Closing up shop…

It was an ordinary-looking house. A post war Kleenex box with a roof. It looked like every other one on the street.
I pulled to a stop in the driveway. I could feel it coming on me already. I knew that this was going to be a bad one.
My job is to visit foreclosed homes before they are auctioned off. I assess the property for the mortgage company so they can report accurate conditions to the bidders. I walk the floors and check for carpet wear. I flush toilets, run faucets and crank up the air conditioner to see if it works. My boss calls it “closing up the shop.”
But I am cursed…cursed with the ability to see the lives and feel the emotions of those that lived there. I’ve seen love and heartbreak, sadness and tragedy, joy and celebration.
Most houses have a pretty even balance. This one felt a lot different.
Not in a bad or menacing way, and I didn’t expect a hockey-masked psycho to jump out of the linen closet at me.
But this felt different. And the house looked different.
When I stepped across the threshold, I saw something that I rarely see.
No dirt. No dust or cobwebs. Not a cracked windowpane. The carpeting still had the tidy lines left in it from it from its last vacuuming.
And then I saw her. She was slightly out of focus, like a hazy VHS tape that has been watched too many times. She walked worriedly through the living room, stooping to pick up a speck of lint. Worry lines furrowed her face. Pure sadness was in her eyes. She studied the countertops in the kitchen. I followed her. She took something from a white bottle that was under the sink and scrubbed a spot. She shook her head and dropped the rag and headed to the basement. She did not want to have the new owners think ill of them.
I decided not to follow her down. I walked back into the tidy living room to see a boy of about 7 playing with Legos on the floor. He hummed to himself as he lay on his belly, constructing impossible combinations of pirate ships and interstellar cruisers. He held up one creation proudly to his dad, who sat on the couch holding an infant girl, feeding her a bottle. The dad smiled and nodded encouragingly, but the boy noticed something in his dad’s eyes. He saw fear and worry. It made the boy’s stomach flutter. He did not like to see his daddy scared.
I turned away and went down the hallway to the bedrooms. I peeked in the first one on the right and saw the dad years earlier, holding the boy as a baby as he rocked him to sleep. The father’s face was pure contentment. The baby was asleep, but it felt so wonderful to hold his first child in his arms that he just wanted to keep rocking that baby forever here, in this beautiful house that they had just bought and moved into.
I felt this pain inside me. The father’s pain. Grief and a sense of failure. I walked into the parents’ bedroom and walked over to the window. I needed a break. I had hoped to see a bird or squirrel, something to change what I was feeling.
Instead I saw the father again. This time pushing the lawn mower. His back was slumped. Defeated. He was mowing the yard one last time before they left. He trimmed the edges carefully. He pulled stray weeds from his flower beds. He didn’t know what else to do. They were taking his house from him, but he was doing it his way. He sat on the back steps of the house, surveying his yard. Then he put his head down and wept. Big, racking sobs where he knew his family couldn’t see him.
I turned away from the window, eyes wet.
I was met by scene that I was never meant to see. The mother and father making furtive love, trying to be quiet and not wake their sleeping children. Passionate kisses. Bodies with a fine sheen of sweat. She stopped him mid-thrust, putting her index finger on his lips as they paused, listening intently for the stirring sounds of a baby. He giggled and she shushed him, smiling. Passion resumed, quietly intense.
I left their room, with a blush that they never would have imagined.
In the last bedroom, I saw the girl at 5, carefully and gently laying her dolls in a white banker’s box. She wasn’t sure why they were leaving this comfy house, it made her sad. Mommy and daddy had tried to smile and tell them that it was an adventure. They were moving to a new neighborhood with a new school for the fall. It sounded fun, but was scary at the same time.
I spun and walked back down the hall towards the front door.
I could take no more, it was time to close up this shop.
I put the key in and locked it. As I walked to my car I saw the family carrying their belongings, arms loaded with boxes, heads swiveling from side to side to see if neighbors were watching their walk of shame.
I slid into the driver’s seat and keyed the engine. The sun was setting over the roofline. I turned on the radio and hit the scan button, hoping for relief. The second station it landed on was a country station playing “There’s No Place like Home.”
No. There would be no relief tonight.

