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Listen to the Silence
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Table of Contents
More from Marcia Muller
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Many thanks to
Josie Bennington, for lending her airplane to McCone and Ripinsky.
Maureen Harty, for information on Boise, Idaho.
Kathy McIntosh, for a great tour of that city.
Robin Reese, for the use of her first name and "the yarn people."
Lieutenant Jim Tibbs, for insights about the Boise Police Department.
The Usual Suspects—you know who you are!
And Bill, without whom…
The phone receiver began a series of staccato beeps. I stared as if it were a foreign object, then replaced it in the cradle. My world had tilted a few minutes ago, and everything seemed askew.
I went over to the windows and looked down at the lower deck of the Sea Cliff house where the post-wedding party was coming to an end. It was a perfect September day, warm and clear, without a wisp of fog to spoil the view of the Golden Gate—the start of the season we San Franciscans consider our summer. The guests were dressed in brightly colored clothing, ranging from shorts and Hawaiian shirts to formal attire. Typical eclectic crowd for a California wedding.
And it had been a terrific wedding. My friend and operative, Rae Kelleher, and my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage, exchanged vows by the deck rail, the Pacific gleaming in the background. Then the band struck up the title song of his new album, Red—written and recorded as his wedding surprise for Rae—and the serious partying got under way. Caterers passed through with gallons of champagne and mounds of shellfish, caviar, and hot hors d'ouevres; we ate and drank like pigs in heaven. The wedding cake—nontraditional chocolate—was decimated minutes after the bride and groom cut it. Even Ricky's six children by my sister Charlene, initially subdued by their father's remarriage, perked up and were soon behaving in the various modes that had earned them the nickname the Little Savages.
When it came time for Rae to change from her wedding gown to going-away clothes, I went inside with her to perform my final maid-of-honor duty—namely, to ensure she and Ricky didn't miss their honeymoon flight to Paris. The phone was ringing and she said, "Why don't you get that? I'm old enough to dress myself." So I left her and went to the living-room extension and picked up.
And my world changed.
Now I put a hand to my hair, touched the circlet of autumn flowers I wore. It was wilted. My dress, a silk swirl of similar shades, was rumpled, and I was barefoot because I'd been dancing. On the deck below, the band had stopped playing and people were starting to drift inside. Soon they'd be spilling up the stairway to watch the couple leave, and I'd need to be on hand and smiling as Rae tried to lob her bouquet at me.
"God, how can I?" I whispered.
Behind me I heard footsteps and voices. The room was filling up, but I stood frozen. I had to pull myself together, turn around.
You've been through lots worse, McCone. Just act as if nothing's happened. Pretend you never picked up that receiver; don't wreck Rae and Ricky's moment. Plenty of time to break the news later.
I squared my shoulders, took my own advice, faced the crowd. They were all talking and laughing, but the sound seemed curiously muted. I spotted Ricky's youngest child, Lisa, a gob of frosting on her cheek. My office manager, Ted Smalley, and his partner, Neal Osborn, looked handsome in vested suits and wild ties. Attorneys Anne-Marie Altman and Hank Zahn held hands with their adopted daughter, Habiba Hamid—proof that some families, no matter how oddly assorted, worked. And there was Hy Ripinsky, my very significant other.…
Hy was talking with Ricky's manager, Kurt Girdwood, and didn't notice me. Quickly I turned away, started walking toward the staircase Rae and Ricky would be coming down. I couldn't let Hy see me; he'd instantly know something was wrong. In the years we'd been together I'd never once been able to conceal my true feelings from him.
A tap on my shoulder. Mick Savage, Ricky's oldest son and best man, and my agency's computer expert. His blond hair was tousled and he had traces of bright red lipstick on his mouth. Charlotte Keim, the source of the lipstick and another of my operatives, clung to his arm.
Mick said, "Wedding came off okay, huh?"
I managed a grin. "Great. And neither of us lost the rings."
"What the hell's taking them so long?" He glanced at his watch, probably anxious to get out of there and back to the condo he and Keim had started sharing two weeks before.
"They're going to Paris, darlin'," she said. "Takes time to get gussied up for a trip like that."
"Hell, Dad's probably grabbed Rae for a quickie."
"Let's have a little decorum here," I told him. Not that the remark offended me; knowing the bridal couple, it might very well be accurate. But Mick expected an auntly rebuke and would have found it odd had he not received one.
