I richard, p.12

I, Richard, page 12

 

I, Richard
 


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  They'd earlier given her all the graveside options. She could have the minister say another prayer—this one brief—and then she could depart immediately for a somber reception at which the mourners would be given food and drink and a final chance to murmur inadequate words of comfort to Eric Lawton's widow. Or she could remain and watch as the hastily chosen coffin was lowered into the ground. She could then pick a flower from the funeral wreath that she herself had purchased only two days earlier from within a fog and through anguish-smeared vision. She could toss this flower into the grave, which would encourage the other mourners to do likewise, and then she could walk off to the waiting limousine. Or she could remain for every second of the burial, right down to the moment when the back-hoe—parked at a discreet distance—rumbled across the lawn to the grave. She could stay until the vault was sealed and the soil was packed and the squares of lawn replaced. She could even watch them affix the plastic tag to a pole that would mark the site until the gravestone arrived. She could read his name Eric Lawton as if that might help her absorb the fact that he was gone, and she could fill in the rest herself: Eric Lawton, beloved husband of Charlotte. Eric Lawton, dead at forty-two.

  She chose the first option. It was easier to turn away than to watch the coffin disappear into forever. As for giving the other mourners an opportunity to show a sign of their affection for Eric by dropping flowers into his grave… She didn't want to do anything that might remind her how few mourners there actually were.

  At the house later, grief struck her like a virus. She stood at the window, her throat tight and hot, and she felt as if a fever were coming upon her. She looked out at the backyard into whose landscaping she and her husband had put such thought and had maintained with such loving care while behind her, the voices were hushed in keeping with both the dolor and the delicacy of the situation.

  Tragedy. She overheard the whisper.

  Fine man was murmured several times.

  Fine man in every way was spoken once.

  In every way but one, Charlie thought.

  She felt an arm slip round her and she leaned into the longtime friendship of Bethany Franklin, who'd driven out from Hollywood to this soulless suburb of soulless Los Angeles the very night Charlie had phoned her with the news. She'd shrieked, “Eric! Bethie! Oh my God!” and Bethany had come on the run. She'd said, “That God damn motorcycle,” in a voice that told Charlie her teeth were clenched round the final word and then, “I'm on my way. D'you hear me, Charlie? I'm on my way.”

  Now she said quietly, “How you holding up, chickadee? You want I should show these folks the front door?”

  With an effort, Charlie put her own hand on Bethany's where it rested on her shoulder. She said, “Everything started when I let him buy the Harley, Beth.”

  “You didn't let him do anything, Charles. It doesn't work that way.”

  “He'd got a tattoo as well. Did I tell you that? First the tattoo. It was only on his arm and I thought, ‘Well, why not. It's a guy thing, isn't it?' And then the Harley. What did I do wrong?”

  “Nothing,” Bethany said. “It wasn't your fault.”

  “How can you say that? This all happened because—”

  Bethany swung Charlie around. She said, “Don't do this, Charles. What was the last thing he said to you?” She already knew, of course. It was one of the first things Charlie had told her, once the hysteria had subsided and the subsequent shock had settled in. She was asking only so that Charlie herself had to hear the words again and had to digest them.

  “ ‘Remember, I'll always love you,' ” she recited.

  “He said that for a reason,” Bethany declared.

  “Then why—”

  “There're some questions you never get answered in life. Why? is generally one of them.” Bethany hugged her one-armed, a squeeze to tell her that she wasn't alone no matter how she felt, no matter how it seemed and was going to seem in the big, expensive, suburban house that they'd bought three years ago because “It's time for a family, Char, don't you think? And no one believes cities are good for kids.” Declared with an infectious smile, declared with that spurt of Eric energy that had always kept him active, curious, involved, and alive.

  Charlie said, looking at the assembled guests, “I can't believe his family didn't come. I phoned his ex-wife. I told her what happened. I asked her to tell the rest of his family—well, to tell his parents… who else is there, really?—but none of them even sent a message, Beth. Not his father, not his mother, not his own daughter.”

