62 • Robbie
The truck turned off the highway and Will parked at the curb in front of the Fergus Police Station, a sprawling gray brick building on the outskirts of town between a convenience store and tack and Western shop, built just a few years ago in an effort to modernize the city’s decaying facilities. A dark bronze statue of a smiling man in uniform tipping his hat with one hand and resting the other on a holstered sidearm towered at the entrance in homage of Jeb Martell who famously served as local police chief from 1967 to 2001. The chief’s welcoming presence was poor cover for the sobering fact that most people do not visit the police station of their own volition, and those who do come voluntarily generally still do so because of some manner of misfortune.
Will was still standing under Chief Martell’s shadow staring past the portly belly that pulled against the buttons of his bronze starched shirt and rested on his duty belt when Nina burst through the double glass station doors. She rushed him, throwing thick arms around his neck and sobbing into his shoulder. Will staggered backward, grabbing the chief’s bent knee for balance. He held his other arm awkwardly out from his side, avoiding contact with the contractions of Nina’s convulsing body. He knew neither how to console the unstrung woman clinging to him nor how to extricate himself from her grasp.
Where the hell was Joe? He turned his head back toward the truck where Joe had just shut the passenger side door. “Hey, a little help over here?”
Joe ambled up over the curb and made his way over to the Nina-Will jumble with his right hand held out. “You must be Nina, ” he said.
Will twisted himself free, turning Nina by her shoulders to face Joe. “Yes, yes. Nina, meet my good friend Joe Murphy.” He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. Nina brushed her hair away from wet cheeks and meekly held out a hand to Joe. “Joe knows a thing or two about fires and I thought it might be good to bring him along.”
Joe looked at Will. Will shrugged. He let him come along. He might as well give him his street creds.
Nina sniffled. Joe reached into his pocket and held out a folded white handkerchief. She took it and turned away to blow her nose and wipe her face. Will mouthed “Thank you” to Joe. He smiled and nodded.
“Nina, what the hell is going on with Robbie?”
She turned back and offered the hanky to Joe. “No, no.” He waved her off. “Keep it, please.” She wrung it between her hands as she tried to relate the events of the last few days.
“They say he started the hardware store fire.”
“Hardware store fire?”
“You didn’t hear about it?” Nina frowned.
“I live in Dennison. We don’t hear everything that happens over here right away.”
“Oh, well. There was a big fire at the hardware store on Thursday night. They say it was Robbie.”
“Why do they say that?”
“I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. Robbie would never do something like that.”
“Where was he Thursday night?” Will asked. “Was he at home?”
“Well, no. He stayed at a friend’s house.”
“Do you know what friend?”
“Yeah, that Kerber kid. Wesley.”
“Did you talk to his parents?”
“He lives with his dad and his dad was out. And that kid is nothing but trouble. Robbie didn’t do this.”
“Why did you let him stay there?”
“Am I supposed to watch him every minute? He’s 12 years old. He is supposed to be able to be on his own sometimes.”
“But if you knew —”
Nina’s eyes welled again and her tightened lips began to quiver.
Joe moved closer to Nina, creating a buffer with his body between her and Will. “Let’s think about that later, ” he said softly. “Nina, why do they think it was Robbie?”
Nina was still glaring at Will. He took a step back and leaned a shoulder against the statue, staring at his feet as he recalled his first encounter with Nina and stepping between her and Mad Dog in much the same way as Joe had just done. What had just happened here? He felt shame over not being callous enough to refuse to come when Nina called. And now that he was here, he felt shame at being so callous as to suggest this distraught woman was to blame for her son torching a hardware store. As though he even knew whether either of those things were true. He watched Joe and Nina, seeing their mouths move but unable to make his brain form the sounds he heard into actual words from either of them.
The old man is doing my job, he thought, rubbing his arm. Except this isn’t even my job. Nina has some nerve looking at me like that when I don’t have to be here at all.
He caught Nina’s eye again and she looked away.
God. I am Mad Dog.
Will straightened and stepped back to Joe and Nina. Joe stopped talking in mid-sentence and they both turned to him. “Look, Nina.” He scratched the side of his face. “I’m sorry. I had no business —”
“It’s okay.” Nina sniffled and wiped her nose with Joe’s handkerchief. “I asked myself the same thing.”
“Still. I should have kept my mouth shut, ” Will said, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Anyway, I thought the older kids were at your mom’s.”
“She could only keep them a couple of days. Once we got settled in the hotel suite, she brought them back. It’s been so cramped in there. You can’t turn around without bumping into one of the kids. They fight over everything. Who gets the chair. Who gets the remote. How many days they’ve been eating pizza.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I thought having one less kid for the night might be good for everybody. I shouldn’t have let him go.”
“But you don’t think he had anything to do with it, do you?”
“I don’t know what to think, Will.” Nina wrung her hands and looked up at the sky, forcing back more tears. “I don’t know what to think. They aren’t telling me anything.”
“Have you seen Robbie?” Will asked.
“No. That’s what I was just telling Joe. They won’t let me see him.”
“Did you call a lawyer?”
“I can’t afford a lawyer.”
“Alright. We need to start there. No way should they have a 12-year-old without you or a lawyer. I’ve got a friend who owes me a favor.”
Will pulled his phone from his pocket and took a few steps away from the others. Joe motioned to a granite bench behind Chief Martell. Nina sat down and dropped her face into her hands while Joe patted her shoulder. As Will waited for Christine Sharp to pick up he wondered if Joe was consoling Nina with poetry.
So many poems arise from tragedy, he thought, wondering why it wasn’t more common for adjusters to write. Sure, plenty of famous poets had a hand in the insurance business — Stevens, Eliot, Collins, Kooser. But they were execs or worked on the banking or sales side. The ones who experienced real poem-fodder up close every single day were the claims folks.
Come on, Chris. Pick up.
Just look at Nina. Tell me there’s no poem there.
She eats fear with morning coffee—
chunks of ash black in her mouth,
between delicate fingers
mixed with a trickle
from her cheek
to spread on burnt toast
“Christina Sharp.” The woman’s voice in his phone startled him and he jumped.
“Chris, hey. It’s Will Phillips.”
“William J. Phillips as I live and breathe.”
“That’s not my middle initial.”
Christina laughed. “How the hell are you?”
“I’m good, good, ” he said, rubbing his forehead. “Listen —”
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Listen, we should catch up. But right now I need to call in that favor.”
(to be continued)