By Tim Cockey
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To Rick and Ann
Ray Ghost sidled up to me in the middle of a funeral to tell me that an old flame of mine had left her husband down in Annapolis and was back in Baltimore. He had an insanely huge grin on his Howdy Doody face when he told me the news, the kind of look a dog’ll give you when he’s dying for you to throw the stick.
“You’re at a funeral,” I reminded him. “You might want to hide your teeth.”
Ray drives the panel truck for the Church Home and Hospital Thrift Shop, picking up old furniture and clothes and books and whatever various knickknacks people want to unload in exchange for a little tax write-off. It’s where Ray gets most of his clothes. The man is a sartorial miasma. Today he was sporting a chocolate-brown suit that rode on his lanky frame like a pair of pajamas. Either the sleeves of the suit coat were too short or the sleeves of his yellow dress shirt were too long; the cuffs came out over Ray’s hands like bells. Ray planted his feet and put a heavy scowl on his face. He jammed his hands into his pockets then yanked them right out again and, mimicking me, clasped his hands at his crotch.
“Saw her yesterday, Hitchcock,” Ray murmured tersely, his eyes fixed on a spot on the ground in front of him. “Bolton Hill. Didn’t look so good. Asked about you.”
I brought a finger to my lips and quietly shushed him. Ray reset his feet and coughed into his hand.
I was keeping an eye on the widower. A backhoe operator from Dundalk. Young guy. Deeply tanned and looking uncomfortable in his suit. We were burying his wife. She had just stepped out of Finklesteins the previous Monday with an armload of new jeans for her boys when an ambulance racing down York Road had veered to avoid hitting a turtlebacked old dearie who was caning her way across the street in full oblivion—deaf, it turned out. The ambulance jumped the curb, taking out a wooden bench, a parking meter, two newspaper boxes (The City Paper and The Towson Times) and by far the saddest fact, the backhoe operator’s wife. The couple had three boys, each one exactly a head taller (or shorter) than the next. They were standing with their father, staring holes into their mother’s casket, which was suspended above the grave. I had come across the eldest of the boys earlier in the morning, outside the funeral home. He had one of those thermometer-style tire gauges with him and he was scrabbling around the hearse on his haunches, testing the tire pressures. The boy had insisted on wearing the new jeans his mother had purchased for him. He looked to be around twelve. That’s the age I was when I lost my parents and my unborn baby sister to a charging beer truck at the intersection of Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Not the driver’s fault, by the way. Just a case of really, really bad timing.
The widower summoned me over. I told Ray to hang tight and stepped over to the graveside to be of service.
“I’ve changed my mind,” the man said to me. He indicated his three boys. “They don’t want me to do it after all. Is that okay?”
The number-one laugh line in my profession is It’s your funeral. May I go to my own grave having never uttered it.
“No problem,” I said. “Whatever you want. We’ll take care of it.”
I glanced down at the boys. The twelve-year-old looked like he was ready to kick the next person who spoke to him. I decided not to be that person and stepped over to a nearby mausoleum where Pops and his crew were cooling their heels. Pops has been digging graves in Greenmount Cemetery since before they invented the shovel. I spent some time myself crewing with him in my strapping youth, during my growth spurt. It was the summer I was trying to grow sideburns. Pops had a pair of muttonchops back then that held me in awe; they came right to the edges of his mouth and were black and bushy and thick enough you could hide toothpicks in them. My painstakingly cultivated crop of peach fuzz was dismal by comparison. I’d rub dirt on my cheeks to see if I could get some of it to cling to the silky down. Pops taught me how to chew tobacco that summer, which made up a bit for the nearly inert facial hair. I came out of the summer nearly a foot taller than when I’d entered it, with arms like steel, dirty cheeks, and firing off tobacco juice with machine-gun regularity. Come Labor Day my Aunt Billie put a stop to it. I washed my face, bought a bottle of mouthwash and shaved off my phantom sideburns.
