Doc sighed to himself as he rubbed down the counter. It was closing time—past, really—but he had not yet switched the sign. Even when it was flipped to Closed, kids occasionally showed up to bang on the door if the light was on and they could see he was still there.
And he obliged them. The store was one spot where, usually, they could just forget all the madness and hang out. And he wanted, in whatever way he could, to give them something else to do rather than to stay on the streets and get involved in rumbles.
Especially after that fateful clash between the Jets and the Sharks.
Doc set the towel down and stepped away from the counter. Though there were still a few stray members of both gangs who were not fully willing to set their feelings aside, the majority had agreed to call off the feud. Now, it was just as likely to see Sharks at the tables or throwing darts, as it was the Jets. Doc welcomed the change, but not what had brought it about.
Maybe, he thought, he should have done more when the gangs had made plans for a rumble right in the store. The problem was, he had tried in the past to reason with them and the kids had never listened to him. They had made it perfectly clear that they wanted to enjoy being in the shop and not be lectured there when they already were in other locations. If he tried, they would not pay attention. And they would just go somewhere else to plan their fights. By the time the Jets and the Sharks had begun their feud, Doc had all but given up on being able to help any of them. So he had stayed out of their gang wars.
He could not help wondering if Tony, Riff, and Bernardo would still be alive if he had tried to do something.
Lieutenant Schrank had often complained that the only thing those kids understood was violence. Doc had not wanted to accept that, but on that dark and bloody night not so long ago, he had started to see the gangs as Schrank saw them—even if just a bit. He had witnessed the madness, the hatred, and most of all, the fear that had moved the events of that night forward and left three people dead in its wake.
The bell over the door rang, jerking his attention upward as he was about to start wiping down the nearest table. His eyes widened at the sight. He had expected to see a kid wandering in for a late-night candy bar or a comic.
He had not expected to see a dazed and stumbling Lieutenant Schrank holding a hand to the side of his head. His hat was tipped back, not casting so much as a shadow on his tanned skin. Crimson was seeping through his fingers.
Before Doc could say a word Schrank squinted at him and slumped into a chair. “Oh brother,” he mumbled, his Brooklyn accent thick and slurred. “This isn’t where I thought I’d end up.”
Doc came to life. Schrank was not and never would be one of his favorite people, but that was irrelevant. The man was clearly hurt.
“What happened?” he demanded.
Schrank leaned back, his gaze traveling around the room as if he still was not sure where he was. “You know, I’m not even sure,” he said. “Isn’t that a riot—I can’t remember one flippin’ thing.”
Doc was already crossing back to the counter for a fresh towel. Schrank’s words made him pause. “You mean about what happened to you, or . . . ?”
Schrank gave a weak shrug. “I can’t tell you that, either,” he said. “I woke up just a few minutes ago. Everything’s kinda blurry and running together in my head. I’ve got these snatches of . . . something, but I can’t place ’em.”
Doc came back with the towel and tried to pry Schrank’s hand away from the wound. Schrank was agreeable; he let his hand fall limply to the table. Doc leaned over, studying the injury. It did not look deep, but it was still directly on the Lieutenant’s temple, and that was a concern.
“You’re lucky you weren’t hurt a lot worse,” he exclaimed. “I’ll have to call an ambulance.”
“Ambulance?” Schrank scoffed. “You’re a doctor, aren’t you? Isn’t that why this place says ‘Doc’s’ out front?”
“I’m not a doctor,” Doc retorted. Something in Schrank’s words, or maybe in his tone, indicated a lack of remembrance. Doc was growing more concerned by the moment. “Here, hold this over it,” he directed, drawing the folded towel up to the wound. “Try to stop the bleeding.”
Schrank took it with his stained hand. He watched Doc with vague curiosity, his eyes glassy and half-open. “So who are you, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve got this crazy feeling we know each other from somewhere. I think I’ve been in here before, but I can’t tell. It’s all mixed up.”
