It’s Tuesday, March 25, 2008. It’s 4 in the afternoon. You can see the news vans and police cars down the street. You already know what happened; you were told over the phone. Your friend who lives up the block comes with you. The neighbors stand outside their houses, all the old Italian ladies in their usual flowered cleaning dresses. All your friend can say is “Holy shit.” He leaves you with “See you tomorrow at school.”
The homicide detectives are drinking coffee just outside the yellow tape perimeter. You say, “I live here.” They make you show ID. Your last name matches your father’s. They look at your face and let you through.
The detectives give you some time with your dad. The whole house smells chemical, but you can’t place what it is exactly. Your dad tells you it all went like this: It was around 11 A.M. He was getting ready for work and something didn’t smell right. He thought maybe there was a gas leak and tried calling down to the basement apartment for the tenant: “Michael?” He called the name a few times. When he went downstairs, there was ammonia cleaner and blood everywhere, blood all around Michael. Your dad ran upstairs, called 911. They made him go back down to try to resuscitate Michael. Your dad says he thought that maybe he had killed himself.
“Well, he’s dead” — your dad remembers one of the paramedics saying this just a few steps into the apartment, after seeing drag marks over the wall and along the floor. They called the police, who got homicide involved. You dad called your mom, who’s a lawyer, who knows other lawyers, just in case he needed one.
The detectives ask you if you remember the smell from the morning. You say you don’t. You say you just found out about the ammonia, but you think you’ve never smelled anything quite like this.
The detectives — there are three of them — ask you to detail what you remember from the night before to the morning you left the house. All of them take notes. You say you remember watching TV. You remember hearing yelling from the basement and exchanging glances with your father, thinking the argument was too loud for you to stay just a floor above it. You remember going upstairs. You remember a loud crashing noise you thought may have come from the house next door. “It was either that or make-up sex from downstairs,” you tell them. The walls are thin in your house.
You tell them that the man yelling had been here before. You remember standing at the door that divides your house and the tenant’s, in a sort of hushed laughter with your friend as the man rapped along with Eminem about a week ago. You remember the the time he smoked cigarettes in the basement and stunk the house up. They ask you if the man yelling was white, hispanic or black. You say you’ve never seen him. They ask if you could just tell by his voice. “How am I supposed to know,” you tell them. But all you think is that only a white guy would rap like that.
The lead detective gives you his card and tells you to contact him if anything comes up. He tells you the killer won’t be coming back, even if he does have the key to your house. The detectives don’t let your family change the lock to the apartment. They put an official seal over Michael’s door that threatens to fine intruders.
Your home phone rings on and off the whole night. When you ask your parents if you should answer it, they tell you to ignore it. They tell you the reporters just want a story. The Italian grandmothers across the street have been talking to the news all day, talking about how the area’s changed.
That evening, the forensic team keeps a large truck parked outside your home. They wear white jumpsuits that cover everything except their faces. They wear masks over their mouths. They work until late that night, and the truck hums so loud it keeps your family up. The body sits in your basement until 1 in the morning, when the forensic team wheels it out of the basement on a stretcher. The news team gets their video. The silence at the end of it all, alone in your bed, feels like the scariest part. You go to your parents bed that night, and they let you lie down even though there’s no room for you, even though you can’t go to sleep, but you never tell that part of the story to anyone.
The next morning, you go to school even though you’re told you can stay home. The police tape is still up by the time you get back to the house. Neighbors leave flowers and candles at your doorstep. You have to move the collection aside to open your gate. The tape gets taken down sometime that week, but a bit remains clinging to the tree and to the fence. Nobody takes that down.
Over the next week, the detectives are in and out of your house. They come and go as they please. One time, you see them out in your backyard, studying the plastic tool shed. They ask you questions casually: “Did you get any indication that Michael was a big drinker?” “Did Michael ever receive any mail addressed to anyone else?” “Did you ever see Michael cross-dress?”
The next morning, your dad drives you and your sister to school through Battery Tunnel, and the three of you try to remember things for the detectives. You and your dad remember receiving a letter for someone else, but you can’t recall the name. You try to remember at school when you’re bored, but the memory doesn’t come back. Every now and then, someone catches your eye at the drugstore or at the subway station and you almost swear that he did it.
You eavesdrop for clues. You realize you saw Michael out with a guy once, but he had a hood pulled over his head. You keep thinking you’ll see this face you don’t know.