"She was the best of mothers, she was the worst of mothers. She had wisdom, she had foolishness..."
Dennis' words made me want to snatch the silver martini pitcher from his hand and smash him with it, even though that would make my behavior as inappropriate as his was. We were paying our last respects, except for Dennis, who was paying his final disrespects.
Inappropriate didn't begin to describe posthumously clobbering the Dickens out of your own mother. I don't care how literary Dennis thought he was—not that familiarity with the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities qualifies as anything special.
"It is a far, far worse thing you do than ever you have done before," I muttered to Sasha. Unfortunately, that probably wasn't accurate. Putting it as charitably as I could: Dennis Allenby was a jerk.
He'd been a jerk in tenth grade when his mother was married to Sasha's father. Twenty years later, age had not withered nor custom staled his infinite jerkiness. He had a reputation as a specialist in the nearly-illegal scheme, the loophole-finding arrangement, the deal that shamelessly preyed on the gullible.
His mother had been Sasha's favorite step-mother. Despite the divorce, Sasha managed to maintain the relationship through three more of Phoebe's marriages and two of her own, until Phoebe's untimely death a month ago. Sad, or ironic that having pledged five separate times to be with a man till death did them part, Phoebe wound up alone, dead by her own hand, with only Dennis as a sorry byproduct.
I blocked out his drone, forced his voice to dissolve into the bright December morning, to be no more than the crunch of twigs underfoot, the occasional bird call, or the murmur of the stream, although in truth, the water was silent. It was so chilly, it was probably icing up. So was I.
My chattering teeth helped drown him out. I looked around and could see that my irritation was shared. Maybe we could rush Dennis, push him into the creek along with the urn's contents.
Sasha, dressed intensely in black from the oversized broad-brimmed hat that wobbled and shivered with each wintry gust to her high boots, looked flamboyantly in mourning. But her face was set with anger, not grief. She opened her eyes wide, the better to glare at Dennis. "You see?" she hissed. "You see?"
She wanted me to see a murderer, but I saw only a middle-aged jerk.
I once again let my eyes travel around the group. On this bright winter day, about twenty people had gathered by the river to remember and honor Phoebe Ennis. The group included her cousin Peter, who hadn't seen Phoebe in fifteen years, but had memories so vivid that he'd made the trip from his home in West Virginia; four women who'd identified themselves in such a rush I never got them straight; a woman who looked in her eighties and who'd identified herself only as "a former neighbor" though of which time period and/or house she didn't say, and near her, Phoebe's flame-haired business partner, Merilee Wilkins, standing so rigidly she looked planted in the spot. I'd met her a while back when I went to Top Cat and Tails, the shop she and Phoebe owned. I was amused by the idea of a pet boutique, which probably shows what a shallow, uncaring cat-owner I am. But the admittedly funny sight of sale items such as a Halloween costume for a dachshund that made the pup into a hot-dog on a bun did nothing to make me take the place more seriously.
I went for entertainment value, not to buy, and apparently, so did too many others, because the business was about to fold. Merilee's husband was withdrawing his financial support, and not coincidentally, withdrawing from the marriage as well. Somehow, Merilee blamed Phoebe for the weak revenues that she believed had led to her husband's defection, and in her agitated state she'd accused Phoebe of larceny.
Judging by Merilee's grim expression today, the bad blood between the women had stayed bad, which made me feel a twinge of sympathy for the otherwise annoying woman. There couldn't be many things much worse than having a friend die in mid-quarrel. Surely both women hoped, if not expected, that they'd find a way through their anger, that they'd resolve their issues and restore the friendship. Now it was impossible.
Looking less profoundly upset, two men in their forties who had identified themselves in unison as "the Daves—we're just her friends" stood at the back of the small group. Only one of Phoebe's ex-husbands had attended, Max Delahunt, the fourth of "the Alphabet boys." Phoebe's love life had been frenetic, but her marriage partners turned out to be as systematic as if they'd been chosen by a file clerk. She'd wed, in order, Harvey Allenby, Charlie Berg, Bert Carnero, Max Delahunt, and Nelson Ennis. Among the wedding gifts for Phoebe and Nelson had been a set of towels that had the entire alphabet embroidered along the hem. "Pre-emptive monograms," the gift-giver called it. Nelson Ennis should have seen the writing on the towel and known he was a short-timer, and indeed, he didn't make it to the getting-divorced stage. He was done in by an out of control motorcycle barely a year into his marriage.
Phoebe probably would have found herself Mr. "F," too, except that she ended the progression by killing herself.