Then Rae and Ricky came down the staircase. She was stunning in a blue suit, her long red-gold curls loose on her shoulders; his handsome face looked happier and more at peace than I'd ever seen it. He caught my eye, pointed to Rae's bouquet, and winked. I shook my head, made a fending-off gesture.
Raising his hands for quiet as he did on stage, he called, "Okay, folks. It's time for the next lucky couples to learn their fate! Gentlemen first—preferably single ones." As the men moved forward, he turned his back, waved Rae's lacy green garter in the air, and hurled it over his shoulder. It landed in the hands of Jerry Jackson, his drummer.
"Been there, done that!" Jerry yelled. But he pocketed the garter carefully and grinned at his pretty blond woman friend.
"Now it's the ladies' turn," Ricky announced, motioning for us to draw closer. When I didn't move, he looked at me and frowned; he was another man I had trouble deceiving. Quickly I stepped forward, and he shrugged: Sister Sharon, as he sometimes still called me, was simply being weird again. "Throw it, Red, so we can get out of here."
Rae pivoted and heaved the bouquet over her shoulder; she must've been on radar, because it flew straight at me. I sidestepped, and it ended up in Keim's arms.
"No way!" Charlotte exclaimed. "Rae may be the marryin' kind, but not this gal!" She tossed the flowers away, and Ricky's college-age daughter, Chris, caught them. She blushed, rolled her eyes, and smiled up at her date, a UC Berkeley wide receiver.
I let out a sigh, glad that this ordeal was nearly over. Catering people appeared with bags of confetti, and then Rae and Ricky ran the gauntlet to a waiting limo. As it drove off, more trays of champagne were circulated, but the party had a definite winding-down feel.
"McCone." Hy came up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders.
"Hey there." I rested my cheek against one of them. "Well, we got off scot-free in the garter-and-bouquet department, in spite of the happy couple's intentions."
"You sure that's a good thing?"
The question surprised me. "Since when have we needed legal sanction—" My voice broke, the strain overwhelming me.
For a moment Hy didn't speak, just tightened his grasp on my shoulders. Then he said softly, "I've been watching you. You've done a good job of fooling everybody but me. What's wrong?"
"… Let's go down on the deck, and I'll tell you."
The sun had dipped below the Marin County headlands, and the temperature had dropped. The musicians were packing up their gear while the caterers moved about filling plastic bins with plates and silverware and glasses. I went to the rail and leaned there, staring at the slow-moving lights of a departing container ship.
Hy came up beside me. "If you're cold, you can have my jacket."
"Temperature-wise, maybe. Now, what's wrong?"
I turned toward him. Drew comfort from his sensitive dark eyes and the concerned lines of his hawk-nosed, mustached face. Felt, with a painful and unexpected jolt, how empty my life would be should I lose him.
He took my face between his hands, eyes gentle on mine, and waited.
"There was a phone call when Rae and I went inside," I finally said. "From my brother John. I've been keeping the news to myself because I didn't want to upset the kids and Ricky. Even after he and Charlene got divorced, he'd remained close—" I broke off, sucking in my breath.
"Something's happened to Charlene?"
I shook my head.
If you put it into words, it makes it real.
Atypical term of endearment, for Hy.
"My father. He's… he's dead. He had a heart attack this afternoon. In the garage of the San Diego house, all alone, working on some carpentry project."
There, I've said it. Pa's dead. And in spite of all the death I've seen over the course of my career, I don't know how to deal with this.
Hy did, for the moment. He put his arms around me, pulled me close, and held me.
"Can't sleep, McCone?"
"Sure you don't want me to fly you down there in the morning?"
"No. A commercial flight's faster."
"At least let me come along. I should be there for the funeral."
"Didn't I tell you? There won't be one. Pa didn't believe in them. John's having him cremated, and on Monday the two of us will scatter him at sea."
"Just you and John? What about the others?"
"Charlene's at a conference in London. Patsy can't leave the new restaurant. John couldn't get hold of Joey—his phone's been disconnected."
"Well, if I went down with you, I could rent a plane and fly it while you and John scatter—"
"No, I'll do that. Besides, there's something else I need from you."
"It's kind of a big thing. Would you mind the agency for me? Whenever I went away before, I put Rae in charge, but now—"
"No problem. I'm between projects, but even if I wasn't, I'm always here for you."
But now I know that "always" is a lie.
