It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.
Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.
“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”
“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”
“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.
It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.
“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging ‘em up.”
“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”
“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”
I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.
“Thelma,” I said.
He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”
“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”
“But, you’re a drunk.”
“Only my friends call me that, mister.”
“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”
He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.
Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.
I started taking notes.
“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”
“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”
“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Thelma,” I said again.
“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”
“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”
“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”
This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”
“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”
“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”
“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”
“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”
“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”
“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”
“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”
Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”
“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”
“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”
“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”
“No he didn’t.”
“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”
“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.
“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?
“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.
“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties. Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”
The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.
“I ain’t proud,” he said.
“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”
“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”
It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.
“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”
Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?
“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.
“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”
“Then?” I said.
“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”
“What?” I said.
“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”
I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.
“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”
We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”
“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”
“I guess I should thank you.”
“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”
A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.
“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”
“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”
It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.