Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Story]

Too Good to Be True

Adjust

Harriet says she will take Gayle to A.A. meetings. Lois offers to pay her extra for gas and time, but Harriet says no, being of service is essential to her own sobriety. Plus, she gets a kick out of Gayle.

Gayle climbs into Harriet’s Corolla and together they cross town to the noon Keeping It Simple meeting at First Congo. En route, Gayle taps her window, says, “That corner there, you can get any pharmaceutical you want.”

Photographs by Mike Slack

Photographs by Mike Slack

“Not today, thanks,” says Harriet.

Back in her day, Harriet took a few pills. And snorted a line whenever it was free. At heart, though, she’s a garden-variety alkie, sober thirteen years. Her rebuilt life is chugging along, though a little cross-addiction to alcoholic men still kicks in from time to time. (They’re now sober alcoholic men — growth!) Putting her addiction next to Gayle’s, Harriet feels lightweight, a toast burner. (As in, Oh! I burned the toast! My life is unmanageable. Better join A.A.) Harriet drank too much, got fired off the line at Campanile, a job she’d loved, and that’s what woke her up, sent her into the rooms. But Gayle has spent twenty months on the street, and she just turned eighteen.

Every trip they take across town yields another revelation.

“Don’t tell Mom,” Gayle says, “but I was here in Pasadena for a lot of the time. Yeah. Like behind the Baptist church there? Someone left this old blue Crown Vic and some guy helped me take out the seats. I put in this air-bed thing. A couple girls and I kept it till a homeless took it over.”

Of a brick building on Green Street, Gayle says, “I blew a dentist there for pain meds and sometimes pharmacological coke, if he was feeling generous.”

Further down Green Street, where people and tables spill over the sidewalk: “That diner? We’d do the owner for hot meals, and also that pharmacist, but all he ever coughed up was some lousy Darvocet.”

Thus, over the weeks, these familiar avenues with their ordinary merchants and office buildings accrue, for Harriet, a shimmering glaze of pain, as if a whole other city lay shriveled and suf fering within.

Gayle was gone twenty months, except for thirteen or fourteen hours in the middle when the detective brought her home. A lot of people had told Lois and Dave to check her into Las Abejas immediately, or to hire security, or for God’s sake at least nail her door shut, none of which they could bring themselves to do. Which meant that Gayle, who arrived home at noon, departed sometime after midnight with Dave’s Bose and all twelve Christofle sterling-silver soupspoons.

Photograph by Mike SlackThis time, though, she came home on her own and already sixty days clean, so she claimed. She checked herself into an outpatient program — or did once Lois and Dave agreed to pay for it. Now she has graduated from the intensive program and has signed up for maintenance, which includes a meeting a day.

One rainy February day at noon, Harriet parks and they head toward a rec room behind the huge blond stone church. Approaching, they hear laughter.

“That’s why A.A.’s best,” Gayle says. “Addicts don’t laugh like that. You ever been to N.A., Harriet?”

“Nope. Just A.A., A.C.A., Al-Anon. Oh, and O.A.”

“I like N.A.,” Gayle says, “because people there get paranoia. They’ve done enough illegal stuff, and have the arrests to show for it. I mean, their paranoia is earned. Plus, someone slapping at her eyes in an A.A. meeting is a wacko. In an N.A. meeting, everyone knows she’s detoxing Valium. But A.A.’s more fun.”

Inside the rec room, the meeting has just started. They find seats near the front.

Harriet squeezes Gayle’s shoulder, kisses the side of her head, her rippling yellow hair. She is feeding them hope, drop by drop.

Harriet is the Parrishes’ housekeeper — her choice of title. She likes the old-fashioned sound of it. She does not, in fact, clean house. The Parrishes have a cleaning woman for that. Also an ironer, a pool man, a gardening crew, an arborist, pest control (organic), and a handyman. Drew, the youngest child, is too old for a nanny, but he is too young to come home from school to an empty house. Harriet’s duties are to shop for and prepare dinner, walk the dog, and be there every weekday afternoon for Drew. He does his homework at the dining-room table while Harriet cooks. She stays until Lois is home and changed and ready to take over.

