My mother and I stopped at the top of the stairs. The courtyard below us had been transformed. The metal table we sat around so often had been pushed up against a card table and the two were covered in a festive orange plaid table cloth, set with white dishes and silverware, butterscotch napkins and giant wine glasses. The table, the chairs, and even the ground were covered in brown, yellow, orange and red leaves cut from construction paper. Lights were strung from the bottom of the balcony to the bird of paradise. Marc had brought out their compact stereo outside and a CD was playing, Carly Simon’s My Romance. It felt a little like being in a movie.
“Oh my goodness, I just thought of something,” my mother said. “We should have brought wine.”
“We’ve had a hectic day. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
The sky was cloudy and there was an occasional gust of wind. Standing in the center of the courtyard were Marc’s friends Deborah and Rob. Marc worked with Deborah at the studio where they did something with numbers. Rob was her husband. I didn’t know them well. She was short and little wide, while he was tall and pale.
Before we started down the stairs, my mother licked her fingers and smoothed down my hair over my right ear.
“There, that’s better,” she said. I felt about eight years old.
We went down the stairs. My mother wore a simple, brown sheath-like dress with low, conservative pumps. When she’d come out of the bathroom she’d whispered, “I have a nicer outfit, but it’s pink and that just seemed wrong.”
“I don’t think we’re expected to grieve for someone we’ve never met.”
“Still, I want to be respectful.”
“We don’t have to whisper. Remember? You drugged her.”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
I introduced my mother to Deborah and Rob. Then Rob pointed out a bottle of wine in a standing ice bucket—which made me wonder, Where do Marc and Louis get these things? Followed immediately by And where do they keep them?
“What kind of wine is it?” my mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Deborah said. “Something from Trader Joe’s.”
“It’s a pinot grigio,” I said, reading the label.
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed.
“It’s good,” Deborah said.
“Is it? All right.”
I poured out two glasses, and handed one to my mother. My anemia pill had had a little time to work, so I felt a bit perkier. Or maybe it was just the prospect of dinner.
“How’s your brother, Deborah?” I asked, having met him the past spring.
“Oh, Jamie is great. Loving St. Louis.”
“So he’s not moving out here?”
“No. He’s talking about moving to New York City, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere. He’s really a hometown boy.”
When he visited I got the distinct impression he didn’t much like St. Louis. My guess was he’d be in New York by the end of the year. We talked about northern Michigan for a while after Deborah asked where my mother had come in from. Then my mother asked how they knew Marc and Louis, and was told that he and Deborah worked together at a studio.
“And what do you do there?”
“Ultimates. My department estimates how much a film will make in every market and then we keep track of whether it does or not.”
“Well, that sounds important. And you do that for every movie?”
“All six thousand six hundred and thirty seven. Most of them no one cares about anymore, but the numbers still have to go somewhere.”
Marc came out of the kitchen. He wore a Hawaiian shirt he got at a thrift store over a white tee, khakis and a pair of mahogany Docs. In one hand he held a large plate topped by a folded cloth napkin, an orange and green floral that matched the table. On top of it were nearly a dozen tri-colored raviolis that had been fried in oil. A bowl of mayonnaise-based dip sat next to them.
“I’ve got nibbles,” he said. “Fried ravioli with aioli. How is Joanne?”
“That’s probably the best thing for her.”
“I think so, too,” my mother said, avoiding my look.
“Who’s Joanne?” Deborah wanted to know. An increasingly complicated question.
“A friend. Her son died last night. She just found out,” my mother explained, impressing me with her brevity.
“Oh my God. What happened to him?”
“Probably an overdose,” I said.
“These raviolis are great,” Rob said.
“Aren’t they?” Marc agreed. “I love when Louis makes them.”
“Is Joanne a friend from Michigan? Or someone you went to school with?” Deborah wondered.
“I met her in a bar at O’Hare.”
“Oh. I see.”
“About eighteen hours ago, give or take,” she admitted.
“Really? Noah, your mother is so much more interesting than mine.”
“Wait until you meet Joanne.”
My mother poked me in the side, the way she had when I was a teenager. Just then, Tina arrived. She wore a baby doll dress in a black-and-white print, a pair of worn yellow cowboy boots and about twenty Bakelite bracelets on one wrist. Her blond hair was caught up in a giant clip at the back of her head.
Greetings were exchanged, Tina knew Deborah and Rob from previous dinners and she’d met my mother on a previous visit.
