I like this room. It’s not great, but it’s better than the last one. The lock works, for one thing. The bed’s okay too, it even has a decent bedspread. Faded and the color of shit, but better than nothing. Wish I could say that about the dresser. I have to pull so hard to get the top drawer open that half the time I end up pulling it right out and my stuff goes all over the floor. I thought about asking Frankie to fix it but decided I didn’t want to owe him any more than I already do. Someone spilled something dark and sticky in the bottom drawer and no matter how hard I try it won’t come off. So I have to use my suitcase too, which is a pain in the ass. But I got my own bathroom now, with a shower that works. And if it’s not always as clean as I like it, at least I know it’s my dirt. I wish I had enough money to keep another room, just for the johns, but I don’t see that happening real soon.
There’s a new guy next door. Blond, good looking, around thirty maybe. He sticks out like a sore thumb in this place. I asked Frankie how long he paid for, he said a week. Up front. No one does that here. I bumped into him in the hall on my way out tonight and he said, “Excuse me.” He pays up front and says “Excuse me?” I thought maybe he was a cop, but cops don’t rent rooms in places like this. I can’t figure out what he’s doing here. I hate mysteries, they make me nervous. I like to know what to expect from people.
I asked Frankie the new guy’s name. It’s Ken.
Ken was driving me crazy this morning. He must have a tennis ball because he kept bouncing it over and over against his wall. Which is my wall too. I tried turning up the radio. Tried hitting the wall a couple times. Nothing. So I went next door to tell him to shut the fuck up. That was the plan anyway.
I knocked a couple times and tried saying “Hello,” but all I heard was the thumping of the ball against the wall. I tried again, louder this time, and then I heard the ball stop bouncing and the bed creak. And then nothing. I was about to give up when he opened the door and said “Yes?” Not “What the fuck do you want?” Not “Why are pounding on my door, bitch?” Just “Yes.” He was still holding the tennis ball in one hand.
I said, “I live next door and…” I looked down at the ball, and he looked down at it, too, and then I could see he’d figured out what I was doing there. He looked embarrassed. So instead of telling him to stop bouncing the damn thing, I ended up asking him if he wanted to have breakfast with me. Him and his blue eyes. I didn’t actually say the blue eyes thing, but I was thinking it pretty loud.
“Toast and coffee,” I told him, “is all I got. I bought a hotplate and toaster when I moved in here so I could make my own breakfast. I used to think it would be neat to eat in restaurants all the time, but it’s not. Not in the restaurants I can afford.” Sweet Jesus, someone shut me up. “Last week, this guy saw the toaster and wanted me to make him a snack after he was done. Changed his mind real fast when I told him room service was an extra ten bucks…so you want coffee or not?”
The whole time I was talking, he was looking at me funny, like I was speaking French or something. But then he nodded and smiled, and damn, his teeth were as white and as perfect as the rest of him.
I put out my hand and told him my name was Brandy, which it ain’t, but he don’t need to know that. And he shook my hand and said his name was Ken, which I’m sure it is since who would change their name to Ken? Said he was “pleased to meet me”. Like we were chatting after Mass. All proper. But his hand was sweaty and shaky and when he turned to put on a shirt, I could see track marks on his left arm. The altar boy’s a junkie. Jesus Mary and Joseph.
He picked up the pack of Marlboros and the room key from the night table and followed me next door. When will I learn to just shut up?
There’s only one place to sit in my room other than the bed, a lumpy red armchair that was probably old before my grandmother was born. I told him to take a seat and he grabbed an ashtray from the dresser and sort of folded himself into the chair and rested the ashtray on his knees. I know most guys would’ve have just sat on the bed like they belonged there, so sitting in the chair like he did earned him extra points. Not that I was keeping track or nothing. I filled the kettle and put it on the hotplate and asked him if he wanted toast or just coffee. “It’s instant, and I don’t have cream. I got peanut butter for the toast though.”
“Black is fine,” he said. “No toast.”
I looked at him sitting there, tapping his foot to some junkie beat and smoking his cigarette like it was the only thing left between him and dying.
I blurted out, “What the hell am I doing?”
“Making me breakfast, I thought.”
“Yeah, but why?”
He laughed this dry, smoky laugh and said, “Brandy. It is Brandy, right?” so I know he knows that it ain’t, but I nodded anyway and he said, “Must be my boyish good looks. I still got those.”
But then he closed his eyes and when he opened them, it was like a light got turned off somewhere behind them. He put out his cigarette in the ashtray and started to get up. But before he could move I was in front of him, handing him his coffee. For a minute I didn’t think he would take it, but then he let out a long, slow breath and reached up for the mug. He balanced it on the arm of the chair while he lit another cigarette. He took a sip and a long hard pull on the cigarette. He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling.
I don’t handle silence so well. It seemed to me growing up that the bad stuff always happened when things got quiet.
“You know, Ken, it is Ken, right?” I think I saw him smile a little at that. “If I had to pick one thing I hate about this room, it would be the ceiling. Really. Ceilings are kind of my thing. Ever since we learned about the Sistine Chapel in high school, I’ve been checking out ceilings. Imagine what Michelangelo must’ve thought the first time he saw it, you know, when the Pope gave him the job. I mean, he must’ve looked up and seen all that empty space, and said, ‘I am so fucked.’”
He turned to face me. “I know how he felt. Michelangelo, I mean.” He said it like there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it either.
Then he just stood up and left without saying a word. Half an hour later, he started bouncing the ball again.
Tonight some guy in a big car with out of state plates paid me two hundred bucks to blow him and his brother. For two hundred bucks, I’d blow his whole family, but I didn’t tell him that. Fastest money I ever made. I felt rich with the fifties tucked in my bra, so I decided to call it a night. I came back here and changed out of my work clothes and went for a drink at the Blue Note. I like the Blue Note, they play jazz and have a singer a few nights a week. I know Lou the bartender, and if I sit at the bar and tell him I’m not working, he makes sure no one bothers me.
