He sat slumped on a bench in the doldrums of self-pity. His usually smiling face
was devoid of pleasure as he eyed the statue that was the central point of the square, noting the crack in its stone pediment and the flaking that began at the figure's feet.
"I'm as dilapidated as the monument," he said to the stranger sitting on the other end of the bench.
The stranger nervously looked up. She did not respond, but moved farther down the bench. Bert Channing was nearly sixty and showed it by the gray in his hair and the worry lines across his broad brow. He was a distinguished man; his strong chin and high cheek bones were still sharp and ~clear.
He got up from the bench, walked with slow, shuffling steps and closed his trench coat against the brisk wind. He looked skyward. Dark clouds, like a flock of ravens, flew swiftly before the wind. When he heard the sound of the trolley car on Powell he sighed as though it would be the last time he would hear the high-pitched bell.
He thought of his dear wife, Madaline, her auburn hair streaked with gray and pulled back, caught with an elastic band, working as usual in her bright, airy kitchen. Then of his son, Del, a professor of global history seated at Umass in Amherst. His son's blond hair and large grin were inherited from him, but the sparkling, hazel eyes were his mother's. He could picture him studying, hunching his large shoulders, encased in an old brown sweater with a shawl collar. Bert then thought of his daughter Carrie Louise, with her recent bleached blonde hairdo, her trendy clothes and odd friends. Her eyes no longer held a warmth for her family and her soft lips snarled when they weren't pouting.
Madaline can make it when we start all over and Del doesn't need financial help, but, Carrie Louise will hate having no inheritance, he thought.
Bert hunched his broad shoulders, breathed deeply, steeling himself for the task ahead and headed for his office. He brushed by a stocky, nondescript, dark haired man on the corner, who turned away from him, adjusting his newspaper in front of his face. Bert didn't notice him, or the fact that he withdrew a cell phone from his overcoat pocket and placed a call.
The day was gray and dreary. A cold rain began to drizzle like a leaky faucet from the dark cloud-laden skies. Most of the inhabitants of the city scurried along the sidewalk without much interest in who or what surrounded them.
Had someone spoken to Bert, he would not have heard, he was that consumed by his problems. Where yesterday he had strode with purpose, shoulders back, a broad smile on his face, today his steps were a shuffle, shoulders sagging, eyes dazed, face devoid of his normal good humor. His fine gray pinstripe suit under his trench coat appeared to hang from his frame.
Bert returned to his office with dragging steps. His world, as he knew it, had all but collapsed. Now he would have to tell his employees their jobs were in jeopardy and their lives were about to become as chaotic as his own.
In front of the elevator to his sixteenth floor office he hesitated. He knew that he should fight back, but he also knew that he wouldn't. How do I tell the world that...he couldn't even complete the thought.
Bert checked his watch as the elevator passed the tenth floor. It read five twenty-five. His sigh of relief was audible. The staff left promptly at five so he wouldn't have to tell them until tomorrow.
The elevator indicator showed sixteen, the bell announced his floor. The door opened. Bert stepped out into the hall and walked with tentative steps to the door of his office suite. He inserted his key in the lock as the telephone began to ring. He inhaled the pleasant odor of the rubrum lilies in a crystal vase by the door and walked over the thick emerald carpet onto the oriental rug in front of the rosewood reception desk where he picked up the receiver.
"Hello," he said, and his dilapidated world was ended with an explosion and a billow of orange flames.
The jangle of the ringing phone broke Del's concentration. He left the large table covered, like a library cart, with research books and walked to his kitchenette, snatching the phone from its cradle to stop the noise.
"Hello," he said.
"Professor Channing, Del, this is Lieutenant Fredrickson, SFPD. I'm calling on official business."
Del Channing's brow creased and he remained silent for a moment. Lieutenant Fredrickson remained silent as well, but Del could hear a typewriter in the background.
"Bif," the lieutenant said.
"Bif, for heavens sake, it's good to hear from you. Are you in town?" A big grin spread across Del's rugged face.
"No. San Francisco. Hells bells, Del, I wish this wasn't an official call."
"What's the matter Bif? What's happened?"
"It's your father, Del. He's dead."
Like the sun scurrying behind a dark cloud, the smile faded from Del's face, his jaw sagged and he nearly dropped the phone.
"I'm so sorry, Del."
"But when I was home for spring break he talked about his physical and how pleased the doctor was." Del moved to the table and sat down.
"It's my case. I had to tell your mother. I feel awful." "Your case?" Del said. "Why your case, or are you on a highway detail now?"
"Highway?" Bif said sadly. "This was no accident. I'm still in homicide. A bomb exploded in your father's office and he was killed."
"Oh my God," Del said softly.
Cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder he covered his face with his large hands.
"My sentiments exactly."
"How's Mother taking it?"
"I told her as gently as I could. She just stood there looking vacant and lost, then she threw back her head, turned and headed for the kitchen. I followed her and found she was beginning to cook something."
