The phone is already ringing when he walks inside. Frank knows this is a bad sign. He crosses the living room in two steps, leaping over the plastic-covered floral couch and snatching the phone off the wall with one hand.
“George?” he says hopefully, but the mouth breather in the other line is not his brother in law. His wife makes a face at him from the stove. “Oh, Sergeant Pattis. No, I hear you. Sure. Sure. Only it’s Sunday and my wife is making meatballs— Being a cliche doesn’t make it any less true, sir. All right.”
“You can’t go,” his wife says after he kisses her hello. “It’s my dad’s birthday.”
“Tomorrow.” Frank rifles through the junk drawer. He pockets matches, the bill he’s supposed to mail, and that coupon for the drugstore he can finally use.
“But he wants to see the kids tonight.”
“Who’s stopping him seeing the kids tonight? He doesn’t want to see my ugly mug tonight. He wants to see his beautiful daughter and angel grandkids.” There’s a crash from the garage that sounds like they’ve unearthed a wall. “Aren’t you teaching tonight?”
“It’s Sunday, Frank,” his wife says, in the same voice that she says, bras unhook outward .
“Right. Yeah. Sunday.” Frank grabs his raincoat and jimmies the back door five times. He really needs to fix that. He’ll call George. “But tomorrow’s your symposium?”
“Yes. You’re picking up Angie at three.”
“And Marco to dance class at four.”
“Five. You’d better solve this one fast.”
“No one I’m more scared of than Madame Dupont,” he promises, and steals a meatball for the road.
The crime scene is near the water, right by the good drugstore that has the only cold medicine Marco will deign to take. Frank cashes in his coupon, and picks up a couple cigars for the road. Of course the house is at the top of a hill. He’s panting halfway; it’s been months since he’s gone running. First it was Christmas, then his anniversary, and now somehow it’s spring and he got winded walking to the mailbox last week.
“Oh, Lieutenant Columbo,” says the deputy when he arrives, “you’ve already been to see the body?”
Frank looks down at his shirt. “This is marinara.”
The body is resting beside the pool; the spouse inside it, tanning on a float like the corpse of her husband isn’t lying two feet away.
It’s not difficult to engage her in small talk. The nitty-gritty of her flimsy alibi they can get to later: Frank’s interested in a comment she just made.
“Can you explain what you mean by that, ma’am?”
“What, that he was a homosexual?”
The officer beside him shifts weight, embarrassed. Frank is saddened by how easily she said was instead of is. “Uh, yes, ma’am. What makes you say that?”
She shrugs dismissively. “It wasn't a secret. He loved the opera. The ballet. He’s a snappy dresser — he would’ve cried at your ensemble, lieutenant — and takes longer in the shower than me.”
Frank says gently, “That doesn’t necessarily mean —”
“And he had many lovers, both female and male.”
Now that’s interesting. Frank and the officer beside him (Morales?) exchange a look. She writes infidelity down in her notebook, as if this points blame to the person in front of them.
Frank asks, “You wouldn’t be able to identify any of his current relationships, would you? If you’ll pardon my asking.”
The body’s wife laughs and tosses him today’s paper. A famous singer songwriter — Farrah Fawcett hair, Joan Crawford smile — grins toothily at him.
Ballet. Good dresser. Obsessive about his appearance . She could’ve been describing Marco. It’s only his height and good looks that have saved him from bullying so far, but he’s going into senior high school next year, and from the stories Angie tells, it’s not going to be easy.
Frank holds up the newspaper. “Can I take this with me?”
He stops at a deli on the way back to the station. The woman in front of him buys his coffee because he’s forgotten his wallet. He has the nagging feeling he knows her, but can’t place it. Then of course he finds his wallet in the opposite pocket a minute later. People jostle behind him. The A/C hums weakly but doesn’t do more than blow hot air at his neck.
“It always this busy in here?” he asks the teen behind the counter.
“Never on Sundays,” she promises him without looking up from a textbook. Interesting. Frank drops a couple bills in the tip jar on purpose.
He swings by the junior high on his way to Farrah-Fawcett-Joan-Crawford’s house. Marco speeds out the front. He dodges an obstacle course of backpacks and embracing couples with a grace and dexterity that makes Frank uneasy.
“Hey, Pop.” Marco crawls through the window because the passenger door doesn’t work.
“How was theater practice?”
“Rehearsal. And you know I’m doing set design.” He fumbles for the seat belt, used to his mother’s car, then remembers where he is. He settles his head against the seat. A couple kids jump when Frank starts the car. He knows it’s loud: at the precinct he has to warn people when he’s leaving. There have been bomb units that spurred into action upon hearing his ignition.
One of the lads jogs over to the car and taps on the window. Marco’s eyes snap open. The kid says through the window, You coming tonight?
Marco reddens, and jerks his head over to Frank. The kid nods, grins, and throws up a peace sign.
“Let’s go,” Marco hisses.