Photograph by Mike SlackHarriet and Lois met in Al-Anon back when Gayle vanished the first time, three years ago. They share the same sponsor, Elizabeth T., a tall, thin, fragile-boned black woman whose own son lives on the streets right there in Pasadena. (Elizabeth T. sometimes sees her son filthy and asleep in the park, and, although it goes against everything in her bones, she will not stop to help him out — but that is a different story.) When Bistro Mauriac went out of business and Harriet had to find a new job, Lois proposed this arrangement, with a salary that few chefs at Harriet’s level ever achieve.

The Parrishes live on Arroyo Boulevard, a street of architectural treasures. When Harriet first drove over to talk to Lois about the job, she was hoping that the family lived in the museum-piece Craftsman, or in the low-slung Japanese bungalow with the shoji doors, but they lived between the two, in a white Cape Cod with trellised roses and a grinning white picket fence.

Harriet herself lives in a tiny rented house in Altadena whose crabgrass lawn is surrounded by waist-high chain link.

All the houses on Arroyo Boulevard are on the east side of the street. The west side is a sliver of parkland overlooking the arroyo itself, a steep-walled canyon with a stream at the bottom. A narrow path meanders along the arroyo’s lip under thick-limbed old oaks and pungent California bay trees. Here Harriet walks Lucky Gus, the family’s basset hound, every day before Drew comes home from school, and again when Lois comes home from work. Benches and stone retaining walls provide perches from which to admire the deep, stream-cut chasm, or to gaze, at eye level, into the tops of the sycamores and eucalypti growing lower on the canyon’s sides.

Many early westerns were shot down in the arroyo during the first decades of the previous century. Dave Parrish has told Harriet all about this. Dave is a film editor and serious movie buff. Once Harriet expressed an interest, Dave called her into his workroom off the garage, a room filled with film equipment and large computer screens: there he showed her clips of men galloping through the flat space where there’s now an archery range and a casting pond. Gunfights were staged where the canyon floor narrowed. Dave kept pausing the footage to point out a familiar rock formation or a young oak tree that is now a brooding giant.

These days, Dave works at a trailer house in Hollywood. No, not a mobile home, but a place that makes movie previews. Harriet asks him about every preview she sees, so she’s gotten good at recognizing the ones he made, which are short and alluring and as tightly composed as poems.

Dave used to make movies too, Lois told Harriet, but he is too much the artist, too much of a perfectionist, and he drove his directors and producers out of their minds. He’ll still help the occasional student or independent director, and in his spare time he’ll take on a worthy project, working at home in his room, with its fancy Avid setup.

Lois is a partner at a downtown firm. She practices contract law. That’s where the money comes from. Some of the money. With those two, there was always money.

Drew Parrish is eight, the caboose, or, as Lois says, a happy afterthought. His oldest sister, Ginger, is twenty-four and in her first year of medical school at UCLA. In between them is Gayle. On her fifteenth birthday, she was the captain of her trophy-winning volleyball team; at fifteen and three months, she was a runaway turning tricks on the streets of Hollywood.

Harriet has speculated as to what set Gayle off. Everybody has. What makes a child eat pills indiscriminately from every medicine cabinet, even consuming the dog’s tramadol and carprofen? What makes a soft-skinned, wide-eyed adolescent glug a two-buck pint of warm vodka, inhale burning white powder, or slide a needle into the milkiest stretch of her inner arm?

In a meeting, Gayle says, “Living on my own was something I had to do. I had to. I had to see what I was made of.”

Another time, to Harriet, she says, “My mom was always very hard to please.”

“Not anymore,” Harriet says.

Now, many, many things please Lois: Gayle not shooting dope. Gayle not turning tricks. Gayle sleeping at home in her own bed.

