Details for a Young Detective

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Before everything went haywire, the fence marked the border of a small paradise. Jenisse lived four blocks away, but her yard was a square cement pad behind their apartment. My mother used to say that travelling five blocks was leaving one country for another. I thought she was being judgmental but I was wrong. She just thought Jenisse had a tough life and wondered how she might change my viewpoint. It should have been the other way around. My best friend wasn’t perfect and maybe took a couple false turns but it was a long way from where I ended up awhile.

We  had several things in common back then but the most important were philosophy and fast cars.  I read Camus and Kierkegaard in study hall. She found that weird in ninth grade but the thing that impressed me was that she even knew who they were. She liked to think past pink lipstick and white pom-poms, too. We were, contradictorily, cheerleaders that year. We had other friends, but no one liked us as much as we liked each other.

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The cars had fascinating, daredevil men attached to them in our imaginings. We also wanted to drive a few of our own. On Friday and Saturday nights we watched them roar down our busy street. I was better at calling the make and year but she was better at waving and smiling if they slowed down to get a better look at us. A perfect team.

We liked to hang out on my parents’–and mine, by default–half-acre. Our overgrown yard. I don’t know why our modest bungalow got the benefit of so much space outdoors–we were at the edge of the city– but it was perfect for me and my two older brothers. There was a little creek–that is, when it rained enough, otherwise it was just an unsightly ditch. Dad, a history teacher who had a passion for making things, built an old-fashioned house like a pioneer homestead. We half-grew up there and used it for all sorts of secret activities, from eating too many chocolate donuts(us) to playing dice and smoking a joint (brothers and sometimes us) to furtive gropings in the dark (all). There were sleepovers there which were popular with everybody. Our parents could see the place from the kitchen window so they felt we were safe.

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I guess we were but it was easier to find trouble there. My brothers’ exploits are theirs to give away. Even though it was fifteen years ago, I’d raise my dad’s blood pressure if I told him about the fire Jimmy started that consumed the neighbor’s prize roses and damaged the fence at the property line behind the “homestead”.

Jenisse and I were happy best friends, that’s the thing I need to make clear. We had that innocent, bountiful trust that you look for the rest of your life. Everything that happened or crossed our minds was talked over: breathtaking and annoying family dramas, sapping discouragement when we failed to meet our goals, whether or not slapping Hugh was a strong enough response to his hand on Jenisse’s thigh, the skin cancer scare for my mother. Or just how wine red lipstick and black eyeliner made us look older but not better. And our plans for the future.

“I’m definitely going to be a private investigator,” I told her. “That, or a lawyer. By the way, I want to–no, I will–win the next debate at school.”

“Of course you will, Lola–you out-talk everyone, who wouldn’t cave under all that? But I got you beat. I now think I want a career in designing parks. Isn’t there something like that? Ever since I got to know you and spent time out here I’ve thought about it. More safe outdoor places for people could change neighborhoods, even whole cities.”

I gave her a long look. “See, this is why you are so much smarter than most people. You think about the long tem effect of things, not just your own little desires. You have principles. Me? I just want action!”

She punched my shoulder. “Stupid, you just have to make a show of things, like telling people you gotta have action, when what you want is to save this crappy world, just like me. Well, as long as it involves some risky–or maybe a little risqué?–stuff!”

I gave her a punch back and then a hug, I’m sure. How many people got me like that? So it seemed like we would be friends forever. We even talked about how when we were old we would have houses by each other with a connecting yard for our kids. If we had any time for kids.

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It was the following autumn when things changed. September had shaken out the languid vestiges of late summer, edged with the promise of frost. A fire was burning in our corner woodstove. I was in the living making a poster for class when I heard her on the porch. I would know her laugh anywhere, a crescendo of sound sweet but loud like she had just seen or heard the funniest thing ever. When she didn’t come in, I dropped my felt tip pens and looked out the beveled glass window in the door.

It was not to be believed. She was on the porch swing with Arnie, my brother and they were swinging hard, chattering about something that appeared to fully engage Jenisse’s attention. His arm was around her shoulders. I opened the door.

“Jenisse? What are you doing out here?”

The swing kept going but Arnie just looked at her and she looked at me like, what did I mean? I thought it was funny how dumb they acted. Like, were they up to something, like planning a surprise party for my upcoming birthday?

“Why are you out here with my brother instead of inside while I struggle to create a fabulous poster for my speech about Egypt? Come in and help me out.”

“I can’t. Me and Arnie are talking.”

I thought they were both just up to aggravation so I went out and pushed Arnie half off the swing and squeezed in beside her.

“Lola, “she said, hands up, “wait a minute. What’s wrong with me having a conversation with Arnie? I’ll be in later. You’ll do great without me.”

