There’s been a mistake. A terrible mistake.
What it was, was I had been planning to venture a half hour south of town tomorrow, as I do on alternate Thursdays, to hang with my friend Dorothy, who back in ’03 moved to an elephants’ graveyard, as I sometimes call it — actually a pretty decent “senior community” with beautiful plantings and lawns, little individual plots for the residents who like to garden even, shuttle service, on-campus performances, a bistro, thick boundaries of mature forest. I’d as soon cut a cord of wood as live there. Dorothy used to zip up to town in her old police-auction Impala and meet me for Thai food, but in the last year or so her vision went to hell and the Impala’s been restricted to the campus and a few local roads, including the route to the nearby Air Force base. Dorothy’s Coast Guard retirement came with PX and commissary privileges; last fall she recruited me as a seeing-eye shopper. (“What’s the sell-by date on that?”)
This was going to be a bittersweet lunch date because last week her recently widowed friend Larry — who was in the car when, memorably, the campus security force wrote me a citation for driving at the breakneck speed of 27 MPH — died in his sleep at the new condo he had just settled into near his hometown. I was considering ordering a tot of Kahlua to toast him, given that he had a taste for disgusting bottom-shelf coffee brandies, and was even steeling myself to walk her doggies, a couple of unbearably yappy Bichon Frises who were the apple of Larry’s eye. And I already had a speech prepared about how he should have stuck here near us instead of running off to Iowa, where Dorothy couldn’t be around to make him eat right and keep up his exercise.
This morning the Fairfax County police called, on a terrible connection; it took three rings and several garbled exchanges for me to understand that they were calling about Dorothy, whom I figured had finally piled up the damn Impala and put herself in the hospital, possibly the lockup, but no, she had just. Died. In her sleep, I guess.
My name was listed second under “next of kin”. I’ve never met the woman who was first on the list, whom they eventually located, saving me from immediately having to figure out what the hell to do with the Bichons Frises and guess at the funeral arrangements and most of the other things she had said she probably ought to write down for me. I brought it up a couple times, but you hate to noodge, you know, “Hey, if you check out, did you say cremation or burial?”
A lifelong law-enforcement worker — Coast Guard, a sheriff’s department, two PD’s –she never lost her bent for police-speak and if someone were involved in an accident or an investigation she would refer to a “female” rather than a “woman,” or possibly a “subject” of either gender. She volunteered for the police department where they held the DC sniper and one of the 9/11 hijackers. She ran community crime prevention groups. She trained rookies to be ladies and gentlemen with the public. She had an eye for a good-looking man, and I believe beat me out for the Harold And Maude Cup a few times over (this is an honor which I just made up, awarded to old broads with twinkles in their eyes and much younger men in their Rolodex). I put her, whole and unaltered, into my silly crime novels:
If Mammy Yokum were a couple of hundred pounds heavier and kept a poodle, she would be Phyllis, who belonged to so many law-enforcement support groups that I had lost track. I had seen Phyllis tell a chief of police where to get off and what to do when he got there. I had seen her chew out swelled-head politicians. I liked her; in fact I made a point of sitting near her at meetings, because she didn’t talk when I was trying to take notes…
Phyllis’ front room was a frightening extravaganza of commemorative ceramics, needlepoint chatchkas, and what I assumed were dog toys scattered over the floor. “Let me go let Fang out in the yard, ” she said. “I been out all evenin’.” She progressed past a formal dining room filled with cartons of file folders and stacks of envelopes, almost covering an antique drop-leaf table and a marble-topped sideboard. I dropped into a recliner diapered with crochet antimacassars. There was little else I could do, as a step in any direction would have collided me with something.
The narrator was modeled on the nerdy, flusterable editor of our local newspaper, who really did sit next to Dorothy at civic meetings. I don’t think he ever knew how much she chortled over seeing him “sent up” as a detective hero (especially the parts where the detective tangles with the obligatory femme fatale). I found a photo of her at her volunteer gig a few hours ago, squirreled away in my picture folder, and sent it to him, in case he does an obit.
I keep thinking I need to sit down over lunch and talk to someone about it all, but the only person who would get it would be Dorothy; she would call the Fairfax police chief and lay some words on him about that awful mobile service. And then talk me through the place where you lose it and have to cry and blow your nose into a dishtowel. I can’t stop expecting to get up early tomorrow and get through the gym fast, the way I’ve been doing every other Thursday, so I can get to Springfield by lunchtime and catch up. That is how I had the day blocked out and I can’t quite understand why it’s not going to happen; there’s been some kind of stupid mistake.
I thought first of invoking C. S. Lewis —
Your death blows a strange bugle call, friend, and all is hard
To see plainly or record truly. .. With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless—oh unless it were you?
but I keep hearing the voice of “Phyllis Bell,” preserved though so far only in manuscript:
“Goddammit!!!! When they clear this up I am going to have my shoe so far up someone’s ass it’ll take an enema to get it out.”