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Page 8

THE NEXT MORNING, on a whim, I went to Peachtree Leisure Apartments, a sort of independent old folks' home, as Neecy Dawson had so cheerfully pointed out. I'd been there before to visit various people, but not in a long time. There'd been a few changes. Before, there'd been a directory in the large lobby, and you could just walk in and take the elevator to the floor you needed. Now, there was a very large black man with a narrow mustache seated at a desk, and the directory was gone. There was a television camera pointed from one corner that embraced almost the whole lobby area.

"They was getting robbed," the man explained when I asked about the change. "People was coming in here, reading a name and apartment number, and just wandering through the building till they found who they wanted. They'd sell them magazines the old people didn't need, if they thought the old person was senile enough, or they'd just rob them if the old folks were feeble. So now I am here. And at night, from five until eleven, there's another man. Now, who did you come to see?"

Somewhat shaken at this picture he painted of wolves roaming the halls in Peachtree Leisure Apartments, I told him I'd come to see Mrs. Melba Totino. "She expecting you, Miss?"

"Mrs. No, Ms." What was I going to call myself? He was eyeing me warily. "No, Mrs. Totino isn't expecting me. I just came to thank her for the wedding present."

"She gave you something?" The brown eyes widened in a burlesque of surprise.

"You must be a friend."

"I take it this is unusual?"

But after his little joke, he wasn't going to say anything else.

"I'll call her, if you just wait a minute," he said. He picked up the phone, dialed, and told Melba Totino about my presence in the lobby. She would see me.

"Go on up," he said. "She don't get too many visitors." The elevator smelled like a doctor's office, like rubbing alcohol and disinfectant and cold steel. The guard had told me there was a physician's assistant actually in residence; and of course a doctor on call. There was a cafeteria in the building for those who "enrolled" for that service, and groceries could be delivered from one of the local stores. Everything was very clean, and the lobby had been dotted with old people who at least looked alert and comfortable, if not exactly happy. I supposed, if you couldn't live entirely on your own, this would be a good place to live. Mrs. Totino's apartment was on the third floor. I could tell by the spacing of the doors that some apartments were larger than others. Hers was one of the small ones. I knocked, and the door swung open almost before I could remove my hand.

I could look her straight in the eyes, so she wasn't more then five feet tall. Her eyes were dark brown, sunk in wrinkles that were themselves blotched with age spots. She had a large nose and a small mouth. Her wispy white hair was escaping from a small bun on the back of her head. She wore no glasses, which surprised me. Her ludicrously cheerful yellow and orange striped dress was covered with a gray sweater and the air that rushed out smelled strongly of air freshener, talcum powder, and cooking.

"Yes?" Her voice was deep and pleasant, not shaky as I'd expected.

"I'm Aurora Teagarden, Mrs. Totino."

"That's what Duncan said. Now, what kind of name is Duncan for a black man? I ask you." And she backed into her apartment to indicate I should enter. "I asked him that, too," she said with great amusement at her own daring. "I said, 'I never knew no black man called Duncan before.' He said, 'What you think I should be called, Miz Totino? LeRoy?' That Duncan! I laughed and laughed." Who-wee, what a knee-slapper. I bet Duncan had thought so, too.

"Have a seat, have a seat."

I looked around me nervously. There were seats to be had, but everything was so busy I wasn't sure if they were occupied or not. The sofa and matching chair were violently flowered in orange and brown and cream. The table between the chair and the sofa contained a TV Guide, the ugliest lamp in the universe, a red-and-white glass dish containing hard candy, a pair of reading glasses, a box of Kleenex, and a stunningly sentimental figurine of a little girl with big eyes petting a cuddly puppy with the legend across the base, "My Best Friend." I finally decided one of the couch cushions was empty and lowered myself gingerly down.

"This apartment building is very nice," I offered. "Oh, yes, the new security makes all the difference in the world! Can I get you a cup of coffee? I'm afraid I only have instant decaffeinated." Then why have coffee at all? "No, thank you."

"Or a - Coke? I think I have a Coke stuck in the refrigerator."

"Okay, thanks."

