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Depraved Heart: a crime novel

Chapter Sixteen – Mortgaged

Oz says regret is an inherently degrading emotion. On that point he and Colleen were agreed; nostalgia is one thing, but there’s no percentage in second-guessing. Preserve at all costs that forward motion.

I lay in bed staring at my new dark suit without enthusiasm. I definitely didn’t want to wear that again. I was always surprised that after a bout of nocturnal wrestling, I didn’t wake up taller.

Shouldn’t we have exchanged more than fluids during the night? I teased myself imagining what it would be like to be Trevor for the day.

I’d be knotting a pink tie to go with my white shirt and my dove-colored suit, looking beyond myself deep, deep in the mirror.

“That’s not a “mourning” color,” I said. Two can play the criticism game.

“It actually is,” he said. “It’s a color called “ashes of roses”. Do you need to be dressed?”
It wouldn’t be the first time.

“No,” I yawned. “I have to take a shower.” I smelled like chum. “What’s it doing out there?”

He glanced out the window. “Raining.”

“See? The universe itself feels our pain.”

“The pathetic fallacy,” he said, and kissed my forehead with a feather’s touch. Then because I was the most pathetic of the fallacies, he brought me coffee and a dark pink dress of Colleen’s. Not really ashes of roses, more like cerise. I thought it had a rather old-fashioned cut, with its high waist and pencil skirt.

“Would look nice with pearls,” he suggested meaningfully.

I covered my face with the blanket. I knew it would be hard work talking him into letting me wear my turquoise jacket. Artists use color to repel pathos. Substituting one fallacy for another.

“Listen,” he said, taking me into his lap, “At least we’re going through this together. Think about poor Oz.”

Yes, think about poor Oz, in “protective custody” so he doesn’t wind up incarcerated with men who don’t realize that he is a “top”, always a “top” and only a “top”. Poor, poor Oz.
Trevor placed me in the shower and turn the spigot. The tardy are punished. There was no hot water left.

Eventually I added my cold one to the array of haggard faces in the limo. Craig was clutching a can of Red Bull, Jake looked like he had forgotten to remove his eye makeup, Shelley’s hair seemed lank and uninspired and Mina’s glasses were smudged. Was nobody getting any sleep? Only Spike appeared chipper as usual.

As I claimed my corner of the groom’s bench it was Spike who put a note in my hand. Written on Marriott Hotel stationery it said,

Brontë, I would love to catch a glimpse of you before I leave. I have something of your mother’s that I want to give you. I’ll be having lunch at the Marriott at exactly noon today if you or your sister want to join me. Believe me, today will be a court day you’d like to miss.
Love, Aunt Shea

That was clever. Clever to address the note solely to me. She must know Shelley wouldn’t speak to her. Leaving the inclusion of Shelley strictly up to me, she minimized her chances of a turndown.
I decided not to tell Shelley. Why tell her, when she not only wouldn’t go, she would probably insist on my not going too? She might even tell on me, “for my own good,” that’s the sort of thing older sisters are primed to say. As if Shelley, who spends her evenings making out to French porn, knows anything about my “good”. I knew the “gift” thing was probably a ploy. Should I subject myself to emotional blackmail just to receive some unlustrous object of specious provenance?

Still, doesn’t hurt to dream. Kind of a necessity since I missed my dreamtime last night. My whole body ached like I had played the Super Bowl. I allowed the motions and counter-motions of court to flow over me as I contemplated a mystic, magic item, waiting for me in Aunt Shea’s suitcase, a portal sent by my wizard mother; an item of psychometric alchemy transporting me back in time to meet her face to face. Damn I wanted it bad.

My mother was so far dead as a result of this damn trial that any clue was precious. Oz might call Shea a witch, but think, what if she was? What if she possessed a sorcerer’s rabbit hole powerful enough to launch me back into my mother’s arms?

My mother. I was familiar enough with the work of the Brontë sisters to know “the little brown wren” thing was just a disguise. She was only trying to navigate the universe, to maximize knowledge and pleasure, minimize pain and prejudice, just like the rest of us. If death is an unmasking, then my mother was free. I still needed all the masks I could get and I would be grateful just to touch with my hand any discarded masks of hers.

Shea was smart to choose a public place. She couldn’t throw things, rend her garments or try to manhandle me. I could leave if she got obnoxious. I think at least by now I’ve learned how to leave; I know how to get out of places where I don’t want to be.

When Shea said I’d want to skip today’s session, I knew she referred to the computer expert. He was supposed to testify about the pornographic images and emails found on Oz’ hard drive and Craig was battling to keep out what he could.

I let them fight it out till eleven thirty when we gained a bathroom break.

But instead of stepping into a stall, I only had to step through the double doors and I was free.
Or almost free. Spike came right after me.

