Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Father’s Day
I shook my head as my dime hit the bottom of the pay phone's empty coin box.
Can't be bothered to clean the piss off the floor of the booth but they sure as shit come around to pick up their dough.
I stood there, waiting to be connected, and kept right on waiting 'til the plaque next to the coin slot told me I was fifteen cents short.
The man I needed hadn't answered the first seventeen times I called and I didn't expect anything different but I paid up anyway, punched in the number, and watched the trash blow around 79th Street as I prepared for more disappointment.
I’d gotten pretty good on the keypad-- as long as I was dialing that same number. What was so bad about rotary phones that they had to go and replace 'em all?
I scratched my whiskers while the phone rang.
They didn't even let me shave before letting me out.
“You wanna shave, Reg, or are you ready to get the hell out of here?” CO Crawley’d asked me.
Wasn't a real tough decision.
Somebody picked up on the eleventh ring-- and dropped their receiver.
I caught some cursing and a bunch of thumping, and then, “Yeah? What d'you want?”
He said it the way most people belch. Six months of relative freedom hadn't sweetened his disposition any.
“Hey Shankman,” I said.
“Who is this?”
“You know who it is.”
“What do you want, Reg?”
“You know what I want.”
A coughing fit cut off his response. I yanked the receiver from my ear like chunks of phlegm might spew out of it.
“Jesus, Shankman,” I grumbled when the racket died down. “You really sound like shit. You takin' your pills?”
“Yeah. Sure I am. If by, 'takin' my pills', you mean, 'sold 'em for hooch'.”
I let it go. I was the man's cell mate, not his nursemaid.
“So what you got for me, Shankman?”
I listened to him breathe for a full thirty seconds.
“No dice, Reg,” he said. “I asked around like you asked, all the way up to Harlem and back. No one's seen her. She's a ghost.”
“How hard did you look?”
“What the fuck does that mean? What did you expect outta me?”
“I expected you to bust your ass on this. You owe me, pal.”
He tried to argue. I bulled right over him.
“You'd still be in the God damned hole if it wasn't for me. I took the hit so you could make parole. You owe me.”
Shankman got quiet. I expected him to hang up.
He surprised me.
“You still got the photograph?” I asked.
“Of course I do. What kinda guy you think I am?”
“Where are you? I'm comin' over to get it.”
I let him hem and haw for a bit, then cut him off.
“All right. All right. Have it your way. You bring it to me. McGowan's, 76th and Broadway. You know the place? See you in an hour.”
McGowan's. The Broadway bar with the bear out front.
That crappy wooden statue stood outside for as long as I could remember. I was happy to see it when I hit the place after hanging up on Shankman.
Thank God. Some things never change.
Mickey the barman waved as I walked through the dark, wood-paneled room like it hadn't been eight years since my last visit.
George Thorogood's buzzsaw guitar cut through the smoke-filled air. Low light, tempered by tar and benign neglect, made the antique brass rail glow.
Vince, Buddy, Mel and Kay, Pedro, and William were right where I last saw them. Velma's seat was empty. Poor Velma.
I went to the pay phone at the back of the room and spend another quarter. When the desk officer picked up I asked for Detective Benitez.
Lonesome George gave way to ZZ Top while I waited.
He answered the call with his mouth full.
“It's Reg Meyer, Detective.”
“How the hell are ya, Mr. Meyer? I heard you got out. Who'd you draw for a PO?”
“Yoshimoto? Don't know him.”
“Her, Al. Her.”
“Seems like it. She's very... determined.”
“Hmm. That can go either way.”
“She's young. I don't think daily contact with pieces of shit like me has had time to work its magic.”
“I remember those days. So... you didn't call to talk about your parole officer.”
“Your skills are as sharp as ever.”
“There's nothing new, Reg.”
“That mean you looked and found nothing or you haven't done any looking?”
“She's an adult, Reg. She was when you went in. And unless something comes up that says something happened to her there's nothing we can do.”
“She's still my kid,” I growled. “Don't give a shit how old she is. There's always something you can do.”
“Just make sure you're not the one doing it. I'd imagine staying away from this case is a condition of your parole?”
