Lulu was the fifth person to answer the ad, and frankly, I was tired.
I saw her through the frosted glass bricks Charles and I had paid a good sum to have installed, sure that it would make our retro-Florida dream even more perfect. Come to think of it, I suppose it was just me who believed that.
Because of the wavy glass, I was not sure what the brown thing she held close to her ribcage might be. She rang the bell imperiously even though she could have seen me, albeit with a rippled effect, coming to answer the door.
"You're Evan?" Her eyes were black, as was her long hair, looped in complicated ringlets held in place by all manner of clips and doodads rendered in primary colors. A strong scent of musky perfume wafted toward me on the breeze tickling the fronds of the rare, thickly spined burglar palms Charles and I had found with much difficulty. She wore a terrific outfit whose thrift-store origins I recognized. Vintage Ray-Bans dangled from a bejeweled noodle, and she wore bright red, open-toed shoes definitely born in the forties. Her black leather skirt was short. Her tight white silk shirt had a high oxford collar and showed lots of cleavage.
She looked like trouble to me, but not for the usual reasons. I appreciated her glorious seductiveness from an aesthetic distance, as a kindred soul. From the time I was thirteen, when I realized I was gay, I had often been told that I was quite attractive myself, although I certainly didn't believe it at the moment. My partner, Charles, had left me two months earlier, and during that time I had become deeply committed to feeling sorry for myself. I saw myself as an inexplicably betrayed, somewhat defeated accountant working out ofand paying ridiculous interest rates fora Fort Lauderdale Hall of Broken Dreams. Lulu, with her self-assured brilliance, looked as if she might be impatient with the gloom, to which I had become as closely attached as a toddler to his blanket.
Without waiting for an answer, she deposited her squirming Chihuahua on the polished terrazzo floor. It sprang into the house, toenails clicking as it ran straight toward a rattan ottoman, and lifted its leg.
"No!" I said with the extreme sharpness one uses on dogs, children, and presumably horses, if immediate compliance is required. He twisted his tiny, Crazy-Ike head, looked at me with brief astonishment, abandoned his plan, and skittered into the dining room, no doubt to find a place to urinate which was free from the unexpected Voice of God.
"No pets," I said. "It's in the ad."
"Ambrose isn't a pet, honey. He's family." Her Southern accent, when I expected sharp, Cuban-provenanced tones, was startling. I think it gave her the advantage in any situations, and she did not hesitate to employ this weapon whenever remotely necessary
which, given her propensity for living on some edge I have yet to glimpse in its entirety, was more or less always.
She brushed past me, head high, taking in the Floridian ambiance we had so carefully built up over four years. I was still in shock over the fact that Charles now lived with a man thirty years older than he on the fortieth floor of a gleaming modern condominium tower in Key Biscayne where gigantic stone lions poised on high pedestals over the most obscene and bizarre of the six swimming pools, looking hungry for human flesh. It was the kind of place we had always made fun of.
We'd bought this house just before a wave of tear-down fever receded after briefly washing over a few blessed houses on the next street. Charles had suddenly decided it would never return, and we had hurriedly divvied up the property. In the final accounting, he owed me a good chunk of change, which he'd paid. I realize now that I wanted to rent his half of the house quickly, to fill up the empty space with a stranger with whom I would not get emotionally involved. Back then I thought I was just worried about my dwindling savings. Charles's payment barely covered the second mortgage we had taken out for improvements.
"Do you smoke?" she asked, looking around.
"Occasionally." More than occasionally for the past month, but I would cut back. Soon. "Cigars."
"I can't stand smoke."
"I can't stand dogs."
"Fiestaware!" She stood entranced before ourmychina cabinet, which held one of the most complete collections of Fiestaware in South Florida. There were a few gaps, pieces which eluded the most dedicated collector, but it was magnificent, and had created the most bitterness when Charles left, because we had created it together, scouring countless yard sales, swap meets, thrift stores, and the Internet.
Looking back, I think this was the point where I forgave the existence of Ambrose, whose name and function were much more mysterious than I could have possibly imagined.
Three of the people I had interviewed couldn't speak English and seemed affronted that I had neglected to master the local language, one was most certainly a drug dealer, and the fifth was an astonishingly thin powerhouse of fifty who insisted that she be allowed to work on an ongoing collection of mailboxes thinly disguised as flamingoes, manatees, and palm trees in the living room. She had a thriving business at the Swap Meet. I was on the verge of going with her, just to get it over with, although the idea of opening the exaggeratedly stretched metal mouth of a grouper or yanking open a hole in a manatee's chest always struck me as unpleasantly exploitative and grotesque. Lulu gave me the happy power to reject this particular future simply on the grounds that having a living room of such creatures might prove a waking nightmare.
Lulu clasped her hands behind her back. "Honey. Where in the world did you find those tumblers? I've only seen pictures of them, and the seller wanted a hundred bucks apiece."
The French doors were open onto the patio, and Ambrose dashed outside. Lulu ran after him with stunning quickness, considering her shoes. She scooped up the dog and donned her Ray-Bans in one economically swift movement. "We'll need a ramp at this dock for Ambrose to get out of the canal when he goes for his
little swims." If her voice caught slightly at this point, I put it down to dust in her throat.
"Maybe he should just wear a life jacket. Look out. Don't step back."
She whirled around. "What is this?" She stared into a gaping excavation gnawed from coral rock, which she had apparently not noticed in her haste to rescue Ambrose.
