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Sibylla ti theleis

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For Kat Allison
la migliore fabbra

 

I. The Burial of the Dead

–Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

 

Ray married his second wife in the upstairs chapel of an Episcopal church; the pastor said it was the oldest part of the building, now used only for small weddings and the occasional youth group event. It seated thirty. He and Stella had six guests -- eight, if you counted the little kids, which Ray did not.

His mother cried. Well, he was divorced and marrying a Protestant; of course his mother cried. Francesca cried. They were running out of unmarried relatives; her chances to wear a fancy dress and stand up in front of everyone she knew were getting fewer and farther between as it was, and Ray was cheating her out of one more. Maria cried. She was pregnant again; she cried all the time anyway. Gillian didn't cry; she'd only been married to Stella's father for five years and didn't know Stella all that well.

Ray cried. He started on "Dearly beloved" and didn't have his shit together until sometime around "I thee wed." After it was finished, when their six guests retired to Ray's house for dinner, Ray and Stella stayed behind, sitting in the back row of the wooden pews. He held her hand in both of his and bowed his head over them while she stroked his back without saying a word, and he cried more. He'd only been out of the hospital for ten days, and it had been hell to stand up straight even through a short service like that; he had pain blossoming up from something soft and half-mended in his gut all the way through his chest, and he felt like something a lot less than a whole human being, at a time when it would've been nice to feel like a man.

He hit his knee on the pew in front of him when he turned in place to put his hand on her hair and kiss her. There were little pins with nubbly pearls in her hair, smooth stones that made dents in his fingertips, and she inhaled deeply when his mouth touched hers and stirred against him, and her teeth felt hard against his lip, the heel of her pump hard where it tapped against his ankle. It was like he was one huge, exposed nerve, raw and fragile and weak. He curled his fingers, catching her hair out of its upsweep and pressing his forehead against hers. She pushed his hands together and folded hers around them and said, "I was still going to be here, you know. We could have waited until you were well again. I'm not going anywhere."

"No, I know," he said. "That wasn't why."

"Don't be macho," she said. "I don't cope well with macho; macho is a real problem for me."

He laughed and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his new suit and said, "Do I look macho to you?"

"Yes," she said, and the word burst out of her strangely, as if she'd tried to stifle it, and when he pulled back to look at her, she was smiling softly. "You look so brave," she said, wiping his face with the tips of her fingers.

 

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see.

Everybody loves Ray's wife. Mrs. V, they call her, and they smile back whenever she smiles at them, these hard guys with their big hands and their squinting, suspicious eyes. They even let her see their cards.

"You ever get tired of this," Jackie Domino says, pointing directly at Ray with his cigar so there's no question what this he's talking about, "you just let me know, okay?" Jackie always wears a Rolex that's too small for him, cutting into the flesh around his thick wrists, little white grooves. That's what Ray loves about hard guys. They don't give a shit what anyone thinks, except when they do.

"Thank you, Jackie," Stella says sweetly. She puts on her sunglasses as she's turning to face Ray, who's got his glass cleaner and his rag and is making his way through the layer of butter condensation on the inside of the popcorn machine. "I'll be back by the time we open for the evening," she tells him.

"No rush," Ray says. He can unlock the doors by himself, after all. The night crew, mostly high school kids, comes in at 4:30. The leagues come in to warm up at a quarter to six.

It's almost three o'clock now. Ray keeps an eye on the time, because Stella is supposed to be gone by the time Amber Gardino gets here at three.

Stasi Milankovich cashes out right away. Straight pretzel sticks are worth a hundred dollars, the heart-shaped ones are five. He takes out a roll of cash and peels off what he owes, which is maybe four grand this afternoon. He's Pavel Milankovich's nephew, so normally they'd have to let him win, but the old man says, So if he's gonna gamble, let him lose. We'll see how much sense he's got, yeah? Apparently not much sense. He comes in here every afternoon, and he loses almost every afternoon. He doesn't seem to care; he can certainly afford it.

Ray is unlocking the front door to let Stasi out of the building when Gardino's Mercedes pulls into the lot. She parks across two spaces; Ray suspects she'd do the same if the bowling alley were open and the lot was filling up. He knows he would, if he had her car.

Gardino's just a kid, maybe twenty-four, twenty-five, and she's got tattoos all down her calf and ankle, spilling out from under the hem of her tight capri pants, and when she wears her dark curls up like this, Ray can see the hint of another one on the back of her neck where the collar of her jacket slopes low. Ray doesn't know what gets into girls lately, that they have to go around marked up like longshoremen. As soon as he thinks it, he can't believe how old he is.

He puts an arm around her shoulder as she comes through the door, ignoring her wide grin and Stasi's crooked smirk. He can feel the slight rise of a wide strap underneath her jacket, her shoulder holster.

