The house in Lexington Park was nearly empty, save for the hundred or so boxes stacked in the attic, upper hallway, living room and kitchen. The furniture was gone. The dining-room chandelier, an heirloom passed down from Jessica's grandmother, had been carefully packed and spirited away, as had all her mother's cut-crystal goblets.
Three dozen people crowded the first floor, eating wings and crab fries from Chickie's and Pete's. Among them were a who's who from the police department, crime lab and district attorney's office. Chits cashed, favors recalled, Jessica had been batting her eyelashes for weeks; Vincent had been twisting arms, sometimes literally, for months.
Also downstairs were Jessica's father Peter Giovanni, most of her cousins, Colleen Byrne and her friend Laurent, Byrne's father Paddy. Just about everyone who could be roped in was in attendance.
Byrne arrived a little late.
Jessica and Byrne stood at the top of the stairs, at the entrance to the attic. Before them was arrayed a roomful of boxes.
'Wow,' Byrne said.
'I'm a total pack rat, aren't IP'
Byrne looked around, shrugged. 'It's not that bad. I've seen worse. Remember the old lady on Osage, the one with two hundred cats?'
Jessica noticed some hair on Byrne's shoulder. She reached over, brushed it off.
'Did you get a haircut?'
'Yeah,' he said. 'I popped in and got a trim.'
'You popped in?'
'Yeah. No good?'
'No, it looks fine. It's just that I've never "popped in" for a haircut. It takes me four to six weeks to make the decision, then it's another month of doubt, steering committees, estimates, near misses, appointments cancelled at the last second. It's a life-changing event for me.'
'Well, it's pretty much a haircut for me.'
'You have it so easy.'
'Oh yeah,' Byrne said. 'My life's a Happy Meal.'
Jessica lifted a few boxes that were, mercifully, light. At least she had taken to labeling things in the past few years. This one read ST. PATRICK'S DAY ORNAMENTS. She did not remember ever buying or displaying St. Patrick's Day ornaments. It looked like she was going to keep them nonetheless, so she could not use them in the future. She put the box by the top of the stairs, turned back.
'Let me ask you something,' she said.
'How many times have you moved in the last ten years?'
Byrne thought for a few moments. 'Four times,' he said. 'Why?'
'I don't know. I guess I was just wondering if you're still hanging onto a bunch of completely pointless, useless crap.'
'No,' Byrne said. 'Everything I have is absolutely necessary. I'm a Spartan.'
'Right. You should know that I once talked to Donna about this very thing.'
In the past few years Jessica and Byrne's ex-wife Donna had become good friends.
'Oh yeah. And she said that when you guys were married, and you moved from the apartment into your house, the first thing you packed was your Roger Ramjet nightlight.'
'Hey! That was a safety issue, okay?'
'Uh-huh. Still have it?'
'I do not,' Byrne said. 'I have a Steve Canyon nightlight now. Roger Ramjet is for kids.'
'Tell you what,' Jessica said. 'I will if you will.'
It was a game they sometimes played - like Truth or Dare, but without the dare. Ninety-nine percent of the time is was light-hearted. Once in a while it was serious. This was not one of those times. Still, there were rules.
'Sure,' Byrne said. 'You're on.'
'Okay. What is the most ludicrous piece of clothing you still own? I mean, something you know you will never wear again, not in a million years, but you just can't bring yourself to part with it?'
'That's an easy one.'
'Oh yeah,' Byrne said. 'A pair of 33-inch waist green velvet pants. Real plum-smugglers.'
Jessica almost laughed. She cleared her throat instead. No laughing was one of the big rules of the game. 'Wow.' It was all she could muster.
'Is that wow I once had a 33-inch waist, or wow green velvet?'
This was a no-win question. She opted for the velvet.
'Well,' Byrne said. 'I bought them in New York in my Thin Lizzy days. I really wanted to be Phil Lynott. You should have seen me.'
'I would pay good money for that,' Jessica said. 'A lot of women in the department would chip in, too.'
'What about you?'
Jessica glanced at her watch. 'My God. Look at the time.'
'Okay. When I was nineteen, going to Temple, I had a date with this guy - Richie Randazzo. He invited me to his cousin's wedding in Cheltenham and I saved for three months for the cutest little red dress from Strawbridge's. It's a size four. I still have it.'
