5,999
23.12.2018

It was just beginning to snow when Joey walked out of the back door. Knowing the storm door rattled, he pulled it carefully closed until it latched. He'd remembered to take his gloves, and had even pulled his blue ski cap over his head. Rather than changing to boots, he kept on his high tops. They were his favorite.

No one saw him leave.

His mother was in the den with his stepfather. He knew they'd been arguing about him, because their voices had been pitched low and had carried that thin, nervous tone their voices carried whenever they argued about him.

They didn't think he knew.

His mother had roasted a turkey with all the trimmings. Throughout the meal she had chatted brightly, too brightly, about it being nice to have Thanksgiving with just the family. Donald had joked about leftovers and bragged about the pumpkin pie he'd baked himself. There'd been cranberry sauce and real butter and the little crescent rolls that popped up fluffy in the oven.

It had been the most miserable meal of Joey's life.

His mother didn't want him to have any problems. She wanted him to be happy, do well in school, and go out for basketball. Normal. That was the word Joey had heard her use in an urgent undertone to his stepfather. I just want him to be normal.

But he wasn't. Joey guessed his stepfather sort of understood that, and that's why they argued. He wasn't normal. He was an alcoholic, just like his father.

His mother said his father was NO GOOD.

Joey understood that alcoholism was a disease. He understood addiction and that there was no cure, only a continuing period of recovery. He also understood that there were millions of alcoholics, and that it was possible to be one and live the normal life his mother wanted so badly for him. It took acceptance and effort and change. Sometimes he got tired of making the effort. If he told his mother he was tired, she would get upset.

He knew, too, that alcoholism could often be inherited. He'd inherited his from his father, the same way he'd inherited the NO GOOD.

The streets were quiet as he headed out of the nice, tidy neighborhood. Snowflakes fluttered in the beam of streetlights like the fairy dancers in storybooks he remembered his mother reading him years before. He could see the illumination in windows where people were eating their Thanksgiving meal or resting after the effort in front of the TV.

His father hadn't come for him.

He hadn't called.

Joey thought he understood why his father didn't love him anymore. He didn't like to be reminded about the drinking and the fighting and the bad times.

Dr. Court said his father's disease hadn't been Joey's fault. But Joey figured if he'd gotten the sickness from his father, then maybe, somehow, his father had gotten the sickness from him.

He remembered lying in bed, knowing it was late, and hearing his father shout in that thick nasty voice he used when he'd been drinking a lot.

"All you think about is that kid. You never think about me. Everything changed after we had him."

Then later he had heard his father cry, big, wet sobs which were somehow even worse than the temper.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I love you, I love you so much. It's the pressure that makes me like this. Those bastards at work are always on my back. I'd tell them all to get fucked tomorrow, but Joey needs a new pair of shoes every time I turn around."

Joey waited for a car to rumble past, then crossed the street and headed for the park. Snow was falling thickly now, a white curtain buffeted by the wind. The air whipped healthy pink into his cheeks.

Once he'd thought if he hadn't needed new shoes, his father wouldn't need to get drunk. Then he'd realized things would be easier on everyone if he just wasn't there. So he'd run away when he'd been nine. It had been scary because he'd gotten lost and it had been dark and there'd been noises. The police had found him in a few hours, but to Joey it had seemed like days.

His mother had cried and his father had held him so tight. Everyone had made promises they had meant to keep. For a while things had been better. His father had gone to AA and his mother had laughed more. That was the Christmas Joey had gotten his two-wheeler and his father had spent hours running beside the bike with his hand hooked under the seat. He hadn't let Joey fall, not even once.

But just before Easter his father had started coming home late again. Joey's mother's eyes had stayed red, and the laughter had stopped. One night Joey's father had taken the turn into the driveway too wide and hadn't seen the two-wheeler. His father had come in the house shouting. Joey had woken up to the swearing, the accusations. His father had wanted to get Joey out of bed and take him outside to show him what his negligence had done. His mother had blocked the way.

That was the first night he'd heard his father strike his mother.

If he'd put the bike away instead of leaving it on the lawn beside the driveway, his father wouldn't have hit it. Then his father wouldn't have gotten so angry. His father wouldn't have hit his mother and given her a bruise on her cheek she tried to hide with makeup.

That was the first night Joey tried alcohol.

