About the Author
Hometown:Silver Spring, Maryland
Date of Birth:February 18, 1957
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., University of Maryland at College Park, 1980
Read an Excerpt
A Firing Offense
By Pelecanos, George
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2011 Pelecanos, George
All right reserved.
TORN LOTTERY TICKETS and hot dog wrappers—the remnants of Georgia Avenue Day—blew across the strip. At the district line a snaggle-toothed row of winos sat on the ledge of a coffee shop. A poster of the mayor, a smiling portrait in debauchery, was taped to the window behind them. The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor’s forehead; only a contaminated grin remained. My Dart plodded south under a low gray cover of clouds.
I steered my car into a space a couple of blocks down and killed the engine. Several strip joints had closed on this part of the avenue in the past year, ostensibly a reaction to pressure from local citizens’ groups. The reality was that frequent, serious ass-beatings and one biker murder had closed down the clubs by way of revoked liquor licenses. Now the street was irreparably lifeless, a sodden butt drowning in the rot of a shot glass. A bathhouse and the Good Times Lunch had survived.
In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.
Behind the counter were a sandwich block, grill, four baskets hung in a large deep-fryer, and a stocky little Korean named Kim, who walked with his feet wide apart and had forearms that appeared to be made out of brick. I took a seat at one of the remaining stools.
Kim acknowledged me with a slight tilt of his head. I ordered a fish sandwich, fries, and a can of beer. He brought the beer, and I tossed a quarter of it down as I watched him dump the frozen fish and potatoes into the same fryer basket. For the next five minutes I took long sips of beer and occasionally glanced out the window at the mounting northbound rush-hour traffic on Georgia Avenue.
The only sounds in the carryout were that of the fan and the barely intelligible music coming from Kim’s radio, the dial of which was set on WOL. I thought of work, my reprimand, and my indifference to the subject. No one spoke to me.
I guess that was the day everything began to come apart. The day of my reprimand. The day the old man phoned me about the boy.
A rock gets pushed at the top of a hill, and it begins to roll, and then it doesn’t matter who did the pushing. What matters is that nothing can stop it. What matters is the damage done. So how it started, I suppose, is insignificant. Because what sticks now is how it ended: with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.
EARLIER IN THE DAY, the name “Ric Brandon” had printed out across the screen of my desk phone, indicating an interoffice call. I had sipped my coffee and let the phone ring several times until the process reversed itself. His name disappeared letter by letter, from right to left. The call was then forwarded up to Marsha, our receptionist. Presently my phone rang again. It was Marsha.
“Nicky?” she said.
“Ric Brandon’s looking for you,” she said tiredly. “He’d like to see you in his office as soon as you have a minute.” Her words hung in the receiver apologetically.
“Thanks, Marsha.” I picked up my coffee and headed for the john. The sound of printers, typewriters, and distaff voices swirled around me as I stepped down the hall. Passing Marsha’s desk, I smiled and tapped the “Elvis Country” plaque that she had proudly set next to the switchboard.
I pushed open the door to the men’s room and moved to the sink to wash up. In the mirror I saw the scuffed-up heel boxes on a pair of wing tips beneath the stall door. They belonged to Seaton, the controller. His trousers were around his ankles as he stood urinating into the toilet. I splashed some water on my face and looked in the mirror: I was thirty years old, and had drunk several beers backed with bourbon the night before.
I had figured out, incorrectly as it turned out, the reason for Brandon’s summons. One day earlier he and I and an executive from one of the local factory wholesalers had gotten together for lunch. The executive was one of those corn-fed, brighteyed men who seem to be hired by corporate giants like General Electric specifically for their slack-jawed lack of intellectual curiosity.
Our lunch began to deteriorate when the dapper little fellow had bragged about his company’s impending contract on, as he put it, “that Star Wars thing.” Despite a deadly stare and a nudge in the ribs from the equally vacuous Brandon, I plunged head on into a political discussion on the subject, though my enthusiasm was admittedly rooted more in my disgust for the man across the table than in my limited knowledge of the somewhat ridiculous, juvenile image of War in Space. At any rate, the executive’s smile, that of a game-show host, faded, as he nervously touched the knot of his yellow tie. Our business lunch had gone immediately to hell.
Now I was about to receive what business people call, without irony, a “slap on the wrist.”
On my way to Brandon’s office I chewed a Lifesaver and passed by the switchboard once again. Over Marsha’s desk was a huge, colorful bar graph titled “Nutty Nathan’s Sales Leaders!” I noted with pleasure that Johnny McGinnes’ bar was far above the pack.
Ric Brandon’s office was rather spartan, with only a calendar hung on the bare walls around his metal desk. The bookshelves behind him housed software and two slim volumes, A Passion for Excellence and See You at the Top. On the computer table next to his desk was a keyboard, printer, and amber screen displaying the previous day’s sales report sorted by store location, salesman, model number, sell price, unit cost, and profit margin.
Brandon smiled his toothy, equine grin as I entered. He was a big-boned Swede from Minnesota, a former high-school athlete who, at twenty-five, had already become soft and fleshy. He wore his navy suits and Johnston and Murphys proudly, and always had an unread copy of the Wall Street Journal on his desk. (Once, on a business trip, I had watched him stare glassy-eyed at the front page of the Journal for the duration of the flight.) Like many ambitious, recently graduated business majors on their first professional job in the D.C. area, he had a little boy’s notion of how a businessman should look and act.
“Close the door and have a seat, Nick,” he said.
I did both. Though he was already taller and broader than me, he had raised his chair higher than the others in his office to gain the psychological advantage, undoubtedly a tip he had eagerly extracted from one of his ladder-climbing guidebooks. He pulled out the bottom drawer of his desk, parked the soles of his wing tips on the edge of it, and leaned back.
“I’ve got an ad deadline for this afternoon,” I offered, hoping to get it over with quickly.
“This won’t take long,” he said, segueing into a dramatic pause. I could hear the ventilator blowing and the murmur of the all-news radio station he listened to in his office. “As the sales manager of this company, I have to do certain things I really don’t enjoy doing, but that are necessary in order to establish a continuity of discipline. One of those things is terminating those who consistently and deliberately fail to follow company policy.”
I nodded that I understood, and he continued.
“Yesterday I told you that George Adgerson in our Marlow Heights store was getting to be a real problem—blowing customers out the door, smoking on the floor, not wearing his name-tag, things like that—and I gave him several warnings. First thing this morning I walk into his store to let him go, he says to me, ‘If you plan on firing me, Brandon, you should know that I’ve spoken to my lawyer, who advised me that if you do fire me, you had better be firing all the Caucasian salesmen who break your rules as well.’ ”
“What’d you do?” I asked, forcing down a smirk as I thought of Adgerson, up in Brandon’s face.
