Authors: Gillian Roberts
“Please!” Jake said. “This is really—”
“And soon,” Spiers went on, “the world will know as well. Your money and position don’t blind me. I don’t care about worldly things. Rich or poor—”
“Sin is an abomination to the Lord,” Mother Vivien said.
Harvey wheeled toward her. “We agreed
would speak. Are you going to pull this trick on the air, too?”
Her voice was strained and piercing. “We agreed?
did? Or was it another of your
? Should I be mute so you can continue the illusion that
the Moral Ecologists? Confuse people again about our leadership, about whose vision this really is, just as we grow stronger? I’ll talk whenever I want to!”
I didn’t think it was love or sex between them, at least not anymore. Each wanted something the other couldn’t bestow, like power, celebrity, or money. Maybe all three.
“Don’t be spiteful, Vivien.” Betsy Spiers had put her coffee cup on the floor, and sitting forward, she watched eagerly, her chin propped on her hand, a tight smile on her lips. Her husband’s heart apparently didn’t belong to the other woman, or if it did, they were having serious heart trouble, and she was delighted. If they would come to blows, she’d be deliriously happy.
“Just a minute here,” Neddy Roederer said. “We haven’t finished our—”
“Let it be,” his wife said.
“I’ll talk whenever I have something to say!” Vivien shouted at no one in particular. “Nobody dictates to me!” She glared at Harvey.
The door opened. All sounds were temporarily hushed, all grievances put on hold. I expected a station official, ready to boot us out, but I was wrong again. A woman in her forties wearing a pinstriped suit, carrying a briefcase, said, “Hi. I’m Kara Adams. For the panel on censorship, right? I’m from the ACLU.”
Instantly, the din resumed. I heard a welcome from Tea Roederer, “damned liberal blah-blahs” from Spiers, and a burst of something louder still from Vivien. I glanced away, up at the monitor. “Look!” I said. “It’s us! We’re on the news!”
On the TV, Edward Franklin Roederer delivered stirring lines on the dangers of capitulating to fanaticism.
The ACLU woman applauded. Mother Vivien hissed.
When Harvey was on screen, Vivien had a few caustic things to say about his attention-grabbing proclivities. “Listen, Harvey,” she said. “One and only one of us is going on the air.” Harvey said fine, if she wanted it that way, he’d be the one. He hadn’t read the rules of how such exchanges were supposed to go.
I tuned them out and watched the screen. I thought I looked a little moonfaced, but Jake, in a stage whisper, said I’d been “great.” Griffin didn’t even glance at the TV.
The news shifted focus to the follow-up of a story about a twenty-nine-year-old woman who’d been reported the day before to have been abducted from Plymouth Meeting Mall by a stranger. It now appeared that no strangers had been involved. Her fiancé, a man with a long history of violence, was charged with her murder.
Maybe this story wouldn’t make its way south to fan my mother’s paranoia. Florida grew a bumper crop of their own murders and didn’t need to import ours. I hoped.
The door opened again, and a cute girl in a tiny skirt and a name tag that said HEATHER beamed at us. “Those of you on the roundtable, would you follow me now?” she said. “We’ll start taping in five minutes, okay?”
There was a bit of elbowing between Harvey Spiers and Mother Vivien, but his elbow won. We left the room to Betsy, Vivien, and the volcanic Griffin. I wished I could have had a camera trained on them.
Mackenzie met me
at the sushi restaurant, full of questions. He’d already ordered, which was fine with me. I was ravenous.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I said. “Which isn’t to say it was good.” I filled him in on the day’s events, up to and including my small-screen debut. It had not turned out to be as entertaining as the greenroom performances. There were too many people and ideas in too little time: the law’s position, the ACLU’s, the Moral Ecologists’; my riff, more or less echoed by Jake, on the value of classic literature and on teaching students to think for themselves, which was to say, become adults; Havermeyer’s pathetic attempt to turn expediency into policy; the Roederers’ position on art and aesthetics and the need for stretching the envelope and the mind.
