“Because she’s from Charlestown?”
“Well, that doesn’t help,” his father said. “Her father was a pimp back in the old days and her uncle has killed at least two men that we know of. But I could overlook all that, Joseph, if she weren’t so…”
“Dead inside.” His father consulted his watch again and barely suppressed the shudder of a yawn. “It’s late.”
“She’s not dead inside,” Joe said. “Something in her is just sleeping.”
“That something?” his father said as Emma returned with their coats. “It never wakes up again, son.”
On the street, walking to his car, Joe said, “You couldn’t have been a little more…?”
“Engaged in the conversation? Social?”
“All the time we been together,” she said, “all you ever talk about is how much you hate that man.”
“Is it all the time?”
Joe shook his head. “And I’ve never said I hate my father.”
“Then what have you said?”
“That we don’t get along. We’ve never gotten along.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because we’re too fucking alike.”
“Or because you hate him.”
“I don’t hate him,” Joe said, knowing it, above all things, to be true.
“Then maybe you should climb under his covers tonight.”
“He sits there and looks at me like I’m trash? Asks about my family like he knows we’re no good all the way back to the Old Country? Calls me fucking dear?” She stood on the sidewalk shaking as the first snowflakes appeared from the black above them. The tears in her voice began to fall from her eyes. “We’re not people. We’re not respectable. We’re just the Goulds from Union Street. Charlestown trash. We tat the lace for your fucking curtains.”
Joe held up his hands. “Where is this coming from?” He reached for her and she took a step back.
“Don’t touch me.”
“It comes from a lifetime, okay, of getting the high hat and the icy mitt from people like your father. People who, who, who… who confuse being lucky with being better. We’re not less than you. We’re not shit.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“I’m not shit,” she whispered, her mouth half open to the night, the snow mingling with the tears streaming down her face.
He put his arms out and stepped in close. “May I?”
She stepped into his embrace but kept her own arms by her sides. He held her to him and she wept into his chest and he told her repeatedly that she was not shit, she was not less than anyone, and he loved her, he loved her.
Later, they lay in his bed while thick, wet snowflakes flung themselves at the window like moths.
“That was weak,” she said.
“On the street. I was weak.”
“You weren’t weak. You were honest.”
“I don’t cry in front of people.”
“Well, you can with me.”
“You said you loved me.”
He looked in her pale, pale eyes. “Yes.”
After a minute she said, “I can’t say it back.”
He told himself that wasn’t the same as saying she didn’t feel it.
“Is it really okay? Because some guys need to hear it back.”
Some guys? How many guys had told her they loved her before he came along?
“I’m tougher than them,” he said and wished it were true.
The window rattled in the dark February gusts and a foghorn bayed and down in Scollay Square several horns beeped in anger.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She shrugged and bit a hangnail and stared across his body out the window.
“For a lot of things to never have happened to me.”
She shook her head, drifting away from him now.
“And sun,” she mumbled after a while, her lips sleep swollen. “Lots and lots of sun.”
Tim Hickey once told Joe the smallest mistake sometimes casts the longest shadow. Joe wondered what Tim would have said about daydreaming behind the wheel of a getaway car while you were parked outside a bank. Maybe not daydreaming—fixating. On a woman’s back. More specifically, on Emma’s back. On the birthmark he’d seen there. Tim probably would have said, then again, sometimes it’s the biggest mistakes that cast the longest shadows, you moron.
Another thing Tim was fond of saying was when a house falls down, the first termite to bite into it is just as much to blame as the last. Joe didn’t get that one—the first termite would be long fucking dead by the time the last termite got his teeth into the wood. Wouldn’t he? Every time Tim made the analogy, Joe resolved to look into termite life expectancy, but then he’d forget to do it until the next time Tim brought it up, usually when he was drunk and there was a lull in the conversation, and everyone at the table would get the same look on their faces: What is it with Tim and the fucking termites already?
Tim Hickey got his hair cut once a week at Aslem’s on Charles Street. One Tuesday, some of those hairs ended up in his mouth when he was shot in the back of the head on his way to the barber’s chair. He lay on the checkerboard tile as the blood rolled past the tip of his nose and the shooter emerged from behind the coatrack, shaky and wide-eyed. The coatrack clattered to the tile and one of the barbers jumped in place. The shooter stepped over Tim Hickey’s corpse and gave the witnesses a hunched series of nods, as if embarrassed, and let himself out.
When Joe heard, he was in bed with Emma. After he hung up the phone, Emma sat up in bed while he told her. She rolled a cigarette and looked at Joe while she licked the paper—she always looked at him when she licked the paper—and then she lit it. “Did he mean anything to you? Tim?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said.
“How don’t you know?”
“It’s not one thing or the other, I guess.”
Tim had found Joe and the Bartolo brothers when they were kids setting fire to newsstands. One morning they’d take money from the Globe to burn down one of the Standard’s stands. The next day they’d take a payoff from the American to torch the Globe’s. Tim hired them to burn down the 51 Café. They graduated to late-afternoon home rips in Beacon Hill, the back doors left unlocked by cleaning women or handymen on Tim’s payroll. When they worked a job Tim gave them, he set a flat price, but if they worked their own jobs, they paid Tim his tribute and took the lion’s share for themselves. In that regard, Tim had been a great boss.