Friday, January 10, 2014

Party of Animals by Thomas Healy

An animal control officer goes to pay his respects to a judge killed in a hit-and-run, and discovers his former employer had a secret; by Thomas Healy.

Schumer left the Greek restaurant alone, his wife having left an hour earlier to visit her sister in the hospital. Slowly he made his way to the crosswalk in the middle of the block, whistling some Gershwin tune whose name he could not remember. Overhead, a passenger plane appeared from behind a cloud, heading east. Faintly he smiled, knowing he would be aboard such a plane in another week, also heading east. He had barely entered the crosswalk when a midnight blue SUV suddenly came roaring down the street, its tires splashing through the rain puddles, and before he could step back the vehicle slammed into his chest.

The doorman at the restaurant, not budging from his post beside the door, watched the SUV disappear around the corner.



With one hand on the steering wheel of the rickety patrol wagon, Nicolas Renner, an animal control officer, drove slowly along the shaded street, searching for the stray pitbull he was dispatched to pick up this afternoon. Already today, he had brought in a mangy border collie, retrieved a Persian cat from an elderly woman's roof, and cited two owners for failing to have leashes on their dogs. Things had been pretty routine so he kind of looked forward to this call; dealing with pitbulls was always an exciting challenge. Five times he had been bitten by such dogs, once so severely he nearly lost a thumb.

A few minutes later, as he approached a modest forest green house, he spotted a man in the driveway, frantically waving his long arms above his head, and pulled over to the curb.

"You looking for that pitbull, officer?"

"I am."

"I saw it," the man gasped, "heading up the street."

"How long ago was that, sir?"

"Not more than five minutes ago. Just long enough for me to call the shelter and I was told someone was already sent out to take care of it."

He nodded. "Yes, that would be me."

"I hope you destroy the son of a bitch."

"No, I can't do that."

"Well, you should," the man snapped. "They aren't good for nothing but trouble."

Moving on, he continued down the street, hoarsely humming a favorite Van Morrison song. Then, as he rattled toward a bus stop, he saw the dog barking at a squirrel crouched on the limb of an elm tree. At once, he pulled over to the curb and shut off the engine. He was not more than a dozen feet from the animal, which didn't even notice him its attention was so fixed on the squirrel directly above it. Quietly he got out and opened the back of the wagon, slipped on a pair of leather work gloves and pulled out the snare pole - a long aluminum stick with a loop on the end of it. After taking a deep breath, he started toward the dog and, almost at once, it saw him and growled angrily, its eyes shining, its teeth too. Slobber drooled from its long tongue.

"Easy now, fella," he said firmly as he continued toward the dirt-brown animal. "I'm not going to hurt you."

It didn't believe him, though, and began to bark again, its powerful jaw snapping up and down so fiercely he was surprised its teeth didn't break into a mouthful of Chiclets.

"Easy now. Easy."

Cautiously he proceeded, his heart pounding against his ribs. The last time he tangled with a pitbull he suffered a deep gash in his left forearm that required nine stitches. When he was within a yard of the dog, he raised the snare pole and, at once, it lunged toward him as he expected and he stepped back and deftly hooked the loop around its neck. The dog howled, straining to shake off the loop. Then he slipped a canvas sack over its head and maneuvered it into the back of the wagon. He noticed it did not have a collar so he doubted if anyone would claim it and the neighbor he spoke with a few minutes earlier would get his wish and the animal would be destroyed.

After he returned to the shelter, he changed out of his wrinkled uniform, then, as he did just about every day after work, walked across the street to the No Dogs Allowed tavern, ordered a beer and looked at the morning paper. He was nearly halfway through it when he came across the death notice of Judge Harold Schumer. It said he was struck three nights ago by a hit and run driver the Westover police were still trying to identify. Anyone with any information about the accident was asked to contact the police immediately. To his surprise, there was no mention of a memorial service so he assumed his family wished to grieve in private. He appreciated that but, still, he felt he should pay his respects to the person who gave him his first job after he graduated from community college five years ago. He believed he had to do something more than send a card or a bouquet of flowers.



"You have a good driving record, do you, son?" the judge asked first thing when Renner met with him about becoming his personal driver. An uncle of his, who was a bailiff at the courthouse, suggested he apply for the position.

"Yes, your honor."

"How many speeding tickets have you received?"

"None."

"None?"

"That's correct."

He smiled thinly. "My, you do have a good record. I'm afraid when I was your age I had acquired a shoebox full of tickets."

Not knowing what to say, he kept quiet, swaying back on his heels.

"Well, young man, I'm willing to try you out for a week and see how things work out, if that's all right with you?"

"Yes, your honor," he said excitedly. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

Things did go well that week and for the next nine months he served as the judge's primary driver, picking him up nearly every weekday morning at his elegant home high in the hills that surrounded the city. He would have stayed longer but another uncle of his, who managed an animal shelter, invited him to come to work for him at a considerably higher wage so he accepted the offer and submitted his resignation.