“Don’t you know it’s rude,” I said to Spike, “To read other people’s private mail?”

“Special circumstances,” he grinned at me. “How did I know it wasn’t a death threat?”

“Well, now you know it was just an invitation to lunch.”

He bobbed his head in a mockery of servitude. “And the lady needs a ride.”

I had been planning on taking a cab and sticking Aunt Shea with the bill, but, what the hell. Why not show up at the Marriott in a limo? Let the old bat know I was well taken care of.

I was sitting up front with him so I saw him pull out his cell phone.

“Don’t you dare tell them where we’re going.”

“I’ll just tell them we’re getting lunch. Otherwise Trevor will send the cavalry after you.”
True, I thought. Smugly.

“To the Marriott, Jeeves,” I directed, “Unless you’d rather find a skeezy dive and do shots.”

“I’ve had all my shots,” said Spike.

The Marriott is between the highway and mall.

“Come back for me in a half an hour,” I ordered.

“Not on your life,” said Spike.

Valet parking is always happy to look after a limo. Spike went to sit at the bar. Catching up on those inoculations, presumably. I felt reassured when I saw him swivel his stool around to watch me. Would he rescue me if she made me cry? Would he rush forward, guns blazing? It was comforting, knowing he was there.

She was sitting right in the window, just like a person who doesn’t have to think about hiding from the press. Well, so far they hadn’t followed us. I stood looking at her a moment until her psychic perimeter alarm went off and she turned and recognized me.

She was wearing the same baggy zebra outfit she’d worn in court, so either she was traveling light or she’d hit the Krispy Kremes full throttle and nothing else fit.

She smiled and gestured to the other seat. It was the other side of the table, so outside the danger zone. I sat down.

“It was nice of you to come,” she said in a formal way. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.”

I tried picturing her as a little girl. She was the eldest, the Trevor of that family, so maybe she’d never been young. I tried picturing her and my mother as two little girls cuddled under the blankets giggling together. It was hard because she was just a plump, middle-aged lady sitting without makeup in a patch of full sun. She looked old; faded; unimportant. I was glad of it, because that made it easier to steel my heart against her. In case there was any steeling to do.

“I’m on one side and you’re on the other,” I said. “I don’t want to get into an argument about it.”
I didn’t go so far as to say he was innocent. None of us was innocent; I had been on trial for quite awhile in my own head and I was not coming out of it very well.

“I understand,” she said.

The busboy came to try to look down my front as he noisily poured water. Both Shea and the busboy looked as if they were trying to think ways to touch me. Fortunately, neither of them tried.
“I’ll have the croque monsieur,” said Shea.

Imagine mistaking a busboy for a waiter!

“I’ll git yr wyter,” he said with that unmistakable mountain twang. You have to have an ear for it. Sometimes it’s incomprehensible. Here’s a boy who should keep his mouth closed at all times.
To my relief Shea didn’t make me beg for my trophy. She felt around in her massive flocked carpetbag-purse thing and produced a small, white leather case. It was shabby, some of the leather peeling away. It looked to be a traveling picture frame, the kind you can carry with you anywhere, then set it up where you happen to be. Ideal for me, really, in my evolving restlessness. I held my breath as I opened it.

I knew it was a picture of my mother. But it looked like a picture of me.

“It’s your mother at eighteen,” said Shea. Unnecessarily.

I realized then; I knew what I’d lost. As the tears spilled out I felt enough anger to explode the planet. I couldn’t even feel the rage through the horrible pain to the roots of my hair. Shoot her, Spike. Shoot her now.

I rubbed my face with the huge white napkin, not caring where my eyeliner went. I tried so hard to stop the tears and harden them inside me.

“She’s not gone,” said Aunt Shea, patting my hand with such a light touch I wasn’t able to bite her. “I speak to her every day. When you’ve really loved someone – I hope you find out – they’re inside you always.”

I cried and cried. It was awful. Where was Spike?

“She’s recently bereaved,” Aunt Shea explained to the waiter. “I’ll have the croque monsieur.”
“Water,” I gasped. “Evian.”

I was so glad no one was here, no one knew about this. Maybe I could pretend it never happened. Could I stifle Spike if I had to?

Curiosity kept me looking at the picture. It was easier than looking at Aunt Shea. My mother’s hair was a little longer than mine and exactly my shade of red, but unlike me, she’d tried to straighten it instead of allowing it to explode in all directions. She didn’t seem to be wearing makeup and I couldn’t see the telltale freckles, but that was my own face, all right. She wore just enough of a summer dress to show off her knobbly shoulder bones. Thinner than me; a young woman with appetites either unrecognized or under fierce control.

Her expression, also, was one never seen on my face. It was sweet, full of hope, unembarrassed about being caught dreaming. I imagined having a conversation with that face. It would probably be interesting and easy; she looked so sympathetic and thoughtful.

