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Authors: Susan Dunlap

Tags: #Suspense

Death and Taxes (9 page)

BOOK: Death and Taxes
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And once I’d thought about it, I wasn’t so surprised to find posters lined up on the walls:
No Smoking
Ban Styrofoam
Clean Up Toxic Wastes
No Dumping in the Bay.
They suited the Drem who’d made it into Records Management by complaining about MSG in a Chinese restaurant.

The floor was bare. A wooden desk was covered with papers, a table with stacks of fliers. It could have been the office for any ballot-proposition campaign. The only thing out of place was a stuffed chair that faced the inside wall. I might have guessed that Drem practiced some meditation technique of a particularly comfortable kind in that stuffed chair (though from all I’d heard of him, it could not have been a very beneficial technique).

But Drem’s chair wasn’t facing a bare wall. It was inches from a purple-flowered drape that covered the wall. As I moved toward it, the curtain drew back. What it revealed was another picture window and a view of Victoria Iversen’s flat.

I moved up behind the chair, getting nearly the same view Drem must have had. The room on the other side of the sheet glass was indeed the mirror image of Drem’s, except that it was empty and almost entirely colorless. All that was in the room was a futon sofa covered in beige flax, a television, a phone, a shallow clear plastic box inside of which I could make out a newspaper, and a straight-backed pine chair next to the adjoining window.

Victoria Iversen was dressed in a white shirt and pants that hung loose on her tall, unhealthily thin body. Her hair was so short it was almost a crew cut, her skin was blotchy, and her blue eyes, opened wide in fear, stood out from her bony face. She had to be in her thirties, but there was a waiflike quality about her. She drew up the wooden chair and sat so her knees were right next to the window. She stared at me for a full thirty seconds before she could bring herself to say, “Phil’s dead, isn’t he.”


She let out a shriek, reached for her face as if to bury it in her hands, but stopped just before her fingers touched. Her hands squeezed into fists, and she sobbed. Her whole body shook, vibrating the loose cloth around her. She looked desolate in the midst of her hanging clothes. Even her own hands couldn’t get near enough to help. Her sharp, agonized shrieks seemed to sear her lips. They reverberated over the speakerphone that connected us.

That may not have been the most helpless I’d ever felt, but I didn’t want to think what the other times had been. I wanted to … but there was nothing I could do. Except note the reality of her distress and wonder what she had seen in Drem to merit it. I sat in Drem’s chair and waited, hoping that at least the presence of another human being was some cushion against the desolation that screamed from her and doubting it.

When she was quieter, I said, “Why don’t you let me come over there?”

She looked up at me, face already puffy and painfully red, and began to laugh hysterically. “If I could let you in, I wouldn’t be crying. Phil wouldn’t be dead.”

“Why is that?” I said softly.

“Because I’m allergic.”


“The whole fucking planet.”


survivors. Some fall apart right away; some hold together in a fog of seeming normality for six, twelve, eighteen hours and then go to pieces. Some need to be protected from the piercing facts. For others, even the most gut-wrenching details are at least a bit more of their husband’s or daughter’s life.

With Victoria Iversen, I chose to start with what she’d given me, her consuming allergies. Now her unbleached cotton clothes, the bare floor, the plastic-shielded windows, the hermitlike existence, made sense. Another odd facet of Philip Drem’s odd life. Glancing back at his racing bike hanging on the wall, I wondered how she reacted to the sight of it, such a symbol of open air and muscle tone—and freedom.

I laid my notepad on my thigh. “Tell me about your allergies.”

“I haven’t always had them, if that’s what you’re thinking. There was an explosion in the studio I was sharing with three metal sculptors. I was farthest from the door. By the time they got me out, the gases had burned out my immune system.” She gave a little lift to her shoulders, the suggestion of a shrug. “It’s not a very scientific description, but it gives you the picture. That was three and a half years ago.” She waited for me to finish writing in my notepad. “You’re probably eyeing my skin and saying ‘What could a man like Phil have seen in her?’ But I didn’t look like discarded cotton candy before.”

I pressed my teeth together to keep from reacting. Her description was perfect. She did look dry, brittle—as if an unplanned touch could crumple her.