“Oh, I fired him,” he said casually, with an obligatory and false trace of regret. “Personnel can deal with his attorney, if he has one. The point is, Nick, he was ready for me. And you tipped him off.”
I stared at my shoes for a while in what I thought would be a fairly reasonable display of humility, then looked up to see Brandon’s facial muscles twitching as he awaited my admission. “Adgerson was a good man,” I said slowly, “and he wrote a lot of business over the years for Nathan’s. When we worked the floor together over on Connecticut Avenue, he had a huge customer following. To let go of a valuable employee just like that, because, I don’t know, he blew smoke in somebody’s face, or whatever—I just thought the guy deserved to know what was coming down.”
“It’s not your job to think of anything when it comes to salesmen and managers. I’ll do the thinking in that department, understand?” I nodded, his features softened, and he continued. “If I didn’t like you, Nick, I’d start looking for a new advertising director. I’ve discussed this with Rosen. He feels that your actions are a serious infraction. I’ve convinced him, however, that you’re salvageable.”
He hadn’t of course, spoken to Jerry Rosen, the company’s general manager. He was merely trying to throw a scare into me while at the same time taking credit for being a regular Joe.
“Nick,” he said, “all I want for you to do is get with the program.” His thumb and forefinger met to form an “O” as he talked, a peculiarly delicate gesture for such a large man. “This is a very tough year for us. Margins have eroded to the point where we’re working on ten dollar bills. Overhead is way up. And the power retailers are coming to town to put independents like us out of business. What I’m saying is, I need your experience on the team. I’m putting the ball in your court, Nick. What do you think?”
“I think you’re overheating the sports metaphors,” I said. Then I shrugged sheepishly and grinned like Stan Laurel.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I really believe in this company. I want us all to move forward, and I want you to be a part of it.”
Coming from a sales background, I had a natural distrust for managers. I didn’t really dislike Brandon; I guess it was something closer to pity. I wanted to tell him to loosen up his windsor knot, sleep with some strange women, and generally act in an irresponsible manner for the next five years. But like many men my age, I was only mourning the passing of my twenties.
“I’ll make the effort,” I said. He showed me some teeth, put his hand in the shape of a pistol, pointed it in my direction, and squeezed off an imaginary round. I smiled back weakly and left his office.
I picked up a stack of messages from the front desk, where Marsha had fanned them out in a decorative pattern. On the way back to my own desk I passed a girl from our service department who had an unusually tight and beautifully formed ass. We looked each other over, and I got a smile. As she slid past, I smelled dime-store perfume laced with nicotine.
I looked over the messages at my desk. Two were from radio reps and a third was from a salesman from one of the local papers. My rep at the Post, Patti Dawson, had called. I threw all of these messages away but made a mental note to return Patti’s call. The last message was from a Mr. Pence, a name I didn’t recognize. I slipped that piece of paper beneath my phone.
For the remainder of the afternoon I traded retail clichés (“Katie, Bar the Door,” “Passin’ Them Out Like Popcorn”) with Fisher, the company merch manager, and finished laying out my weekend ad for the Post.
A breathy intern answered the phone when I called the Post looking for Patti Dawson. She said that Patti was on the road and that I should try her car phone.
After four tapping sounds and two rings, Patti answered. There was some sort of light pop in the background, Luther Vandross or one of his imitators. Patti kept her car stereo cemented on WHUR.
“What’s your schedule like today?” she asked, her voice sounding remote on the speakerphone but characteristically musical.
“I’ve just finished my Ninth Symphony,” I said. “Later I’m performing brain surgery on the President.”
“You got any time in your busy day to give me an ad?”
“It’s done. I’m gonna cut out early. I’ll leave the ad on my desk. You can just drop Saturday’s proof here and I’ll correct it tomorrow.”
“I’ll also drop our new rate card by.”
“Courtesy of those philanthropists at the Washington Post?”
“You got it,” she said, her voice beginning to break apart. I said I’d talk to her later, and she said something I couldn’t make out, though somewhere in there she used the word lover.
I switched off the crane-necked lamp over my drawing table, considered calling Mr. Pence, but decided to take his number with me and leave before any more assignments came my way. En route to the stairwell I passed the glass-enclosed office of Nathan Plavin. He was sitting in a high-backed swivel chair with his chin resting on his chest, watching his fingers drum the bare surface of his oak desktop. Over him stood his top man, Jerry Rosen, who was pointing his finger very close to Plavin’s chest. Nathan Plavin, the owner of a thirty-million-a-year retail operation, looked very much at that moment like a little boy being scolded.
I looked away, oddly embarrassed for him, and passed by Marsha’s desk. Reaching the stairwell, I hollered back to her that I was gone for the day. Marsha yelled to me that Karen had called, but I continued down the steps.
A nearly lifesize cutout caricature of Nathan Plavin dangled from the ceiling at the bottom of the stairwell. I had designed it two years earlier and since then used it in the head of all our print ads and mailers. The caricature depicted Nathan with an enlarged head topped by a crooked crown, overflowing with stereos, televisions, and VCRs. There were dollar bills in his clenched fists, and a wide smile across his fat face. One of his teeth was golden.
KIM BROUGHT MY FOOD and set it down. The fish had no taste and the fries tasted faintly of fish. I quickly finished my early dinner and brooded some more over another beer. Kim took my money and nodded as I headed out the door.
My apartment was the bottom floor of a colonial in the Shepherd Park area of Northwest. I walked around to the side entrance, where my black cat hurried out from behind some bushes and tapped me on the back of my calf with her nose. I turned the key and entered.
She followed me in, jumped up on the radiator, and let out an abbreviated meow. I scratched the top of her head and tickled the scar tissue on the socket that had once housed her right eye. She shut her left eye and pushed her head into my hand as I did this.
In my bedroom I undid my tie as I pushed the power button on my receiver. The tuner was set on WHFS, and I moved the antenna around on the back of the set to better the reception. Weasel was ending his show, predictably, with some NRBQ from the Yankee Stadium LP. I switched over to phono and laid Martha and the Muffins’ “This Is the Ice Age” on the platter.
I walked through my tiny living room to the kitchen. Behind me I heard the four paws of my cat hit the hardwood floor simultaneously with a mild thud. She followed me into the kitchen, jumped up on the chair that held her dish, and sat down. I found a foil-covered can of salmon in the refrigerator, mixed a bit of it into some dry food, and put it in her dish. She went at it after the obligatory bored look and a slow blink of her left eye.
The phone rang. I walked back into the living room and picked up the receiver.
“Is Nick Stefanos in?”
“My name is James Pence,” an old voice said on the other end of the line. I fished his message from my shirt pocket. “I’m sorry to bother you at home.”
“I received your message at work,” I said. “Forgive me for not returning your call—I get a load of people calling me all day, trying to sell me advertising space or services. If I called them all back, I’d never get anything done.”
