Like they say, the past isn't dead. It's not even past.
Wages of Sin by Tom Larsen
It was summer when he finally showed up. Larry worked the night shift then and Nicole was still a baby. Gina was at the kitchen window watching raindrops plink the puddles when she heard a rumble outside the front door. She knew right away it was him, though she could never say how. There were always cars idling in the street at night, boyfriends of neighborhood girls giving it one last shot, suburban kids copping a bag. They cursed too much and laughed too loud and their flashers kept her up at night.
This was different. This one moved down the street at a crawl and as it paused outside her door she saw a match flare inside. Her first impulse was to grab Nicole and run, but something held her to the spot. She watched the headlights sweep across the yard as he turned into the driveway. Instead of stopping at the garage he pulled the car behind the house, killed the lights and the motor and sat listening to the radio. Basie, she thought, or one of those swing bands he favored. A sound she hadn’t heard in years.
When he got out Gina’s heart was pounding so loud she could hear it. He circled to the front of the car and opened the hood. She could see rain roll off and over his back as he fiddled inside. Whatever was wrong he fixed it quickly then stood staring up at the back of the house. Still tall and rangy in leather jacket, jeans and work boots.
Six years since she’d heard a word.
She opened the door before he could knock.
“Hey Gina. It’s me, Pete. How’s my girl?”
“I’m not your girl.”
He had an answer for this. She could see it in his face. But the words wouldn’t come and instead he just stood there blinking into the rain.
“I’m in a fix, kid.”
“You go to hell.”
“I got you something.” He pulled a box from his jacket and handed it to her. Good N Plenty’s, half empty.
“Jeepers, thanks dad." She turned and tossed it in the trash.
“It’s short notice, baby. Hell hounds are on my trail.”
“Back in Florida with her mom.” He shrugged. “I guess she couldn’t hack it anymore.”
The news didn’t hit like it should have. Corrine was the reason he’d left them flat and Gina always prayed she’d get fat or die. From the time she was a girl until it didn’t matter any more.
“You can’t stay here.”
“Is that what you think? Gina, honey you got nothing to worry about. I just want to see my grandchild. Then I’ll be on my way.”
She’d let him stand there until he was soaked, doorknob warming to her hand, steam rising from the hood of the car. This was nothing like she thought it would be.
“Look Gina, I know you don’t want anything to do with me. I used to think some day I’d make it all up to you. I don’t know. When you’re young you believe anything’s possible. You know what I’m saying?”
“I learned a long time ago to leave it alone.”
He glanced away following the taillights of a passing car.
“OK. I guess I always had an unrealistic view of life. I can understand why you hate me.”
“Hate you? I don’t even know you.”
Just the way she’d always rehearsed it. Studying her reflection in the mirror for the perfect look. Proud and contemptuous. The glib tone to cut to the quick.
“Yeah well, it’s probably just as well.”
Gina just looked at him.
“How is she? The baby.”
“She’s asleep. Thunder had her up half the night.”
“I’d be grateful if you’d let me in for a minute.”
“I told you to go to hell.” She pushed the door shut and that was that.
Except he wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t even get back in the car. For over an hour he sat on the stoop letting the rain pour down on him. She watched from upstairs, biting hard on her lip to keep it together. Seeing him stirred up memories she’d kept buried for years. Not forgotten, but sealed off in a part of her heart she’d put off limits. The night he showed up in a limo with a trunk full of presents. God only knows where they came from. A portable TV for her and a tricycle for Bette, a diamond pendant and earrings for their mom. They’d driven to the shore that very night, passing through those sleepy Jersey towns like desperados, hitting the boardwalk just as the sun was rising. The police picked him up the next day at their beachfront hotel. Her mom pawned the jewels for the cab ride home.
So long since she’d let herself drag it all up but time had failed to dim the image. Her recollections of him were as worn and dog-eared as an old paperback.
“It’s not the feds I’m worried about. They’re like elephants. You can hear them coming a mile away.”
“I don’t want to hear this, okay?” She was still angry with herself for letting him in.
“Sorry baby.” He gave her that crow’s feet grin. “Tell me about your husband. He know about me?”
“He knows you ran off. The rest doesn’t really bear mentioning.”
He laughed. “You always did have that sledge hammer touch.”
