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Authors: Carol Lea Benjamin

Without a Word (7 page)

BOOK: Without a Word
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When I got home, I sat on the living room couch and dumped the gym bag out next to me. Then one by one I picked up the things Leon had packed and put them on the glass-topped red wagon that served as my coffee table. There was a Post-it in the high school yearbook indicating where Sally's picture was. I opened that first and was going to prop it open with a stationery box that had been the last thing to tumble out of the bag. That, like the manila envelope, had rubber bands around it. I slid them off and took the lid off the box to see what was inside. Photographs. These looked like family shots, mostly old, mostly small, some cracked or missing corners. I thought they might have been slipped out of an album, maybe her mother's, shortly before Sally moved out. I couldn't be sure who was who, and there were no names written on the backs, but I thought I was looking at Sally's parents, some aunts and uncles or family friends, a grandmother, from the shape of her face probably her maternal grandmother, and a couple of pictures of Sally as a little girl.

Sally's mother, or the woman I supposed was Sally's mother—and would it have broken Leon's hand to add a few Post-its with the names of these people?—was a tough-
looking old bird. She looked to be one of those women who grit their teeth through life, expecting nothing good to happen, and thus not getting disappointed. She had a round, peasanty face. I couldn't be sure about her hair color because the picture was black and white and not all that good, perhaps the work of a small point-and-shoot camera, if they had those then. She was stocky, grim-faced, and dressed without style. In the most recent of the pictures of her, she would have been no more than forty or forty-five, but she looked older than her years, the way Leon did, from grief, perhaps, or disappointment, or a sour, unloving upbringing.

Sally's father was blond, unless he had white hair by age thirty. It was from her father, clearly, that Sally had gotten her good looks. I picked up the yearbook, opened it to where Leon had put the Post-it and held one of the two pictures of the man I thought was Sally's father next to the picture of Sally. They had the same-shaped face, the same fair coloring, the same clear eyes and sensual mouth. A large corner was broken off one of the pictures of her father. The other was worn in places, as if it had been handled a lot. Yet the small box and its contents had been left behind. Either Sally hadn't done much advance planning or she had only gone out to walk the dog, just as she said, and someone else's planning had been the reason for her disappearance.

There were four pictures of Sally as a youngster. She was alone in all four. Like her mother, she didn't smile at the camera. She looked down or off to the side, enduring or obeying, but not shining. I never thought of anyone that beautiful as being shy, but Sally, at least in her photos, appeared to be just that.

I looked at the other unnamed people, a man and woman standing about six inches apart and staring at the camera, the old woman, probably Sally's grandmother, with the same forbidding expression that would later mark her daughter's face.

I looked back at the yearbook, picking it up, leaning against the arm of the couch and holding it under the light. Not grim like her mother and grandmother. Not smiling like her father. Not much of anything. I scanned the other pictures on the page and on the facing one, all the girls and about half of the boys were smiling, happy to be graduating or because the photographer told them to. But not Sally, Sally who had been pregnant with Madison when that picture was taken. She was looking at the camera but there was no hint of what was going on underneath. How ironic. She could have been a model for a Botox ad, a pretty face without emotional expression, without history, blank as a fresh sheet of paper.

I put the book back and picked up the manila envelope, taking the rubber bands off and pulling the flap out from where Leon had tucked it in—more photographs. Had he found some of Sally as an adult, photos he didn't know he still had?

But when I slid them out, it wasn't Sally I was looking at. It was Roy. He wasn't a little brown mutt with a pointy face and large batlike ears. Roy was a Border collie. Now how on earth did Sally get anywhere with no money and a dog that big? True, Roy wasn't full grown yet. He probably weighed no more than thirty pounds, so Sally could have lifted him. But to what avail? He was too big to fit into a carrier, not that she had one or even the money to buy one. Nor would there have been an open pet store had she had the money for a carrier. Without a carrier, she couldn't have taken a bus, a train or a subway. Unless she'd ditched the dog first. Had Leon checked with the shelter? And would she have done that, just left him alone on the streets of New York? People did. People dumped dogs out of cars, left them in parks, tied them to fences or trees and just walked or drove away, maybe figuring some kindhearted dog lover would take up the responsi
bility they had let go of. Maybe not giving it a second thought. Is that what Sally had done? She hadn't wanted a dog in the first place. Leon had made that clear.