The mobsters who gamble in the afternoons in Ray's bowling alley are big fans of his wife. Some of them nod at Amber as she passes them by, but mostly they keep their eyes on their cards and pretend she isn't there.

Ray hears Tolly Dixon say something as he's unlocking the office door, but he can't quite make out what. "Yeah, right," Jackie responds, louder. "Because there was that one week in 1982 where you didn't cheat on your wife at all."

"Yeah," somebody else says, "but have you seen Tolly's wife?" Everybody laughs.

He closes the door and locks it, then unlocks the top drawer of his desk and fishes under candy bar invoices for her envelope without saying anything. When he hands it over, she sticks it in the back waistband of her pants without looking at it, and the jacket moves aside so that Ray can see the holster, and the glint of her badge pinned to it. "You holding up?" she asks. "Can we do anything for you?"

She's just a kid, younger than Ray's baby sister. He can't believe anyone out there buys that he wants her more than he wants Stella, but on the other hand, Ray's been around the block and he can believe it. "Same old, same old," he says. "I used to know a Gardino. You got family in Chicago?"

"Not that I know of," she says. She sits down across the desk from him and looks expectant. Her whole face lights up when Ray pulls the Chinese checkers out of his desk and sets it up between them.

He likes Gardino; she's a nice kid. Better yet, he trusts her. So Ray's got her, and he's got his wife, and he's even got his own name, so it's practically like not being undercover at all.

It's about as much as he can handle, at this point in his life.

 

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?"

The Vecchios don't hire security for the alley because they don't have to. Ray can handle drunk high-school kids on his own, and no real trouble cuts within five miles of the place because of Milankovich. Anyway, there's no one but the snack bar kids to enforce the minor rules out front, and they get rattled easy, so Ray tries to keep one ear out for commotion at all times. There's usually at least one commotion a night.

"No dogs!" one of them is trying to insist, his voice high pitched and agitated. "We got health department rules -- we got a sign up."

Ray comes around the corner from the storeroom, wiping his hands on a towel from where a box of soda syrup leaked all over them, and he looks at the dog before he looks at the human, and he says, "Dief!" before he thinks.

Because of course if Dief's alive at all anymore, he's an old, old man, older than Ray, and this dog is all legs and eyes, practically a pup. It woofs at him, though, like it recognizes the name, and then cocks its head curiously, and Ray just stares at it. Stupid mistake, obviously, and he hasn't even thought about old Dief for years, but for a minute he was so sure, there's such a resemblance....

The dog whines and rolls onto its side, waving one front leg in the air and looking upside down at Ray pleadingly, like it needs popcorn or it might just die of starvation right here and now. "Truman," the man with the dog says in exasperation, prodding its soft belly with his toe. "Would you get up? I'm trying to act like you're not the emerging health hazard you so clearly are, so help out, huh?"

Ray looks up and doesn't recognize the man for a minute. No surprise, really; they never actually knew each other, though sometimes it seems like they must have. "Hi, Kowalski," he says.

"Hey," he says shortly, and then damned if he doesn't scratch his eyebrow with this thumbnail, almost just exactly the way Benny always used to. Damned if he doesn't. "You got a car?"

"How'd you get here?" Ray asks. What does that mean, does he have a car? Seven years since the one time they met each other, and he wants to borrow Ray's car?

"Walked." Ray really meant, how'd you get to Florida from wherever you're living now, Canada or wherever, but maybe the answer to that is walked, too. Ten years with Benny, maybe that's the kind of thing you find yourself doing. "Come on," Kowalski says. "Gimme a lift back to the hospital. He's been asking for you."

Ray flips the register keys to the assistant night manager and is out the door without another word, the dog following on his heels, Ray Kowalski following on the dog's.

 

II. A Game of Chess

 

yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues

On his wedding night, Ray laid awake and watched his wife sleep, lit by the golden glow of her bedside lamp -- their bedside lamp. She smelled like wedding flowers from the bouquet Franny had offered to press into a scrapbook for them, and like sugar frosting from the cake his mother had baked, and she was still wearing her pearl earrings and one stray pearl pin in her tousled hair. He imagined her as a mermaid, glistening wet with salt stars in her hair and pearls everywhere; he had lived in warmer climes, and coming back to Chicago now he saw it through different eyes, too cold and grey and with that pre-rot wetness to it like something that won't last much longer. He didn't want to go back to the desert, either. He lay there in the dark next to his sparkling-golden wife and thought of bright, tropical fish and sunlight and warm tradewinds.

She stirred once, let her eyes blink themselves open, and said, "Raimondo?" She'd begun calling him that when she heard his mother do it, and at first she'd said it with a tease in her voice, but the tease went away quickly, replaced by a husky tenderness that made the name shy and serious. They hadn't known each other very long, and still it had been long enough for so much between them to evolve.