“I’m not selling anything,” he said, though there was a hurried, desperate edge to his voice.
“What can I do for you then?”
“I’m Jimmy Broda’s grandfather.”
After some initial confusion I brought Broda up in my mind. He was a kid, late teens, who had worked briefly in the warehouse of Nutty Nathan’s. We had struck up a mild sort of friendship after discovering that we had similar interests in music, though his tastes ran towards speed metal and mine to the more melodic. I had chalked that up to the difference in our ages. Broda had apparently quit a couple of weeks earlier. I had not heard from him, assuming he had joined the ranks of other young, low-level employees who tended to drift from one meaningless job to the next.
“How is Jimmy?” I asked.
“Your personnel girl called a couple of weeks ago and said he had not reported to work for two days straight. Asked me if I knew where he was. Of course I didn’t know. It wasn’t unusual for him not to come home for stretches at a time—the crowd he ran around with and all that.”
I had no idea what he was talking about or what he wanted. I had the urge to excuse myself and hang up the phone right then.
“Two days later,” he continued, “personnel calls again. She says to inform Jimmy, when I see him, that he’s been terminated. Job abandonment, I think she called it.”
“Listen, Mr. Pence. I’m sorry Jimmy lost his job—”
“He liked you, Mr. Stefanos. He mentioned you at home more than once.”
“I liked him too. But Jimmy probably had a bigger idea of what I am than what’s reality. Those guys in the warehouse, they think anybody who works upstairs and wears a tie has a piece of the action. I’m just a guy who lays out ads and buys time on the airwaves. I don’t even talk to the people who make hiring and firing decisions. What I’m saying is, I don’t have the influence to get Jimmy his job back.”
“I don’t need you to get his job back, Mr. Stefanos,” he said. “I need you to help me find him.”
A long silence followed. He made a swallowing sound, then cleared his throat.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked.
“I bought a TV years ago from John McGinnes in your store on Connecticut Avenue. This year I bought a toaster oven from him. He’s my man there,” he said with that peculiarly elderly notion of salesman ownership. “I talked with him yesterday morning. Said he didn’t know anything but you might. Said you’re pretty good at finding people when you put your mind to it.” I made a mental note to slam McGinnes for that.
“Mr. Pence, if you’re worried about your grandson you should call the police,” I said with what I hoped was an air of finality.
“Please. Please come see me, only for a few minutes. I have something to give you, anyway. A cassette tape you made for Jimmy.” I remembered it, the usual soft punk and hard pop. Though it was no big deal, the Broda kid had seemed mildly touched when I gave it to him.
“I have somewhere to go tonight,” I said, “But maybe I could stop by for a minute. I mean, if it’s on my way. Where do you live?”
“I’m on Connecticut, the first apartment building northeast of Albemarle. Apartment ten-ten. Do you know it?”
“Yes.” It was right up from the store.
“I’ll meet you in the lobby then,” he said excitedly.
“Right. Twenty minutes.”
MY GYM BAG was in the trunk as I headed down Thirteenth Street. Bob “Here” was the DJ on HFS and spinning some post-patchuli oil nonsense. I pushed a Long Ryders tape into the deck. The first song, “Sweet Mental Revenge,” had a guitar break reminiscent of the Eagles, the difference being that the Ryders had testicles. I turned up the volume.
I made a right on Military Road, passed under Sixteenth, and neared the Oregon Avenue intersection where I hung a left into a severely sloped, winding entrance to Rock Creek Park. As kids we had as a rule driven this stretch of the park with our headlights off, navigating by the moonlight that cut a path through the treeline above. God or the dumb luck of youth had always brought us safely through; tonight, even with my hi-beams on, the darkness seemed to envelop me.
At the bottom of the hill I crossed a small bridge and turned left onto Beach Drive. Soon after that I made a right on Brandy-wine and cut over to Albemarle, cruising by million dollar Tudor houses with dark German and British automobiles parked, like hearses, in their driveways.
At Connecticut and Albemarle I looked across the street to the left. Though there was no foot traffic at this hour, Nutty Nathan’s was open. I decided against dropping in on McGinnes. By this time of day the effects of malt liquor and marijuana would have rendered him incoherent.
I parked on Connecticut, an after–rush-hour privilege, and walked across a brownish lawn to a tall, tan-brick building. As a salesman at Nathan’s on the Avenue, I had often delivered and installed air conditioners here for the elderly residents of these rent-controlled apartments.
When I entered the first set of glass doors, a guy in the lobby who looked to be on the green side of seventy caught my eye. He motioned to a bored-looking young woman behind the switchboard and a buzzer sounded. I pulled on the second set of doors and entered the lobby.
The old man strode towards me quickly and with deliberate posture, though he looked as if it pained him some to do so. His handshake was firm.
“I’m Nick Stefanos.”
“I knew when I saw you,” he said in a self-congratulatory manner, then looked me over. Either Pence liked what he saw or felt he had little choice; he pointed a slim hand towards the elevators.
We passed an obese young security guard with a seventies Afro who was talking to the woman at the switchboard and ignoring us and all the old people sitting around the bland lobby. The lobby had the still, medicinal smell of a nursing home.
Pence took me to a metal door that led to the elevators and attempted to pull it open. A look of mild panic appeared on his face as the weight of the door knocked him off balance. The security guard said something behind us about the old man forgetting to take his Geritol. We heard the laughter of the guard and the woman at the switchboard as we entered an elevator.
The old man was silent as we rode to the tenth floor, though his lips were moving and there was a slight scowl across his face. He was wearing workpants pulled high above his waist, a white cotton T-shirt, and oxford Hush Puppies that he wore laceless like loafers. The thick leather belt drawn tightly around his abdomen looked water-damaged and was permanently bent in several spots. Time had eaten him like a patient scavenger.
The elevator bounced to a stop, causing Pence to grab the handrail with reluctance. The doors opened, he bolted out and I followed. He stopped at 1010 and with no trouble at all this time negotiated the lock and door.
We entered as he flipped on a master light. The apartment, with its florid, cushiony sofa and armchairs and a curio cabinet filled with delicate porcelain figures, had obviously been decorated by a woman. But a glass caked with milk on the table and the general disarray of the place told me that his wife or companion was gone.
“Have a seat,” he said. I chose one, noticing as I sat that its cushion contained a rogue spring. I remained seated, as none of the other chairs showed better promise. Though it was rather cool, I had the desire to crack a window. His apartment had the smell of outdated dairy products.
“Goddamn security guard,” he muttered, unable to forget the fat rent-a-cop in the lobby. He quit pacing and lit on a seat next to an end table, on which sat a crystal lamp, a TV directory, an ashtray, and a pack of smokes. Pence shook one from the deck directly to his mouth, looked up at me, and said, “You mind?”
