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The Smoking Poet - Summer 2008

Short Story Contest - Third Place

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Third Place Winner: Phil Haddock

   

 

Story by Lorenzo D

  

Some days you know who’s calling before you even pick up the phone. A call from Johnny B. on a Friday morning meant some blow-hard was threatening to sue us. We were always getting sued. If we didn’t get sued we weren’t doing our job.  Johnny was my boss at L’Agenda, which means diary in Italian. His real name was Gianni, but he liked the American way I said it. Once a week we threw a spotlight on crime—ax-murders, shootings and graft in high places. There was plenty to go around.

My deadline was six p.m. Thursday. We went to press at midnight and by Friday morning we were all over Italy with the latest dirt on the well-dressed weasels running the country.

I picked up the phone. “Yeah.”

I heard him cough. He was a smoker, hooked beyond hope on those hand-rolled Tuscan cigars you can smoke or chew, either way they’ll kill you. “This is Johnny.”

“I know.”

“You know what already?”

“Nothing.”

“Right. A murder on your doorstep and you don’t even know.”

“Friday’s my day off.” Damn, that was lame. I winced and said, “When?”

“I got a call a half hour ago. Where were you, drunk?”

“Sleeping.”

“Tell that to the Sisters.” Johnny was always saying that. He’d been raised by nuns, and they still had him shaking in his boots. He’d cross the street to avoid one, fearful she’d catch him in the act. Smoking, smiling, whatever. Some guilt never goes away.

“Who’s dead, Johnny?” I was on my feet and heading for the shower.

“Some kid. Twelve or thirteen. Drive-by, two guys on a scooter.” It wasn’t just the smoke in his voice that made it sound so rough. He had a boy of his own the same age, so I knew what he was thinking.

“Don’t say it,” I croaked, and pumped my hand toward the floor in the gesture used to keep bad luck at bay. I wasn’t any good at it. I could speak the language well enough—I’d been living in Milan for twenty years—but whenever I tried to use my hands I felt like a foreigner and a fraud.

Johnny was in a hurry. “Get down there, Pete. Call me when you know something.”

“Whoa, boy.” I slowed him down. “What do you hear?”

“Not much. Coke, maybe. Pills. Drugs all over the place these days.”

“You think it’s drugs?”

“Twelve-year old gets shot in the street—” He cut himself off with another cough. “You tell me.”

“I’m on it, ” I said, but he was already gone. I put the phone down and turned on the shower, stepped in and stuck my head under the spray, trying to remember what the world was like when I was twelve. I closed my eyes. Basketball. That’s all there was. Hours and hours at the free-throw line or working on my sky-hook.

Ten minutes later I stumbled downstairs and out into the morning. It was cold and gray with a bite to the air that felt like snow was on the way. My neighbor stood in the middle of the street, smoking a cigarette with his friend, the fat guy with the Dalmatian. I walked up and gave Homer a pat on the head. “What’s the story, Tony?”

Tony and the fat man threw twin nods toward the square at the end of the street where the streetcars made a loop before heading back into town. There was an ambulance with its lights still flashing parked out front of the corner store that sold cameras and phones and Armani sunglasses. Two blue and white cop cars had blocked off the street and the rubbernecks were buzzing around them. 

“The kid,” said Tony. “Dead. Drugs.” He dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. “Must have owed somebody something.” The way he said it hit me: the kid. Like he figured I knew him. The bottom dropped out of my gut and I whirled and ran and pushed through the crowd and pulled up short when I saw the woman kneeling beside him. She had blood on her hands and on her face and was rocking back and forth beside her boy, her baby boy.

Somebody’d picked up the basketball and set it down beside the body. Lorenzo. Lying stretched out in the road in sweatpants and a Lakers jersey, a dark stain seeping into the name.   

