Eve Fisher

Marriage is an honorable estate, and God knows needs all the support it can get these days. So when a double-digit anniversary is celebrated in Laskin, pretty much everyone shows up. Jim and Mary Olson’s fortieth was held in the basement of Calvary Lutheran Church, which had been covered in gold and white streamers. The church ladies served barbecue, chips, pickles, peanuts, and a huge sheet cake with “Happy 40th Anniversary” in yellow icing on it. Gold balloons bobbed above gold and white centerpieces.
“Looks more like a fiftieth than a fortieth,” I muttered to Linda Thompson as I piled a second barbecue on my plate.
“Yes, but,” she lowered her voice, “Uncle Jim’s been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, and no one’s entirely sure he’ll be here in ten years.” She made a face. “Mentally, I mean. I don’t know how Aunt Mary’s going to cope. Those two are just everything to each other.”
I piled on the chips and glanced over at the anniversary couple, sitting beside each other. They looked like any other couple in their late sixties, grayed and wrinkled and worn. The pastor leaned over Jim’s right shoulder and made some remark, and the old guy laughed. Mary smiled. At their age, I thought, taking a cup of coffee, of course they’re everything to each other. What else can they do? Who else would have them? Then I noticed their shoulders touching, leaning into each other, and as I walked behind them, I glanced down and saw that they were holding hands under the table.
Some couples really do make it.
So it was with a double nausea that I found myself, a month later, standing in Mary Olson’s bedroom, looking down at her body. Jim Olson was lying on the bed beside her, weeping. The gun – their neighbor had heard a shot and called us – was on the floor beside the bed.
“Jesus,” Jonasson rasped. “Get the ambulance,” he told Bob. Then he went over to the bed. “Jim.” The old man shuddered, wrapping his arms tighter around his dead wife. “Jim, you need to get up now. I need to take a look at Mary.” Jim stirred, turned his head towards us, and I felt a cold chill as I saw his bloody face. She’d been shot in the head. “Jim…” Jonasson waved a hand at me. “Help me get him up, Grant.”
“Shouldn’t we get photos first?” Bob Johnson asked. Jonasson growled, and Bob added, hastily, “Before we move him?”
Jonasson nodded and waved him ahead. A few minutes later, Jonasson and I got Olson up out of the bed. He kept moaning, “Mary,” and Jonasson kept assuring him that we’d take care of her. We walked Olson into the kitchen, and Jonasson sat him in a chair.
“There you go, Jim.” He went over to the sink and soaked a washcloth. “Here you go,” he said, washing Olson’s face as if it had been a baby’s. “It’s okay, Jim,” he kept saying in a strangled voice. At one point he glanced up and saw me. “What the hell are you staring at? Get back in there and get to work.”
The next morning Jonasson called me into his office. He looked like he hadn’t slept much the night before. “I’m taking Olson to Yankton today for evaluation.” I nodded. “Hell, he can’t make a statement about what he had for lunch yesterday, much less anything else. He keeps asking for Mary. Of course it was an accident.” I waited. “GSR test come back?”
I nodded. “Positive on both of them, actually. But of course, she might have been trying to get the gun out of his hand, or him out of hers, or -”
Jonasson interrupted me. “There was a doctor’s appointment on the calendar.”
“I called. The doctor’s in surgery, and they’ll have the nurse call me back.”
“Call you back?” He sat up. “Get back on the phone and tell them we need that information right away.”
“Yes, sir.”
But you can’t get information right away from anybody any more, even in South Dakota. They didn’t get back with me until the afternoon, and by that time Jonasson was long gone to Yankton with poor Jim. And then Jonasson stuck around down there for a day or two, and when he got back there was that whole ruckus with that Davison kid, so it was three days later, and the day of the visitation, that I was sitting in his office and telling him what I’d found out. Mary Olson had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“At her age?” Jonasson held up a hand. “No, I know better.”
“She’d had a needle biopsy. Surgery was indicated. So it might have been suicide.”
“Breast cancer’s survivable.”
“Maybe she couldn’t face surgery,” I suggested. “Or it was just the last straw, what with Jim’s condition. Of course, she could have been having an affair with the assistant pastor and a mastectomy would have put an end to it.”
Jonasson was dead silent, which wasn’t his usual response to my sarcasm. Instead, he tossed an envelope across the desk.
I opened it up. Inside was a letter and a newspaper clipping: the obituary of an Anthony F. Montelli, aged seventy-two, died in Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, of heart failure…
“Who’s he?”
“Mary’s ex-husband.” I blinked. “Forty-five years ago. It was short, sweet, sour. Over in a year, maybe two.”
“Doesn’t say anything about survivors, next of kin…” The date of death was May 6th, barely a month ago.
