Story — From the October 2013 issue

Sic Transit

Download Pdf
Read Online

There was a foul odor coming from the house — the odor, as it turned out, of rotting flesh — but nobody did anything about it, at least not at first. I was away at the time, my business taking me to the East Coast for a series of fruitless meetings with a consortium of inadequate and unserious people whose names I forgot the minute I settled into the first-class cabin for the trip back home, and so I had the story from my wife’s walking partner, Mary Ellen Stovall, who makes her living in real estate. We’d always wondered about that house. We went by the place nearly every day, my wife Chrissie and I, running errands or strolling down to the beach club or one of the shops or restaurants on the main road. The houses around it — tasteful, well kept, and very, very pricey — were what you’d expect from a California coastal community, in styles ranging from craftsman to Spanish mission to contemporary, most of them older homes that had been extensively remodeled, in some cases taken right down to the frame or even the original slab. But what this one looked like was anybody’s guess, because the trees and shrubbery had long since gone wild, so that all you saw was a curtain of green enclosing a gravel drive, in the center of which stood — or rather, listed — an ancient, rust-spattered Buick the size of our two Priuses combined.

Photograph by Mike Slack

Photograph by Mike Slack

As it happened, the man who lived there — had lived there — was a recluse in his early sixties whom no one, not even the next-door neighbors, could recall ever having seen. The properties on either side of him featured eight-foot walls topped with bougainvillea that twisted toward the sun in great puffed-up balls of leaf and thorn and flame-red flower, and as I say, his property had reverted to nature, so that the flat acre on a bluff with ocean views might as well have been sectioned out of the Amazonian jungle for all anybody could see into it. Isolation, that was what he had. Isolation so absolute it took that odor and a span of eight full days for the police and the firemen, who’d arrived simultaneously in response to the neighbors’ complaints, to force the door and find him sunk into his bed, his mouth thrown open and the mattress so stained with his fluids that it had to be burned the moment the coroner and the forensics people got done with him.

Why am I telling you all this? Because of what came next, what I discovered both on my own and with Mary Ellen Stovall’s help, and because I’m in a period of my life — I just turned fifty — when I’ve begun to think less about the daily struggle and more about what awaits us all in the end. Here was an anonymous death, unattended, unmourned, and the thought of it, of this man, whoever he was, drawing his last breath in a run-down house on a very valuable piece of property not two blocks from where Chrissie and I had bought in at top dollar during the very crest of the boom, spoke to me in some way I couldn’t define. Had he suffered? Had he lain there for days, weeks, a month, too ill or derelict in his soul to call for help? Mary Ellen — who was to get the listing once the surviving relative, a brother in some godforsaken place, had given her the go-ahead — claimed that the body had been practically engulfed in a litter of soda cans, half-eaten containers of microwave noodles, and (this really got to me) the blackened skins of avocados from the tree out back.

According to the ten-line story that appeared in the local paper the day after I returned, the dead man had been identified as Carey Fortunoff, and he’d once been a member of an obscure rock band called Metalavox, after which he disappeared from public view, though he continued to write the occasional song for other bands and singers, a few of whom were named in the article, but they must have been equally obscure, since neither Chrissie nor I had ever heard of them. Out of curiosity, I googled the band and came up with a single paragraph that was virtually a duplicate of what the paper had run.

There was a photo, in black and white, of the five band members in a typical pose of the era, which looked to be late Seventies, early Eighties, judging from their haircuts and regalia. They were in a cemetery, variously slouching against one tombstone or another, wearing mirror sunglasses and wasp-waisted jackets, their hair judiciously mussed. As to which one was Carey Fortunoff, I couldn’t say, though I imagined he was the one standing — slouching — just slightly to the left and staring away from the camera as if he had better things on his mind than posing for a cheesy promotional shot. And that was it. I clicked on something else, which led me to another thing altogether and before I knew it half an hour had vanished from my life. Then I went down to see what Chrissie wanted to do about dinner.

The next day was Sunday and I was up early, still running on East Coast time. I awakened in the dark and for a long while just lay there on my side watching the numbers mutate on the face of the ancient digital clock Chrissie’s mother had left behind when she’d died the previous year. I hadn’t wanted that clock. I always tried to sleep through the night and didn’t like knowing what time it was if I woke to use the bathroom, which was increasingly common now that I’d reached the age when the prostate seems programmed to enlarge. But out of sensitivity to Chrissie and her loss, I’d given in. “It reminds me of her,” Chrissie had claimed the day she’d cleared space on the bureau and knelt to plug the clock in. “I know it’s crazy,” she’d added, turning to give me a plaintive look, “but it’s like she’s right here watching over me.” Again, out of sensitivity, I didn’t point out to my wife that she couldn’t see the thing anyway since she wore a sleep mask to bed (along with a medieval-looking dental appliance designed to prevent her from snoring, which, occasionally, it did). At any rate, I watched the numbers reorganize themselves until the window took on a grayish glow, then I pushed myself up, pulled on a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, and slipped out the door, thinking to walk down to the village for croissants and coffee.

