He appeared at the Brooklyn store one day, stepping out of a cloud of his own cigarette smoke: a tattered old genie coming out of the lamp. A genie, mind you, in a cheap blue suit and expensive brown shoes.
“Can’t smoke in here,” I said, not recognizing him at first.
“Moe, isn’t it?”
“Do I know-“
I stopped myself and squinted through my glasses. While I didn’t quite know him, we’d met once, maybe fifteen years before on the streets of Tribeca in front of the building where Pooty’s had stood. Pooty’s was a scruffy watering hole that had once been home to the best jukebox in the city, the place where I first fell deeply in love with my wife to be. Now Pooty’s was gone and my wife to be is my wife that was. The genie was an Irishman, from Galway, as I recalled, an ex-cop like myself and like myself a man who, in younger days, took on the odd private case.
“How are you?” I held my hand out to him.
Ignored it. Too busy crushing his cigarette out on the hundred-and-fifty-year-old broad plank flooring we’d just had restored and resurfaced. His role as fireman complete, he took my hand.
“Ah, it’s good to see you, pal.”
“I never did get your name all those years ago.”
“Jack,” he said, as if the single syllable explained the history of the world and then some.
“Why, will it not do?”
“It will have to.”
“Practical man, Moe. We’ve no use for practical men in Ireland. A country full of priests and poets. Piss on the streets of Galway and you’ll catch the next five Yeats with the spray.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You’d be the first.”
“So, what can I do for you, Jack? A bottle of Jameson?”
“For fuck’s sake, is there like a neon sign on me forehead?”
“No, just guessing.”
“I’ve given up the drink, Moe.”
“Jack, not to bust your balls, but this
“I’m here for you, not for the drink. It’s hard for me to confess, but I need your help.”
“Help? How can I help you, Jack?”
“I’m looking for a cat.”
“Jesus, is there like an echo in here? Don’t you still work cases?”
“I’m an old man.”
“Bollix! It’s in your blood.”
“At my age the only thing in my blood is blood and thanks to the drug companies it’s not even that. Besides, lost pets was never my beat.”
“Not that kind of cat, Moe.”
“What, it escaped from the zoo? Somehow I don’t picture a gimpy old Jew and crooked old Irishman chasing tigers through the streets of Brooklyn Heights.”
“Not that kind of cat either.”
“Maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention in school. Am I missing something here or is there another kind of cat?”
Ignored the question
“When does your shift end?”
I checked my watch. “Two hours.”
“We’ll talk then.”
The genie was gone, his crushed cigarette the only evidence he’d been there at all.
Old men don’t cotton to cemeteries, particularly at night. Too much like visiting the house that’s being built for them.
Although the place made me uncomfortable, it was hard to deny the majesty of the grounds. It was all very nineteenth century and early twentieth, when people built marble mausoleums and erected mighty headstones to please the god of Abraham. As we made our way through the narrow paths between the graves, Jack muttered and tsk-ed.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The greatest sin in Ireland is to let a grave go unattended. Your house can fall down around your ears and look like complete shite, but to let a relative’s grave fall into disrepair …”
“This is an old cemetery, Jack. Most of these people’s relatives are themselves dead.”
He crossed himself as if it hurt to do so. Said
“Here we are.”
Pointed at a lonely grave rimmed in very low, but neatly trimmed hedges. The headstone was an unassuming block of gray polished granite with the top beveled. The inscription was on the surface of the bevel beneath the Star of David.
BELOVED DAUGHTER, MOTHER, ANGEL
BORN JAN 3, 1960 DIED JUNE 1, 1988
Atop the grave itself were the windblown stems of a hundred dead roses and several grimy statuettes and plaques. One of the filthy busts was a small white, blue, and black porcelain bust of Edgar Allan Poe.
“Do you know the writer K.T. Baum?”
“The mystery guy?” I asked.
“The same. This is his daughter’s grave. Run down by a drunken driver.”
“Jesus!” Funny how Jews from Brooklyn say
“Let’s not think of it, Moe. Life is burden enough without the added weight of imagined sorrows.”
“You’re right, of course. So what are we doing here?”
“Baum is a friend. As I don’t possess many, I treasure the ones I do.”
“But that still doesn’t explain-“
“Look at the grave.”
