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Plea of insanity, p.42
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       Plea of Insanity, p.42

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  She took the bag, which felt too light to contain all of someone’s worldly belongings, and stood there for a few moments, not sure what to do. Not ready to leave. Not ready for any of this to be real. ‘What happened?’ she finally managed in a squeaky voice that sounded nothing like her own, as she looked around the waiting room. She felt the guards watching them. She looked and saw one of them was laughing.

  Dr Mynks didn’t even blink. ‘Suicide. Like I told you on the phone, Ms Valenciano.’

  She didn’t look away. She didn’t nod. She didn’t shake her head. She just stood there with that profoundly blank look on her face until he finished.

  ‘He hung himself. In the shower,’ he finally added. Now he looked at his watch. ‘Look, once again, I am sorry for your loss, but depression is a byproduct – for lack of a better word – of schizophrenia. Your brother had come to terms with his illness and, eventually, the crimes that he’d committed. That was one of the reasons he was being transferred to Rockland. Sometimes, unfortunately, those realizations are just too overwhelming for a person to emotionally handle. Once the medication has worked its magic many patients cannot deal emotionally with the crimes they committed when they were ill. And then with all the recent changes in Andrew’s life …’ His voice trailed off. He held up his hand in front of him. ‘I am not saying that’s the reason Andrew took his own life. There was no note and he told no one what he was going to do, so this is all, of course, conjecture.’

  There was nothing else to say. Dr Mynks had said it all without saying a thing. Julia had been the recent change in Andrew’s life. The reminder from his past that he could not cope with.

  ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me,’ he started to say, but Julia didn’t hear the rest. She’d already turned, and with all of Andrew’s belongings clutched tightly in her hand, she headed back out the security doors and into the cold New York City sunshine.

  91

  The Barnes and Sorrentino Funeral Home on the corner of McKinley Street and Hempstead Avenue was still painted that same unremarkable yellow that she remembered. Set slightly back from the road by a small patch of lawn, blooming flower beds lined a cement walkway that led to a dark wood front door. Julia had biked past it maybe a million times while she was growing up, on her way to the library or the bagel store, and she’d always thought it was a doctor or dentist’s office. It wasn’t until her parents were waked there that she realized it was a funeral home.

  A light drizzle had begun to fall and she stood for a moment outside in the empty parking lot next to her rental car as memories rushed her. The gas station on the corner she and Andy would fill their bikes up with air at had closed, but the Venus Cafe was still across the street. Every Sunday after church her dad would take the family there for brunch and the best pancakes Julia had ever tasted. In fact, she’d had them the last time she was here in West Hempstead, when Nora and Jimmy had taken everyone in the family for a bite to eat in between the afternoon and evening wake services for her parents. She hadn’t had pancakes since.

  Come on, Julia, honey. We can’t be late now. People will be waiting.

  An older lady with a stack of teased snow-white hair and ruby lips greeted her as soon as she opened the door, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. ‘Oh my,’ she said, looking past Julia at the parking lot behind her as the door closed. ‘Looks like it’s starting to rain again. Maybe that means spring is coming soon.’ She smiled. ‘Can I help you?’

  Julia looked around the dark lobby. ‘I called yesterday. I’m … My name is Julia Cirto. I called about my brother, Andrew Cirto.’

  ‘Yes. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. I’m Evelyn. Why don’t you come into my office?’

  Julia followed Evelyn past a gas-burning fireplace and down the worn red-carpeted hall. What an odd color for a funeral home, she thought. A red carpet. Maybe it was meant to be symbolic. A grand exit from life. You, too, were a somebody! Inside a modest office, Julia took a seat in one of the two paisley wing chairs that were posed perfectly in front of an antique desk. Eveyln took the other.

  ‘We received the body today from the Medical Examiner’s Office in New York County. We just needed to meet with you to …’ Evelyn hesitated for a second, searching for, Julia assumed, the most delicate word possible, ‘… go over a few things. We have a catalogue that you can look through, or we have—’

  Julia shook her head. ‘I, I can’t afford much, Evelyn. There was no insurance, and my brother didn’t, well, he didn’t have any money. But I want him to have something nice. I can spend about five thousand dollars. Can you pick something nice for me?’ She didn’t want to see all the prettier caskets she could have picked, or all the extras she could have had. Just take her money and get this done. She wanted to believe Andy had the best.

