|TFR Home Page||Contents||Prev. Page||Next Page||Comments|
The Light of Day
By Margaret Karmazin
Before Blair Verdon dug up the bones in her yard, she had been drowning in quiet despair; finding just about everything she did crushingly dull and predictable.
No one knew the true extent to which she suffered. After all, how could one say to a friend, "I really think I'll pass on your party/dinner/open house. We all know exactly how it will turn out. We'll sit around a table staring at enough food to feed Calcutta. Everyone will be speaking their own monologue or waiting for a chance to break into someone else's. The political or religious comments will inevitably offend me. No one will even think of dancing, something I used to love when young and wish people still did at parties. Everyone is probably too fat or decrepit to dance anyway. I'll stuff myself, and then with a serious case of building indigestion, make noises about having to get going and by ten-thirty will be in my car driving home alone on dark roads. There will be a thick fog or pounding rain and I'll pray the whole way home and fall into bed exhausted."
But she would accept the invitation, get cleaned up, put on some half-decent outfit, all the while feeling as if moving through Jell-O. She didn't, after all, want to close all doors to a social life, but the only person she could really stand anymore was her friend, Allie. This didn't mean that she wanted to burden Allie with all this nonsense.
Besides, she knew what Allie would say - "As loathe as I am to suggest it, maybe you should get on an antidepressant." One time Blair had tried one of those and felt awful.
Daily now, Blair almost expired from tedium while she performed her daily chores. She would play the Buddhist saying over and over in her mind, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water," in the hope of making it all seem all right, but this wasn't working. Where was the enlightenment? And if after you got it, you still had to change the litter, wipe up the counter, run the vacuum, grocery shop, sort the mail, delete the Spam and pay the bills until you wanted to scream, what did enlightenment mean anyway?
It had been four years since Franklin died and during that time, she had "branched out," joined groups, read self-help books, handed out pamphlets for her political party, taken a yoga class, learned some Spanish, painted a couple of water colors and written poems. She popped her vitamins, kept her doctor appointments and remembered to eat fruits and vegetables. All for what? So that she could live longer to pop more vitamins, keep more doctor appointments, wipe more kitchen counters, get more oil changes? And then drop dead after some lengthy painful illness, alone in an antiseptic institution with tubes shoved up her nose?
Blair did not dare to mention her feelings to Dr. Cannon. God forbid. He looked twelve years old, was so green it was a wonder he knew how to tie his shoes, and was madly infatuated with the pharmaceutical world. "Ain't Science Wonderful" was most likely his mantra. As soon as a pill was invented, he would suggest that she take it. He had not lived as long as she --fifty-seven years-- and seen what she had seen. New wonder drugs coming and going, headlines in the papers - this one will save us all and then years later, people filing lawsuits, babies born without limbs or growing up to have cancer, and men on television crying over dead young wives. Know-it-all articles saying this is what causes heart disease, cancer, obesity, kids acting up in class and then ten years later, all wrong, that wasn't it at all. If she had told this young doctor how she was feeling about everything, she knew he would scribble out a prescription and soon she'd be turning into a Stepford Wife, though she was sadly without a husband now.
A classic case of depression she had; she was no idiot. After all, she'd taken several college courses in psychology and sampled a few therapists in her time. The shrink sitting cooly across from her, discreetly checking his/her watch, murmuring noncommittal noises that were supposed to encourage one. Usually, after a time, she would discover that the therapist's own life was superbly screwed up. He'd be on his third marriage or she had not spoken to her daughter for ten years. Clearly in no position to be handing out advice.
Blair did enjoy gardening. This wasn't to say she was an expert at it, just that she liked to push her hands into the dark soil and meet the things that lived in there, the worms, the ants, the shiny beetles. She liked the sweet odor of the dirt, the way it crumbled between her fingers. In any event, she helped make flowers grow, even if perhaps they were not in the correct places aesthetically speaking and did not always bloom in the proper order for good show.
