Authors: Ivy Pochoda
Fadi knows he’s never going to get rich selling Tylenol PM to night owls from the bar across the street, but he believes in Red Hook. He’s taped a collection of local news stories to the plexiglass cabinets on the counter. He wants his customers to know that they are an important part of the city and that his bodega is their center. In the four years since the shop opened, he has papered the counter with stories about a local war hero, a retired detective turned real estate developer, a neighborhood kid who made it to the NBA, another who landed a record deal.
In his years clipping local news from the major papers, Red Hook never earned the front page until today. A flying boy. A heat wave poster child. A jump that captures the city. Fadi tears off the front page and tapes it in the place of honor, just to the right of the register.
A while back, Fadi started a weekly community newsletter that he presses into his customers’ hands along with their change. Although he asks for submissions, he rarely gets any. Most of Fadi’s items are drawn from incidents he’s witnessed—a drunk driver plowing his van into the doorway of the Dockyard, trapping the drinkers inside for hours, or an alligator discovered in a basement apartment on Visitation.
This summer he’s written several articles about the changes he hopes the cruise ships will bring to Red Hook. He tried to interview his Puerto Rican rivals as well as Christos, the Greek owner of the recently renamed Cruise Café across Visitation. But they mistook his interest in their businesses for snooping, so Fadi mainly reports his own opinions.
He peers into the cooler. The ham is still sweating. He lifts the cylinder of meat and begins to wrestle it from its sheath. It plops onto the counter, the slick of greasy water making it do a one eighty. He grabs the ham before it can slide to the floor. He cups it to his chest, cradling it as the salty juices soak his shirt. He’s still holding the ham tight when the door opens.
It takes a moment for Fadi to recognize Jonathan, who lives above the bar. His dark brown hair is matted, and mud is streaked across one of his cheeks. He’s carrying a girl. He’s got her head carefully balanced on his shoulder. Her arms and legs dangle like they have nothing to do with her body. There is a smell of brine and garbage.
Jonathan’s arms are trembling under the girl’s weight. Blue veins emerge on his biceps. His breath is quick and heavy.
“I found her,” Jonathan says.
“Set her down.” Fadi points to the floor.
Jonathan doesn’t move from the doorway. “She’s cold.”
“Set her down.”
Jonathan adjusts the girl in his arms, holding her tighter. Fadi rushes to him. “Jonathan, you need to put her down.”
They join arms, cradle the girl, then squat and lower her to the shiny linoleum.
“She was under the pier,” Jonathan says. He sits beside her, leans against the ice cream freezer, and takes the girl’s hand and rubs it between his palms. “She looked broken. Like driftwood.”
The girl is barefoot. Her nails are blue. Jonathan’s are ringed with mud.
Fadi reaches for the phone and dials 911. He recognizes the girl. Val, the younger of the two Marino kids. Two days ago she and her friend June had tried to buy cigarettes from him. He’d asked for their IDs, then handed them each a menthol from the pack he keeps for his cousin.
Fadi heads into the mop closet for a clean T-shirt. He lays it over the girl’s narrow body where it looks as big as a beach towel.
“She going to be okay,” Jonathan says, still rubbing Val’s palm. “She’s going to be okay.” He glances at Fadi. His gaze is uncertain. His eyes are submerged in dark circles.
Fadi looks at the girl, the faint rise of her chest underneath the shirt. Her lips are colorless. “I don’t know,” he says.
Fadi remembers when Jonathan moved in above the bar. The place had been empty for months. The Dockyard was too loud for most people. But it didn’t seem to bother the musician. Fadi’s overheard people from the bar calling Jonathan “Maestro,” but he doesn’t dare use the nickname himself.
Fadi used to see patrons from the bar go in and out of Jonathan’s. But it seems he’s been spending time alone these days. Fadi likes Jonathan’s manners. The intelligent way he talks to Fadi. He appreciates the musician’s dark trousers and dress shirts—even if they’re wrinkled and frayed. Jonathan’s always talking about different composers or humming music he challenges Fadi to identify. Fadi never can, but he plays along.
Nearly every day Jonathan tells Fadi about a piece of music that’s perfectly suited to the moment. Last week he said, “It’s an afternoon for Gershwin. Mostly sunny, a little bit snappy, but with a hint of rain.” And two evenings ago he asked, “Did you see the sunset? Only Philip Glass would write a sunset like that.”