It was utterly still, the new-made light just touching the tops of the trees in a glad, dependable way. There was no sound but for the distant hiss of the freeway, a kind of white noise we all get so used to we barely know it’s there. A crow started up somewhere and then a few other birds chimed in, variously clucking and whistling, but hidden from view. I wasn’t thinking about Carey Fortunoff or anything else for that matter beyond maybe the way the smell of fresh coffee and croissants hits you when you step in the door of the bakery. But then I found myself passing by his jungle and I couldn’t help stopping right there in the street to wonder all over again about the kind of person who could let his property deteriorate like that.

The car was there, still listing, still enclosed in a shadowy pocket of vegetation. The bushes were woven as tight as thatch, the trees — eucalyptus, black acacia, oak, and Catalina cherry — struggling above them. Looking closer, I could see the bright globes of oranges and — what was it, Meyer lemon? — choked in the gloom, and there, to the side of the car, a splash of pink begonias.

I glanced over my shoulder. Did I feel guilty? Ghoulish, even? Yes. But a moment later, I was trespassing on a dead man’s property.

It was nothing to duck down the tunnel of the drive to where a crude path twisted through the undergrowth. The shadows congealed. I felt a chill. People always describe the odor of dead things as vaguely sweetish, but the smell here was more of the earth, the smell of compost or what’s left at the bottom of the trash can on a summer morning. I’d gone maybe a hundred feet before I spotted a window up ahead, the light puddled there, dense and gray, and then the front of the house emerged from the tangle like a stage prop: single story, flat roof, stucco in a shade of brown so dark it was almost black. Coffee grounds, that was what I thought of, a house the color of coffee grounds. But now the path widened, branches broken off, bushes trampled, and it came to me that this was where the police had gone in to bundle up the corpse in some sort of plastic sheet or body bag, something impervious to leakage.

I could have stopped there. But I was curious — and I’d come this far, Chrissie asleep, the croissants in the display case at the bakery and the coffee brewing, and, as I say, I felt some deeper compulsion, no man an island and all that — and without even thinking, I went right up the front steps and tried the door. It was locked, as I’d expected it to be, though in this neighborhood we have an exceptionally low incidence of crime and people have grown pretty casual about security. Half the time, Chrissie and I forget to set the house alarm when we turn in. But there I was on the front porch of Carey Fortunoff’s house and the door was locked — whether he’d locked it himself before climbing into bed for the final time or the firemen had secured it after breaking in was something I didn’t want to think about. Next thing I knew, I was fighting my way through jasmine and oleander gone mad, hugging the skin of the house and trying each of the windows successively till I reached the back and found the door there, a windowless rectangle of pine painted the same color as the house, only two shades lighter. I tried the knob. It turned in my hand, clicked, and the door eased open.

Inside, the smell was more intense, as you might expect, but it wasn’t overpowering — there was a chemical component to it, an astringency, and I realized that the firemen must have used some sort of dispersal agent to banish the odor. Everything was dim, the windows overgrown, the shades pulled, the shadows intact. Very gradually, my eyes adjusted and I was surprised to see that things were orderly enough in what turned out to be the kitchen: no cascading bags of garbage, no pans piled up in a grease-smeared sink, no avocado skins strewn across the floor. Orderly — and ordinary, too. He had the same sorts of things in his kitchen as we did, dishwasher, Viking range, coffeemaker, refrigerator.

For a long while I just stood there, ignoring the voice in my head that screamed at me to get out while I could, because if anybody should find me here the humiliation factor would be off the scale, neighbor caught looting dead rocker’s house, but then, almost as if I were working from a script, I crossed the room and pulled open the refrigerator door. The light blinked on and I saw the usual things arrayed there — catsup, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, horseradish, chunky peanut butter, pickles, a six-pack of Hires root beer. Half a dozen eggs resided in the sculpted plastic container built into the door. There was butter in the butter compartment, and in the rack on the door a carton of one-percent milk, expired. Did I actually unscrew the lid of the pickle jar, pluck one out with thumb and forefinger, and savor the cold crunch of it between my teeth? I’m not sure. Maybe. Maybe I did.

Again, there was something operating in me here that I’m not proud of — that I wasn’t even in control of — and I’m telling you about it simply to get it down, get it straight, but really, what was the harm? I was curious, all right? Is curiosity a crime? And sympathetic too, don’t forget that.

