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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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“I want you to do the personality obit. Contact family, friends, get some good quotes. You know. Mac will do the political and public-service analysis and contact the police and hospital.”

“The police?” I said, startled.

“They’re involved because it’s an unwitnessed death. Mere form,” said Mac. “I have to talk to them about your body, anyway.”

“It’s not my body!”

Mac grinned. “That’s not what I heard.”

“Mac, come on!”

“From what I hear, he seems about the right age for you.” He gave his trademark leer.

I wasn’t sure whether I should be offended by a joke about a dead man. “How old was he? And how old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know about you, but he was twenty-five.” Mac glanced at the notebook he had in his hand. “He lived at 594 Lyme Street with his mother, Liz, and worked as a grease jockey at Taggart’s.”

“So I got him at Taggart’s garage?”

“I don’t think the cops are certain yet, but that seems to be the theory they’re working with.”

“Excuse me, you two,” said Don curtly, “but I think we were talking about Trudy.”

I nodded, staring at my boss with interest. His hair was actually mussed where he had run a hand through it, revealing his incipient bald spot rather cruelly. I knew that if he could see himself, he’d be upset.

Don shuffled some papers into a haphazard pile. “Your articles about Trudy will be the leads in tomorrow’s edition. I want them by nine a.m.” He made a frustrated sound. “I hate it when a story breaks too late for the day’s edition.”

“Had Trudy known your feelings,” said Mac harshly, “I’m certain she would have arranged things differently.”

Don looked startled, like a mastiff bitten by a toy poodle. “You know I didn’t mean it that way, Mac. You know I respected Trudy. Now get to work, both of you.”

Mac and I turned away together, Mac still scowling. We walked across the office together, or as together as you can walk when there’s only enough room for one person at a time between the furniture. When we reached his desk, he grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.

“Any chance of dinner to talk over this case?” he asked as he stuffed his arms in the sleeves.

“Which case?” I asked.

“Either one’s okay with me,” he said, jettisoning the scowl and smiling with great charm. “It’s the company I’m interested in.”

I didn’t doubt that for an instant, and I was equally sure he wouldn’t want to stop with dinner. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m busy tonight.”

He looked at me skeptically, but I just smiled sweetly. I wasn’t about to tell him that my business was a rehearsal at church. I knew what he’d think of that.

Mac’s eyes slid over my shoulder and hardened as he looked at Don.

“He’s one cold fish,” Mac said. “A real iceberg.”

I turned and looked again at Don’s mussed hair and cluttered desk. I didn’t know about
iceberg.
I thought he was distressed and trying not to show it. It just leaked out in spite of himself. When I turned to say so, Mac was already rushing out the back door, scarf streaming over his shoulder.

I shrugged and went to my desk, thinking about the disadvantages of being new in town. Who should I call about Trudy? What if I called someone and he hadn’t heard yet, and I had to break the news to him? I shivered at that terrible thought.

To put such a possibility off as long as possible, I clicked my way into
The News
’s e-library and typed Trudy’s name. I wasn’t surprised at the wealth of information I found, but most was more what Mac would use than what I needed. Still, here and there I found items that spoke of her as a woman, not a politician or a lawyer.

Next I skimmed the paper’s electronic archives, but they only went back to 1988. I moved to FotoWeb and looked at photos of a vibrant and lovely woman. I was stopped cold by a particularly riveting shot of Trudy in an evening gown, dancing at the annual hospital gala, laughing at something her partner had said.

I rose abruptly and went to the file drawers against the far wall. I pushed the huge jade plant sitting on top back against the wall and opened the
M
drawer, pulling out the McGilpin file. In these old clips, I should find names as well as some good background information for my piece. I returned to my desk and began reading. The clipping service had done a good job; there was plenty of material available.

Trudy was a local girl, raised in Amhearst, a graduate of Amhearst High School where she was president of her senior class and star of the spring musical. In the pictures of the musical, she looked fresh and pretty, her young face eager and alive. “A glowing talent,” the review of the play read. “Amhearst’s own Julie Andrews.”

