Long Bright River: A Novel (7 page)

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
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The question of childcare was always a pressing one for Gee. There was no after-school care at the Hanover grade school, which put her in a pinch.

Eventually, Gee heard about and enrolled us in a free, nearby program run by the Police Athletic League. There—in two large, echoing rooms and on one picked-over outdoor field—we played soccer and volleyball and basketball, urged on from the side of the court by Officer Rose Zalecki, a tall woman who’d been a standout player in her younger days. There, we listened to admonition after admonition to stay in school, to stay abstinent, and to stay away from drugs and alcohol. (The formerly incarcerated stopped by, with some frequency, to drive these points home via slideshows that ended with cookies and lemonade.)

Every PAL officer at the facility was a pleasing combination of authoritative, funny, and kind: a change from most of the other adults in our lives, around whom we were mainly expected to stay silent. Each child had a favorite officer, a mentor, and small lines of children could often be found trailing after their chosen idol like ducklings. Kacey’s was Officer Almood, a small and perpetually bemused woman whose irreverent, wild sense of humor—centered benevolently on the fools around her, the foolishness of the world, the damn foolishness of these kids—sent those in earshot of her into paralyzing fits of laughter. Kacey picked up her mannerisms and style of speech and boisterous laugh and brought them home, trying them out, until Gee admonished her to keep it down.

My favorite was quieter.

Officer Cleare was young when he arrived at the PAL, twenty-seven, but his age seemed to me then to be very adult, a good solid age, an age that carried with it the implication of responsibility. He had a young son already, about whom he spoke fondly, but he wore no wedding ring, and he did not ever mention a wife or girlfriend. In one corner of the large cafeteria-like room in which we did our homework, Officer Cleare read books, glancing up occasionally at his charges to make sure we weren’t distracted, and then back down at what he was reading, his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. Every so often he stood up and made his rounds, bending down over each child, asking them what they were working on, pointing out mistakes in their thinking. He was stricter than the other officers. Less fun. More contemplative. For these reasons, Kacey didn’t like him.

But I was drawn to him forcefully. Officer Cleare listened carefully when anyone spoke to him, for one thing, maintaining eye contact, nodding slightly to show he understood. He was handsome, for another: he had black, combed-back hair, and sideburns just slightly longer than the rest of the male officers, which in 1997 was quite fashionable, and dark eyebrows that inched together minutely when he read something he found particularly interesting. He was tall and well built and had an air about him that felt to me then vaguely old-fashioned, as if he had been dropped in from another time, from an old movie. He was extremely polite. He used words like
and once, while holding a door open for me, he said
After you,
and swept his hand outward, bowing his head slightly, which struck me at the time as unthinkably gallant. Each day, I positioned myself at tables in closer and closer proximity to him, until at last I was seated directly next to him. I never spoke to him: only did my homework ever more quietly and seriously in the hope that, one day, he would notice my dedication and comment on it.

Finally, he did.

It was on a day when he was teaching us chess. I was fourteen years old and in my most awkward phase: mainly silent, going through a struggle against bad skin, frequently unshowered, dressed in raggedy clothes, always two sizes too big or too small, hand-me-downs or thrift-store finds.

But if I was self-conscious about my appearance, I was proud of my intelligence, which I thought of, in secret, as something that rested quietly inside me, a sleeping dragon guarding a store of wealth that no one, not even Gee, could take away. A weapon I would one day deploy to save us both: myself and my sister.

That day, I concentrated hard on each match in front of me until, at the end of the afternoon, I was one of four players remaining in the impromptu tournament Officer Cleare had staged. Soon, a crowd was watching, and he was among them. I was aware of him, though he was standing behind me, out of sight: I could feel his size, his height. I could feel his breathing. I won the game.

—Nice work, he said, and my shoulders hunched in pleasure, and I lowered them again, saying nothing.

Next, and last, I played against an older boy who was the other finalist in the room.

