Book: Ask the Right Question

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By the time I got home I was in no shape to sleep. I set myself to the letters, just a few before bedtime. She had brought seven boxes. Together they held an enormous quantity of paper. Into the wee hours I sorted letters by date, over fourteen hundred, in their original envelopes.

The oldest was from February, in some unclear year in the late 1800’s; the last, from 1954 on the occasion of the death of Estes Graham.

They were not business letters, but many dealt with the business times of a life: marriage. (1916, the first large pile); births of children (1920 Windom; 1922 Sellman, 1926 Joshua, 1930 Fleur); and a hundred or so on Irene Olian’s death in 1937.

It was three in the morning. I didn’t want to tackle them right away. I looked only at a few from the fringe. J.C. Penney had written to express sorrow for Irene.

Finally I slept.

Morning had a new sun. Old letters and bad coffee, not an enticing notion so I did the unusual and squeezed the juice and pulp out of six tiny oranges and had fresh same, for a change. After all, letters were a change, not my daily fare.

And in fact they did contribute new information. No hearty confessions, but some information. Like, the Leander-Fleur vacation of 1953–54 was spent primarily in and near Toulon, in France. There was one trip to Würtemberg, Germany, one to Tours, France, and a trip to London. But letters to Estes arrived weekly, full of clipped good cheer, extolling the weather and the food with monotonous regularity.

These epistles surprised me somewhat. They were the first break in my image of Fleur. Not that I had known enough to say that she couldn’t be airy. But I didn’t expect consistency of mood over a period of months.

Between 1944 and 1945 were the rather different letters from Fleur’s youngest brother, Joshua. Clear, but poorly scripted, full of complex thoughts squeezed into simple sentences.

August, 1944

My own dear Father and Sister,
I am not allowed to talk about where we are. I don’t really want to think about that part of things.
I think all the time about you both, about Mrs. F. and about Win and Slugger. Hope they got better groups to live with wherever they are than I got. Purely a bunch of foul mouths here.…

I am curious about a man in war who can care about such things. His brothers were already dead when he wrote.

In December he made his first mention in letters home of a man “… new transferred to my company. He is decorated for his bravery. I don’t know why they sent him here. There is no call for bravery here. He is called Leander Crystal. He has been a friend to me. He don’t use the bad mouthing of lots of the others here.”

Joshua wrote of his friend in seven letters home—until he could write no more. Leander wrote of Joshua once.

March, 1945

Dear Mr. and Miss Graham,
I know by now you must have been informed officially of the tragedy which befell your fine young man, my friend Joshua. We are heartbroken here, as you must be there, because he was as good a man as they come and would have made a fine fighting man had they given him the front-line experience he so badly wanted.
That you should know exactly the circumstances, Joshua was driving a truck filled with badly needed supplies when a French family appeared on the road before him. Pulling to the roadside to avoid them he triggered a mine on the road’s shoulder and was killed. Although the roads are meant to be examined, these things are known to happen.
As it happens, I was nearby and rushed to poor Joshua with a doctor who I was walking with.
You should know that his last words were of his love for his father, his sister and his brothers. I cried as he died in my arms and I am not a crying man since I have endured without tears the deaths of others I had known much longer than your son.
It is such a tragedy that wars, even just ones, must be fought and that men such as your son must be lost. The extra tragedy is that men are lost other than to enemy bullets.
I felt I must write; I felt so close to your boy and I feel that already I almost know you. If I survive this war I may hope one day to visit you, for educational plans may bring me to your city.

Yours sincerely in this time of sorrow,

Leander Crystal

It was information day on the ranch. It was just noon when Dr. Harry called.

“Lovely pile of shit you’ve saddled me with,” he offered. “Well, you can’t expect me to do much more on this than I’ve done. I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but I hope you know what you’re doing, obviously snooping around. I know if you ever did this for any of my patients I’d have you vasectomized.”

“How’s Evvie?”

“And I’ll tell you this too, these records you’ve snatched are among the most meticulous and clearly written medical records I’ve ever seen. Well organized. Only a dunce couldn’t find for himself the things you wanted to know.” There was a pause. “Evvie is fine. How’ve you been? She says you were a little frayed last night.”

Harry is an acquired taste. He has violent, sarcastic turns of mood, but a gentle heart and soul. He is also flat-footed and has to wear special shoes. I’ve got a theory which connects them with his mouth.

With little more ado he provided the following information which he had culled from the records I had given him.

Number 1. Died from pneumonia in 1937. Blood type A. (Irene Olian Graham)

Number 2. Heart attack in 1945, strokes in 1952 and 1954. Died of heart seizure 1955. Blood type O. For some reason there is no note of the death certificate. Either an oversight or this doctor was not the certifying physician at time of death. Records are kept at a Health Department office, if this is important (Estes Graham)

Numbers 3, 4, and 5 in order of birth. Nothing of note. Blood types A, A and O. (The brothers)

Number 6. Wide variety of complaints over the years, but very little really wrong. Presumably a hypochondriac (seemed to begin within a year after Number I died). She ran through all the symptoms of “popular” diseases: that is, the ones which were well publicized at the time, e.g., TB, pneumonia, heart. No doubt if alive now is worrying about cancer. Last recorded appointment for possible sterility, though the tests were never done and she appears to have stopped going to this doctor in August, 1953. That in itself is unusual unless she moved, because the doctor was clearly congenial. Blood type O. (Fleur Olian Graham)

Number 7. Little information, no significant appointments, colds, checkups and such. Stopped going to this doctor when Number 6 stopped. Blood type B. (Leander Crystal)

Number 8. This is complete and current record from two and a half weeks of age. Starting November 17, 1954, till about four weeks ago. Nothing unusual. Blood type A. (Eloise Graham Crystal)

“Well, there it is, you got it?” I had, in scribble form. “I don’t know what a dolt like you is going to make, of this stuff. So let it drop. You tell me something.”


