Man Upstate

After Denker had dressed in his white shirt and black twill pants and had donned his yarmulke, he came into the kitchen to find his wife sitting at the table. Her chair was scooted a few inches away from the table to accommodate her pregnant belly. On the table was the half-finished pair of pink baby booties she had been knitting for the past week. She was reading the morning newspaper and sipping from a cup of tea.

When she heard him enter, the woman, a blonde-haired, brown-eyed Swedish national, tipped her head over the back of the chair and said hello. “Oatmeal on stove.”

Denker blessed and ate the meal and drank his morning tea. Across the table, his wife turned the newspaper around to show him a picture printed on the one of the pages. It was a black and white portrait of a young boy. The boy wore a Yankees baseball cap and wire frame glasses. He was looking down, away from the camera, but smiling.

Any success?” Denker’s wife asked him, pointing at the photo.

Denker took a swallow of his tea and cleared his throat. He looked at the paper. “What page is that on?”

His wife checked the page. “Five.”

The boy has been missing four days,” Denker said, “and already they have resigned him to the fifth page.”

Think you will find him?” his wife asked.

Who’s to say? The other day, Romero and some of the other fellows in the unit told me not to get my hopes up. Said that to find people that go missing in this city is nothing to bet on. And to find them alive…” He paused. He twirled his spoon around the bowl and brushed at his brow with a finger.

His wife smiled at him and placed the newspaper on the table, over the needlework. She laced her hands over her stomach.

When I was girl,” she said, “in the fädernesland, I work for neighbor. Neighbor was sheep farmer. He grew sheep.”

Raised sheep,” Denker said.

Yes. Raised sheep. And my job was to take them to field, for eating, when he was busy. There, I watch them. Well, one day, baby sheep…”


…goes lost. Is missing. So I leave the other sheep to eating while I look for missing lamb. I look for two hours, but cannot find it. When I come back to field where other sheep eating, I see that wolf has come, killed five, six of them.”

His wife grew silent. Denker watched her from across the table and became disquieted by her stillness.

Finally, she lifted her eyes to him again. “More tea?” she asked.

Denker shook his head. “No. No, I had better get going.” He stood up to leave.

His wife stood, too. “Bring home brisket tonight,” she said.

From Hines’?” Hines’ was the butcher shop a block away from the precinct, where Denker went once or twice a week to buy chicken and flank steaks and thick cuts of sirloin for their evening meals.

Yes,” his wife said. “Hines’. My father requests brisket for dinner.”

Denker kissed her on the temple, a few strands of her yellow curls sticking to his mouth. He reached for the newspaper on the table.

May I have this?”

She nodded, pulled him into her, and kissed his cheek. “You are always good man,” she said. “No matter what happens, remember this.”

Denker tipped his chin, gave her a pat on the stomach, and said goodbye.

He left the apartment and walked the four blocks to the subway station, where he caught the train to Flatbush Avenue, the end of the line. When he emerged on the street, a frail man in a tattered corduroy overcoat standing outside the terminal held out his hand and asked if he had any change to spare. Denker said that he did not, and he swatted the man’s hand away with the newspaper. The man smells like onions, Denker thought.

Before making his way to the precinct, Denker stopped at an ATM on a street corner beneath a red awning that hung out over the sidewalk. He withdrew enough cash to pay for the brisket later that night, as Mr. Hines, an older, wizened fellow, did not accept credit cards. Denker then withdrew ten more dollars, to buy a lottery ticket at the bodega next to the butcher shop. He placed the cash inside his wallet, between a picture of his wife standing in a sundress in front of a windmill in Sweden, and the small, black and white copy of his wife’s ultrasound, taken a month ago.

When Denker arrived at the precinct, he climbed the four flights of stairs to the Office of the Department of Homicide. The floor that the homicide unit occupied was rather cramped, with Major Michelson and Sergeant Thomas’ offices pushed against the far wall that overlooked the street, while the rest of the floor was crosscut with two rows of cubicles organized so that, if you viewed them from above, they met to form the shape of a “T.”

