A Jackson Donne Story
by David White
I sat in my car trying to learn how to blow smoke rings, while I waited for Joan Beckett or her son Alan to come out of their house. I only managed one really good smoke ring, but I was patient. You had to be on a stakeout. My new cigarette habit helped pass the time. They say they lead to a greater risk for lung cancer. That’s just fine with me. The sooner the better.
Inside my used Honda Prelude the smoke from the cigarettes began to get annoying, so I opened a window. The smoke drifted onto a residential side street in Oradell, NJ. The street was quiet, without much traffic. I had parked the car on the corner, about a football field’s distance from the front door of the house. I didn’t want to look suspicious so I circled the block and parked in a different spot every hour. Probably still looked suspicious.
The sun shone down on the house from the clear skies above, the glare making the blue look like it was a light gray. It was a nice suburban house: two stories, a garage, and one car in the driveway, a minivan.
Joan Beckett’s ex-husband had hired me that morning. He shuffled into my office while I was washing down some aspirin with black coffee. I needed to relieve my morning hangover headache, and the man had the grace to be quiet while I swallowed. When I finished, I offered him a seat in the swivel chair in front of my desk, and asked how I could help him.
He was a thin man and looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Skin was tight and pale against his face. He had thinning black hair which was losing its pigment at the sides. His grey eyes drooped, appearing to tear up as he stared at the blotter on my desk. I wondered how long it had been since he smiled. He spoke first.
“Jackson Donne, correct?” he asked.
“Yeah. That’s me.” I pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from the second drawer in my desk and lit one. The smoke wafted toward my guest. He waved at it with his left hand. A line wrapped tightly around his ring finger where a ring would normally rest, showed even whiter than the rest of his skin.
“I’m Burt Lessing.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Donne. ‘Cruel and sudden, hast thou since purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?‘”
I smiled. “‘The Flea,'” I said. Had to show him I was intelligent too.
If he was impressed, he didn’t show it. He just smiled and nodded. “I knew your . . . fiancée, was it? Jeanne Baker?”
“Yeah, that was her. How did you know her?” The cigarette suddenly tasted bad in my mouth. I snuffed it out in the ashtray on my desk.
“I’m an English professor at Rutgers. We were on the faculty together. Terrible tragedy. You have my condolences.”
“It was a year and a half ago.” I tried not to react. Jeanne died in a car accident two weeks before we were supposed to be married. I didn’t like to talk about it.
“Deaths are difficult to deal with. I doubt that you have fully recovered from it. As I said, you have my sympathy. It must have been horribly difficult. Hadn’t you just been let out of rehab when it happened?”
“Yeah.” He knew too much about me. “Why are you here, Mr. Lessing?”
“Dr. Lessing. Have you dealt with child abuse before, Mr. Donne?”
“Back when I was on the force.”
He let that comment sit. The way this conversation was going, I figured he knew how that ended too.
He reached down to the briefcase he had brought with him, opened it and passed me a manila folder. I opened it. My stomach twisted and I felt bile rise in my throat. Inside the folder were dozens of Polaroids of a small child, probably about seven or eight. He was bruised with two black eyes and a swollen lip. There were close ups of his arms which had large purple welts on them. The child was crying, and had averted his eyes from the camera.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That is my son, Alan. My ex-wife, Joan, did that to him. She likes to drink a lot. It’s the reason I got out of our marriage. I took the pictures and showed them in court. When the divorce was complete, I got custody. I was wise to get out with Alan when I did.”
I looked at the pictures one last time and placed them back in the folder. I took a few seconds to compose myself. I could feel his grey eyes glaring at me. I returned the stare. “These pictures were enough to get you custody? You had to have a witness or someone, didn’t you?”
“The court believed the photos. Don’t you?” He smiled, but it didn’t work somehow, as if the neurons didn’t connect his mouth and his eyes.
“Long story. I don’t trust anyone any more.”
He sighed, upset that he didn’t have even more information on my past. Like most college professors, information was power to him. “Alan’s school principal came to the trial. She saw Alan attend school several times with bruises. I told her what happened when I was about to get the divorce. She promised to testify. It was her testimony that won me the case.”
“So where do I come in?” I didn’t like the sound of this. Family cases were always trouble. They were hard to solve and rarely worked out neatly. But I was short on cash, so I indulged him.
