A woman uses a knife to cut herself.
Ronnie never knew she had a half-brother. Not until that day, four years ago in the hospital. Her mother stared at her from the bed. Her skin paper-thin, wrinkled, tinged in yellow. She looked 80, but she was only 50 years old and suffering from colon cancer.
The disease did not affect her mother’s regal nature. She sat on the bed in her lavender silk robe, rolled her sleeve over her arm, and showed Ronnie her scar. She said, “I cut myself when I was sixteen. I was pregnant. I thought I would go into shock and lose the baby that way.”
Her mother’s scar ran from her wrist to the inside of her elbow. She never wore short sleeves. Not even in the summertime. As a kid, Ronnie wasn’t allowed to ask her mother to take her out. She had to wait for her father to get home, but by then it was dinner time and then bedtime. There were times when Ronnie only left her house to go to school and throw out the garbage. Ronnie’s father left them when she was nine.
The cancer drugs were taking a toll. Ronnie thought her mother was delirious. She reached for the call button, but a yellow hand stopped her. “I gave your brother up for adoption. You have to find him. Tell him I’m sorry and that I always loved him.”
Detective Sarah Kaplan said to her on the phone: “I’m calling you regarding Mr. Samuel Jay Pennington.”
“Oh, shit. Is he dead?” The last time she saw her half-brother was a year ago on a chance meeting. On her way to work, she walked through the Saint Gennero festival on Mulberry Street. She spotted him waiting on line for a bag of zeppoles at one of the festival stalls. They hugged and promised to call each other to set up a dinner date. Both of them broke their promise.
“No, ma’am. Mr. Pennington has given us your name as a contact.”
“What’s going on?”
After a pause, Detective Kaplan said, “Please verify your relation to Mr. Pennington.”
Maybe this was a prank call. The woman on the other line had that well-rehearsed telemarketer voice. Ronnie should hang up, but she wanted to see how far this so called detective would go. “Just tell me what’s happened.”
Ronnie pulled the blanket over her body. It was noon, but she had to work the late shift tonight. Ronnie yawned and rubbed her eyes. “I’m his half-sister,” she said.
A woman uses a knife to cut her child.
She had lied to her landlord, told him her name was Sadie Jones and that she was a young widow. “My husband was killed by a drunk driver,” she said. Her and baby Samuel lived on welfare. She couldn’t afford an apartment, but the landlord cleaned up his basement, rented it to her for two hundred dollars a month. Samuel was a newborn. He slept in the same room beside his seventeen-year-old mother.
Winter was rough in the basement. Sometimes the gas heater blasted hot, damp air. Sometimes there was no heat. Samuel developed croup. The barking cough kept Sadie up all night. She sat on her cot, placed headphones in her ears, and cranked up the volume on her Walkman to drown out the crowing noise.
On the third day, Sadie held a knife against Samuel’s neck. He watched her. Pointed a drool covered finger at her. The blade cut the side of Samuel’s neck. Sadie watched her son bleed, grabbed a handful of paper towels, and placed pressure on the wound. The next day, she gave him up for adoption.
“Why did you arrest Sam?”
It took Ronnie three hours to get to the police station. She hadn’t bothered to put on makeup or comb her hair. She had twisted her frizzy hair in a messy bun on top of her head. She hated calling in sick to work, but hated more the nausea that usually followed anything related to her half-brother. It was Saturday night. The night she made the most tips. She asked Brenda to cover her tables. She had borrowed fifty bucks from her best friend last week. If Brenda played it right, she could clear three hundred in tips by closing time. The sacrifice eased Ronnie’s guilt.
“Your brother has stopped cooperating. He’s insisting on seeing someone, but we cannot arrange a meeting at this time. We need you to calm him down,” Detective Buchanan said.
Ronnie sat back on the folded chair. “This is bullshit. What he needs is a good lawyer.”
Detective Buchanan looked at her up and down. “The court will appoint a public defendant.”