The next moment I was moving down the hall to the living room, or great room, as the realtors like to call it. Great or not, it was an expansive space with a raised ceiling, which must have taken up a third of the square footage of the place and had once featured a view out to sea, where water and sky met in a shimmering translucent band that shrank and enlarged and changed color through all the phases of the day, the same view Chrissie and I enjoy, albeit more distantly, from our upstairs bedroom window. The shades hadn’t been drawn here, but there was nothing to see beyond the leaves and the bare branchless knuckles of the shrubs pressed up against the glass.

There was a grand piano in one corner (Steinway, white) and across from it an electric version hooked up via a nest of wires to a pair of speakers that stood on either side of it. I had an impulse to lift the lid on the Steinway and try a key or two — who in this world has ever entered a room with a piano and failed to go to it and tinkle out something, be it “Chopsticks” or the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave”? But I fought it down. The neighbors might have been behind an eight-foot wall, but how could they fail to remark on the sound of a dead man playing the piano at six-thirty of a Sunday morning? No. No piano playing. Chrissie would be waking soon, the paper was still in the driveway, the croissants waiting. I had to go. But what was this on the walls, these rectangular forms giving back the soupy light? Photos. Framed photos.

A glance showed me I’d been wrong in identifying Carey Fortunoff as the brooder in the group photograph. Here was his face replicated in half a dozen scenarios: with and without his bandmates; with a pair of rockers even I recognized, famous men; with a sweet-faced woman sporting teased blond hair and holding an infant daughter, her hair teased, too. I realized, by process of elimination, that he was the one in the original photo partially obscured by a tombstone and staring straight into the camera. Not as dynamic maybe as the one I’d mistaken him for, or as good-looking, but solid in his own way. I imagined him as the composer, the arranger, the mad genius behind the band, because didn’t every band, if it was to succeed at any level, require a mad genius?

I didn’t know. But suddenly I felt something, a presence, an aura, and I came back to myself. I needed to stop prying. I needed to leave. And no, I had no interest in entering that bedroom down the hall or wherever it was. I turned to go, was actually on my way across the room and out the door, when my eye fell on the bookshelf, and if there’s an impulse every bit as compelling as lifting the lid on a piano and fingering a few keys, it’s inspecting a bookcase, whether a friend’s or a stranger’s, just to get a sense of the titles some other person, someone other than you or your wife, would select and read. Without trying to sound overly dramatic, this was the moment where the fates intervened, because what drew my attention was a uniform set of leather-bound books, hand numbered and dated. Journals. The journals of a third-tier musician who’d died alone in what sort of extremis I could only imagine — Carey Fortunoff’s journals. The one I picked at random was dated 1982, and I didn’t flip back the cover and leaf through it, because another impulse was at work in me, even stronger than the ones I’d already given way to.

I never hesitated. Ignoring the warning voices rattling around my head, I tucked the volume under my arm and slipped out the way I’d come.

I tried to be inconspicuous on the street, just another man — citizen, neighbor, innocent — heading down to the bakery in the early morning with a favorite book, but in any case there was no one around to doubt or question me. The walls stood tall and mute. A soft breeze swayed the treetops. On the main road, the one that arcs gracefully through the lower village, a pair of cars, pinked by the early sun, rolled silently to a halt at the four-way stop sign, then rolled on. I bought the newspaper from one of the machines ranged like staring eyes outside the bakery, folded the book inside it, and went on up the steps and into the shop, where the smells were sweet and comforting.

I took a table in back and made a show of studying the headlines before sliding the book out from between the Real Estate and Style sections. I won’t say my heart was hammering — it wasn’t — but I did feel the quickening pulse of an illicit thrill. I looked up. There were three other people in the place, aside from the girl behind the counter: two women and a man, each sitting separately, and each absorbed in laptop or phone. I didn’t recognize them — and if I didn’t recognize them, then they wouldn’t have recognized me. I opened the journal and spread it flat on the table.

The first page simply stated the date in bold black numerals three inches high. Beneath it was the leering cartoon figure of what I took at first to be a devil — horns, goatee, cloven hoofs — and I was put off. Here was the same old pubescent trope: devils and grinning skulls, phallic snakes, witch women and graves, the kind of wet dream of death displayed in one form or another on every band poster of the era. But then I saw my mistake — the figure was actually meant to be that of a satyr, as indicated by the definition of satyriasis written out in block letters at the bottom of the page: excessive or abnormal sexual craving in the male. Which was at least more interesting. I turned the page.

What followed, beginning with the entry for January 1, the day after the band had performed for a New Year’s Eve party at a place called the Whisky, alternated between descriptions of random sexual encounters (groupies), drug use (cocaine, Percodan), and recording sessions for the group’s first album, which apparently was to be released that May by Warner Bros. It was the usual sort of thing, the rock-and-roll cliché interlarded with set lists, visits to the doctor for burns, contusions, and sexually transmitted diseases, the names of cities, restaurants, venues. I began to skip ahead. What was I looking for? Introspection. Connection. Some sort of insight into a life, this life, a life lived coevally with my own. And pain, of course — the sort of pain and hurt and trauma that define and delimit any life on this earth.

