A Time to Scatter StonesLawrence Block
The Matthew Scudder Series
A Time to Scatter Stones
About the Author
Sign up for Lawrence Block’s Newsletter
Bonus: Introduction from At Home in the Dark
A Time to Scatter Stones
A Matthew Scudder Novella
A TIME TO SCATTER STONES
Copyright © 2018, Lawrence Block
All Rights Reserved.
Ebook Design: QA Productions
Cover illustration by Patrick Faricy
A Lawrence Block Production
This one’s for Bill Schafer
The Matthew Scudder Series:
The Sins of the Fathers
Time to Murder and Create
In the Midst of Death
A Stab in the Dark
Eight Million Ways to Die
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
Out on the Cutting Edge
A Ticket to the Boneyard
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse
A Walk Among the Tombstones
The Devil Knows You’re Dead
A Long Line of Dead Men
Even the Wicked
Hope to Die
All the Flowers Are Dying
A Drop of the Hard Stuff
The Night and the Music
A Time to Scatter Stones
THE FOUR OF US—Kristin and Mick, Elaine and I—stood on the stoop of their brownstone for the ritual round of hugs. Mick and I settled for a manly handclasp.
“Safe home,” he said.
It was a crisp Sunday night late in September, the sky free of clouds, and if we’d been in the country we would have seen stars. But there’s always too much ambient light in the city for stargazing, and I suspect that’s also true metaphorically. Ambient light, softening the darkness even as it prevents our seeing the stars.
Mick and Kristin’s house stands on West 74th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. It’s on the south side of the street, so when we reached the sidewalk we turned to our right and walked the half block to Columbus Avenue, which magically becomes Ninth Avenue when it crosses 60th Street. Under either name, the thoroughfare is southbound, and there’s a bus that would drop us right across the street from our apartment.
It was pulling away as we neared the corner.
Elaine said, “What do you want to do? Flag a taxi? Call a Via?”
Via is like Uber, except with shared rides and correspondingly lower prices.
“Whatever you want,” I said.
“How’s your knee?”
We’d walked up earlier. The Ballous live just under a mile from us, and in good weather we both prefer to cover that distance on foot, but my right knee had ached on the way.
“It’s okay now,” I reported. “On the way up, it stopped bothering me around the time we crossed 72nd. You feel like walking?”
“I wouldn’t mind. But what if your knee decides to act up on the other side of 72nd?”
I said something about crossing that bridge when we came to it, and she said I meant crossing that street, and we walked along chatting like an old married couple, which in fact we had somehow become.
We’d gone a few blocks, with no complaint from my knee, and had lapsed into a companionable silence. I broke it to say, “When she served raspberry tart for dessert, I got the feeling you were going to talk about your group.”
“You picked that up? I almost did, and then I didn’t.”
“What stopped you?”
“Oh, the conversation took a turn.” She fell silent, then broke the silence to say, “No, that’s not what it was. I decided the conversation would take a turn if I broached the subject, and it was a turn I didn’t want it to take.”
I nodded, and she said it was a beautiful night and she was glad we’d decided to walk. I agreed with her, and we crossed another street, and my knee begged to differ. You get old and things hurt and then they don’t and then they do again.
She said, “I guess I decided to keep it private.”
“That’s fair enough.”
“I could have talked about it without breaking anybody’s anonymity but my own. And my misspent youth is nothing Mick and Kristin aren’t aware of. But the Tarts, I don’t know—”
“You don’t have to overthink it,” I said. “It’s how you felt.”
“Your knee’s bothering you, isn’t it? Let’s get a cab.”
I shook my head. “It’s not that bad. And as close as we are—”
“I married a stubborn man.”
“You knew that going in,” I said. “And I think ‘persistent’ is a better word than ‘stubborn.’ It’s less judgmental.”
“I was already cutting you some slack with ‘stubborn,’ ” she said. “The first word that came to me was ‘pigheaded.’ But I decided that really would be too judgmental.”
“We’re almost home,” I said. “See how easy that was?”
“Judgmental or not, you can’t say it was inaccurate.”
“You’re cute when you’re judgmental.”
“Is that a fact. And we are almost home, and the first thing you’re gonna do is elevate that leg, and I’ll fetch an ice pack. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said.
I’VE BEEN SOBER A while. I’d marked thirty-five years in November, as I mentioned at a meeting a day or two after the actual anniversary date.
Whenever anyone expresses surprise over my continuing attendance at AA meetings, I think of the shampoo commercial:
“You use Head & Shoulders? But you don’t have dandruff.”
I don’t go as often as I did early on, but I still manage to turn up more often than not at the 8:30 meeting Fridays at St. Paul the Apostle. When we resumed keeping company—and that, astonishingly, was 28 years ago—Elaine began attending Al-Anon meetings, but the program never really reached her, and she didn’t find the companionship there that I did in AA. One night she came home with a definition of an Al-Anon slip: “An unanticipated moment of compassion. And they’re pretty rare.”