For a judge, Schumer was not very temperate. He seemed more suited to be a prosecutor, which he was for many years before he went on the bench, seldom showing much patience for those who did not agree with him. Often abrasive and condescending, especially with people who failed to do as he wished, he was the sort of person others went out of their way to avoid. Yet, curiously, Renner got along with the cantankerous magistrate. He knew what was expected of him and did it so the judge rarely had any reason to complain.



As he approached the judge's front porch, Renner noticed that a corner of one of the two large bay windows was patched with long strips of electrician tape. That was strange, he thought. The judge was a stickler for making a good impression, which was why he had him wash his Lincoln Town Car nearly every day when he worked for him. So he was surprised the judge did not have the window repaired at once instead of patching it with tape. It was not like him to tolerate such an eyesore.

Almost as soon as the doorbell rang, Mrs Schumer opened the front door, a cigarette burning in her left hand. "Yes?"

"Hello, ma'am," he said, a remembrance card peeking out of the side pocket of his jacket. "I don't know if you remember me but I drove for your husband not quite five years ago."

"Oh, he had so many young men who did that. I can't be expected to remember all of them I'm afraid."

He nodded, a little deflected by her remark.

"And your name is?"

"Nicolas Renner."

"You're right. I don't remember you."

For a moment, he stared at the petulant woman, wondering if she and the judge had much time for one another. They were both so direct and impatient. "Anyway, I only just found out about the accident and wanted to extend my condolences."

She leaned a shoulder against the screen door as if ready to close it. "I appreciate that."

He handed her the card which she stuck, without opening, inside a pocket of her quilted house coat.

"I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend any service you had but I live upstate now and, as I said, didn't find out about his passing until just the other day."

"There wasn't any service," she said flatly.

"There wasn't?"

"Most of my husband's real friends are dead or too ill to have attended a service so my sons and I decided not to have one."

"I see."

"Well, thank you for remembering the judge, Mister -"

"Renner."

"Mister Renner."

"He was a very special man."

"He was that," she replied, slowly shutting the door before he had a chance to ask if the person who struck the judge had been found.

Back in his car he sat for a minute, still a little surprised how indifferent, almost rude, Mrs Schumer was toward him. He thought the least she could do was invite him in for a few minutes to share some memories about her husband. He had met her only a couple of times while driving for the judge and she was just as aloof then. So he supposed he should not be that surprised.

Yawning, he stretched his arms above the steering wheel. It was nearly a three hour drive back home and he didn't feel like driving that distance again today so he decided to get a room at one of the motels just off the highway and return tomorrow. He wouldn't be as tired then or as irritable.



The next day, as usual, Renner rose at the crack of dawn but instead of starting back right away he decided to pay a visit to the police station after he got something to eat. He wanted to know if the driver who struck Judge Schumer was in custody. There was nothing in the morning paper about the accident. When he asked the desk clerk at the motel if she knew if any arrest had been made, she shrugged in disinterest, admitting she seldom ever paid attention to the news anymore.

Nearly half an hour after he arrived at the police station, he was approached by a stooped man with very dark circles under his eyes. "Hello, sir, I am Detective Grouard."

"Hello, detective."

"I understand you have some information concerning the collision that took the life of Judge Schumer."

"Oh, no, I don't."

"You don't?"

"No, detective. I just wanted to know if an arrest had been made yet."

The detective, clearly disappointed, slouched against a file cabinet. "I guess there must have been a misunderstanding."

"I guess so."

"Well, to answer your question, there has not been an arrest to date," he said, twisting a paper clip around his left index finger. "Are you a member of his family?"

"No, just a friend."

"A friend?"

"Well, not really a friend," he admitted. "I worked for him for a while a few years ago."

"Oh."

"I haven't lived in Westover since I stopped working for him which is why I just learned about his death the other day. I'm sure it was pretty big news around here."

The detective nodded. "You were upset when you heard about it?"

"Of course," he said, finding the question rather peculiar.

"Well, if you leave your telephone number and home address with the desk sergeant, I'll be sure someone contacts you when an arrest is made."

"Thank you, detective."

"No problem."

On the back of one of his animal shelter cards he wrote down the information and went downstairs to hand it to the desk sergeant. "Detective Grouard told me to give you this, sergeant."

"What is it?"

"It's my address and phone number. Detective Grouard said someone would let me know when an arrest is made in the hit and run accident that killed Judge Schumer the other night."

He snickered. "That'll be a cold day in hell, mister."

"Excuse me?"

"There are scads of folks who could've been responsible for that."

"I didn't know there were any suspects."

"I didn't say there were."

"I thought you just said there were scads of people who could've hit him?"

The sergeant sighed. "What I meant to say, mister, is there are plenty of folks who probably think the judge got what he deserved."

Renner, stunned by the callous remark, stepped back from the elevated desk. "I don't understand, sergeant."

