Mathew VI, 22
“How did you do it?” whispered the detective into my ear as if he were prying a secret from an intimate friend.
The paper cup of water slipped from my hand and splattered my shoes. Up to that point I thought our conversation was informal; an effort to fill in some details before putting Catherine’s case to bed. I knew that I hadn’t been there for long, but it had seemed like forever. Never before had someone so close to me died, so the whole process was new to me. I looked around the room. Mirrored walls. A long table with four plastic tan chairs. Empty brown paper coffee cups on the table.
“Do what?” I answered.
“You know. How did you do it?”
I felt the muscles in my face clench in anger, “What’s wrong with you?” My voice trembled as my mouth dried up and seemed to fill with sand. I stepped back a half pace and found the backs of my legs pressed against my chair. The taller detective half-smiled and half-sneered at me as he sat me, no, forced me, into the chair, pressing a powerful hand upon my shoulder. His frame was thick. He had blue eyes which he squinted together. His hair was full and short and neat and parted about the middle of his head. Sprigs of grey flecked the sides of his head above his ears. He wore a paper-thin white button-down dress shirt, and I saw the pink of his flesh right through it.
“You think that I killed my wife?” I felt my jaw slacken and my wrinkled brow un-furl, “She died in her sleep.”
I searched his eyes for a clue but his eyes were dark and vacant. “How did she die…?” I choked on the word “die” and tears filled my eyes as the memory of Catherine’s face appeared in my mind. Auburn hair. Thick dark eyebrows and long full eyelashes. Dark blue irises. And an adorable faint birthmark on the bottom of her right cheek that she was so self-conscious of. She always wore cover up to hide it. “The cause of death...what did she die of?”
The cop heeled his palm on the Formica table between us and collapsed into a tan plastic chair across from me. My eyes darted about the room as I assembled the scattered pieces of that puzzling day into a panoramic collage. Catherine was Beautiful even in death as she lay on the bed next to me. Her skin was sun-basted, but the remnants of her summer tan were fading. She was slowly turning blue. I vaguely remember my daughter sobbing with me, and trying desperately to pull me from Catherine’s body, begging me to get up. I remember paramedics arriving, and a gurney being wheeled into our bedroom; a white sheet pulled over Catherine’s face and then a warm firm hand clasping my shoulder. And I remember some consoling words being whispered to me by a female neighbor. I could think of nothing that would have pointed to murder.
The interrogation room was dead silent outside of our breathing.
It hadn’t sunk in, until that moment, but these cops were serious. I was being interrogated. I was a suspect in the death of my wife.
“What was the cause of my wife’s death?” I heard my voice growl in an unfamiliar intonation.
He didn’t respond. He just stared at me as though he were trying to read me. Was he waiting for me to say something?
“How did she die?” Adrenaline filled my veins. I stood and pounded my fist on the table with so much force that a few empty paper-cups toppled and rolled off the table.
The cop showed no emotion. He didn’t even flinch. He stood and circled the table until he was right in front of me. He placed his face in front of mine, his nose to my nose. I backed up slightly, confused by his invasion of my personal space, but he pursued me and came within a fraction of brushing his eyelashes against my own.
“How old is your daughter?”
“Seven.” I tried to steady my breathing to ease my anger.
“Kind of late in life to start a family, no?”
“Yeah, I suppose…”
He turned away from me and took a few steps before turning around, “Was your wife happy about raising a child so late in life?”
“Catherine loved Sarah.” I raised my voice, and then drew a breath to calm myself, “We tried to have children for years but we gave up a long time ago…and then....”
“So your wife wasn’t suicidal.”
“No.” I shook my head, “Catherine didn’t kill herself. That’s not the least bit possible. Catherine was happy. We…” I swallowed hard, “We made love just the night before she...” I raised my hand and shook my finger at him, “She was happy.”
“How do you suppose your wife got pregnant after all those years of trying?”
“What are you driving at? First you ask me how I did it, and then you ask me if she might have killed herself. What do you want me to say?”
“I asked you how your wife got pregnant…after all those years?”
“I don’t know, Sarah just sort of came to us.”
“After all those years of trying?”
“Yeah. Our little surprise.” I pictured Catherine holding our swaddled newborn, Sarah, in her arms as she lay on the hospital bed.
“Did you ever get tested to see if it was you or your wife that had the problem?”
I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my shirt, “No.” I lied. It was too personal a question.
“Come on! Never asked your doc? Not the least bit curious?”
I decided at that moment that I had nothing else to say to him. I was innocent. He stared hard at me. I could hear my heart beating. My mouth was dry again, my palms sweaty. I tried not to swallow, thinking that my dry choking gulp would convey guilt.
“Who is Amber?” A wry smile curled the sides of his mouth as he continued to stare me down. The man was amazing. He never blinked.
“Who?” I said, knowing exactly who he meant.
“Amber.” His eyes squinted at me as he feigned confusion. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know any Amber.” I pretended to search my mind. “Unless… do you mean…” I paused deliberately, “Amber Havisham?”
“You tell me?”
I waited a moment. She was the only Amber I knew. “She’s a client.” I shook my head in disbelief, though I knew that I was telling only a half truth.
There was a long uncomfortable silence. The cop seemed to like to use silence like a sharp tool, digging and prodding at my wounds for a tell. I tried to hold my expression; to keep from flinching or relaxing or blinking, but he outlasted me and I dropped my eyes.
“You spent an awful lot of time on the telephone with her.”
“I spend a lot of time on the telephone with a lot of my clients,” I snapped back.
“Your cell phone?”
“Yes, my cell phone!”
“At eleven o’clock at night?” The wry smile returned. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a yellow piece of legal paper. “Until one o’clock in the morning… just a few nights before your wife was murdered?” He shoved the crumpled legal paper into his trouser pocket and removed a cigarette from inside his shirt pocket, (Marlboro, I could see through the fabric) and lit it with a silver lighter.
“Yes.” I heard my voice squelch.
Of course I knew who Amber was, but she lived in Wichita.
“God-damn-it!” I slammed my fist down onto the table again. “I did not kill my wife!” I stood abruptly, forcing my chair to fly backwards slamming it into the wall and toppling it onto its side, “and I am not having an affair. My client lives in Kansas!”