I sat at my regular place and asked Lou for a Manhattan, not because I like them that much, but because they sound sophisticated. He made a face like he always does, but he brought me one anyway. He was in a good mood and wouldn’t let me pay. Usually when a guy does that, it means he’s looking for another way to get paid. But unless I suddenly grow a dick and a set of balls, he ain’t interested. That’s another reason I like Lou.
I was sipping my drink and thinking about what to do with my new, improved bank balance when I felt a hand on my back and heard a voice whisper in my ear, “Brandy?”
I been using the name Brandy since after Billy, but I still forget sometimes. Which kind of explains why I said, “No thanks, I don’t like brandy.”
When the hand didn’t move away, I turned around, ready for a fight, but it was him, the blond altar boy from next door, except he didn’t look much like an altar boy tonight. He laughed too loud and said, “Well, I do,” and I’m still not sure if he meant me or the drink.
He sat unsteadily on the stool beside me and ordered a scotch. From the look of him, it wasn’t his first drink that night or even his second. He looked like he hadn’t slept in about a month. I wondered if maybe there was something besides scotch running through his veins, but it was too dark in the bar to get a good look at his eyes. Lou glanced over, waiting for me to give him the all clear on Ken, and I nodded and mouthed “it’s okay” at him and he muttered “you’re the boss” under his breath and walked away.
“You come here often?” Ken said after a minute.
“You use that line often?” It came out meaner than I meant.
“It wasn’t a line, I was just wondering.” He stared into his drink like there was something else there besides watered-down scotch and tapped his fingers on the bar in time to the band.
“Yeah?” He looked at me like he wished I was someone else. I get that look a lot.
“You gonna buy the lady a drink, or not?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, sure. Sorry.” Then he asked Lou for a couple refills and lit another cigarette.
Great conversationalist, my mystery man. Think he’d said twenty words since we first met.
After he finished his drink, he slid off the stool and headed to the bathroom. When I went to the ladies room a couple minutes later, he was pacing back and forth in front of the pay phone outside it. Then he looked like he finally decided what to do, because he reached in his pocket for some change. I ducked around the corner so he wouldn’t see me—there was no way I was going to pass up this chance. I felt like Nancy fucking Drew.
He dialed real slow, like he was making up his mind all over again with each number.
I heard him say, “Huggy there?”
“Hug, it’s me . . . yeah, I know . . . you gonna fucking lecture me or let me talk? . . . You pass the phone to him and I hang up . . . just listen . . . tell him . . . tell him I’m fine . . . I know, I know.” His voice was all shaky. “I’ll call in a couple days. And Huggy . . . never mind.”
I thought I heard him hang up, but maybe I was wrong because then he said, real quiet, “Tell him I’m sorry.”
I’d give one of those crisp fifty dollar bills I earned tonight to know what that was all about.
I felt a hand on my ass and jumped near out of my skin. It was Joey Fallon, our friendly neighborhood pusher. He don’t like me much. I think he takes it personal that I’m not a junkie like most of the girls. Like I stay clean just to piss him off.
“Move or lose it, asshole,” I told him. He made a big show of raising his hands in the air and brushed by me. I turned the corner and saw him nod at Ken as he went into the bathroom. Ken followed him in, one hand already reaching in the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet.
When I came out of the ladies room a few minutes later, they were both gone.
I stayed for a while longer, then walked home alone. Guess Ken got what he came looking for. Don’t know why I ever let myself think that maybe it was me.
Frankie told me this morning that some guy was asking about Ken at the Jungle Room, the bar he hangs out at in Hollywood. At least he thinks it was Ken; the place was dark and the picture he had was pretty small. Frankie told him he looked familiar and took the guy’s phone number, though I know and he knows he’ll never call him. He doesn’t give a shit about anything besides himself and getting laid on a regular basis. Working in hooker central here is kind of a dream come true for him, a regular getting-laid buffet. We sort of pass him around, so no one has to do him twice in a row. But we all know we gotta keep him happy to get anything fixed or to get a couple days grace to pay the rent.
“Did he look like a cop, Frankie?”
He shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t look like one, but he sounded like one. He said it was personal, that the guy he was looking for was just a friend of his.”
“You believed him?”
“Yeah, he was too desperate to find this guy for it not to be personal.”
Frankie gave me a matchbook with the name and number on it and I tucked it in my purse on my way out.
I called the number later and agreed to meet the guy at the diner. The one on Vine. The one without a busload of tourists parked out front. He wanted to meet in fifteen minutes but I wasn’t letting him call all the shots so I told him six. I could tell he wasn’t too happy but he went along. I think I could’ve said, “meet me at the North Pole” and he would’ve just answered “how soon?”
I asked how I’d know him, he said dark hair, blue T-shirt, jeans. Frankie was right, I think “desperate” was exactly what he was. When he asked how he’d know me, I said I’d be the pretty one.
The diner’s small—a long counter with stools and a few booths along the window facing the street. He was sitting in the last booth when I came in, hands wrapped tightly around probably the worst cup of coffee in the whole world. The pie’s not bad, but I swear the coffee is used diesel fuel.
He was up out of the booth before I got half way down the aisle. Dark hair, blue T-shirt, jeans, like he said. Windbreaker. Actually, he was kinda pretty himself, reminded me a little of Billy.
“Yeah. Dave Starsky. Call me Starsky. Come sit down. You want something? Coffee’s not bad.”
“Just a Coke.”
He went up to the counter and asked Millie for the drink while I slid into the booth. He said “please” and “thank you.” Like Ken. He sat down opposite me and leaned across the table.
“Do you know where Hutch is, Brandy?”
So much for small talk.
The way he looked at me reminded me of the parents I see on the strip sometimes, handing out pictures of their missing kids.
“Look, I’m not even sure we’re talking about the same guy.”
He took a small picture from his jacket pocket, unfolded it and held it out. It was Ken all right. A younger, happier version of the one I knew, but definitely him.
“Why’re you looking for him? For all I know, you’re a cop. And I don’t talk to cops.”
He fingered the picture lying on the table. “This is personal. He didn’t show up for an appointment on Friday. I think he’s in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” I had a couple guesses: heroin and heroin.
