The sky had been an angry gray when Maria left the apartment for the grocery store. By the time she filled the items on her mother’s list and was leaving, it had already erupted into a furious, thundering gale. Rain splashed on the ground, forming puddles faster than it had any business doing. In the distance, cars screeched and honked as frustrated drivers maneuvered their way through the sopped mess. The few unlucky people who were caught outside tore for whatever was the nearest shelter.
Maria ran in desperation, clutching the precious bags of groceries. The water on the road seemed almost an inch or more deep. The rain continued to pound with large and angry drops. It was all but impossible to see—or hear—through it.
The honking car horn and screeching of the brakes were the first indication that she had darted into the path of a moving vehicle. She froze, hugging the sacks to her chest as she turned to look with wide eyes. The headlights illuminated her; the car was very close.
The driver’s door flew open and a tough figure leaned out. “What do you think you’re doing?!” he yelled. “You almost got yourself killed!”
Maria’s mouth set in a straight line. She recognized the man from his voice, even though she could barely see him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see your car, Lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Schrank gave her a hard look. “That was pretty obvious,” he said.
He let out a big sigh, eying her bags. “This storm’s only going to get worse. Are you just going home?”
She nodded. “Yes. I was getting some things from the store.”
Schrank gestured at the car. “Get in. I’ll take you back. The last thing I need right now is to hear that some poor driver is having hysterics because of hitting you.”
Maria hesitated. The last thing she wanted to do was ride anywhere with Lieutenant Schrank. And he likely felt the same about her. But as it was, everything she was carrying, as well as she herself, would be completely soaked through long before she made it home. And that would make her trip almost pointless. At last she stepped towards the squad car.
“You can put that stuff in the back,” Schrank directed.
Maria did so, then climbed into the passenger seat. “Thank you,” she said.
Schrank got back in and started the engine. “This is supposed to be one of the worst storms New York has had in years,” he said. “Didn’t you listen to the weather report before you went out?”
“We needed these things; I had to go out. You’re out as well, Lieutenant.”
“I’m on duty. Crummy weather doesn’t change that. I don’t get to stay home when the rain’s coming down in sheets or the snow’s piling up like nobody’s business.”
“No, I suppose not.”
They fell into an awkward silence, the only sounds that of the car’s engine and the water as the tires cut through it. After a moment Maria glanced at Schrank. He was fully focused on the road, not giving any indication of what he was thinking.
At last she decided to speak again. “It’s good of you to do this,” she said. “Before I ever met you, Bernardo told me many things about you, none of them very flattering.”
“My reports to headquarters about him weren’t too glowing either,” Schrank grunted. “What do you think, that the only thing I do with my job is go around bullying street gangs?”
“No,” Maria admitted. “Actually, I don’t know what you do.”
“Mostly I’m being driven out of my mind by these crazy kids.” Schrank was flat and matter-of-fact, but at the same time there was a certain sarcasm dripping from his words.
“The Sharks and the Jets haven’t been causing you trouble lately, have they?” Maria asked.
“Nah, not too much. Now I have to deal with the Hawks and the Emeralds. It’s always some bunch of wiseguys wanting to beat the stuffing out of each other.”
Maria stared out the window, into the pelting rain. “If there’s one thing I agree with you on, Lieutenant, it’s that gang rumbles are horrible.” She spoke in a quiet tone, but he heard her anyway.
“Too bad the gangs don’t agree with us,” Schrank said.
“My parents haven’t been sure what to do now,” Maria said. “Their son is dead. And the boy who was to become my husband is in prison for murder.” She twisted her hands in her lap.
Schrank remembered all too well. The last time he and Maria had encountered each other was at Chino’s trial. Maria had kept herself very composed on the witness stand, but her eyes had glistened with unshed tears. Chino had killed the boy she felt she was in love with.
“And what have you been doing?” he queried.
“I’ve been getting by.” Maria’s answer was vague, but from her aloof tone Schrank gathered that she was still mourning Tony’s death.