So you could say it wasn’t a good fit for her.
Then, a couple of years ago, she heard about the Tarts. It wasn’t an acronym for anything, nor was it an official name for the group. It was what some of the members called it, for lack of anything else to call it, and what it was in essence was an anonymous program for women with a prior history of prostitution.
Elaine was in the game when we first met, and that was a lot more than 28 years ago. She was a sweet young call girl and I was a detective with the NYPD, and along with my gold shield I had a wife and two sons in Syosset. I suppose we were in love from the start, although neither of us quite knew it at the time, and it lasted until it ended, and years later when circumstance threw us together again we were ready for it. I had already stopped drinking, and after a year or two she stopped entertaining clients, and now we were this nice elderly couple who still seemed to take delight in one another’s company.
I first heard about the Tarts when she came home after her third meeting. “There’s this group I started going to,” she said. “Girls who used to be in the game.”
“A 12-Step program?”
“More or less, but without the twelve steps. One dame tells her story and then we go around the room. I don’t know if I really belong there.”
“You do,” I said, “and you know it.”
“You said, ‘And then we go around the room.’ ”
“ ‘We’ and not ‘they.’ ”
/> “I think you’re right. Actually I think we’re both right. I belong there. It’s funny, I thought I’d dealt with all of this.”
“Yeah. I’ve always said that prostitution did a lot more for me than it ever did to me.”
“That’s just about word for word what Churchill said.”
“Churchill? As in Winston Churchill?”
“So I’m told. I wasn’t there to hear him say it.”
“Winston Churchill was turning tricks?”
“God, there’s an image. No, he was talking about booze. ‘I know that alcohol has done a good deal more for me than it’s ever done to me.’ ”
“Oh, that’s right. I always picture him with a cigar, but he was a heavy drinker, wasn’t he? Do you think he was right? About his drinking?”
I said I had no idea. She nodded and got back on track. “The conventional wisdom is that turning tricks lowers your self-esteem, but it elevated mine. I didn’t have any self-esteem until I got in the life.”
“The game, the life . . .”
“Euphemisms,” she said. “Some of the members use them. Others are more in-your-face. ‘Until I started selling pussy.’ Like that. What are you smiling at?”
“ ‘In your face.’ ”
She rolled her eyes. “When I walked into my first meeting, a couple of weeks ago? I was so much older than everybody I thought I was out of place. They were all nicely dressed in skirts and sweaters or tailored jeans. And they didn’t look like hookers.”
“Whatever that means.”
“But then two of them welcomed me and said their names, and another handed me a cup of coffee, so I sat down. Then the meeting started and a woman told her story. She looked like a woman at a bank who’d help you fill out a mortgage application, and she had a story that would take paint off a trailer hitch. Her uncle started messing with her when she was, I don’t know, eleven years old? And five years later a pimp turned her out, and she never got in a house or on the phone, she went straight onto the stroll in the East 20s. Blow jobs in cars, mostly, and a couple of times she thought she was gonna get killed, but, you know, she survived. It was a horrible story and nothing like anything in my own experience, and all the same I hung on every word and got a lump in my throat and found myself having to hold back tears.”
“I guess. Meetings are Tuesday afternoons at the Croatian church way west on Forty-first Street.”
“Easy enough to get to.”
“Which is good,” she said, “because we’re the only group in the city, as far as I know. I went back the next week and again there were all these sweet young things, and I felt like they’d take one look at me and figure I was some demented Church Lady who’d wandered into the wrong room, but then a couple of them remembered me from the week before and said hello and I sat down and the meeting started. Most of them, I’m old enough to be their mother, and there are a couple who could be my grandkids, but for the services of a friendly neighborhood abortionist. But they honestly don’t relate to me like I’m a woman in her sixties.”
“You realize, of course, that you don’t come close to looking your age.”
“You’re sweet, and I guess that’s true, but nobody’s going to card me in a gin joint. These women know I’m older but they relate to me like I’m the same age as they are.” She cocked her head. “Or maybe that’s just something I’d prefer to believe.”
“No,” I said. “It’s probably true. Age disappears in an AA room. We tend to be more aware of length of sobriety than time on the planet.”
“This afternoon,” she said, “there was a woman who had to be five years older than me. She tried to disguise her age with makeup, and who doesn’t, but she overdid it and it had the opposite effect.”
“In the life, for sure. But not an old-timer at Tarts. She turned her last trick three or four days ago.”
