Depraved Heart: a crime novel

Chapter Three — Morphology

“But my mother is dead.”
I saw my sixteen-year dead mother, sitting on the witness stand a semi-mummified decomposing horror; raising a macerated arm to take the oath. There’s a trendy zombie flick! The dead testify! Wouldn’t people be scared? I tried making a joke.

“Are they going to dig her up?”

“They’ve already dug her up,” said Mina, her face a mask of woe.

I was speechless. Seriously icky. I was glad I was sitting down. To quell light-headedness I sipped bad coffee reflexively, like a mad pigeon pecking.

“How can they? Is that legal?” I envisioned a masked gang shouldering spades and picks, climbing over fortressed walls in a Halloween prank.

“Your father had no rights over the body. Her family agreed. They got a court order.”

Mina snapped the rubber band twisted tightly around her wrist. She wears several, all of different colors, as if they were bracelets. Mnemonic devices? To remind her time is running out? I she a sick self-torturer high on abnegation, or a proactive corrector of potentially vile habits? Lying to people about disinterring family corpses would be a habit to get rid of.

“It gets worse.” Mina glanced nervously up the stairs. “Maybe Shelley should be here for this. Maybe you could prepare her. I don’t know what to do for the best.”

She whimpered as she snapped the rubber band. I felt a little sorry for her. Some people are sneaky like that. You’re the one the piano lands on and you end up apologizing to the guy who had the traumatic job of dropping it. People typically compete for the right to impart bad news, but she seemed honestly distraught.

“Jake can take care of Shelley,” I said and instantly regretted it, but Mina Pyloti did not seem to pick up on the reference. Not an auditory learner. It would probably take a gesticulating lecturer, three textbooks and a slideshow to convince her they were anything other than tender brother and compliant sister.

“The medical examiner – the same one who ruled Colleen’s death a homicide – evaluated your mother too. She’s already ruled it a homicide.”

Crazy. I stood up so fast I barked my thighs against the table. I didn’t feel it at the time, but like so many experiences, it was bound to hurt later. I saw that medical examiner at one of the pre-trial hearings. You could tell she was one of those Dudley Do-Rights who spends the rest of her life virtuously getting even with all those kids who dumped her at prom.

“Of course she’s on their side,” I said. I heard myself sounding like Jake. “She’ll say anything they tell her to, just to reinforce their case. My mom was buried in California. I don’t see how they can get away with it. And I don’t see how it even matters. She died of a brain aneurysm.”

Miss Pyloti waggled her head from side to side mulishly. “I’m so sorry, Brontë.”

I persisted, “I don’t see how you can kill someone with a brain aneurysm. Like how – magic rays?”
“The aneurysm was subsequent to her striking her head.”

New voice. But I knew who it was. It was that sonorous, rolling burr we’d hired to snow the jury and get Oz off.

Craig Axelrod was already dressed for court in a dark suit and a power tie. The jowls Jake said would slap him into unconsciousness in any high wind were freshly burnished and folded back, and his comb-over was lacquered into place. There’s no substitute for advance planning; he must have paid a pre-dawn visit to the barber. You snooze, you lose. He wouldn’t be shy about paying extra for the shop to open especially for him, I thought sourly – and sticking us with the tab.
Craig says appearance is important or, the way things look is 99 percent of the way things are. “What you see is what you get.” Apparently his severe case of carb-face doesn’t keep him from thinking he’s a babe magnet, and there are usually enough female idiots in any given location to confirm his opinion.

Rooms brightened when he came into them, like he was reordering the energy waves. He’s a force of nature, like a puma, or an avalanche. What we liked about him was that he seemed so unflappably in a good mood, bursting with addictive, infectious self-confidence even in the midst of bad news. Mina rushed to get him a cup of coffee.

“That’s the breaks, darlin”, he said to me and to Mina, “Thanks but I breakfasted out.” While he seated himself at the table, the voice of Trevor inside me said, we’ll be getting the bill for that too. Eggs Benedict — named after a famous turncoat — was his favorite. Should we worry? I worried more because it never occurred to him to bring anything back.
I sat down again. Slowly.

“The medical examiner ruled my mother’s death a homicide? How is that possible? Did they even have the right body?”

“Alas, it’s too, too unfortunately true,” he said in his Clarence Darrow fake brogue. His accents are all over the map. Since he views Virginia as “The Deep South” (it’s not) he’s been trying to work some corn-pone into his act but it only makes him sound more Irish.

