The Little Death (17 page)

I
removed my jacket, positioned myself in the shade of an oak tree and studied
Grover Linden’s resting place. The legend was that Linden wanted his tomb
patterned after the temple of the Acropolis. What he got was a much smaller
building constructed from massive blocks of polished gray granite adorned on
three sides with Ionic columns. At the entrance there were two steps which led
to a bronze screen and beneath it two stone doors. On each side, the entrance
was flanked by a marble sphinx.

In
front of the tomb was an oval of grass bounded by a circular pathway, a
tributary of the footpaths that crisscrossed the surrounding wood. That wood
was a popular trysting place, and it was not unusual to find the grounds near
the tomb littered with beer cans, wine bottles, marijuana roaches, and used
condoms. Today, however, the grounds keepers had been thorough.

I
heard cars pulling up and then the cracking of wood as people surged forward
from the road trampling the dry grass and fallen twigs; the more-or-less
orderly procession across the Old Quad had become a curiosity-seeking mob,
red-faced and sweaty, converging from all directions as the university
security guards fought to keep open a corridor from the road to the steps of
the tomb. I watched a photographer shimmy up one of the venerable oaks and
stake out her position among its branches.

Finally
the pallbearers appeared, walking slowly and stumblingly across the uneven dirt
path. They were preceded by the school’s president, who climbed the steps of
the tomb and opened the doors. As he fiddled with the locks, one of the pallbearers,
an old man, started to sink beneath the weight of his burden. Two security
guards hurried to his side and propped him up. His mouth hung open and a vein
beat furiously at his temple.

“Welcome
to necropolis,” a voice beside me murmured. I turned to find Grant Hancock
standing beside me, cool and handsome in a light gray suit. “Do you see that
gentleman there?”

I
followed his gaze to a shadowy corner at the far edge of the crowd from where a
tall thin old man surveyed the chaos from behind a pair of dark glasses.

“John
Smith,” I said. “I hadn’t noticed him at the church.”

“He
wasn’t in attendance,” Grant said. The old man slipped away. “One titan buries
another,” Grant remarked.

“Cut
from the same cloth?”

“God,
no,” Grant said. “Robert Paris was so vulgar he had buildings named in his
honor while he was still alive. The only thing for which Smith has permitted
use of his name is a rose.”

“A
rose?”

“He’s
an amateur horticulturist,” Grant said. “Incidentally, what are you doing here?”

“I
wanted to make sure he was dead.”

He
picked a fragment of bark from my shoulder and said, “It was open casket. He’s
dead.”

“Open
casket? That was vulgar.”

“Robert
Paris never did anything tastefully except die in his sleep. As for me, when I
die I’ll direct my family to bury me without fanfare.”

I
smiled. “When you die, Grant, the tailors and barbers will declare a day of
national mourning.”

“And
when you die,” he said, not quite as lightly, “I’ll miss you.” We began
walking. “In fact, I’ve missed you the past four years.”

I
said nothing, feeling the sun on my neck, thinking of the funeral, thinking of
Hugh, thinking as usual of too many things.

Grant
said, “I’ve changed.”

“Only
very young people believe that change is always for the better,” I said. “I’m
mostly interested in holding the line, which is, I guess, the difference
between thirty and thirty-four.”

“Am
I being rejected? Again?”

“No.”

We
had reached his car. He leaned against it and we looked at each other.

“I
feel very old today,” I said, “as though I’ve dissipated my promise and my
capacity to love. I’ve felt that way since Hugh died. I don’t know what there
is left of me to offer.”

“Let
me decide that.”

I
nodded. “I’ll drive up this weekend.”

“Good,
I’ll see you then.”

I
walked back to my car and got in. I loosened my tie and rolled up my sleeves,
tossing my jacket into the back seat. On the front seat was a book I’d bought
that morning,
The Poems of C.P.
Cavafy,
the poet Hugh had mentioned to me
that distant summer evening in San Francisco. I glanced at my watch. It was
almost one, time to drive to the restaurant where I was meeting Terry Ormes for
lunch. I picked up the book. Flipping through it at the bookstore I’d marked a
page with the little poem that I now read aloud:

The surroundings of the house
,
centers
,
neighborhoods
which I see and where I walk; for years and years.

I have created you in joy and in sorrows:

out of so many circumstances
,
out
of so many things.

You have become all feeling for me.

The
words had a liturgical cadence, almost a prayer. You have become all feeling
for me. I had not come to see Robert Paris buried, but to bury Hugh. And still
I was dissatisfied. I put the book down and started up the car.

 

*
* * * *

 

Terry
ran her fingertip around the rim of her glass of wine as I ordered another
bourbon and water. The lunchtime crowd at Barney’s had thinned considerably
since we’d been seated an hour earlier. The plate of pasta in front of me was
mostly uneaten, but I’d refused the waiter’s attempts to clear it away. The
presence of food helped me justify the amount of bourbon I was drinking.

Terry
wore a satiny cotton dress, white with thin red and blue vertical stripes. A
diamond pendant hung from her slim neck. Looking at her I wondered if she had a
lover. I didn’t imagine many men could accept her calm self-possession and
luminous intelligence without feeling threatened. And, just now, she also
looked beautiful to me.