I wondered what she would say about Trevor and me. Would she forgive me? Maybe it was her fault in a way; giving me a genetic code that longed for deathless ardor.

“So where have you decided to go to college?” Shea asked in a bright, false manner. I lowered the picture and looked at her unwillingly.


“Georgetown, oh my,” she said. Impressed. It made me like her less, if that was possible, that she should be so much like everybody else. Predictability being the opposite of freedom. Or was it me who was predictable, for wanting to go Ivy?

“Maybe I won’t go there,” I spluttered. “It’s expensive. I have a free scholarship to the University of Arizona.” I got that on my own, so I should be proud of it.

“I would think the Chagall would take care of school for both you and Shelley,” she sniffed. “That was one of your mother’s favorite pieces. Unless he’s already sold it .”

He hadn’t sold the Chagall. When Shelley started Sweet Briar Oz did sell something. He sold the folding leather camp bed reputed to have belonged to Gilles de Retz, and he complained a lot about it, too. But everyone agreed Sweet Briar was the perfect place for Shelley.

Funny he’d never mentioned that the Chagall was ours. I was kind of surprised he hadn’t sold it because he called Chagall “middlebrow.” I assumed it was Colleen’s.

“Oh, we’ve still got it,” I said. Lied. “We don’t sell things.”

I was angry about all the insulting financial testimony about how desperate we are. I bet if I opened her checkbook and looked inside, I wouldn’t see anything to brag about. A retired art teacher nobody’s ever heard of!

Her sandwich arrived, gooey melted cheese over two kinds of meat, sporting a pair of sword-pointed toothpicks. In case we wanted to duel. Could I defend myself without Spike’s help?
Shea sniffed at my assertion. “Needs must when the devil drives,” she said.

Even though I was clearly drinking Evian, the busboy came and poured more water. He would have given me a bath if I’d asked him. I might have liked that, actually. A lunchtime wet t-shirt contest is just what the boring old Marriott needs.

I was calmer now. The other side of my mother’s picture was a mirror. I dipped the napkin in the busboy’s water and tried to clean my face.

“Any idea for a major? Favorite subject?”

What is this? The Spanish Inquisition? I looked pointedly at my watch.

“Writing,” I said. “I want to be a writer.”

Shea smiled, her facial creases opening like crevasses. “Your mother would love that, of course. She tried to guarantee it by giving you your name. Do you see yourself working in publishing?”
How to explain that I don’t see myself working? I loathe being told what to do.

“I see myself traveling the world,” I said.

“Who are your favorite writers? Alice Hoffman? Anita Shreve?” She made a massive effort. “Anne Rice?”

Who the hell were those people?

“I like the Russians,” I said.

She nodded officiously. “The Brothers Karamazov,” she offered.

I adore Dostoevsky, but why admit that to her?

“I prefer Pushkin, Goncharov, Turgenev,” I said. “Goncharov’s my current favorite. He wrote only one novel and he never finished it.”

“Oh. Like Mendelssohn. Unfinished Symphony.”

Honestly, the woman was an idiot. First off, he was a musician. And Mendelssohn composed more than one thing, but why argue with her?

“I confess I don’t know the writers you mention,” she admitted, busily chewing and speaking with her mouth open. “Education never stops.”

She slid a card across to me. “Let me know your address. When you get settled.”

Was there any possibility anybody would be speaking to anybody after all this was “settled”? I took the card. I noticed she had a website called RealArtByShea.

“What kind of art do you do?” I asked her.

“Found pieces. Sculptures. Collages. Some jewelry.” She fingered her necklace. “These are antique Christmas lights.”

They were little glass balls, strung together on golden thread. I had to admit they were charming.
The press had found us. A shape appeared right in front of me flashing away. I reeled, dazzled. Spike was at my side in a moment, elbowing them aside. He isn’t afraid to knock people down. He took me out through the kitchen.

“Any way out of here?” he asked a pair of Mexicans wearing chef hats.

Nobody argues with Spike. They gestured. Soon we were out on the loading dock. He used his cell phone to ask the parking valet to bring the limo around.

I regarded him suspiciously, “Why are you being so nice to me?” Maybe he’s the one selling secrets to the tabloids.

Spike tucked in the collar of my jacket.

“You remind me of a kitten I used to have. Same color and everything.” He patted my back. Once again, the baby needed burping. “Jesus, you look horrible. So how was it?” he inquired.

I didn’t want to talk about it. “God-awful.”

“We’re supposed to get lunch. Anything special you’re in the mood for?”

I gave the matter my deepest consideration. It’s the flywheel of my personality that I’m always hungry. Why should Aunt Shea be the only one to eat?

“I could really go for a meatball sub.”

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