He paused again, looking up at the ceiling as if in deep thought. “What if I told you that she was in Cleveland last night?”
His words sucked the saliva from my mouth. This was news to me, and it imposed a long heavy silence. “Why would she?”
“I don’t know. Why would she?”
“What are you talking about? She’s a middle class housewife in Kansas! What the hell would she be doing in Cleveland?”
“You tell me.”
What could I say? What could I tell him? I had no idea whether what he had said was true or false. To tell you the truth I wasn’t sure that he was lying. But why would she come to Cleveland? Did she come here to kill my wife? “I want a lawyer.” I heard myself say.
He looked at me thoughtfully, studying my face as he did so. This pause was not for effect. I had surprised him.
“You want a lawyer? What for?” He took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke toward me before dropping it into the remains of his cold coffee. “You’re not under arrest, Mr. Derrick.”
All I had wanted to do from the moment of his accusation was to escape the suffocating air of the room. The room appeared to be shrinking with every passing second and I felt the onset of panic tremor through my body. I stood and took a few unsteady steps toward the door.
“This Amber Havisham,” I stopped and looked back at him, “Have you ever met her in person, Mr. Derrick, or can I call you Matt?”
“You can call me, Mr. Derrick.” I glared at the man with true hatred, “And no, I have never met her.” I stepped behind him and walked to the end of the room and opened the door.
“Would you like to?” he said.
I froze. I turned back toward him with caution, “Like to what?”
“Meet her.” He pointed behind himself with his thumb toward a door that I hadn’t even noticed until then. “What if I told you that she was in the next room?”
I paused, “That isn’t funny.” My head was spinning. I felt as though I were going to be sick.
He stepped toward the door and started to open it stopping short after cracking the door just a few inches. He was baiting me, and I knew it, and I didn’t want to feed into his little game. If I had shown any interest, any curiosity at all, he would have thought that I was in bed with Amber, so to speak. And I knew that there was no one behind that door.
“Yeah, right.” I said, and then I turned and walked out, closing the door behind me.
If she had been behind the door I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to believe that she would kill my wife. I sure didn’t want to see her if she had killed my wife. I took out my cell phone and I dialed her number. I waited for her to answer but all I got was a recorded message: “Sorry, this phone number has been temporarily disconnected.”
Like a claustrophobic escaping from a closet I pushed the twin glass front doors of the police station open with a burst. I felt that, for the first time in hours, I could draw air into my deflated lungs. I wondered how long I had been cooped up inside the police station. The sun was fading down past the sparsely leaved trees.
The reality of Catherine’s death hit me hard once I was out of the building as it had so often for the past week. I put my hands to my face and I tried to hold back my emotions but I started to sob aloud. I know this was selfish and horrible of me, but I was suddenly consumed by an emptiness I had not felt before, like I was the only living person on a sunless planet, and I had plenty of food and water…enough to last me a lifetime…only I no longer had a reason to be. Catherine was the only woman I had ever loved. I felt vacant inside and so very lonely. I actually grew angry at Catherine for stranding me. I wished it were me that was dead. That would have been easier.
I looked to the twilight sky and let out a silent scream of anger toward the god who supposedly watched over me.
It would be dark soon.
Cars sped past the station, their head-lights bright and their engines muffled by the foliage which towered around me. The parking-lot was spattered with black-and-white police cars mixed among a variety of colorful civilian cars. My car was nowhere to be seen. I realized then that I had not driven my car to the station. I had been driven in the back seat of a police cruiser. This revelation did nothing to boost my spirits.
I surveyed the sun while I rubbed the chill from my arms with my hands. I tried to estimate the time it would take for the sun to fade from sight and compared it to the distance I had to travel. Perhaps ten minutes of daylight, I thought, maybe a little longer.
This might not have been a problem for your average adult male…but it so happened that I was deathly afraid of the dark. Clinically afraid of being alone in the dark.
On foot my trip would take twenty minutes easily. I felt for my wallet and opened it. Three bucks. Not enough for cab fare. I could have asked a cop for a ride, but I had had enough of them to satisfy a lifetime of curiosity.
I suppressed my fear as best as I could and I began the long walk to my house heading north toward-and then east down-Lakeshore Boulevard. The air was dry and cool and smelled of dead leaves. Dead leaves crumpled under my feet. I was dead tired. Death seemed to be the theme of the day.
I walked swiftly. I hated time alone. I had too much time to think. What would I do? How could I raise Sarah on my own? How could I survive? I hadn’t cooked or cleaned or laundered a shirt in twenty-five years. I began to cry again, only this time quietly, at the thought of Catherine being gone forever; at the finality of her death. I must have looked a sight with my uncombed mussed hair, my unshaven face and my wrinkled clothes. I must have smelled (the pits of my shirt soaked through) much worse than I looked. I lifted my head to the darkened grey sky and I begged the God that I had moments ago cursed to help me through that moment in time but it seemed to me that there was no one there to hear me pray.
I surveyed the sky again. The trees around me seemed to be swallowing up the little bit of light that remained. I picked up my pace and slowly worked up to an ever increasing panicked trot.
I turned south onto Erie Road and I slowed my trot to a light jog as I climbed up the first of several hills which were divided by long valleys and guarded by towering almost leafless oak and maple trees. My weary feet stumbled on the crumbling asphalt pavement. Leaves covered the street (there was no side-walk). Each stride seemed like an unbearable burden. I was tired. I hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours. I was completely out of shape. I had had only coffee; and the empty energy that the caffeine had sustained in me was wearing off.
But I had to get back to Sarah. She was only seven and she became hysterical when the police picked me up at home. She had clung to me like ivy ever since Catherine’s…murder. Would she be at home? Catherine’s mother, Rita, came over to watch her so that I could go to the police station for the…interrogation. But I had been gone for so long that Rita might have taken her home.
The separation guilt returned to me like a waterfall crashing down on my conscience.
I could feel the heels of my shoes burning my feet with each step. I could hear myself panting in rhythm as I fell instinctively into the habit of pacing my breathing. Houses seemed to whiz by at a snail’s pace as I climbed a steep hill. Each footfall made a grinding gravely sound like molars gnashing together.
