Book: Ask the Right Question

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Mrs. Forebush was her old self. I wondered just what she did in that Fiftieth Street house. Whether she ever went out, how she got her food. The nearest grocery store is at Forty-ninth and Washington Boulevard, three goodly blocks away. On second thought, I figured she managed.

When we were seated in Indianapolis’ Victorian Room I gave her the story as Crystal gave it to me. I had thought about trying to bowdlerize it, but decided that if fifty thousand dollars bought my silence, Eloise’s welfare bought hers. I didn’t mention Crystal’s offer of cash.

When I finished she said, “Fleur never was what you call stable. I guess it all makes sense now.” She was examining me with great care to see whether that was what I thought.

“I guess it does.” I said and tried to examine her back.

“But I don’t see the problem. The child was born in wedlock, and was Fleur’s child, that is all that was required.”

“It’s maybe it was having told a lie without having any way to confess to it in the end,” I said piously. “One thing that has happened to me, I have developed a considerable personal respect for Leander Crystal. He’s an unusual man.”

She nodded her head vigorously. “He owns this house, you know. He lets me live here rent free and gives me sort of a pension.”

“You told me. When did you move in?”

“Almost as soon as poor Estes died. Fleur and Mr. Crystal went to New York two days after the funeral and he made arrangements for Red Bull Homes to have me moved here two days after that.”

“Do you know when he bought the house?” I bought a house once; it was a lot of trouble.

“No, but it had been lived in. I think he kicked the tenants out or at least they left in a hurry. They left a lot of food and china and things like that. Woolworth-type china.” She looked appraisingly at her own china display case. “See that flowered bowl. It’s Minton, you know.”

“It’s very nice.”

“And the food. Some of it was funny vegetables. Artichoke hearts and endives. But what can you expect from a foreigner? She was a foreigner, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know. How do you?” She looked at me sharply as if my words carried some sort of criticism, which I guess they did. Real Indiana people are not friendly to the notion of foreigners. People from the bordering states—Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky—might be relatives. But other states they hesitate over. Foreign countries are just another world when they are convinced that their Indiana world is the best one.

I once traveled through Indiana with a man from England who was “doing” the whole country, collecting Americana. We stopped briefly at the old James Whitcomb Riley house on Route 40.

Everybody who goes to school in Indiana learns about James Whitcomb Riley.

We thought to buy postcards and when we took them to the cashier the lady listened to my friend and said, “You a furriner?”

He did a double take and nodded. “Guess I better report you to the police,” she said.

We both did double takes and after an hour-long ten seconds she gave a half smile and said, “I was just kidding. Hope you have a real nice trip.” The trip did get nicer.

With Mrs. Forebush I had let my prejudice against Indiana’s prejudice get the better of me.

“I know she was a foreigner, young man. I ought to know. There was an Immigration Department man who came here every June for five years asking about her. Started in 1955. He said she hadn’t registered in January like aliens have to. And that this was her last known address. I remember him because each year the same man came around asking the same questions. Each year it was as if I’d never spoken a word to him the year before. Sometimes I wonder what the written word is for. Couldn’t they have made a note on her card or something? Then one year he stopped coming. I guess they found her.”

“I guess.”

“But Mr. Crystal has been very good to me.” She said it in that way which indicates that a conversation is nearly over.

“The only other thing I wanted to ask you, Mrs. Forebush, it may be on the personal side, but I wondered. When I talked to Fleur she said that you’d had hopes of marrying Estes Graham someday.”

She grew a bit sad, but no longer bored. “I really don’t know that I should talk about this to you. My relationship with Estes Graham was an unspoken thing, a lovely thing. I guess I did expect to marry him at one point. I would have begun to think of it about the beginning of the war, three years after Irene died. He was a man consumed with his own energy, a vibrant man, even then, and he was seventy years old when the war began. But when the children began to die he did too. First Windom in 1942, then Slugger—that was the second son, Sellman—when he died in 1944 we both just knew that he would never marry again. Then when Little Joshua went it just crumpled him up. One day he called me in and told me he had put a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of stocks in my name so that if he died, I would be taken care of.

“A few weeks later he had a stroke. I think he expected to die, not too long after that. Maybe if the youngest child, Fleur, had been a boy things would have been different.

“In 1946 Mr. Crystal came to Indianapolis to go to Butler and get his college degree on the GI Bill. And as soon as he arrived he called on Estes. He was a friend of Joshie’s in the war, you know. And when Mr. Crystal started showing some interest in Fleur, well … I think Leander Crystal is responsible for Estes’ living another six or eight years.

“I don’t know many young people. And there will never be another Estes Graham. But the only one I know who ever came close was Leander Crystal.” She paused for a moment. And looked at me with a wetness in her eyes. “I always sort of thought of Eloise specially. As if she were the child I might once have had.”

The rest of Fleur’s accusations I let go.

We parted with our understanding intact—and even expanded to contain a degree of mutual admiration for Leander Crystal.