One of the cops was talking to Guido, the wild-eyed AC Milan fan who ran the newsstand out front of the camera store. I sidled over and tried to catch what he was saying. My hearing isn’t all that good, but it sounded like he’d heard the shots, three or maybe four. Did he see anything, the cop wanted to know. Yeah, said Guido, couple guys in black helmets on a Vespa. He couldn’t say what color it was and no, he didn’t catch the number. MI for Milan was all he could remember, that and the kid with the basketball on his way to the park for an early-morning session at the free-throw line.

I’d met him there one Saturday afternoon. He was running in lay-ups, stepping through his shuffling feints and stumbling, awkward moves. He dreamed of a future in the NBA, so I told him the story about Kareem, how me and Kareem went to high school together when Kareem was still called Lew. How I’d watched the big man work the sky-hook till it ran so smooth it looked like honey dripping from a spoon.

Mario stood with his back to the crowd outside the camera store. He didn’t look good. He had kids, too. I walked over to him. “Tony says drugs. What do you think?” I looked into his eyes. He looked away but not before I saw something in there, cowering in the dark, too scared to move. “Are we talking drugs here, Mario?”

“For crissake, Pete. Lorenzo was a choirboy.”

“A sniffer, maybe? Glue? Paint stripper?”

“No chance.” He turned away, dropped to a crouch and slipped a key in the lock that clamped the metal shutters over the windows and the door. There were four fat bullet holes punched in the slats from the last time he’d missed a payment. The bullets had shattered the windows and slammed into the walls, but nobody had been hurt.

“When was the last time they hit you?”

“Forget it, Pete. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Mario knocked on the shutters and somebody inside pressed a button. His brother, no doubt. The shutters rattled slowly up into their slots. It was a family business, and the brothers had been there forever. I wondered what it was costing them.

 “You pay by the month?” I couldn’t let it go. “How much?”

Mario shook his head, anger flooding his face and his voice, and hissed, “This is different.” He threw a long look over at the body lying broken in the street, at the ambulance crew and the cops and the neighbors crowding round the scene. “And drugs have nothing to do with it.”

“How do you know?”

“Lorenzo was a choirboy.” The light in his eyes turned smoky and still. He was telling me something, but that was all he was prepared to give me. “And don’t — don’t quote me, Pete. I’m too much in love with life.”

He stood in the door until he was sure I understood. I nodded and watched his grim smile fade as he disappeared into the store. I turned back to the scene in the street. Two paramedics in fluorescent orange vests and trousers had lifted the long, skinny body onto a stretcher. I watched as they rolled it the back of the ambulance, levered it up and locked it down inside. The kid’s mother climbed in after her boy and the driver shut and barred the door. He didn’t bother with the siren as they drove away.

                                                 š

I had six days left to write up the story. Plenty of time, I figured, and wasted the rest of the day reading old stories I’d published in L’Agenda. At five I called a friend and we met for a drink and a movie where some crazy bastard drives around Texas blowing out locks and people’s brains. My friend got sick in the middle of things when the bad guy sewed up his leg on screen. She slumped down into the seat beside me and covered her face with her hands. Then she jumped up and ran outside and got sick all over the sidewalk. I took her back to her apartment, made tea and put her to bed.

Sunday morning I took a walk to the church where the funeral was set to take place the next day. I don’t like funerals, they give me the creeps, and I don’t have a lot of time for churches in the first place. I’ll walk into one every once in a while, to check out the paintings and smell the incense, but I wasn’t there that morning for the frescos or the smoke. The place was filling up with faces I knew from the neighborhood. After a while the priest appeared, a man about sixty, his face the color of bones, with pale blue eyes and a fine skein of broken blood vessels spreading over his cheeks from the nose.

When the service was over I walked up and introduced myself. He nodded and gave me a little smile and asked what he could do for me. I studied the cool white marble floor, then looked up into his eyes. “Why do you think Lorenzo was killed?”

The priest looked away. “God only knows.”

“Drugs?”

“So people are saying.”

“You believe them?”

He was staring at the floor, or at my shoes. I couldn’t tell. Maybe he disapproved of my shoes. Not shiny enough. The wrong color? “I don’t know what to believe.”

Strange thing to say for a priest. I scanned him for clues and came up empty, so I asked if he’d known Lorenzo well.

