Like millions of people, Kevin Mitchell Reiner sat in front of his television waiting for the verdict. The bailiff took the piece of paper from the jury foreman and handed it to the judge. The judge read the decision in silence, dragged his glasses from the bridge of his nose and set them down next to his gavel. He paused to reflect, then tightly folded the scrap of paper several times over. After a brief prologue addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our legal system, he whispered an unconvincing, “Not guilty.”
The courtroom erupted with anger and outrage. Kevin fell back into his chair. How could a thing like that happen? A young girl murdered by a twenty-three-year-old miscreant.
Kevin scooped up a handful of pills. It was noon. He had to take medication every two hours. His immune system failed him two years ago as surely as the courts failed seven-year-old Lauren Smally.
Don Chaney turned the TV to mute. “You want anything special from the deli?”
Don was a strapping thirty-three-year-old six-footer with wisps of distinguished white hair and a slight stoop that gave you the impression of thoughtful attentiveness. “Some fresh platelets would be nice.”
“Sautéed or boiled?”
“Excellent choice,” Don said, then pulled the shopping list from beneath a magnet on the fridge and closed the front door.
In spite of the humor, Kevin thought Don was looking thinner, graver, certainly distant and distracted. There were moments in the last few weeks where he half-expected Don was going to turn to him and announce that he loved him, but he couldn’t take it any longer. Kevin wondered how he might have reacted if Don had been the one dying of AIDS.
It was already apparent that Don was withdrawing, not only from their relationship, but from himself. Loretta Chaney, his unmarried sister, visited them from Philadelphia and was startled to learn that Don had lost two choreography jobs in the last three months. He couldn’t concentrate or follow through or keep his temper in check. Kevin had asked Don to sit and talk with him, even pleaded as his lover’s distress deepened. Finally, in September, she packed his bags and took Don home. A week later he was admitted to a private hospital outside Allentown, PA, for observation. When the doctors were satisfied that Don was responding favorably to antidepressants he was allowed to call Kevin.
“I’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
Kevin welcomed Don’s voice, though it wasn’t the one he remembered. He had begun to admit the possibility of them never being together again as they once were. He also knew it was time to visit Don and planned to call Loretta to confirm the date. “That’s only a month away,” he said.
“A month,” Don repeated, as if he hadn’t realized how soon they would be reunited. The idea that 1988 was almost over rekindled the question of how many loved ones, friends, and strangers would be consumed in 1989, and the reality that he would soon have to start life again, without his beloved partner.
As Don’s withdrawal became more apparent, Kevin became more resolute, more grounded, and comforted by the light that had grown within. He was thirty-eight. He had made a name for himself as a fashion photographer and studio artist. He had lived a short but enriched life and though he may have chosen a course that wasn’t safe, it had been his decision.
He watched carefully as his lesions came and went. With each cycle they stayed longer, consumed more of his body, and seemed noticeably more disapproving. Sometimes he imagined they were angry with him.
Kevin made a list of what he wanted to accomplish in the last six months before the drugs and his weakness would overcome what remained of his courage. Near the top of the list was a decision to meet Lauren Smally’s mother who lived just outside Lancaster, New Jersey—an hour’s drive from midtown and just about halfway between Philadelphia and Manhattan.
Crossing the George Washington Bridge on a sunny, clear October day, he felt that he had been waiting all his life to make this journey. Direction gave purpose and purpose, a reason to live. He missed Don but doubted he would approve of such an indulgence and waste of energy.
He had been moved, as had the entire nation, by the little blonde girl’s tragic death. The photos of Gregory Houghton weren’t flattering. The tall, gangly, unshaven young man was approached in the subway by two undercover policemen who suspected he had been selling crack cocaine. In New York City, as in any major US city, you could get a bag on most any street corner.
As they approached, he turned and ran up the subway steps and down the street. There was an exchange of gunfire. A bullet ricocheted off a brick wall, traveled half a city block, and struck a little girl in the temple, killing her instantly. She collapsed at her mother’s feet.
“He looks like he doesn’t care,” Kevin said when the arraignment made the evening news.
“He will when he gets life,” Don had said to Kevin, flourishing insights he had gained while dating an assistant DA.
“They should bring back the death penalty in this state. He deserves the electric chair.”
Don returned to his newspaper, “Worse.”
But the bullet was so disfigured by striking the brick wall that it couldn’t be tied to the drug dealer’s gun or the policeman’s discharged weapon or, as the defense counsel pointed out, another pistol discharged ten blocks away around the time of the incident. There was also the issue of who fired first, in which case Houghton’s attorney argued his client was simply defending himself from two would-be robbers.
This was the first trip he had taken without Don since they met in a wine tasting club three years ago. The attraction was instantaneous, though the personalities were laughably polar. Where Don was outgoing and flamboyant with an abundance of energy and charm, Kevin was the introvert and contemplator.