I obliged. He lit up, lifting a heavy silver Zippo to the tip of a cigarette: the genie once again supplying his own magic smoke.
“These are the awards he’s won, I take it.”
“Fella, you take it right.”
I knelt down to get a closer look at the grave, my arthritic knees creaking like an old coffin lid. Now I noticed what Jack had hoped I would see.
“Something’s missing.” I pointed to a clothes iron-shaped depression in the grass atop the grave. “The cat?”
“The Silver Whisker. About yea big.” Jack held his bony hands eight or so inches apart. “Of equal height and near twenty pound of silver.”
“Why do you suppose the thief took the cat and not the others?”
“Who can know the mind of a ghoul? Liked cats better than Poe. Wanted to melt down the silver, maybe.”
“Maybe. Baum must be pretty old by now.”
“Old and dying. Lung cancer’s marking his days. Doctors said he should be dead going on two years now. Finally won that damn cat. Think the chase kept him above dirt. The thing had tasked him his whole career. Every award he’d ever won he dedicated to Anne, then placed it upon her grave. Now he can have his peace.”
I considered that kind of peace as I was close to experiencing it myself. How much peace was there, I wondered, in endless sleep if you never woke up to appreciate it? I wondered if these were just the kinds of ruminations that drove ancient humans to create the gods that created them. I wondered if heaven was just waking up again? Old men do a lot of wondering.
Baum’s house was a big old Victorian in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, a block or two in from Beverly Road. Jack had assured me it would be fine to stop by the house to chat with the dying author.
“The jumble of medicines keep him up all hours. He’ll enjoy the visit.”
We were greeted at the door by an odd gray woman. What I mean to say is that she was both older and younger than her age. There was an underlying prettiness, almost girlishness beneath her sixty-ish years and silvery hair. And no amount of years could hide the burn of her green and gold-flecked eyes, but she carried herself and the weight of the world with her.
“Gilda Baum, meet Moe Prager.”
Jack had told me in the car that Gilda, Anne’s younger sister, had years ago appointed herself to the position of caretaker. Not only did she help manage her father’s writing career, but had done nursing courses in order to help manage his medical care as well.
Her handshake was steel.
“He’s upstairs waiting for you, Jack. He knew you’d come.”
“I’ll go have a word with him, Moe. Then you can come on up.”
Gilda showed me into the library. It was an impressive thing to behold: handcrafted walnut bookshelves from the parquet floors to the twelve-foot-high cornice molding that rimmed the mural painted on the plaster ceiling. The mural was done in the pre-Raphaelite style. In it, a lovely woman with an imperfect nose, long white neck and cascades of red tresses floated down river on a raft of reeds. Her arms were folded across her ample white bosom, the hint of a nipple peeking through her long delicate fingers.
“That’s Annie,” Gilda said matter-of-factly. “Dad had it done the year she was killed.”
“That she was. Let me show you Dad’s other pride.”
Gilda looped her arm through my crooked elbow and guided me to the other end of the library. There on display was a collection of old leather bound books and manuscripts in Lucite cases. I could make out some of the titles.
“It’s a world class collection of Poe, O’Henry, Henry James …” she said proudly. “Annie loved O’Henry in particular. Any story with an ironic twist was meat for her. She was easily pleased.”
There was an air of resentment in Gilda’s voice, an understandable one. Tragic death makes giants of the mortal. I’m sure Baum had loved Anne before the accident, but because the love had turned unavoidably one-sided, he had made her into a kind of goddess. That couldn’t have been easy for his other daughter. It must have been particularly difficult now with her father’s impending death.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been rude. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Scotch on the rocks.”
Her face lit up. She walked me into a room just off the library. It was an office of some sort and there was a lovely liquor cabinet against one wall.
“Dewars okay?” she asked.
“This is my office,” she said as ice clinked into the glasses.
“You write too.”
“Yes, but not detective stories like Dad. I do more scholarly work.”
She handed me the hand-blown tumbler. We toasted with a shrug and sipped.
“So, what do you make of the missing cat?”
“What do you mean ‘What do I make of it?'” Gilda was almost defensive.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-“
“No, no, I should apologize, Mr. Prager. It’s been a rough several years with Dad and all. Frankly, there’s never been an easy day for him since Annie was killed.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Let me go and check on Dad and Jack.”