Frank complies. He’s pondering what the peace sign could mean — the hippie generation are now all married, parents, and homeowners — but from the way the flush lingers on his son’s cheeks, he has a pretty good idea.
“Seems like a lot of kids involved in this theater production,” he remarks.
Marco shrugs. “There’s other stuff going on too. Soccer practice. Detention. You know.”
They hurtle over a speed bump. The rear fender scrapes across something. This neighborhood used to be sticks and trees twenty years ago.
“Oh,” says Frank. “Detection or soccer. That explains it.”
Marco’s eyes slide over. He rolls down the window, drums his fingers against the sill.
“So was that young fella one of the soccer ones or the detention ones?”
“Because he didn’t look like one of the musical theater ones. Not that all performers look the same. Just he looked pretty muscular, you know what I’m saying?”
Marco glances heavenward in a grimace of pain usually only seen on Geneva Convention victims. “What’s mom making for dinner?”
“Is there noodles too?”
“Oh, right.” Frank slaps his forehead. “You’re a vegetarian now. I keep forgetting. Yes, there’s noodles. I think.”
“Is Uncle George coming over?”
“Not tonight. You’re going to your grandpa’s house for his birthday.”
Marco brushes back his hair. It’s getting long: he’s wearing it longer than Angie these days. Frank remembers giving Marco his first haircut in the kitchen — with a salad bowl over his head. They would sing nursery rhymes when he was younger (“ADCs, Dad! ADCs!”) and then list planet names when he was older. Now Marco hasn’t hugged Frank in months.
“Grandpa’s birthday is tomorrow.”
“I know that. You know that. But your grandpa has this superstition that you have to celebrate the day before in case everything goes wrong the day of.”
“It’s amazing he and mom are related.”
It’s true. Mary, the scientist, who won’t even change the chore chart without a properly proposed hypothesis.
Marco’s fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “So, like, how long is this party supposed to go?”
They’re at the intersection that takes forever. Frank turns off the car and lights a cigar. He knows they have at least two and a half minutes before he’ll have to turn it on again. “It’s your grandpa. You’ll be lucky if you’re out of there before midnight.”
“You’re not going?” Marco asks shrewdly.
“I have a case.”
Marco hums. Frank blows smoke out the window and asks, “Why, you got somewhere else to be?”
A lifted shoulder. Casual. Nonchalant. Completely at odds with the tense way he’s hiding himself. He does have somewhere to be; and it’s important.
“Just a party with some kids.”
“Soccer and detention kids,” he deadpans.
The light changes. It takes Frank three tries to get the ignition started. Cars are honking in earnest by now. He holds a hand out the window — sorry, sorry — and crawls forward.
“Well, you can’t miss your grandpa’s birthday. Family comes first. You know that.”
“ You’re missing his birthday,” Marco says.
“I’ve got work.”
“And I’ve got a party.”
“Oh yeah? You making any money at this party? You gonna help pay for your dance classes with the money from this party?”
“Maybe,” Marco flings out, and Frank has a ice-pick flashback to the way George used to make money in high school. His heart goes cold. His baby boy.
“You’re not going to that party,” he says.
Frank can feel the explosion before it happens. It’s like the tide pulling back before a tsunami. All the air leaves the car.
“You always do this.” Marco’s got all the passion that Frank so distinctly lacks. It’s as if God dialed Frank’s concern back to zero and then heaped it all on his son. Nothing ever seems to bother you, George said to him once, which isn’t true. Things just take longer to bother Frank: it’s as if his wind up threshold is higher than most people’s. But if it takes persistence to push Frank to the brink, it’s only a mild wind to tip over Marco. “It’s just a party. You know, the thing normal kids go to? The ones who don’t have curfew at 8 o’clock?”
“Kids who don’t have curfew end up in detention on Sundays. You’re fourteen and you’ve got homework. You got to study hard, keep your grades up, and go to college to get a degree like your mom. Not an uneducated degenerate like me.”
“Kids who go to parties can go to college too! You’re being a hypocrite.”
Frank’s head jerks over. They rattle over a pothole. The big one by the house that he usually instinctively avoids. He realizes Marco means about skipping the birthday tonight, not— anything else.
The driveway gravel is completely gone: just a patch of withered grass and tree roots which the car judders over now. Mary asks every year to cut down one of those trees (“we’re going to be living in a terrarium at this rate”) but Frank staunchly refuses. He loves those trees. No one at the precinct knows his address. All of their couple friends know by now that the only way they’ll see the Columbos on a social occasion is at a neutral location. This house is his sanctuary.
Marco clearly does not feel the same way. He rolls out of the open window, slinging his backpack dejectedly over his shoulder, and stomping inside. Is this house, to him, a prison?
Frank finishes the rest of his cigar and backs out again.
The singer-songwriter who looks like Farrah Fawcett lives in Malibu. Frank parks at the end of the driveway and is sunburned by the time he makes the trek all the way to the front door.