Kevin wasn’t hungry, but turned off onto the exit ramp and pulled up to The Deluxe Diner. It was a quiet time of the morning. Well past breakfast, but far from lunch. There were only a handful of regulars, truck drivers puffing away in the smoking section, and a few mothers with children in tow. Two women were steeped in conversation and smoke in the large corner booth. The one facing him was in her late forties. Her face was puffy, as though sleep was unobtainable, or alcohol was. He moved in the other direction, and dropped into a booth.
He plucked two pink pills and a yellow and blue capsule from his pillbox and chased them down with a gulp of ice water. He checked the bandage covering a lesion on his wrist that was healing slower than he would have liked, ordered coffee, and examined the paper placemat.
An array of puzzles were printed on the paper placemat. He reached for his pen and began to fill in the crossword puzzle. But the words didn’t come. Only the image of Lauren Smally at her mother’s thirtieth birthday party which he had seen in the newspapers. He ordered a warm cinnamon Danish. The house special. It was Don’s favorite too.
He began to write on the corner of the placemat. ‘My name is Kevin Reiner. I live and work in New York. You probably don’t want to discuss what happened to your daughter and your family, but perhaps I can be of help to you. I do not want anything from you and will understand if you want me to go away.’
He reread the note several times before adding, ‘And I am dying of AIDS.’
He still did not understand what he wanted to say or how this woman, if she were home and alone and in a position to hear him out, would respond. He tore off the corner of the placemat, folded the note into his pocket, took a sip of coffee, finished off the Danish and paid the bill.
The country air was fresh, biting. Trees were shedding their summer coating of leaves, which littered the small parking lot with a carpet of brown and gold. He inhaled again, measuring the breath as he let it out. Every act and exertion had a reflective poignancy. There were days in the past month that he felt himself standing in front of a firing squad that had fired its salvo and he had the dubious pleasure of watching the bullets fly across a deserted parade ground towards his heart.
He got into the rental car and switched on the ignition, which distracted the other woman in the corner booth. He had seen that distraught face before. Millions had. She was staring back at him.
He walked back into The Deluxe Diner and held out his note to Alice Smally. She took it, then slowly shook her head and looked up at the woman across from her. A small, black plastic tag that read, ‘Betty Lawson, Manager’ clung to the other woman’s white blouse. She took the note, read it, and asked him to sit down.
“Are you all right?” Betty asked. Her teeth were stained with nicotine. There were well-worn lines about her eyes. Her blonde hair was swept up on the top of her head and kept in place by a small, red plastic barrette. The woman looked like she had labored in the trenches of life. There were five mother-of-pearl buttons on her blouse. Four were original. The fifth was a poor match.
“Fine, thank you.”
“My nephew was very ill before he died.”
“Do you mind me asking how old he was?” Kevin inquired, regretting the question the moment it was asked.
“Eighteen,” Betty Lawson replied. “Loved baseball and cotton candy.”
“I’m sorry for you.”
“What can we do for you?” she asked .
“I live in New York. I came here to give her that note.”
Alice Smally sat composed, distanced, toying with her teacup, as if the conversation were about a stranger. She was prettier than her photographs, Kevin thought, trying not to stare. Thinner, with high cheekbones, but the studied glare of a woman who had already outlived her youth. He noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He couldn’t recall if she was married.
“I wanted to help.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“We don’t need any help,” Alice Smally said without looking up.
“Unless of course, you’re a contract killer,” Betty offered without a trace of humor.
Kevin wasn’t surprised by the manager’s offhanded suggestion. He had asked himself a less antagonistic version of that question many times since he decided to make the journey. Don would have quickly answered, “Yes.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
Alice Smally’s mask of caution and disinterest was replaced by guilt. “No. No one is making fun of you Kevin.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you but we were just speaking about what we would do if either of us were a man.”
“Would you kill him?” Kevin asked.
“If we were men we might have more options,” Betty said. “I think that’s what Alice meant.”
“Killing a man always looks easier on television.”
“For a woman it looks impossible. It’s not in our nature,” Betty continued. “Did you ever notice that when a policewoman shoots a felon on the TV, there’s always an instantaneous moment of reflection afterward, as if she were questioning her right to do her duty, or apologizing for such an aggressive act?”
He liked this woman. The one, irregular button didn’t bother him so much anymore. Don would have chided him for noticing such petty inconstancies.
Betty stiffened her slouching posture so the dozen years she had over her friend would not be as noticeable. “So, you didn’t come out here for anything specific?”
“I don’t think he knows why he came out here, Betty.”
Kevin had searched his soul and commitment to the sanctity of life. In some states, defending your home provided a man with justification for using deadly force. What reason could he give himself or his parents, or Don if he were dragged through the courts or dumped in prison as a eulogy to his private sense of justice?
