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Body Scissors


The eighties came and went. The president who ruled over them
flashed one last fatherly smile, bowed and exited the world stage
to thunderous applause, with skyrocketing homeless rates, the '87
stock market crash and a hundred thousand AIDS victims at his feet.
Replacing the communist boogeyman with the liberal boogeyman, he
passed the reins to a new leader, the most powerful man ever to
claim Texas residency as a tax dodge.

Texas, where politicians and other influence peddlers test out
crimes they plan to commit nationally, faced the double-edged
economic recovery of the early nineties. Quality of life eroded
further than before for Texas's non-millionaires: Countryside and
farmland paved themselves to make room for malls. Old neighborhoods
got "renewed" for wealthier residents at a greater rate than ever.
High-tech industries rolled over the northern part of town where
small houses once stood, the industries spawning beehive apartment
complexes and neighboring strip malls to house, feed and entertain
the laborers who would build and buy the laptops, pagers and mobile
phones of the new decade. Progress. Unemployment was down, at least
on paper: in real life, the grunts struggled harder than they had
in the depths of the recession, as rents climbed, social services
were cut back and homelessness --- under the "anti-camping" law-was
made punishable by arrest. That's where I come in.

At street level, an economy based on self-reliance equals every
man for himself A free market cures all ills, and if it doesn't,
screw the schools, screw housing, screw financial aid, don't tell
us the details, just arrest everybody. Figure the twelve-year-old
junkie you busted for dealing gets replaced by a new recruit before
nightfall. Figure a joke among cops: "What's the best thing about
crack? It lowered the price of a blow job to five bucks." Figure if
your kid is lucky he goes to UT or maybe out of state; if he's not,
maybe he's sleeping next to you in the back of your pickup, and
dealing drugs looks better to him than flipping burgers. Figure
it's the wrong time to be born unlucky.

So you're no dope, you go with the winner, you become a black
conservative, a gay conservative, a poor conservative. Invite
yourself to the party and sit at the back table, they'll get to
you, sooner or later. Carve out a little corner for yourself, and
to hell with everybody else, you've got dreams of your own. If you
feel a little pang of conscience, for the friends and family you
stepped on to get where you are, eat something, drink something,
snort something, BUY SOMETHING! Anything. Because we need you to
buy things.

And all this weaves through my mind at night as I dream my cop
dreams. I'm stepping blind in this bricked-up department store, a
shopping graveyard, dark and booby-trapped. My mouth is pasty dry,
my eyes burn from the fumes of home-cooked crystal meth on the
fire. Suddenly Rachel's with me, she's supposed to be safe and
separate from this. And the building isn't gimmicked to keep people
from getting in, it was easy to get in, anyone can get in: you can
never leave. We can't get back the way we came. We can hardly see,
save for cracks of light. My foot goes through a floorboard ---
Rachel cries out and grabs me. Snakes wrap my feet and I shake them
off. Any step could send us plummeting through the floor. The
building is crumbling, the wrong time to visit him, a trapped,
wounded animal, and the wrong night to bring a date. I might feel
the cold of a gun barrel at the back of my neck, or not feel it,
not see the bullet coming. No sooner do I think that than suddenly
he's behind us, and I whip around, draw my weapon in slo-mo and
fire and my bullets spit from the chamber; one, two, three, and
fall flaccidly to the ground, and he's facing us down, and I
realize too late that the guy I thought I trapped, trapped me; he's
the cat, I'm the mouse, I'm weak and helpless, helpless to protect
Rachel or even myself, and he's smarter than me, because he's high
on the best stuff, and he's motivated by greed, and greed trumps
justice and greed trumps vengeance even, and greed trumps love, and
I'd trade my .38 for a flashlight and a way out, making bargains I
can't make, like please God, please please please God, just get her
out of here alive.


Sweet Virginia

January 15, 1991

10:45 P.M. --- Lamar Boulevard, Southbound

Rubin watched Jennifer as she breathed in and out through her
mouth, puffing clouds on the car window, stripes of light wiping
over them from the bright signs of stores and restaurants, past gas
stations and convenience stores, past the gloomy horror of the
State Hospital.

