Authors: Michael Nava
After a moment, I said, “I believe you, Chris. I’m sorry if I was out of line.”
“Don’t you ever wonder about us?”
“There’s nothing to be gained by it.”
“No,” he said, thoughtfully. “I guess not. You probably have a lover.”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t. You were right about that, Chris. It’s not so easy to find someone, not for more than sex, I mean.”
“It doesn’t sound like being out of the closet is much better than being in it,” he said.
“That’s what you never understood,” I said. “I didn’t come out to improve my chances of finding a boyfriend. I came out because I had to.”
“Would you change who you are if you could?”
“Have you?” I asked him.
He avoided my eyes. “Can you get the charge reduced, Henry? Will you do that for me?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll take care of it.”
In the end, Chris pled to disturbing the peace in front of a fierce old judge named Atlas Angeloni who called him a pervert after he read the arrest report. It must have been the most humiliating day of his life. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get a thank-you note.
The Chandlers lived in Pasadena on a winding, tree-lined road of quiet affluence. It was the kind of neighborhood that didn’t have sidewalks and employed private armed security patrols. At the corner was a bus stop where a bus came twice a day to deliver and remove the maids. The big, rambling houses combined elements of Spanish Mission and English Tudor in a bland melange of white stucco and exposed beams, lapped by deep lawns the color of money. They reminded me of the opening lines from Yeats’s poem about the Irish Civil War: “Surely among the rich man’s flowering lawns,/Amid the rustle of his planted hills,/Life overflows without ambitious pain…” I thought of neighborhoods in the city, blighted by drugs, poverty and violence, the houses more like bunkers than habitations. The houses to which the maids returned. The ugly, cheap apartment buildings in the valley, like the one that had collapsed in the earthquake across the street from where Zack Bowen lived. Life overflowed there, too, but it was more sewage than rainwater. A slow-motion civil war was taking place all over the city; it needed only a spark to combust. Some of the people who lived in these great houses were aware of that, Chris and Bay among them, and they did what they could. Me, too, for that matter. The ones who were honest about it knew it wasn’t enough.
I pulled into the driveway at the Chandlers’ house behind a black Jeep Cherokee, went up to the door and rang the bell. The door opened and Joey Chandler stood looking at me with his father’s pale eyes. The resemblance didn’t end there. At twenty, he was Chris in miniature, having inherited his father’s features, but not his height, being no more than five-eight. In the last couple of years, he had taken up weight lifting and built himself a heavy, hyperbolic body that he inhabited without grace.
Joey had always been an anxious and difficult boy. As a child he’d been given to sudden, destructive rages. While these had abated when he reached adolescence, he still gave the impression of deep and abiding fury. Bay blamed his emotional disorders on her drinking when he was a child. Maybe that was true, but I sometimes wondered if Joey hadn’t also absorbed some of his closeted father’s ambivalence, because Chris worked at fatherhood with an intensity that seemed driven by guilt. When I’d once said something like this to Chris, it was as if I’d accused him of being a child molester and I never mentioned it again.
Whatever the cause, Joey was not a likable boy.
“Hi, Joey,” I said. “I’m so sorry about your father.”
He glanced at me indifferently and said, “She’s in the kitchen.”
Before I could respond, he turned and walked away.
I stepped into an octagonal foyer. There was an Oriental carpet of deep red on the parquet floor, and in the center of it a rosewood table on which a big blue vase held white carnations. An archway opened to a wide hall. At the end was a grand staircase. The faint spicy smell of the carnations pervaded the still air. I remembered Chris’s pride the first time he had shown me through the house, as if it was a museum to his success, while Bay, who had grown up rich, had been quietly but distinctly embarrassed.
I made my way through the richly furnished rooms to the kitchen, where I found Bay on the phone. She saw me and smiled sourly. Her face was pale and she wore no makeup. There were tight lines across her forehead and around her mouth. She had long ago dieted and exercised away her schoolgirl fat, achieving a society-lady thinness that was accentuated rather than hidden by the baggy jeans and loose white tee shirt she wore. There was, in fact, little left of the boozy college girl with whom I’d once danced in the gay dives of mid-’70s San Francisco. This woman radiated a hard-won self-assurance. I poured myself a cup of coffee from the silver thermos on the marble-topped island in the center of the bright kitchen and walked to the French doors at the end of the room. They opened out to the garden and the swimming pool, where Joey sat, his massive back to me, staring at the water.
