1

 

Drew Morten’s grandmother revealed a number of startling things the night before she died, starting with: “I uncovered what would have been the biggest news story of all time, something terrifying that’s still out there waiting to be told,” and, “I kept silent about a killing I witnessed, except that it wasn’t really a killing. Sort of. It’s hard to explain.”

Drew struggled to respond.

“And there’s a lot more you don’t know, Drew.”

The lace sheers at her bedroom window misted the room with the amber light of sunset, touched by rose. Grandma’s eyes glowed like candlelight above her gently sagging skin, her tight curls in disarrayed bouquets. She smiled, and the yellowing stumps of her teeth softened and warmed her gaze. He was glad she never had them fixed.

“You also need to be on the lookout for a man named Victor.”

He drew back. “Why?”

She shook her head, raising her hands. “I don’t know.”

“Who is he?”

She sighed. “Drew, I’ve seen much more than you’ll ever know, and I kept diaries for years. I guess they call them journals now. About five years ago, I organized them into a memoir. It explains everything, or at least as much as I can explain.” Respect and admiration radiated in her eyes, for which he felt wholly undeserving. “Every word I wrote, I thought of you. It’s very important that you read it.”

She pointed to her bedside table, strewn with medicine bottles. Arthritis inflated her joints like marbles stuffed into her skin. “In the top drawer. There’s a card in there somewhere. It looks like a business card, but it only has a printed passcode.”

He opened the drawer and rummaged through a clinking assortment of small, long forgotten things. He found the card in back, blank save for a centered line of random, jumbled text.

“That’s the code that will open my safe deposit box at Security National Bank in Santa Rosa. You already have my power of attorney, so you won’t have a problem.”

“Safe deposit box?”

“Don’t get all greedy,” she teased. “All you’ll find is my manuscript. It’s about my first year at the network when amazing things happened. I used real names, but most of them are probably dead.”

“What do you want me to do with it?”

“Promise to read it. Some of it will sound crazy but I told the truth as best as I could. There are a few surprises in there for you as well. When you’re done, you can do what you like with it. Publish it or burn it. It doesn’t matter because I told the truth.” She sighed as if exhausted from sharing wisdom in such an irrational world. “Just be aware most people don’t want the truth. It’s one of the things I learned as a television reporter. You have to promise me you’ll read it.”

“Try to stop me.”

“There’s one more thing.” She pointed to the dresser at the foot of the bed. “There’s an old necklace in the bottom drawer. I saw your Aunt Viv looking at it last week, wondering how much it’s worth. An old friend left it to me in her will. I want you to have it for helping me all these months, so take it to your room and hide it really well. Viv’ll turn the house upside down if she thinks it’s worth something.”

“Grandma, we don’t have to do this now. It’s not like you’re going to drop dead tomorrow.”

“I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you these things. I’m certain that time is now. I can feel I’m near the end. I can’t explain it. It’s not a darkness, and it isn’t frightening. It feels like a destination.”

“You’re tougher than I am, and I’m not dying any time soon.”

“Dearest Drew.” She stroked his hand. “You’re one of the strongest people I know. You’ll realize it soon enough.”

The next morning, the hospice nurse Tisha knocked and opened Drew’s door. A beautiful African American who wore her hair in tight braids, Tisha was just as dedicated to her patients as to her pursuit of a physics degree at Sonoma State. Drew trusted her judgment, and if she interrupted a private moment, it damn well needed to be interrupted. Already awake, he shot up, quickly arranging the tangled sheets to cover his nudity.

“I’m sorry to barge in like this, but your grandma took a turn for the worse overnight. Based on my experience, you should tell your family to get here as soon as they can.”

Uncle Dennis and his wife Jean arrived first, hugs all around, Tisha included. Aunt Viv and her a daughter arrived a few minutes later, their heads capped with peroxide puffs.

Drew sat next to Grandma’s bed, holding her hand. It looked blue and felt cold. They shared a loving smile. Standing next to him, Tisha put a hand on his shoulder.

“Victor,” Grandma said, so softly that if he hadn’t recognized it from last night’s warning, he’d never have been sure of her final word.

The others looked at him for an explanation, but he focused on Grandma. She rubbed and pinched the bedspread until her eyelids drooped and her head slumped. A death rattle gurgled softly, like a forgotten pot set to simmer.

Drew took a deep breath, overwhelmed by being present at the end of Grandma’s life. She was born as World War Two raged. Every moment she’d lived, many as a famous national news anchor, brought her here in this room with these few people, and he was one of them. It was as much an honor as an unfathomable loss.

“Well, that’s it,” Aunt Viv said quietly, giving her mother a quick kiss on the forehead. “We need to find the stock certificates.”

The comment jolted Uncle Dennis. “Viv, Mom told me the stocks were going to be divided between you, me, and Drew. She said she put it in her will.”

Drew’s cousin Regina looked scandalized. “Why does Drew get a third, but there’s nothing for the other grandchildren?”

Uncle Dennis raised his voice. “Because Drew’s mother was our sister and she died. If your mom wants to give you some of her share, that’s her business, but Drew’s parents are dead, so he inherits that third.”

Regina started to argue, but Aunt Viv stopped her. “I’ll call the lawyer in a few minutes and ask when we can see the will. Right now, let’s just find and protect all the valuables.” She nodded at the dresser. “There’s an old necklace in there. It’s in a purple pouch. I’ve never seen it before, and my mom couldn’t remember where she got it. It wouldn’t surprise me if we could get a pretty penny for it.”

“Why don’t you see if she has some gold fillings to dig out before the people from the funeral home come?” Drew said.