“Big city obits are short. No time for career highlights and the rest. Read the letter.”

Dear Mom,
I know you once told me that you had nothing more to say to me or Dad, but I felt you should know that he passed away Friday night. I know there’s been a lot of hard things said on both sides, but I just wanted you to know, and to know that I do love you, and I want to see you again. I never meant to side with Dad over you, it just worked out that way. When you left, I was just a baby, how else could it have worked out? But I’m not saying that to make you feel guilty. I just want you to know that you’re the only blood I’ve got left, and I want us to get along. I’m going to come visit. You can close the door in my face, but at least I’ll have seen you before you do. That’s all I want. Love, Carson

If I hadn’t already been sitting down, I’d have fallen into the chair. I picked the envelope back up and looked at the postmark. It was too smudged to read anything more than May.
Jonasson had leaned forward, his face in his hands, as I read. When I set the envelope down, he raised his head and said, “You were talking about last straws. Not a word about this to anyone.”
I nodded. “Where was it?”
“Linda Thompson found it yesterday when she went by to get Mary’s burial clothes. By the telephone. How the hell did you guys miss it?” I could have told him their telephone was in the kitchen, and he’d growled us all out of there, but I saved my breath. “Linda… She knew about the first marriage, but she didn’t know about a baby. She doesn’t think anybody did.”
“Maybe she’s just too young to know all the gossip about that generation,” I suggested.
“I hope so. If Jim knew…” He beckoned for the envelope and its contents. I handed them over and he put them back together, turned around, and popped them in the safe. “Probably doesn’t matter.”
But it did, I thought.
I had another hour before quitting time, so I went back to the office and went to the Atlanta on-line obituaries. Anthony Montelli’s confirmed that he was survived by a son, Carson. That was all. I thought about going to the Norseman’s, but the visitation was at seven, and I didn’t like to attend with alcohol on my breath. I was driving home when I saw Matt Stark, walking her dog. I nodded and pulled over.
“Get in, I’ll give you a lift.”
“The purpose of this is to give that damn dog exercise,” Matt complained as she climbed in. “How’s Jim?”
“Not good. Pretty incoherent.”
“Poor old bastard. I know he didn’t set out to kill her.”
“You think it was an accident?”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t murder.”
“How about suicide?”
Matt looked at me over Whisper’s wagging tail. “Why would she do that?”
“She’d been diagnosed -”
“Yeah, with breast cancer.” Matt waved a hand, scattering cigarette ashes all over my car. “We all knew about that. She had a long talk Saturday with Charlene Oldham about mastectomy versus lumpectomy. She was handling it just fine. We’d worked out shifts to help her and watch Jim and everything was taken care of.”
“Like I said, an accident. Although I reckon I’m going to have to tell you, cause you’re going to hear it from others, he has been getting violent.” I raised my eyebrows. “Well, not violent, but sometimes when he gets frustrated, he throws a tantrum. Because of the Alzheimer’s. That or he gets really depressed. Mary was a little worried.” I interpreted that to mean that Mary must have been scared to death. “I told her it ever got out of hand to call me, because I could handle him and I would.”
I pulled up into Matt’s driveway and stopped the car. “Maybe she just couldn’t handle any of it anymore.”
Matt made a face. “Bull. You didn’t know her. Mary had guts. She wouldn’t let anything knock her out. Not Jim’s condition, not breast cancer, and certainly not hearing about the Italian stallion kicking the bucket.” I suppose I was staring like an idiot, because she added, “Mary’s ex?”
“How’d you hear about that?”
“Francine Parsons, how else? She told us the same day Mary shared her diagnosis. She would,” Matt grunted, and opened the door, pushing Whisper into the yard. “You don’t know the story. Well. Back forty-five years ago, a bunch of us went West River to Ellsworth Air Force Base for spring break. Not that any of us were in college, but we went anyway, and saw the flyboys. Me, Mary, Charlene, Eloise, and Francine. We all went to a big dance out there. And we all got pretty tight. Francine threw herself at Tony – God, he was gorgeous - but he’d seen Mary and that was that.” Matt took a deep drag of her cigarette, finishing it. “We had a great time. We stayed till the place shut down, and we all went in different directions when we left. And I was the first back to the motel!” She bellowed with laughter. “First time that ever happened in my life!”
“And then Mary married this guy Tony.”
“Oh, yeah. She came back with us to Laskin, packed her bags and took a bus right back to Ellsworth. I think they got married the next day. He was moving out to… crap, I can’t remember. But they moved there together. It was a little over a year later she came back home. Said he was a mean drunk. So she divorced him and married Jim Olson, who worshipped the ground she walked on.”