"Are you warm enough back there?"

"Yes, Mom," he said.

Jenny said, "Yes."

Their mother kept a woolen blanket in the back seat for these
times, chilly nights on the way home from movies or restaurants or
city council meetings, when the heat didn't reach the back seat.
Rubin and Jennifer sat buckled up in back with the blanket pulled
up over their legs as Mom drove and listened to the radio.

"...was inaugurated today under the cloud of impending war, the
second female governor in Texas history and the first since 'Ma'
Ferguson left office in 1935. Meanwhile, the president's deadline
passed for Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait. A White House
official was quoted as saying, 'Only a miracle can prevent war
now.' In Austin, local churches rallied for peace..."

Their mother whispered to the radio. "Talk about the meeting. Talk
about the meeting."

And Jennifer turned to look at Mom, baby round cheeks, lips pursed
in a curious expression, as if to ask, What's that? What's

But how can you explain that to a little girl! Rubin was old enough
to know that something was next, and it was always bad.

"Mom!" he asked. "Is there gonna be a war?"

"Yes, baby."

"Will you be drafted?" "No."

He turned the idea around. "Will I?"

She looked at him in the rearview mirror and smiled. He had said
something cute, but he didn't know what it was. He smiled

She'd brought them to Threadgill's again for a late dinner. Rubin
could see the hostess's face pull tight like they always did when
his mother asked for a table for three. In the silence that
followed, his mother kept her own polite smile: she was the
customer, she was a slim, pretty lady; and, if it came to that, she
was a lawyer. Mom explained all this to them a hundred times, how
white people were secretly afraid of them. But they never looked
afraid to him, only angry. And while she was slim and pretty and a
lawyer, he was short and fat and a fourth grader and he wanted to
disappear. They were always the only black people, and she was
always making a stand. Easy for her.

Mom had turned from the hostess and smiled at Rubin and Jenny like
she'd won, then followed the hostess's clipped steps with her own
graceful ones, past the tables and the posters and the lit-up
jukebox toward the back dining room.

"No, I think we'd like to sit in front," his mother said. Mom's
voice wasn't very big, but the hostess heard it, and held her

"Those tables are reserved."

"All of them?" In the hostess's silence, his mother winked at Rubin
and marched them all toward the front of the restaurant, past the
jukebox, between the tables, flashing smiles at the white families.
Rubin glanced back at the entrance and caught the eye of a
scuzzed-out woman in a ratty coat. The woman glared at him and
scratched. Even though she had a dirty neck, a hostess was leading
her to the fancy chrome counter with a smile.

Rubin took Jenny's hand and followed mom to the very front table,
in front of a bay window surrounded by old concert posters and
pictures of some slutty hippie lady from the sixties. Green neon
lights buzzed over the table. He helped Jenny into her chair.
"That's my good little man," Mom said as she settled in. The
hostess slapped three menus on the table and huffed away. A flash
of wrinkled nose from Mom like they were in on some joke together.
But he wasn't in on it.

Half the time, she seemed to miss it, the angry stares and the
whispers. The other times she rolled in it, like, "Look how smart I
am, look what I got away with!" She left the neighborhood every
morning to go to work. He was stuck there, surrounded by the same
white kids from the block who hated him, and he walked Jenny to
school. How was he supposed to protect her from a bunch of big
white kids? Sometimes six white boys would surround the two of
them. He couldn't fight them. He couldn't run, not with Jenny
there, and they'd catch him anyway. His skin burned as he stood
through his punishment. Today his books were knocked down.
Yesterday they punched him. Sometimes they'd just stand there and
call him names, in front of Jenny, to remind him they were in
charge, they could do anything they wanted.

There were days he'd drop Jenny off with her class and almost choke
as she looked back at him, helpless, her face reading, "How can you
leave me here?"

