“It’s the first day of spring,” Murray said, standing at my doorstep, smelling like baloney. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”
“You sure that’s official?” I griped, wanting any way to wriggle my way out of this. “It’s still cold as fuck outside.”
“It’s New York, dumbass. It’s always cold.”
My mind wrestled with reality, trying to concoct a believable rouse. Instead, my sullen eyes fell down to the Tiki Lounge ticket on the table. It’s mere presence depressed me even more.
“You remember what you told me?” Murray said.
Of course, I remembered. It was branded into my brain because of a vision that haunted me every day and night. Each attempt at a smile was weighed down by the memory.
“You promised yourself you would do this,” he told me.
It was time to keep that promise.
An hour later, I was at this cozy little diner down the street sitting across from a feisty red-head named Angel Fontaine. Contrary to what people would often guess, it wasn’t just her stage name. Someone popped her out of their birth canal and actually gave her that shit.
It always struck me as a crime how oblivious she was to her own beauty. The way she casually moved her luscious red curls out of her line of sight as if they were a burden always amused me. Her sparkling red lips moved a mile a minute showing why you know she had a mouth on her. Because even though she was always the prettiest girl in the room, her antics would steal the show.
“So as soon as Handsy McDooglefuck comes in," she was explaining, "I tell Mack, cut that bastard off. He says ‘But he’s a big spender’. And sure enough, as predicted, he starts vomiting everywhere, christening the whole damned place, feeling on all the waitresses’ asses. Then he storms off before the end of the show and doesn’t even leave the girls a tip.”
“Well, tippin’ is optional,” I needled her.
“It ain’t walkin’-out-the-door-without-gettin’-your-balls-kicked-in optional. Those girls work hard for their money. They’re just too shy to tell those bastards where to go.”
I looked at her, admiringly.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, annoyed.
“I don’t know. It’s just this stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold thing is kind of cliche.”
“We’re not strippers, Lenny. It’s burlesque dancers.”
“I’m sorry. Do you take your clothes off?”
“The synonym is ‘strip’.”
“You know I don’t make fun of what you do. What was that job you had again?”
“Vertical Design Process Manager.”
“Yeah. What you said. Is that title specially designed to get people to yawn and walk away?”
If she only knew.
But this was our ritual. I bust her balls, she busts mine. Our special little version of “I love you.” My moment of silence meant we were transitioning to the business portion of our date.
“Well, I have a new act,” she started to explain. “It’s a Marvel routine where I play a superhero and their villainous counterpart. So, like, one half of me is Red Skull, the other half --”
“I can’t go.”
It hurt to cut her off because she looked genuinely confused.
“What you mean you can’t go? You ain’t got shit to do. You sit around watchin’ documentaries all day.”
“I mean…” my voice rippled out like a scared little boy as I said the words, “I’m dumping you.”
I could see her trying to process what must have seemed inconceivable. In the meantime, I tried to adjust myself to this new world. A world I always feared. A world on the other side of “goodbye”.
Her eyes turned a deep red to rival her curls. A red hanging in that volatile space between anger and sadness. It seemed a miracle that she kept her composure as she squeezed out a single word, “Why?”
“Well,” I said, trying to project calmness, “things changed.”
Those words set off a bomb and her fist slammed against the table, “That don’t make a goddamn bit of sense! Why don’t you just hand me the dead sea scrolls!”
I tried again, thinking of valid reasons to dump her, “Well -- er -- you snore in your sleep sometimes... You cuss a lot and --”
“You should get a Razzy for everyday livin’ you’re so full of shit. You’re the worst liar in the goddamned world!”
She always showed off that burlesque creativity with her insults. Thing was, she was wrong. I was good at lying. It was kind of my M.O. I just couldn’t lie to her.
As the silence carried on, I began to examine her eyes. That’s when she did that special thing she did only for me. Her rough exterior melted away until all that was left was that shy, innocent girl she once told me about.
Her transformed eyes looked at me and said in a new, gentle tone, “Tell me, Lenny. I deserve that much.”
I thought long and hard of an answer. Something bold, something true, something to get her off my back for good.
