On the long serving counter, at which several customers sat on chrome stools with red-vinyl seats, were several pedestal displays of cakes under glass, each more enticing than the one before it.
Of all the signifiers that Ernestine’s was a class act, however, the mouthwatering smells were the most convincing. Sautéing onions and green peppers in an omelette pan waited for the eggs. Ground-sirloin burgers, sizzling on the griddle, were ready for the cheese. The savor of frying bacon, the scent of toast, the aroma of fine coffee—all of it was seductive enough to test the willpower of the most devout monk in the middle of a fast.
But though I felt welcome here and in my element, as a sailor in love with the sea feels most at home on a ship, an albatross hung around the moment. The cowboy had been here, eaten here; and from my perspective, even his brief presence was a curse upon the place.
With the dinner rush not quite yet begun, seven booths were open, and I was drawn to one in particular, as a boarhound to a boar. The cowboy and I were part of an age-old pattern that seemed like chaos but was not, participants in the perpetual struggle that began when time began, that would not end when we two were dead, that would end only when time itself ended.
I sat where he had sat.
Mrs. Fischer sat opposite me, where perhaps the stocky man with the battered face had enjoyed an early dinner.
Nothing remained to attest to the previous presence of those two men in this booth. Evil travels the world in anonymity, its presence revealed only by the periodic consequences of its desires, like the missing children and the dead men in the factory basement. To most people in this age of denial, those consequences always come as a surprise, because they fear not what they should but only straw men, imagined threats, phantom crises.
Neither Mrs. Fischer nor I had taken lunch, and dinnertime was upon us. Intuition told me that the children were not in immediate danger of being murdered and that the worst thing I could do would be to rush into the breach before I better understood what I was up against. Until I discovered what clue was waiting in Ernestine’s to be revealed, we might as well eat.
In fact, although it isn’t profound, there are worse mottoes to live by than “We might as well eat.” Say your neighbor’s secret meth lab blows up, destroying your house along with his. We might as well eat. The secretary of defense announces from Sweden that he is having a sex-change operation, is in love with the prime minister of Russia, and has given his lover our nuclear launch codes. We might as well eat.
The gruesome scene in the factory basement had not spoiled my appetite. If every horror I have seen were to leave me so disgusted that I turned away from food for any length of time, I would be a bag of bones subsisting on bottled water and vitamin pills.
Our waitress, Sandy, was a pretty, thirty-something, freckled blonde. She presented herself to the world with appealing directness: no makeup, hair pulled back in a ponytail, her white uniform fresh and neatly pressed, a pendant cross at her throat, a flag pin on the lapel of her blouse, modest engagement and wedding rings on display.
Waitressing can be a hard and thankless job, largely because it requires dealing politely with people regardless of their temperament or mood, even though sometimes you just want to smack them. You can always tell when a waitress likes her work. She lacks the slouch and shuffle that signifies boredom and grievance. Her smile isn’t fixed but comes and goes easily, appropriate to the moment. She makes eye contact and notices details because her customers interest her, not as the source of tips, but as people.
Sandy was taken with Mrs. Fischer’s gold brooch in which little diamonds and rubies formed a glittering exclamation point. “It looks like it means something more than just being pretty,” she said, “but I wonder what. If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Don’t mind at all,” said Mrs. Fischer. “It means ‘Seize the day!’ It means ‘Live life to the fullest!’ It means ‘Sister, what a hoot it is to be me!’ ”
Sandy laughed, but then seemed to catch herself, as if for some reason laughter might be inappropriate. “You remind me of my mom. She’s done everything from teaching skydiving to rodeo to stock-car racing.”
“Have you ever gone skydiving?” Mrs. Fischer asked.
“I love my mom to pieces, but we’re different. Jim, my husband, he’s my skydiving, and my four kids … they’re my rodeo.” She looked away from Mrs. Fischer, through the big window, at the street where passing cars already traveled behind headlights as the day faded. Her eyes seemed unfocused, as if she saw something other than what lay beyond the glass, and a note of sorrow in her voice was not suited to her words. “A month from now, when the desert’s all covered for a while in flowers, millions of heliotrope and fiddlenecks, poppies and red maids and yellow coreopsis—that’s better in my book than winning any stock-car race.” If she had for a moment sunk into a tormented place in her mind, she lifted herself out of it and turned a dazzling smile on us. “I’m just a stick-in-the-mud, I guess.”
Although these days a good waitress lives in a time when most people feel aggrieved and often for no good reason, she shows no such disposition herself and lightens your spirit merely by the gratitude with which she faces life.
We ordered, and after we were served coffee, Mrs. Fischer said, “That girl’s the right stuff, sweetie. After you deal with that rotten rhinestone-cowboy bastard, I’ll have to come back this way and do a thing or two.”
“What thing or two?”
“Whatever seems to be the best thing or two to do.”
She smiled with satisfaction, as if an array of possibilities had already occurred to her. She looked cute enough to be Yoda’s mother.
I said, “You mean like introducing Andy Shephorn to Penny, and now they’re married and building a winery that will be legendary one day?”
“Barstow isn’t a friendly climate for vineyards. And Sandy is already happily married.”
She blew on her coffee to cool it, took a sip. “Something will occur to me when I’ve done a little research.”
“Is Sandy smoothed out and fully blue?”
“Not nearly to the extent that you are, child. But she’s got what it takes to get there.”
Because we were waiting for our food and couldn’t yet live by the motto of the moment, I was inspired by another motto: We might as well schmooze.
“Ma’am, how did you meet Mr. Fischer?”
She cocked her head, studied me for half a minute, and then said, “I guess I can tell you a little. If we’re going to spend the next ten years or more driving hundreds of thousands of miles, we’ll be best friends, and best friends share. I was twenty-three, being the finest Blanche that I could be, and Heathcliff told me that I was born for better things than Blanche.”
“Please call me Edie.”
“Yes, ma’am. Being Blanche?”
“Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was a road-company production. I’ve always liked the road, being on the move.”
“You were an actress.”
“I thought I was. Some smart people agreed. Heath liked my performance, came backstage after the play, but he said I was born for wonder, not for Williams, by which he meant Tennessee Williams, the author of the play. He invited me to dinner, we had a lovely time, and over crème brûlée, he asked me to marry him.”
“What—the same night you met him?”
“Well, after the cute little rabbit and the dove and the waiter taking off his pants, I laughed so much that I knew this was the man for me. I mean Heathcliff, not the waiter, though the waiter was perfectly nice.”
“You ate rabbit and dove for dinner?”
“Good heavens, no. The rabbit was too cute to eat, and the dove didn’t have much meat on its bones. Heath pulled the dove from my purse, which astounded me because I just knew I didn’t have one in there. And then right before my eyes, mind you, the dove turned into a rabbit, and then the rabbit vanished—poof!—when he draped his napkin over it.”
“Mr. Fischer was a magician.”
“Call him Heath or Heathcliff, dear.”
“Yes, ma’am. So Mr. Fischer was a magician.”
“Well, he was and he wasn’t, dear. He was many things, and one thing he could appear to be was a magician.”
Her periwinkle eyes sparkled with merriment or mischief, or both.
“What about the waiter?” I asked.
“Oh, he was a nice man, but I don’t know what happened to him, dear. That was a long time ago.”
In the spirit of our eccentric conversation, I said, “I thought maybe he was the best man at your wedding, right there at table-side.”
“No, no. Heath’s best man was Purdy Feltenham, one of the most charming people I’ve ever known, though he had to go everywhere with a sack over his head, poor thing.”
Aware that we might easily lose track of the pantless waiter, determined not to do so, I said, “Ma’am, what I meant was—why did the waiter take off his pants?”
“Of course he had to, child. When that sweet man asked Heath where the rabbit went after it disappeared under the napkin, Heath said, ‘It’s in your pants,’ and then, of course, the waiter felt it there and was eager to return it. He wasn’t the least embarrassed about taking off his pants, even though he had unfortunate knees. Heath had a way of putting everyone at ease in any circumstances. And it turned out, as things had a way of doing around Heathcliff, the little girl dining at the next table with her parents had two months earlier lost her pet rabbit to some illness. She was so happy when Heath gave his magic rabbit to her.”