Bay finished her conversation and hung up the phone.
“Hello, Henry,” she said, coolly.
I walked back to her and kissed her cheek. “Hello, Bay. How are you doing with all this?”
She lit a cigarette from the pack on the counter, exhaled a furious cloud of smoke and said, “You bastard.”
OU WANT TO EXPLAIN
that?” I asked after a moment.
“How long did you know about Chris?” she demanded. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“That he was gay? Is that what you mean, Bay?”
She stubbed out her cigarette. “I trusted you,” she said. “I confided in you, and all this time you lied to me. How do you think it felt when that policewoman told me that Chris had been arrested in the bushes with another man? You knew about that, you knew about this other thing, this fling of his. How many others were there, Henry?” Her hands shook. “What kind of friend are you?”
“It wasn’t my place to tell you,” I said.
She flushed, her face tight as a mask. “But you knew,” she said sharply.
“It was never that simple,” I replied. “What Chris told me about his sexuality changed over the years, but I know he was always committed to your marriage.”
“Until he left me,” she said bitterly.
“I didn’t find out about that until a couple of days ago,” I said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth, Bay. As far as I knew, Chris was faithful to you except for that one incident in San Francisco.”
“When married men cheat on their wives, it’s usually with another woman,” she said. “Why did he go into that park? Why did he call you?”
“He told me he knew he was gay from the time he was fourteen,” I told her, “but he didn’t want to be. He wanted a family, stability, a career, things he didn’t think he could have if he was gay. He also loved you. That’s why he married you. He made a choice, Bay, a conscious, deliberate choice. I didn’t think I had the right to interfere.”
“You could have warned me.”
“Warned you about what, that someday he might leave you for someone else? Isn’t that a risk that everyone assumes when they live with someone else?”
“It’s not the same,” she said. “If he’d left me for another woman, he would’ve still been the same person, but when he left me for this other man, it was as if I’d never known him.”
“Man or woman, I don’t see the difference.”
“Do you know what he told me?” she said, the bitterness creeping back into her voice. “He said he needed to be loved by that person in that way. I was so angry, I could have killed him myself.”
“And then someone did,” I said.
She caught her breath. “What do you mean by that?”
“Have you told the police that Chris left you?”
She avoided my eyes. “No.”
“I didn’t think so,” I said. “McBeth, the homicide detective who talked to me, didn’t seem to know. Why didn’t you tell her, Bay?”
She fumbled for a cigarette. “It’s humiliating,” she said. “It’s not something I want people to know.”
“These aren’t just people,” I said. “These are the police. It’s just a matter of time before they find out. They’re already searching for Chris’s friend. It won’t look good when they find out that you withheld that information from them.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, nervously raising the cigarette to her mouth.
“Chris left you, and shortly afterwards someone killed him. There’s a motive there.”
She stared at me aghast. “You think I…”
“I’m only telling you what it’s going to look like to the police.”
She shook her head violently. “That’s absurd. If anyone had a motive to kill Chris, it was that man.”
“Zack Bowen? Why?”
“Chris left him money,” she said, angrily. “He changed his will and made him a beneficiary.”
That made me pause a moment. I hadn’t been able to see Zack killing Chris in a fit of passion. But money made everybody do foolish things.
“Did you tell the police?” I asked.
“I didn’t know until after they talked to me,” she said. She glanced out toward the pool. Joey had got up and was walking toward the house. “You’re right, Henry, it was a mistake for me not to have told the police that Chris had left me. I’ll call them today. I’m sure they’ll be interested to know about the will, too.”
“How is Joey taking this?”
When she looked back at me, I thought I detected a glimmer of fear in her eyes. “He loved his father,” she said.
“He didn’t seem too broken up when he let me in,” I started to say.
“I’m glad he’s dead.” Joey was standing in the doorway now, his hands balled into fists.
Bay said, “Joey!”
He came into the kitchen and drilled me with his pale eyes. “He was a faggot and I’m glad he’s dead.”
“I didn’t know you felt that way about gay people,” I said.
“He’s upset, Henry,” Bay said quickly. “He doesn’t mean it.”
Joey turned on her. “He ruined this family.”
“Whatever he did, he didn’t deserve to die for it,” I said.