Denker approached Romero’s cubicle and found the man hovering over his desk and a white Styrofoam cup of hot water. He was pinching coffee grounds from an old tin can of snuff and sprinkling them into the water. Romero was wearing an oxford shirt with one sleeve rolled past his elbow. On his forearm was a white and bloodied bandage.

What happened there?” Denker asked. With his thumb, he repositioned the yarmulke atop the crown of his thinning hair.

Dog bite,” Romero said, not turning around.

I didn’t know you owned a dog,” Denker said, hiking one arm uncomfortably onto the wall of the cubicle.

I do.” Romero paused, his hand hovering motionless over the cup, his mouth a tight, grim line on his face. Then he licked up the coffee grounds still adhered to his fingers and dipped his pinky into the water to stir it. When he finished, he turned in the chair to face Denker. He sat with his knees wide apart and with the cup of coffee balanced on his paunch.

We get any hits overnight?” Denker asked.


The security camera footage,” Denker said, rolling the newspaper into a tube in his hand. He wished Romero would close his legs.

Christ,” Romero said, and he checked his watch, “it’s only 8:00. People are still waking up out there. And besides, not everyone watches the evening news. Some people read the Times. License plate number and car model are printed there too.” Something must have shifted in Denker’s face, because Romero sighed and said, “Don’t worry, kid. By dinner time every soul in New York and half of New Jersey will be looking for whoever took our kid. Ripples in a pond.” Romero took a long sip of coffee and wiped at his gray moustache with the heel of his hand.

Denker nodded, nervously touched his yarmulke again, and went to his own cubicle at the back of the floor, near the elevators. Denker’s cubicle was rather bare. On the desk was a computer, a file holder filled with manila folders, and a framed picture of Denker’s mother, now four years dead, smiling and sandwiched between his wife and himself. On the corkboard walls of the cubicle were pinned a map of Brooklyn and a single sheet of paper, on which Denker had written, in black marker, “Don’t be sweet, lest you be eaten up.” There was a floor lamp in the corner of the cubicle. That was all.

Denker sat in his chair and spread the newspaper on his desk. He flipped through the paper and found the picture of the boy in the Yankees cap and glasses, above which ran the headline “Footage of Missing Brooklyn Boy and Abductor Caught on Convenience Store Camera.”

Denker read the article about the missing boy. It was a slim, grim article. In three sentences it detailed how nine-year-old Ryan Gretzky, while returning from a lock-in at his church in Midwood, had gone missing. The boy had convinced his mother and father to allow him to walk through the city alone, on the condition that he was to meet his mother at the Pennsylvania Café, only ten blocks from the church. When Ryan had not shown up to the café at the agreed upon time, his mother filed the report.

The only lead had come from the owner of a small market on Beford who, while reviewing the footage from the security cameras outside his store, claimed he had caught video of young Ryan getting into a car with another man, the boy’s presumed abductor.

The article ended there. Below the photo of the boy was a still from the security camera footage, showing a man standing in front of a yellow Sorento and bending down toward the smaller figure of Ryan, who held a backpack slung over his shoulder. The car’s license plate number was printed in bold below the still, just as Romero had said.

Denker removed a pair of scissors and a thumbtack from a drawer in his desk. He cut out the photo of Ryan and pinned it to the corkboard wall of his cubicle, between the map and the proverb.


By lunch there had still been no calls.

Romero came by Denker’s cubicle at noon. Denker noticed that Romero had removed the bandage from his arm and replaced it with brown paper towels from the bathroom. They were taped over one another with masking tape. Denker closed the folder that lay on the desk in front of him.

What do you say we make a ride out for lunch?” Romero said.

So the two of them took a car and got onto the parkway, heading for Queens. Romero was driving. After almost a half hour’s drive they came off the parkway and Denker asked, “Where are we going to all the way out here?”

Romero didn’t answer.

They passed a sunbleached apartment building. Some of the residents sat in green lawn chairs on balconies, fanning themselves against the summer heat and watching with squinted eyes the two men driving by. Up ahead, two black children pedaled across the street on bicycles. One boy stood hovering over the banana seat and leaning into his motions. The other boy trailed behind, going slowly and steadily but grinning as he went. Denker wanted to stop the car and shout at the kids to go home, to get off the streets for their own good. But Romero took a left turn, and the kids disappeared behind the corner of a building.