Fadi has no idea what Jonathan means. But he enjoys listening. He settles back in his wobbly stool and lets the musician ramble. Jonathan gestures theatrically as he talks, conducting an orchestra hidden somewhere in the bodega or serenading some offstage lover. He usually turns the counter into an invisible keyboard, hammering a few chords or running through scales between the penny tray and the lighters. Then he thanks Fadi for his time and leaves. Fadi hands him a free newspaper on his way out.
Fadi imagines that if there were no counter between them he might be able to talk freely with Jonathan, tell him about his own Brooklyn neighborhood ten subway stops away where he tries to mistake the sound of traffic for the ocean.
He glances at Jonathan now, slumped on the floor. The musician’s dark hair is matted and pressed down like a wiry skullcap.
Both men look up as a bus pulls up in front of the Greek’s. They listen to its geriatric noises as it rumbles off.
“I know her,” Fadi says. “She’s from up the street.” He checks the store clock, counting backward to when he dialed 911.
“She’s going to be okay,” Jonathan says. “I got to her in time. So she’s going to be okay.” His words sound like a prayer, Fadi thinks. An incantation.
Jonathan rubs Val’s hands.
Fadi checks the coffee and pours a cup for Jonathan.
The neighborhood falls silent. The bus stop is empty. No trucks rumble past. Fadi goes outside. The street is empty.
Inside the bodega the only sound is the whir of the clock. Fadi empties the coffee filters and refills them. He considers telling the musician to leave the girl’s hand alone.
“I don’t know why I looked under the pier. I could have walked away. What if I had walked away? What would have happened?”
Soon they hear the slow wail of a siren rolling down Van Brunt. Two ambulances arrive. Paramedics push Jonathan aside. The crackle of their walkie-talkies drowns out Fadi’s radio.
They bring in a stretcher and transfer Val. Clutching his coffee, Jonathan follows Val to the ambulance and tries to step inside. One of the paramedics leads him back into the store.
Three cop cars arrive. Their dark uniforms drag in more heat.
“I should go to the hospital,” Jonathan says. “She shouldn’t go alone.”
“You should stay here,” one of the cops says.
Fadi takes his place behind the counter as the officers question him. He crosses his arms and lets them rest on his belly. He turns his weak fan to high and offers the policemen coffee.
“I know the girl,” Fadi says. “Val Marino. She lives up the street.”
They go outside so he can show them the Marino house. Fadi points out the three-story brick around the corner from his shop. He watches the officers knock on the door.
Fadi sees Val’s sister emerge. She’s wearing a boy’s T-shirt and boxer shorts. She puts a hand on her hip. Then her posture changes, as if a string holding her upright was cut. She doubles over. An officer puts an arm around her. Carrying her shoes in one hand, she follows the policemen up the block and gets into a squad car.
Fadi returns to the store. The sirens have brought people to their windows. The curious begin to arrive at the bodega. They pace the two aisles trying to collect the latest news. At the least, they’re hoping for a free coffee.
Two plainclothes detectives appear—one middle aged and one fresh on the job. “The sister says she had a friend with her,” the older detective tells Jonathan. “You see both girls or just the one?” He flashes his badge: Coover.
“You sure?” Coover massages his jaw. There’s a flush of razor burn on his florid neck. His tie is crumpled.
“Was it a rough night? Maybe you missed something down there,” Coover’s partner asks. He’s holding his badge out for Fadi to read. The leather case is new, and the badge shines; the detective’s name is Hughes.
“She was alone under the pier. I almost didn’t see her at all.” Jonathan’s fingers are restless. They are playing scales on his pants.
“June,” Fadi tells the detectives. “She and Val are always together. June lives with her grandmother. The grandmother likes cream and three sugars. I don’t know where they live. They go to the church around the corner. They pass by on Sundays.”
Two police officers take Jonathan outside and place him on one of the folding chairs. Fadi slides a pack of Jonathan’s brand of cigarettes into the musician’s hand.
Soon reporters will arrive, Fadi thinks. Tomorrow there will be a picture of his store in the newspaper. He heads inside and wipes down the counter, removing the sweaty palm prints. He takes a coffee cake from the shelves and cuts it into slices and passes it around to the officers outside. He glances back at the store, hoping no one is stealing.