“Not at all.” He lit it with a Zippo and let out a long stream of smoke that continued to pour out erratically as he began to talk.
“You always have to ask now, before you smoke. It seems like every time I light up, in the Hot Shoppes cafeteria, or wherever, some young guy in a suit tells me the smoke’s bothering him. I’ve got to laugh at your generation sometimes. You guys spend all your time in health clubs in front of mirrors, you’re repelled by smokers, you drink light this and light that—and with all your health and muscles you’re basically a bunch of powderpuffs. Forty years ago I could have kicked your collective asses—with a cigarette hanging out the side of my mouth.”
I looked at my watch and said, “I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Of course. I apologize. I bring you up here and then I ramble like some bitter old man.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s on your mind?”
Pence’s veined hands clutched the arms of his chair. Some ash from his cigarette fell to his lap. He glanced down to make sure it wasn’t live, then looked back at me, making no effort to brush the ash away.
“I don’t know how much you really know about Jimmy,” he said. “His parents were killed when he was eleven, in a wreck on the Beltway, near what they used to call the Cabin John Bridge. He was their only child, and my only grandson.” He stopped to stub out the butt of his smoke.
“Is your wife still alive, Mr. Pence?”
He shook his head. “Janey died a year after we took Jimmy in. I guess you can imagine how hard it was. A man gets set to retire with his woman, all of a sudden he loses her and has to raise a son.” I had a quick, painful image of my own grandfather, a fisherman’s cap resting on his huge pinkish ears.
“How did it go for the two of you?”
“Fairly well, from my side of things. Jimmy was an easy boy to raise, easier than my own daughter.”
“Has he ever gone away before without telling you?”
“He’s nineteen years old,” he said by way of an affirmative.
“So what makes you think this is any different?”
“I’m not naive, Mr. Stefanos. The kid goes out with his friends, has a few beers, they wind up down at the shore, or Atlantic City maybe, if one of ’em has a few bucks in his pockets. But he always called me the next day, let me know where he was.”
I shifted in my seat. “I’m not a detective, Mr. Pence. What Johnny McGinnes was talking about, we did some process serving together a couple of summers ago, for extra cash. It was for kicks mainly, we made a game of it. But I’m not licensed for anything like this. And I told you before that I thought this was a cop job. Unless there’s something you’re not telling, some reason you can’t or won’t go to the police.”
He lowered his eyes and lit another smoke. The sound of the Zippo slamming shut echoed in the room. He was squinting through the smoke when he looked back up at me.
“Jimmy has been hanging out with some tough customers,” he said. “The last couple of months, the guys who came to pick him up, they weren’t just kids out to get a little drunk and have a good time. They were different somehow.”
“I don’t know exactly. They wore a lot of leather. None of them ever smiled. And the music he started listening to in his room since he met those guys—it was, you know, more violent than what he used to listen to.”
“Go on.” So far, nothing he had described was all that disturbing, and the music probably wasn’t much different from the music I used to listen to in the clubs downtown almost ten years earlier.
“He’s been staying out all night, listening to music in bars supposedly. The way he looks when he walks in, I don’t know. I’ve done some drinking in my day. He just doesn’t look like he’s been on a bender. So I can only guess, maybe the boy is mixed up with drugs.”
“Do you know the names of any of his friends?”
“No, I’m sorry. They looked alike to me. All of these guys had crewcuts, shaved even closer than the kids wore them in the fifties.”
If they were skinheads, they either hung out at the Snake Pit on F Street or at the Corps, which was near National Place. I figured the old man had the kid pegged on his drug use, though there was no way to tell how far he was gone.
“I don’t mean to make light of Jimmy’s situation, Mr. Pence. But I frequented the same clubs and listened to the same kind of music myself. I still do, occasionally. As for drugs, I’ve used plenty and I came out of it more or less intact.” His eyes seemed to widen, but only for a moment. He was obviously more interested in finding his grandson than in my lapses of morality.
“You are making light of this situation. You most certainly are. Because you don’t want to take any responsibility here. I know this boy. Even if he were on drugs, he would have called. He’s in some sort of trouble. If you don’t want to get involved, then fine. But don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong.”
“I admit there could be some problem,” I said. “And I see your angle for going private. If he’s just underground because of drugs, a private cop could get him home and to some help without a possession or intent to distribute rap on his record. But I’m not that person. I paste down pictures of television sets for a living.”
“You are the person.” He was on his feet now and close to me. I could smell cigarettes on him and, for the first time, a trace of whiskey. “Why do you think Jimmy talked to you so much at work?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your background and Jimmy’s background—they were very similar. Jimmy told me that you were born overseas. Your parents sent you to the States to live with your grandfather when you were very young, until they could afford to join you. For some reason or another they never made it, and you were raised by your grandfather. Is this correct?”
“Roughly,” I said.
“Jimmy was at that age—he needed someone to relate to. I think he found that a little bit in you.”
“My grandfather died last April,” I said, though I was no longer talking to Pence. The moment his life ended I was doing lines off the bar in an after-hours club on upper Wisconsin Avenue.
I rose from the chair and walked to the window. The traffic had thinned out on Connecticut, the northbound headlights approaching at a relaxed pace.
“I don’t know if I’m up for it,” I said. He was silent behind me and I turned to face him. “I’ll ask around downtown. Maybe somebody knows where he is. But that’s all, understand?”
“Thank you,” he said, moving towards me and gripping my hand. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
I backed away. “We don’t need to discuss that now. I have somewhere to go. I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
I walked out quickly. He was shouting his phone number as I closed the door behind me.
I LET THE CAT in as I stepped into my apartment. I put some dry food in her dish and drank some ice water from a bottle in the refrigerator. Then I took two cold cans of beer with me into the shower.
After leaving Pence, I had driven to a junior-high gym in Northwest to meet Rodney White, a friend of mine who had the curious distinction of being both a physician and a black belt. Though I knew next to nothing about tae kwon do, I had done a fair amount of Boys Club boxing, and enjoyed hooking up with White every couple of weeks to spar, provided he showed me some mercy.
We warmed up with some stretching and light movement. Gradually we began making contact and our sparring intensified. After punishing me for a while with hand and foot combinations, he motioned me to stop. We tapped gloves and removed our mouthguards.
“What were you just doing?” he asked. “You let me back you all the way across this gym. You accepted all of my forward energy.”
“I was letting you kick yourself out. Anyway, I tagged you pretty good at the end.”
He shook his head. “You had already lost. You start backing up, you’re defeated, believe me.”
“I thought I’d use a little strategy.”
“Don’t get too wrapped up in strategy. Technicians lose in the street. The winner in a fight is usually determined before the first punch is thrown.”
“Too mystical for me” I said, adding, “I’ll stick to boxing.”
“Stick to whatever you want, Homeboy. But step on over here and let me show you a little something.”
