by Edward M. Turner
William poured sugar in his coffee, stirred it thoughtfully. Tom glanced at him. "How was your weekend?"
William gave a bleak smile. "Don't ask." Sipped his coffee. "We had a lousy time. Didn't pull into our driveway until two this morning."
"Tom, that's the least of it." William stared out the coffee shop's picture window at afternoon traffic. "It started Friday night when we got to the campground. At the sign-in shack, they said they didn't have a record of my reservation. Or my advance payment. The man who took it over the phone? On vacation."
"Man, what'd ya do?"
"Paid again by credit card. They had an open campsite, near the entrance, but a half mile from the pond. By then it was too dark to set up our tent."
"You had to sleep in your station-wagon?"
"Yeah. The kids drove me crazy. They couldn't sleep."
Tom sipped his coffee.
"We got plenty of exercise hiking to the damned water. Listened to people arriving and leaving all through the night, every night. Dust covered everything."
They both fell silent when a shapely girl in a short skirt and high heels walked past. The traffic noticeably slowed as the male drivers ogled her.
"Nice working in a college town…."
"Yup," Tom agreed, "sure is. And I'm inspecting the Lyceum Grill after break. Plenty of students employed there."
William sighed. "My last job is over on Harbor Street."
"Upper or lower?"
"Be careful." Tom finished his bagel, rubbed his hands. "Take your big flashlight and a can of mace."
"Don't worry, I won't hang around. Wish I wasn't so tired, though. Almost didn't wake up in time." William smiled. "The landscapers in the neighborhood must've had the day off. Pretty quiet this morning."
"I cut my own lawn."
William crumpled his coffee cup, pulled out his wallet. "My turn, right?"
"Hey, sure you can afford it? Camping in Maine and all?"
"That's why I skipped my jelly donut. I'll have it next time."
"It figures." Tom left a dollar-fifty tip. Winked at the pretty waitress.
William found a parking spot in front of the apartment building, a four-story Federal of faded red brick. The double doors were propped open with milk crates. Trash consisting of discarded newspapers, McDonald's wrappers, beer and wine bottles spilled out of the foyer and down the steps. A yellow mongrel dog sat outside the doors wagging its tail.
The dog whined, hungry maybe, or just needful for the least sign of affection. It wouldn't go inside.
William entered and climbed the stairs. The stairway and every floor reeked of piss, fried cooking odors, vomit, and as he lingered a moment on each landing—the smell of marijuana and the burny whiff of cooked spoons. The top level lay in darkness. He pulled out his flashlight, flicked it on.
The faint howl of a child cut the quiet like a knife. He listened to a rising yip, yip, yip as if punishment had descended on, or caught, a young guilty soul. The cries abruptly ceased as his footsteps echoed down the hallway's linoleum. He passed that door and knocked on another. He wished for a scented handkerchief for his nose.
The apartment door opened the length of its chain. A woman's bloated face peered at him. "What you want?"
William showed his badge. "Ma'am, I'm a building inspector with the city of Salem. I need access to your apartment in order to check the landlord's fire escape for safety reasons. It's a routine evaluation."
He said in a softer tone, "I must see your fire escape, Ma'am. To make sure it's up to code. If not, we'll see that it's fixed. It'll only take a few minutes. Okay?"
Her eyes registered nothing. The badge, however, got the chain off the latch and her to open. "Yah, I don't care." She stepped aside and let him enter, then glanced both ways in the hallway before slamming the door.
William saw a dimly lit hovel. A naked bulb hung from a wire in the ceiling and illuminated the first room which was the kitchen. A fresh stench revealed a darkened bathroom with no door. Someone used it noisily. Silence waited to see his reactions. He sensed this, gripped his flashlight tighter.
The lady wore a polka dot dress that clung to a surprisingly trim figure. Her hair was gray and ratty and her face had the lined and pitted look of one battered by life. She led him to the living room where he could see the fire escape outside a curtained window.
Then his eyes discovered and became transfixed by a picture over the mantelpiece—of Jesus Christ.
William had first seen the print in Methodist Sunday school years ago. It had Jesus with long auburn hair parted in the middle, a tanned face, soft liquid brown eyes, an aquiline nose, thin lips, firm chin. He wore a pleated off-white shepherd's robe.
Jesus gazed upwards, apparently to His Father in Heaven. The unknown artist had given Him an expression of pensive pain in a face of ethereal beauty.
William smiled, and did a double-take when he noticed a little boy standing beneath. "Well, hello, young fella."
The boy remained silent. By his size he must have been six. He wore only ragged grimy underpants like a loincloth. His penis hung out. On his shaved skull was a wound, the edges like swollen purple lips, stitched with coarse thread by a clumsy hand. Yet his face held the unbelievably expression of a spiritual innocent.
"What happened to you?"
The boy merely stared. The woman said, "Ma boyfriend hit him with a vodka bottle. Thought the little rug-rat wanted some of his booze."
William cleared his throat, suppressed the urge to choke. "The fire escape, Ma'am?"
"Yah, right." The woman gave him a derisive look. "Just open the fuckin' window." She broke wind.
He hurried to the window, lifted the sash and climbed out. A cold breeze blew in his face. He gratefully sucked oxygen into his lungs. Altostratus clouds scudded past a setting sun in a copper-tinged sky. The afternoon temperature was dropping.
He knew. The fire escape was more than sufficient, a quick glance told him that. He knew why. It happened to most city workers and not a few times in his line of responsibility. He knew.
Someone had called, worried about the child.
"This god-damn job." He held the flashlight in a death grip, turned to go in. His face was etched with fury.
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