Aunt Viv lifted her chin. “My mother wasn’t sentimental. She’d want me to secure the family heirlooms.”

Tisha said softly, “Drew, venting your anger at her death won’t bring her back.”

His anger was bigger than that, but Tisha was otherwise correct, so he turned away and trundled downstairs. Uncle Dennis and Aunt Viv started arguing.

For the past five months, Drew had lived in the tiny pantry / sun room next to the kitchen, the only available room in Grandma’s small house with a door that closed. He’d cleared away the dollhouse dining set, inflated an air mattress, and covered the windows with sheets. He’d borrowed a rolling coat rack to use as a closet, and it just barely fit.

He sat on the bed and flipped up the blanket, lifting the purple velveteen pouch Aunt Viv and Regina were searching for upstairs. From its weight, the silver was real, formed into a choker of twisted ropes. He examined the large, tear-drop pendant. Despite a shade of ruby as deep as a royal cape, the flawless crystal was clear enough to read through.

He luxuriated in the gem’s hypnotic gleam before pulling the safe deposit box passcode from the pouch. He returned the necklace to the pouch and looked for a less obvious hiding spot, which he found behind a shelving unit displaying decorative but unused kitchen supplies like a fancy porcelain tea service and platters. He gave his beard and buzzed hair a quick brush, grabbed his car fob, and set out.

Grandma’s cottage nestled on a hillside among soaring redwoods, ancient giants that ignored the humans living out their brief lives at their roots. Once the masters of forests across the earth, the trees survived in only a few spots of Northern California, with distant relatives huddled in a valley in the misty wilds of China. Limbs shot from the trunks in horizontal precision, softened by the pine-like needles that fuzzed their branches and covered the ground with spongy carpeting.

Across the lane, a light snapped on deep inside another small house hunched in the eternal shade of the redwoods. A friendly widow named Althea Miller lived there, and if he told her Grandma had died, she’d spread the news across the hillside, sparing him the task. He started across to knock on Althea’s door but changed his mind and climbed into his car.

Scattered homes lined the narrow roads that twisted along the hills above the Russian River. He wound slowly downhill, alert to the possibility of an opposing car suddenly appearing around the next curve that would require a clumsy dance of backing up and pulling over. Often one could do nothing but ease aside and let the other car crunch past with a friendly wave.

At the bottom of the hill, he waited at a stop sign for a break in the heavy traffic along River Road. Trucks, RVs, and other vehicles roared past. Merging required gunning the pedal and holding your breath.

He peeled out at a spot between a pickup and a big rig and survived one more time. About ten years ago, late one night after spending the day with Grandma, his parents hadn’t. The CHP officer had assured him they didn’t see the truck and died blissfully unawares, but Drew never believed her. He knew they saw the headlights, the lightning streaks on chrome moving much too fast and much too close, their screams drowned out by a blasting horn. He never crossed the spot without thinking of their last terrifying moments.

River Road slalomed along, flattening to a straight line only when passing through Guerneville, the once-posh resort town for San Francisco’s elite, now a roughened but popular vacation spot for a mix of people casual about being openly gay and startled straight tourists casting surreptitious glances. Restaurants, bars, and tchotchke shops ran for several sunny blocks before the road plunged back into redwood shade.

Forty-five minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of Security First Bank in downtown Santa Rosa. Inside, an efficient woman confirmed his power of attorney before leading him into a room with an empty table and chair.

She tapped the code into a glowing pad. Soft machinery whirred behind a wall patterned in beige and black. She pointed to an empty recess. “Just enter the passcode on the front. When you’re through, put the box back in the slot, hit the return button, and the system will automatically refile it.”

A moment after she left, a box rolled forward like an offering. After he punched in the passcode, the front popped open, and Drew removed a jumbo manila envelope with his grandmother’s manuscript.

He returned to Grandma’s house, where only Tisha’s car remained. She came outside as he parked.

They hugged. “I’m sorry for your loss, Drew. I’ll stop by tomorrow morning with the final hospice forms. I’ll also have to do an inventory on the remaining supplies.”

“Sorry for your loss, too. I know you were fond of my grandma.”

“I was.” Her eyes glinted. “Your family went to see the lawyer in San Francisco. Oh, and Althea across the way saw the funeral home’s van and came over, so she knows, too.”

That settled his obligations to the neighborhood.

“They took her?”

Tisha nodded and rubbed his arm. “How are you doing? Do you want to talk?”

“Thanks, but I’m not in the mood. I’m not sure how I feel yet.”

“That’s perfectly normal. Do you want me to call someone for you? Like a boyfriend or something?”

“I’m not seeing anyone, and I’ll be fine. Why don’t you take off? I can handle anything that comes up here.”

She studied his face. “Okay, then. I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the usual time.”

She drove off and sounds rose all around. Chattering birds, a barking dog, a distant chainsaw, and the hollow, deliberative thunk thunk thunkof woodpeckers.

He couldn’t go inside just yet. In the comfortable shade of ancient redwoods, he eased himself into a metallic rocking chair on the porch. He slipped the manuscript from the envelope.

 

 

2

Requiem for a Girl Reporter

1943–1975

 

My name is Claudia Trenton. For fifteen years, from 1965 until 1980, I was a famous television journalist. I was born in Vermont in 1943, and I have no siblings. My father was a soldier killed in the recapture of Guam in 1944, and I have no memories of him.

I’ve kept meticulous journals all my life and I can report with confidence about a transformative year when I enjoyed a string of triumphs as a television journalist. When the cameras were off, however, my world cracked open and I glimpsed a reality that left me breathless with wonder and fright.