Musings on Scooters and Frogs…

Years ago, I can remember the young, stupid, single & childless me boring some poor soul with ruminations of my ambivalence towards children and fatherhood.
But secretly, I was/am a baby FREAK.
My wife calls me out when she catches me mugging silly faces to coax a smile from an infant. Calls me a baby creeper.
My stepsister gave me the honorable moniker of “The Baby Whisperer.”

I do love me the little ones.

When my daughter (now a presumptuous 12 year old) was born, I made a quick run to buy a warmer for her diaper wipes. I was mocked by the wife, who asked if my daughter was too fragile for cold diaper wipes.
And she was.

I loved every diaper change. Every bottle. Every bath. Every Baby Einstein video. Every 2 am session in the rocking chair to put her back to sleep.

Her bright eyes and easy smile made her a dream baby. I would give her the bedtime bottle and rock away hours with her asleep on my ample belly, listening to Delilah on the radio, a silly smile on my face.
My Scooter. We wanted to be surprised, so we made everyone’s baby shower shopping a unisex pain in the ass. My father-in-law dubbed the baby in utero as “Scooter.”

It stuck. I still call her Scooter on those increasingly rare occasions that she wants me to hold her.
Scooter is now 5’7. Not quite as easy as when she was born (9lbs 5oz and 21 1/2 inches).
I never imagined that I would feel the love that I felt for her. I now know what some older guy meant when he said “I would hurt someone for my wife, but I would kill for my kids.”

A beautiful girl. A natural athlete. Neither of which she got from her old man.

Nineteen months after Scooter made the scene, a giggly baby boy showed up. Judging solely from his date of birth, my best guess is that he was a birthday present that I gave the wife. Yeah baby, the best gifts don’t cost money.

He was a surprise.
Actually, he was a gift. The souls of Chris Farley & Carl Sagan in a tiny package. He would walk into wall on purpose and just laugh.

He picked his own name. I wanted to name him Grant Preston. Wife wanted Samuel Joseph. We argued good naturedly for several months prior and several hours after his arrival. Finally I walked over to the hospital bassinet where he was chilling out and said, “OK pal, are you Grant Preston or are you Samuel Joseph?”
When I said “Samuel Joseph” he turned and looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders and told the wife that she won.

I love that little guy. We do guy stuff, and some of the best days of my life have been spent riding trains, building campfires, and philosophizing with this tender-hearted little oddball Buddha.

But that boy also has a pretty wide ornery streak in him. There were times during his toddler years that he would be so infuriatingly stubborn. I’d get so mad I would yell “You little FROG!”

It was strangely satisfying. All the benefits of cursing and none of the guilt. For those of you with kids, I highly recommend this method.

Except when he was learning to talk. I asked him what his name was. He looked up at me proudly and said “FROG!”

I scaled back my amphibious invective after that.

I fear the kind of world they are growing up in and especially the world that they will face alone as adults. It seems that every day, people invest immense energy to find new and better ways to be ugly and vile to each other. My heaviest burden is trying to teach them to love and respect others when “others” seem to be unresponsive or unworthy of it.

And, as one might imagine, I think of another child of mine. One that I never got to hold. One who died before he was born. Buried in a lonely grave in the shadows of the mountains that captured my heart and soul many years ago.
A little part of me died with him. He would have been 25 this October.

On this Father’s Day, I hope to forgo ugly ties and “World’s Best Dad” coffee mugs for some moments. Moments that I will carry along in the magical wagon that holds the jumbled up memories of their whirlwind infancy, toddlerdom, and early childhood.

My Scooter. My Frog. One girl. One boy.

One proud, worried and occasionally cranky dad. Looking to grab all of the moments that I can.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there.

Face to face with a murderer

I was sitting across the desk from a murderer.  Alone.  No guards.  No guns.  No bars.  No plexiglas wall with breathing holes a la Hannibal Lecter.

Just me.  And her.

I slid an envelope across the table to her.  She had been waiting for this moment.  She called me almost every day for three weeks straight to get these.

Her ticket out.  Large money.  Scot free.  She could hold her head high in society as an innocent widow.  Newly-minted rich innocent widow just barely 40.

Instead of doing the walk of shame in an orange prison jumpsuit, where she belonged.

I had met her when her husband died mysteriously.  She “found” him on the floor of their West County condo, barely breathing.  She followed every protocol.  Called 911.  Acted distraught.  Followed the ambulance dutifully to the hospital.  Held his hand somberly after an ER doctor called the time of death.  Wept.