“Larry’s a good man who loves his wife and kid. End of story.”
“What about you? Do you love him?”
Leave it to Pete to ask the one question she couldn’t answer. What she had with Larry was good but she’d seen love burn as hot as fire.
“Larry and me are doing fine.”
“I should shove off before he comes home.”
“He doesn’t get off for a few hours yet.” She poured him more coffee. “I thought you wanted to see your granddaughter.”
“More than anything in this world.”
“How’d you find out about her?”
He took a single bent Camel from his shirt pocket and rolled it straight on the table.
“I looked up your sister when I was on the coast. I told her I was coming here.”
“Bette didn’t say anything to me.”
“I made her promise not to. I figured the less time you had to think about it, the less likely you were to shoot me.”
“I’m partial to knives actually.”
Again the grin. “Bette said you had a hard time of it. With the baby I mean.”
“Yeah well, they come into the world kicking and screaming. If they knew what was out here they’d think twice about it.”
“You can’t really mean that.”
“You can’t smoke in here.”
She led him down the hall to the baby’s room. Nicole lay sleeping on her stomach with her hands balled in tiny fists. He reached down to touch her head.
“So much hair for a such a new baby.”
“She gets that from Larry’s side. That and her temperament.”
“What does she get from you?”
“Fear of thunder. I don’t know, flatulence?”
“Your mom used to swear she never once broke wind. She claimed she didn’t even have an asshole until she married me.”
Gina just had to laugh and laughing made her think of what this must look like. Three generations of Perkins’ in the same room. It had never occurred to her that this could happen and now that it had, she could feel the tug of kinship, sweet and unbearably sad. He was running out of time or he wouldn’t be here.
“I’d wake her but there’d be hell to pay.”
“That’s fine. I just want to look.”
He stroked the side of the baby’s face, running his finger from cheek to jaw line. Gina couldn’t help herself. She moved up close and brought her hands to his shoulders. Pete was all skin and bone compared to Larry. Lowering her head to his back she breathed him in. Leather and smoke, the flesh of her flesh. It was all too much for her. She was already crying when he turned and took her in his arms. Folded her away just like a real dad.
“Baby don’t,” he whispered in her ear.
“I can’t help thinking it could have been like this,” she sobbed into his jacket. “I just want to hear you say it could have been like this. Please.”
“Gina honey, you’re killing me.”
“SAY IT, DAMMIT!” She broke away, pounding his chest like a B movie fireball. Pete twisted away from her, stumbled off a few steps then crumpled to a heap on the floor. He lay gasping on his side and she could see the blood though his open jacket.
“OH MY GOD! YOU’RE HURT!” she shrieked.
He rolled to his knees and hugged himself against the pain. His face was pale and sweaty and she was certain he’d die right there on the spot. Instead, he pulled himself up slowly by the baby’s crib and turned to her with his right hand raised.
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” His grin faded to a grimace. “No more hitting, okay?”
She did what she could for him, cleaned the wound then closed it up with a box of butterfly band-aids she found in the bathroom. He’d wanted her to stitch him but her hands were too shaky and her stomach wasn’t up to it. The most blood she’d ever seen was when Larry sliced his hand cutting a bagel. Pete sat at the table talking non- stop while she dressed him with Pampers and wads of duct tape.
“Who knows where they come from? I’ve known some bad boys but these guys are murder. I thought he was just a card cheat.”
“Skip tracers. They contract out to bail bondsmen for a percentage. Do yourself a favor baby, don’t ever jump bail.”
“Here hold this.” She handed him the scissors and worked the tape over his shoulder. “You should be in a hospital.”
“I must be losing my feel for people. Back in the day I would have smelled him out in a crowd. Thing is, he had intellect. The man read Gaddis, for Christ's sake!”
“You knew him?”
“We ran a high stakes game in Reno. He beat the bushes and I fleeced the bunnies. He knew he had me anytime so he rode it out.”
“So he’s a crook too?”
“He’s a bounty hunter. Mostly they’re ex-cops or mercenaries. A hell of a thing to do for a living.”
“Do they work with the police?”
“Not if they can help it. They might serve notice but they don’t carry a badge and they don’t need a warrant.”
“How much you owe?”