Romero suddenly made a huffing sound with his nose and asked, “Do you know who the guy was that you replaced?”

What do you mean?” Denker asked.

When you came to Homicide a few months ago, you were replacing this other guy. Filling his shoes. You know who he was?”

Denker thought for a moment and said, “No.”

His name was Donald Parker. Donny. This snot-nosed kid from out of Buffalo. He was the quiet type, not unlike you.” Romero swept his eyes to look at Denker. Denker opened his mouth to defend himself in some way, but he could not think of anything to say and simply turned his head and scratched his chin with his shoulder and looked out the window.

So Donny glides through the academy and his field training like an all star, gets Major Michelson’s lips moving. About a year off of training, Michelson calls Donny up to the fourth floor, says he wants the kid to come to Homicide. And of course, Donny says sure.

So he gets a case: a gangster shot behind a mechanic’s shop in Crown Heights. Donny and his partner get some tips, round up some leads, identify a suspect. They get a warrant for the guy and, so the story goes, when they show up to the suspect’s apartment the guy runs and locks himself in the bathroom. Well, little Donny can’t get the bathroom door open. He’s in a panic. He decides to unclip his gun and shoot off the knob. He does, and when he opens the door the suspect is dead on the bathroom floor, his back against the tub with Donny’s bullets in his chest.” Romero laughed and snorted. “A judge ruled the shooting as unlawful. They didn’t arrest Donny or anything, but they took up his badge and gun. He’s back upstate with his wife and kids, so I hear, working as a dry cleaner.”

They had stopped at a red light. A woman pushing a baby stroller was crossing the street in front of the their car. When she got to about the middle of the road she stopped and lifted her leg to check the heel of one of her shoes. The light clicked to green and Romero honked the horn at the woman. She started walking again, eyeing the car with disgust. Denker slunk down in his seat.

Romero drove down another street and parked the car on the curb. They were in front of a place called Presley’s, a sandwich shop according to the sign. They got out of the car and went inside. It was a small eatery, brightly lit. It smelled like bread. There was a counter that ran along the right wall, where you placed your order. Two men were working behind the counter, one bald, the other with a ponytail sticking out from behind a black cap. Both wore red polos and pale aprons.

Denker watched Romero walk to the counter and place his hands on the glass case that housed the meats. The bald man, who was sweeping around behind the counter, stopped what he was doing and looked at Romero. They seemed to know each other.

Maury,” the bald man said. “What are you doing around here this time of day? I figured you to be at work.”

Just out to lunch,” Romero said. He gave a mean smile.

How’s the arm?” the bald man asked. With the wooden end of the broomstick, he indicated the paper towels wrapped around Romero’s elbow down to his wrist.

Fine. It’s getting better. Who’d have known your Charlie would have such a bite on him, huh?”

Yes, well,” the bald man said, “I’ve already told you. That wasn’t Charlie that did that. It was your own damn dog, Maury.”

There was a moment of tense silence. The ponytailed man by the cash register lifted his head and had his eyes on Romero, to see what he was going to do. Denker came up behind Romero.

Who’s this?” the bald man said.

My partner,” Romero said through tight lips. Dots of spittle flashed on the glass case.

Look, I’ve already said I’m sorry for what happened. It couldn’t be stopped though. Nothing else could have been done, you see?”

Yes,” Romero said, straightening up and taking his hands off the glass case and stuffing them inside his pockets. “I do see. I guess we’ll order, then.”

Romero placed his order, and Denker followed after him. The bald man studied Denker suspiciously, as if he worried that Romero had brought him along to help carry out some violent task.

Denker and Romero sat at a table in the corner of the restaurant, by the big windows in front. Denker closed his eyes and said, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, by Whose word all things came to be.” When he opened his eyes again, Romero was watching him.

Does that help you?” Romero asked. “Praying?”

Help with what?”

I don’t know. With anything.”

I find that it does.”

