Authors: Valerie Trueblood
Copyright Â© 2016 Valerie Trueblood
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
“His Rank” was previously published in
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Trueblood, Valerie.
Title: Criminals: love stories / Valerie Trueblood.
Description: Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2016. | 2015
Identifiers: LCCN 2015035616
Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Literary.
Classification: LCC PS3620.R84 A6 2016 | DDC 813/.6âdc23
LC record available at
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e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-752-7
“O if I am to have so much, let me have more!”
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,”
t was my husband, not me, who had the binoculars and the bird books. He closed his heavy Audubon on his chest and died with a finger marking a page. The nurse moved the book, so I don't know which bird his eyes saw last. I didn't want to look at them. I never wanted to know all about birds. What Walt Whitman told us in poems, of his little canary greater than books, his frigate bird that “rested on the sky”: that was enough. His gray-brown thrush. His mockingbird. Not symbols but animals with souls, like himself. One his sad brother.
My husband would have been glad when the black duck appeared, glad to see me take an interest in it. In the first months, I would hear his voice in the house. “Take an interest!” “Go ahead and cry, I'm honored. Cry, but not all day.” “Go to the doctor.” “Just give the bird books to the library.” He had loved birds, put time and thought into them, but they were a hobby. He would not have stayed up at night worrying about a particular one. Yet if you were to do that, he was a man who would have tried to console you.
The year he died, the year the duck appeared, I got involved with a family in the neighborhood, the Lesages.
Raya, the mother, would not settle for anything halfhearted once you crossed into her house and she into yours. That was a troth. People were always breaking it, though. Half the friends she had made had lost patience with her drinking and her high-handed, possessive affection. Of a defector she would say, “I don't know what it is, I've known her forever, she's someone I love.”
“That's probably it,” her son would say. He could say it kindly.
The one I would have wanted when I was young was her son, for his beauty. He, Randy, was a twenty-one-year-old boy with a perfect good natureâthe only good-natured one in the family. It was hard to say how an ordinary liking for people could have sprung up in that family. But Randy would single you out, invite you. “Connie, come upstairs. You can see my stuffed animals! Mom kept them all.” He would take the stairs two at a time: to him you were not somebody having to grab the banister and catch up. In his old room, stuffed animals by the dozen were flopped on the comforter and sitting up on the shelves. Looking out of the black eyes at us was Time itself. I lost my breath. Did I have sons in their fifties, living in cities of their own? Where had I put the donkey, the elephant without ears? Quickly Randy gave me his arm.
Randy was a sharer; he stood ready to share your moment of panic. He had long-lashed blue eyes, a child's eyes. He could disarm and flatter you with a beautiful, intimate, predatory smile, for along with his sweetness went a streak of something less than cruelty but more than mischief.
He lived with his lover, Hans. Hans was in his forties, a fit, handsome, unsmiling man with hair cut so close you could see the curl only as a silver ripple. “You're going to love Hans,” Raya said, and she was right. I would love him for his resemblance to my husband, in his austerity, his ardent, unshareable, preoccupying interests, but would he love me? I didn't say that of course. At this age we are thought to have left off longing to be anyone's favorite, while coming ourselves into a manageable and harmless general fondness, as for books we finally have time to read.
“I know he's a lot older than Randy,” Raya went on, “but I think of it this way: Randy's safe there. He's safe with Hans.”
Hans was a professor of anthropology and had a name in his field; he was Hans Klaas, author of books about the original peoples of the Northwest. Once he knew you he would let fall facts about them here and there, in his withdrawn but precise way. What happened to these people to eradicate all they lived to do was too serious for conversation. You had to go out onto the balcony of his condo in winter and stand in the cold rain at night, hold the wet railing with him in a stiff homage to the lost. You had to look down at the Sound, cross out the freighters and tugs, the ferries with their lights, and place on the black waters one high-prowed dugout canoe as long as a semi.
Hans never touched on the subjects Randy chattered about away from himâthe two-spirit, once known as
who dressed and lived as the opposite sex, or the “manly-hearted woman.” “Don't ask him about that stuff,” Randy said. “No no no.”
That first night, on being told that I had taught English and even written a book in my younger days, Hans said, “Indeed!” The cold smile he gave me was the opposite of Randy's.
“It's about Walt Whitman,” Randy said. “I'm halfway.” People are always halfway through your book. Zeno was right; they will never reach the end. I'm thankful not to have written another. “It's good!” Randy added.
“I would have assumed no less,” said Hans. That was our meeting. It didn't matter; we would be friends. A midnight would come when, overcoming his hatred of the phone, he would call me and say lightly, “You don't happen to remember where Randy's class was meeting, do you, dear?”
Randy was attending the community college where he could get night classes, though moving in with Hans had taken him far from the campus and the cruising areas of Capitol Hill.
The rooms were huge, spare. There was an elaborate sound system, and once Hans knew I was losing my hearing he would invite me over to listen with the volume up. He planned carefully so as not to do this when his neighbors were at home. The music open on the rack of the piano was the
, but he had an intention tremor that had put a stop to his playing. “He won't shake hands,”
Randy told me in the elevator, the first night. With someone my age, however, politeness compelled Hans to offer the hand with its slow tremble.
