Chapter 13: Friday, Oct. 27

In which sexy Sixy joins the family, Norman goes after a file and there's a thumping in the house's nether regions.

Published July 27, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Late evening, and I sit under the eaves in an attic study I have had knocked together and fitted out with shelves for books and an old couch for dozing. It is a veritable eyrie and overlooks the backyard of the Dolores family, the nubile young girls of which sun themselves like semi-aquatic creatures next to the aquamarine pool during the sunnier months. (My father's old study down on the first floor that I resorted to of yore has been turned into the entertainment center with the big television.)

It is nigh on Halloween, and I sit in this perch typing into my little tabletop -- I've never had the thing on my lap once. From far below, in the fieldstone foundation, I can hear the syncopated thump thump of some infernal electronic noisemaker reverberating through the house as though it had been possessed by some mad demon of the aural. It's only Sixpak Shakur, King of the Redneck Rappers, lead singer of Cool White Fudge, or that's what was stenciled all over the van in which he arrived yesterday. I suppose we're lucky that they all didn't decide to camp here, four or five other young men, that is. They speak a gibberish among themselves that I took to be a kind of English.

Well, at least Diantha is happy. She positively flung herself at the young man, wrapping her legs around his midsection and carrying on in such a fashion that I feared for a moment they would attempt congress right there in the hallway. I should be relieved that she now has someone to assuage her too palpable needs. But I find myself just a bit envious, perhaps of their youth, their vigor, their sense of utter irresponsibility, as though the world is some great machine that will tick over by itself forever regardless of what they do. And perhaps they are right.

We sat down to dinner, the four of us, with lobsters, salad, the very last of this year's corn, as well as a piquant little sauvignon blanc. Sixy, as Diantha calls him, slurring it into "Sexy," wore only a tee-shirt with some sort of message on it and jeans, seemingly impervious to anything like the temperature. He is a big fellow, with a bland, blunt, sensual face and sports, if that is the term, a polished shaved head and more rings in his ears that a Papuan native. It took me some time to realize that he was speaking English. When he saw the lobsters he launched into something like, "Oh, wow, man, real bugs, too rad." Then, to me, glancing around, "Man, you are some kind of cool dude. I mean look at this crib, man, it's right off the set."

Later, when we were alone, he extended his sympathy regarding Elsbeth. "Di told me about your old lady, man. I mean bummer big time. I mean like too soon, man, for the big nap." I took this to be an expression of sympathy and confess to being oddly touched inasmuch as he appeared utterly sincere in his sentiments. Still, I do wonder betimes what planet I'm living on.

Poor Elsbeth couldn't really manage to eat much of the dinner. She did seem happy that Diantha's friend had arrived. She told me not to fuss with her, but I excused myself from the table as well. I asked her if she wanted to take some of her pain medication, and she shook her head. "I'd rather bear anything than to have my head muddled," she said.

We spent some time together, she lying in the bed we've arranged for her in the alcove off the living room, me sitting beside her holding her hand, now all skin and bones and ligaments. What frail vessels we are, finally.

But Elsbeth appeared at peace with herself. Alfie Lopes, the Minister in Swift Chapel, our friend who married us, came by today for something halfway between a pastoral visit and a crying fest. We held hands while Alfie improvised a little prayer about how we need to remember that each of us will be called. It is only a matter of time. And time, he intoned, quoting the much under-appreciated Delmore Schwartz, is the fire we burn in.

Perhaps not that strangely, Elsbeth comforted Alfie as much as he did her. But then my dear wife always has been strong in that way. She told me that early on she had decided not to cheat death by dying by her own hand when it dawned on her as a young girl the finality that life entailed. "Dying is not what you think," she said as we sat together in the near dark, hearing the sounds Diantha and Sixy were making down in the basement setting up his equipment. "It's frightening, yes. It's too damn final. I'd rather postpone it. But it's not strange or horrific or even malignant. It just is. And having you here is all that matters right now."

I wept, but quietly, then lay out on the narrow bed beside her, taking her in my arms and holding her, as if, like that, I might keep her forever.

