Filed under: reading
Dead in the Alley
Nadia Guaman died in my arms. I’d been leaving Club Gouge by the main door when I heard gunshots, screams, squealing tires, from the alley behind the building. I ran across the parking lot, slipping on gravel and ruts, and found Nadia crumpled on the dirty ice. Blood was washing down her front in a rich tide.
I ripped off my scarf and opened her coat. The wound was high in her chest, too high, I knew that, but I still made a pad of my scarf and pressed it against her. Keeping pressure on the pad, I struggled out of my coat and placed it under her. Left hand on chest, right hand underneath, pushing my coat against the exit wound. Without looking up or stopping the pressure, I shouted at the people surging around us to call 911, now, at once.
Nadia’s eyes flickered open as I cradled her. The ghost of a smile flickered at the sides of her wide mouth. “Alley. Alley.”
“Shhh, Nadia, save your strength.”
I thought it was a good sign, a hopeful sign, that she spoke, and I kept pushing against her wound, singing snatches of a cradle song, trying to keep us both calm. When the paramedics arrived, and pried my hands free from her wounds, they shook their heads: she’d been dead for several minutes already.
I started to shiver. It was only when the medics forced me to my feet that I felt the January wind cut into my bones. The medics brought me into the ambulance, but left Nadia lying on the ground, waiting for a tech team to photograph her body. The crew wrapped a blanket around me and gave me hot sweet coffee from their own thermos.
“You did the best that could be done. No one could have done more.” The tech was short and muscular, with wiry red hair. “She was bleeding out within minutes of being shot. I’m guessing the bullet nicked a major vein, but the ME will tell us more. Was she a friend?”
I shook my head. We’d barely spoken, and at that point, in fact, I only knew her first name.
A cop poked her head through the open ambulance door. “You the gal that put her coat on the dead girl?”
Dead woman, I started to say, wanting to ask the cop if she was a girl or a woman on the mean streets, then realized I was too exhausted to fight that battle tonight. Nadia was dead, and whatever one called her, it wouldn’t bring her back to life. I didn’t move from the bench facing the stretcher, but croaked out a ‘yes.’
“Can we talk inside, ma’am?” the cop said. “The EMTs are going to take the dead girl to the morgue as soon as the photo team is through and it’s five degrees here in the parking lot.”
I handed the blanket back to the ambulance crew and let the cop give me a hand as I jumped off the back. I could read her name badge: E. Milkov.
Nadia was still lying where I’d left her, her face silver under the blue strobes, the blood on her chest black. My coat was underneath her. I walked over and fished my car and house keys from the pockets, despite outcries from the evidence team. My handbag was lying a few feet from the “dead woman,” I muttered out loud, and I picked that up, also against the outraged shouts of the officer in charge.
“It’s my handbag, which I dropped when I was performing first aid. You don’t need it, and I do.” I turned on my heel and walked back into the Club Gouge. The bag was handmade from red leather, an apology of sorts from the friend of a dead client, and I wasn’t going to risk losing it or my wallet in an evidence locker.
Everyone who’d been in the club or the parking lot, except those crafty enough to escape ahead of the team in blue, had been herded into the building. A minute before I’d been too cold, but the club atmosphere, hot, nearly airless, made me ill. I started to sweat and fought a rising tide of nausea.
The club staff, including my cousin Petra, were huddled by the bar. After a moment, when I decided I wasn’t going to vomit, I shoved my way through the crowd to Petra’s side.
“Vic, what happened?” Petra’s blue eyes were wide with fear. “You’re covered with blood.”
I looked down and saw Nadia’s blood on my jeans and sweater, on my hands. My scalp crawled: maybe her blood was in my hair.
“Someone shot a woman as she left the club,” I said.
“Was it—who was it?”
“I heard her called ‘Nadia,’” I said slowly, fixing Petra with a hard stare. “I don’t know if that’s her name and I don’t know her last name. If the cops, or a reporter, ask you questions about what happened tonight, you can only answer truthfully about things you actually know and saw. You can’t answer questions about things that are just guesses, because that can mislead the cops.”
“It would be best if you don’t consult the other witnesses.” Officer Milkov had fought through the chaos of shouting, texting, twittering patrons and staff to appear at my side.
