Story — From the October 2013 issue

Sic Transit

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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.

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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.

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