Fiction from Issue #46

Absence
by Kathryn Nocerino


I had never seen anyone fall like that.  Kelli’s body seemed to accordion sideways, as if it had no underlying bone structure.  She went down so softly, so lacking in resistance that we could barely hear the thud.  Everyone nearby leapt from their seats and ran over, but by that time her eyes reopened, she had gotten up, brushed herself off, said she was “fine”, and matter-of-factly continued on her way.   Kelli stood out from the rest of us.  We were, by and large, a scruffy lot – hippies, misfits, and the hopelessly confused.  Kelli strode into the welfare center every morning turned out for a board meeting at a Fortune 500 company.  She wore modest a-line dresses in subtle colors from a merchant called Peck and Peck, which outfitted the City’s debutantes.  And to go along with the dresses were bags, belts and shoes of fine leather, every piece perfectly matched.  I swear she had one set made out of ostrich-hide and another of real crocodile.  Since one of those belts alone would devour a week of our salaries, we assumed her family had money.  And there was also the car – a Mercedes.  Our chariots came from the New York City Transit Authority.  Kelli was a little taller than average, with thick legs and an extremely forgettable face – pug nose, small, gray-blue perfectly expressionless eyes, and a little slot of a mouth usually kept firmly shut.  But Kelli’s hair made her beautiful: yellow blonde with metallic highlights:  18-karat hair, the crown of a princess.

I wasn’t particularly friendly with Kelli, nor were most of her other colleagues.  But she was tight with an older woman, a divorcee who joined the Department due to the lack of any other job prospects.  We often saw them in a conspiratorial huddle, the older woman passing something along.  

Barbara, the friend, shared an interest with me.  At that time we were both mad about Art Deco.  Her apartment in the middle of nowhere contained a magnificent black enamel dining-room set made by Raymond Loewy.  It was Barbara who solved the mystery of Kelli’s fall.  “She drinks”.  Kelli drank so regularly and with such dedication that whole stretches of time evaded her.  Barbara leaned over to me and whispered, “Kelli told me that one time she woke up in a motel room near Kennedy airport.  She was in bed with a hooker, a police lieutenant, and Frank Sinatra.”  I believed this for several reasons: a) Kelli  liked cops and gangsters; b) she hung out at a high-end Kennedy airport bar the media all said was mobbed-up and c) Sinatra had a weakness for natural blondes.

When I heard the story I was shocked out of my gourd; today I would just say, go Kelli!
The big draw for Kelli at that nightclub was the owner – or, rather, the front man, a handsome British import whose athlete’s body fitted into his thousand-dollar suits the way scales run the length of a cobra.
One day Kelli surprised me by offering to drive me along my route.  “Our cases are all next to each other.  Things will get done fast.”  I don’t remember which families I visited, but the last one of the day, a new case Kelli was taking on, stays with me.

The home was in Long Island City, in the middle of a decayed garden apartment complex shadowed by the Con Ed generating plant they call “Big Alice.” All the buildings were two stories high, made of beige brick the same color as the dusty, trampled former lawns which surrounded them.  Things which, in other places, would be shrubs had transformed themselves, through lack of watering, into mummified specimens.

It was mid-afternoon but the streets were empty.  From a distance, we saw a small boy and a toy poodle.  As we closed in on them, it became obvious that the child was twiddling the animal with a stick.  The dog’s near-microscopic pecker showed red like the tip of a lit cigar.  Kelli shrieked and tore the stick out of the kid’s hand.  The “child” showed no reaction.

After circling the identical buildings a few times, we found the address and knocked.  An experienced caseworker knows at once when there is no money in a home.  The apartment looked as if it hadn’t seen money for a long, long time.  The scant furnishings barely held themselves together.  I sat on a kitchen chair that the lady of the house had stabilized with string.  She wasn’t particularly old, but sorrow, worry, and the effort of keeping herself and her kids alive fostered an impression of great age, suddenly bringing to mind those 30s photos taken in Appalachia or the Dust Bowl.  Life had done such a thorough job on her that I couldn’t imagine her as anything else.   Her willingness to cooperate was in good shape, but she let long stretches go by without saying a word.  Fatigue, I thought; lack of hope.  The four boys roughhoused through the apartment, togged out like characters from a Dickens novel, threatening at any minute to destroy another piece of cheap furniture.  The inside of that home was one with its environs – colorless, played-out, forgotten.

I noticed something strange begin to happen as Kelli interviewed the woman.  This was in all respects a typical case: The Absent Father.  One day he left and failed to return.  No, we do not hear from him.  No, he does not support.  I could tell by simply looking at the applicant and around her that she was telling the truth.  Here’s the drill: you would then ask questions intended to help in locating the male parent: age, height, weight, distinguishing characteristics, profession.  “Edward was a hard worker, made really good money”, she said, “but after a while I think he got tired: work, kids, work, and nothing else.  Please find him.  I need him.  The boys need him.”  Were there any pictures of him?  No, he had taken them when he left.  The husband a naturalized citizen like his wife, came over with skills and managed to join a trade union.  With every question, Kelli seemed to get more and more alert.   Her face was naturally impassive but I thought I could see something, a barely perceptible tightening of the features.  The change started when the woman told us about a tattoo the absent father had – the Sacred Heart of Jesus in two colors on his right bicep.  Driving back in the car, Kelli didn’t say a word.
Things went on as usual in the office.  We made our home visits: more blight, more dysfunction, more all-around bad behavior.  Kelli did not invite me to share her route again, and we gradually fell out of contact.

One day she came in uncharacteristically late.  The tabloid news had been reporting the strange disappearance of the so-called “owner” of that nightclub at Kennedy Airport.  One day he was shaking hands with celebrity guests and the next he was gone without a trace.  Conjectures were made: a mugging; embezzlement; a mob hit. Wisecracks blossomed: “Just park your folding chair along the Gowanus Canal.  He’ll turn up, sooner or later.”  “Dig up Jimmy Hoffa and you’ll find him too!”

Kelli got quieter and quieter as the weeks passed by.  The life seemed to be ebbing out of her in a steady drip.

Naturally, it was Barbara who told me what had happened.  The case Kelli had visited with me, the strange reaction it provoked in her, was due to the realization that the Absent Father was running her favorite nightclub.  Kelli was obsessed with him and she knew he was about to dump her.  Now, she thought, I’ve got something on you, bro!.  She approached him one night in the club and told him she was the person who was keeping his wife and four kids alive with no assist from him.  And if he didn’t patch things up with Kelli, he would find his manly face splashed all over the headlines as a deadbeat dad.  Suddenly he was gone: his apartment in the east 50s untouched, the thirty suits still in the walk-in closet, the secondary watch, a mere Rolex rather than a Patek Philippe, still on the night table.  No one from the club, from John Gotti or Tony the Ant Spilotro all the way down to the busboy, had a clue.

Kelli passed our desks looking straight ahead.  We watched her get smaller and smaller until the elevator door clanged shut and she was out of sight.

 

KATHRYN NOCERINO, a native New Yorker, continues to provoke hostility by writing.  Two books of her poetry, Wax Lips and Death of the Plankton Bar & Grill, were published by New Rivers Press.  A third book, Candles in the Daytime, was released by Warthog Press.