She walked bent over, and haltingly. In the jammed tiny room there were two doorways, one at the rear left leading into the kitchen and one at the right into the bedroom. I heard the sounds of fumbling and muttering in the kitchen and took the chance to look around me.

The walls were covered with doodads of every description. Gold-tone butterflies in a group of three, one rather pretty painting of a bowl of flowers, two awful prints of cherubic children being sweet with cute animals, a straw basket holding dried flowers that looked extremely dusty, a plaque with The Serenity Prayer... I began to feel dazed at the multitude of things that presented themselves for inspection. I thought of all the room in our house and felt a stir of guilt.

Then the television caught my attention. All this time it had been on, but I had not paid any attention to the picture. I realized now that the scene I was seeing was the apartment building lobby. An old man with a walker moved slowly across the screen as I watched. Good Lord. I wondered if many of the residents chose to watch life in their lobby.

Mrs. Totino tottered back into the room with a glass of Coke and ice clutched in her shaking hand. The ice was tinkling against the glass with a quick tempo that was distinctly nerve-wracking.

"Did you like the placemats?" Mrs. Totino asked suddenly and loudly.

We negotiated the transfer of the Coke from her hand to mine.

"I've never seen any like them," I said sincerely. "Now, I know you won't be offended when I tell you that they were wedding presents for T.C. and Hope. They'd been packed away in a drawer for these many years, and I thought, why not let someone else enjoy them? And they've never been used - it's not like I gave you a used gift!" "Recycled," I suggested.

"Right, right. Everything's this recycling now! I recycled them." I had hoped to see a picture of the Julius family, but in all this clutter, there were only two photographs, in a double frame balanced precariously on the television set. Both photographs were very old. One showed a stern small woman with dark hair and eyes standing stiffly beside a somewhat taller man with lighter hair and a thin-lipped shy face. They were wearing clothes dating from somewhere around the twenties, I thought. In the other picture, two girls who strongly resembled each other, one about ten and the other perhaps twelve, hugged each other and smiled fixedly at the camera. "Me and my sister, her name's Alicia Manigault, isn't that a pretty name?" Mrs. Totino said fondly. "I've always hated my name, Melba. And the other picture is the only one ever taken of my parents."

"Your sister is still... does she live close?"

"New Orleans," Mrs. Totino said. "She has a little house in Metairie, that's right by New Orleans." She sighed heavily.

"New Orleans is a beautiful place, I envy her. She never wants to come see me. I go there every now and then. Just to see the city." I wondered why she didn't just move. "You have relatives here now, Mrs. Totino?"

"No, not since... not since the tragedy. Of course you know about that."

I nodded, feeling definitely self-conscious.

"Yet you bought the house, or your husband bought it for you, I understand from Mr. Sewell."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You aren't scared? Other people backed down from buying it at the last minute."

"It's a beautiful house."

"Not haunted, is it? I don't believe in that stuff," said Mrs. Totino robustly. I looked surreptitiously for a place to deposit my glass. The Coke was flatter than a penny on a railroad track.

"I don't either."

"When that lawyer with the stupid name called to say someone really wanted to buy it, and he said it was a couple about to be married, I thought, I'll just send them a little something... after all these years, the house will be lived in again. What kind of shape was it in?"

So I told her about that, and she asked me questions, and I answered her, and all the while she never talked about what I was most interested in. Granted, the disappearance of her daughter, her granddaughter, and her son-in-law had to have been dreadful, but you would think she would mention it. Aside from that stiff reference to "the tragedy" she didn't bring it up. Of course she was most interested in changes we had made to the apartment over the garage, the one built for her, the one she'd inhabited such a short time. Then she moved to the house, conversationally. Had we repainted? Yes, I told her. Had we reroofed? No, I told her, the real estate agent had ascertained that Mr. Julius had had a new roof put on when he bought the house.

"He came here to be near relatives?" I asked carefully. "His relatives," she said with a sniff. "His aunt Essie never had any children, so when he retired from the Army, he and Charity moved here to be close to her. He'd saved for years to start his own business, doing additions onto houses, carpentry work, stuff he'd always wanted to do. He could have gone anywhere he wanted, but he picked here," she said gloomily. "And asked you to live with them?"

