In which Gilly’s ghosts dance with an ice queen!
Gilly peered out the spyhole on his door. Of course, he’d already spied her on his video feed, emerging from her decrepit vehicle and stepping like a ballerina up to the gate and through the weeds. What did she want? Why was she here?
He’d already determined that he wanted nothing to do with the book any longer. It was Oso’s story. It wasn’t his. If he wanted to tell his side of the story, he’d do it himself, write his own. He’d already written many. Why he’d ever given in to the cockamamie idea of an Oso biopic was beyond him. His granddaughter was green, and not simply because one video was set to night vision. The other was set to thermal, and in that one, she appeared a glowing angel radiating energy.
His phone buzzed. He looked at it in disdain. It buzzed again. Finally, he hit the speaker.
“What do you want?”
“I want to have an interview. Didn’t we set this up? Come on, Uncle Gilly. There are bugs out here.”
“I’m busy tonight. I’d prefer it if you went away.”
“I’ll go away if you give me an interview. This book was supposed to have your perspective.”
“My little bit part, you mean? That is what you mean.”
“Oh, Gilly, just let me in! It’s chilly out here, and I hear you have some delightful tea inside. I want you to tell me your feelings about the fire.”
“You aren’t going away, are you?”
Her image outside the door was obviously distorted. It gave her a look of innocence: big eyes looking up at him, hands in pleading prayer form, one ankle crossed over the other. He remembered when she was a child. Gilly didn’t like children. Sure, he’d had three of his own—boys—but he still didn’t like children. She had always been sweet, though. Her eyes were…special. He groaned.
“All right. You can come in, but no tea, and I’m not talking about the fire.”
He unlatched the door locks and bolts and let her in. Remaining true to his threat, he took her straight through to the seating area, bypassing the kitchen. He wanted tea. He loved his tea and crackers. However, he wanted to keep this interview as cold and concise as possible. In his heart, he was punishing her for…for…he could hardly admit it to himself. He was punishing her for being Oso’s beloved granddaughter. No other reason necessary—that was it.
“It’s kind of cold in here,” she said. “No heat or fire tonight?”
“If you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s springtime. I don’t heat my home in the spring.”
That wasn’t precisely true. Most of the time, he got up early, put on his sweater and slippers, made tea, and started in on his work, forgetting about the cold. Sometimes, he forgot to eat. That was why he had crackers. Of course, he liked the way they tasted, too. They were delicate and crispy on the tongue, with a mild salt tang.
Sometimes he drank milk or went out for a hamburger at the reopened Blake’s Lotaburger. For a number of years, it had been transformed into Lotasalad. Now it was back to the taste of his childhood, so warm and happy. No, his childhood had never been warm or happy, but he’d always been warm and happy when his mom chose Lotaburger over her poor excuse for cooking.
In fact, he realized he would like a green-chile cheeseburger right at that moment; he had been preoccupied with his work and had forgotten to break open the fresh package of crackers. He had eaten nothing that day.
“What?” he growled.
“I was just asking if you would like to talk about any of your romantic adventures.”
“You mean when I moved out to San Diego to be with Oso?”
The look on her face was priceless. She might have even gasped a little. “You had a romantic adventure with my granddad?”
“Yes, we created our first prototype. She was beautiful. It was such an elegant design. Mine, of course. Oso doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body.”
“No, I meant romantic interests with women. Real women. You were married once upon a time.”
Gilly felt the sneer crawl from his lip to his eyes. “I was married twice before I got over it. Women. Vile creatures.”
“Do you really believe that? Are all of us vile?”
“Yes. All of you. But if you’d like to hear about my first marriage, I could bore you to death.”
“I don’t find romantic stories boring. This is the kind of human interest part that the public wants to read.”
“You would know about that. All right, then. She was a high dollar prostitute. The most gorgeous woman I’d ever met. She also kept her mouth shut and stayed on her back where she belonged.”
Stephanie might have shuddered a little. “Why wouldn’t she stay on her back if you were paying her to? This is not the kind of human interest that will get you sympathy.”
