Book: Ask the Right Question

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I woke up about eight and made myself a cheese omelet. It was a poor imitation of the ones my ex-wife used to make but one makes sacrifices to preserve integrity.

I thought about how to pass the day. Not real thought; I’d already decided to put in a little time on Miss Crystal against the chance I took her offer of employment. It’s not that I had anything more notable to do.

I did decide to do it easy and with a little class. No stress and no strain. I gathered my notebook and writing instrument and went out for a leisurely stroll. West down Ohio Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. Then North up Pennsylvania. The route took me through Indianapolis’s ideological heartland. Within oblique sight of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the Circle. On a clear day you can see for blocks from the top. Past the post office and Federal Building, the Star-News Building, and the YWCA. Past the World War Memorial, a graveled city block with and obelisk in the middle and cannons on the corners. Past the National Headquarters of the American Legion.

And finally to St. Clair Street. Where I entered, at long last, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.

I spent a lot of time there as a kid. It was cool even in the summers and it was quiet. And of all those books, each one representing hundreds of hours of work, some had even worked for me.

But I hadn’t come at nine o’clock to be first in line for the latest worst seller. I headed immediately for the microfilm files of the Arts Division on the second floor.

There are six microfilm viewers on the south wall of the Arts Division. But at that time in the morning there wasn’t much demand for them, so I got one of the two at the right, next to the microfilm cabinets. Without having to walk very far I could examine all the microfilm I cared to.

I looked over the scant notes I had from Eloise and Maude. I decided first to find the marriage of Fleur and Leander Crystal.

It was twenty or so years ago. I started with the Star for January of 1949, fitted it into the viewer and started cranking. I checked each day’s social page in a leisurely elegant manner, stopping elsewhere only to sample the heady world of 1949 sports.

In the February 13 issue I found an unexpected bonus. A story of the annual birthday party for Estes Graham. One of the man’s wild teetotal wingdings. “… well catered and handled with the restraint and decorum we have come to expect from Estes Graham.…” It read like, a small-town theater review: the ushers and the props mistress did real good.

On February 12, 1949, Estes Graham had become seventy-eight years old.

I cranked on. A regular little butterfly I was, flitting from social page to social page.

At 10:35 (June 3, 1949) I found the announcement of the wedding: “Fleur Olian Graham to Wed.”

Not a large story. No picture. But it was specific. The wedding would take place September 6. The lucky man was Leander Crystal of Ames, Iowa. The reception would be held in Estes Graham’s home on North Meridian Street.

What more sensible than to jump immediately and see if the wedding had gone off as scheduled?

September 7, 1949. “Graham Heiress Weds.”

There was a picture this time. That was good. In my heart I like pictures best.

They were coming out of church. Fleur and Leander Crystal, standing with Estes Graham.

Fleur was at her new husband’s right. She grinned furiously. An attractive girl, hair that photographed dark. Face a little round. But with careful, articulated lips, in black and white, her best feature. I studied the picture. I thought I would probably be able to recognize her.

Leander was about Fleur’s height. He stood stiffly beside her in his Army uniform. I was surprised he was only a sergeant, but the uniform bore medals and it fit him well. His most striking physical characteristic was his virtually complete baldness.

Estes was in his turn at Fleur’s right. Leaning on a cane, head slightly stooped. The three heads drew a level line. He was old, and had been for all of Fleur’s life, if the picture did not lie. He wore a tux with very long tails.

The story with the photo included an extensive description of the wedding and reception, as well as biographies and plans.

The biographies provided the following.

Fleur was nineteen. She was graduated in 1946 from Tudor Hall, which was a private girls’ school in Indianapolis. She had done some volunteer hospital work as a high school student late in the war and she had continued the volunteer work afterward. She had attended the Butler University College of Nursing for a year, but was interrupting her studies to marry.

Crystal, at twenty-nine, had just graduated cum laude from Butler University’s Business College. He had served in Europe and had been awarded a Silver Cross and a Purple Heart. Presumably he came to Indianapolis to study on the GI Bill. Nothing was stated about his career plans. Perhaps with Estes Graham and a business degree, that was understood.