I wasn’t disappointed. In May, once the band went on tour, the entries began to shrink away to virtually nothing, a single line, the name of a city (Cincinnati, encore “Hammerhead” & “Corti-Zone,” vomit on shoes, whose?), and then in June the pages went blank altogether. What happened — and this was revealed in the first long entry for July, the longest in the journal thus far — was that Carey Fortunoff, mad genius of Metalavox or no, had quit the band in midtour, kicking out the windshield of the van they were traveling in after a dispute with the drummer over credit for a song he (the drummer) claimed he’d co-written.

Carey was uncompromising. He had a temper. And no matter how his bandmates pleaded with him or the drummer (Topper Hogg, another name to look up) prostrated himself, Carey walked away from the whole thing. Just crossed the road, stuck out his thumb, and spent two deprived and miserable weeks flagging rides west, sleeping rough, haunting dumpsters outside fast-food restaurants, and listening to every sort of country and pop atrocity his thumbed rides inflicted on him, till he finally made it back to L.A. And his wife. His wife, Pamela, mentioned now for the first time, as if she carried no more weight in his life than one of the Cindys or Susies or Chantals he picked up after every gig, as he called it:

Lost 22 pounds by the time I got back to Pamela, my head splitting open like a big ripe cantaloupe. Why didn’t you call me? she said. And what’d I do? I just shrugged, because how could you even begin to put it into words?

Imagine my surprise. Of course, I didn’t have access to the earlier volumes, which for all I knew might have portrayed an awkward first meeting, a tender courtship, and a marriage as committed and sweetly strong as the one Chrissie and I have been able to make together. So give him credit. If anyone’s at fault here, it’s me, for having entered his story at random, for hovering over it like some sort of vulture, for being a thief, an expropriator — and yet as I look back on it now, everything I did, even if it was questionable, even if it was ultimately futile, was for a reason. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The next surprise was his daughter. Two lines after he mentioned the wife, in trotted a three-year-old girl. Terri. And whether she was a prodigy or autistic, tall or short or fat or thin, dark or blonde (and here something clicked: the pouf-haired infant in the photo), I couldn’t have said, not yet, not without reading on. I looked up. My coffee cup was empty and the plate before me held nothing but crumbs, so I closed the book, slipped it back into the newspaper, and went home to my wife.

That night I took Chrissie out to La Maison, the new restaurant in the village that was so popular you couldn’t get in the door unless you had connections — but I always had connections. I walked her the long way around, avoiding Carey Fortunoff’s street, making up some excuse about wanting to stop off at the ATM for cash. The maître d’, who was fooling nobody with his simulated French accent, practically went down on his knees when we came through the door, and we were soon sitting at our favorite table, on the patio, where we liked to watch the evening light mellow over the village and cling to the mountains beyond till everything was in shadow but for the highest peak. Our daughter, Patricia, was away for the summer on a fellowship in Florence, studying art restoration, and though we missed her, it was nice to be free to come and go as we pleased, almost as if we were dating again. When the waiter poured out our first glass of wine, I took Chrissie’s hand and raised my glass to her.

We were on our second glass, Chrissie as ebullient as ever, her voice rising and falling like birdsong as she gossiped about this neighbor or that and filled me in on the details of Mary Ellen Stovall’s marital tribulations, when she suddenly glanced up and said, “Oh, you remember that house? The one on Runyon?”

“What house?” I said, though I knew perfectly well what she was talking about.

“The one where the guy died? The musician?”

This was my chance to come clean, to tell her about the leather-bound volume I’d secreted in the garage behind a shelf of old National Geographics, but I held back, and I still don’t know why. I shifted my eyes. Broke off a crust of bread and chased a dollop of tapenade across my plate.

“Mary Ellen says there’s no way they can ever get the smell out of the house — it’s like that boat in the harbor, remember, where the seal climbed up and then fell through the skylight into the galley and couldn’t get out?” She gestured with her glass. “And rotted there, for what, weeks, wasn’t it? Or months. Maybe it was months.”

“So what are they going to do?”

She shrugged, her bracelets faintly chiming as she worked her fork delicately into the flaking white flesh of the halibut Provencal, which was her favorite thing on the menu. Mine too, actually, as neither of us eats much meat anymore. “I don’t know — but it’s got to be a teardown, don’t you think?”

