The pamphlet was called “Oranges.” It was small and slender, no bigger than a prayer book. I had designed it to fit in a shirt pocket or to be carried comfortably in the palm of the hand. The cover was a glossy photograph of a pair of plump oranges, vivid against a dark background of intensely glowing green leaves. The fifty pages within contained a brief history of the fruit, guidelines for its cultivation by home gardeners, and several dozen recipes. The printer had just delivered nineteen boxes of them; I was holding one when the telephone rang.
“May I speak to Bonita Jane Gabriel?” an unfamiliar male voice said.
I hadn’t gone by my first name in years. Hearing it again was an unpleasant surprise. “Who’s calling, please?”
From my office window in Baton Rouge, on the thirty-fifth floor of the Louisiana State Capitol, built on the bank above the Mississippi River, I watched a matchbox freighter heading out for the Gulf down the playlike river. I loved my view: ribbon roads, doll people, with me high, high above it.
“My name is Dr. Steven Scott. I’m trying to locate the elder daughter of Dr. John Edward Gabriel. Are you Bonita Gabriel?”
I held so hard to the new booklet that it curved in my hand. “Yes,” I said.
“This is the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner’s office,” the man said. “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?”
“Why?” I said. “Why are you looking for me?” He sounded young. He sounded pissed off and very young.
“Your father died Friday morning,” he said. “I know it was right before the weekend, and that makes a big difference, but I have been trying to reach a member of the family for over seventy-two hours.” He paused, then said, “Do you know what day it is?”
There was a brief silence. He answered himself before I could gather my wits to even recall what month we occupied, much less what day it was. “This is Tuesday afternoon.”
I let “Oranges” fall to my desk, felt behind me for my chair, and sank down onto it.
“A neighbor of your father’s, a Mrs. Moak, the one who found him and called the ambulance when he fell, told us—”
“Where was he?”
“He was at home. He fell down the back steps of his home and died of head injuries several hours later at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital,” Dr. Scott said. “No one knew where you were. Mrs. Moak thought you might be in New Orleans, or maybe in Shreveport, but I couldn’t find you listed in either place. I couldn’t find you in any telephone book in the state, and directory assistance never heard of you.”
“I don’t have a telephone at home,” I said.
“So I found out,” he said. “And then I couldn’t find out anything from the Department of Public Safety because you don’t even own a car.”
I owned a car, but not under any name he was likely to find. I waited. I heard papers rustling.
“You have a sister,” he said finally. “Mary Dollier Gabriel.” He spoke slowly, pausing between each of Mary’s names. His voice faded and returned, as if he had leaned away from the telephone to look down and read from his notes and then come back. “Mary Gabriel is five years your junior? That would make her approximately forty-seven?”
I closed my eyes.
“Is that correct?” he said.
“Yes, that’s correct,” I said.
“I finally located her at an institution in Livingston Parish, but the nurse in charge wasn’t very helpful. She wouldn’t let me speak to your sister. She said she had no intention of letting me upset one of her babies with bad news. She was very unhappy about the fact that no one knew where you were,” he said. “She said I should get busy and find you. I hate to think what she’s going to say when she finds out you’ve been right under our noses all the time. She said …” Here his voice died away.
“Yes,” I said. “What else did she say?”
Dr. Scott cleared his throat. “She said … these words are not coming from me, now,” he said. “I want you to understand that.”
“I understand,” I said.
“She said, and I quote, ‘You track down Mary’s big sister and put this monkey on her back. It’s high time she got her …’” He stopped, then tried again. “‘It’s high time she got her …’”
I touched each corner of the booklet to my desk.
His impatience was gone and his voice was softer when he continued. “The nurse said, ‘It’s high time she got herself out here.’”
It was my guess that those were not her exact words. I tossed “Oranges” back into the open cardboard box.
“Ma’am?” the young man said. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here,” I said.
“Would it be less painful for you, Ms. Gabriel, if I discussed these things with someone else? A colleague, perhaps? Is there someone you trust that I could talk to while you recover from the shock of this news?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I am fine. I have no problem with this information.”