The next three pictures were of Madison, the same pictures that were hanging over the dining room table. And after that, one more, a picture of Madison at seven holding the puppy Roy on her lap. She was sitting on the floor in what might have been her bedroom, looking at the pup but not touching him, her arms bent, her hands held high as if she were showing someone the height of something. I set that one aside and put the others back in the envelope.

I picked up both notebooks and sat back with them on my lap. Sally had been going to New York University at night according to the schedule taped inside the first book, studying American literature and third-year Spanish, attempting, it seemed, to get a degree. I turned through the pages of the book, notes from class, drawings in the margin of the professor and of other students. Her handwriting was small and neat. The notes proficient and detailed. I wasn't sure why Leon had put these in the bag, nor why he'd saved them, but I supposed it was one more thing about Sally I ought to know, that she'd abandoned not only her husband and child, but her plans for a degree as well. No way the cops would have neglected to check and see if Sally had requested a transcript so that she could continue her studies at another institution in another city. No way Sally wouldn't have known that to do so, to attempt to preserve the work she'd done so far, for, possibly, all the years she was married, would be to give herself away, something she'd done once and perhaps didn't want to do again.

Or was this another reason to think that Sally Spector was no longer alive? Would someone work that hard, at night, after caring for a young child all day, and then simply drop it?

I picked up the picture of Madison and Roy again, holding it under the light. Something about Madison made me think she was frightened. Was it Roy she'd been afraid of? She didn't seem scared of Dashiell. If not Roy, then what? Or who?

Leon opened the door and looked more than ready to bolt. He had a heavy-looking camera bag over one shoulder, the shoulder hiked up to keep the bag from slipping off. “When do you want me back?” he asked, already moving sideways to slip by me.

“In a couple of hours. That okay?”

“Madison,” he called over his shoulder, “Rachel's here. I'm going.”

He waited. I did, too. Nothing happened.

Leon shrugged.

“See you at twelve, twelve-thirty,” I said.

Leon hesitated.

“Just go,” I said, flapping my hand at him.

After closing the door, I unhooked Dashiell's leash. He headed straight for the short hallway that led to Madison's room. I heard a door open. I heard Dashiell's nails clicking on the bare wooden floor, then the door closed. I waited, but Dash didn't return.

Standing quietly in the vestibule next to Leon's desk, I listened for more, some sound coming from Madison's room. But there was none. Was it wise to let Dashiell be alone with her? I wasn't naïve enough to think that, because
of her age, Madison couldn't have killed Dr. Bechman. But if she had, she'd done it for a reason. She'd have no reason to harm Dashiell, I thought. At least none that I knew of.

I walked down the hallway to Madison's room and stood there listening, to what end I didn't know. Did I expect to hear Madison chatting away to Dashiell? I waited a moment, then knocked, expecting what had happened last time, no response. But the door opened and there stood Madison, Dashiell at her side, Emil/Emily in her free hand. She backed up, leaving the door open. I took that as an invitation and walked in, immediately feeling like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Madison's walls were blue, not a pale blue wallpaper with little rosebuds on it, not a Wedgwood blue with white molding, not a sky blue with blue-and-white-striped curtains. Madison's room was the blue of the ocean, the walls covered with enormous fish, a coral reef, underwater reeds curving gracefully as if from the flow of the water and, of course, turtles. It was the kind of painting a proud parent might tape up on the refrigerator, but it was huge, floor-to-ceiling and wrapped entirely around the room, as if the room itself, and Madison, were underwater.

“This is fantastic. Did you do this?” Forgetting I wasn't going to get an answer.

Madison walked over to her desk, which was under the window that faced the D'Agostino's on Bethune Street, through which I saw a homeless man with a plastic bag full of empty plastic bottles sitting on the ground, leaning against the brick wall, his eyes, like Madison's, hidden behind dark glasses. There were two more windows over the bed, facing Greenwich Street, the sun pouring in from those. Which might explain why Madison was wearing her sunglasses indoors, if I didn't know better. I could see one eye twitching when she leaned over to put Emil/Emily into the
tank that sat on one side of her desk. There were a few inches of water in it, enough so that the turtle could swim, and a big rock that he/she could climb up on to get out of the water. Madison picked up a book, sat on her bed and began to read, as if I weren't there.

Dashiell hopped up on the bed and lay down next to her, leaving me standing alone between the doorway and the desk and, if I had anything else to say, talking to myself.

Dashiell had no trouble understanding Madison. He didn't need words to get along or know what someone was feeling. Well, maybe I didn't either. After all, I'd been a dog trainer and had no trouble understanding the dogs I was hired to train. And I'd done pet-assisted therapy with autistics. No words there, either.