The smells of autumn used to excite me. But as I huffed and puffed, sucking in the dander of the season, the smell of pumpkin and the trees and the leaves, the damp pungent odor of the blended convections of October, it made me nauseous. To this day those smells make me want to vomit.
And what of Catherine? The image of her cold and bluing corpse was etched vividly and perpetually in my mind. But she was safe in heaven if there was such a place. Or was she an unrepentant sinner like me? No, Catherine was a saint. She had to have been to have put up with me.
My thighs began to cramp and my knees to throb but I held my pace. My guilt fused with my fear and pushed me forward despite my staggering fatigue. Sarah needed me; and as long as I was moving forward I felt a little safer from my irrational demons. I pushed myself harder despite the taste of blood trickling into my mouth from my lungs as they were shredded by the steady pulse of cold air which I forced into them. I needed to get to Sarah. She needed me. Near the end of this road lay my house; and in my house, my daughter. Or would she be there? I suspended my jog and I pulled my cell phone from my pocket. I placed my hand on the stitch that was developing in my side and I tried to catch my breath. The road was almost pitch-black. The distant sky over the lake behind me retained a soft glow but it did little to emanate light and nothing to comfort me. I spied the surrounding woods for danger. I looked down at my phone and I dialed my house phone but found that there was no signal. I was too near the lake; too far from the cell-towers to get reception.
I bowed at my waist and touched my toes, or came as close to them as I could, trying to stretch my stiffened calf and thigh muscles and then I resumed my jog.
I tried to listen for the cars that approached me from behind but one car with only its fog lights lit surprised me and sent my pulse racing. The driver swerved to miss me at the last instant, then blared his horn and screeched his brakes and tires. I jumped and nearly dove into a culvert, staggering and stumbling to keep my balance thinking that I had just been attacked by a monster from the shadows. My heart raced even faster, pounding as if trying to evict itself from my chest. I stopped and tried to regain my composure but my eyes darted in every direction and the shapes of the shadows formed images of horrid creatures. If the driver shouted an obscenity at me I never heard a word.
I momentarily wrapped my hands around my body and I rubbed my arms in a vein effort to warm myself. I laughed out loud at how ridiculous I was for being afraid of a passing car; afraid of the dark.
And then I remembered: Sarah!
I jogged again, my legs weak and unsteady. I was still scared to death and I stumbled and trotted up and down several more hills until my driveway surprised me by arriving at my feet. My house lay down a long gravel drive sided by trees. It was a sprawling white ranch with black shutters and an overgrown yard. The windows were dark. Nobody home, I supposed. As I approached my front door a motion light illuminated my front walkway and I could see a yellow ribbon taped across the front porch warning that trespass was forbidden; that my house was a crime scene.
I steadied the steering wheel of my car and wrestled with my pocket to free my cell phone. I fished it free and dialed Catherine’s mother again.
“Rita, it’s me, Mathew.”
“Oohh, Mathew, what have you done?” Her thick southern accent elongated her syllables.
“What have I done?” The fucking police! They had me tried and convicted. They must have already put ideas into her head. “I haven’t done anything.”
“The police said they think you killed her. My baby! How could you?” She was sobbing through her words.
“Rita, it’s me; Mathew. You can’t possibly believe them. I would never hurt Catherine. She was my life.”
“That’s not what I was told! Who is this Amber?” More sobs.
I was guilty of this indiscretion. This I could explain though. This was no motive for murder if there even had been a murder. I needed to speak to her in person. I knew that I could convince her of my innocence if she would just give me a chance to explain.
“I’ll explain Amber in a little while. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I accelerated the car to fifty miles an hour though the speed-limit was only thirty-five.
“No!” She screamed into the phone. “Don’t you dare come to this house!” Her sobs were angry now.
“But Rita…, you don’t understand…”
“I understand that you cheated on my daughter!” She took a deep breath and I could hear her wipe her nose. “I understand that you killed my daughter to be with this….this….this Amber!”
“No, you have it all wrong!” How could I convince her over the phone? I needed to see her. I needed to persuade her of my innocence. I needed to get Sarah before Rita poisoned her mind against me.
“Don’t you dare come to this house!”
“I’m coming to get Sarah.” I paused to try to temper my tone of voice. “If you’ll give me five minutes you’ll know that I didn’t kill Catherine. I don’t think she was murdered at all.”
“Don’t you dare come here! You’re not taking this little girl anywhere.” Her voice was indignant.
“She’s my daughter. I’m coming to get her whether you think I’m innocent or not. She is my daughter and she needs me.”
“She doesn’t need the man who took her mother from her.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes. Have her ready. This is not a request!” I hung up the phone.
* * *
I could see Sarah run to the window as my car pulled into the driveway, her reddened round face pressed against the glass, her little nose smooshed like a pig’s snout. I got out of my car and made my way to the front door with no regard of my phobia. My mind was too focused on my task to think of my fear. Sarah’s eyes were red with tears, her cheeks pink from wiping them and she had dark grey smears around her eyes making her look like a pathetic baby raccoon.
Rita pulled her away from the window while Sarah kicked, screamed and cried, tears streaming down her face. That broke my heart.
I saw hatred in Rita’s eyes as she glared out at me. That made me angry.
I pounded on the door and leaned into the door-bell. I waited. Then I beat on the door some more. Rage filled my chest over the frustration of my situation. Sarah was trapped like a rabbit in a snare and I could do nothing to free her.
I couldn’t break in. The drama would only upset Sarah all the more and likely result in my incarceration. I didn’t want to call the police for help. I’d had enough of them for a lifetime. But I had a right to be with my daughter. I had a right to be there for her, and she for me, to share our grief. Rita was legally in the wrong, but what could I do? I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, leave without Sarah. I decided to wait there for as long as it took. I sat on the stoop and folded my arms. Rita would have to leave eventually, if for no other reason to go to her daughter’s funeral! She wouldn’t dare call the police. The police would be forced to give Sarah to me, her father.
