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Authors: Dennis Lehane

Mystic River

BOOK: Mystic River
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DENNIS LEHANE
MYSTIC RIVER

For my wife, Sheila

[He] did not understand women. It wasn’t the way bartenders or comedians didn’t understand women, it was the way poor people didn’t understand the economy. You could stand outside the Girard Bank Building every day of your life and never guess anything about what went on in there. That’s why, in their hearts, they’d always rather stick up a 7-Eleven.

—Pete Dexter,
God’s Pocket

There is no street with mute stones and no house without echoes.

—Góngora

a cognizant original v5 release november 04 2010

W
HEN
S
EAN
D
EVINE
and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.

On Saturdays, Jimmy’s father would drop by the Devines’ to have a beer with Sean’s father. He’d bring Jimmy with him, and as one beer turned into six, plus two or three shots of Dewar’s, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes who was always telling jokes he’d learned from his uncles. From the other side of the kitchen window screen, they could hear the hiss of the beer can pull-tabs, bursts of hard, sudden laughter, and the heavy snap of Zippos as Mr. Devine and Mr. Marcus lit their Luckys.

Sean’s father, a foreman, had the better job. He was tall and fair and had a loose, easy smile that Sean had seen calm his mother’s anger more than a few times, just shut it down
like a switch had been flicked off inside of her. Jimmy’s father loaded the trucks. He was small and his dark hair fell over his forehead in a tangle and something in his eyes seemed to buzz all the time. He had a way of moving too quickly; you’d blink and he was on the other side of the room. Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift for attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going “What’s up, Jimmy?” with a sad hopefulness.

They all lived in East Buckingham, just west of downtown, a neighborhood of cramped corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops where meat, still pink with blood, hung in the windows. The bars had Irish names and Dodge Darts by the curbs. Women wore handkerchiefs tied off at the backs of their skulls and carried mock leather snap purses for their cigarettes. Until a couple of years ago, older boys had been plucked from the streets, as if by spaceships, and sent to war. They came back hollow and sullen a year or so later, or they didn’t come back at all. Days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to the bars. You knew everyone; nobody except those older boys ever left.

Jimmy and Dave came from the Flats, down by the Penitentiary Channel on the south side of Buckingham Avenue. It was only twelve blocks from Sean’s street, but the Devines were north of the Ave., part of the Point, and the Point and the Flats didn’t mix much.

It wasn’t like the Point glittered with gold streets and silver spoons. It was just the Point, working class, blue collar, Chevys and Fords and Dodges parked in front of simple A-frames and the occasional small Victorian. But people in the Point owned. People in the Flats rented. Point families went to church, stayed together, held signs on street corners during election months. The Flats, though, who knew what they did, living like animals sometimes, ten to an apartment, trash in their streets—Wellieville, Sean and his friends at
Saint Mike’s called it, families living on the dole, sending their kids to public schools, divorcing. So while Sean went to Saint Mike’s Parochial in black pants, black tie, and blue shirt, Jimmy and Dave went to the Lewis M. Dewey School on Blaxston. Kids at the Looey & Dooey got to wear street clothes, which was cool, but they usually wore the same ones three out of five days, which wasn’t. There was an aura of grease to them—greasy hair, greasy skin, greasy collars and cuffs. A lot of the boys had bumpy welts of acne and dropped out early. A few of the girls wore maternity dresses to graduation.

So if it wasn’t for their fathers, they probably never would have been friends. During the week, they never hung out, but they had those Saturdays, and there was something to those days, whether they hung out in the backyard, or wandered through the gravel dumps off Harvest Street, or hopped the subways and rode downtown—not to see anything, just to move through the dark tunnels and hear the rattle and brake-scream of the cars as they cornered the tracks and the lights flickered on and off—that felt to Sean like a held breath. Anything could happen when you were with Jimmy. If he was aware there were rules—in the subway, on the streets, in a movie theater—he never showed it.

They were at South Station once, tossing an orange street hockey ball back and forth on the platform, and Jimmy missed Sean’s throw and the ball bounced down onto the tracks. Before it occurred to Sean that Jimmy could even be thinking about it, Jimmy jumped off the platform and down onto the track, down there with the mice and the rats and the third rail.

