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As Dead as David

by Channie Greenberg

Family Spycraft
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David Simmons didn’t exist. I should have listened to Janice. She told me to “stop fooling around with the spy stuff” and, instead, to focus on enjoying our growing grandchildren. I should have heeded her.

I blame Glenda and Marvin. My daughter has yet to forgive me for fingerprinting all of her suitors, and my son-in-law remains troubled that I’ll discover more than his former marriage. Truth is, though, as a librarian, a man who handles countless pages of paper, he has no ridges left to print. I’ll never be able to trace his past beyond what he and my child choose to disclose or beyond the data I purchased from Privacy Hacker and from Gossip Search.

Frustrated on the family front, I redirected my energy into investigating the death of David Simmons, Hattie Morrison’s husband and, secondarily, into investigating Mrs. Morrison’s disappearance. I’d been a birdman far too long to go completely cold. Just because I was a floater didn’t mean I forgot my training. Allegedly, Morrison killed her spouse so she could “live in peace.” She never showed up, though, to explain why she had stopped visiting us.

That unhinged lady had made herself known during the summer when Janice was campaigning for a promotion. Wife expected her betters to make her a full professor based on her slim volume of research. During those hot, miserable months when she complained hourly about the promotion process, I told her she’d fare better if she slept with all of the members of the tenure and promotions committee than if she sent the committee any more emails filled with peer reviews of her work.

Janice asked if my idea was a challenge.

I shouted, “No!” I would have left her over even the slightest infidelity. Of course, my behavior, when stationed in Cluj-Napoca didn’t count. I had thought I was a dead man and so had sought out that fling. I am no riff-raff with double standards.

As for Hattie Morrison, who used to live across the street, we didn’t meet her for the first nineteen years that we lived at this address. At least when that crone came over, she came laden with wild culinary creations, most of which tasted good.

When she and Janice first sat down to enjoy those treats, Morrison gave Janice a kick in the brain. More specifically, that withered one urged Wife to get going with creative writing.

I was watching the tube with the grandkids and, although I heard what was said, made no rebuttal. Morrison had a point: Janice and I were already grandparents. If Wife didn’t jump in soon, her literary accomplishments would be as dead as Morrison’s husband, David. Janice was already potbellied. It would be a pity if her mind got flabby, too.

The next time Morrison came to visit, I ran to hold the door open for her. My chivalry notwithstanding, that old gal pushed past me and walked right into our living room. She tottered under the weight of an enormous tray covered with fish amok.

I wondered where she found noni leaves. Maybe she substituted cilantro. In my lone, two-month odyssey for the Intelligence Corps, I had tasted my way through fifteen countries’ worth of cuisines. I can tell cumin from mustard seeds and can pick out lovage or celery root at any farmers’ market.

Morrison was a good cook, but a weird woman. A professional amigurumist, she crocheted miniature yarn animals and made popular videos of her processes. Amigurumi is that stupidity in which Marvin, Glenda’s husband, engages in during his free time.

Further, Morrison was an obsessive gardener. Despite Zone Six B’s cycle of seasons, her crocuses bloomed fully, and her lone magnolia tree never withered from late frosts. Her daffodils multiplied, and her tulips defied all rodents.

Morrison always seemed to have ample daisies to cart over along with her croissants. Janice’s chrysanthemums, on the other hand, get regularly spoiled by neighborhood dogs.

Sure, Janice wanted to emulate Morrison. That summer, Wife showed me her plans for digging up our lawn and replacing it with indigenous forbs and perennials. She envisioned an orchard, a vegetable garden, a play area for the grandkids, a mediation garden, and a wildflower garden.

The best I can say about allowing Wife access to a spade and a hoe is that I liked the delphiniums she planted and got a kick out of watching her try to keep the lavender from dying. Plus, the grandkids liked pulling off the peas and pulling up the radishes, even though they killed the plants.

Morrison never succeeded in getting Wife to write more. Despite the fact that she took to visiting daily, piling our table with Sangchu-geotjeori, eight-layer honey cake, and chicken bazhe, and our ears with diatribes on the utility of highbrow humor, especially farce and irony, the differences between “tone,” “voice,” and “mood,” and the importance of honoring the lifestyle of service providers through manuscripts, Janice mostly chomped in response.

Wife already had a captive audience of psychology majors on which to test ideas. She was happy when spewing to those university students about loss and survival, or about being sane in an insane world. She didn’t need to become a creative writer. Plus, Morrison’s harangues were phlegmatic compared to those of Janice’s students. I’m sure Janice did not see herself as a potential pupil of her neighbor but as someone who was being kind to the elderly.

Meanwhile, Morrison kept coming back. She pronounced “workmen’s days and nights as ebbing and flowing according to the degree of danger in their jobs” and screamed that “such commoners ought to be immortalized in poetry.” All the while, Janice quietly chewed on iaman baeldi served alongside nuac chom.

