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Queen of. Swords: a novel

Chapter XX – The Sun

It was encouraging to see that Mrs. Greenbelt was right about everything. 37 Culpepper Heights was the nicest house with the nicest elevation (maybe a hundred feet?) at the top of the block. Believe me, it was no tower, the way my childhood house used to be. A single storey, a white stucco ranch house at the top of a pathetic miniature hill. Behind it, a spectacular view of dirt plain full of dead trees. If you like dead trees.

In spite of fact that it was now 120º with no shade (I swear that’s what it felt like) there was a woman digging up the front garden. I pulled up my truck and she stopped her work to look up at me. She had dyed, stiff red hair and the kind of plaster makeup that works a lot better in more intimate lighting. On someone digging up a garden, it looks distinctly clownish.

I turned off the truck but continued sitting there indecisively, listening to Pink’s Family Portrait to help me figure out what to do. I felt kind of hampered by the fact that I drove a truck, because surely an insurance professional would have a company car, or a rented Taurus or a Saturn at the very least. Also I was in a bad mood after my “it’s a free country and you’re a jealous bitch” lecture from Ignatz. He tried to be subtler but after all my education I have pretty much mastered subtext. I tried pushing that aside and concentrating on what Charmian would do. Charmian loves lying. She thinks it’s a fun opportunity to get “one over” on the other person, like those strange men who try to snow you in bars. My problem is that I get inside the other person’s head and feel for them. Feel their feelings. Charmian never bothers to do that. She doesn’t want to be anybody else because she sees the rest of us as weaklings. She doesn’t want to stoop to our level.

I can’t even call her Charmian any more since that isn’t who she is. And she doesn’t seem at all like a Pearleen! Bitch, that’s who she is. That’s what she is. Back at school we called them BB’s. “Born Bitches”. The kind of bitch that’s born not made. (All of us stoop – or rise – to bitchery on occasion. I mean, it’s a desperate world.) So what would a BB do, in my position? I can usually psych Charmian out. Her problem – weakness, really, is that she’s too predictable. That refusal to live in anyone else’s head makes her vulnerable. She doesn’t know what I‘m doing right now, for example. Probably doesn’t consider me capable of proving who she really is; what a liar she is. I should write a book about it. Maybe after this is over, I will.

A tapping on the window startled me. It was the gardener lady holding a water bottle. I admit sitting there, without air conditioning, sweat, tears and God knows what running down my face. Listening to The Way of the Fist. By Five Finger Death Punch, if you want to look it up.

“Are you all right?” she inquired anxiously, offering the bottle. The health index is bad today. Would you like to come inside and cool off?”

I exited the truck and took the proffered water bottle. Under the clown makeup and the wig – it was an obvious wig – this woman obviously had some kind of serious health condition. She had no hair – not even eyebrows – and her skin color was ghastly. Maybe it was cancer, like my own mother. Here I was trying to think up a lie she might believe and she had offered me the keys to the castle. I astonished both of us by bursting into tears. She patted my shoulder.

“You come on, now,” she said. “Let’s get you right.”

“I think it’s too hot for anybody to be outside,” I gasped as I drank the water.

“I’m used to it,” said the lady. “I was born in Baja.”

She was wearing one of those glittery satin tracksuits with silver facings that no one actually runs in.
“You must be a member of that Charmian Carr’s family,” she said. “They used to come here crying! Oh, my Lord!” As we passed the rock garden where she’d been at work she said, “For the last time, I’m not digging anything up.”

I was a little surprised. She was digging, so if you’re digging, why say you’re not digging? Her arms were akimbo, and it’s a hostile posture so my mother’s training kicked in. Always apologize for causing the other person’s negative emotions, even if there’s no way it’s your fault.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.

She relaxed a little. Sometimes my mother’s advice works. We had reached the shade of the portico and we looked back at her work.

“So what are you doing?” I inquired.

“I’m putting a fountain into the rock garden,” she said. “Well, WaterPro is doing it. I’m just making a place for it.”

She as panting from the short walk as she opened the door for me. I felt really guilty. So not the way BB’s think. The house was blessedly cool. Cold, really.

“Are you from the family or the county?” she asked.

“I’m not from either,” I said. “What do they want you to dig up?”

My eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness. Every window was draped in six or seven layers of fabric. If you wanted to open a window around here, it would be like undressing a nun.
“I have to sit,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry.” She fell into a chair and threw off her gardening hat, leaving her wig somewhat askew.

And I took this woman’s water bottle! I felt just ghastly! But aware of germs and all that stuff I really couldn’t give it back.

“May I get you something?” I asked. So awkwardly. My mother rose right out of her grave to give me a dope slap.

“Water, please,” she said, pointing. “In the refrigerator.”

I scarpered in the direction of her finger. The house had that indefinable sixties quality. You know, when designers were so in love with Formica and light fixtures that look like Sputnik. Retro. The kitchen had all copper-faced appliances, and the refrigerator was full of labeled Tupperware and prescription pill bottles. Not making me feel any better. I grabbed a water bottle and hurried back. She seemed much better, leaning back in her armchair and looking around her with considerable satisfaction.

“I’m not digging anything up,” she repeated forcefully. “Get a warrant.”

Light dawned. “Oh, I get it,” I said, sitting down on a matching yellow velvet armchair, “They think Charmian Carr’s body is around here someplace.”

“They want me to make a wreck of this place,” she said. “They can’t get a warrant because they don’t have probable cause.” She touched my arm with her cold water bottle. “My husband and I bought the place at sheriff’s sale and all this stuff was still inside.” She nodded forcefully. “It was the deal of the century.” And she drank a mighty drink.

