20120103

Cecelia Chapman


Evidence Of Things Not Seen


A thinning, dirty smear of fog lay twenty feet off the ground, above it the blistering sun leaked out of the San Joaquin Valley. Buildings, trees and poles poked through the mist as if cut in half, an apparition, an illusion, something unreal and very wrong. When the light wind died it was hot, and everything melted. Even I sweated. And the fog came down like rain, like someone weeping, you could hear it roll down plants, like tears, dripping one by one.


The sea rolled in tight, little waves the color of dirt. It was a red tide and, like springtime on shore, the food chain was hopping. Southern hemisphere storms forced great, deep-sea currents north carrying kelp, blooming with nutritious micro-organisms. The seaweeds washed back and forth in the shallows, food for furiously digging sand-crabs. Screaming birds bombed the bubbling waters for fish hunting plump sand-crabs. Cruising seals stole fish and bait off the hooks of fishermen lining the beach. Dressed in tan, rubber jumpsuits with World-War II army surplus gear, straps crisscrossing their backs, and thigh-high, vinyl boots, they appeared to be on the front line surrounded by quivering poles and the flopping bodies of their prey. A dying baby shark pumped its last blood into the sand at their feet.


From where I stood at the top of the hill, the town lay in a straight shot down to the pier. Three streets ran parallel to the beach, about two miles long, parts of them hidden by the mist. The emerald golf course divided the town in half. Directly below me big, old houses with deep yards tangled with little alleys cut between them. Cars moved lazily down the Sunday morning streets and around a truck marked 'Classic Party Rentals' unloading faux-antique French, gilt chairs into the largest three-story, gabled, pale-lemon Victorian house. At the other end of town, by the pier, rental apartments, small ranch houses and fishermen's shacks butt up against each other, home to migrant farm workers, locals and tourists. Families in shiny church wear weaved around the golf grounds on their way to worship. I tried to look up to God from the top of the hill, but I knew I wasn't going to see Him, but I could feel Him there more than I could in any building.


My rented beach cottage lay just on the other side of the golf course which I walked through to work at Andre's each afternoon. Andre's cafe occupied the downstairs rooms and patio of an old bakery, upstairs was Andre's apartment. It sat between the school and church, across from the town hall, police station and library. Andre's was always busy. Tourists and locals ate there or they rented it for parties, luncheons, ceremonial dinners and women's groups tea-parties, where more was consumed than just tea. Andre worked constantly. That day and the night before, the cafe was closed to prepare food and cater the Duggan wedding reception. I knew that moment at the top of the hill with my dog would be the last quiet moment of my day. I cherished quiet, for I never knew when it all would end, maybe as suddenly as it had all begun.


"Elena, where the hell's Elena? Merde." Andre was shouting at everyone, red-faced. Busboys stared at him, sweating in starched shirts too big for them.


"Everyone in their place." He yelled.


"What's place?" Horge whispered to me.


"Su lugar, Horge, go stand where he told you." Andre was blustering, almost spitting. Elena had not even called in late. It was his most important event of the year.


Musicians in the garden played sounds that floated under a tent filled with orchids. Guests roamed the house, too many for the rented chairs. Farmers, ranchers, friends, and business partners lingered by the lily-filled pool with gold-engraved champagne flutes which I re-filled. The six Duggan boys posed with their one sister, the town mayor, for the photographer. Craig, just married, was in the middle, the bride was upstairs removing her veil. Craig leaped up the stairs when his bride re-appeared and carried her down, waving her around like a trophy in her long whipped cream lace dress. She was flushed, very red-haired, with a rope of sapphires around her neck the color of her huge blue eyes which I doubted saw what was about to hit her. I tried to have faith in people, in life, but I observed in this small town that people tended to marry young and turned to their vices early.


Craig was a regular diner at Andre's, foreman on his father's ranch in the valley behind the town. He had just turned a very drunk 35 years old at his birthday party at Andre's when he dragged me out to the alley behind the patio. I slapped him and he slugged me back. I kicked him in the crotch and he never looked at me again. When Elena told me she'd gone out with him I was stunned.


"He's engaged, Elena, he's going to be married, he even has a child by a woman down the coast. Someone told me he was picked up for beating her, he has a temper, look out for him."


"Oh," she told me, "he tell me he love me, he tell me he want to go 3-way with me. He given me this chain." I tried to explain. I told her to never see him again. But I knew she did. Her brother, Rubin, told me he might kill him. I wondered if Elena had not shown up for work because she was heartbroken. But I doubted it. She said in the town she left they lived on less than a dollar a day. I told her in the small, northern town I grew up in, the snow lay so thick we didn't use money for days, maybe weeks. And we tried to live on less. She'd never seen snow except in movies, she wanted to see the world. Right now, for her, making money was more important than anything.