After my father died, my mother moved us to Cleveland to live with her older sister in a brick duplex that overlooked a valley filled with clanking steel mills belching fire and smoke. I attended St. Mark’s parochial school where one of my friends referred to my aunt Lydia as a spinster. I took great umbrage because it sounded like a terrible accusation, and my aunt was a kind and sensible woman. I shared my anger with my mother. To my horror, she told Aunt Lydia, and I was mystified when they both laughed uproariously. I’d never seen my aunt more sincerely delighted.

Unlike my schoolmates, I found television shows like The Mickey Mouse Clubembarrassingly childish and all those westerns excruciatingly dull. Mom and Aunt Lydia loved watching The Honeymoonersand I Love Lucy. I enjoyed those too, but I was transfixed by a mythical being on the local news, a creature so rare and magical all of America knew about Cleveland’s girl reporter.

Her name was Delilah Fuller, and she was in her forties when she made her television debut, but everyone called her the girl reporter. Her popularity spurred other stations to hire women, which made me anxious. I wanted to be a girl reporter, and I worried I’d never find a job if every station in the country already had one.

I studied the way Delilah looked into the camera, the way she spoke and nodded during interviews. The girl reporters who appeared on the other stations were much more attractive than Delilah. They smiled while interviewing cooks and singers and puppets, while Delilah angrily tapped the table when the mayor or a congressman avoided her question.

I worshiped her.

I started reading both the morning and afternoon newspapers. I studied the weekly magazines at the library and almost never missed a political press conference, State of the Union speech, or special coverage of major events.

I graduated from high school in 1960. My grades weren’t exceptional enough for a scholarship, and both my mother and aunt toiled for small wages in the cafeteria of a steel mill, so college was out of the question. I held on to my dreams but couldn’t fathom how to fashion such a glamorous and demanding career.

With a plan to save money for college, I became a secretary at an insurance company downtown. Since I was often still on the bus at six o’clock, I missed many of Delilah’s newscasts, but I continued to read the papers and magazines and watch as much television news as I could.

For five years, I filled out insurance forms, typed letters, transcribed memos, answered phones, and ordered lunch for executives who didn’t seem half as bright as Delilah. I saved money by skimping on clothes and eating only at home. Raising enough for college proved more challenging than I expected, and I felt my hopes fading.

A cultural revolution was brewing. The Beats and the Beatles cleared a path to hippies at Woodstock, protests of every sort, and women’s libbers without bras, but Delilah was my role model. While she didn’t seem unsympathetic to these changes, by now she was a fussy old woman. In stores, color TV showed her bright red hair and she wore a lot of makeup.

One of my shabby younger bosses who fancied himself quite the lady-killer said, “You could be really pretty if you started wearing nice clothes and had your hair fixed up. I’ll bet you could be on television. You’re way foxier than that old hag Delilah Fuller.”

Maybe that’s what television needed: a foxy Delilah Fuller.

That weekend I spent a fortune on a hair stylist and a fancy outfit from an upscale department store. On Monday, I called in sick and arrived at the television station first thing in the morning. I summoned the courage to march inside and ask to meet with the news director.

“What’s this about?” the receptionist asked. She was prettier than I was, and I stuttered until I said, “I’m here about a job.”

Amazingly, he agreed to meet with me. I perched nervously in a chair facing his desk. He wore a rumpled brown suit and was almost completely bald. He gave me a friendly smile.

“What can I do for you, Miss Trenton?”

I took a deep breath. “I’ve studied Delilah Fuller for years. I know every move, every look. I’ve even practiced how she holds a microphone. I’ve been studying politics since I was a little girl. I gave up my social life to read and watch the news, and I was born to be a television reporter. If you give me a chance, I’ll bring something just as fresh to your station as Delilah did.”

His smile grew. “Did you know that I hired Delilah?” I gave him a startled, spontaneous look of admiration that, in retrospect, was the perfect response. “You think you can replace her?”

I was mortified. “No, but I can bring a new style to what she does.”

“You mean you want to be a pretty Delilah Fuller?”

I felt my face burn. “I mean I can be the voice of a new outlook in Cleveland. We’re much more reserved than San Francisco or New York or Los Angeles, but the young generation here is just as restless for something new. I have the talent and the skills to bring those viewers to you, people who appreciate an intelligent woman who understands them.” I worried I’d gone too far.

He cupped his hand over his chin, ready to order me out.

“Can you start today?”

Two hours later, I stood in front of a burning tool and die plant in far-off Elyria. I interviewed the manager and shop steward about the loss of revenue and jobs while a scornful cameraman and audio tech rolled their eyes. We rushed back to the station and a sympathetic editor helped me record the voice-over and pull the piece together, peering at the film through an eyepiece while swiveling the hand cranks. My story led the six o’clock news and Delilah Fuller, by now a bona fide journalism star, read the intro copy that I wrote.

After that first newscast, I eagerly waited to introduce myself to Delilah, but she gave me a slight smile and walked past. She rarely took notice of me. My idol tottered around the station like an aging queen who expected scraping subservience. Although she was always regally polite, she rebuffed every attempt to get personal. Now and then, she complimented one of my stories. When the ratings rose because of me, she even seemed tender.

For three years, I worked as a general assignment reporter covering crime scenes, fires, storms, labor disputes, train derailments, and car crashes. I made my mistakes, I learned my lessons, and I was thankful for every moment. I had to prove myself before I could sit down with a congressman and demand answers, and I wasn’t interviewing puppets. I made good money, people recognized me everywhere, and my mother and aunt grew giddy with pride. I moved into my own apartment.