"That's Mother. Food for others was always the answer as far as she was concerned."
"Somewhere in measuring flour and spices, I asked if I should call you to come home. She agreed it would be helpful."
Del took a deep breath. "Thanks, Bif. I'll call her and catch the earliest flight home."
"See you soon."
The dial tone sound had the mournful music of a church bell and Del still stood in his kitchenette, his thoughts whirling, trying to absorb the tragic news.
Although he taught and wrote about dead times and dead people, he never dwelled on death itself or the shattering loss it could cause. He had never suffered a personal loss from death. From divorce, from disillusion, from love lost, but never from death.
He found it hard to imagine San Francisco without his father.
"Mother, oh God, Mother. What will you do?" he whispered.
He looked up an airline number and arranged for a flight out of Hartford that afternoon at one-thirty. Immediately thereafter, he placed a call to his mother, received the answering machine and left word what time he'd be home. Then he hurried to his bedroom to pack for the trip. While sorting sweaters to take, Del, in frustration, ran his large hand through his hair.
"Oh, no," he said aloud.
He hurried to the mirror in his neat, white bathroom, squinting at his reflection. His blond hair still held the shaping of its last haircut, but was longer than he usually wore. He felt grateful that he personally liked longer hair more for the convenience of not having to make or keep an appointment to have it cut. His mother didn't agree with that philosophy. She liked a man's hair cut short.
Oh for the good old days, he thought, when a person could walk into a barber shop, read a sports magazine or the newspaper for a few minutes than get a shave and a haircut.
As he headed back to his bedroom, Del sighed and thought you'd think I was seventy instead of only thirty-five.
The phone rang again. Del dropped the shirts he had just folded and went back into the kitchen.
"Professor Channing, are you coming to pick me up?" his teaching assistant said.
"And hello to you too, Erika."
"Yes, hello, but when?"
"Sorry, I forgot to call. I've got to go to San Francisco this afternoon. You'll have to do the research yourself."
"You forgot," Erika said, "I don't have a car."
"Yes, I forgot that also. Tell you what, I'll pick you up at noon and if you'll drive me to Hartford to catch the plane, you can keep my car until I get back."
"Right on, Prof," Erika said.
He could hear the pleasure in her voice and chose to ignore her calling him Prof instead of Professor.
He hung up the phone and went back to his packing. At the last minute he took off the old brown, shawl-collared sweater and shoved it in the outside pocket of his carry-on.
He smiled. Both he and his father always laughed when his mother called it his security blanket. Perhaps because they knew she spoke the truth. The enormity of the loss had yet to hit him. He instinctively knew he would miss the shared laughs, dreams and love; he just didn't realize how much.
Del reached San Francisco International at eight-fifty p.m., exhausted. Picking up an economy rental car, he drove out to his parents' home. When he pulled into the driveway of the California Spanish style house he smiled at the beauty of its flowing lines and the sturdiness of its red bar tile roof. That house had always represented his parents and their attitude toward their family and life.
He knocked several times until he heard someone stirring, approaching slowly from the back of the house. The door opened on its chain, then he heard a gasp, and after an apparent struggle to remove the chain, his mother opened the door and her arms.
"Del, my Del, you've come home," she said as she stared at him out of red, puffy eyes.
Del swept his mother into his arms and she began to sob.
"There, there," he said patting her shoulder, "we'll make it through this."
"Why, Del? Why?"
"I don't know."
"But you'll find out, won't you?" Madaline said, sobbing.
"That's what the police are for."
"Promise me you'll find out. You're so smart at figuring out things and puzzles. You surely know more than they do."
"Mother, that's not fair. The police are trained to find out these things. I'm not."
"But you'll find out won't you?"
Madaline pulled back to look at her son. Wiping her eyes with the edge of her pale green apron, she took his hand and began pulling him to the kitchen.
"You look like you haven't had a good meal since you left here after spring break," she said.
"Mother, I don't feel like eating anything."
"How can you say that? I've been cooking all day and I made several of your favorites. You just sit down and I'll put a pound or two on you in no time."
Del realized that his mother could bury herself in another's comfort, thereby escaping her own sorrow. He also realized how much he envied this small fussing woman and her ability to put herself out of the present and hated the fact that he could not.
The food, as usual, was excellent. She had a casserole of veal, mushrooms and leeks, in a luscious light brown gravy, served with garlic mashed potatoes.
"Where's Carrie?" Del asked as he wiped his mouth with his napkin.
His mother shrugged her shoulders but didn't turn toward him. She continued washing dishes.
"Does she know?"
His mother shrugged again.
"Did you call her?"
"Why should I?" his mother said. Her voice sounded tired and muffled. "She doesn't care, she won't come."
He pushed his chair back as he stood up. It scraped on the quarry tile, sounding loud as a fog horn out in the bay. His mother whirled around, startled.
He walked with downcast eyes into his father's study, found his sister's telephone number in the address file on the desk and dialed.