“I knew him.” A sad, pious smile slithered into his face. “Not well. He sang in the choir.” His gaze wandered past me to the cold white marble floor and the shadows under the portico. He turned back. “You were his friend. Did you ever see him use drugs?”

“Didn’t seem the type,” I said. “Lorenzo was an athlete. We used to play a little one-on-one at the courts in the park.”

“One and one?”

“Basketball.”

“Oh.” He sounded relieved. “Was he any good?”

I thought about it. “No. He had a future, but it wasn’t in the NBA.”

Darkness on the face of the priest. “Where was the future for the boy?”

I lifted my hand and tapped my forehead. I was trying to tell him Lorenzo was smart, that he could have made something of his life.

The priest nodded. “He was, yes. A little bit crazy, I agree.” He paused, looked down at my shoes again, and said, “But he had a wonderful voice.”

I gave up and dropped the hand. “The boy was bright. He liked to read.”

“The Bible?”

I shook my head. “If he did, we didn’t talk about it.”

He stiffened. “What did you talk about?”

I gave him the name of a book by a woman whose father had mistaken her for his wife. I studied his face, waiting for a sign. The slightest of quivers, a tic or a twitch. Nothing. The only crack in the wall was in his voice when he said, “I’m not ff-familiar with it. What is it about?”

There was a word on the tip of my tongue. I almost let it slip, but I was sure he already knew. Maybe he didn’t know the book, but he knew what I was talking about. “Some other time,” I said, and threw him something else to chew on. “Lorenzo was a writer. He showed me some of his stuff. Pretty good for a kid his age.”

I saw a little more white in his eyes as he took in the news, but I had the feeling that it wasn’t news to him. His eyes grew narrow and he lowered his voice and cooed, “What was it, journalism?”

I overlooked the sneer and said, “He wanted to be a reporter.”

No surprise there. “Like you.”

“I told him if he had a good story, we could write it up together. I promised him a credit. A by-line in L’Agenda.”

The sad and pious smile returned. “What could he possibly write that would be of any interest to your readers?” 

That was the end of our conversation. He offered me his hand. I shook it and walked away. 

                                                   š

I walked along ahead of the hearse with everybody else, past the newsstand and the camera store to the church around the corner. I stood in the back while the family and friends of the dead boy prayed and sang. I saw Mario sitting with his brother and the children and wondered who was taking care of business at the store. Then I remembered what day it was. The camera store was closed on Monday. I saw Tony, too, sitting with the fat man next to the woman from Romania who ran the laundry two doors down from the place that sold cheap telephone calls to Africa and points beyond. Gloria from the pastry shop was there, and Hamid, the tall Egyptian who ran the pizzeria across from the park. It was like a village. When somebody died, everyone felt obliged to pay their respects.

Lorenzo’s mother wore dark glasses and a black silk scarf around her head. I recognized his father beside her. I’d seen him that time he’d come down from Germany for Lorenzo’s birthday. He’d been sending money home for years, but he never stayed in Milan for long. Maybe he had another family up in Frankfurt or Berlin. Lorenzo had never mentioned him.

The priest gave a speech about the love of God and said that when our time came there was nothing we could do. Maybe. Maybe not. Hard to prove one way or the other. It was something the living liked to say when they could have done something to help the dead when the dead were still alive, but hadn’t bothered.

When the service was over I retrieved my car from the garage, drove back and followed the hearse from the church to the cemetery. On the way I remembered the day I’d seen him last. We’d been shooting hoop in the park for a while and then crossed the street for a pizza. It was something we liked to do on a Saturday afternoon. We’d work on his jump shot or the sky-hook, shoot twenty-five each from the line and then go one-on-one. After that we’d get a pizza at Hamid’s and talk about writers for a while. He liked Poe and Calvino, I was partial to Hemingway. We could go for hours, trading scenes and characters, but that last day I felt something wrong. There was trouble in his voice. 

“I’m working on a story,” he said. “Will you read it when I’m done?”

“Sure. What’s it about?”

