When I woke up the next morning, Randy wasn’t there. His bag was still in the room, and when I looked out the window, I could see my truck parked in the lot. So I figured he couldn’t have gone too far.
I took a shower and got dressed, went down to the motel lobby and sat there reading the paper for a while. Then I gave up waiting for him and went outside. It was an overcast April day in Detroit, with a fine mist in the air that worked its way into your lungs and through your clothes.
I found him on Michigan Avenue, sitting on a bench across from Tiger Stadium.
“Good morning,” I said as I sat down next to him. “Not a real nice day to be sitting out here.”
“I just wanted to look at this place one more time,” he said.
“You planning on going somewhere soon?”
He smiled and shook his head. “I’ll let you go home, Alex. I’ve kept you away too long already.”
“I’m sure Jackie’s managing quite well without me,” I said. “Hell, he probably feels like he’s on vacation.”
He looked back up at the gray wall of the stadium. “You know, if I had gotten Rettenmund out instead of walking him, then I would have had two outs, with Boog Powell coming up. I would have been in a whole different frame of mind. The whole game could have gone my way at that point.”
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to argue with him, or tell him to forget about it.
“And then after the game,” he said, “I would have gone out to celebrate with Maria.”
“Maria Valenescu,” he said. “Anyway, you can’t undo the past, right? Only a fool would even try.”
“Let’s go, Randy.”
I took him back to the motel so he could put some dry clothes on. When we got to the room, the message light on our phone was blinking. I called the desk. A Mr. Leon Prudell had called, they said, and left a message to please call him back.
“What do you have for us, Leon?” I said when I got him on the line.
“Not a whole lot. I’ve only found three Valenescus in the entire country. They’re all in New York City. I don’t see any Gregor or Arabella or Leopold or Maria. It’s worth calling these numbers, though. There might be a connection. You want to call, or should I?”
“I’m not sure we’ll need them,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Ah hell, give me the names,” I said. “I’ll call you back later.”
“All right, let me know how it goes!”
I thanked him and hung up. Randy came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his neck.
“He found three Valenescus,” I said. “You want me to call them?”
“It’s up to you,” he said. He sat down on the bed.
I dialed the first number and asked if they knew any of the four names. They didn’t.
I dialed the next number. Same question. Nothing.
I dialed the last number. Whoever answered couldn’t speak English very well. I think I got the idea across, and the answer seemed to be a firm no.
“No go,” I said when I hung up.
“Okay,” he said. “Time to pull the plug. Let me give Leon a call so I can thank him myself.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat there with the phone still in my hand.
“We played it out,” he said. “That was our last card. What else could we do now, anyway?”
“Just hold on,” I said. “Give me a minute here.” I grabbed the Yellow Pages. “How old would her parents be right now?”
He looked at me. “What are you doing?”
“Humor me,” I said. “How old would they be?”
“Eighties at least. Maybe nineties.”
“Like the Meisners,” I said. “So maybe they’re living in the same kind of place right now.”
“Assuming they’re still alive, and assuming they’re still in the area, then yes.”
I looked up “Nursing Homes” again. I had just seen the same pages the day before, when we found the Peach Tree Senior Community.
“Alex, you’re the one who told me this is a bad idea.”
“I know,” I said. “I just want to do this one thing. Otherwise, it’s gonna bother me.”
“You’re gonna call every one of them, Alex? How many are there?”
“A lot,” I said. “This might take awhile. Why don’t you go get us some breakfast?”
A couple of hours later, I dialed the last number. I went through the routine for the hundredth time. Ask for Mrs. Valenescu, figuring there would be more chance of her being alive than her husband. In the obituaries, it’s always men who are survived by their loving wives. The women die alone. Even if I was wrong on that, they’d probably catch me on it and tell me that there was no Mrs. Valenescu there but that there was a Mr. Valenescu. The name would stick out in their mind.
“Okay, thank you,” I said, and hung up. I stood up and stretched.
“You’re something else, you know that?” Randy said.
“It was worth a shot,” I said.
“Thanks, Alex. Now we can stop.”
“Not so fast,” I said. “I got one more idea.”
“Her brother,” I said. “What did he do for a living in 1971?”
“He was a housepainter. Like his father.”
“Mr. Meisner said he was good at it, right?”
“So what do you think he’s doing for a living right now?”
“I suppose he could still be a housepainter.”
“Let’s say he is,” I said. “Do you think he still lives around here?”