“You don’t deserve me.”
I snatched myself from the table and made a beeline for the door before she could see me crying.
Waiting outside was Murray. He slapped the handcuffs around my wrists. We got into his overpriced pickup truck and sped off.
The entire ride was silent. Forty minutes toward Bridgemont and I had managed the noble feat of not saying a word. The butthurt child he was, Murray finally broke the streak of wordlessness.
“Aw, come on,” he yapped. “Don’t tell me you’re mad at me.”
I let the rumbling of the road do the talking for me.
“She’s not a pet, Lenny,” he went on. “You can’t take her with you. You knew this when you made your promise about Falconi.”
Vincent Falconi was the prime suspect in a murder investigation. He also happened to be the leading crime boss in the small city of Bridgemont. He had lots of ears and eyes in and outside the force and my dumb ass was set to testify against him.
The promise I made myself echoed in my mind as Murray kept on yammering like a jackass.
“Witness protection is like a dream world. You met your dreamgirl and now you’re wakin’ up to reality. You know how many busty blondes I wanna take out of my dreams? I can’t.”
Then he said something that cut to the heart of the matter.
“No one told you to fall in love.”
“You think I did that shit on purpose!” I snapped. “That’s why it’s called fallin’, dumbass! It’s an accident… You can’t help it.”
Suddenly, I was envisioning Angel’s lovely eyes again, looking down on me and my eyes mirroring their fascination. Then, like always, I turned away in shame.
“Pull over,” I said, disgusted with myself. “I have to take a leak.”
Murray complied. I got out and walked toward the nearby forest. As I went deeper into the woods and did my business, it occurred to me that maybe I could run, go find Angel and disappear. I had the means. But I had also made that promise to myself -- a promise only I knew.
Before I could make a decision, I heard a click over my shoulder. Without turning to see the source of the noise, I finished my business and zipped up my pants.
“After all we’ve been through, Murray,” I said to the apparition behind me, “I would’ve thought you owed me more than a bullet in the back.”
Confirming my suspicions, Murray’s voice shot back, “Come on, Lenny. Do the math. Falconi’s got a damned army in the force. He goes down, they go down.”
“Does ‘they’ include you?”
“You ungrateful little worm! What do you think I’ve been doing the past two years? Trying to convince people that even with your testimony, Falconi wasn’t gonna see the inside of a jail cell.”
“Don’t waste that sob story on me. God’ll wanna hear it before he sends your ass to hell.”
Murray inhaled intensely. I didn’t care if it pissed him off. Nothing mattered anymore. All chances of keeping my promise were gone. All chances of seeing her were gone. And I would be the one giving some lame-ass speech right before being sent to hell.
The gunshot split the air and I saw my life end at that moment, but much to my shock and disappointment, I felt nothing. What had happened?
I turned to see my answer. Murray, face planted in the ground, unconscious. Standing beside him was Angel, her infamous stun gun in hand.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Us Burlesque dancers know how to read the room. I knew somethin’ was up. I put my I-Phone in your pocket and used the find my I-Phone App to track you down.”
“And where did you get a phone to follow me?”
“I borrowed one from some perv in the diner. I said if he didn’t let me use it, I’d rip off his balls and feed them to the cat.”
“What is it with you and balls?”
“That’s what they’re there for. Fuckin’, pissin’, and credible threats of violence from five-foot-three burlesque dancers. What?”
With a disapproving shake of my head, the ballbusting portion of our interaction had now concluded. We hopped in Angel’s car and sped off before Murray could wake.
Angel was to the point, “So where we goin’, Lenny?”
“I have a promise I’m supposed to keep,” looking at her eyes weakened my resolve. “But I’m not sure I wanna go anymore… I stashed some money in a barn two miles north of Bridgemont. We could take it and run away.”
Angel stopped the car and turned to me with serious eyes. She grabbed me by the face and examined it as if inspecting a wound. Finding what she was looking for, she restarted the car, and we drove off.
“This promise,” she said to the road, “it’s important to you.”
