I barely heard him those evenings Weldon Kees—my dead wife’s favorite poet, who’d
jumped from the Golden Gate in 1955—followed me as I browsed through Sears, Hank Bauer’s, Big 5 Sports. I felt
him watching with alarm when I bought new waders, four flannel shirts, a webbed canvas military belt, mosquito repellent,
and seven pairs of woolen socks.
“Good thick ones,” said my mother’s ghostly voice, “like
your father used to wear.”
I checked the different items off my list with bold blue V’s. Rod, two reels,
hunting knife, snake kit, lip balm, compass, waterproof matches in a thumb-sized plastic case. My passport. Aspirin in a tin
Like a commando preparing for a secret mission, I arranged the gear on the cleared
dining room table. I’d wander in to admire my building store.
“It looks good, Phil,” agreed my fallen father, killed 34 years ago
by the shooter on the Texas tower. “Real shipshape.”
As the sun set and fell across the mahogany surface lined with glowing equipment,
I sensed that downtown at headquarters, in the darkness under the sidewalk’s grate, the new sleek cat was waiting. Poised
and alert, my totem animal—the feral tabby now recovered from its injuries—was eager, ready for the night . .
With big X’s, Sergeant Glad was crossing out the dates on the calendar.
He’d tacked a map above his desk and drawn a red circle around Clarksville, then a bigger, heavier circle around the
county. Then a third, circumscribing Montana, so our destination looked like a bull’s eye.
“The albino buffalo was sacred,” Glad explained. “The Indians
thought it was magic. It could change into a hawk or fox. Or a woman.
“They tried to use ghost shirts to stop the white men’s bullets. Pretty
sad, huh, Phil? Cloth flak vests, with eagles painted on them.”
Glad had talked of nothing but cowboys and Indians, buffalo, horses, and rodeos
for six weeks, since the federal exchange had come up and we’d put in for Montana. He was reading shiny paperback supermarket
novels of the Old West and he’d gone to the library to find more detailed reference books.
I dragged myself through the coroner’s final report of the sensational murder
that had recently grabbed a week’s headlines in the Bee: “Multiple stab wounds to the chest . . . sharp, flexible
object . . . thoracic cavity incised . . .”
Helen Blane, an attractive, 32-year-old elementary school teacher, had knifed
and mutilated her unfaithful lover-psychiatrist with a nail file during an after-hours therapy session.
The next afternoon Glad arrested her as she came out of a beauty salon on Van
Ness, then patted her down. She was clean, so Glad opened her purse and found Ravenscroft’s heart wrapped in a handkerchief.
With latex gloves I placed it carefully in a zip-lock evidence bag. I felt its
weight in my palm. It was both heavier and lighter than I thought it would be.
On the Bluffs, a boy named Hargrove, a high school water polo star, ran down his
lawyer father with a John Deere tractor-lawnmower, after a quarrel over the boy’s 14-year-old pregnant girlfriend. Later,
the lab attributed the baby’s paternity to the elder Hargrove.
For approximately five dollars and assorted change, Chico Peña, a gang member
with “El Loco” tattooed on his neck, bludgeoned to death Heraldo Vasquez, a Mexican national who wore a medal
of the Virgin of Guadalupe and pushed an ice cream cart that said “Helado” in yellow gothic script. Vasquez left
a wife and six children in Morelos.
Early on a Wednesday evening when Glad and I pulled up in front of a pink house
to meet an anonymous witness, someone fired from the alley. The rear window of the Dodge exploded as I ducked and steered
the car against the curb, my father whispering at my ear: “You’re fine now, yes, just like that.”
Glad managed to jump out and shoot twice at the running form who carried a rifle.
Peña staggered and then fell, dropping the gun, screaming and grasping at his knee. In his back pocket was Vasquez’s
wallet with the embossed horse’s head on the cover.
