Monday, July 30, 2018

Her Sister

  The world is a forest of broken accordion springs sticking out the side of a dead pig down by the canals in the bad part of town. Each spring is named after the failed dream of someone who died on these streets, and you can see them all when it’s just started to rain, before the pounding has driven the ghosts away. She’s got dozens of them, houses never built and dates never celebrated and children never born, which you can see out of the corners of your eyes when you look for the one that matters most, the one you can only see for a second here or there when the weather takes a turn for the worse. I try not to intrude on anyone else’s time alone with the invisible graves, like we’re out back of an abandoned church staring at the names asking ourselves why god had to be born under a bad sign. There it is for just a moment, weightless and free, clear as day in the flickering orange steam of lamplit gutters in the early rain. There it is, the time she met me, glowing with the hope of everything she thought I could’ve been that was impossible.

  Picture a diner where the coffeepot’s never been cleaned out but people keep coming, a waitress too pretty to be working the hopeless shift on a night where three cops got laid out in the broiler room of the abandoned factory across the street, and tomorrow the spaces far from the headlines are all gonna wonder why nothing ruined ever gets torn down around here until the last drop has been squeezed loose. She saw me and the music gave an uptick, lifted by the smile she only showed once, when she thought I could’ve been the answer. Poor fool, there are no answers, except in smiles like hers, you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones that show that you haven’t yet shaken hands with any of the empty skinbags that promise to fix this place if only you’ll turn around and hide your eyes for another forty years or so. I order something I don’t want just to watch her deliver it, and she’s satisfied like a wheel on a barge that finally found the place it called home, like the old blue and yellow from the tourism agency that brought busloads of schoolkids in here to look at the architecture without risking the sidewalks. I always wondered how they made it out of here, or maybe that explains the slaughterhouse on the south end where the sausages are only shipped out, never ordered or eaten locally by anyone I know, excepting as toppings on the pizza place all the suits on the pension committee go to.

  Her hand touches mine alongside a bowl of tomato soup, and I froze like sixteen icy angels had just used my funnybone for a xylophone. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather, but she had the decency to use a question, something about the price of the soup, and when I got out my wallet sure enough the picture of the dead girl I’d been hired to find fell out, and she broke into tears since the police wouldn’t find her sister’s killer and her mother had gone without heat to pay my bill. I said something about justice, something ordinary, something you say to everyone who likes you if you used to wear a uniform, and she ate it up like it was the first time. It all came out then, like it always does, but unexpectedly fresh, without the taint of stained love or flushed ideals. She was a great actress or an apparition or I’d drunk too much this evening and I was seeing things, hallucinating a nicer world, and in truth maybe I’d got lost down in the canal and never made it to the diner or maybe I was really falling for the faggot behind the counter who’d been cooking up the same eggs the same way for fifty years. But the girl kept looking real, she wanted to hear about the case, she put down her apron, and I got out my pad and pen and I left the tomato soup to die next to the window while she proved what a fool she was by asking me to come back to her place and look at some of her dead sister’s things. Halfway there and she thought I was an angel in disguise and I thought she was one without a disguise and it hit me that there was no way she could be real, no way a girl like her could exist in a place like this without already having her spirit and her smile broken in two the first time she walked outdoors after dusk.

  I looked up toward the buildings across the street, and that was when I saw her, the girl from the news, the girl from the picture in my wallet, playing an accordion, the instrument broken and minor and wheezing like a drunk. She sat an inch above the ledge, crying silently and playing a dirge that’ll recycle my mind until the day I kick off. Figured it was just the scotch talking. We made a few turns through the canal district, and there she was again, the pretty sister who’d been disposed of in that chemical plant. Pretty like a star, pretty like an angel’s song, pretty like you catch your breath and wish you were young again, wish you were young ever. There she was playing her broken accordion like the bellows didn’t need to be intact, like the only thing that mattered was the tune in her heart, watching and crying as three men came out an alley on this side. I left an unwanted present in two of them and they outdid themselves in return but the waitress with me didn’t know the duck and cover, damn her, she took twelve and saved my life, saved the investigation at least, all over the few tips she had on her and the few bills I had on me when the one in my gut bled me so weak it took two surgeries on credit to make me able to use the toilet and lift my good arm like before. Another street, another crime, too practical and too faceless to be anything but rational.

