I never saw him. But I think I know what he looks like: coiled, ready to lash out, scanning faces as they pass him. Or, looking down at his plain work boots. Furtive, yes, that’s how he would appear.
My wife—ex-wife—wanted me to find him that hot summer when we lived in the upper half of that fourplex in Wabasha, Minnesota. It was steamy that year, no air conditioning, and each step we took up to our unit at the end of the day—all fifteen of them—increased the weight of the heat. My collar clamped onto my neck as I climbed. Sometimes, sweat stained my shirts so bad that they grew pale yellow rings under the arms that never washed out.
Chico lived next door, in the other upper unit. Why didn’t I ever meet him on the stairs, coming or going? We never saw anyone that summer; we were subletting, hoping to move into our own house in the Fall. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. According to my wife—ex-wife—that was one of my problems. Inattentive. I’ll give her that. But I’m not mean or hard hearted.
Chico had a girlfriend, or maybe it was his wife. We never saw her either, but she sounded blonde. Or maybe more dirty blonde. Her voice grated on my ears, a fork on a cheap plate. We heard it almost every night, crying, half-drunk, arguing with Chico. His replies came out menacing and low, a motor idling, or the warning growl of a surly dog. No words, just a rumble of sound. That’s why I was never quite sure what to do; I couldn’t hear what he said.
In the dark, their argument would begin and my wife would tense. My ex-wife, I mean. Her whole body would go rigid and where her leg or elbow touched my skin it gave a little push. I could almost hear her biceps tighten, she was that tense, waiting for me to do something. I was only half paying attention to the drama next door. I was trying to figure out how to make it through the stifling summer until we could move into our own place, complete with central air. That’s where my mind was, on someplace cool where we didn’t have to have neighbors so close. In my mind, I was far from the scene next door. That elbow on my shoulder was a reminder that I should pick up more shifts so we could have our downpayment sooner. I did field checks for environmental waste. There were plenty of extra hours to be had, with the Prairie Island nuclear plant just up the river.
It’s true, though, she was right, we heard something, dull-sounding thuds, not hard or tinny, not like a bat on a ball. And the girl crying out, “Don’t Chico, don’t, you’re hurting me, my breasts, you’re hurting my breasts.” And sometimes she said “hitting,” I can’t remember how often, we were half asleep and it was so damn hot that the heat muffled the sound. She was drunk, too, you could tell that.
My ex-wife hissed at me later, “You could have done something.” I was doing something. I was trying to get us out of there as fast as I could. I wanted a house of my own. I wanted to make enough money so we could afford daycare, if we ever decided to have kids, which she wanted, and how could I object to kids? That’s part of the point of marriage, right?
Chico, I think I know where you are. Still in the same type of walk-up with wood-paneled walls, stains blooming on the carpet, lots of secrets. I had my chance to expose you. That night when my wife finally snapped, begged me in the dark with her strong fingers on my arm: “Call the police.”
I refused. I don’t remember why.
Chico, who am I fooling? You could be anyone. I may have passed you, unknowingly, when we both still had a chance.