The House on Olive Street (8 page)

BOOK: The House on Olive Street
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

She rubbed her chin where it had slammed against the floor. The hurt was still fresh and brought with it a fresh crop of tears—and a fresh bout of reality.
Jack’s not going to any counselor! He’s not going to let you have any baby! You need to get out of here, you big dope. So
what if you love him? Your love is sick! Pretend he’s dead and you just can’t have him. Just go, you idiot! What is the matter with you?

She had fantasies of stabbing him with his girlfriend’s letter opener, hiding him in the trunk of his car, parking it in the long-term lot at the airport…. She wished she could dip his toothbrush in the toilet every morning, but somehow she was too decent. He was really such a cocksucker. How did she manage to feel tenderness for him? What mental illness was this and why did no one else in her family have it?

She hoped her face wasn’t bruised; she didn’t want to have to hide out. She’d already met Barbara, Sable and Elly for dinner, but if something came up and there was a chance to get together, she’d hate to miss it on account of bruises. It had happened that way before. She’d told the girls she was going on a trip with Jack, just long enough for a black eye or swollen lip to vanish. It seemed possible Sable was catching on. On two occasions, as Beth sat in her small town house with telltale facial injuries, listening to her answering machine before picking up the phone, Sable had called—even though Beth had said she’d be out of town. Sable, calling, saying, “Beth, you there, honey? Can you pick up, Beth? Oh, that’s right, you’re on a trip with Jack, right? And I forgot! Well, you’ll have to tell us all about London when you get back!”

And she would—tell them about London or Madrid or New York or Montreal. Though she’d never been there. She’d never been anywhere. She’d never once gone out of town with Jack even though she could fly first class for free. The only place she’d ever used her free-pass privileges was to go to Kansas City to visit her family. Alone.

When her dishes were done she didn’t want to go to bed and lie beside him where she would vacillate between wanting him and wanting to kill him until she fell asleep. Instead, careful to be quiet, she went to her small office in the second upstairs bedroom. She’d go back to work, something she was able to lose herself in. When she was working she managed to temporarily not think about all the lies she told to cover herself and her bruises. Or the way her mother, her entire family for that matter, would be thoroughly ashamed and appalled that Beth had let this happen to herself.

Beth turned on the computer and located the last chapter she’d been working on. She had created a tough, cute and sassy private investigator named Chelsea Dolan who had persevered and gained popularity through five books. It was better all around, Beth thought, that she pour herself into Chelsea’s problems rather than her own. After all, Chelsea actually had a shot at solving hers.

It appeared the victim had been murdered at his desk, as though the perpetrator had wanted his full attention. He could have been killed in a variety of venues: swimming pool, driving his car, eating his dinner, sleeping in his bed. So why, Chelsea wondered, did the killer seem to want it made clear he/she could enter the victim’s home while he was working, engage him in conversation so nonthreatening that the deceased never even rose from his desk chair, never reached for his phone? And then, the killer obviously took his/her leisure in putting that bullet in the victim’s head. A relatively tidy murder. A power play? Oh yes. Because the killer was a woman? Perhaps a woman who’d been wronged.

Good, she thought, rereading it. It would mean changing around the plot a little but she liked the idea
that a woman who’d been wronged could get even. Her readers would like it, too.

She thought about Jack briefly. How sad it was that he’d never change, that they wouldn’t have a family together. He didn’t know how wonderful it could be, growing up in a happy family. It was his loss, she told herself. Poor guy. He’d never know what he was throwing away.

She went back to her manuscript. She changed the single bullet to the victim’s head to four.
Blam Blam Blam Blam.
There. That’s better.

 

It was a good thing Eleanor had been teaching for so many years and could go by rote, because the zing was definitely gone from her lectures. She assigned voluminous papers for every class—she had for years—but at present she was having trouble reading them. Typically, she could return these papers to her students with amazing speed. She wasn’t doing so well at that now.

It had only been a few weeks since Gabby’s death, she reminded herself. Things would just have to go as they go. She wouldn’t apologize or explain to anyone. Of course, the worst of it wasn’t getting behind in work, it was the completely muddled way she felt in her head. Her total lack of concentration. Her mind would suddenly wander off, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, and she would completely forget where she was and what she was doing.