“I live in Oradell. I commute to New Brunswick each day. Yesterday, on my way back home I was caught in traffic, while Alan was at school waiting for me to pick him up. Alan’s mother arrived before me and took him. She abducted him.”
“How do you know she took him?” I reached for another cigarette. This one tasted better. Sun shone in through the window behind me, and I felt the warmth of it on my back.
“Ms. Marie Amis, the school principal, saw her take him.” He replaced the manila folder in his briefcase.
“The same principal who testified at your divorce?”
I inhaled some smoke and let it rest in my lungs for a few seconds. Exhaling, I looked Lessing dead in the eye. I didn’t want to trust this guy, his eyes didn’t agree with the rest of his face, but his voice was compelling, and I began to take his story at face value. “Why didn’t she call the cops? She knows your wife is a threat to the child.”
“I asked her the same question. She decided it would be best to wait for me. She believed I could handle the situation without traumatizing Alan any further.” He stopped smiling.
“I find that hard to believe, Dr. Lessing. She knows your wife hit your kid. Then she sees her take your son away, and she just sits there? Not a very smart principal.”
“Why don’t you go to the cops or your lawyer?” I asked.
“I believe this is quicker. And with lawyers, cheaper. How much will you cost anyway?”
“Two fifty a day plus expenses. But I don’t know if I’m gonna do this. I’m not gonna bust in, grab the kid and leave. This is a family situation which would probably be better dealt with if I stayed out of it.” I wanted to help this child, though. The pictures spoke to me, and I felt for the boy deep in my chest.
He frowned deeply, the lines around his mouth creasing into his cheeks.
“So, how about this?” I continued, “When I see she has the kid, I go and talk to her. Maybe I can talk her into setting up a meeting with you, and you guys can work it out.”
He frowned some more, perhaps visualizing the conversation. I don’t think he liked the idea of me doing my job peacefully, but he relented and agreed. He gave me two pictures, one of Alan, unbruised, and one of Joan, directions to her house, and to his, in case I decided to just take the kid. I told him I wanted to talk to the school principal as well. He didn’t want me to bother the poor woman, but he grudgingly gave me the address of Alan’s school.
Fifteen minutes after he left, I did too. I walked along George Street toward my car, which was parked two blocks away. It was an early fall day, and the college students were out in full force. The air was cool, the sky was blue, and most of the kids were wearing jackets and jeans, strutting toward class on the College Ave campus, situated five blocks away. The students who lived off campus had apartments near my office, and all of them walked to class. The halls of academia are infused with a different type of energy in the fall, an energy that most people don’t get to feel. I only lasted a year at Villanova, but the feeling of the fall air and the sight of the campus brought it all back. Most students were happy in the fall, their faces healthy. They didn’t look like Alan Lessing did, bruised and battered. He didn’t see the fall like these students did. There was no promise for him, no future, only pain. And unlike previous years, I no longer had the energy either.
Jeanne and I used to wander through the Rutgers Quad, noticing the leaves changing color, talking about her classes and new students. She would smile brightly, and that made the fall days even nicer. She was gone now and the fall days seemed to be missing a little extra energy. She didn’t have the uppity nature that most professors did, rarely complained, and she knew that she could be wrong sometimes. I didn’t get that feeling from Lessing, and I wondered why she had told him as much about me as she had. He was probably having marital troubles a year and a half ago too. Maybe she was trying to talk him into seeing me. At the time I was only 27, and my office had just opened. There weren’t clients knocking down my door. There still aren’t.
* * * * *
The ride to Oradell lasted about an hour. It wasn’t an enjoyable ride, the traffic on the Turnpike and Parkway backed up and moving slowly. Driving on New Jersey roads was a two-sided coin. Either it was the Indy 500 or a parking lot.
The elementary school was a one story building that took up a whole block. The windows were decorated with construction paper cutouts and signs that read: WELCOME BACK. Well-manicured grass surrounded the building. There were a few tall trees which were beginning to change color. At ten-thirty in the morning, no one lingered outside the doors.
