The Last Thing He Told Me (7 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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Six Weeks Ago

“We should take a vacation,” Owen said. “We're overdue.”

It was midnight. We were lying in bed, his hand cupping mine. He was resting it on his chest, on his heart.

“You should come with me to Austin,” I said. “Or would that not count?”

“Austin?” he said.

“I have the woodturners symposium I told you about. We could turn it into a getaway. Spend a couple of days in Texas Hill Country…”

“It's in Austin? You didn't tell me it was in Austin…”

Then he nodded, like he was considering it, considering joining me—except I felt something shift in him. I felt something shut down in his body.

“What's wrong?” I said.

“Nothing,” he said.

But he let go of my hand and started to play with his wedding band, turning it around and around his finger. I made him that wedding band. I made it to match mine, exactly: Two slim bands that, from a distance, looked like any other shiny, platinum ring. But I made ours out of brushed steel, a thick white oak. Rustic and elegant at once. I'd used my smallest lathe. Owen had sat on the floor beside me while I worked.

“Bailey also has that school trip to Sacramento coming up,” he
said. “We could hightail it to New Mexico, just the two of us, get lost in the white rock.”

“I'd love that,” I said. “I haven't been to New Mexico in a long time.”

“Me neither. Not since back when I was in college. We drove up to Taos, spent a week on the mountain.”

“You drove all the way from New Jersey?” I asked.

He kept twirling his ring, absentmindedly. “What?”

“You drove all the way from New Jersey to New Mexico? That must have taken you forever.”

That stopped him, his fingers leaving his ring. “It wasn't during college.”

“Owen! You just said you went to Taos during college.”

“I don't know. It was a mountain somewhere. Maybe it was Vermont. All I remember was that the air was too thin.”

I laughed. “What's going on with you?”

“Nothing. It just…”

I look at him, trying to follow what he isn't saying.

“It just brings back a weird part of my life.”

“College?”

“College. After college.” He shook his head. “Being stuck on a mountain I don't remember.”

“Okay… so that's maybe the weirdest thing I think you've ever said to me.”

“I know.”

He sat up and turned on the light. “Shit,” he said. “I really need that vacation.”

“Let's take it,” I said.

“Okay. Let's take it.”

He lay down, again, put his hand on my stomach. And I could feel
him relax again. I could feel him come back to me. So I didn't want to press him. I didn't want to press him right then on what he'd almost chosen to share.

“And we don't have to get into it now, but just for the record?” I said. “I spent most of college playing guitar in a Joni Mitchell cover band, attending poetry slams, and dating a philosophy grad student who was working on a manifesto about how television was the government's attempt to control a revolution.”

“Not sure he was exactly wrong about that,” he said.

“Maybe not, but the point is, there's not a whole lot you could tell me about who you used to be that would change anything, at least not between us.”

“Well,” he whispered. “Thank God for that.”

Bailey's No Good Very Bad Day

When Bailey gets back from school, she looks miserable.

I'm sitting on the bench, drinking a glass of red wine, a blanket covering my legs. I try to go back over the day—a day that began and will end without Owen, as impossible as that feels. As angry and sad and stressed and alone as that makes me feel.

She weaves down the docks, keeping her head down, until she gets to the house. Then she stops in front of me, right in front of the bench, and stands there. Eyes blazing.

“I'm not going back there tomorrow,” she says. “I'm not going back to school.”

I take in her eyes, her fear. There we are—mirror images of each other—the last way I wanted us to get here.

“They pretend they're not talking about it,” she says. “About my dad. About me. It's worse than if they just said it to my face. Like I can't hear them whisper about it all day anyway.”

“What were they saying?”

“Which part do you want to hear?” she says. “How Brian Padura asked Bobby after chemistry if my father was a criminal? Or when Bobby punched him in the mouth for it?”

“Bobby did that?”

“Yep…”

I nod, a little impressed with Bobby.

“It gets worse from there,” she says.

I move down the bench slightly, making room for her. She sits down, but on the edge, as if she may change her mind and get up at any moment.

“Why don't you skip tomorrow?”

She looks at me, surprised. “Really?” she says. “You're not even going to fight me on that?”

“Would it help?”

“No.”

“As far as I'm concerned, you're off the hook for school tomorrow. If your day was anything like mine, you deserve to be.”

She nods, starts biting on her nails. “Thank you,” she says.

I want to reach out and take her hand away from her mouth, hold it. I want to tell her it is going to be okay, that it will all get easier—one way or another. But even if it would comfort her to hear it, it wouldn't comfort her to hear it from me.

“I have no energy to cook anything, so your only form of nutrition tonight is coming from two extra-cheese pizzas with mushrooms and onions that are on their way to us in thirty minutes or less.”

She almost smiles, which cracks it open in me, the question I know I need to ask her, the question that I hope will help me figure out what has been looming so large in my mind since getting off the phone with Jake.