  “Maybe the ex didn't—what's her name?”

  “Paula.”

  “Maybe Paula didn't pass on the word. If the divorce was nasty…was it?”

  “Fairly. There was another man involved. Eric fought Paula for custody of Janie.”

  “That could've done the trick.”

  “It was years ago.”

  “Put the screws to him in death. Some people can never let go.”

  “D'you think she might not have told his parents?”

  “Sounds about right,” Bethany said.

  It was the thought that Paula, in a last stroke of posthumous revenge upon her erstwhile husband, might have refused to pass along the news to Eric's parents that made Charlie decide to contact the elder Lawtons herself. The problem was that Eric had long been estranged from his parents, a sad fact that he'd revealed to Charlie during their first holiday season together. Close to her own family despite the distance that separated them all, she'd brought up “making arrangements for the holidays. D'you want to spend them with your family or mine? Or should we divide them up? Or have everyone here?”

  Here at that time was a two-bedroom condo in the Hollywood Hills from which Eric ventured forth each day to his job in the distant suburbs while Charlie dashed off to her casting calls with the hope that something other than being the mom-with-the-perfect-family on WoW! soap commercials might be in her future. A two-bedroom condo with an airliner-sized kitchen and a single bathroom was not the ideal spot for entertaining mutual families, so she had prepared herself for the inevitable division of time between the end of November and the beginning of January: Thanksgiving in one location, Christmas Eve in another, Christmas Day at a third, and New Year's Eve together at home alone in front of the artificial fire, with fruit and champagne. Only, that wasn't how the holidays played out because Eric told her the painful story of his estrangement from his parents: about the hunting accident that had caused the estrangement and what had followed that accident.

  “I tripped and the gun went off,” he confessed one night in the darkness. “If I'd known what to… I didn't know what to do. I had no first aid. He bled to death, Char. With me shaking him and yelling his name and crying and telling him, begging him, to hold on, to just hold on.”

  “I'm so sorry,” she'd said and she'd pulled his head to her breast because his voice had broken and his body trembled and he clung to her and she wasn't used to a man showing emotion. “Your own brother. Eric, what a horrible thing.”

  “He was eighteen. They tried to forgive me. But he was… Brent was like the crown prince to them. I couldn't take his place. I drifted off eventually. Just a bit at first. Then more and more. They decided to let me. It was best for us all. We couldn't get over it. We couldn't get past it.”

  Charlie tried to imagine what it had been like for him: growing to adulthood and then toward middle age and always knowing he'd shot his own brother. They'd been birding, out at dawn at the edge of the desert where the doves wintered. They'd hunted birds from childhood, first with their father and then— when Brent was old enough to drive—on their own. And on their second such trip together, the worst had happened.

  “They probably forgave you years ago,” she'd said to her husband loyally. “Have you tried to contact them?”

  “I don't want to see it in their eyes. The looking at me and trying to seem like there's nothing beneath that look but love.”

  “Well, there's not hate beneath it.”


  “No. Just sorrow, which I put there. Being dumb. Being slipshod. Not holding the gun right. Not watching my feet.”

  “You were only fifteen,” Charlie protested.

  “I was old enough.”

  For what? she'd wondered. But she worked out the answer eventually: old enough to disappear.

  They had a right to know that he was dead, however. So even though Charlie had no idea where Marilyn and Clark Lawton lived, she determined she would find them and give them the information. She knew that Eric would want it that way. The very fact that he had a virtual gallery of family pictures told her that he had never stopped feeling the aching loss of a place in his parents' hearts.

  She went to these pictures the day after his funeral, lightheaded and sore-muscled after the trauma of the past week. The grieving tightness in her throat was still there—had been there since the night Eric died—and so was the sickly, feverish sensation she'd had for days. She couldn't remember how it was to feel normal any longer. But things had to be done.