"A lap pool." I lacked funds, as well as interest, right now, to take it to the next stage. I was going to mention the just-completed hot tub, tucked into the corner of the yard inside a bougainvillea-wrapped gazebo, but she held up her hand when I opened my mouth.
"You will definitely have to cover this up. Ambrose could be seriously injured if he fell in here. As could a member of the general public. A Fed-Ex delivery person or something. A childa small, vulnerable, adorable child who would thereafter require lifetime custodial care. This hole in the ground is purely a monster suit waiting to happen."
"Maybe it would be a good place to keep the dog."
"Yes," she said, gazing around. "Thank you, I forgot. We will have to have a fence. We'll have to sink it into the ground so he can't dig underneath. Don't you have a little outdoor table? It would be so darling. Dining al fresco. Coffee and beignets in the cool of the morning. I found a really good beignet mix." Her smile was predictably dazzlingeven white teeth, red lipstick, crinkled-up eyes above a long, straight nose. She reached out, inclined her head to gaze at me over the top of her Ray-Bans, and gave my forearm a slight, intimate touch. "Don't bother yourself, though, sweetie. I'll look for one at the yard sales this very Saturday."
· · · · ·
Lulu was a law student at Atlantic University. I had her father come up from Miami, since he would be paying Lulu's rent. I supposed he was good for it; he was a physician and ran a well-advertised liposuction and laser clinic in Coral Gables which I imagined had a long waiting list of congenitally displeased women, not to mention the huge supply of youth-seeking men who needed all those services. Charles's new lover, for instance, who was so old that he could probably stand to have the deep, sun-etched wrinkles he most certainly had accumulated dermabrased. I had never seen him, because Charles, apparently, kept us carefully apart while closing his new deal, but I couldn't help but imagine him being at the clinic and one or another of the expensive procedures getting out of control. What a damned shame that would be.
Lulu's two young teenaged half-sisters accompanied their father, thin as wands, straight dark hair parted down the middle, tight shirts not meeting their tight pants so as to display the gold rings in their navels. They did not remove their tiny headphones the entire time they were there, though they checked the message screen of their cellphones often enough for the gestures to qualify as tics and were completely unimpressed by the soaking tub in Lulu's bathroom, which I was beginning to wish I had taken for myself.
"About the ramp, the fence"
Dr. Lozano glanced around, apparently looking for Lulu, and saw that she was well away from us, trailing Ambrose as he watered and fertilized rare tropical plants. "Yes, yes." His voice was low and hurried. "I will pay for them. Whatever she wants. Lulu
" He shrugged and shook his head, seemed as if he would say more, and then did not. "Just take good care of her, all right? She has had
an unusual life."
I was somewhat discomfited by this; it seemed almost as if he were giving her away in marriage. "I'm gay."
He nodded. "I realize that."
"I am just saying that if anything
happens, or you want to call, my phone number is on my card."
We amended the lease to ensure that her father would also pay to put things back as they were should I request this at the end of Lulu's sojourn with me. Her last name was Thibideaux; I supposed that her mother had taken back her own name and bestowed it on her daughter. Dr. Lozano would also cap the stillborn lap pool. I couldn't help but think that I ought to run the changes past my own attorney, but I was too lazy and relieved to have the empty space in my life, and the deficit in my bank account, filled.
Dr. Lozano and his excessively thin daughters got into their black Lexus, which shone so dazzlingly that it made an excellent mirror. Dr. Lozano shook my hand through the window and started the car. Lulu sat alone on the lawn, leaning against the gumbo limbo tree, holding Ambrose and absently stroking his tiny head, staring into space.
· · · · ·
Lulu's mother was from Louisiana, where she had returned with her darling child after the now-ancient divorce to drink and heap invective upon her ex-husband in relative luxury, no longer required to party and dance strenuously, long into the night with hundreds of close Cuban relatives, to the din of loud, nostalgic boom-box salsa and the wearing, insistent rhythms of mambo. She much preferred Cajun fiddles and Cajun patois. After twenty single years, she had still not recovered from the overwhelming stress of her brief marriage. Lulu faithfully called her every Wednesday night. She spoke in low, ever-more-drawling tones over her cellphone, curled on the art-nouveau couch in the living room after turning off The West Wing without even asking me if it was all right. After two weeks, I took to watching it in my bedroom while smoking a cigar. "They were like oil and water," Lulu told me, with unusual and dispassionate brevity, speaking of her parents' separation.
Twenty years of living in rural Louisiana had given Lulu a certain cultural uniqueness. She had an unfortunate penchant for tear-jerking country music, and there I drew the line and made her realize that she could not fill our shared space with it no matter what the lease said.
She had a striking collection of handmade boots and went line dancing at least once a week, leaving Ambrose in my care, as she so often did, after kissing and squeezing him and telling him how sorry she was to leave him. Early in the mornings, unless it was windy and the thrash of palm fronds interfered, I was awakened by Ambrose's emergency canal-exiting lessons. "Over here, honey, come on, that's right, climb on up, ooo, ooo, that's okay, I've got a nice warm towel right here, baby. Good, good, here's the bacon, sweetie, here's the bacon. Mmm, good, isn't it?"
After the first week, she could no longer study in her room, since it was, she said, "too distracting," being strewn with books and clothing, so she took over the living and dining rooms. She also used my shower so as not to disturb the rescued snapping turtles she installed in the soaking tub, complete with coral rocks on which to pull their bodies out of the chlorinated water, which I was sure wasn't good for them.
