There had always been three of us in my relationship with my father. Even when I was a kid and he dragged me to the pub for football Sundays, the feeling of unease followed me like a dog on a leach. I sat at the window, sipping my juice and watched as he drank and shouted at the poor little telly. My father was a man of his time, hard as nails. I, on the other, had very little to show for but a keen interest in self-loathing. I became a failed writer, for all my sins. Writers often have blood on their hands but rarely does it stick. I always thought I'd make a good thief, I get so easily lost in the background, but a murderer? No. I didn't have that in me or so I thought.
The rain was pouring, making the city's concrete streets, look even darker than usual. I stumbled into the Hungry Parrot, the only club serving after 11pm, and hoisted my already drunken body at the bar. Get me a double, Maurice, I demanded. Leave the bottle.
On Wednesday, it's blues at the Parrot. My little Vivian sings until ten. It's really for her that I come. She's sweet with her little red ribbon in her hair. She reminds me of my sister. On Tuesday, it's the twin boys at the piano and sometimes on Thursday, Marlene comes. Her swirls and rumbas are not bad. Her legs barely touch the stage but she is not much of talker. I like a talker. Lately, Vivian has been feeling restless and was thinking of going west. I'd like to think, for me, she'd stay, that she'd stay forever.
I usually make it on time and ordinarily less drunk. I must have been longer than usual at my father's office. Every Wednesday, I come to collect the small allowance, he grants me. He'd either be on the phone, betting or marching around his office, making things move, making things happen. My presence rarely stopped him. I asked him to leave it with his secretary or send it in the mail but my father prefers to serve his judgment in person.
“If your poor mother could see you.”
The few pointers left were finishing their drink or lighting their last cigarette. Maurice was counting. It must have been a good night.
“What's that on your hand”, he asked but my eyes were half dead, half staring at the hypnotic shape that emerged from the back of the room. A woman, perhaps, shinning like all the stars in the flag. I must have yelled out a few things if only to justify my miserable condition. She waved and disappeared. Maurice left the bar unattended and so I served myself one drink too many. I fell, face first, on the floor. Everything went dark.
The stench of my two sleeping companions woke me up. Stacked between two bin bags, I slapped my face both ways. Thank you, Maurice. I was less thirsty than I was weak in the arms. I called a paperboy over.
“Sir, you stink of gin”
“yeah? So what?”
“My father says drinking is a sin”
“Yeah? And how do you know what gin smells like heh?”
“Give us one, boy”. The boy threw the paper in my face and ran away. Nice kid, I thought.
"March 24th 1946", was as far as I could go with frowning. The cover was tainted with the city's latest crimes. Yesterday it was bank manager killed at gunpoint and last week it was a whole family slaughtered for a couple of hundreds. When do these people ever sleep? This time, it happened in an office, at the corner of Belmont and Clark street. As I read the name, drops of sweat rolled down my back. My father's office. I looked at my hands, they were dirty and covered with brownish stains. The events of last night were a total blur. I remembered the Hungry Parrot and I remembered the sparkles. That's it. What happened before was a complete blank. I scrapped my hands on the floor but the blood had already dried. I'll keep them in my pockets until I reach the office. I needed to know more. I took a shortcut through some of the city's unwelcoming alleys that I knew well. When I arrived, the place was packed with police. Two paramedics were leaving the building, carrying a body covered in a thin white sheet. Who was it? It couldn't be him. It couldn't.
I hid in the shadow of a chestnut tree, the only sign of nature that had resisted the city's toxic air. When I saw a police car approaching, I rejoined the dark alleys. There, I was safe. The beggars and harlots were my friends. They would never give me up. I couldn't keep my father's face out of my mind. The day my mother died, he took me aside and told me I had to be brave for both us because things would never be the same again. I believed him. From then on, my father became a man of distractions. He found refuge in a multitude of activities that he always ended up outgrowing. Our rare football games turned into a competition for who would last the longest before crumbling on the ground. I always let him win so he wouldn't explode but somehow, that too turned against me. I never liked football.
I walked fast as if I knew where I was going. I found a puddle, large enough to wash my hands. My stomach called for a drink and I entered a small cafe. I sat near the window and ordered an espresso with a side of whiskey. A mother and her child sat next to me. She was reading the newspaper. The child stared at me like some silly howl.
“Stop it, Bobbie. That's rude” but then she, too, stared at me. She waited a few minutes before heading for the telephone booth. I glimpsed at her newspaper and saw they were ahead of me. A sketch, strangely resembling my face, had already been published. It had my mother's long ears and my father's chin. I could have run but I would have run forever. The police arrived in seconds and I was pushed at the back of their van.
“Look son. It doesn't have to be difficult. Just tell me what happened between ten and eleven last night”. The detective's face didn't match the rest of his body. He had a large round face with two small piercing black eyes perched on a hungry torso and skinny legs. He looked like the gavel that was to lock me up forever. He repeated himself three times. I wanted to tell him I didn't remember but I knew he must have heard it all before. I had missed some blood on my shirt, which made me look even more guilty.
“Don't you people need the motive to arrest me?” Suddenly, panic turned into horror. My whole life was a motive. A woman entered the room. She told the detective he had an urgent phone call. For a second I thought I recognized her but it wasn't her. The silver girl had long red hair. This one had short hair. I remained alone with the guard who looked everywhere but at me. I wouldn't want to look at me either. When the detective came back, he sat and looked me right in the eye.
“The poor lad's dead. It's murder now.” The drops of sweat again.
“The girl”, I shouted. She could vouch for me. She can tell them what I told her. I always tell the truth when I'm drunk. I must have seen the body and tried to help. It has to have been what happened. Sure I didn't like the guy but I didn't have murder in me.