  The world is a forest of broken accordion springs sticking out the side of a dead pig down by the canals in the bad part of town. Each one is named after the failed dream of someone who died on these streets, and you can see them all when it’s just started to rain, before the pounding has driven the ghosts away. Sometimes people get caught in those springs like marshmallows on pokers, like sticks trapped in the spokes of a bike, snapped in two the next time the great machine wheezes. But the worse fate is to not even see it at all, not get broken outside, forced to just stay here all fake for another pounding from the inside.

  The third one of them ran, ran leaving his two compatriots dead next to the girl, ran like it was his first time ever, the last of his own hopes burning up in the face of what he’d done, joining mine in the inferno of what I hadn’t. My arm wouldn’t work, but at least the first dead sister, watching from those buildingtops up there with her accordion, saw I tried, saw I was capable of love, saw I hadn’t yet been too pissed-on to muster up the courage to stop caring. At least, up to that point. Now I knew there was nothing to solve, since the second girl, my pretty waitress, could play an accordion on the roof wherever she wanted, free from the need to actually walk down here, and now not even lonely, since she’s probably got her sister with her. That’s good, that’s real good. That’s the way it should be.

  I hunted down the third thug who’d shot us. Great job for me, since the mother now had to pay for both sisters missing, and I had to get revenge anyway. Not two birds with one stone, but three. After I shot the regretful bastard in an alley near the south precinct in the south district, I returned to the mother with a bunch of crisp bills to refund her for everything, and found her hanging from some shoestrings in her closet. I’d told her I had leads. Why hadn’t she given me another week? It’s hard enough finding some punk who might know something about one of the missing girls near the diner on two-fourteenth. Can’t do it overnight. Takes at least four, five days. Guess she couldn’t see her girls playing the accordion together and singing by the canals. Guess thinking about it all for a while left her feeling the weight. Weight of Seraph, weight of modern life, weight of six million thugs in the closet you can never throw off, no one knows.

  Maybe I’m not the hero I think I am. Maybe I’m the drooling old man in the corner of the loony bin who thinks he’s really a private eye looking out the window of his thirteenth story apartment at the place where he fell in love with someone who’s conveniently not there to disprove his fantasies. Maybe he’s been there his whole life, only left in his mind. Maybe the world’s really beautiful and he just can’t tell because the only thing he knows is the abscess inside his thoughts. Broken and unnavigable, like a sturgeon trying to find its way through the wires of a piano that got sunk in the harbor during the riots when your grandfather was young.

  The world never makes it clear to you. Maybe I’m a charismatic serial killer who preys on lonely women, killing them and their families one by one, making up stories about looking for missing relatives to get in contact. There’s no way to tell for sure. Maybe I’m the reason the first one, then the second one, went missing, and maybe I’m really good with turning shoestrings into nooses and I hung the old girl after she found out since she didn’t have the heart to fight me off at that point. Maybe I did it all and I’m as much the cause for this reeking world as anyone else.

  Or maybe I’m an ugly old serial killer who killed only one person this week, one street punk who might've robbed someone but never me, a serial killer who believes he chooses his victims as revenge for unpardonable crimes that exist only inside his mind, so that the world makes sense whenever he shoots anyone as an instrument of imaginary divine wrath. Maybe my heart is the broken instrument that can’t connect the notes from one side to the other because they’re all sticking out the sides of my victims, in the part of my mind where I keep invisible files on the people I employ to pretend to love or hire or get revenge on.

  In this city, there’s no way to know for sure. I see why people want to believe in God, want to believe in the Mayor, want to believe in the Board of Health, when there’s no other way to tell what’s real and what isn’t. Any version of the truth about why I killed that punk at the dark end of some street could be the stunning revelation at the end of the late night movie with your sweetheart, and any version but the real one would make my life sound a little more interesting. Sick, maybe, but interesting. The people at the big schools say it all might be true in a universe times infinity, high on possibilities and low on meanings, where you’re a blend of the worst kinds of bad and the worst kinds of good. Never sure which one you are or when it started, a million-million springs of possibility, connected only by the despair you feel when you get to the top of the forest and realize it’s nothing but splayed hairs on a dead instrument, and she never really smiled at me when she brought me the tomato soup, and there never was a sister playing the accordion on the ledge, and it only has meaning in the corner of my mind that I dust off when I’m feeling more off-key than usual.

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