“You gonna turn me in?”
“Only if you make me.”
“That's all I get after all this time?”
“I'm being a pal as it is, Reg. Look. I'll ask around a little. I hear anything, anything at all that gives me a reason to open this back up, I'll do it.”
I bit back the tirade I wanted to unleash.
“I hate this for you, Reg.” said Benitez.
“Yeah. I hate it too.”
I hung up and gave myself thirty seconds to clear my head before stepping up to the bar.
My customary shot and beer waited for me.
I found my old spot between Buddy and Mel and took care of the shot.
The old gang and I exchanged nods and grins and I got to work on my beer.
Shankman rolled in before it was halfway gone.
He was balder and paler than when I last saw him, and he looked like he'd lost weight he couldn't afford to lose. His black Lou Reed t-shirt hung from his bones and he wore his jeans about ten years looser than the current fashion. Kind of like I did.
“You ain't been out a day,” he said, “and you're consorting with a known criminal.”
We shook hands for the first time as free men.
“I always thought that was a funny parole condition, Shankman. I mean, who do they think I've been consorting with for the last eight years?”
He grinned, showing me all twelve of his teeth.
I directed him into one of Mickey's three booths.
He fished my photograph out of his back pocket before he sat.
“Here ya go, Reg.”
I couldn't hold back the smile as I looked at my daughter's face for the first time in six months. I had every detail of that photograph burned into my memory-- the dirty blonde hair, her mother's nose, her downcast gaze at the bouquet of white roses she held close to her body-- but it felt good to have it back in my hands.
“I did what you asked,” he said. “Hoofed it all the way to 125th Street and back. Came up with bupkis.”
I nodded, lost in the photograph.
“You had to know it was a long shot, Reg. You're lookin' at a trail nine years cold.”
“If you had kids you'd know. You don't stop looking. You never stop.”
He was too busy ogling my beer to answer.
“Shit,” I said. “I'm sorry, man. Wasn't even thinking. Let's get out of here.”
The early evening air hung like a soggy, suffocating blanket over the Upper West Side. Thousands of New Yorkers hustled up and down Broadway, hurrying to end the day or jump start the night. Manhattan in a nutshell.
Shankman and I gave it up after seven steps, ducking into the pizza place next to McGowan's to get out of the crush.
Napoli Pizza made a fantastic pie.
I didn't recognize the skinny, swarthy kid behind the counter.
He wore a pizza man's white t-shirt and pants and had a five o'clock shadow that looked more like noon.
I asked after Big Carmine. The kid told me he'd sold him the shop six years ago.
The air was hotter inside the pizza shop but at least it smelled good. Fresh dough and garlic. Nothing else like it.
I bought two slices and we munched them in silence, watching the foot traffic on Broadway. All those people walking like they've got somewhere to be. I used to be one of those people.
The pizza was good.
Smart kid. Bought the recipe along with the business.
“So what're you gonna do now?” asked Shankman.
“What do you think I'm gonna do?”
“You're gonna get yourself sent right back upstate.”
“You let me worry about that, Shankman. You comin' with me?”
He polished off the last of his pizza and wiped his face.
“I don't wanna go back upstate either.”
“Not gonna happen, man. C'mon. We're not gonna be breakin' any laws. I'm just askin' questions.”
“Oy vey!” shouted Shankman. “All right. All right. We'll go ask questions. But I got one for you first.”
I dropped the last bit of crust on my plate and looked him in the face.
“What are you gonna do if we find something?”
I didn't bother to answer. We'd been too close for too long for bullshit.
“That's what I thought,” he said.
Every night, for the next ten nights, I'd go see my pals at McGowan's, then meet Shankman next door for a slice before heading uptown.
We walked our asses off.
A coffee shop on Amsterdam between 84th and 85th. The crappy bar at the corner of Amsterdam and 75th. A much better bar on Columbus, just off 80th. My daughter's old building on 88th. And a dozen more.
Some of these places were the same, stuck in place like McGowan's. Others had been rendered unrecognizable as urban renewal assaulted each neighborhood. The Upper West Side was getting posh.