Gayle ran away four times. Each time she came home, she went into rehab, except for the last time, when she disappeared in the wee hours with a bulging knapsack. Each time she took off, there was the nauseated reeling, the forty-eight hours of stunned disbelief, and then the slow, miserable slog through day after day, with Lois doubling down on the shrink appointments and Al-Anon, Dave always in his room, and Harriet, too, hitting more meetings.

The last time, just when they were doing better, which took about a year and only meant that the phone could ring in the Cape Cod without setting off great crashes of terror and hope, Gayle had called. This was around Thanksgiving. She was clean and sober, she said, and had gotten her G.E.D. She wanted to go to junior college. She wanted treatment. She wanted to come home.

Lois said this was the last time. The last time they’d pay for rehab. The last time Gayle could live with them after running away.

The Las Abejas outpatient program cost $11,000 for ten weeks, a bargain compared with inpatient. Gayle was there from eight to eight, morning to night, with family group on Tuesday nights running until ten.

“How many more family groups do we have to do?” Lois asked Harriet. “Dave drives me crazy in there. He acts all bored and restless, and when it’s his turn to share, he says, ‘I’ll do anything and everything I can to help.’ Yeah! Anything except actually participate.”

Las Abejas had a craft hour, and someone taught the addicts to knit — apparently, knitting during meetings helped them pay attention. At Christmas, Gayle’s first at home in three years, she had presents for everyone. She had knitted watch caps for Dave and Drew, scarves for Ginger and her mother, then some big, bright pot holders out of some rolled stretchy fabric for Harriet.

Before the New Year, Gayle said, “I’m taking a chip for ninety days tonight, and I’d love it if everyone could come.”

Lois, Harriet, Dave, and Drew went and clapped in the audience. Ginger was in Idaho, skiing with a classmate.

The days passed, most of them rainy. Just dashing to the car without an umbrella, you’d get drenched, as if someone had turned a hose on you. Lois made an announcement at dinner: “People — including me — have got to remember to take umbrellas and stop buying new ones. I counted nine umbrellas in the elephant foot last night.”

In January, when her Las Abejas program went into maintenance mode, Gayle enrolled at Pasadena Community College. She signed up for Mandarin and Advanced French, and started going to meetings with Harriet.

This coming summer, Gayle tells them, she’d like to start at the Pasadena Culinary Institute. She wants to work in the hospitality industry, she’ll need training in food and languages. She has in mind a job at the InterCon in Beijing, she says, or Bangkok, or Nice. Or all three, and more.

“If that’s what you really want to do,” says Lois.

“We’ll help you out any way we can,” says Dave.

Harriet imagines, with some satisfaction, that Lois will someday say, “My daughter, the chef.” Although, more likely, it will be, “My daughter, the events manager.”

Harriet takes Gayle in hand, teaches her pâte brisée, pâte sucrée.

The house is fragrant with baked sugar, cinnamon, the warm spices. Gayle and Harriet have made apple pies for a Las Abejas fund-raiser. Harriet is wiping the counters while Gayle hunches over her calligraphy at the kitchen table. She has a brush, a darkening jar of water, and a small ceramic block on which sits the squat black disk of ink. She writes with quick gestures, pulling back to admire the filling grids.

During a lull in the rain, Gayle takes Drew and Lucky Gus out wall-walking. Their neighborhood is full of rock and clinker-brick walls, most of them fairly low; some have a squared concrete or brickwork crown, others are cobbled with rocks. The kids’ stated goal is to walk through the neighborhood exclusively on the walls. Of course, they have to jump down to cross driveways and streets. The longest walls line the arroyo, usually right along the lip, but wide as they are, these are too scary for Drew. Harriet, out picking mint, watches them wall-walk down Arroyo Boulevard, two arm-flapping humans and one ear-flapping basset hound whose toenails clack and slip on the stone.

Lois drives up and gets out of the car, wiping her eyes. “Did you see them?” she asks Harriet, then pushes her forehead against Harriet’s shoulder. “I can’t believe she’s really home.”

The jock salesman at the Porsche dealership was always good for a dime bag. I’d do him in a new Boxster on the 210 at a hundred miles an hour.”