Doc stepped back. “I just run this store,” he said, keeping his voice guarded. “You come in here sometimes.”
“Oh yeah? I guess I must remember it from that then. Maybe that’s why I showed up here.” Schrank hissed and flinched as the pain spiked again.
Doc hurried back to the counter, taking up a penlight from one of the plastic bowls. “Look at me,” he directed as he came back.
“I’m lookin’,” Schrank grunted.
Doc shined the light, first on one eye, then the other. He sighed, moving back. Schrank’s pupils looked normal, but that did not mean he did not have a concussion. And obviously something was very wrong in any case.
“Just stay here,” he directed. “I’ll call the ambulance.”
Schrank grimaced. “My head feels like somebody tried to bash it open with a baseball bat. You really think I’m going anywhere?”
“No,” Doc said as he went to the phone. Schrank’s colorful speech pattern was intact, at least.
He kept watch on Schrank as he dialed 911 and spoke with the dispatcher. The Lieutenant had no intention of moving, even if only because of his injury. He was staring blankly out the window, having lost interest in what Doc was doing.
Doc shook his head as he hung up. It was eerie, even wrong, to see Schrank like this. And what on Earth could have happened?
He walked back over and sat at the table opposite the confused policeman. “The ambulance will be here soon,” he reported.
Schrank continued to gaze out the window as though he had not heard. “Somethin’s out there,” he said, his voice vague and gruff all at once.
Doc frowned. “What do you mean?”
Schrank never looked to him. “Somethin’ . . . I left someplace like this. . . . Someone else was hurt, I think. . . .”
Doc’s eyes widened. “Did you leave to get help?” he prompted.
Schrank’s eyes narrowed slightly as he considered the question, trying to think. “I . . . probably did. . . . But . . . I’m not sure if the other person was alive. Nah, I don’t remember.”
Doc leaned forward, clasping his hands on the table. “Do you remember who you are?”
It was not usual for him to talk so much to Schrank; in general, Schrank talked and he listened. But this was critical on two levels. He needed to keep Schrank awake until the ambulance came. From his dazed, sickly appearance, Schrank could pass out at any time. And if someone else was hurt, Doc needed to know so help could be sent out.
Schrank paused, turning to face Doc but instead looking at the ceiling. “I . . . I’m . . .” He looked to Doc, helpless confusion flickering in his eyes. “I think I’m . . . Lieutenant. . . .” He trailed off on the last word, his expression again growing vague.
“You’re a lieutenant,” Doc said with a nod. “But don’t you remember anything else? A name?”
“Somebody was calling me ‘Lieutenant,’” Schrank elaborated.
Suddenly the towel dropped from his hand. He reached out, violently gripping Doc’s upper arms with his strong, shaking hands. “Somebody was calling me!” he exclaimed, his voice rising to drastic volumes. “I know it; I heard them calling me! And then there was a crash and . . . and nothing!” He started to get up. “I can’t stay here. I have to get back out there! Somebody was calling me!”
Doc stood quicker than he thought he would be able to. “You can’t go out there!” he shot back. “You’re hurt. How will you be able to do anyone any good in your condition?!”
Schrank was about to reply, but the abrupt leap was already affecting him. His eyes rolled back and he fell into the chair, hard. His hands slipped free from Doc’s shoulders.
Doc hurried over, open concern in his eyes now. Blood was trickling from the wound, less than before. But Schrank was slumped forward, either unconscious or close to it.
Doc grabbed Schrank’s shoulder. “Wake up!” he commanded. “Lieutenant Schrank . . . !”
Schrank started under his grasp. “Schrank?” he mumbled. His eyes fluttered once, then opened halfway. He regarded Doc in bewilderment.
Doc bent down to be at his eye-level. “I need you to tell me something,” he said, the urgency in his voice. “The person calling you—was it Sergeant Krupke? Is he hurt?”
