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Freedomlandby Richard Price
The Convoy brothers, hanging in the soupy stifle of the One Building breezeway, were probably the first to spot her, and the spectral sight seemed to have frozen them in postures of alert curiosity--Caprice, sprawled down low in a rusted dinette chair, his head poked through the makeshift bib of a discarded shower curtain, and Eric, standing behind him, four fingers stalled knuckle-deep in a wide-mouthed jar of hairbraiding oil.
She was a thin white woman, marching up the steep incline from the Hurley Street end of the projects, appearing head first, like the mast of a sailing ship rounding the curve of the earth, revealing more of herself with each quick, stiff step across the ruptured asphalt oval that centered the Henry T. Armstrong Houses. That sloped and broken arena, informally known as the Bowl, was usually barren, but tonight it lay planted with dozens of new refrigerators awaiting installation, resting on their backs in open crates like a moonstruck sea of coffins.
"Where she goin'." Eric said mildly.
The woman was carrying one arm palm up, cradled in the other like a baby.
Caprice leaned forward in the chair. "Bitch on a mission," he said, laughing.
"Huh," Eric grunted, faint, tentative. It was a quarter past nine in the evening, the grounds mostly deserted because of the rally being held at the community center to solve the double homicide of Mother Barrett and her brother. But despite being in the wrong place at the wrong time, this white lady didn't seem right for a fiend--wasn't looking at them, looking for them. In fact, she was ignoring them, coming off neither dope-hungry nor afraid, just taking those brisk little steps and glaring at the ground in front of her with an expression somewhere between angry and stunned.
Tariq Wilkins, scowling in the swelter of this end-of-June Monday evening, came hunkering out of One Building, his hands crossed and buried in the armpits of his Devils jersey.
"That meeting over yet?" he drawled. He took in the still-lit windows of the community center, made a clucking noise of annoyance.
Tariq, like Eric and Caprice and just about everybody else, knew who had killed the two old people exactly one year ago to the day. But also like everybody else, he was keeping it to himself, because what goes around comes around.
"Look like a cemetery out there," Tariq said, gesturing to the mute field of refrigerators. Then he spotted her climbing the asphalt Bowl and reared back. "Daq . . ." His mouth hung open, his hands moving to the back pockets of his hang-dog jeans.
She wore dungarees with fresh dirt stains at the knees and a black T-shirt sporting the naggy legend IT TAKES A WEAK MAN TO DISRESPECT THE STRONG WOMAN WHO RAISED HIM. Her hair was shoulder-length and lank, her face pale and thin. She had no lips to speak of, but her eyes-- the building-mounted anti-crime spotlights picked them up as a startling electric gray, like a husky's, so light and wide as to suggest trance or blindness.
She came within conversational distance of them, and Tariq stepped parallel, sizing her up. "What you lookin' for. . ." he said. Then, just as Eric snagged his sleeve and pulled him back, he caught the reflection of something both bloody and glittering in her upturned palm.
Without so much as a hitch in her stride, the woman sailed right past them and was gone--out of the Henry T. Armstrong Houses, the heart of that section of the city given the side-mouthed tags Darktown, D-Town, and into the world.
"What you be pulling on me. . ." Tariq snapped, without any real heat, jerking his elbow high to free himself from Eric's grip.
Eric didn't answer, just got back to working on his brother's head. A withdrawn silence came down on all three of them now, each having caught sight of that cupped bloody dazzle, each of them pulling in, as if to be alone with his abrupt and mystifying discomfort.
The woman marched through the city of Dempsy on a determined diagonal, with the same pinched yet rapid stride with which she had climbed the Bowl, up and out of the Armstrong Houses. Cradling her arm, she tramped through red lights and green, the traffic next to nothing at this hour of the workweek. She walked through the parking lot of a Kansas Fried Chicken and across a deserted basketball court named after a local projects kid turned pro, the sodium lights casting her shadow to the Powell Houses behind the backboard. She marched across the diamond of a Little League field resting atop a fifty-year-old chromium dump, her face sullen yet tremulous, her light eyes fixed on the ground in front of her.
The fashion wave rippling through Darktown that summer was fat strips of metallic reflector tape slapped on jeans, sneakers, and shirts. As she approached the dingy yellow sizzle of JFK Boulevard--all storefront churches, smoke shops, and abandoned businesses--the agitated boredom, of the dope crews brought the street corners alive with restless zips of light.