Since the writer of the review was a woman named Alice McGilpin, I suspected a strong case of family prejudice.

Trudy attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, no mean feat for a small-town girl who was to be her family’s first college graduate. She received her law degree with honors from Dickinson Law School. When she returned to Amhearst, she joined the local law firm of Grassley and Jordan, now Grassley, Jordan and McGilpin, where she developed a specialty in divorce and family issues.

Perhaps,
I thought,
dealing with all the tensions and hatreds between people who had promised to love each other forever had been enough to keep her from marrying.

Picture after picture showed how active in community affairs Trudy had been, sitting on the boards of the YWCA and the hospital and chairing the local United Way drive. She was in the final year of her first three-year term as mayor and had been planning to run again. A popular mayor, she undoubtedly would have won easily.

There were a brother and sister-in-law who lived in Goshen, about fifteen miles east, and parents retired in Florida.

I knew there was no way I would be hard-boiled enough to contact the parents (what if they hadn’t heard yet?), but I could call the brother, Stanton McGilpin. Also I would contact either Mr. Grassley or Mr. Jordan at their law office, one or two of the city commissioners who served with Trudy—one in her party, one in the opposition—the director of the Y, and the chairman of the hospital board. At least that last one would be easy; the chairman was Don Eldredge.

I approached his desk and wondered again how he felt about the double tier of African violets that lined the sill of the great window by which he sat. Did he have purple, rose, lavender, pink, white and variegated dreams and wonder why? Somehow the violets were so un-Don, yet they flourished beside him.

“I need a quote from you about Trudy,” I said.

Don looked up, surprised, and I noted that his hair was once again perfect. “From me?” he said. “What for?”

“She served on the hospital board, and you’re the chairman.”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay. Just say something about what a good and capable worker she was, and how she dedicated great amounts of time to the hospital and its needs. She will be sorely missed by all of us.”

I walked back to my desk, jotting Don’s comments as I walked. Pretty trite for a professional journalist.

Next I called Grassley, Jordan and McGilpin. The secretary who answered was obviously trying not to cry into the phone. She kept sniffing and hiccuping. When she realized who I was, she began talking about Trudy.

“She was the best boss in the world, she was. So pleasant. Always please and thank you. And attractive. Real class, you know? I could never figure out why she wasn’t married.” Obviously being married was important to the secretary. “But I think she had a new boyfriend. She was smiling a lot more.” And the girl began to cry in earnest.

The line went empty, and I thought I had been disconnected. Almost immediately, though, a male voice boomed over the phone, speaking too enthusiastically as a cover for his emotions.

“Trudy was wonderful,” he said. “A fine lawyer, interested in her clients and very knowledgeable in law. She was a strong woman, but not at the expense of her femininity. She more than held her own in a courtroom. We shall miss her very much.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And to whom am I speaking?”

“This is Edmund Grassley.” His voice broke on the last syllable of his name, and he cleared his throat. “We’re going to miss her very much,” he whispered, and hung up.

My eyes misted at the man’s genuine emotion, and I couldn’t help glancing at too-cool Don, sitting at his desk in reorganized splendor.

Nick Dominic and Forbes Raleigh, the commissioners, and Annie Parmalee, the director of the YWCA, said much the same thing as Don and Mr. Grassley, surprise, surprise. They were all greatly saddened by Trudy’s death and would miss her. Amhearst was diminished by her passing. How hard it was to put deep emotion into quotes.

Finally, when I could avoid it no longer, I called Stanton McGilpin.

“I’m sorry. He’s not here right now,” said a woman. “May I take a message?”

“I’m Merrileigh Kramer from
The News
. I’m calling in reference to the death of Mr. McGilpin’s sister. We will be devoting much of tomorrow’s paper to Trudy, and we thought he might like to make a statement, sort of a eulogy.”

There was a small silence. Then, “I’ll tell him you called.”

I started to say thank you, but the line was dead. I doubted I’d ever hear from Stanton McGilpin, and I couldn’t blame him.

Still, contacting a family member in one context made me think about doing the same thing in another. I grabbed the phone book, looked up a number and dialed before my nerve failed.