I had to ring a bell and wait for someone to answer the door because it was locked. Not everyone is allowed access to knowledge. You have to be invited in. A woman, who appeared to be in her forties answered. She wore a grey pants suit and black high heels. She smiled at me, the whiteness of her teeth a noticeable contrast to her bright red lipstick. She wasn’t exactly overweight, but she filled out her suit well with some noticeable flab pressing against her white button down blouse, under her breasts. She had a cold sore lump covered by her lipstick, and she wore a lot of blue eyeshadow.
“Yes?” she asked. Her voice was mellow from years of talking to children in a sweet understanding voice. It sounded like honey, sweet and smooth.
“Hi. My name is Jackson Donne. I’m a private detective.” I showed her my license. “I’m here to meet with a Ms. Amis, the principal. I would like to talk to her about Alan Lessing.”
“I’m Ms. Amis.” She smiled some more. “Usually my secretary answers the door, but she called in sick today. Come inside. Let’s sit in my office.”
Inside her office, she sat behind a large desk, covered with a blotter on which rested, a cup full of pencils, stray papers and folders, and an empty coffee mug. I sat in the chair opposite her desk, and for a brief moment, I flashed back to my days in elementary school, in trouble again for throwing paper airplanes.
“How may I help you?” She looked at me, not sternly, but not lovingly. She was neutral, willing to make a judgement on me after I spoke.
“Mr. Lessing says you testified at his divorce hearing.”
“Yes. That is correct. His wife was beating his child, and I felt it was the right thing to do. There were a few days when Alan would come into class with a bruised arm or cheek, but it didn’t seem like anything a normal boy doesn’t get playing football. Then one day he came in with his father. He was bruised more than ever, black eyes, bandaged. I called DYFS right away. I have to by law, when there is a case of abuse. After they came and took the boy to his aunt’s, Dr. Lessing came to ask for my help.” DYFS was The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services. They investigated cases of child abuse.
“Have you known the Lessings a long time?”
“Only in passing. I didn’t know Burt until he came to me asking for help. He said he had the pictures of his son hurt, but he didn’t have a witness. I’ve seen what Joan Lessing did to her child. It was the least I could do. For the child’s safety, of course.”
“Of course. You testified at the trial, why didn’t the boy?” I was dying for a cigarette. Or a drink. Or both.
“I’m not sure. No one saw Alan during the trial. DYFS took him to his aunt’s, like I said. Maybe he stayed there. He didn’t come back to school until about a month after the trial. They had originally planned on bringing him to testify, but the child wouldn’t answer questions and finally they gave up. I testified for him.”
“I have worked with the child and I am the closest person to a psychologist who has spoken with him.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened yesterday afternoon?”
“Well.” She stopped and looked at me, crossing her eyebrows and thinking. Absently, she shuffled a few papers. “Well. I escorted the line of students outside to their waiting parents like I usually do. Most of them found their parents quickly or ran home or caught their buses. It was like any normal day. One parent pulled me aside to ask about the PTA meeting earlier in the week. I was in conversation when I noticed Alan getting into a car with his mother. It was too late for me to stop her.”
“Why didn’t you call the police or DYFS again, especially if you are required by law?” That question was nagging at me. No one called the police. No one tried to do anything until the next day.
“I thought it would be best to wait for BurtDr. Lessing. He said he would take care of it. That’s all I really know.” She began to shuffle her papers more intensely. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to in the school. Lunch starts in a few minutes.”
“Alan hasn’t returned to school yet?”
She looked at me sternly. I was an annoyance, and she needed to get rid of me. “No.”
“Thank you for your time.” I smiled congenially and left.
I didn’t like the answers she had given me. Something still felt off about the case. Deep inside my mind’s eye, the pictures of an injured Alan Lessing danced, almost taunting me.
* * * * *
Four hours later I was still trying to blow smoke rings. It was nearing four in the afternoon.
At four fifteen, the sun still high in the sky, Joan and Alan came outside. She had him, and she wasn’t trying to conceal him. Alan walked close to his mother. He wasn’t walking right, he seemed to be favoringhis left leg. Rage passed through my body. She kidnaped him and beat him up. She probably blamed him for the divorce or for not winning custody. Maybe she just lost control. The kid didn’t need another episode of violence, so I composed myself, got out of my car, and walked up to talk to her.
I wasn’t halfway up the block when she noticed me. She was putting two overnight bags in the back of the mini-van, when she looked up. She stared at me the whole way up the block, but she didn’t say a word, she didn’t turn and run inside, she just stared. The neighborhood felt even quieter as I walked. There wasn’t a breeze, there were no shuffling leaves, no crying kids. I wished for the bustle of the city, some sort of distracting sound.
