I heard a knock at my door. On the front step stood a short dark-haired woman, around forty-five, wearing a sports coat and a wide striped tie.
She held out a leather wallet holding her ID. “Detective Morra, SFPD Narcotics. You don’t have a dead body in there, do you?” She bobbed her chin toward the interior of the house.
Taken aback by her offhand manner and impertinent question, I was uncertain how to respond.
“Ahh, don’t worry about it—just yanking your chain,” she said, smiling and apparently quite pleased by her little joke.
“What I’m here for is I’m looking for Tomás Fuentes. He’s missing. We had this address in our files.”
“Yes,” I said. “He used to live here, that’s right. I bought the house from him a few years back.”
“Can you tell me your name, sir?” She held a pen and a small pad of paper.
“Rye-duh-berg,” she said as she wrote. “Eric—that with a c?”
She added a stroke to turn the c into a k.
“What line of work are you in, Mr. Rydeberg?”
“Real estate. Twenty-five years—mostly retired now. You say he’s missing?”
“We have reason to think he’s involved in trafficking drugs and heard that he might of got himself in some kind of a situation with a supplier.”
“He’ll want to talk to us—or he should. Sort of a he-helps-us-and-we-help-him kind of deal.” she said. “That’s unless they find him first.” We looked at each other, nodding, until she handed me her card, raised her eyebrows, and said, “Could be that’s why he disappeared, huh?”
I closed the door and remembered the young man I knew as Tommy Fuentes. Very friendly. He welcomed me, a stranger, when I dropped by after hearing he’d bought the place. He was interested in the stories I told him about the house and the neighborhood from the years I’d lived here back in the Seventies and Eighties. When I said I’d like him to call me if he ever wanted to sell the place, he was gracious, took my card, said he’d put it someplace where it wouldn’t get lost.
I recalled another memory, a tale I only half-believed when I heard it from a realtor friend, about Tommy trying to pay for the house by plopping onto the escrow officer’s desk a suitcase full of cash. The rattled old dear adjusted her bifocals and explained the government’s persnickety prohibition against the transfer of large quantities of, ahem, untraceable money. Tommy stammered out an apology, his cheeks ablaze with embarrassment.
Two years after I met him, he called to let me know he was moving to a bigger place and asked if I was still interested in buying the house. We easily settled on a fair price, but he did firm demand—that his father, Miguel, who had tended the grounds for many years, be kept on as gardener.
I connected these memories in a way I hadn’t before. Whatever difficulty Tommy was in, it was serious enough that the police were knocking on my door. Tomorrow morning Miguel would be stopping by to talk about replanting some beds. I’d tell him about my visit from the detective.
I rose long before the sky had grown bright, made my tea and was working away on the Saturday crossword puzzle when I heard a familiar engine in the back alley. Pulling aside the window’s lace curtain, I saw Miguel’s big red pickup truck and the trailer he used for hauling away yard debris. A glance at the clock told me it was not yet 6:30. Hadn’t we agreed to meet at nine? I was halfway down the stairway when hard and insistent pounding nearly rattled the back door off its hinges. I unlocked the door and Miguel bounded in, eyes wide, panicked.
“I need your help,” he blurted. “My son, he’s in trouble.”
“I don’t know. Bad people. They broke down his door. He jumped out a window—in his underwear. With his pistol. He ran and his feet, they’re all bloody.”
“It’s okay,” I said, taking him by the shoulders. “Where is he now?”
Miguel jerked his head toward the truck. “He’s gotta get away. He needs money. Got all I could from the ATM and a little from my neighbor.” His dark eyes implored my help. “Please.”
I always keep some cash around. Not sure exactly why—I tell myself it’s for the end of the world. Maybe that’s what this was. I grabbed the envelope from the desk drawer, then emptied my wallet and stuffed those bills in with the others.
“Twelve hundred, a little more,” I said. “That’s all I have.”
He snatched the money and dashed out the door, calling over his shoulder a promise to pay it back. The engine roared and the truck and trailer tore off down the alley.
My god, what was Miguel feeling? And Tommy? Crazed with fear and on the run from…who knows what kind of monsters and madness.
