The Word Factory
CHAPTER 1 / D-E-A-D Dead
The phone rang at two-o’clock in the morning and it wasn’t the usual ring. It was a foreboding ring. Like the slow pealing of medieval church bells on a pea-soup-dark night. Deep. Melancholy. Ominous. Peter Edgehill of course answered cheerfully. The voice on the other end of phone said simply, “Peter, it’s me. Dad’s dead.”
Peter scratched his head and pushed the telephone receiver a little harder into his ear. “He’s what?”
“Dead, you idiot. I said D-E-A-D.”
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Peter’s sister, Morgan Pendergast. She didn’t sound hysterical. Or even very upset. She sounded annoyed, fidgety, anxious, uncertain.
“How?” Peter asked.
“He fell off of the damn boat. They can’t even find his body.”
“Then how do you know he’s dead?”
“Because he’s 68 years old, smokes 12 cigars a day, drinks a fifth of bourban a week and hasn’t been swimming in about 50 years,” Morgan said. “Do you think he’s out there treading water somewhere?”
”?” Peter thought. He lifted his glass of Organic Wine Works dry red Charbono 1996 and drained it. “Holy shit,” he said slowly, wearily. “Does Randall know?
“I can’t reach him All I get is his stupid machine. And I can never figure that thing out. I was hoping you’d tell him anyway.”
There was a long silence. “Shit.” Peter said again. ”Now what?”
“I don’t know. All I can – all I can think about is how dad always wanted us to be involved in that damn business, and none of us would. I feel like crying.”
So Morgan did.
They hung up the phone. Peter sat down on a chair in his living room and listened to the music that was trickling slowly out of the stereo. Alternapunk folkie music. Slow, razorblade acoustic guitar, voiced over by a throaty nasal twang. Like Bob Dylan on Quaaludes. Like Van Morrison being strangled.
Peter Edgehill was 32, a freelance photographer and journalist. He lived in a house just over the line from Venice Beach, California. The house was deliberately low-fi. Too many criminals, druggies and looney tunes wandering around to keep anything of real value in sight. The living room was furnished with orange vinyl 1960s-vintage chairs and a couch that Peter had purchased at a garage sale. The coffee table had pointy legs and a thin, brownish varnish with a squiggle border.
The walls were populated by the subjects of his photos -- dispossessed, aimless, down-on-their-luck types that passed through Peter’s frame of reference and were gone. There was one that haunted Peter. It was a girl of about 24, a young mother. She looked like country music sounded, with strawy hair, her eyes playing fiddle songs, her mouth lined with stretch marks, her nose exhaling cigarette smoke and gin fumes. All you could see of her daughter was an arm, a dirty hand, with a bead bracelet on the wrist. Whoa. How did her world implode?
One of Peter’s favorite wall decorations was a huge framed poster of Che Guevara. Not that Peter was a socialist, communist or even a revolutionary. But he liked Guevara‘s posturing. His predilection for guerilla warfare. Putting everything on the line for a cause.
Peter had a stereo and plenty of CDs. He kept them locked up in an old armoir that was placed against one of the walls. That way, in Peter’s mode of thinking, if anyone broke in, they’d only see an old freestanding clothes closet and ignore it. Peter got the CDs free. He wrote record reviews for Billboard Magazine and Goldmine, among others. Record labels sent him dozens each week. He reviewed some, kept the ones he liked, and sold the rest to a used CD store for cash.
Peter listened to the music and thought about trying to call his brother. How would he reach him? Even if he got him on the phone, how would he reach him? Earth to Randall. Earth to Randall.Come in Randall.
Randall was the kind of person who could do wonders with numbers, but could do nothing with anything else. Social life: zero. Personality: almost zero. Conversation: Earth to Randall. Come in Randall. But give him a 500 Mh computer and an Excel spreadsheet program and he was good to go. Give him CAD/CAM or give him death. For the rest of his life, however, he was in serious need of a chaperone.
Peter picked up the phone and dialed Morgan’s number. She must have been on the line talking to someone else. He zipped directly into her voice mail. “Hi, this is Morgan. I can’t take your call right now. If you’re calling to place an order, either leave the item numbers you want, or leave your number and I’ll call you back. Have a pretty day.”
