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Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen

Blank TVIn the opening pages of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Scudder mentions that his friend Mick Ballou is married now, to a much younger woman named Kristin Hollander.  Readers may recall Kristin from Hope to Die and All the Flowers Are Dying, but her relationship with Mick may come as news to them.  It was in fact noted in a vignette I wrote a couple of years ago, “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen,” but that was written for a limited-edition broadside published by Mark Lavendier; it sold out in a hurry.

I expect I’ll tuck it into my next collection of short fiction.  But in the meantime I thought some of y’all might like a look at it:

MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN

“At first,” Mick Ballou said, “I thought the same as everyone else in the country.  I thought the fucking cable went out.”

We were at Grogan’s, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he owns and frequents, and he was talking about the final episode of The Sopranos, which ended abruptly with the screen going blank and staying that way for ten or fifteen seconds.

“And then I thought, well, they couldn’t think of an ending.  But Kristin recalled the time Tony and Bobby were talking of death, and what it would be like, and that you wouldn’t even know it when it happened to you.  So that was the ending, then.  Tony dies, and doesn’t even know it.”

It was late on a weekday night, and the closemouthed bartender had already shooed the last of the customers out of the place and put the chairs up on the tables, where they’d be out of the way when someone else mopped the floor in the morning.  I’d been out late myself, speaking at an AA meeting in Marine Park, then stopping for coffee on the way home.  Elaine met me with a message:  Mick had called, and could I meet him around two?

There was a time when most of our evenings started around that time, with him drinking twelve-year-old Jameson while I kept him company with coffee or Coke or water.  We’d go until dawn, and then he’d drag me down to St. Bernard’s on West 14th Street for the butchers’ mass.  Nowadays our evenings started and ended earlier, and there weren’t enough butchers in the gentrified Meat Market district to fill out a mass, and anyway St. Bernard’s itself had given up the ghost, and was now Our Lady of Guadalupe.

And we were older, Mick and I.  We got tired and went home to bed.

And now he’d summoned me to discuss the ending of a television series.

He said, “What do you think happens?”

“You’re not talking about tv.”

He shook his head.  “Life.  Or the end of it.  Is that what it is?  A blank screen?”

I talked about near death experiences, all of them remarkably similar, with the consciousness hovering in midair and being invited to go to the light, then making the decision to return to the body.  “But there’s not a lot of eyewitness testimony,” I said, “from the ones who go to the light.”

He thought about it, nodded.

“You’re a Catholic,” I said.  “Doesn’t the Church tell you what happens?”

“There’s things I take their word for,” he said, “and things I don’t.  Kristin thinks you meet your loved ones on the other side.  But of course she’d want to think that.”

Kristin Hollander had lost her parents in a brutal home invasion, and had met Mick in its aftermath, when I sent him to her house to keep her safe.  They’d grown friendly since.

“She has this set that puts you in mind of a movie screen,” he said.  “We watched the show together and sat around for hours talking about it.”  He drank whiskey.  “There are some I’d not mind seeing again.  My brother Dennis, for one.  But after a few words about old times, what would we talk about for the rest of eternity?”

I wondered where this was going.  He’d called me out in the middle of the night, and I had a feeling he wanted to tell me something, and I was afraid to ask what it was.

And so we drifted into a shared silence, not uncommon during our late evenings together. I was searching for a way to break it, but it was Mick who spoke first.

“There’s a favor I have to ask you,” he said.

#

“I dreaded hearing it,” I told Elaine.  “I just knew he was going to tell me he was dying.”

“But he’s not.”

“He wants me to stand up for him.  He’s getting married.  To Kristin.”

“I figured that’s why he wanted to meet you.  So he could tell you.  You didn’t see it coming?”

“I thought they were just friends.”

She gave me a look.

“He’s forty years older than she is,” I said, “and spent those years tearing up the West Side.  No, I didn’t see it coming.”

“You never noticed the way she looks at him?  Or the way he looks at her?”

“I knew they enjoyed each other’s company,” I said, “but—”

“Oy,” she said.  “Some detective.”

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City. Learn more atwww.lawrenceblock.com.