Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I Want To Live Here 22

Christmas Evening

His little dog? Why this struck me, I don’t know. The sensation that I’d moved, not to a Southern boom town but to a variation on Oz had kicked in three months ago and was, with the mention of the small animal, back again and stronger than ever.
Any of my critics could claim the decision to drive to Patterson’s was pure Nora impulse reinforced with a latent goody-two-shoes tendency I despise in others but cultivate in myself. It’s an arrow my survival quiver. Still, path leading to colorful spires (Peachtree Street?), promise of a small dog and fit of fabulous new blue boots? I felt prepared for adventure.
So, Ollie Butler informed me, in a voice saturated in regional ancestry, that I could rest from worry on Abigail’s behalf. She would be, he said, pointing to a notice in the afternoon edition of The Atlanta Journal, on view tomorrow and the next day and then buried in her husband’s family plot at Oakland Cemetery. He left me convinced Abigail was a lucky girl in spite of her fate.

One sixty-one Fifth Street wasn’t hard to find. The address proved to be a dilapidated Victorian, near the corner of Penn Avenue, in a neighborhood where most of the grand houses had been converted to apartments and boarding houses and all were left with an air of past respectability gone to seed and now flowering in a leggy, survivalist abandon. The neighborhood struck me as gloriously decayed but exciting as a flea market treasure hidden in plain sight. Midtown Atlanta trees were massive, their roots as large as bodies breaking up the octagonal cement paving stones of the sidewalks. In that first glance I missed the obvious signs: the hookers, the street people, the city’s old ladies behind the wheels of their late husbands’ Oldsmobiles. In my ’61 Fleetwood, I must have looked like yet another restless crone come cruising for a Christmas martini.
I parked near the corner in the only spot I could find large enough to accommodate my land yacht and was halfway to Abigail’s former home when it occurred to me that I had no business here and, worse, no plausible excuse. I would have turned around right then if a small white dog hadn’t burst from the front door and launched itself at my blue suede boots.
“Hazel! God damn it, Hazel!” A young man hurried out, scooped up the little scrap of poodle and, holding her close, greeted me with an open and genuinely friendly smile.
I faced him uncertainly. Was this the man Abigail once claimed had held her at gunpoint? This slender, boyish man didn’t look like he’d ever seen a gun, much less got drunk and waved one around. He was clean and neat though not as hyper-groomed as the Buckhead boys I’d been showing apartments to, and nothing like the messy red necks in their plaid shirts and drooping jeans. He stood about 5’ 9” held the little Hazel with strong arms and long tan fingers. The dog in his arms nipped playfully at the mustache that covered his top lip.
“Would you like an obnoxious little dog?” he asked.
“Are you Kevin Snowe?” I asked, extending my hand. He accepted it. Then I patted the dog. She licked my fingers. She wasn’t obnoxious at all. I would love a little dog like her.
“Does she wait for you at the window when you come home?” I asked.
“That’s her best thing,” he said, nuzzling his pet. “Isn’t it, you silly dog.” The love fest might have gone on but Abigail’s husband was a well-brought up young man and drew me in. “I’m Kevin,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Nora Cahill. I work at Arborgate Apartments.”
He maintained the friendly look but cocked his head quizzically and very much like his dog. He was obviously too polite to say what was obviously on his mind: So?
“Do you know where that is?”
“Somewhere in Buckhead, maybe? Peachtree Battle?”
I nodded. “Biscayne Drive? Your wife lived, lives, lived there.”
It was as if he’d shut himself behind a screen door and latched it. From that relative safety he spoke, carefully, armed to the emotional teeth. “Uh huh. I knew the address, but I don’t think she ever told me the name of the complex. ”
I wanted to touch that symbolic screen that hung between us, press the pads of my fingers against it and reach through. But the only way to do that was with honesty. I was too far out of my league for anything else.
“Look, Mr. Snowe. I’m sorry to bother you. I have no business being here at all. I just went to see Patterson’s because Susan asked me if I knew of any funeral homes and a resident suggested them. When the director there, there was someone there today, isn’t that amazing? When I was asking him about arrangements and told him about Abigail, he said you’d already arranged it. I don’t want to get caught up in a family fight, so I thought I’d come over. So I did.” I drew a breath, dared to look up at him, but was barely able to comprehend my own relief when I saw him smile. “I came here.” My last words dripped, inconsequent as the rain.
He nodded. “Patterson’s was my choice,” he said. “It’s the only place. It’s not, of course, but it is, if you know what I mean.”
“Did Susan call you?”
He turned around and led me up the stairs to the porch where, protected from the elements, he sat on a metal swing, indicating nearby a chair for me. I watched him cuddle the little dog and wondered how long he’d owned her.
We sat there examining each other at each other for I don’t know how long. It’s my embarrassment that kept me silent. In my urge for doing something I had not given any thought to what I would say to him or why I thought I had any right to be here. But I had wanted to see Abigail’s husband and here I was. Paralyzed with success.
The porch swing was old and its chains rusty. For a while their creak was the only conversation. In the tiny front yard, the leaves of an overgrown magnolia rustled in their stiff, papery way. Across the street a black cat took careful steps along the banister of a cement stoop, then leapt to the ground and disappeared around the back of a shabby house painted in rich chocolate brown.
Kevin’s house boasted a swept porch, and the swing, though old and protesting, was painted a cheerful red, its cushions clean. He, or someone, had hung giant ferns on hooks drilled into a blue ceilinged porch high above. These turned clockwise, just a few degrees, then stopped and reversed, counterclockwise. This was a part of Atlanta that felt secret to me, though it was I who hadn’t bothered to find it.
“The police called me. Yesterday. A guy named--- Michael ? Mike Booker? I’m sorry, should I have come to see you? As you know already, Susan is taking charge.”
“Boeker,” I corrected him. “He’s a detective. Did he tell you how Abigail died?” I hoped he had. I didn’t want to do it.
“He said she fell and hit her head on a table.”
“Yes. It seems she was alive for several hours. She must not have realized how badly she was hurt.” I didn’t tell him she’d tried telephoning me, possibly for help. Had she called Kevin as well as me?
“Subdoral hematoma,” he said, nodding. “My grandmother died of the same thing. Only, she’d had a minor car accident. Went home, dropped dead in the living room.”
“Were you going to come to the complex? You’re listed as the emergency contact in her lease.”
That surprised him. “Really? But Abigail and I broke up a year ago. We’re not divorced yet. Officially we’re estranged. Isn’t that a horrid word? It sounds almost violent.”
“It’s the embedded strangle,” I said. “It also suggested a temporary state. Were you going to get divorced or maybe reconcile? Is that why you hadn’t divorced?”
“God no! We’re just lazy and, I don’t know. As long as we were living our own lives, there didn’t seem to be any rush. It’s not like we hated each other. I’m certainly not marrying anyone and I didn’t think she was in any rush either. Though I think she was dating.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She called me about six months ago. She was staying at Susan’s.”
“Susan’s? I don’t think so. Susan said Abigail was living at Arborgate. In fact, she was under the impression that she’d been living there all of this year.
“She did?”
“I met Susan today. She came by to pick up some things for Abigail’s funeral.”
“ I thought she was letting me do that.” He looked down, hiding his expression by playing with the dog. “What did she pick out? The Eastern uniform? Those girls loved their costumes.”

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