People on the platform went nuts. They screamed at Jimmy. One woman turned the color of cigar ash as she bent at the knees and yelled, Get back up here, get back up here
now
, goddamnit! Sean heard a thick rumble that could have been a train entering the tunnel up at Washington Street or could have been trucks rolling along the street above, and the people on the platform heard it, too. They waved their
arms, whipped their heads around to look for the subway police. One guy placed a forearm across his daughter’s eyes.

Jimmy kept his head down, peering into the darkness under the platform for the ball. He found it. He wiped some black grime off it with his shirtsleeve and ignored the people kneeling on the yellow line, extending their hands down toward the track.

Dave nudged Sean and said, “Whew, huh?” too loud.

Jimmy walked along the center of the track toward the stairs at the far end of the platform, where the tunnel opened gaping and dark, and a heavier rumble shook the station, and people were
jumping
now, banging fists into their hips. Jimmy took his time, strolling really, then he looked back over his shoulder, caught Sean’s eyes, and grinned.

Dave said, “He’s smiling. He’s just nuts. You know?”

When Jimmy reached the first step in the cement stairs, several hands thrust down and yanked him up. Sean watched his feet swing out and to the left and his head curl and dip to the right, Jimmy looking so small and light in a big man’s grasp, like he was filled with straw, but tucking that ball tight against his chest even as people grabbed at his elbow and his shin banged off the edge of the platform. Sean felt Dave jittering beside him, lost. Sean looked at the faces of the people pulling Jimmy up and he didn’t see worry or fear anymore, none of the helplessness he’d seen just a minute ago. He saw rage, monsters’ faces, the features gnarled and savage, like they were going to lean in and bite a chunk out of Jimmy, then beat him to death.

They got Jimmy up onto the platform and held him, fingers squeezed into his shoulders as they looked around for someone to tell them what to do. The train broke through the tunnel, and someone screamed, but then someone laughed—a shrieking cackle that made Sean think of witches around a cauldron—because the train burst through on the other side of the station, moving north, and Jimmy looked up into the faces of the people holding him as if to say,
See?

Beside Sean, Dave let out this high-pitched giggle and threw up in his own hands.

Sean looked away, wondered where he fit in all this.

 

T
HAT NIGHT
Sean’s father sat him down in the basement tool room. The tool room was a tight place of black vises and coffee cans filled with nails and screws, piles of wood stacked neatly beneath the scarred counter that split the room in half, hammers hung in carpenter belts like guns in holsters, a band saw blade dangling from a hook. Sean’s father, who often worked as a handyman around the neighborhood, came down here to build his birdhouses and the shelves he placed on the windows for his wife’s flowers. He’d planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job. The birdhouses—baby Tudors and colonials and Victorians and Swiss chalets—ended up stacked in a corner of the cellar, so many of them they’d have had to live in the Amazon to find enough birds who could get use out of them.

Sean sat up on the old red bar stool and fingered the inside of the thick black vise, felt the oil and sawdust mixed in there, until his father said, “Sean, how many times I have to tell you about that?”

Sean pulled his finger back out, wiped the grease on his palm.

His father picked some stray nails up off the counter and placed them in a yellow coffee can. “I know you like Jimmy Marcus, but if you two want to play together from now on, you’ll do it in view of the house. Yours, not his.”

Sean nodded. Arguing with his father was pointless when he spoke as quietly and slowly as he was doing now, every word coming out of his mouth as if it had a small stone attached to it.

“We understand each other?” His father pushed the coffee can to his right, looked down at Sean.

Sean nodded. He watched his father’s thick fingers rub sawdust off the tips.

“For how long?”

His father reached up and pulled a wisp of dust off a hook embedded in the ceiling. He kneaded it between his fingers, then tossed it in the wastebasket under the counter. “Oh, a good while, I’d say. And Sean?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t be thinking about going to your mother on this one. She never wants you to see Jimmy again after that stunt today.”

“He’s not that bad. He’s—”

“Didn’t say he was. He’s just wild, and your mother’s had her fill of wild in her life.”