And there it was. I got it instantly. Jenisse liked Arnie more than just her best friend’s older brother. He got up and leaned against the porch railing post, arms folded, feet crossed at the ankles like he was King Tut. It killed me, that look. I knew from others’ feedback that he was good-looking or even better but I didn’t think he was that smart or nice or fascinating. I was closer to Jimmy. Arnie, well, he was arrogant. He was a jock and I thought myself a burgeoning intellectual; he teased me about it. I was not having Jenisse sit with him now or ever. It was cross contamination.

“Get up, Jenisse. You’re blinded by genetically pleasing material. He is not The Man. You and I are best friends. That makes it almost illegal for you to remotely care about my brother!”

Her brown eyes shot me a challenging look. “Lola, you don’t own me! I can be with Arnie if I want. In fact, we’ve been together more and more. You just didn’t notice. Some detective you’ll make!”

That did it. I got up, entered the house and slammed the door. I steamed all night and into the wee  hours.

You think you know how this ended. We had a fight, got over it and they got married one day. A love story in which I could play the part of everlasting friend, maid of honor. Sisters-in-law!

None of that.  I ended up alone. Too often. I ended up taking rides with a few drivers of those fast cars after school. I felt like I should change, too, or I’d be lost. I was upset and angry every day; I had to see her hang out with Arnie at school or while I sat in my room or avoided them. She greeted me tentatively but I was deaf to her attempts. Watching them from my upstairs bedroom window was shocking. Seeing how he pulled her close, how they whispered things. It was bad enough thinking of my brother kissing at all but my best friend? What was she telling him about her life that she kept from me now?

Jenisse stopped trying to talk to me. She got dumped by him four months later and her grades dropped I heard. But I burrowed into school work but I’d found a group who liked to party. I had instant success, being a little mouthy but witty. But I frightened my family with increasingly grave errors. The last car I got into while in high school accelerated to one hundred twenty mph. A gorgeous Porsche. Before we even hit sixty we bounced off a lamp post and another car. The guy was in the hospital for two months and then in court for a DUII. I broke my nose and right arm.

But I finally figured out what not to do about the misery of loss. You had to just live through it. So, I guess, did she but by then the bond had frayed and split. I returned to my saner self and resolved to pay strict attention to internal and external signs. Do something good.

Despite my initial lack of observational skills as a teen-ager, I am now an investigator. I’ve survived worse things than losing a best friend. But I had to tell someone our story. Today I saw Jenisse’s picture–it was her with more make up, less hair and sleeker–in the newspaper. She won an award for her co-design of a park circling a pond. The name? Homestead Park. I want to see it. Then I may give her a call. We each had our plans. We aimed for the target and finally hit bull’s eye. How many people can say that?

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This Blue Dress, Worn by Citrine

Another overnight rainstorm had pummeled the earth until leaves and flowers bent in surrender.  The air smelled faintly of mud and lilacs as Nora opened her balcony doors to survey a brightening sky above roof lines and treetops. Two stories below her, the neighbors’ long driveway was filling up with tables and a couple of old chairs. Marty and his wife, Hanna, were setting up for a yard sale despite the iffy forecast.

“Hey, Nora!” Marty called. “Anything you want to add to our mess?”

“No, thanks,” Nora answered, waving back. “I just donated a pile of things to the shelter.”

She thought about the boxes of shoes and purses she hadn’t unloaded yet. They gaped at her daily whenever she entered her bedroom; it was hard to let go of old, still-good leather products. She chided herself. They ought to be relieved of their uselessness and passed on. Nora set her teacup down on the tiny glass-topped table, dragged out two boxes, and started eliminating, haphazard pile growing. Then she consolidated the “toss” items and took them down to Hanna, who encouraged her to be generous with low pricing. She found the whole thing tedious and tiring, so retreated back to her balcony.

People started to show up at eight-forty-five and for good reason. Marty and Hanna had a wide array of cheap offerings and customers rooted through books and old LPs, DVDs, jewelry and clothing. They admired a buffet and brocaded wing-back chairs. Nora noted that two pair of her shoes were bought. The garage held enticing cast-offs, from exercise equipment to older bikes to a 50-piece rose-covered china set the couple had avoided using for twenty years. Nora watched as she finished her muffin, licked her fingers. What did people want with so many used things? It struck her that the more one got rid of, the more one felt compelled to replace.  She bet most of the shoppers had things falling out of closets at home. She picked up her cup and plate; she had work to do.

