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27 Apr 98

Phone Call (1)

Murder, but no Mystery

I stayed home from work today. I rationalized it thus: I worked several weekends this month; I have no meetings today; I don't want to go; I need some time to think. So I sent email to the HR person, CC'd to my supervisor, saying that important personal business had come up and I'd be in tomorrow.

To affirm my choice, my friend Jane surprised me by phoning at noon. I'd just gotten out of the shower. She is part of the esteemed Food/Circus performance cooperative from Vermont. They're on tour in New York City. Jane is staying with a friend in Williamsburg. She'd just arrived.

We talked for a while. I felt excited to have her in the city. She brings possibilities with her. After some conversation, she told me this story:

"I was seeing this guy Ned for a week or two, but I broke it off because I felt like I was betraying Max. So Ned started stalking me. He's one of these Buffalo punks that we used to hang out with. They're into the Church of the Subgenius, shit like that. They drink beer mostly."

"All right. So then a few weeks later, he tried to break into the house, but Max found him sneaking in and beat him up pretty bad."

I said, "Max told me about this. It sounded pretty weird."

"So one day I was hanging out at the Boys' House, where Ned used to live, and he's been gone for a couple of weeks, so I went in and took a nap. It was right by work. I did that a lot. But Ned showed up, kind of out of nowhere, and started to scream at me. And then he attacked me."

"Attacked means...?" I asked.

"Yes." She took a long breath. "I just left. Didn't call the cops. I didn't want to deal. I just wanted to get on with my life. Food/Circus was going on tour, so I left Buffalo. I don't want to be base, but, I've been raped four times. I know how to deal with it, there's a process. That might sound fucked up, but it gets easier.

"Four months ago I went back to Buffalo and I was hanging out with the Boys and they said, 'hey, what was up with you and Ned? Why did you leave?' and you know I never cover that shit up, right? So I told them about the attack. And they got upset. They were like, 'we're going to fucking take care of him. He's done this to another woman that we know.' And I said, 'I don't need vigilantes, I can take care of myself. Don't do anything for me.' And that was it. Nothing more was said.

"About two months later I'm about to go on tour again and one of the Boys comes into the restaurant and says, 'hey, I got to let you know, we took care of Ned.' And I say, 'look, don't tell me any more. I don't want to know. It doesn't involve me.' And I avoid the papers, I don't talk to anyone. I don't want to know if anything happened. But I had a feeling. From the way he told me.

"I just spend time with Max in Buffalo and work and hide out from the world. Max says he doesn't hear anything about Ned, either. Maybe they were just blowing hot air. Anyway, I left for Food/Circus."

I'm on tour with the Theater in Boston and the cops show up. They start to question me about Ned and the Boys. They tell me what happened. It sounds like I could be a murder suspect. I can tell you I'm totally freaked out. I'm there trying to rig some of the puppets and there are these cops. So I go and get a lawyer."

"That was a good move," I said. I paused. "What happened to Ned?"

"The cops told me all about it. He showed up at the Boys' house after being away for a month, and they were drunk off their asses, and so was he. So the two Boys and Ned got into a big fight, and one of them beat him to death with a baseball bat, over the head. And they dumped the body in a field in the snow."

"Wow," I said. "That's new for your life, right? This is the first time an ex-boyfriend who raped you has been murdered?"

Jane laughed. "Yes. And of course they found the body. I'm like, hasn't anyone seen Fargo?"

I laughed, too.

"I talked to the lawyer, and he had me stay in Buffalo for a while, but the cops didn't question me any more. And finally, I got subpoenaed as a witness. I'm not a suspect. So the lawyer is still scared--what if someone makes up a story about me? But I think I'm okay.

"And the conversation where I said, 'no, I can take care of myself', there were a lot of people in the room that heard me say that. The only thing is that it happened four months ago, and I'll bet all the stories are different, but I mean, what can I do about that? And what's good is that the two Boys confessed to the murder, so there's nothing to prove. You know how my life has gone. I figured I'd end up in jail or some crazy shit. I wondering how long it would be until I was a fuzzy bumper."

"Well, who knows?," I said. "Probably not long; you've got some experience in that department. And what choice do you have? You get ten years or something, right? I figure, shit, in prison I'd eventually end up with a dick in my mouth, probably sooner than later. Goes with the territory."

"I know, right? And I was wondering, how could I get art supplies in jail? How can you do mixed media in a jail cell, right? But thank God that part of it didn't happen."

"It's impossible not to be paranoid about that shit," I said. "I figure I'm going to jail every time I see a cop. I just don't trust the process. I don't know how you stood it."