"Si, Estella?" he said back. He still teased her with his tone. She was too serious by half; he didn't know if anyone had ever teased her at all before him. He liked the idea that he was her first...something.

"Do you want to tell me why you're staring at me?"

"I can't," he said simply. "There really aren't...words."

"All right," she said, and raised up her arm over his shoulders, drawing him down to her side. "All right," she said again, just a meaningless sound meant to soothe, and he wasn't trembling until she began to stroke his arm, and then he couldn't stop. But he didn't have to; with Stella, it felt like he didn't have to, and that was why he'd married her. Because he was wounded and tarnished and disillusioned and lonely, and she knew it, and she didn't care at all. "Just be still now," she murmured to him. "Just rest. You're home."

Even with his eyes closed, he could see the glow of Stella in the darkness, like one strand of Tahitian warmth in the Illinois chill.

 

"My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
"I never know what you are thinking. Think."

I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

 

It's not a good marriage. Ray knows this because he reads up, he reads all those relationship books written by women to find out what he's doing wrong. He never would have been caught dead doing that kind of thing before Stella, but then again he got divorced before Stella, and anyway his MO before her had always been that if you didn't care about doing it right you couldn't technically be doing it wrong. That wasn't a strategy that worked for much of anything, and he certainly didn't think it was going to work for keeping a smart, sexy, damn near perfect lady like Stella happy.

So he studies up, and he's learned that they don't have a very good marriage, on account of their poor communication. Ray can't really help that. They married old, and Ray has baggage he doesn't want to talk about anymore. Stella has a first marriage that he doesn't want to talk about either -- not a youthful indiscretion thing like him and Angie, who were married for three years and two weeks in the mid-80s, but a real marriage that lasted eighteen years. Eighteen years! Stella and Ray Kowalski got married before Amber Gardino was even born, that's how deep the roots of that go.

He calls Stella from the hospital. "Where on earth did you run off to?" she asks. She's not pissed off at him; she's not that type of wife. She really just can't imagine the answer and is probably dying of curiosity.

Ray looks over his shoulder. Kowalski is holding his paper coffee cup between both hands, tipping his face down over it like you do in the winter when you're trying to keep warm. It's a little chilly in the hospital lobby, but not that chilly. Maybe that's just how you always drink your coffee in the Yukon. "Long story," he says. "I'm at the hospital visiting somebody."

"Who?" she asks sharply. All the mobsters love Stella, and Ray thinks that in her own way she has a little bit of love for all of them. He thinks maybe you don't get to be the top prosecutor in Chicago without having a certain gift for crawling into the skulls of some very bad men. She wouldn't cop to it, not at all, but Ray thinks she's crawled into all of them deep enough to miss them when they trip up and disappear.

"Nobody you know." The lie just jumps right out of him before he even thinks about it. Ray winces to himself. He's such a rotten husband. He doesn't know what her mental block is about that, why she keeps right on thinking he's so meant for her. Normally she's pretty quick on the uptake.

"Okay," she says, clearly disappointed after having geared herself up to hear a really exciting story. "See you tonight, then. You coming back to work?"

"Nah," he says. "I'll meet you at home. Estella," he says quickly, before she can hang up, and she says,

"Si?" like it's the most ordinary thing in the world, like she's been answering like that to that name all her life.

"I love you," he says. It's not quite what he's thinking -- Ray doesn't think he even knows what it would feel like, if he ever said exactly what he was thinking -- but he means it anyway.

"Ah," she says wisely. "Si."

 

When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said--
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME

Some people's midlife crises take months to get through, years, but Stella had hers in one afternoon. She walked out of court, one more case where it counted whether you were searching for the knife, the fingerprints on the knife, or the severed head that got cut off with the knife, one more case where she'd spent half the first week arguing about whether or not there was even such a thing as the Mafia at all (Ray had scars he offered to let her use for evidence, but she just smiled sadly at that and leaned into him, her lips on his stubbly jaw). She just walked right down the steps, her Manolos clip-clopping on stone at a trot that Ray could barely keep up with walking, and she all of a sudden out of nowhere heaved her briefcase into a trimmed row of hedges.

"Baby?" Ray said uncertainly.

"Fuck them!" she yelled. A few pigeons took off, and a few tourists turned to look at her. Ray cast an evil eye at all of them, his best CPD nothing to see here expression. "FUCK THIS!"

She pulled out her earrings and tossed them away. She snapped off her necklace, a fine gold chain with a tiny ruby set into gold dangling from it. She dropped her Cartier watch on the ground in the middle of the street, walking directly through the traffic. Ray would have gone back for the necklace, at least, but he was busy trying to keep up with her and not get hit by an Escalade at the same time, and by the time he turned back, a bag lady had already scooped it up and added it to her collection of broken wooden hangers.