He’s not pretending when he fawns over her. One of her hits had been playing on the radio while Frank was driving Mary to their first date. Her records take up half the shelves in their living room. The singer-songwriter preens, if a bit tiredly. She offers him a drink, which Frank refuses on principle.
“I’ve just got to call my wife,” he says, dialing. George picks up. “Oh it’s my brother-in-law. Hey, say hello to him, would you? Boy, he’d really get a kick out of that.”
The singer-songwriter hesitates. Then she turns on the charm. Her hand curls gracefully around the receiver. Frank can appreciate precision like that. “Hello, who is this? George?” Her voice drops a notch. “Well, hello, George, this is Laurel Tippin. Yes, the Laurel.” A tinkling laugh. “Why, aren’t you sweet.” She’s twisting the cord around her finger. Exactly like she was fiddling with the curtain that morning when making her statement. Frank makes a mental note and takes the phone back.
“Hi, George, yeah, it’s me again.”
George says, low, “You know what I’d like to do to you tonight?”
Frank keeps his voice above-board. “Now, George, you know the missus and I have a date tonight.”
“I talked to Mary already. She doesn’t mind, she’s going bowling with the girls. She says as long as you’re home early tomorrow.”
Mary always was an early to bed early to rise type. Not like George the night owl. In Frank’s younger years, when they were all sharing an apartment, Mary would exploit the venn diagram of their circadian rhythms, starting their lovemaking at a strict 7:30pm and banishing Frank into George’s room by nine so that she could get some sleep. You snore like the Wabash Cannonball , she teased, stretching herself across the entire bed while Frank went to hydrate standing up in the kitchen before he had to get it up again. Ah, youth. “Fine, George, that sounds all right to me.”
“Also I’ve got tickets to the Monet exhibition next weekend. They’re Marco’s if he wants them.”
Frank gloomily hangs up the phone. His son, the artist, the dancer, the pre-teen about to burst into full teenage defiance and musical theater parties. Barely eight years old and he was already tearing through oil pastels. Frank will be on a second mortgage by his graduation. Thank god Angie got her mother’s aptitude for numbers.
“Everything all right?” asks the singer-songwriter. She’s wearing a much lighter lipstick than she did the day before. Interesting.
“Oh, fine,” Frank says. Scratching his head, he asks, “You got kids, ma’am?”
She edges over to the counter. Gaze pingpongs between the scotch, the window, and the driveway beyond. “No, I never hoped to be blessed in that regard.”
“Ah, well, that’s understandable, ma’am. The reason I ask — you became a singer young, didn’t you? At least that’s what my wife tells me. Oh, she has all your albums. Every one of them! Since the first one when you were a teenager. Gosh, we were just a couple of kids ourselves. Anyway, I always wondered how you did it so young. My son, he’s getting into paints now, you know? And it ain’t cheap! I’ll tell you that!”
She’s bored with his rambling. She drifts over toward the sofa. Funny how she always avoids the armchair. “No, the arts have never claimed to be lucrative.”
“Isn’t that the truth!” Frank says. “Now my brother-in-law is a photographer. He makes a pretty good living, all things considered. To be fair, he supplements this with a job at an auto garage. But my kid, I tell him that that kind of luck only happens in the family once!”
The armchair. The rungs are lighter on the bottom than on the top. The armchair’s been moved recently.
George snaps photos at the beach. Frank, Mary, the kids, seagulls, discarded french fries, flotsam and jetsam at the water’s edge.
“Why don’t you ever take any pictures of yourself?” Frank asks.
George looks up through his eyelashes. It’s a trick of his: mouth unsmiling, eyes curled up. Men would wage war for that look. And George knows it. He never had to beat up any guys that got too fresh with his sister in school, because one look at his doe eyes and they’d pedal back, flushed and stammering and not sure what hit them, and never come near Mary again.
All except Frank.
Mary says that’s the real reason she agreed to go out with him.
He’s stayed at the station the whole night through, working out the tangles of this particular case, and at sunrise he goes outside for a bad cup of coffee and a halfway decent cigar. The air is crisp in the Los Angeles way — by noon he’ll have sweated through his shirt — but for now it’s heaven.
He doesn’t have to be back at work for another three hours, so he drops his car off at home and takes Mary’s out to fill up the tank. It’s an odd license plate day. He drums his fingers against the steering wheel as he waits in line — it’s early enough that they shouldn’t run out, though George says last week the station near him ran out at ten a.m. — and then he’s tearing out in the opposite direction. He makes a brief stop at home to pick up Angie (“Dad, it’s still on empty”) and drop her off at school, then he swings by the suspect’s office again.
He closes the case by noon.
He takes Mary’s car back to the station after lunch, but sure enough they’ve run out. He calls George from the pay phone instead, and waits on the hood until he sees the boat-nosed yellow monstrosity pull up beside him. All twenty feet of George unfold themselves out of the driver’s seat, and pull a spare red gallon out of the trunk.
