The funeral had been a splendid affair as funerals go, and Bicky personally greeted each of the four hundred mourners that had been appearing at the house since mid-morning to pay their respects. Now, twelve hours later, with the mourners gone, the caterers packed up, and the musicians disbanded, the house took on an eerie quiet, punctuated by the occasional clanging dish Mrs. Banes loaded into the dishwasher. Only Bicky, Hart and Jerry Dixon remained.
“Was anyone there when it happened?” Hart asked. They were alone in his study.
Bicky sat brooding in the study where he’d come often during the day to escape the crush of people with their endless outpouring of sympathy. Now, he stared at the fire’s glowing embers, sipping a Chivas on the rocks, the distant look in his eye tipping Hart to the possibility that Bicky might not be home at present.
“When I was young, this was years before we discovered oil on our land, when we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that is, my father used to take me and my brother, Mason, trout fishing in the back country. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in West Virginia, but it had some of the most pristine and diverse ecocultures of all our fifty states, California and Florida notwithstanding. We’d fish for two or three days, eating to fill our bellies and stashing the rest in the mountain stream. That water came flowing down just like nectar from Mount Olympus and was colder and clearer than any spring water you’ll find on the market today. The fish stayed better there than in a fridge. We’d bring back what we caught and my Mom would cook it up with some potatoes and kale from her vegetable garden. You can’t buy fish like that today. Not even in the high end food markets. They just don’t exist anymore. So many things don’t exist anymore.” Bicky shuddered.
Hart grabbed a blanket off the couch and made to cover Bicky with it, but stopped short by embarrassment, left the blanket sitting on the arm of the chair and returned to his seat.
“Sonia used to do that all the time when she was a little girl,” Bicky said. “Cover me. But that was before she learned to hate me. Of course, she always liked my money.”
Hart had shot his emotional wad during the course of the day and didn’t want to talk about Sonia now. “Maybe you need to go back to West Virginia for a visit. Some trout fishing might help with the…with all this.” Hart waved his hand toward the study door where the sounds of dishes being stacked sliced through the silent hall.
“The West Virginia of my youth is gone. Just like everything else.” Bicky sighed and took a big swig of whiskey. “Did you know they blow the tops off of mountains there now, just to get at the seams of coal nestled underneath? They smother miles of streams with the rubble, pristine mountain streams, and call it progress. All together, in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, a couple others, the coal companies have buried over seven hundred miles of headwater streams with their little extraction business. Headwaters. That’s where the stream starts. And they say oil kills wildlife.”
Bicky gave a short, jagged laugh, drained his glass and threw it against the back wall of the fireplace where it exploded in a shower of sparks ignited by traces of whiskey. “Oopah,” he said, deadpan, turning to Hart for the first time since they’d be sitting there. “That’s what the Greeks say.”
“What the hell was that?” Jerry Dixon came running into the study, followed by Mrs. Banes. Jerry’s eyes were bloodshot. He was drunk.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Yes, Mrs. Banes. I’m fine. I regret, however, that I’ve made a mess in the fireplace.”
“Glass is it?” She stepped forward and gazed into the fire. “Shall I clean it out now?”
Bicky shook his head. “Tomorrow’ll be fine. Why don’t you go home now.”
Mrs. Banes nodded in weary gratitude. “If you’re sure you won’t be needing me.”
Bicky nodded. Mrs. Banes had been in the Coleman’s employ for over thirty years and although Kitty had come to treat her like family, Bicky rarely said a word to her unless giving an order. Mrs. Banes was wary of his silences, and his temper, having seen both in action.
“Well then, I’ll take you up on the offer. Thank you, sir.”
“Is anyone else still here?”
“No, sir. Last ones left about half an hour ago.”
“I’ll walk you out then,” Bicky said. Mrs. Banes’ eyebrows shot up, but she covered it over nicely by scratching her forehead.
“Goodnight, Mr. Hart. Mr. Dixon.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Banes,” Hart said. He watched her move stiffly out the door, a baffled look on her face. Jerry sat down opposite Hart.
“How you doing, Jerry?”
“I’ve been better.” Jerry pulled a much-used hankie out of his back pocket and gave a full-throttled blow. Deep circles hung like end-of-the-party streamers under Jerry’s eyes and the creases in his brow appeared etched in stone. Apparently, Bicky wasn’t the only one feeling the pain of Kitty’s sudden demise.
“Of all things to go. Her heart was bigger than anyone I knew.” Jerry blew his nose again, a resounding effort culminating in a silence broken only by the crackling of burning wood.
Hart felt the hollowness of his own muscular organ, its ineffectiveness. That his eyes were dry and his breathing passages open came as no surprise. Given the sheer volume of bodily fluids that had passed through his nasal and ophthalmic cavities in the months following Sonia’s death, he wondered whether he’d ever shed another tear.