"I actually dealt with all of this okay. Cops are pretty much out for the victim half the time, you know? But it looks like I'll get through things okay. Only part that sucks is that it's weird up in Buffalo. That worries me. People have got me up to be Mata Hari, they're saying I ran a sex ring, all kinds of shit. I was back there for the lawyer and people wouldn't speak to me on the street"

"Fuck their opinions," I said. "Typical small city. There's always a bunch of idiot assholes in small cities who can't be real criminals so they drink beer and play guitar instead."

"I wish I hadn't dated one of them. But you know? I was totally calm through all of this. I didn't go crazy, or hurt myself, or fuck up, or anything. I just kept taking deep breaths."

"Good," I said. "You're getting boring and uncool. My friend Alice is totally boring. She used heroin to come down from crack and ran all kinds of drugs, right? But now she's just a regular working stiff like me, and she does collages and art in her spare time. Her life is more exciting, but she's boring. Like for me, I'm a nine to five robot, and it's the real key to happiness. No more drama. I don't wake up in horror at two in the morning. I don't have anyone suggesting I go to the fourth floor of St. James Mercy hospital for a couple weeks and talk to counselors. When do you go to court?"

"May 5. I don't think I'm going to deal with Buffalo much anymore."

"I understand that," I said. "Being one step removed from a murder is enough to do that. And no steps removed from a rape. Do you want me to come over and take you to lunch?"

"Yeah. Come over."

I dressed, dried my hair with a towel, and got the G to Metropolitan Avenue. I was lost, but finally found the place on North 3 St. An ex-warehouse. No one was there.

I rang the bell for a long time.

I knocked.

I yelled.

I woke up some guy in another apartment. He looked like a sleepy artist. He was very upset with me. I felt good about pissing him off.

And I walked back to the G and came home.

I was pretty annoyed.

I thought about the things that could have happened, and the fool idea that stuck in my mind was maybe she's really dead and called me from beyond the grave.

I know it sounds stupid, but in ninth grade our health teacher told us that he was chaperone at the junior prom, when he saw a student named Bob sitting on a chair, and he went up to Bob and chatted, just a pleasant, "hey, how's it going," kind of chat. He found out a few hours later that Bob had actually been legally dead during the conversation, hooked up to machines in Chester County Hospital, after a huge traffic accident. Bob survived. He didn't remember the conversation with the health teacher.

I thought of this story going back on the G. Maybe the entire conversation was from the great beyond. Maybe Jane had died and had called to tell me this horrific story about the murder. Maybe she had been murdered, too. Maybe there was some cosmic purpose for me to go to Williamsburg. I thought, "Maybe the F train has skipped the tracks and hit my house, and I will have been saved by a voice from outside of time."

I scared myself by thinking, "But what if it's really true?" I wasn't so scared that I didn't get off the train a few stops early, browse at Community Books, and then eat a taco at Buddy's Burrito Bar, where I sat and read my new Delillo novel.

As I walked back past Caroll Street, everything full of omens, an old Latino woman looked at me and sneered. Then she fell down, right to the ground, on her face.

"Ma'am!" I said, "Ma'am! Are you okay?" A car stopped. A window rolled down. A Black man yelled out, "You allright?"

"Ma'am, can I help you up?" I asked. She said nothing. I wondered if she had really hurt herself. Then she said, "Oh, God, I have fallen again." She looked about seventy five, and sounded very sad.

After a minute, she gathered herself to her knees, and then she took my hand, and I gently helped her to her feet. She stood and looked down at her dusty greatcoat. She had tears in her eyes.

"She allright?" asked the man in the car. I nodded, and he drove away.

I waited a moment. Her dark green coat was half-orange from the dust. She began to sweep off the dirt with her hand. I circled around to her other side.

"Are you okay?" I asked. She didn't look at me. She just nodded, turning her head away, and I walked on.

I thought about the cosmic significance of this for the next six blocks. I felt bad for the woman; she was very old and it looked like the fall had hurt more than her pride. Then, turning onto 9th St., I saw three NYPD bicycles, and a cop leaning against one of them, outside of my apartment. I walked quickly towards the bikes, heart bouncing.

They were actually one house over. I breathed deeply, and keyed into my building, ignoring the cops. Junk mail in the mailbox. I went up to my room.

I fixed the door this weekend, so I'm not used to it opening properly, but I finally fumbled my way inside. I saw the message light on the answering machine, and felt convinced it would either be Jane wondering where I was, or someone calling to tell me Jane was dead by the hand of a man named Ned. I pressed the button on the machine. My body tingled with psychic confusion. If she was dead, what would I do?

"Paul! Where the hell are you! I was waiting at the stop on the L. It's 2:30." Beep.

"Paul! Where did you go? Where's my lunch?" Beep. She didn't sound dead.

"Argh!" Beep.

I called her back. We'd just missed each other. She thought I was on the L; I was on the G. We rescheduled. I'll see her later this week.

It was good to know that she was fine. Raped, the rapist murdered by her friends, sure. But otherwise, Jane was just getting on with her life.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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