What makes a marriage of two decades begin to unravel? There are no simple answers.
Alex and Miriam met-cute at the famous Strand bookstore in Manhattan. It was love at first sight for both of them. Their marriage was blissful. They had a son. All wonderful.
But in every family there are secrets and lies, and theirs was no different.
An unloving father, The suicide of a beloved sibling. A hidden diary, revealing more secrets, An unknown sibling. A son who is gay and wants nothing more than to be on the stage. An unrewarding job. A lousy boss. A sexual predator. Suddenly a life going nowhere.
But there is something more. Alex is on a quest, not just for knowledge and truth. He wants desperately to be a good husband, a good father, a good son. He doesn’t know if he can achieve this but he knows he must try.
R. STEWART SAYS: Watch Out For Flat Tires–“From page one to the last page Riskin draws you through a murder by way of East Hampton, London, Paris, and back, with multiple characters and some question of double or feigned identities. Or make that more than one murder along the way, coke dealing, beautiful women. All this handled by Jake Wanderman, lovable guy with Brooklyn wit working for a friend of his because the man’s daughter is a suspect. It gets complicated. Then there’s Detective Nolan to whom Jake is attracted. Laced through the story is background information about Jake, making him all the more human and vulnerable, plus local color in the East Hampton and Sag Harbor scenes. It’s a page turner. Bet you can’t put it down, read right through.”
E. HANNIBAL SAYS: “Jake Wanderman is the most understatedly brilliant detective since Columbo, except the sleuth in the wrinkled raincoat was a paid professional and Jake is a crime-magnet in the disguise of an innocent bystander. A reluctant shamus, Jake’s a former English teacher with a Shakespeare jones who only wants to be let enjoy his retirement in salty Sag Harbor, but oh, no. Like you-know-what, Crime Happens and keeps pulling him back into action as a mystery solver extraordinaire.”
The rock had originally been in a plastic box obtained from an art supply store. She had mounted it on a piece of foam core and had typed its description on a 3×5 index card that she then taped to the top of the box. It was her proudest possession, always kept on the table next to her bed.
Clarice had checked into the Holiday Inn in Boston without any luggage. She had brought her rock with her. They found it placed carefully in the middle of the bed as if it were on display.
“It’s a piece of a meteor,” she had told him when he was little and he had, of course, believed her. She was his older sister. She knew everything and explained everything. “I found it once on a night when the moon was full. I wasn’t searching for it, how could I? I was just looking up at the heavens. And suddenly, there it was, at the foot of a tree, gleaming, shimmering, like a star. Actually, I like to think it found me.”
She had not taken off her coat when she went over to the window. She still had it on when she pushed the window open, stepped out, and went down fourteen stories.
He had just graduated from college and was working at the summer camp he’d gone to as a child when he heard what had happened. His parents were too overwrought to do the formal identification. He agreed to make the trip. The medical examiner had warned him it would be difficult. It was worse than difficult, worse than anything he could have imagined. There was a stench in the morgue that made him gag. When they drew back the sheet that covered her he felt his lips twisting in an attempt to keep from vomiting. Tears ran in a hot stream down his cheeks. Strangely, her face showed only a few bruises. With her eyes closed, he saw once again the extraordinary length of her lashes and remembered how fierce and dark her eyes were when she would tell him about the stars and how one could read the future in them. As he continued to look at her, she began to seem unreal, and he felt himself entering into some kind of transcendent state where he and his sister were together floating like astronauts in the darkness of outer space.
Later, he had listened to the speculation of others as to the meaning of what she had left on the bed in that hotel room, a riddle none of them had been able to solve. But he was quite sure he knew the answer to the riddle. It was that not even a part of a “heavenly body” had been enough to overcome what had been done to her. Even her beloved stars had failed her in the end.
His father died on a Friday. While his father had been anything but observant, Alex insisted that his mother follow Jewish tradition, having the funeral take place as quickly as possible, in this case a Sunday, the first day after the Sabbath. His mother had wanted no official mourning period, but Alex stayed home from work for three days. Even though he didn’t give a shit about his father he wanted his boss and the people who worked under him to know that he was a Jew and that he observed Jewish customs. He was the executive assistant to the boss of a factory that produced silver-plated hollowware, bowls, cups, candelabra. “Executive Assistant” was a fancy name for his job, which consisted of doing everything to run the factory but the selling. That was his boss’s job. Most of the factory workers were Latinos and probably Catholic. He thought they might lose respect for him if he came back to work right away.
The following Sunday, exactly a week after the funeral, Alex got a call from his mother saying she wanted him to come over to her house.
“If you’ve got the time.”
“Sure. I can do it. What’s this about?
“I’ll tell you when you get here,” she said.
His wife, Miriam, was at the kitchen table with the Sunday Times spread out in front of her.
“Anything interesting happening?” he asked.
“New York City is just about bankrupt. Abe Beame is trying to get the feds to help.”
“Good luck with that. Not with President Ford in charge.”
“Who was on the phone?”