Mom was always planting time bombs and walking away, making the
neighbors mad and sending him off to school, yelling at his
teachers and leaving him alone with them. She didn't understand

"Lemonade sound good?" his mother said, and turned to the chunky,
dim-looking waitress standing over them. "And how's the fried

"Best in the state."

His mother laughed like it was a joke and ordered two portions,
three plates. When the waitress left, she said, "Always order a
drink. Otherwise they'll think you're a penny-pincher and they
worry about their tip. This way they might make sure no one spits
in your food." She smiled at the waitress as their lemonade hit the
table and Rubin looked in his glass for spit.

"So, " she said, and looked right at him, something she hardly did.
She never seemed to be looking at anybody. "How was my

"It was great, Mom!"


Jenny said, "It was really, really, really good."

"Well, thank you, baby!" Mom said, and touched Jenny's cheek.

They had sat in the back of the auditorium, Jenny coloring in her
book, Rubin just waiting, taking care of Jenny. He had always been
taking care.

Why did she order fried chicken? The first bite was the only one he
ever enjoyed. After that he was just calming his stomach, as he
felt himself get fatter. Not fat, she always said. Chubby. And he'd
outgrow it. He'd be slender like his mother, not short and stumpy
like his dad. He tried to remember his dad. Nothing came back
except a round face and a smile. But he could have dreamed

Jimmy Wrightington had the locker next to Rubin's and Rubin was
always nervous going there. He'd mess up on his locker combination
and by the time he got it open, Wrightington would be standing
there, nose turned up like a pig, calling Rubin a retard and a
queer and knocking his books down. He couldn't leave them on the
floor, and if he bent over to pick them up, Wrightington would kick
them away. Often as not, Wrightington would punch him. People kept
telling him to stand up for himself, but that just made it worse.
He had a dream of going psycho on Wrightington, jamming the boy's
head in a locker and slamming the door on it over and over again,
and people would respect him, for kicking Jimmy Wrightington's ass,
for being tough. And it would feel good, revenge. He could feel
angry enough to do it, but never figured out how. He just walked
away feeling angry and frightened and stupid. The feeling would
stay with him all day and into the night. One day he'd fight back,
be a man and kick anyone's ass who messed with Jenny, he'd be big
and tough and protect her. One day he'd stand up.

He was still thinking that later on, how he'd kick someone's ass
and change everything, when they climbed out of the car, sleepy
Jenny grabbing his hand as they walked up the path, when Mom
unlocked the front door, let Rubin and Jenny in, followed them into
the quiet house, flicked on the living room light, and locked the
door, still thinking how he'd smash Jimmy Wrightington's head in
the locker, slam, slam, slam, when suddenly someone was saying,
"Hello, Mrs. Key."

They turned around to see a nightmare-looking man, a homeless man
with a dirty sweater and bad teeth, pointing a gun, a real gun, at
his mother. But Jenny was in the way. The man could shoot

This was his chance. He could leap on it from the side, knock it
out of the man's hand, shoot the man dead or pound him with the
gun. He waited for his mother to say something but she didn't.
Rubin's heart pounded in his throat, in his ears, telling him to
jump, telling him to hold still. Without taking a breath, he
jumped. And as he jumped, in his moment of flight and taking
action, everything like a crazy dream, he felt for the first time
he could remember that he was happy, when the sound began,

It went wrong. He grabbed at the gun, clutched the man's hand as a
loud blast of thunder started and didn't stop, thunder crashing in
a long, slow roar, a fire ripping through Rubin's fat belly,
poking, puncturing, burning through and Rubin's head crashing down
on the coffee table, the thunder echoing in his ears as his mother
screamed and he knew how, in one second, in one moment of
stupidity, he had ruined everything.

11:30 P.M. --- 706 East Thirty-eighth Street

In the dirt by the door sat a half-gallon stainless-steel dog dish
with three hardened king-size dog nuggets, next to a coiled dog
chain and monster collar, a silent unmistakable message to
potential intruders to back off, low-tech security provided by an
imaginary Doberman named Wolfgang. Woofles for short. I opened the
door onto an American living room, so well-kept and at the same
time inviting that I was always surprised to remember it was my
own. Rachel trailed me in and pushed the door closed.

