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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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I was eating a toasted bagel and wondering how I was going to get today’s car when the doorbell rang.

“I thought you might need a ride.” Curt filled my little apartment with unbridled energy and aftershave.

“Are you always this awake at seven-fifteen in the morning?” I sounded as resentful as only a night owl can when met with morning enthusiasm.

He grinned. “Used to drive my parents crazy. Mom and Dad finally made the rule that if I wakened them on Saturday morning, I had to go to bed that evening at the corresponding hour.”

“Wake them at seven, go to bed at seven?”

“Right. I got so I could watch cartoons with the volume so low you couldn’t hear anything five feet from the set. I can’t help it. I love mornings.”

“Be careful who you marry,” I said. “You’ll drive some innocent woman crazy, too.”

“Oh, I never watch Saturday-morning cartoons anymore,” he said with a smile. “Since I became an adult, I can’t handle the violence.”

I wondered what the protocol was about thanking vigil keepers for their vigils, especially since he didn’t refer to it.

“By the way,” I said hesitantly, “thanks for all your help last night.”

“You weren’t that far out of my way,” he answered. “What’s twenty minutes?”

“But you came back. I heard you. That’s forty minutes.”

“Usually.” He grinned.

“Sergeant Poole wouldn’t like the implications of that. And you must have gone home and come back this morning, too. You’re freshly shaved.” I hadn’t meant to sound so aware of him. The words had just popped out because he smelled so good. “Want a bagel?” I asked quickly.

“No,” he said, pulling my coat out of the closet. “We’ve got to go.”

As I drove my second rental off the car lot, the salesman watched me go with the same look my father had had the first time I drove the family car on my own. Both Dad and this man expected disaster.

I got home successfully for Dad, and I fervently prayed I’d do the same for the salesman.

I almost did.

EIGHT

Two nights ago I found a dead man in the trunk of my car.
Last night someone shot out the front windshield of my rental car while I stood beside it.
Life has never been so terrifying.

I
wrote on, hoping I could communicate to
The News’s
readers how utterly disconcerted, scared and saddened I was to be so intimately involved in the Patrick Marten story—or that there even was such a thing as the Patrick Marten story.

Later this afternoon I’d visit the Marten family, and tomorrow, Saturday, the day of the young man’s funeral, we’d run a front-page profile on Patrick and his premature death.

It occurred to me that I’d better check with Don to see whether he still wanted a detailed piece on Patrick now that we had Trudy’s story to deal with. Maybe he’d changed his thinking on space and the number of inches he wanted.

“Marten seems to have been a nice kid,” I told him. “I hope we’re still giving him plenty of space. His violent cut-off-in-the-prime story will be a good companion to Trudy’s cut-off-in-her-prime pieces.”

“Mmm,” Don said, reading something that looked like a police report as we—I—talked. I didn’t think he’d heard a word I said.

I stood, uncertain. Should I go on or should I just go?

But I wanted to write Patrick’s story as a major piece. I felt I owed it to Patrick. He was
my
story,
my
concern. Somehow his being in my car made the whole thing personal. I wanted people to know him, and to grieve that such a thing could happen to him.

I decided to wait until Don was ready to talk, and before I knew it, I found myself reading what he was reading.

We left-handed people have all sorts of unusual talents due to the slight scrambling of our circuits that left-handedness often causes—or that causes left-handedness. I’m not sure which way that goes. Reading upside down is just one of my specialties. So is mirror writing, though not mirror reading, at least not without the mirror. I can also write with both hands, though if I get much fancier than my name with my right hand, my penmanship looks like a third-grader’s.

On the negative, most of the time I can’t tell my right from my left, and I have serious trouble with number sequencing, a fact that makes remembering phone numbers difficult and keeping my checkbook balanced impossible without a calculator.

I stood quietly on the far side of Don’s desk and read what proved to be a police report on the manner of Trudy’s death.

Apparently she had fallen in the bathroom, perhaps dizzy from fever as a result of her illness, and struck her head on the side of the tub. She had knocked herself unconscious, and the impact had caused a fractured skull and an epidural hematoma from trauma to the middle meningeal artery located behind the left temple above the ear. The hemorrhage and its attendant pressure, the swelling from the impact itself, and shock had caused her death. This death was ruled an accident.