I stopped in front of her, and the breeze returned. She looked at me hard with her dark eyes, her short brown hair ruffling in the breeze. She was a thick woman, not heavy, but larger than her ex. She wore a red plain blouse, and jeans that were too tight, and I worried they might split.
“I’m not giving him back,” she said quietly, but with a strong bite in her voice. I could smell alcohol on her breath.
“Ms. Lessing, I’m Jackson Donne, and I’m a private investigator. I want to ask you”
“I’m not giving him back,” she said again. “And I’m not Ms. Lessing. I’m Joan Beckett.” She balled her hands at her sides into fists. Alan looked at me and looked at his mother, and started to whimper. He sat down in the driveway. He probably thought he was going to be in for another beating. I wasn’t going to let that happen.
“I’ve been hired by your ex-husband, Burt.” I flashed my license, but she didn’t look. There was hate in her eyes, glaring like fire deep behind her irises. I took another deep breath trying to remain calm. “He says you kidnaped his child. He says you don’t have the rights to see him.” Alan cried harder, trying to wipe his eyes with his free hand. Drool and phlegm ran from his nose and mouth. He couldn’t be much more than seven years old.
“He’s a son of a bitch. I’m not giving him back. He’s a monster.” Tears welled in Joan’s eyes, but she wasn’t crying. She still stared at me like she was going to kill me and anyone else who tried to get near the kid.
“He’s a monster?” I yelled. I couldn’t control myself anymore. The volcano was erupting. “Lady, you beat the shit out of your kid!”
That’s when the hard stare broke. The tears started to flow. The shock of what I said hit her. I thought the cruelness of what she had done finally dawned on her. I was wrong. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t touch him.”
“Come on, Joan. I talked to Ms. Amis. She told me.” I said, cynically.
“She’s a lying slut!” Joan yelled. She turned to Alan. He wasn’t crying as hard now, but the tears still ran. Joan was crying hard enough for the both of them. “Tell the man what happened, Alan,” she managed to get out.
He froze. He stared at his mother, without moving. The tears stopped and he stopped wiping them. He didn’t say a word. Joan looked at him, her eyes widening. She knew she was not proving anything. She turned to me.
“How could you work for him? My husbandis an evil man.” She moved closer. The smell on her breath got stronger. She wasn’t drunk enough to slur her speech or walk funny–she probably just did a shot before leaving the house. Take the edge off.
“I’m going to take the kid from you, Joan. You hit him. I can’t let you do that.” I tried to remain calm, but inside I trembled with anger. It had been years since I’d seen such cruelty to a child.
Alan finally snapped out of his daze. He still hadn’t looked at me. The tears started to run again, but this time he stood up off the pavement. The boy tugged at his mother’s pant leg.
“Where are you taking him?” I asked. It was hard to talk through gritted teeth, but it was all I could doto keep from hitting her.
“Away from here. Away from Burt and assholes like you who want to take my son.” She gently patted Alan’s head, seemingly comforting him. The boy wasn’t frightened of her. He clung to her leg, as if hugging a thick tree trunk.
I looked away from her bloodshot eyes, and at Alan’s green emeralds, contrasting brilliantly with the black and blue bags, just starting to be tinged with that sickly yellow color, under them. There was something about those eyes. He tried to look away, but somehow he couldn’t.
“Come on kid. Don’t you want to go where it’s safe?” I crouched to his height, and smiled.
Alan looked away from me. I heard his mother mumble something about a “sonuva bitch.”
“You don’t have to stay with your mom.”
Alan grabbed harder at her pants leg. I felt something in my brain click.
“Come on, Alan.” I said.
“Your father wants to see you.” The words sounded hollow to me as they left my throat. I knew I wasn’t going to bring him back. Alan flinched when I said “father.”
Joan just kept repeating “sonuva bitch” softly, and air whistled between her teeth. They were clenched, just like mine.
I smiled, reassuringly.
Alan had backed almost completely behind his mother’s thick leg. He peeked his head out from behind it. He didn’t speak, he just stared at me, clinging to his mother, flinching when I said “father.”
Daddy, the loving father with a stable job.
