The adults of Warren Street had no direct equivalent of the field behind the Green Apartment Building, but they did have their own means of impromptu socializing.
In the evenings after supper, if anyone were outside sitting on their front porch, this was a signal that anyone else on the street was free to stop by for a little chit-chat.
The kids would continue to play in the street while their parents either sat on their own porches, or walked a house or two away to see what was going on. In general, Timothy preferred to squeeze in a little extra playtime, but occasionally he found it interesting to listen in on adult conversation, which was mainly harmless neighborhood chatter.
On this night, Timothy’s mom had wandered across the street to join Mrs. O’Connor as she lightly watered her crocuses with the garden hose.
“Weren’t these all yellow last year?” Timothy’s mom asked.
“You know, I’d almost forgotten I planted these purple bulbs last fall,” Mrs. O’Connor said, “but here they are.”
“I almost like them better than the yellow,” his mom commented, nodding with approval. For a woman who had an almost radically feminist edge to her voice on Group nights, she could sound downright provincial when she wanted to.
“I wasn’t sure at first, but I think I do too,” Mrs. O’Connor agreed.
Timothy had been listening to conversations like these since before he was in kindergarten. He never used to think much of them. But the messier their front porch became, the more he found these inane conversations almost reassuring. They seemed to denote a level of acceptance, or at least denial, of the changes within his household.
“Did you read the Police Beat last night?” his mom asked Mrs. O’Connor.
“What was last night?”
“Fight at the Oriole, someone got beaten up pretty badly.”
“I saw that.”
“That was Ken from up the street.”
“Lives in the Green Apartment Building, blonde hair, drives the Volkswagen.”
“That was him?” said Mrs. O’Connor. “I didn’t know his name.”
At this point, Mrs. Williams from next door wandered into the conversation. Mrs. O’Connor quickly brought her up to speed in the who/what/where of what they’d just been talking about.
“Really?” said Mrs. Williams, sort of looking over at Timothy’s proximity, as if to question whether this was a conversation appropriate to have in his innocent presence. “Well...that’s a shame.”
“It is,” Mrs. O’Connor agreed.
Timothy sensed there was something unspoken here, the other neighborhood mothers seeming to know that Ken existed, even if they hadn’t known his name. Perhaps they had some ideas about his character, but were nonetheless startled by what had happened.
“Cathryn and I were thinking of maybe bringing some flowers over to the hospital,” Timothy’s mom said.
“Do you know him, Denise?”
Both Mrs. O’Connor and Mrs. Williams seemed a bit surprised by the suggestion.
“No, not really. It’s just that he seems to live...alone,” his mom said.
This was clearly a different story than what she’d told Timothy about Cathryn being a friend of his, or a friend of a friend, or whatever.
It was at moments like these, when Timothy observed his mom plainly telling the world something different than she’d say at home, that he seemed to have proof: it wasn’t just his imagination, their home life really was different, abnormal even.
“That’s very nice of you, but I don’t know him,” Mrs. O’Connor said, preemptively explaining why she would not be acting in kind.
“Neither do I,” Mrs. Williams quickly echoed.
All three women continued to look down the street toward the Green Apartment Building, shaking their heads slowly in unison.
After an appropriate pause, Mrs. Williams said to Mrs. O’Connor:
“Ellen, I was just coming over to admire your purple crocuses.”
“So was I,” Timothy’s mom chimed in, deftly realigning herself with the other mothers in the realm of acceptable conversation on Warren Street.
“I was just telling Denise that I’d almost forgotten I’d planted them,” Mrs. O’Connor said, repeating herself, “but I think I might like them better than the yellow.”
Both Timothy’s mom and Mrs. Williams agreed.
# # #
The only other thing Timothy heard about a possible hospital visit was a snippet of conversation he caught while coming down the stairs the next day.
“Did you want to go with Sarah?” his mom was asking Cathryn.
“She already went.”
A day or so after that, on his way home from school, Timothy rounded the corner to find several police cars out in front of the Green Apartment Building. Of course the neighborhood kids were crowding around, because what could possibly be more interesting than an actual police scene?
“What’s going on?” Timothy asked.
“The guy who got his head kicked in the other night,” Carl said. “He died.”
Despite Mr. O’Connor’s warning, Timothy broke from the pack and ran straight inside. The other kids marveled, they never would’ve thought to do this.
In the hallway, a cop was questioning the prostitute, who was weeping in her doorway as she answered his questions.
