Book: Ask the Right Question

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7

At 2:05 I pulled up in front of 413 East Fiftieth Street. It was a barn-red house, frame with barn-red trim. A small, heavily planted garden filled the small front yard. A driveway led behind the house from Fiftieth Street on the left, and an alley ran beside it on the right.

My fist was raised to knock when the door opened.

“Come in, come in,” said the trim white-haired lady with a yellow carnation in her hair. Florence Forebush.

I came in and was led into what they used to call a drawing room. It was frilly, Victorian and full of violet-brown upholstery with white lace trim. Two chairs and a couch were horseshoed in front of a large marble fireplace which bore a mantel loaded with pictures. Some of them I recognized. Three, the different ages of Estes Graham. A woman next to him. The print and frame looked old. It was Irene Olian Graham, I was sure. Next to her the uniformed figure of Leander Crystal. On the end the most familiar face. My client’s.

I apologized for being late.

“It’s a little early yet for tea, Mr. Samson,” said Mrs. Forebush after we had seated ourselves in the matching chairs and faced each other across a slate coffee table. Her decorum contrasted with a social omission on her mantel. No Fleur.

“You’ll have to remind me what it was you wanted again. About Estes?”

“That’s right. Mrs. Forebush. I’m trying to get together some information about Estes Graham and his family.”

“For the paper, I believe you said? About Estes’ last years?”

What was I supposed to have reminded her of again? She had repeated everything I had told her. I was getting the distinct impression that I was being conned, not conning. But maybe I was just touchy. “I hope so, yes.”

She studied me quizzically. “I trust you won’t mind me saying this so directly, but you look a little old not to be sure when you are doing something.”

Challenged again. “I hope not to make that your problem. I just understood you knew Estes Graham in his later years.”

She shrugged. “Oh, I’m happy enough to talk about Estes. Nothing I can say will matter to him now.”

Was she really telling me that she didn’t believe the whole story?

“I worked for Estes Graham from my twenty-first birthday until the day he died. I saw that man go through more than a dozen lesser men together could take.” Light seemed to come from her eyes; rather than from the window. She was happy enough to talk about Estes Graham.

“I understand he married Irene Olian.”

“In 1916. The quietest, most angelic little girl you ever saw. He worshiped her. He mostly died himself when she was taken in 1937.”

“There were four children?”

“Three boys dead in the war, and a girl, Fleur. Young man, as far as I’m concerned, there is more story in Estes Graham than there will ever be in one man again. Things aren’t the same for a real man nowadays. But his last years, they were such a change. Now why do you want to hear about that?” She looked me straight in the eye. But she out-eyed me, three to two. The yellow carnation watching dispassionately down from above.

I said, “That’s the part of the story I’m supposed to cover for the article.”

Her snort covered what would have been my choking on my own feeble words.

“Goodness gracious. A man your age ‘hoping’ to do a story and now it’s not even all your story.” She snorted again, with no apologies. I had the distinct impression I was not smart enough to dabble in private eying. Maybe I should stick to writing crossword puzzles.

She brought me up short again. “Young man, you aren’t doing anything that might hurt the child, are you?”

I knew she meant Eloise.

“No, Mrs. Forebush. I am trying to help her. It was she who gave me your name.”

“Eloise,” she mused. She sat back in her chair, the body equivalent of clearing her throat. “All right. You must think I can tell you things you need to know. I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you,” I said, infinitely grateful.

She looked at her watch. “Still, you must get on with it. I don’t want to miss my movie.”

“It shouldn’t take that long, Mrs. Forebush. I need to know about Fleur Crystal.”

“Dreadful child. On the surface so meek and mild, but underneath she’s just a little conniver. I guess it was the war that really did it, losing all three boys, and so soon after Irene. She spent every minute of her life trying to make her father love her.”

“And he didn’t?”

“Just the minimum. A little mouse like her. He liked women to have some style. Fleur always whined.” Then she added quietly, “Irene had style. It didn’t have to be brash.”

“Fleur was devoted to him?”

“Utterly.”

“But not so much as not to get married.”

“That was as much to please her father as anything, you know. But he’s nice, that Mr. Crystal. I fail to see what he saw in her.”

“If not woman, maybe money?”

