My own (un)favorites are the women who write as if they understand men. I know, I know. The big story is supposed to be that men don’t understand women. Sadly, we mostly do. I can understand all kinds of women except the ones who are worthwhile. Those few are cause for endless rumination. The ones I particularly don’t like are the ones who regard themselves as philosophers. Women make terrible philosophers. When they try, they turn out to be fanatics, nihilists, or sociopaths. Then there are the ones who don’t see themselves as philosophers. The realm of the good ones, the best of all of us. They do what they think is right without regard to who said anything. But it’s also the realm of the precious and perniciously mundane. The ones who think the obliviousness of men is a sign of spiritual weakness.
Some of these are the women who think they are writers. Of this lamentable group, the most baffling (apart from the Brontes and Willa Cather — and don’t even get me started on Margaret Mitchell) are those who presume to write mysteries. As if they were somehow solving life. Not gonna happen. But they insist on making the same mistakes again and again.
The ones who think adjectives ensure verisimilitude.
Solving the mystery of life takes close observation.
‘D’ is for Description
She was waiting for me in the office, which is on the second floor of a large yellow brick insurance building with concrete floors covered in the kind of tan linoleum that has blue flecks which always make it look in need of a thorough washing. She was sitting in the black metal chair in front of my scarred gray-green metal desk, and she was wearing a bulky, pinkish sweater made of acrylic or something that pills like acrylic. She couldn’t have been over twenty-four-and-a-half, but her hair was died the color of the background on the can of tomato paste of the brand that everybody buys, and I could tell that she had dressed in a hurry because her left sock, a dark off-navy knit, was still inside out so that you could see the seam above the edge of her green and ecru Nike sneakers.
“Are you Kelsey Dogbone?” she asked. Her voice was buttery but not real butter, more like the hot drippy fatty stuff they give you on popcorn at the movie theater.
“Yes,” I said. It was true. I’ve been a private detective so long I tend to forget it, but I still look exactly like Kelsey Dogbone, which means I have short dark hair, a neat little face that’s maybe more sexy than pretty or so I‘ve been told, and I dress in a cool no-nonsense fashion, very casual and unadorned, except for the little black dress I keep wadded up in the back of my battered, old, fawn-colored Volkswagen, so that if I have to I can whip it out of the trunk, wriggle into it in the back seat and, with the aid of an attractive silk scarf somebody gave me, emerge looking fit to attend a formal dinner or the christening of a thirty-five five foot fiberglass twin-screw yacht.
“I need you to find out who killed my sister,” she said.
“Your name?” I asked, because I always like to do things in order, one thing after another thing, until the end of the book.
“Mabel Underman,” she said. “My sister’s name was Norma. She died last week and I think her boyfriend killed her. His name is Mike Nutty. He lives at 657 Newborn Road beside the old gas station that used to be a Shell but now it’s a Sunoco.”
“Those were my second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth questions,” I told her. “Who do the police think did it?”
She looked at me with eyes the color of that corduroy upholstery they use on Barcaloungers, kind of a cold blue but when you turn to a different angle, it’s more of a weak sea green. They were sad eyes, like someone who had recently lost a sister before her time. I was starting to feel for her. I try to keep things professional, but when I get on a case I just go and go and go and go, and I could feel that starting with me now, on this case.
“They think she died from choking on a stale roll at the diner,” she said.
“Which diner?” I can’t help it if I’m abrupt. I was raised by my grandmother and she was abrupt too. “Don’t waste time yakking when you could be taking in the furnishings,” she always told me.
Mabel was trying to remember the name of the diner. “I can’t remember the name of it,” she said. “But it’s the one on Route 68 with the stiff plastic curtains that have blue flowers on them, not roses, but more like peonies, only they’re blue and peonies are pink, of course.”
“I’m on my way,” I said. “I’ll call you.”
I left her sitting there because I was on the case now, and there was no time to interrupt my pursuit of the killer by saying goodbye to her or musing about facts that weren’t yet in my possession. She probably thought I was on the way to the diner, but my first stop was going to be Newborn Road, where if I was lucky I’d get a read on why Norma had died and whether Mike Nutty really was the killer.
It was a small bi-level with blue vinyl swirl-grained siding and a yard full of chickweed and dandelions that hadn’t been mowed for more than a week, which could have meant that he was in mourning or just lazy. His car was parked in the driveway, one of those brown, bean-shaped Japanese sedans that have chimes and voices that tell when you buckle to your seatbelt and lock the door.