Today, Sunday, they are driving to the Armory for the big speaker meeting there. The rain is steady.

Harriet says, “Sounds like a real hard way to make a living.”

Gayle drags a finger through the fog of her breath on the window. “It’s just a life,” she says. “You work at a lousy job to get what you want, then sit around till you have to go to work again.”

“More like you do unbearable things to get something that lets you forget what you just did.”

“Yeah,” says Gayle. “Only it won’t stay forgotten.”

Hey, Mom.” Gayle bursts into the kitchen, her hair curly from the mist. “Guess who I saw today in the bookstore? Honor. She also takes Mandarin. She’s coming over, if that’s okay. I know you said no old friends.”

“You know what I meant,” says Lois. “But I thought Honor was away at school.”

“Yeah, but her mom’s doing a party for her grandma’s eightieth and she’s home for that.”

Honor LeClerc, Lois tells Harriet, was Gayle’s best friend at Sequoyah through the eighth grade. A good girl. No problems. Now she’s at U. Richmond, a Tri Delt.

The phone rings and Lois talks for a few minutes. Hanging up, she whispers to Harriet, “Jennie LeClerc. Making sure we’re not a crack house.”

Honor arrives driving her mother’s Lexus. Shy, overachieving, a painfully fair redhead, Honor is tall and coltish in skinny jeans. Her orthodontia has yielded perfection. She says, “Nice to meet you, Harriet.” Her thick dark coppery hair tumbles down to the floor when she leans over to retie her sneaker, and an inky Tinker Bell shoots out from her T-shirt sleeve.

Lois nudges Harriet, and once the girls go out, says, “I wonder how Jennie LeClerc likes her baby’s tat!”

Leaving for the day, Harriet watches as the girls take the low wall along the driveway, single file, arms outstretched, dipping and flapping, hamming it up.

Lois comes home early, at three-thirty. “I was thinking I’d take Gayle to Target,” she says. “She could use some new T-shirts.”

“Not home yet,” says Harriet.

Lois glances at the clock.

“Not late yet,” Harriet says. “The buses aren’t so regular.”

At four, Lois calls Gayle’s cell phone; it rings until voicemail picks up.

“She just missed her bus,” Harriet says. “Or decided to walk.”

Lois calls again, and after ten minutes, again.

There is an upholstered bench along the breakfast nook and Lois lies down on this, curls knees to chest. Rain slides along the windowpanes. She puts her hands over her face.

“Don’t worry yet,” says Harriet.

“I can’t help it,” says Lois.

Harriet slices cucumbers into a bowl.

Lois calls again, then whimpers, a terrible sound.

Lucky Gus runs into the kitchen, toenails clacking as Gayle comes through the door, water flying off her. “Oh, Gussy, Gus, Gus,” she says, stooping. Then, “Hey, Harriet. Oh, Mom! You’re home early. Are you sick? It’s not a migraine, is it?”

“No,” says Lois.

“Guess what? My Mandarin teacher set me up with this Chinese girl who’ll tutor me if I proofread her papers. We just had our first session. I learned how to say ‘bite my ass’ in Mandarin.”

“I called you,” says Lois.

“You did?” Gayle draws her cell phone from a pocket. “Oh, God, I turned it off in class and forgot to turn it back on.” She gazes at the tiny screen. “You did call, didn’t you.”

She sits beside her mother on the bench. “Oh, Mom,” she says.

The rain is a steady hum, and a metallic gurgle in the drainpipe.

“What did you do all those months?” says Lois.

“Just stuff,” Gayle says, and raises an eyebrow at Harriet. “It wasn’t so terrible,” she says, and jiggles her mother’s hip. “I had a couple jobs. One in a library. I lived in a sober house in Alameda run by this woman Maritta, who’d been on the streets too and now helps other girls get off. I got my G.E.D. there. But a girl brought some stuff in.” Gayle shrugged. “It wasn’t so bad this time, Mom.”

Lois wipes her eyes. “Why didn’t you call?”