'What, you're not a size four?'
'You are the greatest man who has ever lived.'
'As if this were in doubt,' Byrne said. 'One question, though.'
'You went out with a guy named Richie Randazzo?'
'If you didn't factor in the mullet, the rusted-out Toronado with the fur-trimmed rearview mirror, and the fact that he drank Southern Comfort and Vernor's, he was kind of cute.'
'At least I never had a mullet,' Byrne said. 'Ever.'
'I could always check with Donna, you know.'
Byrne looked at his watch. 'Look at the time.'
Jessica laughed, letting him off the hook. She fell silent for a few moments, looking around the attic. It occurred to her that she would never be back in this room. 'Man.'
'My whole life is in these boxes.' She opened a box, took out some photos. On top were pictures of her parents' wedding.
Out of the corner of her eye Jessica saw Byrne turn away for a second, giving her the moment with her memories. Jessica put the photos back.
'So, let me ask you one more thing,' she said.
Jessica took a few seconds. She hoped that her voice was going to be steady. She put her hand on one of the boxes, the one with the piece of green yarn around it. 'If you have something, some memento that is a part of your life, and you know that the next time you see it, it's going to break your heart, do you keep it? Do you hold onto it anyway? Even though you know it is going to cause you pain the next time you look at it?'
Byrne knew that she was talking about her mother.
'Do you remember her well?' he asked.
Jessica had been five years old when her mother died. Her father had never remarried, had never loved another woman. 'Yeah. Sometimes. Not her face, though. I remember how she smelled. Her shampoo, her perfume. I remember how in summer, when we went to Wildwood, she smelled like Coppertone and cherry Life Savers. And I remember her voice. She always sang with the radio.'
Heaven Must Have Sent You. It was one of her mother's favorites. Jessica hadn't thought of that song in years.
'How about you?' she asked. 'Do you think about your mom a lot?'
'Enough to keep her alive,' Byrne said and leaned against the wall. It was his storytelling pose.
'When I was a kid, and my father used to chew me out, my mother would always run interference, you know? I mean physically. She would physically get in between us. She wouldn't make excuses for me, and I always ended up getting punished, but while my father was upbraiding me she would stand with her hands clasped behind her back. I'd look at her hands, and she always had a fifty cent piece for me. My father never knew. I'd have to do my time, but afterwards I always had fifty- cents to blow on a water ice or a comic book when I got paroled.'
Jessica smiled, thinking about anyone - especially Paddy Byrne - intimidating her partner.
'She died on my birthday, you know,' Byrne said.
Jessica didn't know. Byrne had never told her this. At that moment she tried to think of something sadder than this, and found herself at a loss. 'I didn't know.'
Byrne nodded. 'You know how you always notice your birthday when you see it printed somewhere, or hear it mentioned in a movie or on television?'
'Yeah,' Jessica said. 'You always turn to the people around you and say hey . . . that's my birthday.'
Byrne smiled. 'It's like that for me when I go to the cemetery. I always do a double take when I see the headstone, even though I know.' He put his hands in his pockets. 'It will never be my birthday again. It will always be the day she died, no matter how long I live.'
Jessica couldn't think of anything to say. It mattered little, because she had never met a more perceptive person than Kevin Byrne. He always knew when to move things along.
'So, your question?' he asked. 'The one about whether or not to save something, even though you know it will break your heart?'
'What about it?'
Byrne reached into his pocket, pulled something out. It was a fifty-cent piece. Jessica looked at the coin, at her partner. At this moment, his eyes were the deepest emerald she had ever seen.
'It's a strange thing about heartbreak,' Byrne said. 'Sometimes it's the best thing for you. Sometimes it reminds you that your heart is still beating.'
They stood, saying nothing, cosseted in this drafty room full of memory and loss. The silence was shattered by the sound of a breaking dish downstairs. Irish and Italians and booze always led to broken ceramics. Jessica and Byrne smiled at each other, and the moment dissolved.
'Ready for the big bad city?' he asked.
Byrne picked up a box, headed for the stairs. He stopped, turned. 'You know, for a South Philly chick, you turned into kind of a wimp.'
'I have a gun in one of these boxes,' Jessica said.
Byrne ran down the steps.