Max's son, Lionel "Lion" Delahunt, a slender, balding man, stood close to his father, looking pensive, representing along with Sasha Phoebe's many temporary step-children. He was next to a man I didn't know, but the teen-ager by the man's side was a Philly Prep student, Mitchell, "Jonesy" Farmer.
At lunch, before this ceremony began, Jonesy had told me he was here because it was his weekend with his father, and his father said it was the right thing to do. His father had known Phoebe, Jonesy had said grudgingly, and I assumed that meant the senior Farmer had dated her. I wondered if he'd been optioning for a position as next husband. Alphabetically, at least, he was appropriate.
There were a few other mourners I didn't recognize. At least one, I suspected, was someone who'd been out for a walk, bundled in his sweats and parka, and had spotted something out of the ordinary and opted to join in for the novelty factor.
We stood in a glorious sylvan setting of trees and water, even if the stream wasn't burbling and the trees were bare under a gray December sky, and we did our best to ignore the human traffic nearby. This part of the park was called Forbidden Drive, which sounds more exciting than it is. Cars are forbidden, but pretty much everything else is allowed, except, I suspect, what we were about to do. In any case, the bucolic silence, if you ignored Dennis, which I was trying my best to do, made Philadelphia's stone and brick feel galaxies away. You don't realize until you're away from it how non-stop noisy a city is, a perpetual motorized grumble, air being pushed aside by crowds of people, gears churning.
But at this point, the idea of a city's enclosed heated spaces trumped the beauty of our setting. I shivered, and my teeth chattered uncontrollably. I stomped from foot to foot and watched my breath frost and puff in the air, envying the joggers on the path behind us for the body heat they'd created. Sasha bent toward me, nearly blinding me with the brim of her hat. "I can't believe he's doing this," she whispered. "It's so openly hostile!" Earlier, she'd said a few heartfelt words about what Phoebe had meant to her, as had almost everyone else who'd gathered here, including the Daves and even ex-husband D.
Not the man in the parka, not Jonesy or his father, not me, not Merilee.
Dennis had taken control of this event although Sasha had planned and organized it. "I am the only blood relative," he'd snapped. He was in a perpetual fury because his mother had included Sasha in her will. Not that Phoebe had much beyond a modest house, but however much it was, Dennis wanted it all, and his mother had said he could have only half.
He'd been in a sulk ever since he'd flown into Philadelphia, and when he bullied his way into running the memorial service despite years of ignoring his mother, Sasha capitulated.
The fact that he'd saved himself and this performance for last was all the more offensive.
"You have got to find out where he was the night she died," she whispered. "Maybe he hired somebody. Maybe somebody else flew under his name and he was here before then. Maybe..."
She'd wanted me here for reasons of friendship, but also because after I finished my teaching days, I was training to be a private investigator. I had a long apprenticeship to go before I could get my license, and I meanwhile co-moonlit with my husband, C. K. Mackenzie, who was licensed because he'd been a homicide detective before opting for grad school. I did mostly clerical chores. You don't get points toward your license for teaching high school English.
That didn't matter to Sasha. She refused to accept the idea that Phoebe had committed suicide, no matter what the police said, and no matter that she had nothing beyond a gut conviction to support her theory.
So with her talent for ignoring the obvious, she'd begged me to observe—as if this were all a grade-B movie, and I was the obligatory cop lounging at the back of the funeral home. I didn't even know why they were there in movies, let alone in real life. What did they expect to see? A killer suddenly throwing himself on the coffin and confessing? Villains twirling moustaches and chortling over their evil accomplishments? Meaningful glances among conspirators?
Why would a murderer attend his victim's funeral?
But since Sasha's current craziness was a byproduct of her sadness, I honored it and stood here, shivering and wishing I knew what I was supposed to notice beyond a clump of red-nosed people huddling inside their coats.
Instead, I thought about the one attendee I couldn't see, the one in the martini shaker. When I was in junior high, and Phoebe was Sasha's step-mother, the things that initially made Sasha cringe in embarrassment amused me. I could afford to feel that way—Phoebe wasn't part of my family, so her delusions of grandeur, her fantastic stories of her family's past glories, her regal sweep of arm, her lorgnette (a family treasure, she insisted), her irrational aspirations for us "why not the stage? Why not become supermodels, movie stars or roller-derby gals?" seemed colorful and exciting. I made my mother know that her drab pronouncements about how to live: study, do your homework, clean your room, were pitiable "bourgeois middle-class values," a term I'd learned from Phoebe, of course.