I stood up and I leaned against the porch pillar. I was determined and impatient. I stood and I pressed my hands to the glass of the front picture window and I stared in at Sarah until she disappeared from view as Catherine’s mother dragged her out of the room. My heart was aching for Sarah. I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could do. I prayed to my God to help me to get Sarah back. I was not a devout believer in God and I had no faith that he would help me as he had never seemed to aid me before no matter how hard I had prayed but I must admit that the hairs on my arms stood up on end when after a few minutes of praying I heard the rear screen door slam shut as Rita’s voice cried out “Sarah, you get back here!”
But Sarah raced around the corner her little bare feet spanking the pavement like meat patties being slapped on a skillet. Her face was contorted in hysterics and her nose dripped with snot as she leapt into my arms and I held her like it would be the last time I would ever get to hold her.
I heard footsteps quickly pacing from around the corner of the house so I ran to my car and opened the driver-side door and shoveled Sarah into the passenger seat. Rita was outside screaming at me while tears of rage dribbled down her face as she approached us and then pounded on the hood of my automobile. She was dressed in only a disheveled nightgown and her feet were bare.
“You give me back that child right this instant!” she screamed, her eyes red with hate.
I wondered how she could have so little faith in me as to doubt my innocence without even the courtesy of a conversation. I shook my head at her and I backed out of the driveway. Rita, who had dropped to her knees and held her hands out like angry bear claws, disappeared from view as my high-beams slid off of her.
“Put your seatbelt on baby.” I smiled down at Sarah. She looked so pathetic, her face red from crying, her blond hair mussed from the wind. She wore a Disney t-shirt with a large Mini-mouse plastered across the front that I had bought her when we were on vacation in Orlando during that summer.
Sarah buckled her seatbelt and stretched to lay her head against my leg. I stroked my fingers through her hair as I drove.
“Are you okay sweetheart?” I rubbed her back.
“Yes daddy. But grandma wouldn’t let me leave.” She said with a pout of sadness in her voice. “She said you were a bad man but I told her you weren’t.”
I drove until I reached the only hotel near our house and Sarah fell asleep nestled safely beneath my arm as I lay in bed wondering how my life could have taken such a drastic turn. I wondered if Catherine was looking down at me and watching as my life fell apart.
It is strange, but I don’t ever remember being alone in the dark without being scared before that time at Rita’s house while I fretted over Sarah’s confinement. I had been scared ever since I was a little boy, so much so that even though my father insisted that it was pure quackery, my mother, posing in the rare role of the fervent matriarch, forced my father, under threat of divorce, to take me to see a psychiatrist.
I remember playing with a friend down the street from my parents house and having so much fun that I did not realize that the sun was fading, and once I did realize that it was dark I abandoned my friend and ran home in a fit of hysterics. I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with me. I thought that all kids were afraid of the dark. I learned later that most of the other kids were also afraid of the dark, but not to the point of irrationality. So my mother put her foot down and made my father take me to a psychiatrist at great expense because we didn’t have health insurance.
My conversation with the quack psychiatrist, as my father called him to his face (I believe I must have been no more than eight or nine years old at the time), was followed, during our drive home, with one of the few loving and sincere conversations I ever had with my father; a conversation in which he explained to me that I must not only overcome my fear of the dark but that I also must not let on to anyone that such a fear existed within me lest I be ridiculed by my schoolmates. I gave him my word but to tell the truth I broke my vow and confided in the only person outside of my family whom I would ever let know my secret. The pressure of subduing my overt fear was too great and I had to confide in someone. It was shortly after my visit to the psychiatrist that my soon-to-be best friend Tommy Sullivan moved into my neighborhood. I disclosed my phobia to him and him alone once I realized that we were best friends and that I could trust him.
Tommy became my protector of sorts. Despite my small stature, no one dared pick on me for fear that they would have to answer to Tommy Sullivan. On the few rare occasions when they did cross the line Tommy put a thumping on them.
I stared at a watermark on the dark ceiling above my adopted bed thinking of how it would be nice to have Tommy Sullivan to talk to. But I hadn’t talked to Tommy since shortly before I got married. He was upset that I didn’t have him as my best man at my wedding, but Catherine refused even to let me invite him based solely on the basis of the stories I told her of his violent nature.
But my true thoughts were elsewhere. My stomach was still in knots now that I had time to think about the perils of my predicament. The only thing keeping me from losing complete control of my nerves was the warmth of Sarah’s little body next to mine; a reminder of my life’s purpose. She was my constant intimation that I had to fight to the end to prove my innocence; but my innocence of what? Murder? Was it true that Catherine was murdered? The thought was absurd. I was with her the entire night. She may have slipped out of bed for a glass of water but how would she have gotten back into bed and nestled me if she were dead? There was no sign of an intruder. No broken window-glass; no loud startling noise; no busted lock. Besides, who would sneak into our house and quietly kill my wife while ignoring the other lives in the house? What had they gained?
And there was no way, absolutely no way, that Amber came all the way to Cleveland Ohio, tracked me down, and killed my wife. Our connection was intimate but we shared the mutual understanding that our families were more important than our relationship was. Amber understood that our amalgamation was noncommittal; almost pretend. We never planned to actually meet. Neither of us had anything to gain by abandoning our families and uniting. Besides, Amber was not the sort of person who would take a life. We role-played and as we did we also got to know each other quite well. Amber was a nice young woman in her mid thirties stuck in a droll marriage to a man who paid little attention to her. She was a mother; a house-wife. She lived on a five acre parcel in the sticks of Kansas. She had once been a striptease dancer so her moral character could be called into question if one were a prude, but she was just a child at that time, a victim of a molesting father out on her own at the age of sixteen. She did what she had to do to survive. She was not psychotic. She was not in Cleveland. That made no sense. The detective was reaching; trying to bait me. He must have thought I was as guilty as a vice.
No, I could not be taken alive; or at least not lying down. Sarah needed me. It was bad enough that she would have to spend the rest of her life without her mother; knowing that her mother had been murdered; knowing that I was a prime suspect.
Would Sarah someday wonder if I had done it?
I had heard of and read so many newspaper stories about falsely accused and convicted individuals; innocents with the wholesome misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or who were ill-fated enough to so closely resemble the actual perpetrators of a crime that the jury was convinced of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I never thought that I’d be one of them.
Up to that point in time I had been a major proponent of the death penalty for all but the most accidental of murders. Fry the bastards! An eye for an eye! Only when I realized that I was in danger of being the scapegoat for a crime that I had not committed did I change my point of view. I knew that I might soon be Sparky’s next subject.