“You sure you want us to ask her ?”, he asked. I nodded. What else could I do?
At the Parrot, the detective asks for “the girl” that was here last night.
“What girl?”, asked Maurice.
“The girl. All I have is a shiny dress and long red hair. Does that ring a bell?” It did. A girl came out wearing a grey suit and a silver hat. Her hair was tied but red curls fell on either side of her neck.
“Hey! You!”, shouted the detective. The girl remained unfazed. The detective repeated himself, louder.
“What's this all about”, interjected Maurice. “What is it you want?”
“I want to talk to the girl. She acts like she can't ever hear me.”
“She can't hear you.”
“Some girl you have here!”
“She's deaf. I don't pay her to talk, I pay her to dance.”
“Is there another girl?”
“Not at the moment, no. I had another one but she's just left.”
The detective sighed and turned to his partner.
“This boy's story is a mess. This whole thing is a mess. It should be a straightforward case. What are we missing?”
“That boy doesn't look like a murderer. If anything he looks more like a victim. He just has that look”, his partner replied.
Alone in my cell, I laid on the floor and tried to remember the last conversation I had with my father. Hadn't I heard him say he wanted to travel south? Hadn't he taken a new case lately? Could it have not taken him away? All I remembered for sure was gambling. Last Saturday, he wanted me to come to see him gamble at the races, using the tips he had just acquired. My father was a fraud, always in for a shortcut. I wanted to tell him but all that came out was “that's cheating”. He was raging now and swearing. It had to be the grief, I told myself. With any luck, he wouldn't reduce my allowance. Last time that happened, I didn't make my deadline or rent. I promised myself that next time I would keep quiet if only, to avoid bringing back that excruciating feeling of death, that came over me, every time he yelled. Soon, there will be a drink, a good old drink. The sound of a heavy metal door, slamming behind me, brought me straight back face to face with the slim detective.
“Where is the gun son? Where's the money you took?” I could see the man's face turning red right about now.
“Why Lewis McJennings? What was he to you?”
“Who?” I slipped out.
“I'll tell you what happened. A failed lazy writer doesn't have money and even less disposition to get some. You knew the building, you knew its employees. You come every month, I hear. You knew Mr McJennings was a gambler, you're probably one too. You knew he'd lost big and you knew to who. You waited for him to come to deposit his losses and when his back was turned you shot him cold. You took the money and left. That's what happened. Poor McJennings, he must have thought he had already lost big.”
“Who?”, I repeated. Now there were actual fumes coming out of the man's ears. Could it be that I was innocent? I didn't know any McJennings. Everyone who worked with dad looked the same to me.
Then there was a knock on the door, a message this time. The poor detective looked at it with mixed feelings before turning to me.
“Revolver was found.” For the first time today, I was interested in what he was saying.
“It was found on a certain, Allan Poland, wanted for a robbery turned manslaughter.”
“He said he found it but that won't stand up in court.”
“No? What does this mean for me?”, I asked.
“It means you're free to go. For now.”
I was about to leave the station when I saw an officer running after me.
“Hey you!”, he shouted. I stopped cold.
“You forgot your book. Damn that thing's heavy!” He handed me a large copy of Tolstoi's War and Peace. It was my mother's favourite book. I carried it around with me, always. My father never read it. Too big.
With the time I had, I thought I would give one of the main streets a try. I bought a bear claw from a street vendor and passed an old bookshop. It had recently closed, the city's latest casualty. Outside, the rain had stopped but the air was cold and I could feel the wind turning. I believe there is an irony that comes with amnesia that makes you remember things the minute you don't need them anymore. The minute it would hurt you the most to know. I opened the book and went straight to the end. It was one of those old copy where the dust cover is thicker than the book. Looking at my find, I knew this month, I'd make rent. I went on walking, knowing I had killed the wrong man. An innocent man was dead and a criminal was locked up. I thought about turning myself in but wouldn't that make me responsible for another criminal going free? Besides, it wasn't for that crime I wanted to confess.
It took me an hour to find my way back home. Exhausted and hungry, all the alleys looked the same to me now. I looked at my old typewriter on top of all my unpublished manuscripts. All these words and no one to read them. Sometimes, I would spend the entire night cramming over my work but come morning, all I saw was embarrassment and shame. He's right, it's all so hopeless. In the shower, I cried all the tears in my body. Isn't that what you are supposed to do in the shower? Knowing the water will cover any sound you make. I cried because I was tired, because I was ashamed and because I felt trapped. There was no winning here.
I stopped at the corner of Belmont and Clark. Instead of turning left to my father's flat, I turned right and headed for the police station. There I told the red-faced detective, the whole story. Once more, he looked as if he had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was charged on a Thursday morning, at around 11am. Slowly, I sensed that the feeling of alienation was dancing away. From then on, I was free.
On a Wednesday morning, I had a visitor. It was my father. I told him the whole story again. I could have kept quiet. I could have gone free, he repeated. He didn't understand. I had to make it clearer for him. “I would not be free because I would still need to see you.” He called me heartless before blaming the time and blaming the grief. I told him to leave. He left. Months later, he came back. This time he wasn't alone. She waited outside the room but I could still see her. She was his age, she had brown hair and she looked slightly concerned by the lack of curtains.
I could see something had changed. The lines on his face were softer and he smelled like fresh laundry. I was happy for him. I am not a monster. I listened to him. He said he'll never be angry again. He said he had moved on and so could we.
When he had finished, I could tell he was expecting an answer and so I replied:
“Good for you. Do you think they'll let me out now?”