The boy was good: he had been playing for years. He made quick work of me.

But Officer Cleare paused, his hands on his waist, assessing me even after everyone else had gone away. Under his gaze, I reddened. I didn’t look up.

Slowly, he righted my capsized king, and then he knelt down next to the long cafeteria table at which I was still sitting.

—Have you played before, Michaela? he asked me quietly. He always called me this: another thing I appreciated about him. My nickname, Mickey, was given to me by Gee, and it has always seemed to me a little undignified, but somehow it stuck. In the memories I have of my mother, she, too, always called me by my real name.

I shook my head. No. I couldn’t speak.

He nodded, once. Impressive, he said.

He began to teach me. Every afternoon, he spent twenty minutes with me separately, coaching me on opening gambits and then game-length strategies.

—You’re very smart, he said, appraisingly. How do you do in school?

I shrugged. Reddened again. Around Officer Cleare, I was perpetually flushed, my blood beating through my body in a way that reminded me I was alive.

—All right, I said.

—Do better, then, he said.

He told me his father, who had also been a police officer, was the one who first taught him chess. He died young, though, said Officer Cleare.

—I was eight, he said, moving a pawn out and back again.

At this, I glanced up at him quickly, and then back down at the board. So he knows, I thought.

He began to bring me books to read. True crime and detective fiction, at first. All the books his own father had loved.
In Cold Blood.
Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett. He told me about films:
was his favorite, but he also liked the
trilogy (everyone says the second is the best, he informed me, but actually the first is) and
and older ones, too.
The Maltese Falcon
(even better than the book, he said), and
, and all of Hitchcock’s thrillers.

I read every book and watched every movie he recommended. I took the El down to Tower Records on Broad Street and, using my hard-earned babysitting money, bought two CDs by the bands he loved, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. He had described them as Irish bands, which made me imagine songs full of fiddles and drums, but when I put them on I was surprised to hear men shouting at me over aggressive guitars. Still, I stayed up late into the night, listening to these songs on my Discman, or shining a flashlight on the pages of the books he had named, or sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching classic movies on TV.

—What did you think? Officer Cleare asked me, about every recommendation that he made. And I told him that I loved them, always, even when I didn’t.

He wanted to be a detective. He’d be one someday, he said, but while his son was young he had requested a PAL assignment so that he could have
more regular hours. Several times, he brought the boy in. His name was Gabriel, and he was four or five years old then, a small reflection of his father, dark-haired and lanky, his ankles showing beneath his too-short pants. His father picked him up and carried him around, introducing him, proud of him. Perversely, against my will, I looked at the father and the son and felt a pang of jealousy. I was not certain what I wanted, but I knew it to be connected, somehow, to the two of them.

Then Officer Cleare put the boy down next to me.

—This is my friend Michaela, he said to his son. And I looked up at the boy’s father slowly, awestruck, the phrase echoing in my mind for days afterward.
My friend. My friend. My friend.

It was around this time, unfortunately, that Kacey was beginning to get into serious trouble. Today, I am disturbed by the possibility that this was linked, directly or indirectly, to my distractedness. For before Officer Cleare entered my life, I was devoted entirely to my sister: helping her with her homework; counseling her on her behavioral issues—the ones that I knew about, at least—and on how to better communicate with Gee; combing and arranging her hair in the morning; packing our lunches each night. In turn, Kacey revealed to me the parts of herself that she did not share with others: the small injustices that befell her each day at school, the deep sadness that sometimes came over her with such power that she felt certain it would never recede. But as I became closer to Officer Cleare, I became, I imagine, wistful and remote, my thoughts and my gaze turned away from my sister.