Schrank blinked repeatedly, both trying to focus and trying to process the question. “Krupke . . . ?” For a moment something flickered in his eyes, but then it was gone. “Nah . . . I don’t remember the name. It could’ve been him. . . .”
He froze, the color draining from his face. Now he was more alert, his eyes wide and haunted.
“Somebody . . . somebody else was there,” he said. “He didn’t move, not after the crash. . . .” He showed no memory of having mentioned it before. Instead he looked as though he were remembering it for the first time.
“Were you in a car?” Doc persisted. “Did the car crash into something?”
“I don’t know!” Schrank roared. “I don’t remember!” He sagged back, fumbling for the towel to place over the wound again. By now it had mostly stopped bleeding, but the damage was far from mended.
Impatient, Doc glanced up at the window. Where was the ambulance? Schrank needed medical care in a bad way. And if Sergeant Krupke, or anyone else, was out there and still alive, they might not last much longer without help.
Slowly Doc sat down again, this time in the chair next to the Lieutenant. He waited, watching the injured man as various thoughts ran through his mind. Should he try to prompt Schrank to remember anything more? Should he say nothing and see if it would come to Schrank without any nudging?
Schrank seemed to have retreated into his own world again. When he finally spoke, it seemed to have no bearing on the life-and-death matter at hand.
“Those stupid kids,” he muttered. “They never listen; they’re just a pack of block-head hooligans.”
Doc came to attention. “What about them?” he asked.
Schrank shrugged. “I don’t know. . . . I was trying to make them stop fighting, wasn’t I? What would I be doing messing around with them? The whole thing’s pointless anyway.”
Doc turned this information over in his mind. “Don’t you remember what your line of work is?” he said at last.
Schrank squinted at him. “. . . Something stressful. It must be crazy, if it mixes me up with the likes of those punks.” He leaned back, gazing at the ceiling. “I feel like it’s changed me for the worse. Eh, I can’t remember. I was talking to someone, Krupke maybe, telling him about some motorcycle gang. . . .”
Doc stared at him. He seemed to be floating back and forth on what he recalled and what he did not. “Do you know who Krupke is?” he queried, cautious.
Schrank continued to look off at nothing. “Krupke isn’t an idiot. . . . Kinda slow sometimes, but he wouldn’t have made Sergeant if he didn’t know what he was doing. He’s a good man, better than me. He’s not hard like I am.”
Clearly he was in a very vulnerable state. But maybe, Doc decided, if he did remember what had happened tonight, right now would be the best time to try to draw it out of him.
“Were you with Krupke tonight?” he asked. He kept his tone mild, hoping that would help Schrank stay tranquil.
“Yeah,” Schrank replied without a second thought. “We were on patrol, coming off a busy street. Then some wino was heading right at us, swerving, shaking, twisting the car like it was doing the hula. Krupke tried to steer away, but we couldn’t stop it. That drunk idiot crashed into us.”
Doc felt a chill of sickened horror. “Is Krupke dead?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Schrank said. The confused agony slipping into his voice was all too audible. “He wasn’t moving. I tried to wake him up, but nothing. I left to get help.”
“And you came here?” Doc surmised.
Schrank paused, looking unsure of himself. “No,” he said at last. “No, I talked to someone else. I’m sure of it.”
Now Doc was confused. “Then why did you come here?” he exclaimed. “Why didn’t you go with that person back to the accident?”
Schrank slammed his free hand down on the table. “I don’t know!” he yelled. He looked away, trembling, his eyes far-off and filled with torment. “I don’t know,” he repeated. He swore. “If Krupke could’ve been saved and I’ve been just sittin’ here with my marbles scrambled. . . .”
“You don’t know if the other person you found went back to help him?” Doc asked.
“No, I don’t,” Schrank growled. “Oh, I think he did, but I’m not sure. I don’t know anything for sure anymore.”
Doc debated the next question very carefully in his mind before speaking. “Would you have really wandered off if you didn’t know Krupke was going to be helped?”
