Chapter 8: Saturday, Oct. 14

In which we learn that life is the joke of a whimsical creator, and virility more suitable to a younger man is a burden.

Published July 16, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I am upstairs in my study again. The night is cold, dark, and silent. I am staggered with a sadness beyond description, a sadness renewed by the presence of a new resident in our house.

This afternoon, I went out to our surprisingly sophisticated little airport -- it handles smaller passenger jets with alacrity -- to pick up Diantha, Elsbeth's daughter. The dear girl could scarcely keep from weeping when she saw me, falling into my arms, clinging to me, her wet face buried in my neck. I was glad to be of comfort and cared not one whit for the stares of passersby. I tried to reassure her as we waited for her luggage -- three huge pieces -- to come up the conveyer belt as though from Hades and start its clockwise stagger around the oval track of interleaved metal plates. I can tell from my prose that I am already equivocating.

To witness Diantha's shock and pity at seeing her mother in such evident decline opened afresh my own wound. I stood with my eyes damp as mother and daughter embraced and cried and then, not so strangely, started to laugh, as though life, deep down, even at its tragic worst, is comic, the joke of a whimsical creator.

They spoke for hours, it seemed. I served as bartender, cook, waiter, and sommelier, uncorking one, then two bottles of a plangent Graves Izzy recommended. It went brilliantly with the seafood lasagna that Elsbeth taught me how to make. (The touch of fennel and rosemary is the secret.) We all got a little tipsy, but I think Elsbeth and Diantha healed any lingering rift between them. They both turned to me on occasion during the course of the evening, each time with something akin to surprise and not a little pleasure in their faces. I like to think they found my presence comforting. It was a great relief not to act as referee, an office I reluctantly undertook during their last meeting and which had earned me, I sensed, Diantha's antipathy.

Now I have the strange, unnerving feeling that a whole new aura has entered the house. In an uncanny way, it's as though Elsbeth's replacement has shown up, a kind of premature reincarnation. Not that I know Diantha that well. She did come to the wedding, but her visit was brief.

We had a chance, doing the dishes together, to chat. "Your Mom tells me you're in show business," I said by way of an invitation to her to tell me about herself.

She shrugged. "I've done some acting. Some modeling. I have an agent. I've had 'gigs' and a zillion near-misses for the big time. But that's not really what I do."

"What do you do?" I asked, noticing that she stacked the dishwasher exactly the way her mother does.

"I have this knack for sorting out programming problems that confuse people with a lot more smarts than I ever had. It's a kind of idiot savant flair. Even the high-end providers keep making the same mistakes." She laughed at herself. "They pay me lots of money and it leaves me enough time to screw up the rest of my life."

"I'm sure you underestimate yourself." I cleaned and rinsed off Elsbeth's dish, noticing that she had eaten very little.

"Yeah, so I'm told. It's better than having other people do it for you. Mom says you're working on another murder."

"We're not sure they're murders."

"She says it's juicy stuff. Two people fu ... did themselves to death."

"Yes. It seems there was ... intercourse of some violence." In speaking I attempted to maintain that tone of objectivity, however spurious, which allows one to talk of prurient matters without the appearance of indulging in the prurience.

Diantha laughed one of her mother's laughs, a bright, mischievous hiccup. "It sounds like a great way to go."

"It wasn't a pretty scene."

"You were there? Afterwards?" Her voice had a touch of awe to it.

"I looked at the crime scene photos. And the crime scene video."

She bent to put a glass in the dishwasher with, I thought, an exaggerated motion. "So you really get into it."

"I'm helping the police with inquiries, as the British put it, but not as a suspect. Not yet anyway."

She beamed at me. "That is so cool."

"That remains to be seen. I could just botch things up for them."

"Now you're the one underestimating yourself."

I smiled. "What did you say before? It's better than having other people do it for you."

As we closed up the kitchen for the night, she took one of my hands in hers. "By the way ... Dad ... Do you mind if I call you Dad."

"I'd be honored."

"I want to thank you for taking such good care of Mom these last couple of years." Her eyes were bright and dark with sincerity, establishing as much as the warmth of her hand the closeness she wanted to have with me.

"She has taken care of me, too, you know. She has made my life ... " At which point, for the first time all evening, I had to stop and take a deep sigh.

There remains a slight if nagging note to this sad and yet curiously jubilant occasion that I have been skirting around throughout this entry. In saying goodnight to Diantha in the hallway upstairs, I leaned down to give her a chaste peck on the cheek only to find myself kissed full on the lips with a sensuality the sensation of which took me quite by surprise. Though still burdened with a virility more suitable to a younger man, I am fastidious enough in these matters to take such gestures as Diantha's in stride. What I cannot quite shake is the unsettling notion that my dear Elsbeth, lying in our bedroom suffering through a drugged, fitful sleep, has become a ghost, replaced in life by Diantha, who is the very embodiment of her mother at a younger age. She has the same full-bodied figure, the same dark glowing eyes, the same pretty if somewhat blunt features, and even, at times, the same dark timbre of voice, intimating an essentially mischievous view of life.

I may, of course, be reading too much into the incident. For Diantha it was no doubt a kiss that got away. Or perhaps that's the way people in show business comport themselves. Desport themselves, more like it. Or perhaps she is needful of an affection that, under the right circumstances, can inflame one to more tangible desires. It may also be that the presence or probability of individual finality stirs us in ways that are only superficially grotesque. As Father O'Gould has reminded us on more than one occasion, it is easy to forget what we are descended from.

Speaking of which, Malachy Morin accosted me in the Club at lunch on Friday and I couldn't get away from him without agreeing to meet with him and "the big money guys" from the Wainscott development office. I do not consider myself a snob, but it seems to me the Club ought to be one of those places you can go to avoid people like Mr. Morin.

By Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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