There was something now, about Jerry’s body language, about the way he rubbed his eyes, so hard and rough they might pop out of his head, that seemed scary, familiar. They sat in silence, Hart circumspectly watching Jerry, puzzling it out until he was struck with an analogy more solid than any wood iron. He stared at Jerry in disbelief until Jerry wiped his nose, stifled a sob, and confirmed it for him.
“I loved her.” Jerry coughed, covering the words that had escaped. “Too long. And yet not long enough.”
The confession hung in the air like skunk spray, fetid and impossible to ignore. To Hart, Jerry appeared caricature-like, the undeniable look of guilt spread thin across his face. Jerry swallowed hard – Hart watched his Adam’s apple wobbling under the strain – before continuing.
“I’ve been in love with her for over thirty years. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for that woman.” His eyes trailed off after his voice and Hart could almost see time winding backwards to the point that even Jerry’s voice changed, losing the throatiness, the slightly harder edge that comes with years of use.
“We met at a party Akanabi had for all its customers. In those days, they really knew the meaning of customer service. It was this swanky affair and I was handling security. I was pretty new. Only been with the company six months. Kitty gave a little toast to honor all those customers that kept Akanabi in business and then one to honor all its faithful employees. Later we chatted over the hors d’oeuvres. She was just beautiful. I made it my personal goal to find out everything I could about her. Even without digging, you could already see the cracks forming in their relationship.” Jerry took a sip of whiskey and stared at the bottom of the glass straight through to the last few decades. “For over thirty years, I loved her. And I’ll keep on loving her long after that bastard has taken a new wife.”
“So that was when they were first married?” Hart asked. “Before she had Sonia?”
Jerry stiffened. “Go ahead. Ask me,” he said.
“Did you . . . did she love you back?”
“Yes,” Jerry said, his voice smaller than a minute. “But, I didn’t know until it was almost too late.” His face contorted. “God, it feels good to finally tell someone.”
Hart heard footsteps behind him and jerked around to see Bicky walk into the room.
“Tell someone what?”
Jerry stared, wide-eyed at Bicky, but said nothing.
“About his Golden Retriever,” Hart offered. “He was saying how he hasn’t felt this bad since his Golden Retriever died.” Jerry’s look said he would lick Hart’s boots clean with his tongue next opportunity he got.
“That’s just like you, Jerry. Likening my wife to a dog.” Bicky poured himself another Scotch before dissolving in his chair. Hart could almost see Bicky’s energy draining from him, running in rivulets across the hardwood floor.
“Come to think of it, you always did enact a certain aloofness around her. Something I could never quite decipher. Bordered on downright rude, I thought.” Bicky took a big slug of his whiskey without so much as a glance in Jerry’s direction. “You couldn’t say it was justified. Kitty might have been a lot of things, but rude was the least of them.”
“I was never rude to her,” Jerry replied. “I just…. Bicky, I want to tell you something.” Hart looked at Jerry whose face had become an expressionless mask. “I…. It’s just….”
Bicky shot Jerry a withering look. The confession died in Jerry’s throat, leaving a gaseous trail in its wake. He coughed again, emitting a puff of anxiety and guilt as obvious to the casual observer as a passing cloud. But Bicky was staring into the fire, dousing his own sorrow within the prescribed confines of his cerebral cortex and his whiskey glass. He had not a brain cell to spare for observation.
Jerry stood up, wavering. “I’m gonna head out.”
Hart sighed, relieved. The male need to be territorial was pronounced even when the grand prize was six feet underground. The last thing Hart wanted was to watch a pair of middle-aged men go at it on the floor of Bicky’s study.
“I’ll see ya’,” Jerry said. Bicky sat stone-faced without taking his eyes off the fire.
Hart walked with Jerry as he stumbled down the hall to the foyer.
“How about I call you a cab? You don’t look like you’re in any shape to drive.”
“Death might be a welcome change.” Jerry said, managing a weak smile.
Hart gave Jerry’s shoulder a squeeze. “It’s not you I’m worried about.”
“I know. Always the other guy.”
Hart punched numbers into his cell phone, but Jerry grabbed it and disconnected the call. He looked Hart dead in the eye for several moments before handing the phone back.
“You didn’t know, did you?”
“The last time you saw Kitty she had just had a stroke.”
“Jesus. I thought something was strange, but…. Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“You know, Kitty. Doesn’t want anybody knowing her business.”
Hart noted the usage of the present tense as if Kitty were still alive. Jerry wavered and Hart reached a hand out to steady him. Jerry grabbed the door frame.
“Her right leg was gimpy after that. Little bit of paralysis. Bicky wanted her to fly to Europe – bastard that he is, he still loved her – to see this neurosurgeon. Top guy in the field. She wouldn’t go. She didn’t leave the house much… after Sonia died.” Jerry croaked.