“You only knew him a little over twenty-four hours.” There was no need for Schrank to say a name; they both knew to whom him referred.
Maria looked back to him, her brown hair flying with the motion. “That didn’t matter,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. No one understood, but we were in love.”
“People don’t fall in love that fast,” Schrank retorted. “It takes a long time to build up those kinds of feelings.”
“Maybe for a lot of people, but not for us.” Maria was not about to back down.
Schrank was not in the mood to argue over it, either. “You kids,” he muttered. “You get infatuated and end up believing it’s the real thing.”
“Have you ever been in love, Lieutenant?”
Schrank nearly slammed on the brakes out of shock. He gripped the steering wheel tighter as he glared ahead. “That’s irrelevant,” he said. “And none of your business.”
Maria lifted her chin. “If you haven’t ever been in love, you can’t say that Tony and I couldn’t have been.”
Schrank did not want to concede her point. But to his annoyance, his silence said it just as loud as if he had vocally relented.
“May I ask you something?”
“You’ve already been asking me things without wanting permission first,” Schrank grumbled. “Why start now?”
Maria smoothed the skirt of her dress. “What is it that you don’t like about my people?”
Schrank cast a quick glance at her. “Look, let’s get one thing straight. Any problems I have with you Puerto Ricans, I also have with every other group in town. They’ve all got kids itching to join up with gangs. So the more moving in, the more trouble I’ve got.”
“Then you don’t like any people at all?” Maria frowned.
“Most of them haven’t given me much reason to, and a lot of reasons to dislike them.” Schrank was relieved to see Maria’s apartment complex just ahead. This conversation had long ago started treading into territory he would rather leave alone.
Maria tilted her head as she studied him. Her expression was a mystery. As Schrank pulled up in front and turned to look at her, his patience snapped. “Now what?!” he exclaimed.
Maria sat up straight, reaching for the door handle. “I never thought I’d say this, Lieutenant, but I feel sorry for you.”
Schrank stared. “What are you talking about?!” How could he have thought that he could not feel more uncomfortable than he already had? Now he had broken that record.
Maria paused instead of opening the door. “You don’t see the good in people,” she said. “Maybe you did long ago and you’ve changed so much that you don’t see it now. Surely when you became a policeman, you wanted to do good and help people. And somewhere along the way, you started to lose that.”
Schrank’s eyes flashed. “Okay, that’s it!” he snapped. “You say I can’t pass judgment on whether you and that kid you were running around with were in love. You’ve only met me a few times; you can’t pass judgment on what makes me tick.” He pointed at the building. “I got you home now. Get going.”
Maria opened the door and stepped out, then turned to face the car. Opening the back door, she started to lift out her bags. Halfway out, she paused again. Concern and realization flickered in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I had no right to say that. It came out all wrong, but that’s no excuse. I was thinking just now how worried my parents must be, with me out somewhere in this storm. But I haven’t been out in it, because you decided to bring me home. You didn’t have to do that; you could have driven away and let me walk.” She tried to smile, but worry tugged at her lips. “Thank you for your kindness, Lieutenant.”
Schrank did not answer. He was once again trying to decide what to make of her and her words.
Maria backed out of the car and straightened, shutting the car doors. “Goodnight!” she called, before turning to hurry up the walk.
Schrank watched her go, dazed. That was, without a doubt, the strangest car ride he had ever had.
He jerked back to the present when he caught sight of Maria trying to balance everything in order to get the heavy door of the apartment building open. She stumbled, nearly dropping one of the handleless paper bags.
He sighed, reaching for the car door handle. One thing he liked was to finish what he started.
Maria looked up with a surprised start when one of the sacks was suddenly taken from her. Lieutenant Schrank was holding it firmly in his left arm while reaching for the door with his free hand. “Here,” he said as he pulled it open. His voice was gruff and his gray fedora shielded his eyes, but Maria heard and saw enough.
She broke into a bright, relieved smile.