The door was light green with three little square windows like stairsteps, as if aimed at different heights of callers. I got looked at in the middle one, because I’m not short though I’m not tall either, being more medium in height, which helps me fit in when I’m on a case. I could hear the deadbolt being drawn back, which could have been a sign that he didn’t want to be disturbed, perhaps by the police, even if they were still clinging to the stale roll theory, although, after I got done taking a look at Mike I planned to get some inside information from my friend in the police department, who wants me even though he’s married, which is a shame because I want him too, and his marriage is one of those on-again off-again enigmas that had burned me more than once, because even though I’d never admit it to my old grandmother, I did sleep with him once and I’ve described it elsewhere, maybe in “B is for Boring,” but let me tell you it was really hot, with lots of metaphors and heavings and, as I stood in the entry of the bi-level remembering, I could see that Mike wanted me too, which was bad luck for him because mostly I don’t think about sex or men at all, especially when I’m on a case, and hardly ever any other time either, because I’m a professional, and I have to look at suspects and witnesses with a detached eye.
He was a tall slim-waisted male with no shirt on and a pair of shorts that bulged in the front as if he were well endowed, which I wouldn’t notice as a rule, except that I’d had that momentary lapse thinking about Jim, my police friend, and now I couldn’t help noticing that Mike also had very well developed pectoral muscles, and bright white teeth, which has always been a thing with me, because I brush my teeth ten times a day, except when I’m on a case and all that’s available is one of those gas station sinks that have weeks of filth encrusted on them, and even then I’ll make do by buying a bottle of water and brushing my teeth in the car until I can do it right later. His legs were tan with firm but not too prominent thigh muscles and just the right amount of leg hair, because there’s nothing I dislike more than too much hair on the body, because even the thought of a man with a thick pelt of fur on his back makes me want to take a bath and withdraw for a week into the top bunk of the cute little doll-sized apartment I live in, next to the clean well-kept house of my old but still attractive landlord. But now it was time for me to resume my professional perspective and so I started taking in the house, from the entryway.
It was one of those bi-levels where you could see into every room from the front door. On my right was a large, beige-wallpapered sitting room or family room, if he had a family, which I doubted, because the curtains were the kind of neutral invisible pattern you get off the shelves at Walmart, and the wall-to-wall carpeting was the thickest available grade of shag, that shade of blue which initially seems electric but is really colder than that and paler, more like the blue of faded but not too faded jeans, and I don’t mean the professionally faded jeans that have designer labels but the jeans that you fade yourself by washing and wearing them a hundred times. Anyway, I didn’t think the neutral curtains or the blue shag or even the beige wallpaper were the interior design work of the kind of woman that Mike Nutty would marry, because that kind of woman would care about appearances, and she probably wouldn’t have bought the orange and green checked couch in front of the large Motorola television next to the fake Chippendale coffee table covered with old issues of Playboy and Soldier of Fortune, because the orange checks were huge, maybe six inches square, and they were that harsh bright hue that just screams “orange” at you so overwhelmingly that it turns any green into the color of pond algae, which wouldn’t bother a slab of beefcake like Mike but it would bother a woman, and I started to wonder if it had bothered Norma too.
“Hi,” Mike said. “I’m Mike. And you would be…?”
It had been only a moment since I had stepped inside the door but it seemed longer than that to me because there was so much to taken in all at once, the way a professional has to, like the brown and yellow-striped dinette area to the left, opposite the sitting room, where the blonde, poorly constructed, Swedish design dining furniture was a poor match for the Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
And the ones who think the perpetual disobedience to women of men is a mortal sin.
We’re supposed to accept the primacy of Me. Because I have feelings and you don’t.
I parked my expensive car in the parking lot and walked briskly into the stainless steel entry hallway of the pathology lab where there’s an office with my name on the door, Dr. Kat Scarlatti, ME. I had too much to do, and I hadn’t had a bite to eat for three weeks because when you’re the Medical Examiner for the City of Richland and you’re also a consulting pathologist on the Board of Forensic Pathologists for the Commonwealth of Vagina, you don’t have time for a private life, and it doesn’t even matter if you’re so beautiful and talented and elegant and cultured that you can get away with smoking cigarettes for several books—as long as you don’t overdo it—because it’s practically the only sensual enjoyment you get out of life, other than showing everyone how unfazed you are by the nude, raped, decapitated, decomposing bodies that lowlife foul-mouthed police detectives keep waking you up in the middle of the night to go see.