“It’s complicated. If you know where he is, tell me. Please.” He reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Opened it and laid a twenty on the table, then pushed it toward me. “Please.”
Up to that point, I hadn’t decided whether to tell him Ken was my new neighbor or not. And I still can’t decide if I was pissed off because he offered me money or because he only offered me twenty bucks.
“I don’t know nothin’ about your friend. If he is your friend. And missing an appointment ain’t exactly a felony.”
I made a move to get up and he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me back down.
“I need to find him.” He didn’t let go.
“Okay, okay. I saw him last night at the Blue Note. Said his name was Ken though, not Hutch.”
He let go out of my wrist and blew out a breath he probably didn’t know he was holding in.
“Ken’s his first name. Hutch is just what I call him,” he said.
I’d just given him back his hope and I figured I should let him enjoy it for a few minutes before I told him about Fallon.
So I told him how I started running away from home when I was eight. How the police would find me sitting on a bench in the park after dark and bring me home in the back seat of a patrol car. My mother would always meet me on the sidewalk and cry and hug me and thank the police. She’d give me chocolate ice cream and look at me like she thought I might disappear if she turned away. Then she’d always give me a beating, she’d say it was for scaring her half to death.
“She never once asked why I kept running away,” I said.
“Why did you?”
“For the ice cream.”
He was even prettier when he laughed. How come the johns never look like him?
“Do you know where he went, Brandy?”
“Last time I saw him, he was doin’ business with Joey Fallon.”
“You don’t know him?”
He shook his head slowly like maybe the name was familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
“He’s a dealer. Mostly smack.”
The relief that was written all over his face a few minutes before was gone. He leaned back in the seat, closed his eyes, and just whispered, “Hutch.”
I wanted to feel sorry for him, but all I felt was jealous. I could disappear tomorrow and nobody would ever come looking for me. Not till the rent was due, anyway.
“I’m sorry about your friend, really I am, but I gotta go to work. And Starsky?”
“You can’t help someone who don’t want to be helped, no matter how many candles you light or how many novenas you say. Trust me on that.”
I picked up the twenty from the table and promised to call him if I saw Ken again.
I worked the happy hour crowd after I left the diner - mostly men in suits and sedans looking for a little something before heading home to the wife and kids. A little something is all I get, usually ten bucks for a quickie blow job. That and an intimate knowledge of car interiors. I’m sure it’ll all come in handy one day. Like if I ever got on Jeopardy.
“Car interiors for $20, please, Art.”
Art Fleming picks up the card and reads, “This car’s interior is a fine-grained fake wood with brushed velvet seat covers.”
“What is a ’74 LTD?” Applause from the studio audience.
“Well done, Brandy. Pick again.”
“Blow jobs for $100, please, Art.”
“The Daily Double!” More applause.
I had a couple house calls later. Regulars, nothing too kinky. I moaned a few times on cue, told each of them how sexy they were, and everyone came away happy.
It was after midnight when I got back, tired and a little sore. All I wanted was a bottle of mouthwash, a shower and my own bed. I passed Ken’s door—his light was still on. I’d spent the whole night trying not to think about him and his friend. For all the good it did. No matter what I tell the johns, I ain’t thinking about them when they’re fuckin’ me. I think about my bank balance and whether I can afford the new blouse I want and do I need to buy shampoo on the way home. I still manage enough “oh baby, you’re the best” lines to keep them satisfied.
Sometime between customers, I’d decided it was none of my business. What the altar boy did was between him and his priest. Sure, I was curious about him. But not curious enough to let him in my head the way I did Billy. When I remembered the call Ken made last night from the Blue Note, and how Starsky looked when I told him about Joey Fallon, I almost broke down and called Starsky. Last time I checked though, Ken was an adult, and adults have the right to fuck up their lives any way they want. Or so Billy always told me. But it was usually my life that was getting fucked up whenever he said that.
When I got back here I was so tired, I didn’t know what to do anymore. I know if I ever fall in love again, it’ll be after midnight when I’m tired and Ella Fitzgerald is singing and I forget all the things I’m so sure of during the day.
By the time I had a shower and put on my robe and got out the bottle I keep in the top drawer, I’d made up my mind to talk to Ken, to tell him I’d seen Starsky. Let him decide what to do. I grabbed two glasses from the small table and with the scotch bottle tucked under my arm, I went next door.
The light was still on, but there was no answer when I knocked. I was going to give up but I had this flash of Billy and a prickling at the back of my neck, so I tried the door. Dumb shit hadn’t even locked it.
I had no idea just how dumb he really was until I went in. He was sitting on the bed, his back up against the wall, legs spread out in front of him. His eyes were closed and I thought he was sleeping until I saw the empty syringe lying on the bedspread beside his open hand. His left sleeve was rolled up. There was a small candle still burning and a spoon on the night table along with a half-empty bottle of vodka. I didn’t see any smack, just an empty dime bag.
I sat on the edge of the bed and untied the piece of rubber hose he’d used. The bag was empty, so I guess he used it all. Shit shit shit. Joey had a reputation for being a little inconsistent with how he cut his stuff. And he wasn’t too particular what he cut it with. I hear stories about what barely gets you high one week is enough to OD you the next. His regular users knew how to make allowances. Ken didn’t even know enough to lock the door.
All I wanted to do right then was blow out the candle, walk away and forget I ever seen him. So what if he OD’ed? End of his problems, end of mine, end of story. But I guess I never learned nothin’ from being with Billy, ’cause I stayed.
I grabbed his shoulders and shook him a couple times. He shrugged me off like someone who’s in the middle of a really good dream and wants to be left there.
“Ken! C’mon! Open your eyes!”
He lifted an arm to push me away. Muttered something I couldn’t understand.
I tried something else. “Hutch? Hutch?”
Nothing. I put a knuckle under his chin and turned his head toward the light and he finally opened his eyes. His pupils were the size of a fly’s dick. Fuck.
“Jeannie? Thought you left. Back to Vegas.”
Who the hell was Jeannie?