I’d never been asked on a date, but soon every kind of man approached me, from the attractive and successful to the slovenly joes I interviewed in sketchy neighborhoods. I cautiously accepted a few invitations to dinner, but only with the handsome and better-off sort. When a date suggested an intimate night at his place, I smiled and said I had commitments the next morning. When he grew more insistent, I truthfully told him my career came first. I got used to being called a stuck-up bitch.

As Delilah’s stardom faded, the ratings stalled and began to sink despite our hard work.

In 1968, the old news director retired, replaced by a restless go-getter named Barry with lots of bushy hair and muttonchops. He wore mod, psychedelic fashions and spoke in a rapid patter. Soon after he started, he asked me to lunch at a fancy restaurant. The other diners recognized me and stared.

“Delilah is ancient,” he said, sipping whisky and water. “She’s also an icon, and you can’t buy that for a million bucks, so I’ll keep her on the air for as long as she can breathe. But she’s a square, and she’s getting senile. We have to jazz things up, so here’s the nitty-gritty. We need a new girl co-anchor to replace Delilah on the six and eleven o’clock news. Pronto.”

I concealed a surge of excitement and hope.

“Check out these numbers.” He handed me a sheet of paper. “You’re the most popular chick in the market. You’re gorgeous and you’re smart, but you don’t act like some stuck-up bitch. I’m offering you Delilah’s spot.” He smiled like he’d just suggested something indecent, a proposal that felt inevitable.

I pretended to study the numbers while I considered my options. I was on the verge of a rocketing career ascent, but I couldn’t imagine knocking my childhood hero from her co-anchor chair.

I forced the words out. “If you think I’m going to betray Delilah Fuller, you don’t know me at all.”

“Don’t sweat it. We’re starting a newscast at noon. We’ll park Delilah there for the old people and housewives and cripples. They’ll love it, she’ll love it. She’s a childless spinster, so she can deal with a new schedule. It’s mint.”

I’d heard Delilah grouch about her late hours, so I knew he was right. She would love it. I accepted the offer. I also turned down his predictable advances. “I dig it,” he said. “Don’t shit where you eat.”

Barry introduced a slew of production gimmicks. For example, the newscast now opened with a wide shot from an overhead camera bolted to the lighting grid, just behind a waffled prop tile only a few feet across. The shot gave the illusion that the small prop was a massive ceiling with a bright, modern, beeswax pattern, an impossibility in a television studio. And just before each show, the anchors did our audio checks on-set before grouping off camera to wait for our cue. As the music and voice-over rolled, we hurried back to our chairs as if we were just rushing in with the very latest news.

Our ratings stabilized before climbing steadily.

Delilah’s growing senility became difficult to hide. At noon, she walked on-set alone, looking achingly lonely in the huge overhead shot with the fantasy ceiling. Her ordinary clothes evolved into increasingly elaborate outfits until she shuffled along in floor-length evening gowns, feather boas, and glittering jewelry. The music often ended before she reached the chair, so all was silent until she plonked down and squinted. As she read, she impatiently swatted at stray feathers, barking for the prompter to scroll back because she’d lost her place.

Her ratings soared.

“Barry’s exploiting her!” I said to my mom and aunt. “She wants to be on TV, but people are tuning in just to laugh. It’s disgraceful.”

“Don’t complain,” my mom said. “They’ll think you’re ungrateful.”

“Or difficult,” Aunt Lydia added.

For five years, I kept silent. Our newscasts led their time slots, and Delilah went along with whatever Barry wanted. As she slowly deteriorated, anchoring solo became too challenging, so an older man was hired to read the news while she waited for her diminishing number of cues.

Around this time, my mother died suddenly at work from an undiagnosed heart condition, a call I took only fifteen minutes before the six o’clock news, requiring a scramble to replace me because I couldn’t go on that night. After the funeral, I learned my aunt Lydia had cancer. She died a few months later.

Nobody warned me to brace for the overwhelming dislocation of losing my family. I took vacation time from work to marinate in emotion while clearing out the old apartment where I’d grown up. I was filled with an existential pain most of us feel but few dare mention, a hopelessness as you examine the trinkets of an extinguished life. Jewelry, books, even old pots and pans detach and float away without identity. After several more decades, anyone with even a fleeting memory of that person will also be gone. If a photo survives, it might draw a curious glance every so often, but otherwise that life sinks away.

Underneath my mother’s bed, I found a veritable closet of linens in zippered plastic bags. When I removed the last one, I spotted an object strapped to the bottom of the box frame with rope, wrapped in a towel. I shoved the mattress aside and untied the knot. Back under the bed, I gently pulled the rope for just enough slack, easing the object into my hand.

The box was about the size and weight of a paperback book, and as I unwrapped it, I felt its sculptural features and heard fragile clinks. With great care, I turned aside the last fold and inhaled with wonder.

The box gleamed with rich rosewood in meticulous floral designs. Cabochon gemstones studded tight bouquets of silver rosettes with delicate golden leaves and stems framing inlaid mother-of-pearl hearts. I traced a stem with misty-eyed joy that my mother had kept such a private, magnificent secret all these years.

The lid lifted as if new, and blue velvet lined the inside. On a sturdy card affixed to the top, a note read, For a priceless heartin my father’s hand. With gingerly pinches, I undid a pretty red lace bow securing a bundle of cream silk, revealing a nest of four pieces of jewelry.

The first one was a plain gold wedding band, which I knew instantly had been sent back from Guam in 1944 when my father had been buried at sea. My mother would never tell me where she kept his wedding ring, and I vowed to reunite it with hers. The rest of the jewelry was a complete surprise, including a necklace with a crystal pendant holding a snip of my father’s dark hair. I also found a small brooch with an ancient Egyptian design in what looked like real jet, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies.