“Working an angle this morning?” George asks, nodding at Frank’s cigar. “Put that out, you trying to kill us?”
“It’s not lit. And just closed it.” Frank chews on the edge as George gifts him enough gasoline to make it home. “You think I’m too hard on him?”
George hums. He caps the gallon and leans against the car, stretching his arms overhead. A housewife at the window across the street stares. So does the man behind the counter. George’s modest garage makes a killing, and it’s not just because he’s good with his hands.
“Pops was pretty hard on us too,” George says. “And we turned out okay.”
Frank stares at him. “Your father used to beat you with a belt.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t end up in jail and Mary wasn’t a teenage mom. And he mellowed out in his old age, you know?”
“Yeah, once his tennis elbow couldn’t lift a belt anymore.”
“And he got too fat to outrun us.”
George grins. Sun catches the hidden blonde streaks in his hair. He and Mary both glow: in personality and appearance, like Apollo and Artemis. Golden George, the life of the party, who sneaks home by 9pm. Mary, dark haired and dark eyed, silently sizing company up until she’s got the handle on everyone’s psyche: then steals the show after George slips away. A lifetime routine, with Frank trailing helplessly in their wake.
Frank gets called into a double homicide the next morning. It’s on the strip. Two teenagers, kids really, slumped over the table. They’re concerned it’s a murder-suicide, staged. Frank confers with ballistics, walks through the bullet paths. The one kid is scarcely older than Marco.
Morales is with him again. He asks her quietly, “Do you see any evidence of a third shooter?” while a blowhard from the neighboring precinct rants. She shakes her head, minutely. Frank wraps it up with the sergeant and drives to the valley.
George opens his door still in an undershirt. Late riser; if he makes it to the garage before noon, it’s his assistant’s lucky day. “What’s wrong with the kids?” he asks immediately.
Frank shakes his head and pushes past him. George shuts the door, locks it. Trails into the kitchen where sun streams through the skylight. “Work, then?” he asks, pouring coffee, because this is not the first time Frank’s done this. Less frequent as the years have gone on, and he’s gotten better at compartmentalizing. But Mary’s still at her symposium, and the idea of shooting the shit at the precinct is unbearable right now.
He pulls George close, hooking his arms around his waist, resting his head in the juncture of George’s neck. Breathes in the spicy cologne leftover from whatever gallery event George was at the night before. George runs a soothing hand across Frank’s back, while sneaking sips of coffee. He doesn’t understand the particulars of Frank’s job, but Frank doesn’t need him to.
He tugs George into the bedroom — bed still warm from where George climbed out not long ago — and flings his raincoat over what George calls the Columbo chair: shoved in the corner, rickety and unnoticed, but carried lovingly to and from every apartment George has ever had. Frank’s shirt is divested by George’s careful fingers, his tie laid neatly over the quilt rack. Frank, surprising no one, is a slob. Mary, surprising everyone, is also. Their house is a constant state of draped clothes and forgotten magazines and lost keys. George has a set of “Columbo house” clothes that he now dons before coming over after he sat in kid’s paint projects one too many times.
George pulls him onto the bed, taking lead as he does in these encounters. He doesn’t mind the script flip, he told Frank once after Frank badgered him into confessing — the only time he’s foisted his powers on George — because “if you could see yourself when you turn up on my doorstep unexpectedly, you wouldn’t be asking me why”. Frank lets himself be carried away in the familiar comfort of George’s arms, bracketing out the world.
Frank’s disheveled when he goes back to the station. But the upside of being constantly disheveled is that a little extra dishevelment goes unnoticed. Only Morales arches an eyebrow at him; the coffee on her desk is all grounds, so she must have been back for a while. The other officers don’t remark on his late return. They assume his car broke down, or he dawdled over closing notes, or got distracted by a passing cloud.
He stops by the sergeant’s desk before he leaves for the day. “I’ll be at my father-in-law’s tonight if you need me. You have the number?”
“I got the number.”
“Okay. Where’s Hinata?”
The sergeant gives him a look. “He’s at his psych eval.”
“Psych eval? You mean like a psychiatrist?”
“Yes, lieutenant. Everyone in homicide has access to regular psych appointments if they want them.”
“Oh.” Frank scratches his head. “This is a new procedure?”
The sergeant looks pitying. “No, sir.”
“Ah. Well, thank you very much.” Presumably not everyone has access to a brother-in-law available to fuck them over the headboard at any time of day. Far be it from Frank to begrudge the other officers their outlets.
The Persillo house is large and sprawling, like their marriage. Rocco and Vincenza met in a taxi in Rome while on holiday from Palermo and a village on the Swiss border respectively, immediately conceived George and Mary, didn’t see each other for years, and then met again by chance on the boat to California. They roped a baffled captain into marrying them by the crossing of the new Panama Canal, to Vincenza’s mother's fury, and by the time they landed in Los Angeles, Vincenza stopped referring to the twins as her young cousins and instead was claiming them as her children.