From the tone of her voice, I knew it wasn’t a question. A tear trickled from her right cheek, she tried to maintain composure as she said with the wisdom and selflessness that made me fall in love with her, “You should keep it.”
I knew she was right. And she knew I needed the silence to let it sink in. She waited twenty minutes before asking the question, “Did you mean what you said? That I don’t deserve you?”
“You don’t deserve me,” I said, awaking a memory. A specific length repeated itself in my mind like a mantra: eleven feet. It was the approximate distance I was from Falconi as he shot that kid through the head.
The guy Falconi was arguing with was a hothead. He was also out of his depth and didn’t realize who he was messing with. When things went south, I had wandered too far away to react in time.
“Fuck this shit,” I heard the young punk say. He had thrown down his hands and made a run for it. No one runs from Falconi.
There were four shots. I remember each one. The first ricocheted off a garbage can. The second left a gash in the guy’s legs. The fourth bounced off the wall. Third had been deadly.
The third, you see, had skimmed the young man’s shoulder, glided from the alley, and split through the back window of a passing Honda Civic.
The kid was four years old. His mom said he was playing with his toy airplane when the bullet hit him. And there I was, eleven feet away, too busy counting the money to do my job.
This revealed the secret to all the times I looked in Angel’s eyes and mourned, touched her cheek and pulled away, or felt so guilty after sex. Because she didn’t deserve me.
Back in the present, I told her why.
“You deserve someone better.”
After hooking her up with my stash, through tears, we parted ways, and she left the country should anyone come after her. I never saw her again.
After pulling a few strings and dotting all my I’s, I finally made my way back to Bridgemont to keep the promise I had made just two years earlier. Sitting there on the stand, my mind wandered as the prosecutor went through all the motions of introducing me.
Undercover cop. On the force twelve years. Happened to be at the scene of the crime. What he didn’t know was that I was there doing a drug deal, but I guess it was better that the jury didn’t know either. The prosecutor cut to the chase.
“On the evening of March 12, 2018, you witnessed a man shoot a gun in the direction of Gavin Newsome -- missing several times before striking a moving vehicle and killing Henry Jackson. Can you tell the jury who fired that gun?”
I breathed in and readied myself for the moment I had prepared for. Leaning into the microphone, I said it clearly so there was no doubt, “No, I can’t. It was too dark.”
The courtroom gasped. The prosecutor stuttered to regain his composure. The judge tried to calm the gallery with the bang of his gavel as Falconi pumped his fist victoriously and pointed at me in gratitude.
A crooked cop like me knew better than to bite the hand of the man I truly served. The prosecution had put all of their eggs into this basket only to find it was a farce, because, on the night of the killing, Falconi made me promise not to tell anyone. Anyway, like Murray said, he wasn’t going to see a jail cell anyway.
So, I felt no guilt keeping my promise to not tell. But that’s not the promise I made to myself.
I remember when the cops called me in for preliminary interviews. Lenora Jackson, mother of the four-year-old, walked it carrying a toy plane. She told everyone how her son would take it everywhere and so she would take it everywhere. That putting it by her bed was the only thing that helped her sleep at night. And the only other thing that could replace that comfort was justice.
So, as I was given my directions to keep a low profile and report back the first day of spring, that’s when I made the promise to myself. To make sure that bastard paid.
On March 19th, 2020 as I descended the stand, I strolled toward the exit, not a seeming care in the world. I walked toward the door and vaguely acknowledged Falconi out of the corner of my eye. Then suddenly, with a depth of skill I didn’t know I possessed, I lunged at Falconi’s neck, strangling him and strangling him as cops swarmed around me and tried to pull me off. But their efforts were no match for this man on a mission. I did not release my grip until I saw it in his eyes: death.
As I sit in this cell facing murder charges, I have regrets. But at the end of the day, I made a promise, and somewhere down the line, an angel fell into my lap. An angel I didn’t deserve.
Now, in my dreams, I can touch her hair and not draw back. I can kiss her lips and not feel the shame.
That was always the paradox of her from the moment we met. The only way I was ever going to deserve this angel was to release her to the wind.
To let her fly away.