- Published: 19 May 2020
- ISBN: 9781405943130
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $19.99
Ask Again, Yes
The gripping, emotional and life-affirming New York Times bestseller
Francis Gleeson, tall and thin in his powder blue policeman’s uniform, stepped out of the sun and into the shadow of the stocky stone building that was the station house of the Forty-First Precinct. A pair of pantyhose had been hung to dry on a fourth floor fire escape near 167th, and while he waited for another rookie, a cop named Stanhope, Francis noted the perfect stillness of those gossamer legs, the delicate curve where the heel was meant to be. Another building had burned the night before and Francis figured it was now like so many others in the Four-One: nothing left but a hollowed-out shell and a blackened staircase within. The neighborhood kids had all watched it burn from the roofs and fire escapes where they’d dragged their mattresses on that first truly hot day in June. Now, from a block away, Francis could hear them begging the firemen to leave just one hydrant open. He could imagine them hopping back and forth as the pavement grew hot again under their feet.
He looked at his watch and back at the station house door and wondered where Stanhope could be.
Eighty-eight degrees already and not even ten o’clock in the morning. This was the great shock of America, winters that would cut the face off a person, summers that were as thick and as soggy as bogs. “You whine like a narrowback,” his uncle Patsy had said to him that morning. “The heat, the heat, the heat.” But Patsy pulled pints inside a cool pub all day. Francis would be walking a beat, dark rings under his arms within fifteen minutes.
“Where’s Stanhope?” Francis asked a pair of fellow rookies also heading out for patrol.
“Trouble with his locker, I think,” one said back.
Finally, after another whole minute ticked by, Brian Stanhope came bounding down the station house steps. He and Francis had met on the first day of academy, and it was by chance that they’d both ended up at the Four-One. In academy, they’d been in a tactics class together, and after a week or so Stanhope approached Francis as they were filing out the classroom door. “You’re Irish, right? Off the boat Irish, I mean?”
Francis said he was from the west, from Galway. And he’d taken a plane, but he didn’t say that part.
“I thought so. So’s my girlfriend. She’s from Dublin. So let me ask you something.”
To Francis, Dublin felt as far from Galway as New York did, but to a Yank, he supposed, it was all the same.
Francis braced for something more personal than he wanted to be asked. It was one of the first things he’d noticed about America, that everyone felt at ease asking each other any question that came into their minds. Where do you live, who do you live with, what’s your rent, what did you do last weekend? To Francis, who felt embarrassed lining up his groceries on the checkout belt of the Associated in Bay Ridge, it was all a little too much. “Big night,” the checkout clerk had commented last time he was there. A six-pack of Budweiser. A pair of potatoes. Deodorant.
Brian said that he’d noticed his girl didn’t hang around with any other Irish. She was only eighteen. You’d think she’d have come over with a friend or a cousin or something but she’d come alone. It seemed to him she could have at least found a bunch of Irish girls to live with. God knew they were all over the place. She was a nurse in training at Montefiore and lived in hospital housing with a colored girl, also a nurse. Was that the way it was for the Irish? Because he’d dated a Russian girl for a while and the only people she hung around with were other Russians.
“I’m Irish, too,” Stanhope said. “But back a ways.”
That was another thing about America. Everyone was Irish, but back a ways.
“Might be a sign of intelligence, keeping away from our lot,” Francis said with a straight face. It took Stanhope a minute.
At graduation, Mayor Lindsay stood at the podium and from his third row seat Francis thought about how strange it was to see in person a man he’d only ever seen on TV. Francis had been born in New York, was taken back to Ireland as an infant, and had returned just before his nineteenth birthday with ten American dollars and citizenship. His father’s brother, Patsy, had picked him up from JFK, taken Francis’s duffel from his hand and thrown it on the backseat. “Welcome home,” he’d said. The idea of this teeming, foreign place as home was mystifying. On his first full day in America, Patsy put him to work behind the bar at the pub he owned on Third Avenue and Eightieth Street in Bay Ridge. There was a framed shamrock over the door. The first time a woman came in and asked him for a beer, he’d taken out a highball glass and set it down in front of her. “What’s this?” she asked. “A half beer?” She looked down the row at the other people sitting at the bar, all men, all with pints in front of them.