Rocco holds kingdom in the dining room, spewing stories from the old days as various grandchildren race around in a game with incomprehensible rules. Frank kisses Mary hello. He shakes George’s hand. A kiss on the cheek for Rocco, an argument over the correct consistency for minestrone with Vincenza, and then it’s an hour later and he’s barely made it around the room. He’s sucked into a conversation about new tax codes with Serafina when a cousin gestures at him from the kitchen.
Rocco gives him the eye as he goes to take the phone. He shrugs — what can you do? — and says, “Hello, sergeant?”
There’s a couple of relatives prepping food at the table. One gives him a look when he says, “Well, where’d they find the body?” and another leaves, scandalized, when he asks, “But could the facial lacerations be some kind of animal attack instead?”
It’s not until he hangs up that he realizes the kitchen has cleared out completely. George is leaning in the doorway, smirking.
“Better than a party trick.”
Frank rubs his head sheepishly. “Guess I forget when I’m in mixed company.”
“Bullshit. You like shocking the nonnas.”
“Francesca called Mary a bad mother for teaching at the university,” Frank says blandly.
“Old hag.” George adjusts Frank’s collar so that it sits higher; fingers brushing lightly against his skin. “Can’t Mary talk you into a new shirt? This one’s falling apart.”
Frank’s neck does feel tender, now that he thinks on it. Was he walking around a police station all day with a mark and no one said anything? Either his colleagues are all failing their performance reviews or, he realizes uneasily, they’re more observant — and polite — than he is.
Mary comes into the kitchen with an empty bowl. She makes a face at the abandoned table. “Are you two terrorizing the Crispinis?”
“Just Frank,” says George, the rat. “He’s also abandoning us for work,” he adds with a grin.
“We should all be so lucky,” says Mary.
Frank makes his goodbyes to Rocco. He tries to be stealthy about it, but Marco knows the signs. He glares as Frank slips out the back door. Mary didn’t budge on the no-party rule last night either. Marco must be sulking. He was already asleep when Frank arrived home last night, which is surprising given that he’s usually up late sewing costumes or painting or—
Cars honk behind him. Frank looks up: the light’s been green for a while.
Marco looked tired this morning. Why should he be tired if he’d gone to sleep early?
The crime scene is all the way across town, so he gets home well after midnight. The house is quiet: no lights burning in windows, except the porch light which is on a timer.
Frank parks beside Mary’s car, haphazardly. The bumper’s halfway in the street, but there’s no help for it. He clamps his cigar between his teeth and picks his way over tree roots to the side of the house. Marco’s window. He inspects it, crouching, stretching — the window hasn’t opened in years. Marco’s always complaining how stuffy his room is, so Frank bought him a dehumidifier the year before. The tree roots don’t have any shoe marks on them. The vines climbing up the walls haven’t been disturbed.
But the window—
Frank stands on his tiptoes. And smiles.
The window no longer has dust on it. And two streaks of dirt near the bottom.
He’s concentrating so intently on entering the house as noiselessly as possible (every person except him is a light sleeper; Mary will hear the garbage truck six minutes away, but Frank has swept through several earthquakes), that a quiet, “Hi, Dad,” has him shooting out of his skin.
“Angie, honey! What are you still doing up?”
His coat goes across the back of the couch. His keys onto the side table. Angie rolls her eyes at both, knowing he’ll be able to find neither in the morning. “Finishing an essay.”
“It’s due tomorrow.”
“Your teachers assign an essay to be done all in one night?”
“Yeah, Dad, usually, but this isn’t for school. It’s for a scholarship.”
“Oh.” Frank sits down next to her. The small green lamp George bought them in West Germany throws an underwater glow across the room. She’s got Mary’s face entirely, except for Frank’s smile. It’s disconcerting how seeing your own features on a small person can squeeze your heart like a fish on a lure. “A scholarship for what?”
“Cal Tech. They want more women to sign onto astrophysics, so they’re giving a lot of money away to whoever has the best proposal.”
Frank shakes his head a little. He feels like he’s underwater. “You want to go into space?”
“No, Dad, I want to put other people into space.” Angie kisses the top of his head and pads down the hallway. “Goodnight.”
The door to her bedroom shuts. He sits on the couch thinking for a long time. He’s losing Marco to the Castro and Angie to outer space. If he doesn’t interfere soon, one morning he’ll blink and the house will be empty save for him and takeout lo mein.
The next morning Frank sets his alarm early. Mary and Marco look up in surprise as he enters the kitchen — Angie’s bus has long since departed — but Marco quickly looks away. He won’t meet Frank’s eyes, even as they’re all chatting. Frank lets him stew for a moment more, scanning the paper as Marco lets his guard down.
Frank lets the paper drop.
“You went to that party Sunday night, didn’t you?”