She had an annoyingly lively contingent of friends and had several over at least once a week for dinner, though I quickly discerned that she had no steady boyfriend. "No," was all she said when I inquired directly, which seemed slightly unfair since I had answered her question regarding my state of coupledness in anguished detail. But for a second her face was so vulnerable and open I thought that perhaps she was experiencing a religious conversion.
After the first gala dinner, I insisted that the kitchen be returned to its previous condition before she retired. This, like other, similar, insistings, she usually ignored, so that the haven of my tiny but classy black-granite 15,000 btu's/hour cooktop kitchen with infinite indirect lighting options was not a pretty sight when I made my midnight chamomile tea, which rather negated the soothing aspects of my ritual. Mercifully, none of her crowd could stand country music, either. They preferred jazz. As they laughed and drank in the dining room at the glass-top table, she occasionally called, "Evan! Sweetie! Come join us! Stuart wants to meet you!"
Actually, I had exchanged a few words with Stuart and found him disturbingly interesting. There was electricity that surprised me when he squeezed past me in the kitchen once, and he seemed kind as well as knowledgeable about tropical plants; he collected botanical prints and once brought a beautiful portfolio of waiting-to-be framed palms. But I generally claimed that I had to work, though Lulu referred to it as sulking, especially when I closed my office door because scenes of Charles and me entertaining our friends rose vividly. I had a deposit from her father, and he always paid the rent a day early, so the passive-aggressiveness of which Charles had often complained had my permission to blossom into exotic forms which surprised even me. I had dreams of feeding Ambrose the small dry turds he regularly left behind the potted monstero delicioso in the corner of the living room, and even considered smearing its poisonous fruit with chopped liver to encourage him to take a bite. His sharp barks, surprisingly throaty considering his size but always delivered with staccato zest, were incessant and annoying, and he snapped at the ankles of the clients whom Lulu informed me I should not be seeing in my home due to zoning.
I began to long for at least some silent, private mourning instead of being subjected to Lulu's frequent lectures about "getting over it." Briefly, I considered selling the Fiestaware. Its appraised value was fifty thousand because of a few extremely rare pieces. I decided against it. The bright shapes held too many memories. The rare Red Mixing Bowl looked so vibrant next to the Turquoise Carafe. And I'd have to pay a lot in taxes.
It was, in fact, tax season, so I was buried in work, but one night I drove across town and down Las Olas Boulevard, turned south on AIA, pulled into a rare free parking space at the beach, and took a long, fast walk down the broad concrete esplanade flanking the beach, ignoring the skateboarders, in-line skaters, and bicycles whizzing past in the twilight.
A chilly wind buffeted the beach. The lights of posh restaurants glowed across the street, where the al fresco tables stood empty. Cruise boats left Port Largo a mile south with the precision of planes taking off from a busy airport, one moving out from behind the massive rock jetty every ten minutes, mad, happy, glowing cities hauling their willing prisoners further south on twilit seas toward whatever their warped tropical fantasies might be. They slept in windowless coffins and emerged sartorially six times a day to stuff themselves with sterno-warmed food, prisoners of a strange, claustrophobic fantasy which I could never fathom and in which I never wanted to participate, despite Charles's urgings. I wondered if Charles and his lover, who could surely afford a window and even a private lanai, might be on one of them, escaping the bleak cold of winter Miami when fronts like this one pressed farther south than tourists believed was possible. I walked until I was weary. I wondered if I should sell the house and move back to Boston. But it was not a good time to sell.
I stood on the near-empty beach and opened my cellphone to call him.
After moment, I flipped it shut and returned to my car.
· · · · ·
The first time I had a hint of deep weirdness was a month after Lulu moved in. Ambrose could easily scramble up the dock ramp; I had given myself permission to smoke a lot of cigars in revenge for the dog, the house was a wreck, and Lulu took it upon herself to regularly berate me for my continued attachment to the idea that Charles might someday return. One evening she told me he had called twice earlier in the day, desperately demanding some of the Fiestawarein particular, the Cream Soup Bowl, which I knew had lately tripled in value, but she took it upon herself to tell him that a deal was a deal, buddy. "I told him that. A deal is a deal, buddy. Live with it. Move on. Get your new rich honey to buy you one. You made a big mistake when you left this guy, Charlie." She recounted the conversation with great passion. Her cheeks flushed. "You would have just groveled and given it to him. I know it. And don't you dare call him back." She was a Cajun-Cuban superhero, fighting injustice. All she needed was a cape. Life with Lulu was chaotic, but it was distracting, which I counted on the black side of the ledger. With great difficulty I followed her advice, feeling not at all stronger and wiser, just afraid of looking foolish, which seemed just as bad as giving in to the need to hear Charles's voice.
One Wednesday evening she came home clutching a piece of paper. I was watching The West Wing from my favorite and most comfortable chair in the living room, having kicked a path to it through piles of books and papers, but my high hopes for an undisturbed evening were dashed when I heard her key in the lock. I tried to concentrate on not missing any lines, but as usual, Lulu seemed to absorb all of the light and sound in the room and reflect it back in wacky splendor.
She knelt, an interesting bit of acrobatics considering her short skirt and high heels, and Ambrose leaped into her arms, licking her face all over as she smiled and closed her eyes in a close approximation of bliss.
"Come on, love. I found one."
The fact that she could stand up with that dog in her arms, the paper clutched in her hand, and her heavy leather bag on her shoulder without wavering was a testament to her sense of balance.
"Where are you going?" I asked, muting the commercial, just to be sociable.
She walked out the door quickly without answering and closed it behind her. I sensed, though, that it was not out of rudeness. She had not even heard me.