There had been problems with Carey Fortunoff’s marriage almost from the start. Pamela was one of the hangers-on, one of the original groupies from when the band had first formed and was still rehearsing in somebody’s mother’s garage. She was nineteen years old, shining like a rocket blazing across the sky (Carey’s words, not mine), and she had musical ambitions of her own. She played guitar. Wrote her own songs. She’d been performing in a local coffeehouse since she was fourteen (this was in Torrance, from what I could gather, the town where Carey had been raised by a single mother with a drinking problem), and for a while she’d sat in with the band during rehearsals and they’d even covered one or two of her songs. But then she got pregnant. And Topper Hogg joined the band and felt they should go in a different direction. So she stayed home. And Carey, a self-confessed sex addict, went on the road.

All this came out in the July entries, this and more — how she’d refused to have an abortion, how she swore she’d stick with him till the seas boiled and the flesh melted from her bones, no matter what he threw at her, whether he gave her the clap (twice) or chlamydia (once) or whether he loved her or not. It came out because he was back with her now, living in a two-room apartment in Redondo Beach and trying both to shake off the uneasiness of having burned his bridges with Metalavox and to forge on with new music for a solo album. He was feeling introspective. Or confused. Or both. At any rate, this was where the journal became something more than a compilation of trivia and deepened into something else — a life, that is. I was hooked. That night, after Chrissie had gone to bed, I went out to the garage and read it through to the end.

For the first few weeks, they went to the beach nearly every day — to “kick back,” as he put it. There was the sun, the sand, there were the surfboards he and Pamela paddled out on the ocean while whoever they could grab hold of watched Terri so she didn’t drown, the days lazy and long and memorialized by the potent aroma of suntan oil and the hiss of cold beer in the can. But Carey wasn’t much of a surfer and the waves were all taken in any case, prioritized by a clique of locals who resented outsiders and one another too. By August, he and his family were headed north, for the Russian River, where they were going to stay for the remainder of the summer with another couple — friends from high school, from what I could gather. Jim and Francie. Jim was a writer, Francie taught school. And they’d rented a “funky” cabin in the redwoods just three blocks from the river and a place called Ginger’s Rancho, where bands played six nights a week and on Mondays there were poetry readings.

It was an ongoing party, shared meals, a surfeit of beer and wine and drugs, swimming in the river, dancing in the club at night, yet what Pamela didn’t know — or Jim either — was that Carey was having sex with Francie every chance he could get. They’d make excuses, going out to the market while Jim was writing and Pamela babysitting, taking long walks, swimming, canoeing, berry picking, their eyes complicit and yet no one the wiser.

Then came a sultry afternoon in mid-August when they all went down to Ginger’s in their shorts and swimsuits to sit in the bar there, at a table in the corner where the window was thrust open and they could gaze out on the river as it made its swift, dense progress to the sea. Francie was wearing her leopard-print two-piece, and Carey, in a pair of cutoffs, leaned into the table to admire the pattern of moles in the cleft between her breasts. (Orion’s Belt, he liked to call it — privately, of course — and he was writing a song named after one of the three stars in the configuration, Alnilam, though how he expected to find a rhyme for it I couldn’t imagine.) Pamela was in a one-piece and a baggy T-shirt and was trying her best to keep Terri entertained. Jim was Jim, with hair that hung in his eyes, a chain-drinker and chain-smoker who seemed content to let the world roll on by.

An hour passed. They took turns buying rounds for the table. There was music on the jukebox and time slowed in the way it does when simply drawing breath is all that matters. Even Terri seemed content, sprawled on the floor and playing with her Barbies. Then, at a signal, Carey got up to go to the men’s room and a moment later Francie went to the ladies’, making sure the coast was clear before pulling him in with her and locking the door. It was risky, it was mad, but that made it all the more intensely erotic, a hurried grinding up against the sink while the jukebox thumped through the wall and the shouts of children at play in the shallows ricocheted eerily around them in that echoing space.

Francie came back to the table first, after having hastily dabbed at herself with a wad of paper towels, and if her smooth tanned abdomen showed a trace of Carey’s fluids shining there, no one noticed. A moment later, Carey sauntered across the room, four fresh gin and tonics cradled against his chest. “What took you so long?” Pamela wanted to know. He set down the drinks, one at a time, shrugged. “There was a line like you wouldn’t believe.”

And where was Terri? She was at the next table over, being entertained by an old woman in a bleached straw hat who must have been a retired elementary-school teacher or a grandmother or something of the like, because she took right to Terri as if she’d been waiting for her all her life. The two of them were playing word games, playing patty-cake, the woman had her on her lap. Pamela said it was cute. The drinks went down. The conversation jumped and sparked, longtime friends spinning out jokes and routines and gossiping about every soul they knew in common who didn’t happen to be sitting at the table in that moment. And then, at some point, Pamela glanced up and saw that the old woman in the straw hat was gone. Along with Terri. The little girl. Her daughter.

