Page 33 of The Innocent

Lawrence said, “Yo, Matt, you wanna hang with us?”

“Maybe later, guys.”

Matt spun around and headed back toward Grove Street. The number 70 bus hit Livingston. He waited at the stop, swaying with the wind. He was the only one there. Most of the people were traveling from the other direction—exhausted domestics trudging back from the wealthier environs to their far more humble abodes.

Welcome to the flip side of the burbs.

When bus 70 pulled up, Matt watched the tired women descend, zombielike. Nobody spoke. Nobody smiled. Nobody was there to greet them.

The bus ride was maybe ten miles, but what a ten miles. You went from the decay of Newark and Irvington and suddenly it was like you hit another universe. The change happened in a snap. There was Maplewood and Milburn and Short Hills and finally Livingston. Matt thought again about distance, about geography, about the truly thinnest of lines.

Matt rested his head against the bus window, the vibration working like a strange massage. He thought about Stephen McGrath and that terrible night in Amherst, Massachusetts. He thought about his hands around Stephen’s neck. He wondered how hard he squeezed. He wondered if he could have let go as they fell, if that would have made a difference. He wondered if maybe, just maybe, he gripped the neck even tighter.

He wondered about that a lot.

Matt got off at the circle on Route 10 and walked toward Livingston’s favorite watering hole, the Landmark. The lot on Northfield Avenue was chock full of minivans. Matt sneered. No thin line here. This was not Mel’s. This was a goddamn wussy bar, if ever he saw one. He pushed open the door.

Lance Banner would be here.

The Landmark was, of course, nothing like Mel’s. It was brightly lit. It was loud. Outkast sang about roses smelling like boo-boo—safe ghetto music. There was no cracked vinyl, no peeling paint, no sawdust on the floor. The Heineken signs worked. So did the Budweiser clock, complete with moving Clydesdales. Very little hard liquor was being served. Pitchers of beer lined the tables. At least half the men were dressed in softball uniforms with various sponsors—Friendly’s Ice Cream, Best Buy, Burrelle’s Press Clipping—and enjoying a post-rec-league-game celebration with teammates and opponents alike. There was a smattering of college kids home on break from Princeton or Rutgers or—gasp—maybe Matt’s almost alma mater, Bowdoin.

Matt stepped inside and when he did, nobody turned around. Not at first. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was boisterous and red-faced and healthy. Everyone talked at the same time. Everyone smiled and swore too casually and looked soft.

And then he saw his brother, Bernie.

Except, of course, it wasn’t Bernie. Bernie was dead. But man, it looked like him. At least from the back. Matt and Bernie used to come here with fake IDs. They’d laugh and be boisterous and talk at the same time and swear too casually. They’d watch those other guys, the rec-league softball players, and listen to them talk about their kitchen additions, their careers, their kids, their boxes at Yankee Stadium, their experiences coaching Little League, the lamentations over their declining sex lives.

As Matt stood there, thinking about his brother, the energy of the place shifted. Someone recognized him. A ripple began. Murmurs followed and heads turned. Matt looked around for Lance Banner. He didn’t see him. He spotted the table with the cops—you could just tell that was what they were—and recognized one of them as the cop-kid Lance had braced him with yesterday.

Still heavily under the influence, Matt tried to keep his walk steady. The cops gave their best laser glares as he approached. The glares didn’t faze him. Matt had seen much worse. The table grew silent as he approached the cop-kid.

Matt stopped in front of him. The kid did not step back. Matt tried not to sway.

“Where’s Lance?” Matt asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“Good one.” Matt nodded. “Say, who writes your lines?”

“What?”

“ ‘Who wants to know?’ That’s funny stuff, really. I mean, I’m standing in front of you, I’m asking you directly, and you come up, bang, on the spot, no time to think, with, ‘Who wants to know?’ ” Matt moved in closer. “I’m standing right here—so who the hell do you think wants to know?”

Matt heard the sound of chair legs scraping the floor, but he didn’t look away. The cop-kid glanced toward his buddies, then back at Matt. “You’re drunk.”

“So?”

He got into Matt’s face now. “So you want me to haul your ass downtown and give you a Breathalyzer?”

“One”—Matt raised his index finger—“Livingston’s police station is not downtown. It’s more midtown. You’ve been watching too many repeats of NYPD Blue. Two, I’m not driving, numbnuts, so I’m not sure what a Breathalyzer is supposed to do for you. Three, while we’re on the subject of breath and you standing in my face and all, I have mints in my pocket. I’m going to slowly reach for them so you can have one. Or even the whole pack.”

Another cop stood. “Get out of here, Hunter.”

Matt turned toward him and squinted. It took him a second to recognize the ferret-faced man. “My God, it’s Fleisher, right? You’re Dougie’s little brother.”

“Nobody wants you here.”

“Nobody . . . ?” Matt turned from one man to the other. “Are you guys for real? You going to run me out of town now? You”—Matt snapped, pointed—“Fleisher’s little brother, what’s your first name?”

He didn’t answer.

“Never mind. Your brother Dougie was the biggest pothead in my class. He dealt to the whole school. We called him Weed, for crying out loud.”

“You talking trash about my brother?”

“I’m not talking trash. I’m talking truth.”

“You want to spend the night in jail?”

“For what, asswipe? You going to arrest me on some trumped-up charge? Go ahead. I work for a law firm. I’ll sue your ass back to the high school equivalency exam you probably never passed.”

More chair scrapes. Another cop stood. Then another. Matt’s heart started doing a quick two-step. Someone reached and grabbed his wrist. Matt pulled away. His right hand formed a fist.

“Matt?”

This voice was gentle and struck a distant chord deep inside of him. Matt glanced behind the bar. Pete Appel. His old friend from high school. They’d played together at the Riker Hill Park. The park was a converted Cold War missile base. He and Pete used to play rocket ships on the cracked concrete launch pads. Only in New Jersey.


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