Note to readers: The remaining chapters of this book will only be posted in excerpt form. To obtain a copy of the complete chapter, please request one by completing the Contact Andrew Bowers form.
“Lena was actually my housekeeper before she became my patient,” said the doctor, pausing to take a long pull on his cigar which required enough cross-eyed concentration and cheek-hollowing sucking power to make you question whether a cigar is ever just a cigar. Directing a geyser of smoke towards the ceiling, he continued, “Showed up on the doorstep out of the blue offering her services. Said her husband was doing time – stealing a piano or some damn fool thing – and needed the extra cash. And was she a lovely girl. I mean stunning. I can still see her standing there in the sun in this lemon-yellow dress, a desperate Pacific smile that could break a man,” he said, framing the view with his hands like a movie director. “Raw unadorned beauty.”
Phoebe and I exchanged a look which he caught and waved off. “No, no, no! It wasn’t ever like that. Even if dear Claudia over there would beg to differ,” he said, nodding at a painting of a plump red-cheeked woman with tight spools of gray hair hanging on the wall among the old maps and looking sour about her position among them. As if her portraitist had been as inaccurate in capturing her lines as the early cartographers taking educated guesses at the contours of the New World, the island of Newfoundland a stick of melting butter above her head.
“Your wife?” said Phoebe, some brilliant powers of deduction right there.
“God love her, even a good one when she put her mind to it. May she rest in peace.”
Claudia seemed to scowl back at him in response to his raised glass and I asked, “Did Lena happen to be in the room dusting under the furniture when this was being painted?”
“Paul,” snapped Phoebe, kicking at my foot dangling from my crossed leg. But the doctor let out a throaty Santa laugh, his belly and breasts jiggling along with each Ho-Ho-Ho.
“My dear boy, you’ve brightened my day.” Watching him dab spittle from his lips with a handkerchief, it occurred to me he had the same kind of grimacing grin I did. A “reverse smile” Ally had called it, unnatural g-forces pulling the corners of the mouth downward against the grain of the normal upward orientation. Ally said I would have the most joyous smile in the world if only I could stand on my head, which I couldn’t. Now I could sort of see what she meant even though the doctor’s teeth were as uneven as tombstones in an old churchyard.
“I’m glad. I don’t get that often.”
“You certainly do not,” said Phoebe.
“It’s a nice theory anyway. Except that Lena was long gone by the time Claudia decided to memorialize herself in oil. A more likely explanation for that peeved look would be her growing alarm over my continuing failure to die. ‘Until death does he part’ was her interpretation of our marriage vows and the prospect of predeceasing an old reprobate like me was as fanciful to her as flying pigs. But sure enough. Been almost 20 years now, hasn’t it dear?” he said, toasting the portrait once more with a wink that begged retaliation from the spirit world. When I told him as much, Phoebe’s silence this time amounting to concurrence, he leaned over with a grunt and, tapping a log of ash from the end of his cigar into the dusty mouth of the ashtray, said, “The very fact she hasn’t yet paid me a visit in the small hours is proof that no such world exists.”
“Or just that there’s no portal.”
“She would find a way. Build one herself if she had to. Which means it’s a scientific certainty this world we live in is it. One reason I haven’t been in such a hurry to leave it.”
“Maybe she hasn’t finished building it yet.”
“Aren’t you the devil’s advocate. If, arguendo, we are indeed going to postulate– ”
“Gentlemen,” interrupted Phoebe in a stiff voice, “As fascinating as all this is, really, could we maybe get back to Lena?”
“Of course, my flower. Of course. Where was I?”
“We didn’t get much further than how beautiful she was. Which we already had a pretty good idea of,” said Phoebe, reaching over and handing him the old polaroid from the house, “From this.”
“Well, well,” he said, holding the photo aloft in both hands and examining it like it was an x-ray of a shattered bone. “Mmmm-hmmm,” he rumbled when he turned it around and read the inscription on the back.
“Does that mean anything to you?” asked Phoebe. “Lena’s Song?”
“It may,” he sighed and, pointing to the piano player with a gnarled Count Dracula fingernail, said, “You wouldn’t know it since you can’t see his face, but that’s the late great Zach Jones.”
He stared at us wide-eyed, expectantly, until Phoebe finally said, “Sorry, who?” when it became apparent he was prepared to wait indefinitely for our powers of recall to engage.
“Youngsters,” he muttered to a more worldly ceiling, causing a chirp of pleasure to escape Phoebe, already a flower in the doctor’s eyes. I couldn’t tell if Phoebe’s susceptibility to his cheesy flattery lowered my estimation of her a notch or if it was more an unwelcome pang of jealousy (Could I ever make her chirp like that?) that further lowered my estimation of myself.
“My daughter would probably have a brain aneurysm if she could hear that.”
“Dear boy– ”
“So, who was Zach Jones then?” said Phoebe, sitting up straight to redirect the doctor’s attention upon her flowery self.
“A great musician back in the day. Could’ve been one of the greatest if it weren’t for the booze. Doesn’t matter. What does matter for you,” he said, pointing his cigar at me before drawing hard on it once more, mouth opening wide like a yawn was coming, a great mass of smoke slowly drifting out under its own forces of dispersion.
“Yes?” I said impatiently. What was he waiting for with that bombed out mouth gaping? With that abandoned pile of kindling passing for an eyebrow raised as if I already knew the answer. “He’s not…”
“Of course, my dear boy. He’s your father.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 21), 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2020 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.