He hadn't liked the taste. It had hurt his mouth and made his stomach rise up uncomfortably. But when he'd sipped from the bottle three or four times, he felt strangely as if he'd slipped on a thin plastic shield. He didn't feel like crying anymore. There had been a nice, quiet buzz in his head as he climbed back into his bed. He'd fallen dreamlessly to sleep.

From that night Joey had used alcohol as an anesthetic whenever his parents fought.

Then the divorce had come in a horrible culmination of arguments, shouting, and name calling. One day his mother had picked him up at school to drive him to a small apartment. There she explained to him as gently as possible why they wouldn't be living with his father any longer.

He'd been ashamed, horribly ashamed, because he'd been glad.

They'd started their new life. His mother had gone back to work. She cut her hair and no longer wore her wedding ring. But Joey noticed from time to time the thin circle of white skin the band had covered for over a decade.

He could still remember how anxious, how pleading her eyes had been when she'd explained to him about the divorce. She'd been so afraid he would blame her, so she'd justified a move that left her riddled with guilt and uncertainty by telling him what he already knew. But hearing it from her had shattered whatever thin defenses he'd had left.

He could remember, too, how hard she'd cried the first time she came home from work to find her eleven-year-old son drunk.

The park was quiet. On the ground a thin, pretty layer of white had already formed. In another hour no one would notice his footprints. Joey thought that was the way it should be. Snow was falling now in big, soft flakes which clung to the branches of trees and lay glistening and fresh on bushes. Flakes melted on his face, making his skin damp, but he didn't mind. He wondered, only briefly, if his mother had gone up to his room yet and discovered him gone. He was sorry she was going to be upset, but he knew what he was doing would make things easier for everyone. Especially himself.

He wasn't nine years old this time. And he wasn't afraid.

He'd gone to Alateen and Alanon meetings with his mother.

They didn't reach him. He didn't let them reach him because he didn't want to admit he was ashamed to be like his father.

Then Donald Monroe had come along. Joey wanted to be glad his mother was happy again, then felt guilty because he was so close to accepting a replacement for his father. His mother was happy again, and Joey was glad because he loved her so much. His father grew more and more bitter, and Joey resented the change because he loved his father so much.

His mother married and her name changed. It was no longer the same as Joey's. They moved into a house in a quietly affluent neighborhood. Joey's room overlooked the backyard. His father complained about the child-support payments.

When Joey had begun to see Tess, he was finding a way to get drunk every day, and he'd already begun to contemplate suicide.

He hadn't liked going to see her at first. But she hadn't pulled at him or pressured or claimed to understand. She'd just talked. When he stopped drinking, she gave him a calendar, what she had called a perpetual calendar that he could use forever.

"You have something to be proud of today, Joey. And every day when you get up in the morning, you'll have something to be proud of."

Sometimes, he'd believed her.

She never gave him that quick, sharp look when he walked into the room. His mother still did. Dr. Court had given him the calendar and believed in him. His mother still waited for him to disappoint her. That's why she'd taken him out of his school. That's why she wouldn't let him hang around with his friends.

You'll make new friends, Joey. I only want the best for you.

She only wanted him not to be like his father.

But he was.

And when he grew up he might have a son, and his son would be like him. It would never stop. It was like a curse. He'd read about curses. They could be passed from generation to generation. Sometimes they could be exorcised. One of the books he kept under his mattress explained the ceremony for exorcizing evil. He'd followed it point by point one night when his mother and stepfather had been at a business dinner. When he was finished, he didn't feel any different. It proved to him that the evil, the no good inside of him, was stronger than the good.

That's when he'd begun to dream of the bridge.

Dr. Court wanted to send him to a place where people understood dreams about death. He'd found the brochures his mother had thrown away. It looked like a nice place, quiet. Joey had saved the brochures, thinking it might be a better place than the school he hated. He'd nearly worked up the nerve to talk to Dr. Court about it when his mother said he didn't need to see the doctor anymore.

He'd wanted to see Dr. Court, but his mother had that bright, nervous smile on.

Now they were home arguing about it, about him. It was always about him.

His mother was going to have a new baby. She was already picking out colors for the nursery and talking about names. Joey thought it might be nice to have a new baby in the house. He'd been glad when Donald asked him to help paint the nursery.

Then one night he'd dreamed that the baby had been dead.

He wanted to talk to Dr. Court about it, but his mother said he didn't need to see her anymore.

