The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Work in stasis

...a voice was heard in Ramah

I. The Old Woman
    The old woman vanished early that summer, disappearing so quietly that no one realized at first that she was gone.  People worried about other things.  The dog days came early that year; by the middle of June the temperature had been in the nineties for ten days in a row with no relief in sight.  The heat rose off the sticky streets in shimmering waves that stank of burnt tar.  At night people opened their windows to catch breezes that did not come and listened to the wail of sirens as they lay in sleepless beds and felt the sweat roll slowly down their skin in thick trickles.  Sirens filled the nights that summer; the heat made people crazy. Abandoned buildings, automobiles, dumpsters, and part of a city park all burned during the dog days; old people collapsed in their homes from the heat; fights broke out in homes and bars from one end of the city to the other.   Everyone prayed for the heat to break soon.

With the heat weighing on everyone’s mind, the old woman's disappearance scarcely registered at all.  She had been vanishing for years, a shadow that slipped unseen through the mean hurly-burly of the neighborhood.  For those who cared to see her she was at Mass every Sunday morning at nine o'clock, the children's Mass, where the students from the Catholic elementary schools sat with their classes under the nuns’ sharp eyes, but she never went up to the altar rail to receive Communion.  Sometimes people saw her at confession on a Saturday evening.  For the rest of the week she was invisible, almost as though she did not exist at all.  Few people knew who she was; no one ever visited her.  Over the years the old woman slowly disappeared from the memory of the living, as if she had stopped for death long years before death kindly stopped for her.

The superintendent found her on the first of July, when the heat wave was at its height. The old woman lived in a small ground floor apartment towards the back of the building on Tyndale Avenue.  In the heat, the people living in the apartments above hers began complaining to the superintendent about the odor coming from downstairs.  At first, the superintendent chose to ignore the complaints.  A fat placid man, he believed strongly that most of the tenants’ problems were imaginary and would go away by themselves if he humored the tenant long enough and did nothing.  He placated the first few tenants with promises of swift action, but in the days that followed promises were no longer enough; the tenants pounded on his door demanding that he do something.  Convinced at length that the tenants might actually have a legitimate complaint, the superintendent roused himself from the air-conditioned comfort of his living room one late afternoon and went to work.

The superintendent went down the alley and crossed the back courtyard to the old woman’s apartment, carrying his toolbox and ignoring the chorus of catcalls and abuse from the women hanging out the day's washing on the clotheslines above him.  He knocked on the door and rang the doorbell and called her name loudly.  When no one answered, the superintendent was content; he'd done his duty and now he could go back to his sofa and his television set with a clear conscience.  He turned to leave; a moment later the courtyard echoed with jeers and shouting and threats raining down on him from the windows above.  He shouted, quiet down, quiet down, I'm not done yet.  I'm still looking here.
    So are we, honey, so are we, someone on the fourth floor shouted down.  And we still don't see you doing anything.  The courtyard rocked with laughter.

The superintendent scratched his chin and wished he’d kept his mouth shut; now he had to do something.  Damn, he muttered quietly, damn damn damn damn.  He tried looking through the apartment’s only window, but heavy drapes and Venetian blinds completely hid the inside of the apartment.  Finally he rummaged around in the toolbox for the master key ring, inserting one key after key into the lock until one worked.  The key that unlocked the door didn’t open it all the way; there were several chain locks on the door and it opened four or five inches at most.  The superintendent stopped suddenly and shook his head and staggered away from the door, vomiting up his spaghetti and meatball dinner.  The stench flowed out the apartment, a rolling rotting wave of corruption.  The women looking down from their windows shrieked with disgust as the stench reached them and they began pulling in their laundry to keep the fouled air from dirtying their clean sheets and linen.  A moment later, a devil's zoo of cats, rats, and flies came streaming out of the open door.  A woman on the second floor screamed as a large rat scurried out of the apartment and disappeared down the alley with a finger in its mouth.

The police came and cordoned off the alley, draping yellow crime scene tape over everything to keep an ever-growing crowd of the curious away from the old woman's apartment, which they opened with a bolt cutter.  Unthought of in life, she became an attraction after death.  Homicide detectives, forensic technicians, and medical examiners arrived, and an ambulance came to take the superintendent to the hospital; he complained of chest pains.  The paramedics carried him out of the alley on a stretcher, an oxygen mask over his face, still reeking of vomit and spaghetti and red wine.  A few minutes later the medical examiners came out with the old woman, her corpse in a dark green body bag strapped to a stretcher.  The crowd at the top of the alley fell silent and moved out of the way as the medical examiners brought the old woman out of the alley.  Many of them blessed themselves as the body passed by; others held their noses and winced at the smell.  The uniformed policemen began pushing the crowd back, telling everyone to go home, the excitement was over, there was nothing left to see. People began drifting away from the edge of the crowd, going home to eat their dinners or to watch a baseball game on television; children crossed the intersection to go to the playground.  The ambulances left, and then the medical examiner’s van left with the body of the old woman, and when the forensic technicians began packing up their gear the crowd began to dissolve in earnest, some of them speaking in low tones out of respect for the dead, others making loud jokes about what a big stink the old lady had finally made in the neighborhood. 