She often thought of death. Surely no one else mulled over it as much as she. The subject filled her mind as she yanked out weeds, thinned the perennials, dead-headed the geraniums. Inevitable, who-knew-when-it-was-coming, the supreme mystery, the possible step into nothingness. For now, when she was galloping through her fifties and sixty loomed large on the horizon, she seemed to have lost her spiritual confidence. A crisis of faith they called it. Franklin had never appeared by the foot of her bed with urgent advice about the safety deposit box nor had she ever rolled over to feel his ghostly hand on her hip as some widows had reported. No butterfly had landed on her windshield in mid winter-- a love note from her husband; no telephone rang in the night to miraculously transmit his dear voice from heaven.
It was while in such a dark funk that Blair broke ground in the far end of the yard. Back by the fence near the alley where she had never before bothered to plant anything. Someone had given her three little lilac bushes, two purple and one white, and she'd decided this was the right spot for them.
"I'd better dig deep," she said aloud, turning to eye the size of the little bushes. And so she went at it until her spade hit something unyielding. Whatever it was did not have the feel of a rock.
After unearthing the object, she did not at first understand what it was. But then she did. With her bare hands (she did not use gardening gloves), she was holding a thigh bone, maybe thirteen, fourteen inches long-- a femur wasn't it? Her college anatomy course sprang suddenly to mind. She was detached as she turned it over, experiencing at first a purely scientific curiosity. Then it hit her. Was this human? My God, was it human? She dropped the bone and dug frantically. Her head felt buzzy as her hands came upon the smooth dome of a skull. It took some doing to get it out and a piece on the face hear the nose hole broke inward, but she finally held the thing to the light. And then she burst into tears.
The sadness was overwhelming. She held the skull for a few moments before laying it carefully on the ground, then rose and shakily walked to the house to call the police.
What followed was a scene from an A&E true crime show, the entire yard and house crawling with cops. Young ones who seemed like kids to Blair, older ones of different types, some cocky and beefy, some thin and tired looking, one just her type if she were younger and not so damn jaded. If she didn't already know how everything ended up-- screwed up or dead. He was medium height, of a wiry build like Franklin's when younger. Dark hair, olive skin and a little Van Dyke beard. He resembled a beatnik from the 1950s when she was a girl. Then she had not thought that look attractive, but now she did. His name was George Sloan and he was the detective in charge of the case.
"Why exactly are you digging up my entire yard?" she asked him, agitated over her flowers.
"I thought someone went over that with you," said George Sloan.
She crossed her arms and stared at him. "Not to my satisfaction," she said.
He sighed. "The bones appear to belong to a young woman, but we won't really know until we hear from forensics. There is a possibility that they are those of a girl who disappeared four years ago. She lived on Rider Street, just a block from here. Do you remember that case?"
"No," she said. "I make a practice of avoiding the news if I can help it. Besides that, I've only lived here two years." After Franklin's death, she had stayed in their large old house in a nearby community for while, then decided to sell it and move to a smaller, more easily maintained home.
"I see," said Detective Sloan. "Well, if the remains turn out to be those of Miss Xavier, her family will have some closure and we'll have better leads. Whatever the case, five young women have disappeared over the past several years, two from here and three from surrounding areas. A radius of forty miles to be exact. We've been looking for the killer or killers for a long time, Mrs. Verdon."
It hit her what he was saying. "You think the former owner of this house--?"
Sloan shrugged in a rather Gallic manner. "It's possible."
Her mind flashed to the stooped, unassuming man whom she had met at the house closing-- Mr. Murray, a widower in his late forties and a computer expert of some sort, one of those skinny, intellectual men who reminded her of a crane or some tall bird. She knew what they often said of serial killers-- "He was such a quiet man-- never caused any trouble."
"I remember him saying that he traveled a lot on business," she said. "He had a daughter who lived at home, In her late teens."