Nora was turning to step inside when a flash of azure blue caught her eye. She looked closely at the clothesline strung across the drive. A long, sleeveless cotton dress hung at the end of the line, swinging in a the fresh breeze.  An ivory lace scarf trailed from its scoop neck. A wave of shock raced through her. She ran downstairs, around the corner and up the driveway and when she reached for the dress, it was gone. Frantic, she searched the arms of several women in the cash-and-carry line. When it wasn’t to be found Nora walked to the garage and scanned the dim interior. And there it was: slung carelessly over the arm of a teen-aged girl in tight, raggedy blue jeans, flip flops and a loose, likely vintage black T-shirt with the band Guns and Roses on the back. She stood by a man who studied tools spread out on a piece of plywood settled betweentwo saw horses. Nora wanted to stop the young woman before she lost her chance but hesitated. It was only a used dress. She willed the girl to look at her but she continued to browse. When Hannah called out to Nora and asked if she might spell her at the check-out table, Nora reluctantly left the garage and took up her post.

She watched three of her purses and another pair of shoes leave the premises. She was glad they were gone. The metal money-box was filling up nicely as she waited for Hanna’s return.  The more Nora thought about the dress–its soft, graceful lines with the exquisite lace scarf–the more she needed it.

When she looked up again the teen-aged girl stood before her. She put her finds on the table: three leather purses, a crock pot, gold-trimmed glass coffee carafe, four woven place mats, a pearl-embellished sweater. And one long blue dress with scarf.

“Looks like you’ve done well today,” Nora said, breathing shallowly.

“Well, it’s the start of my shopping. I better find a lot more out there.”

Nora raised her left eyebrow involuntarily and gave a half-smile. “You’re a diehard yard-saler, then?”

The girl tucked her brown and bleach-streaked hair behind her ears.   “It’s how I make money. You know, I buy and sell. I take stuff to vintage shops, second-hand shops, that sort of thing. Have to get by somehow. I’m on my own out there.” She got out her cash and counted it slowly. “So–how much?”

Nora bit the side of her lip. “I’m not sure. The dress and scarf might not be for sale.”

“What? Sure it is. I got it over there.” She nodded at the clothesline. “It’s a great warm weather dress. It costs ten bucks but I can get twice that. The scarf goes with it, too, right?”

Nora placed her hands flat on the card table and leaned forward. “I mean, I might not agree to let you buy it. I’d like it for myself.”

The girl snorted. “Well, you know, first come, first serve! I get that you like it but my dibs. Now, what do I owe, lady?”

Nora looked at the rumpled wad of bills in the girl’s hand and then at the dress. Only ten dollars on the sticker. How could something like that be had for so little? She stood up.

“Look, here’s the thing. I really need this dress, too. It matters to me. I don’t know how it got there. It must have been left behind in the house and no one knew it was there or cared. But it belonged to someone, someone who used to live right here. An important person.”

“Come on, everything at a yard sale belonged to somebody…what are you saying?”

“It belonged to Citrine. Citrine Devlin. My best friend. ” Nora felt the tears hot at her eyelids and looked up at her balcony. “I live up there. And Citrine lived in the lower level of this house until last year.”

The teen-ager examined the scarf and whistled. “Wow. Citrine. A very sweet name. Different.” She smoothed the rich blue cotton of the dress.

“Yes. Unique, really. Like her.”  Nora saw Hanna come up to the table and hover. “She was the sort of friend you always look for but hardly ever find. You know what I mean? Just a really good woman.”

Hanna touched Nora on the back. “I’ll take my spot back. Thanks. Isn’t it great the sun came out! I guess you’re all set to buy?” she asked the girl.

“Not yet.” The teen moved aside and let the next person ahead. “So what happened? To this Citrine person?”

But Nora was walking down the driveway, trying to stand tall and not run, stifling the urge to scream at the ignorant girl, the careless neighbors who put out that dress, the wretched wet flowers. She had been blind-sided, that was all. She wasn’t expecting the dress to show up, to remind her.

“Wait!” The teen-ager caught up with her. “I don’t want to wreck your day.  It’s just a dress, but–”

Nora stopped but didn’t turn. “Drunk driver. An pretty night in June. On her way back the little art gallery she owned; there had been a show opening. It was eleven when she left; I left right before her by about ten minutes. The moon looked amazing as I left downtown, drove up into these hills. We were going to have coffee the next morning, talk about the opening, her own work. But she was gone before I even got home that night, you understand? Some kid, a guy who had been to a graduation party. Too many beers or mixed drinks or whatever his poison was.” Tears fell like shiney stars from her eyes, and plummeted down her cheeks. “Isn’t it a random, crazy world? We don’t know what’s coming most of the time.”

The girl suddenly spun her around; she held tight to Nora’s arm. Then she closed her dark eyes, and when she opened them they were wide and still, but smoky with her own thoughts. “I know how it is; I lost somebody. Heroin overdose. So: the blue dress and scarf should be yours. Have to be. There are things that need to be with a special person. And you’re the keeper of that treasure from then on. ”

She held Citrine’s dress out to Nora, then put down her bag of items and wrapped Nora in her thin arms. They stood that way as the lilac bushes whispered nothing of import and raindrops shook free from above and wet their hair,  with one blue dress and delicate scarf safe between them.