Under the club lights I could see her face, narrow, with pronounced cheekbones, and lank black hair cut so short the ends only just appeared below her cap rim. She didn’t look much older than my cousin, too young to be a cop, too young to be telling me what to do. But—she had the badge. I let her guide me to the small stage at the back of the club, which the police had roped off with crime scene tape so they could use it for interrogations. She lifted the tape so I could crawl under, then dragged a couple of chairs from the nearest table. I reached an arm out and took one of them from her.
I was in that numb place you inhabit after you’ve been part of violence and death. It was hard to focus on her questions. I gave Milkov my name. I told her I’d heard gunshots and run to see what the problem was. I told her I didn’t know the dead woman.
“But you knew her name,” Milkov said.
“That was just from hearing someone call her ‘Nadia.’ I don’t know her last name.”
“Most people run away from gunshots.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You ran toward them.”
I still didn’t say anything, and she frowned at me. “Why?”
“Why, which?” I said.
“Why did you run toward danger?”
When I was younger and more insouciant, I would have quoted the late great Philip Marlowe and said, “Trouble is my business,” but tonight I was cold and apprehensive. Don’t answer questions with guesses, I’d told Petra. “I don’t know.”
“Did you see anyone in the club threaten Nadia tonight?”
I shook my head: I hadn’t seen anyone threaten her tonight. Earlier, that was another story, but my years as a public defender had taught me to answer only the question asked.
“Did you come here tonight because you thought there would be an attack on someone?”
“It’s a club. I came because I wanted to see the acts.”
“You’re a private investigator. You’ve been involved in a lot of high-profile investigations.”
Milkov had looked me up in the short time since she’d found me in the parking lot. Fast work. Professional work. “Thank you,” I said.
“I don’t want your thanks, I want to know what you thought was going to happen tonight, and why you were here.” The ferocity of her gaze turned her blue eyes almost black.
“Even cops have days off. Even doctors. And PI’s have been known to take them, too.” I didn’t want to throw Petra to the wolves, and that’s what would happen if I said anything about wanting to keep an eye on my cousin’s workspace. No one had bothered to turn off the Body Artist’s computer, and the plasma screens on the stage kept flashing images of flowers and jungle animals. It made a disturbing backdrop to the interrogation.
“Vic, What are you doing here?”
I looked around and saw Terry Finchley, a detective I’ve known for a long time. “Terry! I might ask you the same question.”
Finchley’s been out of the field for five or six years, on the personal staff of Captain Bobby Mallory, and I was surprised to see him at an active homicide investigation.
He gave a wry smile. “Captain thought it was time I got my hands dirty again. And if you’re anything to judge by, they’re going to get mighty dirty indeed on this investigation.”
I looked again at my blood-smeared hands. I was beginning to feel twitchy, covered in Nadia’s blood. Terry climbed the shallow step to the stage and told Milkov to get him a chair.
“What have you learned, Liz?” Finchley asked Officer Milkov. So the “E” stood for Elizabeth.
“She’s not co-operating, sir, she won’t say how she knew the vic, or why she was here, or anything.”
“Officer Milkov, Officer Milkov, I’ve told you I didn’t know the victim. It makes me cranky when people don’t listen to me.”
“Pretty much any damn’ thing makes you cranky, Warshawski, but out of curiosity, how did you get involved?” Finchley said.
“I was leaving the club; I heard gunshots. I ran across the parking lot and saw a woman on the ground—that would be a woman, as opposed to a girl, Officer Milkov, unless there’s a dead child out there that I didn’t notice, and, of course, this is a club that serves alcohol, so I would be very surprised—“
“Vic. You’re exhausted, and I don’t blame you. They’re annoyed, though, that you took evidence from the crime scene, and for that I not only don’t blame them, but need you to turn it over to our evidence team.”
“It wasn’t evidence: these were my personal belongings that I dropped when I tried to administer first aid. I picked them up when Officer Milkov told me to leave the scene. I think your techs would be grateful to have extraneous items removed, although I did abandon my coat.” My throat contracted and I looked involuntarily at my hand, my right hand, which had been pushing my coat against Nadia’s bleeding back.
