From the Corner of His Eye Page 15


For a moment,” Lipscomb continued, “her voice became clear, no longer slurred. She raised her head from the pillow, and her eyes fixed on me, all the confusion gone. She was so ... intense. She said ... she said, 'Rowena loves you.'


A shiver of awe traveled Celestina's spine, because she knew what the physician's next words would surely be.


“Rowena,” he said, confirming her intuition, “was my wife."


As if a door had briefly opened between this windless day and another world, a single gust rattled rain against the windows.


Lipscomb turned to Celestina. “Before lapsing into semicoherence again, your sister said, 'Beezil and Feezil are safe with her,' which may sound less than coherent to you, but not to me."


She waited expectantly.


“Those were Rowena's affectionate names for the boys when they were babies. Her private nonsense names for them, because she said they were like two beautiful little elves and ought to have elfin names."


“Phimie couldn't have known."


“No. Rowena dropped those names after the twins' first year. She and I were the only ones who ever used them. Our private little joke. Even the boys wouldn't have remembered."


In the physician's eyes, a yearning to believe. In his face, a squint of skepticism.


He was a man of medicine and science, who had been served well by hard logic and by an unwavering commitment to reason. He wasn't prepared easily to accept the notion that logic and reason, while essential tools to anyone hoping to lead a full and happy life, were nevertheless sufficient to describe either the physical world or the human experience.


Celestina was better equipped to embrace this transcendental experience for what it appeared to be. She was not one of those artists who celebrated chaos and disorder, or who found inspiration in pessimism and despair. Wherever her eyes came to rest, she saw order, purpose, exquisite design, and either the pale flicker or the fierce blaze of a humbling beauty. She perceived the uncanny not merely in old houses where ghosts were said to roam or in eerie experiences like the one Lipscomb had described, but every day in the pattern of a tree's branches, in the rapturous play of a dog with a tennis ball, in the white whirling currents of a snowstorm-in every aspect of the natural world in which insoluble mystery was as fundamental a component as light and darkness, as matter and energy, as time and space.


“Did your sister have other curious experiences?” Lipscomb asked.


“Nothing like this."


“Was she lucky at cards?"


“No luckier than me."


“Premonitions?"


No.


“Psychic ability-"


“She didn't have any."


— might one day be scientifically verifiable."


“Unlike life after death?” she asked.


Hope, on many wings, hovered all around the physician, but he was afraid to let it roost.


Celestina said, “Phimie wasn't a mind reader. That's science fiction, Dr. Lipscomb."


He met her stare. He had no response.


'She didn't reach into your thoughts and pluck out the name Rowena. Or Beezil or Feezil.'


As though frightened of the gentle certainty in Celestina's eyes, the doctor turned away from he, and toward the window once more.


She moved beside him. “For one minute, after her heart stopped the first time, she wasn't here in St. Mary's, was she? Her body, yes, that was still here, but not Phimie."


Dr. Lipscomb brought his hands to his face, covering his nose and mouth as earlier they had been covered with a surgical mask, as though he were in danger of drawing in, with his breath, an idea that would forever change him.


“If Phimie wasn't here,” Celestina said, “and then she came back, she was somewhere during that minute, wasn't she?"


Beyond the window, behind veils of rain and fog, the metropolis appeared to be more enigmatic than Stonehenge, as unknowable as any city in our dreams.


Behind his masking hands, the physician let out a thin sound, as though he were trying to pull from his heart an anguish that was embedded like a bur with countless sharp, hooked thorns.


Celestina hesitated, feeling awkward, unsure.


As always in uncertainty, she asked herself what her mother would do in this situation. Grace, of infinite grace, unfailingly did precisely the needed thing, knew exactly the right words to console, to enlighten, to charm a smile out of even the miserable. Often, however, the needed thing involved no words, because in our journey we so often feel abandoned, and we need only to be reassured that we are not alone.


She placed her right hand on his shoulder.


At her touch, she felt a tension go out of the doctor. His hands slipped from his face, and he turned to her, shuddering not with fear but with what might have been relief.


He tried to speak, and when he could not, Celestina put her arms around him.


She was not yet twenty-one, and he was at least twice her age, but he leaned like a small child against her, and like a mother she comforted him.