Over the next month, I found that I had my Wednesdays back, but for some reason I was less than pleased. Dinner night was moved to Tuesday, and Stuart smiled at me if I happened to emerge from my office, but I ignored my growing interest in him and nodded distantly as I passed. Charles became more and more enshrined in my mind, and I was still hoping that he would tire of his new life and come back after his fling. I dreamed about him, and caught myself opening the Fiestaware cabinet, taking out the Cobalt Coffee Pot or the 8" Ivory Vase, Excellent Condition, and remembering the day when we had found each piece. Every one of them was a different adventure.
"You are afraid of a new relationship," Lulu told me one evening as we shared supper outside by the canal just before the mosquitoes would appear, as they did promptly at six. It was during a lull between fronts, but it was still chilly enough for sweaters. Several bromeliads were in bloom, brilliant pink cones with tiny purple buds, and I had massed the pots near the table on the brick patio. She picked at the bones of the whole red snapper she had fried, whose remains lay on a platter in the middle of the table, puddled in a delicious sauce which was an odd cross between Southern and Tropical that she had put together quickly in the kitchen. Which I would clean. She dumped the remainder of the black beans and rice on her plate and embarked on them, dropping a steady stream of fish scraps and beans onto the bricks for Ambrose. For some reason she seemed much happier than when she had first moved in, and I supposed that this happiness gave her the energy to further interfere with my life.
I just shrugged at her suggestion. "What difference does that make?"
"You should swallow your fear and leap. I've seen you looking at Stuart. He's a wonderful soul. He couldn't hurt a fly. He is so compassionate and caring and interesting that I have personally been frustrated that he insists on being so very gay." Now it was her turn to shrug. "But these things are hard to change."
"Impossible," I said. "I tried, you know. I almost got married once."
"Really." Intense interest filled her eyes. And sudden tears which glimmered but did not fall. "What happened?"
"We came to our senses. I realized that I was just trying to make my parents happy, and she was sure that she could change me. I was only nineteen."
"Oh. I can understand that. I got married when I was seventeen. It made me extremely happy, didn't it, Ambrose?"
An enthusiastic bark, which I interpreted as, another piece of snapper, please. Lulu's face lit up as if she were Cinderella and the prince had arrived with her favorite, elusive sling-backs from the forties.
I could tell that she was measuring me for trust and that I failed.
"I am just telling you that Stuart would be perfect for you. He loves orchids, Fiestaware, Jadite, and he is a stockbroker and makes good money. He plays the piano, and he is insufferably well-organized."
"How can I resist?" I was getting a little weary of her insistence. I prefer romance to blossom. At least, that's what I told myself, though if I had examined my feelings I might have seen that the seed had been planted, and it turned out to be a very good seed indeed. But these things happen in their own time. The idea of embarking on a new relationship held only the promise of repeated pain and too much work. "Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I have to jump into an affair with the first gay man I see."
"You are only making yourself miserable right now."
"I don't see you engaging in any kind of meaningful long-term relationship, except with your dog," I retorted.
She pushed her chair back, got up, and picked up Ambrose, who tilted back his head and licked her throat. "You have no idea," she said, with the most extraordinary range of emotion in her voice and on her face: sorrow, regret, and deep calm. Without even giving me a chance to respond, she walked into the house, picked up her bag, and left through the front door. I heard her car start, and the sound of it faded down the street.
Evening had turned to night.
· · · · ·
The weather warmed. I took my orchids outside, and some of them actually bloomed, which, for some reason, irritated me. Charles and I had waited for over a year for the Ascda Suksomran Sunlight "Gold," a hybrid from Maui, to make up its mind to face the world as something more than a dry stick. Lulu told me to sell them all and get new ones. "Have a yard sale. A clean sweep is best, Evan."
Lulu and I had long since settled into a routine. Despite her surface disarray, I discovered from her mother, when she called once and Lulu was out, that Lulu was always on the Dean's List. Her mother asked about Ambrose several times, and I assured her that Ambrose was living the life of a dog-king in paradise.
"Has Lulu mentioned anything about"
"Well, about Ambrose."
"What about him? She takes him somewhere every Wednesday evening. I don't know where. Maybe it's some kind of play group for dogs."
"Oh, dear," she said with a deep sigh.
Lulu came in the door, festooned with thrift store shopping bags. "Is that my mother?"
I didn't ask her how she knew, and handed her the phone.
· · · · ·
On a hot, still evening in April, I turned onto my little street on the way home from the Publix. An ambulance loomed behind me, and I pulled aside to let it pass. It stopped in my front yard, next to a police cruiser. A bit further down the street was a BMW convertible that made my heart stop.
It was Charles's.
I don't remember stopping my car or getting out. I ran past Ambrose the Lionhearted cowering beneath the hibiscus bush and through the open front door into a vision of blood and gore and heartbreak.
Charles lay on the floor, his handsome face the same color as the blood-splashed white tiles where he had fallen. An unbelievably young and beautiful blond man knelt next to him, tears on his face, shaking Charles's shoulders. "Charles! Luv! Are you all right? The ambulance is here."
Several kinds of shock roared through me at once.
Charles moaned and opened his eyes. I fell to the floor and took his hands, which were cold as ice. Still, the touch felt like home. "What happened?"
Charles flicked his eyes toward the other mana young and therefore most probably non-wealthy manand said nothing, although perhaps anything he meant to say turned into the bellow of pain that emerged.
