Michael Peck’s novel The Last Orchard in America is at once a compelling detective story and a meditation on just what makes a compelling detective story. Surreal, unpredictable, and precisely assembled, this is a head-spinning read. We’re pleased to have an excerpt from it for you today; to get up to speed, you can hear Peck read the opening of the book, and there’s another excerpt that can be read here.
May was humid.
The people walking the streets were dressed too warmly, and a collective grimace was growing wider by the inch, not at all helped by the pattering rain. Maybe it wasn’t the weather but the fact that unhappy people were steadily coming to understand their condition. But at least in the city you don’t have to be yourself 24 hours a day. Crowds of nobodies surge and swallow you in a great gulp, hustle you along to their nowhere, suck you into a maze of aimless people attempting to appear busy. If I ever decided to long for friendship I could start talking to god or get a membership in a secret society.
All the booths were taken in the diner. Eager employees and unperturbed executives were hunched together feasting on over-told stories about a certain cubicle, a shady bookkeeper, hoary bosses with a penchant for meanness. Beside me at the counter was a midget in a mustard yellow cardigan with a guitar case leaning on his leg, so that whenever he shifted, which was perpetually, he had to keep a hand on the case to straighten it.
The waitress was a mild teenager with braces and rubber bands in her short black hair, long unpainted fingernails and a demeanor so shy it would have made a pimp blush. She got my whole order wrong: the eggs were sunny-side up, the meat was ham. To her credit it was a highly unorthodox order. The coffee, at least, wasn’t ginseng tea.
Next to me the midget had his head in a newspaper and I found myself contorting to read the headlines as I ate. Suddenly he shot me an eye and crumpled the paper a bit as he pivoted away. There was nothing so attractive in the headlines anyway: death, mutilation, disease, an escalating crime rate, the subtle menace of germs and defeat, rape, pillage, genocide. It was too dirty to look at.
“I come here every day,” the midget said to me, folding the paper twice, “and I sit in the same place and I don’t trouble anybody.”
I chewed my ham, watching him shake his head. He slicked back his greasy black hair with two large-knuckled hands. Pushed the sleeves of his brown plaid jacket up past his elbows.
“I don’t trouble anybody, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just in the mood for talking. You want to talk?”
“Talk about what?”
“You know what’s funny?” he said, and answered his question: “Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing that’s funny.” He straightened the guitar case. “Isn’t that funny or sort of?”
Depressive inclinations arose as I shoveled sopping egg onto unbuttered toast. At the end of the week I would be losing my office and shortly thereafter my apartment on a sunny avenue in the 4800 block. Letters had arrived from the respective invisible landlords, warning nongrammatically that I was three months behind. If I did not pay by May 15 I would be dragged into a courtroom and divested of my car and whatever else was reputed to have some value.
I was planning to leave town as soon as I could pay for gas. Now I wished I’d accepted the railroad widow’s money and fled, which wasn’t too chivalrous, but poverty isn’t chivalrous either. I scraped the plate clean and dusted off the driblets of food on the formica countertop.
“You know that,” the midget said. “A guy like you. You work around here?”
“Upstairs in the building across the street.”
“Up – stairs,” he said, as two words. “I’d like to work upstairs some day. I’m a musician. I mean, I play this guitar. I’m going upstate in a week. You ever been upstate? Upstate is hell.”
“Not even once.”
He hopped off the stool.
“I mean,” he went on. “That’s only the funniest thing anymore. People are different everywhere, though. Some people think I’m funny just sitting here. I don’t know. I guess I am. But everybody’s funny some ways. That’s another thing that’s funny.”
“I’ll nod to that,” I said.
“Well, see you later if you come by again. I’m here every day, so if you’re around I’ll be around. Name’s Leo.” He grabbed his guitar case. Looked at me like he was going to tell me something else that was funny, zigzagged out of the diner.
Another cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. I watched the waitress open a rotating glass case, cut the pie, balance it on a plate, rush it over, slam it down, hurry back, close the glass case, wipe her hands on a dishtowel, start the process anew for some other tired louse.
Before I had a second to lift the fork someone sidled in between the stools, touching my forearm with a bony elbow. In a churlish, clear voice, a woman asked the harried waitress where she could find Henry Jome. I was so taken aback at overhearing my name that I almost fainted.
