Sweet Thyme Baby – 49

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

49

(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 48 first)

 

This was not working out the way Lance had planned. How could he guess that the cook had a gun and that the sissies would fight back? Maybe they were armed too. Joel said it was everyone’s right to keep firearms but surely there were limits.

 

“Now, Maggie,” he said. “Let’s be reasonable. We’re here to see Dee. Where is she? If you’ll get her to talk to us, there won’t be any trouble.”

 

“He was going to take something out of Dee’s room.”

 

Maggie laughed. “Like to see him try.” She wagged the pistol’s stubby barrel at Lance and he almost wet his pants. “You are trespassing on my property.”

 

That word – property – brought Lance’s thoughts back to the purpose of their visit. “Please, we’ve gotten off to a bad start and I don’t want that. This is the Lord’s work we’re doing, Maggie. Put the gun away.” He sounded more confident than he felt. Joel had said that if Dee and the rest of them were confronted directly, they would feel the weight of the Lord’s power and capitulate. Lance wasn’t so sure.

 

“There isn’t a court in the city would say this is your house,” Janet Wexler said. “The more I think about it, the more I doubt Con and Carlotta were in their right minds when they wrote that silly little paper. It was holographic, you know. Written on a piece of lined school paper.” She looked at Sweet Thyme. “And I think we’ll also want to see a copy of this baby’s birth certificate.”

 

Pinkus’s cheeks turn hot scarlet.

 

Lance wanted to know why they were making a fuss about a baby. They’d come to do business, the Lord’s business. They weren’t trying to steal the garden. They merely wanted it fenced and a portion sold off. To Lance. And if in the future Janet wanted more, that would be her business, not his. By then the Cabrillo Point Christian Conference Center would be a reality and he wouldn’t have time for these purely worldly matters.

 

“I’m taking that baby,” Janet said. “Child welfare –”

 

“Like hell you are,” George cried.

 

“I don’t want violence,” Lance said. “Just give Janet the baby and let’s move on here.”

 

Maggie said, “You’re an evil man, Lance Whitby. I wish your father were here. He’d give you such a hiding. Touch one hair on that child’s head and I’ll shoot you, Janet. Swear to the Almighty, I will.”

 

*

 

It began to rain in the garden as Dee came through the orchard. The sound of a gunshot shattered the silence and a murder of crows flew up from the trees. She heard Sweet Thyme crying and glimpsed a white stretch limo entering the parking lot between the house and garden shop.

 

Dee charged into the kitchen.

 

“Well,” Janet said, “as I live and breathe.”

 

*

 

Pinkus huddled in a corner holding the crying baby. George was on the floor rubbing his right elbow which he’d slammed into Victor’s jaw to keep him away from Maggie and her Glock. Maggie stood by the stove looking up at the ceiling.

 

“I aimed high,” she said, looking pleased with herself.

 

“The bitch could have killed us,” Victor said.

 

Janet said, “I’m taking you to court. You can’t go around firing guns at people.”

 

“I told you to get out, you didn’t.” Maggie, inveterate baker of bread and muffins, looked as calm as if she held people at gun point every day. Dee wanted to hug her. “You didn’t get out, that means you’re trespassing. I know my rights, yhis is my house and I can fire a gun to get you out of it. Besides,” she glared at Victor, “you were about to go upstairs and steal. That ups the ante. I coulda shot your leg off to stop you.”

 

Dee said, “Is that true, Victor? What were you going to steal?”

 

“All I want is those master reels, Dee.”

 

“Or else the mob’s going to get you?”

 

“I owe a lot of money, Dee.”

 

In all his story, this was the one part she believed. “It wouldn’t have done you any good to look. I don’t have them anymore.”

 

Lance put his hand out for silence. “So you don’t have the pictures. That’s one less thing to talk about.”

 

“What we need to be focusing on is the taxes owing on the garden. She can’t pay them.” Janet said.

 

“I’m prepared to pay them,” Lance said. “And we’ll keep quiet about certain other things, Dee. I have no desire to hurt –.”