"Yes," said Sloan. "Same age as the Xavier girl."
"Did they know each other?"
"I would think so," said the detective. "Same neighborhood, same school perhaps. It'll be looked into."
"You're thinking the dead girl maybe was friends with the Murray girl? She came to visit and then Mr. Murray got her alone on some occasion and--"
"Jumping to conclusions is not useful," said Sloan. "We don't even know that the remains belonged to Miss Xavier or, for that matter, if Miss Xavier is even deceased."
His tone was cut and dry and Blair was properly chastened. She returned to the house, which did not seem to belong to her now. Two officers stood in the kitchen and a woman detective sat at the dining room table working at her laptop. Though no one was upstairs, Blair's space there seemed violated too. She was in a mild state of shock-- discombobulated as if her own body were physically experiencing the torn up yard and the garden gone to hell. They had assured her that the dirt would be replaced, assuming they did not find anything beyond the original discovery and then they would plant grass or even sod, but what about the perennials? What about her carefully built stone wall along the one side?
The yard, swarming with cops and men methodically digging, reminded her of an archeology site she'd once been invited to observe. How more topsy-turvy could it get? For a moment, she craved the solitude and blandness of things before. How easily she'd forgotten the almost frightening dullness of that. Yet, even with this incredible excitement, Blair was still stuck in her habitual state of emotional grayness and the commotion was to her mostly a wearisome annoyance.
The press arrived. And a woman who did not seem connected to the police began to wander by. Blair watched her pace in the street and occasionally stand at the end of the driveway. She was tall and what they used to call horsy looking with graying red hair; about Blair's age. Dressed nicely in L.L. Bean or Lands End. She smoked occasionally, drawing hard on the cigarette, then carefully putting it out in a tiny portable ashtray. Blair suspected who she was, but put the thought out of her mind.
At night, police were posted to guard the site, by day a mob was there. In the midst of the throng, Blair was more alone than ever.
This state of affairs continued for four days then the results from forensic were delivered. No one rushed to inform Blair, but she noticed a subtle shift in the atmosphere and finally located George Sloan.
He knew what she wanted. "The remains were indeed those of Janice Xavier," he told her. She had received a blow to the back of the head. It is possible that she was buried while still alive."
Blair's hand flew to her mouth. "That is hideous," she said. "You can tell how? By the position of the hands?"
Sloan gave her the tiniest of smiles. "You watch detective shows, do you?"
"What about the other bodies?" she asked, looking around at the mess of her yard.
"We haven't found any."
"I mean that it appears this is the only one. The house is on a slab so there is no basement. Nothing in the yard, nothing in the house. We're not going to tear the walls down."
"Thoughtful of you," she said snidely. "So it boils down to the one murder, just Janice Xavier."
"It appears so," said the detective. "One is enough."
After most everyone had cleared out, Blair found that she missed Sloan. Not necessarily in a sexual way, although he was attractive, but there was something stable and masculine about him that she craved and it was good to talk with a person who was very much a part of the world in a serious way.
Allie came over and Blair poured tea. "I realize," Blair told her, "that what I miss is having an influence."
"You could go to college," suggested Allie. "Learn a trade, join the force so you too can dig up bodies."
"Oh please," said Blair. "I'm fifty-seven years old-- I could hardly join the police force." Working wasn't what she missed specifically anyway. "I don't have a lot of energy like I used to, Allie. I could never keep up with college students or a nine to five job. Even when I was young I could barely stand that kind of schedule."
"I don't know what to tell you, hon," said her friend as she sipped her tea contentedly. Allie had been born with "good brain chemicals," as Blair put it. She was always even keeled and good-natured, not given to Blair's dark moods.
"You have grandchildren," she told Allie. "They keep you involved."
Allie smiled. "Yes, they are the perfect sort of children, so much better than one's own."
Blair sighed. "I don't think Diane will ever have any." She was referring to her only child who lived in California and had not yet married.
