Sometime later—he didn’t know how much later because they’d taken his watch—he found himself in a desperate place, a place even the wildest of his wild years couldn’t have begun to prepare him for. There were strange smells, unsettling noises, the rhythmic tapping of heels on linoleum. Cold steel. Corridors within corridors. Here he was in the midst of it, his hands shaking as if he’d had a hundred cups of coffee, and he couldn’t stop pacing back and forth across the stained concrete floor of the solitary cell they’d put him in, the guard or deputy or whatever he was giving him a rude shove and announcing in an overheated voice that it was for his own protection. “The people we got in here, they don’t like creeps like you. And you want to know something? Neither do I.” And then he added, as a kind of oral postscript, “Scumbag.”
Donna Trumpeter, aflutter with righteousness, had tried to explain that they’d made a mistake, that he—Riley, the man in handcuffs with the heart rate surging like Krakatoa—was a famous writer, a celebrity, an award winner, but the cops wouldn’t listen. They produced a blanket for the boy, as if he were cold, as if that were the extent of his problem, and another cop—a female with a face like a blazing gun—wrapped the boy up and led him away. Riley talked himself hoarse. He protested in a high buzzing whine while they led him in cuffs through the cavernous station, and everybody, even the crackheads and bums, stared at him; fulminated while they strong-armed him into the backseat of the cruiser out on the bleak cold street; alternately raged, threatened and pleaded as they read him his rights, took his fingerprints and photo—his mug shot!—and booked him. Was he allowed a phone call? Yes. On a real phone greased with the slime of 10,000 penitential hands, a phone attached to a wall with an actual cord that disappeared inside it before connecting with a vast seething network of wires that ran all the way to Buffalo and beyond. It took four rings for Caroline to answer, each one an eternity, and what was the name of that attorney they’d used when the neighbor’s pinhead of a kid set fire to the fence?
“Hello?” Her voice was guarded, caller ID alerting her to the suspect number. Absurdly he wanted to throw his voice and pretend to be a telemarketer, make her laugh, goad her, but things were too desperate for that.
“It’s me,” he said. “I’m in trouble.” He felt as if he were in a submarine deep under the sea and all the air had gone out of it. The walls were squeezing in. He couldn’t breathe. “I’m in jail. I’ve been arrested.”
“Listen, I’m just sitting down to a salad and a glass of wine and I really don’t have time for whatever this is—humor, is that it? You think you’re funny? Because I don’t.”
He dredged something out of his voice, something real, that stopped her. “Caroline,” he said, and now he was sobbing—or almost, right on the verge of it—“I’m in jail. Really. It’s crazy, I know, but I need you to…I need your help. That lawyer, remember that lawyer, what was his name?”
“Lawyer? What are you talking about?”
He repeated himself for the third time, angry now, the humiliation burning in him, and what if the papers got hold of this? “I’m in jail.”
Her voice tightened. “For what?”
“I don’t know, it’s all a mistake.”
Tighter yet: “For what?”
There was a deputy right there, pointing emphatically at his watch. The corridor smelled of cleaning solution, vomit, bad shoes, bad feet, bad breath.
It took everything in him to get the words out. “They’re calling it”—and here he emitted a strained whinnying laugh—“child abuse.”
“Jesus,” she snapped. “Why don’t you get a life? I told you I’m trying to have a bite of dinner here—in peace for once? Go try your routine on one of your groupies, one of the literary ladies of where is it? Greater Stuyvesant. I’m sure they’ll all love it.” And then, because Riley must have committed some sin he wasn’t aware of in another life and another time, something truly heinous and compoundedly unforgivable, the phone went dead.