“I wanted to wait till I could hold it together. It was kind of a roller coaster for a while.”

Lois rises up on one elbow. “I was going to take you to Target for T-shirts,” she says.

“We can go,” Gayle says. “It’s not that late. Besides, Lucky Gus needs a new leash. And I need a new umbrella.”

Lois sits up all the way. “The last thing we need in this house —”

Gayle laughs, her brown eyes shining. “That got her up,” she says to Harriet.

Li Juan, a small young Chinese woman, is soon a regular in the Cape Cod. She oversees the calligraphy, a stern taskmaster. She tells Gayle the Mandarin for: “I belched.” “I farted.” “You farted.” When Gayle repeats these back, Li Juan and Drew shriek with laughter.

Harriet teaches Gayle pâte à choux, then puff pastry.

It really wasn’t all bad,” Gayle says to Harriet as they drive to the big meeting in Hollywood on a Friday night. “It’ll be my own wild story. How I lived on the streets when I was a girl. Like in David Copperfield, when he’s so poor, and walking to his aunt’s. The story I’ll tell my children. Censored, of course.”

“I was going to say,” says Harriet.

“But the people I met! Everyone helped each other, they gave us blankets and stuff and kept an eye out. The guys used to intervene with the sicko johns.”

Harriet is speechless.

“The best times were, you know, I’d find these beautiful places along the freeway hidden by big trees and bushes, with sometimes a water spigot near, and I’d lie in the sun on a cool day, dozing. Like being an animal. Nobody in the world knew where I was. And it was so real, Harriet. Each day figuring how to eat and get high, and meet up with people.”

“So why come back?”

“I had, like, this vision one day out there. I saw myself, but years ahead, and I was doing great, like, prosperous? I knew I had to get there. And I wanted to get there.”

“Your moment of clarity,” says Harriet.

“Exactly. I saw myself out in the world, meeting all kinds of people, international types in like a big, beautiful, clean hotel. I had on this cream-colored silk blouse and a black skirt, very professional, and sleek. High heels. I looked fantastic. And my life was busy and important. You know? And I knew exactly what to do to get there. Languages and cooking school. Maybe hotel school in Europe. I was always good in French.”

“And here you are,” says Harriet. “Isn’t that something.”

She had almost said, Isn’t that a miracle. But she couldn’t tempt fate.

“So far, so good,” says Gayle. “Though I kind of miss being up against it, when every day’s like life-or-death. And you’re a little animal rooting for food. Then cooking it for people on a campfire. I mean, we made some great meals from dumpster diving. And Harriet, you wouldn’t believe the stories people have.” Gayle rolls down her window, tests the air with her hand. “Hey, don’t tell Mom all that stuff I just said. She’d freak.”

Harriet quotes from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the promises. “We will not regret the past,” she says, “nor wish to shut the door on it.”

“We will not,” says Gayle.

“And we will know a new freedom, and a new happiness,” says Harriet.

“And you will teach me brioche.”

Lois and Dave are going out. But Li Juan will be there, and Honor, too, who is home on spring break. The young women say they’re happy to watch Drew. Harriet makes cheese pizza, and although she is free to go home, she eats some at the table with Drew and the girls.

Li Juan teaches Gayle and Honor to say, “Lucky Gus has diarrhea. Lucky Gus threw up his food.” Drew laughs so hard he inhales his juice.

Li Juan teaches Gayle to say, “Juice came out Drew’s nose.”

Harriet cleans up the kitchen. Then she drives home. It is late April. And still raining.

She is asleep when the phone rings.

“She’s gone,” says Lois.

“Who what?” says Harriet.

“Gayle. Gayle’s gone.”

It is one-thirty in the morning, according to the red digital numbers. “When did she leave?”

“We came home at eleven. Drew was asleep. Honor was here alone. Gayle walked Li Juan to the bus stop — two blocks! But she never made it home. Honor called her cell and it rang in her room. She’d taken Lucky Gus too, but he scratched at the door not long after she left, and Honor let him in. His leash was still on.”

“Did you call the police?” says Harriet.