The last piece bewildered me, a golden pin shaped like a column atop a curly base, capped with a sort of lamp fashioned from translucent yellow gemstones, probably sapphires. I studied the distinctive form before deciding it was a lighthouse rising above stylized crashing waves. The engraving on the reverse read, To my dearestfollowed by a date that meant nothing to me.

I kept the jewelry box, of course, but got rid of almost everything else. When I returned to work, the everyday demands of the newsroom soon blasted away the fog of my melancholy.

After a while, Delilah was reduced to commentaries she scripted in her office, a space strictly off-limits to everyone. Her popular, daily three minutes on camera rarely rose above cranky pet peeves like the noisy kids on her block, substandard chocolates, and her maid’s shortcomings, a recurring favorite. “Well, Harriett’s done it again,” she’d start with indignation. The air for miles around seemed to fill with raucous laughter.

Inevitably, Delilah found reading the prompter too difficult. I was hopeful she’d retire, but Barry rejiggered her daily segment into an ad-lib feature called, Ask Delilah!, where she answered live telephone questions. Snickering teens often hijacked the calls with sexual innuendo, which her co-anchor deflected. Legitimate questions earned grumpy and long-winded replies, frequently cut short.

Soon, she began crying whenever her co-anchor gently informed her they’d run out of time. Public laughter faded, and outraged viewers flooded the station with complaints. Barry ended her live segments but kept her on the air for prerecorded fluff interviews edited to remove her wandering attention and painfully long lapses.

One day in the newsroom, I looked up at the monitors and froze to see Delilah interviewing a puppet.

I worked diligently the rest of the day because anchoring two nightly newscasts requires preparation and concentration. Alone in my apartment the next morning, I rehearsed an angry speech for Barry, demanding he force Delilah to retire while the public still remembered her as a serious journalist. As I formulated my rant, the phone rang, and a man with a posh voice asked for me. Cautious because creepy men sometimes got my unlisted number, I asked who was calling.

He introduced himself as Loren Sanderson, executive producer of the network news in New York. “I had a layover in Cleveland last week and caught your eleven o’clock newscast. You’re sensational. How do you feel about moving to New York to be a general assignment correspondent for the national news?”

I moved to New York within the month, in March of 1975. I was thirty-two years old.

Delilah died ten months later, in January of 1976. By then, my life had changed in inconceivable ways, and I’d learned things I longed to hack from my mind.

The night Delilah died, I was in my apartment in Manhattan’s cosmopolitan but shady Lower West Side. My still-unnamed infant girl was asleep when my phone rang. I shrieked when it went off, for I had turned off the lights and lowered all the blinds. I was curled on the floor, terrified. Gingerly, I lifted the handset and whispered, “Hello?” My voice shook.

“Claudia?” a woman asked, sounding alarmed by my greeting. “This is Betty from Cleveland. Remember me? The associate producer?”

“Betty,” I croaked, wishing, not for the first time, I’d never left Cleveland.

“You don’t sound so good, Claudia.”

“Don’t worry about me, Betty. How is everything at the station?”

“I’m really sorry to tell you, Delilah died today. She was taping. She started rambling some crazy stuff and then she just drifted away. We thought she’d fallen asleep again.”

Through everything else, I thought of how happy it would make Delilah to know she would die on camera.

“Barry’s planning a big announcement tomorrow. All the bells and whistles.” She ticked her tongue. “They’re going to exploit her to the very end.”

I gently sobbed, and Betty tried to comfort me. “She always thought so highly of you.”

“She did? She never told me.”

“Well, that’s the other reason I called.” Her voice went dubious. “I’m not sure how you’re going to take this. Are you sitting down?”

I was on the floor. “Yes.”

“Well, I’m sure you remember how Delilah never let anyone but the cleaning crew into her office. We called it the royal privy chamber, remember?”

“Yeah.”

“As soon as she died I made a beeline for her office. I wanted to get my hands on anything personal before Barry ransacked it. She has no family, so he’d publish her private diaries if he thought they could make a buck. They’ve been sucking her blood long enough.” She dropped her voice. “Claudia, Delilah was in love with you. I found letters she wrote but never gave to you dating back to 1965. She wrote poems about you and little comments about your clothes or a story you worked on. She had all of your publicity stills, and she saved your newspaper clippings.”

When I didn’t reply, she said, “I just thought you’d want to know.” She gave me another moment. “Would you like me to send them to you?”

“Of course,” I said in a tiny whisper. “I’ll cherish them forever.”

Betty gave a nervous little laugh, and I realized what my answer implied. Being thought of as a lesbian seemed comically trivial compared to the knowledge that, at the moment, had me cowering. The world needed as much love as possible, yet people seemed so determined to stamp it out. I felt an ache that Delilah needed to be so secretive, so silent.

I let out a whimper.

“Look, Claudia you sound like you’re in a terrible state. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I have to go,” I said and hung up. I gasped in surprise when a police siren blasted on the street far below.

 

 

3

 

Drew reached behind the shelving unit to pull the purple pouch from its hiding spot but felt only grit and cobwebs. He used the flashlight app on his phone. The necklace was gone. Stunned, he checked under the blanket, his first hiding spot, although he knew he wouldn’t find it.

Five people were inside when he left to retrieve Grandma’s memoir: Tisha, Aunt Viv and her daughter, and Uncle Dennis and his wife. One of them had swiped it.

Or it could have been a conspiracy of two people who’d treated Grandma’s death like the starting gun of a treasure hunt. As irritating as he found Aunt Viv and her daughter, he never suspected them of such lurid greed.