“My mother. She wants me to come over,” he said.
“So?” She didn’t look up.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, still not looking up.
It did not surprise him that she continued reading the newspaper. It did not surprise him that she seemed to be enveloped in a chilled vapor, that her words were suspended in the air as if they were icicles. “See you later, then,” he said.
He walked out to the car feeling the tiny circle of pain in his chest. It was about the size of a dime, located just above the solar plexus. It had arrived one day without warning. He wasn’t sure when, but it was a long time ago so he knew it had nothing to do with his father. He’d just finished brushing his teeth and was rinsing the toothbrush when he first became aware of it. He’d thought it was indigestion so he chewed a couple of Tums. But the dull pain didn’t go away. It took a while before he came to the conclusion that it must have to do with what had been happening between him and Miriam. Their marriage, which he had always thought solid and enduring, had gradually changed, leaving behind this residue of persistent pain. He recognized it was similar to the ache he’d felt for at least a year after Clarice died.
He drove to his mother’s house in Valley Stream, to the block with its narrow lawns and its neat little Cape Cods on fifty by a hundred lots. Everyone in this neighborhood made a living with his hands. His father, a tool and die man, had been considered top dog, the bluest of the blue collars.
He still had a key to the house but rang the bell. He could hear the familiar dong-ding-dong, and then his mother opened the door and turned her head with the trim brown pageboy to the side so he could kiss her cheek.
She had kept her figure, colored her hair. She wore mourning black, but nevertheless looked chic. Gold dangled in circles from her ears, a necklace lay in an intricate pattern on her chest. He did not recall having seen that jewelry before.
He followed her into the kitchen and at a gesture from her, sat at the Formica table. Everything was the same as it had always been: the hard chairs, the round clock on the wall, the pale-yellow walls. He had grown up in this house; there wasn’t a room that didn’t have an echo.
There was a kettle on the stove, the water gurgling, the spout sending out puffs of steam, and the beginning of an eardrum hurting whistle. His mother lifted the kettle, changing the scream to a wail, and poured boiling water into pink and green flowered mugs already on the table, a teabag in each one.
“Two tea bags?” he asked. “You always used to use one for two cups.”
“Your father insisted on it. Now I use whatever I want.”
“What about electricity?” His voice changed, in mock imitation of his father: “You left the lights on again. Is your name The Electric Company?”
His mother did not smile. “Old habits are hard to break.”
There was a bowl of sugar on the table, another with packets of Sweet N’ Low, and a plate of oatmeal cookies which he knew had come out of a box. His mother had never baked and had made no secret of her desire to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. He could rarely remember the smell of cooking in the house. What remained in his memory was coming home from school—father at work, Clarice off on one of her shoplifting expeditions, mother out, and that empty feeling on finding the expected note. Dad says to clean up the yard. Will be home for dinner. Mother.
She put the kettle back on the stove. “Do you want milk? I know you sometimes take milk in your tea.” When he shook his head, she sat opposite him.
He took the teabag out of the mug, put it on his napkin, and stirred in a teaspoon of sugar. He sipped carefully. His father used to put in three spoons of sugar, then drink it down like water. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“As well as can be expected.”
This was how it had always been with his mother, always a strategic distance between them. She had called him for a reason, but he knew not to ask for the reason. He would wait for her to tell him.
His mother put her cup down and looked at him as if she were studying his face. “You don’t look well. You’re flushed. Do you have a fever?”
“No,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“I could always tell when you were getting sick,” she said. “Not that you got sick that often.”
Before he could restrain himself, he said, “You could always tell? I guess that’s when I was really little. I don’t remember you being around much to tell anything about me.”
“That’s not in the least true. I paid a lot of attention to you. Didn’t I always go to open school nights?”
“What was I thinking? Of course. Forgive me.”
“I don’t like it when you’re sarcastic.”
He realized he was angry and upset about Miriam and taking it out on his mother. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“I know how you felt about your father but I didn’t think you thought so little of me. I’ve always loved you. Maybe I didn’t give you as much attention as I gave Clarice, but now that you’re an adult I’m sure you can understand why. She needed so much.”
He put his cup down. “I said I’m sorry. And I don’t want to talk about Clarice.”
She nodded. “That’s not what I called you for, anyhow.”
“Okay, why did you call?” Finally, he thought. The talk about love had unsettled him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard the word escape his mother’s lips.
She said, “It’s only one little notebook.”
“What is? I’m not following you.”
“I was cleaning out the basement. It was under his workbench. It wasn’t hidden. Maybe he wanted me to find it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I found a cookie tin in the basement. You know, the kind those imported cookies come in? The ones they sell in the supermarket? I used to get them on sale. It had letters in it.”
“All the letters you and your sister ever wrote home, or most of them anyway. There weren’t that many. Mostly they were from when you went away to camp. And the ones Clarice wrote from that looney bin. And a couple you wrote from college…a letter I wrote him before we were married.”
“He saved all those?”
“Can you believe it?” she said. “I had no idea. He never breathed a word of it.” She paused. “There was something else there, too. There was a diary. Under the cookie tin.”