 

“I don’t believe you tossed them,” Victor said. “You aren’t stupid, Dee. You never were stupid. Where are they?”

 

She looked from Victor to Lance to Janet and she had to laugh. “I never expected I’d be so important to so many people.”

 

They heard the sound of voices at the front of the house as Sam came in the back, shaking off the rain. He looked at them all and grinned. “Looks like a party. It’s going to be pretty cozy in here.”

 

Dee said, “We can settle this out on the patio, under the awning.”

 

One by one they trailed out the kitchen door, Janet complaining loudly about the rain and her hair and promising to sue someone about something. Dee stood with her back against the shingled siding, watching them find chairs or dry places to stand. This is it, she thought. No more stalling. No more pretending. No more hiding out. Eddie Mann Junior rolled his father’s wheel chair into position near Dee. The younger Mann was elegantly done up — a gold ring in his ear, silver-gray silk slacks, a white pima shirt with a band collar and dirndl sleeves, a ten thousand dollar wrist watch, a four karat diamond pinky ring, bare feet in sandals, a stevedore’s body compliments of a personal trainer and dietician – and added a touch of intimidating show biz glitz to the proceedings. By contrast, Mann Senior looked like a conservative Wall Street banker. They had wanted to bring a stenographer to record the scene, but Dee convinced them it wasn’t necessary. If she was wrong and the confrontation with Lance and Janet and Victor became heated, Eddie Mann’s chauffeur stood by clutching a video cam like a gangster with a tommy gun.

 

The rain fell softly around them and the warm air glowed. Sissypuss sprawled at Dee’s feet and yarled at her.

 

Something caught Dee’s eye beyond the edge of the patio, beyond the vegetable garden and orchard where the fruit trees grew in lines. She imagined she saw a shape made of light – hardly more than the flash of a golden shadow across her line of vision, a girl running circles around the tree trunks. And the sound she heard was water in the fountain at the corner of the patio, but it might have been a child’s laughter. Eddie Mann Senior said her name and she bent down to hear him whisper, “Get it over with, Delight. Nothing’s going to make this easy.”

 

“Serena would have loved this garden,” she said to Victor. “Look out there at the orchard. Can’t you imagine her running in and out of the trees with her head thrown back the way she did?”

 

“That poor child is dead because of you, Dee,” Lance said.

 

“And I still got my gun,” Maggie growled.

 

At some signal from Eddie Mann the chauffeur had begun to run the video camera.

 

“Is that necessary?” Janet huffed. “Really, Dee, you go too far.”

 

“I’ll only talk with the camera going.”

 

“Can’t we handle this like old friends?” Lance asked.

 

“Her way or the highway,” Maggie said and wagged the pistol.

 

“Put it down, Madam,” Eddie Mann Senior said. “The rest of you, you may stay or go but you’ll treat Dee with respect.”

 

“I’m going to explain everything,” Dee said. “We’re going to put all of this to rest. I haven’t told this story, front to back, to anyone. Ever. You all know part of it. How I was negligent and sent to prison for the death of my –” She looked at Victor and dipped her head slightly, “— our daughter.”

 

Victor looked at his shoes.

 

“The jury found me guilty and I was sentenced to six years in prison for felony child abuse. I served four and was paroled. I did okay at first. I got a job waiting tables at a Denny’s in the Valley and I worked there for almost a year before someone recognized me and then I had to go. I couldn’t stand the way people — men – looked at me.”

 

Janet made a disparaging noise.

 

“That’s the way it went for a while,” Dee continued. “I’d work somewhere and do okay and then someone would tell his friends that Delight Larue was working at the Coco’s on La Cienega or wherever and I’d have to quit. All that time, I never went to see Serena’s grave. I felt like I didn’t have a right. I believed it was my fault –”

 

“Which it absolutely was,” Janet said. “I followed the case very closely.”