Mr. Duggan, or Larry to his friends, appeared at the top of the stairs with his new wife, Cristal. She was dressed in a froth of ruffled silk that revealed everything. The first wife, and mother of the children, had died three years ago after a long illness. Andre said the mother went to church every morning, then came in for lunch and never left a tip. That was before I had arrived in town. The new wife was younger than Craig and came in to eat between long trips. I never spoke with her except to take her order, she never looked me in the eyes and told people what to do, how to do it and to go do things for her 'now'. A brittle-looking woman, she was slender and attractive in a very contrived way I had a hard time understanding. She wore tall, needled heels all the time, carried bags with handsome skins and draped herself in chairs, against walls, across tables as if waiting for something to happen. I watched her flirt with Craig and slide in and out of his car when I was walking my dog outside town. She left her husband at Andre's, or at home, or sitting in his car with his telephone watching her when she played tennis. Sometimes Mr. Duggan played tennis with her. He was a rugged, handsome man, but he drank a lot and scared me, and he had noticed me. I tried to fade into the background, to be unmemorable, forgettable. The servant, a waiter. But it's hard not to be noticed when you are six foot tall. I never spoke French to Andre, changed my name slightly, smoothed out my accent and learned Spanish. Now people thought I was half Latino which was fine with me.


Andre gave platters to the busboys to pass, grumbling about Elena. He was red in the face, irritated with the absence of his head waitress, his personal assistant. Elena was hard-working, intelligent, but young, and learning too fast to be careful. She swayed when she stood, as if every person who spoke with her moved her, her eyes were a deep jungle-green filled with questions you wanted to answer. Men wanted to touch her gold skin, her long satin hair. We worked together every day and I liked her, I had used her as a model for my paintings, but I was afraid of her eagerness. I kept to myself, my life was simple. I never wanted to remember the past but it would never let me forget. I knew someday I would have to return to my old life and confess or talk to someone. But so many years had passed and I'd lived so many places, that for now, I just wanted to feel stable, live a normal, easy life.


"Her brother called looking for her." Andre's voice jumped into my thoughts. "Rubin hasn't seen her since yesterday after work, he's calling the police."


Since the chief of police was just across the room from me I didn't think too much would get done very quickly. He was an old friend of Craig's, the family's, maybe the next fiancee of their sister. And he too was still recovering from the bachelor party the whole town had listened to all night, with deep glasses of champagne. But a few minutes later he took a call in the front hallway.


Rubin was a hotshot. I loved that word, it summed up Americans. Even though he was from a revolution-devastated Latin country he'd become very American. He'd gone to law school, brought his whole family to this town and bought them a house. He was going to run for mayor against Patricia Duggan, or 'Patty', as they called her, and had support from farmers in the valley. Rubin liked me, I ignored him and slid around corners when I saw him coming. He was a good man and deserved better. I didn't want to get mixed up in their lives but I could see the longer I stayed there the harder it would be.


"Speech, speech, toast, toast...!" Craig was calling out to everyone from the top of the stairs, his bride clinging to his side. "I propose a toast and I love this woman and I want everyone to know why." We all laughed despite ourselves, as we knew she'd caved in to his advances long ago, and was just pregnant. The only child of the banker, she was heiress to the long ranch and vineyard beside the Duggan's ranch, larger than theirs. She looked beautiful at that moment although we all endured her fits of ugly temper and avoided her. I hated waiting on her, nothing was right, everything was sent back to Andre sometimes three times. To her credit she tipped big, as if she needed people to notice her money. I watched Evan, the middle brother absorb his brother's antics.


The last time I'd seen Evan he'd said to me, "You look intelligent, so you understand why I never come home." He always seemed amused. In a way the wealthy can afford to be. But his eyes were tired, troubled, although there didn't seem to be much he feared. A big-wave surfer, I had seen him laughing in storm-torn waves, now he owned a surf shop a long way down the coast.


"This little girl has changed me. Me." Craig pointed at himself and we all laughed again knowing it wasn't true, but that he enjoyed saying it. His bride looked up at him. "You all know me, I just love this town and been here my whole life and never plan on leaving. We're building a house back of the ranch and I just want to live there and be happy with Susan and have lots of children. My whole family loves this little girl. She turned me around, just plain changed my whole life. We known each other since we was young but one day I looked at her and said to myself, 'Craig, that girl's for you, don't go no further, boy, it ain't gonna get any better than this.' She had a lot of patience with me and I can see my children gonna have a good mother and I'll be proud. I just wish my mother was here to see this day, but Cristal will just have to do. So let's all give a big toast to my brand new wife here, Susan." Cristal smiled a thin smile, Susan's mother didn't look all that happy, but Susan's father was so proud he looked puffed up like a pigeon. Cristal whispered to Patty and waved her hand at me and I moved through the crowd.