“They won’t do anything for twenty-four hours. And with her history, they’re not inclined to do anything at all. She’s eighteen now. Free to go where she pleases.”

“Maybe she went home with Li Juan.”

“We talked to Li Juan. Gayle put her on the bus.”

“Shit,” says Harriet. “Shall I come over?”

A long pause.

“I’ll come over,” Harriet says.

“No, no, that’s okay,” says Lois. “Dave’s out combing the streets.”

“Good,” says Harriet.

“What do you think happened?” says Lois.

“I think maybe she ran into someone she knew.”

“I know,” says Lois. “That’s what I think. I can’t believe she just abandoned Lucky Gus like that. Dave has been knocking on doors in the rain.”

“He’s doing what he has to.”

“Yes,” says Lois.

“She’ll probably come home in the morning. It might just be a guy.”

“I hate this the most,” says Lois. “Death seems easier. At least you’d know.”

Two policemen are in the house when Harriet arrives at noon the next day. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours, but Lois has insisted, perhaps used her connections. They’ve checked the jails and hospitals. There’s nothing more we can do, the police insist, over and over again. She’s eighteen.

“She was supposed to meet Li Juan after class,” Lois says, “and she didn’t show up.”

Dave has been knocking on doors. One man saw the three girls walking on the rock wall across the street last night, but early, when it was still light.

Harriet goes into the kitchen. She makes coffee, then sandwiches and soup for dinner, which nobody will eat. The cops refuse everything, even the coffee. Harriet has her own conversation with them, telling them about the pharmacist, the dentist, the car salesman. The cops listen but take no notes.

Thinking she is unobserved, Harriet opens the drawer in the dining room where the silver is kept.

“I already checked,” Lois calls from the living room. “Nothing is missing.”

Come down and file a missing-persons report if she doesn’t show up, the police say. You can always hire a private detective. Keep us informed.

Ginger, the older daughter, takes off from classes on Friday, but she is so furious at Gayle and impatient with her parents that Lois doesn’t object when she leaves after dinner. Dave’s brother comes over from the Valley and spends the night. Li Juan and Honor sit with them all day Saturday and tell their stories again and again. Li Juan says, “She say we study next day. She very usual. She very happy. She practice Chinese with me all the way to bus stop.”

Honor says, “I couldn’t believe how long she was taking. And then, Lucky Gus scratching at the door like that, dragging his leash. I called her cell and heard it ring in her room.”

Harriet keeps the sandwiches and coffee and cookies coming.

On the fifth day that Gayle is gone, a Monday, Lois and Dave go back to work. It’s time, they say. They’ve been through this before.

Every iteration, though, is a little different. This time, it’s Dave who can barely speak, who has aged years in a few days, his skin like clay, his hair lank, his eyes glittering as if he were ill. Lois is quiet, too, but Harriet senses relief. Lois always expected Gayle to leave again, and now that she’s gone, Lois’s posture has slackened, her eyes are dull.

“No sense waiting on tenterhooks,” Lois tells Harriet. “It will probably be months before we hear from her again.”

Lois has two big trials coming up. She’ll fill the days.

Dave starts coming home at three-thirty every afternoon to drive Drew to soccer, to his clarinet lesson, to his reading tutor. Come summer, Dave drives him to tennis camp in the morning, and picks him up at four for swimming lessons. Many of these trips involve ice cream.

Also, somebody is cleaning out the leftovers. Harriet cannot believe how half-pans of lasagna or risotto or roast chicken disappear overnight. Both Dave and Drew put on weight. Lois is losing. She asks the ironing lady to take in a pile of summer work skirts.

At the Al-Anon meeting that Harriet and Lois attend together, Lois says the same thing every week. “Dave hates it when I say this,” she says, “but I’m done. This time, I’m really done. If she wants to get clean, that’s her business. If she wants to use, that’s her business. I give up. I’m out of it. Dave thinks I’m cold.”