Alan looked away. Joan patted his head again.
Mommy, the abusive alcoholic.
Nothing is ever simple. Nothing is the way you think it is.
The kid cried some more. I knew what he was sacred of. I knew deep down inside. The boy didn’t need to say anything. He just cowered behind his mother’s leg, the thought of his father filling him with fear. That scrawny man who was in my office this morning beat his son.
I looked at Joan, met her eyes that were filled with tears. She knew what I was thinking and nodded.
“With a baseball bat,” Joan said.
My eyes widened. I heard my voice, but I wasn’t sure what I said. Joan said something too, but my ears weren’t working right. I turned and walked back to my car, without Alan, without Joan. I looked at the address Burt had given me. He was in his office at Rutgers, and would be for the next few hours. I would see him soon enough, but I had another stop to make. There were still some questions that needed to be answered.
I sat in the driver’s seat of my Prelude taking more deep breaths. Anger wasn’t going to help me now. I had to save it for when I saw Burt. My ears started to work right again. I turned the engine. I pounded the gas pedal to the floor and the tires squealed as I pulled away.
* * * * *
I caught Ms. Amis just as she was unlocking the door to her Subaru in the parking lot. I pulled behind her car blocking it into the spot. I got out of the car before she even realized what happened. It took her a second to recognize me, and when she did she dropped her car keys.
“What do you want?” she asked, averting her eyes from me. She stared at her keys on the ground, but didn’t bend over to pick them up.
“You lied to me.” I walked up to her, getting so close she had to lean against her car door. Her eyes were wide with shock or fear.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She tried to pull off a puzzled expression, but it didn’t work. Her wide eyes gave her away. She wasn’t confused or puzzled, she was scared of me.
“Joan Lessing didn’t beat her son. Those black eyes of his are a more than a day old. That means he was hurt before yesterday, the last time he was in school. That also means you saw him and didn’t say anything. I want to know why.”
“You’re insane.” She tried to bend down to get her cars keys, but I was too close to her. She was stuck, and I wasn’t going to let her go until I found out what was going on.
“No. I’m not.”
“Yes. You are.” She sounded childish, like one of her students in a playground argument. “Now let me pick up my keys, and leave. I have an appointment to keep.”
I bent over, picking up the keys. She smiled thinking I finally believed her. I admired the keyring for a moment, and then threw the keys about fifteen yards. They rattled as they flew, then gravity took hold, and they crashed to the grass near the front of the school.
“You son of a bitch,” she said, anger taking over her voice.
She tried to slap me with her left hand, but I caught it. “That’s the second time I’ve been called that today. The first time was true. Not this time,” I said. “Now tell me what is going on.”
Her face flashed with anger again, and I thought she was going to try and slap me with her free hand. She didn’t. Instead the anger dissolved from her face, and she leaned back against the door of her car.
“What happened, Ms. Amis? What do you know?”
She sighed. “I don’t know where to begin.”
“What happened yesterday when you saw Alan?”
“His teacher called me. She saw the bruises, and asked me what to do. I told her I’d take care of him. Alan came down to my office, and we spent most of the day talking.”
“Things. Nothing important. I just couldn’t let him go back to class. I took him for a drive, and for lunch. I couldn’t leave him in class. I called his mother.” She didn’t look at me when she spoke. She looked at the sky, which was beginning to cloud, or at the leaves, lazily floating to the ground anytime the wind blew.
“You called his mother?”
“Yes. I had to do something.”
“You weren’t going to call the police. Or child welfare?” The clouds had drown out the sun now, and the parking lot was beginning to darken. A storm was looming.
“No. I couldn’t. I can’t turn Burt in.” Her eyes saddened.
“Why not? He beat his kid. He hit the kid with a baseball bat. Can you understand that? The kid isn’t even ten yet. He can’t defend himself.” Anger welled inside me again. I tried to subside it with deep breaths. Scotch would probably work better.
She started to cry. “Burt frightens me. He’s threatened to kill me. He said if I ever called welfare or the police that I would die. I called welfare so it would be easier to lie to Burt. He could just think she took him.” She kept talking, but I stopped listening. I walked to my car and drove off, toward the Parkway, toward Rutgers, toward Burt Lessing. I wanted to kill him.