“You must have at least thought about killing that lowlife scum?”
“Stop it, Betty,” Alice interrupted heatedly. “It’s not funny anymore.”
Betty leaned forward, as if she were preparing to transmit a secret. “Ten minutes ago you were asking for a miracle, and out of nowhere it comes marching into the diner with a note in its hand. You think it gets any more prophetic than that?”
Alice considered the question. “Who exactly are you, Kevin Reiner?”
Kevin gave them his address and phone number, and described his life up until the time the diagnosis had been confirmed, his affection for Don, and that this was going to be his last Christmas.
Betty finished her coffee. “I have to get back to work. I’m sending over something for you…”
“…Kevin,” he answered.
“It’s on the house, Kevin. And Alice, in my book, taking the life of a murderer is called retribution. There’s a moral difference between retribution and murder, especially for animals like Gregory Houghton.”
“This country is not about retribution, Betty. We’re a nation of laws.”
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone. Maybe you can make sense of it,” Betty said and got up. “By the way Kevin, I admire your courage for coming this far, even if you’re not sure why you’re here.”
A couple came into the restaurant with two small children. His mother held the six-year-old boy tightly, the older girl walked happily at her father’s side. They slipped into the booth vacated by Kevin. He couldn’t help noticing the girl’s pigtailed hair was the exact shade and texture of Lauren Smally’s.
“So, Kevin, I guess the only question is if you’re willing to sacrifice your life to demonstrate the unfairness of our system.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of fairness,” Kevin responded, choosing his words carefully. “Unfortunately, sometimes the system just fails us.”
“Then you came all this way simply to offer your condolences?”
“I came all this way because, like so many, I can’t believe what happened.”
“Would Don think it was a mistake to offer your life to right an injustice?”
He smiled. The more he talked to her the more he was certain that under that restraint, Alice Smally was consumed with purpose. “He would have told me not to get involved. He would have said unfairness is mostly what life is all about.”
“This may sound foolish, in view of what you’ve said of your relationship, but do you have children, or any brothers or sisters who have children?”
“Then it’s hard to describe the loss of a child,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks.
Kevin recalled Don’s nephew, Bobby, with the unforgiving cowlick, the dimples, and endearing shyness. And how his mother cried the day he fell from the jungle gym, breaking his arm and a rib. She berated herself, pledging never to leave the seven-year-old boy’s side. Don was crazy about Bobby and phoned him every day in the hospital. The kid was in better shape than his parents.
“You work so hard to bring them into the world. You sacrifice and love them. You die a little every time they cry or fall or fear. You try to be there for them. You praise and cherish everything they do. Then you wake up one day and make the wrong turn down the wrong street and they fall at your feet and you don’t know why until you bend over and see their life seeping out of a wound in their head. You scream. You hold them to you. You beg God for mercy. And nothing works. Not pleading. Not prayer. Not anything.”
“And you’re never the same.” She spoke into the dry tea leaves, as if she had been asked a very obvious question. “Something’s always missing. A part of your heart and soul has been burned out of you. The emptiness is unbearable.”
“I may have made a mistake, Ms. Smally. Really. I don’t know what I was thinking, but causing you more pain was not part of it.”
“Does anyone else know that you’re here?” Alice asked, noticing Betty’s unyielding stare from behind the cash register.
“There is injustice and unfairness everywhere. In a way, Don is right. Except, when it takes the life of your loved ones, you personalize outrage.”
The waitress brought over a fresh cup for her and a Danish for Kevin. It was the cinnamon special. He was hungry again. But two were not on his restricted diet. Then again, what’s the worst that could happen? “His story was such crap.”
“Right, that the plainclothes police didn’t identify themselves properly, and he thought they were going to rob him so he started to run.”
“And he fired his gun to protect himself?”
“Sounded like a story a lawyer would cook up.”
Kevin took off his light jacket, though still unconvinced he was willing to give up his life in memory of Lauren Smally. “I believe in fate, Alice. I came all this way and would not have found you at home if I had gone there directly.”
“The herbal tea is good here,” Alice said, watching Betty greet several customers and escort them to a table. “If you don’t mind, can I see your wallet?”
Without hesitating, he pulled out the alligator wallet Don had given him for his thirty-first birthday, and set it in front of Alice Smally. She flipped it open and slowly, and with great care, examined every paper scrap and credit card. She continued, assessing each discovery, looking up at Kevin as she went along as if to reassure herself that what she was uncovering could be connected to the man across the table. Then she leaned back and said convincingly, “This man is not a killer.”