“Good morning Dr. Scarlatti,” said my secretary Midge. “I don’t know how you do it. I know you haven’t gotten any sleep in three and half months and you haven’t eaten in three days, but you still look unbelievably beautiful, and I just can’t stop being so impressed by the fact that you’re a woman and a beautiful one at that, and you have a medical degree and a law degree, and everybody in the lab calls you sir, and if women weren’t so much more mature than men, I’d probably be green with envy, because there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t rather be an eminent, brilliant pathologist than, say, a hack detective novelist who maybe didn’t even go to college but still likes to get her picture on the back cover looking as brainy as any pathologist, if you know what I mean.”
I could tell that Midge had already had her tenth cup of coffee for the day, even though it was five-thirty in the morning, but when you work in the ME’s office in Rich-land the day starts early, and if you are ME, it doesn’t end until at least sixty people have told you how beautiful and brilliant you are. It was time for me to get busy.
Out in the corridor I could hear the wheels of a gurney, no doubt bringing in a new, sad, pathetic, destroyed victim of the sick, twisted, sexually monstrous soul of some typical man, and so I gulped down two cups of coffee and smoked a cigarette on my way out to take a look. There in the hall, next to the gurney, stood Lieutenant Moroni, the only man who really is a fixture in my life, because he serves as such a good example of how men are… but I couldn’t think about that now because he was dying to tell me about the case. He looked terrible, like a man who hasn’t slept for several days, and he was just as overweight and balding and trashy looking as ever inside the cheap ugly wash-and-wear suit plainclothes policemen wear.
“Morning, Doc,” he said. “How the fuck are you this morning? Looks like you’re still as fucking brilliant and beautiful as ever, and I thought maybe you could help me solve this fucking case, which is really a fucking shame, because this poor fucking loser of a corpse has been raped and decapitated and left to decompose in a laundromat dryer for six fucking months. I’ve got to find the motherfucking motherfucker who did this and tear his motherfucking head off. What do you think?”
I was thinking there was no chance I’d be getting to the wedding that afternoon of my niece, who is almost as beautiful and brilliant as I am, except that she’s marrying her college professor, who is brilliant but not beautiful and bears more of a resemblance to Janet Reno than she does to me, Dr. Kat Scarlatti. My niece, whose name I can remember by concentrating over a cigarette or two, would be very disappointed. But she also knows that when you’re the Medical Examiner of the City of Richland, weddings have to take second place.
“Phone for you,” Midge told me. “It’s Boris Evil, the Chief Administrator of the Board of Pathology of the Commonwealth of Vagina.”
I knew there was something wrong. Boris never calls me except when he’s found some way to make me a suspect in one of the murders of the nude, raped, decapitated corpses that make up my life.
“Hello,” I said to Boris, smoking three cigarettes and gulping a quick half dozen cups of coffee.
“Where were you last night?” he asked me over the phone. “Where were you six months ago when that dead, nude, decapitated hooker was being stuffed in the dryer at the laundromat?”
I sighed. The suspicion I’d had since coming into the office had just been borne out. I was at the beginning of another incredibly long book, and we wouldn’t be done until Lieutenant Moroni had said “fuck” another twenty-six thousand times. I lit a cigarette and arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
We didn’t get to the intellectuals, did we? Life is awful, unfair, and irrational because women menstruate and men have all the poetic talent. Which means that nothing means anything and while it’s still important to be British, it’s a locked-in requirement to hate life itself. God Save the Queen.
Ooh, shiver. Men are, ugh, oh so thoroughly, ugh, men. And while women can can get inside their heads and write their thoughts, we can’t be chided for hating their impotent retarded thoughts. May the peace which passeth all understanding be upon you…
The little girl named Sally walked the three miles from school every day, across the bleak yellow wasteland which had once been fields but were now little more than the wide, unhealed scar of a strip mine. A mile-and-a-half into her journey stood the one tree which had struggled futilely out of the raped soil to put forth a handful of leaves that turned yellow and fell off almost immediately, as if sickened by the land itself. The tree was the one milestone Sally looked forward to, and she had acquired the habit of counting the number of footsteps to the tree, and then from the tree to the featureless granite cottage where her mother listlessly waited to give her a joyless greeting. The number of steps to the tree was usually between three thousand-one-hundred-nine and three thousand-one-hundred-thirteen. If anyone had counted as Sally had in her doomed young life, they would have found her body at step number three thousand-one-hundred-seventeen. As it was, the Constable wrote down that he had found the body of the strangled schoolgirl at a distance of about ten feet from a dying aspen tree. Her mother didn’t weep when they told her, but she made a dry, hacking, empty sound in her throat that could have been a sob.