A patrol car slowed to profile her as she passed under a crude mural of a fetus with a crucifix sprouting from its navel. She raised her eyes, opened her mouth, and took a step in the car's direction. "Give a saliva test to this one here," the driver murmured to his partner. But then she seemed to change her mind, quickly giving the cruiser her back and evaporating into a side street.
In a few more minutes she was striding across another ball field, this one also atop an old chromium dump, and then she was facing the Dempsy Medical Center, vast, Gothic, and half shut down, the emergency room entrance shedding the only eye-level light before the city hit the river. She finally came to a halt just outside the cone-shaped perimeter cast before the entrance like a spotlight on a bare stage.
She hesitated on the edge of the pale, one foot in, one out, her face taking on a sparkle of panic as she eyed the full-up benches of the waiting room through the gummy glass of the automatic doors. For a moment she froze but then seemed to get a grip, decisively rolling off to her left, turning the corner of the building, and descending to a more shadowed entrance at the bottom of a ramp. Walking through a partially raised roll-down gate, she stepped inside an empty, garishly lit room, the silence and stillness such that the buzzing of a fluorescent desk lamp could be heard twenty feet away.
At first, as if disoriented by a sense of trespass, she appeared not to notice the overweight young black man on the gurney directly across the room from her. Once she caught sight of him she seemed unable to look away. He was barefoot but otherwise fully dressed--dead, the fatty tissue billowing out from the box-cutter slash under his chin like a greasy yellow beard. She stared at the pale-skinned soles of his feet as if hypnotized by this hidden whiteness, stood there staring until a stainless-steel freezer door opened directly across from her. A yellow-eyed middle-aged man in a hooded parka came into the room, instantly rearing back from her presence.
"You a relative?" he asked, removing his coat. His eyes rose to something directly over her head.
She looked up to see a digital readout blinking "115," then down to see that she was standing on a gurney-sized weighing platform set into the floor. When she looked back at the morgue attendant his eyes were on her hands.
"You in the wrong wing."
Standing by the nurses station that fronted the medical center's ER, the security guard, a goateed, nose-ringed kid tricked out in a uniform like a full-bird colonel, eavesdropped on an overnatty detective. He was on the phone to report a shots-fired situation--one dead Rottweiler, the shooter getting his face resewn in one of the trauma rooms. "A good shooting. Just thought you needed to know." Twenty feet down the corridor a sad-faced Pakistani leaned patiently against the wall, a bloody bath towel around his head, his ear in an ice-filled Ziploc bag.
There was an abrupt rapping against the glass doors of the ambulance bay, and the guard turned to see the woman outside, trying to push her way in. His mouth in a twist, he brusquely signaled her to walk around to the main entrance, then resumed watching the free show in the hallways, zeroing in on a mush-mouthed drunk reclining, fully dressed, on a slant-parked gurney. The guy lay casually on his side, propped up on an elbow like a Roman senator, his head resting on the palm of his hand. Earlier in the evening, the story went, he had bitten down on a shot glass and added a three-inch extension to one side of his smile.
"I'm a alcoholic," the drunk said, having caught the guard's eye. "I got me a big problem with that. Not a little problem, a big problem. A goddamn Shop Rite-sized problem. I ain't gonna lie about it."
The guard snorted and turned his attention to a bored correction officer on escort duty. He was doing half-assed push-ups against the wall while waiting for his charge to get the rest of his thumbnail removed.
A nurse's aide, a round, bespectacled, almost elderly black woman with a bemused set to her mouth, slapped a blood-pressure cuff on the drunk.
"I need me something for the pain. I told you that, right?"
"I got to get some Percocets or something 'cause I cannot stand pain and I got to get to work at 6:00 a.m. in the morning."
"Yeah? What do you do." The nurse smirked.
"You don't want to know."
"Well, I hope you don't drive no school bus."
"Mommy, I got me a forty-thousand-dollar car, cash paid. I'm telling you, you don't want to know."
"You don't want to know," the nurse said, mocking him. "I cannot stand pain," she added mincingly. "You want to know about pain, you have yourself a baby, then come talk to me about pain."
"Hey, I had six--"
"Well, I was in the vicinity."
The security guard, laughing now, hands behind his back, took a spacey 360-degree spin on one heel, then came alert with irritation as that lady outside the ambulance entrance renewed her rapping on the door. He began to wave her around again but saw the blood smearing the glass and what looked like a palm full of jewels pressed against the pane.
