Once, when I was a young boy, I saw something no one else was able to see. I saw it clearly, bright as a hummingbird's heart, but of course no one believed me. For a long time, I yearned to see in that special way again, but now I know it's maybe just as well that I never did, that this is not the kind of world where vision like that would have done me or anyone else any good.
Of course, not much else ever did me a whole lot of good either. Otherwise, I ask myself, how in the name of the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse did I end up in a compost heap out in the back forty of the ritziest old folks' home in all Spokane, Washington?
Everybody knows the place, that big decaying confection on the edge of Lincoln Park, a house built on the bones of Idaho silver. The White Elephant, we used to call it, when I lived there, years ago. Now, as I say, it's an old folks' home, though they call it The House of the Golden Jubilee or some such. It's not so decaying either, they've pumped a few dollars into it.
Not that it's my house now, I'll thank you very much. No, what I'm doing at the moment, in this compost heap, is trespassing, and not for the first time either. And I'm spying. Or I was spying, until, maneuvering for a better angle with my binoculars, I stumbled straight backwards into this heap, or pit, I guess you might call it. I landed all right, it's softer than my bed at home. But I can't seem to get up. I thought maybe I could lever myself up with my cane, but no go. Maybe I shouldn't have had that bit of bourbon, though I've always needed a buzz to do a reconnaissance like this in the first place.
It's hard to spy when you're mostly limited to staring straight up into the late afternoon, early November sky. I see a crow gliding low towards me, checking out the possibilities. When he's close enough, I bark at him, and he flaps away towards the tattered trees, rolling his eyes, I think, if crows do that.
Spying, that's a romantic word. Investigating is closer to the mark, because investigating was how I used to make a living, before I deteriorated. If I were still a practicing investigator, I'd probably have a cell phone, and then could call my friend Kevin. Or could call him if I had his number.
I haven't seen Kevin for a while. He's an eye roller too, but he was the only chore worker I ever had who would put up with me for long, at my own one-resident house. But then he got a better job, and then a better one. I blame myself for telling him all those stories of my business years, of loss and discovery and protection. Before I knew it, he was in security and he keeps moving up. I believe his company might even handle security for this place, come to think of it.
On his first visit back after the new job I asked him if he would kindly be my emergency number. He smiled his tight smile and said, "Sounds like a country song: Be My Emergency Number." I could tell that he was embarrassed but pleased, in a fat sort of way. He wrote the number down on a paper napkin, but after he left I crumpled it up and threw it away. I had just wanted to see if he would do it, and besides, that napkin was a greasy thing.
One day - when I was a young boy - there was a flaming big ruckus in the family. All the tag-end aunts and oddjohn uncles, all the cavalcade of cousins - all the relatives hanging on to shirttails by the skin of their teeth, as Great Aunt Lorraine used to say - were scurrying around the White Elephant, gibbering, The Ring, the Ring is lost, the Ring, the Ring, the Ring.
Lorraine's fabulous ruby ring. I was trying to be an exception to the rule, trying to keep my own counsel. This was a family famous for feathers and fury, and I thought I might just be able to ride it out, somewhere on the edges. I was lounging with my Lincoln Logs on the faded blue and yellow roses of the corner parlor. I was ten, and really too old for Lincoln Logs. But I had just built a fortress and realized that I hadn't put in any doors or windows.
Then I knew that Lorraine herself was behind me, smoldering. The way you feel a shadow of coolness when a cloud passes in front of the sun, you could feel Lorraine behind you, only her shadow was made of heat. She was huge and she always wore a red dress. She had that ruby ring, and she raised ruby roses too. Now she said, "Nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, especially when they belong to a good little sneak like you." Then she snatched me up, whacked me on the backside with her cane and sent me off to join the search: The Ring, the Ring....
I had no idea where to look. Behind the piano? In the bird-of-paradise cage? Up the chimney? Which chimney? I walked about slowly, from the kitchen to the porch to the pantry. My eyes were round and wide, I was scratching my head, cupping my chin earnestly (I had glanced in a mirror to get the look just right). I tried to be just enough in the way so that if I was noticed, I'd be doing what I was supposed to be doing, and just enough out of the way so that I could slowly creep completely out of the picture, if you know what I mean.
I edged my way towards the cellar. The cellar was huge and dark and would take a good long while to look around, and I would be off the hook all that time. I also knew that the cellar had been thoroughly searched and I'd be unlikely to encounter anyone. If I did, I planned to shrug and say, "Nothing like a fresh pair of eyes."