“If it is her last trick, because she’s been trying to quit for a while now. She’s got this apartment in a full-service building in Murray Hill, and she had one of the porters come up to tell her how much he’d charge her to wash her windows. He quoted her a price, and she said that seemed on the high side, and he gave her a sly look and told her he figured they could work something out.”
“And I gather they did.”
“What is it Mehitabel always says? In archy and mehitabel? ‘There’s life in the old dame yet.’ ”
“And she said that?”
“What she said, word for word, was ‘So I took him into the bedroom and fucked his brains out.’ ”
“I hope he got those windows spotless.”
“Oh, that’s the best part. Afterward, while he’s lying there with his eyes rolled up into his head, she tells him to do a good job on the windows and she’ll give him a nice tip. And he did and she did.”
“I can see where a person might go to those meetings just for the stories.”
“You’d like to be a fly on the wall, huh?”
“Can men come? I could be a retired male hustler.”
“That might be a hard role for you to play, honey. But it’s women only. There are other groups for gay male prostitutes, but you’d probably be less likely to get off on the stories.”
Another time, I expressed some surprise that staying out of the game could be as hard as making a break in the first place. “I had a client once, a blonde who got off the bus from Wisconsin and went straight into the life. She wanted out, and hired me to help convince her pimp to let her go.”
“Kim somebody,” she said.
“Dakkinen, and I guess I told you about her. The story doesn’t have a happy ending.”
“She wound up getting killed, but not by her pimp.”
“It was a complicated story. But I had the feeling that once I’d assured her she was free to go, that there’d be no hassle from the pimp, she’d be able to leave the life behind.”
“And maybe she could have.”
“But maybe not? Maybe she could stay chaste until her windows needed washing?”
“Well, I don’t know the word. What’s your group’s equivalent of sober?”
“People say different things. Some of the girls say straight, but the gay ones don’t like that. Some say righteous. I’m not crazy about that myself, it’s too religious, but it doesn’t give me hives. Clean means drug-free, and some of us are and some of us aren’t, so it doesn’t really work. But it may wind up the word of choice, because I’ve heard it said that you’re not really out of the life if you’re still taking drugs. Because it’s only a question of time before you need to convince a doctor to write a scrip, or you need money for a drug buy.”
“Is that how most slips happen? Or do you even call it a slip?”
“A slip, a relapse. Or it’s just, ‘Well, don’t hate me, but I did it again.’ But there’s less emphasis for us on clean time than there is on sobriety in AA.”
“Either way it’s a day at a time.”
“But numbers matter more in your program, don’t they? You have to be sober for ninety days to lead a meeting.”
“Of course we’ve only been meeting for ten or eleven months. You have the Traditions in AA, don’t you? Alongside the Steps?”
“Twelve of each.”
“Well, it’s hard to develop much in the way of traditions in less than a year.” She fell silent for a moment. “I led the meeting last week.”
She nodded. “Told my story.”
“All of it? Womb to tomb?”
“From the e-rection to the resurrection,” she said. “You were mentioned.”
“ ‘And now, all these years later, I’m married to the guy.’ ”
“Something like that.”
“Seriously,” I said, “what did you say?”
> She shook her head. “You had to be there.”
ELEVATING THE LEG WAS easy enough. There’s a recliner in the living room, and I sat down and adjusted the setting appropriately. She brought me the ColdPak that had last seen service a few months ago, when she’d pulled a muscle at a yoga class.
“We should probably have two of these,” I said.
“One for each knee? I didn’t know they were both acting up. I could wrap ice cubes in a towel.”
“No, the other knee is fine. I was thinking one of these for each of us.”
“They’re not like toothbrushes, honey. It’s sanitary to share a ColdPak.”
“Well, you can use my toothbrush anytime you want.”
“And some people think chivalry is dead.”
“The fools they. But what I meant was sooner or later we’re both going to be aching at the same time.”
She thought it over. “At our age,” she said, “we’re a two-ColdPak family.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It was just a passing thought, but once it’s spelled out it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?”
“Except I like the idea of the two of us growing old together.”
“Yes, so do I.”
“If I even got to have an old age,” she said, “I figured I’d be spending it alone. At some trailer park in Florida, making myself get to the shuffleboard court twice a week, because it doesn’t do to let yourself go.”
“I’ve already lived longer than I ever thought I would.”
We kicked that around for a few minutes, and then she went to the kitchen and came back with two cups of chamomile tea. I used to drink coffee all day and half the night, and now it’s a single cup in the morning. Sometimes two cups, if I’m in a holiday mood.
Depressing or not, depending how you think about it.
IN THE MORNING I was somewhere between asleep and awake when the phone rang. Her side of the bed was empty, so I reached to answer it, but she’d already picked up in the other room. I heard a woman apologizing for such an early call, and Elaine assuring her it was all right, she was glad she’d called. At which point I cradled the phone and decided it was time to get up.