I’m not so sure. The artwork was kind of oppressive. Floor-to-ceiling gilt-framed paintings of God as an angry, white bearded Caucasian dude with falling-off clothes. Sprites, fairies. Demons? Most unsettling. In fact the hair was standing up along my arms. On the other hand, it was freezing in here. I made out engraved words at the foot of the painting closest to me: “The Tigers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction.” It was the only thing left of my stepmother in this middle class attempt at an opium den. She’s a real Wrath Tiger, all right.

But my interlocutor was drawing strength. “It was a second marriage for both my husband and me,” she said, “And our kids didn’t want to part with their family homes. This was the perfect solution.”
It’s a solution all right. “I’m just a friend of a friend of Charmian’s,” I said. “I don’t have anything to do with her family or the county.”

Her eyes glittered at me as she drained her bottle. “They brought a guy in here who wanted to spray for blood.” She snorted. “Who cleans up afterwards, that’s what I wanted to know. I sent him away with a flea in his ear. Could you fetch me that ottoman?”

I brought it to her and helped her get her feet up. She shrank so low in her chair she looked like a pile of bones already.

“So how come you let me in?”

“I’m a Christian person, or so I hope,” she said. “You were crying.” I wanted to deny it. There’s something very shaming about getting what you want through tears. No BB would be caught dead weeping all over her perfect makeup. Or would she?

“If there was a body anywhere,” she went on, “Wouldn’t it smell?” “You couldn’t live on top of a decaying corpse and not find out about it. And if she’s buried deep, why disturb her?” She shrugged. “Bodies are unimportant. It’s our spirits that matter. Everybody dies.”

That is what you’d think if you had some terrifying health condition. I thought about all the horror movies I’d sat through where it turns out the house is built on an ancient burial ground. Or haunted by some spectre who wants a grave in sacred ground.

“No ghosts?” I inquired.

She laughed out loud. “I told you I’m a Christian,” she chastised me. “There are no such things as ghosts!”

Aren’t there? I wasn’t convinced. I felt something. But what was it? Impossible to be sure in a place frozen like a meat locker.

“The blood guy left a business card,” she said. “If you want it.”

I did. She retrieved it from beneath the phone. The card was yellowed and dog-eared. I wondered if he was a fake like me. Babbish, with a number in New Mexico. I thanked her and left. I never even found out her name.

Back at the motel I got weepy. I hate motel rooms; they make me feel like I’m in a gerbil cage. I don’t know how anybody can sleep on sheets that smell like disinfectant. You get to wondering what they’re disinfecting from. I imagined the guy who wanted to spray Charmian Carr’s house for blood standing in my room carrying a hose canister and wearing plastic goggles. This room would probably light up like a galaxy. People have probably been murdered sand dismembered in here. That lucky lady might not believe in ghosts, but what kind of person has never been haunted?

Tennessee Williams’ definition of happiness is: “insensitivity.” I feel my father – the way he used to be – pulling at my sleeve all day long. And now maybe I had Charmian Carr – the real one – begging along my other side.

The horrible part was, my father wasn’t begging for justice. He was begging me to leave him alone, to let Charmian be the Queen he’d elevated her to. To back up his denial and not make him “look bad”. My sisters were willing to give him that. I wasn’t.

He was never angrier than when I accused him of being a hypocrite. He knew he was one, and he was angry with me for challenging him, even though he raised me to challenge him. He had a picture of himself he wanted to leave to the world. He was the man who conquered everything with reason; and I was the one who could prove that wasn’t so. He attacked all my rationalizations but wanted me to support his. The only way he was superior was in the depth of his denial.

He sent me to a religious school and sneered at everything they taught me. Am I a Christian? Hardly. My sisters think I want revenge, Ignatz thinks I want money and of course, I do want those things. But it’s more complicated than that.

One of Dad’s rationalizations was about Mom’s money. I know he felt bad about needing it. He always tried to pretend her investments were all the wrong ones, that they’d gone horribly downhill and required his intelligence to make us truly rich. It might have been true, if I hadn’t known that my mother was one of those old-fashioned women who earnestly believed that you have to pretend to be “less than” so the man can feel bigger.

So she’s the fourth ghost hanging off of me. Bugging me. Telling me to leave it alone and not expose my father. Should I just leave the dead to stew in their unresolved lies and hypocrisies and fakery? Leave Charmian the demon to live large in her big house on the lake, flourishing like the green bay tree in the Bible, an emblem of successful evil to all who see her?

No. Because there are some things I do believe in. I know when I uproot that green tree up, something disgusting will crawl out.

My father’s position on “justice” was that, since it’s subjective, and anyway we never get it right, it can’t exist. It must remain, like romantic love, an idea. To keep the peasants honest. An unachievable ideal.

I dried my tears and called Mr. Babbish in New Mexico. Justice is bigger than our ideas. It’s bigger than time, it’s bigger than history; it’s larger than anybody’s flesh-bound ego. Maybe Ignatz was right and I should go to law school. There is an objective reality: I insist. The truth is real. Just the Fact’s ma’am, no exciting falsehoods need apply. What really happened will always be superior to anybody’s fake. And I can find the truth. Murder’s probably addictive, like anything else that gets rewards! No guarantee Charmian-Pearleen won’t go shopping for that buzz again. I listened to the ringing phone and prepared my speech. My father always said you can accomplish anything if you just put every iota of your will, your intelligence, your education and your resolve into it.

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