Two paramedics pushed both of us aside and knelt to attend to Charles, speaking in medicalese to one another as they started an IV line.
A black policewoman stood next to Lulu, holding a narrow flip-pad and a pen. "Who are you?" she demanded. "This is a crime scene."
"It's my house."
The policewoman, whose nameplate said Officer Dwania Hawks, looked at Lulu. Static crackled from the radio on her belt.
Lulu said, "It's my house too, honey."
Officer Hawks frowned as if she had strong objections to being called honey but would let it pass exactly once. "Explain."
"She's my tenant. Lulu, what the hell is going on?"
The blond man, whose name turned out to be Blake Mills, said, "She shot him in cold blood, that's what's going on, with an illegal handgun." His pale green silk shirt was open, revealing a well-muscled, tanned chest and abdomen. It was still taking me much longer than it ought to have to come to grips with exactly who he was.
"They were stealing the Fiestaware when I came home from my class," said Lulu. "I saw two strange men taking pieces out of the cabinet. In my house. For all I knew, they were crack-crazed and ready to kill me. It happens around here. It looks like he got that red mixing bowl, the plates, and the blue salt and pepper shakers before I got here. Plus two cups and saucers" The bowl lay in pieces on the floor next to Charles, blood-spattered. At least, I thought distantly, it's insured.
"They're his," stated Blake, his hands on his hips. "They're ours."
"Legally, they belong to Evan," rejoined Lulu. Her hands trembled, and she clenched them. I wondered if this was not some kind of monster suit, though against whom was a rather dizzying conjecture.
"I helped pick them out," Blake said with a stubborn, self-assured cast to his voice. "They're just as much mine as his."
A deep weight settled in the center of my chest, and I found it hard to breathe. I knew exactly what he was talking about. The few pieces we didn't buy together, the Red Disc Pitcher, the Chartreuse Tumbler, and others, which Charles waltzed in with one day to surprise me with.
"It's this woman's fault," continued Blake, pointing at Lulu. His sheer nerve was astonishing. Despite his beauty, despite his sheer sexinessor probably because of itI didn't like him. "We didn't know anyone else was living here. She might have killed us with that Walthur."
"Confiscated Walthur," said Officer Hawks.
Lulu's hair had gotten loose from a few of its combs and clips, perhaps from the force of the gunshot, and she shook it back from her face. "Where is Ambrose? Ambrose! Oh, look at him. He's a nervous wreck! This is not good for him at all." She scooped him up when he emerged from his hiding place behind his favorite indoor plant, the monstero delicioso, which was by now thoroughly imbued with his own comforting scent. Lulu's voice was edging toward hysterical, which was not at all surprising.
"You didn't have to shoot him, Lulu. For God's sake!" I tried to sound comforting, but I was mad. A gun, in my own house, used to shoot my own lover. It was too preposterous, too sudden. And Blake. That was preposterous and sudden as well, and much more painful.
"It's just his knee," Lulu said matter-of-factly.
"She's right," said one of the paramedics over her shoulder as she knelt next to Charles.
"Please, Miss Thibideaux, tell us exactly how this happened," said Officer Hawks.
Lulu held Ambrose too tightly and stroked him. She flung her head back and stared at us all. "I intended to shoot him in the knee, and he knows it, and that's what I did. I told him I would, but the other burglar laughed and said, 'A pussy like you?'"
"She's a bitch," said Blake. "A lying, fucking bitch. I never talk that way."
"I did neglect to mention that I practice target shooting once a week."
That and line dancing and law school, too? No wonder she was too tired to clean her room.
"But Lulu" That was about all I could manage with my lover lying at my feet in a pool of blood.
She snapped at me. "I didn't know he was Charles. And the gun is not illegal. I have a concealed weapon permit. Since I was fifteen, in fact. My Mama was frantic about me living unarmed in Miami and made Papa pull some strings. Miami is one circle removed from hell, she used to say, and that circle is mighty thin. Rapists, gangs, robbers, and murderers just running rampant. An unrelenting and horrific hellhole of unimaginable and unsightly mayhem. And it's everywhere. Everywhere. People can be absolutely and totally evil. God! Nobody knows this better than me! I just never
I just never thought"
To my complete amazement, she fainted. Just kind of gracefully sank to the floor, her eyelids fluttering. Her head hit the floor with a thump, and Ambrose leaped from her arms and stood looking at her doubtfully, as did I. I didn't think that people really fainted.
"Excuse me," said paramedic number two, a husky young man. We all stepped back while he and his partner lifted a bandaged, IV'd Charles onto a telescoping gurney and then attended to Lulu with the kind of pungent ammonia capsule my grandmother used to use. Her eyes opened wide. She coughed. "Just lie there for a moment, miss," said the paramedic.
She burst into tears, which Ambrose proceeded to lick frantically. "Ambrose," she said. "Ambrose. I'm so sorry, Ambrose. I'm so sorry." She crossed her arms over her chest and scrunched up on the floor. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"Well, you should be," said Blake. "You're in a hell of a lot of trouble."
"That's enough out of you," Officer Hawks told him. "You have the right to remain silent"
"What? You're arresting me? She's a killer!"
"Breaking and entering."
"We didn't break and enter! We have a key! This is our fucking stuff, lady"
Officer Hawks snapped cuffs on him. "Shut up and go sit on the couch. Now."
"Charles," I said, kneeling next to his stretcher. "Charles, are you"
The rest of my sentence went unsaid. He knew I was asking him if he was coming back, which I suppose was odd, considering the circumstances, but I couldn't think of anything else. I saw the minute shake of his head as his eyes slid to Blake, and it finally hit me. Please, he was saying. He doesn't know.