“It’s nice to see you again, Angie,” she said, giving my mother a Hollywood air-kiss, which she somehow managed to make sincere. Then she dropped her large leather tote onto the ground.
“You don’t have scripts in there?” Marc asked.
“Just two. I may need to sneak off and do a little reading.” She lit a cigarette. “How was your flight, Angie?”
“Oh, the flight was lovely.”
Marc got Tina a glass of wine while we caught her up on the Joanne situation. When we finished, Tina said, “How uncomfortable.”
And, of course it was, particularly now that my mother had basically overdosed our guest on sleeping pills. Well, not overdosed exactly, but it was still unfortunate. Marc drifted off to get another plate of hors d’œuvres.
“So, she’s been sleeping all day?” Tina asked.
I glanced at my mother. “Yes.”
“I suppose that’s a defense,” Deborah said. “Against the grief.”
“That’s true,” Rob agreed. “The mind works things out while we sleep.”
Marc was back, saying, “These are miniature blue corn pancakes with caviar, sour cream and a bit of lemon zest. Just pop the whole thing in your mouth.”
My mother took one, eyeing it curiously. Then, over my shoulder, Marc said, “There you are.”
I turned and saw that our friend Leon had arrived. He was near forty, had dyed his hair platinum blond, and had a face that always looked a tiny bit pinched in judgment. He wore a lose rayon shirt with a black T-shirt underneath, jeans and heavy black work boots. I guessed that he planned to throw the rayon shirt into his car, strap on a leather wrist band, and spend the later part of the evening at The Gauntlet.
“Oh those look lovely,” Leon said, making a beeline for the nibbles.
“We were just talking about the woman who’s sleeping upstairs—” Deborah started.
“The one whose son died?” Leon said. “I know all about it.”
“He called earlier,” Marc explained.
“So, was he murdered?” Leon asked.
“Oh my God, no.” I said.
“Why would you say such a thing?” my mother asked.
Just then Louis ran out of his apartment, oven mitts on both hands, and zipped up the stairs to mine. I was pretty sure I heard him say, “Almost forgot.”
“What was that about?” Deborah asked.
“He put a couple of casseroles into my oven. An hour ago. Maybe more. Tell us more about what you do,” I said, trying to avoid what I knew was coming next.
“Oh no you don’t,” Leon said. “Noah, why don’t you think this woman’s son was murdered?”
“Because it’s much more common to overdose than it is to be murdered.”
“His mother doesn’t think that’s what happened, though, does she?”
Wow, I thought, Marc fit in a lot of detail.
My mother took over. “She says he stopped taking drugs, except for marijuana and alcohol, and she believes him.”
“A mother would, though, wouldn’t she?” I pointed out.
“Well, yes,” she admitted. “I imagine it’s the kind of thing an addict would tell his mother.”
“Lying well is a God-given talent,” Leon said.
My mother put a hand over her mouth while she giggled at that.
“Just because his mother doesn’t think he overdosed doesn’t mean he was murdered,” I said.
Louis came out of my apartment holding the baking tray between oven mitts and balancing the casseroles. Carefully, he descended the stairs.
“Oh dear, that could go terribly wrong,” said Tina. Since she spent her time reading movie scripts, I could see how she was trained to assume that a man carrying a tray of hot food while walking down a flight of stairs was inevitably going to tumble down into a comic heap at the bottom. But Louis made it to the bottom without incident and our dinner was undisturbed. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned to our fitful conversation.
“I read in the paper today that they’ve had some luck treating AIDS with gene therapy,” Leon said. “They think they may be able to give you a virus that will insert a defective gene into HIV cells.”
“Give a virus to cure a virus?” Marc said skeptically. He switched from passing tiny pancakes to refilling wine glasses.
Leon shrugged. “It does sound a little far-fetched.”
“They might as well inject you with the spaceship from Fantastic Voyage,” I mock suggested. “Raquel Welch could cure AIDS with a miniature stun gun.”
“If only it were that easy,” my mother said quietly.
Leon wandered off toward the stereo. I sipped my wine , it was cool and crisp. “Do you like the wine?” I asked my mother.
“Oh, it’s lovely. Very tart.” I think that meant she didn’t. She preferred sweeter wines.
“Are we going to see Louis at all?” I asked Marc.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” my mother asked.
“Yes, we should help,” Tina said—the woman who’d brought something to read while someone else cleaned up.
