Plaster of Paris: chapter three, part two

“Lyle, honey, we’re here.”  I tap him gently on the shoulder, not wanting to disturb him.  He looks up, his eyes blank.

“Hi,” Lyle says bleakly, not even attempting to smile.  He struggles to stand up, finally hauling himself off his ass.  “Mrs. Jenson.”  He holds out his hand to Mrs. Jenson, who steadfastly ignores it.  Lyle lets his hand drop back to his side, then sits down again.

“How’s our boy?”  Even though I know Lyle would call me if anything changes, I can’t stop myself from asking.

“No change.  He’s resting,” Lyle shrugs.  “No one is allowed to see him.”

“We’ll see about that.”  Mrs. Jenson purses her lips as she strides towards the nurses’ station.  We watch as she gestures broadly to the attending nurse, a large, black woman with a shorn head and a weary look on her face.  Mrs. Jenson’s face is etched with distaste as she gestures; the nurse is equally terse in her response.

“Ten to one she gets in to see Paris,” I whisper out of the side of my mouth, eliciting a wan smile from Lyle.

“That’s a sucker bet if I ever heard one,” he shoots back, his smile wobbling.  “I’d never bet against Mrs. Jenson getting whatever she wanted.”  Except her daughter alive.  Except her son not being in love with a man.  Perhaps Mrs. Jenson is not so lucky after all.  Mrs. Jenson is still arguing with the nurse when a tired-looking doctor strides over towards them.  He is tall and cadaverous thin, with round spectacles and a brisk manner.  After listening to Mrs. Jenson for a few minutes, he says a sentence or two that seems to satisfy her.  Within minutes, she returns to where Lyle and I are watching her.

“That takes care of that,” she says in satisfaction.  “Watch my purse.  I’ll be right back.”  She hands her oversized purse to me, then follows the waiting doctor.

I try to convince Lyle to go home for a few minutes so he can eat, shower, and nap.  He digs in his heels, not wanting to leave Paris.  He points out that he is the only one with a vehicle as well, and what would I and Mrs. Jenson do without his services?  I can call Vashti or my mother or hail a cab.  He needs to take care of himself, I say firmly.  He is adamant, however, about not leaving Paris to the mercies of a killer.  He scowls at me before plunking back into his seat.  He’s sobbing again, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.  I sit next to him and pull him to me.  He is stiff in my arms, but at least he allows me to pat him on the back.

“Lyle, listen to me.  He’s going to be just fine.  I know our boy.  He’s strong and determined and has such a will to live.  Especially now that he has you.  He’s going to fight, and he’s going to win.  When he wakes up, he’s going to need you to be strong.  You can’t do that if you run yourself ragged.”  I sneak a peek to see if he’s buying it.  I can tell by the skeptical look on his face that he thinks it’s as much horseshit as I do.

“I watched as a car flattened Paris, and I did nothing about it.”  Lyle is whispering, but it doesn’t lessen the intensity of what he’s saying.  “He flew in the air, Rayne, like he was a silly rag doll.  Then he was still, so terribly still.”  He’s repeating information he’s told me before, but who can blame him?  His mind is on overload, and he is processing the events by recalling them.  Maybe not the healthiest way to deal with the situation, but it’s certainly not the worst way, either.  “He was waiting.  I didn’t hear a car when I first ran out the apartment.  I heard him start up, and I heard him speed up when he hit Paris.  I have no idea why Paris isn’t dead right now.  He should be.”  Again, the facts are recited in a matter-of-fact voice which belies the anxiety in Lyle’s eyes.

“He’s not moving at all,” Mrs. Jenson wails as she hurries back to us.  “My baby is not moving.”  She bursts into loud tears as she sobs into the handkerchief she suddenly whips out of her pocket.  She fastens her eyes on Lyle and starts trembling.  “You!  How dare you show your face.  This is all your fault!  If he never met him, this wouldn’t have happened.  He was probably hit by mistake by someone mad at you.”  She glares at Lyle, ready to rip his throat out.