"Stella?" he said, catching up to her on the other side of the street, where she was kicking off her shoes.

She swung back to face him, her cheeks splotched with bright coral, her blue eyes bright with angry tears. "I hate this!" she yelled.

"I know, baby-- "

"No, no, you don't know! I hate this job, I hate this, I have always fucking hated this job!" She was panting, overworked and half wild, and Ray was almost afraid to touch her. But he did, taking her arms gently in his hands and pressing, just so she knew he was there. She lashed her head back and forth, trying to shake something loose, and pedestrians cut way around them like Ray was trying to take a crazy person back into custody. "You don't mean that," he said.

She looked up at him, her mouth set stubbornly under the un-retouched lipstick. "I do mean that," she said. "You have to understand, Ray. My father -- I only had so many options. We all only have so many options. I thought law school was making the best of a bad thing. I thought I could sneak changing the world in there and my father would maybe not notice, because at least I was a lawyer. But it was never what I wanted, never half as much as I wanted, and I can't believe it's almost thirty fucking years later and I'm still doing it -- like what the fuck do I have to prove to my father now? And I hate this, I hate the bullshit and the politics and the picky, prissy little language and the lying and the fucking self-congratulations, I hate that most of all! I quit, Ray, I'm quitting! I don't want to go back, and I'm fucking rich, I don't have to!"

He started to laugh at that, and she stared at him in shock for a moment, and then she started to laugh, too, and she didn't cry until she started to laugh, so that she was doing both at once into the lapel of his jacket. He wrapped his arms tight around her and said, "No, baby. You don't have to."

Later that night, over a candlelight dinner at an Italian dive where the owner was the granddaughter of Ray's fourth-grade teacher, he asked her what she had really wanted to do with her life, if she'd been able to do whatever she wanted.

Stella raised her eyebrows and looked at him oddly, as if she couldn't believe he didn't know already. "Well, I wanted to be a cop, obviously," she said, and then she smiled, wry and giddy and beautiful.

"Oh, yeah," he said, because it was kind of obvious, once he stopped to think about it.

When the FBI called about Milankovich, he took the job without asking Stella, because he didn't need to ask Stella. It was in the beginning of December, and he thought of it kind of like an early Christmas present for her.

They were in Florida by New Year's.

 

III. The Fire Sermon

 

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.

 

Kowalski's not real good with hospitals. Maybe it's the smell, or the stupid bureaucratic obstacle course, or maybe he just doesn't cope so good in general, but he seems to mostly hang around, pushing chairs from one side of the room to the other and snarling at people who try to take his dog away.

Ray finds just the right orderly and just the right bill to cross his palm with, and he gets a minute with Fraser's chart. He's no expert, but he's been in hospitals before, and he knows the basics. He returns the chart and then says to Kowalski, "Why'd you have him moved all the way down here?" Fraser had been in a hospital in the Yukon for seven days, being treated for hypothermia and a whole shitload of shot from a sawed-off 12-gauge in his gut.

"Better Jell-O," Kowalski says. "Why do you think? He wanted to see you. He thinks he's gonna die."

"Well, if he thinks he's gonna die, he probably is." Ray says it without thinking, easily, and only regrets it when he glances up and sees Kowalski, white and hot-eyed with his fists clenched, and he thinks if Kowalski had spent maybe just one more year going feral up in Canada, he'd be knocking Ray down and tearing out his throat with his teeth right now. "Sorry," Ray says gruffly.

But he's seen this before, so many times. You can die fighting sometimes, but you always die once you start putting your affairs in order, once you make peace with it.

Ray looks through the window, into Fraser's room. He's still knocked out, the morphine dripping steadily through the tube in his arm. He looks pretty good, for a guy with about two thirds of a stomach left. "What happened?" Ray asks.

"Does it matter?" Kowalski says. He sounds tired for the first time so far. Ray turns his head and sees him slumped against the wall, Truman thumped down protectively over his feet. "The same wildly improbable bullshit as ever, except he's slower than he used to be. I dragged him-- " He breaks off and scrubs his sleeve over his face, like he's trying to rub off any distinguishing features, like he's trying to rub himself out, and when he speaks again his voice is raspy. "I dragged him for three goddamn days to get to Medicine Hat. Medicine Hat, right? I thought maybe it was a good fucking omen or something."

"Did he get the guy?" Not that Ray cares, but Benny would. He thinks Stella would, too. People like Benny and Stella, that kind of thing matters to them.

"I did," Kowalski says grimly.

Ray looks back through the window. There really is Jell-O on the tray beside Fraser's bed, the spoon still in it and maybe one or two bites gone. Ray remembers that when his father was in the hospital, he refused to eat hospital food at all. He had Ray's mother smuggling in lasagne and tortellini and cheesecake in her handbag so he didn't starve to death.