Madison seemed absorbed in her book, not the kind of fiction with a lesson to be learned in the end that most kids end up reading, but a book on photography. So I sat on the end of the bed and looked around the room. I saw the camera on her desk, one that fits in your pocket, digital, I figured. It was sitting next to her computer. There were two closets, the door to the one closer to me ajar. Half the clothes seemed the size to fit a smallish twelve-year-old. The rest of the clothes must have been Sally's, an odd collection of retro things that looked as if they'd been bought secondhand. There were sweaters folded on the shelf, shoes tossed in on the floor. A backpack had been thrown in the corner, and from the looks of it, it was full of books.

Madison was wearing clothes that fit her this time, and I had the feeling that the beads wrapped around one wrist had been her mother's necklace. There was a ring on her thumb, a plain silver band, and she was wearing a necklace, but I could only see part of the chain. Whatever it held was under Madison's T-shirt. She wore a watch, too, like the one I wear when I swim. Like most of her things, this, too, was too big,
the face almost comical against her thin arm, the band so loose the watch slid up or down her arm when she moved it, too big for her because it was most likely the watch Sally had left behind.

“Do you want to go out for a walk?” I asked, forgetting that I'd decided to try to communicate without words. No matter, I thought. I always spoke to Dashiell, didn't I? And surely, even though Madison didn't speak, she understood what was being said to her.

To my surprise, Madison responded. She jumped up and walked out of the room, Dashiell behind her, me bringing up the rear. That's when I realized that I didn't have a key to Leon's apartment. If Madison didn't either, we couldn't leave because we wouldn't be able to get back in. No way could I handle this one without words. But it turned out I didn't have to. No sooner was I out in the dining area than Madison turned around and headed back to her room, closing the door before either Dashiell or I could follow her. A moment later I heard a hissing sound. And shortly afterwards, the odor of citrus seeped out into the hall, telling me that Madison was spraying her room with air freshener, her message loud and clear without a word spoken.

Dashiell went into the kitchen, caught my eye and glanced up at the sink, so I found a bowl, filled it with cold water and set it down under the window for him. I hadn't seen Madison communicate that way. I wondered how she indicated that she was hungry or what she wanted to eat for dinner, for example. I opened the refrigerator, not just because I was a snoop but to see the sort of care Madison was getting, though I was starting to have a pretty good idea. There was an open can of tuna in the refrigerator, a container of milk and one of orange juice, a carton of eggs, a bowl with wrinkled grapes in it, a package of American cheese, the kind where each slice is individually wrapped, peanut
butter, jelly, butter and several packages that looked like they were from the deli section of the supermarket, perhaps sliced ham and turkey. There was a partial head of lettuce in the vegetable bin, probably for Emil/Emily, two kinds of soda, Coke and ginger ale, but no beer. The freezer was small and had only hamburger patties and some vanilla ice cream in it.

I poked my head out into the hallway. Madison's door was still closed. I picked up the kettle and filled it, putting it on the stove. Then I began to search for tea bags, finding some in a small canister on the counter. There were cookies in another one, sugar in a third. Waiting for the water to boil, I walked over to the bookshelves next to Leon's desk.

If the majority of the books had belonged to Sally, as Leon had said, she'd been not only a prolific reader but one with good taste. I didn't know how much of this reflected assignments from her classes and how much reflected Sally's own choices. I walked around the corner into the living room, scanning the shelves there as well, picking up books and seeing that Sally had underlined phrases, sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs. There were notes in the margins as well, sometimes questions. I wondered how Sally had had time to do anything else with all this reading.

Leon had a stack of contact sheets on his desk. I picked up the top one and found myself looking at some familiar territory, Washington Square Park, the chess players, the homeless, a misguided citizen with a bag full of torn-up bread. She may have thought she was feeding birds and squirrels, but much of the food would end up nourishing the park's rather healthy rat population. New York City could boast not only some of the fattest squirrels on the face of the earth, but also rats as big as Hummers. On the bottom row, there was Madison emerging from Dr. Bechman's office.
Even when Leon went with her, he apparently only went as far as the door.

I made a cup of tea, thought about offering something to Madison, then changed my mind. Leon had said there were things of Sally's here. Why would he have told me that if he hadn't meant for me to look at them?