“Do you want me to call Starsky? He’s worried about you.”
He shook his head and frowned. “He’s always watching me, he thinks I don’t know, but I do.”
Then he just kind of disappeared inside his head and I knew there was no point trying to talk to him anymore.
When I went back to my room, his wallet was heavy in the pocket of my robe.
I sleep late and wake up slow. My brother was different. He could be asleep one minute and doing times tables the next. Not me. When I was little, my grandmother always said it was because my dreams took me farther away than anyone else’s. But she also believed in fairies and leprechauns and thought Dennis Day was sending her secret messages in all his songs.
So it took me a few minutes to realize the knocking was real and not in my dream. I was planning on ignoring it until a voice started calling my name. I yelled out either, “One minute, please,” or “Go the fuck away!” I’m not sure. Like I said, I wake up slow.
I shoved the wallet in the top drawer of the night table and pulled on my robe. In the time it took to cover the fifteen feet or so between the bed and the door, I’d worked up a pretty good head of steam.
It was Ken, the morning-after edition.
“Yes?” I tried to sound all innocent, like I did that time in fourth grade when Sister Mary Margaret caught me chewing gum during Benediction. But I think I came off sounding more like Brandy, Angry Street Whore.
He looked like shit. Red-rimmed eyes and hair that would get him into the Bad Hair Hall of Fame. Didn’t smell so good neither. He had his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his faded jeans. I glanced at the clock. It was almost noon.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. I’ll come back,” he said, and turned away.
“I’m awake now. Thanks.” And I look a whole lot better than you, in case you didn’t notice.
“I was just wondering if I could get a cup of coffee. I lost my wallet and, well, the other morning…” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Never mind, it’s okay.” He started to walk back to his room.
“Hutch, wait. It’s fine. I need coffee, too. Come in.”
He was too antsy to sit in the chair this morning. Instead he paced around while I filled up the kettle.
“Yeah?” I waited for him to ask for his wallet back.
“Do you have any cigarettes?”
I realized he didn’t even remember I was in his room last night.
“Cigarettes? Yeah, sure. I’ll get you some.” I dug in my purse and threw his Marlboros and some matches at him.
The cigarette helped, I think. After the first one, he circled the armchair a couple times and finally sat down. I had a dog that used to do that too. He lit another one right away. I made his coffee double strength. Added sugar this time. Lots of it.
After his second cup, he looked almost human again.
“I have another favor to ask you,” he said. He looked embarrassed and I got the feeling people usually asked him for favors.
“I need to borrow some money. I lost my wallet and my bank is on the other side of town. I don’t have any way to get there. I’ll pay you back as soon as I get back here.”
“Twenty dollars should do it.”
“I’ll give you fifty free and clear if you answer one question for me.” I got up off the bed and went to the dresser for my purse.
He smiled and I caught a flash of what Starsky’s “Hutch” must be like. The one that wasn’t fucking up his life in some cheap hotel room. On purpose. Most people end up here ’cause they’re either stupid or unlucky or alone. Or all three. Hutch didn’t seem to be any of those things.
“What the hell you doin’ here? You look like you got a real life somewhere else. If you don’t go back soon, you never will.”
He stood up. “Twenty dollars should be enough.” His voice was cold.
I gave him the money. He had one hand on the doorknob when he turned back and asked me why I called him Hutch. He asked it like the answer didn’t matter, but from the way he was gripping the doorknob I was pretty sure it did.
“Maybe ’cause it’s your name.” I said. I held my breath.
He looked confused for a second, then shrugged and headed back to his room.
“Don’t worry about paying me back,” I yelled after him.
I wondered what Sister Mary Margaret would say to me now.
I waited an hour and called Starsky. I told him his pal was headed to the bank to get more money. Then I took a cab to the address on Hutch’s driver’s license.
The cab pulled up beside a tiny cottage in Venice on one of the canals. There was something about Ken that made me think he came from money, so I expected his house would be bigger and fancier than it was. Even the beat-up car in the driveway looked like something someone in my family would drive.
I rang the doorbell and wondered what I’d say if anyone was there. But when no one answered, I let myself in with the keys that I’d picked up from the dresser in Ken’s room.
The place was pretty small; one big room that was part bedroom, part living room with a tiny kitchen in the back. The place felt like someone really lived there. Not like the rooms I call home. If things were different, I’d pick a place like this, close to the beach and the boardwalk, where I could go running or just hang out. This is the California I always pictured when I was a kid, not the slummy part I ended up in. The closest I get to the ocean these days is the Friday night all you can eat fish special at the diner on State St.
I sat on the bed, drank one of the bottles of root beer I found in the fridge, and tried to picture Ken living there, but I couldn’t. Not the strung-out, chain-smoking junkie I knew. But Hutch? The guy Starsky was looking for? The one I caught a glimpse of earlier? That was easier to imagine. Hutch was the one that chose the furniture and the books and the pictures on the wall. He probably hauled home that huge piece of driftwood from the beach himself and spent hours finding the perfect place for it. I think I’d like Hutch. It’s junkies like Ken I’m not so crazy about.
The bathroom was so neat it was scary. There was two of everything, two brands of deodorant, two kinds of toothpaste, only one toothbrush though. I looked in the closet, nothing fancy. And there were a few pairs of old jeans and T-shirts hanging at one end of the closet separate from all the others. I found an old gym bag on the floor in the corner and threw it on the bed. There were a couple leather jackets in the closet I knew I could get good money for.
I was in the kitchen getting another drink from the fridge when I heard the front door open. Shit shit shit. If it was Ken, I had a lot of ’splaining to do.
“Hutch?” the voice said.
It was Starsky. I could hear the relief in his voice and I almost felt guilty.
“Hutch?” he repeated a minute later. He sounded a little worried now.
I figured it was time to face the music. I took a breath, plastered a smile on my face and walked into the living room.
“Hey, Starsky. Fancy meeting you here.” Heavy on the surprised. Light on the guilt.
I would’ve felt a lot better about things if he didn’t have a gun pointed at me.