"Let him starve," Ray remembers saying. "He gets hungry enough, he'll eat, or he'll starve." His mother began crying and guilting him in Italian at the same time, and Ray yelled, "He's gonna die anyway, he wants to die! He wouldn't drink until his insides were rotten from top to bottom if he didn't want to die, so let him!"

Ray was the only one in the room with his father when he finally gave up and just fucking died already. Everybody else in the family said, oh, they wished they'd been there, they wished they'd been there to say goodbye. Ray wished he hadn't been there. It's hard not to feel sorry for a man while you're sitting there with your whole life ahead of you, twenty-two years old and free for the first time in your life, and he's dying in front of your eyes. It's hard not to feel sadness, and Ray never wanted to feel anything for his father. He wanted to stay home and think, good riddance.

Waiting for Vecchio's father to die was maybe the only time the two of them had ever been in agreement about anything.

Ray puts his hand against the glass. Benny looks strangely alive, his color good, his breathing slow but deep and steady. He looks okay.

Ray doesn't want him to die. He wishes he knew whether or not they were in agreement.

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

burning

The first time Ray lied to his contact was the night of the Vincent-Hemingway title fight, when they called to find out what he knew about Danny Niccolo. "Nah, nah," Vecchio said lightly, "that's crazy. Dead? You're nuts. You guys gotta get better sources. I got Danny running an errand in Kansas City. Who told you he was dead?"

Who found the body? is what he was really thinking.

But nobody found the body, not ever. Danny Niccolo disappeared en route to Kansas City, as far as everyone who didn't need to be concerned with it knew. Even Ray didn't know what happened to the body, because he didn't ask.

Putting a hit on somebody wasn't at all the way Ray thought it would be. You didn't have to do anything, really. You certainly didn't have to know anything. Somebody comes and tells you that Danny Niccolo is running bets he shouldn't be running, not going through DaCosta, and DaCosta wants to know who the fuck's side the Iguanas are on, and all you have to do is sit there in front of your sixty inch plasma tv screen watching the Hemingway get the snot beat out of him and sip your buttermilk and say, Somebody please assure Mr. DaCosta that we're gonna make things right. And that night, lo and behold, a man is dead, and the FBI wants to know what you know about what they've heard.

Nothing, you say. Far as I know, nobody's dead at all.

Far as you know, nobody is. You called Danny Niccolo's service and left him a message asking him to pick up a package for you in Kansas City. If he got the message, if he left for Kansas City, if he ran into some trouble on the way, these are things you can't possibly know. You were home watching the fight.

That's how easy it is to have a person killed when you're Armando Langoustini.

Of course, Armando Langoustini is dead himself now. Now there's just Ray Vecchio, a crooked ex-cop from Chicago who doesn't run anything at all. He just has crimelords over to his place and takes a small cut of their illegal gambling earnings, and he takes a few notes and hands them over to his contact, and it's all practically like being any other small businessman where Ray comes from; a few degrees to the right and one dead second cousin to will him a bowling alley like it says in his cover story, and Ray could have been the Ray Vecchio he says he is.

He takes a few notes, he hands them over to Amber Gardino, who's way too young to be a Fed in Ray's humble opinion, but she's a good girl and he trusts her. He hears a lot more that he doesn't write down. He hears a lot of things (because he's nobody, he just runs the place and takes his money in cash, and they never think about him when they start to talk) that he doesn't tell his contact, or his wife, or his mother, or his priest. No one at all. Ray knows where a lot more bodies are buried than he ever hoped to know.

Not Danny Niccolo's. But other bodies.

Sometimes he wonders if they understand, the Feds, or whoever it is who thinks these operations up for a living. When they put a guy in there and they say, tell us everything you know, they don't really think he does tell them everything, do they? Because that's pretty clearly fucking suicide, isn't it? Ray doesn't think he's breaking any rules that they don't expect him to break right from the beginning.

He thinks he's good at his job. He wasn't a great detective, but this, this he can do. And he's got this wife (Stella Vecchio, she was a biology teacher back in Chicago, and if anyone knows there was ever an ASA named Stella Kowalski, the Vecchios have certainly never heard of her) who thinks he's some kind of hero or something, some kind of great crusader for truth and justice, this wife who's smarter and richer and better looking and more successful in every possible way at every possible thing than Ray could ever be, who looks at him with blue, blue eyes and thinks he's just as good as her, thinks maybe he's done more good than she has in life.

Ray doesn't know about that.

He knows for sure he's done more harm. He kind of hopes that whether you go to heaven or hell is decided by some kind of jury, because he knows for sure that Stella will be there arguing for him, and she's always been very good with juries.

