Every weekday morning for the last fifteen years, I've taken the same seat on the seven o'clock train -- the seat that faces the aisle, so that no one can lean up from behind me and say something, like, "what time is it?" or "what stop was that?" or "how did it happen?" Like most everyone else, I read a book or, at least, I pretend to, but I know people stare at me from above their own books and newspapers. Sometimes people who travel together elbow each other and even point at me confident that, no matter what, I will never look up and let them see the full extent of what's really happened.
Every now and then, someone loud and crazy will get on this train and bend over to look at me, the way an adult might look at a child in a stroller. I keep my head down as far as I can but the loud, crazy ones always say something like, "Whooee! That sure is some face you got there. What happen to you, girlie?" Sometimes I imagine that a gang of thugs invade the train and try to rob and beat us all, but I stand up and fight, gallantly, fearlessly; certain from the start that I will save them all; so that to them, I would be what salvation looked like.
When I get off the train and start walking to work, they always talk to me, the homeless guys with the dirty, worn out running shoes that someone else owned first. They say "good-mornin', sweetheart" as if the attention will make me greet them back. I hear them laugh when I tug at my collar and quicken my pace.
"She the one," they say.
"She somethin' else, ain't she," they say.
I work at the Inner City Rehabilitation Center, where people who have recovered from drug problems or finished prison terms go to learn a new skill. Most people I hear, though, don't seem recovered at all. They trade stories about who got away with committing more crimes, taking more drugs, suffering more gunshot or knife wounds. None of them seem sorry about anything.
The Center sits on a street with old, broken houses, all of them painted white but none painted recently. A chain-link fence gates off the Center's back yard. Although anyone of average ability could scale it, few do. There's nothing back there to steal, just old desks with broken legs and missing drawers and rusty parts. Anytime I need a break, I go into the yard. It's always peaceful out there among the broken desks -- familiar, comfortable. Even when Robbie's there, which is most of the time.
"Hey, missy, you out here again? You the only one ever come out here. Don't know why you come out here, though. No, I surely don't. Why they even let you? Can't see why you do. No, I can't. No, sir."
Robbie drank away his sanity a long time ago and now comes to the Center every day and calls it "school" or "the job," but all he ever does is sit in the yard and talk. I've gotten used to his story -- his one story, he tells over and over. I could recite it myself, if I had to.
"I don't see why everyone so mad at me for somethin' I don't mean to do in the first place," he'd say. "I mean, I don't even hardly remember it. May-Leah and me, we was fightin' about somethin' like we always done, and the next thing I know'd, I be watchin' me like what I was doin' ain't really me. I picks up a broom and beat her over 'n over. Like I was watchin' a movie. Even when she be beggin' me to stop, I just kept poundin' on her. Hold it up way over my head and bring it down with all I got. I thought for surely I be dreamin'. Didn't seem real. Still don't. No sir. Not real at all."
Some days I stand out in the yard, where no one can see me -- no one other than Robbie anyway, and I look up. Not just at eye level but all the way up into the blue. All the way up so I can feel the sun on my eyebrows, on my chin and cheeks -- or what's left of them. I have to steady myself because I get dizzy looking up for so long; but even when I stumble and have to look back, at eye level or back to the ground, I think that sometimes -- sometimes everything in the world is exactly the way it's supposed to be. And there's nothing anybody can do about it.
That's the way I felt the day we heard Walter Jenkins died. Every day for ten years, Jenkins came into the office at the same time, eight-twenty a.m., wearing the same brown suede, lace-up shoes that always had scuffs on the side, even when they were brand new. Then one day Mrs. Anderson, the Chairman of the Center's Board, showed up and announced she had terrible, terrible news.
Mrs. Anderson came to the Center every morning after that until we got the letter announcing that Gordon Crawford would be the new executive director.
Mr. Crawford brings almost 25 years experience in social work and adult education to us. We feel fortunate to have someone of his caliber on board. Mr. Crawford will be meeting with each of you to make the transition as seamless as possible. Please join me in welcoming him to our organization.