But how does one prove that one didn’t do something? I didn’t have much of an alibi. I was at the scene of the crime. But there was no contrivance. No weapon. But how was Catherine killed? What sort of instrument would there have been? There were no marks on her body. I would have noticed if someone had hit her in the head; there would have been blood. Poison perhaps? But how and who? And how would the cops have jumped to that conclusion so quickly? They knew something that I did not. They had a weapon of some sort; or knew that there was a weapon; knew that she did not die of natural causes. But what could it have been?
A dull headache gradually gripped my head like a steel vice and I reached up with my index fingers and massaged my temples and closed my eyes and tried to blank my mind and to forget for a while where I was and why I was there.
The hotel room was like many I had stayed in. Not high class, but not quite dumpy; no cockroaches or bed-bugs but few amenities. The linens smelled clean enough. The quilt was the kind of neutral beige you find in such places with a red royal pattern. The quilt, though, was slightly damp. Not damp from being to quickly removed from the dryer, but rather musty from too much exposure to the moisture in the air. The furniture was the built-in sort of indestructible prefabricated mass produced and maple colored Formica that was crafted for so many such suites before the seventies. The carpeting was new, or at least newer; a brown durable Berber of thick and tightly woven yarn. The heavy gold curtains were drawn, by me, to block out the hastily approaching morning sunlight.
I needed to sleep, but every time I tried I would find myself still thinking twenty minutes later. I could almost feel the windy wake of the earth’s rotation rushing too quickly for my prelation, forcing daylight upon me before I could steal so much as a nap. I flipped and folded and crumpled my pillow for the umpteenth time, trying to delude myself into thinking that it was the un-moldable hotel pillow that was prolonging my exhaustion; denying me the bliss of torpidity. I watched as the clock crept in ten and twenty minute intervals from midnight until four in the morning. I slept like a corpse until seven a.m., and then played the clock game again until ten, waking from my shallow sleep just long enough to see that time had advanced a few minutes or a quarter of an hour. Sarah, other than occasionally feeling for me in the dark with the extension of a limb or the bob of her head, slept like a stone.
At ten-fifteen I finally decided that I wasn’t going to get any more real sleep and I got out of bed. I opened the curtains and found that the hotel room looked less desirable in the light of day than it had at night. There were coffee stains on the sink outside the bathroom. The carpet, while newer, was badly worn at the threshold and the wallpaper was yellowed and curled in places where it was peeling away from the wall.
After I showered and dressed I sat down on the bed next to Sarah where she still slept. It seemed a shame to have to wake her. She was so beautiful in her sleep; so peaceful.
But was she too peaceful? Was she a bit blue?
I panicked and jostled her awake and you would have thought that I’d won the lottery by my expression when her soft blue eyes opened, peaking sheepishly through strands of her sandy-blond hair. She looked up at me confused.
“What’s wrong daddy?”
I didn’t realize it right away but I was crying; dripping rainforest sized droplets onto her face while smiling in relief; she was not dead. One such experience was enough for a lifetime. Sarah reached out to hug me and I pulled her to me.
“Nothing baby. Nothing at all.”
I couldn’t handle any more death; certainly not Sarah’s. She was my only reason for living now that Catherine was gone. I was a man that needed to be needed. That is why Sarah was such a Godsend. She came to us just as we had given up all hope of ever having a child. As a parent I became unwittingly addicted to being needed. I never even realize my addiction until Catherine died. Sarah was my crack cocaine.
“Were you thinking about Mommy?”
“Yeah, honey. That’s it. I was thinking about Mommy.”
“It’s okay Daddy. Grandma said that I’ll get to see her when I go to heaven.”
“That’s right honey.”
“So can we go to heaven today? I want to see mommy.”
I held her to my chest and rocked her. No one she had known had ever died. No pets. Not even a goldfish. To her, heaven was a place not so far away. I guess in reality that was true.
* * *
Sarah bathed and then we dressed back into the clothes we had worn the day before. We had no choice since we had arrived at the hotel late and exhausted. We had no toiletries so I had the hotel’s maitre’ de send up toothpaste, toothbrushes and deodorant.
We could have gone to the store to buy a change of clothes but I figured that we could stop by the house and get what we needed. If the police were there I could talk them into a couple of t-shirts and a few pairs of jeans from our laundry room. If no one was there I figured that I would simply have to cross the line; slip through a window or the rear sliding door to the family room (the lock had been broken for years and Catherine had even given up on bugging me to fix it). Money was pretty tight, and there was no telling how long we would have to stay at the hotel or more importantly how soon we could reoccupy the crime scene which was our home. I didn’t have any local family to speak of. My parents were dead and I had no siblings, so the only family I had for hundreds of miles was Catherine’s parents. Staying there was obviously not an option. I didn’t want to spend what little cash I had or the limited available balance on my credit cards on clothes knowing that we might be in desperate straights before long.
Outside of our room we made our way down the long poorly lit hallway decorated with outdated and dingy red and gold wallpaper and stained and worn royal red carpeting. The light fixtures were the plastic globed sort with the grooved lines through which you could easily make out the pot-bellied outline of the incandescent light-bulb. Sarah pressed the elevator button with the down arrow and I could hear the elevator bellow and grunt from a distant place below us before finally opening. From inside the elevator we could hear long cumbersome groans, very much like a recording of whales under water I’d heard on the nature channel, as we descended to the lobby. The Lobby was the only modern aspect of the building. The carpet was hunter-green near the elevators and the lobby itself had ivory marbled floors and bright white and gold walls with newer crystal sconces and a large brass chandelier which towered before the twin glass exit doors. The beauty of the lobby was basically a lie, foretelling of lavish updated rooms which might well be in the offing but were obviously not. A clerk with a round boyish face and a curly mop of black hair in a hunter-green uniform stood behind a long Corian topped desk with an absent minded look on his face and he seemed almost startled when Sarah rang the little bell on the counter even though he had watched us as we approached.
I checked out of our room, optimistic that we could return home before nightfall. In television detective shows it seemed that crime scenes were often tied up for days, weeks or months. That couldn’t be the case in real life, I thought. I often worked from home after-all and I was basically out of business without my computer. I needed to work to pay the bills. They couldn’t deny me the provision of income for my family, I thought.