"Yes," she admitted. "Want some more Coke? There's half a can left in the kitchen. No? Yes, they had figured out how they could add an apartment on the garage. Didn't want me in the house with 'em. So I moved from New Orleans - I'd been sharing a place with my sister - and came up here. Left her down there." She shook her head. "Then this all happened."

"So," I said, about to ask something very nosy but unable to stop myself, "why did you stay?"

"Why?" she repeated blankly.

"After they disappeared. Why did you stay?"

"Oh," she said with comprehension. "I get you. I stayed here in case they turned up."

"Don't you think that's kind of eerie, Martin?" I asked that night, as he put away the leftovers and I washed the dishes.

"Eerie? Sentimental, maybe. They're obviously not going to turn up alive, after all these years."

I recalled the saccharine pictures in the apartment, the figurine. All very sentimental. "Maybe so," I conceded reluctantly. "Did you see that Angel and I had rearranged the living room?" I asked after a moment. I squeezed out my sponge and pulled the plug. The sink water drained out with a big gurgle, like a dragon drinking water. "It looks good. I think the gallery table Jane left you needs some work, though.

One of the legs is loose."

"I think maybe you'd better tell me about the Young-bloods, Martin."

"I told you, Shelby needed a job..."

I gathered my courage. "No, Martin, tell me really." He was hanging up the dishtowel on a rack mounted beside the sink. He got it exactly straight.

"I wondered when you were going to ask," he said finally.

"I wondered when you were going to tell."

He turned to face me and leaned against the counter. I leaned against the one at right angles to him. I crossed my arms across my chest. His sleeves were rolled up and his tie was loosened. He crossed his arms across his chest, too. I wondered what a body-language expert would make of this. "Are the Youngbloods my jailers? Are they here to keep an eye on me?" I thought I'd lead off with the most obvious question.

Martin swallowed. My heart was pounding as if I'd been running.

"I knew Shelby in Vietnam," he began. "He helped me get through it."

I nodded, just to show I was registering this information. "After the war... after our part of the war ... I'd met some intelligence people in Vietnam. I spoke some Spanish already, and so did Shelby. We had some Hispanic guys in our unit and we spoke Spanish with them, got a lot better. It was something to do."

Martin's knuckles were white as he gripped his crossed arms. "So, after we left Nam, we left the Army but we signed on with another company that was really the government."

"You were asked?"

"Yes." His eyes met mine for the first time, the pale brown eyes edged with black lashes and brows that were Martin's most immediately striking feature. "We were asked. And in our - working with us, was Jimmy Dell Dunn, a swamp boy from Florida who'd grown up next to some exiled Cubans. His Spanish was even better than ours." Martin half-smiled and shook his head at some fleeting memory of a time and place I couldn't even imagine.

"What we did was," he resumed, "sell guns. Really, we were giving them away. But it was supposed to seem like we were an independent company selling them. What can I say, Roe? I thought, at least at the beginning, that I was doing something good for my country. I never made any personal profit. But it's become harder and harder to know who the good guys are." He was looking out the window into the night. I wondered if the Youngbloods could look outside the side window of their apartment and down into our kitchen. I could not move to draw the curtain. And Martin had his own private view of darkness. Guns. Guns were better than drugs. Right? Of course with all Martin's trips to South America, I had been worried Martin's pirate side had led him into the dangerous and lucrative drug trade, though Martin had often expressed profound contempt for those who used drugs and those who sold them. Guns were better. "And we delivered them, in some very remote places, to right- wing groups. Some of these people were okay, some were crazy. They were all very tough. A few were just -  bandits."

I pulled my glasses off and rubbed my eyes with my hand. I had a headache. I put them back on and pushed them up on my nose with a ringer. I stared past Martin's arm. I needed to get some Bon Ami and really scrub that sink. "And one day - it was about midmorning, we were up in the Chama Mountains ... we were making a delivery to one of the better guys. Out of nowhere, we were ambushed by another group who'd heard somehow about the delivery. I got the scar on my shoulder, Shelby got a worse wound in the leg. And Jimmy Dell got his head blown off."

