I. WHEN WE LIVED IN A HOUSE
My grandfather's bedroom, dim with afternoon shadows, was the smallest room in our small house, tucked behind the kitchen and furnace. The floor creaked as I walked in, and I held my breath a moment at the sound, then exhaled again. His room smelled of cedar from his closet, the Yardley's oatmeal soap and lemon-lime Barbasol from his bath, and the sharp tang from his unmade bed. He had diabetes and often left his electric blanket on its highest setting, so that, although he never stopped being cold, he sweated constantly under the covers. When I was seven, I didn't mind the smell. In fact, when I was sick, I liked to sleep in his twin bed, precisely because it was smelly and always warm. His bedroom smelled exactly like him, and I loved him.
His desk was a lawyer's desk—massive, wooden, ornate—that took up a quarter of his small room, but he wasn't a lawyer. His desk chair was a corporate president's chair, a brass-studded leather armchair on a swivel. Technically, he was a corporate president—of a tiny Nevada corporation called alternately Delta Publishing and Portola Investments, whose sole interest was a video store on Century Boulevard in Inglewood, just east of LAX. A messy pile of papers several inches thick covered the desk; a smaller pile of papers sat on the floor where they had slipped off the pile, gathering dust and fur. It was the favorite napping place of our tabby, Klutz, and as I moved the chair, she gave a small grunt.
If one were to explore the papers on my grandfather's desk—something strictly forbidden, but which I often did anyway—one would invariably find illegible notes on yellow legal pads, overdue bills, unopened notices from the Writer's Guild, copies of Yachting and The Economist, a creased black-and-white spanking magazine, folded to the Readers Write section, as well as old classifieds from the LA Harbor Log, in which my grandfather had circled certain boats in blue ballpoint, pressing the pen so heavily that the newsprint tore. Sometimes at the bottom of the pile, or sometimes in the top drawer of the desk, was my grandfather's gun—a black metal thing with a brown plastic grip. I was under no circumstances to touch the gun, but kneeling on the chair, with my legs tucked under me and the chair-back hiding my body, I often did, rubbing my fingers along its barrel. There was also a bayonet, given to my grandfather by one of the clerks who worked in his video store, who got it from a friend who'd served in Vietnam. It was 1984; the war had ended before I was born, but grown-ups still spoke of it in hushed tones. I didn't often touch the bayonet. Its dull metal was streaked here and there with rust-colored stains, which I imagined was someone's blood.
But that particular afternoon, six months or so before I would find out about my mother's murder or meet Detective Varney, I wasn't looking for the gun or the bayonet but for things that felt almost as dangerous: pictures of my mother. I knew my grandfather had them because, the night before, he'd shown them to me. Marilyn had been out teaching ESL at Harbor College, as she did every Tuesday and Thursday night. After dinner, my grandfather had called me into his bedroom, then drawn two photographs from the papers on his desk. He held them in front of me with his sausage fingers, putting his fingerprints all over the image, something Marilyn always warned me not to do with photographs.
One picture was of the back of a little girl petting a cat, and another was of her blowing out candles on her birthday cake. There were nine candles. I had just enough time to count them before he turned the pictures around to look at them himself, his bushy eyebrows furrowed over his thick glasses.
"That's Michele when she was a little girl. She looked like her old man, poor thing," he said. He meant himself.
I squeezed around next to his chair so I could see them again. I couldn't see my mother's face in those pictures; her back was turned toward the camera. The little girl had red hair, and in both pictures, she had on the same dress. She was chubby, with stubby arms and legs. Before I saw those pictures, I'd always thought of my mother as a tall, graceful woman with long hair and soft, cool hands, the way Marilyn's hands were cool on my forehead when I was sick. Marilyn, so much younger than my grandfather, was the right age to have been my actual mother, and so I'd always thought of Michele as being Marilyn's age. I'd never thought of my mother as a nine-year-old, someone not much older than me.
My grandfather rarely talked about my mother, and so I had all sorts of questions saved up for him, all variations of, what was she like? Would I have liked her? Would she have liked me?
"Did she like to draw?" I asked. I loved to draw.
He leaned back in his chair, his dark blue dressing gown barely reaching across the fat tummy encased in the red flannel nightshirt Marilyn and I had given him for Christmas. His legs beneath were bare, hairless, pale like milk, and marbled with blue veins. His elephant-like feet were shoved into burgundy slippers.
"I suppose. Doesn't every child like to draw?" He sounded bored by my question.