Caretakers (Tyler Cunningham) (3 page)

I didn’t point out that she seemed to have planned it so that I would be here when most of the camp was at church (
I would bet they were at The Church of the Ascension, a pretty little rough-hewn log church at the northern end of Upper Saranac Lake built a few years before the turn of the century, if I was the type of person given to wagers
), but couldn’t see any upside to distracting/angering her at this point, when she was just getting to the point.

“My daughter was taken from me nearly 55 years ago, on a Saturday. I had dinner with her. She had brought a new beau to camp that she was quite taken with, some of the children and my husband went for a ride in our inboard runabout, she stayed with her beau on the dock, and I was up in the boathouse, part chaperone, part cheering section; I liked that one, he was a much better choice than the others she’d brought around before.”

“No, don’t interrupt me, Mr. Cunningham. I can see questions on your face, but wait until you’ve heard the whole thing. She went up to her cabin a few hours later, and the boy, no I simply cannot remember his name, stayed behind to swim. I can remember him swimming out to, and sometimes all the way around, Green Island, quite an athlete, but his name refuses to surface. At any rate, she went up to her cabin, took off her shoes, turned on the bathroom light, and disappeared.”

I looked at her, waiting for her to continue, but she was done … for the moment.

“Did the police find her body?” I asked, with a bluntness that would earn me a slap on the back of my head later from Dorothy, when I shared the details of my meeting with her.

“The police found nothing, did nothing, helped not at all,” Mrs. Crocker stated in an angry tone that suggested (
even to me
) that she had more to say on the matter. “They were reluctant even to come until we, my husband and I, insisted quite strenuously. By then, it had rained, wiping out any traces or clues that might have been around her cabin or the woods. Worse, they missed a small spot of blood and some strands of what must have been her hair on a doorframe in the cabin she was using during that visit. A detective we subsequently hired was able to find it. This man, Pinchot, his name was, funny that I remember that, seemed aggressive and assertive in his investigations, but yielded, sadly, no results. He focused intensively on Deirdre’s, that was her name, the same as my great-granddaughter, Deirdre’s boyfriend, but finally was convinced that her beau was not involved at all.” She paused, slightly out of breath, a bit of color had crept onto her face and neck. Her eyes were shining with tears.

I took advantage of the temporary interruption in her story to grab another Coke from the cooler, carefully pouring out two ounces into a water glass on a table by the door. I passed the glass to her while her wet/rattling breath sounds subsided, steadying the glass in her shaking hand for a few seconds until I was certain that she had it securely enough to raise it to her mouth. Two fingers and the thumb of her right hand had touched me in the exchange, and the skin was dry and hot and brittle/crinkly feeling, like the parchment paper envelopes that I sometimes cooked fish in. When I was close to her, I could smell age and sickness and menthol and medicines, and behind all of that, corruption; parts of her, inside, were dead … kept from the grave by machines that go bing and IV bags of medicine with long names and a final wish/dream/hope.

“I’m going to ask you thirteen questions, Kitty. Don’t think or worry or plan too much about the answers to any of them, nobody will hear your answers besides me. Okay?” I asked, preparing the first few as she took a few tentative sips of her (
my
) Coke, and nodded her assent.

“What was the date of your daughter’s
disappearance?”

“Late in the evening of Saturday, August 22nd, 1958 w
as the last time that I saw her, heading up from the dock to her cabin. I suppose that she might have disappeared early in the morning on the 23rd, but I can’t say.”

“Who, besides you, was here that night, someone who could give a me a walk
-around tour of the camp, to get a feel for the space?”

“Dee’s brother, my son, Mike. He’ll be back from church soon, and was here that summer, but he doesn’t talk about Dee, Mr. Cunningham. He’d be upset knowing I spoke with you about it, now, after so long.”

“Why did you want to talk with me about it, and what do you imagine that I could do after almost 55 years (
I had it worked out to approximately 54.85 years, but didn’t want my love of precision to throw Mrs. Crocker off, when I had her relaxing into these first few easy questions so nicely
)?”