He lowered his eyes. “I’ll show you. Will you publish it?”

“I can’t promise that.”

Disappointment flooded his eyes. “It’s not up to me,” I said. “You write the story as you see it. The editor does the rest.”

“Johnny, isn’t it? Your editor?”

I nodded. “Johnny cuts. He changes things. We argue. Then we go to press.”

“But if everything I write is true?”

I shook my head. “Can you prove it in court? Are there witnesses? Will they testify? It’s not that simple.”

He was silent for a while, and when he spoke I heard the trouble in his voice. “So if I don’t have proof, then it never happened?”

I caught Hamid’s eye and waved him over. I asked him to bring us a Coke and a cup of coffee, and turned back to Lorenzo. “Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But if you’re talking about a crime, you need evidence. Unless—”

Lorenzo sat up, eyes bright with sudden hope. “Unless—?”

“Unless it’s fiction.”

Hamid came and went. I pushed the Coke across the checkered tablecloth, tore open a packet of brown sugar and emptied it into my coffee. “That way you can tell the truth. You just change the names and say you made the whole thing up.”

A smile, finally. “Is that what Nabokov did?”

“Which Nabokov are we talking about?”

“Lolita.”

I pulled up to a stop behind the hearse and got out and leaned on the door, watching the ghost of Lorenzo’s smile as his coffin floated over the grass and sank slowly into the ground.

                                                                      š

I gave Johnny a call that night and laid out what I thought I knew. He wanted to know about the drugs and how likely it was that the kid had been shot for not paying his bills. 

I said I’d talked to my usual sources who said there was plenty of dope on the streets and that kids mixed speed with hard-on pills and anything else they could find. “But nobody I talk to  can pin Lorenzo to the trade. He was clean.”

“So where’s the story?”

I let him hang for a while.

“Fuck’s sake, Pete. It’s past midnight. Spit it out.”

“Lolita.”

I could hear him chewing on the Tuscan cigar. He lit a match, sucked in smoke, coughed and let it go. “The priest?”

“How’d you guess.”

“Made a couple calls. The guy was in Brazil for years, earned himself a reputation as a man with unusual tastes. At some point the rumors made it back to Rome. He showed up here a couple years ago, nobody the wiser. Left his damaged goods behind, along with a suicide.”

“How old?”

“Eleven, twelve,” He cleared his throat. “It’s not pretty, Pete, but it’s not a pattern, either. Lorenzo didn’t kill himself. And nobody calls in a hit on a twelve-year old.”

“Not even the sisters?”

There was a moment of silence before he spat out a mirthless laugh. “They don’t need guns, believe me.”

“So where does that leave us?”

“Maybe somebody did him a favor.” A cough. “Running up credit, you never know.”

“Or maybe he called one in. Isn’t that how it works?” We both knew it wasn’t a question. I had an idea. “Let me go see somebody. I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said, and put down the phone.

Tuesday morning I was waiting outside the camera store when Mario’s brother showed up with the keys to raise the shutter. I followed him in and found Mario rubbing down the glass counter over the cell phones. I said hello and asked about the new ones in the window. He smiled and launched a chirpy spiel about iPhone clones and next-generation net connections and asked me which one I wanted. I came back with a question about the priest and he went all white and quiet on me. I looked in his eyes and saw it again, whatever it was, terrified and whimpering in the dark.

“Mario,” I said. “You can’t keep it under wraps forever.”

He was quiet as he packed the phones away. I could see him chewing on something. Finally he looked me in the eye. “I hear Lorenzo was a writer, a loudmouth canary like you.”

“I thought you said he was a choirboy.”

“Writers, singers, what’s the difference. Where’s the story?”

Later that morning I called my friend and told her what I was looking for. I heard back from her that night. The police had found some things in his room. A notebook, a copy of Lolita  and an envelope addressed to me. Deal was, she said, they’d let me read it but I couldn’t take it home. That was the best she could do.