“Don’t worry – no decent judge would allow this into the record. We’re debating it today outside the presence of the jury. It’s outrageously prejudicial. If that hayseed does allow it, it’s a clear reversible error. We’d win on appeal.”

“Are they trying to say Oz killed my mother?”

He flapped both tie and jowls at me.

“That’s what they’re trying to say.”

I tried to imagine Oz as Aneurysm Man, the fiendish arch villain who broke into people’s brains at will! Too stupid.

Craig looked at his watch.

“We should have a family meeting. It’s getting late — maybe we should assemble at court, in the conference room.”

But Oz would be there. Would he comfort us or make it worse? He’d been unreliable lately. Suitably beaten-down in open court, in conference he was almost gleeful, as if this final calamity proved all his lifelong theories. It was almost as if he was enjoying this. I couldn’t bear it if he, too, boogied on my mother’s grave.

“I’m not sure the girls should go to court to hear all this,” Mina protested, with mouselike courage. “It’s so disgusting. If the judge doesn’t allow it, what’s the point?”

“I want to go,” I said, and Craig said,

“She should go” at exactly the same moment.

“Of course you will argue brilliantly,” Mina placated, as if suddenly recalling that she had a job and an employer. “But when the prosecution makes their case – it could get pretty gruesome. And without the presence of the jury…”

Craig regarded Mina coldly, as if she was a painful idiot. Who would willingly eschew his magnificent oratory?

“The press will be there,” he emphasized, “and the defendant will be there. The kids must support him. Otherwise the prosecution scores – because if it looks like you kids might possibly believe this, or are even thinking the allegations over, they win. We can’t allow that. You have to make up your minds right away that you believe in him no matter what you hear.”

I’ve heard speeches like this before. This is why I was not into sports. I professionally despise the “no matter what” factor. Keeping an open mind means you can never join the team.

On the other hand, how could Oz have killed my mother? If he was here I would ask him — without Craig around. Oz lies when he thinks he needs to – he quotes some Latin phrase that basically means a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – but I’m usually a pretty good judge of when he’s telling the truth and when he’s blowing smoke out his ass. He should be here in this house with us, except that unfortunately when the police arrested him he was making plans to fly to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. He always goes; it’s one of his things. Oz welcomes “vision quests” because whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and besides, it comes right after Hurricane Day, so it’s his birthday present to himself. Legal beagles called it “evidence of flight”. Jealousy rules, as always. Bail denied. No Oz.

Oz would never have killed my mother. That’s just crazy. If you’re going to start suspecting people of things like that, then anybody is capable of anything and you can never trust anybody.
“Oz says it’s a cruel coincidence,” said Craig smoothly. “People fall. People die.”
I boiled over.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know about this before,” I vented. You’d think the people paying the bills would get some consideration, be at least equal to the client, but that’s not how the legal system works. Craig represents Oz. The rest of us are on a “need-to-know“ basis.

“There’s always finagling behind the scenes,” said Craig. “They finagle, we finagle. They don’t let in prior convictions usually yet here we are with an uncharged, alleged bad act. Who’d believe a judge would give this the time of day? They’re just digging up dirt and throwing mud. Doesn’t mean a word of it is true, honey.”

He gave me that itching look old women give to children whose cheeks they long to knead. Fortunately he thought better of it.

To Mina, whom he could correct until the dogs came home, he said, “Think what the press would say if it looked like the family was bailing on him. Especially the girls. They don’t have a choice. I’m fighting for a man’s life here.”

That’s because the benighted state of Virginia still “vigorously prosecutes” the death penalty. It’s like the state sport. Oz says they completely missed the Enlightenment and are still mired in the Dark Ages.

“Well, then that’s all there is to it,” agreed Mina. I guess one of the things you get with a Yale Law degree (Craig’s is from Pepperdine) is knowing which side of your bread has the butter. Duh.
“I hate it when people talk about the press as if it thinks,” said Trevor, stepping off the stairs. “It can’t think. It’s the original headless monster.”

I gave him a hug. Thank God for Trevor. He’s over six feet – taller than Jake – so I usually end up scraping my eyebrow with his tiepin unless I’m wearing my platforms, but he always hugs me back. Infusing me with his strength. He felt so bony. He was depriving himself again. Trevor is a “self-punisher.”

