I’ve killed three men in my life. One the police know about, two that I’ve kept to myself. For the fourth time in three months, I had blood on my hands, and all the forgotten images of the dead were swirling back to me.
This time, however, I wasn’t doing the killing. I was in the middle of Easton Ave., trying to pump life back into a man I used to drink with for hours on end.
He was bleeding from the nose and mouth. He wasn’t breathing. I could feel his ribs crunch with every compress of my hands on his chest.
I couldn’t yet hear the ambulances and Robert Wood Johnson Hospital was right down the street.
I yelled, “Someone call nine-one-one!”
But I knew it was too late, and Gerry was gone. Dead bodies look different from live ones. I should know.
The Olde Towne Tavern was pretty crowded for a late Monday afternoon. Standing in the back, under a dimming Budweiser neon light, two college kids played pool. To my left, leaning against the stained wooden wall, two guys discussed baseball and the greatest American rock and roll band at the same time. It was impressive. A young couple sat at a dirty table finishing their lunch. Gerry sat next to me, and bought me a Heineken. He had his cup of coffee, and the breath to go with it.
We were celebrating.
“Accepted, huh? Gonna be a freshman at twenty-seven years old?”
“Whatever. It’s still old to go to college. But I’m proud of ya. Can’t keep this private eye stuff up all your life.”
“Hey, I have to pay tuition somehow.” Not that I was getting many cases lately. When your face is plastered all over the news and most of it isn’t good, the clients aren’t exactly knocking down your door.
I decided to come to the tavern for lunch today after getting my mail. I pulled out one of those big envelopes that high school seniors pray for. Opening it up, I found a letter that began, “Dear Mr. Donne, We are pleased to announce your acceptance to Rutgers University . . .” Best news I’d had in two months.
I drank my beer and Gerry blathered. Eventually, my burger would show, I could eat and get out of here. Gerry’s a nice guy, but grating when he starts to get a rant on.
“Never went to college myself. Had a war to fight. Fucking Korea.”
“I remember, Gerry.”
Gerry talked about two things. Korea and his former life as an actor.
“So, tell me about this college thing. What are you going to do? When are you going to start?”
I finished my beer, still waiting for Artie to bring me my burger.
“Probably start next fall. In September, once I get all of the tests out of the way.”
Gerry shook his head.
“You have to take an entrance exam. See what classes you can take,” I said.
“Then what? You take your classes? Get a B.S. Ha! Get a B.S. in BS.” He slapped himself on the leg, let out a short chuckle.
I gave him a smile. “Probably be an English major.”
“How’s that going to help you? What can you do with an English degree?”
He plunked ten bucks on the bar as Artie finally brought my burger.
“Well, Jackson,” Gerry said, “I best be going. Gotta get home.”
I heard the door swing open behind me and he was gone. I poured some ketchup on my burger as Artie flipped a switch behind the bar. The Stones popped on over the speakers, “Beast of Burden.”
“That guy doesn’t shut up. Been coming here since I bought the place,” Artie said with a grin. “I love that guy.”
I took a bite of my burger.
In New Jersey, especially a busy town like New Brunswick, there is a lot of traffic. Brakes squeal all the time. So I chewed and swallowed, listening to the Stones, until I heard the crunch. Like metal hitting something hard. Artie and I made eye contact just before the screaming started.
I dropped the burger, bolted out the door.
It was a warm day for mid-April, most people walking around in T- shirts and jeans. The sun heated my skin and stabbed into my eyes as I made the adjustment from the darkness of the bar to the bright afternoon. People stood on the sidewalk, staring. Some young coed screamed. No one was moving.
In the middle of the road Gerry lay in a prone position. Blood streaked down his face. His eyes were closed. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
Traffic had stopped in Gerry’s direction, one car about twenty feet from him. It didn’t have a dent in it.
“I can’t believe the guy just drove off,” someone was saying.
I raced into the street, I knelt next to Gerry, my knees digging into the asphalt.
“Someone call nine-one-one!” I yelled.
It had been too long since I’d trained in CPR. Four years since I was a cop, too long since I’d had to do anything remotely like this. I’d been surrounded by too much death over the past few months, and not enough ways to save life. I hoped muscle memory would kick in.
Pressing my fingers to Gerry’s neck, I tried for a pulse. I didn’t feel anything. Then I turned my head, put my ear to his nose and mouth. He wasn’t breathing. Gerry was in trouble.
I opened his mouth, shut his nose, and breathed twice into his mouth. His blood pasted my face, and something told me I was doing the procedure wrong. I didn’t care. His chest went up and then let the air out. No other reaction.
Down Easton Ave., horns were honking. The sun beat on my neck, but it wasn’t the reason I was sweating.
I put both my hands on his chest and pumped five times. I didn’t know if the number was right. I didn’t know if anything was right. I was going on instinct.
I exhaled once more into his mouth.
I finally heard the sirens, the sound of ambulances, police, and fire. Someone must have called 911. When you call, they send everybody.
I pounded on Gerry’s chest until I felt someone wrap a hand around my arm and tug at me. I whirled and saw Artie staring at me.
“Let it be, man,” he said.
I tried to turn back to Gerry. Artie pulled harder.
“Let it be.”
I let him tug my arm, and I finally got to my feet. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to help Gerry anymore.
An ambulance swung around toward us off Somerset. Its siren was louder than the screeching tires.
Gerry’s chest didn’t rise or fall.
After about ten minutes, Artie couldn’t take it anymore. He turned and went back inside the bar, mumbling something about having customers to serve. Those customers were all standing outside with me, pint glasses in hand, watching the cops and EMS work. Not much talking going on. In fact, the only sounds were the whispering of the cops asking witnesses questions and a few horns honking down the street.