“There’s not enough room in the kitchen,” Marc said. “Louis will be out once dinner is served. Don’t worry.”
“Really Marc?” Leon said, coming back from the stereo. “Five CDs and not one of them Barbra or Madonna? Sometimes I wonder if the two of you are homosexual at all.”
“Who is this singing, by the way?” Deborah asked.
“Lesbian music,” Leon said, dismissively. “All flannel and strumming guitars.”
“Oh, I have to go,” Marc said , he’d just seen Louis waving him over to the apartment.
“I wish they’d let us help,” my mother said. Determined to mother someone, she asked, “Do you think I should check on Joanne?”
“It’s only been twenty minutes.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your Thanksgiving.”
“Stop saying that.”
“How did you ruin his Thanksgiving?” Leon asked. “Look at him, he’s got a glass of wine in his hand and he’s about to have a wonderful dinner—”
“I know but—if it weren’t for me we wouldn’t have Joanne on our hands and we wouldn’t be talking about that poor dead boy.”
“It’s not your fault, Angie,” Leon said. “Your son is the one who’s a magnet for dead bodies.”
“Mag— Noah, what does he mean?”
“Nothing,” I said pointedly. I gave Leon a searing look.
“Well, he means something.”
I sighed. “During the riots there was a body left in the dumpster behind my store.”
“Oh dear. You never told me. Why didn’t you—”
“And…” Leon said, annoying the heck out of me.
“And another time there was a dead body left here on this table.”
“This table?” My mother pointed at the table we were about to sit down at.
“The round part, not the folding part,” Leon said, getting unnecessarily specific.
“Why didn’t anyone mention that?” Deborah asked.
“They did mention it, honey. They told us all about it, in September I think.”
“What? Wait, no, that was a movie they were talking about. Wasn’t it? You mean it actually happened? Like, right there?”
Marc came out of the house with a small tray holding four soup bowls. “All right everyone, take a seat. We’re going to start with soup. Carrot, apple, and ginger.”
There were three chairs around the folding table and five around the round table. Everyone gravitated toward the folding table except Leon and me.
“Really guys?” I said. “It was months ago and all the dead body cooties have washed off.”
My mother came down and sat next to me in the round portion. “You have a lot to explain,” she said, under her breath.
As we sat down, Leon took a small, black mobile phone out of his pocket and set it on the table next to his setting.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Mobile phone. It’s for work. Insanely expensive. Four hundred dollars last month.”
“But work is paying for it.”
“Well, they pay for the phone itself and all my business calls.”
“How much of that four hundred was personal?”
“All of it.”
My rent was only five-fifty. The phone at the store with three lines only cost a hundred and twenty-five.
“I’m going to be a lot more careful this month,” Leon said, as though we’d all just scolded him. “Cross my heart.”
Marc began placing soups; Louis was right behind him with another tray. As briefly as possible I told my mother the story of Wilma Wanderly and the blue-spangled dresses. When I was done, Marc and Louis were seated in front of their soup.
“See, that still sounds like a movie to me,” Deborah said.
“It sounds dangerous,” my mother said. “You have no plans to ever get involved with anything like that again, I hope.”
“Not unless Joanne’s son turns out to be murdered,” Leon said.
“Even then. We shouldn’t get involved.”
“I agree,” I said. “I’ve had enough of murder.”
“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little speculation,” my mother said, making me uncomfortable. It always started with speculation—and then it didn’t end well.
“Her son overdosed,” I said firmly.
“In that case, the question is was it accidental or did he do it on purpose?” Leon asked.
“Did he have a reason to kill himself?” Rob asked, then added, “By the way, the soup is wonderful.”
“Oh, it is. Delicious,” my mother said.
“Nothing Joanne said would lead me to believe he had a reason to kill himself,” I told them.
“But then is suicide a reasonable thing?” Tina asked. “I know we try to make it seem reasonable, but I think it’s usually anything but. Did she say he was troubled?”
“She implied that he used to do drugs, heavier drugs than marijuana,” I told the table.
“I don’t think doing a little of this and a little of that means you’re likely to kill yourself,” Leon said, taking a spoonful of soup.
“If your mother knows about it, then it’s probably not a little of this and a little of that,” Louis pointed out.
“So he had a problem with drugs,” I said. My soup was half gone. It was delicious, sweet and savory at the same time. “Louis, what is in this soup?”