“It’s you,” was all he said. Nobody’s looked that disappointed to see me in a long time. He lowered the gun and took a step backward toward the bed. He sat down and bent forward, breathing hard, one hand pressed up flat against his forehead. I didn’t say nothing, just stood there and kept a close eye on where the gun was pointed. Sister Mary Margaret always said to never turn your back on a man with a gun. Or something like that.
He stood up, opened his jacket and holstered the gun. Then he shook his head a little, reached in his back pocket and took out what looked like a wallet. He threw it at me and the flash of silver I saw as I caught it told me everything I needed to know. It was my turn to sit down. He was a fuckin’ cop. I felt a little sick.
He grabbed me tight by one arm, and without saying a word, pulled me up off the bed and across the room toward the big table by the window. I could feel his fingers pressing hard against my skin and I knew I’d be wearing long sleeves tomorrow if he didn’t let go pretty soon. He pulled out a wooden chair and sat me down hard on it.
“Don’t move,” he growled.
He picked up another chair, dragged it across the floor and sat down facing me, hands spread flat on his thighs. He’d gone from being Hutch’s friend to bad cop in thirty seconds flat.
Cops get people to talk by not asking questions. Most people, especially if they’ve got a guilty conscience, will talk just to kill dead air. They end up answering questions the cops never even thought about asking. One of my regulars, a vice cop out of the Third Precinct, told me if I ever got pulled in, just to shut up. But that probably has more to do with the fact that he’s a little worried about what I could say about him.
“Talk,” he said.
We stared at each other. I blinked first.
“Hutch asked me to pick up some clothes for him.” I said it too fast, like a nervous kid. “He gave me the key, that’s how I got in.” I pointed to the empty gym bag on the bed.
“Where is he? No bullshit this time.”
“I don’t know.”
He leaned forward in his chair and his voice got a little louder with each word. “No games, Brandy, where the fuck is he?”
“I don’t know.”
His left hand tightened into a fist. I didn’t plan on giving him a chance to use it.
“I don’t know, for cryin’ out loud!” I started to get up and he pushed me back down on the chair with both hands and I knew I had to give him something believable. “I saw him at the diner this morning and he asked me to pick up some clothes for him. Gave me twenty bucks for cab fare. He said he had to go to the bank after to get more money. That’s when I called you, like I said I would. Why didn’t you go to the bank?” The best defense is always a good offense.
“I did. I missed him.” He swallowed hard.
The anger I’d seen a minute before was gone, and I knew I had a chance at getting out of this in one piece.
“What were you going to do with the clothes?” he asked.
“He told me to put them in a locker at the bus station. I’m supposed to give him the key next time I see him.”
I could tell he was starting to believe me. Hell, I was starting to believe me.
“Why didn’t he just come here himself?” he said.
I looked away like I was trying to hide something and chewed on my lower lip for a second. Billy always fell for that. I felt two fingers under my chin, and he turned my head back to face him.
“Ken said he couldn’t pee without you watching over his shoulder.”
From the look on his face, I knew I’d hit the bull’s eye.
He stood up and pushed the chair back. It fell against the floor and I jumped at the noise it made. He went and leaned against the window.
And I guessed then that as worried as Starsky was, he was hurt too. Hurt that Hutch didn’t want his help. Hurt that Hutch turned his back on him and walked away. I wondered if Starsky wondered if Ken leaving was his fault. Like if he’d done something different, been someone different, it would have kept him safe. We aren’t that different, you and me, I wanted to tell him.
“How is he, Brandy? How does he look?”
“Not so good.”
I said the word he was too scared to say. “Using? Yeah. He’s using. One time that I know for sure.”
He turned and stared out the window, wiped a hand across his eyes. He blew out a long breath and his head dropped to rest against the glass. If I wasn’t looking for it, I wouldn’t’ve seen it – just the littlest shake of his shoulders under his jacket.
I left him there and went to the fridge to get him something. I took my time, though. He was sitting on the edge of the couch when I came back and he took the beer with a quiet “thanks.” He had Hutch’s keys in his other hand and he was threading them through his fingers like a rosary.
I waited a few minutes before I asked. “Hutch is a cop too, right?”
“What the hell happened to him, Starsky?”
Guess he figured there was nothing to lose in telling me since I already knew the worst of it. I think I got the Reader’s Digest version though. He said that a couple months ago Ken got a new girlfriend who came with a jealous ex-boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend said a few things, the way ex-boyfriends always do, and made a few threats. So Ken hid her away in a house near the beach. Nasty ex-boyfriend and his pals beat up on Ken to find out where she was. The junk was to make him talk. Starsky didn’t say, but I had a feeling it worked. It always does. They kept him almost a week, long enough for him to get hooked. Left him with a taste for it from what I’d seen.
“Do I get to ask questions?”
“They wanted to find out where she was and they knew she was seeing Hutch, right? Why didn’t they just follow him? Would’ve saved everyone a whole helluva lot of trouble.”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it was ever just about Jeannie. You’re right though, they could’ve just followed him one night if that’s all they wanted. I think they wanted to kill two birds with one stone, make Hutch pay and get her back.”
No one would’ve gone through that for me, not even Billy. Least of all Billy.
“Why didn’t he just tell him where she was?”
He smiled a little. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”
“Was he that much in love with her?” I asked.
The smile disappeared and I knew I’d pushed too far. There was a flash of something else there too. What I’d seen in the diner. He brought the empty bottle to the kitchen.
I was making a big show of packing some of Hutch’s clothes when he came back in. He watched me for a while, then went to the drawer and pulled out a black turtleneck. He held it for a minute in both hands, handed it to me and said, “Here, take it, he likes this one.” He brought me a few things out of the closet too, some jeans and cords and a couple shirts.
When my grandfather died, I’d sat on the edge of my grandparents’ bed while Nana packed a suitcase to bring to the funeral home. I remember her standing at the closet door, holding up ties and asking me which one I liked best. She picked a navy blue suit, “Not his best one,” she told me, “but the color suited him so.” I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time.
“Who else knows what happened to him?”