The couple would spend the night in Estes’ house and then leave for a month-long honeymoon in Florida.

By the time I finished making my notes, it was nearly eleven o’clock and time for decision. Break for an early lunch, or go on and try to find another chunk of information?

A rare burst of ambition took hold of me. I decided to stay.

From the wedding I cranked on. The first mention of familiar names was on October 18. It was in the caption of a picture of Leander and Fleur getting off a plane. The bride and bridegroom at Weir Cook Airport returning from the Florida honeymoon. Both smiling this time, no doubt from memories of the Miami sun and the Miami moon. I liked this picture. It made me feel better about the bond between Leander and his apparently errant wife. Newly wed can be a happy time.

As I cranked my way to the end of the year it occurred to me that there was a slightly more efficient way to go about things. There were three more events of significance to the family that I knew existed: Eloise’s conception, Eloise’s birth, and the death of Estes Graham.

If Eloise was sixteen now, then her birth took place in 1954 or the end of ’53. The conception nine months earlier. And Graham had died, according to Maude, in ’53 or ’54.

The whole thing came to me in a flash! At the annual birthday party of 1953, some crude reporter had gotten Fleur drunk on illicit hooch, and then had knocked her up. Leander had been occupied elsewhere at the time, and Fleur was too ashamed to tell him or her father that she had been drinking. Later when she found she was pregnant, nobody knew that the father wasn’t Leander, until Eloise had stumbled on it. End of case. Reporters can be such bounders!

I took a look at the social pages of February 13, 1954, in search of a birthday party.

There was nothing. Presumably no party. Estes either dead or sick. Or for reasons I did not know, uninclined to celebrate his eighty-third.

I cranked backward in time, day by day. This time checking both sociable pages and obits.

I got as far back as October 2, 1953, before I found anything. And that was a picture of Fleur, Leander and Estes, back at Weir Cook Airport. The Crystals leaving for France. No indication of how long they would be away. Just that they were going to visit some of the ground Leander had covered in the war. And to visit the place where Fleur’s older brother Joshua had died in the same war.

The picture also showed that Estes had been alive in October, ’53, and presumably for his birthday too.

I knew why Estes hadn’t held his annual soirée: he couldn’t get a decent bouncer to replace Leander.

So the old man had to have died after his eighty-third birthday. I cranked back to February ’54 and started the social-obit circuit going the other way.

The job was getting morbid. I found the obituary of a kid I’d gone to grade school with. I hoped that Fleur and Leander got back before Estes went.

And at 11:50 I was rewarded for my charity. April 18, 1954. Fleur and Leander returned to Weir Cook after their long sentimental journey. I counted fingers. They had been gone for six and a half months.

I decided I’d had enough for a while. I broke for lunch.

After refilling the cartons of microfilm I headed for fresh air and sunlight. Better make that just plain air and sunlight. On the way out I stopped in a phone booth and called my own number. My answering service reported, sleepily, that there had been no calls of any kind for me all morning. That was mildly depressing. It would make nine days without ordinary business.

For lunch I had to choose between quality and convenience. Having resolved to live the day with a degree of class, I opted for quality. That meant Joe’s Fine Food, and a walk of five blocks to the corner of Vermont and Illinois.

Joe’s has only been around for a few years, but it’s one of the best joints in the city for lunch. Especially on Monday and Tuesday, when it specializes in Mexican food. But even on Thursday, it is good enough for a man of quality.

I was moderately lucky to get a counter seat near the door. The place was packed. It really takes something for a lunch joint to be packed. I know about things like that because my mother runs a luncheonette.

I ordered a cheeseburger with other delicacies. And took a drag on a glass of water.

I reflected on the Crystals’ European tour. They’d been gone for nearly seven months. If Eloise was sixteen, the odds were good that she had been conceived in Europe.

That realization did a creditable job of depressing me.

Looking for a biological father is hard enough when you have a finite number of boyfriends sniffing around a young girl’s door. But when the girl was impregnated nearly seventeen years ago while traveling in Europe, the choice of biological fathers is dazzling.