Behind her I could hear an appliance going. An air filter, perhaps. Whatever, it was too common a sound for her to notice.

She said, “Phil and I spent our honeymoon hiking the Appalachian Trail. We were going to travel. None of this middle-class, pension-oriented life for us. I did stained glass. One of my windows is in the library in Montclair, New Jersey. I had shows in New York, and in Cincinnati when we lived there. If I’d stayed in New York, I could have done more adventurous pieces, bigger ones in more important places.” She made a move with her mouth as if to laugh, but the pull on her rash-roughened cheeks looked too painful. “Sometimes you have to choose. Phil wanted to travel, and I wanted him and the world more than a hefty reputation at thirty. There was always time. Or so I thought.

“So we went to Cincinnati and New Orleans and Santa Fe, spent a winter in Mexico, and then we came here. We were going to do a big work binge to save up and then head for Asia. Six months here and four there, you can’t do more than little windows and repair stained-glass lampshades, whatever the trade brings, but it was okay. After all, Phil was doing accounting, and he hated that.”

“He hated accounting?” I asked, amazed. The impression I’d gotten was that he savored every minus sign he made.

“It was just a way to get by. It came easy to him—he graduated in three years. He could always get a job. And he never had to think about it after work.”

“A colleague at the IRS described him as committed.”

“Phil?” Again she almost smiled. “Hardly. He hated the government.”

“Then why—”

“Why did he stay for four years? Because I couldn’t do without the medical insurance. That’s one of the ugly kickers about being sick. If you’re not as lucky as I am, having a husband with a group medical plan, you can spend hundreds of dollars a month to get minimal coverage at some HMO,
they’ll take you at all. If they won’t, you devote most of your time to sitting in the waiting room at the county health department picking up every virus around. And I couldn’t do that. I’m allergic to the glue in the carpets, the chemicals in the air-filtration system, to perfumes, hair sprays, the smell of stale smoke that covers a smoker even when he’s not smoking. My immune system is shot. Out there I’d be dead. But still I can’t take the chance of no insurance.”

“Don’t you ever leave here?” I had to struggle to keep my voice from cracking. My skin felt clammier than it did at Howard’s house.

“The last time I went out was two years ago. My last doctor’s appointment. Into the office and out, just long enough for him to tell me he couldn’t say what had caused my allergies and couldn’t suggest anything but more steroids, and those only made things worse. They depress the immune system, for chrissake.”

“Why didn’t you try another doctor?”

“Because I’d already been to half the doctors in the Bay Area. First I went through the ones on Phil’s medical plan, got second, third, fourth opinions. They didn’t know what to do; they blamed me, said I was hysterical.” She brought her hand near her cheek, near but not touching. “Does this look hysterical? Okay, so I probably sound like I’m crazy …”

She was wound frighteningly tight now. Tight and controlled as opposed to the panic that I had to force down. I needed to run out into the fresh air, to Rick Lamott’s convertible and speed with the top down, the wind blowing free … I swallowed hard and forced myself to lean back in Drem’s padded chair. A depression was worn deep in the seat. Drem must have sat here a lot.

Victoria Iversen sat remarkably still—no hand-wringing, no clutching or twitching. I wondered if she had trained herself not to scratch or rub, the mental equivalent of the mittens my mother had put on my four-year-old hands at night when I had chicken pox. Was Victoria Iversen’s whole life a mitten now?

More calmly, she said, “After that, it was the counterculture doctors. Herbs, needles, potions, mind control. I did it all, till I began to think that the original doctors were right—I was crazy. And physically I was only getting worse. It’s gotten to the point that I react to everything but porcelain. Everything that comes into the flat is a potential danger. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t have a job. But there are days I’m exhausted by the time Phil gets home from work because I breathed in the smell of the newsprint while I was putting the paper in the plastic box. Then I’ve had to spend the day watching every breath I take, keeping aware of how the early-warning spots on my skin feel, trying to decide if I’m going to be sick, and if I am, should I take a cold bath or do relaxation exercises or just give the hell up. I get so tired of it all, I could scream.” She wasn’t clutching the arms of her chair. Instead, her hands were poised above them, fingers bent and stiff. Her control was so tight that when she did let go, the explosion could be total.