We hit a coffee shop near the corner of 93rd and Broadway, late on that tenth night out.
`Everything inside had been updated-- new chrome and mirrors on every wall, sleek formica tables in booths with benches stripped to show the natural grain of the wood, artsy light fixtures overhead, central air-conditioning had replaced the old-fashioned ceiling fans-- except for the same five Greeks who'd been running the place since the old days.
They didn't exactly jump up and hug me when we walked in. I hadn't been their best customer over the past eight years. The signs of recognition I received were muted and might have been imaginary.
I counted a dozen people inside the shop-- including the Greeks.
Shankman parked himself at the counter and ordered coffee. He kept glancing to his left and right, as if he wasn't sure he was allowed to be out.
I dug out my daughter's photo and started asking around.
Five minutes later I sat next to Shankman, having received the same answers I'd gotten every night since my release. He was right. My daughter was a ghost.
“You can say it, Shankman.”
“Say what, Reg?”
“Told you so.”
He finished his coffee and asked for a refill.
“I'd never say that. Not about this.”
I spun on the stool and watched the street. Everyone from late night revelers to second shift workers strolled by with unconcerned gaits, as if the darkness kept their troubles at bay. Even the loners seemed to have a little more gusto in their walks. The middle of the night was their element, a time when any man can walk the streets and claim them for himself.
Shankman said something to me.
I know he did because I felt his breath on the back of my head.
I didn't understand a word of it.
My attention was on the slim blonde walking uptown on the opposite side of the street.
It was the way she carried herself, a gentle swing of the hips as she walked, the way she looked around, taking in everything going on. Her pastel sun dress looked a lot like what my girl had on in that photograph.
She was with a tall, muscular guy in a red polo shirt and tight-fitting jeans.
I jumped off the stool when they stopped to wait for the light to change.
“What gives, Reg?” croaked Shankman.
I dropped two bucks on the counter and charged out the door, dodging taxis across Broadway.
Shankman was behind me. I heard him calling my name but I didn't have time for him.
“Emma!” I called out, stumbling up the curb. I ran to the corner and repeated her name.
Nobody looked my way.
Not the young guy sweeping a nearby storefront, not the trio of loud drunks standing by a dribbling fire hydrant, and not the girl nor her companion.
“Emma!” I said, reaching for her shoulder.
She whirled just before I made contact.
“Emma?” I asked.
She looked at me, eyes wide with surprise.
I ran my eyes over the girl's face. And stopped when I got to the shiner under her right eye.
The guy took a step toward me.
“Hey buddy,” he said, reaching for my arm.
I bull-rushed him, planting my shoulder in the pit of his stomach, driving him backward. His legs buckled and we went to the pavement.
I landed on top, swinging as we fell.
My first punch destroyed his nose. I felt it go flat beneath my fist, felt the warm splash of blood.
He thrashed beneath me, fighting to get me off of him, but I kept throwing, hitting the pavement as often as his face.
Hands grabbed at my arms and shoulders. A jumble of voices, combined with the pounding in my ears, became an aural blur that drowned out any specific sound.
I didn't hear the sirens. I didn't hear the girl's screams. And I didn't hear Shankman shouting in my ear until I was well away from the corner, up against a billboard.
“It ain't her, Reg!” yelled Shankman. “It ain't her!”
I looked into his eyes, the berserker rage beginning to subside.
“It ain't her,” he repeated in a gentle tone. “I wish to God it was, but it ain't.”
Nausea set in as I looked at by broken, bloody knuckles.
“Get out of here, man,” I said. “Before the cops show.”
“They're already here, Reg.”
“Then you better move faster.”
He stared for another few seconds, and then nodded.
I handed him my daughter's photo before he left.
“Take care of this for me?”
He took it without a word and blended into the crowd of onlookers as the police cuffed me and walked me to the cruiser.
I looked back at the scene before we took off for the station.
The girl was gone.
I spotted Shankman, though.
He stood on the corner, watching the police car pull away from the curb. He had an odd expression on his face, like he was silently begging them to take him back too.
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.