So, Jenkins died and a few weeks later Crawford replaced him, as if it was suppose to happen that way.
I had barely finished reading the announcement when I heard Mrs. Anderson move down the hallway, her heels clacking loudly, like a tap dancer on a break. She stopped outside each room and announced what it was.
"This, Mr. Crawford, is the conference room."
"This, Mr. Crawford, is the training area."
"This, Mr. Crawford, is the finance office and that's Sara," she said, slowing down but not bothering to say hello.
Robbie didn't notice me when I joined him. He didn't usually. He just kept talking. "Even when it was all quiet in the house, I kept watchin' me walkin' through this dream," he said. "I was watchin' me open the refrigerator and I throw'd a gallon a milk, full gallon at her with both hands. Full force. One of them Docta's say it was like a rock. Crushed her spleen or liver or somethin'. Then I drives away in her car and right into a tree. Knocked it in half. Don't remember that hardly either. The car be all wrecked for good and the tree for sure. She be in the hospital for weeks. Forget how many. I went to jail for it, too. Three years in the penitentiary for something I don't hardly remember. No sir, I don't."
Telling his story and telling it again and again was, I guess, some kind of self-imposed penance, an Act of Contrition, for all the damage he'd done to May-Leah, to the tree, to the car. I don't know, really.
When I got back to my office, I found a note on my chair that seemed to be written on that wide-ruled paper they use in elementary schools --the kind with the dotted line in-between the rules. The letters were in blocks, all the same height, spaced evenly apart, as close to perfect as you could get with a freehand, really.
"Sara, please come to see me when you get this -- GC."
When Jenkins wanted to talk to me, he just came in and talked to me. He never left me notes. Never summoned me for a conference. I sat in my chair, studied Crawford's perfect block letters. swiveled my chair to the left and to the right and back to the left. The boss had written me a note. I had to go. So, I took a big breath, got up and followed the green tile in the hallway until it faded to almost white, turned left into an alcove, and stood in the doorway of Jenkins' old office and waited for Crawford to see me.
"Oh, Sara, hello. Come in. Thank you for, for coming. It's nice to meet you," he said.
Crawford wore nice men's dress shoes. Clean, shiny. No tassels or buckles. No scuff marks. Serious first-day-of-work shoes with fancy socks, the kind with designs.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him extend his hand toward me, but I pretended not to see it. I sat down and wrapped my sweater around me.
"You know, I'm the new, the new director here, and I just wanted to spend time with each person, say hello and start, you know, start getting to know everyone. I understand you've been the bookkeeper here for 15 years. That's a long time," he said.
"You worked with Walter Jenkins for ten years. You must have known him pretty well."
"They haven't arrested anyone yet, have they? They don't, they don't even know who did it, do they?"
As far as I knew, whoever did it got away with it. I shrugged again.
Crawford didn't respond right away.
"So what do you like most about working here? Or least, for that matter? What should I know now that I'm here?"
I shook my head and shrugged.
He sighed very loudly.
"People around here tell me that you don't talk much," he said. "In fact, some say you can't talk. Is that true?"
My knee started to bounce and my toe started to tap.
"Are you able to speak, Sara? I really need to know that. It's okay if you can't. I just need to know. Can you talk?"
Slowly, I nodded.
"Good! Excellent!" he said, "I want you to talk to me, to tell me, tell me everything that's on your mind."
I thought for a moment, but I had nothing to tell him.
"Can you at least tell me why you don't talk?"
I thought about saying, I don't know why I don't talk, I just don't. I thought about saying, no one ever talks to me, so I don't talk to them. I thought about saying, I used to talk, but everyone talked to me like I was 10 years old and hard of hearing. I thought about saying, if I talk, people look at me and I don't want them to look at me. And I thought. . .
"Okay," he said with that same exaggerated sigh. "I'm not going to push this one, but I need your help, Sara. I want to see the expense sheets and financial records from last year and this year, to date. Can you get those for me?"