“Oh yes, I’d like to know too,” my mother said.
“Carrots, apples, onions, garlic and chicken stock.”
“If he had a problem with drugs, then I guess he was troubled,” Deborah assumed. “Which means he could have killed himself.”
“But right before his mother arrived? That seems awfully cold,” my mother pointed out. “If it was deliberate, I think he’d have done it after her visit, not before he even got to see her.”
That left us quiet for a moment. It did seem awfully inconsiderate if he’d killed himself before his mother’s visit, but then suicide was not a considerate act, or least not usually.
“And as far as we know there was no note,” I said. “I think the police would have told Joanne if there was.”
“Well, I’m voting for accidental,” Leon said. “As long as we’re sure it’s not murder.”
“It’s not murder,” I said, flatly.
We were done with the soup. Marc got up and began to clear the bowls. Louis started to rise and Marc said, “Sit down. I can do the salad on my own. You need a break before you carve the turkey.”
Louis sat back and took a big gulp of wine, “Okay.” Then to us he said, “I love it when he gets all dominant-like.”
“Why aren’t you with your family, Louis?” my mother asked, ignoring his risqué comment. I was thankful we’d moved on from suicide.
“My sister is in Texas,” Louis said. “My mother takes turns. We’ll have her at Christmas and then next year at Thanksgiving.”
“And Marc, what about his family?”
“They’re in Brentwood. Not on speaking terms.”
“They don’t like that he’s gay?”
“No, they stole most of the money he made as an actor. Marc’s touchy about things like that.”
“As well he should be,” my mother said. “I could never steal from Noah.”
“You stole my U of M sweatshirt.”
“You left it behind. And you never wore it.”
“Well,” Tina said, “my sister is livid that I’m here and not with her. But every time I go to her house she’s livid about something anyway and then we fight the whole time. If she’s going to be mad at me I’d just as soon not be there.”
“Oh my you all have such complicated relationships. Not at all like Grand Rapids.”
“That’s not true, Mom,” I pointed out. “The only difference is that in Grand Rapids everyone pretends to get along. They don’t really know they have a choice.”
My mother ignored the slight to our hometown.
“I saw something interesting in the news today,” Rob said out of nowhere. “A panel the Republicans set up to investigate whether the Reagan campaign worked with the Iranians to steal the presidency from Carter—”
“Oh honey, let’s not talk about this.” Then Debra explained, “He gets this way with a little wine.”
“But it was in the newspaper just yesterday. The same people who committed the crime cleared themselves.”
“But wasn’t Mr. Carter terribly unpopular?” my mother asked.
“He was unpopular because he couldn’t get the hostages out of Iran. During the campaign he was negotiating to get them released, but Reagan sent people over to make sure it didn’t happen. That’s why they wouldn’t release them until after the inauguration. It’s also why the whole Iran-Contra thing happened. Reagan had to pay them back by selling them arms.”
“Oh Rob, please stop.”
“She asked a question.”
Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to politics. I had no reason to believe that Bill Clinton was going to be much different than George Bush. Leon came to the rescue by saying, “Do you know you can buy your own copy machine for a thousand dollars?”
“What do you want with a copy machine?” Louis asked.
“I don’t know. I could xerox my junk and hand it out at the bars as a calling card. That’s what the mail boys do at work.”
“Other people talk about things they read in the newspaper,” Rob said, before going into a major pout.
“Not everyone enjoys conspiracy theories,” Deborah whispered to her husband. “They’re an acquired taste.”
Marc came out with a tray and began handing us our salads.
“Now what is this?” Tina asked.
“Field greens with blue cheese, bacon and cherry tomatoes, with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing,” Louis said.
“Oh, it looks wonderful.
Marc set the plates down and zipped back into the kitchen for more. Then my mother said, “If Joanne comes down, don’t anyone say anything about suicide. And definitely don’t say anything about murder.”
It’s Thanksgiving, 1992 and Noah Valentine is late picking his mother up from the airport. When he arrives he discovers that she’s made a friend on the flight whose also waiting for her son. When the woman’s son doesn’t show up, they eventually take her home for breakfast with neighbor’s Marc and Louis. Soon after, they learn that her son has overdosed—or has he? Noah and his motley crew investigate over the holiday weekend; which includes a fabulous dinner, a chat with a male stripper, a tiny little burglary and some help from Detective Tall, Dark, and Delicious.