Book: Ask the Right Question

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I got an early start in the morning. I headed off to Matador, where there was a very attractive girl behind the counter. I asked her if she could give me information on how much plane tickets cost round trip from Indianapolis to Paris in 1953.

She got out her book and began to thumb. Then she stopped, looked up at me, using a dainty fingertip to push up her eyelids which were drooping under the weight of bristle-brush false eyelashes, and asked, “When did you want to go again?”

“October 1953,” I said.

She squinted, and said, “Didn’t that one leave already?”

I asked for the manager, who I found in a plush office on the mezzanine, and who I also found to be a bit more helpful than his help.

I identified myself and described the case I was on—running down background information on people suspected of padding expense accounts. I didn’t say I was working for an important local lawyer. My demeanor bespoke the fact. I asked whether he had records on individual orders from 1953.

He said no.

So I asked instead for the price of plane travel from Indianapolis to Paris in 1953. Where had I heard that question before?

“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I can give you an approximation.”

I said that an approximation would be fine. He was a stolid-looking gentleman, nice clean suit, conservative cut. Moderately bald. About fifty. The world was full of them.

“Round trip I would guess about seven hundred seven and a quarter, unless you went first class.”

“How about first class?”

“Another hundred.”

“So if I have a check for $2,941.91 which is supposed to be the plane fares for two people to France and back then you might suggest that there would be a little something wrong with the check.”

“Well, unless they went the long way round, it’s more like the fare for four people. Or maybe three and a half.” He smiled. He was making a joke.

I didn’t smile. It didn’t strike me funny. I was getting more and more idea of what had happened then and less and less idea of what was going on now.

I blundered on. “I’ve got another one. Round trip to New York, in 1954. What would that run?”

“Ninety, maybe a little less. That’s first class.”

I didn’t ask what a check for $307.52 made. I did ask how possible it would be to spend $17,000 in France in six and a half months in the mid-fifties.

“That’s a breeze,” he said. “Even I could do that, if I had it.”

“But how about without making any large purchases? I mean no houses, no diamonds.”

“A little harder. But what about some big parties, some vintage champagne or some high-priced broads. No, it still would be easy.”

He left out the possibility of giving the money away. Fair enough. He had been a help and I told him so.

I winked at Fan-eyes as I went out. She just stared at me. It occurred to me that she was pretty sure not to lose a contact lens. If one popped out, it would just get caught in the webbing.

I had to walked to Matador; it wasn’t a bad day and one could rationalize that even if the air is not good to breathe at least the exercise of walking helps balance what you lose by inhaling. Not that I was really worried about my health. It was my mental health that bothered me at the time; not having things together, a kind of insanity. A professional stage, and occupational hazard, when you are lucky enough to get some work that requires some degree of thought.

Instead of walking home I took a left and walked through downtown. Across the Monument circle, hub of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis was designed by the assistant to the man who did Washington, D.C. It’s built on the same hub and spoke principle. A center traffic circle with eight spoke, roads. Of course only four actually join the circle, and one of those is only two blocks long, but the principle is there, and the diagonal streets play the same kind of havoc at intersections that they do in Washington. I’ll take the rectangular blocks with streets running one way and avenues running the other any old time.

I walked up to the library. Past Lyman Brothers, the site of my first job away from home. Where I took an inventory at a dollar an hour. Counting pen points, pieces of paper, multiplying by the unit value and totaling. I swore I would never work again. You can see what that got me. Owned by a nice guy though.

I didn’t walk fast.

I had pieces, all kinds of pieces. Like half people. Like people who lived places and then didn’t live anywhere. Like artificial insemination and neurotic pregnancies. Life had to be simpler than all that. Occam’s razor. Q.E.D.

It was pushing eleven. I decided to wake Miller up.

Only I didn’t. He was up. Having breakfast. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t a fellow get away from you anywhere?”

“Only in Kentucky,” I said, meaninglessly. “I was on my way home and two cars collided in an intersection I was just about to cross.” They had. “So I decided not to go home, but to visit you instead. OK?”

“Jesus Christ. Make another pot of coffee, honey, we got a crazy man coming. Yeah, it’s OK.”

While I was in the phone box I called Andrew Elmitt’s number. It rang twelve times before he answered it.

He said. “Yes?”

I identified myself and asked. “Is the parcel I left with you constituted the way you believed when we spoke?” I can talk fancy too, you know.

“Yes, it is. I’ll have the exact calculations this evening after eight.”

OK. Swiss accounts and half people.

