With the turn of the New Year came, as always, a time of resolutions and new beginnings. No more could I afford the vaguely pleasurable limbo in which I’d lately been floating. So I took stock and began to deal with feelings of guilt I had metaphorically swept under the carpet.
Since my return to San Francisco in early December from a certain trip I didn’t even like to think about, I’d allowed myself to luxuriate in feelings of safety and belonging. I was daily overwhelmed with gratitude at simply finding myself alive — especially considering a number of things that had happened while I was away that might have produced quite the opposite result. There were times when to be alive and in love with my partner Michael Kossoff was almost more happiness than I could bear. Of course there were also times when I wished I were strong enough to throw him off the roof of our house at the top of Divisadero Street, but that’s another story.
If I were honest, I had to admit that underneath my happiness ran a subterranean vein of the most profound disquiet, and in this vein lay the source of my guilt: deep concerns about my father. I was worried about his health and general well-being, certain I had good reason for worry, and yet I had done next to nothing.
Oh, I had a good excuse for my inaction: two broken legs that were excruciatingly slow to heal, and some unpleasant mental and emotional aftereffects of that aforementioned trip. I would have denied having any problem other than my legs if anyone had asked, especially Michael; lacking control over one’s thoughts and feelings can be most distressing. My legs were stronger now — I had recently traded my crutches for two canes — and even though I was less sure about strength in the rest of me, I could not wait any longer to do something about Father.
Ever testing limits, I tucked one cane under my left arm and, leaning only upon the other one, started across the sitting room. Three steps: drops of perspiration broke out on my forehead. This was agony — not so much physical, although there was pain. The embarrassing truth was, ever since giving up the crutches, I’d been afraid of falling.
Breathing hard against fear’s chill, I thought: Why push myself too far? I needed both the canes, for balance as well as support. Even so, I forced one more step before allowing the relief that flooded me as soon as I put that second cane to the floor.
If I hadn’t known better, I could’ve sworn this house had grown larger during the time I was away. It took a ridiculously long time to cross this room. Or any room. Finally I reached the other side, as sweat-drenched as if I’d run a race in midsummer rather than walked a few steps indoors on a gloomy, rainy San Francisco winter day.
Taking a seat at a little antique writing desk that had been a welcome-home gift from Michael, I heard the telephone ring right beneath my feet. Downstairs on my side of our double house is the office suite of J and K, the private investigation agency that Michael and I own and operate together. Not that I had lately been of any use to our operation whatsoever. I sighed, and reached for writing paper.
The telephone rang three times before it was picked up, then faintly I heard the inimitable tones of Edna Stephenson’s voice. She has a large voice for such a small woman, yet I couldn’t make out her exact words. Never mind, she always said the same thing anyway: “The J and K Agency. This is Mrs. Stephenson, the receptionist, speaking. May I help you?”
I smiled, then frowned, straining to hear even though I knew the chance of my being able to make out the words through the thick walls of the house was slim to none. Lately my pleasure at being safe and sound has been regularly outweighed by a strong desire to resume all my normal activities, such as snooping. As an eavesdropper I excelled, in large part due to my unusually acute hearing. But here the walls defeated me; in the world at large my physical limitations did the same. What good is a detective who cannot walk unaided? For whom a flight of stairs presents a formidable obstacle? How long, oh how long before I would be myself again?
My present routine had me going downstairs to the office twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, to meet with the others and hear what cases the agency had going. These two trips up and down were all I could physically handle.
Sitting in on case discussion was not enough for me. I wanted to do more. I might have stayed downstairs to do typewriting in the mornings, I was physically capable of that — but Edna had become quite a good typewriter. She could run the office alone. She did not need me, and after a few minutes I inevitably felt like an intruder. The office was no longer my territory, I had made myself into a detective, or an investigator, and if I could not detect or investigate then I felt useless.
Downstairs the sound of Edna’s voice ceased; involuntarily I winced as she banged the earpiece back on its hook, a gentle hang-up not being Edna’s style. For a moment I pictured her slipping out of her chair — she is a short woman whose feet do not quite reach the floor when she sits at her desk — then tottering on tiny feet across the front office, through the conference room, and then into the kitchen. I glanced at my pendant watch — another gift from Michael, who has been showering me with entirely too many presents lately — to confirm the time. As I’d thought, it was about 4 p.m. In another hour I would make my way down the stairs to follow the same path Edna had just taken in my mind’s eye, back to the kitchen where she and Michael and Wish and I would discuss what they had done today. Wish Stephenson is our other investigator, and Edna is his mother. The others would talk and I would listen; greedily, enviously I would drink in their words along with Edna’s scalding coffee.
But right now I had a letter to write.
I had been thinking about this letter for a long time. It was the sort of letter that would start something, would lead to irrevocable consequences — and so I hadn’t dared to write it until I believed I could handle those consequences. This letter would say words that, once said, could not be taken back. It would bring an outside person into a situation that, thus far, had been private. It was a difficult and possibly a dangerous step to take. Yet I hesitated no longer; words flowed from my pen.
The sound of a pen moving across paper is irresistible to a cat. Sometimes to my detriment I forget this. I was completely engrossed when Hiram leaped upon the desk, tucked his haunches under and sat on a corner of the paper, his golden eyes tracking the moving pen with a born stalker’s fascination. Uh-oh. I put the pen down just in time. He blinked at me quite crossly for ruining his fun.
