Dont let go, p.10
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       Don't Let Go, p.10

          
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  "Doris and I got divorced when Hank was ten. The two of us, Doris and me, we started dating when we were fifteen. That's too young. We got married when we were still in college. I ended up working for my dad. He manufactured pallet nails and staples. I was third generation. The factory was in Newark when I was a kid, until the riots. Then we moved it overseas. My job, it was the most boring job in the world. At least that's what I thought at the time."

  I look at Augie. I expect an eye roll, but Augie is either faking paying attention to keep the guy talking or he's genuinely moved by his old friend's story.

  "Anyway, I'm in my thirties, I hate my job, we're not doing well financially, I'm getting old before my time and I'm miserable and . . . it's all my fault. The divorce, I mean. You reach an edge and then you step off and you just keep tumbling down. Doris and I fought. We started to hate each other. Hank, my 'ungrateful' son, started to hate me too. So you know, the hell with them, right? I moved far away. Started a fish-and-tackle business with a gun range in the back. I tried to come back a few times, visit Hank. But he was just sullen when I came around. A pain in the ass. So why bother, you know? I got married again, but it didn't last. She left me, no kids this time, no big deal, neither of us ever really thought it was forever. . . ."

  His voice drifts off.

  "Tom?"

  "Yeah, Augie."

  "Why did you come back?"

  "I'm out there in Cheyenne. I'm living my life, doing my thing. Then Doris calls and tells me she has cancer."

  There are tears in his eyes now. I look at Augie. He's close to welling up too.

  "I catch the next flight back here. Doris and me, we don't fight when I get back. We don't talk about the past. We don't rehash what happened or even ask why I'm back. I just move back in. I know that makes no sense."

  "It makes sense," Augie says.

  Tom shakes his head. "So much waste. A lifetime of it."

  No one says anything for a moment. I want to move on, but this is Augie's play now.

  "We had six healthy months and then six not-so-healthy months. I don't call them 'good' or 'bad' months. They're all good if you're doing the right thing. Do you know what I mean?"

  "Yeah," Augie says. "I know what you mean."

  "I made sure Hank was here when Doris died. We were both with her."

  Augie adjusts himself on the stool. I stay very still. Tom Stroud finally turns away from the window.

  "I should have called you, Augie."

  Augie shakes it off.

  "I wanted to. I really did. I was going to call, but . . ."

  "No need to explain, Tom." Augie clears his throat. "Does Hank ever come by?"

  "Yeah, sometimes. I've been thinking about selling this place. Putting the money in a trust for him. But I think the condo gives Hank some semblance of stability. I try to get him help. Sometimes . . . sometimes he's fine. Which makes it almost worse. Like he gets a glimpse of what his life could be and then it's snatched away."

  Tom Stroud looks toward me for the first time. "You went to school with Hank?"

  "I did, yes."

  "Then maybe you know this already. Hank is ill."

  I give him a small nod.

  "People don't get it's an illness. They expect Hank to behave a certain way--to get over it or snap out of it or something--but it's like asking a man with two broken legs to sprint across a field. He can't."

  "When was the last time you saw Hank?" I ask.

  "It's been a few weeks, but it's not like his visits are consistent."

  "So you weren't worried?"

  Tom Stroud hems on that one. "I was, and I wasn't."

  "Meaning?"

  "Meaning even if I was, I didn't really know what I could do about it. Hank's an adult. He's not committed. If I had called you guys, what would you have done?"

  There is no need to answer. It's obvious.

  "Did Hank show you the video someone took of him in the park?" I ask.

  "What video?"

  I take out my mobile phone and play it for him.

  When it is over, Tom puts his hand to his face. "My God . . . who posted that?"

  "We don't know."

  "Can I . . . I don't know . . . can I issue a missing person's report for Hank or something?"

  "You can," I say.

  "Then let's do that. Augie?"

  Augie looks up at him.

  "Find my boy, okay?"

  Augie gives a slow nod. "We'll do our best."

  --

  Before we leave, Tom Stroud leads us to a room his ex-wife set aside for Hank.

  "He never stays here. I don't think Hank's been inside this room since I've been back."