“I don’t know who I am or what I was doing or who Krupke is,” Schrank snarled in response. “I could be a Mob boss for all I’d know. Krupke could be my partner or my chauffeur or my hitman. I’d never know it.”
Doc sighed, leaning back in the chair. Somehow he had to get Schrank calm again. It had only been when he had been docile that he had seemed to remember the truth.
“You’re not a Mob boss,” he said.
“Oh yeah? And how would you know?” Schrank sneered.
“You’ve been here before, a lot of times,” Doc said. “I know who you are; you’re Lieutenant Schrank of the 21st Precinct.”
Schrank peered at him, not fully sold but not obstinately against the idea either. “I’m a cop?”
“Yes,” Doc said. “Krupke is your partner. You’ve worked together for over ten years.”
Schrank leaned back, looking more amazed and awed than anything else. “I’m a cop,” he mused. He gave a wry chuckle. “How about that.” His lips curled in a dark smirk. “I must’ve been pretty stupid to go into that line of work. Nobody cares about cops. They go out, patrol the streets, try to keep law and order and protect the people. . . . They deal with creeps every day. Sometimes they only come back in body bags. And who cares? You know what people say about cops? They hate ’em, wish they’d stop interfering in their lives. Heh, I’d like to see them take on our jobs, see if they’d do any better. They wouldn’t last a day. They’d come crawling back on their knees, begging us to take over again. If it wasn’t for how bad they’d screw everything up for us to fix later, I’d say it was a good idea to let them try it.”
He had switched to saying “our” and “us” in the middle of his monologue. Doc studied him, cautiously hopeful. Would he keep including himself with the police? Did that mean Doc was getting through to him again?
“Lieutenant Schrank,” he tried again, “did someone go to help Sergeant Krupke?”
Schrank frowned, running the question through his mind. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Someone went to him.”
“But you didn’t go?” Doc persisted.
Schrank’s eyes widened. “I went,” he remembered. “I went. The guy . . . he was trying to pull open Krupke’s door. He said . . . he said Krupke was dead.”
“And what did you do?” Doc asked, quietly.
“I . . .” Schrank stiffened, looking to Doc in sickened astonishment. “I walked away.”
“Why?” Doc kept his voice neutral and non-judgmental.
Schrank started to shake his head, then winced and stopped from the pain. “I . . . I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought I’d heard wrong or that the pounding in my head was making me goofy or something. I walked off trying to clear my mind. I figured I’d come back and hear the guy’d made a mistake.”
“And instead you came here,” Doc guessed.
“Yeah.” Schrank leaned forward, resting his left elbow on the table and covering his eyes. “I didn’t wanna remember. If I’d been driving instead . . .”
“Krupke wouldn’t have wanted that,” Doc said.
But the memory of something Schrank had said suddenly made him sit up straighter. Unless Schrank had skipped a part of the story, the pieces were not adding up. “You said this man was trying to open the door,” Doc reminded. “Had he gotten it open when he said Krupke was dead?”
Schrank took his hand away from his eyes, regarding Doc in stunned surprise. “. . . No,” he breathed. “No, he hadn’t. I knew that, but it didn’t even register with me. This crazy knock on the head’s been screwing up my mind.”
“Then . . . maybe Krupke isn’t dead after all?” Doc suggested.
Schrank started to push himself out of the chair. “I shouldn’t be sitting around here!” he berated. “I should be out there. What did I come in here for?”
Doc grabbed Schrank’s shoulders, trying to hold him down. “You’re hurt!” he exclaimed. “You shouldn’t be out there. Krupke would want you to stay here and be safe. The ambulance is going to be here any minute. When it comes, we’ll tell the paramedics about Sergeant Krupke.”
This time Schrank would have none of it. “That might be too late!” he shot back. “I’m going.” He pushed Doc aside and struggled out of the chair. In spite of the dizziness that immediately swept over him, he staggered in determination towards the door.