I grabbed the Yellow Pages again. “I don’t see him listed here under ‘Paint Contractors,’ but that doesn’t mean much. Most of those guys just work on word of mouth. So let’s say that’s what he does. What do you think he’s doing right now?”
“Okay,” I said. “You think he still makes people call him Leopold?”
“I would bet on it, yeah.”
“So what happens when Leopold runs out of paint?”
“He buys more paint.”
“He buys more paint,” I said. “And where does he buy it?”
“At a paint store?”
“And how about next week,” I said, “when he needs more paint?”
“At a paint store?”
“At the same paint store,” I said. “I see about forty listings here for the whole Detroit metropolitan area. Why don’t you go get us some lunch?”
When he was gone, I started working through the numbers. It was a long shot, but I’d be thinking about it for weeks if I didn’t give it a try.
When I got through to the first number, I went into my spiel. “Hey, have you seen Leopold over there?” Thank God for strange names. If his name were Al, I’d have no chance.
“Leopold?” the man said. “Don’t know no Leopold, sir.”
“Ah, okay, wrong place. Sorry to bother you.”
I did ten of the numbers.
I did twenty.
And then on number twenty-one…
“Leopold?” the man said. “Not today. He was here on Monday, I think.”
I froze. My God, I’ve got a bite.
I was about to play it straight, tell him who I was and why I was looking for Leopold. But then I thought about Leopold, and what Randy had told me about him. How much he hated Randy. Almost killing him on the street in 1971.1 had two seconds to decide how to play it. I went for theater.
“Oh, uh, sorry,” I said. “Hey, I’ll be perfectly honest with you.” Honest, my ass. “I’ve got one of Leopold’s thirty-foot ladders here, and if I don’t get it back to him today, he’s gonna have my head on a platter. You know how he is.”
“Oh man,” he said. “Do I ever. I can’t believe he even let you borrow it.”
“Hey, I know he’s been working on that job over there. Where was that again? Maybe I can just run it over to him.”
“No, he didn’t say.”
Damn! Think, think.
“Oh man, I’m dead,” I said. Okay, let’s go for the home run here. “Hey, I know. Maybe if I just run it over to his house, you know? Leave it there. Hell, maybe he’ll even forget he loaned it to me. You think that would work?”
“I still can’t believe he loaned it to you.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I must have caught him on a hell of a good day. I was over at his house one time. God, where was it? It was over on…”
I let it hang. I was sweating. Come on, take the lead here.
“On Romney Street,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s right! On Romney Street. I’ll just go over there right now and put that ladder in his garage.”
The guy started laughing. “That’ll never work, my friend.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But at least this way, I’ll have a running start.”
“Good luck to you,” he said.
“Hey, um, just one more thing. I appreciate you helping me out here. I’m just trying to remember which house it was on Romney. It was like a sort of white kind of-”
“Hell if I know,” the man said. “I sure as hell never been to the man’s house. I just know it from the address on the bills.”
“Oh yeah, of course. Ah, well, never mind. I’ll find it.”
“Here, let me see,” the man said. God bless this man. “Seventeen forty Romney Street.”
“That sounds familiar,” I said. “Man, you’re really helping me out here. I appreciate it.”
“Hey, no problem. Just don’t tell him I helped you do the drop and run.”
“Ha! You got it! Thanks a lot.”
I hung up and let out a big breath.
By the time Randy came back with the McDonald’s bags, I had already looked up the street in the index and found it on the map. It was in Farmington Hills, an upper-middle-class suburb to the northwest. “Looks like Leopold moved up in the world,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
I held up the piece of paper where I had written his address. “Let’s go,” I said. “I’ll show you.”
I remembered Farmington Hills as one of the nicer suburbs of Detroit. It was what they called “semi-rural,” with four-bedroom houses on half-acre lots. A good old-fashioned mailbox on the street, with the little flag you raised when you had a letter to be picked up. I couldn’t believe how much had changed.
“I remember this corner,” I said as we drove past a strip mall. All the usual suspects were there now: Blockbuster Video, Subway, TCBY. “I swear to God, there was nothing here but one gas station.”
“Yeah, the owner used to come out, pump the gas himself, wash your window, and then turn the crank on the front of your car for you.”
“Randy, I’m talking about fifteen years ago. It’s like an entirely different place now.”
“Progress,” he said. “That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?”