  The pictures were in the living room, standing like deliberate, intrusive thoughts at intervals among the books on either side of the fireplace. She knew who every individual was because Eric had told her several times. But he'd identified most of them by first name only, which wasn't helpful in the present circumstances: Aunt Marianne at her high school graduation, Great-Aunt Shirley with Great-Uncle Pat, Grandma Louise (on which side of the family, Eric?), Uncle Ross, Brent at seven, Mom at ten, Dad at thirteen, Mom and Dad on their wedding day, Grandpa and his brothers, Nana Jessie-Lynn. But aside from his parents' last name, she knew no one else's. And a look in the phone book told her no Lawtons named Clark or Marilyn lived nearby.

  Not that she had expected them to be near. She'd hoped for that, but at the same time she'd already realized that hunting trips taken by teenaged boys to the edge of the desert suggested a town not far away from a place even more arid than the LA suburb where she and Eric had bought their home.

  She got out a map of California and considered beginning her search in the south, right at the state border. She could call information for every town that sided the slice of land that was Highway 805. But she got not much farther than Paradise Hills before she reconsidered this painstaking approach.

  She went back to the pictures and took them down. She carried them into the kitchen and set them carefully on the granite counter. They were all old pictures, the most recent being Brent at seven, and some of them were tintypes assiduously preserved.

  Still, sometimes, she knew, families made note of the subjects of photographs and the locations where the pictures had been taken as well. And if that was the case with Eric's family pictures, there might be a clue as to the current whereabouts of his relatives.

  So she eased off the back of each of the frames, and examined the reverse side of the photographs. Only two provided writing. A delicate hand had written Brent Lawton, seven years old, Yosemite on the back side of the picture of Eric's brother. A spidery pen had placed Jessie-Lynn just before Merle's wedding on the picture of one of the grandmothers in Eric's life. But that was it.

  Charlie sighed and began to reassemble the frames and their contents: glass, photograph, cardboard filler, and velvet-covered backing. When she got to the Lawtons' wedding picture, however, she discovered that something besides the glass, the photo, the filler, and the backing had been put into the frame. Perhaps it was because the more recent the photo, the thinner the paper on which it had been printed. But the wedding picture had required something extra to fill up the space between it and the backing. This something was a folded paper, which unfolded turned out to be a blank receipt. Printed at the top of this was Time on My Side and an address on Front Street in Temecula, California.

  Charlie got out her map again. A shot of excitement and certainty flashed through her when she found Temecula at the edge of the desert, sitting alongside another desert freeway, as if waiting for her to discover its secrets.

  She didn't go at once. She planned to head out the very next day, but she awakened to find that the tightness in her throat had become a burning and the soreness in her muscles had metamorphosed into chills. It was more than simply exhaustion and grief, she realized. She'd come down with the flu.

  She felt resignation but very little surprise. She'd been running on nerves alone for days: with virtually no food and even less sleep. It was no shock to find herself become a breeding ground for illness.

  She forced herself to the drugstore and prowled the length of the cold-and-flu aisle, blearily reading the labels on medicines that promised a quick fix for—or at least temporary relief from—the nasty little bug that had invaded her body. She knew the routine: lots of liquids and bed rest, so she stocked up on Cup of Soup, Cup of Noodles, Lipton's, and Top Ramen. As long as the microwave worked, she would be all right, she told herself. Eric's family could wait the twenty-four or forty-eight hours it would take for her to regain her strength.

  Thus, it was two days later when Charlie set out for Temecula. Even then, she did so in the company of Bethany Franklin. For although she felt somewhat buoyed by the forty-eight hours of bed rest interrupted only by forays to the refrigerator and the microwave, she didn't trust herself to drive such a distance without a companion.

  Bethany didn't like the idea of her going at all. She said bluntly, “You look like hell,” when she roared up in her pride and joy, a silver BMW sports car. “You should be in bed, not traipsing around the state looking for… who're we looking for?” She'd brought a bag of Cheetos with her—“absolute nectar of the gods,” she announced, waving the sack like a woman flagging down a taxi—and she munched them as she followed Charlie from the front door into the kitchen. There, the family pictures stood where Charlie had left them. Charlie took up the photo of Eric's parents, along with the receipt from Time on My Side.

