While he was talking to the real estate agent Jim Kirk on a pay phone, his neighbor, Mrs. Noily’s tenant—Lydia, was it, or Lynne—came up out of the steamy subway, her body revealed in a strappy tank top and short skirt, long legs shooting out. Her light brown hair, pulled into a ponytail, had slipped seductively loose. She looked taller than he remembered from seeing her outside the Noily’s. Emil quickly turned to face the other way, but she’d seen him and waved. Their block of houses was a fifteen minute walk from the hub, which was where he assumed she would go.
He hung up the phone and there she was standing in front of him, long, lithe, and barely dressed. “Hello there, Detective Milosec.” Emil nodded, keeping his eyes on the top of her head of shiny, smooth hair. An odor came off her, a whiff not just of sweat, but of something from fields and early morning. “It’s Loretta, in case you forgot.”
“Hey, but it’s hot, huh?” She sounded flirty, though all she’d said was it was hot. “You heard about Mr. Noily?” She nodded her head as if confirming something. “I just brought some things over to the hospital for him and CeeCee, including her migraine pills.” Loretta licked her lips.
“What hospital would that be?”
“Did you see anyone there?”
“Like who? You mean Mr. Noily? He’s in surgery. Hey, you want to get a coffee? It’s frying out here.”
Emil looked around. “A coffee?”
In the hub, the light bulbs in the shops were low wattage, like at Rudy’s Market near his house, only here it was more superstition and fear at work. Immigrants, Emil had explained to his wife Elena, were afraid the electricity would run out if they used too much of it (somehow he and Elena weren’t seen as the immigrants they were). There were two taverns along the strip. Winter through summer their doors were open to the sidewalk, the smell of cigarettes and watery beer wafting out. A look inside revealed the same worn out customers leaning over their evening mugs. On the juke box would be Frank Sinatra or Paul Anka, or maybe a polka. These were bars time had forgotten, but according to Jim Kirk they were situated at the epicenter of the next big real estate boom. If that was the case, these working people taking their ease had no clue.
Loretta laughed. “Coffee, yeah. C’mon.” She lightly touched his arm and he went with her, walked a couple of blocks to a café he’d never seen before. It was a hipster joint with small round tables, some sort of art on the walls. They found a table near the back.
“When did this place appear?”
“I don’t know. Maybe like six months ago, seven. Nice, huh? About time too; those dark old-timey bars just about depress the hell out of me.”
A waitress drifted over to their table; jeans, vacant expression, a silver nose ring and other piercings that to Emil looked uncomfortable and difficult to keep clean. What was he even doing in that café, everybody in it didn’t look old enough to drink legally.
“What can I get you?” the waitress asked, looking put out.
“Hi. A mocha latte—decaf,” Loretta said.
“You have espresso?” Emil asked. The waitress turned her head to look at him: Was this a test?
Loretta said, “They have espresso.” Emil nodded, and Loretta told the waitress, “And one espresso.”
Loretta looked at Emil. “No, not a double,” he said to the waitress. “And bring us some waters. Do you want a cookie or anything?” Loretta shook her head and the waitress drifted off.
Loretta fiddled with a pink packet of diet sugar from a container on the table. Emil observed her closely, beyond detecting. “You’re always in that garden of yours,” she said, looking down. “Like you maybe lost something there.”
“Lost something like what?”
She dropped the sugar packet on the table. “I don’t know.”
Emil looked hard at Loretta’s eyes. Did she know something?
She leaned back and crossed a leg high over her thigh. Emil caught a shot of white panties over crotch. She lifted her arms to recapture the straying ponytail into a red hair band. “So, when are you going to show me?”
Loretta smiled. “The garden.”
Emil pictured LaTeesha Williams, her smile and the deep, kind eyes. Other parts of her anatomy volunteered themselves to his mind’s eye, too: her derrière, full mouth, and breasts. Now here was his neighbor’s crotch staring up at him. Up close Loretta didn’t seem quite so young—her eyes, anyway, weren’t as youthful, their expression watchful.
“Does your husband know you flirt with men?”
Loretta tossed her head back and laughed full and reckless. She had a feathery laugh that didn’t go with her eyes. “Malcolm’s not my husband. We live together; we’re not man and wife. Anyhow, all I asked was to see your garden, not your gun or anything.”
“Why do you assume I have a gun?” Had she heard the shots, too?