  Evelyn nodded. She reached over and lightly touched Julia’s knee. ‘Of course. We’ll handle everything.’ She paused for a moment. ‘I’m curious. You’re from Florida, and your brother died in Manhattan. Why did you choose Barnes and Sorrentino? Are there other relatives here in West Hempstead or on the Island? Is there any bulletin you would like us to notify?’

  Julia looked around the tiny office. One small window faced the parking lot. She could see that the rain was coming down harder now, forming deep puddles on the uneven asphalt. She remembered trick-or-treating up the block, and walking to Echo Park Pool. ‘I used to live in West Hempstead. My brother and I both did. We grew up here, a couple of blocks away, on Maple. It was the only funeral home I knew,’ she said absently. She looked down at her lap. ‘My parents both had their services here.’

  ‘Oh my,’ said Eveyln. ‘When was that?’

  Julia shook her head. ‘A long time ago,’ was all she offered.

  ‘Oh,’ Evelyn said again. ‘Well, we’ll make sure that everything is taken care of. Now, about the wake. When would you like to have the services, over one day or two?’

  ‘No, I don’t need a wake. There’s just me,’ she replied quickly, her voice a whisper. ‘There won’t be anyone else. No one here knows my brother anymore.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Evelyn again. She looked out the door down the hall. ‘I’m not so sure about that. We did get a flower delivery today. We put them in Chapel A.’

  ‘That must have been mine.’ She bit her lip. ‘Everyone deserves flowers, Evelyn.’

  ‘Okay,’ replied Evelyn, slowly. She rose from her seat. ‘Let me show you the room, then, for the service, if you decide to have it here.’

  ‘We’re Catholic. I think I’m going to have it at St Thomas.’

  They walked down the hall in silence. Outside the room designated as Chapel A, a black magnetic board encased in glass read ‘Andrew J. Cirto’ in small, white letters. In two days or so, Julia knew the letters would be switched around to read someone else’s name. Evelyn opened one of the double doors and Julia closed her eyes.

  You don’t have to look if you don’t want to, Munch. The caskets will be closed.

  Please, don’t honey. Don’t look, little one. That’s something you don’t need to see. You don’t want to remember her that way.

  ‘As you can see, it was a rather large delivery. We had to put them all in here,’ Evelyn said.

  Julia opened her eyes. The room was filled with hundreds and hundreds of white peonies.

  92

  The massive church was eerily quiet on Monday morning. Just the patter of rain slapping against the stained-glass windows could be heard echoing across the marble and through the towering stone-columned halls. Julia sat by herself in the front pew. Directly in front of her, draped in a white cloth and the funeral spray she’d ordered, was Andrew’s casket, propped on a metal transport gurney. The white peonies from the funeral home filled the altar. She hoped Evelyn had selected a nice casket. She hoped it was lined with satin and maybe a soft pillow. She hoped he looked peaceful inside.

  You don’t have to look if you don’t want to. The casket will be closed.

  And so she hadn’t.

 
; The parish of St Thomas the Apostle ran two churches in West Hempstead – the main church and the much smaller chapel on the other side of town by the Southern State Parkway. Her dad had always liked the chapel, so that was where her family usually went on Sunday mornings when she was a kid. But if given the choice, Julia herself always liked the main church. Especially for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Besides her parents’ funerals, that was one of the only times she could remember the huge church being filled to capacity, with every row filled and spilling out into the vestibule and onto the front steps. The choir would sing in the loft above, accompanied by the old organ and the folk guitars. Most of the choir members were the older brothers and sisters of her classmates at St Thomas’s elementary school next door – juniors and seniors at Sacred Heart Academy or Chaminade High School in Mineola. Julia could remember there was a time when she’d wanted to join the choir, too.