  When he opens the door, you can smell the stale. We step in and see the far wall, and I just turn to look for Augie's reaction.

  The wall is blanketed with black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings, and aerial shots of the Nike missile base in its prime. The material is mostly old, the photos rolling in on the corners, the clippings yellowing like tobacco-stained teeth. I scan for something recent or maybe something that I couldn't just find routinely online, but I don't see anything special.

  Tom notices us staring. "Yeah, I guess Hank was pretty obsessed with that old base."

  Again I glance at Augie. Again Augie is having none of it.

  "Did Hank ever say anything about it to you?" I ask.

  "Like what?"

  I shrug. "Like anything?"

  "Nothing that made sense."

  "How about stuff that didn't make sense?"

  Tom Stroud looks over at Augie. "You think this base has something--?"

  "No," Augie says.

  Tom turns back to me. "Hank just ranted about it. You know the kind of crazy stuff--they were keeping secrets, they were evil men, they were doing mind experiments." A sad smile comes to his face. "Funny."

  "What?" I say.

  "Well, not funny, but ironic. Like I said, Hank was really obsessed with the place. Even as a kid."

  He hesitates here. Augie and I say nothing.

  "Anyway, Doris used to joke that maybe Hank was right--maybe some secret lab did do weird experiments at the base. Maybe one night, when Hank was a little kid, he walked up that path and the bad guys grabbed him and did something to his brain and that's why he's like he is now."

  The room is silent. Tom tries to laugh it off.

  "Doris was only joking," Tom says. "Gallows humor. Something like this happens to your kid, you grasp at any straw, you know?"

  Chapter Fourteen

  Principal Deborah Keren is pregnant.

  I know it may not be good form to notice a pregnancy, but she is a tiny woman everywhere except the belly, and she's dressed in orange, which is a curious choice unless she is intentionally embracing the pumpkin look. She steadies herself on the sides of the chair. It takes a bit of effort for her to rise. I tell her there is no need, but she is already past the halfway point, and it looks like it might take a crane and crew to stop her momentum and safely lower her back into the chair.

  "I'm in the eighth month," Keren says. "I tell you that because everyone is suddenly afraid if you ask, 'Are you pregnant,' they'll be wrong and get in trouble or something."

  "Wait," I say, "you're pregnant?"

  Keren gives a side smile. "No, I swallowed a bowling ball."

  "I was going to say beach ball."

  "You're an amusing guy, Nap."

  "This your first kid?"

  "It is."

  "That's wonderful. Congrats."

  "Thanks." She moves toward me. "You done charming me with small talk?"

  "How did I do?"

  "So charming that if I wasn't already pregnant, I would be now. So what can I do for you, Nap?"

  We don't know each other super-well, but we both live in Westbridge and when you're a local principal and a local cop, you bump into each other at the too-many town gatherings. She starts waddling down the corridor. I walk with her, trying not to subconsciously copy her. The corridors are an empty only a school corridor during classes can be. The place hasn't changed much since we were here, Leo--hard tile floors, lockers lining both sides, the wall above them painted a Ticonderoga-pencil yellow. The biggest change, which isn't a change, is perspective. They say that schools seem smaller as you age. That's true. I think maybe it's that perspective that keeps the old ghosts at bay.

  "It's about Hank Stroud," I say to her.

  "Interesting."

  "Why do you say that?"

  "As I'm sure you're aware, the parents complain about him all the time."

  I nod.

  "But I haven't seen him in weeks. I think that viral video scared him off."

  "You know about the video?"

  "I try to know what's going on in my school"--she peeks through a small rectangular window into a classroom, moves to the next door, peeks in again--"but I mean, come on, half the country knows about that."

  "Have you ever seen Hank expose himself?"

  "If I had, don't you think I would have called you guys?"

  "So that's a no."

  "That's a no."

  "Do you think he did it?" I ask.

  "Exposed himself?"

  "Yes."

  We keep walking. She checks out another classroom. Someone in the room must catch her eye, because she waves. "I'm of two minds on Hank." A student turns the corner, sees us, stops in her tracks. Principal Keren says, "Where are you going, Cathy?"

  Cathy looks everywhere but at us. "To see you."