“Once a lawman always a lawman, right? Like in the old Wild West movies: The sheriff’s in town. Like High Noon. That’s one of my favorite movies—Gary Cooper, mmm…you know, you look a little like Gary Cooper, like mature vulnerable…” She flicked her silky ponytail with her left hand.
The waitress appeared with their coffees, no waters.
Emil swallowed his espresso down and stood up. He fished a ten out of his pocket. “Will this cover it?”
“Do you have to be somewhere?”
“As a matter of fact I do.” He coughed once, dropped the bill on the table, and turned to go.
“Not going to put me under arrest, Detective?”
Emil turned to face her. “Not today.”
He felt her eyes on him as he walked to the exit. What was her game? And why did he want to play it?
Outside felt that much hotter for the icy air-conditioning inside the café. There were girls everywhere on the street, younger than ever girls dressed loose in the heat. Emil moved fast, headed north and turned the corner. He went in the opposite direction from his house, in case Loretta would soon be walking that way. Elena had said women were beautiful and there was nothing for him to do but suffer. Right.
He walked fast in spite of the pressing heat, two blocks south, then over one block east, and then doubled back to a side street and past the Kirk Real Estate Office. A glance inside told him what he’d expected to find: dim interior, two desks, one agent, Mr. Kirk himself, a few listings posted in the window on faded index cards, no attempt at decor, and no customers. A sign outside the shop read: Checks Cashed/Insurance/Notary Public. Sure, a boom town. What did they call real estate agents? Bloodhounds—and they were right up there with ambulance-chasing lawyers.
He doubled back again, down one more block south. Ahead was the red brick steeple of St. Dominic’s Church. Past the church, he headed toward a pizza shop, passing a laundromat and a small zipper manufacturer called ZIPPIT. He eyed a squat, yellow-painted brick building with a sign that announced: JESUS IS LORD. He had no idea what business was conducted on those premises. He’d seen mid-sized yellow vans with the JESUS IS LORD logo. Maybe they shipped Bibles, biblical literature. His cop sense made him suspect other goods were being moved alongside whatever religious paraphernalia might be for sale, but that might only reflect his distrust of religious organizations in general; the very idea of peddling faith. Alongside small manufacturing plants that built everything from plumbing parts to plastic dental floss containers were private homes.
On side streets were one- and two-, some four-family dwellings. Their façades were mostly aluminum siding or asphalt tile that looked like linoleum, some in fake brick face or thickly stuccoed like fluffy cake icing. A few were actually old brick. All were tidy with neat rows of garbage cans lined up out front. Some contained small gardens inside shallow entry gates, or single planters filled with purple petunias, impatiens, or marigolds. This was the beginning of the Italian section, and solidly old Brooklyn.
He opened the door to Giorno’s Pizza and was hit with a full, tomato-y rich smell. The owner, Carmine, was perched on a stool on the customer side of the counter, reading the Italian newspaper Oggi. He looked up when the door opened. “Hey, Detective Emilio, como va? A very long time, my friend; you’ve been hiding.”
Emil smiled. “Va bene, amico mio, va bene. How’s the pizza business?”
Carmine shrugged his shoulders. “The same. You want a caffe? Sit, I’ll make us a cup. Sit.”
The air conditioner rattled loudly in its sleeve over the door, an old machine that just about broke even between the heat of the oven and the heat off the street. Carmine didn’t seem to notice.
Emil and his former partner Mike Dunn used to stop by Giorno’s every couple weeks when they were on the job together. They both agreed it was the best pizza in the neighborhood. The thin crust was the thing, and the sweet red sauce with a nice amount of cheese on top; not too much, like with some pizza joints, where, as Mike pointed out, “all you end up is chewing on cheese.” Mike had a special fondness for the garlic balls, often taking a greasy brown bag full back out to the car. Emil didn’t eat the garlic balls; he said it wouldn’t do at a crime scene to stink of garlic. Mike maintained a corpse couldn’t smell anymore, so what was the difference? He kept Chiclets in his pocket anyway.
Giorno’s had been around since the early sixties. Emil rarely saw more than four people at a time seated at the few tables in back, and he’d always assumed those few were Carmine’s relations. When you entered Giorno’s it was as if you had entered a slice of Italy; never a hurry and Carmine always found time to stop what he was doing to say hello. The take-out business was the mainstay. A city bus stop stood out front, and when the sidewalk window was open, and the bus was running slow, as it usually was, Carmine sold plenty of hot slices and cold sodas.
