Monthly Archives: May 2012

To Know a Veil (or: To Noah Vale), Part Three

11

Idora didn’t understand why we should have to go to the funeral. She hadn’t seen Noah in years, nor did she have any idea that I had been working for him or that I’d developed any sort of connection to his late fiancée, so I could understand why she was upset over having to miss her book club.

When we got to the parlor, I found Noah, to no surprise, in the kitchen snacking on hors d’oeuvres. He crammed bite-sized sandwiches, one after the other, into his open mouth and downed them without chewing, without thinking.

I said, “It’s a beautiful service,” although I hadn’t been in the chapel yet, where Idora held my seat.

He gulped a bite and mumbled his thanks. “They took our chimps away,” he said, staring at the silver platter and grabbing another treat. “The police determined she was mauled by one of them, and there’s no telling which, so they’re all going to be put down next week. God knows I won’t miss a one of them, stupid animals.” His head wiggled like he was trying to spook a fly off his nose. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

I put a hand on his shoulder for just a second and removed it. It felt unnatural. It was the touch of a loving uncle, and even now that couldn’t be me. I didn’t think I could leave my hand there for long without succumbing to the desire to shake him.

“You don’t think it was one of them,” I said.

“No, I do,” he said. “Her wounds were the exact same as a hundred other chimp attack victims’ I’ve read about. But I know it had to be Hanky. He never left her side. And he’s still missing. Animal Control is scouring the city as we speak, but no sign yet.”

“So they all get the needle,” I said. It never ceased to amaze me what the world considered justice. “Meanwhile, whoever really did this goes free.”

Another sandwich worked its way past his puffy lips. “You think a person did that? You think a human being could… could actually…” He pushed the tray away. “Don’t say that! They had to identify her by her teeth, Uncle Prentiss! Don’t tell me a person did that to my fiancée!”

“I just find it troubling,” I said, “that the authorities are all primed and ready to execute a fleet of chimpanzees, and meanwhile not a soul has questioned the obvious holes in this story. Okay, let’s assume Hanky attacked your fiancée. Did he drag her into that pipe afterward? Did he dress her up in her bridal gown? Somebody did all that. She wasn’t killed on your wedding day. She’d been leaving you handwritten notes for two weeks.”

Noah touched the breast pocket of his suit jacket; inside, I knew, was one of Anna’s cursive messages.

I spoke with caution because not only was I on dangerous ground, but my dentures had come loose and threatened to come toppling out. “Anna made a lot of people angry. Kendra the UFF girl, Feasel the realtor.” I paused for a second but forced it out: “You. She ran out on you, humiliated you in front of your friends and family.”

Noah stood up, that same crazy glint in his eye as he’d had when he fired his gun outside the plaza. “I don’t know why I talk to you!” he said. “You’re just a bitter, old crank! You were never family to me or Mom! You son-of-a-bitch, just let this go! If I can let this go, why can’t you?”

I couldn’t let it go because it felt wrong. Maybe it was another difference between his and my generations. When something stunk, in my day, you found it and cleaned it up until you could inhale again. Noah, Anna, and the rest of them – they could just shrug anything off. Whether it was a dream, a personal goal like the Vale Acting Ape-gency or a puppet theater, or even the life of a lover, it was too easy for them to dismiss it and move on. That, when I think back on it, was why I couldn’t stomach Noah Vale. Never could.

“I want you to leave,” he said.

So I found Idora and we went home, much to her delight. But before we did, I waited in line at the closed casket until I could lay my open palm on it. To my left was a blown-up portrait of Anna Lockrem on an easel. I realized it was the first time I’d actually seen her entire face. The photo still sitting in my glove compartment had depicted her with a veil exposing only one eye, a bit of forehead. The same veil concealing, until that awful moment when Noah had lifted it, the maimed and pulpy remains of a once-gorgeous visage.

My stomach did a weak somersault.

The girl in the picture was as beautiful as my photo had hinted at: green, piercing eyes, curly blonde hair, even a little mole under her nose like Marilyn or some other onscreen starlet. I could buy that she had been an actress.

“Sorry for your luck, sweetheart,” I said.

Then we left, grateful to have avoided running into my lunatic sister.

12

During the ride home, my worst fear was realized. It started with another spasm of discomfort in my gut and grew, a spark inside me that flared up into an explosion of agony. It caught me so off guard that I cried out, winced, and grabbed my crotch.

