Prologue: OUT OF TIME
Ray — January 10
Ray Mitchell, white, forty-three, and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ruby, sat perched on the top slat of a playground bench in the heart of the Hopewell Houses, a twenty-four-tower low-income housing project in the city of Dempsy, New Jersey.
It was just after sundown: a clear winter's night, the sky still holding on to that last tinge of electric blue. Directly above their heads, sneaker-fruit and snagged plastic bags dangled from bare tree limbs; above that, an encircling ring of fourteen-story buildings; hundreds of aluminum-framed eyes twitching TV-light silver, and above all, the stars, faintly panting, like dogs at rest.
They were alone, but Ray wasn't too concerned about it-he had grown up in these houses; eighteen years ending in college, and naive or not he just couldn't quite regard Hopewell as an alien nation. Besides, a foot and a half of snow had fallen in the last two days and that kind of drama tended to put a hush on things, herd most of the worrisome stuff indoors.
Not that it was even all that cold-they were reasonably comfortable sitting there under the yellow glow of sodium lights, looking out over the pristine crust under which, half-buried, were geodesic monkey bars, two concrete crawl-through barrels and three cement seals, only their snouts and eyes visible above the snow line, as if they were truly at sea.
Two Hispanic teenaged girls cocooned inside puffy coats and speaking through their scarves walked past the playground, talking to each other about various boys' hair. Ray attempted to catch his daughter's eye to see if she had overheard any of that but Ruby, embarrassed about being here, about not belonging here, studied her boots.
As the girls walked out of earshot, the snowy silence returned, a phenomenal silence for a place so huge, the only sounds the fitful rustling of the plastic bags skewered on the branches overhead, the sporadic buzzing of front-door security locks in the buildings behind them and the occasional crunching tread of a tenant making their way along the snowpacked footpaths.
"Dad?" Ruby said in a soft high voice. "When you were a child, did Grandma and Grandpa like living here?"
"When I was a child?" Ray touched by her formality. "I guess. I mean, here was here, you know what I'm saying? People lived where they lived. At least, back then they did."
At the low end of the projects, along Rocker Drive, an elevated PATH train shot past the Houses, briefly visible to them through a gap in the buildings.
"Tell me another one," Ruby said, her breath curling in the air.
"About Prince and Dub?"
"Tell me some more names."
"More?" He had already rattled off at least a dozen. "Jesus, okay, hang on...There was Butchie, Big Chief, Psycho, Hercules, Little Psycho-no relation to regular Psycho-Cookie, Tweetie..."
"Tell me a story about Tweetie."
"About Tweetie? OK. Oh. How about one with Tweetie and Dub?"
"OK. When I was twelve? Dub's thirteen, we're playing stickball on the sidewalk in front of the building, about eight guys. You know what stickball is?"
"How do you..."
"OK. We're playing on the sidewalk. Dub's standing there at the plate, got the bat..."
Ray slipped off the bench, struck a pose.
"Ball comes in..." He took a full swing. "And behind him is this girl Tweetie, she's just like, daydreaming or whatever, and the stick, on the backswing, like, clips her right over the eye like, zzzip...Slices off half of her eyebrow, the skin, the flesh-"
"Stop." Ruby hissed, jiggling her knees.
"Dub, he doesn't even know he did it. But she's standing there, and you know, like Dub she was black, Tweetie, very dark-skinned, and it's like all of a sudden over her eye there's this deep bright pink gash, totally dry, she says, 'Oh Dub,' in a shock voice, not mad, more like upset, or scared. And, I remember what was freaky to me, was that from the waist up she was calm, but below? Her legs were running in place. And in the next second, that dry pink gash? It just fills up with blood. And now Dub sees what he did, everybody sees it, and I remember, she says, 'Oh Dub,' again, in this fluty voice and then the blood just...spills, comes down over that side of her face like someone had turned on a faucet, and everybody just freaks, just...We're all twelve, thirteen years old, Tweetie is like, ten, but when we saw all that blood? People, the guys, everybody freaked and most of them, they ran away, they just ran, except me, I'm standing there, and Dub. Dub is still holding the stickbat and he has this angry look on his face like, it's not, it's more like he's stunned, he knows he's in trouble, he knows he should do something, apologize, explain why it's not his fault, but he can't, he can't even move, you know, the blood, and now she's crying, Tweetie, and me, I'm as freaked as anybody but I just wound up going robot on it. What I do is, I pull off my sweaty T-shirt, a white T-shirt, roll it up in a ball and I go over and put it on her eyebrow, like a compress. I'm holding it there with one hand, and I put my arm around her shoulder, she was a short little pudgy kid, a butterball, and I steer her to the curb and we sit on the curb rib to rib. I'm holding my T-shirt to that gash, I got my arm around her, and we just sit there. I have no idea what to do, what I'm doing, she's crying, and Dub, he's still standing there with the stickbat. He looks fierce, like he wants to punch somebody, but he is stone paralyzed...