He is especially hostile to “wallowing”, by which he means any “indulgence. He overcomes this hostility for protracted family meals, but having no cook has created a culinary vacuum. Poor Trevor was being pushed further and further into asceticism camp.

Fayette likes to see him suffer so quite possibly he hadn’t eaten for days. You might be wondering why he favors me, since artists are by wallowers by definition. I love wallowing. Sometimes after a good wallow I flatline, like a yogi. Trevor says if it wasn’t for the drool coming out of my mouth he’d think I was dead. But I’m just dreaming. Arranging and re-arranging my house of cards. Trevor says I’m still salvageable.

Just then I had a radical thought: maybe Trevor, the strongest of us, is the one this whole thing has been hardest on. Think about it, wouldn’t it always be the guy at the top, because he has to act like he doesn’t need help? In any contretemps Trevor sustains the biggest wound, but his wounds are all invisible. Since he won’t countenance “emotional displays” he keeps it all bottled up inside.

The blue shadows around his eyes had deepened. Had he even taken off his Brooks Brothers suit since the day before? Sometimes I found him stretched out sleeping on Skylar’s sheetless canopy bed like a corpse at a viewing. Fayette thought nothing of kicking him out of his own room. That suit was fossilized for lack of cleaning. I know there is a laundry room somewhere in this house, but it is a point of pride with me that I have never actually been there. Ironing is the opium of the masses.
“They’re just trying to turn this into a horse-race,” said Mina as she handed Trevor Craig’s rejected coffee.

Trevor’s most elegant feature are his perfectly arched eyebrows, and he can raise them independently, playing off his uneven, almost goofy face with a series of quizzically humorous expressions cued to insiders. In this case I knew he meant that Mina, as second banana, is not a person one needs bother listening to. Not when you have access to the top. Oz taught him that.
“Trevor, they’re digging up my mother,” I said pathetically. Trevor’s my best defender so it’s only right I should appeal to him. Above and beyond the traditional big-brother role of anti-bully playground protection, he has saved my life two whole times.

He called the ambulance that time Oz and Colleen thought I must be faking but peritonitis was setting in, and his was the first face I saw when I came out of the anesthetic. He had brought my favorite cherry vanilla ice cream bars and TeenBeat magazine. The news vendors probably thought he was gay.

Then there was the summer I panicked under the floating dock and couldn’t find air, and he pulled me out and gave me the Kiss of Life. He never even let me thank him. He says worrying about me is what taught him to be brave.

He put a brotherly arm around my shoulder.

“It’s all finished,” he said. “Nothing we can do now. You have to remember her spirit isn’t in there. It’s just clay they’re probing. They pretend they’re proving something, but they can’t prove anything. I’m not coming to court today, so you have to be brave without me. Do me proud. I know you can.”
I gasped in horror. “Why not?” This was too much to bear. “Then I’m not going.”

“I have to take Fayette to the airport.” He put a hand to his forehead to disguise or massage his pumping temples. “Do it for me, Cherry Vanilla.”

That’s my pet name not just because of the ice cream but on account of my hair color.
I was still stunned. On the other hand, proof of God’s existence seemed assured. If we were finally getting rid of Fayette — even temporarily — well, anything was worth that.

“She’s coming right back, yes?” I suggested warily. Of course she would as soon as she checks out the poor pickings in Ozarkia. Or wherever she is from.

“Hardly,” said Trevor. “Not until she can afford her own ticket. By the time that happens, let’s hope she’s found a new horse to ride.”

Let’s hope. Ever since Fayette heard that Oz put Trevor in charge of the insurance money she’s been stomping around with her tight little face closed like a fist. She can’t believe he won’t spend any of that money on her. In Arkahoma six hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. She probably thought it would last forever; Trevor says what with the lawyers it will barely get us through Christmas and then we’ll have to start borrowing again.

Fayette isn’t Trevor’s fault. He’s some sort of bitch magnet. His loyalty means he can’t get rid of people. You wouldn’t believe the parade of mega-harpies he’s had prancing through this house and Fayette, fresh from the Uncongeniality Award at Miss Prick’s Finishing School is far and away the worst of the lot.