He let it sink in that this was his house now. Uncle Dennis had called earlier to tell him Grandma left the house and everything within to Drew. He worried Aunt Viv might put up a fight for the rickety cottage in spite of the bonanza from the stocks, which was bigger than anyone expected.

As he searched for the necklace, he also kept his eye out for the beautiful little jewelry box Grandma described finding tied beneath her mother’s bed, but it was nowhere to be found.

When the shock of the theft wore off, he stopped looking and sat at the small kitchen table, room for two. How many meals had they shared there?

The sky grew dark. He turned on the light, a bulb in a pink-frosted globe that usually cozied the kitchen with blushing light. Not tonight. She’d been alive at dawn, and now the sun was setting on her final day.

When his parents died in the car crash, Drew felt the dislocation Grandma described in her memoir, the profound shock that the first voices he’d heard, the first faces he’d seen, the people who’d welcomed him to life, were gone. Grandma had been right about the flailing sensation of losing parental figures, stumbling about to find a new, firm foundation with a need that overwhelmed even grief. He’d latched on to her, and to his surprise she clutched back with equal desperation, driven, he later realized, by losing her first child.

Images of Grandma’s face over the years drifted in his mind, dissolving into one other like spots of light. As the memories floated, her smile remained tender even as her skin and hair went crinkly and frail. Snatches of sentences came, bright and happy in the early years, deepening to encouragement, and ultimately brimming with intellectual respect: “Grandma loves you more than anyone.” “You don’t have to be the best at everything.” “Didn’t you know that people who call you names are just insecure about themselves?” “I miss your mother more than I can say, but I’m grateful her death brought us together.”

He’d known about his grandmother’s glamorous career for as long as he remembered, but the allure of fame finally came one day in third grade. During a writing lesson, his teacher mentioned his grandmother as a way of illustrating that grammar skills are essential for success. Grandma had walked away from her career twenty years before, and the other students had never heard of her. Nonetheless, after learning she’d been a regular face on national television they turned to him, star-struck, eyes and mouths agape. It felt as if a shower of rhinestones and glitter had burst above his head.

The next time he saw her, he eagerly asked what it was like to be famous. Her reply was among the most useful insights of his life. “You can be happy with or without fame if you figure out how to juggle the things you already have. Most people never figure it out, and I’ve known many unhappy famous people.”

In the years after the accident, Drew typically drove up twice a month to spend the weekend with Grandma. They talked late into the night, watched movies, or played board games, especially backgammon. In rainy winter weather, they frequently spent whole weekends on challenging jigsaw puzzles. He slept on the sofa and woke early to make coffee and breakfast, carrying it on trays to her room where they chatted, ate, and laughed. They caught plays at the homey local theater or crammed into the oversized Quonset hut that showed first-run movies. They attended openings at the local art galleries and read the same books, leading to hours of discussion and analysis. Almost every night, they tried exciting recipes and savored the delicious results. Or found humor in the disasters.

He already knew he’d look back on those weekends as among the happiest days of his life.

He hadn’t eaten anything since last night, and hunger suddenly seized him. Leftovers from yesterday’s sautéed chicken and mushroom dinner, were in the refrigerator. She’d loved it. He couldn’t imagine eating it.

Beneath the windowsill, he saw a bowl of apples he’d bought the other day. She’d found them a bit too mealy.

He plunked a cutting board on the counter, grabbed an apple and a knife, and promptly sliced his index finger. The pain was insignificant but a neat, bright red line slashed his skin and soon gushed. He tried to contain it, but a few drops plinked on the counter.

“Shit,” he said, flipping on the faucet and holding the cut under running water. It looked deep but not serious enough for stitches. He pinched it tight and grabbed a towel on the table, getting blood on the manuscript. He swore softly and headed upstairs for a bandage, but someone knocked on the front door just as he passed. He stuck his finger in his mouth and answered.

Althea Miller, Grandma’s neighbor across the street, stood on the porch, holding a pie. She was strikingly handsome with grayish-blond hair and a refined but friendly face, twilight washing her in a bluish glow. She smiled sadly and held up the pie.

“I baked it especially for you,” she said, with a fleeting trace of an English accent. “I hope you like peach.”

He checked his finger and was mildly surprised the bleeding had stopped. The watery distortion must have made it look deeper than it was, and his tight pinch had done the trick.

He thanked her for the pie and invited her inside for a slice.

“I’ve no wish to intrude.”

“You’re not intruding. I feel like talking with someone who knew her.”

He led her to the kitchen and she put the pie on the table. The crust billowed and cracked with golden perfection and it smelled delicious. He wiped the blood off the counter and assembled plates and forks, careful not to reopen the wound.

“Is everything all right?” she said, alarm in her voice. He saw a surprising number of bright, ghastly red splashes on the top page of the memoir. It looked like the grisly aftermath of a violent episode, not a little cut. He explained what happened and said the bleeding had stopped.

She read a few words. “Did your grandmother write this?”

“Yeah. She told me last night she’d written a memoir. I only read the first chapter, but I’ve already learned a lot of things I never knew. The most important is that she named my mom after an old friend. Delilah. Grandma never talked about her friend, so this was the first I’d heard about her.”

“What a lovely thing to learn. Now remind me, your mother passed away, isn’t that right?”

“Both of my parents. A car accident at the bottom of the hill.”

“Yes, I recall that now.”

Drew served two slices and they dug in. “Althea, how much do you know about dementia?”

“As much as anyone, I suppose.”