He didn't even know.
"Step back, sir," said the paramedic.
"I'm sorry," Charles whispered.
He was sorry, Lulu was sorry, and now I was pretty damned sorry, too.
I just looked away and stood up. More might come later. I didn't know. It seemed that he would live, though.
Lulu still sobbed uncontrollably. I got her some Kleenex, and she blew her nose but did not stop crying. "I told Mama that I shouldn't keep that gun," she said in hiccupping staccato. "I told her that it was bad luck. I told her. But it all comes back. It never stops. Never. Thank God for you," she said, drawing Ambrose onto her lap. "It's all right, baby. It's all right. I know you told me it's all right, and it's all right. I know it's all right."
Officer Hawks surveyed us and sighed heavily. "Listen, I can't get any backup, and I need to go to the emergency room with burglar number one."
"He's not a burglar!" said Blake heatedly, jumping up from the couch, then sitting back down after Officer Hawks gave him a look. "This is his house. He had a key. This is our goddamned stuff! He rented a room from this guy, and this guy threw him out because he's gay and kept his stuff!"
"Is that what you think?" I asked him. "Really?"
"You're coming, too," Officer Hawks told Lulu. "Can you give her some kind of sedative?" she asked the paramedics.
I waited for Lulu to object, and when she didn't, I was truly alarmed. But she did become somewhat catatonic after her shot. She scrambled to get up, and I helped her. "Just wait, miss, we'll get a wheelchair for you," said the paramedic, but Lulu sleepwalked into her bedroom.
"Ma'am, we need to go," said Officer Hawks, raising her voice, but Lulu paid her no attention.
"Maybe she's getting her insurance card," I suggested.
"Or her other gun," said Blake.
I heard her tossing things around. A pile of books crashed over. Officer Hawks made for the bedroom and after a moment led Lulu out by the arm. Lulu held out a piece of paper to me and said tonelessly, "It's Wednesday. Take him."
"Take who?" I asked, not understanding.
"You need to stay here, sir," Officer Hawks told me, "until I can round up some detectives to come over here. And meanwhile, don't touch anything."
"I need to come to the emergency room"
"No!" said Lulu and Officer Hawks at the same time.
"The address is there," Lulu said in a bizarre monotone muffled by the aftereffects of tears. She pointed to a hand-scrawled annotation. "Hurry. I'm late."
"You'd better not go anywhere, or I'll arrest you, too," Officer Hawks warned me as she climbed into the ambulance once their haul was safely stowed in back.
I held Ambrose and watched the ambulance scream away, lights flashing.
I looked down and read the much-folded-and-unfolded flyer.
LECTURE AND PSYCHIC READINGS
"ANGELS AND BRING YOU DOGS"
Random Psychic Animal Readings
$10 in Advance
$20 at the Door
Visa, MasterCard, or Checks With Fl Driver License
· · · · ·
It took me fifteen minutes, some emergency map reading, and backtracking to get to the place where angels purportedly crossed paths with dogs. On the way, I kept seeing Charles, his leg bloodied, and wondered who would pay for getting him tennis-worthy again. But mostly I thought about Blake, and though betrayal and disappointment were uppermost in my roiling emotions, the spasms of jealousy I was programmed to feel were missing. In their place was something I didn't really understand, a luminous space filled with possibility. In this luminous, betrayed state I passed the place and had to turn around.
The penciled address beneath the original had led me to a rundown U-Store-It facility on the west side of the railroad tracks. It was getting dark. I thought for sure that I was in the wrong place. The only person I saw was a man in a bedraggled dark suit pacing back and forth in front of a bin with a rolled-up door, one hand on his hip. His hair was pale, and he wore plain metal-rimmed glasses; his tie was loose. While I squinted at the address, he tossed his cigarette down and came over to the car window. Ambrose was all wags.
"You're late. I was just going to leave. Where's Lulu?"
"Are you Jack?" I held up the flyer.
He pointed to the brass name tag pinned to his jacket. It said Jack Martin. Below that it said Bellows Used Cars. "Yeah. Damn, I hate that flyer. My secretary left the 'r' out of 'Your.' She thought I'd made a mistake. So, where is she?"
I told him as little as possible, something about the emergency room, I think, and no further details. But I was rattled and rambling, and I still don't remember exactly what I told him.
"Okay," he said. "All right, I've got it. Come on. Let's do this. I promised my kid I'd take him to McDonald's tonight, and his mom is going to pitch a fit anyway if I tell her what I was doing. She hates for me to do this."
"My channeling work. She thinks it's spooky."
He opened the passenger door and grabbed Ambrose.
"Do I, uh, need to be here?"
Jack's glance was impatient. "Yeah. He's gotta have somebody to talk to. He likes to relate. You can tell Lulu what Ambrose says."
"What Ambrose says?" I knew what he said already. Yip-yip. Yap-yap. And standard variations thereof.
Jack stopped walking, Ambrose beneath his arm. "You don't know."
"I don't know anything. I just know that Lulu goes out with her dog every Wednesday evening and that tonight she was just about hysterical about not being able to come and gave me this address and told me to come." And what about those angels, I wanted to ask, but didn't.
"I'm a channeler. I channel dead people. In this case, Ambrose X. Thibideaux."
"Ambrose is a dead person?"
"Look, maybe we shouldn't do this. I'm in a hurry. You're sure this is okay with Lulu? There's professional confidentiality involved in this situation."