In the shower I drank the first beer while washing. A bruise had formed on my bicep from a Rodney White side kick, and there was a scratch on my cheek from the nylon tie of his footgear.
After rinsing, I popped the second beer and leaned against the tile wall, shutting the cold spigot off completely. I drank deeply of the icy beer and closed my eyes, as the burning hot water rolled down my back.
THE NEXT MORNING I called the office at nine A.M. from a payphone located in the side parking lot of the Connecticut Avenue store. Ric Brandon picked up his extension.
“Nick Stefanos here.”
“Where are you?” In his typically tight-assed manner he was asking why I was late for work.
“I’m on my way to Connecticut Avenue,” I lied, not wanting to get the boys in trouble. None of them had arrived yet to open the store.
“Listen, Ric. All of last night I thought about our discussion yesterday in your office. I think one of the reasons I don’t have that team spirit is that I’ve lost touch with what’s going on out in the stores, out on the firing line.” I stopped speaking so as not to make myself sick.
“I understand.” Since he had never been on the “firing line,” that imaginary, danger-filled zone that lowly salesmen are so keen on referring to, he could not have understood. But I had counted on that.
“What I figure is, I’ll get back on the floor for a few weeks, see what’s going on again, talk to some customers and find out what they do and don’t respond to in our ads.”
“What about your regular duties?”
“What I can’t do here, I’ll finish up at night. I have a key to the office, and my Post contacts can do pickups here at the store. As for any important meetings or appointments, you call me here, I can be back in the office in fifteen minutes.”
“I can see the merit in this,” he said, adding, “if you apply yourself. Understand that I’d like you to report to Gary Fisher every day as to the merchandising and advertising plans.”
“Sure, Ric. Transfer me over to Fisher then, will you?”
The phone rang several times, then Fisher picked up. In contrast to the dead calm of Brandon’s office, I could hear people laughing, typewriters clacking, and unanswered phones ringing in the background. I imagined a cigarette lodged above Fisher’s ear.
“Fish, it’s Nick.”
“Where the fuck are you?”
“The Avenue. I’m going to be working out of here for a while. I had to get away from the office, man. You know what I mean?”
“Not really. You worked your way up from stockboy to sales to management, now you want to go backwards. Besides, I need you here.”
“I’ll still do my job, only I’ll do it from the store.”
“You see Electro-World’s ad today?” he asked, changing the subject as if to ignore it.
“I haven’t seen the paper yet.”
“They ran a TP400 for two ninety-nine, the lousy giveaway artists. Tell the fellas not to match that price, hear? If we have to take a bath, we can wait till Black Friday.”
“You’re going to wait till the Friday after Thanksgiving to run a piece that everyone’s in the paper with now?”
“I’m not worried,” he said. “There’s gonna be a shortage of low-end goods this Christmas. The Japs and the Koreans are holding back, trying to drive up the costs to the distributors. My guess is, the longer we hold back on the bait, we’ll be the only ones in town with the plunder come D-Day. We bring ’em through the door, pass a few out, lose our asses—we’ll make it up on add-ons and service policies.”
Fisher was a typical merch manager, a sloppy, chain-smoking, audiophilic post-smoking salesman who had grudgingly been promoted to management. He was built low to the ground, had an unfashionably long Prince Valiant haircut, and motored around the office pitched forward, his fists clenched like some driven cartoon villain. He would never advance beyond his current position—the image wasn’t there, and neither was the will—but he was unequaled at Nathan’s in his knowledge of retail.
“That bitch Fein called again from Montgomery County Consumer Affairs,” he said. “Said we’ve got to stop using the word sale in the head of our ads if we’re not lowering our everyday prices.”
“So I’ll call this next ad a blowout.”
“Do me one favor, Fish. Keep Brandon away from me as much as you can, will you?”
“Yeah, sure. But, Nick, why does the guy spell his name R-i-c?”
“I guess R-o-c-k was already taken.”
“Talk to you later.” He hung up.
I walked around the building to the front of the store and looked in the plate-glass display window. Louie Bates, the store manager, had arrived. He ambled along the left wall, switching on television sets.
I pushed on the door and entered. The layout of the floor had changed very little. Up front was a glass case that surrounded a desk and register and contained small electronics and accessories. This was also the cashiers’ station and the area where the salesman closed, TO’d to the manager, and wrote deals.
The left half of the store contained televisions of all varieties, portable to widescreen. An aisle in the middle of the store was wide enough to handtruck merchandise from the stockroom to the front door. The right half of the store contained low-end rack stereos, boom boxes, clock radios, auto sound, microwave ovens, small appliances, and other low-commission goods. The entire rear of the showroom housed high-end audio, a “room” that was simply a thinly carpeted part of the store where the lights had been dimmed. A banner hung across its entrance, grandly announcing this area as “The Sound Explosion.”
Gold and red, Nutty Nathan’s official colors, dominated in the form of signage, tags, and “accent striping.” Salesmen were at one time required to wear gold sportcoats with a red coat-of-arms sewn across the breast pocket, consisting of a triumvirate depicting a television, stereo, and microwave oven. Salesforce rebellion in the form of filthy jackets forced management to end this dress code. The day this requirement was lifted McGinnes and I had poured lighter fluid on ours and burned them ceremoniously in the parking lot.
The outright tackiness and near-vulgar ambience of Nathan Plavin’s stores were intentional. Plavin had picked the colors, as well as the jackets. On slow Saturdays he’d call managers and instruct them to scatter empty cartons in the aisles, to make it appear as if the salesmen were too busy writing up bargains to bother with keeping the place clean. But that had been in the past, when Nathan was more on top of the day-to-day operations of his company.
Louie was surprised to see me in his store. He was a short, barrel-chested guy in his fifties with a wide, flat nose that appeared to have been smashed in by a shovel. As he walked towards me, I noticed that his gut had swelled, his neck had all but disappeared, and there was much more gray salted into his hair. He looked somewhat like a cinderblock with legs.
“You lost, Youngblood?” he asked.
“Could be,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’ll be working here for a couple of weeks. Management wants me to get back in touch with the business.”
“You wouldn’t be spying on your old boss, would you, buddy?”
I didn’t answer that but said, “I’ll stay out of your way, Louie.”
“Whatever.” He threw up his arms in a gesture of surrender. “Listen, your boys are late as usual, and I got to get this place open. I’ll talk to you later, hear?”
Louie returned to the television section. As the manager of the highest volume store, he knew what his priorities were: to put out fires and to protect his salesmen from the main office. In turn, he was covered by his employees during his daily afternoon visits to his girlfriend across the street in the Van Ness apartments, and on those mornings when his hangovers kept him paralyzed with his head on the desk in the “employee lounge” at the rear of the store.