“Enough to make it worth their while. But it’s not like you can just pay them back.” He pulled the bloody shirt back on and leaned forward in his chair. “There’s no negotiating, believe me. And they’re not like cops. They love what they do.”
“Maybe you should turn yourself in.”
“I’ve been tempted, if only to cut them out of the deal.”
She stuffed the scraps of tape and diaper in a plastic bag and crossed the kitchen to the trash bin.
“Don’t.” He reached out his hand. “I’ll take that with me when I leave.”
“You’re hurt pretty bad Pete. You need a doctor.”
“Got one waiting for me up in Knoxville. His eyes aren’t what they used to be but he still takes my health insurance.”
She knelt by his side, took his hand and held it to her face. Might be she’d never see him again and she wanted to take in as much as she could. She touched his fingers to her own cheek then turned his hand from front to back. The knuckles of his thumbs were swollen with arthritis but his nails were clean and freshly manicured.
“Stay the night. I’ll tell Larry you’re an old cousin or something. I don’t think you’ll make it to Knoxville.”
“I appreciate it, honey. Thing is, these guys have eyes and ears where you’d never expect. I’m okay as long as I keep moving.”
“You don’t think they’ll come here, do you?”
“Nobody knows I have family. I go by different names. Before I left Reno I made a few calls to an old pal in Tahoe. With any luck they’ll be dropping in to see him.”
“Gee thanks old pal.”
“I meant that figuratively.” He gave her a wink.
She made him breakfast, scrambled eggs and bacon done crisp the way she knew he liked it. Her mother had never been much of a cook and she left the kitchen work to her daughters as soon as they were able. Gina remembered making breakfast for Pete and his cronies. She’d get up early and arrange everything on the counter then watch cartoons until she heard them pull up outside. She’d make cheese omelets or French toast with orange juice and plenty of strong coffee. The men shoveled in all she could make, plying her with praise and proposals of marriage. They may have been crooks but they treated her like a queen and there were always a few bucks on the table when they were through. Sometimes they’d sing to her, doo wop harmonies from when they were boys or one of a half dozen drinking songs, a morning serenade that would carry her through the whole day. Then they’d leave in a swirl of laughter and cigarette smoke, pulling away with horns honking, long after the other dads had gone to work. When she thought of him she thought of mornings. When he left just the skillet could bring her to tears.
“Was Bette glad to see you?”
“Hard to say. I know she was surprised.”
“What’s her place like. I’ve never been there.”
“Nice place. Her hubby’s rolling in it. Funny thing is I did some work for his father back in the seventies. He had a few shipments go bad on the docks and he needed them to disappear.”
“But she met Jack at Cal.”
“What can I tell you? It’s a small world, kid.”
She thought back to the globe he gave her one Christmas, black oceans and green continents with a pin sticking right out of New Jersey. Shit was coming from everyplace now.
“So what, you’ve been living out west?” she asked him.
“Nah, the coast doesn’t suit me. Too much sun makes a man simple.”
“This thing in Reno. When did it happen?”
“We left there over a week ago. He waited until Chicago to make the bust. Had me handcuffed to a motel television so I picked the lock. About this time yesterday it was. That’s another thing. I gotta get rid of that car.”
“You took his car?”
“It’s a rental. I’ll drop it off in Knoxville after I see the doc.”
“What did you do to him? The bounty hunter.”
“He’ll be all right. Too bad, though. We could have cleaned up in Branford. The kid had some class.”
While she did the dishes he studied a map, tracing his route with a yellow highlight pen. Outside the rain had stopped and the sky was turning gray. The car in the yard looked cold and forlorn and it pained her to think it was down to this for him, a stolen car, a vague destination. She saw his reflection in the window as he came up behind her and she knew she would always look for him there.
“You’re right Gina. It could have been like this>” He kissed the top of her head. “I got my share of regrets, that’s for sure.”
She turned and looked him in the face. “Will I ever see you again?”
“Honey, there’s no doubt about it.”
Lightning flashed outside the window and a loud crack of thunder shook the dishes in the drain board. She slipped past Pete to check on the baby. Nicole was looking straight up at the ceiling, gurgling on a mouthful of fingers. More thunder rolled right over top of them, breaking off somewhere to the west. Still Nicole did not cry.