But there was one case, the weekend before Memorial Day, a strange one—“Good
strange,” as Glad had called it—that I brooded about for a week, that invaded my thoughts and wouldn’t let
me rest, even though the escape to Montana was only days away, already we’d received the tickets for our departure.
It was a murder that wasn’t a murder, an armed robbery that wasn’t
a robbery but a generous act of charity, involving an 86-year-old man and a rare blue flower, $90,000 in cash, an expensive
wooden arm like a sculpture, holy water, and an inspiring letter from a long-deceased wife—
“When at last our hearts are reunited, we will be as old friends returning
to a garden—”
I thought of it as the Blue Flower Case and kept seeing white-haired Albert Rainie
dead on the lawn, beside him the large-faced flower like a deep-blue dahlia that breathed a disturbing and intoxicating scent.
And the special water in the crystal vase, his wife’s handwriting on the
love letter 60 years old, composed before they were married, soon after Rainie had lost his arm in an Alaskan mine explosion.
In a full-length mirror attached to the victim’s bedroom door I saw myself
sitting at the kitchen table, where the polished arm rested with its gesturing walnut hand and the fragrant blue flower rose
from its crystal vase.
Nothing added up, and I heard Kees recite his poem about the foiled detective,
called “Crime Club,” from Kees’ book, “The Last Man” which I’d found on Ellen’s
night table in Greenwich Village after her death:
“No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair—”
Glad leaned against the drain board and drank the dead man’s whiskey. I
saw my reflection in the mirror and half-imagined I was in my house on Sawyer, that the old man was my father, then myself,
that I was old and had offered the blue flower to the memory of Ellen.
I reached with a careful finger to touch a petal that threatened to drip with
blue, then dipped a fingertip into the crystal vase and tasted the water.
“Does it taste different,” Glad asked, “than regular water?”
“It tastes the same,” I said.
The overwhelming vanilla aroma filled the car when Glad insisted on delivering
the blue flower and the wooden arm to the mortuary. As we drove home, the scent remained, and that night I dreamed about Rainie
and the flower, and the old man’s wife.
Again Ellen was alive, beautiful, she hadn’t cut her wrists in her artist-lover’s
New York apartment six years ago—
And then she leaned and kissed my lips as the star jasmine’s scent at the
screen turned to the blue flower’s, the flower’s scent was hers—
Ellen had come home, to deliver an urgent message that on waking I tried to remember
but couldn’t as the phone rang and rang—
For several days I was obsessed by the dream and its meaning, wondered what Dr.
Edwards would have made of it, wished my old professor were alive so he might help me probe the mystery, maybe hypnotize me
and let me relive it.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ellen had told me something vitally important,
whispering a request or warning or secret at my ear before she kissed me.
At Rainie’s service, the blue flower stood alone in its vase on a short
column of marbled plastic. Rainie’s grave lay beside his wife’s, which had a tripod and a large floral display
from the Catholic Church. Along with Glad and me was an older woman, Rainie’s neighbor, who had known that Rainie read
at night, which explained his wife’s letters in the night table drawer.
Behind us stood a priest from Sacred Heart, where the old man had left the coat
with the money sewn in the lining, then taken the water from the font.
The funeral director hired a part-time minister to say a few words. The minister
was a cabinet maker, a modest, well-meaning man who delivered eulogies for those without church affiliation or faith, and
I’d let him look at the letter from Rainie’s wife, the one I’d read the night I’d dreamed of Ellen.
The flower’s scent moved about the mourners in a cool inviting mist above
the clipped lawn, as if the flower were still opening, it hadn’t reached full bloom and its perfume grew sweeter and
more complex as the minister quoted the words of consolation and promise the young woman had written so many years ago when
she learned of her fiancé’s tragic accident.
The casket remained closed but Glad and I and the funeral director knew that Rainie
wore the walnut arm. As Glad and I walked away, I sensed the flower’s beckoning scent lingering on the air and stopped,
looking back at the green funeral tent across the lawn of flat graves where the workmen lowered the coffin with a crank.