The door to Ken’s apartment was wide open, Timothy went right in. The floors were just as shiny, the walls just as white. The cleanliness of the apartment seemed incongruous to the situation, somehow Timothy was expecting a bloody mess, but there were no signs of violence to connect the place with what had happened at the Oriole Tavern.
Timothy made a bee line for the kitchen, where a gloved police officer was examining the testing kit, carefully placing the bottles and test tubes one at time into a cardboard evidence box before taking it away.
The notes on the cork board, on which Ken’s meticulous investigation had been mapped out, had already been taken down as well.
“What are you doing in here? Get out,” the cop said, then changed course, “Hey, wait a minute, you know who lived in this apartment?”
“I don’t know anything…”
Timothy backed out of the kitchen before the cop could ask him any more questions. He ran out of the apartment and down the hallway. Back out on the street, the other kids were desperate for information.
“What’d you see? What’d you see?”
“Nothing, they’re just putting stuff in boxes.”
He brushed past them and ran down the street. The neighborhood mothers were congregating on the sidewalk at a respectful distance, looking up the street toward the Green Apartment Building, speculating among themselves.
His own mom was still at work, but Cathryn was standing with the others. Timothy looked up at her, trying to find the words.
“I know already,” she said softly, “it’s in the paper today.”
Timothy ran inside his house. The newspaper was there on the table, folded open to the article, which seemed to be buried deeper in the local section than you would imagine, considering the magnitude of such a thing.
Timothy tried to slow down and understand the article, but it seemed to have more to do with legal stuff than anything else, how the charges against Luke Grafton might be changing because Kenneth Wilson had succumbed to his injuries.
None of it made any sense to Timothy, wrestling with conflicting emotions. He felt sad, shocked and afraid, yet also worried what people might think if he appeared connected to Ken Wilson, which made him feel guilty on top of everything else.
The next night, Group met again in their living room. This wasn’t their usual night, it seemed to be some sort of emergency meeting.
Tempers were running high. His mom asked him to please stay in his room. With the hall light out, Timothy sat at the top of the stairs, listening in.
“Involuntary manslaughter is bullshit,” one woman said.
There was general agreement.
“That’s the way the law works, Carla,” another woman tried to explain, it sounded like Sarah, who Timothy had taken the cigarette from.
“You think if this happened to a straight guy working at IPM it’d still be involuntary manslaughter? That fucking hillbilly would be looking at a murder charge.”
Again, boisterous general agreement.
“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do,” Sarah said, “but to get a murder charge to stick, Shaughnessy would have to prove intent, which is not going to happen, so Man 1 is probably the most we can hope for. He still might get eight years.”
“Eight years is nothing...”
The conversation continued in much the same manner, emotional responses bumping up against the improbability of achieving whatever vague kind of justice most of the women in the room seemed to be clambering for.
Timothy retreated to his room and shut the door.
As bad as it was that this Ken guy had been killed, it seemed like their level of frustration was connected to bigger issues that Timothy didn’t quite understand.
Whatever it was, based on what he’d been hearing, it didn’t seem like the problem was going to be solved downstairs in his living room on that evening.
# # #
Timothy’s newfound interest in the local paper continued. It wasn’t much harder to read than anything they threw at him in school, and you could gain instant access to almost anything adults seemed to know about. Like, who was going to run against President Ford, or how IPM was applying for a permit to expand its local facility.
The one story that seemed to disappear without a trace was what had happened to Ken from the Green Apartment Building. As far as that story was concerned, the town just seemed to put it out of its collective mind and get back to business as usual.
Even Group, when it met on its regular night at their house the following week, seemed to get back to some sort of normal. The incense, the long hugs, the meaningful sharing of female topics, these were all very much in evidence. But the heated debate about the Ken situation, that had blown over, like there was simply nothing more that could be done.
And honestly, Timothy himself had other things to concern himself with. Like how to create a secret compartment in an old encyclopedia using a box cutter and some glue, another project he had gleaned from the Real Men’s Guidebook.
Then, one Sunday night, Timothy was sitting in the living room with his mom and Cathryn, watching Columbo, trying not to think about having to go to school the next day.
This week, Columbo was called upon to investigate a suspicious death at a meatpacking plant.
“There’s something that bothers me...” Columbo said to the owner of the plant toward the end of the show. “Here’s a man who’d worked in this plant for what, twelve years? How is it possible he didn’t know something so basic like how to open the freezer door from the inside?”
The meatpacking plant owner had a ready explanation, of course, something about the onset of hypothermia having caused disorientation and how, while tragic, there were unfortunately many documented cases of this sort of thing.