The rain began to fall during my drive. The drops were intermittent at first, huge round drops that exploded off my windshield like water balloons exploding off a child on a summer day. The rain fell harder and harder, until it eventually rained so hard the drive was slowed to a crawl. My lights cut through the water, but my wipers couldn’t keep up with the downpour. It was hard to see out my window.
* * * * *
The weather resembled another day in my life. The day I didn’t want to tell Lessing about, but he probably already knew. I was on the force, had just been promoted to the Narcotics division. I was young, inexperienced, and was developing a drug problem. Narcotics division wasn’t helping me kick the habit. It made it worse.
There were four of us assigned to take out the apartment where the dealer and his family stayed. We had seen cocaine being bought and sold in the area. We had staked the apartment out for weeks. As we stood outside the building, the pouring rain soaking through our uniforms, all we worried about was whether there was enough cocaine for us to get some evidence and split the rest up between us.
The bust went off without a hitch. We ran in, breaking down the door, putting on a show, guns out, screaming to freeze, scaring the shit out of the dealer and his wife. And their small son, not more than four years old. My partner and I went to get the drugs, and the other two cops arrested the dealer. The dealer was taken outside and Mirandized. My partner looked in one bedroom for the drugs, and I looked in the bathroom. I could hear the kid crying the whole time. As I looked, under the toilet, under the sink, in the medicine cabinet, I heard my partner say he had the shit and to get the hell out of there. He was already gone by the time I reached the living room. The wife must have forgotten I was still in the apartment because she stood over the kid, and I realized the kid wasn’t crying because we arrested his father. It was because she was beating him, with a closed fist. She hit him with her right hand and her left hand, the small child’s head whipping from side to side, blood pouring from his nose and lip. Two teeth lay on the floor. I froze, not sure what I should do. I was about to grab her when my partner came back inside the room. He took a second to assess the situation and grabbed my arm.
“Come on. We got what we came for. It’s not our problem. Come on.”
We left the apartment. I came down the stairs a step or two slower than my partner. Behind me I could hear the sound of flesh pounding flesh. And the child wailing, screaming, piercing my ears. That night I snorted enough cocaine to make my head explode. It didn’t, and when I finally slept the sounds of the child screaming echoed in my dreams.
* * * * *
It’s not our problem.
It was my problem now. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. It was so easy to believe that Joan had beaten her son. I had seen another woman do it, and that image was etched in my brain. Now I knew the truth, and Burt wasn’t going to touch his son again.
The rain pounded hard on the roof of my car, showing no signs of letting up. I pulled off Route 18 and onto the Rutgers Campus. It was nearly 6:30 and there weren’t many cars, so I found a parking spot quickly. A Rutgers University Police Cruiser passed as I got out of the car, splashing a puddle of water on to my pants. I hardly noticed.
I didn’t take time to notice the buildings in the Quad as I normally do. I rushed toward Murray Hall and Burt Lessing’s office, pulling the door open and leaving the rain behind me. I barely noticed two more Rutgers cops standing drinking coffee in the hall. I stormed up the steps. I reached an office door which had a label on it: BURT LESSING. I pushed it open.
Lessing was with a student. A tiny girl with short blonde hair, tanned skin and a sorority windbreaker. Both of them looked at me. A soaking wet mess.
“We need to talk,” I said. “Now.”
There was something in my voice I guess, because Burt didn’t even have to tell the girl to leave. She just packed up her things and got the hell out of there. It was him and me now. It was quiet for a moment, the only sound the hard rain beating off the window behind him.
The office was cluttered, a poster of Monet on the wall, a coffee machine on a small table that reminded me of a nightstand. Papers covered his desk and books covered the rest of the office. All the greats: Shakespeare, Keats, Milton, Fitzgerald, Wilde. And there were Lessing and Donne. Staring at each other.
“Do you have my son, Mr. Donne?”
“What’s wrong? You seem very flustered. Why don’t you sit down and tell me what’s going on?” He smiled at me and offered the chair the sorority girl had sat in just moments before. I ignored it.
He stood and leaned over his desk. I reached over the desk and grabbed Burt by his collar, shoving him backward into the chair. “Sit down,” I said. The chair almost flipped, but he caught his balance in time and grabbed the corner of the desk.
“You beat your son, you son of a bitch.”