  The door to the sacristy opened and a young priest walked out, his heels softly clicking on the polished marble floor. He fashioned a long stole around his neck and kissed it, genuflecting in front of the altar. He looked down the center aisle of the empty church. The two pallbearers from Barnes and Sorrentino stood in the far back by the doors, off to a side hall. ‘Do you want me to wait a little bit longer?’ Father Tom asked, softly. He looked like a young, balding George Clooney.

  Julia shook her head. She didn’t look behind her. She didn’t need to. ‘No, Father.’

  Aunt Nora had hung the phone up on her last night, the second she mentioned Andy’s name. She hadn’t even gotten to tell her he’d died. The line had stayed busy after that, all night long. Besides her and Uncle Jimmy, there was no one else to call. There would be no one else who even cared.

  In her hand she held the folded-up drawing that Andrew had almost finished sketching. She’d found it in the paper bag of belongings that Dr Mynks had given her. It was a picture of her. Sitting at the table in the visiting room, smiling, framed by stars and moons.

  ‘Okay, then,’ Father Tom said. ‘I suppose this will be very intimate.’ He smiled a gentle smile and, instead of moving behind the pulpit, he stepped down off the altar and walked over to where she sat, sliding into the pew right beside her. To her surprise, he found her hand and held it softly in his. ‘We are here today to say goodbye to Andrew Cirto, a loving son and brother,’ he began in a mild voice that matched his smile and his touch. ‘A lost soul who will be missed by all who knew him, by his family and, most of all, by his sister.’

  Julia did not correct him. She bowed her head and listened while Father Tom held her hand and went on for ten minutes about all the things Julia had told him last night when they met over coffee at the rectory. About ice-skating with Andy in Hall’s Pond Park, and movie nights at the Elmont Theater with their mom. About how it was Andrew who always held her head over the toilet whenever she threw up, and who shared his sandwich at school when she had forgotten hers – even though that meant being made fun of by the older kids. About how he’d shoved the first boy who had said something nasty to her. About how he would wait for her when she missed the bus at school so they could walk home together. About what a great listener he was and what a great friend he had been. All about the gentle, misunderstood man with the sheepish grin of a boy that she had just come to know again after too long of an absence. And while she listened, she was relieved to hear that Father Tom never once mentioned that Andrew was a murderer. Or a crazy. Or sick.

  ‘Let us now pray,’ Father Tom said and Julia got down on her knees and prayed hard to a God she thought was cruel sometimes. A God she had long stopped believing in. A God who now beckoned her back with his soft whispers. She closed her eyes and saw Andrew’s face as she wanted to always remember it, before the sickness sucked the life out of him. Swinging a baseball bat with a smile at sixteen. The tears slipped out of her eyes as Father Tom led an empty church in prayer.

  ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace,’ he began softly. ‘The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’

  ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,’ Julia said, joining him. ‘Now, and at the hour of our death.’ She cast her eyes up to the Sanctuary, to the crucifix suspended above the altar. She saw Jesus smile down at her. He was whispering the words along with her.

  ‘Amen,’ she whispered back.

  93

  A Home Sweet Home mat greeted visitors outside her front door on the second-floor landing; a wreath of dried flowers blocked the peephole. He’d have to talk to her about that. That wasn’t safe. Lat rang the bell again and waited, tapping his palm impatiently against the door.

  ‘Julia,’ he said in a quiet voice, ‘It’s me, Lat. Come on, I know you’re home.’

  Still no answer. Then he started to knock. Hard. A few dried petals fluttered to the cement floor.

  ‘Listen, I saw your car across the street. I know you’re in. I need to talk to you. Come on, open up.’

  Still nothing. He walked back down the stairs a bit to see the window in her apartment that faced the parking lot. He didn’t see any lights on whatsoever. And that’s when John Latarrino started to worry. He’d checked JetBlue and knew she’d come back on her flight this afternoon. Her car was parked across the street in another apartment-complex lot, but she wasn’t answering her phone and she wasn’t answering her door. She’d been acting so strange lately, and after what he’d found out this past week, he knew that anything was possible. Even the worst anything.