Quickly Doc got his bearings. He chased after the distraught Lieutenant, grabbing him from behind. “Lieutenant Schrank, sit down!” he ordered. With all of his strength, he pushed the big man onto a stool at the counter. If Schrank had not been injured, Doc never could have done it. But as it was, Schrank collapsed easily onto the stool. Shock passed over his features for a split-second. Then it was gone and he was trying again to get up.
“Let go of me!” he yelled, fighting and flailing to get himself free. Doc held on tight, planting his feet as he wrestled Schrank’s arms behind his back. The towel had long ago been abandoned.
“Stop it!” Doc screamed in despair, his patience gone. “You can’t do anything for Sergeant Krupke, or anyone else, when you’re like this. The best thing you can do is just sit here until the ambulance comes. Don’t you understand that?! You wouldn’t get five feet out that door without collapsing or getting too dizzy to think! You might walk into the street and be hit by a car or go knock on someone else’s door and forget all about why you left in the first place!”
Schrank breathed heavily, his eyes wild as he stared at the normally mild-mannered shopkeeper. Slowly his tense muscles relaxed and he sank back against the counter, his shoulders sagging. Doc cautiously began to straighten, releasing his hold on Schrank’s arms.
At last the silence was broken. “. . . You know, I wouldn’t have expected that of you,” Schrank said. “You’ve got more spunk and strength than I thought you did.”
Doc sighed, leaning against the counter with one arm. “It’s just because you’re hurt,” he said.
Schrank gave a half-wave of dismissal. “Well, whatever; you surprised me anyway.” He stared off into the distance. “Everything still feels weird, like I’m in some kinda stagnant mist and trying to see the world clearly through it.”
“The wound stopped bleeding, at least,” Doc noted.
Schrank pushed back his hat, which had slipped forward. “I wish I could get out of here and find out what’s been going on,” he said. “If Krupke’s alive, maybe that guy didn’t even help him.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Doc wondered.
“Oh, he might’ve walked away, just thinking Krupke was dead.” Schrank clenched a fist. “I can’t even remember who I was talking to. It could’ve been the wino who ran into us, for all I’d know. Those guys always come out without a scratch. It’s the people who ain’t doing nothin’ wrong who have to suffer.”
Doc frowned. He had to admit, that often seemed to be true. “Did he act drunk?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Schrank said in disgust. “I was in too much of a fog then to know what he acted like. He could’ve been a she, for all I remember.”
The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside brought them both to attention. When the door opened seconds later and a frantic Sergeant Krupke came in, Schrank nearly toppled off the stool.
“Krupke?!” he cried in amazed disbelief. At the same time, Krupke was exclaiming, “Lieutenant!”
Swaying, Schrank started to push himself off the stool and to the floor. Before he could, Krupke had reached him and was grasping his shoulders, staring at the visible wound.
“That doesn’t even look so bad,” Krupke remarked. “But this call came in from Doc’s store saying you were here and that you were acting funny because of bumping your head. And you look pretty sick, Lieutenant.”
Schrank looked embarrassed too, although the dazedness persisted as well. “I’m going to be okay,” he said. “What about you? You didn’t wake up. I left the car to get help.”
Krupke nodded. “I woke up with this guy checking me over,” he said. “I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t gone and got him. I didn’t come to until he had me out of the car, and by then it’d caught fire.”
Schrank stared at him. “What?!”
“That’s how it was,” Krupke asserted. “That drunk guy, he staggered out of his car and passed out in front of an apartment building. I’m not even sure he knew he hit us!”
“Probably didn’t,” Schrank grumbled.
Krupke peered at him, still trying to determine for himself how badly Schrank was hurt. “That guy you got, he said you’d brought him and then just wandered off! We’ve been worried looking all over for you.”
“I hardly remember what I’ve been doing for the last thirty minutes,” Schrank said. “Everything keeps fading in and out.” He really looked ready to topple off the stool if Krupke was not supporting him. He slumped forward, gripping Krupke’s arms in a desperate attempt not to fall. “How’d you end up here? You said you got a call or something.”