Two of Pops’s crew were playing checkers, kneeling on the grass with a faded checkerboard between them while the third, a fellow we all called Tommy Haircut, was leaning against the mausoleum James Dean style, chewing gum and blowing a gargantuan bubble.
“You’re back on,” I said to Pops. “He’s changed his mind.”
Pops sent a missile of brown juice into the clover. “Good. I didn’t like it.”
I knew that already. Pops had told me ten times that he didn’t like it and I had patiently told him eleven times that he didn’t have to like it, that it was what the customer was requesting.
“It was a bad idea,” Pops said, running his thumb and forefinger along his white walrus mustache.
“It was a fine idea,” I said. “The man just decided against it.”
Pops smirked then turned to his crew. “We’re on. Look alive.”
Tommy Haircut popped his bubble and shoulder-shoved himself off the mausoleum wall. His blond pompadour wobbled on his head. The checker players folded their board. One of the two let out a sigh of relief.
I went back over to the canopy where the dozen folding chairs were set and gave a nod to the widower to let him know that everything was fine. He gave grim acknowledgment. His plan had been to climb up into the cemetery’s John Deere at the conclusion of the service and begin the process of filling in his wife’s grave himself. The thought had come to him the night before, during her wake. He discussed it with his sons, who had all gone along with the idea. Apparently something had changed. I suspected the twelve-year-old.
The service played out and each boy stepped forward to set a rose onto his mother’s casket. White casket with silver handles. Very feminine. The twelve-year-old paused after placing his rose and worked something out of his rear pants pocket. It was a scrunched-up Orioles cap. He glanced at his father—who nodded—set the cap on top of the casket then stepped back over to his brothers, accepting a grim low-five from each of them. The widower gathered them in like a mother hen—or father hen—and that pretty much concluded the affair.
I gave a nod to Tony Marino. Tony had been standing in his full Scottish regalia some thirty feet off, as stock-still as a statue. Despite the unique air conditioning afforded by his kilt, Tony was sweating like a frozen beer mug under his furry headpiece. The widower had made a particular request and Tony—God love him—had stayed up half the night working out a passable arrangement on the bagpipes. Tony carries the gold medal for lovelorn; there’s not a thing he wouldn’t do in the service of a severed romance.
Tony puffed up his chest. He checked the position of his fingers, then commenced to squeeze and wheeze.
That’s a song. It was recorded years ago by a group calling itself Bread. It has nothing to do with the Kipling poem. It’s what the backhoe operator wanted. On bagpipes it was bloody god-awful. Sounded like a herd of little lambies being slaughtered. Tony worked it bravely, his face going as red as a blood-filled tomato.
The backhoe operator collapsed into tears.
Ray Ghost had drifted over to Pops’s crew and was jawing quietly with Tommy Haircut, whose insane pompadour was wobbling on his head like Jell-O in an earthquake. I signaled to Ray and he shuffled over.
“Okay. So what’s this about Libby?”
Libby was fresh from the shower when she pulled open the door. Well, nearly fresh; she was clothed. Her black hair was plastered to her head in wet ringlets and she had a towel draped over one shoulder. Her cheeks were wet. There was a bead of water jiggling on the very tip of her nose and it dropped off when she saw who was standing at the door.
“Oh my God. It’s an undertaker.”
I removed an invisible hat and solemnly placed it over my heart. Libby’s huge grin stretched across her moon-shaped face.
If Libby had aged a dot in the past six years it must have been on the bottom of her feet where I couldn’t see it. I didn’t ask for a look. She was wearing a blue-and-white-striped scoop-neck T-shirt and white slacks. She looked like an awfully sexy gondolier. The last time I’d seen her she had looked like an awfully sexy bride. Her skin was still as Kabuki white as I remembered, offset by dark arching eyebrows, a small mouth and a pair of large and lovely Pacific-blue eyes. Libby hailed from southern California but she was no big fan of the sun, rarely going outside without one of her army of large floppy hats. Libby was slim hipped; a trim girl-like frame. I had always felt she could have used an extra pound or two and she had always said she loved me for thinking so. Standing there in the doorway, we would have hugged, except that Libby had something balanced on her hip.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Libby shifted her weight. “This is my little monkey.”