When I got back to my office it was pushing four. With a degree of nostalgia I decided to make myself a pot of tea, for teatime.

The nostalgia was more than for Mrs. Forebush’s Victorian perspicacity. It was in memory of clients gone by. Four o’clock was Eloise time for me. I set and wound the cuckoo clock.

The little bird came at four, but not Eloise.

Eloise, my Eloise. My million-dollar client. My million-dollar baby. Why is money so corrupting? Because I guess one expects to be corrupted by it. I was glad it was after three. Another day gone by safely. I didn’t intend to deposit the check for at least two more days but ….

The notion of having, sometime, to tell the story of how I let fifty thousand dollars get away just by being slow to deposit it really hurt.

Think of telling Maude. She’d never forgive me. I thought how an upholstered chair in the office would be a lot less likely to show the dust.

But I cut myself off. If I went on like that, exaggerated to myself, I would be in debt before the banks opened in the morning. Keep busy, I said to myself. Keep busy. Keep what portion of your mind is operable busy.

In my second mug of tea, instead of adding milk, I added bourbon. It grows hair, I figured; would make me strong. And I dialed Jerry Miller.

When I got through to him he told me he had some things for me.

I was feeling a little giddy: I asked him when he ate, and invited him out to dinner at Cappy’s;

“What’s the matter with you, find ten bucks in the street and want to see how fast it’ll go?”

“It was eleven dollars and thirty-two cents, but I think it’s counterfeit. You coming or do I have to go down there and try to get through my friendly desk sergeant?”

“At eight,” he said. And then he added, “Got to go now, there’s been this rash of trespassers,” and he hung up, so I knew he loved me.

Between four thirty and setting off by foot for Cappy’s I wrote a letter to my daughter, and spent between a hundred and sixty and a hundred and eighty thousand dollars.

My man Miller is not, basically, a happy man. He’s married to his second choice, for instance. When we came out of high school he was in love with this girl who was highly lovable and who loved him and wanted to marry him. That was the problem—he wanted to go to cop school and she didn’t want to wait.

So she married a musician and turned him into a suit salesman and lived happily ever after.

Not that Jerry’s wife—it’s been almost twenty years now—is not a fine wifely specimen. But somehow he’s never quite made it where he wanted to make it.

I understand his problems.

We settled down to dinner and he gave me a folder. I set it aside and didn’t look at it through the whole meal.

“I’m sorry I haven’t got anything to trade you for this,” I said. I was sorry. I felt fairly bad about it.

“But you’ve been digging around with these people?” He tapped the folder by my salad plate.

“Not digging uninvited. I was hired by one.”

“But you found something.”

“The way it stacks now I maybe did. But the friendly people from the statute of limitations have cut out anything there might have been.”

He tapped the folder again. “You’re under arrest. Obtaining information by promising me a fraud and then not delivering. That’s fraud.” In our younger days at such a moment he would have pulled out his cuffs and slapped them on me. But we’ve both mellowed, and we just sat in silence and thought about things.

“The best I can do is offer to confess to trespassing. But I won’t unless you promise to give my stool back.”

“The hell of it is,” he said, “when I requested those records nobody turned a whisker. I think I could file for a Washington police report on the President and nobody here would notice. I must be the most experienced sergeant on the whole force. And what do I get?”

“Night shift,” I said. “Probably nobody notices anything that night shift puts in.”

“Aw shit,” he said. “Al, do you make any money in that racket of yours?”

I must have blushed. He was hitting very close to home. “Sometimes,” I said, “but not very often. I was thinking of asking you the same question.”

“There must be something better that we can do. Some way to get along without taking all the crap we take. If I had some money I’d throw in with an uncle of Janie’s. He’s got him a lake down in Kentucky that he’s working up into a resort. You know, motorboats and fishing and special buses to the Kentucky Derby.”

“You gotta offer free coffee, year round. So people will come out of season.”

“I’m not kidding, Al.”

“Neither am I. Why don’t you become corrupt for a few years to build your stake?”

“Nobody ever offers me anything.”

“I’ll give you five bucks for my stool and a guarantee nobody will raid my joint at three in the morning.”

He gave an involuntary bristle. He can’t help it. He’s mellowed some but he’s basically an honest cop. That’s the real reason he doesn’t get on. Not because he’s black but because he’s so bloody self-righteous about his business. A long time ago I considered trying to act as go-between with him and Maude. She could have used an ear at HQ. But it wouldn’t have gone. What he does occasionally for me as a friend, he never would have done for money on a committed basis. Maude wouldn’t have paid that much anyway, and now she has an ear a little closer to the mainstream.

Daydreams of little country cottages with gardens filled out our chow.

At the end I reached for the check and he reached for the folder of information.

“Hey,” I said, and I grabbed for it too. We stood there each with a hand on the folder.

“Thought you said you were off it.”

“Well, I don’t have a client anymore, but I’m giving it another day or two.…”

“You’ve either got it bad, or you’re not telling me everything.”

“Or both,” I said. We let it go at that.

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