I thought, as I waited for him to respond, that yes, my life in the Department of Agriculture was in perfect order: I never drew attention to myself; my clothing at work was understated and impeccable; I participated in no interoffice quarrels; I was never absent; I scheduled my vacation a year in advance, always went alone, and never brought back souvenirs or passed around pictures. I had created a life for myself in which I was as close to being invisible as I could get without totally disappearing, and I intended it to stay that way.
“As you wish,” Dr. Scott said. “I had to enter the house and go through your father’s things. I apologize to you for that, Ms. Gabriel. When I talked to the police about finding you, one of the officers, Captain Gerard Winborn, volunteered to go in with me. He said he knew you. He said you were childhood friends. He can verify that I left everything just like it was.”
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“After we came across all of those fruit books written by Jane Mitchell and put out by the Department of Agriculture, we called their office. They gave us your extension,” Dr. Scott said.
I stood up. “My father had those pamphlets?” I said.
“Yes, ma‘am,” he said. “They were in a folder with the name ’Bonita Gabriel’ on it, so I just made a guess that you wrote them under a pseudonym.”
Jane Mitchell was not a pen name; it was my legal name. I dropped Bonita when I married Leon Mitchell, a peach farmer from Lincoln Parish, in 1966. The marriage was brief; it lasted just long enough for me to rid myself of the name Gabriel. But I said nothing of this to Dr. Scott.
“I found four of them in his desk,” Dr. Scott said.
“Oranges” was the newest one. “Persimmons,” “Strawberries,” “Peaches,” “Figs,” and “Blackberries” stood on my desk between two terra-cotta bookends in the shape of the state of Louisiana; bookends I had made in occupational therapy at a hospital in New Orleans, which, forty-one years ago, had been run by the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.
“They’re real pretty little books,” he said. “I enjoyed looking at them. If you ever do another one, I wouldn’t mind having a copy, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Thank you very much,” I said. “The new ones just came in. I’ll see that you get one. I’m so glad you liked them.”
At this absurdity, as if we had met in a bar and he had praised my jewelry—rhinestone earrings that danced as they dangled or a sterling silver bracelet that glinted in the tavern’s faint, false light—we both fell silent.
Finally I said, “What should I do?”
“Okay,” Dr. Scott said. He sounded relieved to have somebody to boss. “What you’ll need to do is this—you might want to write this down.”
Dutifully, I took a pen and pad from my desk drawer.
“The first thing is to get in touch with one of the funeral homes,” he said.
I wrote a number one on the pad, but as the young man spoke, my attention fluttered away and lit on an image of my father lying crumpled at the base of the steps. I called my thoughts back; wrote, “Contact funeral parlor.”
“You should make an appointment with the director to discuss plans for the funeral.”
I wrote a number two. I imagined my father lying naked on a metal table next to the young doctor, so close the young man could have smoothed my father’s fair hair or stroked his cheek.
“If you’ll tell me which funeral home you want to use, I will be happy to get in touch with the administrator for you,” he said.
“Choose a reputable one for me, if you would, please. Any of the mortuaries you have had experience with and trust to handle my father’s body will do,” I said. “Except for Wellman’s. I don’t want to go to Wellman’s.”
I did not want to go back to the place that had conducted the services for my mother thirty years ago. If I had to bury my father, I would do it in a place I had never been before. I couldn’t take all of those sweet flowers again. And I definitely didn’t want a chapel full of mourners staring at Mary and me.
As I talked, I reached for one of the state-shaped bookends. Absently, I ran my fingers over the baked clay, seeking the roughness of the red crystal bead I had used to signify Baton Rouge, the city of my birth. When I was eleven years old, almost twelve, Daddy came to New Orleans to visit me in DePaul Hospital. My mother could not come, he said, because she had to stay with my sister, but she sent me her red crystal bracelet. The next day, in the little craft house under the oaks, behind the building called Rosary where I stayed, after I punched and pounded and formed the wet clay, I broke my mother’s gift, mashed a piece of the faceted glass into each bookend to mark Baton Rouge, watched the clay go into the kiln, and then, accompanied by a nun on my daily walk to the levee, I threw the rest of the bracelet into the Mississippi River. Now I felt only a small hollow where the bead should have been. Catching the receiver between my head and shoulder, I felt all about the surface of my desk with both hands.