They ate. Every now and again, Romero would look back at the bald man between bites of his sandwich, the whiskers of his moustache twitching contemplatively.

After they finished eating they left and got back into the car and drove off. Two streets away, Romero stopped the car again, this time outside of a sporting goods store.

What are we doing now?” Denker asked.

Sit tight.” Romero got out of the car and went in.

Denker checked his watch. It was almost one-thirty. He placed his forehead against the window and looked out. He noticed, on the sidewalk, a light pole with a torn flyer taped to it. Denker unbuckled his seatbelt and got out. He walked to the light pole and removed the flyer. Across the top of the paper were written the words, “Have You Seen Me?” Beneath them was the black and white photo of Ryan, only the flyer had been ripped diagonally and half of the boy’s face was missing.

There was a ringing of a bell, and when Denker turned around he saw Romero coming out of the store holding a baseball bat by his side, bouncing it against his leg. Denker dropped the torn flier and went back to the car.

What’s this?” Denker asked, getting in. Romero tossed the bat onto the back seat and started the car. “Look, we should be getting back. Suppose someone calls about Ryan?”

We’ll get back soon, kid,” Romero said. “I just want to show you where I live first.”

They drove for another ten minutes, into a part of town with houses packed tightly together like puzzle pieces.

That’s my place,” Romero said, pointing to a blue house with white shutters. There was a strip of grass in front of the house no bigger than a living room rug. Denker noticed a mound of freshly turned dirt in a corner of the yard, with a shovel lying near by.

Romero drove by the house and turned a corner a hundred or so yards away. He parked the car on the side of the street and killed the engine. He reached back and grabbed the baseball bat.

Who was that man,” Denker asked, “in the restaurant?”

My neighbor,” Romero said, rotating the handle of the bat in his palm. “This morning my dog hopped over the fence in the backyard and started a little quarrel with his dog. I jumped in, tried stopping it.” Denker looked at Romero’s wrapped up arm again. He wanted to peel back the paper towels and see what was underneath, but he was frightened.

What happened?” he asked.

Romero ran two fingers down the bridge of his nose and said, “The bastard got his pistol and shot my dog.” Then, he opened his door and got out of the car. He began walking down the street, toward his house, the bat dragging along the asphalt behind him.

Denker didn’t know what to do. He cupped his hand around the top of his yarmulke and took three breaths. He felt he needed to pray but didn’t know what it was he needed to pray for.  He was frightened still. It was a strange kind of fear. It was a fear from confusion, from not understanding why you were afraid, but being afraid all the same.

It was a fear he could only remember having felt once, when he was a boy. It had been Yom Kippur, and he and his cousin had snuck away to the basement of the synagogue, where they stumbled upon crates of live, white chickens. When Denker had asked his cousin why the chickens were here and what they were for, the older boy said, “For the Kapparot.” His cousin unlatched one of the crates and pulled out a chicken. It wriggled in his hands until the boy grabbed it by both wings and said, “I’ve done it before. I know the prayer.” He raised the bird above his head and began. “Children of man who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, bound in misery and chains of iron…” As the boy recited the prayer and swung the bird in tight circles in the air, Denker became more and more afraid. He did not understand what he was witnessing, but whatever it was he felt that it could not and would not end well. And sure enough, when the boy’s prayer came to an end, he lowered the chicken to his chest and pulled and twisted its neck until the writhing bird fell limp in his palm. All Denker could do then was to hide his eyes behind his hands and cry.

Denker got out of the car and caught up with Romero, who was by now only a few houses away from his own.

I don’t know what you’re planning, but don’t do it,” Denker begged. “You are too good for this. Let’s get back on the parkway and go back. Don’t do this.”

When they reached Romero’s house, Romero crossed the yard and went to the mound of dirt. He stood over it as if it were a grave. He bent over and patted the top of it. He then walked down the dark and narrow passage between the two houses, Denker in tow. They came out behind the house, next to a fenced in yard. In a corner of the neighbor’s yard, in the speckled shade of a small tree, lay a sleeping dog. There was a bite mark on the dog’s side. The blood there was not red, but rather a shade of purple, like a plum.