“Fuck you!”  Lyle shouts, drawing startled glares from the people around us.  “Paris has been the happiest he’s been in years.  Ever since his long-term lover died.  Did you know that?  Paris watched him die.  It was a slow, painful death, but Paris stayed by his side because he’s a sweet, generous man.  You might discover that if you bothered getting to know your son.”  Lyle stops abruptly, running out of gas.  Mrs. Jenson is looking at him, her mouth slightly agape.  I’m sure no one’s spoken to her like that before, and the two of us have both done it on the same day, though I hadn’t sworn to get my point across.  It must be some kind of record.

“Young man, you are rude,” Mrs. Jenson says, sharply rapping Lyle on the shoulder.  I tense, expecting him to physically assault Mrs. Jenson.  To Lyle’s credit, he does nothing more than narrow his eyes and tense his pecs.  “There is no need to use such language.  It bespeaks of an inferior education.”  I can tell Lyle is about to lose it, so I intersperse myself between them.

“Mrs. Jenson, how would you like me to take you to your hotel so you can freshen up?”  It sounds stupid to my ears, but she merely nods once in acquiescence.  Her face is haggard as she bows her head, and Lyle deflates as he watches her.

“I apologize, Mrs. Jenson,” he says stiffly.  “For being rude.”

“May I use your truck, Lyle?”  I ask, my eyes pleading with his.  He would have every right not to let me drive Mrs. Jenson in his truck, but I am hoping that he is a bigger man than that.  To my relief, he simply nods.  As I still have the keys, we are off.  When we reach the truck, Mrs. Jenson stops suddenly.

“This belongs to that man,” she exclaims, a look of disgust on her face.  “I’m not riding in it.”  She folds her arms against her chest, and looks as if she’s content to stay rooted to the spot.  My patience, in short supply to begin with, completely withers.

“Fine.  Then I’ll call a cab for you,” I snap, opening my purse to find my cell phone.  I know there are allowances to be made for the grieving, but there are limits.  I have never liked this woman, and Paris being in the hospital doesn’t make me like her any more.

“Why didn’t you drive to the hospital?”  Mrs. Jenson asks pettishly, sounding like a two-year old.  “Why are you driving that man’s vehicle?”

“I don’t have a car,” I reply, gritting my teeth.  It’s hard to imagine ebullient, accepting Paris being raised by this joyless, rigid woman.  “Lyle is kind enough to allow me to use his truck to drive you despite your rude behavior to him.  Any more questions?”  To my dismay, tears filled her eyes.

“I’m sorry, dear.  I’m under such stress.  I don’t know what I’m saying or doing, but I’m acting like a child, aren’t I?”  She favors me with a watery smile.  I don’t smile in response, but I do relax.  It’s nice to see the human under the mask.  She waits for me to open the doors, then she climbs in.  Even in her distress, she manages to gracefully climb into Lyle’s truck.  She settles into the seat, buckling her seat belt.  “To make matters worse, my husband has been gone the last two days for a conference.”  I am in the middle of starting the truck and go very still.

“Where is he?”  I ask as casually as I can.  I start the truck, and we’re off.

Her husband is in Southern California, San Diego, to be precise.  There’s some kind of hunting convention going on and if there’s one thing her husband loves, it’s shooting animals.  He would, I think, but don’t say.  I can imagine him with his big guns hunting down vermin, enjoying himself in a grim sort of way—the way he does everything.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man smile.  I ask Mrs. Jenson if she told her husband about Paris.  She left a message at his hotel because he wasn’t there, and he doesn’t have a cell phone.  He doesn’t care for all this ‘new-fangled techno crap’.  Mrs. Jenson gives me a ‘how-like-a-man’ smile which I return.  Mrs. Jenson has one, of course, but it hasn’t done her much good in trying to reach her husband.  Fortunately, he called her back after the conference had ended for the day so she could let him know what had happened.

My mind is whirling as I drive.  It’s only a ten hour drive from San Diego to the Bay Area, depending on how fast a person drives.  I casually ask when her husband left for the conference, praying she won’t notice how nosy I’m being.  Fortunately, she’s one of those women who thinks nothing of blathering about her husband for hours, so she readily informs me that he left Friday morning.  He had to take time off from his job as a computer engineer.  The conference ends tonight, and he’s flying into SFO as soon as he can.  Mrs. Jenson reassures me that they will be renting a car so they won’t have to badger me for rides.  She has been fairly calm while talking about her husband, but suddenly starts whimpering again.