 

IV. Death by Water

 

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

 

Visiting hours end at nine, but Truman growls when the nurses try to bring up that topic of conversation. "I don't think the wolf is ready to go home yet," Ray says.

"Wolf?" the nurse says, shocked.

"She's a quarter wolf," Kowalski says quickly, shooting Ray a glare. He rubs Truman's muzzle and says, "Mostly malamute. Sled dog. Perfectly safe, safe with babies."

"Don't you listen," Ray murmurs a little later on, slipping her half a cold Hostess lemon pie from out of the vending machine. "You're a killer. You got those instincts, I can see it in your eyes."

"Tru," Kowalski says, his voice thick and tired, "quit taking food from strangers. This is America; we got all kinds down here. Not you," he says to Ray. "Just a general rule."

When Kowalski falls asleep, Truman hops up on the chair next to him and sticks her head through the arm to lay it on his thigh. She must be on guard duty, because Ray can't tempt her away then, not even with Kit-Kats, and those were Diefenbaker's favorite.

He wakes up just for a minute when a nurse comes back in to tell them that Fraser has regained consciousness. Ray looks to Kowalski for a minute, whose eyes are only opened to fragments. "You go," he says, his words slurring. "He's been listening to my voice for years, he don't need to hear from me."

He sits down by Fraser's bed, and Fraser doesn't seem even a little bit surprised to realize it's him. "Hello, Ray," he says.

"So," he says, "give it to me straight, I can take it. You're in perfect health, aren't you?"

"Fit as a fiddle, Ray." Benny smiles at him, the same smile as always.

"You know, Benny," Ray says, "you really don't need a special occasion to make the trip down here. You can just drop by next time."

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

They talk about a lot of things, and on the other hand, about not much at all. Fraser is having trouble speaking, slow and full of places to catch his breath, but the morphine doesn't seem to have made him stupid at all. They talk about health care, and Fraser says, "Apparently there's some concern...that importing...prescription drugs from Canada may be...unsafe. Which is...ridiculous. Canadian drug companies wouldn't...poison...anyone. Even Americans."

"Well, you know, you guys used to just be Canada," Ray says. "Now you're foreigners."

"Tell me about Stella," Fraser says. Ray wonders if he's been working his way up to that. "What's...what's she like?"

"She's, uh." Tell him about Stella. He's been married to her for seven years now, and he knows her like seventy times seven, it feels like. He knows her so well he doesn't know where to begin. "Like what do you want to know?" he finally asks.

"I'm just...curious. Ray doesn't like to talk about her. And...you both...fell in love with her. So she must be very remarkable." Fraser smiles, or almost smiles, just the corner of his mouth. Ray suspects it's the same smile he'd give if he really were fit as a fiddle. "Or...very dangerous."

"You're a cynical, cynical man, Benny," Ray laughs.

"I think..." Fraser says slowly, "that I've had hard luck with love."

Ray looks down. The corners of the bedding are tucked in tightly, stretching the sheet flat across Fraser's body, pinning him down. That would drive Ray fucking crazy, but Benny is a man used to bundling himself into tight spaces. "Yeah," he says. "I guess I'd say you have."

"Stella," Fraser reminds him after a long silence.

"Right. Well, Stella, I guess what you can say is, she's a lot like you are."

"Like I am? How...am I?"

Ray shrugs. How is Fraser? In twenty-five words or less? "You know," he says. "A true believer."

"So," he says after another long silence. "You found someone...who reminds you of me."

"I guess I did," Ray says tersely. Okay, you know, this is what it is, and it's clear what it is, and what's to talk about now, after all these years?

It's nothing personal, Benny, he said, I'm just not wired that way, but of course what he meant was God dammit, why did you have to be everything perfect except for this one thing? And Benny said, Oh, of course, Ray, I understand completely, but of course what he meant was It would be wrong to hold it against you that you've broken my heart.

"What about out there?" Ray asks, jerking his thumb toward the window. Maybe Kowalski is still out there sleeping in his chair with his dog's chin perched attentively on his knee and maybe he's not, but either way Benny surely knows what he's talking about. "Is that more hard luck?"

"Ah," Fraser says. "That's...complicated."

"Isn't it always," Ray says, although that's just a sympathetic sickbed lie. It isn't always. With him and Stella, it's not complicated at all. Inexplicable, maybe, but not complicated.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

"Don't forget me," Fraser says.

"Stop it."

"Just say that...you won't...."

"I won't say that. I won't say one damn word to make this easy on you, because it shouldn't be easy. Why the fuck should dying be easy on you? It's hell on everyone around you. So as a matter of fact, I will forget you. I plan on it. Immediately, actually. In fact, you better hope I don't get hungry, because if I go down to the cafeteria, I may not remember my way back up here."

"You do always...keep me...from getting too sentimental. Ray. My father...always said...there's not much past fifty, anyhow."