“Mrs. Marten, my name is Merrileigh Kramer. I was wondering if I might speak to you about your son’s death.”

A weary voice asked, “Are you from the police?”

“No. I work at
The News.

“They’re going to keep putting him in the paper whether I talk to you or not, aren’t they?”

“A crime like this will certainly be covered.” I kept my voice neutral. I couldn’t tell whether Mrs. Marten was happy or distressed that Patrick was to get so much posthumous media attention.

Her sigh echoed down the phone line. “Come over if you want. I’d like to be certain that Patrick is presented as the fine kid he was. But don’t come until tomorrow. I can’t talk to anyone else today. I’m too busy crying.”

FIVE

L
abor Day Sunday had been my first Sunday in Amhearst. It had been a hot, sunny, end-of-summer day, and I attended Faith Community Church. While I waited in the hot sanctuary for the service to begin, I read a notice in the bulletin that a bell choir was being formed.

“If you are interested, a free ring clinic will be held Friday night at seven-thirty to provide a chance to try ringing and to provide information about the bell choir,” the notice read.

Friday night came, and I ate alone at McDonald’s: a cheeseburger, small fries, large Diet Coke and package of cookies. Very healthful. Then I went home to the first night of my first full weekend in my new apartment and held a one-sided conversation with Whiskers.

“So how was your day, baby? Did you get enough rest? I must apologize for not saving you any of my French fries. Before I realized what was happening, I’d eaten them all. Every last bite. Forgive me?”

He rolled over on the bed and offered his tummy for a rub, a sure sign that he wasn’t upset. Not that Whiskers was ever impolite, even when I disappointed him. He was the very soul of civility, listening whenever I talked, just like he understood. I chose to believe that he was interested in my thoughts, rather than accept the more obvious conclusion that he was hoping I’d offer him more food if he listened long enough.

That September night I was still full of doubts about my move and not at all certain that striking out on my own had been such a good idea after all. For years, Friday nights meant Jack and a night out and laughter and—on more than one occasion—tears. But always something.

Now there was nothing. I sighed as I puttered around, straightening up where there was no mess. My little apartment had a living room across the front, a dining room and a small kitchen, a bedroom and a unique bathroom. The bathroom had doors that opened into both the bedroom behind it and the living room in front of it. Neither door had a lock. I hadn’t quite figured out how you avoided being ambushed from one side or the other when there was company, but more than likely that wasn’t a problem I’d have to deal with for quite some time.

“Oh, Whiskers!” I despaired as I flopped into a chair. “I’m so lonely!” He climbed up and settled in my lap, purring contentedly.

Of course you’re contented,
I thought as I stroked him.
It was me or the pound, and anyone’d pick me. Wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t Jack? Why wouldn’t Jack?

I stood abruptly, dumping Whiskers. That waylaid self-pity and failure. I was now strong. Independent. My own woman.

Dear God
, I prayed,
don’t let me fail because of loneliness and boredom and self-pity. I want to press on!

And I suddenly understood that pressing on had a price. Staying in Pittsburgh would have cost me dearly, too, but at least I knew that price—life passing me by, emotional stunting, Jack as God.

One night two years before, my father had come to my room. He stood in the doorway looking concerned.

“Merry, you know Jack better than we do, so tell me how things stand between you two. You’ve been dating pretty much exclusively since your junior year at Penn State. Are you two serious? Or is he, as I fear and as I’ve said before, using up your young years with no thought of commitment?”

I laughed. “Dad, you needn’t worry. Jack loves me, and I certainly love him. Things are moving well.”

Dad looked unconvinced, but he said, “You know we only want you to be happy, honey.”

“I know, Dad. I am.”

But I lied, and Dad probably knew it. The trouble was that I didn’t. I lived so stoically for so long with Jack’s unwillingness to commit that I no longer recognized my own pain.

“I love you, Merry,” Jack would say, “but I’m not ready to get married yet. Let’s pray about it, and we’ll decide in six months, okay? Let’s just enjoy today.”

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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