Emil watched as Carmine worked the machinetta. When he was done, he came around again with two miniature cups and four cubes of sugar. They stirred their sugars in silence. “Good,” Emil said of the strong brew. Better than at that frufru café with Loretta.
“The heat’s on today, and no kidding about it,” Carmine said after a few minutes.
“I don’t know how you take it with the oven.” Carmine lifted his hands; what’s to be done, he meant to say, he was used to it. They talked a little of nothing much, then Emil asked, “So, you seeing many new faces in the neighborhood lately?”
“Here by the shop?” Emil nodded. “Well, the bus stop, you see a lot of types.” He thought a minute. “Yeah, maybe more kids—young, artist types could be. Scruffy looking kids, some with green or purple hair.” He laughed. “Green hair. But what do I care what color if they eat my pies.”
“It’s good pie,” Emil said. “So, I, ah, heard a rumor some rough stuff on the part of certain parties wanting to buy property, encouraging people to sell. You heard anything of the sort?”
Sometimes Carmine heard things, mostly in the tightly knit Italian section where there was the inevitable Mafioso skim. Carmine was not a snitch; he only ever spoke in very general terms, and was what Mike Dunn had called a casually concerned citizen. He had a feel for the rhythms around him and an independent streak; he owned the pizza business and the building it sat in; no one pushed Carmine Giorno around.
“Over there you saying?” Carmine pointed with his thumb toward the Italian side. “Nobody tries any stuff over there. Not unless they have something wrong with them that they are cured of very fast.”
“I was thinking more down my way.”
Carmine reflected. “Could be the Hassid community needs to spread out? They over-reproduce bad as us Catholics.”
Emil smiled. “They mostly only ever use muscle around the competing Hassidic group. A thing I never fully understood. Anyhow, I think it’s just talk, what I heard. Times could be changing though.”
Carmine laughed. Nothing had changed since his father opened the shop, since his family arrived from Bari in 1950.
“I’ll believe that when I see it. The neighborhood’s a little short on charm, in case you didn’t notice.” He lowered his voice, “You own your place, right, Emilio? You’re not worried?”
“No, I can’t be touched by speculators.”
“You’re not back on the job?” Emil shook his head. “Private work? Money problems?”
Emil appreciated Carmine’s concern. “No and no. Money’s fine. I’m curious, that’s all. I think maybe people start rumors to try to create a market where there isn’t any, then the herd gets going and—you know—New York, the myth, it’s ninety percent illusion.”
Carmine thought that over. “Nah, I don’t know…you hear these things every now and again. This is Brooklyn, Emilio; don’t forget that; change comes slow to Brooklyn.”
Emil thanked Carmine for the coffee. He said he’d be back for a slice when the hot weather let go of his appetite.
“Anytime, Emilio, anytime. If I hear anything…” Emil nodded. They shook hands and Emil went back out into the glaring afternoon heat, revived by Carmine’s strong espresso and hospitality.
He turned left outside of Carmine’s, deciding to detour north towards the park. A few kids lazed over a ball under some trees near the corner entrance, and the usual handful of defeated looking drunks sat huddled on benches, lips blubbery and faces blotchy red, like they might be about to burst into sentimental tears or already had. Otherwise, the indifferently kept park appeared empty. It always seemed to be empty. Along the west corner stood an orthodox church, squat but for its onion dome spires. There were four smaller onions and then the great big dome like a tumor, or a full womb, in the center, all billowing above a base of pale yellow brick. The domes were the acidic green of long oxidized copper. Emil was oddly fond of the church, the architecture of it. The structure came up so unexpectedly in the surroundings. Next to the church was a square garden, closed-in with a chain link fence. Few plantings of note, mostly shrubs, some that flowered, and solid old trees among a healthy patch of very green grass. No attempt had been made to cloister the grounds, but trees laced the adjacent sidewalk, giving Emil the impression of peeking into a wide open secret. Inside, at the far end, were three wooden picnic tables. Emil always expected to see a priest in the garden, walking in flowing black dress, or meditating, or perhaps just enjoying the day, but he never saw anyone.
The church marked the temporary end of the area that was dotted with light manufacturing. The streets here were often empty—barren streets and onion domes; Emil’s Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood with sudden passages of beauty.