Brilliant red hair was the first thing I noticed. The questioner was a slightly attractive, narrow-faced woman of around 35 or 40. Big dark sunglasses covered what were purportedly her eyes. In profile she had slightly masculine features that lend themselves gracefully to women of a particular attitude, and she certainly had that attitude. She was in black slacks and a matching turtleneck; the pinkish tint of her skin indicated that she hadn’t been in the sun for a few decades. By her subtle perfume, plush leather tote and air of astute arrogance, she was either wealthy or very wealthy. “Do you know where the office of a Mr. Jome would be? I believe it’s Henry Jome?” she said.
“Who?” the waitress said over the head of a customer at the end of the counter.
“Harry Jome,” I corrected.
“I’m sure it’s Henry Jome,” the redhead repeated. “He apparently has an office nearby.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
The redhead squinted at me from the corner of her frames and said, pouting her lips, “I was speaking to her if you don’t mind much.”
“Yes, and I’m talking to you if it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You’re asking about Harry Jome?” I said.
“I don’t know that person,” the waitress said.
“Except I wasn’t asking you.”
“I’m doing you a favor, lady.”
“Well, stop it.”
Once again she tried to flag the waitress’ attention, but the girl was too busy arguing with the cook to notice. The waitress screamed at the beefy man in white; she pulled the apron off and hurled it onto the grill. The stench of charred cotton brought scowls among the patrons. The former waitress took advantage of the furor in the kitchen to calmly open the register and clean out the contents.
It was my first smile in 15 days.
“You see what you did?” I said to the redhead.
“I thought maybe you’d like a job.” She was backing away.
“Everybody knows Harry Jome,” I said. “Try the Santos Building. Take the elevator to the 3rd floor and if you survive that it’s the third door on the left. If he isn’t in just wait a minute.”
“You his agent or something?” she asked.
“Harry is the kind of guy who doesn’t even need an agent,” I said.
She was out the door. Behind me two paunchy men in matching suits and porkpie hats were close behind her, pointing and hushing each other. One of them turned and winked.
The chef cursed madly while his staff wrought chaos trying to put out the small fire with glasses of water. Meanwhile, the diners filed out in search of an eatery that wasn’t aflame. My coffee was drained but for a splatter of half-and-half at the bottom of the cup. I felt lonely.
I took the elevator to the third floor, bracing myself against the claustrophobic walls. The burnt, grimy taste of coffee swam in my mouth. I was getting a little sleepy.
The building that confined my office to its cement purgatory was one of the last authentically nasty establishments in that section of the city, a historical landmark of depravity and Prohibition-era vice. Reputedly it was due to be torn down any day now and I didn’t blame whoever was doing the tearing. The Santos Building had once been renowned as a haven for desperate call girls, and the basement was said to have been a hub for all kinds of debaucheries.
The hallways of each floor had been gutted of any personality: a chair leaned in a corner, the windows covered with cardboard, pipes gurgling under your feet and in the walls. All in all, it was so seedy you had to plant your shoes when you stumbled in.
Adjacent to my stenciled, fogged-glass door was a vacant room I’d never been curious enough about. Sometimes a light was on inside, and I could distinctly hear a man singing low in a foreign language, but otherwise, I’d never seen anyone milling around the halls. The landlord himself was just a telephone number that led constantly to a phone being hung up.
My office was unlocked. I hadn’t bothered to replace the knob I’d yanked off in the throes of my second marriage. Not much to steal, anyway, unless there’s high demand for peeling wallpaper or bent paper-clips. The carpet that covered half the center of the floor was deeply green, paint flecked.
The redhead was already there, seated with her back to me in a chair that, 45 minutes ago, had been behind my desk. I made some noise coming into the room but she didn’t seem to notice. You can figure out a lot about a person by how impervious they are to your presence.
I sauntered cooly over and sat on the edge of the desk, made a production of crossing my ankles, started sucking on a toothpick. She was prim to the point of being blatantly indifferent, hands clenched in her lap as though she were engaged in pondering the squiggles on a Pollock. Up close, her face was too wide and too hard, cheekbones prominent—the face of a film star who doesn’t get too many parts. Her glasses were off now and her eyes were green, wide-set and unyielding; the rest of her attempted to prove them right.