“This man is dying,” Kevin said as the image of Gregory Houghton lying at his feet in a pool of blood came into focus. In his mind, he put the gun back in his jacket, lifted Houghton’s wallet from his pocket, wiped the fingerprints from the inside doorknob, trashed the apartment to make it look like a robbery and left. What surprised him was not the clarity of the image, but the ease with which he inflicted retribution.
“So, what have we decided?” Betty said, her arms clasped around a dozen menus.
“That Mr. Reiner here is a decent, compassionate man.”
“Then you think you could do it?” she asked Kevin.
“A genuine caring man whom I will not take advantage of.”
“Alice, don’t let this slip through your fingers!” she implored.
“It’s something I wouldn’t ask a friend, much less a stranger.”
“We were just talking about this. You never said you were against it.”
“Until he showed up. Now the conspiracy has a name and a face and I will not sacrifice the life of a good man for that of a bad man.” She smiled a small, tender grin, then added, “No matter his circumstances.”
Betty frowned. “We’re talking about Gregory Houghton! The bastard has served time for dealing drugs and multiple assault and robbery charges. And God knows who else has suffered from his evil.”
“The police will have to deal with those issues.”
“I don’t think they can,” Kevin said impassively. “They rarely do.”
“You may be right,” Alice admitted. “But that doesn’t give each man the right to take another man’s life.”
“We have to protect ourselves,” Betty adamantly insisted.
“That’s another issue.”
“Then why did he come here?” Betty asked.
“Because he’s dying and he wants to give greater purpose to what remains of his life.”
“Do you mind if he answers, Alice? He came this far, maybe he can still convince you.”
“I don’t think I can convince her, or myself now.” I don’t think I came here for that, Kevin whispered to himself.
“You changed your mind?”
“No, I don’t think it was ever made up. And what I might have done couldn’t have been done unless Alice was as bitter today as she was after the verdict. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“You’re right, of course,” Betty said. “It’s not even fair to ask such a thing.”
“Kevin, what you did by coming out here and trying to make a difference was very courageous, and I will never forget you,” Alice said, resting one hand on his shoulder. “And I want to wish you a long and spirited life, no matter how long that is.”
“Alice is right, Kevin. And I’m sorry for being the lunatic I can sometimes be.”
“She’s my best if somewhat hysterical friend,” Alice said, winking at Betty. “She’s seen me through this terrible thing. I could never have gotten this far without her help.” Alice Smally closed her eyes and crossed herself. After a moment she opened her eyes. They were glassy with tears. “Lauren says hi to her favorite auntie.”
“Say hi back to my favorite little brat,” Betty said, returning the wink.
Alice spoke absently about how Lauren’s death had changed her other two children and what life might have been like if only she hadn’t taken Lauren to an allergy clinic in New York that one fatal morning.
Kevin listened attentively, sometimes offering personal insights before saying he had to head back to the city to take his medication. He grabbed his jacket and shuddered—a chill he knew meant that his energy would not last much longer.
“Thank you,” Alice said, wrapping her arms around him. “You’ve made it easier for me. I didn’t think anybody still could, but you have.”
“And it only cost me a cinnamon Danish,” Betty said, also showing her approval and affection.
“I’m glad I came. If only to meet the both of you.”
“We’re glad you came too,” Alice said. “Grieving never stops. You just go on with your life, which is never the same. And I still have two children that need me.”
“Call us?” Betty asked, as Kevin walked away.
His life had been changed. Not for the better or worse. Just changed. He headed back to Manhattan. He would call Don’s sister and tell her that he wasn’t up to the trip. Anything so he didn’t have to deal with Don after this. He felt guilty about it. He should have been strong enough for both.
The drive back was uneventful. The more he thought about Alice Smally, the more he was disturbed by what time had done to quell her fire.
He changed the bandages on his wrists, stripped off his clothes, and got into bed. Perhaps as much as an hour had passed before he could tear himself from the recurring vision of Gregory Houghton lying at his feet, and flipped on the answering machine. There were four messages. Two were from his photo agency. One was from a stockbroker trolling for business. He replayed the fourth message over and over:
“Kevin, I hope you’re alone when you receive this. Gregory Houghton lives at 805 Tenth Avenue. He goes to Simpson’s Gym every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday morning. He eats breakfast regularly at the Cozy Corner luncheonette nearby and according to the police reports sometimes carries a pistol strapped to his right calf. You can choose to act on this or not. However, if for Lauren’s sake alone, please erase this tape. And may God bless you, my son.”
The voice belonged to Alice Smally.
It was decisive and imploring and left no doubt as to her expectations.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant specializing in corporate planning and reorganization, and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has taught at The New School, advised Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, appeared as an expert witness on best practices in 1999 before State Senator Roy Goodman’s New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing and advised the Department of Homeland Security, National Protection and Programs Directorate. Over sixty of his stories have been published, including “Conversation in Black,” which was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize.