It was six o’clock on the morning of Monday, the fifth of November, and it was cold. It was so cold that Gregor Demarkian found himself staring down at the jacket his wife had laid out for him across the back of the living room couch and wondering if she’d gone insane. Insanity was never to be completely ruled out when it came to Bennis Hannaford Demarkian, but the forms that insanity took were not usually thin cotton jackets presented for wearing in the freeze that heralded the run-up to winter. Bennis was much more likely to do things that would not be considered illegal only because she was a very good friend of the mayor.
Gregor picked the jacket up and put it down again. It was the jacket Bennis had bought him a couple of years ago, when she had gone on one of her periodic campaigns to “update” him.
“Somehow or the other, you just don’t seem to get the spirit of the times,” she’d said.
He’d been at a loss to know what she was talking about. Maybe he was too stodgy for the business casual atmosphere of the twenty-first century? Maybe he was too rational for all the television shows about mediums and psychic children?
It had turned out that he didn’t own any kind of outerwear that was not utterly formal, as if human beings would not be able to survive in the world of the Obama administration if they didn’t own something called a “barn jacket.”
The shower was on down the hall in the bathroom. Bennis was singing something that required her to hit the C above high C, which she couldn’t do. This would be something by Joni Mitchell, who was the singer Bennis loved most in the world. All of that meant something, Gregor was sure. He just didn’t know what.
He went down to the end of the hall where the bathroom was and knocked on the door. The apartment felt small and cramped these days, because it was filled with too much “stuff.” The worst of the stuff had disappeared over the past few weeks. He didn’t have to go on tripping over stacks of bathroom tile samples and books of dining room wallpaper samples. Bennis had made enough of the decisions about what would happen to this house they had bought to renovate that it wasn’t necessary to live any longer with her indecision. Still, there suddenly seemed to be too much of everything in the apartment, as if she never put anything away anymore, on the assumption that they’d have to take it out and move it later anyway.
He knocked on the door again. The sound of the water got fainter. Bennis must have turned it down.
“What is it?” she called out.
“I’m going to go get Tibor,” Gregor said. “I’m feeling too restless to stand around here. Do you mind?”
“Of course I don’t mind. You ought to take another case.”
“Yes, I know, I ought to take another case.”
“I left the paperwork from the last case out on the kitchen table. You’ve got to give it to Martin as soon as you can. It’s getting to be the end of the year. You can’t just leave your paperwork in a mess. The IRS gets cranky.”
“I’ll get to the paperwork this afternoon,” Gregor said.
He meant it, too. At least, he thought he did. He didn’t remember that he’d always had such a hard time taking the paperwork seriously. There it was, though. If you got paid money for doing anything at all, you had paperwork to do, and the state of Pennsylvania and the government of the United States to answer to.
He went down the hall and into the living room. He went through the living room and into the kitchen. Bennis had not just left the paperwork from the Mattatuck case out on the table. She had spaced it out in neat stacks that, Gregor was sure, would turn out to be organized. Bennis had been “self-employed” for a lot longer than he had. She understood these things.
Of course, he’d been self-employed himself now for over a decade. He ought to understand these things.
He left all the paperwork where it was and went out into the hallway. The apartment door snicked shut behind him. He tried to hear the lock click into place, but it was difficult. Grace was upstairs with her door open again, practicing on a harpsichord. Either that, or she was practicing on something called “mother and child virginals.” A lot of keyboard instruments were lifted up through the windows of Grace’s apartment.
“Grace?” Gregor said.
The playing stopped. There was a slight pounding of feet and a head appeared at the stair rail above him.
“Hello, Gregor,” Grace said. “Are you all right? Where’s Bennis? Did I wake you up with my playing?”
“I’ve been up for an hour, and you never wake me up.”
“I’ve got a concert tonight at the museum,” Grace said. “It’s too bad, don’t you think? They call it early music and nobody comes, so we have to play in museums. A lot of people would like harpsichord music if they could hear it, don’t you think?”
“I’m sure they would,” Gregor said. “I like it when I hear you play it. Bennis wanted to know if we should make some special arrangements when you move downstairs. For the instruments, I think she means. I know it won’t be for months now. She seems to think she needs to know everything at once.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Grace said, “she just wants to be prepared. I understand that. I don’t think there’s going to be a problem. They pack up, you know, and it’s not like we’re trying to get them through the front door. Do you have any idea why they made that front door so narrow? I mean, I know most people aren’t trying to get instruments in here, but still. It’s like squeezing through a toothpaste tube.”
“I think it was to discourage break-ins,” Gregor said.
“On Cavanaugh Street?” Grace snorted. “The only person who’s going to break into a house on Cavanaugh Street is Donna, and all she’s going to want is to get at your windows so she can decorate. You’d think they’d know better than that, wouldn’t you? I mean, they’re supposed to be running the entire city.”
Gregor had no idea if Grace was talking about the mayor’s office, or the police, or who. He didn’t think he’d learn much by asking.
“I’m going to go get some breakfast,” he said. “You should talk to Bennis so she doesn’t get too crazy.”
“I will. Have a good morning, Gregor. And try not to be so depressed.”
Grace’s head disappeared from the stair rail, and a moment later Gregor heard playing again. It was the harpsichord he was listening to, he realized. That was Bach’s Concerto in D Minor. It was one of maybe four harpsichord pieces he could recognize just by listening to it.
He turned down the stairwell and went carefully and slowly, as if he were afraid to trip. The apartments in this building were all “floor-throughs.” There was one apartment on each floor, taking up the entire floor. The floor below Gregor’s own, the second, actually belonged to Bennis, and was now part of the apartment above it. Bennis’s first idea for making a home had been to knock out some walls and some ceiling and meld the two apartments together. Gregor had thought this was a very good idea, but for some reason it had never quite come off. The two apartments were melded together, but he and Bennis always stayed upstairs on the third floor, as if the second did not exist. Bennis did her writing on the second floor, but that was all. She hadn’t even stored her renovating samples down there.
Gregor stood on the landing and stared at the door there for a while. He listened to Grace playing above his head. He thought he ought to go to Grace’s concert tonight. It had been years since he had heard her play in person. He thought he and Bennis ought to do something unusual, like take a vacation. He would even be willing to take a vacation where there was sand. He thought he had spent too much of his life being narrowminded about vacations where there was sand.
He looked around and told himself he was spending this time of his life acting like a four-year-old who thinks he can make the bogeyman go away if he just pretends he doesn’t really exist.
But the bogeyman did exist, of course. He existed and lived and breathed and was never far away from anybody’s front door. It was just that, as a grown-up, he called the bogeyman “death.”
Gregor made himself go down the last flight of stairs and into the foyer below. He looked out through the door with the glass panel that led to the vestibule with the mailboxes in the wall. Then he turned away and made himself look at the door to old George Tekemanian’s apartment.
It was funny the way that worked, he thought. He could tell that the apartment was empty—not just empty because nobody was home, but empty because nobody lived there. He would have been able to tell that even if he’d never entered this building before, and if he’d never known old George Tekemanian.
Gregor went back to the door and turned the knob. It opened easily. He pushed it in. Most of old George’s things were already gone. What was left was laid around in very neat stacks, most of them with white slips of paper taped to them. This stack was going to the homeless shelter. This stack was going to the yard sale. This stack was …
Gregor saw old George’s sock baller, a machine Martin had given him once for a Christmas or a birthday. Old George and Father Tibor used to hang around old George’s apartment sometimes and ball socks and let the machine fling them around the room. For some reason, the machine was never satisfied with just balling socks. It liked to play the catapult.
Gregor stepped back into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him.
He didn’t want to see the rest of the apartment. He didn’t want to tell anybody about what he had just done. He had the odd feeling that everybody knew, anyway.2
“Death is a part of life,” Tibor said, when Gregor picked him up at the apartment in back of the church.
Tibor was muffled up as if it were the middle of February. He had on a long black winter coat and a scarf and the kind of hat that made Gregor wonder if Tibor ever looked at himself in a mirror. He had gloves on his hands and his hands in his pockets. Gregor could never get over just how short he was.
“The man was a hundred years old,” Tibor said, as they rounded the corner into the alley and headed for Cavanaugh Street. “A hundred years old. The Bible says the days of a man are three score and ten. He was in overtime. And, sincerely Krekor, he knew it.”
“He wasn’t sick,” Gregor said. “He wasn’t ailing and in pain all that time. Not until the very end. The last week, maybe. He didn’t have dementia. His mind was as good as mine ever was. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“It doesn’t make sense to you that people die of old age?”
“No,” Gregor said. “I guess it doesn’t. I mean, I understand that people’s bodies break down, and they get sick, and that sort of thing. I understand that some people have minds that break down. But it just doesn’t make any sense to me that somebody who is perfectly well, perfectly in charge of his faculties, should just die because—because of what, really? Because he’d been living too long?”
“That’s the idea,” Tibor said.
“Then I think there’s something wrong with the idea. It’s like cavities.”
“Excuse me, Krekor, but you’re getting away from me.”
“It’s like cavities,” Gregor said. “Think about it. Your teeth exist for what? To make it possible for you to eat. Right?”
“Right,” Tibor said. “Also, sometimes in some circumstances, if you know the wrong kinds of people, to help out in a fight.”
“Okay,” Gregor said. “I may even know those kinds of people, but that’s beside the point here. Your teeth exist so that you can eat. But when you eat, just by eating, just by using your teeth for what they were made for—well, by doing that, you wreck your teeth with cavities, and they hurt and crumble and then fall out.”
“There is the toothbrush—”
“Yes,” Gregor said, “but why should you need a toothbrush? You’re not misusing your teeth when you eat. You’re using them for what they’re supposed to be for. You’re using them in just the way you’re supposed to use them. So why are there cavities at all? If teeth were something a company made, and they did that—they broke because you used them properly—well, there’d be lawsuits, wouldn’t there? There’d be congressional investigations. We’d do something about it.”
“You want the United States government to do something about death?”
“I don’t know,” Gregor said. “I don’t know what I want.”
They were out on the street itself now. People were coming out of the tall brownstone buildings and wending their way toward the lighted plate glass storefront of the Ararat. Gregor saw Lida Arkmanian in her three-quarter-length chinchilla coat, hurrying to catch up with Hannah Krekorian and Sheila Kashinian. Sheila had on a coat that was some kind of fur and was supposed to look expensive, but didn’t quite. Hannah was getting along with her usual wool, and if you’d asked her about it, she would have given you a long lesson on the stupidity of conspicuous consumption.
Except that she wouldn’t have called it that.
Gregor slowed down a little. Lida might be in a hurry to catch up with those two, but on most mornings, he was not.
“Look at them,” he said, pointing ahead to the women, now walking together. “We all grew up together on this street. I remember Lida in church when she was no more than four or five years old. I’d have to have been the same. She had a new dress for Easter, and her mother had bought her a hat to match. It was like a miracle had occurred right in the middle of the block. A matching hat. Who had the money for a matching hat?”
“Yes, well. While you were all growing up here, I was in Yekevan, and it would have been enough to have money for hats. Is that really what you’re worried about now, Krekor, people’s hats?”
“No,” Gregor said. “No. It’s hard to explain. We all did grow up here. It’s odd to think about it sometimes. And we didn’t have any money.”
“Most people don’t have money,” Tibor said.
“We all have money now,” Gregor said. “Even Hannah has more than she’d ever dreamed of all those years ago. She has a matching hat.”
“I don’t know why,” Tibor said, “but I don’t trust where this is going.”
“Old George Tekemanian lived on this street when we were growing up,” Gregor said. “You can’t say he grew up here, because he was born in Armenia. He was from my parents’ generation, not from mine. Can you imagine that? He was from my parents’ generation. He remembered immigrating. He remembered what it was like when this was all tenements and some of them didn’t have windows. He remembered doing all his business in Armenian and reading the Armenian language newspaper instead of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
He remembered World War I. Can you imagine that?”
“I don’t have to imagine it,” Tibor said carefully. “There’s nothing to imagine. It’s just the reality of the real world. Of course he would remember all that. He had a good mind and it functioned well and he was a hundred years old.”
“And now he’s gone,” Gregor said, “and all that is gone with him, and it makes no sense at all. It’s wasteful, and arbitrary, and it makes no sense at all. You have to see that.”
“What I see,” Tibor said, “is that perhaps this time Bennis has a point. Perhaps you are depressed.”
They were right in front of the Ararat now. The lights gleamed out into the dark of the November morning. Behind the glass, Linda Melajian was running back and forth with a Pyrex pot of black coffee.
“I’m not depressed,” Gregor said. “I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed and offended, if you want to know the truth. It’s a waste of time and resources and everything else I can think of that somebody like old George Tekemanian would die of nothing but old age. And it is not the way a well-ordered universe would be constructed to run.”
Gregor grabbed the plate glass door, pulled it open, and went inside. The door sucked back toward Tibor, who stood unmoving on the sidewalk.
Gregor thought he should feel guilty about that, but he couldn’t do it.
He was, he thought, right in everything he was saying, and he’d been thinking about it for weeks.
Cavanaugh Street was not the same without old George down there on the first floor, and it never would be.3
Twenty minutes later, Gregor was sitting with Tibor and Bennis in the big benched booth near the windows, and Linda Melajian was delivering a platter with his favorite breakfast. He had two scrambled eggs, two pieces of buttered toast, two round breakfast sausages, three rashers of bacon, and a huge pile of hash brown potatoes. Tibor was having almost exactly the same. Bennis was having black coffee and a half of grapefruit, and glaring.
“Look at it this way,” Gregor told her as he picked up his fork, “if I die on you in the middle of the night, it won’t be because of old age.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Bennis said.
Linda Melajian swung around to see if anybody wanted more coffee, then took one look at Bennis’s face and decided that they did not. She swung away again, back through the crowded dining room with its little knots of people bending over coffee cups and talking without bothering to take breaths.
There were times when Gregor sat looking at Bennis and marveling that he had ever married her. It was unusual to get lucky twice with wives. It was even more unusual to have reached the age he was now and never have been divorced. Bennis made him feel lucky most mornings, but this was not one of them.
He could look around the Ararat right now and see old George sitting there, at one of the interior tables, having breakfast with Lida and Hannah and Sheila or with Donna Moradanyan Donahue and both of her children, or with, well, anybody. Everybody had breakfast with old George once in a while.
He could see both Linda Melajian and her mother bending over old George’s chair, scolding him about forgetting his gloves or his hat or eating the real butter instead of the nonsaturated-fat margarine.
These were the ordinary markers of an ordinary life. They were not vices, or risks, or natural disasters. They were not diseases or injuries. They were nothing but what everybody did everywhere with perfect safety, and there was something gravely wrong with the idea that someone would be punished for them after all.I am being childish,
Gregor thought. This is not the way grown-up people respond to death and dying. There are supposed to be stages of grief, and then at the end you are supposed to be all calm and accepting and ready to go on with your life. He had figured out in no time that what he was thinking and feeling did not fit into them.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” he said.
“What?” Father Tibor said.
“It’s a poem by a man named Dylan Thomas,” Gregor said. “Bennis probably had to read it at Vassar. He wrote it to his father when his father was dying. Do not go gentle into that good night. Death is the enemy.”
“He’s been like this for days,” Bennis said. “Sometimes I get it, but sometimes I just want to kill him.”
“Then there’s the other thing,” Gregor said. “The wages of sin are death.”
Tibor shook his head. “If you’re going to read the Bible, you should read the whole thing, not just bits and pieces of it that suit your mood. It doesn’t do anybody any good taken apart like that. We’ve started wars doing that. We’ve killed people.”
“I’m not going to kill anyone,” Gregor said. “I’m arguing against killing anyone, that’s the point. But the wages of sin are death goes to prove it.”
“To prove what, Krekor?”
“That death is meant as a punishment,” Gregor said. “It was in that book you gave me, too, that St. Augustine. The wages of sin are death. Death is a punishment. And George hadn’t done one damned thing to be punished for that I know of. And if he’d ever done anything, it was so far in the past it couldn’t possibly have mattered any more.”
You have read the St. Augustine, Krekor? You have read all of it?”
“He sits on the couch and pages back and forth through it,” Bennis said. “Then he stops and reads some of it and mutters under his breath. I don’t know what you were thinking, Tibor. That thing is a thousand pages long.”
“With little tiny type,” Gregor said. “But I’m not mistaking his meaning, Tibor, and you know it. The whole thing, the whole way you explained it all at the funeral, makes no sense. We couldn’t run a criminal justice system this way. We couldn’t write a code of law—doesn’t it start with what’s supposed to be a code of law? Could you imagine a code of law that gave the same penalty to somebody who cussed out his grandmother and, I don’t know, pick somebody. Hitler. That wouldn’t be a code of law. It would be a travesty. And this is a travesty. And you know it.”
“He’s back on religion again,” Bennis said.
“Yes,” Tibor said. “I am sorry for this. I did not mean to cause this kind of a problem. I only meant to give George a proper funeral.”
“And you did give George a proper funeral,” Bennis said. “There was nothing wrong with anything you said. He’s just grabbing hold of it and taking it to the zoo.”
“I could have given the homily in Armenian,” Tibor said.
“Then Martin and Angela wouldn’t have understood it,” Bennis said.
“I understood it perfectly,” Gregor said, “and I’m not being an idiot here. That explanation made no sense. And if a God actually exists for whom that explanation does make sense, then He doesn’t make sense, and there’s no point in listening to Him. We don’t have to figure out if God exists or not, we only have to figure out if He’s sane, and apparently He’s not. And that really ought to be all we need to know about it.”
“Don’t you think there’s something really odd about the fact that this is the first time you’ve ever had trouble thinking that God makes sense?” Bennis asked. “I mean, Gregor, you were with the FBI for decades. You investigated serial murders. You’ve been investigating murders ever since. You see broken and ravaged bodies all over the landscape and you vaguely think you probably might not believe in God but it doesn’t bother you—and then old George dies peacefully and without pain at a hundred years old and you get like this? You don’t think there’s anything odd about that?”
Gregor looked at his plate. There was too much food on it. He hadn’t eaten like this in years. His back hurt.
“No,” he said finally. “I don’t think there’s anything strange about this. I understand why people die at the hands of serial killers. I understand why they kill each other. And it does make sense.”
He was about to go on with the thought—and it was a thought; he’d been working it out obsessively ever since old George’s funeral—when the front door to the Ararat opened and a man walked in Gregor was sure he had never seen. There would have been nothing strange about that at lunch or dinner, but breakfast at the Ararat tended to be the neighborhood and nobody else.
A dozen heads throughout the room swiveled around to stare. If it had been Gregor himself in that position, he would have backed right up and gotten out of there.
The strange man came inside instead and looked around. He was very small and very round and very bald, and he was about as nervous as he could be without giving himself a heart attack. Gregor found it hard to look at him. He was that twitchy.
The man looked around the room once, then twice, then again, and finally he turned his head enough to see the window booth. The twitchiness disappeared at once. The round bald head glowed. The oddly fishlike lips spread up and out in a grin. Then the little man hurried over, and stuck his hand out over the food at Gregor Demarkian.
“Mr. Demarkian,” he said. “Mr. Demarkian! I’ve been looking for you!”
Copyright © 2012 by Orania Papazoglou
JANE HADDAM is the author of more than twenty novels, but is best known for her books featuring Gregor Demarkian. A finalist for both the Edgar and Anthony Awards, she lives with her family in Litchfield Country, Connecticut.