Authors: Isla Morley
It is a long time before the pupus come, accompanied again with the waiter’s apologetic shrug. I am already tired and ready to leave, the heat from the day lingering on the evening’s damp breeze. The spot just above my left eye begins to vibrate, and then the flare goes off somewhere to my right. In the flashbulb instant that I feel the vibration of the oncoming migraine, I see a man at the table closest to the kitchen looking not in the direction of the setting sun but directly at us. Or rather at Greg.
“Do you know that man?”
“Who?” Greg turns.
“No, over there—by the kitchen. The old man sitting by himself.” It’s his stoop rather than his face that makes him appear old.
Greg flushes and half raises his hand in salutation.
“Someone from church?” I ask.
“No one you know,” he says, too quickly.
“He keeps looking at us,” I say, digging my finger into the corner of my eye, blinking against the flashbulbs. “Why is he staring at you? Who is he?”
“Shall we go?”
“What? Our order hasn’t arrived yet.”
“Let’s go, Abbe; you don’t look well.” He folds his napkin and puts it on the table, careful not to glance in the direction of the lone diner.
don’t look well. Who is that man?”
Greg lifts his hand and flags the waiter, who rushes over. “The bill, please. We have to leave.”
“Your entrees will be out shortly, sir, sorry for the wait,” the waiter apologizes.
“Sorry, it’s not you,” my husband explains to the waiter, ignoring me. “Emergency.”
“What the hell are you going on about? What emergency?” The waiter rushes off, but Greg stands and comes around to my seat.
“Who, Greg? Who is he?” I demand. Both the man’s eyes and hands flicker and fidget. But for the patch of dyed black hair, he lacks color, as though he had been put through a strainer. Where his lips ought to be there is only a thin line, like an old scar, a mouth that has been stitched closed. His hands keep fidgeting and when I focus on what they are doing I see that he is making origami from a stack of cocktail napkins. They are red, and at first glance it appears as though the man has sat down to a pool of blood.
Suddenly I know the answer before Greg gives it.
“Mr. Nguyen, Abbe. That’s Mr. Nguyen,” whispers Greg, steering me toward the register where the waiter hands him the bill and Greg’s wallet opens, credit card ready. The hammer in my head now keeps time with my heart and all the chatter of the waiting area ceases. The candles on the tables suddenly are acutely bright and I can hear the fans whir overhead like choppers.
Greg is bending over the receipt, glasses on so he can sign it, when I feel, for the first time since before Cleo died, the undeniable gravitational pull of will. Each step is deliberate, measured, and quick, quick enough to bring me to the table of the man before anyone can stop me.
He looks up at me and around the wrinkles is the smallest of smiles, the dawning of a greeting or an apology, but before his lips part
even wide enough to form a word, I say, “You should be locked up, you know! Locked up!”
Suddenly Greg clutches at my arm. “Abbe, please!”
“You’re a murderer, do you understand?” I snarl.
“Madam, we must ask you—” the maître d’ says.
And before they each take an arm, I reach out and strike his face with one backward swing of my hand. The electrical current that has been bothering my eye and setting off the flashbulbs rushes out of my arm, leaving it limp and hot.
“Jesus!” someone says. “She’s crazy!” another voice says. Someone else comes to assist the man, who has laid down his head among his crumpled creations, while I am jostled to the exit amid Greg’s flapping apologies.
MY MOTHER did not know she had watered her beautiful rosebushes for the last time when she came in one Sunday afternoon, happily complaining of a sore back. Placing the yellow roses in a vase for the dining room table that I had been told to set, she had been humming. I remember she was humming because it was I rather than she who heard my father’s car gear down before it turned into the driveway. She’d been humming since the previous day when the tobacco-scented journal arrived in the mail from America with a note from Rhiaan marking the page upon which his new poem was printed.
My father had seen it despite her attempts to conceal it, but who was to know whether he actually read it? If he did, then surely he would have thrown a few dishes or slammed a door, because
was “Commie bullshit” of the first order. But there had been no rampage, and we were off the hook. Or so we thought.
It was the squealing tires that cut short my mother’s humming, that made us both run to the living room window in time to see my father’s pickup flatten her rosebushes one after the other before skidding to a
stop two feet away from where we stood. And it seemed that we had been glued in place then, hearts plastered on our faces, the last bars of the hum floating above us, while the variegated petals settled on the lawn. My mother’s face was a bald stump from which the petals had been plucked. But it was my father’s face that surprised me most, for in all the months I could remember I had not seen him laugh with such malcontent abandon.
She should have slapped him;
should have slapped him instead of watching him kick the dismembered blossoms on the ground. Should have slapped him when he came inside, petals still stuck to his work boots, and said, “Christ, Louise, your roses have fucked up my fender!”