A small bell sounded as the front door opened, and I turned to see Andre Malone flowing towards me. He was tall, reedy, and elegant in his no-vent sportcoat, silk shirt and tie, reverse pleated trousers, and Italian loafers. Though he’d come out of one of the most hopelessly dangerous sections of the city, there was something of the aristocrat in his bearing and in the way he held his head. He saw me and widened his eyes in mock amazement.
“What’s goin’ on, Country?” he said. I touched the sharp crease on his trousers and pulled my hand away quickly as if I had been cut.
“You may be the prettiest person I’ve ever known.”
He smiled and revealed a perfect row of teeth below his Wyatt Earp mustache. “I see you’re doin’ all right yourself. Finally wearin’ some cotton. Used to be I was afraid to light a match around your polyester ass.”
“I’m on the fast track, Andre. I had to upgrade.”
“What you doin’ here, man?” His forehead wrinkled as he found a Newport in his breast pocket and lit it in one fluid movement.
“I’ll be working here for a while,” I said vaguely. “Whatever deals I write, I’ll throw to you or Johnny. I might need you to protect me every so often from the office, in case I’m not here.”
“Uh-huh,” he said suspiciously, then jerked his head towards the door as the small bell rang. “Here comes your boy now.”
Johnny McGinnes blew through the front door and goose-stepped towards the back. There was neither surprise nor delight on his face when he saw me. In acknowledgment he pulled two sixteen-ounce cans of Colt 45 from each of his stretched-out pockets and wiggled his eyebrows in my direction, then continued by.
A young woman entered just behind him and hurried around the glass case, stowing her books and purse somewhere below the counter. I caught her eye and she straightened her posture.
Malone was walking alongside Louie now, pleading with him to call an irate customer and iron things out. Louie would eventually do it, but at the moment was torturing Malone with silence. I made my way across the worn gold-and-red carpet squares of the Sound Explosion and entered the back room.
I walked through a short hallway that contained Louie’s desk. The hallway led to the “radio room,” the toilet, and the entrance to the stockroom in the basement. I stepped into the radio room. McGinnes was finishing a swallow of malt liquor and hiding the can behind some stock.
He was not especially tall, though his perfect posture gave the illusion of presence. His clothing was invariably a polyester blend and always clean. He had lost more of his straight black hair since I had last seen him and had begun combing it forward, out and across his forehead in an almost Hitleresque fashion. His tiny nose was set on his flat Mick face like a blemish.
I looked at the top of the Colt can showing from behind a clock radio box. “It’s a little early, isn’t it, Johnny?”
“Early as hell. But if they get too warm, I can’t drink ’em.” He frowned. “Fuck are you, my mother?”
“Let’s go downstairs, man. I need to talk to you.”
I followed him down the noisy wooden steps to the stockroom. The musty odor of damp cardboard met me as I descended the stairs. Naked bulbs dimly lit erratic rows of cartons. We walked to the far corner of the basement. McGinnes pulled a film canister and a small brass pipe out of his pocket and shook some pot out of the vial.
As a stockboy, I’d spent a good portion of my first two years at Nathan’s in this room getting high with McGinnes. I was skinny but cockstrong then, usually wearing some kind of rock-and-roll T-shirt, tight Levi’s cuffed cigarette style, Sears workboots on my feet. My stance was straight up, cigarette between the first two fingers with the occasional thumb flick on the filter and a shake of my shoulder-length hair for punctuation. McGinnes had slightly longer hair in those days, and mutton-chop sideburns pointing in towards a Fu Manchu that he wore proudly. As we were always stoned, I considered his every word in that basement to be prophetic, and he played the role of sales sage to the hilt.
Somewhere along the line I became a salesman, worked on commission as I put myself through college, cut my hair, was promoted into management, got married and divorced, and generally lost the notion that life was a series of adventures and opportunities waiting to happen. One day a stockboy in one of the stores called me “sir,” and I was alarmed by that panicky, universal moment when we realize that aging is real and for all of us, not just for watery-eyed relatives and quiet old men on the bus.
“So,” he said, folding his arms and cocking his hip, “you’re back.”
“I’m on a sabbatical.”
“You’re no professor. And you sure as hell ain’t no priest, Jim.” McGinnes’ speech patterns were peppered with his idea of black slang, which he picked up not from “the street” but from the pimp sidekick characters on seventies cop shows. Though I had lived in D.C. all my life, I had never once heard a black person use the expression “jive turkey.” Yet McGinnes used it all the time.
“You remember a guy named Pence?” I asked.
McGinnes smiled nervously. “Yeah, I know the old cocker. Lives across the Avenue, in those apartments. I sold him a TV set a long time ago, something else this year.”
“That’s right. He came over the other day, wanted to bullshit about his grandson or something.”
“You gave him my name?”
“Yeah, I figured it couldn’t hurt. You worked with the kid, maybe you knew something.”
“It’s not like you to help somebody out for nothing.”
“He’s a good customer, that’s all.” McGinnes shrugged, pulled a plastic tube of eyedrops from his pocket, and tilted his head back for a double shot. When he brought his head back down, a tear of eyewash was rolling down his cheek. “So what are you gonna do, look for the kid?”
I nodded. “I only told him I’d ask around a little. The old man’s afraid the kid’s in with the wrong crowd. Drugs, who knows what else. If the cops find him first, he may end up busted. A mistake like that can blow your life before you get out of the gate. Maybe I find him, talk him back home, whatever.”
“So what do you get out of this?”
“I knew the kid and the old man’s desperate. I can’t just blow it off.”
McGinnes glanced over his shoulder at the stairs, tapped another hit into his pipe, fired it up, and tapped out the ashes into his palm. This one he blew towards my face. “Well, it will be a helluva lot easier to work on that out of here than in the office. You know Louie won’t bother you. Besides, you’ll be back on the sales floor, which is where you belong.”
“I might have to remind you how it’s done.”
“You’d just be reminding me of what I taught you in the first place, son.”
“Remember that day I sold a sandbox to an Arab?”
McGinnes said, “That ain’t shit. What about the time I sold a blind man tickets to a silent movie?”
Louie called down that there were customers on the floor. We approached the stairs, and McGinnes elbowed me in the chest and moved ahead, gunning up two steps at a time. He was giggling like a schoolgirl as he hit the landing.
MCGINNES CHEWED ON a mint and checked out the floor as we walked down the showroom’s center aisle. Malone stood in the Sound Explosion talking to a light-skinned woman in a leather jacket. He had a Frankie Beverly ballad playing through the stereo, and was close up in her face as he made a slow and awkward attempt at moving to the music.
A guy in a hundred dollar suit with disheveled graying hair stood with his hands in his pockets, blinking absently at the confusingly long line of TV screens lit against the wall. He unfolded my Post ad from his jacket, stared at it, then returned his gaze to the wall.
“Malone’s back there talking himself out of another deal,” McGinnes said. “I’ll take that yom over there by the TVs.”
