Out of E’s bedroom, the other way from my room, was a large and ugly bathroom. The sink—stained, squarish,
and graced with a mostly rusted faucet—sat on little metallic stilts as if porcelain supports were definitely too expensive for the likes of us. The bathtub, also large and squarish, had had rust stains on the bottom, which I’d covered with porcelain paint. It was an imperfect effort, but it had left the bottom of the tub nicely ridged and definitely a nonslip surface. When I’d moved in, Ben had spent about an hour in that bathroom with cleaning products and a series of brushes—which was very funny, because he paid to have his house cleaned—because he was sure I would catch tetanus, or perhaps rabies, from the tub. It had taken him that long to convince himself the dirt was probably a structural part of what held the bathtub together. And when I’d told him you couldn’t get rabies from bathtubs because they didn’t bite people, he had removed the industrial-looking rubber gloves, glared at me, and said, “That one might.”
The other door out of the living room led directly to the kitchen, which was the only room in the house that Ben approved of. Just as well, because that was where we spent most of the time when he visited. For some reason—and I still couldn’t believe it was the benevolent impulses of the rental company, so it must have been to hide something, possibly a body under the floor—the kitchen had been tiled, both floor and counter. The floor was a serviceable clay tile; the counters were large white tiles. There was a plant window over the sink where I kept the only plants—probably weeds—that I couldn’t kill, and I loved the effect of the morning light on the counter tiles. I’d furnished the room in Grandma’s old pine table, oiled to a mellow shine, and, having tried to balance on the rickety bar stools I’d found at the thrift store and failing, Ben had given me a pair of pine chairs that perfectly matched the table—though they had to be of much younger vintage—and that had probably cost him more than anything in this place was worth. Next to the table stood E’s
highchair, a baby gift from my in-laws when I was still married, and the finest plastic and vinyl money could buy. Not that I was complaining. It cleaned up easily.
Through the kitchen door at the back, and all of maybe ten steps distant, was what had undoubtedly been designed as a storage unit. I’d made it into my workshop, where I kept refinishing fluids, furniture under processing, paints, oil, and other things that would be an invitation to disaster in E’s curious hands. I worked while E napped (rarely, but it happened) or while I could con someone—usually Ben, though Mom had done it once or twice—into babysitting. Or, of course, while E was with All-ex.
I let Ben in ahead of me and closed the door behind us, dropping the little table in the middle of the living room. I was dying to see what it was, and where it had come from, but, realistically, it could wait till All-ex picked up E. And meanwhile there was Ben and whatever was up with him. Oh, he acted like nothing was wrong as he carried E into the kitchen to an ecstatic chorus of “Bah!” but this just wasn’t normal. Not Ben here, at this hour in the morning on a Saturday. What the hell had happened to him? Car accident?
I concentrated on Ben to banish from my mind any thought of the body. Look, Goldport is a safe city. An old mining town turned college town, it might have enough crimes for a Serious Crimes Unit, but I thought the annual murders hovered around ten, most of those either crimes of passion or drug related. Neither of which mixed well with a melted corpse in a college Dumpster.
If I turned, right after setting the table down, to triple-lock the door behind me, it wasn’t because of fear of burglars, but because E’s current hobby was stripping naked and running screaming out the front door, up into Fairfax Avenue traffic. Although I’d not been a bad runner in high school, my glory days were well behind me, and besides, running was a hair-raising sport as E forced it on me.
With the door secured in a way that—so far, at least—E had not defeated, I walked into the kitchen. Ben had strapped E into his highchair and was standing in front of my open fridge. As I came in, he turned around, the almost-empty bottle of milk in his hand. “Dyce!”
“He’s going to his dad’s today. There wasn’t any point buying any more till he comes back on Tuesday,” I said.
Ben frowned. “And you intend to eat—?”
“Whatever,” I said. “I won’t starve.”
He mumbled something under his breath, and I said, “You can’t be too thin or too rich.”
“You can if you starve enough to make yourself ill, Dyce.” He looked over at me, his brown eyes closed enough that they were overshadowed by his blondish-red eyelashes, a perfect match for the never-out-of-place reddish-blond hair that had made every woman in high school want to kill him, because of the natural flip in front. He narrowed his lips, but didn’t say anything.
And I’d be damned if I was going to be lectured by a man my age who had his shirt buttoned wrong and didn’t seem aware of the fact that he had bled—something people normally noticed. “Well,” I said, with more heat than logic. “At least I don’t have blood on my face.”
He was reaching into the cabinet for one of the plastic sippy cups that E used and turned around at my brilliant comeback. “What?”
“You have blood on your face,” I said. “And your top button is wrong.”
For just a second he frowned at me, as if I were speaking a foreign language, then filled the sippy cup with just about the rest of the milk, capped it, and set it in front of E with, “Here you go, monkey.” Then he turned without a word.
In a wild, momentary rush, I wondered if he was going out of the house. Throwing a fit was not exactly Ben’s thing. Correction. Ben’s fits were cold things, in which he
seemed to mentally remove himself from the presence of whoever had pissed him off. He had never stomped out of the house.
But then I heard him cross the bedrooms on the way to the inner sanctum of the bathroom, and I heard water running. Even though one needed to cross three doorways to get to the bathroom, it did share a wall with the kitchen—the one behind the stove.
I filled the teakettle in turn, because, frankly, after the events of the morning, I needed tea. Coffee has never been my beverage of choice, and as for the coffee the police gave me, I was grateful, but I think some of my paint thinner was less potent.