The pie was just the right mix of tart and sweet, and he wondered what Grandma would say about it before he remembered he couldn’t ask her. His voice caught as he said, “Delilah had dementia. My grandma wrote a really interesting story about it. I wonder if my grandma might have been suffering from it, too. She said a few things last night…”

“What sort of things?”

“Just weird things. She also said some weird things in her memoir, but she told me she wrote this about five years ago. Even up until last night, she was never anything less than one hundred percent lucid, but based on what she wrote, I’m wondering if she’d been losing her mind for a while, but I never noticed.”

“It’s certainly not uncommon to learn that what seems like old age forgetfulness is, in fact, early-stage dementia.”

“I’m talking about delusions, not forgetfulness. Strange stories in her head.”

“Drew, it’s ended. Don’t trouble yourself over things that no longer matter. If I may, how old are you?”

“Thirty.”

“And you live in San Francisco?”

“I rent an apartment with a roommate. I’ve been keeping up with the rent, but now that I own this place, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”

“The roommate…is he a romantic partner?”

He snorted. “Not a chance. He’s fine, but he’s just a friend. I’m not seeing anybody.”

He didn’t remember telling Althea he was gay. Maybe Grandma did. Her question surprised him because he assumed his aversion to romance was as obvious as a facial tattoo. His sole long-term relationship had ended five years before, after a slog of eight months with a moody guy he came to actively dislike. Eventually the dread of spending more time with him outweighed that of a dramatic breakup scene. Despite all the stern lectures about the importance of breaking up face-to-face, Drew stopped calling or texting with no explanation. After a few weeks of return silence, he indulged a transitory indignation that the guy hadn’t put up a fight.

He found solace in dating apps, the polite name for sites gay men use on their phones to find quick and easy sex. The photos and profiles offered efficient shopping, the sexual dos and don’ts listed like product features. Despite lamenting about the clinical nature of the process, he found the intimate details and photos highly erotic.

And far from being sterile, the impersonal nature of the sex was a huge turn-on, a knock on the door and almost no conversation before getting started, both guys only concerned with raw sex. The fantasy often collapsed at that point, exposing the digital world, yet again, as people’s best disguises. Drew liked to think of himself as honest about such things, but he knew he was as prone to self-delusion as anyone else.

Althea said, “You have friends in Guerneville, yes?” He shrugged even though he didn’t. “Why not head out tonight and be with people who understand you? It’s usually an effective tonic.”

He checked his finger. No blood, and the wound looked almost healed. “I’m not sure I’m ready to be around a bunch of people in a loud bar.”

She patted his arm. “You quit your job and moved here to the countryside to help your grandmother, and that’s as much as anyone can expect from a young man in the prime of his life. You’re quite attractive, a catch, as we used to say. Don’t allow grief to upset your equilibrium. I’m certain your grandmother would agree.” She cleared her throat uncertainly. “I was here when the funeral director removed her today. I assure you she looked quite serene, which means she was at peace. Let that be your comfort and your guide.”

He appreciated her compliments but focused on the more salient issue. Since she’d been in the house earlier, the list of suspects for the missing necklace was now six. It was difficult to imagine Althea rummaging around and clutching it furtively as she scurried home.

“I want you to call on me, Drew. If you find yourself confused or in need of a sympathetic ear. I’ll be free at any time. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” he replied, surprised.

Later, he realized she was talking about much more than that moment. She meant everything to come.

 

 

 

4

The Warrior Returns

March 1975

 

The first time I saw Manhattan with my own eyes, I scarcely believed it was the work of humans. Surely, men had merely carved corners and shapes into an existing mountain range of solid silver. It looked top-heavy, resting on an almost imperceptible island so that it seemed in danger of tilting off-balance and crashing into the water.

Once across the East River via the Queensboro Bridge, the illusion of fragility vanished, replaced by one of immortality. Block after block of huge buildings rooted to the land with titanic self-regard, ancient gods who didn’t live on Olympus because they wereOlympus.

The network building rose sixty stories in cream limestone, a stately beaux art symbol of confidence, sporting pillars and medallions. When it opened in 1920, it housed mostly insurance companies and law firms until the plucky radio station on the top floors became a massive television network that absorbed the entire building.

On my first day, I walked off the elevator and stopped in amazement. The newsroom filled the twelfth floor, with executive offices on one side but the other walls knocked out to create a vast open space strewn with desks. Phones rang unceasingly, people rushing and typing and shouting to each other. A glass-encased assignment desk where editors yelled orders into phones and walkie-talkies was on a raised platform in the center. A long row of wire machines clattered and clanged and tapped as they delivered news from around the globe. Paper and pens littered the floor, which was also scattered with huge pods of open boxes overflowing with empty script sheets.

I looked at my watch. Although I was a few minutes early, nobody was on hand to greet me and tell me where to go and what to do. I checked a huge assignment board to confirm I’d arrived on the correct date, afraid that Loren Sanderson had changed his mind about hiring me.

I went to the assignment desk and leaned around the glass corner. A man muttered to himself as he typed.

“Hello,” I said. When he didn’t respond, I spoke louder. He jerked up. His eyes narrowed. “I’m Claudia Trenton, the new general assignment correspondent.”

He gave me the once-over and looked about my feet. “Are you packed?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you have a travel bag?” His tone implied I was stupid.

“My luggage is at the hotel. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring it.”

“Jesus Christ.” He ripped the paper free, and the typewriter screeched with objection. “Can you get on a plane to Oklahoma in the hour?”

My voice went high. “Oklahoma?”

“Tornado damage. We need a story for the six thirty show. The crew’s already there and shot a ton of B-roll. Can you take it?”

I stammered. “I suppose. How long will I be there?”