Sarah and I climbed into my car. We put our seatbelts on and, as usual, she held my hand while I drove. Her face looked tired, but she was smiling a little.
“Are we going to see mommy now?”
“No honey, we’re going home to get some clothes.”
“When will we get to see mommy?”
“Not for a long time.”
Her upper lip rolled into a pout and she started to cry. I squeezed her little hand.
“I want to go see mommy in heaven.”
Given that she was already crying I didn’t want to upset her further.
“Will she be normal in heaven?” She tried to control the tremor in her voice.
“What do you mean?”
“Will she be blue, like she was on the bed?”
I squeezed her little fingers again, “No, sweetheart, she isn’t blue anymore.”
Sarah undid her seatbelt and looked up at me to see if I would protest. Normally I would have forced her to buckle it right back up. But her face was begging me to let her crawl under my arm so I lifted my arm and she slid beneath it and up against me. I held her tight. I wanted to make it all better for her, but there was no way to do that. I felt so helpless.
When I pulled into my driveway there were several police cars camped out along with some vans. I took no notice of the lettering on the vans assuming that they belonged to the police department and held forensic equipment or something of that nature. I got out of the car pulling Sarah with me, and lifted her up into my arms. I carried her up the driveway. Detective Bergant stepped out from behind a van.
“I don’t think you want to be here right now.” His eyes were sharp and serious.
He pointed to the side of a van. It read “Channel 5 News Team”.
I’m sure he didn’t care about my wellbeing. After all I was guilty in his eyes. He was looking out for Sarah. Perhaps there was a soul buried deep beneath the badge he kept on his vest pocket. I turned and walked back toward the car but I heard the distinct clip-clop of high-heeled shoes scraping against the concrete walkway that led to our front door, and soon the footsteps were racing down the driveway toward me. I opened the driver-side door and slid Sarah into the car in one motion but before I could slip into the drivers’ seat I heard a female voice closing in on me.
“Did you kill your wife Mr. Derrick?”
A slender pretty little black woman dressed neatly in a business suit charged at me holding a microphone as though it were a spear. She stopped at my door and shoved the microphone against my face. A clumsy looking long haired Asian man with blue-jeans and a white sport shirt was hastily making his way down the driveway, slipping and sliding on the smattering of wet leaves that speckled the gravel, while trying to balance a camera on his shoulder. I closed my car door to shield Sarah from the vultures.
“No! I did not kill my wife!” I felt my face tighten into a scowl as I stared into the woman’s eyes trying my best to withhold the torrent of anger that was building inside of me.
She looked back at her cameraman giving him a wave. I knew instantly that what she wanted most was to capture my scowl on the camera; the scowl of a guilty murderer. I took the opportunity to open my door and climb into my car. I started the car and backed down the driveway with the two of them chasing after me.
“What do they want daddy?”
“Nothing honey. They just wanted to ask me some questions.” I pulled her to me so that she wouldn’t slide off of the seat as I turned out of the driveway and onto the street. I accelerated down Erie road and just drove. I had nowhere to go so I just cruised down Lakeshore Boulevard trying to figure out my next move.
* * *
At seven in the evening, with Sarah asleep in the passenger seat, I turned off my headlights and parked my car at the foot of my neighbor’s driveway and crept through the patch of woods that divided our yards and into my own driveway with the stealth of ninja. I darted from tree to bush to bumper to garage like a clumsy middle-aged giraffe. I was jittery, as usual, when alone in the dark nearly crapping myself when I mistook a two headed chrysanthemum for the eyes of an ogre. I made my way through the once pink-flowered Peonies bushes which lined the front of our house and over to the front door. The crime scene ribbon which had earlier guarded the entry was still in place. I slid across the left side of the house, hugging the vinyl siding, and tripped over some dead potted plants which Catherine had not gotten planted before the Lake Erie gales began to blow and the planting season had passed. I managed to catch the ground with my hands narrowly missing a head-butt with a thorny flowerless rose bush which doubled as a short green gremlin after dark. For all the noise I was making I might as well have pulled into my own driveway and waltzed through the front door. Instead I removed my muddied tennis-shoes on the black plastic mat at the rear sliding door and I slipped into my house; my house! Why did I feel like such a delinquent?
I found the laundry room in the dark but switched the light on once I was inside with the door closed. There were no windows to betray the light (or the thick musty odor of soiled sweat-socks) so I knew it was safe to illuminate the room. I grabbed a laundry basket and filled it with jeans and shirts and socks and underwear for both Sarah and myself. I turned off the light and slipped back through the sliding doors and back to the driveway. I froze with fear when I got to the bumper of Catherine’s car. At the foot of the driveway I could see the soft orange glow of a Cyclops’s single eye…or, as my brain nullified the illogical probability of the former, a cigarette being drawn upon in the pitch of a moonless night. I was busted. It had to be detective Bergant puffing on one of his Marlboro’s. I stood up and walked boldly down the middle of the driveway and right toward the glowing cigarette. I was nervous and shaking on the outside but I smiled and did my best to exude a calm and innocent façade.
“I’m sorry, I needed some clothes.” I sat the basket on the ground in front of me.
The voice was female. It was not the good detective smoking but rather my neighbor Millie.
“Millie, it’s you. I thought it was that damned detective.”
“Oh god! Don’t hurt me!” Millie dropped her newly lit cigarette on the ground and started to back away from me and towards the edge of the street.
“Millie, it’s me. Matt.”
“But you…you killed Catherine.”
“No, I didn’t.” I drew a long breath, “And it’s getting a little tiresome having to defend myself from those ridiculous accusations.” I raised my hands in exasperation and was surprised when Millie flinched. “Millie, we’ve known each other for almost ten years. Have you ever known me to be the least bit violent?”
“But it said on the news…and that detective. He asked me about you. He asked me if I knew…” Her eyes grew wide and she just stared at me.
“Millie…he asked if you knew what?”
“If I knew if you and Catherine had been fighting.”