“But I still love her,” Lois goes on. “Of course I do. Of all my children, I love her the most. I know. I shouldn’t say that. But she’s the great unattainable love of my life. I will never stop loving her, not for a single moment so long as I’m alive. Every atom in my body craves her, her skin, her hair, the sound of her voice.” Lois is sobbing by this point. “But she will never, ever live in my house again.”

Harriet doesn’t believe her. Of course Gayle will come home. And Lois will let her stay.

Y ou know what, Harriet?” Dave has come into the kitchen from his room. He opens the refrigerator, takes out a Tupperware tub of potato salad. “It has to be foul play. I mean, she was getting an A in Mandarin. Most A.B.C. kids can’t do that. Something happened. Someone nabbed her. The fucking cops won’t lift a finger. And that detective is good for nothing, except sending invoices.”

Harriet nods and makes a soft noise, but she doesn’t agree. Gayle waxed too poetic about life on the street. Harriet won’t tell Dave that the day before Gayle disappeared, it was all that crap about great dumpster-diving dinners. The story she’ll tell her kids. Her David Copperfield days.

When Harriet drives past the Porsche dealership, the pharmacy, and the diner on Green Street, a hot fury sets in; she wants to shatter the glass doors, collar the mild-looking white businessmen and drag them before the world. This man had a sixteen-year-old girl suck his dick for a bowlful of chili. This one for a pill. Shame! Shame!

Which one of them had driven by, braked, rolled down a window, spoken into the rain? Hey there.

By summer the Parrishes are in marriage counseling again. Lois tells Harriet, “His refusing to talk about Gayle makes me crazy.”

Dave says Lois talks and thinks too much about Gayle. “It’s not like I’m repressing anything,” Dave tells Harriet. “I just don’t see the point of getting all worked up over and over again.”

“Our counselor talks to Dave like he’s three years old,” says Lois. “And Dave likes it! He says he appreciates the simplicity and clarity. But I don’t think anything is all that simple. And nothing is clear.”

After weeks of moving the big red Michelin maps off the dining-room table to set it, Harriet drives the Parrishes — Lois, Dave, and Drew — to LAX in August. Lois’s sister has rented a villa in Umbria for three weeks. Ginger will join them later, when she’s done with summer quarter. Harriet takes a paid vacation. She doesn’t go anywhere, except to swim in a friend’s pool. She could swim at the Parrishes too, but she is glad not to go there for a while. They have hired a petsitter. Harriet could have been that petsitter — she was last year, when they went to New York — but she welcomes a break from the family and the house.

When she pulls up to the Cape Cod on her first day back, she feels sorrow take hold, as if the air were solidifying.

But something between Lois and Dave has eased. They are both in the house, tanned, eager for Harriet to taste the guanciale and speck they smuggled through customs. Together, they tell her about the artichokes and tripe they ate in Rome, and they laugh describing an enormous steak they ate at a famous butcher’s. This ease has come faster than the last time Gayle left, the time she took the spoons and the Bose. Back then, Lois didn’t speak to Dave for three weeks, and Harriet was certain the marriage was over.

Harriet would never say it aloud, but the Parrishes are getting better at bouncing back from Gayle’s vanishings; they’re quicker to settle their scores, find their balance. Gayle has been gone five months, and already they no longer flinch when the phone rings.

By October, Lois looks less skeletal. Dave is getting fit coaching Drew’s track team. Drew studies in his room this year, for he has a computer up there now. Harriet spends more time in the winter garden, planting and weeding lettuces, carrots, beets, and herbs, then harvesting the crops. She feels restless, though. A few days before November, Harriet asks for a raise.

“Of course,” Lois says. “We should have thought of that, you’re way overdue. How much do you want?”

Harriet asks for five dollars more per day, and the Parrishes give her eight.

In the cooling days of early winter, the smell and dampness of the air remind Harriet of driving across town to meetings with Gayle. She misses her, even as the old fury pounds dully on. She makes tarts and pies, and remembers how Gayle would say, “Slow down, let me see how you add the egg in. . . . Stand back, I need to see you pinch the crust.”