The strange woman still came to stand in the driveway an hour or so a day; the time varied. Blair did not know what to do about it or if she should do anything at all. It made her feel funny to see her there.
The new sod was down now and although they had done a decent job of it, the yard appeared empty and new. The police were not going to put flowers in; that was up to Blair. How unfair, she thought. Yet what were such concerns compared to what the woman in the driveway had to think about?
The next morning, Blair was restless. She'd made carrot raisin muffins and a bowl of tuna salad and finally could stand it no longer. Gathering her resolve, she marched out of the house to where the woman stood in her now habitual spot.
"Mrs. Xavier?" asked Blair.
The woman wavered, then spoke, her voice low and listless. "You know who I am?"
"I figured," said Blair. "Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?"
Another hesitation, several expressions flitting across the woman's face. "All right," she sighed.
At first, it was rough going. Elaine Xavier was not, understandably, very talkative. So Blair did it for her. "This must be hell for you," she began. "I can't imagine. You must miss her very much."
When Elaine did not reply, Blair went on. "Do you have other children?"
As if deciding whether she would join in with this or not, finally Elaine Xavier imperceptibly nodded and opened her mouth. "Yes, two sons and another daughter. Janice was the youngest."
"Any grandchildren?" asked Blair.
"Yes. One, in fact, lives with me at the moment. My son's second wife seems to have trouble dealing with Tina who is fifteen."
"Ah, fifteen," said Blair. "What could be worse?"
Of course she was mortified that such a thing had slipped out! To someone who had a murdered child! But Elaine did not seem to notice.
"Yes, she's a handful. Everything is a handful. I don't know if I'll be able to continue taking care of her. It might be different if Ray were still here."
As Blair would learn, not only had Elaine lost her daughter but her husband too. The marriage had not survived the disappearance of their child. It was indeed a wonder that the woman had managed to carry on. Blair watched her with respect.
"The girl hates me," said Elaine.
Blair felt a pulling in her heart. Though she believed that she no longer had the energy to deal with it, how agreeable it was to contemplate having a teenage girl in the house. All the drama, the intensity of romantic discovery and let down, the passion for fashion, the hormone fluctuations, the once in a while moments of winsomeness and sharing. Even the horrible arguments now seemed charming although Blair knew full well that at the time they occurred with Diane, she'd had to fight the urge to run away from parenting altogether. Now it seemed that everything in her life had a whiff of nostalgia about it.
"Do you live alone?" asked Elaine Xavier. She said this almost wistfully, yet with the shell shocked demeanor of someone returned from a long war.
"Yes," sighed Blair. "I am indeed all alone." Just biding my time, waiting for the end, she did not mention.
She liked the woman.
After their tea, Elaine did not return to stand in the driveway. Evidently, the craving had been purged out of her. Blair found that in addition to missing Sloan, she also missed seeing Elaine there. This was different from the dullness to which she had grown accustomed. Missing people was a living pain as opposed to the deadening one of depression. It reminded her, sometime in the middle of the night, that she was still, after all, alive.
"Give her a call," prompted Allie. "She probably could use a friend. They say that many of one's friends disappear when there is a tragedy."
"Oh, it's been a while," said Blair. "She probably has her support group. The last thing she needs is me, the owner of the house where the body was found. For crying out loud, Allie."
"Call her," said Allie simply.
Blair found herself at the Xavier's, Elaine in tears and Tina, the granddaughter, locked in her room, the smell of cigarette smoke seeping out from under her door.
"I've forgotten how to deal with all this," explained Elaine. "I don't think I can do it." Her face was blanched and her hand shook as she lit a cigarette. "Look," she said, "I'm smoking a pack a day again."
Oddly, these were the best words Blair had heard in a long time. Not about the smoking, of course, but the call for help. As if someone had shot a powerful drug into her arm, she suddenly awoke from the dreary fog she'd been living in.