The surface of the bridge was slippery with its coating of snow. Joey's footprints were long, sliding marks. He could hear the rush of traffic below, but walked on the side that overlooked the creek and the trees. It was a high, exhilarating feeling to walk up here, above the tops of the trees, with the sky so dark above his head. The wind was frigid, but the walk had kept his muscles warm.

He wondered about his father. The night, this last Thanksgiving night, had been a test. If his father had come, if he'd been sober and had come to take Joey with him for dinner, Joey would have tried one more time. But he hadn't come because it was too late for both of them.

Besides, he was tired of trying, tired of seeing those sharp, uncertain looks on his mother's face, of seeing the anxious concern on Donald's. He couldn't stand being to blame anymore, for any of it. When he was finished, there wouldn't be any reason for Donald and his mother to fight about him. He wouldn't have any reason to worry that Donald would leave his mother and the new baby because he couldn't tolerate Joey any longer.

His father wouldn't have to make child-support payments.

The rail of the Calvert Street Bridge was slick, but he got a good purchase with his gloves.

All he wanted was peace. Dying was peaceful. He'd read all about reincarnation, about the chance of coming back to something better, as someone better. He was looking forward to it.

He could feel the wind tossing snow, cold, almost sharp snow, against his face. He could see his breath puff out slow and steady in the dark. Below him now were the white-tipped trees and the icy flow of Rock Creek.

He'd decided quite calmly against other forms of suicide. If he slashed his wrists, the sight of his own blood might make him too weak to finish. He'd read where people who tried to overdose on pills often vomited them up and just got sick.

Besides, the bridge was right. It was clean. For a moment, for one long moment, it would feel like flying.

He balanced himself a moment and prayed. He wanted God to understand. He knew that God didn't like people to make a choice to die. He wanted them to wait until He was ready.

Well, Joey couldn't wait, and he hoped God and everyone else would understand.

He thought of Dr. Court and was sorry that she was going to be disappointed. Joey knew his mother would be upset, but she had Donald and the new baby. It wouldn't take her long to see that it was all for the best. And his father. His father would just get drunk again.

Joey kept his eyes open. He wanted to see the trees rush up at him. He took a long breath, held it, and dove.

"Miss bette has outdone herself again." Tess sampled the rich dark meat her grandfather had carved. "Everything's spectacular, as always."

"Nothing the woman likes better than to fuss with a meal." The senator added steaming gravy to a mound of creamy white potatoes. "I've been barred from my own kitchen for two days."

"Did she catch you sneaking in for samples again?"

"Threatened to make me peel potatoes." He swallowed a healthy forkful, then grinned. "Miss Bette has never subscribed to the notion that a man's home is his castle. Have some more dressing, Detective. It's not every day a man gets to indulge himself."

"Thanks." Because the senator held the bowl over his plate, Ben had little choice but to take it. He'd already had two helpings, but it was difficult to resist the senator's cheerful insistence. After an hour in the company of Senator Writemore, Ben had discovered the old man was vibrant, both in looks and speech. His opinions were hard as granite, his patience slim, and his heart undeniably lay in his granddaughter's hands.

What relieved Ben was that after that hour he wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as he'd been prepared to be.

Initially the house had made him uneasy. From the outside it had merely been quietly elegant, distinguished. Inside it had been like a trip around the world in a first-class cabin. Turkish rugs faded just enough to show their age and durability, were spread over black-and-white checkerboard tile on the hall floor. An ebony cabinet, high as a man's shoulders and magnificently painted with peacocks, stood under a long curve of stairs.

In the parlor, where a silent Oriental had served before-dinner drinks, two Louis Quinze chairs flanked a long rococo table. A cabinet fronted with etched glass held a treasure trove. Venetian glass almost thin enough to read through was stained with color. A glass bird caught and reflected the light from the fire. Guarding the white marble hearth was a porcelain elephant the size of a terrier.

It was a room that reflected the senator's background and, Ben realized, Tess's. Comfortable wealth, a knowledge of art and style. She'd sat on the dark green brocade of the sofa in a pale lavender dress that had made her skin glow. The pearl choker lay against her throat, its glinting center stone pulsing with light and the heat from her body.

To Ben she'd never looked more beautiful.