He laughed. “A diary? From that old bastard Max Gunther? I don’t believe it. Are you sure it’s his?”
His mother had made a face when he’d said “old bastard,” but all she said was, “It’s his, all right.
“It’s hard to believe he kept a diary.” Alex bit into a cookie.
“Are you hungry?” his mother asked. “I could fix you something.”
He wasn’t the least bit hungry and the thought of what she might offer him did not increase his appetite. “No. This is fine.” He sipped the tea. “So I assume you read everything, including the diary.”
“And? What was in it?”
She paused. “I don’t think I ought to tell you. I think you should read it. I want you to read it yourself.”
“You don’t want to tell me anything?”
She shrugged, put both hands on the edge of the table, and stood up. “I’ll get it.”
He remembered that in music class he’d chosen the clarinet. He’d taken a liking to the playing of Artie Shaw. At first he practiced in the living room. His father sat in the wing chair with Clarice on his lap. Clarice was twelve but big for her age. She looked uncomfortable. His mother sat on the couch reading the newspaper.
“What is that?” his father asked. His fingers played with Clarice’s hair as he looked over at Alex.
“Scales,” Alex said.
“I don’t know much about music, but I know that’s not music.”
“I have to learn the notes first.”
“He has to practice,” his mother said, without looking up from the paper. “Everyone who wants to play an instrument has to practice.”
“It hurts my ears. Clary’s too. Don’t it hurt your ears, Clary?”
Clarice squirmed but didn’t say anything.
“I can tell you’re never going to be much good at it. Why don’t you try writing poetry, like Clarice? Might suit you better. At least we won’t have to listen to you practice. Right, Clary?” And he laughed and bent to nuzzle Clarice’s neck.
Clarice jumped off her father’s lap. “Why don’t you leave him alone?”
“Did you say something, missy? Are you talking to me?”
Clarice ran out of the room and up the stairs.
“I’ll deal with you later,” his father shouted after her. “I’ll be up there to talk to you later. You can count on it!”
His words were as sharp and ruthless as a paper cut.
He saw his mother look at his father for a moment, then went back to reading her newspaper.
His mother returned. She was holding the metal cookie box and on top of it was a school notebook, the black and white kind with a white rectangle on the cover where you could write in the name of a subject. She placed the items carefully on the table as if they were fragile enough to break and stood with her hands at her sides.
He stared at the notebook, then reached out and placed one hand flat on the cover, fingers spread wide. He had long fingers. The music teacher had said he had the hands of a pianist. He didn’t tell her his father thought music was a waste of time. His father used to say to him, “Music is for girls, or maybe you’d like to be a ballet dancer? You could become a full-time sissy.” He felt the hard cover of the notebook under his fingers. The urge to open it was strong, but something held him back. He moved his hand away and stared at the notebook as if he were trying to read it through the cover.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” his mother asked.
“Sure. Sure I’m going to open it. What about the box with the letters?”
“Why don’t you just take this for now? You can go through those another time.”
His breathing had become shallow. He took a deep breath, not looking at his mother, but aware of her eyes on him.
“What’s the matter?” his mother asked.
“Are you afraid? You think it’s going to hurt you?”
“You’ll have to read it to find out.”
Her eyes met his, locked briefly with a message he couldn’t decipher, then slipped away.
He picked up the notebook and opened the cover. The first page was blank. The blankness leaped up at him. He had expected to find something written there: his father’s name, or a date, something to show what it was, who it belonged to. He turned the page and saw his father’s handwriting, the letters small, slanted backward. He saw words but couldn’t absorb their meaning. He felt his mother watching him, and snapped the book shut.
“What’s the matter?” she asked again.
“I don’t want to read it now.”
“Not with you standing there watching me.”
“When I realized the notebook was a diary my stomach did flip flops,” she said. “Your father keeping a diary? I couldn’t believe it. And you know what? I didn’t read it at first, either. As a matter of fact, I almost threw it in the garbage. But then I thought, what if it proves you’re all wrong about him? That he never did any of those things you accused him of?”
“And did it?”
“He never did those things. You’ll see when you read it.”
“He says so?”
“When you read it you’ll see what I mean. He loved Clarice. And God help him, he loved you, too.” She twisted her wedding ring. “There are other things in there.”
“I’ll let you find out for yourself.” She looked towards the window where sunlight was coming in through the curtains, breaking into irregular rays of gold and silver. The light behind her made her profile as defined as a cameo. “Just remember, he’s dead. Clarice is dead. They’re dead and buried.” She went to the counter and tore a sheet of paper towel off a roll on a stand, folded it and patted her eyes.
He could not remember when he’d last seen his mother cry. She had not cried when Clarice died, had not when his father died…at least, not where anyone could see her.
He pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ll take it with me. Is that okay with you?”
She accompanied him to the door. He kissed her again on the cheek, and she touched his shoulder. “One thing, Alex. When you read it, try and keep an open mind.”
“It’s important you do,” she said.