“Hello. Remember me?” I asked.
“Do you have a cigarette?” She had a habit of speaking with her mouth compressed, as though she were training to be a ventriloquist.
“At the diner?” I said. “Remember? About three minutes ago?”
“Because I left my pack at home. And it would be nice if you had one so I don’t have to go crazy.”
“Sitting at the counter and—”
“Do you or don’t you have a cigarette?”
“I quit a month ago.”
“How’d you do that?”
“They’re hard to keep lit. But that’s admirable of you,” she said, going through the purse between her heels.
“It doesn’t feel too admirable.”
“Admirable things usually don’t.”
Very casually she extracted a plain white envelope being used as a bookmarker in a pamphlet-thin novel. On the front my name had been written in tiny cursive.
“Won’t you lose your place?” I asked.
“I already read it. You know Dominic Early?” she asked.
“Maybe, but for some reason I don’t really think you care what I have to say.”
“Crime writer. He has a lackluster grip on the way people actually behave. Entertaining, though.”
“Let’s start a book club later. What’s this about?”
She batted her finger on the envelope and said: “This concerns my brother Ben and needless to say it’s confidential, if that means anything to you.”
“Information is overvalued,” I said. “Some jerk once defined hell as an infinite stream of details and possibilities. If that means anything to you.”
She flung the envelope on my lap. It slipped onto the floor and I bent and grabbed it.
“There’s a check inside for eight thousand dollars,” she said.
“I don’t like surprises anyway.”
“Do you like personal checks?”
At that point I would have accepted muskrat hides. I unsealed the envelope with a greedy finger and greeted the digits inside.
“Susan K. Longtree,” I read.
Susan K. Longtree looked at me over the tip of her pert nose.
“Just don’t call me Susan,” she said. “Nor think of me using that name.”
“What’s the K stand for?”
I loosened the knot on my tie, peering like a creep at her pomaded red hair and everything else, trying so hard not to look desperate that the effort was pure desperation.
“My brother, Ben,” she started. “He killed himself two weeks ago in a motel up north.” She related it in a mechanical spurt, the way you might tell the plumber that the faucet is broken. Something tugged at her lips now, not tears but the opposite of tears. “Ben was married to a woman here in the city and had a kid with her—a girl, Dot. So what I’m saying, Mr. Jome, is that Ben did not lead a miserable life. He worked as a golf instructor in that club outside of town. Family. Job.”
“Sometimes both in collaboration can ruin anyone. The wife wasn’t troubled by his mental state?”
“Carol and I haven’t ever gotten along. For that matter, neither have Ben and I. He was always happier than I was.”
“I take it you never noticed anything foul?”
“Not so much.”
I let the tension stir the room until she was forced to look at me again. “What exactly, Ms. Longtree, is it you’re here for?”
Sue Longtree looked at me with blank eyes.
“I’m wondering. Ben didn’t leave a note,” she said. “Is that strange?”
“Not really. I’ve tried writing in suicidal anguish. It’s all romantic slop and not well phrased.”
She glared at me, not altogether sure whether I was being facetious or sincere. I wasn’t exactly sure myself.
“So I would like to hire your services for a few days or a week and hopefully find out why Ben did it. Could there possibly be a note somewhere?”
“Is that all there is?” I said.
“Just like the song says.”
I scribbled in an unlined reporter’s notebook. The shorthand looked like a screwed-up association game, the hasty marks of a messy hieroglyphics only I could decipher.
“The eight thousand is a down payment,” she said. “Essentially, I don’t care how he died. If a person kills himself for no reason, a sibling is liable to get worried. Genes and whatnot. Believe me, I’m not paranoid. If Ben killed himself for a bona fide purpose, all right. As I said before: Find out why. And it’s Mrs. Longtree. That’s why I’m not able to research for myself. I’m going through a divorce that ought to be settled in a trench.”
“I’m awfully busy right now,” I said.
“No,” she said. “You’re not.”
I poured myself a soda water I’d been saving and asked the woman if she wanted some.
“I’ll take some rum,” she said.
“What do you have?”
“I have some soda water.”
I paced and drank while she talked. The story of her brother wasn’t terribly riveting stuff. Sue and Ben were both born upstate, the only offspring of Daddy and Mrs. Longtree.
