He picked his way up the creaking stairs of the old tenement building until he reached her door on the fifth floor. He was about to ring the buzzer when he heard moaning and sighing coming from inside. Glancing at his watch, he swore as he realized he had arrived early and she was with another client. He lit a cigarette and stared out the stairwell window onto the street below. A gang of boys was loudly playing ball hockey amongst steaming heaps of trash that had been lying out for days. A stray dog wandered in amongst them and yelped in pain as it got clipped behind the ear by an errant stick.
He heard her door open, turned and saw a uniformed police officer emerge. He was young with a spit-and-polish look to him, even as he furtively reached into his pocket to put his wedding band back on his ring finger before quickly disappearing down the stairwell.
“Harry,” she called cheerfully as she appeared in the doorway. “You’re early. I’m sorry. Come on in.”
“Thanks, Jess,” he said as he went into the modest 1-bedroom apartment. “What’s up with the cop?”
“They’re willing to pay a little extra,” she shrugged.
“Well, I guess a married cop on duty should owe you a little extra,” he sighed, as he collapsed into a threadbare easy chair in the corner of the room.
“Yeah, I guess”, she murmured, as if she had only half heard him. “Let me just get washed up and I’ll be right with you.”
As he looked around the squalid apartment and the unmade bed where Jessy had just been having sex with the policeman, he felt the sexual desire drain out of him. He suddenly felt incredibly tired and depressed.
“Hey, Jess!” he called.
“What is it, baby?” she said from the bathroom over the running water.
“Can I just hang out with you, this time. You know, just talk or something. I’ll pay you all the same,” he said as he laid out the twenties on her bedside table.
“Well, okay,” she said, hesitantly, as she came out from the bathroom drying herself off and counting the money. “You really don’t want to fuck? Is it because I was just with that cop?”
“No, no,” he lied. “I just kind of feel like talking. That’s all”
“Sure, Harry. You don’t even want me to suck you a little bit?”
“It’s okay. Next time. Okay?”
“Okay”, she said, smiling suddenly and sitting in his lap. He loved when she smiled. It was so broad and her blue eyes twinkled so playfully when she did it. She had short-cropped thick black hair and a model’s body. In fact, he had told her a million times that she should get out of her line of work and take a shot at modeling. He was sure she would have a fighting chance in the industry. She always shrugged off the suggestion and said she was saving piles of money as it was, a declaration he had no difficulty in believing, and planned to “retire” soon, move to Europe and try her hand at photography.
“Jesus, Jess,” he said, gently, gazing at her and cupping her chin in his hand. “How old are you, anyways?”
“Oh, shit!” he said, laughing and lighting another cigarette.
“What?” she asked petulantly.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “It’s just that I’m exactly triple your age!”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Well, you sure fuck pretty good for an older guy!”
“Thanks,” he said ruefully, examining his hands.
“Hey,” she said, suddenly concerned. “You got the shakes. Are you okay?”
“I just need a drink. Can you give me a belt of something?”
“Sure, baby. I’ll get you a Jack. A big one.”
“Thanks,” he muttered as she passed him the tumbler and sat back down in his lap. He took a long sip and sighed deeply as his eyes watered up.
“You got a wife or girlfriend or anything, Harry? You always seem so sad.”
“I used to be married. Split up a long time ago.”
“Got any kids?”
“I have a grown daughter, Kate. I had a son, Jeremy…” he said, his voice trailing off as a dark shadow of grief fell across his face. He closed his slate-gray eyes and ran his hands through his thinning hair. He was quite handsome for his age but he often looked so pained it was as if the bones in his body were slowly cracking from the inside out.
“Had?” she asked quietly.
“He died of a drug overdose when he was 15.”
“What about your daughter?”
“She’s 27. Flight attendant. But she hasn’t spoken to me since she was 6 years old.”
“How come, Harry?” she asked, taking his hand in hers.
“Well,” said, Harry, taking another long sip from his drink. “I used to be a professor at the university. I had a long affair with a Masters student I was supervising. When she ended it, I retaliated by failing her on her Master’s thesis. She told the university and when the thesis was sent out for review to the other universities it was unanimously, and quite correctly, determined by my colleagues to be a first-class paper worthy of publication. I was fired. My wife left me and Kate never spoke to me again. Jeremy forgave me in time but then he died.”
“Hey, Harry, what were you a prof in?” she asked, a note of urgency creeping into her voice.
“Art History. Why?”
“NYU. Why? Why are you so jumpy all of a sudden?””
“What was the name of the girl?” Jessy whispered.
“The girl!” she snapped. “The Masters student!”
“Violet. Violet Blakey.”
“Oh, God. Oh, God no,” she moaned, starting to cry. “And she died in a car crash 12 years ago?”
“How the hell….” he began, the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to stand on end as he watched Jessy cross the room and reach into a chest of drawers. As she came back to him, tears streaming down her face, she handed him a photograph. He stared at it in horror. “No…”
“My mother,” she said, her voice little more than a croak. “Violet Blakey. Just before she was killed, she told me my father was a disgraced Art History prof at NYU fired from his post for failing her on her Master’s thesis.”
Harry ran to bathroom and wretched violently into the toilet as Jessy sat on the side of the bed quietly sobbing.