There was a fire in the dining room as well. This one had been banked to simmer and pop through the meal. Light came from the prisms of the tiered chandelier above the table. Wedgwood plates, delicately tinted, Georgian silver, heavy and gleaming, Baccarat crystal waiting to be filled with cool white wine and sparkling water, Irish linen soft enough to sleep on. Bowls and platters were heaped. Oysters Rockefeller, roast turkey, buttered asparagus, fresh crescent rolls, and more; their scents mixed into a delightful potpourri with candles and flowers.

As the senator carved the turkey, Ben had thought back on the Thanksgivings he'd experienced as a child.

Because they had always eaten at midday rather than evening, he'd woken to the enticing smells of roasting fowl, sage, cinnamon, and the sausage his mother had browned and crumbled into the stuffing. The television had stayed on through the Macy's parade and football. It was one of the few days of the year when he or his brother hadn't been drafted to set the table. That was his mother's pleasure.

She'd take out her best dishes, the ones used only when his Aunt Jo visited from Chicago or his father's boss came to dinner. The flatware hadn't been sterling, but a more ornate stainless. She'd always taken pride in arranging the napkins into triangles. Then his father's sister would arrive with her husband and brood of three in tow. The house would be full of noise, arguments, and the scent of his mother's honey bread.

Grace would be said while Ben ignored his cousin Marcie, who became more disagreeable every year, and who, for reasons of her own, his mother would insist on seating next to him.

Bless us O Lord with these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christourlordamen.

The last of the prayer always ran together as greed became overwhelming. The minute the Sign of the Cross was completed, hands began to reach out for whatever was closest.

There had never been a silent Oriental seeing the glasses were full of pouilly-fuisse'.

"I'm glad you could join us tonight, Detective." Writemore helped himself to another serving of asparagus. "I often feel guilty about keeping Tess all to myself over the holidays."

"I appreciate the invitation. Otherwise I'd probably be eating a taco in front of the television."

"A profession like yours doesn't leave time for many quiet meals, I'd imagine. I'm told you're a rare breed, Detective, being dedicated." When Ben only lifted a brow, the senator gave him a bland smile and gestured with his wineglass. "The mayor's been keeping me informed on the ins and outs of your case, as my granddaughter's involved."

"What Grandpa means is that he gossips with the mayor."

"That too," Writemore agreed easily. "Apparently you didn't approve of Tess being brought in to consult."

Blunt, Ben decided, is best met with blunt. "I still don't."

"Try some of these pear preserves on that roll." Genially, the senator passed the dish. "Miss Bette puts them up herself. Do you mind if I ask if you disapproved of consulting with a psychiatrist or of consulting with Tess."

"Grandpa, I don't think Thanksgiving dinner is an appropriate place for a grilling."

"Nonsense, I'm not grilling the boy, just trying to see where he stands."

Taking his time, Ben spread the preserves on the bread. "I didn't see the point in a psychiatric profile that involved more time and paperwork. I prefer basic police work, interviews, legwork, logic." He glanced over at Tess, and saw her studying her wine. "As far as law enforcement is concerned, it doesn't matter to me if he's psychotic or just mean. This dressing's incredible."

"Yes, Miss Bette has quite a hand." As if to corroborate, Writemore took another forkful. "I'm inclined to see your opinion, Detective, without wholly agreeing. That's what we in politics call diplomatic bullshit."

"We call it the same thing in law enforcement."

"Then we understand each other. You see, I'm of the opinion that it's always wise to understand your opponent's mind."

"Insofar as it helps you stay a step ahead of him." Ben turned his attention to Writemore. The senator sat at the table's head in a black suit and stiff white shirt. The dark tie was held in place by a single unadorned diamond. His hands were big and rough looking against the elegant crystal. It surprised Ben to note that his own grandfather's hands, the old butcher's hands, had been much the same-worked, thick at the knuckle, wide backed. He wore a plain gold band on his left hand, the sign of a commitment to the wife who had died more than thirty years before.

"Then you don't feel Tess's work as a psychiatrist has helped you in this particular case?"

As if she were sublimely unconcerned, Tess continued to eat.

"I'd like to say that," Ben answered after a moment. "Because if I did it might be easier to convince her, or to convince you to convince her to stay out of it from here on. But the fact is, she's helped us establish a pattern and a motive."

"Would you pass me the salt?" Tess smiled as Ben lifted the lead crystal dish. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," he said, but grudgingly. "That doesn't mean I approve of her being involved."