“What’s your father’s name?” I asked.
“His name is Daddy.”
“I don’t think you’re being serious.”
“If he had any other name we never knew it.”
Their father ran a once prosperous orchard five or more hours north. Soon after Sue was born, Mrs. Longtree took the kids to live in the city away from Daddy and the isolation.
“My mother loved the city and my father loves the orchard,” Sue said. “So it caused some conflict. We visited the orchard sometimes. I couldn’t stand the place. Ben and I spent a lot of time together up there when we were kids, sneaking around, ducking out at night.”
“What about Daddy?” I asked.
“He was always holed up at the orchard. Daddy wasn’t anything more than a presence for me. After a while we stopped going to see him because he was getting weird. Nobody really missed him.”
The fast crack of Sue’s voice was somehow transfixing, like being punched in the face with a peppermint leaf.
“At 17,” Sue went on, “I traveled awhile, thinking myself some kind of itinerant writer. I met my currently estranged husband at a lounge in Chicago. He manages and conducts a big band. They’re called The Boys and the music is so bad it’s demeaning for me to stoop to criticize it.”
“Well, you did marry him,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Marriage definitely is an institution.”
For Sue the rest was lawyers, estate debacles and a third-rate future of uncertainty in and reliance on despised money. She glossed over the personal details, and though there was some pain in her voice it was the suffering of being snapped with a rubber band at close quarters.
Meanwhile, Ben Longtree had packed off to university. Before he received his degree in biology, however, he suddenly quit and continued his career as a golfer. He won some high-paying tournaments and was interviewed a few times on the radio. At 35 he stopped competing and got himself a job at a country club outside of town. It was there that he met his wife, Carol Bergen, a tobacco heiress. That was five years ago.
“He took his wife’s name,” Sue said scornfully. “Bergen. I don’t understand how he could be so weak.”
“Maybe he loved her,” I offered
“I didn’t change my name when I got married.”
“Maybe you didn’t love him,” I offered again.
“Anyway,” she said. “Carol is an abomination.”
So Ben Bergen drove north into the hills around Sutter Falls to drop in for their father’s 67th birthday. A day later he was found in his motel room, the radio blaring (the maid recounted), a neat hole through the roof of his mouth, out the top of his head and embedded in the crook of the plaster ceiling. Immediately the slaying was ruled self-slaughter and no one doubted the verdict, especially not Sue Longtree.
“They didn’t so much as dust the door handle,” she said. “It might have been quick, but these are the sorts of towns that have nothing to do except cart away suicides and bargain with housewives not to send two barrels into their husbands.”
“What about Daddy? You said Ben was up there to see him.”
Sue took a long look at her red-painted fingernails.
“According to the police Ben never showed up there.”
“And your mother?”
“Dead. She was sleepwalking one night and tossed herself out our 12-story window. While ago.”
“Another suicide,” I said.
Across the room a rat poked its slick head from a fissure in the baseboard, saw me, froze, and disappeared back into the hole.
“So,” I said to break the silence, squinting at my chaotic notation. “Bergen leads a fulfilling existence. Underwhelming job, wife and daughter. And so on. One night he just kills himself. It’s definitely not murder, and nothing so far as you can tell is nefarious about the incident. You’d like me to look at the death for any indication that it could be the result of a destructive tendency in your family, some bad gene or whatever.” I paused, drank, let the soda water fizz under my tongue. “So, OK.”
“There’s one other thing,” she said. “It could be nothing. But Ben signed in at the hotel under a different name. William Florence.”
“That’s not so crazy,” I said, pacing behind her so that she had to twist to follow me.
“Why isn’t that so crazy?” she asked.
I shrugged. “People rarely behave like they should when they’re about to shoot themselves. It probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“So you’ll look into this?” Sue asked.
“I guess so, until it leads nowhere or somewhere.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. She clasped the mouth of her purse and slipped it over her shoulder. “Everything you need is written on the envelope. Phone numbers. Addresses. I’d contact Carol first and I’d do it before noon. She has her own time zone, and it’s always time for a drink there. Then Ben’s boss at the club, and maybe—”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said.
We shook hands. Her palm was as dry as a whale bone.
I handed her one of my last business cards. A ring of coffee encircled the upper left hand corner.