He’d shown her the pint glass. “This is what you want?” he’d asked.
“The full of it?” And understanding, finally, that he was new to the bar, new to America, she’d leaned over to cup his face, to brush the hair off his forehead.
“That’s the one, sweetie,” she’d said.
One day, when Francis had been in New York for about a year, a pair of young cops came in. They had a sketch of someone they were looking for, wanted to know if anyone at the bar recognized him. They joked around with Patsy, with Francis, with each other. When they were leaving, Francis mustered up some of that American inquisitiveness. How hard was it to get on the cops? How was the pay? For a few seconds their faces were inscrutable. It was February; Francis was wearing an old cable sweater that had been Patsy’s, and felt shabby next to the officers in their pressed jackets, their caps that sat rightly atop their heads. Finally, the shorter of the two said that before becoming a cop he’d been working at his cousin’s car wash on Flushing Avenue. Even when it all went automated, the sprayers would get him and in the winters he’d end the day frozen through. It was too brutal. Plus it was a lot better telling girls he was a cop than telling them he worked a car wash.
The other young cop looked a little disgusted. He’d joined because his father was a cop. And two of his uncles. And his grandfather. It was in his blood.
Francis thought about it through that winter, paying more attention to the cops in the neighborhood, on the subways, moving barricades, on television. He went to the local station house to ask about the test, the timing, how it all worked and when. When Francis mentioned his plan to Uncle Patsy, Patsy said it was a sound idea, all he needed was twenty years and then he’d have his pension. Francis noticed that Patsy said “twenty years” as if it were nothing, a mere blink, though at that moment it was more than the length of Francis’s whole life. After twenty years, as long as he didn’t get killed, he could do something else if he wanted. He saw his life split up into blocks of twenty, and for the first time he wondered how many blocks he’d get. The best part was he’d still be young, Patsy said. He wished he’d thought of it when he was Francis’s age.
After graduation, his class had been split into groups to do field training in different parts of the city. He and thirty others, Brian Stanhope among them, were sent to Brownsville, and then to the Bronx, where the real job began. Francis was twenty-two by then. Brian was only twenty-one. Francis didn’t know Brian well, but it was comforting to look across the room at muster and see a familiar face. Nothing, so far, had happened the way they’d been told things would happen. The station house itself was the exact opposite of what Francis had imagined when he decided to apply to the police academy. The outside was bad enough—the façade chipped and peeling, covered in bird shit and crowned in barbed wire—but inside was worse. There wasn’t a surface in the place that wasn’t damp or sticky or peeling. The radiator in the muster room had broken in half and someone had shoved an old pan underneath to catch the drips. Plaster rained from the ceiling and landed on their desks, their heads, their paperwork. Thirty perps were pushed into holding cells meant for two or three. Instead of being paired with more seasoned partners, all the rookies were sent out with other rookies. “The blind leading the blind,” Sergeant Russell had joked, and promised it would only be for a little while. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Now, Gleeson and Stanhope walked away from the smoldering building and headed north. From the distance came the clang of yet another fire alarm. Both young patrolmen knew the boundaries of their precinct on a map, but neither of them had seen those boundaries in person yet. The patrol cars were assigned by seniority, and the eight-to-four tour was heavy with seniority. They could have taken the bus to the farthest edge and walked back, but Stanhope said he hated taking the bus in uniform, hated the flare-up of tension when he boarded through the back door and every face looked over to size him up.
“Well, then let’s walk,” Francis had suggested.
Now, with rivers of perspiration coursing down their backs, they made their way block after block, each man with stick, cuffs, radio, firearm, ammo, flashlight, gloves, pencil, pad, and keys swaying from his belt. Some blocks were nothing but rubble and burned-out cars, and they scanned for movement within the wreckage. A girl was throwing a tennis ball against the face of a building and catching it on the bounce. A pair of crutches lay across their path and Stanhope kicked them. Any building with even a partial wall left standing was covered in graffiti. Tag upon tag upon tag, the colorful loops and curves implied motion, suggested life, and taken together they looked almost violently bright against a backdrop that was mostly gray.