I leaned forward for a better look. “You’re a cute little monkey,” I said. “You look like the kind of monkey they can teach to talk. Quick, what’s the capital of Alaska?”
The little monkey burrowed her head into Libby’s breasts.
“Her name is Lily,” Libby said.
“She’s cute. She’s got your nose.”
“She’s got no such thing. I’ve got this little ski slope. Don’t you be insulting my child.”
I tapped Lily on her shoulder. “I think your mother is a wee bit sensitive. Don’t you worry. Your proboscis becomes you.”
The child burrowed deeper.
“She’s shy around strangers,” Libby said.
I took a beat. “And they don’t get any stranger than me?”
Libby tossed her head and laughed. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Libby invited me inside. The entranceway floor was checked in large black and white tiles. There was an elaborate wooden piece of furniture right there by the door that you could sit on, store things in, hang things on and check out your own reflection in. About the only thing it didn’t do was make omelets and sing lullabies.
“Whose digs?” I asked, following Libby down the narrow hallway. Lily had crawled up her mother’s shoulder and was peering at me with the dull intensity that children can get away with. It didn’t waver when I made a face at her. We paused at the end of the hallway where a set of stairs spiraled steeply upward.
“You remember my friend Shelly?”
“Crazy Shelly? The one who reads all those murder mysteries?”
“That’s the one. This is her place.”
“Are there any dead bodies in the basement?”
“She reads the books, Hitch, she doesn’t reenact them.”
I cupped my hands to my mouth and called up the stairs, “Mrs. Danvers? Is everything okay up there?”
Libby smirked. “Funny.”
I’m glad she thought so.
Libby explained that her friend was away on vacation for several weeks and was letting Libby use the house. The place was pretty nicely done up; that is, if you go in for old stuff. There were several small rugs on the walls, which I’ve always thought was pretty classy. A painting of an ugly woman circa a long long time ago. Antique bric-a-brac collecting contemporary dust. The furniture in the room where Libby led me looked like what you’d expect at Versailles, just perfect for a megalomaniac little Sun King but nothing terribly Hitchcock-friendly. There were two floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end of the room, overlooking the street, bordered by long oyster-white curtains. The September sun was streaming through the windows like God himself had decided to join us.
Libby set her daughter down on the floor and I moved in for the hug. We screwed up the choreography. Our heads nearly clunked as we each bobbed in the same direction. Our arms didn’t quite slink into place.
“Wow,” Libby said. “That stank.”
Once we got into the front room Lily overcame her shyness and decided that it was of the utmost importance that I not only meet her huge collection of inanimate bears and cats and frogs and dogs and tigers, but that I pay close attention to the conversations she was prompting them to have with one another. The little girl spoke in an animated murmur, so I crouched down next to her to hear better. The talk seemed to center on a character named Sydney who I gathered had misbehaved in some fashion and was being ostracized by the rest of the gang. The details were murky. Lily grabbed a giraffe by the neck—not terribly hard to do—and used it to knock over three animals with one swipe. She smiled proudly at her achievement. I stood back up and patted the girl on the head.
Libby winced a smile. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”
I sent an eyebrow running up the pole. “So what gives? Ray Ghost told me he was making a pickup next door and saw you out on the steps. Watering geraniums, I believe.”
“See? My information is so doggone sketchy.”
Libby was rubbing her thin arms, though I didn’t think it was particularly cold in the place. “Let’s go into the kitchen.” She turned to her daughter. “Honey, before you go outside I want you to pick up all these toys. Do you understand me?”
Lily let off a world-class sigh. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not true that little girls learn exasperation way the hell before little boys do? I followed Libby through the dining room into the kitchen. It was a French-style kitchen, with a large ceiling rack on which hung nearly a dozen copper pots and pans that looked like they’d never been used. Libby offered me tea. I don’t really like tea, but I told her tea would be just swell. I was raised to be accommodating. I took a seat at the kitchen table as Libby fetched me a teacup. She stuck a kettle under the spigot and ran some water into it. She put the kettle on the stove and kicked up the flame then leaned up against the counter and tucked her wet hair behind her ears.