“I like your logo,” she said, nodding at the stain.
“I had it specially made.”
“I can’t show any emotion. People tell me that all the time. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
She gave me one glance in the mirror, then was out the door before I could respond.
For a while I thought about her red hair, her arctic demeanor. In some sick way I liked her lack of concern and expensive rancor. When you begin to care is when the war marches and the beach guns start.
Gently, I folded the check in equal halves, drooling. I was thinking of nothing but the money and how it touched me just right where I needed to be touched.
I put a hat on my head and flicked the light switch. The hall was soundless and barren, some dust and plaster floating onto the carpet. The rusted grates of the elevator clanged shut, and the heap descended. I counted my check in a better light, the paper crisp and impersonal and modern. The feeling it induced, however, was positively prehistoric.
After cashing the check and stuffing the fifties and twenties in my pocket, wrapped in a little plastic bag, I went to a pawn shop that specialized in my hocked goods. The metallic guts of the shop were congested with unwanted silverware and thick dust. I purchased back the pistol that I’d brought in a week ago, when my pecuniary status had been drastic. The proprietor was a smart-ass Hungarian with a beard that would have made fungi jealous. He had one of the largest collections of harmonicas in the world, like a wandering harmonica orchestra had passed through town down on its luck. The Hungarian wished me a happy death when I was exiting his shop. “Which is all that life is for,” he elaborated.
I wasn’t sure exactly why buying back my weapon was so important, only that I felt bereft without it, a man deprived of a primary tool of his art.
I walked in the rain as excited as a dumb child at a horse race. My newfound cash was rolled into my right fist, my free hand caressing the gun in my pocket. Around 30th I started perusing shop windows, the way saps do when they’ve just received a modest sum of dollars and need to consider how it should be squandered.
At a delicatessen I bought a wheel of cheese and a yardstick of Italian salami. The rain was starting to come down forcefully as I reached 48th Street. I didn’t have an umbrella. Rain always felt good on my skin. Maybe it was a prenatal thing.
My apartment complex was a series of three plain buildings designed around an uncared-for park. The grass hadn’t been cut in months, the trees gnarled and perishing. No one wanders the unappealing, graffiti-stained path. As for the architecture of the buildings, it could be characterized as frigid Bauhaus in its charmlessness. My neighborhood is somewhere in limbo, inhabited by a people of no extreme inclinations or ambitions, drifted along by a son of a bitch of a god whose idea of fun is leaving us to writhe and argue and die. Just like anybody else anywhere else.
The mail slot for 201 housed three Chinese take-out menus and a letter that had been there for three years, from a girl I didn’t want to remember and a time I didn’t want to forget. She was a short, dour girl who’d left me in a phone booth waiting for her for three hours. Later I found out that she’d gone to San Francisco and married a yacht and the guy who owned it. She could have been the only lady I cared anything for.
Inside my apartment I stored the cheese, the salami and the money in the icebox. It was a little after four.
A row of bookshelves was arranged chronologically on one wall in the living room; mostly the titles were related to late medieval philosophy, Aquinas’ works, the collected essays on magic by Bruno, Eckhardt’s surreal dreams about creepy angels who visited him during the night.
The furniture in the room was sparse, an armchair with a leather footstool, a sofa under the bay window, glass-topped coffeetable scattered with shabby magazines. Likewise, the kitchen’s utility was based solely around an oblong table and one oak chair. As for the bedroom, it was a place where I slept. It held a big bed and was so practical I could have been denounced as a communist.
I checked on the money in the icebox, where it was chilled and hardening, the way money should be. I drew a bath and soaked awhile, pondering Sue’s hair and other attributes. Afterwards I ran a razor over my face and sprinkled on some minty lotion. I laid on the crumpled sheets of the bed. A poplar brushed the window sympathetically. Poplars do that.
The unlikely suicide of Sue Longtree’s brother was still a shapeless, random event that had no meaning. I liked Sue Longtree a bit, but probably the more I enjoyed her ruthlessness the less I would enjoy her ruthlessness.
The pillow was terribly inviting and dreams were fitful; in them I died at least twice. I awoke, having slept all of 25 minutes.
Later that evening I had dinner in solitude, joined by the sputtering static of a black and white television set rambling on with an idiotic advertisement. I got one channel. Better than silence.