The fact that my parents didn't put me up for adoption during that phase is testimony to their saintly goodness.
Phoebe was bigger than life and her dreams were still larger. She dwelt in the waiting room of an alternate universe populated by the glitterati because, she would remind us with a conspiratorial wink, she was of "royal blood."
When we'd barge in after school, often as not Phoebe would be working on her never-finished family tree. Her grandmother had told her that her grandmother was the descendant of a king. Or sometimes, instead, of a "world famous man." The story had been handled so often, had tumbled through the generations like a long game of whispering down the lane, and as surely as it did in the game, it had acquired polish and spin with each retelling. For all any of us knew, the original message was that she was the descendant of the man who cleaned the king's boots. Or simply, a very nice man who once caught a glimpse of a king. Add to it that grandma had been a tad senile and fuzzy as to what principality or how far back that royal bloodstream began.
Most people would laugh gently at their grandmother's romantic visions of themselves and that would be that. Not Phoebe. She searched in vain for that missing golden link. I remember coming to Sasha's house one afternoon and seeing notebook pages taped together and covering the entire dining room table. Each sheet had webs of lines, circles, and question marks. "A genealogical chart," she said. "Mine." I couldn't make head nor tails of it.
Phoebe's pretensions drove Sasha berserk for about a year before the two of them reached détente. After that, they developed a lasting fondness for one another's quirky, loveable selves, and that lasted long after Sasha's father discovered that this marriage, like all his others, had been a mistake.
I wondered if he remembered the good parts of his marriages, the attraction and the initial wedded bliss, and if he would have attended this memorial were he not in Spain, honeymooning with whatever number wife or fiancée this one was.
"Phoebe was never mean-spirited," Sasha whispered.
True. She was silly. She was pretentious and possibly delusional. She was probably not the world's best wife. A cluttered, distracted housekeeper, though an elegant, extravagant cook and hostess when she put her mind to it, it now appeared she'd not been much of a businesswoman, either.
But not mean. Not ever.
"If he does not shut up immediately," she said, "I'm going to speak ill of the living. Loudly."
Perhaps he felt the heat rising from his former step-sister. In any case, Dennis wound down, grudgingly admitting that his mother had been fun and had always been there in a pinch. "And," he said, "she made a mean martini, so here's to you, Mom." With a smirk, Dennis lifted the silver martini shaker he'd been clutching.
"Hear, hear," the group said with little enthusiasm. Nobody looked directly at him, nobody gave the almost-obligatory encouraging smile that would normally be expected.
The cocktail shaker had been Phoebe's requested resting place till her remains were emptied into the Wissahickon. All of this had been written out years earlier, along with the request that anyone mourning her should "carouse" on the banks. She'd wanted us to drink champagne from the crystal goblets she'd collected over the years, to toast her here, on Forbidden Drive, the spot where, apparently, she'd enjoyed a few romantic dalliances in her time.
She apparently forgot that Philadelphia has four seasons, and she envisioned us in sheer summer dresses, barefoot and dancing on the grass. She also hadn't considered the park's rules that forbid alcohol, let alone carousing. And while the official rules kept mum about our particular situation, I doubted that dumping charred human remains into the clear river was permitted. This had given launching Phoebe into a different existence a hurried, surreptitious air. Raising bubbling crystal glasses as walkers and runners witnessed it would have been too flagrant. Raising empty glasses felt terribly wrong. Dennis had forged a compromise by using innocuous white Styrofoam cups and hiding the champagne in a duffel bag.
He now extracted a bottle and opened it, and then a second, pouring a small amount in each cup. I hadn't heard of screw-top champagne until then.
"A toast to Phoebe," Sasha said, but she said it too softly for the passing jogger to make note of it in case he had his MP3 player turned off and could hear.
"Hear, hear," people said. "Safe journey, Phoebe."
The fizzing liquid Dennis was trying to pass off as champagne managed to be both too sweet and too tart, and after one sip, I tipped my cup over and hoped it was good for the dormant grass.
Dennis popped off the top of the martini shaker and leaned over the creek. I watched Sasha frown as she watched him. Ever since the terrible night she'd found Phoebe dead she'd been blaming herself. I'd heard the refrain, and I could almost see it circle her skull like a roll on a player piano, the same tune over and over. She'd been away in England for too long while anything might have been troubling Phoebe. She'd been a poor correspondent. She hadn't visited enough since she'd been back. She could have, should have, saved Phoebe.