  "Okay. Wait in my office. I'll be there in a few minutes."

  Cathy does that scared-servant shuffle past us. I look at Keren, but it's not my business. She's already back on the move.

  "You are of two minds on Hank," I say to prompt us back on subject.

  "Those are public grounds out there," she says. "Open to the public. That's the law. Hank's got as much right to be on them as anyone. We have joggers run past there every day too. Kimmy Konisberg jogs by. You've noticed her, right?"

  Kimmy Konisberg is, for lack of more adequate terminology, the town MILF. She has it, and boy does she flaunt it. "Who?"

  "Right. So every morning, Kimmy jogs by in the tightest and yet least supportive Lycra imaginable. If I was a certain type of person, I would say she wants these adolescent boys to stare."

  "Would that type of person be truthful?"

  "Touche. And this town is such a hypocritical protective bubble as it is. And I get that. I get that's why people move out here to raise their families. To keep them safe. Heck"--she rests her hand on her belly--"I want my kids safe too. But it can become too sheltered. That's not healthy. I grew up in Brooklyn. I'm not going to tell you how rough I had it. We walked past six Hanks every day. So maybe our kids can learn compassion. Hank is a human being, not something to be scorned. A few months back, the kids found out Hank went to school here. So one of the kids--do you know Cory Mistysyn?"

  "I know the family. Good people."

  "Right, been in town a long time. Anyway, Cory dug up an old middle-school yearbook from Hank's last year." She stops and turns to me. "You and Hank were here at the same time, right?"

  "Right."

  "So you know. The kids were shocked. Hank used to be just like them--in chorus, won the science fair, was even treasurer of the class. It got the kids thinking."

  "There but for the grace of God."

  "Exactly." She takes two more steps. "God, I'm hungry all the time, and then when I eat, I feel sick. This eighth month just sucks. I'm hating all men right now, by the way."

  "I'll keep that in mind." Then I say, "You said two minds."

  "Pardon?"

  "With Hank. You said you're of two minds. So what's Mind Two?"

  "Oh." She starts up again, her belly leading the way. "Look, I hate the stigma attached to mental illness--that goes without saying--but I don't like Hank hanging around here either. I don't think he's a danger, but I don't know that he's not, either. I worry I'll be so politically correct about it that I'm not protecting my students. Do you know what I mean?"

  I let her know that I do.

  "So I don't like Hank standing out there. But so what? I don't like that Mike Inga's mom always illegally drops him off in the no-drop-off zone. I don't like that Lisa Vance's dad clearly helps her with her art projects. I don't like that Andrew McDade's parents storm in whenever the report cards arrive to grade-grub for their kid. I don't like a lot of things." She stops and puts a hand on my arm. "But do you know what I don't like most?"

  I look at her.

  "Online shaming. It's the worst sort of vigilante justice. Hank is just the most recent example.

  "Last year, someone tweets a picture of a kid with a caption saying, 'This punk stole my iPhone but forgot all the pics he takes are on my cloud, please retweet to find him.' The purported 'punk' was Evan Ober, a student here. You know him?"

  "Name doesn't ring a bell."

  "No reason it should. Evan's a good kid."

  "Did he steal the iPhone?"

  "No, of course not. That's my point. He started dating Carrie Mills. Carrie's ex Danny Turner was furious about it."

  "So Turner posted that pic."

  "Yep, but I can't prove it. That's the shit-bird anonymity of online shaming. Did you see that girl who just walked past us?"

  "The one you sent to your office?"

  "Yeah, that's Cathy Garrett. She's a sixth-grade girl. Sixth grade, Nap. So a few weeks ago, Cathy accidentally left her phone in the bathroom. Another girl found it. So this other girl takes the phone, snaps a close-up of her, uh, privates, and then sends the pic to Cathy's entire contact list, including her parents, her grandparents, everyone."

  I make a face. "That's sick."

  "I know, right?" She grimaces and puts both hands on her lower back.

  "You okay?"

  "I'm eight months pregnant, remember?"

  "Right."

  "I feel like I got a school bus parked on my bladder."

  "Did you ever catch the girl who took the pics?"