“I can’t believe my baby is in the hospital.  Why is God doing this to me?”  Mrs. Jenson has tears in her eyes, but she is valiantly trying to keep them from flowing.  “Did I ever tell you about Paris’s birth?”  Mrs. Jenson asks as soon as she can speak again.  “He was a week late and the doctors said—”

“Uh, Mrs. Jenson?”  I say, breaking into her narrative.  “I know he’s adopted, remember?”  Paris’s adoption came out during the first murder investigation in a surprising way—I was the one who found out the actual story from Mrs. Jenson.

“Oh, right.”  Mrs. Jenson shrinks into her seat.  I’m sorry to burst her bubble, but at the same time, it disturbs me that she’s still pretending that Paris is her biological child.

“Perhaps you can tell me more about his adoption?”  I have to be careful as this is a touchy subject.  However, I’m interested in his birthmother, especially after his phone call.  I want to see how much Mrs. Jenson will reveal to me.  “I know that the birthmother handed over the baby to you in Tijuana, but that’s it.”  Mrs. Jenson is staring out the window, apparently lost in thought.  I’m afraid that what I’ve said is too much, especially on top of Paris’s accident.  Just when I think I’m going to have to find something else to talk about, she heaves a small sigh and begins.

Her first husband, Freddie Frantz, and she had been married for a little over a year when they decided the time was right to start their family.  Mrs. Jenson came from a large family and wanted nothing more than to duplicate it.  She wanted half a dozen children at least.  She and her husband tried to conceive, but never could.  At first, they reassured themselves—and each other—that it was just a matter of time.  As the months slipped by, however, their optimism dimmed.  Mr. Frantz, a man who liked his alcohol in the best of times, began drinking more.  Mrs. Frantz, frantic with desire for children, tried to persuade him to go see the doctor.  He refused, so she went herself.  It turned out that she had endometriosis and a tipped uterus which led the doctor to conclude she would never be able to conceive.  Mr. Frantz wasn’t even tested for a low-sperm count.  Mrs. Frantz was devastated; her husband met the news with equanimity.  He wanted children, but felt no compulsion to sire his own.  After months of not being able to talk about it, Mrs. Frantz decided that she wanted to adopt.  Relieved, Mr. Frantz rushed to set the process into motion.

Months passed as they were interviewed, poked and prodded.  Mr. Frantz drank even more during this time as he and Mrs. Frantz were being scrutinized to assess their suitability.  Mrs. Frantz wanted a healthy Caucasian baby which meant a longer wait.  One pregnant teenager agreed to give them her baby only to renege on her promise after the child was born.  Shattered, Mrs. Frantz made her husband promise that there would be no return on the next baby; she couldn’t handle it otherwise.  He agreed, but there really wasn’t anything he could do about it.  They waited three more months before their lawyer told them of another pregnant teenager who definitely wanted to give up her baby to a loving couple who could provide it with everything the mother could not.  Her only request was a month’s stay in Tijuana in exchange for her baby.  They were not to know her name, to see her, or to know anything about her.  They were to pay ten thousand dollars which was exorbitantly high in those days, but they were desperate.  By then, Mrs. Frantz would have been willing to pay twice that for a baby even though they couldn’t even afford the ten thousand.

It was easy for her to simulate pregnancy.  The teenager had been two months pregnant when she agreed to a deal with the Frantzs, so Mrs. Frantz simply adopted the teenager’s time schedule as her own.  The first three or four months—which constituted the fifth to sixth months of the pregnancy—nothing needed to be done.  When it was time to ‘show’, she stuffed a small pillow under her shirt.  As her ‘pregnancy’ progressed, she would exchange the pillow for a larger one.  People those days were not as rude as they are now about touching a woman’s belly, so she didn’t have to worry about giving herself away.  She mimicked a pregnant woman as far as supporting her back, waddling instead of walking and such.  Nobody scrutinized her too carefully, more than overjoyed that she’d finally conceived.  She didn’t have many close friends, anyway, which made it easier.  When the ninth month came, she “took to her bed” and didn’t emerge until she and Mr. Frantz snuck out of the house and flew to Tijuana.

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