It was good enough. I tore open the envelope, read the letter and spent most of Wednesday on the phone. It was hopeless. No matter how I wrote it up, I couldn’t disguise the fact I had nothing to say. Lorenzo was dead, but there was no story. The police were calling it homicide. They had bullets but they didn’t have a gun, shooters on a scooter but no clue who they were or why they’d done it. They were looking for couple of guys in black helmets on a Vespa. They’d found the Vespa, reported stolen that same day, but otherwise had nothing. No coke, no crack, no snow, no speed, and nobody willing to talk. They were all too much in love with life.

Later that afternoon I caught a streetcar to Johnny’s office and handed him the pages. He took them and read them and looked up at me, shaking his head in disgust. “Crissake, Pete, you call this a story?” He tore it up and tossed it over his shoulder. “You’re fired.”

“So what else is new.”

“What happened to the truth?”

“No witnesses.”

“Nobody?”

“Lorenzo.”

“He’s dead.”

“You were always bright.” I waited for the other shoe to drop while Johnny smoked and coughed and in the end threw out his hand. I reached into my jacket, found the envelope and pushed it across the table. He ripped it open and tore out the sheets that Lorenzo had filled with his scrawl. I watched Johnny’s face as he read, saw the blood drain away and leave him the color of ashes.

L’Agenda went to press at midnight with the facts from me, Lorenzo’s story and Johnny’s editorial. He made a big point that it was just a story—debut fiction by a gifted young writer whose tragic death by shooting had made the news the week before. The disclaimers didn’t do us any good. By Friday morning the phones were ringing and by noon some blowhard in Rome had announced he would see us in court: libel, slander, defamation. An unforgivable offense against religion.

Sunday morning I got up early and walked over to the church. I wanted to talk to Don Giovanni. I wanted to know if he’d read the piece by Lorenzo D. in L’Agenda. Don Giovanni was the name Lorenzo had given the priest in his story. I stepped into the shadows, walked along under the portico and slipped into a pew up near the front.

He never showed. Not that Sunday or the next and not the one after that. I was busy every week with a different story and the same deadline, so Don Giovanni faded fast, along with the flowers in the makeshift altar on the corner where Lorenzo died. I put in a call to my friend, who told me the police had moved on to more important things. The files were closed and the scooter the shooters had used had been returned to its rightful owner. 

One Sunday morning a couple months later I ambled up to the newsstand where Guido was unbundling extra copies of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the national paper whose pink newsprint and screaming headlines were a fixture of every bar in the country. AC Milan had whipped my team in the cross-town duel the night before, so I was hoping he’d be so busy gloating that he might let something slip about what he’d seen that day. A detail he’d somehow neglected to mention to me or the authorities. I let him get his digs in and then casually tried to change the subject. He threw me a triumphant smile and said, “Don’t play smart-ass on me, Pete. Your overpaid jokers choked again.”

“Too true,” I grumbled, and produced a loud, theatrical sigh as a prelude to another bumbling effort to change the subject. “Traffic’s getting worse every day,” I observed. “I figure I’ll get myself a scooter, maybe one like the shooters had, a Lambretta.”

“A Vespa,” said Guido, shaking his head. “I saw it again the other day.”

“Did you,” I shot back, “Where? Did you get the plates?”

I saw a flash of anger in his eyes and could have kicked myself as he turned away and disappeared behind the stacks of papers and news magazines. I dug into my pockets and laid out a few coins for La Gazzetta and the two big national dailies, folded everything under my arm and walked off. I hadn’t seen the frescos in a good long time and I’d always liked the smell of incense under the porticos.     

The priest smiled and gave me a nod as I sat down, so when the service was over I went up and asked him what happened to Don Giovanni, if he was back in Brazil now or what.

He gave me a look as blank and white as the marble floor beneath his feet, tilted his head to the side and said, “Who?”

On the way back home I stopped for coffee at a cafe. The sun was out so I sat outside and  sifted through the news. I was always on the lookout for a story—graft and corruption in high places, street crime in the neighborhood. Some time around noon, it must have been, Mario and his brother drove by on the Vespa. Mario raised a hand and waved.

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