My neighbor will press charges,” Romero said. “But you were there. He saw you. When he does press charges you’ll say you were with me the whole afternoon, and that we weren’t here.” He looked over his shoulder at Denker. “You will say that.”

Let’s get back on the parkway,” Denker said again. “Suppose someone calls about the boy?”

Someone already called,” Romero said, dropping his shoulders and tucking his chin into his chest. “A woman. She called before lunch. She found the car somewhere in her neighborhood, in Midwood, parked in front of a brownstone. She gave the address.”

Denker shook his head and closed his eyes. “There was a call and you didn’t tell me? How could you not tell me?” He opened his eyes. “We need to go now! Forget the dog. It isn’t worth it.”

We go nowhere,” Romero said, “until this is done.”

But the boy—”

Romero lifted the end of the bat onto the top metal rail of the fence and climbed over. Once on the other side, he turned on his heels to face Denker. “He’ll press charges, but you’ll say that we were never here. Then, we will go find the boy.”

There was a profound sadness in Romero’s thick face at that moment. His eyes looked heavy in their sockets. The corners of his lips were drawn down and red. A pall had come over him, as if he somehow feared what he had resigned himself to do here. Denker couldn’t think of the words to say to stop the man. It would be as if shouting into the winds of a hurricane, or the flames of a fire, to stop their raging. Denker could think only of his blonde wife, and of the black and white ultrasound in his wallet, and of the black and white photo of Ryan pinned to the wall of his cubicle and to the various light poles in the city in which he was lost. He remembered what his wife had told him that morning, standing with him at the kitchen table.

I will say we were never here,” Denker heard himself whisper. Romero tucked his bottom lip beneath the top and nodded gratefully. He turned and made his way toward the dog. The dog was now awake, head lifted, ears erect, watching the man approach. Denker waited until Romero was standing over the dog, the bat poised above his head, then he turned and walked back through the passageway to the front yard. There was a snarl, and a yip, and then silence.

A couple of minutes later, Romero emerged from the passageway, the bat spattered with the plum-colored blood and tossed over his shoulder, like a grotesque caricature of Babe Ruth. He took a seat on the mound of dirt. He looked down at the shovel lying in the grass.

A shovel,” he said. “After all this, I forgot I had a shovel.” He began to laugh, pounding his knees with a clenched fist. He laughed so hard, for so long, that tears began rolling down his big cheeks.

The suspect’s brownstone was down a little side street bordered on either side by short elms. This was a nicer part of town, where women jogged down the sidewalk in pairs and people sat on stoops reading the paper. A woman in a second floor apartment was leaning out of an open window, smoking a cigarette and watering a geranium that rested on the sill.

Denker, who had been driving since Romero’s house while the older man dozed in the passenger seat, saw the suspect’s yellow Sorento parked on the street. He parked across from it.

This is it,” Denker said. His voice shook.

Romero, now awake, rolled down his window and stuck his head out and looked at the car and the brownstone behind it. “Yes, it is,” he said, as if what Denker had said needed confirmation.

They got out of the car. Denker paced around the Sorento, checked the license plate and number. Romero stood in the middle of the street, his head tilted back, his eyes closed, his mouth open, his face in the sun.

The door of the brownstone opened. A thin bearded man stepped into the threshold. He wore a beret and suit vest, his thumbs hooked into the pockets. He stood in the doorway like a host greeting friends.

You’re here,” the man said.

This your vehicle?” Denker asked, his hand on one of the windows of the car.

It is.”

What’s your name?”

Paul Geroux. What’s yours?”

I’m Detective Denker. This is Detective Romero.” At the sound of his name, Romero tilted his head forward again and stepped out of the street and onto the sidewalk, beside an elm. A hint of a smile came across Geroux’s face and then was gone.

The boy is in the kitchen here. Just here.”

Denker turned to Romero. “Could you please step down here, sir?” Romero said. Geroux obeyed and descended the steps and came beside Romero, who took him by the arm. The three of them went up the steps together and through the door.

The place was dark and smelled of ammonia. Denker turned left, into a front room containing only a leather chair, a television sitting atop a stack of magazines, and an empty golden birdcage in the corner.