The cellar was less interesting than it should have been. There were a number of sealed storage containers, and there were the coils and ducts mazing from the great kraken of the coal furnace. It was to the left of the coal room door in the northeast corner that I first noticed the glow.
At first I thought it was the burning end of a cigarette, and I whimpered aloud, convinced that there really was a burglar crouched in that corner having a felonious smoke, lurking and more than ready to stifle whoever should happen to come along. I couldn't smell any smoke, and then I imagined the intruder clenching the glowing ruby ring between his teeth. I imagined they were sharp teeth.
Slowly, I came to the realization that no one was there. I had read of spontaneous combustion, and wondered for a second if a piece of coal had somehow burst into fiery bloom. Gradually, I calmed enough to realize that the glow was in the wall, was in fact behind the wall, about two feet above the floor. I stepped closer, and then closer. I crouched down right next to the glow. It was beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen before. It burned red, and I imagined with a hiss that no one could hear except maybe dogs from Mars. Like the flare of a scarlet birthday candle. Not red: scarlet.
After a while I realized that I was looking at what I was supposed to be looking for: the ruby ring. I didn't ask how the ring happened to be behind the wall, or why I was able to see the glow of it through the solid wall, or why no else had noticed it. And I didn't tell anybody about it either, after I went upstairs, not even my cousin Edith, my partner in many a conspiracy. I made it my practice to visit that corner of the cellar several times a day, or even in the middle of the night. The red glow was there every time, as though waiting for me, as though I could warm my hands on it. It seemed to me that this was the first time I had really had anything of my own in that house.
But after a week or so, having the glow for my own wasn't enough. It seemed to me that I could do even better, that I could possibly come out of this a hero. I figured I would probably feel pretty good about myself for a long time if I brought that ring back to Lorraine from the land of lost things.
So I decided to get the ring out of the wall. Every day I went down to the corner with Uncle Ed's keyhole saw and every day I sawed a bit more out of the wall, and finally with a Jack Horner flourish I was able to reach inside the pile of sawdust and cobwebs to pull that hard gleam out of the dark. I breathed on it, polished it up on my shirttail. The ring was a pretty enough thing in itself, but with nothing of the glory it had while lost. But that couldn't be helped. I felt fine as I walked upstairs. Now was the time for triumph.
I went looking for Great Aunt Lorraine and found her in the parlor with the blue and yellow roses. She had been a great beauty, it was said. She was still impressive, and not just because she was enormous. She was possibly eighty years old, but had hardly a wrinkle. We - the cousins around my age -- used to say that this was because when she noticed a wrinkle, she would eat extra dinners until the wrinkle filled in, leaving her skin taut and smooth again. We said you could actually hear the wrinkle snapping away in the middle of the night, like a sprung mousetrap. She seemed to be a three hundred pounder but was surprisingly graceful. Buoyant. Edith once claimed that Lorraine was actually a blimp, that what her smoldering metabolism actually produced was fat gas, hot fat gas, and that in reality she was lighter than we were.
She stood above me now in a dress red as fresh lava. She had a teacup in her left hand - she drank tea all day long - and leaned on the cane with her right hand. She almost seemed to be waiting for me, but how was that possible? She saw that I had something on my mind and said, in a sweet, dangerous voice, "Yessss?"
The warning signs were clear, but I plunged ahead, feeling invulnerable: "Well, you know how we were looking for your ring?"
"Oh, yes, I do. Oh, my yes. We were looking for my ring." There was a sweet steam in the air, but I didn't know if it was from her or the tea.
"So I searched and searched and searched and just never stopped. I knew it was important."
"And - well, here it is." I opened my palm. She put her cane aside, leaning it against the mantel. She poised her long red nails above my hand for a long second as she studied the ring, and then plucked it from my hand with one swift, delicate, praying mantis move.
She tried to slip it on her finger, but it seemed to no longer fit. So she just clenched the ring in her fist and looked at me. Her face seemed calm, but she was squeezing her fist so hard that I imagined the ring was now embedded in her palm, that this was the way she would wear it from now on. It could never get away from her again.
Now she studied the contents of her teacup, and then seemed to be lifting the cup as sort of toast to me. And then she dashed the tea in my face.
"Thief! Liar! Ingrate! Vandal!"
The tea was warm rather than hot, but something in it stung my eyes (bourbon, I learned later). Tea dripping down my neck, I ducked and scrambled for the door, the teacup sailing past me, shattering against the doorframe.