As I polished off a cheese and salami sandwich I flipped the pages of my notebook, decoding the unintelligible script. Very little actual information to go on, but it was enough for the moment.
The heading of the first page was printed: Sue Longtree, client and underneath that:
*Ben Bergen (used the name “William Florence”), suicide, no note, motel in Sutter Falls
*Carol Bergen, wife of BB, call on immediately
*Dot Bergen, daughter
**Shady Palm Country Club, BB employed, interview manager (Montero)
*Contact Pol. Dept. in Sutter Falls
*Mrs. Longtree, killed self in sleep (the immortality of dreams?)
*Daddy Longtree, father of Sue and Ben, hermit, BB visited shortly before.
Below that, in the margin of the page, I had misspelled the word Orchard and even when I had it right, the word looked off.
Early on Wednesday morning I showered and threw on a white shirt, the brown suit and black wingtips. I polished the shoes while they were on my feet, spending a good five minutes on each one. I’d owned them since a senior dance in high school, and the area just in back of the toes was as creased as a cutting board. Some Beethoven quartet was winding down on the record player.
In the bathroom mirror my reflection had drastically improved over the past day or so. My hair had changed over to gray when I was 22, a semester into medieval studies, and had not recuperated since. Sometimes it lent a grave dignity to my poor, sullen face. Frankly, I was exhilarated to be working again, and the case fascinated me because it made no overtures to being eventful. I smiled at myself, and the smile was nearly authentic.
I scrubbed the dishes in the sink while my toast burned. Sang off-key at the radio, had a couple bites of cereal. I brought the toast with me into the taxi, wrapped in a napkin. The bald, unhealthy-looking driver scowled at me in the rearview, muttering at the steering wheel in a volley of whispered complaints that I believed were directed at me.
Whole parts of the city were nothing but trash. Clenched in the early rush of vehicles, I looked at the streets heaped with unappealing black bags. People were hurling refuse indiscriminately onto the sidewalk now. Wrappers, beer cans, egg cartons, all manner of comestibles, soaked from the rain and strewn in parking lots and in lawns. Rotting meat was prevalent, its sunset-pink juices draining into the gutter. Some folks had attempted to drive their trash to the public landfill outside of town but were turned back: the big stinking crater in the ground was filled to capacity. Further digging had commenced. They would never be done digging. Maybe that’s the end to all outwardly impressive cultures.
The driver and I made a few snide quips at the extravagant neighborhood. He beat a fast left onto 3rd to outpace a light.
Carol Bergen’s house was near the middle of the block on the wide, cedar-lined boulevard, number 113, with a cast-iron woodpecker for a mailbox. Two sculpted bushes guarded the driveway.
I handed the driver fare plus a ten.
“You ain’t got to be cocky about it,” he said.
Compared to the ultra-modern monstrosities that formed the rest of the block, the Bergen residence was almost Victorian. Lattice-work ran the length of the flaking brownstone facade, shoots of vine grappling at the white criss-crossed planks. The walkway was red brick, the air infused with the dense sweetness of wet grass. A shiny car half poked out of the garage, and golf clubs were scattered in the yards.
I rang the bell and a dull chime flirted out of tune with a standard hymn. A white, monotonous sky held an airplane. Before I could press the bell a second time a woman had the door ajar, swaying in a liquored, stumbling dance. A recently lit cigarette dangled out of her thin lips, and when she grinned it hit the floor. I stamped it out for her.
“Come on in,” she said, the woman’s eyes puffy, drowsy. “It’s raining all over you.”
“Mrs. Bergen?” I removed my hat and paused on the mat.
“Come on in,” she repeated lightheartedly. “Whoever you are you can’t be any worse.”
“I might be a little worse. The light isn’t so good.”
“You live around here?” she inquired, emphasizing each word.
I said that I could barely afford to knock on doors in this neighborhood.
“Then you can’t be any worse,” she said. “Something happens to people around here. They get dull and find ways to scare one another. I’m from Minneapolis originally.”
“Decent town,” I said.