Sean saw something glint in his father’s face when he said “wild,” and he knew it was the other Billy Devine he was seeing for a moment, the one he’d had to build out of scraps of conversation he’d overheard from aunts and uncles. The Old Billy they called him, the “scrapper,” his uncle Colm said once with a smile, the Billy Devine who’d disappeared sometime before Sean was born to be replaced by this quiet, careful man with thick, nimble fingers who built too many birdhouses.

“You remember what we talked about,” his father said, and patted Sean’s shoulder in dismissal.

Sean left the tool room and walked through the cool basement wondering if what made him enjoy Jimmy’s company was the same thing that made his father enjoy hanging out with Mr. Marcus, drinking Saturday into Sunday, laughing too hard and too suddenly, and if that was what his mother was afraid of.

 

A
FEW SATURDAYS LATER
, Jimmy and Dave Boyle came by the Devine house without Jimmy’s father. They knocked
on the back door as Sean was finishing breakfast, and Sean heard his mother open the door and say, “Morning to ya, Jimmy. Morning, Dave,” in that polite voice she used around people she wasn’t sure she wanted to see.

Jimmy was quiet today. All that loopy energy seemed to have gone coiled up inside of him. Sean could almost feel it beating against the walls of Jimmy’s chest and Jimmy swallowing against it. Jimmy seemed smaller, darker, as if he’d pop with the prick of a pin. Sean had seen this before. Jimmy had always been a little moody. Still, it got to Sean every time, made him wonder if Jimmy had any control over it, or if these moods came like a sore throat or his mother’s cousins, just dropped in whether you felt like having them over or not.

Dave Boyle was at his most aggravating when Jimmy was like this. Dave Boyle seemed to think it was his job to make sure everyone was happy, which usually just pissed people off after a while.

As they stood out on the sidewalk, trying to decide what to do, Jimmy all wrapped in himself and Sean still waking up, all three of them fidgeting with the day hanging out in front of them but bordered by the ends of Sean’s street, Dave said, “Hey, why’s a dog lick its balls?”

Neither Sean nor Jimmy answered. They’d heard this one, like, a thousand times.

“Because it can!” Dave Boyle shrieked, and grabbed his gut like it was so funny it hurt.

Jimmy walked over to the sawhorses, where city crews had been replacing several squares of sidewalk. The work crews had tied yellow
CAUTION
tape to four sawhorses in a rectangle, created a barricade around the new sidewalk squares, but Jimmy snapped the tape by walking through it. He squatted at the edge, his Keds on the old sidewalk, and used a twig on the soft pavement to carve thin lines that reminded Sean of old men’s fingers.

“My dad don’t work with yours anymore.”

“How come?” Sean squatted by Jimmy. He didn’t have a
stick, but he wanted one. He wanted to do what Jimmy did, even if he didn’t know why, and even though his father would strap his ass if he did.

Jimmy shrugged. “He was smarter than them. He scared them because he knew so much stuff.”

“Smart stuff!” Dave Boyle said. “Right, Jimmy?”

Right, Jimmy? Right, Jimmy? Dave was like a parrot some days.

Sean wondered how much anyone could know about candy and why that information would be important. “What kind of stuff?”

“How to run the place better.” Jimmy didn’t sound real sure and then he shrugged. “Stuff, anyway. Important stuff.”

“Oh.”

“How to
run
the place. Right, Jimmy?”

Jimmy dug in the cement some more. Dave Boyle found his own stick and bent over the soft cement, began drawing a circle. Jimmy frowned and tossed his own stick aside. Dave stopped drawing, looked at Jimmy like, What’d I do?

“Know what would be cool?” Jimmy’s voice had that slight rise in it that made something in Sean’s blood jitter, probably because Jimmy’s idea of cool was usually way different than anyone else’s.

“What?”

“Driving a car.”

“Yeah,” Sean said slowly.

“You know”—Jimmy held his palms out, the twig and cement forgotten—“just around the block.”

“Just around the block,” Sean said.

“It would be cool, wouldn’t it?” Jimmy grinned.

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