The time had come. At long last, my little calcium friend was ready to come out and play.

“Dear?” Idora said, from the driver’s seat. Idora always drove, as a means to prevent carsickness (for her) and insufferable annoyance with her backseat driving (for me). “What’s the matter? You look peaked.”

“I need a bathroom,” I said.

“Well, we’ll be home in twenty minutes,” she said.

I shook my head and didn’t stop. “No,” I said. “No. Now. I need a bathroom now.”

She clucked her tongue and glanced at the dash to check the time. She had a very strict schedule, which was odd for someone with no professional or social life, but if we didn’t get home in the next half hour she’d have to skip her daily walk to the park and back. “Well,” she said, “there’s a gas station just up the road. I guess we could—”

“No!” I shouted. The exertion of my outburst rocked my insides. My genitals recoiled, as if stabbed with a hot poker, into the recesses of my lower abdomen. “No,” I repeated at a lower tone, “I’m not going in a gas station bathroom. What do you take me for, a vagrant?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is!” she said, eyes ever on the road. One point of contention, back when I still attempted to drive now and then, was that I took my eyes off the road too much. “You just get in, do your business, and get out! C’mon, there’s a BP right here.”

“No gas stations,” I said, and squeezed both knees. My eyes began to water. I felt as though my intestines were being blown up like a balloon, apt to burst at any moment. “Find something else.”

“How about this Hardee’s?” she said. I shook my head. Of all fast food establishments, I had found over a lifetime of bathroom experience that Hardee’s, as a general rule, was home to among the most derelict restrooms in the country. I couldn’t and wouldn’t attempt such a momentous bodily function in a Hardee’s.

Idora went a bit hysterical. Her head rocked backward. Her shoulders swallowed her neck. “Well, where do you want me to take you?!”

I surveyed the street through blurring vision. Recognizing our location, I pointed at an office building one block ahead. “There,” I said. “There’s a spot right out front. There.”

“There? Why there?”

“Damn it, Idora! Will you pull the car over or do I have to jump out?!”

My right side slammed against the passenger window as she swung the car into a spot in front of the complex where Patrick Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator, hung his hat. I tumbled out of the car, struggling to find my footing, and hobbled inside. Had I been blindfolded, I could have been convinced that a sword had been pushed through my belly and out the other side.

One eon-long elevator ride later, I was headed for Lysey’s office door, and just like the last time I’d been there, I walked right in without knocking. His secretary, Michelle, was at her desk. She jumped up when I barged in, sending her chair rolling into the wall where it chipped off a strip of blue paint.

“Mr. Holm!” she said. “Wh-what are you doing here?”

Bathroom.” The word fell out of my throat, a guttural and animalistic snarl.

Lysey, at his own desk, gave a delayed start at the sight of me. He stubbed a smoking joint out on a pile of papers and stood up, too.

“Mr. Holm, you can’t just barge in here,” he said. I brushed past him and to a thin, wood-paneled door. He said, “Hey, wait!” But that was not an option. Unable to remove my hands from my lower stomach, I kicked it open and knocked it shut behind me with my heel.

This was it.

I grabbed a small wastebasket covered in a floral design and turned it over, spilling its contents to the floor before setting it on top of the toilet tank. I leaned forward, hovering my mouth in position over the trashcan in anticipation of the monumental yakking sure to come. I unzipped my fly and prepared for the worst, one hand on the wall above the toilet, praying.

There was a loud, repetitive banging on the door. Lysey called out from the other side. “Mr. Holm, you gotta go! You can’t just walk in here and treat this like your own personal port-a-potty. I can’t have you doing that!”

I tried to tell him to go to hell but had no voice.

He continued to pound the door. “C’mon, man. Don’t make me call security.”

Panting, drooling into the bucket, legs parted over the toilet bowl, I started to hum a tuneless chant. Anything to drown out the racket. I couldn’t go with all the noise he was making.

“Shut up,” I said, too low for anyone to hear.

The knocking continued. I thought, this is where I’m going to die. And I would have welcomed it now, considered it a mitzvah. I knew I was never going to leave this bathroom, that eventually my innards would just blow up and I’d keel over.

Then it happened.