“What else?” I was getting angry. She had obviously done some blabbing. Catherine and I bickered occasionally, like any couple, but we weren’t particularly loud and certainly not physical. It dawned on me that Millie wouldn’t have been so scared of me if she hadn’t exaggerated her story to the detective.
“He wanted to know if either of you were having an…affair.” She cringed as if to defend herself from a blow.
“And you said…?”
“I said I didn’t know. I said it was possible.” Once again she cringed as if she was about to be stricken.
“What?” I could hear myself yelling now. “Why would you say something like that?” I stepped over the laundry basket and backed her further down the driveway until her posterior was pressed against the back of my mailbox post. “How could you tell them that I might be having an affair? I’ve never cheated on Catherine in my life.”
“No…no…that’s not what I meant.” She was crying now. She was genuinely scared of me; and why not? I was a murderer and a philanderer. I might rape her and kill her too!
“Why would you say such a thing?”
Millie, her tall skinny mop-headed frame almost skeleton-like in the dark, turned and ran down Erie road, past my car and up her driveway and into her house, and all the while she was waving her hands about like a panicked school-girl, stumbling and staggering as though she were running from Freddy Kruger. I picked up my laundry basket and walked back toward my car. I got to her driveway just in time to see the light of her foyer disappear as Millie’s front door closed behind her. That explained it, I thought. That explained why detective Bergant interrogated me over my phone-friend Amber. My car was still running. I opened the rear driver-side door and I shoved the basket of clothes into my back seat and I climbed into the car and I drove back to the hotel which I realized Sarah and I would have to call home for days to come.
Because our house was considered a crime scene the hotel was our home for several more nights. For Sarah this was a treat. On Monday morning she went swimming in the Olympic sized indoor swimming pool with its warm water which looked as though it had been dyed with a mixture of blue and green food coloring. The building that housed the pool was actually an enormous greenhouse, attached to the hotel structure as it was, with clear glass panels from floor to gabled ceiling and humid tropical air, with potted palm trees, beautiful blooming white Bamboo Orchids, green and red Ti plants and colorful Bird of Paradise. I sat and watched Sarah do what she considered dives but were actually belly-flops and half summersaults. The weather was unusually sunny, if not warm, so inside the faux tropic we lost ourselves for a few hours.
After Sarah’s morning swim we returned to our room by way of the stainless steel walls and the low hum of the creaky lobby elevator. I sat on the edge of the bed and I lifted the receiver of the lime-green push-button telephone which rested on the night-stand and I spent my day phoning: phoning Sarah’s school to let her teachers know the reason for her absence (The principle, Mrs. Tercek, who had of course watched the news and was already aware of Catherine’s death, was too polite and too understanding, her nasally voice prying); phoning my employer to keep abreast of my work and to keep my supervisor informed of my status; phoning a lawyer named Jack Nicholson—no joke…Jack Nicholson—who my boss insisted was “the best criminal lawyer in Ohio”; phoning the coroner to find out when Catherine’s body would be released for the funeral arrangements (no clear answer was given, of course); phoning the funeral parlor to inquire as to the costs involved and the payment arrangements available to me for the whole funeral process from pick-up to interment; phoning Amber (temporarily out of service); and finally, phoning the police station to find out if they had determined the cause of Catherine’s death, inquiring as to whether or not we could return to our abode (we could not), and whether or not they planned to incarcerate me any time soon (the answer was deliberately vague). All the while Sarah quietly but cheerfully watched cartoons and colored the pages of a coloring book almost the thickness of a phone book and paid no attention to my labors.
Sarah’s youth and innocence, I supposed, had spared her from the constant quotient of the pain of our loss. I, on the other hand, was fatigued to the point that I yawned long open-mouthed yawps on a continuous basis, sometimes in mid-sentence, and my body felt like a bag of sand my mind was condemned to drag from chair to bedside to bathroom and back again in a solemn attempt to maintain my focus on my various tasks. The only benefit I derived from my day, aside from the little fruit of my labor, was that I was so distracted that I hardly thought about how much I missed Catherine.
To be honest, though, I was a bit disturbed by the fact that Sarah was so easily able to remove herself from Catherine’s departure; but I was also relieved that she was not burdened as I was with the crushing weight of our rapidly collapsing universe. Besides, I thought, who was I to judge her? She would grieve in her own way and time, and if God saw fit to soften the blow to this beautiful flower of mine, who was I to scrutinize?
Sarah was a unique child. At home she was in her comfort zone. She would talk as though she were a little adult about the strangest things. But at school her teachers complained that Sarah was shy and reluctant to be called upon to answer questions in class. Sarah was so afraid to draw any attention to herself that she once peed in her pants while squirming at her desk hoping for the bell to ring so that she could rush to the bathroom. A boy sitting next to her stood up and laughed at her and yelled out to the teacher that Sarah had peed on the floor. Sarah cried in embarrassment as her classmates chuckled and jeered. The teacher did her best to comfort Sarah and she telephoned me on my cell phone to bring Sarah a change of clothes. Later that day, despite her shy demeanor, Sarah walked up to that boy in the playground and kneed him in the testicles and asked him, while he was wreathing in pain on the pavement, if he still felt like laughing. Sarah’s teacher called me again and asked me to come pick Sarah up at school for the obvious disciplinary purpose.
And when I say that Sarah needed me, you must understand the bond we’d shared since her harrowed birth to truly understand how much she needed me and I her. She was born blue, with a broken heart. Her heart was underdeveloped. The lower two chambers of her heart were undersized and the natural opening between the chambers that should have allowed blood to flow did not exist in her heart. When the doctor lifted her from between Catherine’s parted legs Sarah was the color of a blueberry. The doctor didn’t say a word. She didn’t say “It’s a girl!” or “Congratulations!” She just went to work on Sarah to get her breathing. She held her up in the air by her ankles and smacked her little bare bottom, then she walked over to a side table and laid Sarah down on a blanket and she started to gently pump Sarah’s chest with her palm. She blew breaths into her tiny mouth while she pinched her nose. A nuclear war could have occurred in the time it took for Sarah to howl her first cry and I wouldn’t have known about it. Everything happened in slow motion. The delivery room went silent, as if someone had hit the mute button on the remote. I mean I couldn’t hear a sound until Sarah began to wail.