Columbo appeared to accept the explanation at face value with his customary droopy-eyed grin.
“You might have a point there, Mr. McGee, maybe he did get get disoriented in that freezer,” Columbo said. “But he wasn’t disoriented two days before, when he mailed this to the LAPD.”
The gotcha moment. Unclasping the manilla envelope he’d had concealed in his signature raincoat all along, Columbo revealed copies of the damning evidence uncovered by the dead worker of contamination at the meatpacking plant. His untimely demise in the meat locker was not accidental in the slightest. It was premeditated murder.
Sitting there on the floor in the living room, a bell went off in Timothy’s head.
Was it possible?
He looked over at his mom and Cathryn who seemed oblivious to the connection. But then, they hadn’t seen what Timothy had seen with his own eyes.
The green foam in the stream... the incriminating water tests... the investigation Ken had mapped out so clearly on his kitchen wall...
What if…someone at IPM knew that Ken was about to contact the D.E.C.? Could they possibly have hired a guy to do a hit job and make it look like a random bar fight?
And why had the police cleared away the evidence of Ken’s investigation so quickly? Was it possible even they were even in on it?
It was pretty farfetched, he had to admit, maybe it didn’t make complete sense.
But a life had been taken, someone he had just been talking to a few days before. And so far the official explanation was that sometimes these things just happen.
That made no sense whatsoever.
# # #
The next day after school, it was gray outside, not enough kids had shown up to play whiffle ball. Timothy, Carl, and Mark stood around waiting, staring up at the back of the Green Apartment Building, as if something else might happen.
Carl threw a rock at one of the trash barrels behind the building, it connected with a loud metallic clang.
“So, you really didn’t see anything in there?” Carl asked.
Carl and Mark seemed to have a growing suspicion that Timothy was holding out on something.
“Like, you really didn’t see the body?” Mark asked.
“Retard,” Carl said to Mark, punching him in the arm, “the guy got creamed in a bar, why would they bring his body back to the apartment building?”
“I just made it as far as the hallway,” Timothy said for the twelfth time, “then the cops made me come back out.”
“So why’d you run in there?”
“I dunno, I just did.”
Carl threw another rock, it missed the trash barrel but smacked into the side of the building. He shrugged his shoulders.
“My dad says that queer got what he deserved,” Carl said.
“Don’t say that,” Timothy blurted out before he could think better of it.
“Don’t say what?”
“That...word,” Timothy said.
“Why,” Carl said, “are you a queer too?”
Timothy just stared at Carl, so wanting to hit him in the head at that moment, but knowing that Carl was bigger and would for sure hit him back harder. Mark stood there looking from face to face, wondering what was about to happen.
“Just shut the fuck up,” Timothy said, walking away from the two of them in frustration.
“Yeah? Make me,” Carl said, but Timothy just kept walking, and Carl and Mark just kept standing there.
Timothy walked down the embankment to the brook. He stood there looking at the water until he began to get lost in its gurgling sound. He knew things about this brook and the life connected to it. As with previous springs, soon there would be tadpoles. Not long after that there’d be frogs.
A bit of green froth making its way along the course of the brook caught his attention. This time, he didn’t pelt it with a rock.
If Ken were here, Timothy thought, he’d want to test that foam, use it for evidence.
Timothy crouched down and tried to reach for the foam as it floated past, but he couldn’t quite grasp it.
Following the foam, Timothy looked for a forked stick to help grab it but couldn’t find one. He could take off his sneakers, but from previous experience he knew the stream bed sometimes had bits of broken glass in it. Without further thought, he waded right into the water with his sneakers still on, reaching down and grabbing the green foam with both hands before it could get away from him.
He lifted the foam to his nose and sniffed at it. It smelled like chemicals.
The icy coldness of the springtime water began to penetrate his ankles. It was almost painful, but something about it woke him up, made him feel more alert, alive. With Carl and Mark still watching him from a distance like he was crazy, Timothy continued to stand there, listening to the water ripple around him.
The foam dripped through his fingers back down into the water. He didn’t yet know how to test it himself, how it might be connected to IPM or with Ken’s murder. But it was clear to him that this case wasn’t closed.
Maybe his own life had become incomprehensible, a mystery that couldn’t be solved, but this was tangible, something you could touch.
Somebody had to put these puzzle pieces together.
Somebody had to clean up this brook.
Somebody had to see that justice was served.
And that somebody was Timothy Miller.
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