It took a minute for Carey to grasp the situation. He got up dazedly from his chair, the first stirrings of alarm beating in him, and went methodically through the place, jerking out chairs to look under the tables, going down on his hands and knees, startling people, Pamela right behind him and Jim and Francie right behind her. Then it was the restrooms, the kitchen, then out the door to where the river, cold and muscular, framed the shore.

He saw a maze of bare limbs, people spread out on mats and blankets, huddled beneath beach umbrellas, radios going, kids shouting, dogs shaking themselves dry. But he didn’t see Terri. And now it began to build in him, the shock and fear and hate — hate of the old woman, of all these people, these oblivious people, and of Pamela too, for doing this to him, for giving him this daughter he loved in that moment more than anything in the world. He began shouting his daughter’s name, his voice high and tight, as if he were onstage howling into the microphone at the climax of one of his concerts, and here were Pamela and Jim and Francie, their faces shrinking away from his like stones dropped down a well.

“Terri!” he called. “Terri!”

But wasn’t that the old woman? Wasn’t that her, laid out on her back like a corpse, her flabby legs spread in a V and the straw hat pulled down over her face? He was on her in the next instant, snatching the hat away. “Where is she?” he demanded. “My daughter. What did you do with her?”

The old lady blinked under the harshness of the sun. It was hot. Midafternoon. She was glazed in sweat. “Who?”

“My daughter. Terri. The little girl you had in your lap. Terri!

Something like recognition slid across the woman’s face, the faintest spark, and he realized she was drunk, no grandmother, no schoolteacher, just a drunken fat old slut he could have choked to death right there on the beach and nobody would have blamed him. And what did he get out of her? Blinking, holding up a hand to shield her eyes, her voice cracked and her arms shining, she came up on one elbow and gave him a grimace. “I thought she was with you.”

He was making promises to himself as he ran up and down the beach, wading now, calling out his daughter’s name over and over. He’d been wrong, he’d sinned, he’d been selfish, stupid, stupid, stupid, and if they found her, if she was all right, saved, fine, whole, he would change his ways, he swore it. If only —

That was when Pamela let out a cry from the far end of the beach where the trail wound through a scrub of bushes and low trees and he ran toward the sound of it, people jerking their heads around, Jim just behind him and Francie, too, the sand burning under his feet and the sun knifing at him. In the next moment, Pamela was stepping out of the shadows as if out of an old photograph, and he saw the smaller figure there beside her, Terri, in her pink playsuit and with her face clownishly smeared with the juice of the huckleberries she’d been picking all by herself.

What happened next? I didn’t know. Curiously, there were no entries after that, just a succession of blank white pages. It happened that I had to go back east again on business — not in connection with the first group, I had no patience with them, but for another investment opportunity, which ultimately turned a nice little profit for Chrissie and me. When I returned, I treated her to a week at a resort in Cabo we like to use as a getaway. Time passed. I forgot about the journal, forgot about Carey Fortunoff and his unplumbed life. And then one day, Mary Ellen stopped by to pick up Chrissie for their afternoon walk just as I was walking in the door, and it all came back to me.

“So what’s new?” I asked. “Anything interesting out there?”

“Well, duh,” she said. “Haven’t you been reading the paper? Things are going through the roof — my last two listings sold the day they came on the market. For above asking.” She was wearing a yellow visor and a white cotton tennis dress. Her eyes jumped out at me as if they held more than they could contain. She wasn’t aggressive, or not exactly, but she never seemed far off message.

“What about that place on Runyon?” I asked. “That ever sell?”

“Why? You interested?” She was giving me a coy look, dropping one hand to tug at the hem of her skirt as if to draw my attention there. She had great legs, her best asset, tanned and honed by countless hours of tennis and power walking. I realized I’d never seen her in a pair of pants, but then why would I? Her standard outfit was a skirt and heels and a blouse cut just low enough to keep the husbands interested while the wives paced off to the dining room to determine where the hutch was going to go.

She held the look just a beat too long. “Because Chrissie never said a word. But that’s a prime piece of property, two blocks closer to the beach than your place, and with better views — or potential views. I’ll tell you, that’s where I’d build my dream house if I had the wherewithal. Or the peace of mind.” This was a reference to the fact that her life was unsettled now that she’d separated from her husband and moved into a condo with views of nothing.

I shrugged. “Just curious.”

“I’ll show it to you if you want.” A door eased shut upstairs and here was Chrissie coming down the staircase in her walking shorts, her own legs long and bare and shining like tapers in the light from the open doorway. Mary Ellen shot me a look. “Tomorrow? Say, four?”