“Oh, no. He’s just not that way. Do you know that the day after Estes died Mr. Crystal came straight to me, gave me this house, and started sending me money every month? He didn’t need to do that. I told him that Estes made arrangements for me before he died, but Mr. Crystal still keeps sending me living money. He told me to keep the other for savings. So I’ve fixed the place up. Took out all the tall shrubs that were here when I came. Put in plants of my own.

“But I’m getting off the track. My two best subjects are my house and the old days. You’ll have to guide me to the material that you want.”

“You were talking about Fleur marrying Leander Crystal.”

“Yes. He was a friend of Joshua’s, you know. Baby Joshua’s. They knew each other in the war and Mr. Crystal came to us after it was all over and told us about it. It was so sad.”

“What was, Mrs. Forebush?”

“The way poor Joshie died. I mean after the real war was all over. He died in France when a truck exploded. Mr. Crystal was there and heard his last words, love to his father, and his brothers and his sister and to me. It makes me teary even now, to think of it. I cried for days then. We all did. He didn’t even know that his brothers were dead.”

Spontaneously we paused in silence. So much more meaningful than any routine pledge can be.

“But I must say, Mr. Crystal took to little Fleur from the beginning. He tried to help Estes put a little purpose in her. I think he was as responsible as anyone for getting Fleur to try nursing. Did you know she studied nursing?”

I nodded. She continued.

“But of course she just wasn’t up to self-discipline. They got married at the end of a summer, 1949 it was.”

“How did the marriage seem to affect her?”

“She was better for a while. Gayer. After the marriage it took Fleur some time to realize that Estes was really looking to her for grandchildren. She thought that when she and Mr. Crystal were married, her father would just come around to her. It didn’t work out that way. It made her real nervous about having children. She went to doctors and finally Mr. Crystal took her to Europe. He thought it might be good for them. And when they got back she was pregnant, sure enough, with Eloise. Made Estes real happy. He didn’t believe a marriage was approved by God until there were children. I really think he would have liked Eloise.”

“How is she, Mr. Samson? I haven’t seen her in quite a while.”

“I think she is fine, Mrs. Forebush. A real young lady. But I must ask you a frank question, about Eloise’s mother.”

“OK. Shoot.”

“Is there any chance in your mind that she could be unfaithful?”

Mrs. Forebush tried hard to fathom the significance of the question, and then fell back on her resolve to help. “Well, I haven’t talked to the girl for years. I can’t say what she might be capable of.”

“I don’t mean now, Mrs. Forebush. I mean then. Those first years of marriage, through the time of Estes Graham’s death.”

Her answer was absolute by human measure. “Not a chance in a million.”

That had been the big question, so we rapidly prepared for my departure.

She said, “I really don’t know what this is all about, Mr. Samson. One loses one’s faculties. But you will tell Eloise to come and see me. I think that’d be better than my going to see her right now.”

“I’ll do that.”

“And you, Mr. Samson. You must come again and tell me exactly what is going on.”

It was not a request. It was a threat. “I shall, Mrs. Forebush.”

“Thank you, Mr. Samson. Now, good-bye.”

I walked slowly down the walk to my car. She was an unusual lady. Vibrant and on top of things. I liked her, and although I had come into her house telling lies, I believed that she liked me.

I sat for a few minutes in the car making notes on what she had told me. Most immediately relevant was her exclusion of any chance that Fleur had had an extramarital love life. Especially considering the facts.

While I sat I happened to look up and catch the eye of an old man sitting on the porch of the house across the alley from Mrs. Forebush’s. It made me nervous. I couldn’t tell if he knew I was looking at him or not. How do you tell whether somebody is seeing what is in front of him?

I started the car, and just before easing the stick into first I made half a wave. He made no response at all. But on the other hand my gesture was not definitive enough to prove anything one way or the other.

For all he knew I could have been failing to catch a mosquito.

He didn’t move for as long as I saw him.

I headed in the general direction of home. But as I hadn’t finished my notes I stopped at a drugstore for some coffee.

Once inside and working I remembered I had not eaten much of my lunch. That made me feel peckish.

And after I ordered meat replica on a bun I got into a conversation with the grill man about whether the Pacers could do it again. They had played their first game of the season while I was jollying last night. They’d had their own jollies at half time. A bomb scare had emptied the Coliseum. But no boom and the Pacers had proceeded to lower the boom on Kentucky.

It was about four fifteen before I got started again, back to the office.

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