"We're sitting there maybe three minutes, me and Tweetie, I think I got the blood stopped, Dub's playing statue, and all of a sudden I look at him and his eyes go, Pop! Buggin'. And he's, someone's coming from the other direction and just like that he drops the stickbat and hauls ass out of there. And he could run, Dub, but this wasn't running, this was freight-training, he was pumping so hard he could've gone through a wall.
"So I turn to see what made him go off? It's Eddie Paris, his dad. Eddie doesn't chase him or anything. He just crouches down in front of me and Tweetie on the curb, you know, like squatting on the balls of his feet? And he's calm, got a cigarette hanging from his lips, got his hair all processed, you know, marcelled back and I'm like, finally we got a grownup there, thank God, but instantly Tweetie starts saying, 'Mr. Paris, it's not Dub's fault, he didn't see me, it's my fault,' because she, I mean, everybody knew how Eddie lit into his kids when they screwed up and it was- I guess she was a nice enough person, a kid, I didn't really know her but...
"She says all this stuff to get Dub off the hook, but Eddie, it's like he's not even paying attention to her. He just puts his hand on my hand holding that T-shirt, I mean that thing was a big red sponge by this point, and he tells me to let go and he starts trying to tease the shirt off the gash to see the damage? But he can't. The cotton has meshed with the wound and was like stuck to it so he takes my hand, puts it back on the T-shirt, says, 'Just sit tight.' And that's what we did..."
"Where was Tweetie's dad?"
"I don't think she had one. Her family, her mother was some kind of wino or something, had this crackly voice, dragged herself around in a housedress."
"Bathrobe, always smoking, and she had two older brothers, Tweetie, one was like this ghetto-style drag queen, Antoine, he'd go around in flip-flops and a hair net. He'd like, camel-walk like..."
Ray got up again and took a few steps in a languid undulating mime, his eyes both sleepy and predatory. "You know, hung around the boys' room at school, tell you you were standing too close to the urinal, make you take a step back to see what..." Ray broke it off. "Anyways, Antoine, he stabbed someone, went to reform school, came out, stabbed someone else, went to jail. And she had this other brother Butchie, in and out of jail, real hard-core tough guy, stickups, drugs, guns, no sense of humor..."
"What do you mean no sense..."
"I'm, it's a joke."
Ruby stared at him, the story getting away from her.
"OK. Five minutes after he left us, Eddie Paris pulls up to the curb in his station wagon and he puts me and Tweetie in the backseat. We're like Siamese twins connected by a T-shirt.
"He drives us to the Dempsy Medical Center, I'm still with no shirt on and I'm wearing white dungarees."
"Jeans. They just started selling white ones that summer. White, so you can imagine what they looked like with all that blood.
"We go into the emergency room. I'm topless, sitting there with her a half hour on the benches until she gets called. The doctor finally takes over on the T-shirt-holding job, they give me a hospital smock to wear and they let me watch as they kind of wash the T-shirt away from her eyebrow, little by little; then they sew her up, guy looked like he was lacing a boot.
"Eddie drives us back home, not saying a word, and little Tweetie, she just keeps up this line of 'Mr. Paris, Dub didn't see me, it's not his fault, it was an accident,' which is pretty amazing that a ten-year-old could have that awareness of other people, the trouble they were in, you know what I'm saying?"
"Eddie just keeps driving, doesn't say a word, takes us back to Hopewell and that was it."
"Did she say thank you?"
"I don't know. She was a little kid."
"But she talked about Dub."
"Dub was in trouble, I wasn't. Ruby, she was in fifth grade. 'Thank you' is like Latin to a fifth-grader."
"I would have said thank you."
"And I would have said you're welcome, whatever."
"What happened to Dub?"
"Somebody said that he slept on the roof of our building that night, came home the next afternoon once his dad went off to work. But I don't really know."