I went in the front door this time, Mary Ellen Stovall leading the way. The first room we entered, just off the hallway, was a den, wood-paneled, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled not with books but with CDs, thousands of them, and on the bottom two shelves, running along all four walls, records — old-fashioned vinyl records in their original jackets. Mary Ellen flicked on an overhead light and the spines leaped out at me, dazzling slashes of color in every shade conceivable. There were speakers, an amp, turntable, and CD player, and a single ergonomic chair covered in black velvet. This was his sanctum, I realized, the place where he came to listen.

“He had quite a collection,” Mary Ellen said, clicking across the parquet floor in her heels to pull out a CD at random. “Throbbing Gristle,” she read, turning it over in her hand so that the case flashed like a beacon. “Ever hear of them?”

“No,” I said.

“Not your kind of music, is it?”

“Not so much, no.”

“But listen, if you see anything you want, go ahead and take it. Because aside from the piano, which I’ve got somebody coming in to pick up — and the appliances for the recycler — the rest is going to the dump. I mean, the brother doesn’t want it, and since there’s no other heirs . . . ” She gestured with the CD to complete the thought, then slid it back in its place on the shelf.

“I thought he had a daughter.”

“Not that I know of. But don’t you want to see the rest of the place?” She paused, took a moment to cross one ankle in front of the other and tap her heel so that the sound, faint as it was, seemed to etch its way into the silence. “Of course, the house has got to go — that goes without saying. But it’s a steal, a real steal at the price. And you can’t beat the location.”

“Yes, definitely,” I said. “But give me a minute — you go on ahead.”

What I was thinking was that the 1982 volume of Carey Fortunoff’s journals didn’t have to go back at all, and that if I wanted to, I could just waltz out the door with any one I liked.

But why would I want to? He was nothing to me. In fact — and here I bent to leaf through the records — I’d never even heard his music, not a note. The records were alphabetized, and I went through the Ms pretty thoroughly (Metallica, Montrose, Motörhead), thinking to put the Metalavox album on the turntable, just for my own interest, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find, up above on a separate shelf, was a complete set of CDs labeled by year in Magic Marker, each one featuring multiple discs with the names of the compositions neatly written out, Carey Fortunoff’s music ordered in the way he’d ordered the events of his life in the journals. I even found one song that was called “Alnilam.”

Mary Ellen tapped down the hall, stuck her head in the door. “Come on, I want to show you the great room, because that’s where the views are going to be once we get rid of all the undergrowth or overgrowth or whatever you want to call it. Isn’t that just the worst shame about this place, that he let it go like that?” She sighed, ran a hand through her hair. “But to each his own, huh?”

I followed her up the hallway, her hips swaying over the high heels, until she stopped at a closed door. “You might want to hold your nose,” she whispered, as if Carey Fortunoff were still in there, still doing whatever he’d been doing before the breath went out of him. “The master bedroom,” she mouthed. “I’ve never even opened the door. Really, I think I’m afraid to.”

And then we were in the great room, the light muted and leafy. Mary Ellen went to the window as if she could see out across the channel to the islands, the million-dollar view (more likely three or four) she would earn her commission on. I paused in the doorway, gazing at the bookcase, where the gap for the 1982 volume stood out like a missing tooth. I tried to be casual, moving toward it as if I’d never seen it before, as if I were a potential buyer contemplating a move to a better location, as if I weren’t some sort of hyena sniffing out the death of a neighbor I never knew, but then time seemed to compress and two things happened that continue to trouble me to this day.

The first was my discovery, in the gap on the shelf, of a newspaper clipping, yellowed with age and dated August 16, 1982. It must have slipped out when I removed the volume. The headline read toddler drowns in russian river, and below it:

The body of Teresa Fortunoff, age 3, was found by sheriff’s deputies late yesterday afternoon. The current had apparently swept the girl nearly a mile downriver from where she was first reported missing. The cause of death was given as drowning. She is survived by her parents, Carey Fortunoff, former member of the rock group Metalavox, and Pamela Perry Fortunoff, both of Los Angeles.

Before I could absorb the shock of it — Carey had lied to me, to himself, to posterity — the purposive clack of Mary Ellen’s heels made me turn my head and I had a second surprise. She’d stripped off her blouse and dropped her skirt right there on the floor. I saw that she was wearing an elaborate set of undergarments, in black lace, with matching garters, an arrangement that had no doubt taken some forethought. “I’m so lonely since Todd left,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around me. I felt the heat of her, smelled her perfume that rose and wafted and overwhelmed every other odor there was or ever had been. “Hold me,” she said, whispering still. And then, because I hadn’t reciprocated — or not yet — she added, “I won’t breathe a word.”