I turned to her. With her going-out-to-dinner heels on, she nearly
reached my height at six feet even. We squared off, Rachel staring
me down with her big, dark blue eyes with a slightly Asian turn at
the corner, smooth skin and chestnut brown hair brushed back from
her low forehead. She moved near, a close-cut dress calculated to
show off the curves of breasts and hips, to show others what they
were missing, what I went home with. I kissed her, then drew back
and looked into her eyes.

If I had a photo album, it would look like this: My mother, a
glamour shot, taken around 1950. My parents' wedding picture, her
hair piled up as she towered over my scrawny dad, the unlikely Mr.
and Mrs. Reles (rhymes with "zealous"). Me as a baby, my mother
cradling me, kissing my tiny hand; my dad looking on, brooding. Me
at ten, in the front window of my parents' apartment in Elmira, New
York, the day of my father's release from prison, as my mother
packs her bag, kisses me goodbye and disappears in a blue-and-white
taxi. Me at fourteen in boxing gear, at a Mafia gym in Elmira, a
hard look in my eyes as I fight my way up the ranks of the Golden
Gloves competition. Bleary-eyed at fifteen as my father wakes me in
the middle of the night to tell me he's made an influential enemy
and we're leaving the state-now! At eighteen, graduating from
Austin High School, class of '71, capped and gowned, my eyes blank.
In my MP uniform in Frankfurt. At the University of Texas in jeans
and a T-shirt, but on the inside, wound up to my core: uptight in
relaxed clothes, looking like a narc. Marrying Amy, a tiny blonde
with a domestic dream, cuddled in my big arms. Being left by Amy,
punching the walls of our little, empty house on Avenue F. Making
rank, Sergeant Dan Reles, and no one to share it with. Appointment
to Organized Crime Division. Reassigned to Homicide. With my mentor
Joey Velez. With his widow, Rachel.

Rachel and I had gotten a place in the Cherrywood section of
Austin. I'd pushed for a rental, even though she could have gotten
us a great deal and added her commission to our bank account. She
laughed off my reluctance to buy, tacked it on to the fact that,
after two and a half years together, I hadn't dropped a hint about
marriage. She'd dropped a few. The house itself sat on the south
side of a public golf course, a run-down patch of grass and
shrubbery with a few holes and no fence around it. A gesture of
democracy, it allowed the poor to impersonate the space-consuming
rituals of the rich. If you grew up in the area and wanted a place
to get high at night or make out with your girlfriend or maybe rape
someone, that was the spot. A hundred feet away, on the western
border of the golf course, sat the house Rachel used to share with
Joey Velez.

Senior Sergeant Joey Velez had recruited me eight years earlier to
work on the Gautier case, pulling me from a low-level assignment
I'd been working since I'd made sergeant. With a little help from
me and a dozen others, the Gautier case targeted major and minor
players of a cocaine and car-parts racket operating out of Bertrand
Gautier's famous blues dub, and landed them in prison; and it got
Joey and me assigned to the newly founded Organized Crime Division.
A political shift bounced us off the division, and Joey saved me,
mentoring me onto the Homicide squad and becoming my first real
friend. He was like a father to me, except that he gave useful
advice. If he knew my greatest desire was to jump on his wife,
Rachel, he kept his mouth shut about it. And then he died. Now,
three years after he was gone, I'd still catch him whispering
advice, or as often, goofy things into my ear when I was supposed
to be paying attention. I tried not to listen, part of my practice
of pretending to be sane. I tried not to blame Rachel for his
death, for not loving him. And I tried not to blame myself, for
loving his wife.

A while after Joey died, I got promoted to senior sergeant. At
work, I still missed Joey, the way you'd miss your father if he
died when you were young, his absence felt keenly each day. At
home, I tried not to think about the fact that I was sleeping with
his widow. Rachel took my promotion as a good sign. We rented this
house. She got up every morning at six to stretch and aerobicize in
the living room, sunlight scorching her from the east window. I
would sneak peeks at her by way of the hall mirror, watch her
desperately pounding against the inevitable changes of time and
gravity. I kissed and treasured the occasional gray hair I spotted
on her head before she found and painted it, the slight shifts in
weight and shape that made her more real and human and mine.