"What happened to Tweetie?"
"I'm not sure. Something not good, I think. The last thing I remember with her was about three, four years later, when she was a teenager. She got caught spray-painting 'White Bitch' on the wall of Eleven Building, caught by the housing cops right in the act, and, I remember, that day, being on the basketball courts, all of a sudden everybody's running to the fence and there's Tweetie between these two cops and she's not exactly crying but there's, like, leakage, coming down her face and they just march her off to the management office on the other side of the projects, a whole bunch of kids kind of following them, making jokes and whatever. I mean, I hate to say this, Ruby, but kids can be real shits."
"Did you make any jokes?"
"I don't remember. I hope not."
"Did Dub make any jokes?"
"I don't think he was there."
"Did Dub ever apologize?"
"For the, to Tweetie? My guess is not."
"I would have apologized."
"I don't doubt it."
Another train shot past down on Rocker, distance giving it the scale of a Christmas toy.
"Go on," Ruby said.
"Go on where..."
"Tell me another one."
Part I: CONTRECOUP
Ray - January 4
Entering Paulus Hook High School for only the second time since graduation twenty-five years earlier, Ray approached the security desk, a rickety card table set up beneath a blue-and-gold Christmas/Kwanza/Hanukkah banner, which still hung from the ceiling in the darkly varnished lobby four days into the New Year.
The uniformed guard standing behind the sign-in book was a grandmotherly black woman: short, bespectacled, wearing an odd homemade uniform of fuzzy knit watch cap, gray slacks and a commando sweater, a khaki ribbed pullover with a saddle-shaped leather patch straddling the left shoulder.
"You got a visitor's pass?" she asked Ray as he hunched over the sign-in sheet.
"Me? I'm here to guest-teach a class."
"They give you a teacher's ID?"
"A what?" Then, "No..."
Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade. "Today's my first day."
. . .
With all regulation classrooms booked at this hour, Ray had been offered the faculty lounge to conduct his volunteer writers' workshop, but in his anxiety for this thing to come off he had shown up too early, walking in on four real teachers brown-bagging it around a long conference table that centered the room.
Despite his stranger status, not one of them even looked his way, and after standing inside the doorway for an awkward moment, he quietly maneuvered himself behind a large scuffed desk wedged into a corner and just sat there waiting for the period-ending bell.
The teachers, all men, seemed to be working their way through a hit list of rotten apples.
"Out. I talked with his mother and I think he's out of the house, too."
"Out. I just told him. I swear, that kid does 'Bewildered' better than anybody on two feet. 'Mr. Rosen, what I do? Suspended! Why?' Because you're on your own fuckin' planet, Edgardo..."
"How about Templeton..."
"I'm giving him one last chance."
"Aw, he got to you with that smile, huh?"
"Nah, nah nah, I just said, 'Hey Curtis, there's a new statute on the books-Consorting with Known Morons. I see you with Dukey, Ghost, or any of that crew? I don't care if it's a country mile from school property. You're vaporized.'"
"Don't worry, he understood me loud and clear."
They were either ignoring him or simply letting him be, Ray scanning the walls, taking in the student artwork; mostly crude cut-felt mosaics featuring idyllic tableaus of urban positivism: a black family eating dinner together, multicolored neighbors planting a community garden, big brown kids reading to little brown kids.
When the bell finally rang, the teachers at the table groaned to their feet, as reluctant to go back to the classrooms as any of the students.
Three of them filed out of the lounge without ever acknowledging him, but the last one made a stop at the desk, leaning forward on his knuckles to offer a confidence.
"I would rate ninety-six percent of the kids in this school from OK to great; the other four percent are just stone fucking assholes taking up space and there's nothing we can do about it."
Alone now, Ray took in the disembodied sound track of the students out in the halls, a steady murmurous stream of agitation, punctuated by squawks, bird caws and bellows.
Five minutes went by, the muffled hullabaloo gradually fading away out there, yet he found himself still facing an empty room.
To conceal from himself how awkward and vaguely embarrassed he was beginning to feel, he began fiddling with his cell phone; checking for messages, calling the sports hotline, the 970 weather forecast; played with his datebook; then scribbled down a few introductory notes for his phantom students; coming off busy as hell, yet when the school's principal, Bill or Bob Egan, knocked on the open door of the empty lounge, Ray almost shot to his feet with relief.
From the Hardcover edition.
Copyright© 2003 by Richard Price