The ambulance bay doors were opened by remote to let a uniformed cop out, and suddenly the woman was in the house.
Eyes unfocused, teeth chattering, she floated down the hall, ignoring the irritated shout "Miss! Miss! Excuse me," a reproachful singsong from the nurses station.
She wandered down the hallway, past the examination rooms--surgery, trauma, medical, X ray--then, as if remembering something, abruptly wheeled around, inadvertently stepping into the startled embrace of the goateed security guard.
"You got to go out to triage just like everybody else," the kid lectured awkwardly, wincing at the sight of her uptumed palms, the things growing there. He steered her back past the nurses station to the dented, paint-chipped double doors that led to the waiting room. She went willingly at first but then suddenly, with an expression of disgust, twisted out of his grasp. Her supported arm fell from its cradle, the hand hanging from the wrist like a dead goose.
An East Indian doctor, petite, slender, and almost prim in his self-possession, strolled down the hallway eating a sandwich. His face registered a look of grudging interest as he noticed the floppiness of the hand.
"What happened to you," he asked flatly, between bites, taking in the glassy dislocation of her eyes, the labored workings of her chest. His identification tag read "Anil Chatterjee."
"He threw me down. I couldn't even get the words out." Her voice was smoky and deep, vibrating with a kind of retroactive panic.
"Down where." He lifted her limp hand, gently felt the outer wrist bones.
She ignored the question, her head jerking like a bird's.
"What happened to you."
Still no response.
He gave his sandwich to the security guard and took both her hands. Her palms were embedded with shards of glass, clear and beer-bottle green, bits of gravel, some rusted wedges of tin, sharp fragments of various colored plastic, and in one hand a fine, small coil of metal, the inner spring of a cheap ballpoint pen--all of it implanted in the red-and-blue rawness of abraded flesh.
"I want you to answer my question," he said sternly. "What happened to you."
"He threw me out of the car . . ." Suddenly she stomped her foot like a child, her voice soaring. "I couldn't get the words out! He didn't give me a chance! I tried, I swear to God!"
"Threw you out. Was the car moving?" Chatterjee gripped her above the wrists to prevent her from flailing and complicating the damage.
She turned away, her face bunching, tears popping like glass beads.
Casually bypassing the screening drill, he walked her directly to the surgery room, escorting her in an awkward sideways scuttle, still holding her in that double-handed grip. The guard followed tentatively with the doctor's sandwich.
The surgery room was crowded, the floor sticky, littered with torn gauze wrappers. Along the walls, patients sat quietly. A frazzled doctor with a Russian accent held a bouquet of MRIs, CAT scans, and X rays to his chest and read out names, mail-call-style.
Two men, both wearing blood-drizzled shirts, cautiously raised their hands, then, noticing each other, simultaneously lowered them.
Chatterjee sat her on a backless stool and took her pulse, which was racing like a hummingbird. He strapped a blood pressure cuff on her arm, holding himself still. Ninety over seventy. The blood was probably somewhere in her feet at this point.
"I need to know what happened to you. I cannot treat you if I don't know what happened to you," he said, locking his eyes into hers, staring into that dazzling lupine gray.
She looked away again, exhaling in graduated shudders, trying.
"I was lost," she began, in that smoky, stunned vibrato. "He said . . . he said he could help me get through the park. The guy, he didn't . . ." Her voice fluttered away. "He didn't even--I got out of the car, OK? He didn't even let me get a word out. He threw me down." She looked off, clenching her teeth.
"Were you raped?"
She balled her impaled palms into white knots, blood dripping. Chatterjee quickly backed away to save his pants, then, leaning forward from a safe distance, forcibly pried her fingers open again. The security guard placed the doctor's sandwich on a stack of X rays and left the room.
"Listen to me. I speak six different languages. Just answer in human range. Were you raped."
The triage nurse, a woman in her fifties with frosted red hair and a giant button reading "#1 NANA" pinned under her collar, slipped in behind Chatterjee. She held an admissions form on a clipboard. The doctor waited for an answer as the young woman looked at both of them with a pleading muteness. His gaze compulsively returning to those eyes, he nudged her stool with his knee, moving it along on its casters to a sink. He worked on a pair of latex gloves, then took one of her palms and began to wash it gently.
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