"Can I get those from you in the next hour or so?"
"Thank you, Sara."
I don't know what he wanted to accomplish with these one-on-one meetings. He obviously expected everyone to know the answer to every question he asked the second he asked it. He had no time to wait for an honest answer, so I figured I better get the financial reports to him as fast as I could. It took me less than 20 minutes to compile them, so I carried them to his office and put them on his desk, just the way I used to deliver reports to Jenkins.
"Sara," he said, "Don't you knock? I'm meeting with someone right now."
I saw the plain black pumps Judy always wore, both of them flat on the floor, the flesh of her feet squeezed over the top the way baking bread rises over the top of a pan. I rushed out of his office, wanting to slam the door but leaving it open instead, and headed for the yard. Jenkins never made me knock. Never asked me to knock. Never.
"That woman and me be married three times. Three times! Not one time worked," Robbie was telling his story to no one. "I should do it, I really should. Let ol' May-Leah have it the way ol' Striker done Little Hobo. Yes sir, that Little Hobo, he was s'pose to go into one house and just take the stereo and some of them CBs or CDs, whatever you calls 'em. So they goes in the house, thinkin' nobody home, when the Mister there just walk in on 'em like he couldda been bringin' 'em coffee or somethin' Well, what they gonna do? He already see'd 'em."
I'd never heard Robbie talk about Little Hobo or Striker before. He probably made them up. Probably just got tired of telling the same story.
"Little Hobo was s'pose to find out for sure when that man was gonna be out cuz Striker make real clear he ain't goin' back to the penitentiary. Striker, he was madder 'n hell. He so mad he shoot Little Hobo first and then he shoot the man for just standin' in his own livin' room."
Maybe Robbie just wanted the whole world to change. Maybe he just needed a new story. Like I do sometimes.
"After Ol' Striker lay down Little Hobo and that Mister, he say some bitch come in right behind him, starts screamin' like she the one be shot. Striker say it was s'pose to be a little robbery and 'stead now he got two dead boys on the floor and a bitch that be screamin'. He aim the gun at her, to get her to quit screamin'. He don't shoot, though. He too mad to shoot. That's right, too mad. He got damage to do. Yes, he does. Striker got to do some damage first."
As Robbie talked, I sat on a broken desk and looked up. All the way up into the sky, up above all the chain link, and I remembered.
"Striker say the bitch be 'live the whole time," Robbie said. "Striker like 'em alive. He say he go into the kitchen and get the biggest, sharpest blade he can find. Cut her face slow, worse than yours. I never done nothing like that to my wife. No sir. I be married to May-Leah three times and I ain't never do no damage like that. No sir. No sir."
Remembered what the alarm bells sounded like in the bank when they went off.
Remembered being held in front of the security cameras so everyone would always be able to see it, over and over and over.
Remembered being made an example of because I was closest to the door. Just because I was closest to the door.
"Striker say the Mister was still 'live then. Saw the whole thing. Saw everythin' he done to the bitch. Everythin'. Striker damage the bitches every time. Every time."
Remembered climbing up Valentine Bridge, prepared to make it my last vision of earth.
Remembered looking up, all the way up, thinking I would cry eventually. Or vomit. Something. But every time I tried to expel some toxin or poison, my body just kept it in, swallowed it down, absorbed whatever should have come out. Remembered leaving the bridge, going back to an empty house, just me, and realizing that I must have decided to go on living if I'd gone back to that place alone.
I didn't want to remember anymore so I looked down, away from the sky, back to my feet, back to the dirty earth, back to life as it was right then. Robbie just needed a new story. Who doesn't?
As I walked down the hallway, toward my office, I saw a pair of high top Army boots
over regulation blue pants and Crawford's new shoes without the tassels or buckles.
"Hey, Sara, are you okay?" Detective Waters asked. He worked this neighborhood and was always nice to me, always spoke. Sometimes he even followed me to the train station and warned the homeless guys with the dirty sneakers to stay away from me or else.