The tragedy, noted on a Post-it stuck to the bottom of the report, was that had someone been there to help her, she would probably have survived with minimal if any long-term effects.

Wait until Jolene, Miss I-Don’t-Want-to-Be-Alone, learned
that.

When he finished reading, Don rested an elbow on the desk and the palm of his hand on his forehead, his fingers lacing back into his hair. He sat there, eyes closed, the very picture of desolation.

I stood quietly, thinking about poor Trudy, when it dawned on me that nobody likes to have such emotional wrenchings observed by someone he hasn’t invited to share the experience. I really should go back to my desk.

I just couldn’t figure out how to do it without Don’s noticing.

It felt like the time Jack and I were seated at a restaurant some distance from Pittsburgh only to see my recently widowed Aunt Edie ushered to a table two removed from ours. She was out on her first date since Uncle Ted’s death—with a close family friend whom we had always thought was happily married to a woman named Molly.

If we stayed, Aunt Edie’d eventually see us, and there’d be trouble. If we left, she’d see us because we’d have to walk right past her table, and there’d be trouble. We’d already ordered our dinner, so we stayed. Why miss our meal if we couldn’t avoid the problem, anyway? Still, it had been an excruciating evening, at least for me and Aunt Edie. Jack thought it was quite funny, but Aunt Edie didn’t speak to me for over a year, my just punishment for spying, she said. Her punishment was marrying the guy after he divorced Molly.

So I stood by Don’s desk, trying to decide what was the best thing to do politically and humanely, and would I be fortunate enough that they’d be the same, and could I manage to accomplish them with a modicum of grace. Then Don looked up and noticed me with a start.

“What do you want, Merry?” he asked gruffly, not happy to see me.

“The profile on Patrick Marten,” I said as Jolene walked up with the day’s mail and laid Don’s on the corner of his desk. “For tomorrow. Should I still do it? How many inches?”

He reached automatically for the envelopes as he said, “Sure. Of course. Why not? Just remember Trudy will get most of the play.”

I nodded and got back to my desk as quickly as I could. When Jolene walked by without any mail for me, I grabbed her arm.

“Why’s Don so upset over Trudy?” I asked.

“We’re all upset over Trudy,” Jolene answered.

“Of course everyone’s upset,” I said. “I know that. But there’s upset and there’s upset. Is there something I should know?”

Jolene looked at me without understanding. Then, suddenly, incredulously: “About Don and Trudy? Together? As a couple? Are you crazy? You might as well ask about Trudy and Mac.”

“There was something between Trudy and Mac?” Granted he was Amhearst’s Casanova, but Trudy? She seemed too classy for a sport like Mac.

“Of course not,” Jolene said, her dark eyes sparkling. “And there wasn’t anything between Don and her, either.”

“Keep your voice down,” I hissed, glancing around. “And why not? They were both single, weren’t they?”

“But Don’s such a recent widower,” Jolene said. Without thinking, she began pulling dead or dying leaves off the philodendron on my desk. She made a neat pile of the crumbling foliage on top of my dictionary, right above the trash basket, which she ignored.

“His wife died over two years ago,” I said. “Plenty long enough to get involved with someone else.”

“But his wife’s death was such a tragedy!”

“People get over it,” I said, thinking of Aunt Edie.

“Not Don,” she said. “He just loved her to death. Always so kind to her, so caring. Gave her diamonds and flowers all the time. I mean, it was a beautiful marriage.” She sighed. “I wanted more than anything for me and Arnie to be like that. I told him about them all the time so’s he’d learn.”

Uh-oh. Poor Arnie. I scooped up the dead philodendron leaves and dropped them into my basket.

Jolene made little noises like a squeaky fan belt. “I don’t know where I went wrong. All’s I’d say was stuff like, ‘Arnie, Don’s taking his wife to the shore for the weekend. Isn’t he a nice guy?’ And I’d sigh, so’s he’d know I wanted to do the same thing. Or, ‘Don took a huge bouquet of flowers home tonight. Isn’t that the sweetest thing? He sure knows how to make a woman happy.’”