Harriet had thought that the raise would mollify her, but other ideas keep coming to mind. A little restaurant space on Green Street is up for lease, and Harriet imagines intercepting the street girls between the pharmacy and diner, giving them free lunches. A friend has just opened a spacious new bakery up in Altadena and needs another baker, possibly a partner. Harriet would take a cut in pay, but that would be true of any job in food.

So she broods and shops at noon, usually pulling up to the Cape Cod around one, in time to take Lucky Gus for his walk. They cross the street and follow the meandering path along the arroyo’s lip to the road that takes them to the canyon floor. They continue downstream, cross a bridge, and return on the other side of the water. Harriet has probably walked Lucky Gus along here fifty or sixty times in the past six months.

And yet it is another dog, a mixed-breed terrier named Sinbad, who runs up the canyon walls after a squirrel and does not come back as his owner calls and calls. When he finally obeys, he brings her a gift. At first, she tells the police, she saw only a clump of blackened leaves and white pebbles. But when she made Sinbad sit and drop it, when she finally got a closer look, she saw the bones of a human hand.

Pelvis and right leg fractured, a cervical vertebra crushed. Pinned in a thicket of trees and saplings. Probable cause of death, exposure. Even if she had screamed, she was too far down to be heard. And all that rain and rain.

Not far from the body, a broken umbrella is tangled in a bank of wild cucumber, the spokes bent and rusted, the black cloth rotted.

Even before the remains were lifted onto a stretcher, a dispatcher downtown had typed search terms into the missing-persons database — female, brown sweatshirt, blonde, Arroyo Boulevard — and made a tentative I.D. Later, the coroner checked dental records as a matter of course.

Just where the canyon was so steep, the walls so vertical, a low rock wall ran along its edge. Gayle had walked it dozens of times, arms flapping, and one time — perhaps a gust of wind caught her umbrella — she had slipped, there, across the street and down maybe fifty yards from the Cape Cod.

She’d last been seen up on Orange Grove, at the bus stop, in the direction of town. But she had come home, then crossed the street, to walk on that wall.

Harriet is in the kitchen when the cops come to the house, and she’s there in the room when they say what they’ve found.

She gets up to make coffee. A cop comes into the kitchen to say they are leaving, and not to make any for them. Harriet questions him in a whisper: Why hadn’t anyone smelled anything? Why hadn’t other dogs found her earlier?

Some dogs had, the cop says. Dogs and maybe coyotes. But flies, maggots, ants, ladybugs, bacteria, crows — he pauses, proud of his list, but also abashed by it — they, uh, make short work of it. And the rain masked a lot. A foot, and that hand, had been carried off. But her jeans and sweatshirt served as a body bag. Her skull — here the cop cups his hands — sat in a nest of hair in the hood.

A memorial service is held in the pretty stone building that can be rented for events on the rim of the arroyo. Gayle’s counselor and friends from Las Abejas come, and many of her teachers from Sequoyah. Harriet sits in the second row with Honor and Li Juan, right behind the family. The principal from Sequoyah gives the eulogy. Gayle’s counselor says that Gayle’s enthusiasm for recovery was an inspiration to them all. Li Juan and Honor go to the podium and announce that they will present all of Gayle’s favorite things that she learned to say in Chinese. Li Juan reads the phrase, and Honor provides the translation.

You can see Lucky Gus has worms by lifting his tail.

I just burped up some of that hot dog I had for lunch.

My little brother laughs so hard, juice comes out his nose.

The lights are turned off, the shades drawn, and Dave shows a ten-minute video of Gayle as a white-blond baby, then a towheaded toddler crawling backward; ten-year-old Gayle with wet hair in a blue Speedo pumps a tacky gold aquabatics trophy in the air; Gayle, hair a yellow cloud, executes an impressive series of setups and spikes on the volleyball court; Gayle, grinning under a lumpy stocking cap, takes a chip for six months clean and sober.

’s Off Course, a novel, was published by Sarah Crichton Books last year.

More from

| View All Issues |

December 2015