Man was not made to lie in a hole in the ground, but here I am. The sky is turning indigo, deepening towards evening. Lights are flaring and receding at the edges of my field of vision. Perhaps there will be a star soon. Somehow, I can't quite bring myself to call for help. I can hear doors slamming and know something's up. They're always going on little excursions here, and some not so little, to Ireland, to Reno, to New England to look at the leaves. They travel to see eclipses and meteor showers. This week, tonight perhaps if the sky is clear, they plan to take a bus far to the north, far past the radiance of Spokane to view the Northern Lights. The sun has apparently been throwing fits lately and the Lights are supposed to be spectacular now, even this far south.
Other than the fact that I can't seem to get out of it, this pit doesn't seem so bad. It's warmer than you might think. There's this pleasant heat of decay that seems to be easing the pain in my bones. True, there is also a smell, but I've encountered worse. Though I don't know much about gardening, I know this is a good compost heap, rich with the remains of good living. I can see an artichoke heart that would make a fine boutonniere, and I've seen several smug looking worms. When I was in my prime as a detective, compost heaps weren't much in style, in the city. It's too bad, they could have been useful in my work.
Lorraine died, a few years after I left the White Elephant. She died of a heart attack, though Edith told me in a letter (Edith's gone too, now) that Lorraine pricked her finger on a thorn, ignited and rocketed across the sky like a runaway comet.
The Elephant was vacant a while. They tried it out as a bread and breakfast, and then a museum, but nothing took, until they had the brilliant idea of this old folks' home. I couldn't believe it when I first heard the news. Before this, the best and brightest old folks' home around was over the hill from here. Kevin drove by that place one night when he was taking me shopping. He slowed down, waved at the building with a grand sweeping gesture. Hint, hint, hey Kevin? It was multi-leveled and many-windowed, and that night it was lit up like a crystal box. It was like a cutaway of a building, designed to give the passerby a cross-sectional view of typical residents engaged in everyday activities. It was like a science project. You know what it was like? A terrarium for old people.
I even know some of the people who live in the place. There's a league of ladies who tint their hair and their toilet water the same special shade of blue with the same special chemical. It's versatile, I hear they order it by the drum.
So the White Elephant intrigued me. Of course I already knew something about it. And so I dusted off the binoculars, rummaged up some usable notebooks. If caught or accused, my alibi and camouflage would be that I was a birdwatcher, and I threw together a little code, in case my notebooks were examined. I worked up an avian alias for each resident, or denizen. Or guest. They actually call them guests here, as if they'll have somewhere else to go when the season is over. The legend here is condominium rather than terrarium. But I've learned a few things. Take Johannson, the physical culture [ed. note: I had never heard of this but the author tells me that this is what they used to call it in the 1950s before the phrase 'physical fitness' replaced it in the 60s and 70s.] king (in the notebooks I have him disguised as a yellow-shafted flicker). He read somewhere that the younger you are, the longer you can balance on one leg. So you'll find Johannson in a corner, one leg lifted while he totters on the other, clutching a stopwatch as he drives back the years. Take Ethel R. Baines (she's a California quail). Whenever she sneezes, she whips out a miniature electric fan to whoosh the wicked germs even farther away.
I found that I could still get in the old place, onto the grounds, at least. The old greenhouse has a door that opened to the Park. When I was a teenager, just before I left the Elephant, Edith and I and a few others had the assignment of sealing that door. We knocked off the knob, plugged up the hole with mortar, and nailed the door shut. Now it looks solid, but most of those nails are only in a deceptive decorative frame. The rest are as rusty as the Titanic. So when I whacked it in the right places, pried here, poked there, liberally slathered the hinges in three-in-one oil, that door swung open with a well-mannered wheeze. It was good to be up to my old tricks.
After I returned the ring to Lorraine, I assumed that I'd be able to find missing stuff any old time, by simply keeping an eye out for the red light of the lost. I imagined running away and getting a job that involved finding things and returning them to grateful owners thrusting fistfuls of greenbacks in my direction. That's when I decided to be a detective, in fact. But I never did see that light again. I tried hiding things to see if I could find them, by the red light, but I had no luck. Later, after I left the Elephant, I tried priming the pump by learning other ways, by buying a metal detector, by studying the art of the in-depth interview, by poring through records in dusty government vaults, by offering myself as an apprentice to a hawkshaw who called himself Johnnie Danger. And I did, in fact learn how to find things, but the red light was an unrepeatable, one-of-a-kind event, apparently.