  "Nope. We have five or six suspects, all twelve-year-old girls, but the only way to know for certain . . ."

  I hold up my hand. "Say no more."

  "Cathy's been so traumatized by the whole thing, she pretty much visits my office every day. We talk, she calms down, she heads back to class."

  Keren stops and looks back over her shoulder. "I should get to Cathy now."

  We start walking back.

  "Your talk about the anonymity of online shaming," I say. "Is this your way of telling me you don't believe Hank exposed himself?"

  "No, but you're making my point for me."

  "What's that?"

  "I don't know because I can't know. That's always the problem with this sort of innuendo. You want to just dismiss it. But sometimes you can't. Maybe Hank did, maybe he didn't. I can't unring that bell, and, sorry, that's wrong."

  "You've watched the video of Hank, right?"

  "Right."

  "Any idea who filmed it?"

  "Again, I have no proof."

  "I don't need proof."

  "I wouldn't want to cast aspersions without evidence, Nap. That's what the online shaming does."

  We reach her office. She looks at me. I look at her. Then she lets loose a long sigh.

  "But I can tell you that there is an eighth-grade girl named Maria Hanson. My secretary can give you her address. Her mother, Suzanne, has come to see me frequently to complain about Hank. When I tell her that there is nothing that legally can be done, she becomes particularly agitated."

  Principal Keren looks through the glass at Cathy. Her eyes start to water.

  "I better get to her," she says.

  "Okay."

  "Damn." She wipes the tears from her eyes with her fingers and looks at me. "All dry?"

  "Yeah."

  "Eighth month," she says. "My hormones are on crack."

  I nod. "You having a girl?"

  She smiles at me. "How did you guess?"

  She waddles away. I watch her through the glass as she takes Cathy in her arms and lets the young girl sob on her shoulder.

  Then I leave to find Suzanne Hanson.

  Chapter Fifteen

  Westbridge doesn't have a poor side of town. It has a poor acre, maybe.

  There's a grouping of aging three-family houses located between a Ford dealership and a Dick's Sporting Goods near the town center. Maura and her mom moved in here the summer before our senior year. They sublet two rooms from a Vietnamese family after Maura's father cleaned them out and ran off. Maura's mom worked a few part-time jobs and drank too much.

  The Hanson family lives on the first floor of a rust-brick edifice. The wood stoop groans as I step up. When I ring the bell, a big man in mechanic's coveralls comes to the door. The name "Joe" is stenciled on the right chest pocket. Joe does not look happy to see me.

  "Who are you?" Joe asks.

  I show him my badge. A woman I assume is Suzanne Hanson comes into view from behind him. When she sees my badge too, her eyes widen, probably in parental worry. I reassure them right away.

  "Everything is fine," I say.

  Joe remains suspicious. He steps in front of his wife and gives me narrow eyes. "What do you want?"

  I pocket my badge. "Several concerned citizens have filed complaints against a man named Hank Stroud. I'm looking into them."

  "See, Joe?" the woman I assume is Suzanne says. She slides in front of her husband and pushes open the door. "Come in, Officer."

  We move though the front room into the kitchen. She offers me a seat at the table. I take it. The floor is Formica. The table is round and faux wood. The chair is chipped-white Windsor. There is a clock above the door that uses red dice for numbers. The inscription on top reads FABULOUS LAS VEGAS. Toast crumbs litter the table. Suzanne sweeps them with one hand over the table's side and into her free palm. Then she dumps the crumbs into the sink and runs the water.

  I take out a pad and pen for show. "Do you know who Hank Stroud is?"

  Suzanne sits across from me. Joe stands over her, his hand on her shoulder, still eyeing me like I'm here to either shoplift or bed his wife. "He's that horrible pervert who hangs around the school," she says.

  "I assume you've seen him more than once," I say.

  "Almost every day. He ogles all the girls, including my daughter, Maria. She's only fourteen!"

  I nod, trying on a friendly smile. "You've seen this personally?"

  "Oh, sure. It's terrible. And by the way, it's about time the police got on this. You work hard, you scrape together enough money to move to a beautiful town like Westbridge; I mean, you expect your kids to be safe, right?"

 
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