“I want to know. I made my own peace with her being gone after a year, and sometime after that felt her shift from being my daughter who was missing to being my daughter who had died. I never buried her though, Tyler. Never really mourned her.” A silvery tear, huge and perfect on that tiny/ravaged face, rolled down a pale cheek, fell into a deep wrinkle, and was trapped … like she was … like I was. I waited for her brain and heart and mouth to start up again; I drank more Coke, trying to minimize
my slurping in the quiet room.

“People talk about the loss of a child. They generally mean to a childhood illness or accident. They can see the child, dead. They can touch the body and weep over a corpse and put it in the ground. I was denied that by the thing (
she said this word with such venom and hate and bleak sadness, that I took an involuntary step back, awed a bit by her depth of feeling
) that took her from all of us, from me, her mother.” She paused again, no tears this time, just her breath sawing in and out, wet and smelling slightly of ruined tissue.

“I want to know. Where she went, who took her, how she died, why her?” The last words came out a whisper.

I don’t have feelings in the way that other people do; it’s a blessing and a curse, at times, in turns. I have watched people my whole life, and can make most of the expected facial expressions, guess at the right things to say, or noise/gesture to make, but lack the empathy most humans share. This old woman, this mother, had had a piece ripped off her body/soul most of a lifetime ago, and I was making her relive it; and now had to turn the volume to eleven.

“Her abduction was planned and carried out by someone that hated her, had reason to hate her … who was it? Don’t think! Answer.”

“Nobody hated Dee. Everyone loved her. Maybe a jealous boy ….” She trailed off, hopefully (
although why that might be better than some other alternative was beyond me, but many things are
).

“No. Ex-lovers, jealous boyfriends, and spurned suitors leave bloody bodies behind, not an empty pair of shoes.” I was not being pointlessly cruel, I told myself as she bent under my harsh and hurtful words, I needed to push her beyond her regular patterns of thinking about this … past 54.85 years of myth and wishes and tears.

Mrs. Crocker drew herself up, as much as was possible for her in her state, and glared at me before answering. “She was a girl. Pretty and clever and funny and nice. She moved through the world making friends, not enemies. If she had a fault, it was that she liked to drink. It might have gotten her into trouble in the long run, but she didn’t have a long run; she got a few tickets, and her picture in the papers a time or two in the year before her … before she disappeared, but nothing serious. Nobody could have hated her enough to … that much.” She finished with a tone and a look that signaled an end to that particular subject, and after a few moments of thought, I nodded.

“I’ll do it,” I said

“What? That was only four questions. What about the other nine?” She seemed genuinely curious, and maybe even a little disappointed.

“I only needed to ask you a few questions, but I wanted you to be thinking/worrying about more, so that I might get honest, unprepared answers from you. I know enough to begin looking, and will, in point of fact, get better information from almost any source besides you.”

She finished the last sip of Coke that I’d given her, and waggled the cup at me. I finished the can in my hand, and took a new one from the cooler, giving her the first two ounces, and then starting to work on the rest myself.

“It is quite good. Better than I remember,” she said, working herself up to speak on a painful subject. “How will you proceed, Mr. Cunningham (
her switching back and forth from first to surname basis had confused me at first, but now I think it had to do with business and personal address and issues
)?” she asked.

“I’ll take a walk around the camp with your son to start. Next, I’ll talk to people who might have been around that summer. I know some people down at the Adirondack Museum, and may be able to ransack their archives a bit … I’m a good researcher.”

“That all sounds rather nebulous, Tyler.”

“Well, yes, it is. A lot of what I practice is what I think of as ‘Informational Echolocation.’ Are you familiar with the term?”

“Not the information part, but there was a wonderful Richard Attenborough (
David, I assumed, but did not correct her
) special on bats, and their use of echolocation. Is that what you mean?”