Death surely would have been preferable. I passed the stone and, seeing double, screamed until it was over. I felt no better when it was. I grabbed the trashcan and lowered myself into a fetal position on the floor. I puked, three times before I lost count, my eyesight riddled with black spots, as if looking through a pinhole.

The knocking stopped. Perhaps Lysey went to call security after all. I told myself I didn’t care, that it was worth it, and at least I wasn’t on the floor of a gas station bathroom, where I was certain to catch any number of diseases.

My vision returned in increments, like fog dissipating. It became evident that my head rested in the garbage I’d dumped onto the floor. Refuse surrounded me: wadded up toilet paper, q-tips, an empty box of Clairol black hair dye. A banana peel. And strewn among these sundry items, a dozen or more small, narrow strips of paper – all of them the headers of office stationery, apparently torn from a full letter-size page. The heading on each of these bore Lysey’s name, occupation (“Licensed Private Investigator & Screenwriter”), and address.

I imagined one of these fitting like a puzzle piece atop Noah’s tattered letter from Anna.

A fresh wave of queasiness overtook my body, every nerve ending tingling in anxiety. There, trembling on the floor, a light bulb went off in my brain, casting light on something horrible that had hitherto been shrouded in the dark.

But people ate bananas, I told myself. People bought hair dye. This proved nothing.

As if in answer to my self-assurance, the utility closet door creaked open, slow and uncertain. A tan, wrinkled set of fingers gripped it from inside, slipping over the handle to reveal hairy knuckles. The closet’s occupant took a nervous step out into the bathroom to investigate the man curled up on the tile floor.

I looked up at a diaper-wearing, inquisitive adult chimpanzee. We locked eyes; we had a moment, he and I. Everything – everything­ – made perfect and awful sense in that instant.

Hanky the chimp and I both yelped at the jarring crash of the bathroom door caving in. Splintered and loosened on one hinge, it fell fully just inches from my face after one more earsplitting, forceful ram of a desk chair.

Lysey stepped in, clasping a small pistol like the kind you see femmes fatale carrying around in old Bogart movies. He took a good look, eyes darting from me, to Hanky, to the trash on the floor, then the unsightly mess in his toilet, and back to me.

“God damn it,” he said. He clicked off the safety of his gun and made sure that when I looked up, I was looking straight into its narrow barrel.

13

At least, I thought, the stockpile of diapers under the secretary’s desk made sense now. Hanky, after all, had never been potty-trained.

I rolled onto my back, saying nothing, scraps of garbage clung to my cheek. I closed my eyes and waited.

“Put the gun down, Pat,” I heard a woman say. Michelle. Secretary Michelle. Peeking through half-open eyelids, I watched in upside-down perspective as she of the jet-black locks and tight-fitting dress skirt ran a hand down Lysey’s arm – a loving caress, almost – and gripped the pistol. She took it and tucked it into her thin, non-functional belt. Lysey made no protest.

“Mr. Holm here’s not going to run his mouth to anybody,” she said. She crouched, her dangling hair and makeup-free face inching over me. “Are you?”

I accepted her outstretched hand and helped her help me up. Standing again, albeit with the sink as crucial support, I coughed and glared at the pair of them, saying nothing.

Michelle, stooped over, held out her hands. Hanky grinned, flashing big white teeth, and leapt into her arms, hugging her. He hung there on her hip like a toddler.

Lysey punched the paneling where a door used to be. “Shit!” he said. “Everything’s ruined.”

Scratching Hanky’s head, resolute and calm, the secretary said, “Nothing’s ruined, baby.” She met my gaze. “Mr. Holm. Prentiss. Tell Pat that nothing’s ruined.”

A disgusting and loud gurgle bubbled up out of my gut while I soaked in her image. Smelled her sweat, her lack of perfume and conditioner. Noted the mole on her upper lip. “I think,” I said, “that this whole fakakta debacle is one big ball of ‘ruined,’ Ms. Lockrem.”

She smiled. It was a patient smile. “You’ve known all along, haven’t you? From the day you walked in here.” Hanky nuzzled her shoulder, making her giggle. “Thank you for not telling Noah.”

I nodded because I couldn’t muster a verbal lie. I had only just figured it out, not even five minutes before. If she wanted to think I’d had the upper hand all along, I wasn’t going to try and convince her otherwise – not when she had the gun. Anna Lockrem, I’d been told, was quite the little actress, and now I believed it. Michelle the Secretary must’ve been the role of a lifetime.