“Why would Francine have kept track of Tony?”
“Well, I don’t know why she kept track of Tony, but I do know why she kept track of Mary. Francine’s Jim Olson’s sister. She never did appreciate Mary coming into the family.” She got out of the car. “Thanks for the lift. See you at the visitation. Oh, and let Jim know I’ll be down to see him as soon as he’s allowed visitors.”
“I will.”
I headed home, thinking. Jealousy compounded daily. Sounded believable to me. But Francine wouldn’t have sent a letter from her son…
The visitation was packed. Francine Parsons, who I finally realized was one of my mother’s bridge pals, the one I disliked the most, came up to me and announced that she was going to go down to Yankton, get Jim Olson and bring him up to live with her. I said I thought that would be a fine idea, if she was up to it.
“As if I couldn’t take care of my own brother!”
She huffed off, and Linda leaned towards me. But what she was going to say was lost, because at that moment, Carson Montelli walked in.
It had to be him: a short, dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive skinned, fortyish man. Everyone stopped talking and stared. Even Randy Walworth was struck dumb for a minute. Then he went over and handed him a program. The man looked down, read it, and his shoulders began to shake. He was crying. Randy murmured a few words, the man said something back, and Randy glanced around, with that coyote look he gets when he gets a new scrap of gossip.
Linda and I were near enough to hear Randy say, “If you’ll come with me, Mr. Montelli, I’ll take you in to see her.” He whisked him into the visitation room, and was back in a moment to announce, loudly, that the prayer service would begin in five minutes.
Usually after the prayer service, everyone greets the relatives, and goes into the coffee room, and talks a mile a minute. The sound is like migrating geese. This time, it was all whispers, and sounded more like snakes. It was Francine who exploded.
“Son! She never had a son!”
“Are you sure you’d know?” Montelli asked, politely but firmly. “She left us all completely behind.”
“She would have said!” Francine was turning purple with rage.
Montelli shrugged. “Maybe she was ashamed that she abandoned a baby. I’ve never understood it myself. I know… I admit my Dad was a son of a bitch –” gasps went up “but I’ve never understood why she didn’t take me with her. I would have liked to know her at least. While she was still -” And then his face crumpled again.
I went up to him and clapped my hand on his back. “It’s a hard thing you’re going through. You got some place to stay?”
Montelli wiped his eyes and nodded. “Laskin Motel.”
“Good. You go back and you have a good rest, and tomorrow we’ll talk.”
“Did you know my mother?”
“All my life,” I said. “I’ll pick you up, take you to breakfast. Officer Grant Tripp.”
I would have said that Montelli’s eyes wavered for a moment, but when a man’s been crying as hard as he’d been, it’s hard to tell.
After Montelli left, Linda said quietly, “No will.”
“Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill never made a will. They talked about it, never did it.”
I nodded. “That’s fairly common.” After all, I thought, it didn’t matter. Or did it? I saw Jim Barnes and excused myself for a minute. “Jim, what’s the law about intestate inheritance? If there’s a child?”
He gave me a long legal explanation that could be condensed down to the kid gets half. I thanked him, and he went off with his latest wife. Bob was on duty later that evening. I could keep ask him to keep an eye on Montelli – but then I thought, why bother. He wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet.
Over breakfast, Montelli explained that a few years back he’d done a search for his mother and found out that she’d remarried and was still in Laskin. “I never contacted her because my Dad was still alive, and… I just knew it wouldn’t be any use. I thought though that maybe after he died…” He shook his head.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but do you have some proof that you are who you say you are?”
Montelli nodded and pulled out his driver’s license from his wallet and a large manila envelope from his briefcase. The Georgia driver’s license was for Carson Montelli, and it was certainly his picture on it. The envelope had a certification of birth: Carson Montelli, born July 24th, 1964, same date as the driver’s license, place of birth, Trenton, New Jersey - “My Dad was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base at the time” - father Anthony Montelli, mother’s maiden name Mary Johnson.
I nodded. “Tell me about your Dad.”
“Hard drinker, hard liver, mean temper. Anything my mother might have said about him was probably true. I still don’t understand why she left me with him…”
He whined about that for quite a while, and to be honest, I tuned out most of it. I wanted to know what he wanted. Money, of course. But… My mind went around like a hamster in a wheel while his voice droned on like a mosquito.
Finally he stopped. He said he wanted to drive around and see the sights. I told him to check out Lake Howard, right outside of town. After he left, I went back to the office and made a couple of phone calls. One of them was to Bob, who promised to keep an eye on him.