Sasha's self-flagellation was without grounds. She had indeed visited Phoebe as soon as she'd returned to Philadelphia, three months ago, and several times after.
Demonstrating how upset and confused she was, not only did Sasha accept responsibility for Phoebe's suicidal depression, but simultaneously insisted that Phoebe had not been depressed in the first place.
"She laughed a lot," was part of the loop going around and around in Sasha's head. "She was sad about Nelson, but not depressed. I'm not sure that marriage was destined to last much longer even if he'd lived. She said he was a whiner. She said lots of things but then—wham and he was gone. Sad, you see. Not suicidal! And look, she was dating again, she was optimistic, not depressed."
Part of what bonded the two women was the irrational belief that the next man would be better, despite their own histories which proved that the next ones were seldom as good as the ones before.
Sasha had even used her professional skills to help the hunt for number six by taking photos of Phoebe for an online matchmaking service. She'd needed new ones because all her portraits were in wedding attire.
She never got to see the photos. Sasha was delivering them the night she found Phoebe dead.
"Is ordering photos the behavior of a clinically depressed woman about to end her life?" Sasha had demanded. "Posing, preening, worrying about the lighting and how it would make her look?"
People are unpredictable. Maybe the need for updated photos and an online dating service would make you realize all you'd lost and drive you into depression. I didn't know Phoebe well enough to know if she'd been putting up a façade for Sasha's sake, or if she was subject to rapid mood changes.
But my private opinion was that this was all about Sasha, who, being human, couldn't deal with the painful irrationality of the situation.
Eventually, Sasha noticed the disconnect between what she'd observed and the guilt she felt over what had happened, and had found a way to reconcile them. Phoebe had not been depressed and Phoebe had not taken her life. If someone else had ended Phoebe's life, then Sasha could feel pain, but no guilt.
Dennis uncapped Phoebe as with perfect mistiming the wind changed course and her airborne ashes caught a thermal and landed on Dennis's expensive dark overcoat. All over it.
Retribution for that eulogy, I was sure.
Dennis scowled and brushed, which smeared but didn't remove the gray blots, and he looked as if he was about to shout at his mother one last time. Instead, he took a deep breath, leaned low and shook out her remaining remains, turned away from the stream, left the silver mixer on the ground and wiped his leather gloves clean before facing Sasha.
Because of Dennis' flight schedule, there had been a lunch before the memorial service, rather than the more traditional gathering afterwards. Now, Dennis pushed up his smeared coat sleeve, checked his watch, and came over to Sasha. "Keep me in the loop about the house," he said.
She nodded. He'd talked her into finding a realtor and disposing of Phoebe's "treasures" since he lived in Chicago and Sasha lived nearby and was sharing in the profits. To me that meant they should also share the work, but Dennis was Phoebe's executor, and life was complicated enough without getting into this particular battle.
Sasha put her hand on Dennis' sleeve. Her forehead had a long vertical troubled wrinkle down its middle. "Before you go," she said, "I've been wanting to ask... do you... did you wonder... when you heard..." She took another deep breath and cleared her throat. "I don't believe Phoebe would take her life that way."
"She wouldn't use pills and booze? Why not?"
He'd spoken too loudly, so that nearby people turned to watch. "I mean she wouldn't commit suicide," Sasha said. "It doesn't fit her. She was upbeat, looking forward—"
"Wait a minute! What are you suggesting?" Dennis's face darkened as if his blood had been rerouted and was pounding its way toward the skin.
"I'm not comfortable with the official version. Why would she—"
"Damn it, Sasha!" he said, his voice loud enough to scare the Daves who'd approached to express condolences. "You're not comfortable? This is not about you. For once in your life can you not be histrionic? You're just like her—everything's dramatic and oversized. You want headlines, investigations, your fifteen minutes of fame? Find it somewhere else. She killed herself."
"And it's just like you want to believe your own mother killed herself. Why would she? She didn't even leave a note." At six feet, Sasha was as tall as Dennis, and with the high-heeled boots and enormous hat, taller still, so she held her ground. The hostility radiating off him would have floored a smaller woman.
"She wasn't one for writing," he snapped. "Or for thinking things through. This was probably an impulse like so many others. That's how she was, emotionally an infant!"
Sasha was silent for a moment, very unlike her normal behavior. Then she said quietly, "Don't you even want to know why I think that?"
"I've got a plane to catch." Once again he checked his watch.
Sasha lowered her voice still more. "Are you at all sorry that your mother died?"
"Let me know what's happening about the house." He turned and walked away from us.
© Gillian Roberts.