Now I know that, in the end, death is the only certainty.
"I can't do this," my older brother John said.
I brought the rented Cessna level over the Pacific, pulled back on power till the engine made the distinctive purr that told me, without looking at the tachometer, that it was at the proper RPM for slow flight.
"I said, I can't do this."
I glanced at him. A nervous flier under any circumstances, he hunched in the right seat, his arms wrapped around the plain cardboard box and metal urn on his lap. His blond hair flopped onto his forehead, and there were pronounced lines between his eyebrows and around his mouth. For all his forty-eight years, he resembled a miserable, scowly little boy.
"Why not?" I asked.
He shrugged, looked away.
Oh, God, he was exhibiting full-blown symptoms of the infamous family failing—the inability to properly deal with one's dead. It was the reason he held two containers of ashes, Pa's in the box, and our paternal grandfather's in the urn. The urn had lingered for twenty-some years on the top shelf of our father's coat closet, and yesterday I'd come down to San Diego determined that Grandpa would be scattered along with Pa. Now it seemed John was no more capable of this duty than our father.
I decided a matter-of-fact, unemotional approach was called for. "If you're worried about opening the window while we're in flight, it's no big deal. And you don't have to lean out. Just tip the container toward the plane's tail."
"Why the tail?"
"Because if you do it toward the nose, the prop wash'll blow the stuff back inside."
Wrong image to call up. John winced and closed his eyes, big hands protectively cradling the containers.
"They're not just 'stuff,' you know," he said.
"Sorry. I'm as unhappy about this as you, and I guess I don't want to think of what's in there as Pa and Grandpa."
He nodded in acceptance of my apology but didn't look at me. After a minute he asked, "Shar, are you sure this is what Pa wanted?"
"He put it in his will."
"But that will was made a while ago. Maybe he changed his mind."
"Then he'd've added a codicil. Pa was meticulous about details." Meticulous, except for the minor detail of his father's remains residing with the overcoats.
"Well, what about Grandpa? He wouldn't fly, ever. D'you really think he'd appreciate being hurled out of a plane?"
"Beats spending eternity on the shelf next to Pa's baseball caps."
"You're being pretty damn flippant for somebody who just lost her father!"
"And you're making a huge, painful production out of this! Just scatter them!"
He was silent again, clutching his precious cargo.
I could sympathize with his inability to perform this final rite; letting go had never been all that easy for me, either. And he'd been closer than any of us to Pa, particularly in these last few years. Still, somebody had to—
"For God's sake, hold the plane!" I exclaimed.
"Put your feet on the rudders and your hand on the yoke and keep us level." I opened my window.
"What're you going to—"
"Feet on the rudders, like so." I pointed down at mine. Slowly John positioned his. "Now touch the yoke with your right hand—lightly, don't grip or yank on it. Just make little adjustments."
"You've watched me do it. It's easy."
"I… okay." He made a few experimental moves.
"That's right. It pretty much flies itself. You're doing fine."
"Doing fine," he said doubtfully.
"Now give me one of them." I motioned at the containers while loosening my seat belt.
"Grandpa. He's been waiting longer."
After a hesitation, he passed the urn to me. Looked straight ahead as I pried the lid off. I twisted in the seat, extended my arm through the window, and tipped the receptacle. Watched the ashes and bits of bone be borne away on the air currents.
James McCone, finally out of the closet.
I resisted an unseemly urge to giggle as I put the lid back on the urn and stuck it in the carrying space behind me. John would be furious with me if I laughed at a time like this. He didn't share my offbeat and sometimes irreverent sense of humor, although I was fairly sure both Pa and Grandpa would have appreciated the absurdity of the situation.
Suddenly the plane's nose lurched upward and it started rolling violently from side to side. For some reason John had pulled back on the yoke, was now gripping it with both hands and trying to steer the aircraft like a car.
"Let go!" I yelled. "Get off the rudders!"
He hung on, grimacing. By the time I wrestled the controls from him, the stall horn was wailing.
"What the hell!" he shouted.
"It's okay. It's nothing." I controlled the stall with light, alternating pressure on the rudders, dropped the nose.
"Nothing?" he said weakly, wiping sweat from his pale face.
"Happens all the time to beginners." Thank God I'd gotten it in hand, though! The plummet that accompanies an uncontrolled stall was one experience I didn't want to treat him to—particularly on an occasion like this.
