
“You mean… you’re… no… hell no”
He pulled back and stared at her, confused and angry. A drop of chilled rainwater leaked down the back of his neck, and he shivered. “Bullshit,” he said. “Why would you lie like that?” He started away, toward his room in the back of the house.
“Exactly,” she said, calling after him. “Why would I?”