The technicians were getting ready to leave when a detective came out of the alley and went up to the technicians’ van.  He rapped on the passenger side window.  The man inside rolled down the window.
    Stu, unpack your gear and get back down to the scene, the detective said.
Come on, Jack, we’re done, the technician said.  I gotta get home.
Home’ll have to wait, the detective said. They got more work for you.  And let me have your radio, would you? 
Yeah, sure.  Here.  He handed the detective the radio.
Thanks.  Central, this is 11 Francis 17, requesting medical examiner at 2704 Tyndale Avenue, over.
11 Francis 17, be advised, medical examiners have just left your location, over, the dispatcher’s tinny voice said.
Central, I am aware of that, we have another decedent at the scene, over, the detective said.
11 Francis 17, understood.  Be advised, medical examiners on their way to your location soonest, over, the dispatcher said.
Understood, Central, over and out, the detective said.  He handed the radio back to the technician.  Thanks again.
Another body?  How the hell did we miss it on the first go through, the technician said as he got out of the van.
I don’t want to talk about this in the street, the detective said.  Trust me, you’ll want to see this.
Don’t say that, Jack, the technician said.  I hate it when people tell me that.  I never want to see whatever it is they tell me I should see.  Damn it, my wife is going to take this out of my hide.  We’re supposed to be going over to her folks tonight for pizza.
 You ought to lay off the pizza and the chocolate doughnuts for a while, Stu, the detective said. You could stand to lose a little weight, you know.
Don’t bust my chops, Jack, the technician said.  I already have a wife.

The news that someone else was dead in the old woman’s apartment brought the crowd back. Windows opened up and down the street; the children came back from the playground; women with curlers in their hair came out of the laundromat to see what was going on.  People wondered who it could be, trying to remember if they had ever seen the old woman with anyone they knew.  They asked the uniformed policemen at the alley entrance what was going on, but the policemen said sorry, they didn’t know nothing about anything and why don’t all of you folks just go home now, there’s nothing any of you can do for anyone here?  No one left; no one wanted to leave before knowing the grisly truth.  Kids speculated that the old woman was eating little kids for years, but none of them remembered someone they knew vanishing suddenly.  Men thought she might have killed a burglar; women wondered if she hadn’t killed her husband, one woman saying, God knows I’ve wanted to often enough.  The women laughed; the men didn’t think it was funny.  The medical examiner’s van pulled up in front of the alley.

A news crew from one of the local television stations arrived on the scene moments after the medical examiner and the reporter started asking people what they’d seen so far.  The reporter moved on to the weary uniformed policeman standing at the alley entrance. No, the cop said, I didn’t know what’s going on yes a body was found no cause of death has been established no the deceased’s name would not be given out pending the notification of her next of kin no the department’s press office would have a statement later in the day no I don’t know how much later that’s up to the detectives and the press office people no I don’t know if it’s murder or suicide no I don’t know nothing about the super’s current condition you have to ask the hospital about that no I don’t know if there’s another body down there no I don’t know what the delay is the detectives haven’t told me anything no you can’t go down there with your cameraman lady you gotta stay behind the yellow line the same as everyone else does yes I know who you are and no I don’t care at the moment yes I know the whole city watches you guys my wife included she watches you everyday she likes your news better than the news on Channel 7 don’t ask me why though the news is always just one lousy rotten thing after another no matter who you watch I just read the sports pages anymore my wife she thinks you should do something with your hair though no I don’t know what lady I’m a cop not a damn hairdresser something about you needing bangs I think.

Make a hole up there, someone called from the alley.  The uniformed cops began pushing the people back, opening a path to the emergency vehicles parked in the street.  The noisy crowd pressed against the officers’ outstretched arms, eager to see what was happening, ignoring the policemen’s orders to move back. 
Here they come, someone at the front of the crowd yelled.  The crowd lurched forward to see; one policeman fell on backwards; he swore as he got up and shouted at the crowd to get the hell back, damn it.

What’s happening, people yelled from the back of the crowd. The silence began with the people closest to the alley.  They stopped pressing against the cops; some took a step back, and others spoke quietly to one another as though they were in church.  The silence spread through the crowd and up and down the street.  Some people at the fringes of the crowd yelled to the people at the front, asking what was going on, but they were told to shut up by people who didn’t know anything more than anyone else, only that something had happened and that noisy bellowing was somehow out of place.

A detective came up out of the alley.  He carried a small wooden box covered with a white sheet.  People stepped away from him as he walked through the small space kept open by the uniformed policemen; some people blessed themselves, others shook their heads sadly and muttered, ay, pobrecito, as he put the box in the back of the medical examiner’s van and strapped it down.  The detective closed the rear door and locked it.  He stood there for a moment, looking in at the box, and then shook his head quickly from side to side, as if to free his mind from the confusing morass of reasons and explanations for why people did the horrible things they did to one another and to return once more to the cold hard cop wisdom that says people did do these things to each other and that sometimes there was no explaining why they did them.  The detective’s mouth twisted as though he had just tasted something bitter. Then he said, forget it, and went back down the alley.

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