Book: Ask the Right Question

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Black-and-white pictures lie. I’m not sure what I had been expecting of Fleur Crystal, but whatever it was I was surprised. She had flame-red hair. Nobody had even hinted at it. My fault perhaps, not having asked for physical characteristics, yet somehow I felt it was so striking that people had cheated on me a little bit by not volunteering mention of it.

Shoulder-length, like Eloise. Fire head.

She had opened the door herself when I rang. Made up, jade earrings virtually scraping her bare shoulders. Madras halter top, a summer garment, and a full square-dance skirt. You’ve seen them, black with red and yellow figures sewn around above their hems. The sequence of figures might be telling a story but because of the folds you can never see enough of them to read what it is saying.

I was about to embark on the newspaper-story story when she invited me in. The house was very hot, winter heating on an autumn night. And it was full of cut flowers.

I followed as she swept into the living room, waved to a furry couch set between two flower-laden tables, and sat down there with me. We were close enough for me to smell liquor on her breath, but not close enough to touch.

I explained who I was. About my story on her father. Her eyes lit at mention of Estes Graham.

“How wonderful! You want to talk to me about Daddy. I can talk about Daddy.”

“Are there people you can’t talk about?”

“But of course. Isn’t it meant to be the same for everyone?” She smiled, no, radiated at me, but somehow distantly. I felt her warmth, but it was not sensual. More a warmth of purpose. It felt austere. I felt very strange to be wanting to ask her if she had ever screwed away from home.

We went through most of the ordinary, by now, material about her father and mother and her brothers. Devotion oozed from her pores; sweat from mine.

“And then I married Leander. He’s a good man, a wonderful man. I think if he left me I’d die.”

“Is there any reason to think he’s going to leave you?” Some people would have tossed me out on a question like that. She answered it, with the sort of smile that made her face seem grave. “Well, one never knows in this life, does one?”

“That’s true. I understand you had a miscarriage recently. I’m sorry.”

The face remained grave. “It wasn’t so bad, except for my husband. He wanted more children so badly. So badly. But there is a high risk of miscarriage when a woman is over thirty.” Say forty.

She continued. “It was twins.” A brave smile. “These days”—and she paused—“but I’ve suffered through a lot of illnesses. And ill spirits too. I’ve really been quite hypo … thingy—”

“—chondrical?” I offered.

“Right. Absolutely right. A cigar for the gentleman. Give the gentleman a cigar. How did you know about that?” It was not a question asked with the hardness of a woman tight with her information. I could have told her that she had just told me. Instead I said, “I spoke with a woman who used to work for your father. A Mrs. Forebush.”

An abrupt change of mood. From manic camaraderie to squinty-eyed attention. “Just what all did she tell you?” I was not prepared for the change. I had not had time to adjust to the nuances.

“Not really anything more than you have told me now.”

The squint remained. “And did she tell you that she did everything she could to get my father to marry her? Did she tell you that, Mr. Newspaper Man?”

“No, she didn’t.”

“And did she tell you that she never was married and that she just picked up the ‘Mrs.’ because she had a daughter? And the daughter died, which was only just. Did she tell you that?”


“Well.” The word was a final one. She sat back, but words filled in the space. “One thing about Daddy, he could always tell about people. Mrs. Forebush so called just did not measure up. Do you know that at the time Daddy died she even had the nerve to suggest—”

But I didn’t get a chance to find out what Mrs. Forebush had the nerve to suggest, or to get a chance to decide whether to screw up my courage and ask the answer to the real question I was interested in.

In the doorway stood a dapper bald gentleman, about 5 feet 7, in a suit of contemporary cut which fitted him quite as well as his Army uniform had. The pictures had done him justice, even offered mercy. Not a handsome man, but a man with bearing and presence.

In the middle of her sentence Fleur wilted. She bolted from the couch and walked in front of me to a door in the wall at my right. She disappeared through it. When she closed it behind her I finally turned my attention back to the other side of the room. It was he, Leander Crystal, then.

“Who are you?” Tense, demanding response, but without the hostility in the voice which shone in his eyes. In action the man was performing a necessary task, solving a problem. As he spoke layers of wrinkles made and unmade themselves on his forehead. He was fascinating to watch. His voice required more than watching, however. I told him about the newspaper article.

“Please give me the name of someone at the paper with whom I can check what you say.”

I gave him Maude’s name and title, and would have given him her number, but he stopped me because he wanted to get the number from the phone book. Suspicious chap. I would have given him the public line, not her private phone. I wouldn’t have cheated him.

When he left the living room bound for the room that contained the phone I thought for a moment I was alone. But I was wrong. Fleur Crystal’s head was in the room with me. She was peeping back from whatever room she had gone to. How she knew Leander had gone I did not know, but she knew.

I was decidedly uncomfortable and she cowered in the doorway.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh, come on, Mrs. Crystal. Surely there is nothing in our talking that could be offensive to your husband.”

She was not reassured. In fact she said again. “You shouldn’t be here.”

I sighed and sat down again. The emotional weather had been changing so much that my surface sensibilities were beginning to erode. It was leaving only the rock inside. I took another deep breath. I regretted that I didn’t smoke, so I didn’t have a cigar to light up to foul the room. I remembered Fleur had talked of cigars. I’d have bet that her father smoked them.

Leander returned to light me up.

“You seem authentic enough, Mr. Samson, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave now anyway. You certainly should not have approached members of my family without consulting me first.”

“Your wife owns to being over twenty-one, Mr. Crystal, meaning no offense. And if I am trying to find out about Estes Graham, do I go to his child, or to his child’s husband?”

“In point of fact, you go to neither. You will get no more help here. You will leave now. And, to be frank, it’s not much of a story, at this late date. Time to go home. This way please.”

I went. But I didn’t like it.

And I didn’t go home. I went on a drive around the north side. I had plenty to keep me occupied. Heavy thinking. Like how unusual Fleur Crystal was. A complex, mad woman with a lot more I wanted to know, whether she would ever tell me or not. In the end what bugged me most was Fleur’s utter change when Leander came in. Self-sufficiency, of a sort, which had become complete subservience. It was spooky.

At night, alone, I spook easy. I found a phone booth and I called milady. We set the date for an hour because I needed time to get the whole business a little further out of my system. So I wouldn’t be thinking of it there.

I took the long drive to the south side slowly. I turned on the radio. I stopped for some fancy ice cream. Usually I bring something because it makes her happy and that makes me happy. Earlier I had been thinking of flowers, but when it came right down to it, I had seen my fill of flowers for the night.

I woke up for a few moments in the middle of the night. I don’t remember the dream. But I woke up knowing that I had to see Mrs. Forebush. I tossed and turned for a while about whether it would be better to wait for afternoon or to go in the morning. Finally I did get back to sleep.

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