If the diner had had a liquor license, I might have spiked my coffee with brandy, which would most likely have helped me to make more sense of Mrs. Fischer’s story. Instead, with only the benefit of caffeine, I said, “What happened to the dove?”
“It turned into a rabbit, child. Weren’t you listening?”
“But it can’t really have turned into a rabbit.”
Her blue eyes widened into bright pools. “Then where did it go?”
“You never saw the dove again?”
“No, dear, I did not. And I certainly didn’t eat it. I would have remembered.”
“What did you mean, Mr. Fischer was and wasn’t a magician?”
“Well, he could certainly appear to be one when he wanted to. He could be almost anything he put his mind to. He was very intelligent and wise, two qualities that don’t always go together, clever and kind, in awe of the world and full of fun.”
“Was Mr. Fischer smoothed out and fully blue?”
“Yes, but he was unusual among the smooth-and-blue because, although he knew the truth of the world and what comes after, he decided he had to have a backup, which is why he’s frozen now.”
“He’s frozen now?”
She looked a little sad and disappointed, but affectionately so, as she shook her white-capped head. “Heath’s body is in a container of liquid nitrogen at a cryogenic-preservation center in New Mexico. If they’re ever able to bring back the frozen dead, which they never will be able to do, then he thought he might have a chance to live in both this world and the next at the same time. Even the wisest and best of us can be foolish occasionally.”
As I have learned, most mysteries yield to patience sooner or later.
“So that’s why you told Officer Shephorn that your husband was still dead but otherwise perfect.”
Mrs. Fischer shook one finger at me. “Now, don’t you go making arrangements to have yourself Popsicled. There’s no need for that. When you disappear from this world, you won’t wind up in a waiter’s pants, you’ll go where you’ve always belonged since you were born, and it’s a lot nicer than a tank of liquid nitrogen.”
Sandy arrived with our dinner.
We had two cheeseburgers, french fries, a shared order of fried onion rings, a side of fried cheese for Mrs. Fischer, and a dish of pepper slaw for me.
Mrs. Fischer said, “That pepper slaw would probably shock my arteries into full collapse. Are you really sure you should eat that stuff?”
“It’s my one dietary foolishness, ma’am. And less expensive than being perpetually preserved in liquid nitrogen.”
After we had been eating awhile, I was only a little surprised to hear myself say, “It worries me that I’m missing something about Mr. Hitchcock.”
“Would that be the Mr. Hitchcock, dear?”
Our booth was far removed from the nearest other diners, and I felt increasingly comfortable with Mrs. Fischer because she and I seemed to be more alike than not, acutely aware of the strangeness of the world and charmed by its mysteries. I told her that I saw the spirits of the lingering dead, that they came to me for justice, if they were murdered, or for help in crossing over if they were simply afraid of what might await them on the Other Side.
She reacted as if I had said nothing more startling than that I had played baseball in high school, liked English classes, but had no aptitude for math.
“Alfred Hitchcock has been dead more than thirty years, child. Do the lingering ones hang around here that long?”
“Not always. Not usually. Though Elvis Presley lingered even longer.”
“You helped Elvis cross over?”
“Good for you. Heath knew his mother.”
“Mr. Fischer knew Gladys Presley?”
“He thought she was the sweetest God-fearing woman. Reasonably smoothed out and partway blue. Elvis’s daddy—not so much.” She looked around the diner. “Is Alfred Hitchcock here right now?”
“No, ma’am. He comes and goes. He’s … different from others that have sought my help before.”
“For one thing, he’s very easygoing, even amused. There’s no anxiety in him.”
“Are the others anxious?”
“To one extent or another.”
“The poor dears. They don’t need to be.”
“No, ma’am. Another thing, the dead always want me to help them. But it seems more as if Mr. Hitchcock wants to help me.”
“Help you what, dear?”
“Maybe … find the rhinestone cowboy. I don’t know. I’m missing something, and that worries me.”
We ate in silence for a couple of minutes.