"I'm not beginning anything," he said. "My piloting minutes are at an end."
"Nonsense. You were doing great. Take over again."
"It's that, or…" I motioned at the cardboard box.
He eased back onto the rudders, touched the yoke as if he feared it might burn him.
"Now give me Pa."
John's left hand grasped the box tightly; for a few seconds I was afraid he might refuse. Then, finally, his fingers loosened; they caressed it gently before he handed it to me.
I removed the lid. Hesitated, staring at the sea where Pa, a sailor, had wanted to be laid to rest. Tears blurred my vision, and I felt a wrenching under my breastbone. Images flashed through my mind: nothing momentous, just small things.
Pa putting together a swing set on my sixth birthday. His ruddy face beaming when I rolled my first strike on a family bowling outing. His photographs of us, in which he always managed to cut off some essential body part. The impish gleam in his eyes as he sang the ribald folk ballads that he knew vexed my mother. The key chain with the inlaid wooden fob that he'd made and proudly presented to me when I bought my house.
It was a minute before I could hold the box out the window and let his ashes trail away.
When I turned back to John, I was surprised to find him flying with a sure hand. He smiled at me and said, "Thanks."
I let him pilot for a few minutes more. Before I took over and headed for land, he dipped the wings twice in tribute to Pa and Grandpa.
I hung up the phone and heaved a huge sigh of relief. From across the family room of my father's house in San Diego's Mission Hills district John asked, "So how's Ma?"
"Sad. Subdued. But she still found plenty to bitch about."
"Let me guess: Why couldn't Pa have a funeral, like a normal person? Why aren't you staying with her and Melvin, instead of in this empty house? How come we're letting Nancy make off with all his worldly goods?"
"That, and more." I joined John on the ratty sofa, picked up my glass of wine from where he'd set it on the end table.
"So what'd you tell her?"
"That Pa wasn't a normal person, so he could hardly be laid to rest in a normal way. That I didn't want to stay up in Rancho Bernardo because I've got things to do here. That Nancy deserves whatever's left, for putting up with him." Nancy Sullivan was the woman Pa had more or less lived with the past few years—both at her La Jolla condo and on the road in his Airstream trailer. He seldom visited the Mission Hills house, except to putter in the garage workshop where he'd died.
"And Ma said?"
"After that I tuned her out."
"She does have one point: Why stay here? This house is pretty depressing, with most of the furniture gone. Where'd you sleep last night? On this couch?"
"Yes. It wasn't so bad." And I'd been able to indulge my grief in private.
"Well, tonight you should try out my new sofa bed."
"Can't. I want to get started sorting through the boxes in the garage, so I can go home Wednesday or Thursday. Last week I picked up a couple of important clients; I need to oversee the jobs."
"Hy can't do that?"
"He's not really an administrator." Hy was a partner in a corporate security firm, Renshaw & Kessell International. He specialized in hostage negotiation and other, more esoteric, skills.
John got up and went to the kitchen for another beer. When he came back, I studied our reflections in the darkened glass door to the backyard. We were so different: he, blond and big-boned and snub-nosed; I, dark and slender with chiseled features that were a genetic throwback to my Shoshone great-grandmother. I was the only one of the five of us who had inherited Mary McCone's Native American looks. No wonder I'd always felt like the odd duck in an already odd family.
"The thing about Nancy getting Pa's stuff," John said. "That's just Ma being sour-grapesy because he found somebody else after the divorce."
"Why? She found Melvin before they split." Melvin Hunt owned a chain of coin-operated laundries, and Ma had met him while patronizing one of his establishments when her washing machine broke down.
"I know, it's not logical, but Ma's not logical. Anyway, Charlene and Patsy already took the things they wanted when Pa moved in with Nancy. Joey doesn't care, and all I wanted were Pa's watch and service medals, which Nan gave me yesterday." We'd visited her in the evening, found her being well cared for by her grown daughter. "Is there anything in particular you'd like?"
I smiled wryly. "I've already got it—the dubious privilege of going through the stuff stored in the garage. Wonder why he specifically wanted me to handle that?"
"He said you were the only one with enough brains and patience for the task."
"Thank you, Pa—I think." I raised my glass and toasted the heavens.