"Who is he?"
"You really don't know."
"Like I said. Lulu rents a room from me. I know that this dog is not fully housebroken and that he bites my clients on the ankles and that Lulu is crazy about him."
"Ambrose is her husband. No, no," he raised his free hand as if stopping traffic. "That's not what I mean. Ambrose is in another place now. He went there six years ago." He stroked the dog and looked toward the far side of the parking lot absently. He frowned. "He has a lot to say right now. I gotta do this. Damn. It's gonna cost me an extra half hour in PlaySpace Hell."
"You can get him a toy."
"I gotta do that anyway."
Ambrose was not as he seemed? I smothered a laugh that would have been exceedingly rude. But the underlying sense of deep sadness I was feeling about Charles was overshadowed by an even stronger sense of pity for Lulu. I hadn't realized that she was insane, although I supposed her parents had tried to tell me. "Okay. All right. Where?"
"Right over there." Jack gestured toward the open storage bin, which was faintly lit within.
He went inside the bin, and I followed. Two-thirds of the space was filled with furniture and boxes roped and tied up all the way to the ceiling like captives of a moving rodeo. The pile looked dangerously unstable. TWO MEN AND DOG CRUSHED IN TRAGIC STORAGE-CHANNELING MISHAP. On the narrow, free floor space was a black blow-up mattress. A trouble light hung from the back of a crooked wooden chair, a thick yellow electrical cord snaking away. Jack gestured toward a low, green-striped beach chair in the corner. "You can sit there. You got a good memory?"
He pulled some torn shower curtains hanging from a wire across the door together for privacy. "I guess I should record this." He fiddled with a boom box next to the mattress. "That will be an extra three bucks for the tape."
"Couldn't you just tell her?"
He shook his head and lay down on the black mattress without taking off his wing-tips. I noticed they were scuffed. He had Ambrose lie down next to him, paws parallel in the manner of a miniature Mexican sphinx. "I don't remember. I mean, I'm not here. I have to make room for the being I'm channeling. Did she give you a list?"
"Of questions. I guess not. Ask him whatever you want, then. Damn, my head. This always gives me a headache. All right, let's get this over with."
I had about fifteen more questions to ask Jack, but he placed one hand over Ambrose's back and closed his eyes. His face and rumpled suit were washed by the bare light bulb. His breathing deepened and slowed. A car prowled by inside, and I wondered if I had locked my doors.
When he spoke, it was in a striking Southern accent. Similar to Lulu's, but lacking that influential Little Havana childhood.
"I'm her friend, Evan."
"I know. I'm talkin' to the recorder." The voice was rich, slow, utterly different from Jack's. I had to respect talent like that.
"She had to shoot again tonight." A tremble passed over Ambrose, then stilled. Visions of Lulu as a serial killer tumbled through my mind. I couldn't remember mentioning the shooting to Jack, but I must have. "I'm tryin' to think what to tell her. To make it all right. What you think, Hambone?" Ambrose started, but did not otherwise move. "We need to keep her from goin' crazy again. That was dark. Too dark. She was riverbound herself." Silence. Then, "Nobody died this time, mister?"
"No," I said, strangely drawn to answer. "Nobody died." Nobody but me, but I was luminous now, so it was all right. "Lots of blood."
"Yeah. That would bring it all back, for sure. My poor girl."
"Bring what back?"
"The wreck and all. When she shot me. I drove off the bridge and into Lake Pontchartrain. Made the evenin' news in six states."
"Was, uh, Hambone there?"
"He was just a pup. Good swimmer and all. Lulu and I were purely nuts until she figured out that she could talk to me and I could talk to her. Thanks to Hambone. You're her friend?"
"Well, you take good care of my girl. She's gonna be a mess for a spell after this. Don't you try to talk her out of what you can hear with your own ears is true. You'll kill her if you do. Tell Lulu that I love her for ever and ever and not to worry."
old were you?"
There was a grin in the voice. "Nineteen, and a wild son of a bitch. Damned sorry to go."
"Why did she shoot you?"
The voice laughed. "Lulu didn't mean to shoot me. She was tryin' to shoot Jason Lewis Scumbag Parker, the just-released-from-serving-time bank robber who hopped into our truck on Wisteria a block from First Federal and told me to drive or die. I drove. Lulu was on the front seat between us, and her Walthur was in her purse next to me. The last thing she said was 'No!' It was a year before she spoke another living word. Hospitals, bunch of drugs, the works. They kept telling her to accept that I was gone and all that bullshit. But she didn't have to accept it. I'm always here, and that's what matters. It'll be better this time. It's gonna be all right." He paused. "Gotta go; this clown is closin' up shop. Tell Lulu to tell her mama I love her and not to drink so goddamned much. Now, I want you to help her out. Help her out as good as you know how. Thanks for comin', mister. It was the right thing to do."
I sat in silence for a moment. Ambrose, or Hambone, popped up and instantly resumed his eternal quest for urinary bliss but, after glancing at me decided that maybe the storage bin qualified as forbidden territory. "Good choice," I told him.
Jack's eyes flew open. He sat up and straightened his glasses and popped the tape out of the boom box. "Here you go. That'll be thirty-three bucks."
"The flyer says ten."
"That was an introductory session. You know, to get some customers. I even rented a back room in a cafe. Couldn't really bring them here the first time. This is a private session. Twenty-five plus five for being late and three for the tape. Tell Lulu to call me next week; if she doesn't cancel in advance, I'll have to charge her."
