He parked in the lot behind the building that housed the Detroit Artists Market on Woodward downtown and entered through the rear, where a small shop sold jewelry and pottery. Over-loud electronic music tortured the PA system as he walked around the partition between the shop and the gallery space.
The place was packed. The woman he was meeting told him she would be the one with a snake on her cane. He wove his way through the crowd looking for her.
There seemed to be three separate groups: young people in their twenties with tattoo sleeves and hair dyed a deep mid-night black, the young men with man buns, the young women with dark unkempt manes and piercings; an older group, in their forties and fifties, both sexes with long hair, the men with full dark lumbersexual beards and the women in ultra-short leather skirts and fierce dark eyes; and a group of people in their sixties and seventies, the men with grey ponytails and black fedoras and the women in long flowing colorful dresses. The three stages of hipsterism, Detroit-style.
He spotted Lena Donetti chatting with a young man with three-foot-long dreads dyed blonde under a rainbow skullcap and a young woman with piercings on her lips, nose, ears, and eyebrows. Leaning on her cane, Lena was a large and imposing woman with a round face with rimless glasses and greying hair that hung limply to her shoulders. Her mouth twisted to the side like an acerbic smile. She stood in front of a series of small commercial paint chips in primary colors framed on the wall. She braced herself on a cane the shape of a fearsome serpent, and she listed to one side.
Preuss took in the details. Stroke, he thought.
He introduced himself. She held out her left hand, and he shook it. The young couple drifted away. “There’s an office in the back,” she said. “Let’s talk there.”
She led him back past the gift shop. Her right leg dragged as she walked. Near the rear entrance was a door leading to a small office. When she closed the door, Preuss could still hear the PA music throbbing. The air was warm and smelled charred from the large white radiator in the corner.
“Melody told me what you’re looking for,” she said. Her mouth remained crooked as she spoke, which muffled her words. “Hope I can help.”
He showed her the photo of Robert Geller. “Do you remember this young man?”
“Oh boy. What’s the date on this?”
“Not sure exactly. It’s from the early seventies. His name’s Robert Geller.”
She tipped her glasses back on top of her head and held the photo close to her face to get a better look. “Good looking kid. Pouty, but good looking.”
“As I understand it, he was part of the Cass Corridor crowd.”
“Him and every other kid under the age of twenty-five in the City of Detroit.”
He waited while she kept looking.
“You don’t have a more recent picture?”
“I don’t. I’m trying to find out what happened to him. That’s what I have to work with.”
She shook her head, as though he had disappointed her greatly.
“And you expect to find this kid now? With a photo that’s forty years old? From this thing, you wouldn’t know him if he walked in here tonight.”
The woman’s acerbic tone was rubbing him the wrong way, though he kept his annoyance in check.
“I’m looking for anyone who knew him,” he said. “Anybody who might be able to point me in his direction. If you don’t remember him—”
“Keep your shirt on,” she said. “I didn’t say I didn’t know him.”
“I might have seen him before. This was a long time ago, you know.” She looked at him. “You were just a baby.”
He bit back a snide remark and let her continue.
She tapped the photo. “If I’m not mistaken, this boy died of AIDS.”
“Can’t be sure.”
“I heard he might have gone to Canada. Married and settled down.”
She pursed her lips, then shook her head. “AIDS.”
“How do you know this?”
“You asked me if I knew anything. That’s what I know.”
“And you’re not certain it’s Robert Geller?”
With a toss of her head, she handed the photo back to him.
“Believe it or don’t. I don’t care.”
“Can you think of anybody else I might speak with about this?”
She clucked her tongue. “You don’t believe me?”
“I’m looking for more details.”
She thought for a moment, then said, “Have you talked with Theresa McCarthy?”
“You should. She knew everybody, and I think she probably still talks with most of the old crowd. She’s quite a well-known local artist.”
“I’ve heard the name.”
“She was the best of all of us. And she’s a survivor, too. Still around and kicking. Lots of them aren’t. Seems like there isn’t a month goes by when I don’t pick up the phone and somebody tells me another one bit the dust.”
“Do you have her number?”
She nodded and dug down into the satchel at her feet with her good left hand. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, she handed the bag to Preuss. “Here. Find my phone. It’s in there somewhere.”
He took the satchel and sorted through bottles of pills and books and random items of clothing and drawing pencils and sketchbooks until he found a cell phone at the bottom. He handed it across to her, and she said, “Her number’s in here.”
She held the phone in her shaky right hand and sorted through her contact list with her good left hand.
“If anyone can help you,” she said, “Theresa can. Tell her I sent you. And be careful.” She looked at him, her mouth twisted. “She’s not as nice as I am.”
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