She’s a real Cottonmouth Queen. She pronounces her name “Fate” if you can stand it (Can’t.) With me she ‘s like that demon confronting Jesus in the Bible — she knows I recognize her for what she is, so she’s given up oozing her fly-poisoning syrup on me.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” I spat, but then I was sorry because I saw the pain on Trevor’s face. I should have remembered he feels responsible for all the terrible things other people do. I know that’s a waste of time, myself.

“You can have a one day pass,” said Craig. “It’s politic to clear the decks at this juncture.”

I knew he worried about Fayette going off in front of the cameras because Trevor wouldn’t put a ring on it.

“It’s the daughters taking center stage now. Hurry back, ya hear?”

My turn to shudder. Poor Craig thinks all Southern accents are the same. We can tell what county a person comes from by the way they say “paugh.” (Pronounced “pew.” Listen and learn.)

Trevor opened the refrigerator and peered inside, exactly as if he thought he might find something.
“Can I bring anybody anything?” he asked. “I know we could use a Christmas tree.”

“Yeah. Groceries,” I suggested, warming to the notion that a day without Trevor, hard as that might be, could offer untold benefits. Such as dessert. “How about eggnog?”

We’ll all need a nice buzz just to get through the obligatory Christmastide. Don’t think Trevor’s weird for wanting to celebrate Christmas when his father’s on trial for murder, but he’s wholeheartedly behind the symbolism of the holidays. He’s the only actual Christian I know, and he says Advent is the most important part.

“Done and done,” Trevor said, extracting half a brown apple from the crisper and beginning to gnaw on it.

“I take mine with bourbon,” threatened Craig. “I know some people use rum, or God forbid, brandy.”

I didn’t tell him we were among the God forbid people. Tom and Jerry was Oz’s specialty drink.
“Nutmeg,” I said. “And real coffee beans. And a bucket of KFC original recipe.”
Trevor gave me a stifling look.

“You go get dressed,” he said.

I knew I overreached with junk food. Still, if he has to disappoint me on something it only means I get more stuff.

“There’s even a list,” I said, pulling down the magnetized pages where people had been entering their wishes all week. Steak, boneless breast of chicken, salad, fruit, soy milk, waffle mix, ice cream bars, rosemary and olive oil French fries, blackened shrimp, baked Alaska. Somebody wrote “Acquittal”.

Har-de-har. Never lose your sense of humor, says Oz. Probably wrote that himself. All I want for Christmas is a free pass.

“I told you to get dressed,” said Trevor, putting on his scary gratification-delaying-grownup face. I scuttled up the stairs. Time for Music Wars. One benefit to living on the other side of the house. We like our music loud, and nobody likes the same kind, so there’s an ongoing competition to drown each other out. We could listen quietly on I-pods but where’s the fun in that?
Trevor likes New Wave unless he’s depressed, in which case he listens to Haydn’s Creation until somebody deletes it, Jake is all about Eurotrash and the Scissor Sisters; Shelley likes Big Boy and Bad Girl bands, Skylar – when she lived at home — followed American Idol. I’m a Southern classicist myself. You know, Sevendust, Killers, Three Doors Down. To me, Lynyrd Skynyrd is classical music. “Freebird” is my Haydn.

But no Engorgio-versus-The Pussycats this morning, nothing worth the energy of hating. I almost collided with Shelley bouncing down the stairs. She looked much better since having her horns clipped. She’s been depressed ever since she read her Facebook page. It’s like we’re the ones on trial. Let’s say for the purposes of devilish advocacy that Oz is guilty – then aren’t we victims too? If he’s not, we’re super victims. So what’s up, haters? I tried being happy for her that she’d had a wonderful night. Would have been mean to tell her that Jake took my temperature first.

“Mor-ning,” she sang out. I pitied her the disappointment lying in wait. She doesn’t care about no breakfast — Shelley’s an air plant — but the mother stuff would hit her hard.

Shelley just missed being beautiful but I keep my opinion to myself. Some men prefer open-mouthed overbite and a dazed expression, so for those who like that sort of thing she’s the sort of thing they like. I know better than to say so around Jake, who would just make cat noises. Never having anything to say makes her doubly desirable to the Intellectually Unwashed, but that’s because she stuttered so much as a kid Oz used her for target practice. Colleen had to hire a vocal coach. Shelley still does those exercises, but she relies on her silver-shadowed eyes to do most of the talking.