I often wished for other colors, too. I wouldn't have wasted my time with certain individuals if on certain occasions I could have noted a rich, buttery Liar's Yellow playing about their faces. In my adolescence and long past my adolescence, I longed for some indication of how I stood with the female sex, for, say, a discreet orange halo indicating a definite range of romantic interest. There was one sordid incident when a violet light for venereal disease would have been just dandy.
I think it was only natural that my love life should have become intertwined with or even to depend upon my business. It's the most common thing in the world: professors and students, politicians and interns. Secretaries and bosses really are like that, and I'm speaking as a professional, believe me. (I once told Kevin that he should hustle up one of those take-no-guff, steel-and-satin police ladies, but he just rolled his eyes and ate a french fry). At first it was just clients, those who came in for my services, but I never had much luck with clients. They knew what they wanted from me and it didn't usually involve midnight champagne.
My usual approach with women was to learn something about them with my detective techniques, work up a dossier, and then connive to meet them. And then they'd say how uncanny it was, we seemed to have so much in common, I seemed to have such insight into their tastes and interests, it was as though we had met before. This seemed to work well enough, to work long enough, if not for so very long, generally, and then I'd open a dossier on someone else.
Once I even married one of them, though I knew the chances of it really working out were not in the cards. But I knew I would marry her the minute she walked into my office on the sixth floor of the Fidelity Building. And she claimed to like me for what I was, amazingly. She even called me a sexy little weasel, once. What finally, truly won her over, in my opinion, was when I changed the name of the business (at that time Rivertown Confidential) to her suggestion: Lilac City Location Service. She said this only made sense, because the bulk of my business was after all finding, both people and things. I suppose that it marked the beginning of the end for us when I changed Lilac City Location Service to the Inland Eye (my favorite), though I told her that business had been in the bucket because people kept mistaking us for a landscaping company.
Once, when I hadn't seen her in years, she sent me a postcard that said, Things might have worked out, but you just have to wallow in pessimism. Now more than ever I know that it's all in how you look at it. A step, you know, is just a stumble, caught in time.
So I wrote her a postcard back: And not only that, honey is bug puke, when you come right down to it. It's all in how you look at it. A low blow, I know, but I felt she was asking for it.
But she went through self-help books like salted peanuts. She had a million of these things, and she was determined to buck me up. She wrote me another card: Did you know that every exhalation we release is ash-of-diamonds?
And sure, that was true. Chemically. They're both carbon dioxide, sure. My next card said, So, dogbreath is ash-of-diamonds, too, where does that get us?
She sent me a third: I know things haven't been going well for you. But take heart: if the wolf is at the door, why, you can just serve up a steaming platter of wolfburgers.
And I took up my pen and shot back, Frilled or feathered or fretted with golden fire, a heart ain't nothing but a pump.
After that, she stopped writing to me. The last time I saw her was in a tavern downtown, a few years back. We were willing to talk to each other, comforted by the fact we were in a crowd. We knew we'd just have to talk for a minute for form's sake, and then we could spin off in the most opposite possible directions, I figured. But all she said was, Do you think things might have gone better if there had been children? And that's when I smiled, and shook my head, and took my leave, and eased off towards the exit I had already scouted out beforehand with a practiced flick of the eye as soon as I had spotted her.
It's almost completely dark now, but I seem to have been discovered. A little while ago, I was awakened from a light doze by a fragrant shower of coffee grounds and lemon zest, followed by a refreshing blaze of flashlight. I sneezed, thereby touching off an "Oh my, oh my, oh my," and a hasty scamper away, and now I will be saved. There are more flashlights bobbing around out there and I hear concerned voices.
It took a while, but Kevin's arrived. I was right, he's some sort of supervisor now. Maybe he's been working late. He's in uniform, and from this angle he looks well fed, well upholstered. Normally he wouldn't be here, he says. "I don't get out in the field much any more. Mostly, I'm just a cubicle cowboy," he says. He works his way behind me, getting romaine and potato skins all over his stormtrooper boots, crouches down and hoists me up by the armpits.
He hands me my cane, and then starts brushing me off, a little harder than he really needs to, to my way of thinking. But I seem able to stand on my own, and that's something. He checks my pulse, gives me a general look-over. I don't tell him that I've been watching birds. Upright, I can see that his tie is loose, his shirt wrinkled. He's beefy, sweaty, unshaven, and disappointed in me.
"You scared hell out of the cook," Kevin says. "But they knew enough to call me."