When Ben came back—his face clean, his shirt properly buttoned, but looking somehow less healthy than he had before—I had retrieved my favorite cup, a vast red mug, from the cabinet and was in the process of tying the strings of two bags of Earl Grey to the handle. Ben must have been off balance, because there was no comment about Earl Grey being all perfume and no tea.
He kept his own tea here, mostly because he didn’t trust me to buy his tea. Which was just fine, as I didn’t trust him to buy mine. Yes, yes, I could stand the whole expensive looseleaf thing—except that I tended to lose my tea ball and spill the tea all over while I was using it—and I actually enjoyed the Victorian High Tea at Green’s Hotel, where Mom took me twice every year, whether I needed it or not. I enjoyed the whole bit of picking an outré type of tea and having it served just so.
It’s just that that stuff, tasty though it was, wasn’t
. Not the tea of my childhood, not the comforting stuff that made you stop crying or helped you get better when you had a headache.
Grandma—Dad’s mom—lived just up the street from us, and until I was six I’d spent more time at her house than my parents’. And Grandma’s house meant a cup of
inky black tea—Earl Grey by preference—usually stewed by her forgetting to remove the bags and so sweetened that the spoon left a trail in the liquid when you stirred. I couldn’t afford that much sugar, but otherwise, that was how I drank my tea.
Ben was getting out his own small teapot and the cup that matched it and doing whatever it was with the tea ball and the container of ridiculously expensive tea he got at the tea store down the road, and I left him to it. For a moment, a truce reigned. The sort of truce that descends on towns just before they’re bombed to kingdom come.
I felt my back tense in expectation as I took the tea bags out of my cup, tossed them, added a judicious teaspoon of sugar to the golden mixture, and sat down. And it came, just as I expected it to. “Dyce, your shoes are wearing through at the tip, your car sounds like a UFO landing, and you have no food other than flour and half a sippy cup of milk. Have you considered going back to stay with your parents? I mean, you could go back to college and perhaps . . .”
Ben was my dearest friend in the whole world. He was very much the sibling I’d never had. In many ways he was the adult “relative” closest to me, since Grandma had died. Or at least the only relative who acted like he was older than I. He’d known me for more than half my life, and ostensibly he knew my parents. And yet, I’d never been able to convey to him the layers of wrongness in my little dysfunctional nuclear family. Mostly because Mom and Dad were all smiles and best behavior around him. They had the framed picture of us together at prom over the fireplace. And when I told them I lacked an essential piece of equipment to be Ben’s type, they told me I had an awful sense of humor. I’d once tried to explain to Ben the essential issue contained in the phrase
, which preceded the names of so many therapeutic groups. Adult
children of alcoholics. Adult children of abuse. Adult children of drug users. Not that I could claim anything so well defined or politically correct. I was just the
. I had been the adult in the house from about age ten. I was not going back to that. Besides, it would give Fluffy a heart attack, and she was a geriatric cat.
So instead, I struck back. “What happened to you? What happened to your car?”
He carried his cup to the table and sat down, and for a second, for just a second, there was something in his eyes.
Look, Ben is six foot three and built like a Sherman tank. He disguises it. He’s an investment planner and does his best to project an image of someone who lives by the mind. But somewhere in his genetic background was some ancestor, probably in Ireland, who could plow his fields better
his oxen, and who could do the work of ten men in half the time they’d take. And yet the one thing I could honestly say, in our seventeen years of acquaintance, was that I’d never seen Ben furious. I’d seen him upset. I’d seen him withdraw inside himself. But the closest I’d seem him to lashing out was when he’d told the ER doctor that triage be damned, he’d see E
. And the doctor had been smart enough to shut up and do it.
But at my question, he looked up and for a moment—for just the space of a breath—there was something very much like burning anger in his eyes, quickly replaced by bewilderment, hurt, and then just tiredness. “Les and I argued. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I opened my mouth to say,
Hell of an argument. It dented your car?
But the thing was, though he was looking at his tea and seemed perfectly all right, I wasn’t sure—at all—that he wouldn’t give me that angry look again. And even though I was almost absolutely sure the look hadn’t been directed at me, as such, I didn’t want to see it. And besides, Ben had kept quiet—mostly—through the rather
fast breakup of my marriage. Save for his insistence that I should live with my parents. So I bit my tongue and instead said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said. “It was just a stupid scratch.” He shrugged.
But he looked so withdrawn—the way he did when he really didn’t want to discuss something—that I took a sip of my tea, floundered around wildly looking for something to say, and said the first thing that came to mind. “I found a body in a Dumpster today.”
Ben didn’t drop his cup, but he came close. It trembled in his fingers for a moment, a massive loss of control as far as Ben’s reactions went. He recovered, not so much by controlling himself but because he was overcome with complete bafflement. He looked up at me, his expression perfectly blank. “What?” he said.
Which is when we realized that E had used his mad Houdini skills to escape his highchair and was somewhere in the living room. I did not have time to worry that he might have left the house, because he was yelling, “Bah, bah, bah,” in the demanding tone of an emperor calling his vassals.
And a Scribble
We went. What else could we do? Both of us were in
such a hurry that we carried the cups right with us into the living room. Where we found E lying flat on the floor, with his head under the little table. As we entered the room, he said, “Bah!” and then, chubby hand extended to the underside of the table, “B, B, B, B, B.”
Out the corner of my eye, I caught Ben’s grin. “Dyce. Where’s your toolbox? I think your little monkey is spluttering.”
I set my empty teacup down, carefully, on the coffee table, and went to remove the little table from atop E, which caused a sound of protest. “Come on, kiddo,” I said. “Why are you lying under there?”