"I wanted to talk to you and Mr. Crawford," he said. "Would that be okay?"
"Is Robbie out there?" he asked.
"Who's Robbie?" asked Crawford.
"He's a homeless guy who lives in the alley behind Park Street South," said Detective Waters. "A lot of them live back there in cardboard boxes and tents. He's done time for beating his wife. Almost killed her some years back."
"Oh my god," said Crawford. "And he hangs around here? Did you know that Sara?"
I didn't say anything.
"We had a tip earlier this week that he's come into some new knives, big ones," said Detective Waters. "He's been waving them around down on Park Street, so we went out and got them away from him so he wouldn't hurt anyone. Turns out they had dried blood on them."
"Holy smokes," said Crawford.
"Tests show that the blood belonged to Susan Jenkins -- Walter's wife."
Every year, for as long as I can remember, Robbie donated four empty glass bottles toward Jenkins' Christmas present from the staff. He expected Judy to turn them in for money, and use it as his portion of the present. Judy never bothered, of course, but she let Robbie sign the card, although all he could really do was scrawl out an "R."
"Oh my god," said Crawford. "This Robbie person killed Walter Jenkins? And he's, he's, been hanging around here all this time?"
"We're pretty sure he's the one," said Detective Waters. "Apparently, he's been talking about it around his Park Street friends."
I knew Robbie was crazy but he's beyond hurting anyone anymore. All he does is talk now. Those people on Park Street are as crazy as he is. They're not even hearing him right.
"I know you talk to him, Sara. Has he said anything?" asked Detective Waters.
"You've talked to him Sara? The murderer?" said Crawford.
"They sit out in the yard to talk all the time," said Detective Waters. "Been doing it for years. I know because I always keep an eye on my favorite girls."
Detective Waters took care of his boots. They were always shiny, never scuffed. He probably went home every night and polished them. No one in this neighborhood has clean shoes. It's impossible unless you clean them every day.
"I can't, can't believe this," said Crawford. "This Jenkins murder was so, so brutal. This monster has been hanging around here, talking to poor Sara?"
"Well, Sara, did he say anything about it?" Detective Waters asked.
I thought about telling him that it was Striker who did it -- who killed Walter and Susan and Little Hobo. I thought about telling him that I didn't know who Striker was but that's who Robbie said did it and I believe him because Robbie's too crazy to lie. I thought about telling him that Robbie was guilty too, that three years in prison wasn't enough for everything he did to May-Leah. I thought about. . .
"Sara, for Christ Sake, answer the man," said Crawford.
"That's okay," said Detective Waters. "Sara and I are old friends. She'd tell me if she knew something important."
I heard the sirens get closer until they stopped out front.
"He's out back," Detective Waters said to the two officers who walked in. "Don't know if he's armed or not. Sara, do you know?"
I shrugged. I didn't know.
The officers walked out back. In less than a minute they had Robbie handcuffed and were dragging him toward their squad car.
"I did my time and paid my debt. I ain't s'pose to do no more!" Robbie yelled. "No, sir! No more!"
Crawford called everyone into the lobby and announced that the police arrested Robbie for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins. Everyone agreed that it made sense, even though none of them had ever spoken to him or listened to him like I did.
"I didn't have Robbie pegged for this one, I have to admit," Detective Waters said, following me back to my office after the announcement. "I thought all the fight was out of that old boy a long time ago. He hasn't given us trouble in years. Hard to believe he'd do something like this, don't you think? I mean, all he ever seems to do is talk. No harm in talking, is there Sara?"
I admired his polished boots, the heels that never seemed to be worn down. I don't know why but at that moment, in front of Detective Waters, I held my chin parallel to the floor and stood under the harsh fluorescent so he could see my face, see it all -- the rearranged eyes, the misplaced nose, the reconstructed cheeks.
"No," I whispered, "I don't guess there's any harm in talkin'."