"Well, I never met your father, but I got a hunch he was kind of a blowhard."

"That he was, Ray. I haven't heard from him...in the longest time.... I miss him, actually. I actually do miss him."

"That's what you do with dead people."

In a way, Ray misses them all. Danny Niccolo. Louis Gardino. Irene Zuko. His father. The dead bodies he got called out of bed to come stand in the street and look at. The boys he only knew by name, and the stories of who cleaned them up and how. Armando Langoustini. All of them. Guilty, not guilty, no lo contendre. Heaven, hell, just hanging around. All of them.

He can't believe, once he starts toting it all up in his head, how many dead people there are in his life. "I'm gonna blame you if you die," Ray says. "Nobody else, Benny. Just you."

"I didn't shoot...myself, Ray," he says, a little haughtily.

"Shake it off. You've done it before."

"It doesn't get...easier...with practice. Rather the reverse...in fact."

"Well, I'm a perverse bastard. I'm gonna blame you anyway."

 

V. What the Thunder Said

 

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapped in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-- But who is that on the other side of you?

 

Ray leaves the hospital after midnight. Kowalski is standing outside in the ambulance bay, sucking hard on a cigarette, with three more butted out on the cement around his feet. "Benny lets you smoke?" he can't help saying.

"I quit, I quit," Kowalski mutters, almost to himself. "I quit when I went undercover. You don't smoke."

"Makes my eyes burn."

"Yeah. So I quit. But, you know, it's like drinking. You quit, but you don't ever quit. You always want it."

Stella doesn't drink. Not one drop, except to wet her lips when there's a toast. "You quit drinking?" Ray asks, not that it's any of his business, except that suddenly he's wondering if Stella doesn't drink, or if Stella quit drinking. It's easy to forget how much he doesn't know about his own wife, how much shit of her own she's swept quietly under the rug, just like he has.

Kowalski laughs shortly. "I wasn't an alcoholic. I just drank too much. There's a difference."

A part of him wants to stay and ask more. A part of him wants to.... Well, this is the man that Stella thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with. This is the man that Benny did spend the rest of his life with. A person can't help but be curious. "He's gonna be fine," Ray tells him.

"That's not what you said before," Kowalski reminds him.

"Yeah, well." He reaches down and absently scratches that finger-shaped groove at the top of Truman's muzzle, right there almost between her eyes where Diefenbaker used to like to be rubbed. "I can't tell the fucking future, okay?"

"Is she good?" Kowalski asks him when he starts to walk away. When Ray turns back, he shrugs and drops the cigarette he's holding onto the ground to step it out. "Is she -- you know, you don't have to be really specific. Good, bad, indifferent?"

"Good," Ray says. "She's good. She quit her job."

"Yeah," Kowalski says. "I heard that. Which is good, because, you know, she never liked it all that much."

"She shoulda been a Mountie instead," Ray says.

Kowalski laughs, hoarse but honest. "Yeah," he says, sounding pleased by that idea. "She shoulda been a Mountie."

what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries

He drew up a will before he left for Vegas, and he was shocked to realize how little he actually owned. Most of the things Ray thought of as his were really family things that technically belonged to his mother, things that he'd heard promised to the oldest son so often that he forgot they hadn't been handed over yet. From the house to the silverware to Uncle Mario's rare coin collection, it was all stuff that was meant for him but belonged to someone else.

He had the car, which he willed to Tony and Maria, in spite of how thinking about them hauling their puking kids to ballet practice in his Riviera gave Ray hives. At least he trusted the Riv; that thing would run forever, baring catastrophe (what were the chances?), and those puking kids were his niece and nephew, so they needed something safe and dependable.

He had his father's pool table, which he willed to the community center, because that would really have pissed his father right off.

He had his grandfather's pocket watch, but he was taking that with him, and Ray figured that if he turned out to need the will, whatever was left of him was not too likely to surface with the watch still intact. But he willed that to Fraser anyhow, which, the way Ray figured it, was kind of like an insurance policy. Because if he popped up disappeared in Las Vegas and got declared dead, and if they read Fraser this will saying his Grandfather Vecchio's hundred-and-ten-year-old gold pocket watch that he smuggled out of Mussolini's Italy inside the one mattress they let him take on the boat, this watch he was now gonna give to his dear friend Fraser -- well, Benny would've bought himself a bus ticket that afternoon and come to Vegas looking for that watch. The way Ray figured it, that might be the only way anyone ever went to enough trouble to find out what happened to him.

But mostly what he had was a lot of nothing. Fraser probably had more in his will. But then again, Fraser probably put everything in his will -- boots and hat and Bowie knife and his beaver-fur toothbrush, the whole enchilada. Fraser was a waste-not kind of guy.