McGinnes walked over to the customer, staying loose but erect. “How are you today?” he said, extending his hand. The customer shook it limply, without looking McGinnes in the eye.
“Fine. Thank you.”
“Something special for you today?”
“Yes.” The customer jabbed a finger at a spot on my ad. “I’m interested in the nineteen-inch Zenith for one ninety-nine. Do you have it to look at?”
“Oh yes, it’s right over here,” McGinnes said, pointing at the far left section of the wall and gesturing for the man to step ahead of him. McGinnes turned his head back to me, crossed his eyes and hung his tongue out of the side of his mouth. Following the customer, he dragged one leg like a cripple, recovering his posture just as the customer turned to face him.
“What can you tell me about this set?”
“It’s a fine set,” McGinnes said, “and a good value.” The picture on the set was lousy. McGinnes had attached the faulty antenna lead, the one he switched each week to the advertised piece, onto the Zenith.
By comparison the nineteen-inch Hitachi, which sat next to the Zenith, had a beautiful picture. The customer became distracted by this, his head moving back and forth between the two sets.
“Why does that set have a better picture than the Zenith?”
“Oh, they have a high-contrast tube in the Hitachi,” McGinnes said offhandedly.
“What is that?”
“Here, I’ll show you.” In his shirt pocket McGinnes had clipped two pens, a jeweler’s screwdriver, and a small folding magnifying glass, which he pulled out. He placed it over the tube of the Zenith. The color dots were dull against a pale gray background. McGinnes looked back at the customer for effect, then switched the glass to the tube of the Hitachi. The dots were brilliantly illuminated against a black field.
“Interesting,” the customer said. “How much is the Hitachi?”
The customer frowned, then pushed his glasses up over the bridge of his nose. “That’s more than I wanted to spend.”
“Well, if you think about it, you’d actually be saving money by buying this set.”
“Electronic tuner. The Hitachi’s got an electronic tuner, no moving parts in the tuner whatsoever. The Zenith, which is a fine set, don’t get me wrong, has an old-style click tuner, the first part to go bad on any TV set.” McGinnes spun the dial on the Zenith harshly. “You do that every day, it’s going to wear out. And when it wears out, it’s going to cost you more than the extra fifty bucks you’re going to spend initially on the Hitachi. Not to mention, of course, the Hitachi’s got a much better picture, which you can see for yourself. With a TV set, when you get it home you’re not going to remember what you paid for it. You’re only going to know whether you like the picture or not.”
“Plus the fact that we’re an authorized Hitachi service center for this area. In-home service. And for a small charge, which most customers recognize the value in, you can have a maintenance agreement with Nutty Nathan’s to extend that in-home service.”
“I don’t think I’d be interested in that. Besides, if the set’s as good as you say it is, I won’t be needing any service.” The customer smiled smugly.
“Oh, it’s a gamble, I know,” McGinnes said quickly. “And chances are pretty good you’ll never need the service. But you know what they’re charging now just to walk through your front door? Fifty bucks! Just to step in your house, before they even touch the set! I can give you the names of ten people who’ve called to thank me personally for suggesting a maintenance agreement. Anyway, I’m not trying to belabor the point. You do want the Hitachi, though, don’t you?” McGinnes was nodding his head rapidly, a trick he used to make the customer do the same.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure I do.” Though McGinnes had closed, the customer’s fists were balled defensively in his pockets.
“Where are you from?” McGinnes asked, and smiled.
“From up around Lancaster, P-A.”
“No kidding. I’m from the Allentown area.” The customer seemed to relax as he unhunched his shoulders. McGinnes, an army brat, was from many places, but Pennsylvania wasn’t one of them. “This city’s fine, but I tell you, there’s a lot to be said for my hometown. I miss the slower life, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Let’s just step up to the counter and get you written up.” They walked to the front of the store, McGinnes’ hand gently on the customer’s arm.
The young woman who had walked in earlier carrying her books tapped me on the shoulder and I turned. She was half a foot shorter than me and had a brown speck in one of her very green eyes.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully and smiled. Her front tooth was chipped, just a little. She had on short, black, buckled boots, black patterned stockings, and a jean skirt. Her white oxford was open four buttons down, revealing the beginnings of strong, smallish breasts.
“Hi,” I said.
“You working here now?”
“Yeah. For a little while, anyway. My name’s Nick.”
“I’m Lee. I work the register and sell add-ons up front. Can you take a sales call?”
I looked around. Malone was still in the Sound Explosion and appeared to be chewing his customer’s ear off, literally. McGinnes was up front, writing the deal.
“Where’s Louie?” I asked.
“Out making a deposit.”
“I thought he made his ‘deposit’ in the afternoon.”
Lee chuckled. “This one’s monetary, not seminal.”
“Pick it up on two,” she said, jerking her thumb behind her towards the small appliance wall. “Over there.”
I found the phone and punched in the extension. “How can I help you?”
“To whom am I speaking?” said an effeminate voice, lowered purposely to affect masculinity.
“And your title?”
“I’m in management,” I said emptily.
“Well, then, maybe you can help me. I have a complaint.”
“What can I do for you?”
“My name is Evan Walters. Last summer your company ran a promotion where you gave away an ice bucket with any major purchase. I came in and purchased a VCR, which I’m very happy with, incidentally. The clerk explained at the time that they were out of ice buckets. Frankly, I was warned by friends beforehand that Nutty Nathan’s never lived up to their advertised promises, but I was willing to give you people a try.”
“Who was your salesman, Mr. Walters?”
“A Mr. McGinnes. He promised me he’d get me my ice bucket. At first when I called he repeatedly said the ice bucket was on its way. Then he stopped returning my calls altogether. I know it’s a small matter, but I want what was promised me. And I resent the rather cavalier attitude of your salesman. I don’t want to take this any further. I am a lawyer,” he growled.
Of course. Announcing one’s profession unsolicited was one of the more irritating affectations of eighties Washington.
“I apologize for the delay,” I said. “Mr. McGinnes may have run into some red tape in getting your ice bucket. I happen to know that they are in now. I’ll call the warehouse manager and have him put one on the transfer truck. You can pick it up tonight.”
“Thank you,” he said curtly, and hung up.
I dialed the main office and punched in the extension of Joe Dane, the warehouse manager. I asked him to find an ice bucket and throw it on the truck that day to the Avenue.
I walked over to the cashier’s station where Lee was wiping off the shelves with glass cleaner. McGinnes was handing the customer his receipts.
“Here is a copy of your paid invoice,” he said, “and this is a copy of your extended maintenance agreement. I’ve stapled my card to your receipt in case you need anything. You’re really going to love your set. It’s got the highest IS rating of any set we sell.”
“What is the IS rating on this set?” I interrupted. IS stood for “internal spiff,” a Nutty Nathan’s incentive to step off the advertised product onto profit pieces.
