I get the call at 1:17 a.m., “Jerry?”
“Ben,” I say. Just stating fact. As I stand, I hear snow brushing our house. My wife, Dominique, rustles the bed, sits up, flips on the light. Her big blue peepers flash a question, “Ben Plankton,” I mouth. She squints, shakes her head. I hold up an index finger: I will explain later. Dominique slumps, turns her back to the conversation, fluffs a pillow, pulls the covers over her tender blades, settles—softly, softly….
Ben begins: “I didn’t mean….”
I say: “Steady. Jerry Macklin is here for you. What happened, buddy?”
What happened is that Ben Plankton closes the Irish Rover, follows the bartender’s advice and texts Uber. Ben’s drunk. Again.
Ben’s first Uber doesn’t arrive because it skids off the road somewhere. The second one doesn’t make it either, or it just takes too much time and Ben says, “Hell,” and starts driving home. It’s only a few blocks. What could happen?
He can’t remember how fast he was going, can’t remember seeing anything. The snow and the beer and the lack of sleep lull him. Then a thud and a scream cut short, and something flies over the windshield, tumbles across the roof. Ben brakes and skids about 20 feet.
“Deer,” Ben decides, though that was a weird scream. He puts the blinkers on, slips once getting out of the car. The snow picks up, pelting nearby trees as Ben uses the door to struggle back to his feet. Once standing, he does a quick inspection. He runs his hands along a couple of dents. He could probably hammer them out himself. Faint hissing from under the hood that he’ll also deal with later. He sees the corpse in the halo of the only overhead on the block. As he approaches, the deer looks like a canvas bag that’s fallen off a pickup. Light bends as he closes in, rearranging blocks of shadow until he realizes….
Ben stumbles backward to his car, thanks God that it starts (he’s going to bang on God’s ear a lot for a while), bumps down Comly Road to Walsh Avenue, hangs a Ralph, goes just a little bit up the hill, and then snakes into his driveway.
By the time I get there the snow has picked up even more—they’re calling it a storm; no more talk of a dusting—and the tracks leading to Ben’s house are covered. I walk in the side entrance. And there’s Ben at the kitchen table, head in his arms like a scolded kindergartener: an unmanly and unseemly sight.
Gawd! Crying breaks the rules. We’re transplanted Philly guys, bleed Eagles green, love cheesesteaks. Grew up together. Ben done well, and I done good. I was a cop for 25 years, retiring as a detective and now working security part-time at Spin Casino. That’s where I find Dominique.
Ben ran an FBI lab, inventing surveillance gadgets and gizmos. Staying on track of tracking. See, the bad guys, they never quit and are indeed resourceful, so the good guys keep coming up with newer, smarter ways to hunt.
We are both 55, and Ben’s still working full-time, though no longer for the FBI. He’s drawing down big Benjamins from a biotech startup, bought a second house down the shore, sails on weekends. He’s got a lot to lose, he suddenly realizes, “Get it together,” I growl.
He looks up, but not directly at me. Tells me what happened. It is a slurred and sloppy discourse, but I keep my patience, He cries: “Why the fuck did I drive?”
“Because people do fucked up things, and you’re a people. And right now you’re a drunk people.” I am pissed about the decision forced upon me. I will get him out of this somehow. I’ll try my best not to break the law but, of course, in making this choice I’m well on my way to doing just that.
It is 1:57. There’s just the slightest chance…. I take a roundabout way to the Irish Rover, turn into the parking lot where the storm molds two solitary vehicles into ice sculptures (probably owned by guys who waited for their Ubers). I circle to the entrance, then pull away, turning onto Comly. I stop about 10 feet from the body. Get out. Crunch upon the newly-laid cover until I am over him. A young man, early 20s. He’s not dressed for winter. Snow covers half a face frozen in dumbfoundedness. Broken neck, the bone pushing against the skin, head bent at a right angle. I call 911.
A uni arrives in 12 minutes. I tell him: “I go to the Rover to grab a sixer and it was closed. Then, heading home—this.”