“I saw her everyday and he never knew. Probably the best months of my life.” Jerry pawed at his eyes and studied the toes of his cowboy boots. “Now she’s gone and I’m lost.”
Hart squeezed Jerry’s shoulder and was surprised when Jerry’s arms encircled him and held on for a long, fierce hug.
“I’m really sorry.” Jerry pushed Hart away and called over his shoulder: “For everything.”
He staggered to his car, leaving Hart standing in the open doorway, alone with his questions.
Hart returned to the study, heard Bicky’s stifled sobs and took a reverse step, intent on backing out quietly, but bumped into an end table instead. One of Sonia’s baby pictures rattled and crashed on the hardwood, shattering when it hit. Hart froze.
Bicky started, then rose as if the movement caused him pain. He dragged himself over to survey the damage while sixty years of promises broken and lies lived, of the shadow side of dreams, of futures never realized, now all congealed, weighing down the sleeves and the collar and lining the pockets of Bicky’s rumpled Armani suit. Grief, noticeably absent when his daughter died, now cloaked him in full regalia, aging him exponentially and adding decades to his countenance. In the months following Sonia’s death, Hart had often wondered how Bicky hid his grief so well when Hart himself had been rendered debilitated. Perhaps Bicky hadn’t cared about his daughter, as some had suggested, or perhaps he was just being brave for Kitty. But whatever threads had held him together, they’d all snapped now. Bicky was a wreck.
He stooped, picked up the picture and brushed away the broken glass cutting his finger. He flinched, but didn’t say anything. Instead he rubbed his finger across his baby’s face, caressing her over and over as if the repetitive motion might raise the dead. Hart saw the blood oozing onto the photograph and left the room.
He returned a minute later with a wet towel and a trash can. Bicky knelt, crouched over the blood-stained photograph.
“I just hope that by the time I find the bastard, life hasn’t wrung all the vengeance out of me. I’m getting old, you know.” As if to prove it, Bicky grabbed the table and hoisted himself up, ragged and slow. Hart took the photograph, so stained with blood you could no longer make out the subject, and wrapped his father-in-law’s finger in the wet towel. Bicky nodded once, acknowledging the gesture, and squeezed Hart’s arm before shuffling over to the wet bar.
Bicky picked up a tumbler and filled it. “It’s the least I can do for my favorite son-in-law.” He tried out his famous scowling smile. It still worked.
“Bicky.” Hart picked pieces of glass off the floor and threw them in the trash can. “I’d say vengeance is overrated.”
“Ah, but the momentary relief is as good as anything I’ve ever experienced.” Bicky laughed, a dry brittle cackle. “Besides. Don’t you want to know?”
“I do know,” Hart said. “It was an accident. You saw the body. She slipped and fell. Hard. Hard enough to knock herself out. If I would have been home…” Hart dumped a big piece of glass in the trash can and it shattered. He reached for a couple shards under the table.
“You said yourself you had the feeling that someone else had been there.”
“I said a lot of things. You can’t bank on anything I said then. If you remember, I wasn’t very lucid.” Hart was still smarting over Bicky’s decision to dope him up for the two days following Sonia’s death. The lost days. Hart dumped the last bits of the glass into the trash and stood.
“I’d tell Mrs. Banes to go over this with a vacuum in the morning.” He looked over at Bicky, but the man wasn’t even in the same stratosphere. A profound feeling of fatigue settled over Hart. “Hey, Bicky, unless you need me, I’m gonna get going. I’ve got a bunch of stuff to settle at the house before my flight back to Philadelphia tomorrow night.”
“You don’t think I knew she was having an affair?”
The question startled Hart. “Who?”
“My wife, that’s who.”
“Jesus, Bicky. Ease up, would you?” Hart was not inclined to share the information Jerry had imparted. It wouldn’t do any good. That Kitty chose to share the last months of her life with a man who obviously adored her over a man who rarely gave her the time of day did not come as a shock. What came as a shock was that she waited so long to do it. He was happy that Kitty had found a bit of happiness at the end.
Bicky shook his head in defeat. “I don’t know. But if I find the son-of-a-bitch I’ll kill him, too.”
“Well, that’s two people you’re gonna kill. But hey, the night’s young.”
Bicky grimaced. “That’s why she moved across to the other side of the house, you know. So I wouldn’t catch on to her shenanigans.”
Hart sighed, tired of arguing. “Enough. Kitty loved you, otherwise she would have left your flat ass a long time ago. Cause the way I see it, you had absolutely nothing to offer her.” He smiled with the last words, meaning it as a bit of sarcasm, but immediately wished he could retract them. He searched Bicky’s face to gauge a reaction, but there was none.
“I gotta go.” Hart squeezed Bicky’s shoulder. “Call me if you need me.”
to be continued