“What do you know?” he said contemptuously. “My dad, judge of the year. Fag of the year. That’s what they should’ve given him the award for.”
Bay hurled herself around the counter and slapped him. “That’s enough.”
He touched his face. “Fuck you,” he shouted, and ran from the room. In the distance, a door slammed.
Bay slumped against the counter. “Do you mind going now, Henry? I think I’ve had enough for one morning.”
“I’m sorry, Bay,” I said.
“You can’t blame Joey,” she said, turning to me. “He’s still furious with Chris for leaving. He doesn’t understand yet that he won’t be coming back.”
It seemed to me she was talking as much about herself as her son.
When I went out to my car, I saw Joey sitting in the driver’s seat of the Jeep. Something he had said in the house caught my attention. I went over to him. He stared straight ahead, his hands on the steering wheel. The key was in the ignition.
“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to block you.”
“Are you leaving now?” he rasped.
“If you’ll answer a question,” I said.
He shifted slightly in the seat. “What?”
“Why did you say that about the award? The judge of the year award? Did you know your father was killed with it?”
His knuckles went white on the steering wheel, and when he answered there was a note of pleading in his fury. “Could you please let me out, please?”
I got into my car and backed out of the driveway. Joey darted out and skidded down the street, running the stop sign at the corner. I looked back at the house. Bay was standing at the door. I lifted my hand. She didn’t wave back.
I thought. Joey knew his father had been killed with the award. It was on his mind, that was why he’d mentioned it in the kitchen. He was so angry that he probably wasn’t aware of what he’d said until I asked him about it, and then he remembered that according to the paper, the weapon used to kill Chris was still unknown. And, in fact, according to Captain Closet, the police didn’t know, so how could Joey Chandler know? Only if he had been in Chris’s chambers the night he was murdered or had talked to someone who was.
I let the thought sink in. Bay hadn’t told the police Chris had left her because she was humiliated by it, she said. I remembered my first conversation with her after Chris’s death became public. When I’d asked her if Chris had been worried about anything, she said no, though I knew from having talked to Zack that Chris had left her. Was she too humiliated to tell me about their troubles? It wasn’t like Bay to lie, nor was it likely that she wouldn’t have figured out that her marital problems may have interested the police. She was, after all, both the daughter and the wife of lawyers. And this sudden mention of Chris having named Zack as a beneficiary in his will. That seemed improvised, as if to deflect suspicion away from her, or Joey.
Then it occurred to me that I was actually considering Bay or Joey as murder suspects, and the thought shamed me. Was Bay a liar? Wasn’t I a greater one? Hadn’t I failed to mention to her that Chris and I had slept together when we were students? Hadn’t I forgotten to disclose that I not only knew Zack Bowen, but had talked to him the night Chris was murdered? I could try to rationalize my lies of omission as attempts to protect her from knowledge that would only make things worse for her, but that in itself was a lie. I hadn’t told her about Chris and me because I was afraid to, I hadn’t told her about Zack for the same reason. I was afraid to lose her friendship, but that didn’t keep me from suspecting her of Chris’s murder. She was right not to trust me.
I wanted to wash my hands of all of them, Chris, Zack Bowen, Joey, Bay, but it was too late for that. Twenty years too late. Now I would have to see it through.
HAD TOLD BAY
the truth about one thing: until Zack Bowen had turned up at my door four days ago, I had had no reason to believe that Chris had been unfaithful to her after his arrest in San Francisco. I was thinking about that as I drove across town to the address Sam Bligh had given me, which was somewhere in the Hollywood Hills above the Sunset Strip. He wasn’t expecting me for another couple of hours, but it occurred to me that I had a better chance of catching Zack if I turned up unannounced. The weather had heated up and there were low clouds in the sky, creating a humid, sour atmosphere. The aftereffects of the earthquake were still in the news, but now it was all about emergency relief and who was going to pay for it. As with most disasters in the city, the poorest neighborhoods were the hardest hit and the various levels of government were quick to disclaim any responsibility for them. The rest of the city had already begun to turn its attention elsewhere. It really was a brutal place, Los Angeles, less a city than a collection of hostile villages united only in their mutual suspicion of each other and a susceptibility to disasters, natural and otherwise. Fires, floods, riots and earthquakes; it was looking more and more like Armageddon-by-the-Pacific.