A crowd has gathered on the corners of Van Brunt and Visitation, facing off like the points of a compass. The story develops slowly. Several policemen and the two detectives remain in the bodega. Their walkie-talkies crackle and beep. Fadi keeps them supplied with bottled water and soda.
“They’re good girls, June and Val,” Fadi says, handing Hughes a cup of ice.
“Know ’em well?” Hughes removes his suit jacket and rolls up his sleeves. His clothes are new, pressed and creased. Fadi glimpses a military tattoo inside his forearm.
“They’re in the store a lot.”
“You see them outside the store?” The younger detective smells of cologne. His hair is beginning to sweat pomade.
“On the block sometimes.”
Hughes exhales and shifts his weight, releasing a creak of gun belt leather. “That’s it?”
“They’re nice girls,” Fadi says, refilling the penny tray.
The detective withdraws a notepad in a leather case from his belt. He flips it open. “And the guy who found her. He’s nice too?”
“Yes,” Fadi says.
“He comes in every day. We talk.”
Hughes does not write this down. “You two like the same kind of music?”
“I like talk radio.”
“You see him outside of the store?” Beads of sweat are collecting at the detective’s temples.
“At the bar.”
“So you drink together.” He uncaps the pen.
Fadi has often been tempted to offer Jonathan a beer. He imagines the two of them standing under the awning, their bottles concealed in brown bags. “No. From here I see him going in and out of the bar.”
“You don’t drink there yourself.” Hughes closes his notebook, leaving the page blank. “You’d guess he drinks a lot?”
“They all seem to drink a lot.”
“You live nearby?”
“Avenue N.” It’s miles away, but Fadi knows his neighbors as well as anyone in Red Hook.
With Val’s sister’s help, the police locate June’s grandmother, who confirms her granddaughter’s absence. Officers are dispatched to canvass the neighborhood. They take a photo of June with them.
Fadi asks to make a copy of the picture on his dilapidated copier. The photo is from June’s yearbook. She’s looking over her right shoulder at the camera. Her hair is pulled into a tight ponytail. She has undone the top three buttons of her blouse. Underneath the photo Fadi writes “Have You Seen This Girl?” and lists the phone numbers of the bodega and the local precinct. Everyone who comes into the store will leave with one of these flyers. By tomorrow he’ll have printed up a special edition of his newsletter with a tip line and information on missing children and grief counselors.
He watches pairs of officers file up Visitation. The canvass moves between the waterfront and the projects. Police rescue boats are dispatched. The detectives ask Jonathan to accompany them to the precinct for routine questioning. The musician’s shoulders droop as he gets into the back of their unmarked car.
After Jonathan leaves, the locals are more forward. They want to know if Val looked beaten or abused. They insist that Jonathan looked drunk. They all seem to know why he was down at the pier before sunrise.
“He wasn’t arrested,” Fadi tells his customers.
The customers like their version better.
“Better concentrate on the missing girl not the musician.” But the locals are more interested in Jonathan.
News ripples through the neighborhood. Fadi learns that the girls haven’t been seen since last night around eleven.
Customers keep coming into the bodega to buy things they don’t need. Fadi is selective about the information he gives out. He keeps things to himself. He refuses to talk about Jonathan.
“You can read the official account in the paper tomorrow,” he tells his customers. He wonders if he should double up on the next day’s tabloids. He keeps an eye on his phone, hoping the
During a lull in the action, he calls his office supply distributor and orders extra ink and toner for the copier. His newsletter will no longer be something people discard at the bus stop, but an essential community resource. He keeps his ears open for anything newsworthy, something that will grab his readers.
Christos has been loitering on the sidewalk in front of his café all day. Something’s still wrong with his grate. The place looks closed. From across the street, he waves to the officers, trying to siphon some of Fadi’s business. But no one trusts a dark restaurant. All the business is Fadi’s today.
He runs out of ice. He runs out of pastries. He’s low on rolls.
A black teenager turns up. She’s wearing a tight pink crop-top, short denim shorts, and fluorescent basketball sneakers. She buys a pack of watermelon gum. She unwraps the gum, pops a piece in her mouth. She points at the flyer. “Saw her last night,” she says. The gum is like a stone she needs to work around. “She tried to kick it with my crew over in Coffey Park. She and her friend. They had some kinda raft with ’em. She was acting crazy. Then she took off.” The girl stops chewing and purses her lips to one side. “Can I ask you something? You think I shoulda stopped her?” Fadi grabs a pen and turns over one of the flyers.