“Ellen,” I whispered that night, before I went to sleep, “did
you try to reach me?”
There wasn’t any answer.
A week went by and I called the mortuary, to ask if the flower were still at the
cemetery. I had a police color photo of the flower, but I thought its fragrance might rekindle the dream of Ellen or trigger
The director himself had gone to the graveyard the day after the service. The
flower was so unusual that he thought it would be all right to take it home, to keep it alive for a few days as he studied
it. He intended to dry it and preserve the seeds, so he could propagate it. Botany was his hobby and he knew flowers pretty
But at Rainie’s fresh grave the blue flower was gone, someone had taken
it, sometimes children made collections for school.
After that I didn’t dream of Ellen or the flower again, my sleeping memory
couldn’t recall her words, only the wonderful reassuring atmosphere of the bedroom awash with star jasmine, when Ellen
appeared by the window’s blowing curtains in the silver moonlight.
“It’s all right,” I told her,
“you don’t have to answer.”
The blue flower was too beautiful and sweet for this life, for the blaring daylight
of hot streets and sidewalks and red murder scenes. And the dream of Ellen was finally a dream of the dead, who were forever
lost, more distant and silent than the English climber Wilson I’d read about in National Geographic, the brave mountaineer
packed for 60 years in the high Himalayan ice.
If there was another world beyond this earthly life, an impenetrable wall separated
the two, remembered voices of old loves couldn’t pass the iron door that swung one way only and slammed finally shut.
I put the picture away and forgot about Albert Rainie and the flower and whispered
secrets from beyond the grave as the air filled again with conifer and fern and my day thoughts returned to sparkling waters
and leaping trout—
On the 56th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, I felt crisp and new as I stepped
briskly from the taxi and entered the terminal alone, shorn of the phantoms who’d arrived in early March as the violent
city spouted blood. I checked my bags and placed my badge and gun and house keys in a plastic dish while I went through the
metal detector. I walked the tunnel to the loading gate, handed over my ticket, then out a door and along the cyclone fence
with my fishing gear under my arm.
The plane had arrived early and was already taking on passengers. A pool of businessmen
with briefcases, sport-shirted vacationers, women in shorts and straw hats, and a large man in fancy Western dress stood by
I glanced over my shoulder, looking for Glad, who, the story went, really had
been late to his own wedding.
“Phil! I was getting antsy you’d miss the flight—”
I stepped back, for a second sure that a new visitor spoke, the Angel of Death
relieved that I hadn’t escaped my appointment—
Then the familiar voice registered and I felt a wave of welcome surprise, a rare,
full-bodied laugh blooming and instantly dying in my chest.
“I’ve been looking all over.”
In expensive ostrich-leather cowboy boots, wide black Stetson, Western-cut tan
sports coat, a white shirt with pearl buttons and green piping and a bolo tie, tooled belt, and outsized silver buckle encrusted
with a bronze lasso over two cocked Colt .45’s, Glad resembled a young Gene Autry and made a vivid contrast to my summer
We waited to board from the hot tarmac.
“It’s what they wear up there—”
I shook my head.
“You watch,” Glad said as we settled in our seats, pulling at his
hat brim so it nearly covered his nose. “You’ll be odd man out.”
People looked over at us, but as the plane took off, then dipped a wing and banked,
climbing with ease above the smog-bound city, I felt immediate relief. The random glint of a warehouse roof or parking lot
signaled a murder or vicious assault about to take place, and North Fresno’s ten thousand swimming pools of the rich
formed ironic dashes and dots of a foreign code I no longer needed to decipher.
Tentacles of new subdivisions reached to claim tracts of vineyard and orchard
planted in neat rows, and I could see the next section of field that would fall. The green squares of farmland, the great
San Joaquin, looked gray through the dirty air.
Ten minutes later, I stared down at the brown and scanty pine forests of the Sierra
Nevada and felt shock, then a pang of comfort that Ellen wasn’t alive to mourn her beloved mountains.