Kacey, in turn, withdrew. At thirteen, she began regularly skipping out on the PAL’s after-school program. Gee received a phone call anytime she did, and for a while she tried unsuccessfully to punish Kacey, but soon her groundings piled up on one another, and eventually Gee gave up the chase. She’s old enough to watch herself, I guess, said Gee, dubiously. I was already fifteen then, and years before she had given me the same option that Kacey now had, which was to entertain myself after school each day—or, better yet, to get a steady job. Instead, I elected to participate in a PAL teen group that was meant to provide mentorship and oversight to the younger students.

My choice—though I wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone—was largely motivated by wanting to remain close to Officer Cleare.

By ninth grade, Kacey was generally spending her afternoons with a group of friends headed by Paula Mulroney.

Already, they were distracting her from her schoolwork. They wore mainly black, and smoked cigarettes, and dyed their hair, and listened to bands like Green Day and Something Corporate—music that, though I couldn’t abide it, though it prevented me from studying, Kacey began playing loudly in our house whenever Gee wasn’t home to stop her. She began smoking, too, both cigarettes and marijuana, and she kept a small supply of each in the hollow spot beneath the floorboards of our room—the place we had formerly used for more innocent purposes.

It felt, to me, like a slap.

I remember, with clarity, the first time I found pills in that space. There were perhaps six of them, small and blue, contained in a small Ziploc bag. Incredibly, I recall holding them up and feeling a certain amount of relief that they seemed to be professionally made, imprinted with two neat letters on one side and with a number on the other, well formed and sincere-looking. When I asked Kacey about them, she was reassuring: they were something like extra-strength Tylenol, she told me. Very safe. A boy named Albie had a father who had a prescription for them. A lot of fathers in our neighborhood did: they were construction workers, or ex-longshoremen, or laborers of other kinds who had used their bodies hard all their lives, had ground bones and twisted muscles into painful nubs and knots. It was the year 2000. OxyContin was a four-year-old medication, doled out liberally by doctors, received gratefully by patients. It was purported to be less addictive than prior generations of opioid medication—and therefore nobody knew, yet, to be afraid. Why do you even want it? I remember asking Kacey, and she said, I don’t know. For fun.

What she didn’t tell me was that they were snorting it.

The other activity Kacey was getting into, at this time, was sex. This I found out secondhand, from a cruel tenth-grader I overheard
bragging about it to his friends. When I confronted my sister, Kacey simply shrugged it off, saying nonchalantly that he was telling the truth.

At that time, I had never even been kissed.

The two of us pulled farther and farther away from one another. Without her, my loneliness became outrageous, a low hum, an extra limb, a tin can that dragged behind me wherever I went. I missed Kacey, missed her presence in the house. Selfishly, I also missed the efforts Kacey made to draw me out socially. To bring me to parties. To invite me along with her to friends’ houses.
Mickey was just saying,
Kacey used to begin, when we were younger, and then would accredit to me some witticism or observation that she had actually come up with herself. Now, when Kacey saw me at school, she just nodded. More often, she wasn’t at school at all.

On several occasions, I hopefully placed messages for my sister in our hiding place. I knew it was childish, even as I did it, and yet I persisted. Small notes containing anecdotes about my day, about Gee, about some other member of our family who had done something or other I found amusing or annoying enough to recount. I longed for her to notice me, to come back, to reverse her course and return to the childhood activities we had once enjoyed together.

But each time, the note I left for her went unreturned.

The only occasions, in those days, on which Kacey seemed truly to notice me were when I spoke of Officer Cleare.

Kacey didn’t like him.

He’s full of himself,
was how she phrased it, or sometimes she called him stuck-up, but I knew even then that her real criticism of him was darker, that my sister sensed something in him that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, name.

Kacey said when I talked about him, or anything he liked, which I did with some frequency. In fact, I began so many sentences with
Officer Cleare said
that finally Gee and Kacey eliminated the phrase from my vocabulary by mimicking me so mercilessly that I became self-conscious. My fascination with him prompted, for my sister and me, a brief role reversal. For once in our lives, it seemed to me that it was Kacey who was concerned about me, and not the other way around.

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
11.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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