He nods. He’s, I’d say, about 35, but there’s a heaviness on him that reminds me of an older man.
“Fucking drugs,” he spits.
I say: “It had to be a drunk driver. A hit-and-run.”
The rim of his cap knifes toward me; eyes glowering in the shadow, “Possible,” he barely concedes.
“If the guy isn’t drunk, he stays and calls 911,” I argue.
He sighs, “Philly cop, right? Retired?”
“You’re good, and I should know. I was a detective.”
He says, “Well, detective, we probably have 10 times the number of deer than they do in Philly.”
“I’m sure your detectives will figure it out.”
He sighs yet again, “Your name?”
I tell him, and he asks the obligatory questions about his cop friends on Philadelphia’s force: Do I know them? I do—one or two—but say I don’t, and that annoys him even more. Good. Flashing lights approach from both directions; an ambulance and another cop. I hang around, nudge into conversations, keep at it with the hit-and-run theory until my new estranged friend ushers me off the scene.
“We’ve got it from here, Mr. Macklin. Thanks.”
And it’s as easy as that. When I get home, Dominique asks: “What is it with that Ben Plankton?”
“I’m there for him. He’s the 1-9-0-2-0.” The Olney section of Philly. The hood.
“You’re there for a lot of people, sweetie. You’re too loyal.” True. Dominique continues: “But exactly where was ‘there’ at this hour in a snowstorm?”
“His house. Ben’s drunk, of course.”
“No, he was fine when I left. But I’ll call his brother tomorrow. Family should know.”
“He is their problem, you realize.”
In the newspaper two days later, the chief of police asks for anyone who has information to come forward and then says that it could very easily have been a situation where someone thought that they’d hit a deer.
“We’re still investigating,” chief says, and even though it’s a printed remark I hear the tone. Not much oomph to it. A junkie’s dead, is all. Why work that hard? And that Philly cop on the scene—that Jerry Macklin—thinking he’s Sherlock Holmes? Screw him. This is conjecture on my part.
Here are the facts. The victim: 22-year-old Corey Davis. High school dropout. In and out of rehab. In and out of jail for theft, breaking and entering, and just generally being an asshole. Mother changed the locks. Corey lived down K&A under the El, but he was heading back home to plead for money. The blood test shows that Corey Davis had taken Xanax laced with heroin and fentanyl. Good chance he dies anyway.
“You’re cleared,” I tell Ben a couple days later. We’re at Starbucks in the afternoon. High school and college kid chatter; some artistic types pecking at the Great American Novel.
He clears his throat; he’s relieved. “How do I….”
“You thank me by getting clean, dude.”
He stares into the steam rolling off the not-so-good-for-you topping, “I need to quit drinking.”
“At least pull it back,” I say; “Stop slow-walking suicide.”
Been there myself, actually. I had pounded away through my own divorce, but drinking heavy poked the rage and there are only so many times an ex-cop can slur his way out of a DUI. These days I am certainly no teetotaler, but I’ve sure as hell gotten a handle since Dominique.
As for the Corey Davis case: I think that’s the end of it, but Ben calls me about a month later when Dominique and me are out to dinner at the Langhorne Tavern. I had told him that’s a no-no. Me and Dominique go home, continue binging on Longmire until Dominique goes to bed and for once I am OK with her having one of her headaches, those “spells” that have recently moved in, “Tomorrow sweetie, promise,” she says, taking the steps two at a time.
“You’re the best, man!”
“No, you, man!” she calls back, her responsorial struggling through preoccupation.
We started as friends. Dominique is 37. Short inky-black hair; makes you think of one of those silent movie stars. Eyes so blue they’ll blind you. Five feet, seven. Runs three miles a day, even on holidays. Loves sports, gets giddy when she drinks, but never sloppy. The kind of girl you fight for.
Especially if you’re the kind of guy who looks like me. I have a palooka face on a Fred Flintstone-size head, broken nose and alabaster Irish skin that had been slapped on by a God who lost interest. A woman one time told me that I am so ugly I am handsome. (I hissed: “You need another drink is what you need.”) Now Dominique? My Dominique says that I am beautiful enough for the Louvre (or however the hell you pronounce it). Take that!