The fight that ensues is a doozy. Mary leaves halfway because otherwise she’ll be late for work: Marco and Frank do not leave. A pair of stubborn fools, the both of them. Marco storms out of the house, refusing a ride to school, and Frank speeds off to work in the wrong direction. It’s not until he reaches the precinct that he remembers he wanted to interview witnesses this morning.
His head is screwed on backwards all day. It feels like he has gone to outer space and removed his helmet: leaving his brain to swell and eyes to pop. He runs them wearily as his stomach rumbles. He hasn’t eaten all day.
It’s late, but he should still be able to catch George at the garage. Frank pulls into the parking lot just before 9pm. Most of the lights are off inside. There’s a couple cars up on lifts. A tall someone in coveralls with broad shoulders.
George turns. He catches sight of Frank’s shadow through the window, and jumps back. Frank watches him trip over the rolling board and go down.
“Ah, jeez.” Frank jogs inside and drops to his knees. “You okay?”
George looks up ruefully. The screwdriver in his hand fell against his face. He’s got a beauty of a black eye.
“Let me get that.” Frank hoists an arm around George’s waist and walks him over to the desk. George, towering half a foot taller, humors him. He perches on the edge of the desk. Frank steps in between his legs and prods gently at the shiner. George winces.
“Yeah, that’s a humdinger,” Frank mutters. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and dips it in a glass of water left on the desk. Then dabs it at George’s swollen eye. “I’m sorry. Here I am busting in at your place of employment and beating you up. I should be arresting myself.”
“Ah, it’ll make a good story for the boys tomorrow. I’ll tell them you were an armed robber and I fought you off.” George looks thoughtful. “Maybe I can get the day off tomorrow.”
“Sure you can. Just walk in looking like you do now and they’ll send you straight to the ER.”
“Can’t have hooligans talking to the customers. It’ll be bad for business.”
“On second thought, don’t go to the ER. Come to work as usual. Get all those mooney housewives to bring you cakes and drop extra tips.”
George grins. “I could use some extra cash for my new exhibition.”
“You got enough new photographs already?”
“My agent reckons so.”
George rests his hands on Frank’s waist for balance. His shoulders are slumping. Tough day. Frank presses a soft kiss to the underside of his jaw. George hums and finds Frank’s mouth. They kiss unhurriedly for a while, until Frank has a vision of Marco necking with some boy in a dark room at an unsupervised party. He jerks away like electrocuted.
George combs a hand through Frank’s hair. “You all right?”
Frank steps back. What if he’s done this? What if it’s his example that’s sending Marco, always a perceptive child, down a sure spiral to a hard life? “No. I don’t know. Maybe.”
He walks back out of the garage. George makes an irritated huff, but doesn’t call after him.
Everyone’s asleep by the time he gets home. He wakes up with the sun the next day and goes straight downtown. The victim’s cousin pastes on a smile. It’s a relief to dive into the routine of questioning: the prodding, the probing, the stumbling questions, the casual flattery.
There’s a line of paintings on the wall. A gallery of old masters and some gaudy new ones that only the ultra rich can carelessly acquire. A number of oil pastels, just like Marco likes.
“What’s this blank spot here?” Frank asks hastily.
The cousin hems and haws, then launches into a backstory about an aunt that doesn’t respect boundaries and an ugly portrait that’s now misplaced. Frank can feel himself drifting, but he can’t help it. George is supposed to bring Marco to the Monet exhibition next weekend. If either of them are speaking to Frank by then. He supposes they can work plans out together.
Why is it that the harder he tries to protect people, the further he ends up pushing them away?
“— which is how the snake ended up in the clown’s costume in the first place,” the cousin explains.
“I see,” says Frank, even though he doesn’t. “Thank you very much.”
He’s toying through the missing portrait on the drive home. Why should it be missing? It was old and ugly. It makes no sense. Something old and ugly you replace. Or forget about. It doesn’t go missing.
He drives by the university and makes a U-turn on instinct. The parking lot is full, but he double parks some poor kid’s car on the lawn. Class is in session, so the campus is empty as he navigates by memory through the tangle of buildings. He reaches the modern one that looks like a building turned inside out. The chemistry lab is in the basement: a cavernous wood hall with stadium seating.
He slides in an empty seat in the back. Rests his head against the wall. The kids beside him are shooting over concerned looks — he doesn’t blame them, a rumpled middle aged man who hasn’t showered in a while creeping into a college lecture hall midday is suspect. He’s proud of them for their awareness. He crosses his arms and lets his wife’s lesson wash over him.
There’s something calming about hearing Mary speak without having to focus on the words. Nothing she’s saying makes any sense to him: she might as well be speaking Persian. But the familiarity of her voice puts his mind at rest. Like unspooling a garden hose. He turns over the peculiarities of the case in his mind while she raffles off combinations of letters and numbers with sure-footed ease.
Halfway through the lecture he startles to attention. Someone’s called his name. But it’s just one of the students in the front row.
“Professor Columbo,” she says, “could you explain that last part again?”
Mary says, “Of course. But perhaps my husband could help me.”