"Let me try," she said. Like a brisk wind, she passed the table where Elaine was slouched and went straight down the hall to the closed door.
Once there, her confident attitude left her. She stood outside the girl's door, her head in a whirl, trying to summon up her old mothering skills and running through anything Elaine had told her about Tina.
Finally, she raised her voice and said, "Elaine tells me you're an artist, that you can draw people pretty well." The silence was tangible. "I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a portrait of my daughter."
"Who the hell are you?" was the reply. But the door opened and Blair managed not to cough from the smoke fog.
"A neighbor," said Blair. She glanced past the girl into the room, which was surprisingly neat. "Oh, I see you're into vintage '70s posters!"
The door opened wider.
It is hard work and sometimes Blair is tempted to join Elaine in her song about giving up, but the pleasure does outweigh the aggravation. It all comes back to her, but shakily at first and of course today's teen world is a much rougher version of what Diane's had been, so much is new.
"Dealing with it is like working muscles, creating new brain cells," she reports to Allie on the phone. "You know, like they tell you to 'use it or lose it'?
Her usual placid self, Allie replies, "We live to give. I just made that up. It's good, isn't it? Could go on a Hallmark card. Maybe you should be a teacher, Blair."
"I prefer one kid at a time, but tutoring might be an option."
After she hangs up, Blair whistles while she puts together the ingredients for oatmeal raisin bars, Tina's favorite.
When Detective Sloan comes to speak with Elaine, Blair is with her. They had all been sitting at the kitchen table shucking corn, Tina being her usual sullen self. But now and then Blair had caught a twinkle in the girl's black rimmed eyes, as if Tina shared the humor in something the older women said, but insisted on pretending she didn't for reasons of generational pride.
"I've come to explain some unpleasant things," says Sloan. "You might prefer that we speak alone?"
Blair sees his eyes dart in her direction and she is amazed by the little thrill she experiences. Then she feels guilty as she watches Elaine tense up, waiting for what she knows will be something horrible.
"No," Elaine says. "You can speak in front of all of us."
"The person who killed your daughter was not James Murray. It appears that it was his daughter, Patricia."
Elaine's hands fly to cover her mouth as she inhales sharply.
"No," she says.
Sloan is silent, giving her time. Then he continues. "Patricia with the help of one of her friends. Two young women, losers in every way, jealous of your daughter. It was planned out-- the charge will be first degree murder. Unusual for young women to do this sort of thing, but not unheard of, unfortunately. We have a confession from the other girl."
"Who was she?" asks Elaine, her eyes wide.
"Susan Yetter. Do you know her?"
"Not well, but I remember her. I think she was in this house once, at Janice's graduation party. Everyone loved Janice, I--"
Sloan very subtly shakes his head. "The two women are in custody. I will keep you informed." He steps back, but does not leave. Once again his eyes slide briefly to Blair.
In the midst of this horror is he flirting? No, Blair is certain he was not. But she understands that for some odd reason the man finds her-- what is the word? Simpatico?
She turns to comfort Elaine but then sees that Tina has forgotten all about being a surly adolescent and is rising to enfold her grandmother in her arms. Gratefully, Elaine reaches for her.
"I'll see him out," Blair tell her and stands up to lead him to the front of the house.
At the door, Sloan says, "This is the worse thing a parent can endure. It's good you're her friend."
"You're a parent?" Blair asks.
"Two. They're grown with children of their own."
"You and your wife must be proud," says Blair.
He smiles with a knowing expression in his eyes. "Divorced," he says as he steps out the door. "You take care of her," he adds.
Blair knows without a doubt that she will hear from him.
She turns to walk back to the people who need her, excited again, alive again.
This story was first published in the Sept. 2005 issue of Words of Wisdom, a small print magazine in Greensboro, NC, edited by Mikhammad bin bin Muhandis Abdel ishara. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
© Copyright 1997, 2020, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 12/09/2006