 

“–she was dead. But for some reason Mother’s Day, 1976 was the loneliest day of my life and I missed her so much I just had to go out to the Children’s Garden at Forest Lawn. And there were all these… families and these little graves with special headstones with angels and lambs…”

 

That Mother’s Day the parched grass had scrunched beneath the soles of her shoes and a pot of pink roses wilted in her hand. It took longer to find Serena’s grave than she anticipated. A glance at her watch told her she’d be late to work if she didn’t hurry. There was no headstone. Just a slab marker with her name and dates. All the other graves had Barbie’s and teddy bears propped up against the stones. All had masses of flowers. Some had photos.

 

“It was bad enough she had died because I didn’t take good care of her, because I wasn’t a good enough mother. But I saw I’d neglected her in death as well. I could have bought her a special stone. I could have been to see her before.” Dee stopped. She rolled her head around to ease the tension in her neck. Maggie got up and went into the house. A moment later she returned with aspirin and a glass of water.

 

People are kind, Dee thought. Why has it taken me this long to be kind to myself?

 

“Afterwards, I couldn’t stand to be anywhere near Forest Lawn. I went back to the room I was renting, packed a bag, got on a bus and came south. If I could speak Spanish, I would have crossed the border. When it came time for me to report to my parole officer, there was no way I was going back up to the valley. This last week is the first time I’ve been out of the San Diego city limits since then.

 

“Down here I lived on the streets.” The time was cloudy in her memory. She must have been a little mad then. She had slept in hidden spaces around suburban churches, and at night she crept through the alleys and side yards and scavenged half-eaten pizza slices and leftover fried chicken. She panhandled in shopping centers and sometimes people gave her jobs for meals or a dollar or two. For a few months she’d been “adopted” by a woman who saw her on Sundays, stopped her van and gave her five dollars. The gesture had been kind, but Dee never said thank you. She never spoke except once when the woman asked her name and she told her. By then she was so ragged and worn that she had no fear of being recognized.

 

“If you get tired of this life, Delight, if you want to make a change,” the woman said. “Go out to Cabrillo Point and ask for directions to the Ryan’s garden.”

 

“It’s a sad story,” Lance said impatiently. “It’s a terrible story and I feel compassion for you. I really do. But compassion won’t build a fence, Dee. It won’t pay the taxes.”

 

“Whoever you are, shutup,” said Eddie Mann Junior.

 

Sweet Thyme laughed and Janet glared at him.

 

“In all this going and coming, I’d held onto the master reels of two of my movies. They weighed a lot in my backpack and I was tempted to toss them in a dumpster plenty of times but I never did because I thought –.”

 

This part was hard to explain; but if she sounded crazy, what difference did it make to anyone now? And maybe she had been crazy, maybe for years she’d been a lunatic. Maybe only now was she thinking straight.

 

“I needed those movies because they were a physical reminder of what I’d done, how I’d lived a life that made me despise myself, how I’d let my daughter die. If I was walking at the side of the road and my arms and back ached, I’d tell myself I deserved much worse and the films were all I needed to prove that. And here, in this house, if I got to feeling happy or optimistic, I took them out – the cans – and looked at them and remembered everything. They kept me raw and I wanted it that way. I deserved it that way. If I started to forget, if I began to forgive myself a little bit, I’d read the names of the movies aloud, say them over and over, like a mantra until my shame felt fresh again.”

 

“You were supposed to let the garden heal you,” Maggie said.

 

“I didn’t want to heal.” Another sip of water. And another.

 

Perched on the edge of a bench, Lance and Janet looked ready to spring.

 

“I know it’s hard for you to stomach, the idea that a woman who had sex for money could be a good mother. But I was. In most ways, we lived an ordinary kind of life. We were just another little girl and her mother. I read to her the same books you read to Hamish, Lance. We went to Disney movies and spent the day at the zoo. She knew the alphabet song before she was three. I loved Serena and I cared for her and I was teaching her right from wrong. But on that day, that Fourth of July, I was what the court said, I was criminally neglectful.”

 

“You only have two reels?” Victor asked. “That’s all?”