"Then I take it you've come to realize that my granddaughter is both a dedicated and stubborn woman."

"I've gotten the picture."

"I consider it an inheritance," Tess said, and covered the senator's big hand with hers. "From my grandfather."

Ben saw the hands link and hold. "Thank God you didn't get my looks." Then, in the same genial tone, "I'm told you've moved in with my granddaughter, Detective."

"That's right." Preparing for the inquisition he'd been expecting all evening, Ben fell back on the pear preserves.

"I wonder if you're charging the city overtime."

Tess laughed and sat back in her chair. "Grandpa's trying to see if he can make you sweat. Here, darling." She passed the senator more turkey. "Indulge yourself. The next time you gossip with the mayor, tell him that I'm receiving the very best in police protection."

"What else should I tell him you're receiving?"

"Whatever else I'm receiving is none of the mayor's business."

Writemore dropped another slab of turkey on his plate before he reached for the gravy. "And I suppose you're going to tell me it's none of mine either."

"I don't have to." Tess spooned cranberry sauce onto his plate. "You've just said so yourself."

At five feet and a hundred forty pounds, Miss Bette shuffled into the room and cast an approving eye on the dent made in the feast she'd prepared. She wiped small, pudgy hands on her apron. "Dr. Court, there's a call for you."

"Oh, thank you, Miss Bette. I'll take it in the library." After she rose, she leaned down to kiss the senator's cheek. "Don't be a nuisance, Grandpa. And make sure I get a piece of that pie."

Writemore waited until Tess was out of the room. "A beautiful woman."

"Yes, she is."

"You know, when she was younger, people often underestimated her because of her looks, her size, her sex. After you've lived more than half a century, you don't take much on face value. She was just a bit of a thing when she moved in here with me. We only had each other. People would assume that I got her through the rough times. The truth was, Ben, she got me through. I think I would have crumbled up and died without Tess.

"I'm closing in on three quarters of a century." Writemore smiled as if the thought pleased him. "When you do that, you start to look at each day in sharp focus. You start to appreciate little things."

"Like feeling your feet on the ground in the morning," Ben murmured, then catching the senator's look, shifted uncomfortably. "Something my grandfather said."

"Obviously an astute man. Yes, like feeling your feet on the ground in the morning." Holding his wineglass, he leaned back, studying Ben. It relieved him that he liked what he saw. "Human nature forces a man to appreciate those things, even after he's lost his wife and his only child. Tess is all I have left besides those small pleasures, Ben."

Ben discovered he was no longer uncomfortable, no longer wait-ing to be backed into a corner. "I'm not going to let anything happen to her. Not just because I'm a cop and it's my duty to shield and protect, but because she matters."

When he leaned away from the table, the diamond in Writemore's tie glinted from the light. "You follow football?" borne.

"When neither of us have to worry about Tess, you come to a game with me. I've got season tickets. We'll have a few beers and you can tell me about yourself, things I didn't learn from copies of your departmental record." He grinned, showing a white set of teeth which were almost all his own. "She's all I've got, Detective. I could tell you what your score was last week at target practice."

Amused, Ben polished off his wine. "How'd I do?"

"Good enough," Writemore told him. "Damn good enough."

Surprisingly in tune, both men turned as Tess entered the room again. Ben only had to see her face to be out of his chair. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry." Her voice was calm, without a tremor, but her cheeks were very pale. She stretched out a hand as she walked to her grandfather. "I've got to go, Grandpa. I have an emergency at the hospital. I don't know if I'll make it back."

Because her hand was cold, her grandfather covered it with both of his. Better than anyone, he understood how much emotion she kept locked inside. "A patient?"

"Yes. Attempted suicide. He's been taken to Georgetown, but it doesn't look good." Her voice was cool and flat, a doctor's voice. Ben studied her carefully, but other than the lack of color, he could see no emotion. "I'm sorry to leave you like this."

"Don't you worry about me." The senator had already risen. His arm was draped around her as he walked her from the room. "You give me a call tomorrow, let me know how you are."

Something inside her trembled and shook, but she held steady. She pressed her cheek to his, wanting to draw a bit of his strength. "I love you."

"I love you, too, little girl."

As they walked into the snow-swathed night, Ben took her arm to keep her from slipping on the stairs. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"A fourteen-year-old boy decided life was too much to handle. He jumped off the Calvert Street Bridge."