  She said, “I want to tell his family what happened. I don't know where they are, and this is the only clue I have.”

  Bethany took the picture and the receipt as Charlie explained where she'd found the latter. She said, “Why don't we just phone this place, Charles? There's a number.”

  “And if Eric's parents own it? What do we say?” Charlie asked. “We can't just tell them about…” She felt tears threaten, again. Again. Remember, I'll always love you, Char. “Not on the phone, Beth. It wouldn't be right.”

  “No. You're right. We can't do it on the phone. But you're in no shape to cruise up and down freeways. Let me go if you're so set on this.”

  “I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm feeling better. It was just the flu.”

  The compromise was that they would travel with the top up and Charlie was to bring with her a Thermos of Lipton's chicken noodle and a carton of orange juice as well, which she was to use to minister to herself during the long drive to the southeast. In this fashion, they made their way to Temecula, down Highway 15 which squeezed a concrete valley through the rock-strewn hills that divided the California desert from the sea. Here, greedy developers had raped the dusty land, planting it with the seed of their neighborhoods, each identical to the last, all colored a uniform shade of dun, all unshaded by even a single tree, all roofed in a pantiled fashion that had prompted the builder of one site to name the monstrosity, ludicrously, “Tuscany Hills.”

  They arrived in Temecula just after one in the afternoon, and it was no difficult feat for them to find Front Street. It comprised what the city council euphemistically called “The Historic District” and it announced itself from the freeway some mile and a half before the appropriate exit.

  “The Historic District” turned out to be several city blocks separated from the rest of the town—its modern half—by a railroad track, the freeway, a smallish industrial park, and a public storage site. These city blocks stretched along a two-lane street, and they were lined with gift shops, restaurants, and antique stores, with the occasional coffee, candy, or ice-cream house thrown in for good measure. In short, “The Historic District” was another name
for tourist attraction. It might have once been the center of the town, but now it was a magnet for people seeking a day's respite from the indistinguishable urban sprawl that oozed out from Los Angeles in all directions like a profitable oil slick. There were wooden sidewalks and structures of adobe, stucco, or brick. There were colorful banners, quirky signs, and a you-are-here billboard posted at the edge of the public parking lot. It was Disneyland's Main Street without having to pay the exorbitant entrance fee.

  “And you ask me why I hate to venture out of LA,” Bethany commented as she pulled into a vacant space and gazed around with a shudder. “This is SoCal at its best. Phony history for fun and profit. It reminds me of Calico Ghost Town. You ever been there, chickadee? The only ghost town on earth that someone's managed to turn into a shopping mall.”

  Charlie smiled and pointed at the you-are-here billboard. “Let's look at that sign.”

  They found Time on My Side listed as one of the shops in the first block of the historic district. Between them, they'd decided on the drive that it was probably an establishment selling clocks but when they got to it, they discovered that it was—like so many of its companion businesses—an antique shop. They went inside.

  A low growl greeted them, followed by a man's voice admonishing, “Hey you, Mugs. None of that,” which was directed to a Norwich terrier who was curled on a cushion on an old desk chair. This stood next to an ancient rolltop desk at which a man was sitting beneath a bright light, studying a porcelain bottle through a jeweler's lens. He looked over the countertop at Bethany and Charlie, saying, “Sorry. Some folks take her amiss. It's just her way of saying hello. You go back to sleep, Mugs.” The dog apparently understood. She sank her head back to her paws and sighed deeply. Her eyelids began to droop.

  Charlie scanned the man's face, seeking a likeness, hoping to see projected on its elderly features an Eric who would never be. He was the right age to be Eric's dad: He looked about seventy. And he was wiry like Eric, with Eric's frank gaze and an Eric energy that expressed itself in a foot that tapped restlessly against the rung of his chair.

 
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