  ‘Julia,’ he said again, louder this time. To hell with her neighbors. He banged on the door now. He hoped his voice sounded steady, devoid of the raw fear that he now felt gripping his belly. Graphic, horrifying images popped into his head and he pushed them aside. ‘I’m going to take the door if you don’t open—’ he started, but the knob suddenly twisted in his hand.

  She stood in the front hall of her pitch-black apartment. The moonlight that filtered in through the living-room windows behind her backlit her petite frame in silhouette. He couldn’t make out the features of her face.

  ‘You scared me,’ Lat said, feeling the relief wash over him.

  She said nothing and she didn’t move.

  ‘Julia,’ Lat said, ignoring her body language and instead moving past her, into the dark apartment. He looked around the living room. He could make out the shadows of clothes and boxes that were strewn everywhere. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked after a moment, reaching out to touch her shoulder.

  She pulled away from his touch. ‘You checked up on me.’

  He took a deep breath and looked straight at her. God, he wished he could see her eyes. Did she hate him? Maybe he shouldn’t have sent the flowers.

  ‘Yes. I checked up on you,’ he said finally, because there was nothing else he could say. He looked around the hall for a light switch. ‘Why are you sitting in the dark? Where are the lights in this place? ’Cause we have to talk—’

  ‘I don’t want the lights on and I don’t want to talk. I want you to go. That’s what I want.’

  ‘Julia, I’m sorry about your brother. I’m really sorry. I wish you had told me—’

  ‘Told you what?’

  ‘Told me about him.’

  ‘I don’t know exactly what you know, Lat, so I don’t know what it is you’d wished I’d told you. That my brother was a murderer but he couldn’t help himself? That he was just sick and inside he was really a great person and a warm human being who was misunderstood by everyone, including me?’ She turned her head away, crying.

  ‘I want to see you, Julia. Where the hell are the lights?’ That feeling of panic was grabbing at his throat once again.

  She didn’t want him to see her like this. When things were fracturing right in front of her, slipping out of reach. ‘No, just go, please,’ she pleaded.

  He grasped her hand in his and moved her further into the apartment with him, closing the door behind him with his foot. He felt along the wall until his fingers finally found a switch. A
living-room light snapped on.

  She had her head down, her long black hair draped over her face. Her whole body was shaking, and he knew she was trying to control the sobs. He didn’t know exactly what to say, but he knew bullshit wouldn’t work on her.

  ‘Listen, Julia, I’ve read the newspaper articles. I … I talked to the DA in New York. He read me the file. I know what happened to your mom and dad that night.’ He paused, wondering how far he should go. ‘Dr Mynks told me about Andy. And I’m sorry, Julia. I’m so sorry for your loss – your losses.’ He blew out another breath and looked around the apartment. He wasn’t very good at these things. He sucked at funerals and awkward moments. ‘You were acting really strange. Things weren’t adding up and then, well, you burned Dr Barakat in court and … you just took off in the middle of trial. And you haven’t been back. It all makes sense now … I just … Why didn’t you tell me? Maybe I could’ve done something.’

  She turned again toward the wall, wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands. ‘What is it you wanted me to tell you? And when? Maybe over a motorcycle ride on the beach I could whisper in your ear that my brother’s a schizophrenic? Oh, and by the way, he killed my family one night while I was at a sleepover? What do you really think you would have done with that information, Lat? But that’s not all. There’s more to the story,’ she said, her voice rising with anger. ‘See, it wasn’t actually his fault because he was made that way.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘That wasn’t in the court file, Lat? It must have been. ’Cause it turns out my dad was sick, too. And my grandfather, we think. We think, ’cause no one wants to talk about these things. No one should’ve ever thought about having a kid. They knew what it was like. My mother, she knew, too. She watched him struggle with it. They both knew hell, right here on earth. My dad lived it.’ She struggled to find her breath, backing up further against the wall, ‘They knew the odds, that we could get it. Like blond hair or a cleft chin. They knew they could give it to us. But they did it anyway. They still had us, Lat. It was the most selfish thing in the world they could have done – to bring us into it. But they did it anyway …’

 
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