She was attempting to read students’ papers in the evening, when the doorbell rang. It was only seven, but she was already in her robe. She checked the peephole. She wouldn’t open the door unless it was a neighbor in need. But it was Ben! Oh God, she thought. How could she have forgotten that it was Wednesday! Their televi
sion night, as he so delicately put it. She flung open the door. “Oh, Ben, my God, I entirely forgot!”

“Sometimes you’re not very complimentary, Elly,” he said, but he laughed good-naturedly. “That’s okay.”

“It’s my brain. It’s gone to mush.”

“Oh now, I can’t believe that. I brought us some butter brickle ice cream. Can I come in?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, holding the door for him. He held a couple of grocery bags. He always brought some sort of fruits or vegetables and ice cream. “But Ben, I’m not sure I’m good company tonight. Gabby, you know. I’m still so out of it.”

“Maybe you need a shoulder rub, hmm? And a nice dish of butter brickle?”

“I don’t know….”

“Well, let’s see. If it turns out to be a bad night, that’s okay. We could leave the television off and play some music. Or maybe we could play cards…to take your mind off things. Or, I could just go home.”

“No, no, you’ve come all this way. Let’s at least have some ice cream. Can you put on the coffee while I go change into something less comfortable?”

He kissed her cheek. “You don’t have to change, Elly. You look fine to me.”

She considered this for a moment. She
was
comfortable. But he was all cleaned up, wearing his best pale yellow shirt with his favorite burgundy sweater. His face was smoothly shaven and his sparse, thin hair slicked from his right ear to his left ear in an attempt to partially cover his bald head. “I’ll change,” she said. “Be right back.”

How could she have forgotten about Ben? She had hardly even thought about him!

Elly had met Ben years ago. Seven or eight, she
thought. He ran a roadside fruit and vegetable stand that she’d found off the main drag between Sacramento and Berkeley, which she drove three or four days a week. She did a lot of poking around in the small towns off the freeway for diversion. She took various exits just to experiment. On one of the heavily traveled back roads around Davis, Ben had his stand. From April till at least October, she stopped there regularly for one thing or another. After four or five years of that, he asked her if her husband enjoyed all his fresh goods. She told him she had no husband and he said he was sure surprised at that. Then he said he’d been widowed a long time—about five years at that point. Then began his series of invitations—to a church function, to a potluck thrown by his grown children at a daughter’s house, to a movie, to dinner at a cafeteria-style restaurant.

Eleanor continually declined, but she did begin to learn more about Ben. He was a farmer and had been farming vegetables for years. When he reached the age of fifty-five and his wife was gone, he faced an impasse—he could turn the farm over to his two sons or sell to Del Monte. With the blessing of his children, he sold the farm, except for one generous garden. He still lived in the farmhouse in which he’d raised his five kids—now aged thirty to forty-one—and he sold most of his vegetables at his roadside stand. It was meant to be a hobby, but the “dad-gum thing” not only required as much time and effort as a general store, it also brought him a handsome living. His house was paid for, his money from Del Monte was invested, and he earned more than he needed from his vegetable stand, which was open from noon to six every day, seven days a week.

Ben was ordinary and homely. His nose was too large, his eyes a little small and his teeth slanted into his mouth.
He dressed funny—mismatched colors and old, outdated double knits. For Elly to notice this suggested he was a fashion disaster—she was no Donna Karan herself. He was thick around the middle and short—about five-six and one-eighty. And although he liked to read, he wasn’t at all book-smart. He’d finished high school but had never gone to college. He was a funny-looking, odd-dressing little old farmer who wasn’t very bright.

But he was kind, tolerant and compassionate. Eleanor was accustomed to hearing even intelligent men in her age bracket make insensitive, bigoted remarks, but Ben was completely innocent and unprejudiced. Sweet. Gentle. Patient. The most guileless man she’d ever known.

He was probably rich. And for some reason he was very fond of Elly.

She had finally agreed to have dinner with him and they went to some family-style place near Davis. He had a healthy appetite and ate his meal quickly and seriously. But when he was finished eating, he talked. And asked questions. She learned all about each one of the five children and all his grandchildren. He asked her questions about the courses she taught—question after question after question—until he finally thought he understood. And then he would say his favorite saying, “Well, Elly, I think you’re the most interesting woman I’ve ever in my life known.”