It works. Both sexes react to her like she’s some kind of supermodel, and I have to admit she looks gorgeous on TV. No one but loyal Trevor would say I am pretty, but it’s not a competition. I like my own looks better. I like being the Real Me, unaffected by fashion.

We don’t really look like sisters, although I suppose we look more like sisters than Trevor and Jake look like brothers. She’s tall, I’m short, she has a nice nose (Oz calls my snub “retroussé”) and her hair is a strawberry blonde compared to my fire-engine red. Somehow she gets it almost straight but I don’t have the patience for hair care products or any process taking more than five minutes, which is why I never can suffer a mani-pedi. I washed my hair with Yardley’s Lavender until Colleen made me stop. (I hoped it would turn purple.)

After years of expensive orthodontics Shelley’s overbite still “catches flies,” (Oz), but she has a beautiful smile and she smiled when she saw me.

This morning she wore a short black skirt that made the most of her long legs and a checked hound’s-tooth jacket emphasizing her tiny waist.

I didn’t want to be the one to ruin her mood — it would be like watching a puppy get spanked — so I grunted and shot upstairs. OK, I’m an emotional coward. I admit it. This is what comes of being the baby. I’m the only one with no one to look after, and since Trevor looks after me I don’t even need to do that.

At the top of the stairs I sharp-right-turned toward the grownup part of the house. Couldn’t wear my funeral suit three days running. Craig says dress for court like it’s a job interview, but who would want this kind of job? I have an ongoing problem because public school didn’t require skirts so I don’t have more than two. I accept clothing as an art form, but share Thoreau’s distrust of compulsive social drag. Luckily Colleen and I are the same size. Oz called us “the pocket Venuses.”

Jake was fixing his tie in the hallway mirror, smiling at his reflection as if snowing a credulous stranger. He wasn’t in the least embarrassed to be caught fluffing his hair but gave me the confident invitational glance of someone who knows just how fabulous he looks. Turndown forgotten or forgiven? He wore an Armani camel-colored suit and a fat aubergine tie and as I tried to pass he captured me easily me in his big strong arms.

“That what you’re wearing?” he asked, eying my flannel pajamas as if my showing up in court garbed like a homeless person wouldn’t surprise him in the least.
“You were worked up about it enough last night,” I said.

As if peed on by a captured frog he let me go, snorting in a way that confirmed my notion he’d only been a man with an unpleasant job to do.

“Time and a place for everything,” he said airily, folding the tail of his tie toward his manhood.
“I’m going to borrow something of Colleen’s,” I returned, spinning away. I had already lost his attention.

“No patterns, mind,” was his parting comment. “You can’t wear them when you’re patterned yourself.”

“I like my freckles,” I defended. “By the way, that tie turns your face green. It positively pullulates.” Another word he wouldn’t understand.

He tries to pretend it doesn’t get to him, that I must be making these words up. But you know and I know. Never get into a pissing match with a writer. A writer always wins.
“I bet Hermann’s would lend us clothes. They do it with the news anchors.” Said Jake, talking to himself as if I weren’t there. “Trevor should ask. ”

I flounced away, disgusted. Hermann’s is the most boring retailer on the face of the planet. Why is it people want to look alike? Surely the point of clothing is to become memorable — at least to others if not oneself.

“And take those wine charms out of your ears,” shouted Jake.

But I like wearing Colleen’s wine charms in my ears; lucky little power amulets of animals, gambling, money. Maybe she wouldn’t be dead if she had been wearing them. The point of wine charms is that each one is different so any assemblage makes a “found poem.” Today’s poem: panther, a spade, a cash register, topaz chunk. You write it. Spade meaning the card symbol, not a gravedigger’s shovel, but I go for all the “double entendre” I can get. It’s like a musician hitting two keys at once. Why not?

Maybe I would keep these four (I only wished I had more holes in my ears); they protected me well enough last night. Surely Jake knew Skylar took her mother’s good jewelry. It was only fair. Colleen was grooming her to be another Colleen.

Trevor hated that Skylar left — it caused such a break in our united front but Skylar had a father living. Unlike some of us. I envied Skylar’s relationship with her mother. I would never be able to eavesdrop on it again. Maybe that was a good thing, since so many hushed conversations turned on how lucky Skylar was not to be Shelley or me.

I admit I trembled on the threshold of Colleen’s bedroom, brave as I tried to seem to Jake. It was the first time I’d been in since…then. Across from the doorway stood Colleen’s cheval glass so I could see the ghost of myself waiting to embrace me once I stepped inside.