"Get those other crates of champagne off the ice in the garage," Cristal told me, "get one of the boys to help you carry them through the kitchen, I don't want you walking through the front hall. And clean your shoes when you get in. There's more people coming, so tell Andre to put out more food. There's another box of glasses in the pantry. Wash them and be sure there's no soap residue left on them, I don't want this champagne ruined by that sloppy dishwasher, Lupe, so you wash them. You understand? You go find Andre and tell him to call off that brother of Elena's, I don't want this party interrupted with poor old Big Boy having to go to work. Patty doesn't get to spend any time with him as it is." They all called the chief of police, 'Big Boy', or by his last name, Torrance, since Big Boy was his nickname from childhood, and no one could bring themselves to call him by his real name, Peter, especially since he was a bigger womanizer than Craig.


"Elena's probably got herself a date and that's good, she should get laid, maybe wake her up." I was always shocked by how they all talked, but since no one else seemed to mind I just carried on and didn't take it personally. Cristal whipped her ruffles around her as if I might reach out and touch them and walked off, shaking her hair.


I grabbed Horge and we went out to the garage which was filled with more discarded things than I had in my cottage. We were opening the cooler room door when I heard Big Boy talking to Rubin and Andre.


"Look, Rubin, your sister's a big girl, she maybe got herself a little action an' took off for a night..."


"Don't you talk about Elena like that, she never once didn't show up for work..."


"Big Boy, Rubin's right, Elena is fastidious about her schedule with me and has never even once been late for work, and I think it would be appropriate for you to send out someone to check about for her..."


"You two don't understand police protocol here, it ain't even been twenty-four hours since you last saw her an..."


"Chief Torrance," Rubin interrupted, perhaps in practice for the day when he was mayor. "My sister, Elena, will be disappeared from everyone in exactly twenty-two minutes for twenty-three hours since yesterday afternoon when she went out the front door to visit some friends to have one unusual Saturday night off since she prepared for this wedding all day yesterday with Andre and the cafe was closed last night. She said to me, 'I'll be back early, Rubin, because it's a long day tomorrow' and that doesn't sound like she was going on a date. Just to see friends. And she left the car and walked."


"Rubin, now you gotta understand, this here is Sunday, and while I got two cars out there cruising around, one of them is occupied with something more important than locating a grown, responsible, intelligent girl and the other car is on the other side of the valley and not due back for two hours when those boys gonna be off duty. So when that car gets back and Jackson and Del Rio's on duty I'm gonna send them over to your house, so you just gotta excuse me while I get back inside to things here at hand."


I decided to take that moment to update Andre with Cristal's instructions for me when Big Boy's cell phone rang in his vest. He took it outside without a look at us.


"Andre," I tried not to look at Rubin's face of anguished anger, but I could feel the heat rising off him three feet away. "Cristal's got us washing glasses in the kitchen and there's more people coming so she wants to talk to you about more food. I pulled Horge to help me buff glasses more quickly."


"How can that woman give you orders without speaking with me first, and more food? I only have what she ordered although there is something at the cafe. I will talk with her now." And Andre left me and Horge and Rubin alone in the garage.


"Did she say anything to you? Did Elena say where she might be going yesterday after work?"


Evan poked his head into the garage as I replied, "Rubin, you know I'm close with Elena but we don't talk like that. We have our private lives separate." And we looked at each other thinking the same word at the same time. I could see it in his eyes and, way back, deep in the back of his head where we all keep our secrets. It was the word 'Craig'. I tried to hide my face from Evan because he could read waves before they formed, saw rain in a cloud and had looked into my eyes very deeply to see who I was. But I pulled down the blinds, closed the door, no one was home for anyone anymore.


"I saw Elena last night with Craig, before the bachelor party, she was leaving to go home..." Evan began.


Rubin started to go through the kitchen. He wasn't invited there, I knew, and I wanted to stop him, but Horge did. I didn't have the courage to make myself that visible to him, although I suspected he could see through me.


"Rubin, compadre, yo tengo mucho respetto para usted, pero, por favor,..." Horge pleaded with Rubin, holding his elbow.


I knew Horge understood if Rubin went in there and started trouble with Big Boy he'd ruin his chances for running for mayor. And so did I. But I wasn't about to suddenly become political since politics never helped me any. Evan grabbed Rubin's other arm and Rubin swung around so fast on him I jumped back.


"What are you all doing in there?" Cristal stood silhouetted in the doorway with her see-through dress held up revealing tiny pointed shoes with thin gold straps winding up to her knees. "I told you to get that champagne into the house and wash those glasses now. And what is this man doing here? Evan don't encourage these people with this Elena thing. If you don't get out of my garage immediately I will call Big Boy and Craig out here. Now get out, now." I noticed she didn't mention her husband in that threat or include Evan, but Rubin's face darkened and it scared us all as he pushed past me out to the driveway, got into his car and drove off.