The eight-to-four tour was a gift, Francis knew. Unless there were warrants to be executed, there was a good chance all would be quiet until lunch. When they finally turned onto Southern Boulevard, they felt like travelers who’d crossed a desert, grateful to be on the other side. Where the side streets were nearly empty, ghost-like, the boulevard was busy with passing cars, a menswear store that sold suits in every color, a series of liquor stores, a card shop, a barber, a bar. In the distance, a patrol car flashed its lights at them in greeting and rolled on.
“My wife is expecting,” Stanhope said when neither of them had said anything for a while. “Due around Thanksgiving.”
“The Irish girl?” Francis asked. “You married her?” He tried to remember: were they engaged back in academy when Stanhope had told him about her? He counted toward November—just four months away.
“Yup,” Stanhope said. “Two weeks ago.” A city hall wedding. Dinner on Twelfth Street at a French place he’d read about in the paper; he’d had to point at his menu because he couldn’t pronounce anything. Anne had to change her outfit last minute because the dress she’d planned on wearing was already too tight.
“She wants a priest to marry us once the baby comes. We couldn’t find a parish that would do it quickly, even seeing her belly. Anne says maybe she’ll find a priest who can bless the wedding and baptize the baby on the same day. Down the road, I mean.”
“Married is married,” Francis said, and offered his hearty congratulations. He hoped Stanhope didn’t see that for a second there he’d been trying to do the math. He didn’t care, really, it was just a habit brought from home, a habit he’d lose, no doubt, the longer he stayed in America. People went to Mass in shorts and T-shirts here. Not long ago he’d seen a woman driving a taxi. People walked around Times Square in their knickers.
“You want to see her?” Stanhope asked, taking off his hat. There, tucked inside the lining, was a snapshot of a pretty blond woman with a long, slim neck. Next to it a Saint Michael prayer card. Also tucked in the lining was a photo of a younger Brian Stanhope with another guy.
“Who’s that?” Francis asked.
“My brother, George. That’s us at Shea.”
Francis had not thought to put any photos in his hat yet, though he, too, had a Saint Michael prayer card folded in his wallet. Francis had asked Lena Teobaldo to marry him on the same day he’d graduated from academy, and she’d said yes. Now he imagined that would be him soon, telling people there was a baby on the way. Lena was half-Polish, half-Italian, and sometimes when he watched her—searching for something in her bag, or peeling an apple with her knuckle guiding the blade—he felt a shiver of panic that he’d almost not met her. What if he hadn’t come to America? What if her parents hadn’t come to America? Where else but in America would a Polack and an Italian get together and make a girl like Lena? What if he hadn’t been at the pub the morning she came in to ask if her family could book the back room for a party? Her sister was going to college, she told him. She’d gotten a full scholarship, that’s how smart she was.
“That’ll be you, maybe, when you graduate from high school,” Francis had said, and she’d laughed, said she’d graduated the year before, that college was not in the cards for her but that was fine because she liked her job. She had a head of wild curls, brown shoulders above some strapless thing she was wearing. She was in the data processing pool at General Motors on Fifth Avenue, just a few floors above FAO Schwarz. He didn’t know what FAO Schwarz was. He’d only been in America for a few months.
“People keep asking me if we’re going to stay in the city,” Stanhope said. “We’re in Queens now, but the place is tiny.”
Francis shrugged. He didn’t know anything about the towns outside the city, but he didn’t see himself in an apartment for the rest of his life. He imagined land. A garden. Space to breathe. All Francis knew was after the wedding he and Lena would stay with her parents to save money.
“You ever heard of a town called Gillam?” Stanhope asked.
“No, me neither. But that guy Jaffe? I think he’s a sergeant? He said it’s only about twenty miles north of here and there are a lot of guys there on the job. He says the houses all have big lawns and kids deliver the newspapers from their bicycles just like in The Brady Bunch.”
“What’s it called again?” Francis asked.
“Gillam,” Stanhope said.
“Gillam,” Francis repeated.
In another block, Stanhope said he was thirsty, that a beer wouldn’t be the worst idea. Francis pretended not to hear the suggestion. The patrolmen in Brownsville drank on the job sometimes but only if they were in squad cars, not out in the open. He wasn’t a coward but they’d only just started. If either of them got in trouble, neither of them had a hook.