“What?” He leaned forward, close to his desk, resting his hands on his legs. He didn’t try to act puzzled or confused. He seemed to have complete control of the situation.
“You heard me.”
“Why don’t you explain to me what you’re talking about.” He didn’t move, he didn’t look away. He just stared at me. I balled my fists.
I wanted him to know what I had figured out. I wanted him to know I knew. “You beat your son. You always did it. For years. Your wife wanted a divorce, didn’t she? It was her idea, she thought she would get custody and get to keep the kid the hell away from you. But you set her up. You beat your kid once again, and this time you took pictures. I guess the principal knew, but you took care of that, didn’t you? You threatened her life.”
Lessing smiled. He sat back in his chair, his hands on his lap. I needed him to fill in a few holes.
“I’m impressed, Mr. Donne. I did want to keep the child. He’s my son, and no one can tell me how to raise my son. I can punish him as he should be punished. I’m doing what is right.
“Near the end of our marriage Joan was drunk all the time, DYFS, the courts, they didn’t believe anything she said. She was even drunk on the stand. It was easy. Welfare said Alan was too traumatized to sit through the hearing, he wouldn’t be able to testify on the stand. The boy didn’t speak at all. They sent him to stay with his aunt, my sister. He was out of the way. And who wouldn’t believe the child’s principal? Poor woman. She’d never testify against me. I will get the boy back, you know.”
“No, you won’t.”
He shifted slightly in his chair and the wood legs creaked. “And why is that, Mr. Donne?”
“Because I won’t let you.”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
He finally took his hands off his lap, and too late I realized what he had been doing under the desk. He aimed a small revolver at me. A Saturday night special, with a taped hand and trigger. I didn’t have my Browning with me, I never thought I’d need it.
Lessing’s hands shook, the gun wavering in his hands, but he did his best to aim the weapon. He pulled the trigger. A flash of light exploded around his right hand. I think I tried to roll out of the way, but the office was too small and he was at point blank range. Something jarred my left shoulder and sent me reeling back into a bookcase. I slumped to the floor, books falling all around me, in my lap, off my head. I couldn’t feel my shoulder, but I felt a wet stream flowing down my arm.
I wasn’t sure what happened next. I remembered Lessing getting out of his chair and walking toward me, aiming his weapon more carefully. Then the door to his office flew open and two men in grey uniforms stormed in. From deep in the recesses of my brain a black puddle formed, seeping its way through my skull, clouding my vision, my sense of hearing, everything. It enveloped my body, pulling me toward a different world. Somewhere in the distance I saw Jeanne and she beckoned to me. I went with her, willingly.
* * * * *
I stayed in the hospital a few days for observation. The bullet passed through me with minimal damage, missing the bone and any arteries. They told me I was lucky, I could have lost all movement in my arm. Instead, I was expected to make a full recovery. Lucky me.
I found out later it was the two Rutgers cops who stormed into Lessing’s room. The ones I saw drinking coffee in the hallway of Murray. They heard the gunshot, and were upstairs in no time. They arrested Lessing. He pled self-defense, but they couldn’t find any weapons on me. Apparently, he plea-bargained his way down to possession of an illegal weapon, and was out with probation. He still wanted Alan back, and he set up another hearing. I testified at it, along with Marie Amis, whom I promised to protect. Joan Beckett testified as well. She must have understood how important it was because she appeared to be sober on the stand. Lessing didn’t win. Another trial was set, and this time for criminal charges for child abuse.
Sometime in December I sat at my desk sorting through my mail. The weather had turned cold and damp, and the forecasters warned of snow. It was going to be a rough winter, they said. They were right, I could feel the winter storms in my shoulder. In my mail I received a Christmas card from Joan and Alan. They had moved to Pennsylvania, near the Poconos. She thanked me for my help. She said she owed me the life of her son, and there was a check for two hundred dollars. I tore it up.
I got up from my desk, and reached for a shot glass. When I picked up the glass, I wondered if Joan was trying to contain her drinking. I didn’t have the answer, and the thought passed. I reached in the cabinet beneath my CD player and pulled the bottle of Scotch. I poured myself a shot and pressed play on the player. I had been listening to the same song at least once a day since I got out of the hospital. Billie Holiday’s voice emerged sadly from the speakers.
“God bless the child who’s got his own, who’s got his own . . .”