“Who said I wanted sympathy? I’m hungry. I’m going to have some milk and crackers. Can’t talk about my first marriage on an empty stomach. Do you want some?”
“No, but I’ll have some tea. It’s kind of cold…”
“No tea. Snack, and then we get started.”
Just as Gilly was getting married for the first time, Oso was experiencing drama with his second divorce. He’d had three children with his first wife, and they’d unamicably worked out a scheme whereby Oso would have the children over the summer vacation. His wife had tried to block him from having even those not-quite three months, but as Oso had made his first millions by that time and was therefore able to hire a very good lawyer—the same lawyer who had, in fact, put together a prenuptial agreement favoring Oso before the marriage had ever occurred. According to the prenup, his wife would get nothing from him if she was proven to be unfaithful. As she was. Oso had the ability to hire a very good private investigator, too.
The same was true regarding the second wife, except they’d only had one child together.
But this part of the story was not meant to be about Oso, despite that Oso’s life often threatened to eclipse Gilly’s. Gilly had also become quite rich by that time, as Oso had offered him the use of his own lawyer for the purpose of patenting and selling his designs. They’d also worked up their own start-up, called Tomi Corp after Oso’s christened name. Yes, it was the very same Tomi Corp that continues to build robotics to this very day.
After they’d been married in a private ceremony, Gilly and his bride Cameron went home to Socorro to visit his mother. Despite what Gilly claimed, she was not a prostitute, but a highly paid escort. According to her—and she was adamant on this point—she didn’t provide sexual services. She had slept with Gilly after he had hired her to be his date at a business dinner, but only because she’d immediately fallen in love with him. Or so she claimed.
It was more likely that the business dinner had enlightened her to the possibilities of being married to him, but it was all the same to Gilly. It was clear he was not only moderately wealthy, but had the way paved for him to becoming one of the wealthiest men in America. And suddenly she was his.
She was flawless to look at, too. He could almost imagine he loved her. Of course, he didn’t, and he ditched her long before he became one of the wealthiest men in America. Not that he didn’t settle a good chunk of change on her. Unlike Oso, he had no desire to find out whether she was unfaithful to him, so he paid out what his own prenuptial agreement had promised he would in the case of a friendly divorce.
She was happy; he was happy. They had no children together, and there were no further complications, according to Gilly.
Before the divorce, though, when he gazed on her and pretended he loved her, he wasn’t sure he was happy. Unlike his first attempt at living with a woman, this situation didn’t violate his standards. Cameron was far too placating and people-pleasing to leave her things on the floor or bring cats into his house. She also dieted perpetually and wouldn’t travel within ten feet of the ice cream aisle. This woman was first and foremost a businesswoman. She wouldn’t jeopardize her position by eating ice cream, even in secret. Or if she did (keyword being secret), Gilly found no traces of it.
This didn’t make Cameron a particularly fun woman. She was only exciting to look at. The intelligent look hidden in the depths of her gray eyes remained hidden; conversation with her was perfunctory, and always directed back at Gilly and his projects.
That was why, while visiting his mom after their wedding, he left Cameron and his mom to chat over coffee. Maybe Cameron would say something real or meaningful if she were speaking to another female in a modest manufactured home. Maybe. Gilly had no idea. He’d informed her of his modest origins, and she hadn’t blinked an eye. When she saw the trailer and property it sat on, she still didn’t blink an eye. When he introduced her to his mom, she shook hands and treated his mom with utmost cordiality.
He had to hand it to her: she was a gorgeous blonde ice queen who never stepped out of character. At least she wouldn’t be a hindrance to his work. He reassured himself with that notion as he walked through the same old neighborhoods he’d roamed as a child. He didn’t need a woman to love. He needed one who wasn’t a hindrance. Who needed love, anyway? Love was for teenagers and pop music.
There was Oso’s house. The crazy parentals still lived there. He might visit them if he felt like it. He could share a joint with Oso’s dad. That might be nice, like having a beer with an old friend. Bernadette’s parents still lived in the same place, too. They’d built a fence, though, and the back porch and all its foliage was now hidden from view. All Gilly could see was the new single wide someone had placed on the property where…the property where…Agnes had once lived with her stepfather.