There was a lot of traffic on Halstead Road now. It used to be a lazy little two-lane road through nothing but weeds and dirt. We found the new subdivision we were looking for, right next to about five other new subdivisions, and turned in. We drove past a few dozen houses that looked like they had all been built that morning. We passed Corriedale Street and then we found Romney Street.
“Sheep,” he said.
“Corriedale and Romney. They’re types of sheep. They must be running out of names.”
We followed the numbers on the mailboxes until we came to 1740. The house was a split-level ranch, set back about a hundred feet off the road.
“Nice lawn,” Randy said.
“I don’t see a name on the mailbox,” I said.
“So what do we do?”
“We’ll just go knock on the door and ask,” I said. “No big deal.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “No big deal.”
We drove down the driveway. It was asphalt, with what looked like a new coat of sealer on it. I stopped my truck behind a little red compact.
We got out. We walked to the door, passing a row of rhododendrons that had a long way to come back from a hard winter. We rang the doorbell.
A young girl answered. She was sixteen or seventeen years old, dressed in a softball uniform. There was an F on her jersey. Farmington High School. She smiled at me. She looked at Randy and her smile got a little bigger.
“Hi there,” I said. “Is this the Valenescu residence?”
Her smile faded. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “There’s nobody here by that name.”
“There’s nobody in your family who used to have that name even?” I was really reaching now. “Somebody named Maria? Used to live in Detroit? Her parents were Gregor and Arabella?”
“No,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I looked up at the sky. “Okay,” I said. I suddenly felt very tired. “We’re sorry to bother you. You play softball, eh?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m a pitcher.”
“Hey,” I said, hitting Randy in the chest. “Another pitcher. Just what the world needs.”
The look on his face stopped me.
He was staring at the girl.
I looked at her, and then back at him. “Randy,” I said. “What is it?”
He didn’t take his eyes off her. “What’s your name?” he finally said.
She swallowed. “Delilah.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. She sneaked a look at the doorknob.
“Delilah,” Randy said. “Can I ask you something?”
“I need to get to practice,” she said. “I came home to get my uniform.”
“You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you,” he said.
She shook her head. “I told you, there’s nobody here by that name.”
“You’re Leopold’s daughter, then,” he said. “That could be. You’re Maria’s niece.”
“No,” she said. “No, I told you. My name is Delilah Muller and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She started to look a little scared.
“I’m sorry,” I said, stepping in front of him. “I’m sorry, please excuse my friend.” I turned to face him. “What the hell are you doing?”
“This girl,” he said, and then he looked at her again over my shoulder. “This beautiful angel…”
“Is not who you’re thinking,” I said. “You heard her. What are you trying to do?”
“Alex, I know she is.”
“Come on,” I said, grabbing his arm. I pulled him back to the truck. As I turned to apologize again, the door was already shut.
Randy shook me off and got in the passenger’s side. I got in, slammed the door, and backed up all the way down the long driveway to the street. I dropped the truck into drive and got us out of there.
I was already back on 1-275 when I finally looked over at him. He had his hands together between his knees. He was staring out at the hood of the truck.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I said.
He didn’t say anything.
“You scared that girl,” I said. “You really scared her. She’s all alone in that house and you gotta go freaking her out like that.”
He said nothing, so I let him just sit there. The interstate went down to one lane, so we had to slow down to a crawl. More construction.
“That’s her daughter,” he finally said.
“Were you listening to what she told you?”
“I don’t care what she said. That’s Maria’s daughter.”
I would have pulled over if I could have, but we were barely moving anyway. Two seventy-five has five lanes going north, five lanes going south. We were going south on the one lane that was still open while the construction workers tore the hell out of the other four.
“Randy, despite the fact that she told you she wasn’t, why are you so sure that she’s Maria’s daughter?”
“You’re the one who found the house, Alex. A housepainter named Leopold lives there. Is that just a coincidence?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“No,” he said. “No.”
“She’s what, sixteen years old? Seventeen? You haven’t seen Maria since 1971, right?”
“You haven’t heard from her? Or about her? You know nothing about Maria after 1971?”
“So that girl was born around what, 1983?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” he said. “That’s when Maria gave birth to that girl.”
I moved the car up another few feet. Then I stopped again. At this rate, we would be on 275 until September.
“Why didn’t she seem to know that, then? You’d think she’d know who her mother is, right?”
“She knew,” he said. “She was lying.”
I didn’t say anything. There were no words to say. The man was out of his mind. I moved the car forward another few feet.
“Alex, we have to go back.”