Chapter 22


IN GOOD DARK SUITS, clean-shaven, as polished as their shoes, carrying valises, the three arrived in Junior's hospital room even before the usual start of the working day, wise men without camels, not bearing gifts, but willing to pay a price for grief and loss. Two lawyers and a high-level political appointee, they represented the state, the county, and the insurance company in the matter of the improperly maintained railing on the observation platform at the fire tower.


They could not have been more solemn or more respectful if Naomi's corpse—stitched back together, pumped full of embalming fluid, painted with pancake makeup, dressed in white, with her cold hands clasping a Bible to her breast-had been reposing in a casket in this very room, surrounded by flowers and awaiting the arrival of mourners. They were all polite, soft-spoken, sad-eyed, oozing unctuous concern—and so full of feverish calculation that Junior wouldn't have been surprised if they had set off the ceiling-mounted fire sprinklers.


They introduced themselves as Knacker, Hisscus, and Nork, but Junior didn't bother to associate names with faces, partly because the men were so alike in appearance and manner that their own mothers might have had difficulty figuring out which of them to blame for never calling. Besides, he was still tired from his recent ramble through the hospital-and unnerved by the thought of some baleful-eyed Bartholomew prowling the world in search of him.


After much oily commiseration, sanctimonious babble about Naomi having gone to a better place, and insincere talk of the government's desire always to ensure the public safety and to treat every citizen with compassion, Knacker or Hisscus, or Nork, finally got around to the issue of compensation.


No word as crass as compensation was used, of course. Redress.


Requital. Restitutional apology, which must have been learned in a law school where English was the second language. Even atonement.


Junior drove them a little crazy by pretending not to understand their intent as they circled the issue like novice snake handlers warily looking for a safe grip on a coiled cobra.


He was surprised they had come so soon, less than twenty-four hours after the tragedy. This was especially unusual, considering that a homicide detective was obsessed with the idea that rotting wood, alone, was not responsible for Naomi's death.


Indeed, Junior suspected that they might be here at Vanadium's urging. The cop would be interested in determining how avaricious the mourning husband would prove to be when presented with the opportunity to turn his wife's cold flesh into cash.


Knacker or Hisscus, or Nork, was talking about an offering, as though Naomi were a goddess to whom they wished to present a penance of gold and jewels.


Sick of them, Junior pretended that he was just now getting their I drift. He didn't fake outrage or even distaste, because he knew he might unwittingly oversell any strong reaction, striking a false note and raising suspicions.


Instead, with grave courtesy, he quietly told them that he wanted no settlement for his wife's death or for his own suffering. “Money can't replace her. I'd never be able to spend a penny of it. Not a penny. I'd have to give it away. What would be the point?"


After a silent moment of surprise, Nork or Knacker, or Hisscus, said, “Your sentiment is understandable, Mr. Cain, but it's customary in these matters—"


Junior's throat wasn't half as sore as it had been the previous afternoon, and to these men, his soft, coarse voice must have sounded not abraded, but raw with emotion. “I don't care what's customary. I don't want anything. I don't blame anyone. These things happen. If you have a liability release with you, I'll sign it right now."


Hisscus, Nork, and Knacker exchanged sharp glances, nonplussed. Finally, one of them said, “We couldn't do that, Mr. Cain. Not until you've consulted an attorney."


“I don't want an attorney.” He closed his eyes, lowered his head to the pillow, and sighed. “I just want ... peace."


Knacker, Hisscus, and Nork, all talking at once, then failing silent as if they were a single organism, then talking in rotation but interrupting one another, tried to advance their agenda.


Although he had made no effort to summon them, tears spilled from Junior's closed eyes. They weren't drawn from him by thoughts of poor Naomi. These next few days-perhaps weeks-were going to be tedious, until he could have Nurse Victoria Bressler. Under the circumstances, he had good reason to feel sorry for himself.


His silent tears accomplished what his words could not: Nork, Knacker, and Hisscus retreated, urging him to speak to his attorney, promising to return, once more expressing their deepest condolences, perhaps as abashed as attorneys and political appointees could get, but certainly confused and unsure how to proceed when dealing with a man so untouched by greed, so free of anger, so forgiving as the widower Cain.