Sometimes, Mrs. Morrison prattled, over heaps of baked cauliflower and piles of bulochkies, about humanists’ distaste for applying selective concepts to “mundane” issues and about scholars’ overarching post-enlightenment tendency to remain within disciplinary boundaries “made contemporary and, hence, dull.”

She would lecture Wife, while stuffing her mouth with pickled mushrooms or kimchi, that “the ruling class’s pervading distaste for work perverts self-examination, fashions fresh abstractions, evokes paradigm shifts, and, overall, messes with social responsibilities.” No matter her topic, our neighbor concluded her monologues by declaring that Janice ought to write stories whose implications would lead readers to conclusions about alternative social imperatives.

I didn’t grasp the link Morrison built between politics and poetics. As Janice’s great-aunt Abby was fond of saying, “It’s not for naught that horse whisperers give up when contesting pythons.” More so, as a Yank with half of Wife’s brain power, I increasingly put space between myself and Morrison and decided that if she inspired Wife, good. If she merely fed my family, also good. Let Janice enjoy her posies.

When Morrison came to visit, I’d hide in my den or run into the wood bordering our housing development. Ossifying plant matter and the carapaces of dead bugs calm my heart, much to my cardiologist’s delight. YouTube polka videos and pirated Lone Ranger reruns also well serve that purpose.

That summer progressed. I wished the grandkids could have stayed past their allotted two weeks, but Janice didn’t. She waved weakly as Glenda and Marvin’s minivan drove away. Maybe I should have done more than take the young ones out to the park daily.

We were less easily disencumbered of Mrs. Morrison. Once, through my man-cave door, I heard her scream at Janice about the lack of palpable critical and creative thinking in classic mystery novels. I heard that shriek over Tonto’s chanting!

So, I burst into the dining room, and grabbed a handful of apricot kolaches. Witness-protected or not, that silver-haired bully had to stop tormenting Wife. It followed that I then grabbed another handful of cookies and went back to my office to look for earplugs. I dared not directly confront the harridan. Rather, I’d expose her. All I had to do was to find out what transpired at her husband’s death.

My discoveries were astonishing, but they were long in the making. I was stymied from drawing conclusions until years after Morrison’s own disappearance. Despite my “boys” having access to all sorts of information, visa via their regional and federal workshops, I couldn’t put full stops on Morrison’s history until, following the discovery of her body, her house was repossessed.

Our neighbor had not just been a clever cook, a handy gardener, and a world famous amigurumi vlogger. She had also been quite the storyteller. She had hoodwinked Wife and me.

Six long years after we last saw her, when an unfortunate burglar discovered her decomposing corpse, I got to the truth. Wife and I should have investigated why weeds vined up Morrison’s home, and why horse grass grew in clumps where once proud roses and delicate, long-petaled lewisia had bloomed, but Janice was busy with teaching and with grandkids and I was busy with “the usual.”

It was the slovenliness of the cleanout crew, who were preparing Morrison’s residence for its new owners, that provided me with the needed clues. After helping themselves to items that they could resell and after distributing others of our neighbor’s household goods to charities, that crew stuffed Morrison’s final possessions into trash bags, which they then left at the curb.

I helped myself to a dozen such bags, which I stashed, in our garage, behind our boxes of holiday decorations. Leisurely, I examined their content, casting my discards into my family’s trash. I found, as expected, journals, letters, coupons, skeins of yarn, crocheted critters, receipts, and much more. I’m surprised Janice never got wise to my operation. After all, she had discovered, on her own, my affair in Romania.

I also found the unexpected. Morrison had had no husband, dead or alive. She also had never traveled the world, except through her pots and pans. She did, however, possess amazing bookkeeping skills. Her records showed that David Simmons was the protagonist in her most popular series of novels.

Few associated that virago with Morrison’s books, we neighbors included, since she wrote under a pen name. It was the royalties from those novels, not the money from her yarn vlogging that had paid her bills.

Yet, because Morrison had regarded those writings as balderdash, as fluffy, junky reads about which she was embarrassed, she eventually murdered that revenue stream. When she alluded to killing her husband, David, she had meant that she had told her agent that she refused to write another single word about him.

Our neighbor’s reference to participating in a witness protection program was also pure fabrication. She had wanted to sound interesting to us. I still don’t know why she waited nineteen years to visit.

As for her talent with plants and her ability to conjure comestibles from many shores, she had been cooking and gardening since girlhood. Seven decades of dedication to any hobby grants some prowess.

For a while, I felt bad that we, a decorated captain and his esteemed wife, had mistreated an elder. We had allowed her to cook for and to otherwise entertain us instead of seeking out means by which we could improve her conditions. Sadly, we can’t change those facts.

These days, Janice is still digging up our lawn. I’m still taking solo trips into the woods. Glenda and Marvin are still taunting me about Marvin’s “inaccessible secrets.” Our granddaughters and grandsons are still visiting. Since the mystery of “David Simmons” has been solved, I’m left only to puzzle out why Janice received her promotion.

Copyright © 2016 by Channie Greenberg

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