“A few people. A friend who put us up when he was getting off the stuff, our Captain, a couple people in the DA’s office. That’s it. Before he took off, the Captain pulled some strings and we came up with a plan to stop the lawyer from using what happened against him if it came up at the preliminary hearing. He had to pass a drug test though and he never showed up for it. If word gets out, he’s finished in the department. You understand that, right?”
“Starsky?” I zipped up the gym bag and he lifted it off the bed for me. He followed me to the door. “If you’re such good friends, why’d he run away?”
“Maybe he’s hoping for ice cream.” His voice was bitter.
At the door I said, “If I see Hutch, what do I say?”
“Tell him . . . tell him I’m sorry too.”
I left him standing in the doorway. He didn’t try to follow me so I went to the corner, hailed a cab, and came home.
Friday nights are always busy. I made decent money doing not-so-decent things to anyone who had the cash. One guy didn’t, as it turned out, and wasn’t too happy when I told him I didn’t do freebies. So I had a bruise on my right jaw that was getting bigger every time I looked in the mirror. I stopped by the Blue Note on the way home to get some ice from Lou. I knew there was nothing I could do about the color, but I thought maybe I could keep the swelling down and avoid looking like a squirrel with a cheek full of nuts in the morning.
I pushed my way through the crowd. The band was playing “Someone to Watch Over Me” which I thought was a little mean given how I felt. There was a couple empty seats at the bar so I took one and waited for Lou to notice me. He took one look, shook his head.
“No fancy drinks for you tonight, little girl.” He poured a scotch and pushed it across the bar. “Drink this.”
He watched me drink and then poured me another one. The throbbing in my jaw quieted down.
“Should I ask how?” he said, between pouring beers and mixing drinks.
“Probably not. It was my fault anyway.”
Lou shook his head at that. “Oh, your friend’s here again. The cute blond one. Got here about half an hour ago. Gotta tell you, kid, if I were younger and he weren’t so . . . ”
“Yeah. If it wasn’t for that, I’d take a chance.” He laughed a little, then pointed at the side of my face. “Though I’d probably end up looking like you. Or worse. You’re gonna have some bruise there. Ever thought about another line of work?”
“Yeah, Lou, I applied to the convent. They said they’d give me a call when they had an opening.”
“Sounds like a plan. You’d look good in basic black. So would he, actually.” He grinned and lifted his chin in the direction of the bathroom.
I turned to look and there was Hutch heading my way. He smiled until he saw the bruise. He leaned down and kissed it lightly.
“There,” he said. “All better.”
I could hear Lou sigh loudly behind me. Great. A horny bartender, a strung-out cop, and me. Sounded like the setup for a bad joke.
“Lou, I’m gonna need another drink,” I said. “A big one.”
Hutch lowered himself on the stool beside me and said, “I’ll have what she’s having,”
“Second thoughts about your choice of career?” Lou asked him. Christ, he was flirting with him.
Hutch laughed. A real laugh this time, not all mixed up with bitterness and booze and smack. And then I was laughing too. Until I remembered how much my face hurt.
Lou brought Hutch a scotch and so help me God, he winked at him. I was living in the Twilight Zone. If he offered to light Hutch’s cigarette, I was gonna pop him one. But he got busy, so I was spared.
Hutch looked better, still kinda shaky, but better. Not high. Not yet, anyway. I wondered if he was waiting for Fallon. Maybe it was the scotch, or the ache in my jaw, or maybe I’m just a bitch ’cause I said, “Have a date with Joey Fallon again tonight?”
A vein in his neck started doing a little dance.
“I think maybe I underestimated you, Brandy.” His tone was half-pissed, half-admiring.
“Being underestimated goes along with being pretty, Blondie. You should know that.”
“Touché.” He smiled and raised his glass in a small toast.
“You didn’t answer the question. You withdraw enough cash today to go shopping?”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t. I don’t give a shit what you do with your money. I don’t even like you very much.”
“Because I like Starsky, asshole.”
He said it like I’d switched to speaking Chinese.
“Yeah, Starsky. Your soon to be former friend. He’s looking for you everywhere. I figured out it was you from the description, went to meet him.”
“You met him?” he said slowly. Again with the Chinese.
“Did you tell him where I was?”
I couldn’t tell if he hoped I did or didn’t.
“You sure you guys are detectives? Don’t ya think if I told him he’d have found you by now?”
He signaled Lou for a refill. He drank half of it in one go and then asked, “How is he?”
“How do you think?”
He winced a little at that. “What did you tell him?”
“For Christ’s sake. Does this look like the high school cafeteria? Talk to him yourself.”
Hutch watched me silently while I finished my drink and stood up. I swayed a little in the breeze. Too much scotch, not enough dinner. I turned and felt a hand wrapped around my arm.
“How is he, really?”
“You’re killing him. A little more every day you’re gone.”
His hand dropped away like my arm just caught fire. I turned to leave, took a few steps, then stopped and looked back at him.
“And Hutch? You don’t deserve Starsky.”
Surprise flashed across his face.
Halfway back to my room, I realized I forgot to get the ice. Damn.
I looked like a yellow and purple squirrel by the next morning. With enough nuts hidden in my cheek to last me through winter. A real winter too, not like the sissy ones they have out here. Think I just earned a little vacation. No way this mouth was sucking dick for a few days. Or chewing gum. I was pretty sure talking was gonna hurt too.
I groaned when I heard the knock on the door. Frankie’s been saying for days that he’s going to fix the dripping tap in the bathroom, so I thought maybe it was him. It wasn’t. It was Hutch again. If I had a phone in my room, I would’ve called Starsky right there and then and told him to come and get his friend the hell out of my life.
But then I noticed he had two coffees and a box of donuts tucked under one arm, so I decided to be nice for a little longer. It’s hard to be mean to someone who’s handing you a dozen donuts.
“I never say no to donuts.” I took the box and he followed me in.
He looked at my jaw and winced. “Ouch. Christ, I think you look worse than I do.”