“I
should be getting back to work,” she said, making no effort to move. Instead
she poured the last of the wine from the bottle into her glass. Continuing our
conversation, she asked, “What is it you can’t accept?”

I
shrugged. “Robert Paris’s death, I guess. I wanted a confrontation and he ups
and dies on me.”

“But
you don’t think he was killed?”

“No.
Apparently he’s been in bad health for years and he died of natural causes.”

“Then
let it rest,” she said. She sipped her wine. “What are you going to do with
yourself now?”

“I
don’t know. I’m completely unprepared for anything other than the practice of
law.”

“That
sounds like a good reason to do something else.”

“I
agree, but the details of my new life are — elusive.”

The
waiter deposited my drink in front of me and made another play for my plate.
This time I let him take it.

“Just
watch the whiskey intake,” she said.

“I
have to get my calories somewhere.”

“You
might come to my house for dinner some night.”

“I’d
like that.”

We
looked at each other.

“I’m
offering as a friend,” she said.

“I
know. I accept.”

I
saw her look away. What did she see when she looked at me, I wondered. An alien
or just a lonely man? The latter, I thought. Her dinner invitation came out of
compassion, not curiosity.

“We’re
both different, Terry. We play against expectation and we’re good at what we
do. It’s our competence that makes us outsiders, not the fact that you’re a
woman cop or I’m a gay lawyer.”

She
nodded, slightly, and made a movement to leave. I rose with her.

“Take
care of yourself, Henry. Go away for a few days, meet someone new, and when you
get back, call me.”

“I
promise,” I said and watched her go.

I
should have gone, too, but instead I stayed another hour at the bar. Finally,
when the first wave of the office workers from the surrounding business washed
in, I asked for the check, paid it and left.

 

*
* * * *

 

I
put the key into the lock, turned it, pushed the door and nothing happened. The
dead-bolt was bolted. I fumbled on my key chain for the dead-bolt key and
jammed it into the lock. I leaned my shoulder against the door and pushed. It
opened. I stood for a moment staring at the door. I didn’t remember bolting it.
In fact, I never did.

Stepping
into my apartment I suddenly stopped. There was something wrong. I looked
around. Everything appeared as it had been when I set off for the university
that morning, but was it? Had I closed the book lying on the coffee table? I
walked around the room.

The
dead-bolt. I knew I hadn’t bolted the door. There was no point. There were so
many other ways to break into my apartment that it never occurred to me that
someone might try using the front door. But someone had, and he had very
carefully turned both locks when he left.

Slowly,
starting with my bedroom, I methodically went through every room of the
apartment, taking inventory. It took more than an hour to make the search. In
the bedroom, I lifted from the wall my framed law school diploma. I opened the
wall safe beneath. There I found intact my grandfather’s pocket watch, my birth
certificate, my passport, my parents’ wedding rings — optimistically bequeathed
to me — and five thousand dollars cash, some of the bills twenty years old, the
sum of my father’s estate. Everything was accounted for.

It
was the same in the bathroom and the kitchen and in the hall closet. I sat down
at my desk and began going through the drawers. Then I discovered what was
missing: Hugh’s letters to his grandfather, which Aaron Gold had given me.

I
closed the bottom drawer. Robert Paris was dead but someone had stolen the
only evidence I had which linked him to the murder of his grandson. The
apartment seemed suddenly very quiet. I felt as if I were in the presence of
ghosts. As much to get out as to learn whether she’d seen or heard anything I
went to my neighbor.

I
pushed the doorbell beneath her name, Lisa Marsh. She came to the door in a
bathrobe. This was not unusual, since she was a resident at the university
medical school and worked odd hours. But her face was flushed, her hair
disheveled and her eyes bright; it wasn’t the appearance of sleep.

“Hi,”
I began, waiting for recognition to register with her.

She
smiled.

“Sorry
to get you out of bed but someone broke into my house this afternoon.”

She
stepped back. “Oh, no. When?”

“I
left at ten this morning and got back an hour ago.” I looked at my watch. It
was about six. “I was wondering if you’d seen or heard anything.”

“You
better come in,” she said. I did, closing the door behind me. All the curtains
were drawn, but a lamp shone in a corner, revealing the remnants of a meal for
two people laid out on a long coffee table. “Excuse me for a minute, Henry.”

She
went into her bedroom, and I heard her talking to someone. A few minutes later
she returned with a man who was stuffing his shirt tails into his jeans.

“I
don’t think you’ve met Mark,” she said.

“Um,
how do you do?” I said.

He
smiled. “Fine.”

“I
am really sorry to disturb you,” I said to both of them.

Lisa
shrugged. “This is an emergency. Have you called the police?”

“No,
not yet. I’m trying to figure out what happened first.”

We
went into the living room and sat down. I told them about the dead-bolt, the
neatness of the search and the fact that only one thing had been taken. They
did not ask, and I did not tell them, exactly what that thing was.

“What
I was thinking,” I concluded, “was that you may have heard something or seen
someone.”

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