“Bailey,” I say, “I keep thinking about what you asked me earlier, about what your father meant in his note to you. What he meant by
you know what matters
…”

She sighs, apparently too exhausted for the eye roll that would usually accompany it.

“I know, my father loves me. You made your point,” she says.

“Maybe I was wrong about that,” I say. “About him meaning that. Maybe he meant something else.”

She looks at me, confused. “What are you talking about?”

“Maybe he wrote that because you know something,” I say. “You know something about him that he wants you to remember.”

“What could I possibly know?” she says.

“I'm not sure.”

“Well, I'm glad we cleared that up,” she says. Then she pauses. “Everyone at school seems to agree with you though.”

“What do you mean?”

“They all think I know why my father is doing whatever he's doing,” she says. “Like he told me over breakfast that he was planning to steal half a billion dollars and disappear.”

“We don't know that your father had anything to do with that,” I say.

“No, we just know he isn't here.”

She's correct about that. Owen isn't here. For all we know, he could be anywhere. It brings me back to what Grady Bradford said offhandedly to me that morning—the information he inadvertently gave me when he was trying to convince me I should talk to him, that he was on our side. He offered his phone number. He offered the phone number to his branch office. It had an area code I didn't recognize. 512. I reach into my back pocket, and pull out the napkin from Fred's. Two numbers on it—both of which start with 512. No address.

I reach for my cell phone on the tea table and call the office number, my heart racing as it starts to ring, as the automatic operator answers, telling me I have reached the U.S Marshals' office.

The Western Texas branch of the U.S. Marshals' office. Located in Austin, Texas.

Grady Bradford works out of the Austin office. Why is a U.S. marshal from Texas the one who shows up at my door? Especially a marshal who, if I believe O'Mackey and Naomi, has no authorization
over the investigation? And if he does have authorization, why? What has Owen done that Bradford would be somehow involved in this? What does Texas have to do with any of this?

“Bailey,” I say, “did you and your father ever spend any time in Austin?”

“Austin, as in Texas? No.”

“Think about it for a second. Did you ever pass through Austin on the way to somewhere else? Maybe before you guys moved to Sausalito. When you were still living in Seattle…”

“So when I was like… four years old?”

“I realize it's a long shot.”

She looks up, searching her brain for a day or a moment she's long forgotten that all of a sudden she is being told is a little too important to forget. She looks upset that she can't find it. And upsetting her is the last thing I want.

“Why are you asking me anyway?” she says.

“There was a U.S. marshal here earlier from Austin,” I say. “I was just thinking that maybe he was here because of some tie your father has to the city.”

“To Austin?”

“Yes,” I say.

She pauses, considers, reaching for something.

“Maybe,” she says. “A long time ago… It's possible I was there for a wedding. When I was really little. I mean, I'm pretty sure I was a flower girl because they made me pose for all these photos. And I think someone told me we were in Austin.”

“How sure are you?”

“Not sure,” she says. “As not sure as you can get.”

“Well what do you remember about the wedding?” I ask, trying to narrow down the window.

“I don't know… all I remember is we were all there.”

“So your mother too?” I say.

“I think so, yeah. But the part I remember best I don't think she was with us for. My dad and I left the church and went on a walk, and he brought me to the football stadium. There was a game going on. I'd never seen anything like it. This enormous stadium. All lit up. Everything was orange.”

“Orange?” I say.

“Orange lights, orange uniforms. I loved orange, I was obsessed with Garfield, so you know… that's what I remember. My father pointing to the colors and saying, it's like Garfield.”

“And you think you were at a church?”

“Yeah, a church. Either in Texas or nowhere near Texas,” she says.

“But you never asked your father after that where the wedding was? You never asked him for any details?”

“No. Why would I?”

“Good point.”

“Besides, it makes him upset if I bring up the past,” she says.

That surprises me. “Why do you think?”

“ 'Cause of how little I remember about my mother.”

I stay quiet. But Owen did mention something similar to me. He'd taken Bailey to a therapist when she was little, her mom seemingly blocked from her mind. The therapist told Owen this was common. It was a defense mechanism to ease the abandonment of losing a parent as young as Bailey was when she'd lost Olivia. But Owen thought it was bigger than that, and, for some reason, he seemed to blame himself for it.

Bailey closes her eyes, as if thinking of her mother is too much, as if thinking about her father is now too much too. She wipes at her eyes, but not before I see a tear escape. Not before she knows I
see it. She's not even trying to hide how alone she feels. And I know something then, brushing up against Bailey in that kind of pain. I will do anything I can to make it go away. To help her. I'll do anything to make her feel okay again.

“Can we talk about something else?” she says. Then she puts her hand up. “You know what? I take that back. Can we talk about nothing? What I want is to talk about nothing at all.”

“Bailey…” I say.

“No,” she says. “Can you just leave me alone?”

Then she leans back, waiting for her pizza and for me to go away, in whichever order she can make those things happen.

What Don't You Want to Remember?