Lysey grabbed the hair on both sides of his head. “Man,” he said. “Oh, man.” He wandered out of the bathroom, his business shoes clomping on the hardwood floor outside. There was a loud crash that I assumed meant he had knocked or kicked something over.

Most of my weight still on the sink, finding my breath, I stared at her, unblinking, as if she might disappear again between the short flaps of my eyelids. “That girl,” I said. “Her face.”

She shook her head and gave Hanky a peck on the cheek, skritching behind his ears. There was something on her face, something like shame, unhidden by lipstick or eye shadow. “I want you to tell me what you think happened,” she said, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

I grumbled. Idora was waiting for me. But I couldn’t let it go. I had to know.

“You got cold feet before the wedding. You could tell Noah wasn’t really that thrilled with your monkey business, and you knew – like I know – that it was only a matter of time before he lost interest entirely. So you ran.”

She touched her nose with her fingertip. Right.

“When Noah hired that shmendrik out there to find you, he did. Fast. And…” I mulled it over. “And you think you fell in love, is that it?”

She shook her head. I gripped the sink counter tighter, fearing my knees would give out before we got through this. Something else occurred to me, something Noah and Lysey had both told me.

“No,” I said. “You were already having an affair. You made a cuckold of Noah a long time ago, I’m guessing sometime shortly after Lysey left his calling card outside your office. Did you take a meeting with him about his lousy movie idea? Is that when this started?”

She nodded. Right again.

The bloody image of the girl in the wedding gown, wrapped in Noah’s trembling arms, came back to me as it had so many times since that day. No face. Just a veil and nothing underneath.

“Tell me something,” I said.

Anna’s head tilted. “You tell me,” she said again, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

Oy, vey. I took a deep breath and thought back on the past week or so, every stupid and trivial detail, trying to make sense of it. Make it all fit. I was as much of a detective as I was a lawyer – that is to say, not at all. “Who was the girl?” I said. “Was she…” I belched. “Was she the Jacobs girl? The one Lysey was supposed to be looking for?”

Anna’s finger once again found the tip of her nose. Spot on, Mr. Holm.

I nodded. “But Lysey, skunk that he is, he didn’t kill her, did he?”

Finger. Nose.

“No,” I said, “he wouldn’t.” My hip popped and I moaned, releasing the countertop and taking a seat on the toilet. There were white creases on my palms, quickly filling up with bright pink. “He did his job and he found her, only she was dead. But she couldn’t be dead, not if he wanted the Jacobses to keep dumping cash on his table. So off with the face.”

I leaned toward, just a bit, for a better look at her – in particular, at her mouth. “And out with your teeth,” I said. “Your pearly whites sprinkled around a body in your own wedding dress. Anna Lockrem could be dead to the world, a victim of her own compassion for the animal kingdom. And Fiona Jacobs could still be out there somewhere, at least until you and Lysey felt like you’d cashed in enough of their paychecks to afford a place in Boston.”

At this, she tilted her head, pushed her brows together. “Boston?” she said. “What’s in Boston?”

“You tell me,” I said. “You’re the one who had it circled on a list of cities.”

Her face leveled out in understanding. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” And the little shiksa actually laughed. Laughed! It started off as a giggle and ended with her face buried in the chimp’s shoulder, her chest heaving. She took a deep breath when she finished and said, “Pat didn’t know where to set his movie. I gave him some notes. I suggested Boston. Wouldn’t that be funny? All those funny accents?”

One of the slivers of Lysey’s stationery that had been stuck to my cheek for who-knew-how-long now came fluttering to my chest. I left it there. “Young lady,” I said, “I do not see the humor in any of this.”

“No, you’re right,” Anna said, shifting Hanky on her hip. Her smile vanished. “You’re right about everything. No wonder Noah always spoke so highly of you, Uncle Prentiss.”

“He spoke highly of you, too,” I said, “so I’m not so sure what that’s really worth.”

Leaving one arm around the chimp’s torso, she dug a set of fingernails into her hair, no doubt scratching the abrasion of a hacky dye-job. “I really did love him,” she said. “At first, I mean. But he was full of shit. He didn’t care about the chimps, about Hanky. I have my priorities, okay?” She was really getting into that scalp now. “Pat says we’ll put the others up in a zoo or something somewhere, just as soon as we make enough money off of these Jacobs people. If it were up to Noah, they’d all rot in some circus caboose or starve to death.”