The garage was so crammed with boxes and bins and odds and ends of furniture that a car wouldn't fit—a manifestation of the pack-rat condition I'd come to think of as McCone's Syndrome—and the cleared area by Pa's workbench wasn't large enough to unpack things in. I went over there anyway, looked at the project he'd been working on when he died. A small box constructed of finely milled samples of exotic woods; the pieces were all cut, and it was almost finished. I'd glue the rest in place, and it would be what I'd take away to remember him by.
First things first, though: the cartons. I carried several into the house and got started.
Miscellaneous clothing and uniforms from his days as a chief petty officer in the Navy. Those I would give to Goodwill. Books, mostly adventure novels and thrillers. Donate to the library. More wood samples, broken and outdated tools, package upon package of corroded batteries, ammunition for guns he had no longer owned, half a dozen old cameras of the point-and-shoot variety, ancient packets of seeds and sacks of bulbs, hundreds of ballpoint pens, glue that had hardened in much-squeezed tubes, mason jars full of nails and screws, old road maps for damned near the entire United States and Canada, shelf brackets and hooks and braces, telephone cords and connectors, margarine tubs and lids—good God, hadn't he ever gotten rid of anything? And what the hell was I supposed to do with it all?
My eyes felt gritty and my head ached. I got up, fetched a couple more boxes from the garage, went to take some aspirin. Ten-fifty by the kitchen clock, and I'd scarcely made a dent in the accumulation. The contents of the next box would require careful sorting, too; it was labeled LEGAL PAPERS.
Birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce decree. Retirement papers from the Navy. Two old wills, pink slips on the Chevy Suburban and the Airstream trailer. Grant deed on the house to a corporation Charlene and Ricky had once formed; they'd bought it from him with the agreement he could live out his days here—their way of ensuring that he wouldn't have to sell it and move when he and Ma got divorced. Funny, I hadn't thought about what would happen to the house. I supposed Charlene had gotten it as part of her settlement with Ricky; she'd probably want to put it on the market.
The idea of the place being sold didn't bother me, as it once would have. It was no longer home in any sense. Home was the earthquake cottage I shared with two cats in San Francisco's Glen Park district. It was Hy's ranch in the high desert country near Tufa Lake. It was Touchstone, our joint property on the Mendocino Coast, where our dream house was rapidly nearing completion. Even my offices at Pier 24½ were more of a home than this empty shell of a place.
The thought of those offices reminded me of the two new clients and my need to get back to San Francisco. I dug into the papers with renewed vigor. Passport. Expired Navy ID card. Old bank and savings-account statements. PG&E stock certificate. Small whole-life policy with Ma still listed as beneficiary. A folder containing report cards: mine. Why the hell had he kept them? Photocopies of my high school and college diplomas. I didn't know he'd made them. U.S. Savings Stamps booklets in each of our names, none full. Folder with copies of our birth certificates and…
What was this?
Gerald A. Williams
San Diego, California
Attorney for Petitioners
SUPERIOR COURT OF CALIFORNIA COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO
In the matter of the Petition of: ) No. 21457
ANDREW JOHN McCONE and KATHRYN SYLVIA McCONE, ) PETITION FOR ADOPTION
Adopting Parents. ) (Independent)
1. The name by which the minor who is the subject of this petition was registered at birth is BABY GIRL SMITH.
2. The petitioners are husband and wife and reside in the County of San Diego, State of California, and desire to adopt BABY GIRL SMITH, the above-named minor child who was born in San Diego, California, on September 28, 1959. The petitioners are adult persons and more than ten years older than said minor.
3. The parents entitled to sole custody of the child have placed the child directly with the petitioners for adoption and are prepared to consent to the child's adoption by petitioners.
4. The child is a proper subject for adoption. The petitioners' home is suitable for the child and they are able to support and care properly for the child. The petitioners agree to treat the child in all respects as their own lawful child.
5. Each petitioner hereby consents to the adoption of the child by the other.
WHEREFORE, petitioners pray that the Court adjudge the adoption of the child by petitioners, declaring that each petitioner and the child thenceforth shall sustain toward each other the legal relation of parent and child, and have all the rights and be subject to all the duties of that relation; and that the child be known as SHARON ELIZABETH McCONE.
Dated: October 1, 1959.
Attorney for Petitioner
Shock washed over me like a flood of icy water. My hands started trembling as I gripped the photo-copied document.
… desire to adopt BABY GIRL SMITH…
… be known as SHARON ELIZABETH McCONE…
"Mama, Joey says I'm not his sister!"
"Why? Why would he say a thing like that?"
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing