Read Dead Man's Bones Online

Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

Dead Man's Bones (25 page)

Max Baumeister put the lid on his paint can. “So you think that’s what made Hank Dixon do what he did?” he asked, frowning behind his gold-rimmed glasses. “He was angry about the way his father was treated?”
Chris shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, Doctor Baumeister. But I can’t think of another reason why Hank would pick up a butcher knife and threaten the Obermann sisters. He got to thinking about his dad and brooding over the situation, and he just lost it.”
Man’s gotta die sometime,
Hank had said.
Woman, too, for that matter.
“It’s so sad,” Jean said. “Hank dead, Florence in the hospital. And Jane must feel just awful about what happened.”
“Don’t bet on it,” Marian said grimly. “I wouldn’t put it past that old lady to be feeling just ducky about the whole thing.” She turned away. “Now, if you guys will excuse me, I need to finish counting the ticket money.”
“The theater had a good weekend?” I asked.
“The best opening weekend ever,” Jean replied happily. “We sold out both Friday and Saturday nights.”
Chris waggled her beautifully plucked eyebrows at Max. “How does that make you feel, Herr Doctor Obermann?”
“I am complimented, little lady.” Max bowed at the waist. “Indeed, I am deeply honored to have been given the opportunity to play a man of such stature in our community.”
Chris giggled, and Jean suppressed a smile. I loaded the empty chafing dishes and other items into the plastic bins I’d brought. Max offered to give me a hand with them, and between us, we carried them out to Mama.
“Thank you,” I said, closing the rear door on the load. “I appreciate the help.”
“You are very welcome, dear lady,” Max said, in his chivalric way, which I try not to think of as patronizing. He was turning to go when I thought of something. Max was a dentist; he had replaced a crown for me not long before he retired. Brian’s caveman had had one gold tooth. It was a long shot, but what the heck.
“Doctor Baumeister,” I said, “when did you start practicing in Pecan Springs?”
He turned, looking pleased at the question. “Let’s see,” he said, considering. “That would have been in 1959, in April. My father retired, and I took over his practice—a fine start for a young dentist, who could barely afford to buy new equipment. That’s really why I retired, you know. The new dental technology costs a small fortune, and one must be willing to keep up with all the changes, even when one finds them . . . bewildering.” He paused, peering at me over the tops of his glasses. He really did look like Teddy Roosevelt, I thought. “And why do you ask, my dear?”
“I wonder if you remember putting in a gold front tooth,” I said. “Right upper incisor. The patient, a man, was tall—six foot three or four. This would have been before the mid-seventies.” The penny in the caveman’s pocket had been minted in 1975 and had looked new. There was no telling when the tooth had been installed.
“A gold front tooth?” He pursed his lips, clasped his hands behind his back, and rocked back and forth. “I shouldn’t think I would have put in a gold front tooth after 1965.”
I was surprised by the specific date. “Oh? Why?”
“Because porcelain came into use at that time, and most people preferred it to gold, for cosmetic reasons.” He paused, frowning. “Six feet four? My goodness gracious. I pride myself on my memory. In a performance, of course, I must be able to hold all my lines in my head and recite them without difficulty. Memory is a crucial asset as a performer, and I exercise it religiously.”
But not briefly, I thought, and waited.
He cast his eyes upward as if consulting the skies, thought for a moment longer, then gave it up as a bad job.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank, which suggests to me that I did not treat the gentleman you describe. You might try Doctor Rosenberg—he began practicing about the same time as I did. Poor fellow had to start from scratch, and it took him quite a few years to build up a following, although I believe he’s done quite well in his latter years. I’ve seen some of his work, and it seems quite good.”
That’s what happens when you talk with Max. He is not only stiff and formal, he is long-winded. But since I hadn’t expected any information, I wasn’t terribly disappointed.
“Thanks anyway,” I said. “By the way, Ruby and I dropped in at the hospital yesterday and talked to Florence. She was very pleased with your performance on Friday night. She said that you captured her father, to the life.”