I shook my head, keeping the rest of my body stiff. To shift any part of me below the neck, in even the slightest way, would have hurt. “You certainly have a type, young lady,” I said.

She frowned and dropped her hand. “Huh?”

“All your chimps, save Hanky here, are gonna be put down, thanks to your new boyfriend’s master plan,” I said.

She betrayed her surprise with the smallest of gasps. “I-I didn’t know that,” she said, and hugged Hanky tighter.

“I hope you can live with that,” I said.

Her new false teeth clamped down on a row of fingertips.

After a time, she stepped over the felled bathroom door and stood in the doorway, pointing at the exit. “I want you to go,” she said. “Please just leave.”

I told her I wouldn’t. That this wasn’t over, and I wasn’t done with the pair of them.

So Patrick Lysey called the cops, and that was the day that Prentiss Holm – at the age of sixty-five – was handcuffed and loaded into the back of a police car while his wife watched from across the street.

14

 

            My evening withered away to the off-key tune of my drunken cellmate caterwauling the Italian song from that cartoon about the dogs eating a plate of spaghetti. The aftershocks of my innards’ trauma still resounding, I hunched over on the metal bench and clung for dear life onto the back of my neck. A fresh swelling of pain erupted within me following each breath I took. I made no complaint, uttered not a single moan of aggravation. A water would have been nice, but the effort required to ask for it would may have done me in.

So there I sat.

It was during Sinatra Incarnate’s fiftieth or so rendition of the Disney song that the guard, in an act of infinite mercy, told him to shut his yapper – and announced that I had a visitor.

He wrenched the metal door open from its rusted hinges and I heard, with my head still in my lap, the light clatter of soft-soled slippers on the concrete floor.

“I’m not impressed, Prentiss.”

With some struggle, I managed to straighten up, filling the cell with the bubble-wrap sounds of my spine’s protest. There she was, a set of narrow bars separating us: Idora, her arms crossed, her glasses swinging from her neck like a hangman’s noose.

I said nothing, still couldn’t.

She said, “Well?”

An involuntary croak escaped my throat.

Her arms wrapped tighter around her chest. The flesh around her pursed lips went white. “Noah called. I know what you two have been up to. And I tell you, Prentiss, you’re out of your mind if you think you’ve been brave, or manly, or – or noble.”

I swallowed. The spit wad became an A-bomb in my weakened guts. The putz behind me started back up again with his song.

This is the night…

“You’re no fledgling detective,” Idora said. “Or some upholder of the law. You’re not Humphrey Bogart. You’re a notary public and an old man.”

It’s a bee-yoo-tee-ful night…

“You’re my notary public. My old man. My little shlimazel. I never asked anything more of you. What else could you possibly need?”

…And we call it bella notte!

            She scraped her rubber heels across the floor, wrapped her fingers on one of the bars. In the dank lighting of the holding cell, I couldn’t see the wrinkles that had formed on that hand over the decades. There, they were smooth and porcelain, spotless.

I didn’t even need to consider her remarks to know her analysis was spot on. No matter how much I convinced myself I’d been snooping around, up to my armpits in backstabbing and nonsense, because I felt bad for Noah, it was plain now that wasn’t the case at all. Feel bad for Noah? No.

I felt sorry for myself. How humiliating.

My feet splayed out, ready to lift me up, to carry me over to her, when I froze at her next words.

“You’ve passed that kidney stone, I see,” she said.

I wheezed out something that sounded like, “Didn’t tell Noah about that.”

The first hint of a smile tickled Idora’s lips. “Oh, Prentiss,” she said, and her hand fell off the bar and back to her cotton-draped hip. “What do you think of me? I knew about the damn kidney stone.”

My mouth fell open.

“Up all hours, tossing and turning. Running to the bathroom, not cleaning your plate most nights, not hopping up for seconds in all the years I’ve known you. I waited for you to say something, dear. Watched your face go red, your eyes go glassy, every night. And not a word out of you about it. You think I’m this maven, don’t you? This bossy know-it-all. Well, here’s what I know.”

Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes…

Idora took two pairs of forefingers and thumbs and pulled her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “You’re a fool, Prentiss Holm. And you’re the only fool I’ve ever wanted. You never did wrong by me before. Don’t start now, all right?”