That night we'd been out for dinner with Ray and Marissa Tierney,
"old friends from Houston, lawyers both." I wasn't supposed to know
from the awkward pauses and the avoided eye contact that Ray, now a
criminal defense attorney, was an ex-boyfriend of Rachel's, and
Marissa his clueless wife, or that Ray had hurt Rachel bad. The
bridge-night fantasy Rachel staged served multiple purposes. It
convinced Rachel we'd be like other couples no matter how we'd met,
no matter that we'd first kissed under the watchful eye of Joey's
ghost. And it sent out a message to Ray, one I was glad to back up:
cop trumps lawyer.

I left the porch light on, hung up my jacket, looked through the
house and checked the locks. The carpet everywhere muffled my
footfall, I worried, as it would muffle the steps of an intruder. I
spotted Rachel wiggling her ass up the short hallway to the
bedroom, wearing a black satin robe I took as a good sign.

By the time I reached the bedroom, she was lying under the blanket
with the lights dimmed. I undressed and slipped in beside her. At
thirty-seven, I'd kept my boxer's build --- beefed up with
strategically rounded shoulders --- and made a pretty good
appearance in spite of a hairline that had slipped a few degrees
north at the temples and halted, as if to remind me who was in
charge. Along with that, I showed a dozen odd scars and a boxer's
nose: broken once when I was a kid and again a few years back. You
should see the other guy.

Rachel slid into my arms and greeted me with a full, wet kiss, then
settled in and kept still.

I asked, "Is something wrong?"

"No," she lied, it's just...We're always working. We come home in
time to floss and go to bed. On weekends we clean the house and
play catch-up."

"We just went out tonight."

"That's what made me think of it."

I didn't want to blow the moment if it wasn't already over. Here
was a woman who spent her youth coked to the rafters, cleaned up
and spent the last ten years making money. She didn't know what a
real home was any more than I did.

"Well..." I said, warding off frustration. "What do you want to do
besides this?"

"I don't know," she said. Then, "What do people do?"

Between us grew a box of sad, empty space. We had decent jobs, a
nice house, each other. Now what?

"Do you have Monday of" I asked.


Monday was Manin Luther King Day, an optional holiday in Texas, on
the same level as Rosh Hashanah, Good Friday and Confederate Heroes
Day. You could take off anyone of them, depending on your religion
or your politics.

"We could take a long weekend, maybe go away. Do something

She thought it over. "Like what?"

"Whatever. We'll think of something."

The space between us fizzled and she was pressed against me,
sweetly kissing, when the cordless phone rang on her nightstand,
splitting the night, and I clicked that I was the detective on
call. Rachel grabbed it on the second ring as I said, "No,

"Yes?" she said, as the hope drained out of her eyes. She held the
receiver out to me. The base should have been on my side of the bed
since I was always taking the midnight calls, but the line from the
base to the wall wouldn't reach and we should have gotten a longer
line but we didn't.

"Who?" I said.

She imitated the operator's twang. "'Dispatch, Mrs. V.'"

I took the receiver with a standard apology written on my face.

"They need you at 1610 Confederate Avenue. Behind Matthews
Elementary. Now.

"Who died?"

"I think a kid."

When I reached over her to hang up, Rachel was facing the wall and
smoking a cigarette.

"I'm sorry," I said.

After a while, she shook off an idea and flicked the ash in a tray
by the phone.

I stood and dressed. "It could be over by the weekend. We could
still go away."

And again nothing as I left the house and double-locked the door
behind me.

Excerpted from BODY SCISSORS © Copyright 2005 by Michael
Simon. Reprinted with permission by Penguin, an imprint of Penguin
Group, USA. All rights reserved.

Body Scissors
by by Michael Simon

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143038052
  • ISBN-13: 9780143038054