“You can keep the coat; I’ll never wear it again,” I said.
Finchley paused, briefly, and decided to let my handbag ride. “Did you know the dead woman?”
“Why were you here?”
“It’s a club. You can come in if you want a drink and want to see the show. I was doing both those things.”
Finchley sighed. “You know, anyone else in this town, I’d nod and take your name and phone number and urge you to wash the blood off and try to forget the horrors you witnessed. But V I Warshawski chooses to come to a club the one night in the year a woman gets murdered at their back door? You know what the captain’s going to say when he hears that. Why were you here tonight?”
Filed under: reading
And wondering why there’s nothing new out here, I’m posting now through my website. It’s the same blog, with all the archives and comments from this site. You can bypass the home page and go straight to the blog if you prefer.
Filed under: reading
There’s a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on reading in today’s NY Times, a tribute to the late Richard Poirier, whose work I confess I didn’t know–but am now eager to read. Poirier wrote about reading in slow motion–like the slow food movement–a step aside from our hyperlinking era.
I’ve pasted much of the essay below:
A Man of Good Reading By ALEXANDER STAR
The literary scholar Richard Poirier, who died last weekend at the age of 83, was one of the strong critics of his time. For five decades, Mr. Poirier taught literature at Rutgers University, where he founded Raritan, a quarterly named for the river that borders New Brunswick. He reached a broader public by collaborating with another man of letters, Edmund Wilson, to create the Library of America.
Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.
This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else. he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by “what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.”
As an English professor, too, Mr. Poirier was often at odds with his colleagues, whom he mockingly compared to bureaucrats: “Criticism in the spirit of the F.D.A. is intended to reduce your consumption of certain of the golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.” In the “canon wars” that raged on campuses and beyond in the 1980s —with multiculturalists feuding with traditionalists — Mr. Poirier faulted both sides.
For Mr. Poirier the act of writing — in particular the tradition of American writing that ran from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Wallace Stevens — was an assertion of individual power.
An advocate of “reading in slow motion,” Mr. Brower asked, simply: “What is it like to read this?”
Mr. Poirier took this question seriously. In painstakingly close readings, he showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote.
Mr. Poirier cherished self-contradiction. He helped enshrine the nation’s literary classics at the Library of America, but he also wrote that “works of art are not required to exist. There is nothing outside of them that requires their existence. If Shakespeare had never existed we would not miss his works, for there would be nothing missing.”
Literature was not sacred or even necessary. But it mattered enormously, because, at its most potent, it insisted that we not take ourselves, or our words, for granted. “We ought to be grateful to language,” Mr. Poirier wrote, “for making life messier than ever.” Or, as Wallace Stevens put it in a poem Mr. Poirier quoted again and again, “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.”
Filed under: reading
My new website is live and ready to go. I’m going to stop posting here, and start posting through the website, where all the previous posts have been moved, so after a few days, I won’t be visiting this separate blog any more. Join me at saraparetsky.com
Filed under: reading
Of one’s own death, what happens to all your emails, websites, blogs, bank accounts and bills with online only access? Searching for another topic, I came on a nifty article in Time Magazine, “How to Manage your online life when you’re dead.” There are several companies now that will store your details–passwords, and so on. They’ll check in with you periodically to see if you’re still alive, and if some number of e-mails go unanswered, they’ll release your information to a designated recipient–who has to present your death certificate in order to get access to your files.
I’ve actually often wondered about how my husband or estate would tell American Express and everyone else to cancel my accounts. These services seem to provide the answer. Now, all we can do is hope that they’re not run by enterprising 28-year-old hackers like Albert Gonzalez. Who, I gather, is not related to another criminal mastermind, a former US attorney general of (almost) the same name–Alberto Gonzalez was one of the key promoters of Bush’s policies on torture.
Filed under: reading
The New York Times Magazine has an essay of mine this morning in the “Lives” section. It’s about my husband’s and my experience with the French health system, with a side look at a French student of French eating disorders.
Filed under: U S Politics
A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost–in every major city there’s a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who’ve vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on people, making them grave and thoughtful. I never feel more fully engaged with the people I meet than I do in Germany.