I have not had Hiram for very long; I acquired him as a tiny kitten on that trip I do not like to think about. To say that he is growing rapidly would be an understatement. I suppose in cat time he must be entering adolescence; certainly he has the cat version of that gangly look, as if the rest of him may never catch up to the length of his legs and tail. He has become somewhat clumsy as well. I clapped one hand over the inkwell before we could have a nasty accident.
“How kind of you to join me,” I said acerbically, as I picked Hiram up and tucked him in my lap beneath the fold-down panel of the desk. “If you want to stay, then you must sit there quietly and behave yourself.”
He stretched his neck and stared at me upside down as if to judge whether I meant what I’d said. “Really,” I added for emphasis.
This apparently convinced him, for he stretched once and then shaped himself into a purring ball of sleek black fur. I stroked him for a while, rereading what I’d written thus far; then I caught my lower lip in my teeth (which somehow facilitates thought) and continued to write. I did not stop until I had finished the whole letter. Then I read it through. Though the paper trembled in my hand, I was satisfied that I’d said what needed to be said:
January 10, 1909
Mr. William Barrett
Great Centennial Bank
I write to ask for your assistance in a matter pertaining to my father, Leonard Pembroke Jones. I do hope you will forgive my presumption in approaching you after an absence and silence of so many years. My memory of your past kindness prompts me to do so. I have such a warm recollection of your solicitousness on those occasions when, after my mother’s death, I served as my father’s awkward young hostess. You made things easier for me then, and I hope now you will be able to do the same — although the present situation is, alas, far more serious. In truth, William, I do not know where else to turn. I trust I may rely on your discretion, as this is a matter of some delicacy.
Before proceeding with an explanation, I should say I am well aware that Father is no longer at the bank, that he is “retired,” though in Father’s case I am not sure what the exact meaning of that word would be. While I am sorry on his account, as he was always a man whose work meant much to him, I do hope his departure may have meant promotion for you. I know he would have thought you a worthy successor.
In essence my dilemma is this: I have been lately unable to make contact with Father. Over the past two months I have sent him three telegrams. Only the first of these was answered, by Father’s faithful secretary Gladys, who told me he was no longer at the bank due to his (aforementioned) retirement. The two subsequent telegrams, sent to him at the Beacon Street residence, have gone unanswered, though Western Union has assured me they were delivered.
If I may speak plainly: I suspect the intervention of Father’s wife, Augusta (as was) Simmons. I cannot imagine any circumstance under which Augusta would have any right or reason to intercept a communication from me, or indeed from anyone, to my father. If Father had received my telegrams himself, I am certain he would have replied. Because I know the telegrams were delivered to the house but Father has not replied, I can only conclude they were delivered into hands other than Father’s. Whose else but Augusta’s? I do not wish to be unfair, but I can reach no other conclusion.
I know that when I left Boston and came to San Francisco without Father’s prior knowledge or consent four years ago, it may have looked as if I were deliberately disowning myself. But such was not my intention, as Father eventually understood. He and I are not estranged. Last April he came here to San Francisco for my twenty-fifth birthday, and I was on my way to Boston to visit him in October when a rather nasty incident interrupted my trip. As I explained in those two ill-fated telegrams, I am still recovering from injuries suffered at that time. Father would never fail to reply to a letter telling him I had been hurt, as I am sure you will agree.
William, if you would be so kind as to go to the Pembroke Jones house, I know Augusta could not refuse to admit you. You could say you had come on bank business, could you not? Would you please go and tell him that I am alive and well, and longing to see him again? That I will come to Boston at the earliest possible opportunity? And would you then write and let me know how he seems to you, if he be well or ill or at any stage in between?
I await most eagerly your reply.
Your friend always,
Caroline Fremont Jones
There, it was done. I read it over a second time and was satisfied. The letter could go out today — if Edna were willing to take care of it on her way home.
Yes, asking Edna to mail the letter was a good idea. That way Michael would not have to know I’d written it. He would not approve; he would say I was not yet well enough to be thinking about these things. His protectiveness could so easily cross an invisible line and become stifling to me.
My too protective love came bounding up the stairs shortly before five o’clock. Edna had already left on my letter-mailing errand, and Wish was not yet back from wherever he was working; I’d been hoping to get downstairs before Michael’s return, but no such luck.
“Fremont,” he called out when he was only perhaps halfway up, “are you alone? And if you are, why was the door unlocked? I’ve told Edna and Wish never to leave you in the house alone with the door unlocked.”
By the time he reached the last part of this complaint he had burst into my sitting room, where I stood in the middle of the handsome Chinese rug that had been my first purchase of furnishing for this place — back when money had been hard to come by.
“I am glad to see you too,” I said, “and how nice of you to knock before entering my part of the house.”
“Oh, piffle.” Michael kissed my cheek. His own cheek, which he laid against mine for a moment, was cool, his hair felt damp, he smelled of Pears soap and something else, something slightly smoky — I supposed just of having been out in the City.
“Piffle, my foot. And you wonder why I don’t want to marry. Perhaps it is because I would like to have a little privacy now and then.”
“Married people can have privacy. Married people can live just the way we live — each in half a house. And in fact plenty do live that way, with far less intimacy than you and I have achieved in spite of the ridiculous lines you draw, Fremont.”
I smiled. This was an old argument, its permutations as familiar as the forms of a dance. The only new addition to our established pattern was Hiram the cat, who twined himself in and out of Michael’s legs, purring loudly.
Excerpted from Beacon Street Mourning by Dianne Day. Copyright © 2000 by Dianne Day. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.