I don’t keep Ben’s number on my contact list, but I remember it, “What part of ‘do not call me’ do you not understand?” I snap.
“Did you see it?” He’s talking about a series in the Philadelphia Inquire in which people who’ve lost loved ones to the opioid and heroin epidemics confront the shame accompanying such deaths head-on. The point: These are not just statistics, but human beings who’ve succumbed to a disease.
One of those tributes is by Kara Davis, Corey’s mother. She writes: “Corey injured his shoulder pitching when he was 16, and was prescribed oxycodone. That is when the recreational experimenting began and by the time Corey turned 18, it became dark. He wasn’t my boy anymore. I had to change the locks. Our family struggles with addiction. I struggle with addiction. I’ve been in recovery now for seven years from alcohol and opioids. Corey was high and walking on Comly Road in January’s snowstorm when a car hit him.” Kara Davis concludes: “The police consider it a homicide that will likely never be solved.”
I tell Ken: “See? Kid was going to die anyway.”
“But who does Kara Davis blame: the drugs or the driver?”
“The drugs, Ben. They put Corey at that place at that time. He could just as easily have wandered onto train tracks or off the roof of a building.”
“I am a killer of second chances,” he moans. “People do kick it.”
“Not many. And if you insist on calling yourself a killer, then call yourself a mercy killer, Ben. You saved that young man from years of hell. You saved that family, too. His end was fixed. Predetermined.”
“It wasn’t my call.”
“You didn’t make that call. Corey Davis did.”
This is how I peal guilt off, layer by layer. And it’s during that phone conversation that we realize that we’re joined in something forever. And, more important, I see that Ken just might waver and contact Kara Davis. That would be disaster. I need to keep him close. So, every month we meet at the Irish Rover, talk about old times, new blessings, and anything other than the manslaughter that binds us.
And as we talk on a recent afternoon, while early spring twilight diffuses the edges of the Langhorne Train Station across the street, Ben congratulates me on my marriage yet again, “Jerry Macklin is living the dream! Talk about a trophy wife!”
The conversational U-turn I must take will be tricky. I need to finesse it, but how? Finally, I give up, and just say: “That thing you’re working on?”
Ben glances at the wall behind me; app-swiping memory, “Nanorobotics,” he announces.
“Yessss,” I say, dragging it out quietly.
Keep it down. Ben pats the table, leans forward, “I owe you big-time,” he whispers, holding up a hand to any possible objections; “I know! I know! It’s not to be discussed. Just telling you, detective.”
Ben’s got this nanorobot that you slip into someone’s drink. For a day or so you can track the person until, I guess, it’s either crapped or pissed out, “Now, my good friend Jerry Macklin, it is my turn to say, ‘Let us not talk about it.’ Better that I don’t know. I will bring you some samples.”
And I’m thinking Ben means for the next time we meet but, no, he gets up and crosses the bar, and this isn’t a bathroom break. He comes back, flashes a CD, places it on the table like it’s a coaster, slides it over, “Three pills,” he says. He taps three dots in the case, right next to the silver disc. “I don’t have to tell you, detective, that there are many other ways to track someone,” Ben says. “A phone app.” Done. “A little jiggering with someone’s car.” Ditto. “But rigged phones can be left in rigged vehicles while the person goes about his unsavory business.” Her unsavory business.
“What’s on the CD?”
“Ocean Sounds.” And Ocean Sounds it is when I fix Dominique her coffee the next day.
“Are you going New Age on me, sweetie?” Seagulls mine-mine-mine over a tide that’s edging either in or out; I can’t decide.
“I’ll turn it off,” I say, handing over the mug as she sits on the barcolounger, looking out at our quiet street.
“No. I like it. It’s calming. Might be better sleepy-time music than getting-up music, though.”
She shivers, clasps her robe, greets the morning with a smile. The pre-makeup hours; and she’ll often complain about days she feels ugly, but I never see them.