When Ray left Chicago, he snuck out while his best friend's back was turned. Because what if Benny said, you're crazy, you're no good at the job you do have, you think a cop like you who can't bust a doughnut ring is gonna take on the Mafia in Las Vegas, you think a nobody like Ray Vecchio can be a somebody like Armando Langoustini?

And then again, what if he had said, how simply marvelous, Ray, Godspeed and remember the Queen?

Back then, when Benny was the only thing of Ray's that had any value at all, it's hard to say which would have been worse.

He had a king-sized bed in Vegas, with green satin sheets, and it felt like a whole room, no matter how wide he sprawled and how much of it he tried to take up.

He'd gone to bed every night thinking, I could die tomorrow. This could be the last time between green satin sheets, the last nightcap of my life, the last pair of pajamas I ever put on. There were some nights he thought about spiking his nightcap with something extra, something to put him to sleep so he wouldn't wake up again. Looking back now, he really can't remember why: guilty conscience? He was lonely undercover? Cleaner, less painful death than the ones that ended with his eyeballs being chewed out by fishes?

Looking back now, Ray can't really remember why it seemed so important to go to Las Vegas, even when he felt sure he was going to die there. He drives the long way home, around the shore highway, and he wracks his brain trying to remember. All he can come up with is, at that point in his life, owning nothing, owing no one, with nothing much to be proud of, it had seemed like a better death than wired up to a hospital bed with his liver in a jar in some lab and a slab of his mother's cheesecake sitting beside him.

All he knows is that he can make himself not give a fuck how he lives, but he's always cared how he's gonna die. He wonders if Fraser's the other way around. He wonders if Fraser, who always expected more from his life than you'd think anyone could ever live up to, is happy lying trussed up in an antiseptic hospital room in Tampa with a six-inch needle stuck in his arm and two sad Mandarin oranges floating in his Jell-O, if this is just A-okay to Fraser, as good a way to check out as any other.

"Asshole," Ray mutters. He can see the white lines on the road through his tears, if he really focuses right on them. He can just stay in his own lane. "Asshole, go back and die in the snow where you belong."

Ray might be setting himself up to get killed with the life he leads now, too, but at least he's not doing it because he hasn't got anything better lined up.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

All the lights are on in Ray's bedroom when he gets home. Stella is lying on top of the bed, all the covers tucked in except an old quilt from one of the estate sales where Stella likes to collect old, dead Jewish people's antiques. She's wearing a peach nightgown, and she's let the latest trashy novel she's reading lie upside down over her stomach. It has a drawing on the front of a stick-figure girl floating in a bright pink martini glass, and Ray guesses he can't begrudge it to her. Everybody has their secret sins.

She opens her eyes when he tries to shift her gently from the middle of the bed to her side. She doesn't say anything to him, and he reaches across her to turn off the light and notices the cordless handset from the kitchen on the bedside table, something that would only be in here if she'd carried it in talking. She curls against him in the darkness. He follows the pattern of the lace inset on her nightgown's neckline with his fingertip.

"Stella," he says.

"Shh," she says. "Rest."

"Stel, I lied to you-- "

"I know. Ray called me."

He holds her tightly against him and tries to think what he can do to change things. He wants to live; he's never wanted to live like he wants it now, and he just wishes, it just seems like surely there's some way to explain it to Benny, to make him see it all the way Ray does. Maybe Benny has a guilty conscience of his own still, maybe he's lonely, maybe he's scared of getting old and being put out to Mountie pasture for someone else to look after til he gets around to dying; maybe anything seems better than that. Maybe he's just broken inside somehow, all that hard luck, all the ways he gave to everyone else and never held enough back in reserve for an emergency situation like this. Maybe he just misses his father and his fucking dog, how the hell should Ray know? But right now Ray is falling asleep under his antique quilt with his sweet, golden wife (not his first love, but God, his best by far) in his arms, too many dead bodies behind him and too many mistakes waiting to be made ahead of him, but still peaceful at this particular moment, and he wants Benny to have this. More than anything, he doesn't want Benny to give up before he gets to this. Because sometimes it doesn't exactly happen in the springtime of life; sometimes it's kind of a hike, from there to here.

He's too tired to tell her all of this, but he bends over his wife's ear and says, "He could pull through if he fights, but you shoulda seen him, baby. He was just lying there, just talking like everything was normal -- killing time, you know? No fight in him at all."

"He'll live," Stella says.

"Yeah?" Ray says. He's grasping at straws now, and he'll take her word for it if that's all he has, even if she's just trying to be good to him.

With a little laugh in her voice, she says, "I've met Fraser's partner. He doesn't give up easily."

He thinks he'll make her waffles in the morning, with chocolate chips in them. They're getting old, after all, and he won't say that life is getting any easier, but it matters to him more and more that they choose to be happy in it.