The last time I had had that feeling was during the first of Sarah’s surgeries to repair her damaged heart. Just as the doctor held the mask over her face to put her under Sarah screamed “No!” and then begged me “Please daddy, no, please daddy no.”
“It’ll be alright honey. I’ll be right here with you.” I said as they forced the anesthetic mask over her face and her eyes opened wide in sincere terror. Sarah was four years old at the time. If she had died during surgery I would have died along with her.
Catherine often complained because I would let Sarah fall asleep in our bed. I would, of course, carry her to her own bed soon after she had drifted off to sleep, but Sarah would slip back into our bed in the morning. You can imagine how this affected our love-life, and I knew that it wasn’t the healthiest thing for Sarah’s emotional growth either, for Sarah to spend so much time with me, but I had come so close to losing her at birth and during the ensuing surgeries that I just wanted to hold her whenever I had the chance. Catherine’s rants only served to make Sarah jealous.
Okay, so my marriage wasn’t perfect, but whose marriage is? That was the only real problem Catherine and I had ever had.
* * *
Time passed amazingly fast during my phone-fest and before I could begin to relax it was dark outside.
Sarah and I could have gone out and eaten fast food, but by that time it was, after all, dark outside, and I wasn’t sure if Sarah’s companionship would stave off the demons; and besides I had more credit at my disposal than cash, so we ordered room service: a simple feast of grilled American cheese on white toasted bread and chicken soup. A stainless steel serving cart was wheeled into our room by a lanky pimple faced teenage boy in a hunter-green uniform, including a dink, with orange-red hair and a rash of freckles sprinkled over his arms, neck and cheeks. He waited impatiently, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, removing his cap and running his fingers through his spiked hair, while I surveyed our meal, signed the receipt and applied a reasonable tip to the bill. Sarah cowered shyly behind me while the boy bellman playfully peeked around me and smiled.
We ate ravenously at the round wooden table beneath the cheap brass chandelier with the florescent bulbs protected by the clouded glass globes by the window overlooking the parking lot. I did not realize until the scent of the melted cheese reached my nostrils that I was famished, and I supposed that Sarah was as well. I began my meal by sipping my soup from a stainless steel soup spoon but soon found myself dunking my sandwich into the soup and swallowing large tufts of melted processed cheese and bread dripping with broth. I polished off my bowl of soup by pouring the contents into my gullet straight from the white porcelain saucer. When I was finished I guiltily eyed Sarah’s remaining meal with envy but I suppressed my urge to steal her food until she had consumed all but a length of crust which she cast aside as unpalatable. I proved to her that the scrap she had discarded was in fact edible.
After I had sopped up the last of Sarah’s soup gravy with the crust I had stolen from her and absorbed the last of the buttery crumbs of our meal with the tips of my fingers, I tucked Sarah into our bed and laid down beside her and stared at the ceiling (it had become as familiar to me as I supposed the Mona Lisa was to Leonardo Da Vinci).
“Can we stay here Daddy? I had fun today.”
“We’ll see.” It was easier to be ambiguous than to engage her with an explanation.
“Can we go swimming again tomorrow?”
“Sure, if we get up early.”
“I wish Mommy could come here and live with us. We could go swimming every day.”
“That would have been nice.”
Sarah slid up next to me and put her arm over my chest. “But now I have you all to myself lover.” She said.
This statement caught me off guard. The knot in my stomach tightened just a bit, like a tourniquet on a gushing wound. Not, as one might suspect, because of Sarah’s reference to me as lover, but rather because she had found a benefit to Catherine’s death. Her words were a bit too Oedipal in nature.
The fact that Sarah called me “lover” might sound outrageous to the outside observer, but it was a term of endearment born of innocence. I have never and would never damage a child in such a way as her reference might suggest.
The fact of the matter was that one of my favorite, and therefore one of Sarah’s favorite, means of recreation was watching old black and white movies. Sarah would actually look forward to movie nights. Of course we made a major event of these frequent occasions fraught with healthy snacks such as popcorn soaked in real butter, bottomless colas, potato chips, pretzels, corn twisters and candy-bars. Sarah referred to these occasions as “dates” wishing apparently to duplicate the intimacy, of which she was obviously excluded. Sarah and I would cover the blue leather sectional couch, in our oak-shelved book-packed den that housed our twenty-nine inch television, with feather-pillows and quilted blankets. We would get comfortable with her on my lap and all of our amenities, including the remote control, on the wooden side table normally reserved for the jade chess-board. We would turn the lights off, of course, and we would watch what Sarah referred to as “black” movies until I slumped down deep into the sofa and dozed off and Sarah fell asleep on my chest.
Once, while watching an old musical, The Big Shakedown, Renee Whitney who played Mae Larue said to Richard Cortez who played Dutch Barnes “Hello lover” as Renee flared her thick eyebrows seductively. Sarah giggled and looked up at me. “Hello lover!” she said with just the right amount of flare and sass so that she tickled me to the bone. The way she flared her eyebrows when she repeated Renee’s line as well as at her ignorance to the meaning of what she had just said! Sarah looked so adorable. On subsequent movie nights, when we were alone, Sarah would say “Hello lover” just to get a tickle out of me, and I would chuckle and say it back to her, doing my best to flare my eyebrows as Richard Cortez would have done and doing my best to imitate his distinct gangster accent; a pathetic attempt I assure you but it made Sarah giggle and that is all that mattered. So, when we were alone together Sarah sometimes called me “lover” to make me laugh or to lighten my mood.
Sarah’s suggestion that she would have me all to herself caused a shortness of breath in my lungs and a tightness in my chest.
I knew that I would have little room to breath for a long time.
I looked over at Sarah who had fallen asleep at this point. Thank God for that; for my eyes began to pour all over her as I pulled her to my side and held her. I could not let her down. I could not let myself be weak. Not in front of her. I needed to be strong so that she bore none of the burden. She was a mere child and did not deserve to bear the massive cross that I was to carry.
Sarah would have me all to herself. If Sigmund Freud were with me he would have suggested that Sarah had killed Catherine to have me all to herself. Absurd, I know, but the thought did occur to me. But of course what would a seven year old child know of murder or its conveyance? Nothing, of course. But she would have possessed the naiveté to see the advantage in it.