The ghost of Brontë White-Hawke. I’ve done my best to grow into my wonderful name. One of the coolest things about Oz was when he and Colleen got married he changed his name too; he changed all our names, giving all of us that special option of rebirth.

He was disgusted with his own family, wanting nothing from them but their money. The Scary General was dead in any case, even after breaking all those young men and using up a regiment of women that vampire couldn’t stay alive. The only thing Trevor cherished from the Whites was their family motto, which he translates as “Suspecting sin is the only sin”.

After kicking around the “bungholes of the earth” Oz found himself ready for a new identity. Though he insulted his own family he never let others do it. Colleen thought she was diving in to the deep end of the gene pool.

Skylar kept her own name so her father wouldn’t be “hurt”. Admittedly Skylar Hawke is a cool enough name. You could say we ended up with that guy’s name, whoever he was. Oz said his bloodline was “nothing special.”

Identities should be self-chosen. I think we should each be allowed several; Oz and Whitman aren’t the only ones containing “multitudes.” Shelley and I kept our dead father’s name of “Barringer” as a middle name, but no one wanted “Shortall”, my mother’s maiden name. It is NOT a pretty name and extra undesirable if you happen to be short.

So I reached out to the ghost of myself and she reached out too and I stepped into the room.
Oz and Colleen had separate rooms, so the police should have left this room alone, but they storm-trooped everywhere until Mina and Craig moved into the guest rooms. The very walls still breathed of her. So powerfully. You could even say she was gone everywhere but here. The fine layer of dust powdering our lives ever since Merced left to be a witness for the prosecution could not take away her scent. If I closed my eyes I could kid myself that Colleen stood before me. Don’t close your eyes. Writers have to keep them open. So I looked and looked.

The frieze of wild irises hand-applied beneath the cornices was Colleen’s favorite flower, the purple of the velvet bedspread her favorite color. The mother-of-pearl inlaid Chinese desk she used as a dressing table still bore a scattered mess of beads from Skylar’s frenzy. The pink satin slipper chair hid the misshapen slippers that touched Colleen’s feet first thing every morning. She was the earliest riser, rushing downstairs to curry the fruit, to start the coffee and fire up the antique spinning waffle maker.

The chintzes, the satins, the failles shivered in their recollection. They missed her. Who would love them again? Colleen relished pageantry, history, opulence, display. Wouldn’t this room and not that spattered swimming pool be Colleen’s true grave? This is where I saw her for the last time on earth as I modeled my graduation party dress. Even then the clock was ticking down.

Oz used the night nursery for dressing room; Colleen’s huge walk in closet was hers alone. When I walked in I almost backed right out. Here she was. No wonder the Egyptians made a fetish out of surrounding the dead with their belongings. For the first time it occurred to me it wasn’t for the corpse’s benefit. Were the desperate survivors trying to be free?

I had been in this closet so many times before, borrowing the staples only Colleen had; strapless bras, black sweaters, garter belts. She had it all; red satin evening gloves, real looking orchids with pins attached, diamanté buckles, shoe-clips, lace, sequins, scent, and she was royally generous. Colleen was better prepared than a boy scout. She carried wet wipes and a sewing kit even while jogging. Colleen owned a gift closet, a flower sink, a guest bath, a wine cellar, a root cellar, a greenhouse and a potting shed. If Colleen foresaw everything; how could she be gone?

Maybe it was a nightmare after all. For the first time I understood how grief can break apart the mind, making nonsense of the orderly progression of time. Not to mention the guilt. If those who tumble into death untimely with everything left undone are jealous of the living, wouldn’t she hate me? Wouldn’t she emerge from behind the rustling plastic to punish me by smothering me in her soft bosomy scent of rain-washed gardenias?

Well-trained schoolgirl that I was, I tried to concentrate on choosing clothes. Her dresses, arranged by color, shimmered like an artist’s palette. Here was the velvet skirt with the patch pockets she wore last Christmas, here the pink silk suit she wore to my graduation and the yellow coat-dress worn to Skylar’s. Here was the black chiffon Oscar de La Renta dress with the tight waist and the puffy skirt she called her “drop dead gorgeous” dress — always worn when she needed to be heart-stoppingly beautiful. No point looking for the ivory dress with the cascading ruffles she married Oz in. They buried her in it.