Gilly swallowed hard and tried to remain impassive. Agnes had disappeared after that day, and he had no idea where she was now. He glanced over at the fowl pecking around in the Beñat yard and thought again about going over there. The household was bound to be even more chaotic since Oso and Alex had flown the coop. There were eight younger siblings, though Gilly had no idea how many were still living at home. He shuddered at the memories of the filth and clutter in the house. By contrast, his mother had always kept an impeccable home.
In a fit of despondency, he walked down the alley that had saved their asses. Anyone could have tossed a cigarette from the alleyway. It had been so dry, and the weeds were overgrown. It was inevitable that the house went up like dry tinder. He tried to block the thoughts. He would never forgive himself. No, he couldn’t really, could he? He was responsible. He was twelve and knew that playing with fire was foolish. He had no excuse. None.
He kept going until he was standing in front of Bernadette’s family home. It was such a nice home, so comfortable looking. He walked up the front walkway, which was created with stones, and then found himself numbly climbing the steps to the front door. He knocked before he realized what he was doing.
Bernadette’s mom opened the door. She looked at him in confusion for a few moments before recognition lit up her beautifully warm brown eyes. “Gilly!” she said. “Look at you! You’re such a man now. Come in! Do you wanna Coke?”
“Sure,” he said.
She led him through a living room full of potted plants and a few Catholic icons and images, including an image of Jesus with a poem written across the front. It was so familiar and so unfamiliar at the same time.
“Iced tea or soda?”
He smiled at the soothing words. Having a Coke in New Mexico meant having any refreshing beverage you could find at the usual mini mart beverage fountain.“Iced tea would be nice, thanks.”
He sat at the kitchen table as she poured him a glass from her iced tea pitcher. “So how are you?” she asked. “I hear you and Oso are doing well out in California.”
“Yes, business is good. How’s Bernadette?”
“Oh, she’s fine. Doing better since Steve’s crash. Re-started her therapy business in Albuquerque. Don’t you guys talk to each other any more? I know things didn’t work out between her and Oso, but you three used to be such good friends.”
Gilly laughed under his breath. They were good friends, somehow in spite of the botched romantic relationship Oso had with her. Oso had always bragged he’d sacked college girls when he was thirteen, but Gilly didn’t believe it. Bernadette was his first, had to be.
“We still talk sometimes. I haven’t talked to her since she had her Italy vacation.”
“You should call her up. She’d be happy to hear from you.”
He wasn’t so sure. Since her husband—Steve—had died, she’d been reticent to call up Oso, the one person from childhood she previously talked to several times a month. “Maybe we’ll get together while I’m in New Mexico,” he said, even though he knew he wouldn’t.
“What brings you back home?” she asked, just simple curiosity. Or was it? Maybe she hoped he would get romantically involved with Berna. He was rich, and he wasn’t the boy who’d stolen Berna’s virginity. That was probably enough.
“I’m here with my new wife, Cameron.”
“Oh! Congratulations. You little devil, never telling anyone. Why didn’t we get invited to your wedding?”
“We didn’t invite anyone, not even my mom.” It was true; the people who’d shown up had done so despite not being invited. That included Oso and the aspiring actress he’d hooked up with post divorce.
“You didn’t invite your mom?” Her neck craned forward, her eyes opened wide, as though flabbergasted at the disrespect of the young generation.
But Gilly was not going to be guilt-tripped into apologizing for his personal wedding decisions. “Nah, it was nothing special, nothing to make her fly out to SoCal over.”
“I’m sure your mom’s happy to see you now. If Bernadette ever remarries, I won’t care if she has a wedding. I just want grandkids.”
Gilly nodded, feeling grim. Bernadette had suffered a miscarriage, which had spawned hours of angsty conversation with Oso when Oso had better things to do. But would-be grandmothers were notorious for wanting the impossible. That was the totality of life for them—the continuation of the generations of men, and specifically their generations.
Gilly had to acknowledge there wasn’t much to life without actual life. The furtherance of the human race still made him gloomy, though. He didn’t want to raise a child in this world. Furthermore, he didn’t want to raise a child with Cameron, who was too cold for motherhood. Even at the start, he didn’t imagine the marriage would last, anyway. Why bring kids into the mix?