Everything was proceeding precisely as Junior had envisioned in the instant when Naomi had first discovered the rotten section of railing and had nearly fallen without assistance. The entire plan had come to him, wholly formed, in a blink, and during the following two circuits of the observation deck, he had mulled it over, seeking flaws but finding none.


Thus far, there were only two unexpected developments, the first being his explosive vomiting. He hoped he would never have to endure another such episode.


That Olympian purge had, however, made him appear to be both emotionally and physically devastated by the loss of his wife. He couldn't have calculated any stratagem more likely to convince most people that he was innocent and, in fact, constitutionally incapable of premeditated murder.


He had experienced considerable self-revelation during the past eighteen hours, but of all the new qualities he had discovered in himself, Junior was most proud of the realization that he was such a profoundly sensitive person. This was an admirable character trait, but it would also be a useful screen behind which to commit whatever ruthless acts were required in this dangerous new life he'd chosen.


The other of the two unexpected developments was Vanadium, the lunatic lawman. Tenacity personified. Tenacity with a bad haircut.


As his drying tears became stiff on his cheeks, Junior decided that he would most likely have to kill Vanadium to be rid of him and fully safe. No problem. And in spite of his exquisite sensitivity, he was convinced that wasting the detective would not trigger in him another bout of vomiting. If anything, he might pee his pants in sheer delight.


Chapter 23


CELESTINA RETURNED TO Room 724 to collect Phimie's belongings from the tiny closet and from the nightstand.


Her hands trembled as she attempted to fold her sister's clothes into the small suitcase. What should have been a simple task became a daunting challenge; the fabric seemed to come alive in her hands and slip through her fingers, resisting every attempt to organize it. When eventually she realized there was no reason to be neat, she tossed the garments into the bag without concern for wrinkling them.


Just as Celestina snapped shut the latches on the suitcase and turned to the door, a nurse's aide entered, pushing a cart loaded with towels and bed linens.


This was the same woman who had been stripping the second bed when Celestina arrived earlier. Now she was here to remake the first.


“I'm so sorry about your sister,” the aide said.


“Thank you.


“She was so sweet."


Celestina nodded, unable to respond to the aide's kindness. Sometimes kindness can shatter as easily as soothe.


“What room has Mrs. Lombardi been moved to?” she asked. “I'd like to ... to see her before I go."


“Oh, didn't you know? I'm sorry, but she's gone, too."


“Gone?” Celestina said, but understood.


Indeed, subconsciously, she had known that Nella was gone since receiving the call at 4:15 this morning. When the old woman had finished what she needed to say, the silence on the line had been eerily perfect, without one crackle of static or electronic murmur, unlike anything Celestina had ever heard on a telephone before.


“She died last night,” said the aide.


Do you know when? The time of death?"


“A few minutes after midnight."


“You're sure? Of the time, I mean?"


“I'd Just come on duty. I'm working a shift and a half today. She  passed away in the coma, without waking."


In Celestina's mind, as clear as it had been on the phone at 4:15


A.M., the frail voice of an old woman warned of Phimie's crisis:


Come now.


What?


Come now. Come quickly.


Who's this?


Nella Lombardi. Come now. Your sister will soon be dying.


If the call had really come from Mrs. Lombardi, she had placed it  more than four hours after she died.


And if it hadn't come from the old woman, who had impersonated  her? And why?


When Celestina had arrived at the hospital, twenty minutes later, Sister Josephina had expressed surprise: I didn't know they'd been able to  reach you. They only started trying ten minutes ago.


The call from Nella Lombardi had come before Phimie was stricken  with eclamptic seizures and rushed to surgery.


Your sister will soon be dying.


“Are you all right, dear?” the nurse's aide asked.


Celestina nodded. Swallowed hard. Bitterness had flooded her heart  when Phimie died, and hatred for the child that had lived at the  mother's expense: feelings she knew were not worthy of her, but which  she could not cast out. These two amazements—Dr. Lipscomb's story  and Nella's telephone call-were an antidote to hatred, a balm for  anger, but they also left her half dazed. “Yes. Thank you,” she told the  aide. “I'll be okay."

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