She was glad she had worn her favorite leather jacket. The heavy weight gave her a sense of security. “Fuck that. I’ll get him a lawyer.”
“Ms. Stanski,” Detective Buchanan shifted in his seat, “we need to ask you a few questions.”
“I bet you do.”
“When did you last see your brother?”
“Last year. Can I see him now?”
“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”
“What is it with you cops and this ma’am business? Do I look like a ma’am to you? I’m twenty-four years old.”
“Perhaps, you’ll feel more comfortable speaking to Detective Kaplan.” Detective Buchanan stood up and adjusted his tan sports jacket. The jacket made him look like a used car salesman.
“Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you at all.” Ronnie stared at the female cop.
“These are just routine questions,” Detective Kaplan said.
“Yeah, sure,” Ronnie said.
A woman uses a knife to cut off a chicken’s head.
Four years ago, at her mother’s dying request, Ronnie wrote a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Pennington. Her mother chose the Penningtons because she knew they had money and were unable to have kids of their own. She grew up shopping at their grocery store. The Penningtons were a nice couple and they liked her.
A couple of years after the adoption, her mother met her father at night school. The day they received their GEDs, they went to City Hall and were married. Ronnie was born a year later.
“Can I see him?”
Detective Buchanan was gone. Detective Kaplan placed her elbows on the table.
Ronnie crossed her arms.
“Your brother is in big trouble. If you can help us, then we can help him.”
“Why am I here? What is it you really want from me?”
Detective Kaplan stood up and walked around the table. Her pants were loose on her. She must have lost weight recently. She squatted next to Ronnie. The top of her head reached Ronnie’s chin. Ronnie rolled her eyes. This was a familiar pose, one that any troubled child understood. Detective Kaplan was playing Mommy.
“Your brother needs someone to calm him down. He’s refusing to give us vital information. We need you to convince him that giving us these last details will help his case once it goes to court.”
Ronnie took her time unwinding her hair from its messy bun. Detective Kaplan stood up and walked back to her seat.
“Am I under arrest?” Ronnie said.
Detective Kaplan stared at the door. “No, of course not.”
Not even the news that she had a half-brother made her angry. Ronnie understood the burden of keeping a secret for so long. Why would she make her mother explain her actions? Why make her relive the pain of giving up her son?
“I’m going to find him and make this right.” Ronnie said to Brenda at her mother’s funeral.
The Penningtons lived in Yonkers. Their apartment smelled like cat urine. Mr. Pennington sat on a corduroy recliner, sucking oxygen from a mask. Mrs. Pennington served them deviled eggs on chipped china. Brenda sat at the very edge of a tattered love seat. Ronnie followed Mrs. Pennington to the kitchen. She asked about Samuel. Mrs. Pennington lit a cigarette. Her hands shook as she dragged the cigarette from her coral lips. She opened the refrigerator door. Pulled out a plate with a raw whole chicken. The head still attached.
“Would you mind giving me his address?” Ronnie said.
Mrs. Pennington placed the chicken on a wood cutting board. She held a knife in her hand. Cut off the chicken head.
“Your mother was a pretty little thing,” she said with the cigarette dangling between her lips. She quartered the chicken, dropped it in a pot of boiling water.
Ronnie watched the pink skin on the chicken turn white in the boiling water. “Does Samuel know he’s adopted?” she finally said.
“He knows. Found out in high school. He hated us for a bit. Joined the army to spite us.”
“Does he know why my mother gave him up?”
“We told him we adopted him through the church.”
Mrs. Pennington placed her cigarette on an ashtray. “Samuel is a special boy. I can’t stop you from finding him, but I should at least warn you, he may not like you or what you have to say about his birth mother.”
“I know that, Mrs. Pennington.”
She stared at Ronnie for a moment. There was more to Mrs. Pennington’s story, but Ronnie gave the woman her warmest smile. There was no way she was leaving this apartment without Samuel’s address.
This story follows on from The Lightning Killer - #2
This story continues with Torchy Thomas, Cub Reporter - #4
published 21 March 2015