“Yeah!” Krupke nodded. “This ambulance came up and I caught a ride with them. They told me about the call. They were looking me over while we were driving here. I’m not too bad off; I just got knocked out for a few minutes. But gosh, you really must’ve taken a beating, Lieutenant!”
“He did,” Doc spoke up.
Schrank got unsteadily to his feet, not wanting to talk about it. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “I’ve caused enough trouble in this joint tonight.”
Krupke blinked in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Nevermind,” Schrank grunted.
“You’d better lie down, sir,” one of the medics said as they came inside with a stretcher and the other equipment they had been collecting from the ambulance. “You’re in no condition to be walking right now.”
Schrank grumbled and groused, but when he took a step forward and almost fell down, he consented. With Krupke’s help, he stumbled onto the stretcher. He glanced up at his partner as he was being wheeled out.
“Don’t let this get out,” he pleaded, grabbing at Krupke’s hand and arm in desperation. “Those crazy hooligans would have a heyday with it.”
Krupke nodded. “I’m not gonna say anything,” he promised. “You just rest and don’t worry about it.”
Doc watched as they and the medics headed for the door. Krupke glanced back when they reached the entrance. “Thanks for looking out for him,” he said.
Doc just nodded.
In spite of the excitement, the next day proceeded in a normal fashion, as did the one after that. Doc made no mention of what had happened and quickly changed the subject if anyone asked. It was personal and private; Schrank would never want any of what had transpired to get around. And Doc certainly had no desire to cause him discomfort.
He wiped down the counter during the lunch hour, lost in his thoughts. Of course he wondered how Schrank was doing; it would be impossible not to think about it. There had been no word in the papers, other than an article about the accident and the drunk driver being charged. (Schrank had been right again, or at least mostly so; the drunkard had received, at the worst, an insignificant cut on his chin.) And no one had been by to tell Doc anything. Not that he really thought anyone would think about it, especially considering his feelings towards Lieutenant Schrank.
He paused, staring into the distance. He had always felt that Schrank’s despair and discouragement were not an excuse for some of the things he blurted out when he was angry. But on the night of Tony’s death Doc had experienced a small portion of the helplessness that Schrank must have felt, and that had eventually snapped his own self-control out of despair and sorrow. Maybe, he thought, Schrank deserved a bit more understanding.
The bell over the door rang and he looked up. Once again he was expecting some young kids, maybe playing hooky from school. But instead Lieutenant Schrank was standing there, just as he had been the night before last. His coat was slung over his shoulder and his sleeves were half-rolled up, much the same as he had appeared then. But this time he was able to keep himself upright as he advanced further inside. A white bandage, the only indication that he had been hurt, covered his right temple.
He stopped at the counter, looking awkward as he leaned on it with his left arm. “Hey, uh . . . I just wanted to say thanks for putting up with me the other night,” he said. He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. “I’m . . . sorry about what I put you through. And for wrecking your towel.”
Doc was surprised, but did not show it. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re looking a lot better now.”
Schrank straightened. “Yeah, well . . . they kept me for observation and rest, that sort of thing.” He looked disdainful. “I slept better when I got home.”
He shifted, then leaned in closer again. “I didn’t say anything nuts, did I?” he asked, lowering his voice. “I barely even remember walking in, let alone what I said.”
Doc shook his head. “I don’t remember.” It was a blatant lie, and from the slight flicker in Schrank’s eyes and his knowing but congenial chuckle, he was aware of that. And he was all too willing to go along with the ruse.
“Okay then,” he said, pulling himself upright. “I’d probably just as soon not remember myself. I’ll see you later.”
Doc nodded, watching him move to leave and then pause.
“Say, do you mind?” Schrank asked, eyeing one of the candy jars. Again Doc shook his head. Schrank reached inside and took out a piece of chocolate. “Thanks.”
It was interesting, Doc thought to himself, how natural their exchange felt.