It would have made a better story had she died here, choked to death by the sheer volume of stuff; pelted by the towering piles of shoeboxes and hatboxes and luggage, dress bags, suit bags, sweater bags. No wonder poor Skylar took only the jewelry in its manageable interlocking nest of morocco boxes.

This was Colleen’s most private area; her body was more public than this. This was the staging area where she armored herself to live for others, for the two-hundred-hour weeks filled with cooking, raking, painting, running a business.

I may not remember my own mother, but I easily recall the first time I saw Colleen, even if I was only three. When she put her face down close to mine the flesh crumpled, puckered inward like a sea anemone. I could feel how she felt for me. That transfer of emotion is the only release we ever get from our own prisons.

She put her arms around me, lifted me up and rocked me saying, “You’re just the same age as my own daughter. You two are going to have so much fun together.”

It wasn’t true, the ten months between me and Skylar were an uncrossable ocean in childhood, and now we are two very different people, but it was so sweet of her to offer me a playmate. I loved breathing the gardeny smell of her densely packed bosom.

Trevor did his best to keep us all together but Colleen was the one who was a natural at the job. WWCW? That should be my mantra. What would Colleen wear? Colleen spoke the language of flowers. She would have said it was time to vary the funeral garb, to lighten it up a careful notch to Victorian dove-grey or ashes of lavender.

From face-shaped pancakes on a birthday morning to pearls on the pillow the night of the big dance, Colleen thought of everything. Fearlessly she roped in specialists — corsetieres, dermatologists, podiatrists, hairdressers, personal shopping assistants, anything to ease traumatic social passages. Nothing was ever too much trouble or too expensive. She didn’t even need to be thanked: if your face lit up with joy, then hers lit up too.

This crypt was far too redolent of her; I willed Colleen to go into the light. She refused, so I resolved to flush her out by allowing her to choose what I would wear.

Like a blindfolded child at a birthday party I invited her to guide my hand, confident the touch was gentle. The dresses they moved and stirred and whispered like a forest of trees in a high wind.
For once memory was getting me nowhere, memory was bogging me down. My eyes filled with ridiculous tears. I, who hadn’t cried even at the funeral, who considered weeping as physically debilitating as vomiting, threatened to lose it.

“Brontë?” Trevor, of course. “Are you in here?”

I threw myself into his arms and sobbed and he just held me, massaging my back without saying anything. Trevor has that sixth sense for whenever I’m in trouble. It must be a signal I send out that only he can hear. Sometimes when I was growing up I would find him sleeping on the floor outside my door, as if to protect from bumps in the night. He was my dreamcatcher, keeping all the nightmares out.

Colleen vanished. She must have known I didn’t need her while he looked after me. Funny-strange conundrum; that this man who wasn’t Colleen’s son was so much like her. I understand about Nurture and Nature. Trevor’s real mother worked her children out of her life at the same time she worked America out of her accent; “esterofilia”, is Oz’s diagnosis. Self-hatred to us plebs. Thinking anything “not you” inherently superior. Skylar still needed her mother. So it was Trevor, keeping us together, who became Colleen’s true emotional heir.

“There’s too much to choose,” I wailed. “Too many memories.” Safe to be pathetic around Trevor. Oz would insult you if you fell apart around him, but Trevor could be relied on to soothe and cope.
“We’ll get something,” said Trevor. He detached one of his arms firmly but gently from my grip and began sorting through the hangers.

“Has to be black,” he said. “ Luckily you look good in black because of your hair.”
I tried telling him Colleen suggested colors. Fortunately I figured out how it would sound.
Soon my pajamas were on the floor and I was being dressed in a velvet flocked black suit I recognized as Dior.

“Shouldn’t we save this for Skylar?” I protested feebly. I mean, it’s valuable, even if she can’t wear it.

Distracted Trevor, coping with buttons, didn’t insist I wear a bra. Unless the bra comes fully loaded, I don’t need one, as I’ve been trying to tell him for the past five years.

He said, “Skylar can’t have everything. You’re not helping her by encouraging her to be a pig. Besides, you’re only borrowing.”

I looked good. Even thin, thin Shelley, almost as tall as Trevor, can’t wear Colleen’s clothes. Though I think of Colleen as perfect and myself as an overturned flowerpot, we must be more alike than I give myself credit for. Of course, there’s always something missing. That signature touch.