On this lovely bella notte!

She turned ­– not with a dainty spin as in the old days, but with an unsure twist of her ankles. The guard stood at attention.

“Ma’am,” he said, removing a pen from his shirt pocket. “If you want to step into the lobby with me, we can get the paperwork started for Mr. Holm’s bail.”

And Idora shook her head.

“My husband needs a night to clear his head.” She did not look back at me. “And a glass of water, for God’s sake.”

Then she left.

The vagrant on the cot took another great breath and began to belt out the next verse of his serenade. The guard, befuddled by my wife’s abrupt exit, jerked his head back at us and pointed into the cell.

“That’s enough of that!” he said.

“That’s amore,” said the drunkard.

15

Idora never did show up the following morning. It was Noah Vale who bought my way out of the clink.

When the guard led me out of the cell block and into the office, where my nephew stood in his discount suit, hands crossed and eyebrows raised, I considered asking to be let back into the cell.

“Feh!” I said. “You. This is your fault.”

“I know it is,” Noah said, handing me the plastic bag that contained my wallet, keys, watch, and Tums. “I know. I’m sorry.”

The watch pulled out a few hairs when I snapped it back into place on my arm. I said nothing to Noah and instead filled my mouth with Tums, crunching on them on our way out the door. Once inside his Prius, rolling down the highway, he spoke up again.

“Did you hear me back there?” he said. “I said I was sorry.”

I grunted.

“You old bastard,” he said and reached for the radio dial.

I grabbed his hand, stopping him from cranking up whatever God-awful noise he might consider good music. “I found her,” I said. “Anna’s alive.”

Noah nodded. “I know,” he said. “Aunt Idora called me. She was vague, pretty clueless about what’s going on, but when she told me you got busted for assaulting a detective and a secretary holding a monkey, I filled in the blanks myself.”

“So did you file a report back there?” I asked. I licked my thumb and began to scratch at a flaky spot of dried blood on my pants.

“No,” he said.

“Then turn the car around. They’re not getting away with this.”

Instead he accelerated. “I’m taking you home,” he said. “That’s it.”

“I’m calling it in soon as I walk in that door.”

“Damn it, Uncle Prentiss!” Noah said. He pulled the car over and put it in park, freeing his hands to gesticulate in all directions as he berated me. “I buried my fiancée today! I don’t care who that really was in that coffin. Anna’s gone no matter what, and as far as I’m concerned we put her in the ground this morning. I’m done with this. It’s over!”

He bopped his head against the steering wheel, causing a terse honk to sound. I clutched my thighs with both hands and straightened up, stretching my sore torso. The sight of him – the hunched shoulders, the defeated stance, the way his eye never quite met mine, ever – punctuated what I had decided during my brief stay in jail. I never wanted to see Noah Vale again. Did I wish him ill? Hell, no. But whatever the future held for the boy, I didn’t want any part of it.

I agreed to keep mum, though the words tasted worse coming out than the bile I’d hacked up in Lysey’s bathroom. It was the only way to bring this circus to an end, the only way I could go back home and take a bath.

And of course I didn’t mean it.

He gave me his sincere thanks and told me he was ready to move on, too.

“I’m excited about my next business prospect,” he said, putting the car back into drive. “I’m investing in an upstart energy drink company. Did you know there’s still no energy milk? We’re gonna set the marketplace on fire.”

One positive thing about the mentality of Noah and his ilk: with that outlook, you never stayed sad for long.

Or, at least, not that anybody could tell.

16

I still read the paper.

Maybe I’m the only one anymore, but I pay for an annual subscription and I hike my saggy tuchas to the curb every morning, a steaming mug in hand, and grab the morning edition – which, these days, is the only edition.

It was on a morning about a month after all the business with Noah and Anna, Hanky and Lysey, that I found – tucked into my newspaper – a folded-up note with familiar cursive writing along the outside. “To Prentiss Holm,” it said.

Idora was inside fixing breakfast. I stayed on the stoop, peeling the page back along the folds, and read the inside:

Uncle Prentiss,

I hope you don’t mind my calling you ‘Uncle.’ That’s just how I think of you now – how I’ll probably always think of you.