Want more? OK. Dominique’s smart, gorgeous, brilliant—all that. But humble and sweet. The oldest in a big family, becoming a second mother to her younger sibs. She grew up a diaper-changer. Homework helper. Protector. A giver. Responsible. Down to earth, too. Looks as sexy in sweats as she does in business casual and, man, can she rock a dress, what with those gams. Yeah, sure, did some modeling when she was younger. Works PR for the casino.
As she takes her first slurp of coffee, I fight the urge to pull the cup from her, rescue my wife from my insecurities. Instead I turn, go into the kitchen, hide my shame.
How did I get here? Here’s how. You live with someone and notice just the slightest changes and you really don’t want to snoop because it’s all about trust, right? Without trust, there’s nothing holding up the works.
Shakespeare put me to sleep in high school, but I know enough about his shit to try and avoid doing the Othello. I can’t ignore the clues, though: the slight change in tone, a split second too fast to break from an embrace, Dominique’s heightened need to know where I am at all times as if I’m the one who might be stepping out.
A month ago, I run into one of her friends at the supermarket and when I mention the poker game the week before with the girls, this friend’s smile dims for just a moment, but then a rebound, quick chuckle, and: “I’m glad we only bet dimes, the way your Dominique cleans up.”
But Dominique had told me that she’d lost. I had considered her friends my friends, but now I am wondering who’s really a friend, and it all takes me back to my first marriage and the lies and the long, aching approach to the sudden end—the cliff.
Do I really have to go through this shit again? My stomach knots. I don’t eat. I get cranky.
“Maybe it’s time for a check-up, sweetie,” says the person I’d thought was closer to me than anybody else.
And I think: “You bitch!”
I stop. Dude, you don’t know a thing.
I don’t, not really.
Ken fixed it so I can track her on my phone. The first week or so Dominique’s exactly where she says she’s going to be and I am beginning to feel like a crumb.
But something’s definitely going on. What? Maybe there’s no intruder, no boyfriend on the side. Is it just the growth of those marital weeds: irreconcilable differences? Hell, 90 percent of marriages are on the rocks, if you look at them from an angle.
Dominique volunteers one day a month for the Food for Friends program, delivering pre-cooked meals to shut-ins. She uses vacation days to do it so in a sense she’s donating money as well as time.
I’ve slipped her the third pill by now and my wife’s given me no concrete reason to doubt, but still I doubt. It is my day off and I putter, getting one of the guest rooms ready for a new coat of paint. I approach house projects like they’re a hostage situation. I wear bright white disposable polypropylene coveralls and an old pair of my SWAT tactical support boots. I’m about to step out onto the moon, man.
One giant leap….I track Dominique as I prep. The app I snuck onto her phone and the do-dad under the passenger seat tell me that she goes to the center where the precooked meals are stored and stays for a while. But contradiction: The nanorobot says that she goes to the center and leaves within four minutes.
I stop puttering, go into my office, close the door for privacy even though nobody else is home. I fire up the computer, laying the smartphone aside. For some reason, sitting at a desk makes this task seem less dirty.
Dominique’s at 423 Richards Street, Penndel. Walking distance from the center. According to tax records, the owner is one Dallas Livingston, age 43 when he bought the place 12 years ago. Which makes him my age now.
She does like them older, doesn’t she? We’re on a holding pattern now. Every night, we play this game that I call “asleep-not asleep.” We’re ass to ass, blinking at our thoughts in the dark. Silence. Neither of us admits to being awake.
It is a contest: Who will drift off first and lose? It can last an hour and, some nights, somewhat more than that. I always win, determined not to descend into obliviousness until I first hear the rhythmic breathing coming from her side; the muffled pratfalls and somersaults of intake and outtake.
Then it’s my turn.
Frank Diamond’s poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories appear in Innisfree, Kola: A Black Literary Magazine, Dialogual, the Madras Mag, Reverential Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, the Zodiac Review, Into the Void, Mystery Tribune, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, among many other publications.