“Oh, really?” Max’s plump face was wreathed in a smile. “How gracious of sweet little Miss Florence to say so, and how very nice of you to pass the compliment along. I’m afraid that our dear Doctor Obermann was a rather stiff gentleman, and exceedingly formal. I had to make his character a little more lively, just to keep up with Ruby, you know.” He smiled, as if we were sharing a joke. “Otherwise, Ruby would have upstaged me, and I don’t think that was what Miss Jane had in mind.”
I tried not to smile. “The play was great,” I said truthfully. “And you did a fine job.”
“I am truly complimented, little lady.” Max lifted his hand in a formal gesture. “I trust that you will have a fine day.” He turned to go back to the theater.
I climbed into the van and was inserting the key into the ignition when Max reappeared at the driver’s side window. Suppressing a sigh, I rolled it down.
“Something has just occurred to me that may be of some assistance to you,” he said. “It was your mention of Miss Florence that jogged my recollection.” He paused, with a thoughtful look. “Isn’t it fascinating the way memories are connected? Like threads. Pull on one end, and they all begin to unravel. Why, just the other day, when I was rehearsing, I happened to remember something I hadn’t thought of in—”
“The recollection?” I asked quickly, since he showed signs of going off in another direction for another two or three paragraphs.
“Ah, yes, the recollection. Quite right. You might be interested in knowing that I fitted a gold tooth on a young lad in the first year of my practice. He was not very tall then, of course, but I believe that he grew up to be an unusually tall man. In fact, I remember seeing him and remarking on how very tall he had grown, six feet three or four. Young people have a way of doing that, I find. Of growing beyond one’s expectations, I mean.”
“Interesting,” I murmured. I could feel the impatience rising in me. I turned on the ignition, thinking ahead to the long list of things I had to do. I needed to take the plastic bins back to the shop, do some bookkeeping and some garden work, and then go to Ruby’s for lunch. After that—
“Yes, it is, actually, quite interesting. My patient was Doctor Obermann’s young grandson, Andrew. Of course, Doctor and Mrs. Obermann had been my father’s patients, and I was enormously complimented when they decided to stay on with me.” He looked reflective. “Although to be truthful, they might not have considered the alternative. That would have been Doctor Rosenberg, and I’m not sure that Doctor Obermann would have been entirely comfortable with him.” He dropped his voice. “Jewish, you know. That’s why it was so difficult for him to start a practice in Pecan Springs. On the face of it, we are a tolerant little town, but when you scratch the surface, you will find all sorts of—”
It is easy to be mesmerized by the flow of Max’s words. I stopped him. “You said that the boy was Andrew Obermann?”
“Indeed, yes.” He beamed. “Now that it has come to mind—been retrieved from a dusty back shelf of my brain, as it were, the library of my memory—I remember the occasion quite well. Miss Florence brought the boy in. It was summer, the first summer of my practice, and he was visiting here. He had been playing in the stable, which is now our very fine playhouse.” He made a sweeping gesture in the direction of the theater. “Apparently, he broke his tooth when he jumped out of the hayloft. It was an upper incisor, as I recall, although I should have to consult my records to be certain whether it was right or left. And if I’m not mistaken, I did a root canal.”
“I see,” I said, “but I—”
He was in full swing. “You wouldn’t have known young Andrew Obermann, of course, because he was gone long before you arrived. And he was not a resident of Pecan Springs, only a visitor. He and his family—his father was one of the Obermanns’ two sons—lived in Houston.”
I stared at him. “Andrew Obermann. He was the one who went to Vietnam, and then came back and disappeared?”
The light glinted on Max’s glasses. “The boy was badly wounded during the war, I understand, and became addicted to opiates during the course of his treatment. The waste of a fine young life. So sad for all concerned. I know that his aunts were devastated, because Miss Florence spoke of it to me.”
“When did he disappear?”
“When?” Max wrinkled his forehead, concentrating. “Well, I couldn’t answer that with precision. I can, however, tell you when I saw him last, if that would be of any help.”
“It might,” I said.