Montelli went for his drive, and then went to see Linda, who sent him on to Jim Barnes. Later, he came into Mellette’s Lounge. I was in the next booth, finishing a burger. I gave him a little nod and ignored him. He was working his way through a tough steak when Jonasson came in. Montelli looked up from his carving as Jonasson sat down across from him. This time his eyes were definitely shifty.
“Mr. Montelli?” The man nodded. “I’m Detective Jonasson.”
“Is there something I can do for you?” he squeaked.
“You can explain how your mother was born in Newark when Mary Johnson Olson was born right here in Laskin.”
Montelli put down his knife. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your birth certificate. What you showed Officer Tripp was a short form. You know, we kind of get to know people up here, living with them all these years, and Mary Olson wasn’t the type to leave a baby behind with a man like your Dad. And it occurred to Officer Tripp as soon as he saw the paperwork, there’s got to be a million Mary Johnsons in the world.”
I’d finished my burger, so I moved over and sat down next to Jonasson. I smiled at Montelli and said, “I had an Uncle Dave, married three times and each time to a Sarah. Just liked the name, I guess. Sure made it easier for us in the family.”
“So Officer Tripp, he got the New Jersey Vital Records to fax us the long form. And there you are. It says that your mother was Mary Catherine Johnson, born in Newark, New Jersey.”
Montelli looked sick, but he tried. “Look, I didn’t know that. I thought –”
“You didn’t know? You didn’t check? You thought this might be your mother?” Jonasson almost spat, but didn’t. “Tell us the truth. What happened to your Mary Johnson?”
“I don’t know!” Montelli yelped. “She left, too. They all did. I just thought…”
“You’d try it on?” I asked. Jonasson frowned at me, and I shut up.
“Mr. Montelli, no matter how you look at it, what you’re trying here is fraud –”
“I tell you, I didn’t know she wasn’t my mother!”
Jonasson ignored him. “However, it hasn’t gone too far, and I’m willing to overlook it.” Montelli’s face eased up slightly. “What worries me is that a woman we all know and love has been shot in the head. And I wonder if maybe you came to town kind of early –”
“I never shot anyone!” he squealed. “I never was here in my life before yesterday!”
Jonasson shook his head and turned to me.
“Bill Jorgenson up at the C-Mart, he says you stopped in for gas three days ago,” I supplied. “And Mrs. Hopewell, she lives across the street from the Olsons, she says she saw a car a lot like yours parked out back that same day.”
“They’re wrong –”
“They’re reliable,” Jonasson assured him. “Now, you might have come then, or even a day before that. I mean, if you’re going to try to inherit money from a woman who’s never seen you, wouldn’t it be better if she never sees you at all?”
“I didn’t kill her! I didn’t kill anyone! I swear to you, I wasn’t -”
“Bill Jorgenson and Mrs. Hopewell.”
“I read about the death in the paper,” he stammered. “I was in Omaha. I drove up to see –”
“Just to see?”
“All right. I went by the house. It was unlocked, so I went in, and I looked around. The bed…” Montelli turned green and pushed his steak so it was under Jonasson’s nose. “And then I left.”
“But first you dropped off an obituary and a letter. By the telephone.” He nodded. “You got any proof that you weren’t here before Wednesday?”
“How can I prove it?”
“Gas receipts would help. You don’t strike me as the type that would pay cash.”
Montelli scrabbled in his briefcase like there was gold in there. I kept a hand on my gun, just in case. Some people are fools. He came up with a handful of receipts, and it flashed through my mind that it would be interesting to see whose name was on the credit cards. He tossed them across the table.
“You might as well go ahead and finish your steak while I do this,” Jonasson commented, reading through each receipt carefully. He didn’t. He just kept his eyes riveted on Jonasson’s hands, filing the receipts in order by date as he read them. Finally he put them down. “You’re pretty organized. That’s good. Probably saved you from being arrested. For murder at least.”
“Does this mean I can go now?”
Jonasson nodded. We watched as Montelli scrabbled up the receipts, his briefcase, and headed for the door. “Don’t forget to pay for your steak!” Jonasson called out. Montelli pulled out money and slammed it down by the cash register.
We both sighed. It had been fun to rattle Montelli’s cage, but that was all it was. Francine Parsons had been in while I was waiting for the fax, and had told us the bitter truth. It had come out down in Yankton: Jim Olson had found out about Mary’s breast cancer and, depressed and confused, had tried to commit suicide. Mary had tried to stop him. In the struggle, she had been shot. Matt Stark had been right. An accident. A tragic, senseless accident.
“It would have been nice to arrest Montelli,” I said.
“Oh, somebody’ll arrest him somewhere. He only thinks he’s smart. Doesn’t look ahead.” Jonasson glanced at me. “Unlike some people.” He got up and went home.