Inspector Alan Dogleash of Scotland Yard stared gloomily out the window of his office. The view was drably anonymous, as if the slate-colored modern building to the north had no name or sponsor but had merely appeared one day, like some appropriate fungus of technology. Pedestrians and cars passed in front of its facade without looking, as if they knew it had no identity and could not look to it for affirmation of their own. The inspector thought of the first line of a new poem, so cheerless and grey that it needed to be written down at once, and he was in the act of looking for a pencil when his secretary told him about the request for assistance from Minetown, the barren industrial city where he normally took his holidays.
“What did they say?” he asked, trying to remember the fugitive line of verse before it escaped into the mildewed dungeon of his unconscious.
“They requested assistance,” said Mrs. Awful with some asperity. She regarded all questioning as interrogation and beneath her. “They said they could probably solve it themselves but they’re all too tired and they’re still getting used to their new anti-depressant medication.”
Dogleash sighed. Minetown would be the perfect break in his routine. He had never known any place more destitute of beauty and hope. Perhaps he could extract another book of poetry from the experience.
Constable Down greeted Dogleash with polite uninterest and told him the details, such as they were, over a cup of black, astonishingly bitter tea. There was a fireplace in Down’s office, and its small flame crackled mirthlessly in the grate, warming neither the room nor the toneless voice of the constable.
“She had been strangled with her own knee sock,” Down reported. “No sign of a struggle. And there should have been. The ground there is always muddy, and it’s a clay mixture that retains its shape for quite a time. I’ve tried to think what that might mean, but I don’t have the energy. Do you want a scone?”
“No,” Dogleash replied, absently.
“Good,” said Down. “I’m out of scones. Haven’t had any scones for months.”
“What about the mother?” Dogleash asked. “Did she have any ideas?”
“I haven’t seen her yet,” Down said. “I was waiting for you brainy blokes from Scotland Yard.”
Dogleash sighed, and then, just to do something different, he yawned.
The granite cottage where Sally’s mother lived had been built twelve thousand years before, and the only improvements that had been made since then were the addition of a cheap single-pane window, a wireless in the sitting room, and a trio of small ugly appliances in the kitchen.
“Do you want a scone?” asked Mrs. Crap.
“No,” Dogleash replied, absently.
“I’d love a scone,” Down offered, with unusual vigor.
“Don’t have any,” Mrs. Crap told him, as if she, too, had been sconeless for months.
“Did Sally say anything unusual the week before?” asked Dogleash.
“The week before what?” Mrs. Crap looked dully bewildered.
“The week before the murder,” Dogleash said, gently.
“Oh. She said she didn’t know what it was all about.”
“Oh that,” said Constable Down. “That’s nothing.”
Dogleash wondered if it was really nothing. It was true that all the people he knew and all the people he ran into on and off duty were always thinking about life, and how miserable and pointless and tedious and unbearable it was, but he couldn’t quite remember if little girls spent their time engaged in such thoughts. Weren’t they somehow involved with dolls, and dress-up, and little-girl pursuits like that? He put the question to Mrs. Crap.
“Not Sally,” said her mother. “The only thing she ever talked about was life. She said she supposed life might be worthwhile to some people, but she knew she was English, and so the only thing she could do with her life was try to figure out exactly how bleak it was, in the most excruciating possible detail, for sixty or seventy years, unless some merciful stranger would do her the favour of strangling her with one of her own knee socks.”
“You’re right,” Dogleash conceded. “It was nothing.” Sally had been, after all, a typical, ordinary girl, and there would be no sudden break in this case. It would unfold like all other cases, for hundreds of pages of cheerless fires, soporific conversations over tepid cups of tea, and thousands of incredibly depressing British innuendoes about the pure suffocating meaninglessness of it all—in short, the whole long drawn-out routine that had made his crime-solving exploits so popular throughout the English-speaking world. Well, he supposed it was time to get on with it. He thanked Mrs. Crap and Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
…and remain with you always. Dux femina facta. But why?
The exception. But there’s always an exception. Why the mirror is always crack’d.
As you were, ladies. I’m just having my fun on a sunny Saturday morning. We’re going camping later. No wonder I’m rebelling.