They had started spending Wednesday and Saturday evenings together at her house about a year and a half ago. Since they had discovered they didn’t like the same kind of restaurants, movies, books or sports, they found that what they did like to do together was talk. They watched television together, ate some ice cream, drank a little coffee, talked about their respective days and
weeks and went to bed together where they enjoyed satisfying, if Victorian, sex. In the bedroom, lights off, under the covers. It was not imaginative or creative sex, just standard stuff—missionary position. For Elly it was, well, fabulous. Ben was obviously not an experienced lover, which she didn’t mind, but he was efficient. He had no trouble maintaining an erection at the age of sixty-five. Somewhere along the line someone, probably his wife, had informed him about foreplay, at which he was both adept and unhurried. Then they would get up, Ben would dress and Elly would put on her robe, they would have a final cup of coffee together, finishing the pot, and Ben would drive home. Seven to 11:00 p.m., twice a week. If Elly had other plans, they wouldn’t reschedule. If Ben had something come up, which happened less often, he would invite her along and she would decline.

There was only one hitch in their relationship. Elly had told
no one
about Ben, and although Ben had told his kids he was seeing a woman named Elly, she had never met any of them. Ben made it clear, in his sweet, innocent way, that he didn’t understand this and it hurt his feelings. “I hope you’re not ashamed of me, Elly.”

To which she had replied, “Certainly not! I’m simply private, and would like our relationship to be.” But that was only an excuse.

Elly changed into clean underwear, a knee-length cotton housedress and slip-on flats. When Ben was coming over she would usually shower after school and put on a housedress in lieu of her skirts, hose and blouses or sweaters. Today, having forgotten him entirely, she hadn’t primped at all. She was too tired to remember things, so wrung out she was off her schedule.

He was staring at the coffeepot, watching it brew.
“There you are,” he said as she walked into the kitchen. He put his arms around her and gave her a little squeeze. “Still having a hard time of it, Elly girl?”

“It’s not even the sadness that’s so hard,” she said. “It’s the confusion. I’m senile.”

“That will get better with time, you’ll see. Are you eating and sleeping?” He pulled the dress away from her waist, testing the give of it to see if she’d lost weight.

“I don’t have much appetite, but it’s more that I forget to eat. And I sleep in short naps all through the night.” She chuckled. “Sometimes in class. Is this what happens?”

“When Syl died, I stared off into space so much that I decided to do something about the farm. It shouldn’t go to seed ’cause some old farmer couldn’t think straight.”

“But she was your wife!”

“She was my friend, too. It’s hard to lose a friend.” He reached up into the cupboard and pulled down two mugs. “You want to wait a little while on the ice cream?”

“Please. But you go ahead.”

“I’ll wait a while, too. Come sit on the couch by me, let me see if I can loosen up your shoulders and neck muscles a little bit. I wish I’d known this Gabby,” he said. “She must have been a wonderful person.”

“She was fifty.”

“Eww, Lord. Just a girl,” he said.

They sat on the sofa together in Elly’s stuffy little house—she’d lived alone in it for thirty years—turned sideways some so Ben could rub her shoulders. Elly continued the stories she had been telling him about Gabby since she’d died. She had already covered her marriage and divorce from Dr. Don, her travels, her affair with a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist, her
brief but terrifying illness, various problems with her kids. Tonight she went way back, to Gabby’s childhood.

“Gabby’s mother, Ceola, is now married for the seventh or eighth time, I’ve forgotten which. When Gabby was born, Ceola had left her young husband, Gabby’s father, and moved home with her own mother. Before Gabby was a year old, Ceola had found herself a new husband, but he wasn’t interested in having children. He was a sax player in a dance band that traveled. So, Ceola left Gabby behind and went off with him. Then she was back a couple of years later—the sax man was a rover. Then along came another husband and again Ceola left. This went on until Ceola married for the fourth time, this time to a stable man who wanted Gabby to live with them. Gabby was twelve by then, and living with her mother for the very first time—except for those visits. Ceola always said that one was her favorite husband.

BOOK: The House on Olive Street
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Like Sheep Gone Astray by Lesile J. Sherrod
Slow Surrender by Tan, Cecilia
Veiled Revenge by Ellen Byerrum
Marked by Jenny Martin
The Angry Planet by John Keir Cross
Winter of Wishes by Charlotte Hubbard
Point of No Return by John P. Marquand