Officially, it was a mystery.  The medical examiner would do an autopsy.  Toxicology screens were ordered.  There were no outward signs of harm.  No needle tracks on the arms to suggest an overdose.  No bumps, bruises or so much as a shaving nick on his chiseled chin.  Nothing immediately detectable in his blood that might have caused it.

There were no tears when I met with her to plan his funeral.

“Mrs. Geoffries?”

“Yes, I’m DOCTOR Geoffries.”

“Oh.  Forgive me.  Dr. Geoffries, I’m Dan.  I’m the funeral director that’s going to help you.”

“Very good.  Shall we get started?”  All business.

And so began the planning of the large dog-and-pony show that the wealthy and socially connected like to have.  Lots of flash.  Solid mahogany casket.  Thousands of dollars worth of flowers.  The big church where They all like to go when their image calls for a presence in a house of worship.  A lengthy obituary in the newspaper extolling the saintliness of the dearly departed.  Etc.

When we spoke of the financial handling of the funerals she plopped a life insurance policy worth 250k on the desk.

“I have a few more of these.  I will need an appropriate amount of death certificates.  And I want to notified immediately when they are available.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And I need the name of a good photographer.”

“Ma’am?”  This was a first.

“A photographer.  You know, a person who takes pictures?”

“Yes, I know what a photographer does.  What exactly shall I tell him as to the subject of his work?”

“My husband.  In the casket.  The flowers.  The procession.  Church interior shots.”

So I called my friend Lou.  His response was similar to mine.  “What in the hell, Dan?”

“I know, Lou.  But you are the best.  And she has the dollars to pay for the best.  You want the gig or not?”

Of course, he took it.  He’d be a damn fool not to.

The first night of visitation was to be a private family affair.  I had been given explicit instructions on the minutiae of his grooming habits.  He gelled his hair with a wet look.  Armani suit was dry cleaned and pressed.  French-cuffed dress shirt with the first two buttons undone.  Precise placement of jewelry worth more than what I earned last year.

I saw him on the embalming table downstairs.  It was clear that his job was to be a trophy husband/boy toy.  Although this was years before “Jersey Shore,” this gentleman would have gotten along famously with the Gym, Tan, Laundry crew. Pierced ears.  Tattoos on his biceps, back and belly button (When did guys start get tattoos there?) Obviously working hard to stay sexy for his incredibly average-looking anesthesiologist wife.

One problem.  While the embalming fluid was being injected in the carotid artery, it went in smoothly but soon there was a reaction of some kind.

Boy Toy puffed up like a dead porpoise.

The embalmer Whit called me at home that evening in a panic.  I raced back to work to see the damage.

“In 25 years I’ve never seen something like this.  It’s crazy. There was some sort of reaction with whatever is in his system.”

“What could it have been, Whit?  Any clue?”

“Not me.   It’s just the damnedest thing.”

“She’s gonna be pissed at me.  To the extreme.”

“Sorry man.”

I wasn’t looking forward to having this conversation with her.

Whit dressed Boy Toy carefully.  The hair was impeccably gelled.  Jewelry was placed with microscopic attention. The belt buckle gleamed.  Expertly applied cosmetics gave him an admirable, just-off-the-beach glow.  Whit gently lowered him into the casket and BT’s puffy body rubbed against the sides of the casket.  Had he been his normal size, he could have been the model in a Gucci Casket ad.  If Gucci made caskets, that is.

Instead he looked like a caricature of dead Elvis with better hair.

My stomach knotted.  There was a shit storm in my future.  I was certain of it.  I paced the corridors like a restless animal.  Finally, headlights flashed through the west entry doorway as Dr. Geoffries pulled in.

I helped her with her coat.  I could tell that the more servile I was, the better she would like me.

I escorted her into the stateroom.  Lou waited in a side room fiddling nervously with his camera equipment.  Her arm slipped from mine as she walked purposefully up to the casket, the way she might have walked up to a shiny burgundy Mercedes on the showroom floor.

“OhmyGodWHATHAVEYOUDONETOHIM?”  There were no pauses between the words as the pitch of her voice hit the roof.

“Dr. Geoffries, there was some sort of a chemical reaction to something that was in his system.  When the fluid circulated with his blood, be began to puff up uncontrollably.”