I got my teacup, put it in the microwave, and watched through the little window as the delicate bone china turned around and around on the carousel. The look of horror in Miguel’s eyes…acting on some primal instinct to protect his son…their escape plan—frantic, ill-conceived…and Tommy’s pursuers, would they give up or would they hunt him down, kick in another door, finish their grisly job?
The microwave sounded its ding.
Miguel wasn’t thinking clearly. Someone had to. Surely the cops know how to handle these things. They could be clever, make it look like a routine traffic stop.
I telephoned detective Morra, got no answer, and left a message with a description of the truck.
Still, Miguel would wonder. He’d figure out it was me who turned in his son. I should have called him as soon as the detective left.
You do the best you can, that’s the wisdom, right? You do the best you can.
Detective Morra didn’t call me back. Her card lay on the kitchen counter and each time I saw it I thought about trying her number again and asking if there was any news. But I didn’t. I feared something had gone badly.
Late Monday afternoon the front doorbell chimed and when I opened it Miguel, haggard and unshaven, stared up at me with hollow eyes.
“I brought your money,” he mumbled and handed me the envelope.
I led him down the entry hall to the parlor, where he sat stiffly on the settee, back straight, feet flat on the floor, palms on thighs.
I perched on the wingback chair’s edge, leaning toward him. “What’s happened?”
He moaned, a guttural growl that formed into the words, “He’s dead.” A shiver shook his body and left his lip quivering. “Three police cars…sirens, lights flashing like crazy…guns—pointing right at me. Step away from the vehicle.” He spoke in stops and starts as if recounting a dream that made no sense. “Where’s your son? Where is he? I said don’t hurt him. He’s in the trailer, in the leaves under the tarp. Is he armed? I told them, just a little pistol. And they get on the radio. More cops—rifles, shotguns, everything. I kept saying, he won’t hurt nobody. Let me talk to him. But they wouldn’t.”
He brushed his hand over his mouth.
“In the bullhorn the cop says throw out the gun, throw out the gun, like ten times. But in the trailer—no sound, no moving around, nothing. Then pop.” He shivered. “They ducked like he was shooting at them.” Miguel squeezed his eyes closed.
I didn’t immediately understand, but then, to my horror, I did.
He stared at the carpet, taking slow deep breaths.
What had I done?
His eyes swept upward and looked straight at me. “It was you, wasn’t it? You told the police.”
I felt suddenly very small and wanted to be even smaller, wished I could disappear altogether. “I did, yes. I thought—”
He held up his trembling hand. “You thought you had to.”
I couldn’t endure his unblinking gaze and looked away, to his hand, and watched it fall slowly to his lap. He could blame me; he could hate me. That would be his right. But he deserved to know. I nodded.
He said nothing, then bit his lower lip and worked the flesh between his teeth, back and forth. “You thought it would protect him.”
“I did, I—”
His hand cut me off again. He sucked in a breath and started to speak but faltered, then, gathered himself and with great determination said, “I understand.”
He stood abruptly, like his body needed something to do. Drifting around the parlor, he ran his finger along the edge of the Tiffany lampshade, over the rounded haunches of the little cat sculpture from Milan.
I felt relief, something close to absolution. Still, I couldn’t forget how I could have—should have—called to warn him. And if I had, how things would have been different.
His eyes scanned across the whole room, up and down. “You fixed this place real nice. Tomás never had it so nice.” He noticed the framed photographs displayed on the piano. “You got kids?”
I shook my head.
“I had one,” he said, as if miles away. “Ernesta. I think maybe it’s good she wasn’t here for…all this.” He clicked his tongue. “Catholic.”
The largest photo caught his eye—Mason and me, sunning on the patio of the villa we rented in Spain, the blue Mediterranean receding to the horizon. He picked it up, studied it. Mason was near sixty then, I was twenty-seven.
Miguel raised an eyebrow. “You and…this one?”
He placed the picture back on the piano and returned to the settee.
“Tell me about him.”
It was an opening—and any distraction would do him good.
“Well, his name was Mason Merriweather. We met at a party, that was 1973. A week later we were on a Greek island with his friends dancing until sunrise. He knew everything and everybody—art, books, the most interesting people you could ever imagine. Nobody thought it would last, but we were a perfect match—the professor and his very eager student. The years we spent together here in this house, they were, well…radiant.”