“I'm his only friend,” Randy said in the elevator going down. “People come over because of his cooking. I'm the one who talks to them. If they touch the piano they can't come back. I tell him he's just like my motherâhe doesn't like anybody.” This he said with some pride.
“They both love you.”
“Oh, love.” Randy waved his hand.
The strength of Hans's feeling for Randy was such that when you were in the room with them the air felt close, as in a dedicated enclosure like an ICU or an indoor pool. He wanted Randy home; he disapproved of his day job as a transporter at the hospital. “I couldn't possibly quit. The nurses bring me cookies!”
“Ah,” I said. “But now half the nurses are guys. And the doctors are women.” This I had noticed in my recent stay in the hospital, but what made me say it?
“Guys can make cookies now, it's the law. Hans makes the best macaroons.”
he day I met the Lesages I was halfway through my cardio circuit with the pedometer when I heard shouts coming from one of the big houses. I didn't know who lived there. Even without my hearing aids I could hear the words. Never! Never! Liar! A man and a woman. It was ten in the morning, an hour when most people are not home to scream and weep, but safe in the office or school. A third voice, young and shrill, joined in. I had stopped walking anyway, short of breath and lightheaded, but I listened until a silence fell and one of them opened the door and let the dog out. The dog was a golden retriever, so I put out my hand as heâor as it turned out, sheâtore down the steps and ran at me. She was whining rather than barking. She bit me on the hand. After the bite she hung her head, curled her tail under,
and retreated. A tall woman stepped onto the porch. “What are you doing here?” she said. Her face was white.
“I'm walking,” I said. “Your dog bit me.”
“I'm standing on the sidewalk.”
“I am not. I'm having a heart attack.” I squatted down to rest my palms on the sidewalk, which tilted and became a gray slope. A phrase I had read came into my mind: desert of sidewalk. Something from the paper, about a suburb. Desert of sidewalk, I said to myself as I got down on my side. I reclined like Whitman. I felt I could begin on a poem.
“Oh God! Nathan! Call 911! Morgan bit her! Jesus, she's having a heart attack!” The woman ran back into the house, where, as she would tell it later, her stepdaughter stopped crying to say, “And if you say Jesus in my presence one more time I will call the police,” and she, Raya, the stepmother with two DUIs, in therapy for failing this girl, Caitlin, and all the other members of her family, screamed, “Do that, they'll love it, they'll lock you up and shock your little shit brain. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” Raya was to confess this, and many worse things screamed at this praying girl entrusted to her as a daughter. “But I love her!” And she did, faithful as Caitlin was at that time to a group of kids who stood passing out leaflets about the Rapture. “Convicted Christian! Convicted! That's the word they use!”
Meanwhile a man had crouched and rolled me onto my back. He had his arm under my neck and he was cramming an aspirin past my teeth. “Chew it.” I swallowed and whispered, “You're a doctor, I bet.”
“I am,” he said with that proud sternness they have. Of course he was, as my husband had been, along with the owners of a good number of these houses. He picked up my bitten hand, looked at the tooth marks. He must have been thinking, they put your dog down for this.
“For God's sake, Nathan, start CPR!”
“She's breathing, Raya, and she has a pulse.” The aid car pulled up.
The next day was the first of our friendship. I was going to have a bypass in an hour. The Lesages walked into the CCU holding hands. “I'm so sorry I said you were trespassing,” Raya said, starting to cry
as she raised my hand with the IV in it and kissed my fingers and her own. “Oh, if you'll just believe me.”
“Just please believe that Morgan is a gentle dog. She was worked up. She can't take screaming. She starts racing back and forth, up and down the stairs. . . . Oh Jesus, what's wrong with me?”
To this her husband had no answer, but while we were waiting they filled me in: Nathan was an orthopedist and this was the hospital where he admitted. They had a son, Randy, who had a part-time job there; Raya volunteered there. “Actually, it's community service. Court-ordered. My real work is at home,” Raya said. “Destruction and repair.”
From the CCU you go in your own bed instead of a gurney. Everybody said hello to Nathan as I was rolled along half hearingânow my hearing aids were outâand looking up at the soundproof tiles. I thought of his shouts the day before. What if the OR techs putting on their soft booties had heard him? What if a patient knew the surgeon had been at home screaming, “Because you're a bitch!” before gentle hands gowned him in the OR?
They both walked me all the way to the elevator, where the doors opened for my bed and Raya laid her hand on her heart.
At the bus shelter near my house we have a round lily pond with turtles and ducks. That's the kind of neighborhood it is. At least there's a bus. The people waiting at the river-rock shelter, with its shake roof and benches and pleasantly leaf-strewn floor, carry briefcases.
Across the way is a low ivy-covered church whose bells clang out a hymn at noon. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” a hymn I sang as a child. “Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!” The bells are so out of tune the newspaper ran a letter of complaint. It said you should not do that to Beethoven, and who would disagree? In deference to a life of such mad certainty and exaltation, re-erupting out of every misery, you must not play the music except perfectly. That's what Hans would say, did say. The tragedy of Beethoven's life went far beyond the deafness. No one would love him, let alone marry him.
Were his last words really “The comedy is over,” in Latin? I wish I had asked Hans. He would have known.
You must start right now memorizing music, Hans advised me. Where my hearing was concerned he was almost tender.