I SIT AT THE DINING ROOM TABLE, gleaming from homemade wax, and pluck the petals of each long-stemmed dethorned rose. The ice pick has removed itself from my left eye, but something is still worrying the corner of my peripheral vision. The old man’s face keeps getting in the way, and the feeling of his face on the back of my hand. It is only when I come to the last rose, when the table is overlaid with fragrant petals, that it comes fully and forcefully into focus, as clearly as the deliberateness of my father’s rampage: Gregory knew Mr. Nguyen.
By the time Greg comes down to the kitchen for his monastic breakfast, I am waiting for him at the table. Before he can express his surprise that I am up before the city lights have turned off, I hand him his morning paper. Instead of reading the headlines, he scans my face.
“At what point did you and the man who killed our daughter become friends?” I demand.
“At what point did you start having an affair with someone else?”
“Jesus, Greg. The man killed Cleo. He drove his car into her body and ended her life. He ended
lives,” I say, ignoring his question but feeling the panic beginning to well.
“This is something you need to understand, okay? It was an accident. He didn’t intend to do it; he didn’t wake up one day and plan to hit a pedestrian. He didn’t plan to hurt Cleo or destroy our lives. If anyone’s been doing any planning around here, it’s you!” Blame, for Greg, is new and he tries it on like the latest clergy stole he ordered from a catalog.
“Accident, yes, accident. It’s what everybody says. But an accident means it wasn’t anyone’s fault, and Cleo’s death
someone’s fault, Gregory. It was that bastard’s fault. And it was Theresa’s fault. And God knows it was my fault too. Intent does not matter. What matters is that we pay. And he has to pay. Except you want to get him off the hook.
You want to be his buddy and his priest and his savior! So that you can feel good, and you can say your prayers at night and tell God what an almighty good deed you did today!”
“You don’t know what you’re saying, Abbe.”
“Oh, ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they say’ . . . You think you can wrap yourself up in your religion so you don’t have to be real.”
“Don’t lecture me on being real! You think you are real because you sit in this house, day after day, week after week, winding clocks and staring at photos? You think you’re being real because you won’t leave the house, or come to church, or go back to work, that you can’t do one nice thing for someone else, say one nice thing to Petal. But listening to the man who has killed my child, watching him weep and beg, that’s not real, right? It’s not real trying to forgive the man who least deserves my forgiveness? What I know is real, Abbe, is that that man’s debt is so big we can never collect on it; all we have a chance of doing is to forgive it.”
forgive it, Greg. You get on with your business of forgiving sinners and playing God.”
“It’s better than playing the fool,” he mutters, turning away, spent.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why don’t you ask your boyfriend?” he replies without looking back. I realize neither of our questions, the ones that started this exchange in the first place, has been answered.
THE THREE-STORY OFFICE COMPLEX of Kahako Publishing Inc. is fronted with date palm trees and orange bougainvillea, which bloom despite persistent negligence on the part of the occupants, who never look out their blinds-drawn windows. Today the cluster of bums whose belongings are normally piled in the corner of the front entrance are being shooed down the road lined with black film crew trucks by two security guards. A starched-looking woman with horn-rimmed spectacles blocks the entrance to the lobby with a sign that reads QUIET PLEASE! FILMING. I look beyond her to the cameraman and the faux
reception desk to which he is aimed. The sign hanging beneath it says CARSON P. FULLER ASYLUM. Someone in a beret (who wears a beret in Hawaii, for Pete’s sake!) shouts “Action!” and suddenly a man in a white coat tries to placate a very large, hairy fellow who apparently has not noticed that the gap in his hospital gown affords a rather unflattering view of his derriere. Just as he begins foaming at the mouth, Beret Man shouts, “Cut! Is it too much trouble, ladies and gentlemen, to find a hospital gown that wasn’t made for a GODDAMN MIDGET?”
I slip past the chaos and enter through the door whose sign above it I still recognize: PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” exclaims Buella with a little applause when I stand in front of her desk. After being enveloped by layers of burgundy scarves, I suffer through her scrutiny of my outfit, which today is jeans and a T-shirt. Judging from her expression, as though she has caught a whiff of something unpleasant, I know that Buella is disappointed to find not even one adornment.
“Fitting that I should return to work on the day it’s become a loony bin,” I say, hoping to distract her.
“Oh, darling, it’s all very exciting! They’re filming the season premiere of
Across the Border
. Did you see Roan Mitchell? He has raised the estrogen level in this place by a few hundred pints. He’s beautiful, but my God, the man has an ego—he had the nerve to ask me if I wanted his autograph!”
“Did you get it?”
“Of course not! I asked him if he wanted mine!”
“Jean in?” I ask, looking at the closed door.
“Yes, but she’s meeting with the printers at the moment. I’ll buzz you when she’s out. Abbe, it’s wonderful to have you back.” As a postscript, she adds, “Oooh, you are going to make the Italian Stallion’s day!”