The best that can be said was that it concluded without bloodshed.
“They’re airing it Saturday morning,” I said. “Dawn. One of those times nobody watches TV. I’ll tape it if you’re still in Kansas.” Of course, he’d still be there. Unwrapping a prisoner of two states’ red tape would take forever. “Or I’ll borrow Jake’s copy. He asked for one to send his father.”
“Can’t he program his VCR?”
“I think asking for it, explaining how his dad’s a newspaperman up in Toronto made it clear, politely, that he’s not Harvey’s kid. Or maybe they don’t have a VCR in that dismal Spiers household. But let’s not talk about them. What’s up with you?”
“Nothing much.” It was only unusual cases that Mackenzie talked about willingly or with enthusiasm. Mostly, he’d explained, homicide detection involved either quick solutions, thanks to stupid criminals, or tedious inspections, slow piecings together of fragments, and in both instances, a lot of needless, brutal, impulsive, and meaningless destruction. Besides, so much evidence was based on bodily fluids that it was seldom dinner-table talk. “Ah, but,” he said. “There was the Stupid Crime of the Day. Or maybe week.”
The waitress brought us trays laden with gorgeous bundles of fish and rice. One of the many pluses of a Japanese restaurant is that the servers don’t recite specials, feel the need to tell us their names, or pop over intrusively and repeatedly, as if convinced we need them in our conversational circle.
While Mackenzie paused to find a piece of paper and write something on it, I snagged a piece of smoked salmon.
“This one’s an English teacher’s dream,” he said. “A guy goes into a bank off Broad Street and hands the teller a note that reads like this.” He handed me the piece of paper.
This is stikup. Give me yer muny kwik or I shut you with my gun.
“So,” Mackenzie continued, “the teller figures this isn’t exactly a genius in front of him, and he says no problem, he’ll hand over the money, except that the robber has to sign for it because that’s the bank’s policy on robberies.”
“And he did?”
Mackenzie nodded. “Signed his name and address, took the money, and was arrested maybe an hour later.”
“The moral is, work on your spelling.”
Perhaps because she is a fine speller, Mackenzie said, “I just remembered—your mother called.”
“Does she need a reason? The rates drop, and the woman phones. This time, she wondered if you’d seen something on the news about a woman up here who was killed by her fiancé. She’d like you to call her, too.”
“Any kind of tension between the two of you?”
I shrugged. “Not really. You know how my mother is.”
“She said I should ask whether you were thinking it over. What’s
My mother was out of her mind, playing games, laying clues in front of a homicide detective. His work might be tedious, but he was good at it.
I don’t as a rule approve of lying, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth. Partly, I feared, because my mother had touched a sore spot. There were indeed lots of things I didn’t know about the man I lived with, beginning with his first name, as she’d pointed out. “You know how they are about my living in the city,” I muttered. “There’s a condo near them she wants me to buy.”
The trouble with trusting one another is that it makes it too easy to lie.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “They think the solution is for you to move to Florida, is that it?”
And that’s the trouble with intelligence. Mackenzie didn’t believe my lie for a second. I liked him for that.
But I was determined to make the evening work, despite the long-distance doubt my mother had planted. “Think about it,” she’d said, and willingly or not, I had. And kept doing so.
While it seemed appalling to hire a P.I., it didn’t seem offensive to sleuth on my own. The investigation of each other was a long and honorable tradition called courtship. “So, um, how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked, apropos of nothing, after I’d downed a piece of unagi. I knew stories about scads of Mackenzies, swamps-full, but it suddenly seemed suspicious that C. K. had never produced a precise head count. Genealogical charts, birth and marriage stats. Photos, Social Security numbers.