“I’ll need you to release—”
“Hold on for a minute, please.” I left the receiver dangling. I lifted “Strawberries” by a corner of the cover and shook it. When nothing dropped out, I pitched it to the floor. I did this with each booklet. Nothing. I retrieved “Oranges” from its box and shook it, finding that it, too, was empty, I threw it to the floor with the others. I brushed aside all of the papers on my desk and ran both hands over the entire surface. My heart raced. The sudden, furious rush of blood to my head dizzied me. With the litter from my desk all about me, I sank down onto the floor and covered my head with my arms.
“Ma‘am? Ma’am?” The coroner’s tiny voice sputtered from the telephone.
It took some seconds, but when I lifted the receiver again, I was calm.
“Ms. Gabriel, are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said, and I gave Dr. Scott my permission to release my father’s body to the funeral home of his choice. He said he would call me back.
I took off my silver snakeskin high heels and removed the jacket of my gunmetal-gray linen suit. On my hands and knees, careless of my smoke-colored stockings, I pushed the chair aside to crawl into the hollow of my desk and search along the baseboard for the missing blood-colored crystal. I had not found it when the telephone rang again. Still on my hands and knees, I backed out from under my desk, reached up, and lifted the receiver. “Yes?” I said.
“Ms. Gabriel, I made an appointment for you at Singleton and Son’s funeral home, at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. It’s on Florida Boulevard, just past Airline Highway, on the left-hand side of the street.”
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“There is one other thing you’ll need to do right away,” he said.
“What is that?” I said.
“Mr. Singleton suggested that you write a brief notice of your father’s death for the newspaper. This should include a few details about his life—where he was born, his age—things like that. Then you might name his remaining relatives.”
“There are no remaining relatives,” I said. “Only my sister and me.”
“Say that, then, and give the times for both the viewing of the body and the funeral service,” he said. “Mr. Singleton will help you with that and submit it to the Advocate for you, if you’ll call him before five o’clock.”
“I see no reason to make all of this public,” I said. No one at work knew I had grown up in Baton Rouge. They knew me only by my changed name. Nor did they know I had a sister. I could not bear to think of our lives coming under public scrutiny again.
“Surely you and your sister know people who will want to pay their respects. And your father’s friends need to be told of his death.”
I cared nothing for his friends. And Mary and I—I could not permit myself to think about that yet. Aloud, I said, “Of course. Thank you for your help, Dr. Scott. You’ve been very kind. And patient.”
“Ms. Gabriel,” the man said, his tone grave. He sounded older now and more confident. “May I offer you a bit of advice?”
“Yes,” I said. “You may.”
“Call someone to come and stay with you. Maybe a friend could drive you home. You can expect to be somewhat distracted. Grief will make events seem magnified, even distorted, for a while. It’s helpful to have someone with you who is not quite so affected by your father’s death.”
“Dr. Scott, my father and I have not been close for a long time. I don’t think grief is going to be a big problem for me,” I said.
“Perhaps not, Ms. Gabriel. But grief can surprise us. Sometimes it’s on us and we don’t even recognize it. I’d feel better if I knew you had someone to go through this with you. Surely there’s someone you can call?”
“No. No one,” I said, abruptly.
“Then forgive me for intruding,” Dr. Scott said. “This is really none of my business.”
I thought, No, it’s not one bit of your business. It concerns you not at all, but I said only, “I appreciate your professional interest.”
“Please accept my condolences on your loss,” Dr. Scott said. He sounded stiff now. Distant.
“Thank you,” I said as coldly as I could. I was returning the receiver to its cradle on my desk when I had to abandon my dignity. I cried, “Wait!”
“What is it?” Dr. Scott said. He, too, had dropped his formal manner. He sounded alarmed.
“Where is she?”
“Where is Mary? Where is my sister?”
LOOKING FOR MARY GABRIEL. Copyright © 2002 by Carole Lawrence. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.