He sank into the old red armchair. I was starting to think of it as his chair. I sat cross-legged on the bed opposite him with the open box of donuts on my lap and the coffee on the night table. He leaned across and picked one.
“How’d you do that?” I asked him.
“Do what?” he said around a mouthful of donut.
“Just pick one without thinking about it.”
He shrugged. “They’re donuts. They’re all pretty much the same.”
“Oh my God. What about ice cream? If you had to choose right now, what flavor would you pick?”
“Peach,” he answered without missing a beat. “What about you?”
“Depends. Chocolate if it’s really hot out. Strawberry if it’s Sunday, vanilla is for dessert, butterscotch, well, that’s for after . . . you know . . . ”
He laughed and reached across the space between us, closed his eyes and reached into the box. He lifted out a donut, handed it to me smiling, and told me to live dangerously.
“Live dangerously? How do you think I got this bruise?”
I ate two to his one. But at least he ate.
You Catholic, Hutch?” I asked between bites. I was on my third donut and slowing down.
He looked up. There was powdered sugar in the corner of his mouth and he licked at it.
I should’ve just shut up. “All that fuckin’ guilt you carry around. You’d make Sister Mary Margaret proud.”
He didn’t answer, just lit another cigarette. He flicked the ashes into his empty coffee cup and started picking at a loose thread on the arm of the chair.
“It’s complicated,” he said finally.
“Yeah, that’s what you both keep telling me. Still doesn’t explain what you’re doing sitting here eating donuts with me. Go home, Hutch. Go back to Starsky.”
“I need to deal with things my way, not his.”
“Your way is staying in some shit hole of a hotel, scoring smack and shooting up. How much worse could his way be?”
There was a long silence. I was thinking how I should really learn to keep my mouth shut and he was probably thinking how he’d just wasted his money buying me donuts.
He leaned forward in the chair, staring at me hard. “Fuck you, Brandy.” His voice was cold, deliberate. “I don’t need advice from some ten dollar whore.” He went to the door. “Fuck you,” he repeated as it slammed shut behind him.
“Twenty dollar whore, asshole!” I yelled after him.
I showered and dressed, and spent an hour trying to cover up the bruise with makeup but ended up looking like something out of Night of the Living Dead. A good-looking zombie, but still a zombie.
My jaw ached. All I had was aspirin and scotch, and it was a little early for scotch, even for me. And it didn’t help that Hutch was bouncing the damn tennis ball against the wall again. Over and over and over. Every few minutes he’d stop, and that was worse because I’d hold my breath and wait for it to start all over again. I wondered if this was how he got suspects to crack, bouncing balls off interrogation room walls. All I know is that after half an hour of it, I was ready to confess to killing Jimmy Hoffa.
Billy used to do this thing with his keys that drove me nuts, passing them in the air from hand to hand . . . back and forth and back and forth. He’d do it sitting on the couch watching TV or at the table sometimes while I cooked. I think he kept every key from every place he ever lived on that one key chain, and the jangle of it drove me crazy. Which is why he did it, I think. After a while I’d reach out and grab them in mid-air and he’d just laugh and fight me for them and somehow we’d always end up in the bedroom.
Eventually I’d stopped lighting candles and saying novenas that Billy would come back. That he’d choose me. That he’d love me. More than he loved heroin. I’ve managed to make a new life. I take care of myself now. Sometimes I go a week without thinking about him, without seeing him in a crowd or hearing his voice behind me in a restaurant.
I found a dime and the matchbook with Starsky’s number on it and went to the pay phone downstairs. Before I changed my mind.
I told him to meet me at the diner on the corner in half an hour. I was pretty sure Hutch would stay put until then—he usually only went out at night as far as I could tell. Frankie had said Hutch paid up for another week, so I knew he’d come back eventually.
This time I was waiting for him. I watched him pull up out front. He climbed out and turned to face the diner for a few minutes with both arms resting on the roof of the car. The car suited him. When he finally came in, he just nodded at me and said “hey” as he slid into the booth. I’ve seen happier-looking people in lockup. He held his car keys in one hand and waved the waitress away when she came over with a menu. I got the message loud and clear—make it quick. He leaned back in the seat, crossed his arms and waited.
“I know where he is,” I told him.
“Terrific.” But he said it like it wasn’t terrific at all. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t believe me or he didn’t care. Didn’t want to care, more like. Not caring doesn’t hurt as much.
“Don’t you want to know where he is?”
“How much will it cost me?” He sighed and uncrossed his arms, dropped his keys on the table and reached in the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet.
“Consider it a freebie. Because I like you.”
Starsky picked up his keys off the table, bounced them a few times in the palm of his hand. “Great. You like me. So where is he?”
“St. Regis Hotel. Sounds way nicer than it is.”
“Room number?” I could almost hear the little flip-flop of his heart. Or maybe it was mine.
He looked at me hard. “How come you know this now?”
“It doesn’t matter how. C’mon, let’s go.”
“Thanks, but I think I can do this by myself.”
“He won’t answer the door if he knows it’s you.” It was lame, but it was the best I had. No way was I missing the big reunion.
Starsky looked away and rubbed a forefinger over one eye.
“You can wait next door at my place and I’ll ask him over for a drink.” I held my breath.
“Next door?” he yelled. “Next door? He’s your neighbor?”
He wasn’t taking that little bit of news as good as I’d hoped.
“Nice car, by the way. I’ve never done it in a Torino.” I struggled along behind him. Three-inch heels and a miniskirt are no match for running shoes. “Nice ass, too.”
“Shut up, Starsky.”
He stopped and waited for me to catch up. He took my hand and gave it a small squeeze before letting go. We walked back to the St. Regis together.
In my room, he asked to use the bathroom and came out a few minutes later, wiping a small towel across his wet face. I offered him a drink, which he accepted, and a blow job, which he didn’t. I was kidding about the blow job, I told him. Sort of.
“I’m ready now,” he said quietly. “Go get him.”
“Sure. He should be pretty sober. It’s still early.”
“Brandy . . . ”
“I’m going. I’m going.”
He looked scared to death.
“It’ll be okay.” I said. “Really.” I prayed a fast Hail Mary as I walked next door.