“We’re out of it,” Glad said. He looked out my window, his black
hat on his lap.
“Just in time,” I said, taking in the sick woods and slopes of dry
The plane cleared the tree line and the wall of granite peaks and began to cross
the Great Basin. The Nevada desert was a tonic, the wasteland intact and empty and dry. I absorbed the pristine desolation
of pale rock and sage as Glad talked about Montana and all the things we would do.
“Fishing, Phil, and campfires. No city lights. No smog. We’ll see
“We’re on assignment,” I reminded Glad, “it’s not
“No, you’re right, Phil—”
Glad nodded off and I watched the parched land for half an hour, then the rippled
surface of the blue inland sea, the spreading veins of coffee-colored brine, the white shore and specks of circling gulls,
then greenery again and the temple as we set down before the wall of Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake.
“This Clarksville?” Glad said, sitting up, blinking sleepily at the
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Wake me when we get there.” Glad closed his eyes again and was asleep.
I waited with interest and building excitement, sipping a Scotch and water. The
plane took on new passengers and rose again, straight north for the Rockies and blue lakes I’d dreamed of for a month
as I cast my line through the thin clean air before I woke and drove to headquarters.
The approaching outline of high ranges lit the horizon. Pines and quaking aspen
mantled the shoulders that narrowed toward steep slides of scree, below the scattered snowfields and the gray glacier-streaked
Raw granite scarps 100-acres wide notched the sky with sheer faces and pinnacles
and shaded flanks like the moon’s dark side. Each sharp crag cast a cold shadow and appeared its own K-2, a twisted
stone cypress shaped by agonizing winds.
Ten million years of ice had cut the ridges into giant shards whose razor edges
threatened the eye and made my fingers close across my palm.
Unexpectedly I shivered, a cord cinching tight in my shoulder, now my neck as
the bare formations passed 4,000 feet below. Something chill raced down my side, I realized my hands were moist.
My pulse beat at my throat as I placed the plastic glass on the tray and tried
suddenly to catch my breath—
It was silly but the looming nakedness of the peaks terrified me.
The dead jutting rock glared up inhuman and obscene, jabbing the blue air.
No lichen or moss or blade of grass would venture near the Earth’s upraised
splintered dinosaur bones. The shattered towers stood like abandoned nameless tombstones of dead gods, then the awful gods
themselves, cracked and turned to stone—
Each cleft and minaret, ancient ledge and jagged crown—I saw them all.
I stared through fresh icy waves of anxiety past the jet’s wing—hypnotized
by spires in a row that resembled honed incisors, for killing and tearing, the satisfaction of a cannibal’s hunger that
would end only with the end of all things—as I forgot the day and year and my destination—
I’d felt the same paranoia before, on a night transpolar flight three weeks
after Ellen’s death. I was on my way to Paris, to see the paintings Ellen loved, to look for her strolling ghost in
some dark museum like a church.
As I neared the top of the world I watched the endless waste of ice and pines
whose white silence reigned forever absolute, unbroken by the beating of a human heart. The world of snow had its own slow
pulse, I could smell its frozen scentless breath, see in the North’s eternal winter what Ahab saw in the breaching blank
face of the whale, for a flash glimpsed Rockwell Kent’s woodcut of the maddened one-legged captain and the monster in
Ellen’s copy of Moby Dick.
Life had never promised love or calm, but only opened into another hollow aspect
of itself, death and death and death and death, a series of empty white Chinese boxes.
I hunched in my seat, trembling and gripping the arm rests as I fought the impulse to run for the
emergency exit, pull the latch and jump—
Now directly below, one pillar like a broken femur became the sniper’s tower
in Austin—from his perch the former Marine and Eagle Scout chose his targets as I swam and laughed a mile away with
Randy Cochran at Reimer’s Park.
The bleached remains of Whitman’s victims—my policeman father and
Lisa Barlow and the 14 others—lay scattered at the tower’s base, the wide shelf of split boulders sleeping whitely
in the sun.