I took in my breath quickly. I was married to man who had witnessed this barbarity, this horror, had been part of it. I began to shiver. I wanted this story over.

"Shelby and I got out of there, just barely. We had to leave Jimmy Dell, and he was our pilot. Shelby knew enough about the copter to get us out, though he was bleeding like a stuck pig. And then it took us a while to heal. We heard the group we were supposed to take the guns to were all dead before we got there. When we came back to the States, Shelby went to see Jimmy Dell's family in Florida. Jimmy Dell had been the oldest kid by far, and there were five more after him. The youngest one was Angel. She was too young then, Shelby thought, and Mr. Dunn surely thought so, too. So Shelby wandered for a while." And Martin had gone to stay on that isolated farm in Ohio with a man he hated, just to have a familiar place to recover. And while he was there, he hooked back up with Cindy. And they married. And he never told her this. Or not all of it. Ridiculously, I could not stop shivering.

"After a few years Shelby went back to Florida. Angel had gotten interested in martial arts in high school after something happened to her, and she got Shelby interested, too. They got married, and they began working as a team of bodyguards."

Gee, I wondered whom you would work for in southern Florida.

"But they didn't want to work for that kind." My face must have spoken for me. "So later, mostly they worked at the smaller movie studios up and down the East Coast, guarding people who were there temporarily. Some of the people were pretty famous." Martin attempted a smile. "And they did some stunts in karate movies, too. Their last job was for a woman who told Shelby she owed a lot of money to the wrong people.

"She didn't owe it, Roe." Martin looked directly at me. "She'd stolen it, and they found her. They let the Young-bloods live, but they gave them a beating they'd remember. Angel was in the hospital, still, when Shelby came up here to find me. In their line of work, you can't get insurance, and they were broke, and they needed to leave the area for a while. I'd been worried about you being out here by yourself when I was out of town, and the apartment being empty... you're shaking."

He came over to me in two steps, waited a moment to see if I would hit him if he touched me, then put his arms around me. I felt his heavy muscles encircle me, and I had the stray thought that the workouts I had attributed to a desire to stay fit and look good were actually aimed toward keeping him ready for self-defense. I lay my head against his thick chest and let some of the shaking be absorbed by him.

"So," he said to the top of my hair, almost in a whisper, "what's going to happen now?"

"I'm going to get some Bon Ami and scrub the sink." Martin held me away from him. He was angry. "I'll go in the family room and work until you feel like talking."

He left the kitchen through the hall door, his shoes making little noises on the hardwood as he crossed the hall.

I got the Bon Ami and a sponge with a rough scrubbing side, and set to work. I thought of a conversation I'd had with my mother. We'd been talking about love, and she'd said that women who stay with men who damage them have some deep need to be damaged; they can't possibly love the damager, that can't be the reason they stay. A woman with a strong sense of self-preservation will leave the bad relationship to save herself; the self-preservation will kill the love, so the individual will leave and be saved from further harm. My mother had cited herself: When my father had begun to be unfaithful, she had left, and she no longer loved him.

I loved Martin so much it made me catch my breath, sometimes. He had not told me the whole truth. I was going to stay. I had no idea what he was thinking, sitting there in our new room in our new house. I rinsed the Bon Ami out of the sink. It was gleaming. It had probably never been so clean in its entire existence.

I seemed unable to string a coherent chain of thought together. I was relieved beyond measure that it hadn't been drugs. I would have had to leave. Guns were bad. Could I live with guns? I could live with the guns. And why on earth had Martin fallen in love with me, anyway? It was like a mating between a Martian and a Venusian. I doubled over and put my head on my arms on the counter and began to cry.

Martin heard and came in. He hated it when I cried. He turned me around and held me, and this time I pressed against him, hard, as though I were trying to crawl inside his skin. After a few moments, this had the inevitable effect, even under the emotional circumstances. Martin moved restlessly, and I kept my arms wrapped around him and raised my face to his.

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