I go inside, honoring Bailey and her request to be left alone. I have no desire to push her. I have no desire to demand she come inside. She is confused and angry, wondering if her father is who she thinks he is—wondering if she can still trust in the person she has always known him to be. Stable, generous, hers. She is angry that she has to question that—angry at him, angry at herself. It is a feeling I can relate to.

Protect her.

But from what? From what Owen was involved in at The Shop? From what he let happen there? Or does Owen want Bailey protected from something else? Something I can't see yet? Something I don't want to see yet?

I pace back and forth in my bedroom. I don't want to antagonize Bailey, but I feel an urgent need to pull at any thread I can find. It's all I can think to do—to reconsider (to ask her to consider) our foggy, gentle memories of Owen. To juxtapose them against these last twenty-four hours. Where do they meet?

Suddenly, one way they meet comes firing back. Austin. Something else I know about Austin and Owen. Shortly before I moved to Sausalito, I was offered a job there. A movie star who lived there was redoing her house, a ranch house on Westlake Drive, hugging Lake Austin.

She wanted help getting rid of her ex-husband's aura. Her ex-husband had loved everything modern and hated anything rustic.
Her interior designer had suggested my woodturning pieces. But she wanted to be involved, which meant I needed to go to Austin for two weeks and go through the process with her.

I asked Owen to come with me, and he shut the idea down. He was upset that I'd want to go anywhere that would delay my move to Sausalito—that would delay us beginning our lives together in the real way that we had been planning for.

I was anxious to get to California too—and less-than-anxious to work side by side with the increasingly demanding client. So I turned down the job. I clocked his strange behavior though. It was out of character for Owen to react that way—needy, controlling. When I raised it with him, he apologized for reacting badly. He said the move was just making him nervous. He was nervous about how Bailey would adjust to having me in her home. It always came down to Bailey for Owen. Any changes that upended her were going to upend him. I understood the anxiety. I let it go.

But I think about the other Austin red flag. When I asked him to come with me to Austin for my woodturners symposium, he went dark for a minute. He didn't balk at the suggestion, but he pivoted. He did pivot. So maybe it wasn't just about Bailey. Maybe it had something to do with Austin itself. Something he didn't want me to run into there. Something he had run from.

I reach for my phone and call Jake, a diehard football fan: college, the NFL, classic games on YouTube at eight in the morning.

“It's late where I am,” he says, instead of hello.

“What can you tell me about the Austin football stadium?” I say.

“I can tell you it's not called that,” he says.

“Do you know anything about their football team?”

“The Longhorns? What do you want to know?”

“Their colors?”

“Why?”

I wait.

He sighs. “Orange and white,” he says.

“You positive?”

“Yes, burnt orange and white. Uniforms, mascot. Goalposts. The end zone. The entire stadium. It's midnight. It's after midnight. I'm sleeping. Why are you asking?”

I can't seem to tell him the truth, which sounds crazy. The U.S. marshal who showed up at our house is based out of there. Bailey remembers being there. Maybe. And Owen got weird about the idea of us going there, two different times. Two different times I can now recall.

I don't want to tell him that Austin is all I have.

I think of my grandfather. If he were alive, and sitting here with me, I could tell him. He wouldn't think I was crazy. He'd just sit there and help me go through it all until I figured out what I needed to do. That's why he was good at his job—at helping me understand what my job was. The first lesson he ever taught me was that it wasn't just about shaping a block of wood into what you wanted it to be. That it was also a peeling back, to seeing what was inside the wood, what the wood had been before. It was the first step to creating something beautiful. The first step to making something out of nothing.

If Owen were here, he would understand that too. I could tell him too. He would look at me and shrug.
What do you have to lose
? He would look at me, and see it—what I'd already decided.

Protect her.

“Jake? I'll call you back,” I say.

“Tomorrow!” he says. “Call me back tomorrow.”

I hang up, and I go back outside. I find Bailey where I left her, staring out at the bay, sipping on my glass of wine, like it belongs to her.

“What are you doing?” I say.

The glass is almost empty. It was full when I left it. Now it is almost empty. The wine covers her lips, the corners of her mouth stained red.

“Can you not?” she says. “I just had a little.”

“I don't care about the wine.”

“So then why are you looking at me like that?” she says.

“You should go and pack a bag,” I say.

“Why?” she says.

“I was thinking about what you said, about the wedding. About Austin. And I think we should go,” I say.

“To Austin?”

I nod.

She looks at me, confused. “That's crazy. How is going to Austin going to help anything?” she says.

I want to give her an honest answer. If I try to quote my grandfather and tell her this could be the peeling back, will she be able to hear that? I doubt it. And if I tell her what I've put together so far—a wobbly formulation at best—she will rebel and refuse to go.

So I tell her something that she can hear, something that is also the truth. Something that sounds like what her father would say.

“It's better than sitting here,” I say.

“What about school?” she says. “I'm just going to miss school?”

“You said you weren't going tomorrow anyway,” I say. “Didn't you just finish saying that?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I guess.”

I'm already heading into the house. I'm already on the way.

“So pack.”

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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