“Wouldn’t mind one of them sodas with ice cream in it,” Francis said.
When they walked into the diner, Francis felt the trapped heat wafting at him despite the door having been propped open with a pair of bricks. The elderly man behind the counter was wearing a paper hat that had gone yellow, a lopsided bow tie. A fat black fly swooped frantically near the man’s head as he looked back and forth between the policemen.
“The soda’s cold, buddy? The milk’s good?” Stanhope asked. His voice and the breadth of his shoulders filled the quiet, and Francis looked down at his shoes, then over at the plate glass, which was threaded with cracks, held together with tape. It was a good job, he told himself. An honorable job. There’d been rumors there wouldn’t even be a class of 1973 with the city slashing its budget, but his class had squeaked through.
Just then, their radios crackled to life. There’d been some morning banter, calls put out and answered, but this was different. Francis turned up the volume. There’d been a shot fired and a possible robbery in progress at a grocery store located at 801 Southern Boulevard. Francis looked at the door of the coffee shop: 803. The man behind the counter pointed to the wall, at whatever was on the other side. “Dominicans,” he said, and the word floated in the air, hovered there.
“I didn’t hear a shot. Did you?” Francis said. The dispatcher repeated the call. A tremor jumped from Francis’s throat to his groin, but he fumbled for his radio as he moved toward the door.
Francis in the lead, Stanhope right behind him, the two rookies unsnapped the holsters on their hips as they approached the door of the grocery. “Shouldn’t we wait?” Stanhope asked, but Francis kept moving forward past a pair of payphones, past a caged fan that stood beating the air. “Police!” he shouted as they stepped farther inside the store. If there’d been any customers there when the robbery was taking place, there was no sign of them now.
“Gleeson,” Stanhope said, nodding at the blood-sprayed cigarette cartons behind the single register up front. The pattern showed the vigor of someone’s heartbeat: blood that appeared more purple than red reaching as far as the water-stained ceiling, settling thickly on the rusted vent. Francis looked quickly to the floor behind the register, and then followed the grisly path down aisle three, until finally, lying in front of a broom closet, a man sprawled on his side, his face slack, an astonishing amount of blood in a growing pool beside him. While Stanhope called it in, Francis pressed two fingers to the soft hollow under the man’s jaw. He straightened the man’s arm and put the same two fingers to his wrist.
“It’s too hot for this,” Stanhope said as he frowned down at the body. He opened the fridge next to him, removed a bottle of beer, popped the cap off by striking it against the end of a shelf, and chugged it without taking a breath. Francis thought of the town Stanhope had mentioned, walking in his bare feet through cool, dew-damp grass. There was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, see if he liked it—the words he’d chosen when he told his uncle Patsy that he’d gotten into the police academy—because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are. One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic and next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighbourhood of the best known city in the world.
As the dead man’s face turned ashen, Francis thought about how desperate the man looked, the way his neck was stretched and his chin pitched upward, like a drowning man craning for the surface of the water. It was only his second dead body. The first, a floater that had risen to the surface in April after a winter in New York Harbor, was not recognizable as a person, and perhaps for that reason it was barely real to him. The lieutenant who’d taken him along told him to get sick over the side of the boat if he wanted to, but Francis said he was fine. He thought of what the Christian Brothers had said about a body being merely a vessel, about the spirit being the pilot light of one’s self. That first body, a water-logged piece of meat hauled up, dripping, onto the boat’s deck, had parted with its soul long before Francis had laid eyes on it, but this one—bit by bit, Francis watched it depart. In the old country someone would have opened a window to let the man’s spirit fly out, but any souls let loose here in the South Bronx would be free only so far as they could bat around four walls until, exhausted, they wilted in the heat and were forgotten.
“Prop that door, will you?” Francis called. “I can barely breathe.”
Then, Francis heard something and froze. He placed a hand on his gun.
Stanhope looked at him, wide-eyed. There it was again, the whispersoft sound of a sneaker on linoleum, listening to them as Francis listened back, three human hearts pounding in their cages, another lying still. “Step out with your hands up,” Francis called, and then, all at once, they saw him: a tall and gangly teenager in a white undershirt, white shorts, white sneakers, hiding in the narrow space between the refrigerated case and the wall.