Carey Fortunoff’s last year wasn’t at all like what I’d imagined. He was in good health (but for a knee injury he’d sustained in a motorcycle accident twenty years back, which had left him with a slight limp). He was composing the score for a film being shot in Bulgaria and a record label was interested in bringing out an album that would collect the best of his songs, the ones he’d written both for himself and for other artists, including “Alnilam,” which had apparently been a top-twenty hit for a band called Mucilage. He was sixty-two. Pamela was long gone. Francie, too. But he had a new girlfriend he’d met online, and he wrote passionately about her. (Just to be with her is all the heaven I need, put on a record, an old movie, just sit there holding hands. All gravy.)

If he had a problem, it was with people, with society, with all the hurry and the wash of images, strange faces, the jabber of day-to-day life. Increasingly, he’d withdrawn into himself and his music, sleeping through the day and emerging at night, and then only to take care of the necessities, groceries and the like. Pickles. One-percent milk. Root beer. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, and dark glasses to hide his face. He let the trees and shrubs go wild.

I really can’t say whether it was the death of his daughter that broke him, but he marked the anniversary in subsequent volumes and wrote what from its description seemed to be a symphony called The Terri Variations. (As far as I can tell, no one ever heard it.) Thirty years passed before he admitted the truth of what had happened that day on the Russian River — in the 2012 volume, which he had no idea would be his last. Or maybe he did. Maybe he had some intuition of what was coming, of the common cold his new girlfriend would give him on one of her conjugal visits, the cold he ignored till it turned to pneumonia and cost him his life in a dark, neglected house.

There was no lifeguard on that beach. It wasn’t much of a beach even, just an irregular strip of sand spat up by the river during the winter rains, its configuration changing year to year so that one summer it would be a hundred yards across and the next fifty. Daytime temperatures reached into the nineties and sometimes higher, but the river remained cold, flowing swiftly with its freight of sediment. Carey found the old woman and the old woman was drunk. She didn’t know what he was talking about. Little girl? She hadn’t seen any little girl. She cursed at him and he cursed back. Then he and Jim — the cuckold — raced up and down the shore, calling out till they had no breath left in them, while the women, Pamela and Francie, searched the parking lot and the street out front, where the speed limit was posted at thirty-five but people tended to do fifty or more. Twenty minutes after Pamela first looked up and saw that their daughter was missing, they called the police.

What were they hoping? That Terri had been found wandering and been picked up by a Good Samaritan, a real schoolteacher, an actual grandmother, someone with a stake in things, someone who cared, someone who would deliver her to the authorities — who was driving her to the police station even then. They didn’t want to think about abduction, didn’t want to think about the river. But they had to. And so Carey was up to his waist in the water, beating along the shore, feeling with bare feet in the mud that rose in dark plumes to the surface and just as quickly dissolved in the current. He was wet through. Chilled. Exhausted. Even when the police and firemen arrived and sent boats out onto the river with nets to drag and hooks to poke under obstructions, he kept at it, kept going through all the hours and all the horror and futility of it. And when they found her, still in her pink playsuit and with her limbs so white and bloodless they might have been bleached down to the bone, he pressed her to him though she was as cold as the river in its deepest and darkest hole.

Mary Ellen Stovall was right about the house. We didn’t bid on it, Chrissie and I, because that was only the thought of the moment and we’re content where we are. In fact, I never even told Chrissie about the afternoon I went over there and what had happened between her walking partner and me, which I’m not proud of, believe me, and when Mary Ellen stops by these days I always seem to be busy elsewhere. I look at Chrissie and the way the light shines in her hair or how her smile opens up when I come in the door and I know that I love her and only her.

The bulldozers — there were two of them — came in and leveled everything on that lot, the trees splintered, the walls of the house collapsing as if they’d been made of cardboard. Everything that was Carey Fortunoff’s life — his journals, his music, the things on the shelves, and the room where they’d found him — was lifted into an array of clanking trucks and carted off to the landfill, so that only the bare scraped dirt remained. And the views, of course.

Why I kept that volume of his journal, the one I pulled off the shelf on a hushed Sunday morning nearly a year ago now, I can’t really say. Call it a memento, call it testimony. After all, who was he, Carey Fortunoff, and why should anyone care? The answer is simple: he was you, he was me, he was any of us, and his life was important, all-important, the only life anybody ever lived, and when his eyes closed for the final time, the last half-eaten carton of noodles slipping from his hand, we all disappeared, all of us, and every creature alive, too, and the earth and the light of the sun and all the grace of our collective being. That was Carey Fortunoff. That was who he was.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
is the author of fourteen novels and ten collections of short fiction, the latest of which, T. C. Boyle Stories II, will be published this month by Viking.

More from T. C. Boyle:

Story From the March 2015 issue

No Slant to the Sun

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


December 2015

Power in Paris

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bed-Rest Hoax

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Blast from the Past

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Counterparty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Free but not Redeemed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.