She scurried out of the room. I looked around, snuck a look at the ultra thin screen of Gilda’s Apple. I also picked up the book she had left open on her daybed. I put the book back where I found it and headed back to where I had been standing when Gilda had left the room.
“They’ll be only a few more minutes. Dad loves Jack. They met in Galway years and years ago, in ’03 or ’04. Jack had just lost a little girl of his own, I think. They were both feeding the swans down by the quay and seemed to hit it off.”
“Gilda, do you mind if I tell you a story about my family?”
“No, go right ahead.” The smile on her face belied the uneasiness in her voice.
“My dad was a failure in business and he equated that with being a failure as a father. I had an older brother, Aaron. Aaron was the best brother and such a devoted son, but his devotion to my dad was-“
“I’m sure this is all very interesting, Mr. Prager, but-“
“Moe then. But I really don’t see what this has to do with-“
“Yes, you do, Gilda. You see that it has everything to do with the missing cat. I had a peek at your computer and your reading material. Humor an old man by letting me finish. So, as I was saying, Aaron’s devotion to my dad became a quest of sorts. He spent much of his own life trying to convince my dad he hadn’t been a failure at all. Even after my father had passed away, Aaron tried convincing him. The business Aaron and I owned, the one I now run with the kids and grandkids, is a manifestation of Aaron’s futile quest. Your father’s dying. Painting leaves on a vine or stealing a silver cat off your sister’s grave won’t save him. Let him go, Gilda. It’s his time. It’s almost mine.”
She broke down, resting her head on my shoulder. Half a century of tears, grief, and sorrow seemed to pour right out of her. Jack walked in on the scene. Said
“I’m going outside for a smoke.”
Jack had been right about the weight of the damned cat statuette. The thing had quite a bit of heft to it. Gilda stayed downstairs as I brought the Silver Whisker up to show her dad. She had confessed the whole plot to me … well, most of it, anyway, when her crying had quieted down. She had stolen the cat in the hope of keeping her dad alive just a little longer.
She so desperately wanted him to see that she was everything that Anne had been, maybe more. She had done everything else she could think of, yet she could never compete with Anne’s memory. Gilda knew it was a crazy thing to do and doomed to fail as everything else had failed, but … What she had neglected to tell me was that she, not her father, had written the book that had won the Silver Whisker. I don’t know exactly how I knew that. I just did.
When I entered the bedroom, silver cat in hand, K.T. Baum was dead. Apparently, he knew it all, too. I placed the statuette near his right hand and left.
I couldn’t seem to find Gilda when I went back downstairs. I let myself out. I couldn’t blame Gilda for wanting time alone. She had too many years of emptiness and self-deception to deal with in one night.
But Jack was gone too. When I stepped out into the cool black air of the Brooklyn night, all that remained of Jack Taylor on the planks of the wrap-around porch was a crushed cigarette butt and wisps of pungent cigarette smoke.
“Grandpa Moe,” I heard a little boy’s voice coming out of the genie’s smoke. “Grandpa Moe.”
“Sssshhh, honey, Grandpa is very sick,” I heard my daughter Sarah say, her voice cracking slightly. “He needs to rest.”
“No buts, Aaron. God, you’re just like your Great Uncle Aaron, may he rest in peace.”
“I’ll take over, Sarah,” I heard my kid sister Miriam say.
“Where’s Jack?” I said, my throat dry, my voice thin as a hair. I had trouble focusing my eyes. I saw the world through heat waves coming off hot tar and it smelled like a hospital.
“Take it easy, Moe. Rest. You really need-“
“Miriam, for chrissakes! Where’s Jack?”
“Jack! Jack Taylor. Where’s Jack Taylor?”
“I’ll be right back.”
The door opened and closed. That much I could make out. Then it opened and closed again.
“He’s asking for someone we don’t know, someone none of us know,” Miriam was near frantic.
“It might be the drugs,” a man’s voice explained. “It might be the cancer. At this point, it’s impossible to know. Just sit with him and call the family in.”
“Miriam,” I called to her in a whisper.”
“What is it, Moe?”
“No silver cats for me, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, though only I understood.
Then I went to sleep.