“Oh good God,” I said. “I can’t believe this.”
“We have to,” he said. “Turn around.”
“I’m not turning around.”
“Turn the truck around.”
“Randy, so help me, I am not turning this truck around. Not that we’re moving anyway.” I could have gotten out of the truck and taken a long piss against the back tire if I had wanted to. I watched a couple construction workers walk past us.
“I have to talk to her again,” he said. “Just one more thing I have to say to her.”
“What? What do you have to say?”
He paused for a moment. “I have to tell her that it’s okay. If she’s lying because her mother told her to, then I understand. That’s all.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You think Maria told her daughter to be on the lookout for you, just in case you came back thirty years later? She’s supposed to tell you she’s not her daughter to throw you off the trail?”
“I don’t think it would be exactly like that, no.”
“Why not? Maybe she called her this morning to remind her.”
“Alex, we turn around. We go back. I apologize to the girl. We leave. You take me to the airport and I fly back home. The end.”
I had another ten minutes to think about it, while the machines slowly turned four of the southbound lanes into something that looked like the surface of the moon. Finally, we reached an exit and I took it.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You apologize for scaring the hell out of her,” I said. “And then we leave.”
“You got it.”
“I had to do it,” I said. “I just had to try out one more thing. Call the paint stores. What a wonderful idea that was.”
We worked our way back to Telegraph and took that all the way back up to Nine Mile Road. There were some traffic lights to sit through, but it was better than 1-275. We found the same subdivision again, the same street, the same house. As we pulled into the driveway, we saw the same little red compact, and next to it a white truck with a rack of ladders in back.
“Looks like Leopold is here,” he said. “This is good. Hell, he might even remember me.”
“Well, we already know it’s not the same guy,” I said. “But I almost wish it was. Hi, remember me? I got lucky with your sister when she was nineteen.”
“Yeah, that’s funny, Alex.”
We got out of the truck and went to the front door. Randy stepped in front of me and rang the doorbell.
He rang it again.
Finally, the door opened. A man looked out at us. He was short and dressed in white painter’s overalls.
“Leopold?” Randy said. “Is that you?”
The man just looked at us.
“I’m sorry to bother you!” Randy said. “We were here earlier. We spoke to… um…”
The man opened the door. “You spoke to Delilah.”
“I don’t suppose you remember me.”
He looked at Randy. He had dark eyes. “No, I don’t.”
“I’m, um…” He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes for a moment. “Leopold, I’m actually an old friend of Maria’s. Your sister.” I stood there watching the whole thing, not quite believing any of it.
The man smiled. He opened the inner door all the way, and then he opened the storm door. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Please, come in.”
Randy wiped his shoes on the little mat, and then I did the same. I followed him into the house, and when we were inside, I got my first good look at Leopold. He couldn’t have weighed more than 160 pounds, but he had arms like a boxer. That’s exactly what he looked like, one of those tough little bantamweights.
He just stood there smiling at us. And then the door moved. Another man stepped out from behind it. He was younger. And a lot bigger.
He hit me once before I could even think about what was happening. I tried to duck out of the way of the next one, but he caught me on the side of the head. I went down with my ears ringing and a metallic taste in my mouth, a mixture of blood and adrenaline and sudden fear. I didn’t know what was happening to Randy at that point. I tried to get up. The man was standing above me, ready to hit me again, I was sure, so I picked a spot in the middle of his body and drove my shoulder into it. He gave ground, but not nearly enough. I felt hands on my neck. A grip stronger than human.
He’s choking me.
I grabbed at his hands, at his arms. Useless. You’re going to die right here, Alex.
No, there’s something you can do here. One way out. Somebody showed you this a long time ago…
I brought my right arm up and over his wrists, got as much leverage as I could, and then dropped to the floor. He went down with me, his forearms pinned against my chest. I heard him swearing. I felt his hot breath in my face. He drove his forehead into mine and pulled his arms free.
Did it work? Did I break his wrists? Before I could catch my breath, I got my answer. He hit me on the back of the neck with either one fist or both of them, or maybe it was an iron safe. It didn’t matter. I was done fighting back.
A hand on the back of my shirt. Another one on my belt. I am lifted or dragged or God knows what and then there’s a long flight of stairs leading down. I hit every one of them, five hundred steps or a thousand. And then I am at the bottom lying facedown on something soft. It is carpeting, thank God in heaven for carpeting at the bottom of the stairs and then I am out.