“What are the relationships of these mysterious numbered corpses?”

“In order. Mother, father, three sons, daughter, husband of the daughter, child of the daughter and her husband.”

“Adopted child?”


“So at least I see why you asked about the blood types.”

“You tell me.”

“I’d explain it, but you are too dumb. Obviously because number six and number seven cannot be the parents of number eight. But for Christ’s sake, Al, it’s a little late for them to be disputing parentage, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is.”

He said quietly, “You know there is a lot of money represented here.”

“How can you tell?”

Less quietly, “Because of all the appointments. We aren’t in this business for nothing, you know. Speaking of not being in the business for nothing …”

We agreed on a stipend, somewhat less than the thousand dollars he suggested.

We also agreed that I would call on them sober when this was over and tell them about it all.

So there it was. Blood tests confirmed. Purported parentage disproved. A rich gift, in the circumstances. Enough to elate me in itself. I had a real case, a real client, and a real job.

My mind moved back to the letters. They had given me information on the non-father, Leander Crystal. Both the answer to why the Ames, Iowa, soldier had appeared in Indianapolis, and at the same time no answer. “Educational plans.” Was the man in a war making educational plans detailed enough to know what new city he was coming to? Why Indianapolis? The weather? To play basketball? Or perhaps relatives of whom I as yet knew nothing.

Why is it that once you’ve found out something you really wanted to know, it’s no longer so interesting?

He who elates easily also takes rapid falls. What the hell did I know anyway? Nothing, I had not one good lead to the real father.

Well, there was one, of course. Fleur Crystal. She should know if anyone did. Perhaps it was the time for bold action, frontal attack. Go see Fleur.

“OK, lady, no fucking around. Let’s have it. This ain’t a finger in my pocket, you know, and it’s getting ready to blow. So spill, sister. It happened a long time ago, it ain’t gonna hurtcha, so I want the true story now, sister, and fast.” And when I got it, I’d hang on to it for a while to get some extra loot out of Eloise. No sympathy for nobody.

I dwelt on these aggressive notions for some time, long enough for one’s room to appear definitely too small to hold one. The world was too small. I took an afternoon nap. Nice habit, if your work can accommodate it.

I awoke by unnatural means. Shaken into consciousness by an Eloise Crystal. Not a proper way to wake. Not a proper manner to leave lands of guitar music and naked ladies.

“Do you always sleep in your chair in the middle of the afternoon? You must be older than I thought.”

Children can be cruel. “Do you always come around here in the afternoon? Nothing better to do? No Sunday schools out where you live?” Or haystacks? It was a balmy autumn Sunday.

For some reason she thought about it. “I guess I’m just hoping I’ll be able to help. I’ve never been so close to the answer before, and I’ve never done anything so active about it, if you know what I mean.” So close. Not exactly my phrasing. But she continued. “And besides, I find it sort of exciting.”

No quarter! “You must lead a rich fantasy life.” So close!”

“I do,” she said.

So I was awake. I stood up and went to the kitchen sink to rinse my face off. I returned to my client, who had dropped into the armchair I had been warming for her.

One thing for sure. The daylight Eloise was back. No giggles, no nighties, no gay rendezvouses. Perhaps finding me asleep really had done something to her. Shock and uncertainty. Ah, kids. Appearance is everything. I pulled up my dining-room chair and tried to ease her back into my world.

“The letters were useful. And I have also confirmed the blood typings you made.”

Sharp look. “At last?”

“Look, Eloise, I do not need to sit around here trading stares and strategems with you. If you have nothing to add, then I do.”

“What are you going to do?”

“The next major step is to go and see your mother.”

A right answer for a change; glowing light. And I realized at once why. To go and see her mother, so to speak, was exactly what she had always wanted to do.

“You’re not going to ask her right out, are you?”

“It depends. Probably not, not this time, but it will depend on how we get along.”

“You’d better not go while Leander is there.”

“Will he be there tonight?” Her face lit on tonight.

“One never knows.”

“I’ll give it a try.”

“Don’t call on the phone. She hates the phone.”

“I won’t.” New communication. “And please don’t be there while I’m there.”

“Why not?”

“You might distract me.”

“Me distract you?” She blushed.


She thought for a moment. “You must lead a rich fantasy life.”

“It’s not for children to throw words back in the faces of their elders.” I was an elder, I could tell. I didn’t blush.

“I’m not a child.”

I laughed at her. Not loud, but clearly. And after a few moments she laughed too.

I made us tea. We chatted, which is what one is supposed to do over tea. She told me a little periphery about her school life, and that she didn’t plan to go to college. All very nice. All very indirect. We didn’t talk about our project at all.

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