I thanked the kind gentleman, hung up and waited at the bus stop trying to figure out ways I could screw him out of his hundred and fifty bucks.

Maybe break and enter.

The bus came. Miller lives in a little house on Illinois Avenue above what would be Thirty-first Street, if there were a Thirty-first Street there. It’s not far from a storefront café where I first heard live jazz. You take the Meridian bus to Thirtieth Street and walk. It’s the Children’s Museum stop.

I walked fast because I wanted that coffee and I had to go to the john.

The real high-level talk started at the breakfast table.

“You want anything to eat?”

“No, thanks. Just the coffee.”

“You haven’t been here in a long time.”

“I haven’t been invited.”

“You weren’t invited this time. What’s up?”

“I had to pee.”

“Pee? Pee, no less. That’s what a couple of years in the East does to people. They start peeing. Excuse me a minute. I got to go piss.”

“So go piss, Sergeant.” He stayed put.

“I don’ got to go no mo’.”

I went. When I got back we drank coffee. I don’t really like coffee. But I like Miller. Janie had left the room when I came in, to clean house or something. She doesn’t like me. That’s why I haven’t been around. I’m not a good influence, or something. No ambition, or something.

“How strong are you on getting information from foreign countries?” I asked.

He shook his head like a little mother. “You got everything there is to know from here?”

I smiled and shrugged. “How easy is it?”

“Not easy. Not without reason. That I can’t just put in for. It costs a lot of money, comparatively. The chief doesn’t like it.”

“Less graft to spread around if you spend money on business?”

“Don’t push it, Al. I can’t do it without opening a file and clearing the case strategy with Captain Gartland. What stuff you want?”

“I want to locate a missing alien.”

“Ah. Your immigration file. I looked through that. It’s been a long time.”

“If I could, I’d like to have her hometown checked to see if there has been any record of her since she got lost in this country. If she had the kind of money the consulate says, she must have had some possessions or family or something that had to be disposed of or that she had to make arrangements for after she decided to get lost. Somebody there has to know something. If she went back, fine. If she hid out here she must have given them some indication of that too.”

“I can’t, Al. I can’t walk in one evening and open a fifteen-year-old missing-alien case just for the hell of it. I may be invisible down there, but files and foreign information requests aren’t.”

“OK,” I said. I hadn’t really expected him to do it. Not quite. Oh, all right, I had expected him to do it.

“How about checking out bodies here?”

“Any special bodies?” Janie was out of the room, he could bait me at no risk to himself. Janie is also a trifle suspicious when I am around. That’s because I was a good friend of the lady Miller had really wanted to marry all that time ago. It wouldn’t have worked out. All parties except Janie know that.

“Yeah. Dead ones. I want my alien’s prints checked against all unidentified women’s bodies discovered between September first, 1954 and, say, January first, 1955.

Policemen get warped. They have strange senses of humor. I didn’t even feed him a joke line and Miller laughed and laughed. “C’mon,” I said, “that’s in the country. You can do that.”

“Any special places you want these moldy bodies checked, or all over the country?”

“All over the country. How the hell do I know where she is?” You can do that, can’t you? Don’t they have some sort of central clearinghouse for storing prints on unidentified bodies all over the country?”

“Not that I know of yet. Not a bad idea though. I’ll check it out. Until then, why don’t you pick three or four cities and I’ll give it a whirl.”

“OK. Try Indianapolis, New York, Lafayette and Ames, Iowa. When do I get the info?”

“Big Al, believe me, if anything matches, you’ll be told.”

“Ah, such assurances. I haven’t been so reassured since the time the dean told me that he was sure that if I worked hard I could pass all my subjects and stay in school.”

“Which time was that?”

“The second time.” I went to college twice. For brief periods. A year and a half and half a year, respectively.”

“Little did he know.”

That did it. I shut up like a clam. I was real sensitive about knowing little that noontime. And I was impatient to know more. I asked, “You going to drive me to the library now?”


Only he didn’t, because Janie had taken the car. I believe they get along pretty well. I just bring out the worst in them. For all his passivity, which I admire, Miller would not have stuck twelve years with any woman he didn’t have something going with.

I walked over to the bus stop. I was impatient. Though for what I knew not. But I could tell I was impatient because I didn’t stop in the Children’s Museum to look at the dinosaurs and the Indian tidbits. I had half planned to when I walked by the first time. There have been times that I have done some heavy thinking in that museum. It is one of my places in Indianapolis. But not that day.

I hopped the bus and bombed back down Meridian to St. Clair Street and the library.

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