The squint of his eyes and slight tilt of his head made me wonder what he was thinking—maybe how one love story is rather like another. In any case, he now knitted his eyebrows and looked confused.
“You said ‘this house.’ What, you lived here before?”
“It’s a good story,” I said, seeing my chance to give him a little more respite from his grief, “but I don’t know if you’d want to hear—”
“No, no. I do.”
“If you insist. Let me get us something to drink.” I went to the sideboard, returned, and handed Miguel a delicately etched glass. “Mason’s favorite sherry, in the vintage crystal he just adored.”
He gripped the small glass in his meaty hand and took a sip.
“When Mason died, he left the house to his family back east, the Yankee Merriweathers. They didn’t approve of our relationship—to put it mildly. So I was, well…out.”
Miguel listened and sipped some more.
“They held on to the house for the next thirty or so years, renting it through a property manager.”
“Mr. Ames,” Miguel said. “I worked for him eleven years now.”
“The Merriweathers finally decided to cash out.”
“Yeah, Mr. Ames, one day he tells me I should fix it up real pretty, get it ready to sell. My boy was looking for a house right then, and I told him.”
“That’s when I met Tommy.”
“When?” Miguel asked.
“Right after he bought the place. I thought he would have told you.”
“Not really,” he said, passing the glass back and forth between his hands. “Sometimes we talked, but, you know…. He traveled a lot.”
Hoping to steer him away from the sorrow I heard creeping into his voice, I carried on. “I moved out in early ’84 and since then I kept my eye on this place. Always loved it and, well…always hoped I could get it back. So when I heard about Tommy buying, I stopped by and told him that if he ever wanted to sell—”
“Oh okay, I get it.”
“Two years later he gave me a call.”
“What did he want that bigger house for?” Miguel said, shaking his head. “Not married, no kids. How much house is enough?”
The conversation stalled—and that wouldn’t do. I rose and went to the sideboard, where I put the decanter of sherry on a Moroccan silver tray and carried it to the end table near our seats.
Miguel glanced back to the photo of Mason. “What happened—with him?
I cleared my throat. “AIDS. He was sixty-six.”
Miguel gave this much thought. “You were young.”
“Two days after my thirty-fourth birthday. We were together nine years.”
“Sorry.” He put down the glass and rubbed one hand with the other. “When I was a kid and things would happen, bad things, my mother used to tell me, ‘Dios nos vigilas’—God up in heaven, He is watching us.”
He meant to console me, but even as he spoke, his composure slipped away.
“I saw the whole thing happen to him,” he said, his voice raw with emotion. “No school, no job, nothing. But all that money. More and more. I could see from the garden, the kind of people he was running with.” He brought his palm to his forehead. “What went wrong? I don’t know. The cops didn’t kill him. The guys who busted down his door, they didn’t. Maybe I did something. It was me.”
I thought he might cry, but his face showed something more desolate, a pain that wouldn’t pass with an outburst. Miguel’s face contorted into a grimace and sank toward his chest. “Is He? Is He watching?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and could feel his heaving breaths. We stayed like that for a while.
Then he rose, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and said, “I gotta go.”
“Maybe one more sherry first?”
He waved it off and made his way down the hallway.
I knew what awaited him. The empty room. The suffocating stillness. Time that won’t pass, sleep that won’t come. The black pit that has no bottom.
He was out the front door and descending the front steps when I said, “We were going to talk about plantings, weren’t we?”
He stopped. His thoughts were far from the garden and it took him a moment to make sense of what I’d said, then he turned back to me.
“Oh yeah. The beds,” he said. “Along the walkway to the back. Perennials. I was thinking about putting in some nice perennials. There’s good sun on that side.”
They’re in now—lilies in yellow, pink, orange, and white; clumps of lavender; rosemary; a couple of roses. They seem to be doing all right.
Ross West earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Oregon, where he edited the research magazine Inquiry and was senior managing editor at Oregon Quarterly. His writing has appeared widely in print publications (from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistic) and on the websites The Satirist, Spank the Carp, Unearthed, and Brevity; and has been anthologized in Best of Dark Horse Presents; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and Best Essays Northwest. He served as text editor of the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.