Heads swivel up the stadium like spectators doing the wave at a game. Mary grins and motions for him to come down. Blushing and waving to the smattering of encouraging applause, he does. Thankfully he does not trip.
“Now,” says Mary, arranging her hands on Frank’s shoulders. “Imagine Lt. Columbo is an electron, moving at a great speed —”
Frank doesn’t hear much of what she says after that. He’s staring at the arrangement of the seats. They’re offset. So that you can see between the heads of the people sitting in front of you. Of course. Why would you bother waiting around to watch something if you couldn’t see?
Frank places a swift kiss on Mary’s cheek. “Love you,” he says, and jogs back up the stairs and out the door.
“Now in a controlled environment,” says Mary, pivoting smoothly, “that would not happen. However, we know that nature does not always act in a predictable manner —”
Marco’s not home. Frank hasn’t seen him since Tuesday morning. The house is empty except for someone in the shower.
He knocks on the bathroom door. “Angie? You in there?”
Faintly, over the sound of water: “What?”
“Have you seen Marco?”
“ Where’s! Marco!”
“At! Uncle! George’s!” she screams back.
So be it.
Frank smokes a cigar and reads the paper and thinks about Monet. That blank space on the wall is bugging him still. He’s thinking about art.
He grabs his raincoat and keys (by the toaster, 20 minutes to find) and heads to the cousin’s grandmother’s art gallery across town.
From art galleries he gets hooked on thrift shops, and by Friday he thinks he’s got the angle. If he can just line up the fishmonger’s meeting tomorrow morning, he might be able to close this file and start worrying again that Marco still isn’t speaking to him. He’s seen the light beneath his bedroom door a couple nights, so he knows he’s still alive at least.
In what condition is another matter.
“George says he hasn’t seen you in a week,” says Mary. Frank looks away from the window. The screen’s been torn for months. He keeps meaning to fix it. Mary wants to test out a new adhesive her colleague at the university is developing, but since the Cat Food Incident, Frank flat out refuses to let any experiments through the door. “He wants to know if, quote, you two are fighting and what he can do to get you to make up.”
The sun goes behind a cloud. Frank leans back in the chair. It’s the creaky one. He needs to fix that too, before Mary talks him into trying that new plasticine adhesive. His hair must be standing on end, by the way Mary’s gaze travels upward. “I’m worried about Marco.”
Mary waves a hand. “He’s a teenager, Frank. All teenagers are rebellious.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
She looks at him, sharp: “Then what do you mean?”
“You know what.”
“No, I don’t know what—” dangerously — “so why don’t you say it right now?”
“I’m worried our son is going to be like George!”
There’s a charged silence: like after a volcano eruption. Just before the second one rumbles up. The kettles whistles at the stove, but nobody gets up to move it. There’s a hot streak of sunlight slanting across Frank’s wrist on the table, but he’s too afraid to move.
Mary says, slow as a sighted bullet, “You of all people—”
“I know me of all people, but there aren’t many Franks out there for Georges, are there? There aren’t many Marys that would make that happen for their brother.” This Mary’s face crumbles. Frank immediately feels shame. “Hey, hey, okay — I’m sorry. I just worry about him, you know? It’s easier for me. I have the cover. He won’t have the wife cover. He’ll just get all the scrutiny, like George would without us.”
“The cover ?” says Mary.
It’s incredible how a person that analyzes action and word choice for a living can continually fuck up so badly. “No, honey, you know what I mean.”
Mary wipes her eyes and gathers her purse. “This cover is going out with her girlfriend, Susan. This cover advises her husband to not wait up tonight.”
When she says ‘girlfriend’, she does not mean a girl who is a friend.
“Fine,” says Frank dully. He deserves this.
He spends the rest of the evening at the precinct, and crashes on the couch in his office. It’s not an unheard of thing for him to do during a particularly thorny case, so there’s no reason for Mary to call and check up on him. But he wishes she had anyway. George, used to the cadence of their fights, knows that Frank is a stubborn ass, and won’t make the first move until Frank does.
Frank has well and truly painted himself into a corner now.
Just like the contractor.
Frank bolts out of his chair. The fishmonger isn’t the key— it’s the general contractor that was at the victim’s house the morning of the murder—
He makes a quick call to Mary’s office to tell her he won’t make it to pick up the kids today, then is out the door.
The case is closed. He’s got the confession, the evidence is being categorized now, and his paperwork is 80% done.
His pencil breaks. He feels an undue rage rise within him, as if this pencil has flipped the lid on the simmering pot of problems from the week. He has to grip onto the desk to regain control. He can’t go to George for comfort, because they’re fighting, and he can’t go to Mary for distraction, because they’re fighting, and he can’t talk about his problems about the kids with either of them, due to the aforementioned reasons. He puts his head down on the desk to take a nap.
“Hah?” Frank jolts up. He’s either been napping or concentrating so hard on unraveling a thread in his mind that he became almost comatose. It’s not unheard of.