“?” Peter thought. He listened to the beeps on the line, then the silence and didn’t say anything.
Morgan was, at 38 years old, at the peak of her career. She was one of the top saleswomen for Marcia Cray Cosmetics. She raked in thousands of dollars each year convincing people that the green eye shadow looked better than the blue, and you should order a case of it. She was so successful, that she won the coveted Marcia Cray purple Oldsmobile the year before. In fact, Marcia Cray purple was now her color of choice for everything. She wore purple clothes, carried a purple Louis Vitton purse, and even dyed her hair purple once. The purple hair actually went pretty well with the rest of her. Morgan was big, brassy, loud, persistent, and probably was better suited to sell real estate or tropical travel packages at a discount to white-skinned Midwestern couples looking for a winter getaway. There was nothing subtle about her.
Her apartment in Hot-lanta was a riot of purple, fuschia and mauve. Violet Karastan carpet. Wallpaper with purply flowers and giant petunia borders. There was a painting of plums in a wooden bowl; grapes hanging on the vine; a 1600-era Spanish soldier with a pith helmet looking off into the distance over a twirly mustache. Nothing purple in that painting, --she just liked the guy’s mustache.
Morgan had purple Fiestaware-style plates with purple coffee cups, and linen napkins that were light purple and carefully wrapped in napkin rings made with immitation amethyst inset. Morgan lived alone in her purple splendor since she kicked her husband, Booster, out of the house for running up a $4,000 tab on their Visa card one night, drinking and entertaining strippers at the Bahama Mama Gentlemen‘s Club over on Peachtree St.
This was much to the consternation of their six-year-old daughter Michelin. She was named after the tire, but her name was pronounced Meh-Kay-Lin., emphasis on the Kay. And for good reason too. When they were on their way to the hospital to deliver her, they had a flat tire. Booster worked feverishly to change it, and noticed the name while he was tightening lug nuts. Thought it sounded good as any other name.
Michelin was six going on sixteen. She seemed to be the adult in the family while her parents were the kids. She viewed their comings and goings with raised eyebrows; their ranting and raving with bemused detachment; and was prone to offering snide asides, huge sighs of exasperation and a cutting analysis of anything pertaining to them. She was a child philospopher of the most compelling sort.
Peter heard the end of Morgan’s voice mail message repeating in his ears Haveaprettyday, Haveaprettyday, Haveaprettyday,Haveaprettyday then it retreated into his consiousness as if he was sitting on the edge of a canyon listening to an echo. He hung up the phone and went back to his glass of Organic Wine Works dry red Charbono 1996, and tuned into the words and music warbling out of his stereo.
Despite deferring to Peter, Morgan was, right at that moment, talking to Randall. Talking at Randall was a better description. Randall was a man of few words. He was one of these people who would give you one-word answers for a while, then all of a sudden cut loose with a torrent of verbiage that could drown you. He wasn’t exactly getting the picture straight about what had just happened to his father.
”We’re still waiting for word from the Cleveland police department,” she said.
“From the police. You know -- those guys who wear blue, shoot guns, and arrest criminals?’
“The police, you idiot.”
Moran could hear the clickety click click of a computer keyboard working -- fingers no doubt entering obscure numbers designed to arrive at arcane statistics that would appear in yawning columns. Black numbers on white paper proving to some person or persons that a particular territory or business unit has cfreated 20 percent more profit than last quarter.
The one-word answers went on for awhile, Then ....
“But how could even be on a boat at that moment,” Randall said. “The waves were at three feet, the boat couldn’t have traveling any more than 2 knots and frankly all of the barometer readings would have been haywire.”
“Randall,” Morgan said “Quit trying to put this into perspective by reducing everything to numerical value. “Dad’s dead, his body is missing and we don’t know what to do next.”
“Can I make a suggestion?”
“Uh . . .”
“Oh, never mind. I’ll call you when I know something.” Morgan slammed down the phone and for a second thought about starting to smoke again. Instead, she stomped back to where Michelin was sleeping in her purple room, checked to see if she was OK, then padded into the bathroom, sat down in front of her vanity mirror, and proceeded to redo her make-up from top to bottom, staring wide-eyed into the mirror like a skunk caught in the headlights of a speeding purple Oldsmobile.
Randall Edghill liked numbers. Ever since he wasa boy