She took such a deep breath that her chest rose a good six inches. Her sigh as she exhaled was probably audible out on Main Street.

“Not that you’d understand, Merry,” she said. “You never even got married.”

I pulled Jolene’s verbal knife from between my shoulder blades, then spoke. “Do you think Arnie might have gotten tired of being compared to Don and found wanting? Or maybe he thought you were telling him that you loved Don, not him?”

“See?” said Jolene, pointing a lethally nailed finger in my face. It sported little snowflakes dancing across its blood-red surface. “You don’t understand! It’s just like me and Trudy.”

“You and Trudy?” I said, not following her. “She didn’t understand you, either?”

Jolene looked at me with something like sympathy. “Don’t worry if it’s too much for you,” she said kindly. “Nobody else understands about me and Trudy, either.”

I nodded, wondering if I was the only one who saw something significant in that fact.

“I just keep thinking of her and me and how alike we are,” Jolene explained as she fluffed and arranged the leaves of my plant.

I looked at Jolene and thought of Trudy. I imagined that somewhere in the world there were probably two other women more dissimilar. I just didn’t happen to know them.

“Jolene, granted you and Trudy are both local and you both graduated from the local high school, but that’s about it. You got a job as a secretary at the local paper, married the local jock and you live three blocks from where you grew up. Every night for the duration of your marriage you had dinner with your parents.”

“Still do.”

I nodded. “And you’re separated from your husband and you’re twenty-five.”

Jolene nodded. “Right.”

“Trudy graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania and Dickinson Law. She returned to Amhearst in her mid-to late twenties and quickly became a partner in a prestigious law firm, and mayor as of the last election. She served on countless civil boards. She was forty-two, never married, and probably last ate with her parents on a regular basis when she was eighteen.”

“See?” Jolene said triumphantly.

I blinked and shook my head.

“We both live—lived—alone,” Jolene pronounced with great drama.

“Oh,” I said. “Of course. And because you live alone, you’re going to fall and crack your head on the tub and die, too.”

She nodded solemnly. “Or something.”

“Perfectly logical,” I said.

Jolene beamed. “I knew you’d finally see it. You’re smart.”

I smiled graciously at the compliment. “But, Jolene, honey, things happen to people who lived with people, too,” I said. “Probably more things if you want the truth. It’s relatives that kill you, either by giving you high blood pressure or by shooting you when you forget to take out the garbage.”

Jolene shook her head. “I guess you don’t understand after all, Merry. Alone is terrible.” The last was a whisper as she turned and walked to her desk.

Alone is terrible.
I thought about that for a while. Certainly
alone
was hard. And I was lonely. And it could be frightening. But
terrible,
as in the end of the world?

I’d been alone now for over three months, not very long in the scheme of life, but longer than Jolene.

I stared at my keyboard without seeing it as I replayed the past three months. I began shaking my head.

You’re wrong, Jolene. Surprisingly, these alone months have been good for me. They haven’t been pleasant, not by a long shot, but they’ve been good for me.

With a jolt I realized that I’d live them again, if I had to, for the benefits I was learning, earning, gaining. I was still a mess in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t as big a mess as I had been. No, I was not. I couldn’t help smiling.

Sure, I still missed Jack and his excitement; there was no question about that. And weekends were incredibly long. But I didn’t think I could ever go back to Jack and the life I’d known. How could I?

How could I, come to think of it, when Jack was no longer asking me?

In fact, I hadn’t heard from him by phone or mail for almost a month. I was hurt by this fact, but was I hurt because my heart was being broken still, or because my pride was wounded at his giving up on me so quickly?

I glanced up and noticed Don staring at me, his face dark and angry. He must be still angry from my intrusion into his personal grief earlier. Or he’d seen me talking with Jolene and felt we’d talked too long. Or he’d seen me staring into space as I questioned my life.

I grabbed my coat and tape recorder. I’d go see Curt’s setup and I’d go see Mrs. Marten. In my best Scarlett O’Hara tradition, I’d think about Jack tomorrow. And make my boss happy today.

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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