Moving out?” Romero asked.

Moving in,” Geroux said, and sneezed.

The kitchen was in the back room, and as they came closer the smell of ammonia grew stronger. The shade of the window over the sink was drawn down, and every light in the room was on. Denker looked around. There was a table and two chairs, a small clock on the wall, a waste bin by the pantry door, and a bare, white refrigerator.

There’s no one here,” Denker said. Geroux remained quiet. Denker asked him, “What is the boy’s name?”

He said his name was Gretzky,” Geroux said. “Ryan Gretzky. That’s what he told me.” And he began to cry a little.

Denker looked around again, at the table, clock, waste bin, refrigerator.

I cleaned. I cleaned it all up, but I can still smell it,” Geroux said between whimpers.

Christ,” Romero said prophetically.

Denker felt it all slipping from him. He licked his lips and asked Geroux, slowly, “Where is the boy?” Geroux’s eyes fell on the refrigerator.

Denker went to it and opened the door. Inside, Ryan had been organized into three clear plastic trash bags.


In a moment Denker was outside again, vomiting over the ledge of the stoop. The woman who had been watering the geranium was still at the window, and when she heard him she looked down at him with pity. A small gang of boys rode by on bicycles, baseball cards clothes-pinned to the back spokes. One boy noticed Denker and stopped.

Are you alright, mister?” the boy asked.

When Denker did not answer, only wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, the boy put his feet back on the pedals and rode off, the baseball card flapping against the spokes like the sound of a pigeon taking flight.

Denker called the precinct, requested that some officers arrive at the brownstone to set up a scene, then went back inside. Romero had seated Geroux at the table. The detective was standing by the wall, observing the clock and tapping his finger against its glass front.

I called the office,” Denker said. “They’ll be here shortly.”

Good, kid.”

We can go ahead and take him in if you like.”

Sure,” Romero said. Then he said, “In a minute, we will.” He went to the refrigerator and opened it. He reached a hand in, running it across one of the trash bags, and pulled out two bottles of beer. He untucked his shirt and wrapped the end around his hand and popped the top of both bottles. He took a seat at the table, across from Geroux, who had stopped crying and was now sitting with his beret clutched against his chest. To Denker’s amazement, Romero slid one of the beers to Geroux. Geroux accepted it and put it to his lips and drank.

Denker didn’t want to be Romero’s partner again. That much he knew for certain. He thought about Donny, the poor kid that had accidentally shot a man through a bathroom door, and who was now a dry cleaner somewhere upstate.

As if someone had asked him, Geroux said, “I just wanted to see if I was capable of it. That was all.”

They took Geroux downtown. He agreed to write a confession, and he wrote one, but Denker didn’t read it. He went to Romero’s cubicle and found him sitting at his desk, staring blankly at the wall across from him, his hands tucked into his lap. He seemed almost startled when Denker said his name.

Someone has to call the boy’s parents and tell them,” Denker said.

Yeah, they do,” Romero said.

Denker looked down at his feet. “It can’t be me. I can’t do it.”

At this, Romero half-laughed, half-groaned. “Tell me something. What was that prayer you said earlier, at lunch?” Without glancing up, Denker repeated it. “Yes, that was it,” Romero said. “What a beauty.”

Denker raised his eyes to the man. “Please, Maury, goddamnit,” he said.

Romero turned in his chair and looked at Denker from top to bottom. “Remember our deal, kid,” he said. Denker nodded, and then he walked away. He left the office early that evening.

Denker walked the block to Hines’ butcher shop and went in. Mr. Hines was alone in the shop, behind the counter in a clean white apron, cutting steaks. When Denker entered, Mr. Hines stopped what he was doing and looked up.

Evening,” Mr. Hines said.


Mr. Hines checked his watch. “You’re here early.”


Well, what’ll it be?”

Beef brisket.”

Yeah? And how much do you want?”

I don’t know. Oh, I do not know.”