“So how have you been, Hitch? Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Me? Let’s see … not much new, really,” I said. “Of course I’m a lot handsomer now, as you can see.”
“I was going to say thinner.”
“We call that ‘trim.’ I work out once a month now.”
“My golf game has improved.”
“Is that so? I didn’t know you played golf.”
“Putt putt. I’ve finally mastered that devilish old windmill.”
Libby roped her arms over her breasts. “I happen to know that if I try really hard I can actually get a serious word out of you. How’s Julia? Is she still in the picture?”
Julia is my ex-wife. One silly year of marriage. Ill-conceived, awkwardly executed, ended by mutual consent. We’re still ungodly close. Julia is the loveliest libidinous creature you’d ever hope to stumble across. Also an acclaimed painter. Also a nut.
“Julia? Oh, she’s fine. Still working the streets, you know.”
“What a lovely thing to say.”
“I’ve been rehearsing that line. How did it sound?”
Libby grabbed a basket from the counter and tossed it onto the table. It was filled with tea bags. The wicker on the handle had begun to unravel. I stirred through the basket and picked out a tea bag with the word “berry” on it. I don’t know my flavored teas, but I’m pretty fond of berries.
“So what’s up?” I asked. “Ray told me he asked you about Mike and you snapped shut like a clam.”
Libby leveled a look at me. “You never liked Mike.”
“That might be. But you can also anagram that sentence and it would be just as true.”
“Don’t I know.”
Mike Gellman was Libby’s husband, though when I first heard his name some six years previous, he had simply been the unlucky fellow from whom Libby had broken off her engagement. It was about a month after Libby pulled the plug that I met her. She was sitting across from me in a booth at Burke’s Restaurant ignoring a plate of French fries with gravy, looking very grave and very pretty. I’m a fiend for French fries with gravy, so I had insinuated myself at her booth and remained there until I finally got a laugh out of her. Eventually I was able to convince her to go out dancing. I keep a list of women who have been able to resist the patented Hitch two-step, and even in my excessive humility I’m proud to say it’s a very short list. One thing led to about a dozen others, and Libby and I ended up spending the next several months together making the world go away, which I strongly recommend trying if you haven’t already done so. I was fresh off my goofball marriage with Julia, and Libby proved a vivacious panacea for that unfortunate episode. It turned out that Mike was still very much on the sidelines, lobbying hard to get Libby to come back to him, and his pull on her was more than even Libby had realized. Several months into our festive bacchanalia Libby abruptly called it to a halt. Despite her jitters, she did want to marry and start a family. I didn’t. I bowed out with considerable grace and at Libby’s request agreed to meet Mike. As far as summits go, ours was not a qualified success. I found Mike Gellman charming and tolerable, but also a little too patronizing. I like a humble man—even if it’s cleverly disguised—and that certainly wasn’t Mike Gellman. But then I didn’t have to live with the guy; I only had to sweat through a couple of drinks and as much phony bonhomie as I could muster.
Libby’s hair was drying out now, thickening before my very eyes. Like one of those flat sponges you drop into water. She shifted uncomfortably, crossing her arms. Her eyebrows collapsed in on each other.
“That was a strange time for all of us. I really behaved very badly with you. You were so kind not to hate me.”
“I like to think so.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you did hate me.” Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe you do hate me.”
“I think we used each other in equal measure. In the end nobody seemed to get seriously hurt.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Hitch. I’ve thought about you a lot the last six years. You showed a lot of style the way you handled all that. I wish I could say the same thing about Mike.”
“Well, Mike and I had our differences, one of them being that I was a good loser and he was a sore winner.”
Libby raked her fingers through her hair. She suddenly seemed uncomfortable.
“Mike has been … We’ve had our ups and downs in the marriage, Hitch. I know that’s to be expected. Nothing’s perfect. It’s all looked pretty good from the outside, but I’m afraid it hasn’t always been the greatest.”