“Is it really?” she asked gravely. “I don’t remember much about it. I lived with an evil aunt who collected these hideous monkey figurines she claimed were from Egypt. Why do you ask?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Carol Bergen was a short, scrawny woman in a white linen shirt that fit her like a drape. Somewhere embroiled in her forties, unmistakably shaken, a person who is born twitchy. The lines in her sallow face were an ideal slope for tears. Her breath was a high percentage and to whichever label it belonged it was working.
“I’m Harry Jome,” I said.
She pronounced my name familiarly, as though we’d gone to middle school together.
“You sister-in-law contacted me to see what I could make of your husband’s suicide.”
Mrs. Bergen winced at the mention of her husband, muttering only, “Oh,” and a beat later, “Why?”
“I’m not awfully sure. But sometimes it pays to not be awfully sure. Mrs. Longtree essentially wants to know the reason for his demise, whether it’s in the blood or what it is.” I shrugged. “So, now you know as much as I do.”
Downcast and confused, she offered to take my coat and hat, and when I declined, she insisted on helping me out of my coat and hat and clutched my coat and hat in her bony arms. She tottered into the walls as she led me through a foyer. Blank, faded spots were on the walls, where photographs or watercolors had once been.
The kitchen at the end of the hallway was a cluttered mess of grimy dishes, blackened pots, cabinets disarrayed. Mrs. Bergen plunked my coat and hat on one of the chairs and poured two glasses of clear liquid from an unmarked bottle. Turned, I could see that the seat of her tan pants was patterned in coffee grounds. With her back to me she looked healthy and almost sexy. When she turned and seemed to guess my thoughts I found myself mourning the last eight or so years of her life with her. Every movement she made was misery disguised as movement.
Her body swayed clownishly as she tried to find the chair that I was positioning under her. She grimaced at me as though she had just swallowed half a decanter of melted plastic. Taped to the refrigerator was a finished crossword puzzle.
“Nice work,” I said, pointing at it.
She slid into the chair inch by inch. I took the chair opposite. Mrs. Bergen pushed one of the glasses over to my side, cutting a swath through anthills of cigarette ash.
“Ben and I did that the night before, I guess, and by the way what’re you doing here?”
“I’m here about Mr. Bergen—Ben.”
“Ben’s not here.”
“Ms. Longtree sent me over.”
I noticed that Mrs. Bergen’s exuberant brown hair was a wig. It slipped forward over an eyebrow, revealing close-cropped gray bangs.
“Bitch,” Mrs. Bergen mouthed. “You want to know something?”
She looked at the ceiling, at a loss for what she was going to say.
“How did Ben act toward the end?” I asked.
Her head snapped back down. “I don’t like these questions.”
“They’re the only ones I brought.”
“Let me apologize,” she said. “There something wrong with your glass? Prefer whiskey or vodka or something?”
“I don’t drink.”
“What, were you raised by Quakers?” she snarled as though I had just insulted her first cousin.
“No,” I said. “Alcoholics.”
She laughed and hissed at the same time, lighting another cigarette and sticking it instantly into an ashtray, wrong end first. “Sometimes I think I’m better than anybody in the world.” She closed her eyes for a while. Downed her drink fast. Her eyes flicked back open and she leaned across the table. “Let me tell you something, Harry Jome, or whoever I’m talking to,” she whispered.
I put my head closer. Carol rose halfway out of her seat, knocking over her empty glass, and pulled my head roughly toward her waiting mouth. Close up, the mix of booze and fruity shampoo was a sickening combination. The kiss was malicious. Pulling sloppily away from me, she plunked back into place, crying suddenly and softly.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked. “I mean, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”
“You thought I was somebody else,” I said.
“I guess you’re right,” she said.
“I’m just here about Ben.”
“Excuse me while I go away for a moment to compose myself.”
She oscillated into the next room. My stopping by was worthless and sorrowful. An untoward kindness came over me and I put her glass in the sink, then lifted my hat and coat on. Passing by the living room I saw that she had fallen asleep on the orange corduroy sofa, her restless body twitching in a nightmare that would be right where she’d left it. One of her sad eyes opened and she murmured, “I’m better than everyone else in the world, except for—” and didn’t finish plagiarizing herself.
High above the couch there was a drawing of an orchard that I barely glanced at and would have forgotten had it not been so strikingly out of place in a room with no other pictures. The style was expressionistic and influenced by twilight, similar to a Goya print or a print by a friend of Goya’s.