Hutch answered on the first knock, wearing old jeans and no shirt. He smelled of scotch and sweat and cigarettes. I could see the new needle marks on his left arm, the lit candle on the night table, the spoonful of smack beside it. I was suddenly glad I’d made Starsky wait in my room; he didn’t need to see this. The candle was burnt down and sputtering, and I got the feeling maybe Hutch had been looking for a reason not to do it.
“I have a new bottle of scotch and a sore jaw and a comfortable armchair and I wondered if you’d . . . ” That’s as far as I got, I guess I’d given him the excuse he needed, because nodded, grabbed his shirt and cigarettes from the bed and blew out the candle.
“Sorry,” he said. “You know, about before.” He pulled on the shirt, but didn’t bother doing it up.
“No problem.” I lied. The ten-dollar whore crack still hurt. Even if it was true.
I let him go in first. Then I snuck in fast behind him and locked the door. I suppose I should’ve left, should’ve given them their privacy, but there’s lots of things I should do and don’t. So I stayed. Stood in the corner and hoped they’d forget I was there. I did a lot of that growing up. Standing in the corner. Trying to be invisible.
When Hutch saw Starsky standing by the window, he turned and tried to leave, swearing under his breath at me when he realized I’d locked the door. He hit it hard with his open hand and swore again.
Starsky came and stood in front of him, looked him up and down. “You look like shit,” he said.
“You don’t look so hot yourself,” Hutch answered.
“All I need is a good night’s sleep.”
Hutch brushed by him and went to sit in the armchair, grabbing the ashtray from the dresser as he went by. He did up the buttons on his shirt, then lit a cigarette from the pack he’d shoved in his pocket. His hands were shaking pretty bad. I watched Starsky watch him, saw his surprise when Hutch lit up. He sat on the bed opposite him, staring at him like he was looking for something familiar to latch onto.
“What do you need?” Starsky asked, but he knew the answer. They both did.
“Starsk, you don’t
understand . . . ”
“Then make me understand. I’m not going anywhere.”
Starsky was trying to stay calm.
Starsky leaned forward. “It’s not complicated,” he said. “Just come home. Please. We’ll figure it out.” He laid one hand on Hutch’s knee.
Hutch flinched and Starsky pulled back his hand.
“I can’t. Not yet.” Hutch stared at the floor through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “I’m sorry.”
Billy went two months that last summer without using. He moved back in and got a job. A real one. Every night after work we’d eat dinner at the table, watch Johnny Carson in bed and make love with the lights on. It was the best two months of my life. And he was miserable every minute of it. He started using again two weeks before he left. I’m sure he was sorry, too. He never would’ve lasted two months if he wasn’t.
“I’m fucked up, Starsk,” Hutch finally said.
“Then come home. We’ll fix it.”
He shook his head. “No. That’s where we went wrong before. It wasn’t your problem to fix. It was mine.”
“You sure you want to fix it?”
Hutch stood up quickly and disappeared into the bathroom.
After Billy left that summer, I only saw him one more time. He came home to get some of his things when he thought I’d be at work. But Betty had swapped shifts with me that day and I didn’t need to be at the diner till late. He told me he’d be coming back home for good soon, he just needed to be on his own for a while, to get his head straight. I knew it was a lie but I let him go.
“Hutch?” Starsky got up slowly and went to stand at the bathroom door. “Hutch? Why’d you pick that day to take off? All you had to do was pee in a cup and we’d have had him.”
Starsky knew the answer to that now. He just didn’t want to hear it, so he kept talking, filling the space between them with everything but the truth.
When the police came to see me the day they found Billy, it took ten minutes for me to let them tell me. Even though I’d known what they were going to say from the minute I opened the door.
Hutch came out of the bathroom and sat on the bed. He kept his hands busy with lighting a cigarette. Starsky watched him from the door.
“Why that day?” he repeated. “After we spent four weeks setting up the deal with the DA?”
“Because . . . because I knew I couldn’t pass the test.”
Starsky sank down beside him on the edge of the bed. He stared at the floor. At his hands. At his shoes.
“Why didn’t you tell someone you were in trouble?” Why didn’t you tell me is what he meant.
“How could I tell Dobey after everything he’d done for me? Or the DA? And I thought it would only be the one time, that it wouldn’t happen again, so no one would ever have to know. But then the test got moved up a week…”
“You still should’ve told me.” Starsky said.
“I couldn’t tell anyone. Especially not you. I didn’t want to see how you’d look at me if you found out. So I left. And I still wanted it . . . I never stop wanting it. How could I tell you that?”
Billy loved me. I know he did. With all his heart. But loving me didn’t make things easier for him, it made them harder. It made him keep secrets and it made him ashamed. Of what he was doing. Of not being able to stop. Of not being good enough for me.
Starsky wrapped one arm around Hutch’s shoulder. Hutch sighed and leaned in against him.
“Tell me now,” Starsky said quietly. “Start at the beginning.”
I left them alone then, closed the door softly on my way out. I went next door and got rid of the smack and the syringe. Went to the Blue Note and nursed a Manhattan. The band was rehearsing and they let me sing with them for a while. When I got home a couple hours later, Frankie said Hutch had already checked out. Gone off with some guy in a snazzy red car. He handed me a folded piece of paper, said Hutch had left it for me. I probably could’ve asked Frankie what it said; I knew there was no way he didn’t read it first.
I’m going home with Starsky. I figure my chances are better with him than without him. If you ever need anything, I hear you know where to find me.
Thanks for everything,
P.S. You wouldn’t know anything about how my wallet magically re-appeared, would you?
The police gave me Billy’s things a week after he died. He kept a small leather diary he was always writing in, it was full of poems and stories and song lyrics. On the last page I found a short poem he’d scribbled in pencil. It was about forgiveness and second chances. About making love with the lights on. He called it Song of Bernadette. After me.
This story first appeared in Kass’ Blood and Destiny zine. I’ll be forever grateful that she trusted me enough to ask me to write a story for her, less than a year after I’d started writing fic.