 

“Ah, Victor, don’t be too angry. You know I never seriously considered giving them to you, so it really doesn’t matter whether I’ve got two or twenty. I’m sure you have gambling debts but I don’t believe the mob’s after you. You’ve been a liar since you were a little boy. And when you said you’d trade my movies for a photo of Serena… well, I couldn’t do that, Victor. I wouldn’t let you sell her the way you sold me.”

 

“You liked it, you loved all the–.”

 

Eddie Mann Junior took a step toward Victor. “What my dad’s told me about you, Detroit, I’d as soon see you dead as breathing. So if you know what’s good for you, shut up.”

 

Victor slunk off and leaned against the shingles.

 

“Janet, I agree with you about fencing the garden. But there’ll be gates with latches up high so people can still go in and walk or just sit and think. We’ll do it properly. Sam’s going to take care of hiring a contractor, and this time next month, the work will be started.” She made her smile polite.

 

She turned, finally, to Lance. “You said I could sell off the Sea Meadows and it would barely make a difference to the garden as a whole. You’re right. It’s a perfect spot for development.” She looked at Eddie Mann Senior and Junior. “But Con and Carlotta gave me the garden because they thought they could trust me. I’ve failed a lot of people, but I won’t fail them.”

 

“And are your attorneys going to pay your taxes too?”

 

“That turns out to be the easiest part of all. Or the hardest.”

 

Eddie Mann Senior said, “Dee made her movies back in a time when there was actually a little art in some of the adult films, and the guy who directed her, he’s gone on to do some good work. He was nominated for an Oscar a couple of years back. Compared to Dee’s movies, the skin flicks made today are just home movies. Boring stuff.” He gestured toward Victor. “The creep’s right. Dee’s movies are classics and there’s a big overseas market for them.”

 

“I’m giving my movies to Eddie Man Junior. This is nothing I really want to do.” She wasn’t excusing or making an apology, just making sure she was understood. She spoke to Maggie, to Pinkus and George and most particularly to Sam. “But it’s either that or develop the land, and the more I think about it, the idea of this garden being destroyed is much worse than going public, knowing people are paying a couple of bucks a night to watch film of me doing things naked.”

 

Lance shook with disgust. “You’ve forgotten one thing. You’re a parole violator.” He glanced at Victor. “Your cousin or husband or whatever he actually was or is has assured me there’s one thing you absolutely won’t do and that is risk your freedom. Forget the movies, Dee. We’re talking about putting you back in jail.”

 

Janet interrupted. “All this talk of saving the garden, sacrificing your pride or shame or whatever it is you’ve been talking about for,” she looked at her wristwatch, “half an hour, it’s really a moot point because I’m prepared to contest your ownership of this land, Dee. Delight Larue. Con and Carlotta Ryan wrote their will on a sheet of notebook paper. It’ll never hold up in court.”

 

Eddie Mann Senior rolled his chair into position directly in front of Janet, Lance and Victor. “I want to say that I have never in my life as a practicing attorney among the sharks and adders of the Hollywood glitterati, had the unhappy fortune of meeting three such spiteful, greedy and small-minded individuals as those I am looking at right now. And it gives me great pleasure, it does in fact rank as one of the high points of my old age to tell you that you cannot contest the will, Mrs. Whoever-You-Are. You’re not family. You have no standing. But if by some remote chance you do figure out a way to drag this lady into court, I am telling you here and I am telling you now before witnesses and that video recording device that I will spend as much of my considerable fortune as is needed to defeat one or all of you. In court and out.”

 

Janet stared at him, then leaned over and whispered in Lance’s ear.

 

He nodded and cleared his throat. “Whose baby is that?”

 

Dee looked down at Eddie Mann Senior and then over at Pinkus and George. She felt as light-headed as if she had climbed to the half-finished peak of a skyscraper. She was on the scaffolding’s edge now, perched with only her heels on solid steel. One more step and what would happen? Would she be an eagle? Was she a stone? How would she ever know? She looked at Sweet Thyme and took a step into open air.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

 

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