So far the only thing I knew about Ben Bergen was that he had been alive and now he wasn’t.
I shut the front door silently behind me just as Carol Bergen belched in her sleep.
Considering Mrs. Bergen’s overall condition, it suddenly hit me that Sue Longtree’s inquiry was absurd. What was she expecting me to find out? Why? Did it make any difference if you knew as definitive that you were crazy and that you’d been crazy from the start? Plus, Sue didn’t care a lot about the fate of her brother, only how it impinged on her. Still, eight grand was a tidy sum I couldn’t pass up, even if I wasn’t too sure what I was passing up and what I was holding onto.
Strong winds were racing in from the east and I had to wrestle all the way to the Santos Building, sweating when I reached the downstairs lobby. As usual, nobody was around. The stairwell was gray and dank, haunted by a deathly stale scent. A puddle had formed on the second-floor landing and I hopped over the little pool.
I rummaged through my drawers for nothing in particular. I was anxious, confined; the euphoria of the morning had been beaten to death by Carol Bergen’s pathos. I kind of felt bad for her because I knew what it was like to wage a fruitless struggle against the bottle. And maybe a little affectionate, too. Mrs. Bergen was an apt cliche, and cliches are dangerous, because they’re generally so appropriate.
In the drawers I picked out a bullet that had been mailed to me by an incapable man in the heat of his divorce; a counterfeit $100 bill; antacid tablets; a candy bar that had liquefied and solidified so frequently that the silver wrapping was probably more edible; $1.27 in loose change; the degree I’d earned at a stuffy haven of higher learning; one shelled cashew; and nine street maps of the city. A snooping biographer would have all the details he would ever need to write the life of Harry Jome, and then he’d quit and tell his publisher it didn’t amount to much—an article if he was lucky, and could he have a few spare bucks for the work, to keep things genuine, because anybody who would write about me would necessarily be the kind of person who was often broke. I dusted out the lint, replaced the junk, and was squeezing myself into a mild depression when the phone rang.
“Jome,” I said into the receiver.
“You sound uncertain about that,” Sue Longtree said.
“Just a little low. Your sister-in-law is a six-a.m. drunk. There’s not much I can do with her. Even tried to seduce me, I think. She’s got a lot of problems.”
“I wonder if she’s still my sister-in-law,” Sue said musingly. “With Ben dead and everything.”
“Would you like me to find that out too?”
“Saying something dumb isn’t the same as wit.”
“Wit is too profound for me. I usually just bounce my head against the wall for kicks.”
Sue cleared her throat.
“You know,” I said. “You haven’t really told me why you suspect this preposterous theory about your family.”
“Both my grandparents were suicides. At the same time.”
“Double suicides are as rare as twins.”
“Just as hard to feed, too.”
“Ms. Longtree, I think maybe—”
“You’re going a little short on my prefix, Mr. Jome. Did I tell you I’m married?”
“I must not have been listening. There was a lot to look at and I might have ignored that knowledge.”
I held the phone in the crook of my shoulder and took it for a walk to the window. Another dreary, pitiable day that had no ambition, the kind of sky that made you want to build a better one.
“I haven’t traced my genealogy far, but what I know is that there is cause to worry.”
“What you need is someone to let you talk and cry and stuff.”
She laughed and it was horrendous. “Everybody has a shrink nowadays,” she said. “You give him a problem and he gives you some cute little yellow pills to help remember your childhood differently.”
I thought of her hair draped lugubriously over the phone. Red hair always bothered me, and by that I mean it has never bothered me.
“Besides,” she said. “What would you do if you were me? It’s possible that I’m a threat to myself or other people. If you can get evidence I’ll check myself into the nearest blue ward a second later.”
“This isn’t going anywhere.”
“A happy person does not kill himself is all I am saying, and from what I know my family has a tendency toward killing themselves.”
A taut silence ensnared itself on the line.
“Well,” I said. “OK then.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Jome.”
Sue Longtree was pretty, dedicated, endearingly eccentric. She reminded me of someone I’d like a lot. She was nuts, but she wore it well, and she was also smart, but smart is an acquired trait, and occasionally a tad dangerous. She was something else. I couldn’t say what.
Down below in the rain-puttering street a person shouted as loud as he could, as though the shrill message was intended solely for my edification.