“No one said marriage is a walk in the park.”
“Mike can be a little difficult sometimes.”
“Now, for example?”
“Oh yes. Now is a good example. An excellent one, in fact.” Libby set her hands on the counter as if she was going to perform an impossible gymnastic move. Her mouth drew a grim line. “Mike’s in some sort of hot water down in Annapolis. I don’t know the details, but I can tell it’s bad. He’s been under a lot of pressure lately.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Mike’s an assistant in the D.A.’s office in Annapolis. He’s been a big rising star there. There’s been some talk recently of his maybe running for his boss’s job in the next election. Mike would like nothing better. You wouldn’t believe how ambitious he is. He’s a maniac. The problem is, there’s some sort of internal investigation that has started up. And Mike’s the focus. I overheard him on a call with his uncle last week. He didn’t know I was listening. It was scary. He was talking about possible disbarment. That would kill him, Hitch. He’d be crushed. I don’t even want to imagine. Maybe you remember Mike has a little bit of an ego.”
Nine parts ego and one part water, if I remember correctly. But I didn’t say anything. The kettle began to whimper. Libby turned off the flame and poured water into my cup, then hers. I unwrapped my berry tea bag and commenced to dunking.
“So then why are you in Baltimore, Libby?” I asked. “Does it have to do with this trouble your husband’s in?”
“No. It’s not that.” Libby was going with Earl Grey. She removed him from his packet and lowered him slowly into the boiling water. Not a sound.
“I’m here because the bastard hit me.”
Libby and I went back into the front room. The room looked like the prelude to the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. All of Lily’s stuffed animals had been lined up facing the wall. Only Lily wasn’t paying attention to the dolls. She was paying attention to a chubby little boy who was sitting in the middle of the floor. The boy was dressed in red pants and a blue shirt, like the baby Superman when he came down from Krypton. Lily was covering the boy with kisses. A fiftyish woman was seated on the couch, poking through her purse. She had thick ankles and a jowly face. Libby made the introductions.
“Hitch, this is Valerie. I’m borrowing Valerie from a neighbor of Shelly’s. She’s helping me look after the children. Valerie’s a godsend.”
The godsend looked up from her purse and smiled. She had large teeth and a mole to the left of her right eye. The eye was also a little lazy, but then some days, so am I.
“And this is Toby.”
The force of a hundred kisses was finally too much for the baby Superman. He fell sideways and seemed content to stay there. I tilted my head to look at him.
“You’re supposed to say he’s cute.”
“He’s cute,” I said. “And he’s chubby. Is he yours, too?”
“Yes.” She added, “And he has my nose.”
Valerie was taking the kids out to a nearby park. She loaded Toby into a double stroller. Lily stepped over to the wall of stuffed animals and marched back and forth a few times like a junior field marshal. She finally picked up a tiger by the tail and climbed into the stroller. Valerie leaned into the stroller like Sisyphus into his rock and got it moving. Libby walked with them to the door and I stepped over to one of the large windows. Bolton Hill is one of Baltimore’s handsome old neighborhoods. I believe the Cone sisters lived here for a while. And F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wacky Zelda. Gertrude Gertrude Stein Stein might have set a spell here, too, at least so I’ve been told.
A man across the street wearing several sweaters and shouldering two bulging garbage bags was peeing on a fire hydrant. Nothing handsome about that. Luckily, Valerie and the kids were headed in the opposite direction. I turned around as Libby came back into the room.
“There’s a man out there peeing on a fire hydrant,” I said.
“Good for him,” Libby grumbled.
I came away from the window and went over to the couch and sat down. Libby had moved to the fireplace, where she picked up a porcelain figurine from the mantelpiece and was fussing absently with it. The figurine was of a maid milking a cow. Libby ran her thumb absently over the cow’s nose. Her mood had darkened. Libby set the figurine back on the mantelpiece and glanced in the mirror. Whether she was looking at herself or at me or at the tail end of Alice, I couldn’t say. Finally she turned around.
“Ask,” she said. “I know you want to.”
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2003
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books