I ate my meal with resignation and with a good deal less relish than I had expected.

If my conjecture was right, if Eloise was born between about the middle of June, 1954, and say, the middle of December, she was conceived on a foreign shore. And in that case it was probably best to cut losses—half a day’s work—and let her find a big detective agency with contacts abroad. But me?

I had an extra coffee.

Ah, well. Something that looks like an interesting case walks in the door, during a period which is otherwise a drought, and then it walks out again.

I had another coffee. And mentally I let my head sink to the counter.

Ah, well. Don’t let’s hurt other folks. I left a big tip, and went back into the autumn sun.

All problems at the beginning are too big to grasp. The important knack is to break them down into individual soluble parts. To ask the right questions.

Just what questions had I asked? Only “Where was the mother at the time of conception?” So I hadn’t gotten an answer I wanted. So big deal.

I hadn’t even asked the real question. I hadn’t gone to Fleur Crystal and asked her straight. Maybe she would tell me. Maybe if I charmed her. Or tricked her. There were all kinds of possibilities. All kinds of things I could do.

I increased my stride. One of the questions I had to ask was whether the blood typings were the way Eloise said they were.

I picked up the microfilm reels for April, 1954, through December, 1954. And I cranked inexorably on, more aggressive than I had been in the morning.

On June 3 I learned that Fleur Crystal was expecting. Eloise’s first appearance. The baby and heir was due in the middle of October. I counted fingers to reveal that the conception was located roughly mid-February, 1954. Right in the middle of a cold French winter.

I did not jump straight to October. I was still interested in finding Estes’ death. And I was also interested in the possibility of one of those wretched rituals called a baby shower. I might pick out a useful friend or two to talk about Fleur with.

But I never got to wet my mind with a baby shower. All through the summer none was reported. I found Estes Graham’s obituary instead. He died of a heart attack on August 20, 1954. He had not lived to see his granddaughter.

The obit gave me my first information about Fleur’s mother. She was the former Irene Olian, daughter of a Reverend Billy Lee Olian. She had married Estes in 1916 and had given him four children. Three sons had been killed in World War II. But Irene Olian Graham had already died in 1937. Estes was survived only by Fleur and Leander and Eloise in utero.

I thought about the wedding picture. Especially about Leander Crystal getting married in his uniform. Crystal was the perfect son-in-law for a man who’d lost three sons in war. About the right age, something of a hero himself, and alive.

Estes’ funeral was scheduled for August 23.

I cranked on.

To a surprise. In the innards of Friday, August 27, I found another picture of Fleur and Leander at Weir Cook Airport. Leaving, according to the caption, for New York City. Not happy. Fleur, clearly pregnant, dressed in black. No additional story.

Not a very good time to go to New York. They certainly didn’t travel places in the comfortable seasons. A French winter and a New York summer.

The only thing I could think of was that there was some complication in Fleur’s pregnancy. So they were going to New York to birth the child.

There was no notice of Eloise’s birth in the Star between August 27 and October 31, 1954. That gave me a moment’s hesitation. But I decided to check out the New York records. I got the New York Times microfilms out and began a search there.

I finally found her. Born, November 1, 1954, a daughter, Eloise Graham Crystal, to Leander and Fleur Crystal of Indianapolis, Indiana.

I had to laugh. Yesterday had been October 14, 1970. That gave me a fifteen-year-old client, not a sixteen-year-old one. She had hedged by a few days. Poor thing.

Of course in some states those few days make all the difference.

I went back to the Star. And found, on November 16, a picture of the family Crystal returning to Indianapolis. Eloise’s first introduction to Indianapolis. The airport photographer was on the ball. His combings of the names of people with reservations and the names on the incoming flight lists had yielded some pictures that I appreciated.

From November 16 on I found only one item more.

December 30, 1954. Notice of the completion of probate of Estes’ will. Worth in the neighborhood of twelve million. Nice neighborhood.

With that I packed up shop. It was pushing three. I was expecting Eloise Crystal, and had a call to make before I saw her. I refiled all the microfilm, gathered my notes and walked briskly home.

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