“Let me choose a scarf,” I wheedled. No appetite for appearing at the murder trial as a redheaded Colleen. Too disgusting. What would poor Skylar think? I had to distinguish myself.

“Pick it out fast,” said Trevor. “They’re all waiting in the limo.”

The perfect scarf was four feet long, fringed and printed with black and red roses. A mantilla, really, a tool for transforming the trial into Byron’s Don Juan. Don’t forget to pronounce it “Jew-an” as Byron and Oz and I would say it. Otherwise it doesn’t scan.

“Come out in the light where I can see you,” called Trevor. So I entered the light, even if Colleen would not. Trevor held two of Colleen’s hairbrushes.

“For God’s sake,” he said, seeing the scarf, “You didn’t say you were going as a bullfighter.” I was glad he didn’t snatch it away. I’ve trained him like he’s trained me. Instead he passive-aggressively punished my head with hard rough licks, like a mother cat.

“I need makeup,” I insisted. “It’s television.”

No one alive can imagine the hell of having red eyelashes except us poor redheads. I grabbed an eye pencil off Colleen’s tray. And her Enfer Rouge lipstick, complete with dent. A lip-print. Colleen’s last.

“ I like you better without makeup.”

Poor Trevor! Hadn’t learned a thing standing outside a thousand ladies’ rooms waiting for Fayette. Born stubborn, I guess, like some kind of romantic Rousseau. He thinks women shouldn’t “add on”, but “peel away”, making his choices easier. Aw. I’ll protect his illusions as long as he protects mine.
“This is the real me. And I need my own shoes. Back in my room.”

No one could wear Colleen’s tiny shoes. Hand-made in Italy and sent by mail. Worthy of the miniaturized feet of a Chinese empress.

“Well, hurry.”

Shoe-choice is easy: has to be platforms. Otherwise I’m condemned to Lollipop Land. I knew where they were, where they always were, under my bed. Then, as soon as I was the proper height, teetering on my steeples, time for mirror-check. My spirits swelled at the sight of the grown-up I saw before me, with her little cinched-in little waist and red-red lips. I looked like either I had blown in from Rio, or some movie from the forties.

“Anybody decent?” It was Jake, curious about what we were up to. He can’t help but be jealous of my special relationship with Trevor. Trevor, who cosseted, indulged and comforted me, always told him to stop being such a girl.

“Everything’s copasetic, Miss Pants,” said Trevor, swatting my behind to get me away from the mirror. He checked his wallet and checkbook, then snapped them back in his breast pocket. Closing the books on Fayette.

“Hurry up. Spike is here. The car is waiting.”

I hate being shorter than Jake. It gives him such an edge. As I elbowed past him he favored me with his deep-dish chocolate smile. “Wow. Looking good. Lose the shawl.”

Nothing but his disapproval could so confirm my choice.

One last thing: a notebook. Mantillas are love-em-and-leave-em, but a writer never goes anywhere without her notebook.

They weren’t in the limo after all but standing around. Spike was helping Mina load the suitcases of documents they take to court every day, just to show off how hard they are working and what secrets they’ve uncovered, whether they’ll use them or not.

Spike, driver slash investigator slash bodyguard, lives so far out of town he calls it “the country”. Since it’s all country to me, he must mean actual wilderness. I picture him as a mountain man, living in a cave. Craig says you always have to hire somebody local. So when I first met Spike, I asked him if he’d lived here all his life, and he answered,
“Not yet.”

Beyond the gates the paparazzi were jumping with excitement. They’re not supposed to enter our property though sometimes I swear I see them playing freeze-tag among the neo-classical statues.
Spike shielded us with his huge body, opening the limo door like a good butler. Trevor gave me one last squeeze and went to join Hell Hath No Fury in the Ragemobile (aka his Lexus). I would miss him, but who could envy him? Taking out the trash in the name of family solidarity.

Inside the car colognes, after-shaves and body-mists warred in a perfume forest-fire. Do you have to be beautiful to survive a murder trial? Sackcloth and ashes are easier on the wallet. But if the world wants us wailing and unphotogenic in endless shame, it’ll never get its wish.

I like riding in a limo, I appreciate a short break before muscling through the public. But I admit it seems strange that I, an artist who values clear vision, would feel so thankful for tinted glass.

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