As he stared at the older woman sitting opposite him, he realized she didn’t think or care about that reality. Or it didn’t appear she did, as unconcerned as she looked, drinking her tea and tapping her manicured nails on the tabletop. Gilly didn’t think anyone in Bernadette’s family had ever divorced. Maybe there was a black sheep, somewhere. There had to be. But Gilly remembered standing at the fringes of their neighborhood barbecues and watching the intact couples dancing to music together, laughing, drinking. Their intact culture made him cold. Even if he had it, he wouldn’t want it.
He cleared his throat and tried to sound friendly, conversational. “Do you know what happened to Agnes?” he asked. “Do you know where she is?”
She gave him the same confused expression she had when he’d appeared at her door. She had creases between her eyes, not deep ones, but creases nonetheless.
“Agnes?” It was more of a vague statement than a question.
And the look wasn’t actually confusion. It was contextual. People came and went in Socorro, but her culture remained there, intact. They were like Hobbits. They never left the Shire. Anyone who left the Shire was no longer a part of the culture. Agnes’s family never had been a part of the culture, as they had been implants from the East—while, of course, Gillilander’s family had longer roots in this state than even the Spaniards. Still, his dad was an Anglo, and he was part Anglo. And he had eventually left, just like his dad.
“Yeah, do you know where she went after the fire? I’ve always wondered.”
“Huh. How interesting. I thought there was an agreed on silence with you three. Or one of you might have asked before this.”
“I saw the new trailer there, and I…just wondered.”
“Honest to God, I don’t know. I didn’t know her when she lived in front of me, and I didn’t know her after that. I heard she got moved to a care home in Albuquerque. She’d had a lobotomy, you know. Before that happened. I used to think she was mentally ill, and then Lynette from mental health told me she’d had a lobotomy when she lived with her stepfather in Virginia. Her real dad died in a car accident, and she lost her leg and got brain damage that caused seizures. That was what the lobotomy was for.”
“A lobotomy? I didn’t know they did those anymore.”
“They do for special cases. Not here. But in some places.” She chuckled. “That was a pretty good rhyme.”
Gilly paused for a moment. He hated to bring up the past, what had been eating away at his soul for years. But there was a dark shadowy compulsion inside his gut.
“You look troubled,” Bernadette’s mom said. What was her name, anyway? How could he be so ignorant? Sophie. That was it.
“Did you ever meet Agnes’s stepfather?”
Sophie shook her head. “Yes, I met him, but didn’t know him.” She paused. “He was creepy. She was always trying to run away from him.”
“Oh, really?” His tone sounded flat, even to his own ears.
“Look, it was a long time ago now, Gilly. You kids did what you could. You rescued a woman and weren’t able to rescue her stepfather. You could’ve died. And don’t think I don’t know that my own nephew was out there smoking that night. Not that he started the fire. I’m just saying, he could have. I think you kids knew that, right?”
“No,” he said, before he could stop himself. “I don’t know.”
God, he hated himself. All these years later, he couldn’t admit what he’d done. He stared into the murky glass of tea. Sophie was saying something else, but her voice was suddenly fuzzy.
“I mean it, Gilly. You have to forgive yourself.”
The room grew silent, except for the background hum of the swamp cooler. He wasn’t sure what she meant, as he hadn’t been listening. He looked up at her and forced a smile.
“You going to bring that wife over here so I can meet her?”
“Sure, maybe. I should probably go rescue her from my mom for now. You know how my mom can talk.”
“Yes, when she has something to say, she’ll talk for hours.”
Gilly thought about that. He supposed that was right. But she had always had something to say to him. And Cameron wasn’t much of a talker, so…he could only imagine.
He thanked Sophie for the tea and cast his eyes around the homey space. While part of him wished he’d grown up in a house like this—with potted plants and Catholic icons; with china ornaments and antique doilies; with a father who hung his camo jacket on a hook by the door—he also felt suffocated by the space. It was time to leave. Only Bernadette could have survived such a perfect childhood as this.