“Somewhat. My experience has been that the act of looking for information sends out signals of various sorts, and when the signal interacts with a person or research resource of some sort, it echoes back at me, like the bat’s squeak bouncing back off a moth. The bat and I adjust our flight/research pattern, and sometimes get lucky.”

Mrs. Crocker looked at me through a veil of confusion, with just a hint of understanding growing after a few seconds.

“It’s not necessary that I understand your methods, is it young man?”

“No, Ma’am (
my first Ma’am … ever, I think
). I don’t always understand what I’m doing, I just trust that my subconscious does, and that things will work out. I can’t promise you that I’ll be able to tell you what you want to know about your daughter, but if the information is out there, I will find it.”

“This man, Pinchot, the detective we hired when Dee went missing, charged us so much per day plus expenses; can I assume that you operate in much the same way, Mr. Cunningham?”

“You cannot, because I do not. I am not a licensed private investigator, as he likely was. I do favors for friends, and in return they do favors for me.”

“Ah yes, this was the point at which that dear girl Dorothy got flustered and stammered her way out of the conversation in which she first menti
oned you. Niceties of New York licensure aside, I would like to fairly compensate you for your time and effort. What favor could I possibly do for you? Dorothy mentioned something about vacations; we have houses in California, Florida, New Mexico, and Maine, if any of those would be of interest.”

“Whose Porsche is that in the garage?” I asked.

“My son’s,” Mrs. Crocker replied, with a hint of hesitancy creeping into her voice.

I thought back to Niko, a boy that I’d been schooled with briefly as a child. He had loved, obsessively, cars, in particular Porsches, and even more particularly the model owned by his father, the 993, a variant of the 911 sold in the 1980s and 1990s. Niko and his father had taken me on a series of rides in lower Manhattan one October and November, and I could still remember the sounds and feel of the car running flat out, nimble and powerful, like a cheetah dashing among cows. I hadn’t had time to inspect the machine being worked on in the garage, but I was reasonably certain that it was a 993.

“I would feel more than fairly compensated if I could borrow the Porsche during the course of my research … investigation,” I said, and then looked at her, waiting. I live a life with few wants, having, in general, everything that I need/want. Caught up in her nostalgia though, and seemingly indulging some of my own, I found myself wanting this, very much; it did not sit well with me, and I tried to bury the feeling, so that it would not spill out of my eyes or face, onto this old woman sitting in front of me.

She leaned back and looked at the ceiling and seemed to weigh things for a long 17 seconds before smiling a bit, and responding. “Yes, by God, I like it. Mike will be upset, no, angry, with both of us, but he can do this for me; I gave him the car for his fiftieth birthday anyway. You must promise not to put the slightest scratch on his car, Tyler. He warehouses the thing up here, and only drives it a few weeks each year; he told me it has less than 10,000 miles on it, and is more than 20 years old. This will be difficult, but we’ve lived without thinking about her for too long, and he can give me this one thing before I go.”

“We’ve kept Dorothy and the dog waiting long enough now. When you go out and send her in, tell Anthony that you’ll be staying for lunch, and to have a place for me at the table as well.” She looked past me, and through the door, towards Dorothy and the wet dog waiting to mess up this neat and tidy hospital-feeling room, in much the same way that I would likely be messing up this camp, her family, and the quietly buried past … all for an old woman’s satisfaction.

I smiled at Dot on my way out, gestured her in, and nodded, in answer to her raised eyebrows and look at the bed and occupant beyond and behind me. She and Cheeko, a sweet and mellow dog, went in to let the old woman smell wet dog, receive loving dog kisses, hear the thwacking of a glad tail, and rub happy ears and belly. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday mid-morning, especially if it may be among your last. We were all basking in Cheeko’s love and kisses when the rest of the Crocker clan (
at least those up visiting Topsail, and previously off at church
) crunched down the gravel drive, and Kitty shooed us out to go and say hello while she got ready for lunch.

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