About twenty yards down the line, he braked the car, thought for a moment, backed up, and leaned over to look at me and yelled:
“Jesus H. Christ! Proof! God damn it. Proof.”
Which made me yank my right hand out of my jacket pocket so fast it almost tore the cloth.
I held my fist out at last and opened my trembling fingers.
“There!” I said. “You know what that is? No. Do I know what it is? Yes. Do I know who the old man is? Yes. Do you know his name? No!”
Crumley put his head down on his crossed arms on the steering wheel. He sighed. “Okay, let’s have it.”
“These,” I said, staring at the junk in my palm, “are little A’s and small B’s and tiny C’s. Alphabets, letters, punched out of trolley paper transfers. Because you drive a car, you haven’t seen any of this stuff for years. Because all I do, since I got off my roller-skates, is walk or take trains, I’m up to my armpits in these punchouts!”
Crumley lifted his head, slowly, not wanting to seem curious or eager.
I said, “This one old man, down at the trolley station, was always cramming his pockets with these. He’d throw this confetti on folks on New Year’s Eve, or sometimes in July and yell Happy Fourth! When I saw you turn that poor old guy’s pockets inside out I knew it had to be him. Now what do you say?”
There was a long silence.
“Shit.” Crumley seemed to be praying to himself, his eyes shut, as mine had been only a minute ago. “God help me. Get in.”
“Get in, God damn it. You’re going to prove what you just said. You think I’m an idiot?”
“Yes. I mean, no.” I yanked the door open, struggling with my left fist in my left pocket. “I got this other stuff, seaweed, left by my door last night and…”
“Shut up and handle the map.”
The car leaped forward.
I jumped in just in time to enjoy whiplash.
Elmo Crumley and I stepped into the tobacco smells of an eternally attic day.
Crumley stared at the empty space between the old men who leaned like dry wicker chairs against each other.
Crumley moved forward to hold out his hand and show them the dry-caked alphabet confetti.
The old men had had two days now to think about the empty seat between them.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” one of them whispered.
“If a cop,” murmured one of them, blinking at the mulch in his palm, “shows me something like that, it’s gotta come from Willy’s pockets. You want me to come identify him?”
The other two old men leaned away from this one who spoke, as if he had said something unclean.
The old man shoved his cane under his trembling hands and hoisted himself up. Crumley tried to help, but the fiery look the old man shot him moved him away.
The old man battered the hardwood floor with his cane, as if punishing it for the bad news, and was out the door.
We followed him out into that mist and fog and rain where God’s light had just failed in Venice, southern California.
We walked into the morgue with a man eighty-two years old, but when we came out he was one hundred and ten, and could no longer use his cane. The fire was gone from his eyes, so he didn’t even beat us off as we tried to help him out to the car and he was mourning over and over, “My God, who gave him that awful haircut? When did that happen?” He babbled because he needed to talk nonsense. “Did you do that to him?” he cried to no one. “Who did that? Who?”
I know, I thought, but didn’t tell, as we got him out of the car and back to sit in his own place on that cold bench where the other old men waited, pretending not to notice our return, their eyes on the ceiling or the floor, waiting until we were gone so they could decide whether to stay away from the stranger their old friend had become or move closer to keep him warm.
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