"He wasn't someone folks had much use for. Everyone knows that."

"I don't."

The sergeant looked at the back of the shelter car. "That's probably because you're not from around here."



Renner left the police station more confused than ever, and as he walked to his car, he realized he couldn't go home now as he planned. He needed to find out what the desk sergeant had meant. He was tempted to return to the judge's home and ask his widow but knew that would be inappropriate and doubted if she would give him a satisfactory answer. When he reached his car, he walked right past it, still trying to figure out who could clear up his confusion. He really wasn't close to many people when he lived in Westover and didn't keep in touch with anyone after he left, not even the judge except for the birthday card he sent him every year.

He walked down one street after another, oblivious to where he was until he turned a corner and saw the squat stone courthouse. At one time he was friendly with a clerk in the probate office, Eileen Franklin, and wondered if she might be of help to him. He didn't know if she still worked there but, just in case she did, he went up to the office on the second floor and there she was, her shiny black hair much longer than he remembered. Smiling, he walked up to the counter and said hello. For an instant, he knew she didn't recognize him then a smile appeared in the corners of her mouth and she squeezed his wrist.

"Nicolas Renner, is that you?"

"It is."

"My God, it's been, what, four years since you left?"

"About that, yes."

Again she squeezed his wrist. "You became a dog catcher, right?"

He grimaced. "Animal control officer is the preferred designation these days."

"Pardon me," she said, with a chuckle. "You're not here looking for a dog, are you?"

Shaking his head, he proceeded to tell her why he was in town and immediately her smile dissolved into a frown.

"I thought you might have an idea why the police seem so uninterested in finding out who ran down the judge."

"They told you they weren't interested?"

"No, not in so many words," he admitted, "but that's the impression they gave me."

"That's probably because it could have been done by just about anyone."

"That's what the desk sergeant said and I don't understand. I mean, not everyone in Westover is a reckless driver I'm sure."

"No, but few, if any, could stomach what the judge did."

He rested an elbow on the counter. "What did he do to upset so many people? Sure, he wasn't the most cordial person, and no doubt lots of people felt the sting of his sharp tongue during his years on the bench but other judges have been just as rude and obnoxious."

"You mean you don't know, Nicolas?"

"If I did, I wouldn't be asking you."

Sighing, she folded her arms across her bulky lavender sweater. "Not that long ago, two or three months I'd say, this young woman appeared on television and claimed that Judge Schumer had an intimate relationship with her when she was a sophomore in high school."

"I can't believe it. No way."

"That's what she said, and though the judge denied it at first, he finally admitted it when the woman presented copies of checks he had given her."

"How long did this go on?"

"The relationship lasted throughout her sophomore year then stopped when she and her family moved out of the city," Eileen said, unfolding her arms. "But apparently the checks were sent over quite a number of years."

"I just can't believe it. I just can't."

"Neither could anyone else until he admitted it was true." She paused, rubbing a spot from her glasses with a sleeve of her sweater. "Of course, the statute of limitations for statutory rape had longed passed so there was nothing law enforcement could do to the judge."

"And he had retired by then so he couldn't be removed from the bench."

"That's right. So, sad as it is to say, no one was that surprised when he was run down -"

"Like a dog in the street."

She nodded. "There had been other attacks - fires set on his lawn, windows broken - nothing serious but it was bound to happen. People were outraged and they wanted some kind of justice, if you will."

"He's about the last person I would have imagined getting involved with an underage girl."

"I never would've imagined it, either."

"So you think whoever killed him is going to get away with it?"

"I do."

"That's outrageous, Eileen."

She shrugged, seeming almost as indifferent as the desk sergeant. "People didn't want him to get away with what he did and now he didn't. And I don't think anyone is really interested in arresting the driver who ran him down."

"You really don't?"

She shook her head. "Oh, sure, there are some who say they are but I'm not sure if they really mean it. The judge did a bad thing and he needed to be punished."

"He didn't have to be killed."

"No, maybe not, but something had to be done. That's what most people around here believed."



Heading home, Renner drove down some of the streets he had walked along earlier in the day. He was so absorbed in thought he scarcely noticed all the shops and restaurants and coffee houses he passed, almost wondered if he had really been here earlier. He saw an empty pond, a set of swings, a burnt-out delicatessen, a comedy club. He saw oodles of people hurrying in and out of large department stores. He saw a ragged banner floating above a steeple. He saw a mural so bright it made his eyes water. He saw a man on a corner reciting passages from the Bible.

In another moment, as he turned at that corner, he saw a stray dog limping across the street. Out of habit he started to pull over so he could get out the snare pole and take the stray to the shelter, then he realized he was out of his jurisdiction and drove by the animal without looking back.

1 comment:

  1. Well written...but too much left hanging!! Is this a part of a larger work? Did the judge really do it? Does Nicolas become a private eye so he can "dog" down the killer? Sniff out the truth? Yikes.

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