"What d'ya want?" a gruff, muffled male voice said. "Carrie, please."
"She's sleepin'," the voice said grumpily.
"This is her brother, please wake her," Del said.
He drummed his fingers on the leather desk top, trying to keep his temper under control.
"Hell, Del, can't you call at a decent hour," Carrie said, crossly.
"Carrie, Dad's dead," he said softly. "So?" she said, curtly.
"Did you know?"
"Mother needs you," Dell said.
His left fist clenched and unclenched.
"So what's the old girl ever done for me?" Carrie said.
"You mean, aside from raising Michael for you?" Del asked.
"Big deal," she said.
"Carrie, out of respect, or out of payback for that big deal, you should come and make your peace."
"Oh, I'll come alright, when I can find out what my piece of his estate is," Carrie said.
"Why should I come? So she can show me that my kid loves her more then he does me? Do you realize he never even came to see me at Christmas."
"Carrie Louise, we held the Christmas celebration here, where he lives when he's not at the University. You were here, too."
"Of course I was, how else could I get my presents."
"Carrie, come over, please," Del said softly.
"Maybe, tomorrow -- maybe not."
The phone went dead with the decided bang of Carrie's receiver hitting its cradle.
Del went back to the kitchen, sitting down to finish his meal. His mother was standing by the sink staring out the window into the darkness.
"Michael drops by each day to see if I need anything. He's working at an architect's office in Berkeley, so I won't let him stay all night. The trip from here is too long and he has to get up too early each morning to be on time," Madaline said.
She had finished the dishes and now sat on the other side of the table.
"Michael's a good boy," Del said.
"Michael's a lot like you," Madaline said. She smiled for the first time since he had arrived.
The phone rang and Madaline walked to the extension in the kitchen to pick up the receiver.
"Del," she said holding out the receiver to him, "I just can't talk to outsiders."
"Hello, can I help you?" Del said.
"Who's this -- Del?" a woman's voice said.
"I'm Mary Beth Madsen."
"Don't you remember me?" the woman asked.
"Vaguely. Please forgive me. My mind -- my memory isn't working like it should."
"I only called to see if the two of us on the sixteenth floor, that is your father's employees, could be of help."
"That's very kind of you, but right now I don't know..."
"I understand. I, we, were wondering if we could try to salvage anything from the office? Do you know when the police will allow us to?"
"No. I have an appointment with them in the morning. I'll see what I can find out. Are you available for lunch tomorrow," Del said, hesitantly, "we could talk then?"
"Yes, that would be nice," Mary Beth replied.
"How about Sears, at noon?"
"I'll be there. Bye."
When Del hung up the phone, he turned to his mother.
"That was Mary Beth. I really don't remember her," he said.
"You may not have met her. She's worked for your father for almost a year. Pretty thing, tall, thin, great wardrobe."
"She thinks I've met her. What does she look like?"
"Dark hair cut in a short page boy-style -- like a sort of cap. Gray eyes, full lips. Likes to laugh, in fact, her laugh is infectious," Madaline said.
"What did she do for Dad?" Del asked.
"Advance verification of coins available for sale. Some negotiation. Bert felt she had a good foundation for the business and a nose for rare coins."
"Then she could take over buying, unless you want to do that."
He studied his mother. He could see a spark of interest where the business was concerned.
"I don't know enough," Madaline said.
"You worked many years on the sales floor after Uncle Andrew died."
"I know, I know, but that was twenty years ago."
"With an office and safe behind the retail store off the lobby, why did Dad move his office to the sixteenth floor?"
"When his clients began to acquire rare coins for investment purposes, with big price tags attached; he felt the need for an opulent place to show those clients his newest treasures and have greater security. The door to the suite has no name and the staff has no idea what's in the safe up there."
"Mm," Del said.
"He loved his trips all over the world to ferret out the rare coins. He had to keep a low profile because of the money involved, however within these walls," Madaline threw out her arms, "he could gloat -- and the tales he told."
Del watched the pleasure spread across his mother's face. "Vicarious thrill for Mom, huh?" Del said.
"Well, back to the present. As I see it, we have two displaced office people. Is the old office still there?" Del asked.
"Yes. Bracton still does the books there, but uses only a small portion."
"Would you like me to have Mary Beth and whoever the other gal is check in there Monday morning? We should keep things running smoothly until you decide if you want to run the business -- or sell it."
He watched Madaline jump up and run to the sink. Bending over it, her shoulders emphasized the sobs she was trying to hide. Del went to her, putting his arms comfortingly around her.
"As long as we keep Dad's employees working and the business going on, you won't have to hurry into that decision."
"As long as I have you to guide me, dear boy," Madaline sobbed, "I'll manage to make the right decisions." Madaline clung to her son like a small girl to her father.
Nineteen ninety-six started out so well, he thought and now...
Del felt a tear trickle down his cheek and he knew it would not be the last one.