“Until we need you somewhere else.” He seemed to take pity on me and handed me a stuffed envelope. “Two days, probably. These are your travel vouchers. Planes and taxis and hotels. Keep track of your expenses and save every receipt. Just don’t eat at the Ritz. The worst damage is outside of Tulsa. Get there by noon and find the crew. I don’t know their exact location, so ask around. Shoot your stand-up first, then get whatever interviews you can, and we’ll cut them into the package. The satellite’s booked for four thirty. You can record the V.O. by phone later.”

I felt dizzy. “I have to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma in three hours?”

“You’ll gain an hour in the air because they’re on Central Time. Look, princess, this is the big leagues. You gotta hustle. Plenty of other pretty faces would be halfway to the airport already.”

“Claudia?”

I turned and a wiry man with a thin mustache and a well-tailored suit extended his hand. “I’m Jeff Richardson, assistant news director for domestic affairs. Loren told me to keep an eye out for you. Let me show you the ropes.”

Flustered, I looked back and forth. “But this man assigned me to cover the tornado damage in Oklahoma.”

“Jesus, Kenny, give her a break. She just walked in. Find somebody else. Come on, Claudia.”

Relieved, I returned the envelope to Kenny, who growled, “Have a travel bag ready at all times in the future.”

As Jeff led me downstairs, he said, “Loren wants you join him for lunch in his conference room at noon.” After signing a blizzard of forms, we returned to the newsroom where he took me to an empty desk with a battered typewriter overlooking the street far below. He told me how to order desk supplies and said he’d see me soon.

I organized my desk, sharing brief and friendly conversations with my busy coworkers. Just before noon I walked to the offices along the far wall. Secretaries in a long row each served two of the various news directors and producers. As the executive producer, Loren Sanderson had the corner office and his own assistant, an older lady in a trim suit and a classic swept-back hairdo. She greeted me with a professional smile. “You must be Claudia. He’s expecting you.”

She led me to a fancy, paneled conference room with tasteful furniture, glossy plants, and an elegantly prepared, intimate dining table. A moment later, Loren entered. I’d met him only once, at my clandestine lunch interview in Cleveland a few weeks back. I was struck again by his good looks, with a cleft chin and waves of salt-and-pepper hair.

We exchanged pleasantries and sat. A hidden door opened, and a waiter rattled in with a cart holding plates with silver covers. Salad, steak, and potatoes, with wine to boot. We dug in as the waiter left.

“How are things so far?” he asked.

“Just fine. Jeff was a big help.”

“Good. He’s ostensibly your boss, so I’m glad you got along.”

“Ostensibly?”

“He’ll have you rushing off to big disasters, but that will come in time.” He paused mid-cut to give me an intense look. “I have something I want you to investigate.”

“I’ve never been an investigative reporter.” But I was intrigued.

“I know.” He shoved a piece of steak in his mouth and chewed aggressively, forcing it down. “I have an entire investigative reporting unit, but I’m uneasy handing this story to them until I know more. There’s a personal element to it, so I wish to keep it quiet for now. You’d be doing me a tremendous favor.”

I tensed at the mention of a personal element. It felt dangerous to shadow his cheating wife or a son with drug problems. I’d hate it, and my colleagues would never take me seriously.

“Loren, I’m very excited to be here. I promise to give you everything I have, but I’m not cut out to be a private investigator.”

“It’s nothing like that. It’s one of my prep school teachers. His name is Harrison Wheeler. I attended Wallace Lake Academy in Connecticut. Very exclusive. Harrison Wheeler was a teacher my first few years, one of the best I ever had, and he made an indelible mark. He joined the service, as all fit men did after Pearl Harbor, but he never returned from the European theater. Everyone assumed he ended in an unmarked grave outside of Rome. Soldiers vanished with some frequency back then, much more than people your age realize.” He put his utensils down and looked out the window. “I saw him last week, at a fundraising gala for the Met.”

“That must have been a special reunion for you.”

He didn’t react for several moments. “Do you believe in the paranormal?”

Alarmed, I straightened. “Loren, I’m here to report the news, not chase ghosts. If you want me on the Bigfoot detail, you should have warned me, and I would have stayed in Cleveland.” My words came out more forcefully than I intended, and I braced for his reaction.

He searched my face. “I don’t intimidate you. That’s good. After I saw Mr. Wheeler at the gala, I thought of asking for your help because you have no friends here yet, nobody who can persuade you to swap secrets. I’ll make it known you’re working on an important story for me, and everyone will give you plenty of space. But I require your utter discretion before I say more. Do I have it?”

I chose my words carefully. “I can promise you my silence, but I can’t promise I’ll take the assignment.”

“Miss Trenton, either I’m losing my mind or I’ve found a major story that will electrify the world. If it’s the former, I’d rather you tell me quietly. If it’s the latter, you’ll be a superstar. Bigger than Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters combined.”

I felt a chill of excitement. “Go on.”

“Harrison Wheeler had a very distinctive accent. Elusive. We boys argued over whether he was from Britain or some other European country. He never told us, but it gave his voice an arresting effect. He could make anyone understand anything, and we boys hung on his every word. He was a master communicator.”

He pushed himself to his feet so swiftly the table rocked. He stared out the window. “That’s what stopped me cold at the gala, as I was threading through the tables. That face, that voice. They transported me to my freshmen year in an instant. I could smell the damp rot of our woolen vests.”

“What did he say when you told him you remembered him?”

“I never introduced myself.”

“But I’m sure an elderly man would be thrilled to know he had such a positive influence on a former pupil.”

“Claudia.” He faced me. “He hasn’t aged a day.”