“Depends whether you include Alicia and Junior Bear, the second cousins once removed who came to us when their folks went to work down in Guatemala and stayed seven years, or Carl Henry, after his folks died in a small-plane crash,” he said. “Or the foster boy, Micah. He was with us four-five years. Or Sally Marie, my mother’s youngest sister—she’s nearer our ages than Mom’s, and she moved in along with Grandma after Grandpa died. Then again, you wouldn’t count her. She’s my aunt.”
His family was a mob scene in a Hollywood spectacular without the togas and horses. People swirling, appearing, disappearing. “How did you all find room in one house?” I asked.
-all? You tryin’ to talk Southern now?”
I’m talking hordes.” Maybe he’d grown up in a plantation mansion, a Tara.
“Bunk beds, four to a room. Dorm style, any which way. Depending on the current population, people slept on roll-aways in the dining room, and on the dining room table as needed. On the couch, on the porch swing. Floor, two chairs. Whatever worked. It wasn’t a flophouse or a shanty, but it wasn’t
either.” He grinned. “We managed. Somebody needed space, we found it. My mother is—” I watched him search for the right word, “—a most resilient woman.”
My mother seemed his mother’s shadow self, so unresiliently nervous about possibility, she wanted to hire a detective to control my fate. “But who were all of you? Aside from the cousins and wards and those who wandered through.”
“Why the sudden interest?”
“It’s not sudden. I get your stories mixed up, and then I’m not sure I know all that much about you.” At least some of that was true.
“Don’ think of myself as a secretive type,” he murmured.
“Nor do I. So who is there, as in siblings?”
He ticked off names, looking mildly bemused. “Lessee…my brothers Porter, Nick, Madison, and Noah—and my sisters Phoebe, Bunny, and Lutie.”
“There were eight of you,” I said. Had I known that? “Not counting the floaters.”
“You look surprised. Surely I’ve provided this data before.”
“Have you? In any case, it is an awesome amount. Just imagine my mother with all those people to fuss over.”
“Numbers of that magnitude dilute fussin’ till you can’t hardly recognize it.”
“Nice names they all have,” I said, even though I thought Bunny belonged in the nickname category, a bit too precious should she want to be the first female president of the U.S., say. “Why’d they reduce you to initials?”
He smiled and shrugged.
“What do they call you when you’re all at the homestead together?”
He looked around, then leaned over the small table, so close I was tempted to kiss him—but then I’d miss the answer. At long last. “They call me C. K.,” he whispered. “Don’t tell.” He sat back, chewed sushi, drank sake, then smiled again. “Have we finished that odd drill?”
I sighed and nodded.
“Then are you ready to tell me what your mother really wants? Surely it wasn’t an accounting of who all slept at the Mackenzies’.”
What the hell. “It’s too ridiculous. The niece of a lady in her complex almost married a rotter, so she’s into hiring a detective to ferret out your secrets.”
“My secrets? Ah—the murdered woman in the news. Or maybe she means those bodies I stashed in the basement. Tell her it was a bad day. They got on my nerves. It won’t happen again if you don’t annoy me.”
“That’s why I didn’t want to tell. It’s mortifying. Besides, you don’t have secrets.”
He extracted his charge card from his wallet. “Didn’t say that.” His voice was soft, lulling. “Everybody has secrets. And isn’t that nice, too. Keeps the mystery alive.”
“You mean your name?”
“That, too,” he said.
I found his response disquieting. I like mysteries, but not unsolved ones, so I pestered and pouted and finally, after we’d both made our way home in our separate cars, and after we were back up in the loft and I continued to dither, he put his index finger up in mock scholarly-lecturer fashion.
“I have a relevant tale to tell,” he said. “Of the literary variety. You know the sad tale of Peter Schlemiel?”
“You’re making him up the way my father used to make up homilies about kids who’d met with disaster because they didn’t look both ways before crossing.”
is an ancient fable, and the subject of Adelbert von Chamisso’s most famous work. Those Northern schools...”
I hate it when he takes to
field and bests me at it. I had never heard of either Peter Schlemiel or Adelbert von Chamisso. And neither, I was willing to bet, had most normal people.