“It would have been in 1976, I believe.” He pursed and repursed his lips, as he did a serious search of his memory banks. “Yes, 1976, in the autumn, although I can’t tell you whether it was September or October. I was working in the election campaign, you see. I have always been eager to participate in the democratic process. Did you know that Mr. Ford was defeated in that year by only two percentage points? A very narrow margin indeed. And as the next election demonstrated—”
“You saw Andrew Obermann during the campaign?” I asked. I am always impressed by people with good memories. I can barely remember my shopping list, and Max Baumeister was recalling the details of a presidential election a quarter-century before.
“Yes, I saw him. Jane and Florence had volunteered to work for the campaign, as they did then, and quite actively, too. That was when they were still venturing out into public, although as you know they have been reclusive in recent years—a pity, I have always thought, for both of them have a great deal to offer the community and—”
“You saw their nephew at a political event?”
“Andrew drove them to one of our campaign functions—a rally for local candidates, as I recall—and was introduced as a war veteran. Somebody from the newspaper was there taking photos, I believe. I remember that he didn’t smile, and I wondered if he was self-conscious about that tooth and might want a porcelain replacement. In fact, I believe that I spoke to him about it. He could certainly afford the expense of a replacement.”
“Well, thank you, Doctor Baumeister,” I said heartily. “You have quite an astonishing memory.” I paused. “You wouldn’t happen to recall whether you took X rays of Andrew Obermann’s mouth, would you?”
“In those days, X rays were not done as a matter of course,” he said. “But since I recall doing a root canal for him—one of my first, actually, if not the very first—I’m sure I must have. I should have to look in my records.”
“Would you?” I asked. “It might be important.” On the other hand, it might not. You never know.
“May I ask why you have this interest?” he inquired curiously. “It seems a rather odd—”
“Goodness gracious, just
how late it’s getting!” I exclaimed, with a glance at my watch. I cranked Mama’s engine. “If you come across those X rays, you’ll let me know, won’t you?” I shifted into first gear and began letting out the clutch.
He retreated, not wanting Mama to step on his toes. “Yes, of course, but—”
“Wonderful,” I said. “Thanks again, Doctor Baumeister. Bye!” And Mama and I took off.
AS I said, I had planned to go to the shop. However, my agenda had changed, now that I had these disconnected fragments of information to deal with, retrieved from the dusty back shelves of Max Baumeister’s quite remarkable memory. Andrew Obermann had a gold upper-front incisor. Andrew Obermann was very tall, six foot three or four. Andrew Obermann had been in Pecan Springs in 1976, after which he had—it was said—gone to California. Eventually, he was declared legally dead. One possible conclusion: Andrew Obermann was Brian’s caveman.
I drove around the square, nosed Mama into a narrow parking space two doors down from the
, and went into the office. Ethel Fritz was behind the front desk, her largish self looming even larger and more cheerful than usual in a bright red polka-dot dress. Ethel does not believe in hiding her light under a bushel.
“Mornin’, China,” she said, poking a pencil into her blonde beehive, which is balanced on her head like one of those three-foot gilt crowns worn by Indonesian dancers. I haven’t a clue how the woman manages to sleep, or how long it takes to assemble her hair for each new day. “Gotcher page ready early, for a change?” she inquired.
For the past couple of years, I have been editing the weekly Home and Garden page in the Thursday edition of the
. My page is due at six P.M. on Tuesday, but I almost never make the deadline, and Ethel never misses a chance to remind me of my delinquencies. However, I happen to know that, since Hark installed the new computers, I can deliver my page, electronically, as late as four P.M. on Wednesday, and it will still make the production deadline. We’re not talking the
New York Times
here. The
has come up in the world from the days when it used to be a weekly, but it’s still a small newspaper, and Hark is reasonably flexible. Ethel, however, is a different matter. She sticks to the rules.
“You’ll have the page tomorrow, Ethel,” I said. For some reason, even when I hand in my work on time, I always feel like a freshman with an overdue paper. “I’m finishing it up tonight.”
Ethel opened her drawer and took out her advertising receipt book. There’s a computer right in front of her, but she still does business on paper. She says that the problem people have with their memories these days comes because they put too much faith in computers. “Use it or lose it” is her philosophy.
“Then maybe you’re here because you wanna buy some more ad space,” she said, opening the book and reaching for a pencil in the cup on her desk.

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