The officer holds out the phone from Frank’s desk. Evidently it had been ringing. “Your wife.”
Frank takes the receiver. “Marco’s at George’s, Mary. Wait, what? What about Angie?”
He leaves his paperwork 90% done on his desk. The hospital he reaches in ten minutes flat. He has to park all the way in the back (it’s Friday night — the gun and knife club, and alcohol poisoning — the busiest day of a hospital week), and is breathing so heavily he can’t speak when he reaches the reception desk.
“Yes sir, can I help you?” asks an orderly. “Sir?”
Frank is still breathing too hard to answer. Visions of Angie — also not breathing, comatose, bludgeoned like so many victims he sees day in and day out, as his 9-5 — has paralyzed him. He was so busy worrying about the wrong kid that he neglected to fulfill his worry quota for the other. This is his fault. It’s all his fault.
“He’s here for Angela Columbo,” says a voice beside him. A capable hand grasps his arm. “She’s okay, Frank. There’s a lot to talk about, but she’s okay.”
Frank has to grip George’s forearm to keep from falling over. Spots are dancing before his eyes.
“Sir,” the orderly is saying, as if from far away, “do you need medical attention?”
George squeezes Frank’s hand. Just on the edge of painful. It pulls him back from the edge. He gratefully follows George down a labyrinth of beige hallways. George is still in his coveralls, oil streaked halfway up his neck. His hair is frazzled: Frank can picture George pulling at it at red lights, or when speeding through stop signs.
Diabetes, George explains. She went into insulin shock — a coma. She’ll be okay, as long as she can manage her sugar levels.
The doctor inside the room says the same thing. “And college?” Frank asks, after Angie reassured him eight times in a row yes, I’m okay, Dad, see I’m fine, I’m okay. Marco is pale and silent in the corner, hugging his arms. “She’ll be able to go?”
“Sure,” says the doctor. “Diabetes is manageable. This was a wake up call for her body — a nasty one — but now she knows, she’ll be okay.”
They’re discharged quicker than Frank expects. There’s instructions and pamphlets handed out— “You’re sure she can go home now?” — and then they’re home in the kitchen, the detritus of late night French toast scattered across the counter, Marco hanging over Angie’s shoulders and explaining the significance of ABBA lyrics in unending detail, Mary highlighting each line of the Managing Your Diabetes pamphlet.
Frank flicks the syringe. The orange he’s been practicing on with water sits innocently on the table.
“Dad,” says Angie. “It’s my turn.”
He meets Marco’s eyes for the first time in a week. Marco watched him steadily, not pausing his recital of Knowing Me, Knowing You.
Frank swallows back the “are you sure?” he desperately wants to ask, and hands over the syringe.
The phone rings. He jumps, knocking over a glass of water. Mary pretends to lap at the spill like a dog. Angie shrieks, “ Gross , Mom!” as Marco rolls his eyes in a very George-like gesture and fetches a hand towel.
“Hello?” Frank says. “Oh, Morales. No, I know. I’ll finish it tomorrow morning. They need it for processing? Right. Sure. Tell them tomorrow morning.”
He hangs up.
The opening of Oklahoma! at the junior high is postponed from Saturday to Sunday night due to a neighborhood power outage. Frank spends Saturday mending the screen with Marco, fixing the chair with Angie, and reviewing the notes from the symposium with Mary.
Everyone’s asleep by nine p.m. Frank’s feeling the emotional drain himself, but is too wired to crawl in bed yet. He fills a cup of water at the sink, listening to the hum of the refrigerator.
There’s a tap at the back door.
George lingers in the doorjamb, uncertain in a way that Frank has never seen him before. He asks, “Am I welcome?”
Frank is no stranger to the cruel randomness of life. He finds it humbling that he, of all people, can still be surprised by this. He is well aware of how much he talks about George — nearly as much as he talks about Mary — and that the courtrooms of Los Angeles must be swimming with the ghosts of their projected memories. If Frank could talk anyone’s longevity into immortality, it would be them. How can he abandon the clenching of his heart to fear? It’s not like his children had any chance at being ordinary, anyhow.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
“Of course you are,” he says, wrapping a hand around George’s wrist to tug him inside. He’s so warm that Frank’s hand burns.
The power is back by Sunday evening, and the junior high auditorium is packed to the gills with sweating adults and sleeping grandparents. The singing is terrible. The set design is beautiful. Mary looks over at Frank, glassy eyed, as George applauds every other line so enthusiastically that it’s hard to hear the dialogue. Maybe that’s his intention.
Frank threads his hand through hers. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“I’m sorry too,” she whispers back.
“I just didn’t want him to be lonely.”
“I didn’t want George to either. But he turned out okay.”
“I guess he did.”
“I guess sometimes you just have to let go.”
“Neither of us is very good at that.”
“Neither of you,” says a lady in the next row, “is talking as quietly as you think you are.”