He lets the implications of this sink in. So I guess I'm known here. I haven't been as wily as I thought I was. I say to Kevin, "They just don't want me corrupting their compost. They think I can't be trusted to rot to the proper richness."
Kevin rubs his eyes, and looks down at the ground. Why, he's getting bald on top, and I never knew.
He looked up. "They do think that. Though I've been trying to explain that, properly sterilized, you might make a passable mulch."
All I could do was stare at him. I'm supposed to be the one who makes the jokes, he's the one who rolls his eyes. That's our deal. I look at him. He raises his eyebrows, but doesn't look away, and so finally I do.
Kevin seems to think that I'm drunk. I will admit to the bourbon before my reconnaissance, but that wore off hours ago.
If I understand him correctly, now, he's telling me to come into the White Elephant.
"Maybe you could take me home," I say.
"No, no, you'd better stay here. For the night, I mean. You seem OK, but the nurse will be here, in case."
I let that in case go by, and ask, "There's room?"
"There's room. Sure, there's room. In the morning, we'll talk. We have to have a talk, you know."
I was afraid that I'd be stared at in the Elephant, but no one else seems to be around. Not very many lights are on. The house hasn't changed as much as I thought it would have, but there's something about it, as though everything I can see has been sprayed with a gleaming plastic preservative. Kevin asks me if I'm hungry, but I just want to sleep. He walks me through the house, leads me to an elevator (that's different), punches the button for the third floor. When the elevator door opens, I look around. The third floor has changed, has been carved up like a dormitory or ward into dozens of smaller rooms. You know the kind. Is this where they die? Has someone died? Is that why there's room?
But, no, it turns out that Kevin has his own compartment here for overnight stays, for special surveillance. He shows me where I can hang my clothes, where I can wash up. There are steel gray institutional pajamas, there's a cot, there's a snack (saltines and applesauce) if I feel hungry later, the nurse will look in later. Then he says goodnight.
I lie down and carefully go over my symptoms, my usual bedtime routine. There are my knees as stiff as boards. The snowy bristles corkscrewing from my ears. The hello-again, goodbye-for-now pain in my bones. The insomnia.
I try to think of something else, and as I lie there, I finally figure out how Lorraine's ruby ring made its way to where I found it, so long ago. It must have been one the kids, one of my cousins, who snatched up the ring from Lorraine's nightstand while she was sweetly greasing her hands. Just snatched up that ring and ran off with it, clutching tight. Then this cousin, he or she, must have galloped up the stairs, and some more stairs, and yet a third flight, to this place, the third floor where I am now. This was one of our best places, better by far than that dull dim cellar, a place that, if not hidden, was full of places to hide. See, when this house was going up, the third floor was meant for a ballroom that never happened. Why? Somebody died? The money dried up? Dancing lessons didn't pan out?
They nailed plain pine floorboards over the fine oak beams, bricked up the heating ducts, locked the door and walked away. But the place was rediscovered by generation after generation of cousins. There was no finer place to be on a rainy day, with that tough old pine to run or ride over, with no light other than that from the skylight, a gray light as though the rain too was dusty, no heat except for our own riding and running. It was a good place to be on your own, too, though bringing a jacket was a good idea. At one duct, the bricks were loose, and I imagine the cousin had tried to hide the ring on the little ledge inside, but dropped it, a secret spark down a well, down, down to the corner of the cellar where I found it. I never learned who it was, they must have been terrified. Maybe Edith. If so, she never told me....
I must have fallen asleep. At first I didn't know where I was, and my heart was hammering. I didn't know the room at all, and I staggered about searching for a light switch. I fell, but for a wonder fell back into bed. I gave up and considered calling for help, any help at all, and then I remembered, the fall, my rescue, the White Elephant.
Now I'm sitting at the side of the bed, waiting for my breathing to even out a little more. I remember where the nightstand is, and I retrieve my cane. I remember where the window is, and I hobble towards it. I pull the shade aside -- and there they are, far away in the dark, the Northern Lights. I guess that's what they are. At first I thought they could be reefs of cloud touched by city light. It's definitely darker than it should be out there. Has the City of Spokane dimmed the streetlights in order the give the citizens a visual treat? I think I may have heard something along those lines, somewhere. Sounds to me like a dangerous thing to do.
The lights are there, to the north, but you couldn't exactly call them a spectacle. I'm trying hard to see them as they are, faint smears of bilious yellow, dim tangled strands the green of drying pond scum. I look at them as carefully as I can, just in case. They must be watched at every moment, they must be watched, in case behind my back they break into crests of topaz and chrysolite.