“This one’s rated at twenty,” McGinnes said coolly, then turned back to the customer. “If you’d drive around to the back door, I’ll load you up.”
Lee touched my arm lightly to move me out of the way. I caught a whiff of her as she slipped by. Malone walked his customer to the front door, his arm around her waist, his hand just brushing her jeans above her crotch. They talked softly for a few minutes, then he held the door open for her, giving her his model’s grin.
McGinnes, knocking the dirt off his shirtsleeves, moved quickly up the aisle towards the cashier’s station. Malone arrived at the same time. McGinnes folded his arms and stood straight.
“Yeah,” he said. “Twenty dollar spiff. Another ten bucks commission at four percent. And a fifteen dollar pop for the service policy. Forty-five bucks for fifteen minutes’ work.” He paused to rock back on his heels. “I love this business.”
“I’d love it too,” Malone said, “if I could get an up.”
“You had an up,” McGinnes said.
“That wasn’t no up,” Malone said. “That was just a freak.”
McGinnes said, “If you hadn’t been dickdancing around with her in the back, you could have had my customer up front.”
“That’s all right. I got a date with that redbone tonight. And I’m still gonna smoke your ass this month, Mick.”
“Listen, you guys,” I said, “this is fascinating. But I’ve got to run across the street for about an hour. Tell Louie when you see him, hear?”
THE OLD MAN’S APARTMENT was in the same disarray as the night before. Sunlight came through the window in a block, spotting the layer of dust that had settled on the cherrywood furniture.
Pence was wearing what appeared to be his only outfit. His hair was slicked down, and he had begun a part on the left side of his head but apparently had given up on the idea halfway through. He smelled of whiskey and Old Spice.
“You want some coffee?” he asked. “I reheated it when you buzzed me from downstairs.”
“Black, thanks.” He marched into the kitchen with short, quick steps.
I avoided my old chair and found another seat. Near the dining room table, on a two-tiered stand, was the color set McGinnes had sold the old man, a middle-of-the-line profit model. Below it was a videocassette recorder that I didn’t recognize. I got up and walked over to the unit to examine it more closely. The nameplate read “Kotekna,” which I gathered to be a Korean brand. Stamped across a metal plate on the back were the model and serial numbers, the model number being KV100. Following industry logic, “KV” stood for “Kotekna Video” and the “100” series indicated that this particular unit resided in the lower end of the line. The recorder was not hooked up to the television.
“Professional curiosity?” Pence asked, returning with two mugs of coffee and setting one down on the small table next to my chair. I got off my knees, crossed the room, and took a seat. Pence sat in his chair, lit a smoke and leaned forward.
“A bad habit of mine, from being in the business too long. My hosts always catch me inspecting their equipment.”
“My grandson bought that recorder for me,” he offered. “Some kind of employee purchase deal he worked out with your company.”
“That’s a new brand for us, then. I didn’t even know we sold Kotekna.”
“You sell it, son. It came from your warehouse. Still have the box.” He dragged on his cigarette.
“When’s the last time you saw Jimmy, Mr. Pence?”
The old man waved some smoke away from his face to get a better look at me. I sipped from the mug of coffee. “It was the last Monday in September. He left for work at the usual time, near eight.”
“And you haven’t heard from him since?”
“No. Your personnel lady called two days later, on a Wednesday.”
“And you made no effort to contact anyone about this until you reached me, two weeks later?”
“You must have been worried.”
“You’re damn right I was worried,” he said, agitated. He butted his cigarette. “Let’s go on.”
“When he said goodbye to you that morning, was there anything unusual about the way he acted, something that may have made you suspicious in any way?”
“I’ve thought about that a lot since he’s been gone, as you can imagine. Jimmy wasn’t one to show his affection. But on that last morning he kissed me good-bye and squeezed my hand.”
“Like he knew he wouldn’t be seeing you for a while?”
“That maybe. Or he was in trouble and asking for help.”
“Was he carrying anything with him that morning? A suitcase?”
Pence laughed sharply. “I’m old, Mr. Stefanos, not senile. He only had a small knapsack, and he carried that with him every day. Kept a radio in it with earphones.”
“Is his suitcase gone?”
“Mind if I have a look in his room?”
“Of course not.”
I followed him down a short hallway. We passed Pence’s room on the way. The shades were drawn and the air was stale with cigarette smoke. Pictures of his dead wife and daughter sat on his nightstand, facing an unmade bed. I walked on.
Jimmy’s room was brighter than the old man’s. The single bed had been made up neatly and clean underwear had been folded and placed upon it. Posters of postpunk bands like the Minutemen and Husker Du were crookedly tacked to the wall. A bulletin board hung over his dresser, on which were tacked ticket stubs from concerts. Many of the stubs were from larger halls, like Lisner and DAR. A few were from the Warner. But the majority of them were small red tickets with black stenciled lettering, reading “The Snake Pit.”
“You see anything?” Pence asked.
I shook my head and admitted, “I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’ll head downtown tonight and ask around. I could use a photograph of Jimmy if you have one.”
“I thought you might,” he said and produced two folded pictures from his back pocket. “One of him’s his graduation picture from Wilson High last year. The other one I found in his drawer. Looks like him at a party or something.”
I took them both. The graduation picture was typically waxen and told me little about the boy, though there was a small skull and crossbones pinned to his lapel which suggested a touch of insolence, not unusual for someone his age. I thought his eyes drooped rather sadly at the corners.
The second photo said more about the boy. He stood erect, facing the camera, while his companions danced around him. He was unsmiling, had a cigarette cupped in his hand, and wore black motorcycle boots, jeans, and a T-shirt. A shock of hair hung down over his left eye.
I felt a faintly painful blade of recognition slide into my stomach. Though the T-shirt had changed from Led Zeppelin to Minor Threat, this was me, over a dozen years ago.
“This is how he looks now?” I asked.
“Everything but the hair. He shaved it off a couple of days before he disappeared.”
I put the photos in my jacket as we left the room and walked towards the front door of the apartment. The old man grabbed my arm to slow me down.
“I took the liberty of calling some private detective agencies this morning,” he said. “The average going rate seems to be two hundred a day plus expenses. That will be my offer to you.”
“I’m not a private detective,” I said. “And anyway, I could run into him tonight. We’ll settle later.”
“Yes, of course,” he said halfheartedly. He looked small standing in front of me. My sight lit again on the VCR wires lying unconnected on the floor.
“You want me to hook up that recorder for you before I go?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “Jimmy brought that to me, and he can hook it up, Mr. Stefanos. When you bring him home.”
The old man’s eyes were still on me as I closed the door and stepped out into the hall.
Excerpted from A Firing Offense by Pelecanos, George Copyright © 2011 by Pelecanos, George. Excerpted by permission.
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