I hesitated but finally asked, “How did Phil handle your situation?”

“Not as well as I.”

“Why not?” I snapped. After all, he was the healthy one. He got to go out every morning, even if it was to the IRS office.

She didn’t react to my tone. Her control held. “There was a point when I realized that the only thing that would help me would be to live on an island in the middle of the ocean. Or maybe in the wilds of Alaska where there’s no technology and it’s too cold for pollens. Then I figured that if I was going to isolate myself, I might as well do it in Berkeley where I can talk to friends on the phone and listen to KPFA and watch people like you go flying over the road bumps.” She almost laughed again. “Once you realize things are hopeless, you spend a lot less energy fighting them.”

“And Phil?”

“Phil couldn’t believe this was it, that we’d never be closer than sitting on either side of this window.”

“How long—”

“Since even if he showered twice and left his clothes in the bathroom, there was still too much of the outside on him? Two years.”

I wanted to ask why he didn’t leave. What I did say was “How did he handle it?”

“Most marriages break up. The healthy partner realizes he doesn’t have to live this way. He stays for a while, maybe from love, or loyalty, or because of the insurance. But eventually he can’t take the confinement. He gets out. I would if I could.”

I expected her eyes to well with tears, to reflect the panic I felt, but again she showed no reaction but that tightly controlled tension. She leaned back against the slatted back of her chair. That position looked no more comfortable than the other. It was not a chair built for comfort.

“So what did Phil do for sex—you’re wondering that, aren’t you? They all do. Most don’t ask. But you’re with the police, so you will ask.” The corners of her dry lips twitched as if beginning to smile, but she controlled herself before her skin pulled. “I encouraged Phil to do whatever he chose, sleep with whomever. He said he didn’t want anyone else.” Her expression remained unchanged, but she didn’t have the same control of her voice, and there was a different tone to it—softer, as if hugging the memory to her, and yet defiant.

“Did you believe that?”

Again she almost smiled. “I chose to. What good would it do me otherwise?”

I wished I could have seen Victoria Iversen before she’d gotten sick. She would have been a lot easier to judge. Now there were too many variables guiding her reactions—sickness, hopelessness, grief, and doubtless ones I didn’t know about. If she wanted to hide something, she’d be a master at it. “Did Phil come right home every night?”

“No,” she said. “That I did insist on, that he have at least the freedom he did before. Then he went up to the Med for coffee on Fridays and to Black Oak Books for readings. And he had his bicycle races. If you look in his desk—I’m sure you’ll do that—you’ll find his time records. That’s what he did, timings, where you ride against your last time. He’s done twenty-five miles in fifty-four point twelve minutes. The world record for seniors—that’s eighteen to thirty-four—is just under fifty. He’s real good. He should be. He’s out there every morning before he leaves for work, doing calisthenics, stretches, aerobic rides. He had to fight the Service so they’d let him ride to his calls, but he won.”

“Is the riding to work part of his training?” I said, slipping into the present tense she was using.

“Not really. You can’t train on a bike with a basket. Phil says he’d be humiliated if any of the racers saw him on his city bike with its bourgeois baskets.”

Drem with a sense of humor?

“The reason he rides,” she went on, “is so he doesn’t create more pollution.”

That sounded more like our Drem. I glanced back at the various
on the wall. “Is that the reason for his posters here too?”

“Right. Phil was never political before, but my accident changed that. He’s totally committed to cleaning up what he can.” Now she looked at me, and her face seemed to fall. “Or he was.”

For an instant I thought she was going to cry. I had to look away, swallowing again. If she broke down in her glass prison where I couldn’t even reach out a hand … I swallowed harder, jammed my teeth together, and looked back, hoping my anguish didn’t show.

But Victoria Iversen wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were closed. Picturing Drem? “Phil was like I am when I have to worry about the smell of the newsprint—watching, always ready to take action. It’s just that he did it out in the world. He was responsible for three restaurants going totally nonsmoking. He got petitions signed by so many customers, the owners couldn’t say no.”

BOOK: Death and Taxes
5.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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