I’ll tell you what. I’ll start trimming and you just say when.” Mr. Hines went to the back room and returned carrying a large slab of meat wrapped in brown paper. He picked up his knife and with it slid the steaks on the counter aside and set the packaged meat down. He pulled back the paper and began carving at the red meat with the knife. Denker watched for a moment. Then he became faint and ill and rushed out the door and stood coughing and hacking on the sidewalk with his hands on his thighs. When he recovered, he did not go back into Hines’ for the brisket. He did not go into the bodega next door for a lottery ticket, either. He knew he wouldn’t win.

Denker walked to the subway station and got on the next train heading into Manhattan, where his apartment was. He sat in the back of the subway car. There was a woman in the car, wearing a rain jacket and rain bonnet although it was not raining. There was another man in the car, too, and when he saw Denker he got up and sat next to him.

Denker ignored him at first, stared with tired eyes at one of the dark windows of the subway car. The man tapped him on the shoulder, and Denker shifted in his seat.


The man said, “My brother up in Monsey is dead. He went drinking this morning, and he drove his car off the road into a lake. We don’t know if it was an accident or not. Can you…” the man said, and he turned his head away, as if he were ashamed. “Could you give anything to help me get there?”

Denker thought for a moment. He reached for his wallet and took out the cash he had withdrawn earlier that morning. The man looked amazed.

What was your brother’s name?” Denker asked.

Frank. He was good people.”

Here. Take this,” Denker said, handing the man the money. “And buy Frank some nice flowers, for the funeral.”

The man grinned. Two or three of his teeth were missing; the others looked rotten. “I surely will,” he said.


When Denker arrived at his apartment later that evening, his wife and father-in-law were lounging close together in the front room, talking in Swedish. The woman stood up, holding her stomach with both hands, and kissed Denker on the cheek. His father-in-law rose to his feet and shook his hand.

Kind of you to visit,” Denker said. The old man, who knew little English, did not reply.

Denker’s wife, realizing that he was empty handed, asked him about the brisket. He told her that he had not been feeling well and had rushed home as quickly as he could.

Oh,” the woman said. “Is okay,” she said, though her face betrayed her.

They had only beans and boiled potatoes for dinner. They sat at the kitchen table eating quietly. Every now and then, his wife would lean over and say something to his father-in-law. Denker did not understand what they said, and he wondered what they were talking about. And what, for that matter, had they been talking about earlier, in the front room, before he had returned to the apartment. About the motherland? About the lost lamb and the slaughtered sheep? Denker took a final bite of a potato and pushed his plate away.

After dinner, his wife began cleaning up. His father-in-law leaned over the table toward him, pointed a finger at him, and asked, “Drink?”

Yes,” Denker said. He retrieved a bottle of Passover vodka from the liquor cabinet and he took the old man by the arm and escorted him into the hall of the building, where they leaned against the wall, drinking from the bottle.

Baby,” the old man said. He made a curved motion over his stomach.

Four more months. We are very excited.”

The old man took a swig of the vodka and then leveled his gaze at Denker. “Be good to them. Good husband, good father.”

I will,” Denker said. He looked at his father-in-law and wondered how much longer the man had left to live. He looked ancient. Denker’s wife had once shown him pictures of her father from when he was younger. He had been a sailor and, in the pictures, had had the body of one. He had fought in two wars and had three children, all girls. He had seen them grow and marry and bear children of their own, and he had, years ago, held the hand of his wife as cancer took her away, in a hospital in Sweden. And Denker knew that, when his father-in-law died, he would be laid out in a casket, and that Denker and his wife and daughter would watch the old man be lowered into the ground somewhere.

They went back inside the apartment. The three of them watched television for a while, a game show Denker’s father-in-law liked, and when it was over the old man gathered his coat and hat, said goodbye, and left for his own apartment across town.

Denker sat on the sofa in the living room and his wife eased into a chair across from him.

I have been thinking about name for the baby today,” she said. “Emily. Is a decent name, yes?”

But Denker didn’t hear her. It was late, and he was tired and had closed his eyes, and, if only for a moment, things were quiet.

About the Author

Colby Swift

Colby Swift’s work has appeared in The Bicycle Review and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where he received a Captain Robert Arnold Burke Award, as well as a Margaret Artley Woodruff Award. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.



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