I checked out the two hall closets, looking for anything that might have belonged to her, not sure if Madison had taken all of Sally's clothes into her room. The coat closet was crammed full of clothes and boots and hats, scarves, gloves and rain gear that seemed to belong to a grown man and a little girl. I wondered how big Sally had been, thinking of the shirt Madison had worn the first time I saw her. When I looked underneath the coats, at Leon's winter boots and Madison's, the closet seemed to go farther back than I originally thought. I put my hands in the middle of the clothes and pushed both sides apart as far as I could. There in the back, along with a few parkas for the coldest weather, was a jean jacket and a long black coat. I took them out. Too big for Madison. Not the right gender for Leon. I put the jacket on the back of Leon's chair and held up the coat with one hand, slipping my hand into the pockets with my other. Tissues, black leather gloves, thirty-six cents in change. The label was missing so there was no size. I slipped the coat on, to see how big Sally had been, one more tiny piece of information that would probably get me nowhere. The coat was snug in the shoulders and it was too short. So Sally was smaller than me, and Madison was built more like her mother than her father.

I never heard the door open, but when I turned around, Madison was standing at the end of the dining area, staring at me wearing her mother's coat. Before I had the chance to say anything, she'd wheeled around and returned to her room. And in case I hadn't heard the door the first time, she
slammed it, opened it and slammed it shut a second time. Who said this kid didn't communicate?

Good job, I told myself. If there'd been a chance in hell I could get through to this kid, I'd just blown it. I took off the coat and hung it back where it had been. Then I reached for the jean jacket. It was a washed-out blue with silver studs around the collar and along the tops of the patch pockets. There was nothing in the left-hand pocket, a ten-dollar bill in the right. I left that where I'd found it. Then I walked down the hall to Madison's room and knocked. When she didn't answer, I opened the door.

Madison was sitting on the bed. If I expected her to look outraged that I'd invaded her privacy, that wasn't the case. Her face, at least whatever showed around her dark glasses, was, like her mother's face in her yearbook portrait, beautifully blank. Whatever harm I might have caused had already been safely stowed away.

“Look, Madison,” I said, standing at the foot of her bed, the jacket over my right arm, “your father told you why he hired me, right? Well, I'm having a little trouble here. I can't even begin to try to look for your mother without knowing anything about her. And your father's not much more forthcoming than you are.”

I waited a moment and then went on.

“I found her old coat in the back of the hall closet. I bet your father forgot it was even there. My guess is that she used one of the closets in here, because there's no way two adults could fit all their clothes in the two small closets out there. So you probably never went looking out there, am I right?

“Anyway, the reason I tried on the coat is that I wanted to know Sally's size. How am I supposed to find her if I don't know how tall she is or if she's fat or skinny? I don't know if she likes hot climates or cold, if she bowls, ice-skates,
skydives, rides a bike. I normally wouldn't talk to a kid like this, but under the circumstances…” I stopped again to take a good look at Madison, her blonde bangs half under and half over her dark glasses, the length of her hair uneven, her nails too long not because it was a chosen style but because they hadn't been cut, her shirt tucked in in the front and hanging out in the back. “You do understand the circumstances, don't you?” I asked, so angry that no matter how hard I tried not to, I ended up shouting.

Should I just turn around, go sit in the living room and wait for Leon, I wondered, tell him this wasn't going to work? I could follow the slimmest thread, but I couldn't follow nothing, and nothing was precisely what I was getting.

But I didn't do that. I was already on the road to hell. Now I started running.

“I wish one of you would help me out,” I said. “I wish one of you would tell me what kind of music she likes, if she had any friends, boy oh boy, the names of a few friends would be nice. Or even what she likes to eat, her favorite color,
anything
, just anything at all. But no, no one's talking. Are you listening? Good.” Too angry to stop, not sure why.

“Here's the thing,” I said, watching her left cheek twitch up and down, her eye, I guessed, along with it, but the way she was holding her head and with those dark glasses on, I couldn't see her eyes. “I don't know who I'm looking for, except that she's twenty-eight, shorter than I am, she's right-handed and she may or may not have a Border collie with her.”

With that, the tics revved up. Madison took off her glasses, bent her head and cupped her palms over her eyes, then quickly put the glasses back on. As soon as she dropped her arms, the bed seemed to be shaking. But it wasn't the bed, it was Madison, her arms trembling as if she'd suddenly gotten very cold.

What the hell was I doing here? What the hell was I doing to this kid?

“I'm sorry,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. “You don't have to do a thing. I'll work it out. I promise.” Thinking that now I was
really
being cruel; I was giving her hope.

BOOK: Without a Word
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