He got up and yanked on his suit jacket. He switched off the trouble light so that we were suddenly in darkness, lit only by the mercury arc lamps making the shower curtains with their dolphins and stars glow. He lit a cigarette. I picked up the dogI didn't know what to call him nowpushed the dolphins aside, and went out into the parking lot. It felt big and free and weirdly safe, even though for all I knew Jack was a robber, too.
Actually, he was. I got out forty dollars and asked for change. "Don't have any. I'll give it to Lulu next week."
Ambrose-Hambone and I got in the car after he anointed the tires, and I drove straight to the hospital. On the way I called Dr. Lozano to give him hell.
· · · · ·
It was not difficult to get into the backside of the Emergency Room. I bypassed the zooish waiting room and followed a nurse through an automatic door she coded open, then walked to the nursing station. "I'm supposed to see Lulu Thibideaux and bring her her stuff"I gestured at the health club bag which I'd emptied so as to accommodate Ambrose-Hambone"but I can't remember where they told me to find her."
The nurse glanced through a list and pointed. "She ought to be over there. The third cubicle. Are you related to her?"
"I live with her."
"She was not in very good shape. She had to be heavily sedated."
"I'm not surprised. Um, how ishow is Charles Worthing?"
"Are you related to him?"
used to live with him. Too."
She flipped through her list. "He's in surgery. But he's stable."
I saw Officer Hawks striding down the hall. I hastily thanked the nurse and a moment later opened the curtain she had indicated a crack and glimpsed Lulu lying pale on the white sheet, shivering.
I stepped back out, saw an open cabinet full of blankets, grabbed three, and went back in. Her lips were blue beneath her lipstick, giving them a purple tinge.
She opened her eyes as I shook the blankets open and settled them over her. "Did you go?"
"What did he say?"
"I've never heard Ambrose say a word." But he did bark, just then, so I lifted him out of the bag and set him on her chest. The bark did not put a dent in the cacophony of screaming, moaning, and cursing issuing from various other curtained spaces.
"Oh!" She clutched him tightly, and, as usual, Ambrose set to licking her face. "Ambrose, Ambrose, I'm so sorry."
"I know about it," I said. "I called your father."
"And I'll tell you exactly what Ambrose said. 'It's time to let me go. Please.' Or something like that."
"You're lying. Ambrose would never say that." Her teeth chattered, and tears rolled from the corners of her eyes, with predictable results on the part of the dog.
I regrouped immediately, forgetting the entreaties of Dr. Lozano. He hadn't been able to open his daughter's eyes. Why should it be my responsibility?
"Yes. I am. He told me to help you through this. He told me that he loved you always and that you should say hi to your mama and tell her not to drink so much."
She stopped shaking. Then she smiled. "That's better. That's much better."
"It was a long time ago, Lulu."
"Only six years."
"It was an accident."
She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. I shot him. I killed him. The car went into the river. He and Parker died. I lived." She closed her eyes but kept talking. "It took me a while to understand that he was trying to talk to me. We had this puppy. He got out of the truck. He was swimming when the police picked him up. We eloped when we were seventeen. Mama and Papa were furious. But if you'd known him, you would have understood. Ambrose was full of fun. He wasn't headed for college, but I didn't care. He worked at the lumber yard and for builders when there was work. He could do anything. Lay bricks or wire a house." She paused. I was glad she was sedated. I didn't think she would be telling me this otherwise.
"Parker was sitting next to me on the front seat and put his hand up my skirt. My purse was next to me on the left side, and I didn't think, I didn't think, I didn't think at all. He just made me mad as blazes. I pulled out my own gun, and then everything went to hell. For a long time I wanted to believe that he shot Ambrose, but he didn't; I did, by mistake, while he was fighting with me and Ambrose was yelling at me that it was okay, don't do anything, Lulu, don't do anything. But I did. Just like I did tonight. I guess it will be self-defense again. Protecting property with deadly force is not an acceptable defense, despite what some people think. Even if it's Fiestaware."
At least she was talking.
Her father, after I assured him that Lulu was not injured, had told me that Ambrose's injury would not have been fatal, but they were approaching the Lake Pontchartrain bridge. The truck veered off the bridge and into the lake. Only Lulu and their puppy lived.
"And ever since," Dr. Lozano had said, "well, ever since, she has been crazy. There have been psychiatrists. But there are more of these goddamned channelers in the world than you have any idea of. They are everywhere. They are in Louisiana. They are in Miami. I am sure that there are Albanian channelers and Trinidadian channelers. They are probably at the North Pole with their hands out. As you can see, they are in Fort Lauderdale. Her mother and I have decided that there is no way to keep her from them. She will have to decide herself what is real and what is not real."
Lulu stroked Ambrose absently, and the dog put his head down and closed his eyes.
I had no idea what to do or say next. "You were right about Charles."
A mischievous smile played at the edge of her mouth. "Does this mean that you'll give Stuart a chance?"
"Now I think I'm going to have an anxiety attack."
"Give me a hug."
I leaned over her and embraced her and Ambrose. I felt an deeply odd sense of relief, as if I were entering a corridor of light, and thought it nonsense. But, I supposed, my life with Charles had been a deeper form of nonsense; an unsupported belief that I had nurtured and held on to until tonight. Why try and talk Lulu out of her insanity? Obviously, there had been a lot of failed professional attempts to do so.
Besides, I still couldn't remember if I had told Jack about the gun.
"He's here," she said firmly. "I know it."
"Yes," I said, hoping that I would some day have a better explanation for all this luminosity.