Later, when the ruckus started from below, I made to go down to quell it. But Elsbeth forestalled me. "It's okay," she said. "I kind of like it. It's very much alive."

When she finally drifted off, I quietly got up, pulled the drape over the alcove and made my way here.

We haven't heard from Korky in a few days, but that's not unusual. I know he isn't one of those fair weather friends who abandons you the moment the going gets rough.

I did have a run-in today with Maria Cowe, who is in charge of Human Resources for Affiliated Institutions, what used to be called Personnel. She demanded to know why I wanted the file of Celeste Tangent, the lab assistant Worried referred to in one of his emails. I told her it was an administrative matter, and that surely it was only routine for directors such as myself to ask to see employee files and for her office to comply.

She responded that, because Ms. Tangent was really an employee of the Ponce Institute and not of Wainscott, I would have to fill out forms to make an official request.

I became quite angry. I told her that if Ms. Tangent's file was not on my desk when I arrived the next morning, she would be hearing from the Museum's legal department.

Indeed, the first thing I did upon returning to my office was phone Felix Skinnerman. I told him that I wanted the Museum to establish its own human resources department sooner rather than later, in fact immediately. I told him I wanted it called The Personnel Department. I told him I wanted him to subpoena from Ms. Cowe the records or copies of the records of anyone who works either directly or indirectly for the Museum.

Well, Felix, as usual, calmed me down. He said this was an area where we had to go cautiously while our case was still in the courts. To raise this issue now, he said, would be to call attention to a very strong de facto link between the two institutions, strengthening the case of the University. He suggested I do what all administrators do -- go over her head.

I told him that meant going to Malachy Morin, which was something, on principle, I simply would not do.

"Why do you need the file?" he finally asked me.

"It may have something to do with the Ossmann-Woodley case," I said.

"Oh, then. Why don't you contact your friend in the SPD and have him obtain it through the courts. It might take a while, but you'll have it."

I thanked him effusively and called Lieutenant Tracy. He wasn't in, but called back a short time later. I admit I felt a bit foolish telling him that I could not, as a matter of routine, obtain the file of someone working, however indirectly, for the Museum.

But the Lieutenant put a different spin on it. "Perhaps," he said, "they're trying to hide something."

"Yes," I said, "that's a possibility." And while using that, so to speak, as a cover for my managerial impotence, I seriously wondered, thinking back to my confrontation with Ms. Cowe, if there might be something to his suggestion.

The Lieutenant took down the particulars and said he would get right on it. And now, I can't get it out of my head that Malachy Morin and Maria Cowe are all mixed up in this together.

But that may be just a measure of how desperate I'm getting, clutching at straws and strawmen. For instance, I received a personal and confidential memorandum today regarding the matter pending before the Subcommittee on Appropriateness that has me wondering. It's a strange affair, to say the least. As Professor Athol, the chair of the Subcommittee outlines it, both parties are accusing the other of date rape. The matter is further complicated by the facts that the woman is an outspoken, lesbian activist involved in social issues while the man is an African American born-again Christian confined to a wheelchair. To avoid an expensive and prolonged legal wrangle, the two individuals have agreed to appear before the Subcommittee to present his and her sides of the story and to abide by any findings we make.

Now we have dealt in the past with situations of nearly intractable sensitivity, but nothing, I dare say, approaches what we have before us now. And I feel tempted to "vent" (a word I've picked up from Diantha) my usual indignant homiletics about modern mores: If young people cannot be trusted to act civilly while alone in one another's company, then we need to bring back chaperones and all that entails.

But Athol's memorandum instead has triggered in me that nearly spinal sensation of something both anomalous and at the same time integral to an emerging, still nebulous larger scheme. Could this incident have anything to do with the Ossmann-Woodley case? I don't know. But I am nearly tempted to jump the gun and go interview these two individuals by myself. On the other hand...

Well, the thumping from the nether regions of the house has finally subsided. Though it won't surprise me if a different kind of thumping starts up down the hall from my own, now monastic couch.

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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