Her eyes were little slits when she cranked her head around to glare at me.

“What sort of chemical reaction might that be?”  She almost whispered the words, like she was daring me to answer.

“I have no idea.  Nor does the embalmer, who has embalmed thousands of bodies in his career and never seen anything like this.”

“I want to speak with HIM.”

Sorry Whit.  Time for you to join me under the bus.

Whit came up, rumpled and just hastily having thrown on his tie and jacket.

“Yes, Dr. Geoffries?”  Whit always had that genuine, good ol’ boy charm that most people loved.  Dr Geoffries was not one of those people.

“Care to explain this?”  She jerked her head in the direction of the casket.

“Ma’am, my best guess is that there was something in his system that caused this.”

“Oh really?  What might that something be?”

“Ma’am, I haven’t the foggiest.  But there must be something for this to have happened.  This is no ordinary embalming reaction.  This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  Maybe drugs.  Prescription drugs that is. I don’t mean to…”

She got up in his face, nose to nose.  She added index finger thumps to Whit’s chest to punctuate her point.

“Unless you are a coroner or some sort of forensic expert, I don’t care to hear your theories.  I suggest you keep your countrified ‘wisdom’ to yourself,” she snarled.

The color drained out of Whit’s face.  He had never had a family speak to him like that.  Wordlessly, he left the room.

Dr. Geoffries walked over to the bookcase, pretending to study the titles.

Without turning around, she drew a deep breath and said, “bring the photographer.”

Later, Whit grilled me as we headed to our cars.

“What’s the deal with her?  Why’d she go off on me like that?  She asked for an explanation and I was trying to give her one.”

“Dude, this whole thing is one fucked up mess.  What’s with the photographer?  What’s with all this show?”

“She’s not acting like any widow I’ve ever seen, Dan.  She is cold-blooded.  Clinical.”

“Well, she’s a doctor, Whit.  Maybe the clinical act is some sort of defense mechanism.”

“Nope.  I’m a lot older than you.  There is something else going on here.  I can feel it, but I don’t know what it is.”

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of gingerly tiptoeing around any conversation with her during the very public visitation and funeral.

Boy toy was buried with a flourish.  Dr. Geoffries left town.  And then the phone calls started.

“Dan, this is Dr. Geoffries.  Has the medical examiner ruled on the cause of death yet?”

“We haven’t heard, Doctor.  Shall I call you when we hear from them?”

“No, I will YOU.  I’m not there anyway.  I needed a break after the funeral.  I’m in the Grand Caymans.”

The Grand Caymans.  Probably a good place to hop off the radar screen.

But whose radar screen?

Then it hit me.  She planned on island hopping for the next few weeks until she got a preliminary report from the medical examiner.  If it came back how she had hoped (ie death unknown causes) she’d catch the next flight back to the States, gather up her pile of insurance cash and carry on with her merry widowhood.

If she got back any indication that the death was suspicious and eyes were turning to her, she’d hop the first flight to one of those faraway islands with no extradition to the United States.

It all started to make sense.

For nearly three weeks she called almost daily.  For three weeks she hopped from this island to that island.

Finally, the medical examiner’s preliminary report came back.

Death – unknown causes.

Yes, sometimes even in this day and age of advanced science, they have to fall back on those three words.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I almost heard relief in her voice when she made the final call the day after we got the ME report.

And after all, who but a trained medical professional like say, an anesthesiologist would know what chemical to give someone in a precise enough dose to kill them…

but not be detectable in toxicology screening blood work.

She was in my office the afternoon following our last phone call to get the death certificates.  They were in the envelope I slid to her across the table.  I was barely able to hold myself together to have a conversation with her, suspecting what I did.  She murdered him for money, plain and simple.  And she was going to get away with it.  Damn I was mad.  I had no proof, nothing to go to the police with.  Just hearsay and suspicion.

But she didn’t get away with it.  Not for long.

About six months afterwards, Whit came up to me with a big silly ass smile on his face, with a death notification call sheet, which we use when someone calls the funeral home to report a death.

The name on the death call sheet:  Dr. Geoffries.

Under notes:  possible heart attack.

I looked at Whit.  He looked at me.  We both smiled and he said and I thought the exact same thing.

“He came back and haunted her ass to death.”