Emil stood a few minutes in front of the church. There had been no large onion-domed church in his old country village, only a small wooden structure, cold as death in winter. Instead of reaching toward the sky, phallic-like as the Roman Catholic churches did, like St. Dominic’s back around the corner, these domes seemed bound to the earth, breast-like, fertile, and mysterious. Studying the structure, he decided that if the idea was to exemplify something spiritual, he’d choose this organic approach over the other, sky-pricking monuments. Why would the spiritual translate into poking into the sky, away from the ground? Aspiring to the sky—toward heaven—to deny life on earth. Earthly life, as in fucking and gardening? He stood in front of the church, found nothing forbidding or threatening in its presentation. Then the image of Loretta crossing her leg threw itself in front of him. Earthly life had been going on all around him as he mourned Elena. Had the anesthesia of grief worn off? She’d been a sacrament to him, a communion of sexual desire and ethereal loveliness. “I wouldn’t know how to find a whore these days,” he told himself—if it came to that. He no longer knew how to date—if he ever knew. His idea had always been uncomplicated: to ask a woman to remove her clothing.
As he continued walking in the unrelenting late-day heat, two teams of homing pigeons rose into the sky. Released from rooftop pens on rent-stabilized buildings a few blocks from his house, the birds took to the air in tight formation. Twice each day they were let loose. At certain times of year, if he happened to see the early evening flight, their white backs would catch the setting sun, reflecting gold and orange as they flew. A sky performance as the birds suddenly reversed themselves in mid-flight, shifting from flat surfaces that captured the light to a view across their wings, so that for a fraction of a second they’d flicker out of sight altogether. The weaving pattern, up and down, around and around, was hypnotic. Franco, his other neighbor, had once explained that when the two teams mixed up in flight sometimes one flock lost a few birds while the other gained. It could go back and forth like that, and sometimes birds were lost altogether, fleeing the security of home and flock. Emil watched them swirl, dots dancing through the bright hot sky, lost in a ritual of freedom-less flight.
If the real estate hounds came, buying up housing, what would happen to the pigeons? What happened to the people who couldn’t keep up with costs? Where would they go? And the factory jobs? He thought of the closed-up spice factory near his house. Did the new owner know something, was he biding his time sitting on property that could end up as prime, waiting patiently to line his pockets with unchecked wealth?
Carmine was right; theirs was an ugly neighborhood, mostly bare of ornamentation and niceties. Especially ugly after he’d been away, he and Elena, to a pleasing locale, so that when they returned home they were appalled by it anew. But it was still a stable area for working families and there were moments of elegance, like the daily flight of the pigeons, and the big uncluttered Brooklyn sky that gave it a raw beauty, a kind of grace under pressure. Brooklyn was Emil’s home—his family’s place of exile from the old country—the good of it and the bad. Was all that set to change? He imagined bull’s eyes on the small family homes he passed as he walked toward his own.
He scratched at his itching brain as he walked, trying to decide if and how much merit there was to the get-rich quick real estate scheme he’d been toying with as motive for the recent violence. He didn’t know what to make of the offer to buy the Noily house, but a little voice that he knew better than to ignore told him not to shut the door on real estate as at least part of the motivation. A cop dismissed that little voice at his peril, that I’m-telling-you-somethinghere-so-listen-up mental construct arising from a place that leapt across synapses. Hints, sure, but the trick was figuring out where the hints went. A cop keeps hundreds of files open in his head; facts from the morbid to the mundane: information filed away that could lead to a dead-end or to a killer. The little detail that doesn’t sit right, the notation that seems insignificant and turns out to be the screw that blasts open a whole case, and the minuscule incongruities that expose the lie that spun the web of cover up. Like any good policeman, Emil Milosec was cluttered with mental post-its:
names, places, alibis, facial expressions, intonations, clothing, license plates, and car makes; accents, weather reports, traffic patterns; open files and closed files—all needed on short notice, all taking up space.
He’d never dumped years worth of files. How could he? Minds don’t delete, unless the brain is damaged or erased by disease. Files go dormant or are shoved aside for new facts, but they are there. Memory can be tricked, blocked by trauma or grief or fear, but it is still there. Emil’s mind was laced with threads, some of which may or may not be tied to current events. It wasn’t fun and garden parties either. No, something was dark in Denmark, he told himself, misquoting.
And there, not one block ahead of him, stood Loretta.
Janyce Stefan-Cole is the author of the novel Hollywood Boulevard, and the forthcoming, The Detective’s Garden, of which “Emil’s Williamsburg” is an excerpt. janycestefan-cole.com
Click to read an excerpt from Hollywood Boulevard, published previously on this site.