                        I just wanted to take the time to thank you. When I said in Pat’s bathroom that you were right about everything, I meant it. You were right about Noah, right about Pat. I guess I don’t ‘get’ people the way others do. I don’t see the obvious. I fall into bad patterns.

                        But no more of that! I left Pat. I’m leaving town. You’ll forgive me if I don’t divulge my destination, but I just wanted you to know that.

                        So often we’re told or led to believe that what we do doesn’t count, that we don’t count. But I’ve read today’s paper, and for those of us in the know, it’s pretty evident that your recent actions counted, Uncle Prentiss. You’re a good man, and I’m happy to have met you, however briefly and unhappy the circumstances.

            Yours,

            ‘Michelle’

 

I ripped up the page, sprinkled the remnants into the garbage can out by the mailbox, and went inside.

Idora greeted me from her operating station at the stove, spatula in hand. It had taken a while, but she did cool off and resume speaking to me after that miserable night. We never did discuss it again. I think everything she’d needed to say had been said.

When, about three weeks after my short stint in the clink, a check arrived in the mail – payable to me from the Holy Cow Energy Drink Corporation for ten thousand dollars – I convinced her it was one of those scams our bank teller always warned us about. We dropped it into the paper shredder together.

Now, while she ate her grapefruit and read her romance novel, I sipped on coffee and scoured the paper, wondering what Anna’s note had meant. As it happened, there were two articles in that edition that made my heart do a somersault: one told of the police’s official announcement that the books were to be closed on the Fiona Jacobs case. An anonymous tip had been called in weeks earlier that ultimately panned out: Jacobs was dead, her body mistaken for another missing girl’s last month. Now, her killer had been found through DNA evidence. Poor Anna Lockrem was still missing, the paper said (missing her teeth, I thought), but on the bright side, the Jacobs family had closure. Thank God for that mysterious tipster!

That tipster was me. There were some things I could just not let go.

The other article told of a new exhibit at the city zoo, a group of chimpanzees once fated to execution but given last-minute clemency thanks to a generous and anonymous (again, that word) donation. Blowing on my scalding beverage, I grinned. Anna, it seemed, had gotten hold of Lysey’s pocketbook to right at least one wrong.

I hoped she hadn’t left the bastard a penny.

It took some doing, but after breakfast I convinced Idora to get out of the house with me and go see the new chimp exhibit. It always took some doing to get her to go anywhere, but once we were out she’d remember what it was like to have fun. I could tell she was having a good time, about a half hour into it, when we were looking at the polar bears and she wrapped her arm around my waist.

When we approached the chimpanzee exhibition, she let go of me and put her hands on the rails surrounding the netted bit of imitation jungle. Like they had outside Noah’s office building, the apes swung from tree to tree, chasing one another and cackling.

Idora said, “Ugly little things, aren’t they?”

I nodded. They did not strike me as majestic, that was true. And they were filthy. Flea-bitten.

Still, it felt good to see the stupid things goofing around, alive and well, and to know that if not for my stubborn persistence, they would be long gone. In my old line of work, I was paid to be the bearer of bad news. Making a positive change for once, even if it was just for some dumb animals, felt good. For a second, I considered sharing this thought with Idora, but I decided I’d better table that one for later. It was enough to just be there, with her, to know I had something not every guy had.

“But I guess they look like little men,” said Idora. “They look and act like little men.”

Bounding from tree to tree, smacking and snarling at one another, throwing their shit around. “Yes,” I said, “they do.”

“I’m actually glad you brought me out here,” she said, and her arm found my waist again. The hand on which I wore my wedding band landed on her shoulder. The pair of us, a couple of old-timers in visors and fanny packs, stared up at the trees and shielded our eyes from the glaring sunlight.

I pulled her close. Took a step to the right and landed my loafer right into a fresh wad of Wrigley’s.

Lifting my shoe, I said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

Idora giggled. It sounded just like it always did, like it used to when we were kids. Like she did when I got mustard on my tie on our first date; like when I asked her to marry me, when I carried her over our honeymoon threshold.

“My little shlimazel,” she said.

Her mouth grazed my stubbly cheek and made the faintest scraping sound. “Don’t you go anywhere,” I said.

“What’re you talking about?” she said, turning to me and rolling her eyes. “I’m right here, Prentiss.”

She was right.

She was always right.

And I loved her for it.

THE END.

Advertisements
Tagged , ,