I blinked, then saw the glinting aluminum was real and not an hallucination, a
rigged snapshot of my panic. The still-shiny plane lay in three silver pieces across the snow-spotted stone field.
“XJ417,” read the black numerals on the uncrumpled wing.
The twin-engine plane was like the body of Wilson on Everest. Every ten years
or so, snow blew from his unburied frosted corpse and he was rediscovered by a climbing party that passed him on the way to
Now Weldon Kees whispered at my ear, leaning forward from the seat behind me as
I surveyed the wreck, half-searching for survivors:
“The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water,
And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his
Love . . . .
The pilot’s relief on landing is no release . . . .
The world, like a beast impatient and quick,
Waits only for those that are dead . . . .”
“Earth,” “Nature,” “God,” they were the same,
just different names for “El Loco.” I could read the tattooed word on Chico Peña’s neck as he fingered Heraldo
Vasquez’s horse-head wallet.
Dr. Edwards spoke:
“‘Say there is a devil or an evil god, with a body and face and hands
like ours,’ a patient told me once, a wealthy trial attorney who was certain all his clients were guilty. ‘On
one long finger he wears this ring. It flickers bright and dark, our night and day—’”
But now I noticed that the light in the cabin had shifted, just as I was ready
to jump up and go sit in the restroom away from the windows.
The sky out the porthole seemed softer, almost rosy, as if lit from below. Warm
sun fell across my tensed arm. Beyond a far crest I could see a vast basin brimming with light.
I breathed deeply, sitting back as I glanced again at the jet’s frail shadow
crossing the sculpted turrets.
The summits fell away toward gently sloping hills and open valleys and I felt
myself drawn closer, as if toward an embrace. Watching the green land unroll, I thought of Ellen, who had loved all sentient
and non-sentient things, the flowers and grasses and hand-like summer leaves she had sketched or painted in her watercolors.
How intently she could observe the smallest bird, describe in minutest detail
a striped hood or splash of color. In her hands rocks came alive as she showed me a vein of greenish-blue, some striation
that by its beauty suggested a hidden, deeper grace.
“Look, Phil, it’s like a mirror.”
It was as if all things existing in the world, each pebble or feather, bud or
bright leaf, were a reflection of something beyond sight. I had been blind and she had made me see, and the more I saw the
more life became a mysterious hope and opportunity.
Ellen placed a furry seed or blue robin’s egg in my open palm and I had
known that it was impossible to die.
“I want your lips upon my lips, your mouth
Upon my breasts, again, again, again, again;
I want the morning filled with sun.”
Past Ellen’s reflection in the heavy glass, I watched a blue and winding
river that found its way through a lush-looking arroyo like a living vein flowing toward the heart of something. Again I remembered
the Blue Flower Case and the circles of large petals around the flower’s eye-like center the color of water.
“Fly-fished late September,” I whispered to Ellen, “upper Kings.
You drew the purple flowers along the shore. I waded upstream, admiring you—”
“I was painting the blue flower. I had to include the cloud of bumblebees.
The flower was so sweet they had to have it. Can you smell it?”
“Yes, Ellen, I can—”
The stewardess stretched across Glad to offer packets of salted almonds and I
realized I had talked out loud, to answer Ellen. She’d softly spoken the words from Kees’ “Girl At Midnight,”
before alerting me to the blue flower’s scent.
The gold-flecked eyes in the pretty made-up face gazed into mine, gauging, trying
to make some professional judgment.
“Thank you,” I managed, quickly reaching for one of the colored foil
She pulled back and moved slowly up the aisle with her tray, turning twice to
stare again into my face.
“Who cares what the living think?” Ellen asked. “What does she
I looked down through my window, watching a valley of green alfalfa, the yellow
hay rolled in little stacks like loaves.
“Not so much,” I whispered, for Ellen’s sake, as I tasted the
spicy almonds on my tongue and the tang of a final botched intimacy.