I stood and watched the EMS guys. They were doing what I had been doing, but nothing was working. One of them, a guy with a goatee and shaved head, was just watching. The other, a woman with a short bowl- cut hairdo and no makeup, was pumping Gerry’s chest. They were both shaking their heads. Finally, the bald guy and the driver got the stretcher, as the woman kept pumping. Two more pumps, and she stopped, wiping her brow. Making eye contact with her partner, she backed away and they lifted Gerry onto the stretcher. Checked his pulse one more time. Wheeled him into the ambulance, which pulled away without sirens. Gerry’s blood stained the street, a crusty dark red mark. The odor of asphalt and car exhaust permeated the air.
EMS workers can’t pronounce someone dead on the spot. They have to do everything they can to keep the patient alive. Even if the person is dead they have to put on the act. From what I could see, these guys didn’t try too hard.
Down the street, the cops were talking to a crying woman. They had one of those small, spiral notebooks out and were taking notes in blue pencil. A cop was nodding as the woman spoke, probably doing his best to be understanding through all her blubbering. Once the beat cops determined this was a hit-and-run, the plainclothes detectives would show up. If they heard I was here, they’d want to talk to me. I turned to one of the regulars and told him I’d be inside if the cops wanted to chat.
“Yeah,” he said, taking a sip from his glass. “You might want to wash up. Look like a goddamn vampire.”
First thing I did was hit the bathroom. Artie did his best to keep it clean, but it still smelled like someone had puked. The walls were a pale yellow, the toilet was white and chipped. The sink only ran cold water, and the mirror was cracked. I looked at the blood congealing on my face and hands and thought that even if I washed it off, I’d probably still feel its mark. I scrubbed harder.
By the time I returned, Artie had changed the music. The Band’s “The Weight” was playing while he wiped down the bar. I wondered if he felt the same way about the bar as I felt about the blood on my face: if he cleaned it, then all trace of Gerry would be gone.
“I love this song,” he said. I took a stool across from him at the bar. He got me another bottle of Heineken, popped the top, and put it in front of me.
I took a sip, listened to the music. I hadn’t heard the song in years. Let the laid-back rhythm sink in. “Good song.”
We listened to it play out.
When I finished my beer, Artie got me another. I let it sit. Something that sounded like Lou Reed came on. I wanted to ask who was singing, what the title of the song was, something to delay the inevitable, make some sort of small talk—even if I could guess all the song’s information. But Artie didn’t wait.
“So, what do you think?”
I picked up the beer, looked at it. Put it back down. “About the song?”
“Oh,” I said. “It didn’t look good.”
He shook his head. “Haven’t seen anything like that since ’Nam. One of us should have gone with the ambulance.”
“We’re not family,” I said. “It wasn’t our place.”
“We were the closest thing he had. You know that.”
“Fuck,” I said. I hated when Artie was right.
I took the first sip of my fourth beer of the day. It wasn’t even five o’clock.
This was the worst part. Waiting for the inevitable news you prayed wasn’t going to come. Most people try to talk around it, sit with a knot in their stomachs and pray. I hated that. Instead, I laid it all out on the table.
“He’s not going to make it. He wasn’t breathing. I don’t think EMS got him to start. He’s dead.”
“You don’t know that for . . .” Artie made eye contact with me. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Did the cops find the car?”
My beer was half-gone, and my stomach started to feel a bit light. I wished I had gotten a chance to eat the burger. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
This time it was Artie’s turn to put it out for all to hear. “Do you think it was an accident?”
He could wait while I finished off the beer.
Truth was, I didn’t know. Gerry did have some enemies. Six months ago, the manager of a theater Gerry used to act at paid his landlord to try and evict him. That way she could drum up some press about starving actors to bring in theatergoers who felt bad. I stepped in and talked to her and the landlord. When I was done, he kept his home. Last I heard, she’d sold the theater, moved out of state.
Artie put another Heineken in front of me. I didn’t touch it.
He said, “Are you going to look into it?”
“The police will.” Sweat dripped off the beer bottle onto the bar. “They’re already out there asking questions.”
“I don’t trust the cops. They’ll look at it as a hit-and-run accident. If they find the car, good for them, they’ll talk to whoever did it. Maybe put some sort of manslaughter charge on it.”
“Maybe it is just manslaughter.”
The beer looked lonely just sitting there. Artie had taken the empties away. The one green bottle made the bar look unprofessional and asymmetrical. I picked it up. Took a swig. The beer was still cold, tasted bitter going down. For the fifth, it should have been easier to drink.
Artie said, “If it is, I want to find out from you. And if it’s not, I’d like you to take care of that.”
“Are you trying to hire me?”
“That’s what it sounds like.” He mopped the condensation off the bar.
The rest of the beer went down a bit easier. I had a full buzz going on now.
“The cops can handle it. I don’t want to do this. I want to focus on getting this college shit straightened out.”
“You said you’d have to pay your way somehow.”
“I can do some insurance work. They’re still calling me.”
I spun the empty bottle on the bar. Artie caught it, took it away.
The bar door swung open, one of the regulars stuck his head in. “Cops are gonna be in to ask questions in a few, guys.”
Artie looked at me, said, “I don’t trust the cops, Jackson. But I do trust you.”
“Why do you care about this at all?”
“Why are you trying to act like you don’t care? You know Gerry came in here every day. Even after he stopped drinking. Even after his son died. He has no one else. We’re as close to family as it’s going to get. I think we owe it to him.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “All right. I’ll look into it. But first, get me another beer.”
Artie reached behind the bar. “I want to pay your standard rate. Draw up a contract and everything.”
“Fine,” I said, not willing to argue anymore.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from When One Man Dies by Dave White. Copyright © 2007 by Dave White. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.