"Evan get in here and help me carry the Saunder's presents to Susan's gift table."


"'Please' is always a good word to use, Cristal, sweetheart," he replied.


"Don't 'sweetheart' me, I'm your mother now and don't you forget that."


Horge and I didn't say a word. We got our crates and followed them into the house where Mr. Duggan was waiting for us in the kitchen.


"Cristal dear, what is going on?" Mr. Duggan held one of those champagne flutes with the letters C and S intertwined in engraved gold and it looked so small in his huge, weathered hand I wanted to laugh.


"Larry, honey, that brother of Elena's was over here making trouble, because he can't find her, and she didn't show up for work, like being late is remarkable for a Latin. I told him to leave or I'd call Big Boy." I saw she didn't mention Craig this time or explain that Rubin had asked for police assistance or that Evan was trying to help out.


"Come with me darling, some people have arrived and I need you." Mr. Duggan ignored us as if we weren't there, which was fine with me, but I noticed Horge looked at him rudely.


Evan washed the glasses in the dishwasher while Horge buffed them. I took them out to the table on a silver tray with bottles to be opened and poured by Andre. But Andre was not around. Patty told me he'd rushed to the cafe to bring over extra food for the dinner about to start in an hour.


"Andre told me to let you know to arrange seating for fifteen more people." I thanked her and moved towards the pantry for the extra plates and silverware Elena had the forethought to bring out yesterday, being accustomed to the ever-growing Duggan party crowds. Especially after we catered Mr. Duggan and Cristal's wedding when it seemed people never stopped arriving. I tried calling Andre and couldn't reach him. The phone kept ringing. The fog had moved back in on the town, covering the windows and everyone came in from outside slightly damp to stand by the fireplace.


Guests started to eat the roast beef and chicken, the many-layered lasagna, the salads and roasted potatoes with caviar. I was opening bottles of Chardonnay from a friend of Mr. Duggan's and different styles of Bordeaux from France Cristal had ordered from Andre. I was eager to try small sips of them all later and looking forward to the end of the night. Everyone was shouting and happy, eating Andre's food at the little chintz-covered, rented tables with glinting chairs and drinking wine out of huge, crystal glasses. Craig was red-faced and merry, his bride had changed into a dark, ruby dress the color of blood. It became her, but I was feeling more charitable. I thought maybe they might end up being good for each other. That's when I know something might happen, as the pendulum of fate swings up and then down, and you don't want to get in its way and get knocked over. I had thoughts about Elena and decided she just couldn't face it, the happiness of two just-married people, even if they were marrying each other so they could both remain comfortable. I knew Elena loved to come to this house, to see how these people lived. That even if her heart was broken she'd maybe be able to see another future for herself. What was wrong with that really? Didn't everyone want comfort and happiness? Even I, when I'd married so young. But I knew, as had happened with me, that people change fast, things change fast, and comfort can come crashing down and change into fear. If I hadn't stood up to my husband that night he might have beat me to death. I hadn't meant to kill him, but if I hadn't run away I might be still in jail. Small towns have a way of hanging on to their inhabitants.


I started to wonder about Andre's absence when I heard shouts from the kitchen. Everyone turned towards the door and Rubin and Andre came in with loud bangs and crashes, slammings of doors.


"Her body, they found her body behind the golf course.." Rubin yelled at Big Boy who was so drunk he couldn't focus his eyes. Behind Rubin, Andre staggered carrying a large object. I realized it was the dripping, wet, limp body of Elena. Young men appeared at the swinging kitchen door behind them, neighbors with poles and rakes. I stood still for several minutes just watching as the faces of all the guests turned white, then away, then many of them rushed from the room. Then no one was left but Cristal, Big Boy, Craig and Mr. Duggan facing Andre and Rubin who had taken Elena's muddy body and lain it across the sofa. Big Boy was calling a police car, an ambulance and a nearby sheriff for backup. Patty re-entered the room and took charge, bossing the workers back out of the house, sending Cristal upstairs to Susan. A lawyer friend of hers from the party re-appeared and took Craig, Evan, and Mr. Duggan into the library. Rubin was crying over Elena's body and Andre was sobbing by his side. Elena was a terrible sight. There were no wounds, just bruises all over her body, her long hair plastered against her skin. Her stomach was slightly distended, as if she had gained a little weight. I fled the house.


From the top of the hill I can look down on the town and remember how things were before. Everything looks peaceful, who could know what happened? I left my dog in Andre's patio and I left a note for Rubin. I know I must take care of myself. If I return north now maybe I can clear things up. If I stay I'll be discovered and never have a chance. I'm not certain right now what I'll do. I'll catch a bus and when I arrive somewhere I'll decide.


Cecelia Chapman is a writer and artist living near San Francisco. ceceliachapman.com

 
 
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